He watches over Lance while he sleeps away the worst of his injuries with frost on his nose and lips and the edges of his hair. He takes it as a duty, and a privilege, a right that came with Shiro prying Lance from his arms and Coran and Allura ushering his too-quiet body into the healing pod.
Healing. It sounds so strange to Keith’s ears, and even stranger on his tongue. He doesn’t call it what it is and he crouches in front of the pod and he paces back and forth and he—watches over Lance.
He watches over Lance until Shiro insists he get some rest, pry himself out of his armour.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Shiro promises in that gentle way he has with Keith.
Keith nods and backs his way out of the room, reluctant to take his eyes from Lance and all too willing to ignore the way Shiro shoos him with his hands and his eyes. In his room, Keith strips the pieces of his armour away and lets them clatter to the floor like so much detritus.
A part of him feels guilty. He doesn’t want to dwell on that. He drags his way out of his flight suit and leaves it in a crumpled mess on the floor among the red-and-white pieces of his armour. He shivers in the chill, standing in just his underwear, and he wants to crawl into bed without looking at the blue marks on his knees, the old scar in cerulean above one of his hips. But he’s a creature of habit, sometimes; he keeps his rituals, whether Lance is dying or not.
Keith presses his fingers to the marks, his soulmate’s scars. There aren’t many. He’s glad of it, at the same time that he’s desperate for something—anything—that could be a clue for this person he’s made for, this person made for him.
He doesn’t say his goodnight out loud. He breathes it, hopes it makes it way across the galaxy and back home. He hopes they’re waiting for him, like he’s waiting for them.
And then he looks at his own haggard face in the stubby square mirror in his room and nods to his reflection and turns to scramble under his scratchy Altean sheets—when he sees a flash of blue.
Terror shoots through him, becomes something fiery and angry and outraged because blue! so much blue, too much blue.
He swallows it all down and clenches his jaw and twists to peer at his back, afraid of what he’ll see, and chokes at the starburst sight of the new scar on his back.
Huge, like wings. Like fire. Huge, and jagged, and frightening in its magnitude. It feels like cold fear on his skin, like so much uncertainty, like a looming loss.
And then he holds his breath and he thinks of Lance in the pod, the smell of Lance’s pain, the ragged creak of Lance’s voice.
He looks away from the reflected blue on his back, his breath caught in his throat.
Lance, Keith thinks with something like hope and something like panic.
His soulmate is his secret.
A special something on his skin, waiting on his horizon, proof that he’s not unlovable and he’s not unloving. His first night at the Garrison he sneaks his way to the roof and tears the cap off a marker and draws lines between the scars on his knees. They’re like little blue ticks, just scattered marks that make him think his soulmate is adventurous and clumsy and excited. He makes up a constellation on his skin that looks awkward and childish but makes the blue scars seem even brighter.
He taps the end of the marker against his chin and frowns and then leans down so his lips brush the blue marks on his knee and he mumbles: “I love you.”
And then he grimaces and rolls his pants back down and paces back and forth on the roof until the embarrassment is too much and he lets out a strangled shriek and throws the marker from the roof.
It sails away.
Keith runs back to his room, cheeks flushed and heart hammering and his jacket half-done and flapping against his chest as he goes.
He has scars, too. He has— a scar, too, on his ankle. It’s puckered and pink still, like the day he had stumbled into the wall and they had found a rusty nail when it stabbed into his ankle. He remembers, still, the older kids in the home hoisting him up onto the kitchen counter, half-tossing him into the battered sink. “Hold still,” they said; and “This is going to hurt, Keith.” But Keith hadn’t shouted, or cried, or looked away while his would-be family poured rubbing alcohol over his ankle until the bleeding slowed.
No, his scars are somewhere else. He knows this. He doesn’t like to reflect on it. Before Shiro and the Garrison, Keith had sometimes tried throwing himself out of trees or against sidewalks just to see if he could spark a scar, like a signal to his soulmate. He never got far: just teetered on branches and squinted at the ground and then threw his hands in the air and went on with his life and his waiting.
“They tell me you’re reckless,” Shiro had told him, casually and in between fries.
“Maybe,” Keith had mumbled back.
He traces the scars on his knees and he imagines he can feel someone else’s warmth through them. This, he thinks, is someone who will never leave: they’re marked on him forever. This makes him desperate, and lonely, and impatient, but it also makes him loyal and dedicated. He never looks anywhere else. All he needs are the blue marks on his knees, the strangely more intimate one above his hip. He traces his fingers over them and thinks he knows what love is.
And then Lance bursts into his life.
And Lance is—outrageous. He makes Keith outraged. He makes Keith want to scream at the sky and he makes Keith want to punch a wall until his knuckles are bloody and he makes Keith—afraid.
He carries something for Lance in the pit of his stomach, and he’s sure it isn’t love. He’s—sure—
He’s attracted to Lance, and it makes his teeth hurt to know this. Lance, who is loud and long and obnoxiously handsome. When Keith can’t look away from Lance he slaps his hands to his knees and grits his teeth and imagines that he can feel the marks pulsing beneath his palms, a reminder of what he’s waiting for.
He still thinks Lance would look good pressed against a wall and whispering Keith’s name.
He still wants to scream.
The guilt tears at him. It rips tiny holes in his lungs and it makes it impossible for him to look at Lance, and it makes him hide away in the dark to try and remember that he’s waiting, that he’s patient. Out there and far away, there’s someone who’s made for him and who he is made for , someone who will love him just as much as he will love them—
Once, just once, he thinks he could make a scar like a signal. His name. Maybe a promise: I will find you .
But when he comes out of the frantic thought he feels chilled and afraid and puts his head in his hands and counts his breaths until the desperation fades away.
He’ll wait, he decides again. And: he won’t look at Lance, anymore.
Or, he’ll try not to.
The scar is mottled and a hundred different shades of blue. Sometimes, Keith can stand at the mirror and twist to look over his shoulder just to watch the shifting pattern of it, the way the edges start to sharpen as Lance heals in the pod. Keith can reach to touch the edges of it, and can watch the tips of his fingers brush the mark, the manifesting scar. It reminds him of water. It makes him think of an oceanside he’s never seen, a tide pool or the way the waves might lap at a shore.
He worries about Lance. He wonders if he’s in pain. Keith can see the way the starburst scar twists and shifts and becomes something steady. He imagines he can see the way the scar knots and flattens and maybe even the way it might burn against Lance’s skin. The little scar on Keith’s ankle is a poor comparison, but he stares at it and pokes it once or twice, just to see how it feels on his skin, just to imagine how it might feel to touch Lance’s scar.
His attraction, suddenly, seems justified.
And horrifying, still. He sits outside the pod and looks up at Lance’s sleeping face and wonders what it would be like to say “I love you, Lance.” The thought always stutters and dies, the daydream always fades away into panicked smoke. It seems impossible. Too good to be true, maybe. He might be imagining it all. Maybe something terrible has happened to his actual soulmate, back on Earth. Maybe they’re wondering where he is, why he hasn’t gone to look for them when the evidence of that terrible thing is marked all over his back.
He lays back on the floor and stares up at the dark ceiling and listens to the hum of Lance’s pod.
“Hey Keith,” Hunk says, looking tired as he leans over Keith and smiles down at him.
Keith blinks. “Hi.”
He sits up when Hunk comes to sit next to him and he watches the way Hunk stares up at Lance for a moment, and the way something strained seems to pull at the edges of Hunk’s eyes and mouth in profile.
Then Hunk looks away and leans his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands and looks Keith up and down, once.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Great,” Keith replies in a gruff.
This makes Hunk laugh, short and—bubbly, maybe. It seems a strange word to slide onto Hunk, who is such a large and bright presence, a ray of sunshine wherever he goes. Keith can see himself knowing Hunk, befriending Hunk.
He looks away and back up at Lance.
“Coran says we can wake him up tomorrow,” Hunk says. “Probably.”
“I’ll take it.”
Keith listens to the hum of the pod, like a thrum in his own veins. “Me too.”
Pidge’s soulmate has a burn down their left arm. It’s spotty, in places, and aggressively orange in others. It looks strangely interesting on Pidge’s skin. Allura is drawn to it, when Pidge lets her look. She takes Pidge’s arm and ignores Pidge’s sigh and traces her fingers down the length of Pidge’s mark.
“It’s pretty new,” Pidge says. “I mean, they have other scars in other places, but like—normal ones. Knee scabs and stuff.” Pidge pauses. “I wonder what happened.”
Keith understands that thoughtful, worried tone. He doesn’t comment.
Allura releases Pidge and turns to look at him. She opens her mouth, and then closes it, and then tries again: “Hunk tells me that not every human has a soulmate.”
Keith lets that sit in the air for a moment, and then says: “Yeah. That’s what people say.”
Pidge shrugs. “Or not every human has scars.”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t have a soulmate,” Hunk pipes up from his place on the floor. He’s sitting cross-legged and keeps blinking like he needs a nap, like he’s going to fall on his face from exhaustion. Keith wants to toss a blanket over him and tell him to sleep.
He keeps his distance.
Pidge scoffs. “Your soulmate probably just lives surrounded by cushions.”
“That doesn’t seem so bad,” Allura says with a tinkle of laughter. She even laughs like a princess. She’s mesmerizing, sometimes. Keith can see why Lance—
He looks back at Hunk, who’s looking up at the ceiling. “No,” Hunk says eventually. “I’m pretty sure.” He pauses with a smile and looks at them all. “You should hear the way Lance goes on about his soulmate, and they don’t have many scars either. Just one, I think—we can ask him.”
“Tomorrow,” Shiro says, almost making Keith jump. He puts his flesh hand on Keith’s shoulder and Keith looks up at him looking out at the others. “Time for bed, everyone. Let’s try to be fresh-faced for Lance tomorrow.”
“Coran’s sure, then?” Keith asks.
“He’s still at the pod, if you want to ask him.”
“No,” Keith mumbles, hunching. “It’s fine.”
“I miss him,” Pidge sighs. And then: “Don’t tell Lance.”
“Your secret’s safe with us,” Shiro says, voice light.
“It isn’t,” Hunk says.
As they shuffle into the hall under Shiro’s exhausted eyes, Keith thinks about sidling up to Hunk; tugging on his sleeve, maybe, and saying in his most casual voice Lance’s soulmate, huh .
He hunches his shoulders and imagines banging his head against a wall instead.
He doesn’t sleep much. He looks at all the blue on his skin. He sits up in bed and rubs his knees and imagines Lance, even in his pod-induced coma, can feel that he’s there, that he’s here.
But tomorrow comes and Lance doesn’t look at him differently, barely looks at him at all.
Lance stumbles out of the pod and he wobbles in Hunk’s hold and he makes obnoxious jokes that have them all sighing. He shakes out his arms and he goes to take a shower and Keith stares, and stares, and stares, and waits, and waits, and waits.
But the revelation is his. The fear, too; the hope. And Lance doesn’t look at him any differently.
That night, Keith screams into his pillow.
And then he goes to Shiro’s room.
And then he turns back around and sends a silent apology to his brother’s door. Let Shiro sleep, he tells himself. Let everyone sleep.
But the castle feels different, now. It’s colder. He’s acutely aware of space drifting by without them and with them all at once. There’s a new buzzing in the halls, which Coran says is the life support systems and promises they’ll all get used to it. It reminds Keith of Red, and of Voltron.
He goes back to his room. He studies the door. He turns around and he ,wanders to the bridge, the soft night-cycle lights slowly brightening as he walks by. Some of the halls are too dark to see down, at this time of the cycle, and the castle is quiet and loud in its emptiness.
The bridge, too, is dimly lit. The stars offer little light. There’s glimmers of colour from all sides: red and blue and yellow and green and purple.
And there’s Lance, sitting on the floor and looking out at the universe.
The doors hiss shut behind Keith and Lance twists to look at him. They blink at each other. Lance turns away.
“Hey,” he says.
“Lance,” Keith says, and his surprise makes him sound a little breathless. He shakes it away and makes his puttering way to stand behind Lance. He gapes down at Lance’s head, the soft shape of his hair and the image of his shoulders. “You should be sleeping.”
“I just slept for days,” Lance scoffs. “Like, literal days! What is that?”
“A coma,” Keith replies flatly.
“Great,” Lance mutters and hugs his knees tight. “Fabulous.”
They’re quiet, then. Keith stays where he is. He listens to his heart beat, feels the pound of it against his walls of his chest. He doesn’t feel the scar, still and steady on his back now; a consistent blue that he wishes he could press his hands to, like maybe his fingers would sink beneath it and disappear.
“Lance,” he says again.
There’s a thousand more things he could say. He can think of them—some of them. He can imagine some of them tumbling from his lips. He can imagine crouching next to Lance and staring at his shoulder and saying anything from is your back alright to I think I’m in love with you .
“I can’t sleep,” Lance grumbles. “We’re in space and I can’t sleep. That’s it.”
“Okay,” Keith says.
“Pidge is a girl and we’re in space and I can’t sleep and, man , but I’m sore.”
“So sore. And—hungry! Jesus.”
Lance groans and rubs his chin against his knee and huffs a whistling breath out through his lips. Then, he looks up at Keith, scowling.
Keith recoils, in his way. Hunches his shoulders and digs his fingers into the skin around his elbows. “What?”
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Lance says.
“I can’t sleep,” Keith says, and it’s a retort; it’s defensive. “Same as you.”
“Same as me,” Lance echoes drily.
“Well, not exactly the same,” Keith mumbles. “Obviously.”
And of all things, that makes Lance smile.
“You worried about me, Keith?” Lance says around the curve of his smile, small and huge at once. His voice makes the rapidfire of Keith’s heartbeat batter against his chest, makes his bones shake, makes the memorized blue on his knees scream.
Is this what it feels like? Every cell in his body just reaching and straining and needing another person? Or, is it just the fluster of his realization, of the drowning recognition of his own growing feelings, spiraling around Lance and the memory of his quiet and frozen face in the pod? He doesn’t know. He’s afraid, almost, that Lance is feeling it too, like a vibration between them that makes the air feel unsettled. Every breath Keith sucks in burns and scratches its way down his throat, bursts rather than inflates his lungs.
“No,” he says. He sits, feeling both suddenly old and suddenly very young as he drops to the cold ground and squeezes his ankles and stares down at his wrists so he won’t stare at Lance.
He counts three of Lance’s breaths: in and out; in and out; in and out. “Okay,” Lance says softly.
That’s it: okay .
Keith’ll take that, too. He stays where he is, his fingers warm against his ankles and his hands feeling exposed without his gloves. Lance carries on breathing, carries on living. It’s like he’s still in the pod, except it isn’t, except Keith doesn’t have the courage to continue staring up at his face and studying the slope and edges of his features. If he’d had another day, he might’ve been able to memorize the shape of Lance’s nose.
This, like this, is alright. No frost tinge to Lance’s hair. No shine to his closed eyelids while Keith waits and waits for him to wake up.
He wants to apologize. He feels his own impatience like a scar.
Eventually, Lance stands and yawns and tugs at his hair and sighs. Keith looks up at him, slightly startled, and then scrambles to his feet and they look at each other.
“I’m going to bed,” Lance says eventually.
“Okay,” Keith says.
They’re still for a moment more, and then turn and leave the bridge, together, and make their slow down the quiet halls, together, and they reach Lance’s door first, together. Lance grimaces when Keith stops and blinks at him. He grimaces some more when Keith shrugs and shoves his hands in his pockets and looks down the hall toward his room and then back at Lance.
Lance sucks in a breath like he wants to say something, and then he snaps his mouth shut with a click of his teeth and shakes his head. He turns to the door and slaps his hand to the panel in an already practiced flail of his arm. As it hisses open, Keith wrestles with the last of his tired courage and says in a rush: “Goodnight, Lance.”
Lance twists to look back at him, not quite turning around and still with his hand pressed to the panel by his door. He looks awkward, like this, like he’s made of many arguing blocks.
The horrible, beautiful scar on Keith’s back seems to burn. He can’t forget it, not even in this moment, this dark and crowded space on the vast and empty ship, with Lance just in front of him and just out of reach.
“Goodnight,” Lance says finally, and Keith remembers to breathe, and Lance disappears through his door.
He’s gone, like that. It’s just Keith again, alone in the hall and studying the door like he could melt through it and pop open his chest and point at the harsh beat of his heart like it could say everything for him.
He goes to bed eventually. There’s a tug in his gut that begs him to stay, but it’s a protective anxiety he knows he needs to smother, need to wrap up in a blanketed box and launch out an airlock and leave for the wonders of the universe to consume and tear into pieces. He tugs his shirt off and drops it on his floor and shivers in the dim light of his room. He wants to stand at the mirror and stare at the blue. He wants to strip out of his pants and press his fingers to the marks on his knees.
He doesn’t. He resists. His soulmate, it seems, is just down the hall, tired and sore, and to look at the marks now feels like betrayal. Lance doesn’t know, not yet; Lance doesn’t know that Keith touches these hints of him, or sees the explosive wound on his back.
Keith pulls his blankets over his head and breathes hard against his pillow, the pillowcase fabric crowding his mouth and then releasing with every breath. He shuts his eyes as tight as he can, so tight it hurts, and he waits.
He falls asleep.
Something inside him feels stunted. Stalled. The hope he had carried for so long has run into a wall, too hard and too fast for Keith to walk away entirely well. He stops wondering after his soulmate and instead studies the curl of Lance’s hair, the pattern of his freckles, the restless way he rocks on his feet. When they form Voltron, he imagines he can feel Lance tugging at the edges of his mind, but in truth Lance’s presence in the otherworldly mind-meld of the lions is no different than Shiro’s or Hunk’s or Pidge’s.
He’s scared, sometimes: what if he’s wrong, still? what if Lance doesn’t want him, doesn’t need him? Keith looks at his hands, at his reflection, at the drag of his own footsteps, and he wonders if Lance will be disappointed to know—
But Lance doesn’t know, not yet. Keith hasn’t said the words to him. The scar they share is a trauma that Keith is reluctant to summon for either of them again. As much as he loves the blue of it, as the days in the castle and in the universe and in their lions drift by, he stares at Lance’s back and tries to imagine the pain and something hot and furious bubbles and sears at his insides.
Maybe the scars are starting to feel like exactly that. He can put a face to his soulmate’s pain now. He’s scared to study his own skin and see a new blue mark, a new blue scar.
He doesn’t realize he’s crowding Lance until Lance snaps: “Stop crowding me!”
And while the Galra ship roars around them and Allura’s steady voice rings in Keith’s helmet and the others fight their way to the best exit plan they can come up with, Keith stops and feels his tongue like a dry sponge in his mouth.
“What?” he says.
Lance rolls his eyes and shoves passed Keith and runs to keep up with Shiro. Keith follows, almost too late, and Hunk grabs his arm and pulls him through a shrieking set of heavy doors and Pidge turns from the panel to snap at him: “Keep up!”
Lance doesn’t look back. Keith can’t take his eyes off him. His hands shake. His focus is unsteady.
He carries on.
They get back to the castle in a haggard, exhausted collection of five, Allura and Coran rushing to meet them. Keith watches Shiro lean over his knees, watches him take in steadying breaths, and watches him stand and shake out the last of the nerves from his hands. Shiro, Keith knows, never really rests. Not anymore.
Keith looks away, the bubbling frustrated heat mounting under his heart, and he notices a painful creak in his neck that makes stars scatter against his eyes when he blinks. His right arm is stiff, his fingers sore from gripping his bayard too tight. He starts to catalogue the pain from his shoulder down, under his chin and behind his ears, when he shifts on his feet and lifts his eyes and Lance is right there.
“Keith,” Lance says.
Lance, Keith knows, is angry. He can hear it in the suddenly low timber of Lance’s voice, and see it in the strained corners of his eyes, and feel it in the way Lance looks at him and spits his name into the cool air of the hangar.
It sets Keith on edge. He stands a little straighter, a little steadier on his feet, and he throws back his shoulders despite the pain that shoots from his shoulder to his elbow to a burning knot in his wrist.
“What?” he snaps.
“Oh boy,” groans Pidge. She drops to the floor and spreads her arms.
“Stop crowding me,” Lance says again.
Keith grinds his teeth. “I don’t know what that means .”
“It means back off ! It means—” He breaks of with a strangled, choked sort of sound that makes the tension in Keith’s body snap, a little; tangle up into worry, a little. Lance whirls away. He throws his hands in the air. He whirls back and it reminds Keith so much of watching Lance wish him goodnight —
“I don’t need you to—to—look after me! Or whatever! I’m all better now, okay?” Lance gestures wildly at himself. The lights of his armour flicker and then dim but he remains blue, so blue. “Just watch your own butt, Keith.”
“Nice one,” Pidge sighs from the floor.
Lance makes an outraged groan and storms away, his hands clenched into fists at his sides and his shoulders stiff and his footsteps loud. It seems to take him forever to leave. The blue and white of his armour seems to settle and fade into the grey of the hangar: he matches, so easily, except for the brown of his hair and the noise of his existence.
Because Lance is noisy: with his voice, with his hands, with the way he enters and leaves a room. It shouldn’t be surprising he’s the first one Keith looks for these days. Lance is—he’s grounding, he’s a compass, he’s unsettling and disorderly and he’s crawled under and over Keith’s skin.
He’s gone, suddenly.
Keith forces his jaw to unclench and he turns away. Green looms over them, the lion’s eyes dark and head bowed. It’s already resting, like the rest of them should be.
Somewhere to Keith’s left, he hears Shiro sigh and say: “Keith.”
Pidge looks up at him, leaned on her hands now. Her hair looks wild. Less mushroom, now, and more snow globe. “You okay?” she asks.
“Great,” Keith says.
“He’s just feeling—” Hunk starts, and then breaks into a thoughtful hum.
“Crowded?” Pidge offers.
Keith feels his skin starting to shift into scales, into tiny spikes standing on end just to scare anyone away. His teeth are too huge in his mouth and there’s heat spreading painfully through his chest and he snaps: “I’m just trying to help.”
It sounds less angry than he feels. Less disgruntled than he is. It comes out so honest he wants to snatch it back throw the words to the floor and stomp on them until they disappear, kick them clear across the hangar and out of sight.
He looks at the ceiling and rubs his tongue against his teeth to keep from clenching his jaw.
“Lance’s injury took its toll on all of us,” Shiro says. He breathes out. “We haven’t talked about it, as a team.”
How would they?
Talk about it?
What would they say? What would they remember, reiterate, and pass between them? Lance, unconscious, and Shiro and Coran hissing as they peel the flight suit from his skin and ask the others to stay back, don’t look ? Coran, guilty and tired, waiting as impatiently as the rest of them for Lance to open his eyes, for the vitals that Keith can’t read to promise Lance’s good health? The shift and tear of the earth under them as they left Arus, as the castle became ship became a different sort of refuge, something just left of home?
“Maybe,” Hunk allows after a moment.
“You should all get some rest,” Allura says into the stilted quiet that settles on them all in the hangar. The lights, to Keith, suddenly seem too bright. He wants to lay down on the floor next to Pidge and hide his face in his arms and ignore the wheezing pain in his ribs when he takes a deep breath.
He feels like he’s been sore for weeks. Months. He’s losing track of time. Part of him is uninterested in catching hold of it again; part of him is freer than he’s ever been, and part of him is desperate for familiar skies.
“Maybe,” Hunk says again. He putters passed Keith and helps Pidge to her feet and Pidge rubs unconsciously at her arm, over her bright marks.
They get nothing but scars.
Shiro looms next to Keith, though looming isn’t entirely right. He’s a comforting, familiar presence standing by Keith’s shoulder, even in the ways he’s painfully unfamiliar. Keith looks up at him, feeling the grim turn of his own mouth, and relaxes a little at Shiro’s small smile.
And then Shiro, in his companionable and affectionate way, claps a hand to Keith’s shoulder and Keith sees stars.
He lets out an unattractive shriek. It catches in his throat like a small, angry bird. His voice sounds both deeper and higher than he’s ever heard it. His ears ring with the sound of his own pain.
“Holy shit ,” he says through a wheeze.
Shiro recoils, his mouth falling open and then shutting in a concerned and guilty frown. Keith hates the sudden tension in his brother’s shoulders. He hates the pain ricocheting through his shoulder.
The others are immediately close and Keith gets a whiff of what Lance means by crowded: everyone looking at him, that same worried twist to their lips, their eyes on him at the same time that they’re not.
“Let me see,” Shiro says with an open-handed gesture at Keith’s shoulder.
“Nope,” Keith says through his teeth.
“You sounded like a dying dinosaur,” Pidge says flatly.
“You totally did.” She pokes him in the side and Keith scowls. “Let us see, weirdo.”
That makes Keith flush, some heated embarrassment and outrage spreading over his skin. His jaw aches from the near-constant grind of his teeth, the slow bone-crunching sound of it in his ears and rattling about his skull. “I’m fine,” he snaps. “I’m just sore.”
“Keith,” Shiro starts.
Keith pulls away and bows his head waves with his left hand. “I’m fine,” he says again, and storms from the hangar in an unconscious copy of Lance.
He thinks he is fine.
When he squirms his way out of his flight suit, he sees a dark bruise already purpling around his shoulder, but he can lift his arm and the pain is his neck mostly feels like tension. He frowns at his reflection and prods, experimentally, at the bruise. It looks strange on his skin, though he’s no stranger to bruises. There’s something about the thick pattern of it, over his shoulder and down his arm in scattered, fat dots. He’s worried, briefly, for his rotator cuff, for his mobility.
But he’s fine.
Keith sighs and kicks away his flight suit and drops onto his bed. He pokes at his shoulder a little more and flinches. He rolls onto his left side and shivers in the chill of his room but it’s also comforting, it relaxes some of the heated tension in his muscles and keeps him from feeling too ashamed of his near-nakedness.
When he thinks he’ll be safe from a pouncing from Shiro, he drags on a shirt and his pants and he goes to take a shower. It’s quiet there. Peaceful. He turns the water as hot as he can bear and lets it beat against his neck until he thinks he feels better. He washes his hair and grumbles to himself about his stupid shoulder and his stupid bruise and his stupid brain that can’t even remember how he did this to himself. He feels a little better when he’s done. Cleaner, anyways.
He dries off and sits on a bench in just his pants, reluctant to wrestle into his shirt again, and frowns at his knees.
It feels like he hasn’t seen his marks in days, though they’re always there, peppering his skin. He rubs his fingers against his knees, self-indulgently, and stands and pulls on his shirt and hides away the rest, the blue-blue of it all.
He sneaks his way through the halls, wary of running into the worried others with their mounting panic and the hypersensitivity to any injury in any of them, wary of running into Lance with his frustration and his flailing hands and his irritation. Keith peers around corners and makes his way down and down and passed the healing pods and onto the gleaming medical bay.
It’s empty so he doesn’t think twice before he wrestles open a drawer and starts rifling through the little bottles he half-recognizes, with their alien writing and colourful labels. He drops a couple to the floor. He opens another drawer.
He finds the painkillers Coran introduced them all to in the second drawer. He shakes the bottle and frowns at the pink label and the black writing. He shakes it again and wonders if they’ll work like an ibuprofen, just to help with the swelling pain and the annoying knot in his neck.
He nods to himself and turns away and then freezes when he sees Lance, standing in the doorway with one hand slapped against the doors to keep them from closing. Lance is frowning, still, but he looks more comfortable in his oversized jacket and his loose pants and those shoes that look, to Keith, like they’ll fall off if Lance gets too excited.
“What’re you doing?” Lance says.
Keith lets himself gape for a moment more and then shakes the bottle again. The pills cackle. “Painkillers,” he says.
Lance pushes away from the door and takes two steps into the room and then stops. The doors hiss closed.
“Okay,” Lance says, hands in his pockets. He nods jerkily in Keith’s direction. “For that?”
Keith slaps his hand holding the bottle against his arm, the bottle clacking against the peppering bruises below his sleeve.
“Maybe,” he says.
“Maybe,” Lance echoes and rolls his eyes. “Some mighty protector you are.”
It takes Keith a moment to understand what Lance means. He scowls. He bristles. “I’m not trying to protect you.”
“Uh huh,” Lance says and he takes two more steps and suddenly he’s within reach, Keith could stretch out his arm and drag his fingers against Lance’s breath.
He takes a step back.
Lance rolls his eyes again. “Just let me see,” he says.
Lance shakes his head and turns to the set of drawers Keith had torn through. He looks back at Keith and gestures at the mess.
Keith looks at the ceiling.
He hears Lance dig through another cupboard, the metal of the doors clanging and Lance muttering to himself. Reluctantly, Keith lowers his eyes and looks back at Lance just as he stands up and nudges aside one of the scattered bottles.
“Coran showed me this,” he says, waving a different kind of container, darker and with a yellow lid. “It’s good for sore muscles or something.” Lance shrugs.
“It helps,” Lance says and holds out the container. He waves it. “I’m not going to poison you.”
“Not intentionally,” Keith mumbles, but he comes closer anyways. He hesitates, and then plucks the container from Lance’s outstretched hand and then he watches, feeling suddenly full and afraid, Lance’s hand fall away and back to his side.
“I’d say that I was sorry for getting mad,” Lance says. “But I’m not.”
Keith looks up and smiles briefly, just a twitch of his lips.
Lance rocks on his feet, hands back in his pockets, and then he continues: “You didn’t need to do that.” He gestures quickly at his own right side, shoulder to elbow. “But thanks anyways.”
Keith blinks and opens his mouth to reply and then a flash of memory kills the words on his tongue. Lance, pivoting on one foot with his bayard raised and his mouth twisted into a grinning grimace, and a soldier bearing down on him with something huge and crackling raised.
He’ll be alright, one half of Keith’s brain had whispered.
But the other half had pushed him into action, despite the burning in his muscles and the weight of his bayard in his hand. He remembers Lance snapping his name— Keith , and the echo of it in his ears—and he remembers his fear that he wouldn’t be enough, wouldn’t be a strong enough wall between Lance and danger—
The weapon had hissed against his bayard, screeching metal on metal and brightness flashing over Keith’s eyes, and maybe that had been Lance’s hand on his back but it had definitely been Lance’s shield bursting into life and Lance’s arm shifting around him as the soldier had torn their weapon away, leaving Keith numb and his fingers trembling and a curse falling from his lips as he had struggled to hold onto his bayard.
And then they had raised their weapon—that thing , so heavy and menacing as it sang in the air—and Keith had thought fuck and then several thoughts had clicked together.
His bayard, dropped with a clatter and a flash of light, and Lance shouting— Keith —and Keith’s own hands feeling the cool weight of Lance’s chestpiece through his hands as he had pushed Lance away.
The grip of his boots on the ground as he had twisted back. The surety in his movements as he had raised his own shield and held himself tight behind it. The weight of the falling weapon, quivering through his hand and his wrist and all the weight of it heavy on him. The grimace beneath the helmet above him, and then the flash and burst as his shield and the weapon had screamed at each other and pushed Keith and the soldier apart.
And then three well-aimed— perfect , Keith had thought in the moment—shots and the terrifying crumble of the soldier’s body as they fell.
Lance’s face, now, matches the discordant flashes in Keith’s memory. He’s serious, in that spectacular Lance way of his, with the edges of his lips tilted down and his eyes huge and his arms stiff.
“I didn’t even feel it,” Keith says.
“Of course you didn’t,” Lance sighs.
“Not until Shiro whacked me on the shoulder.”
“Not really,” Keith mutters. “It’s a joke. I was—joking.”
“Hilarious,” Lance says, and then he does laugh, short and sweet and quick. Keith wants to scramble to catch the noise from the air and clutch Lance’s laughter close to his chest.
Everything with Lance is too much, now. Every glimpse of him, every memory of him, every fear Keith carries and latches onto him.
“I didn’t need the help,” Lance says, hunching his shoulders. “You made it worse, actually.”
“Great,” Keith grumbles, squeezing the container and the pill bottle.
“But thanks anyways,” Lance adds in a rush, like he almost doesn’t want to say it, or Keith to hear it. He rocks on his feet again, looking at a spot just over Keith’s shoulder. “Even if you made a big mess of your sword arm. In a dumb—unnecessary—move or whatever.”
“I’m ambidextrous,” Keith says, and realizes too late he might be bragging. Might be—showing off.
Lance scowls. “Of course you are,” he says and pulls one hand to wave at Keith as he turns away. “Bye, samurai.”
“I’m not Japanese,” Keith says to his back.
“Whatever,” Lance shoots over his shoulder, and then he’s gone.
The only real clues he’d been there: the open cupboard door, and the warmth under Keith’s skin.
He looks for things, for something, in every interaction he has with Lance. He tells himself he wants to give Lance space, doesn’t want to force the weight of their connection on him too soon, but at the same time Keith is desperate for Lance to know, for Lance to look at him and know what they could be to each other.
Maybe, though, Lance hasn’t been waiting all his days like Keith has. Maybe Lance takes a peek at the one mark on his ankle once in a while and thinks—
Well, maybe he thinks nothing at all.
Maybe there’s nothing for Keith to see.
Maybe he just wants Lance to look at him and like him. Maybe that would be enough.
Maybe he wants to wrap Lance in a blanket and tell him to stay still, damn it, before something terrible happens—
He goes back to his room eventually. When he opens it, the container is almost full of a sweet-smelling salve that reminds Keith of a summer drink he’s never actually had. Keith sits on his bed and stares at the salve and then sighs and tugs off his shirt again. The bruise is changing colour already: there’s a green tinge to it that makes it pretty at the same that it makes Keith want to gag.
Resentfully, he rubs the cooling salve onto what he can reach of his shoulder.
And as a treat for himself, he stands at his mirror and twists and studies the now static shape of Lance’s scar and tries not to think of how it must hurt, even now.
He falls asleep when the salve relaxes the tension and the bruising enough for him to roll onto his back and blink blearily at the ceiling. He thinks he’s getting used to the low hum of the ship, the remembrance of the vacuum of the universe around them. He thinks he might be alright, if he has the time to make himself alright.
In the morning the bruises look terrible but hurt less. Much of the creaking pain in his neck is gone, though Keith still feels a little knot of tension in a spot he can’t find with his hand, somewhere in the junction of his shoulder and neck. He clenches his right fist experimentally, and then relaxes.
He’s definitely sore. But he can live with soreness.
When he tries to leave his room, Shiro is waiting for him, glowering and with crossed arms.
“Keith,” Shiro says.
“Hi,” Keith says, hunching.
“How’s your arm?”
“Terrible,” Keith replies, and then shakes himself. “I’m kidding.”
“I mean it! I got this—rub.”
“From the med bay!”
“I’m fine!” Keith says with a wave of his left arm. He shoves passed his brother and starts down the hall. Maybe he’s stomping, a bit. “I’m just—sore! That’s it.”
Shiro follows. “Sore,” he echoes.
“Are you just going to keep—doing—that—!”
Keith groans and stops at the corner and whirls back to face Shiro, who’s still glowering and frowning and looming. He gestures at his shoulder. “I mean it! It’s just all bruised, okay! So don’t go—whacking me—”
Shiro flinches at that and finally uncrosses his arms. “Sorry about that.”
“No! It’s fine! I’m joking. Again. Kind of. Whatever!” Another groan and he turns away again.
“Keith,” Shiro says, catching his elbow, his new, metal fingers scraping against Keith’s jacket. Keith looks up at him. Shiro stares right back and seems to count something, maybe just to three, and continues: “You’re sure you’re alright?”
“I wouldn’t lie.”
“Yes, you would.”
“Well, I’m not right now!”
“Okay,” Shiro says and lets go. “I believe you.”
Keith scoffs. “Why do I feel like you’re lying?”
“Why do I feel like you’re lying?”
Keith turns to snap a retort over his shoulder and then pauses and tucks his frown against the collar of his jacket. They stop. Shiro blinks down at him. Keith looks away.
It feels normal: Shiro’s concern, and the uncareful back-and-forth between them—normal. Like if Keith wanted to, he could forget the scar on Shiro’s face or the shock of white in his hair. He could pretend, if he wanted to, that there isn’t a year of missed moments and silenced memories between, that he’s more of a kid than he feels and Shiro is younger than he looks.
Maybe Shiro is thinking this, too, because he puts his flesh hand on Keith’s left shoulder and says quietly, almost sleepy in the forced serenity of it: “Don’t push yourself.”
Keith touches Shiro’s wrist and feels, briefly, the warmth of his skin and imagines he can feel the beat of Shiro’s pulse, and then lets go and squirms away. “You’re the last person I want to hear that from.”
He’s said “I missed you,” and he’s said it to Shiro’s face and seen Shiro’s smile and watched the unfamiliar crinkle at the edge of Shiro’s eyes when he replied: “I missed you too, kiddo.”
Keith doesn’t know how to say more than that. He knows that there is more: it’s that undefinable something under his ribs that tells him he knows what family is, or what it could be, and that he knows what it feels like to be loved and wanted. He thinks he could try to explain to Shiro what those first days were like: the slow ticking way he and Adam had drifted towards acceptance, the silence Keith wrapped himself in, the explosive way he abandoned the Garrison and turned his back on the future Shiro had wanted for him. He could, maybe, even try to explain the unfailing certainty in the later days of his isolation: Shiro, alive, and waiting, maybe; Shiro, somewhere out there; Shiro, infallible and confident. He could have drowned in his memories and in his certainties and in the desperate, grieving want that had shaken him while he stood in the desert and watched the moon rise and set.
And, maybe, he could try and explain the enriched leap of his heart when he had seen that first glimpse of Shiro, returned and changed and harmed in ways Keith still doesn’t understand. He could drag them both through his memory of Shiro’s jaw under his hands and the sound of Shiro’s breath in his ears and the weight of Shiro’s unconscious body while he and Lance hoisted him out and away and free.
But Keith is stuck, as he usually is, in silence. He opens his mouth and nothing comes out so he settles for telling his brother, a piece of that little pocket of family he’s carved out for himself: I missed you.
Shiro, somehow, always understands, and his smile is worth more than any memory Keith could pull from his head and drop at Shiro’s feet.
He tries to keep his distance from Lance.
It’s hard, which is more telling than Keith is really comfortable acknowledging. He catches himself watching Lance, just to see if he’s okay, if he’s holding himself strangely. He forces himself to look away from the line of Lance’s back, of his shoulders, of the imagined scar reflected on Keith’s own back. He forces himself, too, to stop thinking: does it hurt?
Because he knows.
He knows it hurts. There’s pain in the way Lance stretches when Keith isn’t watching him, and there’s pain in the way Lance scrubs idly at his neck and shoulders before catching himself with a snap of his fingers and a bounce of his feet—when Keith isn’t watching, when Keith isn’t crowding him. There’s pain in the way Lance refuses to complain about the way the wound must stretch at his skin, must sting every time he lifts his bayard, and there’s pain in the way Keith has to snap his teeth shut to block the words does it hurt and I know it does .
Knowing makes him want to bang his head against a wall. Several walls. Bang bang bang— bang! until there’s nothing left of his wandering thoughts but the end of the universe and a ten thousand year war. Imperialism and space lions and space food and a space-castle-ship.
But he knows, because he watches Lance and he thinks about Lance, and he can’t stop because he’s always done this.
He lays on his bed and he doesn’t sleep and he refuses to look at his knees. It’s too intrusive. It’s too much.
Lance is just down the hall. He’s too close to be comforted.
Their days become a blur of absurdity and violence. Sometimes, the war and the ship and the lions offer hilarity, intentionally or not, and it throws Keith off-kilter and makes him wobble like he needs to find his sea legs again. Other times, the war and the ship and the lions offer terror—no, thrust it on them, makes Keith obscenely aware of the horrors his own hands are capable of at the same time that he marvels at his growing strength.
His bruise fades. Eventually, they all start to lean away from Lance, stop watching each other for any terrible hole in the ground that might swallow or leg and wrench one of them into the healing pods.
Keith and Pidge and Lance spend one afternoon (“What even is time?” Pidge complains) going through the cupboards in the med bay. Allura comes, eventually, to help them decipher each label and give them her thoughts on when a medicine is useful or not. Pidge records everything. Keith forgets half of it by dinner. Lance—falls asleep, dozing on the floor while Keith picks at his nails and Pidge and Allura try and fail to translate the properties of this herb or that chemical.
Keith showers only when he’s sure he’ll be alone. The scar on his back seems to grow brighter every time he doesn’t look at it. It burns, like the salve, like the blast he hadn’t seen. What would the others see, if they saw him? There’s something about the blue on his knees and his back and above his hip, these days, that look clashing and alien, like something he’s painted onto himself, like something he’s imagined. What would the others say to that blue? What would Lance say, if he knew?
Keith trains, a lot. He likes the callouses that form on his right hand, and then more slowly on his left. He likes the strain in his muscles. Sometimes, his right knee spits angry fire up his thigh and he likes that, too, though Shiro casually mentions that he’s doing his squats “kind of funny.”
Keith starts to imagine that he’ll be strong enough to pick Shiro up and hoist him over his head. And throw him.
He tells Shiro this, threateningly. Menacingly.
“Uh huh,” Shiro says.
Keith goes back to punching the gladiator.
Lance doesn’t tell him “stop crowding me” again, but he screams it with his eyes and the turn of his lips. Keith pretends he doesn’t understand. As far as he’s concerned, he’s done fine work backing off and giving Lance space. They don’t even talk, really. Keith just makes sure Lance hasn’t done something stupid or dangerous and then he admires the blue of Lance’s eyes or the bark of his laughter and then he tries to remind himself that this was the boy who flew them to the other side of the universe and immediately made a fart joke.
“What?” Lance snaps across the lounge.
“Nothing,” Keith snaps back.
“Why,” Lance grumbles and turns back to whatever he’s doing on a tablet. “Why?”
“Just go away, Keith!”
So he does. For a bit.
He gets comfortable with his knowing.
Once, over breakfast, while Lance impresses everyone by sucking food goo through a straw only to have it drip out his nose, Keith sleepily thinks: that’s my guy.
Lance coughs and Hunk howls with laughter and begs him to do it again and Allura sighs huge enough to rival Shiro. Keith thinks: that’s my soulmate.
“Don’t—ever do that again,” Shiro says, sounding strained. Hunk laughs some more. Lance coughs up some goo. Keith thinks: that’s my forever.
And then another cough and Lance looks up and scowls through his snotty face at Keith. “What?” he grumbles. He gags.
Keith tries to smile but realizes he’s already doing it, it’s already warming his cheeks and loosening his shoulders. He shrugs and shoves some napkins across the table and says: “Nothing.”
Lance snatches up the napkins and wipes at his shirt, first, and then his face, and then huffs and points at Keith with his other hand and says: “You are literally the last person I would pick to be stuck in space with.”
Keith’s lips twitch. He shrugs again. “Literally?”
“That’s what I said!”
“There’s literally nobody else you would want less?”
“That is literally what I just said.”
“I am literally going to shave both your heads,” Pidge snaps.
They ignore her.
“Montgomery?” Keith says.
“Better than you.”
Lance pauses. He opens his mouth. He closes it. He scrubs at some more goo on his face. “Fine,” he says.
“Iverson’s not as bad as you think,” Shiro pipes up.
“Did he rescue you from a table?” Lance says, and then gestures between himself and Keith. “Nah, that was us.”
“I don’t remember it,” Shiro sighs.
“Yeah, you were sleeping.”
“Wish I was sleeping now.”
Yeah, he grows comfortable in his knowing, like he grows comfortable in this misfit band of paladins, with their beautiful princess and their magical lions and their Coran. He grows comfortable with the stretch of darkness around them and the shine of the stars and the shifting horizons as they land and leave and land again. He even gets used to the slow burning of a needy ache in his belly when he looks at Lance too long, and wonders what it would be like to tell him: we’re made for each other.
And then one day—one malformed, sobbing grunt of a day, where they’re grumbling around the castle and eating sweets that Hunk engineered and bemoaning the lack of Netflix on the castle; one earnest, meant-to-be-filled-with-chores, snore of a day, when nothing more exciting is happening and nothing dramatic can frame the moment and while Keith is stretching out his knee and ignoring Shiro’s probing looks—
And then one day, Lance says: “I have a new scar.”
And Keith thinks: no, you do not. He would know, he’s sure of it. He would see the peek of blue, the flash of it, the reminder of it. He looks up and peers at Hunk and Lance across Black’s hangar, ignores the hum of Shiro and Pidge and Allura talking beyond them.
“Huh,” Hunk says thoughtfully and tosses a crunchy—thing into his mouth. He chews. He grimaces. “That one’s a fail.”
“Let me try,” Lance says.
Lance gags and they move the little plate of experimental snacks to their discard pile.
“Anyways,” Lance continues with a wave of his hand. He and Hunk survey their collection of treats. “New scar.”
“Very exciting,” Hunk says, sounding vaguely wary. “Shouldn’t you be jumping up and down?”
“ You’re the one who’s been complaining for years that your soulmate hasn’t, like, damaged themselves.”
“I just want a sign, okay!”
“Well, you got one!”
“Yeah,” Lance huffs and seems to deflate. He prods at one plate and then another and then sighs and leans back on his hands and looks up at the ceiling. “I’m just far away now.”
“Oh,” Hunk says.
Oh, Keith thinks. And then again: oh.
“Where is it?” he blurts.
Lance and Hunk look at him.
“That’s private,” Lance says with a sniff.
“Want some tasties?” Hunk says, waving one of his creations.
“Oh,” Keith says. “And yes.”
They shuffle a little to make room for him and he drops down next to Hunk. He forgets to be nervous until the “tasty” is already halfway down his throat, and then he chokes and hunches a little.
Hunk pokes him in the side. “Stop that.”
Keith straightens. He scowls.
“It’s not private,” he tells Lance in a huff. “If you’re yelling about it for the whole castle to hear.”
“I’m not yelling!” Lance glares and then spreads his arms so wide he wobbles a little. “Besides, the whole castle is, like, us. That’s it.”
“Rating out of ten?” Hunk says, peering at Keith.
“The tasty,” Lance says. “If you’re going to steal our snacks you have to work for them.”
“I’m not stealing anything,” Keith grumbles. He licks some leftover tasty-powder from his fingers and looks at Hunk. “Is 10 good or bad?”
“Ten is like—the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten,” Hunk says, looking like he’s deciding this on the spot. “And one is like…”
“Nasty,” Lance finishes.
“Nasty,” Hunk agrees.
“It’s not nasty,” Keith tells them. He snatches another and takes a thoughtful bite. “Maybe a seven.”
“Thank you,” Hunk says.
“Ugh,” Lance says, squinting at Keith. “It’s too weird when you’re like this.”
“Like what ?”
Keith, in protest, crams the rest of the tasty in his mouth.
Lance looks vaguely disgusted. “Case in point.”
“You’re both weird,” Hunk tells them affectionately. “Come on. Show us your new scar. We can all coo over it together.”
“I don’t think I know how to coo,” Keith says, maybe staring at Lance too intently.
“It’s an instinct. Don’t worry.”
Lance looks between them, then squares his shoulders and says: “Keith first.”
Keith gags on nothing. Hunk pats his back and the vibrant stretch of blue feels so cold it burns. “No,” he chokes out.
“ Exactly ,” Lance says, leaning forward to glower at them and then flopping onto his back, his arms outstretched and one of his feet wiggling lazily. “What’s the point anyways?”
Hunk reaches and tugs at Lance’s shoelaces. “Buck up, buddy. Have another tasty.”
“Make Keith do it!”
But Keith’s mouth is dry and his throat is slowly closing and all he can think is: I don’t have any new scars.
That night, he corners Shiro.
“I need you to look at me,” he says.
“Done,” Shiro says with a yawn. He pauses. “You’re very handsome.”
Keith flushes and glowers. “No! Really!”
“I need to know if I have a new scar.”
“Aren’t they bright blue?” Shiro says thoughtfully. “Kind of hard to miss.”
“A scar not a mark .”
“Ah.” Shiro puts his hands on his hips. “I see.”
Keith takes a step back and spreads his arms. “Do you see anything?”
“Your wrists look the same as ever,” Shiro says flatly.
Keith blinks, and then scrambles to tear off his jacket, and then his gloves, and then he kicks off his boots and wrestles with his socks. Shiro looks over him carefully, squinting and looking tired and making Keith vaguely regret asking for help.
Shiro leans back and shakes his head. “I don’t see anything. Take off your shirt.”
And Keith almost does. And then he shrinks and scoops up his discarded jacket and socks and boots and gloves and whirls away. “No, it’s fine. Thank you.”
“Uh huh,” Shiro says. Keith can hear the frown in his voice.
In his room, Keith kicks off his pants and tosses his shirt to the floor and twists and turns to try and see what the new scar could be. There’s a bruise on his hip from taking a nasty fall the week before, and there’s an indent from his armour against his back, telling him he’s growing stronger already.
But no scars.
He drops to his bed and rubs his hands over his knees.
And he panics.
He deals with his panic by training until he can’t hold his bayard anymore and the gladiator looms over him in silent victory. He cuts the training simulation and watches it collapse and then he lays down on the floor and stares at the ceiling and feelings his stomach rumble and roar and screech. There’s an aching tightness in his chest, a suffocating weight, and part of him wants to bang on Lance’s door and scream to his face: it’s you, it’s you—it’s somehow always been you .
But he can’t find a new scar on his skin. And the fear of it is overwhelming.
He’s exhausted the next day. Shiro frowns every time he yawns so Keith shuts off his view screens and dedicates all his sleepy attention to not crashing Red. The others bicker and banter and he stays out of it, stays quiet, but that’s almost normal so everyone leaves him alone. They’re ambushed, because of course they are, and adrenaline keeps Keith awake and fear has him looking immediately for Lance, for a flash of blue. But when they try to form Voltron, they falter and break apart and everyone groans through the shock of pain that rushes through their heads.
Shiro swears. Nobody comments: he can have this one. They all need a win.
Allura greets them with clenched, nervous fists when they rejoin her on the bridge, all of them sagging and all of them tired. She tries to speak once, twice, three times, and then shakes her head and pulls Hunk in for a hug that doesn’t end for a long time.
“We need a vacation,” Shiro says.
“Nap,” Keith groans, tugging at the collar of his flight suit. He feels like he’s choking. “We all need a nap.”
“Amen,” Lance says and holds his hand out for what becomes a very lazy high-five. Pidge laughs at them.
Coran calls it a day on everyone’s behalf and promises something delicious for dinner. Keith doesn’t trust him, but he appreciates the thought all the same.
They’re all under strain. Nighttime comes early. The castle dims quickly and Keith sags under the weight of his own skin. Just—sags. Droops, like an overheated flower. He huddles in his jacket and watches the others go to bed and he tries to follow them, but the thought of another anxious night in his little room feels like—too much.
He wanders the castle, as he does. He listens to his footsteps and he catches Hunk in the kitchen, not sleeping, and they share a plate of successful tasties in silence. He finds Pidge asleep in Green’s hangar, so he pokes her awake and she scowls but tugs on his sleeve as she passes, dragging her feet all the way to bed. He finds Lance on the bridge again, and he’s almost not surprised to see him.
Lance is standing, now, his hood over his head and his shoulders slightly hunched. He twists when Keith comes through the doors and blinks his bright eyes and then turns away. The castle is barely moving, as far as Keith can tell: the stars are still and dark around them, the stretch of the universe overwhelming.
“Can’t sleep again?” Keith says to Lance’s back.
Lance shrugs. “Long day.”
They fall quiet. The life support systems hum around them. The lights from their individual pods flash gently, a quiet hello.
Keith thinks he should leave, leave Lance be and let him look at the stars for whatever peace he needs. He wouldn’t have to say a thing, just turn on his heel and walk back the way he had come and return to his wandering or finally—finally—to his waiting bed.
He takes four steps towards Lance. He counts them, breathes with them: one, two, three, four.
Lance tugs back his hood and turns away from the universe and looks right at Keith, roots Keith to the floor with his eyes and makes his legs feel steady and weak all at once. He’s comfortable in his knowing, but maybe he’s comfortable with his wanting, too, maybe he’s—
“Do you think your soulmate wonders where you are?” Lance says.
Keith blinks. “Maybe,” he says evasively. His fingers twitch. He clenches and unclenches his fists. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Lance says drily. “The whole space thing is getting to me, I guess.”
“Are you worried?” Keith asks, feeling himself lean toward Lance. He stays where he is, his chin lifted and Lance just there, just steps away.
It takes a moment for Lance to respond. And then—
“I guess I’m scared,” Lance admits quietly, hands in his pockets. He’s rocking on his feet again, looking vaguely bedraggled in his day clothes and his too-big shoes. His hair is getting longer and Keith loves to look at it, the twist and turn of it, the way it touches his forehead and the tips of his ears so gently. Lance is so many angles, and so much softness, with his gangly limbs and his broad shoulders and his stumbling feet. Keith wonders, sometimes, how anyone can look away from him.
“Scared?” he echoes.
Lance shrugs. He stills, just for a moment, and then he’s back to looking unsteady on his feet. Keith wants to catch him. “That day,” Lance starts, and then stops.
That day. Lance in purple light, his hand warm in Keith’s and his skin burning. Shiro wheezing. Pidge’s bravery in the face of her own fear. Lance—Lance, hurt and falling to pieces in Keith’s arms.
“Well,” Lance continues. “You know.”
Lance sighs. He looks at his feet, and then finally back up at Keith. “I’ve got this—scar,” he says. “On my back. From the explosion, probably. I mean. Definitely, but I don’t remember too much.”
Keith tries to speak, just to acknowledge the words and let Lance know he’s listening, he’s hearing, he’s here, he’s here —but nothing comes out.
“It’s big,” Lance says, and there it is: a strain of pain, clear as a scream in his voice. “It’s, uh, it’s huge, really. It’s scary-looking.”
“What if they see— that ?” Lance takes a hand from his pocket to gesture vaguely over his shoulder. “They turn around and one day there’s this huge, terrible thing on their back? And they know what it means, probably, because it’s—me—and I’m their whatever, and they probably think I’m dead.” He pauses. “I’m scared they think I’m dead.”
Huge, terrible—and beautiful, and so blue. Keith wants to show him.
“They’re waiting for you,” Keith says.
“Maybe,” Lance sighs. “Maybe it doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” Keith insists. “They’re your—somebody. They’re waiting.”
Lance frowns. Keith watches him blink, and then rub the back of his neck and look away. “Doesn’t that seem kind of, I don’t know, cruel? Who knows when we’ll be back. I just—I want to go home as much as anyone but I’m starting to think we—won’t. And I don’t want my soulmate to just wait forever for nothing.”
“No,” Keith agrees, his mouth dry. “But—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Lance says again. He shakes his head, yawns hugely. “I’m going to bed.”
“Okay,” Keith says.
“I don’t need an escort this time, okay?”
Lance tilts his head. His mouth twitches into a small smile. “I’m just teasing. You can walk me home if you want, Keith.”
Teasing. Lance makes him burn. Makes him want to reach for the stars just to cool his skin.
“Okay,” Keith says gruffly. “Then I will.”
Lance laughs and takes those few steps closer and slaps his hand to Keith’s shoulder, and he ignores Keith’s grumbling and even the heat in Keith’s cheeks, and he stops again outside his door and says: “Goodnight, Keith.”
It’s enough to keep Keith awake, for just a little longer.
He remembers the first bit of blue, on his left knee. He remembers his father crouching in front of him and tapping the spot and saying “How about that, huh?”
All through his life, all through his loneliness and his fear and his certainty that the world just wanted him to fight and fight and fight, the blue had been a guiding light. An all-important promise.
His blue marks mean that he can be loving and he can be loved. They mean that he can be happy, if he wants to, if he reaches the right person and tells them the right things. They mean that there is someone, somewhere, who will see him and love him even when he says the wrong things.
Maybe he’s a romantic. He knows not every pair works out, that not every mark suggests a pair, not every person wants to love their soulmate. But he’s always believed.
He still can’t find the scar Lance had mentioned.
Yes, maybe he’s comfortable with his wanting. Maybe he’s happy, like this, looking at Lance and seeing Lance on his skin.
Maybe he’s scared, too. Scared that he’s not the one on Lance’s skin, that something in the universe screwed up and matched him with someone who doesn’t want him.
Scared that he’ll tell Lance this, and a thousand other things, and Lance will only say: “No, not you.”
But maybe he’s impatient, too.
He pokes at the puckered scar on his ankle. It’s still raised. Still pink. It’s been years, and there it is: bright and plain.
It’s a signal. He just needs to find it.
“Lance,” he tries.
Can I see your ankles?
He flushes and ducks his head and mutters: “Nevermind.”
He stares at Lance’s feet, waits for a hint of skin. Shiro catches him and frowns until Keith stops and shrugs and flushes.
“He’s fine,” Shiro tells him, later, patting his shoulder. “But he’ll probably pick a fight if you keep staring.”
“I can take him,” Keith grumbles.
“Great! That’s exactly what I wanted to hear!”
“Don’t you know sarcasm is banned in space?”
He tries Hunk.
“Hunk,” he says.
“Keith,” Hunk replies cheerfully.
But his resolve dies and he hunches and Hunk pokes him in the side and says: “You’re going to ruin your back.”
So be it.
“What’s wrong with you?” Pidge asks.
He needs to know. He needs to be free of this wondering and waiting and has he given Lance enough space, enough time? will he intrude, standing in front of Lance and saying: it’s me! I’ve been waiting! I’m right here!
He’s here, he’s right here. He’s just within reach—
His heart lives in his throat.
He does what he does best, in the end: he acts.
They’re in the lounge, and Allura and Shiro are arguing about—something—so they’re not talking, and Coran and Lance and Hunk are talking quickly back and forth, and Pidge is staring at Allura and Shiro like she can read their minds.
And Keith can’t hear anything. All he gets is the roar in his ears, like static. He stands on one end of the room and looks at Lance, comfortable on the couch between Hunk and Coran, and the distance between them looms huge and terrible. He still can’t find the scar, the new mark on Lance’s skin.
He wants to throw up. He wants to punch a wall.
He’s halfway across the room before he realizes what he’s done, what he’s thinking, and when the pieces click into place he sets his jaw and thinks why not .
“You okay, Keith?” Hunk says when he’s a step away.
“Yup,” Keith says and leans down to grab hold of Lance’s leg.
“Uh,” Lance says.
Keith sets his jaw and hoists Lance’s leg up by his pants and ignores Lance’s squawk, the way he latches onto Hunk and Coran’s shirts to keep from falling back.
“Keith!” Lance shrieks.
“Hang on,” Keith grunts.
“What the hell are you—”
He shoves the pant leg back and peers into the ridiculous canyon of the—fucking— collar of Lance’s shoes—why? why are they like this? why does he wear this? how can he walk—
And then he sees a flash of red. Small, really. Bright.
“Of course it’s red,” he sighs and lets Lance wrestle his leg away.
Lance pinches him in the side. Keith lets out a shout and backs away.
“Dude,” Lance says, glowering and flushed and oh, Keith realizes he likes the heat of Lance’s cheeks and the burn of his eyes— “What the hell?”
And everyone is looking at him, right at his own stupid, single-minded face, frowning through the sudden confused tension in the room. On the far side of the room, Shiro looks ready to eat his hand.
Keith turns pink. Bright, bright pink, he can feel it from the burn on his cheeks. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s just—” But the words die and he gapes at Lance glaring up at him, at the others’ confused looks.
He doesn’t know how to say it. That’s mine , he wants to scream. That’s me . Right there, in stupid goddamn red.
“Nothing,” he says, and tries to fold up his own skeleton.
“Keith,” Hunk starts.
“Bye,” Keith says, and turns on his heel and runs from the room.
He starts laughing halfway to his room. He tries to swallow it down, bury it deep where no one can hear it, but he throws his head back and stumbles to a slow walk and hears his laughter bounce around the halls. When he gets to his room, he presses his face to a pillow and laughs, and laughs, and laughs, and something inside him bursts and lets something warm and gooey seep out to the edges of all his limbs.
It might be relief.
He hugs his knees and stays on his bed and stares at the door and fights the giggles every time they start to rise up again. He feels sore from laughing, like his ribs are ready to bend and break. He feels sore, even, from breathing. He doesn’t know how long he stays there, unmoving and with his brain buzzing and his eyes burning.
The knocking comes eventually. Keith squirms off his bed and takes slow steps to the door, already giddy and embarrassed at the thought of explaining— this to his brother, the blue on his knees and the blue of Lance’s eyes.
It’s not Shiro, waiting on the other side of the door.
“Hi,” Lance says, scratching idly at his neck.
Keith blinks. He opens his mouth. Closes it.
“Okay,” Lance says slowly. “I’m going to come in.”
Keith thinks about saying no. He shuffles aside, instead, and Lance strides into his room. He looks around, once, and leaves Keith feeling a little exposed, a little restless, and then sits on Keith’s bed, next to his discarded jacket.
He looks so strange, so Lance-like, here in the little space that Keith calls his own. Keith almost wishes he wasn’t here, or that he was a speck on the wall that could watch Lance sit, loosen his shoulders, maybe smile into the emptiness.
“First of all,” Lance says, startling Keith from his daydream. “Rude.”
It takes Keith a moment to understand and then he’s grimacing and pressing his back to the closed door. “Sorry.”
Lance squints at him. “Uh huh.”
Keith doesn’t know how to respond to that so he settles for saying nothing at all.
“Second of all,” Lance says, and raises a finger in a gesture Keith wants to tease and remember for all of his days. “Take off your shirt.”
Keith balks. “Take off your shirt,” he snaps.
“I’m serious, Mister Grabby-Hands!” Lance jabs his finger in the air, scowling. “Or, like, show me your back.”
Something thuds at the back of Keith’s brain. He presses harder against the door. “No.”
“You got to see mine,” Lance snaps.
“You shouldn’t see it,” Keith says. “You shouldn’t—have to look at it.”
Lance shakes his head and stands, steady and tall. He shakes out his hands. “Maybe,” he allows. “Show me anyways.”
The blue, the stretch of it, the shape of it, like he isn’t already familiar with it. Show him the ghost of his own wound, the way they’d all nearly lost him. Show him a scar he could fly away on, flat against Keith’s skin like a painting, like a projection. Like Keith’s skin is a map and at the center of it all is this: water, stretching and stretching and hidden beneath his clothes.
He wants to ask: are you sure? do you really want to see it? But he knows, somehow and deep in his heart, that asking would unsettle this tenuous thing between them, this fragile truce he’d barrelled them into.
He nods and he turns, his nose brushing against the closed door, and he digs his fingers into the hem of his shirt and he tugs. His hair flutters against his forehead and his eyes, left wild by his shirt, and he’s immediately cold and self-conscious. He could lean his head against the door and hold his breath until the world falls away. He could run, even.
But not all of his skin is his. Clutching his shirt at his side and working desperately not to hunch his shoulders, hearing Lance breathing slowly behind him and the hum of the ship around him—Keith knows that Lance’s fingerprints are all over him.
Lance, he could say. Are you okay? Have you seen enough? Can I run, now? Can I—
Lance’s fingers brush against his back, against what he knows is the darkest part of the blue. Keith jerks, electricity roaring up his spine, and bangs his forehead against the door.
“Sorry,” Lance says.
“‘s fine,” Keith lies.
It’s just a touch, just a quick flash of warmth and soft fingers.
“I’m going to put my shirt on,” Keith mumbles.
Lance is standing at the edge of the bed when Keith turns around, his back to Keith and the door and his hands in his pockets. He’s standing still, too still, and it makes him seem both fragile and mighty in the moment.
“How long have you known?” Lance asks, finally crumpling and sitting back on the edge of Keith’s bed, his back bowed and his legs stretched out and his elbows pointed out like baby bird wings.
“Since—that,” Keith says, rubbing his shoulder.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Lance’s voice is quiet, soft in the dim light of Keith’s bedroom. He’s looking at Keith but not seeing him, his eyes unfocused and his mouth twisted into an alien-looking grimace.
“I wanted to give you space,” Keith replies immediately, and then backtracks when uncertain guilt clenches in his gut. “And I was scared.”
“Scared,” Lance echoes.
“Me too,” Lance says after a breath. “I don’t know—I guess I don’t know what to do now.”
“Neither do I.” Keith rubs his fingers against his palms. He grinds his teeth. And then he takes three steps closer. One, two, three— “Can I ask you something?”
“Maybe,” Lance says with a twitch of his lips. “I think I’m still mad at you for the whole man-handling thing.”
“Your new scar,” Keith says and licks his lips. “The one you mentioned that day with Hunk—where is it? I can’t find it.”
The twitch of Lance’s lips comes to fruition, blossoming into a tiny smile that lights up and refocuses Lance’s eyes. He raises his right hand and gestures at his third finger, tapping one just below the first knuckle.
“You must’ve been scared, huh?” Lance says. “I would be. I’d be terrified that— but then again, I’d, you know, tell you as soon as I knew.”
“You were in a coma,” Keith grumbles. He snatches Lance’s hand and brings it close to his face, squinting at his finger.
“It’s small,” Lance says. “You probably haven’t noticed it.”
He sees it, then, just a speck of red under the soft, light hair on Lance’s hand. Keith rubs his thumb over it and doesn’t hold on when Lance pulls away.
“Red,” Keith says again. “It’s kind of annoying.”
“Don’t be boring! It’s poetic.”
Keith frowns. Lance leans back on his hands and looks up at him. He’s still smiling that little smile, but he’s also still unsettled, still holding himself together in a way Keith is terrified to recognize.
“It’s really me, then,” he says, instead of I don’t want to see you hurt again .
“I guess so,” Lance says. “What now?”
Yes, what now? How did one kickstart forever?
“I don’t know,” Keith says. And then, with a chill spreading over his skin: “Do you even like me?”
Lance raises his eyebrows. “You’ll have to reach level two to find out.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Lance just smiles some more, leaving Keith feeling awkward and unsettled in his own right, standing in front of him. He can look at Lance right now, as much as he wants, as much as he can before Lance leaves again. He can memorize this sight of Lance almost lounging on his bed, all handsome and tired looking. Beautiful, in every sense.
“Lance,” he says, breathless.
“I think I’m your soulmate.”
Lance’s smile grows. He makes the room seem brighter, like this; warmer, too.
“That’s a funny way of saying you like me.”
“Don’t tease me right now.”
“Excuse you, you deserve a world of teasing after that—leg stunt.”
“Well,” Keith huffs. “I ran out of ideas.”
“What about talking!”
“Lance,” he snaps.
Lance blows a raspberry at his face.
And that makes everything warm and comfortable and comforting inside Keith bubble up and free his heart from his throat, let it fall back to his chest and begin its steady beating again. And that makes him say: “Can I kiss you?”
Lance looks startled, for a moment, his lips parting and his eyebrows rising ever higher. He drags his fingers against Keith’s sheets and slowly sits up, blinking once, twice—
“Are you going to run away again?” he asks.
“I’m already in my room.”
Lance laughs, light and quick. The sound of it like this, so close, makes the hair stand up on Keith’s arms, makes his own lips begin to curve. He’d like to listen to that laugh for—forever, he’d like to make that laugh burst from Lance’s lips.
“Your protective Keith nonsense makes more sense now,” Lance says, instead of a proper answer. He puts his hands on his knees and tilts his head. “I don’t need protecting, though.”
“You do sometimes,” Keith mutters.
Lance rolls his eyes. He squeezes his knees. “Yes,” he says. “You can kiss me. But don’t mess it up.”
“How would I mess it up!”
“The universe is a big place,” Lance says flatly. “Full of opportunities for messing up a first kiss.”
“I’m not going to mess it up,” Keith insists.
“Okay,” Lance replies. “I believe you.”
He’s stuck, for a moment, on that. His heart and his voice catch on it, on Lance’s smile and the way light seems to dance in his eyes. Keith steadies him, reaches back behind his heart and straightens his spine and then teaches his hands to move again, to reach out and catch Lance’s face as carefully, as gently as he can.
“I’ve never actually kissed anyone before,” Keith mumbles.
“That’s okay,” Lance says. “You only need to kiss me.”
“Yeah,” Keith agrees in a breath, his thumbs brushed under Lance’s eyes, feeling the warmth of his cheeks.
“Yeah,” Lance whispers. “I’m glad you know I’m not dead.”
“I’m glad you’re alive,” Keith says, and burns away the rest of his nerve and leans in.