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just come to me once

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Lance is crying.

Lance is crying, and Keith doesn’t know what to do, and it occurs to him that it’s really fucking dumb that he can retake the Black Lion, and spin through a wormhole, and find his brother’s spirit in the astral realm, and destroy a clone, and lead a team through battle against a prince drowning in his own power—but he doesn’t have the first clue what to do here.

(what’s the point of being a hero, his mind whispers, sad and angry and frustrated alike, if you can’t help your own friends? how is saving the universe easier than comforting someone who is crying?)

“Lance,” he says, without really knowing what he’s going to say next. “Lance, it’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Lance mumbles, still staring at Shiro with something like horror on his face. “It’s my fault, I should have—I should have figured it out sooner—”

“It’s not your fault,” Keith says firmly. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Okay?”

Lance doesn’t seem to hear him.

“Hey.” Keith adjusts so he’s holding Shiro up with one arm, and uses his free hand to touch Lance’s shoulder. “Listen to me.”

Lance looks up. His eyes finally meet Keith’s directly, and it’s absurd, but even after all the stress and exhaustion and adrenaline of the past few hours, even with Shiro half conscious in his lap, Keith’s stomach flips at the force of his gaze, magnified by the soft sunlight on this planet and the tears sparkling on Lance’s eyelashes.

(god, it’s been so long, so long, for them it’s been months but for him it’s been years, and now that the dust has settled he’s been sneaking glances at all of them, re-memorizing their features and the sound of their voices, but mostly it’s been Lance, always Lance, only Lance, Lance’s eyes and Lance’s shoulders and the way Lance’s hair curls over his neck)

“It’s not your fault,” Keith repeats. “There’s no way any of us could have known.”

Lance sounds a little calmer, though his face is still twisted. “I’m still sorry,” he says. “I should have done something, I should have realized it sooner or—or I don’t know—but I didn’t and now—now Shiro’s—”

He breaks off, his voice wavering again. Keith squeezes his shoulder and looks up at Allura.

“Can you do something?” he asks. “You can, right?”

Allura nods. She puts her hand on Lance’s other shoulder and smiles.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “He will be all right. I’ve done this once before, remember?”

Lance’s expression brightens a fraction. Allura walks up to the Black Lion, puts her palms to the metal of their exterior, and closes her eyes.

.^.

Krolia says their mission should take a few months.

“Six at most,” she says, as they gather twigs and branches for the fire they’ve started in the cave. “I can’t imagine it would take much longer than that. It must be a considerable distance or more people would make the journey, but if people have gone back and forth for quintessence before now it can’t be too long of a trip.”

The first day passes quickly. They don’t talk much, since they’re mostly occupied with figuring out the logistics of living in this atmosphere. The plant varieties here are plentiful; there are tons of edible ones, as well as huge puffy leaves that they use as bedding and towels. They find a pond nearby for bathing and for washing their clothes.

After dinner on the first day—berries and some kind of potato-like vegetable that Krolia half burns over the fire—they sit back against opposite sides of the cave.

Keith studies her in the dim light from the embers. He’s astonished by how familiar her features are; earlier she had scowled when she’d burnt the vegetable and he had had to bite back a startled laugh at how similar it was to what he sees in the mirror.

“You never told me how you ended up here,” she says finally. She’s been staring at him too; he wonders if she’s doing the same thing, if she’s also surprised by how similar he is to someone he has no memory of. “I had no idea you were in space.”

“It’s kind of a long story,” Keith says. “A really long story, actually.”

“We have time,” she says, a little dryly. “I think a long story would do us some good.”

She has a point, so he begins, haltingly at first, with a lot of backtracking to explain who people are and why he was living at the Garrison.

“So Shiro raised you,” she says, after Keith explains going to rescue Shiro from the facility. “That’s why you went to such great lengths to save him.”

“Yeah,” Keith replies. “Dad died when I was nine so I lived in foster homes and orphanages. Then when I was twelve I met Shiro through a big brother program. After a couple months he helped me apply to the Garrison so he could look after me better, since he wasn’t old enough to formally adopt me.”

“He sounds like a good man,” Krolia says.

“He is,” Keith says. “He’s the best man I know. I—I think of him like a brother.”

There’s a pause, then, very quietly:

“You were nine?”

Keith nods.

Krolia exhales, very slowly. “I’m sorry.”

Keith shrugs. “It was a long time ago,” he says. “He was a good dad and I miss him, but I’m used to it by now.”

He is sorry for that nine-year-old boy whose dad never came back from work, sorry for the boy who had to pack up his things and move from strange house to strange house. But he’s not sorry now, not when things are so much better, now that he has Shiro, and the other paladins, and now his mother too.

It occurs to him that it hasn’t been a long time for her, not really; for her it’s been only a few hours since she saw his father’s gravestone in his memory, only a few hours since she realized her—husband? partner? Keith isn’t really sure what their relationship was—is dead.

(has she thought about going back, about the war ending and her pod landing on earth again, this time smooth and purposeful instead of abrupt and accidental? has she thought about going up to the door of that house, knocking once twice thrice; about his dad opening it, shock melting into a smile; about an older version of the baby she left behind coming up behind him, confused as she hugs him for the first time in almost two decades?)

(does she wish now that she’d done it, now that her options aren’t shocked smiles and confused hugs, but kneeling at a gravestone, and a son as battle-weary as she is?)

“I visit his grave every year,” Keith says. “Shiro usually comes with me but next time we’re on earth you can come too. I—” He breathes in, unsure if it’s okay for him to say this. “I think Dad would like it if you came.”

For a long moment Krolia doesn’t respond. She’s doing the thing Keith always does when he’s trying to calm down, when his eyes start stinging; the clenched jaw, the clenched fist, avoiding anyone’s gaze by looking to the side. He looks away from her too, lets her have this to herself; he half thinks that he should do something—hug her, maybe?—but the moment passes, and she just says, as quietly as before, “I’d like that, too.”

The conversation after this is more cheerful. He tells her about the others joining in, about finding the Blue Lion—her eyes get very round at this part, and he feels weirdly proud at her astonishment—about the castle of lions, the Alteans, finding the other lions—

“Wait, wait,” Krolia interrupts, incredulous. “You mean—you’re a paladin. Of Voltron.”

The weird pride within Keith swells.

“Yup,” he says.

Krolia beams, bright and sudden. “My son is a paladin,” she says, almost to herself, a bit in awe.

“Not anymore,” Keith amends. “I used to be the Red Paladin, then I piloted Black for a while. But now I just work for the Blade.” He frowns. “But that’s not until later. I’m trying to tell this in order.”

“Carry on,” Krolia says, with an apologetic wave.

He tells her about learning about the Blade of Marmora, visiting the base, the trials—

“The trials?” Krolia echoes, and it’s not incredulous, or proud, but—furious—

“Kolivan said it was the only way for me to learn anything about your knife.”

Krolia mutters something under her breath in Galran. Keith doesn’t understand much Galran but that tone of voice is pretty unmistakable.

“Remind me to kill him when we get back,” she says louder.

He’s fairly certain she’s kidding. Probably.

He doesn’t know how much longer he talks for; by the end of his account his voice is hoarse enough that he downs the entirety of their water supply and has to take a break to get more while Krolia tries to process everything he’s said.

“What you’ve done is remarkable,” she says, when he returns with a fresh bucket of water from the pond. He puts it over the fire so it can boil and purify. “Though I am sorry you were drawn into this war.”

“I have my friends with me,” Keith says. “I mean—” A uncomfortable feeling twists his stomach. “I haven’t really talked to them since I left Voltron but they’re—I think they’re still my friends. That makes it easier.”

“Can you tell me about them?” Krolia asks.

“Sure,” Keith says. “Um—I guess I’ll start with Pidge, who’s the Green Paladin. She’s really smart and can hack into anything. She once got every screen during a Voltron Coalition conference call to play Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Krolia blinks.

“It’s a meme,” Keith explains. “If we visit earth I’ll show you.” He takes the bucket of water off the fire and sets it aside to cool. “Hunk is our engineer and the Yellow Paladin. He’s pretty good at diplomatic stuff and helps Allura with it sometimes. He speaks five languages and he’s trying to learn Altean and Galran too.”

“That’s very impressive.”

“It is,” Keith agrees. “Next is the Blue Paladin, Allura—”

“Are you on such familiar terms with the princess that you can call her by her name alone?” Krolia asks, startled.

“Yeah,” Keith says. “I mean—sometimes we call her ‘princess’ but usually we just say her name. To be honest I kind of forget she’s a princess sometimes. In my head she’s just a member of our team and someone who once put her elbow in her bowl of food goo cause she couldn’t stay awake at breakfast.” He smiles. “Once she actually started a food fight at dinner. She’s pretty cool for a princess.”

Krolia smiles too. “Do you like her?”

“Yeah,” Keith says, without thinking.

Krolia raises an eyebrow. Keith blinks at her, confused by the way her smile crooks—and then realizes.

Panic shoots through him.

“No!” he shouts, then, lowering his voice, “Sorry—just—no, not like that. She’s my friend, but I don’t like her romantically. I—I actually don’t like girls at all. I mean I do, but as friends. Not—not in that way. Not romantically. Cause I’m—gay.”

(congrats, says part of his mind, rolling its eyes. this is probably the messiest way to come out to your mom)

Despite his rambling Krolia follows his meaning.

“I see,” she says. “I apologize for assuming.” She shifts, stretching out her legs. “So—Pidge, Hunk, Princess Allura, and you’ve already talked about Shiro. Isn’t there another one too? You said there were six of you.”

(maybe it’s because they’d just been discussing romance, or maybe it’s because he hasn’t talked about him in so long, or maybe it’s because he’s a little worried he can’t talk about him without sounding overeager, but something strange curls through Keith at the thought of him, comforting and embarrassing in equal measure)

“Lance,” he says, and he does his best to keep track of how his voice sounds, to keep it as even as possible. “He used to pilot the Blue Lion but now he pilots Red.”

There is a pause.

“Does this ‘Lance’ not have a personality?” Krolia prompts.

“I—yeah—I mean—” Keith can already feel his face heating. “He kind of has too much personality.”

Krolia frowns. “Is he difficult to deal with?”

“No,” Keith says immediately. “Well—I guess, at first. But that was because I didn’t know him very well. He talks a lot and he’s really dramatic sometimes and those kinds of people tend to annoy me. But he doesn’t annoy me anymore. And the few times he does it’s not—it’s not really annoying.” He pauses, trying to articulate it. “You know those people who do things that should be annoying and you’re kind of annoyed but you like them so it’s not actually annoying? That’s what he’s like.”

Krolia is squinting at him suspiciously. Keith coughs.

“So—anyway.” He clears his throat. “He’s my friend so it doesn’t bother me when he does goofy stuff. I actually really like it. He always knows how to cheer people up. And he’s talented too, he’s our best shot and he’s good at supporting other people and figuring out who’s the best for whatever job needs to get done. He’s—kind of the main reason I was able to be black paladin at all after Shiro disappeared. And—um—yeah. He’s nice,” he finishes lamely.

(congrats again, says the same part of his mind, dryly. you managed to keep it together for about 2 seconds)

Krolia is suppressing a smile.

“I see,” she says a second time, then, “It’s quite obvious that it’s not the princess you like,” and she’s using—that voice—the one Shiro sometimes uses—where he thinks he’s being sneaky but he most definitely is not.

Keith feels his face burn. He ignores it as best he can and says, a bit desperately, “Do you want to hear about Coran? Or the space mice?”

Krolia takes pity on him and agrees, so Keith covers his embarrassment with as many absurd stories about Coran as he can recall. By the time he’s done they’re both exhausted from the mission and the long day, and after some shuffling around to figure out how the hell they’re supposed to sleep on giant leaves, they both go to sleep.

.^.

There’s a pair of glowing eyes watching Keith from under a bush by the cave entrance.
“Hey, buddy,” Keith says, waving at the eyes as he eats berries out of the makeshift bowl Krolia had made their second day here. He holds out his other hand, palm up, one dark red berry in the center. “You want one?”

The eyes blink but don’t approach.

“That’s okay,” Keith says, and eats the berry himself instead. He’d first spotted the wolf cub four days ago, hiding under that bush, their tiny nose poking out and sniffing at the scent wafting out from the cave. Keith had left a piece of their dinner by the bush and sometime when he and Krolia weren’t looking the wolf cub had come out and taken it. Keith’s been leaving food out after every meal, but the cub doesn’t seem to be any more comfortable coming closer than they’d been the first day they’d appeared.

But Keith doesn’t mind. He waited months for his brother, years for a home, decades for his mother. Waiting a few days for a wolf cub won’t bother him.

He places a few berries in the usual spot, halfway between the bush and the cave, and turns around so his back is to the entrance, pretending to be adjusting the giant leaf that makes up his bed. He hears rustling, tiny pap pap paps, rustling again. He turns around. The berries are gone.

He bites back a smile and goes back to his snack.

.^.

It’s not until a week later that he finally sees the wolf cub in their entirety.

Krolia is out, gone to wash her clothes and collect kindling. Keith sits in the cave; it’s blindingly hot today and the cave is blissfully cool, and he spends his time reading through one of the few books he has on his tablet. Their tablets aren’t very useful here—the comm function doesn’t work, neither video nor audio nor text—but thankfully the books he’d downloaded ages ago can still be read. This book seems to be the Galran equivalent of a Western, the already cheesy writing made cheesier by the crappy job the translator is doing as he reads.

He looks up from the tablet to give his eyes a break and spots the eyes glowing under the bush, staring at him. He smiles before returning to the tablet, swiping to turn the page—

—then freezes as the eyes slowly, slowly, slowly come closer, as a tiny nose pokes out, as blue-black fur follows, until the front half of the wolf cub’s body is outside the bush.

Keith puts his tablet down.

“Hey, buddy,” he whispers, determined not to scare them away. “You wanna come in?” The wolf cub continues to stare

“Are you hungry?” Keith asks. “We have some leftovers if you want.”

The wolf cub takes another step, then another, until they’re completely out of the bush. Right away Keith sees that something is very wrong; as they approach the cave they’re limping, hopping every few steps with their back left paw sticking out. They limp inside the cave, up to Keith, until he can see what’s wrong with their paw. There’s a yellow thorn stuck in it. They look up at Keith and whimper.

“Don’t cry, buddy, it’s okay,” Keith says softly. “I’ll get it out for you.”

Upon closer inspection he discovers that it’s not a long thorn and there doesn’t seem to be bleeding around it; he can probably just pull it out, as long as he’s careful. He holds the wolf cub’s paw in his hand, firm but gentle. They hold very still.

“You’re very brave,” Keith tells them. He takes hold of the thorn with his free hand and pulls it out. The wolf cub yelps, but it comes out cleanly.

“See?” Keith holds up the thorn to show them, then tosses it into the fire. “All better.”

The wolf cub looks at their paw, then puts it on the ground, testing their weight on it. They walk around the cave, jumping every few steps and wagging their tail. Keith watches, laughing a little at how happy they are.

The wolf cub makes a round around the cave then comes back to Keith. They clamber into Keith’s lap and curls up, closing their eyes. They’re small enough that they fit entirely in his lap. Keith scratches under their chin; the wolf cub makes a tiny pleased growl and Keith feels almost giddy at the sound of it. It’s weirdly satisfying to know he’s gotten the wolf cub to trust him.

“What’s their name?” Krolia asks once she’s returned. She abandons her usual spot across the cave to sit by Keith and pat the wolf cub on the head.

“Pom Pom,” Keith says promptly.

Krolia raises an eyebrow.

“Dad gave me a stuffed hippo when I was little,” Keith explains. “He was the same shade of blue as this part of Pom Pom’s fur.”

“Ah.” Krolia pats Pom Pom’s head again; they make the growly noise in their sleep. There is a long pause, and then she asks, very delicately, as if worried it’s a question she shouldn’t be asking, “What is a ‘hippo’?”

.^.

He’s had this dream before.

It’s so vague it might be too much to call it a dream. There’s no image, no color, so scene; just him, lying as he is, darkness behind his eyelids, and then a voice—a woman’s voice—singing gently, though not very well, in a language he doesn’t recognize.

It’s not a bad dream. It’s weirdly soothing, though he doesn’t know why. He has it fairly often, at least once every few months, and no matter how many dream sites he’s checked, no matter how much he looks up recurring dreams of a woman singing, he can’t figure out what the hell it means. He’s thought about trying to look up the language, but by the time he wakes he always forgets all the words, forgets the syllables and sounds, though he feels like he should remember.

He’s dreaming it now, lying here, in this weird leaf bed in this weird cave house, dreaming of this woman’s voice and this unfamiliar language and this quite frankly horrible singing that’s somehow still soothing. He’s dreaming, and he’s calm, and he’s drifting deeper into sleep, deep enough that his dream is fading, that the voice is fading—

—but then—

—abruptly—

—the dream changes—

—and he’s no longer lying, and dreaming, but drowning, drowning in water so deep and so dark he can’t see anything—

—and something is being sucked out of him as he falls through the water, something smoky and silver pulled out of him through his mouth, and he sees the outline of it float up to the surface as he sinks, sinks, sinks—

—and he hears a roar, and his heart should leap, because it’s Red’s roar, but instead of leaping his heart sinks along with his body, because it’s sad, it’s so sad, he’s heard Red’s happy roar and angry roar and vengeful roar but never—

—never this—

(gone, his mind whispers as he sinks, and he doesn’t know if it’s actually his mind or Red’s mind. gone, gone, gone, gone, gone)

“Who’s gone?” Keith asks; the words come out in bubbles, floating up to the surface along with the smoke that had come out of his mouth. “Red! Who’s gone?”

There’s a silence, and Keith doesn’t think he’s ever been so terrified, and he’s about to ask again when—

Gone, Red rumbles, as clear as if he were right in front of Keith. Gone.

“Who?” Keith demands, and even in this dream his voice cracks. “Red, please, talk to—”

He breaks off with a gasp; more bubbles bob up to the surface, but he pays them no heed, because he feels so—

—empty—

—and it occurs to him that this must be what he felt like before the lions, but it’s been so long since then, it’s been years since he’s lived without that constant comforting presence that still lingers in the back of his mind, even if he can’t hear it anymore—

—and he knows, he knows, because if he can’t hear Red then that means Red is gone, and if Red is gone then—

“Keith!”

Keith wakes up with another gasp. He stares up at Krolia, who is kneeling by him, her hand on his shoulder. She looks scared.

“You were thrashing around,” she says. “Sit up, have some water.”

Keith sits up and takes the cup on autopilot, but he doesn’t drink from it. His heart is thudding, his stomach feels sick, he feels like he can’t breathe—

“Keith.” Krolia rubs his back. “It was a nightmare. Everything is all right.”

“No it’s not,” he says automatically. He sets aside the cup and tosses off the leaf blanket. “I—I have to go.”

Krolia watches him as he gets to his feet. “Go where?” she asks, her brow crinkled.

“I don’t know,” he says. He knows he’s talking too loud, but he doesn’t know how to make it stop, not when his chest is so tight he feels like he can barely breathe. “I just—I have to—I don’t know.”

He stumbles out of the cave and without really meaning to walks all the way to the pond. He sits by the edge of the water, knees up to his chest and arms wrapped around his legs, and tries to breathe. His chest still feels tight; he curls his left hand into a fist and runs his thumb over the side of his index finger, and it helps a little, but he still feels panicky, and he thinks, fervently, that he would do anything in the universe to be able to call the others—to call Lance—to make sure that it was just a nightmare, only a nightmare, because he has a horrible, horrible feeling it might not be.

(god, why hadn’t he called, why hadn’t he visited, when he was at the Blade he could have done something, could have asked permission to see them or broke into the control room to call them or—something—but when he could have he hadn’t and now that he wants to he can’t, though he would give anything in the universe to be able to)

(being alone has never been a problem before, and he isn’t alone right now, not really, not with Krolia and Pom Pom, but it’s still—hard—because now he’s used to having people near, used to having the option of a comfortably crowded room and friendly laughter if he wants it, and now that he’s used to it he’s forgotten how he lived before he had it)

Pom Pom pads into the clearing and plops down beside him. They nudge Keith’s hip; Keith reaches down with his free hand and pats their head.

“I’m really worried,” he says.

Pom Pom makes a questioning sort of grumble and pushes their head back against Keith’s hand. Keith runs his hand through Pom Pom’s fur.

“I know it’s stupid,” Keith goes on. “It was probably just a dream. Right?”

Another grumble.

“But Red has talked to me from far away before,” he says. “So it could be real, too.” He frowns, shifts so he’s sitting cross-legged. “I wish I could talk to them to be sure.” He sighs. “I wish I could talk to them in general. Even if they can’t talk back. I just want to pretend for a while.”

Pom Pom takes advantage of Keith’s new position to put their head in Keith’s lap. Keith looks down at them and runs his hand through their fur again. Pom Pom closes their eyes and grumbles contentedly, and Keith’s chest loosens a little.

“Thanks,” he says quietly.

Pom Pom falls asleep after a few seconds, which means Keith is pretty much stuck here until they wake up. He runs his hand through Pom Pom’s fur over and over, lets the rhythm of it and the sound of Pom Pom’s snoring calm him down.

As he does so he looks around the clearing, though he pretty much has it memorized by this point. It’s early, the sun just barely rising, pale light illuminating the sort-of circular pond, the ring of absurdly tall trees surrounding it, the smaller bushes between the trees, with their purple berries and black flowers. Krolia had used her scanner the first day to check if they were safe to eat; the berries were fine, but the flowers were strange, even the smallest one leaving several thick black streaks along their fingers where they held them. To be safe they left them alone, though they were plentiful in this clearing and elsewhere on the space whale.

Something catches in Keith’s mind, nagging at him, pulling—

“Holy shit,” he says, loud enough that Pom Pom opens one eye. He scratches Pom Pom’s ear in apology. “Sorry, buddy—but I think I know how I can talk to them, even if they can’t respond.”

He looks round the clearing some more. The bark of the trees they get their giant puffy leaves from is flat and thick and scrapes off easily; they usually use it for the fire, but if he’s careful about how he does it, he could probably scrape it off in squares or rectangles.

He has ink, he has paper. He just needs a pen.

“I guess I could cut a twig and sharpen the end and dip the edge into ink,” he says.

Pom Pom’s only response is a snore.

“Yeah, exactly,” he says, nodding. “It’ll be like one of those really old-fashioned pens. Like a quill and ink.”

It takes Pom Pom another ten minutes to wake up, by which point Keith is so excited he can barely contain himself. As soon as Pom Pom lifts their head up Keith jumps to his feet and runs to the nearest tree to get to work.

.^.

“Okay,” Keith says, once he’s gathered his materials. It took him several tries to cut the pen right, but he finally has one that he thinks won’t break as soon as he puts the tip to the bark-paper. “I’m all set.”

He’s back in the clearing; he’d gone back to the cave to crush up the flowers in a bowl and give Krolia vague answers to her questions before running back out to write.

“Who should I write to?” he asks Pom Pom, who flops down on the ground beside him once more. “Do you think Lance would mind if I wrote to him?”

Pom Pom wags their tail.

“True,” Keith says. “He’d probably make fun of me.” He raises his voice, tries to imitate the up-and-down of Lance’s cadence, the cocky grin. “ ‘Hey, Mullet, I’d almost think you missed me!’”

Pom Pom grumbles.

“He’s nice,” Keith assures them. “That’s just how we are. But we still like each other.” His grin fades. “Well. I still like him. I don’t know if he still likes me. It’s been a long time since we talked.”

Pom Pom blinks.

“I’m going to write to him anyway,” Keith decides. “I think I’ll write to Shiro sometimes, too, but mostly Lance. I don’t have to worry about disappointing him if I do something shitty or if I want to complain.”

He carefully dips the tip of the pen into the bowl of ink and tests it out.

Hi, he writes at the top of the page. The pen holds up and the ink is thick but flows well; it’s a bit like writing with a really fluid pen on earth, the kind that blots easily.

He stares at the greeting. It looks basic, bare, boring. He needs to add something.

Hi sharpshooter.

Keith frowns. That sounds weird, almost—flirty. He crosses it out and stares at the page some more.

Pom Pom thumps their tail against the ground. Keith looks over at them and reaches out to scratch under their chin.

“You’re right,” he says. “I should keep it simple.”

.^.

Hi sharpshooter Lance.

I know it’s probably strange to write to you after a month, especially since I never tried to talk to any of you after I left Voltron. I’m sorry I didn’t. I’ve thought about it a lot (since there isn’t really much else to do on this stupid space whale) and I think I was scared you all didn’t actually want me to call. Does that make sense? I wasn’t a very good leader and I let you all down a lot so it was easier to just go.

I know that’s dumb now. I wish I’d talked to you all more. I think about you everyone a lot. I told Krolia (she’s my mom, long story) about everyone and she said she’ll be glad to meet you all.

There’s so much to tell you (I just realized you don’t know what the space whale is, or why it’s been a month. I wonder how long it’s been for you?) but I think I’ll save most of it for when I see you in person. I’m just worried because I had a dream that something bad happened to you and Red. It’s probably stupid to be worried about a dream but I am anyway. I really hope both of you are okay.

Pom Pom (that’s my wolf) says “grf.” Tell everyone hello from me.

Bye from Keith

.^.

Keith and Pom Pom are napping by the pond.

(snoozin’, says a voice in his head that sounds like Lance. catchin’ some z’s)

He feels his lips curve up at the thought, at the cadence of Lance’s voice echoing in his mind. He should make a list, he thinks vaguely, as his mind slips slowly into slumber. A list of things to ask Lance to say when he gets back, so he can hear him say them again, can hear the lilt and fall of his voice, the outraged squawk and the serious rasp.

He’s half asleep and trying to choose between cool ninja sharpshooter and is that a weed I’m calling the police when

THUD.

Keith’s eyes snap open. He hears cursing in Galran from the other side of the circle of trees around the pond. Pom Pom lifts their head up from beside Keith and barks.

“Don’t come in!” Keith shouts, panicked. He scrambles to his feet and looks round. He’d washed his blade suit and his boxers and left them to dry in the sun while he slept, but they’re still damp, so he yanks the giant puffy leaf he’d been sleeping on off the ground and wraps it around his waist like a towel. “I washed my clothes and they aren’t dry yet so I’m not wearing anything! Don’t come in!”

“Calm down,” Krolia says from the other side of the trees. She sounds amused. “I found some sona rocks on the other side of the whale and I was carrying them back and one of them fell on my foot. I’m not coming in, I’m just going back to the cave.”

“Oh.” Keith deflates, relieved. “Okay.”

There is a pause. Pom Pom flops back down on the ground.

“I’ve only ever seen this on TV,” Keith says.

“Seen what?”

“The—” Keith gestures at the space between himself and where he assumes she’s standing, then realizes she can’t see him. “I mean—it’s almost like—like this is our house. You know. The son did the laundry and now he’s in his room with his dog and the mom is out getting groceries. Getting food.”

There is another pause, longer this time.

“Sorry,” Keith says. He doesn’t know why he’s apologizing, but he thinks Krolia’s silence must be bad. “I’ve never—”

“I know I’ve not been the most affectionate mother,” she says abruptly, all in a rush like she’s afraid she might not say it if she goes any slower, “but when you are back in the cave, may I give you a hug?”

Keith stares at the tree.

“Uh—” He clears his throat. “Sure. Yeah.”

“Thank you,” Krolia says, very softly, and walks on toward the cave.

.^.

Hi Lance.

I hope you are okay. Today I hugged my mom for the first time. It wasn’t very good cause she’s kind of awkward about hugs and so am I. But I still liked it. I think I get it now when you said you missed your mom’s hugs so much. I hope you get to hug her soon.

You’ll probably make fun of me but I’m telling you this anyway. I have a theory that hugs feel different depending on the person. Hugging my dad was like someone catching you when you fall and hugging Shiro is like putting a warm blanket around your shoulders when you’re cold and hugging Pidge is like a puppy pulling at your leg to get you to come play a game. I haven’t figured out how to describe what hugging Allura and Hunk are like yet but those feel different too.

I wonder what

Do you think maybe we could

Anyway that’s all from me. If you make fun of me after reading my hug theory that’s okay. I’ll just find something to make fun of you back for.

Tell everyone hello from me.

Bye from Keith

.^.

(hugging Krolia is like calling Shiro sir or Allura princess)

(they’re close, they’re okay, but there’s still stiffness, still formality, still that something that he can’t seem to get past, no matter how much he considers them his family)

(but despite his stiffness, despite his formality, they take him just as he is, put their arms around him and laugh with him and care about him)

(he thinks he’ll be hugging Krolia more often from now on)

.^.

“We should probably make new clothes,” Krolia says during the second month.

Keith agrees. It’s tiresome to keep washing his suit every few days, and even though he does the backwards-frontwards-inside-out rotation with his boxers, he kind of wishes he had more underwear as well.

“I’m not one for sewing, though,” Krolia continues, frowning. “And I’m not sure what we’d even sew with.”

Keith looks round the cave. There’s remnants of a sona rock they’d smashed yesterday to get fruit for dinner; he sifts through the shards of rock and finds a tiny sliver.

“This could be a needle,” he says. “We can use pul stems as thread, maybe? And leaves from the trees by the sona rock quarry as fabric.” He thinks for a moment. “They won’t be very good, but I could try to make us dresses and shirts and shorts.”

“You can sew?” Krolia asks, surprised.

“Shiro taught me,” he says. “I’m not great at it but I can manage.”

They spend the day gathering materials. Krolia cuts the leaves with her knife and Keith splits the long soft pul stems into thread.

“It’ll be a few days before anything is done,” he warns, as he settles in after dinner to start sewing. Krolia sits against the opposite wall as usual, watching him work with an oddly proud expression. “I’m kind of slow at it.”

“That’s fine,” Krolia assures him. “It’s not as though we have anything better to do here.”

Keith is quiet for a moment, trying to get into the rhythm of sewing before trusting himself to talk at the same time. These leaves feel like sheets; it’d be weird to wear, but at least better than the puffy ones they use as blankets. After a few minutes he says, “Lance could probably make a whole suit in the time it’d take me to make a sleeve.”

“Could he now?” Krolia says. She’s using that voice again, the one where Keith knows she thinks she’s being sneaky even though she definitely is not.

“Yeah,” Keith says, because he’s not going to let his embarrassment keep him from talking about Lance. “He prefers knitting to sewing, though. A month before I left Voltron we went back to Arus and he made tiny sweaters for all the Arusians on the ruling council.”

“He sounds like a nice boy.”

“He is,” Keith agrees, “most of the time.” He frowns at a stitch and pauses to fix it. “Once we got a huge cash reward from the ruler of a planet we freed and he spent all of his share on presents to give out when we visit kids’ hospitals.”

He tells her more about Lance, about his dumb dorky dancing and how competitive he is at Killbot Phantasm I and the time he ate an entire burnt Mishtan pie because he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the Mishtan citizen who gave it to him during a parade.

After a while he grows quiet. Krolia watches him sew for a minute, then:

“It took me six months to tell your father that I liked him.”

Keith feels heat creep up his neck. He’s okay with talking about Lance, he’s okay with Krolia using the sneaky-not-sneaky voice, he’s even okay with her hidden smiles when he goes on for too long about something cool or goofy that Lance does—but he’s not really sure he’s okay with talking directly about this, not yet.

“Oh” is all he says, focusing on his sewing with unprecedented determination.

“It might not sound like very long, but considering we were living in the same house, and considering I only met two other people during that time, it’s ridiculous it took me that long.”

“Oh,” Keith says again.

There is another pause.

“I wish I had told him sooner,” Krolia says, and any hint of teasing is gone from her voice, and it’s just—sad, and wistful, and regretful.

Keith puts down the needle and looks at her.

“I left you and your father because I wanted to protect the ones I love,” Krolia goes on. “But now—after our mission, and our time in this rift so far—I wonder if it’s better to work together than to stay apart.”

“That’s what Shiro always tells me,” Keith says. “He says that if you love someone they make you stronger, not weaker, so you should stay together no matter what.” He looks away, discomfort and guilt twisting his stomach, though he can’t quite articulate the source of it. “I—have trouble remembering that.”

(trouble remembering that, and confusion that Shiro didn’t remind him of that before he left, confusion that Shiro had let him leave for the Blade of Marmora, confusion that he hadn’t hugged him, and ruffled his hair in the way that Keith pretends to hate but secretly doesn’t mind that much, and said where do you think you’re going, kiddo? we’re stronger together)

“You miss them,” Krolia says, without preamble.

“Yeah,” Keith says. “Even stuff I thought I’d be glad to not have to deal with anymore, like—like Hunk would turn off the electricity sometimes by accident while doing maintenance, and Pidge would try to steal my dessert, and Shiro always takes naps in the lounge and snores really loud when I’m trying to read—”

He breaks off, too abruptly, unable to stand talking about all these things he used to hate and now holds dear.

“You’ll see them again,” Krolia says firmly. “We’ll make sure of it.”

Keith picks up the needle.

“I hope so,” he says, and returns to sewing.

.^.

Hi Lance.

It’s been almost two months. I hope you are okay. Though I guess for you it hasn’t been two months. But I still hope you are okay.

Today I tried to teach Pom Pom to roll over. It mostly succeeded. Sometimes they do it but sometimes they just stare at me and sometimes they flop down and go to sleep. I’m going to keep trying, though. I found some of their favorite leaves nearby so I’m going to use them as treats to see if that will motivate them.

This morning I went to the pond to bathe and an animal that looked like a raccoon tried to steal my blade suit. I had to chase him down in my boxers and I think he might have been laughing at me. Do you think alien raccoons think human underpants are funny? I bet you’d make a lot of jokes about that if you were here. I bet you’d make fun of me a lot.

I wish

I kind of miss

I don’t think I minded it when you made fun of me. Not as much as I thought I did. I kind of wish I could hear you make

It’s my turn to make dinner so I have to go. Tell everyone hello from me.

Bye from Keith

.^.

Keith finishes the first item of clothing in a little over a week. It’s much faster than he’d expected, though he supposes it helps that he doesn’t have much else to do besides train and play with Pom Pom and read terrible Galran novels.

“Okay,” Keith says, holding up the finished product. “Here you go.”

Krolia takes the dress. She goes out of the cave to change and comes back a few minutes later.

Keith takes one look at her and bursts into laughter.

“It’s not that bad,” she says, sounding caught between resignation and amusement. She looks down at herself and sighs. “Or maybe it is. Green is not my color.”

The collar is crooked, a diagonal slash rather than a neat circle; the left sleeve reaches her elbow, while the right one reaches halfway down her forearm; and the dress is much too long, the hem dragging on the ground and covering Krolia’s feet.

“I’m—I’m sorry—” Keith manages between cackles. Consciously he knows it isn’t this funny, but he hasn’t laughed in a while, and he’s so pleased to be laughing that he feels like he can’t stop. “I just—sorry—”

“Do I really look that silly?” Krolia asks. She lifts up the dress a little so she can walk forward without tripping over the hem. “I haven’t seen anyone laugh this much since your father tried to teach me to dance.”

At length Keith catches his breath. Krolia sits down in her usual spot.

“Dad taught you to dance?” he asks.

“He tried,” Krolia corrects, with a small smile. “It was not a successful endeavor. Apparently elegance in fighting does not transfer to dancing. But your father loved music.”

“I know,” Keith says.

(He remembers the first time he’d seen it, when he was very young)

(He’d woken up from his nap to find his dad cooking dinner while listening to an old Japanese cassette, singing along loudly)

(He had run forward, excited by the music and his dad’s good mood, and his dad had picked him up, and held him with one arm, rocking back and forth as he stirred the pot with his free hand)

(Keith had tried to sing along, though he didn’t know any of the words, and his dad had laughed his big rumbling laugh, and told him that he sounds like a white boy, his grandfather would be so disappointed)

“Did you ever learn Japanese?” Keith asks.

“A little,” Krolia says. “Your father learnt Galran very quickly so we mostly spoke in that and English. But by the time you were born I could understand Japanese conversationally.”

“Can you understand what I am saying?” Keith asks in Japanese.

Krolia looks embarrassed. “I’ve forgotten most of it,” she admits.

“Oh.” Keith frowns, rubs at a spot of dirt on his blade suit. “I’m afraid I’ll forget it. When I was with Voltron I talked it to Shiro and the lions, but since then I haven’t used it much.”

“You can use it with me,” she suggests. “I’ll try to re-learn it. And you can talk to Pom Pom in it, too.”

“That’s a good idea.” He looks at Pom Pom, who is sleeping in a patch of sun just outside the cave. “Is that okay with you, buddy?” he asks in Japanese.

Pom Pom sweeps their tail along the ground but doesn’t open their eyes.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Keith says in English. He turns to Krolia. “I want to learn Galran, too.”

“No time like the present,” Krolia says. “Which language shall we start with?”

.^.

Hi Shiro.

I hope you are doing well. Sorry I haven’t written to you yet. I’ve just been writing to Lance (I can already see you laughing at me but don’t bother. Krolia makes fun of me enough).

Krolia is my mom. I’ll tell you about it when we meet in person again. I was kind of upset at first but we talked and we’re okay now. But don’t worry. Even though I like her and will probably love her someday I still love you best.

I don’t ever I ever told you that. But I do love you. I hope I get to say it to you in person. I told Krolia about everything you’ve done for me and I realized I’ve never properly thanked you for it. I know you’ll say there’s no need to thank you but I’m doing it anyway.

So thank you. I was really lost and I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t see how things could improve. But then you took care of me and gave me a family. You’re my big brother and you never give up on me and I don’t know where I’d be without you. I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell him it’ll be okay because soon I’ll meet you.

This is really sappy. You’ll probably go “aw, Akira” when you read this and hug me. And then you’ll try to ruffle my hair even though I scowl at you whenever you do it. But just this one time I’ll try not to scowl.

I have to go because Pom Pom (my wolf) is trying to eat my shoe. But I hope I will see you soon and I hope I can make you proud so the time you put into helping me pays off.

Bye from Keith

p.s. I’ve been teaching Krolia Japanese and so far she’s good at remembering vocabulary but her accent is shit. I know it’s rude to say that so I’m writing it here so I won’t say it out loud to her. Don’t get mad okay I promise I’m not going to actually say that to her.

Bye again from Keith

.^.

Hi Lance.

I hope you are okay. Today a pack of these rhino-like animals tried to come into our cave. Pom Pom scared away the smaller ones but three big rhinos knocked them aside and came straight for us. Krolia was going to kill them but I told her it’d be better to scare them away instead. They didn’t try to attack us some of the other animals that we’ve run into. They were probably just hungry or scared or curious.

I noticed they avoided patches of these leaves that Pom Pom really likes so we put them around our cave-house and the rhinos went away after sniffing around for a while. Now I just have to train Pom Pom not to eat our only protection. That might be harder than fighting rhinos.

It’s kind of strange. When they knocked Pom Pom aside they yelped really loud (don’t worry, they’re okay) and I was so angry I thought I could kill them with my bare hands. But then I thought of what Shiro or you would do and I realized it’s best to try to get rid of them peacefully.

I guess I’m more patient now. Though I did smash a sona rock (they have fruit crystallized inside) against the cave wall because I got annoyed with how long it takes to pry it open with a knife. So maybe I’m not that patient.

Shiro would be proud of me, though. I think you would be too.

I have to go now. Pom Pom is trying to eat the leaves again and they don’t always listen to Krolia. Tell everyone hello from me.

Bye from Keith

.^.

(there are a lot of good days)

(the day he hears Krolia laugh for the first time, when he reads aloud the corny dialogue from the Galran romance he’d downloaded on his tablet)

(the day Pom Pom teleports for the first time, vanishing from Krolia’s lap to Keith’s when he comes back into the cave after going to collect kindling)

(the day Krolia finally cooks an entire meal with burning it, and Keith compliments it in his best cooking show judge voice, and Krolia spends the next hour telling him about the first time she and his dad went out to dinner, the funny disguise she wore and the absurd way his dad excused her odd mannerisms to the confused waiter)

(the day they get snowed in the cave, and spend hours in companionable silence, until Krolia finally says did you know you were born in your father’s house and Keith says what the fuck, and they stay up half the night as she tells him about the day he was born, how she and his dad had a competition for the next week afterward over which name was better, Keith or Yorak, how the first picture they took of him was one of him sitting in his dad’s firefighter hat like it was a bucket)

(the day he’s telling Krolia about one of the missions he lead after Shiro disappeared, and he realizes that he can think of his time as Black Paladin not as a blip in an otherwise seamless line of leadership, but as a time of learning, and growing, and relying on his friends and his team without feeling guilty)

(the day he wakes up from a nightmare, tears on his cheeks and chest heaving, and Krolia wakes up too, sits up with him and rubs his back and pushes his hair away from his face, and—sings—gently, though not very well—sings a song he’s heard in dreams, in a language he always thought was unfamiliar, but that he now understands well enough to catch the nonsense made-up lullaby of a mother trying to get her child to sleep: shh, my star-baby, shh, your mama is here, shh)

(there are a lot of good days, but there are also—bad days—)

.^.

Hi Lance.

Today marks one year since we got here and I hate this so fucking much

I miss

I want

It won’t matter because when we get back only a few months will have passed but I’ll still be older and I’m scared what if by the time we get back I’m fucking forty or something

Today I didn’t do much. I felt kinda shitty so I just went and lay by the pond most of the day and stared at nothing. Pom Pom came and sat with me for a while and that made me feel better.

I hope you are okay. Sometimes I think about what you all are doing. I’m going to guess and then you can tell me if I’m right. I bet you’re playing Killbot Phantasm with Pidge and Matt and you’re losing really badly but you’re trash talking them anyway. And then they start making fun of you but that’s their mistake because you’re actually really good at that game once you get into the hang of it. But they underestimate you so you come in at the last second and win the game. And then you do your dumb victory dance where you rotate side to side with your fists to your chest and you lift up each of your feet.

Am I right? I bet I am.

I hope one day I’ll know for sure if I’m right. I want to see your dumb victory dance again.

Tell everyone hello from me.

Bye from Keith

.^.

(—there are a lot of good days, but there are also bad days, because he misses them—)

(—so much so much so much dear god so much—)

(—and he feels like it’ll eat him alive like it’ll burn him into embers cinders ashes smoke until he’s nothing but wind—)

(—nothing but wind that can travel out of this goddamn rift and through the starry vastness of space—

(—until he reaches them until he can wrap around them in a gust in a breeze in a hug made of air until this horrible awful empty cavern inside of him is full until his heart feels like it might beat right out of his chest until it no longer feels like every breath is a burden until it feels like every breath is a blessing because he is close and happy and loved—)

(—there are a lot of good days, but there are also bad days, because he misses them—)

(—so much so much dear god so much—)

(—he dreams of them sometimes and when he wakes he’s so angry so angry—)

(—he’s so tired of being on this fucking space whale in this fucking rift he wants a real bed and a real meal and real clothes and real books and real friends—)

(—there are a lot of good days, but there are also bad days, because he misses them—)

(—so much so much dear god so much—)

(—he loves his mother but he loves them too why can’t he have both—)

(—why can he only have one or the other why can’t he have his mother and his brothers and his sisters and his uncle and his best friend why does he only ever have a few people he loves at a time first his dad then his brother then the paladins then his mother why can’t he have them all at once—)

(—there are a lot of good days, but there are also bad days, because he misses them—)

(—so—much—)

(—so much—)

(—dear god so much—)

(—and every night he goes to sleep and thinks tomorrow this mission will end and every morning he wakes up and thinks today this mission will end but it never does it never does it never never never does and he—just—wants—to—go—home)

.^.

Hi Lance.

I hope you are okay. Sorry I haven’t written in so long. There wasn’t really much to tell you so I thought it’d be dumb. But maybe you’d want to hear it anyway. You always pay attention whenever any of us talk to you about stuff, even if it’s boring.

Pom Pom is really big now. Krolia says it’s because I feed them too many of those leaves they like. I know I shouldn’t spoil them but whenever I tell them no they make their eyes really big and round and I end up giving them everything anyway.

I don’t think I ever told you what they look like. Here is a sketch:

[sketch]

I’ve tried to make different colored ink but so far the only one that works is black, so you’ll have to imagine the color. They’re mostly different shades of blue. It reminds me of your armor.

I wish I had colorful ink. It’s nice to be able to draw but it would be nice to color stuff in too. I forgot what color your eyes Hunk’s headband was the other day. I drew everybody a while ago so I wouldn’t forget what you all look like and yesterday I wrote down all the colors in the margins of each drawing as best as I could remember. Are your eyes light brown or dark brown Is Hunk’s headband yellow or orange?

I don’t know why I’m asking. It’s not like you can answer. It’s not like you can answer any of this or any of these letters. I don’t why I fucking bother. This is stupid.

Bye from Keith

.^.

(does Pidge sit cross-legged in chairs?)

(does Hunk twiddle his thumbs when he’s nervous?)

(does Allura write with her left hand or her right?)

(does Coran separate his food when he eats?)

(does Shiro hug him then ruffle his hair or ruffle his hair then hug him?)

(does Lance wink when he does finger guns at him?)

(why can’t he remember why can’t he remember why can’t he remember)

(he stares at his drawings, stares as if the force of his gaze will bring them to life and cause his friends to jump off the bark-paper and into the cave, so he can remember their voices and their mannerisms and the exact color of Lance’s eyes)

(but they don’t, and he shoves the drawings under his ever-growing stack of letters, and he tells Krolia that he’s going for a run, as if any amount of running can catch him up to what he’s forgotten)

.^.

Lance it’s been eighteen fucking months and I’m so fucking scared we’ll never be done here and we’ll be stuck on this fucking space whale in the middle of a fucking rift for the rest of my fucking life and then I’ll die and you won’t even fucking notice because for you it’ll be barely a few months and no one will fucking care and

.^.

Toward the end of the second year the days start to blur together. Even Krolia, who Keith had kind of assumed is some sort of supermom-Galra who never gets tired or hopeless, is starting to wilt. She’s quieter, gets frustrated more easily, goes to each end of the space whale often to check for any sign of reaching the other side of the rift.

Keith tries to keep busy, plays with Pom Pom and goes for runs and tries to come up with new maneuvers with his Galra knife, draws and writes and re-reads those goddamn Galra novels for the hundredth time.

But he feels himself sinking, feels himself slipping into something he hasn’t felt in a long time, feels how often he spends lying in the grass by the pond, staring blankly at the fake sky. Pom Pom sits with him, noses at his hand and puts their head on his chest. It helps a little, but he still lies there for hours, still stares at nothing, still wishes he could at least be angry about something, because anger is better than this—emptiness.

.^.

Hi Lance.

I wish you were here

I wish I was with you

I don’t remember what you sound like when you say my name

I wish I could hear you say ‘Mullet’ again

I miss you so much I miss

.^.

(and then—finally—finally—)

.^.

Hi Lance.

I hope you are okay. After two years we got through the rift and we found an Altean. Her name is Romelle and she says she has information about Lotor so we’re bringing her back to the castle ship in an Altean pod. She’s resting right now so we’re going to ask her more about it once she wakes up.

I’m really glad

I can’t wait

This is going to be my last letter because I’ll get to see everyone soon. I don’t know if I’ll actually give these to you or not. Part of me wants to but I don’t know. I haven’t talked to you at all since I left Voltron. I don’t know if you’re the same anymore. Or if you even still consider me your friend.

I hope we’re still friends. Shiro’s my brother and I love him but he’s so much older and he took care of me growing up so it’s kind of hard to talk to him about stuff sometimes. He did so much for me when I was younger so I don’t want to disappoint him or make him worry. But with you it’s different. If I fuck up I don’t feel like I’m disappointing you because I know you’ll be there to help me out.

But maybe you won’t anymore. I don’t know. I’d get it if you were tired of it. I had way too much time to think on that stupid space whale and I realized I never really did anything for you in return. Do you remember when you asked me about stepping down because there are too many paladins? I’ve gone over that conversation in my head a hundred times and I hate it every time. I should have said something different. Something more. I don’t know what. But I feel like it didn’t help you much and I never asked you about it again or did anything to make you feel better. I just left. And I’m really sorry.

I hope I can be a better friend to you when I get back. When I see you again I want to give you a hug. Is that okay? I’ll ask you first in case it’s not. And I guess that depends on whether you even still want us to be friends.

Krolia just came to say Romelle is awake so I have to go. Hopefully whatever news she has about Lotor is something we can fix. Even if it’s big we’ll all be together again so I know we can face whatever comes.

See you soon.

Bye from Keith

.^.

(it’ll be like a movie)

(the paladins will be lined up in the hangar, and he’ll jump down from the ship, and for a long beat he’ll just look at them, look at these faces he’s only seen in ink for the past two years, re-learn the shape of Shiro’s smile and the curl of Allura’s hair and the way Coran clasps his hands, re-learn the hugeness of Pidge’s glasses and the color of Hunk’s headband and the way Lance tilts his head)

(he’ll look at them, and then he’ll run forward, and he’ll stop halfway, because he’ll remember how long it’s been, how he never called, how they have the right to be mad at him for cutting himself off from them)

(but then Lance will run forward too, will beam at him and throw out his arms, and Keith will know it’s okay, that they understand, that even though he’s going to do everything he can to make it up to them they aren’t really mad at him, and he’ll run forward again, and collide with Lance so hard they’ll fall over, and they’ll knock their foreheads together but they’ll laugh anyway, hugging while collapsed on the floor)

(then Shiro will come hug him, and Allura, and Coran, and Pidge, and Hunk, and in the midst of everything he’ll look at Lance, and his heart will stutter, then settle, because he’ll remember again what shade of brown his eyes are)

(but then Romelle talks of Lotor, and genocide, and harvesting Alteans; and Krolia talks of betrayal, and the princess, and the need for urgency; and Keith realizes that his heart has no time for stuttering and settling, only sinking and turning to stone, until this is over, until he can make it soft again)

(there is nothing he is not good at, if not setting aside his own happiness to make sure the ones he loves are safe)

.^.

He sets aside his own happiness, but now he brings it forward again, lets their victory and Shiro’s revival and the drying of Lance’s tears spread through him, until it feels like the sun rising over the horizon is rising within him too, shining bright in the center of his chest like a talisman, compounded by the knowledge that they’re going home.

He crouches by Shiro, who’s sitting up, blinking blearily at the growing sunlight. Keith hugs him tight—Shiro makes a startled noise, then laughs and puts his arm around him—then Pidge plops down and hugs Shiro from the other side, her small hands pressing down on Keith’s as if to say I’m happy both of you are back. Then Hunk sweeps up all of them together, then Allura, then Coran, then—

—then Lance, and Keith loses his balance a bit, and falls back, but Lance catches him as he always catches him, and it’s—overwhelming—half hugged, half caught—Lance’s chest pressed against his back, his arms wrapped around Keith’s shoulders as he hugs everyone.

“I’m—” Keith breaks off, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. “I’m really glad to see you all again.”

Pidge’s hands press down on his a second time, and Shiro’s arm tightens around him, and Hunk sniffles, and Allura sighs, and Coran says, “It’s good to have you back, Number Four!”

And Lance—

Lance bends his head until his forehead rests against Keith’s shoulder, very gently.

“We’re glad to see you, too,” he says, and it’s—right near Keith’s ear—his breath blowing softly against Keith’s neck—and he hadn’t noticed it before but his voice is deeper than Keith remembers, rougher somewhat, a little raspy, makes Keith think of late nights and sleepy mornings, whispering as the moon shines outside a window, mumbling good morning as the sun rises.

He feels his face heat, and he tries to look away to hide it, but then Lance is saying I think Shiro can’t breathe, we should probably let go of him now, saying Pidge that’s my foot, stop stomping on it, saying Allura that was amazing, I can’t believe you’ve brought back two people from the dead, and there’s no escaping the sound of Lance’s voice, and he’s left feeling flustered anyway, and despite the comfort of the group hug he finds himself relieved when it disbands.

.^.

The journey home is going to be difficult.

“A mess,” Hunk groans.

“An adventure!” Coran declares.

“A road trip,” Pidge says, adjusting her glasses. “I guess that could be fun.”

The team agrees to rest on this planet for a few vargas so they can eat and relax after the battle before heading onwards. Coran pulls up a hologram of a map and indicates their route. They’ll be able to stop on an actual planet every few days and in between they’ll have to sleep in their lions.

“The first third of our journey should take about forty quintants, give or take a handful,” Coran says, “after which it will depend on what route we take. For this first third it looks like we’ll be able to stop at Puig, Olkarion, and Chandin, as well as these planets designed for interstellar travellers and equipped with rest stops and inns.” He points them out on the map. “There are more isolated planets between those where we can stop as well, though we’ll have to rely on our own food and sleeping bags.” He points at a patch of space between Olkarion and Chandin. “This is what I’m most concerned about; there don’t seem to be any places for us to stop during this whole stretch right here. There’s only this planet”—he points one out—“but it’s full of water and ice so it’ll be hard to land on.”

Lance peers at the map. “I think that’s where the mermaids that me and Hunk helped out are,” he says after a moment. “We should be able to get supplies from them.”

“Excellent!” Coran claps his hands together. “We’re all set!”

After that the group splits up. Coran and Allura talk to Romelle about the colony and Pidge and Hunk go off to call Matt. Shiro joins the latter.

“Technically I haven’t seen Matt since we were captured,” he says, a bit wryly, and it occurs to Keith with a jolt just how much Shiro’s missed, “so I’d like to say hi to him.”

After he walks off, Krolia turns to Keith. “Are you hurt?”

He shakes his head. Krolia reaches out and runs her thumb over his cheek, an odd expression on her face.

“You have a naztil now,” she says. “Or—half of one. A little less than half.”

Keith frowns. “A what?”

Krolia indicates her own marks. “Some of the Galra have these,” she says. “It’s meant to interrupt your appearance, to prevent the evil eye.” The corner of her mouth turns up. “I’m guessing you changed sometime during your fight?”

Keith nods. He isn’t sure how he feels about it yet; part of him is worried that it happened with no prompting from him, but another part of him, the part of him that reads fantasy novels in one sitting and has all the big hero moments half memorized, thinks it’s kind of cool.

“We’ll talk about that,” Krolia assures him. “I’ve met other mixed Galra with similar experiences and there’s a way to control it. You don’t have to worry about accidentally hurting someone if you change.” She runs her thumb over his cheek again, her smile growing. “I’m very proud of you.”

He smiles back. He knows he’s not supposed to want to hug his mom in public—every TV show he’s seen makes it seem like it’s embarrassing—but he’s with his friends, and in a good mood, and she hadn’t been part of the group hug earlier, so he steps forward and hugs her.

She returns it, albeit awkwardly—neither of him have improved much at hugs in the past couple years—then lets go and says she will go talk to Shiro.

“I’d like to thank the real version of the man who raised you,” she says. Keith watches her walk over to him, watches Shiro turn away from the tablet to greet her, and as they shake hands it occurs to him that this is the first time in his memory that he’s had more than one family member at once.

It’s a weird feeling, but he likes it.

He doesn’t think he really belongs in any of the groups talking right now, so he wanders off with the vague intention of examining the landscape. Pom Pom is sniffing curiously at the space mice, who stand their guard despite looking terrified; he gives them a stern warning to play nice, then walks past them and to the edge of the cliff the lions had landed on.

The sunrise casts soft pinkish light over the landscape, which appears to be populated only by small animals. At the bottom of the cliff Keith can see tiny balls of fluff hopping around in some grass. They look like sentient rabbit tails. It’s a pretty picture, and very peaceful, with the sunlight in front of him and the murmur of everyone’s conversations a few feet away, but it feels—off. Keith’s brow furrows; he looks at the landscape, back at the others, at the lions, at—

Oh.

He frowns at Lance, who’s sitting on the opposite side of the Red Lion at the edge of the cliff. He’s taken off the top part of his armor, which rests on the rock behind him as he swings his legs over the side of the cliff. He’s watching the sunrise the way Keith is, and he’s—quiet.

Keith’s frown deepens. He walks over and around Red’s paw and comes to a stop by Lance, who looks up.

“Hi,” he says, then goes back to staring at the sunrise.

Keith’s stomach churns. He would have expected Lance to be talking nonstop, to be excited for the trip, to join in on the call with Matt or try to get to know Romelle and Krolia or play games with Pom Pom. How long has he been gone that Lance is quiet, and serious, and sits alone away from everyone else to stare blankly at the sky?

“Is it okay if I sit down?” Keith asks finally.

Lance makes a vague motion for him to do so. Keith sits to his right so he won’t get between him and Red. It’s uncomfortable sitting in so much armor, so Keith unclasps the top part the way Lance had and sets it on the rock beside Lance’s. For a long minute neither of them speak, then:

“Sorry I was an asshole earlier,” Keith says.

Lance turns his head to face him. His forehead is crinkled.

“When I got back,” Keith clarifies. “I shouldn’t have brushed you off like that. We were in a hurry but that isn’t an excuse to be rude.”

Lance shrugs and goes back to facing the sunrise. “I get it,” he says, and he sounds so quiet, and so flat, and the dullness of it makes Keith want to punch something, because Lance should never sound like that. “It’s fine.”

“No it’s not,” Keith insists. “Here.”

He holds out his hand. Lance turns to him once more, stares at his hand for a second, then puts his own hand in it.

They shake. Lance’s hand is warm.

“It’s very good to be see you again, Mr Red Paladin Sir,” Keith says, in his best black-paladin-at-diplomatic-meeting voice. It’s a stupid voice, a cross between pompous blowhard and GPS announcer, but it makes the corner of Lance’s mouth turn up, so it’s worth it.

“Ditto, Mr Black Paladin Sir,” Lance says, and it’s livelier, a bit more like his usual self, and Keith’s stomach stops feeling so unsettled.

“Ditto?” Keith repeats, arching an eyebrow. “Is that how you talk at diplomatic meetings?”

The smile tugging at Lance’s mouth grows, though it’s still too crooked to be a proper one yet. “Most officials say my lack of formality is charming.”

Everything about you is charming, Keith’s brain adds unhelpfully.

(you’re still holding hands, adds another part of his brain)

His neck feels hot; he lets go. Lance blinks, as if just now realizing they’d still been holding hands, and drops his hand into his lap. His ears are red.

“Um.” Keith clears his throat. “Is it okay if I say hi to Red?”

“You don’t need my permission,” Lance says.

“Yeah I do,” Keith says. “He’s your lion. I can’t just talk to another man’s lion without his approval.”

Lance’s smile widens fractionally more, and it’s so close to being a real one, and Keith thinks hurriedly for something else to say, funny or dramatic or unexpected—

“It’s basically adultery,” he says, as seriously as he can, and Lance snorts, and ducks his head, and when he lifts it again he’s smiling properly, big and bright and open-mouthed, and Keith feels like he’s won the fucking lottery, like he could singlehandedly fight every monster in the universe.

“Your idea of the lion-paladin relationship sounds kinda unhealthy,” Lance points out, still smiling. “You should be able to trust your lion around another person.”

“Absolutely not,” Keith says sternly. “My lion is mine. No one else can talk to them without my permission.”

“Possessive,” Lance remarks. His smile is a grin now. “I should have known you’d be the jealous type.” He leans back on his palms, tipping his head towards Red. “Hey, handsome, what do you think? You wanna talk?”

There’s a beat of silence, then:

“Go for it,” Lance says.

Keith looks up at Red. Hi, he thinks at him.

No, Red replies.

Keith blinks. Lance is watching him intently.

Mad, Red rumbles. Silent treatment.

How is it silent treatment if you’re talking to me? Keith asks, perplexed.

Have to tell you about silent treatment, Red explains.

“Oh my god,” Keith says aloud, laughing a little. Lance gives him a questioning look.

Not funny, Red rumbles, the scowl in his voice evident. Serious. Very mad. Left without saying bye. Never visited. Rude to Leandro.

I told him I’m sorry, Keith says, contrite. And I’m sorry to you, too.

Hmph.

“He’s mad at me for leaving,” Keith explains to Lance, whose expression clears.

“He’s just being petty,” Lance assures him, and Keith is pretty sure Red transmits his outraged huff to both of them, because Lance snickers before saying, with feigned seriousness, “He sunk into a deep despair after you left. He just wants to make you work for his friendship again.”

(feigned seriousness, and yet—)

(maybe it’s a bit genuine too—)

(and Keith wonders if the prickling in his chest is because Lance really isn’t just talking about Red right now or because of his own guilt, but then he forgets it entirely, because sunk into a deep despair reminds him of drowning, of sinking through water as silvery smoke is pulled out of his mouth, of the impetus for years of letters—)

He looks up at Red once more.

I know you’re mad, and again, I’m really sorry, he says, but I need to know: did you talk to me while I was gone? Like in a dream or something?

There is a long pause. Lance is frowning at him again, but Keith keeps looking at Red, willing him to respond.

Yes, Red says finally, his rumble soft, almost sad. Did talk. Sorry gave you bad dream.

Was it just a dream? Keith asks.

No, Red replies, then, anticipating Keith’s next question, Will not tell. Must ask Leandro.

Another pause, then:

Glad you are back, Red says, more of a purr than a rumble, then, quickly, as if embarrassed by the admission, But still mad. Go away. Back to silent treatment.

Keith chuckles. “He’s okay now,” he reports to Lance, filing away Red’s information for later. He has a feeling that whatever that dream was isn’t good, and right now, sitting with Lance in the pale morning light, he doesn’t want anything but good things to touch them. “He’s not really mad anymore.”

“He forgives easily,” Lance says, smiling, and the prickling is back in Keith’s chest, though it’s not quite so unpleasant.

“I’ll still try to make it up to him,” he says firmly. “He deserves it.”

Lance’s smile widens. He leans forward, and the prickling in Keith’s chest gives way to butterflies, fluttering wildly in his stomach, and oh wow has Lance always had this many freckles, has he always had eyelashes that long, has he—

Lance pokes his cheek, right over the Galra mark. Keith blinks.

“I can’t believe you and your mom have matching face tattoos now,” he says, and it’s so fucking dumb, but it’s exactly the kind of dumb thing Keith has longed to hear, and before he knows what he’s doing he’s surging forward, almost knocking Lance back against Red’s paw, and throwing his arms around him.

A split second later he realizes what he’s done, and he starts to pull away, his face burning—but then Lance hugs him back, holds him so tight Keith can’t breathe, though that might just be his own doing, his own inability to inhale when he’s so close to Lance—and it’s so different from the hug earlier, partly because they aren’t wearing all their armor so he can actually press close, but also because this is just them, this is Lance’s arms wrapped around him and Lance’s face pressed against his shoulder and Lance’s chest pressed to his own and Lance

He takes in a breath, big and sudden and gulping, and he feels Lance do the same, and he gets the dangerous feeling one or both of them might start crying, which is the exact opposite of what Keith wants to do right now, because they are together, in the pale morning light, holding each other so tightly Keith feels like they might never let go, and nothing but good things should touch them.

He squeezes Lance even tighter, tries to squeezes out the sadness and the separation and the ache of missing him, tries to convey the words sticking in the throat, the I missed you and the I’m so glad to see you and the I never want to be apart from you ever again. He doesn’t know if Lance gets it, and it’s so fucking annoying, because he can give orders now, can get the Black Lion to trust him, can tell his team—his family—that he’s happy to be back, but he can’t say it to Lance, not specifically, can’t say it to the person he wants to say it to most, the person who needs to hear it most.

He frowns into Lance’s neck, frustrated—and then he realizes. He lets go of Lance and scrambles to his feet.

“Wait here,” he says, to a clearly confused Lance, and runs to the Black Lion, tripping a little in his haste. He bursts inside, makes a beeline for the box holding his clothes, and takes out his Blade suit. He digs through the pockets, then pulls out a thick stack of paper, folded carefully so it won’t tear. He sifts through the stack—drawings of the paladins he sets aside, the few letters to Shiro he sets aside—until he has a decent size stack left, all letters to Lance.

He stares at them, chewing his lower lip. What if it’s dumb? What if Lance makes fun of him? The fact that he wrote to him, the sheer number of letters, the—the stupid fucking crossed-out lines, dear god, why didn’t Keith do a better job of blotting those out, maybe he can do it now before giving them to Lance—

He shakes his head at himself, tightens his grip on the letters.

“No,” he says aloud, sternly. “Just do it.”

He folds up the letters and marches out of the Black Lion, back to where Lance is sitting.

“These are for you,” Keith says, holding them out before he can lose his nerve.

Lance’s gaze flicks from his face, to the letters, back to Keith’s face. He takes the packet, slowly.

“What are they?”

“Letters,” Keith says.

Lance’s brow crinkles again.

“Don’t read them now,” Keith goes on. “Wait until later. When you’re by yourself.”

Lance looks at the letters again, then up at him, and he looks right into Keith’s eyes, and Keith is bowled over again by the force of it, by the way his heart stutters, then settles, because in the pale morning light he finally sees—the brown—

(dark brown, his mind whispers, delighted and relieved. dark brown dark brown dark brown dark brown dark brown)

(calm the fuck down, says another part of his mind, though it’s not as intense, unable to be angry when his fingers are itching to run back to the lion, to take out the drawings of his friends, to write DARK BROWN next to Lance’s eyes, so he’ll never forget, never again)

“Okay,” Lance says finally, and Keith blinks, brought back to the present with a jolt. “I’ll wait.”

Keith nods, for no reason other than not knowing what else to do, and sits back down next to Lance. They sit in silence for a while, though it’s not uncomfortable this time; it reminds Keith of how they used to sit in the lounge of the castle ship, months and months and months ago, Keith reading a book and Lance playing a game on his tablet.

(it hits him, with a peculiar pang, that they’ll never do that again. there is no more castle ship, no more lounge, no more curved couch for him to sprawl on while Lance stretches out on the other side. there will be another, but it won’t be the same, won’t have their memories imprinted onto it the way the old one did)

He takes a deep breath and wills the thought away. It is early morning, Lance is beside him, the rest of his friends and family are only a few feet behind him. Only good things should touch them right now.

Both of them are sitting with their legs hanging over the side of the cliff, so he knocks the side of his foot against Lance’s, gently. Lance knocks back, and as Keith makes to knock back Lance swings his foot sideways again, so they both meet in the middle, boots ramming together with a thud.

They both snicker, and knock their boots together again, and again, until they’re snickering uncontrollably, scooting back and forth on the edge of the cliff to try to knock each other’s boots in some kind of weird foot war.

(footsie, his mind corrects, with a snicker of its own, but he valiantly ignores it, scoots closer to Lance to knock his boot against Lance’s before scooting away so he can’t retaliate)

Lance is scooting closer, foot swinging sideways and face determined as Keith scrambles away to escape him, when they hear a loud cough.

Keith freezes and looks behind him. Krolia is standing there, her expression caught between exasperation and amusement.

“If you two are quite finished,” she says, and Keith kind of wants to sink into the ground, because she’s using her sneaky-but-not-sneaky-at-all voice, and he really hopes Lance can’t tell what it means, “we’re going to eat soon, so you should come back to the rest of the group.”

They get up sheepishly and head back to the others. Coran passes around food goo packets. As they eat, Krolia and Romelle are given proper introductions to the others and everyone coos over Pom Pom, who disappears from their place by the mice with a poof and reappears with their head in a very startled Lance’s lap.

“Hey there, buddy,” Lance says, setting down his packet of food goo to scratch under Pom Pom’s chin. “You’re very cuddly, aren’t you?”

Pom Pom wags their tail. The others lean over to pet them too, though they don’t leave Lance’s lap.

“They have good taste,” he jokes, when Pidge tries to coax Pom Pom to her and they remain stubbornly in Lance’s lap.

Yes they do, Keith thinks, then pretends to be very interested in his packet of food goo.

After their meal Coran goes to get a tablet out of the Blue Lion so they can go over their first stop. As he does so the others scatter once more. Keith starts to go over to Lance, who is still sitting with Pom Pom’s head in his lap and spoiling them with attention, but Shiro touches his shoulder and indicates that they should go a little away from everyone else. Keith follows him; they stop once they’re far enough that the others can’t hear them.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“No,” Shiro says, and he sounds—curt, almost mad. “I want to apologize. To all of you—I’ll talk to the others later, especially Lance—but to you first.”

“Apologize?” Keith echoes, confused.

“For what you had to go through,” Shiro clarifies. The frustration in his voice grows. “No one should have to do what you did, and I’m sorry that you were put in that position—that I put you in that position.”

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Keith says harshly, then, hastily in response to Shiro’s raised eyebrow, “Sorry, I mean—you aren’t responsible for any of that. You don’t have to apologize.”

“Still,” Shiro insists. He looks almost stricken. “I feel like I’m responsible. I should have tried harder to communicate with someone, to explain, and if you’re angry about what you went through then—”

“It’s not your fault,” Keith says flatly. He crosses his arms and scowls. “And I’m not angry about what happened but if you keep saying stupid stuff like this then I will be.”

Shiro snorts, but he still looks upset. Keith takes a deep breath.

“I said I’d rescue you as many times as it takes,” he says, “and I meant it. You’re—” He pauses; even though he’s already said it it’s strange to be so open about it. “You’re my brother and I love you. I’d—I’d do it again. So stop staying stupid shit and apologizing.”

There’s a silence, then:

“Your mouth hasn’t gotten any cleaner since I’ve been gone,” Shiro remarks, and he sounds mostly normal again, the usual patient dry tone he always has when he talks to Keith.

Keith uncrosses his arms and smiles.

“And I love you, too, kiddo,” Shiro adds, smiling back, and then reaches out his hand, and Keith tries to duck it, but Shiro’s too quick, and he ruffles Keith’s hair.

“Never mind,” Keith says, scowling again as Shiro laughs. “I take it all back.”

.^.

When Coran finally returns with the tablet, he tells them all their first stop on this pseudo-road trip: the space mall.

“For supplies,” Coran explains, as he pulls up the Unilu presentation. The hologram flashes through the pictures for Krolia and Romelle’s edification. “We’ll need food, water, hygiene products, sleeping bags, a portable shower, a transporting toilet—”

“A what,” Hunk interrupts, bewildered.

“A transporting toilet!” Coran repeats cheerfully. He taps at the tablet and the hologram changes to—

“That’s a port a potty,” Pidge says, as Lance snickers.

“Oh, so you have these on earth, too!” Coran taps at the tablet and the hologram vanishes. “Quite useful inventions, though they smell atrocious.”

“Who’s going to have to put that in their lion?” Shiro asks, apprehensive. “I want to know so I can make sure to travel in a different one.”

“Coward,” Keith says.

“I died,” Shiro replies, with dignity. “I shouldn’t have to put up with port a potty smells.”

“Transporting toilet smells,” Hunk corrects, as Pidge giggles.

“They collapse into a small box that contains the odor,” Coran assures them, “so long as they’re drained first.”

There’s a beat of silence, then:

“NOT IT!”

“Not me!”

“Not it.”

“No.”

By the end of the chorus of voices the only one left is Coran. Either he doesn’t get the point, or he doesn’t mind, because he just says, “All right, then, I’ll take care of it!” and tells them to get a move on to the mall.

.^.

The journey there passes quickly. Shiro, Krolia, and Pom Pom are all in the Black Lion with Keith, so they spend most of the trip figuring out the logistics of where everyone will sit and where to put the few belongings they have and how to make space for the supplies they’ll purchase at the mall. Shiro and Keith both change into their regular clothes; to his dismay Keith discovers that his jacket is a bit snug on him now, so he puts it back in his box of clothes. Maybe he can have it tailored somewhere, or at least keep it for the memories.

When they arrive they realize that the lions are too big for the parking hangar, so they leave them floating outside, much to Black’s chagrin.

This is undignified¸ they grumble, their voice low and echoing in the back of Keith’s mind. Talking to Black is so wildly different from talking to Red; Red is cheerful, exasperated, grumpy, fond, and his voice is one that, once he’s earned Red’s trust, bursts into Keith’s mind with a love and friendliness and protectiveness that reminds him of Pom Pom. Black, on the other hand, is more reserved; even though this is Keith’s second stretch piloting them he still hasn’t quite determined their personality, and their voice is bigger, metallic almost, sits heavy in the back of Keith’s mind as if reminding him of the responsibility he holds.

He likes Black, and he is much more confident piloting them than he was before, and handling the heaviness in his mind isn’t quite a burden anymore—but still, he wishes they weren’t so serious. He misses Red’s jokes and snippy comments, and he’s glad he can still hear him, even if the two of them don’t talk as often.

Sorry, Keith thinks in response. We should be out in a few vargas.

Black doesn’t reply. That’s another thing that sets them apart from Red; Red always has a parting word, is usually the last to speak, but Black sometimes just—stops—and Keith never really knows how to get them to talk again.

Cool, he says, awkward even in thought. See you soon.

Still no response. The others have already gone inside the mall, so he sighs and goes after them.

Coran assigns everyone something to get and distributes pouches of money collected over the past few months as rewards and donations for the Voltron Coalition. He gives instructions to be back at the entrance in four vargas, then tries to make Allura go back to the Blue Lion, or stay with him as he goes to purchase the transporting toilet, but she pouts, and pleads, and eventually he concedes.

“Fine,” he says. “But someone should go with her!” He glances around with narrowed eyes, then says behind his hand, “Who knows what sorts of ne’er-do-wells lurk about.”

Romelle offers to stay with her and together they run towards what looks like a jewelry store. Hunk and Pidge split off in a different direction, Krolia reluctantly goes with Coran to get the transporting toilet, and Lance—

Lance walks alone towards the pharmacy on the other side of the fountain, shoulders hunched and hands in the pockets of his hoodie.

Keith frowns. He takes a step towards him, then stops and looks at Shiro, who’s watching him with an amused expression.

“Go on,” he says, nodding his head at Lance. “I get it.” He heaves a dramatic sigh and pretends to wipe away a tear. “You’re too old to hang out with your big brother anymore.”

“No,” Keith protests, but Shiro just laughs and says, “Go on, go.”

Keith takes another step, then stops again.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asks. “You can come too.”

“Maybe some other time,” Shiro says. “I think I’ll just get the sleeping bags and walk around for a bit, cause this is, uh—” He looks round, his amusement now tinged with bewilderment. “This is really different from what Coran was telling us.”

Right, Shiro hasn’t been here before.

“Stay away from the knife vendor and the mall cop,” Keith warns, then hurries off to the pharmacy. When he enters Lance is in aisle six, shopping basket in hand as he ponders a row of soaps.

“Hi,” Keith says as he approaches.

“Hi,” Lance says, surprised. “I thought Coran told you to get snacks.”

“He did.” Keith picks up a four pack of plain soap and puts it in the basket. “But I thought I’d come help you first. Then we can get the snacks together.”

“Oh.” Lance takes the four pack out of the basket and replaces it on the shelf. “You don’t have to do that. I can do it myself.”

Keith picks up a four pack of flower scented soap and puts it in the basket instead. “I know.” He pauses, musters up the courage for his next sentence. “But I wanted to hang out with you.”

He feels a bit warm as he says it, but Lance doesn’t make fun of him. He just says, “Oh,” again, quietly, as if meant for himself and not Keith, and then—

And then he takes the soap out of the basket and puts it back on the shelf.

Keith takes a four pack of santra scented soap, whatever the hell that is, and puts it in the basket. Lance bites back a smile and replaces it too. Keith feigns a scowl and puts three different soap packs in the basket, which Lance replaces on the shelf, which Keith replaces with more soap packs, which Lance also replaces, until Lance has to put the basket on the floor to free both his hands as Keith rapidly tosses soap into it and Lance immediately puts them back on the shelf.

Eleven packs of soap later Keith can’t keep his scowl anymore and starts laughing, and Lance keeps his façade for barely another second before he cracks too, and then they’re both just—cackling—in aisle six of the pharmacy at the space mall—and Keith still has a pack of plain soap in one hand and a pack of santra scented soap in the other, but he doesn’t even notice, because this is the first time he’s heard Lance laugh properly since—god only knows when—and part of him is so fucking happy to hear it, and part of him is so fucking sad that it’s taken this long when Lance usually laughs so easily, and part of him is so fucking determined to make Lance laugh as much as he can from now on.

Okay,” Lance says finally, catching his breath. He’s still smiling, brown eyes bright and crinkly at the corners, and Keith’s heart feels so light he thinks it might float out of his chest. “We really do have to get soap.”

They decide to get every scent, for variety, and do the same with everything else: shampoo, conditioner, lotion, toothpaste, a bunch of fancy hair and skin stuff that Keith doesn’t understand but that Lance claims is necessary. They head to the counter and pay for their things, then head out with bulging bags in each hand. They take them to the lions and load them in, then go back inside to get the snacks Keith was assigned to find.

“Where would we even get snacks?” Lance asks as they re-enter. “Stuff from the food court won’t last very long.”

“I’m sure we’ll find something,” Keith says. “There’s gotta be a map around here, right?”

They find one by the fountain, but—

“Fucking Galran,” Lance mutters, staring at the symbols on the map. “I wish Pidge would hurry up with those portable translators. It’s annoying to be lost if I’m not wearing my armor.”

Keith peers at the key for a few seconds, then points to the third row. “This says food,” he says. “Look for any store marked with that symbol.”

Lance blinks at him. “Since when can you read Galran?”

“Krolia taught me,” Keith says, with a brief smile. “I’m not very good at it, though. Her handwriting is shit so half the symbols look the same when she writes. Lessons were kind of a mess.”

“Do you have bad handwriting too?” Lance asks, as they look over the map for the symbol.

“I used to think so,” Keith says, “but then I saw hers and realized mine is actually pretty good.”

Lance snorts. He points to a large store on the second floor. Keith nods and they head to the escalators.

The store turns out to be some kind of supermarket.

“Hey Lance,” Keith says, gesturing to an ad by the chips. “You didn’t tell me you modelled for Mita Chocolates.”

Lance looks at the ad. The alien in it is blue, with six tentacles, two of which are doing thumbs up while two others shove chocolate bars into their smiling mouth as photoshopped Galran children make weirdly excited faces in the background.

“Oh yeah,” Lance says casually, “I did it right before your shoot with Dudvit.”

Keith spots the canister of Dudvit chocolate powder on the shelf. The cartoon mascot is an orange alien flexing an exaggeratedly muscular arm while their long dark hair flows dramatically behind them.

“Don’t make that face,” Lance chides, tossing a package of cookies into the shopping basket. “Your hair is like, fractionally shorter than that guy’s. I honestly don’t know you can still see.”

Keith shrugs. “It’s kind of annoying but I don’t have anything to tie it up with.”

“We’re literally in a mall,” Lance points out.

“I’m not gonna waste our supply money on myself,” Keith says.

“Okay, then borrow something from Hunk. Or Allura, I bet she has tons of hair ties and ribbons and stuff.”

“Maybe,” Keith says. He picks up a giant bag of chips. “How many of these should we get?”

“At least half a dozen, though maybe some other flavors too…”

.^.

Shiro is in the food court.

“Hi,” Keith says, as he and Lance sit at his table after dropping off the snacks in the lions. “Can I have some?”

“No,” Shiro deadpans, sliding the plate of—sandwiches? some kind of sandwiches, cut into small triangles—away as Keith tries to reach for it.

Keith frowns. Lance snickers.

“You can have some, though,” Shiro adds, pushing the plate towards Lance.

“Aw, yeah!” Lance crows, taking a triangle. “Shiro likes me more than you.”

Keith tries to snatch a piece from across the table, but Shiro pulls the plate away again. Keith glares at him. Shiro takes a triangle and pops it in his mouth, chewing benignly.

Two more failed attempts later Shiro takes pity on him and pushes the plate across the table. Keith takes a triangle; it tastes like grilled cheese that’s been dipped in tomato soup.

“How much time do we have before we have to leave?” Lance asks through a mouthful of sandwich.

“Not much,” Shiro says. “Once we’re done eating we should head to the entrance. I already put my supplies in Black.”

Between the three of them the sandwiches vanish quickly. Shiro has a drink and a bag of sweets as well, the latter of which he says he’d like to save to share with the others. He offers the drink to Lance and Keith, who both shake their head. Lance goes to put the tray the food had been on in the stack atop the trash can, and Shiro picks up his drink, and—

—and makes an odd motion, as if he’s going to reach for the bag too, before something strange crosses over his expression.

He blinks at the bag sitting on the table. Keith’s frowns, then realizes—

“It’s okay,” he says, too quickly, because he doesn’t want Shiro to look like this, lost and taken aback and devastated, over such a simple thing as not being able to carry two things at once anymore. Briefly he thinks of how lucky it was that Shiro brought everything to the table on a tray before he and Lance arrived; to be alone while realizing this would fucking suck. “It’s okay, one of us can carry it.”

Lance pats Shiro’s shoulder reassuringly, then picks up the bag.

“Now you’ll get to boss us around even more,” Lance says, and Keith can hear the forced airiness in his voice, the effort to keep things light for Shiro. “You can make us carry all the heavy stuff like my brother Luis always does.”

He keeps up a steady stream of chatter, mostly overdramatic anecdotes about how bossy his brother is and the revenge he and his sister take on him and how tired his oldest brother is at their antics, and by the time they reach the entrance Shiro is chuckling at Lance’s imitation of his siblings’ bickering.

They regroup with the others and head outside. Before they go into their respective lions Keith pulls at Lance’s sleeve.

“Thanks,” he says, low enough that the others won’t hear.

“It’s no problem,” Lance says. “We gotta take care of each other, right?”

(Lance is crying, and Keith doesn’t know what to do—)

(Lance is quiet, and serious, and sits alone away from everyone else to stare blankly at a sunrise—)

(Lance walks alone towards the pharmacy on the other side of the fountain, shoulders hunched and hands in the pockets of his hoodie—)

“Right,” Keith says, and he wants to say something more, but he doesn’t have the words for it, and before he can try to muddle it out Lance turns away and heads into his lion.

.^.

The first stretch in the lions lasts twenty vargas. The first part of it is spent re-organizing their lions to accommodate all their new supplies and take out whatever they’ll need to be comfortable while travelling. There’s enough space in the back of Black to spread out sleeping bags so Krolia and Shiro don’t have to sleep sitting up, and Black, with a vague rumble, indicates to Keith that he can tilt the pilot’s seat back like an easy chair.

“Whoa,” he says, as the chair leans back.

Shiro dumps a pillow on his face.

“What—” Keith splutters, knocking the pillow off. Shiro snickers and drops a blanket on him next; Keith knocks that off too, scowling. “I hate you so much.”

“Love you too,” Shiro says, ruffling his hair.

Krolia smiles at their antics. There’s a curl of amusement in the back of Keith’s mind, the closest Black has ever gotten to laughing. Pom Pom barks.

Keith looks at all of them, upside-down from his position on the chair, and feels so fiercely happy he thinks he might burst.

“Could you call the princess?” Krolia asks. She’d been looking through one of the boxes they’d put their clothes in, but she stands up, hands on her hips as she regards the box. “We both bought new clothes at the mall but I think mine might have ended up in the bag with hers.”

Keith straightens his chair and pulls up Allura’s comm. The tiny light is on next to it, the one that marks private, so only the two people on the line can hear what’s being said.

“The line is busy, I’ll try again later,” he calls over his shoulder, and Krolia says something in response, but he doesn’t hear it, because the light is red, which means Allura’s talking to someone in the Red Lion, which means she’s talking to Lance, because he and Kaltenecker are the only ones there right now, which means—

(what? his mind asks furiously. there’s a sour taste in his mouth. what? shut up.)

(why on private, though? asks another part of his mind, low and whispering, and the words are like snakes, curling around him, making his chest feel tight, like he can’t breathe— why not the public line? what are they saying that no one else can hear?)

They always use the public line, always, he can’t remember the last time any of them used the private line—

(shut up, says the first part of his mind, louder. speculating will get you nowhere. they’re friends, and they’re both your friends. shut up and stop thinking about it)

He takes a deep breath and gets up to help Shiro with organizing his side of the lion. It takes a full varga before everything is structured to everyone’s satisfaction, and despite Keith’s best efforts he keeps checking the controls, keeps seeing that tiny red light that marks private, keeps wondering what the hell they could be talking about for that amount of time, just the two of them, one-on-one, not wanting anyone else to hear—

“I think I’ll sleep for a while,” Shiro announces, stretching out in his sleeping bag. He pulls the edge of the extra blanket over his head—Keith smiles at the sight; he’s missed Shiro’s weird habit of covering himself completely when he sleeps—and is snoring within seconds.

Krolia gives up on waiting for Allura’s comm to clear; Keith offers to call her on the public line anyway and see if she’ll pick up, but she declines, and instead decides to sleep for a while as well. After she settles down in her sleeping bag Keith dims the lights so the only illumination comes from the glow of the controls and the stars out of the window. It’s peaceful like this, mostly dark, with Black’s presence in the back of his mind and the low hum of the controls around him and Shiro and Krolia’s quiet snores behind him.

He takes off his boots and sits in the pilot’s seat, knees drawn up to his chest and arms around his legs. Pom Pom pads over to him and rests their head on the bottom of the seat, by Keith’s foot. He reaches down and scratches their ears, watching the stars as the lions zoom past them.

A minute later the tiny light by Allura’s comm switches off. It doesn’t make him feel any better.

Another minute later his screen lights up, GREEN PALADIN emblazoned across it. He hits accept and Pidge’s face fills the rectangle.

“Hi!” she chirps.

“Shh,” Keith says, jerking his head towards the back of the lion. “They’re sleeping.”

“Sorry,” she says sheepishly. She shrinks into her seat; she looks very small, the effect exacerbated by her huge glasses and her puffed-up hair, which Keith is pretty sure she hasn’t brushed in a suspicious number of days. “It’s kind of lonely in here. When we pick up Matt he’ll stay here with me but until then I’m alone and Green is too tired right now to talk and fly at the same time. Is it okay if we talk?”

“Of course,” Keith says, smiling, then, because he knows if we talk is Pidge-speak for if I talk and you listen, he says, “Go ahead.”

She chatters on for a long while, about her latest projects with Hunk and cool stuff Matt has been doing and the inventions and gadgets that Keith has missed out on. Keith mostly just listens, except for when she says something particularly outrageous.

(“Wait,” he says, trying his hardest to muffle his laughter so he won’t wake up Shiro and Krolia, “you reprogrammed a Galra sentry to ask for firecrackers?”

Pidge nods eagerly, pleased by his reaction. “And steal popsicles!”)

Keith loses track of how long she talks for, but by the end of it her eyelids are drooping. After yawning three times in one sentence she concedes defeat.

“I’m going to sleep now,” she says.

“Make sure you let Green know first so she can wake you up if necessary,” Keith says.

“Okay, dad,” she says. She snickers at her own joke but it’s interrupted by another yawn. She rubs her eyes and shrinks into her seat again. “It’s kind of weird to sleep in here on my own.”

“I can send Pom Pom over there while you sleep,” Keith offers.

Pidge brightens and nods. Keith pats Pom Pom’s head to get their attention and looks them right in the eyes.

“Go to Pidge,” he says clearly. “Green Lion.”

Pom Pom blinks, then vanishes. A second later they reappear on screen, next to a startled but delighted Pidge.

“Thanks!” she says, waving, and the last thing Keith sees before the line cuts is her kissing a slightly disgruntled Pom Pom on the nose.

He moves to sit cross-legged and contemplates the screen. He’d hoped that talking to Pidge would distract him from that dumb red light, but it’s still stuck in his head, a glowing red flare, mocking him with its persistence.

It’s none of your business, he reminds himself. They’re allowed to talk.

None of his business, and yet—

Allowed to talk, and yet—

What could they possibly have to say that they couldn’t risk anyone else hearing? There’s nothing no one else couldn’t hear, right?

(one thing, his mind whispers, and it’s low again, a snake again, and his chest is tight again, and he can’t breathe again—)

(but that can’t be it, right? she’s never—he’s always flirted with her, but she’s never responded, not favorably—)

(you’ve been gone a long time, his mind adds, and he has to clench his fists against the thought, keep himself calm— they were much closer before you left, and they’ve probably only grown closer still, and all this time you’ve been gone, and they’ve been here, united against Lotor and the clone, helping each other and keeping the team together—)

He takes a deep breath, sets his jaw. This is stupid, this is so stupid, it’s a fucking conversation, they just set it to private, who the fuck even cares—

His screen lights up.

RED PALADIN, set to private.

He blinks at it, stunned, then scrambles forward and hits accept. The screen doesn’t show Lance’s face, only the words call in session, which confuses him, until he realizes Lance must have used the audio-only line.

“Lance?” he asks, worried. “Are you okay?”

There’s a shivering second of silence, then:

“We’re still friends.”

His voice is shaking.

(I hope we’re still friends)

Keith’s heart jumps into his throat.

“You read them,” he says.

“Yeah.” There’s a crackle as Lance blows out a breath, as if steadying himself. When he speaks his voice doesn’t shake so much. “You wrote to everyone, right?”

“No,” Keith says. “I wrote to Shiro a couple times but otherwise it was—just you.”

There’s another silence, so long Keith isn’t sure they’re still connected.

“Lance?” he whispers.

“I’m still here,” Lance says, then very quietly, as if to himself, “There were so many of them.”

“Life on a space whale is surprisingly eventful sometimes,” Keith says.

Lance exhales, half a laugh and half a sigh.

“You didn’t ask to hug me,” he says next. “You wrote that you would but you didn’t. You just did it.”

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Keith stammers. Panic creeps up his spine; Lance had seemed okay with the hug at the time, but what if he’d just been putting up with it to be polite, or what if Keith had misinterpreted it entirely, or what if—

“I was kidding,” Lance says, and Keith’s panic fades. Lance does another one of those half-laugh half-sighs. “You don’t ever have to ask to hug me. You can just do it whenever you want.”

“Oh” is all Keith says, and for a second he forgets to breathe, because the thought of Lance’s arms around him and Lance’s face in his neck and Lance’s chest pressed to his, whenever he wants, as many times as he wants, is too overwhelming to fathom.

(this can’t be real, his mind whispers. you must be asleep, you must have dropped off after Pidge hung up, this can’t be real, you can’t be this lucky, can’t be someone who can just—hug Lance—whenever you want—)

“What does hugging me feel like?”

Keith blinks. “What?”

“Your hug theory,” Lance clarifies. “What does hugging me feel like?”

“I—” Keith breaks off, uncertain. “I don’t know yet. Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Lance says, and Keith can hear the smile in his voice. “I guess we’ll just have to hug more often so you can figure it out.”

“I guess so, yeah.”

For a moment neither of them speak. It’s a contented silence, and the contentment makes Keith brave, makes words tumble out of his mouth when they might otherwise stay safely inside, makes him verbalize the wish that has just popped into his head when he normally would shove it down and tell it to go away.

“Can you switch to video mode?” he asks.

Lance sounds surprised. “Why?”

“I just want to see you,” Keith says, and he feels heat creep up his neck, because he hadn’t meant for it to sound so—soft—but he can’t help it, not when he has to whisper, not when it’s so dark, not when there’s just the glow of the controls and the screen and the stars, not when he’s picturing Lance cozy in his lion, talking to him while everyone else is probably asleep, not when he’s found out that he can hug Lance whenever he wants, not when he wants so badly to be next to Lance right now, to give him one of the hugs he’s just gotten permission to give.

“Okay,” Lance says finally. “Just give me a second.”

There’s rustling, then the call in session stamped across the screen vanishes, replaced by Lance’s face. The sight of him sends something warm and fond through Keith; Red is dimmed too, and Lance is in his pajamas, his hair rumpled and curling over his ears and his neck, his eyes dark and—

Keith’s brow furrows. He leans forward, peering at Lance with alarm.

“Are you okay?”

Lance blinks, though it’s more squeezing his eyes shut than a real blink. Keith’s done it before, seen it done before, and it’s the kind of squeezing you do when you’ve just been crying, and his eyes are a bit red, and fuck what kind of friend is he that he hadn’t even realized—

“It’s been a weird couple of hours,” Lance says. He smiles, more gently than he usually does. “I’m okay, though.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” He rubs the back of his neck. “I just need some time. But I’m okay.”

There’s an ache in Keith’s chest, like his heart wants to jump out and into Lance’s hands and make him smile properly. “Now would probably be a good time for another hug.”

“Yeah,” Lance says again. “Allura already said she’d give me one when we land next, though, so don’t feel pressured or anything.”

He wants to say that he’d never feel pressured to hug Lance, that the concept of not wanting to do such a thing is incomprehensible to him—but his brain is stuck on Allura already said she’d give me one, stuck on that tiny red light set to private for over a varga.

The ache in his chest gives way to the tightness again, the ugly twisting snakelike whispering that he has to clench his fists to guard against. It’s none of his business. Lance is his friend, and—and that’s enough. It’s enough.

“I should probably get to sleep,” Lance says, almost apologetically. “I’d talk more, but it’s been a really long couple of days.”

“Yeah, of course,” Keith says automatically. “Same here, I should—I should sleep too.”

“Cool.” Lance waves, a bit awkwardly. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Keith replies, and the screen goes blank.

He stares at the screen for a long time, then picks up the pillow and blanket off the floor where he had tossed them after Shiro dropped them on him and tilts his seat back.

Gonna sleep now¸ he tells Black, tucking the pillow under his head and throwing the blanket over himself. Wake me up if you need me.

That won’t be necessary, they rumble, and he rolls his eyes before closing them. Good night, paladin.

Good night, he replies, and as he slips into slumber he thinks he hears Black say something else, something like foolish boy and Red warned me how you two are but I didn’t know it was this bad, but he’s not for sure, because within minutes he is fast asleep.

 

Chapter Text

Allura is hugging Lance.

Allura is hugging Lance, and Lance is hugging her back, and Keith is supposed to be helping Coran set up supplies for their campfire dinner, and he’s trying his best, he honestly is, but it’s hard, because Allura is pulling away and looking up at Lance, and her hand touches Lance’s cheek, and Lance says something, and Allura responds, and Keith doesn’t know what this is or why this is happening but he hates it, and he hates himself for hating it, because they’re his friends and if they—if they’re—together—then he’s happy for them. He is.

(isn’t, his mind whispers, cold and snakelike and twisting, isn’t isn’t isn’t)

He exhales hard and tears his eyes from them, takes extra long to open the box of Azadian pasta so he can try to calm down.

The planet they’re on is as isolated as the one they’d landed on after Lotor’s defeat. The sky is orange, with horizontal streaks of black running through it and a big bright sun that looks white. It reminds Keith of Halloween decorations, especially with the skeletal trees dotting the landscape. It’s their first real night of camping and everyone is scattered around, stretching their legs and exploring and helping set up the sleeping bags and food on the cliff.

Everyone except for Allura and Lance, who are—hugging—though they’ve stopped now, to Keith’s relief, and subsequent disgust at his own relief, because they’re his friends, they’re his friends¸ what the fuck is wrong with him—

“Need any help?” Lance asks, strolling over with his hands in his pockets.

Keith picks up the box of pasta and sets it down on the other side of the fire, next to the giant pot Coran had taken out. If he puts the box down with unnecessary force Lance doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’m fine,” Keith says shortly. He takes the ladle from beside the box and starts scooping pasta into the pot.

“Don’t you have to put water in it first?” Lance asks. He comes over to stand by Keith, peering into the box. “What kind of pasta is this, anyway?”

“It’s Azadian,” Keith says, still too brusquely. “It’s designed for travellers so no water’s needed. You just dump it all in and when it cooks some kind of sauce is formed too.”

“Oh.”

Lance rocks back and forth on his heels for a moment. Keith continues to dump pasta into the pot.

“Are you—” Lance breaks off, hesitant. “Are you mad about something?”

Keith squints up at him. The way Lance is standing blocks the sun; the rays seem to flare out from behind him.

They’re your friends, he reminds himself.

“Just tired,” he says finally. He forces a thin smile. “The lions aren’t very comfortable to sleep in.”

“You should walk around,” Lance says. “Stretch your legs.” He crouches by the box and the pot. “I’ll finish here, it’s okay.”

“I’m not gonna make you do this while I do nothing,” Keith argues. “You’re tired too. We were all cooped up in the lions, not just me.”

“It’s okay,” Lance says again. “I don’t mind.”

He reaches for the box. Keith twitches the box away. Lance narrows his eyes at him and reaches for it again, but Keith picks up the box and puts it on the other side of him.

“You can help some other day,” he says firmly, when Lance makes a face. “We’re going to take turns anyway.”

Lance sits back. “Fine, but I’m gonna sit here while you do this.”

“Fine,” Keith says.

Fine.”

(it’s the end of what should be an argument, but it’s just—fond—and he has to bite back a smile as he finishes scooping pasta into the pot and puts it over the fire)

During dinner Coran goes over the first part of their route home in more detail, since everyone had taken turns sleeping during the journey here and there hadn’t been an opportunity to explain it to everyone at once. The space between each of the larger planetary civilizations they’ll be stopping at takes about ten quintants to traverse. The days in between will be spent either sleeping in their lions or camping, as they are tonight.

“We don’t have the funds to stay at an inn every night, I’m afraid,” he says apologetically. “We can perhaps afford one night per leg of this journey; so, say, we could stop at Rest Area Forty-Six on our way from here to Puig, and Rest Area Eight Hundred and Twelve from Puig to Olkarion, and so on.”

“Why are they numbered?” Hunk asks.

Coran launches into a detailed explanation of the history of interplanetary travel, but Keith mostly tunes it out in favor of trying to convince Pom Pom that no, Azadian pasta is not a good food for wolves.

“Stop giving me those eyes,” he says, as sternly as he can manage. “This isn’t food for you. You got your dinner already.”

Pom Pom makes their eyes even rounder.

“Stop,” he says.

Pom Pom whimpers.

“This is blackmail,” Keith protests.

Even rounder eyes. More whimpering. Keith sighs and finishes the last few bites of his dinner, then holds out the bowl to Pom Pom.

“You make me weak,” he tells them, as they happily lick the leftover sauce. “I can’t say no to you.”

He looks up from Pom Pom to see Lance watching him from across the circle they’ve made around the fire, an oddly intent expression on his face. Keith gives him a questioning look; Lance starts, as if caught doing something he shouldn’t, then hurriedly returns to his own dinner. Even from here Keith can see that his ears are red.

Pom Pom’s licked the bowl clean. Keith scratches under their chin.

“Go to Lance,” he says.

Pom Pom blinks and vanishes. A second later they’re lying next to Lance, who runs his hand through Pom Pom’s fur. Pom Pom tries the same stunt with Lance to get some of his pasta, but Lance seems to have a better grasp of saying no than Keith does, because within seconds he’s convinced Pom Pom to stay away from his bowl, and given them plenty of pets to make up for the denial of food.

Part of Keith thinks he should feel insulted that Pom Pom listens to Lance more than himself, but another part of him thinks it makes sense that everyone who he can’t say no to gets along well with each other.

.^.

This is a crisis.

Keith stares at the line of sleeping bags as if it’s a robeast about to attack. He glances at Shiro, who’s already snug in his sleeping bag at the end of the row, yawning ferociously.

“Shiro,” he hisses, not wanting the others to hear. Pidge gives him a curious look, so to be safe he switches to Japanese. “Shiro, switch with me!”

Shiro yawns again. “What?” he asks. “Why are we talking in Japanese? What are you hiding? Are we talking about how horrible Coran’s singing was earlier?”

Coran’s rendition of an Altean campfire song had been quite appalling, but that is the least of Keith’s concerns when—

“I’m supposed to sleep next to Lance!” he says, and he can already feel the heat creeping up his neck at the idea of it, of lying down next to him, of Lance in his pajamas, curly hair mussed and face glowing from his nightly skincare routine. “Switch with me!”

Shiro gives him a long look, then:

“No,” he says, and pulls the end of his extra blanket over his head.

“What—” Keith marches over to the end of the row and pokes at Shiro’s leg with his foot. Hunk is watching them, his expression caught between confusion and amusement. “Come on, switch with me!”

“I can’t hear you,” Shiro says, his voice muffled by the blanket. “I’m asleep.”

“You’re not fucking asleep, you’re talking to me—”

Shiro snores, loud and very obviously fake. Keith scowls. Pidge giggles. Hunk and Romelle snicker.

“Is everything all right?” Allura asks, clearly trying to suppress a laugh of her own.

“Everything’s fine,” Keith says, going back over to his sleeping bag in the middle of the row. “He’s just being a dick.”

“I heard that,” Shiro calls, still in Japanese.

“I thought you were asleep.”

“Selectively asleep,” Shiro says, then fake-snores again.

Keith rolls his eyes and gets into his sleeping bag. Krolia is on the other side of him; she’s doing her sneaky-not-sneaky smile, and for a moment he deeply regrets re-teaching her Japanese on the space whale.

Lance is still in the transporting toilet—which is actually more like a transporting bathroom, complete with shower, sink, mirror, and even a tiny towel rack—which gives Keith plenty of time to panic over the prospect of sleeping next to him. He tries to fall asleep before Lance emerges from the bathroom and manages to doze off halfway when he hears the click of the door opening.

His eyes snap open and he hurriedly shuts them again. He tends to sleep on his side, but he turns onto his back so he won’t be tempted to peek at Lance. He hears him cross over to where Keith is, hears the scuff of his sneakers against the rock as he toes them off, hears the rustle of the sleeping bag as Lance gets in.

There’s a quiet sigh, some more rustling as he adjusts, and then—silence.

Keith holds his breath, and keeps his eyes shut, and lies flat on his back, and doesn’t look.

.^.

(he does)

(he waits until he hears Lance’s breathing even out, until he hears the various snores and steady breaths of the others, until he’s certain he’s the only one still awake)

(he turns onto his side, and opens his eyes, and looks)

(looks and looks and looks)

(looks at him lying flat on his back, his shoulder so close Keith could reach out only a few inches and touch it)

(looks at his profile, at the curve of his jaw, the line of his nose, the long lashes)

(looks at brown skin dappled by starlight, at brown hair curling over his neck, at big hands curled over the edge of the blanket)

(he looks and looks and looks, until his shyness is overtaken by sleepiness, and he nods off again, still on his side, still facing Lance, looking even with his eyes closed)

.^.

Someone is shaking Keith’s shoulder.

“No,” he mumbles, turning his face into the sleeping bag. It’s probably Shiro, so it’s not a big deal if he ignores them.

“You must wake up,” says the person, shaking his shoulder again. “It is time for breakfast.”

“Fuck breakfast,” he croaks, waving his arm in a vague attempt to get the person to stop. “Go away.”

“You know, I had expected you to be the first one awake,” says the person, sounding amused. “I had no idea you’d be the most difficult about this.”

That—is a weird thing for Shiro to say. He cracks one eye open—

—and jolts awake.

“I’m sorry,” he says frantically, sitting up so suddenly that Allura steps back. She covers her mouth with one hand, though he can see the laughter in her eyes. “I thought you were Shiro.”

“An honest mistake,” she says solemnly, dropping her hand to her side. “We sound so much alike.”

Keith squints at her. She bites her lip against another laugh.

“Breakfast is ready,” she says. “Everyone else is already up.”

Keith scoots out of his sleeping bag and heads to the transporting bathroom, giving her a curious glance as she walks over to where Krolia is doling out food from the pot over the fire. Allura’s been far more upbeat than he’d expected; he doesn’t know the full extent of her attachment to Lotor, but he’s gotten the sense it was pretty intense, and he’d thought she would be upset about it for longer.

But yesterday she’d made fun of Coran for how many digressions there were in his explanation of interplanetary rest stops, and she’d gushed with Hunk over the alien soap opera he’s been watching in his lion, and she’s laughed more easily in the past day than she has in a long while.

He’s glad that she’s happy, but it seems—weird. Suspicious, almost. Like she’s actively trying to convince everyone that she’s okay, or like—like—

(like she has a real reason not to be upset, his mind whispers, and it’s the fucking snake again, and he scowls as he yanks open the door to the bathroom. like she’s over Lotor so quickly because she’s found someone better—)

“Don’t be fucking dumb,” he says aloud, as he closes the door behind him. He glares at his reflection in the mirror over the sink, at the wild tangle of hair around his face and neck. “It’s none of your business. Anyone would laugh if they looked at your stupid hair in the morning.”

By the time he’s brushed his teeth and showered and tamed his hair so it isn’t actively trying to attack his face, he feels bad about all his speculating, so he makes sure to talk to her during breakfast, and afterward asks if she has anything he can borrow.

“For my hair,” he clarifies, as her forehead crinkles. “It’s in my face all the time and Lance said you might have something I could tie it up with.”

Allura’s expression brightens. “Of course!” she says excitedly. “Wait here.”

She runs into Blue and emerges a few minutes later with a gigantic purple box. She sets it on the ground and presses a button in the center. The lid pops open, featuring a dazzling array of earrings, bracelets, ribbons, barrettes, and other miscellaneous items of a similar nature.

“It must seem very vain of me to have taken this from the castle ship,” she says, as Keith blinks at the box in astonishment. “I know we were supposed to only take essentials, but I—well—I—”

She falters, fiddling with her bracelet the way she does when she’s self-conscious. Keith thinks of his ill will towards her in the past few hours and hates himself even more.

“It’s not vain,” he says firmly. “You should have nice things too.” He looks at the box again. “But, um—this is kind of a lot. What should I use?”

She brightens once more at his request for advice and spends the next several minutes talking about elasticity and likelihood of snapping and ability to prevent tangles. He doesn’t really understand it but he nods and does his best to pay attention anyway, and gladly takes the blue hair tie that she eventually hands to him.

“Thanks,” he says, and ties his hair into a ponytail. There’s a slight breeze blowing, and he tilts his head up, smiling. It’s nice to feel it on his face and neck now that his hair is out of the way.

Allura packs up the box and takes it back into Blue. Keith turns to go to Black—and runs right into Lance.

“What the fuck,” he splutters, stepping back. “Watch where you’re going.”

Lance is staring at him, his eyes wide. He looks like he’s been hit over the head.

“Uh.” Keith rubs at his cheek; maybe there’s something on his face? “Are you okay?”

Lance jumps.

“Yes!” he shouts, then, more quietly as Keith winces, “I mean—yes. I’m okay. I’m fine. You’re fine.” His ears redden. “I mean—you’re not—fine, you’re just. Fine. Like—fine.”

What?

“What?” Keith says aloud, bewildered.

“Nothing,” Lance says. He rubs the back of his neck, which is turning as red as his ears. “Anyway, gotta—gotta go to Red now! Hit the road, and all that.” He does finger guns at Keith, a bit awkwardly. “So. Yeah.”

He turns and all but runs to Red. Keith watches him go, thoroughly confused at what the hell that was about, then shrugs and goes to Black.

.^.

The next few quintants until they reach Puig pass quicker than Keith had expected. Mostly because there’s so much calling.

So. Much. Calling.

Calling Kolivan to let him know that Keith and Krolia aren’t coming back:

“This is quite unnecessary,” Kolivan says, impassive as always. “Your complete lack of communication for months on end was enough to inform me that you would not be returning.”

“That wasn’t our fault,” Keith argues. “We were stuck in an abyss—”

Krolia puts her hand on Keith’s shoulder. Keith snaps his mouth shut.

“The lack of communication was out of our control,” she says. “But we did find something of interest.” She frowns. “Though first, I would like an explanation for why you put my son through the Trials when he very clearly showed you my knife.”

There’s a weird expression on Kolivan’s face. It takes Keith a second to realize that he’s—flustered? Alarmed? Just short of terrified?

He looks up at Krolia and grins. She winks, then gives Kolivan the harshest dressing-down that Keith has heard since the time his chemistry teacher called him good for nothing while Shiro was in earshot.

Calling every planet they’ll be stopping at to reserve rooms in inns and hotels:

“We only have four rooms left,” says the clerk apologetically. “Two triples, a double, and a single. Otherwise we’re all booked up on those dates due to an event.”

“What kind of event?” Pidge asks.

“The Pocket Monsters Championship,” says the clerk. “It is a popular sport in these parts. You collect creatures with various powers in small red spheres. You can battle with them, too.”

“Oh, like Pokemon,” Hunk says. “We have that game, too!”

“It is not a game, sir,” says the clerk solemnly. “Six people died at the last Championship.”

There is a silence, then:

“I think their version of Pokemon involves real monsters,” Lance says finally.

“Of course it does, sir,” says the clerk, confused. “What did you think?”

Calling Ryner to make a new prosthetic for Shiro:

“We most certainly can have one ready when you arrive on Olkarion,” she says, smiling warmly into the screen, “though it won’t be usable until we can take his measurements and adjust it to his needs.”

“That’s no problem,” Shiro says. “How much will it cost?”

Ryner waves a hand. “There is no need,” she says, then, raising her voice over Shiro’s protests, “It is our honor to serve a paladin of Voltron! You and your team have done so much for us. The least we can do is provide your accommodations and your prosthetic free of charge.”

Then there’s the catch-up calls, where everyone connects to the public line and they talk about what’s been going on in the past few months:

“Wait,” Keith says, as Lance finishes his story, “you all…did shows…on ice.”

“Yes,” Pidge says.

“And you,” he says to Allura’s square on the screen, “pretended to be me.”

“It was not a pleasant role,” she says, then hastily, as Hunk snickers, “Not that you aren’t a lovely person! But I did not enjoy pretending to be someone else.”

And then there’s Keith’s favorite kind of call, the ones that take place late at night, or whatever the hell the equivalent of night is when they’re road-tripping through space; the ones that start the third quintant, when Krolia and Shiro are asleep and everyone’s comms are quiet and the only other person awake is Lance:

“Oh hi,” Lance says, as his image appears on screen. He’s holding a tablet in one hand and he’s still in his day clothes, his old jeans and a red shirt that was in the giant bag of clothes Krolia and Hunk had bought at the space mall. “Did you need something?”

“No,” Keith says. “I just wanted to talk to you. I haven’t seen you all day.”

For some reason that makes Lance’s ears turn red. “Oh.” He looks down at his tablet. “I’ve mostly just been playing a game on here.”

“What’s it about?” Keith asks.

Lance launches into a detailed explanation of the game’s characters and objectives. Keith just listens, content to hear his voice without interruption. From there they somehow end up talking about TV shows, and then books, until everyone is waking up, and they both realize they haven’t slept at all.

It continues for the next few days. Keith will call Lance after everyone else has gone to sleep, and they’ll talk about whatever they want. Sometimes it’s silly:

“You like pineapple on pizza?” Lance exclaims, disgusted. “You heathen. How are we friends?”

Sometimes it’s serious:

“I’m really glad you found your mom,” Lance says.

“I am too,” Keith says. “I hope you get to see yours soon.”

And sometimes it’s such a big surprise that Keith almost wakes up Krolia and Shiro because he can’t contain himself:

“You have a sword?” he whisper-yells, as Lance swings it around on screen. “A fucking—what? What?”

Lance smirks, and Keith feels his face heat, and he’s pretty sure he’s gonna pass out because Lance holding a sword and smirking is far too much for one person to endure.

Four quintants from Puig they stop at an inn, the one that’s booked up for the Pocket Monsters Championship. The sport seems to be huge here; the small town that the inn is located in is full of shops and museums devoted to it. After dumping his stuff in the room he’s sharing with Krolia and Shiro and finally taking a shower in a real, non-transporting bathroom, Keith goes downstairs to explore. He finds Lance in the lobby, poking at a cereal dispenser on the counter where the inn’s complimentary breakfast is served every morning.

“I’m trying to figure out what’ll be in here tomorrow,” Lance says as Keith approaches. “Do you see this cereal dust at the bottom of the canister? I think it might be Raisin Bran.”

“I hope not,” Keith says.

Lance steps away from the counter and looks at him.

“What are you wearing?”

Keith rolls his eyes. “Don’t start,” he says. “Krolia bought this for me and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

It’s a flannel shirt, the kind his dad sometimes wore when Keith was little. Keith appreciates the thick material of it in the chilly climate of this town, though he appreciates the orange-and-purple color scheme decidedly less so.

“She has a matching one,” Keith goes on. “She’s wearing it today so I thought I should too.”

“That’s.” Lance stops. “That’s actually kinda cute.”

(he thinks you’re cute, Keith’s mind whispers, as he feels heat creep up his neck.)

(he thinks the matching shirts are cute, says another part. not you. shut up.)

“I was gonna go walk around,” Keith says. “Do you want to come?”

Lance nods and together they head outside. Lance zips his hoodie up against the wind and Keith tightens his hair tie so his hair won’t blow into his face. The town is diverse compared to most of the places they’ve visited before, which Keith supposes makes sense since it’s mainly a stop for travellers and there aren’t many actual residents. As they walk he sees Puigians, Taujeerians, a couple Balmerans, and a ton of alien species he doesn’t recognize. There aren’t any Galra, which is a relief, though it explains why Coran had told Krolia to not go out alone when they’d arrived; despite her casual wear it would be alarming for the local aliens to see her walking solo through the streets.

After a while they come across a souvenir shop and head inside. It’s full of the usual trappings of a souvenir shop, with tacky clothes, mugs, bags, and—

“Keychains!” Lance says, walking over to the rack. “Look, they even have names on them like on earth!”

Keith squints at the nearest row. “Mangeshkalax’ar,” he reads. “Lata’hi. Subrima’nim.”

“The Emmas and Johns of space,” Lance says. “When I was a kid we used to visit my cousins in Miami for the holidays and I always wanted one of these but they never had my name on them, not even the short version. Which is dumb! Like, Lance is already a watered-down version of Leandro. I don’t know how much whiter my nickname has to be before it’d be on a keychain.”

“Larry,” Keith offers, with as straight a face as he can manage.

Lance snorts.

“Some stores had Keith,” Keith says, as they continue round the shop. “But no one ever had Akira.”

“The only downside of having a name of color,” Lance says, with an overdramatic sigh.

They pass by a few racks of shirts, which are organized by size and number of sleeves (two, four, six, eight, and a sign that says ‘for more sleeve options please ask one of our friendly employees’). Lance stops in front of one of the shirts. Keith backtracks and looks at it. It’s neon pink, with a picture of what looks like a cross between a jigglypuff and a shark on it. Printed over the picture in bold black letters are the words My Boyfriend Went To The Pocket Monsters Championship And All He Got Me Was This Lousy T-Shirt.

“No,” he says flatly.

“What do you mean, no?” Lance says, indignant. “This is art.”

“This is not art.”

“It’s better than your stupid shirt!”

My stupid shirt was a present from my mom,” Keith says, poking his arm. “You’re gonna spend your own money on this?”

Lance looks from the shirt to Keith and back.

“Absolutely,” he says, and before Keith can respond he pulls the shirt off the hangar and marches over to the cash register. He’d left most of his money at the inn and he ends up being five GAC short.

Lance’s face falls at the news. Keith sighs and pulls out his own wallet.

“You can pay me back later,” he says, handing over the bill.

Lance’s eyes light up. Keith looks at the buttons on the counter (each printed with a different image of a Pocket Monster, drawn chibi-style) so he can pretend his stomach isn’t fluttering at the sight of it.

They leave the store, Lance carrying his souvenir bag (printed with some kind of neon blue Pikachu-like creature whose dialogue bubble says ‘thanks for shopping!’) and Keith trying to convince himself that no, just cause he helped pay for the shirt does not mean that the saying technically applies to him now.

.^.

The team meets for dinner at a restaurant by the inn. It’s noisy and chaotic, everyone catching up on how they spent their day. Shiro took Pom Pom to a nearby park, where they made friends with several children and animals and chased two squirrels up a tree, and Pidge and Hunk managed to sneak into the arena to watch some of the championship, which is every bit as absurd and dangerous as they had expected.

Afterward everyone disperses again. Keith lingers in the lobby of the inn, trying to decide if he should bring his tablet down here to read or go back to the room. He doesn’t feel like being alone, but he’s worn out from all the talking at dinner so he doesn’t want to speak to anyone either. He goes up to his room anyway, hoping that maybe Shiro or Krolia are there and would be okay with him sitting quietly in the same space as them.

The room is empty. Keith takes his tablet and starts to head back to the lobby. As he nears the end of the hallway he sees that the door to the room Hunk and Lance are sharing is ajar.

He peeks in. Lance is lying on one of the beds, staring at the ceiling.

Keith frowns. He knocks on the door. Lance turns his head.

“Oh.” He smiles halfheartedly. “Sorry, I thought I’d closed it all the way.”

Keith wavers at the threshold. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Keith enters, toeing off his shoes and leaving them by Lance’s next to the door. Lance sits up.

“Are you okay?” Keith asks, sitting cross-legged on the other bed. He’s so startled to finally be on a real bed that he forgets he’s in the middle of a conversation; it occurs to him that he hasn’t sat on a real bed since he left for the mission where he found Krolia, so many months—years—ago.

He blinks out of the odd sensation in time to hear Lance’s response.

“Yeah,” he says again, with another weak smile. “Just—I don’t know.” He shakes his head, as if trying to rid himself of something. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was a good day and nothing bad happened but I still—I don’t know.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“Is it okay if I stay here for a while?” Keith asks. He holds up the tablet. “I want to read but I don’t really want to be alone right now.”

Lance nods. Keith might be imagining it but it looks like he brightens a little.

“I can play my game some more,” he says, reaching into his backpack for his own tablet. “I’ve almost beat level fifteen.”

They sit like that for over an hour, each of them occupied with their own activity, the silence broken only by Lance’s occasional exclamation at something in his game or Keith’s huffs whenever something funny happens in his book. Eventually Lance throws the tablet aside.

“Hey,” he says.

Keith looks up. He blinks, confused in the way he usually is when he’s been reading for a long time and has to remember where he is in the real world.

“Did you know I’m a thumb war champion?” Lance says.

This is not helping Keith’s confusion. “What?”

“A thumb war champion,” Lance repeats. “I’ve beat all my siblings and cousins. The only people I haven’t beat are my nieces and nephews but that’s cause they’re little and I have to let them win.”

“How can you be a champion at thumb war?” Keith asks. “There’s no strategy to it.”

“Excuse you,” Lance says, outraged. “There is tons of strategy to thumb war.”

“There is not.”

“There is!”

“Fine.” Keith sets down the tablet and moves to sit on the edge of the bed so he’s facing Lance. He holds out his hand across the gap between the beds. “Let’s do a thumb war right now.”

“Prepare to be destroyed!” Lance says.

He mimics Keith’s position and takes his hand. His hand is warm, and so much bigger than Keith’s, and despite all their battles it’s soft from his skincare regimen, and fucking hell this is a really bad idea, why did Keith volunteer this, and—

—and he’d better stop fixating on Lance’s hand and pay attention, because he is in the middle of a very serious thumb war and he has to focus.

In the end it doesn’t matter, because despite focusing it turns out Lance’s status as thumb war champion remains unchallenged.

“How,” Keith asks, appalled as Lance traps his thumb for the sixth time in a row. “Are you cheating?”

“I’m being strategic,” Lance corrects.

“You have an advantage,” Keith argues. “Your thumb is bigger.”

“Or maybe you’re just a sore loser,” Lance says, waggling his eyebrows. “I’m a champion, Keith, just accept it.”

You are a champion, Keith thinks, and as he thinks it he meets Lance’s gaze, and at any time it would be embarrassing but now, holding Lance’s hand, looking into Lance’s eyes, bright and brown and lit up from his victories, it’s—too much—and he feels like he can’t breathe, like he can’t catch his breath—and he can feel heat creeping up his neck, and he’s trying to find a way to distract from it when—

“Lance I can’t decide what to wear tomorrow!” Allura says, bursting into the room without preamble. One of the mice is clinging to her shoulder, a ribbon tied into a bow on their tail. “I want to wear my yellow dress and Romelle agrees but Hunk said maybe the pink trousers would be better suited for the forecast but we’re only going to be outside for a little while before going into the lions so—”

She breaks off, staring at them, Lance and Keith stare back at her.

“Why are you holding hands?” she asks curiously.

Keith chokes. Lance’s ears turn red, though he recovers in time to respond.

“We’re having a thumb war,” he says.

Allura’s brow crinkles. “A what?”

“Thumb war,” Lance repeats. “It’s a game we play on earth. Here, watch.” He turns to Keith, who has mostly managed to regain control of himself. “En garde!”

He pokes his thumb at Keith, who pokes back. For several seconds they go back and forth, Lance talking all the while.

“Ha—ah, almost got you—noooo—ohhhh no you don’t, no no no no!”

Keith puts up a valiant effort, but unsurprisingly Lance manages to pin his thumb yet again.

“One, two, three, four, five!” Lance counts off, then crows. “Ha! I win again!” He looks up at Allura. “Do you want to try?”

Allura nods, her eyes sparkling with the excitement of a new earth game to play. She sits down cross-legged on the bed beside Lance, who lets go of Keith’s hand and moves to take hers instead.

Keith tries to pay attention. He does. He really, truly, genuinely does, because Lance’s commentary is always entertaining, and Allura loves learning about earth customs, especially games, and he knows he should be encouraging when she tries something new.

But—

—but Lance is—

—Lance is holding her hand and their thumbs are sliding around each other and Allura is giggling—

—giggling at what a silly game this is, giggling in a way that’s carefree and delighted and fond—

—and Lance is grinning as he commentates, not his cheeky flirty smirk but a real grin, full and bright and sincere—

—and after a long minute Allura finally pins his thumb, and she looks directly at Lance, and Lance looks directly back, and they keep looking, they keep looking, why do they keep looking, why are Allura’s eyes still sparkling, why is Lance’s gaze so soft, why—

—why does Keith feel like he can’t breathe again, why does it feel so horrible this time, why does it feel like something sharp and cold is twisting in his chest, why—

He gets to his feet without really meaning to.

“I,” he says, then has to stop to take a breath, fight to keep from clenching his fists, from crossing his arms, from smashing something, like a bowl, or a tablet, or maybe his own head. “I’m gonna go sleep.”

Lance is still looking at Allura. “Sure, man,” he says. “Have a good night.”

Good night,” Allura says.

(looking looking looking why is she still looking at him why are Lance’s eyes so soft why—)

Keith turns away, as if not seeing it will make it go away, but he can still hear them, hear Lance say “Should we go for another round, princess?”, hear Allura eagerly agree, hear them resume their thumb war without any further acknowledgement of him. The cold feeling in his chest spreads, frozen aching tendrils clawing their way through his limbs.

He picks up his tablet from the other bed and walks out of the room.

.^.

The next four quintants are back to alternating between camping and sleeping in the lions, back to food cooked over a fire and a transporting toilet that is now full of the free toiletries they collected at the inn, back to loud conversations with everyone over the comms and quiet conversations with Lance, back to pretending to be asleep when Lance comes to lie down and sneaking peeks at him after his breathing evens out.

They reach Puig as scheduled. A Puigian diplomat comes to escort them to their hotel; it’s much more spacious than the inn, with enough rooms that the only people who have to share are Allura and Romelle. Pom Pom stays in Keith’s room, which is pleasant until Keith lies back on the mattress for half a second to figure out how many pillows he wants, and Pom Pom takes advantage of his position to clamber over him and plop down on his chest and close their eyes.

“Uh.” Keith scratches their ear. “Can you let me up, buddy?”

Pom Pom snores.

“You fall asleep so fast,” Keith marvels. He runs his fingers through their fur. “You’re lucky I love you.”

Another snore. Keith accepts his fate and settles for finding cool patterns in the swirls of paint on the ceiling. After a while there’s a knock at his door.

“It’s unlocked,” he calls.

The door opens. Lance enters and stops on the threshold.

“Are you—” He breaks off with a laugh, coming forward. “Is Pom Pom asleep on you?”

“Yup,” Keith says.

“Have you moved at all?”

Keith gives him an appalled look. Why the fuck would he move when Pom Pom is asleep? Who does Lance think he is? Some kind of monster?

“You’re gonna have to,” Lance says, in answer to Keith’s expression. “Hunk talked to Bachin, the guy who brought us here, and he said he needs to talk to you and Allura and Shiro. They’re meeting in Shiro’s room.”

Keith sighs. He sits up, careful to not let Pom Pom topple sideways. Pom Pom opens their eyes and stares at him accusingly.

“Sorry, buddy,” he says, and even though Lance is there he leans forward and kisses Pom Pom between the eyes. “We have a meeting in Shiro’s room.”

Pom Pom blinks, and Keith moves to slide off the bed, and then—

—and then he’s yelling, because there’s silver light surrounding him, and the room is spinning, and what the fuck is going on, and—

—and he lands hard on the floor of Shiro’s room, Pom Pom at his side, looking as smug as a wolf can look.

“You—” He scrambles to his feet. Allura and the diplomat, Bachin, are already there, seated on chairs they must have brought in from elsewhere and staring at him. “You can take people with you?”

Pom Pom wags their tail. Keith pats them on the head and sits on the bed by Shiro, and after a wary glance at Pom Pom, Bachin begins.

“Some of the Galra who had settled here before you freed us did not leave after independence, but retreated to the desert on the outskirts of the capital,” he says, pointing to various spots on a holographic map. “We have had a few brushes with them, though most conflicts are resolved quickly and without injury, since they are civilian Galra as opposed to members of military forces and do not have the means to attack us in any great number. However, this morning, four children, all under ten decaphoebs of age, were kidnapped from a school and taken to an ancient Puigian fort far outside the city.”

Children. Keith’s mouth twists.

“The kidnappers sent us a note,” Bachin says, pulling it up on the screen. It’s in Galran, so Keith reads it aloud for Allura and Shiro.

“We have your children and they are safe for now,” he reads. “You have twenty vargas to leave one million GAC by Foji Fort. You may only send two people. We will know if you try to trick us. If you do not follow our instructions we will”—he sets his jaw, mouth twisting again—“we will burn down the fort with the children inside.”

The screen switches back to the map. “We do not think they truly have the ability to know if we try to trick them,” Bachin says, “but as you can imagine we do not want to take any chances, since there are children involved. We were hoping that two of your paladins could take the ransom, to minimize the risk of any of the children being injured if these kidnappers do not honor their word.”

“Of course,” Allura says. She looks as sick as Keith feels. “We will most certainly help you.”

Bachin bows his head. “We are most grateful,” he says. He glances at Keith. “As the current Black Paladin, I assume you will be going, sir?”

Keith nods.

“Who will you take as your companion?”

“Lance,” Keith says immediately.

“It must be someone trustworthy,” Bachin insists. “We do not want to take any risks. That is why we chose to only speak to you three and not all of Voltron at once.”

Keith bristles a little. “All the paladins are trustworthy,” he says, through gritted teeth. “But I’m taking Lance.”

(he can feel the old Keith rising up, the one whose temper always bubbled just beneath the surface, the one who would have shouted—but he can control it now, tell himself to breathe, remind himself that this man’s caution is warranted when there are children involved)

“I’m taking Lance,” he says again.

“Lance is our most versatile paladin,” Shiro adds, shooting Keith a smile that says stay calm. “He and Keith work well together. If anyone can bring the children back safely, it’s them.”

Bachin’s reluctance lessens at Shiro’s reassurance. He agrees and the group disbands, Shiro and Allura going to inform the others and Keith to go find Lance.

Lance is still in the hallway by Keith’s room, looking in and out of it as if expecting Keith to reappear.

“Dude,” he says, as Keith approaches, Pom Pom trailing along behind him. “You just disappeared!” He throws out his arms. “What the heck was that?”

“Apparently Pom Pom can take people when they teleport,” Keith says, then, as Lance crouches to pet Pom Pom, “but there’s something more important we have to do.”

He explains everything to Lance, who looks caught between horrified and furious.

“We have to go right away,” Keith says, “and Bachin says we should follow the instructions to the letter, so even though everyone will be on standby in case of an emergency, only one of you can actually come to the fort with me.”

“Take Allura,” Lance says, “or Hunk, they’re both good at diplomatic stuff so if you have to negotiate they could—”

“I already said you’d come with me,” Keith interrupts.

“What?” Lance’s brow crinkles. “Why? It’d make a lot more sense to take Hunk or Allura.”

“I know, but he said.” Keith clears his throat. He feels oddly embarrassed. “He said it had to be someone that I, um, that I trust.”

There is a pause. Lance squints at him.

“Not that I don’t trust Hunk and Allura,” Keith adds quickly. “I do. But I just. I don’t know. I’d rather you come.”

Something passes over Lance’s face, too briefly for Keith to read, and then he’s back to his usual self.

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s go, Team Leader.”

.^.

They can’t take their lions the whole way.

“It would be too conspicuous,” Bachin says apologetically. “If the kidnappers see too soon that you are paladins they might react rashly.”

They take Red and fly about a half-hour out of the city, then land and take one of the automated carts that Puigian farmers use for the remainder of the way. It looks like the kind of cart that would be pulled by a bull back on earth, though it can be driven instead of relying on an animal.

Be careful, Red rumbles, as Keith climbs into the cart beside Lance, who frowns at the square steering wheel and looks in vain for some kind of keyhole or something to turn the cart on.

We will, Keith says, then yelps, because Lance figures out how to start the cart, and it jolts forward. He holds on to the briefcase of ransom money that Bachin gave him so it won’t fall off the cart, and after a couple more jolts, Lance finally gets the cart moving.

They spend the hour-long journey going over the plan and various backups. It feels weird to give in to the kidnappers’ demands and hand them the money, but they don’t know if they can rescue the children safely without doing so, and as Bachin said, they don’t want to take any risks.

“This is really fucked up,” Lance says after their third run-through of the plan. His voice sounds heavy, heavier than it usually sounds when they’re on a mission. “Who tries to hurt a bunch of kids?”

Keith clenches his fists, unclenches them, clenches the left one and runs his thumb over the side of his index finger. Thinking about it makes him so angry he feel like he can’t breathe, and he can’t feel like that now, not when he needs to be calm and levelheaded.

“We’ll get them back safe,” he says, when he can speak evenly. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”

He tips his head back to look up at the sky. The sun is shining, bright and blazing hot, baking the sand of the desert around them. The only sound is the whir of the cart, the clatter of their armor against the wooden seat, the thud of the briefcase and their helmets against the floor between Keith’s feet; the only smells are the strange sulfurous one that lingers in most of Puig, the sweat running down Keith’s neck, the smoke—

—the smoke—

“Keith,” Lance says, and it’s low, but it’s panicked, and Keith’s eyes snap to the landscape, straight ahead to—

“Fuck,” Keith says, without really hearing himself, “fuck—Lance, go, go—”

Lance slams the accelerator and they speed towards the already burning fort, dust and sand blowing around them as they go. For a moment Keith thinks it might be faster to run, but he discards that idea as soon as it comes; the fort is still far, much too far to run, terrifyingly far when he thinks of who is inside—

“They didn’t even get the money yet!” Lance shouts as they race towards the fort. “Why the fuck would they burn it down—”

He breaks off, reaches down for his helmet and tugs it on, speaking into the comm to update the other paladins, who tell them they will get their lions and head out to the fort as soon as they can. Keith puts his helmet on too, though he doesn’t talk much, just leans forward and wills the cart to go faster, casting his eyes around the fort to try to find a way in as they close the distance.

There’s a door on the west side that hasn’t been overtaken by the flames yet. Keith points to it and Lance nods, turning the cart so they head to that side. Lance stops a safe distance away and they both jump out, running to the entrance.

Up close the fire is loud, louder than Keith had expected; he remembers Bachin saying this fort is ancient, and he doesn’t doubt it based on the loud crashes of parts of the building already falling in. The smoke is overwhelming, thick and almost impossible to see through. Breathing through it would be an absolute nightmare without their helmets.

According to Bachin’s map the fort is two storeys and square, four hallways surrounding a large square courtyard in the center. They split up to cover more ground faster, Keith going left and Lance going right. Keith shouts every few seconds, strains to look inside rooms and listen for any response, but it’s hard with all the smoke and the crashes and the crackling of the fire.

After a few minutes he makes it to the part of the hallway that leads to the courtyard. He glances out and sees three small figures huddled beneath a large fallen piece of what looks like half-burnt balcony from the second storey.

He runs out, ducking to avoid another falling piece of balcony. He crouches by the children, who all shrink back from him. Their eyes are wide, their faces dirty and tear-streaked. The middle child is coughing badly and the smallest one can’t be more than five years old.

“I’m a paladin of Voltron,” he says, speaking loudly over the roar of the fire. “I’m here to help you, okay?” He holds out his hand. “Cover your mouths and noses with your sleeves. Can you all walk?”

They all nod. The two smaller ones cover their faces and start to crawl out, but the oldest one hesitates.

“Mina,” they say, their voice hoarse. “We can’t leave her.”

“Where is she?”

“Upstairs,” they say, pointing at a room in the corner of the second storey. “She tried to escape so they locked her in the room.”

Keith swears. Despite the gravity of the situation the smallest Puigian looks vaguely intrigued by it.

“We’ll get her out too,” Keith promises. He stands, speaking into his comm. “Lance, I found three of the kids in the courtyard, but they said the fourth one is locked in a room upstairs.”

Lance swears. Keith is glad the smallest Puigian can’t hear it.

“Which room?”

“Corner one on the east side,” Keith says. “Her name is Mina.”

“Okay, you get the kids out to the cart,” Lance says, “I’ll go get her and join you later.”

“Roger that,” Keith says, crouching to beckon the kids out once more. “Be careful.”

“You too,” Lance says.

The line goes quiet. The children crawl out from under the balcony, covering their faces with their sleeves.

“What about Mina?” the oldest one asks, their words muffled by the fabric. They use their free hand to hold the hand of the smallest Puigian, who clings close to them.

“Mina will come too,” Keith says, “but we gotta get you all out first.” He takes the hand of the middle Puigian, who squeezes his hand tight as they cough into their sleeve. “Come on.”

He takes the same route out that he had taken coming in. There’s a newly collapsed beam in the hallway that he has to lift the children over one by one, and by this point the fire is so unbearably hot that he’s worried one of the kids might faint of heat stroke before they can get out, but somehow—finally—he’s kicking aside a burning piece of roof by the west entrance, and picking up the smallest Puigian, whose knees give out with a little cry at the last second, and carrying him out of the fort, the other two children close behind.

When they get to the cart, Keith puts the smallest child in the back part of it and indicates for the other two to sit by him. They all uncover their faces, coughing and breathing in the clean air.

“We’re out,” he says into his comm. “How close are you?”

The line crackles. “The room was already half burnt by the time I got to it,” Lance says. He’s breathing hard; he must be running as he talks. “She wasn’t in it, I think she got out and hid somewhere. I gotta look for her.”

Keith takes half a step towards the fort. “I’ll come help—”

“Then you’ll be stuck in here too,” Lance interrupts fiercely. “Someone’s gotta stay with the kids you already got out. What if the Galra come back? And we can’t wait too long, you gotta get them to a hospi—fuck!”

The line cuts.

“Lance?”

No answer. Not even an answering crackle, which means the comm isn’t working, which means—

Keith’s heart thuds. He breathes deep, in and out, clenches his fist and runs his thumb over the side of his index finger. Lance will be fine. Lance will get Mina, and they’ll both get out, and they’ll all go back to the capital, and everyone will be fine. Lance has been through worse and made it out.

But still—

—still—

He takes another deep breath. He turns to the children. “Are any of you hurt?” he asks.

They all shake their heads, though the middle one coughs. Bachin had put a big bottle of water in the front part of the cart, so Keith takes it out and offers it to the children, who take turns drinking from it. As they do so he speaks into his comm again.

“Shiro?” he asks. “Are you there?”

The line crackles. “I’m here, Keith. We’re coming, hang in there—”

“Lance isn’t responding,” Keith interrupts, too quick in his panic. He updates Shiro on the situation, eyes trained on the fort the whole time in hopes that he’ll see Lance emerge. “I think if we put out the fire there’d be a better chance at finding them than if we went in individually, but I don’t know how long that’d take.”

“Too long,” Shiro says. “We’re bringing water but we’re still a long way out from where you are and by the time we arrive it might be too late for that.”

Keith’s stomach twists. “So should I—should I go in—?”

“You have to stay with the kids,” Shiro says firmly. “If you can’t communicate with Lance you have no way of knowing where he is or when he’ll get out. What if you go in to look for him and he comes out? And we don’t know if the Galra will come back, and you need to get those kids to a hospital soon.”

“That’s what Lance said,” Keith mumbles, then, more clearly, “but I can’t—”

“You can,” Shiro says. “Lance is right.” His voice softens. “He’ll be okay, Keith.”

Keith doesn’t say anything. He clenches his jaw, frustrated.

“We’ll be there soon,” Shiro assures him. “We’ll get him and the child out. Just hang in there.”

“Okay,” Keith says shortly. “I will.”

The line cuts. He takes off his helmet and goes back to watching the fort. After a few seconds he feels a small hand touch his cheek, right over the Galra mark. He blinks, startled, and tears his gaze away from the fort to see the smallest Puigian staring at him.

“Galra,” he says simply.

“Yes,” Keith says. “Half.”

The Puigian stares for another moment, eyes very round. Then he pats Keith’s cheek and sits down on the floor of the cart to drink some more water. Keith turns again—

—and looks at the fort just in time to see the entire west side collapse.

Keith’s heart stops. The oldest child cries out.

“How will they get out?” they ask.

“They’ll figure out another way,” Keith says. He tries to sound reassuring, but the urge to go in is strong, so strong he feels like he might burst with the force of it. He wishes he’d kept track of the time; he has no idea how long they’ve been waiting, no idea when he should—

(no, his mind whispers. no, you will not leave him, no—)

(you have to eventually, says another, more logical part. the kids have to get back, they have to get to a hospital and get checked up—)

(no, says the first part, firmly, stupidly, no no no—)

(you must, says the second part, Lance and Shiro are right, even though you don’t want to you must—)

He clenches his fist, runs his thumb over the side of his index finger. His heart is going too fast now, tripping with panic, and he wants—he needs—he needs to go in—needs to—but he can’t leave the kids, and he can only stand here by the cart, staring at the fort, staring staring staring, fucking useless

“Come on,” he mutters, willing Lance to appear. “Come on, come on—”

He hears the middle child cough once more, so badly he’s worried they might not be able to breathe properly, and he knows they can’t wait much longer, knows that he needs to get them back to the city so they can see a doctor, needs to get all the children back to get checked up, but he can’t—he can’t

His eyes are stinging, and his heart is thudding, and his breaths are stuttering, and he can’t—

—he can’t just leave

“Get out, dammit,” he says, more loudly. “Come on—”

There’s more coughing. He turns to the cart and sees the middle Puigian curled up with their head in the oldest one’s lap.

“They do not feel well,” the oldest one says anxiously. “I—I want to wait for Mina but Juhi already had a cold and the smoke made it worse.”

(he can’t just leave, and yet—)

Keith looks at the fort, then looks at Juhi. He takes a deep breath.

“We should get them to the hospital,” he says. “The other paladins are coming, so they’ll get Mina out, okay?”

The oldest Puigian nods. Keith climbs into the front part of the cart. He checks to see if the kids are settled, then turns to start the cart—

Then freezes as he hears a roar, long and loud and familiar.

The oldest Puigian gasps and points. The children all gape, Keith gaping too, as the sky darkens, the sun blocked out by the huge metal body of Red as he swoops over the cart and lands by the fort.

Not again, he rumbles, and it’s angry, angrier than Keith has ever heard, and then Red goes right into the mess of burning wall and roof and debris, the flames not even scorching him as he knocks it all aside, clearing a path, a path billowing with smoke, a path from which—

Blue, Keith thinks, and he doesn’t know if it’s his mind or his heart or the entire fucking universe rejoicing at the sight of it. Blue, blue, blue

Blue and white armor, scorched black in some places, but he’s running, and carrying someone, emerging through the smoke like a vision, like a hallucination, like a goddamn miracle, because he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s—

Keith jumps down from the cart, his heart thundering with relief. The oldest Puigian sits up, craning their neck.

“Mina!” they shout.

Mina wiggles a few fingers weakly, in a sort of half-wave. Relief floods through Keith, so sudden he feels like he might pass out. They’re both okay, they’re both alive, they both—holy shit, they made it, they made it

Lance reaches the cart, panting. Red shakes off the debris clinging to him and flies over to the cart, rumbling with relief.

“Her leg is broken,” Lance says, his voice raspy. “Make some room so she can lie down.”

The children scoot aside and Lance gently places her in the cart. The oldest Puigian runs their hand over Mina’s forehead and the smallest one holds her hand.

“Are you hurt?” Keith asks.

Lance’s armor is beat up, and when he yanks off his helmet Keith can see there’s a crack in it, and he looks exhausted, and now that he’s up close Keith can see how gingerly he’s moving. But he smiles, the corner of his mouth crooking.

“I’ll be fine,” he says. “I just want to get the hell out of here.”

.^.

They wheel the cart into Red and Lance flies them back. They go straight to the hospital, where they’re all sent to various doctors to be examined and given a place to clean. Keith is discharged first; he heads to the waiting room and finds a few Puigians who he assumes are the children’s families, as well as Pidge, Shiro, and Krolia.

He starts to ask them if anyone knows why the kidnappers burned down the fort without having received the ransom yet, but he’s cut off by what feels like eighty people trying to hug him at once.

“You saved my baby,” says the Puigian who manages to get to him first. Keith awkwardly pats their shoulder. “I cannot thank you enough.”

The other families hug him and shake his hand in turn, and then a cannonball attacks him—Pidge, he realizes a second later, as she squeezes him tight—and then Shiro hugs him, squishing Pidge between them.

“I’m glad you are all right,” Krolia says, looking relieved.

“It’s Lance you should be worried about,” Keith says, with a little lurch in his stomach at the thought of how close it had seemed. “He was in there a long time.”

“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” Shiro says. “Meanwhile you should eat something.”

Keith shakes his head but Shiro forces him to come to the hospital cafeteria anyway and order some kind of weird sandwich. Keith eats it, less out of his own hunger and more to placate Shiro, then changes into his regular clothes, which Krolia had brought for him, and goes back to wait for Lance. Allura and Hunk call a couple times for updates in between their meetings with Bachin as they try to figure out what happened at the fort, and every time it makes Keith’s chest feel too tight that he has to tell them that he’s not out yet.

More than two hours pass before Lance shows up, wearing his old blue shirt and jeans as he walks into the waiting room. Keith sees the Puigians start to rise, but he’s too fast for them, and easily beats them to Lance.

“Hi,” Lance says, sounding slightly alarmed by the speed with which Keith is approaching him. “Are you—oh.”

Keith throws his arms around him and hugs him tight, tucking his face in Lance’s neck as Lance hugs him back. He smells like the citrus soap the hospital provided, like the space mall detergent they use to wash their clothes. He’s warm, and comforting, and alive, and okay, and it had seemed so close, so close, had seemed for a second like he wouldn’t—

Keith squeezes his eyes shut, takes a deep breath, opens them. He lets go of Lance, though he doesn’t step back.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he says quietly.

Lance smiles, the one that reaches his eyes, brightening the brown and crinkling the corners.

“Of course I’m okay, samurai,” he says, with a finger gun and a wink. “It’d take a lot more than a burning building to kill me.”

Keith huffs a laugh, pleased to see him act like this. Then Pidge is elbowing him so she can hug Lance, and Shiro does his hug where he squishes Pidge again, and the Puigians finally crowd around so they can thank Lance the way they thanked Keith, though there is one man who is particularly emphatic.

“Mina is my daughter,” he says. “I heard what lengths you went to in order to save her. I cannot possibly repay you.”

“Your daughter is a very brave girl,” Lance says, and Keith can see how the man’s expression glows. “Half the reason we were able to get out at all was with her help.”

Afterward Keith makes Lance eat a weird cafeteria sandwich, then Lance goes to pat Red’s paw and thank him for helping, then they all head back to the hotel to meet Bachin and Allura and Hunk.

“They learned of your arrival in the city and realized we would ask you to assist us,” Bachin says, once everyone’s gathered in Shiro’s room once more. “It appears that some higher-class Puigians have been working with them in the event that Puig is retaken by the Empire.” He scowls. “We have apprehended the spies and they will be punished accordingly.”

“I still don’t get why they burned it down, though,” Pidge says.

“We think it was partly panic at the prospect of dealing with Voltron,” Bachin says, “and partly as a show of force. To burn down an ancient Puigian fort with Puigian children inside—it would be a very heavy blow to us all.”

“I’m sorry the fort is destroyed,” Hunk says.

“The children are safe,” Bachin replies. He smiles, and the action changes his whole face, takes him from placid diplomat to delighted citizen. “That is what is most important.”

.^.

After yet another round of hugs, this time involving Hunk and Allura and Coran, Lance asks Keith if he wants to come visit the kids at the hospital.

“I called and they said it’s been a few hours, so they can have visitors,” he says. “I was gonna take them some candy.”

Keith agrees, so after cleaning up their armor a bit, they suit up and head over to the hospital, stopping along the way to buy two giant bags of candy from a Puigian supermarket. At the hospital they sign in, then head through the double doors of the children’s ward, where they see a small Puigian with braces on their legs, hand in hand with a nurse. The child blinks up at them—then gasps, so loud that for a horrible second Keith thinks they’re in pain.

But no—their face lights up, and they grin so hugely that their chubby cheeks grow even chubbier.

“LOOK!” they shout, pointing at Keith and Lance. The nurse tries to shush them but they ignore him. “IT’S PALADIN LANCE!”

Lance beams at the child and crouches down in front of them.

“The one and only,” he says, winking. The child giggles. “What’s your name?”

“Acoub,” they say.

Lance puts his bag of candy down and holds out his hand. Acoub puts their tiny hand in his and shakes it.

“Nice to meet you, Acoub,” Lance says. “Would you like some candy?”

Acoub nods eagerly. “Can my friends have some too?” they ask. They wave a pudgy arm behind them. “They all live in this hallway.”

“Of course!” Lance says, opening the bag so Acoub can pick out their candy. “Everyone can have some!”

Together Lance and Keith head through the hallway, stopping in each room to say hello to the children and hand out candy. Pretty much every room goes the same way: they peek through the doorway, the children either shriek and gasp or make a little ‘o’ with their mouth, and then erupt into giggles as Lance jokes around or blush as he compliments them.

“I like your dress,” he says to a Puigian child with long hair and green face markings.

“Pink is my favorite,” they say shyly.

“That’s my nephew’s favorite, too!” Lance exclaims, as if bowled over by the news. “I bet you and him would get along really well.”

Only a few of the children recognize Keith, though none of them know his actual name, which leads to some interesting arguments.

“IT’S THE MR BLACK PALADIN!” shouts one Puigian child, pointing and beaming.

“DON’T BE RUDE!” shouts his little sister, frowning. “HE’S THE MR BLACK PALADIN SIR.”

Keith does his best not to laugh, though it’s kind of hard when the kids are so adorable.

The rooms at the end of the hallway are where the children he and Lance had rescued are staying. Only Mina has to stay for a substantial amount of time; according to the nurse the rest of them will be discharged tomorrow morning.

They finally get proper introductions. The oldest child is Iraz, who is Mina’s best friend and the older sibling of the smallest Puigian, who is named Tehir. Juhi is their neighbor and “super smart,” Iraz says excitedly, “cause they’re younger than me and Mina but they’re in the same class as us!”

“Wow,” Lance says, sounding impressed. Juhi blushes. “That’s really awesome!”

Tehir doesn’t talk much, though he climbs down from his bed and comes over to Keith, staring up at him with round eyes. Keith stares back, unsure of what to do, and then Tehir wraps his arms around Keith’s leg like a koala around a tree.

“Uh.” Keith lets out a surprised laugh. “If you want a hug you could just ask.”

Tehir blinks up at him silently. Keith crouches, dislodges Tehir’s arms from his leg, and picks him up. Tehir rests his head on Keith’s shoulder and wraps his arms around Keith’s neck.

“He’s very clingy,” Iraz says apologetically.

“It’s okay,” Keith assures them. “I don’t mind.”

Lance is watching him, an odd look on his face. Keith catches his eye and furrows his brow questioningly, but he just shakes his head and goes back to talking to Juhi, though his ears are red.

Eventually they move on to Mina’s room. Mina is sitting up in bed, reading a book. When they come in she closes it and holds out her arms.

Lance hugs her. Keith looks away until it’s over; it feels like this is for them only, two people who made it out of a horrible situation together.

“How do you feel?” Lance asks.

“Better,” Mina says. Her voice is very deep for her age. “Aba brought me food from home so I don’t have to eat the hospital food.”

Lance chuckles. “Homecooked food is always better,” he agrees. “Do you have a favorite dish your aba makes?”

They stay for a while, talking about Mina’s favorite food and her classes at school and what kinds of books she likes. Lance brings Keith in for the last part of the conversation, claiming that he doesn’t read enough to keep it up and needs Keith’s help.

“He reads a ton,” Lance tells her, shooting Keith a smile. “He went through the entire library on the princess’s castle ship within a phoeb.”

“Woah,” Mina says, eyes wide.

“It wasn’t a very big library,” Keith says.

“He’s lying,” Lance stage-whispers. Mina giggles and Keith rolls his eyes. “There were like, fifty books in there.”

“Closer to thirty,” Keith corrects.

“That’s almost a book a day,” Lance points out. “That’s absurd.”

“That’s not that fast,” Mina says, with the pride of someone who’s about to announce that they’ve done something praiseworthy. “I once read two whole books in one day.”

“Whaaaat?” Lance sighs dramatically. “I can’t believe I’m surrounded by so many smart people.”

“You’re smart, too,” Keith says.

“Who said I wasn’t?” Lance asks indignantly, as Mina giggles again. “I’m a smart person surrounded by smart people.”

At length a nurse comes in, so Keith and Lance have to leave.

“That was really fun,” Lance says as they exit the ward and head out of the hospital. “I love kids so much.”

“You’re really good with them,” Keith says. “I never know how to talk to them.”

“I have a lot of practice with my cousins and nieces and nephews,” Lance says. He gives Keith a sideways glance, smiling slightly. “And you didn’t do too bad! Tehir wouldn’t let go of you! And the kid with the overalls said you’re his favorite paladin.”

“I think you’re the kids’ favorite paladin,” Keith corrects.

“Of course I am,” Lance says, puffing his chest out. Keith snickers. “I’m everyone’s favorite paladin.”

Keith looks at him, at this person who is brave and bright and runs through a burning building to save a child he doesn’t even know.

Mine too, he thinks, and the thought curls through him, embarrassing in its intensity, and he has to pretend he’s wiping sweat off the back of his neck so he can hide the blush creeping up it.

.^.

They leave Puig the next morning, laden with fresh supplies and presents from Puigians. It’s mostly food, though Mina’s father gives Lance a scarf.

“From my mother,” he says, as he hands it to Lance. “She wished for me to give this to you as thanks for rescuing her granddaughter.”

The scarf is pale gold, with intricate white threading in swirly patterns, thin enough that it could be worn as protection from the sun’s rays without feeling overheated. Lance thanks him, and after some last-minute scrambling (Pidge can’t find one of her chargers and Coran thinks he might have left his mustache trimmer at the hotel) the team sets off for Olkarion.

.^.

This leg of the trip feels smoother. Black starts responding more, mostly chuckles whenever Keith scowls at Shiro for telling Krolia an embarrassing story about him as a kid.

“I changed my mind,” Keith says, as Krolia cackles at the time Shiro caught him watching High School Musical while dancing along to the choreography. “Having more than one relative at a time is a nightmare.”

Black still doesn’t feel quite right, not in the way that Red always did, but for now it’s okay. In the meantime he talks to Red whenever he can, gets updates on how he’s doing with Lance.

Sings, Red rumbles during their first campout of this part of the journey. Better than you.

My singing is fine! Keith protests.

Keep telling yourself that, Red grumbles. Leandro sings real songs. Not made up songs.

Flyin’ in the Red Lion is a classic, Keith argues. You just have bad taste.

You just have bad voice.

Keith sighs and decides to give it up for now.

It’s easier too with Shiro and Krolia improving their Galran and Japanese respectively; the three of them talk to one another in an rapid-fire mix of English, Galran, and Japanese, which makes Pidge ask them dozens of questions about translation and wordplay and makes Hunk hold up his hand to Keith during a campout.

“Multilingual buddies!” he says, as Keith gives him a high five.

But what’s easiest is his conversations with Lance. Whereas before they would call each other, then wait for the other’s answer, then say hello and how has your day been, now they just have to see that the line has connected before they start talking:

“Did you see that asteroid?” Keith asks without preamble, as soon as Lance answers. “That was fucking huge.”

“I know!” Lance half shouts, throwing out his arms. “I was just about to call you! It was bigger than Black!” His hands fall into his lap. “Why do you think it was patterned like that, though?”

Keith shrugs. “Pidge or Hunk might know,” he says. “We could ask them.”

“Maybe later,” Lance says. He leans back in his chair. “Whatchu been up to?”

“KEITH!” Lance yells into the screen the next evening, the second Keith presses accept on the call. “Kaltenecker tried to eat my sleeve!”

Keith snickers.

“This is not funny!” Lance protests. He holds up his arm; even through the screen Keith can see the dampness on the end of his sleeve. “She’s never done this before! I was taking a nap and she just ambled over and CHOMP. Right on my sleeve. It was terrifying.”

Until now Keith hadn’t realized how much awkwardness had still lingered between them since his return, but now, with them saying the same thing at the same time, with Keith saying hey did you do the thing and Lance saying yeah don’t forget you gotta do the other thing too, with them knowing exactly what the other means even though the others give them bewildered looks—now, it’s fine.

It’s more than fine. It’s fantastic.

.^.

(and every night that they camp, after everyone else has fallen asleep, Keith still looks)

(looks and looks and looks)

(looks at him, illuminated by starlight and moonlight and the soft glow of the lions’ eyes)

(looks at a long neck and constellation freckles and the neon color of the t-shirt he wears to sleep, the Pocket Monster on the front making him think of Lance’s face lighting up when he lent him the money to buy it)

(looks at this person who is so close to him, so close he could reach out and touch his shoulder, his cheek, his forehead, so close and—)

(—so far—)

.^.

(so close and so far, because he and Allura touch each other so casually now, a hand at a shoulder or a one-armed hug)

(so close and so far, because he is so kind to her, and speaks so gently to her, and tries so hard to make her laugh—)

(laugh and laugh and laugh)

(and Keith hates himself for it, but he burns—)

(burns and burns and burns)

(burns when he sees Lance’s expression brighten at the sight of her, burns when he sees how pleased Lance is that he’s made her laugh—)

(burns when he hears Lance says princess in that voice, low and soft and fond, burns with how badly he wants to hear him say Keith like that)

(burns when he thinks of Lance’s hands cupping his face and Lance’s mouth warm on his, burns when he thinks of how it will never happen, how it will be Allura’s face that he cups in his hands and Allura’s mouth that he covers with his own)

(he burns, burns and burns and burns, and he breathes out, long and slow, looking at this person who is so close and so far, untouchable and unreachable and not for him, never for him)

.^.

Their third night after leaving Puig, they camp on a planet almost completely covered with forests. They fly around for over an hour trying to find a space big enough for all the lions to land, but in the end have to settle for landing the lions separately in the few clearings that they can find, since it’s getting dark and they’re too tired to go another night in the lions. Hunk and Lance manage to find one big enough for both their lions, so they won’t have to sleep alone overnight, something Pidge expresses some anxiety about.

“I know it’s kinda dumb,” she says, as the lions descend, “but I really don’t want to be on my own for the whole night. I mean, I guess I have Green, but I’d like a person.”

“It’s not dumb,” Keith assures her. “I’ll ask Shiro and see if he can stay with you for tonight.”

Shiro agrees, so Keith drops him off in the clearing where Green landed before heading on to the one that’s big enough for Black to land in. Keith and Krolia take a walk around the clearing to stretch their legs before taking their sleeping stuff out of the lion. The trees look like evergreens, though they’re dark purple instead of green, so Keith supposes they should be called everpurples. They’re very tall, taller than Black, so tall Keith has to crane his neck to see the tops, which frame a dark blue sky sprinkled with stars. The grass in the clearing looks like normal grass, dotted with flowers the same shade of green—

Did one of the flowers move?

Keith points it out to Krolia. Together they approach the flower, squinting to see in the dark. Upon closer inspection it’s not the flower that’s moving, but a tiny creature climbing resolutely up its stem. It’s so pale it’s practically see-through, barely the size of his thumbnail, and it kinda looks like a gummy bear.

Keith looks round and sees more of them, tiny translucent sentient gummy bears, all clinging to various flower stems and petals. He hears a displeased rumble in the back of his mind.

They are climbing up my paw, Black says, sniffing. Insolent pests.

They’re just confused, Keith says soothingly, going over to rescue the bears from Black’s paw. He cups his hands and they crawl into his palms, making small squeaking noises. He deposits them on the nearest flower. I’d be confused too if a gigantic lion and two aliens and a blue wolf suddenly burst into my house.

“Speaking of which,” he says aloud, and bends to look Pom Pom right in the eyes. “Hey. Do not eat any of the bears. Okay?”

Pom Pom just stares.

“Do not,” Keith repeats sternly, then goes into the lion to get Pom Pom their dinner. A full Pom Pom is a Pom Pom much less likely to terrorize innocent alien gummy bears.

“I hope we haven’t already stepped on any,” Krolia says as Keith comes back out. She peers at the grass as she spreads the sleeping bags, careful to avoid crushing any bears. “They appear to be harmless.”

“Yeah, they’re just cute,” Keith says. “I wonder what they’re called.”

“Coran might know,” she says. “In the meantime we should eat.”

Everyone had agreed to settle for cold sandwiches in their separate clearings since it wouldn’t be possible to all gather in one place to cook a meal for the group. The transporting toilet was a bit of an issue, until Keith remembered that Pom Pom could teleport with people.

“The bathroom can stay with you all,” he’d said to Coran as they’d landed, “and if someone needs to use it they can call me and I’ll send Pom Pom over and they can teleport with them to where the bathroom is.”

It makes bedtime a bit chaotic, with Pom Pom poofing in and out of the clearing and looking more and more exasperated with each trip, but at last everyone’s finished, and Pom Pom flops down beside Keith’s sleeping bag, their head resting on his chest. Krolia’s asleep within minutes, but Keith lies awake for a little while, running his hand through Pom Pom’s fur.

“Sorry, buddy,” he whispers, as Pom Pom gives him a betrayed look. “I didn’t mean for you to have to do so much teleporting tonight.”

Pom Pom huffs through their nose.

“Aw, you’re not really mad, are you?” Keith asks. He shifts, taking hold of each of Pom Pom’s ears. He moves them, back and forth and side to side, as he sings under his breath. “My baaaabyyyy is maaaad at meeee…”

You sing as badly as Red says you do, Black rumbles from across the clearing.

Why is Red talking to you about my singing? Keith asks. He wants to sound outraged, but it’s hard with Pom Pom now wagging their tail and smiling, so he ends up sounding more amused than anything else.

There is a long pause, then Black says, the rumble very soft, He misses you.

Keith lets go of Pom Pom’s ears.

Oh, is all he says.

Leandro is a good paladin, Black goes on, and Red loves him. But he wishes he could have both of you.

I don’t think it’s possible to share a lion, Keith says, with something between a scoff and a laugh.

You’d be surprised, Black says.

Keith blinks. He sits up—Pom Pom grumbles as their head slides off Keith’s chest—and stares at Black.

What?

Black doesn’t respond.

Black. Keith grits his teeth. This is not the time for ignoring me.

Still no response. Keith sighs and lies back down, reaching out to pat Pom Pom’s head apologetically.

“Fucking obnoxious,” Keith mutters. “C’mon, buddy, let’s just go to sleep.”

.^.

“Keith! Keith!”

Keith wakes with a jolt. He sits up, his heart beating fast at being awoken so suddenly, and looks round to see Pidge crouched by his sleeping bag, her eyes round with fright and her face pink in the way it is when she runs too much.

“What is it?” he asks, alarmed by her expression. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s Shiro,” she whispers. “I was up working on a project and when I looked over he was thrashing around in his sleep. I think he’s having a nightmare and I don’t know what to do.”

Keith scrambles out of the sleeping bag. Pidge gets to her feet and starts to head to one of the paths leading out of the clearing, but Keith shakes his head and beckons her back.

“It’ll be faster if we teleport,” he says. He shakes Pom Pom awake, guilt shooting through him as they open one eye and glare at him. “I’m sorry, buddy, but Shiro needs us. Can you take us to him?”

Pom Pom opens both eyes. Pidge hurries over and puts her hand on Pom Pom’s fur, and then they blink.

Suddenly they’re in the clearing with the Green Lion. The sleeping bags are just beside Green’s right paw. Keith runs over and sees that Shiro’s managed to throw off his blanket with all his movement. His eyes are still closed, but he’s shaking, his brow furrowed like he’s in pain, his hand swiping through the air as if fighting someone off.

“Shiro.” Keith kneels by him and touches his shoulder, leaning to avoid his swinging hand. “Shiro, wake up. Wake up.”

It takes a few more tries, Pidge interjecting with her own soft, “wake up, Shiro, wake up,” but eventually Shiro’s eyes snap open. He blinks at Keith and Pidge, unseeing, then his hand drops to his side and he sits up. He’s still shaking, and he sounds like he can’t breathe, inhaling too deep and too raggedly. He ducks his head but even in the dark Keith can see that his eyes are wet.

“It was a bad dream,” Keith tells him gently. He puts his arms around him, holds him tight as if he can stop the shaking if he hugs him hard enough. Pidge does the same on the other side of him. She still looks scared, though it’s tinged with relief. Pom Pom puts their head in Shiro’s lap. “It wasn’t real. You’re okay now.”

“I’m sorry I woke you up,” Shiro manages between gasps.

“It’s okay,” Keith assures him. “You don’t have to be sorry. I’m glad we could be here.”

For a long minute the three of them sit there, wrapped in their little group hug. Keith feels Shiro’s shaking slowly subside, until it stops entirely. He feels him breathe in and out, the first even breath since he woke up.

“Thank you,” Shiro says quietly.

“It’s no problem,” Pidge says. “Do you feel better now?”

Shiro nods. Pidge and Keith let go of him.

“You should sleep,” Shiro says. He scratches Pom Pom’s ear and in return the wolf snores loudly. “You’ll need your rest for tomorrow.”

“I’m not tired,” Pidge says, then yawns viciously.

Shiro gives her a stern look.

“Okay, fine,” she grumbles. She scoots over to her sleeping bag and tucks herself inside of it. “Geez, it’s like travelling with your dad…”

She drops off quickly, light snores to match Pom Pom’s growly ones.

“Don’t even try,” Keith says, as Shiro opens his mouth. “I’m not gonna leave you alone.”

For a second it seems like he might argue, but Shiro just closes his mouth and continues to scratch Pom Pom’s ears.

Keith stretches out his legs in front of him. Both he and Shiro are wearing the same kind of plaid pajama pant and dark blue t-shirt, since Krolia’s affinity for matching clothes applies to sleepwear as well. It’s a little odd, but Keith doesn’t mind it that much, even if it means they’d had to wear bright yellow-and-green striped sweaters the other day when it’d got cold in the lion. He’d rather wear dorky clothes and match with his family then wear normal clothes and have no family at all.

He looks at Shiro, who’s watching Pom Pom, smiling a little at the way the wolf’s nose twitches in their sleep. Keith doesn’t what it is—maybe the clothes, or the nightmare, or the fact that he’s been able to see him so many days in a row after such a long separation—but he’s overcome with a rush of affection for him, for this person he has lost and found so many times.

He hugs him again, his arms winding around Shiro from the side, his head tucked against Shiro’s shoulder.

Shiro huffs with surprise. “You okay?”

Keith nods. Shiro returns the hug, a bit awkwardly since Keith is sitting to his right. They sit like that in silence for a long minute, then Keith says, very quietly, “I’m gonna take Krolia to dad’s grave.”

“I’m glad,” Shiro says. “It’ll give her some closure.”

Another silence.

“I’m not sure I ever said this,” Shiro says, “but I’m very happy you found her. I know how much it bothered you that you never knew why she left you.”

“It still kinda bothers me,” Keith says. Admitting it isn’t as uncomfortable as he thought it’d be, though he doesn’t know if it’s because he’s somehow gotten better at it or because it’s easier when he’s not looking at Shiro directly. “She said she left to protect me, and I get that, but—I don’t know. You always say it’s best to stay with the people you love.”

“Not everyone has my share of wisdom, Akira,” Shiro says primly, and Keith has to muffle his snicker so he won’t disturb Pidge. Shiro’s voice softens. “It’s okay if you still feel weird about it. Reconciliation takes time. But you should know that she loves you and that she made the decision that she felt was best at the time, even if it turned out to be a mistake.”

“I know,” Keith says. He lets go of Shiro so he can look at him properly. “What about your mom? Are you excited to see her?”

“Of course,” Shiro says, smiling, then, the smile lessening, “though a little nervous, too. She thinks I’m dead—or thought I’m dead, depending on how much the Garrison and Commander Holt tells her before we arrive. There’s going to be a lot of crying when I see her again.” He exhales hard. “Once I get to hug her again I’m not going to let go for at least a week. At least.”

Keith smiles at the thought. He has another question, another person he wants to ask about, but—

“Go ahead,” Shiro says, sounding caught between resignation and amusement. “I can tell you want to ask, it’s written all over your face.”

“You don’t have to talk about him if you don’t want to,” Keith says, all in a rush, “it’s just that I know he still loves you and he’d be really happy to see you again and—”

“Goodness,” Shiro says, suppressing his laughter, “you’ve been holding this in for a while, haven’t you?”

“Adam still loves you,” Keith repeats, earnestly. “When we got the news about—you know—he came and talked me through everything and he knew something was wrong and when I got kicked out he would bring provisions to the shack, like food and batteries—”

“—and a home inspector, hopefully,” Shiro interjects, “cause that shack was nowhere near safe to be living in—”

“—and he would help me go over theories and do research,” Keith continues stubbornly. “And maybe he did it cause he knows me and wanted to make sure I was doing okay but he—his face when he came to talk to me after the news broke—Shiro, he—he loves you. He still does.”

Shiro looks at him steadily for a moment, then looks down at his lap. He pats Pom Pom’s head, as if he doesn’t know what else to do with himself.

“I still love him,” he says finally, quietly, so quietly Keith has to strain to hear it. “But it’s been a long time. A very long time.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Keith says firmly. “If he loves you then that doesn’t matter.”

(had he not been apart from Lance for two years, not seen him for two years, not seen his face or his hands or his eyes, not heard his voice or his laugh or the precise way he says hey, mullet ?)

(had he not thought of him every single day anyway, thought of his pointy chin and his slender fingers and his long lashes, thought of his rasp and his chuckle and the precise way he says hey, man ?)

“That doesn’t matter,” Keith says a third time, more slowly, because it’s just—occurred to him—that the swooping in his stomach, the happiness in his heart, the way his breath catches when he looks Lance in the eyes, overcome by how bright and brown they are—it’s not a crush, it’s far past a crush, passed it ages and ages and ages ago—

He shakes himself out of it, though his heart beats fast, quick quick quick, tripping and thudding and trying to leap out of his chest and into the hands of the person it wants most. He can examine his own disastrously intense feelings later; for now he needs to make sure his brother knows that his own feelings are reciprocated by the man waiting for him at home.

“I’m sorry if it feels like I’m pressuring you,” he says. “But I know that if you talked to him he would listen. It would take time, but—but like you said. Reconciliation takes time.”

The corner of Shiro’s mouth quirks. “I hate when you use my own words against me.”

“They’re smart words,” Keith says, with a grin.

Shiro sighs. He scratches Pom Pom’s ear, which Keith knows is him trying to fill the silence as he thinks.

“I’ll talk to him,” he says at last.

Keith inwardly cheers.

“But I want you to come with me,” Shiro adds. “He’ll be less likely to slam the door in my face if you’re there, too.”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Keith says confidently. “But I’ll come anyway. For moral support and stuff. But as soon as you two start making out I’m gonna leave.”

Shiro makes a face and Keith has to muffle another snicker.

They talk for what feels like hours, about the Garrison and Adam and the time Shiro somehow burned a pot of water (“I still don’t get how that happened,” Shiro says, appalled, as Keith strains to hold in his laughter so he won’t wake up Pidge. “Was there something in it? Invisible tea? How the hell does a pot of water burn?”). As they talk the sky lightens, blue-black to deep blue to pink and yellow streaks, the sun peeking over the horizon.

“Sorry I kept you up,” Shiro says. “It’ll be really annoying for you to fly Black with no sleep.”

“It’s okay,” Keith says, and it is, because it’s dumb to be sorry about something that makes him feel so warm and light. “Brothers are supposed to be annoying.”

Shiro smiles, and ruffles his hair, and Keith can’t even find it himself to pretend to hate it this time.

.^.

Shiro flies with Pidge for the next part of the trip, to keep her company. Before they take off Keith runs back to Green’s clearing, the few letters he had written to Shiro back on the space whale clutched in his hand.

“For you,” he says, as Shiro takes them. “I forgot to give them to you earlier.”

Shiro opens the first one and reads the first few lines. He snorts.

“Did you give Lance his letters right away?”

Keith looks sheepish. Shiro laughs and tells him to get back to Black so they can all leave.

The first few hours are spent trying to get Pom Pom to not eat Keith’s sock and catching up with what everyone did on the planet in a group call. Apparently the clearing Blue had landed in was so full of the tiny gummy bears (“chobalu,” as Coran says they’re called) that the Alteans had had to make the trek to the clearing Lance and Hunk were in and sleep there.

“We called Hunk to let him know, but we forgot to warn Lance,” Allura says, as Romelle snickers in the background, “so when we entered the clearing he came out of the Red Lion wearing only a t-shirt and his—what are they called again?”

“Boxers,” Lance says, with a resigned sigh.

“Boxers,” Allura repeats, as Romelle’s snickers increase. “And they were patterned with dots. Pink dots.”

“Pink polka dots are a perfectly acceptable pattern for underpants,” Lance says indignantly, though his protest is drowned out by Allura’s giggles.

The others roast him for his underwear choices, and normally Keith would join in—or defend him, in this case, because he also owns a pair of pink polka-dot boxers and Lance is right¸ it’s a perfectly acceptable pattern—but he can’t, he can only sit here, because he’s a fucking horrible person and the only thing he can think about is Allura and Lance being—alone—in that clearing—well, not alone, not really, because Romelle and Hunk and Coran were there too—but still—none of them would have any reason to watch them closely, not like Keith—because unlike Keith they’re good friends who would understand if they want to be alone or want to sleep side by side, because unlike Keith they’re not a fucking monster who can’t get this cold twisting feeling out of their chest whenever he thinks of the two of them—together—whatever the hell that even means.

By the time he’s got a hold on himself they’ve moved on to a different topic, but it still lingers in the back of his head, Allura looking at Lance as he sleeps, looking looking looking the way Keith has always looked.

.^.

The inn they stop at next is on a planet of Pidge and Hunk’s choice. At first Keith isn’t sure why they picked this planet over the many other rest area planets along this route, but as soon as he sees the giant neon sign outside the inn, he understands.

“Really, guys?” he says, deadpan. “ ‘Biggest Rubber Band Animals in the Galaxy’?”

“I can’t believe we’re gonna see an alien roadside attraction,” Lance says, as they take their backpacks into the inn. “I hope it’s super tacky.”

The inn is a lot like the one they stayed in at the Pocket Monsters planet, with a bored desk clerk, complimentary breakfast, and the same rooming situation. After dumping their stuff and showering everyone troops over to a huge field a short walk away, where all the rubber band animals are made. There are only a few other aliens around, which is unsurprising since the rubber band animals are—

“Amazing,” Pidge says, awestruck.

“A marvel of engineering,” Hunk says, in a similar tone.

“Interesting,” Allura says politely.

“Tacky,” Romelle says, wrinkling her nose.

“Dumb,” Keith says.

“All of you are wrong,” Lance says gleefully, looking over the rubber band animals with delight. “They’re silly bands.”

Lance is right. They aren’t rubber bands, but silly bands, and it looks like each rubber band animal is made of silly bands that are in the shape of that animal: a zillion dog-shaped silly bands made into a giant dog, a zillion shark-shaped silly bands made into a shark, and so on.

“I always wondered what happened to those,” Shiro says. “For a while every one of my younger students would have twenty on each arm and then suddenly one day no one was wearing any at all.”

“And now you know their fate,” Lance says, throwing out his arms dramatically at the structures. “They were taken by aliens and made into the greatest silly band memorial the galaxy has ever known.” His arms drop. “Man, I had so many of those. I could cover my arms up to my elbows.”

“Didn’t you used to trade them during chemistry?” Keith asks.

Lance gives him a sideways look. Shiro coughs, though it sounds suspiciously like a laugh.

“How would you know,” Lance asks slyly, “Mr I-Don’t-Remember-You-From-The-Garrison?”

Keith sputters. “I don’t—it just took me a second—you just looked really different, okay?”

Different?” Lance repeats, still slyly. Shiro does his fake-cough-laugh again. “Please elaborate.”

Keith opens his mouth, closes it. He has a feeling that whatever he says will put him in a corner, will fluster him, and he really really does not want to be flustered right now, not when everyone else is here, not when Lance is standing so close to him, not when he’s deeply regretting his decision to keep his hair tied up because it exposes the heat creeping up his neck, not when Shiro’s doing his stupid fake-cough-laugh.

But then—he remembers—

“You were bigger,” he says finally, “and cooler, and more”—he smirks—“grizzled.”

Lance’s ears turn bright red. Shiro isn’t able to disguise his cough this time and laughs outright.

“All right,” Lance says, nodding in the way one does when reluctantly admitting defeat. “You win this round, mullet. Well played.”

Keith grins, and Lance grins back, and it looks almost—shy—and Keith’s heart skips a beat, and for a moment he thinks—maybe—

But then Allura says “Lance, come take my picture with this ellie-font!”, and Lance says “elephant, Princess, not ellie-font,” and they’re taking selfies, and their faces are so close, so close, their cheeks almost pressed together to fit in the frame, and his arm is around her shoulders and her hand reaches up to smoothen a stray curl of his hair and they look so comfortable together and Keith—

—Keith burns—

(burns and burns and burns and burns)

—and he has to exhale, long and slow, has to force a smile at their antics, has to remind himself that red ears mean nothing, and shy smiles mean nothing, because Lance is untouchable and unreachable and not for him, never for him.

.^.

There aren’t any planets safe to land on between the Rubber Band Animal one and Olkarion, so Coran tells everyone to exercise and eat well before leaving the next morning. Keith drags himself out of bed an hour early to take Pom Pom for an extra-long walk; even though teleporting between the lions lets them exercise the way a walk would, he still feels bad about how long they’re going to be cooped up, and he wants them to get as much fresh air as they can, even if it means he’s yawning into his sleeve as Pom Pom chases what looks like a cross between a bee and a moth.

He’s still yawning as he shuffles back inside for breakfast, Pom Pom trailing along behind him. As he heads to the counter to get some cereal (something that resembles Froot Loops), he overhears a group of backpackers at the corner table.

“…Black Paladin,” says one, a Balmeran. “I’m pretty sure!”

“He’s not wearing armor, though,” says another, a Puigian. “Don’t the paladins wear armor?”

“He’s not gonna wear his armor all the time, you dummy,” says the Balmeran.

“I’m with Shera,” says another Puigian. “I think if he were the Black Paladin he’d be like, cooler. He’s just wearing pajamas and a t-shirt. His hair isn’t even brushed!”

Keith bites back a grin and thanks his past self for not bothering to get dressed before leaving the room. He gathers his cereal and some food for Pom Pom from the animal-friendly section (“this is a safe space!” says the bubbly font on the sign beside it. “we do not discriminate against alien types and accommodate all diets!”), then goes to a table by the window to eat. A few minutes later Krolia comes in, already dressed (bright yellow and green striped sweater, Keith notes with resignation).

“Good morning, Yorak!” she says as she approaches, then frowns. “Your hair is a mess.”

“It’s genetic,” he says around his spoonful of cereal.

Krolia gives him a look, then takes out his hair tie from the pocket of her jeans. Keith is impressed that she came prepared. “At least tie it up.”

“My hands are busy,” Keith says, and uses his free hand to reach down and pet Pom Pom.

Krolia rolls her eyes and steps over to him, brushing back his hair from his face and into a ponytail. She ties it off, then pushes back his bangs and kisses his forehead.

“You should eat more than just cereal,” she says next. “I’ll make you a waffle. Do you want anything on it? Syrup, chocolate chips, anarberries?”

“Chocolate chips,” he says.

She heads over to the waffle maker. As she does so he sees the group of backpackers get up and leave, and as they pass he hears the Balmeran say, “Okay, I think you guys are right, this guy is way not cool enough to be Black Paladin. What kind of loser lets his mom kiss him in public?”

Keith looks at his pajamas, which match with his brother’s; at his wolf, who is giving him their best big round eyes in an attempt to get some of his cereal; at his mama, who is cussing out the waffle she has somehow already managed to burn.

He smiles and takes another bite of cereal. If this is what is means to be a loser, then Keith is definitely okay with being a loser.

.^.

The four quintants til they reach Olkarion aren’t as bad as Keith had anticipated. It’s not fun being cooped up for that long, and poor Pom Pom has to teleport people to the bathroom in the Blue Lion, but there’s still plenty to do. Keith reads, and draws, and plays with Pom Pom, and talks to the others, and sometimes just stares out of the window at the stars. He filled two years on a space whale with only a fraction of the distractions and communications abilities that he has now; filling four quintants isn’t a problem at all.

Shiro gets a chance to read the letters. He waits until Krolia is asleep on the second quintant, then hugs Keith.

“You don’t need to worry about making me proud,” he says. “I’m already proud of you.”

Keith nods. His throat feels tight, so he just hugs him back.

“Also—” Shiro breaks off and ruffles Keith’s hair. “ ‘Aw, Akira. This is so sappy.’ ”

Keith scowls.

“You said you’d try not to scowl,” Shiro reminds him.

Keith rearranges his scowl into a very broad, very fake smile. Shiro rolls his eyes and ruffles his hair again for good measure.

.^.

They reach the Olkarion capital in late afternoon. Ryner welcomes them as they exit the lions, politely ignoring Pidge and Hunk’s dramatic gasps about “fresh air!” and “I’d forgotten what it was like to walk!”

“I’ve taken the liberty of arranging dinner at the hotel,” she says, as they follow her to the hotel in the middle of the city. Keith wishes she would walk faster; after being in Black for so long he wants to run, to stretch his legs and feel the wind on his face. “Tomorrow morning, if it’s all right with you”—she addresses Shiro—“we can take the measurements for your prosthetic.”

She tells them about their accommodations next. There are three singles, which the team immediately allots to Coran, Krolia, and Shiro.

“Is this because we’re the oldest?” Krolia asks, one eyebrow raised.

“Watch who you’re calling old,” Coran says, puffing out his chest. “I could still run the length of the Sarakian highway without stopping if I wanted to!”

“It’s just as well,” Shiro says, shrugging. “I won’t have to put up with anyone’s snores.”

“You mean none of us will have to put up with your snores,” Keith corrects, as Lance and Pidge snicker.

The other rooms are a triple and two doubles. Pidge wants to room with Matt, who will be arriving soon, but Hunk also wants to bunk with him, so they decide to take the triple. Which leaves Allura and Romelle for one of the doubles, which means—

Fuck. Fuck.

“Guess you’re stuck with me,” Lance says, grinning as he bumps Keith’s shoulder with his own.

Keith looks at him, all curly hair and rumpled t-shirt and broad shoulders. Part of him is terrified at the prospect of being alone in the room with him for two nights, but part of him—

Part of him is settled, and content, something gentle blooming within him at the thought of having Lance to himself for all that time.

“Not stuck,” he says finally, with half a smile. “I’d want to room with you even if we weren’t the only ones left.”

Lance blinks, startled, and he opens his mouth as if to answer, but then Ryner is talking about the various tourist attractions that they’ll be able to access for free during their visit, and Keith has to settle for the smile Lance sends his way, small and swift and strangely grateful.

.^.

The hotel is eleven storeys tall and much fancier than any of the others they’ve stayed in, so fancy that it makes Keith think of the five-star hotels that he’s seen in movies. As they check in he sees a robot, about the same size as Pidge, zoom through the lobby and into an elevator, holding a tray of food. Another one comes out of an elevator holding a tray with an empty glass on it.

“Room service robots,” Pidge says, starry-eyed. “Can I test one out?”

“Of course,” says the desk clerk. “Room service is available round the clock and complimentary for all of your party.”

Pidge’s eyes gleam behind her glasses. Shiro warns her not to order too much—“even if it’s free we shouldn’t take advantage of it,” he says—but Keith has a feeling he’ll be hearing those robots zoom back and forth in their hallway for the entirety of their stay.

The room he and Lance are sharing is at the end of the hall on the tenth floor. Instead of a key, the clerk had taken everyone’s fingerprints and told them to simply press their hand to the silver circle in the center of the door. Lance does so—“it kinda tickles,” he says, his nose wrinkling—and the door swings open. They head inside, Pom Pom trailing along behind them.

“Whoa,” Lance says, gaping.

Whoa is right. The black-and-white furniture in the room is what Keith would expect—two beds with a nightstand between them, a desk and chair, an armchair, a minifridge, and a television—but the far wall is just a giant window, letting in the fading sunlight so it washes the room with a pale glow.

Pom Pom jumps onto the armchair and curls up in it, growling happily. Lance dumps his backpack on the bed closest to the wall-window and walks over to it.

He knocks on the window and makes a surprised sound. “Dude, this is so weird. It feels like a regular wall.”

Keith puts down his backpack and goes over to the wall-window, flattening his palm to it. It feels like it’s made of cement, though it looks like a giant window pane, with a view of the busy main boulevard of downtown. He looks round and sees a small remote on the desk. He picks it up and presses the top button.

A giant square in the middle of the wall whooshes open, swinging inward. Lance yelps and jumps back just in time not to get hit.

“Okay, so I guess part of it is a regular window and the rest is a wall,” Keith says.

“Try another button,” Lance suggests.

Keith pushes the second button. The window swings shut. The third button drops long silvery curtains and the fourth rolls them back up. The fifth one turns another giant square of wall completely black, which confuses them until a message flashes over it in capital letters. The first is in Olkari, then a language Keith doesn’t recognize, then Galran.

“It’s room service,” he tells Lance, squinting at the symbols. “It’s touchscreen so you just click on the language you know and it’ll take you to a menu.”

The other buttons turn different squares of wall into similar screens: one for contacting the front desk, one for information about the hotel and its amenities, and one for maps and information about the city. They spend a lot of time on the map, finding places they’ve been before and where they are now, until Lance glances at the clock on the desk.

“If we don’t leave soon we’ll be late for dinner,” he says. “You want the bathroom first?”

“You can go,” Keith says.

Lance gathers his stuff and goes to shower. The sun has pretty much set by now, so Keith looks round for a light switch. There’s one by the desk and one above the nightstand, but both just create lamp-like glows above each space, and he needs something bright enough for the whole room.

He finds a light switch next to the bathroom door. He flips it—

—and hears a shout from within the bathroom.

“Sorry!” he calls, though he can’t help a laugh. “I’m trying to find the light!”

“Turn it back on!”

Keith flips it again. By the time Lance is finished Keith has managed to find the overhead light beside the front door. He gathers his stuff and goes into the bathroom, and has just gotten into the shower when—

“LANCE!” he shouts, as the light goes off. “TURN IT BACK ON!”

“REVENGE!” Lance yells, with an evil cackle.

“I DID IT ON ACCIDENT!” Keith shouts.

“SUUUURE YOU DID!”

“Oh my god,” Keith mutters.

After a couple seconds the light turns back on. Keith scowls in the direction of the door and goes on with his shower.

.^.

They have dinner in the hotel restaurant. It’s pretty uneventful, though Matt shows up halfway through, which makes Pidge positively burst with excitement and makes Shiro smile bigger than Keith has seen in a while.

“It’s good to see you in person after so long,” he says, getting up to hug him.

“It’s good to see you too, sir,” Matt says. “We gotta catch up sometime.”

“Well I died,” Shiro says dryly, “but I’m okay now.”

Matt looks like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or not, but then Keith snickers, so he just smiles awkwardly and sits down between Pidge and Shiro.

Afterward Keith decides to take Pom Pom for a walk. Lance comes along too, claiming to be too restless to go to bed yet, so together they head out of the sliding doors and onto the sidewalk. It’s a nice night, pleasantly warm, with a breeze ruffling Keith’s hair. He fishes his hair tie out of his jeans pocket and puts his hair into a ponytail.

Lance makes a weird noise. Keith looks at him. Lance clears his throat, though it sounds forced.

“Throat’s dry,” he mumbles.

Keith squints at him suspiciously, but leaves it alone in favor of turning his attention to their surroundings.

The capital is much different from the last time Keith visited. Much of what was destroyed by the Galra has been rebuilt, with additions to accommodate the refugees that Olkarion accepts from planets too decimated for repair. As they walk Keith sees restaurants advertising various cuisines from around the galaxy, bookstores claiming to have reading material in fifteen different languages, and a jewelry store with a sign out front that says ‘Number One Source For Authentic Nathian Nose Rings!’

The hotel is short compared to most of the other buildings in this area; they seem to be in the equivalent of downtown, with the skyscrapers and glittering lights to match. The sky is midnight blue, and to Keith’s surprise the stars are visible, even with all the artificial lights from the buildings and roads.

“It’s beautiful,” Lance says, also looking up at the stars as they walk. “I’ve never been in a big city where you can see so many stars.”

They walk in silence, content to look around. Pom Pom bounds ahead of them, sniffing curiously at bugs and small plants along the sidewalk. An Olkari child walking with their family comes up to Keith and bashfully asks if they can pet Pom Pom; he calls them over and the child pats Pom Pom’s head, giggling as the wolf’s tail wags back and forth.

After a while they come across an ice cream shop. Lance looks at Keith, who nods. He tells Pom Pom to stay put by the corner of the shop, then goes in after Lance.

It’s aggressively pastel, pale pink walls and white trim, with pale blue tables and an overwhelmingly sugary smell. Despite the late hour it’s pretty crowded, filled with families and friends hanging out and couples feeding ice cream to each other.

“What do you think you’ll get?” Lance asks, peering through the glass at the tubs.

“Chocolate,” Keith says, pointing to the corner tub.

“How do you know it’s chocolate and not some kind of weird flavor that just looks like chocolate?”

“The bottom label is in Galran,” Keith says.

Lance squints at the label. It’s the same three languages from the hotel room service menu.

“I can’t read any of this,” he says finally.

“This is anarberry,” Keith says, pointing to the tub closest to them. “This is aamfruit, this is mint…”

He goes through each flavor. Some of them don’t make any sense—‘blue blast,’ says one label, ‘rebel punch,’ says another—but at last Lance decides on the aamfruit.

When they order Keith starts to get out his wallet, but Lance beats him to it.

“I’ll pay for both,” he says to the employee, handing over the bills.

Keith’s stomach flutters. “You don’t have to do that—”

“It was my idea to come in here,” Lance interrupts. “Let me pay.” He nudges Keith’s shoulder, his grin a bit self-conscious. “Besides, I still owe you for the t-shirt.”

(he’s just paying you back, Keith’s mind whispers. it doesn’t mean anything)

(doesn’t mean anything, and yet his stomach flutters again as Lance takes both cones, as he hands the chocolate one to Keith, as his fingers brush against Keith’s as he takes it)

When they leave the shop, Pom Pom immediately makes their eyes big and round in an effort to get some ice cream. Keith sternly tells them no, then not-so-sternly tells them no, then does his best to ignore them until they finally give up and go back to bounding ahead and sniffing at bugs and small plants.

They turn a corner and come across a small square park, lined with trees and benches and lit by tall lamps emitting a soft pale glow. Pom Pom runs in and immediately stares down a small pink creature with three legs and a poofy tail. The creature trills, Pom Pom barks, and they start chasing each other in circles. Keith and Lance sit on a bench to watch them and eat their ice cream.

“Do you wanna try?” Lance asks at length, holding out the cone in front of Keith. He’s already eaten most of it, only a bit left around the edge of the cone. “It’s pretty good. It tastes kinda like mango.”

Keith looks from Lance, to the cone, back to Lance. “How am I supposed to eat it?”

“You lick the ice cream,” Lance says, as if explaining something to a toddler. “It’s not rocket science.”

“I know, but—” Keith huffs. “I meant like, germs and stuff.”

Lance just shrugs. Keith hesitates, then leans forward and licks at the ice cream. It does taste like mango.

“It’s good,” he says finally.

“You can have more if you want,” Lance says, still holding the cone out.

Keith leans forward again—then blinks, startled, as Lance tips the cone forward and smushes the ice cream to Keith’s nose.

“Fuck you,” Keith splutters, rubbing his nose.

Lance cackles.

“I was gonna offer you some of mine,” Keith says, scowling, “but never mind.”

“Aw, no!” Lance says, pouting. “I want to know what alien chocolate tastes like.”

“Too bad,” Keith says, returning to his own ice cream. “You lost your chance.”

Lance heaves a dramatic sigh. Keith continues to eat his ice cream in silence, then—

“Hey.” Lance nudges his side and jerks his head to one side. “Look over there.”

Keith follows his line of sight. In the far corner of the park are two Olkari women sitting on a bench, angled to face each other. One of them is talking, and as she talks she pulls a tiny box out from her pocket, and—

“Oh my god,” Lance says, and Keith is startled, because he sounds so—happy—and all he’s doing is watching a stranger’s proposal. It’s not his own, it’s not the proposal of anyone he knows, and yet he looks so fucking delighted.

Though it is cute. The Olkari with the box opens it, and her girlfriend covers her mouth and then nods, and then the first woman presses her thumb inside the box and then touches it to the other woman’s forehead. Even at this distance Keith can see that the thing is sparkly; he thinks it might be some kind of powder, covering the usual dot in the middle of an Olkari’s forehead. The two women hug, and then the one who had agreed kisses the one who had proposed.

“That was really sweet,” Lance says, still sounding over the moon. Keith looks at him; he’s smiling, big and full, like he can’t stop. “I love proposals.”

(a thought pops into Keith’s mind, half-formed and warm, but even in its ambiguity it’s embarrassing, absurd, a fantasy, so he shuts it down, doesn’t let it reach full clarity. thoughts like that shouldn’t be entertained even in the quiet vulnerable space between sleeping and waking; now, sitting on a bench, with lamplight above him and Pom Pom chasing the pink creature in front of him and Lance right next to him—now, it’s downright preposterous)

“I can’t wait to be married,” Lance says next. “I mean, I know it’s a long way off, but I love the idea of it. Like, you and the person you love most, and your kids and pets and stuff. You get to come home to that every day and see everyone you care about.”

He’s still smiling, and his voice is dreamy, like he’s somewhere else, like he’s thinking of something else—

(of someone else, Keith’s mind corrects, and fucking hell but it’s the snake again, and Keith’s chest is cold, and tight, and he burns—)

“What about you?” Lance asks. He stretches out his legs, feet touching the edge of the pathway through the park. “Do you ever want to get married? Find yourself a badass ninja and collect cool swords together?”

Keith snorts.

“Seriously,” Lance insists. “I mean, not seriously about the ninja and the swords, but about family. Do you want one someday?”

“I.” Keith stops, frowns. “I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”

(liar, his mind whispers)

(he remembers when Shiro introduced him to Adam, remembers seeing the way Shiro looked at Adam during that first meeting, remembers thinking that it made—sense—made sense when the straight couples around Keith made no sense at all)

(remembers Adam saying hey you think Takashi’s gonna ask me out sometime this century or am I just gonna have to ask him myself, remembers blinking with astonishment at how casually he talked about asking another boy out, remembers helping Shiro pick between the dark red tie and the light red one, wondering if one day Shiro might help him pick out a tie for his own first date)

(remembers hugging Shiro for luck before he went to propose, remembers them all going out for ice cream to celebrate, remembers thinking thinking thinking—)

(—a thought half-formed and warm—)

(—then it was someday and someone, and now it is someday and this one right here, this one I am sitting beside—)

(shut up, his mind says fiercely, angrily. shut up, shut UP—)

Who is he to think of marriage? To think that someone would ever look at him the way Shiro and Adam look at each other, soft and with crinkly-eyed smiles—it’s stupid. It’s laughable.

“Really?” Lance says, and his voice pulls Keith back into the present. “Huh. I’ve met people who don’t want to, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s never thought about it at all.”

“I mean.” Keith breaks off, unsure of what he’s going to say before he says it. “I guess—I guess it’d be nice.”

He feels uncomfortably hot as soon as he speaks. He half expects Lance to scoff or roll his eyes because Keith as a husband, with a husband, is so fucking stupid—but he just smiles, smiles his soft crinkly-eyed smile, the one that never fails to make Keith’s stomach flip and his heart warm.

“Then I hope you get one,” Lance says sincerely. “A badass ninja”—he hesitates—“husband?”

Keith nods.

“Cool. So a badass ninja husband, and a posse of little ninjas.” He shifts, moving so his ankle rests against the knee of his other leg. “Good thing the Blade of Marmora exists.”

“What?”

“There are plenty of badass ninjas there,” Lance explains. “You could romance one of them.”

Keith squints at him. He can’t tell if he’s joking or not. To be safe he assumes not.

“I’m not gonna marry a Blade of Marmora member,” he says.

“Why not?” Lance asks. “Some of those Marmorites are pretty cute.” He looks at Keith’s wrinkled nose and sighs. “Okay, fine, the Marmorites are out. But we’ll find your husband somewhere.”

(a thought, half-formed and warm—)

“Yeah,” Keith says, without really meaning to. “Somewhere.”

He wants to say something else, wants to tell him about the way Shiro looks at Adam, about the time in sixth grade when he tried to make a valentine for a boy in his math class, about how his dad used to read fairy tales to him before bed, and he would pretend to like the action scenes best when really his favorite part was the end, when everyone was in love and happy.

He wants to tell him, tell him these small things that he has kept close to his heart, tell him while they sit on a bench, in a softly-lit park, holding half-melted ice cream, tell him and see if he understands why it means so much to him.

He opens his mouth to speak, though he’s not even sure how he’ll begin, but a second later he snaps his mouth shut, because Pom Pom finally tires out, and plods over to the bench, their tongue lolling.

Keith leans forward and scratches their ear with his free hand. “You tired, buddy?” he asks. “You wanna go home?”

Pom Pom tilts their head questioningly.

“No, we’ll walk,” Keith says, then, glancing at Lance, “Right? It’s a nice night.”

“Yeah,” Lance says. He gets to his feet and stretches—

(stretches, stretches long arms and long legs and a long torso, stretches and stretches and stretches—)

Keith’s face feels hot. He looks down at Pom Pom, who he suspects is inwardly laughing at him.

He gets up too, takes another bite of his ice cream cone. It’s mostly melted, only one real bite of cone left, the chocolate running down the side. He holds it out to Lance, who smiles before taking it and popping it into his mouth.

“It’s just like milk chocolate back on earth,” he mumbles around the mouthful of ice cream. “I thought it’d be weird, but it’s just like home.”

“Exactly like home,” Keith says, and together the three of them leave the park and head back to the hotel.

.^.

Bedtime is somewhat chaotic. Getting back to the room is difficult enough, since they have to duck around no less than four room service robots all headed to the triple that Pidge is in. The space mice are riding atop two of the robots, pointing forward as if they can control the bots’ movements.

And then there’s the bathroom situation.

“TURN ON THE FUCKING LIGHT!” Keith shouts as the bathroom goes dark.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!” Lance yells back, smug.

“I’M GONNA BRUSH MY TEETH,” Keith shouts, “AND IF YOU DON’T TURN THE LIGHT BACK ON I’LL JUST USE WHATEVER TOOTHBRUSH COMES IN MY HAND FIRST, AND IF IT’S YOURS I DON’T WANNA HEAR YOU COMPLAIN—”

The light turns back on. Keith finishes up and leaves the bathroom. Lance goes in. Keith stays near the door, listening hard, until he hears the squeak of the shower running.

He flips the light switch.

“HEY!”

Keith snickers. He waits a few seconds, then turns it back on.

“I could’ve drowned, Keith,” Lance says dramatically when he emerges several minutes later, pajama-clad and skin glowing. “Drowned. Drowned! And my drowned body would be on your hands. Is that what you want? Is it, Keith?”

“Yes,” Keith says, deadpan. “I want your drowned body on my hands.”

“I’m bunking with a murderer,” Lance mutters, heading over to his bed.

Pom Pom turns round and round on the armchair about twenty times, finally deems it acceptable, settles down, and instantly begins to snore. Lance arranges the pillows on his bed into some kind of nest, then tucks himself in. He looks cozy, surrounded by fluffy pillows and the giant comforter; dangerously cozy, in fact, so Keith turns off the overhead light so he can’t look at him.

Except—that backfires. Because now Lance is cozy, and illuminated by the starlight and glittering lights of downtown, filtering in through the giant wall-window, and it’s dark, and Keith is in his dumb t-shirt-plaid-pajama-pant combo, and he’s slept next to Lance like this a dozen times outside but somehow when they’re in a room it’s—different—and they’re going to be in separate beds, and this doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t, but for a moment—for a moment it almost feels like—

His stomach flips. He breathes, in and out, trying to settle himself.

“You okay?” Lance asks. He’s frowning. “You’re just standing there. Lurking.” He gasps. “You are gonna murder me!”

Keith snorts and shakes his head. He gets into bed, and after a brief struggle with his own cowardice, he curls up on his side so his back is to Lance’s bed. It’s not like he’d be able to see him anyway, with the nightstand between them, but still. He’s done enough staring for one night.

“Good night,” Lance calls, yawning.

“Good night,” Keith replies.

.^.

Keith doesn’t know why he’s awake.

His eyes had opened a minute ago, quick, as if someone had shaken him awake. But he is alone on this side of the room, alone in this bed. No one is near him; he hears Pom Pom snoring in the armchair by the window, and when he turns over to check he can see the Lance-shaped lump in the other bed.

He turns onto his back, his comforter rustling as his moves. He frowns at the ceiling. The glowing clock on the nightstand tells him that it’s half-past midnight, so he’s only been asleep for an hour. He’s not hungry, he got enough exercise from the walk, so why—

Sniff.

Keith blinks. He holds very still, careful not to rustle the comforter. There’s no follow up noise, but he holds his breath anyway, waiting—

An exhale, but not the steady exhale of someone who is asleep. It’s the sudden, hard exhale of someone trying to catch their breath, trying to even it out, the exhale of someone who is—

Keith sits up, peering at the Lance-shaped lump in the other bed. He’s never seen him sleep with the sheets over his head, but he’s lying like that now, the comforter covering him completely.

“Lance?” he whispers. The word feels softer in the dark. “Are you okay?”

There is a long pause, then:

“Uh—yeah.” Sniff. “I’m fine. Just—um. It’s dusty.” He clears his throat. The sound of it is watery. “Allergies.”

He’s lying. Keith knows he’s lying, but he doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to get him to tell him what’s wrong. He feels his stomach twist at his own inadequacy; he wishes he were better at this kind of thing, wishes he could say exactly what needs to be said to make Lance talk to him.

Instead he says, lamely, “If you don’t feel good I can get you something. Tea, or—or water, or some kind of medicine. I bet they have stuff for allergies around here somewhere.”

“Uh.” Another exhale. “No, I’m fine. It’ll go away in a bit.”

Keith chews his lower lip. “I can go get someone,” he offers next, hesitantly. “Someone you’d rather talk to.”

“I’m”—his voice breaks—“fine.”

He sits up abruptly, the comforter tumbling off him. Keith watches, startled, as he swings his legs out of bed, getting out on the side further from him so Keith can’t see his face.

“Sorry for disturbing you,” Lance says, and he’s talking too low and too fast, like he’s trying to get it out before his voice breaks again. “I’ll just go to the bathroom.”

He hurries past Keith’s bed, his head ducked down and to the side as he goes into the bathroom and snaps the door shut. He hadn’t turned the light on, which means he’s just—in there—in a dark room—alone—and crying—

Keith’s frown deepens. He gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom door. He knocks. No response.

“Lance,” he says, knocking again. “Come on. I know it’s not allergies.”

Still no response. Keith lifts his hand to knock a third time—

“You’ll laugh at me,” Lance says, still talking too low and too quick.

Keith drops his hand.

“Why would I laugh at you?” he asks, almost offended by the statement. “I would never laugh at you.”

“Everyone else does,” Lance mumbles.

Keith’s brow furrows. He crosses his arms and leans against the door so he can hear him better.

“Did someone say something to you?” he asks.

“No,” Lance says, “not”—he takes a deep breath—“not specifically, not today. It’s just—overall, I guess. It’s a lot of things.”

There’s a quiet thud from the other side of the door. Keith wonders if it’s Lance leaning on the door the way that he’s leaning on it. He tries to picture him on the other side, shoulder pressed to the door and arms crossed, a mirror image to himself.

“It just feels like I’m—extra,” Lance says. “Like—Hunk and Pidge always hang out, and now they’ve got Matt too. Shiro mostly talks to you, Coran mostly talks to Allura, and Allura—Allura and me are friends but lately she’s been spending most of her time with Romelle, and I’m glad that she’s excited to have another girl her age to talk to, but it’s just—it—it means there isn’t really anyone for me to talk to.”

A pause.

“So—” Lance stops, starts again. “So I don’t know. I’m not really anyone’s first choice to hang out with, and it just feels kinda”—he exhales hard—“lonely? Yeah.”

(Lance is quiet, and serious, and sits alone away from everyone else to stare blankly at a sunrise—)

(Lance walks alone towards the pharmacy on the other side of the fountain, shoulders hunched and hands in the pockets of his hoodie—)

(Lance is lying on one of the beds, staring at the ceiling—)

There’s an ache in Keith’s chest.

“I would hang out with you first,” he says.

“Yeah, well.” Lance exhales again, hard, though it’s a bit of a laugh too, short and self-deprecating. “You left, so.”

(it’s blunt, and bitter, and Keith hates that he sounds like this, hates that he is the cause of it—)

Keith pushes himself off the door to stare at it, guilt and shame churning in his stomach.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lance says next, with another sniff. “It’s whatever. I know I don’t have to be anyone’s favorite person or anything, it just—it just sucks sometimes to know that if someone asks me to do something it’s cause their first choice couldn’t do it. But it’s—it’s whatever. It doesn’t—”

“I’m sorry I left.”

Lance breaks off. Keith stands very still, staring at the door, arms ramrod straight at his sides. He feels terrified and calm, all at the same time; or maybe he’s just so terrified that he’s calm, or so calm that he’s terrified, because he has no idea what the fuck he’s going to say next.

“I shouldn’t have done it,” he says, or rather, his mouth says, because it seems to be pouring words out of its own accord. “I should have stayed with Voltron, and the team, and—and you. I shouldn’t have left, and I’m sorry I did.”

Lance doesn’t respond.

“I’m glad I found Krolia,” he goes on, “and that was a good thing that came out of me leaving, but—” He takes a deep breath; his nose stings and his eyes burn, and he doesn’t know why the fuck he feels like this, doesn’t know if it’s the dark or the quiet or the conversation or the memory of months and months and months of separation— “but I still wish I hadn’t done it.”

Lance still doesn’t say anything. The urge to cross his arms again is overwhelming, and Keith knows he shouldn’t, but he does it anyway. To counter it he rests his forehead against the door, closes his eyes so he can pretend he’s saying this alone, can pretend this is words on a page, in a letter, and not spoken aloud to a person separated from him by only a few inches of wood.

“It was awful,” he says, barely above a whisper. “It was so fucking awful, I thought about everyone every single day—all the time—it was like I carried it around with me, like a fucking disease—except it wasn’t a disease, cause thinking about everyone made me feel better too, made me feel happy—but then I’d be miserable again, cause I would think about all of you but I couldn’t see you.”

His throat feels tight. He swallows past it and makes himself keep going.

“And I’m not trying to make this about me,” he says, “I’m just need to tell you—you should know—” He breathes, in and out, trying to steady himself. “I missed everyone, but I—I missed—”

(don’t say it, his mind whispers, frantic, don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it—)

(he can face Zarkon he can fight a dozen Blade members he can cut a gun in half he can fly into a planet about to explode but he can’t—)

(he can’t—)

(you can, says another part of his mind, the part that’s been growing over the past few years, growing growing growing until it can overtake the first part sometimes, until it can force out words that he would otherwise keep bottled up inside, push them up and over his tongue until it’s spilling out of his mouth, until—)

“I missed you the most.”

(the words hang in the air, suspended, seep through the door—)

“I missed you so”—his voice breaks—“fucking much, I thought about you every day, I spent the whole first week saving up dumb shit to tell you cause I kept thinking I’d see you soon, I—I wrote—I wrote—”

“The letters,” Lance says, very softly.

Keith’s stomach jumps.

“Yeah,” he says. He swallows past a fresh lump in his throat. “It—it was hard to be away from everyone but the hardest thing was—was being away from you.”

He stops. His head hurts with how badly he wants to cry; he takes another deep breath, not wanting to let himself do it until he’s done.

“So I don’t know about everyone else,” he says. “Maybe they’d all rather hang out with someone else first. I don’t know. But I—I will always pick you first. Cause living without you was a fucking nightmare.”

He hears a sniff on the other side of the door. He opens his eyes, uncrosses his arms, lifts his forehead off the wood.

“Will you open the door?”

Lance’s voice wavers. “What for?”

“I just want to see you,” Keith says, and he remembers that night in the lion, remembers heat creeping up his neck, remembers not meaning for it to sound so soft—

But now there is no heat creeping up his neck, now he does mean for it to sound so soft, because he knows he can’t help it, because it’s dark, and there’s just the glow of the starlight and the city lights outside, and Lance and him are crying on either side of this stupid fucking door, and he wants so badly for it to be gone so he can be next to Lance right now, and give him one of the hugs he’d gotten permission to give, so long ago.

The handle turns. The door clicks, then swings open. Keith steps back and Lance shuffles out of the bathroom. His arms are crossed and Keith can see the tear tracks on his cheeks, shining in the faint silver light from the window.

“Hi,” Keith whispers.

Lance gives a weak, watery chuckle. “Hi.”

There’s a pause, and Keith knows what he wants to do, but his stomach is jumping, and he feels so nervous he might pass out, and he can’t decide whether to go for it or not, and then—

And then Lance steps towards him, and throws his arms around him, burying his face in Keith’s neck.

“Thank you,” he whispers, a soft puff of air against Keith’s skin.

Keith winds his arms around Lance’s torso and hugs him back as tight as he can. He tucks his face in Lance’s neck, squeezes his eyes shut and lets a few tears slip out. He feels how warm he is, feels his heart beat fast, feels the way Lance clutches at the back of his shirt, feels the lingering tears and the gentle poke of his nose against the curve of Keith’s neck.

“Sorry I made you cry,” Lance whispers.

“It’s okay,” Keith says. “I was overdue for it, anyway.”

Lance does the weak laugh again.

“You’ve gotten better at hugs,” he says. “It’s not as awkward.”

“Thanks,” Keith says, then, flushing as Lance laughs a third time, “I mean—you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

Lance pulls back, enough to look at Keith, though he doesn’t let go of him. He stays close enough that Keith can see his freckles, even in the dark, close enough that if Keith leaned forward even slightly his forehead would touch Lance’s.

For an absurd moment he almost does it, thinks of leaning forward, of pressing his forehead to Lance’s, of—something—but he shakes away the thought, distracts himself by reaching up with one hand to wipe at the tear tracks on Lance’s cheeks.

Lance holds very still. Keith thinks he might be holding his breath. He cups Lance’s cheek, dries the tears with his thumb, and he feels like he can’t breathe, because he’s so warm, so warm, and Keith can’t stop looking at him, looking looking looking, looking at his curly hair and his constellation freckles and the mouth that should only ever smile and laugh, looking at his pointy nose and his pointy chin and his eyes, always his eyes, he’s heard a thousand romantic lines about blue eyes but never brown, and he thinks it must be because no poet has ever seen Lance’s eyes, for surely anyone who’s seen them would write a thousand lines just for them.

His thumb slides along the corner of Lance’s eye, catching at the tears clinging to his lashes. Lance blinks a couple times in response, and he’s so—goddamn pretty—pretty, and handsome, and fucking—ethereal—and Keith doesn’t know what he’s doing, because his brain has blanked out—he’s just—cupping Lance’s face—and his other arm is still around Lance—and one of Lance’s hands comes up to cup Keith’s cheek, and his touch is so gentle—and Lance leans his forehead against his—and Keith’s stomach is jumping again, and his heart is thudding—and Lance tilts his head—and leans again—and his eyes are closing—and their noses brush—and Keith’s eyes start to fall shut too—and Lance’s mouth is so close to his, so close so close so close, and Keith can’t breathe, he can’t breathe

There’s a loud honk outside, followed by angry shouts in Olkari.

Keith’s eyes snap open. He lets go of Lance, stumbles back a couple steps, his face flushed. He thinks his hands might be shaking; he sticks them in the pockets of his pajamas to hide them.

Lance’s eyes open too. He looks—guilty? Confused? Disappointed? Some combination of the three?

“Uh—we should—go back to sleep,” Keith stammers. He hears how raspy his voice is; he clears his throat, feeling another blush creeping up his neck.

Lance opens his mouth, closes it.

“Yeah,” he says finally.

He looks like he’s going to say something else, but he just rubs the back of his neck and gives Keith an odd sort of half-smile, and it makes Keith feel terrible, because he doesn’t deserve to be smiled at, because what the hell is wrong with him—

(everyone's dream is to have their first kiss outside of a hotel bathroom in the middle of the night after crying a ton, his mind whispers dryly)

(that doesn’t fucking matter, says another part, anger and guilt churning in his gut. what does fucking matter is that you were gonna take advantage of someone after they’ve been crying¸ someone who’s probably already taken—)

Keith clenches his left hand, runs the thumb over the side of his index finger to calm down. What kind of shitty friend tries to kiss someone when they’re emotionally compromised and probably already with someone else, what the fuck was he thinking—

“I’m sorry,” he blurts.

Lance blinks at him. “What?”

“I’m sorry for—” Keith gestures at him with his free hand. “You know.”

“Oh.” Lance’s brow crinkles. “It’s okay, it’s my fault too.”

“No it’s not, it—you’re upset, you were crying, I shouldn’t have—”

“You cried, too,” Lance interrupts, “and I’m the one who started it.”

That—is true. But still—

“I’m still sorry,” Keith insists, “and if you want I can tell Allura and take the blame for it so she won’t be as mad at you.”

“Allura?” Lance looks bewildered. “Why would we tell Allura?”

Now it’s Keith’s turn to be bewildered. “Why would we not?” he asks. “Aren’t you—together?”

Lance’s eyes widen. “What?” he says, too loud. “No, we’re not—what? Why would you think that?”

“Because—you—” Keith splutters. “You’re always—touching each other—and a few weeks ago you were talking to her on the private line and it went on for a really long time so I thought—”

Keith breaks off as Lance grins, very suddenly. The sight of it makes Keith’s face heat, though he doesn’t know if it’s relief or embarrassment, because while it’s nice to see him smile again it’s also just now occurring to Keith that maybe he’s been worried about nothing, and to have revealed this worry to Lance is kind of mortifying.

“I didn’t realize you paid so much attention to what me and Allura are doing,” Lance says, and he sounds—sly—and dear god can Keith just disappear into the ground—

He crosses his arms, avoiding Lance’s gaze. “I don’t,” he mumbles, unconvincingly. “I just happen to notice it sometimes.”

“Sure,” Lance says, and Keith can hear the laugh in his voice. “Well, whatever you’ve happened to notice, it’s not romantic. Me and Allura talked about it a long time ago and we decided to just be friends.”

Relief floods through Keith. “Oh,” is all he says.

“So we’re not together,” Lance clarifies. “You didn’t interfere with anything. I am one hundred percent single. Single as a Pringle.”

As he says it he shimmys his shoulders, and it’s so dumb and so Lance that Keith lets out a fond, startled huff.

Lance sighs. “I miss Pringles,” he says next.

Only Lance could go from crying to talking about Pringles in the same half-hour.

“Maybe we can find an equivalent around here,” Keith says. “But for now we really should go to sleep.”

“I hope I dream about eating Pringles,” Lance says, as they head back to their respective beds. “When we get back I’m gonna buy an entire shelf of them.” He settles into his pillow nest. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Keith says, settling his comforter over himself.

“Thanks again,” Lance adds, more softly.

“No problem,” Keith replies. “Next time you’re upset you should wake me up. Okay?”

He can hear Lance’s smile in the word. “Okay.”

For a long while Keith lies awake, staring at the ceiling, listening to Pom Pom’s snores and Lance’s breathing as it evens out. He keeps replaying the conversation in his head, keeps thinking about how warm Lance’s hug had been and how strangely thrilling it had been when their noses had brushed and how much happier Lance had seemed by the end, his grin and his dumb shoulder-shimmy and single as a Pringle

Keith’s stomach swoops.

Single as a Pringle, says the Lance in his head. Single as a Pringle.

Keith sits up again. Lance is single. Single. He’s not with anyone, and he doesn’t like Allura romantically anymore, and he’d—

—he’d tried to kiss Keith, which means—

—which means—

Keith falls back onto the pillows, his heart racing.

“Holy fuck,” he whispers, and he doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or pass out or squeal into his pillow like the heroes in all the sappy romance novels he’s read. “Holy fuck.”

Chapter Text

Keith is going to tell him.

Keith is going to tell him, and it might backfire horribly, because the more Keith thinks about it the more impossible it seems, the more he thinks he must have misunderstood, because how could Lance like him when he could like anybody, when he could have anybody, when anyone would be honored to be with him? But he’s going to tell him anyway, he’s going to shoot his shot and hope for the best—except every time he thinks about telling him, he feels like he might pass out from nervousness, so he’s not quite sure how to tell him.

He frowns, scratching Pom Pom’s ears. They’re sitting in the armchair—or rather, Keith is sitting in the armchair, while Pom Pom sits in his lap like an overgrown puppy—taking in the sunshine and the view of the street ten storeys below. It’s pretty early, only a couple hours after sunrise, but downtown Olkari City is already crowded, with cars honking and people rushing to work and school and errands. The square window in the middle of the wall-window is open, letting in a pleasant breeze and the noise of the busy morning.

Keith has only been awake for a few minutes; he cracked his eyes open, squinting at the sunshine streaming in through the wall-window, then got out of bed and trudged over to the armchair and collapsed into it, pulling Pom Pom into his lap so he can cuddle with them as he tries to properly wake up. Pom Pom is snoozing, drooling a little on Keith’s shirt.

Lance seems to have been up for a while. His side of the room is neat, with the bed made and his backpack tucked in the space between it and the armchair. Keith can hear the shower running, hear him humming a pop song that sounds vaguely familiar. He’s surprised he’s not singing outright, though the humming is nice, too.

It feels—peaceful. Peaceful to be in his pajamas, petting Pom Pom while sitting by a sunlit window, his early-morning grumpiness lessening with every second that he hears Lance humming, though it’s shot through with occasional nerves when he thinks about what he wants to tell him. He wonders if this is how it would be, in some other reality, if there is a version of them out there that lives together because of college or saving money on rent or—or something.

(or something, his mind repeats slyly, and he can’t even tell it to shut up, because Keith is going to tell him, he is, and to shut up the part of his mind that thinks about—that—would kind of defeat the point)

There’s a squeak as the shower shuts off. Lance continues to hum. Keith expects him to take a long time, but within a few minutes the door opens and Lance emerges, steam from the hot shower wafting out from the bathroom. He’s dressed, in a bright yellow t-shirt and jeans, but his hair is still damp, curling over his neck and ears, and his skin looks soft and his eyes are sparkling and—

—and Keith is suddenly regretting his decision to tell Lance, because there is no way in hell that someone like Lance could like Keith. No way. No way.

“You’re up!” Lance says cheerfully. He comes over to his bed and puts his folded pajamas atop his pillows. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, it was the sun,” Keith assures him. His voice is little more than a croak; he clears his throat. “I thought you’d sing in the shower.”

“Usually I do,” Lance says, “but you were still asleep so I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Keith is pretty sure his smile is disgustingly soft, so he hides his face in Pom Pom’s fur under the guise of still being sleepy.

“I’m gonna do my skincare routine out here so you can have the bathroom,” Lance says, taking out various bottles and containers from his backpack and heading over to the desk by the television. He sits down, looking at Keith in the mirror set above the desk. Keith looks at his reflection too; he looks horrendous, groggy and unshaven, his hair sticking up in all directions as he grumpily hugs Pom Pom. “You should probably go brush your teeth. Poor Pom Pom shouldn’t have to smell your morning breath any longer.”

“If I can put up with their drool then they can put up with my morning breath,” Keith says.

He really is starting to feel gross, though, especially with Lance all sunshiny and stunning, so with a twinge of guilt he slides out from under Pom Pom, who opens one eye and glares at him, then heads to the bathroom.

.^.

Breakfast is much fancier than at the other inns they’ve stayed at so far, though it isn’t free, much to everyone’s confusion.

“Why do the cheap inns have free breakfast and the fancy hotel doesn’t?” Lance asks, appalled.

Keith shrugs. “I guess rich people don’t need free breakfast.”

Thankfully, as paladins they get vouchers, so after shoving a couple tables together (an employee looks like they want to protest, but Pom Pom growls and Allura pointedly adjusts her tiara, so the employee reluctantly retreats) the group sets to eating. Hunk spends most of the meal lamenting the decision to room with Pidge and Matt.

“They’re fun,” he says to Keith and Lance as they wait in line for waffles, “but they don’t take off their shoes when they come into the room.” He shudders. “Pidge actually sat on her bed with her shoes on.”

Keith makes a face. “What?”

“I know!” Hunk says, with exasperation. “Like, who raised you! We are living in this room for the next two days! Take off your shoes!”

“This is your punishment,” Lance says, reproving. “You ditched me for white people and now you must pay.”

“I just wanted to try something new,” Hunk says sadly. “I’ve been rooming with you since the Garrison, man. I just wanted to see what rooming with someone else would be like.”

Lance pats his shoulder sympathetically, then turns to the employee to ask for waffles with anarberries on it.

“Update,” he says a few minutes later, after they return to the table and dig in, “these are terrible. I don’t know what anarberries are but they are shit on waffles.”

“You can have some of mine,” Keith offers. “They’re chocolate chip.”

Lance brightens. “Thanks!”

Keith pushes his plate over so they can both take forkfuls of waffle at the same time. As he does so he hears a snicker; he glances across the table and sees Shiro taking a long sip of his coffee, looking overtop the mug at Keith as if to say hm. interesting.

Keith’s face burns, and for a second he wants to pull the plate back to him. But Lance is already munching on waffle and exclaiming over how much he likes it, and Keith would rather be embarrassed than deprive Lance of waffles, so he just avoids Shiro’s gaze and focuses on his food.

.^.

After breakfast, Ryner whisks Shiro away to a beige building nearby to get his new prosthetic and test its functions. Everyone else disperses, with plans to meet back for dinner.

Keith and Lance head up to their room. They pull up the screen on the wall-window that shows the map of the city, with circles and stars highlighting places of interest to tourists.

“What should we visit?” Lance asks, hands on his hips as he looks over the map. “We’ve already walked around this main part here”—he points to a large square around their hotel—“so I’m thinking we should go somewhere farther off.”

Keith squints at the map. There’s a section southwest of their hotel that’s marked with wavy lines. He presses the language button in the corner to switch the key to Galran, but the symbols don’t add up to a word he recognizes.

“What’s the matter?” Lance asks, noticing Keith’s frown. “What does it say?”

“I’m not sure,” Keith says. “It’s the formal symbol for water and then half the word for suburb.”

“Aqua-burb!” Lance announces, brightening. “That sounds cool! Maybe it’s like, a neighborhood made of water.”

“How can a neighborhood be made of water—”

“That’s what we’re gonna find out!” Lance interrupts, sounding more excited by the second. “C’mon, let’s go!”

He grabs his wallet and phone and dashes out of the room without another word. Keith sighs and turns off the screen, then goes after him.

The walk to that neighborhood is quick and pleasant, with a warm breeze on their faces and a bright sky above their heads. The sunshine makes Lance look positively radiant, especially with the yellow t-shirt making his brown skin pop, and Keith has to look away from him a couple of times so he doesn’t do something dumb, like hold his hand or try to kiss him or something equally impulsive and absurd.

(not absurd, his mind whispers, and he remembers last night, remembers Lance’s palm against his cheek and Lance’s nose brushing his and Lance’s mouth getting close close closer. he remembers, and he feels warmth bloom in his stomach, and he fiddles with the collar of his shirt so he can hide the redness creeping up his neck)

The part of downtown that they pass through first is full of glitzy shops, all silver and gold and white and black, with stone-faced employees guarding the doors. Keith and Lance peer into a few stores and ooh and aah at some of the window models, but they don’t actually enter any of them.

“I think they would kick me out on sight,” Lance says, as they peer into a jewelry store. There’s a customer in there, some kind of alien species Keith doesn’t know, tall and electric blue, admiring a case of necklaces.

“Same here,” Keith says, as the blue alien points to a necklace. “I don’t think those people have ever seen a t-shirt in their lives.”

Lance starts to respond, but right then the shopkeeper hands the necklace to the alien, and when the alien puts it on, their skin changes from electric blue to neon green.

“Whoa,” Lance says. “I want a necklace like that!”

Keith gives him a look. “I don’t think neon green is your color.”

“How dare you,” Lance says indignantly. “Every color is my color. Any color can be anyone’s color if they just believe hard enough.”

They move on after that, pass by clothing stores and handbag stores and shoe stores. As they approach the end of the neighborhood, Keith hears a rushing sound, increasing in loudness as they reach the boundary of this area, until at last they turn a corner, and he realizes what the source of the roaring noise is.

“Holy shit,” Lance says, wide-eyed.

Keith can only stare. He isn’t sure what he expected from a neighborhood marked as an aqua-burb, but it definitely was not this.

“This. Is. AWESOME!” Lance shouts. He runs forward, then stops and turns to face Keith, throwing out his arms and beaming. “IT’S FUCKING SOLARPUNK!”

That’s the word for it, Keith realizes. The neighborhood is separated from the glitzy section of downtown by a manmade—or rather, alien-made—river, roaring and glittering deep blue. A tall steel bridge connects the two sections of the city. On the other side of the bridge is the aqua-burb, which looks like a regular neighborhood full of shops and apartment buildings and skyscrapers, except every building is covered in plants, vines and flowers and in some cases entire trees. Twisting between the windows and doors and flora are narrow open pipes, a bit like gutters, except instead of catching rainwater and leaves, it looks like they’re used to water the plants clinging to the buildings.

The boys cross the bridge. Keith goes up to the first building to its right. It’s a hotel, so tall that he has to crane his neck to see the top, with balconies on each storey. There are trees on the balconies, some of them so tall that the trunks pass several storeys; one tree trunk starts around the fifteenth storey, the leafy top rising high above the roof of the hotel.

“How does the water in these pipe-things not fall out?” Lance asks. He goes close to the building and sticks his finger in the water flowing through the pipe near the door, which waters the purple flowers and pink vines curling around it. “Some of these curves shouldn’t be possible, right?”

“This is Olkarion,” Keith points out. “They probably have some kinda high-tech system for it.”

“I think I’d actually rather not know,” Lance decides, stepping back and looking up at the trees on the balconies. “Sometimes it’s nice to be in awe of something instead of know all the boring details of how it’s done.”

They spend the next couple hours exploring the area. It’s definitely the prettiest part of downtown, with more parks and gardens than the others sections have. Keith kind of wishes they came here at night instead; when they pass by a souvenir kiosk he sees a poster of the neighborhood after sunset, and it looks like the pipes and some of the plants glow, bright blues and pinks and purples mixing in with the natural tints of the plants.

After walking through some of the gardens and shops, they go to a café that advertises its food as “locally-sourced,” which the cashier explains means that the fruits and vegetables are taken from the plants on the buildings.

“This cake was made with fruit from that bank across the street!” she says cheerfully, pointing out the window at the structure. It’s almost comical, the dull brown and grey of the bank’s exterior interrupted by orange and blue flowers and vines. “And this smoothie came from the pharmacy behind us!”

“Cool!” Lance says, as Keith says, “Gross.”

They look at each other.

“I don’t wanna eat fruit that used to be on the wall of a bank,” Keith explains.

“Everything is thoroughly cleaned,” the cashier assures him.

He crinkles his nose, but he orders the cake anyway. It’s delicious, so he sets aside his qualms and orders a second slice too.

They sit in the café for a while, digesting their food and watching the aliens walk past, until Lance gasps and sits up.

“Look!” he says, pointing at a family of aliens walking past the café. “They’re wearing swimsuits! There must be a pool around here.”

Keith throws down his napkin. “Let’s go!”

.^.

It’s not a pool. It’s a fucking sea. The sea, at the very edge of downtown Olkari City.

“I love this place,” Lance whispers. Keith breathes in, the salty air filling his lungs like a balm. “C’mon, let’s see if we can get swim trunks somewhere.”

They head to the low structure at the edge of the beach. The Galran symbols on the sign out front says Ricky’s Beach Shack. The Olkari manning the counter is a bored teenager, wearing a shell necklace and a hideous flower-print version of the usual Olkari robes.

“Yeah, we sell swimsuits,” he says, cracking his gum as he points at a messy rack in the corner. “You can change in the bathroom afterward.”

They make their purchases—two pairs of floral-patterned swim trunks, two towels, and a pair of heart-shaped blue-tinted sunglasses that Lance deems “the height of fashion, Keith, stop laughing, this is haute couture”—then change and head to the beach, weaving around the aliens suntanning and building sandcastles. Lance spreads out his towel and they dump their clothes and wallets and phones on it.

“Could you watch this for us while we swim?” he asks a nearby Balmeran.

The Balmeran looks up from their novel and nods, so together Keith and Lance join the crowd of aliens playing in the sea.

The water is cool, though pleasantly so against the warmth of the sunny day. Keith revels in the feel of swimming after so long, swings his legs back and forth and feels the tickling rush of the water against his skin. He dips underwater and opens his eyes. There’s a tiny Olkari child a few feet away, wearing giant goggles and a breathing tube. She waves at him and he waves back.

It’s gorgeous beneath the surface, the sunlight filtering through the water, dappling the seaweed and small striped fish darting about. Some of the fish nose curiously at Keith’s toes; he wiggles them and the fish disperse, alarmed.

He surfaces. Lance swam quite a bit away from him at first, but he’s coming back now, smiling bigger than Keith has seen in a while.

“I’m really glad we found this,” he says.

“Me too,” Keith agrees.

Lance keeps coming closer, so close Keith could reach out and touch his shoulder if he wanted to. Which—he shouldn’t. He definitely shouldn’t. He definitely should not touch Lance’s shoulder, even if it is broad and brown and bare and—uh—is Lance talking again?

“What,” Keith says, blinking. “Sorry. Did you say something?”

Lance narrows his eyes at him.

“Yeah,” he says. He floats even closer and Keith’s heart skips about seventeen beats. “I was saying that you’d better watch out, cause if you’re not careful someone might do—this!”

He slams his hands down and out, splashing seawater in Keith’s face.

“Hey!” Keith splutters, as Lance erupts into laughter. “You—!”

He splashes him back, but Lance scrambles away, so hardly any water hits him. Keith pushes forward and splashes him again, and Lance splashes him back, until they’re both chasing each other back and forth, kicking and splashing at each other.

“Gotcha!” Keith shouts, catching Lance’s arm. “Now stay—still!”

He yanks Lance close, wrapping one arm around his shoulders to hold him in place, then splashes water in his face. Lance sputters, then wriggles out of Keith’s grasp and ducks underwater.

Keith dips under too, in time to see Lance turn and swim away from him. He tries to catch his arm, but Lance is too quick, and he’s quickly out of sight, lost among the dozens of others in the water.

Keith resurfaces, confusion and worry churning in his gut. Why did he leave?

(you shouldn’t have done that, his mind whispers. you crossed a line. you shouldn’t have held on to him like that, you made things weird—)

His heart sinks as he looks round and doesn’t see any sign of Lance. He’ll apologize as soon as he sees him, but he has to find him first, and he doesn’t spot him anywhere, and fuck why does Keith always have to spoil things—

“RAAAAAAA!”

It happens very fast—one second he’s floating in place, quiet and alone, and in the next second a pair of arms flings around his middle and yanks him backwards.

Keith’s hands grab onto Lance’s arms on instinct. He falls back into the water with a shout, though it melts quickly into a laugh, because Lance’s arms are tight around him, and he doesn’t let him fall completely underwater, just get soaked by the seawater splashing up around him.

(it is—telling—that despite the sound and the suddenness, there was no instant where he felt like he was in danger—because he knew, right away, that it was Lance’s yell, and he knew, right away, that it was Lance’s chest pressed to his back and Lance’s arms around his waist. he knew, right away, and he thinks that this immediate knowledge is either intensely comforting or intensely embarrassing)

Lance is laughing.

“Gotcha!” he all but yells. “Like a fucking Jaws attack!”

He says something else too, something about superior swimming and being the master of sneaky splash attacks, but it’s kind of hard for Keith to focus, because Lance hasn’t let go of him yet, and he can feel the movement of his chest against his back as he laughs, and it’s—distracting.

(you’re also still holding onto his arms, his mind points out helpfully)

His face heats, but Lance hasn’t let go, so Keith doesn’t let go, either.

“Hey.” Lance sounds serious, almost worried. “Why aren’t you saying anything? Are you okay? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

Keith blinks. His hands tighten around Lance’s wrists.

“No,” he assures him. He turns his head to smile at Lance over his shoulder, and he means to come up with some kind of excuse, to say I was just thinking or I was just plotting my revenge, but as soon as he turns his head he realizes just how—close—Lance is—not that he hasn’t already noticed, with Lance’s arms around him and Lance’s chest against his back—but somehow it’s a hundred times more noticeable when it’s Lance’s face—and for a second he forgets where he is, and he can only blink at Lance, blink at bright eyes and brown skin and a big grin.

He blinks, and he says, a bit breathlessly, “You have a lot of freckles.”

For a moment Lance looks startled. Then he smirks, the corner of his mouth crooking.

“I think you must’ve swallowed some seawater, mullet,” he says. “It’s got you all scrambled up.”

“It’s not the seawater,” Keith says, because it’s not, it’s definitely not, unless seawater can somehow make him want to tip forward and press his mouth to Lance’s mouth and breathe him in like he’s the only air Keith will ever need—

He blinks again, intensely aware of the heat creeping up his neck. Lance is staring at him, and for an absurd moment Keith is afraid that he somehow knows what he’s thinking, that he can look right inside Keith’s head and pluck out the desire that just shot through him.

(he can always look inside Keith’s head, can always untangle Keith’s meaning no matter how muddled it is, can always find something funny or kind or wonderful no matter how boring Keith’s statement might be. until now it has been a blessing, but now—now—)

(—now—)

“You have a dimple,” Lance says finally. His voice is quiet, his eyes trained on Keith’s right cheek. “It’s like a little—dent.”

As he says it he touches Keith’s cheek, the tip of his finger poking the dimple, and Keith is so startled, doesn’t know whether to be flustered or amused—

—but then Lance’s finger trails up, across the Galra mark, and it’s slow, and light, and his eyes follow the movement, and Keith swears he can feel Lance’s gaze dragging across his skin, like a spell, leaving little tingles in its wake, and Lance is still holding onto him with his other arm, and Keith is hyperaware of his touch, of his arm and his chest and his hand, and he—

—he can’t fucking breathe—

Someone shrieks with laughter. Lance blinks, as though coming out of a daze. His hand drops.

“It’s getting kinda crowded,” he says. He sounds strangely breathless; it makes Keith’s stomach flutter. “We should probably head back to the beach.”

Keith blinks too.

“Yeah,” he says. His throat is hoarse; he clears it. “Let’s go.”

.^.

“Did you know I can read palms?”

They’re lying on the beach, stretched out on their towels to let the sun dry them off. They’re close enough that if Keith moves, his shoulder would brush against Lance’s. Lance is wearing his heart-shaped blue-tinted sunglasses.

“Palm reading isn’t real,” Keith replies. He turns his head to look at Lance, who sticks out his tongue at him. “Okay, fine. How did you learn to read palms?”

“Coran taught me,” Lance says. “It’s an ancient Altean art and it is one hundred percent authentic, real, and reliable.” He holds out his hand. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Keith holds out his hand. Lance takes it—Keith’s stomach does a little flip—then turns it over to inspect the palm, the fingers of his other hand brushing along the lines.

“Hmm,” he says. “Very interesting.”

The corner of Keith’s mouth crooks. “What do you see?”

“Your life line is very clear,” Lance reports with satisfaction. “That means you will live a long and full life. You’ll probably live to be over a hundred years old and you won’t have any injuries.”

“We’re paladins,” Keith reminds him, unnecessarily. “That’s kind of unlikely.”

Lance slides his sunglasses down his nose and gives Keith a stern look overtop them. “No injuries!” he repeats. “You can’t have any. Your life line doesn’t allow it.”

Keith’s smile grows. “Okay,” he says. “What else?”

Lance pushes his sunglasses back up his nose. He traces another crease in Keith’s palm. “This is your, uh.” He pauses. “Your health line.”

Keith raises an eyebrow. “Health line? How is that different from a life line?”

Another pause, during which Keith can practically see Lance’s brain whirring as he tries to come up with something. Then he brightens.

“It’s for emotional health!” he explains. “And as you can see”—he flips Keith’s hand so Keith can see his own palm—“it is very short.”

“So I’m gonna be sad?”

“No!” Lance frowns and flips Keith’s hand again, tracing the line a second time. “Short is good! That means any sadness will last only a short while.”

“So I’m not allowed to get injured,” Keith checks, “and I’m not allowed to be sad.”

“You’re allowed to be sad,” Lance says graciously. “But you have to cheer up quick! You have to designate someone to be your cheerer-upper.”

Keith looks at him, dazzling under the Olkari sun.

“I think I’ve already got one,” he says, smiling.

Lance smiles back and returns to Keith’s palm. “This,” he says, following the third crease in Keith’s palm, “is your heart line. It’s very long, which means your first love will also be your last. You’ll stay with him for—for years. Years and years and years.”

“Years,” Keith echoes. “Not forever?”

Lance blinks. He lifts off his sunglasses and pushes them into his hair, then inspects Keith’s palm again with fresh eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he says. “This does say forever. I must have misread it the first time.” He taps one of the lens of his sunglasses. “The blue tint threw me off.”

Keith bites back a smile. “Understandable.”

“But anyway,” Lance goes on, “your first love will be your last, and you’ll stay with him forever.” He looks at Keith properly, looks right into his eyes, and Keith has to catch his breath at the force of his gaze. “Do you like the sound of that?”

(the swooping in his stomach, the happiness in his heart, the way his breath catches when he looks Lance in the eyes, overcome by how bright and brown they are—)

(it’s not a crush, it’s far past a crush, passed it ages and ages and ages ago—)

“Yeah,” Keith says softly.

Lance’s grip on his hand tightens. His ears are a bit red.

“Really?” he asks. “You’d be glad to be stuck with—him?”

(how can you not know? he wants to say)

(would the moon be happy with the stars? he wants to say)

(would the desert be happy with rain? he wants to say)

“Yeah,” Keith says again, says instead, because those are things to be said in a space quieter and darker and more private than the one they are in now. “I would.”

Lance’s smile widens, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He drops Keith’s hand.

“Good,” he says, and he sounds so fully, ridiculously delighted, like the delight might explode out of him. “Cause according to your heart line, you are.”

He puts his sunglasses back on and turns to the sky next, pointing out a cloud shaped like a Helassian egg. Keith nods and points out another cloud shaped like a weblum, though it’s hard to focus after—that.

(tell him, his mind whispers)

(eventually, says another part)

(soon, says the first, firmly. not eventually. soon)

“Soon,” Keith whispers, low enough that Lance won’t hear as he points out another cloud. “Soon.”

.^.

Once they’re dry, they use the Beach Shack bathroom to change into their clothes, then walk back downtown. Lance goes directly to the hotel, but Keith stops by the beige building along the way to check if Shiro’s tests are finished.

The room he’s in resembles a doctor’s office back on earth, though the machinery in it is far more advanced than anything Keith has seen. Shiro is alone, sitting on the counter next to an alarmingly tall stack of paperwork.

“Keith!” Shiro says, waving with his prosthetic. “Say hi to my new arm.”

Keith waves back at the silvery metal arm. “Hi.” He comes forward and touches the top of the paperwork mountain. “What’s all this?”

“Authorization for this,” Shiro says, flexing the fingers of his prosthetic. “It’s a new design and they refuse to let us pay, so I had to fill out a lot of forms about liability and confidentiality and disclaimers for complimentary tech. That’s why I’m waiting here. Ryner went to file away the copies.”

“Oh.” Keith frowns at the page. The text is entirely in Olkari. “How did you even read these?”

“I didn’t,” Shiro says sheepishly. “But I never read the terms of agreement on earth, either, so.” He shrugs.

“We should give these to Hunk,” Keith says. “This morning he mentioned he wants to learn Olkari. These forms will be good practice for him.”

Ryner doesn’t come back for another twenty minutes, which pass quickly since Keith updates Shiro on everything he did that day. It reminds him of being back at the Garrison, when he would go to Shiro’s office after classes and tell him about his day while they ate whatever pastries Adam had baked that morning.

“I miss Adam’s cookies,” Keith says at random, after telling Shiro about the splash war. He rubs a finger along the counter, watching the streak left behind slowly fade away. “Hunk’s are good too but it’s not the same.”

There’s a pause. Keith wonders for a second if he shouldn’t have said it, but then Shiro says, very quietly, “I’m sure he’d make them for you again.”

“For us,” Keith corrects, because for some reason he feels like pushing his luck today.

“For you,” Shiro counters, though he smiles, so Keith knows he’s not annoyed.

“No,” Keith says, and he wants to say more, to say that it’s silly for Shiro to talk like this when Adam’s face looked—like that—after hearing about the Kerberos failure—looked like he didn’t know what to do with himself, like a piece of his heart went up into space with Shiro, and is now stuck among the stars, and won’t return to him until Shiro returns to him, too.

He wants to say it, but he doesn’t want to speak for Adam, and he knows Shiro wouldn’t believe him anyway. Besides, Shiro’s already agreed to talk to Adam once they get back to earth; this would get fixed soon enough.

So instead he says, “I think he’d want to make them for both of us.”

Shiro doesn’t look convinced, but before Keith can speak, Ryner comes in, wiping at her brow exaggeratedly as she jokes about the irony of a high-tech planet using an old-fashioned filing system.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” Keith says.

“Nonsense,” Ryner replies, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It is our privilege to help a paladin.” Shiro hops down from the counter as she continues. “It will take some time to grow accustomed to it, but Olkari tech is sound, and the design is not dissimilar to the prosthetic you used before, and we’ve gone over everything you need to know. The paperwork is complete, copied, and filed, the prosthetic fits properly, and we have successfully tested the basic functions that you requires. So you’re all set!”

“Not quite,” Shiro says. “There’s still something we haven’t tested yet.”

Ryner’s brow crinkles. Shiro turns to Keith and holds out his right hand, which Keith clasps with a grin. They pull each other in and hug. Over Shiro’s shoulder, Keith sees Ryner try and fail to hide a smile.

“All right,” Shiro says, letting go of Keith and beaming. “Now we’ve tested everything.”

.^.

Dinner is noisy, with everyone trying to talk over one another and across one another and to one another. Allura and Pidge found a robotics exhibition, Hunk and Matt went exploring with Pom Pom, Romelle and Coran and Krolia went to a spa.

“A spa,” Keith repeats, unsure whether or not to laugh.

“Yes,” Romelle says, beaming. She turns her head from side to side, showing off her dimples. “Aren’t I glowing?”

Keith isn’t really sure how to respond to that, but Allura says “of course you are, you’re always glowing,” and Romelle blushes, so instead he spends the next several seconds trying and failing to picture Coran and Krolia with cucumber slices over their eyes.

“Your father and I once had a spa day,” Krolia says. “He bought a ton of those—what are they called? Those creams you put on your face.”

“Face masks,” Lance supplies.

Krolia’s eyes light up. “Yes!” she says. “He bought a ton of those and then we spent the next day using all of them.”

“Dad doesn’t seem like the type to use face masks,” Keith says.

“Usually not,” Krolia agrees, “but I saw a commercial for them and I wanted to try them, and, well.” She smiles, a bit fond and a bit sad. “He could never say no to anything I asked.”

Keith doesn’t know what to say, so he pats her shoulder, though he’s distracted by a very loud ugh from Shiro.

“What do you mean you saw Slav?” he’s asking Matt, sounding exhausted already. “I didn’t even know he was still here.”

“Oh yeah, we saw him hanging around some of the offices north of here,” Matt says cheerfully. “He said to say hi to everyone, but that he’s very busy so he won’t be able to come visit us in person.”

Shiro breathes out a sigh. “Thank god,” he says. “If I hear him say ‘alternate reality’ one more time I think I’d fling myself off a roof.”

“Patience yields focus,” Keith mutters.

Shiro squints at him. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” Keith says innocently, though it’s ruined by Lance’s snickering. “I was just talking to myself.”

Toward the end of dinner, Pidge pokes Keith’s elbow.

“Can I come hang out with you guys after this?” she asks. “I feel like I haven’t seen you two in a while.”

“Sure!” Lance says. “We’ll break out a board game or something.”

Pidge brightens. “I’ll bring one from Green!”

They wait for Pidge to get the game, then head up to the room together. Lance enters first, then Keith, then Pidge, though—

“TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES!” Lance shouts.

Pidge jumps, startled.

“This is a hotel room of color,” Keith explains. “Shoes are not allowed.”

“You sound like Lance,” she grumbles, but slides off her sneakers anyway and sits on the bed beside them.

They spend the next few hours talking and playing the board game, which is a lot like Monopoly, though instead of building houses and hotels, you build arzniks and gharas, whatever the fuck those are. After a while they decide to order room service for dessert; two of the mice hitch a ride on the robot that brings them their cookies, and they hop off the robot and onto Lance’s bed, settling down to watch the game.

Another fifteen minutes pass. Keith lies down on his stomach—the mice spy an opportunity and immediately scamper up his arm, onto his back, and, according to Pidge, fall asleep—then rolls the dice. He moves his hoverbike playing piece down six squares, then—

“Fuck,” he says, as Lance cackles.

“Four arzniks!” he shouts, falling back triumphantly against the headboard. “Pay up, mullet!”

Keith sighs and hands over the money.

“I don’t understand why you put all your arzniks on one square,” Pidge says. “Doesn’t it make more sense to spread them out? Then we’d land on them more often.”

“Yeah, but this way I get more money when you land on this one,” Lance says. “It’s sneakier this way. My arzniks sit here…lying in wait…lurking in the shadows…finding the perfect time to strike when you least expect it!”

Keith chuckles. Pidge rolls her eyes.

“You’re so stupid,” she says, and Keith knows she doesn’t mean it to be rude, but right then he looks over at Lance, and there’s—something—unpleasant—something shuttered in his eyes, in his expression—and it puts a sour taste in Keith’s mouth.

“Hey,” he says sharply, frowning. “He’s not stupid.”

Pidge’s humor fades. “I know,” she says, sounding uncertain. “I meant—it was a joke.”

“Get better jokes,” Keith says, too abruptly.

“Keith,” Lance says, but Keith ignores him.

“It’s not a joke to call someone stupid,” he says. “You shouldn’t do that.”

Pidge shrinks. “I’m sorry,” she says, then, to Lance, “I’m really sorry. You’re not stupid. That wasn’t funny.”

“It’s okay,” Lance says.

There’s a pause.

“Can we keep playing?” she asks, in a small voice.

Keith looks at Lance, who nods. Keith hands her the dice, smiling and giving her a little fist bump as he does so, so she knows he isn’t still mad. She smiles back, then rolls the dice and sighs, because—

“Four arzniks!” Lance yells. “What’d I say! Pay up!”

.^.

They don’t talk about it again until after Pidge and the mice have left, and after they’ve gotten ready for bed.

“Thanks for that,” Lance says. He’s already in his pillow nest, but Keith is waiting by the door for Pom Pom, who Shiro took for a walk. “I know she doesn’t mean it, but it still—you know. It still kinda sucks to hear it.”

“It’s no problem,” Keith says, “though I have to say sorry, too.”

Lance frowns. “What?”

“I’ve called you dumb before,” Keith says. “I’ve said that stuff you do is dumb. Which is shitty of me, and I’m sorry.”

Lance sits up. “Dude, it’s okay—”

“No it’s not,” Keith interrupts.

“Yeah it is,” Lance insists. “There’s a difference between saying ‘this thing you did is dumbass behavior so I’m gonna lovingly tell you so’ and ‘you’re dumb and that’s your defining personality trait.’ I don’t mind if my friends sometimes say that stuff I do is dumb.”

“I don’t care,” Keith says stubbornly. “I’m still sorry.”

Lance collapses back on his pillows. “You’re being dumb now,” he says.

“Good,” Keith says, ridiculously. “It’s about time someone else got called that instead of you.”

Lance makes a face at him. Keith makes a face back, and Lance laughs, and then there’s a thud against the door.

“Pom Pom,” Keith says, chuckling as he reaches for the knob. Another thud. “Calm down, it’s been two seconds—”

He opens the door. Pom Pom bursts in and jumps on Keith, who topples backwards onto the carpet.

“Whoa, buddy,” he says, laughing. Pom Pom wags their tail and barks happily. “It’s good to see you, too.”

Eventually Pom Pom calms down and goes to their armchair. Keith turns off the lights and gets into bed. He curls up on his side, and unlike last night, he faces Lance instead of the wall; he feels braver tonight, feels like he can bear to look in his direction, feels like even if Lance caught him staring, Keith wouldn’t need to be embarrassed about it.

For a while it’s quiet, interrupted only by the cars outside and Pom Pom’s snoring. Keith’s head is too full of the day to sleep, but he thinks Lance must have dropped off already, but then:

“You’re a good friend,” Lance says randomly, into the darkness.

Keith feels a little warm. “You are too,” he says.

“I know,” Lance says, with feigned arrogance, and Keith snickers. “No, but for real. You are. I was kind of worried that you’d, you know, find new friends and then not really care about us anymore.”

Keith’s brow furrows. “Where would I find new friends?” he asks.

“The blade,” Lance says.

“Oh yeah,” Keith says dryly. “The blade. The organization famously known for its emphasis on friendship.”

Lance snorts.

Keith shifts, tucking his arm under his head. “There were a couple people I talked to sometimes,” he says. “But only at meals or if we trained at the same time. I didn’t actually go find them to hang out with them the way I do with all of you.” He rubs at the purple lining at the edge of his blanket. “I don’t know how Krolia worked with them for so long. She said she’s made some actual friends, but it’s hard because of how limited communication is and how often blade members get left behind.”

“Yeah, it sounds like a sucky job,” Lance agrees.

A pause.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Lance says hesitantly, “why do you call her Krolia?”

Keith’s brow crinkles again. “What else would I call her?”

“Mom,” Lance says, as if explaining something very basic.

Keith blinks.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to explain it,” Lance adds quickly. “I’m not like. Trying to tell you you’re wrong for calling her Krolia. I was just wondering.”

Keith is quiet for a moment. He hasn’t ever thought it through properly, not in a way that would make sense if he said it aloud.

“It’s not—because I hate her or something,” he begins, haltingly. “I just—” He stops, starts over. “I’m glad she’s back,” he says. “I really am. And I’m not mad that she left—or, I’m not as mad. It still kinda bothers me, but—but it’s okay. Mostly.” He stops again, frowning. “Sorry. This probably doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it’s okay,” Lance says. He turns over so he’s on his side too, facing Keith. “Keep going.”

“I’m glad she’s back,” Keith says a second time, “but I can’t—take away the time she was gone. All the time I thought she didn’t want me. All the time that I was alone after my dad died. I can’t go back and tell that version of me that it’ll be okay. And—and it feels—weird—to just go right into calling her ‘mom.’ As if I’m saying the younger version of me didn’t go through a ton of shit.”

He rubs at the edge of the blanket again.

“And she didn’t raise me. She didn’t leave any explanation for leaving. She didn’t ever try to find me or find out what happened to me. And yeah, she does mom stuff now and did when we were stuck in the abyss but I still feel like—like—” He blows out a breath, frustrated by his ineloquence. “Two years of forced interaction isn’t gonna make up for everything. It’s gonna take a lot longer than that. I think I might call her ‘mom’ someday but not—not now. Not yet.”

He goes quiet, shrinking into his blanket. He feels squirmy, the way he used to feel before giving a presentation in class. Consciously, he knows Lance won’t judge him for his feelings, but he can’t help but be nervous anyway.

But then Lance says, “That makes sense,” and the squirmy feeling in Keith’s stomach lessens.

“Sorry for dumping all that on you,” Keith says next.

“It’s okay,” Lance says, and Keith can just barely make out his smile from across the bedside table. “Last night you were my therapist and tonight I’m your therapist.” He flings out an arm, his blanket flying upward into the air. “We are all emotionally vulnerable.”

Keith huffs a laugh.

“And I like having weird conversations late at night,” Lance goes on. “First me and my sister did it, then me and Hunk, and now me and you. Half my life is keeping people up until ridiculous hours so we can talk about childhoods and whether or not jellyfish can make friends.”

“Whether or not jellyfish,” Keith repeats, with another huff, “can make friends.”

“It’s an important question!” Lance says indignantly. “They always hang out in packs, don’t they? That must mean they make friends!”

“I think that’s just how they are,” Keith says, “not because they’re friends.”

Lance sighs. “You sound like Raquel,” he says. “She said the same thing.” He raises his voice. “ ‘Leandro, that’s just how they are, I know cause I’m a nerd and I study marine biology.’”

“You went to the Garrison,” Keith points out. “You’re a nerd, too.”

Lance opens his mouth, then closes it.

“Listen,” he says, as Keith snickers again, “it’s not—it’s not the same—it’s different. It’s not as nerdy as marine biology.”

“Sure,” Keith says dryly. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”

“I hate you,” Lance mutters. “I take everything back. You’re not a good friend. You’re the worst friend ever.”

They talk for a long while after that, about everything that pops into their heads. Lance talks about his family:

“Raquel and me actually have different birthdays,” Lance says.

“Aren’t you twins?”

“Yeah, but she was born at 11:57 and I was born five minutes after midnight,” Lance explains, “so we have different birthdays! So we get two whole days of birthday!”

Keith talks about how he met Shiro:

“It was a big brother program,” Keith says, then, sheepishly, “and on the first day I stole his car.”

Lance blinks. “You what?”

“I stole his car,” Keith repeats.

“No, I—I heard you, I just—” Lance breaks off, laughing. “You stole his fucking car, oh my god—”

Eventually they fall asleep, though Keith doesn’t actually remember it; one second he’s talking, and then the next second he’s jolting awake, blinking blearily at the sunlight streaming in through the wall-window. Lance is gathering his things to go into the bathroom; Keith sits up, rubbing at his eyes, then gets out of bed and stumbles to the armchair for another round of cuddle-Pom-Pom-while-being-generally-annoyed-with-mornings.

The next hour passes quickly; they get ready, eat a hasty breakfast with the others, then thank Ryner one more time for her hospitality and head to the lions. There’s a brief argument over who Matt will ride with—Hunk is getting bored flying by himself, but Pidge claims priority as a sibling—but it’s solved when the space mice and Coran agree to ride in the Yellow Lion, so at last the team takes off for Plaxum’s planet.

.^.

They’re staying on a real campsite this time.

“A Baharian campsite!” Coran says excitedly over their group call as they approach the planet. “I haven’t been here since I was your age!”

According to Coran, the Baharians are experts at camping. It started as a way of life—the Baharians used to be nomadic before setting up permanently in the mountains—but now it’s become a booming tourism industry for aliens looking to escape their hectic lives.

“We don’t have the money for the authentic experience, I’m afraid,” Coran says. “But it’s still a beautiful place to stay.”

The campsite is just outside a forest, at the base of a tall mountain. The air is fresh here, cold enough that they have to wear sweaters before going out, cold enough that Keith’s lungs feel crisp when he breathes in. He smiles as he exits Black, who rumbles low in the back of his mind.

It is like home, they say.

Keith is startled. Black has never shared anything personal before; all his knowledge of their origins comes from what Shiro has told him, not from Black’s communication.

Contain your excitement, Black says haughtily. I am not revealing any more information.

Keith rolls his eyes but otherwise ignores them in favor of looking round the campsite. It’s roughly circular, with the grey base of the mountain on one side and the blue trees of the forest on the other. The flat brown ground feels spongy, though only under intense pressure; Keith can walk normally, but when he stops and presses his boot deliberately into the ground, it gives like a sponge, leaving an imprint behind before it springs back up. He does it a few more times, strangely satisfied by the texture.

There are two other groups of aliens camping in this area, though they are closer to the forest, while the lions have landed nearer to the mountain. One of the groups looks to be made up of friends of five different alien species, none of which Keith recognizes. The other is a family of Azadians, two dads and their three children, the latter of whom are chasing each other around the tents.

Keith looks toward Red next, to find Lance. He’s standing by his lion and talking to Pidge, who’s doing that shrinking-into-herself thing she always does when she’s nervous.

She says something, and Lance shakes his head, but she shakes her head too, then darts forward and hugs him.

Apologized again, Red rumbles. Good. Leandro not stupid.

Keith frowns. You shouldn’t talk to me so much without Lance’s permission, he says.

The answering sensation is what he suspects is the lion equivalent of sticking your tongue out at someone. Keith ignores it, though he does wonder what the fuck has happened to his life that he’s comfortable ignoring two superpowered magic lions in the span of as many minutes.

Coran calls him over to help gather supplies from the Baharian marketplace, since their sleeping bags won’t protect them much against the chilly air. Lance and Shiro come to help, too. As the four of them walk towards the base of the mountain, Coran explains a little more about what to expect. In the past few centuries, the Baharians have given up camping for permanent residency in the mountains—not among the mountaintops or valleys, as Keith assumed when Coran first mentioned it on their way here, but in the mountains, in hollowed-out spaces within them.

In?” Lance says under his breath to Keith. Now that they’re closer to the base, Keith can see that it’s not all grey rock as it seems at first glance, but that there’s a faint outline of a huge doorway, arched and taller than the Black Lion. “How is that even possible? They wouldn’t get any sunlight.” He tilts his head back to look up at the mountain. “There’s no openings or anything for windows! Do they just not see the sun?”

Keith shrugs. Coran marches up to the faint doorway, coming to a halt just in front of it. He puts his hands on his hips as he regards the stone.

“Hello!” he shouts. “We have come to patronize your marketplace! Please allow us to enter!”

Nothing happens. Keith and Lance and Shiro all exchange glances.

“Maybe they’ve changed their password,” Lance suggests. “Try ‘1234.’”

“Try ‘password,’” Shiro offers.

Coran looks at them over his shoulder. “There isn’t a password,” he says, frowning. “Baharians can open the door to the capital city themselves, and people with frequent visitor passes can simply enter, but newcomers must make their presence known so the guard can let them in.” He turns back to the door. “Alas, I cannot remember the exact formula that can actually be heard over the din of life within the mountain.”

Lance walks up beside him. “Maybe you just have to knock,” he says, then reaches out and knocks his fist thrice against the stone.

For a long second nothing happens. Lance’s arm drops and he steps back, but right then a large triangular window opens in the center of the doorway. An alien peers out at them. Their face looks like a human’s, with the exception of their eyes: they have a third eye in the middle of their forehead, bright silver contrasting with the dark brown of their two other ones. Their hair is neon orange and braided, one thick plait wrapped around the crown of their head.

“Oh, hello!” they say. They smile, a flash of white pointed teeth against dark skin. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long!”

“Not at all,” Coran assures them.

He recites their names and reason for visiting, including the others in case they want to explore later. The guard disappears from view for a minute, then returns, beaming.

“You are in the log now,” they say. “You may come and go as you please for the next twenty vargas. I hope you enjoy your visit to Bahara City!”

They disappear again. There is a rumbling sound, a bit like when the lions speak in the back of Keith’s mind, only louder, much louder, so loud he worries it might topple the rocks on the mountain. But after a few seconds the rumbling stops, and the faint outline of the huge arched door glows orange.

“In we go!” Coran says cheerfully, and walks right into the rock.

Or rather—through the rock. Keith gapes as Coran vanishes.

“Awesome!” Lance says, then runs forward and vanishes too.

Keith looks at Shiro, who grins.

“Last one in is a rotten egg,” he says, then shoves at Keith’s shoulder and runs past him into the doorway.

“That’s cheating!” Keith shouts, running in after him. He’s thrown by the sensation—tickly and disorienting, like walking through the beaded doorway that his Garrison Resident Advisor had in his room—but it’s overcome by his annoyance at Shiro’s laughter when he emerges on the other side.

“That’s cheating,” Keith repeats, but then his irritation fades, because he looks around with wide eyes at the space he’s just entered, and where the fuck is he.

“I stand corrected,” Lance says, awestruck. “They get plenty of sunlight.”

Plenty of sunlight, though Keith thinks that right now, at sunset, the interior of the mountain must be at its most breathtaking, with the entirety of the capital cast in fierce orange light, light that warms the interior of the mountain and matches many of the Baharians’ equally bright hair: orange, pink, blue, green. The Baharians are as varied in body type and features as humans are, though they all share the same dark brown skin and three eyes, with two matching and one not. They make up more than half of the population milling about the mountain, though Keith spots several other alien species as well, buying and selling and haggling and chatting.

The mountain itself looks even taller from the inside than the outside. It’s hollowed out, with a huge marketplace on the ground floor, stretching as far as the eye can see. Along the walls of the mountain are ridges, fitted with circular platforms, leading all the way up to the very top of the mountain. Lining the walls of those platforms are doorways, presumably leading to offices more established than the stalls and booths that take up the ground floor marketplace. Keith squints at the platform one level up; he spots a door with an image of a stethoscope on it, another with some kind of alien pet, another with a picture of a book.

But the star of the show is the light. From the outside the mountain didn’t seem to have any openings for windows, but there are dozens—probably hundreds—large and triangular like the one the guard spoke through, studding the walls in the spaces between the platforms, letting in the orange glare of the sunset outside.

“Why can’t we see them from outside?” Lance asks.

“They are designed with similar materials as the door,” Coran says. “From outside all you can see is an outline.” He pulls two slips of paper and an envelope out of his pocket. “Now, we should get these quickly before night falls and our friends are left shivering. You two find the heated tents”—he hands a slip of paper to Shiro and Lance—“and Keith, you come help me find the blankets.”

Shiro takes the envelope and peeks at the wad of cash stuffed inside. “I feel like a drug dealer,” he remarks. “Is there really no better way to carry our money around?”

“I’ll put it in my wallet,” Lance says, taking it out. “I’ve always dreamed of having a wallet so fat it can’t fit in my pocket.”

“Come along, Number Four,” Coran says, handing Keith the other slip of paper. “This is the brand we are looking for. Keep an eye out.”

He marches down one of the rows of stalls. Keith hurries after him, checking the name on the paper. It’s in Baharian, so he does his best to memorize the lines and dots to recognize them on the labels next to each product.

“Shouldn’t I at least be tied for Number Three?” he asks. “I think me and Lance are the same height now.”

They round a booth into a new row. Coran pats his shoulder.

“That is indeed a tragedy,” he says sympathetically. “But rest assured, you will always be Number Four in my heart.”

Keith’s brow crinkles. “What—I’m not—sad about it—”

“Look, the home goods row!” Coran exclaims, pointing. “Come along, Number Four!”

Keith sighs and follows him into the new row. The stalls here are piled with everything you would need to furnish a living space; to Keith’s eyes it looks like someone emptied out a Bed Bath and Beyond into an old-fashioned marketplace. The Baharians all call out the goods they’re selling, so rapidly that he can barely understand them. Coran seems to, however, and he walks right to a stall near the middle of the row.

“Hello, good sir!” he says. “We are in need of some of your excellent blankets!”

The Baharian is tall, even taller than Shiro, with bright blue hair in long braids. His matching eyes are dark brown and his odd eye is hazel.

“I have a variety of blanket brands,” he says. “Which do you require?”

Keith shows him the slip of paper. He peers at it for a moment, then pats a stack of purple blankets on the left side of the table.

“These are the finest Kambali blankets in the region,” he says. “I deal with the merchants myself, so I can personally guarantee their quality and authenticity, as well as assure you the best prices, since I do not use a middleman.”

Keith rubs the blanket atop the stack. It’s soft and fuzzy and warmer than any other blanket he’s ever felt. Maybe it has some kind of heating property to it.

They purchase enough blankets for everyone to have their own, then head back to the entrance to meet with Lance and Shiro. As they wait, Coran lists off more facts about the mountain: there are tunnels by which the Baharians visit other mountains so they do not have to venture out into the cold; the schools and residential spaces are in other peaks, since the capital is for work only; many Baharians have actually never gone camping and find foreign aliens’ obsessions with it quite strange and funny.

“My, I’ve talked a lot,” Coran says suddenly, several minutes later. He gives Keith a sheepish look. “I apologize, Number Four. I’ve been boring you.”

“No,” Keith says, smiling. “I like when you tell us about stuff. It’s cool.”

Coran looks startled.

“I mean, sometimes it’s boring,” Keith allows, and Coran chuckles. “But usually it’s cool. You’re like an encyclopedia for the universe.”

Coran puffs out his chest. “I suppose I am,” he says. “Not a bad title to have, if I do say so myself.”

“I kinda missed it while I was gone,” Keith goes on. His stomach lurches a little, the way it always does when he wants to say something emotional, but he pushes past it. “It was weird to not be able to just ask you what stuff is.” His stomach lurches again, so he makes a fist with his right hand and runs his thumb over his index finger to calm down. “It’s kinda like on TV when the kids’ grandpa will tell them stories about stuff, even if it’s boring. Not that,” he adds quickly, “you’re old or anything—I mean, you are, you’re older than all of us—and I guess you’re more than ten thousand years old—but you’re not a grandpa, you’re—an uncle, I guess—”

“I understand,” Coran interrupts. He’s beaming, his eyes twinkling. “I would offer you a grandfatherly hug—”

“You’re not that old,” Keith protests.

“—but I have a feeling you would rather go for a firm handshake,” he finishes.

He holds out his hand. Keith unclenches his fist and shakes it. Right then Lance and Shiro show up, carrying large boxes, so Keith and Coran pick up the boxes of blankets and head back out to the campsite.

.^.

The tents hold up to four people each, so after a quick dinner, everyone separates off into groups. The Alteans take one, along with the space mice; Matt and Pidge and Hunk take another, and volunteer to keep Kaltenecker inside so she won’t get too cold; and Shiro and Keith and Krolia take the third, along with Pom Pom.

“Uh,” Lance says, as everyone divides off. “I guess I’ll stick with you all and Kaltenecker.”

He takes a step towards Pidge’s tent, his hands shoved in his pockets. Keith frowns.

(I’m not really anyone’s first choice to hang out with)

His frown deepens.

(I would hang out with you first)

“Hey.”

Lance looks back at Keith. “What?”

“Sleep in our tent,” Keith says. “We can talk before going to sleep.”

Lance smiles, big and bright.

“Okay!” he says. “I have a lot of stuff to tell you, anyway.”

Within half an hour everyone is snug in their sleeping bags. The Kambali blanket is wonderfully warm, so warm it feels like sitting in front of a heater. Keith lies on his side and pulls it up to his cheek, his face half-hidden in the fuzzy material.

“I want to be buried in this blanket,” Lance whispers. He’s on his side too, his blanket pulled up the way Keith’s is. “This is my favorite blanket in the whole universe.”

“Mine too,” Keith whispers back. He can hear Shiro’s and Krolia’s snoring on the other side of the tent. Behind him, Pom Pom grumbles in their sleep. “What were you going to tell me?”

“Oh!” Lance scoots up on his pillow. “I got souvenirs for my family. Remind me and I’ll show you tomorrow. They’re keychains with little planets on them, the ones we’ve been to. Like Olkarion, and Arus, and the Balmera. And if you press a little button on the side, it’ll rotate and get darker or lighter the way a real planet does.”

“That’s cool,” Keith says. “I thought you already got stuff for them.”

“Yeah, but they’re all collected items,” Lance explains. “Interesting rocks and flowers and things like that. I haven’t bought anything. But Shiro and me had money left over after getting the tents, so we decided to get some stuff for ourselves.”

“Wow,” Keith says, deadpan. “Thanks for thinking of me.”

“No!” Lance whisper-shouts. “I didn’t forget you! I just wanted to get presents for my family first and I didn’t have any money left after that!”

“I told you you’re my favorite person,” Keith says grumpily, “and this is how you repay me.”

There’s a pause. Keith’s neck feels warm, though it has nothing to do with the blanket. He has a feeling that if it weren’t so dark, he would be able to see Lance’s ears redden.

Lance sounds shy. “You didn’t tell me that.”

(how can you not know? he wants to say)

(of course you are, he wants to say)

(who else would it be, if not you? he wants to say)

“I implied it,” Keith says instead, because those are things to be said in a space quieter and darker and more private than the one they are in now. It’s dark here, but with the trio of snores filling the tent, it is definitely not quiet and definitely not private. “That counts.”

“Oh,” is all Lance says, but it’s a pleased oh, pleased and still shy.

There’s another pause.

“Can I ask you something?” Lance whispers next. “It’s about Shiro.”

“Sure.”

“He bought rings,” Lance goes on, and the words hit Keith with a jolt. “Matching rings. And he asked the vendor if they were something that men in a relationship could wear.”

For a moment Keith can only stare at him. He’s not sure what emotion is winning right now: surprise that Shiro is actually taking a step like this, excitement that his persuasion seems to be working, or—hurt—because why would Shiro not tell him that he did this?

“Who is it for?” Lance continues. “I didn’t know he was with anyone.”

“It’s for Adam,” Keith says finally. “His boyfriend. Or—maybe his boyfriend. It’s kind of a long story.”

He gives Lance the rundown of events.

“I know Adam still cares about him,” Keith finishes, “so I’ve been trying to get Shiro to consider talking to him when we get back. He said he would, but he still didn’t seem like he expected much from it. But I guess now he does.” He tucks his hands under his cheek, frowning. “I wish he’d told me.”

“You didn’t have any time to talk to him alone,” Lance reminds him, “and he probably doesn’t want to advertise this to everyone else.”

“Yeah.”

Another pause.

“So—” Lance breaks off. He sounds nervous. “Shiro is—gay? Bi?”

“Gay,” Keith confirms. “I’m surprised you didn’t already know. He’s the one who started the section of the Garrison GSA specifically for students of color.”

Lance looks thoughtful. “Oh.”

“You probably know Adam, too,” Keith goes on. “You stayed an extra year past me, right? So you must have taken pre-cal. That’s Adam’s class.”

Lance blinks. “No way!” he says. He sounds floored. “He was awesome! He was really good at explaining all the concepts. And once he moved our exam because a lot of us had other tests that week and he said he didn’t want us losing sleep to study for another one.”

“He’s great,” Keith agrees. “He’s really funny and he’s a really good cook. Better than Hunk.”

Lance looks impressed. He shifts, tucking his elbow under his head, then goes back to seeming nervous.

“I never went to any of those events,” he says.

“That’s okay,” Keith says.

“I mean, I could have,” Lance goes on, “cause I’m—I’m bisexual. I just, um. I don’t know. I just didn’t.”

Keith’s brow furrows. He sounds even more nervous than before. He’s fidgeting, too, and he’s not looking Keith directly, which is weird, because this isn’t exactly news to Keith.

“I mean,” Lance says next, “it just—I don’t know. I’m not really—used to talking about it, I guess.”

(oh, his mind whispers, oh—)

(knowing it is one thing, implying it is one thing, and saying it explicitly is another, entirely different, far more terrifying thing)

“Cause I’ve only ever told three people,” Lance says, “even though I—I definitely am, cause I’ve known for years. I’m not making it up.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Keith says immediately. “I believe you.”

He thinks about what to say next. It took a long time for Keith to get over the surge of panic that shoots through him whenever he says explicitly that he’s gay; even now he still gets it sometimes, gets that weird feeling of maybe I shouldn’t say this to this person, even if he knows they’ll be okay with it.

He tries to remember what kind of stuff Shiro had said to him back when he came out for the first time.

“I’m glad you told me,” he says. “It’s good when people own who they are, cause it makes themselves and the world a better and more accepting place.” He pauses, trying to remember the rest of it. “Though it’s okay to keep it to yourself, too, and if you don’t tell anyone else, that’s fine, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love yourself.”

Lance is still fidgeting, but he meets Keith’s gaze, and the corner of his mouth turns up. “Did you steal that from Shiro?”

Keith narrows his eyes at him. Lance snickers, muffling the sound in his sleeve so he won’t disturb the others.

“Seriously, I’m glad you told me,” Keith says earnestly. “And if you still feel weird about it, I think you should tell Shiro. He was the first person I came out to and he’s good at helping you deal with feeling weird.”

Lance looks hesitant. “Do you really think that’d be okay?”

“Yeah,” Keith says. “He loves this kind of stuff. It’s an opportunity for him to give one of his old man pep talks about being proud of yourself.”

“You mean the old man pep talks that you steal?” Lance says.

Keith rolls his eyes. Lance snickers again.

“Really, though,” Keith says, “he won’t be annoyed at all.”

“Okay,” Lance says. He’s stopped fidgeting. “Thanks. I will.”

They don’t talk much more after that. A confused bug crawls on the ground between their sleeping bags; Lance lets it crawl into his hand, then sticks it outside the tent flap, then starts poking the spongy ground and making little designs in it: a smiley face, a sun, a tree. Keith does too, and together they make small drawings in the spongy ground, doodles and words, until suddenly Keith is waking up.

“Why do I keep doing this,” he croaks, squinting at the sunlight filtering in through the window. “I need to sleep on purpose sometime.”

They gather up their stuff, stashing the tents in the back of the Yellow Lion. Lance asks Shiro to travel with him in Red. Shiro agrees, and Lance glances at Keith, a bit nervously.

Keith gives him a thumbs up. Lance gives him one back, then heads into his lion.

.^.

Lance feels a lot better afterward.

“I think it’s gonna take time before I’m really comfortable saying it,” he says to Keith over the comms later that night, after everyone else has gone to sleep. “But it helped a lot to hear about what it was like for him and how he got used to it.” He pauses. “We also talked about how that clone treated me and he said he’s sorry, but then I said that’s dumb cause it wasn’t him.”

“Yeah, he keeps trying to take the blame for that,” Keith says.

“He.” Lance stops, then says, sounding embarrassed. “He said he’s very proud of how I stepped up and took charge and that I have a lot of leadership potential.”

“Nice,” Keith says, then, huffing at Lance’s increased embarrassment, “I told you he likes giving old man pep talks. You should have expected this.”

They stay on the line a while longer so Lance can show him the souvenirs he got for his family, then eventually end the call when Lance grows too sleepy to talk. Keith doesn’t move from his chair after the line cuts; he stares hard out of the window, wishing the unpleasant feeling in his stomach would go away.

It’s been like this all day. He plays with Pom Pom, or reads, or talks to his friends, and for a while he feels happy. But then he remembers what Lance said about Shiro last night, and the unpleasant feeling settles back into his stomach, heavy and hurt.

It’s dumb to be upset. He should be glad that Shiro got something for Adam, something that indicates he wants to try again, but it bothers Keith that he wouldn’t tell him. It makes him worry that maybe he has been too pushy, that Shiro is annoyed with him and this is his way of avoiding more questions.

The unpleasant feeling in his stomach grows. Keith shrinks down into the seat and crosses his arms. Krolia pauses the show she’s watching on her tablet and comes over to him, leaning against the side of the pilot’s chair.

“Are you all right?” she asks. She’s using that careful voice she always uses when she asks stuff like this, like she isn’t sure it’s okay for her to notice this, like she isn’t sure Keith won’t resent her trying to get involved. “You seem upset.”

Keith looks at her out of the corner of his eye. She’s wearing the matching pajamas and her hair sticks up in the back because she hasn’t brushed it in a few days. She doesn’t look like a mom, though he supposes he doesn’t really know what a mom looks like, outside of what he’s seen in books and on TV. He met Shiro’s mother a handful of times, so as far as Keith knows, moms are very short, make too many jokes, cook really well, and fuss over their children’s appearance.

Krolia is not short. She does not joke much. She’s the shittiest cook Keith has ever met, including Shiro. She doesn’t really fuss over his appearance, except to tell him to brush his hair every so often, which is bewildering considering how infrequently she brushes her own hair.

He thinks moms are probably supposed to help with problems, but he doesn’t know if he’s okay with telling her about a problem with Shiro. If it were anyone else he wouldn’t mind as much, but it feels—traitorous, almost—to complain to someone who didn’t raise him about someone who did.

But he has to ask someone. And Lance is out of the question right now, since Shiro is in the lion with him and would overhear their conversation.

He decides to keep it vague. “Shiro did something without telling me,” he says slowly, “and it bothers me that he didn’t. Whenever he would do stuff like this before, he would tell me. But this time he didn’t.”

Krolia crosses her arms. “Does he have a reason?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to ask him.”

“Then I advise not worrying about it until you do,” Krolia announces, as if it’s that easy. “I’m sure he has a reason.”

“What if his reason is that he’s annoyed I keep asking him about it and he gets more annoyed when I ask him about this?”

Krolia’s brow furrows. Keith supposes that’s fair. He’s not being very clear right now.

“I think,” she says, “that it would take a very long time before Shiro would be annoyed with you.” She uncrosses her arms. “That’s not to say you don’t pester him, because you most certainly do—”

Keith shrinks further into the seat, sheepish.

“—but if he hasn’t told you to stop asking about whatever this is, then he isn’t annoyed. He would tell you if it was a problem.”

This—is true.

“You’re usually quite straightforward,” Krolia goes on. “I’m surprised you’re having this issue.”

“It’s cause it’s Shiro,” Keith mumbles, “and cause I’ve already brought this up more than once.”

(if he annoyed Pidge into speaking to him again, or Hunk, or Allura, then he would be fine. it would hurt, it would hurt like hell, but it would be fine. he would survive)

(but Lance or Shiro—Keith doesn’t even want to think about either of them never speaking to him again)

“Maybe I’m just being dramatic,” he says next. “I’m spending too much time with Lance. It’s rubbing off on me.”

“Don’t blame him,” Krolia chides, though she grins. “It’s nice that you two spend so much time together. It’s very sweet.”

Keith gives her a look out of the corner of his eye. Krolia hastily rearranges her grin into something more serious, though Keith can see the remnants of her sneaky-not-sneaky expression.

“And you’re not being dramatic,” Krolia adds. “You just need to ask him. I’m sure everything will be fine.” She snorts. “This reminds me of something that happened with my cousin Jular and my uncle Harn. But that wasn’t upsetting at all. Just funny.”

Keith sits up. She doesn’t talk much about her family, since she lost contact with most of them before crash-landing on earth, so he collects whatever little scraps she offers. “What happened?”

Krolia tells him about their argument, about Harn’s outrage that Jular wouldn’t tell him about his surprise birthday party—“surprise,” Krolia emphasizes, snickering, “it was a surprise, I still don’t understand why Harn was angry.” She’s in a talkative mood, so she tells him about her parents next, about her grandparents, about her best friend from grade school, who she ran into on a mission four years ago.

By the time she’s done telling him about the pranks she and her aunt would play on her mother, they’re both yawning into their sleeves, so they turn in. The next morning, Pom Pom teleports Shiro back to the Black Lion. Keith hovers, waiting as Shiro gathers his things, as he teleports to and from the Blue Lion to use the bathroom, as he sits on one of the cushions on the floor to eat breakfast.

Keith sits next to him. He and Krolia already ate, but he snitches half a piece of toast when Shiro turns to get a bottle of anarberry juice. Shiro turns back and blinks at his plate, then frowns at Keith.

“I didn’t do anything,” Keith mumbles through the mouthful of toast.

Shiro rolls his eyes and starts eating. Keith looks at Krolia, who nods and goes into the back room, ostensibly to get food for Pom Pom.

(just do it, his mind says firmly. don’t be a coward. just—DO IT)

“Why didn’t you tell me about the rings?” Keith blurts.

Shiro coughs on his toast.

“Lance told me,” Keith says. He realizes he sounds angry, so he tries to lower his voice. “Are you mad I keep asking you about it?”

Shiro shakes his head. He takes a drink of his juice.

“I didn’t want to get your hopes up,” he says. “Adam might not want anything to do with me. He might not want to talk to me at all. He might not even work at the Garrison anymore. I didn’t want you to think this is a guarantee.”

(of course it’s a guarantee. how could it not be a guarantee, how could it be anything but a guarantee?)

(this is Adam, someone who helped Keith with his homework and baked cookies with him and hugged him when he was sad, someone who reminded Shiro to take days off and called him Takashi and always made him laugh, no matter how awful his day was)

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Shiro goes on. “It wasn’t even planned, it was an impulse decision. I saw the jewelry stall and the rings and—I don’t know.” He sounds uncertain, which is odd for him. “It might be a stupid decision.”

“It’s not stupid,” Keith says immediately.

Shiro stares hard at his plate, his brow knit. He pokes at the remaining bits of toast. “He might not want it.”

“Of course he will,” Keith says.

Shiro gives him half a smile. “You’re very confident about this.”

“I’m confident about everything,” Keith says.

Shiro’s eyebrows raise. “Oh really?” he says, and Keith knows he’s in trouble. “Is that why you’re so confidently not telling Lance that you like him?”

A flush spreads rapidly over Keith’s neck. “Shut up,” he says.

Shiro laughs. “You should tell him sometime this century,” he suggests. “You two can room together in your retirement home.”

“Shut up,” Keith says again, his blush intensifying. “You can’t make fun of me. You took forever to ask Adam out.”

“Exactly,” Shiro says, “which is why you should move quicker than I did. Learn from my mistakes.”

Keith huffs, and Shiro ruffles his hair, and Keith steals more of his toast in retaliation, and the unpleasant feeling in Keith’s stomach vanishes entirely.

.^.

Shiro always keeps the rings with him. He carries them around in his pocket, like some kind of lovesick loser.

(like you’re one to talk, Keith mind whispers slyly, as he calls Lance for the fourth time that day)

(shut up, says another part of his mind, but then the first part whispers tell him, and Keith’s heart skips a beat as Lance appears on the comm screen, because he’ll tell him)

(he will)

(he’ll say it feels like there’s thunder inside of me when I see you, like there’s so much feeling it’ll burst out of me all at once)

(he’ll say you’re my best friend and my favorite person and my first choice and my only choice, you’re the reason I don’t completely hate mornings, cause if it’s morning then I get to see you again)

(he’ll say I want to show you all the things I love, I want to take you for rides in the desert and go stargazing and watch the sunset, I want to buy you greasy takeout and fancy ice cream and dinners that I have to save up to afford)

(he’ll say I’ll do all the things you love too, even if I don’t like them, cause if you love them then I’ll love them too, I’ll see them through your eyes and see the good in them anyway)

(he’ll say these things, say all of them and more, but he just still has to figure out how, because every time he looks at Lance and thinks about saying any of—that—he feels like he might pass out, feels like he must be mistaken, because surely no one this wonderful—this amazing—this fucking perfect—could like Keith)

Shiro shows the rings to Keith shortly after they talk. They’re black bands, with a gold star engraved on one side.

“Like Adam’s tattoo,” Keith says, touching the small star.

(he remembers the first time he actually noticed it)

(remembers sitting on the counter in Adam’s kitchen, going over a math problem while Adam helped him and washed dishes)

(remembers Shiro sneaking into the kitchen, remembers him making shushing motions at Keith, remembers him throwing his arms around Adam from behind)

(remember Shiro shouting Gotcha!, remembers Adam dropping the soapy sponge with a surprised laugh, remembers Shiro kissing the nape of Adam’s neck and saying Got you, too)

(remembers thinking, Got what?, and looking at Adam with fresh eyes, and seeing the gold outline of a star tattooed on the nape of Adam’s neck, light enough that it was barely visible from afar)

It’s a corny memory, a corny moment, but it made him happy to see it, despite his embarrassment at seeing two people be so affectionate; made him wonder if someone would ever do that with him, would ever throw their arms around him and kiss him like that.

(he thinks of Lance’s arms, tugging at his waist in the sea at Olkarion; Lance’s fingers, gentle as they trace his dimple; Lance’s eyes, bright as he says You’d be glad to be stuck with—him?)

Keith fights the heat rising up his neck. He hands the rings back to Shiro.

“He’s gonna love it,” he says firmly.

“I hope so,” Shiro says, and tucks them back into his pocket.

.^.

Usually they stop at an inn halfway on the journey between the major planets, but this time there aren’t many places to stop, so they have to camp until they reach a rest stop two quintants from Plaxum’s planet. The clerk at the inn tells them that a branch of the space mall is only a short walk away, which Allura is very excited about.

“And yes, I’ll take someone with me,” she says, rolling her eyes before Coran can speak. “I won’t go alone.”

They all head up to their rooms. Keith is sharing with Shiro this time. He’s just finished washing up and let Shiro have the bathroom when there’s a knock at the door.

“Hi,” he says to Allura. “Do you need something?”

“A shopping partner,” she says. “Coran won’t let me go alone, but I can’t take Romelle, because Pidge is feeling low today and since it’s related to dysphoria Romelle thinks she ought to stay with her. Coran is tired from how long we’ve been camping, as are Hunk and Matt. Quite frankly, I’m a little alarmed by your mother, so I don’t really want to ask her.”

“Why don’t you ask Lance?”

“I asked him after I asked Romelle,” Allura says, “and he doesn’t feel up to it, either. He’s lying in bed and he’s not talking very much.”

(Lance is quiet, and serious, and sits alone away from everyone else to stare blankly at a sunrise—)

(Lance walks alone towards the pharmacy on the other side of the fountain, shoulders hunched and hands in the pockets of his hoodie—)

(Lance is lying on one of the beds, staring at the ceiling—)

(Lance, crying in the bathroom—)

Keith’s chest feels tight.

“I should go check on him,” he says, and starts to move past her.

“Wait!” Allura catches his arm. “Do you think Shiro would want to come?”

“He’s kind of tired, too,” Keith says. “He said he’ll go right to bed.”

Allura sighs. Her hand drops. “All right,” she says.

Keith hesitates. He’s not a huge fan of shopping, but she looks so—dejected—and she was so excited at the idea of going—and there’s a gnawing sense of guilt in the pit of his stomach for all the ill will he had towards her during the first few weeks of their trip, even though he did his best not to let it affect their friendship—a sense that he hasn’t been rude to her, necessarily, but he hasn’t tried to talk to her, either, hasn’t made an effort to befriend her, even though she could use as many friends as possible after what Lotor did to her, after losing the castle ship, after destroying the last tie she has to her old home.

“I’ll go with you,” he says.

Allura blinks. “Really?” she says. She sound cautiously optimistic. “You shouldn’t feel obligated to come. I didn’t bother asking because I know you aren’t much of a shopper.”

“It’s fine,” Keith says. He smiles. “Really. I’d love to.”

She claps her hands together. “Excellent!” she says, beaming.

“Go on to the lobby,” Keith says. “I’ll come down soon, I’m just going to check on Lance first.”

She nods and heads down the hall. Keith goes in the opposite direction, to the room Lance is sharing with Hunk. Their keys open all the rooms associated with their group, so he just swipes it and heads inside. Sure enough, Lance is tucked in bed, staring blankly at the table between his bed and Hunk’s. He looks up as Keith enters, but he doesn’t speak, which is worrisome.

“Are you okay?” Keith asks. He sits on the edge of Hunk’s bed. “Allura said you weren’t talking much.”

“I’m just tired,” Lance says, quieter than usual.

Keith studies him. “Tired,” he says, “or sad-tired?”

“What?”

“It’s not so much a problem anymore,” Keith clarifies, “but sometimes in the shack, or on the space whale, I’d be tired because I did a lot of stuff or need sleep, but sometimes I’d be tired because I feel bad.”

Lance smiles halfway, one corner of his mouth quirking. “It’s the second one,” he says, “but I’ll be fine.”

Fine isn’t good enough. Keith isn’t going to pretend that he understands Lance’s feelings completely, but he knows a little of what it’s like to feel like this, knows that it’s cold and empty and lonely, knows that fine is code for as best as I can be when I feel like this. Lance shouldn’t feel fine, he should feel happy, fantastic, wonderful, should feel warm and full and—loved—

(tell him, part of his mind whispers. you were going to tell him, weren’t you? tell him now)

(not now, you idiot, says another part, rolling its eyes. that won’t fix anything)

“It’s okay,” Lance says, when Keith doesn’t move. “I’ll be fine. Hunk went to get some snacks from downstairs and we’re gonna eat and talk like old times. I won’t be alone.”

Keith is reluctant to leave him, but he did promise Allura he would go with her, and Hunk is coming back, so—

“Okay,” he says finally. “If you want, I can tell Pom Pom to come here.”

Lance’s smile widens. “That’d be nice.”

Keith gets up from the bed. “I told Allura I’d go to the mall with her,” he says, “so I’ll be out. But if you want me, call and I’ll come back. Okay?”

He’s smiling properly now. “Okay,” he says. “I will.”

.^.

The walk to the mall is short and quiet. As soon as they enter, Allura makes a beeline for a small store to the left. The symbols on the sign are in an unfamiliar language, but beneath them it says Opal’s Thrift in Galran.

It strikes Keith as odd that a princess would shop at a thrift store. It makes sense, given their limited cash supply, but the concept of it—the princess of Altea, someone who once could have whatever she wanted at the snap of a finger—the thought of her shopping at a thrift store makes him weirdly sad.

He shakes it off and follows her inside. The store is cramped, so stuffed that he has to watch his feet so he won’t step on something on accident. There isn’t a theme; the store has everything from clothes to home goods to art supplies to random knickknacks. The lone employee stands at the counter, half-hidden behind a pile of sweaters that they’re folding. They murmur a hello, which Keith and Allura return in kind.

Allura stops in front of a collection of scarves. They shimmer in the light of the shop. Keith spots a blue sparkly one hiding behind the others and pulls it out.

“You like sparkly stuff, right?” he says, showing it to her.

She gasps. “Ooh!” She turns the scarf over to check the tag. Her face falls. “Never mind. Put it back.”

Keith puts it back. They move on from the scarves toward a table with animal figurines on it.

“This looks like Kaltenecker,” Allura remarks, picking one up. It resembles a cow, though it’s rainbow patterned. “I wonder if she modelled for it.”

“It’s probably based off a different cow,” Keith says. “There are lots of them on earth.”

Allura’s eyes are round. “There are more of her?” she says, then shakes her head. “Of course there are. What a silly question.” She puts the figurine down. “I don’t look forward to seeing more Kalteneckers when we arrive.”

“There won’t be any near the Garrison,” Keith reassures her. They move on to the next table, which has stacks of notebooks and sketchbooks. “Do you think you’ll like earth?”

“I think so,” Allura says. She picks up a notebook with a shiny silver cover and flips through it. The pages are edged with silver, too. “Lance has been telling me about it so I won’t feel lost when we get there. It’s strange to go someplace that I have no official knowledge of.” She looks up from the notebook and into middle distance, chewing her lower lip. “I’m worried I’ll be—”

She stops. Keith waits, but she just looks down at the notebook again.

“Worried you’ll be?” he prompts.

She puts the notebook down. “It’s silly.”

“I say dumb shit all the time,” Keith says, and she snorts. “Say it anyway. It’s just me.”

She picks up a sketchbook next, which he knows she’s doing just to have something in her hand as she talks.

“I’m worried I’ll be useless,” she says, seemingly addressing the sketchbook. “I won’t be able to help much if I don’t know about the culture or the environment. How can I lead when I don’t know anything?”

“We’ll help you,” Keith says, without hesitation. “That’s what a team is for. We help each other.”

Allura gives him a sideways glance. “I must say, you are the last person I expected to hear that from.”

Keith huffs. “I’m learning,” he says. “Slowly.”

She laughs a little and puts down the sketchbook. They walk over to a rack of dresses next. She runs her fingers along a few of the shoulders, then pulls out a yellow sundress with white polka dots.

“I think I’m also still worried because of—what happened,” she says. She’s looking determinedly at the dress. “With—Lotor.”

(he hasn’t had time to think about it much, not when so much happened after they found out about Lotor’s betrayal, not when he had to worry about Shiro)

(but he thinks about it now, thinks about it properly, and it’s alarming how angry he is all of a sudden, alarming how quickly he feels that loud rushing in his head and his chest and his limbs, because what the fuck)

(what the actual fuck)

“I wish I could beat him up,” he says bluntly.

Allura lets go of the sundress with a startled laugh. It swings back into the rack.

“What he did was fucked up,” Keith says, frowning. “To the colony and to you.”

“We did destroy him in the quintessence field,” Allura reminds him.

“That’s not as satisfying as punching someone, though,” Keith counters. “Sometimes you just have to”—he punches his own fist—“deck someone.”

She laughs again. “You sound like Lance,” she says. “I think he’s offered to revive him and beat him up more than a dozen times. Romelle’s offered it, too.”

She smiles softly as she says Romelle’s name. Keith’s brow furrows, because that’s—weird—good weird, not bad weird—but before he can analyze it, she pulls the sundress back out from the rack.

“What do you think?” she asks.

“Uh.” Keith squints at it. This reminds him of pop quizzes back at the Garrison. “No?”

Allura pouts. Keith’s confusion clears.

“Yes,” he says dutifully.

She beams and drapes the dress over her arm. They check the jewelry case next. It’s mismatched, real and fake mixed together, with small tags attached to each item to indicate which it is.

“Those earrings are the same blue as the castle ship,” Allura says, pointing. She leans in to peer at the tag, her nose almost touching the glass. She squeaks and pulls her head up. “And the price is likely as much as the castle ship would be, too.”

“Why is this in a thrift store?” Keith asks.

“It must be made of something extremely rare,” she explains. “The real price would be much higher.” She looks longingly at the earrings. “It would be nice to have something to remind me of it.”

(and now he’s remembering just how awful that day was for her, remembering learning about the colony and Lotor and losing the castle ship in a span of just a few hours, and he’s angry again—)

“Do you have pictures?” he asks.

“A few,” she says. “Coran saved as many files as he could, photos of the castle and Altea and my family, but there’s no way to view them until we build another castle ship or find a device that has compatible tech.” She rubs at a smudge on the jewelry case. “And there’s no guarantee we will be able to build another castle ship, so I’m not sure it’ll ever be possible.” The smudge is gone, but she keeps rubbing the glass. “I don’t have very many pictures of my friends at all,” she adds. “Most of them weren’t royalty, so they weren’t important enough for royal photographs or portraits. I.” She stops, her lips pressed tightly together. “I’m afraid I’ll forget what they look like.”

(two years in the abyss, away from his friends, unable to hear them or see them—)

(two years in the abyss, forgetting Lance’s eyes—)

(drawing his friends, taking out their pictures so he could remember something, anything—)

There’s an idea in the back of Keith’s head, and as it grows he feels the thrill building in the pit of his stomach, the thrill of knowing he will make someone happy, someone who deserves it after so much fucking sadness—

“I’m sorry,” Allura says. “I’m not much fun to be with right now—”

“I’ll draw them for you,” Keith says.

Allura blinks at him. “What?”

“Your friends,” he says, grinning. “The castle ship. Stuff from Altea. Whatever else you want. I think I remember the castle ship pretty well, so I can try to draw stuff like the control deck from memory, and everything else you can just describe to me.”

Allura opens her mouth. She closes it. She blinks.

“It’ll take a lot of time,” he adds hastily, “and it won’t be perfect. But you can tell me your friends’ features or what places on Altea looked like, and I can draw them in pencil, and once they’re right I’ll ink them.”

“That’s—” Allura sounds faint. “Keith, that’s so much work, I can’t ask—”

“You didn’t ask,” he interrupts, still grinning. “I’m volunteering. I drew pictures of everyone while Krolia and me were in the abyss, and even though it wasn’t completely accurate, it still helped a lot. You should have that, too.”

Allura blinks again. Then again, and again, rapidly, and oh shit is she crying, why can’t Keith even do something nice without fucking it up—

She plops the dress onto the jewelry case and throws her arms around him. He freezes, then returns the hug.

“Thank you,” she says.

“Of course,” Keith says. It’s better now than the last time he hugged her; he’s still a little uncomfortable, but he can return it properly, can find some warmth in it instead of just standing stiffly.

She lets go of him and steps back. She sniffs and picks up the dress.

“I don’t how to repay you,” she says. They walk back to the notebook and sketchbook table. Keith starts looking through them, trying to find an affordable one that’s still good enough to last a long time. “I can’t possibly do so.”

Keith thinks of his bitterness toward her until recently. The gnawing guilty feeling shoots through his stomach again.

“It’s—actually an apology,” he says haltingly. “I—kind of—didn’t like you very much for a while after I got back.”

He looks at the sketchbook instead of her, pretends to be checking the quality of the pages, but he can hear the hurt and confusion in her voice.

“Why not?”

Keith swallows. “I—thought—you and Lance were—” He stops, exhales hard. “You know. And I was—jealous.”

There’s a silence.

“Which isn’t an excuse,” he says, still pretending to check the page quality. “It was shitty of me and I’m sorry.”

He feels brave enough to look at her, so he does so. To his astonishment she’s hiding her mouth with her hand.

“You thought—” Her hand drops. Her eyes are sparkling, her voice shaking with laughter. “I’m sorry—you—you thought—me and Lance—”

She laughs outright. Keith flushes, though his relief at her reaction overrides his embarrassment.

“What the quiznack would give you that impression?” she manages to ask through her laughter.

“It was mostly me overthinking things,” he says sheepishly. “That first night in the lions you and him were talking on the private line for a long time so I kinda—assumed. And it just got worse from there.”

Allura sobers immediately. “I see.” She clasps her hands, self-conscious, as if trying to decide what to say. “I do not want to tell you the details of that call, as it is half Lance’s business as well. But I assure you, you have nothing to worry about.”

“Oh,” Keith says.

“I love Lance,” she goes on, “but not romantically. He is very dear to me and one of my best friends. But that is all.”

(he knew anyway, but to have it confirmed again, by her, is a relief, makes Keith’s shoulders feel light, makes his heart feel at ease)

“I know that now,” he says. “Which is why I’m sorry that I was—the way I was.”

“Honestly, I couldn’t really tell,” she says. “You were a little distant, but you’d been away for so long that I assumed it was due to that.”

“I’m sorry,” Keith says again. “You’re my friend. I shouldn’t have let my feelings get in the way.”

“I accept your apology,” Allura says, smiling. “I’m glad we’ve cleared it up and can be proper friends again,” She unclasps her hands. “Now, which sketchbook do you think is best? I like this pink cover, but it’s quite thin…”

They talk more as they go through the sketchbooks. Romelle comes up quite often; Allura always has that soft expression on her face whenever she mentions her, which makes Keith wish he were closer to Allura, because it’s a fucking shame he can’t tease her about it the way he used to make fun of Shiro about Adam.

Allura talks about how kind Romelle is, how funny, how well she gets along with the mice. She talks about the colony, about how much she regrets not being to go there right away.

“It’s the first thing we’ll do after earth,” Keith promises.

“I know,” Allura says. She’s given up on helping Keith go through sketchbooks and is currently inspecting a collection of sewing supplies. “And I know we can’t help much without the castle ship as our base. Romelle understands too, but it’s still frustrating.”

At last they pick a sketchbook—Keith approves of the page quality, Allura approves of the purple flowers on the cover, and their limited funds approve of the price—so they make their purchase and head back to the inn. Before parting ways to their rooms, Allura hugs Keith again.

“This was lovely,” she says, letting go of him before he can get over his surprise and return the hug. “Thank you so much.”

“Anytime,” Keith says, smiling.

Allura turns to head to her room. A question pops into Keith’s head, and it is—really fucking dumb—because he’s pretty sure he knows the answer—but he wants to know for sure, so:

“Princess?”

She turns back to face him, her eyebrows raised expectantly.

Keith wavers, then says, all in a rush, “There’s no such thing as Altean palm reading, right?”

Allura frowns. “What is palm reading?”

(he knew it, he fucking knew it—)

(you already knew it, his mind whispers, rolling its eyes)

(but now we know for sure, another part whispers smugly)

(yeah, know that you’re shit at recognizing flirting and that you should stop being a fucking coward and tell him, the first part replies)

Keith exhales, unsure whether to laugh or hide, unsure how to calm the renewed fluttering in his stomach. Allura still looks confused, so he waves a hand to indicate that she shouldn’t worry about it.

“Never mind,” he says, and he can hear in his voice the dopey smile that must be on his face. “Have a good night.”

.^.

Keith and Allura make a schedule for the drawings. Pom Pom teleports to Blue to collect her written description, which is supplemented by Allura’s verbal explanation over the comms. Once he starts drawing she often switches to talking about her family and friends in more general terms, about games and parties and sleepovers, about painting Coran’s nails and braiding her father’s hair and putting on fashion shows with her mother’s jewelry. Every so often Keith will stop her and show her what he’s sketched so far, and either keep going or alter it as she tells him to.

It’s slow going, and he has to take breaks so he doesn’t strain his hand. But she’s his friend, and this makes her happy, so Keith doesn’t mind.

.^.

Three vargas before they’re scheduled to arrive at Plaxum’s planet, the passengers of the Black Lion are engaged in combat.

Pom Pom watches the battle with interest. Keith sits on the floor, staring down Shiro and Krolia with the same feeling in his chest that he thinks conquerors of old must have felt.

“I’m gonna do it,” he says.

“I’ll tell everyone about your love for High School Musical,” Shiro says.

“I’ll confiscate the anarberry juice,” Krolia adds.

“Your threats are meaningless,” Keith announces, smirking. “Lance already knows about High School Musical and I’ll tell Pom Pom to steal the juice and teleport somewhere where you can’t take it from them.”

He takes a green card out from the ones he’s holding.

“Please don’t,” Shiro says, eyeing the card warily.

“Son, no,” Krolia says, also eyeing it with alarm.

“Too late!” Keith shouts.

He slaps the card down on the pile in the center of their circle. The pile of cards lights up. A tinny robotic voice chimes out.

“All players must relinquish half their cards to the one who put down the green card,” it says.

Shiro sighs and hands over half his cards. “I didn’t escape Zarkon’s prison for this,” he says.

Krolia hands over her cards as well. Keith stacks them neatly and places them atop the cards he already has. He has over ninety percent of the deck at this point; really, Shiro and Krolia should just give up.

He’s about to say so—and more, because hanging out with Lance has taught him much in the field of gloating over your opponents—but he hears a loud beep from the control panel.

“It’s your comm,” Krolia says, peering at it. “The small one.”

Keith sits in the pilot’s seat and pulls up the small screen. The call is audio-only and not recognizable; instead of the name of a planet or person or organization, the ‘from’ box contains a string of letters and numbers.

There’s another beep. The button for the public line on the big screen flashes. Keith hits ‘answer’ and the window switches to a screen, filled with the faces of the others, who look as confused as he is.

“Are all of you getting this call, too?” Allura asks.

“Yeah,” Lance says. “But I don’t know if it’s safe to take.”

“I’m gonna answer it,” Keith replies, reaching for the button.

“No!” Hunk shouts. Keith jumps. “What if it’s like, a virus? We don’t have virus protection in our lions yet. Pidge and Matt and me haven’t figured out a good system.”

“McAfee for robot lions is harder to create than you’d think,” Matt adds.

“I don’t think it’s a virus, guys,” Pidge says. She adjusts her glasses, frowning at her small screen. “I think it’s just an unknown number. Like when you get a call on your phone and it’s not a contact you already have so it just comes up as a number.”

The small screen beeps again.

“I’m answering it,” Keith says.

“No!” Hunk yells.

“Maybe we should wait,” Romelle says.

“Live your dreams,” Lance says, and as Keith presses ‘answer’ he gives him a look, and Lance grins, and Keith rolls his eyes, and he’s going to say something to him, but he doesn’t get the chance to, because the screen now says call in session, and—

“This is Sam Holt,” says a voice Keith has never heard, “calling from the Galaxy Garrison. I am requesting contact with Voltron.”

There’s a stunned silence, and then:

“DAD!” Pidge shouts. She’s beaming, bigger than Keith has seen in a long while. She scoots forward in her seat, as if being closer to the screen will somehow bring her father closer, too. “You made it back to earth!”

“Katie,” Sam Holt says, with relief. “Is Matt with you? Is everyone all right?”

“I’m here, Dad,” Matt says. “Everyone is okay. We’re all together.”

“Good.” Keith can hear the smile in his voice. “I’m glad I got in touch with you all. I arrived here a week ago but the Garrison hasn’t let me leave the premises or use the transmitter Coran gave me. They had me strapped to a table for medical tests for two days!”

“No surprises there,” Shiro mutters. He and Krolia come to stand on either side of the pilot’s chair. “It’s good to hear your voice, Commander. I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you in person.”

“What?” Sam Holt sounds bewildered. “What do you mean? I met you before I left.”

“It’s a long story, but that wasn’t actually me.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Well, that explains why you didn’t give me a message for your mother. If you’d like, you can give me one now and I’ll pass it along to her.”

“How are you gonna do that if you can’t leave the Garrison?” Lance asks. He looks strange, like he might cry and punch something at the same time. Keith wishes they weren’t in the lions, so he could hug him right now. “If you haven’t left then you haven’t sent our messages to our families, right? Or seen that they’re okay.”

“Your families are all safe,” Sam Holt says firmly, “and they have received your messages. In fact”—Keith can hear the smile in his voice again—“they’ve recorded responses for you, which is why I’m calling. An officer was kind enough to believe my account of what happened and he’s helping me do what little I can until the Garrison gives me clearance to leave. He smuggled your messages out and your families’ responses back in, as well as let me use his office to call you all so you can listen to them.” There’s another pause. “Admiral Sanda almost came in before I called and he stepped out to ensure that she does not, but he should be back soon—ah yes, here he is!”

A third pause, followed by voices too muffled and low for Keith to hear, though one of them sounds—weirdly frantic—like the person is panicking—

“Here we are!” Sam Holt says cheerfully, his voice coming in clear once more. “Some of you may have taken his class while you were enrolled here, but for those of you who don’t know him, this is Officer Adam Syed Khan—”

Keith’s eyes widen. He looks up at Shiro, who is suddenly very pale.

“—and he’s the one who’s been assisting me this week,” Sam Holt goes on, like he hasn’t delivered a fucking lightning strike. “I’ve asked him to do half a dozen illegal things in the past two days alone, which I feel I should apologize for.”

“Nah, fuck the Garrison,” Adam says, and maybe it’s absurd, but Keith feels like he might start crying at how good it is to hear his voice again, how good it is to hear the voice of someone who helped him with his homework and baked cookies with him and hugged him when he was sad.

Keith looks at Shiro again. He’s still deathly pale. At the start of the call, his hand rested atop the pilot’s seat; now his grip on the seat is so tight that his knuckles have turned white. Keith touches his arm, but he doesn’t move. Krolia waves a hand in front of his face, but he doesn’t move. Pom Pom senses his distress and trots over to nudge at his knee, but he doesn’t move.

“Normally I would chastise you for your language,” Sam Holt says, “but given how I’ve been treated lately, I must emphatically agree.”

“Yeah, this place is full of dicks,” Adam says bluntly. Despite his concern for Shiro, Keith snickers. “Anyway, I have everyone’s messages. Hunk Garrett, here is yours.”

There’s a rustling, a click, and then a woman’s voice starts speaking. She switches between languages, so Keith can’t understand much of what she says, though he tries his best to tune it out entirely. It feels private, for Hunk only, a feeling strengthened by Hunk’s sniffles as the voice continues.

Keith checks on Shiro again. He still hasn’t moved.

“Hey,” Keith whispers. He talks in Japanese, so the others won’t overhear them. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

Shiro blinks. He lets go of the top of the pilot’s seat, very abruptly.

“I’m—okay,” he says, sounding anything but. “I—just—”

He seems like he’s going to say something, but he snaps his mouth shut, somehow even paler than before. Keith gets up and tugs him toward the chair; Shiro falls into it, dazed. Krolia watches them with a worried expression.

“It’ll be okay,” Keith assures him. “Just say hi to him.”

“What?” Shiro looks appalled. “I can’t just say hi.” He pronounces it like Keith just told him to put on a clown suit and dance like a monkey. “It’s been years!”

“Yeah,” Keith says. “Exactly. That’s why you should say hi.”

“You don’t just—you can’t—” Shiro closes his eyes, his jaw working, then opens them again. “You can’t not talk to someone for more than two years and then just say hi.”

Keith wants to ask why not, but Adam starts talking again, so Shiro goes back to his statue impression.

“The next message is for Lance McClain,” he says. “Here it is.”

Keith catches Lance’s eye on the screen. There’s anticipation on his face, mingled with excitement. He smiles at Lance and Lance smiles back, briefly, before his eyes snap to his control panel, because—

His grandmother, Keith realizes. He can hear the age in the crackly quality of her voice; it must be his grandmother. She’s talking in Spanish, and Keith can hear the affection in her voice, and he’s so ridiculously happy that Lance can hear this. He looks at him again, sees the glistening in his eyes and the big smile on his face, and Keith’s heart feels like it might burst.

She stops speaking and another woman’s voice replaces it, probably that of Lance’s mother. Each member of his family speaks, parents and siblings and even his niece and nephew, their little voices chattering on at rapid speed.

Eventually the recording stops. Lance is crying, though he’s smiling as he wipes his eyes. Keith wishes again they weren’t in the lions; he wants more than anything to hug him.

Except—it’s probably for the best that he’s here. Because Adam starts talking again, and Shiro still looks like he might pass out or throw up or fling himself out into space.

“Pidge and Matt Holt, this is from your mother,” Adam says.

The recording is short compared to the others, since there’s only one person. Pidge looks very small and lost on the screen as she hears her mother speak. Matt puts his arm around her and she hugs him from the side.

Keith pokes Shiro’s shoulder. Shiro jumps.

“Say hi.” he says.

Shiro shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says in a low voice. “I can’t. He hasn’t said anything, so he probably doesn’t want to hear from me anyway.”

“He hasn’t said anything because he’s playing everyone’s messages,” Keith points out, ever practical. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to hear from you.”

“I can’t,” Shiro says again, sounding steadily more panicked. He gets up, takes a deep shaky breath, clenches and unclenches his fists. “I—I’m just going to go in the back and—not—be here—”

He tries to go around the pilot chair, but Keith catches hold of his arm.

“Don’t!” he says. “He wants to hear from you. I know he does.”

Shiro hesitates.

“Just say hi,” Keith pleads. “Please.”

Shiro opens his mouth to respond, and his expression is caught between panic and longing, and Keith really hopes the latter will win out, that Shiro will stay, just stay, just say hi, it’s one fucking word—

—but in the end it doesn’t matter, because Pidge’s mom’s message ends, and Adam’s talking again, and he says “Takashi, if you want I can take a message to your mother,” and his voice is soft, and a bit hesitant, and Keith hears Shiro’s breath catch, sees his eyes snap to the small screen, sees the panic on his face fade a little, sees it give way to longing.

(Keith can’t even count how long it’s been since someone said Shiro’s first name, said it like that, a bit dry, a bit fond, like it means something. He can’t imagine what this is like for him, but he hopes—he knows—that it’s okay, that it’s good)

Shiro takes another breath, deep and shuddering. Keith pulls him back to the chair. Shiro sits down, as if in a trance. Pom Pom comes over to rest their head in his lap.

Keith waits. Shiro doesn’t say anything.

“That’d be nice,” Keith says, when it becomes evident that Shiro is just going to sit and stare at the screen. “Hi Adam. It’s Keith.”

“I don’t want to talk to you,” Adam says, then, before Keith even has time to be hurt, “You didn’t send me a message! After all the food I made you and all the homework I helped you with.”

“I wasn’t there when everyone sent them,” Keith explains. “Otherwise I would’ve done it, too.”

“Excuses,” Adam mutters. “Kids these days have an answer for everything.”

“No,” Keith protests. He hears snickering from the others on the big screen. “I would have! I—I miss—your cooking.”

There are too many people listening for him to say you, but Adam knows him, has known him longer than almost everyone else here, and Keith knows that he understands.

“If you come home then you wouldn’t have to miss it,” Adam says pointedly, “cause you could just come over for dinner.”

“We are coming home!” Hunk cuts in. “This is Hunk, by the way.”

He explains the reason for their journey, with help from Pidge and Allura.

“Excellent!” Sam Holt says once they’re finished. “It’ll be wonderful to be together again. Not the mention that the Garrison may be more inclined to cooperate if Voltron is here as well.”

“I guess you might not need to send a message to your mother, then?” Adam asks, presumably addressing Shiro. “Though it sounds like you have a really long trip ahead of you, so I’d say send her one anyway, and I can play her response for you the next time we call.”

Keith looks at Shiro. Krolia looks at Shiro. Pom Pom makes their eyes big and round at Shiro. All the others look at Shiro through the big screen.

Shiro opens his mouth, then closes it. He opens it again. Closes it again. He looks at Keith. The panic in his expression in back.

“Just talk to him,” Keith whispers, in Japanese.

Shiro shakes his head. He looks at the small screen once more, does his open-close-open-close mouth routine once more, and Keith is starting to give up all hope when—

“Takashi?” Adam says, tentatively. “Are you still there?”

(Takashi)

“I love you,” Shiro blurts.

Keith chokes. Krolia coughs, though it sounds suspiciously like a laugh. From the big screen, Keith hears another fake cough, a couple of snickers, a few gasps. Lance is covering his face with his hands, though Keith can’t tell if it’s to hide a laugh or if it’s just a general face-palm.

There’s silence from the transmitter.

“I mean.” Shiro clears his throat. “That’s what—you should—” He breaks off and rubs the back of his neck. The paleness in his face has given way to a deep pink. “That’s for—my mama. You should tell her I love you.” He turns even more pink. “Her. I love her. Tell her I love her.”

Another pause, painfully awkward.

“Also, um.” Shiro sounds like he wants to sink into the ground. “Hi.”

It takes Keith every ounce of strength not to follow Lance’s example. He spots the space mice, who are sitting on Coran’s shoulders, all do face-palms in unison.

“So I’ll tell your mother,” Adam says finally, “ ‘I love you’ and ‘hi’?”

Shiro blanches. Keith wonders if all this color changing is going to make him ill.

“No!” he says, too loud and too quick. He starts forward in the pilot’s chair. “No, that was—that was for you.” His eyes bug out. “The—the ‘hi.’ Not the other—the—the ‘I love you’ is for her and the ‘hi’ is for you.”

A beat.

“Okay,” Adam says, and to anyone else’s ear it sounds normal, but Keith knows him, has known him longer than almost everyone else here, so he hears the forced quality to it. “Will do.”

A pause.

“And, uh. Hi. I guess.”

“Oh my god,” Hunk whispers, loud enough for everyone to hear. “They’re both like this.”

Pidge snickers. Shiro’s face turns pink once more. Keith gives Hunk a look.

“Sorry,” Hunk says sheepishly. “You two are cute! I don’t really know what’s going on, but—”

“Hunk, I think now would be a good time to put all that diplomatic training to good use,” Allura interrupts. Her eyes are sparkling with mirth, but she does a much better job of keeping her voice even. “Thank you for your assistance, Officer Syed Khan. We appreciate all the trouble you’re going to.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Princess,” Adam says. “I’m happy to help.”

There’s a pause.

“Okay,” Adam says, a bit awkwardly. “Well, I—if that’s all, then we should probably go, before Admiral Sanda or another officer comes by.”

“Yes, of course,” Sam Holt says. “I anticipate it will be a week—seven quintants, for our alien friends—before we can call again, but rest assured we will communicate with you all as often as possible. I hope all of you remain safe and healthy and I will see you all soon.”

He addresses his children briefly, telling them he loves them and is proud of them, then says farewell to the group, who all respond with a chorus of byes. Keith is almost relieved that the call is over; he is glad to hear from Adam, glad to know that everyone’s families are okay, but it would be physically painful to deal with Shiro’s fumbling for any longer.

Except—he’s not done fumbling. Because while everyone else manages to get their goodbyes out without incident, Shiro—shouts his—really fucking loud—and a good ten seconds after everyone else.

“I think it’s this button that turns it off,” Adam says, presumably to Sam Holt.

“BYE,” Shiro yells.

Keith cringes.

“Bye,” Adam says, or rather starts to say, because Shiro interrupts him before he can get the whole word out.

“To—Commander Holt,” he stammers. The pink in his face is rapidly deepening. “I mean—to you, too, I guess, but I—I meant—um—to both of you.”

A pause. Lance is covering his face with his hands again.

“Okay,” Adam replies, and Keith’s heart hurts with how stiff it sounds. “Well, bye.” A dry huff, too short to be a real laugh. “To all of you. I guess.”

There’s a click. The call ends. Keith pushes a button and the small screen vanishes. Shiro collapses back against the pilot’s seat, staring at the space where the screen was with some mix of horror and mortification on his face.

“I wish I’d stayed dead,” he mumbles.

“It wasn’t that bad!” Romelle says earnestly, leaning over Allura’s chair to peer at him through the big screen.

“Yeah, it really wasn’t!” Hunk adds.

“I think we should leave him alone, guys,” Lance says gently. “Shiro, if you need anything then let us know. Okay?”

One by one the others disappear off the big screen, but not before Hunk’s very loud whisper of “Allura, call me, we gotta discuss this,” is heard by everyone in the Black Lion.

“I’ll go, too,” Krolia says, with an amused look at Hunk’s square as it blinks off the screen.

She puts her hand on Pom Pom’s back and they both vanish. Keith pokes Shiro’s shoulder.

“Are you okay?” he asks. “It really wasn’t that bad.”

For a long minute Shiro doesn’t speak. Keith opens his mouth, but a rumble echoes in the back of his mind, warning but kind.

Wait, Black says. He is overwhelmed. Let him think.

Okay, Keith says, then, frowning, Wait. Can you still hear him? Are you still bonded to him? He’s never said anything about hearing you.

Black doesn’t respond. Keith rolls his eyes and sets the question aside for another time, instead turning to face the window, counting the stars to pass the time. He’s up to thirty-seven when—

“I’m really fucking stupid.”

A little jolt runs through Keith, anger and protest and worry all mixed together, both at the meaning of the words and the way he’s saying them.

“No you’re not,” he says fiercely, and he wants to say more, but Shiro doesn’t stop long enough for him to do so.

“I am, I thought—” He exhales hard. His jaw is set, his brow furrowed as he frowns at the stars. “I told myself not to expect anything, and I thought I’d accepted it, but then I bought those fucking rings and now I’m—”

He breaks off. His eyes are glittering.

“It’s all those shitty old Hollywood movies,” he says next, abruptly. “The fucking”—another hard exhale—“big reunion kiss with the—the romantic music in the background—”

(it’s weird for him to swear this much around Keith; usually the only time he hears Shiro swear is when he overhears conversations with Adam or friends his age)

(it’s weird, and it’s alarming, and Keith wishes he could fix it, wishes he could snap his fingers and transport them right back to earth, right into Adam’s apartment, so Shiro could hug Adam and not feel shitty enough to actually say the word shitty)

“It wasn’t that bad,” Keith says again. “It was really awkward but it could have been a lot worse.”

“Fantastic,” Shiro says dryly. “I always dreamed my first conversation with the man I love would be described as ‘could have been a lot worse.’”

“That is fantastic,” Keith says firmly. “That means you can still fix it.” He puts his hand on Shiro’s shoulder. “You have to keep hoping.”

“Or,” Shiro counters, “I could acknowledge that this is over, and that he’s probably dating someone else anyway, and accept my misery.”

Keith frowns. Shiro sighs and puts his hand over Keith’s, squeezing it lightly.

“Sorry,” he says. His hand drops. “I’m just tired.”

There’s a pause. Keith thinks of the rings sitting in Shiro’s pocket, of how hopeful he looked when he showed them to Keith, of how resigned he looks now.

The rings remind him of Lance—and there’s an idea there—somewhere—

“If I tell Lance I like him,” Keith says, or rather Keith’s mouth says, because the words come out before he really intends for them to, “then will you stop being pessimistic about Adam?”

Shiro gives him an incredulous look. Keith’s face burns.

“I’ve been planning on telling him for a while,” Keith explains, a bit defensively.

“How long is ‘a while’?” Shiro asks, skeptical. “A year?”

“Shut up,” Keith mutters, but Shiro snickers, made more cheerful by the teasing, so he doesn’t mind it as much as he normally would. “Have some faith in me.”

This time it’s Shiro who puts his hand on Keith’s shoulder. “I do have faith,” he says solemnly. “Faith that you will go in circles around Lance longer than Zarkon was emperor.”

Keith scowls. Shiro snickers again and drops his hand from Keith’s shoulder.

“You shouldn’t confess to Lance as a trade for me talking to Adam,” he says. “I’ll be fine.” He shifts in the pilot’s chair, the corner of his mouth quirked. “Have you thought of how you’ll tell him? Or when?”

“Not really,” Keith admits. “I think I should do it soon, though. I—I don’t want to delay. Not—not after—”

He breaks off, struggling.

(not after two years of separation, his mind whispers)

(not after I wasted so much time being jealous of Allura, his mind whispers)

“Not after everything,” Keith settles on finally.

Shiro’s smile grows. “Well, we are landing soon,” he says. “Tell him when we get there.”

Keith considers this. Plaxum’s planet is one of Lance’s favorite places; confessing to him there would be a good move.

“Okay,” he says. “I will.”

.^.

(he won’t)

(he won’t he won’t he fucking won’t, because there’s a parade)

(a fucking parade)

(hundreds of mer, bright and loud and colorful, decorated and declaring Lance and Hunk the saviors of their civilization, surrounded by rainbow bubbles and cartwheeling seahorses and glittery starfish)

(mer jostling for autographs, for the chance to speak to Lance and Hunk, to give them gifts and show their appreciation)

(somewhere in the chaos, Keith sees Plaxum kiss Lance’s cheek over his helmet, and Lance blushes, and Keith—)

(—Keith burns again—)

(—burns and burns and burns, burns in a planet made of ice and water—)

(—and he knows it doesn’t mean anything, knows that Lance’s palm against his cheek and Lance’s nose brushing his and Lance’s mouth getting close close closer matters more than any of this, matters more than a mermaid kissing Lance’s cheek or a merman winking at Lance or a merperson giving Lance a card with a lipstick mark on it)

(knows, but then he doesn’t know, because his doubts come flooding back, whisper you were mistaken and you misunderstood and how can he like you, how can someone good enough for all this ever want you—)

(he banishes it, tells it to shut up, but he thinks—he knows—that Lance deserves more than a short confession at the end of a long day of travel and celebration)

(Lance deserves the entire fucking universe, and Keith has no clue how he’s going to give that to him, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t try)

.^.

Keith likes the mer civilization, for the most part. He’s a little lost in all the festivities, but he sticks with Shiro during the parade and the mer queen’s banquet, which helps. It reminds him of stuffy events at the Garrison, when he and Shiro would make fun of everyone under their breath in Japanese.

Lance glows in all the attention, talking at high speed.

“I have a question,” he says the mer queen at dinner. It’s his seventh question in as many minutes. “Do jellyfish make friends?”

The mer queen raises an eyebrow.

“Because they travel in packs,” Lance goes on, talking too fast in his excitement, “so that must mean they make friends! Right?”

“That’s just how they are,” Plaxum says.

“Are you sure?”

“We put them on our heads,” Plaxum reminds him. “If they had strong emotional bonds, why would they allow us to separate them from their friends?”

“For the cause of freedom!” Lance says, in his best hero voice.

“I think you should let this go,” Keith tells him.

Lance slumps his shoulders. “Jellyfish can make friends,” he says. “You all are just mean.”

Dinner is plentiful, made up mostly of seaweed and crab and some kind of sea creature Keith doesn’t recognize. It’s good, but weirdly salty, so after half a plate, Keith can’t handle the taste of it anymore. He doesn’t want to be rude by leaving it, though, so he sneaks the rest of his food on Shiro’s plate when Shiro’s busy talking to Hunk.

Shiro looks at his plate. He frowns. Keith blinks innocently.

Shiro scoops up a spoonful of his newly increased mountain of food. “You’re awfully bold for someone who’s still too cowardly to talk to Lance,” he says in Japanese.

Keith flushes. “I just haven’t found the time,” he says. “And—”

He breaks off, glancing at Lance across the table. His face is lit up, his eyes bright. He’s wearing a shell necklace a merman gave to him, his coral bubble is covered in glitter that a mer tossed at him during the parade, and he’s laughing at something Plaxum is saying.

“I don’t think I should do it now, anyway,” Keith says finally.

Shiro follows his line of sight. He gives Keith a sympathetic smile.

“You’re his friend,” he says. “That won’t change.”

(he knows, he really does, but it’s still—hard—hard not to feel squirmy and irritable when Lance has hardly talked to him since they arrived here—hard not to feel like maybe he’s misunderstood everything, like he’s exaggerated his importance in Lance’s life, when Lance is so sweet and so kind and so attentive to everyone around him)

“I think I have to find a different way to tell him,” Keith says. “I don’t think I can say it out loud. But I don’t know what he’d like.”

“Ask Hunk,” Shiro says, because apparently he has a solution for all of Keith’s problems. Keith sometimes wonders how one person can be so fucking useful without fail. “You don’t have to be specific. Just ask him what kinds of presents Lance likes, what sort of stuff makes him happy, that kind of thing.” He scoops up another spoonful of food. “Now help me finish this.”

“But it’s salty.”

Shiro gives him a stern look. Keith sighs and stabs his fork into a piece of seaweed.

“Pidge is right,” he says. “It’s like travelling with your dad.”

.^.

The rooms are simple but nice, with leaf beds and lots of shells studding the walls. Keith shares with Shiro and Pom Pom, so he resigns himself to yet another night with the two loudest snorers in the entire fucking universe.

The bathrooms are communal, with two allotted to their group. When Keith approaches the door, Lance emerges, already in his pajamas and holding his bag of toiletries. He looks absurdly fresh for someone who just spent the last few hours as the center of attention.

“The tap water is so bubbly,” he says. “It tickles when you wash your hands!”

Keith smiles and starts to go in, but Lance catches his sleeve.

“Wait!” His eyes are big, earnest. “You had fun today, right?”

Keith’s brow knits.

“I just—” Lance lets go of Keith’s sleeve and pulls at his own sleeve self-consciously. “I know you don’t like being in big crowds for a long time so I was gonna ask if you want to go somewhere quiet but it was kinda hard to get away from everyone…and it looked like Shiro was with you most of the time. So I hope it wasn’t too bad?”

Something settles in Keith’s heart, in Keith’s stomach, banishes the squirminess and the irritability and the uncertainty.

“Yeah,” he says, and he means it. “I was fine.”

Lance’s smile is dazzling. “Good!” He starts to walk backwards toward his room. “Don’t worry about popping the coral bubble when you brush your teeth, it’ll let you bring your toothbrush in and out of it without bursting.”

Keith nods and heads into the bathroom. The rest of the night is pretty standard, as is the morning, though he’s awoken by a t-shirt hitting him in the face.

“Wha—” he splutters, pushing the shirt off.

“Rise and shine, kiddo,” Shiro says, moving around the room to collect his things. He’s already back in his day clothes, his prosthetic on and his blanket folded on his leaf bed.

Keith squints at him, then squeezes his eyes shut and pulls his own blanket over his head. A second later it’s yanked off him.

“Nooo,” Keith whines.

He turns onto his side, not opening his eyes. Shiro throws a pair of pants at him next. Keith doesn’t even bother to push them off.

“I hate you,” he mumbles.

“I love you too,” Shiro says cheerfully. “Now get up before I throw my arm at you next.”

Keith gets up, grumbling. Pom Pom follows him around as he gets ready, which lessens his grumpiness a little, so by the time he’s changed and packed, he can paste a fake smile on his face for breakfast with the mer queen.

They eat quickly and thank the queen for the celebrations and her hospitality. Plaxum hugs Hunk and Lance one last time, makes them promise to call once in a while, and after another argument over who will fly with who—this time Matt is with Hunk, and Romelle with Pidge—the team heads out.

.^.

“We are all,” Allura says the next day, her hands on her hips as she stares down the team, “painfully out of practice.”

“I’m afraid of where this is going,” Hunk says.

“We must train,” Allura announces.

“Yup,” Hunk sighs. “I was right to be afraid.”

They’ve just landed to camp, in a large clearing in the middle of a forest. It’s a little chilly here, so they’ve set up the heated tents they bought in Bahara City. They’re sitting around the campfire, and Keith was hoping they’d eat soon, but Allura told Coran to put away the pot, because—

“We have not trained at all since we started our journey!” She clasps her hands together. “We cannot allow ourselves to grow complacent!”

“She’s right,” Krolia says. “It’s unlikely the Galra will strike anytime soon, but we shouldn’t let ourselves get lazy.”

“Why haven’t we heard anything?” Pidge asks. “I mean, I’m not complaining about not fighting. It’s just been weirdly quiet.”

“According to my contacts at the Blade, the Galra are caught up in their own internal politics ever since Lotor disappeared,” Krolia explains. “There’s been unrest in their ranks for a while, and ever since the Voltron Coalition gained momentum, many civilian Galra have been rethinking their loyalty to the Empire and questioning the propaganda put out by its rulers. But there’s no guarantee of what the military will do next, so the princess is right to be cautious.”

“Precisely,” Allura says, nodding. “We must remain in good shape.”

Keith looks longingly at the box Coran put the pot into. His stomach’s been grumbling for the past hour, but he’ll have to wait.

Matt places a tablet on the ground by the edge of the clearing. A set of hologram targets pop up from it.

“These can be stationary,” he calls to Hunk, who stands several feet away, “or you can set them to move, like this.”

He presses a button. The targets move, up and down, side to side. Hunk nods and aims his bayard; he hits most of the targets dead center in rapid succession, but the last laser narrowly misses Matt, who yelps.

“Sorry!” Hunk says sheepishly.

As he tries again, this time with Matt safely out of the way, Allura and Pidge pair off to spar, as do Shiro and Krolia. Lance turns to Keith. They’re standing by the campfire, bayards in hand.

“Wanna train together?” he asks. “I’m pretty good on shooting, so I want to practice with my broadsword instead.”

Keith opens his mouth to say yes, but then—

—he remembers—

—remembers purple skin and yellow eyes and fangs, bursting out of him uncontrolled, unwanted—

—remembers the intensity of it, remembers how wild he felt for a moment, like he could snap someone in half without even blinking—

He thinks of that happening again, of how quickly a friendly sparring session could turn dangerous. The thought of anyone seeing him like that, of Lance seeing him like that—it makes his stomach twist.

“I don’t know if we should,” Keith says, then, as Lance’s face falls, “I want to, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

He tells Lance about changing during the fight with the clone.

“I don’t want to hurt you by mistake,” he finishes.

“No offense,” Lance says, with the tone of someone who one hundred percent means offense, “but that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever said. And that includes the time you told me you thought you could just eat microwaveable mac and cheese from the cup instead of having to cook it first.”

Keith scowls, but Lance doesn’t give him an opportunity to reply.

“You’re not gonna hurt me,” he says, like it’s an indisputable fact, like it’s as true as one plus one equaling two. “Even if you go all Galra-Hulk-mode.”

Keith’s stomach still twists. “You don’t know that.”

“Of course I do,” Lance says. He smirks. “I’m your favorite person. You wouldn’t hurt your favorite person no matter how Hulked-up you get.”

Keith huffs. Lance snickers.

“Really, it’ll be fine.” He stands. His bayard melts into its sword form. “Now come on, mullet! I wanna kick your ass.”

Keith rolls his eyes. Lance is relatively new to using a sword; if anyone’s gonna be kicking ass, it’s definitely not him.

.^.

Or…maybe it is.

“How the fuck?” Keith bursts out, frustrated as Lance blocks him yet again.

“Ha-HA!” Lance cackles. He steps back, swinging his broadsword around. “Thought it’d be easy, didn’t you? THINK AGAIN, MULLET!”

Keith stays on his guard, but instead of attacking, Lance swings the sword more deliberately, like he’s drawing something in the air. He puts his free hand on his hip and winks. “I’m Leandro McClain, and you’re watching Disney Channel.”

Keith snorts.

“What is ‘Disney Channel’?” Allura shouts from where she’s ducking Pidge’s grappling hook. “And why are you neglecting your training to discuss it?”

“Sorry, Princess!” Lance calls, sheepish. He redoubles his grip on the sword and winks at Keith again. “Commercial over.”

Keith rolls his eyes, ignoring the fluttering in his stomach. It’s strange how Lance can look so good here, with his sleeves rolled up and his hair sticking up and sweat running down his neck, but somehow—he does. He really, really does, and Keith wishes the sun would hurry up and set already, because the less he sees Lance like this, the better.

“I trained a lot with Allura while you were gone,” Lance says next. “And I practice in Red sometimes. Though there isn’t any opponent so I just mostly whoosh the sword around.”

Keith is impressed. “Isn’t it hard to move around like that in the lions?”

“Kinda, but.” Lance shrugs. “I get restless just sitting.” He swipes his sword through the air. “Enough chit chat, mullet. Let’s go!”

Keith lunges. Lance blocks him, unsurprisingly; their swords meet with a clang.

“Will you ever stop calling me that?” Keith asks.

“Mullet?” Another clang. “’Course not. You have one, don’t you?”

He swings the sword around. Keith ducks, though he feels a breeze ruffle his hair as the blade passes over his head. He rights himself with a huff.

“You trying to give me a haircut or something?”

A pause. Lance raises an eyebrow.

“Do you want one?”

Keith lunges again. Lance is too slow to block it, so he ducks out of the way, walking round Keith. Keith turns to keep an eye on him as he circles round him.

“Cause honestly, it doesn’t look bad,” Lance goes on, “just messy. You hardly tie it up and when you do it’s just in a ponytail.”

He walks round to his first position. Keith huffs again.

“How else would I tie it?’

“Braid,” Lance says promptly.

He lunges, quicker than Keith expected. Keith steps back, a bit caught off guard, but he manages to deflect Lance’s sword and push him back.

“I don’t know how to braid,” Keith tells him.

Lance grins. “You’re in luck!” he says. “You’re talking to the master of braiding. The braiding boss. My niece actually prefers my work to her mami’s.” He sticks his sword in the dirt, blade first, and leans on it. “Just say the word and I’ll give you the prettiest braid in the entire universe.”

“I think I’d rather chop off my hair,” Keith says dryly.

“Aw, no!” Lance says, and Keith expects him to follow up with something silly, something like but then I can’t make fun of it or but then I can’t call you mullet anymore, expects him to be pout and whine and feign indignation.

He expects him to be silly, but then Lance says, “It’s such a nice length for running your fingers through,” and Keith—

—fucking chokes—

—and Lance smirks, and before Keith can blink he pulls his sword out of the dirt and lunges once more—

—and Keith isn’t ready, he’s holding his sword slack in one hand like an idiot, and he’s scrambling to tighten his grip, to lift it up or back away or duck, but—

(fuck, his mind whispers, and he feels it coming, feels the sudden wildness seize him; it feels like he’s angry, the hot loud rushing in his head his chest his veins, like he might erupt, like he might burst, like he might snap someone in half without a thought, and beneath it he can feel fear, faint but certain, and he squeezes his eyes shut, because he’s so fucking scared that he feels like this, because what the fuck is he gonna do, what—)

Clang.

Keith opens his eyes. His sword is lifted, the blade crossed with Lance’s, though he has no memory of moving. He blinks at Lance across the crossed swords. He can tell, by the sudden stillness of everyone around them and by Lance’s startled expression, that he must have changed. He pokes his tongue at his teeth and feels the pointed edge of a tooth far sharper than any human’s would be.

He blinks again. The wild anger is growing duller, though he still feels too hot, too loud, too intense. He wants to apologize, but he’s too self-conscious of his fangs to open his mouth, and he doesn’t know how to get rid of them, doesn’t know how to calm down enough that the purple fades from his skin and the yellow shrinks from his eyes.

But then Lance—deactivates his bayard—and Keith’s stomach lurches, because he doesn’t know if it’s safe for him to do that when Keith still feels so fierce—but Lance deactivates his bayard, and smiles, and cups Keith’s cheek, very gently.

He cups Keith’s cheek, very gently, and runs his thumb over the Galra mark, and as his thumb sweeps over Keith’s skin, Keith—melts—almost literally, it feels like—the purple melting from his skin, the yellow melting from his eyes, his fangs melting into normal human teeth.

He blinks a third time. Now that the wildness is gone he feels a bit sick. He steps back, forcing Lance to drop his hand, then deactivates his bayard and crosses his arms.

Everyone is staring at them. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Krolia turn toward him, but he doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now. It’s unbearable, to have this many people looking at him after—that.

(god, he could have hurt him, he could have done something horrible, he could have fucking killed him—)

“I have to get something from Black,” he mumbles, then turns and walks swiftly to the Black Lion.

.^.

He’s in the lion for barely ten minutes before there’s very persistent knocking on Black’s leg.

“HEY!” Lance shouts, loud enough that Keith can hear it from the pilot’s chair, where he’s curled up and staring out the window at the sun setting over the forest trees. “LET ME IN!”

Shall I? Black rumbles.

No, Keith says.

All right, Black says, In he comes.

Wha— Keith begins, bewildered, but he’s interrupted by the whirring sound of the door in the back of the lion opening.

Traitor, he thinks at Black.

Black doesn’t deign to respond. Lance marches in.

“HEY,” he says, the same tone he was using outside. As he approaches the chair his voice softens. “Hey.”

Keith looks up at him but doesn’t move. His knees are drawn up his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs, stimming with his left hand.

There’s a pause.

“Can I sit?” Lance asks.

“This is meant for one person,” Keith replies.

“I know this will astonish you, since I’m so clearly well-endowed—”

Keith snorts in spite of himself.

“—but I have a pretty flat butt,” Lance finishes. “I think we can both fit in this giant-ass chair.”

For a long moment Keith is quiet.

(let me in, says the tiny Lance voice in his head)

(okay, Keith’s mind whispers. I’ll try)

He scoots over, squishing himself against the left side of the chair. Lance squeezes into the space left over. It’s a tight fit, with their arms and shoulders pressed right up against each other, but they both manage to sit. Keith has a suspicion Black might have subtly increased the chair’s size a bit, as well.

For another long moment there is silence. Keith tries to keep watching the sun set over the trees, but Lance is—distracting. He’s very warm, and his sleeves are still rolled up, and his shoulder feels so—solid—and Keith really wishes he could lean into him, could put his arms around him and bury his face in Lance’s neck.

He feels heat creep up his own neck. He tucks his chin against his knees in an effort to hide it.

“I wasn’t mad,” he says, right as Lance says, “Listen, man.”

Keith lifts his head again. Lance blinks at him.

“Sorry,” he says. “You go first.”

“I wasn’t mad,” Keith repeats. “That wasn’t why I—I didn’t do—I didn’t change like that because I was mad at you. I didn’t want to hurt you. I swear.”

“I know,” Lance says, and he sounds like he’s replying to something undisputed, like Keith just told him that his hair is black. “I trust you.”

“Should you?” Keith bursts out, before he can help himself. “Because I—I can’t—” He clenches his fists, unclenches them, curls his left hand back into a fist and goes back to running his thumb over his index finger. “I can’t control it.”

“Krolia said she can help you learn,” Lance says. “It’ll take time and practice but.” He nudges Keith’s shoulder with his own, the corner of his mouth quirked. “That won’t be too hard for Mr Super-Talented-At-Everything.”

Keith huffs.

“Krolia said this is natural,” Lance goes on. “You don’t know how to handle switching between a human form and a Galra one, so your brain kinda—blips out a little. But once you get used to both, you’ll be fine. It’s not like either side of you is inherently violent or anything, it’s just something new that you have to get used to.” He pauses, thoughtful. “It’s like when you go through puberty and you’re super moody all the time, except it’s way more intense, because it’s like. Alien puberty.”

Keith gives him a flat look. “What.”

“Alien puberty,” Lance repeats.

“You’re committing to that.”

“Yes,” Lance says firmly. He pumps his fist. “No shame! No fear! You’re a beautiful alien and this is very natural!”

Keith huffs again, though this time it’s more of a laugh. Lance beams.

“There he is!” Another shoulder nudge. “Do you feel better?”

“Yeah.”

There’s a pause.

“Thanks,” Keith says finally.

“Anytime,” Lance says. He gets up from the chair. “Now come on! Hunk’s in charge of dinner and it’s illegal to pass up his cooking.”

.^.

Krolia says the only real way to get used to changing forms is with practice and habit, so every time they land to camp for the night, Keith spars with her in an effort to induce it.

The good thing is that he can tell when he’s about to Galra-out, as Lance calls it. The bad thing is that he still can’t figure out how to make it go away, which leads to another, third thing, that Keith doesn’t really know whether to call good or bad.

“Breathe,” Krolia says cautiously. He’s standing a few feet away from her, frozen, his bayard in one hand and that wild anger rushing through him, though it’s a little less intense than it was initially. “Try to calm down. Think of peaceful things.”

He squeezes his eyes shut, thinks of sitting on the roof of the shack and counting the stars, thinks of sitting on the counter in Adam’s apartment and watching him cook, thinks of sitting in Shiro’s office and reading while Shiro grades tests.

He thinks of these things, but he still feels—too much—like he might explode—and the feeling frustrates him, and that frustration makes him feel even more, and he can’t calm down, he can’t, he can’t—

“Hiya there, team leader,” comes Lance’s voice from behind him. “It’s a nice day, isn’t it? No clouds, very purple skies. Kind of a weird color, but I guess it complements all the orange trees. Or does it? I can never remember what purple’s complementary color is.”

As he talks he touches the back of Keith’s neck, just under the hair tie; comes round and tucks a stray lock of hair behind Keith’s ear, his fingers lingering at his cheek for a few seconds, grazing Keith’s Galra mark, before finally dropping.

Keith opens his eyes. Lance stands before him, bright and beaming and—unafraid—like the sight of purple skin and yellow eyes and fangs doesn’t alarm him at all—and Keith—

—melts—

—feels the wild angry rushing drain out of him—

—feels calm, and steady, and settled—

—he takes a deep breath, and smiles back, and he’s so glad that not even Krolia sneaky-not-sneaky face can embarrass him.

It’s not the best method to calm down, since it requires him to rely on another person. But it’s not just any person, it’s Lance, so Keith doesn’t mind.

.^.

Four quintants after they leave Plaxum’s planet, Keith finally gets the chance to ask Hunk for help with how to talk to Lance.

Shiro is flying in the Green Lion with Matt and Pidge for this stretch of the space-road, Pom Pom is snoozing in the corner, and Krolia is in the back of the Black Lion, working on a crossword puzzle on her tablet. She yells out the clues every so often when she gets stuck and wants Keith’s assistance, but other than that, no one will disturb him, so he takes the opportunity to call Hunk.

When Hunk answers, he’s not actually looking at the screen. He’s looking at his laptop, which is balanced on his knees as he sits cross-legged in the pilot’s chair.

“Hi,” Keith says.

“Shh!” Hunk hisses, without looking up from the screen. “Marta’s about to stop the wedding and tell Kiri that she still loves her.”

Keith clamps his mouth shut. A Hunk watching soap operas is not a Hunk who should be interrupted.

He hears romantic music swelling from the laptop, hears tearful strings of an alien language he doesn’t recognize, though he can catch a couple words of Galran here and there. It’s mostly tech or pop culture references; Krolia told him that because of the Galra Empire’s scope and influence, many alien cultures incorporate Galran words into their own languages.

For some reason they’re talking about Pyaas, which is a brand of Galra soda, and jique, which is the word for tablet. Keith really hopes the character isn’t pouring soda onto a tablet. Though considering Hunk’s taste in soap operas, that very well could be the case.

Hunk gasps, then laughs. “Take that, you cad!” he shouts.

He presses a button and the music stops, so Keith assumes it’s safe to talk.

“What happened?”

“Kiri’s fiancé was the CEO of a tech company,” Hunk explains. “He was involved in a mafia conspiracy with the CEO of a soda company.”

Keith’s brow crinkles. “I thought you said someone was stopping a wedding.”

“Yeah,” Hunk says. “Marta found out about the conspiracy theory because her mother’s secretary’s cousin was involved in the ad campaign and sent Marta records of Kiri’s fiancé’s money laundering because they wanted revenge against their husband for not telling them about his second family.”

Keith blinks. “What.”

“It’s a cute show,” Hunk says. “The romance is like, really sappy. I can send you which episodes focus on just that if you want to watch them.”

Instinctively Keith starts to say no, but then he remembers that it’s Hunk, and that no one else is around, so he says, “Sure.”

Hunk taps away at his laptop. “I’m really glad Allura told me about this,” he says. “My amma and my dad and me would watch soap operas a lot at home. This makes them feel closer, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“My tina is more of an action movie lady,” Hunk goes on. “Once I’m through with this, I’m gonna look up some of those.”

“Lance will probably watch them with you,” Keith says. A second later, Hunk’s words properly sink in, and he frowns. “Wait. You have a dad? I thought it was just your moms.”

“Nope, I have a dad too!” Hunk finishes sending the episodes and snaps his laptop shut. “My sister and my brother are adopted, but my tina wanted the experience of being pregnant and having a baby, so she and my amma had me through a sperm donor, who was a friend they knew from college. And that’s my dad!” His eyes narrow and he pushes out his mouth, the way he does before he’s about to make a bad joke. “Or rather, that’s my…Trini-dad.”

Keith gives him a flat stare.

“His family is from Trinidad,” Hunk adds.

“Yeah,” Keith says, in a tone as flat as his expression. “I guessed.”

“Aw.” Hunk pouts. “Not even a pity laugh?”

“I already have to deal with jokes like that from Lance,” Keith says. “I’m all out of pity laughs.”

Hunk’s expression turns sly. “Those aren’t pity laughs, man,” he says. “I think those are real ones.”

Heat creeps up Keith’s neck. He wants to deny it, but that would defeat the purpose of calling in the first place.

“Um, speaking of Lance—”

Hunk’s expression is, impossibly, even more sly. Keith pushes valiantly onward.

“—I was wondering if he—ever—if you know—”

Keith stops. He shoves down his embarrassment, tells himself to stop being a coward, then says, so fast it’s hardly intelligible:

“What kind of present would Lance want?”

Hunk squints at him. Keith fidgets a little under his gaze.

“Why do you want to know?” he asks, though every part of his voice indicates that he already knows the answer. “Are you gonna like, give him a present sometime soon?”

“No,” Keith says, still too quickly. “I was just—wondering.”

Hunk continues to squint at him. Keith crosses his arms. For a long moment they look at each other, as if daring the other to say something incriminating.

“Lance likes love letters,” Hunk says finally.

Keith’s stomach lurches. He sits forward in the chair, flushing.

“It doesn’t—it doesn’t have to be romantic—” he says, lying through his teeth. “I meant—I meant just a regular present—”

Hunk leans back in his chair, looking very smug. “Suuuure you did.”

Keith glares at him, but it doesn’t do much when Hunk is so obviously pleased with himself. After a few pointless seconds of this, he uncrosses his arms, mutters a grudging “thanks,” and after a chirpy “you’re welcome!” from Hunk, Keith cuts the call, frowning at the control panel.

A love letter. Something tangible, something Lance can hold in his hands, something he can read and reread, something that will remind him that he is liked--that he is loved—even if his brain tells him otherwise.

A love letter.

(a love letter, part of his mind whispers, with a snort. a love letter, from someone who can hardly say the word love out loud)

(shut the fuck up, says another part, so loud and firm that he startles himself. you can say it. you will say it. but until then, you will write it, and he will read it, and he will know it, even if you haven’t said it aloud)

(will know it, will know what’s in Keith’s heart even if Keith’s voice can’t form the words)

Keith takes a deep breath and pulls out some paper and a pen. He can do this.

.^.

Hi Lance.

Sometimes when I look at you I feel like I can’t breathe cause of how much I like you and it feels like there are stars inside of me when you smile

.^.

Hi Lance.

The red lion is red the blue lion is blue the person I have a crush on is you

.^.

Hi Lance.

Remember the other day when you caught me staring at you and I said it was cause I tuned out while thinking about something well the thing I was thinking about was sitting in your lap and making out with your face

.^.

(wrong, wrong, wrong, all of it is wrong, and Keith scowls as he crosses out line after line, scowls as he racks his brain for the right mix of sappy and silly and straightforward that will convey to Lance just how much Keith likes him)

“Cold storm!” Krolia shouts from the back of the lion, interrupting Keith’s train of thought. “Eight letters!”

“Blizzard!” Keith calls back, without looking up from his paper.

“Aha!” Krolia comes toward the pilot’s chair, waving the tablet. The screen is bursting with pink and purple bubbles, indication that she completed the crossword. “That was the last one.”

Keith flips the paper over before she can read it. “Great.”

Krolia eyes the paper suspiciously, but doesn’t say anything. She leans over the back of the chair and kisses the top of his head, then gets a bag of chips from the snack box to the left, and returns to the back of the lion.

Keith pulls up his legs and sits cross-legged, flipping the paper back over. It’s weird how different affection feels coming from her than from Shiro; when Shiro hugs him, or puts his arm around him, or ruffles his hair, he feels comfortable, and happy, and—for the last one, anyway—exasperated. With Krolia, it feels—stiffer—familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like he should know what this is like, but doesn’t, because for so long he didn’t have it.

He sort of knows what moms are supposed to be like from what he’s seen in books and on TV, but he’s never actually felt it for himself. Her actions match a made-up memory, like something he dreamed but didn’t ever experience.

He thinks about his hug theory, about each hug feeling different, even though the action is the same; thinks about Lance, calling him that first night in the lions, so many weeks ago; thinks about softness and darkness and what does hugging me feel like.

“Oh,” Keith says aloud. He blinks at the paper, excitement growing in the back of his mind as his idea forms. “Oh.”

.^.

(hugging his dad is like someone catching you when you fall, like knowing no matter how big the problem is, he can fix it, can make you feel safe and sound and secure)

(hugging Shiro is like putting a warm blanket around your shoulders on a cold day, like knowing no matter how many bad things are around you, he will protect you from it, will teach you how to protect yourself from it)

(hugging Pidge is like a puppy pulling on your leg to come play, like knowing you are liked by this person, no matter how weird or awkward you are, like knowing their eagerness to spend time with you is not because you are useful, but because you are their friend)

(hugging Krolia is like calling Shiro sir or Allura princess, like knowing how long and how difficult it will be to get past that last wall, that last layer of terror and isolation, but knowing that one day you will get past it, and it will be okay)

(hugging Allura is like standing on the beach and letting the water wash over you, like knowing that it’s coming because it’s water, you’re at a beach, of course it will do this, but being surprised anyway, because even though it is in this person’s nature to be fair and kind, you didn’t think you deserved that fairness and that kindness)

(hugging Hunk is like holding Pom Pom, not the cosmic wolf Pom Pom but the stuffed hippo Pom Pom of childhood, like knowing you can tell this person your secrets without worrying they will judge you, like knowing they will tease you, poke fun at you, but they come from a place of friendship and not malice)

(what does hugging me feel like)

(and hugging Lance—)

(—hugging Lance—)

.^.

Allura picks the inn they stay in at their rest stop.

“Romelle and I looked over their tourist site a few quintants ago,” she says to everyone over the comms, in the hours before their arrival. “It’s just a rest stop—Rest Area One Hundred and Eighty Four—but the weather is truly lovely!”

Keith pictures a beach like the one in Olkari City or a campsite like the one near the Baharian mountains. When the lions finally descend and he gets a look at Rest Area One Hundred and Eighty Four, however, he gets a sinking feeling that truly lovely does not mean the same thing to Allura as it does to him.

Because Rest Area One Hundred and Eighty Four—is cold. Cold. Fucking freezing. It’s a wide, barren landscape of snow and frosted skeletal trees. Keith puts on a sweater, a coat, a scarf, and two pairs of socks, but he’s still shivering as he exits Black, who finds his ill humor to be quite funny.

You liked Bahara City, they rumble.

The inside of the mountain was warm, Keith says. He’s glad their communication is mental; talking aloud would be difficult with his chattering teeth. And the campsite was just a little chilly. This is fucking frigid.

Everyone else is fine. Pom Pom runs ahead of the group, tail wagging as they kick up snow. Hunk and Lance are delighted to experience cold weather, so rare where they grew up. Even Pidge, who has stated her hatred for the outdoors more than once, doesn’t dislike the cold very much.

“It’s better than being hot,” she says, when Keith remarks on this. She pushes her glasses up her nose. “No allergies, no bugs, no sweat. It’s the best.”

Keith hunches his shoulders and sniffs, wishing the inn were closer. It’s a fifteen minute walk away from the parking hanger where they left the lions, and his nose feels like it’s going to fall off.

“We’re here!” Allura exclaims. She’s arm-in-arm with Romelle, supposedly to keep warm as they walk, though Keith suspects that’s just an excuse to be close to her. “The Baraf Inn!”

Keith looks round. There’s nothing here except a large mound of snow, as big as a house.

“Where?” he asks.

Romelle gives him a weird look. “It’s right here,” she says, pointing at the mound of snow.

Keith blinks. Blinks again. His stomach sinks.

“No,” he says. He hears a snicker to his right, probably from Shiro. “We’re staying in a snow hotel?”

“A snow igloo!” Coran corrects cheerfully.

Keith gives him a dirty look. He has no right to be this chipper at the prospect of staying in a fucking igloo.

“It probably has heating,” Pidge assures him.

“Nah,” Matt says. He’s pulled out his tablet and is checking the inn’s website. “I mean, it’s warmer than it is out here, but it’s still pretty cold. They keep the interiors just above freezing.”

Keith crosses his arms. “Fantastic.”

“They provide blankets and the beds are fur-lined,” he reports next.

“Great,” Keith says, still flatly. “So I’ll only freeze if I stick a single toe out of bed.”

Pidge giggles. Shiro snickers again.

“Come on, man, don’t be such a grump,” Lance says. He sidles over to Keith and elbows him, grinning. “It’ll be fun! We’ll live like Frosty.”

“Didn’t he die at the end of that movie?” Matt asks.

“Fine,” Lance concedes. “Jack Frost.”

“Also a sad ending,” Matt says.

Lance puffs up with indignation. “Whose side are you even on?” he demands.

“Keith’s,” Matt says, to Keith’s surprise. “I don’t like the cold either, dude.”

“You’re the only one around here with any sense,” Keith tells him.

The group walks around the mound of snow. On the other side of it is a large semicircular door. There don’t seem to be any windows in the Baraf Inn, which Keith is grateful for and grumpy about in equal part; it’s suffocating to not have a window, but he has a feeling the rooms will be cold enough without the added torture of an opening to the outdoors.

The alien at the front desk is covered in thick yellow fur that protects them from the cold, which might explain their disgustingly peppy attitude about working in a frozen hell like this. They chatter on about the history of the inn and the tourism it’s brought to Rest Area One Hundred and Eighty Four, as well as the forecast for tonight.

“There is a large lake nearby,” they say, once they’ve handed everyone their keycards, “which means there’s a good chance that you’ll get to see thundersnow!”

Great. Keith sighs. More cold. Fabulous.

They end up in the same groups as they did on Olkarion. Shiro and Krolia and Coran each get their own rooms, Allura and Romelle pair off, Hunk and Pidge and Matt share a room.

“It’s too cold to go barefoot before getting into bed,” Hunk says to Lance and Keith, as they head down the hallway, “so it won’t matter that they’re heathens who wear their shoes in the room.”

The room Lance and Keith share is small and square and plain. There’s a circular ball of pale blue light set in a crevice in the walls opposite the beds, which probably acts as a night light when the bigger lamps are turned off. The beds are set low, made of packed snow and covered with pale brown furs and dark blue blankets that are definitely too thin to keep Keith warm.

“I hate this,” he grumbles, tossing his backpack onto the bed closer to the door. The room is fucking freezing; he can barely breathe through his nose.

“Okay, Mr Grumpypants,” Lance says, with laughter in his voice. “We get it.”

They head back downstairs for dinner in the inn’s tiny restaurant. The table is made of packed snow and the stools around it are made of ice, topped with dark blue cushions that match the blankets in the rooms.

Dinner consists of soup and bread. It warms Keith from the inside, improving his mood, so when Pidge announces that she would be going to the lake, and that she wants a friend to come along, he says “no” instead of “fuck no.”

“Yeah, I’m with Keith again,” Matt says. “I’m not going back out there.”

“Maaaatt,” she whines.

“I’ll come,” Lance says. Hunk and Romelle and Allura all agree, and the four of them get up from their stools. “Come on, Keith, it’ll be fun! We can skate.”

“The lake isn’t frozen over,” Pidge informs him.

“We can trudge around and kick snow,” Lance amends.

“No,” Keith says again, flatly.

“But you’ll be lonely here,” Pidge argues. “Everyone staying behind is old and boring.”

“Excuse me,” Shiro says, but Pidge ignores him.

“He has me,” Matt points out. “I’ll keep him company.”

Keith isn’t sure how much fun it’ll be with only Matt for company, but he really doesn’t want to go out into the cold, so he just nods.

Pidge sighs. “Come on,” she says to Lance. “They’re all cowards.”

The five going to the lake tighten up their coats and scarves and head out. Right before going through the door, Lance glances back at Keith and gives him—a weird look—one Keith can’t quite figure out--and it bothers him, because he doesn’t know if he did something wrong—but then Lance is through the door, and everyone still in the restaurant is getting ready to go to their rooms.

“Do you wanna hang out?” Matt asks. “Pidge talks about you a lot, but I don’t feel like I know you that well. I mean, other than—you know.”

Keith’s brow furrows. “What?”

You know,” Matt says, like changing the inflection is supposed to make his meaning clearer. He and Keith have lagged behind the others as they exit the restaurant, but he lowers his voice anyway. “Naxzela.”

Keith comes to a halt in the middle of the hallway.

Oh.

(it’s a mark of how fucking awful the past few years have been that he doesn’t think about Naxzela that much)

(and he assumed that meant he’s okay, but hearing it now brings it rushing back to him, and he realizes that he’s not okay)

(he’s not okay, he just pushed it to the back of his brain with every other awful thing that’s happened, because that’s what being at the Blade taught him to do)

“Sorry,” Matt says, when Keith doesn’t respond. “I shouldn’t have—”

“No, it’s okay,” Keith interrupts. He shakes his head, trying to clear it, then keeps walking. There’s a weird thrumming in his chest, like his body is getting used to Naxzela and the barrier and almost dying all over again. “I—guess I have to talk about it eventually.”

Matt looks startled. “You haven’t told anyone?” he asks. “That’s not healthy, dude.”

“I’m fine,” Keith lies. “We’re in a war. All of us have almost died.”

Matt frowns. “But Naxzela was different—”

“I’m fine,” Keith says again. He knows, in the back of his head, that he should talk about this, but he can’t do it now. Not to this person.

They’re almost to Keith and Lance’s room. Matt gives him a skeptical glance.

“Okay,” he says finally.

They reach the room. Keith swipes his keycard and enters. Matt follows, which makes Keith feel intensely awkward. But it feels rude to make him leave after he showed concern over Naxzela, so Keith waves a hand at Lance’s bed, as if to say sit.

Matt sits. Keith sits on his own bed, grimacing in anticipation of the cold. To his surprise, the brown furs cover the packed snow of the bed well enough that he can’t feel the cold, though the rest of the room is still freezing.

Both he and Matt are sitting facing each other, their feet still on the ground. Matt starts to pull his legs up.

“Don’t!” Keith blurts.

Matt freezes.

“Your shoes,” Keith says. “If you’re gonna sit like that then take them off.”

Keith kicks off his own boots and sits cross-legged to demonstrate.

“Sorry,” Matt says, doing the same. “I should have remembered. All the characters take off their shoes inside in—”

He ends the sentence with some weird garbled string of words.

“What?” Keith asks.

Matt repeats the garbled string. Keith blinks at him blankly.

“It’s an anime,” Matt clarifies, and Keith has to physically restrain himself from rolling his eyes. “It’s really good! I don’t know if you’ve seen it? It’s about—”

Keith tunes him out with a sigh. He still isn’t sure what the fuck Matt was trying to say; normally he can guess what someone is trying to say in Japanese even if their accent isn’t good, but Matt’s accent is especially horrendous, and quite frankly, Keith can’t be bothered to figure it out. Sometimes stuff like this is funny—he and Shiro even have a running joke about how long it’ll take an anime fan to bring up anime around them after learning that they’re Japanese—but right now it’s just—annoying.

But then he remembers Matt’s concern over Naxzela again, and he feels bad for ignoring him, so he tunes back in.

“—and then she told her mom to—”

“I haven’t seen it,” Keith interrupts. He feels bad, but not bad enough to sit through an explanation of a Japanese show from fucking Matt Holt. “I don’t watch a lot of TV.”

Matt clamps his mouth shut. “Oh.”

There’s a silence, unbearably awkward. Keith wishes he went to Shiro’s room instead; hugging Pom Pom for warmth while making fun of Shiro sounds like a much better way to spend an evening.

“So, uh.” Matt clears his throat. “What do you like to do? If you don’t watch TV.”

“I like reading.”

Matt brightens. “Like comic books? I love—”

“I don’t really read comic books,” Keith says.

Matt deflates. Keith feels squirmy, too hot and too cold and too irritable all at once. His fingers are stiff from cold; he flexes them a few times, wondering if it would be too obvious if he pretended to need to go talk to Shiro about something.

“I wish we had gloves,” Matt says at length. He rubs his hands together to keep them warm. “It’s kind of dumb for us to come to a snow hotel without real winter gear. I don’t know how everyone else went outside with their hands bare like that.”

“Some people don’t feel it as much,” Keith says. “Shiro’s warm all the time. He’s like a furnace.”

“Must be nice,” Matt says wistfully. “My hands are always cold.”

“Mine too,” Keith says. Briefly he thinks of how lame it is to be discussing this, but he’ll take it over painful silence. “Some parts of my hands even feel colder than others.” He frowns down at his fingers. “That might be a warning sign. Are your fingers supposed to feel really numb compared to the rest of your hand?”

Matt scoots forward. “Let me see,” he says, and then—

—several things happen at once—

—Matt grabs Keith’s hands, and Keith is so startled he doesn’t have time to speak—

—and the door to the room bursts open—

—and Lance’s voice echoes in, shouting “HEY KEITH WE CAME BACK EARLY CAUSE THE STORM STARTED DO YOU WANNA—”

—and then Lance is in the room, and he breaks off, and he’s staring at them with wide eyes, and Matt is still holding Keith’s hands, and Keith—

—Keith flushes and yanks his hands out of Matt’s.

“Hi,” he says. He feels weirdly guilty, like he got caught doing something he shouldn’t have. “Um—the storm started?”

Lance looks from him, to Matt, to the spot where their hands were, and Keith sees the sourness in his expression, and he can almost see his brain whirring, see the dozens of misconceptions he’s coming up with, and there’s a little lurch in his stomach, because he—actually isn’t fully sure how he feels right now.

(worried, says one part of his mind, that he’s misunderstanding this)

(pleased, says another part, one that Keith desperately tries to quash, because he is—jealous—)

(shut up, says the first part, shut up, he isn’t—he can’t be—jealous—)

(it seems ridiculous that he would be jealous, ridiculous that he would care enough about Keith to feel like that)

(but he’s frowning, and Keith’s heart is weak, and it whispers maybe)

Lance steps forward.

“What were you doing?” he asks, too abruptly.

“We were talking about the cold,” Matt says cheerfully. Keith is amazed at his lack of awareness. “Keith said his fingers are way number than the rest of his hand and I wanted to check if it was dangerous. You know, if they’re gonna fall off or something.”

Lance’s frown deepens. He sits on the bed beside Keith.

“You should have told me your hands are cold,” he says sternly. “I’ll take care of it.”

He takes Keith’s hands in both of his own, rubbing back and forth a little to warm up his fingers. He’s still frowning, but it’s not so severe now. He stares down at Keith’s hands as he rubs them, as if this task requires his utmost concentration, and Keith forgets that Matt is here too, because Lance’s hands are warm, and soft, and bigger than his own, and Keith’s heart is weak, and whispers maybe

“Did you get back before the storm hit?” Matt asks.

Keith comes back to the present with a jolt.

“Sorta,” Lance says, without looking up from Keith’s hands. “It started snowing really hard halfway to the lake so we turned back. We got back as soon as the wind picked up. The clerk said we might hear thunder soon.”

“Then I should get downstairs,” Matt says. “I want to record the thundersnow here to show it to Mom. It’ll be interesting to compare it to the phenomenon on earth.” He puts on his shoes and stands. “Do you want to come?”

Keith opens his mouth to respond, but Lance beats him to it.

“We’re fine,” he says. He gives Matt the barest glance before returning his attention to Keith’s hands. “You can go on.”

“Suit yourself,” Matt says, still cheerfully.

He heads out of the room. For a few seconds Lance continues to rub Keith’s hands, then:

“I think I’m okay now,” Keith says, very quietly.

Lance pauses, though he keeps Keith’s hands between his own. He meets Keith’s gaze, and god but Keith’s heart is weak, because Lance’s eyes are glittering, and there’s something in them, something Keith can’t put a name to but knows anyway, and he thinks, maybe

Thunder rumbles, long and low. Lance lets go of Keith’s hands.

“We should probably go to sleep,” he says. “Storms are more fun when you’re cozy.”

.^.

The bathroom is even colder than the room; as he brushes his teeth, Keith hops up and down in place in an effort to keep warm. When he comes out of the bathroom, Lance is already tucked in his pillow nest, barely visible under the hotel blanket and the purple Kambali one from Bahara City.

“Good night,” he says, his voice muffled by the blanket.

“Good night,” Keith replies.

He reaches into the bottom of his bag for his own Kambali blanket, but comes up short. He frowns and checks again, dumping all his stuff out onto the bed.

No blanket.

“Is everything okay?” Lance asks.

Keith blows out an annoyed breath. “Yeah,” he says. “I just forgot my blanket. I’ll be fine, though.”

He’s wearing a shirt, a sweater, sweatpants, and socks. He’ll be fine. Probably.

He turns off the lamp and gives Lance’s Kambali blanket a wistful look as he gets into bed. The furs are enough to keep him from feeling the snow of the bed, but the hotel blanket is not enough to protect him from the cold of the room. He curls up on his side and tucks the blanket around himself, pulling it up to his nose, but it still feels like freezing air seeps in through seven different places. He puts his fists beneath his chin to keep his neck warm and closes his eyes.

And—doesn’t sleep. He can hear the wind roaring outside, and he knows he’s imagining it since there’s no window, but it feels like some of it comes into the room, finding the thinnest parts of the blanket and making him shiver. He curls up as tight as he can, pulls the sleeves of his sweater up past his palms, but still he shivers.

He keeps his eyes closed for several minutes, trying to will himself to sleep in hopes that he won’t feel the cold quite so intensely. But it’s impossible; his limbs are starting to ache from being curled up so tight, and he knows that as soon as he falls asleep and moves, he’ll wake right up again from the renewed cold.

He sits up and tosses off the blanket, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

“What are you doing?” Lance whispers.

“I’m gonna get my Kambali blanket from Black.”

“What?” Lance sounds incredulous. “There’s a snowstorm. You can’t go out in that.”

“Yeah, well, it’s better than freezing to death,” Keith retorts. He shoves his boots on and heads to the door.

“Wait!” Lance sits up. “Just share mine.”

Keith stops. He turns. He’s grateful for the lack of windows in the room, because he’s pretty sure that his neck is turning rapidly red.

“It’s a big blanket,” Lance goes on. “There’s enough for both of us.”

(he can barely handle sleeping by Lance when they camp, can barely handle sharing a sleeping space with him, can barely handle being near him in broad daylight)

(how the fuck is he supposed to share a blanket with him, share a fucking bed with him, lie next to him as if they—are something—as if he means something to Lance, the way Lance means so much to him—)

(say no, his mind whispers)

(ask him if he’s sure, says another part)

“Okay,” is what he says aloud, because he’s fucking dumb. “I mean—if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” Lance adjusts his pillow nest, moving one to rest flat against the mattress. He pats the pillow. Even in the dark, Keith can see him waggle his eyebrows. “Come on. Let’s get cozy.”

Keith huffs, though the teasing helps him feel less awkward as he walks over to the bed. Lance lies back down and holds up one side of the blanket. Keith slides in, lying with his head on the pillow Lance took out of the nest.

Lance lets the blanket fall over his shoulder. Keith’s eyes widen.

“Holy shit,” he says. He forgot how toasty the Kambali blankets are; it feels like he’s sitting in front of a heater.

“Right?” Lance tucks his hands beneath his cheek. “You can take more of it. Just don’t be a blanket hog. Hunk always hogged them and it was annoying.”

Keith pulls the blanket more toward him, tucking it around his shoulder. “You and Hunk used to share?”

“Yeah, whenever we had movie night we’d usually end falling asleep on whoever’s bed we were watching on,” Lance explains. “And a couple times when it got weirdly cold early so the Garrison hadn’t turned the heating on yet.”

“Oh.”

He doesn’t know if he’s relieved that this is normal for Lance or—annoyed—annoyed with himself—for thinking this might mean something when it clearly doesn’t.

It’s hard to be annoyed when he’s this close to Lance, though. Especially when Lance’s eyes sparkle like that in the dark. Especially when Lance is so warm. Especially when Lance’s hands are tucked beneath his cheek, and even in the dark Keith can see the bit of baby fat on his cheek, squished by his hands, and Keith wants nothing more than to—scoot forward—and tuck himself against Lance—put his face in Lance’s neck and close his eyes and breathe him in—

He curls his fist against his pillow and squeezes his eyes shut.

“Well, good night,” he says.

Lance lets out a surprised laugh. “That quick?”

Keith opens his eyes. “What else would we do?”

“Talk,” Lance says. “This is a sleepover, man. We can’t sleep.”

“It’s called a sleepover,” Keith points out. “And this is not a sleepover.”

“Aha,” Lance says, with a wink. “As you say, a sleepover has the word sleep in it, which means we would have to sleep, except this isn’t a sleepover, so we don’t sleep.”

Keith blinks with bewilderment.

“So.” Lance shifts, snuggling into his pillows. “Did you have fun today?”

“Lots of fun,” Keith replies dryly. “I sat in a lion for twelve hours then froze to death in a hotel made of snow.”

Lance pouts. “You’re such a baby,” he says. He removes one hand from beneath his cheek and pokes Keith’s fist, still curled on the pillow. “Your hands aren’t cold.”

Keith clenches his fist tighter, then relaxes it. “No.”

“Hm.” Another poke. “I have really warm hands. Almost all the time.” He peeks at Keith, then hurriedly looks at his fist and pokes it a third time. “Probably warmer than Matt’s.”

(his heart is weak, and it whispers, maybe—)

“I don’t know,” Keith says honestly. “I wasn’t paying attention to Matt.”

Lance looks pleased by this. He puts his hand back beneath his cheek.

“Coran said it’ll be warm on Chandin,” he says. “I’m excited to see it. Allura told me earlier that we might get to go to a party and that the locals wear a lot of gold, so I’m hoping I can wear my new scarf.”

(for a moment Keith is confused, but then he remembers Mina’s grandmother’s present, and it comes flooding back in a rush; he remembers watching the fort burn down, remembers how long he waited for any sign of Lance, remembers he can’t just leave, and yet—)

Keith breathes in, sharply. He’s never asked Lance about what happened in the fort; he assumed Lance would tell him if he wanted to, assumed it would be best to not discuss such a terrible thing. But he thinks of Matt, saying you haven’t told anyone? that’s not healthy; thinks of Lance crying in a bathroom because he is bothered by something and doesn’t have anyone he can tell it to.

Keith’s brow knits. He rubs his thumb over the side of his fist, over the side of his index finger, to calm himself as he speaks.

“What happened in the fort?” he asks. “When you were looking for Mina.”

Lance looks startled by the question.

“I was really—worried,” Keith says haltingly. He stares at his fist, at his thumb working over his finger, too unsettled to look at Lance directly. “For a while I thought you weren’t gonna make it.”

Lance doesn’t respond.

“You don’t have to,” Keith adds. “I just—I was just wondering. And—and it’s probably good to talk about this stuff, too.”

A few seconds pass. Keith thinks maybe he’s just going to ignore him, but then:

“She wasn’t there,” Lance says finally. His voice is heavy in the dark, heavy and quiet, like it’s laden with whatever happened in the fort. “I went into the room you told me she was in and she wasn’t there. She’d—jumped out the window.”

Keith’s eyes snap to his face, horror shooting through him. “What?”

“I didn’t know why,” Lance continues, still heavily. He shifts, so his hands are on the pillow beside his face instead of tucked under his cheek. He taps his fingers against each other, as if he needs to move in order to talk about this. “The door was locked—I had to kick it down—so I hoped she jumped as a way to get out of the fort after the Galra set it on fire. But I—I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know when she did it or what state of mind she was in or why—”

He breaks off. The tapping of his fingers increase.

“Anyway. The window was open and there were shoe prints on the sill so I knew she’d gone out that way, but when I looked down there was no sign of her. That’s when I called you over the comm to let you know, but I was going down the stairs to check the first floor, and they collapsed, and a beam hit my helmet and cracked it and knocked out the comm.”

The line cutting. Keith remembers the surge of panic, remembers his heart thudding, remembers thinking—

“I kinda fucked up my rib in the fall,” Lance goes on, “but I could still move, so I went around the first floor yelling for her. I said her name and said I’m a paladin but I think—I think she was scared to reply. There’s no way she knows I’m for real, you know? I could be one of the Galra come back to get her or something.

“I don’t know how long I looked for her, but it must have been a while, cause most of the fort was up in flames by that point, and there was debris everywhere. Eventually I must have come close enough that she could see for sure that I’m a paladin, so she shouted 'I’m here!'” The corner of his mouth quirks. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my life.”

(he can’t even imagine—running around the fort like that for an interminable amount of time, with a busted rib and no way of communicating with the team, surrounded by flames and collapsing walls—)

“She was hiding under a table when I found her,” Lance continues. “She broke her leg when she jumped from the window and she was trying to kinda—kinda drag-hop her way out of the fort. But it was hard for her to tell which direction she was going in because of all the smoke, and she was trying to cover her nose with her sleeve and keep her weight off her leg, and there was”—his voice shakes—“there was so much—it was—everything was on fire—and she’s just a kid, she couldn’t figure out what to do—cause she’s just—a kid—”

He stops. He swallows hard. Keith’s heart clenches.

“You got her out,” he reminds him. “She’s okay.”

Lance squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them. “Yeah,” he says, more a puff of air than a word. “Yeah. So—so she climbed onto my back and I’d just run past what looked like a way out, so I started to head back to it, but then it—that half of the fort just—collapsed.”

(Keith’s heart stopping—)

(Iraz crying out, how will they get out—)

(staring staring staring, fucking useless—)

Keith inhales sharply once more.

“There wasn’t a safe way out,” Lance says. “I looked around but I couldn’t move too fast because of Mina’s leg and my rib, and the smoke was—fucking everywhere—and I think the crack in my helmet did something to the filter, cause it was getting harder to see and breathe. We were completely surrounded, it was like a fucking wall of fire, and if I had something to cover her with, like a wet blanket or something, I might have risked going through it, but—but there was nothing.”

He pauses, and dread grows in Keith’s stomach, because he remembers the Red Lion’s shadow as he flew over the fort, remembers the fury emanating from him as he cleared the path for Lance and Mina to escape, and Keith thinks he might—know—what made Red come to get him—

“So I thought I’d give her my armor,” Lance says, and Keith wants him to stop talking, wants him to stop, just stop, don’t say it, don’t confirm it—“cause that would protect her, and then she could hop out, and hopefully the team would come in time to get me.”

(Keith thinks he might hate him for a moment)

(hate him, and hate himself for hating him, because how the fuck could Lance even consider staying behind like that, but how the fuck could he not)

(he is bright, and brave, and stays behind—risks his own fucking life—to save a child he doesn’t even know)

(and part of Keith hates him for him, but a bigger part of him loves him for it, loves him so much it’s unbearable)

“So—so that’s when Red showed up,” Lance goes on. Keith gives himself a mental shake; he needs to pay attention, to make sure Lance is okay after talking about this. “He said”—he huffs—“he said this time not let you down, Leandro. As if I was disappointed in him about last time.”

His fingers stop tapping together. He takes a deep breath. Keith thinks over everything Lance has said, trying to figure out what to do and how to respond. He wishes he were more like Shiro or Hunk, wishes he were better at comforting people during stuff like this, wishes he could tell his friends to confide in him without letting them down with how inadequate his response is—

Wait.

“Last time?” Keith echoes, frowning. “What do you mean, ‘last time’?”

Lance opens his mouth, closes it. He looks a bit panicked.

“Nothing,” he says, but now that it’s stuck in Keith’s head, he remembers—other things—remembers the rumble that echoed in Keith’s mind too as Red flew over the fort, remembers not again—remembers sorry gave you bad dream, remembers will not tell, must ask Leandro—remembers—

—sinking—

—dreaming on the space whale, dreaming drowning sinking

—falling through water, something smoky and silver pulled out of his mouth—

(Red roaring, gone gone gone)

(hugging Shiro after Allura revived him, hearing Lance say Allura that was amazing, I can’t believe you’ve brought back two people from the dead—)

Keith’s chest seizes.

(—two people—)

Keith feels like he can’t breathe.

(—from the dead—)

“Lance,” he says, and he can tell by the expression on Lance’s face that he knows, that he knows that Keith knows.

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Lance whispers, and it’s so quiet, and so—small—like he’s afraid Keith will be mad that he didn’t tell him. “I told Shiro the other day when he came to ride in Red but I made him promise not to say anything. The only other person who knows is Allura.”

“Lance,” Keith says again, even though he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s going to say next, because how can he know, how can he possibly know what to say—

“I’m okay,” Lance says. “It was just for a couple minutes and I was still in Red, so Allura was able to bring me back quick.” He smiles, though it’s clearly forced. “I didn’t even need a healing pod! Altean alchemy is amazing.”

It’s too much. It’s too—Keith can’t—

He breathes in, breathes out, runs his thumb over the side of his index finger. Then he uncurls his fist and takes hold of one of Lance’s hands, clutching the back of his palm.

Lance tenses with surprise, but relaxes a second later. He wriggles his hand around to twine his fingers with Keith’s.

“I.” Keith stops. He feels like something in him might burst if he isn’t careful, like all the feeling in him is waiting to spill out, to pour over Lance and make him understand. “I’m glad you’re still here. I’m really glad you’re still here.”

Lance’s grip on his hand tightens.

“I don’t know—” Keith stops again. He forces himself to look at Lance, hoping that it’ll somehow transmit all the unspoken things to him. “If you weren’t—here—I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t think I could—”

He stops a third time, and shit shit shit he can feel prickling at the back of his eyes, can feel the lump growing in his throat, because he—doesn’t want to think about this—doesn’t want to contemplate going on without Lance by his side.

“I’m glad you’re still here,” he says again, finally, quietly.

Lance squeezes his hand.

“Me too,” he says.

There’s a pause. Keith exhales in an effort to calm down. In the silence he can hear the wind howling outside; after half a minute there’s another rumble of thunder, though much more distant than the previous ones.

“I don’t want to talk about it now,” Lance says at length. “Maybe some other day. But I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I know from your letters that you had that nightmare and I’m sorry, but I just. I didn’t want Red to tell you what it meant.”

Any other day Keith would be angry, but after today—after Matt reminded him of Naxzela—he can only feel tired, and resigned.

“I wish you had,” he says. “But you don’t have to be sorry. I get it. I’ve been hiding stuff too.”

“Like what?”

Keith hesitates. “I don’t want to make this about me.”

Lance makes an impatient sound. “Don’t worry about that,” he says. “We’re friends. We tell each other stuff.”

Keith looks at their entwined hands. “Yeah.” He pauses. “Do you remember Naxzela? And the barrier?”

Lance nods.

“I was gonna break it,” Keith says. “I was—about to fly right into it.”

Lance holds very still. When he speaks his voice is barely a whisper.

“How close were you?”

“I don’t know,” Keith says honestly. The weird thrumming is back in his chest, though it’s helped by the relief that he’s finally told someone, helped by the grounding presence of Lance’s hand in his. “I closed my eyes.”

Lance squeezes his hand again, harder, as if done involuntarily.

“Lotor is a dick,” he says, and Keith is so startled he lets out a short laugh, “but I’m glad he stopped it before you did.”

Another pause.

“This is a fun sleepover,” Lance says dryly.

“I thought you said it wasn’t a sleepover,” Keith reminds him.

Lance squints at him. Keith snickers.

“Any other depressing things to discuss?” Lance asks next. “Any more near death experiences? Actual death experiences? Nightmares? Premonitions?”

(premonitions)

(Keith forgot about it until now, genuinely and truly, because Krolia told him it would be best to, but—)

“Kinda,” he says. “I saw the future.”

Lance blinks at him. “What.”

“I saw the future,” Keith says. “I saw—when that clone tried to attack me. And—and one other thing.”

Lance looks confused for a second. Then his expression clears.

“You mean before the space whale?” he checks, then, as Keith nods, “I thought you said it was just past stuff? Like Krolia meeting your dad.”

“Mostly,” Keith says. “But there were two glimpses of the future as well. Krolia said it would be best to forget about them, because worrying over the future is dangerous and unreliable. And she’s right. If I’d worried about what I saw then I would have thought that—you know. That my own brother would attack me. But that wasn’t it. It was a fake.”

Lance looks thoughtful. “I guess you have a point,” he says.

“Also.” Keith stops, trying to gather the right words. “Most of my life, people acted like they could predict where I’d end up. That I’d fail or drop out or end up in juvie or—something—and that I’d be good for nothing and have no one. So I don’t really put much stock in predicting the future. Cause I’m not good for nothing and I’m not alone. I have—everyone.” He smiles at Lance, a bit shyly. “I have you.”

Lance smiles back, sudden and bright in the dark room. “Keith Kogane, destroyer of fortune-telling.” He tucks his free hand under his chin. “Can you tell me what the other thing was? I get that the future isn’t guaranteed, but it’s still cool.”

(a kitchen table, a yellow floor, morning sunlight streaming through the window above the sink—)

(a plate of eggs and toast in front of him, and a person sitting across from him—

(a person sitting across from him, but they’re holding a newspaper up, and their face is covered, and Keith’s heart—)

(—thuds—)

(—thuds, and is weak, and whispers maybe—)

“I’d rather not,” he says aloud, banishing the image from his mind. It sends an odd thrill through him, something excited and frightened at the same time, and he doesn’t want to dwell on it, doesn’t want to set himself up for disappointment.

“That’s okay,” Lance says amiably.

He squeezes Keith’s hand a third time, like an afterthought, like it’s natural, and it reminds Keith of another form of prediction.

“It’s probably about as reliable as Altean palm reading,” he adds.

Lance sputters; Keith knows if it weren’t so dark he’d probably see Lance’s ears turn red.

“You know I asked Allura about it,” he goes on casually.

“Really?” Lance squeaks. He clears his throat. “That’s—cool.” He clears his throat again. “Um—so have you seen snow before? Cause usually people who aren’t used to it aren’t so grumpy about the cold.”

Keith blinks at the non sequitur. “I’m not grumpy,” he says, with a frown. “And I’ve seen it a few times. Me and my dad used to visit his cousin in Maine during the holidays.”

Lance brightens. “What was he like?” he asks.

“Dad?” Keith checks, then, when Lance nods, “He was kinda gruff sometimes. But he was nice, and he took good care of me, and I know he loved me.”

“Was he a good cook?”

“The best,” Keith says, smiling at the memory of it. “Even better than Adam.”

He talks about him for a long while, talks about how he taped every one of Keith’s drawings to the wall, how he peeled oranges for him after school, how he once stayed up all night propping Keith up when he had such a bad cough that he couldn’t sleep lying down. He talks and talks and talks and for a moment it almost feels like—his dad is with him—like if Keith walked out of the room and into the hall he would be standing there, gruff and kind as always, ready to commiserate with Keith about the cold.

He talks until his voice grows hoarse and Lance is apologizing for how often he’s yawning.

“It’s okay,” Keith says sleepily. “We should stop anyway.”

“Yeah,” Lance says, though it’s so drowsy that Keith suspects he has no idea what he’s agreeing to. “G’night.”

“Good night,” Keith says, and then he’s asleep, but what feels like an instant later he is—

—waking up—

—disoriented for a moment, because the room is still dark, and he knows he can’t have been asleep for very long—

—but he blinks, and realizes that he’s so warm, warmer than can be explained by a Kambali blanket, but he’s still bewildered, sensations making themselves known to him in pieces: his nose squashed against a collarbone, his fingers clutching at a t-shirt, his legs tangled with someone else’s.

His stomach jumps, and suddenly he’s warm in an entirely new way, warm with embarrassment and want and—guilt—because he knows that he should probably disentangle himself from Lance and scoot away, but he doesn’t.

He doesn’t, and instead he tilts his head back a little, his hair brushing along Lance’s chin as he does so, and he looks—

(looks and looks and looks)

—looks at long eyelashes and a curved jaw and a mouth lax in sleep—

—and he should wrinkle his nose at it, should be put off by the messy hair and the open mouth and the drool that is most certainly going to end up in Keith’s hair at some point—

—but he is not put off, he is not put off at all, because this is Lance, this is a boy who dies and is reborn and does not hesitate to almost die again, a boy who jiggles his leg when he’s nervous and talks about video games for hours and wears heart-shaped sunglasses, a boy who found Keith when he was drowning in responsibility and pulled him out before he could sink, a boy who Keith loves so wholly and completely and truly that not even drool could dispel it.

Not even drool could dispel it, so Keith tucks his face in Lance’s neck again, squashes his nose against Lance’s collarbone again, and as he drifts off he thinks to himself, Tomorrow I will finish the letter, and I will give it to him, and I will tell him.

.^.

(he doesn’t tell him)

(it’s not his fault, not really. they wake up late, to the sound of Romelle banging on the door for them to hurry or they’ll be off schedule, and when Lance wakes he is so flustered, his ears reddening and his good morning stammered so hard that it’s barely intelligible, and Keith isn’t flustered at all but Lance’s reaction makes him think that perhaps he should be)

(and Lance doesn’t look at him as they untangle themselves and get out of bed, and Keith doesn’t know if it’s good or bad, but then Romelle is banging on the door and yelling at them again, and they’re both scrambling to get ready, and in the ensuing rush Keith somehow ends up wearing that stupid shirt from the Pocket Monsters planet)

(and Lance comes out of the bathroom, and takes one look at it, takes one look at My Boyfriend Went To The Pocket Monsters Championship And All He Got Me Was This Lousy T-Shirt, takes one look at neon pink and the jigglypuff-shark cross, takes one look at Keith in Lance’s shirt, that they paid for together, and he blushes, not just his ears but his cheeks too, and Keith feels a bit dizzy, to the point that he forgets how fucking cold he is, and he has a feeling that a confession at this point might actually kill Lance)

(and then Keith shivers, and he yanks his coat on, covering the t-shirt. Lance shakes his head hard, as if to knock sense back into himself, and then they’re hurrying out the door and to the lions)

.^.

As they settle into the lions, Keith realizes it’s a good thing he didn’t confess to Lance right away, because the letter is—not done.

Or rather, it is done, but it’s not—right. It’s been too long since he hugged Lance properly, too long for him to explain what it feels like. He needs to do it again, so he can get all the feelings right, so he doesn’t make up a single word of what he says.

The only problem is that he can’t find a single reason to hug Lance. He racks his brain as the lions zoom through space, trying to come up with an excuse to hug him. Should he pretend there’s something on his shoulder that needs to be brushed away? Awkwardly bump into him and hope it somehow morphs into a hug? Fake an injury?

“Whatever you’re thinking,” Shiro says, the morning of their second day on the space-road after leaving the snow hotel, “just ask.”

Keith blinks at him. He’s in the pilot’s chair, while Shiro is on the floor, giving Pom Pom a gratuitous number of chin scratches while they wag their tail. Krolia is in the back, taking a nap.

“I can’t,” Keith says.

“You can’t,” Shiro repeats, “or you’re just afraid to?”

Keith narrows his eyes at him. Pom Pom rolls over, exposing their belly to Shiro, who obligingly scratches it.

“I want to hug Lance,” Keith says finally.

“You can’t,” Shiro informs him, then, before Keith can worry, “If you teleport out of the lion right now then Black will probably shut down.”

Fool, Black rumbles, which is—weird—and Keith thinks he sees something flit across Shiro’s face, as if he heard it too—and he remembers Black warning him to leave Shiro alone, remembers the implication that they could still hear Shiro’s thoughts, and he wonders—

Shiro keeps talking, though he looks a bit guarded. “As soon as we land, go for it,” he says. “He’s your friend. He won’t think it’s weird.”

(You don’t ever have to ask to hug me. You can just do it whenever you want)

The nervous knot in Keith’s stomach unravels. He slides out of the pilot’s chair, down to the floor, and sets to work providing Pom Pom with double the belly scratches. A few minutes pass in silence, broken only by the sound of Pom Pom’s contented rumbles, before there’s a loud beep from the control panel. Keith goes over to pull up the small screen. When he sees the call he grins.

“It’s home,” he says, then, the grin fading, “It’s only this lion? I don’t think anyone else is getting it.”

“That’s strange,” Shiro says, still sitting next to Pom Pom. “Why wouldn’t Commander Holt call the others? Or at least the Green Lion.”

Keith gives him a pointed look. Shiro pales.

“No,” he says.

Keith makes his look more pointed.

“No,” Shiro says louder, as if the increased volume will somehow make it true.

Keith rolls his eyes and answers the call. Like last time, it’s audio-only, which is a bit disappointing. “Hello? This is Keith, in the Black Lion.”

There’s a second of silence, a second where Keith hopes hopes hopes that he is right, because—

“This is Adam,” Adam says, and Keith feels like he might explode, because Adam called, Adam called, Adam called to talk to Shiro, and they’ll talk, and Shiro will be happy again, and those rings will be put to good use, and everything will be okay— “It’s good to hear your voice. Are you okay? Are you safe?”

“It’s good to hear you, too. And yes, we’re all fine.”

Adam hesitates, so slightly that someone who didn’t know him as well as Keith does would not have noticed it. “Is Takashi around?”

Keith glances at Shiro, who is even paler than before.

No, he mouths, shaking his head frantically.

“Yes,” Keith says aloud. He turns back to the screen, though not fast enough to miss the death glare Shiro throws in his direction. “He’s right here.”

Adam’s voice is soft. “Okay,” he says. “Commander Holt wasn’t able to join me for this call because he’s being watched like a hawk lately, but he asked if you could let everyone know that he is safe and that he hopes you all are too. And to tell his kids that he loves them.”

“I will.”

“Okay,” Adam says, though it sounds more aimed at himself than at Keith. “I also have a message from Takashi’s mother.”

Keith glances at Shiro again. He’s still pale, though he’s gotten to his feet. Pom Pom sits up, watching him with concern.

“Could you play it?” Keith asks, when it becomes clear that Shiro won’t say anything.

“I—yeah,” Adam stammers. “I just thought—” He breaks off. “Never mind.”

There’s a click, and then Shiro’s mama’s voice fills the space.

“Hello, my butterball,” she says in Japanese, and at the sound of the nickname Shiro shakes, so hard that Keith is worried he might fall. He pushes Shiro toward the pilot’s seat; Shiro falls into it, and Pom Pom trots over to put their head in his lap.

Keith leans against the side of the chair, listening to the message. He’s met Shiro’s mother before, enough times that his heart aches at the sound of her voice, enough times he has few memories associated with her and her home: swinging his feet from the stool at the kitchen island, sneaking sweets from the cupboard, looking at old photo albums while she tells him about what Shiro was like when he was Keith’s age.

“I love you,” she says next, “and I miss you more than anything. I do not understand what this ‘Galra’ is, but I’ll destroy it myself for taking you away from me.”

Keith huffs, thinking of the giant rolling pin on her kitchen counter.

“I knew in my heart that you were okay,” she goes on, “but to have it confirmed brings me more joy than I have ever felt. I can’t wait to see you again. When I have you with me I won’t let go for a week. I’ll hold onto you like a squid until you get annoyed of me and say”—she deepens her voice, mimicking Shiro—“Mama, stooop.”

Shiro chuckles. It sounds suspiciously watery.

“You never complained about taking care of me,” Shiro’s mama says. “You always helped me, and you always helped other people, and now you are helping the whole universe. I am proud of you for doing so much and I know you will do a lot of good for so many people.” She pauses, exhaling. “I love you so, so much. I hope you stay safe and take care of yourself, and of Keith, and that you eat enough. Though when you get home I’ll cook you enough food for the past two years anyway.”

Another watery chuckle from Shiro.

“Your Adam has to sneak this back to the Garrison soon,” she says, “so I will stop here. But I love you very much. I will not say goodbye, but instead I will say: see you soon.”

The message ends. Shiro sniffs. Keith puts his arm around his shoulders and gives him a brief, sideways hug.

“Are you okay?” he asks in Japanese.

“Yeah,” Shiro says. He sniffs again. “Thank you,” he says in English, toward the small screen. “Did she look well, when you saw her?”

“She’s in good health,” Adam assures him. “I check up on her a lot, so you have nothing to worry about. I—” He stops, sounding uncertain. “I actually—have dinner with her—every weekend.”

Shiro blinks. “You do?”

“Yeah,” Adam says, defensively. “I mean—she’s my family, right?”

Shiro blinks a second time. Keith suppresses a grin.

“Not—not that she’s my family-family, but she—almost was—or could be—not that I’m expecting—you know—”

(oh my god, says Hunk’s voice, in Keith’s head, they’re both like this)

Shiro looks oddly intense, like he’s trying to come to a decision. Keith wonders if he should be recording this; he has a feeling this exchange will be fucking hilarious someday.

“Anyway,” Adam says, sounding increasingly flustered, “if that’s all, then—”

“How was your day?” Shiro interrupts.

There’s a pause, so long that Keith worries Shiro might have scared Adam off. But then:

“I made chai for breakfast,” Adam says finally. “And an omelet. It had, um. Mushrooms. And cheese. And peppers.”

Shiro looks like he might start crying again.

“I had Olkari granola,” he says, and Keith pretends for everyone’s sake that he can’t hear his voice shaking. “It tastes like that Nature Valley stuff.”

“So you’re still a health nut,” Adam says, and it’s stiffer than it should be, but it’s still—a joke—half a joke, anyway—and it feels like it’s easier to breathe now, like everything is only going to go up from here.

“I’m gonna go read in the back,” Keith whispers in Japanese.

Shiro nods. Pom Pom stays with him. As Keith walks away from the pilot’s seat he hears Shiro say, “How many classes did you teach today?”; as he settles down on the floor by Krolia, who’s still snoring away in her sleeping bag, he hears Adam’s faint reply of “Just three, it was a half day.”

Keith pulls out his book and tries to tune them out to give them privacy, though every so often he catches an awkward pause, or a burst of a laugh, or a low murmur.

It’s not fixed, not even close, but it’s—something.

.^.

It’s—something, and he sees the change it effects in Shiro, sees how drastically different he is after that conversation. He still has his low moments—Keith doesn’t know if those will ever fully go away—but he’s more cheerful now, sillier, in a way that makes him realize how heavy Shiro still was.

“I found this in one of the back compartments,” Lance says, a few hours before they’ll land to camp for the night. He holds up a bottle so everyone can see it on the big screen. “I think it’s from when King Alfor used to pilot Red.”

“That’s hair dye,” Allura says, peering at the symbols on it. “Father went through a phase.”

Keith doesn’t know what to make of King Alfor going through a hair-dyeing phase, but he doesn’t have much time to dwell on it, because Shiro plops down on the floor of the Black Lion and says, “Dye me.”

Pom Pom teleports to Red to collect the bottle. Keith and Krolia muddle through the process together, and one varga later, Shiro’s hair and eyebrows are a deep purple.

“It matches your quintessence!” Allura says, with a delighted clap of her hands.

Shiro checks his reflection on the screen. “I like it,” he says. “The Garrison will take me very seriously like this.”

Keith scans the bottle with one of the portable translators Pidge has been working on. “It says it will wash out in one phoeb,” he informs him.

“Oh well,” Shiro says, sighing. “I looked forward to seeing Iverson’s reaction to this, but I guess not.”

This continues even after they land. The space is relatively bare, similar to the places they camped toward the beginning of their journey. Keith helps Coran make dinner, and after everyone has eaten, Lance takes out his skincare products, because, as he says with a wrinkle of his nose, “this atmosphere is ruining my pores.”

Keith is not sure what pores are, but after much squinting at Lance’s face, he concludes that they must be fake, because nothing about Lance’s appearance could be described as “ruined.”

“Can I join you?” Shiro asks, looking at the containers with interest. “It’s been a long time since I did anything like this.”

Lance brightens. “Of course!” he says, then to Keith, “You can do it too, if you want.”

Keith starts to respond, but Shiro beats him to it.

“Keith wouldn’t know a skincare routine if it hit him in the face,” he says.

“His very dusty face,” Lance corrects, though it’s too fond to be a real insult.

“When he was thirteen he once went a whole month without showering cause he thought he could get by with just spraying half a can of Axe over himself instead,” Shiro says.

Shiro,” Keith says, mortified, but it’s barely audible over Lance’s cackling and Shiro’s snickering.

Lance talks through the whole process, while Shiro interjects with I see and wow and would ya look at that, folks! with faux solemnity, like they’re models on an as-seen-on-TV commercial. It’s silly, made sillier by Shiro’s purple eyebrows and hair, made silliest by the way he blinks owlishly once he’s lathered on the green face mask, and Keith’s heart is light at the sight of these two people he loves so much, goofing off and getting along.

At length they finish up—“look at that glow, folks!” Shiro declares, turning his head from side to side; Allura dissolves into giggles, Hunk pats Shiro’s cheek, Coran says ooh, and Keith rolls his eyes—so everyone gets ready for bed. Keith stares at his reflection as he brushes his teeth; between Adam’s call and Shiro’s newfound silliness, Keith half forgot about his intention to finish the letter for Lance. But now that he is quiet, and alone, it comes flooding back.

He needs to hug him again. For—for science, as Pidge would say. For romance, as Hunk might amend.

(just do it, says one of his mind, exasperated. he already told you it’s okay)

(you can’t just hug someone for no reason, another part argues. you don’t know Lance like that)

(doesn’t know Lance like that, except—)

(except nothing, says the first part. shut up and do it)

Keith throws his toothbrush into the holder, washes his hands, and bursts out of the transporting toilet.

“Lance!” he says, too loud; out of the corner of his eye he sees Romelle jump.

Lance is helping Krolia unroll the last couple sleeping bags, but at the sound of Keith’s voice he turns, and Keith hurries toward him, and for a confusing moment he’s reminded of rushing at Lance after he got out of the hospital on Puig, and then—

“Oof,” Lance says, as Keith collides with him, and for half a second he’s worried that it’s too much, because Lance isn’t hugging him back—but then Lance’s arms wind around him, and squeeze him tight, and Keith squeezes him back, squeezes as hard as he can, because he needs to learn as much from his hug as possible.

He tucks his face into Lance’s shoulder and inhales, ignoring the rapid fluttering in the pit of his stomach. Lance smells like fresh soap and the vaguely sweet scent of his skincare stuff; it’s pleasant, makes Keith think of going into a bathroom after someone else has used it, when the scent of them getting ready for the day still lingers in the air. It makes him think of—the thing he is not supposed to think about—makes him think of a kitchen table, a yellow floor, morning sunlight streaming through the window above the sink—makes him think of a plate of eggs and toast in front of him, and a person sitting across from him—makes him think of eating breakfast with this person, this person whose face he does not yet know, eating breakfast after smelling the fresh soap-vaguely sweet scent of them getting ready for the day—

Lance chuckles, and Keith feels it, feels the movement in his chest, pressed close to Keith’s. And then Lance speaks, and Keith feels that, too, feels the rumble of his voice, close and friendly and familiar.

“Did you miss me that much while you were brushing your teeth?” he asks.

(how can you not know? he wants to say)

(how could I not miss you? he wants to say)

(I wish we brushed our teeth together, he wants to say, and that—gives him pause—because there is something there, something in this—and his mind keeps going, says I wish we got ready together, I wish we ate breakfast together, I wish we washed the dishes together, I wish we went grocery shopping together, I wish we lay on the couch and watched TV together, I wish—)

(his mind keeps going, and suddenly Keith knows—)

(what does hugging me feel like)

“I just wanted a hug,” Keith says finally. He pulls back enough to look at Lance. He feels rattled, too excited and too nervous and too everything, all at once. “You said I didn’t have to ask.”

Lance beams at him, though he doesn’t say anything, and Keith wishes the sun weren’t setting so quickly, because he feels like he could stay up for a hundred years, like he could do a thousand push ups and fight a thousand Galra and write a thousand letters about how much he loves Lance.

But the sun does not seem to care about what Keith wants, because it sinks resolutely below the horizon, and Keith has to let go of Lance, has to cling to the memory of it and hope he doesn’t forget it by the time he wakes and can work on the letter again.

Because hugging Lance—

—hugging Lance—

.^.

Hi Lance.

.^.

The days between camping and Chandin pass normally, for the most part. Keith reads and plays with Pom Pom and talks to the others and calls Lance about a dozen times a day, and every time they end their calls he reaches into his pocket, and clutches at the letter folded there, and thinks soon.

But then—

“We have a problem,” Coran says without preamble, as soon as Keith answers the call from the Blue Lion. “We won’t be able to stay on Chandin tonight.”

It’s early in the fake day they’ve created for themselves, only a half hour after breakfast. Keith is curled up in the pilot’s seat reading on his tablet, Krolia is sitting on a cushion on the floor while doing a crossword, and Shiro is giving Pom Pom chin scratches again.

“What’s wrong?” Keith asks, setting aside his tablet. One by one the others appear on the big screen. “I thought we already had rooms ready.”

“Yes, but the rainy season’s started,” Coran explains. “It’ll rain almost nonstop for the next phoeb. It won’t exactly be a pleasant visit.”

Rain. Keith glances at Lance on the big screen. He’s sitting forward in his chair; the longing in his eyes is almost palpable.

“That’s fine,” Keith says to Coran. “The lions can handle rain.”

Pidge makes a face. “Rain is annoying, though.”

“We don’t have umbrellas, either,” Matt points out. “Getting around on Chandin will be hard.”

Keith looks at Lance again. The hopeful expression on his face is fading. Keith frowns.

“We’re not gonna melt,” he says to the Holts. “It’s just rain. We’ll be fine.”

“I’m on their side,” Krolia calls, from her spot on the cushion. “Being rained on is a nuisance.”

Lance’s face falls even more. Keith’s frown deepens, and he’s growing—kinda irritated—the kind of irritated that comes easily to him, makes him dig in his heels, makes him impatient and stubborn, makes him want to tell everyone to shut up and go along with what he says.

But he can’t do that, because he’s trying to be—better—so he just says, “Changing our destination last minute is a nuisance, too.”

“But wouldn’t it be more convenient to keep going for an extra quintant or two and stop somewhere else?” Romelle asks. “Surely it can’t be a good idea to transport all our supplies in the rain.”

Keith’s irritation grows. “We’ll borrow umbrellas from the Chandinians,” he says through gritted teeth.

“That’s fine with me,” Hunk says, “except I really wanted to use our time there to work on Yellow’s machinery, so if there isn’t like, a dry place to park the lions, then I also think we should go elsewhere.”

“Yeah,” Pidge says, “plus whoever goes to the umbrellas is gonna get rained on, so I’m not gonna do it—”

“For fuck’s sake!” Keith bursts out. “It’s just rain!”

Everyone blinks at him in surprise.

Keith closes his eyes. Opens them. Breathes in. Breathes out.

“We’re going to Chandin,” he says, more evenly. “I’m in charge and I say we go. If you have such a big problem with it then you can sleep in the lions. You’re not babies. You’ll be fine.”

(he thinks he might be imagining it, but it kinda looks like Allura is trying to suppress a laugh. he’s glad she isn’t offended, though he has a horrible suspicion she knows the root of his insistence that they go to a planet during its rainy season, and that is—more than mortifying)

(but his embarrassment is a small price to pay for the look on Lance’s face, the sheer delight, like rain is the best present he’s ever gotten)

For a moment it feels like everything freezes.

(the best present he’s ever gotten)

(oh, Keith’s mind whispers, and he has to work to resist the urge to reach for the letter folded up in his pocket. oh)

.^.

I have to tell you something. Some stuff you should know. But I don’t know how to say it, so I’m writing it down. I hope you don’t mind another letter.

.^.

Shiro approaches him after the group call ends.

“You okay?” he asks. He doesn’t sound mad, just cautious. “You seem a little annoyed.”

Keith shrinks into the pilot’s chair. Now that he thinks over it, he does feel more restless than usual. He doesn’t know if it’s the discussion they just had or the anticipation of confessing to Lance or simply the lack of real alone time lately, but Keith’s nerves feel frayed at the edges.

“If you want, me and Krolia can fly with someone else for a while,” Shiro offers. “Give you some time to decompress.”

That—sounds really nice, actually. He would have the space to himself, could exist without having anyone looking at him or talking to him.

Keith nods. Shiro ruffles his hair—Keith scowls—then goes to tell Krolia. They each gather whatever they’ll need for the day, then teleport with Pom Pom: Krolia to the Yellow Lion, because she and Hunk have a shared love for intergalactic gossip, and Shiro to the Green Lion, to hang out with Matt and Pidge.

As they leave, Keith pulls up the comm for the Red Lion.

“Hey,” he says, when Lance answers. He’s in his old hoodie, with a space mouse on each shoulder. “Um, I just wanted to let you know that I feel kinda weird, cause of being around so many people lately, so I need some alone time. So I won’t call you after this.”

“Sure thing, man,” Lance says. One of the space mice chatters, as if in agreement. “I hope you feel better.”

“Thanks,” Keith says, then, hurriedly, “It’s not cause of anything you did.”

Lance blinks. “Okay.”

“I still like”—he stammers over the word, even though he knows the connotation here is platonic—“you and you’re still my friend. I just need to be alone today.”

There’s a smile tugging at the corner of Lance’s mouth, slight but irresistible. “Okay,” he says again.

“I promise I’m not ignoring you,” Keith insists. “I’ll talk to you once we’ve landed and I’m sorry I won’t call you before then—”

Okay,” Lance interrupts, and he’s smiling big now, his eyes crinkly at the corners. “I understand. You don’t need to give me a disclaimer.”

“I just wanted to tell you,” Keith says, though he’s relieved by his reaction; an irrational part of him expected Lance to be annoyed by the request. “Anyway, um. I’ll see you when we land.”

“Yeah,” Lance says, and the screen goes blank.

Keith sits back in the seat. Pom Pom poofs back into the lion and trots up to him.

“Well, buddy,” Keith says, leaning over to pat their head. “It’s just you and me.”

It’s a relief to be alone, and for the best; if he’s going to be on a whole new planet tonight, he needs to be at maximum capacity for socializing.

He gets up long enough to shuck his pants so he’s just in his boxers and oversize sweater, then ties up his hair and sits down again, sideways, with his legs dangling over one arm. He opens his arms to Pom Pom, who jumps into his lap with a cheerful grf.

He cuddles with them for a while, scratching their chin and wiggling their ears and kissing them between their eyes, then watches some of the soap opera episodes that Hunk sent to him. While watching, he eats a giant bag of chips and two bars of chocolate, and drinks anarberry juice straight from the carton, because no one is here to scold him for it.

He talks to himself (“what the fuck are you doing?” he exclaims, outraged, as the hero of the soap opera rejects her girlfriend’s proposal), talks to Pom Pom (“who’s my cutie baby,” he coos, and Pom Pom says grf), talks to Black (don’t laugh, he thinks, right after he coos at Pom Pom and feels the vague amusement at the back of his mind, courtesy of the lion). He sings, which makes Pom Pom wag their tail and makes Black make vague annoyed noises.

“I’M FLYYYIN’,” Keith sings at the top of his lungs, doing a little jig around the pilot’s chair, “IN THE RED—wait, shit, no—”

How rude, Black sniffs.

Sorry, Keith says. I’ll change it.

He clears his throat, throws out his arms dramatically like Lance does when he’s telling a story, and resumes dancing.

“I’M FLYYYIN…IN THE BLACK LIIIION…YOU THINK YOU’RE GONNA GEEEET AWAY…BUT NO, KEITH’S COMIN’ TO SAAAAVE THE DAY—”

Please stop, Black rumbles.

No, Keith says, then launches into the second verse.

When he gets tired of singing he reads for a while, then takes out some scrap paper and draws.

“This is you,” he says, showing the completed drawing to Pom Pom.

Pom Pom peers at it, then looks up at him and smiles, their tongue lolling. Keith pats their head and draws the Black Lion next.

“This is you,” he says, holding it up.

Interesting rendering, Black rumbles. It is similar to the Tasveerian art style.

Keith doesn’t know how to respond to that. Is that a good thing?

Yes.

Oh. Then thank you.

There’s a pause.

I should call the Green Lion, he says casually. Let Shiro know I’m okay. Radio silence might worry him.

There is no need, Black says. If the necessity truly arose, I could

Keith raises his eyebrows. Black does not continue, and the sensation in the back of Keith’s mind is new, one he has never felt from Black and does not quite know how to describe. Alarm, perhaps, or guilt.

Could what? he prompts.

Black maintains their silence. Keith sighs and flips the page over to draw the Red Lion.

.^.

The first thing you should know: I am really glad you have Red. I miss Red a lot, but you’re a good paladin and I know he loves you and I know you take care of him.

.^.

They reach Chandin as scheduled, right after sunset. As they descend, Keith peers out the front window of the lion in an effort to make out the landscape. It’s hard to tell, between the growing darkness and the rain slashing along the window, but it looks like the landscape varies between desert, city, and jungle.

“We’ll be staying in the palace of a minor ruler,” Coran informs everyone, as the lions carefully navigate towards a sprawling mass of buildings at the edge of a jungle. “Chandin, despite being a relatively small planet, is not ruled by a single person, but by a united coalition of rulers. The region we are headed to is governed by Nargis Kulsum.”

He lists off more facts as they go: Chandin is home to dozens of languages, though official business is conducted in only three; the people are very kind, though sometimes so sarcastic that foreign diplomats struggle to understand if they are joking or not; Chandinians are descended from the same common ancestors as Alteans and have the same pointed ears, though their facial markings are in the shape of dots, and they are known for having much rounder faces and overall shorter heights.

At last they arrive, landing the lions in a large parking hangar. Keith walks down the ramp, hefting his backpack on his shoulders. Even within the parking hangar, the noise of the city is almost deafening; there are all sorts of animal sounds from the jungle only a short walk away, chirps and growls and ribbits that are layered over the expected shouts and honks and clatter of a big city, as well as the rushing of the rain. The palace is at a distance, though still visible from the windows of the parking hangar; it’s long and rectangular and low, only one storey tall, with walls that remind Keith of sandstone.

There is a Chandianian diplomat awaiting them at the door of the hangar, juggling an absurd number of umbrellas.

“We are most honored to welcome you!” they say, beaming. They are about Allura’s height, with a perfectly round face. They have a large gold dot on the left side of their jaw, shimmering against their brown skin, and a purple scarf is draped loosely over their dark hair, which is tied in a bun. “We were not sure whether you would prefer to walk to the palace or take a car, so we have made arrangements for both.”

“Car,” Pidge says immediately.

Most of the others murmur their agreement, but Lance is—quiet—not disagreeing, but not agreeing, either.

Keith looks out the windows of the parking hangar, at the rain beating against the panes. He looks back at the diplomat.

“I’d like to walk,” he says.

Hunk looks at him like he just said he’d like to jump into a volcano, but Lance—lights up—lights up so much that Keith thinks they could turn off the fluorescent lights in the hangar, because Lance’s expression could illuminate it on its own.

“I’ll walk too,” Lance says quickly.

The diplomat hands Keith two of the umbrellas.

“There is a direct path to the palace,” they say. “Just follow the main road. Your rooms are ready for you when you arrive. The party will not begin for another varga, so if you would like to rest, you will have time to do so.”

Party? Keith blinks, then remembers Lance mentioning the possibility of a party, and getting to wear his new scarf.

“We will see you soon!” the diplomat says cheerfully, then leads the others, along with their luggage for the night, out of the hangar towards the car waiting outside.

Keith turns to Lance. “Ready?”

Lance hesitates.

Keith frowns. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m—nervous,” Lance says. He makes a sound that’s half an exhale and half a laugh, and rubs the back of his neck. “That sounds dumb. I don’t know. I haven’t been in the rain in a while.”

Keith’s brow crinkles, then smoothens.

“You want it to be important,” he says.

“Yeah. Yes.” Lance drops his hand. “That’s dumb.”

“No it’s not,” Keith says firmly. “Here.” He goes to the door and grips the handle. “Come here and close your eyes.”

Lance obeys.

“Three, two, one…” Keith turns the handle and pushes the door open, outward. “Take two steps forward.”

Lance takes two steps forward, but he isn’t past the threshold yet.

“Fuck, I underestimated—okay, two steps more.”

Lance snorts, but takes another two steps forward, and then—

“Oh,” he breathes, and his eyes fly open, and he tilts his head up to the sky, and holds out his hands, and closes his eyes again, and Keith is overwhelmed by how beautiful he looks, standing on a dusty road under a dark starlit sky, dressed in his old hoodie and his old jeans and rain, so much rain, loud and rushing and spilling over his skin, plastering his curly hair to his head and drenching his clothes and—making him laugh—because he’s laughing now, the loose giddy laugh of someone delighted for reasons other than amusement, laughing and spinning in place, his arms outstretched, and Keith loves him so much he can’t fucking breathe.

He waits until Lance’s initial delight has settled a little, until he’s stopped spinning and is just standing in place, letting the rain pour over him.

“Hey,” Keith says softly, stepping out and letting the door to the hangar swing shut behind him. The rain is a pleasant shock on his skin, a cool contrast with the warm night. “We gotta get moving, but fuck the umbrellas. Let’s walk like this.”

Lance opens his eyes and looks at Keith. He’s smiling so wide, brown eyes bright and laughter lingering in the lines of his face, and Keith wants him to look like that always, wants him to be ridiculously happy for the rest of his life, wants him to come to Keith on the days that he isn’t ridiculously happy, so Keith can work on bringing that happiness back to him again.

“You don’t have to do that,” Lance says.

“I know,” Keith replies, “but I want to.”

Lance’s eyes glitter.

“Okay,” he says, his smile curling upward again. “Let’s go.”

.^.

The second thing you should know: I would be happy if I was stuck with my first love for the rest of my life. Like the moon is happy with the stars, or the desert is happy with the rain. At least, I think they’re happy. I don’t know for sure. Maybe just pretend they are. For the sake of the comparison.

.^.

The walk is silent but comfortable. Keith tries not to stare at Lance the whole way, tries to pay attention to the city around them, but it’s—hard—because Lance looks so fiercely delighted to be out in the rain, and faced with this delight it is hard for Keith to concentrate on anything else.

Pieces of his surroundings make themselves known to him, when necessary: the scarf and long shirt and billowy pants of the Chandinian who Keith narrowly avoids ramming into, because he’s too busy peeking at Lance to pay attention where he’s going; the cart rolling past them, pulled by some kind of bright pink, bullock-like animal and bearing a mountain of vegetables, covered with a blue plastic tarp; a row of buildings on either side of them, colorfully painted and with laundry sagging on lines hung up between balconies and windows, laundry that was put out to dry but is now wetter than it was when it first came out of the wash.

He is vaguely aware of these, but the only real thing is Lance, Lance’s eyelashes dripping with raindrops and Lance’s hand opening and closing as he tries to catch the rain and Lance’s voice, saying Hey Keith, I think the rain here is sweeter than it is on earth.

At last they make it to the palace. The guard lets them in through a towering gate of gold and across a small courtyard. The double doors to the palace are gold, too, with a seal on the front: a full moon, overlapping with a blazing sun. They enter through these and into an entrance hall.

In the center of this hall stands the diplomat, to the right of a Chandinian who is slighter shorter than they are. She is wearing a purple scarf on her head, though it is lined with gold, unlike the plain one the diplomat is wearing. It matches her outfit, which makes Keith think of the clothes that Adam’s mother was wearing in family photos he once showed him: a long shirt, sort of like a tunic, and billowy pants, and flat shoes that curl up a little at the toes. He feels a bit self-conscious in front of her, dripping rainwater onto the spotless pale yellow floor, but her expression does not show any sign of displeasure.

“Welcome!” the Chandinian says, smiling. She has a large dot on her face like the diplomat does, though hers is on the center of her chin, and silver, a contrast with her gold nose ring and earrings and necklace. “I am Nargis Kulsum, ruler of the region of Phool.”

“We are very pleased to meet you,” Lance says, then introduces himself and Keith.

“It is an honor to meet you,” Nargis Kulsum says. “Your friends are already settling in. Zaarish will show you to your rooms. If you require anything during your stay, please let them or one of the guards know and we will do our best to accommodate you.”

They thank the ruler and follow the diplomat, Zaarish, through the left door of the entrance hall and down the hallway. The palace is simple compared to others that Keith has seen; there are a few portraits on the wall, a few works of art, a few items that he thinks might have some religious significance, but none of it is particularly ornate. He likes it, and he likes his room even more; it’s a decent size, with a bed set low, and large cushions for lounging instead of a couch.

The first thing he does is take a long shower, eager to get out of his drenched clothes. The towels rest upon a large circular stone slab, which is warm to the touch; after showering, he puts his clothes on the slab to dry, then goes to the closet to see if there are clothes he can borrow in the interim.

There is plenty, and it all appears to be in his size; he wonders if Coran made arrangements for this ahead of time. He starts to pull out something simple, but stops when he remembers the party.

“Right,” he says. “Uh—”

He shifts through the hangers. The outfits to the right look fancier, though none are something he’d want to wear for hours while talking to mostly strangers: neon green stripes, orange florals, purple polka dots. Eventually he pushes a hanger aside, and half hidden behind that one is—

“Aha!”

It looks similar to the outfit Adam would wear to Eid prayers, though that was gold with white pants, and this is red, with gold stitching around the collar, and black pants. Keith can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s similar in style to what Nargis Kulsum is wearing, though cut differently, with straighter lines and a stiffer collar.

He puts it on, along with a pair of brown and gold sandals in a shoe rack by the closet. He finds a red ribbon in a drawer in the vanity and uses it to tie his hair into a ponytail.

He checks his reflection in the closet mirror and shrugs. He won’t disgrace the team, which is enough. It’s not like he’s trying to impress anyone.

(sure¸ says part of his mind slyly)

(shut up, says the other part)

He feels heat creep up his neck, but he valiantly ignores it, though he does run into the bathroom to get the letter out of his pants pocket, tucking it into the pocket of his long shirt before heading out of his room.

.^.

(he’s going to fucking die)

(Lance is wearing a similar outfit, though his is dark blue, with gold stitching around the collar—and he’s wearing the scarf he got from Mina’s father, pale gold and hanging loosely around his neck, artfully careless, and he looks—so goddamn handsome—like a fucking Disney prince—and how is this fucking legal, what the actual fuck—)

“This reminds me of a sherwani,” Shiro says, interrupting Keith’s rapidly spiraling train of thought. He’s wearing a purple sherwani that matches his dyed hair, along with black pants and a black vest with silver stitching. “I should take a picture and show it to—”

He stops. Any other time Keith would follow up, would make fun of him, but it’s hard to think, because Lance is just—staring at him. Staring with wide eyes, as if he can’t stop.

“Is there something on my face?” Keith asks, touching his cheek. They’re gathered in the hallway; all of their rooms are in a row, and they’re waiting for everyone else to join them so they can head to the party.

Lance blinks, as if coming out of a trance.

“Uh. No,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse. He clears his throat. “Um. Your hair is kind of messy, though.”

Keith frowns. “I tied it up.”

“Tied it up messily,” Lance corrects.

Keith rolls his eyes. “You fix it then, if you’re such an expert.”

It isn’t until Shiro snorts that Keith realizes what he’s just asked Lance to do. Before he can take it back, however, Lance is already answering him.

“I am an expert!” he counters. “I told you I’m the braiding master.” He beckons toward Keith. “Come here.”

Keith steps forward and turns around. Lance pulls the ribbon free and drapes it over Keith’s shoulder.

“Tsk,” he says, and Keith knows if he could see him he’d be shaking his head. “Such carelessness. You gotta take better care of your mullet, mullet.”

He runs his fingers through Keith’s hair. It’s gentle, but Keith still tenses.

Lance notices this. “Did I pull something?”

“No,” Keith assures him. “I was just surprised.”

Lance finger-combs his hair, carefully, then separates it into three parts and starts to braid. Keith’s never worn his hair in a braid before, but he quite likes it; it feels more secure than a ponytail, keeps his hair in one place instead of the loose poof of a ponytail.

“All done!” Lance says cheerfully. He ties off the braid with the ribbon. Keith turns to face him and Lance winks. “Told you I’d give you a pretty braid one day.”

Keith brings the braid around to look at the end of it. He half expected the ribbon to be in a bow, but Lance just tied it off with a simple knot, which is—something. It is something, that he knows Keith would prefer this to a bow.

He looks at Lance again.

“You said it’d be the prettiest in the universe,” Keith says. “Not just pretty.”

Lance seems like he doesn’t know whether to be confused or offended. “You mean this isn’t the prettiest braid in the entire universe?”

“No,” Keith says, then before Lance’s face can fall, “so I guess you’ll just have to do it again sometime.”

Lance blinks—and then his ears are reddening, slight but damning, and Keith smirks, and his stomach is fluttering, and he thinks of the letter in the pocket of his sherwani, and he wonders—

Shiro clears his throat. Keith forgot he was still here.

“Pom Pom’s coming,” he says, sounding amused.

Pom Pom bounds down the hallway with a loud grf. They’re wearing a sparkly green embroidered vest, the admiration of which takes up the rest of the time it takes for everyone else to get ready, because Keith will be damned if he doesn’t coo over how cute his wolf looks.

Eventually they’re all gathered in the hallway. Coran and Hunk and Matt are wearing sherwanis too, in orange and yellow and green respectively; Allura and Romelle are wearing what Shiro informs everyone is similar to a lehenga, in pink and blue, and Krolia and Pidge are in something similar to what Zaarish and Nargis Kulsum are wearing.

“I like that they’re kind of dresses but have pants too,” Pidge says, kicking out one leg of her green outfit.

“Shalwar kameez,” says Shiro, who has become a clothing encyclopedia in the past few minutes (“uh, jhoomar, I think,” he said, when Allura asked about the jewelry draped on the side of her hair, “and that’s a—a dupatta,” he says, when Krolia asks about the long scarf draped across her shoulder and chest and tied at her opposite waist).

“Adam would hate how I’m pronouncing all of this,” he says in a low voice, as the group goes back to the entrance hall.

“He’d be happy you remembered,” Keith says.

“I guess.”

“And once we show him a picture of you in this outfit he won’t care,” Keith adds, grinning.

Shiro gives him the stink eye. Keith snickers and starts to say something else, but right then Zaarish comes into the entrance hall to take them to the party, so he leaves the teasing for another time.

.^.

The third thing you should know: you are my favorite person. I want you to remember this. I love other people too, like Shiro and Adam and everyone on our team, but with them it’s different. I love all of them like family, but you’re the only one I like I care about I love like this. Like there’s thunder inside of me when I see you, like all my feelings might burst out of me all at once. Like mornings aren’t actually so bad, because if it’s morning then I get to see you and talk to you. Like I want to take you for rides in the desert and go stargazing and watch the sunset. Like I want to buy you greasy takeout and fancy ice cream and dinners that I have to save up to afford. Like I wouldn’t mind doing stuff I hate if it’s stuff that you love, because if you love it then I’ll love it through loving you.

.^.

The hall the party takes place in is on the opposite side of the palace from their rooms. The double doors to the hall are the same as the ones to the palace, painted gold with the crest of the sun and moon overlapping. When the guards open it, Keith is struck by how much light and sound spills out from within. The hall is huge, with floor to ceiling windows that give a beautiful view of the dark rainy night. It’s packed with hundreds of Chandinians, dressed colorfully and dripping with jewelry, all glittering in the light from enormous lanterns at each corner of the hall, so tall they almost touch the ceiling.

Nargis Kulsum sits on a large plush cushion at the end of the hall. Zaarish leads them all to her. Keith spots the food and drink table—“the most important part,” Lance whispers as they pass it—the band sitting on a thick carpet to one side, the groups of Chandinians already dancing and laughing and talking. Now that his senses are more accustomed to the crowd, he’s taken aback by the sight of a few Galra scattered among them.

“Chandin used to be a settler colony,” Krolia murmurs, seeing Keith’s bewildered expression. “The Voltron Coalition’s formation opened the eyes of a lot of civilian Galra who didn’t realize how much propaganda the Empire was feeding them. You never had to free Chandin because the Chandinians were able to mobilize and use the help of many civilian Galra to oust the militant powers.”

“Wow.”

“It’s a rare feat,” Krolia says, with a thin smile. “An exception rather than the rule, I’m afraid. And Chandin still has much work before it will be fully healed from the Empire’s harm. Upon independence, Chandin’s rulers gave the civilian Galra an ultimatum: regardless of their stance in the fight against the Empire, they are still originally colonizers. Therefore, if they wish to remain on Chandin, they must make reparations and aid the planet in its rebuilding. Some of the Galra left, but many remained, determined to do what they can to right the wrongs of their ancestors.”

They’ve reached Nargis Kulsum, so Krolia stops speaking. The ruler welcomes them to the party and invites them to eat and drink and dance to their heart’s content. It’s an informal gathering, to Keith’s relief; there’s no sit-down dinner, no speeches, just a brief thank you to Nargis Kulsum for her hospitality before the team is free to do whatever they want for the rest of the night.

The next few vargas pass in a whirlwind. Keith eats about two dozen of the samosa-like snacks on the food table, stumbles through small talk with a couple Chandinians and Galra, and tries to keep Pom Pom from causing too much chaos (they jump into Nargis Kulsum’s lap, to Keith’s horror, but she just laughs and ruffles their fur and lets them sit by her cushion as she feeds them too many treats).

Matt and Shiro have a competition on who can eat more of the round puffy snacks in five minutes (it’s actually Romelle who wins, in the end), Pidge and Hunk show some of their gadgets to the younger Chandinians (one of them is a bright blue ball that speeds around the room on its own; at various points in the night Keith sees Pom Pom and a gaggle of Chandinian children chasing the ball, shrieking with delight), and Lance and Allura—

—are dancing.

(it occurs to Keith, as he watches Lance try to imitate the traditional Chandinian dance style and end up tripping over his own feet, that this would have bothered him, only a few weeks ago. this would have made him burn, burn and burn and burn, would have made him shrivel up and close himself off, would have put a sour taste in his mouth and a sinking stone in his stomach)

(but now—now he smiles. he smiles as Allura spins, her lehenga flaring out beautifully; smiles as Lance finally gets the hang of the dance, matches his rhythm with the music and the other Chandinians dancing around him. he smiles, because Lance said you don’t ever have to ask to hug me. you can just do it whenever you want; smiles because Allura said I love Lance, but not romantically; smiles because anyone with eyes can see the way she looks at Romelle)

(now he smiles, because Lance runs over and grabs Keith’s arm, and looks at Keith with bright eyes and a bright grin, and says come on)

Keith cannot dance, and he knows he’ll make a fool of himself, but it’s—Lance—Lance’s eyes and Lance’s grin and Lance’s hand warm in his—so he nods and lets himself be pulled into the crowd.

.^.

The fourth thing you should know: I know what hugging you feels like. It feels like standing in front of the same sink with someone you love while you both brush your teeth. It feels like getting ready in the same room. Like eating breakfast at the same table, without end. Like washing the dishes from that breakfast, together. Like going grocery shopping together, all the time, not just in the space mall. Like lying on the couch and making fun of TV shows together.

.^.

Somewhere between the third song and the fifth, Keith goes from having fun to feeling intensely prickly.

He doesn’t know what it is. He’s always been like this. He’ll be having fun, and then, slowly, a prickly uncomfortable feeling will seep into his bones, too quiet for him to notice until he’s deep in it, until the colors are too bright and the sounds are too loud and the smells are too strong, until bright clothes and dramatic music and spicy perfume are no longer aspects of a party, but something horrible and unpleasant and grating.

He smiles at Lance, half weak and half apologetic, then draws away from the people dancing and walks back to the food table. He looks out the window at the dark rain, hoping that turning away from the party will clear his head. His chest feels a bit tight, so he curls his fist and runs his thumb over his index finger, over and over. It’s frustrating that he feels like this; he hoped the day to himself in the lion would be enough to get him through the party without needing a break, but apparently not.

“Hey.”

He blinks and turns back to see Lance beside him. Lance looks terribly handsome like this, with his skin glowing and his hair ruffled from dancing and his scarf wrapped lazily around his neck. For a wild moment Keith gets the urge to tug on the edges of that scarf and—pull him close—but he blinks again, and it passes, and he’s prickly and uncomfortable once more.

“Zaarish says there’s a little garden nearby that’s quiet,” Lance says next, when Keith doesn’t answer. “It has a roof, so you won’t get rained on. I can cover for you if you need a break.”

(he loves him—so fucking much—Keith didn’t even say anything to him, but he still could tell—)

Keith nods. Lance gives him the directions and Keith sets off for the other side of the palace.

.^.

Hugging you feels like home.

.^.

The garden is actually something between a garden and a greenhouse. It’s a separate building, attached to the palace by a small hallway. When Keith opens the door, he finds the garden empty and quiet, other than the rushing sound of the rain outside. The space is small and square, with plants and flowers along the four walls. The center of the floor is set lower than the sides of the room; in this center is a mosaic, patterned in the same overlapping sun-moon crest on the doors of the palace. A light sculpture hangs from the ceiling right over the mosaic; it’s made of long thin golden rods, ended with dim lights in the shape of raindrops.

The garden is quite dark; the only illumination is from the light sculpture and what little moonlight and starlight is visible through the rainclouds, which Keith can see through the transparent roof. He tips his head up and looks at the clouds, at the rain beating down on the roof. Judging from the lines of it, it’s probably retractable, kept open in the sunny seasons.

He walks forward on the stone path between the plants, then down the three stone steps to the mosaic floor. He touches one of the dim raindrop-shaped lights on the light sculpture. It’s warm, which is strangely delightful to him; he pokes it a few times, letting the heat prick at the tip of his finger.

Eventually he walks past the sculpture, toward the back of the garden. There is a tree in the far right corner, its leafy branches sprawling; he sits on the top step, beneath the tree’s branches, and lets out a long sigh of relief.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there. He doesn’t bother keeping track. He listens to the rain, looks at the glow of the light sculpture against the otherwise blue-black darkness of the room, smiles at the various plants he spots around the room. Some of them resemble the ones he and Lance saw on Olkarion, but others are entirely new to Keith: these ones sparkle; those ones shimmer; the ones a few feet away emit little puffs of fog.

(oh my god, Keith, says a voice in his head that sounds a bit like Lance. that flower is smoking. we gotta get it to quit before it gets lung cancer)

Keith snorts. He ducks his head, shifting to fold his arms over his knees and tuck his chin against his arms. He kind of wishes Lance were with him; he isn’t ready to return to the party yet, but he wants company.

The door at the other end of the garden opens. Keith lifts his head and watches with astonishment as Lance enters; can he read minds, somehow?

“Hi,” Lance whispers, and Keith is overcome again with just how fucking much he likes him, because he’s fucking whispering, because he feels it too, feels the spell of this space, the need to be gentle in it. “Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you—”

(you never bother me, Keith’s mind says)

(he’s holding something, says another part—the nosy part, the part that realizes a second later that it’s—)

“Is that ice cream?” Keith asks.

Lance is already halfway across the room, but at Keith’s question he stops. He looks otherworldly here, the gold from the sculpture casting light and shadow over his blue clothes, his brown skin.

“Yes,” he says, after a pause that’s a split second too long. He starts walking again, comes up the steps. “They brought it out right after you left, and they’re about to clear it away for tea, so I saved you some. I thought I’d bring it to you now so it won’t melt before you come back.”

He holds out the bowl to Keith, a bit awkwardly. Keith takes it. It’s two scoops of chocolate, with a spoon stuck in one of the scoops.

“They had a bunch of different kinds,” Lance tells him. He sounds uncertain. “I didn’t know if you’d want to try something new or whatever, but you always get chocolate stuff, so—”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. He’s still standing. Keith looks up at him and pats the stone step.

The uncertainty on Lance’s face vanishes. He sits down to Keith’s right, stretching his legs out along the next couple steps. Keith watches the line of him unfold, watches how he adjusts the scarf so it won’t trail in the dirt and flowers to his right, watches how he leans back on his palms. He’s rolled up his sleeves to his elbows, and it’s embarrassing how caught Keith is by that fact, but there is—something—something in wearing disheveled dress clothes and sitting on stone steps in a quiet dark garden, with golden light before them and leafy branches above them and the sound of rainwater echoing in their heads.

Lance looks up at the transparent roof, silent as Keith eats his ice cream. It’s a comfortable silence, the silence of someone who understands that silence is not bad. Keith finishes his ice cream and sets the bowl on the bottom step.

“Good?”

Keith nods. Lance smiles, then goes back to watching the rain through the roof. Keith pretends to be looking at a flower to his right, but really he looks at Lance: at his profile, at the swoop of his nose and the curve of his cheek and the line of his jaw, the color of it made different in the dark—different and not different at the same time, because it’s still Lance, Lance’s features that are so familiar and so dear to him.

(tell him, his mind whispers)

He looks at Lance, looks at the empty bowl of ice cream. He thinks of the letter in his pocket, and nervousness shoots through him all of a sudden, nervousness so fierce that he thinks he might pass out. But he breathes through it, and he reaches into his pocket, and he pulls out the folded letter, the paper warm and worn.

“I have something for you,” Keith says, holding it out to him.

Lance blinks down at it.

“I wrote it—for you,” Keith stammers, unnecessarily. “Over the past few days.”

Lance shifts, pulling his legs in to sit up straight. He takes the letter, turns it over a couple times in his hands without unfolding it.

“Should I read it now?”

(no, Keith’s mind whispers, panicked, no, do it later, where I can’t see you—)

(yes, says another part, loud and longing, yes, yes, I need to see your face, I need to see every expression, every reaction—)

“You decide,” Keith says aloud.

Lance glances at him, at the letter. He turns it over a final time, then, quick, as if he’s worried he’ll stop if he doesn’t do it fast enough, he unfolds it, tilting it so he can see Keith’s writing better, helped by the light from the sculpture and the moon peeking through the clouds above.

(here we go, Keith’s mind says, and for once both sides are in agreement. no turning back now)

.^.

(his heart is in his throat)

Hi Lance.

(and his stomach is jumping)

I have to tell you something

(and his palms are sweating)

The first thing you should know

(and he can’t tell where Lance is, and he doesn’t know if his blank face is purposeful or not)

The second thing you should know

(and Lance is so still, and Keith worries if it’s too much, because surely—surely it’s too much—surely it’s ridiculous to feel like this, like loving Lance is somehow bigger than himself)

The third thing you should know

(and why isn’t he saying anything, why isn’t he moving)

The fourth thing you should know

(and he’s so still, and he’s just staring at the page, and Keith thinks he will explode if he sits here any longer, waiting waiting waiting)

Hugging you feels like home.

.^.

(waiting waiting waiting, waiting for Lance to say something, do something—)

“It’s too much,” Keith blurts. All the certainty of when he wrote it is gone; he feels desperate, clinging to something that he has no right to cling to. “I know it’s too much, I’m sorry, but I—”

He doesn’t even know how he wants to finish his sentence, but he knows he has to apologize, because these feelings are—too much—too big and too fierce and too much, and Lance will be frightened by it, will look at Keith and realized that being loved by Keith is being loved by someone who has never loved anyone like this before, and never will love anyone like this again, and will give every drop of his love, a whole lifetime’s worth, to one person.

It’s too much. Surely it is too much. It is too much, and Keith must apologize, but then—

—Lance looks up—

—looks up, and meets Keith’s gaze—

—and Keith’s stomach lurches, not with nerves, but with—something—

—with something, because he’s looking right into Lance’s eyes, and he is stunned by what he sees there, stunned by the bright and the brown and the glitter of unshed tears—

—and it is so quiet here, so quiet and so dark, the rain rushing overhead and the room blue and black and pale gold, and Lance scoots forward, mindful not to crumple the letter, and suddenly he’s so—close—so close Keith feels like he can’t breathe, so close he thinks Lance must be able to hear his heart beating, thud thud thudding as he looks at Lance’s eyes and Lance’s freckles and Lance’s—mouth—

—Lance’s mouth, and Keith’s stomach flutters, feels like it might flip out of his body— —and he never knew anticipation could be a feeling, never knew it could be something so tangible, never knew it could wind him up, strung all over his skin like someone’s brushing their fingers along it—like he can feel his want, feel its heat and its longing in the ends of his fingers and the tips of his toes and the pit of his stomach and the center of his chest—because he wants, he wants so badly he feels like he will melt, will sink into the stone floor, will sink into Lance’s arms, until he forgets where his body stops and Lance’s begins—

Lance’s voice is low, and deep, and so breathless Keith can’t believe it, because he made him sound like this, like he’s aching, like he might fall apart if Keith says no.

“Can I kiss you?” he whispers.

(he might fall apart if Keith says no, but Keith doesn’t know if he should say yes, because he wants to, he wants to more than anything, but he’s never kissed anyone, and he doesn’t want to fuck it up)

(he might fall apart if Keith says no, but he’s still Lance, still the sweetest kindest person Keith has ever met, so he doesn’t look upset when Keith continues to stare at him, not at all, not like Keith has to feel guilty at all)

Lance looks away, starts to draw back, but Keith reaches out and clutches at his scarf.

Lance stills. He looks at Keith again, and the force of his gaze is enough to make Keith’s heart trip.

“I—” Keith’s voice rasps; he can hear the nervousness in it, but he doesn’t try to hide it, because this is Lance, and Lance won’t laugh at him, not for this. “I’ve never kissed anyone before.”

The corner of Lance’s lips lift up, something that’s half a smile and half an invitation, and Keith—tips forward—and holds his breath—and closes his eyes—and presses his lips to Lance’s, a soft smek, soft and so quick that it is over before it even begins.

(it is bad. objectively it is bad. his nose squashes Lance’s nose, and he closes his eyes too soon, and he’s off center, and he ends up kissing half of Lance’s upper lip)

(objectively it is bad, but subjectively it is—so much—subjectively it makes Keith’s breath catch, makes his stomach swoop, makes his heart thud, makes his lips buzz)

He opens his eyes and pulls away, flushed.

“Was that bad?” he whispers, and it means that was bad, wasn’t it?

Lance’s hand slides around to cup Keith’s neck. He leans forward, touches his nose to Keith’s, closes his eyes.

“That,” he says, low and giddy and honest, “was perfect.”

“Oh,” is all Keith can say, because then Lance’s arm wraps around him, and he’s—kissing him—angling his jaw so their noses aren’t in the way—and Keith presses closer, clutches at Lance’s scarf with both hands, tries to mimic the way Lance’s mouth is moving, tries to keep his head from spinning—because it feels like he might fly apart, like he’s unable to bear so much happiness at once, unable to bear the warmth and the softness of Lance’s mouth on his, of the way Lance kisses him, like the secret of how their lips slot together is for them and them only.

He’s laughing a little, laughing into Keith’s mouth, and the feel of it is so—so—that Keith is almost embarrassed by it, heat blooming through him, spreading up his neck.

Lance pulls away, though he stays close enough that his lips brush Keith’s when he speaks.

“You taste like ice cream,” he murmurs, and it’s not that funny but Keith laughs too, laughs because he is here, in this quiet dark garden, under a rainy night sky—he is here, holding Lance and held by Lance and kissing Lance, and that should be impossible, yet—it isn’t.

It isn’t, and he feels overwhelmed again, so he lets go of Lance’s scarf, and slides his arms around Lance, and hugs him, tight, hiding his face in Lance’s neck.

Lance returns the hug just as tightly, tucking his chin on Keith’s shoulder. They sit like that for a moment, and then Lance says, too shy for someone who just kissed Keith—like that—says, “Can you say it out loud?”

Keith opens his mouth, closes it.

“If you can’t, it’s okay,” Lance adds. “I just want to hear it.”

(it’s scarier out loud, more immediate, makes him feel the physical effort of saying it, the effort of the words forming in his mind and traveling up his throat and shaping in his mouth)

(but this mind is loved by Lance, and his throat is cupped by Lance’s hand, and this mouth knows what it feels like to have Lance’s mouth covering it, so Keith can be brave)

He closes his eyes; it’ll be easier this way.

“I like you,” he says quietly, and he knows Lance can feel his lips moving against his neck, “I really like you, I—I love”—he exhales hard—“you—”

He breaks off. His face is burning. He opens his eyes, and lifts his head, and Lance is—beaming—his eyes crinkly at the corners—and Keith has to work to focus on what he’s saying, because hugging Lance and kissing Lance and looking right into Lance’s smile is so many impossible things at once.

“I like you,” he says, “I really like you” he says, “I love you,” he says, and then he kisses Keith again, and Keith’s brain melts into a pleasant fuzziness, and for a long while everything is soft, and warm, and content.

.^.

(kissing Lance feels like flying)

(it feels like soaring through sunrises and sunsets, like spinning around asteroids and battle ships until he’s giddy with adrenaline)

(it feels like the knowable and the unknowable all at once, like stability and anticipation, like he’s jumping off a cliff but knows for a fact that he will land, safe, and loved, and home)

(safe, and loved, and home, and he will do everything in his power to ensure that Lance feels the same, that Lance feels like he can go round the universe, can go through hell, can face anything, and know that Keith has his back, that Keith will be there for him, that Keith loves him, that Keith is as much his home as Lance is Keith’s home)

.^.

Sometime—eventually—they leave the garden.

“Everyone’s gonna wonder where we are,” Lance mumbles into his mouth.

Keith does not understand why this matters. It’s hard to understand why anything matters when Lance’s mouth is so hot and soft and sweet on his.

He pulls away, but instead of answering, he just takes a breath and goes back to kiss Lance again.

“No,” Lance says, laughing into the kiss once more. “Hey, really”—he breaks off, his eyes fluttering closed, and makes a soft mm sound that makes Keith shiver—“really, we should head back.”

He breaks the kiss, his hands sliding around to hold Keith’s shoulders. Keith blinks at him, too dazed to protest.

“We at least gotta return the bowl,” Lance says.

Keith have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about, but Lance is letting go of him, so he just nods and goes along with it. Lance folds the letter—oh, Keith thinks stupidly, oh it was right there this whole time, in his lap—and carefully puts in the pocket of his sherwani, then picks up the empty ice cream bowl.

“Oh, that bowl,” Keith says aloud, then flushes when Lance snickers.

They get to their feet and head down the steps toward the door. As they walk, Keith reaches out and slips his hand into Lance’s.

Lance looks at their entwined hands, then at him, and oh he’s smiling, and his eyes are sparkling, crinkling at the corners, and Keith wants to kiss him again—

But he doesn’t, because now that he’s not kissing Lance he can think more clearly, and he recognizes the need to be polite.

(he feels so—peculiar. warm all over, flushed, his skin buzzing. he’d be embarrassed by it, if it weren’t for the fact that Lance looks no better; his lips are swollen, his hair even more rumpled than before, his scarf wrinkled from how tightly Keith was holding onto it)

They walk back to the party hall. Keith doesn’t want to go in, unwilling to break the spell of quiet from the past hour, so Lance leaves him briefly to return the bowl before coming back.

“Everyone’s gonna turn in soon, but Coran said to wait outside our rooms,” he says, sliding his hand back in Keith’s. “He knows we’re tired, but we should make a decision on our route from here onward, so we can get an early start tomorrow.”

Keith nods. They walk back to their rooms in comfortable silence; they pass by a few Chandinians, and Keith wonders if he should let go of Lance’s hand, but instead he just squeezes it tighter.

They wait outside Lance’s room. Keith leans with his back to the door; Lance stands a little in front of him, close enough that they can still hold hands without stretching their arms.

“My room has two beds,” he informs Keith. “I think they got confused about how many people would be in it.” He sounds shy once more, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand. “If you want you can sleep here,” he adds, “if we just shove the beds together,” and it’s shy but it’s also—uncertain—like he doesn’t know if he’s asking too much.

“I’d like that,” Keith says.

Lance brightens. He comes closer, presses Keith against the door, kisses him slow, gentle, like it’s the only thing he ever wants to do—and Keith’s free hand grips Lance’s shoulder, and he sighs—

Footsteps echo from around the corner of the hallway. Keith breaks the kiss—holding hands in front of other people is one thing, kissing in front of them is quite another—and Lance takes a step back, dropping Keith’s hand.

Shiro and Pom Pom are a few feet away from them, looking equally suspicious.

“Hi,” Keith croaks, and fuck there’s no hiding it, not when Lance looks like—that—not when Keith’s own expression must incriminate him, red lips and flushed face and hair loosening from its braid.

Shiro walks forward, looking between the two of them with an stern expression. Then he grins, very suddenly, and ruffles Keith’s hair.

“You’re ruining my braid,” Keith grumbles, ducking out from under it.

“It’s already ruined,” Shiro counters cheerfully. “Though I can see why you’d prefer it get ruined the other way.”

Keith and Lance redden in unison.

“I won’t make fun of you—” Shiro says

“Thank you,” Keith interjects.

“—too much,” Shiro finishes, with a shit-eating grin. “I have to do it a little bit. It’s part of my duties as a big brother.”

“I hate you,” Keith says.

“I love you too,” Shiro says, still cheerful. He glances at Lance. “Take care of each other. You’re both good kids.”

“You sound like a grandpa,” Keith says.

Lance snorts. Pom Pom knocks their head against his leg, so he crouches to pet them. Keith is relieved that as least someone won’t tease them.

The others arrive within a few minutes. Allura and Romelle have swapped dupattas and stand with their arms linked as Coran pulls up a holographic map with two routes plotted on it.

“As you know, we’re about a third of the way to earth,” he says. “We have two options from here: this way”—he indicates the line—“which is five quintants longer, but allows us to stop more often. Or this”—he points to the other line—“which means more time on the space-road sleeping in our lions, but we get to earth five quintants faster.”

“I vote the second one,” Lance says immediately.

The others all agree. Coran presses a button and the map vanishes.

“This route will take us just under two phoebs,” he says. “The next time your friends from earth call, we can let them know.”

“That’ll be tomorrow,” Shiro says.

Everyone blinks at him.

“That’s when Adam said he’d call,” he explains sheepishly.

Keith elbows him. Shiro elbows him back, then ruffles his hair again for good measure.

“Then we’re all set,” Coran says, ignoring their antics. “We’ll leave right after breakfast. It’ll be a long stretch in the lions—four quintants—so be sure to get a good night’s sleep.”

Everyone splits up to head to their rooms. Keith goes to his room to get his sleeping clothes and his toothbrush. Shiro is only a couple doors down from Lance; as Keith walks back, he sees Shiro fumble with the key as Pom Pom headbutts the door in an effort to open it. After a few seconds, however, they get tired of waiting and disappear with a poof, presumably teleporting directly into the room.

“Hey!” Shiro shouts, though it’s more of a laugh. Keith can hear thuds from within the room; Pom Pom is probably headbutting the door from the other side now.

“It sucks we can’t use that,” Lance remarks, as he opens the door to his room. He looks over his shoulder at Keith as they go in. “It’d be nice if you could just teleport to me while we’re traveling. But I guess our lions wouldn’t like that.”

Keith thinks of Black rumbling Fool, of their ability to know what Shiro is thinking, of Shiro’s odd guardedness when it comes to the lion.

“Maybe,” he says. He makes a mental note to interrogate Black about this sometime soon.

They get ready in relative silence. Keith goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth, but before he can shut the door, Lance slips in, toothbrush in hand.

“We’ll do it together,” he announces.

(like standing in front of the same sink with someone you love while you both brush your teeth)

Keith’s smile feels too big for his face.

“Okay,” he says.

.^.

(it doesn’t feel that different)

(it’s different and not different at the same time, different in the way that Lance looks different in the dark, when features familiar to Keith are strange, but the same)

(he and Lance talk like they did before, and joke like they did before, and share a room like they did before)

(but it’s different, because now Keith doesn’t think I wish you were mine, but you are mine; now Keith doesn’t think I wish I could kiss you, but I can kiss you whenever I want; now Keith doesn’t think I wish I could stay with you, but I know I will stay with you)

(everything is the same, but Keith has traded longing for security, has traded want for stability, and he would not change this, not for anything)

.^.

(Red says congratulations¸ Black rumbles, as Keith changes into his pajamas. Their voice is faint, given how far the parking hangar is, but clear enough for Keith is hear them. He can tell how happy Leandro is)

(And what do you say? Keith asks. No congratulations?)

(I say congratulations, Black replies, to Red and to myself, for putting up with your foolishness for so long)

(they don’t speak after that, but there is a satisfied tinge to their words, proud and glad, and Keith knows they feel more than they say)

.^.

A few minutes later find Keith and Lance staring down the beds, neither of which are big enough for two people, and which are separated by a small but inconvenient nightstand.

“There’s nothing for it,” Lance says finally. “We’re gonna have to move it.” He bows his head. “Rest in peace, tiny nightstand.”

“We’re not killing it,” Keith says, amused. “We’re just moving it.”

“From its home!” Lance says, outraged. “We’re colonizing its space.”

Keith rolls his eyes and moves around the bed toward the nightstand. He pulls it out enough to get behind it, then together he and Lance move it to the opposite wall before returning to their respective beds.

“First one to get his bed to the center wins!” Lance declares. “One-two-three-GO!”

They each push on their beds, but—nothing happens. Keith frowns and pushes against the bedframe with all his strength, but still nothing gives.

“I got this, babe,” Lance says, and a little jolt runs through Keith, because babe, that’s a new one.

“Okay,” he replies, “love,” and Lance makes a weird noise, like a strangled cat, before clearing his throat, and—

Laughter bursts out of Keith, short and startled. “What are you doing?”

“Warm up,” Lance says, flexing both his arms in turn. He rolls the sleeves of his Pocket Monster t-shirt up to his shoulders, then flexes again, kissing his bicep. “Gotta get these guns in shape before I move these beds.”

Keith snorts. Lance rolls down his sleeves, rubs his palms together, then crouches and pushes at his bedframe.

Nothing happens.

“Wow,” Keith says dryly, crossing his arms. “You’re a regular bodybuilder.”

Lance looks at him indignantly. “It’s not my fault,” he argues. “This bed is stubborn.”

“Sure,” Keith says.

Lance stands up with a huff. “I guess we’ll just have to sleep separately,” he says, and he covers his disappointment with his theatrics, but Keith—knows.

Keith knows, and he wants him to be happy, but he also has to think for a second, because the bed is—really small—which means he would have no space at all, would be squished with Lance for the whole night—and he’s done it before, but doing it by design is much scarier than doing it by accident.

But it’s Lance, so Keith says, “We can still share.”

(much scarier, but oh the way his eyes light up—)

Lance collapses onto his bed, tosses the covers over himself, and holds out his arms. Keith shakes his head, chuckling, then turns off the light and slides under the covers. Lance’s arms wrap around him immediately.

“Is this okay?” he asks. He looks different again, in the darkened room, with the light of two moons streaming in through the window. “Tell me if something is too much.”

“I’m okay,” Keith whispers. The bed is even smaller now that they’re in it; if he rolls out of Lance’s arms, he’ll tumble right off it. It’s a bit overwhelming to be so warm and so close to Lance, but the longer he lies here, the more he grows at ease with it.

He turns onto his side to face him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

For a long moment they just stare at each other, then:

“Are we boyfriends?” Lance whispers.

“Yes,” Keith says without hesitation, then, more unsurely, “I mean—only if you want to be.”

Lance’s smile is big, crinkly-eyed. “I do.”

Another pause. Keith can hear the rain, still beating down on the windowpanes. It’s peaceful, listening to the rain and looking at someone who loves it so much.

“Thank you,” Lance says next, “for your letter.”

(you don’t need to thank me, he wants to say)

(it’s only a fraction of what you deserve, he wants to say)

(I’ll write you a hundred more, he wants to say, I’ll write you one every day for as long you like)

(kiss him, his mind whispers, and he decides it has the best idea for now)

Kissing him here is different from kissing him in the garden; it’s softer, closer, arms around each other and chests pressed together and legs tangling beneath the blankets. Lance pulls away after only a few seconds, but before Keith can protest he presses a kiss to the corner of Keith’s mouth, his cheek, the tip of his Galra mark—

(oh)

—trails kisses along the mark, hot and soft and wet, his nose dragging along Keith’s skin—

(oh)

—follows the line of it, kisses past the curve, presses his lips to Keith’s throat, kisses

“Ah,” Keith says, stupidly, and he is—going to melt—right into this mattress—

Lance stills. “Too much?” he asks, and Keith can feel the words, mouthed into his neck, and he doesn’t quite want to say no, because it feels so—so—but he doesn’t quite want to say yes, either, because this is still so new—

But in the end it doesn’t matter, because Lance just says, “That’s okay, baby,” and blows a raspberry in Keith’s neck.

Keith snorts with laughter. Lance lifts his head and grins at him, eyes glinting in the dark, then lowers his head and blows another raspberry in his neck.

“Lance—” Keith laughs again, his belly shaking.

Lance blows a third raspberry in his neck. Keith wriggles, trying to escape him, though it’s hard with Lance’s arms so tight around him and the bed so small, and there is no escape.

Unless—

Keith stops moving. Lance lifts his head again, taken aback by the change.

“Are you okay?” he asks, concerned, and then—

“HA!”

Keith tackles him backwards, pinning him to the bed. He hovers over him for a second, smirking at Lance’s wide eyes, then leans down and—

“Noooo!” Lance cries, shaking with laughter as Keith blows raspberries in his neck. “Noo, I’m ticklish, please—”

Keith takes pity on him after the third raspberry. He moves to lie beside Lance, tucking himself close to him. Lance moves onto his side to put his arm around him again.

“Now we’re even,” Keith says.

“Consider me sufficiently humbled,” Lance says solemnly.

Keith huffs. For a long minute they’re both quiet. Keith’s stomach aches, though in a good way, the light ache of talking and laughing too much. He noses at Lance’s neck, wonders what he would do if Keith kissed it.

“I can’t believe we still have almost two months,” Lance says at length.

Keith curls his fingers in the front of Lance’s t-shirt. “It’ll go by quick.”

“I hope so.” Lance sighs into Keith’s hair. “But it’s so long. I just want to be home already. This part of the trip has felt like forever, and it’s only been a little over a month. How am I gonna get through the rest of this?”

“Me,” Keith says, right away.

“Well, someone’s cocky,” Lance says dryly.

“I’m serious,” Keith says. He traces a finger along Lance’s collarbone, still contemplating kissing his neck. “I’ll help you get through it. That’s what friends are for.”

“Friends?”

Fuck it, he should go for it. He presses his lips to Lance’s neck, lingering.

“Boyfriends too,” he says against his skin.

Lance inhales, sharp. His arms tighten around Keith.

“I love you,” Lance whispers.

(he’s still hiding, still isn’t able to look at Lance as he replies. one day he will, but for now he knows this is enough)

“I—love you too,” Keith says.

(he’ll practice it, practice it until he can say it without stammering, until he can look Lance in the eyes as he speaks. he’ll say it every day, until it’s no longer a secret whisper into Lance’s neck, but something loud, and strong, and proud, there for everyone to see)

“We should sleep,” Lance says next. “We have to leave in a few hours.”

Keith agrees, so he shifts a little away from Lance to let him roll onto his back. Lance holds out an arm, and Keith curls in the space within it, tucking his head against Lance’s shoulder.

“Your arm’s gonna be numb when you wake up,” Keith warns

“Alas,” Lance says, with a long-suffering air, “tis the price I must pay for love.”

Keith snorts. He puts his hand on Lance’s chest; like this he can feel his heartbeat, strong and steady.

“Good night,” Keith says.

“Good night,” Lance replies, his eyes falling shut.

A few minutes pass. Lance’s breathing evens and slows. Keith watches him, unwilling to close his eyes and lose the sight before him.

I just want to be home already.

Keith wants to be home too. He wants to see his old shack, Adam’s apartment, his dad’s grave. He wants to see constellations he recognizes, eat all his favorite foods, know for a fact that he and the ones he loves are safe.

For a long time this felt—impossible. Like he would be stuck in space forever, like battle and exhaustion and uncertainty would be a part of him forever, like another ten thousand years could pass and nothing would change.

But now—now, he thinks he can see the end, can see the light at the end of the long starry tunnel of space, can see this ending with everyone safe, and happy, and at peace.

(safe, and happy, and at peace, and—home—though Keith isn’t too worried about that last part, because in a way he is already home, here, in Lance’s arms; can go home whenever he likes, just by hugging this boy who he loves so much, and who loves him in turn)

There is still so much left. An empire to defeat and planets to free and earth to visit, a castle ship to rebuild and an Altean colony to rescue and a whole team of people—a family—that Keith wants to protect along the way. But the thought of this no longer exhausts Keith, no longer intimidates him. Instead it fills him up, fills him with determination and drive and love, so much love, because so long as they stick together, they can get through anything.

(and isn’t that what Voltron’s all about, his mind says, the part that actually listens to Shiro’s dad speeches. walking through hell, and coming out unscathed, because your bonds are stronger than anything any villain could ever possibly understand)

Keith smiles. He kisses Lance’s shoulder, over the t-shirt, then curls closer—curls closer to him, to this boy, to his home—then closes his eyes.

Tomorrow will come. Tomorrow will come, and so will the next day, and so will the day after that, throwing good and bad and everything in between at him. Tomorrow will come, and Keith—

Keith is ready for it.