When Keith wakes, Krolia and Kolivan are already gone. He had been surprised to see them, given the ceaselessness of their work, even now. Still they had time for him. The people with time for him were once so few; now it’s hard to avoid them.
Yet there is an absence, something unfinished in his chest. A knot that won’t resolve. A stone he can’t quite swallow down. He’s thankful for the peace of an empty room, but the jitters in his skin can’t be soothed. He steps into white waffle-textured slippers, a bleach-softened sheet pulled tight around his shoulders.
Near the cafeteria, Lance’s voice precedes him.
Through the plastic windows in the paired swinging doors is the back of Lance’s broad shoulders; tired in hospital garb, less full of bluster than usual. Sitting with him, at an adjacent edge of the tiny square table, is Allura, smiling.
Keith doesn’t go in.
His adrenaline spikes; his pulse is little assuaged when Shiro appears in his periphery.
“No, not really. Just. . . .”
The compulsion to lie is a maelstrom in his gut, wordless and twisting and crushing. But his grasp on the truth is too feeble to know what the lie even is. A shiver rakes up his spine, chilling him in his cotton cloak.
Shiro says, “You should tell him.”
“. . . What?”
“Come on, Keith. This is me you’re talking to.”
He has no means of articulating the battle inside him, but Shiro seems to know what he’s talking about. So who is Keith to argue with him? Still the compulsion is the same—no, no, no, no.
“I . . . I can’t.”
Within, Allura touches his arm, and he leans to one side, folding forward; she’s grinning, teasing, trying to catch his gaze.
He’s so happy.
“And what about you?”
“Was that out loud?”
Shiro frowns in pity.
It’s hard to hold the concept in his head, that he’s not alone out here. That the first person with time for him can see Keith more clearly than he can see himself. Among all the things warring within him, it’s just not important enough to maintain. He’s just too weak to hide.
Shiro nods. “It matters to me.”
Keith’s gaze is already back on the little window, scuffed and cloudy but just clear enough.
Something about that cafeteria makes the whole world freeze, silent and unreal around him. What else is there but this? The room is magnetic, as if everything there is in the universe that he missed, everything he worked toward and fought for and lived for, is on the other side of that door.
Who’m I gonna make fun of.
Where are you going.
You ran away.
“I’ve . . . done some things. Said things.”
“. . . Mean things.”
Shiro shrugs. “So make it right.”
“What, like it’s that easy?”
“No, not easy. But it is that simple.”
“But it’s not even up to me, whether we. . . .”
“Not entirely. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
The knot in Keith’s chest hardens.
Shiro says, “You never know exactly—how little time you have.”
Shit. Keith hasn’t yet once asked how Shiro is doing. There’s no way he can go on taking hit after hit, loss after loss, caring for everyone but himself. It’s admirable how he can wrestle the demons that he does, but how long can he keep it up?
“Shiro . . . I’m so sorry.”
“No, no, that’s not what I’m looking for.”
“We just have to keep moving, right? That’s what it means to be part of something. I’ll admit, it’s a lot of pressure, to have people depend on you, even—even when you’re hurting. But you have so many more people to depend on in return. You don’t have to carry it alone.”
Then why are you?
Shiro sighs. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“You just don’t want this to be about you, right now,” he says, so acerbic that it turns to shame on the back of his tongue.
“Keith, listen to me.”
His stomach drops. The tone is gentle, full of a brotherly empathy that Keith struggles to match even after years of contemplative solitude. It sends a shock through his skin, commands him into paralysis. He listens.
“It’s good that he’s happy. And it’s nice that you’re concerned about that. But there is more than one way to be happy. Maybe . . . he should know that he has a choice.”
“Live fast, Keith. It’s what you do anyway, so be reckless. Go tough. But look out for yourself while you do. Make the best of each moment, don’t waste them making it wrong. Make it right.”
“What if . . . it only makes things worse?”
“Then at least you’ve given yourself the chance. Right now—we finally have a little time to breathe. You’re right that it’s not all up to you, but right now you have the chance to focus on putting forth your own half of the effort. And whatever happens—live your life from there. Live it from the actions you have taken. Not from the opportunities you’ve lost.”
Keith drops by his room late in the evening, after visiting hours have ended. Not that the staff would’ve scolded a paladin’s family for sticking around. But it’s empty of the giggles of his siblings’ kids; the teasing from his sister, heavy with adoration; the breathless chatter of his mother that goes by so fast it trips into tears every so often. He must’ve actually sent them home.
It’s funny—as much as he loves and desires all the people around him, there’s something about Lance that seems to crave the sadness of solitude.
Keith hates that.
He blinks away the ruckus of Lance’s family, finding only a dim hospital room in their place.
Lance is sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed, bright blue yarn in his fingers. “Check it out, they brought me knitting needles.”
Keith sits on the edge, maybe two feet away. Not too close. But not distant.
“Wish I had a cable needle though. . . . Oh! I bet there’s a stick in the flowers, like a little card holder? That might be small enough.”
It seems to hit him then that this is not just any visitor but Keith specifically, and that he has no clue what the hell Lance is talking about. His lips press together, concealing a tired smile.
“It’s just been so long,” he says. “Actually I can’t believe how much I remember. Like riding a bike, you know?” His eyes are soft, a bit embarrassed to have been caught in his own head. But not truly ashamed. Never ashamed. “I was just so excited to try it again.”
But he is tucking the things away into a canvas tote, patterned with tiny sheep—where do they even find this stuff?—and the needles inside make a warm wooden clack as he places it on the floor.
“So like . . . how are you holding up, buddy?”
Emotion chokes in his throat in an instant. It’s like a betrayal somehow, despite the fact that he walked in with no actual idea what he’d even intended to do. It’s just that any room Lance is in is magnetic. He just has to go.
And he has tried. Keith has done everything in his power to keep the walls up, to sequester himself where he’s free to move as he pleases. Just keep away.
“It feels like . . . I’m missing my chance.”
But maybe it was all half-hearted. Because every time the team forced a fissure in his walls, every moment the two of them were contrasted, every second that fate dictated they must work together—there was a quiet thing in him.
“You’ve listened to me,” Lance says. One brow is upturned, his mouth a subtle frown. To look at him only tightens the chokehold on Keith’s throat. “So I mean . . . I want to listen to you too.”
“It just seems like. . . .”
Then there’s nothing. There are no words for this, because it’s just empty. There is nothing. He is nothing.
“You can tell me.”
“Like you’ve been getting closer to Allura.”
It’s surprised, but not teasing, when Lance says, “But you’re not interested in her. Are you?”
No longer fearing the grip on his throat, he focuses hard on Lance’s eyes.
The sheer force of the eye contact seems to unnerve him. “Uhh. Okay.”
Keith can’t even be sure Lance is following the logic strings. Honestly that would make two of them.
Maybe that’s the problem. Keith just says things. Doesn’t give them their due consideration, doesn’t allow the time to sense how it might alter the course of a relationship. It’s so strongly overridden by his need to deny, avoid, disavow.
“So what’s—what are you missing out on?”
“Okay look, first . . . what I said at that—game show thing—”
“No, it was a weird thing we all went through. I get it, man.”
“You . . . don’t.”
“I mean sure, it was kinda cold, but I know you didn’t really mean it.”
“Uhh . . . yeah. Sure.” Lance has rarely looked more unsure than he does now.
“What I did was . . . selfish.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well—I thought, if only one of us could go. . . . I mean, if we’re meant to lead a charm offensive, we’re obviously not choosing me. So I thought that . . . maybe you might have the best shot at leading a new team of paladins.”
He doesn’t know when Lance’s mouth had angled into a smile, but it looks sad. Like if they waited long enough, pink would blossom around his eyes like a kiss of sun. Like it hurts him, and more than that he doesn’t want to let Keith down.
“The black lion didn’t want me.”
“That’s not the point, the point is . . . the truth is.” Good god, is there truth? “I just didn’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Makes sense, if you thought—even, you know, misguided—if you thought I could fly black—”
“You’re not. Hearing me.”
“Okay, well. . . .” He shrugs. Gently he says, “Say it again.”
Keith forces a breath into his lungs. “I wanted you to be okay.”
“So . . . I’m still not hearing the part where that’s selfish. You wanted to protect the team, and the right hand—”
“You.” He steals Lance’s gaze again and it hurts, meeting polished blue eyes wild and full of confusion, trying to convey what he can’t put into words. “I wanted you to be okay.”
“. . . To lead the Voltron coalition?”
“Yeah . . . ?”
Is it simply Keith’s lacking communication skills? Or Lance’s brain, unwilling as it is to accept that he is valued?
“I’m really bad at expressing myself, okay?”
“It’s—fine. Like, take your time.” He nods, more an assurance to himself than to Keith. “I’m trying to listen, really.”
“Out of everyone I could’ve chosen, you’re the one I most didn’t want to see hurt. Not because you’re a great leader. Well—you are, but—that was how I rationalized it. I didn’t want to see you hurt. I wanted you to be okay.”
“You just . . . wanted to protect me?”
“Finally we are getting somewhere.”
“Okay, so . . . why?”
“Because I—care about you.”
Lance shakes his head. “Of course. You care about all of us—”
He grits his teeth, “You are so frustrating, yes, I care about all of you, but you, Lance, you are the one I chose. I did it for me, I chose you for me.”
“What do—for you . . . ?”
“That’s why it was selfish. I care about you more than any of the others. All of them. Not just because of your place on the team.”
“To be fair, Shiro wasn’t there.”
“So what. I’d still have chosen you.”
“Literally the only thing you have said is that you picked me. Yeah. Got that. So what else—”
“I did it because I love you.”
It’s palpable, the cavity that forms in both their chests.
“. . . What?”
Keith can barely hear over the sound of the watershed pouring sense into his excavated ribs. It feels good.
“And I wanted to protect you. I wanted you to live.”
His skin prickles as it washes over him, the relief of water, the torture of boiling. It’s impossible to unwind one from the other.
The mattress groans as he stands. “That’s all I wanted to say.”
His heart is too claustrophobic to be in that room any longer, arrested in its magnetism. He’s already out the door.