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and, we dream of home

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·˚. ✺ ˚ .  . ˚ ˚ * .  
· ✧            ✧ ✺ ˚ ·

“we did it before / and we'll do it again / we're indestructible / even when we're tired / and we've been here before / just you and i.”

we got the power, gorillaz

• • •

Sometimes, when Keith looks at Lance in the light of day, parked planetside and sunning under a new and alien heat after hours of artificial fluorescents, his face tilted up to the sky just so—just so that he blooms a languid gold, just so that he looks more bronze than boy, just so that he tempts those of the Icarus-leaning persuasion—Keith is transported back to El Paso, Texas.

He’s twelve, maybe, and sitting in the dead-or-dying grass of his next-door neighbor’s backyard, surrounded on all sides by peyote and golden barrel cacti, and unnamed neighbor-boy’s got this look on his face, and it’s the moment before the knee-jerk fight-or-flight instinct settles under Keith’s skin like an internal itch, and somehow, despite the immaturity of it all, he knows he wants to kiss unnamed neighbor-boy like he knows oxygen is needed, but the kid’s mom is just inside and about to bring them Lipton tea and melon cubes and so he has to snuff out the urge, only he allows himself a last-minute look at the boy before he does, so he can remember the want after the fact.

With Lance, he never forgets the want after the fact.

And maybe that’s the real reason why Keith lets Lance drag him by the hand to some alien festival being thrown in honor of Paropecca’s summer solstice (the planet, named after its undead goddess of goodwill, has an axis of about 21 degrees and lies something like 100 million miles from the 5XY-3L4 star system’s sun, so the climate isn’t too far off from what Keith can recall of temperatures back on Earth, those lazy, sprawling days lost to the desert’s arid glimmer).

It’s not for any real conscious effort on Lance’s part that Keith finds himself so amenable to Lance's adventures and alien outings these days, really. Not now that they’ve been friends for a while—like actual, veritable, clothes-sharing, bed-splitting, secret-swapping friends.

It’s just that working with the Blade of Marmora has made the black hole of longing in Keith yawn wider than he thought possible and sometimes, when Lance isn’t preening under a pretty girl’s attention, he’s easily the most beautiful person in the immediate vicinity and Keith has always had something of a weakness for beautiful-looking boys. Case in point: El Paso, Texas, seven years past.

Case in point: today, right now, at this very second.

“And Hunk says they do this whole dramatic reenactment in the city square, with like, glitter masks and fake blood and a leaf-machine. Didn’t even know leaf-machines were a thing, but now that I’m thinking about it, how have we, as a highly intelligent humanoid species, not developed something like this before? We have snow machines, why not leaves? God, it seems so obvious now! You know what...I’m writing this down for when we’re back home.” Lance pauses, sensing he’s lost Keith during the endless chatter at some point. He turns to send him a sulky look that involves a lot of lower lip and puppy-dog eyes. “Are you even listening to me, tiny? I said fake blood. I thought you liked fake blood!”

“Uh huh,” says Keith, who is still staring down at their tangled fingers in a shivery daze.

This, he’ll never be used to.

He wonders briefly at Lance’s callouses, the worn hands of a skilled rifleman-turned-swordsman, and the way he seems to intermittently grip Keith’s hand harder every three seconds or so before easing up on the pressure, as if checking that Keith is still with him. Still alive and animate and not trying to sacrifice himself like some unhinged martyr. Feeling that patterned layer of dark-on-pale flesh, warm up and down.

Keith wishes he could slip his hand from Lance’s, remove his fingerless gloves by their velcro straps, then press their palms together again as if with hot glue, no leather to interrupt the contact, but he doesn’t want to risk Lance letting go for good.

He thinks for just that second he understands the look Lance had given him after Naxzela, when they’d stood paralyzed and several feet apart in the Red Lion’s hangar—Keith with his head bowed in shame, as if awaiting cosmic retribution for what he’d almost gotten away with, Lance with his eyebrows pulled low on his face, anguished and entreating and so silent Keith could cry, and did, and refused, biting back all his guilt by the molars of his mouth.

Lance’s face in that moment had been trying to ask Keith a series of questions he’s been running from all his life. Were you about to let go for good? How long have you wanted to let go, Keith? And Keith thought about saying, voice an out-of-tune tremor: if I’ve never held on, how can I let go?

But he knew then that it would be a lie. He's known for a while now. Since that first moment he realized he's been carrying a torch, or forest fire, or hydrogen bomb for Lance, at least.

Since that long-ago night aboard the castleship, when Lance had been lying crumpled and bloodied and half-dead on the floor, and Keith had offered him his hand, the both of them bathed in a dark purple glow. Keith, grasping at thin air and briefly so terrified of rejection he’d almost immediately withdrawn his hand. And then Lance had reached up and held on, vice-like, and he hadn’t let go. Not until Shiro peeled him bodily from Keith’s arms to arrange him face-up in the healing pod, and Keith had thought to himself...

He’d thought to himself many things that night. Those thoughts had eaten at him, a hungry, pitch-black murk. And so he knew then that this thing, this wildfire in him, colossal and unkillable, was not going to let go, at least for a while. It refused. And now they’re eight or nine or ten months out, maybe more—Keith has never kept tally—and his palms still hunger after Lance’s, with no less enthusiasm. 

It feels like Keith has been holding on by the tips of his fingers for so long. The memory of Lance’s leather glove against his is a shadow that trails Keith endlessly.

Now, Keith shakes his head and glances up at Lance, who is wearing none of the Naxzela anguish and all the happiness of a teenage boy free from his universe-saving duties, if only for the day. He says, “Wait, what? When have I ever said I like fake blood?”

Lance grins, eyes going smug, and he nudges Keith with their clasped hands, saying, “That time we had an Altean horror movie marathon and there was the whole scene with the blood squirting out of the girl’s ear and you choked on your juice with laughter for like, five whole minutes. Hunk timed it with one of Allura’s tickers. Remember?”

Yes, Keith wants to say, but why do you? Instead, he squints at the blue-eyed boy and mutters, “What the hell, Lance?”

“Hey, I remember things,” says Lance, and picks up the pace, now swinging his and Keith’s hands between their bodies like they’re a jaunty little coupling with several years of dating under their belts and not tentative friends just barely reconciling old rivalries with otherwise innocent hand-holding urges.

It’s all very confusing for Keith and not all that innocent on his end of things, by which he means, he’d be more than okay with holding Lance’s warm brown hand under very different, perhaps romantic circumstances. Not that he would ever in a million years admit to that out loud.

“You remember things,” Keith repeats dubiously and begins swinging his arm in time with Lance’s, till they’re a walking hazard linked at the hands and all kinds of Paropecca natives are shooting them dirty looks down the path they’re strolling. “Just not bonding moments?”

“Oh, this again?” says Lance, sounding put-upon, even though he’s smiling something lazy, something almost secretive. “Whatever, mullet, I’m over it. If you wanted to hold my hand again so bad, you could’ve just asked.”

Keith gapes, stuttering, “You—you’re the one who held my hand! I was only trying to help you up and you just sat there, smiling at me like—like some—”

“I’m just kidding,” Lance says sweetly, snickering when Keith scowls.

“You’re such an ass,” Keith says.

This only seems to further enthuse Lance because his grin goes impossibly brighter, like flicking on a hovercycle’s high beams, and then he’s saying, “Back atcha, Kogane,” before briefly letting go of Keith’s fingers to wipe his hand off on the seat of his jeans.

“Oh, uh. Sorry,” Keith says, flushing and ducking his head, horrified that he’s ruined this even through his leather gloves. “My hands—fingers—get sweaty when I’m, um—”

“Nervous? Yeah, me too.” Lance clears his throat, staring straight ahead at the seemingly never-ending cobblestone streets, painted pastel with circuitous designs, beyond which lies a maze-like system of drainage canals like tiny babbling brooks, arranged downhill so as to prevent flooding during Paropecca’s summer storms. “Don’t worry, over half of that was mine.”

“Oh,” Keith says, shoulders sagging in relief, and he smiles up at Lance, grateful.

Lance looks at him sidelong a moment, then away. He swallows, ears pink, and says, “You’re so annoying. Gimme your dumb hand so we can go find someplace to eat. I’m starving.”

“If you wanted to hold my hand so badly...” Keith teases.

Lance glares halfheartedly, snatching Keith’s hand up with a huff and yanking him further down the street, to the smoking food stalls and thickening crowds. He says, “Oh my God, shut up,” and Keith laughs, quiet and joyous, fingers warm around Lance’s.

• • •

Itwhatever it is, this actual, veritable, clothes-sharing, bed-splitting, secret-swapping friendshipstarts in earnest, he thinks, after the Naxzela incident.

Keith has only just docked his stolen Galra fighter inside the castleship per Shiro’s orders, and he’s staggering his way out of the cockpit hatch, damp at the brow and still badly shaken, when he realizes he’s landed in the Red Lion’s hangar out of pure instinct. What’s more: she’s resting frozen just across the way, atop her little platform. Her golden eyes are unblinking in the washed out light. She’s the only color in sight. A red wound among a sea of grey.

“Oh,” Keith says, stopping short in the middle of the cavernous room.

He lets his eyes travel the length of her, her hardware’s elegant lines, badly dented in places, red paint flaking in others, well-loved under Keith’s care, and now Lance’s. Her jaw is locked closed and raised in the air, mulish somehow despite the stillness. So like her. So like the old wallet-sized school pictures of Keith his father would use as bookmarks, bent and water-damaged at their edges and keeping his place in The Pearl, or Woman Hollering Creek, thrift store finds he’d shove under Keith’s clothes when they were too poor even for $2 novellas, how Keith posed in front of the camera like a child-soldier year after year, chin raised and often refusing to smile, his hair longer and more bedraggled the older he grew.

“Red,” Keith says, and then doesn’t know how to proceed beyond that.

It feels like that first moment they met all over again—Keith prodding at empty air and Red ignoring him, regal and arrogant at once.

Tonight, like the one so long ago, she says nothing.

He sighs, folds his arms, says, “Red, c’mon. Don’t look at me like that. You know better than anyone what it means to...to...look, I—I had no choice.”

At this, she lets loose a mournful growl, making clear her disagreement on the matter. The sound is distant but distinctly there, and it echoes inside of Keith’s head for a moment. It’s no longer the full-mouthed roar that used to lie dormant beneath his skin when they were wholly bonded and unbreakable.

Their mental link, here and now, is tenuous at best, a ghost of what it once was, and so Keith lets himself absorb the impact of her cry, weak though it is, inhaling all of her fear and misery and love. It feels like trying to cauterize a stray cat’s wounds with a broken lighter. She no longer belongs to him and tonight, his flames are weak things, barely-breathing creatures.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

She looks at him for several seconds that are forever-feeling, then abruptly levers herself low to the floor. Her mouth drops open unhappily and for a terrible, frightening moment, Keith thinks she’s forsaken Lance as her pilot in an effort to reclaim her original red paladin. But then, from her maw spills a familiar set of legs—long, gangly, unmistakable even through the paladin armor—and Lance is descending her ramp where her emergency lights burn a dull blue.

He stops a few feet from Keith, and his hands—gloved and long-fingered, clever and gunslinging—fly up to his helmet. He tosses it aside with a disregard that knocks Keith suddenly off-kilter.

“Lance?” Keith says, watching Lance’s helmet roll off. It disappears beneath Red’s belly.

Lance removes his gloves with his teeth, casts those aside like his helmet before them, and then he lets his eyes—blue as glass, as morning, as childhood lullaby—do the rest of the work for him. They roam Keith severely, as if searching him for signs of madness or destructive thought, like he has the power to uncover the markings of an orphan’s unraveling. The longer he looks, the more his expression seems to go pinched, brow knitting and eyes growing smaller, the line of his mouth deeply displeased.

Keith swallows and fights against urge to tug his hood up over his face, to hunch in on himself, to reveal the threadbare parts of himself, still tender and diseased, the places no one person has ever had the heart to look. Not his social workers or foster parents or grade school teachers. None of the friends he never had. Not his dead father or his absent mother. Certainly not the Blade of Marmora.

“Keith...” Lance whispers, and that, really, is all it takes to break him.

Keith drops his eyes to the floor. He digs his fingers into his hips through his Marmora armor, lowers his head against the immense shame coursing through his veins, beating at his brow. The guilt, like a dam giving way, seems to swamp him all at once.

“Keith,” Lance repeats, and he moves several inches closer, his boots dragging slowly across his hangar’s metal floors. “Look at me.”

Keith shakes his head no and yanks his hood up. He turns his face into it, lets himself succumb to the cowardice he feels in this moment.

He thinks: I've been brave for so long.

He’s been brave in the face of all his expulsions and failures, the illegalities he’s committed on behalf of everything he didn’t used to know, he was brave when he broke into a long-abandoned shack in the middle of the Sonoran desert the night he let himself wander the southwestern migrant trail that so many before him had walked during delirious, desperately-thirsting journeys into new countries, the night he thought for sure he was destined to die, bones going bleached and eventually unrecognizable, lost to the sand and the sun’s scrutiny, another unnamed corpse accredited to the US-Mexico border. He was brave when his shortwave radio announced that the last person left in the world that he loved was dead, he was brave for Shiro’s return, and he was brave yet again when Shiro disappeared from the Black Lion’s cockpit as though never there to begin with.

Keith has been brave his whole fucking life, it feels like. Right now, he just wants to be weak and afraid. Just for a few more minutes, he wants to say.

He runs a finger up his temple and watches his Marmora mask take shape, shielding his face from Lance where he can feel tears welling, uninvited, in his eyes. He takes two steps back, looks out at Lance through the apertures of his mask, skims over the readings displayed—Lance’s vitals look fine, but his blood pressure is steadily rising.

“Dude, don’t shut me out,” Lance says, taking four steps forward for the two he’s lost. Just like Lance, Keith thinks, with something verging on hysterical. “Keith. Please.”

Keith says nothing.

Lance moves to close the distance between them and Keith, fool that he is, lets him. Slowly, as if to wave a white flag, Lance raises his hands. They hover mid-air for a few seconds, uncertain as a baby bird's wings, almost in warning. Then Lance is reaching forward and gently palming Keith's mask. His fingers brush the glowing depressions, every rough edge and smooth plane. Without realizing it, Keith guesses, Lance skims a thumb across the place where Keith's mouth rests behind his false face.

Keith's breath hitches.

“Look at me?” Lance murmurs. “Just for a few minutes. Please, I—Matt told me—I thought—” He cuts himself off to recalibrate, swallows visibly. “I thought I lost you for a second there. And it was like...Jesus. Was any of it worth it? The rivalry, antagonizing you all the time, all of our dumb fighting. If I never got to see your stupid face again? I’d take it all back, buddy. Keith. Look at me. I take it back, I swear. I want a do-over.”

Keith squeezes his eyes shut and feels the first tear fall.

Lance lets his hands loosen, then slide low. They stop to rest lightly around Keith’s throat and then he’s pressing his forehead to Keith’s shoulder-plate. He whispers: “I’ll take everything back if you swear you’re never gonna try something like that again. Keith. Just let me in.”

With a shudder, Keith deactivates his Marmora mask. “I...” he says, the word scraped raw and hoarse from his throat. “I did what I thought I had to at the time. Got lucky, I guess. Stars aligned, or...something."

Lance lifts his head, makes a small noise of protest at what he sees, eyes glassy with unshed tears. He pulls Keith in by the waist, says, “C’mere. Just let go, buddy. You almost let go for them”—he says this (them) with revulsion and so Keith knows, instinctively, that he’s referring to the Blade of Marmora—“so...let go for me.”

Keith buries his face in Lance’s neck and stops swallowing at the lump in his throat. Eager tears roll down his cheeks, pressed warm and wet to the flesh at Lance’s jugular. “It wasn’t for them. It’ll always be for you guys. Team Voltron...the cause...it’s all I have.”

Lance pets at Keith’s hair with one hand, hums his sympathy, and uses the other to run a palm up and down Keith’s back in a pattern intended to soothe, but which only makes Keith want to drop unconscious in his arms. “Keith, we’re not the Blade. Do you get that? We don’t want your sacrifices. We just want you. Alive and well, I might add.”

“It’s death everywhere,” Keith mutters. “Wherever I look. Knowledge or death, victory or death. I’m just staring it down. Running from it...from who I am. This—it’s who I am, Lance.”

“It’s who we all are,” Lance returns, quiet and unflinching. “Keith, we’re...we’re all trying to outrun death. That’s kind of what it means to be alive, to be a part of this war. To be human, even. You’re human. Don’t forget that. But we don’t...we don’t run at it headfirst like you did tonight. That’s, I think, quite a big no-no in most other cultures. Your kooky Galra friends are just an anomaly.”

Keith laughs, and it’s soft and frightened-sounding. “When’d you get so wise?”

“Dunno. Musta rubbed off on me,” says Lance. “When you were our black paladin, I mean.”

“That’s false,” Keith mumbles. “I was always an idiot when I piloted the Black Lion.”

“Well, yeah,” Lance concedes easily, and it sounds like he’s smiling somehow. “But you were our idiot. And hey, I was always right there to keep you in check, wasn't I?”

“Thanks,” Keith says dryly, even though he’s smiling into Lance’s sternum and he feels exponentially lighter all around.

No longer like he’s wading through mud, or quicksand. Now, like he’s sloshing through a riverbed—there’s still that element of resistance, of tug-and-pull just beyond the flesh, but none of the density.

None of the backbreaking burden.

“Anytime,” Lance says.

“No,” Keith says, and he clutches at the small of Lance’s back, fingers tight. He lets those same fingers say what he can’t force past his teeth. “I’m—thank you. Lance, you’re—um. Just...thanks.”

Lance sighs softly and returns Keith’s sorry excuse for a hug, his arms a snug weight around Keith. It’s good, so good, he thinks, like he can feel leftover traces of Blue’s energy lingering behind each touch, the petrichor-scented trail she’d left Keith back in that Arizona desert.

Tropical, he recalls of her energy signature, and compassionate, and promising immediate answers. A mother’s touch, or her footprints in sand, god-like. Matriarchal, almost.

Keith had slept through every convoluted church service in every decrepit, ramshackle chapel his father whisked him away to during childhood—El Palacio de Dios in El Paso, Texas; Pilgrimage Community Church in Salem, Oregon; the Prodigal Life Church in New Orleans, Louisiana—only ever made an effort to pry his eyes open when a congregant handed him a paper-thin corn tortilla, ladled hot stew into his bowl, offered him a sip of the Blood of Christ from a plastic goblet.

He felt the distant brush of religion’s fingertips against his nape at times, but never anything stronger than that. In the desert, that first night he sensed Blue nearby and pulsing, it was like he’d found something worth believing in for the first time in his whole fucking life.

That’s what this—now—feels like.

Keith wants to close his eyes against the pressure until flesh fuses with flesh, until he knows only the feeling of Lance’s warmth, the smell of his sweat, his ebbing fear. He wants to throw himself into the boy’s roughest rivers. He wants, more than anything, not to have to let go.

Lance breaks the silence with a sudden: “Come back to the Castle. To the team.”

Keith shakes his head and uncurls his fingers some. “Lance...you know I can’t. I—I don’t have a place here anymore. Coming back would just ruin what you guys have been building, all your work with the Coalition. Besides, Kolivan...the Blade needs me. I can’t leave now.”

Keith feels Lance pulling back and has only a panicked moment to think to himself that he's an idiot, that he's ruined their flimsy connection just like he had with Red, severed as soon as it got good, before Lance is gingerly shoving him away. He stops there, though, holds Keith at arm's length.

Then, when Keith continues to stare a stubborn hole into the ground, Lance tucks an index finger under his chin, tilting it back just so—just so that Keith is helpless against Lance's clear-eyed gaze, just so that he's suffused in a rich heat, just so that color spills across his cheeks in an inevitable call-and-response.

“Then come see me,” Lance murmurs, and it makes Keith’s heart pound behind his breastbone. “Us, I mean. Once a week or something? Like mental health check-ins. We can just hang out, or...or go on low-priority, low-stress missions? Scouting, or flower-picking for Coran, or supply runs. Dumb stuff. Just...so we know how you are. I don’t want...I mean, we all miss you. And I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but...it feels like you’re not...not okay, Keith.”

Well, Keith thinks, a little weakly. He never really stood a chance, did he?

“I guess what I’m trying to say is...I want you to be okay again,” Lance confesses, hushed.

“Okay,” Keith says, right away. No fight. No refusal.

His life is a hell of a lot easier, he thinks, when he lets himself cave under all the ways he wants Lance’s luminous attention, and company, and friendship. All the ways he wants Lance, full stop.

“What? Really?” Lance says, mouth a small o of surprise. “I was...honestly prepared for a lot more resistance. I had a whole speech ready and everything. Are you like...forrealzies?”

“I don’t think that’s an actual word,” Keith says, wry.

“Whatever, I’m a linguistic genius and you know it.” A slow smile unfolds across Lance’s mouth. He looks off into the middle-distance, his mind already in a million other places. “Oh, dude, we’re gonna have all kinds of fun. Everyone’s gonna be so excited. Wait till I tell Pidge and Hunk! Shit. Wait, but—don’t you need to get Kolivan’s permission first?”

Keith scowls. “He’s not my dad, Lance.”

Lance raises an eyebrow.

“...I’ll ask him later tonight,” Keith mumbles petulantly.

Lance laughs, loud and vibrant and real, and hauls Keith back in for a second hug that makes him a little weak-kneed, and that’s when they hear the hangar’s elevator doors hissing open to allow four sweaty paladins and one rogue, rebel fighter entry. Reluctantly, Keith withdraws from the warm circle of Lance’s arms and together, shoulders brushing in ways that defy the predetermined rules of their relationship, they watch the team make their way over.

Pidge is the first one to make contact. As soon as she sets her sights on him, she stalks forth to catch Keith in a hug that very nearly wipes him out. “If you ever pull that kind of shit again, Kogane,” she threatens, teary-eyed, “I swear to God.”

Keith, having depleted all his tears and inner angst for the night, only manages a small smile in response. It’s just a weak tilt of the lips, but it must pass muster, because Pidge immediately returns it, flashing two crater-deep dimples at him.

“Missed you too, Pidge,” he says, to which she sniffs and mutters, “Idiot.”

Hunk and his blubbering bear hugs are next, followed by a rough jostle that only just barely meets basic human hugging standards from Shiro, and then Allura is hoisting Keith into the air like he weighs little more than a bag of feathers and squeezing the life out of him, muttering a long string of Altean profanities, and the rest of the group is laughing in surprised approval.

She sets him back down with a crestfallen half-smile, says, “We’re glad you’re alright, Keith,” and steps away to accommodate all the hungry eyes still passing over him and his uniform, as though they’re trying to upend the cool facade that fell into place the second he registered their presence, the very facade that Keith has only just allowed Lance a glimpse past.

The faint glint they’ve all got in their eyes in this moment, crude and prying as they examine him, feels far less kind than when Lance had, that gentle, understanding way he has about him, like when he looks at you he’s feeling you over for flesh wounds, wiggling at one of your loose ribs, worrying a cavity with a gloved finger, apologetic but carefully assessing.

No one has ever felt like Lance, he doesn’t think.

Feet firmly planted, Keith squints suspiciously at the motley crew arranged before him—his family, wild-eyed and invasive and beautiful in spite of all the ways they’ll never understand him or his strife—and mutters, “How come you’re all letting me off so easy?”

“Oh, we figured Lance already had all the real nasty angst covered,” Pidge says, shrugging blithely. “We don’t wanna overdo it or anything.”

Shiro crosses his arms, metal to flesh and bones, and frowns at Keith. His eyebrows are doing something furious and accusatory. “Don’t think this means you’re off the hook. You and I will talk more about this later,” he says, in his best reprimanding father figure voice, which has always sounded like a lesser version of his big brother voice, with more timbre and far less affection.

Shiro’s had to fill so many roles for Keith for so long, all at once—teacher, father, brother, friend. He has all his voices carefully catalogued, memorized by rote, and honed, ready to whip out at the drop of a coin for a scolding and a slap on the first, or mentorial instruction. For heart-to-hearts, many failed, or even just friendly ribbing, a rhythm as familiar to Keith now as desert footfalls, sand in socks, Arizona's new moons. 

Keith makes a face at Shiro, halfway to annoyed, says, “So, that’s it then? Are all future Keith lectures now being entrusted to Lance?”

“As Pidge said, we thought, perhaps...” Allura says, with equal amounts embarrassment and shamelessness, “...well, that a lecture concerning your recent bout of recklessness might be more well-received by you if it were coming from Lance. We know how much more...agreeable you tend to be, I should say, when he’s the one doing the admonishing.”

“Former right-hand man perks,” Lance says, a touch too smug.

“That’s...you’re...” says Keith, tongue-tied, then scoffs incredulously when Lance only smirks and waggles his brows back at Keith, as if daring him to challenge the notion.

“Yeah,” Hunk cuts in, scratching thoughtfully at his sweat-soaked bandana. “When we saw Red take off for the Castle in the middle of Lotor’s fourth dramatic monologue-slash-proposition—after Lance called him a 'space fascist with Party City hair extensions’ over the comms—we all figured he was on his way to give you the most agonizing heart-to-heart of your life.”

Lance tches indignantly, folding his arms across his chest. “It was not agonizing! And Lotor had it coming! Tell ‘em, Keith!”

“It was good, thanks,” Keith says. He exhales, then sends Lance a lopsided smile. “And yeah, Lotor has terrible hair, I guess.”

Lance blinks, crossed arms loosening, like he wasn’t expecting such an easy concession, even despite the fact that he’s the one who asked for it in the first place. His answering smile, slow to take form, is one of the most dazzling Keith has ever received, the way it spreads and fractures like light, from Lance’s bottle-glass blue eyes to the steep curve of his mouth.

Better even, Keith thinks, than the smile he’d gotten from Lance after Sendak’s attack on the Castle, and they’re not even touching this time. No clasped hands as an endlessly electrifying point of contact.

“Keith,” says a voice that does not belong to Lance and so Keith finds himself loath to tear his eyes away from the boy who currently grips his beating heart by its bloody core, till the owner of the voice lays a hand on Keith’s shoulder and forces him to look away.

Keith glances up at Matt, blinking away his confusion. “Sorry, what?”

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Matt repeats. He looks Keith over and smiles a little hesitantly. The gesture pulls at the pink scar tissue drawn down his cheek. “Sorry about...you know...having to tell everyone, considering. That’s all.”

“Oh.” Keith shakes his head, dispelling the Lance-induced daze, and returns the smile. He finds himself saying, “It’s fine, Matt. Uh...considering.”

This appears to relieve Matt immensely because he nods, head bobbing enthusiastically, and pulls Keith in for a hug that he barely has the proper presence of mind to return after so many full-body squeezes in so little time. He’s been hugged more times tonight that he has in his entire life.

“Okay, alright, point taken,” Lance is saying, exactly two seconds later. Keith sends him a befuddled look; he’s glaring at Matt, for reasons absolutely beyond Keith and the current state of his mental faculties. “That’s enough. Hands off, Holt! Keith is very fragile at the moment.”

“I’m not fragile,” Keith objects from over Matt’s shoulder, affronted. “I’m fine now!”

“Like chocolate, cream-covered Pocky sticks!” Lance says, voice rising. He tugs Keith out from under Matt’s hold by the hand, only to wrap his own around Keith’s shoulders, then addresses the room with a, “I should probably get Keith to a warm bed while you guys...I don’t know? Break bread with Kylo Ren 2.0?”

“I don’t need a warm bed,” Keith says, after which a jaw-popping yawn passes through him. He frowns down at his body, and amends, “I need to find Kolivan so I can talk to him about seeing you, Lance.”

Hunk coughs loudly. Shiro’s formerly angry eyebrows rise, turn soft and surprised. Pidge says, sounding far more flabbergasted than this situation warrants, “What? No way! Keith, you and Lance are seeing each other now?”

Keith shrugs. “Yeah. Every week from now on. Right, Lance?”

“Oh, man,” Matt says, in tones of apology. “Sorry if I overstepped with that hug, Lance!”

Keith raises an eyebrow. “What? Why would—”

Lance slaps a hand over Keith’s mouth. He says, “Oh, haha! Very funny, taking advantage of the boy with all the socialization of a baby deer!” He levels each person in the room with a look of mock-disapproval. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves!”

Keith peels Lance’s hand from his mouth and says, “Lance, I’m right here. And I’m nothing like a baby deer!”

“Tiny little desert lizard, then,” Lance allows, and he proceeds to tuck Keith behind his back, as though to shield him from each pair of snooping eyes. “Better?”

Keith purses his lips, then nods, satisfied with the verbal correction.

“Anyway,” says Lance, his palms pressed soft to the skin at Keith’s wrists, which tingle happily beneath the heat of him. “Matt, you and I will have words later. Pidge, wipe that look off your face. Hunk, I love you. Allura, good luck dealing with the crown prince of over-contoured noses. Shiro...uh...carry on, sir. Someone tell Lotor I said I could see his split-ends from halfway across the galaxy.” He aims a finger-gun at the room, then whirls on his feet and begins to steer Keith off. “Lance and Keith out!”

“Lance and Keith?” Pidge parrots, gleeful. “Since when—”

“Keith and Lance,” Keith corrects, rotating at the neck just in time to intercept one of Pidge’s more toothy smirks. Keith has no clue what this one means, but thinks to himself that it’s a welcome sight after so many minutes of teary frowns from his former teammates.

“Don’t encourage them,” Lance says lowly, right in Keith’s ear, inviting him into an inside joke Keith has spent his entire life locked out of, looking in from the outside at a vast sea of laughing children, none of whom ever attempted to include him in their jokes.

It sends his heart skipping, the knowledge that Lance would like to have him, here inside his joke, at his elbow, beneath the flat of his brown palms, just the two of them, and so, made sleepy and pliant by the inside-out warmth of Lance, Keith allows the boy to lead him off to the bedroom he abandoned long weeks ago. He stumbles inside in the half-dark, the glow of his emergency lights turning Lance into a long-faced phantom with black concaves for cheeks.

Lance nudges Keith into bed and makes quick work of his boots and leg greaves and chestplate, all the extraneous Marmora armor—in a way that reeks of easy intimacy, and it makes Keith wonder if this is what friendship feels like for the rest of the universe, if this is what he’s been missing out on for so long, if it’s always supposed to be this quiet and heartrending, if it will always make Keith want to tug Lance down with him—until Keith is stretched out on his bed in only his dark grey undersuit and Lance is looking him over, seemingly pleased with his efforts.

He moves to leave, till Keith catches his wrist.

Lance half-turns, his eyes dark and curious.

Keith wants to wrap an arm around his neck, wants to drag him in real close, wants to whisper in his ear about all the ways he makes Keith feel like he’s being flayed alive. Instead, he murmurs, “Lance.” His eyes flutter at half-mast, and he’s loose and cozy and exhausted, and Lance is his friend now. Keith almost gave his life tonight, but the universe refused it. They get a do-over. It all feels like a dream, or a memory he has yet to live, a backwards sense of déjà vu. “Thank you.”

I like you so much, he thinks, then swallows the thought.

Lance slants a smile at him. He turns his wrist around in Keith’s hand till their fingers are touching, brief and featherlight. “No need to thank me. Just get some sleep, buddy,” he whispers, and leaves the room.

Keith’s hand flops over in Lance’s absence, half-hanging from the edge of his bed, still outstretched and starving.

He doesn’t fall asleep for a long time after that.

• • •

Lance keeps his word. Seems, in fact, determined to make good on last night’s suggestion.

Not that this surprises Keith, in retrospect. Lance’s promises are not treasures easily broken, the few times Keith has watched them take shape, on old missions involving displaced, tear-stained aliens, or diplomatic outings that required Lance’s charisma and Voltron-backed guarantees, when Allura’s had fallen flat.

That this—their official do-over, or second attempt at friendship, if they’re counting their first fluke back on Earth—should end up being so uncomplicated, so easy and effortless, feels far less likely to Keith, given their difficult history. He decides to humor Lance anyway, if only for the entertainment factor.

When he receives an incoming plain-text transmission the following morning—at zero seven hundred hours, his clock informs—after he’s back on the Blade’s base, he peers down at the screen of his handheld, sees the name MCCLAIN, LANCE, and flicks the message open without thought where he’s still waking himself up, armor spread out and waiting for him on his sheets.

CALLED_CALLSIGN THIS IS CALLING_CALLSIGN MESSAGE NUMBER 001

ROUTINE TIME 2213855Z

FM MCCLAIN LANCE

TO KOGANE KEITH

GROUP NO COUNT

BREAK

hey! how are you? :D you ask kolivan about coming over yet? i was thinking you could spend fridays/saturdays with us from now on maybe? sat/sun works too! lemme knooooo!

BREAK

OVER

Keith blinks down at his screen, confused by the clutter of letters and numbers, trying valiantly to make sense of each line break. He licks his lips as it all finally clicks, huffs out a tiny breath, and pulls up his keyboard, punching in several words. Hits send.

Are you actually messaging me using military radiogram format right now?

CALLED_CALLSIGN THIS IS CALLING_CALLSIGN MESSAGE NUMBER 002

ROUTINE TIME 2213855Z

FM MCCLAIN LANCE

TO KOGANE KEITH

GROUP NO COUNT

BREAK

yeah :D

BREAK

OVER

Why

CALLED_CALLSIGN THIS IS CALLING_CALLSIGN MESSAGE NUMBER 003

ROUTINE TIME 2213855Z

FM MCCLAIN LANCE

TO KOGANE KEITH

GROUP NO COUNT

BREAK

LOOKS COOL!!!!!!!

BREAK

OVER

Lance.

FINE i’m done

Thank you.

did you ask kolivan or WHAT?

I was going to? At some point, probably.

didn’t take you for a procrastinator, kogane, especially since you seemed so eager to ask him last night

i’m very disappointed.

You try convincing a century old Galra rebel whose life motto is “knowledge or death” to let you have weekends off.

WHOA. KOLIVAN IS 100???

That’s just my current running hypothesis. I have a lot more.

They don’t tell you anything down here.

I bet this is what it’s like working in Area 51?

Oh my god you’re such a weirdo

can’t believe i was one-upped by a conspiracy nerd back at the garrison

First of all? I was right about the aliens?

LOOOOOL (LAUGHING OUT LOUD) OKAAYYYY

Don’t you believe in ghosts??

UH? YEAH???

wait

Do you.............not

No??

No substantial proof.

okay YOU KNOW WHAT...

no

nope

not getting into this with you right now

hurry up and talk to kolivan

I’ll talk to him later.

NO

NOW!!!!!!

Oh my god. Lance. What does it matter if it’s now or later?

well

you see................................

What did you do

why do you assume i did something!

So you didn’t do anything?

no i did

i really did

i did the thing so good, keith

me and the thing, we have just finished consummating our union

the thing is thoroughly did

done?

i done did it

the thing, that is

Lance

right, so...

me and Red MAY OR MAY NOT be waiting for you on ground level Zero

right now

at this second in time

presently

also, one of your blade buddies is currently eyeing me up like they want a ride on the McClain Express

Keith sits bolt-upright in his bunk, smile dropping off of his face. One of his gauntlets slides off the mattress, dislodged by the sudden movement, before landing on the floor with a muted thud. He stares down at his screen for several tense seconds, waiting for a JUST KIDDING! that never comes. Then the adrenaline kicks in and his fingers are flying across his keyboard.

What.

The McClain Express is the foremost mode of travel in the known universe, Keith

DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BLADE’S BASE

define........................break

LANCE. I NEED TO KNOW.

DID YOU BREAK INTO THE BLADE’S TOP SECRET BASE.

WHOSE LOCATION IS HIGHLY CLASSIFIED INFORMATION.

:o

DID YOU OR DID YOU NOT, LANCE?

i just looked you guys up on google maps ;D

LANCE

HEY! if you RECALL, i was there waiting up for you while u completed ur emo marmorite trials of death so it’s not like this is new information to me

I KNOW that, but someone could have followed you.

Red isn’t exactly inconspicuous.

That’s why we have designated escorts and shuttles for guests.

I’M A PALADIN OF VOLTRON, NOT A CHILD!!!!!!!

That’s debatable.

FUCK YOU I DON’T NEED A SHUTTLE THIS IS NOT DISNEYLAND AND I AM PERFECTLY CAPABLE OF BEING INCONSPICUOUS

Again, debatable.

(--_--)

ANYWAY!!

all i had to do was serenade allura with top 40 hits for 10 minutes straight and she immediately handed over the forbidden BOM HQ coordinates so you can tell kolivan to take it up with her if he has a problem with my visit

and THEN you can tell him to stick it where the sun don’t shine bc allura would absolutely DESTROY him in single combat if challenged

and THEN YOU CAN TELL HIM HE NEEDS TO RETHINK HIS BASE OF OPERATIONS BC THE CURRENT LOCATION IS REALLY INCONVENIENT FOR ME AND THERE WERE NO SPACE SMOOTHIES AVAILABLE ALONG THE WAY!!!!!!!! AND I’M THIRSTY!!!

Hm

BASICALLY the only reason we made it here in one piece is cuz Red (obviously) has experience navigating 2 black holes and a giant blue star

And when you got here they just..........let you in?

you remember how Red went all mad mama bear on BOM HQ the last time you were here with shiro?

and how it totally traumatized your many goth brethren?

and then they had to spend like, literal weeks on reconstruction and repairs?

Lance, we’re not goth.

And yes, I remember.

yeah well apparently they don’t forget stuff like that ‘cause as soon as we arrived, we were waved in

(Red didn’t even get to do her scary roar, which she is feeling extremely sulky about)

anyway

uuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhh...........

do you guys offer refreshments down here?

No...?

okay cuz i’m currently being offered alien hors d'oeuvres by the dude who was eyeing me up earlier, on behalf of “the tiny human one”

he says it was really brave of me to steal the red lion right out from under your nose like that

apparently he thinks you deserve to be knocked down a peg or two

omg what’d you do to this guy keith!!

HAHA didnt know there were any cool ppl down at BOM HQ!!!!

Aloud, Keith groans. He runs a helpless hand through his hair, mussing it further. Lance is absolutely going to be the death of him.

That’s Nerc.

Lance, don’t talk to him.

Don’t let him breathe near you.

He’s a menace.

Wait for me in the hangar.

he said you’d say that

Oh my god.

maybe i’ll take him home with me instead of you >:D

Oh

oh my god

KEITH I WAS JUST KIDDING

I MADE HIM LEAVE

I’M WAITING FOR YOU :,(

<33333333333333

What is that

what’s what?

“<33333333333333”

did you replicate that down to the exact number of 3’s

Yeah? For all I know, it’s another one of your coded messages.

you’re right it is

it means “see you soon”

Oh, okay

<33333333333333

That just feels counterproductive? It uses more characters than “see you soon”

Typing “SYS” would be a lot more efficient

This is like the Voltron chant all over again.

Lance, why do you make these things so difficult?

okay now you’re just making me feel bad

...

It doesn’t mean “see you soon,” does it

no :(

Yup. Should’ve called that.

YOU ARE ADORABLE, MULLET

WERE YOU RAISED IN A BARN OR SOMETHING?

My dad and I used to live on a farm for a while, yeah.

:O

REALLY? ME TOO!!!!!!!

we have some old land back in havana (ancestral)! my dad’s side of the family basically makes a living out of growing yuca

or cassava, i guess

it’s where i learned to ride my first horse!!!

i sort of split my time between their farm and my mom’s property in varadero

BARN BUDDIES <33333

Eyes round with wonder, Keith clutches his handheld closer.  

A little guiltily, he snaps a picture of his screen, nervous at the idea of losing this small, precious piece of information somehow. Then he realizes how pathetic he must look, hunched over his handheld and swooning, all because Lance has—probably thoughtlessly, nonchalantly, because that’s who Lance is, the way he’s fundamentally wired—imparted a piece of his family history to Keith. Like it’s insignificant, instead of maybe the most important gift Lance has ever given him.

Keith shakes his head, flustered, and hits the Caps Lock button.

OKAY STOP

YOU’RE DISTRACTING ME.

I’M LEAVING TO FIND KOLIVAN.

THEN I’LL MEET UP WITH YOU AND RED.

ROGER THAT....................THE TINY HUMAN ONE

oh my god I’m gonna kick your ass

OH YEAH? YOU AND WHAT LION

TOO SOON?

TOO SOON. ;P

(i was just kidding. red loves + misses you.)

seriously......whenever you’re ready to come back, keith

OVER AND OUT.

Keith shuts his handheld off and then just sits on his mattress in a dumb stupor for several seconds, face flushing belatedly.

Idiot, he thinks at himself, internal and vicious.

“Then come see me,” Lance had said the night before, quiet and earnest and blue paladin down to his bones even despite the Red Lion who sat not ten feet away, yellow eyes never once leaving her newest navigator, and Keith had let himself believe Lance meant it right up until he returned to the Blade’s base.

Then, made smug by the hypothetical idea of Lance trying and failing to initiate a friendship between the two of them, Keith had basked in a backwards, bitter sense of victory.

He’d thought...well, he’d thought, if nothing else, Lance would eventually wiggle his way out of the offer, maybe chalk it up to a lack of time, or their far more important moral obligation to the cause.

Only time’ll tell, he’d thought sleepily as he undressed last night, stowing his armor away and scrubbing at his face with a stale washcloth, and for a while after, he stood zoning out at his dresser, imagining all the ways this could go wrong, all the ways Lance might pull him aside and break it to him gently, all the many versions of, “I don’t actually want to be your friend,” that could theoretically leave Lance’s lips in the next week.

He could see Lance’s sheepish smile, crystal clear. “I may have jumped the gun a bit after Naxzela, samurai,” he’d say sadly, and maybe Keith would earn a pity pat to the shoulder for his weak attempt at masking the soul-crushing disappointment he’d feel in that moment. “They don’t call me ‘sharpshooter’ for nothing,” Lance would joke, and Keith would refrain from pointing out that no one ever called Lance ‘sharpshooter’ to his face, and only because he’d seen with his own two eyes the way Lance’s kill-shots landed—with death-dealing precision, even from vantage points seven stories high, or distances 1,250 meters long. “I wasn’t actually serious when I said you should come see me,” he might say, then add, a little regretfully: “Stuff like that just slips out after near-death experiences. No one ever really means it. You understand, right?”

Keith has never understood.

Words haven’t meant much to him since he was old enough to figure out what it is to traverse great distances alongside his father, the two of them couch-surfing to stay alive and pickpocketing whenever necessary. Often, he stayed up late to receive the man from a graveyard shift that had gone on too long, sometimes glaring at the door while nodding off, other times curling up by their battery-powered radio and falling unconscious to the ugly crackle, the distant hum of voices, the barely-there breath of another human pervading the room.

He still remembers waking up to static, the broken sounds of his favorite late-night radio show—Mac and Adley’s Extraterrestrial Quandaries and Other Midnight Queries—filtering in around his father’s work boots against linoleum, the way he’d lift Keith into his arms with a sigh, how Keith sometimes accused, “You’re late again,” in a sleepy mumble, how his father pushed his bangs back and mumbled, “I know, kid, let’s get you into bed, alright?” and that’s always when Keith slept the best, deep and dreamless, when he felt his dad’s weight on the pull-out couch or box-spring next to him, knew he could roll over without fear of falling.

Words, thinks Keith, are nothing but shadows. There one moment; gone the next. No tangible evidence left behind to track them by, to hold them to, aside from the memory in your brain, and even then, memory is fickle, frail, always changing. Memory can be used against you. Words can be snapped clean in half.

None of it can be trusted.

Despite this, he thinks on some level he must trust Lance. Enough to watch his hand rise and readily accept it. Enough that Lance’s words, when delivered just so—harsh and grating and unrelentless through the comms—cut through everything else and land, exactly like his kill-shots.

But even the awful, erratic level of trust he feels for Lance isn’t enough to override the warning sirens blaring in Keith’s head, filling him with preemptive dread. A failsafe designed to save him yet more disappointment.

And so that’s where he stayed for long minutes—at his dresser, head bent, skin rubbed raw and wet by his washcloth, until his bunkmate Seneev had tossed a pillow at his head and griped at him about human sleep cycles.

“I’m Galra too,” Keith had snapped. He bent to retrieve the pillow and chucked it back at her.

“And I, child, am exhausted,” she shot back, catching the pillow midair, the rolled eyes implied in the purple-pink half-light. “I can hear your frontal lobe working all the way from over here.” Then: a long, weary sigh and the gentle rustle that meant she was rearranging her body on her mattress. “It always looks worse than it is...is that not what you humans so often say?”

“No,” said Keith, as he climbed into the bottom bunk and tugged his sheets over his head.

She yawned and shifted around some more above him. A sharp shadow swung out, then fell near his face—her tail, dangling from the edge of her bunk’s metal railing. “Well, I’ve decided to say it myself, then. Whatever it is, it will make more sense under the starlight of day, I can you promise you that much. Sleep now. Contemplation tomorrow, Keith.”

He was able to fall asleep only after promising himself he wouldn’t be disappointed when Lance inevitably realized his mistake and rescinded his offer of friendship.

And now here Lance sits, initiating their conversations, divulging private family secrets, teasing Keith with none of the previous bite, none of the old venom, succeeding in his undertakings totally and completely. Like befriending Keith is the most painless task he’s ever attempted. Like it’s not even a task. Like it’s...like it’s some kind of privilege, or great pleasure, getting to suddenly take up all of Keith’s time. Getting to soak it up and turn it into something so sweet.

All at once, Keith is flooded with a giddy warmth. It’s terrible, and exciting, and further aggravates the state of his feelings for Lance, turning them into something sharper, more acute.

He thinks: fuck.

How is he going to make it out of this alive?

And then he’s on his feet, knocking yet more armor from his bed, searching for his Blade-issued boots, nearly stumbling in his haste to get them on his feet and only just catching himself one-handed against the doorway of his tiny, paramilitary-standard bedroom.

“In a rush to be somewhere, are you?” says a voice, with poorly-disguised laughter lurking beneath the words.

Keith looks up, scowl already pre-prepared for the occasion. “None of your business,” he says shortly, and rights himself.

Seneev smiles slyly, shoving past him and working her dyed braids into a complicated knot. They fall past her shoulders in a wine-red wave. She says, “Oh? Kolivan seems to think otherwise. Apparently, there’s a pretty little paladin waiting for you on the lower levels. He even brought the dreaded Red Lion. Everyone and their battle cruiser is clamoring for a look, but we were all sent away.”

Keith shakes his head through his thumping pulse, says, “I’m on my way to clear things up right now.”

“Your boyfriend seems sweet,” she says, the ridicule leaving her voice at once. She looks over at Keith as she rifles through the two drawers that have been allocated to her person, and which hold all of her belongings. “Nerc says you forbade the paladin from speaking to him. He’s feeling very insulted.”

Keith snorts. “Nerc is a pest and he’ll get over it. He’s just upset he can’t embarrass me in front of Lance—wait—we’re not—he’s not my—we’re just friends.”

“Lance,” she says, strongly accented in her mouth, as though she’s testing the word out on her tongue for any obvious kinks. She nods, satisfied. Asks, “You give all your friends your lion, just like that, do you?”

“It’s not like that,” Keith insists, as his cheeks begin to warm. He crosses his arms, a defensive habit he hasn’t attempted to correct since his first foster family and second social worker. “I didn’t give him anything. Red—she chose him on her own.”

“And kept him, too, it appears. Perhaps she sensed your affection for him, then,” says Seneev, “as I do in this moment.”

Keith scoffs, for lack of anything less incriminating to do. Embarrassed, he turns to leave, says, “I don’t have time for this—”

Her tail, a scaly and shimmering blue-violet, whips out, curling around his wrist and halting any further movement. “Keith,” she says, her scarred face abruptly serious. “A slice of advice: you cannot appeal to Kolivan with emotion. Tame your tongue, and wash down the anger. He is a creature of logic. Be sure to let him know you and your...friend...will be making yourselves useful elsewhere.”

Keith shakes his wrist free, then nods curtly.

Seneev sighs like she knows this is the most she’ll get out of him. “Debriefing at twenty-one hundred hours. I’m sure you won’t be missed during morning drills.”

“Got it,” says Keith, then pauses with one foot out the door. “Uh. Thanks.”

“Kiss your blue-red paladin for me, will you?” she says, smiling something wicked at him as she activates her four-eyed mask and tugs her hood up. She tilts her face at a devious angle. “And try to have a little fun while you’re out, hm? Sol knows you need it.”

He’s already out the door and rolling his eyes by the time a peal of laughter has sounded from their shared bedroom. It follows him for several feet as he winds his way down dark halls, past wall sconces whose flames glow a deep purple.

On his way to the nearest elevator bank, he passes a bevy of boisterous shoulders, though their whoops and crows do little to distract Keith from his current objective. Several swat at him along the way, whistling loudly through matte-black masks as news of Lance’s arrival spreads. Keith grits his teeth and trudges on.

One soldier in particular—Evit, who’s rail-thin and quiet as death—leans in on his way to the communal showers, says, low and cautious, “Kolivan was on his way down to Ground Level Zero, last I saw. Make haste, kid. Doesn’t look too good for you or your companion.”

“Shit,” Keith curses, easing into a casual jog as the last of the soldier’s jeers fade out.

He catches an empty elevator seconds before its doors click shut and quickly punches in the 12-digit access code for Level Zero, where all of the Blade’s most valuable vessels are kept docked. The keypad gives a beep in the affirmative and so begins his slow descent.

It’s a few long minutes after that before he’s anywhere near his desired level—a few long minutes that he mostly spends contemplating the consequences of Lance’s surprise drop-in, with varying degrees of worry. Then, when Keith has just about paced a restless hole into the floor, the elevator hisses to a stop.

He pauses there like that, waiting.

“Ground Level Zero reached,” a computerized voice murmurs. “Please hold for identity scan.”

“It’s me, Keith,” he growls under his breath, fruitless though it is.

“Excessive movement detected. Please hold for identity scan,” the voice repeats.

“Why do we have to—every time,” Keith says, holding still, face tilted up and scowling.

“Identity authenticated,” the voice confirms seconds later. “You may proceed, K234-8560.”

The doors part for Keith with a near-silent purr and then he’s peering out into the deserted, low-lit hangar. His eyes pass swiftly over all the unmoving rows of spacecrafts.

And then, there...Red’s monstrous girth, sandwiched between a small watercraft and Kolivan’s intelligence airliner. And lower, Keith thinks, as his heart rate climbs, leaning coolly against her foreleg, is Lance. Like an inverted reflection of the Naxzela Lance of last night. He’s without uniform, hands jammed inside the pockets of his green jacket, and he’s got Pidge’s old headphones on. He nods idly along to something Keith can’t hear, eyes trained on the untied laces of his left sneaker. His blue helmet, the only piece of armor he seems to have brought with him, is held reverently between hip and forearm.

Keith feels his breath catch at the sight and has to forcibly remind himself that he’s not staring down a desert mirage, that Lance won’t wink out of existence up close and at exactly the wrong angle. He’s real. Not a pipe dream. Real boy. Blue and breathing.

And beautiful, Keith’s brain adds, almost unwillingly.

“And beautiful,” Keith mutters ruefully as he approaches at a silent soldier’s tread, and then he has to repress a big, dumb smile.

Real. Lance is here and real and waiting for Keith and he’s so beautiful it almost hurts to look. Keith bites the inside of his cheek till he tastes copper.

Across the way, Lance scuffs the toe of his sneaker against the ground and starts up a jolly whistle, bangs in his eyes and head bent low, still completely unsuspecting. His hips begin a slow sway and then, without warning, he’s doing a doo-wop hum and murmur-singing in a voice that’s more than halfway decent, “Oh, what a day. Oh, what a day...hoooooooo. Oh, what a day. Oh, what a day. When we fell in l—AH! Keith!”

“Hey,” Keith says, and here, he can’t help the involuntary smile his mouth offers up. He only just manages to bite back a laugh. Without breaking eye contact, he stops Lance’s rolling helmet, where he’d dropped it during his scare, with the heel of his foot.

Lance shoves his headphones aside and the distant murmur of his music hits the air. What a lovely couple, someone croons, to dreamy scat-backing. Lance fumbles for his handheld, nearly dropping that too, and shuts his music off with wide eyes. “Uh,” he says. “Hey. You—you’re—you made it.”

“This is my current place of residence,” Keith says archly. “You’re basically standing on my front lawn. I could have you tried for illegal trespassing, you know.”

At this, Lance’s mouth twitches with the suggestion of barely-swallowed amusement. “Oh, yeah, ‘cause I’m so sure the Marmora justice system is super concerned with benevolent little paladins like me.”

Little, Keith thinks with an internal snort of laughter. He trails a look down Lance’s incessant legs, then back up, says, “You’d be surprised.”

Lance’s ears go pink. He laughs, but it comes out dissonant, awkward. Then he’s scratching his neck, saying, “Nice save there, by the way, with my…”

Keith looks down at the blue helmet still caught beneath the sole of his boot. Nonchalantly, he kicks it up into the air, as though it’s a soccer ball and not highly-valuable Altean technology, and catches it, mid-air and one-handed. He holds it out to Lance with a raised brow.

“Okay,” says Lance, slowly. “Now you’re just showing off, you little jerk.”

Keith grins and shoves the helmet into Lance’s chest, right over his beating heart. “Take it or leave it.”

Lance grabs hold and leans in, grinning back. He says, “I’ll take it. Thanks ever so much, teensy-weensy Keith.”

Keith’s eyes narrow and he holds on tighter, smile growing in size. “Two inches. Barely. And I can still deck you, I bet.”

“Mhm,” Lance hums, royally pleased. “I hope that helps you sleep at night when I’m allowed on the next alien super-coaster and you’re not ‘cause of height restrictions. And to think you have Galra genes on your side!”

Keith opens his mouth to hurl something back, desperate to continue with this line of banter, when someone in their immediate vicinity—someone who his senses have failed to pick up on, he thinks, cursing Lance for being so distracting—clears their throat. It’s a kind of throat-clearing at once familiar to Keith, one that his ears have become intimately attuned to in these last few months.

Keith shoves away from Lance immediately, wiping his face clean. He stands at attention, cheeks burning with a sudden and fierce shame. Shame, at having been caught out, playing the flirt for a former teammate on Marmora property. On Marmora time.

“Keith,” says Kolivan, with an edge. Then, disdainfully: “And you.”

The humor leaves Lance’s face like water down a drain. He stares over Keith’s shoulder, says, “Hey, back at you, boss. Name’s Lance, in case it’s slipped your mind. Your super cool, very helpful ally in this war.”

Keith shoots Lance a warning glance, but his blue eyes are trained on Kolivan and unshrinking.

It makes Keith feel a little funny, like Lance has absorbed some of his red paladin-brand fighting spirit through sheer shared-lion osmosis. He wonders if that’s scientifically possible, then makes a mental note to ask Hunk and Pidge about it at some point. But no...more likely, Lance has simply come into his own, without Keith there to witness it.

That, he thinks, hurts a lot more than the alternative.

“I don’t know the meaning of this visit, paladin—which, incidentally, is against Marmora protocol and could have been executed by way of video or plain-text transmission—but Keith has duties to attend to,” Kolivan says. “Tell me the meaning of this, or see your way out.” He pauses expectantly. “Well? What are your intentions with my soldier…? If you have none, it would be my pleasure to see you escorted home.”

“I...intentions?” Lance repeats incredulously, voice rising, and he takes two generous steps forward, like he’s all of a sudden spoiling for a fistfight. Keith intercepts him halfway to Kolivan, hands raised and ready. “You don’t own Keith. He’s his own person and he’s got friends elsewhere. You can’t just keep him here against his will. That’s not how a team works.”

They’re Shiro’s words, at their core, Keith realizes with a start, and coming out of Lance’s mouth, in that reedy, resentful tone of voice, they feel far more dangerous. Keith swallows at air, appalled. How long has it been, he wonders, since Lance last used that voice on him? And when did he stop?

“Friends have little to no place in war,” Kolivan returns, face stolid as stone. “Allies, perhaps…”

“Friendship wins wars,” Lance says, as though with his dying breath. “Friends keep you alive. Although, come to think of it, maybe you don’t know much about that, considering—”

“Lance,” Keith admonishes quietly. He grips Lance by the collar of his jacket, shoves him backwards where he’s shoving forward, his blue eyes intent on Kolivan’s considerable bulk. “Lance! C’mon. I’m supposed to be the one with a temper here, right? Deep breath. Think about who you’re picking a fight with.”

Lance inhales deeply through his nose and takes one last savage look at Kolivan. Then he blinks down at Keith, as though he’s just come out of a daze. He goes abruptly pliant beneath Keith’s palms, allows himself to be pushed the rest of the way to Red, till the two of them are under her fierce protection completely.

Red, for her part, immediately crouches low, hackles raised. He and Lance are thrown in shadow where her enormous head looms above them. She gives the ground her snarl and her eyes glimmer an unamused warning down at Keith and Kolivan both. Watch yourself, her face seems to say to Kolivan, and to Keith: be careful where you point your men.

It should leave a bitter taste in his mouth, he thinks, the manner with which she’s taken Lance under her wing—deeply possessive in that instinctual way Keith is with the small collection of people he’s come to let himself love. Instead, it brings a pleased warmth to his face, like he’s earned a cynical parent’s approval.

He shoots her a look, tries to say, I know, I get it. I want him safe too.

Red’s presence in the back of his mind simmers, then calms. Her back uncurls infinitesimally.

Relieved, Keith turns to meet Kolivan’s eyes for the first time since this exchange began.

“I know I have duties,” Keith begins.

Kolivan stares back, waiting. His face is a blank canvas. It’s something Keith’s always envied him—his ability to compartmentalize all the dangerous, red-hot feelings he has, from his responsibilities as a soldier and a general. His ability to wipe clean the remnants of those red-hot feelings, wherever they may shine through.

Keith has always fought to keep his mask in place. For most of his life, he’s been relatively successful at it. But there are always these tiny, awful moments when the excess bleeds through, when he knows his eyes have gone vicious, his mouth an open flame. When someone else is looking on, catching each of his secrets as they pass loudly and clumsily through him.

He’s still trying to figure out how to separate boy from soldier, or soldier from boy, where they’re joined at the hip.

“But Team Voltron needs me around,” Keith goes on, and he hides all the boyish yearning in his voice behind the soldier in him. “Not permanently, just...every once in a while. Physically, I mean. I can’t connect with the lions through video or plain-text transmissions. There’s maintenance to be done in person. The...the Black Lion still doesn’t trust Shiro fully, not since we got him back, and I’m the one she tends to defer to. Allura...she also wants me present, in person, for strategy meetings, to corroborate Blade blueprints with Voltron’s. Coran thinks the team needs extra combat training, too, and wanted me to see if I could come in for...demonstrations.”

A beat of silence.

“And your old team will substantiate these claims if I check in with them?” Kolivan says.

“I’m here to substantiate right now,” Lance snaps.

“Yes,” Keith says, ignoring Lance. It’s not a lie. His team would do anything for him, he thinks, heart squeezing painfully. They’ve let him go before and he knows they won’t hesitate to reel him back in, in increments, if it’s what he wants. “I’ll do my level best not to neglect my duties here. Seneev will tell me if I miss anything, and—and I’ll return immediately if there are any emergency missions or meetings that happen while I’m gone.”

Kolivan’s jaw pulses with what seems to be immense restraint. “How much?”

Keith blinks. Once, twice. “What?”

“Time. How much time do you need?” Kolivan asks. He sounds resigned. “Per movement, or phoeb.”

Keith says, “I—”

“Two,” Lance cuts in from behind him. Keith startles, turning to send him a wide-eyed look. In return, Lance winks, quick and fleeting. “Two quintants per movement, preferably consecutive. That oughta do the trick. Right, Keith?”

“Uh,” Keith says. He turns back to Kolivan. “Yeah. Yes. Weekends with Team Voltron would...um, be good. Adequate, I mean.”

Kolivan narrows his eyes, lets them travel suspiciously between Keith and Lance for several tense seconds. He says, “I’ll expect you back for evening debriefings. Transportation is not the Blade of Marmora’s concern. At the first sign that this arrangement has become a liability, political or otherwise, privileges will be revoked or you will be asked to leave the organization. Effective immediately.”

Somehow, Keith can sense the disapproval and protest radiating from Lance, so he reaches an instinctive hand back and presses his gloveless fingers forward till they meet t-shirt and flesh. He waits. A set of teeth clacks shut. Keith represses a smile and lets go.

“Understood,” he says, forcing all the excess inside him back and away.

Blank canvas, he thinks, and scrubs his face clean.

“Cool,” Lance interjects loudly. “Cool, cool, cool. So, are we good then? Everything cleared up? Will any extra wily Marmorites do me bodily harm if I choose to throw Keith over a shoulder and haul ass out of here now?” At the look Keith sends him, Lance grins and holds his palms up. “Totally joking, buddy. Not that I couldn’t lug a couple of you around these days—been doing a lot of weight training since you left, just so you know. Speaking of...remind me to challenge you to an arm-wrestling match when we get back to the Castle. For science. Um, after all the important, official-sounding business, of course.”

Keith quashes the dual-urge to grin back and roll his eyes. Blank canvas.

“A final word, before you depart,” Kolivan says, his gaze unwavering where it’s still fixed on Keith.

“Right. You can head up without me,” Keith says to Lance, who sends him a wary nod and waits for Red to lower her head, jaw falling open for him, before slowly ascending her ramp.

Keith feels yanked, in this moment more than ever, in two separate directions simultaneously.

Red growls unhappily in the back of his mind, her connection to him momentarily flaring icy-hot. Like a flush, he can feel her affection for Lance spreading down his skin. Can see the bright, wheeling warmth of the boy, like a dark-winged sparrow taking flight, the way Red has eaten it up in the months following Keith’s removal.

She purrs, guiding Keith towards the flicker of fondness and possession she carries for Lance, and his humor, and emotional generosity, and endless determination. It briefly coalesces with the much deeper well of love she’s kept for Keith since that first moment she swallowed him from the brink of death.

A flame to a dark pool of water. Two yanks towards opposite ends of the galaxy.

There are many kinds of desire. The words, conjured by his former lion, rise up in Keith unbidden. Red sends him a feeling of cool understanding. It is okay to favor one over the other, and as she says it, his eyes land on Lance’s waiting silhouette, his arms held akimbo, hip cocked. The promise of home, in the way that he beckons Keith forward with the small smile he wears.

Keith takes a reflexive step in their direction—towards his old lion and one half of her desires—then stops, face flushing at his own obviousness. His loyalties, laid bare.

Kolivan, whose keen eyes miss nothing, watches this conflict unfold in silence. “Keith,” he finally settles on.

A warning, then.

Keith lifts his chin and waits, jaw locked. Body half-turned. He wears his impatience like armor in this moment, he knows, but no part of him attempts to conceal it. For once, he willingly lets it bleed through. The battle in him burns hotter.

“Don’t let this paladin become a distraction,” Kolivan says, with finality.

For a moment, the words sit like that, held taut between the two of them. Then Kolivan is turning and striding for the elevator bank, where he disappears inside a waiting elevator without preamble. Keith watches the doors slide shut, his cheeks warm. He swallows and starts up Red’s ramp, wiping his face clean for a second time. Here, it’s still instinct to hide himself away from Lance, to stash all the excess between two layers of brick wall.

It’s infinitely easier, though—to forget about the excess altogether—when the light catches Lance’s smile up close, where it has refused to dim. Keith stares, distracted, until Lance begins hauling him up and into Red’s cockpit like he’s giving a tour to a new pair of eyes, instead of the exact opposite. Keith follows helplessly after him, watching Lance’s mouth brighten in degrees.

“That was so—you, out there—just...I mean...I knew you were quick on your feet, but I didn’t think…” Lance pulls Keith to a stop at Red’s dashboard. He sets his hands on Keith’s shoulders and shines him an award-winning smile, like he’s congratulating him on some impossible feat. “Was that speech out there pre-prepared or were you just making things up as you went?”

Keith huffs a tiny, pleased laugh. “Ad lib. Thanks.”

“Hm. Not half-bad, for someone of your broodiness and generally short stature,” Lance says, grinning.

Keith rolls his eyes, says, “I’m ignoring that. And...you weren’t exactly terrible, either.”

“Wow, thank you for that ringing vote of confidence, Keith,” Lance teases, drawing his hands down like he means to straighten Keith’s—nonexistent—lapels. Then his brow furrows and he paints a path down Keith’s body with his eyes. He says, “What are you wearing?”

“What?” Keith looks down at himself, and quickly realizes he’d abandoned his armor in favor of booking it for Ground Level Zero like a bat out of hell. He’s in nothing but his high-collared, form-fitting undersuit and leather boots. “Oh, um,” he says, crossing his arms self-consciously. “I was kind of in a rush to get down here before Kolivan, so I left most of my armor behind. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, anyway, with what we’ll be doing...whatever it is we’re doing.”

“Right, right, right. My fault for springing this on you out of nowhere, I guess,” says Lance, and he drops his hands.

Keith can feel a mortified flush slowly creeping up his neck.

Then Lance starts shrugging out of his jacket, and he’s saying, “Well, you can borrow my jacket, if you want? I mean...if it’d be more comfortable for you that way,” like it’s no skin off his nose. He adds, “It’s pretty cold in your little lady, too, contrary to what she’d have you believe.”

Keith accepts the proffered jacket in a stunned silence. He stares down at all the acres of dark green fabric held between his bare hands, the way it’s still got residual warmth clinging to its crevices from Lance’s body heat because he apparently runs like a goddamn furnace, how he can smell Lance on it and he hasn’t even put it on yet.

He feels an animal laugh surge through him and has to resist the urge to flip his former lion the bird.

“I get it if it’s not your thing…” Lance says, scratching at a stray cowlick on the top of his head. Probably interpreting Keith’s reluctance as a polite refusal, or worse—revulsion. “I know you’re probably into more of a cropped style. And leather, obviously.” A snort. “Uh, yeah, sorry. Mine’s a work jacket. I think it’s actually designed to fend off bad winds, so it’s pretty warm. Nice and lightweight. You won’t overheat in it, either. Leather has to get really warm when you wear it out in the sun, right? Mine’s a hand-me-down. From my older brother Marco, um...so it might be a little…”

Keith tugs the jacket on, adjusting it to his liking. It feels like a warm hug, only looser. He sniffs discreetly at the collar as he zips it closed, inhaling a lungful of Lance’s scent—the medicinal tang of all the generic soaps offered back on the Castle, and something sweeter beneath that, like cinnamon, or sweat. He breathes a laugh at the finished sight of himself, shoves the sleeves of the jacket back where they’re eating his hands up in length, then chances a look at Lance.

“...big on you,” Lance murmurs.

“It’s warm. Like you said,” Keith observes, satisfied. He shoves his hands into the pockets, feeling around lint, spare coins from all manner of alien currency systems, something that might be a tube of chapstick. He gives Lance a small smile of gratitude. “Thanks.”

“Uh. Yeah,” says Lance, then clears his throat furiously.

His eyes, thinks Keith—distantly and with no little amount of confusion—are nothing but pupil. Two thin circlets of blue, and then all bleeding black.

Keith glances away, overwhelmed by the sight, and lays a curious palm to Red’s chair. The leather is cool to the touch beneath his fingers, though it warms slightly at the physical contact, like her fixtures are aware of him and happy to feel an old pilot’s hand again.

“Hey,” Keith whispers, and it’s as though he can sense Red’s lifeforce thundering here in her head, where the essence of her fire flows the strongest. A river of red, as far as the eye can reach. “Been a while since we’ve seen each other like this, huh?”

She answers with a cheerful rumble and he gets the feeling she’d be kneading her claws in contentment right about now if she could.

Keith shuts his eyes. “Me too.”

Their connection hasn’t felt this strong since...well, since Keith was her one true paladin and Lance was Blue’s. Something soft and bruised within Keith aches and he knows without moving a muscle that it’s showing clear as day all over his face—his longing. His regret. His pain, split open like faulty fruit. He breathes his way through it, thinks: if anyone will understand this, it’s Lance, who once swore by the Blue Lion like he’d been legally bound to her.

Let him see.

Keith’s brow knits tighter with tension where his body itches to resist the command, to disobey Red’s telepathic order.

There is conflict in the Blue one too, is the rebuttal Red sends his way. You are not without solidarity. A pause, as she feels them both over. He would like you to let go. He does not want you to feel ashamed.

I know, I’m trying, Keith thinks back. It hurts like a physical lesion. He puts his forehead to the seat’s headrest and breathes through his nose. In, out. In, out. Then he he forces a chuckle through his teeth at the idea of himself. He’d thought this loss little more than a flesh wound and here it sits on the skin of his body, gaping and infected.

“Hey...” Lance finally says, like he’s testing the waters with the toe of a foot. “Listen, uh. You can take her for a spin if you want, alright? I won’t even charge you extra for it. And I’m kind of lousy at maneuvering in and out of your homebase, anyway. Ask Red if you don’t believe me—she’s got the bruises to prove it.”

Keith pries his eyes open and angles an incredulous look at Lance. He thinks: are you actually so noble that you’d let your sworn rival back into the seat of the lion he let you keep? Then, as he drinks in the look of open patience and sympathy on Lance’s face, realizes, yes. Lance is exactly the kind of noble to perform a volte-face in thanks for the lion and position on Team Voltron Keith’s let him keep.

“She’s yours now, you know,” Keith insists, head still resting against her seat.

“Dunno, dude,” Lance says. He leans back against her nearest wall, his fists finding their way into the pockets of his jeans in the absence of his omnipresent jacket. He shrugs goodnaturedly. “She still feels pretty hung up on you.”

At this, Keith gives a disbelieving laugh. “You say that like—”

Lance arches a brow. “Like I’m her rebound? I mean, I kinda am, to be fair.”

“What?” Keith pushes off the seat and turns to send Lance a long look of defiance. “Are you saying? How can you even—you—you’re her comeback. She’ll tell you so herself. She’s not tolerating you, Lance. That’s not like—” Her. Or me, he thinks. Not like us. We wouldn’t give you the time of day unless we really wanted you. “That’s not this lion, trust me. If she chose you, it’s because you brought what I did to the table and then some.”

Lance stares at Keith in a blank-faced silence for all of three seconds. Then he’s tilting forward at the waist and laughing down at the tongues of his sneakers. His face, from the small glimpse Keith is allowed, looks suddenly flush with pleasure. “Much better, Kogane,” says Lance, when he’s standing at his full height again, his mouth a long, curving line, “than ‘leave the math to Pidge,’ I’ve gotta say. We’ll make a leader out of you yet.”

“I was just being honest,” Keith says, defensive.

“Your honesty is usually a lot meaner,” says Lance, smiling. He chucks his helmet at Keith, whose arms shoot forward and close around it automatically.

Keith looks down at the piece of blue-toned technology in his hands, eyes widening. “I—”

When Lance nods at Red’s waiting seat, he’s got on the relaxed expression of a man lending an expensive sports car to a dear friend for a test drive. He hooks a hand around a nearby piece of piping, says, “Bring us home, dude.”

It feels a bit silly just then, settling into the familiar grooves of Red’s seat in Lance’s blue paladin helmet and giant green jacket. Like Keith is nothing but a kid playing at a pilot. Like he’s Lance’s protégé, or high school sweetheart.

He should feel sillier, he thinks. Or maybe flustered, under Lance’s watchful eye. But Keith has been in this kind of hotseat a million times, and then some. He’s performed class-wide demonstrations in simulation ships for aerial instructors ten times as critical. He’s navigated the Zorlar asteroid belt all by his lonesome. Piloting Red while Lance watches is like warming a body by a fire. It’s like sliding a hand into an old glove made singularly yours over a period of months.

It’s coming alive again, deliberately and without remorse. Keith preens beneath the attention.

He belts himself snug and then inhales in surprise as the seat slides forward before locking into place at Red’s dashboard, which lights up under his careful ministrations and wandering hands. He checks her controls, just for the hell of it. Flicks through her maps. Gets a feel for the state of her core temperatures. Touches a finger to her gravity and element readers.

“Yeah, I’ve missed this,” he says, over Red’s sudden growl of impatience. He flexes his fist against her throttle, his heart throbbing happily. “How you hangin’ in there, Red?”

At this, she snaps forward for a roar so deafening, every spacecraft lining the Blade’s hangar gives a full-body shudder in response.

Keith’s mouth cracks open on a smile of pure joy and he tips his head back in helpless surrender, letting a laugh bubble up and out. He’s sure he’s grinning something goofy at Lance, but can’t find it in himself to care. He wishes there was a language precise enough to deliver the kind of thanks Lance deserves. Wishes Keith had a mouth clever enough to speak it.

Lance’s head is cocked where he’s still holding onto Red’s piping. His gaze is almost soft on Keith’s face. There is only the barest hint of envy in his expression, which for Lance, feels miraculous. “How does she feel?” he asks quietly.

“Like a live wire,” Keith says, exuberant, and he sends her careening forward, through the hangar’s automatic bay doors.

The rumble of Red beneath him feels not unlike the growl of his old hovercycle’s engine, that night he’d wrapped himself in his Goodwill riding jacket and made a break for the Garrison’s infirmary. Then, looking for signs of extraterrestrial life, verification of the Blue Lion’s existence, and instead coming up with his long-lost, presumed-to-be-dead mentor, and three bright-eyed Garrison cadets fresh off the landing pad. This morning, with one of those very cadets at his left shoulder.

That night, he recalls, the five of them had crowded around Blue’s glowing dashboard, alight with awe, back when Lance had been more nuisance than physical ache, and Keith had been only peripherally aware of him, in that reflexive way he is with boys uniquely his type—tall, and warm-toned, beachy almost, with sly, smirking mouths.

Keith thinks about how he'd met Lance’s furious gaze across Shiro’s unconscious body just before then, in that Garrison hospital, while distant recognition washed slowly over him. How he’d flicked Lance a look as they lugged Shiro to Keith’s bike, when Lance wasn’t looking. How Keith had raked his eyes over dark stretches of brown skin, long lashes, oh so blue eyes, almost luminescent in the desert’s dark.

And the resulting warmth that stole over Keith, second only to the knee-jerk irritation he felt. The subsequent incredulity.

How had this kid flown under his radar unnoticed? How had Keith missed him, all those many miles of long legs? And then, of course, because they were in different pilot divisions, and Lance had only ascended in rank in Keith’s absence, if he was to be believed.

This new version of Lance—the Lance of today—is ten times as terrible for all the ways he strips Keith of his most hard-fought defenses, offers up breezy, toll-free smiles without hesitation, waits for Keith at his place of residence with his old lion, offers him his coat, and helmet, and trust, like a rom com cut-out from the eighties throwing rocks at a crush’s glass window in the dead of night.

If he could have Lance one way or another, Keith thinks he’d have him like this—shoulder-to-shoulder and sharing at the helm of an old, well-worn ship, with Lance loose and kind and warm around the mouth, in old, scruffy, earthen clothes. Looking like a dream, or a nightmare designed to make Keith suffer endlessly.

But that isn’t the Lance that Keith has come to know, and understand. It’s not the Lance who is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, still clamoring for even the slightest indication that Allura might like him back, who would sooner give himself up to Galra forces than consider Keith in that way, the way that haunts all of Keith’s waking hours, and even some of the dreaming.

If Keith could have him, he would.

But he can’t, so he ignores the set of wild blue eyes hot on the side of his face and soldiers on, knuckles white against Red’s controls. Friendship is a far cry from what he wants with Lance, and even that he doubts is real at times, but if it’s all he gets to have, Keith will suck it up and find a way to be grateful.

For the entire ride back, he lets himself pretend it’ll get easier with time.

• • •

Lance’s bedroom aboard the castleship, once they’ve safely docked Red and said their hellos to the team amidst the negotiation pandemonium still unfolding, is both everything and nothing like Keith expects.

It’s a quiet, carefully-contained habitat of chaos, and the walls are a riot of color. The whole thing is maybe more than Keith expected of Lance and his aesthetic tendency towards order and cleanliness. But Lance navigates the clutter with the kind of learned grace that says everything has a place and he knows exactly where that place is.

“Right, so,” Lance says, as he sidesteps a pile of neatly-folded laundry, “welcome to my humble abode. Sorry for the mess. I’d pretend it’s not usually like this, but my mom always said lying is unbecoming of the future President of the United States.” Then he looks up at Keith with an expectant glint in his eye, like he’s hoping the humor in that is well-received.

Keith feels his mouth give a twitch. “I thought lying was part of being a politician. You’d make a good leader, though.”

“What? Me?” Lance ducks his head, but it looks suspiciously like he’s smiling. “Nah. Uh, but feel free to make yourself at home. You can look around, if you want.”

Oh, Keith wants.

He strays first to the west-facing wall, where it’s covered from floor-to-ceiling in Lance fanart. The giant collection speaks to a narcissism Keith has already seen and come to terms with in Lance, but the meticulous arrangement and the varying degrees of artistic talent are maybe more endearing than they should be. Like Lance doesn’t care about the quality of the art so much as the thought his fans have put into their creations. Like he’s happy to display even the ugliest stick-person version of himself, if it means showing those fans appreciation.

Keith drinks in every interpretation of Lance, in and out of color—Lance at Blue’s feet, Lance jammed between the Red and Blue Lions, vying for his affection, Lance posing with a rifle, and sniper, and two pistols, Lance at the beach, under the rain, with an arm hooked around Hunk’s wide-set shoulders.

In one drawing, titled RED PALADIN, a rather impressive version of Lance and Keith are standing back-to-back, the two of them grinning with their teeth while Red looks on from above, and seeing the image proudly displayed alongside all the others is for a moment so humiliatingly gratifying that Keith can’t tear his eyes away.

He shakes himself and moves onto Lance's desk. The piece of furniture, fashioned from Altean alloy, is plastered with relics and keepsakes from all the planets they've ever visited and/or helped liberate. One drawer in particular, after Keith has confirmed that he's allowed to open it, is filled to the brim with tiny baggies and jars of what looks to be gravel. 

“What is all this?” Keith asks, picking up the nearest jar and giving it a twirl, till he locates its label. ARUS is scrawled across it in Lance’s neat handwriting. Another: BALMERA. OLKARION. PUIG. And every jar is filled with gravel, or silt, or mud. In one case, a gaseous element with a green-blue quality to it.

Lance peers inside the drawer, then visibly brightens. “Oh! Those are natural environment samples from every planet we’ve ever visited.”

Keith’s brow furrows. He’s never taken Lance for the scientific type. “For what?”

“Well,” Lance says, slowly, “to show my family when I’m back home, I guess? I keep a field journal so I don’t forget anything, but that’s not really the same as seeing pieces of a planet up close. My dad’s a naturalist, so I’m sort of familiar with the process. Pidge says it’ll probably earn me a fortune, too, once we’re back on Earth. I’ll be hailed as a hero in the scientific community.” He smiles to himself, thumbing a small bag of greyish sand labelled EREIRREXE. “So I’ll show my family when I’m giving them the run-down, and it’ll be like they were there with me, and then I’ll turn everything into some non-profit, maybe. Not the government, because Hunk says I can’t trust that, after everything. Um, but my dad’ll help me find a home for these little guys when I’m back, I’m sure.”

“Oh,” Keith says, with a quiet awe.

“Yeah,” Lance says back, equally quiet. “Anyway...I think I’m gonna grab a shower since I didn’t get to take one last night. Or this morning. I was kinda in a hurry to get you back here to everyone. Sorry about that, by the way. Um, do you mind? I can ask Coran to find something for us to do, so that’ll be ready by the time I’m done.”

“That’s fine,” Keith says, still picking his way through all the jars with a warm curiosity. “Oh, you...” he says, looking up when Lance makes no move to leave. “You want me to—uh, I guess I can go wait in my room while you—”

Lance shakes his head. “No, no, it’s cool. I’m not some ultra-private hermit like some people”—he lowers his brows into something taunting here—“or anything. You can chill here till I’m done. I just...I dunno, I kinda figured you’d find all this old junk boring.”

“I’m not a hermit. And you’re one of the most interesting people I know,” Keith says plainly. He picks up a jar of what appears to be ocean water of some kind. Presses it to his ear and gives it a gentle shake. Hums. Then, when that garners no response, looks up.

Lance is pursing his lips, arms crossed over his chest. At Keith’s look, he scratches at his ear where it’s steadily turning a brilliant shade of red. “Oh,” he says eloquently.

Keith raises a brow. “What?”

“Nothing! Shut up!” Lance says. He snags his blue bathrobe from its hook, then whirls with great dignity. “You break it, you buy it, Keith!”

“I won’t…” he begins, as the doors to Lance’s room slam shut behind the boy in question. “...break anything. Have a good shower. No, that’s weird. Shut up, Keith.”

He turns back to Lance's desk to finish up his perusal, shutting the topmost drawer and moving onto the next. He picks up one of Lance’s aforementioned field journals from a modest stack of reading material—mostly comics printed in alien languages—and flips to a random page. A large block of text in dark blue ink stares back at Keith.

So, SEIRDNUS. It’s a dwarf planet (like, would put Snow White to shame levels of dwarf). Sparsely inhabited, as far as I can tell. Smallest object in the LEAR star system. 1 trip around LEAR’s sun = 5.4 Earth years. Moon-like in terrain and texture. Local population has created something of an encampment along near side of planet. Coran says the encampment exists to perform government-sanctioned lunar work. We weren’t there for very long. Just long enough to drop off medical supplies for distribution among their system. SEIRDNUS is basically neutral territory, and the LEAR star system is apparently very “politically volatile” right now. So...space Switzerland, only maybe not so chocolate-obsessed? I call it an anti-beach, because it’s like the exact opposite of paradise. Allura said that’s offensive and not to mention anything of the sort to the representatives we spoke to. They were vaguely humanoid and looked like they could use some sun. According to Allura, this was also highly offensive, not to mention scientifically inaccurate. If Keith were around, I know he’d side with me. Temperatures were pretty cold, even when my suit made thermal adjustments. Made me miss Varadero times ten billion. :((((((( SUMMER I MISS YOOOOUUUUUU ☀ ♡

Beside this, Lance has sketched a tiny cartoon version of himself spread out across a towel, with a glob of sunblock slathered over his nose. The sun, whose talking bubble reads, “What’s hotter than being hot?” smiles down at him from above. Cartoon Lance lies with both arms folded behind his head. A pair of aviator goggles rests low on his face. The drawing’s caption—SOON TO BE ME!!!—is so achingly, hopefully Lance in nature that Keith has to swallow against the sudden flood of hurt he feels on his behalf.

He promptly shuts the journal and returns it to its rightful place in the desk drawer, on top of a comic that follows a masked space vigilante and her crime adventures.

Keith spins in a slow circle, makes to absorb the bedroom’s every last detail while he’s still allowed to. From the east-facing wall, an aluminum sign reads, BEWARE OF BLUE PALADIN, except the word BLUE has been slashed out with black marker and replaced with RED. Next to this, Lance has displayed a series of medals and accolades awarded to him by foreign administrations.

At the foot of his bed, his blue lion slippers are ready and waiting, and across his mattress and standard Altean sheets lies a large, elaborately-sewn quilt no doubt gifted to Lance by an overzealous fan or two. Keith fingers the stitching with something almost wistful. He looks slowly over each of the five squares that have been divvied up among the original paladin lineup.

When he sits heavily on the mattress, it’s so he can get a good look at his own square where it’s been mapped out in red and orange thread. He touches the pad of his index finger to the Red lion, curled lovingly around her paladin. Then, the boy sewn in his likeness, sword brandished proudly at his chest.

Keith doesn’t mean to drop off just then, sure that there’s some universal bedroom etiquette he’s violating in doing so, only he gets distracted staring up at the ceiling of Lance’s bunk when he notices the sheet of shiny butcher paper taped to it. Here, Lance has sketched out and labelled something like twenty of the Greek constellations with a tender attention to detail. He’s also drawn Cuba by hand, off to the side, with two big stars stamped along its coast.

Havana and Varadero, probably, Keith thinks, a little sad at the idea that Lance needs these two cities to be the last thing he sees before he falls asleep each night, is attempting to anchor himself to Earth even now, in whatever ways he can. Keith feels his eyes flutter shut.

He dreams, for the first time in maybe all his life, of a nondescript beach back on Earth.

• • •

The first thing Keith notices when he’s awake again is that he’s now wearing Lance’s quilt instead of lying on top of it. The second: he’s curled up against the far corner of the bed, his body a ball of trained discomfort. He’s spent too long sharing beds, with his father and then his foster siblings, and his body has found this fact hard to forget. He has yet to outgrow these kinds of learned instincts, even in sleep. Third: that it’s dark, with only the muted glitter of Lance’s emergency lights to go by.

Keith blinks his dream away and rolls over onto his stomach, feeling around for his handheld. He lurches off the bed as soon as he realizes that he’s slept the day away, is due back at the Blade’s base in less than an hour, then reels back when he steps on something that emits a quiet groan of protest.

Keith says, “Lance?”

“Time ‘s it?” Lance mumbles, from where he’s bundled up on the floor, a balled-up bathrobe wedged under his head in place of a pillow.

The fourth thing Keith realizes is perhaps not so much a secret as it is a cleverly-stashed piece of information. Lance is not, despite all evidence to the contrary, a rude person. In fact, he’s so well-mannered a boy that he decided to remove Keith’s boots for him, set them neatly at the foot of his bed alongside his slippers, drape his quilt across Keith’s unconscious body, and then proceeded to take his nap on the floor of his own bedroom out of polite respect for Keith’s boundaries, or (assumed) need for personal space, or some other such nonsense.

With this revelation comes the truth of it all: Lance is not a rude person, under normal circumstances. He’s just been, for most of the time Keith’s known him, rude to Keith specifically. Lance is so innately courteous that he probably had to rebel against his most base instincts when he decided it was his sworn duty in life to provoke and antagonize Keith for things that were—in Keith’s opinion—out of his control.

And now that Lance has abandoned their long-established rivalry, Keith is left feeling off-balance, wobbly with surprise.

He says, just for confirmation, “Did you—why are you on the floor?”

“You took the bed,” Lance grants, charitable. He’s sitting up now and rubbing at his eyes.

Keith laughs with the shock of it. “You’re such a—I can’t believe you—”

Lance peers up at Keith, his hair sleep-tousled and sticking up adorably in the back. “Do you have to go now?”

“Yeah, since you didn’t wake me,” Keith says as he shoves his feet into his boots. It’s easier to place blame than confront what he’s currently feeling, where it has begun to sweeten into something not unlike honey. “I have a debriefing.”

“You look peaceful when you’re asleep,” Lance says, as a defense. “Keith the revolutionary...becomes Keith the red puppy. What is it that you dream about anyway, hothead? Humor me.”

Keith missteps and almost trips over his own foot. He turns a scowl on Lance, like the warm beam of a flashlight, and is made more irritable by the sight of Lance’s sleepy grin. “Shut up. I’m not a puppy. And none of your business.”

“Mmm, the jury’s still out on that one,” Lance says. “But don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. Wouldn’t wanna ruin your ironclad reputation. No promises about the drool you left on my pillow, though. Thanks for that, by the way.”

For a moment, Keith is incapable of speech. He bursts out: “I did not—”

“I have photographic evidence to the contrary, buddy,” says Lance, smirking. He only laughs, gleeful, when Keith flings the pillow in question at his face.

“I’m leaving,” says Keith. “Enjoy the drool, asshole.”

This, ridiculously, seems to make Lance laugh harder. “Wait, wait!”

Keith stops halfway to the door, bottom lip caught between his teeth in an effort to kill the stupid smile he can feel coming on.

“Sorry,” Lance says, as the last of his laughter flees his face. In its place, something quietly earnest takes up residence. “I’ll pick you up at the same time tomorrow?”

“Right. Yeah. Thanks,” Keith says, and thinks, with something almost like panic: shit, shit, shit, I’ve gotta get out of here.

Lance stands and stretches. “Do you need a ride home?”

“No,” Keith says, a little too emphatically. He thinks he might die, or do something rash and regrettable if forced to sit near Lance in a small enclosed space like this for even a second longer. His fight-or-flight response is a scab he itches to pick bloody. “No—thanks. I can fly myself there in Red. She knows her way back, so. I mean...if that’s okay with you. She’s your lion, obviously, and I can have Kolivan send some scouts out with her, just in case. Seneev—my bunkmate—says they’re already reconfiguring the Blade’s security system for our...um, thing. That we’re doing now. So flying to and from should be okay.”

“Fine by me,” Lance says easily, and picks up his bathrobe. He moves to hang it from its hook in his wardrobe, his shoulder brushing Keith’s along the way, in the kind of lax motion that perhaps feels more perilous than it truly is. “Be safe.”

Keith thinks, with growing wrath: are you trying to kill me? Aloud, he says, “Sure. And, Lance?”

Lance twists at the neck to throw him a look of patient curiosity.

“Next time,” Keith begins, and feels his face begin to heat. He firms his jaw and pushes on. “I mean, if I ever...fall asleep on your bed again, you don’t have to…I don’t care if you nap next to me. I’ve shared beds with people my entire life, so it’s not like...I don’t care, is all. I’m used to it.”

Lance frowns, eyes gentling. It makes Keith feel unhinged all over. “Then maybe that means you deserve to have your own bed every once in a while.”

“No,” Keith decides, resolve unwavering. “Being alone...isn’t my first choice.” And he hates how that makes him sound, like he’s fishing for a cuddle buddy and Lance is the first willing participant he’s stumbled upon. His face grows warmer. “I just mean...sharing a bed with someone...someone who I trust...I don’t hate it.”

“Oh,” Lance says softly, eyes widening at the implication, after a tense moment of silence in which Keith can feel the quicksilver pace of his own pulse in his throat. “Okay, well. Fortunately for you, I don’t hate drool.”

“Oh my god,” Keith breathes, and turns to leave the room at once. He can’t swallow his smile fast enough this time. “Never contact me again.”

Lance is laughing full-out, now. “Snoring, maybe! Sleep-talking, or sleepwalking...those might be dealbreakers for me! But drool...now that I can handle! Just promise you won’t accidentally drown me in my sleep, Keith, and I’m sure we can make this work.”

“Goodbye forever,” says Keith.

Lance says, “I look forward to our next joint nap!”

“Delete my number from your handheld,” Keith calls, to musical laughter, as the doors to Lance’s bedroom slide shut on him.

It’s only when he runs into a wide-eyed Matt in the hallway that Keith realizes he’s just been spotted coming out of Lance’s darkened bedroom with a bad case of bedhead, a bright flush stamped on either cheek, and Lance’s oversized green jacket still wrapped around himself. Keith stops short, with the look of a deer caught in headlights on his face.

He says, “I—it’s not what it looks like. I was just—”

“Sure,” Matt says, with something knowing.

Then, he winks.

• • •

The next morning, Coran sends them to a preservation planet in the Dexom star system called Noeg.

Noeg is small in size, its soil rich, and there is the weakest insinuation of a long-dead civilization just beyond its overgrowth. The environment, in all its many greens and golds, seems to have reclaimed what it’s always owned, like a lion finally rearing in rage and beheading a veteran poacher. The planet’s strength is swift and unforgiving like that.

Keith likes the quiet of it. He likes moving through the bowered paths where they’re no longer path, where they’ve become unknowable with new sprouts and creeping weeds, Lance trailing him in a happy silence. He likes traipsing through it all with the hushed knowledge, sitting just below his ribs, that they are two of the only people currently on the planet. That they’ve been granted access to its spring harvest, with the Dexom delegation’s legal permission.

A list of plants—medicinal and edible both, carefully curated by Coran and Hunk in the early hours before they set off for the planet—sits inside the interior pocket of Keith’s riding jacket. He long ago removed it, submitting to Noeg’s insistent heat. The leather now rests heavily around his waist.

Lance, by contrast, is in his full paladin armor this morning, like he and Keith are two warring magnets, always at odds. He looks radiant, crisp. But then, he always does under the light of a new sun, Keith realizes, like a flower come alive again. His skin is already blooming a deeper, darker gold, and the faint emergence of freckles has begun at the bridge of his nose.

Lance does not notice all of Keith’s noticing. He bumbles through the overgrowth with the ineptitude of a fawn, popping moonflower seeds into his mouth from the bulging pocket of his green jacket, returned to him this morning with a half-embarrassed apology from Keith. When prompted about its presence on their mission, he responded with a bright, “Good for stuffing samples inside!” as though that was that. He spits moonflower shells out as they walk, aiming them away from Keith with practiced ease, somehow both elegant and disgustingly animal.

He wears in this moment that effortless and accidental charm that so often enchants Keith, like an unexpected clock to the face. Like summer rain. Sheets of it, gone gold with daylight.

For a while, they wind their way north in a comfortable silence, towards Noeg’s infamous blossom meadows, where its most lush and medicinally-potent blooms thrive. Lance hums nameless tunes most of the way there. Occasionally, he has Keith stop so he can jot something down in his field journal with his blue pen, crouched among the greenery and frowning thoughtfully.

Other times, he orders Keith to pose next to some new and wild alien phenomenon for a photo—crystal caves, sun-bleached trees rotted black at the mouth, the ruined remnants of a stone city peeking out at them past all the overgrown grasses and ivy. And each time, Keith leans lightly against the scenery and slaps on his best deadpan expression, just to be contrary.

“Would it kill you to smile?” Lance squawks after the third or fourth time, from where he’s perched on a large boulder set several feet away. He lowers his handheld in annoyance. “No, really. Will you collapse in agony? Dissolve into a puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West? Be honest with me, Keith...will smiling for my photo induce a coma, cured only by true love’s kiss?”

In answer, Keith adds a peace sign to his pose.

“Okay, you little shit,” says Lance, “you’re definitely doing this on purpose!”

Keith quirks a brow. “What gave me away?”

“Is this revenge for last night?” Lance calls. “Know this, Keith: you will pay for your crimes against humanity...in...in more embarrassing photos of your drool! Which I will then sell to the highest bidder! And don’t think there isn’t a market for that kind of thing, because there is! And after that, I’ll use my newfound wealth to dethrone Kolivan, during which point I will become your new boss. Is that what you want? Hm? I will legally change your organization’s name to the Dicks of Marmora, don’t test me!”

Keith’s mouth twitches. He bites his lip against a quiet laugh.

“Ha! His Achilles’ heel, revealed!” Lance says, whooping in victory. He snaps twenty or so photos, in quick succession.

Keith blinks his way through it all. He says, “Okay, that did not count as a smile.”

“By Keith standards, it did!” Lance sings. He climbs down from his boulder and prances his merry way back to Keith with all the smugness of a gold medal-wielding olympian.

“By Lance standards, it didn’t,” Keith returns, and laughs when that immediately wipes the look of self-satisfaction right off of Lance’s grinning face.

Lance makes a stubborn game of trying to get Keith to smile for photos after that, pulling out every weapon in his arsenal—which means Keith suffers through long minutes of terrible puns and appalling Kolivan impressions. By the tail end of it, he’s spent so long trying to stave off his laughter that his body is shaking where it longs to let go. He’s red-cheeked and very nearly crying, leaned up against the gnarled trunk of a collapsed tree with all the strength that he no longer possesses.

Lance, encouraged by this reaction, senses his next opening and seizes it. He points to a vaguely mammal-shaped creature paddling its way down the surface of a nearby stream, and shouts, jubilant, “Grand Theft Otter!”  

Keith, whose resolve has been chipped away at over the last forty minutes, crumples against his tree in a fit of snickers.

“Fool!” Lance crows in delight, snapping endless photos, one after the other. The shutter of his handheld’s camera is loud in the forest. It travels their little grove like an insect’s hissing. “That one didn’t even make sense!”

Keith squeezes his watery eyes shut and laughs all the harder, clutching helplessly at his stomach.

To his chagrin, Lance ends up setting one of the photos from this batch as his handheld’s lockscreen wallpaper. He flashes the screen at Keith in passing, waving it above his head in smug triumph with the long, tree branch-reach of his arm, as if to say, I won and I bet you wish I hadn’t, and Keith glimpses himself in over-sharp, intensely hued reverse—he, leaned up against a dead tree in a boneless heap, his head thrown back, mouth open on a peal of soundless laughter.

He thinks: Lance made me look like that, then feels his face tingle with heat at the thought of the boy flicking his handheld on in the dead of night, in the heart of a crowd a mile deep, in front of Allura, or Hunk, and seeing Keith’s laughing face displayed behind the time. A constant, casual reminder.

Keith’s always thought he looked strange caught in the thick of a laugh. Like his mouth is trying to make sense of a foreign language, lips struggling against new and unfamiliar rules of grammar. Here, he only thinks that he seems to have melted naturally into his surroundings, the stone ruins beneath a blanket of moss, and that he has not gone unseen.

“You should smile more, you know,” Lance says just then, apropos of nothing. He angles his handheld different, studies his new wallpaper for a beat with a look Keith can’t decode, then pockets it. “It changes your whole face. You might not scare off the whole galaxy that way.”

“I like my face how it is, thanks,” Keith snaps. He crosses his arms over his chest just to have something to do with them, feeling stupid.

“It’s a nice face,” Lance agrees, casual, and he stuffs his loose hands inside his jacket pockets, picking up the pace until he’s given Keith his back.

Lance doesn’t wait for a response to this, just starts up a new whistle, this one bright and inoffensive.

• • •

The meadows are a Technicolor tsunami.

They collect dame dollops, nightkills and daybreaths, Noeg mint, wild flustra, bloodshoots, and myriad herbs and alien succulents Keith has no hope of ever pronouncing correctly. He stoops in the dirt, Dexom’s sun beating down on him from above, and demonstrates the correct bend of the hand, feeling silly, his shoulder pressed warmly against Lance’s armor.

Aloud, he says, “We should probably be soaking these before digging them up.” He clears his throat. “That’s how I was taught, anyway.”

“Right,” Lance agrees, watching Keith’s bare hands work at the soil with rapt attention. Keith’s fingerless gloves sit off to the side, for the moment discarded. “To keep the plants hydrated, right?”

“Right,” Keith says. He wipes at his sweaty brow with his wrist, then dives back in with either hand. “So, you should try to keep the rootball in tact with most of this stuff, I think. Most plants need to be transplanted with their soul—soil, I mean. Sorry. That’s just what he...my dad...always used to call it.”

“Oh, hang on, I just remembered...Hunk had me bring along a bunch of supplies for all this,” Lance says, removing from his shoulders an overstuffed black backpack. He begins emptying it of its contents, arranging a series of tiny, pot-shaped containers at Keith’s knees. Then he inhales deeply, like he’s steeling himself, and goes, “Your dad...is he...I mean…”

“He died when I was pretty young, yeah,” Keith says, swallowing hard. He accepts the water bottle Lance offers him without looking up from his work, uncapping it with his teeth and soaking the soil in front of him. “Thanks. The water makes everything a lot easier.”

“I’m sorry,” Lance says, hands dropping into his lap. He fiddles with his fingers for a moment, blue eyes downcast. “I mean...I can’t even imagine what that’d be like. And I used to think divorce was the end of my whole world...”

Keith nods mutely, fingers working at loosening the soil surrounding a cluster of nightkills, whose sealed petals are a vivid pattern of white-black.

Nightkill, when its anthers are isolated and liquefied, becomes a powerful and untraceable poison able to wipe out whole armies at a time, Keith remembers reading off of Coran’s datapad this morning. When combined with its much rarer sister-plant daybreath, the twoknown, once fused together, as nightbreath—turn into one of the most effective treatments for laserfire burns and Galra contagions. Daybreath also remains, to this day, the only known cure for nightkill poison. As such, most of daybreath’s kind has been destroyed over the last 10,000 years by Zarkon’s empire, while its sister-plant nightkill continues to serve as a well-cultured poison in most Galra military circles (commonly spread through blade-to-blood contact). Noeg’s version of daybreath—fiercely handled and guarded by the Dexom delegation—is one of the last surviving species, and the universe’s oldest known plant.

Lance murmurs, “What was he like?” into the quiet, then goes beet red, catching himself belatedly. “Shit. Sorry. That’s so—insensitive—I’m—you don’t have to answer that—sorry—”

Keith shrugs and his mouth lifts on one side, involuntary. He gives Lance a look that he hopes conveys exactly how unhurt he feels by this question. “He was...he wasn’t perfect, but he was…” Mine, he thinks, with a stab of retroactive possessiveness. Too little, much too late. “He was all I had for a long time. And I—I loved him, don’t get me wrong. I just...I got the feeling, sometimes...that he didn’t know how to be a dad. Or what to do with me. Not that he was walking on eggshells around me or anything like that, but like...like I confused him. And maybe that’s because I’m part-Galra, I don’t know…”

“It’s like that with a lot of parents, I think, especially when they’re raising you alone,” Lance offers. He holds a pot up for Keith to relocate the nightkills into. “Guesswork, I mean. Especially with kid number one. It’s like taking care of your first puppy, times ten billion. That’s how my dad described it. Hard, but worth it in the end. But your dad...if he took the time to show you how to...how to transplant flowers...he must’ve loved you a lot, Keith.”

Keith feels his eyes go wet and blinks the moisture away. A single stubborn tear leaks free, pearls on the petals of one of his nightkills. He sets them inside the pot, heaping soil in, patting it flat, not looking at Lance all the while. “We were always going on hikes when I was a kid. The outdoors...I think he understood that. He...he was different, whenever he was surrounded by trees.”

He doesn’t know why he’s rehashing the better parts of his childhood for one of his former teammates, only knows that something bodily is occurring within him. The forced loosening of a tongue. He thinks he’d like to be the kind of boy who can impart family secrets to his friends without flinching first, and see them returned, an exchange of memories. He thinks he’d like to let Lance look inside him every once in a while. To desire, and be desired back.

He wants, badly, to be for Lance what Lance is fast becoming for Keith.

It seems an impossible leap, but Keith decides to try in spite of this. He thinks briefly of Iverson sitting him down in his cluttered little office when the day of Keith’s reckoning had finally arrived. How Iverson had leaned back in his chair, arms folded over his paunch, and just looked at Keith with his one working eye—the one Keith hadn’t gotten the chance to hit before the Garrison guards swarmed, like large, grey-suited beetles.

“You know, I see myself in you, kid,” he’d said, which made Keith snort. “A different me, from another lifetime. That’s how I know removal from my institution is the only thing that’ll stop you in your tracks.”

Keith sat unmoving in his chair, a mass of unspeakable rage, and thought: I’ll level your institution to dust before I let you stop me in my tracks. Thought, growing calm: nothing has stopped me so far. Thought: I know my way around the world’s lack of faith.

Now, Keith looks down at Lance’s brown hands and says, “There was this...there was this woodsy area in Texas that we liked to visit, the two of us...and flowers were always sprouting up out of nowhere, all over the place. No one knew who was doing all the planting. My dad called them the Invisible Gardener, and we’d go hunting for them sometimes, with binoculars and walkie-talkies.”

“Ah, and thus, Keith the conspiracy theorist was born,” Lance guesses, sage.

But as he says it, Lance wears the look of some primordial stargazer on his face, after having just discovered the existence of a new planet—completely captivated—and it’s remarkable, and wondrous, and entirely arresting. It disarms Keith at once. He thinks he’d resurrect a hundred half-dead secrets just to prolong it. Just to make it last even a second longer.

Instead, he looks away and rolls his eyes, playing at annoyance. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist. The one theory that I followed turned out to be true and look where that got us.”

Lance bumps shoulders with Keith. He says, “Brought us right here. You ever think about that? Hard not to believe in the magic of Voltron, or the universe, even, when you do. Like, what are the odds that I just so happened to be where you were that night, back on Earth, near the site of those bombs you set off right as you set them off? That I recognized and went after you? I’m not much for conspiracies myself, but the invisible hands of fate...shoving us together so we could find each other and—and make something out of nothing...that, I think I do believe in.” A pregnant pause. And then: “We would have found each other eventually, though, I think. No matter what, I mean. I always got the feeling I was supposed to know you.”

For a moment, Keith says nothing. He is frozen on the cusp of something dangerously forbidden, ashamed at how much he likes the sound of that—this collection of words, arranged just so.

I recognized and went after you.

We would have found each other eventually.

I was supposed to know you.

You ever think about that?

Keith digs his fingers in deeper, harder, savage, flesh to soil, skin to soul, inches away from an unmade poison that has been used for eons to bring down entire armies, even knowing those same fingers will come away muddy, wet with grime. That’s war, he thinks, and says, out loud, “Sometimes,” when really he means, always, and tries not to sound as drunk on pleasure, and bewilderment, and fright, as he feels in this moment.

• • •

In a spill of late afternoon light, Lance unpacks their lunch—thick slices of cheese made from the curds of Kaltenecker’s milk, crackers roughened by low quality grain, a few oddly-colored fruits filched from old alien banquets.

Keith leans his weight against either elbow, face tilted up to Noeg’s sun. He pushes his damp bangs away from his forehead and appraises their handiwork out of the corner of his eye—neat rows of potted plants resting in the shade of a nearby copse of trees, well within their allotted margin, ready for transportation. The sight brings a momentary calm over him.

Beside him, Lance lies back in the grass, his upper body armor long ago removed. The sight of his dark undersuit sans chestplate draws Keith’s curious eye and for a moment he has to fight his way through a bout of retrospective embarrassment, remembering the way he’d shown up to Lance’s lion without any armor yesterday morning. He thinks: if I looked anything like that…, and then forbids himself from finishing the thought, his eyes glued to the lean muscles of Lance’s abdomen, his sinewy shoulders and biceps, showing through the thin black material.

Lance, cheerfully oblivious, peels the skin from a round, rose-colored fruit, one leg crossed over the other, his foot jiggling restlessly. He hums something quiet under his breath, head cocked at an angle. A daybreath flower sits tucked behind his left ear. Earlier, when he’d plucked it up and moved to slide it into the tufts of hair that grow down his temples, Keith had sent him a short look of disapproval, to which Lance said, affecting innocence, “What? They won’t miss one tiny flower.”

“It’s their rarest and oldest surviving species, Lance,” Keith had said, unimpressed.

“Yeah,” Lance shot back, “and it brings out the blue in my eyes, so I’m sure the Dexom delegation will understand my motives of thievery. Besides, we’re still well within our margin. Oh, don’t look at me like that, you little killjoy, I’m pretty sure you stole your fair share of government-owned property back on Earth.”

“That—that’s totally different!” Keith sputtered. "I was trying to uncover the truths of the universe."

Lance smirked and picked a second daybreath flower from a bloom nearby. He gave it an elaborate sniff, then stuck it behind Keith’s right ear with a flourish. “Smells the same,” he said brightly. “That makes two thieves, Kogane. You are now an accomplice to my crime of flower burglary. Should you ever find yourself poisoned by nightkill, however...I think you’ll have reason enough to thank me.”

Keith scowled, touching the pads of his fingers to the flower caught in his hair. It was a deep yellow in hue, brilliantly eye-burning where its sister was a cool flood of color, and tinged turquoise at the tips. He touches the flower idly now, wonderingly, thinking that it’s strange to have such a universally-desired antidote resting just above his right earlobe.

Next to him, Lance finishes peeling the last of his fruit’s thick skin, tossing a final piece into his compost pile. He digs both thumbs down the meat’s middle. The fruit splits in two with a fine spray of citrus juice. Lance licks at this, where it’s now running down his fingers, with renewed enthusiasm.

Keith looks away, face growing warm, and folds either arm behind his head, lying flat on his back. He counts each of his breaths as they pass through him.

From his peripheral, Lance offers him a wedge of blue fruit. He says, out of nowhere, “Have you given any more thought to coming back to the team?”

Keith freezes, his hand outstretched towards the wedge in question. His fingers twitch in want. He watches in silence as Lance’s throat works to swallow down his first bite with a quiet noise of pleasure.

When Keith makes no move to take the fruit himself, Lance drops the proffered slice into Keith’s open palm. He continues on, licking his sticky lips, saying, “I’m not saying we desperately need you or we’ll die, dude. I won’t put that on you, because I don’t want Team Voltron to be...you know...just another mission you feel like you have to cross off some bigger checklist. Not saying that’s what’s happening with the Marmorites. Just...from my end of things, that’s how it feels. Um.”

Keith stares down at the pitiful slice of fruit lying wetly in his gloved palm. His appetite seems to have fled him. He sets the slice off to the side in sudden disinterest, carefully wiping his glove off on his stretchy pants.

“But maybe,” says Lance, after spitting a seed out into the grass, “consider what you need once in a while. And I’m not talking about...about...like, your base desires, I guess, or your...your sense of duty, the way you feel obligated to the cause, or the universe, or...or, hell, even us. I mean...what does your body tell you it needs? At night? When you’re not in the middle of a recon mission or a knife-fight? What do you really need? What’ll make you happy? What won’t?”

Keith looks fixedly at Noeg’s sun, until his eyes are watering and he has to blink them closed. He keeps his mouth locked shut on a flood of aborted confessions. Part of him wants to scream, I don’t know! And if I did, I’d probably never tell you. Another part thinks he’s divulged enough secrets for one day.

But Lance, as it happens, seems to disagree. He says, made low and imploring: “What do you need from me, Keith?”

Keith’s eyes crack open. He slants Lance a look and finds him staring up at Noeg’s sun, like he’s Keith’s reflection, or summer antithesis. The silence he leaves Keith seems willing to wait for his answer. Like Lance thinks Keith will need time to think on it, now that the question has been reframed, made more narrow—what do you need from me? as opposed to a simple, what do you need?

Keith doesn’t need time.

He doesn’t look at Lance when he says, “This. Just this.”

It’s almost a whisper. A passerby, should they pass them by, if there existed another person on this planet at this moment in history, might mistake it for a hiss of the wind. A field of tall grasses caught in a quiet dance. The scuttle of an alien woodland creature, dashing underfoot. Keith hopes Lance hears it for what it is; is almost tempted to repeat it, louder, just to ensure this.

“Okay,” Lance says softly, still watching the sun’s watercolor descent. “I can do that.”

Keith crosses his arms over his chest, feeling restless, until he’s squeezing his lungs breathless.

Lance’s head lolls in the grass and Keith can feel his blue eyes on him, traveling his length where it’s stretched out in a rigid sprawl. “So,” he says, conversationally, and it sounds like he’s smiling one of his playfully arrogant smiles. “Guess that makes me and you friends now. Officially. Should we put it in writing, just in case? Write out our terms and conditions? Sign our names on the dotted line below?”

All of a sudden, Keith can’t get the words out fast enough. He spits: “I don’t want you to be my friend out of some misplaced sense of duty, either. I don’t need you to protect me, Lance. I’ve been getting along on my own just fine until now. So if this is some—some pity gesture, I don’t fucking want it.”

Lance sits up abruptly, the smile gone from his face. His green jacket slides slowly down his shoulders, where he'd been wearing it across his back like a makeshift cloak, as though it too has been mortally offended by Keith's words. Lance grabs at the green fabric, pulls it back up and slides his arms through the sleeves over his undersuit, and he quickly adjusts the daybreath flower in his hair, checking that it's survived the turbulence. He looks shaky with shock.

"Dude," he says. His brow is stricken. "How can you even—insinuate that?”

“You’ve never liked me,” Keith says hotly. He still refuses to look Lance in the eye. “Not till I almost sacrificed myself against the shields of some Galra warship. Look, I’m not stupid, so don’t treat me like I am. I...I won’t be mad. Just—tell me the truth, and we can go back to being rivals, or whatever.”

“Keith,” Lance says, or murmurs, really, the word rough and dulcet-warm coming out of his mouth. He says it like a psalm. Then he’s inhaling deeply, staring down at his hands where they’re dyed blue with fruit juice, and saying, “What if I don’t...want to go back?”

Keith frowns at a wisp of clouds overhead, trying to parse this, to no avail. Lance’s words are always impossible to unpack, covered in unnecessary layers of silk and tissue paper and ribbon. Keith feels like he could spend whole lifetimes trying to dissect them. “What?”

“Like I said...logically, I know Voltron doesn’t need you anymore. I mean...we’re...we’re doing just fine without you, I think. We haven’t suffered some huge...I don’t know, strategic loss? No offense. But what if.” Lance chews his lip a moment, like he’s considering the weight of his next words. He looks over at Keith, lashes fluttering uncertainly, eyes darting every which way. “What if I want you back? Not Keith the red paladin, or Keith the black paladin—though they’re great, and I'd be happy to welcome them back, don’t get me wrong. Just...just Keith. Just you, like this?”

“Like...this…” Keith says dubiously. He plants his elbows in the grass, half-sitting up in a confused daze.

“Yeah,” Lance murmurs, as though he’s scared to rupture the moment by pitching his voice any louder. He picks thoughtlessly at a few locks of grass, then leans forward to rub a thumb against the toe of Keith’s boot in a back-and-forth motion that lasts three seconds total. The gesture is awkward. Charming. Maybe a little heart-stopping. “I guess I missed you like this.”

Keith sits up fully and turns to stare at Lance, for a moment forgetting himself. “Like this,” he repeats stupidly, his pulse climbing.

“You and your dumb go-go boots,” Lance says, smiling crookedly. His freckles are showing like whole star systems now, after hours under the sun. Unmapped galaxies, or something. “And your leather jacket—I missed that, too. The luxite knife always strapped to your hip. Oh, and of course, the fanny pack that doubles as a belt. Very stylish of you.”

“It was my dad’s,” Keith mutters, his face hot. “And it’s...sensible.”

Lance’s smile goes soft in the middle, and sort of exasperated too, three different kinds of fond at once, stacked one on top of the other, and Keith has no idea what to do with his hands. He’s sure his eyes are the size of saucers.

Lance says, “I just meant...I like this Keith. You, I like. So...it’s not a pity gesture.”

“Oh,” Keith whispers, and he rubs his sweaty fingers off in the grass, looking down at his knees in a startled silence.

“Maybe your little stunt with the shields made me...I guess...realize I’d been taking your friendship for granted. But I promise you, buddy, I’m not doing this...trying to...um, be friends with you—like, real friends, and not the shitty half-rival, half-bro kind—out of pity. I don’t pity you, Keith. I don’t think I’m capable of that, come to think of it. With you, that is. I’m doing this because…” Lance clears his throat. “Well, I care about you, obviously. And like I said, I like you and want to be your friend.”

“Oh,” Keith repeats.

“Is that…” Lance licks his lips and fools around with the zipper of his jacket a moment. “Um. Is that okay with you? I mean, do you...want to be friends with me too? Pity not included?”

“Yes,” Keith says, without missing a beat. His face flushes impossibly hotter.

“Oh,” Lance whispers, eyes big.

“Yeah,” Keith whispers back, and they stare at each other in a wide-eyed wonder that seems to stretch insurmountable distances, and a feeling like armed struggle settles in Keith’s stomach, only softer. Panic, maybe. Determination, perhaps. The knowledge that he’s hurtling to the ground at alarming speeds, and being okay with it. Seeing Blue in his peripheral, her jaw firmed, eyes trained on the sand below, and Keith wants to keep nose-diving alongside Lance, over and over and over, his stomach swooping in excited fascination each and every time, till they’re both breathless with want, and laughing too.

So that’s what they do just then, after they’ve held eye contact for ages or eons or nanoseconds. Lance is the first to crack, huffing a tiny breath through his nose, mouth curling imperceptibly, and then Keith follows him over the edge, helpless against the urge to chase, helpless against the way his eyes track Lance’s every movement, and it’s the best kind of hope.

It’s something Keith’s been afraid to feel for so long.

In a helter-skelter sense of bodiless self-awareness, or maybe a distinct lack thereof, he sees his own hand reaching out for Lance, in a hundred different realities, gloved and gloveless, knuckles bloody and bruised, scarred and unscathed, nails uncut and painted, over and over again.

He thinks: he’ll never stop reaching for Lance, for as long as he lives.

Or as long as Lance lets him.

And the way Lance is looking at him in this moment, Keith thinks he’ll let him.

“So, you don’t have to leave the Blade right this second,” Lance says, finally. “But when—if—you ever, um. Want to come back. We’ll be here waiting for you.”

“I...I don’t think I’m ready to leave yet. There’s still too much I don’t know,” Keith says, then hurries to add: “But, um, maybe with enough time, I will be.”

At this, Lance smiles, just a slight lift of the mouth on one side, and settles into the grass again. He sticks a slice of cheese in his mouth and folds his arms behind his head, chewing soundly. “Whenever you’re ready, buddy,” he says through his mouthful. He swallows. “We’re never not gonna want you back, so just. Take all the time you need. And in the meantime, you have this.”

Keith looks Lance over with the air of a sleepless soldier just offered respite, and repeats, with conviction, “This.”

Chapter Text

This.

There are no set rules, Keith eventually learns. It’s a make-it-up-as-you-go-along game. A study in spontaneity. Sometimes you stumble, or misstep altogether, and there’s a hand there to catch you in an instant. At your shoulder, or hip, because Lance is tactile to a fault, needs to touch the things he owns and loves always, to confirm that they’re there and real and not slipping soundlessly through his fingers.

It’s like the piece of butcher paper taped to the ceiling of his bunk, Keith comes to realize. The way Lance will roll over onto his back before he falls asleep, each time and without fail, touch the pads of his index and middle fingers to his lips, and then to the two tiny stars that mark Varadero and Havana on his hand drawn map of Cuba.

Sometimes, when Keith is nodding off next to him in the half-dark, he imagines Lance whispering up at the map. You’re real and you’re mine, to the two cities and his waiting family. His fingerprints pressed, invisible, to the land mass he comes from.

And that’s just a perfect line of thinking, Keith marvels sarcastically, the next time Lance touches him in passing. Letting himself believe he’s one of Lance’s prized possessions, or people. That Lance might, in some absurd or half-realized sense, love him.

Against Keith’s better judgment, it starts happening every time Lance touches him.

When Lance is trying to get by in the kitchen on one of Team Voltron’s busier mornings, how he’ll slide past Keith over all the ruckus and disarray, momentarily lay a palm to Keith’s hip in apology, then remove it just as quickly, snagging the seasoning or Altean cutlery he’d been searching out, and Keith will look up in surprise, a frisson of heat slowly evaporating from the place where Lance’s fingers had just been.

Keith can never resist looking up.

Lance sniffs at his hair sometimes, picking up an inky tendril and rubbing it under his nose, and he makes obnoxious comments about the soaps offered back at BOM HQ. “This Head and Soldiers shampoo is really doing wonders for your hair, Kogane,” he’ll joke, pressing his nose to Keith’s scalp, then grinning when that earns him a set of rolled eyes. Other times, he tugs softly on the overgrown hair at Keith’s nape to get his attention. He hauls Keith places by the thin bones of his wrists, gathering them gently to his chest like a bouquet of flowers, leading Keith into a new room in a backwards march when he’s lost in a tangent and trying to get Keith’s tie-breaking opinion on something, making a case for himself over Hunk and Pidge’s shouting.

Keith’s favorite is how, every once in a while, Lance will lean into his space with precarious uncaring, like a wilting sunflower, rest his pointy chin on Keith’s shoulder. How he always drawls, “Whatcha up to, tiny?” and how it stirs up all the hair at Keith’s temples, raises an invisible path of goosebumps along Keith’s arms.

And every time, the imagined whisper rises to the forefront of Keith’s mind. Lance’s fingers in his hair, at his wrist, an arm wrapped tight around his shoulders. Keith hears Lance’s woozy, dreamed-up whisper. You’re real and you’re mine. Then Keith’s face warms and he makes himself stop. He is not one of Lance’s little cities. He’s not even Lance’s family.

He’s just an old rival, former teammate, maybe friend.

• • •

Much of the touching that goes on between the two of them ends up being accidental and is reserved almost exclusively for their brand new joint nap sessions.

The first time it happens, maybe during week two or three—the both of them splitting Lance’s bunk, that is—Keith has just come off a grueling seven hour surveillance mission, is more than a little fashionably late to their informal weekend arrangement, and he can barely keep his eyes open long enough to fire off a response to Lance’s six hour-old plain-text transmission.

Done. Home, Keith sends, through heavy eyelids.

Lance sends back a terse, Omw (on my way), seconds later, like he’s been waiting up for Keith or something, and that makes Keith’s head spin so he shuts his handheld off and drowses beneath the sunshade door of one of Kolivan’s airliners as he waits for Lance in the lower levels, and then again once he’s inside Red and propped up against her rear wall, and then what seems like minutes later they’re docking on the castleship.

Lance slides out of his seat upfront and makes a beeline for Keith. He's got a look on his face like he means business and when he reaches Keith, he spins on his foot and crouches low to the floor, offering up his wide-shouldered back.

Keith blinks down at him with some difficulty.

“C’mon, Kogane, don’t make this harder than it needs to be,” says Lance. He turns his head a fraction, trains a single blue eye on Keith, intent. “I’ll throw you over a shoulder if I have to.”

Oh, Keith thinks, as understanding spreads slowly through him. He unfolds himself from the wall of Red’s skull and droops forward in reluctant submission. Lance’s back is maybe the softest landing pad Keith has ever touched down on. Contented, Keith wraps either arm around Lance’s neck. He tries to lift a leg to complete the embrace, then thinks better of it, realizing he doesn’t have it in him.

“‘M too tired to use legs,” he says, and yawns hugely into Lance’s neck. “You make a good bed.”

Lance snorts. “S’okay. I’ve got you.” He pushes to his feet with ease and curls two warm palms under Keith’s armor-clad thighs, hoisting him a little higher, and that feels so effortlessly, dreamily good that Keith almost drops off right then and there.

Instead, he rubs his face into Lance’s neck, trying to get comfortable.

Lance slows at Red’s ramp, as though his engine has stalled or he’s caught sight of something startling. He stops entirely when Keith continues his shameless neck-rubbing. With what seems to be extreme deliberation, he asks, “Keith...buddy...what are you doing...?”

Keith groans in frustration and tries to angle his head different, rubbing it weakly against Lance’s throat. “My head itches,” he says through closed eyes.

“Oh my God,” says Lance’s disembodied voice and then they’re moving again. Lance’s gait is as smooth as spring water, like he’s got rivers for feet, which makes Keith laugh quietly to himself. He’s barely jostled the whole way to Lance’s waiting bedroom. “You are like a goddamn cat, you know that?”

“Meow,” Keith says, deadpan, because he’s got enough of his mental faculties left to offer Lance a little bit of his usual bite. Then, with more force: “Lance. Itches.”

Lance laughs under his breath, removes a hand from one of Keith’s thighs—Keith’s thigh mourns the loss in resigned silence—and reaches back, feeling along Keith’s scalp. He rakes his nails around for several seconds, searching. “Here?”

“Higher.”

Lance moves his hand higher.

“To the left a little.”

His hand veers left, then presses down, itching with enthusiasm.

“Mmmm.” Keith sighs happily and snuggles closer. “Good. Thanks.”

He doesn’t register Lance’s response to this, nor does he care to hear it, too far gone. In fact, he doesn’t register all that much in the way of outside stimuli until they’ve passed noiselessly through Lance’s metal doors. Lance leaves the lights off, lets the glow of his emergency bulbs guide him, and deposits Keith at his bed, on top of his warm, cinnamon-smelling Voltron quilt. Keith buries his face in it, quietly pleased.

Seconds later, Lance is lobbing a pillow at Keith’s head with great force.

“Hey,” Lance hisses. “Are you hearing me, you little feline demon?”

Keith rolls over onto his back and feels around for the offending pillow. Upon finding it, he hugs the thing to his chest, then sticks his tongue out, eyes still glued shut.

“Give me your foot or feel my wrath,” Lance whispers. “No shoes on my bed, you heathen! Who raised you?”

Keith sticks a leg in the air without comment and waits.

Lance immediately takes his ankle in hand and that annoys Keith immensely, even though his sleep-addled brain had been expecting it. Lance’s touch just feels so good. It’s always sanctuary, or reprieve, or burning. Sometimes all three, simultaneously. A flare of heat licks up Keith’s calf, kindled by Lance’s fingers.

“Hell,” Keith mutters. Even when he’s on the edge of goddamn unconsciousness. Good to know.

“What?” Lance mutters back.

“Nothing.”

Unaware of the internal struggle currently plaguing his new bedmate, Lance rests the sole of Keith’s boot against his stomach and works for a moment on its various and cleverly-hidden buckles and zips. “God,” he says, “I’m getting tired just looking at you.”

“Do something about it then,” Keith says, eyes still closed. He tries to say it with challenge, but it mostly just comes out imploring. Nap with me or else, he imagines saying to Lance, knife raised threateningly, then laughs sleepily to himself at the mental image.

“Shut up, I’m gonna,” Lance retorts, dropping Keith’s newly-bared foot to his bed, where it bounces uselessly before stilling. He moves quickly onto the other, his fingers mapping out a now familiar path to freedom. Keith hears a second boot clatter to the floor moments later and then his armor is being unstrapped and shucked off. “Do you take me for a coward? I’ll nap you into oblivion, you little jerk. I’ll out-nap you in every category. My napping abilities far exceed yours. Just you wait till my head hits that pillow. It’s gonna be lights out for the both of us, myself especially.”

Keith smirks, relishing the feel of Lance’s fingers at his thighs, and chest, and biceps, stripping him of his Blade-issued plates and coverings. “Mhmmm.”

Another pillow hits him in the face.

“Mkay. Guess I deserved that.”

Lance chuckles, his touch disappearing. There is the sound of movement from Keith’s right, maybe Lance working on his own shoes or clothing, Keith’s not entirely sure. He’s too tired to check, and upon further contemplation, he realizes that accidentally opening his eyes to a shirtless and/or pantsless Lance is not only an exceptionally mortifying thought, but perhaps his worst nightmare. A personal hell, to be sure.

Keith squeezes his eyes more tightly closed and settles in for the long haul, waiting for the warmth of Lance’s body to hit the mattress with growing impatience. He wiggles his toes against the open air of the bedroom, whose thermostat is clearly set to cool.

“Feet are cold,” Keith complains, just to hurry Lance along. Temperatures at the Blade of Marmora’s base typically run far lower than this. “Lance, I’m already out-napping you.”

“You’re literally lying on top of a blanket, I hope you know that,” comes Lance’s amused response over the sound of fabric stirring.

“You say that like I’m currently capable of fine motor skills,” Keith says.

A laugh. Silence, then the soft sound of footsteps, like bare feet padding across the floor. A rustle. The mattress emits a weak bleat—under the weight of one of Lance’s knees, Keith thinks.

“Look at you,” Lance says, closer now. “Our generation’s most gifted pilot, reduced to a boneless puddle in my bed. Were I a lesser boy, Keith, I’d use this moment to tickle you unawares and make off with your former lion. You’re lucky I’m such a gentleman and not some slimy scoundrel like Lotor. Lotor, were he in my shoes, would definitely use this moment to tickle you to death and steal Red.”

Keith says, “Do that and I’ll stab you in the eye.”

“Nice try,” responds Lance, “but I removed your knife before we’d even docked.”

“Oh. Fuck,” Keith says. He pats uselessly at his hip, and, finding his scabbard pathetically empty, curses himself. With a defeated huff, he unbuckles it and tosses it away. He hears it skid across the floor, then still. “How the hell…”

Lance snorts and leans a little more of his weight onto the mattress, like he’s settling to roost in slow fractions. Like he’s the most sluggish avian creature in the universe.

Keith is almost afraid to open his eyes now. He fists the quilt beneath him tighter, eyelids twitching, says, “Um.”

“Relax, flyboy,” says Lance. The mattress groans louder and there. That’s Lance’s weight beside Keith, fully distributed. Sprawled flat against the bed. Keith’s pulse pitter-patters loudly in his head, his brain coming alive again at once. “It was mostly a precautionary measure,” Lance goes on. “Just in case you collapsed in exhaustion and accidentally ended up impaling yourself on it. I’m so not getting stuck with your corpse, dude.”

Already unnerved, Keith blurts the first thing that comes to mind, which ends up being, “That’s dark.”

Fuck, he thinks. Why did I have to take things there?

A pause, as Lance reexamines his words. Then: “Shit. Bad joke. I was kidding, I swear. Hey. Keith. Buddy. Open your eyes.”

Keith’s lashes flutter. He peers out into the darkness with uncertainty, his eyes hastening to adjust to all the new black space. Slowly, Lance’s face sharpens into focus. His eyes are the first thing Keith registers and by far the most radiant. They swallow and spew the dull bloom of blue light from Lance’s nightlights, throwing the glow back at Keith. And after that: the bright white of his teeth.

Keith feels his breath come faster and shuts his mouth tight to quiet the sound.

“I was just joking,” Lance whispers. He’s lying on his side, facing Keith full-on. The dark waves of his hair are loose along his pillow, some stuck to the side of his face, his temples. One curl slides slowly down his forehead, falls like flower petals into Lance’s right eye. Keith itches to remove it. “You know that, right? Your life...I mean, obviously. It matters. To me. A lot.”

“Right,” Keith whispers back, feeling overwhelmed.

“Good,” Lance says, getting comfortable. “I really don’t need anyone else doubting me right now. Can you lift up for a sec, so I can get to the blanket? Thanks.” Lance gives his quilt a quiet whip once it’s free, and together they watch it ripple, temporarily airborne, before settling softly over their bodies.

Silence.

“What do you mean by that?” Keith finally whispers. “Who’s doubting you?”

For a moment, Lance looks like a little kid whose hand has ended up stuck down the mouth of a cookie-jar at an inopportune moment. He averts his eyes, spends a few seconds punching his pillow perfect, clearly stalling. Then he mumbles, "No one." 

“Lance,” Keith says.

He wishes Red were here with them now, he thinks, a little ludicrously. To act as their mediator. To make the message he wants to send Lance kinder, more clear. Like a mother’s hands against clay, guiding her child’s clumsier ones. You are not without solidarity, Keith imagines her saying inside of Lance’s head. The Red one would like you to let go. He does not want you to feel ashamed.

Let me see, Keith wants to say. Or plead, really. Let me look inside you. Let me help you.

Instead, he whispers: “Please.”

A word befitting a boy like Lance, Keith thinks. The kind he’d cross moon-craters to take apart, travel light-years to understand, but fears he never will regardless.

“It’s nothing,” Lance insists with a sigh. “Just...Shiro’s been a little weird lately.”

Keith sits up immediately. “Weird, how?”

“Shh,” Lance says, tugging Keith back down. “Lower your voice! And calm down. I told you, it’s nothing. Probably just the stress of dealing with Lotor, and the Galra throne, and everything else. I—look, I don’t know. He’s just...he’s been cranky lately. That’s all. With everyone, honestly, so it’s not even like I have a right to feel so...so...look, it doesn’t even matter, Keith. Let’s just get this nap over with, okay?”

Keith makes to sit up again. He swats at one of Lance’s more resistant hands and catches the other mid-flutter. Annoyed, he presses this one flat against the mattress, right between their bodies—Keith’s hand on top of Lance’s, their fingers an angry tangle. By the time Keith realizes what he’s done, the irritation has fled him and it’s just the two of them. Blinking owlishly in the dark, bodies angled near and together, holding hands.

Keith swallows. He says, “It matters. To me, Lance. A lot.” An echo of Lance’s earlier affirmation. “Tell me.”

Lance stares at their hands, his throat working. “He...um, he just yelled at me.”

Keith squeezes Lance’s hand, vice-like, as though to say: I’m here. Feel me. Show me. “What did he say?" Keith probes. “Verbatim.”

Lance won’t look at Keith. His bottom lip wobbles and he bites at it till the skin has gone white. With fear, and shame, Keith realizes, grasping the fabric bunched at his knee by the furious fistful. “‘I told you to stay out of this.’ I—it’s stupid, I know. It’s just...I was trying to break things up before he and Allura could bite each other's heads off. I thought maybe...but...I don't know. I should probably just stay out of things from now on."

'Staying out of things' is so far removed from the Venn diagram of Lance Personality Traits VS The Disposition of a Golden Retriever Puppy that it doesn't even belong on the same page. The idea of it—of Lance training himself into staying out of things that don't concern him—briefly stumps Keith.

Then it makes him very, very angry.

His brow knits and he feels momentarily choked by an unfathomable rage.

He recognizes the ugly coil inside of himself as that feeling that gathered in his fist before he pulled it back and launched it at Iverson’s face back on Earth, when he’d been refused answers on Shiro’s whereabouts. That feeling he channeled when he used to scrap in the schoolyard because he had nothing better to do and felt wronged by the world. That feeling he exhaled in Red’s cockpit, each time and without fail, as he set his sights on his newest target.

Rage is no new feeling to Keith, but this brand...it’s different than any he’s felt before. This rage is a knot. It’s all snarled up with everything else he feels for Lance, all the soft, ardent fires burning inside his chest, the ones he can’t snuff out.

This rage is better, and worse, for the way it breathes, two-headed. How it’s a dual-urge. A double-edged blade. To hit something and to take Lance into his arms, to mouth at his brow till it unfurls, goes smooth and happy again.

Keith wades through it, strong-arming the reflex for aggression until it’s gone completely out of him. He says, “No. It’s not stupid. What else?”

“Nothing,” Lance whispers. He uses his free hand to rub at his eyes, head lowered in humiliation. “It doesn’t even matter, I told you. It was just the one thing. Except…” A hitch in breath and a swallowed sob. “...It’s also...everything else. Allura and Lotor, they can’t get enough of each other, and no one even seems that concerned about it. I want her safe, I swear, but there’s no way she’ll hear me out over Lotor anymore. It’s like he’s got her under his spell or something.

“She and Shiro...they actually listen to him, like...you’d think he was a Paladin of Voltron or something...and I wish I could take some of his anger sometimes...Shiro’s, I mean. I want to help him, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t figure out how. Hunk and Pidge...they’re closer than ever, Matt’s still way cooler and more useful than me, and I know it’s no one’s fault, but I miss my family, Keith. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. So much that it feels like I’m dying from the inside-out...even saying their names out loud...hurts...and it’s like...sometimes...like I...I—I’m…”

Keith swallows past the lump rising in his throat and whispers, "Like you're what?"

“Like I’m all alone,” Lance whispers back. He blinks up at Keith, two twin tears rolling down the apples of his brown cheeks, like they’re racing for the finish line. They disappear beneath the sharp, stubborn jut of his jaw, banished from the fierce blue of his eyes. The way those eyes shimmer, unashamed. The way they scream: look at me. Help me. Understand me. “Like—like I’ll always be alone.”

It’s inappropriate, maybe untimely, but Keith can’t help thinking that Lance is devastatingly handsome, even like this. Even exhausted and weeping, rumpled and sleep-laden. Even when he’s falling gently apart beneath the very palms of Keith’s hands.

“You’re never alone,” Keith says, firm in this. “Sit up for a second.”

Lance wipes belatedly at his face, frowning when his hand comes away wet, then moves to obey. His other hand—still occupied—twitches minutely beneath Keith’s and for a moment it’s the only thing he’ll look at, this dual-layer of flesh. Brown beneath pale, half-bruised knuckles.

“Look at me,” Keith says, taking Lance’s chin in hand. Slowly, he lets his hand travel north, rubs a thumb to the corner of Lance’s eye, gathering up any residual moisture and clearing it away.

Keith allows himself only a second to marvel at the feel of Lance beneath the pad of his finger, soft and halting and hot to the touch. He thinks: Lance has the strongest bones of any of us. He can take a beating twice as hard as anyone else and walk it off just fine. He’ll once in a while come out of a coma with narrow focus, aim a shot at an enemy, then drop unconscious again seconds later. His tolerance for physical pain is inhuman at times.

But here, Keith thinks, thumb stroking, he’s the softest.

And the most fragile. And he wears his cracks beneath his clothes, and crumbles away unbeknownst to anyone else, and he’s letting Keith see.

With reluctance, Lance looks up. He sniffs damply and rubs at his jaw, erasing the evidence of his crying, then catches Keith’s errant hand and drags it down to his lap, like an anchor. Four hands, all tangled up.

“You know I’m not meant for stuff like this,” Keith whispers. “Emotional speeches, I mean.” He stares hard at Lance’s long fingers. Then he begins to touch each callous one-by-one, as though skipping his way down stepping stones. “You do...so much, Lance, I don’t think it even occurs to you because it’s just...in your nature.”

“What do you mean?” Lance whispers.

“I mean...you’re like Voltron’s glue. Without you, the whole thing comes crashing down. No—listen. I mean that. Seriously. Do you even realize how much shit you carry inside yourself? How much isn’t yours? Right here, I mean.” And Keith lets go of one of Lance’s hands to press his palm flush to Lance’s chest, tracking its rhythm as it grows louder and faster and more agitated beneath his fingers. “All that burden. And for what? Because you’re a good person. That’s what.”

Lance’s eyes flit between these two points of contact with reckless abandon, like he can’t reconcile or make sense of them, the palm clutching his and the fingers pressed reverent to the skin spanning the cage of his ribs, and higher, his thumping heart.

“Lance...you...you’ve got two tons of emotional baggage on your shoulders at all times and half of it isn’t even yours. Half of it wasn’t supposed to be yours, but you took it on anyway,” Keith whispers. He thinks a moment, chewing over his next words, then adds: “You’re just as good as any of them. No part of you is useless. And...and if you feel alone, I need you to reach out. I know you shouldn’t have to, but…” Keith feels his lips twitch, wry. “For some of us, you’re a little harder to read.”

“My mom says I’m an open book,” Lance whispers, wide-eyed.

“In a language I’ve never learned,” Keith whispers back.

“Oh,” Lance mumbles, with such aching, honest understanding that Keith wants to press a kiss or two to the corner of his mouth in thanks. “Okay.”

“Yeah,” Keith whispers. He drops his eyes a moment to take back Lance's other hand. “So, listen. Look me in the eye. And tell me what you see?”

After taking a bracing breath of air, Lance trails a look up to Keith's eyes—from shoulders to throat to mouth, and higher. He stop to rest his gaze like a warm afghan along Keith's face. Then he looks his fill, eyes flitting over every inch of Keith's face with greedy concentration. Keith sits through this with the air of a squeamish child receiving a booster shot. He tries his hardest not to squirm.

"A pain in my ass," Lance eventually decides, only it doesn't sound like he means it.

Keith smiles anyway. “Fair,” he says. “But that I’m there...even as pain...that should tell you that you’re not alone in this. You’re never alone in this. Okay? Not while I’m around. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Lance whispers. “You’re saying I shouldn’t invest in ass-numbing Advil?”

Keith drops his head into his hands—except it’s also Lance’s hands, still tangled with his—and laughs, shoulders shaking with the disbelieving force of it. “Fuck,” he chokes. “Why do you make everything ten times harder?”

“Keith…” Lance whispers softly. He peels all the extra fingers away, then tips Keith’s face up, like he means to expose it to moonlight, or winter rain, till they’re nearly nose-to-nose and dangling from the cliff’s edge by the flesh of their fingers. “...that’s what she said,” he breathes.

Keith shoves Lance, hard, the incredulous noise he makes drowned out by Lance’s sudden, uncontrollable guffawing. He says, “Asshole! After I bare my heart to you? This is how you repay me? For my, frankly, five star sermon?”

Lance goes falling, but he takes Keith down with him, and isn’t there a metaphor somewhere in there that Keith never wants to analyze. They hit the pillows with a huff, and Lance is still laughing, the new tears rolling down his cheeks the overwhelmed, breathless-with-hiccups, happy kind, and Keith wants so badly to kiss him, so he doesn’t. He unclenches all his muscles, body going loose, and collapses on top of Lance with all the pleasure of a purring cat, till they’re all wrapped up in one another. There’s no time to go looking for reasons to be embarrassed, no energy left to waste on what does this mean or why are we letting this happen?

Keith settles in against Lance’s chest. He rubs his cold feet up and down Lance’s calves and shins, drags their shared quilt up under his chin, sighing in contentment.

“Blanket hog,” Lance whispers from below him, finally quieting, and the sound travels through Keith like a reverberation where he’s pressed up against Lance, where their skin is separated by only two thin layers of clothing.

“Idiot,” Keith says, with affection.

“Drool on me and you die,” Lance murmurs. He brushes the bangs back from Keith’s forehead with a tender finger or two.

Keith’s eyes flutter shut. “No promises,” he whispers. “My mouth is swimming with saliva tonight.”

“Gross,” Lance says with glee. “You are henceforth banned from my bedroom.”

“Gonna be honest,” says Keith, with a smirk. “You don’t sound too sold on that.”

“Whatever,” Lance whispers. “It’s only because you’re super warm.” A long, guttural yawn. “And soft in all the right places.” A hand dances down Keith’s spine, then back up, aimless. “And kind.” A deep breath in. “And funny.” A deep breath out. “And sort of cute, I guess.”

An expectant pause.

Keith doesn’t dare move a muscle.

“Keith?” Lance whispers. “You asleep?”

Keith holds his breath, sure his pounding heart has given him away, the way his flesh has erupted in invisible flame, how he’s barely holding back a stomach-swooping shudder, but then Lance is stretching forward to press a quiet finger-kiss to his map of Cuba and readjusting their combined weight more comfortably. He says, "Night. I set an alarm so you're not late back to BOM HQ."

Kiss him, Keith thinks, with fury. Kiss him, kiss him, kiss him.

He grinds his teeth and holds himself absolutely still.

“Sweet dreams,” Lance murmurs, and by then it’s much too late.

• • •

Keith wakes up six hours later covered in Lance from head-to-toe.

Having to extricate himself from the warm cocoon they make—Lance’s sleep mask-covered face squished up against the hollow of Keith’s throat, his sleepy breath whistling across Keith’s skin in warm puffs of air, one of his brown hands buried in Keith’s hair, the other clenched over Keith’s heart, a single long leg thrown over Keith’s waist—is the hardest thing he’s had to do in as long as he can remember.

• • •

Keith drifts in and out of the others’ orbits as well, when he can.

He hovers around the grimier corners that Hunk and Pidge inhabit when they’re dissecting or reassembling something gunmetal grey and made up of a million moving parts. He passes them tools by the twos or tens at times—handfuls of cap screws and hex bolts, vise grips and wire cutters, wrenches made red with rust from 10,000-year rest periods. He likes feeling useful and they never seem to mind the company, the way they accept his outstretched hand like it’s been there all the while, as natural to their world as their workbench or touch-sensitive datapads.

At times, he stands stock-still, holding wires in place for them while the two work in quiet tandem, as Pidge plies Keith with curious questions to pass the time and Hunk hums old songs by Simon & Garfunkel, or Fleetwood Mac. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” for two hours straight, one weekend. The sort of melancholy songs that remind Keith of his father, and his father’s old denim work shirt, the red stitching that read AKIRA next to a patch depicting a sleek muscle car, beneath which sat the words, JOSE’S AUTO WORLD. All of this, stretched across his chest during their brief stay in New Orleans, when they’d lived paycheck-to-paycheck and six-year-old Keith would sometimes stick his head out of the one casement window in their little studio apartment to watch the jazz funeral processions march loudly through the streets.

Pidge says, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose?” and Keith says, “Arus, maybe, or Olkarion. If they’d have me, I mean,” like he hadn’t heard her correctly, mistaken the word world for universe.

Like if he’d heard her question right the first time, he’d have hand-selected some place warm and muted back on Earth, their home planet. Maui maybe, or Oaxaca. A return to El Paso, Texas, if he were feeling particularly masochistic.

He heard her right.

Hunk says, fingers working at the grooves of something vaguely cylindrical, “I wanna open up a little surf shop off the coast of Apia. Give free lessons to kids. Maybe make homemade ice cream or something. And my moms...they’d eat for free every day of the week. Oh, and I’d serve a special kind of ice cream, just for dogs. They’d eat free, too. Dogs can have ice cream, did you guys know that? I used to feed mine peanut butter-flavored stuff back home, totally natural and veterinarian-approved. He loved it. It made his poop all watery, though, which sucked.”

Pidge throws a hex bolt at Hunk’s head, says, “Ew! No one wants to hear about your dog’s liquid poop, Hunk.”

“Everyone knows dog poop is cute,” Hunk says with a defensive sniff. “Like baby poop. You don’t love it, but you can’t hate it, either. It’s just a law of nature.”

“You are so weird,” Pidge says, cheerful, then goes, “How do you feel about dog and/or baby poop, Keith?”

Keith makes a thoughtful noise, still holding three wires in place by the tips of his fingers. “Neutral. And vaguely nauseous.”

“See, Hunk?” Pidge says, and no one even blinks or looks at Keith funny for his earlier answer, no one wonders if he’s more alien than human, or vice versa.

If he’s whole, or if he’s been cut down the middle during the interim, cleaved in half by two yanks towards opposite ends of the galaxy. If he’s a million moving parts, all of them hostile, unknowable, red. He imagines the words in fine Times New Roman—Anatomy: Please check one.

☐ Boy

☐ Soldier

Imagines his hand shaking around a pen in an office of the state, a bespeckled man staring snidely at Keith over the wireframes of his glasses. Species: Please check one.

☐ Earthling

☐ Galra

“Anyway,” Hunk is saying, when Keith tunes back into things. “Back to Keith’s interrogation, thanks.”

“Oh, right,” says Pidge. She picks up a crystallized screwdriver in glittery pink (no doubt Allura’s), waves it in Keith’s direction. “What’s your favorite color or whatever?”

Keith raises an eyebrow. “Red.”

“Bo-ring,” says Pidge, with feeling. She picks at a dirty nail with the blunt edge of her Altean screwdriver, thinking. “Hunk’s is brown, apparently. Mine isn’t even green, can you believe that? I wear it all the time, but only ‘cause my dad used to say it makes my eyes look extra hazel. You can never have enough hazel. I actually prefer pink, though. Hunk, Lance’s favorite color is blue, right?”

Hunk opens his mouth to answer.

“It’s orange,” says Keith, automatically. “But mixed orange? Or gradient orange? Not neon. Sort of like ripe mangos...how the orange bleeds into the yellow and the red and sometimes the green. Or like a really saturated sunset. Lance is always going on about Cuban sunsets, how they’re the best on Earth.” Keith snorts to himself, remembering an old anecdote. “Blue’s his second favorite color. I think it’s his mom’s favorite. And his sister Veronica’s. But...he prefers sunset orange to ocean blue.”

When Keith looks up from his wiring, Pidge and Hunk are staring at him, their eyes big and accusing.

Keith feels his face flush a humiliated pink and the absurd urge to defend himself rises up in him, like it had that time Matt caught him coming out of Lance’s bedroom, looking like he’d been debauched late into the night. “Um,” he says, caught red-handed.

“Riiight,” says Hunk. “So that’s a thing.”

“A thing indeed,” Pidge says grimly. “Keith, pass me a setscrew and never talk to me about Lance again or I will be forced to take swift action. For the record, I was really enjoying making fun of you two, so thanks for ruining that.”

Hunk says, “Pidge, he can’t help his heart!”

“Oh my god,” Keith says under his breath, and wants, fiercely, to die an immediate death.

Hunk pats his shoulder with a hand half-covered in motor oil and fingerless glove, consolatory. He says, “Lance wants five kids, at the very least. It’s better that you’re aware of these things right off the bat. Also, he picks his nose sometimes and has a deathly fear of the supernatural, specifically women of the Wiccan world. Don’t ask.”

Pidge gives a lock of Hunk’s hair an admonitory tug, to which he yelps loudly. She says, “You can’t just air Lance’s dirty laundry in public like that!” A considering pause. “Not without mentioning that he owns the entire Gilmore Girls box set back home first.”

Pidge and Hunk grin deviously, high-fiving.

“I,” says Keith, standing abruptly from where he’d been resting his weight against the tabletop.

“Hey!” Pidge exclaims. “My wires!”

“I have to...to go brush my teeth,” says Keith, and turns on his foot, “right now immediately.”

“Okay, bye, Romeo! I can respect a boy with strong dental hygiene! Also, you have our blessing!” Hunk shouts after Keith’s retreating figure.

“Fine, my wires will wait! Go get him, tiger!” Pidge yells.

Hunk adds, “I hope you and Lance die old and happy on his fifty-acre farm with Kaltenecker and all your tiny, knife-wielding, bilingual babies!”

Keith flips them the finger over his shoulder.

Their laughter—warm and not the least bit cruel—doubles in volume.

• • •

Keith should have said: I don’t know what it means to lust after a place back on Earth. Not with any degree of permanence.

He can see splashes of all his old lives, each eventually scratched out and rewritten. El Paso, New Orleans, Salem. A turn or two in southern California, near the border, where he'd begun and where his mother had—swiftly and unrepentantly—disappeared into the dust. He feels no particular pull towards any of them, has nothing of note to report re: the small fishing village in the Kyoto Prefecture of northern Japan where his father's estranged family must still reside.

He thinks to himself: I don’t have any waiting countries to sketch out in graphite on waxy butcher paper. No tiny cherished cities to mark off in the form of five-pronged stars. No one notable is waiting for me on Earth, fretting over my absence, touching my school photos in passing when I cross their minds at random points in their day.

If Akira Kogane were still alive and kicking, he muses, maybe he’d thumb Keith’s shiny, laminate eyes a moment when he cracked open an old thrift store paperback after work, mournful. Keith can’t say as much for his mother, wherever she is, if she’s somewhere, elsewhere, away. Long gone—it denotes a prolonged period of time in another place. A large absence, or abscess.

It makes something miserable well in Keith’s throat. The idea that he’s got nothing left to tie him to their home planet. That the last remaining roots of his family tree, if they haven’t withered up in the meantime, are snarled somewhere out here, in deep space.

The truth is, he’s being wrenched one way and his best friends—his family—another. They, bound to Earth by the manacled ankle, and he, floating helplessly away, in another direction entirely.

Sometimes, it feels like they’re facing off at opposite ends of a pitch black hallway, mouths moving sans subtitles, unable to make out each other’s words. Keith at one end, and the remnants of his old team standing stationary at the other, staring him down with the flat eyes of Haggar’s druids.

Other times, Keith is chasing them down a dead end. Worse, that he knows it’s a dead end all the while, but still he hunts, like a distressed bloodhound. He sees Shiro’s silhouette, dark as an oil slick. The frayed edges of Hunk’s orange bandana flapping in the wind. Pidge’s eyes, overlarge and owl-like behind her imitation eyeglasses. Lance’s knuckles, restless and rippling.

And Keith will turn the final corner anyway, hoping he’s finally caught their wispy scents, found the bodies belonging to the shadows, whole and human and real. Lance’s brown hand held aloft, maybe, waiting for Keith to reach out and take it.

But there’s never anything but brick wall past that final corner, and the shadows will have flickered into nonexistence, their smells dispelled, and then Keith is all alone again.

• • •

It’s early evening the second time Keith winds up in Lance’s bed, during week three or four, after Lotor has run Zarkon through with the black bayard and acceded to the throne—in large part due to the fact that Keith narrowly saved him from death by bomb detonation during the Kral Zera. 

Lance is due back from a short supply run in an uncolonized star system a few hundred light-years away and he’s several hours late picking Keith up this time around. Keith, for his part, sits perched on the wing of a Marmora freighter like some lovelorn fool awaiting his wartime boyfriend at the harbor, boot-clad feet dangling above all the bustling Blade soldiers’ heads. A couple throw him resentful looks as they emplane and disembark below, weapons holstered.

Keith already knows all about their angry gossip and has decided he doesn’t care either way. He’s overheard enough of it in the crowded mess hall, during routine patrols and morning training drills, while sticking his head under his assigned spigot in the communal showers and as he towel-dries his hair afterwards. Most pay him no mind, focused single-mindedly on their missions, but a few of the more unruly soldiers have rallied against him in recent weeks, claiming that Kolivan is playing favorites, Keith wasting resources, Lance whisking one of their most important recruits away twice a movement for “midnight trysts under the stars.”

“Pay no attention to them,” Seneev had said the week prior, overbright, as she suited up in their shared quarters, not at all delicate about her own nudity. She knew all about Keith’s romantic leanings, and anyway, they were soldiers and soldiers had to be prepared to disrobe at a moment’s notice, for armor modifications or wound treatment. “They’re only taking things out on you because they haven’t a handsome Defender of the Universe for themselves. I mean, Sol, what I’d give for even five doboshes alone with that fine specimen you call your—”

Keith threw a washcloth at her face. “Watch it.”

She removed the cloth by the index and thumb, saying, “I only tease, friend,” with a mischievous grin and a two-of-three-eyed wink.

From his current vantage point, courtesy of the empty spacecraft, Keith’s got a perfect view of Ground Level Zero’s bay doors. Unfortunately, this also means he has a clear picture of his much less sympathetic, far more spiteful opposition fussing about below.

One of the few unruly—Aeaenia, according to the glowing patterning of her Marmora mask—pounds two open palms against Keith’s freighter with an obnoxious bang, bang as she walks up.

“Hey.” She waves a mutinous hand up at Keith, then folds her arms across her alloy-plated chest, calling, “Why the woebegone eyes, Kogane? Did your boyfriend stand you up? I’ll want a solid answer on that front. There’s a betting pool going around concerning breakup dates that I intend to win.”

For the last few hours or so, Keith has killed time by whetting his blade on one of Seneev’s rarer asteroid stones, per her recommendation. Now, he digs his knife in hard, scraping at the silicate with thinly-veiled irritation.

“Well, look on the light side,” she says, and it sounds distinctly like she’s smirking beneath her false face. “Maybe this way you’ll get off your sorry tail and start pulling your weight around here again instead of wasting all our quintants moping about in the hangars.”

People are pausing in their tasks to watch this public spectacle unfold now, half-crouched in their cockpits, gun ports hanging askew, heads turned towards the two of them, their murmurs rising like a noon tide back on Earth.

Keith sends Aeaenia a flinty look, then promptly activates his mask. He won’t sit idly by while his organization rips him to shreds with their eyes, collects what they need for their dinner gossip, then goes.

He is no one else’s entertainment.

After readjusting his weight more comfortably, Keith returns his attention to his blade and asteroid stone, sharpening with renewed fervor. A flurry of sparks flies from the razor-sharp edge of his weapon, falling like glittering mist over Aeaenia’s head.

“Ah, no verbal insolence for me today?” she says, sounding bloodthirsty. She backs up a pace to escape the effects of Keith’s weapon-whetting, seemingly unbothered. “Come now! We all miss the old Keith! This one is nothing but a lovesick whelp. Did you know—or maybe you wouldn’t, considering—where we here at the Blade come from, the litter uses runts like you for afternoon feed?”

“Our organization exists to correct the very practices you stand flaunting today,” says a deep, forbidding voice from nearby, and then Kolivan is rounding Keith’s freighter and staring down at Aeaenia, his thin mouth a flat line.

Aeaenia whirls, then straightens. “Sir,” she says, chagrined. “I was only—”

“Only, what?” Kolivan prompts, steely-eyed. “Berating a Voltron ambassador for your own perverse pleasure? And you had the gall to reproach Keith for wasting the Blade of Marmora’s time? Where have I placed you today?”

“Fleet three,” she answers, as if by recitation, “in the Vuare-x star system, for reconaissance work, sir.”

“Then I expect that’s where you should be,” Kolivan says, then holds a hand up to halt her in her tracks when she makes to escape to her cruiser. “And where should Keith be?”

Keith tenses.

After a short pause, Aeaenia deactivates her mask, giving Kolivan her befuddled brow. “Sir?”

“I’m asking you a simple question. According to the organization-wide briefing you received some four movements ago, can you tell me where Keith should be today?” Kolivan asks, raising his thick brows.

Even from his perch, Keith can tell Aeaenia’s pale skin is flushing a dark, humiliated violet. “He should be waiting for a member of Team Voltron to arrive and escort him to the Altean princess’ castleship.” She clears her throat. “For interdisciplinary war efforts, sir.”

“Correct,” says Kolivan. “You’d do well to treat Keith’s outings as such. Don’t disrespect my executive orders again, or I’ll be sure your squadron leader makes you regret it. And that’s quite enough in the way of lewd comments about the red paladin’s working relationship with Keith. You represent an insurgent organization that should be capable of professional ally work, not a brood of animals. Dismissed.”

Aeaenia gives her topmost fangs a testy lick, then pivots on her foot. She throws Keith a bored look with her watery, catlike eyes. “Apologies for the insinuations. It won’t happen again. Best of luck with the war efforts.” She turns back to Kolivan, nods once, and reactivates her mask. “Sir.”

Keith and Kolivan watch her depart for her thin-nosed cruiser in silence. Then Kolivan is peering around at all the eavesdropping soldiers who have yet to resume their work, his gaze a hard gold. “Are all of you capable of meeting today’s goals or should I have you reassigned to more menial divisions?”

Like unpausing a pre-recorded video transmission, everyone is suddenly moving again, hauling ass into their respective ships or lugging cargo off to the elevator bank by the armful, heads lowered respectfully. Keith watches Evit—thin, quiet, cagey Evit—shrug behind Kolivan’s shoulder, as if to say, it can’t be helped, can it? He hoists himself into his cockpit and seals his port hatch with a small wave.

Keith nods his goodbye, then stares down at his blade, face warm with embarrassment behind his mask. If Kolivan wanted to dispel rumors about favoritism, Keith thinks gloomily, he’s just ensured almost the exact opposite.

Below him, Kolivan clears his throat. He stares out across the hangar, watching the ordered chaos ebb and flow, like a man looking in on a storm of his own making. “Your”—an awkward cough—“colleague...the red paladin...I’m sure he has a good excuse for his delay. Supply missions tend to run long on densely-populated industrial planets.” He flicks Keith a look, gauging. “And if he can’t make it tonight, we’ll have you reassigned elsewhere.”

Keith ducks his head, stomach contracting with dread. It’s only been a few weeks of this and already he can’t bear the thought of missing out on even one day spent with Lance, and Red’s rumbling warmth, and the rest of Team Voltron’s chatter and smiles and soft hugs.

Time is a kind of sand and Keith can’t fit it all in one gloved palm. It bleeds out between the borders of each finger on his hand.

“We can always reschedule,” Kolivan says graciously. He looks at Keith one last time, then away. “We’ll give it another varga and then call it.”

Keith closes his mouth on his objection and watches Kolivan vanish into an elevator crammed full of cargo. You pick fights with all the wrong people, he hears his father say in his head, a line plucked from an old memory. Keith closes his eyes and searches himself over. The first time he came home from school with a bruise flowering around his left eye, he remembers, when they were renting out a room in a row house in Salem, near Mill Creek. Keith could always hear water in his ears in that city. Drip, drip. He wonders if that’s how it was for Lance, back in Varadero and Havana. If the hissing ocean becomes white noise, after a point.

You go looking for trouble and it’ll surely find you, kid. C’mon, let’s get you some ice. You know, you look just like your mother when you get those mad eyes about you. Sheesh. If she could see the shiner on you now, she’d wring my neck…

He breathes in.

You’ve gotta choose your battles with care, Keith. That’s my expert opinion of the day, alright? Cherish the good ones before they're gone and choose your battles with care. Only way to do things.

Next to his thigh, Keith’s handheld rests face-up, blinking dully at him under the hangar’s mauve glow.

Hey, reads Keith’s most recent transmission—one hour-old—which has yet to garner a response from Lance. None of his messages to the rest of the team have gotten so much as an emoticon back. Are u OK? Let me know if something came up. Just want to know that ur all safe. OK. Thanx.

Annoyingly, he notices that he’s begun abbreviating more and more of his words, a habit that seems to have rubbed off on him through sheer exposure to Lance’s abhorrent typing skills. Keith worries at his lip with a tooth or two, trying to fight off a small smile, and scrolls up a ways, rereading one of their plain-text transmission threads from yesterday morning.

GM, nerd (that means good morning c:)

U ready 2 rise and grind?

I know what GM means. I keep a list now.

that’s totally adorable, mullet, i will send you more clever additions at a later date

(for example, WHABMICYIMA = we had a bonding moment i cradled you in my arms!)

I WILL ACTUALLY KILL U

HAHAHA JK ILU

What’s that one mean?

JK = just kidding

No the other one

ILU = I love updog

What’s updog?

Nothing much, just Omw (on my way!) to pick up my space ranger partner, how bout u? :3

GOD I HATE YOU

ASKDFSDKFMDL

SORRY BUT YOU’RE JUST SO EASY  

PLUS YOU’RE CUTE WHEN YOU’RE ALL RILED UP

AREN’T U PILOTING?

WHY ARE U SENDING ME TRANSMISSIONS

CUZ YOU’RE CUUUUUUTTTEEEEEE

SHUT UP

counterpoint: how bout i keep sending you transmissions while Red flies on autopilot :P

Counter-counterpoint: turn off autopilot and focus on improving your aerial skills

Counter-counter-counterpoint: fuck you and also what’s your favorite cat breed

If I answer your question, will you stop messaging me

MMMMMMMMmaybeeee

Okay

1. Persian

2. Maine coon

3. Bobtail

4. Siberian

5. Himalayan

All the really fluffy ones are my favorite even though they shed a lot

(GASP)

KEITH

I HAD NO IDEA YOU WERE SUCH A CAT CONNOISSEUR

Oh

Yeah

I used to volunteer at cat shelters as part of this mandatory foster kid rehabilitation program

Except I actually really liked it, which pissed off my social worker

I think she was trying to get back at me for making her job hell

So she singled me out as one of those kids who are vulnerable to delinquency and signed me up for the program expecting me to hate it

But it was just the opposite

Also, all the cats really loved me, so joke’s on her I guess

(This was when I was around 12-13)

oh holy shit

i’m shedding a tear at the thought of tiny delinquent keith being all broody and sad and then turning into a huge softie when exposed to a litter of kittens

also can i just say …. the fact that this poor woman was trying to take vengeance on a 12 yr old thru baby cats is hilarious

EVEN BETTER THAT THEY ALL LOVED YOU

THE COSMOS WORK IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS

OH and for the record,

if you’re trying to get me to stop calling you cute, you’re doing a terrible job of it, keith, really

Oh my god

Okay switching back to manual pilot mode

thank you for that heartwarming tale from your childhood

I really like hearing about stuff from when you were a kid :-)

C you soon <3333

I

Oh

OK

Ur welcome

Are you ever going to tell me what “<3333” means

NO AND DON’T ASK PIDGE EITHER, CHEATER

YOU WERE SENDING ME WEIRD SYMBOLS AND FACES

( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

STOP

SCARED??

༼ つ ಥ_ಥ ༽つ BOOOO

: |

ASLLKSKLAKLS YOUR FIRST EMOTICON

༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ BEAUTIFUL

AUTOPILOT OFF

OKOKOK

C U SOON, TINY

Keith feels the familiar flutter of butterflies in his belly and scrolls quickly down, trying to chase away the dreamy, white-hot feeling fast. He shakes himself internally. Then, with an uneasy sigh, he pulls up his keyboard and thinks up a new transmission for about the third time in as many hours.

Sorry to be annoying, he types, though he isn’t. It’s just polite, he thinks, or maybe it’s his father’s voice in the back of his head again, ghostly. Hollowed out. Mind your manners, boy, or no one’ll ever give you the time of day, the voice says. Kind of worried over here. Message back soon. Hope ur OK. OK. Bye.

Five minutes pass in this fashion. No one bothers sending Keith anymore strange looks, or if they do he fails to notice. An airliner blasts to life and departs through the bay doors, its thrusters flaming blue-red. Someone whistles and tosses an empty crate into the air, and their companion catches it with one hand, saluting.

OK, if this is a joke it isn’t funny. Starting to understand how you feel when I drop off the grid out of nowhere for a BOM mission. Anyway. I’ve got an hour before Kolivan reassigns me somewhere else. Except that doesn’t even matter, if ur hurt. Or worse. Don’t be worse, OK? Stay safe.

Ten minutes.

If you haven’t responded in the next 15 minutes, I’m commandeering a cruiser and risking my hide to hunt you down. You’re not flaking on me, McClain, and you’re definitely not dying on me either. And if it turns out that you’re just napping or something, you owe me 100 of those specialty cacao-flavored candies from the Hexe star system that you let me try last week. No….1000. Message back soon. OK. Bye.

At the twelve minute mark, Keith’s patience has just about worn to shreds. He stashes his blade in its scabbard, unable to carry on sharpening it like he hasn’t a care in the universe, and casts a look around the hangar as it empties out. Most everyone is heading to the mess hall for an early supper, aside from a few maintenance workers performing ship upkeep in the quiet.

Decided, Keith pockets Seneev’s asteroid stone in his utility belt, picks up his handheld, and hits call on the contact MCCLAIN, LANCE (THE RED LION)—not to be confused with MCCLAIN, LANCE (HANDHELD), or MCCLAIN, LANCE (DATAPAD. STOP SENDING ME GODDAMN GAME REQUESTS).

Until now, neither of them have ever strayed from their ritual plain-text transmission conversations, as though too terrified by the possibility of bursting their nebulous friendship-bubble. Live, two-way audio transmissions seem all the more intimate, somehow, in comparison. Before today, the thought of initiating a one-on-one call with Lance had sent Keith into an anxious spiral.

He’s thought extensively about having to hear another person’s heavy breath on the line—Lance’s—as well as any and all rustles of movement, their laughter made staticky and muffled, right in your ear. Having to constantly work at filling the silence. Trying not to make an idiot of yourself. No way to escape or give a response careful thought before hitting send. No delete buttons, or takebacks. It was too awful an idea to entertain.

Except right now, the alternative—not getting to hear Lance’s rich voice and quiet laughter in his ear—is somehow ten million times worse.

His handheld’s dial tone is a soft buzz in his left ear.

“Pick up,” Keith mutters, pushing off of the wing of his freighter one-handed and landing on the floor with a muted thud, his ankles absorbing the impact of his five foot jump with a small twinge of pain.

Click.

Keith’s heart rate skyrockets. “Lance? Hello? Are you there?”

From the other end of the line, there is the quiet sound of Red’s turbines at work, maybe someone breathing, though there’s no way for Keith to be certain. Not a lick of human speech and no indication that anyone aboard the Red Lion is currently cognizant. It sends a sick chill down Keith’s spine.

“Lance?” he repeats, panic rising.

Nothing.

Keith starts off for the nearest cruiser at a brisk run, his mind already made, when the panel of purple lights above the hangar’s bay doors blink three times in quick succession. Incoming cargo. Keith freezes with one hand pressed flat to the cruiser’s access panel, heart in his throat, and waits for the hangar’s doors to open.

“Identity authenticated,” an automated voice recites overhead. “You may proceed, R450-5934.”

Keith knows that identity cryptograph inside and out, memorized and can now recite it with his eyes closed. It’s four weeks old—practically newborn. He hears himself make a small, birdlike noise in the back of his throat. Relief, dawning bright as an Olkarion sun.

Slowly, the bay doors part and then the Red Lion is shooting through them, two Blade soldiers leaping back and out of her way with twin yelps. She seems unfazed by the display, her sights set on Keith completely. “In the name of Sol, control your companion’s cat, child!” one of the soldiers snaps, rubbing at their spine, but Keith doesn’t have it in him to reply. He’s already taking off for Red’s ramp at breakneck speed, adrenaline pumping.

He flies into her cockpit gasping, boots sliding across her floors in a clumsy skid that he only just manages to correct right before he can eat shit against her hull. “Where?” he chokes. “Is he okay? What—”

Red’s energy flashes a dark black in the back of Keith’s mind, like a sunspot, her temperature cold to the bone.

“Lance,” Keith’s saying, his voice all kinds of messed up to his own ears, and then he’s bent over Red’s seat and biting back a sound of intense hurt.

Lance is draped across his seat in a king’s lazy sprawl, his head lolled over his armrest as if in coma-induced sleep, or death, and there’s a large puncture wound in his armor, right where his left kidney is supposed to be. The surrounding flesh of his chestplate is still cooling where it’s been melted down to a runny white. Keith yanks his glove off, presses two shaky fingers to the gash. His skin comes back a startling red.

“Fuck,” he hisses, through his teeth. “Red—set a course for the castleship. Autopilot. Now." Deep breath. "Okay. Okay.”

Keith grabs hold of the arms of Lance’s seat and hangs on tight as Red lurches forward, fleeing through the Blade of Marmora’s bay doors just as quick as she’d come. He slides a hand up, up, up, gripping the seat’s headrest for balance, while he uses the other to palm Lance’s blue helmet in a fright, mind racing.

There’s blood dried around Lance’s nose, smeared across the glass, like maybe he’d accidentally thwacked his face against his visor during his escape. Keith removes the helmet one-handed, flings it away with an angry grunt, and only then does he think to check for a pulse.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he mutters, staccato-quick. “Okay. Just. Fuck. Please. Please—”

Red’s aerial navigation all of a sudden goes smooth, stabilizes easily, like she knows Keith desperately needs the support, so he lets go of the seat and uses both hands to feel around Lance’s throat area, fingers clumsy with terror and skimming every which way, unable to get a proper grip going. His hands are shaking like leaves. He clenches down on his fear and finds a lukewarm stretch of flesh, hooks a thumb beneath the high-collar of Lance’s black undersuit, and presses down.

Without warning, Lance’s torso gives a minute twitch, like he’s registered the touch of someone else’s hand and his body is trying to wake itself up.

Keith snatches his fingers back with a sharp intake of breath. He says, “Lance?” like he’s weak-kneed and wrong-footed, because he is, the farthest thing from vigilant, or defensive, or distrustful, even, just totally flooded with wet relief and elation at the most miniscule sign of life, and so he doesn’t see the attack coming until Lance’s glazed blue eyes have literally snapped open and he’s lunged at Keith with all that he’s got.

Keith goes flying backwards, stunned stupid and unable to fight off Lance’s hands. His head hits one of Red’s walls with a resounding crack and the breath goes whooshing out of him in an awful gasp. He gets his hands up around his own face, expecting to feel the barrel of Lance’s rifle against his forehead, ready to twist it out of Lance’s grasp if he needs to, except there’s no gun to speak of.

Instead, he catches a smear of scarlet out of the corner of his eye, sees Lance drawing his bayard funny, like he’s getting ready to grip, not a gun, but a—and then there’s something cherry red and keen-edged lying level with Keith’s neck, his rapid pulse.

Keith goes still, mouth hanging agape. He blinks down at the sword held in a deadly line over his throat, then shoves a hurried hand at his temple, deactivating his Marmora mask and baring his sweaty face to Lance. He says, winded, “It’s me. I’m your—Keith.”

It has the desired effect, like a kill switch. At the mention of his name, something human immediately returns to Lance. He shakes off his pain-induced daze with some effort and then he’s blinking down at Keith, recognition flooding his features. His face pales with horror and he drops his bayard, staggering backwards in his haste to put a safe distance between himself and Keith.

“Keith,” he gasps. "I thought—didn’t even realize—Jesus, I’m—fuck! Sorry, I don’t know what—”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay, you’re fine. I think you might be concussed,” Keith says, striding forward and catching Lance around the waist before he can go toppling over his own seat. “What happened? How do you feel?”

“I’m—a little foggy,” Lance says, holding onto Keith for dear life. “Ambush? Ambush. Definitely ambush.”

“Okay, let’s sit you down,” Keith says. He carefully eases Lance into his seat, mindful of his wound. “Are the others okay?”

“I,” says Lance, his brow wrinkled in bewilderment, like he’s struggling to recall something just beyond the fog. “Yeah, I—I was alone in a shopping sector and cornered—supply run—and I think. I told Red to find you, y’know, bring me to you. Knew I was late. Sorry ‘m so late, Keith.”

“You idiot, I don’t care about that,” Keith says, with feeling. “Look at you. Lance, you could’ve killed yourself! We need to get you inside a healing pod before you bleed out in your lion.”

“Just a flesh wound, I think, ‘cept it hurts like a bitch,” Lance says, blinking rapidly. “Passed out from pain, I’m guessing, and...I hit my head pretty hard at some point. Or something. Maybe. Not sure. I dreamed you were looking for me. But ‘m good. Should be good. Hey. Keith.”

“What?” Keith says, noncommittal. He removes his second glove, tosses it away with angry unconcern. “Keep your eyes open for me. We’re almost to the Castle and then you can rest all you want. In the meantime, let’s get you out of your armor, okay? Put some pressure on your wound. It looks shallower than I thought up close, so I’m not as worried about blood loss, but just to be safe. I think your chestplate absorbed most of the shot’s impact. What were you hit with? Blaster rays? Do you remember?”

Lance smiles down at Keith through eyelids hanging half-closed, his lips forming something dopey. “Missed you.”

A tremble of heat travels through Keith at the speed of light, his heartbeat bruising. He scowls up at Lance and gets two hands around the small of his back, ripping at the clasps keeping his armor in place. “God, shut up, you’re hurt, Lance. Stop thinking about me.”

“’M trying,” Lance mutters sullenly, so low that Keith thinks for a moment he’s imagined it. “Shit. Hold up. D’you see my bayard upgrade? I’d meant to show you in a couple months, once I’d really gotten the hang of it. In training, maybe, or battle. If we met up, I mean—the Marmorites and Team Voltron. Knock your socks off or something. You would’ve thought I was so cool.”

“I already think you’re cool,” Keith says under his breath. He gathers Lance’s hands up, arranges them over the afflicted area through his undersuit, and applies light pressure. “Here. Press down. Good.”

Lance winces, curling over his abdomen with a pained moan. Then he angles a look at Keith through his bangs, stuck to his forehead, temples, and eyes with perspiration. He says, head slumped forward, the blue of his eyes intense, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on. Back up a sec. You think I’m cool...? Since when? Hey, don’t give me that look. I clearly never got the memo, dude, so pay up. Fair’s fair.”

“Lance.” Keith gives a long-suffering sigh. “Yes. For—since the beginning, obviously. That first flight with Blue was terrible...but...yes. I thought you were...yeah.”

Lance’s mouth lifts on one side and the sight makes Keith's stomach feel all topsy-turvy with his own special kind of ache. “Okay, now look off to your right and say it again for the cameras. Kidding. Sorry, okay, one last thing. For posterity. The sword…? What’d you think?”

Keith presses his forehead to Lance’s knee and groans, irritated beyond belief. He thinks back on the gleam of red metal, the wide, elegant shape of the blade, straight-edged. Lance’s maddened brow, clammy with sweat. His white-knuckled grip on the weapon’s hilt. The brief shiver of aroused surprise that went through Keith, quickly overruled by fear and fight-or-flight.

“You,” says Keith, then clears his throat violently and begins anew. “You look good. With a sword, I mean. With some proper technique, you’d look even better.”

A thoughtful hum from Lance.

Keith looks up, face warm, to find Lance grinning down at him, bloodstained and pleased as punch. “Well. I look good no matter what, but if you care so much about me looking better, you could always teach me.”

All around Keith, there is the telltale pressure of solid ground beneath Red’s feet. Lance leans over, peers out of her viewscreen and brightens at the sight of his hangar, illuminated in neon red. He levers himself to his feet with enthusiasm, then gives a short cry of surprise when Keith hoists him up into his arms in a bridal carry and moves immediately towards Red’s exit.

“You’re hurt.” Keith feels his mouth moving towards amusement. He adds, “And I wasn’t offering my services like you seem to think.”

“Ugh, don’t be like, mullet. I thought you wanted me to look better!” Lance crows, tugging on Keith’s Marmora hood with a theatrical pout. “Or are you scared of my unbridled potential?"

“It’s like you said,” Keith replies, smooth as silk. “You look good no matter what.”

And that seems to shut Lance right up. His mouth clicks closed on his apparent speechlessness and then he’s shoving his face into Keith’s armored chest with a tiny scandalized noise. Keith imagines him waving a handkerchief around, shouting, “Why I oughta!” like in the old TV programs his father liked. But by profile, Lance looks only pleased. Astonished, and slightly embarrassed, but delighted by the compliment all the same. His right ear is red-tipped.

It’s a world of red all around Keith. His universe oozes it.

He looks down at Lance’s blushing face and thinks for the first time he might understand on some concrete level why it’s his favorite color.

• • •

“Lance sent for you before us?”

It’s out of Pidge’s mouth before she can take it back, and she looks like she might want to, as soon as Keith’s on the bridge where the others have clustered in a worried and colorful knot, after he’s gotten out a rushed explanation of events.

The way she says you just then, laced with accusation and juvenile hurt, in the voice of a double-crossed younger sibling not his own—Keith recognizes the tune from his time in the wards and homes, how he every so often took more than convention called for back in his earliest days as a foster kid, when he’d been naive as shit and his ribs had shown through his skin like prison bars, and the other kids would shoot him dirty looks for it, eyeing his sticky fingers and demanding apology with as little as a curled lip—freezes Keith to his joints. His body blares an alarm and he feels thirteen years old all over again, adrift and unwanted. Back to being an outsider, edging the periphery, with as little as the word you.

Keith looks at the floor, past the warm bundle of Lance in his arms, and tries to swallow the embarrassed lump in his throat.

Evidently, Pidge is not done. She continues, saying, “And Red just went with it? How does that even work? I’ve been trying to reach Lance for the last fifteen minutes with no response. But you’re, what? All of a sudden his emergency contact or something? He has you on speed dial, but not his own team—?”

“Hey,” says Lance, twisting in Keith’s arms to get a good look at Pidge. He glares a warning back at her, his face a mask of angry little brother. It must be familiar for him to fall into, and it likely feels good, too, getting to use that voice again. Even if it’s not his own blood on the receiving end of his ire. “Lay off, will you? You’re harping at the wrong crowd here, seeing as Keith’s the one who rushed me back, and not the person who, y’know, shot a hole through my armor in the first place.”

Pidge has the good grace to close her mouth, looking peevish. When Hunk puts a hand on her shoulder, though, she seems to retreat fully, crossing her arms and glowering in the other direction.

“It is an interesting line of thought, though,” Lotor chimes in pleasantly, from where he’s hovering over Allura’s shoulder at her work station. It seems he’s taken up residence there, in light of recent political events, and Allura looks almost comfortable with the arrangement. “Perhaps the Red Lion is still deferring to her old paladin? Unless...she wished to accommodate her current paladin’s final desires, lest he die aboard her all alone—”

Lance bites down on his bottom row of teeth and turns his head into Keith’s chest, scowling, and Keith snaps out a vicious, “I didn’t ask, and I’m not even remotely interested in your opinion, Your Highness, but thanks.”

From his spot in Keith’s arms, Lance lets out a quiet snort of approval. He buries his face further, as though to dilute the sound, but Keith’s already heard it and can feel his temper waning some in response.

Lotor quirks a white-haired brow and holds two hands up, placating. “I assure you, I meant no ill will by it,” he says. “I have no reason to want the red paladin dead, nor do I find his current condition amusing.”

Allura clears her throat and sends Keith a short look of displeasure that he hasn’t missed one bit. “Let’s curb our tempers for the moment, shall we, and—”

Like elastic pulled tight, then released, his temper recoils with a snap. Keith says, “I’ve got enough injured Lance in my arms to last me a lifetime and I’m fresh out of patience, but if you want me to rein it in for the interloper, Princess, sure. Why don’t I roll over for him while I’m at it?”

Allura’s eyes narrow dangerously, and Keith wants badly to say more, to spit something foul at Lotor’s feet, just to provoke Shiro, standing silent and stoic off to the side, into action, but then he feels two rough fingers at his chin, tugging. Keith blinks, head drooping obediently. He meets Lance’s oceanic eyes without complaint. That’s all it takes, really. Like an instant elixir, he can feel his anger washing away, the dark blue tides taking it by the nape and yanking in another direction. Rerouting, or reworking it entirely.

Keith exhales.

“Hey,” Lance whispers.

“Hey,” Keith whispers back.

“You’re okay.”

Keith’s shoulders unlock. “Yeah. Okay. I’m okay. Sorry.”

Lance thumbs Keith’s jaw as though to soften his hurt, then tucks his hand away. “You’re good, hothead. C’mon. Get me to a healing pod before I pass out from pain again.”

“Right,” Keith says, face going tight with worry, and he turns for the exit at once. He lets all the many astounded looks his former teammates are giving him roll off his back, like a very public sluice with rainwater. No time for embarrassment. “Should’ve been the first place I took you.”

“You’re too polite for that. Like a very well-behaved bull in a very futuristic china shop. And you’re terrible at working the healing pods, too,” Lance says, grinning, as though to defend Keith’s honor, in a funny, upside-down, Lance sort of way. “Or so I’m told. Apparently you’ve tried to get me out quicker than advised once or twice in the past.”

“That’s not how that saying goes, I'm pretty sure,” Keith says, mouth turning amused. He leaves the rest of that unaddressed, in the interest of self-preservation.

“Sayings, metaphors, idioms. Language is what you make it," says Lance, and he wraps a stubborn hand around Keith’s neck, like this will lend his claim considerable validity. Instead, it only seems to make Keith’s skin feel hotter, more tightly stretched. “That’s what you learn where I’m from. And, honestly, Keith, I’ve got a million of them for boys like you.”

Keith swallows roughly and avoids Lance’s eye. “And what’s that? Boys like me?”

Lance shrugs, his shoulders sly beneath his undersuit. He leaves the questions unanswered. Keith is not so sure it’s out of self-preservation so much as suspense. 

• • •

The nightbreath salve Coran hands Keith some minutes later, after giving Lance a cursory medical onceover, smells like something Keith can’t name, even through the small glass pot. Something he’s not yet able to name.

Alive, and half-dead, simultaneously. Earthen and completely alien both. Nightkill and daybreath blood meeting at a midnight crossroad. Two separate bodies stitched together, by kinship, or affection. A constellation might be an apt analogy.

Keith has Lance sit down at the ring of steps bordered by each of the eight healing pods, seven of which are currently inactive, and then he takes the knee before him, like a devoted disciple offering himself up. The gesture feels ridiculously religious in a way nothing in Keith’s life ever has. He thinks of Blue reaching out for him in the Sonoran Desert. He thinks of reaching back, hands scrabbling at the sands which sheltered her.

The religious meaning doesn’t seem lost on Lance, who comes from a fractured Catholic family and two separate Cuban cathedrals and who Keith has heard recite tiny, mumbled church chants through the comm-link in the middle of a battle gone awry once or twice in the past. I will fear no evil. En en el nombre de Jesucristo.

Lance sucks in a quiet breath of surprise and stares down at Keith and his lowered knee. As if in reply, Keith touches a hand to his own spine. A wordless question. Do you want me to…? Slowly, looking punch-drunk, Lance nods.

Neither say a word.

Keith clears his throat and makes himself become briefly aware of Coran, in the background of things—he’s polishing Lance’s waiting healing pod with a wet washcloth and whistling all the while, overly casual. Then Keith forces himself to look at Lance head-on, where he’s slouched along the steps of the medbay like placid Greek sculpture, or a long-dead deity, bronze and bloody all over. Something dreamed up by a Venetian master.

With painstaking care, Keith rearranges himself on both knees, puts two hands to Lance’s nape—one is unneeded, he thinks nonsensically, or maybe he wants the balance it brings—and snags the pull tab of his undersuit’s zipper between thumb and index finger.

He doesn’t mean to go so slow, except he unintentionally catches Lance’s eye one-fourth of the way through, and then he can’t seem to let go, hand dragging a lazy path down his brown back without thought. It’s the most wildly violent act Keith’s ever had to commit, and endure, he thinks. Undressing Lance to the waist while the boy in question sits there—docile, entranced—and watches Keith back, his blue eyes excessively savage against Keith’s face, undressing and pulling apart in his own right. His ruthless gaze lays waste to Keith’s burning cheeks, his chapped mouth, the bobbing line of his throat.

And Lance’s face, through it all: wholly trustful. Swung wide open, like a lion’s maw, or a dark door.

Keith’s hand stops at the small of Lance’s back, where the zipper ends, and he becomes aware of previously irrelevant stimuli and sense-data in stops and starts. His breath is heavy in his mouth, like an unspoken confession. Lance’s belly is moving hard and fast below him, frantic from pain, or something else. Keith can feel his own eyelashes. Is acutely aware of how dry his mouth is. How much his fingers quaver. Can’t help but notice that Lance’s mouth is parted, white teeth peeking out past full, flush lips.

Keith thinks: I’ve never felt this human before. And wants, absurdly, to thank Lance for drawing it out of him, all these wonders and wants and pleasures. Just by lazing half-naked there on the stairs, with the unconscious poise of an adolescent prince.

He looks at Lance’s mouth and imagines closing the distance between them.

Then a voice is cutting in, not unkindly, with: “We’ll want to get that handmade salve on Lance’s wound before it can go infected, boys.”

They both jerk apart like they have someplace else to go, when they don’t, not really, and Keith nods his head forcibly while Lance clears his throat a good three times over, looking somewhere off to the left, blue eyes big and flustered and caught out.

It hits Keith with the force of a baseball bat to the jaw: Lance looks caught. Guilty down to his marrow, face dark with hunger and already closing off. And that must mean...Lance had been just as willing a participant right then, had for a moment been plugged into the same tension-outlet as Keith, the both of them ablaze with electricity. That means it was, briefly, a two-way call, or street, or mirror, or—Keith’s lost sight of the metaphor.

He shakes his head, heart pounding, and shoves it all aside.

Lance is injured.

It’s easier to be clinical about the body he’s tending to after that, for which Keith is infinitely grateful. He thinks Coran must sense it somehow with the way he lingers, overseeing Keith’s ministrations and giving loud hums of approval and enthusiastic advice through it all, acting as their physical buffer.

Keith clenches down on an inappropriate snort of laughter as he peels the moist undersuit down and away from Lance’s bloodied midsection, baring a beaded rosary, his palm-sized plasma gash, and a sweep of brown flesh slightly paler than the rest of Lance. Coran probably never imagined he’d have to wedge himself between the two of them to defuse this kind of tension, back when he’d supervised them that first week on the castleship while they partook in Altean team-building exercises and navigated invisible mazes badly.

Coran seems unsurprised, or at least indifferent to this new knowledge, which is more frightening the longer Keith thinks about it. He bends at the waist to get a close-up glimpse of Lance’s wound, says, “That's an intriguing weapon signature your assailant has left behind. By all accounts, your paladin armor should have been able to withstand the laserfire. I’ll have to take a look at your suit later, Lance.”

"Funny, how Lotor taking the crown didn't magically get rid of all of our very angry Galra enemies," Lance says, tilting his head back. His throat makes an elegant arch. "In fact, it sort of feels like they've doubled. Don't know why we didn't just dismantle the empire, instead of trying to salvage it under Lotor, who is sort of maybe universally despised. And rightfully so!"

Keith snorts, smiling to himself. "Didn't know you were the whole universe."

"Might as well be," Lance says, lifting his head to send Keith a halfhearted scowl.

Keith's smile widens into something bigger and more happy. He has to force himself not to fervently agree.

"Well," says Coran, after giving a thoughtful hum. "Political sorrows aside, you should count yourself lucky, Lance. This is nothing a little nightbreath won’t fix right up—the Noeg strain both sterilizes and regenerates.”

“I’m not feeling super blessed at the moment to be honest, but, uh, thanks for the encouraging words, Coran,” Lance says, looking down his own chest at the mess of drying blood and singed flesh.

“You’re gonna be fine,” Keith says, resolute, and unscrews the pot of nightbreath salve with confidence.

A pungent waft of salt and sea, ozone and alcohol, and something bittersweet below that hits Keith across the face. He wrinkles his nose against the smell and shoots Coran a questioning look.

“One of the earliest marvels of the universe,” Coran confirms, breathing in the scent with a twitch of his auburn mustache. “Flower warfare was one of the most common methods of bloodshed ten thousand years ago, you know. The Swords of Altea—Alfor’s last battalion—were wiped out in under a week by a batch of Zarkon’s nightkill poison. By that point the Queen’s personal greenhouse, which was home to something like twenty thousand daybreath blooms at its peak, had been burned to the ground by Galra spies. She was one of the last to go.”

Keith pauses with two fingers down the pot of salve, struck by that last sentence.

“The Queen, you mean?” Lance breathes, horrified, and you’d think it was his own mother’s demise he’d just learned about, ten thousand years too late.

It occurs to Keith with belated amazement that Lance is bursting at the seams where he’s jammed full of empathy for the rest of the universe. His capacity for caring is perpetual, like the line of his love is an infinite and unending road towards an unreachable sunset.

He’s going to die trying to save them all, Keith thinks, with a pang of something. Something dark and anguished.

He averts his eyes.

Beside him, Coran eases into a creaky crouch with a sigh, as though settling in for a scary bedtime story. “Yes. She was nearly mad with paranoia by then. Terrified that the poison would slip through our defenses somehow, find its way into Alfor or Allura’s food. She oversaw all meal prep after that, had each course taste-tested by a personal subject before it could touch anyone's lips. It was only a few days later that she tried to sneak off to a nearby trading outpost in our star system in a desperate attempt at securing a few daybreath flowers for the royal family. She didn’t trust delivery and refused to let me go herself. It was...her last resort.”

Keith feels his face folding in on itself and clenches his teeth hard to halt the collapse. “And then…?”

“She was intercepted by one of Zarkon’s patrol ships. She hadn’t even made the first leg of the journey before they snatched her up,” says Coran and he sounds ensnared by the memory. His eyes shine like glass, with nostalgia or grief. “Her body was never recovered. Four days later, Alfor sealed Allura and I away in our healing pods and...well, you both know the rest of this story."

Keith tries to imagine it. He sees the shards of a broken mirror spilled across the floor like liquid poison, a hundred versions of Allura’s despairing face reflected back. The Queen’s greenhouse, grander than the Royal Library of Alexandria, lit up in flame, smoke rising and thinning out beyond Altea’s twelve moons. Alfor’s last battalion crumpled in a juniberry meadow in something of a mass grave. The Queen smacking a goblet from Allura’s hands before her lips could fall upon the rim.

He has the strange thought that if he were in the Queen’s shoes, thrust ten thousand years into the past, he’d have done the same thing. Made off with a ship unauthorized late into the night in an effort to obtain an antidote for the people he cares about most.

Maybe it makes him a reckless fool.

But as Lance looks up into Keith’s face, eyes stricken on behalf of a now-obsolete planet, Keith knows in his heart that he must be doomed to a similar fate.

• • •

“Close your eyes and bite down on my glove,” Keith orders, after removing one and shoving it in the general vicinity of Lance’s rousing mouth. “Hard,” he adds.

“Fine. But tell me something good,” Lance says, with blue-meets-red-edging-on-purple paladin brand demand, then bites down on the gray leather and squeezes his eyes shut. Bracing for pain, face scrunched up like a frightened child’s.

“Something good,” Keith muses, watching the light play along the nightbreath salve’s shimmering surface where it rests in a large dollop on the pads of his four fingers. He wracks his brain a moment. “Okay. Okay, so. Shiro was teaching this first-year class back at the Garrison once, when I was still a student. We were all giving presentations—on aviation history, I think. This kid had clearly copied most of hers from a Wikipedia article, and she...was not the sharpest tool in the shed. No idea how she’d made it to the Garrison in the first place. So, anyway. She got to the point in her powerpoint presentation where one of her headings was ‘World War II’...you know, with the Roman numerals. Except she read it as ‘World War Eleven.’ Didn’t even blink”—here, Keith begins to rub the salve into Lance’s inflamed flesh, watching with grim concentration as his body gives a violent twitch of pain—“or catch herself. She just immediately accepted that there’d been eleven world wars, nine of which she’d never learned about in her academic career.

“The whole class...we all went silent. I think most of us were too shocked to laugh. Also, the secondhand embarrassment was terrible. Worse than that time you spilled wine and cake down that Tooresean prince’s shirt in the middle of his victory speech to three thousand guests.” Keith huffs a laugh to himself at the memory, glances up to see a smile edging past the leather stuffed in Lance’s mouth. “I remember someone whispered something like…‘Professor Shirogane, there is some crazy historical revisionism going on in this country if that’s true.’ And Shiro...he just walked right out of the room. Later, I found out it was so he could go cry somewhere private. He always ends this story with, ‘And it was in that moment that I knew...I hate teenagers. And technology.’”

Miraculously, Keith’s rough approximation of something good is right on the mark.

Tears are prickling at the corners of Lance’s closed eyes, but his mouth is smiling, so that Keith can’t tell whether the waterworks are the result of his pain or Keith’s badly delivered anecdote. He can’t seem to stop stamping his booted feet, though, with something like glee, so Keith chalks it up to laughter, still rubbing at Lance’s skin with his thumb, eyes wide.

Keith feels stupidly pleased with himself for it.

“Mmm!” Lance says, slapping Keith’s hand away after four seconds more of this and spitting the glove from his mouth. His blue eyes blink open, teary, like a whirlpool of water baring its teeth, and he looks right into Keith’s face when he says, “You, Kogane, with that deadpan voice of yours, are a natural comedian. I think I might have peed my flightsuit a little just then. Tell me again why you don’t use your God gifted talents more often? Is it because, if unleashed, your comedic genius would put all the rest of us out of business?”

“It’s to save your flightsuits the embarrassment,” Keith says, capping the nightbreath pot.

“Oh, fuck you, it was a momentary lapse in bladder control,” Lance says, but he’s giggling and he no longer looks like he’s hurting—probably more from the nightbreath than Keith’s outstanding sense of humor—and Keith thinks, deliriously, desperately, that he's just entered the ninth circle of liking Lance, charmingly dubbed Lost Cause in his own head. 

He is a total lost cause. You can't fish someone from the water if they're already well on their way to drowning.

You’re a momentary lapse in my control, he thinks about retorting, but Lance doesn’t feel ephemeral. He is nothing a round of cryostasis can erase. Nothing so simple, so easily broken or extinguished, as a fever or a flame. “When you know which battles or big-bads you can’t beat,” he hears his father say in his ear, “you’ll know when to turn tail and run for the hills. That’s the important thing, squirt.”

Keith likes to think he’s pretty okay at identifying losing battles and unbeatable big-bads. It’s just that they’ve never daunted or deterred him before. In all the years he’s been alive, he’s always sprinted in the wrong direction entirely, like a defective compass. Propelled headlong into danger and peril and certain death instead of away from it.

Right now, Keith is running recklessly for open sea and doesn’t even feel all that sorry about it. He thinks his father’s ghost is probably chewing his nails into oblivion, scared stiff, wherever he is postmortem.

• • •

“This feels strangely familiar,” Lance says, teasing, as Keith carries him to his healing pod.

Keith says, “I wish you’d shut up sometimes.”

“Do you, though?” Lance says, brows going smug. He’s got a smirk on his mouth that Keith wants to kiss into nonexistence. “Do you really, truly, my knight in shining bonding moments?”

Keith hums mildly and ascends the final step, stopping in front of Lance’s healing pod. “We’ll talk when you’re all healed up.”

“Cheater.” Lance plants his feet on the floor, hands stuck to Keith’s shoulders, and he takes a tiny step back, into the cool depths of his pod, as though reluctant to put even an inch of space between himself and Keith. “I’m totally one-hundred percent, laserfire injury and minor concussion notwithstanding.”

“Who says you get to make all the rules, McClain?” Keith volleys. He backs up a few paces and Lance’s hands fall to his sides, sort of sadly.

Lance gives a petulant shrug. “It’s my game,” he says, in the voice a boy spoiled rotten. “Read the fineprint first. I have extensive Terms and Conditions, you know.”

“And what game, exactly,” says Keith, thinking privately of his hands at the unzipped mouth of Lance’s undersuit, of Lance’s dilated pupils, his open mouth, “would that be?”

Lance looks at Keith a moment, considering. He must sense the dangerous nature of the question, see the tripwires and snare-traps Keith’s left him, because he steps inside his pod fully and folds either arm across his chest in a mirror of Keith, now refusing to relinquish even an inch.

“I’ll let you know when I find out,” Lance says eventually.

Keith’s mouth tightens with dissatisfaction and he feels abruptly caged in. By Lance’s leonine stare, by ambiguity, by a building sense of uncertainty in the face of a now-forgotten faith. He’s back in a shabby chapel in El Paso and everyone around him is speaking in tongues.

“Do that,” he says and looks away, watching Coran fiddle with the pod’s temperature and time settings.

“Wait for me,” Lance says. It’s not a question and the combative tone of voice he uses only serves to further endear him to Keith, to Keith’s immense frustration. “And, look. Pidge didn’t mean what she said earlier. She’s too young to know any better. We all you want you back. Allura, included. If either of them give you a hard time, it’s only because they care. Okay?”

“Yeah,” Keith says, irritated. “Okay. Message received.”

“Keith,” Lance says, sharp as shrapnel.

Keith looks up and finds himself pinned. On a good day, a round under Lance’s bright eyes can be as flustering as turning your face up to a star sans sunblock. Tonight, this fact is less easy to swallow than usual.

“Will you wait for me?” It comes out quieter than the rest, and a bit of Lance’s doubt seems to seep out alongside it, like he can’t help his uncertainty where Keith and his crossed arms are concerned.

A spiteful part of Keith thinks about ignoring the question. He buries the cruel urge and says, “I always have.”

“...Oh. I guess you’re right,” says Lance, and he tips his head back, wondering. He has a look on his face like he’s glimpsing the universe anew. “Wow.” An awful chuckle leaves his lips. “I’m an idiot.”

“Lance...? Wait—” Keith says, alarmed, but by then the healing pod’s doors have slid shut with a hiss of displaced air, sealing Lance behind foggy glass.

“Let’s give him some breathing room, shall we?” Coran says, politely intervening. He lowers his hand from the pod’s control panel, tucks it behind himself. “He’ll be more than fine once we’ve gotten electrolytes and antibiotics into his system. It should only be about a varga of cryosleep for him, at most. Let’s you and I thank our lucky stars we’ve got technology like this on hand. Can’t say I’m exceptional at skin grafting or scar removal myself. Alfor liked to say I make a terrible medic. Wonderful royal advisor and nutritionist. Terrible medic.”

Keith appreciates the use of a plural pronoun. We. It makes him feel more useful than he is. Sighing, he descends two steps to seat himself at the third, setting his chin on folded arms. “Thanks, Coran.”

“My pleasure,” says Coran, bowing. “Actually, if I might, I’d like to thank you.”

Keith feels his brow crease with confusion. “Me…? Why me?”

“I’m glad,” Coran goes on, “that Lance has someone like you around now. Things have been rough aboard the ship of late, as I’m sure you’re aware. But especially rough for Lance. He’s in dire need of someone he can lean on and I’m sure he’s still recovering from all this Allura business.” A contemplative frown. “But you, Keith, are a tower of strength, and we’re all very pleased you and Lance have set aside your differences in pursuance of friendship.”

“I’m not a tower,” Keith says automatically, then replays Coran’s words in his head. “Wait. What Allura business?”

Coran pockets his washcloth and hunkers down next to Keith, crossing his legs at the ankles. “She and Lance have grown quite close since you’ve left the team,” he says, as though divulging a high-security secret. “I don’t think either expected it with how they interacted in the beginning. They’re quite like you and Lance that way, come to think of it. But, of course, Lotor has made a mess of things between them and it’s clear that’s wounded Lance.”

“Oh,” Keith says, heart sinking. “Right.”

The revelation shouldn’t be as shocking as it is, with how many times Keith’s confronted it, and hacked it into tiny little pieces since meeting Lance. He has no right to the hot coal of betrayal burning in his belly. He’s never been a front-runner for Lance’s attention. Allura has.

Keith knows this.

He still remembers lingering at Lance’s healing pod after Sendak’s attack on the Castle. He’d tried not to let it show on his face, though he knew it had to be practically bleeding from his pores—how badly he wanted to see Lance, made shiny and new and okay again. The sense-memory of Lance’s leather-lined hand against his was playing on a loop in Keith’s head and he felt tingly with impatience.

A thrill went through him every time he imagined how this moment might play out.

And then it had, beginning and ending with Lance’s dark eyes, insistent on Allura’s face, his grinning mouth aimed at her where he was bent over and resting his weight against Hunk, and all the light went out of Keith like a candle’s smothered flame.

He’d stopped hoping for anything after that. He’s only just let himself begin again.

Now, he presses the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and forces his head down, rubbing furiously. His face feels flushed hot and he’s mortified at the thought of crying in front of Coran over something so inconsequential as Lance’s friendship with a pretty girl.

Shaky with panic, Keith employs all the lesser known precautions he’s grown up memorizing.

When he was eleven or twelve, the first time it occurred to him to think about this, he sat scowling in a booth at a Tex-Mex hole in the wall called Los Banditos. He had his feet up against the pleather seats, which was number two on Akira Kogane’s list of Biggest Pet Peeves. The few times he’d caught Keith doing it on the rare occasion that they ate out—mostly at rest stop diners or peanut-littered bars—he’d cuff him lightly on the back of his head and say, “Where are your manners, boy?” and Keith would sometimes reply, “I forgot them at home,” which they both got a kick out of and which earned Keith the moniker “smartass.”

In defiance of his father’s absence, Keith left his feet there, on the seat of his booth in that little Mexican bistro, growing red with anger.

He kept saying how he wanted to talk to his dad, in the same voice criminals in cop shows said, “I want to speak to a lawyer,” which his father only ever let him watch when they were dozing on the couch together and he was too exhausted to deny Keith his guilty pleasures.

Keith said, “I want my dad,” for the fifth time in a row, and the woman seated across from him, who wore a metal name tag pinned to her lapel that Keith refused to make eye contact with (because that would mean admitting defeat), kept urging him to order something from the menu.

She said he could have anything he wanted, all soft and gentle-like, as though she had reason to feel sorry for him. That felt altogether condescending coming from a woman who looked neat and steam-pressed in her pantsuit and like she had a functional family waiting for her back home that made her sensitive to Keith’s situation, but also relieved that she wasn’t in his same position, sitting small and frightened in a restaurant he’d never been to while a stranger talked to him like he was some kind of spooked animal.

Adults were always looking down their noses at Keith. His father was the one guy who never did it, who could call Keith names while scrubbing his knuckles through his hair and Keith never even cared, except to pretend like he did, so he could rile the man up and maybe then they’d have an impromptu pillow fight with sheet-capes or a pretend shootout using their finger guns, which was Keith’s favorite.

He dug his ruined sneakers harder into the red pleather, said, “I want my dad,” in an ugly tone of voice, ruinous-sounding, and he felt his chin tremble with a rising sob.

The woman waved a waiter wearing a sarape sash over to order for Keith, and that was ten times as embarrassing, so he turned his head to stare out the window their table was leaned up against, and then at the resin tabletop, and then at the wall across from their booth, which read, ROMPE LAS FRONTERAS! in big, firetruck red block letters. Keith wasn’t sure what that meant but at the moment he’d give anything to know.

He felt light-headed with how little he knew, just then.

The main thing he didn’t know was how to keep from crying. He was sure that it would be a terrible display of weakness, and he didn’t want this strange lady to have more power over him, so he clutched his thighs with blanching knuckles and thought up his happiest memories. Most featured his father, and his battered Chevy, and the wind in Keith’s overlong bangs while an XTC song played, and how he sometimes stuck his hand out the open window, cupping fistfuls of air to feel like he was holding something invisible, and his father would sing, low and melodious, “‘Dear Gooood...I can’t believe in...I don’t believe in...I won’t believe in heaven and hell...no saints, no sinners…’”

It was one of his favorite songs to play on cassette. Once or twice Keith had asked why they routinely attended Sunday Mass if he didn’t believe, and his father replied, “It’s just a song, buddy. ‘Sides, I want you to have all kinds of knowledge before you make your mind up about the world. And hey, free food’s free food.”

“So you wouldn’t care if I didn’t believe in God?” asked Keith.

“Keith...kid…” his father said, eyes crinkling at the corners with old crow’s feet, “you could...you could...fuck, I don’t know? You could sign your soul away to NASA on your eighteenth and I wouldn’t care except to worry about the risk of alien abduction, if it was what you loved and believed in.”

“NASA’s cool,” said Keith, thoughtful. “Why are you so sure aliens exist, but not God?”

“Call it a hunch,” his father said, smiling something softly cryptic at Keith.

“Okay, so what if I wanted to be a lion tamer? Would you still love me then?” Keith pressed, secretly enthralled by the idea.

At this, his father barked a laugh and touched Keith’s temple with his toughened, leathery palm. “Yeah, squirt, even then. Sprout a second head, or turn purple if you want. I’ll still love you. It’s all a part of my job description, alright? Unconditional love—that’s about the only thing I’m certain of.”

So thinking about that didn’t end up helping with Keith’s crying, because it made him miss his dad harder. He swallowed thickly and looked up at the restaurant’s popcorn ceiling through his lashes, hoping to blink the moisture away, and the woman eventually explained in calm, soothing tones that they were going to be relocating Keith because his father had been in an accident, and everything was going to be okay, they’d find Keith a forever-home (like he was a stray dog in need of rehabilitation or something), and did he want to take his food to go? And then Keith couldn’t hold it in anymore and felt himself going to pieces right there in that little restaurant in front of all the Spanish-speaking patrons, and he kept hearing his father singing, you’re always lettin’ us humans down, the wars you bring, the babes you drown, those lost at sea and neeever found, and his crying came out harsher and more raspy to his own ears.

Who knew what it sounded like to the rest of them.

During the car ride to gather up his things and say goodbye to their empty apartment, Keith pressed his forehead to the glass of the nameless woman's Toyota and thought about how he was never going to let another human see him cry again if it meant he would have to feel like this afterwards—helpless and naked and all alone.

And so he still remembers all the little steps he taught himself.

Swallow hard. Clench your mouth, teeth be damned. Eat any sounds that try to escape. Keeping blinking. Don’t stop blinking, whatever you do. Look up if you can. Imagine anything else. Erase all evidence to the contrary and let no one see.

His brain gets away from him in that moment, and he starts thinking about being Lance’s stand-in Allura, and then he has to restart the whole process over again with how fiercely the envy behind his eyes stings.

Suddenly, a hand alights on Keith’s back, gentle as a butterfly. “Are you all right, my boy?”

For all the ways Coran’s knowledge seems limitless at times, he can be one of the most oblivious people in the universe. Keith doesn’t hold it against him. He can’t have known what his words would do.

“Fine,” Keith says, after he’s gotten a lid on his howling heart. He picks his head up and stares straight ahead, eyes dry. “Listen, Coran. Can you tell Allura that I’m sorry for taking things out on her earlier? I was just—frustrated and really worried about Lance. That’s not an excuse, but...it’s something.”

“Of course,” Coran says, hesitant. “Are you heading off? Without a goodbye? I’d thought—”

“Just need some air, I think,” Keith says. He pushes to his feet and yanks his hood down over his face, activating his Marmora mask. Cry all you like now, his father says in his head, and Keith remembers wrapping his arms around the man’s middle and burying his face in his back where he smelled of plaster and cleaning chemicals. You’re full to bursting with how much you hide, kid. How much you feel. “And...I’m glad you made it back to us. That Alfor saved your life, I mean. I’m sorry about the Queen...and...and everything else...and I wish things could have been different, but...I’m not sorry that she refused to let you die in her place.”

For a moment, Coran says nothing. Then he’s looking at Keith with the beginnings of something thunderstruck. “You think she knew all along.” It’s not a question. “That it was a suicide mission...seeking out those daybreath blooms on her own.”

Keith shrugs and turns his back on Coran. “I think she knew the risks,” he says, and starts for the medbay’s exit without looking back. “You have to, when you love someone that much. Whether she’s a fool for it is none of my business.”

• • •

He sweats out all his angst against a couple high-level gladiator bots on the training deck for the next hour and thinks about how he can’t be resentful of Allura for sweeping away with Lance’s fickle attention. Not when she’s as endlessly giving as her AI juniberry field, and lovely-looking to most pairs of eyes (even much of the ones that belong to women), and maybe the strongest person Keith’s ever known.

She and Lance make a pretty pair—svelte, warm-toned, with eyes like newly-polished sapphire stones—even despite the fact that there’s never been an ounce of reciprocal romance between them, as far as Keith knows. Though, he thinks with mild annoyance, there’s a lot he doesn’t know these days. Too much, in fact, though that’s no one’s fault but his own.

And anyway, most romances begin with friendship, especially those that bud out here, forged from the fire and the tentative alliances between war-companions. For just a startling, blink-and-you-miss-it moment, Keith had thought maybe that was the path he and Lance were barreling towards at full-speed.

Who’s to say Lance hadn’t been thinking that same thing about his friendship with Allura just last month?

Keith falls into a faintly familiar groove in this fashion, whirling and whipping his luxite sword around, soaking his suit with sweat the longer he’s at it. He doesn’t even realize how much he’s missed castleship sparring, absent of spectators or even a sense of contest, until he’s back in Lance’s bedroom and panting under the now-familiar blue glow, endorphins rushing.

Against Lance’s empty inner sanctum, Keith’s barren old bedroom is still the far more frightening option, so he shoves aside all the warnings in his head about social mores and waiting for a person to invite you inside of their room before barging in, and undresses down to his undersuit.

Spent, he props himself up against the nearest wall and slides slowly down into a ninety-degree sprawl. His legs spill forward in a puddle of black, floppy with exhaustion. He tips his head back till one of Lance’s gleaming medals—IN RECOGNITION OF LANCE MCCLAIN’S SERVICE AS THE BLUE PALADIN, it reads—brushes his scalp.

Keith’s mind went white with quiet after that first fifteen minutes of violence in a controlled environment and he basks in the mental dead air now. Nothing but static, he thinks, growing calm. Static, and a lone pang of nostalgia.

“Martial arts training of some kind seems like a productive outlet for someone with Keith’s...propensity for anger,” one of Keith’s old grade-school teachers had proposed to his father during a hushed parent-teacher conference in which Keith sat pretending to flip through a book on marine biology while he eavesdropped.

He was enrolled in a children’s martial arts program the following week, where he went on to devote a fitful two years to learning taekwondo from a wizened old Korean expatriate, with impressive results. The lessons sapped too much from his father’s already measly paychecks, though, so that for that half of their stay in El Paso they were forced to get by on ramen packets, and Goldfish crackers and jello cups lifted from Keith’s afterschool program.

On his first day of lessons, his father had Keith stand outside the little training hall at the Texas mallway in his thrift store dobok for a picture.

“Say cheese, pipsqueak!” his father called, holding up a disposable camera and demonstrating his own toothpaste commercial-worthy grin.

Keith gave an embarrassed scowl, though he knew he secretly enjoyed the attention—was starved of it, really—and the shutter went off with a flash of white light, his father laughing.

He’s still thinking about that laugh when the doors to Lance’s bedroom part with a whisper some minutes later. Keith looks down his tipped-back chin at the familiar angles of Lance in the doorway—long-legged, angular, wiry where war has made a weapon of his body.

With something already verging on instinctual, Keith maps out the hurt shining like a bruise on Lance’s face.

Oh.

He swallows his guilt down until he feels it like a physical knot in his throat.

“You weren’t—you didn’t wait,” says Lance, sounding deeply wounded, and Keith thinks he should be windswept and weeping, set against a rainy background in a major motion picture, with how convincing his sadness feels in this moment.

“I,” says Keith, and flounders momentarily. “Yeah, um. Look. I’m sorry—”

“Oh, thank God, me too,” Lance says with relief, his shoulders drooping.

“What?” Keith picks his head up, bores a hole into Lance’s forehead with his stare. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

“Lots of stuff,” Lance says, suddenly chipper, and he breezes into the bedroom as his doors slide closed behind him. Keith notices, suddenly and profoundly, that he’s shower-damp, hair curling handsomely across his forehead, near his ears, at his collar, longer in places than Keith remembers, and the dried blood is gone from his face. It’s almost worse than if he’d walked in stark naked, the natural intimacy of it. “My overwhelming good looks, for one thing. My huge lionheart, for another—I’m a Gryffindor, in case you hadn’t noticed—and my inability to remove large spiders with anything less than oven mitts and tongs, which Pidge thinks contradicts my house placement. Hunk says I’m probably just a closet arachnophobe or something.”

“Lance,” says Keith.

Lance says, “Ugh, fine, okay!”

Keith waits with arms folded, patient.

Lance sighs and scrubs a hand through his wet hair, shooting Keith an untidy look. “So, look. I...it feels like you and me are on different pages sometimes. Or like—not even different pages. Like we’re two completely different books and you’re a New York Times bestseller sitting in the nonfiction section and I’m all the way with the 50c reject comics and all the screaming little kids with sticky hands. And...I have no way of finding out what I want to know, with—with how far away you are sometimes.

“And on the off chance that the librarian misplaces one of us and we’re shoved together, it’s still like...I don’t even know how to ask you what I want to know. It’s like you said. You’re written in a language I’ve never learned and that’s deeply offensive to my bilingual heart. And—and other times, I’ll catch a glimpse of something from you...something that barely makes sense, that feels...impossible...and it totally takes me out at the kneecaps. I’m currently knee-less and super confused, dude. And so, I’m sorry about noticing everything so late and still needing your help understanding it all. Do you...do you get what I’m saying?”

He recognizes the rambling as one of Lance’s messier extended metaphors, his way of trying to convey something through a mixed bag of jumbled images. Keith thinks Lance would probably make a terrible professional artist and also that Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” was easier to understand than those last few sentences.

“Uh,” says Keith. “Sorry, no? I’m not really following.”

“I’m just,” says Lance. He turns to his wardrobe to root around a moment for his Altean robes. “I guess I’m still stuck trying to figure out how you feel about me. I think I know...and other times I’m like...no way, you know? ‘Cause, dude, you’re the craziest mixed signal I’ve ever met. You’re like...a stop sign, if stop signs said stuff like, ‘PROCEED...WITH CAUTION...IF YOU WISH TO DIE...OF FRIENDSHIP...AND ANGST!’” This last bit, he shouts.

Keith’s mouth dries at about the same time that his palms begin to sweat. The million dollar question, he thinks, and he’s dirt poor.

“Do you want another metaphor?” Lance asks, when Keith fails to respond to the previous three. “I have one involving waking up at three AM, Legos, and me accidentally peeing in the laundry room sink instead of the toilet.”

“I—think that’s enough metaphors for one night,” Keith manages.

Lance chuckles and begins peeling off his undersuit. Keith doesn’t duck his head against this new knowledge, bright and simmering, quick enough. He glimpses the blades of Lance’s back like bird’s wings, rippling beneath brown flesh. The taper of broad shoulders into slim hips. His dimpled lower back.

Saliva floods Keith’s mouth and he presses his eyes into his folded arms till he sees stars.

“Yeah, so like,” Lance’s floating voice says. “What I’m trying to say is...I’m devoting a lot of brain power to this burning question. Way too much, in fact. My grandma Elena’s ghost, God bless her, is almost certainly mourning all my lost brain cells at this very second, wagging her finger at Jesus Christ—may his everlasting soul rest in peace—and such. So, in the name of science...and religion...and their beautiful union, Keith, if you could just—put me out of my misery and let me know.”

“Know…?” Keith echoes weakly.

“I mean...if you think hanging out with me is medieval torture,” Lance says, “or if...um...if it’s as nice for you as it is for me.”

The underhanded confession is a brilliant spot of heat behind Keith’s sternum. His heart eats at it, soaring with joy and smug admissions of, I knew it, I knew he had to like me at least a little!

Shut up, Keith thinks, with force.

“I.” He lifts his head from his arms, struck dumb by this new information. His world scrambles to adjust to it. “I already told you that I want to be friends. On...on Noeg. That—implies things about how I feel.”

Lance, now in his ocean blue sleepwear, perches criss-cross applesauce on his mattress, his—thankfully—clothed back to the wall. He looks at Keith, wry, says, “In not so many words.”

“Lance, you know I don’t usually...that I’m not good at…” Keith trails off, unsure how to express the nature of his feelings to the object of his affections without blowing his lousy cover and sending the whole structure toppling to the ground in a spray of ash and dust. Then he remembers. “Look. Just—check your handheld.”

“What…? Why? Did you spam me with more personality quizzes so we could compare results? Oh, I got ‘dragon’ on the last one, breed unspecified,” Lance says, hunting around his tangle of sheets and pillows for his little orange communicator. He comes up with it seconds later, then ticks off his quiz-backed dragon qualities on each finger: “‘Warm-hearted, easily excited, loves being the center of attention, secretly holds grudges.’ Et cetera. What about you?”

“There are no dragon breeds to specify because they don’t exist,” Keith says automatically, then promptly dodges a flying pillow aimed at his face.

Lance says, “You take that back, naysayer!”

Keith hugs the pillow to his chest and glares. “No. And...I got ‘elf’ on the quiz.” Then: “Shut up.”

“Pft,” Lance snorts. He claps a hand over his mouth. His grin peeks out behind his fingers. “You mean to tell me...you got those tiny little guys with the giant belts and atrocious shoes? That is so spot on.”

“Gnomes,” says Keith, sure he’s right. “You’re thinking of gnomes.”

“I’m pretty sure gnomes are just asshole elves. Probably North Pole fugitives, though I’d have to check with Santa to be sure,” Lance says, and Keith doesn’t even want to begin to unpack that. “Hm. On second thought, maybe that quiz wasn’t so accurate. You’d definitely be the asshole of the supernatural dwarf kingdom.”

“Oh my god,” Keith groans from the floor, rubbing at his face and spluttering a tired laugh. “Lance.”

“Ooh, right, right, right. Checking now!” says Lance, and turns on his handheld.

Keith spies his own laughing face, captured in picture perfect stillness, below the time display of Lance’s lockscreen, head tossed back against an old Noeg tree trunk. He feels his real face go up in flames and averts his eyes a moment. The ornery little voice in the back of his head is already trying to spin this in a million increasingly romantic directions, so he bullies it into silence and gives Lance his eyes again.

“Dang, dude,” Lance says, messing around with his transmission app. “You really blew up my…”

Keith only notices because he’s looking for it by that point, and then, because he’s the one who sent Lance the five plain-text transmissions in the first place. He watches it register in tiny, incremental physical signals. First, Lance’s thumb, which begins tap-tap-tapping at the back of his handheld in a nervous rhythm. Then his eyes, wide and water-like. And finally, his mouth, where it’s gone completely still. Bowled over by the notion of Keith’s worry, made legible, in a language he knows intimately.

Keith can see all the transmissions he’s left Lance in his own head.

Are you OYW (on your way)?

Hey. Are u OK? Let me know if something came up. Just want to know that ur all safe. OK. Thanx.

Sorry to be annoying. Kind of worried over here. Message back soon. Hope ur OK. OK. Bye.

OK, if this is a joke it isn’t funny. Starting to understand how you feel when I drop off the grid out of nowhere for a BOM mission. Anyway. I’ve got an hour before Kolivan reassigns me somewhere else. Except that doesn’t even matter, if ur hurt. Or worse. Don’t be worse, OK? Stay safe.

If you haven’t responded in the next 15 minutes, I’m commandeering a cruiser and risking my hide to hunt you down. You’re not flaking on me, McClain, and you’re definitely not dying on me either. And if it turns out that you’re just napping or something, you owe me 100 of those specialty cacao-flavored candies from the Hexe star system that you let me try last week. No….1000. Message back soon. OK. Bye.

Keith can’t watch any longer. He draws his knees up to his chest, pillow squished between stomach and thighs, and presses his chin to them, arms wrapped protectively around himself. Across the room, a limited edition Lance action figure poses on the flat surface of Lance’s crowded desk, in full paladin garb. Keith stares hard at his shiny little plastic sniper.

“Oh,” Lance says.

Keith darts a look at him, then away. Then back again, helpless. Lance seems reawakened by Keith’s confession, however nonverbal it may be. He’s got the strangest look on his face, like he’s just had the rug ripped out from underneath his feet, or like he’s returned to the land of the living after a lifetime among the dead.

He wonders how long Lance has spent misreading Keith’s feelings, how much has wound up lost in translation between their two clumsy, teenage tongues. Then he wonders how long he’s spent broadcasting his own feelings—extensive and bulky—all wrong, giving Lance nothing but brick wall when he’d maybe wanted Keith’s hand, or Keith’s smile, or even just Keith’s words.

“Yeah,” Keith says, hot-cheeked. “So there’s your answer.”

“Wait,” says Lance. “Oh. Oh? I think I get it. Maybe.”

Keith hugs his pillow and his knees harder and squints up at Lance, wary.

“Wait, okay, so...lemme see if I understand this right,” says Lance and he all of a sudden sics his bright eyes and smiling mouth on Keith, no warning given.

Absently, Keith wonders how Allura could brush this sort of thing aside, unfazed, each time Lance turned his megawatt stare on her in the past. Keith is the farthest thing from unaffected. He feels like a drowning sailor dragged into the blue by a siren.

“What you’re getting at,” says Lance, “is that you...Keith Kogane...care about…? Me? Lance ‘Lucero’ McClain? First of his name? Most beautiful boy in the universe?”

Keith does not dignify this with a response.

“Hoooh my God, I think it just hit me!” Lance says. He lowers his chin into his hand, peers over at Keith with something smugly delighted. “Wait, wait! Can I get it in writing? Can you say it out loud for me?”

“Absolutely not,” says Keith, his neck burning.

“What!” Lance puts on his sad puppy dog face. “Dude! Get your tush over here. C’mon”—an inviting little pat pat, palm-to-mattress—“you can’t fool me anymore. Cop a squat and open your heart to me, french fry.”

Keith tries to muster up a proper scowl and probably fails miserably. “Don’t call me that.”

“Tater tot,” Lance amends. He then sticks his hands out and wiggles his fingers at Keith enthusiastically. “Pwease.”

Keith narrows his eyes.

Lance widdens his and folds his bottom lip out further. To add insult to injury, he clasps his hands to his chest and tilts his head at an adorable and frankly irresistible angle.

“Oh my god,” Keith mutters and pushes to his feet. He sets his pillow aside and plants himself on the furthermost edge of Lance’s mattress. “Why is it that you have a laundry list of nicknames for me and no one else?”

“I prefer to call them terms of endearment, Lorde’s ‘Melodrama,’” Lance says. “And to answer your question, I reserve my coolest and most clever nicknames, such as ‘Bidi Bidi Bom Bom’ and, ‘coconut butt,’ for my favorite people.”

Keith pauses, searching Lance over for even a hint of sarcasm or irony.

“That was your last free confession of the night. No more till I get something of my own out of you!” Lance says, plowing right through Keith’s silence. He scoots forward some and grabs hold of Keith’s left bicep, then yanks with all his might—of which there is apparently plenty, holy shit.

Keith smashes into Lance’s chest with a sharp inhale. He rears back, says, “Dick! Why don’t you dislocate my shoulder while you’re at it?” and shoves him, watching with vindictive glee as the momentum sends Lance’s head ricocheting off the wall.

“Ow, the sale section of Forever 21! How many times must you wrong me!” Lance shouts, rubbing his head. “So I don’t know my own extremely sexy strength! Sue me! Me and all my gorgeously chiseled muscles!”

“You are so goddamn irritating all the time,” Keith says, but his mouth is saying something else entirely. He can hear himself laughing like a deranged little kid, all breathless and hiccupy and laugh gas-happy.

“Shut up and confess your secret friendship feelings to me!” Lance says, lunging.

Keith dives under his arm and twists around like a freshwater fish, pushing Lance’s face into a pillow. He chokes on his laughter, saying, “No way in hell!”

“Motherfucker!” Lance yells into the pillow, muffled, and Keith’s attempt at getting his bearings back is foiled as a fresh wave of laughter drags him under. Beneath him, Lance flails till his face is free, says around his labored breathing, “Is this a Scorpio thing—you refusing to spill the beans to me? I demand to see your birth chart immediately!”

Keith rests his forehead against Lance’s spine and gulps in large lungfuls of air.

“Oh, or is it a repressed emo boy thing? That I can deal with. Wait, hold on—I was just hit with a stroke of genius! Move over!” Lance pushes out from under Keith, dislodging the both of them, and roots around in the mess of rucked up blankets for his handheld. “You can tell me all your friendship feelings through text! That’s clearly easier for you, right?”

“Um.” Keith sits up, laughter leaving him, and watches Lance type furiously into his communication device. Moments later, something is vibrating near Keith’s thigh. He tugs his own handheld free and clicks it on.

The first transmission notification he sees is from Pidge.

Hey, the message reads. Sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t really mean it how it came out. I guess it’s just been weird seeing you leave and then turn up again out of nowhere, only you’re suddenly like Lance’s new best friend after ages of...whatever bizarre alpha male shit you two used to get up to. Everything feels weird and wonky. But it’s not your fault, obv. Anyway, I made you a new sticker pack to make up for it. Use at your leisure.

Below this, Pidge has sent an animated sticker of the Green Lion doing a backflip and blowing a kiss to someone offscreen. Her yellow eyes are sparkly all over.

Keith clicks open the sticker pack and waits as the automatic download process begins. An icon popup reads, View stickers. He presses this and pulls up three new pages of cartoon caricatures, all of them tiny and wiggling. A little Red Lion gives him the finger and a twirling Hunk sticks up the peace sign. Keith flicks through his options, then stops abruptly.

Fuck you, he types, and attaches the sticker of him and cartoon Lance with hands locked.

Thought you’d like that one :-), comes Pidge’s immediate reply. Hunk helped me with it.

GARRETT, HUNK (HANDHELD): Hehehe sorry Keith! :P Love you!! x

MCCLAIN, LANCE (HANDHELD): PAY ATTENTION TO ME!!!!!!!!!!!!

Keith glances up from his handheld to find Lance has also prepared a sulky little glower for the occasion. Probably, Lance is expecting Keith to wilt beneath it. Instead, he finds himself laughing all over again.

“I’m going, I’m going,” he says, lowering his eyes back to his screen and opening up their two-person transmission thread.

Hello and Welcome to your personalized Lance survey! (ㆁᴗㆁ✿)

I don’t recall agreeing to a Lance survey.

you will complete your lance survey and you will LIKE IT (≖ᴗ≖✿) - lance

Or what?

or i am revoking your lance friendship privileges - lance

Hmmmmmm. I’m listening.

that’s what i THOUGHT - lance

[back to Survey]

first question...

1. Do you, Keith Kogane, care––deeply and for all time––about Lance McClain?

a. undoubtedly

b. sort of maybe [call me maybe (nightcore remix)]

c. refuse to answer [this still means yes]

d. no and i’m lying

Keith tries and fails to smother a snicker. Lance shoves him, squawking, “Answer!”

E.

THATS NOT A FUCKING OPTION KEITH

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

you are being SO DIFFICULT RN (right now)

i’m gonna YELL!!!!!

A., then.

There’s an obvious lull in transmissions after that. Keith chances a look at Lance out of the corner of his eye, finds him biting his lip down at his screen, a stupid smile emerging against his canine’s best efforts. Keith’s face warms pleasantly. He returns his attention to his handheld.

2. Please rate weekend chill seshes with Lance, on a scale of 1-10.

(1 being Jared Leto’s performance in Suicide Squad Levels of Disappointing, 10 being This Is What I Imagine Hanging Out With Rihanna At Disneyland Feels Like)

10

-10*

KEITH DONT JOKE

20

20????!

Did I stutter

out of what??

10

Next to him, Lance breathes out quietly in surprise.

OH

:o

Next question.

um

okay

3. What is your favorite Lance feature?

All answers acceptable.

Hm

This question doesn’t feel very friendship-related....

Could it instead be....

a weak attempt at getting me to stroke your ego?

On record?

maybe my ego is a little persian kitten and she wants the pets, keith, did you ever think about that

Why would you use this imagery on me, knowing how I feel about Persian kittens

(; ̄︶ ̄)

This is a gross abuse of power and you are soulless little boy

meow <:^3

Is that a cat?

How come it’s one-eared?

that’s its party hat

Oh OK

<:^3 meow answer the question if you plz (please)

Eyes, then.

Or smile.

No, wait...

Hands, maybe.

Next.

“Hands?” Lance mutters to himself, like he’s forgotten who he’s sitting beside. He shifts around on the bed, brow crinkled.

oh,,

okay

i was

ok

my hands…?

why my hands???

Lance

rightrightright

4. Please list any likes/dislikes about Lance + weekend chill sessions with Lance

(this is the only time i will accept constructive criticism so speak now or forever hold your peace)

Keith hums thoughtfully to himself.

Like

• Joint naps

• Riding in Red with you

• Your nicknames 

Dislike

• When you get hurt

• When you annoy me

Aloud, Lance bursts into laughter. He turns to send Keith a giddy look, like he can’t believe he’s living in a world where his antics are being indulged, by his former aviation rival no less. “‘When you annoy me?’ Can you elaborate on that, by chance…? How should I correct my ways, wise guy?”

“Don’t be annoying,” Keith says simply.

“Stunning feedback,” Lance mutters, grinning, and types into his handheld. “Constructive, as always, Kogane.”

final question

5. Do you..........Keith,

Consider Lance........

Your bestest friend in the whole wide universe?

I would say I consider him my middlest friend.

Lance makes a noise of protest, mock-offended and amping up the dramatics for Keith’s entertainment, and he says, “Take it back, you little punk,” very low and taunting and Lance-of-last-year-like. It feels barbarous as the thorny little flowers of their old rivalry, but beautiful on top of that, because Lance is no longer shoving them towards the cliff’s edge of unkindness, is now trying to back Keith into a wall of friendship and transmission confessions and warm, wandering hands.

So when Keith bares his teeth in some semblance of a smiling challenge—his own new and improved take on an old rivalry—Lance doesn’t hesitate before pouncing, bearing down on Keith from above with his dripping curls and his winsome face, mouth upturned like it never used to be. Keith makes a halfhearted attempt at rolling away, but Lance already has him caged and by then his fingers have descended.

Keith barely gets out an outraged, “Lance!” before he’s dissolved into giggles.

“Admit it!” Lance says, tickling. “Admit you cherish my beautiful face and I will retract my extremely gentle hands, which you supposedly love!”

“Shut up, shut up, ah!” Keith thrashes in his grip, body convulsing with laughter. He shoves a palm into Lance’s face, yells, “I’m gonna—!”

“Gonna...?” Lance echoes, smiling goofily.

“Gonna—!” He tries to force his next words out on a free breath, but even just thinking about saying them aloud makes the laughter come harder and faster. He squeezes his eyes shut and chokes: “Gonna wet your bed!”

“You mean to tell me,” says Lance, now wheezing with laughter of his own, “these Marmorite suits aren’t diaper-lined like Kolivan led me to believe? What with his...oh my God, Keeeith...constipated face? His—his constant shit-taking expressions? Please don’t tell him I said that. Keith—I’m choking. I—I’m—!”

Keith’s so full to the brim with finespun, floaty feelings of happiness that he doesn’t even think twice about wrapping his arms around Lance’s neck and tugging him down, maybe in an effort to halt the tickling but most probably because he wants to get his hands on Lance, wants to feel him back, and he’s breathless with laughter when he begs, “Gonna pee, gonna pee, gonna pee, Lance!”

Lance laughs harder, his face a delighted, blotchy red, says, “You’re crying—! Keith!” and then his hands have stopped tickling to settle warmly against Keith’s hips and Keith is blowing out a breath of relief and smiling up at Lance’s hand drawn map of Cuba, on the butcher paper with the tiny winking stars, and Lance is burying his face in Keith’s neck, which is a startling if gratifying development in their newish friendship, but then, out of nowhere, Lance has decided to blindside the both of them by twisting at the neck as if on accidental, untamed, red paladin-brand impulse, by breathing, “I love hanging out with you,” and aiming a sloppy, offcenter kiss to Keith’s wet face.

It lands on the apple of Keith’s right cheek.

Keith freezes, arms tightening around Lance on instinct. His heart feels like it’s trying to wallop its way out of his chest.

Lance goes suddenly rigid with realization.

Keith says, eyes huge, “Wha—”

“Um,” says Lance, where his mouth is still pressed hot and unthinking to Keith’s cheek.

“You,” Keith says.

“Oh, holy hell, I,” says Lance, and he wrenches back hard enough to break free of Keith’s hold. His whole face is a flaming red, the worst Keith has ever seen it. “Fuck, wait! I didn’t mean to—! Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry!”

Keith sits up in a spine-tingling daze. His cheek won’t stop burning, yearning flames after Lance’s lips. “Lance.”

“Goodnight forever, forget that happened!” say Lance. He throws himself down on the opposite end of the bed and yanks his Voltron quilt up over his face, Keith’s masterfully-sewn paladin patch sitting right over his moving, muttering mouth. “Shit, shit, shit. What the fuck was that! ¡Estúpido!”

“I can hear you, you know,” says Keith, from the other end of the bed. “Also, I passed intermediate Spanish with flying colors.”

“Go away! No one’s home!” Lance yells from under his blanket.

“I can see you, too,” says Keith.

Lance says, “Your eyes are lying to you. You should head back to Earth right now immediately, have the Garrison check that out for you!”

“Lance,” Keith says, crawling towards the dark lump pressed close to the wall, shoulders hunched. “Look at me.”

“Don’t call me that anymore. I’m legally changing my name,” says Lance. “I’m moving to the mountains of Alaska and assuming the life of a solitary and untrusting ice-fisher.”

Keith takes two corners of the quilt in hand and begins the slow and torturous process of trying to tear the thing away from Lance’s face. “Lance! Let go. Quit being stupid.”

“‘Stupid’ is literally my middle name, Keith,” Lance’s blanket-face says.

“I thought you were legally changing it,” Keith retorts.

“Ugh! Stop being wittier than me! It’s making me feel worse.”

“Okay,” Keith concedes easily. “Let go of the blanket and I’ll go back to being dumb.”

At this, Lance’s grip on the quilt loosens some; Keith snatches it away with a huff of victory and gives Lance a quick once-over. He’s still got on a mortified flush, but now there’s a forehead-creasing frown beneath it. “You’re not dumb,” Lance says. “Sometimes you’re a little slow on the uptake, but that’s okay ‘cause so am I and we can always wait each other out. And other times you’re a knife—so, so sharp—and I can’t even go near you for...for fear of puncturing a lung or something.”

Keith sits back on his haunches and wads the blanket up in his lap, smiling softly. “I think you have one too many metaphors rattling around in your head. Puns, too.”

Lance throws an arm over his eyes and sighs with dismay. “I know, okay! That’s what all my teachers used to tell me. Even the English ones. What’s up with that? Like, I thought you were supposed to want me to have a million metaphors on hand! Is that not the essence of being an English teacher? Metaphor...dealing? A gram of F. Scott Fitzgerald here and there to take the edge off of things?”

“That’s not what I meant,” says Keith. He tugs Lance’s arm away from his face and bares those blue eyes to the light. “I like that about you. The—the metaphors and the puns and the pop culture references and all the other junk I never get. I don’t want you any different. And...if you could tell me what all the metaphors mean, that’d be really helpful.”

Lance blinks up at Keith, still pink-cheeked and frowning. “Oh. Um. A boat is never just a boat—sometimes it’s also a horse. Nine times out of ten it was definitely a dick joke. The sun is knowledge. And stuff.”

“Boats, dicks, the sun. Got it.” Keith lies his forearms flat against Lance’s chest, drops his chin on top of them, and peers up at him. “So. What are you legally changing your name to now that you’re an Alaskan ice-fisher?”

“Seymour Butts,” Lance grumbles and he gives Keith his profile, pouting at the wall.

Keith chuckles and lures Lance’s gaze back to his face with five fingers to Lance’s pointy chin. “You had that one at the ready, didn’t you?”

“Hmph,” says Lance, staring stubbornly at the ceiling of his bunk.

Keith smiles and thumbs the keen cut of Lance’s cheekbone. “You gonna look at me, Seymour Butts?”

Lance shrugs. “Now that I’m an Alaskan ice-fisher with a chilly heart—pun super-intended—I can’t afford to get close to anyone but neighboring polar bears and the occasional penguin, if I’m feeling nice. My fight is with global warming and large oil corporations, such as ExxonMobil, who my dad says patented evil mustache-twirling. I know nothing of my old life and I now live for environmental justice.”

“Fine,” Keith says, mouth twitching. “Have it your way.”

“...Wait, really? I like my way. We should do my way more often. All the time, if possible. Hey, hold on, what the quiznak are you—” Lance’s eyes go round with terror and he lifts his head to track Keith’s every movement, giving him his full attention finally.

Somehow, Lance’s nervousness heightens Keith’s daring, like they’re a human seesaw, rising and falling and rising again, with equal and opposite reactions. Like they’re two separate celestial objects destined to concentric orbits, staring each other down across their galaxy’s sun. Keith feels firmer in his own feelings, his overreactions and fumblings and emotional drawbacks, than he ever has before.

So he leans low and lower still and pauses for a only breath before mashing a close-mouthed kiss to that sharp cheekbone of Lance’s with an earnest smacking noise. Then he withdraws his mouth and allows himself a firm thirty seconds to drink up Lance’s look of dazed disorientation. “Well,” he says. “Goodnight.”

“What! Y—you can’t just—!” Lance exclaims, ears pinkening. He sweeps a hand down at himself, adds, “This? Is a delicate ecosystem, Keith! Introducing new variables without advance notice could have devastating aftereffects on my beautiful body!”

Keith gets comfortable beside Lance. “I’ll be sure to file a request beforehand next time, then.”

“A request for—for whatever that was!” he repeats, incredulous. “That surprise thing you did with your mouth just then! This isn’t a Valentine’s Day Hallmark card, y’know, it’s my life! And not all of us can run around planting one on people’s faces without inducing nervous breakdowns, alright!”

“A kiss,” Keith says slowly, as if speaking to a small child, or a very obstinate and untrained puppy. “It was a kiss. So you wouldn’t feel so embarrassed about mine.”

Lance sits up to glare down at Keith. “I don’t want your dumb pity kisses, okay, so you can take this one back and shove it!” Then he actually brings a hand up to his cheek and pretends to wipe Keith’s kiss away, clutching the invisible concept carefully in a closed fist. He holds the fist up to his mouth, opens his palm flat, and blows angrily in Keith’s direction.

Keith cocks a brow gamely, sticks a hand in the air without hesitation, and mimes a baseball glove catch. “Sorry, but my kisses are nonrefundable,” he says, and lightly smacks his open palm against Lance’s cheek, reapplying his kiss to its original spot on Lance’s face. “I can, however, offer you coupons for half-off your next kiss.”

Lance clutches his cheek, spluttering, “W—but—I thought that one was on the house!”

“Originally, it was, but now I’m adding it to your tab,” says Keith, smirking. “It’s entirely possible that you’ll accrue a kiss debt over time and we’ll have to bring you in for kiss payment-evasion.”

“I wouldn’t evade payment!” Lance objects, like he’s some sort of model citizen and Hunk doesn’t spend most days regaling the team with tales of their old evening escapades back at the Garrison and the subsequent visits to the principal’s office, all of which Hunk attributes to Lance’s ‘expert Puss in Boots sad kitten face with the big eyes and wittle paws.’ “What’s a kiss like that gotta cost!”

Keith pretends to think about it. Then he tilts his head some and taps an index finger to his own cheek. Once, twice, three times.

“Hmmm. This doesn’t seem like a legit business venture so much as a really clever bartering system designed to poison my ecosystem,” says Lance, but he begins to dutifully make a little blanket nest for himself beside Keith, as if proper preparation is required for the fruitful cheek-kissing to come.

“I’m way nicer than ExxonMobil,” says Keith.

“It helps that you don’t have a mustache,” Lance says, settling in beside Keith with a few bodily adjustments and pillow punches. Then he leans over and smooshes Keith’s face between his two palms, adding, “Please, never grow a mustache, Keith. Not even your face could pull it off.”

“Not even my…?” Keith parrots, trying to parse the insinuation behind this.

“I have made some very generous concessions in terms of hairstyle and fashion sense, if I do say so myself, but I don’t think I could handle facial hair,” Lance says.

“I can’t grow facial hair. For some reason, that Galra gene never translated,” says Keith, then goes, “Wait, I thought you liked my clothes!”

Lance blows out fond laugh, fine-tunes the angle of Keith’s face after sliding a hand down Keith’s jaw, fingers curled around an ear, and then he’s leaning down and pressing his mouth to Keith’s cheek for a warm five seconds that seem to spread like spilt syrup, molasses-slow.

Keith feels his eyes flutter shut. He stretches out beneath Lance with a blissful sigh, tilting his face up into the pressure.

Lance pulls back two centimeters, if that, to say, “How’s that for my debt?”

“All paid off,” Keith murmurs sleepily. “Don’t have a nervous breakdown on your way out.”

“Shut up,” Lance says, with no bite, and drops down beside Keith after heaving an exhausted sigh. “My brain just entered power saving mode. I am physically incapable of another nervous breakdown right now. Also, my mouth won't stop tingling. This must be what Kylie Jenner feels like after getting lip fillers.”

Keith rolls over, searching out Lance’s warm muscle with eyes closed. “That’s good,” he says, once he’s found it and burrowed into Lance’s chest. He drags his nose along Lance’s throat, where he runs warm and smells sweetly and most strongly of Lance, that natural perfume that clings to all his clothing and bedding. Weak traces of the nightbreath salve still linger here. Keith breathes it all in.

“Leave a little room for Jesus there, would ya?” Lance murmurs, voice thick with sleep.

“I only have an hour left with you and I’m gonna make it count,” Keith murmurs back. He shoves a cold hand up the back of Lance’s shirt and smiles when Lance shudders violently at the touch. “Jesus will forgive you.”

“I admire your tenacity, Kogane,” Lance says, then yawns and wraps two arms around Keith’s waist, dragging him closer till they’re a people-sandwich in the hottest oven in the universe. “Jesus says he’ll give you a free pass for tonight.”

“Tell Jesus I don’t care either way and I’ll do what I want when I want.”

Lance gives a mock-gasp.

“And that includes weekly joint naps and cheek kisses.”

“Oh, now you’re trying to monopolize my kisses, I see,” says Lance. “That good, huh?”

“Not as nervous breakdown-inducing as mine, apparently,” Keith fires back.

Lance says, “I would shove you right now but...mmm, yup...my arms are currently occupied and no amount of finagling will get them to let go of you.”

“Flattering,” Keith says, smiling into Lance’s neck. “But before you fall asleep...can you also let Jesus know that...that Lance is not a 50c reject comic and that I’ve had him on hold at the library for over a year because people keep checking him out before me?”

The muscles of Lance’s back go taut beneath Keith’s cold palm and Keith thinks for a moment that he’s accidentally butchered his meaning somehow.

“Did I do the metaphor right?” Keith mumbles.

“Yeah, buddy, you did,” Lance whispers and then his mouth is on Keith and it’s dark and impossible to track with their eyes shut so the kiss lands at the farthest corner of Keith’s mouth, a hair’s breadth from his actual lips.

Keith barely swallows his gasp in time, says, “‘S that gonna cost me?” and Lance murmurs, “Compliments of the house,” into Keith's cheek, like he's having a very private conversation with Keith's skin. Keith's stomach flip-flops exhilaratingly and he feels his mouth fall open, rapturous. If he were to turn his head even an inch, he could drop a kiss of his own to Lance's jaw.

With languid nonchalance, Lance pulls back to nuzzle Keith’s hair, adds, “Don’t tell Keith I said this, Keith’s Scalp, but I maybe don’t hate his mullet so much.”

Keith breathes a laugh, then falls neatly and dreamlessly into one of the deepest sleeps of his life.