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Lance has been dreading it since they got back from the shield mission, but he holds out on going to Coran for as long as he can get away with. His fingers are a little numb on his left hand and his chest feels weirdly tight. He has absolutely never had heartburn in his entire life, but if that's what this heated, pressing ache all through the center of his chest is, he gets why it's called that and let me tell you it sucks.

He almost died.

The intrusive thought has his pulse thudding, a sudden reassurance that he didn't.

(Allura touches his wrist once they're safely back in the hangers and asks, "Are you sure you're alright?" softly, with that little crease between her eyebrows.

Lance folds his arms around himself, bashful in the face of her concern, the warmth filling him up inside, and smiling to put her at ease; says, automatically, "I'm fine. Thanks, Allura.")

Only it's time to admit that he's not fine, physically. But everyone had been so worried about Shiro, and praising Hunk for really stepping up. Between fully repairing the shield station, and getting everyone settled, and wondering what to do about Sendak, and everything else, Lance hadn't wanted to detract attention from more important things. So it's kind of late in the night cycle by the time he finally goes to the medbay, hoping he can page Coran from there, spend an hour or two in a healing pod, and get back in bed before anyone wakes up.

He isn't entirely surprised that Pidge is still awake - they're what his Mom calls a "night owl", even in space where night is perpetual.

It's the fact that Pidge is running toward him from the exact direction that he's going, and that Hunk is four steps behind them, jogging to keep up. Pidge looks like they've been hit in the face with a storm cloud, all scowling fury and flashing eyes and tiny fists swinging at their sides. Hunk is about to cry, but trying not to. Lance knows that expression. Of course he does. Hunk is his best bud.

Lance stops where he is, worry twisting in his gut. He's clutching his left elbow, thumb digging in, because the pressure kind of helps with the tingling.

"What's up, guys?" he asks the second they're close enough to hear him.

No alarm went off.

His first thought is Shiro, maybe; he's been having headaches, and not acting like himself...

Pidge, unfortunately, reaches Lance first - with a lunge instead of a final step, with their small hands shooting out, with their face twisted in an angry snarl that is just a little too familiar now. Stressed to the breaking point. Again. They hit Lance square in the chest, and the force of their weight and the surprise of the blow is just enough to send Lance sprawling backwards onto the floor. It doesn't hurt him, but it doesn't feel great getting knocked down like that, either. His arm gives out trying to soften his fall, thrown out behind him at the last second, and a sharp pain pinches his chest on the inhale.

It hurts his feelings more than anything else, since this is honesty hour.

He hears Hunk gasp, "Pidge!" and Lance blurts out, "Ow! Pidge, what the quiznak!" at the same time that Pidge yells, "What's the matter with you?!"

There's a moment of hesitancy and confusion as Pidge stands over him, breathing hard.

"What?" Lance demands, rubbing his chest.

"What. Is. The. Matter. With. You?" Pidge grits out again, enunciating each word with that sharp, mean, sudden anger that makes Lance flinch reflexively, "We have to find out about what happened to you from Allura?! You died today, like you literally died, and you didn't even say anything!! What kind of idiot doesn't even go in a healing pod after getting electrocuted, Lance?!"

"Everyone was busy!" Lance snaps, defensive. His heart does that thing, though, where it feels like it drops into his stomach and then thumps around fitfully. "A lot was going on. Besides, I'm- "

"Don't say you're fine!! Are you kidding me!!"

Pidge's foot slams against the floor with a sharp snap. Their fists rise and fall at their sides, like they want to land on Lance - on something - like they want to make someone hurt as bad as they're hurting - and Hunk finally stumbles up to them, panting, "Nononono. Not how we're doing this! Not how we're doing this!" He picks Pidge up under the arms, lifts them away with an ease that makes Pidge thrash in protest.

He sets them down behind him, hands splayed out.

Lance gets unsteadily to his feet, pushing through the weird sensation that swoops through his chest and seems to pull at his lungs. It's like… breathing in air that's too cold when you're in a warm shower. It almost stings. His heart keeps beating out of rhythm, anxiety spiking as Pidge continues to shout up at Hunk and Hunk's rock-steady voice begins to waver.

"Hey." The others barely hear him. Lance barely hears himself, sounds like he's in a barrel, muffled. He raises his voice, "Hey!"

Silence drops like a stone in the corridor. Pidge and Hunk both look at him like they forgot he was even there, and it's only when Lance consciously makes the effort to stand straighter that he realizes he's slouching, back bowed, shoulders curling forward. He digs his palm into his chest to soothe the ache there.

"I was going to the pods now." His voice is softer, more strained, than he means for it to be. He sort of feels like maybe he did this for attention without realizing it - because he's been feeling lonely, and kind of jealous of everyone seeming to pair off without him - and now he just feels guilty. He looks at the floor, takes a deep and measured breath. "I shouldn't have put it off so long, I just - we were all so busy, I felt okay earlier. Really, I didn't mean to scare you guys."

Two solid, familiar arms close around him before Lance can even get all of it out. Hunk seriously gives the best hugs out of anybody Lance knows (the one exception being his Mom). Hunk is big and warm and soft, and he squeezes hard without squeezing too tight. Lance relaxes into the embrace immediately, with a big sigh that warms his face and the front of Hunk's shirt. He feels Hunk's face pressing against the top of his head, and knows he's crying by the way his chest heaves slightly and by dampness that hits his scalp a second later.

Hunk's voice is thick, barely audible, "Dude, Lance, why didn't you say anything, man? I knew there was a minute there where you weren't answering but I didn't think…"

"I dunno," Lance mumbles into Hunk's chest, "Sorry."

His arms are slack, caught between the press of their bodies because he just does not have the strength right now to work them free. Two smaller hands wedge in, trying to do exactly that. Hunk relaxes his grip on Lance enough to lift his own arm and allow Pidge into the hug, as well. Lance looks down as they crowd against him, and it's just in time to see the anger in their expression crumble into something else.

Pidge grabs onto Lance fiercely with both hands and smashes their wet face and smeared glasses against his ribs. They step all over his toes, fingers pinching into and pulling at his jacket.

"Don't do something like that again..."

The demand loses all of its steam muffled and warm and tight, spoken into his shirt.

Lance isn't about to make promises he might not be able to keep. He knows he would do the same thing again, for Allura, or for any of them. So he drapes his arm around Pidge's trembling shoulders and hugs his friends back as tightly as he can.

 

 

Chapter Text

There's blood on the floor, the pristine and glossy surface of white and grey marble defaced by a narrow spray of bright red - and it's all Keith's fault. At least, that's what Lance groans the second he manages to say anything at all around his trembling hands and whimpered breaths. There's also a lot of clashing metal and stone crumbling and things shattering and people shouting all around them, filling the cavernous sanctuary with the roar of misunderstandings, so it's kind of hard to hear him as Keith drags him down by the neck of his shirt behind a newly toppled pillar.

Sometimes diplomatic meetings don't go so great.

Sometimes when Lance is talking with his hands, he overreaches. Sometimes he smacks you on accident, and he gets stupid and bashful and stumbles out an apology, wringing his big, excitable hands.

Keith doesn't know what is wrong with him.

He doesn't know why he's wired so tight sometimes. But the back of Lance's hand swats him in the head, just a flick of his fingers in Keith's hair, and all that tension springs loose like a rifle shot. He backhands Lance dead center in the face, harder than necessary, harder than he means to. Lance yelps and buckles. Blood hits the floor at his feet. And their alien hosts go into an absolute frenzy, shrieking sacrilege and blasphemers and other native words that the translator speaking for them doesn't bother to decipher.

They don't turn on the paladins, per say. They mostly turn on each other and start tearing down the temple, while Shiro and Allura frantically try to salvage the situation. Hunk makes the astute observation that they should just get out of the way, and Pidge js right behind him, but there is so much chaos that things are confusing and the only thing Keith can do is drag Lance and his bloody nose out of sight behind something, hoping things will settle down.

Out of sight, out of mind. Right?

The downed pillar is one of six lined up down the right hand side of the temple. It's big enough for them to sit behind comfortably without being in the thick of the commotion, though Keith can raise up on his knees to keep an eye on what's happening, in case he needs to intervene and help Shiro, or make a run for it. Beside him, Lance moans again, the sound stuffy and broken off as the vibration causes an unexpected trill of pain through his face.

Keith settles into a crouch beside him, and winces as Lance finally peels his hands away.

His nose is pouring blood. It's smeared on his hands and the lower half of his face, pooling in his mouth. It's already soaked the collar of his shirt, a growing stain that darkens the grey fabric and makes it stick to his chest. Lance breathes heavily through his open mouth, blood dripping in a thick glob from his chin, and looks at Keith with his eyebrows pinched together, blue eyes bright and glacier sharp.

He doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to when the look of hurt and outrage says it all.

Keith makes a face, already shrugging out of his jacket.

"Sorry," he says, handing it to Lance, "Here."

Lance's outrage melts into surprise as he reaches out. He spots his bloody hands, though, and yanks them back without touching the jacket. He gives Keith a head-shake, a slow movement back and forth that still makes him suck in a sharp breath that's laced with blood. It tickles the back of his throat and has him heaving the next moment, coughing wetly into his fist. Frowning, Keith bunches the sleeve of the jacket and pushes it past Lance's weakly protesting hands, mopping up some of the blood from his face before shifting to a clean spot and covering his oozing nose.

Lance flinches at the first contact, but he doesn't make a noise. When Keith lifts his hands by the wrist and guides them up, Lance takes the jacket with grateful reluctance and holds it in place himself. The blood is mostly camouflaged by the bright red of Keith's jacket, and it hardly shows at all against the black of his gloves or t-shirt.

Slowly, things around them calm down, the sounds of destruction quiet.

Keith has one hand rubbing Lance's shoulders, feeling awkward and terrible about the whole thing. Lance has his knees pulled up to his chest, his face hidden in the folds on Keith's jacket. He gingerly lifts his head.

Keith tries to keep his expression neutral.

Blood has dried in thin streaks around Lance's mouth and nose. His eyes are red and wet, tears still clinging to his eyelashes. There's a beautiful dark blue bruise across the bridge of his nose and cheekbones, just below his eyes. He blinks a few times, takes a slow, trembling breath, and looks up at Keith.

"How does it look…?"

He raises a hand, barely touching his cheek, and flinches back with a wince that probably only hurts his aching face even more. Keith knows the honest answer is Bad, and it's on the tip of his tongue, but something stops him from saying it.

"Uhh…"

Lance groans and hides his face again.

Keith moves his sweaty palm awkwardly between Lance's shoulder blades.

"Sorry," he says again, "You - startled me."

"Dude, you broke my nose!"

"It's not broken!"

"It totally is broken, you've single-handedly ruined my best feature!"

"It's not broken. You would know if it was broken. You're fine, Lance."

"I am so beyond fine."

Keith should find Lance's loud, woeful vocalizations annoying. It's just a bloody nose, even if it did cause something of a scandal that Shiro and Allura may or may not be able to recover. Instead, it's oddly comforting. The frustration Keith feels at first ebbs out when he realizes that Lance isn't actually mad at him. His tone isn't tense, and he's not glaring anymore.

He's whining about the fact that it hurts and it's his face, his handsome face, Keith. What do you have against a good looking guy, huh?

It's… companionable in a way that they're usually not, and Keith smiles without meaning too.

Lance has his jacket folded in his hands, periodically dabbing at his face. The bleeding has stopped, and there's not much else that can be done to save his appearance except some soap and water. Keith peers around their hiding place, and seeing that everyone is clustered a little farther away, the scattered rumble of the temple pretty much abandoned, he slides to his feet and beckons for Lance to follow him.

"C'mon," he says, taking Lance's hand and pulling him up, "Let's go find a sink or something."

Lance makes a pained humming sound, lifting Keith's jacket to gesture at his front. The bloody collar stands out, and so do his bloody hands and face. He doesn't want to cause another riot. The solution is obvious to Keith. He reaches for Lance's waist, then realizes how he's just moving into someone else's personal space without having asked first, and quickly aborts the movement halfway through, his hands snapping back.

Lance gives him a bewildered look.

Keith grabs at the tail of Lance's jacket with uncertain hands, glancing up at him, but all Lance does is move his arms out of the way, apparently understanding. Keith zips the front of his jacket and pulls his hood up.

"Just keep your head down," Keith says, taking his jacket back when Lance offers it.

He keeps it wadded loose in one fist - because Lance lurches on his feet on that first step and automatically grabs his other one to steady himself. Keith hesitates, eyes jumping from Lance's hand firmly gripped around his, to Lance's face, suddenly ashen beneath the streaks of dried blood.

Oh. Keith feels stupid. That was a lot of blood to lose, and nose bleeds are the worst.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," Lance says, sounding hazy. His grip is firm enough, though, that Keith feels confident taking a small step and pulling him along. "Dizzy…"

"Right. We'll go slow."

"Okay." He points to Keith's jacket, the white highlights bright red, and flashes him a tentative smirk. "I guess we're even, by the way."

Keith looks down, and then back at Lance, mirroring his smile. He could really not care less about the jacket, and it's the warm hand in his that he focuses on.

 

 

Chapter Text

Keith gets thrown back into his life full-throttle after two entire years of being absent.

So after everything is said and done - after Lotor is gone, and Shiro is safe, and the universe isn't in immediate danger of imploding in on itself - this is arguably the least traumatic thing that has happened over the past several, emotionally charged, physically draining hours. So he doesn't know why he's sitting here, struggling not to flinch each time he hears the careful snick of scissors closing behind his ears, each time Allura moves her fingers carefully along his scalp and lets out a soft, thoughtful hum.

Another lock of dark hair lands on his shoulder - the cold on his bare neck a stark, shuddering contrast to the heated blade raised against his skin - and Keith suppresses a shudder.

He breathes out through his nose, stares straight ahead.

Krolia is across from him, her face impassive, arms crossed as she leans against the pillar jutting from the wall of Blue's cargo hold. There are boxes of belongings piled into every corner, loose items spread across the floor, all disorganized chaos from their rushed evacuation. Keith's eyes wander over them in an attempt to distract himself. It doesn't exactly help. This is all Allura has left of her life on Altea, her life aboard the Castle of Lions. Her world just keeps getting smaller and smaller, whittled down to what she can hold in her hands, and Keith feels a pang of familiarity burning in his chest.

"Are you doing alright?" Allura asks softly, her hands pausing.

Keith doesn't know what he did to make her ask. He blinks at one of the boxes, doesn't look at Krolia - skates his eyes deliberately around her, like his building anxiety is not going to be obvious to her. He tries to keep his expression in check and his breathing even.

"Yeah."

"I'm almost finished."

"Okay." Keith holds onto the silence for a moment, then adds, "Thanks for doing this."

"I'm glad you asked me to," she says, and Keith recognizes the smile in her tone. She resumes combing her fingers through his hair, her movements slow but certain. "Though it's been quite some time since I've done anything like this, obviously."

The thin scissors in her hand sheer off another few inches. Allura runs her hand through his hair, pawing at it, feeling the length of it, combing it at different angles. Keith's breathing shifts into something heavier as his body tenses at the sensation of a hand moving along his scalp - gripping hard enough to tear the roots, refusing to yield no matter how much he thrashes -

"My mother, Melenor," Allura says, voice fond and far-away, "She used to do this for me whenever I wanted something different, rather than letting the family hairdressers do it. I liked spending the time with her, even if she did always end up cutting it unevenly."

"Sometimes our strengths lie elsewhere," Krolia says.

The unprompted comment is enough to make Keith think she feels defensive about mothers who can't keep up with the basic grooming of their children.

He did ask her to trim his hair once, when it kept getting in his face. She had butchered it with his own knife, and then stubbornly refused to apologize when he was upset about the hack-job. He still remembers her flat tone, stating, "Impermanence," in that annoying, cryptic way that Kolivan usually did, as if it was a doctrine he should have already memorized by heart. She had only elaborated when he had angrily said he had no idea what that was supposed to mean.

Everything is in a constant state of change.

Our emotions, our physical bodies, the universe and the people around us.

Her way of saying: It's just hair, Keith. It will grow again.

"Sometimes," Allura agrees blithely. She rubs both hands through Keith's hair this time, shakes the loose strands out and brushes off his bare shoulders with decisive swipes. "There, now. Do you want to look? It's - well, it's a bit of a drastic change, of course. I salvaged what I could."

"Sure," Keith says.

"I have a reflective glass, in that unit there." Allura points, and Krolia straightens from her relaxed position against the wall to lift the lid of one of the containers.

Keith reaches up to rub his neck, and tries not to think too much about how exposed he feels when his hand meets nothing but the scratch of short hair at the nape of his neck, shorter than it's ever been in his life. His face itches, and he brushes a hand over it, knocking any stray clippings away, fingers grazing across his forehead, touching the hair at his temple. It's slightly longer in the front still, but it's not in his eyes anymore. It's not tickling his cheekbones or his jaw or his nose.

Keith's hand trembles slightly, pushing back through his hair. He tries to make the movement seem natural, like what Allura was doing before, and not something self conscious, like the sick twist in his lower belly, like the too-quick beat of his pulse -

Like the snarl in his ear, a loving voice twisted into something vicious.

"Here," Krolia says, holding up the mirror balanced perfectly between her hands, held at Keith's level so he doesn't have to get up.

Keith slowly lowers his hand. Almost nervously, Allura's replaces it with her own.

"Well, at least it's no longer lopsided," she says, though Keith hasn't offered any kind of criticism. She tries combing it into something more familiar with her fingers, but there's just not a lot to work with and her hand drops away just as quickly as it invaded. She tries again, encouragingly, and it's only then that Keith realizes it's been a minute and he hasn't spoken; "I think you look rather nice."

"It's… different," Keith says.

He has come to realized that he looks a lot like his mother. He and Krolia have the same sharp features, the same penetrating gaze, but in this moment he looks softer, and -

He can see where he favors his dad, now, too.

That's a little too much.

Keith stands, patting off his borrowed pants - borrowed because none of his own clothes fit anymore, and he had to ask for some of Shiro's, and he holds onto Shiro's soft voice, "Of course, Keith," even now, when he's shaking and breathing deeply and doing his best to put that fight out of his mind, even though it keeps echoing back at him at the worst times.

The give of his own blade cutting through his hair, freeing him from Shiro's grip, because otherwise he would have killed him.

"Thanks, Allura."

 

 

Chapter Text

It's one thing to relive your own memories. To be locked in your own body, or some version of it, and going through the same motions, hyper aware of the sense that you've done exactly this before without being able to control your trajectory, feeling emotions that are just as tangible as the first time. It is another entirely to be a spectator, someone standing to the side who can neither be seen or heard.

It makes Keith feel like a ghost, and coming back from those bends in space and time is always jarring for him, unsettling. Sometimes he loses his footing, stumbles and has to catch himself with his hands.

Most of the memories are Krolia's.

Keith is always bursting with questions afterward, but catches himself, wondering if it's rude to pry, or selfish to ask things of her.

Most of the time, he doesn't have to: Krolia is quiet in the same way that Keith is (at least he knows where he gets it from now), but she is calm and unwavering in the wake of each lapse into the past, or each confusing glimpse into the future. She comments easily on their forced-shared experiences, whether the memories are hers or Keith's, whether the events have happened or not. She answers his questions before Keith can sort through and understand whatever he's feeling in the moment, before he can voice them.

She is honest without being demanding of him.

It's.… reassuring, in a weird way.

Keith sits on the dirt floor of their lean-to, absently rubbing his hands through the thick fur under the wolf cubs chin. He is basking in the attention thoroughly, head craned all the way back to expose his throat to Keith's scratching, leaning all his comfortable weight against Keith's lap. Keith smiles and digs his fingers into all the good spots he knows, until that back leg starts thumping energetically.

He swears there's a big, pleased smile on this wolf's face.

"You really do make me think of Lance," he says under his breath, relaxing his efforts to smooth the wolf's bristled up fur back into place.

The wolf groans and lifts a paw to Keith's arm, as if trying to put him back to work. Keith obliges without a second thought. He had always wanted a dog growing up, but by the time he was old enough to be responsible for one, well…. Keith's hands still again, his train of thought pulling the small smile from his lips.

He's gotten used to missing his dad. The flashes of memories keep setting off a melancholy in him, though, and it makes him more aware of how strongly he misses the others now. He misses being part of the team, and being close to people.

Dad held him all the time when Keith was little. He sat on his lap at the table, in the truck, on the couch while watching the same sepia-toned movies over and over again. They slept in the same bed, even after Dad tried to move Keith into his own bedroom right across the upstairs hall. After the fire, he didn't have anyone. Then he had Shiro, and that made things better.

A playful push every now and then or a hand resting on his shoulder was more contact than Keith had gotten from another person in years, and it lit something hungry up inside of him.

It's why he never pushed Hunk out of his space when he grabbed Keith for a hug. It's why he didn't move away whenever Pidge sunk down into the seat beside him and propped their knees against him. It's why he didn't step away from Lance if he stood too close, or shrug him off when he threw a casual arm around Keith's shoulders. His decision to leave the team stripped all that away and left him bare.

And his constant, resurging memories have him yearning for that feeling all over again.

The wolf helps ease some of that. A little. Keith smiles again, ruffling the furry blue-and-black head between his hands. But what he really wants is…

A twig snaps, and Keith jumps.

The wolf squirms out of his arms and bounds out the opening to greet Krolia. She's coming back empty-handed, which means they're eating more of those weird looking mushroom things again. Keith tries to make a stew out of it to spice things up, thickening the broth with some fat they have left over from that crustacean monster they found the other day.

It isn't terrible, but Keith still goes to sleep that night feeling like he's missing something.

He can't tell if it's a dream or not - a warmth close to his back, a slender hand moving through his hair with smooth and careful motions, a woman's voice humming softly a melody he almost recognizes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Okay so, this is a bad plan.

The thought just keeps rebounding in Lance's mind; a bad plan, a bad plan, a bad plan , beating through his pulse like the erratic running of his heart . But he doesn't say anything. He feels like it's not his place, and trusts Shiro and his judgement over his own roaring instincts, telling him otherwise. Shiro is his leader - his friend and his hero - even if he has sort of been snapping a little… a lot…. under the stress lately.

It's - it's stressful.

Alright? They're all stressed.

So if Shiro - his leader, and hero, and friend - is telling Lance to walk across a frozen river that genuinely looks like it's two seconds of pressure away from being melt water carried off downstream, then Lance isn't going to argue with him. Except…

"Should we maybe find some other place to cross?"

He blurts it out, staring at the ice that is sprinkled white with a freshly laid dusting of snow, at the deep, deep dark blue sitting underneath. Lance thinks he can hear the trickle of water. Maybe it's just his imagination overreacting. He does that. The thing is, he's used to sandy beaches, warm sun and salt water. This is way out of his element - especially his new element, since he's technically, for most intents and purposes, the Red Paladin, guardian of fire, Right Hand of Voltron.

Except he doesn't feel like that right now, sort of just feels it in a name-only sense, to be honest.

Shiro doesn't need (or want) his advice like Keith did. But Keith is gone, and this is Lance's place now, even if it seems ill-fitting, and his mouth must know that even if the rest of him doesn't.

Shiro turns to look at him, and Lance finds himself bracing almost like he's expecting a blow.

"We have to get these supplies back to the others as quickly as possible," Shiro says, calmly and reasonably, and Lance relaxes, "It will be faster to cut across now so we don't have to backtrack and risk losing daylight."

"Right," Lance says, adjusting the pack he's carrying so the straps sit more securely on his shoulders.

It's full of medicine and other emergency supplies. It's not often they land on a planet that is as in-advanced (un-advanced?) as Arus was. Weeding out the Galra settlements had been the easy part - convincing the natives that Voltron was made up of regular people and not fiery deities born from the heavens has been a work in progress.

They needed help rebuilding towns, and tending to their sick and wounded.

Rather than frightening them all with the Lions and causing another uproar of prayers and other dramatic displays, Shiro and Lance had volunteered to hike to the nearest fortress/hospital/some combination of both in order to bring back medicine. It's only half a days journey, and they're well into their way back. Lance somehow doesn't remember having to cross the huge river like this - he is 99.9% sure they stomped over a wooden bridge on the inbound - and he wonders if (how) they managed to miss it.

There wasn't exactly a well worn path to follow; the natives were hiding from the Galra, and he and Shiro never would have even found the base if they hadn't been told where it was. With thick snow covering the ground, Lance despairs at realizing that everything looks the same to him. He has no idea where they are right now. The river in front of them is the only thing that has a distinct shape, cutting through the landscape with sharp lines, edged with grey, rocky, ice-glazed beaches on both sides.

Shiro puts one foot on the crisp looking ice to test it.

Lance is holding his breath, gripping the shoulder straps. He only let's it out when Shiro has taken several carefully placed steps out onto the smooth sheet of ice, the snow crunching softly underfoot, and is fine. He looks back at Lance again and smiles.

"Just step where I step."

"Right," Lance says, and moves without hesitation into the vague impression left behind by Shiro's boot. It's only slightly larger than his own. "Sure, yeah, no big deal. Just gonna scoot across nature's death bridge and be on our merry way. It's all good."

"That's right," Shiro says, with a patient and amused tone that Lance feels like he hasn't heard in a while.

It has him smiling, eyes trained on where he's putting his feet, trying to be easy with every step. It chases away some of the numbness in his fingertips. Their spacesuits were scaring the natives, also, so they're dressed in parkas and pants and thick gloves that are all lined with some kind of fur. It's warm enough, though the cold still seeps through in places - and Lance has a dark, nagging thought about how no amount of insulation will help if either if them end up under the ice.

The wind blows past, biting at his face, shifting the snow around their feet. That far bank doesn't seem to be getting any closer, but when Lance looks back, he realizes they're about halfway across. His nerves are still chewing on that mantra - this is a bad plan, a bad plan - but his steps, falling into Shiro's, are a little more confident each moment the ice holds.

That's when he hears a crack , as loud as thunder.

He feels the ice lurch underneath him, and his heart sinks to the bottom of his feet, drops like a stone in water and then starts pounding so hard he's dizzy with it. Lance feels suspended in that terrifying moment - hands splayed out for precarious balance, chest heaving as he struggles through the harsh sting of cold air hitting his lungs, pulse slamming away.

All he can hear is the ice cracking.

All he can see is the spiderweb of white veins breaking through the deep blue, gathering around his feet.

Nothing happens.

Lance finally looks up, pulled back to the surface of his screaming panic by the faded sound of his name. Shiro is looking at him, mouth moving, "...ance. Lance." There's a vibration in Lance's chest that he belatedly recognizes as his own voice, gasping oh no, oh no, oh nooo over and over again. The second he becomes aware that he's doing it, he stops.

"Lance," Shiro says again, "Don't panic."

"I'm not panicking," Lance says, voice whining out of his throat, "I'm okay. I'm not panicking."

God, why is he so scared?

"Good."

It's just water.

"Take a deep breath with me." Lance does it, nodding his head, identical breaths forming in front of his face and Shiro's. "Good. You're doing great, Lance. Just stay calm. I want you to move very carefully and try to lay down flat across the ice, alright? It will distribute your weight more evenly."

"Okay."

Makes sense.

Lance reaches up to shrug out of his pack, instead. He does it without thinking - it's making him heavier, for one thing. Mostly, it's medicine that people need, and the part of him that is oddly calm now in the face of Shiro's worry is automatically preparing for the inevitable. Maybe Shiro can hear the crackling pop of the agitated ice, but he can't feel the slight sinking, shifting, rolling sensation beneath Lance's feet, or see the deep deep blue bleeding up through the fissures.

Shiro says, "Lance, stop!" and Lance stops. Then he tosses Shiro the pack, anyway, swinging it underhanded so the contents inside don't get shook around.

The force of the throw pushes his feet down.

The ice breaks.

Lance gasps as he drops straight down into the dark churning water. It's clotted with chunks of broken ice, foaming and rolling as it gathers him up and swirls around him, dragging him down. It happens so fast. His chest aches. The shock of the cold is almost enough to make him lose what little breath he managed to get. Lance holds onto it stubbornly, his eyes squeezed shut. He kicks his feet and reaches up with his arms and scrapes against a hard surface blocking his ascent.

Lance pushes at it, bubbles bursting out of his mouth.

The current carried him away from the hole.

Oh god.

Why didn't he listen to Shiro? Why didn't he think to grab onto the edge? Why is it so loud? It's so cold. He can't think. His lungs are burning. He needs to breathe. He feels so heavy, he can barely keep his arms up, but he can't stop now. He pounds his fist against the ice and just feels it sliding over his hands. He does it again, and again. It has to give. It has to…!

Lance opens his eyes.

The mottled light filtering through the snow and ice sitting above him is a surprise. It's dark, but sort of how his room at the Castle is dark - with faint blue highlights glowing in calm, cool stripes along the walls and door frames, nestled into every corner. There are places where the snow has shifted, and the light is brighter, softer. That's… okay. That's not so bad.

Lance's vision blackens around the edges, spotting across his eyes.

He can't even try to hold on anymore. The cold saps his strength. The deep below him is a rich, dark blue, and even that seems peaceful somehow.

----

There's an unexpected thrill of heat, a high humming sound that breaks through the deadly quiet, and then there is a hand gripping into the collar of his coat and hauling him up. Lance gasps, choking, as he's heaved out of the water into the biting cold. His hands scramble for purchase, landing on solid arms. Crisp, blissful air chases the freezing water into his lungs.

It's Shiro, Lance's mind supplies. It's Shiro pulling him up. It's Shiro dragging him to the bank. It's Shiro crouched close to him, thumping his back and rubbing his arms as his breath struggles in, trying to share some of his body heat. Lance is shaking so badly, he can't speak.

His clumsy attempts to help Shiro pull the soaked parka off over his head are stopped with firm hands.

"S-s-sorry," trembles out of his mouth without meaning to, followed by a sharp gasp.

Shiro's strong hands close around his, the right one still burning hot through his glove.

"Don't."

It doesn't sound like Shiro at all.

Lance nods his head, feeling numb.

 

 

Chapter Text

Pidge doesn't use the word haunted lightly, but they're beginning to understand that there's a reason the native inhabitants of the planet avoid this stretch of forest, even under the threat of death, and why it is cryptically named something that roughly translated to Despair. All the creepy forests from books and movies, fueled by Pidge's childhood fantasies, have nothing on this place: it is thick with undergrowth, flowers and ferns and thorns and gnarly vines that are choking the life out of the towering trees with twisted branches and bark that varies in hue from black to red.

Lance has affectionately dubbed these "murder trees". No one argues with him. Hunk has let them know no less than fifteen times since starting out that he hates this plan. Allura has also voiced her reservations. Everyone is wondering what they'll do if they get separated - their comms don't work in here for some undetectable reason. Only five minutes into their walk down a broken up stone path, Keith hesitates.

The lighting is weird, muted like it is at dusky dark even though the suns of this planet are at their zenith. Pidge can see the flash of yellow through the canopy when they look up, but the sensation that follows the action is disorienting. It makes flowers that are yellow and bright blue look burned to a crisp.

It really sets the mood spectacularly.

They can all see that the path ahead is clear, the brown stones paving the way only partially obscured by moss and fallen leaves. Even a good way into the surrounding trees is open for viewing. But the air is thick with apprehension from the Paladins, and something else that Pidge can't put their finger on. They've been running scans this whole time - testing the air for anything toxic, the flora for potential hallucinogens, the area at large for other signs of life.

It's baren, oddly still; no people or animals.

All the scans are coming up negative.

There's a pressure in the air that makes Pidge's ears pop, even closed inside their helmet.

"I think we should go back," Pidge says.

They're here because a random Galra foot soldier panicked after seeing his comrades buckle and grabbed a hostage, and ran in here hoping to lose the Paladins in the alien terrain and save himself. Which, first of all, is not the Galra way. So that should have been an obvious indication that something is amiss, and they should have taken that into consideration before charging after them.

Keith has only been the leader a few weeks, but - after relaxing his grip - he's getting better.

"Okay," he says, "Let's go back."

They're standing in the middle of the path, clustered together and facing into the heart of the loose circle they've formed. No one moves after Keith gives the order. Not because there's any disagreement about turning around and getting back to safety, but because each of them is hit with the dizzying thought that they aren't sure which way "back to safety" is.

It feels like an image getting flipped, or inverted.

Both directions look alarmingly similar.

"Keith was at the front," Lance says.

Which means he's standing at the rear. Which means behind him is the way they need to go. But the moment he says it - the moment he turns to look over his shoulder - he second-guesses himself. The others pick up on his uncertainty immediately and it spreads, eating them up like wildfire.

"I thought Keith was behind me," Hunk says, a nervous edge to his voice.

"I'm certain I was walking behind Lance," Allura says, her perfect eyebrows creasing with worry.

"I was behind Keith," Pidge says.

"That means you were at the front, Lance," Keith says. Pidge starts to disagree, but Keith doesn't sound like he believes it, asks, "Right? That means it was… Lance, Allura, Hunk, me, and… Pidge?" He points like he's counting them, like a chaperone on a field trip trying to keep up with his kids. He drops his hand, frowning. "That formation doesn't make sense."

"It was the other way around," Lance says, getting annoyed. He makes a big circular motion with his arm to include all of them. "You and Pidge were in front because Pidge was scanning for stuff, then it was Hunk, then Allura, and then me."

That's the line up that's familiar.

"Man, I don't like this," Hunk says, exactly like it's the first time he's said it. The dejavu is debilitating in a way. He's wringing his hands and he shuffles closer to Lance, looking apprehensively off to one side of the surrounding forest.

Allura agrees, watching the opposite direction, "It feels like we're being observed."

"Or tricked," Keith says.

He's staring up at the filtered sunlight. That's no help. It's directly above their heads. He looks at the ground next, walks a few paces back one way, and then the other. This doesn't seem to satisfy him. He's still frowning when he comes back into the fold, head down, fists at his sides. Lance is watching him with a similar expression - empathetic instead of hostile at Keith's apparent blunder, leading them in here in the first place.  Pidge observes this silently, then turns their attention to their surroundings.

Something closes in.

There's nothing out there in any direction as far as any of them can see, but the sense that something is, that something is close, that something is coming runs through them all at the same time, a unified shiver that claws down their bodies. It shakes the rational, functioning part right out of their brains. It grips at something wild, fearful and primal. Darkness descends on the woods - a heavy cloud moving past, temporarily blocking out the sun, only the sky winking down at them is a clear azure blue.

It looks like when you poke holes in a cardboard box and lay underneath it, pretending to be astronauts. The tiny holes are stars and the black is -

The black is getting closer.

Pidge is trembling, knees weak, heart pounding, groping for someone to hold onto.

There's a loud noise.

Someone yells, or falls, or cries out in pain.

That's the breaking point.

They all scatter into the woods.

----

Pidge's instincts are telling them to run - every fiber in their body, every pulse through their bloodstream. Their frightened breathing is deafening inside their helmet, the sound of their small body crashing through the wet undergrowth a beacon setting off their location for whatever is chasing them. It's so close, Pidge can hear it breathing too, hear its feet beating the ground, hear the way it rasps out their name.

"Pidge!"

Two hands close around their arms, yanking them back.

Pidge screams and twists free, swings with all their might, fear and adrenaline lending strength to the blow. It glances off a red chestplate. The grip around them slackens, but it's not enough for Pidge to get away. After a few seconds, they stop trying to.

The fear recedes slowly until it's enough for Pidge to realize it's Keith.

"Pidge," he sounds as winded and desperate as Pidge feels, "It's me. It's just me. It's okay."

Pidge doesn't trust their voice, nods, still trying to catch their breath. They're shaking with the effort, trembling like crazy and clutching onto Keith now that he has registered as a safe place. They stand there a few minutes longer, aware of each others harsh breathing and unsteady heartbeats and nervous movements. Slowly, still holding onto Pidge as if he's afraid to let go, Keith walks them both over to one of the larger trees, seeking some cover.

It's just a few steps, but they trip over wide reaching roots and rocks jutting up from the ground, stumble through weeds and clusters of sick looking flowers. The movement is uncoordinated and nauseating. Keith collapses with his back against the trunk and drags Pidge down with him as he sinks into the moss and mulch piled at the base of the tree.

Pidge settles between Keith's spread knees, still holding onto his hands and arms, trying to match their breathing to his and trying to get an idea of what happened. They can't remember ever being that scared in their life, but they can't even remember what it was that made them run in the first place.

"I didn't mean to scare you," Keith's voice makes Pidge jump. They press back against him. How long have they been out here? It feels like hours. Pidge is exhausted and nervous, and - "Pidge… Are you okay…?"

"I think so," Pidge says, "...what was that?"

"No idea."

"It felt like…." Pidge shudders and trails off. It felt like being surrounded, being smothered, but there was nothing there. Pidge would feel like they had imagined the whole thing if they weren't feeling so wrung out, and if Keith wasn't in exactly the same shape. "What happened to the others?"

"I don't know," Keith says. His frustration is obvious, but he sounds calmer, clearer, than he did before. "Let's… let's rest here a few minutes. Then we'll head back toward the village. The others will all do the same thing once they come to their senses." He doesn't seem to believe for a moment that whatever it was caught any of his teammates. "If they're with Lance, he'll keep them together and get them back safely."

He sounds confident in that, too, and Pidge breathes a little easier, reassured by the thought. Even when he's not immediately within reach, Lance is still holding them all together. He was the only one who wasn't confused about the path. Thinking back, Pidge doesn't know why none of them believed him.

Pidge points over Keith's leg.

"The way back is that way."

"I know," Keith says. Pidge glances back and sees him watching that direction closely, as if afraid it might move on them if he doesn't keep a close eye on it.

Keith gives them a few minutes to recover, just like he said. When he's ready to go, he confirms that Pidge is read to go, too, and when he gets to his feet he lifts Pidge with him, standing them up in front of him. He doesn't say Stay where I can see you, but Pidge feels the pressure of his hand resting on their jetpack as they start out. That's more comforting than Pidge thought it might be.

The sense that something is out there is still prickling the back of Pidge's neck, raising their hair.

They're glad to have Keith behind them.

 

 

Chapter Text

Keith wakes up because Lance is sobbing.

He hears it at first like a part of his dream, an unfamiliar noise that pricks at his subconscious, and then registers suddenly that it's not. It's not a dream. Lance is crying. Keith has a more severe reaction to this than he honestly expects to, Who hurt him? What's wrong? flashing through his mind. Keith has rolled over, untangling himself from the tight press of the covers, before the movement has caught up to his sleep-fogged brain. He reaches for Lance instinctively, knowing he fell asleep on one side of him, and finds that Lance is too far away.

The pallet is cold.

The lounge around him is dark except for the blue accent lights. The Paladins and Alteans gathered up every available blanket and pillow they could find to do a movie marathon, and then fell asleep together late into the night. Pidge is on Keith's left, headphones on, asleep cradling their closed laptop. Allura and Hunk are propped up against each other nearby, both of them snoring. Shiro is spread out across the sofa with his good arm thrown over his face, and Coran is sitting bolt upright cocooned in a knitted blanket, tucked from his feet to his shoulders like a grandfather.

When Keith's hand meets the empty space to his right where Lance should be, but isn't, he rolls up onto his elbows to look for him, brushing his hair back out of his face. Lance is pressed against the underside of the couch, hidden in the shadow under the lip with his back to Keith. He's trying to stifle the low noises falling from his lips, hands gripping a pillow to his face.

"Lance."

Keith says it softly, but Lance still flinches.

A choked moan rises up in the hollow space, Lance's tremors shaking the frame.

"Sorry…."

"Lance. Hey. It's okay. What's - what's wrong?"

Keith sits up, sliding closer, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Lance doesn't answer him; curls up tighter like he's trying to disappear. Keith glances around at the others all sleeping peacefully and wonders how they aren't wide awake right now. It's not that Lance is being loud. His next sob is audibly choked back, muffled in the plush pillow and chased back into his lungs with a sharp gasp.

"Lance… did you have a nightmare or something?"

There's a gasped, "Nuh-no…" Keith ignores the "I'm okay." that follows after it.

Lance is obviously not okay.

Keith doesn't know what to do here, feels awkward and out of place, and he looks at Hunk, or Shiro, or Coran, wondering if he should shake one of them. Lance…. probably doesn't want everyone to know that he's crying. Now that Keith is thinking about it - now that it is staring him in the face, so to speak - he doesn't think he's ever seen Lance upset like this. It almost feels like something Keith shouldn't be witnessing, like he should just leave Lance alone and let him work it out of his system and then just pretend he didn't see anything.

But Keith knows first-hand that lack of acknowledgment hurts more than the burn of embarrassment at having your feelings exposed. And Lance has been there for him more times than Keith can count during this whole leadership thing. Even with Shiro back, things are difficult and confusing.

Lance came to him before, when he was worried about his place on the team, even if it was just because Keith is the leader now.

That chases away any hesitation Keith has.

He gathers up the blanket still covering his legs and crawls closer to Lance. He's rolled off the edge of the pallet they made, laying on the cold floor. He stiffens when he hears Keith moving behind him, and jerks, body tense, when Keith gently touches his arm. Keith doesn't say anything. He coaxes Lance to roll over with the pressure of his hands. Lance resists - and then he pulls in a shuddering breath as he moves carefully out from under the overhanging sofa and back onto the pallet.

Keith shifts back and holds up the blanket for Lance to slide underneath, wordlessly pulls every pillow within reach up around them (checks that he's not disturbing Pidge, who has slipped further down over their laptop without waking).

Lance's cheeks are glistening in the faint light, but he's facing Keith this time, even if he is curled up around his pillow. His hands are still dug deep into the fabric of the casing, his knees drawn up. Keith lays down beside him, and then doesn't know what to do with his hands, suddenly. He lets one hover over Lance's shoulder and ends up fussing unnecessarily with the blanket, making sure they're both tucked in warmly.

He thinks he should say something. He's just not sure what would be comforting and he doesn't want to make Lance feel worse.

"My nightmares have been pretty bad recently," Keith murmurs once he's settled. He's close enough to hear Lance trying to cover up his sniffling with his face pressed into his pillow, close enough to see the way he picks his head up to wipe his eyes or hide behind his hand, instead. "It helps. Just. Sleeping with everyone together like this. Sort of."

Keith senses rather than sees that Lance is looking at him closely in the dark.

"...It's too quiet in space."

Keith agrees, "Yeah."

He misses the wind and the crickets and the other nighttime noises of the desert; coyotes and owls and things scratching softly on the roof. Lance probably misses… the sound of the ocean. And a house full of people who are just as vibrant as he is. It occurs to Keith that they have lived very different lives, and it is inescapably odd to him that they've both ended up here somehow.

This time Lance breaks the silence.

"I used to sleep with my brothers." His voice is wrecked and watery, still wavering in places and muffled by his arm as he turns over onto his back. "When we still lived in our house in Cuba. All three of us," he laughs, "Crammed into one tiny bed, y'know? Marco used to - " His breath hitches here. "I always slept in the middle. So he used to throw his arm over me whenever I started fussing or crying in my sleep and he'd just - just pat me until I fell asleep again - or calmed down."

Overcome with emotion again, Lance has to stop, heaving in a shallow breath.

"I miss 'em."

"I know," Keith says softly.

"I didn't mean to wake you up, man," Lance is crying, "Dream was stupid… It doesn't..."

"It's not stupid," Keith says, "Do you… do you want to get up? And go… do something?"

Lance sniffs loudly, lifts his hand to look at Keith. Even in the dark, he can see the sharp slant of Lance's eyebrows, the tears gathered on his eyelashes.

"And do what?" he asks, and there's a small, disbelieving laugh in the question that has Keith smirking, "You wanna do a midnight training session? You're so bad at comforting people, dude."

"I'm trying," Keith says honestly, "I've never done any of this before."

"Yeah, I can tell."

Lance laughs, though. It's quiet for a few minutes. Keith is almost starting to doze again when Lance's hand lands on his arm, and squeezes lightly.

 

 

Chapter Text

So falling through the ice sucks.

Just jot that down.

Having to be carried back to the village along with the medical supplies because he was too numb and disoriented from the cold to walk sucked even more. Lance is feeling pretty useless right now. He remembers…. Stumbling a lot. At first. Slurring out apologies when he was lifted up. He remembers the weight of Shiro's coat pressing warmth into his shivering limbs, something steady and heated under his back. The others voices, worried, crowded together.

He becomes a bit more coherent when they get back to the castleship - the noticeable lift in temperature helps, which is wild because Lance has always thought of the castle as drafty - when Shiro hands him off to Coran to get treated for his hypothermia.

Coran can't pop him in a healing pod for it (kind of counterproductive, right?), but he helps Lance strip out of the remains of his frozen clothes and dry off properly, and get into his pajamas. Lance is slow, and confused, and clumsy. Coran is super patient and encouraging. Once he's dressed, Lance gets wrapped in a blanket that's so soft and toasty it makes him feel like a marshmallow. He swallows down a cup of sweet-tasting medicine that warms his entire core as it seeps down his throat and settles in his belly, and then he gets tucked into bed with a warm compress to hug against his chest.

His head clears a little bit, his body gradually warming.

Coran sits perched on the edge of the bed and taps away at one of the tablet screens from the med bay while he talks. Lance doesn't really hear much of what he's saying. He's tired. He turns his face into the pillow and breathes out. He doesn't notice that he falls asleep until there's a hand coming to rest on top of his head. Lance turns, groaning, so Coran has an easier time feeling his forehead.

"Well, now I'm worried you're a bit too warm," Coran says, pushing back his sweaty hair.

"S'afever, Coran," Lance mumbles, feeling swimmy.

His voice rakes against his throat and sends him into a violent coughing fit. Coran helps him sit upright, fumbling with the twisted blankets. Lance wilts as soon as he recovers enough to breathe, and he's really feeling it, now. He knows exactly what it means.

Is that even possible? To be totally freezing and then burning up? But like, both at the same time? Because that's happening. Lance's concept of time is blurred. It feels immediate. The achy heaviness in his limbs. The foggy head space. The sweating and burning, even though he's shivering like crazy and he can't get warm. That weird tingling in his chest that pulses into his hands, that makes him feel restless and nervous and exhausted.

He tries to crawl back under the blanket. Coran tucks him in nice and tight and keeps a hand resting on Lance's shoulder after he's settled.

"Is it normal for humans to generate this much heat?"

"Sort of," Lance has to take a labored breath before he continues, face half buried in the pillow, eyes already falling closed again, "It'll come down on it's own. ...I think."

"Alright," Coran says, not moving from his spot, "I was going to run down and check up on the others, but I think I'll stay, just to make sure."

"M'just gonna sleep," Lance mumbles.

He means to encourage Coran to go. There's no point in him staying when he has work to do, and the others are busy, if Lance is just going to lay here. The hand on his shoulder moves to his back as Lance curls onto his stomach, and the steady movement up and down his spine helps ease everything churning up inside of him, physical aches as well as emotional ones.

Lance falls asleep again instantly.

His dreams are weighty, fitful things this time - seamlessly transitioning from bright blue skies, dappled with clouds, to chilly walls that he can't push past. He scrapes his hands bloody trying, desperate, choking, begging. Darkness bubbles up around him. Heat seeps into his clothes and under his skin. It breaks, and washes away, and he keeps hearing a voice calling to him softly, someone familiar that he can't place, that nags at his thoughts long after it's gone.

When Lance wakes up, his fever has broken somewhat.

This time he's alone.

Everything is damp - his hair, his pajamas and bed sheets, the toasty blanket that is definitely too warm for comfort, now. Lance pushes it off with what little strength he has, content to pull the thinner sheet over him and curl up for a while longer. He gets cold again quickly, and reaches for it, pulling it over his shoulders as he stares blearily across the room. His communicator is on the bedside table, blinking. Lance considers checking it, but before he manages to get up the motivation to do it a tingle rushes up his body. He shivers, burrows back down into the pillow.

The bedroom door slides open, and Lance lifts his head, still feeling groggy.

He sits up straighter when he sees who it is - "Shiro! Hey." - and immediately regrets it. A wave of dizziness overcomes him, and Lance has to brace both hands on the bed and bow his head to steady himself. Shiro puts one hand on his shoulder, and once the room stops lurching and swaying underneath him, Shiro helps Lance ease back to sit up against the wall.

Lance puts his face in one hand, wondering if the heat under his palm is from the residual fever or embarrassment. Shiro sits on the bed, facing him, and smiles softly.

"How are you feeling, Lance?"

Lance looks up, drops his hand.

"Better," he says, because he does. There is a definite improvement in how he is feeling now compared to earlier. When he was drowning. And freezing. He's still sore, and tired, and - Lance tries not to think about it, twists his hands together. He realizes he doesn't even know how long he's been out of commission. "What time is it? Are you guys still….? Should I - ?"

Shiro's hand comes down on top of his. It's a slow, cautious gesture that stills Lance's nervous hands, has his voice fading out.

"It's been about a day or so," Shiro says, "We finished up and we're back in space, now. There's nothing you need to focus on other than getting better, Lance."

That uneasiness doesn't subside.

Lance nods.

"Right. Okay."

"I brought you this." Shiro reaches for the bedside table. Lance doesn't notice that he's starving until he sees the container of food and his stomach growls in acknowledgment. He really hopes it's not food goo - please don't be food goo. "Hunk made you some soup."

Lance could cry. The bowl is warm when he takes it from Shiro and cradles it carefully on his lap. It's not potato soup, but it's like potato soup - chunks of soft starchy vegetables thickening the broth, mild blue flakes of something to add a little flavor. The smell alone has Lance's mouth watering, most of his weariness forgotten as he stirs it with the spoon Shiro provides.

"And you've got some more medicine to take," Shiro adds. Lance groans in protest, spoon clattering. There's a small laugh in answer, "Let's get that out of the way first, then."

He hands Lance two medicines. The sweet one from earlier, which Lance drinks without complaint - it's warm all the way down to the bottom of his feet again, swirling - and another one that's slightly thicker and pinker. Lance sniffs this one first, hesitant until Shiro says, "Coran made something to hopefully bring your fever down and help with the symptoms. You still look pretty warm."

Shiro touches the back of his fingers to Lance's forehead, and Lance avoids looking at him, let's out a nervous laugh and quips, "That's good, though, right? I mean, I almost drowned and froze to death, so, like… I'd definitely rather be sick."

He doesn't… mean to say that. To say it like that.

It just pops out all by itself.

Shiro withdraws his hand with a small frown. Lance almost choked himself trying to swallow the medicine in one big gulp, past the tightness in his throat.

"I'm sorry, Lance."

"For what?"

Lance wants to shrink into the pillows at the look Shiro gives him. Pretending to be oblivious isn't doing either of them any favors. He fidgets with the glass before setting it aside, keeps his gaze lowered to the bowl in his lap and picks up his spoon to give it another stir.

"For pushing us to cross that river," Shiro graciously clarifies. He does sound sorry. Worried. A little scared. And it's not like that is unexpected, but the way it works to unwind the knot of tension Lance has been holding in his chest this entire time is. He looks up, food forgotten, and sees the genuine expression of sorrow on Shiro's face. "It was dangerous, and I should have listened to you. Getting back safely was more important. I don't know why I was trying to rush us. I'm sorry."

"It's - it's okay," Lance says.

"It's not okay, Lance," Shiro insists.

And Lance gets why it's... not. But he wants it to be. So he nods his head, says, "I know. But… I forgive you. I mean, I'm okay. And you're okay. So. We're okay...?"

He makes a tiny motion with his spoon, indicating the two of them.

He doesn't know why he feels like he's done something wrong. Maybe it's the headache, the fever creeping up on him again. The stress. The energy he's burned just sitting up and talking. He feels like he's carrying this enormous weight, and the medicine only helps so much.

When he glances up, though, Shiro is smiling. He kind of looks like he doesn't think he deserves to be forgiven, but he accepts it.

"We're okay," Shiro says. Then he reaches out and taps Lance on the forehead, twice, lightly with his fist. "As long as you stop acting like you don't think you're a valuable asset to this team. I would have rather hiked back for new supplies than have lost you under the ice today. There is absolutely no contest, Lance. So please try to think of yourself a little more."

Lance can't help thinking that is hilarious advice from Shiro, of all people, but apparently it's what he needed to hear because he starts crying without warning, thick tears plopping into his soup, mouth wobbling. The bowl is scooped out of his idle hands and set aside. Shiro's arms close around him, loosely at first, and then more firmly as Lance tucks his face into Shiro's shoulder.

A hand presses into the center of his back.

Lance isn't sure which of them needs the hug more.

 

Chapter Text

Hunk likes to experiment in the kitchen, and Coran likes to get a little puffed up about how much more enthusiastic the Earthlings get when they're served "real food" rather than some bulbous, oozing mass of gelatinous stink. It's weird how different their pallets are, considering their basic biology is similar. Allura doesn't necessarily turn her nose up at Hunk's cooking, but she clearly prefers a healthy helping of pink spewing puss, which is the kindest terminology the Earthlings can come up with as the contents of her plate hiss and spew… pink puss.

Keith grimaces at it, breath tucked into his lungs, which are starting to burn from the effort.

The smell is still firmly settled in his nostrils.

"It's really quite good," Allura assures him, and Keith sees Pidge, across the table, visibly fighting not to gag when Allura scoops a spoonful into her mouth.

"No thanks."

Even Lance can't find the image flattering, if his face is anything to go by; the way he wilts and gusts out, "Ugh, Allura. Are you kidding me?"

"What?" she actually sounds offended, "Just try it! You might find it enjoyable."

"And it's nutritious!" Coran adds enticingly.

There is a loud chorus of No from the Paladins; heads shaking, hands waving. Shiro is quick to decline the offer, too. There's no telling what they fed him in that Galra prison - he looks like he's having a flashback or something. Not a good flashback.

Luckily, Hunk chooses that moment to spare them from enduring. He carries in a huge tray loaded down with a couple of different things: what looks like spaghetti pasta, and three types of sauces, and some kind of bread rolls. Best of all, it smells good. It dominates the room, and the second the Earthlings move away from the grotesque platter in front of the Alteans, they readily forget about it, singing Hunk's praises as they load up their own plates and squabble over the rolls.

"Oh man, this is so good."

"Nice job, Hunk."

"What's in these?" Keith asks after biting into one of the soft rolls - after wrestling it out if Lance's hand.

Alien ingredients are often best left as a mystery. But the rolls are sweet and rich and so soft they practically dissolve on his tongue. They're so good he grabs two more, chewing eagerly, savoring the taste. He forgets not to ask. He doesn't really care what they're made with, they're that good, and Hunk looks pleased to be asked for once.

"I made my own flour with this grain I picked up on that last planet we visited. Something called sylixx? Sounds stupid, I know, but it really adds that - "

They don't find out what it adds.

Coran utters a sharp gasp, and then physically vaults the table to strike the remains of the roll right out of Keith's hand. The roll goes flying. Keith's hand is stinging, red hot under his glove.

"Christ, Coran, what the quiznak!"

"Nothing!" The advisor sounds alarmed, and it does not exactly help that he's still half crouched on the table, wild-eyed, mustache all aquiver. "Just! You might be allergic."

"To what?"

"The grain! The sylixx!" He pronounces it differently than Hunk. "It's grown in close contact to a weed that keeps predators away so they don't corrupt the harvest! The Galra have a low tolerance for that weed, and sylixx is often contaminated due to its proximity!"

"Like having a peanut allergy and not being about to eat certain foods because they were made in the same factory?" Pidge asks, fascinated, but worried, and rudely biting into their own roll.

"I'm not allergic to anything," Keith says, frowning.

"Well, we don't want to risk it! You already had two of those! We should get you to the infirmary and pump your stomach - "

That does not sound appealing. He doesn't want to know what kind of alien contraption will do that and he never wants to come into contact with it.

"I feel fine, Coran!"

"I really didn't use that much," Hunk offers nervously, "But I did use that grain to make the pasta, too. So…"

"Are you serious!?"

Deflating, Keith looks down at his untouched plate of pasta, loaded with sauce and some weird meatballs, the entire other roll he hasn't gotten to yet. He can't eat any of this? That's not fair! Hunk is saying, "I'm sorry, dude, I'll make you something else."

And Keith is…

Keith is weighing his options.

His Galra genes are so weak, really, what are the odds the allergy would come through?

Slim, he decides.

Keith snatches up the plate, throws back his chair, and bolts. No one is expecting it, so he manages to clear the door and leap through as it opens to only a startled outburst from the group at large. Shiro sighs, "Keith," but no one follows after him.

----

Okay. So.

Okay.

It might be time to admit that he's having some sort of reaction.

Keith catalogs the symptoms he doesn't have, while simultaneously trying to ignore the ones he does. He's looking for a bright side, here. He doesn't feel sick, or nauseous. He isn't hallucinating (he doesn't think…). He isn't sweating or chilled or shaking. He isn't feverish. He doesn't have a headache. He hasn't thrown up. He's not dizzy or disoriented.

His throat itches.

It's swollen, and raw, and it's hard to swallow. He can't… he can't breathe very well.

It isn't happening quickly enough to scare him.

But once he slinks into the bathroom and looks in the mirror, and sees that the inflamed rash under his throat is a vivid purple, irritably outlined in red, spotting all up and down his neck, he knows it's time to tell someone. He still tries to put it off for a while, hoping it will go away on its own. To his dismay, the purple rash grows the more he scratches at it, until it is reaching down his neck to spread across his chest, coloring his jaw and half of face like a bruise.

It makes Keith self-conscious for the first time in his life; he doesn't want the others to see him like this. He already feels out of place and alienated from the team sometimes (even though that's partly his own fault. He's the one that withdraws all the time…).

Also…. Lance's room is the closest.

Steeling himself, Keith shuffles to the door one down from his own with his hand clamped over the rash in an effort to hide it. He knocks with the other one, and waits, eyes downcast, heart drumming anxiously in his chest. A chuckle, "Oh, wow, dude," is the first thing out of Lance's mouth when the door slides open and Lance gets a good look at him. He touches Keith's wrist to move his hand, cranes his head to see it better. His brow creases. "Can you breathe?"

Keith swallows hard around his partially closed throat, wheezing slightly as he breathes in.

He nods.

"Alright." Lance sounds put-upon, but he's picking up his coat and grabbing a packet of flavored water out of the mini fridge beside his bed, passing it to Keith as he comes out into the hallway. "I guess it's up to me to take you to the infirmary to get your insulin shot or whatever it is to counteract this stuff. You learn your lesson, galra boy?"

Keith expected to get teased like this.

He still glares, silently sipping at the packet and grateful, despite Lance's attitude, for the way the cool liquid eases his sore throat. He's not going to say thanks.

(He can't. He loses his voice for four days.)

He gets a painful shot in his thigh and an I-told-you-so from Coran, and several disparaging comments from Shiro about acting his age, please. He tolerates Lance's jokes through the entire process. He is very worried about what Allura is going to say about his purple skin - it makes him scratch at it more, which makes it worse - but she only asks softly if he's going to be alright, and that knot of anxiety in his chest eases somewhat. He is a little surprised by the concern the others all show as they crowd around him in the infirmary while Coran monitors how he reacts to the medicine.

Pidge at pokes his Galra rash.

Hunk wrings his big hands, his shoulders bowed.

"Man, I'm sorry my food did this to you."

The last thing Keith wants is for Hunk to feel guilty.

Keith picks up the tablet Allura brought him, and the pen to accompany it. He turns it around for Hunk to see the neat, Worth it, scrawled in the center.

 

Chapter Text

Lance's ears are ringing, something flashing at the edges of his vision.

There's a voice calling his name?

Saying something?

Everything sways together, colors, shapes, sounds. It takes him a long time to focus. That sharp piercing ring prevails over everything else. Over the thunder and crash of his surroundings; people shouting and running; the sounds of feet trooping over the ground in panic. There is a roar in the distance, a flare of heat close by. It's so hard to breathe. Lance coughs, his lungs stinging, chest burning. He moves to try and get his bearings - needs to get up, needs to do something. The pain is immediate. It shoots down his leg, twisted, broken. It tears up his side and into his ribs and knocks the strength right out of him.

Tensing up, body rigid as he goes still, does nothing to help, so Lance rolls to find some relief. He can't - he can't breathe - Shit…!

He turns onto his stomach, braced on his elbows, and it's a little easier then. Gets him upright in some small way and clears his head, gets warm air expanding his chest. His leg is bent, resting on the ground, and it still hurts so bad that Lance is afraid to look at it. It burns. Throbs. It's nothing but dead weight when he makes an aborted attempt to move it that only ends in more pain searing his nerves and pushing out his precious air. He must make a noise that he is too dazed to hear, because his comm lights up.

This words from earlier come in clearer: "Lance. It's Keith. Are you there?"

His helmet is lying right next to him. Too bad he wasn't wearing it. His head is pounding.

"I-I'm here," Lance grits out, gasping, "I think."

There's a gusty noise on the other end.

"Some pirates bombed the embassy. Everyone else has been evacuated. Are you alright?"

"N-no… my leg…"

"Okay. Sit tight. It's gonna be okay. The locator in your suit finally turned itself on when you responded, we'll be there soon. Lance. Do you have eyes on Pidge?"

Pidge…?

Lance lifts his head, finally getting a good look at his surroundings. He doesn't even recognize the smoke-clotted room anymore. Once a gorgeous receiving hall, it is now a cascade of broken pillars and crumbling walls distorted by the darkness and the shifting light. The domed ceiling has been shattered inward. Glass liters the floor, glittering bright orange in the fire that rages noisily all around, burning tapestries and furniture and everything else in its path.

From his vantage point, he can't see much past all the debris.

He's trying to think.

He was standing right next to -

Just a few feet away, to his far right, there is a small body crumpled on the floor, only partially obscured by the roiling smoke. Green armour burned a dull yellow in the firelight, messy head of brown hair.

"Lance? Do you copy?"

"I can see Pidge." Lance forces the words out, heart kicking out of rhythm. "They're not - they're not moving, I -"

"Lance, it's gonna be okay."

Keith's voice is so calm. It should be comforting. But he's not here. He's not here, holding each burning breath while his heartbeat runs wild, vision swimming and unreliable, eyes stinging as they puddle up and overflow. He can't even tell if Pidge is breathing. Is it a trick of the light? Have they suffocated?

They're not moving. They're not -

Lance is aware that Keith is saying something. Hears his name. The sound of a question in that steady tone that is so common place now.

Whatever it is is not as important as what is right in front of him.

Lance fumbles, arm shooting out, straining to shift his weight, teeth grit against the pain the howls through his whole leg and side in protest. His hand lands on the lip of his helmet. "Lance? I need you to keep talking to me if you can. Lance - " Maybe he's panicking a little. Not thinking clearly. The action makes sense in the moment that Lance seizes on it.

His aim is the best out of the team for a reason: even from this terrible position on the floor, even with his body protesting even the slightest movements, Lance still manages to send the helmet gliding smoothing in an arc across the cracked, cluttered floor. Keith's voice goes along with it, fading into the ambiance.

The helmet hits the floor and bounces lightly off of Pidge's back. They still don't stir.

Lance's adrenaline is pumping now. It makes his next task easier. He barely registers the pain in his leg at all as he moves one elbow forward to pull himself along the floor. It's not that far. A couple of yards. He can make it. His leg doesn't want to work, but he's got another one, and two good arms.

Even the smallest movement takes a monumental effort. Lance's armour is so heavy. He's never noticed it before. It weighs his arms down every time he lifts them, reaching across the floor toward Pidge, but each strain of his muscles and his protesting body brings him that much closer. It feels like he spends hours crawling through the debris, but it only takes minutes, and Lance is flushed, and sweating, and breathing hard by the time his hand finally - finally - lands on Pidge's arm.

Pidge is a tiny thing, and it still takes all of Lance's remaining strength to turn them over onto their back, cradled between his arms. One of the lenses in their glasses are shattered. There's an ugly red bruise blooming on their forehead. But there is a very faint groan as Lance pulls them over under his body, and Pidge's eyelids flutter, their hands lifting.

"Lan..ce?"

Lance has never been happier in his life.

His elation is short lived. While he was moving, it was easy to ignore, but now that he's still the needle-sharp pain is pulsing up his leg and causing Lance to curl in on himself, a ragged gasp sucking past his sore throat. His hands are shaking, his breath short and wheezing out. He drops his forehead onto Pidge's chest plate, breath trembling in, voice trembling out.

"It's...okay… Pidge…. I got you… it's okay…"

Pidge is shifting underneath him, slow, a little groggy. Legs moving, hands grasping at him. God, they're alive. He's so glad. He was so scared.

"Lance…? Lance!"

Pidge tries to sit up. He's too heavy. Lance can't even think. His temples are pounding with the heavy beat of his heart, and he can barely open his eyes. Pain jolts through his leg when he's shifted abruptly, turned over into Pidge's lap, small hands swatting his too-warm face. The contact stings, but it is dull compared to everything else.

"No, no no no no, Lance, c'mon, says something, please!" Pidge sounds mad.

Lance lifts his hand, tries to pat them reassuringly. He feels dizzy, choked, but he still tries to talk. Keith said he would be here soon. They'll be okay. Just gotta sit tight. Hope that fire doesn't spread too fast. Pidge should try to get out, if they can walk.

Lance is too heavy for them to carry and it's really not safe here.

It's so hard to breathe....

"I don't understand what you're saying," Pidge says in frustration, hunkered over him, close to his face, "Lance. In English. What are you saying?"

"Pidge!"

That's Keith. Not over the comm in Lance's helmet, tucked off to the side, but loud and clear and determined through the rushing sound of oxygen getting eaten up in the heat. He is a shape that seems to come out of the fire itself. Lance's vision is all colors when he peels open his eyes, but he sees Keith shoving a helmet onto Pidge's head, reaching for him, next.

"His leg - "

"I know. Hand me his helmet. Can you walk?"

"I can manage. I was out - I haven't breathed in as much smoke. I - he dragged himself over here to me. That trail of blood - he was trying to tell me something but it was all in Spanish. I couldn't -"

"He's gonna be fine, Pidge." Keith holds Lance's face between his hands, the screen of his helmet flashing in the moving light. "Lance. You did a good job, buddy. Pidge is safe. We're gonna get you guys out of here, okay? Nod if you can understand me."

Dazedly, Lance nods.

And, really, it's a relief to relinquish his hold.