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there, nestled against his pulse

Chapter Text

 

 

The words on Keith’s right wrist say, hey kogane you alright.

The words on his left read, stop why are you doing this to me stop it stop it stop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dad always makes Keith wear these plastic bracelets that wrap tight around his wrists. His first memory is of slipping bright blue bands on his skin.

When he asks about the words, he’s told about soulmates and soulmarks and being matched. But it still doesn’t click for him, what the last words his soulmate says implies about him. He’s a kid; he loses interest and goes back to digging for cool bugs.

And then one day, he forgets to cover his marks.

He’s eight and awkward; he keeps his head down. He doesn’t notice that people are talking about the words on his wrists until a kid sits down next to him at lunch and says:

“So I heard your soulmark’s pretty freakin’ awful, huh? What’re you gonna do to them that has them beggin’ like that before they die?”

“What?” Keith asks. “Who are you?”

The other kid points his fork at Keith’s bare wrist, and just like that, Keith feels naked. He turns his hand, presses the palm to the table.

“Your soulmate’s last words,” says the kid. “They sound scared of you. You plannin’ on stabbin’ them or something?”

He laughs and it echoes, and that’s when Keith realizes the cafeteria’s dead silent.

“I wouldn’t stab my soulmate,” Keith says, but now that he finally thinking about the words, he can’t see how they could mean anything else and that’s—

“Aw c’mon,” the kid snorts. “Everyone in town knows about your ma and pa. She’s gone and my ma says your pa carries around this huge knife. Rosie’s auntie says he’s got a temper, and just the other day, Stevie was lookin’ for cool rocks and saw your pa yellin’ and throwin’ that thing at a bunch of trees.”

The kid leans in, grinning. “We ain’t dumb, Kogane. Your pa probably killed your ma, and judging from your words? You’re gonna follow in his footsteps.”

He snickers. “I mean, half the town already thinks so and if you ask me—”

Keith throws his lunch tray in the kid’s face.

“Food fight!” someone hollers and the cafeteria explodes into chaos.

Lunch trays go flying, kids are screaming, harried teachers rush around and Keith—

—he leaves.

He slips out of the room and heads for the main entrance. No one stops him when he walks out of the school gates, even though the lunch bell is going to ring in a minute.

The kid was right; it seems like everyone has their eyes glued to the words on his left wrist, and yet they won’t meet his eyes when he looks at them.

It’s a short walk home, and he spends the entire time glaring straight ahead. He keeps his wrists turned inward and close to his side, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t get the words what’re you gonna do to them out of his ears.

He wants to hit something.

he’s got a temper

His house is empty when he steps through the front doors. Dad’s still at work.

Picture frames hang on the walls: Keith and his dad on a road trip, Keith and his dad fishing, Keith and his dad at an amusement park, Keith and his dad and—

Never his mom.

There aren’t any pictures of his mom.

He pauses, gaze flicking over the walls. He knows he must’ve had one, had to have one, before she disappeared.

Why aren’t there any pictures to remember her by?

He tries to remember, has Dad ever mentioned her? Has he ever said her name?

Keith stands there by the door and realizes, quite suddenly, that he has never seen Dad’s soulmarks before.

And a quiet, horrified thought slips into his head, like oil, sticky and insidious: that maybe the reason he doesn’t have a mom is because dad’s marks read why are you doing this to me, too, because he did something to her—

your pa probably killed your ma

you’re gonna follow in his footsteps

He sinks to the floor, eyes wide and unseeing.

And that dark, little voice continues to whisper: maybe his entire family is a bunch of soulmate killers, maybe they all killed each other.

Maybe that’s why he doesn’t have uncles or aunts or cousins or grandparents.

Maybe that’s why he’s so alone, in this small, dark house, in this tiny town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When his dad comes home two hours later, Keith is still sitting on the floor, crying.

He decides right then and there, that he’s never going to meet his soulmate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He keeps his wrists covered with more vigilance, after that, wrapped tight with thick leather straps his dad tore from an old belt. He wears it for years, in his sleep and under the sun. He gets horrible tan lines, but it’s fine, because you can’t see them unless he removes the leather. He doesn’t really care. At least they’re more secure than the plastic rubber ones.

I’m sorry, son, Dad said, when he helped wrap them the first time. His hands were big, enfolding Keith’s entire forearm easily.

He wasn’t sure what his dad was apologizing for: Keith’s soulmarks? Not knowing where his mom went? Never talking about her and letting Keith think she died by Dad’s hands? Is he apologizing for the two of them, out here by themselves, among people who are wary of Keith? Who won’t talk to him, who like to stare from the corners of their eyes, from across the streets with their friends, like he’s different?

Like he’s dangerous?

He didn’t ask, then, but when Dad leaves him too, he figures that’s as much of an answer as anything else.

He ends up at the Garrison, where everyone greets each other with either their full name or something weird and outlandish, because they want to know. They want to hear the other speak and know for sure that this is who they’ll spend the rest of their lives with, until they both reach the end written on each other’s left wrists.

But Keith does what he’s always done.

He stays silent.

Because that way, his soulmate will never find him, and no one will look at him like that anymore.

And it works. They’re too confused and they falter when he simply nods, when he does nothing but look blankly at them as they wait for him to say whatever words line their soft skin, and eventually, they leave him alone.

The only people he talks to are the instructors, with their rings shining on their fingers and their marks brazenly displayed.

He’s fine with that. He is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When he meets Shiro, it’s because Iverson arranges it. Something about him being mentored on how to form interpersonal relations with his classmates. Maybe refusing to communicate with others, besides occasionally barking orders in the simulator, wasn’t as a good a plan as he thought it was.

“You know, whatever is it you’re trying to avoid,” says Shiro, “I think not talking is creating more trouble for you.”

Keith just shrugs, because he’s not about to spill his entire life history to a random junior officer in an hour.

Shiro apparently takes this as a challenge and refuses to leave Keith alone after that. He’s everywhere—in the canteen, wandering the halls when class lets out, in the sim rooms and the sparring halls.

Keith’s not sure what to make of it, because Shiro can be annoying with the way he doggedly tries to interact with Keith, but then he turns around and performs a barrel roll in the sim or executes a combat maneuver that lands Keith flat on his ass, and Keith is curious.

“Here, drink.”

Shiro hands him an energy drink after one of their spars. It’s straight from the canteen with the modified Garrison ingredients, chock-full of nutrients and somehow still managing to taste like crap. “And do your stretches, after.”

Keith takes the drink, but sends Shiro a dry look. “You know I can take care of myself, right? I’ve been doing it for years.”

“Well no wonder you’re thin as a stick,” says Shiro. “Look, I’m not trying to mother you. Just need to get you to socialize.”

“If anything, you’re making me want to move out and become a hermit even more,” Keith mutters, and doesn’t react fast enough to dodge the ear flick.

Shiro settles down into a relaxed slouch at an arm’s length away, gulping down his own drink and grimacing at the taste.

The room is empty, save for them, everyone else having gone to eat dinner or retire for the night. Keith had hoped to have some time alone to go through his workout routine, but then Shiro found him. He’s been doing it for three months now, somehow worming his way into Keith’s solo practice.

Keith tells himself it’s not because he’s a sucker for the cool moves Shiro pulls off so easily, the ones he said he’d teach Keith, when he stops being a ‘loner.’

“I asked around,” Shiro says suddenly, “and it seems like eighty percent of your fellow cadets haven’t heard you say a single word unless an instructor was asking you to answer a question in class.”

Keith grunts, already knowing where this is going.

“You’ve refused all invitations to the clubs I thought you’d be interested in—and don’t tell me they didn’t sound cool, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about you, it’s that you like sharp things and flying, which is what those two clubs were about; I know, I made sure.”

Keith closes his mouth slowly, embarrassed. He avoids Shiro’s knowing look and slurps noisily at his bottle.

Shiro sighs, screws the lid shut on his own drink, and tosses it idly between his hands. “I’ve tried everything, Keith, but you’re being unusually resistant to even the least of social interactions. You already said it’s not an anxiety thing, and I’m not going to ask you to spill all your secrets, but give me something to work with, kiddo.”

“I’m not a kid,” Keith retorts automatically. He scowls. “I don’t know why I have to do this anyways. Aren’t I doing well in the areas where it matters?”

“Ah, but you forget.” Shiro points his bottle at Keith. “The Garrison can’t send you out unless your crew trusts you, and right now, your lone wolf act isn’t helping that. People know you’re good, Keith, they do. But they also know that you don’t communicate, that you perform better solo.

“If you want to go out into the far reaches of space for entire months, you need to interact with your peers. If they can’t trust you to communicate, they’re not going to want you on their team, and commanders will hesitate to stick you in one. One instance of miscommunication out there could ruin you.”

Keith grips his bottle, the plastic creaking under the force of his hands. He stares down at his crossed legs, jaw clenched.

On some level, he already knew all that, but he had hoped he could just avoid it until…well, until he couldn’t anymore. Hoped the problem would just resolve itself in time, without him needing to explain anything. Just thinking about revealing exactly why he won’t talk, why his eyes skitter away from hands and wrists and arms like they’re something he can’t bear to look at—it makes Keith sick to his stomach.

He doesn’t think he could handle it if people start whispering about him again, if they start leaving rooms when he walks in, if he ends up the center of attention, but for different reasons. At least here, they just think he’s some weird robotic kid who only works, sleeps, and eats.

But as he looks over at Shiro, with his earnest, concerned frown, a rising guilt overpowers the fear. Shiro’s been nothing but bafflingly sincere in his attempts to push Keith into making friends, when he could’ve done the bare minimum to satisfy Iverson. He could’ve put Keith’s problems aside to focus on his promotion to senior officer, which has got to be a hundred times more important to him, but he didn’t. Not to mention the unofficial lessons and insightful advice for Keith’s classes.

He sets his bottle down, spins it on the scuffed floor. “It’s not like I don’t know how to—to talk to people. I just don’t want to make friends—” and he hurries to add, when Shiro frowns— “and I don’t want to talk about why, but I guess—I guess I could be…nicer? If it’s that important.”

Shiro gives him a searching look, one that Keith meets stubbornly. And then he smiles, quick and relieved. “That’s all I’m asking.”

Keith smiles back, hesitant.

“Now,” says Shiro, heaving himself up with a drawn-out exhale. “Stretches. And then I’m going to sneak us over to the sim room to show you a feint I pulled off last week. Iverson says I’m not technically allowed to try it again until the board has reviewed it. Something about it being ‘too dangerous’ or whatever.”

Keith scrambles to his feet with wide eyes, practically throwing himself into his stretches, because no way is he going to miss out on this.

Shiro hides a grin in the crook of his arm, but Keith sees it anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He never says it, but Keith’s grateful that Shiro doesn’t attempt to pry the reasons out of him, once Keith proves that he’s willing to stop frowning at everyone who walks up to him. Shiro just…trusts him to keep to his word.

Which he does. Slowly, he lets himself have stilted conversations with the one or two cadets that sit next to him in class. And if it just so happens that he only interacts with the select few who’ve found their soulmate—well. He doesn’t think anyone notices.

Shiro pretends to wipe away tears with a finger when he hears about Keith’s burgeoning social circle. He sniffles loudly. “I’m so proud of you, Keith. So, so proud.”

“Shut up,” replies Keith, and he swings his practice sword at Shiro’s knees.

So, Keith’s thankful, but it’s easy to go along with the teasing and lightheartedness, to hold back the sentiment that he’s so relieved by the lack of questions, instead of saying it outright.

The thing is, he can tell Shiro is curious—who wouldn’t be?—but Shiro doesn’t ask. He just. Acknowledges that Keith has his reasons, and tries to find ways to work around them.

So, he’s grateful.

He should’ve told him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shiro’s missing.

Staring up at the broadcast from his corner of the canteen, Keith thinks, whose idea of a joke is this.

But the newswoman on screen is grim-faced and the broadcast has the official stamp in the top corner and no one in the canteen is laughing.

“—confirmed missing in action,” says the woman. “The cause of this accident has been officially labelled a result of pilot error.”

“Pilot error?” someone asks, incredulous. “But Shirogane was the pilot. I’ve never seen him make a single mistake in my life.”

The speaker gets shushed, but there’s a ripple of discontentment; people start to mutter.

Keith can’t look away from the screen.

The newswoman shuffles her papers, eyebrows drawn low. “The Galaxy Garrison was asked if it was possible to show the footage of the accident. They declined, stating it was classified.” She looks up. “What could be classified about a pilot making a mistake?”

The murmurings rise in volume. There’s a roaring in Keith’s ears.

“This doesn’t seem right,” someone whispers.

“Why didn’t we hear about this before?” another voice says from across the room. “MIA means the crew’s been missing their check-ins for a while, but there’s been no alarms raised and suddenly now we find out about this through the local news?”

“Shut up, Park, I can’t hear—”

“No, she’s right, why did the Garrison stay silent this whole time—”

“—shit, I knew Holt, he had a little sister—”

“—do you think they’ll send a rescue crew?”

“A rescue crew—it takes months to get out there. By the time they reach Kerberos, they’re will be nothing left to rescue—”

“—look at this news article, some people are saying it’s a coverup—”

The noise grows louder, chairs scraping back, people taking out their phones and standing up and gathering in circles, showing each other their screens and talking and whispering and arguing and—

Keith thinks he might puke.

Shiro said he would come back. He said.

He had ruffled Keith’s hair too hard, like he always does, and promised to bring back a piece of Kerberos as a souvenir.

Keith had rolled his eyes and made a remark about contracting alien viruses and how Shiro should just stay out in space if he was going to set off a zombie apocalypse and Shiro had laughed and said, in that case, I’ve gotta come back for sure, then, if only to see which Hollywood movie got it right and then he left and he’s not coming back—

“—ne, you alright?”

The words sound distorted, like he’s underwater. There’s a hand on Keith’s arm, in the crook of his elbow. He looks up and registers long lashes, blue eyes, a nice nose and then someone the next table over says—

“—think Shirogane has family? Someone’s gonna have to arrange his funeral—”

Keith doesn’t even remember leaving the canteen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iverson makes a crack about none of them being good enough as Shirogane and even that man ended up making a fatal mistake in the end in the middle of a sim review, and Keith gets expelled.

For punching Iverson in the eye. And kneeing him in the crotch.

But Keith knows he’s right, knows it’s not pilot error, so he finds himself wandering the desert, searching for answers, for Shiro, and for whatever it is that keeps whispering in his damn head, feeling pulled in too many directions and wondering if it all ties together somehow.

He wonders for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a boy.

Well, two boys and a girl. But Keith’s focused on the pretty one, in particular. He’s got a strong jawline, brown hair and smooth, tan skin and his first words to Keith are: “Nope. No, you—no, no, no. No, you don’t. I’m saving Shiro.”

Keith is still halfway processing his shock from finding Shiro here, looking like he’d been through hell and back, and aged fifty years in the process—a third of his hair is freaking white—so for the first time in a long, long while, Keith replies without thinking twice about soulmarks.

“Who are you?” he says. And he didn’t mean to sound rude, but the boy freezes for a split second and then his eyes narrow.

“You don’t remember?” the boy asks, haltingly. “It’s me, we spoke when—”

He glances at Shiro’s slumped head. Shakes his head, and tugs Shiro’s other arm over his broad shoulders. Keith lets him; Shiro’s gotten heavy.

“Lance,” says the boy. “I was in your year at the Garrison, promoted to fighter class after you—left.”

He looks at Keith like he’s waiting for something, eyebrows pulled low on his face. Something niggles at the back of Keith’s mind and he thinks he might recognize this Lance, but it’s hard because he purposefully purged all memory of the Garrison, cute boys or not.

So, he just says, “Oh. Okay. You guys wanna get out of here before they come back?”

Lance stares hard at him for a second longer, and then he looks away, eyes dark.

“Lead the way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When they get to his house, the others introduce themselves: Pidge and Hunk. Keith doesn’t remember them either, but it seems like he’s just as much of a stranger to them.

And then Shiro reveals that his entire team was abducted by freaking aliens—aliens who want something called Voltron? Which is supposedly what Keith’s been hearing in his head all this time and been searching for relentlessly and yet Hunk—some sort of engineer genius, he guesses—was able to find in under half a day.

And then they fall through the ground and land at Voltron’s feet. Sorry—paws. Because Voltron is a robot cat.

That Lance apparently knows how to fly.

“Guys, this is so cool!” he crows and Keith barely has half a second to brace himself for the dizzying roll Lance puts them through, for the fifth time. “She flies like a beauty, don’t you think?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Keith says through gritted teeth, “since you’re piloting her horribly.”

Lance doesn’t even get offended, too caught up in his excitement. He throws his head back and laughs, neck on display. He whoops and hollers even as his hands direct the controls and push buttons with an instinctual skill that has Keith quietly stunned.

He wasn’t lying when he said Lance was piloting badly, in the sense that this is nothing like what they were taught to do in the sim; stomach-dropping flips and reckless nose-dives, but there’s no doubt that Lance knows what he’s doing.

Yeah. Yeah, he can see why it was Lance who was promoted to Keith’s spot when he left, out of the dozen hopefuls he remembers gunning for fighter class.

And then Lance says, “Guys, the aliens are here and I think the robot cat wants us to fight them,” and Keith retracts his statement, because that was the dumbest thing he’s heard, ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith thinks that’s how their first meeting goes.

 

 

 

 

 

  

keith is wrong

 

 

Chapter Text

The problem with Keith finding Lance attractive, is that he really freaking wishes he didn’t.

It’s distracting, when he’s trying to focus in a fight and Lance won’t stop letting out a delighted yell every time he takes down a platoon or pulls off a cool move. He sounds alive and bright and Keith hates that he finds that endearing.

It’s distracting, the way he looks in his suit, lean and tall, and it only gets worse the more confident and comfortable he gets. He’ll stand with his helmet between his elbow and his hip, leaning to one side with his head cocked, and Keith’s eyes will track him like a homing beacon until he remembers to rip his gaze away.

It’s especially distracting, because Lance has a nice smile and nice eyes and nice skin and a nice goddamn scent—and that’s just when he’s fooling around. When he’s serious…his eyes will narrow and they’ll go sharp, ice-bright, and the ever-present mirth will fall from his face and leave only determination and focus behind.

Keith is ashamed to admit that he walked into the castle wall the first time he saw that. And Lance wasn’t even doing anything important; he was just struggling to figure out which plate of food-goo looked the least disgusting.

So, it’s small problem. Irritating, at it’s worst, but ultimately, just that: a small inconvenience.

They’ve all got soulmates. They’re destined for other people, so Keith’s not really entertaining ideas about him and Lance. In fact, he’s not entertaining ideas with anyone, considering the ending promised for the person who winds up with him as their match. And Lance is exasperating on a good day; having him for a partner isn’t something Keith thinks he’d be suited for.

He just wishes it would stop, though. Having no control over his eyes jumping to the razor-edge of Lance’s jaw when he turns his head—it gets tiring after the fifteenth time.

Maybe it’s because Lance is the first person he finds cute that he’s forced to interact with daily—being stuck in space like this—because usually, Keith will notice prettiness, admire it distantly, and then just avoid the person until, eventually, the attraction went away.

With Lance, it only gets stronger—gets worse, during the beginning months where Keith starts to realize that Lance is funny.

And smart. And kind. And homesick and perpetually cheery and dependable and skilled with a gun, even when he’s half-dead from a bomb.

It’s in that instance, that event, that attack from Sendak and the aftermath, that things get kind of—well.

It makes it difficult. To just shallowly label Lance as cute and occasionally distracting and often annoying, now that he knows there’s more to the guy. They took down one of Zarkon’s trusted generals together and to Keith, it seems like there could be something else, here.

Something like…

Well. He kind of…would like. To be friends, maybe?

Before that, he was fine with working together—coworkers in a war or colleagues—whatever. He was fine with them constantly butting heads—okay, maybe not fine, but resigned, at the least.

But then Lance says we make a good team, and what the hell is Keith supposed to do with that?

Because they do make a good team, and sue him, but he prefers it when they aren’t at each other’s throats, when they pull off badass moves together in their lions. When their exhilaration loops and cycles higher between them through that telepathic connection, until Keith is practically shuddering in his seat and grinning so hard his mouth threatens to split at the corners.

So, he likes it when they get along. And with a taste of what they could accomplish, he wants to try. For the first time, Keith wants to figure out how the heck you make friends.

Pidge is just as socially inept as him and despite that huge disagreement at the start, it’s easy with her because they’re both blunt and that doesn’t offend either of them.

Hunk is Hunk. He’s friends with anything that breathes. He’s the easiest of all to be around and Keith thanks a different cryptid every day that they have him on the team.

Shiro…Keith wouldn’t exactly call them friends. There’s the leftover dynamic of cadet-officer, but it’s kind of more personal now, without the stringent military thing. Most of the time, Shiro just nags about hygiene practices while Keith blatantly ignores him; he sticks his fingers in his ears and it’s great because Shiro gets really red in the face.

Once, the counsellor at the Garrison had laughed and said they acted a lot like brothers, but Keith thinks it’s more like a ghost decided to haunt him and no amount of exorcism would remove it. Shiro pinched his ear when Keith told him that.

So, the team is the closest thing he has to a social circle, but hell if he knows how it happened—or how to make it happen with Lance.

Because Lance is the missing part to it all. He’s the one person in the castle that can’t stand to be around Keith for more than ten minutes, and Keith’s not going to lie—it’s disheartening.

How can he build a friendship with someone who won’t even be in the same room as him?

So the months pass in that same routine: Keith tries to be friendly, and there’s always a second where it seems to work, but then something doesn’t click and soon enough, they’re back to spitting fire at each other and Keith never gets an answer to what Lance’s hobbies are.

They go on missions and he gets little snippets—instances—where they team up and it’s great and they have so much potential and Lance grins and Keith is right there with him, elation bubbling in his lungs—

—and then they go back to the castle, and one of them will inevitably annoy the other and they’ll stomp off in different directions. The livewire between them goes dead.

It’s frustrating.

And Keith’s just a little bit disappointed.

Chapter Text

“Do you ever wash those,” is what Lance says the moment Keith walks out of his room.

He glances across the hallway and rolls his eyes.

Lance stands there with his arms crossed, glaring at Keith’s gloves. Of course it’s his gloves.

Last week it was his shoes and how they stink. The week before that had non-stop jibes at his pores, of all things, and interspersed with predictable mullet comments. The entirety of last month saw Lance grumbling about the stains on Keith’s shirt, which Keith was one-hundred percent certain he was lying about because you can’t see stains on black and Keith would know, he wore this exact shirt for two weeks without anyone noticing the mustard stain dead center.

To be fair, that was when he was living out in the desert, but whatever.

“Do you just stand out here waiting for me every morning?” Keith retorts. “Because this is the fourth time this week I’ve had to see your face first, out of everyone on this ship.”

Not that I mind, he doesn’t say. It’s a nice face.

Lance snorts and starts for the dining room, brushing past Keith. “Right, because I would absolutely take the time to do something that dumb.”

“I mean,” says Keith, “there was that time where you tried to convince Hunk the food goo was haunted again but just ended up with your pants full of—”

Lance whips around and points a finger at Keith’s nose. “You. Shut up.”

Keith stares down at the finger. Looks back up. Raises an eyebrow.

Lance narrows his eyes. “I do not wait around your door just to ask you if your gloves are dirtier than they look.”

“I don’t know, that’s kind of what just happened,” Keith says, and he digs his nails into his palms because it’s getting difficult not to laugh at the rising flush on Lance’s cheeks. Cute.

“Wha—well, I bet you don’t wash them anyway!”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Keith nods decisively. “I’ve never washed them, and I never will. I like to have my hands forever caked in dirt and sweat and blood. It’s great for the grip it gives me with my sword.”

He makes a fist, shakes it for emphasis, and starts walking again. He has to force himself not to react to the hilarious mix of angered and confused noises Lance makes as he catches up to Keith.

“Why are you so concerned anyway? It’s not like I touch anything you own with my dirty hands,” Keith says.

Lance gestures vaguely with a wide, sweeping hand. Keith ducks under it, sighing.

“You’re just! Always wearing it. It’s suspicious. You gonna sue me for being curious?”

Keith glances over at him. Lance genuinely doesn’t look anything else but inquisitive, in that irritated way he gets when he’s stuck his teeth into something and is determined not to let go until he’s satisfied. Keith gets flashbacks of him hunched over under a blanket, thumbs stabbing away at a game controller and staring dry-eyed at a screen proclaiming KILLBOT PHANTASM I.

“…It really is for better grip,” he says, which is half the truth.

It’s less conspicuous than leather bands, is the other half.

They’re almost at the dining room doors and Keith stuffs his hands in the pockets of his jacket, noting how Lance’s gaze flicks down to them.

“That’s it?” Lance asks doubtfully, “You wear them to eat, too. Is that for better grip with your spoon?”

Keith feels a flare of irritation at the tone, but he swallows it down. It’s too early to get into this with Lance again. “My hands get cold, alright?”

Lance snorts. “Whatever. At least tell me you don’t have them on when you sleep.”

Keith doesn’t even hesitate. “I wear them in the shower too.”

Lance chokes on his spit, and Keith smiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’re down on a recently-liberated planet, fresh from battle and eager to meet the native Feryter when it happens.

There are smiles and cheers from the crowd when the team emerge from their lions, and Allura from her shuttle. They’re gathered on the outskirts of the smoking city, in the open plains covered in glaringly orange grass. The juxtaposition of the blue-furred Feryter and the surrounding vegetation has Keith squinting against the assault on his eyes.

Allura and the Feryter leader step forward to greet each other.

Standing at Allura’s back, with the rest of the team, Keith removes his helmet.

This is where it goes wrong.

The cheers cut off. A thousand snarls rise in place and the Feryter leader rises to her full height, fur bristling.

Allura is immediately on the defensive, hands falling to her whip as she scans the Feryter with confusion and alarm. Keith and the rest of the paladins already have their bayards activated, scanning the skies for returning Galra, but the grey clouds above them remain purple-free. Keith exchanges looks with the rest of the team, but no one seems to know what’s happening. His helmet is on the ground and he bends down to pick it up, eyes still fixed on the agitated crowd.

The leader’s head swings around with unerringly accuracy to focus on him. Keith freezes and sweat prickles at the nape of his neck as she throws her head back to let loose a loud, whistling scream that the entire group of Feryter echo.

When she drops her chin, her eyes are slitted, black pupils on deep purple. Lips pulled back from her terrifyingly sharp teeth, she takes one thundering step towards Keith.

And just like that, he knows.

Oh.

Well. He’s surprised it took this long, to be honest.

“He’s Galra,” the alien spits.

He expected it, but the raw hatred in those eyes—focused on him, the aggressive stance and bared teeth, it’s more than enough to make him step back. His gut feels full of lead.

“He’s a paladin,” Allura says, stiffening, “of Voltron.

It’s not good enough; the leader just snarls, claws unsheathed and ears pulled back.

“I can smell it on him. A half-blood,” the alien whispers, and Keith can appreciate the deadly softness in her voice. “After a millennium under Galra rule, their scent is seared into our noses—did you think we would not notice the moment we had his scent?”

Shiro steps forward, placing a hand on Allura’s shoulder. She leans into it.

“It was not our intention to hide it from you,” says Shiro, “but Keith’s heritage was just recently discovered.” He pauses. “More importantly, it’s not a problem to us. He is a paladin, a comrade, and a friend, first and foremost.”

The crowd before them moves restlessly, tails lashing and bright purple eyes glinting. Keith avoids looking at them, focusing on the breadth of Hunk’s shoulders, who stands slightly before him.

The leader laughs. The only part of her that moves is the chest, where the mocking, tinkling noise rises from. She’s dangerously still otherwise, limbs in a perpetual state of awareness, of readiness to attack.

“You would trust him? Half-breed that he is, the Galra in him will win eventually.” She tilts her head. “We have seen it in our own. Half-children, forced on us. We raised them like they were ours, like they were whole Feryters, like their beautiful blue fur were not covered in purple patches, and yet in the end, they leave to join the Galra forces. Every. Last. One of them.”

Her eyes slide back to rest on Keith, and on some unseen signal, every single Feryter follows suit.

“Their blood dictates violence. Oftentimes, when they defect, they leave bodies of their kin behind. Their beloved.

Keith swallows.

stop why are you doing this to me stop it stop it stop

“Keith wouldn’t do that,” Pidge says, her words shaking with anger.

“And of course we trust him,” Hunk adds. There’s sweat dripping down his temple, but his voice is steady, resolute.

Keith blinks hard, once, twice.

Someone in the crowd scoffs.

We do not,” the voice calls out. “You may be welcome here, but he is not.”

The Feryter leader says nothing to dispute that, and her attention swings around to Shiro and Allura, standing front and center. There is a challenge in her gaze.

“We place great value in actions, Voltron paladins, above all else,” she says. “And the Galra have been ever so blatant in theirs.”

No one moves.

Voltron is stuck. With the Feryter unwilling to accept Keith, the team can’t offer their help, even though one look at the crumbling city around them says the Feryter desperately need it.

A quick glance at Allura confirms what Keith already knows: the pinched mouth and the bright eyes say she really doesn’t want to leave them on their own.

It feels like a million fishbones in his throat, but he’d rather sit this one out than hold onto his pride and let these people suffer.

“Princess—”

“Nope, this isn’t working for me,” someone sighs.

Keith whips around.

Lance stands with his hands crossed behind his head, the picture of casual indifference.

As they all turn to him, he lazily waves a hand at Keith.

“You say you don’t want his help,” he says. “But Keith pilots the Red Lion. I’m pretty sure you all saw that Red spent the entire battle out on the frontlines, dealing the most damage.”

His arms drop to his sides and he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Not to mention the ridiculous moves he had to pull to keep fighter ships off your last remaining hospital—which was where most of your kids and elderly were holed up in, you know.

“And then he and Red went back out there and brought down two battleclass ships on their own. He also got up close and personal with that scary, new cannon they’ve got—the one that incinerated three of your other cities before we got here?—just to give the rest of us openings to take the fleet down.”

Lance pins the leader with a steady look, the laidback attitude falling from his body like water.

Keith’s breath stutters.

“What was it you said? ‘We place great value in actions over everything else’?” Lance’s eyes flick over to Keith, then back to the Feryter. “You may know the Galra. But you don’t know anything about Keith beyond what he’s done for you and your people today. And what he’s done, is a hell of a lot.”

Lance shrugs, a move designed to infuriate that’s been used on Keith one too many times, but now he finds himself hopelessly astonished that Lance can do something so fluid and self-assured in the face of so much suspicion and scorn.

“If you can’t trust Keith, if you think he’s lacking somehow, even after all that, I don’t see how you could accept any of us,” Lance continues. “After all, everything he’s done, we’ve done it all, too.”

He taps a thoughtful finger on his chin, squinting into the distance. “I might’ve done less, actually. Only took down half his fighter ships, that’s for sure. Keith’s fast.”

Silence reigns over them after Lance’s final flippant remark, and Keith feels nervous laughter bubble up in his throat. He clamps his mouth shut, not knowing when it dropped open.

A deep laugh rings out, startling the team.

From the heart of the crowd, a single Feryter ambles forward, shaking his head. He’s grinning, though Keith’s not sure if that’s a good thing. He claps the Feryter leader on the shoulder, like he doesn’t notice how close she is to disemboweling someone.

“The blue one has got you there, Jik,” he says.

Jik, apparently, just growls, but she eyes Lance speculatively.

The other Feryter crosses his arms and tilts his chin up, eyes narrowed. He’s still grinning, teeth flashing yellow. “What is your name, blue paladin?”

“It’s Lance.”

“Lance,” the alien repeats. The syllables sound rough coming from a mouth with that many teeth. “My understanding, from your words, is that if we turn away the half-breed—”

“His name is Keith,” Hunk says, hard like stone.

“…Keith,” the Feryter concedes. “If we turn away Keith, then we shall expect you to turn from us?”

Allura makes an aborted move, a directionless jerk of her body that says she wants to protest—that they couldn’t possibly withhold help—but then she looks at Keith. She bites her lip.

“Oh, no,” says Lance, “we’d still offer, obviously. Voltron, Defender of the Universe and all that, but it wouldn’t make much sense, would it? Keith’s our best, right after Shiro. If that isn’t good enough for you, you probably shouldn’t trust the rest of us with the delicate rebuilding of your planet, right?”

Keith feels like he’s burning. Our best.

Jik rolls her slitted eyes. “Do not bother with your roundabout words, we understand your intent quite clearly. Either the red one stays or none of you will.”

Lance scratches his temple. “Well, if that’s how you want to interpret it…”

Jik snorts.

“Please,” Allura says, hands spread imploringly, “set aside your wariness. We only want to help.”

Jik and her friend turn to each other, the latter with an amused look that makes Jik’s expression sour further. After a beat, they face Keith, the rest of the Feryter crowd, again, doing the same. It’s incredibly synchronized and he has a crazy, split-second thought that maybe they practice this, or something.

“…I suppose you have proven yourself,” Jik admits. She sighs, still obviously ill-tempered, but pointedly turns her back to Keith and the rest of the team. “Fine then, he can stay. But we’ll be watching.”

Keith nearly flops to the ground in relief. The threat doesn’t faze him much because it’s telling, showing your vulnerable back to someone. His knees shake slightly and he stubbornly wrestles his muscles under control.

“This way.” Jik beckons them with a jerk of her arm. “We need the most help over here, where the buildings have…”

Her voice drifts away, much like the rest of the crowd, out of the plains and back into the city, where fire still smolders and alarms shriek faintly. The team hesitantly follows, eyeing the Feryter walking beside them, but the aliens seem to content with their leader’s decision.

Keith pays none of this any attention, choosing instead to jog up to Lance, who hangs at the far side of the group.

Lance notices him when he’s a few feet away and gives a little wave. “Keith.”

“Lance.” Keith draws even with him. He tucks his helmet under his other arm so he can knock his elbow into Lance’s. “You didn’t have to say all that, back there.”

Lance huffs a noisy breath. “I’m not even going to respond to that.”

“You just did.”

Lance’s eye starts twitching. “Keith, I swear—”

“Thanks, though,” Keith says. Lance falls quiet, staring at him. “Really. Thanks. I…I appreciate it, you looking out for me. That—it could’ve gone a lot worse, without your intervention.”

Lance looks away, shoulders hunched. His next words are a mumble. “The others do it too, you know. Look out for you, I mean. Hunk was ready to throw down.”

“I know.” Keith laughs slightly. “And I’ll thank them, too, later. But it’s just…I don’t know, I wasn’t really expecting that from you.”

Lance turns to him so quickly that Keith’s afraid his neck snapped. “What?”

Keith backpedals, because he didn’t mean it like that. “No, it’s not—I know you don’t actually hate-hate me, but it was just a lot of—praise?—coming from you. ‘Our best,’ Lance, really?”

But Lance doesn’t react to the teasing, only staring at Keith for a second more before simply saying, “You are, though. It’s not really praise anyway, just fact.”

And with that, he moves on ahead to sling an arm around Pidge’s shoulders, leaving Keith to tag behind with a hand over his mouth, eyes wide and face pink.

Chapter Text

“Alright, team, good work,” Shiro says. He wipes a hand across his forehead. “You all know what to work on, but training’s done for the day. Get some rest.”

They all make noises of acknowledgement, but otherwise don’t move from their slumped positions on the training room floor.

Keith leans back against the wall and looks over the room. Pidge lies spread-eagled on her back, eyes closed behind her glasses. Hunk sits a couple feet from her, elbows resting on his knees, head bowed as he takes deep, controlled breaths.

Keith sighs. He should probably start his cool-down exercises too, but Allura pushed them extra hard today and he can’t feel his arms. He opens an eye to peek over at her and if he had the energy, he’d scowl. She’s sweating, sure, but just barely, not even having the decency to gasp for breath like the rest of them as she stands there talking to Coran.

“Hey.”

Something cold touches his cheek. Keith flinches, but then groans, leaning into the blessedly refreshing chill. He reaches up, blindly grasping at what he’s sure is a juice pouch. It feels like a small handful of heaven and he cups it in his hands, pressing it to one cheek and then the other.

“Well, okay, then,” someone says, amused.

Keith tilts his head up, squinting.

Lance is already bending down, sliding against the wall to sit beside Keith. He’s drinking a juice pouch of his own, fingers squeezing the plastic. His nails are perfectly rounded, and the callouses of his fingers and palm are reddened from training.

He took down twice the number of drones today, compared to last week. Keith hates that he notices any of this.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Keith tugs the straw from its packaging, and pokes it into the hole. Or, tries to, anyway. His arms are too weak and flimsy, like wet paper. Pressing harder only seems to bend the plastic under it, and he should feel frustrated, but mostly, he’s just really tired and wants a drink, dammit. He stares down at his pouch. Why is this so hard.

“Oh my god,” Lance says, “just give—give it here. Please don’t make that face, I can’t take it.”

“What face?”

Keith lets the pouch be plucked from his hands, watching as Lance punches the straw through with deft fingers. He hands it back and Keith eagerly grabs for it, bringing it to his mouth and sucking down an entire mouthful in a second.

Lance puts a hand over his face. “Your pout. Your grabby hands. It’s unnatural. Please never do that ever again.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” God, Keith would kill for another one of these.

Lance looks at him, mouth twitching. “Dude, what is with you and excessive bodily harm?”

Keith flushes. He didn’t realise he said that out loud.

“And how are you drinking that so fast; you’re almost finished.” And then Lance’s hand is tilting toward Keith and—

Keith blinks down at Lance’s pouch, inches from his mouth. What?

“Here,” says Lance, “you can have mine. Yours was the last one and I don’t really like this flavour anyway.”

He gestures with the pouch and the back of his hand brushes against Keith’s gloves.

The soulmarks on his wrists feel like they’re burning. Keith absently makes a mental note to wash his gloves. Maybe Lance was right about them getting gross, if they’ve started giving him rashes now.

The last of Keith’s drink slides down his throat with a slick, sweet taste. He reaches out and hesitantly accepts the offered pouch. He mumbles a thanks, and glances up to find Lance with his lips pressed together.

“Are you always like this after a hard practice?” he asks. “I almost can’t believe it, but you’re not all that irritating right now.”

Keith rolls his eyes, shifting away from the heat of Lance’s body with a grumble. “And you’re the same either way.”

“You mean, incredibly handsome and witty?” Lance grins.

“Not even in all those alternate universes Slav sees,” Keith retorts, snorting at Lance’s overdramatic gasp.

“You’re just jealous.” Lance sticks his nose in the air, arms crossed.

Keith gives into an impulse and shoves a hand under Lance’s arm, wiggling his fingers.

Lance yells, toppling over onto his side and rolling away from Keith’s tickling. He pops up on his elbows a few feet away, scowling, and kicks at Keith shoe. “What was that for?”

Keith just sticks his tongue out, and then goes back to slurping his juice, smug.

Lance narrows his eyes at him, straightening slowly. But before he can launch whatever counterattack he’s got planned, Pidge’s voice calls out.

“You guys coming or what?”

They both turn to see the rest of the team walking out the room, scrubbing towels over their face and neck. Pidge raises her eyebrows at them and then stares at Lance pointedly. She grins.

“Or should I leave you two—”

“Nope!” Lance jumps to his feet and Keith jerks back, startled. “Nope, that will not be necessary. We’re coming too. Keith desperately needs a shower.”

Keith gets to his feet, and since Lance is still looking away from him, jabs a finger at his waist unrepentantly, just to hear Lance shriek again. “Are you sure it isn’t you with the awful smell?”

Pidge groans, head falling back. “Ugh, c’mon you dorks. Can’t you do this later?”

“We’re going, we’re going.” Lance grabs Keith by the shoulder, steering him ahead by a foot. When Keith frowns at him, he says, “I don’t trust you not to go for my ribs the moment my back is turned.”

Keith smooths out his face, eyes wide. “I would never.”

Lance laughs in his face, loud and fake. Keith can see his back teeth. They’re really white. “Your poker face doesn’t work on me, Mullet, try again.”

“I’m not trying anything, Lance.”

“Don’t you call me that.”

“That’s your name.”

“I don’t like the way you say it.”

“Lance. Lance. Lance? Laaance.”

“I will cut you, Mullet, don’t think I won’t.”

“I thought your bayard was a rifle. I’m the one with the sword.”

“Shut up Keith—”

Following a step behind, Pidge pauses to slam her head on the castle walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There you are,” Lance says. “Shiro’s been looking every—”

Keith grabs a fistful of Lance’s shirt and hauls him into the closet, slapping a hand over his mouth. His ears strain to hear footsteps, as he presses the door panel repeatedly until it closes.

Lance makes enraged noises, thumping a fist on Keith’s chest.

Keith shushes him, eyes darting to the door.

The noises stop but Lance pushes his hand away, scowling fiercely. “Dude, what the hell,” he hisses. “Why did you drag me in here—are you hiding? In the janitor’s closet?”

“Shiro’s been on my ass about our last mission for two hours!” Keith hisses back. “The only reason I’m still not getting my ears lectured off is because Coran asked him about his eyeliner and I booked it the moment his back turned.”

Lance frowns. “Oh dude, really? You didn’t even mess up that much, though. Reckless as ever, but it turned out okay, considering how it usually goes.”

“Thanks,” Keith mutters dryly. “Did he send you guys? How did you even find me?”

“Shiro just said to keep an eye out.” Lance shrugs. “Kinda surprised I’m the one who found you. I thought you’d be holed up in Red, to be honest.”

“Red’s hanger is the first place Shiro would check, and if I was there, he wouldn’t leave until I came out.”

“Oh, right,” Lance says. “Hey, why didn’t you lock the door?”

“Don’t know how. Keypad looks different from the ones in our rooms.” Keith squints. “And it’s in Altean.”

“I could ask Pidge how, if you want.”

Keith turns to him. “You’d do that?”

Lance snorts. “You forget Shiro likes to lecture me, too. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.” He steps around Keith and puts a hand to the panel. “I’ll be back in five. Hide behind something in case Shiro thinks to check in here.”

The door opens and slides shut after him, and Keith is left in silence once again.

“Huh.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lance looks up as Keith enters the kitchen. He clicks his tongue. “Knew it. Dude, you train way too hard.”

He pushes a plate of food across the counter towards Keith. “Here, Hunk saved you a plate of food-goo.”

“Thanks,” Keith says slowly. He sits down a chair away from Lance. “What are you doing here?”

“Just checking up on something,” Lance replies. He stands, stretching his arms up with a groan. “Welp, I’m beat; I’m heading off to bed. Have fun eating, Mullet. See you.”

“Right,” says Keith, as he watches Lance leave. “See you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith digs his nails in, scratching harder at the skin under his jacket.

Up on the bridge dais, Allura gestures to a red planet, briefing them on a new mission.

He should be paying attention, but god, does his left elbow itch. Maybe he’s allergic to something in the weird mud he fell into two days ago, on Jenuc. It was neon green and had things crawling in it, after all.

He pushes the sleeve up, frowning down at the inside of his elbow. The skin is dry and flaky, irritated to an ugly red-purple colouring. Scratching does nothing, and pinching it replaces the itch with pain for a second, but it just goes back to a burning prickle a second later.

“Dude, you’re going to claw right through your arm if you keep that up.”

Keith glances over.

Lance is still looking up at the hologram, but his body is tilted slightly towards Keith and when he speaks, it’s a mumble at the corner of his lips. He probably remembers how they were scolded for bickering last time. “Is there something wrong with it?”

“Yeah, it seriously itches,” Keith mutters. “I’m thinking the mud on Jenuc did something to it.”

Lance grimaces. “Ugh. Hated that; couldn’t get it out of my suit for hours.”

“I threw mine out; there are extras in the hanger.”

“Ah jeez, I totally forgot.” Lance sighs, then perks up. “Oh hey, Coran gave me this cream, though, for the rash those weird plants gave me, two months ago. I’ll give it to you; maybe it’ll help.”

“Thanks.” Keith smiles, and then scowls down at his arm, kneading his knuckles into it. “Hopefully it’ll get rid of this freaking—”

“Lance, Keith, are you two listening?” Allura asks, annoyed.

They jump, faces paling and hands coming up to salute in unison.

“Yes, Princess!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lance heaves an explosive sigh, sliding down further into the cushions. He jabs at his tablet, and when it doesn’t give him the desired effect, kicks his feet up and twists violently until he’s lying full-body on the couch, his head a foot from Keith’s thigh. He squirms, clothes twisting up into his armpits and hiking high over his back. He huffs angrily and yanks them back into place.

“Stupid game,” he mutters, and the force of his glare could make Zarkon pause.

Keith fidgets with the corner of his own tablet, glancing around the room. The rest of the team’s engrossed in their own business; Pidge and Hunk are bent over a disemboweled Galra sentry, whispering furiously; Allura is chattering with the mice; Coran is weeping as he watches a holomovie; and Shiro is…meditating in the corner like an old man.

Lance curses again, giving the tablet a frustrated shake.

Keith peeks at the screen, and it only takes a second to pinpoint what the solution is to the puzzle. Lance is pretty close to it, but maybe it’s a case of tunnel vision that explains why he hasn’t seen it yet.

Another growl and yet more vicious tapping. Lance looks like he’s half a second away from throwing the damn thing across the room.

There’s a fifty-fifty chance Lance will just yell at him for this but…

“Uh, Lance?”

“What?” Lance mutters, and Keith relaxes because the reply is not nearly as acerbic as he was expecting. “Kinda busy, Mullet.”

The name-calling makes him want to roll his eyes same as ever, but Keith shakes it off and points at the screen. “It’s this part here. You had everything but this one.”

Lance stares at Keith’s finger, then at the screen, then up at Keith. There’s no discernable emotion on his face.

“Sorry, I just thought—” Keith edges away— “nevermind, I’m probably wrong.”

Lance glances back down at the game, and taps a finger where Keith pointed to. The screen lights up with a cheery tune and little streamers. He makes a thoughtful noise and tips his head back, staring upside-down at Keith.

Keith holds Lance’s gaze, feeling so out of his depth that he’s started sweating.

“Do you want a turn?” asks Lance. “Maybe take a break from reading.”

“Oh.” Keith blinks. “No, I’m good.”

“Seriously, here.” Lance levers himself up on one elbow and plops the tablet on Keith’s lap, right over Keith’s tablet. “You can do me a favour and finish the next couple levels; my eyes are burning and my brain feels like mush.”

“But it’s your game,” Keith protests.

Lance waves a hand. “It’s not like Killbot Phantasm or anything. I’m fine with watching, dude.”

Keith’s gaze flicks back and forth from the game to Lance, stretched out on his stomach beside him. He’s propped on his elbows, legs crossed and bent at the knees, and he’s looking at Keith expectantly.

“You gonna play or what?” he asks, the corner of his mouth twitching.

“Uh,” Keith replies eloquently. “Sure?”

Lance just nods.

With his head full of question marks, Keith focuses back on the game before him. He plays five levels, and he’s hyperaware of Lance’s hair brushing against his arm the entire time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith doesn’t know what’s happening.

It’s been weeks since the incident with the Feryter and he thinks he’s going crazy. At first, he thought it was just his imagination that Lance wasn’t as irritated with him as usual, but when Keith shot down a fighter ship right in front of Blue and Lance didn’t snap at him for stealing his targets but instead hollered, “Nice one, Keith,” it had been enough to send him racing to find Hunk. Because as Lance’s best friend, Hunk should know what the hell’s up with their blue paladin.

“Oh yeah, it’s not just you. I definitely noticed that too,” Hunk says. “I thought maybe you guys had finally grown up and talked like adults about that inferiority complex you both have, that drives you to try and one-up each other constantly.”

“What,” says Keith.

“Nevermind.” Hunk might think he’s being sneaky, but Keith can totally see him snickering behind his mound of machinery. “Just, uh, maybe don’t question it—take the olive branch Lance is offering.”

“Lance hasn’t given me any olive branches?”

There’s a loud clang! and Hunk swears, dropping down to the floor. He’s not even visible anymore, crawling around and patting the ground. Keith wishes him luck finding whatever he’s looking for; tools and scrap metal and junk food carpet every inch of the room. “Keith, no. I meant, be nice to him in return.”

“What if he’s sick?”

A beat of quiet and then gradually, Hunk rises up from behind his desk, eyeing Keith from the corner of his eye. There’s a blowtorch in his hand. “You think he’s sick.”

Keith nods, because he’s actually worried, here. “What if he’s been replaced by an alien? He hasn’t made fun of my clothes in a month, Hunk. No mullet comments in weeks. Don’t you think that’s weird? Are you sure he hasn’t said anything to you?”

“No…” Hunk draws out the word, and then presses his lips together. It does nothing to stop the wobbling of his chin. “Look, Keith. Trust me in this. Lance probably just realized how dumb you two have been, arguing all the time. Just follow his lead.”

“The only time Lance has ever lead me anywhere,” says Keith, “was into an invisible wall of a maze that shocks you every time you so much as breathe on it.”

Hunk reaches up for the mask sitting on his head and pulls it down over his face. His voice, when he speaks, reverberates behind the metal. “Well, uh, it can only get better from there, right?”

Keith groans and turns on his heel, to the sound of the blowtorch starting up behind him and Hunk, humming cheerily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Lance, do you wanna come train with me?”

Keith’s embarrassed to admit that Hunk had to coach him through that a dozen times before it stopped sounding “angry, and like you just want to use ‘training’ as an excuse to run him through with a toothpick.” Hunk’s words.

But he thinks the effort might be worth it, because Lance is staring at him with those huge, blue eyes of his, something like pleased shock written all over his face.

Keith wills himself not to go completely red. He can’t help the ears, though. At least his hair covers them.

“What?” asks Lance. The magazine he was reading hangs limply in his hands.

“Training? With me.” Behind his back, Keith squeezes his fingers until the bones pop. “Why are you looking at me like that; I’ve asked you before.”

Lance slowly stands, throwing the magazine to the side. “Yeah, but it always sounded like a jab at my skills than an invitation.”

Keith frowns. “It did?”

Lance gives him a look. “Uh, yeah.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Lance waves a hand and slings an arm around Keith’s shoulders, steering them towards the training deck. “No worries, I should’ve realized you were just being your awkward self.”

Keith scowls, because that way, it’ll stop him from thinking too much about the weight of Lance against him. “…I’m not always that bad.”

“Sure, buddy.” Lance snorts, and continues before Keith can reply, “So, what do you have in mind for today?”

“I was thinking hologram.”

“Okay, solid choice. More terrain options to choose from. One-v-one or…?”

“As a team,” Keith says firmly. He doesn’t falter when Lance glances over at him. But he does muddle over his next words. “There’s…something I think we could try.”

“Okay…?”

Their footsteps echo, out of sync at first. By the time they come to a stop in front of the training room doors, they’re walking in step with each other and Keith’s mind is all fuzz; Lance still has his arm around Keith’s shoulders. He can’t remember if they’ve ever been in contact for this long before, other than when they were pushing and shoving each other.

The lights flicker on when they step through, and Keith slips away to make his way over to the control panel. Lance trails behind him. He watches Keith punch in his selections for a moment, and then frowns.

“High ground…maze…twenty—dude! That is way too many bots!”

Keith hums. “Don’t think you could handle it?”

Lance freezes. Narrows his eyes. “I didn’t say that.”

“I don’t know…” Keith drawls, tapping in the last of the sim parameters. He looks over at Lance. “That’s what you implied.

Eyes locked onto Keith’s, Lance slowly reaches around and jabs the blinking SET PARAMETERS button with excessive force.

Keith smirks. Too easy.

The room groans, gaps in the walls sliding open and towering blocks of metal emerging from them. The air shimmers and the floor under their feet is now purple earth, baked dry by the sun hanging in a green sky. The grey walls and the metal blocks morph into rocky outcroppings, looming over them on all sides. A huge indigo cliff stands before them, casting them into the shadows.

“What is this, the purple Grand Canyon?” Lance asks in disbelief.

Keith snorts. “It’s not nearly that big or spacious; it’s just a small rock maze.”

“Why a maze?” Lance whines. “Close quarters don’t exactly do my rifle any favours.”

“You’re not gonna be down here with me,” says Keith. He points up at the cliffs. “You. Are gonna be up there.”

Lance blinks up at it. Looks back at Keith.

Keith drops into his stretches and Lance belatedly does the same. “You can see everything from there, and move around easier, too. I won’t be able to see around the corners, and they’re too tight and sharp to peek around without getting my head sliced off. So, you’ll do your sharpshooting thing and call out enemy positions for me. We don’t have our helmets but I’ll hear if you yell.”

He stands. Raises his arms above his head, holds, and drops them down with a sigh. “The point of this is to get me to the end; pretend I’ve got vital intel or something. I’m trusting you to watch my back.”

Lance stares up at him from his crouch, one leg stretched out to the side. He holds the stance for a second longer before rising with liquid grace, a strange glint in his eyes. He rolls his shoulders and tilts his head from side to side, working out the kinks in his neck.

Keith can’t look away.

“You want me to watch your back,” Lance says, and Keith might be wrong, but he thinks Lance sounds pleased. “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.”

“Good.”

Lance flashes him a toothy grin and, with a parting smack on Keith’s arm, jogs over to the nearest cliff face and starts scaling the wall. His grip is sure, and underneath his sweats, Keith can just see the flex of his quads and his ass—

Keith whips his head around so fast his neck makes a sharp crack and he winces. He squeezes his eyes shut and pinches the bridge of his nose.

Focus. No distractions.

He breathes out, and decides that, since it’ll take a while for Lance to get into position, he might as well go through his stretches to pass the time.

Seven minutes later and he’s bent in half at the waist, lazily letting gravity pull his hands down to lie flat on the ground. If he actually tries, he can usually lock his fingers behind his ankles.

There’s a choking noise above him and Keith straightens, pushing his hair out of his face. “Lance? You get up okay?”

“Did I get up—” From behind an indigo boulder, there’s a flash of brown hair and Lance raises an arm, flapping it in Keith’s direction. “You know what, nevermind, let’s just do this. I’m in position.”

Keith shrugs. He unstraps his bayard and activates it. “Alright. Call it.”

“Commence simulation!”

Immediately, twenty droids drop down from the ceiling into the canyon at various points. To Keith, it’s like they fell from invisible rips in the sky. One lands directly in front of him, the single blue circle in its head flashing. It falls into a ready stance.

Keith smirks.

The droid comes at him and it’s easy enough to dodge and lash back—he could do this in his sleep. A blow of his blade at the bot’s torso and it stops dead in its tracks. Keith doesn’t wait for it to dissolve into a shower of blue, but rushes forward into the canyon’s first bend instead.

“Two up ahead, second turn!” yells Lance and Keith speeds up accordingly, taking the short distance to the next corner in five strides.

He comes to a dead stop just before it, striking out with his bayard, and instead of meeting empty air, he slices a droid’s head clean in half as it rushes around the corner. It disappears back into the sim and the next one follows it not a second later, courtesy of Keith’s sword to its chest.

There’s the sound of Lance’s rifle going off. Keith counts one, two, as he ducks around the next corner. Here, the maze branches off into two directions and he hesitates.

“Right!” comes Lance’s voice, sharp and certain.

Keith listens. The soles of his shoes scrabble over pebbles, dust flying up behind him as he runs.

“Left, then straight! Keep going until I tell you which turn to take!”

Lance’s directions come rapid-fire, and Keith doesn’t even feel like he’s the one controlling his body anymore. Lance tells him take the second right and he’s already turning, tells him duck into that crack to your left and he nearly gets a four-inch gash on his arm trying to throw himself into the crevasse. He hears a stop! and freezes out in the open, no questions asked.

Lance calls the shots, and damn, does he call them.

From his perch above, it’s like his normally keen, eagle-eyed vision has levelled up to a godly skill. So, when he’s got Keith still as a statue in the middle of the maze with a single word—completely vulnerable—he has a damn good reason for it. That reason is keeping Keith safely out of his line of fire as he shoots down four droids hunkered around the other side of the wall, ready for an ambush.

When Keith runs by the heap of dissolving bots, he feels electric fire in his veins. If he grins any wider, his face might split.

They are killing this.

“Halfway there, Mullet, keep it up!” Lance calls out, bright and cheerful. “You’re coming up on a crossroads—take the right, right again, straight for two turns, then left! Two droids incoming!”

Keith takes those bots down, a quick dodge-strike that wastes no time. A flare of blue fifteen feet up and he glances up in time to see Lance eliminating one that apparently planned on jumping Keith from a ledge above.

“How far away is the end?” Keith yells. Right, right, straight for—how many turns? Three? I turn left on three, right?

“No, Keith—left, now!”

He skids to a stop, backs up and turns down the proper corner. “Sorry!”

“It’s fine! Exit’s pretty close, we’ve got three more hostiles up ahead—go left and catch them around the next right!” Lance fires into the maze up ahead. “Took one out for you, you’re welcome.”

Keith rolls his eyes and skewers the two droids at once on his blade.

“Hey, you want some robot skewers?” he calls up to Lance, cheeky.

Lance makes gagging noises. “Your jokes are lame, buddy, just stick to the brooding—shit, Keith, did you program lava into this thing?!”

Keith stops dead in his tracks. “What? No!”

There’s the sound of rock shifting underfoot and Keith looks up to see that Lance has relocated closer. He’s standing on a cliff to the left of Keith and staring down at something on the other side.

“Then why the hell is there a lava pit right in front of our end goal, man!”

“A lava pit?” Keith frowns up at him. “How am I supposed to get past that? How big is it?”

“See for yourself, it’s on the other side of this wall.”

Keith peeks around the wall and gets blasted with a wave of heat, forceful and heavy. The entire stretch of the maze before him drops off a couple feet away, into a crater of molten rock, churning and bubbling. He blanches. Tries to remind himself that this is just a sim and he can’t actually get burned to death.

“I do not remember picking this option,” he mutters. Louder, he says, “I could climb past, maybe?”

He eyes the cliff face for footholds. It’s completely smooth. Also not something he remembers keying in. “Or not.”

“Jump,” says Lance.

It takes a second.

“You want to me to what,” Keith asks, blank.

“Jump at the wall, push off of it to the other side,” Lance says confidently. When Keith looks up at him incredulously, he raises an eyebrow. “You do it all the time, like it’d be your signature move if we were in an anime. You’re always kicking things.”

“Anime?—you know what, nevermind.” Keith runs a hand through his hair. “I’ve never cleared a distance like this before; it’s covered nearly half the passage!”

Lance snorts. “Oh, like you haven’t done worse. Shiro told me about that time you used a geyser to launch yourself—hold up.”

Lance’s eyes flick to the side, barely needing to line up the shot before firing. Blue sparkles burst up into the air, just a few turns behind Keith. He blows stray hair out of his face and readjusts his grip.

Keith swallows.

“Anyway, you’ll make the jump for sure,” Lance says firmly. His mouth is set into a stubborn line and Keith viciously tamps down on the shock he feels over Lance’s apparent certainty in him. That’s—something.

He edges out, toeing the drop-off point. He runs his tongue along his teeth, deliberating. There’s not much room for a proper running start, but if he pushes off at that edge here, where it stretches a bit farther, and if he hits that section of the rock over there, it should be enough momentum to get him to the other—

“There are two coming up on you, Keith! You need to go, now; lose them in the pit!” Lance yells, and he’s got his rifle up and tracking. He shoots, curses. “It’s too low here; I can’t shoot into the passages, and close-range doesn’t seem like a good idea with you cornered in by lava, buddy. You need to jump.”

Keith backs up as far as he can go and shakes out his shoulders. “I still don’t understand where the lava came from—”

Lance rounds on him, exasperated. “Keith, just jump!”

Keith’s already flying before he realizes it. Armed with nothing but his thin exercise clothes and his bayard, he throws himself at the canyon wall. There’s a split second where he’s hovering over boiling liquid fire, everything seeming frozen, and then he feels gravity pull on him. His heart rushes back up his throat and his arms windmill. He swears fervently under his breath as he manages to plant a foot on the rock and push off again. His ankle twinges slightly under the force but Keith pays it no attention, eyes zeroed in on the boundary separating lava and dirt.

He’s falling—a curved, downward slope—and between one heartbeat and another, he knows he’s jumped too short.

He’s not going to make it.

Shit, we’re gonna fail. This is gonna ruin the whole bonding experience, Keith thinks, glumly. And I tried so hard, too.

Just as he resigns himself to a failed sim, and an awkward ending to what was a damn good team effort, he hears:

“Keith! Grab my hand!”

Instinct, like lighting, has him throwing out his arm blindly. He almost can’t believe it when he feels cotton and skin, sticky with sweat.

Lance latches onto his forearm, like a sleep-deprived Shiro with his morning coffee—nails digging in and eyes wild—and before Keith can blink, uses the momentum to fling Keith the rest of the way over.

His feet touch safe ground and he falls into a roll, sliding to a stop a few feet away from the edge. All that goes through his head is, what the fuck. He stares up at Lance, crouched on the cliff and panting.

“Did you just throw me?” he asks, dumbfounded.

Lance’s chest heaves. He looks at his hand. Looks at Keith, and grins. “Just tossing out the trash.”

Keith closes his eyes. “Seriously, Lance?”

“What? It worked, right—”

Keith jerks to the side and a sword embeds itself into the rock by his head. A lock of hair flutters to the ground.

Lance swears, his rifle back in his hands and muzzle already smoking as he fires at the two droids across the lava pit. They throw themselves out of the way, the blast fire skimming their heads, and Lance growls.

Grabbing the Altean sword by the handle, Keith rips it out of the stone with a grunt and hurls it back at a bot with extreme prejudice. It gets nailed in the head with enough force that it goes flying back and knocks into the other bot, before disappearing.

Lance picks off the other one, and without a word, the two of them turn back to the goal at hand. Lance jogs alongside Keith, up on the canyon’s walls, and his directions are short, focused. They’re almost at the end, Keith can feel it.

“How many more droids?” he asks.

“Weren’t those the last ones?” Lance grunts. “I wasn’t keeping count. Exit’s dead ahead, by the way, just take one more left turn and we’re good.”

“Don’t jinx it.”

Keith peeks around the corner, switching his blade to his other hand to shake out his right, flexing the fingers idly.

The coast is clear and about a dozen paces away, the canyon walls give way to plain desert. The exit. Simulation complete, mission accomplished. He jogs forward, hearing Lance do the same.

And then, from a hiding place in the rocks, a droid bursts out, its blade in a lethal downward swing.

“Keith!”

He barely manages to dodge. The tip of the sword kisses his sternum, cotton splitting smoothly under razor-edge metal. He twists away, hops backward and catches his breath. Too close. Inhale, and he darts in. The bot brings up his sword but Keith leaps into the air and throws his blade. His opponent reacts too late, expecting a physical clash but only getting a sword hurled clean through its neck.

Landing with a hand on the ground, Keith blinks the sweat out his eyes. When he stands, blood rushes in his ears and his tongue feels dry and too big for his mouth. His bayard stands rooted in the soil in its sword form for a second before reverting back. He walks over and picks it up, strapping it back onto his belt.

“Goddamn, Red,” Lance says. “Went right for the jugular—ruthless.”

Red? Keith thinks. Is that—was that a—did he give me a nickname? A nice one?

Out loud, he says, “Says the guy picking them off with a shit-eating grin on his face.”

He glances over when he hears dirt falling; Lance is climbing back down. Here, the cliff face is only eight feet higher than Keith, and Lance is ambling up to him in seconds.

“Don’t think I didn’t see you shoot down two with one shot, and then cackle right after,” Keith continues. “How’d you get it to pass through the bot’s armour to hit the one behind it like that, anyway?”

Lance slings an arm around his shoulders, again. “Figured out the joint on the hip isn’t thick enough to stop a blast from coming out the other side, if it’s hit right. But let’s actually cross the finish line, before another one jumps out at us again.”

They step past the boulders to either side of them.

The purple desert and green sky flicker once, twice, and then fades back to grey ship walls. The huge towers of metal that Lance ran around on slide back into the gaps in the walls. Turning around, they spot red words blinking up in the center of the room.

SIM COMPLETED.

“…We did it,” Lance says, almost in disbelief. “Keith, we did it.”

Keith looks over at him. He thought that was obvious. “Yeah, I know?”

“We didn’t even argue all that much,” Lance says, hand coming up to his mouth. He stares up at the words, unseeing. “Oh my god, I told you to jump over lava and you listened.”

“…Of course I did?”

Lance puts his hands on his head. He looks like a man that’s just been told the Earth was flat this entire time. “We took out twenty robots! The two of us! Can you believe that?”

“Yeah, I was there.”

“If this was a real mission, we would’ve totally kicked its ass!” Lance laughs. “Dude, we make such a good team!”

Keith freezes.

GOOD TEAM, his mind screams. He said it again, he said GOOD! TEAM!

Shut up, he thinks, Jesus Christ, shut up.

He’s so preoccupied by his thoughts that when Lance says, “High-five!” and thrusts his hands out, Keith ends up backpedaling, startled.

Lance immediately droops, arms falling slightly. There’s a furrow between his brows. “Oh, sorry—”

“No wait, yes!” Keith shouts and hurriedly throws his hands out too, smacking them against Lance’s way too hard because they both go rocking back on their feet.

Keith’s face goes pink. “Sorry! That was—I wasn’t expecting. Um.”

They stare at each other, Lance with his hands still up and Keith with a slowly reddening face, until Lance slaps a hand over his mouth. “Pffft.”

Keith narrows his eyes. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Mm’not,” says Lance, muffled. He shakes his head.

Keith sees the way his eyes crinkle when he starts smiling, though, and how his shoulders tremble. Keith’s mind babbles something about sparkles and eyes and sapphires, but he forcefully punts those thoughts out of his head.

“You’re totally laughing at me,” he says, and even he hears the note of whining in his voice. “C’mon Lance, I didn’t mean to do it so hard—”

Lance snorts, loud and ugly, and that sound of his own making sends him over the edge. He dissolves into violent convulsions that has him bent at the knees, gasping and choking on laughter.

Keith sighs.

“Sorry, sorry,” Lance says after a minute. He glances up at Keith, and his lashes are wet, mouth stretched wide in an unrestrained grin.

Keith quirks an eyebrow at him and he doesn’t even last a second before bursting back into snorts and giggles.

This should offend Keith but really, he just feels an immense sense of satisfaction. His mouth twitches—and feeling mischievous—he reaches out and wiggles his fingers under Lance’s armpit.

“Keith!” Lance shouts, scampering away with his arms wrapped around him. “Dude!”

“What?” Keith asks innocently. “You look like you were having a great time laughing at me—just thought I should help out some more.”

Lance’s nose scrunches up. Keith thinks he might be trying to look menacing, but it just kind of reminds him of an angry puppy. “You—!”

“Me,” Keith says agreeably, smirking.

“Oh, it’s on, Red,” Lance growls. “It’s on.

“Bring it.” He cocks his head, eyeing Lance from behind his hair. “Blue.”

That pulls a delighted bark of laughter from Lance, right before he launches himself at Keith, grinning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“So, how’d the training attempt go?”

“Pretty good. We completed it and Allura was honestly shocked when she reviewed the footage.”

“Nice! See, I told you. All you needed to do was follow Lance’s lead and it’d all work out.”

“But he laughed at me after, so I tickled him and then we kicked each other around the room for a bit.”

Keith.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After that, Lance never turns down Keith’s offers to train together.

It’s like a dam breaking. All of a sudden, their dynamic gets flipped on its head. Oh, sure, the jostling and snarking is still there, but Lance doesn’t go out of his way to make things annoying for Keith. This in turn, makes it a hundred times easier for Keith to understand him. It’s easier for him to pick up on Lance’s jokes and humor, when they aren’t sarcastic quips that has him mistaking them for criticism. Easier to talk when Lance seems to finally get that Keith isn’t being deliberately obtuse. Instances of them fighting become practically non-existent, replaced with good-natured ribbing and overzealous sparring.

The first time he and Lance walk into a room sporting bright bruises on their bodies, it takes twenty minutes to explain to Shiro that no, they just came from practice, honest. No, we weren’t just beating each other up. Yes, this was safe, sane, and consensual—why are you laughing, Shiro, I’m just answering your question—

They don’t become instant best buddies; Hunk and Lance still spend most of their time together. But now, he and Lance have common ground. He’s so goddamn grateful to Hunk for his advice that he sat through five tastings of experimental food-goo recipes and scrubbed Yellow’s exterior clean enough to sparkle.

“Wow,” Hunk says when Keith finishes. “I’m not sure a fifteen-minute therapy session deserved this.”

“You don’t understand,” Keith says, skin streaked with grease and hair a complete mess. “He said we were a good team. He called me Red.” He shakes the rag in his hand for emphasis.

“Alright-y then,” Hunk says. “Thanks for your help, man, but uh, you should go get cleaned up. Dinner’s in fifteen and you might scare the others looking like that.”

He walks away before Keith can blurt out that Lance would just find it hilarious and he’d laugh loudly and his eyes would scrunch closed like a cat and—actually, hm, maybe he’ll shower later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“All clear,” says Lance.

Keith breathes out. The fabric of his suit shifts soundlessly under his hands as he readjusts his grip and follows Lance into the wide, open room, watching the rear with his sword up and ready.

“The mission objective better be here, or I’m going to shoot someone,” Lance says idly.

“I sure hope you do,” says Keith. “It’s your job.”

The door slides shut as soon as Keith steps through and he pivots, heading straight for the lockers nearest to them. Lance falls back a step, to Keith’s right, and looks around the room.

“I’m not getting paid enough for this to be a job.” Lance raises an arm, and the map flickers into existence. “Also, if this room doesn’t have the objective, we’ve got three other places we can check.”

“You’re not getting paid at all, though I would’ve thought the endless parades and celebrations in your name would’ve been enough.”

Keith skims the locker designations, XI-32, XI-34, 36, 38, 40, and there, XI-42. Raising his bayard, he slashes an opening through the metal until he sees a glimpse of the plain brown package they’ve been looking for. Score.

Behind him, Lance sighs. “Was that really necessary? You couldn’t have used Pidge’s cool little hacker tool to unlock it?”

Keith reaches into the compartment and takes out the package, heedless of the brown paper tearing on jagged metal. He throws it to Lance, who stuffs it in the bag slung over his shoulder. “That was faster.”

Lance just gives him a look.

Keith shrugs, and knocks an elbow into Lance’s arm. “I didn’t get to use my bayard at all this time. Can’t you let me wreck some flimsy metal in peace?”

“I didn’t use mine either. That’s a good thing; they’re not supposed to know we’re here. Stealth mission, remember?” Lance says dryly, as they slip out of the room as quietly as they entered. “Plus, Coran’s gonna lecture us.”

“Worth it,” Keith replies, and taps Lance on the shoulder. He hears footsteps.

Lance nods, the light-hearted curl of his mouth falling away. They press themselves into the shadows of the walls, Keith taking point in case of a confrontation.

The footsteps round the corner, and with how close they’re standing, Keith feels more than hears the steadying breath that Lance takes, a rise and fall of his chest that has their shoulders brushing together.

Keith leans out, a single eye peeking from behind the bulkhead to see the purple glow of a sentry in the corridor ahead of them. There’s a mechanical whirr and the sentry comes to a stop, head swivelling around. Keith jerks his head back.

A pause, where seconds seem like hours, and then the clanking steps start up again, fading farther away.

Lance sighs, a puff of air that Keith thinks would’ve ruffled his hair, if the helmet wasn’t in the way. It’s a completely useless thought that, nevertheless, makes him flush. He frowns. Now is not the time.

“Keith?”

Keith jerks a little, sword instinctively rising into position before he registers the bemusement in Lance’s voice. He lowers his arms and clears his throat.

“C’mon, this way,” he says, glad that his helmet covers his burning ears.

They make their way down the corridors, silent and in sync, watching each other’s blind spots. Keith tries not to feel too pleased that words aren’t needed, that he can read Lance’s face better than before, that he can see a shift in stance and know exactly what Lance needs him to do, where Lance needs him to be.

Their training these past weeks is paying off.

They’re jogging down the last corridor and the endpoint is right ahead of them, where the doors open wide enough to see Red and Blue’s paws beyond.

Keith picks up the pace.

He’s just about to turn back to Lance with a grin when there’s a sharp whine of a gun firing, a flash of blue at the corner of his eye, and then a sentry drops to the ground a few paces ahead of him. It makes a clattering thud that leaves only a stunned silence behind.

Keith’s mouth hangs open slightly.

Lance’s gun is still smoking when Keith looks over his shoulder at him. He lowers it slowly, staring back at Keith with his blue, blue eyes.

“Holy shit,” says Keith. His mouth stretches up into wide smile. “Holy shit, Lance, that was amazing.”

“I—” From behind the blue faceplate, a blush edges up Lance’s neck. He steps up beside Keith, hands drifting over his rifle absently. “Yeah?”

“You know it.” Keith lightly punches Lance in the arm, barely a tap. They’re both grinning widely. “C’mon, let’s finish this.”

It barely takes them two seconds to cross the threshold into the next room and as they do, their surroundings dissolve back into a familiar training room, the walls and floor littered with familiar dents and scratches and scorch marks.

Automatically, their eyes flash up to the timer blinking in red above them and then to the control room, where the rest of the team stands.

“Congratulations on completing the simulation, Lance, Keith,” says Allura through the mic. There’s pride in her voice. “You beat your last record by a landslide.”

“Did we beat Hunk and Pidge?” Lance asks eagerly.

“By a dobosh and a half,” says Coran.

“Yes! Team Purple!” Lance yells. He holds his hands up and Keith barely hesitates now at smacking their palms together.

Hunk narrows his eyes down at them and Pidge slumps back in her chair with a huff.

“Took you months, though; you guys kept arguing,” she mutters.

Lance just makes a face at her, smug, but Coran clears his throat. “However, slicing up that locker was not an action I’d give you points for. It could have been armed with a sensor, or the enemy could see it and know there was an intruder; alarms would raise.”

Lance slaps a hand over his eyes and drags down his face. “Aw Keith, see? I—”

Don’t say it.” Keith folds his arms across his chest, staring Lance down.

“—told you so,” Lance sings, unrepentant.

Keith’s eye twitches and with a growl, he lunges for Lance’s sides. He misses, hands only managing to skim the black suit as Lance throws himself backward with a shout.

“Haha! Missed me!” Lance puts a hand on his hip, the other pointing imperiously at Keith. “You try to do that way too much; it’s predicta—whoa!”

Keith straightens from his crouch with a smirk. Lance stumbles to a stop, a couple feet away, having just barely managed to dodge him the second time. “Predictable, huh?”

“You wanna go, Red?” Lance falls into a defensive position, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He beckons to Keith with his hands.

This is familiar ground, yeah—they’ve been doing this since they met—but Keith grins, wide and unabashed, because it’s different, too, since he invited Lance to spar that one day. The competitiveness is tinged with something brighter, lighter, and it’s heady.

He feels addicted.

And then, from the intercom comes Shiro’s voice, distant, like he’s turned away from the mic. “Ah, they’re gonna be at this for a while; could you pass the popcorn, Princess?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shiro sidles up to him in the hall later, smirking, and Keith wonders why he decided to leave his knife and bayard back in his room, when this is clearly enemy territory.

“Team Purple? Red?” Shiro asks. “When did that happen?”

“Shut up, Shiro,” Keith hisses. “That’s—don’t you have leader-y things to do—meetings with aliens? Shit-talking with Black about Zarkon’s stinky feet, or something? Go away.”

“First of all—” Shiro clamps his Galra hand down on Keith’s nape, which completely ruins Keith’s chances of bolting. He’s been taking advantage of the tech since he figured out Keith couldn’t squirm away like he used to. “Black says Zarkon’s feet were fine, but his hands were too sweaty—”

“Ugh, I was just joking, Shiro, I don’t want to know—”

“Second,” Shiro continues brightly, “Commander Iverson said to look out for you—”

Keith lets out a furious noise. “We are in literal space! None of that matters anymore; we aren’t in the Garrison—and you were promoted to the same rank as Iverson before you were abducted, so his orders don’t matter, anyway!”

Shiro frowns, exaggerated. “Don’t be like that. This was an important assignment given to me, and I’ll complete to the best of my ability, even as a former Commander of the Galaxy Garrison—”

“Shiro. Shiro, please stop, for the love of god, please—”

“C’mon cadet, ‘fess up, when’d you and Lance get so chummy? You guys were practically play-wrestling at the end, there.” Shiro gives Keith’s shoulder a little shake, but with the Galra robot hand, it just feels like he’s being tossed around like a ragdoll. He knows Shiro is doing this on purpose; he always handles Hunk’s cookies like they’re gold. “Allura thought it was really cute—said it reminded her of baby Kerns, or whatever.”

Keith puts his head in his hands. “Could—could you let me live, just this once, for fuck’s sake—”

From down the hall, the sound of footsteps echo. They look up to see Lance, waving a hand. “Keith? Shiro? What are you guys doing?”

“Oh, speak of the devil,” Shiro says. He smiles. It is the smile of Keith’s nightmares. “Lance, hey—”

Keith panics, wrenching away from Shiro’s grasp to blurt frantically, “Janitor’s closet!”

Shiro gives him a bewildered look, but Lance—

Lance starts sprinting at them, the cheer falling from his face to be replaced with dead-eyed seriousness.  He’s staring straight at Keith and it’s kind of hot but also freaky, and beside him, Shiro has enough time to whisper, “What the fuck?” before Lance swoops in and yanks Keith by the wrist, pace not even slowing even a bit.

“Sorry, Shiro! I need him for something, lecture him later!” He gives a salute, and Keith tries so hard not to feel like he’s a damn princess being rescued but Lance is grinning and he’s so weak for that.

Far behind them, he hears Shiro sigh. “But I wasn’t even…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, Keith sits in bed and absently applies the rash cream to his left arm. The itch had spread slowly over the months and Coran had been at a loss to the reason, but it seems the cream keeps it from burning too badly. He’s stuck using it until they can find a better alternative.

He spreads the milky white ointment from the crook of his elbow up to his bicep, staring unseeingly at the skin. Rubs the cream in, and finds his mind wandering to the exact curve of Lance smirk as he saluted Shiro, cheeky as ever; the firmness of his grip on Keith’s arm; the sight of his broad shoulders, as he ran in front of Keith. His mind plays over the cadence of Lance’s voice when he said I need him; and the breathtaking concentration—the seriousness, even for something silly like rescuing Keith from Shiro’s torture.

He thinks it over, and then replays the sim evaluation of that morning, and then every training session they’ve had for the past month.

It makes him grin so hard his cheeks ache. He only comes back to himself when he brings a hand up to hide his smile and gets a face-full of pungent ointment.

 

Chapter Text

“Found you!” Lance says, vaulting over the back of the couch. He lands with a soft thump that bounces Keith up in his seat. “Hey, I have a question. You don’t have to answer it, but uh, have you met your soulmate?”

There are two bowls of…something in Lance’s hands, and he hands one to Keith. The substance inside is neon purple and looks like some kind of alien yogurt.

“No, I haven’t,” Keith replies absently. He puts his book down. Taking a spoon from Lance’s outstretched hand, he stabs it into the yogurt and the purple stuff cracks right through like dry, hardpacked earth. “What is this?”

“I have no idea,” Lance says cheerily. “We picked it up on Kivur V, and no one’s tried it out yet. On a count of three?”

“One.”

“Two.” Lance lifts his spoonful in the air like he’s about to give a toast, grinning expectantly, and it’s not adorably silly, it’s not.

Keith taps his own spoon against Lance’s with a reluctant smile. “Three.”

They swallow down the yogurt-thing simultaneously and look at each other for exactly three seconds before hacking it all back up into their bowls.

Bent over his knees, Keith slams a fist on his chest and wheezes. Beside him, Lance sounds like he’s trying desperately to cough up his entire digestive tract. When Keith looks over, he’s blinking back tears, tongue sticking out; it’s violet.

“God, that was disgusting,” Lance croaks. “Tasted like—”

“Grass and dog food and toenails?” Keith puts his bowl on the floor and pushes it far, far away with his foot. He wrinkles his nose. “Do we have water?”

“Yeah, here.” Lance pulls two bottles out of his huge jacket pockets, along with brightly wrapped candies. “Also stole some sweets from the Hunk’s secret stash earlier.”

“You knew this would happen, didn’t you?” Keith grabs a bottle, unscrews it and downs half of it while reaching over to grasp blindly at Lance’s hands.

Lance snickers and takes Keith’s wiggling fingers in his, holding them still and placing the candies in Keith’s palm with exaggerated care. “I mean, I had no idea it’d be that bad. If I did, I wouldn’t have tried it with you.”

“Wow, thanks.” Keith wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He unwraps the candies and plops all three of them into his mouth, rolling them around to get the gross aftertaste out of his mouth. “Next time? Get Shiro to be your guinea pig.”

“Uh, no way.” Lance has his cheeks stuffed with the sweets, and the incredulous look he gives Keith makes him look like a chipmunk that’s been caught red-handed in the cookie jar. “Last time Pidge and Hunk tried to trick him into eating those Yredian shit-apples—”

“Shit-apples?”

“They tasted like absolute shit, okay—”

“How do you know what that tastes like—”

Lance smacks a hand over Keith’s mouth. “Oh my god, Keith, why don’t you ever let me finish!”

Keith retaliates by opening his mouth and licking a slobbering line up Lance’s palm, automatically noting the salt and the sweet stickiness leftover from the candy. He deliriously wonders if Lance’s mouth would taste the same.

Lance squawks, ripping his hand away and waving it in the air wildly before lurching towards Keith to wipe it on his shirt.

“Hey!” Keith scuttles backwards on the couch, swatting away Lance’s vicious attempts to drag his hand all over Keith’s chest. “Get your filthy hands off me!”

“You’re the one who made it filthy, dude! Who licks people’s hands like that anymore? What are you, an animal?”

Keith reaches the end of the couch, armrest bumping into this back, and at that moment, Lance pounces. He lands on Keith’s front with an oomph and presses his forearm down on Keith’s collarbone, cackling as he cleans his hand off with exaggerated swipes.

It’s so typically aggravating—like when they spar together and Lance pulls off a new trick he’d learned from somewhere—so Keith clamps his thighs around him, about to throw him off.

But then Lance loses his balance. His hips push down into Keith’s and his fingers slide hard over Keith’s chest.

It pulls a sharp breath out of Keith, body jerking. He hears himself make a noise, high and confused. His head is reeling.

This is bad. He should move. He should really, really move.

Lance seems to think he’s pressing down on Keith’s throat too hard, because he eases up with his arm, frowning worriedly. “Sorry, too much?”

“M’fine,” Keith says. His voice is a low, croaking thing. He should tell Lance to get him off—get off of him, Jesus Christ on a stick—but he blames his silence on his shortness of breath which is absolutely because the alien food did something to his respiratory system and not because Lance is pressing down on him, his hands all over Keith’s body like he owns it what the fuck

“Dude, your heart’s going crazy,” Lance says worriedly. He’s staring down at where his hand lies on Keith’s chest, burning through the thin shirt to Keith’s way-too sensitive skin. Why hasn’t he moved it?

“No, that’s just. How it is? Usually?” Keith says lamely.

Recently, and only around you, he doesn’t say, because that’s even more lame.

Lance moves his forearm and brushes the back of his hand over Keith’s forehead, clicking his tongue. “And you’re burning up!”

Keith nearly whines when Lance gasps and leans forward, eyes wide with panic. “Oh my god, maybe you’re allergic to that thing we just ate!”

“Uhh.” Maybe he’ll survive this if he closes his eyes—nope, it’s worse, it’s a thousand times worse. Like this, he can’t see anything, but he feels, holy shit does he feel—Lance’s sides between his legs, Lance’s stomach on his groin—his eyes snap open.

“Soulmates!” he blurts out. “You asked me if I met mine!”

Lance blinks down at him. “Uh—yeah, I did. You said no.” He moves back, frowning.

Keith takes that moment to scramble out from under Lance, a mess of movement and hurried limbs. He almost elbows Lance in the face twice before he’s able to scamper over to the opposite side of the couch, crossing his legs and tucking his hands underneath them.

Lance stares at him, baffled, and sits up slowly. “Oookay, you alright there, man?”

“I’m—great. Fine.” Images of Lance’s hips and legs and neck drift around in his head. Digging his nails into his palms doesn’t do anything to stop them. He frantically tries to remember what they were talking about. “Have, uh, have you found yours?”

Lance’s mouth twists like he’s tasted something sour. “…No, but I’ve had like ten people say my words already. Stuff like ‘Hello’ and ‘Hi,’ I can understand, but I didn’t know ‘Who are you’ could be such a common thing to say.”

“Six? Wow. And you’re sure your soulmate wasn’t one of them?”

“Pretty sure. Some had already matched, and others—” Lance shrugs— “well, I didn’t say the words on their wrist, so. Yeah.”

Keith exhales. Seems he’s distracted Lance successfully, although…maybe he should’ve picked another topic. “So, uh, maybe finding Mrs. Blue Lion is going to be harder than you think, huh?”

“…Mrs. Blue Lion,” Lance mutters. “Yeah. I guess.”

He stares up at the ceiling, quiet. His arms are crossed and for a long second, he’s completely still. Then he says abruptly, “You know—it’s funny. I don’t know if you remember, but that time we rescued Shiro—the first thing you ever said to me was, ‘Who are you.’”

Keith chokes on an inhale and he coughs. “What?”

“Yeah, I nearly had a heart attack,” Lance says to the ceiling, casual, like he didn’t just send Keith’s entire brain into overdrive. “I mean, it made sense, though. You never spoke to anyone at the Garrison, so I guess you would’ve said that to anyone at that moment—Hunk or Pidge, maybe, if they’d been faster to get to you than me—but it was still kinda...unexpected.”

“Wait, hold on. I said your words?” Keith says numbly. “That’s—you didn’t say mine.”

And Keith knows he didn’t—it’s hard to forget someone saying ‘no’ to you like ten times when you meet them. But still, Keith’s thoughts run rampant in his head, uprooted and unsure, suddenly. He stares at a loose thread on Lance’s sleeve.

Lance laughs, sounding odd. “Yeah, I mean I already knew we weren’t matched but like, imagine being soulmates, right?”

Keith flinches.

“You can’t be my soulmate,” he snaps, and maybe he sounds too harsh, but just the thought of Lance, saying the damning words that line his flesh, it’s—no. No. Not Lance, not him.

Lance’s eyebrows shoot up and he turns his head. “Whoa okay, why are you so offended?”

“I’m not. It’s just—you can’t.”

Lance straightens slowly, eyes narrowing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, could we not—I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Keith says sharply, turning away. “It’s stupid.”

Stupid?” There’s a dull thump as Lance smacks the flat of his palm on the cushions. Keith refuses to look over. “You know, it’s not like I said we should be matched or anything so why are you so—why are you always—” he growls, frustrated. “You think I’m not good enough for you, is that it?”

“No!” Keith whirls on him. “No, of course not! Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know, Keith,” Lance scoffs, throwing his hands into the air. “Maybe because you looked disgusted when I joked about being your soulmate?”

“I’m not disgusted! This isn’t about that! I just—just—” He rakes a hand through his hair, the tangles catching in his hair.

“Just what?” Lance asks, cutting. “I really thought we were over this. Seriously, just because you’re better than me doesn’t mean you have to—”

“I’m not better than you at all!” Keith yells, slamming a fist into the back of the couch.

It explodes from him, unchecked and raw, this swirling mass of angerfearhatesorrowfearfearfear—he can’t hold it in. His eyes burn and his chest heaves.

“I’m not; if my soulmate’s last words to me are anything to go by—” A hoarse laugh rips its way from his throat— “then I’m the worst person alive.

Ice. His words catch up to him, and all he feels is ice. It dips its prickling chill into his spine, lines his lungs with frost. Run, his instincts scream, like they always have, before he looks at you like they did.

It’s harder than it should be, to drag his eyes up Lance’s sleeve, to his shoulder, neck, jaw, cheekbone. To his face.

Mouth slack, eyes wide and brows lowered. Lance is frozen, half out his seat.

Quietly, he says, “What?”

There’s wealth of distance separating them and it’s simultaneously too much and too little. The room is to spacious—too confining. Keith is suffocating. He’s on fire.

“Keith, what are you talking about?” Lance is still frowning, but it’s softer—concerned. Keith keeps waiting for it to twist into something else. He moves towards Keith, hand outstretched. “Red, are you—”

“You can’t—” Keith chokes, and something must show on his face, because Lance stops cold “—be my soulmate. You wouldn’t—they don’t—get a happy ending, okay?”

It’s like picking out splinters in his skin; he has to force the words out one by one.

Lance shakes his head slightly, gaze still locked on Keith. He reaches out, again. “Red—”

Keith stumbles to his feet, nearly stepping onto their bowls placed on the floor. “Sorry, I need. To go. I—”

His voice sounds muffled, distorted, like he’s submerged underwater.

He takes a step, and another. He lifts his foot again, but when it comes down, he does too, falling to his knees. I can’t feel my legs, he thinks numbly. I can’t feel my arms. He stares at them, palms flat on the floor and elbows trembling. He wants to move, he wants to put a hand to his chest, because it feels too tight—there’s something wrong, it’s too tight—it’s crushing his heart; he hears it pound inside him, frantic.

“—ey, hey, you need to breathe, buddy, just breathe,” says Lance, suddenly there, crouched right in front of him, hands hovering at Keith’s elbows.

He’s trying, but he can’t even lift his head to look at Lance—how can he breathe with what feels like an entire robeast on his chest? He whines, fingers scrabbling on the floor. His eyes are wide open, but he sees nothing but dancing spots.

“Okay, okay. Listen—breathe in for four counts, hold for two, out for five. Breathe with me,” Lance says, and picks Keith’s hand up to hold it to his chest. It rises steadily, falls softly. “Come on, Red.

In—in for—for four, onetwothreefour—

“—hold for two. One, two. Out five, one two three four five—slower, Red, slower—yeah, like that— three four. One, two. One two three four five. One two three—”

—four. One, two. One two three four five.

Air fills his lungs, leaves them, and he blinks, blinks, blinks. The floor under him stops greying out, spots slowly coalescing into muted colours. He inhales and hears how ragged it sounds, ears no longer stuffed with cotton. Exhale, and he takes in the subtle scent of Lance’s shampoo. The bands around his torso loosen, inch by inch, though his heart still beats a neck-breaking pace and he still shakes. His exhales sound like sobs.

“—two. One two three four five.” Lance thumb rubs the back of Keith’s hand, the one he holds to his sternum, gentle and warm. “You’re good, buddy, you’re good.”

Keith thinks he should roll his eyes; he’s never needed coddling—but his body won’t cooperate. It feels weak and oddly empty, like a rung-out dishtowel. The skin under his gloves is hypersensitive—rubbed raw, though he hasn’t even touched them. Sweat clings to his neck, cold. He shivers, and Lance shifts closer. This time, Keith manages to raise his head and the blue that stares back is deep, dark. Keith wishes he could drown in them.

Just this once, then, he thinks, and tangles his fingers in Lance’s shirt. He slumps forward and sets his forehead on warm, tan skin. Just for a second.

Lance doesn’t protest, doesn’t say a word. Just kneels with Keith, breathes with him, until he loses count of the seconds, the minutes, the onetwothreefours.

 

 

 

 

“The first thing ever you said to me was, ‘Who are you.’”

 

 

 

 

it doesn’t mean anything.

he’s not my soulmate—he’s safe.

he has to be safe.

 

 

 

 

Lance doesn’t bring it up again, doesn’t ask what he means by they don’t get a happy ending or I’m not better than you. He doesn’t breathe a word of it.

But in the days following, Lance will sometimes look at Keith with the same sort of expression he wore the night they rescued Shiro.

It happens when he thinks Keith isn’t looking. When they’re tired from practice, when they’re on opposite sides of the room, when Keith naps on the couch and blinks his eyes open half an hour later to find Lance lounging across from him in his pajamas, turning his head just as Keith glances over.

It’s that waiting sort of look. His face is too tense, eyebrows low and furrowed, mouth a thin line, and his eyes—the colour is too off, and they make Keith shift uneasily in his seat, make him want to drop his gaze.

He doesn’t know what Lance wants from him—wants him to say, when he’s been teaching himself not to say anything at all.

 

Chapter Text

The dining room door opens and Hunk steps through, pushing a cart of food.

“Alright, who’s ready for dinner?” he asks, with a bright grin. “Got some new recipes from that planet we visited yesterday—Kepurt-something.”

Sitting across from Pidge, Coran looks away from the numerous holo-screens projected above his side of the dining table. His reading glasses have slid down his nose.

“That was the worst pronunciation I have ever heard. This is the proper name,” he says, and then proceeds to make a noise somewhere between a donkey’s scream and an elephant’s fart.

They all look at him blankly. Allura hides her face behind a hand.

“…Yeah, I think I’ll just stick with Kepurt-something,” says Hunk. “Anyways, come grab a portion!”

Keith stands, and nearly yelps when Pidge ducks around him to snatch up a plate. She’s digging into it, ravenous, before she’s even back in her seat. He quirks an amused smile.

He gets to the cart before Allura and hands her a plate before grabbing one for himself. She smiles in thanks and takes another, setting it in front of Coran with a pointed look.

Coran sighs, and swipes the holo-screens away.

“Hey, Keith, have you seen Lance around?” Hunk asks.

Keith pauses, halfway to his seat with his plate. “I thought he was with you?”

“No; I haven’t talked with him since we had lunch. I was working with Pidge, and Lance usually hangs around for a bit, but...” Hunk grabs his plate, which leaves only one left on the cart; Lance’s. He frowns at it. “He said he was going to go train, so I thought...”

“Well, I’ve been in the training room all day and he hasn’t dropped by.” Keith sits down, and Hunk slides into the seat beside him. “Maybe he was—hey, Coran—” Coran looks up— “was Lance helping you with maintenance, again?”

“Oh no, I didn’t have the time for that today.” Coran glances down at the tablet by his plate, tapping a finger idly on the screen. “I’ve been reading these Coalition reports the entire day. And there’s still so much to go through, I should really get back to it…”

“Coran,” Allura says warningly, “you’re doing it again.”

Coran smiles sheepishly. “Sorry, Princess.”

Allura turns to Hunk and Keith, a concerned look passing over her face. “Is there something wrong with Lance?”

“I don’t think so?” Hunk absently scoops food into his mouth. When he speaks again, it’s muffled. “I’m just worried ‘cause he’s just been kinda distant recently. For a couple days, now that I think about it.”

Keith frowns. “Has anyone seen Lance at all today?”

Pidge shakes her head, still stuffing her face—Keith’s kind of worried she might choke—and across the table from Keith, Shiro pauses with a fork halfway to his mouth.

“I think I caught a glimpse of him walking into his room sometime in the afternoon,” he says. “He looked pretty tired.”

“Maybe someone should go get him,” Keith mutters, eyeing the lone plate on the cart. “He’s probably napping or something.”

“Oh? Are you volunteering?” Shiro says, and he sounds so…innocent that Keith immediately flips the fork in his hand around, the hair at his nape raising.

“No way. You call him. I’m eating.”

“You haven’t touched your food.”

Keith pointedly stabs his fork at his plate.

Shiro shrugs. “You know what, I’m pretty sure it’s fine if we just wrap his portion up. He knows where to find it when he’s hungry.”

It’s what they always do, when one of them misses out on a meal, so really, it shouldn’t make Keith feel so dissatisfied. He bites his lip.

“Something wrong?” asks Shiro. He raises his eyebrows and glances around the table, before leaning in. His voice is exaggeratedly hushed when he says, “Are you…worried about Lance?”

Keith rears back in his seat, the hand holding his fork rising. “What? No. No, I’m just—why are you saying it like that?”

Shiro raises his forkful of Kepurt-something cuisine to his mouth. “Like what?”

“Like…that,” is all Keith can come up with. “And I’m not worried. Why would you think I’m worried?”

“I don’t know,” says Shiro, chewing slowly. “Maybe it’s because you said you were too busy eating to go see if Lance remembers that it’s dinnertime, but you still haven’t touched your food. All you’ve done with your fork is hold it threateningly at me. I’m not even doing anything.”

“Sure you are. You’re doing something. I don’t know what it is, but you’re doing it. Stop.”

Shiro doesn’t listen, naturally. “I don’t think there’s a cause for concern, though, I’m pretty sure Lance is just napping. I mean, it’s not like he makes it a point to never miss a meal made by Hunk.” He cocks his head. “Unless he’s sick. He missed all those meals because of that awful cold he had once. But…well. I’m sure he’s just fine.”

Keith stares straight into Shiro’s eyes, furious.

“I hate you,” he says. “So much.”

Shiro just smiles. There’s some green sauce on his chin; gross.

Letting his fork fall from his hand to the table with a clatter, Keith shoves his chair back and stands. He turns to Hunk and claps a hand on his shoulder. “Wrap mine up too, will you?”

Hunk nods, and Keith steps away from the table, sending Shiro one last withering glare before marching out of the room.

The idle chatter behind him cuts off as the door shuts behind him. He exhales forcefully, and makes his way to Lance’s room.

“Stupid Shiro,” he grumbles. “Stupid Takashi and his stupid fucking…words. He thinks he’s so clever. I’m not falling for it next time, just fucking watch me.”

Two minutes later, Keith is standing outside of Lance’s room, knocking insistently.

“Lance?” He leans in, nose practically pressed to the metal. He calls out louder, “Lance, it’s Keith. Shiro sent me to get you. You’re missing out on dinner, dude.”

There’s no answer.

Keith steps back, staring at the door with a deep frown. Usually, it wouldn’t take this long for Lance to open his door, even if he is sick. That one time with the cold, he still managed to stick his head out and yell at Keith for “walking too loud.” And then there was that other time with Coran—it’s like he’s got satellite dishes for ears.

“Is he even in there?” Keith mutters, scratching irritably at his elbow.

He tries knocking again, louder and longer, but nothing. It just reaffirms his suspicion that the room’s empty; the knocking should’ve gotten Lance to open up, if only to shout at him for being annoying.

He stuffs his hands in his pockets and spins on his heel, thinking. Okay. If he were Lance, where would hide?

The pool is empty when Keith pops his head inside, and it stumps him for a good minute, because he has no idea where else Lance would be, if he’s not at his favourite place in the castle besides his own room.

He tries the lounge room, next. Empty.

The observatory room, with its large windows and cushioned seating—also empty.

The training room, healing pods, showers, lion hangers, even that janitor’s closet Keith had hid in—all empty of any brown-haired, blue-eyed paladins.

“Where the hell is he?” Keith groans, staring into the disorganized closet with a hand in his hair.

The hallway doesn’t provide an answer, and his words echo down the metal walls until they fade off in the distance.

He sighs, hair fluttering away from his face. Maybe he should just head back to the dining room. With his luck, Lance will probably be sitting there eating his dinner, and it’ll turn out that Keith’s worrying for nothing.

He presses the keypad and the closet closes.

The whoosh of the door sliding back into place is just loud enough that he almost doesn’t hear the faint murmuring in the distance.

He stills, cocks his head, and waits for a heartbeat or two.

Yeah, that’s definitely a distinct noise. But it’s not the usual humming that comes from the castle’s inner workings; it’s too uneven and not in the right pitch.

Keith turns his head slowly, in the direction of the sound, and finds himself blinking at two familiar double doors.

Huh. He totally forgot the bridge was up here, too.

The keypad is blinking green, so Allura must have left it unlocked. Keith hesitantly walks up to the doors, hoping that this isn’t a repeat of Rover-bomb and Sendak.

The room opens for him.

Inside, he finds the universe.

Millions upon millions of stars crammed into the space from floor and ceiling, suspended but unfrozen; they spin in place. Delicate Altean script hover over them, for every star, every pinprick of light.

Keith tentatively reaches out, watching as his hand passes through a mere fragment of the cosmos. Celestial bodies slip into the spaces between his fingers and dance around his wrist, unimpeded by his attempts to grasp them. He tracks the movements of the heavens with wide eyes, stunned.

Here is a planet, here is a red giant, here is an asteroid cluster, a black hole, a comet, a galaxy—the universe is dense, to the point that Keith can barely see the figure huddled on the dais.

There Lance sits, surrounded in blue and white dots, a veritable shower of glitter on his shoulders and haloed around his head. With his legs crossed and pulled up to his chest, he looks uncharacteristically small, here, in the center of the world.

Keith takes a deep breath, and steps into the room.

He approaches the dais as softly as he can, not because he doesn’t want Lance to hear—in this hushed stillness, it’s impossible not to notice every little sound, anyway—but because he’s not sure if he’s welcome; because maybe Lance will tell him to leave.

But until the words rise from his mouth, Keith is loath to just turn around and leave him, sitting here like this.

Lance doesn’t look at him when he sits down only a foot away, but continues to stare into the distance with a loosely-curled hand pressed to his mouth.

“I missed dinner, didn’t I?” he asks, and he sounds so…subdued.

Keith finds that he hates it.

“It’s fine. We saved you a plate.”

Lance hums an acknowledgement, but otherwise says nothing.

Keith stares at Lance for a long moment, and then leans back on his hands to gaze up at the holographic stars again. It’s unbelievably beautiful to observe and he doesn’t mind doing so, until Lance decides what he wants. If he wants Keith to leave; if he wants to talk; if he just wants to sit here—Keith’s fine with it all.

Whatever gets that empty look off Lance’s face.

It takes a while. Keith’s counted as many stars as his eyes can see in his vicinity, and he’s in the low eighties when Lance shifts his weight, sighing.

Keith glances over at him, waiting.

“I’ve been memorizing the names,” Lance says. “It’s something I’ve been doing since Coran showed me how to access this.”

“…Wouldn’t that be around the time Sendak attacked us?”

“Mm.”

Keith worries at his lower lip. That was over a year ago, plus some months.

“You know,” says Lance, “there are a lot of galaxies from Earth to where we began on Arus, and a billion times more in stars and planets. That’s probably an underestimate, actually. It took Coran minutes to swipe from Earth to Arus.”

Lance’s mouth twitches up. His eyes remain dull. “It’s stupid, but I just thought that by the time I learned the names of the galaxies sitting between those two points—since there’s so many—I…I thought that by then, we’d be home.”

His voice falters, goes whisper-strained, at the end. Home barely makes it past his lips, more of an exhale than a word.

And then, Lance uncurls the fist resting on his chin.

In his palm, rests a familiar blue-green planet.

Keith stares at Earth, turning gently in Lance’s hand, and feels gutted.

“‘The day I name all these galaxies, will be the day I go home,’” Lance whispers. “I thought that it’d be a safe bet to make, because that should definitely be enough time for us to finish this war, right?”

The glow of the holo-stars paint Lance’s skin with muted light, but the reflection in his eyes is all Earth.

He looks up at Keith with those very eyes and says, “But Keith, I’ve memorized almost half, and we’re nowhere near to dismantling the Galra empire.”

And Keith can practically hear it, hears how much longer and I don’t know if I can take this anymore, in the pauses separating Lance’s words. A plea that rings loud in Keith’s head and tears at the lining of his heart.

“I’m going to lose a bet with myself and it sounds so stupid. I don’t even know why I’m so—”

Lance presses his lips together and his breath whistles out his nose. His eyebrows are all scrunched up, he’s gone back to staring at some fixed point that Keith can’t see, and the curve of his back is so defeated that Keith just wants to push a hand against it to make it stop.

“Teach me,” he says.

Lance sniffles. “What?”

“I’m crap at names, especially the names of celestial bodies,” Keith explains. “It’s already bad enough that I have trouble remembering normal human names, but galaxy and star names can have numbers—sometimes in weird and long combinations with random letters. I nearly failed a final in the Garrison because half the questions asked me to identify obscure celestial bodies.”

Lance just stares at him wordlessly.

“You can forget about memorizing any more galaxies,” says Keith, leaning forward, and maybe he sounds a little too heated, but goddamn it Lance, stop looking like that. “I guarantee you that getting me to name the ones you’ve already learned, will eat up the rest of the time it takes to get home, however long that means.”

And Keith knows this isn’t really about the names, or losing a bet with yourself. It’s about making it back to Earth, about not staying stuck out here in space, fighting a war until they inevitably die on the battlefield.

It’s about Lance getting to go home, someday.

Keith can’t give him that. He doesn’t have the power to, but at the very least, he can make it so that Lance doesn’t have to sit here alone, desperately counting galaxies like how someone else would pray to their god.

“Keith, you…” Lance has this bewildered look on his face, but as Keith watches, the tension around his mouth eases up enough that a smile starts to grow. “You’re not used to this whole comforting thing, are you?”

Keith’s face immediately goes bright red. He pulls back. “I—”

“No, no. I didn’t say you’re bad at it, Red, chill.” Lance presses a fist to Keith’s bicep, not pulling away but lingering, a steady pressure. His smile’s gotten brighter, and Keith relaxes at the sight of it.

Lance inhales, gaze flicking back and forth from his hand to Keith’s face. “If you’re being serious—”

“I am,” says Keith, cheeks still warm. “I’m serious.”

Lance sits still for a second and then his arm drops. It rests an inch away from Keith’s own hand.

“Okay,” he says, soft. “Then…yeah, I can—we can do that.”

He looks away, clears his throat, and flops backwards onto the dais. Eyes resolutely trained on the stars above them, he raises an arm and points straight up. “The Altean database calls that pink, swirly one Tela Pyr-XR32.”

Keith gives himself one second. One second to appreciate the faint blush across Lance’s nose and cheeks, the brown of his hair splayed out over blue metal, the twist of his fingers in his shirt where they’re curled on his stomach.

And then Keith lies down next to him, and together, they map out the night sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Thanks,” Lance tells him later, over two reheated plates of food.

Keith’s mouth is too busy chewing to reply, so he taps a foot against Lance’s leg, gentle.

Lance grins back, teeth green with sauce, and traps Keith’s leg between his own.

He doesn’t let go until both of their plates are clean.

Keith tries not to think too much about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’s standing on a precipice, swaying between one drop and the other.

 

This is how he falls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lance and Pidge’s sleeves fall long enough down their hands, and they’re the only ones out of the five of them that don’t wear something over their marks.

Not that it’s a common practice to cover marks in the first place—unless you have something to hide.

Hunk and Keith have their gloves, and while Keith’s is definitely because he’s hiding his marks, he knows Hunk’s are more to do with engineering and exposure to electrical wires.

Shiro…lost his right arm—his first words—and he keeps the other one under wraps with a glove. He doesn’t talk about it, but Keith understands anyway.

So, Lance and Pidge are the ones whom Allura turns to and says, “I’ve noticed—what are those markings, on your wrists?”

Keith immediately tenses. Forces himself to relax, because that was way too obvious, and he glances around the room, hoping no one noticed.

The entire team has settled into the lounging area, all spread out on the couches. Hunk and Shiro share a bag of chips, and Coran and Allura are flipping through some old albums they found. At Allura’s question, Lance and Pidge look up from their fighting over a handheld game they found yesterday at an outpost raid. Pidge just looks confused, but Lance…

Lance is staring at him.

Keith swallows.

“They’re our soulmarks,” Pidge says when Lance continues to just sit there. “Don’t Alteans have them?”

“What are...soulmarks?” Allura looks baffled.

At that, Keith tears his eyes away from Lance, surprised. He’s heard of the one or two rare cases of people being born without a soulmate—

and wished he was one of them

—but an entire species without soulmarks? He frowns, brain already overloading with the implications that raises about how the marks work.

Hunk and Pidge have the same stunned realization on their faces.

“I—well,” Pidge stammers. She blinks, and then reaches up to push her glasses up her nose. “On Earth, everyone’s born with a soulmate—someone you’re destined to be with.”

Coran perks up. “Oh! You mean evrula.”

“So, you guys do have soulmates?” Hunk asks. “Because my head was just about to explode from the idea that you didn’t.”

“Yes, if I’m understanding you correctly,” says Coran. “‘Soulmate’ doesn’t translate very well, I suppose. But I assume our species share the wonderful phenomenon that an individual has a fated other half? Alteans call it evrula, literally meaning ‘heart-bound.’ There was a myth in the ancient days of the Altean people, that evrula shared a heart. Of course, we know that can’t be biologically possible, but well—” Coran shrugs— “It was a romantic idea.”

Evrula,” Pidge repeats softly. “That’s…a pretty beautiful word.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Allura murmurs. She stares into the distance, and Keith has to look away from the stark sadness in her eyes. It’s too familiar.

“How do, uh, evrula find each other?” Hunk asks.

“Well, we have markings not unlike the ones on our face,” Coran gestures to his eyes, “except they vary greatly in size, shape, and colour, and can appear practically anywhere on the body. An Altean’s evrula would have matching marks in the same place.”

Hearing that, Keith thinks Alteans might have it better, in this soulmate business. Their markings are purely to find, to seek. There’s no death involved with theirs.

“And how do humans find their evrula?” Allura asks.

“We have their spoken words written on us,” Pidge replies. “The ones on your right wrist are the first words your soulmate says to you, and the words on the left are the last.”

Coran and Allura leaned forward as Pidge explained, eyes wide with wonder, but at the end, turn to each other with furrowed brows.

“Last words?” Coran’s voice is oddly subdued. “Seems rather...morbid.”

Hunk twists his hands together absently, brushing down over his wrists. “I guess so, but we’re kinda used to it. Most of us think it’s like…an extra assurance? That you’ve found each other?”

“Mm, but you hear about those cases where they think they’ve found each other but one dies and their last words aren’t the right ones,” Pidge says distractedly. She’s staring at Coran’s hands, gaze distant.

“Oh, yeah. Those are pretty brutal.” Hunk winces, and his hands have moved down his to knees, tapping an offbeat rhythm. He glances over at Lance, a significant look that pings at Keith’s brain.

Lance makes a cutting motion at Hunk, sending slightly alarmed glances back to Keith.

A stone lodges itself into Keith’s throat, and thudding drum where his heart should be. What—what was that look about? Lance couldn’t have—he wouldn’t have told Hunk, right?

“May I ask if you have all found your soulmates?” Allura tilts her head.

Some of them shift uneasily. Lance and Shiro, in particular, and its only the honest innocence in Allura’s tone that keeps Keith from visibly recoiling. As it is, he can’t keep himself from crossing his arms tight across his chest, fingers digging into his jacket. He glares down at his feet and refuses to raise his head, even when Lance makes obvious coughing noises.

Allura raises her hands, leaning back. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean—was that something I shouldnt’ve asked, then?”

“No, no,” Shiro rushes to say, “it’s nothing taboo, it’s just—well, I don’t know about the others, but since I started fighting in this war, finding your soulmate hasn’t been a pleasant thing to think about. Just, for me. Personally.”

Shiro rubs the nape of his neck, awkward. He’s using his right hand, and the Galra tech gleams. Keith sees the exact moment the realization clicks for the two Alteans. Coran looks away and Allura pales slightly, looking back and forth from Shiro’s face to his arm.

Keith presses back into the cushions, hair falling into his eyes.

“My apologies,” Allura says, soft and contrite. She chews on her lip, casting around for a subject. “How—how are those projects of your going, Hunk? Were you able to reverse-engineer any of the tech we brought back?”

Hunk jumps into the topic change with poorly-concealed relief. “Y-yeah, well, um. Kind of? At first, I thought I was looking at one of the Galra’s earlier prototypes for large-scale shielding—like the ones they use for their larger battleships, but it turns out it’s more like—” he searches through his pockets, coming up with metal scraps and wire, sheets of paper stuck haphazardly around them. He grumbles. “Where did I put the tablet? Pidge, how did you describe it again?”

Pidge straightens suddenly, grinning. “It’s like a really big lawnmower with a bonus shockwave function!”

This would be where Keith stares at her for a long moment before automatically turning to Lance for an explanation. This would be where Lance looks right back, where he’d be wearing an equally dry face, and they’d roll their eyes together.

But this time, Keith’s too strung up. He can still hear have you found them—

will you kill them when you do

—and taste the lingering staleness in the air. He feels like if he breathes too loud, they’ll look closer and see something he’s never been good at hiding.

Already, Shiro is sending him questioning looks. Of course he’s noticed, he always notices. Does he know? Does he remember whatever hints Keith unwillingly dropped at the Garrison, and put them together? Has he figured it out? Is Coran looking at their hands, still curious—is he looking at Keith’s? Does he see the gloves and think, he has something to hide?

It’s—it’s too much, Keith needs to—needs—

“Right, I just remembered,” Lance says loudly, shooting to his feet. “Keith and I have this thing. That we have to do. Right now. We gotta—we’re just gonna—”

He wraps a firm hand around Keith’s bicep, and hauls him up.

Keith yelps and almost falls flat on his face but Lance doesn’t even wait. He marches them past the others, who’ve gone silent, and Shiro, who presses his lips together like he’s trying not to laugh.

The doors slide open and Keith hears Hunk start to say, “Are they going to beat each other up for fun again—” just as the door hisses shut behind him.

The hallway is quiet.

“Sorry.” Lance breathes in, steady. “You just—you looked like you wanted out. And I know you don’t...like that kind of stuff.”

Keith opens his mouth but it takes a heartbeat or two until he can croak out, “Yeah. Yeah, I…thanks.”

Lance nods, fingers scratching idly at his neck. Unconsciously, his hand has slipped down to Keith’s wrist, right over the part where the glove ends. Right over the marks.

And Keith…Keith should be tense, shouldn’t he? Should feel the accusations, burned in his skin, flare hot like it always has. He should want to rip his arm away, should want distance and taste fear under his tongue and yet—

All he feels, is safe.

Only five steps away, he was in a place where he felt cornered, felt hunted by something he couldn’t lash out against. It was just words, just a discussion, but the topic of soulmates had never been kind to him. He felt ready to burst, and Lance saw it. Saw it and thought, I need to do something. And maybe it’s because he has insight to Keith that no one else does, maybe it gives him an advantage—but Keith doesn’t think so.

He knows Lance would’ve seen it—that he has been seeing it, all this time. Seeing Keith in all his awkwardness and uncertainty, and been reaching out to him.

Months of memories run by in his head—

Lance standing up for him, against the Feryter, against every other alien race that found Keith distasteful.

Lance getting him drinks, sharing disgusting snacks with him.

Lance with his rifle, sweat on his brow and grinning at Keith, on the battlefield and in the training room.

Lance holding him, as he shakes apart and back together.

Keith stands there, struck dumb and feeling like his chest is full of bubbles, in every colour of the rainbow, and thinks—

Oh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the edge, he goes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Things don’t really change much, once Keith realizes he’s fallen half in love with Lance, somewhere along the way.

If anything, their dynamic fixes into place, cementing exactly into what Keith wished it would, at the start of all this.

They hang out more—just for fun.

They actively seek each other out to go swimming in the pool; to explore the dusty, rediscovered game room; to drag the other into Coran’s chores, because if one has to suffer, the other does too. After practice, they lounge on the couch and happily argue over who had a higher bot count or who managed to pull more faces behind Shiro’s back without him noticing. They stake out the kitchen half an hour before mealtimes, waiting for Hunk to let them in so they can wrestle over the most appetizing-looking dish, with him watching, resigned, in the background.

And every other night, they lie together on the dais and learn the names of the endless skies.

The best thing, though, is that if the Coalition needs a minor mission to be done, Shiro sends Keith and Lance out more often than not. Every time they come home with satisfied smiles and completed mission objectives, Keith lies in bed and thinks about how cool they were for hours.

“You guys get things done really quick,” Shiro explains one day. “It’s probably because you’re both stupidly competitive to the point of recklessness, but—well. I think a year fighting an overgrown, fuzzy eggplant has curbed that a little, don’t you?”

Keith squints, unsure. “…You mean fighting Zarkon?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Shiro replies. He reaches out to scrub a hand in Keith’s hair. “I’m really proud of you buddy. It only took about four years, being drafted into a space war, piloting a mecha cat that becomes a mecha man like this is some sort of mecha anime, and my nightly prayers to every single deity I know, but you’ve finally made a friend on your own! I can bring a positive report back to Iverson, now.”

“I’m leaving,” says Keith. “Bye.”

“We’re stranded on an island with man-eating fish around us, and our mecha cats are hungover from druid magic, kiddo. But sure, take those five steps to the other side of this tiny circle of sand, I’ll pretend you aren’t even here.” Shiro crosses his arms behind his head. “If I close my eyes, it’ll be like a nice vacation to the Bahamas.”

“Would you stop saying mecha cats. Red keeps swearing at you really loudly and it hurts my head.”

“How does Red know swear words, he’s a mecha cat—”

“Shiro, I will gut you.

“Is this you speaking, or is Red using your mouth to talk with his super cool mecha telepathy—Keith, put that down or I’ll express-mail you to Zarkon in a cardboard box.”

Dumb brother-figures aside, Keith doesn’t think he’s ever felt this content before.

It’s nice.

Sure, they could die any day out here, but he’s—he feels good. Free, but also grounded—in a good way, that he didn’t know could be possible, until he found this team. Until he found someone like Lance, to have as a partner; an actual rival; a quiet, innocent crush; and an honest-to-god friend.

He’s half in love, yeah, but Lance will find ‘Mrs. Blue Lion’ one day and it’ll be…good, to see Lance get the happiness he deserves.

Keith’s just glad to have this, for the while that he’s allowed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

he hasn’t thought about

stop why are you doing this to me stop it stop it stop

 in months.

and he forgets

how much it can hurt.

mom

dad

shiro

soulmate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“—so this mission isn’t really a high priority,” says Shiro, kneading his knuckles into his calf, “but since we’ll be in the area to collect those raw minerals Slav wants, the Coalition thinks it wouldn’t hurt to check Endjha out.”

Finished stretching out his muscles, he settles back into the cushions and looks over his shoulder at the arguing pair sprawled on the lounge room floor. He sighs.

“—I told you, I got the last two.”

“Sure. After I shot off their knees.”

Shiro drops his head back against the couch. “Are you two even listening?”

Pidge snorts. “I think they forgot we’re even in here.”

 “—no way, I sliced off their heads, and then you shot their knees,” Keith tells Lance heatedly, and then whips around to point a finger at Shiro. “And of course I was listening. I’m not the oblivious idiot who can’t even remember how many bots they killed.”

Shiro raises an eyebrow.

“Oblivious idi—you better not be talking about me!’” Lance yells, indignant. He shoves Keith over.

Keith lands on his back and rolls away in time to dodge the headlock Lance would’ve put him in. He rises up on his elbows and sticks his tongue out.

Lance growls, and lunges for him again.

Keith wheezes when Lance lands on him, but manages to kick Lance off. He launches a counterattack—jumping on Lance, pinning down his arms long enough to retaliate by tickling his sides. Lance yelps, lashing out wildly. Keith jerks back with a hiss, barely avoiding a punch to the face.

Lance turns over and tries to get Keith in a chokehold again, but Keith frantically scoots back on his butt.

Fortunately, Lance relents, flopping onto his back—training must’ve tired him out more than usual. He’d never give up so easily, otherwise.

“Hunk,” Lance huffs. “My wonderful, brutally honest buddy. Tell Keith, here, who the oblivious idiot actually is.”

Keith looks over to find Hunk already squinting at them.

He’s stopped halfway into wiping his forehead with a towel. After a long second, he lets it drop back around his neck.

“You’re really gonna ask me to say which of you is more oblivious,” he says flatly, “after all that.”

Lance frowns. He cranes his head to shoot Keith a puzzled look.

Keith looks back. Shrugs.

“After all what?” Lance asks.

Hunk turns to Shiro, something like disbelief in his eyes. “Are they serious?”

Shiro just puts a hand over his eyes.

“I don’t get it,” Keith says.

“Well, of course you don’t,” Lance retorts.

“Alright then, if you’re so much better—what are they talking about?” Keith snaps.

Lance opens his mouth. Closes it.

Keith crosses his arms and smirks.

Lance’s ears go red. “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it—”

“Alrighty then!” Pidge interrupts loudly, getting to her feet. “Not that it isn’t fascinating to witness a train wreck firsthand, but I’ve got five coding projects calling my name. See you goofballs later.”

“Hey Pidge, wait up!” says Hunk. “I’m not staying around those two while they’re doing this.”

The doors close behind them, but not before Hunk manages to shoot Lance a look.

Keith frowns when Lance jerks fully upright, like he’s realized something. “Lance?”

Lance glances at him.

“S’nothing,” he mumbles. He turns to Shiro then, whose face is still covered. “Anyway, you were basically saying that tomorrow we’re heading out to see if Endjha would join the Coalition, right?”

“Oh, you’re done?” Shiro peeks at them from under his hand. “Yeah, that’s right. It’ll be quick and easy—we’re just there to gauge their interest. Nothing official.”

“Cool.” Lance nods. He stands with a groan, spine slowly straightening out. Then he raises his arms, holding them there, and his shirt follows the motion up, a sliver of skin showing.

Barely an inch of skin, nothing revealing or erotic about it—and yet Keith can’t stop fucking staring at it.

He should—he should just blind himself, what the fuck. There’s nothing special about—it’s just skin, Keith, you have it, too. Stare at your own or something, holy shit.

But Lance’s looks nicer, his brain says plaintively, it probably feels nicer, too. Doesn’t he exfoliate, or something?

Shut up, he tells himself. Just. Just fuck the shutting up.

Lance drops his arms, thank god, and Keith looks away only to find Shiro smiling at him with the biggest shit-eating grin he’s ever seen.

The blood drains from Keith’s face so fast his vision greys out.

Shiro starts to chuckle, low and evil, and Keith has never had to stare down the horns of an enraged bull before, but he bets it’s not unlike watching Shiro open his mouth, about to ruin his life with his stupid words, again. He can’t dodge words.

And then Lance says, “Are we all going to be there, or is this a you-Allura-Coran sort of thing?”

Shiro blinks, the evil falling from his face like water. “Huh? Oh. No, Coran will be staying to man the castle, and the rest of us will be planet-side.”

“Alright, sounds good.” Lance holds out a hand to Keith. “C’mon, get off your lazy ass. I promised the moustache man we’d help him out today.”

Usually, Keith would try to escape cleaning duty, forcing Lance to chase after him with a broom, but right now, Keith would do anything Lance asked. He just cluelessly saved Keith from an early death.

“Sure,” Keith says, taking the hand and standing quickly. He nearly trips over himself to get out of the room, very carefully not looking at Shiro. “Let’s go do that right now. Immediately.”

“I’ll see you two later,” Shiro calls out, practically sing-song.

“Evil,” Keith whispers as the door closes behind them.

“What was that?” Lance asks.

“Nothing.” Keith shudders. “Nothing at all.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

he forgets

that it hurts

 

 

 

 

lance reminds him.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

—krrtzzrrt—nyone hear me?! Shiro?! Cora—zzzkkff—

Keith? Everything okay with the tour?

—fffhhhzzzzzzzzzzrrrrr—

Keith, come in. Keith?

Hey, Pidge the comms are acting up—

—surgents shot—fffftzzzkrt—dying, Shiro!

Hold up, kiddo, you keep cutting out, I can’t hear you—

—krrrrzzztt—much blood, I can’t—fffzzzz—

Are you hurt? Keith?

—Princess, something’s happened to Keith and Lance.

We need to call off the meeting.

—nce! It’s—rrrrrzzzt—

Keith, you’re out of range. Are you still in the palace?

 

 

 

Keith?

Keith, if you can hear us, we’re coming for you. Hang in there.

—zzrrt—

—sshhhhrr—

—Lance.

Lance? Is he with you? He’s not answering his comms.

 

 

 

Keith, are you there?

 

—krrtzzzzrrrrr—

—They hurt him, Shiro.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going to kill them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hey.”

The word is subdued, spoken in the softest tone that Keith’s ever heard Shiro use. It still echoes around the room.

Keith doesn’t look up, eyes fixed on his dagger. He’s seated on the steps beside Lance’s pod, a clean rag in his hand and a bottle of polishing liquid on the floor by his hip. Coran gave it to him two hours ago, along with a plate of food.

The bottle is two-thirds empty; the plate untouched.

His right hand guides the rag over the edge of the blade, the slate-grey and black metal gleaming. He can see his reflection in it. Can see Shiro looking at him, too.

“How’re you holding up?” Shiro asks.

The muscles in Keith’s arm have been protesting for a while now, stuck dragging this soaked-through rag in the same motions since he first sat down. His bicep twitches and his deltoid burns hot, but he ignores it; much in the same way he ignores Shiro’s question. It’s a stupid question.

Shiro leans his elbows on his knees and links his fingers together. He tries to catch Keith’s eyes, but Keith just ducks behind his hair.

“You know he’ll be fine, right? We got him into the pod in time. Coran says he’ll be out in another twelve hours.”

Keith just flips his knife over. It shines brighter than it ever has, but he still wipes it down. The metal glints and he angles it back and forth, letting it flash into his eyes.

Again, Shiro tries. “We’re all really worried, not just for Lance, but for you, too.”

When Keith still doesn’t reply, he drops the soft approach and grasps Keith’s shoulder, firm. “Keith, you haven’t slept in two days. Look, Pidge and Hunk have been going over the security footage, we’ll find the rest of the insurgents soon. I know you want to act but you need to rest first.”

I’ll rest when we find them, Keith thinks; it seems like too much energy to say aloud. His mind feels dull, but strangely, electricity thrums through his veins. He can’t bring himself to reach over to the plate next to him, can’t make himself eat the food, but he can’t stop polishing his knife, either. He feels stuck, not starting but not stopping all at the same time.

Shiro is silent. Keith can’t see his expression with his head down like this, but he imagines it might be that typical worried look.

He wonders if Shiro will leave now. He’s not sure if that’ll make him feel better.

And then, with an oddly relaxed tone, Shiro says, “I understand that you care a lot about Lance, but locking down the North wing of the palace wasn’t the way to go. Threatening violence against the insurgents wasn’t your place, either; that’s the responsibility of the Endjhan authorities. You gave the Endjhan council a lot of grief.”

Keith glances in Shiro’s direction, not that he can see him behind his hair, but something about that tone niggles at the back of his head.

“They deserved it,” he says. “They knew the spies were there.”

“They suspected,” Shiro says, dismissively.

That gets Keith to raise his head, and he frowns.

“It’s not like the council planted the insurgents there, themselves,” Shiro continues. “You can’t blame them for something like that.”

Keith stares, feeling a twist in his stomach where there was previously just cold. “What?”

Shiro spares him a glance out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t misunderstand. Seeing Lance get hurt so badly got to all of us, too, but you couldn’t control your emotions and it affected the mission. We’ve been over this. Your temper—”

“My temper—?” Keith interrupts. He thinks he’s heard enough. “Lance could’ve died in the crossfire of their stupid disagreement. Do you know what they’re fighting over? A piece of fucking land, in the middle of shitcreek nowhere. Tell me how I’m not supposed to be mad about that.”

“It’s a vital resource—”

Keith barks a laugh, disbelieving. “No, it’s not. It’s a border dispute between the West faction and the South. The government favoured the South so the West got angry. The tour guide had plenty to say about that, right before she attacked us.”

His jaw clenches, recalling the look in her eyes. Indifferent, detached—like she couldn’t care less about trying to take a life, if it meant bragging rights.

“We were just pawns, she said. Useless outsiders that the West was going to use for petty revenge against their government. And so what if the council only had suspicions—why didn’t they have the decency to warn us, at the very least?”

“The council said that they had a plan to catch the insurgents,” Shiro says, “and this was their one chance. But they didn’t know if we would go along with it, and they didn’t want to risk revealing things to outsiders, in case the plan was leaked. Keith, they have their reasons.”

A heartbeat or two—silence. Keith has his chin tipped up, hand clenched around the hilt of his knife, but Shiro just stares back evenly. He doesn’t waver, not even a little, and that tightness in Keith’s gut digs its claws in further.

“Reasons?” he repeats. “‘They had their reasons?’”

In one fluid movement, Keith surges to his feet with a snarl and hurtles his blade at the far wall. It slams into the metal bulkhead with a jarring clang and bounces off onto the floor, skidding to a stop by the one of the other pods.

Shiro doesn’t flinch, of course, and Keith rounds on him, teeth bared.

Fuck their reasons—” He slashes an arm through the air— “I don’t care! And fuck their ‘one chance,’ too—all that tells me is that they used us as bait, then! They used Lance as bait! We could’ve lost him, Shiro, he could’ve bled out in my arms! I held him and I felt his blood soaking through my suit and I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t do anything!”

“Keith—”

“He was still trying to smile, the bastard, smiling and—” Keith takes a step back, shaking his head. “He kept trying to—to reassure me, like I was the one who was dying!”

“Keith—”

“You want me to put a bunch of politicians’ reasons above Lance’s life? You want me to just—accept the fact that they manipulated us?” Keith spits. “I won’t. I can’t. I won’t do that ever, not to any of you, and not to him.”

Shiro raises his hands, placating. “I’m not saying that, kiddo—”

“You don’t get it. You don’t—it’s Lance. He’s—he can’t die, okay? I—I lost mom and dad, and you, once. That’s more than enough and I can’t lose him too, alright, I already have to live with knowing that my soulmate—”

Keith snaps his mouth closed, but it’s already too late.

Shiro frowns, but his voice is gentle when he asks, “Your soulmate?”

Keith grits his teeth. His hands are fisted, nails biting into his palms, and he turns away. He doesn’t want Shiro to see.

There’s a slash of silver on the wall from his knife. He stares straight at it, shaking. His head is spinning; he can’t tell if it’s because he’s angry or because he hasn’t eaten in—he can’t remember when the last time was.

“Keith,” is all Shiro says.

Keith shouldn’t. His wrists burn and he shouldn’t, but there’s an ache in him.

Beneath the cacophony of fear, instinctive and animalistic, exists a small, whispering thing that begs him to come clean. To release all the thoughts that he’s turned over his head, year after year; as he lay awake each night since he was a kid; as he walks to flight classes with leaden feet; as he scours the desert in the bright, unrelenting sun. All those times he’s reflected on what it means to have the marks that he does—it’s been eating at him. It gnaws away in his head, unspoken and festering.

It goes against everything he’s been doing since he was eight, but it’s Shiro. It’s Takashi. If he can’t tell the one person he trusts implicitly, who can he tell?

He shoves his hands in his hair and sits down with a thump. “My soulmate dies.”

Shiro waits and when Keith says nothing else, hesitantly says, “That…happens, yes—”

“I’ll…probably end up killing them,” Keith says dully. “I’m the reason they die and they’ll—they’ll blame me for it.”

Shiro blinks, thrown for a second, and then he gets that look on his face, the one that says he thinks Keith is being stupid. “You can’t know—”

With a growl, Keith yanks off his left glove. “Look at this, read it, and tell me it’s not what it sounds like.”

It should be momentous, terrifying, or at least a relief, to finally show someone after hiding it his entire life. All he feels, though, is tired. He bares his branded flesh to the only brother he’s ever known, half in defiance, daring him to recoil, and half in resignation, watching as Shiro’s face goes slack and pale.

But when he looks at Keith, it’s not with the mistrust Keith vaguely expected, but with genuine sorrow. It’s not with condemnation, not how could you—it’s I’m sorry for your loss.

It’s more than Keith thinks he deserves.

He stuffs his glove back on, clamping his other hand around the wrist.

“This is why you hate meeting people—talking to strangers—you don’t want to meet your soulmate,” Shiro says quietly.

Keith snorts. “You gonna put that in the report for Iverson?”

It’s uncalled for, but of course, Shiro doesn’t rise to the bait. His eyes are on the walls, a hand over his mouth and eyes distant. He doesn’t react, just waits, and Keith slumps, elbows resting on his knees. He presses the heels of his palms to his prickling eyes.

“Sorry, I just. I hate this,” he whispers.

“Keith…” Shiro sighs. He wraps an arm around Keith’s shoulders, dragging Keith to his side. It’s just a little bit awkward; they’re too far apart and Shiro has to hastily scoot over so Keith doesn’t fall onto the stairs.

There was a time, when Keith’s dad used to do the same. Every night Keith woke up dreaming of why are you doing this to me, he’d run to the room across the hall and into his dad’s arms. The first few times were just like this—clumsy and floundering—and with Shiro, it’s almost the same. The thought just makes his eyes sting harder behind his hands.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro says suddenly.

It’s so out of place that Keith doesn’t register the apology for a few seconds. He raises his head, hands falling from his face.

“What for?” he asks. His throat burns.

Shiro takes a deep breath. Lets it out. “It’s…a pretty heavy mark. I’m…I’m just sorry. That you had to deal with that at all. It must’ve been hard.”

He squeezes Keith’s arm.

“But the thing is? Is that I know you,” Shiro continues, “and I know you wouldn’t do that; you wouldn’t kill your soulmate.” He sounds so sure, voice as firm as when he makes snap-decisions in a battle. “So, you should really try to stop thinking like that, okay? Because you mean well. You’ve got a good heart. You’re a dependable teammate, a good friend, a paladin of Voltron, and you’re Keith.”

Shiro smiles. “I trust you with my life, and every time we go out into battle, you know the others think the same. So you should trust yourself more.”

And somehow, just like that, Keith can feel himself letting go, crumpling with relief, and he takes those words to hold against the burning angerfearhatesorrowfearfearfear like a balm.

Even if he is a soulmate-killer, it’s nice to know someone has so much confidence in him.

“How can you be so sure?” he asks. “What if I change? What if this war is what does it? You said it yourself, my temper got us in trouble.”

Shiro just huffs, wry. “You know I said that to try and snap you out of your robot impersonation; I never meant any of it.”

“I did think you were acting kinda funny.” Keith bites his lip. “Thanks…Takashi. I—thanks.”

“Anytime.” Shiro regards Keith with a steady gaze. “Your mark doesn’t define you, Keith. I mean, it does look really, really, really bad—”

“Wow, thanks, Shiro—”

“—but you don’t have the full story. You won’t know for sure how it’ll go. It’s best to just focus on what you can do here and now—”

“—and let the future worry for itself,” Keith finishes with a roll of his eyes. “Yeah, I know.”

Shiro blinks, laughs, and ruffles Keith’s hair. “You’re a good kid, you know that? You’ve really grown a lot since the Garrison; I keep forgetting to mention.”

“I just turned nineteen, Shiro. I’m not a kid.”

“Sure,” Shiro drawls, “and I didn’t catch you barefoot in the lounge room, fighting with Lance over who was taller.”

The memory floats up in Keith’s mind—the deep embarrassment he felt when Shiro walked in and found them back to back, trying to get on their toes without the other noticing. He remembers looking over to find Lance with the same reddened cheeks and hunched shoulders. Remembers thinking that that sight alone, was worth Shiro bent at the waist, laughing himself to tears with a finger pointed at them.

A tremulous smile slides across his face, lightning-quick. It falters just as fast. He bites down on his lip, breathing noisily.

“…He was supposed to be safe,” he whispers. There’s a vice around his throat; his words come out strangled.

Shiro squeezes his arm, gentle. “We’re fighting a war—”

Keith shakes his head. “No, not like that. I mean he—he was supposed to be safe, be Lance, and not like my…I care about him but it wasn’t supposed to—I didn’t think it would get like this. I didn’t think it’d…hurt. So much.

“He almost died. Trying to protect me.” He laughs quietly, disbelievingly, a shaky, wet sort of sound. “They had their guns on me and he just shoved me out of the way and I—all I could think about, was how the hell was I going to survive killing my soulmate, when seeing Lance die for me feels this horrible.”

“…You did sound very frightened over comms,” Shiro says. “I’m sorry we didn’t realize earlier. Coran said it was odd to have a tour in the middle of things, but he didn’t have enough information on the natives to know if it would be taboo to decline.”

Keith lets his head fall onto Shiro’s shoulder. He sighs and scrubs a hand over his eyes. “It’s…it’s fine. You couldn’t have known that would happen. I didn’t, and I was listening to an extremely biased history lesson the entire time.”

“Yeah, but it was a tour. I could’ve just easily asked to postpone something that trivial. And it’s like you said, we shouldn’t put the whims of other people above our own safety.”

Quiet fills the room then; they both know Keith isn’t going to argue further.

He sits there, Shiro’s arm around his shoulders, and idly wonders if he should go pick up his knife, lying across the room. He’s cold, though, and Shiro’s always been unnaturally warm. Maybe he’ll grab it later, when he goes to reheat his food. And now that he thinks about it, he’s actually really hungry. And he’ll also need to return the polishing oil to Coran—and thank him, for that and the food.

Beside him, Lance’s pod lets out a hiss of air and whirs as it sucks in fresh oxygen.

“Lance knew,” Keith finds himself saying, “Lance knew there was something wrong; he was weirdly silent the entire time. I think he tried hinting it to me at one point but I didn’t catch it. I should’ve. He’ll probably call me an idiot, when he comes out of there.”

“You’re probably right, he would absolutely call you an idiot,” Shiro says slowly, and before Keith can react, continues, “for not taking care of yourself.”

Keith blinks.

Shiro nods decisively. “He’d get all frowny and loud and he’d try to fix those bags under your eyes by racing you to see who could ‘get more rest’ than the other—or however kids fix their problems nowadays—and he’d call you dumb a million times in between.”

Keith opens his mouth, affronted by the truth of that, but Shiro gives him no time.

He heaves them up with hardly an afterthought, his arm no longer a comfort to Keith but instead a noose around his neck. He marches them to the door, dragging Keith behind by the neck.

Keith chokes under those ridiculously large muscles, hissing and scratching uselessly at Shiro’s stupid robot arm. He’s suffocating. This is how he dies.

“Lance would make fun of you for days,” Shiro continues, with a grave expression. “We can’t have that, no. As your assigned mentor, Commander Iverson—”

Keith makes a furious, gurgling noise. “You are not funny, Shiro—”

“—made you my responsibility, which is why we should you get something to eat, and then you’re going to shower and brush your teeth, and get into some clean clothes for once, and then you’ll sleep until I tell you it’s okay to wake up.” Shiro smiles the fakest smile that’s ever smiled. “That way, Lance can’t make fun of you!”

“Why would I even care about that?”

“Oh, come on, I know how important your ‘rivalry’ is to you.”

“Can we at least get my knife,” Keith wheezes.

“No one’s going to take your dumb malaria knife, don’t worry.”

“I’m telling Kolivan you said that!”

“Go ahead. He’s an alien, I bet he doesn’t even know what malaria is.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True to Coran’s prediction, twelve hours later, Lance wakes.

Shiro doesn’t say anything when Keith hugs Lance just a little longer than everyone else—doesn’t even smirk when Keith hides behind him to hastily scrub a hand over his eyes. He just gives Keith a surreptitious pat on the back, and starts herding them all to the dining room for lunch.

“Hunk’s prepped some of your favourites,” he tells Lance.

Hunk shrugs, and readjusts the arm he’s wrapped around Lance’s shoulders to help him walk. “After everything, it seemed like you deserved it.”

“Aww, thanks, buddy.” Lance gives Hunk a warm smile. “Hey, talking about that ‘everything,’ what’s the situation like, now?”

The team gives a collective twitch.

Lagging at the back of the group, Keith notes with detached amusement that despite their best efforts to not look at him, the elephant in the room might as well be tap-dancing in a neon green jumpsuit. Silently, he shuffles as far away from Lance as he can, and ends up huddling behind Coran.

“Well?” Lance looks from one person to the next. “Don’t keep me out of the loop, guys. What happened after I heroically sacrificed my body for Keith?”

Keith twitches.

Allura makes a suspicious coughing noise. “Maybe we should revisit the topic another time. For now, we’ve arrived at the dining room. Let’s get you seated, Lance, you must be tired.”

“Wait—” Lance protests as Hunk and Allura strong-arm him into a chair, pushing plates of food closer to him.

The team settles around him, leaning on the table or against Lance’s chair and Keith’s suddenly hit with an overwhelming sense of deja-vu.

He glances around the room, then down at himself. Huh, he’s even sitting in the same spot.

“Keith, buddy, surely you can tell me what happened.” Lance turns to him, and nearly gets poked in the eye with the fork Hunk’s trying to feed him with. “Hunk, would you—dude, not that I don’t appreciate it, but I can feed myself.”

“Sorry.”

Lance gives Keith a significant look.

“Uhh,” says Keith intelligently, “you know what, I’d rather not.”

“What do you mean ‘you’d rather not?’”

“More like, he can’t,” Hunk says slyly and Lance turns to him, eyebrows raised.

Keith furiously slashes a hand across his throat at Hunk behind Lance’s back.

Hunk locks eyes with him and grins. “He freaked out after you went down, and I mean like, freaked out. And afterwards, Shiro was all ‘bro you’re a little too affected’ and Keith had to sit out on the follow-up mission. He stayed in the castle with Coran while we cleaned up after him, so if you want a first-hand report, you aren’t going to get it from him.”

Keith rubs both of his hands over his face, and refuses to acknowledge the barely-repressed snickers around him.

Lance laughs. “Keith? Sit out on a mission? Nice one, Hunk.”

The team stops giggling, and an awkward silence descends.

Keith presses his lips together, crosses his arm, and tips his head back to glare at the ceiling.

The silence draws Lance’s attention and he looks around, laughter petering out.

He turns to stare at Keith with wide eyes. “No way,” he whispers.

Keith just slouches in on himself more, shoulders drawn up to his ears.

“No way,” Lance says. “Oh my god, you sat out?!”

Keith sends Hunk a look full of betrayal. “Thanks, Hunk.”

Hunk smiles. “Yeah, no problem.”

“Did you seriously freak out so bad that Shiro had to bench you?!” Lance asks, incredulous.

“It was a stressful situation, okay?” Keith throws his hands out. “I was stressed!”

“What did you do?” Lance demands. He lunges forward in his seat and grips Keith by the shoulders, shaking him. “Keith, what did you do? Did you stab them? Don’t tell me you stabbed the Endjhans, Red!”

Keith splutters. “I didn’t—I didn’t stab them, Lance, c’mon!”

Lance stares at him.

Somewhere to the left of Keith, there’s the sound of someone wheezing. Shut up, Shiro.

Keith valiantly tries to hold Lance’s gaze. He lasts all of two seconds.

“Look, I. I just…gently threatened them,” he admits pitifully.

“You threatened them?!”

“Gently!”

“Right, because that makes it so much better!” Lance throws his hands in the air. His fork goes flying, clattering to the floor.

Keith wishes it had hit him on the head and put him into a coma so he doesn’t have to be part of this conversation anymore.

“How the hell did we get them to join if you were ‘gently’ waving your sword at them?” Lance rages.

“We didn’t,” says Pidge, sitting in her seat with her chin in her hands. She sounds almost gleeful.

“Allura and Coran must’ve spent days doing damage control—wait.” Lance drops his arms onto the table with a thump. “What did you say?”

Keith pointedly turns his back on all of them and starts picking at the dry skin of his bare arm.

“Unfortunately,” Allura begins, and she’s definitely hiding a smile behind that hand. “Endjha didn’t sign on with us.”

“Not that it was Keith’s fault,” Coran interjects, and apparently he’s the only one Keith can freaking trust around here. “The council was understanding of his…reaction to the incident. In fact, they were rather remorseful. We received numerous apologies from them—from gifts to speeches to formal handwritten notices—those letters were lengthy, I’ll tell you that. Took me a while to sort through them all and send back responses.”

“We were even invited to attend the insurgents’ sentencing.” Pidge swings her feet. “The justice process was really something; it involved a lot of cattle, for some reason.”

“Wait, so why didn’t they want to join the Coalition, if Keith being Keith didn’t offend them?” Lance asks.

“Hey,” Keith objects.

“You, shush.” Lance raises a finger at him, not even sparing him a glance.

Shiro claps a hand to his mouth, shoulders shaking. He falls into the chair nearest to where Keith’s sitting on the table edge.

Keith kicks him in the shin, but Shiro just puts his head in his arms, still laughing silently. Keith flicks his arm’s dead skin cells onto Shiro’s hair instead. Serves him right.

Allura clears her throat, cheeks pink with mirth. “Endjha was never high on the recruitment list, being so far from the fighting and having surprisingly no Galra interaction in the last century or so. This was a scouting mission, because we could always use more helping hands, but—well.” She shrugs. “The incident made it clear they still had major internal fighting, and after I held a meeting with the Coalition leaders, Endjha was deemed too fractured to invest in the war.”

Lance blinks. He looks down at the table. “Oh…so, they didn’t reject us because of that whole mess that I made—I mean, that happened?”

The entire team stops, startled, but it’s Keith who frowns, pausing in his arm-scratching to say, “Are you an idiot? None of that was your fault.”

“Who’re you calling an idiot, you idiot?” Lance snaps, the strange look on his face replaced with annoyance.

Keith relaxes at the sight, even as he cocks his head and says, “Figures you can literally get stabbed and still somehow find a way to blame yourself.”

Lance flushes.

“What Keith is trying to say,” Shiro says diplomatically, hands raised, “is that there’s no reason for you to—” He pauses. “Actually, no, you know what? That’s fucking ridiculous, Lance, she stabbed you, why would you even think the fallout was any of your doing?”

“I—I’m. That’s—” Lance splutters. “You said fuck.”

Shiro arcs an eyebrow. “That’s what you’re focusing on?”

Pidge huffs a laugh. “Lance was always like this at the Garrison, too. Every time Hunk and I got into trouble, he’d try to take all the credit. Didn’t matter how many times we told him no one was gonna believe he was the one messing around with Garrison tech for fun.”

Keith snorts. “Sounds like him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lance narrows his eyes. “You wanna go, Red?”

“Dunno.” Keith casts a critical look at the slight tremor in Lance’s hands. He smirks when Lance hastily shoves them under his arms. “You’re still weak from the pod; don’t want you ending up in there again so soon.”

Before Lance can let loose whatever retort he’s got building on his tongue, Hunk jumps in with, “Yeah, he really doesn’t.”

Keith immediately feels attacked. “Hunk, don’t—”

“And I mean really doesn’t. ‘Cause, man, you should’ve seen him down there. By the time we got to the scene, he was covered in your blood—which I never want to witness again, I like everyone’s blood inside their bodies, thanks. And he was cradling you—again—in one arm, and had like, three insurgents on their knees before him—not sure how he managed that with only a single sword against three guns. Also, I think he might’ve been growling. And his eyes were suspiciously yellow.”

“For the last time,” Keith says loudly, nails digging into his irritated elbow, “I do not have a magic Galra transformation, okay? This is not one of Shiro’s anime shows.”

“Sure does feel like one sometimes,” Shiro mutters. “Robot cats.”

“Wow. I remember none of that happening,” says Lance.

“What a surprise,” Keith says. “What a fucking sur—”

“But thanks, Red,” Lance continues, looking straight at Keith with an honest-to-god sincere little grin. “It’s nice to know you care.”

I would die a thousand deaths for you, Keith’s brain screams.

“Wh—whatever,” is what Keith goes with. And, in an attempt to make Lance stop fucking looking at him like that, says, “Hey, by the way, my arm feels like it’s about to shed all of its skin like a snake. Do you have more of that cream, Coran?”

“The rash is still being a bother?” Coran clicks his tongue. “There might be a few more containers lying around in the infirmary somewhere.”

Lance takes one look at Keith’s arm and goes a little green. “Great, I just lost my appetite.”

“Nuh uh,” says Hunk. “No way. I spent all morning cooking this, and you haven’t even touched it. That hurts, Lance. You will eat the food I so lovingly prepared or I will stuff it down your throat for you.”

He smiles. It’s anything but pleasant.

Lance pales.

Coran, Allura, Pidge, Shiro, and Keith take one synchronized step back.

“Right, we’re just gonna—” Shiro jerks a thumb at the door.

“Coran! We’ll help you and Keith find the cream—you need help, right?” Pidge asks, pushing Keith forward.

“Absolutely! The more the merrier!” Coran’s already out the door, halfway down the corridor and practically sprinting.

Lance’s mouth drops open. “Wha—where are all of you going?”

“Lance,” says Hunk.

“I don’t know how, but this is all your fault, Keith!” Lance struggles against the grip Hunk’s got on his shoulder.

“Have fun, Lance!” Keith calls out cheerfully, waving.

The door closes on Lance yelling, “Sleep with one eye open, Red!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lance woke up; things should’ve gotten better.

They should’ve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Red?”

Keith hums, drowsy and loose-limbed, arms crossed behind his head. The sunlight bathes his body in warmth and a gentle breeze picks up, rustling the grass.

“Red.”

“Yeah?” Keith yawns. “You need something, Lance?”

“No, Keith. It’s red.”

Keith turns his head at the urgent tone, blinking away sleep.

Lance is sitting beside him, on this wide grassy plain. He’s wearing a black t-shirt; it’s Keith’s. He points to it, to his own chest, a frown on his face.

“It’s red.”

“Uh…no, that’s black,” Keith says. “Why are you wearing my clothes?”

Lance ignores his question. “You don’t see it?”

“See what?” Keith asks, getting up to his elbows. The grass is cool on his skin. He peers closer, but the shirt remains a plain, black shirt.

The wind kicks up again, and Lance’s hair flutters in the breeze.

The shirt doesn’t. It looks stuck to Lance’s stomach and chest, like it’s weighed down—wet like laundry, or maybe—

Something slick blooms in the middle of it.

It’s red.

Keith drags his gaze up to find Lance staring back. “Lance?” he whispers.

“You can’t see stains on black, right?” Lance tilts his head. “Like mustard? Like ketchup?”

Keith feels panic wrap its hands around his throat. “What?”

And without conscious thought, he finds himself reaching out. His palm presses onto the shirt—his shirt, Lance’s shirt, the black shirt, this reddening shirt—and he nearly screams.

It’s warm.

Not like a body is warm, but warm like wet, like wrong. His hand comes away bloody. He’s struggling to breathe.

“What’s happening?” he croaks.

“Keith,” says Lance.

He’s not frowning anymore, expression neutral—almost serene. He puts a hand on Keith’s shoulder, pulling him closer.

And then he opens his mouth and screams.

“Stop! Why are you doing this to me—stop it stop it STOP—”

The world shatters.

The grass shrieks with Lance, the air reverberates with his words, like the molecules are plugged into his voice, amplifying, bouncing, rebounding around them and Keith’s eardrums feel like they’re about to burst.

The ground rumbles, shakes like it’s about to explode; the sun flares bright

once

twice

three times,

it’s blinding and Keith almost doesn’t see it when his hand shoots forward, back onto Lance’s chest—

No. Into his chest—

—and Keith feels flesh and bone give way under the force of his fingers and Lance is still screaming—Keith is screaming

STOP STOPSTOPTHIS

—he rips his hand out and blood gushes out of the scorched, gaping hole in Lance’s chest

the Endjhan did thatNO KEITH DID THAT

—it drips down Keith’s elbow and there’s something in his hand

THERE’S SOMETHING IN HIS HAND

it’s red red red beating red and Keith feels dead feels empty and Lance reaches for his face and digs his nails into Keith’s left eye and he grins and says—

 

 

 

sleep with one eye open

red

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He wakes up, legs tangled in his sheets.

His face is wet.

He puts a hand to his chest, his eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the morning, Shiro finds him asleep outside Lance’s door.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

They’re gathered on the bridge, staring up at holo-screens as Allura debriefs them on their next mission.

“Slav and the Olkari still need our help to gather materials for the building efforts. Some of the components are too far away for any other vessel to travel, except by the castle’s wormhole capability. However, there will be a rotation of at least two paladins on Olkarion at all times, as we won’t be needing the whole team for this—and additionally, to provide deterrent to border skirmishes.”

“We’ll switch off every time the castle comes back to drop off the cargo,” Shiro adds. “As for teams, Coran has helpfully put together a spreadsheet, taking into account which lions are best for suited for each mission.”

“We don’t get to choose?” Hunk asks.

Lance throws an arm over Hunk’s shoulders. “Aww, it’s okay buddy. We’ll pair up sooner or later.”

“That’s what I’m worried about. I’m always stuck listening to you rambling on and on about the exact shade of K—mmph.”

“Let’s see that spreadsheet, Coran!” says Lance, with his hand halfway stuffed into Hunk’s mouth. “Who’s gonna be planet-side and who’s out on collecting duty?”

“Well,” Coran says, idly eyeing the saliva sliding down Lance’s wrist, “first up on patrol is you and Pidge, actually.”

“Great. I get Lance’s love poetry all to myself,” grumbles Pidge.

Lance puts her in a headlock. She bites his arm—the one drenched in Hunk spit.

Coran continues, willfully ignoring the spectacle beside him. “Keith, Hunk, and Shiro will be helping me and the Princess retrieve some Ykobir crystals from a flaming asteroid belt that, interestingly enough, closely occupies the same neighbourhood as a black hole!”

“None of that sounds remotely possible,” says Hunk. “You—you can’t have on-fire asteroids unless they’re burning through a planet’s atmosph—”

“What’s our ETA to Olkarion?” Keith interrupts.

There must be something about his tone, because everyone turns to him slowly, the lightheartedness faltering from their faces.

“Twenty minutes,” Shiro answers, after a beat.

Keith nods. “How long will retrieving the crystals take?”

Coran taps something on one of the holoscreens. “With the wormhole, we’ll be in the Krinx system in a tick, but actually collecting the crystals is a painstaking process and will most likely take us a whole day. And that’s not factoring in breaks.”

“I see. Princess, you mentioned border skirmishes—how often do those happen? Is the team—is Olkarion in danger?”

“Ryner reported one failed attempt two movements ago,” Allura replies. “But the last one before that was about three phoebs ago. They’re not in any immediate danger, but since the construction has picked up—with newer plans being implemented—the Coalition agreed extra security wouldn’t be amiss. Until this particular phase is finished, at least.”

“Is there…something you’re worried about, Keith?” Shiro asks.

Keith stares up at the holoscreens, watching Olkari rotate slowly.

 

lance screams

 

“No,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two hours later, the cargo is safely unloaded and put into storage on Olkarion. With the castle prepped for takeoff, the team minus Pidge and Lance will be heading back out to space in ten minutes.

They’re clustered around the base of the loading dock, chatting casually and exchanging good-natured ribbing about which team’s going to have the shit luck of running into galra troops, because that happens way too often.

“Anyways, if they do come for us—” Lance jerks a thumb over his shoulder at Blue seated in the distance— “Blue and I can handle them, no problem.”

“Who’s the one with terrain advantage, here?” Pidge teases, elbowing Lance. “I can practically call on the forest to choke a bitch.”

“First of all,” says Lance, “Shiro, Pidge just fucking swore—”

“I mean, you just said something worse, actually,” says Shiro.

“—second, if the Galra come, it’ll be from space. So that means we’ll be fighting in space, which means no fancy earthbending from you,” Lance finishes, looking down his nose at Pidge and wearing a haughty smile.

“Fuck you,” says Pidge, right before she throws herself at Lance’s midriff, tackling him to the ground.

“Shiro! Shiro, she said fuck!”

Shiro snorts. “Well, she clearly learned it from you.”

Lance groans. He twists his head, but Pidge wraps an arm around his neck. He yells, “Red, help me out here!”

Keith flinches.

“Red!” Lance shouts again, still trying to wiggle his way out from Pidge’s death grip.

The team laughs as Pidge tightens her hold and Lance comically chokes, eyes bulging.

Keith inhales slowly. His hand comes up to grip his elbow, pressing his arms against his body. His rash stings.

“Should we get going?” he quietly asks Coran, standing close by.

Coran blinks, looks down at his wrist. “Oh, yes, I suppose we should. Paladins! We’d best be on our way! Lance, Pidge, we’ll see you two in a quintant!”

Pidge jumps to her feet, saluting them cheekily as they walk away, like she’s back at the Garrison. Lance follows suit, albeit from his haphazard sprawl on the dirt.

“Have a safe mission,” he calls out to them. “Don’t let a weblum swallow you!”

“We didn’t get swallowed. It was a planned infiltration,” Hunk grumbles, stomping up the ramp.

Keith follows behind him a pace, and is the last of them of make it all the way into the ship. He bites his lip.

Quickly, he glances over his shoulder, and sees Lance laugh uproariously at something Pidge just said, arms around his stomach as he rocks onto his back, mirth written in scrunch of his nose and around his eyes.

As he watches, Lance wipes the corner of his eye and still chuckling, looks up and catches Keith’s gaze. He waves.

Keith dredges up a thin smile for him, and then ducks away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering the Ykobir crystals is as painful and dreadful as Coran warned them it would be, and the less said about the whole experience, the better.

It takes Hunk, Shiro, and him a day and a half to extract the compounds—they end up tiring quickly, and at one point, Allura has to come out and show them how to do it herself. It was a humbling experience.

But now they’re back on Olkarion, and Keith can stop feeling like someone’s holding a knife to his neck.

“You guys took a little longer than expected,” Lance says, sidling up to him the moment his feet hits dirt. “Thought you might’ve run into trouble.”

“The only trouble out there was the threat of Hunk projectile-vomiting from the fumes of those freaking asteroids,” Keith mutters, eyeing the way Slav is practically salivating over the crystals being unloaded. He clears his throat. “How was it down here? Anything happen?”

Lance snorts. “Watching Coran read Coalition reports all day would’ve been more entertaining. At least then I can laugh about his moustache twitching every time he finds a typo.”

Keith hides a smile, reaching up to scratch at an imaginary spot of dirt.

Lance nudges him in the side. “Hey, I saw that. Don’t tell me you don’t think the same.”

The smile grows, but Keith admits to nothing. He shifts from one foot to the other. It brings him closer to Lance; their arms brush lightly.

“Coran said you and Pidge are on the next away mission,” Keith says. “Hunk will be staying on with you two.”

“Finally,” Lance groans, “Blue has been itching to get some action, and she’s usually so chill. Did he say where we’re going?”

“That frozen planet you were stranded on a while back. And some other planet in the same system. I forget their names.”

“Wait.” Lance grabs Keith’s arm. “Frozen planet—you mean like with the mermaids? I’m gonna see Plaxum and Queen Luxia again?”

Keith glances over at him, and then fixes his gaze back onto Slav, now in a shouting match with Shiro. “I guess.”

Lance smiles widely. “That’s awesome. I wonder how they’re doing—oh man, it’s been so long. I wonder if they remember me—”

“Be careful out there, okay?” Keith says. He blinks. He didn’t mean to say that.

Lance pauses. “I already beat the local bad guy down there; saved all those poor Mer people. I think I’ll be fine.”

Keith says nothing, watching the scene in front of him blankly. Shiro just threw Slav across the loading dock. He should find that funny.

Lance’s hand is still on his arm. Keith crosses his arms, and Lance is forced to let go.

“Right,” he says. “I’m gonna go clean up. Maybe take a nap; I’m pretty beat.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll see you later then?” Lance asks, and from the corner of his eye, Keith sees him rub the nape of his neck.

“Sure.”

He feels Lance’s eyes on him the entire walk back to the ship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lance leaves for his mission the next day.

When Keith finishes morning patrol with Shiro, he walks up to the nearest Olkari and asks if they have work for him, and when they say yes, he throws himself into the physical labour with mindless drive in an effort to make his head stop fucking thinking. He’s only away from the construction site when he has to go back on shift with Shiro.

In the late hours of the evening, when most of the Olkari have gone home, Shiro has to come drag him away.

“Alright, it’s just you and me, here.” Shiro puts his hands on his hips. “Wanna tell me what’s going on?”

Sitting on one of the armchairs in the guest room Ryner gave them, Keith pulls his knees to his chest and crosses his arms over them, hunching over. “Nothing’s going on.”

“Is this about your soulmate?”

Keith raises his head, startled. “No?”

“Because if you’re still thinking stupid things like you being fated to kill them, or them blaming you, and keeping all these thoughts bottled up—” Shiro begins threateningly.

“No—I mean, well, I’m still—” Keith winces at Shiro’s glare— “okay look, I don’t plan on meeting them ever, so that’s not the problem.”

“Oh, so there is a problem.”

Keith slumps back down, face burrowing into his arms. Why does he even try.

“Maybe I’m wrong,” Shiro begins slowly, “but does this have to do with me finding you curled up outside Lance’s door the night he recovered?”

Keith lifts his head high enough to send Shiro a baleful look. “I thought I told you we weren’t gonna speak of that. Ever.”

“Kiddo, it’s clearly bothering you. If you need to talk it out—”

“No.” Keith shakes his head. “It’s really nothing big. It’s just…bad dreams, that’s all.”

“Bad dreams?”

“It won’t affect my missions, I promise.”

“No, I know. I trust you.” Shiro runs a hand through his hair. “You really don’t want to tell me about it?”

“No.”

Shiro sighs. “And you’re sure you’ll be fine?”

“Yeah.” Keith digs his fingers into his jacket, and his ever-present rash protests viciously. He inhales sharply, easing off on the pressure. Ouch.

Shiro drops his hands from his hips and walks over to the huge floor-to-ceiling window, staring out at the construction below. “Lance will be joining us on the next mission, but I’ll be off on a separate assignment with Coran. You two take care of each other, okay?”

Keith looks out the window, too, at the vivid colours painting the sky. A sky still devoid of any robot lions or castleships.

“Yeah,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A red-orange planet. Clear skies, a lush autumn-coloured jungle beneath, overflowing with birdsong and life.

Keith pushes yet another overly-large fern out of his way, scowling. “How much farther until we’re there?”

“We’ll be right on top of it in a couple more meters,” Lance replies. “You know, it might be easier if I lead, since I have the map and all.”

Keith slaps a mosquito off his suit. “What? No, it’s fine like this.”

“Dude, I keep having to course-correct you every five minutes.”

“You wouldn’t have to, if this damn jungle weren’t being such a bitch,” Keith grumbles.

Lance clears his throat. “Listen, is there something you wanna tell me, man?”

“No. Why?”

Lance draws even with him, map flickering away as he drops his arm. “You’ve been kinda weird the past few days.”

“Weird how?” Keith absently asks, eyeing the vegetation around them. He thinks he heard something moving.

Lance opens his mouth, and right at that moment, the plant next to him rustles wildly.

Something leaps out of it with a high-pitch trill, and before it even lands on the ground in front of them, Keith’s pushed Lance behind him, his sword up and ready, adrenaline coursing through his body.

He blinks at the empty air before him. Looks down.

A yellow rabbit-looking thing twitches its nose at him, and then scampers off into the underbrush.

“Weird like that,” Lance says dryly.

Keith wordlessly puts his bayard away and starts walking again. His ears burn.

“Seriously, what’s up, buddy?” Lance asks, catching up to him, again. Didn’t Keith tell him to keep behind a pace?

Keith walks faster. “Nothing’s up.”

“Right, and you totally weren’t about to skewer that a bunny for passing by.”

“It’s an alien species, Lance. Just because it looks harmless, doesn’t mean it can’t be dangerous.”

Lance snorts. “Yeah, I could practically see the evil in its sparkly pink eyes.”

“How close are we?”

“It’s right up ahead. Is this about what happened on Endjha?”

Keith flinches. “No.”

“Because if you’re mad at me for taking the bullet, I’m not apologizing.”

They step into a small clearing, about four paces across on all sides. Looks like they’re here.

Keith searches for the sign that Slav said would direct them to his hidden blueprints. Distracted, he says, “Why would I ever be mad at you?”

“…What?”

Keith blinks. Replays back the last second. He flushes. “I mean, for something like that—you saved my life. Why would I be mad about that?”

Lance gives him an odd look. “You mean you aren’t?”

“No, of course not. That’d be incredibly stupid.”

It wasn’t obvious before, but the tension around Lance’s eyes loosens.

“I just. Wasn’t sure.” He clears his throat again and pulls up their mission file. “‘Cause you haven’t really…looked me in the eye recently.”

Keith stops short. He stares blankly at the moss he was inspecting.

Shit.

He didn’t even realise.

“And you’re more…paranoid? Anytime either of us have missions. It’s like you think something bad is gonna happen. Hunk said that on the crystal mission, your focus was shot to hell—you almost chopped off his head and then Shiro’s leg.”

Lance laughs. It’s a poor attempt, and the sound falls flat when Keith stays quiet. “Dude?”

“What did Slav say the sign looked like again?” Keith asks, curt.

“…Here,” Lance says, stepping forward and sticking out his arm. He’s too close.

Keith gives it a glance, pretending not to notice Lance’s heavy gaze. “Right, I’ll search this side, you take the other. It’s gotta be around here somewhere.”

He goes back to combing through the vegetation, but Lance doesn’t move away, still standing a foot away.

“You know you can tell me things, right?” he says, after a moment.

Keith keeps digging through the damp, red moss. “I know.”

“Like, we’re friends, right?”

The moss yields nothing, and Keith stomps off to a random batch of pink ferns.

“Keith, are you—”

“Can we not do this, right now?” Keith asks, roughly sifting through the ferns.

Lance huffs, annoyed. “Then when do you want to do it? Because, you know, you still won’t look at me.”

Keith clenches his jaw. “Lance. We have a mission. Let’s just find the prints and go home, okay?”

A beat. And then Lance says, “Okay.”

Silence reigns over them as they scour the place for Slav’s hidden compartment. After ten minutes, they find it the sign carved into the base of a tree at the edge of the clearing. Under the roots, lies the tightly-sealed chest containing ten datachips-worth of mathematical formulae and engineering plans; Slav had time to hide some of his work before the Galra imprisoned him.

They retrieve it and make their way back to Red with no further complications.

In the cockpit, Keith carefully stores the chest, checks Red’s systems, and gets ready for take off.

Lance stands by Keith’s chair with a hand on the headrest, watching quietly.

The coordinates for Olkarion are keyed in, and Keith settles into his seat. He can see blue armour at the corner of his eye.

“Do you trust me?” Lance asks.

Oxygen hisses, near-silent, through Red’s ventilation. Through the viewscreen, strange birds fly over the canopy, weaving in and out of the trees. Far in the distance are a line of mountains, rounded but flat at the top. Clouds are gathered around them.

“You know I do,” Keith says, quiet.

“Then you know you can trust me with this, whatever it is, right?”

Keith wraps his hands around the controls, staring out the viewscreen. He exhales. “Strap yourself in.”

“…Strap myself—” Lance straightens, affronted. “We’ve never needed to use a freaking seatbelt—”

It’s much harder than it should be, but Keith turns and makes himself stare Lance straight in the eyes. He grips the controls tighter, the fabric of his suit squeaking.

Lance blinks, mouth closing. The scowl he wears eases slightly. “Keith, you—”

“Please,” Keith says, barely above a whisper. “Strap in.”

For a second, it seems like Lance didn’t hear him; he doesn’t move a muscle. And then his expression cycles through multiple emotions, too quick for Keith to identify, before it closes off.

“Guess that answers my question,” he says.

He walks out of the cockpit, shoulders slumped and mouth pressed into a thin line.

The door hisses shut.

Somehow, it’s louder than if Lance had been able to slam it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They arrive back at the castle five minutes later. Red hasn’t even fully opened his mouth before Lance jumps out and slinks away silently.

“Wow, how nostalgic. Haven’t seen that in a while.”

Keith turns to his right.

Shiro stands there, helmet under his arm and a bulging sack over his shoulder.

“Mission went well?” Keith asks.

“Yeah. Though evidently yours didn’t.”

Keith gestures to the chest in his arms. “Hey, we got our objective.”

He starts walking, wanting to drop the heavy thing off with Allura as soon as possible. Shiro follows, hitching the sack higher with a grunt.

“What’d you do?” he asks.

“What makes you think I did anything?”

Shiro gives him a sardonic look. “Lance wasn’t the one brooding and glaring at nothing for the past week.”

“I don’t brood.”

“He came to me,” says Shiro, abrupt, “yesterday. He asked about you.”

They’ve arrived at the elevator, the doors sliding open to let Shiro step through. He looks back, raising an eyebrow at Keith standing there.

“You coming in?”

Keith jerks back to life and steps past the doors. His arms tighten around the chest, and he busies himself with cataloging the dents and scratches on it.

“He was worried about you,” Shiro continues. He presses the button for the bridge. “That maybe you were upset about something. He asked if I knew anything—if he could help, somehow. I said you hadn’t told me much…but that if there was anyone other than myself that you’d talk to, it’d be him.”

“Shiro—”

“Do you remember what I told you back at the Garrison?”

Keith sighs.

“He’s trying, but you need to give him something to work with, Keith.”

“I know,” Keith mumbles. He traces the divots in the metal of the chest. “He tried. He asked me if—if I trusted him enough to talk to him.” Keith digs a nail into a grove. “I told him to put his seatbelt on.”

Shiro breathes in, slow. “Ah.”

The elevator chimes and the doors open.

No one moves for a long moment, and then Keith gives himself a shake. He makes off for the bridge, with Shiro a beat behind. They reach the double doors, sliding open to reveal Coran and Allura peering up at the holoscreens, conversation flowing quietly between them.

“You two look busy,” Shiro comments. He crosses the room in five strides, placing the bag on the floor by the dais. “Coran, shouldn’t you be resting? That plant-monster we bumped into got you pretty badly in the stomach.”

“What?” Allura asks. She turns to Coran, frowning, just to catch him in the middle of miming NO at Shiro. He stops, arms crossing behind his back with a sheepish smile. “You were injured on the mission? Coran, what have I told you about neglecting yourself for the Coalition?”

“Princess,” Coran begins, placatingly, “It was just an accident. I foolishly startled the poor thing, and it reacted a tad violently. But it was barely a tap! A friendly poke, if you will.”

“The plant-monster flung him through three trees and into a wall of obsidian rock,” says Shiro. “If he wasn’t Altean and wearing a suit, he’d be food goo. As it is, he’s probably got a nasty bruise.”

“Coran!” Allura puts her hands on her hips.

“I can see why Keith says to never trust you,” Coran grouses, giving Shiro the mother of all stank-faces.

“No one ever believes me,” Keith mutters, settling the chest by the sack with a grunt. “Has Lance debriefed yet?”

“I thought he was coming up with you two,” Allura says, turning her attention away from Coran, who sags with relief. “Is something the matter?”

Keith unlocks the chest, squatting down to check the contents aimlessly. “It’s nothing. I’ve got my report ready, if you want to hear it now, Princess.”

Allura exchanges a look with Shiro, and shrugs gracefully. “Please, go ahead.”

Keith gives her the run-down, stripped of all the dialogue with Lance, of course, and it barely takes a minute. He heaves the chest up on the dais for her to sift through the contents, and stands with a groan, stretching out his back.

“Well done, then.” Allura claps her hands together. “Great teamwork, as usual. You know, Keith, I’m truly glad that you and Lance have grown so close to each other.”

Keith blinks, and looks off to the side. “Oh. Um, thanks. I’m gonna—could I go get something to eat? I’m starving. Shiro can debrief without me, right?”

“Of course. We’ll be fine. Health comes first.” Allura makes a shooing motion at him. “Oh, and would you mind escorting Coran to his room? Before it slips his mind that he’s in need of rest?”

“Sure thing, Princess.” Keith grins. “C’mon, Coran, before she gets angry.”

As if to punctuate Keith’s statement, Allura sends Coran a stern look.

Coran scuttles over to Keith, hands raised. “I’m going, Princess, I’m going.”

Keith sees Coran to his room, chuckling when the man falls dead asleep on his bed before the door even closes. He heads to the kitchen and grabs a juice pouch, drinking it idly as he rummages through the cupboards. There’s nothing appetizing to be found, but despite what he told Allura, he’s not here for the food.

He’s waiting. After a mission, Lance is the one who gets hungry.

You need to give him something to work with, Shiro said.

Keith slides into a seat by the island counter, flicking at the crumbs scattered on the countertop.

“It’s just a dream,” he mutters to himself. “And it wasn’t even that scary. It shouldn’t be this hard to—'Hi Lance, sorry I acted like an emo today,’” he says mockingly around his straw. “‘I keep seeing my hand punched through your chest.’ Yeah, that’ll go over well.”

He props his chin in his hand. Changes his mind and lays his head down in the crook of his elbow. Straightens up because that position makes his rash sting and his back ache. Settles for leaning back into his seat with his feet on the table.

Hunk would yell, but he isn’t here, so whatever. Keith leans his head on the backrest, sucking down the last of the juice and letting the pouch dangle from his mouth by the straw. He glances at the clock, watches it tick.

Ten minutes pass, but Lance doesn’t show up.

Keith leaves a juice pouch for him on the counter anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’re back on Olkarion soil, the sunset painting the world pink and orange through the castle windows.

Keith stands twenty feet from the bridge doors, wishing the Galra would decide to attack tonight, just so he could postpone this moment until he doesn’t feel like his intestines are about to explode.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” he tells himself again, “just walk in there. Who knows? Maybe he got fed up enough that he’s not even there. C’mon Kogane, get this over with.”

He lays his palm flat over his elbow, pressing the fabric of his jacket against his irritated skin, the sparks of pain grounding him. He takes a deep breath and strides forward.

The doors let him through and Keith’s not sure if it’s a good thing to see that Lance hadn’t skipped out on him. He slows down, approaching the dais with his veins threatening to burst with every thump of his heart.

“Hey,” he says, gingerly taking a seat, farther away than usual.

Lance scuffs his shoes on the floor. “Hey.”

Okay, so far, so good. He doesn’t seem that angry, Keith thinks. “I, uh. I didn’t think you’d show up.”

Lance scratches his neck, ears going pink. “Yeah…” He clears his throat. “Sorry I walked out like that—”

“No, no, don’t apologize. It’s never your—it’s not your fault.”

That gets Lance to stare at him for a long second, but then he ducks his head and nods jerkily.

Keith looks away, hands moving to the edge of the dais, gripping the metal firmly. “I’m the one who’s sorry. You were just. Worried for me, and I…”

“It’s fine, Keith, I get it.”

“No, I—I owe you an explanation.”

“You really don’t, buddy—”

“We’re friends, right?” Keith asks, and then he’s looking at Lance properly for the first time in days.

There are soft baby hairs curling at Lance’s temple, short and fluffy. Keith bets they feel like clouds. Freckles dot Lance’s cheeks, more than Keith remembers there being, lying golden on his skin. Keith finds his eyes drawn to the red mark at the edge of Lance’s chin, and he knows if he looks at Lance’s palm, he’ll find a matching one, left behind from Lance resting his face in his hand.

Keith’s looking at Lance, and nobody’s screaming and there’s no red leaking from anyone’s mouth. He exhales.

“We’re friends,” he repeats. “And I trust you.”

“Okay,” says Lance, and it’s more of a whisper, quiet as it is.

Keith drops his gaze to Lance’s neck. “It’s not even anything…important,” he begins haltingly. “I just had a—a really, really shitty nightmare and it won’t leave my head and I guess…I guess it affected me more than I realized.”

“Oh.”

Keith huffs. “Yeah. Stupid, right?”

But when he looks back up, Lance only looks concerned and that—Keith wasn’t expecting that.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks.

Keith makes a face, pulling a surprised laugh from Lance. “Not unless you want nightmares, too.”

“Uh, I guess not? I mean, I get enough from that time Coran modelled traditional Unilu jewellery for us.” Lance shudders so vigorously that Keith laughs.

Lance smiles, but it fades away too quickly, leaving behind a pensive look in his eyes. “Was it about your soulmate? The nightmare?”

Keith blinks. “That’s…yeah. Yeah, you could say that. How’d you guess?”

“You’re not afraid of much, buddy.” Lance smiles humourlessly. “I only know one thing that could hit you that hard. Well. Besides something happening to Shiro again.”

Keith studies Lance, the slope of his nose and the dip under his bottom lip. He looks away. “There’s actually a lot of things I’m afraid of.”

“Well, you can stop now,” Lance says, firm.

“What?”

Lance’s ears are a full-blown red, but he fixes Keith with a determined look. “You can stop worrying yourself sick over all of it, I mean” he says. “Because I’m here. For you. So—so you don’t need to stress so much.”

Keith opens his mouth, but Lance just barrels over him, which is great, because Keith’s eighty percent sure he was just about to say something dumb like, “I love you so much that I would hunt down every single thing that made you happy, just to give it to you, and yes, I would give you an ocean. I would give you five thousand oceans. I would bottle up a rainstorm for you.”

“A-and you have everyone else, too,” Lance says. “The entire team cares about you, you know? You don’t need to carry that, all by yourself. Let me—let us do some of the worrying, okay?”

Keith squeezes the edge of the dais harder and the metal squeaks. God, wow, okay. Where is the nearest ocean—how does one even go about acquiring an entire body of water?

“R-right,” he says, and it comes out raspier than he intended. He clears his throat. “Okay. I, um—it was just a silly nightmare but. But thanks. That. That means a lot, Lance.”

Lance smiles, and scoots over until they’re flush against each other. He nudges Keith’s shoulder with his own.

It’s a pointless, sweet little action but Keith falls that much more in love.

He runs the numbers in his head; how much would it cost to buy a planet around here? He thinks he probably had at least six dollars in his bank account—wait, what’s the currency exchange rate in space?

“I’m not just talking about nightmares,” Lance says, jolting Keith out if his spiraling thoughts. “You know, if there’s one thing we have in common, it’s that we keep things to ourselves until someone forces it out for us.”

“But Shiro said it was our mutual drive to beat the other at every possible thing, right down to who can brush their teeth faster,” says Keith, only half-joking.

“What—he said that? We have never raced to see who could—” Lance squints. “You’re joking. I hate your face; how is it so blank all the time?”

“Are you calling me an airhead?”

Lance raises his hands. “Oh no, we are not getting into this right now. I’m trying to tell you we can depend on each other more, okay—”

“I know.” It’s Keith’s turn to bump their shoulders together. He smiles. “I hear you, Lance. I know.”

Lance pauses, hands still in the air. He lowers them slowly, blue eyes searching Keith’s face for something. Whatever it is, he finds it.

Strangely, his ears go pink again.

Keith resists the urge to reach out, to see how hot they’d feel under his fingers.

Instead, he says, “I can see why you said I sucked at the comforting thing; you’re much better at it.”

Maybe if they keep talking, he’ll be able to keep his hands to himself. Lance’s thigh is already too close to where his fingers have dug into the metal. He hopes he hasn’t dented the dais; Coran would kill him.

“I don’t know, Red,” Lance laughs. “I kinda liked it, those times you tried the comforting thing for me. It was…sweet. Awkward, but sweet.”

“I try,” Keith says, trying to ignore the unholy screeching in his mind and the flush climbing up his neck. He ducks behind his hair, staring down at his boots. Softly, he adds, “Really, though. Thank you, Lance.”

“Anytime, Red,” says Lance, just as soft, and Keith doesn’t have to look up know what the curve of his mouth looks like.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Keith and Lance see the rest of the team off, waving from the safety of the Olkari’s main tower as the castle rises into the sky.

When it’s a mere spark in the distance, Lance turns to Keith and says, “You ready for some exciting times on patrol, cruising at the speed of a turtle in boring, galra-free space?”

Keith raises an eyebrow. “Whoa there. You sound like you want a fight.”

“I’m surprised you don’t,” Lance retorts, crossing his arms and cocking his hips. “What happened to hotheaded Keith? Raging Keith? Sword-swinging, fire-breathing Keith?”

Keith eyes him, taking in the familiar, confrontational stance, and feels fondness tickle his throat. He hasn’t seen this in a while. He wonders why he ever thought Lance was irritating like this, when it’s clearly just cute, now. “Alright, what is it? You might as well spit it out.”

Lance holds out for about five milliseconds before sagging back against the floor-to-ceiling window. He’s almost pouting. “Look, last time I was on patrol duty with Pidge, I was bored ten minutes after we landed. There’s nothing to do around here.”

“I helped out with construction on my rotation with Shiro.” Keith glances out the window at the workers milling around. “I mean, there’s not really a lot of work, considering everything is practically tech magic—they were scrambling to find something for me to do last time. But we could do that, if you want.”

“Keith. My buddy, my man, my partner, my dumb, dumb, samurai.” Lance steps into Keith’s space, clasping his shoulders and turning him so they’re facing each other. He leans in, until they’re nearly nose-to-nose. Keith’s caught between wanting to close the space and judo-flipping Lance to the ground so he can run away. “We are not doing construction work for an entire day when the Olkari could do it all in a minute with their hand-wavey magic. Absolutely the fuck not.”

“Al-alright, yeah okay, whatever you want,” Keith stutters, feeling hot under his collar. He doesn’t know where to look, gaze flicking from Lance’s mouth and then jerking up to his eyes and then up to his hairline and back all over again. “H-how about. Um. I think Ryner said something about a waterfall? Somewhere down south of here? We—we could go check you—IT! We could check it out.”

“A waterfall?” Lance leans back. Which is great, because Keith can breathe now. “There’s one around here?”

Keith nods, trying to surreptitiously inch his way out of Lance’s grip. He’s unsuccessful. “Yeah, it’s supposed to be really cool. Pretty. Stunning, whatever. Ryner said it has healing properties, too.”

“Huh.” Lance blinks. “Wait, are you saying…are you saying you’re taking me to see a cool magic waterfall? Just like. Just the two of us?”

Keith gives Lance a confused look. “Yes? Unless you want to bring someone else along?”

Weirdly enough, this makes Lance let go of him and take five hurried steps back. He’s wide-eyed and flushed from forehead to collarbone.

“You—” He crosses his arms. Uncrosses them and covers his mouth with both hands. Drags them up over his eyes and into his hair and then back down to cup his cheeks. He blows out a noisy breath. “Keith, buddy, just to clarify—”

A loud buzz emits from Keith’s helmet, where it sits on the bench with the rest of Keith’s space suit. He puts it on, sparing Lance a glance, who still looks like he’s got sunstroke. “Yeah?”

“Just checking in with you two.” It’s Shiro. “You guys good down there?”

Keith rolls his eyes. “We’re fine, dad.”

“Yeah?” A note of teasing slips into Shiro’s voice. “And you’re patrolling, right, and not still standing in the tower staring into each other’s eyes or something?”

Blood rushes to Keith’s face so fast he wobbles on his feet. Lance lurches forward, grabbing his elbows to steady him. Keith purposefully doesn’t meet his concerned frown.

“What,” he chokes out. “I—what?”

“What did he say? Did something happen to the team?” Lance asks. He’s squished his cheek against Keith’s helmet, as if he could hear better that way.

Keith hysterically wonders why he doesn’t just put his own on and open his comms—actually no, that’d be a bad idea, Keith can’t stop him from hearing Shiro talk shit, then.

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” Keith rushes to assure him. Lance still levels him with a dubious stare.

Shiro straight-up chortles. “I knew it. You guys haven’t even gotten into your lions, have you? Is Lance’s face really that captivating?”

“Captiva—what are you implying,” Keith hisses, and he takes a step forward as if Shiro is physically present and punchable. Lance makes an amused noise.

“Oh c’mon, Keith, do I have to spell it out for you? You know, I still haven’t gotten around to talking to you about that time I caught you staring at Lance’s midriff. Do you remember that? Good times.”

“You—!” Keith lets loose an enraged, bestial noise. “Shut up, Shiro, shut up. That did not happen.”

“Keith,” says Lance, with a hand to his mouth and his eyes curved up into amused crescents. “What is he saying?”

“Yeah, Keith, why don’t you tell him? Keep your teammates informed, remember?”

“Fuck you, Takashi,” Keith growls.

Lance decides this is the moment to grab his helmet from the bench and slip it on. A smile plays on his lips. “Are you allowed to talk to your brother like that?”

Keith shoots him a narrow-eyed look. “This devil is not my brother.”

“I love you too little bro,” says Shiro. Keith hates him. “But seriously, get to patrolling, you two. We’ll see you guys in nineteen hours. Have fun and try not to die, or whatever.”

“Was that supposed to be a pep talk?” Keith asks. “Because it sucked.”

“Well tough, it’s all you’re getting,” says Shiro. “Bye, kids. Lance, make sure Keith doesn’t blow himself up again.”

“Sure thing,” Lance says cheerily, before Keith can even think of making a retort. There’s a click as Shiro turns off his comms.

Keith stares at Lance and feels betrayed, suddenly. “You—”

“Don’t look at me like that,” Lance says, still grinning. “I’m just thinking about the future.”

“The future?” Keith asks, baffled. “What for?”

“I just have a feeling I should try to stay on Shiro’s good graces,” Lance says, more to himself than Keith. He clears his throat, and throws an arm around Keith’s shoulders.  “Let’s suit up. And then you can tell me about this waterfall while we take a space cruise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, they don’t end up talking much about the waterfall because Keith’s arm rash builds from an intermittent annoyance to a full-blown attack on all his nerve endings within ten minutes into patrol. It takes him by surprise and he cries out, curling protectively over his arm.

A crackle over comms. “Keith? You alright?”

“M’fine,” Keith grits out. He cradles his elbow awkwardly, trying not to disturb the rash further. “The rash is acting up. It’s…pretty bad. I can’t move my arm.”

“Shit. We should head back. If it’s that bad, we should ask Ryner if we can use the pods.”

“No, no. It’s fine.”

“Keith, you just said you literally can’t move your arm—”

“It’s fine. Give me a minute, Lance.”

The comms go silent; Lance’s disapproval practically radiates from it.

Keith exhales noisily through his nose, eyes scrunching shut. He opens them and straightens in his chair with minimal flinching. “Look, we’re almost done anyway. Let’s finish up first.”

“And then you’ll go see Ryner?”

“And then I’ll go see Ryner,” he agrees.

A sigh, and then Lance says, “Okay.”

They complete their patrol, though Keith’s focus shatters every time his left arm has to do anything, meaning that Red wobbles in the sky more than he flies. The rash only gets exponentially worse in the last five minutes of their shift, setting Keith’s nerves on fire from his bicep to his wrist. It gets to the point where he has serious thoughts about amputating his arm with his sword.

When he comes out of his lion at the end of it, he’s pale as bone and shaking. He’s not sure how he’s going to complete their afternoon patrol like this.

Lance takes one look at him and scowls. “Goddammit, Keith, what did I tell you?”

He wraps an arm around Keith’s waist, slinging Keith’s rash-free arm over his shoulders, and starts marching them towards the main tower. Keith’s too weak to do anything but lean heavily on Lance and let himself be dragged.

“How bad is it?”

“I want to cut my arm off,” Keith grunts.

Lance starts walking faster. “I’m starting to think this rash is not just a rash,” he mutters. “Seriously, how long has it been—six, seven months?—since you fell into the mud on Jenuc? It should’ve healed by now.”

“Hey, can we pause for a second? Just long enough to scrap some skin off?”

“Oh my god, Red, no.” Lance sounds inordinately horrified at Keith’s logical suggestion. “Maybe I should carry you. Do you want me to carry you?”

The blood rushes back into Keith’s face. “No, no, that’s okay. I can walk, I’m fine.”

Lance stops. Looks him dead in the eye and gives him the most unimpressed face Keith’s ever seen, and Keith has seen every variation a sleep-deprived Shiro can offer. “You’re really going to say that right now? Really? To my actual face? Like you’re not just going to fall over if I let go of you?”

Keith opens his mouth. Closes it.

He turns away in embarrassment, and finds himself blinking at the sight of two Olkari girls at the other side of the street. They’re huddled together and giggling, sending knowing glances at him and Lance.

“Keith?” Lance follows his gaze. The girls wave at him like they know him, and he nods back. They gesture to Keith and Lance, arms wrapping around each other. They send Lance a pointed look. Lance goes still.

When Keith turns back to him, there’s a soft pink on his cheeks and he won’t meet Keith’s eyes. Ah, thinks Keith, with a wry twist to his lips.

“I can find Ryner on my own, if you want,” Keith offers.

Lance jolts out of his girl-induced trance to frown at him. “What?”

“I can’t really show you the waterfall like this—” Keith jerks his chin at his twitching arm— “but maybe you could ask those, uh, girls, to show you around. The tower’s a couple blocks away, I can make it by myself.” His gaze flicks back and forth between Lance and the girls, meaningfully.

Comprehension dawns in Lance eyes, but to Keith’s confusion, doesn’t take him up on the offer. In fact, he looks offended. “Nuh uh, no way. Knowing you, you’d get distracted by something sharp and shiny and I’d find you holed up in a weapons shop five hours later, and your arm would probably be sawed off.”

“Just because that happened once—”

“And besides,” Lance continues, and a note of conviction enters his voice, “I’d rather make sure you were fine than chat up some girls. Plus, you promised you’d take me. I’m holding you to that.”

Keith eyes widen, and he leans back to check Lance over for life-threatening, potentially mind-scrambling injuries. When he finds nothing, it only makes him more worried, and his rash problem is punted to the back of his mind.

“Are you feeling okay? Maybe we should get Ryner to give you a check up, too.” He brushes Lance’s forehead with a hand.

Lance goes red, which is concerning, but he bats Keith’s hand away. “C’mon, it’s not that weird of me.”

Keith levels him with an incredulous look. “The first few months out here, you wouldn’t shut up about girls. Especially your one and only Mrs. Blue Lion. You wanted to find her so badly. You’re telling me that’s changed?”

Lance shrugs. “Yeah, well. I’m not too concerned about it, anymore.”

“Not too concerned?” Keith repeats. That doesn’t compute for him. The only reason he could think of that would explain “loverboy Lance” giving up on flirting is if he—

“Oh,” he says, stomach dropping to his feet. “So, you, uh, you found her, then?”

Lance shakes his head, and it’s so lame how relieved that makes Keith. It shouldn’t be a relief; he should want Lance to find happiness. “Nope. I just decided I have other things to focus on.”

“Other things?”

“Yup. Other things.” Lance doesn’t elaborate. Keith’s still kind of confused.

“Are you giving up on her?”

“Not really. Why the interest, Red?” he teases.

“I’m still half-convinced you’re sick. Have you eaten anything weird recently? What are your symptoms, besides a personality change?”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Lance says. “I’m not coming down with a disease, just because I’d rather be with you and your diseased arm, than fruitlessly searching the masses for my soulmate. You’re more important.”

Keith flushes again, way too pleased and startled by that to say anything. His heart is going to combust.

“And I…I don’t think I need to go out looking for her, anyway,” Lance quietly adds, after a beat.

“What do you mean?”

Lance adjusts his hold on Keith’s waist, chewing on his bottom lip. “Back at the Garrison. I, uh, I tried to talk to you once. Do you—do you remember?”

“No?”

“Are you sure?”

“Why are you bringing this up all of a sudden?” Keith asks, slowly.

“Just. Try. Try to remember.” Lance has this look in his eyes, like he knows something Keith doesn’t.

Keith shakes his head. “Lance, I don’t—”

“You’ve got to remember, you looked right at me.”

“No, I—” Keith searches Lance’s face, quickly growing alarmed. “Look, that night we rescued Shiro was the first time I met you—”

“No. No Keith, no.” Lance almost sounds like he’s begging. “We met before, you looked at me, you saw me, okay, and you heard me. I know; I saw you flinch, okay? And I thought you just hated me or something but I’ve been thinking, ever since you told me about you mark, and I—”

“Just spit it out, Lance, stop stalling.”

“My first words to you,” says Lance. “It was at the Garrison and I said—”

Sirens. Loud and grating, they shatter the calm of the street.

Keith jerks, right hand clamping over his ear. It does little to muffle the shrill whining. Within seconds, the Olkari have flooded the street. Voices rise in alarm as all around them, holograms flash into being, displaying only one thing:

EVACUATION LEVEL THREE

If Keith remembers correctly, that means the threat is to the immediate city, and residents are to escape into the forests and find a bunker.

He shares a look with Lance, who nods. They spin around and run back to their lions, amid the rush of citizens all heading the same way, to the edge of the city. Keith runs with his left arm held stiffly against his side, gritting his teeth when it sparks with pain every other step he takes.

The alarms cut off abruptly, their purpose to alert served; to have it going on indeterminably would hamper communications and create unnecessary panic.

Sure enough, the Olkari visibly regain their composure and order, even as their pace picks up. The only noise they make are from their shoes hitting the ground and the breaths they take.

The city is eerily silent otherwise.

Keith’s helmet display flickers and Ryner appears, wearing a severe frown.

“We’ll be in our lions in a tick,” Lance assures her. “How many ships are there?”

“That’s the problem. There are none,” she says. “And I’m not sure if the lions would help or hinder you with this problem.”

Keith slows, coming to a stop in the middle of the road. Lance does the same. The crowd of Olkari pass by them, and recognition dawns in their faces. Some of them reach out and clap Keith or Lance on the shoulders as they run by.

“No ships? What’s the situation, then?” Keith asks.

Ryner taps something on her screen. “A robeast has infiltrated the city.”

“A robeast?” Lance repeats sharply. “That shouldn’t be possible. We just finished our patrol like, seven doboshes ago, it can’t have slipped by us and landed without us noticing. Not to mention the new planet-wide security measures.”

“Correct; it didn’t come from space. It was here the entire time.”

Something explodes in the distance. Lance swears.

“That came from the second quarter.” Keith breaks into a run, Lance following close behind. “Ryner, what do you mean, it was here the whole time?”

“It was hidden on the far side of this continent under a high-security base armed with concealment tech far more advanced than the kind that the main Galra forces were using when they occupied this city,” she says. “We scouted the base many movements ago and found records of a highly-experimental project. The Galra general stationed here was apparently trying to recreate the process Haggar used for her robeasts. We scoured the place for any remaining specimens, but found none.” Her mouth twists. “Evidently, we didn’t look hard enough.”

“Great,” says Lance. “An experimental robeast. As if Haggar’s weren’t bad enough, now we have to deal with amateurs?”

“How did it break out? Did it act on its own or did someone activate it?” Keith asks, as they sprint around a corner. Smoke rises in the distance.

“We have drones surveying the area now, but judging by the surveillance footage, it appears to have activated itself, impossible as it sounds. There are no other signs of life in the vicinity, and our systems haven’t detected flight patterns to or from the base.”

“And why can’t our lions help?” Keith asks. “We could just blast it and—”

“Collateral,” Lance reminds him.

Ryner adds, “And the footage shows it to be on the small size, about twice your size.”

Keith sighs. “Lions would be overkill. Right.”

“Wait, twice our size?” Lance frowns. “Robeasts are usually…bigger.”

An uneasy expression crosses Ryner’s face. “This one might not sound very impressive, but from what we’ve observed, we believe its intelligence is greater than that of its predecessors. It doesn’t simply react, but seems capable of—of serious forethought, of predicting the movements of its enemies. As if it retains an intelligent mind of its own, possibly leftover from before its experimentation.”

Keith shares a look with Lance. That doesn’t sound good.

“We believe that it set the base to explode a varga after its actual escape,” Ryner continues. “Which was only moments after your return from patrol. We haven’t been able to track it since its escape, which is highly concerning considering the level of security we’ve implemented. The only surveillance footage it appeared on lasted only three ticks. It was almost…intentional, as if it wanted us to know where it was.” She pauses. “It…it smiled.”

Keith sucks in a sharp breath. “It smiled?”

They turn down a block, to the start of the second quarter, and the sight that greets them is…unnerving.

The city is completely undamaged.

As far as Keith can see, not a single window is broken and the buildings are all intact. The streets are empty, free of citizens or any casualties he’d expect from a robeast running rampant. No rubble, no collapsed structures, no sign that there even is an enemy.

Something is wrong.

The hairs on Keith’s neck rise, and wordlessly, he turns with Lance until they’re back-to-back.

“There was an explosion,” Lance says, barely more than a whisper. It still echoes. “Why does nothing look…exploded?”

Keith glances up at the sky. The smoke is gone.

Ryner swipes a hand over her holoscreen, and she pins them with a worried look. “Paladins, have caution. The robeast had time. Time that it used to, most likely, implement a plan. I’ve contacted the castle. The Princess says they haven’t gone far but a problem has cropped up, so they’ll be here within fifteen doboshes or half a varga, at the latest. However, the Olkari are already taking up arms and we’ll be able to assist in—”

“No,” says Keith. “No. We all know what a robeast is designed for. What its goal always is. We’re not getting your people caught in the crossfire. Tell them to stay in the bunkers; Lance and I will handle this.”

Lance nods. “What he said. We’re heading in now, Ryner. Let us know when the castle lands over comms, or if you’ve located the beast.”

Ryner looks conflicted, but nods. “Understood.”

Keith inhales, centering himself, and hears Lance do the same.

The sound of their bayards activating fills the silent streets. With their steps in sync, they advance forward, watching each other’s backs. There’s not a soul to be seen, but Keith can’t shake the feeling that there are eyes on him.

“Arm?” Lance murmurs.

“Fine.”

Keith doesn’t have to turn to see scowl Lance is probably wearing. He isn’t lying, though. The arm really is fine. He’s almost gotten used to the burning sensation and the ache. Besides, the adrenaline coursing through his veins dulls the worst of it. If he doesn’t focus on it, he’s positive he can last in a fight long enough to do serious damage.

Lance taps him on the shoulder, pointing to an overturned garbage disposal in front of a large building.

Quietly, they slink over to a communication terminal on the opposite street and hunker down behind it. Lance switches bayard forms, putting his eye to the scope of his sniper rifle.

“Just don’t take unnecessary risks,” says Lance.

“I’ll be fine. Who do you think you’re talking to?” Keith peers around the terminal, into the windows of the building. The lights are off.

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Lance mutters, eye to the scope of his sniper rifle. He stills. “Something just moved. Third floor.”

“Robeast?”

“No.” Lance lowers his bayard. It goes back to its rifle form. He stares into the building. “No, it’s a kid.”

“A what? What the hell is a kid still doing here?”

“I don’t know; they should’ve heard the alarms.”

Keith stands, moving out from behind the terminal. “We need to get them out. Watch my six; I’m going in.”

Lance grabs his arm. “Wait, this doesn’t seem right. I don’t think we should go running in there.”

Keith cocks his head, a wordless question.

“There shouldn’t be a kid here,” says Lance, low. “There shouldn’t, because Olkari kids aren’t dumb. Isn’t it kind of suspicious that we find one in the same area as the robeast?”

“You think it’s a trap?”

“Maybe. I’m just saying we need to be careful. Maybe it really is just a kid; seemed too real to be a costume, anyway.” Lance squints at the building. “Though my eyes could be deceiving me,” he adds, with a grin.

Keith returns the smile. “I trust your eyes; they’re the best we have. But you’re right, we shouldn’t be hasty.”

Lance sighs. “You gotta stop doing that.”

“Doing what?”

“It’s nothing. I’ll take point?”

“Be my guest.”

Wordlessly, they open a comms channel between the two of them. Lance does one more sweep of the windows and then quickly crosses the street, with Keith a pace behind.

The interior of the building is sparse, furnished with a dozen chairs and a large reception area in the left corner. If Keith had to guess, he’d say this is one of the newly-built administration buildings. Nothing is out of place, and it takes them three seconds to clear the room.

There’s a hallway extending to the right of the reception, with some stairs leading up to the next floor. They ascend, treading carefully.

The second floor greets them with a long hallway lined with numerous open doors. Offices, most likely.

“You take left, I’ll take right?” Lance’s voice comes through the comms, faint.

Keith nods, and begins his search.

There are nine offices of varying sizes, holding from one to four desks. Chairs are pushed back haphazardly and holoscreens still project data to an absent audience.

Keith searches all nine rooms in minutes; they’re completely devoid of any Olkari children.

Lance shakes his head when Keith turns to him. No luck there, either.

There are stairs on this side of the hallway, too, and they take it up to the next floor.

Number three is in the same state as the previous, the only difference is the one closed door on the left, three rooms down. That’s gotta be the one.

Keith nudges Lance, jerks his chin at it.

Lance nods.

They make their way to the door, checking the other rooms on the way, just in case.

Silently, they flank the office.

“Hello?” Lance calls out. “Is anyone in there? We’re the Red and Blue paladins of Voltron, we’re here to help. Can you open up? Kid? Are you there?”

They wait, but only silence answers them.

Keith raises his sword and nods to Lance, who takes a hand off his rifle to tap the keypad lock.

The screen flickers once, before fizzling out completely. The door gives a click.

Lance frowns, taps the screen a couple more times. It remains dark and unresponsive. He steps back and motions for Keith to do the same. Raising his rifle, he aims for the lock and is about to pull the trigger when Keith’s arm flashes out and pushes the barrel of gun down—don’t shoot.

“What’s wrong?” Lance whispers.

“It’s already open.” Keith slides a hand into the seam of the doorway, wedging his fingers into the space where he noticed air hissing through, and pulls.

The door slides open soundlessly.

Turns out, there is a child.

They’re lying on their side, legs and hands are bound together, a rag in their mouth, their eyes closed. There’s a nasty bruise on the side of their temple that brings a scowl to Keith’s face.

He hurries forward, dropping into a crouch and reaching for the child’s arm. His fingers slip under cloth and fumble for a pulse. He lets out a breath when he finds it, beating steadily.

“Are they okay?” Lance asks.

“A little bruised up, but they’ll be fine.” Keith switches his sword for his smaller Marmora blade. “Give me ten seconds, I’ll have them free soon.”

Lance grunts in acknowledgement, and Keith glances up to find that he’s turned away, gaze locked on the open door, wary.

Keith turns back to the ropes, and tries not to feel like he’s sitting in the mouth of a monster just waiting to bite down.

The bindings give way to his knife easily enough and within seconds, the kid is tumbling into Keith’s arms. His left arm throbs and he wobbles under the weight; Olkari kids are heavy, apparently.

“Hey, I don’t think I can carry them with my arm like this. Switch with me?” Keith asks. “It’s probably better for me to take point from here; I can make a better distraction while you run.”

“If we run into that thing,” says Lance as he turns, “I fully expect you to run with me, you idiot—Keith, drop them!”

Keith does, throwing himself to the side.

Mind lagging behind, he thinks, okay, so Lance has way too much power over me.

And then, he whirls around just in time to witness Lance as he pulls the trigger and shoots the kid in the chest.

It’s a point-blank hit; they go flying, smashing into the desk behind them.

Unbidden, a memory comes to mind—a droid, felled by Lance’s deadly marksmanship, sprawled on the ground with a hole ripped into its chest, circuits sparking and oil spreading out beneath it.

Keith stares sightlessly at the small, thin leg extending out of broken pile.

“Lance?” he says.

“Trap,” is all Lance says.

Before Keith can reconcile that with the image of Lance killing a child, a gurgling snarl rises from the mess of desk and limbs.

The Olkari child stands.

It’s so wrong.

They stand like they’ve forgotten how to; their head is still slumped to one side; legs bent inwards; arms held out oddly; and their eyes are still closed.

And their arm. Where there once was a thin, green Olkari limb is now a monstrous, scaly appendage, fingers tipped with razor-sharp claws.

As Keith watches, one eyelid peels open to reveal a gaping eye socket.

Keith staggers to his feet, revolted. That’s not an Olkari. That’s not a child.

The thing steps forward.

Lance shoots it in the chest again. And again. And again.

It shudders under the assault, but none of the shots send it flying like the first. In fact, it’s almost like with every blast, it gets acclimatized to the hits. It keeps advancing forward, one lumbering step at a time.

As Keith watches, its form warps and twists, jerking like a marionette on strings. Unconsciously, Keith takes a step back. He shakes his head, forcing the horror to retreat. His sword materializes into his hands and he grips it tight.

Lance blasts the robeast one more time and the image of an Olkari child disperses, like water rippling outward. The thing hunches over, contorting and groaning as its limbs grind and snap together. In a single second, it’s grown outward, grown up.

It straightens, head and shoulders pressing against the ceiling. Its arm and legs are the length of Keith’s entire body, all ending in those claws, which are almost as terrifying as the mouth full of gleaming teeth. There’s a large round mechanism attached to the center of its chest, glowing an ugly, sickly yellow.

“We can’t fight that in here,” Lance says, faint. “I thought Ryner said it was only twice our height.”

“Shapeshifter,” Keith breathes. “Like Allura.”

Lance blanches. “Please tell me that’s not an Altean in there.”

The robeast throws its head back, smashing it straight through the floor above. The room shakes, bits of ceiling raining down on them, long cracks spiderwebbing their way along the walls. The beast shrieks, shrill and deafening, its long throat vibrating with the force of it.

Keith and Lance share a look, and as one, turn and fucking bolt.

Behind them, the robeast screams again. There’s a thundering crash and under their feet, the floor quakes. They stumble—Lance trips and Keith has to grab him by the elbow and yank him up.

“Window; we need a fast exit—here,” Keith pants, shoving them in the direction of an open office. “Hurry!”

“I’m going, I’m going!”

They go hurtling through the door just as there’s another crash—closer this time. Without further ado, they throw themselves out the window, smashing it to pieces.

For a long second, they’re suspended in midair, the glass shimmering and bouncing light off its sharp edges.

For a heartbeat that lasts longer than it should, Lance locks eyes with Keith.

And then their jetpacks engage, thrusters pushing them up and away from the ground.

They land on the roof of the opposite building, turning just in time to see the robeast burst out through the same exit, smashing the already broken window and leaving a gaping hole in the third floor.

The thing hits the ground with a slam and rolls to its feet.

Keith eyes the beast’s chest thing; it’s gotten brighter.

“Ideas on how to kill it?” Lance asks.

Keith shrugs. “Hack away at it until it falls?”

“It’s covered in impenetrable scales. I shot it like a thousand times and it’s still standing.”

“Get to our lions?” Keith half-heartedly suggests. There’s no way they can outrun this thing.

Lance blows air out of his nose noisily. “Looks like we’re just gonna have to hold it off until the team arrives. Ryner, come in.”

“Paladins!” Ryner sounds stressed; Keith wonders if she can see through the surveillance drones scattered around. “Are you alright?”

“We won’t be, soon,” Keith says grimly. “ETA on the rest of the team?”

“Eighteen doboshes. Can you delay for that long?”

“We’ll try,” Lance replies. “Thanks, Ryner. Tell the team to skip the scenic route, will you?”

A weak laugh. “Will do, paladins. Good luck.”

The comms turn off with a click. Below, the robeast roars again.

“Should we go with the usual?” Lance asks, staring narrow-eyed at their enemy.

Keith rolls his shoulders, wincing when his rash flares up. “Ready when you are. We should avoid that thing in its chest, by the way.”

“Yeah, I noticed how it’s glowing like it’s about to blow,” Lance snorts. “You tell me the moment your arm goes dead again, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Keith.”

“I said yes, didn’t I? I’ll tell you. Promise.”

We’ll be too busy trying to survive for it to matter, anyway, Keith thinks.

Lance glares at him like he knows what Keith’s thinking, which wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility; they’re scarily in tune with each other these days.

“Alright,” says Lance, finger sliding onto the trigger. “Call it.”

 

Chapter Text

“The minute everything is resolved,” Pidge says, “I am redesigning these shuttles for better maneuverability.”

“Not if I beat you to it,” Hunk grunts. “It shouldn’t be this hard to navigate through these asteroids, what the hell.”

Pidge snaps her fingers. “Navigation! I’ll recode that, then. I can’t believe the system is so spotty. It couldn’t even identify that stupid rock that messed up our starboard engine.”

“I assure you, this shuttle is the height of Altean technology,” Coran informs them over comms.

“Yeah. Ten thousand years ago, maybe,” Shiro scoffs. He pilots the shuttle past another cluster of asteroids. “I never thought I’d say this, but advanced alien tech is such a letdown.”

“I miss the time when you were all starstruck in the face of our superior systems,” Coran grumbles.

“Remind me again why we didn’t take our lions,” Hunk says. “Because we should’ve taken our lions; now those beauties are advanced. I still don’t understand how Alfor could make five of those, all with different customizations and somehow make them sentient, but fail so completely with simple shuttles.”

“Hey, that’s my dead father you’re talking about,” Allura says, voice going static-y as the shuttle pulls hard to port. She sighs, exasperated. “But he was known to be rather scatterbrained at times. I do wish he had thought over the designs more thoroughly. I dislike sitting here uselessly while Keith and Lance are battling a robeast on their own.”

“We’re almost there, Princess,” says Shiro, low, as the shuttle squeezes past two gigantic asteroids, hull skimming against the rock. “And the moment we dock, you’ll open a wormhole and we’ll fly down there and rip that robeast into pieces.”

“Wow. If that wasn’t such a big mood, I’d totally be terrified of you,” Pidge says. “Any updates on the situation, Princess?”

“Only some general observations Ryner’s made through her feeds,” Allura replies. “This shapeshifting business is worrying. She reported that the robeast switches back to the Olkari child form every time Keith or Lance go in for a killing blow, disrupting their focus. And the scale-like armor of the beast renders most of their attacks ineffective.”

Shiro frowns. “How much damage has Lance and Keith taken?”

“They’ve been thrown around some—Keith’s using his left arm less and less; his rash might be acting up—but they have managed to avoid any life-threatening injuries so far. The beast’s main weapons are its claws; it seems well-versed in hand-to-hand combat. And although it has the armor, it strives to dodge, as if the beast is used to a more vulnerable form.” Allura pauses. “Yet more proof that the beast’s…composition most likely involved a member of an intelligent species.”

That blackens everyone’s mood further. It’s one thing to join two alien animals to form a weird lizard robeast, but experimentation and modification on people is another matter.

Shiro grinds his teeth, Galra hand flexing on the controls.

“Is it just me or is the robeast going easy on them?” Hunk asks. “Not that I don’t appreciate that our friends are still alive, but shouldn’t these things be super destructive? Ryner said it hasn’t done much but set off a smoke bomb and bust through some walls.”

“You think its gearing up for something big?” Pidge swivels in her seat to share a look with him. “Ryner mentioned that thing in its chest. You don’t think—?”

Hunk’s mouth goes thin. “Why bother going out of your way to create a mess, when something else will do it better, bigger, and deadlier than you?”

A chilling silence falls over them.

“It’s no use working ourselves up over this,” Shiro says, straightening. “Bomb or no bomb, we can’t do anything about the situation as we are, currently.”

“Shiro’s right,” Allura says, voice steady. “We need to keep a level head if we want to help our friends.”

“Stay calm.” Hunk exhales. “Right. I can totally do that, absolutely. I mean, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened to us before. This can’t be worse than that time Pidge somehow stranded herself on a meteorite hurtling straight for a black hole.”

“Don’t tempt Murphy’s Law, Hunk,” Pidge hisses. “And that was not my fault. Shiro was the one who bumped into Green with Black’s fat butt—”

“Finish that sentence and I will not be held responsible for Black’s actions when she sifts through my memories and finds that,” Shiro says. “Anyway, plan of action. Here’s what we’re gonna do when we get to Olkarion: Hunk, if the robeast hasn’t shifted into something bigger, get Yellow to pick it up and drop it outside of the city, but not anywhere near the civilian bunkers. We can’t fight in the city with our lions and risk damaging the place, and like you said, the beast might be a bomb.”

“Got it, boss,” Hunk says.

“Shiro, the asteroids are clearing up,” Coran interjects. “Adjust your course to the—yes, that’s right. That should cut down the time.”

“Princess, ETA one dobosh,” Shiro says. “Get ready to wormhole us out of here.”

“Copy that,” Allura says.

“I’ll make sure Keith and Lance are okay before I catch up with you two,” Shiro continues. “Think you can handle the robeast on your own for a bit?”

Pidge rolls her eyes. “If Tweedledum and Tweedledee have lasted that long against a rip-off Haggar experiment, without their lions, then Team Punk can totally kill this thing before you even arrive.”

Hunk snickers. “Oh, that’d make those two so mad. They’d whine for years about us beating them.”

“Lance would keep saying we only got the beast because they tired it out first.”

“And Keith would just brood and pout.”

“Alright, alright, put a lid on it. Save the teasing for when the other party is actually here to defend themselves,” Shiro says, and adds, “It’s funnier that way.”

“This is pretty funny already,” says Hunk, but he focuses back to the screens. “Princess, we’re coming in hot. Ten ticks.”

“Opening docking bay now,” Allura confirms.

“Got a specific task for me, fearless leader?” Pidge asks, leaning over in her seat.

Shiro glances over his shoulder and smirks. “Isn’t it obvious? Earthbend to your heart’s content.”

Pidge grins, wide. “Yessir.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith’s lungs expand and deflate, rapid and desperate, pulling in air just fast enough to keep his vision from fading out.

He and the robeast circle each other, but whereas he’s panting, legs wobbling, the robeast is deadly silent.

Lance is prowling around somewhere at their peripheral, ready to jump in the moment Keith falters—and Keith may be an inch from the Olkari’s most advanced healing pod—but no way in hell is he letting Lance take this robeast on with only a rifle. Even with all his training, a rifle’s no good against the scales; he’d get flattened in a heartbeat.

Not that Keith’s doing any better.

The beast lunges forward abruptly, swinging at his head.

Keith blocks the hand and grunts under the force of it—he has to use both arms and his left one spasms, sharp pulses of fire travelling up and down his muscles again.

The beast makes a rapid series of clicks, like it’s laughing mockingly.

Keith scowls. Bares his teeth like he’s about to push back but instead, he gives in, twisting at the last second. The beast tips forward abruptly, unbalanced, and it stumbles. Keith swings down at the vulnerable neck but it dodges and rolls away. It stands and hisses, a long tongue flicking out.

It strikes out at him and he ducks. He kicks out and knocks it off its feet. It rolls to the side, and Keith’s sword embeds itself into the ground. He yanks it out, growling.

The beast jumps to its feet, just in time to duck under Keith’s swing. It lashes up with a leg, the claws skimming the edge of Keith’s chestplate as he throws himself back with a curse.

Lance covers him with a barrage of gunfire, somewhere to the left. The beast raises an arm but Lance nails it in the face, dangerously close to its eyes and it shrieks.

Keith takes the opening and manages to get a couple strikes in before the beast jumps out of range. It shakes its head, disoriented.

Keith thinks it might rush at him again, but it pauses and considers him.

It shudders.

Keith braces himself for the transformation he’s seen a dozen times now, braces him for the broken-looking kid, braces himself for the blood the beast has so creatively added, the sagging skin and torn ears.

He braces himself.

A heartbeat later, Keith is staring at Lance.

Lance grins, wide and teeth gleaming, but there’s something wrong about it, there’s something

—and he grins and digs his fingers into Keith’s eyes and says—

Lance runs at him, right arm raised at an unnatural angle, like he’s about to strike, and Keith feels slow, feels his chest rise and fall with sluggish breaths—because when did Lance and the robeast switch places? He stands rooted, and something is screaming at him to move, but this doesn’t make sense and Lance is so close that Keith thinks, where are his freckles—

and then Lance is being blown sideways with a blast to his head, the loud crack! of bone echoing through the streets.

Keith stares at the crumpled form as its appearance ripples back into the robeast. There a dark orange liquid dribbling out of its nostril. Keith blinks and its red, blinks and its orange, again. His breath whistles out of his nose, high.

—sleep with one eye open, red

Something grips him by the elbow, tugging him away. He turns to find Lance—and it is Lance, isn’t it?—face pale and mouth pressed into a thin line. The muzzle of his rifle is smoking.

“It can shapeshift,” he says. He shakes Keith gently. “We know this. That wasn’t me, Red. It wasn’t me.”

Keith opens his mouth. Nothing comes out. He tries to raise a hand—tries to put it to Lance’s face, because he needs to know—but it’s his left and the arm manages to twitch once before the pain returns tenfold. He gasps, hunching inward.

Lance curses quietly, but when his slim, calloused fingers slip under Keith’s helmet to brush the line of his jaw, Keith knows he understands.

“Okay?” he asks.

Keith nods, leaning into the contact, keeping one eye on the robeast’s body. Orange and red and orange and that grin and is it dead or asleep with one eye

“How’s your arm?”

Keith swallows around the dryness in his throat. “It’s—fine.”

“Keith.”

“Okay, so I can’t move it.” Keith pauses. “No, wait, fingers are still responsive. It’s just the arm.”

Lance swears up a colourful streak. “Where the fuck is our backup? I swear to god, if they’re late because Hunk found a cool rock or something—”

Keith hears it before he sees it: a whining that starts low and climbs so high, it’s almost noiseless. A staccato grinding. The clicking laughter of the beast.

In the next breath, he’s got his shield up and covering them both.

It’s barely in time to deflect the blast. The attack is like nothing Keith’s faced down before, and that’s saying a lot.

He can barely see it—the mechanism in the robeast’s chest—its yellow light is blinding, eclipsing everything near it, and Keith’s mind screams, laser cannon.

If previous Galra lasers could be compared to refined tech—coldly calculated energy input-output ratios and the product of proper scientific advancements—then Keith would call this robeast’s lasers a hot mess. Literally.

It burns something terrible; he can feel it seeping past the shield’s cover, and it—writhes, is the only way he can describe it. Raging and twisting, like it’s seconds away from consuming itself—it feels unstable, like chaos incarnate.

The attack stops, and Keith blinks away the black spots at his vision. He lifts his head to find the robeast looming over them, the thing in its chest shining brighter than a sun before dimming.

Keith’s shield fizzles once, and shatters.

Before the shimmering remains of it has even dissipated, Keith’s charged forward with a growl. He beats the robeast back; ducks under a swipe of claws, pivots, and lets his momentum drive the swing of his blade hard into scale.

Lance aims for the eyes, the soft inside of the mouth when the beast shrieks again. The cannon’s back to charging up now, not even a full minute after.

“What the fuck,” Lance yells, rattled, “is that? How the hell are we going to fight that?”

“Save the panicking for later.” Keith grunts, jerking his head to the side. Strands of hair flutter to the ground. “More brainstorming now!”

“We nearly got incinerated! Excuse me if I’m not immediately coming up with an ingenious solution!” Lance shouts back, and nails the beast in the underarms, nostrils, and ears in quick succession.

The beast staggers back, whining and clutching its ears.

Keith retreats, panting. “What if I—”

“No,” is Lance’s instantaneous response.

Keith whirls around, offended. “You didn’t even know what I was gonna say!”

“Really?” Lance levels him with an unimpressed look. “You were gonna suggest stabbing it right in the cannon thing, don’t tell me you weren’t.”

Keith flushes. “It could work!”

“You’d blow us up.”

“We don’t know that.”

“That’s what you said last time and Shiro ended up with no eyebrows for a month,” says Lance flatly.

“That was an accident—”

“You couldn’t stop laughing for a full fifteen minutes after.”

“Are you worried about your eyebrows? Because we’re wearing our helmets, you know.”

“We are not shooting or stabbing the laser cannon-slash-possible-bomb until we know for sure that we’re not gonna take the entire city with us,” Lance says with finality.

Keith throws his one working arm up. “Fine. You got any other ideas?”

“Keep doing what we’ve—” Lance fires off a shot over Keith’s head and there’s a shriek— “been doing. We can stall for a bit more and then we’ll pass it off to the team. Let them figure this one out for once while we go out on our—”

Thudding footfalls—Keith turns, gets his sword up and blocks the claws, inches from his throat. His muscles and bones strain under the pressure. Lance rains blast after blast at the beast and it lets up enough that Keith can strike out. He curses silently; that swing was sloppier than usual.

The robeast lands a hit on Keith—barely a passing glance on his side, but his back still ends up hitting the wall five meters behind him.

“Hey, ugly! Over here, you lumpy bag of lizards!” Lance unleashes the full fury of his rifle on the robeast, successfully provoking it into focusing on him instead of finishing Keith off.

“Are you sure we can’t blow this thing up?” Keith hisses around the throbbing of his ribs. One more hit like that and they’ll break.

Lance just sends him a look from across the street and shoots the robeast in the head four times, making it stumble again. Keith refuses to find that hot.

“No blowing ourselves up; I promised Shiro,” Lance says. “That being said, we need to get you out of here.”

“What?” Keith scowls, struggling to stand. “Why?”

“You can’t freaking move your arm and you just got thrown into a wall. The team’s coming in five; I can handle this guy for that long.”

“You want me to leave you here to fight this thing alone? No fucking way.”

“Your ribs could be fractured.”

Keith startles. “How’d you know that?”

“I didn’t.” Lance narrows his eyes at Keith, as he ducks and weaves circles around the robeast. “But thanks for confirming.”

Keith’s about to snap back with a witty retort but he catches glimpse of the beast’s laser cannon, and all thoughts of bantering with Lance fly out the window.

“Heads up. Cannon looks charged up already,” he says. “I swear it took a lot longer the first time around.”

“Oh, come on,” Lance groans, firing a shot right into the beast’s nostril. It screeches and Lance rolls between its legs. “Okay, you stay out of the way this time; your shield’s gone and I don’t want you blasted into pieces.”

“I am not leaving you,” Keith says, indignant.

“I’m not asking you to,” Lance snaps back. “I’m telling you to retreat.”

He dives for cover behind a trash bin and the beast rakes its claws through the metal like butter. He comes rolling out onto his feet a couple feet away, takes off into the air, and starts zipping around the beast’s head like a hummingbird.

Keith switches his sword over to his left for a second, just so he can shake out the other. He flexes and clenches his fingers. His ribs give a twinge, and he squeezes his eyes shut. Opens them.

The beast is spitting mad, swatting at Lance and shrieking. It’s no surprise that Lance can goad even a robeast into a mindless rage; Keith’s pretty sure the thing has completely forgotten about him.

“When have I ever listened to you, Lance,” he says, slipping in the beast’s blind spot. His head spins.

“Goddammit, Red,” Lance snarls, so acidic that Keith halts. “You’re injured, you’re dead weight—you come out here, I’m gonna get us both killed trying to distract this thing and keeping you alive, so you stand down right now or god help me, I will sic Shiro on you.”

Even from this distance, Keith sees the incandescent fury on Lance’s face. And the worry, especially the worry. It’s almost stronger than the anger.

Keith takes a step. “Lance—”

And maybe he should’ve listened. Maybe he shouldn’t have let his guard down, shouldn’t have spoken when he’s this close to an enemy. Shouldn’t have fought with an arm out of commission, because the robeast spins and lashes backward with a foot, and when Keith automatically moves to block, too late, he realizes he never switched his sword back to his right hand.

It’s still in the grasp of his unresponsive arm. He can’t lift it—he can’t block.

The leg collides with his side. He can’t even scream when his ribs give way and snap, the air rushing out of his lungs, and then he’s airborne.

He thinks he blacks out for a moment, because when he comes to, he’s surrounded by glass and debris, his back to a wall. His entire body aches from an impact he can’t remember.

He struggles to breathe, to hear, to blink.

“—down, and I’ll probably by next.”

Lance. He sounds panicked, voice wobbling and raspy, like he’s been yelling. How long was Keith out?

And that’s Ryner’s voice, going, “Can you retreat?”

“Keith…might not survive me moving him. I don’t know how bad his ribs are.”

Keith forces himself to turn his head.

Lance is kneeling in front of him. He’s got a hand wrapped around Keith’s wrist, two fingers pressed against the pulse beating feebly. He’s facing away, shoulders tense.

Keith’s gaze catches on Lance’s raised shield, follows a moving shadow on the ground to a lumbering figure at the front of the building—the robeast. His head feels stuffed full of something heavy.

“Lance?” he tries to say. It comes out more like a croaking exhale.

Lance glances at him, and something flashes across his face. He turns back to the robeast, whose laser cannon is pulsing mustard-yellow, about to blow.

“Tell the team to try overloading the cannon,” Lance tells Ryner. “Out in space, preferably.”

Her reply is immediate, tense. “They’ve just exited the wormhole, Lance, please wait to inform them yourself.”

Lance laughs, nothing more than a puff of air. “Sorry, Ryner. Don’t think I’ll get the chance to. This shield is good for one use only, and the cannon’s gonna fire any tick now.”

A tense beat of silence, and then Ryner says, determined, “We’ll prep the healing pods for you. I trust you will hang on long enough to use them.”

“I’ll try my best.”

And before Keith can open his mouth and tell Lance off for playing the self-sacrificing card again, the beast is upon them.

Keith watches Lance deflect the blast, watches the shield break, and watches as Lance, now defenseless, sets his jaw and glares up at the beast in defiance anyway. Watches the beast bare its teeth, sees the light build up in its chest again, faster faster faster, and Keith—

—has Lance half sprawled in his lap

and the Endjhan is laughing

and warm liquid is seeping into his suit

and it feels simultaneously too

intimate and so revolting and Keith—

—stretches out his fingers and his sword materializes into his palm.

He musters what strength he has left to rise onto his elbows, to lean out behind Lance and throw. The moment the sword leaves his hand, he knows it’s a good shot—aimed right at the vulnerable gap in the beast’s armor—it slices into the beast’s shoulder.

The beast screams, agonized, and tips backwards. The blast intended for them goes wide, ripping a wobbly, vertical line into the building structure above their heads.

Lance whirls around. “Keith, you—”

The building groans. Something above them collapses with a distant bang and dust rains down on Keith’s helmet.

“Shit,” Lance whispers. He looks at Keith, at the exit. It’s too far away.

“Go,” says Keith, raspy.

Lance hooks his hands under Keith’s arms.

“Lance, the place isn’t gonna last long. You need to get out of here.”

Lance shakes his head. “Don’t.”

“Lance, you have to—” Keith cuts off with a choked gasp when Lance pulls.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Lance stops instantly, gaze flicking down Keith’s body. “Just. Bear with it? I’ll get us out. Okay?”

Keith grits his teeth when they start moving again. “The robeast is—still there. The building—s’collapsing, you gotta—you gotta—”

“No—”

“Lance,” pleads Keith, “we haven’t even—moved, just. Look.”

He’s moved maybe a foot away from where he landed.

Lance is panting.

Keith stares up at the underside of Lance’s chin. Something drips down from it and lands on his cheek.

“Go,” he says.

All around them, metal creaks and screams. Fissures gouge themselves into the walls, the ceiling. Faster and faster, they spiderweb outwards, criss-crossing and widening.

“Lance, move.” Keith shrugs off Lance’s grip and lands on the floor, jarring his wound and his ribs. Tears spring to his eyes, but he just pushes weakly at Lance’s ankles. “Please, Lance, please.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Lance says, a repeat of Keith’s words. He stubbornly grabs Keith’s arms again.

“The building is going to fall on us—”

“And if I go for the exit, the beast will just kill me anyway,” Lance interrupts harshly. “It’s just standing there, looking at us—”

They get a second of warning.

A deafening boom and then another, closer, and a chunk of the ceiling slams down on the floor a meter away.

Lance throws himself over Keith, cages him in, and over Lance’s shoulder, Keith sees the cracks split open in slow motion—

They get a second of warning. It’s more than enough for Keith.

He hooks a leg over Lance’s and flips them over.

Lance has enough time to say, “No—”

—and then something hits the back of Keith’s helmet and everything goes black.

 

Chapter Text

“—eith, come in. Come in, Keith. Lance. If either of you can hear this, speak up.”

Silence.

“Fuck.” Shiro pushes on the controls, urging Black faster. He hears her roar in his mind. “Ryner, do you have a visual on them?”

“N-no,” she says. “The dust is—I can’t see anything except for the robeast. It’s retreated farther back, but it’s still. Waiting.”

“Fuck that thing,” Pidge says lowly. “Those two better be alive or I’ll dye their hair orange for a month.”

Nobody says anything. They all heard the tail end of Keith and Lance’s argument over comms, just as the lions exited the castle. It had cut off before any of them could get over the shock of what they were hearing, let alone call out.

Ryner speaks up again. “Before the—before. Lance suggested throwing the robeast into space and overloading the cannon in its chest.”

“Shiro, can I make a suggestion?” Hunk asks, uncharacteristically grave. “I’ll take care of that thing. You and Pidge should look for—for Lance and Keith. Ryner has those portable stasis pods, right? Pidge should grab two and meet you at the site; it’ll be faster than Olkari rescue forces—no offense, Ryner. We find them, stuff them in there to keep them from—keep them in stasis. It’ll increase their chances.”

“Only if you’re sure you can take on the beast by yourself,” Shiro replies.

“I’m sure,” says Hunk. “Yellow’s near impenetrable, and I’ll have that thing blown up before it even think of trying that cannon on me.”

Shiro nods. “Good. We’ll do that, then. Pidge, stop by the tower. I’ll see you in five.”

“Got it,” she says, angling Green towards the tower. “Good luck, Hunk.”

“Oh,” says Hunk, “I won’t need it.”

Shiro and Hunk reach the site not a minute later. Without a word, Hunk dives down, scoops the robeast up in Yellow’s paws and shoots straight up into the sky. The robeast’s shrieks fade out half a second later, and Shiro can’t summon any sympathy for the thing. The speed with which Hunk had piloted Yellow practically screamed murderous.

Shiro lands next to the half-collapsed building. He takes one look at it and wrestles with the part of him that sounds a lot like Black, telling him to go with Hunk and tear that robeast down to its molecular structure.

The building is sliced roughly in half, top to bottom, so part of it still miraculously stands while the other part is a pile of rubble.

Shiro swallows. Keith and Lance are under that.

He shakes his head, exhaling. “Okay, let’s do a scan, Black, and make it quick.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith wishes he knew how to make this better.

But there’s hard concrete bearing down on his back, there’s broken shards of metal threatening to cut the two of them, there’s pressure and darkness and no air. He’s lying on Lance, their heads turned towards each other, their legs slotted together—they’re completely pinned. His faceplate is cracked; they must’ve hit heads when Keith buckled under the weight. Their chestplates are pressed so tight and Keith’s ribs won’t stop throbbing. Lance is wheezing; he’s stuck at the bottom, he probably can’t breathe any better than Keith.

Keith wishes he could make this better.

The piece of metal in the lower left part of his abdomen tells him he can’t.

Lance managed a quick glance earlier, when Keith asked. It made him falter, made his breath come quick and shallow. Keith didn’t ask him what he saw. He can feel it anyways.

Now, they’re both just resolutely ignoring the near-silent plip plip plip of liquid falling. It still makes Lance flinch now and then; Keith’s too tired to mind, really.

He doesn’t know how far down in the rubble they are—he doesn’t even know how they’re still alive. He can only hope they’ll still be breathing, by the time the team gets to them.

Something makes a grinding noise above them. Nothing visibly moves, but the slice of metal in Keith’s side seems attuned to every miniscule shift in weight and Keith gasps. His fingers scrabble uselessly at the dirt by Lance’s head.

“Keith!”

Lance is panicking again. The light of his helmet reflects off a wetness at the corner of his eyes, and he blinks, blinks, blinks it away.

“It’s okay, we’re okay. You’re gonna be fine.” That last part is whispered, strained tight and reedy, like Lance is having trouble breathing. Worry pings at the back of Keith’s mind.

“Are you…okay?” he manages, and it’s a shock to hear how thin his voice is, barely more than a puff of air. “You—you didn’t get hit?”

Lance stares at him. Squeezes his eyes shut.

“Lance?”

“You,” Lance licks his lips, “got thrown into a building twice. Your ribs are definitely broken—I don’t even want to think about the state of your lungs, but you’re still saying dumb stuff so I guess that’s a good sign—and now you’re buried under here and there’s a—a piece of steel in your side and you’re bleeding out on me—” Lance’s voice cracks, and his eyes fly open, ice-blue— “and you want to know if I’m okay?”

“…Are you?”

“Why did you—why did you do that,” Lance demands, shaking. “I thought you were dead after the beast kicked you and what—you decided to make it a sure thing?”

“The building was...” Keith’s vision swims in and out. “Was falling on us.”

“I know, that’s why I covered you,” and Keith’s only ever heard Lance’s voice sound like that—strained and desperate—when he talks about home. “I know it was, Keith, so why didn’t you let me protect you?”

The rubble won’t let him, but abruptly, fiercely, Keith wants Lance’s touch. He wants to peel back his suit’s gloves and twine their fingers together—he wants so bad.

“Why’d you jump in front—in front of me, on Endjha?” he asks, and even that much leaves him winded. “Why’d you defend me against the—the Feryter?”

Lance frowns. “You know why.”

Keith smiles. He’s tired. “Yeah. Y’know why.” That sounded a bit slurred. Is he slurring?

“Keith. Keith, open your eyes,” Lance says. “Hey, no—bud, you can’t sleep here.”

“M’not sleeping,” Keith mumbles.

“Red, open your damn eyes right now.”

“Shh.” Keith frowns. Lance is too loud. “Head hurts.”

“God, fuck,” Lance whispers, and his chest heaves, pushing up against Keith’s ribs. “Fuck, babe, stay with me, okay? Okay?”

Keith hums. Sure, anything Lance wants.

“Can you do something for me?” Lance knocks his helmet against Keith’s, and Keith peels his eyes open. “Hey there, sweetheart, hey. Can—can you turn on your comms for me? Mine are messed up. Can you do that for me?”

Keith feels like he’s breathing in something sticky—honey, molasses. It’s so hard, but he opens his comms. He could never say no to Lance, especially not when he’s looking at Keith like that.

“Is it on? Yeah? Okay, that’s great, you did good, babe.” Lance smiles, tremulous. Keith tries to return it. “I’ll take it from here, alright? You just keep—keep your eyes open for me. Keep them on me, you understand?”

He looks like he’s actually waiting for Keith to confirm, so Keith mumbles a yes.

Lance blinks blinks blinks again, tears shining at the corners of his eyes. He clears his throat. “Shiro? Hunk, Pidge? Ryner? Can anyone hear me?”

“Lance? Is that you?”

“Oh, thank god,” Lance sobs. Keith’s heart aches. “Shiro, we really—Keith needs help, please. We’re stuck. The building is—we’re under it. Where—where are you guys? Shiro—Shiro, you need to get us out—”

Keith wonders, can Lance feel the warmth of his blood through the suit? Is that why he’s so scared? Keith would take the blood back, if he knew how. He hates it when Lance cries.

“Hey, hey. I’m right here, Lance, I’m here. I need you to take slower breaths for me, okay? Save your air.”

“Okay. R-right.”

“We’re already digging, just sit tight. We’re being really careful though, so it might take a bit—”

“Keith—he’s dying. He’s bleeding a lot and I can feel it, Shiro, it feels like too much. I—I don’t know if—you need to get him out, please—”

“Whoa, whoa. Remember what I said? Slow breaths. Yeah, that’s good.” A pause. “We’ll get you both out. Just keep talking, okay? We need to make sure you’re awake.”

“Okay,” Lance rasps. “I can do that. But, take—take it easy, okay? Keith’s not. He doesn’t look good.”

“I will. Can you get Keith to talk, too? Usually, he’d be—be yelling at me at this point.”

The familiar teasing tone pricks at Keith’s mind, and he blinks sluggishly. “Shiro?”

“Hey, kiddo. Napping on the job?”

“Ugh,” Keith breathes. “You suck.”

A wavering laugh. “There’s my dumb brother. I’m gonna be so mad at you later, you know that?”

“You’re. You’re not mad now?”

“Nah, kiddo. I’m just really scared.”

Lance is still staring at him. Keith thinks neither of them have looked away even once. “Me too. M’scared.”

“Fuck,” Lance whispers. “Keith.”

“I’ll get you out.” Shiro’s voice is fierce, hard. “You two trust me, right? I’ll make sure you’re both okay, understand?”

“Y-yeah,” says Lance. “Right, Keith?”

“Shiro?” Keith asks. He can barely hear himself, but Shiro responds right away.

“Yeah, what is it, kiddo?”

“You. You’re a good brother.”

“Shit,” Shiro breathes.

“You were there for me.” Keith grasps desperately at the words. “Kept comin’ back. You din’. Didn’t leave me.”

Shiro makes a wounded noise. “No, Keith, don’t—”

“You’re a good. Good brother. ‘Kay?” Keith presses. Shiro needs to understand.

There’s a long, long pause, and over the comms, there’s heavy, shaky sounds and then, “Okay. Okay. Brother—Brother’s gonna get you out, don’t you worry.”

Keith smiles.

Lance still hasn’t looked away, but he’s gone back to blinking so fast that Keith gets dizzy looking at him.

“Lance, keep him talking. I’ll—I’ll be listening, but we’ve hit a sensitive spot so—so keep. Keep my baby brother awake, alright?”

Lance looks like it’s killing him when he says, “Okay.”

Shiro doesn’t say any more. It’s just the two of them, now.

The blue light from the helmet looks nice on Lance’s eyelashes.

“Thanks,” whispers Lance. Oh, did Keith say that out loud? “Yeah, you did.”

“I want,” Keith mumbles, “to touch. Wanna touch you.”

Lance presses his lips together, eyes pinched. “Honestly, sweetheart, this—this is the closest we. We’ve ever been. Kinda wish it was under diff-different circumstances.”

“I’m—m’cold.”

“Oh shit. Okay, okay, let’s—let’s take your mind off that, yeah? Hey, the waterfall! You remember that? We were gonna go.”

Keith hums. “S’pretty. Ryner said.”

“Yeah? Did—did she show you pictures?”

“Mhm. Wanted. Wanted to make sure…”

“Make sure?”

“Wanted you to. To like it.”

Lance makes a low, heartbroken sound. “Red, baby.”

“M’sorry,” says Keith, and he thinks he might be crying, now. That’s weird. “Can’t take you there.”

“No, no, hey. Don’t say that,” Lance begs. “Don’t—fuck.”

Something groans again, and Keith’s vision whites out when the shard of metal shifts—when it digs in.

He wakes to Lance yelling.

“Stop! Shiro, stop, it’s hurting him! God, please stop!”

“Fuck, sorry, sorry. Okay, can’t touch that. Got it. Is he okay?”

“M’okay,” Keith rasps. Is the blood leaking faster now? He can’t tell.

“Hey, eyes open, sweetheart,” Lance says. “Eyes on me, yeah, that’s it. Good. Let’s, uh. Let’s count the galaxies! You know, like on the bridge?”

“S’no stars here.”

“We don’t need them. We’ll go in order, okay? The order we learned them, is that okay?”

Keith nods.

Lance licks his chapped lips. “Okay, I’ll go first. Tela Pyr-XR32. Your turn.”

“M’kay. Konr—Konr Lex 1.”

“Yeah, good. Okay, NRZ 5690. Your turn.”

Keith tries to think. It starts with a D, he’s pretty sure. Something like, “Den—Deck?”

“Not—not quite,” Lance says, gentle. “It’s Deqr.”

“Deqr,” Keith repeats.

“Mhm. You remember the numbers that come after?”

Keith frowns. “Five?”

“Yes!” Lance licks his lips again. “Yes, that’s right. Five. What else?”

“There’s more?” He was sure it was just five.

“…Just two more. Two more numbers.”

“Two?”

“No, sweetheart, no—” Lance cuts himself off. Breathes in. “What comes after the five? Do you remember?”

Keith doesn’t. Isn’t it six? One two three four. One two. One two three four five—five six. Breathe in, hold, breathe out.

“M’sorry,” he says, helpless. “Can’t—it hurts.”

A sob tears itself from Lance’s mouth.

“Deqr 503,” he croaks out. “Okay. My turn, um. Yenn X6.”

Keith blinks. Deqr 503. Yenn X6. Counting galaxies like someone else would— “Pray.”

“Pray?” Lance asks, and his face twists. “We’re reciting names, Red. We were just—did you forget?”

“No. Din’ forget, you—you wanna go home.” Earth in his hands, stars around his head. “S’why we’re praying.”

“Home?” Lance eyes slide shut. “No. No, I just—I need you to be okay. Home—home doesn’t matter if you—god, Keith, I need you be okay. Need you to—”

His lips are red and if he bites it anymore, it’ll bleed. Tears slide out from under his lashes. They drip from his nose.

Keith’s vision blurs. He blinks and it clears and it blurs again and the wetness pools at the corners of his eyes and plip plip plips onto his helmet.

“I need you to be okay,” Lance whispers. “I need you to be okay. I need you to be okay.

Again and again, he says it. Quieter, tighter, until he’s not making a sound. It’s just his mouth, his lips, forming the words over and over—a wish, a cry, a prayer.

Keith’s transfixed by it; he keeps his eyes locked on it, even though there’s a blackness creeping in. It won’t go away when he blinks, and that’s—

That’s when he knows.

“Hey, you two still hanging in there?” Shiro asks.

“Barely,” Lance croaks. “Please tell me you’re gonna pull us out now.”

“About that…”

Lance’s eyes fly open. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Lance?” says Keith. Ink slides into his vision, insidious.

“Gimme a second, sweetheart,” says Lance. “Shiro, what’s going on?”

“You’re almost out. You’re both really lucky; you’re at the very edge of the collapse so you avoided the worst of it.” A pause. “There’s that piece from before but we don’t want to move it until we’re sure Keith’s not going to be hurt by it again. What’s—what’s the situation with him, by the way.”

“Lance, I needa tell. Tell you somethin’,” Keith slurs.

“No,” says Lance, suddenly vehement. “No, you are not saying anything right now. You’re just gonna stay awake and stay alive.”

“I—”

“A piece of metal is impaled into his side,” Lance says to Shiro. “It’s thin, wide, about the size of Hunk’s hand. It’s still attached to whatever’s on top of us.”

“Shit.” Shiro exhales, heavy. “Yeah, that’s what we thought.”

Keith’s eyelids are so heavy. The darkness encroaches on what little light that comes from their helmets and he needs—he needs to—

“You’ve got a solution, though,” says Lance. “Please tell me you do.”

“Do you see an opening around you—a light shining through?”

“Yeah, one by my head, actually. No light, but there’s air coming in.”

“Okay, we’re going to send a drone down with a laser cutter. Think you can separate the piece stuck in Keith from the rest of the rubble?”

“Yeah, I—I’ll do my best,” says Lance. He licks his lips. “You’re sure Pidge can’t remote control the drone to cut it instead?”

“They aren’t really suited for operating something that precise,” says Shiro. “They don’t have anything to hold it; we’re just strapping the cutter to the body of it. Why, is something wrong with your hands?”

Keith coughs—there’s something wet and slick in his throat, coating his tongue. His muscles spasm around the metal in his side and it hurts, it hurts, it hurts so much.

His vision swims, but the pain is sharp and his mind clears up, just a bit. He needs to tell—tell— “Lance.”

“I’m gonna get you out of here, sweetheart, don’t worry,” Lance says to him. Then, to Shiro: “My hands are—they’re not operating at their best. Kind of shaky, slow to respond—probably from the cold. It’s—it’s really cold down here.”

“Do you think you can do it? We just need you to cut a straight line.”

“We don’t really have a choice here,” Lance laughs, trembling. “We’re stuck with my hands—it’s fine, just send it down, if you trust me with it.”

A beat. “There’s no one else I’d trust with this,” says Shiro. “We all know you’ve got the sharpest eyes, the steadiest hands. There’s no one else I’d trust with Keith.”

Lance exhales. Nods. “Alright. Send it down.”

“Copy that. Drone’s on its way. Let us know when you’ve got the cutter.”

“Lance,” Keith pants, “please. I have to tell you—”

“Red, we are not doing this,” Lance says to him, low and tight. “No. Here’s what’s going to happen: I cut you out. Shiro sticks us both into pods, we spend a week in them, tops. We come out, you yell at me for not abandoning you to save my own skin, I yell at you for literally everything else, and the team yells at us for not having an ounce of self-preservation between the both of us.”

“Lance, I’m—m’dying—”

“You are not dying!” Lance shouts. “No! No, I did not spend three years of my life running after you—following your goddamn footsteps into fucking space—just to have it end like this. No way.”

“Lance,” Keith begs weakly. “Lance, look—lookit me. Look.”

He does.

“We just caught up to each other,” he says, ragged. “We finally made it—I finally found you and I am not giving this up. I’m not.”

“Hey,” Shiro interrupts reluctantly, “the drone—”

“I see it,” says Lance, “I see it, move it down to my—yeah. Okay, I got the laser cutter.”

“You know how to use it?”

“Yeah, I got it. Hunk taught me this back in first year. Piece of cake.”

Shiro huffs, amused. “Hunk just made a face.”

A smile flickers across Lance’s face. “Okay, testing it out first—oh wow, that’s—it just sliced right through. That’s terrifying.”

“Alright there, Lance?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Just had to get used to it.”

He rearranges Keith’s arm, pulling it in so he can hook his chin over it. He lifts his head, straining up to see better, and Keith feels the pull of those muscles like they’re his own.

Lance clears his throat. “Okay, cutting the metal now. Nobody distract me. God, is this what surgeons feel like all the time? How do they deal with this?”

There’s sweat on his brow, on his upper lip. His free hand is settled on Keith’s hip, warm and sure.

“I never,” Keith begins, “thanked you. For Endjha.”

“Stop it,” Lance snaps. “Stop talking. I’m using a laser cutter an inch away from your actual flesh; I need to focus.”

“I jus’ wanna. Wanna say thank you. For saving my life.”

“No.” Lance’s chin digs into Keith’s arm. “No, this isn’t fucking happening. Shut up right now—”

“N’the team. I’ll—I’ll miss them—”

No, nope. Just shut up and—fuck, I can’t see the last bit. I’m gonna move your arm, okay? Sorry.”

Keith doesn’t know what he’s apologizing for; nothing hurts anymore. “You’ll—you’ll let Hunk an’ Pidge—”

“Keith, I swear to god—just stop it, please—fuck, I can’t see—”

“—and. An’ Allura an’ Coran an’ Shiro—you’ll let ‘em all know?”

“Tell them yourself, you—” Lance stops, breathing heavily. “Please just stay alive and tell them yourself.”

Keith barrels on—he needs to say this but his eyelids are so heavy and he just wants to sleep— “An’ you—I’ll miss you—”

Lance slams his head back, eyes snapping shut. “God, Keith, please don’t—just stop. Stop it.”

“Lance, I—”

“Stop,” Lance yells, “why are you doing this to me—” His voice cracks— “stop it stop it stop—”

“Because I love you!” Keith says—shouts.

His words are loud, the loudest they’ve been since they got trapped here, and the words ring in his ears, they fill the space around them and Lance is dead quiet—shocked silent.

Plip plip plip, goes the tears.

Plip plip plip, goes the blood.

The darkness in closing in but right now, right here, the numbness recedes and Keith feels everything so viscerally that he doesn’t understand how his body isn’t cracking at the edges trying to contain it all.

He tips his head forward, rests his helmet against Lance’s and burns the image of Lance into his head. Lets the placement of every freckles, every eyelash, and every tear track brand themselves into his mind.

If death allows him to bring one thing with him, it will be this.

“M’sorry,” he whispers.

Lance shakes his head, uncomprehending, and god, Keith has never wanted him to look like that—has never wanted to be the reason he looks like that.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I love you.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The medics lift Lance and Keith clear of the wreckage not long after Keith…after he stops talking. After Lance stops begging him to wake up.

When the hoverbeds come close enough to see, Pidge’s hands clap over her mouth and she takes a step back. Hunk drops the drone’s controls. Shiro feels bile climb up his throat and he bites his tongue trying to swallow it down.

Keith lies still and pale and Shiro zeroes in on the metal embedded in his side. It’s larger than he imagined—redder and sharper. The bed is already soaking wet.

Shiro takes one step towards him, heartbeat ratcheting up a notch, when he hears a commotion.

He looks over to find Lance struggling to sit up, pushing away the fussing medics and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He’s fixated on Keith, mouth pressed thin and eyes wet, and Shiro doesn’t need to have a comms line open with Lance to know how fast and shallow his breaths are. Even from this distance, the heaving of his chestplate is obvious.

Hunk is at his side in a second, Pidge on his heels.

Shiro follows, after he watches the medics hurriedly slide Keith’s bed into the stasis pod, pushing him towards Green’s loading ramp.

“Lance, lie down,” Hunk orders.

Lance shakes his head.

Hunk puts a firm hand on his chest. “The bed needs to do a diagnostic on you before we shove you in a stasis pod for transport. How the hell can Ryner calibrate the pods at the tower if you don’t give her info? Seriously, lie down.”

Lance folds himself around Hunk’s arm instead, head bowing, and Hunk’s face falls.

“Oh jeez,” he says, soft, and wraps Lance in a hug. He tucks Lance’s head against his shoulder, slipping a hand into the space between Lance’s helmet and neck guard. “Keith’s gonna be fine. State-of-the-art Olkari medtech, you hear me? He’ll be fine in—what was your guess? A week?—he’ll be up and swinging his sword around soon enough.”

“He didn’t look fine,” Lance chokes out, and at his side, Pidge makes a wounded noise. “You didn’t—right before he closed his eyes, they went—they went empty, Hunk, I saw it. I had to lie there and watch him die.”

“Lance,” is all Shiro manages to say before his throat closes up. He wants to move, wants to tuck Lance against his side and hide him, wants to roll Keith up in bubble wrap and never let him leave the castle, wants this to never happen to any of his people ever again. He’s pulled in six directions and frozen still.

Pidge glances over her shoulder, worries her lip between her teeth, and then wiggles in between Hunk and Lance. They shift to accommodate her and Shiro feels that wrenching in his gut again, watching them huddle together.

“They’re almost done loading Keith’s pod into Green,” she mumbles. “I have to fly him to the tower as soon as they’re done, so Shiro or Hunk will have to take you.”

Her arms squeeze around Lance and then she slips away, scrubbing furiously her eyes. She doesn’t look him in the eyes when she says, “I’m glad you’re okay. I’m sorry.”

And then she’s off, darting into Green’s open mouth.

“…What’s she sorry for,” Lance whispers, staring after her blankly.

Shiro shifts on his feet. “We got held up because we had to take a shuttle for the mission instead of our lions and it lost an engine right before we got Ryner’s call. The scanner was acting up and missed the rock that hit us. Pidge was on navigation—said she should’ve noticed the faulty system when we ran the pre-flight check. I think she blames herself for being the reason we didn’t get here faster.”

Behind him, Shiro hears it when Green whirs to life. The lion takes off and he shuts his eyes against the burst of air.

“It’s not her fault,” says Lance.

“It’s not yours either,” says Hunk.

Lance jerks back and his face screws up into something just a shade away from self-loathing, and it’s so raw that Shiro has no choice but to step closer and haul Lance in.

“It is not your fault,” he says fiercely. “It isn’t. None of this is.”

Lance sits with his head to Shiro’s chest, stiff. When he manages to speak, the words tear themselves from his throat, thin and hoarse:

“I promised you.”

Shiro closes his eyes, tightens his arms around this kid, this boy, that he let onto the battlefield. Despair creeps into his lungs like ice.

“I promised,” Lance gasps out, “I’d keep him safe, said I’d keep him awake—I said I would, he’s your brother—and then you said you trusted me and I tried, I really really tried and I’m sorry, Shiro, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

He dissolves into choked sobs, restrained hiccups. He’s hooked his hands in the edges of Shiro’s armor, clinging to it like a life raft.

Shiro stands there with Lance tucked under his chin and wishes he’d never thoughtlessly asked so much of someone so young.

He doesn’t know how long it takes until Lance’s breathing evens out, but Shiro opens his eyes to find that the medics have cleared out and it’s only him and Hunk now.

Lance pulls back.

Shiro keeps his hands on Lance’s shoulders, and waits until Lance meets his eyes to say, “Hey, listen. I don’t blame you—I don’t. I know you feel guilty, and I know that guilt won’t let you believe me right now—it’s not something that’s easy to brush off. But the truth of the matter is, is that there’s only one thing responsible for Keith’s state, and that’s the very dead robeast. Okay?”

Lance presses his lips together, dropping his gaze.

“Okay?” repeats Shiro. “I do not blame you. And Keith won’t either. Right, Hunk?”

“Yeah,” says Hunk, taking Lance’s hand and squeezing it. “He’ll probably give you a really confused look for even trying to apologize.”

Lance’s face crumples again. “No, he won’t.”

Shiro shares a look with Hunk. “What?”

“He won’t do anything,” whispers Lance, “because he won’t be waking up. He’s gone.”

Lance removes his left glove and peels the suit back until his wrist is bare.

There, nestled against his pulse:

I love you.

“Oh no,” Hunk breathes, fingers tightening around Lance’s. “Oh, Lance.”

Shiro stares at the words blankly, hearing the echo of Keith’s voice in his head. He knows what this means, but he has to check—

“You’re sure it’s him?”

Lance nods. He won’t look at them. “He said my first words when we freed you from the Garrison scientists.”

And before this, Shiro would’ve been happy to hear this, would’ve grinned wide and relished in the way the boys would probably stammer and blush at the same time as he laughed at them—but now?

Now he hates himself, because he’s hoping Lance is wrong.

Because if Lance is right—if this is true, then—

Then that means they lose Keith.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shiro is missing and Keith is going to puke and someone says—

“Hey Kogane, you alright?”

Those are the first words. His soulmate’s words, inked into his pulse points.

This is his soulmate. His soulmate who puts a hand on his arm, in the crook of his elbow. His soulmate who Keith turns to, who Keith looks at to find long lashes, blue eyes, a nice nose—

His soulmate—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

—is Lance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He remembers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Awareness slams into Keith like a sledgehammer and he gasps.

His hands come up instinctively and he hits glass. All he sees is a haze of blue and god everything aches—

There’s a hiss; the glass disintegrates and he feels himself tilt, feels gravity pull him down and he’s falling—

And then suddenly, he isn’t.

His head rests against soft cotton and a heartbeat hammers away under his ear. There are arms around his waist, two warm bands that hold him tight and secure from the chill of the room. He shivers.

“Hey there, Red,” a voice whispers, “welcome back.”

Keith lifts his head.

Lance, with bags under his eyes, the skin around them rubbed red and raw. His hair sticks up on one side and lies flat on the other, and there’s stubble on his chin and pillow marks on his cheek. He looks like he’s been living a nightmare.

Keith can’t take his eyes off him.

Because there’s that expression on his face—warm, crinkled eyes, a grin that’s so effortlessly radiant—and that’s what Keith has always wanted Lance to look like. That’s the look Keith has always wanted to be the cause of.

“I’m not dreaming,” he says, “right? This is real?”

Lance only grins harder. Shakes his head, almost in disbelief, and laughs, the sound of it wobbling and wet. He ducks his head, pressing his temple to Keith's. His breaths drift past Keith's ears. He hiccups.

“Yeah,” he says, into Keith’s hair. “Yeah, sweetheart, we’re real.”

And Keith smiles, helplessly, dopily, because he trusts Lance. He trusts that this isn't something his brain made up, that the sensation of heat and lingering pain and Lance is true—he doesn't know how, doesn't know how this can be, but... 

He drops his chin onto Lance’s shoulder, leaning into the hug and feeling those arms tighten around him.

But he’s alive, he’s here and he’s alive—they’re both alive and they made it.

And that's all that matters.

 

 

Chapter Text

The team barge in nearly a second later.

Shiro gets to Keith first. He scoops Keith up, lifting him clear off the floor, and holds him there for five entire minutes. He’s shaking, just a bit.

“You’re okay,” Shiro says hoarsely, “you’re okay.”

Keith tightens his arms around his brother’s neck. “I am, I’m alright, I’m here.”

Never do that to me again, kiddo, or I will ground you so hard. Understood?”

Keith knocks his temple against Shiro’s. “Roger that.”

Shiro sets him down, hands on his shoulders, and gives him a critical once-over. When he deems Keith to be in good shape, he sighs and says, “I’m going to go completely grey at this rate, and it’ll be your fault.”

Keith rubs his neck, sheepish. He can’t refute that; he’s been giving Shiro grief since the Garrison. “I’m sorry.”

Shiro ruffles his hair and Keith bears with it, just this once. “Not your fault. Though you and Lance are due for another lesson on Why We Don’t Engage Robeasts Without the Lions or Reinforcements.”

Keith groans. “Ugh, do we have to?”

There’s a laugh, and from behind Shiro, Hunk appears. “Yup, that’s good ol’ Keith, alright. C’mere, buddy, you owe me a hug for all the stress I experienced.”

“Hey, Lance is responsible for half of that, too,” Keith grouses, but he lets Hunk gather him up, reciprocating as best he can with his feeble arms.

“Don’t worry, I got a full cuddle session out of him while you were out. He cried the entire time.”

“Hunk!” Lance exclaims. “Seriously?”

Hunk’s chest moves with his laughter, and Keith grins with him.

“Don’t go dying on me anytime soon, alright?” Hunk says.

“I’ll try my best,” Keith replies. They know he can’t promise more than that.

“Good enough for me.” Hunk gently squeezes him once, mindful of his state, and then passes him off to Pidge.

She says nothing, only buries her face in his chest and locks her arms around his waist. He’s reminded, suddenly, that for all of her intelligence and cunning, she’s still so young.

He rests his cheek on her head. “I’m sorry I worried you.”

“Next time,” she says, “next time, just—just wait for us. Okay?”

Keith meets Lance’s eyes across the room, and swallows.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. I hear you, Pidge. We’ll wait.”

She steps back, lifts her glasses and scrubs hastily at her eyes. She flaps a hand at him. “Coran and Allura are up next, go on.”

He pats her on the head and she doesn’t even elbow him in the stomach for it.

“You are one troublesome young man,” Coran says when Keith comes to a stop in front of him. His hands are on his hips.

Keith’s shoulders rise to his ears, and he eyes Coran apprehensively.

Coran narrows his eyes at him, and then abruptly, Keith’s being tucked under a scruffy chin. Coran hasn’t been shaving. He sniffles loudly, and Keith dutifully pats him on the back, fondness welling up in his throat.

Allura peeks around Coran’s arm and gives him an amused, commiserating smile. Keith returns it, wobbly.

She wordlessly takes Keith’s hand in both of hers, holds it to her chest, and leans in to drop a kiss on his forehead, tender. It leaves Keith winded.

“You gave us quite a scare,” she says.

“I’m sorry.”

She smiles again, forgiving. “I’m just glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” he whispers, and is thankful when she says nothing about the tears on his face.

She brings their clasped hands to her lips for a moment, and then lets go. Coran moves away with her, and Keith shivers in the ensuing chill of the room.

Lance comes up behind him and drapes a blanket over his shoulders. He slips an arm around Keith, wiping Keith’s cheeks with his shirt sleeve. Keith leans into it, letting his eyes flutter shut.

“We’ll leave you guys to it,” someone says, hushed. “Remember to get him something to eat.”

Lance makes an agreeing noise, and then Keith hears the shuffling of shoes, and the doors sliding open and closed.

Lance is staring at him, when Keith opens his eyes. He’s wearing a thoughtful look.

“What?” Keith asks.

“Come sit,” Lance says. “You’ve got to be exhausted. I know how it feels after.”

He’s right; Keith still feels like—well, death warmed over, literally. He barely makes it to the mound of blankets and pillows by his pod before his legs give out.

He presses his face into a pillow, curls his arms and legs around another, and burrows his feet into a spot in the blankets where it’s still toasty warm. Everything smells like Lance; Keith has never been more happier to be able to breathe again.

“Did you sleep here?” he asks.

“Yeah,” replies Lance, and the knowledge does something funny to Keith’s chest.

Lance sits cross-legged in front of him, hugging a pillow to his chest. He’s slouching, an elbow on his knee and his chin resting in his palm. He hasn’t stopped looking at Keith.

“You’re staring,” Keith mumbles.

“I like looking at you,” is Lance’s easy reply. “I like that you’re awake, that you’re talking and moving.”

“Oh.” Keith’s ears are burning.

Lance hesitates, and then he says, “And I like you. I just—like you. A lot.”

Keith blinks. He shoots straight up, feeling like his heart is about to tear itself out of his ribcage. “You what?”

“You’re really going to make me repeat myself?” Lance asks, a blush staining his cheeks and nose.

Keith just gapes at him.

Lance huffs. “I said, I like you.”

“Oh,” says Keith. “Oh. You—oh.”

Lance looks at him expectantly.

“I—I like you, too,” Keith sputters, and then faceplants back into the pillows. He feels hot all over, suddenly.

“Why are you so embarrassed,” Lance laughs, “you were the one that said you loved me.”

Keith freezes. He slowly lifts his head. “I…did?”

A beat of silence.

“Oh my god,” says Lance, “oh my god, don’t tell me you forgot.”

“I—when did I—?”

“Is this payback,” Lance demands, “for the bonding moment?”

“No! No, I just—my memory just gets really fuzzy after, um.” Keith squints, trying to remember. “We were talking about names? Counting galaxies?”

Lance goes somber at that. He picks at a loose thread in his socks. “Yeah. I was trying to keep you awake. Didn’t really work.”

He peers at Keith from under his lashes. “Are you sure you don’t remember…?”

Keith frowns. He thinks back, going through the sequence of memories.

Deqr 503, Yenn X6

Home doesn’t matter if you

I need you to be okay

I'm gonna get you out of here, sweetheart

You are not dying

Just stay alive and tell them yourself

 

 

And then—

Stop, why are you doing this to me stop it stop it stop—

 

And then, later, but before

Hey Kogane, you alright?

Everything clicks into place.

“Oh,” Keith breathes. “Oh.”

Lance perks up. “You remember?”

Keith sits up.

“Keith?”

He reaches for Lance’s left arm, pulling it into his lap. Lance makes a noise of surprise, slapping his other hand into the bedding between himself to keep from toppling over.

Keith yanks the sleeve up. He stares.

I love you.

“I,” he begins. Stops. “I told you I loved you right before I died. Didn’t I?”

Lance fidgets, like he wants to pull his arm away. He nods.

“That was the last thing I said to you.” Keith looks up, into Lance’s eyes. “And this. This is your soulmate’s last words. You told me before that I said your first, too.

Lance bites his lips.

“I’m your soulmate,” says Keith. “Why didn’t—when were you going to tell me?”

Lance pulls back then, wrapping his arms around his stomach. “I wasn’t—I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“How did you even figure it out, anyway?” Lance deflects.

“What do you mean, how did I figure it out,” Keith asks, bewildered. “Of course I—you said my—”

“And of course you have to choose now, of all the times I tried to tell you—”

“Wait, what other times—”

“But it’s not like it would be a good idea, anyway,” says Lance, heatedly. “I mean, I know you’re mine, but I’m not yours, so I don’t know—I’m fine with whatever you’ll give me, it’s fine.”

Keith wonders if the pod forgot to heal his ears, because he doesn’t understand a word Lance is saying.

“I—what?”

Lance curls into himself. He looks halfway between embarrassed and distraught. “I don’t—I won’t hold you back when you find your soulmate. I just want right now. I’m fine with right now. You told me you loved me, and that’s—that’s more than I hoped for. That’s more than enough.”

“My soulmate?” Keith parrots. “Isn’t that you?”

Lance is looking more like he’s about to cry. “No, it’s not—we already know this, Keith. You know this.”

“I do?”

“I mean, I was going to tell you that we’d spoken before at the Garrison, that we’d met way before we rescued Shiro, that maybe I had said your first words, but I—” Lance shakes his head— “You didn’t react to anything I said before you died—like, your heart stopped at one point, and soulmarks apparently classify that as death—so, you know, obviously I didn’t say your last words—”

“Lance—”

“So I thought, well, that kind of sets it into stone, right? Because if I didn’t say your last words, then the chances that I said your first are be like, nothing—”

“Lance—”

“And I’ve heard of couples where one’s said their partner’s words, but not the other way around, and I’m like, okay, this is just one of those. It’s fine—I can do that, I can have that much, just until you find your match—”

“Lance,” Keith says, “shut up.”

Lance’s lips are smooth. Keith’s expected them to be chapped, from sleeping out here, but his mouth is softer than anything Keith’s felt, and his skin, when Keith cups a hand to his cheek, is just as smooth.

Skin care routine, his mind whispers. Knew it’d be soft.

For once, Keith doesn’t tell the voice to shut up.

He pulls back, but he can’t resist brushing their lips together one more time. Lance lets out a strangled noise.

His soulmate’s face is cherry red. Keith is allowed to think that he’s cute, now.

“What,” says Lance.

“You idiot,” Keith says fondly. “You are my soulmate. I remember it, back at the Garrison. You asked me if I was alright and those were my first words. And when I—when I died, you said my last.”

“I did?”

Keith pulls both sleeves of his medsuit up, about to shove his wrists in Lance’s face.

But then he sees what’s actually there and he stops, baffled.

In the space between his awful tan lines are, hey kogane you alright, and, stop why are you doing this to me stop it stop it stop, same as ever.

But just under them, are another set of words.

On the right: hey there red welcome back.

On the left: I love you too.

Keith stares at the left one, because that—that seems an awful lot like a happy ending, and he…doesn’t usually get those.

“Huh,” says Lance, who’s staring down at his wrists, too, wide-eyed. “You have new words, too.”

Keith looks at him, a silent question.

Lance pulls his right sleeve up.

Underneath who are you, rests I’m not dreaming right.

“I, uh, I almost punched the wall because I thought the universe was giving me someone else, but then I realized it appeared the moment they got your heart to start beating again,” he says. “The left didn’t change, so it looked like—like you’d still stay that in the end. And like I said, it was enough for me, that you were going to live, that you’d still love me.”

And it doesn’t make sense—that you’d still love me?—because how could Keith not?

He puts a finger under Lance’s chin, so he can look him in the eye when he says, “Of course I’d love you still.

“I’d love you regardless of whether or not we match. It’s you. I love you because you’re kind and funny and dumb and thoughtful and really freaking cute, and all this time, I was the one thinking, ‘it’s fine if I only get this much.’

“I didn’t want a soulmate,” he continues, “you know that. You saw my mark just now—you know it looks bad. My entire life, I thought I was going to be the reason that they—that you died. I thought I would kill my soulmate.”

“You’d never do that,” Lance says firmly.

“That’s what scared me,” Keith whispers. “The thought of doing something like that made me want to throw up and yet my mark seemed so sure that I would, and that scared me.”

“So you kept to yourself.” Realization dawns on Lance’s face. “You would run away whenever anyone tried to talk to you at the Garrison.”

“You noticed, huh?”

“I always notice you,” Lance admits. “It’s hard not to.”

“You’d make me so frustrated,” Keith finds himself saying. “When we were all getting to know each other at the beginning, you were so distracting, with your—your legs and your face, and I could never concentrate properly. Shiro kept asking me what I was so preoccupied with.”

Lance’s mouth opens slightly. He closes it.

“And then you said, ‘we make a great team’—” Keith’s fingers involuntarily press into Lance’s jaw, hard, and Lance’s breathing stutters— “but nothing happened after that and I wanted to rip my hair out. I thought about your hand in mine, about you falling into me, about carrying you to the healing pod—I thought about it for weeks.

“Oh,” says Lance.

“Yeah. Oh.” Keith traces the line of Lance’s throat, to the nape of his neck. “And then something changed and we got closer—we were friends—and I was so busy laughing with you and watching the way you looked in the pool or behind your rifle that I didn’t notice I had—that I’d kind of. Loved you, already.

“But I thought it’d be okay, to let myself have that, because you weren’t my soulmate. You were safe to—to love. You were going to find your match and—”

“—you were fine with that,” Lance finishes. He mirrors Keith, cupping a hand to the back of Keith’s neck. “Yeah. Yeah, I know the feeling.”

He leans in, his forehead to Keith’s, his breath on Keith’s lips. “You asked me who I was, and I didn’t know whether to be mad you’d forgotten me, or happy because I finally found you. And then it didn’t matter, because it seemed like you weren’t—weren’t mine, but I was yours. And it hurt. I couldn’t be around you without it hurting, so I tried not to get close.”

“That’s why you—?”

“Yeah. I mean, the whole rival thing was part of it, too,” Lance says. “But honestly? It was just that every time I’d look at you, I couldn’t stop wondering why—why I wasn’t good enough for you.”

“But you are,” Keith says. “You’re more than enough.”

Lance doesn’t reply, only shifts closer with his nose pressed to Keith’s cheek, his legs slung over Keith’s. He swallows and Keith hears it clicking in this throat.

“I didn’t fall in love with you because you were my soulmate,” Keith presses, because he doesn’t want Lance to doubt how vital he is to Keith ever again.

“I fell because you were everything I wanted.”

Lance squeezes his eyes shut, breathes out noisily through his nose, and then grabs Keith by the face and kisses him.

It lasts a second; Keith feels like it goes on for years. He follows when Lance tries to move back.

“I love you, too,” Lance mumbles against Keith’s lips.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Lance smiles and Keith would swallow it, if he could. He feels like he could take out an entire fleet of Galra, like he could round up all the stars in the sky into the shape of Lance’s mouth under his, Lance’s heart against his.

Keith tries to lean back in, but Lance ducks away and punches him in the arm.

“Ow! What was that for?” he asks.

Lance drops a kiss onto his nose. Keith hates that it makes him immediately forgive Lance. “That’s for turning my seemingly normal last words into the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever heard, you jerk. Who says ‘I love you’ while they’re bleeding out on their soulmate, huh?”

Keith pouts. “People would say that’s romantic.”

Lance rolls his eyes. He opens his mouth, then pauses. “Would this be a bad time to say ‘you’re going to be the death of me?’”

Keith drops his head to Lance’s collarbone. “Too soon,” he groans.

Lance wraps his arms around Keith, laughing. Keith drags his mouth up the line of Lance’s throat.

“Dude, we’re so dumb,” Lance says. “Babe, are you listening?”

“Hm?”

“We’re so stupid,” he says. “We’re the dumbest and Hunk is never going to let me live this down. How did we not figure it out sooner?”

“You called me that before,” Keith mumbles into Lance’s jaw.

“What, dumb? Yeah, like a million times in the first month—”

“No.” Keith rolls his eyes. “Sweetheart. Babe.”

“I did?”

Keith pulls away and fixes Lance with a look.

Lance grins. “Kidding. I couldn’t resist.”

“We’re not making that a running joke,” Keith says flatly, but the smile tugging at his lips ruins it.

Lance hums, and tilts their heads together for another kiss. “You were dying on top of me. Suddenly, keeping my embarrassing crush on you seemed silly.”

“You had a crush on me,” says Keith, pleased.

Laughter bubbles up in Lance’s chest; Keith can feel it under his hands.

“We’re soulmates,” says Lance. “I’m literally sitting in your lap, making out with you.”

“Yeah, but still.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Lance breathes against Keith’s mouth.

“You love me for it,” says Keith, pulling Lance’s lower lip between his. He feels drunk.

Lance groans, shivers, when Keith tastes him with his tongue. He lets Keith push him onto his back and there isn’t much talking after that.

It seems like an entire lifetime later, when they run out of breath and need to pause. Keith doesn’t move away very far. Just enough to take in the healthy flush to Lance’s face, the red-slick look to his mouth. Keith wants to bite down on it.

He remembers there’s nothing that’s stopping him now, and does just that. Lance’s hands spasm where they’re resting low on Keith’s back.

“How are you so good at this, too,” he whines.

The pout on his face just makes Keith lick at his mouth until he’s gasping again.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Keith admits. “You just. Taste really good.”

Lance rolls them over so he can bury his face into Keith’s neck. “You gotta stop saying stuff like that.”

“Hm?”

“The—the sweet talk. That’s, like, the fourth time in the past two days.”

“Sweet talk?”

“Or something. You’ve just been saying really, um, nice things to me.”

Lance is practically burning—or maybe that’s Keith. Maybe it’s both of them.

“I don’t consciously do it,” Keith mumbles into Lance’s hair. “It just happens. You’re just—there, and you make me say dumb shit. Do you want me to stop?”

Lance doesn’t reply. He raises himself up, hands on Keith’s chest.

He’s wearing the fondest look Keith’s ever seen, open and relaxed. His eyes are so bright and Keith kind of wants to combust.

Lance brushes a finger under Keith’s hair, shifting the fringe away from his eyes and up over his forehead. He threads his fingers through the strands, scraping his nails across the scalp—Keith doesn’t bother holding back the groan. His eyelids droop and his mouth goes slack.

Lance grins.

“I like it,” he says. “Should’ve known you’d be a sappy soulmate.”

“You’re the one giving me pet names and everything,” Keith retorts.

Lance’s only response is to continue petting Keith’s hair, so fucking gentle that Keith’s brain is sparking—just straight-up spluttering to death. He groans, again.

Lance presses his lips together, like he’s trying not to laugh. “If I had known that you liked to have your hair played with, I would’ve done this way sooner.”

“It feels nice,” Keith mutters, defensive.

“You look like you're about to fall asleep right here.”

“Sure, why not? I’m tired.” Keith’s eyes have already slipped closed.

“You’ve got to eat, for one thing. Change, for another. And I think Kolivan wants to talk to you, if you feel up to it—something about your rash.”

Keith opens an eye. “My rash?”

He has noticed that his arm feels completely fine now. He thought the pod had healed it, despite it not happening the other times he’s been in the pod for other injuries.

“Mm.” Lance pecks him on the lips, and stands. He stretches, shirt rising up, and Keith is absolutely allowed to stare now. “C’mon, stop ogling me. We’ve got things to do.”

“Do we have to?” Keith grumbles. I like the view from here.

Lance levels him with a considering look. With a faint blush, he says, “The faster we get them done, the faster we can get back to what we were doing.”

Keith is already halfway to the door before Lance starts laughing.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Wait,” says Keith. “Wait, my rash is a Galra soulmark?”

Kolivan gives him a look like he can’t believe Keith is making him repeat himself. “Yes. It is the first place your navtu touches you. Which is, for you, the inner elbow of your left arm.”

“I know where it is,” Keith says crossly, only because he’s replaying the time at the Garrison, to make certain that that was where Lance first touched him, because he doesn’t really want another soulmate.

“Don’t worry,” Lance calls out from his sprawl on the dais, “I put my hand there when I asked how you were. And I thought about that moment for days, so I’m pretty confident that I’m right.”

Keith looks at him and smiles, slow and delighted. “Days, huh?”

Lance goes redder than Red.

Feeling inordinately satisfied, Keith turns back to Kolivan, who looks like he’s swallowed a bucket of food-goo. “So why did it have to hurt for months, though?”

“I don’t know,” Kolivan says bluntly. “It’s not supposed to do that. In most instances, it is nothing but a mark on your skin that you’re born with.”

“I didn’t have this when I was a kid. It just came in recently.”

Kolivan exhales slowly, like he’s a second away from throwing Keith across the room. “I am aware. Perhaps it’s because of your mixed heritage.”

“Because I’m half-Galra,” says Keith.

Kolivan looks up at the ceiling. Looks back down. That’s his version of rolling his eyes. “Yes. In any case,” he says, “it’s seemed to have calmed down now.”

Keith lifts his arm to eye level, scrutinizing the healed skin. “Okay, but why’s it purple?”

Kolivan turns on his heel and walks away. Just silently marches straight through the bridge doors and doesn’t look back.

Lance is hooting with laughter. “Did you really have to wind him up like that?”

“Shiro does it all the time,” Keith points out. “His favourite part of the week is when Kolivan comes in with his report.”

“Your brother’s gotta hate how you only seem to pick up his bad habits,” Lance remarks.

“He bitches to me about it all the time; it’s funny.” Keith grins. “But seriously, why is it only my elbow that’s turned Galra?”

It’s Lance’s turn to look at him, disbelieving. “You didn’t notice it when you changed clothes?”

“I was—distracted.”

Lance blushes, because he totally knows what Keith’s talking about; it’s entirely his fault that Keith was late to this talk with Kolivan.

“Okay, well, this isn’t the place to explain.” Lance tangles their fingers together and tugs him towards the doors.

They’re seated on Lance’s bed five minutes later. Keith’s trying not to think about how easy it’d be to press Lance into the mattress and fall asleep with their legs twined together.

“You know how your heart, uh, stopped?” Lance starts. Keith nods. “Right, well. We got pretty desperate, so the Olkari basically dropped you into a vat of quintessence—”

“They what? Isn’t that—couldn’t that go wrong really quickly?”

Lance shrugs. “Allura did some magic stuff—made sure you wouldn’t get an overdose or whatever. But like I said—desperate. You didn’t have much longer and we were out of options.”

Keith reaches over and squeezes Lance’s hand. “Good thing it worked, then.”

Lance hums his agreement. “It fixed you up near-instantaneously, but the side effect—” He lifts the hem of Keith’s shirt— “was this.

A large scar curves around Keith’s left flank, above the jut of his hipbone. It’s puckered and purple—the same shade as his rash-slash-Galra-soulmark. It twinges with an old sort of hurt when Keith pokes at it. A couple smaller cuts decorate his torso, in the area where his only protection was the black suit.

“Allura called Kolivan, because all this purple was a dead giveaway,” Lance continues. “You should’ve seen his face when he realized what we were asking about—I think the Galra are intensely private about this sort of thing, because he looked super constipated.”

Keith snorts. “I’m pretty sure that’s just how he is, as a person.”

The corner of Lance’s mouth tugs upwards, but his gaze is still fixed on Keith’s scar. He traces the line of it with a thumb.

“It was too close, this time,” he says, quiet.

“Hey.” Keith taps him on the chin. “Stop that. I’m here. We’re here.”

Lance nods, sighs, and falls back onto the bed. His arm is spread out in an open invitation and Keith accepts it, fitting himself into Lance’s side.

“Are you going to make me promise to never do that to you again?” Keith asks.

Lance is quiet, contemplative. His hand slides into Keith’s hair again, in slow, even strokes. It’s almost enough to send Keith off into sleep.

“No,” he says finally. “I won’t.”

“Because I can’t keep it,” Keith guesses.

Lance exhales, and presses his lips to Keith’s forehead. “Because neither of us can. Nobody on this team can. We’ll keep throwing ourselves in the line of fire for each other, until we can’t anymore.”

Keith’s hand drifts up to the middle of Lance’s chest, covering the scar that he knows lies underneath. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” says Lance, because he knows it’s not any easier for Keith when Lance is the one in a pod. “Just. Keep coming back to me, Red. That’s all I need.”

Keith smiles. “Only if you do the same.”

“If you think anything can rip me away from this, now that I have it, you’d be dead wrong.”

“Too soon.”

“What—oh, come on,” Lance groans. “That’s not even funny.”

“Oh, so you can make jokes about forgetting a moment, but I can’t make jokes about dying?”

“Those are on two completely different levels!” Lance exclaims. “They can’t be compared—”

Keith throws a leg over Lance’s and silences him with a kiss. It works like a charm and Keith files that away for future reference.

He drops back onto Lance’s chest when sleep starts pulling at his eyelids again. Lance huffs, amused, and tugs the blankets up around them.

“We should go see the waterfall tomorrow,” Keith mumbles.

“If I’m not scheduled for a mission, sure.”

“I’ll bully Shiro into letting you stay. I can milk the injuries for a day.”

Lance laughs, soft. “He’s not going to fall for that.”

“Fine, we’ll just elope then,” Keith slurs, halfway asleep.

A beat, then, “You did not just ask me to marry you. Keith. Babe, what the hell.”

“You could’ve just said no, if you didn’t want to.”

Lance sighs. “You’re delirious. Go to sleep.”

“What do you think I’m trying to do? I’m not the one who keeps talking.”

“I will kick you out of bed, Red, don’t think I won’t.”

Keith yawns. “You won’t.”

“I hate you.”

“I love you.”

“That’s so not fair,” Lance grumbles.

Keith smiles sleepily, and buries himself further into Lance’s warmth.

He’s awake just long enough to hear it.

 

 

 

 

“I love you, too.”

 

 

Chapter Text

northerious did this absolutely glowing, stunning piece for That Scene!!!!!! please look at it if you want to die one more time!!! PLEASE GO REBLOG

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and my lovely friend made a whole ass comic for That Scene and yes i absolutely wailed when i saw it wat the fack!!! PLEASE GO REBLOG

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THANKS TO THEM BOTH FOR MAKING ME SOB INTO MY HANDS SPORADICALLY AND MAKING MY FAMILY WORRY ABOUT MY MENTAL STABILITY!!!!!! THEY'RE BOTH SO TALENTED AND SKILLED AND I APPRECIATE THE OBVIOUS EFFORT PUT INTO THEIR ART!!!!! PLEASE GO SCREAM INTO THEIR INBOXES ABOUT THEIR ART PLEASE fksjdfa i'm so emotional tf bicntches

edit: THERE'S MORE!! sarapsys made beautiful art for a scene that is one of my personal favs, thank you so much to them!!!! earth in his hands, stars around his head amirite? ;) if you can, please go give them a reblog!!!!

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