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eternity (was in our lips and our eyes)

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• It was never supposed to happen like this. •

 


 

 

"Lance, who got your vote?"

"I voted for Keith. He's our leader, plus he's half-Galra, so, I think he's like, the future."

 

 

"Did you mean it? Did you mean what you said?"

 

 

"Keith, the leader, who d'you think deserves to make it outta here, huh?"

"Lance? Why Lance?"

"I just don't wanna be stuck here for eternity with Lance."

 

 

"Every word."

 


 

• But, what if it was? •

 


 

 

The first thing that Lance remembers when he wakes up, is thinking that it hurts. 

Which, admittedly, is pretty vague, though somehow simultaneously all-encompassing and perfectly capable of summing up how he feels right now. He could make a list of what 'it' includes, if he really wanted to. Maybe general things like his pride, his self-esteem, his feelings—his head, currently, from thinking too much and too hard about anything and everything—or, more specifically:

'It' (his heart, maybe?) hurts, when he believes in everyone, but no one believes in him.

No one's ever bothered to take him seriously. No reason for them to start now.  

So it hurts, but at this point? He's used to it. If there's one thing he's mastered amongst all the chaos of the ongoing intergalactic space war and establishing a peace coalition and piloting one fifth of an incredibly overpowered super-sized robot, it's smiling through the pain. Apparently, that's his thing now. But even the best have bad days. 

Lance switched off his communications line hours ago, not long after the five paladins had woken up from their mutual dream (illusion? hallucination? Coran tried to explain the entire ordeal, but most of it went over Lance's head—he'd been too distracted to listen, anyway) and spent a solid chunk of time complaining about Bob's hero-testing techniques. And sure, whatever, it was fine, fun even for a while, until he realized how conveniently everyone seemed to gloss over the fact that Lance had spent the majority of the dream show threatened by certain doom and being called dumb by a bunch of tasteless aliens. The closest they ever got to mentioning it was when Keith called Bob a jerk, and that was positively rich coming from him. Lance dropped out of the conversation soon after that comment because he didn't trust himself to bite back the stinging words that suddenly seemed to be clawing at his throat.

Keith's got some nerve talking like that after what he said. 

Lance has never felt quite so resentful. And he hates it. Hates the way it sits in his gut, churning and bubbling and curling like a three-headed snake through his ribcage until the pressure in his chest is enough to make his head hurt, which only makes sense because his head is attached to his heart, but that still doesn't make it any less appalling. It's really not a good look on him.

But he doesn't hate Keith, or his teammates; he doesn't. He loves every single one of them with everything he has, so much sometimes that it hurts—the irony is sick—he just hates the way they treat him like he's nothing. Especially Keith. Who, frankly, seems to be intentionally going out of his way to make sure that's exactly how Lance feels. That's who it all keeps coming back to: Keith.

Lance is trying not to let the entirety of his brain capacity be taken up by Keith's words, which he knows he shouldn't take to heart, but how can he not? The two of them have hardly spoken properly since Keith's return. From Keith's perspective, he was literally gone for two years, plus however long since he left Voltron to work full-time with the Blade of Marmora—and all he has to say about Lance when he comes back is that he'd rather be trapped for eternity in some twisted game show than spend that eternity with him? Is Lance's presence really that repulsive to him? He'd already made that clear enough by leaving the team in the first place. At the very least, he could say it to Lance's face.

Not only that, but how many times does he have to be called 'dumb' by some pretentious alien Steve Harvey wanna-be game show host before someone on his team complains? Not one of them stood up for him, which leads Lance to believe that they all agree. He's just, the 'beautiful dum-dum'. Nothing else. Just the pretty poster boy for Team Voltron.

So, excuse him if he's not exactly keen to talk to any of his teammates right now. And excuse him if he can't help but feel just a twinge of bitterness when he sees the blinking light on his dash indicating that he's receiving an incoming call from the Blue Lion's private line. He thinks he's earned the right to sulk in peace. Approximately zero percent of him has even the slightest desire to answer—and the only reason he does is because, well, this is the princess calling, so. It'd be rude not to. That, and ignoring the call would only guarantee that someone would notice his sour mood. Assuming anyone noticed at all. 

He only patches her through on the audio line, which he realizes in hindsight was a poor decision. That alone made it pretty obvious that he was agitated. "Yeah."

There are a few seconds of confused silence on the other end before Allura's tentative voice comes through. "Lance?"

"That's my name," Lance says a bit dryly, trying his best to force down the rest of the sarcastic words that want to follow and failing miserably. "Or were you calling for Kaltenecker?"

"What? No, I—" She falters, and the pang of guilt that shoots through Lance only amplifies his irritation. If anyone should be feeling guilty, it's her and the rest of the paladins. Not him. Trusting the Red Lion to guide itself, Lance crosses his arms and slumps down in his seat as Allura takes a steady breath. "I noticed that you turned your comms off."

Very observant, Lance thinks, his own internal voice dripping with sarcasm. "Did you need something?" He means to be polite, but the intention falls short and comes off somewhere more between blunt and impatient.

There's a bit of uncomfortable shuffling. "I simply wanted to see how you're doing."

"I'm fine. Great. Just peachy." He knows he's being too curt. Too harsh. He knows this. Yet he can't seem to stop himself. "Why?" 

"You've been—" She hesitates. "—uncharacteristically quiet since our encounter with Bob."

Lance almost laughs at the unfairness of it all, only just managing to stifle it into an incredulous snort. "Oh, my bad. I guess I thought you guys would appreciate it, seeing as apparently everything that comes out of my mouth is dumb, anyway."

"What?"

And now he really can't stop. It's like that one comment finally added enough fuel to the fire that is the pent-up righteous anger boiling in his throat—the indignation that's been sitting there, festering, for hours, days, weeks—to make it all come spilling out, burning and sputtering and scorching on his own tongue. "I mean, I guess you guys are bored now, right? Run out of things to make fun of since I stopped contributing to the conversation? So sorry for the inconvenience, I'm sure it's been a hard couple of hours without your principal source of entertainment to humor you."

 "Lance—" Allura sounds flustered.

"Maybe check back in a bit and I'll have a nice stand-up act ready for you guys," Lance continues dryly. "Some real comedy gold. That's plenty of time for everyone to make some popcorn, or whatever the Altean equivalent might be." He reaches for the flight controls again, if only to stop his hands from shaking, gripping the thrusters until his knuckles turn white. "Or maybe there is no such thing as Altean popcorn. I guess I wouldn't know, considering I'm the dumb one. Which is apparently the only title I've ever managed to earn on this team, or the only one that's ever stuck. So go on, hang up and then you can keep talking with everyone else about how completely and utterly useless I am."

Allura is deadly silent on the other end of the line, which in a sick way is satisfying, yet equally as terrifying when Lance realizes exactly what he's done. A mix of horror and dread slowly begins to creep up his spine as the quiet drags on, exaggerated by the mental echoes of his sudden outburst. He swears under his breath and runs a hand through his hair. 

"Allura, I'm—" He exhales defeatedly, backtracks. "Allura, I'm sorry. That was—I'm really sorry. That was totally uncalled for—" 

"Switch to video." Under any other circumstances, Lance might have teased her for being so brazen, maybe pestered her about using the 'magic word'. But the way she speaks is so small, so soft, so dangerously quiet that she could have just given orders to eject himself into space and he would still obey.

He slowly moves to press the corresponding button on his dash, squinting slightly against the sudden glare from the screen that appears in front of him, then lowers his gaze to the ground. "Sorry," he mumbles again, a little sheepishly.

Lance has never blown up like this—especially not at someone like Allura. He doesn't think he's ever even argued with her, period. At first it was because, okay, maybe he had a massive crush on her at one point that, as a general rule, compelled him to agree emphatically with everything she said. But who could blame him? She's beautiful, and talented, and intelligent and a princess, although sometimes she behaves very distinctly un-princess and more epic space warrior-esque. But even after those initial romantic feelings passed, replaced by something more akin to awe and admiration, he had way too much respect for her to ever consider defying her in any way. After all, Allura has really always been Voltron's true leader. The team wouldn't have lasted even a day in the beginning without her guidance. Even when her advice turned out to be wrong, it somehow also turned out to be right. Long story short, Allura doesn't only deserve the team's respect, but she's rightfully earned it. That's the bottom line. End of story. 

Allura still doesn't respond for another few seconds, the silence stretching on long enough to become uncomfortable. Lance closes his eyes, takes a breath, and steels himself for a stern lecture that never comes. "Oh, Lance..."

Lance's head snaps up at the tremor in her voice, and all of the previous anger and bitterness melts away the instant he sees her face, closed fist pressed to her mouth and water pooling in her wide eyes. "Wait, are you—Allura, please don't cry. I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"

"I knew when you disconnected that something must be wrong." She lets out a shaky sigh and Lance wants to grab it out of the air and shove it back in her mouth. "And I knew it must have something to do with what just happened. I haven't stopped thinking about how I acted toward you at the beginning—"

"Allura—" Lance begins, but she puts her hand up in a warning gesture that makes his words die in his throat.

"Lance, please. Don't apologize again." She draws her hand to her chest and takes a deep breath. All Lance can do is sink slowly back into his chair and wait for her to continue. "You're right. The way Bob treated you—" She pauses, brow furrowing. "The way we treated you was completely unwarranted. Of course, we were in a bit of a high-stakes situation and I'm sure we were all frightened, but the team and I should have stood up for you. The truth is—I think the rest of us were quietly relieved that we ourselves weren't put on the pedestal. But that's no excuse for our behavior, and I'm not trying to make this about me or anyone else." She sniffs, then sits up straighter as she looks straight at Lance. "You have nothing to be sorry for. If anyone deserves an apology, it's you. So, Lance, I'm sorry. For making you feel like you're not of great value to this team."

Lance stares at her for a moment in a stunned silence, letting her apology echo around in his mind and slowly begin to erode the grudge he feels he's been holding onto for too long. He presses his lips into a tight line, and then sighs, deflating. "You're making it really hard to be mad at you right now." 

She lets out a quiet huff of laughter, shoulders slumping as she quickly wipes at a tear that slipped down her cheek. "I'm... sorry?"

"Don't be," Lance offers a small smile. "Sorry I made you cry. And I'm still sorry for lashing out like that. Wasn't very mature of me."

Allura drops her hands into her lap and looks down at them. "I suppose it was long overdue. We've been under so much stress lately, it's been easy to become a bit self-absorbed. I understand if you still have more to say."

Lance pauses, chewing on his lip. Of course he could say more, if he wanted to. But laying it all on Allura seems unfair, especially right after she took the time to call and check up on him, after acknowledging his feelings and apologizing for playing a part in their development. Even though he's been fuming about it for hours, he doesn't want all the potential guilt to fall on her. Allura looks up in concern when he doesn't immediately respond. 

"Lance?"

Something bursts, and then everything comes flooding out. "It's just—that game show was a total bust! It was already enough that everyone kept yelling at me during Keith pictionary, or whatever—" Allura winces slightly at the mention of it. "—but then that stupid Zarkon fake had to go and choose me to play solo because I'm the dumb one? Since when! I know I've never been as smart as—as Hunk or Pidge, but—no one even argued with him, and like—then Bob just kept calling me dumb and stuff, and normally I wouldn't care because I don't even know him and he doesn't even know me, so why should I care what he thinks? But then no one else said anything about it so at some point I just—it felt like maybe it was true. Feels like it's true, because you guys all seemed to agree with him. And then at the end when he made each of us choose one person to escape, everyone was saying such nice things about each other until it got to Keith—"

He cuts himself off, but understanding dawns in Allura's eyes and they soften. "I see." 

Lance leans back and crosses his arms, glaring down at his feet. "It's whatever. I don't care."

"Clearly you do," Allura says gently. He hears her shuffle a bit before continuing. "Lance, I'm sure what Keith said was hurtful. But," Lance spares a peek up at the screen where Allura sits thoughtfully, her brow creased. "I don't think he meant it that way."

Lance frowns. "How else would he mean it?" Allura looks at him for a few seconds longer, and then her eyes fall. Lance sighs, a faint feeling of disappointment settling in the pit of his stomach despite remaining unsurprised by the lack of an alternate explanation. "Exactly."

Another few moments of silence pass by, the only sound that of their respective Lions humming with energy, and the occasional huff or moo from Kaltenecker moving restlessly about behind Lance. His eyes trace the faint lines separating color and shadow on the metal floor, flicking back down every time they reach the controls in front of him. When Allura speaks again, her voice is so soft that he has to look back up at her to make sure the sound is actually coming from her.

"Do you remember when I first assigned the Lions to you and the other paladins?"

Lance lets out an amused, disbelieving huff. He remembers that moment like it was only yesterday. The details of it come to mind readily: a clear vision of the dark castle room illuminated by an unreal projection of glowing stars and planets and constellations. He remembers Allura standing before them, delicate fingers weaving across the artificial sky as she carefully located and described each Lion. And, he remembers feeling scared, but eager, the rush of adrenaline from flying Blue still running its course through his system despite how long they'd been grounded. He'll never forget that. That was the moment that everything really changed.

"Yeah," he responds finally, subdued. "You told us what each of the Lions looked for in their pilot."  

Allura's mouth quirks up into a smile. "Yes. Everyone but you." 

Lance chuckles sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. "Uh, yeah. I kind of interrupted you before you got the chance."

"Which is why I'm going to tell you now." Lance blinks at the sudden shift in Allura's tone, from teasing and lighthearted to deliberate and sincere. It's subtle, but impossible to miss after spending so much time together in such close quarters. "Lance, the Blue Lion... the Blue Lion is loyal, and dependable. It is the decisive support of Voltron, so its pilot must be just as loyal—to a fault, even. Their heart must be steadfast, unwavering, and unconditionally dedicated to their team."

"Which is why you pilot Blue now," Lance interjects immediately. "That's you, not me. She didn't want me anymore." 

Allura smiles patiently. "Lance, she does not trust easily. Yet she opened herself up to you without hesitation the moment you approached her on Earth. Your motives and intentions are pure. You seek to protect those you love, above all else. That is why she originally chose you."

"Sure, but I fly the Red Lion now," Lance protests, gesturing at the soft reddish glow all around him from the light of Red's interior. "So apparently those things don't apply to me anymore."

"I've already told you why the Red Lion chose you as Keith's successor," Allura counters. "It is because you have become adaptable. Accepting of change in any situation, regardless of your own desires. The fact that you were able to unlock a new form of your bayard is proof enough of that."

Lance isn't sure why he feels the need to downplay all of her praise. "Maybe, but—"

"Just because you are flying a different Lion now, doesn't mean that you are different. At your core—" She places a hand over her heart. "—you are still the same. Your Lion does not define you. It certainly reflects on your character, but you are more than the few select traits a Lion may require of you. Your role as a paladin goes far beyond that."

"You're just—" Lance fumbles with his words. "—saying that to make me feel better." 

Allura's eyes twinkle. "Perhaps. Is it working?"

Lance's brain scrambles for some kind of challenge or complaint, but comes up empty. Admittedly, the three-headed snake in his gut has seemed to calm considerably, and the pressure in his chest has started to ease away. He presses his lips into a line and squints at her through the screen, and she smiles hopefully. Then he sighs in defeat. "It's working," he mumbles.

She lets out a small, relieved laugh. "Good. But truly, Lance: you are an indispensable part of this team. We would be lost without you."

His heart aches with the words, and he lets himself smile gratefully. "Thanks, Allura. I'm giving you the biggest hug ever at our next stop."

"I look forward to it," she agrees.

A thought suddenly strikes him. "Wait a second. Aren't Coran and Romelle flying with you?"

Allura's cheeks turn pink. "Yes. Well." She shoots a furtive glance over her shoulder. "I made them leave the cockpit before I called, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if they've been eavesdropping."

As if on cue, there's a muffled thump in the background, followed by the unmistakable sounds of Coran and Romelle shushing one another. Lance groans inwardly, embarrassedly dragging a hand down his face. "Seriously."

Allura bites her lip, trying to hold back another smile. "Do I still get a hug?"

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Allura still gets a hug.  

At length, they land the five Lions on a tiny forested planet that could pass for a big, fuzzy asteroid if it were any smaller. And as soon as Lance tumbles out of his Lion (after squeezing past Kaltenecker in the cockpit with a brief apology), he makes a beeline for the Blue Lion and sweeps Allura into his arms before she can even step off the ramp. 

She laughs as he twirls her around once, then returns the hug when he brings her back down, squeezing tightly. "Feeling better?" she murmurs quietly. The others are slowly making their way out of the other Lions, casting curious glances in their direction, but Lance ignores them. This moment is just for the two of them.

"Much better. Thanks, Allura." He pulls away, one arm still slung around Allura's shoulders as he shoots a glare up the ramp at Coran and Romelle, who wave sheepishly from the cockpit. "And we, my friends—" He plants a stern hand on his hip. "—need to have a little talk about the sacred concept of privacy."

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Despite its size, the planet they've taken refuge on for the night is impressive, to say the least. The practically nonexistent atmosphere makes it difficult to grasp any sense of time (there's just dark, and stars and stars and stars), but Lance almost takes comfort in that, letting it dampen the constant, foreboding feeling that they're running out of time to reach Earth. Aside from the clearing they've claimed with their Lions, the rest of the visible land seems to be occupied completely by trees upon trees upon trees, branches still and bare. They realize upon closer inspection (after they've spent at least ten minutes trying to locate the source of the crunching noises underneath their feet) that the trees are, in fact, full of transparent leaves, so clear that they're almost impossible to make out. Pidge figured it out when she noticed the chaotic patterns of starlight dancing across the ground, reflected by the invisible canopy of leaves surrounding them.

After rummaging through the supplies, Coran scrounges up some tents equipped with Altean technology that will enable them to breathe properly without their helmets, once they're ready to turn in for the night. While he, Allura, and Romelle set them up, Hunk and Pidge set to work adjusting the settings to simulate a breathable atmosphere.

("How much of Earth's atmosphere is made up of oxygen? Like seventy-eight percent, right?"

"Hunk, no! It's seventy-eight percent nitrogen. There's only twenty point nine percent oxygen."

"Ohhh okay yeah. That could've been bad.")

Keith and Krolia decide to do a sort of perimeter check to ensure that the area is safe, so Lance volunteers to go collect firewood while the rest of the team set up camp.

"I'll come with you," Shiro says, wiggling his single arm for emphasis. "I won't be much help around here, anyway."

They grab a sack for Shiro to sling over his shoulder, and the two of them head into the trees. Seeing in the dark isn't a problem, thanks to the starlight reflecting every which way through the leaves and the enhanced vision their helmets provide. Not far from the clearing, they come across a small pond that trickles into a tiny stream, and the way the stars stare back at Lance from its surface reminds him of the ocean back home, where his papá used to take him to watch the line separating sky and sea disappear while the sun went down and the stars came out.

"Hey, Shiro. Think this is safe to drink?"

Shiro comes to a stop beside him, hefting the growing sack of sticks further onto his shoulder and looking into the pond. "Probably. If we take a sample back, I'm sure Hunk or Pidge could check it for us. Here."

Lance carefully places his own small pile of wood onto the ground as Shiro unhooks a small flask from his hip and holds it out. "This isn't contaminated with nunvill or anything, is it?" Lance wrinkles his nose as he accepts it.

"Absolutely not," Shiro snorts. "I learned my lesson after that celebration on Arus."

"So gross," Lance agrees, crouching down to fill the flask with water. "I miss soda."

"I miss coffee," Shiro sighs dreamily. 

Lance hums, handing back the flask and scooping the pile of sticks back into his arms. "Too bad there aren't any Space Starbucks out here."

Shiro lets out an amused huff. "Yeah, too bad. That's probably for the best, though. Imagine Coran on a caffeine high."

"Pffft," Lance snorts as they turn and continue their search for firewood. "He'd probably be like a cross between Road Runner and the squirrel from Hoodwinked."

This earns a proper laugh from Shiro, and Lance grins. "Glad to see you're feeling better."

"What do you mean?" Lance picks up another branch. 

"You kind of disappeared from the conversation for a while there."

"Oh." Lance frowns at the twig poking his chin. "I didn't think anyone really noticed." Which is partly a lie, because Allura had very clearly noticed—he just didn't think anyone else did.

"You kidding? It's hard not to notice when you're not there to lighten the mood." There's a pause, and Shiro glances over. "Everything okay?"

Lance stalls, bending down to grab a stick that's probably too small to really be of any use in a fire. He's not sure how much to say to Shiro, or if he should say anything at all. The idea of talking to his childhood hero about his own insecurities seems a bit strange to him. Either way, he wasn't expecting to have this conversation in the first place. "I didn't mean to go MIA. I just needed some time to think, I guess."

"About what?"

"I don't know. Stuff."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Irrelevant-to-the-current-situation stuff."

"Tell me about this 'irrelevant-to-the-current-situation stuff'."

Lance huffs, a bit flustered by Shiro's insistent prompting. "Look, Shiro, it's not a big deal. I already kind of talked to Allura about it—I don't want to bother you, too."

Shiro raises an eyebrow, shoving a particularly large branch into the sack. "The only thing that's bothering me, is the fact that you aren't telling me what's bothering you." Lance groans dramatically and tosses his head back, earning an eye roll from Shiro. But he obviously isn't going to drop the subject until Lance comes clean, so he finally relents.   

"I don't know," he says again. "I guess I've just felt kind of useless lately. Or like, tragically and terminally mediocre. And the whole—Bob thing, only seemed to reinforce that? It's like no matter what I do, it just doesn't seem to be enough. For me, or the team, or anyone." His stomach turns again, and he's not sure where the sudden rush of words comes from, but it all comes tumbling out like it's been begging and waiting to be released for a long, long time. "I know I act like I'm cool and confident and put-together and everything, but I'm definitely, not. At all. I miss Earth, and home, and I know everyone else does too, but—I just feel really scared all the time. I literally have no idea what I'm doing out here. And it doesn't even seem to matter because no one seems to need me anyway. It feels like I'm always on the outside of everything, or always trying to catch up to everyone else. Everyone has their thing, you know? And then there's just—me." He slows to a stop, frowning at the pile in his arms. Shiro must stop too, because Lance doesn't hear any more leaves crunching or twigs snapping. He looks up with a grimace. "I'm rambling."

"A little," Shiro allows, his tone teasing, but his expression concerned. "How long have you been carrying that around?"

"What, this?" Lance nods at the bundle of wood he's holding. "Just a couple of minutes."

Shiro scoffs, the corner of his mouth twitching up into a smile. "Don't change the subject."

Lance shrugs, his eyes drifting along a pattern of starlight sprinkled across the ground. "Like I said, it's not a big deal. I guess—" He frowns again as he tries to find the right words to summarize how he feels. "It feels like I'll only ever be second best, at best. If that even makes sense." He looks up, and Shiro is giving him a funny look. "What?"

"Tell that to the Blue Lion."

Lance blinks.

Shiro sighs in feigned exasperation. "Clearly, you need some wisdom."

"Then please, O Wise One," Lance deadpans. "Bestow upon me your wisdom." 

"Lance," Shiro stifles a laugh and takes a step forward to put his hand on Lance's shoulder. "Look, there's a reason that there are five Lions. And there's a reason that Voltron needs all five of them to function. None of us are the 'best'. None of us are supposed to be, or have to be. Each Lion has its own specific strengths that make it different from the rest." He raises an eyebrow. "And you've piloted two of them."

Lance blinks again. Huh. What about that. "I guess I've never thought of it that way," he mumbles.

Shiro smiles. "Give yourself some more credit."

A pleasing feeling of warmth blooms in Lance's chest, and he smiles back. "Thanks, Shiro."

"Anytime, kiddo." He ruffles Lance's hair, which leaves him sort of breathless, because he's not exactly sure when his relationship with Shiro became less formal and more familial. "It's my job to look after my only other fellow Life After Death Club member." 

Lance splutters. "Shiro!" 

"Too soon?"

"I should be asking you that!" He shakes his head as they turn and head back in the direction of camp. "Honestly, Shiro. You've only been alive again for like, three days."

"Dark humor is one of my defense mechanisms," Shiro says thoughtfully, and Lance snorts.

They walk in comfortable silence for a minute or two. Lance is content to watch the shifting patterns on the ground, piecing together random constellations and giving them names. His step feels a bit lighter, now that he's been able to lift such a heavy weight off his chest. It's nice, knowing that he can confide in Shiro after all this time. Even better, that Shiro seems to want to make sure he knows that at all. 

They've almost reached camp when Shiro casts him a sidelong glance. "By the way, speaking of—dying."

Lance tries not to shudder at the word, waiting for Shiro to continue. 

He seems to hesitate. Then: "Does Keith know?"

Lance drops a couple of sticks as he halts abruptly, and his heart skips strangely. "What? He—no." He backtracks, picks them back up.

Shiro just looks at him for a moment, and Lance isn't sure exactly why, but he kind of hates the softness in Shiro's voice when he speaks again, as if he knows something that Lance doesn't—or does, but just doesn't want to acknowledge or accept. "Don't you think he'd want to know about something like that?"

"Would he?" Lance takes off again, and Shiro follows behind.

"Yes?"

Lance snorts derisively. “That sounded like a question.”

"Because the answer should be obvious." Lance doesn't respond, just stares straight ahead as the edge of the clearing comes into view. Shiro falls into step beside him, adjusting the strap on his shoulder. "I'm sure you know by now that Keith isn't very good at—expressing himself."

"Could've fooled me," Lance mutters, though he hasn't the slightest idea why the topic has made him so touchy and unnerved. "You didn't hear what he said earlier, during the whole Bob fiasco. He made himself pretty clear."

"You died, Lance." 

"So did you."  

"That's exactly my point." Shiro waits, but Lance doesn't relent this time. He sighs. "I just think it's something he should know about. That's all."

And then the realization hits Lance, hard. It stops him in his tracks, makes his head spin with the gravity of it, sends a sort of blistering, aching pain all throughout his body. He doesn't exactly understand the source of it, but it feels like some kind of momentous conviction. He stares at the ground where he stands, trying to anchor himself as the world turns around him. Shiro takes another few steps before he realizes that Lance isn't beside him anymore, then slows and turns around. 

"Lance?"

"I don't want him to know."

It sounds like some kind of momentous conviction. The words weigh heavily in the air; crushing, suffocating. 

Lance feels like he's on the cusp of some life-changing revelation. It's terrifying.

He looks back up at Shiro, who's watching him carefully. "I don't want him to know," he repeats, and he still can't seem to figure out why but he's sure. He's just, sure.

Shiro meets his gaze, eyes searching his as if he might be able to find an explanation there. He doesn't, because Lance doesn't have one. "Okay," he answers softly. 

Lance clears his throat, shifting the bundle in his arms. "Yeah."

They're quiet for a moment. Lance frowns at the ground again. "Then he doesn't have to know," Shiro says eventually. 

Lance nods, as if that settles everything.

They stand like that for a little longer, and then Shiro squeezes his shoulder, and they continue on their way like nothing's changed.

(Only, something has changed. Lance still can't figure out what it is. Keith catches him staring when he comes back to camp, and raises an eyebrow in question. Lance just shakes his head and looks away.) 

By the time everything is set up and everyone is gathered around the fire (compliments of Krolia—Lance tried his hardest to start one for a solid two minutes before she took pity on him), the entire team is in surprisingly good spirits. It's contagious, really; Lance can't help but share in the feeling. He can see it spreading as the night wears on, in the way Shiro stops trying to hide his laughter at Lance's quips, in Allura's smile when Pidge yawns and nestles against her side, in the gradual and visible release of tension in everyone's shoulders. Even Krolia spares the occasional huff of laughter throughout the constant conversation, and Keith has opted to settle himself against Kosmo's side with his legs stretched out and hands behind his head, rather than his usual crossed arms and bent knees. Everyone seems so cheerful, and so at ease, that Lance decides to let himself enjoy the company rather than dwell on the disconcerting jumble of feelings in his head (although he's involuntarily, and unpleasantly, reminded of them every time he looks at Keith, face glowing and flickering with the light of the fire). 

"We should tell stories," Lance suggests eventually, stretching his legs out and leaning back on his hands to look at the sky. "You know, from our Garrison days."

"We should not," Keith says, wrinkling his nose at Kosmo when he flicks him on the side of the head with his tail. 

Lance ignores him. "Pidge, remember when you programmed the intercoms to play the Seinfeld theme song every time Iverson left his office your first year?" 

Shiro bursts into laughter, clapping his hand over his mouth. "Pidge, that was you? Iverson was so livid, he drove us all crazy the number of times he burst into the teacher's lounge raving about what he was gonna do when he got his hands on whoever did it. It was honestly, kind of terrifying."

Pidge grins. "Then it's a good thing he never figured it out." 

Romelle looks up from the braid she's weaving into her hair as Pidge giggles and Shiro shakes his head, still smiling. "What is... Seinfeld?" she asks curiously.

Lance gasps dramatically, pushing himself back up into a sitting position to face Romelle across the fire. "What is Seinfeld!" He repeats. "Romelle, my young padawan—"

She scrunches her nose. "Padawan?"

Hunk snorts as Lance's shoulders slump. "Maybe one thing at a time, Lance. Also, no offense, but I've heard your take on Seinfeld like, a billion times."

"Point taken," Lance concedes, folding his arms. "A Star Wars synopsis then. Coran, you used to bargain with Unilu space pirates, right? Because I'm about to tell you all about the greatest space pirate of all time—"

Pidge suddenly inhales sharply, jerking away from Allura's side. "Guys. We're having a Star Trek marathon when we get back."

Everyone stares at her. Some because they have no idea what the heck Star Trek is, others because. Well. "Pidge," Hunk says slowly. "We've discussed this." 

"Star Wars," Lance says simply. 

"Star Wars," Hunk nods in agreement. 

"What's the difference?" Keith asks, and Lance is about to roll his eyes and gratify him with an unconvincing 'ha, ha' until he deduces from Keith's expression that he is, unbelievably, not joking. 

"Please tell me you're not serious." 

Keith just blinks at him as if he didn't just offend the near majority of Earth's population.

"He's serious," Shiro confirms wistfully, and Keith scowls at him.

"We're definitely having a Star Trek marathon when we get home," Pidge sighs, returning her head to Allura's shoulder. 

Romelle only looks more confused than before, so Lance takes the opportunity to reign the conversation back in. "Anyway. Stories. Shiro, I bet you have some good ones." 

Shiro startles slightly and Lance grins, because that reaction is a clear indicator that he probably has some great ones. He leans forward in anticipation as Shiro clears his throat. "Oh, well. From the Garrison?" He shrugs. "Not particularly—"

"Shiro's the reason they have night patrol now," Keith interrupts, suddenly very interested in telling stories. 

Hunk gasps, earning Keith a borderline lethal glare from Shiro that would honestly have had Lance cowering in terror except that, once, Hunk made Shiro laugh so hard he snorted food goo out of his nose. (Hunk had quoted Scarface to Coran while brandishing Pidge in his arms like a weapon. Coran, obviously, didn’t understand the reference. Pidge proceeded anyway to promptly nail him in the face with a plate full of food goo, resulting in a full-scale food fight that quickly ended when Allura’s face was accidentally caught in the crossfire the second she entered the room.) Lance wonders if Keith is often on the receiving end of the glare, considering the fact that he only smiles smugly, and Shiro huffs.

"No!" Hunk is practically beside himself with excitement. "No way! Shiro, what'd you do?"

Shiro purses his lips, surveying the sea of questioning eyes now fixed on him and shooting one more glare at Keith before he sighs in resignation. "I may have spent the better part of my first year as a cadet doing a lot of..." He pauses, searching for the right word. "Exploring," he finishes.

"Sneaking out," Keith corrects, laughing and reflexively leaning away when Shiro reaches over to bat at him.

Lance finds his gaze inexplicably drawn to Keith, and the familiar mess of emotions resurfaces. He can't seem to remember the last time he heard Keith laugh (he can't seem to remember if he's ever heard him laugh), and he's trying to decide if he should be pleased or offended that Keith is able to breathe and smile despite everything. And then he's staring at Keith and Shiro both, and at the way Krolia's mouth quirks up into a fond smile as she watches them squabble, and at Kosmo when he snuffs in protest at Keith's sudden movements. It's nice to see all of them this way. They haven't been able to catch a break in ages, and seeing them so relaxed is incredibly reassuring. But at the same time, maybe he's a little envious, of the way Keith and Shiro are so comfortably teasing and poking at one another, the same way Lance used to with Hunk and Pidge. And not that he can't anymore, but the other two have grown a lot closer since they first got into this mess (and he's happy for them, he really is), but lately he finds himself, more often than not, on the outside looking in. And maybe the way they're all sitting together around a fire together, talking and laughing like they don't have a care in the world (the universe?), reminds him of his family, and he thinks this isn't all that different. Then he looks at Keith again, and remembers what he said, and suddenly it feels very different.

Lance frowns at the sky, at the endless void of light and darkness and planets and galaxies. It makes him feel very small. 

He suddenly feels very lonely.

Pidge's voice snaps him out of his momentary daze. "Wait, but Matt always told me they added a night patrol because someone set off the fire alarm from Iverson's office the night before exams, and everyone had to evacuate the dorms until they figured out how to shut off the sprinkler system."

For a split second Lance forgets what they were talking about, until Keith's grin widens and Shiro coughs embarrassedly into his fist. The implications hit Lance all at once and he's once again fully invested in the conversation. "Wait. No way."

Allura starts laughing. "I didn't take you for the mischievous type, Shiro."

"It was an accident," he mutters.

Lance can't help but gape at him. "But that was you? Shiro. You absolute legend. You're my hero."

"Boo. Old news," Hunk says. Lance's eyes widen and he whips his head around to send him a silent, threatening look, hoping that gets the message across. Hunk shrinks away.

But to Lance's dismay, Coran looks dangerously intrigued. "What exactly do you mean—"

It's Pidge who blabs, the little monster. "Lance had posters of Shiro in his dorm room back at the Garrison," she says quickly, before Lance has time to reach past Allura and smite her where she sits.

Shiro's face flushes slightly and Keith's entire face lights up. Lance buries his face in his knees and groans, bristling slightly at the sound of Keith's delighted laughter but quickly brushing it off in favor of keeping the peace. "Betrayal," he moans as Allura pats his shoulder appeasingly. 

"Lance, I'm flattered," Shiro says consolingly. "Really."

"Posters." Keith is still snickering, and Lance can't tell if it's because he's more entertained by the concept of Shiro on a poster or the concept of Lance actually owning said posters. "You had posters?"

Lance raises his head and narrows his eyes, preparing a defense. "You're one to talk, Mr. Conspiracy Theorist."

Keith's mouth snaps shut, his face reddening as Shiro guffaws and Lance crosses his arms triumphantly. Even Krolia looks amused. Keith glares at him. "I'm not. A conspiracy theorist."

"You lived by yourself in a shack in the desert!" 

"Not by choice!"

"Then I suppose you're going to try to tell me that your hairstyle isn't a choice, either?"

"What is it with you and my hair—"

"Are they always like this?" Romelle asks no one in particular, resulting in a chorus of 'yeses' that drowns out Keith's and Lance's lesser chorus of 'nos'.

"Whatever," Lance waves his hand in the air. "If the Blue Lion wasn't a thing, I bet you would've spent all your time documenting your search for Mothman or something." Keith crosses his arms and glares at the fire. Lance waits for him to rebut. He does not. Lance drops his forehead to his praying hands. "For the love of all that is holy in this entire universe Keith, don't tell me you think that Mothman is real—"

"Mothman could be real!" Pidge declares.

Lance makes a noise like wounded puppy. "What! Pidge, whose side are you on?"

"I mean, I guess it's not that far-fetched," Hunk agrees thoughtfully, smiling sheepishly when Lance turns to stare at him, mouth agape. 

"You're literally surrounded—" Keith waves around the circle at Krolia, Coran, Allura, and Romelle in turn. "—by aliens! You fly a Lion created out of a comet with alien technology! In outer space!" 

Lance considers this. They have a point. He shakes his head anyway, mostly because he's not willing to let Keith win the argument. "Nope. Not the same."

"How about we move on," Shiro sighs, cutting off whatever retort was about to come out of Keith's mouth.

Lance shifts his attention toward him. "Sure, if you'll actually tell us a story." 

"No."

Keith, in agreement with Lance for once, turns to Shiro. "Yeah, Shiro," he prompts innocently. "Tell us a story." 

Shiro squints at him with a smirk. "Hmm... actually, I do seem to remember a time when Keith—"

"Or don't, if you don't want to," Keith amends immediately, eyes flicking toward Krolia as he tries to bury himself further in Kosmo's fur.

"I could teach you all the Altean alphabet," Coran suggests hopefully. 

"No," everyone says in unison, and there's a bit of laughter and then the group falls into a comfortable silence.

Lance watches as sparks fly out from the flames, drifting into the sky and blinking out in the dark like shooting stars. He wonders what time of day it is back home, what his family is doing right now. And he wonders, when they look up at the night sky, if they see the same stars or constellations or anything at all. He used to take comfort in the thought that no matter how far away he was from home, he and his family were still looking up at the same sky. Now that he's seen just how vast it actually is, all the different asteroids and stars and planets and nebulas and black holes, he's not so sure. He has the entire universe at his fingertips, and yet, home is just out of reach. Too far away. 

"I miss home," Pidge murmurs after a while, as if she were thinking about the same thing. Evidently everyone must have been thinking about the same thing, because the words cause a sudden shift in the air, so unmistakable it's almost palpable. It's comforting, in a way, because for once it doesn't make Lance feel quite so alone. At the same time, he kind of wishes he could bottle it all up and throw it back into space.

Allura wraps an arm around Pidge, smiling kindly. "If all goes well, it won't be long before we reach Earth." 

"I hope our families are okay," Hunk adds quietly.

Lance stares down at the ground between his legs in silent agreement, tracing the outline of a leaf he can hardly see. He tries not to think about it too much, but he'd be lying if he said he'd never worried about the same thing. He's already worried himself sick thinking about what his family has gone through since he vanished from the Garrison without a trace, imagined what their reactions must have been when they heard the news that he and his crew members were missing. Maybe it's selfish, but he'd rather not think about all the 'what ifs'. The hope of seeing his family again has been one of the very few things keeping him going, so if he were to lose that? Again. He'd rather not think about it.  

He closes his eyes for a moment, takes a deep breath and exhales quietly, a little shakily. When he opens his eyes, he's caught off guard to see Keith looking at him, and even more so when Keith doesn't look away. Their eyes lock, and Lance finds himself holding his breath, because Keith almost looks—concerned, maybe? And for just a split second, he even looks like he wants to say something, his jaw working, and then he looks back at the fire. The pit of Lance's stomach suddenly feels strangely hollow. He hates it. 

The sudden gloom is killing him.

Everyone's attention turns to him as he sighs loudly and climbs to his feet, stepping into the middle of the circle for all to see. "Hunk? Pidge?" He points at each of them in turn. "Lay down the beat."

Hunk's eyes light up in recognition and everyone watches curiously as he shuffles in his spot on the ground, laying his palms flat in front of him. Pidge follows suit, and soon they have a steady rhythm going, alternating between drumming their fists or open palms against the dirt as Lance positions himself next to the fire and closes his eyes. He waits for a few beats, preparing himself, and then, he begins to sing. 

"Guantanamara," he starts, and his throat is dry, and his voice a bit raspy, but he goes on anyway. "Guajira guantanamera..." 

He's suddenly aware of how utterly silent it is, save for the sound of his voice and the crackling of the fire. And he realizes that although he's probably talked every single one of his teammate's ears off about his home and his family, aside from Hunk and Pidge, he's never actually spoken, much less sang, Spanish in front of them before. Before, he might have felt a little self-conscious, but for some reason he can't quite place, right now it just feels natural. He slips into a sort of solo three-step dance as he continues, repeating the phrase and moving along with the beat, only occasionally opening his eyes to make sure he's not about to fall face-first into the fire. 

Lance closes his eyes again, and thinks of home. 

A memory resurfaces in his mind of a night almost just like this, sitting beside a fire under the night sky, surrounded by warmth and light and stars. Suddenly he can feel the sand in his toes and the wind in his hair, hear the waves crashing and the fire crackling as his brother Marco strums chords on the guitar. Luis and Veronica begin to sing, Mamá and Papá begin to dance, and Lance watches in awe as the tiny little bubble on Earth that is his family comes to life. 

"Guantanamara," he sings again, louder, more confidently, and then he's sweeping around the circle, grinning when he hears Hunk and Pidge join in. There are a few whoops and cheers of encouragement, and Lance realizes all at once why this feels as natural as it does. Because despite any hurt feelings he may have (and may have forgotten about, even if only temporarily), this is his family now, too. He opens his eyes as he steps gracefully around the fire, his gaze sweeping around the circle of smiling faces and bright eyes—but when he looks at Keith, he almost falters at the expression on his face. Gentle, subdued, soft around the edges, eyes half-lidded and mouth held slightly open in a way that seems nothing short of—fond. It seems like the opposite of everything Lance has ever known Keith to be. But before he has time to reflect on it, he's moving on to the next verse. 

In his memory, Veronica is taking his hand, and then they're joining the dance, laughing and singing until their lungs ache. 

Lance completes the circle and pauses in front of Allura, still singing as he extends his arm and wiggles his eyebrows expectantly. And Allura, smiling, takes his hand, shaking her head and laughing as he pulls her to her feet and sweeps her into the dance. Some of the others have joined in the song, catching on to the repetitive tune despite the language and swaying to the beat. Hunk and Shiro cheer as Lance leads Allura into a twirl, then pulls her back in for the last verse. When he goes into the final chorus, he picks Allura up by the waist and spins her around, earning another round of cheers and laughter before he returns her to the ground. They finish with a flourish, stepping apart and extending their linked hands between them so they can both bow in response to the group's applause. 

Allura drops Lance's hand and turns to him, a little breathless, her eyes shining. "Lance, that song. That was your home language?"

"Yeah." Lance rubs the back of his neck. "It—I used to sing that song a lot with my family." 

She smiles in understanding. "It's lovely."

"He used to play it on a loop for hours at a time at the Garrison," Hunk sighs, although he's smiling at the memory. "So, Pidge and I kind of inevitably learned the entire song by heart." 

"Not bad, number four," Coran nods approvingly. "Why, I remember when I was just a young cadet in the Altean space squad—"

It takes Lance a split second too long to realize what Coran just said. "Wait a second, wh—" he splutters. "Number four? I thought I was number three!"

Coran waggles a finger in the air. "Was. Keith is number three now."

Lance lets out an indignant squawk of disbelief and whirls around to Keith. "Is not!" 

Shiro starts laughing. "Lance, it's not a competition."

"It is a competition," Lance protests. "One that I intend to win." He points at Keith. "On your feet, mullet man."

Keith glares up at him. "Is this really that important to you."

"Absolutely it is."

Keith rolls his eyes, but with a bit of prodding from Shiro, reluctantly gets to his feet (Kosmo whines in complaint) and steps toward the other side of the fire to stand next to Lance, arms crossed. 

"Okay." Lance draws himself to his full height, sticking out his chest. "Shiro, who's taller?" Shiro opens his mouth to respond, sighing when Lance quickly cuts him off. "Wait, never mind. We need to have an objective third party. Allura?"

"So much for objective," he hears Keith mutter beside him, and before he has time to decipher what in the world that's supposed to mean, Pidge interjects.

"I think Keith might actually be a little taller."

Lance squeaks, the previous comment forgotten. "I bet it's only because of his hair!" 

"You're both wearing helmets, Lance."

Keith snorts as Lance swears under his breath. 

"Well," Shiro says, shooting a pointed look at him. "I was going to say that Lance is taller."

"Ugh, thank you." Lance smacks a hand over his heart. "It really is just you and me now, Shiro."

"I thought you said this wasn't a competition," Keith snaps at Shiro, who raises an eyebrow.

Lance glances at him, frowning slightly. Keith's voice suddenly seems to have a bitter edge to it, much different than the light, teasing tone he was using earlier. Krolia seems to sense the tension and steps in, the sound of her voice startling the entire group since she'd been so quiet this entire time. 

"As riveting as this little contest is, I think it's time we get some proper rest."

"Krolia's right," Coran agrees, standing and clapping his hands together. "The tents are all ready to go. Once you've sealed the entrance from the inside, you'll be able to remove your helmets to sleep."

"Thank goodness," Pidge yawns. "I think I'm breathing stale oxygen at this point."

Everyone else begins to rise obediently, sighing in relief as they stretch, limbs stiff from sitting on the ground for so long. Lance glances at Keith again, then at Shiro, who shrugs slightly even though his expression seems conflicted. Everyone slowly starts peeling off and heading for their tents as the last kindlings of the fire flicker weakly. Lance squints at them, all too aware of Keith still standing beside him, watching the team disperse.

"I feel like I'm forgetting something," Lance mutters, partly because it's true and because there still seems to be an unspoken tension in the air that needs to be broken. 

"Water," Shiro supplies helpfully, gesturing at the flask on his hip. "Pidge said it's clean."

Lance snaps his fingers. "Oh yeah! Coran, do we happen to have anything I could fill with some water for the team?"

"I'll see what I can find." Coran disappears for a moment to rummage through some of the supplies inside his tent, returning shortly with a bag full of small canteens. "These will have to do for now." 

"Great." Lance takes the bag and slings the strap over his shoulder before turning to head back into the trees. "I'll be right back."

He hardly takes one step before Keith's hand shoots out and jerks him backward by the strap across his back. "What do you think you're doing?"

Lance shoulders his hand away with a huff and shoots him an annoyed look. "I just said I'm going to get water."

"Not by yourself you're not. I'm coming with you."

Lance experiences a mild flash of panic, followed by a mixed surge of irritation and uncertainty, and then finally a leftover sense of apprehension. "Uh, no. I don't need your help. I just have to fill these." He shakes the bag for emphasis. "It'll take like ten doboshes, tops." 

Keith rolls his eyes. "I mean, you're not going anywhere by yourself on a foreign planet in the middle of the night. We have no idea what could be out there."

"He's right," Shiro concurs—of course he does—and Lance shoots him a betrayed look that he pointedly ignores. "It's a small planet, but there could still be something inhabiting it that we don't know about. You'd better take Keith with you, just to be safe."

Lance shifts his weight, desperately trying to think of any sort of excuse to make the trip without Keith. The idea of going anywhere alone with him suddenly sounds terrifying, for a number of different reasons that he doesn't have time to sort through right now. He glances down at Kosmo, who's still curled up near the dying fire and watching them with sleepy eyes. "Why don't I take Kosmo? He can just teleport me back to camp if I get attacked or something."

He almost feels dizzy thinking about the amount of eye-rolling Keith has done in the past hour. "He's not your bodyguard."

"Just be quick about it." Shiro claps a hand on Lance's shoulder. He thinks it's meant to be reassuring, considering the meaningful look that Shiro gives him, but it feels more like he's signing his own death warrant. "And try not to kill each other?" 

"No promises," Keith deadpans, and it's Lance's turn to roll his eyes before Keith turns to him, crossing his arms. "Lead the way."

"Fine." Lance clutches the strap across his chest and shifts the bag over his hip, trying to ignore the awful feeling of dread settling in his stomach. He turns, calling back to Shiro and Coran over his shoulder, who are the only ones left at this point. "If we're not back in at least half a varga, Keith is probably dumping my drained, lifeless body into the pond."

Keith just sighs, and then Lance marches into the trees without looking back.

Lance never realized until now how many different kinds of silence there are, and that more than one of them can exist at once. 

When he was much younger, he always used to complain whenever he heard someone describe a silence as 'deafening'. That doesn't even make any sense! he'd say, planting his tiny hands on his hips and glaring up in defiance at whoever was listening. Silence is quiet! How could something that's nothing ever be so loud? 

Most of his family found it entertaining, the way he questioned anything and everything like it was his job to make the world make sense. Veronica, decidedly, did not. She would always just sigh and shake her head in exasperation. Ay, hermanito. Always such the philosopher. One day you'll understand.

The first time he experienced it for himself, was the day he received his notice from the Galaxy Garrison. He'd been sitting outside in their tiny backyard, drawing little constellations into the dirt with eager hands when he was suddenly whisked into the house by his brothers, ushered quickly into the kitchen with a rush and sat down at the dinner table in the cramped kitchen where his entire family was now gathered. And then a crisp white envelope was being shoved into his hands—silencio, silencio—and suddenly it was like the entire room was holding its breath. He realized as he tore into the envelope and unfolded the letter, hands trembling, that it wasn't just the lack of noise around him that made the silence deafening, but the way it amplified the roar of blood in his ears, and the beat of his heart in his chest, and every single hopeful thought that dared enter his mind. (Then he opened the letter, and leaped out of the chair with a shout, and he was once again surrounded by noise.)

So if Lance had to describe this planet, he'd call it deafeningly silent. At least, that's how it feels right now, walking through the trees while Keith trails behind him, every footfall seeming to echo loudly in the dark and across the distance. There's no wind, no chirping, no distant rushing of water, it's just. Lance and Keith. Keith and Lance. The silence of the world, the silence of this planet, and most of all, the silence between them, is deafening.

Lance keeps his eyes straight ahead, trying to focus his gaze on the disorganized refractions of starlight on the ground like before, but it's hard to concentrate on anything when he's hyperaware of Keith's presence behind him. Back in the clearing with everyone else had been fine, but now that they're alone he feels ruffled, flighty and unsettled. Talking to Keith around the fire had been different because he could tease and poke fun and pretend everything was normal, but now? Now, there's nothing to distract him from the lingering resentment in his chest. Now, he realizes he doesn't have anything to say to him. Doesn't want to say anything to him. 

There's been no attempt at conversation on either end by the time they reach the pond, which only furthers the sense of dread that's been festering and growing since they left. Whether or not either of them are willing to verbally acknowledge it, he knows Keith must at least feel the same unspoken tension between them, it's so strong. It seems like only a matter of time before one of them makes the wrong move, says the wrong thing.

It's felt that way ever since Keith came back. Like they're walking on eggshells around each other. And Lance can't for the life of him understand why. 

Keith crosses his arms and leans back against a nearby tree as Lance swings the bag off his shoulder and kneels down near the edge of the water. He thought he'd feel better given something to do, but now that there isn't even the sound of their footsteps to drown out the quiet, he somehow feels even more restless. For a moment, he just stares at the water, glimmering and flickering with the stars, so still and clear it feels like he's looking into the sky itself. It ripples slightly at his touch, and he bites back a sigh as he empties the bag and starts to fill the first canteen. 

He's almost finished and come to accept the lack of conversation when Keith finally breaks the silence.

"So." Lance stiffens slightly at the sound of his voice, keeping his eyes on the canteen he's trying to fill. There's an awkward pause, and Lance's stomach turns uncomfortably. "You and Allura?"

Lance almost drops the canteen into the water. "What?"

He turns to look at Keith, who's watching him with a carefully neutral expression. He shrugs, and Lance feels a flicker of irritation. "You guys talked for a long time in the Lions earlier. Not to mention, you literally sweeping her off her feet and all like her knight in shining armor, when we landed. And the dance—"

"No, I mean—what?" Lance puts a hand on his knee and abruptly pushes himself to his feet, water sloshing out of the canteen as Keith looks at him with a mix of surprise and confusion. "Are you serious? That's really what you want to talk about right now?"

Keith's gaze hardens. "I was just—"

Lance is overreacting, he knows he is, all the bitterness and anger toward Keith that he'd shoved aside in an effort to keep the peace suddenly coming back full force. He doesn't know what he was expecting—did he really think that Keith would be the one to bring up what Lance has been avoiding and trying to forget about all night? That he would actually apologize? And it's stupid, and low, and insensitive, but Lance can't keep himself from snapping: "What's it to you, anyway?"

Keith pushes himself away from the tree, bristling. "Did I do something to piss you off?" 

The three-headed snake in Lance's gut twists dangerously. This has to be a joke. A really horrible, awful, sick joke. He can't believe how quickly their dynamic has changed, from playful teasing around the fire, to this, caused by a single idiotic question. He stares. "You're kidding." Keith doesn't answer and Lance scoffs, returning to the edge of the water to finish filling the last canteen. "Whatever, Keith."

"Am I missing something? What's your deal?" 

No. No. No way he'll let Keith make him the bad guy in this situation. Lance knows Keith well enough to recognize a challenge when he hears one. And he's not having it. He won't rise to the occasion this time. Keith knows exactly what his deal is, and if he's not mature enough to address or apologize for it now, fine. Apparently they've got all the time in the world. "I said, forget it."

"Lance! You can't go off on me like that and expect me to just—"

"Save it, Keith!" Lance lets the canteen hit the dirt as he whips back around, his insides burning. "Stop acting like you don't know." 

Keith throws his hands in the air, scowling in frustration. "Don't know what? Honestly, Lance, I don't get you—what do you want me to say—"  

Lance clenches his fists and asks the question that's been grinding painfully against the inside of his skull ever since they woke up. "Did you mean what you said?"

"Did—" Keith falters. A sudden shadow of an expression passes over his face, something flashes quickly through his eyes, and Lance swears it looks something a bit like panic. "I—what?"

"In that—stupid game show." Lance takes a deep breath to steady himself, his fists trembling. "You picked me to leave." 

Even with only the starlight to make it out, Keith's face visibly pales. "I—"

"Did you mean it?" Lance says again, louder. Keith knows. Of course he knows. 

Lance wants to scream at the injustice of it all as Keith stares back at him, his eyes suddenly glassy, pained. "Lance—"

"Did you mean what you said?" Lance shouts, and if he weren't already so angry, he might have felt bad for the way that Keith actually draws back a step, eyes wide. 

There's a brief moment of silence on both sides, increasing the space between them ten-fold. Lance glares at him, fists clenched, waiting for Keith to just say something, anything to break it. And even though he thinks he knows the answer, he wants to make him say it. He wants to make Keith say it to his face. 

Keith inhales, and then finally, in a whisper: "Every word."

The answer hits Lance like a slap in the face. He inhales sharply as he registers the words, despite the fact that they were exactly what he was expecting. And it's not fair, the pain written across Keith's expression that matches his own, as if he thinks he has any right to share in it. Lance shakes his head slowly, hating himself for the tears that prickle the backs of his eyes without warning as he reaches for the bag lying forgotten at his feet and shoves the dropped canteen inside.

"But Lance," Keith steps forward. "You don't understand—"

"I understand plenty," Lance hisses, and Keith all but flinches away. He feels another bubble of writhing, seething anger surge upward into his throat as a single tear escapes and slides down his cheek. "There's no need to explain yourself. You've made yourself perfectly clear." He goes to wipe his eyes and realizes that he can't, so he settles for pressing a hand to the side of his helmet. "I never actually hated you, you know. I never actually—" He grits his teeth, unsure where this is coming from or why he's bringing it up now, other than the fact that his breath is shaking, his vision is blurred and he's so angry— "The whole rivalry thing was just a stupid front because I was really just—jealous of you, and maybe I—" He huffs, dropping his hand and glaring at the watery image of Keith's feet in front of him. Maybe I thought we could have been friends. Maybe I thought I could have actually started to like you— Lance shakes his head. "I guess, maybe I thought that after you spent two years on a freaking—space whale, things would be different, but obviously I was wrong—"

"I didn't ask for that!" Keith snaps back, his eyes burning with something Lance can't place. "Lance, I never asked for—to be away for so long—" 

Lance wants to scream at the irony. "Keith, you absolute moron, what did you expect? You left us!"

"I left because of you!" 

The words hang in the air for a fraction of a second, shocking Lance back into silence before they hit him full force. And they sting. They sting and burn and bite and fill Lance with such an overwhelming sense of hurt he can't believe he's still standing. It hurts. 

He blinks the tears out of his eyes. "I can't believe you," he whispers.

Something in Keith's expression has changed, frustration giving way to something more like horror, but Lance is too far gone now to slow down and process what that means. Keith takes another step forward, holding his hands out. "But that's not—Lance, wait. That's not what I meant—"

Lance shoves the bag into Keith's chest, sending him staggering backward slightly. "Oh yeah? And how else, exactly, would you mean it. If you hate me so much, why didn't you just choose yourself to leave!"

Keith tosses the bag aside. "You're not listening to me!" 

And he's right. Lance isn't listening, can't seem to listen through the anger in his throat and the pounding in his ears and the tears in his eyes. "If you hate me so much, why'd you even come back at all, Keith?"

Keith stills. At first, Lance thinks with a sick sort of satisfaction that he's finally hit Keith right back where it hurts, but then he lets out a disbelieving huff. "You still haven't figured it out, have you?" he asks quietly.

Lance scoffs. "What was it, really? Couldn't stand being around a bunch of amateurs?" Keith's eyes widen slightly in protest, but Lance barrels on before he can be interrupted. "Were we not good enough for you? Could we not live up to your expectations or something? Or was it just that you were too scared to lead the team, so you decided to leave us to fend for ourselves—"

"No!" Keith cries. He looks trapped, his face conflicted. "That's not why—it's not—"

"Then why, Keith?" Lance is shouting now, his voice almost thundering in the silence of the atmosphere. "Why'd you leave?"

"Lance, I—" Keith presses his hands to the sides of his helmet, an incredulous laugh spilling out of his mouth. "I was in love with you!" 

Lance's mouth snaps shut. His entire body goes rigid, and his mind goes quiet, except for the ringing confession hanging in the air, echoing through the empty space between them like they're on another wavelength entirely. Because they are.  

Deafening silence. 

Keith looks at him. "I still am," he breathes. "I'm still—" He draws in a painful breath, his words lost in the moment. 

Lance feels numb. He opens his mouth to speak, closes it. If his heart is beating, he can't feel it. He can't feel anything.

I was in love with you. I still am.

"I—" Lance's breath catches in his throat. "I don't understand. You. But you said—"

Keith drops his hands to his sides and lets his head fall back. "Lance—" Another empty laugh, like he can't believe any of this is actually happening, any more than Lance can. "I chose you because I wanted you to go home. Because you talk about your family so much and how much you miss them, and I knew you wouldn't choose yourself because you just can't seem to keep yourself from putting literally everyone else you meet before you like the self-sacrificial idiot that you are—" He shakes his head, and Lance can't tear his eyes away from him. "I couldn't stand the fact that you might never see them again. Not if I had been able to do something about it." He looks back down, though he won't meet Lance's eyes. "And I left, because—god, Lance. I left because you came into my room that day with that awful look on your face and I knew I had to fix it. I made myself sick worrying about it, until I realized that if I was out of the picture, Shiro could reconnect with the Black Lion and then you wouldn't lose Red, so I—" Keith lets out a shuddering breath, growing quiet. "—I left."

Lance holds his breath, his mind empty, trying to process. He doesn't understand, he—what? I left because of you. 

"So I guess, after I spent two years on a space whale—" Keith shuts his eyes and shakes his head again, clenching his fists. "I thought everything would be different, too." He swears under his breath, and all Lance can do is stare, face blank and unresponsive. "But it doesn't—whatever. It doesn't—matter anymore." Keith stares down at the ground for a moment, like he's waiting for something, giving Lance a chance to reply. 

But Lance can't seem to form a response. He can hardly breathe as it is, still stuck on on those two simple phrases and all the meaning in between: I was in love with you—I still am.

Keith reaches down to pick up the discarded bag. "Look, you—" He pauses, and Lance watches as he seems to struggle with his words. "You asked why I left. Now... now you know." His voice cracks, and Lance feels like the entire world just split in two. Keith breathes out a heavy sigh. "We should get back to the others." Just like that. End of conversation. 

He lingers for one more moment, and then he turns to head back into the trees, and Lance has no other option than to follow. 

Lance decides on the way back to camp that deafening silence is the worst of its kind. 

Shiro is waiting for them when they make it back. Keith hands him the sack full of canteens without a word, and slips into his tent before anyone can object. Lance watches him go, heart in his throat, one hand curled into the other in an attempt to hold them still. After a minute or two, Shiro comes to his side and places a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Everything okay?" he asks softly. 

He avoids looking up to see the expression on Shiro's face, but his throat clears enough for him to choke out a response: "Everything's fine." He looks down at the dying fire, and snuffs it out with his boot.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Lance had only just begun to fall asleep when suddenly, Coran's voice is chirping excitedly in his ear, signaling that it's time to wake up. 

He scowls, rolling over and blindly smacking at the control panel on the wall in hopes that he'll get lucky and somehow mute the sound, but it's no use. Before long, Coran starts singing something in Altean, and Lance is pretty sure he can hear muffled groans drifting into his tent from all the way across camp. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to block out the sound the best he can, desperate for even just a few more minutes of shut-eye.

He's tired. He's so, so tired.

At length, the singing stops, and the tent is plunged back into silence, though it sounds like there are people moving around now outside. Lance rolls over onto his back with a sigh and opens his eyes, panicking for a split second when he can't see anything, until his vision adjusts to the dark and he remembers where they are. There seems to be a brief disconnect between his thoughts and his actual consciousness, because although he feels a sort of apprehension weighing heavily on his chest, he can't seem to recall why it would be there. Then the memories of last night's events come crashing down, and Lance buries his face in his hands with a groan.

That happened. That actually happened. What happened?

He sits up and drops his hands into his lap, blinking slowly as his surroundings slowly come back into focus. He hears Pidge chattering excitedly about something outside of his tent.

Outside. Outside means seeing Keith. 

Lance frowns. 

Last night's heated exchange starts to replay in his mind, and he closes his eyes as if that might somehow dampen the noise it's making between his ears. It doesn't. He swears under his breath.

Truthfully, he has no idea how, or what, he's supposed to be feeling right now, which is somehow worse than anything else he's ever felt. He drags a hand down his face and stands, taking his time in putting on the bulk of his armor and staring at his weary, dead-eyed reflection in the visor of his helmet before shoving it onto his head. There's a quiet hiss as it connects to his oxygen supply. He takes a deep breath, and then he muscles his way out of the tent. 

Hunk is picking up a small white cube from the ground beside Lance's tent, glancing at him as he emerges. "Whoa, man. You look exhausted. You sleep okay?" Lance blinks. Hunk joins his side and shoots him a concerned look before pulling on one of the strings anchoring Lance's tent to the ground. The entire thing deflates, folding itself into a similar compact cube. Lance blinks at it again, frowning. His current brain capacity is evidently unable to properly process what just happened. Hunk picks it up off the ground and stuffs it into the bag he's holding. "Dude."

Lance stifles an enormous yawn. "M'fine," he lies. "I think my circadian rhythm is just a little out of whack. Or something." 

The explanation seems to satisfy Hunk, and he sighs in agreement. "Ugh, me too. My brain never knows what time it is anymore. It only knows sleep time and food time."

He turns, checking to make sure that Lance is following before heading in the direction of the small group forming underneath the Black Lion. Lance sweeps his gaze cautiously around their makeshift campsite. He must've been the last one out, because it's completely empty now except for the faint indentations on the ground from the tents and the remaining blackened pile from their fire. Pidge is scraping a fistful of dirt into a small plastic container, probably to add to her collection of soil samples from the various planets they've visited during their journey, and then she runs to catch up to them with a smile on her face. The only people who seem to be missing from the usual crowd are Keith and Krolia. Lance tries not to feel relieved. His relief is cut short anyway, when the two of them emerge from the Black Lion and descend the ramp to meet the rest of the team, Kosmo following close behind. Something sinks into the pit of Lance's stomach at the sight of Keith.  

He looks just as exhausted as Lance feels, his shoulders sagging, face blank and pale, exaggerated by the dark circles under his eyes. Evidently, he didn't sleep much last night either. Lance wishes he didn't know why.

"Were you able to contact Kolivan?" Allura asks as they join the circle. 

Keith just nods in acknowledgment, his gaze fixed distractedly on the ground. 

Krolia glances at him, her expression unreadable. Lance wonders with a flicker of terror if she knows what happened last night, before she answers for Keith. "The Blade is staging small revolts to stall Sendak's fleet. They're doing what they can, but there are bound to be difficulties since the majority of our agents were exposed by Lotor. Our forces are spread thin as it is."

Shiro nods, but Lance can tell he's watching Keith out of the corner of his eye. "We need all the help we can get. The last thing we want is for Sendak to reach Earth before we do. Where's our next stop?"

"Yet to be determined," Coran says. "There aren't many habitable planets in this quadrant. We'll be flying blind for a bit."

"Then we'd better get going," Allura decides.

"Alright." Lance's eyes flick toward Keith at the sound of his voice. It sounds heavy, and tired, but maybe that's just because Lance can see the exhaustion written all over his face. His gaze seems to be avoiding Lance's general direction. "Everyone to your Lions. We can discuss anything else we need to over the comms."

Lance waits for a moment as the rest of the team disperses, unsure why he's hesitating. Shiro turns to say something to Keith. Allura pauses in front of Lance as she passes by, touching his arm lightly and speaking quietly, her brow creased. "Are you alright?"

He glances in Keith's direction, wondering if he only imagined Keith's eyes snapping away. He looks back at Allura, forcing a smile. "Yeah. Just really tired. Don't worry about me." She returns a small smile and slips away, and after another second Lance starts for the Red Lion. The ground trembles slightly as each Lion seems to growl in turn, lowering their heads to the ground for their paladins. As he approaches Red, a familiar feeling of warmth and affection washes over him, and she purrs as her eyes glow to life. Lance breathes out a quiet sigh as she opens her jaws wide, and for a moment he forgets about everything else.

He's halfway up the ramp when someone stops him.

"Lance."

He freezes in place and turns, his heart skipping a few nervous beats. Keith is standing on the ground at the ramp's edge, looking up at him. Their eyes meet, and there's a brief moment of strained silence that Lance might have felt compelled to fill if he knew how. Then Keith is reaching into the familiar bag slung around his shoulder that Lance hadn't noticed until now, and he holds out a canteen.

Lance doesn't know why he feels disappointed. "Oh." He carefully accepts it, staring at the tightly screwed cap on its nozzle. "Thanks."

"Yeah." Keith lingers for a split second, long enough that he could be thinking about saying something; long enough that Lance is thinking about saying something, but then Keith is turning away and jogging toward the next Lion to distribute the rest of the water. Lance watches him go, keenly aware of the canteen weighing heavily in his hand like it holds all the things left unsaid.

He climbs into the cockpit and collapses into his seat with a long sigh. Kaltenecker moos softly behind him. "Hey, girl," Lance murmurs. "Miss me?" She moos again in response as he reaches forward and wraps his hands around the flight controls, his eyes following Keith as he makes the rest of his rounds, and then disappears into the Black Lion. Eventually, the trees and dirt around them begin to stir, swirling and whipping in the wind as each Lion takes off and soars into the dark sky in turn. Lance follows the outline of the Black Lion for a moment, Keith's voice echoing faintly in the back of his mind. I was in love with you— Lance shakes his head with a grimace, and thrusts the controls forward. 

This is going to be a long flight, he realizes.

Lance doesn't have the energy or the will to invest himself in the almost instantaneous chatter between his teammates, but he doesn't turn off his comms this time. Partly because it's been made clear that doing so wouldn't go unnoticed, and because he's actually kind of glad for the distraction. If anything, he needs some kind of background noise to drown out his thoughts and drive back the silence, which are two of the things he doesn't think he can handle right now. He's had enough of both in the past day to last him a lifetime.

Even after tossing and turning all night with barely a wink of sleep, he still hasn't been able to sort out exactly how he feels. It's driving him insane, not knowing; his abuela always used to say to him: It's okay not to know. There's a difference between not knowing what you feel, and feeling nothing at all. Yet, that's where he seems to be stuck. His insides are hollow, empty, and echoing, everything's just numb and the uncertainty of it all is suffocating, because whatever exists underneath all of that is there, but Lance can't feel it. If this is what it's like not to know how he feels, he doesn't even want to imagine what it's like not to feel anything at all. It's like a void in his chest. 

He's hopelessly lost in it. 

The conversation dies down a little after a while. Lance loses track of how long they've been flying, but he supposes it doesn't really matter. He thinks someone might mention Earth at some point, but keeps quiet. Normally, he would jump at the chance to talk about home, or his family, but he's far too distracted right now. That, and thinking about those things turns his current numbness into a dull ache that makes his head throb, so instead he focuses his attention on the stars racing by outside. He wonders how they can always be surrounded by them and yet never seem to be within reach of one. He's pondering the possibility of actually running into a star if he were to set his sights on one and just continue dead ahead when he senses a sudden shift in the tone of conversation and snaps to attention.

"...some kind of distress signal?" Allura is asking. 

"I don't think so," Pidge answers. "It seems to be some sort of open communications channel."

"That's because it is," Krolia responds tersely. 

Lance uncrosses his legs and leans forward in his seat. "Wait, what's going on?"

"We've intercepted an outgoing transmission from a nearby Galra transport base," Pidge explains, and Lance jerks his head around, searching for any sign of incoming Galra fighters or cruisers and finding none. "Well, according to Krolia." 

"I've been stationed there before," she confirms. "It's one of the central communications hubs of the Empire." 

"It just sounds like static," Shiro notes. 

"Common security tactic," Krolia clarifies, and Lance finds himself listening intently as she continues. He doesn't think he's ever heard her speak more than one sentence at a time. "One channel is left open at all times, but it's never actually used. Its only purpose is to obscure the second encrypted channel. We'll have to get closer if we want to decipher it."

"Waitwaitwait," Hunk cuts in. "We're not, like. Going to the base. Right? I mean, they don't know we're coming this way, do they? Because if not, I say we just be on our merry little way so we can get back to Earth as soon as possible."

Lance frowns thoughtfully, running his fingers along the edges of his controls. He's just as eager as Hunk to get back home, but if they have the chance to infiltrate a major Galra base... "We should go in."

There's a half second of surprised quiet. Pidge sounds confused. "What?"

"This is a central communications base we're talking about, right? They must have all kinds of information on Sendak's fleet, and any of the others that are following him. If we have the chance to find out exactly where they're headed and what they're doing, I say we take it. At the very least, we'd find plenty of important intel that could help the Blade."

"That could mean risking capture," Allura counters cautiously. "Or worse." 

"I agree that it's risky, but so is every mission we carry out," Shiro points out. "We just have to make sure that the potential gains outweigh the risks if we really want to consider going in."

"But there's no point," Pidge argues. "My dad already has all the information he needs to help the Garrison make the necessary preparations to defend Earth, and Matt and the rebel fighters are working with the Blade to stall Sendak's fleet."

"I just don't see the point in kicking the hornet's nest," Hunk agrees nervously. 

"Lance is right." Everyone seems to fall silent at the sound of Keith's voice, which Lance hadn't realized until now had been strangely absent from the discussion. Keith continues. "There could be valuable information on the base that could help us stop Sendak. And if we can intercept the rest of their transmissions and cut off their communications entirely, at the very least we might be able to slow him down. That would benefit both us and the Blade."

No one says anything for a moment, and then Shiro speaks up. "Then it's settled. What's the plan?"

Keith doesn't hesitate to take charge. "Coran, are they any vacant planets close by that we can land on?"

There's a short pause. "As a matter of fact, yes. It looks like there's a small ocean planet nearby."

"Plot the coordinates for Allura and lead us there. We'll head there first. If we want to avoid any unwanted attention, we should take as few Lions as possible. The Yellow Lion should be able to carry all of us. Hunk, are you comfortable flying us to the base?" 

Hunk takes a deep breath. "Yeah, I can do that."

"I should be able to replicate a code for the Green Lion's cloaking mechanism," Pidge adds. "I could program it into the Yellow Lion for us."

"Do it," Keith acknowledges. "Everyone follow Allura."

The tension in the air when they land is almost palpable, charged with electricity the same way it always is in the final moments leading up to a mission. Lance lets it seep into his skin, feels his pulse quicken and the adrenaline start its course through his veins as he dismounts the Red Lion. If he hadn't already been so fixated on the feeling, his breath would have been taken away by the sight of the strip of sand that they've landed on, extending both ways as far as the eye can see and flanked on either side by huge, crashing blue waves. He hardly has time to think about how much it reminds him of home as he sprints across the beach toward the Yellow Lion. 

Lance feels like he loses all sense of time. One second, he's climbing up the ramp behind Pidge into the Yellow Lion and squeezing into the space between her and Shiro. Coran and Romelle bid them good luck; Coran tells them to stay in contact. Lance blinks, and the next second they're zooming back into space, the cockpit solemn and quiet while Krolia directs Hunk in the direction of the base. Eventually, Keith turns from where he stands near the front of the cockpit, steadying himself with one arm against the wall and the other on Hunk's headrest.

"Okay, team. Here's the plan. Krolia, you already know how the base operates. And Shiro, you know Galra patrol patterns. Between the two of you, there should be no trouble dismantling their communications system. Allura can disguise herself as another Galran, so you should be able to make it into the corresponding sector without any problems. See what information you can extract—outgoing or incoming signals, ship logs, anything that could be useful to us or the Blade."

"Just like old times," Allura mutters to Shiro, who allows a single surprised huff of laughter.

"Hunk," Keith glances over his shoulder. "You're our eyes and ears. No one comes or goes from this base without us knowing about it. You also need to be ready for a quick getaway once we have what we need. If anyone spots you before then, your first priority is to get yourself to safety. We have the element of surprise, so as unprepared as they might be, I'd rather not take any chances. We can find a way to rendezvous later if we need to."

Hunk nods soberly, his gaze focused on the space in front of them. "Understood." The base is slowly coming into view, looming large against the dark backdrop full of burning stars. Lance glares at it. 

Then Keith turns to look at him, and his stomach clenches nervously as their eyes lock for a second longer than necessary before he speaks again. "Lance, you're with me."

Lance nods, and there's a second of quiet and then Keith is moving on. "Pidge, can you get into their system from the Lion?"

She scoffs in mock offense. "Of course, as long as I'm close enough. Won't be a problem since we'll be cloaked." 

"Good. We'll need you to guide us through to the main control deck. I can interact with their technology, but if there are any issues along the way we're counting on you to sort them out. Everyone else, try to maintain radio silence at all times. We can check in every once in a while just to make sure—"

"We're coming up on the communications sector," Krolia interjects, securing the helmet on her head.

"Activating cloaking now," Pidge announces, and there's a brief hum of energy as the entire Lion is shrouded in a mask of camouflage.

Hunk glances into the back. "You guys ready?"

"Ready when you are," Shiro confirms.

"Meet back at the cargo bay in one varga," Keith adds. 

Krolia nods in acknowledgement before turning to join Shiro and Allura.

"Wait." Keith reaches behind his back and unsheathes his dagger, holding it out to Krolia. She delicately wraps her fingers around the hilt without question, both of them lingering with outstretched arms for a moment. Lance feels like he's intruding on something important, something he doesn't quite understand. "Keep him safe," Keith mumbles quietly. She nods again. Shiro smiles and gives Keith's shoulder a squeeze, and then Hunk eases the ramp open and there's a brief sucking feeling before Krolia, Shiro, and Allura disappear from view and shoot toward the base below. 

Lance worms his way past Kosmo to Hunk's other side and squints outside. "I don't see any fighters." 

"Or cruisers," Pidge observes. "If this is really a central communications hub for the Empire, you'd think the place would be swarming with them."

"Just keep your eyes peeled," Keith mutters, his brow furrowed. "We don't want to let our guard down."

The group is quiet as Hunk carefully navigates the Lion toward the far side of the base and into the mouth of the cargo bay. Keith pushes himself away from the console and crouches down in front of Kosmo, rubbing between his ears. "Kosmo stays with you two. Pidge, keep track of everyone's locations. Worst case scenario, you can send Kosmo to teleport us back here if anything goes wrong."

Pidge nods, giving the wolf an affectionate nudge as he thumps his tail on the metal floor. "Got it."

"Be careful,"  Hunk tells them.

Keith stands, glancing at Lance as he summons his bayard and hefts the newly formed sword in his hand. "Let's go." 

Lance summons his own bayard as they quietly descend the ramp of the Yellow Lion and duck behind one of the loading docks. When he looks back, the Yellow Lion is nowhere to be seen, easing some of the inevitable anxiety that comes with a mission. He presses his rifle to his chest and peeks over the ledge, scanning the entirety of the bay, which he realizes is eerily empty. "There's nothing here. Are we sure this is the right place?"

"This is where Krolia said to go." Keith frowns. "Let's just get inside."

They push away from the wall and make their way across the metal platform, dodging around all of the intersecting loading docks until they reach one of the entrances to the actual base. Lance positions himself in front of the door, rifle held at the ready; Keith glances at him and he nods, then Keith presses his hand to the scanner and the door slides open with a hiss. Lance steps through and sweeps his gaze across the dimly lit hallway. "It's clear." He lowers his rifle. "Jeez, these places all look the same."

The two of them deactivate the visors on their helmets as they start down the hallway at a brisk pace, Lance leading with his rifle while Keith follows behind. "Okay, Pidge, we're in. Guide us through."

Pidge's voice comes crackling through the comms. "Alright, head down that hallway and turn right, then right again, and you should come to another set of really big doors that leads to the briefing room. You'll have to give me a minute to override the security measures. I haven't gotten into the mainframe yet."

"Make it quick," Keith says as they come to their first turn and Lance rounds the corner with his rifle raised, lowering it again when it's clear. An uncomfortable feeling of foreboding starts to settle over him. Where is everyone? 

"I don't like this," he mutters. They continue until they reach the second turn; Lance repeats the maneuver, dropping his rifle to his side at the sight of yet another empty chamber. "Okay, this is definitely weird, right? If this base is so important, there's no way it would be this unprotected."

Pidge hums as they cautiously approach the doors, checking the adjoining corridor to ensure they're still alone."I'm not picking anything up on the bioscanners except for you guys. Maybe the place is run by sentries."

"Wouldn't we have seen some by now if it were?"

"Can you get us in?" Keith asks impatiently.

"Yeah, just one more second."

"I really don't like this," Lance mutters again. 

"You said that already," Keith sighs beside him, glancing over his shoulder. 

"I'm just saying—"

Keith suddenly lurches forward and shoves Lance into the other corridor, pressing him into the wall and slapping a hand over Lance's mouth. Lance lets out a muffled yelp of protest and squirms, until he hears the footsteps approaching from the hall they'd just been occupying. He stills immediately, eyes widening slightly.

"Okay, you should be able to get in with just the handprint now," Pidge is saying. Keith glares back the way they'd come as the footsteps grow louder. "Hello?"

Lance catches a glimpse of the sentry marching by, weapon in hand. Keith's eyes follow it until it passes out of sight, its steps echoing with an ugly metallic quality until they slowly begin to fade. Lance doesn't realize he's been holding his breath until the sound disappears entirely. After another tense moment, Keith peels his hand away from Lance's mouth, and he lets out a quiet breath. 

His heart is thumping wildly in his chest as they stare at each other, and for just one split second he allows himself to wonder if it has to do with something other than their close encounter with the sentry. "I think it's gone," he whispers.

Keith nods. Neither of them move. Lance is acutely aware of the cool metal pressing against his back, the rifle clutched against his chest the only thing that's really separating the two of them. His eyes drift toward Keith's mouth, and he swallows. 

"Hello-o? Keith? Lance?" Pidge's voice breaks through the silence and Keith abruptly shoves himself away, looking flustered. 

He clears his throat awkwardly. "We're here—uh, turns out there are some sentries, after all." Lance slowly moves away from the wall, taking a quiet, shaky breath. What. Was that.

"Are you guys okay?"

"Fine," Lance forces out, shaking himself out of his daze. "I don't think it saw us."

"Good, because the last thing you want is to get caught in the next room. Too much open space." After making sure they're alone again, they empty back out into the chamber and return to the doors. "Keith, you should be able to open the doors now, but secure your helmets first. If I'm reading this right, this entire next sector of the base isn't sealed off properly, so there's no oxygen from here on out until you get to the main control deck."

Keith activates his visor, glances back to ensure that Lance has done the same, then places his hand on the console. The doors hiss open, and they're greeted immediately by a rush of cold air.

Lance blinks and looks around as they enter the room, taking in his surroundings. On the far end of the room is a bridge leading to another set of doors. Along one wall is a row of small pods, large enough for maybe two people at a time, though a few seem to be missing. Tattered banners with the symbols of the Galra Empire are plastered around the entire room, illuminated by the purple glow of the fluorescent lights lining the ceiling, which is covered in humming pipes that snake along the metal surface and connect to a single, enormous metal block that he assumes must be a power converter of some kind. Just in front of them is a long, upturned table, chairs tossed askew throughout the room. In the center of it all sits a large monitor, its screen shattered almost completely. To complete the scene, individual parts of Galran sentries litter the floor, glinting in the light. "Uh," Lance says eloquently. "What exactly happened here?"

Keith bends over and picks up the disembodied head of a sentry and frowns at it. "No idea," he mutters. He lets it fall to the ground with a clatter and taps his helmet. "Krolia. What's your status?"  

"We're nearly to the main communications room," her voice breaks through. "There's been hardly any trouble so far, which concerns me."

"We ran into a few sentries," Shiro explains.

"But no soldiers?" Keith asks as Lance walks around the upturned table to inspect the control panels. 

"None," Allura confirms. "Why? Have you?"

"We've seen exactly one sentry," Lance replies. "And the briefing room is totally wrecked. It looks like they had a civil war in here or something."

"The base is usually heavily guarded by sentries, and never without a supervising unit," Krolia expounds. "Something must have happened. They would never leave this base so vulnerable."

"Is it possible the base was abandoned?" Keith asks.

"Possible, but unlikely, although I don't see any alternative explanation. We'll know more when we make it inside."

"We'll keep in touch," Shiro says."Be careful." There's a faint click as the line disconnects.

Lance steps past the wrecked console and heads for the bridge, stopping in his tracks when he reaches the end. "Whoa. Keith, check this out."

Keith joins him and they both stare over the edge into empty space. He blinks. "Well. I guess now we know why the room isn't properly sealed. How is there even gravity? And why would they brief for their assignments in here?"

Lance shrugs. "Aesthetic?"

Keith rolls his eyes, stepping away from the edge. "Pidge, you still there?"

"Yep. Sit tight. I'm having a little trouble getting these doors open—"

The sound of the entrance doors hissing open behind them alerts them too late before a single blast of energy flashes across the room and knocks Keith in the back, sending him staggering forward with a yelp of surprise, and Lance has to snatch him away from the edge. He whips around. "What—"

A crowd of sentries suddenly floods through the doors, and the room erupts into utter chaos. Keith and Lance both instinctively raise their shields and dive for cover behind the console.

"Keith, you okay?" Lance shouts over the noise. 

"Fine," Keith grunts. "Pretty sure that just took out my jetpack, though."

"Where the heck did they come from?" Lance leans around the corner, immediately jerking backward to narrowly avoid a hit to the face. "And how did they know we're here?"

"Guys!" Pidge's voice crackles in his ears with a burst of static. "Guys, something's interfering with our system—" Her voice cuts out, and Keith swears. Lance can't believe how quickly things are going downhill.

“Okay, we’ve gotta take these guys out.” He hefts his rifle and glances sideways at Keith. “Ready?”

"Born ready," Keith growls, brandishing his sword.

They launch into action, working together like the two of them have practiced so many times before during training exercises in the Castle. Keith dashes into the fray, and Lance shoots up from behind the console, leveling his rifle at the nearest sentry and blasting it straight in the chest. He lands two more successive blows on two more as the first topples over, then sets his sights on any of the sentries that turn their attention to Keith, who's already slashed through yet two others. Lance has to try really hard not to get distracted—the way that Keith moves through the chaos is so fluid, so graceful and so seemingly effortless that he almost wishes he could just stand and watch. He dodges through a cluster of sentries, knocking one of their weapons away before running another through, eyes alight and burning, and Lance thinks that maybe Keith really was, quite literally, born for this. Born for battle, for the rush and the high and the adrenaline and everything that comes with it.

Lance takes a few steps forward as they drive back the horde, aiming at a sentry that turns its back to aim at Keith. His body goes on autopilot; his finger pulls the trigger without a second thought and the bot crumples to the ground. Keith keeps whirling and slashing while Lance keeps aiming and blasting. Another sentry turns to Lance and promptly gets his head sliced off after Keith vaults himself over the upturned table. The group's number quickly dwindles as they keep pushing forward, and soon Keith is stabbing at the last one after Lance shoots down its counterpart. Keith relaxes slightly and turns, snorting when Lance grins and gives him a thumbs up from across the room. Then his eyes widen suddenly and he starts forward. "Lance!" 

The split second warning is barely enough for Lance to whip around and block the sentry swinging its weapon toward him. He tries to aim his rifle, but the sentry pins his arms underneath the weight of its own, and Keith yells his name again but he's still too far away to do anything. Lance hears the whirring of the sentry's blaster—he doesn't even have to think about it. There's a sudden, almost blinding flash of red, there's a satisfying crunch of metal, and the sentry immediately stills as it's run straight through with Lance's newly formed sword, its own blaster falling to the ground with a clatter. He kicks it off with a huff as Keith reaches his side. 

Keith stares from the decommissioned sentry, to Lance's sword, then to him, gaping. "You—when did you get a sword?"

Lance smiles proudly, holding it up for him to see. "Pretty sweet, huh? Allura says it's an Altean broadsword—" He's cut off by a blast that flies straight between them and hits the wall on the other end of the room in a shower of sparks, and they turn to see another wave of sentries spilling into the room without warning. They duck back behind the console as the room is once again plunged into chaos. "You've got to be kidding me," Lance scowls. "Where do they keep coming from? There's way too many this time, we can only hold them off for so long."

Keith scans the room, the light from the shots of the sentries' blasters reflecting across his helmet in flashes. He looks back at the bridge, then quickly peeks over the edge of the console, and Lance can tell he's already made a plan by the way he sets his jaw. "I'll distract them. You get across the bridge."

Lance stares at him. "What? Dude, no way, I'm not leaving you back here. There's too many, even for you, and we can't get through the doors anyway—"

"Just—" A blast ricochets over their head, and Keith grimaces. "—trust me, alright?"

Lance studies him for a moment that they probably don't really have. "Fine. Don't do anything stupid." 

"I should be telling you that," Keith mutters, and Lance feels the ridiculous urge to smile. "Ready?"

"I guess—"

Keith dashes out from the cover of the console, and Lance decides that's probably his cue to move. He rockets to his feet and races for the bridge, and the only reason he doesn't look over his shoulder as he does so is, is so that he doesn't rush headfirst over the edge and tumble into space. The bridge is way longer than it looks. By the time he makes it across to the safety of the platform, his heart is racing and he can practically hear it pounding over the sound of metal clanking and blasters firing behind him. He turns in time to see Keith kick a chair into a sentry's legs, effectively knocking it over and causing it to shoot another bot on its way down. He dodges another blast and dives back behind the table, gritting his teeth in concentration.

Whatever Keith is doing, it seems to be working in some capacity, because all of the sentries have turned their attention to him and are starting to drift in one big cluster away from the bridge. Only thing is, there's still at least a dozen of them, and Lance has no idea what Keith plans to do from here. Keith's bayard dematerializes and he meets Lance's gaze from across the room. "Don't miss!" he yells, and then he's sprinting for the bridge.

Lance understands immediately. His sword instantly transforms back into a rifle with a brief flash and he aims straight up—and fires at the base of the power converter attached to the ceiling. There's a loud creaking and grinding of metal as the room is suddenly plunged into darkness, trembling slightly as the wreckage begins to fall. Keith is halfway across when it slams into the bridge, and the group of sentries in hot pursuit. Keith staggers as the ground starts to give way underneath him, and Lance remembers just in time that Keith's jetpack is out of commission. His rifle clatters to the ground as he flings it aside and lurches toward the edge just as Keith jumps. 

Keith lets out a startled yelp as he latches onto Lance's arm, digging his fingers into his bicep as the rest of the bridge crumbles away, taking the sentries with it. Lance grunts from the sudden added weight and steels himself, doing his best to lessen the impact when Keith hits the ledge. He uses his other hand to grip Keith's arm and pulls, until Keith is able to clamber over the edge and scramble to his feet beside Lance, panting as they stare down at the debris and helpless robots drifting off into space. "Thanks," he says, a little breathlessly, eyes wide. 

Lance's eyes are still adjusting to the dark, but the earlier feeling of foreboding returns as he watches Keith trudge over to the console next to the doors and place his hand over the scanner. Nothing happens. Keith swears. "Pidge? Hunk? Can anyone hear me?" Lance glances at the chasm between the platform they're standing on and the place from which they'd entered. They'd fixed one problem, but only created another. "Hello? Shiro, come in." Lance has to take a calming breath as he realizes: they're trapped. With no way of communication, and no way of knowing if the others are even okay. Keith growls in frustration and slams a fist into the door, making Lance jump.

Lance slowly turns to him. "Keith?" His voice is small. 

Keith's hand slides down the door and he glances back at him, a flicker of uncertainty passing over his face that tells Lance he's thinking the same thing. "We'll be fine," Keith says, but he isn't sure if he's saying that for Lance's sake or his own. "It's fine. The others can take care of themselves. And Pidge is smart. She'll figure this out." He steps away from the door. "But for now, I guess—it looks like we're here for the long haul." He turns and leans back against the metal surface, slowly sliding down to the floor. Lance hovers for a moment in an attempt to steady himself, before following suit and slumping back against the door with his knees tucked in.

It's quiet for a moment as the two of them collect themselves. Keith is still trying to catch his breath, and Lance is still trying to slow his heart rate. He closes his eyes and rests his head back, willing himself to stay calm. Keith's right. The others are probably fine. And if anyone can figure out what's wrong with their comms, it's Pidge. They just have to be patient. Everything's going to be fine.

"So." Lance almost laughs at the sudden sense of déjà vu when Keith speaks. "You have... a sword."

Keith looks a bit relieved when Lance huffs in amusement, glancing at his rifle lying discarded on the ground a few feet away. "I have a sword now," he confirms. 

"When did that happen?"

"It just sort of. Happened." Lance exhales, puffing out his cheeks. "I was training one day and it kind of came out of nowhere. Allura says it's because I've gotten better at adapting to change, or something."

"Huh." 

Lance glances sideways at him. "Scared that I got better than you at sword fighting while you were gone?" 

Keith scoffs, although the corner of his mouth twitches up into a tiny smile. "You wish."

"Come on. At the very least, you're impressed by my incredible versatility in battle." 

"You're fishing for compliments." 

Lance gestures into the darkness around them. "Not like I have anything better to do. Go on, admit it. I won't tell anyone." 

Keith looks at him, considering. "I'm—mildly intrigued," he allows.

Lance rolls his eyes. "I'll take it." He scoots away from the wall and scoops up his rifle, willing it back into his bayard form before it disappears in a quick flash. When he turns to move back, he freezes. "Keith, your helmet."

Keith quickly slaps a hand over the bottom left corner of his visor. "What about it."

"You—" Lance narrows his eyes. "Why are you—Keith, let me see."

"See what." 

Keith tries to kick at Lance as he reaches forward, but Lance deflects his foot and pries his hand away from the glass, a faint jolt of panic shooting through his chest at the sight of the fracture creeping up the side of the visor and branching off in thin trickles of white. "Your helmet's cracked." Keith pushes him off and Lance sits back on his feet. "Keith, your oxygen's going to get contaminated—"

"I'll be fine," Keith insists stubbornly. "We won't be here that long. My suit will cycle through the oxygen I need."

Lance bites his lip nervously. "We should at least switch helmets every once in a while."

"No." Keith turns his head and leans back against the door, as if that settles it. Lance frowns, and Keith squints at him out of the corner of his eye. Then Lance reaches up and Keith jerks toward him. "Don't you dare—"

Lance doesn't hear the rest, because then he pulls the helmet off his head. Keith looks like he's experiencing a broad range of emotions, most of them involving punching him in the face or possibly strangling him. Then he's pulling off his own helmet and jamming it onto Lance's head before ripping Lance's out of his hands and replacing it over his own head. Lance hears the faint hiss of air escaping through the glass visor. 

"You idiot," Keith hisses, pressing a hand over the crack now glaring in Lance's field of vision.

He swats Keith's hand away. "You were being stubborn. We can trade off again in a little bit." Keith sighs in exasperation as Lance, satisfied, shifts around and lies down on his back, staring up at the entrails of the pipes on the ceiling. "You're welcome."

"Idiot," Keith mutters again, though Lance detects a hint of affection.

A sudden wave of exhaustion washes over him when he closes his eyes, reminding him of how tired he is from the night before. He thinks he probably shouldn't let himself drift off, especially not now that he's wearing a defective helmet, and especially because he knows it's more or less an excuse to escape the fear and anxiety gnawing at his stomach, but he feels himself quickly slipping away. A tiny part of his brain reminds him that he and Keith still haven't talked about what happened last night. Oddly enough, he'd kind of forgotten about it in the midst of the mission, and he doesn't really see how bringing it up now would help the current situation. Anyway, they seem to be okay, for now. He thinks he may have dozed off for a minute or two when Keith's voice jerks him awake, despite how quiet it is.

"I'm sorry I left."

Lance lets out a small puff of surprise. Or, they could talk about it now. "It's—Keith, you don't have to—" He waves his hand in the air with a vague gesture, unsure what he's trying to say. 

Keith does anyway. "I think—" he pauses, restarts. "I thought I was doing the right thing. Leaving." It's quiet again, but Lance doesn't think he's done, so he waits. "When I was on my mission with Krolia, I finally found out why she really left." At this, Lance opens his eyes and slowly rolls over onto his side to look at Keith, brow furrowed. He hardly knows anything about Keith's past; just that his mom had left, his dad died when he was still young, he moved around from foster home to foster home for a while until Shiro found him and took him under his wing. Keith never seemed eager to share much other than that, anyway. So this feels important. He's staring at the ground between his legs, frowning. "And I guess—I don't know. She thought she was doing the right thing too, when she left. She thought she was protecting us, which I understand. At least, I think I do. I was still kind of angry at first, but I moved past it eventually, mostly because I'm just really glad to have her back." His voice cracks a little, and Lance's heart clenches. Keith takes a deep breath. "Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is, I get it. If you're still pissed. Leaving the team, was—I don't regret the things I found, but I really regret all the things I missed."

Lance looks at him for a long time. Keith stares decidedly in any direction but his, which makes it easier for Lance to study him carefully, considering his response. After a while, he pushes himself back up into a sitting position with a long sigh, crossing his legs. "Well. Okay, yeah, I'm still kind of pissed." Keith winces slightly. "But it wasn't—" Lance folds his arms loosely. "I wasn't really ever mad at you. Like you were saying, I think I understand why you left. At least, I do now. But I mean, you got your mom back, Keith. I can't be mad about that." Keith looks up cautiously, and the look in his eyes makes Lance's heart ache a little. "I was just hurt because it felt like you left right when I thought, maybe we were starting to get closer. And I guess I thought, you were scared of that, or something."

Keith's gaze falls. "I guess I kind of was," he says softly. 

Lance's stomach does a sort of flip-flop. I was in love with you—I still am. 

A life-changing revelation.

"I died," Lance says suddenly, and he has no idea why he's bringing it up now, but he is and it's happening and he said it out loud and he can't take it back. 

Keith's response is sort of anticlimactic, because he just gives Lance a funny look. "What?"

"I died," Lance repeats. He considers. "It kind of sucked."

There's a second of quiet. Keith looks like he's struggling to decide whether or not this is supposed to be taken seriously. "Okay, give me my helmet back. You're not getting enough oxygen." Lance frowns at the wall next to Keith's head, and he shifts uncomfortably. "Lance, that's not funny—" 

His words seem to die in his throat when Lance turns and fixes him with his gaze. "Keith. I died." 

It's dark, but Keith looks like he's paled significantly. His eyes search Lance's earnestly, like he's still waiting for the punch line to one of Lance's jokes, however sick it might be. Lance thinks he's scared of asking what he means and actually getting an answer. So he continues without prompting. 

"We were fixing these radiation plates for some planet the Galra were occupying, when we were working alongside Lotor. Allura and I tried to repair some of them by freezing the broken parts and then melding them together, but something went wrong, and one of the plates shorted." Keith is deathly silent in front of him, and Lance shivers slightly. "I pushed her out of the way and took the worst of the blast. If she hadn't left Blue to save me as quick as she did—" He frowns again. "I'd still be dead."

Keith stares at him, the expression on his face a mixture of shock, horror, disbelief, anger, and maybe something else that Lance can't quite place. "I—had no idea—" he chokes. "Lance, you—why didn't anyone tell me?"

Lance looks down at the ground. 

The cusp of a life-changing revelation. 

Keith suddenly stiffens. "Shiro," he mutters. "I'm going to kill him. I'm going to kill Shiro—"

"I told him not to tell you."

And this time, Keith doesn't seem to have trouble asking the unavoidable question: "Why?"

Lance looks at Keith, and everything falls into place. 

A life-changing, mind-blowing, head-splitting, earth-shattering revelation. 

He opens his mouth to respond, but then there's a burst of static and both of them jump. 

"—llo? Lance? Keith?" 

"Pidge?" Keith shoots to his feet, and Lance quickly does the same. "Pidge, what happened? Are you okay? Is everyone—"  

"We're fine," She promises. “Everyone's fine. Sorry, I got hit with some kind of computer virus when I overrode the locks for that last door, and it was a pain to get rid of. And apparently it alerted every sentry in this sector of your location, so sorry about that. I’m glad you guys are okay.”

“We’re just glad to have you back,” Keith breathes out a sigh of relief. "Have the others made it to the communications center yet?" 

"Yes, they're inside now. Speaking of, I need to get you guys through these doors."

Keith glances at the dull control panel beside him. "We lost power in here. Is that gonna be a problem?”

"No, but that means I'll have to override the locks manually. Hang on."

They take a few steps back from the doors. Lance summons his bayard again, just in case. "Here goes nothing," he mutters. The doors hiss open, and they both have to squint at the sudden influx of light. Lance takes the lead again, pointing his rifle down the new hallway with his trigger finger at the ready. The doors close behind them.

"Should be smooth sailing from here," Pidge says. "There are a bunch of intersecting hallways, but if you just go to the very end of this one, it should empty out into the main control deck. I've already connected to the mainframe, so Keith, you should be able to interact with the technology no problem."

"Good work, Pidge," Keith murmurs. "We knew we could count on you." 

"I'll check in with Shiro. See you guys soon." The line disconnects. 

"Looks like this is the homestretch," Lance raises an eyebrow over his shoulder at Keith. 

"Looks like it." 

As Pidge predicted, the corridor empties out into a room of similar size to the last, an enormous monitor sitting in the center of the room. But the moment Lance steps inside, the foreboding feeling returns once again full force. "It's clear." Keith sidles past him and approaches the control panel as Lance looks around, deactivating his visor. "This is wrong. Keith, there's no one here."

"I know, but we're here now. Might as well get what we came for. Just don't let your guard down, and cover the entrance. I'd rather not get shot in the back again."

Lance obeys reluctantly, eyes sweeping the room in a single arc as he positions himself between Keith and the hall. "If something else goes wrong, don't say I didn't tell you so." 

"Relax," Keith huffs. "I know what I'm doing." 

"I never said you didn't," Lance grumbles. He tries not to fidget as Keith works silently behind him. There must be more than one way to get here—they're literally smack in the center of the entire base at this point. They cut off one entry when they smashed the bridge, but there's no telling how many more there could be. And if the sentries were alerted to their presence in the briefing room, they must know now where they're headed. Maybe they'd managed to destroy all of the ones in this sector, but surely more are on their way. He feels like a sitting duck. "I say we just load everything into a drive and get out of here."

"That would take too long. I just have to find their battle plans and stuff." 

"Well, you're taking too long—" 

"Because you keep distracting me!" 

Lance sighs noisily to emphasize his dissent, but stops arguing. He frowns at the huge banner glaring down at him with the emblazoned symbol of the Galra Empire. He's thinking about blasting a frowny face into it just because when he hears a faint electronic tone. He freezes, listening. "Wait, do you hear that?" There's a tick of quiet, and then he hears it again—a soft, muted, repetitive beep that sounds oddly like—Lance lowers his rifle and glances over his shoulder, feeling suddenly strangely disconnected. "Keith—"

But Keith is already turning away from the console, arms reaching, eyes wide with panic as he throws himself around Lance and before he has any time to register what is going on—he’s still reaching for him why is he doing that—the room explodes around them.

He feels it before he sees it. The ground disappears underneath his feet and for a moment he feels weightless, like he's floating in space, until there's a delayed, blinding flash and searing light and deafening crack that thunders in his chest and through his toes as the room erupts in a fiery blast. Shards of steel and metal rip through the air beside him and he feels Keith's arm cinching around his waist and the heat of the explosion seeping through his suit as they're blown backward. Then they hit the ground, hard, and the breath is ripped from his lungs. The momentum sends them rolling and tumbling across the floor until they finally skid to a stop, and Keith hunches over him as debris rains down around them and the room fills with smoke. 

And just as quickly as the chaos started, it finishes. 

The world is spinning. Lance lies there on the floor for a moment in a daze, ears ringing, vision hazy; his head aches, and when he tries to take a breath he chokes on smoke and feels, rather than hears, himself coughing violently until tears sting his eyes. And it's hot—he can already see the flames creeping up the banner above the doors. It takes him a good minute to bring his breathing back under control, and even longer for the ringing in his ears to subside substantially enough that he can even hear himself think. He's hardly aware of the dark tuft of hair tickling his cheek until Keith shifts, peeling away and pushing himself onto his hands to stare down at him, eyes wide and unnerved. Lance doesn't even register that Keith is speaking to him until he sees his lips move.

"Lance. Lance, are you okay?" His voice sounds muffled, but that's probably because of the throbbing heartbeat in Lance's ears.

He nods slowly, blinking. Keith stares at him for a second longer, then grits his teeth and rolls away with a grunt.

Lance slowly heaves himself into a sitting position, his mind blown by how badly his body already aches, and briefly surveys the wreckage. He can hardly see through all the smoke and flames licking around the edges of the room, bathing everything in a hazy orange glow. He coughs again, his throat constricting in protest. "What happened—"

There's a piercing burst of static in his ears, and he and Keith both groan. "Lance? Keith!" Shiro's voice comes through, tinged with worry. "Hello? Are you both alright, we thought we heard an explosion—"

"We're here," Keith growls, climbing to his knees. "The control deck. It must've been rigged to explode when someone tried to access the system."

Lance is too dazed to properly react to Krolia cursing. "We need to abort the mission, and you two need to get out of there, now. Their last outgoing transmission was from the general in charge affirming that they were surrendering the base. Evidently, his unit revolted against him while Lotor was in power, and they've undoubtedly gone to great lengths to protect any classified information—"

"Like bombs," Lance finishes with a groan. "But we haven't gotten anything—"

"That doesn't matter," Allura interrupts. "Your lives are worth more than any information we might have found on this base." 

"Allura's right," Shiro says firmly. "We're en route to the Yellow Lion now. You two should be, too."

"Understood," Lance mutters before the line disconnects. He drags himself to his feet, stifling another fit of coughing. When Keith pushes himself off the ground he staggers, and Lance catches his arm to steady him, ignoring the jolt of pain that shoots through his bicep. "Dude, take it easy."

"I'm fine," Keith says, but his expression seems a little dazed and disoriented. He chokes a little when he takes in a breath. "Let's get out of here."

Lance realizes he doesn't have his rifle anymore—it must've been ripped out of his hands from the blast. He glances over his shoulder to see it lying on the ground a few yards away. Weaving through some of the flames and debris, he gingerly picks it up, bothered by how much heavier it suddenly seems to be. The quick flash of red hurts his eyes a bit as he wills it back into bayard form again, and then it dematerializes. He turns back to Keith. "Okay, let's—" And then he freezes, his eyes fixed on the thick streak of red slowly trailing down the armor on Keith's left leg. 

Keith frowns, following Lance's horrified gaze to the jagged strip of metal protruding from his torso. "Oh," he says weakly, before his knees buckle and Lance is barely fast enough to keep him from hitting the floor.

A string of swear words slips out of Lance's mouth as he stumbles with the weight, slinging Keith's arm over his shoulders for support. 

Keith's face is pale. “That doesn’t look too good.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious, Lance thinks, but it's drowned out by the panic swelling painfully in his chest. "Can you walk?" he asks, trying to keep it out of his voice. 

"Yeah, m'okay. Just—" Keith cuts off with a sharp inhale of pain and digs his fingers into Lance's shoulder as he tries to guide them a step forward.

Lance swears again. "Sorry—" This is bad. This is really, really bad. He looks around in a bit of a blind panic for the entrance. "We've gotta at least get out of this room, okay? I'll help, just—there you go, just a few steps—" 

With difficulty, he manages to more or less drag Keith into the hallway, tripping and stumbling over their own feet until he decides they've made it far enough away from the smoke and flames. Keith groans as Lance lowers him to the ground as carefully as he can, propping him up against the wall and crouching down beside him to inspect the wound.

Keith squirms a little. "How does it look?"

Lance doesn't say anything, trying to fight down the rising alarm in his chest. The sight of the metal embedded in Keith's side makes Lance sick to his stomach, although he can't tear his eyes away from it. His throat starts to close up the longer he looks. It's impossible to tell, but it must be buried at least an inch deep, and there's so much blood, why is there so much blood—

Keith grimaces, leaning his head back against the wall. "That bad, huh?"

"Okay." Lance holds his hands out, trying to organize his frenzied, panicked thoughts. They'd had some medical training at the Garrison—not a lot, but enough for him to be able to maybe do something. "Okay, listen. It's gonna be fine. You're gonna be fine."

His stomach fills with dread as Keith stifles another grunt, clenching his teeth. "Are you saying that for me or for yourself?"

Lance winces and holds a hand to his helmet. "Hey, guys? We have a problem." 

He must sound as panicked as he feels, because Allura seems to pick up on the urgency. "What's going on? Are you alright?"

"You guys have to come and get us."

"What?" Shiro cuts in. "Why, what's wrong?"

Lance swallows, his throat dry. "It's Keith."

There's a short moment of silence that makes Lance want to scream, because he's terrified that every second that passes could be a second too late.

"Is he—" Shiro chokes. "Oh god, is he—"

"What happened?" Krolia demands, and Lance starts shaking his head in frustration. 

"I don't have time to explain, just—you guys have to hurry. Please—"

"Lance, I have your location." Pidge joins the conversation, and she sounds scared, but Lance loves her for the determined calmness of her tone. "Can I send Kosmo?"

"No," Keith gasps immediately, making Lance jump. "No teleportation. No—" 

"Okay, no Kosmo," Lance says soothingly, which is hard to do when his stomach feels like it's turning inside out. 

Allura, bless her, wastes no time. "We're nearly to the Yellow Lion, and then we'll be on our way. But it will be several doboshes before we arrive."

Keith meets Lance's eyes, and he hates it with every fiber of his being but he knows they're both thinking the same thing. 

"Okay, just—hurry," Lance repeats pleadingly before allowing the line to disconnect. Keith is still looking at him, his face strangely still. 

"Lance—"

He won't hear it. "Shut up."

"Lance—" Keith tries again.

"Keith, shut up and let me concentrate." Keith watches as Lance drops to one knee, his hands hovering over Keith's stomach as he tries to remember anything he might have learned about puncture wounds. He's not supposed to try to remove the metal, that much he knows—that would only cause more damage, and accelerate blood loss—and Keith is already losing a lot of blood. A wave of nausea hits Lance as he realizes what he has to do. From the look on his face, Keith seems to understand what's about to happen. Lance takes a deep breath. "This is gonna hurt."

"Just do it," Keith growls, clenching his teeth. 

Lance steels himself, crosses one hand over the other, and presses them against the ripped flesh around the entry wound, his stomach turning at the feeling of it all underneath his fingers. Keith's eyes fly open and he instantly gasps in pain, throwing his head back against the wall and clutching at Lance's arm. "Nngh—Lance—stop—"

It takes every single ounce of strength in Lance's body to keep him from relenting. "I'm sorry, Keith—we have to—" 

"It hurts—" Keith whines, gasping again and arching his back as he claws at Lance's arm in an effort to push him away. "Lance—"

"Keith, I know—" Lance bites back the bile rising in his throat, tears stinging the backs of his eyes. "I know it hurts, buddy. But we've gotta stop the bleeding."

Keith squirms, panting as Lance holds him in place—I know, Keith, I'm sorry, I know it hurts—and it's all he can do to keep himself from breaking down. The only reason he doesn't succumb to his panic entirely is because he knows he could literally be the difference between whether Keith lives or dies—Lance tries to shut his brain off before he goes any further. Keith seems to grow more accustomed to the pain as the seconds trickle into minutes, and Lance doesn't know if that’s supposed to be a good or a bad sign. His face is gradually draining of color, his breathing slows, and beads of sweat drip down the sides of his face and make his hair stick to his forehead.

And Lance realizes, from the way he won't stop staring at him, that Keith is scared. And that makes Lance terrified. He feels that same numb feeling from before, he's trying to focus on his hands, on stopping the bleeding, he's trying, but it isn't stopping and there's so much of it, soaking into his gloves and dripping onto the floor and he's completely and absolutely and utterly terrified. 

At this point, he's sure the shock will start to set in at any moment, and he's worried that if he doesn't keep Keith talking he might pass out. "Alright, how are we feeling?" 

"Ugh," Keith replies. 

"I'm sure they're almost here," Lance tries, but he's not very convincing. "Just hang in there." 

Keith blinks, a little too slowly for Lance's liking. "I didn'know you could dance." Another twinge of panic hits Lance like a brick because he doesn't know what Keith is talking about. "Or sing."

Then Lance realizes that Keith is talking about last night, and he lets out a tiny, relieved huff, only relaxing slightly. "There's a lot you don't know about me, buddy." 

Keith hums. "You have a nice voice." 

Lance tenses. He swallows. "Then you'd better stick around so you can hear more of it, yeah?"

He wishes Keith would stop looking at him like that. "Lance."

Lance's heart clenches. "Yeah, man, it's me. I'm right here. What is it?" Stop looking at me like that.

"You look good in red."

Then Lance is trying to figure out where that came from, and he realizes suddenly that they're still wearing each other's helmets. Normally, he'd eat up any sort of compliment he could draw out of Keith, but these ones are completely voluntary; meaning, Keith's filter has been switched off, and Lance kind of wishes he would stop because it's only furthering his sense of dread. He tries to smile. "Really? If you think I look good in red, you should see me in yellow. I look amazing in yellow."

"Hm," Keith says, his eyelids drooping.

Lance's head snaps up. "Hey. Keith, don't you dare."

"M'just tired," he protests, but his words are starting to come out slow, slurred together. 

"Tough," Lance replies firmly. "Keep them open." 

Keith seems to frown in concentration as he obeys. "Hurts," he mumbles, shifting slightly. 

"I know," Lance says softly. "I'm sorry." 

Keith watches him for a moment, his face eerily calm. Then: "I think I almost kissed you earlier." 

Lance makes a strangled noise, the image of Keith pressing him against the wall in the dark corridor flashing through his mind and making his heart skip two beats. "Keith, you can't just—say things like that."

"Like what?"

He's delirious, Lance thinks, his breath shaking. "Nothing. Never mind. You just can't."

Keith either doesn't have the energy to argue with his logic or seems to accept it as perfectly valid. But then his brow furrows. "Lance," he croaks, and Lance knows by the way he says his name what he's about to do. 

"Just—" Lance takes a shuddering breath. "Just hold on, okay? Just a little bit longer. Shiro and Krolia are coming. You want to see them when they get here? Wouldn't that be nice?"

Keith doesn't seem to hear him, his eyes fluttering, and Lance can tell it's taking an immense effort to keep them open. "I jus'need—" He frowns again. "I need to tell you—"

"Stop." Lance feels the tears welling in his eyes and blinks them back, unable to ignore his rising panic. "Save your energy, alright?"

"Listen—"

"Keith, shut up," Lance interrupts. "You're in shock—"

"Lance." Keith's hand clamps around Lance's arm, and it terrifies Lance into silence. He holds his breath. Keith's eyes keep drifting closed, and Lance wants to reach up and pinch them open but he can't. When he speaks again, his voice comes out in a sigh. "You were always... my first choice."

An awful feeling bubbles up in Lance's throat and he lets out a broken sob, blinking the fresh tears out of his eyes. "No, I don't—" his voice cracks. "I don't want to be your first choice, past tense. I want to be your first choice, present tense."

"I jus', needed..." Keith's eyes keep closing and he keeps mumbling everything and his eyes are staying closed for too long and Lance wants to scream at him to keep them open. "Needed you to know."

"Keith," Lance whispers. Please." 

Keith takes a shallow breath, his grip loosening on Lance's arm. "Wasn'really how I wanted to tell you."

"Then tell me later," Lance pleads, hardly able to see through the water in his eyes. "When we're back in the Lions, or when we get back home. Whenever you want. Just not—" He chokes back another sob. "Not now."

"Home," Keith mumbles. His hand falls limply into his lap, and he doesn't open his eyes. 

"Keith?" Lance can't breathe. "Keith? Keith, c'mon. C'mon buddy, wake up—" He tries to jostle Keith's shoulder with his own, and his head lolls to the side, and the lingering panic in Lance's body surges through his lungs. "Keith?" he says again, louder. "Open your eyes. Wake up. Hey—" He can't breathe, his face is sticky with tears and he can't even do anything but sit there helplessly with his hands pressed around the metal buried in Keith's limp body. "Keith—" 

After that, everything happens in a blur.

There are footsteps racing down the hallway and several sharp intakes of breath and gasps of shock and horror, which Lance hardly notices because he's still leaning over Keith, crying and desperately repeating Keith's name over and over, begging him to wake up but he won't wake up—Someone, Shiro maybe, is saying something about getting Keith to the pod they left in the Black Lion, and someone's trying to pull him away but he won't budge. He catches a few glimpses of the terror on Shiro and Allura's faces and Krolia's locked jaw and Pidge and Hunk are there and someone keeps trying to pull him away but he just shakes his head stubbornly, and then someone calls to Hunk.

"Lance I'm sorry—" And then he feels strong arms wrapping themselves around his torso and his hands are being torn away from Keith, and Lance starts thrashing, hears himself screaming no, he can't leave again, we just got him back, I just got him back—the last thing that he sees is Shiro and Allura crowding around Keith's lifeless body, and Krolia lifting him from the floor. He pounds on Hunk's back and screams until his voice is hoarse, until he's being wrestled onto the floor of the Yellow Lion and Pidge fastens her arms around him and holds his head to her stomach and Hunk is rubbing circles into his back to try to calm him down, Lance can't stop staring at his bloody hands and it's all just too much. He dissolves into their hold and cries. 

The others must return to the Lion at some point, because Hunk moves away to climb into the pilot's seat and Pidge turns him away after he catches just a glimpse of a red-clad arm hanging limply over Krolia's shoulder. Before he knows what's happening, they're landing again and he's being ushered out into the sand as a cluster of them rush toward the Black Lion. Allura clamps a hand on his shoulder and looks at him with a fierce determination in her eyes before following Shiro, and then he's being lead away again by Hunk and Pidge. He feels himself being pulled into a tent, and he thinks he must still be crying because Pidge pulls his—Keith's—helmet off and Hunk sits him down and then they're wrapping him in a tangled bundle of arms until he manages to pull himself together long enough to have a coherent thought.

"Keith," he whispers, and Hunk squeezes him, and Pidge starts crying. 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Lance cries when Allura tells them that Keith is going to be okay.  

He buries his face in his hands, and his shoulders shake, and he cries. Shiro wraps his arm around his shoulders with a shuddering sigh of relief, and lets him cry. 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Days pass. 

Long, empty, and painfully slow. 

The rest of the team sets up camp in the sand underneath the Lions while they wait for Keith to wake up. Sometimes, Lance sits inside the Black Lion beside the pod and watches him, drinks in the movement of his chest rising and falling, to remind himself that Keith is alive. Sometimes, he lies on his back in his tent and stares at his hands, and has to take deep breaths to remind himself that they aren't covered in blood anymore. And sometimes, he walks to the nearby shore, and sits close enough for the waves to wash up over his boots and nothing more, to forget it all. 

They let him have his space, but not without frequently checking to make sure he's drinking water and eating. At night, Hunk and Pidge swathe him in blankets and nestle around him in a warm, safe cocoon of comfort until they all fall asleep in a bundle of snores and tangled limbs. Shiro, especially, seems to be extra sensitive, taking special care to send him reassuring smiles from across camp and gentle squeezes of the shoulder every time they pass by. And when he finds himself in Allura's tent one night with tears in his eyes, she slips her arms around him and lets him cry into her shoulder, running her fingers through his hair in soothing motions. The one person he finds himself unintentionally avoiding, is Krolia. Every time he sees her, he gets the sudden urge to curl up in his tent and hide from the guilt he feels. Going into the base had been his idea. She has every right to blame him for what happened. She probably does. 

Ironically, the only place he can seem to hear himself think is on the shore, where the wind blows and the waves crash loudly into the sand, and he can look out at the ocean and pretend that he's left everything else behind. Sometimes he needs to, to be able to stop himself from imagining all the things he did and didn't say, the things he never got to apologize for and the things he never got to tell, and what would've happened if he lost the chance to change them. 

So that's where he is, when someone clears their throat and Lance turns to see Krolia standing behind him. She watches as he awkwardly scrambles to his feet in surprise and stares at her with a mix of apprehension and confusion. He tries to remember if he's ever been alone with her before. As unnerved as he is right now, he thinks he would remember if he had. "Uh—" His voice comes out in a squeak and he clears his throat. "Hi?" Yes, he thinks. Very eloquent. 

She just looks at him, her expression entirely unreadable. He tries not to squirm under her gaze, wondering how far he'd get if he made a break for it. He could always turn around and fling himself into the ocean. Both options are equally undesirable. Just when he thinks he might pass out from the suspense, she extends her arm. "I think this belongs to you."

He looks down at the blue helmet in her grip and blinks. "Oh." He takes it carefully and holds it to his chest, unsure what else to do with it. "Thank you."

Krolia seems to study him carefully for another moment, during which he fidgets uncomfortably with his helmet. She seems to sense his unease, because the corner of her mouth finally quirks up into an amused smile. "I don't mean to be intimidating."

Lance lets out a nervous laugh. "Uh—yeah. Sorry, I don't mean to—I'm just—" He honestly has no idea what to say. He's hardly ever spoken two words to Krolia except for in a group setting, and even then it's mostly been him asking for some kind of explanation to something; but one-on-one? This is unexplored territory.

She folds her arms, and he nearly laughs at how much it reminds him of Keith. "I don't blame you for what happened." 

Lance stares at her. "Oh," he says, very softly. 

She taps a finger against her arm. "In fact, I should be thanking you."

That throws him off. "You—what?" His grip tightens on his helmet. "But—it was my idea to go inside in the first place. If I hadn't suggested it—"

"Lance, we all knew the risks of this mission," Krolia interrupts, and he starts slightly, trying to remember if she's ever actually used his name. "You suggested, we accepted. No one is at fault here." 

"But he almost died!" Lance cries. 

She frowns slightly. "There are always casualties in war." 

Lance's mouth drops open, all the previous uneasiness forgotten. "How can you say that? He's your son, how can you just—do you even care what happens to him?" She just looks at him again, as he realizes what he's said. He lets out a shaky, frustrated breath and drops his face into his hand. "Sorry, I—keep doing that. I shouldn't have said that."

It feels like needles pricking under his skin as he waits for her response. The waves continue crashing behind them, unfazed. After a while she turns to watch them, her face softening a little. "He talked about you frequently." Lance freezes, and she continues. "Always about what a pain you were, mostly. About how you always had to make everything into a competition, which—" she glances at him sideways. "—still seems to be true." Lance opens his mouth to deliver an indignant reply, but she goes on. "And he always talked about how what a pain it was, trying to save you before you could save him. How even then, you've saved his life a number of times." Lance's heart clenches in his chest, and he follows her gaze out into the ocean for a moment, watching the waves build up and crash in the distance as the wind blows across the shore. Eventually, she unfolds her arms and pulls the blade from her belt—the same one that she and Keith have exchanged so many times already—and examines it fondly. "Keith would have bled out and died in that hallway if you hadn't been with him. Thanks to you," she turns to him. "I can return this to my son." 

Lance meets her eyes and thinks about what Keith had said, about how he didn't regret the things that he found. And suddenly, he understands. "He's really glad he found you." He pauses. "I am too."

The ghost of a smile appears on her face as he holds out his hand. She takes it, and as they shake it feels like they're making a silent vow to one another.

Suddenly, there's a shout from further inland, and they both turn to see Hunk waving wildly and Pidge pointing excitedly at the Black Lion, where Shiro is standing on the ramp and gesturing for everyone to come his way. Lance inhales sharply. He's awake. He's awake he's awake Keith's awake—Krolia is already sprinting across the shore; Lance throws his helmet to the ground and follows, kicking up sand with every step as he tries to keep up until they're barreling up the ramp behind everyone else. Lance bursts into the cockpit and stops in his tracks, staring.

The entire team is crowded around the pod, all relieved smiles and shaky laughs and bright eyes, and Keith.

Keith is sitting up, his hair sticking up wildly in three different directions, looking a little dazed and disheveled, but alive. It takes his breath away. Even more when he smiles as Shiro envelops him in a tight, one-armed hug, rolling his eyes a little when he goes on to ruffle his hair and leave it sticking up in two more directions, when he blinks in surprise as Allura takes both of his shoulders and kisses the top of his head, when he laughs as Pidge and Hunk all but tackle him back into the pod, when he smiles again as Krolia pushes her way to the front and brushes the hair out of his eyes, laying an affectionate hand on his shoulder, and. And when their eyes meet from across the cockpit, and Lance's heart all but stops in his chest. 

The entire cockpit seems to fall silent as they stare at each other. Then Lance takes a deep breath, and everyone watches as he marches straight through the group and engulfs Keith in a suffocating, bone-crushing hug. 

"Mmf," Keith says into his shoulder. 

"I hate you," Lance whispers unconvincingly, his face buried in Keith's neck. "You idiot. You can't—do that. You're not allowed to leave again. You're not."

He feels tears working their way into his eyes as Keith's arms wrap tightly around him in response. "Wasn't planning on it," he says softly. 

Lance pulls away with a huff. "Good." Then he shakes his head, wiping at the wet streaks on his face, a bit self-conscious when he remembers the rest of the team standing around them. "Ugh. Look what you did."  

Keith smiles a little sheepishly, and then Shiro claps him on the back with a hopelessly fond look on his face. "We're glad you're alright. I know you just woke up, but you should get some rest. We aren't going anywhere." Lance wants to protest—he's technically been asleep for like, three days—but when he looks again at Keith, he can see just how exhausted he actually is, so he keeps his mouth shut. 

Everyone starts filing out of the cockpit, giving Keith a few more quick hugs and pats on the shoulder and kind words. Shiro squeezes Lance's shoulder as he passes and Lance smiles weakly, wiping again at his face and glancing back at Keith one more time before turning to follow. 

"Wait, Lance," Keith calls. Lance turns. Keith shifts slightly from where he sits in the pod, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

Lance steps back into the cockpit and approaches the pod again, folding his arms and sitting on its edge as Keith looks down at his hands. He seems fidgety, which is in turn making Lance kind of nervous. Then Keith clears his throat. "So."

Lance groans and drops his head back. "Keith, we've got to find you a better conversation starter." 

Keith stifles a laugh. "Sorry. I'm not good at—" His smile disappears and he looks away again, swallowing. "Anyway, that's not the point. Look, I just wanted to—" He clears his throat again. "I know I just woke up from near-death and stuff, but I just—I want to make sure that everything is still—okay. Between us."

The incredulous look on Lance's face is probably obvious, because Keith's eyes widen a little and his face flushes. "It's just that—I remember saying some things when I was—uh, dying—and I'm sorry if it made you uncomfortable or anything—" He seems to realize he's rambling because he covers his face in his hands and groans. "I just mean I get that it's not mutual, but I don't want that to keep us from still being friends? Ever since I came back I've been scared that I'd never be able to tell you all the stuff I've always wanted to tell you, but—I'm just, sorry if I put you in an uncomfortable position, and I understand if you want to tell Allura—" 

Lance's brain shorts out momentarily. "Whoawhoawhoa, time out," Lance cuts him off. "What are you talking about?"

Keith stares. "Because you two are—wait, what are you talking about?"

Everything suddenly clicks, and Lance slaps his forehead. The other night, when Keith asked about him and Allura. How he'd noticed them talking on a private line, the way his mood turned sour after he danced with her around the fire, how he always seemed to close himself off anytime Lance mentioned her—Keith was jealous. Lance starts laughing, and Keith looks like he might actually want to die now. "You thought—okay. I'm—" He claps his hands together and presses his fingertips to his nose, snickering. "I get it now. Keith, Allura and I, we're not—" He shakes his head. "We never have been."

Keith's face is priceless. His eyes widen, his cheeks turn pink, and his mouth curves into a small, silent "o". 

Lance puts a hand over his mouth to cover his smile, shakes his head again and stands. "Go back to sleep, weirdo. You look like you need it."

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

(Keith nearly faceplants into the sand when he stumbles down the ramp of the Black Lion later. Lance slips an arm around his waist for support, and laughs.)

 

 

 


 

 

 

Days pass. 

Long, full, and comfortably slow.

Keith insists by the second day that he's perfectly fine and ready to fly, but the second he says it, Black closes her mouth and doesn't even let him back inside for a good three hours. Shiro can't stop laughing, even after Keith throws his Hunk-made quesadilla into the ocean. (Hunk takes Black's side after that.)

By the fourth day, Allura decides that Keith has spent plenty of time in the healing pod to justifiably allow him to fly again. Which is just as well, because Keith was getting restless, being cooped up in a tiny pod or tent on a tiny strip of land surrounded by water. 

Everyone seems happy—which seems small, but to Lance, feels like a victory. Now, when Shiro smiles at Lance across the campsite, it actually reaches his eyes. And when he sees Krolia, sometimes, as long as no one else is looking, her lips will quirk up into a tiny, acknowledging smile. He, Hunk, and Pidge still sleep in a bundle, and on the last night they somehow convince Keith to join, only after lots of begging and prodding and rolling of eyes. 

(C'mon Keith, we did this all the time at the Garrison—

I am not going to be used as someone's teddy bear, Lance.

But it'll be fun! It's so warm and toasty and you get that warm fuzzy feeling in your stomach like you just ate a really nice, big meal.

See! Hunk gets it.

No.

Tell him, Pidge. 

Keith, please?

... Fine.)

Keith snores the loudest.  

But when Lance wakes up with Hunk's arm pressed into his forehead, he's not exactly surprised to find that Keith isn't there. He takes a deep breath and sighs quietly, blinking sleepily at the light peeking through the front of the tent and listening to the faint sound of waves crashing outside. Hunk's arm slips onto the ground with a thump as Lance turns his head, snorting at the line of drool dribbling out of Pidge's open mouth. He sits up slowly and carefully disentangles himself from the pile of limbs before quietly pushing out of the tent and into the sand. He has to squint against the sudden influx of light as he rubs the sleep out of his eyes.

He looks around the camp, but no one seems to be up yet—not even Coran, which is a first. But when he turns and looks out toward the ocean, he sees Keith and Krolia standing on the shore. He almost feels caught, even though they haven't seen him. They look to be having a serious, heartfelt conversation that he feels like he's intruding upon just by watching. He sees Krolia take the blade from her belt and say something to him. Keith accepts it, looking down at it for a moment before sheathing it. Lance thinks he might say something else to Krolia, and she puts her hands on his shoulders before pulling him into a tight hug. When they pull apart, he thinks Keith might be crying, because he reaches up to quickly wipe at his face, and Krolia brushes the hair out of his face like Lance so often sees her do. She drops her hand back to his shoulder one more time before turning back to camp. 

Lance watches as she approaches, tromping through the sand until she's made it back to the campsite. She smiles a little when she sees Lance standing outside the tent, like she knew all along that he'd been watching. "Enjoy the show?" she asks. 

"Sorry," he winces. "I didn't mean to intrude or anything, I was just—looking for Keith." 

She glances over her shoulder. "Seems you've found him." And then she walks past him and disappears back into her own tent. Lance blinks, then looks back at Keith still standing alone on the shore, face to the ocean. He takes a deep breath, and starts to pick his way across the sand. 

Keith hardly looks up when Lance reaches his side, his eyes a little distant and unfocused as he stares out at the waves. Lance stands quietly beside him, watching the sand underneath his boots slurp and squelch before it's washed away by the water lapping onto the shore. After a while, Keith opens his mouth. 

"Don't say it."

He huffs. "I wasn't—never mind." They stand there for another moment without saying anything. And for once, Lance is okay with the silence. Eventually, Keith tries again. "I guess this place must remind you of home." 

Lance inhales a deep breath of wind and saltwater, exhales softly. "Yeah." He glances sideways at Keith. "I see you got your knife back." 

Keith hums. "I got my knife back."

"Your mom's really intimidating." 

His lips quirk up into an amused smile. "She's just—not very expressive." 

"Runs in the family, I guess." Keith shoves Lance in the shoulder and he laughs, grabbing Keith's arm to steady himself before he topples over into the water. "Kidding! Mostly. Kind of."

"Not helping your case," Keith rolls his eyes.  

"That." Lance points his finger at Keith's face and he swats it away.

"What—" 

"Rolling your eyes. You do it all the time, so I guess that counts as being somewhat expressive."

"I do not—" Keith starts to roll his eyes again, then seems to catch himself. Lance snickers and Keith only half-heartedly scowls, but it looks more like he's trying not to smile. "Whatever." 

"Really, though." Lance kicks at a clump of sand that's gathered near his foot. "How are you feeling?" 

Keith looks back out at the water. "Fine. Better. Considering." A particularly large wave comes crashing down a bit farther out, bathing the water's surface with a layer of foam and mist. Keith sighs. "You know, you never told me." 

"Never told you what?"

"Why you didn't tell me you—died."  

Lance follows his gaze out to the horizon. "I guess, the same reason you didn't tell me why you left."

When he turns back, Keith is looking at him with this strange expression on his face that makes his stomach flip, his eyes searching. Keith bites his lip, then opens his mouth to say something else, but whatever he starts to say is drowned out by a sudden, very loud, clap of thunder. A fat drop of water hits Lance's nose and he blinks in surprise, looking up to stare at the sky.

There aren't even any clouds. The sky is completely, absolutely empty. But that doesn't seem to stop the sudden downpour of water. Lance stares at the dry sand behind them, watching as each drop of water seeps into it and spreads until the ground is soaked entirely. His hair is already sticking to his forehead, and more drops drip down his nose and chin before pattering softly onto his armor. He turns back to Keith, who's staring wide-eyed at the water hitting his outstretched hand. Lance blinks again. "It's raining," he says. Keith stares at him. A huge grin starts to spread across Lance's face. "It's raining."

Then he's grabbing onto Keith's arm and running back toward the camp, shouting for everyone to wake up and come outside, laughing as the rain picks up and starts falling in thick sheets, almost roaring in his ears. It's so confusing, it's still light out and he can't even see where the water is coming from, but that doesn't change the fact that it's raining—Lance laughs again and spreads his arms out wide as everyone starts to emerge from their tents with gasps of wonder and excitement. Keith smiles when Lance grabs his shoulder and shakes him lightly, whooping as he turns his face to the sky and lets himself be assaulted by the sudden onslaught of water. It stings pleasantly where it hits his skin, seeping through his bones and making him shiver. 

Everyone else is yelling and shouting behind them, staring in awe at the sky and dancing about in celebration. Lance turns back to Keith, a little breathless, eyes bright and excited. But his heart skips and he falters slightly at the look on Keith's face. Keith is staring at him with that same familiar expression he saw only a few nights ago: gentle, subdued, soft around the edges, eyes half-lidded and mouth held slightly open. Fond.

Lance smiles a little. "What?" 

Keith bites his lip. "Nothing." 

His hair is a sticky mess on his forehead from the rain, and Lance snickers a little before reaching to push it out of his eyes. "This is why I make fun of your hair." He's suddenly aware of how close they are when Keith practically chases his touch, catching his wrist when he moves it away. Something in his gaze is different, somehow. Fixed. Certain.

"D'you—remember what I said?" Keith starts quietly. "About how I thought I almost—" He cuts himself off, but Lance's stomach swoops when he steps closer. 

"Maybe," Lance says softly, trying desperately not to stare at Keith's mouth. "What are you thinking about now?" 

"You," Keith breathes, and Lance has to use every muscle in his body to keep himself from closing the inch of space between them. 

"Keith," he whispers, his breath hitching at the touch of Keith's hand on his face, nose brushing against his cheek. He shivers. "Everyone's looking."

"Okay," Keith murmurs. 

And then he presses his lips to Lance's, and it's so soft, and so gentle, and so completely opposite of everything Lance has ever known Keith to be and yet, it's so, Keith. His eyes flutter shut, and he melts. 

When they come up for air the first time, rain dripping down their faces and all around them, Keith presses their foreheads together and lets out a shuddering sigh. Lance clutches the front of Keith's armor to steady himself, breathless. "Keith," he gasps, and then Keith takes Lance's face in his hands and kisses him again.

"I'm in love with you," Keith mutters between kisses, pressing his lips to the corners of Lance's mouth and sighing, hands warm on his jaw. "This is how I wanted to tell you. I'm in love with you, I'm so—" Lance slips his fingers through his hair and clings to him. He's falling, they're falling, and the entire world is falling around them.

The second time is kind of rough, and sloppy and maybe a bit desperate, but it takes Lance's breath away all the same. He feels Keith smiling into the kiss as he hears the faint sound of cheers and teasing behind them, and then Lance is smiling, and laughing into Keith's mouth when Shiro whistles and shouts in encouragement. He pulls back after another moment, dazed and breathless, and drops his head into Keith's shoulder with a groan.

"I can't believe we both almost had to die for this to happen."

"If that's what it takes," Keith says, and kisses him again, until Lance sees stars. 

He was on the cusp of a life-changing revelation. Now he's falling headfirst over the edge. 

 


  

• People say things like "it wasn't supposed to go this way."

They're just making noise. There's no such thing as "supposed to".

All that matters is what happened. •