Lance has been in Red for almost two weeks now.
Living in their lions hasn’t been the best experience of his time in space. Lance misses the castle, which is very weird for him, because he spent most of his time there missing Earth. He misses his too-hard bed and his gaming system, being able to walk for hours and never make a complete circle. Even the worst of Coran’s cooking is preferable to the probably 10,000 year old protein bars that come stocked in every Lion and taste like packed dirt.
But there are benefits to all this odd time though, partially isolated from one another with only the coms to connect them. Lance feels his head clearing from the furious fight-survive-panic-fight of the last few months and can actually think for the first time in a long while. Since before Keith left for his crazy ass assassins creed rip off at least.
Which is when he most needed to be thinking, he knows now.
The first time he sees Keith after the Castle falls is in a video com with Pidge. There are more pilots than Lions and he, Allura and Keith have agreed to taking turns between flying and hitching rides with the other paladins. Shiro hadn’t said anything during that conversation, so it’s assumed he’ll be in the Black Lion exclusively, Coran with him. Lance understands why the closet thing they have to a doctor isn’t ready to leave Shiro alone quite yet. When Shiro does talk his coms are quiet, and always slightly tired. They never contain orders. Pidge just pilots them home with directions everyone except she and Hunk only vaguely understand, and they drift in Space toward Earth untethered from what had once been their best authority, after Allura.
Lance worries over that. He rolls it over every night he lays down to sleep and realizes nothing has changed every time. It’s not getting better. No one says anything yet, but it’s obvious. And when they reach Earth Shiro can’t just hand Voltron over to Keith again.
He never should have forced him into in the first place, he thinks darkly, and then shakes himself out of it. That mistake already came and went. Nothing to do but move on from it now.
Lance reorients himself and tries to stay in the moment. Pidge starts going off on the video com about a potential Phantasm Killbot sim for the Lions, the Red Paladin squished in the seat with her. Pidge clearly dragged him in the chair with her and he waves at Lance shyly while she talks, not bothering to try to interrupt her mid-idea. Lance grins at him and mouths “You good?”
Keith, God bless him, actually smiles and nods. He’s come so far from shrugging at Lance anytime he made a gesture at him or tried to talk across the room. Look at him. He understands social cues now. I could cry.
He takes Keith in in parts: the dark circles under his eyes, the sweep of his hair on his forehead. The scar. Lance can’t look at his whole face right now or he’ll lose his shit. They had been so panicked leaving the Castle that there was no time to really look at anyone, just checked that they were all alive before hurtling into space. He hadn’t realized it wasn’t just a cut.
Pidge talks until Keith wanders to the back of Green and falls asleep with Pidge’s headphones on. Lance can only see him as a lump under what must be three blankets, but can hear him snoring very softly.
“Does that bother you?” He asks, and hopes she says yes a little bit. Let me take him , he thinks. Give him here .
“Nah,” Pidge responds, scratching at her neck. “I uh. I like it. It lets me know he’s there.” Her face pinches suddenly, and she looks so viscerally sad Lance wants to reach out and hold her like a child, rock her to sleep like he did his younger sister when she cried out to him from her crib. Gwendola is barely younger than Pidge as it is.
“Lance,” She says quietly, barely breathing it out. “Keith can’t- we can’t make him lead. Not again.”
Lance swallows under her gaze. He already knew that.
Pidge is on another roll, and he lets her talk through all the pain that’s obvious in her voice. “He sleeps like the dead but I know he has nightmares,” she gushes, barely stopping to breathe. “He can barely look at his own bayard, he keeps it in the lockbox in the wall! And - and I know he’s in pain, I know he isn’t okay yet. He’s getting better but he hated being the Black Paladin, and Shiro has checked the fuck out. I know he fucking died but-”
“Pidge.” Lance interrupts her and lets her breath raggedly into the com for a moment. He wants to tell her that everyone already knows this and is too afraid to say it, or suspects it and she’s the only one smart enough to articulate it. He wants to say they should have never let Shiro make a snap decision on this huge of a responsibility in the first place. He never owned Black or who had the right to pilot her.
“Do you trust me?” He says instead.
Pidge nods immediately. Lance feels stronger in his resolve for that, even though she still looks miserable.
“Then I’m gonna take care of it,” he says calmly. “Everything is going to be alright. Just get us home and I’ll take care of the rest. Okay?”
Pidge nods again. “Lance,” she croaks. “Lance. Shiro gave him that scar.”
Lance feels the controls creak under his hands when they clench. He swears Red howls for him into the nothingness around them.
“What.” He says. He hears his own voice distantly. It sounds dangerously even.
“He gave him that scar,” Pidge repeats shakily. Lance can feel that his eyes are blown wide but he can’t even move to blink them. “On his face. He- Shiro, when he was nuts. Keith had to cut his arm off to stop him from killing him.”
Lance is reeling so hard he might puke. He thought that they might’ve fought, or Keith had fought Lotor even, but this? Never this.
Pidge is openly crying now. “He - he had to tell Allura finally, last night, and I couldn’t not listen.” She’s taking in little gasps of air to stave off sobbing. “I couldn’t stop listening. He almost killed him.”
Lance is still staring at the screen. “I-” he starts. He doesn’t even know what he would say if he could get it out. “I-”
“I can’t ever follow him again.” Pidge says it with more anger than he thought she could muster right now. “Not after this, after him flipping out all the time before. I know it wasn’t really Shiro but it- He looks - I can’t-”
“Pidge!” Lance feels his throat tighten and knot up. “Just.” He sighs out something ragged and tries desperately to breath evenly. “I meant what I said. Everything will be okay. I’m gonna fix this. Just trust me to fix this.”
He barely registers it when Pidge nods. “You should sleep,” He says dully. He can’t drag up anything else to comfort her even if he wants to. “Put Green on auto. I’ve got your six.”
Lance crumples into his seat as soon as her sign off pings in his coms. Almost killed him , he thinks in Pidge’s voice, and then his own, over and over again. Almost killed him, almost killed him. Lance can’t even imagine it until he does, imagines Keith lying dead on some cold floor, and the last thing he ever saw was Shiro’s hand coming down on him. Imagines no one to snark at, to strive after, no pale hands on a red sword that always protected him, no black hair getting in violet eyes, a hole blown clear through the universe because no more Keith-
Here’s the thing: Lance knew he might not make it back to Earth, even before Voltron. The nature of his dream, racing a fighter pilot across the stars, always meant he might go somewhere in the universe he would never return from. He had accepted this, had written the just-in-case letters to his Mama and all his siblings and Hunk when he was promoted. Had snuck into the town outside the Garrison and paid too much money for a tattoo of a Rosary around his neck, so that he could beg forgiveness for himself if he died alone.
His Mama was so mad when she saw it, but when she was done yelling she prayed the Rosary over his chest. “ Te amo.” She said, and looked like she might cry. She cried a lot. Even before his father left them and his sisters. “ Regresa a casa conmigo.”
Lance raises his fingers to his chest and touches the ink of the third bead. “ Dios te salve, Maria,” he says quietly, and pictures Keith’s face. Who would have prayed for him, if he had laid truly dying under Shiro’s hand, face cleaved to pieces? “ Llena eres de gracia: El Seńor es contigo.” How could Shiro possibly lead them now that he had died and come back, and all but broken his brother on the floor? How could Keith lead them when he had never even wanted to to begin? “ Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.” Lance’s other hands tightened around the controls. They should never have let that happen. They had all been so caught up in themselves and Shiro’s disappearance that they couldn’t see Keith breaking apart, trying to be their leader, trying not to crack under the pressure until he had done just that. “Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, pecadores,” They should’ve- he should’ve said “No, no clearly not, this is not working.” But no one was looking so they didn’t see, until Keith was running to the Blade as much in search of answers as he was trying to save his own sanity. He knew Keith was having a hard time, why didn’t he do something? “ahora y en la hora de nuestra muer- nuestra muert- mu-”
Lance can’t get the word out. Ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Almost killed him. He can’t go on. Not like this. None of them can.
Lance was never made to fall perfectly in line, especially not under unsteady leadership. His dreams always had him at the helm, and maybe they were more right than he knew he wanted.
This team is his family. This is his house, where his name and heart will live even after he dies. His father left and he took that man’s house and held it up when his Mama couldn’t bear it alone, and held her up until she let him go to fly into the blackness of space and chase adventure and glory. This is his house and he knocked on the door of it, built it from Blue’s cockpit to here, held it up when Shiro was dissolving in front of them and Allura was manipulated by Lotor and Keith was just trying to keep his head above water.
Lance is Maria Luisa Sanchez’s eldest son, and he is going to take his house in hand.
They land for the first time since they started flying toward Earth on a tiny, green planet just outside an asteroid belt. It’s so small the Galra never bothered to take it, and Allura can’t even remember it’s name. There’s a town with a large open air market in the middle of miles and miles of forest, and Hunk weeps openly at the idea of landing somewhere he can buy shampoo and pillows.
Coran coms in to tell them he’s having Shiro set them down on a planet about 1 quintant away. “Katri-El’s very mountainous, so the terrain leaves much to be desired, but it has excellent healing springs!” he chirps happily. “It’s an all lads mountain cave getaway!” Only Allura and Hunk laugh at Shiro groaning in the background.
Lance volunteers to stay behind with all the Lions. He tells everyone he’s worried they’ll get jacked, but in all honesty he wants to be alone a while longer. Everything is about to change, after all.
The little clearing they found to land in smells fresh, trees around it blooming with small berries and white flowers that smell like juniper and oleander. He can clearly see the sky, a shocking close to Earth blue, but not quite. Lance lays himself down with his head hanging out of Red’s mouth to stare at the two sunned sky and tries to parse through everything he needs to work through in his head in the next couple of hours.
The main problem they’ve had, Lance had privately thought before but now is certain is just true, is that Keith and Shiro were not the type of leaders who delegated emotional labor well. Shiro used to work himself until he passed out, and tried to smother all his raging PTSD in his duties as the Black Paladin. Lance watched him go and go and go until he physically dropped most of the time, until he figured Shiro was only doing that to avoid thinking about- well, everything. Which he wouldn’t have needed to do if Shiro had just talked to someone.
Keith was different, even if he kind of had the same problem. Lance knew he would have talked to him, if they had had just a little more time, if Lance would have just looked just a little closer and saw how quickly Keith was falling apart. Keith wanted to talk, he just couldn’t let anyone in. Lance had slowly chipped at his walls when he was leading, put his hand on his shoulder like Shiro used to and just let him lean, tried to let him know Lance was there for him. They were getting so close right before Keith flipped out and literally jumped ship.
He’s mature enough now, after everything that’s happened in the last year and some change, to admit he wanted desperately to be close in the first place. And still wants that now.
So. Lance has decided to lay here and get his emotional shit in order before even thinking about knocking on the Black Lion’s door. No use repeating old mistakes.
Lance lays his feelings on the floor of his mind like he’s folding laundry, sorting stray socks and tucking shirts neatly into squares. Everything has a match and a place; he just has to find them. His insecurity still thrums in him, kicks up jealousy and fear and anxiety with it, but now he’s learned to balm it with memories of his own competence. Battles won, orders given and followed, Blue and Red humming praises in his mind. How proud his Mama will be that he’s making it home at all. How Allura looks to him in strategy meetings now, waiting for his opinion. How Keith assured him he would always have a place on their team.
Allura and Keith. Lance rolls that around in his mind. He did like Allura, he knows he did, and still likes her but- differently. He respects her and wants to hang out with her and would knock Lotor’s teeth out for her, but it’s not romantic anymore. Something changed between one night and the next, or had slipped away from him so slowly he hadn’t even noticed, but by the time they set out towards Earth his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Well. Something being Keith, if he’s going to be honest with himself.
Lance closes his eyes against the wave of emotion that rolls up in his chest. It was always Keith. Even when Lance hated him, really hated him because his jealousy and terror of being left behind were eating him up inside, it was him. Lance wanted Keith’s eyes and attention on him and him alone and never bothered to look closer at why that was so important, until it was almost too late. Lance used to daydream about one upping Keith, having to pull him from some wreckage into Lance’s waiting arms. Now he knows he just wanted to save Keith.
Lance still wants to save Keith. He still wants to pull him against his chest and make Keith lay his burdens down for once, whatever has been weighing on him for all the years they’ve known each other, and just let Lance fucking love him. Someone has got to fucking love that kid, and Lance wants to. He was almost there, they were both almost there before Keith left, and it stings to think that one missed step threw them so far backwards.
When Keith left for the Blade, Lance didn’t ask him to stay. He hadn’t thought Keith would want him to, that Keith would go and be happy and then come back with answers and they would all feel better. He never really thought Keith would be gone very long.
The memory of Keith’s face when he left comes bubbling back up, pale and shaky and fragile as glass. Lance could crack under the weight of it. He was so sure Keith might have wanted him too then, was so ready to reach out and ask him, but fear had left it’s dirty handprint on his heart and he never did. Lance watched him walk away and thought Of course, I would never be good enough anyway. I have to wait until I’m better.
He was wrong about that. It still felt selfish to think, but he pushed that down and let himself believe otherwise. Lance was always good enough. If he had believed that before all this it would have done both he and everyone else, not just Keith, a world of good.
I love him , he thought. It felt strange and giddy and stomach turning all at once. He had never admitted that before, even when he first stepped out of Keith’s room the day he tried to leave and realized how many oceans deep he was gone on him. I want him. There isn’t any shame in that.
Lance feels a soft breeze run over him. The suns are getting lower above him, and the air is still softly warm and fragrant. He tries to blink his eyes open for a few seconds before deciding it’s probably safe to lay here half asleep for a while.
Everything will be alright , he thinks to himself,. I’m gonna fix this. I have a team behind me and we can fix this.
“Padre nuestro,” He murmurs, hand to his chest’s first ink bead next to the black cross, just to hear the words and have the comfort of their sound. “que estas en el cielo...”
Lance sits up from where he was half dozing in Red’s mouth when he hears Allura and Pidge come back, Hunk trailing not far after them. They’re each laden down with shopping bags and sucking on bright yellow lollipops that Hunk swears are caffeinated when he tosses Lance a grocery sack full.
“Allura’s so keyed up,” He fake-whispers to Lance conspiratorially, dark eyes bright and face pinched. Lance feels a swell of happiness because oh my god, everyone’s actually emotionally recovering from that Lotor bullshit and grins back at him. “Let her fly Blue tonight man, she’s gonna drive everyone nuts otherwise.” Hunk pauses in thought, and the blood drains from his face. “We can never let her try coffee.”
“No problem,” Lance says. “Tell her I left the keys in the ignition.”
Pidge swoops in on his candy the moment they fly off, stuffing three suckers in pockets that seem to materialize from nowhere on her new dress. She looks like she wants to edge towards Green, but stays rooted to her spot facing the forest line, and Lance realizes she’s waiting for Keith.
“Go on,” Lance says to Pidge unprompted. “I’ll take Keith when he gets back.” No I don’t mind to wait , or if you want tacked on at the end. It’s practically an order. She blinks at him in surprise, but goes without saying anything but a cautious “Okay.”
Lance wants to grin into his hand after, but restrains himself. He’s not doing this for fun or glory. And Pidge is smart enough to have guessed what he’s up to just from that interaction.
But she listened, because she wanted to listen, and he’ll take that for all it was worth. His team just needs a leader who wants to lead.
He stays low in the mouth of Red for another half an hour, laid on his back counting strange twilight stars until Keith emerges from the forest. Lance looks at him and realizes Keith must have been trying on clothes all this time; he’s wearing an outfit that almost could be from earth, a black hoodie over black leggings and something that could be sneakers if they weren’t leather on the bottom instead of thick rubber.
Keith steps into Red’s mouth and holds out a hand to pull Lance up, and when he grasps it Lance feels how soft the hoodie is, because it’s too big and Keith didn’t cuff the sleeves. Keith took time he never, ever says he has to pick out something soft and warm to curl up in the first chance he got. He looks smaller and paler and more himself than he has in months. If there was ever a sign of a crack in his defenses, its right here.
Lance has been waiting for this.
“I’ll take the first shift piloting,” Lance says. He doesn’t need to ask if Keith’s ready to go. Now that they’re practically flush to each other, he can see dark circles still under his eyes. He looks better, but still exhausted.
Keith just blinks at him for a second. “You’re taller than me,” he says suddenly, eyes wide. “Oh my god. You’re already taller than me again. What the fuck.”
Lance looks down and- well, realizes he has to look down to meet Keith’s eyes. It can’t be more than half an inch of difference, but it’s there.
“Huh.” Lance hasn’t pulled his hand away yet, and uses it stretch their arms out against each other. Keith’s goes completely straight out where Lance is still slightly bent at the elbow. When the hell did that happen? He can’t deny this feels better than it should. “I guess I’m glad I’m number 2 again.”
Keith’s mouth works hard to keep it in for all of half a second before he busts out laughing for what feels like the first time in years. Lance grins back helplessly. He knew Keith liked bad jokes deep down. Keith full on snorts before he’s finished. “I’m so glad things are back to normal,” Keith blurts out between laughs, like he couldn’t stop himself.
Lance quirks an eyebrow. “You liked being a short stack?” He says it with a mean smirk. He feels impossibly young, teasing Keith about his height, eyes crossing when he sees faint freckles across his nose.
Keith shrugs, still grinning with red in the apples of his cheeks, his one dimple out in full force. “Just feels right.” He hasn’t made to untangle their fingers yet either.
Lance squeezes them once. “Good.” He knows this is a gamble, so soon, but he thinks his cards are finally in order. “Things aren’t normal unless you’re here, anyway.” He turns and heads for the entrance before he can look too long at Keith’s wide eyes and say something he really couldn’t handle.
Lance doesn’t let go of his hand until he’s practically dragged Keith all the way into Red, pulls him to sit on his arm rest and lets himself be warmed by Keith’s body pressed into his shoulder when they break the atmosphere.
“Keith,” he calls from the pilot’s seat. They’ve been flying at a low speed for a few hours, not wanting to draw attention by going too fast in an attempt to catch up with the group. It’s probably best to keep everyone at a distance anyway. “I’m gonna set her on cruise control for a while. This system is clear for almost 5 vargas. Let’s eat that weird candy for dinner!” Better to get rid of it before Allura finds out he has it. She jammed up the coms with chatter that even Lance couldn’t keep up with for almost three hours - Keith and Pidge were the first to either mute their coms, or evacuate the area entirely in Keith’s case- before crashing spectacularly.
Lance looks over his shoulder when Keith doesn’t respond for a long minute, and pauses. Keith is sitting with his back to him on Lance’s makeshift bed, more a nest of blankets and pillows on top of a thick camping mat he snagged out of the Castle’s enormous storage facilities. Lance had refused to let him sleep on the old, thin sleeping bag he brought: it had seen better days, and looked like it was ready to be put down. Keith has the things he must have bought today spread out around him, and Pidge’s headphones snug over his ears. Lance takes inventory of what he can see: a new backpack, little bottles that must be shampoo or conditioner, pads and tampons.
Keith must sense he’s being watched, because he turns to peer over his shoulder at Lance. He had been looking at himself in a small mirror in his right hand, Lance realized. It must have been how he caught him staring. It was a silver plated circle barely the size of Keith’s hand, clearly newly made. It reflected the scar on Keith’s face perfectly.
Lance felt all of last night’s desperate anger rush back. Almost killed him. It was different to see it on Keith face when he was laughing in the sun earlier. Here in the grey of Red’s inside, reflected in the flat stark circle of the mirror, there’s nothing to soften the blow on Lance’s heart. It stretches far enough up Keith’s pale cheek it could have blinded him in that eye entirely. The base is close enough to have slashed his throat if it had gone down instead of outward.
Lance doesn’t even realize he’s up and walking until he’s standing at the foot of the bed. Keith is watching him like he knows Lance is going to say something about the scar, because he runs his fingers over it nervously, like he’s trying to cover it.
Like he’s ashamed to have it.
Lance has to take in a deep breath, and tries to relax. He can’t run out of Red and give Shiro one to match, even if that’s exactly what he wants to do. That’s not who he is, and he would regret it later. Even if Shiro stopped being his hero a long time ago, he’s still Lance’s friend. And he didn’t do this to Keith on purpose.
But Keith already knows that. He knows more than anyone how deeply Haggar influenced whatever exactly happened. That knowledge is keeping Keith from dealing with it: something fucking terrible happened to him, and he’s never going to heal if he keeps telling himself It’s not Shiro’s fault. Something with Shiro’s face nearly took his life and he’s allowed to acknowledge that. He’s allowed to be angry, or sad, or afraid.
Keith is afraid. Lance can see it glinting in his eyes, right in front of him. He can see it in the tremble of his fingers against the scar. Lance can’t stand to see that every day for the rest of their lives, won’t let Keith live like that. They have to deal with this.
“Did Shiro give you that scar?” Lance asks. He keeps his voice calm. Everything about him is as still and easy as he can make it, leaning against the wall of the Red Lion like they’re having a normal conversation.
The mirror drops onto the blankets without a sound. Keith is staring at him, wide eyed and mouth pressed tightly to keep in the answer Lance already knows.
“Did Shiro,” Lance repeats slowly, testing each syllable in his mouth. “give you that scar?”
Keith’s face cracks open, and Lance is sorry for it, but this needed to be done. He looked like he was going to break into a million pieces for the last two weeks, and if he doesn’t now Keith will fall apart like he did before: silently. Keith will implode on himself until he has to seek refuge away from anyone who could help him and this time Lance thinks it would really kill him, kill the both of them.
“He didn’t mean-” Keith stops himself to suck in a breath. “It wasn’t-”
“Yeah, absolutely not.” Lance interjects. His voice make no room for argument. “Absolutely not. You are not to make excuses for him. Tell me the truth.”
This is it. This is the end of the line, and Voltron will never be the same. Lance will never be anyone’s second again and he lets himself mourn for the last little bit of his youth that was held up by that, by the bare thread of a line between one responsibility and another. He has to do this. He will never forgive himself if he doesn’t.
“Yes,” Keith says lowly, like Lance knew he would, closing his eyes and letting tears fall onto his cheeks. He looks like an angel painted on an altar, mourning Christ, or the body of a saint broken in some unique and disturbing way. “He did.”
Lance shoves off the wall immediately. “Oh, baby.” He says softly, dropping to sit on the bed next to him. Keith starts to put his hands up when Lance pulls him toward himself, so they end trapped between their chests with Keith bracketed by his legs. Lance settles with his back to the wall and both arms wrapped around Keith, and only tightens his hands when Keith pushes at him. “No,” Keith says weakly, like he’s already been crying for hours. “Lance, please, no, I can’t.” If Keith wanted to get away from Lance, he would have broken him across the floor by now. He just doesn’t think he deserves anyone’s comfort, embarrassed by his tears, feeling judged for being weak. It took Lance a long time to figure that out.
“It’s alright,” he says softly, right into Keith’s ear. His left thumb is rubbing little circles into Keith’s waist, and the other hands slinks through Keith’s hair to draw his face into the crook of Lance’s neck. Keith collapses into him, warm and solid. “You’re safe. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you.” Lance doesn’t want to make promises he can’t keep, that the war won’t let him keep, but then Keith buries his face into Lance and sobs . “I’ll keep you safe.” He’s talking as much to himself as Keith, who is shaking with the force of his crying in Lance’s arms. “I’ve got you baby, I’ll keep you safe. You’re safe here with me.”
Lance doesn’t even know how long he sits there, shushing Keith with gentle words while he rides out everything the last two weeks have done to him. Lance thinks he probably hasn’t had one moment alone to really process this, let alone cry it all out, between reviving Shiro and fleeing the Castle and trying to not let Pidge watch him fall apart in her Lion. He knew Keith needed this but God, it hurts to watch, and it hurts more to think he kept it in for so long.
Keith’s sobs peter out eventually, and he lays slumped against Lance, taking in slow breaths. Lance slides his hand to Keith’s jaw and tilts his head up so they can look at each other. “Baby,” he murmurs again. He thinks Keith must like it, from the way his eyes go wide, even when he’s obviously so drained. Lance has been privately calling him that for a while, and let it slip out by accident when Keith started to cry. He hadn’t even realized he said it at first, but now he can’t stop. It’s been like this since the first time Keith looked at him, breathless from training, smiling wide and uninhibited after they won a team exercise against Pidge and Hunk and Lance thought, proudly: That’s my baby.
Lance presses a kiss under each of his eyes, tastes the salt from his tears, and feels Keith’s fingers clench into his shirt when he trails them down his scar. It’s just as soft as the rest of his skin, softer even, only just healed. He cups that cheek and hovers his mouth over Keith’s own, lets his eyes go half lidded while taking in Keith’s flushed face, eyes red rimmed and tired. He looks vulnerable and wilted and beautiful as ever.
“I’m not gonna let anything happen to you,” he repeats, voice lower than the first time. Lance is making Keith a solemn oath, not trying to reassure him in a moment of fragility. This is real. Damn the war and damn Haggar and what she made Shiro do, and whatever those things have in store for their future. He needs to know it’s real. “You’re always gonna be safe with me.”
Keith is the one who leans in and presses their lips together, and Lance cradles him impossibly closer. He slots his mouth over Keith’s firmly, let’s himself get lost in it’s soft heat when Keith gasps quietly and lets Lance’s tongue slip inside. Their noses bump and they both probably have bruises from where they were holding on to each other for dear life, but it’s the most wonderful thing in the universe. This is the singularity, the origin of the big bang, this is where stars are born. It’s right in the bare inch of space where Keith pulls back to breath “I love you” right into Lance’s mouth, staring into Lance’s eyes like they’re the only wish he wanted to come true.
Lance surges up and knocks them both clean over. Keith and his impulses. As if he could be anything but brave and truthful for Lance, say exactly what Lance wants to hear. “I love you,” he says back, pressed down onto Keith in the little bed he made, in the Lion they shared, the life they barely got to live but lived together anyway. “I love you,” he repeats into Keith’s mouth, swallows the one he gets back, and then another. “I love you” kissed into the skin of Keith’s pale throat, written in red and purple bruises that have Keith arching under him. “I love you” raked into Lance’s back, red lines that he knows will be there tomorrow even with his shirt on now.
“I love you,” Keith murmurs, barely a whisper, carding his fingers through Lance’s hair. They’re too tired and emotionally drained to do more than make out, and now Lance is half asleep with his ear pressed to Keith’s heart. “I love you, Lance. I’m gonna keep you safe too.”
Lance raises his head. “I know, baby. You always did.”
They drift off like that, legs tangled and Lance gazing up at him from his place on his chest, Keith’s heart singing him to sleep.
Lance leaves Keith asleep in Red once they land on Katri-El. He covers him in his brown jacket, tucked carefully around the blanket and hood pulled over Keith’s one exposed ear because the wind off the mountains is biting and will blow in once he opens Red’s mouth. He spares one moment to brush Keith’s hair off his face, and then lightly trace the scar it covered, from under his jaw to where it nearly blinded him in his left eye.
He’s going to do it when Keith wakes up, too. No more wasting time wondering, or being silenced by insecurity. He remembers how Keith clung to him last night and feels warmed from it all over again, how he let Lance kiss his face softly like Lance always wanted to deep down, and stands taller for it. Last night won’t be shoved away for fear it’s too gentle a feeling to survive. Keith loves him and Lance is going to hold onto that with both hands.
This is going to work. Lance is going to save his family, both of them. He takes this moment and tries to stuff all his selfish desire into it, so none of it corrupts his bond with Black and he can walk to her with a clean heart. He’s going to fly off this planet the Black Paladin and when he comes back to Earth his Mama will cry about how strong he is, how beautiful his lover is, how well he’s done. He’ll have Keith on his arm, the Paladins and the Princess and so many planets and peoples at his back, and everyone will be ashamed to look at him and know they had doubted.
Lance takes one stride after another in the cold morning and walks toward the cave.
Lance doesn’t say anything when he finds Shiro. He doesn’t have to: Shiro heard him walk in and all the tension dropped from his shoulders, bending his meditation pose into a droop. He sighs so deeply it must take all the air in his lungs.
“Go on,” Shiro says, and he might sound bitter if you didn’t know him. “You don’t have to ask me.”
Lance pauses. Shiro is still his commanding officer, somehow, even here. Even after everything, even under the little thrum of hate he has in heart for Shiro, after the chidings and the humiliation and Keith’s face. Lance wouldn’t listen to him if he said no, but.
“Lance,” Shiro says. He sounds annoyed, like Lance was thinking too loudly. “I’m tired. I’m really tired.” His voice softens and he speaks into his chest, like its a secret between them. “I just want to go home.”
Lance feels something tremble in him, but it doesn’t give. “I’ll take you home.” He says. It feels true. Lance can make it true. “We’re all gonna get home, Shiro.”
Lance can’t bear to look at him again, and he turns on his heel to leave. He’s holding his breath the whole way.
Black opens for him at the first touch of his hand.
Everything looks just like the other Lions inside, but it feels different. It’s like hurtling into a high atmosphere for the first time: frantic and acrid and powerful all at once. Something so volatile it has to be contained in this metal monster rather than be free.
You remember me, he thinks, taking his seat . The controls are cold and feel under used, even if that’s an irrational thought. You remember letting me in. I failed once. I won’t do it again.
Black shifts under his hands, controls warming to his touch, energy flowering around him like the wind ruffling his hair. She’s almost there.
You remember me, he thinks with more purpose. I was the first paladin of the last 10,000 years. I opened the door for all of this. Lance breathes out slowly and presses into his seat, digs his elbows into the arms so he can drive the controls forward, and lets himself think something he used to only mutter in jealousy with all the confidence he’s bled to earn:
I was always meant for this.
Black roars so loudly the mountains shake, and she flies.