If there’s anything that Keith has a lot of experience with, it’s leaving.
And if there’s anything that Keith has learned from that experience, it’s how to be the one leaving, instead of the one left behind.
He got to be really good at it, too. It was easy when he didn’t have much of anything to walk away from, and no one to tell him that he shouldn’t.
Until suddenly, he did.
It was hard enough, telling the team that he was leaving to join the Blade of Marmora full-time. Harder than he had expected, judging by the ache in his chest and the tightness of his throat as the door to the control deck slid closed behind him with a foreboding sense of finality. But he swallows it down, keeps his eyes ahead, and wills himself to keep moving forward, even though it means leaving something behind.
He was prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. But he never could have been prepared for how hard it would be when someone asked him not to.
“So you’re really leaving.”
It takes a moment for Keith to register that it’s another voice reverberating around the walls of the bay, and not just his own thoughts. And he was so close, too—a single step away from getting into the pod without looking back.
Maybe he shouldn’t have turned around. Only he did, because there always was something about that voice that completely vanquished any sort of self-control that he might have had. Because of course it’s Lance standing there at the entrance of the loading dock, arms crossed, back against the wall.
Keith’s grip tightens on the edge of ramp. “Yeah. I guess I am.”
Lance hardly even blinks. “Why?”
He could ignore Lance’s question. He could just turn around and walk that last step into the pod and take off and pretend it’s because he’s on a mission and not because he’s running. He doesn’t.
“I already told you why.”
Lance gradually pushes himself away from the wall, gaze steady and unwavering in a way that seems to freeze Keith in place. “Remind me then.”
Keith clenches his jaw, closes his eyes and reminds himself to breathe. “You know I have to do this.”
Not a question. And yet it still leaves Keith grasping for answers that he’s not sure he has. Not yet. “Don’t, Lance.”
“Don’t what?” Lance’s voice is closer now, almost too close for comfort. Keith opens his eyes to find him standing just at the end of the ramp, one hand on the railing, looking up at him with his brow creased and jaw set.
Keith resists the urge to take a step back. “Don’t make this any harder than it has to be,” he says quietly.
For a long, tense moment, Keith thinks that for once, Lance might actually listen to him. Then something shifts over his expression—determination laced with something else hidden just underneath—and he takes a step up the ramp. Keith’s heart leaps into his throat when he does, shaking his head slowly, pleadingly, watching helplessly as Lance continues to climb until they’re standing face-to-face, not even an arm’s length apart.
Keith’s breath hitches at the feeling of Lance’s fingers entangling with his, pulling him closer until their foreheads are pressed together, breaths mingling in the space between them.
Lance sighs, his breath brushing across Keith’s cheek and fanning across his skin, sending chills running all over his body. “There’s still time to change your mind.”
It’s too much. Lance is too close, Keith’s throat is too tight, his chest aches too much.
“I have to go,” Keith whispers.
Lance shakes his head, the movement almost imperceptible as his grip on Keith’s hand tightens in a way that should hurt but doesn’t. “Stay,” he murmurs, and Keith hardly manages to suppress the shiver that runs down his spine.
Keith’s eyes fall shut, his free hand moving to clutch Lance’s arm when their noses brush together, his own voice smaller than he’s ever heard it. “I don’t know how.”
“Then come back,” Lance says simply. “Promise me you’ll do that much.” Like it really is just that: simple.
And maybe it is, because Keith’s response comes so quickly it feels automatic, somehow. “I will,” he breathes, desperate to close the space between them but knowing exactly what will happen if he does.
It takes every muscle in his body not to chase Lance’s touch when he leans away, until all that’s left are their entwined hands, and even that slips away after a moment. Lance takes a step back. “I’m holding you to that.”
Keith swallows down the lump in his throat. “I know.”
“You’d better keep in touch.”
“I will, Lance.”
“And we’ll be waiting for you, when you come back.”
When, Keith thinks to himself. Not if.
“I know,” he repeats softly.
“Good.” Lance descends the rest of the ramp with ease, turning to look back up at Keith one last time, expression glossed over with his usual charm. Keith thinks he could make a good actor one day, if he wanted to. “Travel safe, Mullet.”
Despite everything, Keith manages a small smile, even though it intensifies the ache in his chest tenfold. “Bye, Lance.”
Then he takes the final step into the pod. The door slides closed, Lance disappears from view, and moments later Keith is traveling into the space beyond, away from the Castle, away from Voltron, away from Lance.
He’s never been very good at keeping promises. Not that he’s had much practice with them, anyway, with no one to promise anything to. But this one, he thinks, is one that he wants to keep.
Keith keeps his promise.
He comes back. Although, it’s under much different circumstances than he’d hoped or expected.
Maybe Naxzela finally scared him into the realization that the Blade’s “mission above all else” ideology isn’t ideal for an eighteen-year old kid with already poor impulse control and few to no self-preservation instincts.
He was supposed to rendezvous with the rest of the Blades on the nearest base. Instead, he finds himself landing in the bay of the Castle of Lions, unsure if it’s even allowed for it to feel as familiar as it does to him. Unsure if the others will even want him back, because he left, and almost permanently so.
Someone must’ve told Lance that he was coming. Or maybe Lance had seen him coming, or— something, because he comes bursting into the loading dock before Keith has managed to so much as stumble down the ramp of his small ship.
“What the hell,” Lance is yelling, and then he’s in Keith’s space, hands gripping his shoulders so tightly that Keith is sure he’ll bruise. Lance’s brow is creased like he’s trying to be angry, but his eyes are too wide and frantic to be very convincing. “What were you thinking?”
Keith is still in a daze, his pulse pounding behind his skull and blood roaring in his ears. He can hardly bring himself to focus except for Lance’s fingers digging into his uniform and eyes staring right at him, pupils blown wide with panic that makes Keith’s stomach clench uncomfortably.
“I—” he falters. “I had to do something to give you guys a chance—”
He goes unheard—or at least, Lance deems his statement to be irrelevant. “You nearly—” Lance seems to choke on his own words, tears springing into his eyes and freezing Keith in place. “You’re not expendable, Keith, do you hear me? You’re still our red paladin, you’re still—we need you. Okay? So don’t—you can’t just—”
The rest of his words never come, dying on his tongue with a firm shake of his head before the next thing Keith knows, he’s tangled up in Lance’s arms, chests pressed together, Lance’s face tucked into his shoulder.
Lance’s own shoulders are trembling, breathing shaken. “Don’t do anything like that ever again.”
Keith is slow to reciprocate, arms hanging uselessly at his sides while he tries to fight down the sick feeling in his stomach. “Sorry,” is what he manages to croak out, finally winding his arms around Lance’s back and holding on for dear life. “I’m sorry.”
“You promised,” Lance mumbles, and Keith squeezes his eyes shut and buries his face against Lance’s neck.
“I know,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.” And then, after a quiet pause:
Lance falls asleep against Keith’s shoulder later, on the couch in the control room of the Castle.
The team had been congregated there for a while, which is understandable considering the circumstances. There had been a lot to talk about, things to address and others to set aside for later. Keith doesn’t say anything about the way the group’s circle seems to center around him, intentional or not.
Hunk offers to carry Lance to his room. Keith declines.
“I’ve got him,” he murmurs, turning to glance down at the source of the weight against his shoulder. “I think I’m the one who tired him out, anyway.”
That earns a sad smile from Hunk, and a small grimace from Pidge that makes Keith’s stomach twist guiltily. Allura helps peel Lance away long enough for Keith to rise and then lift Lance into his arms, head falling gently against his chest.
Shiro rests a hand on his shoulder before he can go too far. “We’re glad to have you back,” he says softly.
Keith manages a small, appreciative smile, and then Shiro steps aside to allow him to be on his way through the chambers of the Castle to Lance’s room.
Lance is a bit heavier than Keith expected. A good thing, considering the fact that all they’ve had to eat since leaving Earth were heaps upon heaps of space goo that got really old really fast, and that the team is constantly working through training simulation after training simulation to sharpen their skills. It’s a relief to know that Lance has been taking care of himself in that capacity—or that the others have been taking care of him.
The door to Lance’s room slides open without hesitation, after Keith’s short trek through the halls of the Castle. He hears it close once more as he steps over to his bed, and carefully lowers him down onto the sheets. Lance stirs slightly as Keith leans over him to pull the covers over him, but other than that seems to remain asleep.
His gaze travels to Lance’s face for a moment as he settles the covers over Lance’s shoulders; eyes closed, breaths coming out in soft puffs of air, normally self-confident expression smoothed out into something calm. So uncharacteristic and yet so fitting, Keith decides.
He hesitates briefly, and then leans down to press his lips to Lance’s temple, feather-light. He’d blame it on his poor impulse control later. But when he pulls away, ready to make his departure, he takes one last look at Lance to see one corner of his mouth twitch, and curl up just so.
Keith squints. “You’re not asleep anymore, are you.”
“Nope,” Lance mumbles, smile growing. “But I wouldn’t mind if you did that again.”
Keith shuts his eyes with a sigh and turns to leave, only to be stopped by Lance’s hand darting out to grasp his wrist.
“Wait, Keith.” Lance’s brow creases as Keith looks back down at him. “You’re not really gonna go back, are you?”
The short silence that follows as Keith considers this is tense, but not uncomfortably so. He thought maybe he had already made his decision clear enough, but then again, he did always pride himself on how hard he is to read.
Lance watches as Keith lets out a breath and crouches down beside the bed, never letting go of Keith’s wrist. Keith fixes his gaze on a small fold in the sheets, resting his captured hand on the bed.
“I think,” he starts, and then pauses. “I don’t think the Blade is good for me, right now,” he says quietly.
Keith is keenly aware of Lance’s gaze on him as he tucks his free hand underneath his cheek. “I could’ve told you that.”
“Pretty sure you did,” Keith mumbles, keeping his eyes down. “I just didn’t listen.”
A moment of quiet passes between them, while Keith continues to study the folds in Lance’s sheets, and tries his best to ignore the feeling of Lance’s unrelenting gaze on him. Then Lance is letting go of Keith’s wrist, and Keith finally brings himself to meet his gaze when Lance’s fingers settle gently across his cheek.
He smiles again, careful and soft. “We missed you, you know.”
Keith swallows, eyelids fluttering. “Yeah. Me too.”
“You too what?”
“Missed you,” Keith replies, even though Lance has to know exactly what he means.
Lance hums, fingers slipping through Keith’s hair until it’s his palm settled against his cheek. Keith doesn’t remember when he moved to touch Lance’s elbow, but he’s glad he did, hardly able to steady himself otherwise.
Keith’s eyes fall shut when Lance drifts closer, heart hammering in his chest at the mere proximity. “You gonna kiss me this time?” he asks, voice sounding breathless.
“That depends,” Lance murmurs, breath soft on Keith’s lips. “You gonna stay this time?”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
“I wanna hear you say it.”
Keith opens his eyes and is met by piercing blue, cautious yet hopeful all at once. He slides his hand further along Lance’s arm to rest on his shoulder. “I’ll stay,” he whispers.
And when Lance closes the distance between them to kiss him soft, slow, and sweet, as if they have all the time in the world to get this right, Keith imagines it’s like he’s making another promise. One he intends to keep, just like the last.
To stay, even when he feels like running.
Because this time, he knows how.