Everyone was screaming over the intercom. Lance could only see blurs from his screen's viewport, spinning around and around, unable to focus on anything. His heart was hammering in his ears as he fought to gain control of the machine, to no avail. Blaring warning sounds roared around him as he maneuvered helplessly towards what constituted as the side of the wormhole.
He didn't want to die here. Lance had no idea what was going to happen, and he slammed into the fold of timespace with his last thoughts being of Earth and his family and the Galra Empire and-
It was almost completely pitch black, and the air all around him felt hot and sticky. Through a haze, Keith struggled to recall what was going on. He could see a faint red glow in his peripheral vision, and unable to collect his thoughts considered going back to sleep. He was so tired.
"Can you hear me?" Open up!"
A muffled voice Keith recognized as Shiro quickly pulled him back into a consciousness he didn't remember slipping out of. "Shiro..?" His voice was dry and scratchy. Keith still couldn't see anything. "W-Where.."
"Keith! It's me, are you alright!?" Loud banging from behind him accompanied Shiro's voice. When he tried to sit up, a sharp pain in his side made him falter and topple over onto the floor from his pilot chair. He shouted in pain, which Shiro overheard. There was more banging on the door. "I'll get you out, just hang on!"
His head felt like it was being split apart, and his thoughts were jumbled. What had he been doing until now? Keith couldn't recall, but he at least knew he couldn't stay here. He had to get up and get moving. That was important. He struggled to find purchase on the ground below him, which was spinning around. A pressure from the front of his helmet pressing against his face told Keith he was currently lying face down on the floor. Why was getting up so hard?
At some point there were sounds of metal crunching, and a faint smell of burning arose in the air. Something runny was in his eyes that obscured his vision, and Keith couldn't tell if it was sweat, blood, or both. It certainly tasted like both. Still on the floor, he tried turning onto his stomach to push himself up, but a searing pain spread through his torso and he cried out as he lowered himself back down. He wasn't going anywhere.
The latch behind him creaked and scraped as it was forced open. Light spilled into the cockpit, and immediately blinded Keith. The white flashing overwhelming his vision forced him to snap his eyes shut, and he tried to focus on not throwing up.
Everything seemed muffled and moved too slowly. Keith wondered if this meant he was going to pass out again.
"..eith! ..... W-....-okay?!" Before he knew what was happening, Keith was being propped up and held against something which was probably Shiro.
There was no way he could keep his eyes open, and everything was so loud. The world around him swam and faded into something more grey and peaceful. On some level Keith knew he shouldn't be falling asleep, but it was so hard staying awake. Everything hurt, and he wanted it to go away. Keith leaned into whoever was cradling him and let himself sink into the grey. He just needed a few minutes.
Keith awoke sometime later, screaming out as a terrible pain in his shoulder jolted him back into consciousness. He thrashed wildly against what felt like a red hot poker being jabbed against his skin. "K-Keith!! Stop, don't move around!" Large hands quickly pushed him back on an uncomfortable scratchy surface. "I need you to calm down, it's alright!"
Keith ignored whoever was talking, and frantically strained to pull off the hands holding him down before it clicked that it was Shiro. His grip loosened, but his breathing was still erratic. "What's. What's happening?! Why can't I see?!"
Shiro kept his hands firmly on Keith's shoulders. His prosthetic arm's grip was surprisingly weak. "You're bandaged up right now." He explained, "You have some pretty deep lacerations near your eyes, so we have to keep them covered." From his voice, Keith could hear how exhausted Shiro was, and memories of what had happened instantly flooded his mind.
"Wh-Where are the others, Shiro?" Keith could feel he was laying on top of a surface covered in warm vines. They scratched at his exposed skin, and Keith wanted nothing more than to get up and move. "What happened?!"
"I'll explain everything, just calm down first. Your wounds will reopen if you don't relax. Can you do that for me?" His grip loosened on Keith's shoulders. He was no longer actively pushing him down, but was still gently holding on.
"I-" Keith took a shaky breath. "Yeah.. Just. Gimmie a minute." His breathing evened out, and he focused on relaxing his muscles. Everything ached, so it was difficult. He could hear Shiro settle beside him and flatten his back against what sounded like the outside of some sort of metallic structure. Was it his Lion?
Slowly, Keith reached up and placed his clammy palm across his eyes. Just some bandages. The last thing he could handle right now would be losing his sight on top of everything else. "O-okay. I'm okay." He brought his arm back down and rested it on the ground. "So where are we, and where is everyone else?"
"...I. I don't have an answer to either of those right now." His voice sounded small and fragile, and if Keith could see he would probably see Shiro shrinking forward, gaze downwards, arms crossed. He always did that when he was upset. "We crash landed about half of a mile apart on this planet. It doesn't seem too dangerous, and it has a breathable atmosphere, so we're safe for now."
They had been lucky. Keith thought about the others, and hoped everyone else had the same sort of luck they did.
"I haven't been able to contact Allura or Coran from the ship, and as far as I can tell the others haven't contacted us either. But our lions are.." Shiro paused, looking for the words. "Pretty badly damaged. I'm not even sure they can accept incoming transmissions right now."
Keith felt a slow bubble of panic start to rise in his stomach. His head wouldn't stop pounding as he struggled to take in everything that was happening. Breathing hurt, let alone movement. So Keith knew he wouldn't be able to explore the perimeter to forage for any emergency supplies. He was in the dark, and wasn't sure how long it would be until the injuries around his eyes would be healed enough for them to remove the bandages. Shiro sounded like he was hurt.
"What are we going to do..?" He felt useless. From what he could feel out, he had been stripped of his damaged pilot suit and lay on the sun baked ground in his t-shirt and pilot shorts, bandages wrapped firmly around his right arm, torso, and both legs.
"Well.. The lions send out some sort of an automatic distress signal to the castle when they've sustained too much damage, so we'll have to sit tight and hope they pick up the signal soon."
The castle was a fortress, so Allura and Coran would be safe. But even with his quick maneuvering and expert piloting, Keith was still severely injured from his crash. He couldn't tell exactly how bad it was for Shiro, but he certainly sounded worse for wear. If they were arguably the best pilots on the team, and they had been lucky to survive the crash onto a hospitable planet, how were Pidge, Hunk, and Lance going to..
"We can't just.. sit around and do nothing!" He tried to sit up despite his body's protest, but only barely managed. He shook and scraped his palms against the vines and the rocks. Shiro quickly moved over and held onto him, lowering him back down and consoling him in a quiet voice.
"I know. But we don't have a choice. You can't move in your condition, and.. I don't think I can carry us both." Keith felt guilty. He didn't want Shiro to have to take care of him, and groaned in frustration.
"Then leave without me! Maybe the others are on the planet somewhere, and need our help!"
"No!" Shiro raised his voice. "I'm not leaving you. We'll just have to wait until Allura and Coran track us down, and hope everyone else made it out alright."
"That's not--" Shiro cut him off.
"I know that isn't what you want to hear." His voice cracked slightly. " But that's our only option. We have to stick together."
Keith for the first time since they joined the Voltron team, did not agree with Shiro's plan. There was no time to wait for him to recover enough to look for the others. They had to get back to the castle. They had to get everyone back together. "I can't lose you, Keith." Keith took in a sharp breath.
Shifting back against the metallic surface when he was sure Keith would stop moving around, Shiro stared up at the alien trees towering above them. "When I found you in your lion.. It was bad. I didn't think you were going to make it, and I was so afraid. It was like I was back on my mission to Kerboros again." Memories of news stories covering the tragedy flashed in Keith's mind. Something inside of him ached. He thought about how Shiro must have felt back when they were attacked.
"I already lost one team. And if I'm going to lose the other one, I..." His voice wavered for a moment, then solidified into something more resolute. "I need to focus on saving whoever I can. Even if it's just one person."
Keith was quiet for a moment. "...That sounds like something I would say, not you."
Shiro gave him a tired laugh. "Maybe so."
It took three weeks before they had any radio activity. It was a difficult three weeks leading up to that point. Keith insisted his bandages come off of his eyes so he could at least see a few days in, but in the end he almost wishes he had kept them on.
Neither he nor Shiro got through the crash anywhere close to unscathed. Keith was well aware of his injuries having spent the first few days in the dark, feeling every bump and movement against his cuts and bruises. Some of his ribs were definitely broken. He was also sporting a fairly nasty concussion. Most of his waking hours were spent in a confused state, throwing up any of the rations or alien food Shiro managed to scavenge. His arm and legs were covered in bruising and open wounds from where the metal had pierced through his pilot suit, and the overly humid and warm temperature of the planet even made lying there incredibly uncomfortable.
Shiro was almost no better. His prosthetic arm had nearly been crushed in the crash under a sheet of plating, and was practically useless. A sizeable gash running along his thigh down behind his knee made putting any weight on it painful, and his chest was littered with deep wounds from shrapnel. Taking it out was vital when he had patched himself up, and Keith would probably hear Shiro's screams echoing in his memories for a long time.
He tried to keep both of their spirits up after that, but Keith knew Shiro was only putting on a brave face for him. The emergency medical kits in both lions helped with survival, but neither of them would have lasted very long on that planet had they not been rescued.
On the day of the rescue, The two of them were resting next to the black lion, using the shade from both it and the strange alien trees clustered around the beast before the intercom buzzed to life. Shiro had fallen asleep some time ago, and Keith floated back and forth between an awake and asleep state. At first the noise didn't register as anything important, but it was persistent enough that he eventually focused on what it was.
"..hear me?.... - respond!" Allura's voice pushed through the static. Keith realized who it was and called out to Shiro, nudging him with his unbandaged arm.
"Hey, wake up! Shiro!" After a moment, Shiro shot up and wildly looked around. The sudden motion jostled his injuries, and he groaned as he nearly pitched forward, a tight hand holding his chest. "S-Shiro! I hear Allura coming from the Lion!" Keith slowly pushed himself up, and offered a hand to Shiro. The two made their way inside as quickly as they could. Ducking into the damaged cockpit first and fumbling with the few systems he had managed to get up and running, Shiro could see the incoming transmission.
"Allura?! Allura we hear you!!" He called out desperately. There were some low voices heard, and then a very relieved Allura spoke again.
"Thank the stars you're alright... Shiro, who else is with you?" Coran was blubbering in the background behind her. "Coran- please! I cannot hear them."
"Keith and I are here. Can you track our location?" Leaning heavily on the damaged walls, Keith followed after Shiro into the cockpit.
"Yes. We've located both of your lions and are on our way," came her reply. Keith moved towards the cracked intercom.
"How long until you can get here?"
Coran's teary voice boomed over the speakers. "Now don't you worry, we'll have the two of you picked up and rescued in one of those Earth jiffies! Sit there like ducks and we'll be there to get you in a couple ticks!"
Shiro cracked a smile and chuckled. "Alright, thanks Coran." The transmission ended and the panel disappeared, leaving the two of them in the dim room. Sunlight from small breaches in the Lion poked through, and Shiro lowered himself onto his pilot seat with a sigh of relief. They were going to make it. They were going to be alright.
Keith didn't have the energy to move anywhere, and slumped down onto the floor. He shook his head. "Sit like ducks? That's not even how the saying goes.."
(Hey, thanks for reading! I'm located on tumblr at binart.tumblr.com and CHBina on twitter if you wanna hit me up or something!)
After a day spent in the medical bay, Shiro and Keith had managed a full recovery. Their wounds were healed, but the experience would undoubtedly stay with both of them for a while. It had been too close of a call, and suddenly the universe seemed a lot bigger, a lot more inhospitable--at least to Keith. Looking up at the stars from his desert shack back on Earth would always bring Keith a soft sense of comfort, but now he was not so sure he felt the same.
He was last to emerge from the healing pods, groggy and stumbling. The cool castle floor against his bare feet was uncomfortable, and made him wonder where his shoes were. He curled up his toes, suddenly a bit chilly, and looked around until his blurred vision focused in front of him to see Shiro come into form. He was still in a beige medical bay gown that--as he looked down--Keith realized he was also wearing. Shiro had been waiting for him, and relief flashed across his face.
"You alright?" Shiro held his left arm out as Keith took a few bumbling steps forward towards him. His prosthetic arm was currently held in a sling. A few feet away a thin blanket pooled and spilled down the steps. Keith wasn't the only one who was cold.
"'Think so." His mind was still fuzzy, but Keith did feel a lot better. After a solid night sleep in his very cozy and suddenly very attractive sounding bed, he figured he'd be all but back to normal. The two took a seat, and Keith looked over at his leader. "Are you okay? Your arm is.."
"It'll be alright." Shiro quickly reassured him. "Pidge took a look earlier and, thankfully, it looks like she can fully repair it." The strap shifted from his shoulder as he raised it up for Keith to see, as if that would help him gain a better understanding. "We may even be able to learn more about the Galra tech behind it once she takes a closer look."
"Careful she doesn't add an extra laser gun or two in there--you know how she is." Both of them knew how much Pidge liked to tinker, and given the opportunity neither doubted she'd add in some 'upgrades.' Shiro was seized with an image of himself with his arm suddenly transforming into something the size of Hunk's bayard, and shuddered.
The room's automatic door slid open and a steady Pidge slowly approached with a tray of food in one hand, and a grey cup in the other. Her eyes were hyper focused on the cup, apparently filled too high to be transported carelessly. She jumped and water splattered to the floor when she looked up to see Keith out of his pod. "Keith!" Her grin was wide, now hurrying over to them as the over-burdened cup was no longer an issue. Keith could see bags under her eyes, but was relieved to see her okay. "I've got some food here for Shiro, but I didn't think you'd be out so soon."
Keith smiled. "Yeah. Glad to be back. It's good to see you're alright too."
She chuckled nervously and gave the tray to Shiro. Keith could see she had the forethought to wear socks as she joined them on the floor. "It was pretty touch and go for a bit--I mean, they only found me a few days before you guys. And the planet I was on?" She swung her arms out for emphasis. "--Almost entirely made up of volcanoes!! There wasn't even a breathable atmosphere."
"Wow.. Sounds like it was a pretty close call." Shiro offered some of his slime to keith who gratefully accepted. Its jiggly consistency and color, similar to radioactive sludge from the comic books he read as a child, usually put a massive damper on his appetite, but now he felt like he could down ten pounds of the stuff and made a mental note to stop by the kitchen after a nap. "How'd you manage?"
"Well.. Luck, mostly. Green lion was still mostly maneuverable after we came out of the other side. Allura and Coran picked up my distress signal and got me out of there before anything too bad happened. From what Shiro was saying, you guys had a pretty rough time.."
Keith nodded thoughtfully and thought back to when he had crashed. The alarms, the spinning, the fear, the pain. A knee-jerk reaction forced a muscle contraction in his mouth and he swallowed a too large lump of slime as he remembered Hunk and Lance. "W-Wait, what about everyone else!? Where are they?!"
Pidge and Shiro looked over at one another. "That's right.. You were too out of it when you came back aboard." Pidge pulled at the loose threads in her sleeves and didn't make eye contact. "Hunk's resting in his sleeping quarters right now. His lion went through a barrage of meteors and was almost completely totaled by the time we found him. He should be okay but.. For a while, we thought we were gonna lose him."
The thought of a battered and bloodied Hunk, the skittish but undoubtedly most gentle member of the group, next to Keith in a pod--fighting for his life--made something heavy settle in his limbs. They had all probably been so scared after being separated--Keith knew he was.
His heart was racing. He was almost afraid to ask. "And Lance..?"
"Um. We--We don't know."
Shiro set his tray down. He looked upset, tired. Keith still didn't agree with his decision to stay put and wait to be picked up back when they crashed. He knew that logically it was the best decision, and he was just being stubborn and frustrated in himself for not being able to do more, but something within him still burned at the thought. Did Shiro feel as guilty as he did? "Allura's been looking for him--for all of us--since we escaped the empire. There haven't been any distress signals from his lion, which means it could be in good enough condition that it hasn't had to send anything out."
Keith could feel himself starting to sweat. "Or what, completely destroyed?!" He shook his head back and forth. "No, that's not possible. A lion's gotta be more resilient than that, right?!"
Pidge hunched her shoulders up. "M-Maybe, yeah. He could be so far out of range that we just haven't found him yet." Shiro nodded, and placed his hand on Keith's shoulder.
"We'll keep looking. He's out there somewhere. I know it."
Keith's legs felt sluggish and unresponsive, but he pushed Shiro's hand off and stood up. The floor reflected a distorted image of himself back up at him as he stared downwards, seething. Did no one else understand the implications of this? "What if he isn't?! We can't form Voltron if we're down a lion and its paladin!"
Pidge shot up and stared up at Keith, incredulous and angrily. "We know that! But unlike you, our main concern right now is that our friend might be dead." She ground out, stunned by his insensitivity. Keith's face contorted into something between shock and hurt, and she regretted her poor word-choice. "I-I'm sorry. That was a-"
"Yeah, I got it. I'm going to see Allura." His feet slapped against the floor as he stormed out of the medical bay, and Shiro called out after him, but didn't receive a response. He was already gone. Pidge idled for a moment, then sat back down wordlessly. Neither of them said anything. Pidge tucked in her chin and rested her forehead against her knees, drawing her arms up to hold her legs close. Hesitantly, Shiro scooted over beside her. He surveyed the both of them.
The beige from his gown offset his skin and made him look pale, even sickly. His brace holding the broken arm chafed and itched, and Shiro almost wished he could remove his prosthetic and be done with it until he had a replacement. He could remember how trapped he felt when the panels bore down on him which forced his mind back into his time in captivity. He didn't do very well with confinement anymore.
Pidge had on a large green sweater with some pajama pants, the bottoms folded into cuffs as they were too big for her. It reminded Shiro of just how young she was. Yet she had the same amount of responsibility to keep the universe safe as Shiro did, and that felt very wrong. In that moment, he saw his team as the group of fragile rookie pilots they were.
Earlier, when Shiro visited Hunk, he was relieved to see no visible harm as he lay in bed. But the intrusion awoke him from a night terror, and Shiro could still feel his heaving breaths as Hunk desperately clutched his leader who had run over to his bedside in concern. Hunk couldn't stop hyperventilating as he wept-- scared, and very much wanting to go home.
They were supposed to be paladins--protectors of the universe--but Shiro didn't feel like a mighty defender right now. He had to wonder if any of them did.
"I get that he doesn't like Lance," Pidge spoke suddenly, voice even with her face still buried in her knees. "But.. Why is his first concern having enough lions and paladins to form Voltron, and not whether Lance is even alive..?" She tried very hard not to think about what Lance might have looked like if he had crashed. "He may not be the most likable guy out there, but if.. If he's gone..."
Shiro did not want to even consider that possibility. Not until they had exhausted every other option. He looked over to where Keith had left, thinking for a moment. "Keith has a good reason for being the way he is." He brought his hand up to rub the back of his head-- it still ached a bit. "He may seem a little cold but.. There's a lot at stake here. If we suddenly can't form Voltron, what does that mean for the entire universe..? Do you understand where he's coming from?"
Pidge lifted her head, a sober expression on her face. "...I Do. " She sighed, hugging herself tighter. "I just. I hope Lance is okay."
Shiro cast his gaze downwards. "I do too."
Nothing was responding. Every system was offline. Lance continued to frantically type at his control panel. Unresponsive. Only the emergency systems were still being powered after he had come out on the other side. But he could tell something had gone very wrong.
"Shit, shit shit shit!" He jumped from his pilot chair, and stumbled a bit before catching himself on the side of the cockpit. His hand burned through his glove against the heated alloy, and his vision swam violently at the sudden shift in orientation. He threw his hand away from the wall, and struggled to gather his bearings after being spat out of the wormhole not half a minute earlier. Somehow he had survived, but for how long after this Lance wasn't sure. He needed to get to his lion's manual control system to get some functions running again. The red emergency lights faded in and out, and Lance fumbled around to find the small panel in the lion's hull area. They were spinning out of control, bumping against space debris. What he was hitting he had no idea--the screen giving him access to what was going on around him had been badly damaged.
They smashed into something particularly large and were sent into a tailspin at breakneck speed. Lance was thrown against the floor and grunted in pain. "Ugh! Where's the stupid panel?!" He was frustrated, and he was scared. This wasn't a simulator like back on the garrison. He could die here, and it could happen at any moment unless he got things under control. Usually, Lance could count on his lion to speak with him and guide him through what needed to be done, but it was being worryingly quiet now. Without the familiar hum of it in the back of his mind that Lance had grown so used to, it left him feeling alone and even more on edge.
"Blue, can you hear me?! I could really use some help right about now-Whoa!" Another impact sent him bounding into a white paneled surface. His hand slammed against it to brace against the impact, but after quickly feeling around it, Lance realized this was exactly what he was looking for. The hull was beginning to rise in temperature, and Lance thanked whatever space god was looking over him for helping him find the manual control panel when he did. He hastily ripped the panel open to reveal the fried wires poking out from the inside.
Only knowing the basics of spacecraft repair, Lance felt panic rise to the back of his throat as he surveyed the damage. This was definitely more Hunk's area of expertise than his. He quickly went to work on trying to get steering systems back online, and when he had that and the main screen operating, he made a dash for the cockpit to see where he was.
A piercing metal shriek from directly behind Lance had him turning his head to see what was going on, but what felt like a metric ton of pressure smashed into him before his eyes could even register what was happening.
Shiro didn't give up hope. None of them did.
The search continued for Lance as they made their way through the universe, traveling systems from one distress beacon to another. The fight against the Galra empire didn't stop just because they had a teammate MIA. It was difficult, being unable to form Voltron for the tougher foes, but they mostly managed with the extra firepower that the ship, assisting in battle more actively than before, provided. This was always a bit risky, as its large size made it a bulky target, but risks had to be taken.
Tracking down the castle between jumps proved to be nearly impossible for Zarkon's army, and gave them a much needed advantage with Allura choosing locations to attack with no discernable pattern. They hit quick, and they hit hard. Sometimes, entire sectors had only sparse pockets of troops, many supply routes inhabited by mindless patrol drones alone. Those were easy jobs. The more heavily guarded planets and bases were almost never as simple. Those missions were the ones the paladins took their heavy hits, and spent days in recovery from.
Fitted with a new prosthetic arm, Shiro found himself almost thankful to have it back. Most of the parts for the prosthetic could be salvaged from his old one, and looked largely similar as a result, but Shiro was just happy to be able to return to feeling whole once more. Messing around too much with the inner mechanics was dangerous, Pidge had explained. It was tied into his nervous system, and they had learned the hard way that delving too deep into repair was infinitely more painful for Shiro than dealing with the memory associations of having Galra tech mounted to his body.
The training deck is where Keith spent most of his time after recovery. Everyone had a regular training schedule whether they enjoyed it or not--to keep themselves ready in case a sudden call to action required close-quarter combat outside of their lions. Keith had tripled his shifts. Shiro worried about how he was coping with the loss of his teammate, because from the system logs that recorded what each individual was fighting at, Keith was choosing enemies with near lethal level attacks. Lance and Keith may have bickered almost constantly and very much gotten under each others' skin, but it was clear the two trusted each other, maybe even considered each other friends. The loss of his irritating but relied-upon companion deeply shook him.
Similar to Keith, Shiro put a lot more time into honing his skills between missions and searching. When it wasn't keith in the training corridor, it was Shiro--sometimes both of them. They both shared an unspoken belief that the responsibility of losing Lance fell on them. Losing a valuable member of the team was one thing, but the realization that they had most likely lost the key to ending the war was almost too much to bear. Without Voltron, taking down the Galra empire would be next to impossible.
Eat, sleep, train, repeat. Keith's schedule left little room for much else, especially no time to dwell on his thoughts which often threatened to overwhelm him on quiet sleepless nights. Even Keith knew this wasn't healthy. He knew he was acting more withdrawn from the others, and refused to speak with any of them when they brought up Lance. He knew they worried, but he couldn't talk about it with them, not even Shiro. The thought of losing Lance--of Keith's undeniable failure to keep his teammate safe--sent something icy shooting through his veins. He was gone--Keith had to accept that. He ate when his body required it, he slept when his movements turned sluggish, he trained until thoughts blurred together with exhaustion and anything coherent was chased away, and he vowed to never let another teammate die.
The castle's mapping system was thorough as it was large. When Pidge and Hunk took to sifting through it, looking for any sign of the blue lion, they realized it would take longer than time they had alive to examine every nook and cranny. Pidge made programs. They would screen huge amounts of systems while she and Hunk did manual digging. Every group had its systems, every system had its planets. Every planet could be quickly scanned for the particular signature associated with a voltron lion. Shiro, Allura and Coran joined in to search when they could. Keith tried, once. The overwhelming size of their task, and the crushing feelings of futility after a devoted 10 hour search, yielding nothing, took the last bits of hope away that Keith didn't realize he still had.
More than anything he wanted to see Lance's stupid face again. He wanted to hear his loud, ugly laugh when Pidge would crack a bad joke, just for Lance's sake. He missed their idle banter as they would fly around as a team perfecting battle formations in their lions. He missed Lance. It stung and left him with a dull ache to think he would never see him again, and Keith stopped prolonging the inevitable and truly gave up. He accepted Lance was gone forever. It had been months, and they still had nothing.
Dinners in the Altean castle were quiet. There was an uneasy sense of normalcy returning to the corridors that no one wanted.
It was only after one too many nights of re-living having his lion crushed into an indistinguishable piece of metal by an unrelenting shower of meteors (showers that once captivated Hunk, but now only made his hands tremble and sweat at the memory) Hunk decided to wander up to the ship's control room. At request, Allura and Coran set up a 'Castle Time Zone' to keep everyone sleeping on a similar schedule, and at the moment it was around 3am Castle Time. Despite that, Hunk knew there was no way he was getting back to sleep.
He thought he might as well try to be productive, and sat in one of the chairs. Holding a hand up, the massive map of the universe pulled up all around him. He stifled a yawn. How many times had he done this? Too many to keep track of. He pulled the air around him, shifting around the markers, eyes peeled for any sign of his friend.
After ten minutes of doing this and unsurprisingly finding nothing, Hunk slumped back in the stiff chair. The universe was just too big. There were too many places to look, and he didn't even know where to start. Lance could have ended up in the heart of the Galra empire, or back near Earth for all he knew. There was no way to tell, and Hunk was starting to doubt he'd ever see his teammate again.
The gears started turning in Hunk's mind. He had an idea, something he was sure no one had thought to do yet. Why would they? He pointedly did not think about the fact that Lance might be dead, but the general unspoken belief after months of seeing and hearing nothing from him was that he at least wasn't well enough to reach out and contact them. But if it was actually that he was just so far away that all attempts at communication were lost before they could reach Allura and the rest of them, there may be a chance this could work.
Hunk shrunk the map down to half the normal size, then pushed it over to spill into one side of the room. Gesturing upwards with his other hand, the same map appeared, this time on the left. Not having a convenient hand gesture for what he wanted, Hunk had to think. "Okay. Uh, computer. Display the systems that have sent out distress signals in the last ten thousand years on the map on my right." It felt strange to have to vocalize commands to an empty room, but unlike Allura he didn't have special magic powers to communicate directly with the machine.
It obeyed his command, and the vast majority of the light blue markers darkened and filled the right side of the room with a red glow. "Now, um, pinpoint every system in the past let's say.. three months that have manually disabled their distress signal. On both sides."
Unsurprisingly, all of the systems the team had been freeing the past few months lit up with a vibrant yellow glow. Hunk swiped around the maps, looking at all the different locations until he found what he was looking for.
"This is it..." His breath caught in his throat. Lance was still alive, Hunk knew it. It was more than just a gut feeling--he was looking right at the proof. "Oh man, oh man..!" He had to tell everyone. He nearly slipped on his silk pajama pants as he lept up from the seat and sprinted over to the doorway. A castle-wide intercom system was mounted against the wall, waiting for Hunk's eager announcement."E-Everyone!! Wake up!! I know where Lance is! I'm in the control room, meet me in here!"
Hunk hurried back over to the maps. In just a few minutes everyone arrived. Their was sleep in their eyes, but they were wide, expecting.
"Hunk." Shiro had been for once caught with his pajamas on, still out of breath from sprinting into the room. "What've you got?" Keith was standing behind everyone else, hiding his slightly fearful expression. Whatever it was, it was going to be too good to be true. He didn't doubt Hunk's intelligence by any means, but knew that when you're desperate, any glimmer of hope, as much of a stretch it may be, can seem like the answer you're looking for. Hunk was the one most shaken by losing Lance. His presence was almost like a grounding force for him--as if the knowledge that his cocky, sometimes crude friend was in the same boat as he was brought Hunk comfort in his surreal new way of life. Pidge was still there for him of course, but they didn't meet one another until sometime after he joined the Garrison.
"Okay, I know I said I know where he is, but it's more like I know where he might be.. in the general vicinity of." Hunk elaborated. Allura stepped forward and looked past him to the maps.
"What are these points you have highlighted..?" Her eyes darted around the constellations, trying to figure out why they looked so familiar.
He gestured to his right. "These are the places we've been to in the past three months that we've been pushing the Galra forces out of. And this string of systems," he gestured to his left, "Are all systems within a small area that have manually deactivated their distress beacons that we've NEVER been to."
Allura covered her mouth, finally understanding. "So there's a chance someone has been going through all of the systems in the area, fighting against the Galra empire..."
"Right. In other words--"
"Lance." Keith breathed.
"Wait wait, don't. Uh. Don't get your hopes up just yet, though. We still have no idea where Lance actually is. We just know that there's a possibility he's been here. And even then, this might not be him. It could just be a really big resistance, or an uprising.." Hunk hated to be the voice of reason, especially to his own hypothesis, but suddenly thoughts of planets with empty battlefields, littered with Galra soldiers and beings he had never encountered before entered his head.
"Well," Shiro stepped forward, turning around to face everyone. "It's a start." His eyes shone, and Keith had to look away.
They discussed where the best place to check first would be. The air rang with a new sense of direction and hopefulness. Keith wanted to join in, but knew he would just end up like he was all those months ago--desperate and afraid. Lance was gone, and he accepted that.
"Then it's settled. Everyone go get ready--We're leaving to go find Lance."
In a few short hours, they had touched down on what was the last planet to disarm their distress beacon. Most areas of the planet had been flooded hundreds of years ago by the Galra empire when they first invaded, but there were sections of land that poked up from the water, and they looked to be prospering. Colorful cotton candy pink and green flora dotted the sloping landscape that everyone paused to regard before descending into a small village--located directly above the beacon.
It was a simple enough looking village with small creatures that milled about until they noticed the approach of the group. They saw panicked scuttling before touching down, so they approached on foot after landing some distance away to avoid scaring the locals too badly. Galra style structures and machinery still littered the area, but most were demolished and had sturdy huts made from bright materials no one could place in their stead. Allura and the rest expected to have to coax the creatures from their homes, but they seemed to have been waiting for them, and gleefully met the paladins with smiles and cheers.
"Mighty lion heroes! You have arrived!" A pale, fluffy individual half the height of Pidge held their two arms up. They were covered in short, soft looking fur with lighter pink fur patches directly under its two eyes. They had a small, bright robe covering their body, and topped the look off with a bright, poofy hat. The stitching was neat, and small wave-like patterns stretched all around its garments. Every inhale of breath from them sounded like a small kitten-squeak, and its ears folded down by its hat twitched occasionally in excitement.
Hunk and Pidge had to fiercely fight off the urge to lift them up and give them a hug, as they were sure it had many important things to say. But they didn't plan on leaving the planet without one. That would be later.
"Greetings, friends. I am Princess Allura of Altea." The princess began, and awe-struck gasps rang out through the crowd. She dropped down to both knees to balance out the height differences, resting both hands formally on her lap. Her dress picked up some dirt as she knelt, which did not seem to go unnoticed by the crowd. All of them were dressed fairly ordinately, likely placing importance in attire. "We have come in search of our friend, and wonder if you would offer us aid in finding him."
"Of course, princess," the fluffy one dropped down on one knee to bow its head in deep respect of her gesture. "We have been foretold of your arrival, and will do everything in our power to help you in your quest to find the Blue Hero."
Shiro joined her and knelt down beside the creature, eyes wide. "Who is the Blue Hero?"
It made a small squeak of excitement before reaching into its tiny robe and pulling out something that was definitely tech from their castle. Keith's breath hitched.
"The Blue Hero is the one who freed us from the mighty claws of the Galran empire.." They waved the device around, and the villagers followed where it swung with their eyes, quiet reverent murmurings heard amongst them. "When all hope was lost, he crashed his lion beast directly into the heart of their base in our land..."
Realization dawned upon them that they were definitely talking about Lance. The Paladins moved in closer to listen as they continued, shuffling and seating themselves on the strange, white soil.
"He burst forth with his mystical light machine in hand, and frightened many enemies off with his shrill war shrieks alone!!" Hunk snorted. That was definitely Lance they were talking about alright.
"So uh, the 'Blue Hero,' he was able to drive the Galra forces off of your planet..?" Shiro questioned carefully. He needed that device, and cute as they were, the being with it looked like it wanted to tell a very long, drawn out account of what happened--time was a precious resource now that they were pursuing their lead. They needed to wrap things up and see exactly what that device held.
"That is correct.. He wiped the scourge from our planet, and then insisted we throw a 'Celebration Party' to commemorate his heroic deeds."
No one was surprised to hear this.
Keith finally spoke up, keeping his voice even and calm. "So where is he now?" Clearly on the same page as Shiro, he wanted to keep this short.
"We do not know. Despite his worn state, the Blue Hero insisted he had to leave in search of his companions." It held out the small white device. "That is why he asked us to deliver to you this sacred communication crystal. He called this divine stone, 'The Whatchamacallit.'"
More gasps and hushed tones met the call of its name.
"Er, I see." Allura reached out and gently took it from their hands. "Thank you, kind friends, for going to such lengths to ensure the.. Whatchamacallit was kept safe. We will be very happy to reunite with our fellow hero very soon thanks to your noble efforts."
An elated harmonious chirp came from the creatures surrounding them. "You are too kind!" Allura once again thanked the creatures for their assistance, repeatedly declining offers for a Celebration Party to commemorate their arrival.
They met back up at the castle, converging in the control room.
Gingerly turning it over in her hand, Pidge inspected the small object. It was white, two square pyramid shapes connecting at their bases in the translucent center, which held a small blue crystal inside. It sparkled brilliantly in the light, and Pidge recalled seeing the mice of the castle sleeping around one in Allura's room as if to guard it. An urge to rip it apart and take a look at its core components instantly surfaced the first time Pidge saw it, but she just continued to turn it in her hand, observing as the crystal almost seemed to glow.
"What exactly is this?" she looked up to the princess and Coran. "Something of ours?" Coran hummed, then swiped it from her hands and brought it close to his face to look at.
"Why, this is an Altean Log recorder!" He exclaimed. "You record the happenings around you with this, then sync it up with any others you have so those watching the recordings can keep up to date with what's happening." There was a twinkle in his eyes as he seemed to fondly recall some memories attached to using the device. "We used these mainly before the war started, but it had some practical uses then, as well. Very handy--Can't be opened by anyone but Alteans, and even explodes if someone of Galran descent tries to touch it!" He threw his arms out to replicate an explosion, and nearly dropped the recorder.
"What was Lance doing with Altean Log recorders..?" Keith crossed his arms and thought hard. He knew the device looked familiar, but couldn't recall from where.
"Well, there should be a stock of them in each of your lions' storage systems. Though maybe they had all been used before your time as paladins.." She held a closed hand against her mouth, thinking, then looked up and around. "Anyone can use them, really--Alteans are the only ones who can view them afterwards, however. And how Lance knew what these were for, if he knew what they're for, I can't say.."
"Well, have either of you ever mentioned what they were when he was around?" Shiro was more interested in the actual recordings than speculating why and how Lance found out about them.
"I can't say I have... Nearly forgot about them until just now, actually!" Coran looked over to Allura, who shook her head.
"No matter, let's see what's on this one and see if it has any clues to Lance's whereabouts." Everyone was in agreement.
With one hand, Coran twisted at his moustache, almost nervously. He tensed the other, focusing carefully as he activated the log recorder. The crystal at the center sparkled at first, then lit up a brilliant blue. The white pyramid sections slowly drew apart, lifting themselves and the crystal up to stand vertically in Coran's hand. A holographic screen opened above it and was blank for a moment before beginning its playback. The group watched as Lance's massive face showed up on the screen. He appeared to be holding the recorder close for a detailed inspection.
"Whoa... What's this?" His voice sounded faded, and crackled a bit, but could still be understood. In the recording, Lance was in his pilot suit, sitting in his lion at the control seat. He looked up and away from the screen to nothing in particular. "Any idea, Blue?"
After a few moments of silence, Lance looked back down. "Huh, cool. That might come in handy someday." He tossed the log recorder behind him so only the back of his pilot chair could be seen, and Shiro's voice commanding his team to get ready for battle could distantly be heard before the recording cut out.
Shiro's own voice sounded foreign to his ears, and he tried to think back to when he said those exact words. They had experienced many battles, and it wasn't like Shiro would change up what he said unless it was relevant to the fight at hand. He had probably said the same thing hundreds of times at this point. There was nothing in that recording that was going to help them.
The next log began playing after a slight delay. It was dark, but muffled yelling and piercing gunfire could be heard in different directions. The recorder sat unbalanced on the rumbling floor, view partially covered in a thin line of slowly rising water. A loud metallic thud came from somewhere offscreen accompanied by heavy gasping before Lance stumbled into view. His suit badly damaged and his bayard drawn, Lance spun around and propped his back against the metal wall, nearly slipping in the water as he lost footing on the floor. "Hey! Hello!" He sounded out of breath, and blood leaked from under his cracked suit. "This is log one! My name is Lance, and, ah shit--" He whipped around and fired a few shots from his rifle into the corner he sat next to, before returning to his position.
"I'm currently lost and attempting to re-establish contact with princess Allura of the Altean- Oh. Wait--Blue, the Galra can't access these recordings, right?! ....Okay. Okay. Anyway If you or any of the paladins are listening to this, I need immediate extraction." A shot flew past the open corridor beside Lance, nearly hitting the log recorder and sending it bouncing several feet. Lance made a noise of surprise and dove for it, swiping it off of the ground and jamming it in his pocket. The sounds of a muffled struggle ensued. Lance hollered some co-ordinates before the recording cut out again.
"Where was that?! Was that his lion?!" Hunk couldn't clearly recognize the surroundings. It was too dark. No one could tell.
"I don't know. However there were those numbers he mentioned, and they sounded like location co-ordinates. Coran! Input them into the system and see what it pulls up." Allura's command was quick, but steady. No one knew what was happening, and they were starting to panic. She had to keep them all calm. The log recorder was paused, and Coran scrambled over to the control panel to hurriedly type in the numbers. The map located and enlarged the location Lance mentioned. "That is.."
"The first system Lance arrived at.." Pidge's brows knit together tightly. What happened when Lance came out of the wormhole? Where was all that water coming from, and who was he fighting?
Keith took a sharp breath through his nose. "So that was the first planet, but there were plenty he went to after, right? Which means he survived.. whatever that was," The sight of Lance on the dimly glowing screen, despite his worry, made Keith feel something he hadn't in months. Hope, he supposed. But that didn't change the fact that they may have found these clues far too late to do anything. The recording was dated months ago.
"Right-o. I'll play the next one, hang on."
It began with a more serene landscape. Lance was sitting on the ground, leaning up against the dented and scratched blue lion, the recorder a few feet away from him. Behind them was a wide ocean. He looked tired. There were bandages covering most exposed areas of his skin, but there was no longer any sign of blood. In the recording, it looked to be near the end of the day as a golden sunset could be seen reflecting off of the lion's exterior.
"Uhh. Log.. two, was it?" His faded voice came in again. "Whatever. My name is Lance, I'm a Paladin for Voltron. I'm attempting to locate my team who I was separated from in one of our battles against the Galra empire.." His chest rose and fell a few times as he took a slight pause. Each lion had extra changes of their suits stored inside, and he must have changed into a new one since the last recording. "If you guys are seeing this," Lance once again listed off some slightly different co-ordinates, and added the date. "That's when and where I am right now." He leaned forward and caught himself on one hand before reaching over and picking up the log recorder.
"I'm gonna leave these log recorders with the locals from this planet and tell them to give it to the Voltron Paladins if you guys somehow end up tracking me. I know it's a long shot, but..." Lance ran his hand through his damp hair. "I mean, at this point it's all I can really think to do, you know? I'll send out messages with the communicator whenever I can too, I guess." A closer look at his features had Keith's skin prickling and mouth running dry. He looked bad. Deep purple hung underneath his eyes. Bandages wrapped from underneath his jaw extended down into his suit. His brow bore a permanent looking worry line, and his skin looked clammy and weathered. Keith could hear his slightly laboured breathing, and it sounded like something was lodged inside of his lungs. He suddenly found himself wishing their lions came equipped with their own healing pods.
"I'll try to go as many planets as I can to deactivate their distress signals--see if that'll get your guy's attention too. But, um," he fussed with the bandage on his neck. "Obviously I can't do that unless I get the Galra forces outta there first. So.. We'll see how that goes." He laughed uncomfortably and looked away. "Two birds with one stone, right..?"
There was a low rumbling noise above him.
Lance leaned back and gave a quick nod before returning his attention to the recorder.
"I'll record everytime I move locations, if I can--keep you guys up to date. Hopefully you find me soon, though... So, this is Lance. Uh, signing out..?" He cringed slightly. "No, that sounds dumb, I need to come up with something cooler. Ugh. Bye."
The screen turned to black. Shiro looked at Allura. "How many logs are there..?" If Lance didn't look very good by the second log, he feared what he would look like by the end of them.
She searched for a moment, pulling a separate screen up with lists and numbers in Altean. "...There's.. about a hundred."
"Then do we skip to the end and figure out where he's at now?!" Hunk was terrified. He may have seen Lance get into scrapes and fights back on the garrison, and especially now fighting as a Voltron paladin, but he's never seen him look so worn down. They needed to find him and they needed to find him yesterday. Keith held up his hand, gesturing for them to wait.
"We should skim the others before we do that, so we at least have some context for where he is now. What do you think, Shiro?"
Shiro nodded slowly. "Yeah, that sounds like a plan. Can you do that, Allura?" She was already on it, pulling up the next few logs and quickly forwarding through them in search of any important information.
A few recording logs later, Lance sat in the open mouth of his lion, surrounded by clutter.
There was sunlight beaming into the opening, and Lance had discarded his pilot suit somewhere offscreen. Some time looked to have passed. His green leather jacket was tied around his waist as he sat cross-legged with his jeans rolled up. "So," His attention was focused on a small cube gripped in his hand, covered in Altean symbols as he spoke. There were many more stacked off to one side. "I'm still in the same solar system, just a couple planets closer to the sun and man," he flopped onto his back, cube still in hand. The movement jostled the cube pile beside him, and they toppled over onto what was easily recognizable as Lance's souvenir collection. "It is hot."
Keith would always warn Lance that he needed to stop taking random crap from the planets they visited, it was probably illegal and defenders of the universe shouldn't be committing petty theft, but of course he never listened. The few times Keith ventured to his sleeping quarters in the castle--usually for a wake up call after Lance failed to hear the emergency drill sirens blaring throughout the entire facility--He would notice how strangely clean his room always was, save for the empty bottles of styling products strewn about. How Lance even managed to get a hold of that sort of thing was a mystery Keith didn't care about enough to pursue. But the souvenirs--everything from pretty glimmering stones, fossilized skeletons encased in hard amber that Lance called awesome and Keith called disturbing, to glowing alien technology he was sure no one would miss, and even some peculiar weapons he never figured out how to work--Keith would never see any of them in his room.
Now he knew where Lance had been putting them; He was using his lion, a sentient warship, to hide his garbage in.
"There's plenty of water on this planet too, though. Not sure how that works." His legs unfolded in front of him and nudged a few water bottles. One sloshed and toppled over with a thud, and began its descent down the lion's gaping mouth until Lance shot a hand out and grabbed it. "Whoa-! Where do you think you're going..." He held out an accusing finger towards the criminal bottle before he delicately placed it next to its friends, then began surveying everything around him.
"Alright, so. I've sent out a message to any locals who might need my help, and I'm waiting to hear back. I did a sweep of the planet, but I'm not finding anything so far. Just a bunch of water..." Shiro could see a pile of rations next to the water bottles, and a small notebook with some illegible words and numbers. An inventory, perhaps. He didn't like the looks of his stocks, if that was all Lance had. There only looked to be enough food and water to last a few weeks, and he prayed Lance found enough resources on the other planets he had gone to.
"Me and Blue are gonna do some underwater exploration tomorrow, since, y'know," he patted below him and gave a self-assured smile. "Water stuff is kind of our thing." The recorder clinked around on the deck as the lion rumbled, which struck some sort of chord in Lance as his expression immediately soured. "Yeah, yeah... Blue's not so politely suggesting I make room for any potential prisoners we might find, and clear the hull of any 'nonessential cargo.'" He held his fingers in air quotes, and Allura watched in wonder as they seemed to have an almost casual conversation together. Seeing how close the two were becoming gave her a light feeling, but darkened as she remembered it may already be too late. Even if the two had achieved a strong bond, if either was gone, then it wouldn't matter.
"Fine, I guess." Lance bundled up his collection of treasures and started sliding down outside of the recorder's view. A splashing noise could be heard not ten seconds later. He made three trips. When he came into view after the final trip, he flopped back down and crossed his arms, letting out a childish huff as he did so. "Are you happy?" Another rumble, almost sounding like a purr this time affirmed that yes, the blue lion was happy to have its hull emptied of Lance's weird junk hoard. "Now all I've got here are, let's see.. Some extra suits, some rations.." He pointed to each pile of items as he identified them. "Med kits.. those food cubes and healing cubes.. Oh! By the way-" Lance suddenly remembered that Allura or Coran might be watching. "Who thought it was a good idea to make food cube goo and healing cube goo look so similar?!" Holding up two nearly identical cubes he had been examining earlier, he pushed them both towards the screen. "Look!! Can you see a difference? Because I sure didn't the first time I was hungry and accidentally ate the healing goo. That stuff's nasty--it tastes like shampoo and burning."
The team turned to look at Allura and Coran, who shrugged. "They have labels," she explained. "We assumed anyone who could fly a ship could also read."
Keith's memory of the time spent on the planet he crashed into was fuzzy, and choppy, so it was difficult to recall very much of what happened. But he wondered if either he or Shiro had any of those in their lions, and just didn't realize it. That would have made their survival a lot easier. He made a mental note to check later.
"Anyway," Lance lowered the offending items and turned towards the outside of his lion's mouth. A faint breeze could be picked up in the audio. "If we don't find anyone, we have to assume whoever sent the distress signal just... isn't around anymore. So, I'll disarm the beacon and try another planet, but.."
Keith could see something he didn't recognize in Lance's eyes. His expression turned soft, unfocused. He looked lost in whatever was outside of the lion. "I think I might stick around for a few days, even if we can't find anyone. It's.. pretty nice around here. Kinda reminds me of home." He smiled, and Keith wondered what he was thinking about, though he was sure he could hazard a guess and not be too far off the mark. Lance had a big family--he knew that much. He didn't talk about them very much, and Keith assumed it was probably because it was too upsetting to think about, now that they were so far away from home. He didn't have a family to return to, so adjusting to this life wasn't as difficult for him as it was for some of them. He thought about having to see Lance's family to deliver the news that their son didn't make it, and shuddered.
Lance quickly snapped out of whatever trance he had ended up in, and resumed his normal appearance before he cleared his throat and busied his hands with the notebook on his side.
"Right, yeah. I'll make another recording in a few days, or if anything happens. Hopefully hear from you soon."
The screen faded to black.
Several of the logs after this were of Lance posing next to some newly liberated aliens. There were always celebration parties. They looked vastly different sometimes--a large species of rock dwelling aliens took to celebrating by screaming to the skies and rubbing The Blue Hero with the life giving soil their planet gifted them with--wet dirt--and others had music, food, dancing, laughter. Lance seemed to be having fun. Always looking a bit worse for wear, but otherwise genuinely happy, he almost seemed to be doing well.
The recordings of Lance mid-battle started popping up with more frequency shortly after the fortieth log. Being that Lance wasn't able to travel via wormhole and could only travel from system to system, Galra soldiers stationed in the areas were slowly catching on to his plans, and heightened their security. He would be battered, screaming, desperate--terrified that each battle might be his last, and gave co-ordinates in case that was the end for him. Somehow, he always managed, but healing supplies were dwindling fast, and none of the planets he ended up on had anything but the most basics of medicine. He had to preserve what little he had left, as the fights were only getting more desperate, and many recordings ended with Lance lying on the floor in his cockpit after a long fight, too exhausted to make his way back to the small resting bay in the hull. He would mumble co-ordinates and apologize, worried he just wouldn't wake up one day.
Soon, it almost seemed like he was forgetting he was recording logs to help his team track him, and was instead recording as a way to keep himself grounded. Some recordings seemed more like entries to a video journal, and that especially made Shiro worry. He knew what it was like to start to lose sight of yourself when you started questioning whether or not you'd ever be rescued. Lance's lion would regularly communicate with him being as close as they were, and was the one giving Lance the co-ordinates to supply to Allura and the rest, but with his only company being a talking space ship and the brief interactions with the creatures he freed from enslavement, Lance was starting to become disheartened.
A somber recording, around sixty or so in, showed Lance curled around the recorder, absentmindedly tilting the device back and forth with his finger.
The previous log had him taking a massive blow to his shoulder as it connected with the ground after a nearly fifteen foot fall. Lance had shot an attacking Galra soldier through its neck with a sickening squelch, but with its last ounce of strength had shoved him backwards off of a small cliff onto the rocky ground below. It had definitely been dislocated. He could barely function through the pain, and his lion, independant of Lance's control took care of the remaining troops. He remembered hearing roars, and seeing his lion kneel down, almost as if it was trying to rub its nose against Lance to see if he was okay. He definitely was not, and as night fell and the dry air grew cold, his lion gently tried to move him, capturing him in its mouth. Despite its carefulness, Lance was thrust back into consciousness, a terrible cry ripping out of his throat. It hurt so much, but he knew he was the only one who could put it back into place. The recorder was left on in his pocket, and tumbled out as he slammed his shoulder against the wall and snapped it back into place, screaming and screaming.
After he had woken up sometime later, Lance stumbled around and found his place behind the pilot chair in a curled up position. "I wonder if anyone's ever gonna see this.." It was night, wherever he was, and only the soft glow of the lion's interface illuminated Lance's bruised features. He smiled a bitter smile, and turned his face against the cool metal floor. "Probably not."
He was quiet for a while, but his voice turned hoarse when he started speaking, still slightly muffled from being turned towards the floor. "What are we gonna do..? What if we can't make it back to everyone else, Blue..?" It was almost silent, only the thrum of electronics buzzed through the air. "If they never find us, Voltron can't take out Zarkon, and Earth'll be.." His eyes squeezed shut. "Oh, no, no no no..."
Hunk could barely watch. He scrubbed at his eyes and tried to breathe. "G-Guys, I can't.." He didn't know how to put words to what he was feeling. He didn't want to watch what was happening anymore, but not watching seemed so cruel to Lance in a way Hunk couldn't understand.
Pidge hated seeing the normally energetic egomaniac so crumbled and defeated. The corners of her eyes stung, and she held on to Allura's arm. "I'm sorry, can-can we skip this..? I don't think Lance would want us to see him like this."
Keith was ashamed to admit he felt relief when she gave a small nod, and ended the recording.
The next cut to Lance sitting on top of his Lion as it gently skimmed through a large tropical forest. A warm wind pulled his loose jacket around, and he looked a little better. "Make sure I don't drop the recorder, okay?" He called out, presumably to his lion, and carefully shimmied forward to the edge of its forehead. They flew for a few minutes over the wide expanse of trees, but eventually it opened up to yet another massive body of water. There were many recordings just of alien oceans. Lance seemed fond of them, and laughed brightly as they picked up speed.
Carefully, he scooted a bit more forwards with the recorder in his outstretched hand. He turned it to face the scene in front of him, the hulking ship no longer in the shot. A glittering afternoon sun reflected off of sparkling teal water. It was clear, and hundreds of feet below the seafloor revealed stunning gem crusts poking up from the sands. Fish blurred by, and every few minutes a small island would appear and rush past them. Lance gave an almost inaudible sigh. "I wonder how mom and dad are doing.." He said, more to himself than anyone else.
Partway through the logs, with his lion's guidance, Lance found a way to meld the log recorder into the viewport of his helmet, so recording during battles wasn't so cumbersome. It was becoming more and more common for Lance to just leave the thing on when he went into a fight, which was strategically a better move than only activating it when he thought he might be in danger. Death could come at anytime, and he had to be ready for that.
"Log seventy three." Lance had his Bayard drawn, and was crouching behind an ancient stone wall in a rocky, desolate area. "Looks like they don't know I'm here yet.." He slowly rose up above the stone wall to take a look ahead. There were a few Galra soldiers stationed in front of a massive stone structure, decorated in an undecipherable text. "Security's pretty lax on the outside, and if I'm right most of the troops are inside the chambers.." He sank back down. There was a sharp inhale of breath heard as he steeled himself. "Okay. You got this, you're the man. It's just some small fries. Nothing you can't handle. You can do this." Talking to himself seemed to help Lance deal with stress, and the knowledge that everyone might hear him do so didn't seem to bother him at this point. He waited for the troops to head back into the underground structure. Their shift was over, and the next soldiers would be there in minutes. Time to move.
He silently bound over the wall and approached the entrance, listened in to the descending footsteps, then made his attack.
Allura continued to sift through the footage as the others watched. They were coming to the end of the recordings, and each new log left them more and more tense. The situation was grim. Lance had attracted the attention of larger squadrons of Galran forces, and fought desperately to force them off of planets. It was just too much for one paladin to do alone, and he was approaching his limit.
"This is the final recording, everyone." Allura felt dread wash over her, not wanting to watch what was about to happen. The recording began, and there was an immediate sight of what everyone feared.
Lance was in a Galran ship of some sort, lying on the ground next to his helmet and clutching his shattered chest plate. He struggled to lift himself up into a sitting position, and stifled a cry when the blood soaking the surface below him sent his hands skidding off balance and hit the ground with a wet thud.
"Fuck, fuck fuuuck." He groaned, pain rolling through him in waves, and rolled onto his uninjured arm before propping himself against a metal crate with difficulty. He wheezed and clutched his discarded bayard close to his chest. There was sharp, repetitive pounding not too far away, and Lance glanced down at what remained of his helmet.
"...Busted. Great." He nudged a broken piece of his helmet with his foot before staring directly at the log recorder. "Well, I think this is it.. So it doesn't matter." There was silence for a few moments, save for the commotion outside of where Lance was hiding.
"It's Lance. Voltron paladin, blah blah.. You've heard all this before. Things.. don't look all that great for me." He stopped to take a look behind the crate as he heard a particularly loud thud. The voices grew more unified as they audibly increased in numbers.
"They set this trap for me. Using these aliens I rescued about a month ago as bait a-and I.." His voice trembled. "I couldn't just leave them." His body was rigid and shuddering, and curled in closer to himself. "They were committing fucking genocide to get me to give myself up. I watched them die."
He looked up and blinked rapidly, sniffling before he continued. "So I snuck into their base and tried to stage a breakout. Which failed pretty badly, as you can see." He gave a humourless laugh. "I can't get back to my lion, and now I'm holed up in some storage room waiting for them to come in and kill me."
The reality of the situation hit Keith like a brick wall. Lance took another look above the crate. His voice shook despite the conviction of his words. "I don't plan on going down quietly. If they're gonna kill me, I'm not making it easy for them." Shaking his head, Lance remembered to give his co-ordinates. "I can still hear Blue since she's not all that far away. But, I mean, if this is the last transmission you're seeing, that means I.. probably didn't make it. So Blue's probably with the Galra empire now."
His breathing grew more erratic. Cradling his rifle in between his curled up legs and chest, Lance brought both hands up and clutched the top of his head. "I'm so, so sorry guys. I, I fucked up. The whole universe is screwed, because of me... Fuck." His head lowered, and he cried shamefully.
It took some time before Lance composed himself. Hearing the approach of shouting troops had him mechanically raising his head, eyes unfocused, expression neutral. Lance pulled his Bayard back into his arms and stood up. His face was out of the shot, but his voice was still picked up in the recording. "I wish I could've at least told mom I was a defender of the universe for a while."
The Soldiers flanking him came into view, and Lance spun around, aiming his rifle at the recorder and everything went black.
"Oh god, oh god oh no, this can't be happening." Hunk backed away, horrified. A defensive stance had his arms close to his chest, held in front of him as if to shield his entire being from what he witnessed. Immediately memories of Lance hit him; The two of them at the garrison, running flight simulations, bombing every flight simulation, sneaking out at night to explore the city nearby, and almost always getting caught, the rare times they weren't caught; sitting on the edge of a highrise building, looking down at the night city below, talking about their lives and their plans for their futures, Lance snorting soda out of his nose one time when Hunk made a joke--the subsequent promise Hunk had to make him to never say anything funny when Lance was drinking soda again, then Lance lying on the ground in that Galra ship, scared and hurt and maybe even dying. Everything swam around rapidly in his mind, and Hunk panicked.
"Just. Hang on," Shiro's voice was stiff, and he stood tense, unmoving. He wasn't about to give up, not yet. "Allura, is there anyway to see when the last recording is dated?" Lance started mentioning the date of each recording early on, but was not able to for his last one.
"Just give me a moment." More Altean text appeared on the screen, and as she dragged a video section across to pinpoint the exact time it was recorded, the wounded Lance once again flashed up into everyone's view. Keith stared, unable to look away. The entire situation felt surreal. It was almost like it was impossible in his mind for Lance to get hurt. Someone so self-assured and confident seemed almost untouchable to him. "I've got it!" Her finger stopped over a line of Altean. She sounded astonished. "It's a little over 60,000 clicks..."
Pidge mentally did some conversions. "That's recent. About seventeen hours ago."
The relief and regret hitting him simultaneously made Keith's stomach churn. They had been so close to finding him in time, before he was in the hands of the Galra and was just Lance--The paladin going from planet to planet to help the species in need of it, but they were just under one day too late after looking for months. It almost seemed cruel. He found himself wishing he had assisted more actively in the search for Lance. If he had, maybe the idea to search for deactivated beacons would have occurred to Hunk--or any of them--much earlier.
He wrote Lance off as a goner to avoid the excruciating wait of figuring out whether he was alive or not, and mourned for him in his own way. Any conscious reflection was off limits, but in small ways his grief showed.
They left Lance's room the way it was before he disappeared. It seemed wrong to change anything about it. "He's coming back, and you know how much Lance hates it when people touch his stuff, right..?" Hunk had trouble explaining why Coran shouldn't go in to tidy things up through his tears, but Coran understood. He didn't disturb anything after that. Keith however, had one of Lance's green military jackets. He never understood why Lance had so many of the same piece of clothing. "Fashion," Lance compassionately educated one day, and Keith didn't bring it up again. The jacket hung up in the back of his closet; neatly pressed and folded. He never looked at it, but it was there.
"There's still a chance Lance is out there." Shiro knew it was a long shot. A lot could happen in seventeen hours. Reinforcements could be called. Zarkon could be notified. But like most other things lately, it was the only shot they had. Coran ran the co-ordinates, and highlighted a base stationed on one of the many moons belonging to a gas giant in a system not too far from them. It protruded from the planetary surface, but appeared to be able to detach and travel on its own. "We'll load up the lions and head to his last transmission location."
Keith grimaced at his instant assumption, but voiced it anyway. "..What about if Lance is already dead? And his lion's already on its way to Zarkon?" He could see Pidge freeze up and whip around, but avoided her gaze.
"No," Allura was quick to cut him off, and motioned the map to enhance the projected image of the base, and located a large squadron of Galra ships positioned closely together floating above the moon. She had to believe all of this was a sign--the fates guided them to their missing paladin in time, and they would get him back. "Both of them may still be here." The glow from the charting system brightened as her quintessence flowed through it. She concentrated, senses permeating the massive chambers of the warships.
"..I sense the Blue Lion within those ships." Her eyes had fallen closed as she focused, and now opened with a new sense of conviction. Sacrifices had to be made in war, and as much as she wished it not to be, if Lance was gone, they would have to be prepared to deal with the consequences of being short a paladin. But if they could at least retrieve the blue lion, the war could still possibly be won. She did not voice these thoughts.
Shiro crossed his arms tightly. "Then we go in as two separate teams for the lion, and for Lance." Pidge and Hunk straightened rigidly when he turned to them, at full attention. "You two will infiltrate the prisoner bay, and look for Lance. If he's still with us, that's gotta be where they're keeping him." They nodded.
"It shouldn't be too difficult to transfer the code for the cloaking system into your lions," Pidge considered their options."We should be able to approach undetected and scan for any signs of non-Galran signatures."
It was a solid plan. Shiro turned his attention to Keith. "You're with me, keith. It'll be guarded--and heavily. So once we're spotted, we'll be in for a difficult battle. You up for this?" Shiro wasn't sure how Keith would be able to handle this rescue mission, given how he handled the loss of Lance. He wanted to offer Keith the option of looking for him instead, but knew he would refuse.
"I can do this." His reply was sharp, almost defensive. They would get the blue lion back, he would make sure of it. He would do it not only to put an end to the war, but also to avenge Lance. Forgiveness wouldn't come easily to himself if the Galra turned his fallen teammate's weapon against them. "Let's go."
Infiltration proved to be no easy task. They had to act fast; They had no idea if the base was preparing to leave to the center of the empire, or possibly if heavy reinforcements were on their way to transport the blue lion. Other than the general location of the lion and the basic layout of the ships pulled directly from Allura's memories as a child visiting them, they had no additional information to help them with their mission.
All four paladins began their stealthy approach towards a small ship on the outskirts of the base. The blue lion was being held in a high security docking bay in the central area of the ships directly above the base, with prisoners most likely being held in the less battle equipped transport ships.
A probe ejected from Pidge's lion and attached to the ship's stern area, suctioning on and scanning the area. Non-Galran lifeforms were picked up on the scans, and Pidge relayed the information to everyone. "Alright, try to lay low, and keep us updated if-when you find Lance. They're going to hit us with everything they have to keep us from getting the lion, but we'll manage. Once they know we're here, though, they'll be on high alert. So get in, and when you find him, get out." Shiro commanded. There wasn't much time to prepare, but Pidge had gotten all of their lions set up with a basic camouflage system. It wasn't nearly as thorough as what her lion had, but it was enough to give them some extra time to get as close as possible before being spotted.
They split into two groups, and Shiro and Keith flew off to approach their targeted area.
Quietly, Hunk and Pidge made their way through the small prisoner ship after a seamless infiltration through the garbage disposal system (Hunk got antsy and ruptured an unguarded area of the hull with his lion instead of using the quiet laser mounted attachment like Pidge told him to). Security was tighter in the prisoner area than they initially thought; Many soldiers were patrolling the darkened hallways, and the two cautiously maneuvered their way around after tucking their lions away in the garbage bay.
"How many prisoners do you think we can fit on our lions?" Pidge whispered. Lance was their priority, but she knew he wouldn't be the only one held here. She held a terrible image of her family in her mind, battered and emaciated, and knew she couldn't willingly ignore anyone in a similar situation. A part of her hoped she would run into a cell, and their tired but very much alive smiles would greet them, as impossible of a dream as it was. Saving innocent people from Galra was a part of the whole paladin creed, family or not, and Pidge intended to honor it.
Hunk thought for a moment. "They're pretty big, so I'm thinking a lot." He understood what she was getting at. "We'll rescue as many as we can. And once we find Lance, we'll get out of here and back to the ship." It wouldn't be easy, transporting weakened prisoners back to their lions, but Hunk's bayard would provide some distracting cover fire for Pidge while she moved them--all the while on the look out for their teammate. Hunk didn't think he would ever be comfortable with the idea of killing anyone, even if they were genocidal maniacs, but pushed down the heavy waves of nausea as they readied to enter the largest area on the ship. There would be no sneaking after this--Only battles awaited them.
"Any sign of Lance?" Shiro's voice came through their helmets. "We're approaching the extraction point, so things are going to get serious from here on out."
"Not yet, but we're near the main prisoner bay now. We'll let you guys know when we find him." Pidge peeked into the large, open area they held the prisoners in, and felt anger burn within at the sight of so many containment cubes. Maybe not today, but Pidge vowed to wipe every last Galra scum off the face of the universe for hurting so many innocent people. The days of her having animated discussions about the possibility of alien life existing, and how amazing it would be to come into contact with them she often had with her brother and father were over, and the memories were tainted and poisonous. The grip on her bayard tightened and it lit up with a green flash.
"Copy that. You ready for this, Keith?"
"Always." Came a steady reply. Practiced motions pushed and pulled his lion into position. He had a mission to complete. He wouldn't let his emotions get in the way. A flick of a panel brought his lion's boosters to life, and the paladins sprung into action.
Shiro and Keith bounded towards the docking area of the vessel, laying down heavy fire to rip open the bow. It tore open into pieces in a massive explosion, and fire steadily erupted from the hole. Alarms rang throughout the entire base, now alerted to their presence, and their defences roared to life in retaliation. Shiro could see small crafts with enemies soldiers emerge from the surrounding ships and approach to attack, but he noticed that none came from within. He wasn't sure what that meant, and felt his chest tighten. "They might have something in there waiting for us, be careful!"
"I'd be surprised if they didn't have something waiting," Keith flew in past defensive turrets firing at him, and skidded his ship to a halt inside of the breached docking bay. It was massive--much, much bigger than his lion. They appeared to have taken the enemy by surprise, as many of the soldiers caught in the blast lay scattered close by. The lights in the immediate area seemed to have been destroyed by the blast, and only the furthest side of the enormous docking bay was lit up brightly, while he stood in a dark sea of red.
Keith's eyes darted around as he searched the individual hangars.
A group of concentrated Galra soldiers flanking one particular hangar caught his attention, and he dashed towards it with Shiro in tow. There was a flash of Blue. "I-I think I see it!!"
A massive ice beam erupted from the hangar and ripped through the line of soldiers before Keith could process what was happening. A section of his viewport aimed at the destruction enlarged the image to show a close up of the area. Lance emerged from within the hangar with Bayard in hand, spraying a barrage of shots to keep the Galra away, and Keith's heart nearly stopped. Lance was still in the same pilot uniform without his helmet they had last seen him in only hours before, and despite the slight blur of the capture on the screen, Keith could see Lance had taken on some extra damage. Overwhelming feelings smashed into him all at once, and Keith was suddenly speaking, almost screaming. "He's right there! Lance is here too!!"
"What?!" Shiro's stunned voice filled his cockpit, and hurried his approach to catch up with Keith. "Alright, take out those soldiers! We're getting him out of there!" The faltering enemy attack was cut off when the two of them dove into the hanger, acting as shields for Lance and his lion.
"Lance, it's us!" Keith called out through an amplified speaker system. "We're busting you out of here. Get in your lion!"
For a moment, Lance only stared up at their ships, eyes shining brightly and Bayard lowered to his side. From this close, they could see the frayed flesh and caked on blood all over him. Keith wondered how he was even standing. Lance quickly turned around towards his blue lion, limping as he followed his own blood trail back into the machine.
"Pidge, Hunk! We found Lance!" Shiro radioed his other teammates. "We're getting out of here, what's your status?"
An ecstatic Hunk wailed in relief. "Oh man, you found him!! We-We couldn't find him here--I was getting so worried--Uh! Anyway, we're almost ready! We're loading up some prisoners into our lions," He was laughing, and not too far away Pidge let out a joyful cheer. "Right behind you!"
They made their escape towards the wormhole Allura was holding ready for them. Hunk and Pidge lagged behind the other three a bit, and Shiro fell back to give his teammates cover fire as Keith and Lance raced ahead.
There was radio silence, and Keith fumbled to find the right words to say. I was worried, I thought you were dead, I never thought I'd see you again, this might count as one of the happiest days of my life. He almost expected Lance to start quarreling with him right then and there, but then remembered the extent of his injuries.
"H-Hey, how are you holding up? You.. looked pretty banged up, man." Keith could hardly believe he was talking to him right now.
There was static over the intercom before Lance took a slow, shaky breath. "Peachy."
Keith smiled. There was his Lance. "Well you're alive, aren't you? That's all that matters. We'll worry about the rest once we get back."
"..Actually, I don't. I can't.. feel anything..?" Lance posed it as a question, as if he wasn't sure what was happening with his own body. Keith could feel a sickening twist in his stomach at his words. He was probably running on adrenalin alone at this point. What if he was going into shock?
"We're coming up to the wormhole, can you make it?" It would be a few minutes to that, and then several more to the castle. Time was very much not on their side right now. Lance coughed and Keith could hear something over the communicator hit a surface with a wet thud.
"Don't think.. I can even.." His voice faded out, and Lance very audibly crashed into his control system before falling to the floor. The blue lion's systems immediately shut down, and its boosters died out.
"N-No!!" Keith grabbed both steering handles and yanked them back, switching to accelerating backwards to Lance, who he had sped past.
"Lance?!" Shiro was preoccupied with getting Hunk and Pidge to safety, but overheard the commotion. He took a hit, and cursed loudly. "What's going on?!"
"He needs help!" Thoughts of Lance dying before they returned entered Keith's head, alone inside his cockpit, help just too far away for him to hold out. He was petrified.
"Oh god oh god, We're almost there!! Don't die, Lance, please!!" Hunk was the slowest out of all the paladins, and felt another missile's explosion lick the back of his lion. He feared for the prisoners in the section behind him. Their confused cries filled his ears every time his lion took a hit, and he wished they could just get back to the castle already. The Galra weren't about to let them take back their valuable weapon. Troves of enemy ships made their way towards them, and Shiro feared not being able to get everyone back home safely.
"Shiro, listen to me. Take the red lion back to the castle."
"What are you planning on doing?!"
Keith flipped behind his chair and made his way to his lion's storage area. "I've gotta get over to Lance. He needs help now."
"Absolutely not!! Stay in your lion, it's too dangerous!" Contents from the storage unit spilled out into the air as Keith ripped through rations and various other items he had never sorted through. Under a pile of old Altean books was a small pile of cubes he recognized from the earlier recording logs. His Altean was very rough, having tried to study a bit of it in his downtime (and realizing just how advanced of a language it was), but Keith was almost positive he could discern which was which, and grabbed as many as his arms could carry. This would be tricky.
The red lion seemed to read his intentions and twisted around so it was facing the same direction as the blue lion, and Keith was incredibly thankful it could pilot itself in this situation. Despite having its boosters switched off, the blue lion was still approaching the wormhole fairly quickly. The red lion's entrance doors shot open, and Keith lurched forward as he headed towards it. They were close--their lions were sandwiched about two meters apart. He would jump from his lion to Lance's, get in and help Lance, then fly the blue lion back to the castle. It would probably not bode well for Keith if he couldn't get inside before they entered the wormhole, though. If going through in a giant metal warship was still difficult on his system, he wondered how painful it would be to go through one in just a pilot suit. If he even survived. But Keith wasn't going to dwell on how dangerous the situation was, he was going to save Lance.
Cubes still bundled in his arms (with many lost to the pull of the space vacuum), Keith launched himself out of his lion.
He was ripped backwards and nearly missed the blue lion completely. His arms flew around to try and balance himself in the gravity free environment, and the cubes went with them. Keith managed to hold onto one, and shot his arm out wildly, hoping to catch onto something, which he did. He gripped a piece of the blue lion just behind its mouth, then lost his grip as they were just going too fast. In an instant, his bayard was drawn and plunged deep into the blue lion's shoulder. His arm felt like it was going to be ripped off, and Keith screamed--so did his teammates. His jetpack automatically activated to help alleviate the strain, but his sword was peeling back and breaching the blue lion, the slit blowing up into a hole as the vacuum of space poured in. Keith didn't have time to think. He maxed out his jetpack output and dove in, crashing and fumbling, struggling against the pull from the breach he had just created. He pulled at the wall, grabbing onto handles and latches until he made his way over to a door. Automatic sensors picked up his presence and opened, and he pulled himself inside before it closed with a worrying creak. Keith collapsed to the floor, a single Altean cube still in his possession.
That was too close. Way too close. He should have thought of a better way to do that. There wasn't enough time to plan in this situation. The wormhole approached, and the Galra were not far behind. Keith breathed heavily and pulled himself up into a sitting position with his good arm. The other arm's muscles felt stretched far beyond what they should have been, and his fingers were definitely broken. The pain was dizzying, but he pushed on. Lance wasn't far now. He clinked the cube against his helmet. "Lance, can you hear me? Can you-" There was nothing but dead silence in his ears. His helmet must have shorted out when he jumped and crashed. Great. His joints ached, but Keith hurried along to the cockpit where Lance was.
It was just as bad as he imagined it would be. Keith's feet took him over to Lance's crumpled body as he numbly took in his surroundings. The blood splatter, the bloody handprints smeared on the walls and controls, the sight of Lance on the ground, blue eyes--almost neon looking--rolled into his head, an arm clutched to his broken chest, another still hanging off of his pilot chair--Keith couldn't process what he was looking at. He wasn't dead, he couldn't be. They had come too far for him to die now. The Altean cube activated and dispensed a strange goo that Keith only now had the capacity to hope he had picked out correctly. His Altean was fairly rough, after all.
He could save Lance's life if the cube goo was what it was supposed to be. He could already be too late for anything to help. He could also be accidentally smearing food into his dying companion's wounds, and crammed some goo in his mouth first--a stinging chemical taste flooded his tastebuds. Keith gathered the rest in his hand and pressed his palm against the massive gaping wound on Lance's chest.
The mission was a success.
Every lion made it back to the castle. The docking bay sank slightly under their weight as they landed; the blue lion ahead of the rest and the black lion carrying the red. Allura and Coran hurried down to meet them. When Keith and Lance didn't emerge like the rest of them, Shiro climbed up to the top of the blue lion and opened the hatch. He dropped down with a thud, and located them just as they made their way outside of the cockpit. Keith was struggling to drag Lance through the lion--the events of the past few hours draining him almost completely of energy--and fought through the intense discomfort of having his broken fingers and arm aggravated.
Keith turned glassy eyes up to Shiro. "Help me." His voice was desperate and cracked slightly. Shiro hurried over and took Lance off his hands. A quick once over showed a now smaller, but still severe injury to his chest area, along with many others littering his body. The shattered remnants of Lance's pilot suit even appeared to have some pieces lodged into the wound. Keith tried to remove as many as he could, but some looked so deep--he was so afraid of moving one and rupturing a pulmonary artery or something to that effect.
Shiro knew he couldn't hoist Lance over his shoulder, the same way he had so long ago that night on Arus when the castle had been invaded by Sendak and his troops. He remembered being so sure Lance wasn't going to make it that night, but Lance was resilient. He survived then and he would survive now. He made his way out of the lion with Lance in his arms, Keith and the rest of the team close behind as they set him up in the medical bay.
They patched up the worst of his injuries before carefully hoisting his body up into a healing pod. With his vitals as dangerously low as they were, there was no guarantee Lance would even survive the next twenty-four hours.
Later, as they all waited around in the medical bay, Shiro took Keith to the side and apologized. Even if Keith had been somewhat reckless about it, trusting his instincts and going in to save Lance was the correct choice. The risk of attempting to jump from one lion to the other while rocketing through space didn't seem worth the payoff of getting Lance immediate medical attention at the time, and Shiro felt ashamed of himself. Were it not for Keith's decision, Lance might already be gone.
Keith uncomfortably explained there was no need for an apology, looking everywhere that wasn't Shiro's face. He didn't feel like he helped very much, and remembered the distressing feel of Lance's flesh give way under his glove as he attempted to help him. The healing gel had helped; marginally. But there wasn't much of it, and it wasn't as effective as he hoped. "It's very old Altean technology," Allura later told him. "It was mainly used in the time before we developed healing pods."
The paladins stationed themselves on the floor of the medical bay, close to Lance's pod, ready to wait until their companion came out, but exhaustion had begun creeping in on them as they settled in. The battle was hard-fought, and the emotional exhaustion of nearly losing Lance several times took a heavy toll on everyone. Coran brought them all meals, but no one--Not even Hunk--had much of an appetite.
Sitting on the steps, resting his elbows on his knees with his hands clutched in front of his face--Shiro finally relented and exhaled slowly through his nose. After resting his forehead against his hands for a moment, he lifted his head up and spoke. "Listen, I know how you're all feeling, but.. We can't neglect ourselves just because we're worried about Lance."
There was an uneasy air settling around the room. No one wanted to leave, but they were too exhausted to argue. "Lance will still be here when you get back." He reached over for a tray of food, and set it on his lap. "I'll keep watch, and once you've gotten some rest we'll switch until he wakes up. How does that sound?"
For a few moments, no one did or said anything. Then Pidge slowly rose, and tugged at Hunk's sleeve. She rubbed at the exhaustion in her eyes, and Shiro wondered how many days it had been since she last had a full night sleep. He would see her up wandering around the hallways or typing away at her computer on bad days, deep bruises under her eyes, and knew she didn't sleep well when she especially missed her father and brother. Stress often gave way to Shiro's sleepless nights, too, so he understood. "Okay.. Call us if you need to switch out early though.. Hunk, C'mon." He stood up as well, moving towards the door. Hunk took a slow look back at Lance's pod with an unreadable expression before turning around again and heading to their sleeping quarters.
"Keith?" Shiro looked over at his teammate sitting a few feet away. He was painstakingly taking bite after bite of goo he clearly didn't feel like eating.
"I'm not goin' anywhere." He mumbled through mouthfuls. Shiro gave him a warm smile.
After a week, they started to fear the worst.
"His vital readings are coming up just fine.. I can't figure out why he's not waking up!" Coran poked around on Lance's pod panel, looking over the reports. "By every account, he should've been out and about movements ago.." Shiro watched from behind, arms crossed and tapping the tip of his foot repeatedly on the floor behind him, anxiously switching legs every few minutes.
"Would Allura know anything about why he's been in there so long?" He was feeling listless, unsure of what to even ask. They had succeeded in tracking down and rescuing Lance, but what if after all of that, he wouldn't wake up? What else could they do?
"Well, nothing that I myself wouldn't know, but.." Coran scratched his moustache. "Maybe I'll just go see what she thinks. She might have a helpful nugget of info that'll give us some idea of how long this'll take!" He tried to sound hopeful, but Shiro could tell he knew things didn't look good. Coran left just as Keith sauntered in, sipping a juice pack with a hand shoved in his pocket.
"Hey, shifts over. Time to switch." Keith had discarded his red jacket and stood beside him in his black t-shirt and jeans, and Shiro distantly wondered if he was still training as much as he had been when lance first went missing. He gave a nod, but made no quick movements to leave. Keith raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you.. okay?" He questioned, uneasy at the sight of his leader looking so troubled. "Uh, we can both stay, if you want. It's not like I mind."
Shiro shook his head. "It's not that, I'm just.." Looking up to Lance, Shiro observed his expression. He didn't look peaceful at all, and hadn't since they had put him there in the first place. "I'm worried about how long he's been in there. It's been a week, Keith."
Keith stepped up to the healing pod. "It has been a while, yeah." He placed his hand against the transparent screen, watching as it shined slightly where he placed pressure. The sensation was strange, almost tingling. He only needed a few hours inside of a healing pod when they arrived back at the castle for his arm and broken fingers. When he stumbled out afterwards, into Shiro's arms, he whipped around to make sure Lance was still there. Behind the screen, Lance's haunted expression made it look like he was having a nightmare. "Lance was fighting by himself for months though, right? That's gotta take a toll on you, physically and mentally. Maybe this is the first time he's gotten any sort of real rest since we were all separated..?"
Shiro reflected, thinking back to the few times he spent in the medical bay. It's true the pods healed all of your wounds, but after a year in alien captivity, Shiro had a deep weariness ingrained in his bones that never seemed to fade. All the time in the world in one of them didn't seem to do anything about the dull ache that always lingered. "Maybe you're right.. We can't just expect Lance to be able to bounce back after everything that happened."
"Exactly. He'll be alright.. We'll see him running around making an ass of himself again in no time," Keith's mouth twitched into a fond smile, and a deep laugh arose from Shiro. It felt strange to be the one consoled instead of the other way around, and he felt a bit of relief. They would give Lance all the time he needed. The two of them sat down, and Shiro asked Keith how his training went.
Fifteen minutes later Lance apparently had gotten all the time he needed, and the front of the healing pod's evaporated. Keith drew his hand back, having gone back to poking at the screen moments earlier. "Uh?!" He made a noise of surprise, unsure if he had accidentally deactivated the pod or not.
"Did you just deactivate the healing process?!" Shiro worriedly strode forward as Keith took a few steps back.
"No-I don't know-I think it did it on it's own.." The chilly fog from within the pod evaporated around them, and Shiro reached forward to brace Lance as he nearly toppled over like a lead weight.
"Whoa there, just take it easy..." His body was cold, and Shiro could see some ribs protruding from the tight medical bay gown. The healing pods provided some nutrients to the body while the patient healed, but was not meant for long stays like the cryo pods were and were not recommended to be used for extended periods of time. They would set him up with a nice large helping of food goo once he gathered his bearings. Lance groaned, disoriented and groggy, and was not able to keep himself up on steady feet, so Shiro slid his arm behind him to help guide him forward to sit on the floor.
After a few steps, however, he met resistance.
"Lance...?" That was odd. Lance's hand pressed insistently on his chest to push Shiro away from himself, and Shiro descended the few stairs before he looked up at the strange sight. Lance sagged and leaned to one side, struggling to stay upright, and Keith stepped up from behind him and used himself as a counterweight. Lance's eyes fluttered and squinted as he tried to open them. They could now see how unnaturally bright they looked.
Back on the Galra ship and when he was in the blue lion, Keith didn't have time to notice how off he looked--too busy dealing with the grisly sight in front of him--but now knew something was definitely wrong. Lance's voice was slurred, and scratchy, and his breathing grew more and more laboured as panic took over him.
"'He's-He's naugh... I can't.. I can't find 'im... Where's Lance..?!" Lance yelled.
Keith was unsettled, and gripped the back of Lance's clothes a bit tighter to stop him from moving around so much. His head whipped around in every direction, searching frantically for something that clearly was not there. "What are you talking about!? You're Lance. Why are you referring to yourself in third person?" Lance's head swivelled sluggishly towards Keith, and searched his face for some answers. He choked, face falling towards the ground and he shook his head back and forth, sputtering incoherent words with such a panic-stricken voice that Shiro suddenly felt sick. Was something wrong with Lance? Did he hit his head at some point and the healing pods couldn't reverse brain damage? They couldn't perform miracles, after all. It was a wonder Lance even managed to push through all of his terrible injuries in the first place.
"Lance, tell us what's wrong." Shiro urged. He wanted to make whatever was causing him such distress stop, but had no idea how to. His hands floating aimlessly in front of him.
"No! I m' not.. I'm thuh.. Blue Lion! Can't find my pilot...!" Came his response, and he tried to wrangle himself free of Keith's grip. Keith sputtered, and held on. "Take me to th' princess! I must.. speak with her!"
"Are you serious right now?! You probably hit your head too hard or something.. And now you think you're a magic space cat? Get it together, man!"
"Keith, enough." Shiro approached the two and gestured for Keith to let him take Lance, who seemed ready to faint. Sweat poured from his forehead, and the strange glow of his eyes had him even more worried about what was going on. Lance was terror-stricken, and did seem completely harmless in his current frightened state, but Shiro didn't want to put anyone at risk. He absolutely doubted Lance's claims; The thought of their warships, sentient or not, being the ones to pilot them seemed so impossible of a notion that he was almost more worried of the possibility of a Galran soldier being implanted into his mind. Of course, that didn't really match how he was acting. Shiro wasn't sure what to make of everything, and decided the best course of action would be to get Allura's opinion on the matter. He looked back up at the healing pod, and considered possibly putting him in cryostasis while they figured out what was going on.
"Paladin, please..." Lance didn't know what he wanted and tensed up, entire body trembling as he didn't seem to quite know how to use it. Some semblance of clarity seemed to be returning to him, and his jaw clenched tightly while his eyes squeezed shut. He curled his head inwards and bumped his forehead against Shiro's chest, shaking hands clutching desperately against Shiro's open arms. "W-We almost made it..! So close..! 'S not fair.. Not fair!!" Shiro's heart ached, and immediately regretted even considering forcing him into cryostasis in the first place.
"It's. It's alright. C'mon, let's get you someplace to calm down." Shiro carefully led Lance down and out of the medical bay. He hiccupped and stumbled and overall just looked so pathetic that Keith had to step in and help carry him with Shiro. Confused or not, it was still Lance. He thought about using this moment as future blackmail to poke fun at Lance with, but when he turned and looked at his brows knit tightly together, tears and sweat and snot streaming down his face, he quietly discarded the idea.
Bringing Lance--or whoever this was--directly to Allura seemed like a bad idea, and Shiro thought it might be better to bring him back to his room before contacting her. Whoever had emerged from the pod clearly understood what was happening when they took a particular turn in the castle hallways, and weakly slapped at Shiro's back. He felt so much lighter now, and his escape attempts were easily ignored by him. "Release me...! Not there.. The princess!!"
"Hey, hey, don't worry," Shiro gave a sympathetic pat to his back. "We're going to see the princess, but you can barely walk. And you look exhausted. Maybe you should rest up before you see her?"
"You don't understand...." They groaned miserably, now slightly less slurred and more awake. "I must speak with the princess. Things've gone terribly wrong.." There was something off about his voice that didn't sound like Lance--Like a complete stranger was given his vocal chords.
Keith narrowed his eyes. "...Why do you need to see her?" Lance never called her that. His stance shifted to something more alert and ready. He couldn't be sure they were completely safe right now. Lance looked frail, like a particularly strong draft might send them back to the healing pods, but he raised his guard anyway.
"..She must find." Their lip quivered strangely, as they stared at the ground, breathing uneven and whistling. "A-A new paladin to take Lance's place as my pilot," They took a deep squeaking breath, then added, "...since he is no longer here."
Keith's eye twitched, and he threw his unused arm out incredulously. "What are you saying?! You're fine! You're right here in front of us, babbling like an idiot!"
They craned their neck up, staring down Keith with a wounded, angry expression. "My consciousness remains... his does not. He vanished from my senses after nearly perishing on the Galra ship. He is here, somewhere, but I cannot find him.."
"I... can't really believe what I'm hearing right now.." Shiro shifted his shoulder a bit. He took the moment to lean away, and let Lance's body slide down beside him onto Lance's feet. He was unsteady for a moment, then straightened up to look at the two in front of them, rubbing his damp face on his sleeve. "You're saying you're his lion, and the two of you are in there together? How?"
They brought a hand up to Lance's neck and cracked it loudly to the side (Lance's most awful habit, in Keith's opinion). "..Before your arrival, in one of his last conscious moments, Lance begged me to do anything to keep myself out of the Galra's hands. This was the only option."
"What, possession?" The words were spat out venomously from Keith, and even he surprised himself with how heated his voice was.
"A linked connection to exist together as a single being." They shot back defensively. "If he had not sustained the injuries that took him away, he would be speaking here with us right now."
Keith fought back the disbelief. Everything was wrong. He was supposed to see Lance emerge from the healing pod, tired but very much himself, not some creepy imposter claiming to be a warship inside its pilot's body. Based on what they said, Lance was already unconscious before they arrived, which sent a chill down Keith's spine as he realized what that meant. "So back when we rescued you, the one fighting...that was you?"
"Yes. Our bond is strong from our time fighting together. It was only because of that I was able to take his place in his body.." They hunched their shoulders and looked away, hesitant to continue. "You last spoke to Lance on the return to the castle. When you asked for his status. After that.. It was me."
Peachy. Those made for terrible last words, Keith thought.
In the past, when Shiro saw through the eyes of his lion, and felt the things it felt when they formed Voltron, he wondered if anyone had a stronger bond than the two of them. He thought it wasn't possible to be closer to his machine than that, but apparently Lance had managed. Allura had told him the Blue Lion was the friendliest and most accepting lion of them all, so maybe it was possible for this to happen.
"I'm not saying I believe you, but.. is Lance there now at all? Is there any way for us to talk to him?" It sounded like more of a timid request than a question, which sounded strange coming from Shiro. The being shook Lance's head.
"He is silent, and I cannot sense his presence. If he were truly gone, I would not be able to stay here, but.. I believe his time grows short. Shorter than it already was, as a human.." They looked almost guilty, and turned to avoid looking at either Keith or Shiro.
Shiro's expression grew very serious. "What can we do to help?"
"Start by not bringing me to Lance's room."
"Are we even sure this is the blue lion? For all we know, he could be some Galra monstrosity they shoved in there to take us all out from the inside." Keith doubted their intentions. He was nervous, and while he didn't want to admit it, he just wanted to see Lance be Lance again. Whoever this was, lion or not, Keith did not like them.
"Allura should be able to tell when she sees him. She could sense the whereabouts of the lions when we first met, so I'm sure she can do the same now." They cuffed Lance's hands just to be safe, and were not met with any kind of struggle. It seemed almost unnecessary given the scene they caused prior to this, but they couldn't take any chances. As long as they could see Allura, the being was content to do as it was told. Shiro was still slightly on edge. "Besides," his prosthetic arm began to glow a light purple without him realizing, his intentions bleeding through. "If you're anyone but who you say you are, in Lance's body or not, we won't let you hurt anyone."
They looked back, focused intently at Shiro with a blank expression. "...Distrusting team members is an unbecoming trait of a team leader." They turned back around and continued walking, shaking their head and mumbling to themselves, "It is not my intention to bring any harm to the voltron paladins.."
They arrived after a silent few minutes of walking, and Shiro tapped his helmet to radio the waiting group. "Allura, we're here." The large door slid open with a hiss, and Hunk, Pidge, Coran, and Allura stood waiting near the center of the room. They all looked tense with Pidge and Hunk in their suits, weapons at the ready.
"What's wrong with his eyes?" Pidge instantly noticed how abnormal Lance looked, and tried to ignore the cold feeling of seeing how thin and feeble he was. Months of surviving off of not enough rations must have been hard on him. She gripped her bayard a bit tighter and followed them closely as they approached.
"We're not sure. He looked like that when he woke up," Shiro explained. If they were to switch all of the lights in the room off, he was sure they would see a blue glow coming from him. Allura clutched both hands to her chest and her eyes widened. She took a step towards the three of them.
"Hunk, Pidge, lower your weapons." Her voice was soft and trembling. She didn't understand how this could be. "He speaks the truth.. This is the blue lion in our presence.."
The blue lion lowered their head to give a slight bow. "Princess."
She approached them and gently placed her hand on Lance's cheek, lifting it up slightly. "But, how..?"
They leaned into her hand, eyes closed and expression sorrowful as they recalled past events. "My paladin has been lost. It was only thanks to his, and the bravery of the other paladins, that I was even able to return to you." Pidge went around and used her bayard to remove the cuffs from their hands. "But his injuries were too much for him, and I cannot say if he will survive."
Allura withdrew a step. "You can't mean that..."
"I will continue to rest in hopes that aids in his recovery, but if he slips away, I will lose my connection to him and be returned to my own body.."
Hearing his friend talk so casually about his own death made Hunk's throat tighten and chest seize. He checked in on Lance every day while he was in recovery, always bringing snacks in case he would catch him coming out, ready to greet him with a warm meal. Lance's music player sat next to the pod as well, playing the soothing melodies he always used to sleep with.
"I have never wished for something less, but we must search out a new paladin to take his place if.. if Lance does not survive." Even saying the words seemed to bring them great pain.
"No!!" Hunk's voice suddenly filled the room. "Listen, Blue Lion or whoever you are, Lance is gonna be fine--so how about you stop talking like he's already gone?!" Unable to stop himself, Hunk ran over and picked Lance's body up in his arms, holding him close. He buried his face in his bony shoulder and felt his eyes dampen and drip onto the fabric. "C'mon Lance, it's us.. Can't you hear me..?"
The Blue Lion was limp in his arms, feet dangling slightly above the ground. "...He can't, I'm sorry. Please. Let me down." Their voice held heavy remorse. Hunk made a strangled noise and gently placed him back. He searched his expression for any sign of Lance, but was only greeted with wide, pitying eyes.
"I-I gotta go." He miserably sniffed, roughly rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, and quickly exited the control room.
"Hunk..!" Pidge lifted her hand slightly in the direction of her friend. The Blue Lion turned back to face Allura, hollow and disturbed.
Keith felt a headache coming on, and massaged his temples. "So, what you're basically saying is that we've got to find another paladin to replace Lance, because you don't know if he's going to wake up?" They looked down, and nodded.
"For the moment, we can still fight and form Voltron as needed, but finding another paladin is something we need to consider. There may be some way to save my paladin, however. Both options must be explored." Forming Voltron with one of the lions as a pilot sounded abnormal to Shiro. The paladins shared a close bond with one another, and that was what allowed them to work so well together. Could they manage with someone completely different in the team?
"In the meantime though, how are you going to pilot yourself? Can you even do that?" Keith seemed to be thinking along the same line. The blue lion threw their head up in offense, gawking at Keith.
"I am a more capable pilot than any of you!" They were almost growling, and Keith didn't like how they could just do whatever they pleased with Lance's expressions. Lance would never do something that embarrassing, and he did a lot of embarrassing things. "You will be the ones to adapt to this, not I." They swiftly turned their heel to face Allura, now apparently through speaking with the others. "Where do you think we should begin our search?"
She gripped her elbows and turned away. "I.. I am not sure.. I will have to.. survey the universe and look for potential areas that may have some capable species to choose from.." She did not want it to come to that, though. Lance was arrogant, and worryingly reckless sometimes, but the idea of actually searching for his replacement while he still technically lived did not sit well with her. "...And Coran and I will pour through our information database to see if anything can be done to improve Lance's condition.."
They tried to give a reassuring smile, and gently took her forearms into their hands. "I do not wish to believe this will be the end for my pilot. I will do everything I can to try and save him. But, we must prepare for the worst case. There is little choice in the matter.."
Coran openly wept behind them, and Allura realized she would have to be strong for everyone. Her body language mimicked something with more conviction, and she nodded. "I understand." Turning to face Shiro, Keith, and Pidge, she spoke. "Everyone ready themselves for stand-by. Relay the message to Hunk as well. We leave as soon as I have found new potential paladins for the Blue Lion."
Keith didn't let the 'Blue Lion' out of his sights. They returned to Lance's quarters, and Keith followed him in, despite Shiro lightly reminding him the blue lion was on their side, and may want their own privacy. Robot or not, they still probably had some feelings.
"The others might trust you now that Allura's told them you're the Blue Lion, but I don't." He watched as they ignored him and promptly made their way over to Lance's bed. The mounted mattress dipped under their weight as they knelt down and began pushing Lance's palms against the pillows repeatedly, seemingly enjoying the fluffiness. It made him look ridiculous, and Keith wanted to tell them to stop making Lance look stupid. He bit his tongue.
"Organic beings are often foolish and unreasonable, so this does not surprise me." They continued fluffing at the pillows before turning their attention to the thin, rumpled blanket on the bed, and Keith felt his temper flare. Apparently there was someone else in the universe who was even more irritating than Lance.
"Whatever. You better not touch his stuff, either." They were on opposite sides of the room, and Keith rested his back against a wall with his arms crossed. He watched as they picked up the blanket and rubbed it in their closed palms; Clearly not understanding what the sheet was for. They bunched the blanket up and rotated it around, then turned to Keith and held out the ball of fabric.
"Does this act as a thermal insulator?" Sitting rigidly on the bed, the heap of blanket dropped on their lap. Keith groaned.
"Wow, can you sound any less like a normal person?" He moved quickly across the room and tore the blanket away from their loose grip. This was ridiculous. He roughly grabbed the corners and flicked the fabric to straighten it out, then let it drift down to cover Lance's body. "Do you need me to do anything else, Blue Lion, now that I've tucked you in?"
"That will be fine, thank you." Their eyes closed, until one cracked open and stared up at him. "You may stay and watch me if it makes you feel better, but I will not entertain you. I must rest, for my paladin."
Keith's scowl deepened. Were they trying to use guilt and reverse psychology to get him to leave? "Do whatever you want, I'm not leaving."
They moved around mechanically to get comfortable and found lying on their back to be the optimal position. Their breathing grew steady. "Lance never enjoyed sleeping by himself.." they murmured, voice sounding far away. "He would probably prefer you stay, anyway." Mumbling soon faded out, and within a few moments they looked soundly asleep, and their slight snoring filled the room. Lance always used to snore, loudly, and it irritated Keith to no end, but hearing it now just made something raw and painful form in his chest.
He looked down at Lance's sleeping face for a few moments. Compared to how he looked in the healing pod, there was a marked improvement. His cheeks were still too thin looking on his already thin face, so Keith made a mental note to make the lion eat once they awoke. He was partly to blame for all of this happening, and tried to ignore the feelings of helplessness that came from not being able to do anything to help his teammate. If there was a way to get Lance back, he would find it.
He took a seat next to Lance's bed, and stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes. The lights were still on, but that didn't appear to bother the lion one bit. Keith looked back over to him, and was struck with a small pang of fondness. He knew it wasn't really him, but behind the bony cheeks and sunken eyes and worry lines, Lance still had his same dopey sleeping face. Slowly, cautiously, Keith reached a hand out.
Despite Allura's words, there was a part of him that still feared this was all a trap, and he waited for Lance's eyes to snap open, glowing yellow and full of hate.
He continued to snore softly.
His palm smoothed Lance's bangs away from his face. His hair was longer than Keith remembered.
Lance's return was eagerly awaited; it was just a matter of waiting long enough for him to come back.
Salvageable bits of extracted memories dripped sluggishly into the container next to the pod Lance's body was set up in. They all stood in the same hallway they had been in when Sendak was their prisoner. The same cold, damp air settled in their bones, and the paladins, along with Coran and Allura were all hopeful this attempt at memory extraction would be more successful than the one before. Extracting information useful for their mission had been the goal then, but now they had other ideas. The Blue Lion―and by extension, Lance―would be willing participants of an attempt to extract Lance's lingering memories; to see what was left of him--if anything. Initially there wasn't much, and the bits of information fed into the castle's AI system was a garbled mess of partial memories and whisper's of Lance's personality. Keith would visit the room they were uploaded into sometimes.
Before, that was where Allura spent most of her time with her father, but her presence there after what had happened was understandably scarce. Destroying her father's memories had been necessary, but it was at great personal cost. The castle halls had never felt so empty in all her life inside of them. Echoes of extravagant balls and singing with her father taunted Allura with powerful aches to return to her home that no longer existed.
The new residential AI of the castle was barely any better than her father's corrupted one―It looked like Lance, but acted nothing like him. Every weekly session of the Blue Lion climbing into an extraction pod yielded more and more memories, but the process was slow. Keith pulled a chair borrowed from the cafeteria to where 'Lance' stood, unmoving and silent, and spun it with the back facing his translucent hologram before taking a seat. He lifted his arms in front of him, crossed and rested on the chair's back. “...Can you understand me?”
Around the room, different spots tried to pull up partial locations from Lance's life. They glitched and faded, and Keith couldn't tell what most of them were. He saw a few vague glimpses of fresh grass, bright skies, rainclouds; Earth. Lance remained silent.
“How can we help you?” He waited.
“--The cheer includes the instructions.” Lance's voice was robotic, and his jacket was the wrong colour. Keith wondered why he even bothered to come. The Blue Lion told them that Lance was getting better, but was nowhere near being able to take control of his body again. When pressed for specifics, they admitted that Lance was partially disconnected from his own body, having basically died before they intercepted and took over. The only thing keeping his organs from failing and his body from rotting, was the very alive presence of the lion.
“..Are you awake inside there with the Blue Lion, at all?”
There was a very real fear that Lance would essentially remain comatose inside of his own head, unable to ever wake up, floating around the castle. It felt like forever since they last talked.
Pidge very early on remarked it felt wrong to call the Blue Lion 'Lance,' but saying 'The Blue Lion' sounded equally as strange to everyone. They elected to call him Blue. Keith felt like assigning Lance what was practically a new identity felt wrong, and didn't go along with it; instead he would gruffly call out, “You,” or “Lion,” whenever he needed something from them, which was not often, because Keith was not fond of the Blue Lion. While they were fairly friendly, if not a bit strange (often referring to Lance's and the body of others' 'inconvenient flesh bags'), Keith found their lack of experiencing humanity extremely off-putting. Blue was a reckless pilot, because Blue was normally a massive mechanical robot that did not feel pain in the way the paladins comprehended it. Being placed into Lance's body made them numb to the external damage save for the sensors telling them what was happening, and anything happening to Lance even seemed dampened to their senses.
"It is not my intention to bring harm to Lance, but I will also not fall back and leave you unable to form Voltron." One too many trips to the medical bay for Blue had Hunk quietly confronting them, everyone behind him like a wall of support.
“I know, but.. Every time we go out into battle, you always end up getting Lance back in here.." At first no one had expected Blue to have so much difficulty, and Lance's body ended up taking quite a few beatings. Blue explained that piloting was more of a challenge than they first assumed, and indignantly invited the other paladins to implant themselves into their own intestinal tracts, and assume control with nothing but a camera and two fleshy meat sticks. Pidge questioned what they meant by meat sticks. Blue held up Lance's arms.
“Well, why don't you stay in the castle if you're just gonna get in the way?” Scolding Lance had almost become second nature to Keith, but lecturing an ancient space beast with too much pride for their own good was an uncomfortable experience for everyone. Shiro shook his head and placed his hand on Keith's shoulder to keep him from getting too worked up.
“What Keith―and what I think everyone is trying to say, is we're just.. worried about Lance.” There never seemed to be a time where they weren't concerned about him. Blue slept on the floors of the castle's hangar with the other lions, and compared to Lance was exceptionally quiet. It was unnerving. Unless an inquiry or comment was specifically directed towards them, Blue would not add anything extra to conversations. Hunk also knew it was a small detail, but seeing Lance's face masks and hair products sit on his counters, now serving only as decoration made him almost regret routinely turning Lance's offers to 'spend a night prettying him up' down (“Uh, for the ladies or whatever..” Lance always scrambled to make it seem like he didn't simply enjoy things like shea butter and cucumber facial peels). Sure, Blue was nice, but he wanted to see his best friend who always dragged him along on crazy adventures again.
“Coran and Allura will keep the castle of lions as close as they can during active combat. That way, if we need to form Voltron, you'll still be close enough to get to us quickly.”
Blue eventually resigned themselves to remain on stand-by while the other paladins went off to battle, though they did so with protest; routinely reminding them that Lance wouldn't want to remain idle when his team might need his help, but even Allura understood. Voltron could still be formed, but until Lance's condition improved, or they found a new paladin, only the battles with the bleakest of outlooks would see it come together, and even then they weren't the same as they used to be, always slightly off-balanced. The poet in Shiro thought it almost reflected the current status of the team―functioning yet unstable.
The search began for a new paladin not long after Blue's return. Many of the liberated species the paladins freed were more than willing to offer themselves up as pilots of the Blue Lion, but all were immediately rejected as soon as the glowing, judgemental gaze fell on them. There was no shortage of viable planets and systems to save after the ten thousand year reign of the Galra empire, yet the paladins wondered if they would ever see Lance's replacement in their lifetime. Keith hoped they never would, and regularly hassled Blue to rest on their downtime so Lance would recover sooner. Visits to the castle's AI system became more frequent, and Keith started seeing glimpses of his old teammate return. No one was entirely sure why Blue, who was apparently the friendliest and most welcoming of all the lions, continued to be so adamant about rejecting every potential paladin they met.
“What happens if we do find someone, though?” Pidge had been turning the idea around in her head for a while. Hunk, Keith, and Shiro were with her on the training deck after a team training session. She rolled onto her stomach, lifting her chin up to rest it on her hands. “Blue can't pilot themselves and keep Lance's body working, right..? If Lance just, doesn't wake up..”
The air grew heavy.
“It won't get to that point though.” Hunk interrupted. “Keith visits the Lance AI all the time, so he knows he's getting better too, right?” The anxiety rang clear in his voice, and Keith thought about the last time he visited, and asked Lance if he even knew who he was.
“Emerged from a coma--Nope, don't remember. Didn't happen.”
Shiro would routinely see Keith following Blue around the castle, pestering them with sweaters and threats in the hopes they would actually take care of themselves better. Everyone had gotten a glimpse of Lance the week before, directly from his own body. They sat in a circle in the training deck for their team meditation, and Blue had suddenly flopped over to the floor, before slowly, painfully dragging themselves back up into a hunched over sitting position. Their eyes no longer glowed, and Keith shot over to him, nearly tackling him in the process. “Lance?!” He gripped his shoulders, holding him up, afraid to let go. Lance wobbled and looked disoriented, then focused on Keith, giving a tired smile. His hands lifted to rest on Keith's forearms for support.
“Oh, hey buddy..” Lance's consciousness didn't take much time to fade away after that, and Blue soon returned, equally as confused and disoriented, but Keith had hope. They all did.
In their usual spot in the castle's hangar one night, surrounded by the other lions, Shiro walked into Blue having an arguement with Keith, who was poised almost ready to fight, a blanket and two pillows in hand.
"It was more than mere coincidence that all five of you arrived at the castle when you did," Blue's tone held a sharp edge to it, and they did not acknowledge Shiro as he approached, too busy staring an agitated Keith down with their legs against their chest, back leaned against the yellow lion behind them. The lions normally kept to their own individual areas, but Shiro would regularly see them converge more towards the center around Blue lately. They were all knelt down, circling their companion, and Shiro briefly recalled the first time Blue saw them after leaving the medical bay.
Blue walked oddly for some time as they got used to their 'new' body--mechanical and janky and full of stumbles―and had practically slipped flat on their face as soon as they arrived to the massive hangar. The lions whirred and creaked to life, wandering over to examine who they sensed to be one of their own, then all jerked to a halt around Blue. The floor shook at the sudden impacts, and Shiro tried to catch himself before landing on his knees with a thud, looking up to see Blue with their arms outstretched, smiling, and even laughing as they spun around to look at the lions. Low vibrations made their way from the floor up Shiro's body, making his teeth clatter and head feel fuzzy, and he wondered if this was what their lions sounded like when they weren't piloting inside them. Blue came to a sudden stop in front of the black lion after a booming rumble rang out throughout the complex. “Yes, I am very small.”
Keith stood in front of Blue, and waved the pillows around threateningly. “All I'm saying is, I don't buy this whole fate thing! You're being cagey about why you keep turning down all the pilots we find, and I wanna know why.”
“I had been counting down for thousands of years to the day you would all come together and eventually converge in the Castle of Lions. Fate, not coincidence, was behind our meeting. So finding a replacement pilot is not as easy as dropping down to a planet of sentient beings and handing over my controls to the first trustworthy looking individual."
Keith didn't believe in fate. It didn't feel like something bigger was at work on the night Shiro crashed back onto Earth. Fate didn't compel him to detonate the explosives made from scraps he tracked down painstakingly from hundreds of sweeps through the desert to distract garrison troops. Fate did not rescue Shiro, he (and the other three, sort of) did. It was all coincidence. They were just five different people who ended up being sucked into something bigger than anything they could have dreamed of. But, it could have been different. There could have been a completely different group of people that found the Blue Lion and began the same journey to save their universe.
All of them, though Keith did not like to think about it, were replaceable. Shiro's leadership, Pidge's resourcefulness, Hunk's compassion; they all had advantageous characteristics which made them so successful as a team. However, they weren't the only capable pilots out there. Keith wasn't so arrogant to think they were the only beings in the universe who could skillfully operate their lions. When they all worked together, they worked well. But as things were, team Voltron wouldn't be able to face the ongoing threat of Zarkon and his army. Blue clearly did not understand the situation they were in.
The Galra radio activity Pidge intercepted regularly was almost deafening, lit up with plans of attack for the now weakened Voltron forces. They didn't seem to have the specific details of what had happened, but they were certainly not going to let this opportunity to strike go to waste. They could lose, and Keith was not about to stand idly by and let that happen.
“I don't think that's it. I think you're hiding something from us.”
Shiro had been watching from beside his lion, hoping things wouldn't get too heated between the two. But he knew the signs of Keith's temper beginning to flare, and quickly stepped in. Keith scowled and turned away from Shiro as he continued to look down at Blue. They stood up to meet his gaze, then tilted their head up towards the red lion to the left. “...Yes, he is quite temperamental, isn't he?”
Keith lunged for their shirt, pulling them down towards him, face contorted with fury. “What's your problem?! Some of those guys were better pilots than Lance! So why do you keep saying no?!”
“Keith!” Shiro firmly shoved the two apart with a little more force than he intended to at the shock of hearing what he had been thinking himself said outloud, and the two stumbled back away from him. He didn't want to acknowledge the part of him that was frustrated with Blue for that exact reason, because thinking of Lance as a lesser to the strangers who volunteered to take over as his pilot washed a nauseating feeling through him. The beings they met on the newly liberated planets, the freedom fighters, the resistance pilots―all of them seemed fairly capable, and with a burning sense of guilt Shiro acknowledged that some even seemed more capable than Lance. Blue had their reasons for denying all of them, though, and he wouldn't push.
But Shiro thought about Lance, months and months before, when he found him alone in the control room looking through the map at an image of Earth. They talked. Sharing memories of Earth seemed to help Lance, who after an almost comfortable silence, broke the spell when he quietly admitted to Shiro he wasn't sure if he was fit to be a Voltron paladin. Concerned, Shiro gently urged him to tell him why he felt that way, and Lance's insecurity spilled out of him like a ruptured dam. Everyone was so great in all of their own different ways, he remarked. But I'm just me. Shiro was taken back by the complete change in his usually cocky demeanor, realizing that he may have been simplifying his understanding of his team member too much; Lance had more depth than he originally realized, and he hurriedly assured him he was a vital member of the team―the glue that held everyone together. Hearing all of that from his hero was almost too much, and Lance rubbed at the corners of his eyes with his jacket, thanking Shiro in a quiet voice.
Lance wanted to help save the universe, even if he didn't feel like he was the best fit for the job, and Shiro felt a warm sense of pride. Lance almost reminded him of himself in his early academy days; bright eyed and eager to help.
Keith exchanged a heated look with Shiro, then after a moment caved and hung his head with an irritated sigh. “Fine, just. Hey-” He turned his attention back to Blue, expression and voice now slightly less hostile. Blue had gone back to sitting against the yellow lion, and tilted their head slightly at Keith's call. He tossed the blanket and pillows over. “At least use these if you're gonna keep sleeping here.” The hangar was chilly as it regularly came in contact with open space, and Blue had switched out of Lance's usual clothes into a black t-shirt and white shorts as they were less restricting for someone who had never worn clothes in their entire existence. Pidge had to deal with them nearly refusing to wear anything in the beginning, but with enough horrified screaming, face hot and hands glued to her eyes, they had grudgingly relented. “While Lance is stuck with you in control, maybe try to take care of his body so it's not completely ruined when he gets back.” Keith turned away from both of them and stomped away. Shiro had just come from the training deck, and had a feeling it wouldn't be long before it got some more use.
Shiro looked back at Blue, unsure of what to say. He took a seat close to them, and wordlessly, they wrapped the blanket a little tighter around their shoulders. Rumbling could be heard from all around them. ”He... is not happy with me.”
“Keith is just worried about his friend.” Shiro wasn't sure if they were talking to him, or to the rumblings, but responded anyway. Blue lightly nodded their head, and closed their eyes. As he crossed his legs, Shiro looked up to his lion.
He found his way to the hangar originally with the intention of visiting the black lion. Reflecting back on how close of a bond Lance was able to form with his lion made him want to understand his better. If he had only been closer to his lion, maybe they could have avoided all of this happening in the first place. Maybe a stronger bond would make a stronger team. All of the individual lions looked like their eyes were gazing in his direction. It didn't feel uncomfortable for him, if anything Shiro felt more calm in this environment. The vibrations all around him continued.
“So, are you talking to all of the lions.. right now?” Asking what Magical Space Robots even had to say to one another sounded rude, so Shiro didn't ask.
“Yes. We have been discussing the latest recruits for my new paladin before Keith... interrupted. They agree none of them seemed fit for the task.”
“...What kind of pilot are you looking for?” He asked, genuinely curious. Blue tilted their head back and forth bizarrely, clearly thinking hard about the answer. The blanket around their shoulders shifted around a bit.
“They must have a certain... character to them. Their quintessence must mirror my own. But understand, out of all of us I am the most welcoming of new paladins.” Despite how often he was told that, Shiro found it hard to believe. He hesitated before asking what Keith had not so politely asked.
“Then why have you been rejecting everyone we've met so far..?”
“They simply.. lack what is needed to pilot me at full capacity. As new as he was to it, Lance was well on his way to becoming my most capable paladin yet..” Shiro wasn't sure how to respond to that. He looked down at his knees, and felt the ground shake slightly as the green lion adjusted their position to lie closer to the ground.
“...Can I ask how Lance is doing?”
Blue gripped and pulled their blanket towards them a little tighter, and pulled their feet into the warmth. “If I am honest with you.. piloting myself drains the both of us, and now I understand it must not be done unless necessary. I fear if the Galra continue to act as aggressively as they have been, Lance's improvement so far will be for nothing.”
“...I see." In the past two weeks, rescue missions not only from Galra forces, but many planetary natural disasters striking some of the planets were keeping all of them, Blue included, very busy. They were all tired.
"He still mostly sleeps, but I can tell he is here with us now, if only barely.” An almost sentimental look graced their features. “He dreams of kind humans who took care of him when he was small. Vast oceans, a lush planet of sun and warmth.. Would you like to hear about them?” Shiro wasn't sure if this was being invasive or not, but Blue seemed like they wanted to share. The two of them spent quite a few quiet nights together like this, recalling Lance's past like they were quickly fading memories that needed to be pinned down with conscious thought before they evaporated into nothing.
Time moved along, potential paladins were still all rejected, and Lance's condition stalled from its previous steadily improving pace as Shiro feared it would. He was still alive, Blue assured them, but instead of occasionally arising in the back of their mind to talk and get updates about what was happening around him, Lance only slept now. They stopped doing the weekly memory extractions, because if anything, the newer AI versions of Lance were nothing but garbled messes of memory fragments. Ama, I got in―I can't see any of it―shot his arm off―you say tron. Keith stopped visiting.
Pidge and Hunk seemed to deal with Blue's presence better than everyone else. Pidge would always be eager to ask the sentient machine given the ability to communicate with them all the things she could never ask before, and Hunk just wanted to spend time with his friend. Yet, despite liking Blue the least out of everyone, Keith was the one who always found himself hovering around them like they were a magnet; If the magnet was an inattentive asshole who had to be reminded to change his clothes more than once a week.
They were currently on stand-by in the docking bay, and awaited Allura's command to set out towards a planet that had begun broadcasting a distress signal before almost immediately being disabled. She feared they were under siege, and worked to track down the location despite the beacon marker no longer being there.
"Here." Keith tapped a wrapped condenced food bar against Blue's armoured arm. "Eat."
"..I appreciate the concern, but I am not hungry." The two of them stood in between the red and blue lions, and Blue was looking over at their body, being characteristically quiet. Keith threw his head back and groaned dramatically.
“Well maybe that's because you don't really feel anything..?!” Keith doubted they could tell when Lance was hungry, especially because they didn't even recognize a broken arm on him from a mission a few weeks back. They arrived back at the castle, and it was only when they were changing out of their suits that Hunk noticed Lance's elbow bent at a strange angle. His forearm was also puffy and red. Hunk didn't panic, as seeing injuries on Lance was becoming more common, but still swiftly brought Blue to the medical bay. On the way there they apologized distantly, trying to convey the dissociating experience of being in the body of a completely different species, but Hunk didn't feel like forgiving them, and ushered them into the healing pod as he had done so many times before without a word.
Keith wrestled the wrapper open and tore the bar from the package, then shoved it in Blue's gloved hands. “I know you don't like eating because you never had to do it before, but you have to do it now.” Doting on a being that was probably as old as some solar systems didn't help with Keith's headache. Why were simple tasks like eating, sleeping, even bathing so difficult for them? The first week of Blue's arrival was a terrible experience that no one wanted to repeat. Keith understood it was a big change, but this was unacceptable. “If you actually care about Lance, you can start by oh, I don't know, not neglecting his basic human needs?”
Blue's nostrils flared and they gripped the bar tightly, clearly insulted. “How dare you say I don't-” A guilty look soon overtook them, and they looked down at the food in their hand. Keith almost felt bad. Almost. “I..”
“I've located the planet!” Allura's voice cut through the tension in the air. “Paladins, in your lions!”
Keith rolled his eyes, and turned towards his lion to get ready, but was stopped when Blue reached out and grabbed his shoulder. A part of him wanted to rip away from their grip in that moment, but he attempted to keep himself calm, and rotated back towards them.
Blue's expression was contemplative, and their eyes met. “Keith.” They licked their chapped lips, which Keith had definitely noticed before but didn't mention. He had to draw the line somewhere with his almost constant hovering over them, and it's not like he even cared about what his own looked like, let alone Lance's. “We..We will speak about this when we return. Please.” They almost sounded desperate.
“Uh.. Okay.” It wasn't like they needed to say much. Agreeing and promising to take care of Lance is all he wanted to hear, since that was one of the bigger things Keith had to worry about on top of everything else in his life now. They split up and descended into the lions, and Keith wondered if Red would be as dramatic as Blue if they were here as well.
There was little time for conversation when they finally returned after a day on the war-torn planet. Shiro's feet dragged across the castle floor as Hunk and Allura pulled him towards the medical bay. His white patch of hair was dyed dangerously red and the open wound from his head dripped onto the floor as they whisked him through. Keith and Pidge, footsteps quick beside them, rushed ahead to prepare a healing pod. The team was separated from Voltron when Shiro lost consciousness, and they extracted him from his lion and transferred him to Keith's to get back to the castle faster. Blue stayed behind to transport the ravaged black lion back into its hangar for repairs.
The beacon was a trap, as they so often were lately. The terrifying beasts Zarkon sent their way were growing with frequency ever since the attack the paladins made on the empire to rescue Allura. Two awaited their arrival on the planet. One, however, plunged deep inside a forest and camouflaged itself to hide in its surroundings, patient and ready.
Taking one of them out was a long, drawn out battle. Villages of innocent beings had been set aflame, and as soon as they saw who was responsible, Voltron was formed. They struggled, and were beat back, but continued to get back up after each blow. The senseless murder used as a tactic to lure them lit the team with a fury that eventually overpowered the monstrosity.
The shot fired by the enemy in hiding pierced through Shiro's lion before anyone could move to avoid it, and as Shiro screamed in agony, unable to form coherent words through the pain, they realized what happened. A massive purple fire erupted from Voltron's head―directly next to Shiro's cockpit--and Blue cried out in fear for their leader. They lunged towards the monster, pulling the rest of the team into action.
They were vicious, diving into the forest and grabbing it by its strange, dark appendages. At the opening of one of its arms was a massive metallic looking barrel. That must have been what it used to attack Shiro. Pidge ripped it off.
After a very rough skirmish, the team emerged victorious. They stood above its toppled, oozing body, and Blue crushed its head, over and over. Shiro was still conscious towards the end, but they could hear sizzling and burning all throughout the battle, and they broke apart when he whited out. Later on, as Keith surveyed the wounds from behind the screen of the healing pod, he realized what they were hearing was Shiro's pilot suit melting onto his skin from the heat of the blast. Keith did not sleep well until he recovered.
“Hey.” Keith's voice came from behind Blue. It had been hours since they arrived back from the planet, and when Shiro's condition stabilized, he went searching for Blue. Keith checked the hangar first, and managed to get a clear look at the damage done to the black lion. The head had a massive section completely blown off. It was a miracle Shiro even survived.
He found Blue with a troubled look on their face in the lounge area, bunching up the fabric of their shorts as they gripped the material. Keith watched them quickly straighten their back as he strode in and approached.
“Keith, is everything alright?” The troubled look did not dissipate, but they looked sympathetically towards him. Keith didn't understand why that made him angry.
“No. I mean, Shiro's okay, but.. I need you to talk to me about what happened earlier in the fight.” As Voltron, their minds shared a connection. They couldn't hear each others' exact thoughts, and instead simply all shared a similar thought process which guided them to victory. Keith couldn't tell exactly what it was, but when Shiro had nearly been rendered unconscious, something was immediately off in Blue.
“After... Shiro got hurt, what happened to you?”
Blue immediately tensed up. They slid their feet back and underneath the couch and looked away, eyes wide. Keith noticed their sweaty, matted hair and dark circles under his eyes, but was too tired to hassle them about it. “I... I wasn't sure it was a good idea to mention it, but.” They looked in every direction that didn't lead to Keith, and unconsciously rolled their neck to crack it like Lance always used to do. “...I was in control of my own body for a period, when Lance's consciousness surfaced and took over.”
“Wait, what?!” This was definitely important information that he should have been told. “Why didn't you tell us?!”
Blue suddenly found the white tiled floor to be very interesting. “Lance seems to think it's best to not inform you when his consciousness resurfaces, but..” They adjusted their collar. “I am not so sure.”
Keith felt anger bubble inside of him. “Obviously!” He stood directly in front of Blue. “Why would Lance do that?!” he demanded answers. What was the point of hiding the fact that you're awake to your teammates who are worried about you?
Didn't Lance realize how much everyone wanted to see him?
Blue's features softened into something sorrowful. “Keith.. He may not want you to know, but.. the outlook on Lance's condition doesn't look any better. I fear it is only a matter of time before the worse comes to pass.”
Keith feverently shook his head. Lance was getting better. He wasn't going to die. Blue was lying.
“If he knows his end is near, he would prefer not to have anyone aware of his presence to avoid... demoralizing the team with false hope.”
“I-I don't get it,” a disturbing laugh bubbled out of his throat. “You're saying Lance is trying to be considerate or something? Are we talking about the same guy here?” he shook his head again, hanging it low. “I'm sorry.” He sat down and felt the seat sink under his weight. “...This is just. All so messed up.”
Neither said a word for some time, until Blue leaned in a bit closer to Keith. He was suddenly exhausted, the events on the planet, and just everything in general caught up to him. Keith could smell Lance's body as Blue leaned him closer. He was still sweaty, but despite himself Keith couldn't find it in him to be grossed out.
“If it isn't too much trouble.. could you hear me out regarding something I would like to do?”
“What is it.” Keith's voice was strained. He wanted to go to the training deck or go to sleep or do something that wasn't dealing with Blue and the ever lingering worry that Lance might die.
“Would you accompany me to Earth?” The question was quiet. Keith snapped his head over to Blue. Wide eyed, he stared at him in confusion.
“I would like to bring him to see his family.”
The way they said it sounded like they were doling out a death sentence. Keith felt something sharp form underneath his ribs, and breathed in a shallow breath to avoid disturbing it.
At least making Allura aware of their plan was necessary, but Keith and Blue decided it would be best not to involve anyone else.
Hunk's working station near the paladin's barracks piled up with stress projects he worked on near constantly, much like Pidge did on a regular basis. He tried to keep himself busy, and it was clear he did not handle any talk about losing his friend well. Pidge looked like she hadn't gotten a decent amount of sleep in weeks, and Shiro looked much the same. They weren't aware that Lance had concealed his presence to dispel any wishful thinking that he might survive, and they would keep it that way unless something changed. Team morale was at an all time low as it was, and Keith could handle this with Blue on his own.
“I understand, I will keep this between the three of us.” Allura's voice was small. Keith had a small craft prepared for the two of them, and Blue changed back into Lance's more constricting outfit in preparation. Aside from their worn-down appearances, and the bright glow of Blue's eyes, Allura thought they almost looked like their old selves, from before everything that happened. The past clung to her, making pulling herself to move forward difficult. “It is best we leave Coran out of this as he..” she made a vague, Coran shaped gesture in front of her. “..can get a bit emotional.”
Keith also did not trust him to stay quiet about the venture, either. He thought about how Hunk might react if Coran told him they were bringing Lance's body back home to see his family―possibly for the last time―so they could give his family some context for their likely future of grieving.
“It is for the best.” Blue concluded.
Allura could hold open a small wormhole that penetrated any human defence monitoring systems surrounding the planet for a period. They didn't have very long, but Blue seemed thankful they could do it at all.
“Before you go,” Allura turned back from the ship controls as the two set out towards the docking bay. It was late, and everyone else was asleep. Her long dress trailed behind her, smoothing over the tiled surface. Her hands clasped Lance's larger ones in her own. “Blue, I must thank you for doing this. None of this must have been easy for you, and if these truly are Lance's final days..” a morose acceptance had claimed her voice, dipping it into low, quiet tones. “I know he would appreciate what you're doing for him.”
Blue shook their head, and lightly gripped her hands. “I know, princess. I care for my paladin, and we have been through much since we first met. It greatly saddens me for our journey to end in such a way, and I wish to do whatever I can to bring him any last bits of comfort..”
Keith stood numbly beside them, watching as they spoke of Lance like a ghost. He didn't like this. He hoped this visit to his family would light a spark in Lance and pull him back to them; not let him pass on gently. Keith wasn't so foolish to hope that he meant as much to Lance as his family did to him, so if Keith couldn't bring him back on his own, maybe they could help.
“Why don't we get going?” He cut their preemptive mourning short gruffly. Allura nodded, and stepped back. She wiped her cheek quickly.
“You're right. And Keith, thank you for accompanying Blue. I know they will be safe with you alongside them.” She slid a ticker into his gloved palm. “I can't give you much time, but.. I hope this brings Lance some peace.” Keith felt sick, and took the device without a word.
The small aircraft barely fit two comfortably, and as they approached the wormhole it wasn't hard for Keith to tell something was wrong with Blue. They sat directly next to him in the co-pilot seat, curled up and pale. The only thing that seemed to be keeping them propped up was the safety harness strapped across their chest. “What's wrong?” Keith feared this would add to the number of times Blue had fallen unconscious in the past few weeks. They would wake up not long afterwards, but it was made clear that their connection with Lance was stuttering as his body weakened.
“..I do not know very much about Lance's family, other than what he has told me, and what I have seen from his dreams.” They answered, and ran their hand through their short, damp bangs. They let Hunk cut Lance's hair occasionally, and Keith wondered if they knew it was because Hunk wanted Lance to continue looking like the old Lance. Taking comfort in the way he looked made Keith feel guilty, even if he wasn't the one doing it.
“I am hoping to be able to wake Lance before we arrive, as I would like him to be here personally. But even if he is just in the back of my mind... That will do.” They looked ahead with a more determined look than Keith thought a sentient robot was capable of making. “I want this to go well. but I do not know enough about their relationships with Lance to fool them into thinking I am him.. Is there anything you can tell me about them?” They turned to Keith, hopeful and expecting.
Keith felt himself go cold. “I.. I don't think I know anything that could help.” His hands tingled as he gripped the craft's steering handles and looked straight ahead. He realized he didn't actually know all that much about Lance's family, despite how often he used to talk about them. “I'm sorry.”
Keith didn't know if he was apologizing to Blue, or to Lance.
It was early morning in Varadero when the wormhole opened up for the two and landed them in a small tropical forest area. Their lions definitely would have been too large to effectively camouflage, and Keith was thankful he decided to take a smaller ship. They stepped off from the metal ramp onto the warm uneven soil, and Keith immediately realized he was overdressed. The humidity alone hit them the moment the bay doors popped open, and he left his jacket in the ship.
Stumbling down the ramp beside him, Blue looked like they were about to puke. Trying to wake Lance must have been difficult, and Keith wasn't sure what to do. He didn't want to touch them, but they made Lance look pathetic, and he hated seeing that. Blue nearly tripped into a tree, and Keith gently caught them by the arm and rested his other hand awkwardly on their back. They gripped his arm tightly in return.
Keith gave a few uncomfortable pats to their shirt, and wondered if robots comforted each other the same way humans did. “You.. alright there?”
“Wha.. Keith..?” They were sweating, growing more and more pale, and sounded very confused. “You're here..?”
“Um, duh? I flew us here..” Keith's mind suddenly clicked into understanding. “Oh! I-is that you, Lance!?” He shifted in front of him and ducked under to get a closer look at his face. Lance was blinking slowly, then seemed to come to his senses as a wide-eyed Keith stared up at him, mouth agape. Lance realized the position they were in, and was embarrassed to have been clinging onto Keith so tightly. He pulled himself up and looked away, clearing his suddenly very dry throat.
“Uh, yeah. The one and only... Long time no see, I guess.”
Keith was overwhelmed with several different feelings; all at once he wanted to pull Lance in close, ecstatic to see his friend again (despite Lance's bizarre loathing for anything even remotely sincere between the two), he wanted to punch him in his stupid face for hiding the fact that he was still with Blue from him and the rest of the team, and his gut also turned violently in his stomach, pity stinging his insides as he regarded Lance's disheveled state.
He settled for trying to be supportive, and promised himself he'd chew Lance out later. “Y-Yeah, It's good to see you again, man.. It's been a while.”
“...Right, yeah. Sorry.” Lance didn't let go of Keith's arm, and Keith didn't say anything about it. They made their way away from the craft, taking slow, careful steps. Keith could feel Lance's hands shake with exertion. Tropical birds sang overhead, and they walked through the small forest with Lance's lead, as Keith had no idea where they were even going. “So.. How's Blue been treating everyone?”
“They're weird, probably weirder than you,” Keith considered telling Lance about all the times Blue referred to his body as an inconvenient flesh bag, but decided not to mention that part. “Your lion's a worse pilot than you are, actually, which I didn't even think was possible--” Lance gave him a weak punch to the shoulder with the hand not clutching him. “--Ow. But I mean...” He paused, awkward and unsure how to continue. Sincerity was absolutely not his forte, and the right words were locked somewhere in his head that he did not have the key to access. But for Lance, he tried. “Everyone.. really misses you, Lance. I never thought I'd see you again, and. I was really worried about you...” His neck felt like it was on fire, and travelled quickly up and engulfed his face.
“God, cut that out, that sounds so messed up coming from you.” Lance recoiled in second-hand embarrassment, and Keith turned an even brighter red.
“Wh- I'm trying to be nice here!! You look like garbage, and I know this hasn't been easy for you, so excuse me for being honest with my friend!” Keith wanted to rip his arm away, let Lance fall in the dirt, and run back to the ship. He didn't, and Lance gasped mockingly, now apparently filled with enough energy to humiliate Keith.
“Wait, I'm your fwiend?!” Keith groaned loudly, and Lance chuckled before he stopped and broke into a fit of wet coughs.
“Whoa, whoa! Easy..” Lance nearly doubled over, gripping Keith's arm like a lifeline as he coughed into his other hand. What was happening to his body? Were his organs starting to fail already? Panic washed through him, and Keith could do nothing but lightly pat Lance on his back, hands rigid and sweaty. He should have left his gloves back at the ship. “Uh, do you need to sit down or anything?”
“I-I'm okay... I'm okay.” Lance sucked in a deep breath from his nose. “My house isn't all that far from here.” He leaned back up. “Let's go.”
Their pace was slow, but eventually they arrived near the beach shore. The city wasn't awake yet, and very few people were in the streets. “Over there.” Lance gestured at a mid-sized house surrounded by solid white stone walls and towering palm trees. He let go of Keith's t-shirt and tried to stand tall on his own, readying himself.
“Hold on a sec,” Keith stopped and gestured up at Lance's face. “You've got some..Um.” There was a smudge of blood cooling on Lance's cheek. Lance quickly wiped it off. “Okay, you got it.”
“Thanks.” The two of them crossed into the yard. It was still fresh with morning dew, and Keith's sneakers squelched as they walked through. A woman came into view at the side of the house, pointing a hose's light spray over her vegetables. She didn't notice them until they were only a few meters away.
“Amá.. Amá!” Lance smiled weakly, but Keith saw his eyes almost sparkle, and Lance hurried his pace towards his mother. She looked up to the two of them and recognized Lance in an instant, gasping loudly.
“Lance! Mijo!” she loudly explained, dropping the hose and running to meet her son. She nearly crashed into him, wrapping him up in a massive hug. Lance looked more like a rag doll as she spun him around happily, and the two laughed and held their arms around one another tightly. Standing in the wet grass a few feet away, Keith felt a pang of loneliness he promptly ignored for the sake of being happy for his friend.
“I did not know you were coming! Ohh, I've missed you!” She stopped spinning Lance around, and looked confused when he didn't quickly pull away the same way he used to when he was a child.
She instead felt him hide his face into her shoulder and sniffle obnoxiously a few times, then laughed and patted him on his back. “Santo Cielo.. You miss your mother that much?” She heard a pitiful 'Uh-huh' and gave him another big squeeze before letting go.
Lance suddenly remembered Keith was there and rubbed his eyes on his sleeve, making sure not to look his way, and Keith struggled to get used to the strange fondness spreading through him as he looked over at the sappy display. Looks like Lance had some endearing qualities after all.
"I was so worried when I received news that you dropped out of the garrison!" As she recalled the memory, she remembered that she was actually incredibly upset with Lance, and she pinched his ear and dragged his head down. “Estúpido! What were you thinking?! And not even ONE call, to me! The mother you cry on when you finally come back!"
"Ow ow ow, lo siento! LO SIENTO!!“ Lance pleaded, and his mother relented, giving his ear back. He clutched it and give her the most wounded look she had ever seen on him. She rested both hands on her hips with an exasperated sigh, and turned her gaze over to Keith. He suddenly felt pinpricks of judgment stab into him from head to toe as he was examined.
"And who is that, your friend?"
Still rubbing his ear, Lance looked over. "Uh, yeah... That's Keith.” She motioned her hand towards herself, inviting him over. Keith trekked mechanically through the grass.
"I. Um. It's nice to meet you.” She was almost as tall as Lance, and her strong looking arms made Keith doubt he could beat her in an arm wrestling match. Her curly brown hair was pulled back, but a few stray curls bounced along on her forehead. She was pretty.
A smile almost identical to Lance's stretched across her face as she took both of Keith's hands and shook them. "Any friend of Lance is welcome in my home!” She leaned in, and keith caught a scent of mangoes. Her voice lowered to a loud-whisper that Lance could definitely hear, but she cupped her hand in front of her mouth anyway. "You know, Lance was a big crybaby growing up, and didn't have any friends. So thank you for taking care of him while his mama couldn't!” Shrieking, Lance pulled them apart; face a darker red than the time Keith accidentally walked in on him in the bathroom at the castle, singing an out-dated pop song off-key into his brush for a solid half minute before he noticed his company.
"OKAY THAT'S ENOUGH TIME TO NOT TALK ABOUT THAT ANYMORE. ” His hands swung around rapidly as if to swat away the truth that hung in the air, and Keith convulsed with laughter. "―It's not funny, Keith! I'm serious!” He groaned and covered his face in shame, and then started to cough. Keith stopped laughing immediately.
It was deep and guttural. His mother, concerned, quickly moved to pull his hands away from his face, but Lance wouldn't budge and kept his mouth covered, holding his other hand between to keep her from coming closer. "Lance?!” He shook his head.
"It's okay, I'm-” He sputtered. "'m okay, gimmie a sec.” Keith was by his side, slipping between his arm and hanging on to his back.
"Can we sit down somewhere?" She frantically studied him for a moment, before ushering them inside the house. They sat down in the sunroom, next to the kitchen, and his breathing calmed down as they sat on the sofa which Lance vaguely recalled looking much bigger before. He quickly dismissed his mother's worried barrage of questions, wiping his face away from her, in Keith's direction, in case there was anything there.
"It's just a- a- chest infection! I'm okay, seriously.”
"Just a chest infection?! You sound like a dying horse! We're calling you a doctor.” Lance quickly reached out to hold on to his mother's arm before she could run off. His serious expression gave her pause. "..Lance?"
"...I need you to let me explain what's going on first,” Lance began. "Please.” Scrutinizing her son, then Keith, then Lance again, she slowly lowered onto the seat next to him, reaching out and holding his hands. Both her's and Lance's were trembling.
"Lance, my baby boy, please tell me you didn't get in trouble with the law.” Concern laced her voice, and it took Lance a second to register what she even said. His mouth dropped open, at a loss for words. She looked over to Keith. “And is he really your friend? Or is he a member of a- a- I don't know, just please tell me you are not a criminal now!"
"O-Of course we're not!! " Keith was taken back, extremely offended. Did he look like a criminal or something? Was it the gloves? "We're defenders of the universe, not some common criminals!!” She squinted at him.
"What is he saying? You didn't even get your official pilot license, how do you save the universe if you can't even fly?"
Lance slid his hand from her grip and rested it against his forehead. "..It's a long story. What did the garrison tell you about what happened to me?"
She thought back for a moment. "They told me you disobeyed direct orders and snuck out one night and just.. Didn't come back. Are you saying that's not what happened?"
“Well, that kinda is what happened, but there's more to it than that.”
Lance explained everything from the beginning. He of course left out the most dangerous parts, and Keith backed him up. While Lance had kicked his souvenir collecting habits, taking selfies with aliens from the different planets they had visited was still something he kept up, and showed them to his mother, along with the strange Altean technology from Keith's pocket that was really just a simple timer, but the look of it was fairly convincing of its alien qualities. It took a few minutes for everything to sink in.
“I can't believe it... My boy, a pilot who protects the universe..” Her voice was quiet, awestruck. She hooked her arms around Lance's neck and pulled him into another hug, and Lance's shoulders slumped as he leaned in. “I'm sorry I ever doubted you. I am so, so, so proud of you Lance.” Lance brought his arms up and clung to her for a few moments, before she leaned back in her seat and wiped away some tears.
“Thanks..” Lance sounded bashful, but just in the way he held himself Keith could tell he was getting tired. They had been there for a little over an hour, and he knew Allura wouldn't be able to hold such a tiny, specifically located wormhole open for very long. He motioned over to Lance, who realized Keith was holding up the ticker to show him they would soon have to depart.
He turned back to his mother, suddenly aware of just how little time he had left with her. Everything was happening so fast. “But I came back for a reason. I'm.. not sure what might happen to me from here.”
“What do you mean..? Are you going somewhere dangerous?” She wrenched her hands together like she always did when he was little, shoulders tense and voice fearful. Lance didn't like seeing his mother like that.
“I am. The universe needs me, and it might be a long time before I can come back to Earth... I may not ever see you again, Amá...” Keith thought that sounded a lot better than the truth.
She held onto his shirt sleeves, pulling his hands onto her lap. She fussed with the loose threads on his cuffs, and Lance wondered what she was thinking about. After a moment, she looked up at him with glassy eyes.
“Okay. I want you to be careful for your mama though,” She shook through her words, and Lance struggled to keep a brave face in front of his crying mother. “Can you promise me you'll do that?” He nodded, lower lip pulled up to stifle the noise in his throat. “You do what you need to, and come back home safe to me when you're done, understand?”
“O-Okay, I will, Amá.” Lance reluctantly stood up, and Keith joined him. “..We have to get going, though.”
“You can't stay a bit longer..?”
“I can't... Tell everyone I said hi for me?”
“Of course my dear boy, come here.” She pulled him in and planted a big smooch on his cheek. “And you, the quiet one, come here too.” Lance stepped back as she wrapped Keith up in a hug. Her voice was a real whisper this time. “Please take care of my son for me, please.”
Keith froze. “I-I will.”
The two made their way back to the ship without saying very much, and when Lance tucked his legs back against himself in the co-pilot seat, hid his face and cried, Keith didn't say anything; he kept one arm around Lance's trembling shoulder, and leaned their heads together. It was a long ride home.
After the visit to Lance's family, keith spent more time with Blue, who returned not long after they disembarked at the Castle of Lions. The Galra empire did not let up on the team; every populated system desperately awaited them with beacons blaring, and unending fleets waited to ambush the paladins. The looming threat of annihilation of planets and their inhabitants was their bait, and they had no choice but to take it and draw themselves in. Voltron was needed now more than ever.
On the days they had no choice but to step back and rest, Hunk would always seek out Blue, and Keith would often join them. The black out spells increased in frequency, and eventually Blue decided it was best to mostly keep Lance's body safely tucked in bed. If they fainted, no harm would be done, whereas the first few times it happened they put not only themselves, but everyone else in danger. During one particular incident, they toppled over from the mouth of their lion body and crashed into Pidge below. Her handheld microbot had been destroyed, but she assured them she could fix it. Knowing that Lance was getting worse and she couldn't fix him, however, hurt her more than the drop ever could.
Getting up for battles couldn't be avoided, but otherwise Blue confined themselves to Lance's room.
Silver plate filled with goo, Shiro stopped by to deliver them some dinner―a service he himself needed after the close call fighting the two monsters Zarkon sent after them. His burns had healed completely, but phantom aches of pain stayed long afterwards―and he found Blue on the floor, sitting with their back against the wall and ear pressed against the white paneling. Their voice could no longer carry as far, so they only listened to the vibrations of the other lions who kept them company from afar. “..Mind if I eat here with you?” The corner of Blue's mouth pulled up and they nodded, and the two of them sat against the wall while they tuned in to the lions' conversation, Blue's nose occasionally scrunching up in amusement―eager to respond but unable to muster even the tiniest of lion rumbles in their tiny human body.
An unusual request from Blue one night brought them and Keith outside of Lance's room, and they sat in an observatory deck near the highest point in the castle, looking out to the vast emptiness of space. The shining nearby stars lit Lance's face up in a way that made Keith's breath catch, and he resisted the urge to reach over and tilt their chin towards him for a better look.
Blue wasn't talkative that night, instead staring up dreamily at the nebulas above. Keith didn't feel like talking much himself, but had a nagging question he needed an answer to. Blue's hands spread out behind them, and their nails were neatly trimmed. Trepidation filled Keith's words.
"...Blue, how much longer do you think Lance has?" The fear that one day Blue wouldn't be able to re-establish a connection with Lance, and Keith would see the lion's eyes light up with life, and see the light in Lance's eyes fade, settled into him uneasily. Seeing his mother didn't help Lance come back like Keith had hoped, and memories of fresh morning air and the sickening contrast of Lance's dull, wax-like complexion dripping with red threatened him with nausea. He was out of ideas.
They lowered their chin back down and thought for a moment. "...That's hard to say. I believe part of the problem lies in the fact that his small body isn't meant to contain my presence for extended periods of time―even if my being here is the only thing keeping him alive.”
Keith thought about the size difference between the paladins and their lions. Putting a human inside a massive lion never seemed to cause issue, but stuffing the entire being of a lion inside of a tiny human body; Keith supposed it made sense to expect some repercussions. “What else, then?” Blue couldn't simultaneously be the cause and cure for Lance's ailment.
“Perhaps..” They exhaled slowly. “With his mind still unable to fully connect to his body, and his recovery so slow.. He may not think there will be enough time for him to heal before, well.”
“...Before what?” He already knew, but asked anyway. Keith pieced everything together, forming the grotesque heroic picture Lance had ultimately painted himself into.
“Before an invasion is launched on Earth.”
“―He may be frightened of dying, but Lance wouldn't put the lives of everyone on earth―of his family―above his own.” The mind was a powerful thing. Even after his body recovered, it was still convinced Lance was gone, and now worked against him to make exactly that happen. “This may be his own doing, intentionally or not.”
That was it, then. Despite the dull ache of worry following Keith around near-constantly, and his efforts to pull Lance back into the land of the living, he had already given up on himself―unconsciously discarding the idea he'd ever go back to Earth to see his family again, or fight with team Voltron to take back the universe. He fully expected a soundless death within his own mind, fading away after letting his mother down gently―at least he would die a hero's death in her mind.
“...Though we can't be sure this is indeed the end for him, Keith. Please, at least for now, try to hold out hope." They were trying to make him feel better, but logic betrayed their comforting words. Keith would probably never get the chance to talk to Lance again. His unsolicited animosity towards Keith made for a rocky start to their friendship, but eventually things smoothed out, and once they dropped the whole rivalry thing, he found comfort in being a part of the same team as Lance and all of the others. Memories of their last few missions flared up in his mind, and his tongue felt thick as he tried to speak.
"I'm trying. I just―I wish I never would have tried to attack Zarkon back then, and basically gotten us all separated in the first place. ” Blue attempted to speak up to refute him, but Keith quickly lowered his head and shook it. “ We never got along for the longest time, because he was such a jackass, and then once we did there were always planets and people to save and―and I never listened when he told me about his family.. and.." Keith linked his fingers together and pulled them tight against the back of his head, looking down at his knees. “Now it's too late to save him.”
Keith wondered when he started speaking about Lance in past tense.
Blue said nothing as they stretched their long legs in front of them, and leaned back on their hands. Their low hanging gaze travelled back upwards, and Keith despondently followed their eyes up to the cascading colours of the nebula.
"You may still get that chance." Keith doubted it, and by the sounds of it so did Blue. Conversation wilted and silence stretched between them.
"But, say if.." They spoke up after some time, clearly having thought carefully about what they were going to say. "If he never sees you again." They looked at keith, eyes shining with something unearthly, and something else he couldn't quite place. His hand was scooped up, held comfortingly in their strong grasp.
"Lance truly cared about you, Keith. He would want you to know that, at least." The words, blunt and sincere, coming directly from Lance's mouth, made Keith look away, eyes wide and mind reeling.
“...I, uh, wow.” Sweating hands made his gloves itch, and Keith was almost tempted to remove them. “I mean, I do too. But, uh, I don't know if he'd want you sharing something that personal without him being here.” That didn't sound like something Lance would ever say out loud. Keith had trouble being sincere and open about his feelings, and Lance was almost as bad as he was. The duality of Blue's nature compared to Lance's made Keith realize just how different the two were.
"..If I am to soon return to my body, and he will not be here to convey how he feels, then I ask who will?” Keith didn't have an answer to that. They looked down at Keith's sweaty hand, still in their own, their voice a soft murmur. “And I know it is obvious to you and I, but...” The emotion behind their words almost seemed to hurt them to speak. “Please never forget about Lance. He fears this almost as much as he fears dying.”
Keith stared at them and shook his head slowly with disbelief. That was absurd. From all the terrible things that happened alone, Keith didn't think his nightmares would ever stop starring some form of Lance for the rest of his life. Not to mention everything else Keith felt towards him. Why did Lance feel like that? "That's ridiculous! I wouldn't―Why would he think―"
It finally hit him that he absolutely could not fix Lance. Lance would die thinking he would eventually be replaced and forgotten about. There was nothing Keith could do to change that, because it was already too late.
Keith roughly pulled them in by the hand, practically kneeling over Lance's body. He pulled tightly, desperately at the back of their shirt. His legs ached from the strange angle, and Keith ignored that along with the prickle of Lance's dry hair on his cheek.
"..I would never forget about you, you complete fucking idiot." Keith knew Lance couldn't hear him. He wished he could, though.
Blue brought Lance's arms back up to return the embrace, and they stayed like that until Keith's legs cramped up, and he couldn't bear to hold the body of his dying friend in his arms any longer.
Rumours of the Voltron paladins searching for a replacement for the blue lion circulated the more populated systems of the universe, and the time had come for team Voltron―but mostly Blue―to make a decision.
"All of these outstanding individuals are willing to offer themselves up for the sake of protecting the universe. This may be the best chance we have to..." Allura's words stalled as she pulled up a planet from the control center of the castle, paladins watching from behind. “To find another member to join our team.”
No one wanted to go.
They touched down onto a highly advanced, populated planet, with Coran staying behind on the ship, and met the welcoming company after exiting their lions. The sky was dusted with a light teal, and despite the ongoing construction on the white infrastructure from the recent Galra attacks, the floating plazas with complex designs and patterns, and the overall impressive architecture, made for some beautiful surroundings. A short trip to the city capital brought them along an open floating conveyer belt, gently drifting by many others going in every direction. Hunk peeked down at the lower buildings under them, and squinted to see the purple glinting wreckage of ships. He wondered how many lives were lost when they rose up against the empire here.
“Welcome, Voltron paladins, to our city.” One of the guides was a lanky blue individual, standing up taller than Shiro. Their skin was smooth and spotted, and their pointed ears glowed a pretty lavender color. Simple white cloth draped over their long body with very few accents―architecture, not individualism, was what the beings of this planet prided themselves with. Allura had seen the rise of low-level hivemind colonies emerge from civilizations in the past, but never dreamed she would see such an intelligent species working so well together. It pained her to think it, but if they had access to even one of them on their team, they would carry with them the knowledge and experience of an entire civilization, and would make for an excellent paladin.
They glided past some open gates, and a massive entranceway to the heart of the city opened up in front of them. Pidge couldn't help but marvel at the technology embedded into its infrastructure; miles of floating city stretched in every direction, and despite the situation she found herself itching with excitement to be there.
Armored troops stood in two lines to form a path into the towering structure. Their planet hadn't even needed the help of the Voltron paladins to aid them against the Galra; Invading forces touched down on their planet, and as a testament to their capabilities, they had contacted the castle not one week later to invite them to pick from the troops that had defeated the undefeatable.
They entered the complex, bright and stately. Crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceilings, and the guides excused themselves as they showed the paladins to where they would meet the ambassador. No one remarked the offensive moldy smell that wafted through the air as they entered the large corridors, thinking it might be rude. The area was otherwise pristine, and sparkling crystal lights installed in the ceiling caught rays of sunshine coming in from the windows, and danced colourful lights throughout the room.
The bulky doors locked behind them, and after a few moments of everyone staring back with wide eyes, puzzled and alarmed, Pidge let out a stifled noise of confusion, then dropped unconscious to the floor.
Shiro dove down to gather Pidge up in his arms, and only did the sudden quick movement make him aware of his now softened and blurred vision. Alarms blared in the back of his head. They were alone in the room. The guides trapped them. There was no group of potential paladins waiting for them in there. It was an ambush. “Hey!!” Keith lurched around and launched a kick at the door. It let out a dull, resonating clang and everyone went on high alert.
The unfortunate fact about a hivemind was that, if you controlled one being influential enough, you practically controlled them all.
“What's happening?! Why'd they lock us in here?!” Hunk shot away from the door as if it burned him, and moved towards Pidge. He could see her eyes rolled up in her head, and her face quickly descending into a shade of blue. Something immediately struck him.
“Guys! P-Put on your helmets! There's something in the air!” It was the smell. Its odor grew in intensity as they entered the room. That should have tipped him off. Quickly, everyone obeyed--Shiro put Pidge's helmet on before hastily putting on his own--and Allura swiped her hand over her helmet's headset. The room started to spin.
“C-Coran, do you copy?!”
“Princess!! I'm taking heavy fire, what's going on?!”
“We've been tricked! We need immediate extraction!”
Pidge was smaller than the rest of them, and it did not take long for the gas waiting in the room for them to affect her, but everyone else was not far behind. Numbness quickly spread through their bodies despite the fresh oxygen from their helmets. It was too late.
Keith's bayard was drawn, and he turned his swaying attention away from the door over to the windows of the hall. He took a few unsteady steps, recognized how far away they actually were, and knew he wouldn't make it over. “Hunk, get―” his breath came out in shallow wheezes, and Blue was already on the floor, unconscious. “―Get your bayard..”
It materialized and Hunk nearly fell over as the weight pulled him forward. Understanding what Keith was getting at, he fired a barrage of bullets at the window, and they collided without the accompanying shatter he expected to hear.
The windows were not made of glass.
His vision darkened around the corners, and Hunk dropped to his knees after his bayard lit back up and dematerialized, clattering beside him as he slumped over on the floor. Blue had buckled and fallen to the floor in front of him, and Hunk desperately reached out and clung to the clean tile. He needed to get over there. He had no idea if they inhaled some sort of poison or sleeping gas or even neurotoxin, and if his buddy somehow was still around to be experiencing it, he wouldn't let him do it alone. A terrible small part of him wondered if he was just doing it for himself, so that, if they made it out alive and Lance didn't, he would at least know his last moments weren't spent scared and alone. His grip faltered after only a few feet. He did not get far.
Shiro found it hard to think, but focused on his lion. If they had achieved any sort of deep bond, now would be the time for it to pick up on his distress and come help. The room shifted and swirled, and Keith, Allura and Shiro found themselves pulled towards the floor. He fought against it, eyes heavy as lead, and weakly called out into his speaker.
"Coran.. We need help.." His strained voice radioed back.
"I-I'm trying! I can't get near you!" A distant explosion muffled the sounds of his struggles, and Shiro was very afraid about what might happen next. Allura didn't seem to be affected as much as the rest of them, and yanked his arm towards her, dragging his limp body closer. Were there people coming in through the door? Everything felt slow and muted. He saw more than he felt Allura slam her hand against the top of his wrist, and she bent his arm at an uncomfortable angle to activate his shield and cover them both as something explosive propelled them several feet back.
Before he sank into unconsciousness, Shiro felt his lion connect with him, and saw visions of it mobilizing from its location towards the capital. The red, yellow, and green lion followed close behind, and the blue lion remained stationed where they landed with a dull gaze.
What sounded like heavy rain pounding down on his shack's leaky roof pulled Keith back into the fray. He was sprawled on the floor, and bright crystals from the too-high ceiling glittered on his face. It was even brighter than before somehow, and made it difficult to make out his surroundings. The muffled screaming and sound of firing lasers didn't help with his pounding head. Who was doing that? His mouth was dry, and had an awful taste in his mouth. Bleary, he looked around, and memories of what happened rushed back into him.
The paladin's lions were all there after having blown through the majority of the roof, and guarded the unconscious group. Their shields were pulled up, which kept them safe from fire, but the planet's soldiers and the surrounding aircrafts did not relent with their assault. Keith could hear shouting with the same clipped pronounciation he had so often heard of the Galran ships they stormed, and saw some purple blurs mixed in the crowds.
"Allura! Are the paladins awake yet?!"
"Not yet!" From above him he heard Allura's laboured voice, and twisted his head to see her trying to lean over the three of them that she must have dragged together at some point. Shiro groaned and twitched to life, and Allura pulled him into a sitting position. “Hang on―Shiro's awake!” Keith dimly realized he needed to get up, too.
"My sensors are showing they're taking the blue lion!"
"..Wha?! No!" Shiro shook the fog from his head, and sprung to his feet. This was not good. Since Blue was with Lance, they couldn't control their actual body unless they physically put Lance in front of the controls. Their empty body had been left near the landing site, unguarded.
He took off towards his lion with faltering steps. Keith dragged himself up, and a terrifying clarity of what was happening hit him. His attention snapped over to Blue, who was now only a few feet away on their side; Lance's helmet bent their neck unnaturally. He stumbled and crawled over to them, and Pidge and Hunk were jolted awake when Allura started yelling for them. Shiro had thrown his arm up to catch in the black lion's mouth, and hoisted himself up inside.
“Blue, get up! They're taking you!” With a sharp gasp, Blue awoke and threw their arms wildly out in front of them. Keith caught them and tried to pull the both of them up. “Can't you do something?!”
Allura followed behind Shiro, hanging onto his lowered arm and yanking hersellf up. “Shiro, we must return to the castle so I can assume control and stop them from taking the blue lion.” She turned to regard everyone else. “Paladins, get in your lions!” Hunk and Pidge struggled to help one another stand up before immediately heading towards their lions, and Keith tried to keep Blue on their feet as the two wobbled dangerously.
Coran's voice sounded loudly from their helmets. "They're about to warp away from here, you won't make it!!" Keith fought against the volatile sensation threatening to overtake him, and immediately faced Blue, now looking just as terrified as he felt.
They ripped their hands away from Keith, eyes wide and mouth dropped open; Then suddenly were on the ground, clutching their head and screaming. Panicked, Keith dropped his knees beside them, and hovered his body around them as they shook and groaned.
"W-What's wrong with you?!"
"He's―He's forcing me out!!"
Keith's stomach sank.
"Stop it!" They tore their helmet off, and it bounced outside of the barrier, destroyed in seconds by enemy fire. They caught their short hair in a painful grip, as if that would keep them tethered to their pilot. "Lance, please!!"
Hunk was already on his way when the screaming started, but Keith hollared over Blue's panicked cries.
“No―go get his lion.” It wasn't a request. His words were slurred, like he had trouble forming his mouth around them, and Hunk stared at them for a long moment, before he clenched his jaw and turned back. The hatch to his lion popped open and he disappeared inside.
The black lion launced upwards with Shiro and Allura in it, and her voice roared through the speakers. “Keith, keep Blue safe until we return!” That, however, was easier said than done. They convulsed, and as the yellow and green lion sped towards the atmosphere, blood began pouring from their nose. They were losing their hold on Lance, and Keith held onto them tightly in terror, not knowing what else to do. Their shouting was lost over the hail of bullets trying to penetrate the red lion's shield they were surrounded with, and Keith couldn't form any coherent thoughts in his head as he watched.
Blue went limp, and Keith could have sworn he was thrust into another one of his usual nightmares. He tried to cry out for them, but only an overwhelmed whisper squeaked out. He bundled them up closer to his body. This couldn't be happening. He smeared the blood away from under their nose and mouth with his gloved palm, over and over, but more continued to flow out no matter what he did and Keith shook their motionless body. This couldn't be happening.
“Wake up! Do not fuck with me, Blue!” Keith thought about having to bury Lance and watch his body lower into a too small grave and having to tell his mother that her son was gone forever and never being able to see his stupid smile again. His cheeks streaked with tears and his face was sweaty and damp; a desperate wail escaped him as he buried his face into Lance's pilot suit.
The arms that dangled along side his body slowly reached up around Keith, and with a miserable sniffle Keith lifted his wet face slightly at the movement.
"..Oh. Whoa, hi, Keith..." Came their voice, cracked and whispy.
"...Lance..?" Keith pulled them apart to look at his eyes. They were barely cracked open, but Keith could see a deep blue peeking out from beneath his lids. "Lance!!" He had no idea what to say. He crushed Lance back into him, squeezing the other tightly. "What are you doing?!" Lance's face had lost a lot of colour, and Keith couldn't hear what he was saying as Coran yelled something through his helmet. He ripped it off so he could hear Lance's hoarse, quiet words.
"Blue's gotta.. get back in themselves to get away from the Galra.. Can't do that if they're stuck in me, y'know..?"
"Shut up, shut up!!" Blue was the only thing keeping Lance alive. "You're not dying here, you hear me?!"
Lance grimaced. "―Don't think.. I got much of a choice, man.."
Fire burned in Keith's veins. “Fuck you! You just decided to give up on yourself, even though there's gotta be a better way to save Blue than this―but you didn't even stop to think about it!! You just had to be the hero, didn't you―stupid asshole!” Keith spat out, sharp and desperate. His chest heaved and vision blurred as he cried in frustration. He didn't know why he was yelling at Lance―Lance was dying.
Lance looked so sad, and so tired. "I-I'm―"
"Don't say you're sorry. Just-Just stay alive!" Keith's voice was hysterical, and he could barely see Lance through his muddy vision. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his forehead to Lance's. Both of them were crying. "What about your family..? You can't leave them like this.." Keith wanted to tell Lance that he couldn't leave him like this, either, but bit down on his tongue; Now wasn't the time to burden Lance with messy confessions. He didn't want his last moments to be of guilt and shame. Both of his hands reached up and gently held the sides of Lance's head, and he lightly stroked his cheeks with his thumbs. Keith opened his eyes to look at him, possibly for the last time. Smeared blood sullied his face, and Keith again tried wiping it away. His thumbs lingered on the corners of his mouth, and he almost wanted to apologize when his tears dripped onto Lance's face, mixing together with the blood to form little pink spots.
Lance made a choked noise as they made eye contact. He searched Keith's face with a confused, hurt expression, and hiccuped as he tried to catch his breath. “Do...Do you―...” Slowly, very slowly, he wrapped his arm tighter around Keith's torso and pulled him in closer until they kissed softly.
Keith leaned back slightly, murmurred words ghosting against Lance's chapped lips. "...You.. You promised your mom you'd see her again.. So you gotta stay with me, okay..?”
Lance relaxed his head into Keith's hand and leaned his neck back, forcing a crooked smile on his face. "..Don't talk about my mom when I kiss you, jesus.."
There was more chatter coming from Keith's helmet.
"Sorry." He shifted their position, scooting backwards until his back came in contact with the red lion's cooled metal paw, and wrapped his arms around Lance, hoisting up his gangly legs as he brought all parts of him as close as he could. "Just hold on, please."
Lance's ribcage rattled, and he sucked in another wheezing breath. He laughed, broken and tired, and reached a curled finger up to wipe some of his own blood off of Keith's chin, then cupped the side of his face with a gentleness Keith didn't know he was capable of.
"I can't believe.. you never said anything.. You're... a real pain in the ass, you know that?"
"What are you even talking about..."
Lance tucked his face into Keith's neck, and Keith stopped talking when he felt the warm, shaky puffs blow the hairs on the nape of his neck back and forth. "I mean.. I guess I can't now―Between you and Amá.. I-I don't plan on dying today, alright..?"
True to his word, the healing pod's cover evaporated, and Lance stumbled out two days later. He wondered who always changed him into skintight jumpsuits, which really did not suit the mood at all (Coran's proud hand would raise up highly to take credit, later on). It was only Keith waiting this time. Their hands connected solidly for support as he wobbled forwards, and even with his mind still hazy from sleep and recovery, Lance found the mind to be embarrassed. "Uh, hi, dude.” He started, tone unsure. The tips of his ears, though still defrosting, heated up to a rosy pink before he could stop them. “Nice to see you..?"
Keith's face lit up into something bewildered and pleased. He snorted. "Nice to see you too, dude."
The Blue Lion rested with its companions in the castle's hangar after its victory pulling itself from the hands of the Galra empire, with the help of the other paladins. The other paladins sat together in the rec room to give their fellow teammates some privacy―Pidge keeping her stony grip on Hunk's sleeve as he tried sprinting off to the medical bay―and Keith and Lance tangled their fingers together, foreheads touching and breathing the other's scent in, until Keith told him he smelled and needed to get something to eat.
On their way out, Hunk barreled into the medical bay with the others only halfheartedly trying to stop him from behind, and ended the romantic moment because Lance was back, okay? He was back and it was friendship time, get outta the way, Keith, because Hunk was done waiting to see him again and Lance was way too light in his arms as he lifted him up in the happiest of hugs.
Things were different now. Lance had some haunting experiences tucked away inside that he had yet to even look at, and the psychological recovery would be no less difficult than the physical recovery of his months spent in isolation. But Keith was there. Shiro was, Hunk was, Pidge was; everyone was. His mother waited at home, warm and comforting and always ready to take him back in. He had his duty, and they would continue to fight against Zarkon to retake the universe. He had no idea what might happen in the future.
But for now, things were okay. They were okay.
Chapter 11: Epilogue Pt 1
(Hi there! This is part one of a two part epilogue. No images for these parts, though, sorry! Only text. Hope you enjoy, and thank you for reading!)
In the still air of the training deck, there was only sound from Lance's lungs, drawing in deep, laboured breaths. He laid nearly crumpled on the bright floor, armoured legs pulled up to his chestplate and arms reaching up to cradle his head, from both the radiating pain in the back of his skull, and the intense shame that had come from just kicking Shiro square in the chest to get his glowing hand as far away from him as possible.
"Lance..?" Lance could hear Shiro's startled voice a few feet away. Beyond the roar of blood pulsing in his ears, he heard Keith distantly call off the simulation, and his head spun as he took a moment to realize what had just happened.
It was a simple training exercise. It had been some time since Lance returned from inside of his own head, and after a few days of extra rest outside of the cryopod at everyone's insistence, Lance felt better than he had in months. But the idea of diving back into his paladin duties was apparently completely unacceptable to the team, Coran especially, so Lance begrudgingly obeyed his new orders to quite literally take it easy.
He played it off like he was excited to be able to kick back and loaf around, and he really had been content for a few days, but after memorizing the castle halls three times too many, taking up part-time residence in Hunk's workshop, and spoiling himself with more naps than he ever imagined he'd be able to take—Lance was itching to do something productive. He had long adjusted to his fast-paced paladin lifestyle, and didn't know how to handle all of the extra free time. He needed something to do, otherwise his daily spa treatments would burn through his supply before they could stop off at another trader planet.
Other than the frequent times spent stuck in recovery, Lance always had something to do back when it had been just him and Blue—bumbling through all of the minor and major repairs his lion would need, planetary reconnaissance, alien rescue—acting as a real, proper paladin of Voltron was busy work, and with nothing on his plate other than 'focus on getting better,' his days dragged on incredibly slowly.
Until Shiro finally relented. Lance regained the privilege of joining the team combat training, and was eager to get back to it.
The initial setup was straightforward—individually battle the gladiator bots and raise the combat level after each was defeated, to gauge where each paladin was in terms of overall fighting ability. Simple. They separated into different areas of the spacious deck, and Lance felt eyes on the back of his head as he lightly gripped his bayard in his hand. The familiar weight solidified in his palms, and he stood on the lit up marker on the floor indicating where his starting position was.
His body came alive at the sound of the battles around him, and Lance switched himself into a more appropriate fighting stance. A brilliant blue flashed to his left as a gladiator surged towards him. It was fast, and swiftly thrust its spear towards Lance. He was ill-suited for close-quarter combat, but dealt with it often enough that he felt nothing but his strangely quiet pulse as he feinted left, then ducked beneath the spear and twisted behind his opponent, shoving the end of his energy rifle against the nape of their neck and firing without a moment's hesitation. It dropped to the floor before disintegrating into a burst of blue pixelation, like it had never been there in the first place.
The novelty of battle had long since worn off for Lance, but a grin of satisfaction stretched across his face knowing he hadn't gotten too rusty during his time spent stuck co-piloting his own body.
"Nice one, Lance!" Hunk called out before he ducked out of range from a narrowly avoided blow from his own gladiator. Lance gave him a quick thumbs up, before turning his attention back to the next opponent now materializing in front of him.
This went on until the five of them collapsed in a heap towards the center of the room nearly two hours later.
"Alright guys, take five. We've earned it," Shiro panted, and as if on cue, Coran entered the facility, juice packs piled in his arms. He winked at Lance as he passed him his pouch.
"These juice packs are extra special today, made the concoction myself!" An air of pride surrounded him, and Pidge—ever the inquisitive, oh-so-brave Pidge—was the first to poke the straw through the pouch and take a sip. As she did, Coran quickly added, "Now don't you mind the taste, it's good for you!"
It certainly didn't taste like it was good for her. With a gurgled wail, she spat it out, and the spray of the fizzing liquid pelted the back of Hunk's head after it worked its way through her nose. They both screamed out in disgust.
Lance watched from next to Keith, amusement clear on his features, and Lance felt Keith laugh more than he heard him, the hardened material of their chestplates rumbled against one another as he lightly shook. Hunk wiped the back of his head off as best he could, and when he settled Lance shuffled behind him to lean on his back. He tentatively lifted his own straw to his lips, first pushing out some air to catch a scent of what awaited him inside. Whatever it was, it didn’t have a smell, and after a light shrug he drank through the straw deeply, concealing his disgust internally when the swampy fizz flooded his tastebuds.
It was awful. Coran really outdid himself.
Choking down the local cuisine from the species he had rescued had been a common occurrence some months ago, though, and Lance had definitely had worse than this. A shiver worked its way through his spine as the unwelcomed memory forced itself upon him. He put the juice pack down.
The unshakable terror that filled most hours of his days back then, the tedium, the constant, aching pain. He was past all of that now. What would happen now that he was back as a part of the team undoubtedly wouldn't be a walk in the park, but Lance didn’t care. Voltron could be formed again. The universe had another shot at being salvaged. He was with his friends, he was with Keith.
Things were better.
He comforted himself with the fact that he was with them now. It felt surreal to be back with his team, his team, Hunk's back a solid presence against his own, noticing how close his feet were to Keith's, and reveling in the way he smiled when Lance nudged his shoes against his heels, pushing Keith's knees up close to his chest. "What's got you so happy?" Keith smiled, and Lance could see his hair stick to his damp face from all the sweat. He thought Keith was a pretty attractive guy, even when he was soppy and disgusting.
"Just nice being back, I guess."
"I bet." Keith said, and Pidge shuffled over.
"This stuff's gotta be a breeze for you now, huh? You almost managed to hold out for as long as Shiro." She didn't miss how cagey Lance was when asked about the three months he was stuck by himself, and occasionally tried to push information out of him. She had even gone looking for the log recorder at one point, but it had mysteriously vanished.
Lance contemplated his hard earned combat experience for a moment, but decided he didn't much feel like thinking about it. "..Yeah, easy peasy." Before his apprehension could show, he changed the subject. "And now that I've got you guys watching my back again, it's gonna be smooth sailing from here on out."
Keith rolled his eyes and pushed back against Lance's feet. "Riight, let's see if you're still any good at working as a team before you go saying that."
Shiro sat cross-legged off to the side, juice pack completely drained. "Keith makes a good point. Let's focus on some team-oriented work. It has been awhile since everyone's been here."
The simulation was commenced after a brief setup. Multiple droids were set to appear from randomized locations, and as a team they had to work together to take them all out. Lance didn't stray too far from anyone, but kept enough distance to provide cover fire for everyone around him. An acute awareness of just how many openings they could have as a team seeped into his senses, and the realization that he couldn’t just watch his own back anymore truly started to sink in. When Shiro would watch Hunk’s flank, and Pidge would watch Keith’s, Lance would cover them, ducking and weaving away from any approaching bots.
When a gladiator dropped down directly behind him, its feet light and approach silent, the distracting sound of his rifle and shove of the recoil had him too preoccupied with picking off the droids trying to double-team Hunk to notice. It was fast, but Shiro was faster. As it readied its glowing blade for Lance, Shiro lept forward, one hand moving to push Lance to the side, dislodging his weapon from his hands in the process, and his prosthetic arm poised and ready to strike behind him.
He wasn't ready for Lance to seize up at the sight of his hand, face contorted into a look of pure terror, and use the only thing he currently had free—his legs—to desperately kick him away. Shiro skidded back several feet with the air from his lungs escaping him in a sharp grunt, and Lance catapulted backwards from the momentum of his kick. The back of his head collided with the hilt of the gladiator's sword with an echoing crack, and Lance instinctively turned his head towards the source of the pain as he toppled over to the side of the droid. Having dealt the 'winning' blow, it remained motionless, and looked down at him with a glowing blue eye.
The shooting pain set in almost immediately as he hit the floor, and Lance drew his hands around his head and let out a groan. The rest of the group was already on their way over, but Shiro stalled, unsure and still slightly shocked.
"You alright?!" The words came out of his mouth before even thinking about it. His eyes followed the other three paladins who crowded around Lance.
"I-I'm good..!" Lance ground out with an effort, and turned one of his gloved palm towards his face, examining it. There was a small patch of red staining it, but it wasn't gushing, and Lance couldn't feel the tell-tale slide of wetness running down his neck. It wasn't anything fatal. It would definitely be sore later on, though.
"Lemme see," Hunk slid down onto his knees, and Lance half-heartedly pushed away at him with an irritated noise. "Lance, c'mon!"
"Hands off the merchandise!" Lance swatted Hunk's attempts at turning his head towards him. Despite the tenderness of the area, he quickly covered up the spot childishly. "It's okay. It'll probably just bruise." His chin was forcefully turned down into his neck, and his hand was pulled away from his nape when Keith attacked from behind to survey the damage.
"Wrong, you're bleeding." He squeezed Lance's now clammy glove, then took his other palm and almost gently placed it against the sore spot. The muscles in Lance’s neck jumped under his touch, and he hissed in discomfort, trying to pull away to no avail. "Yeah, this needs to be looked at. Training's over. Can you stand?" He received a grunt in response.
Pidge offered her hand, and the two helped Lance up. Careful to avoid smearing the blood on his palm against his uniform, Lance patted the non-existent dirt from himself. Shiro had slowly made his way over, and Lance stood without looking at him. "Lance, I'm sorry, I-"
Lance looked up, bewildered, nose scrunched up in confusion. "What? No, no no no, don't apologize, Shiro. I should apologize! You were trying to look out for me and I-" He stared through the floor, eyes wide and uncomprehending. "I freaked out, I dunno, it was weird."
When Lance had seen Shiro running towards him, he realized that meant there was a gladiator near him, but before he could react, all he could see was purple, purple coming straight at him—purple from wave after wave of galra soldiers, unyielding and bloodthirsty, clawing at him with desperate, bloodied hands even after he shot their weapons away, shot their limbs away, screaming and screaming and—
Pain exploded in the back of his head, and Shiro stared at him a few feet away, clutching his chest like he had just been shot.
"I must've panicked, sorry." Something flashed across Shiro's face, and his brows drew up into a concerned, pitying look. Lance immediately flushed in embarrassment, unsure why.
"Hey.. It's alright. It may just take a bit of time for you to get used to fighting together with us again. Why don't you take a break?" Lance nodded, still not looking at Shiro. He thought he'd say that. He knew it was foolish, but he felt like he had failed something important. He wanted to show his team they could trust him to be his usual, competent self. Even more competent than he was before, if he was honest.
He was supposed to have come back from his solo-mission stronger than ever.
"..Right. Yeah. I'll uh. Get this looked after." He motioned to his head. "Maybe grab something to eat, while I'm at it." The heels of his shoes scuffed at the floors as Lance slinked off towards the deck entrance. Hunk took a step forward, eager to follow after, then stopped. He turned to Keith, waited for him to catch on, then elbowed him when he didn't.
"Ow-hey! What?" He hissed, keeping his voice low. Hunk gestured over to Lance drifting away dejectedly.
"Don't you think you should go with him?" It wasn't like Lance or, surprisingly, even Keith tried to hide their tentative relationship. It was especially obvious in the way the two interacted—the lingering touches, the longing looks—Hunk was pretty sure he saw the blue and red lion cuddling in the hangar one time, too. Pidge called him a liar, but Hunk knew what he saw.
Lance was his best friend, and seeing him happy, especially after everything he went through, it made Hunk happy. His unrestrained laughter from next to Keith when Keith tried his hand at being clever was the nicest thing Hunk had heard in awhile. So while his Hunk Instincts were telling him to run after his friend to make sure he was okay, he figured he'd allow Keith an opportunity to have a bonding moment with Lance instead.
"What? Why me?" Hunk rolled his eyes dramatically. What would his team do without him, honestly.
"Oh, I dunno, maybe the guy he was playing footsies with earlier should be the one to make sure he doesn't pass out in the giant spaceship from a head injury."
Keith shot him an extremely offended look, flared nostrils sharply pulling in air. "We weren't playing—I wasn't—" His face heated up, mostly with anger. He let out an irritated noise and started after Lance, but not before he turned and narrowed his eyes at Hunk as if to say, look, I'm going, are you happy? Hunk shrugged. Uh, You're welcome.
Shiro could feel the discomfort of where Lance had kicked him starting to fade, but the memory of his face, eyes wide and terrified, desperate—like a wild animal—Shiro didn't think that would fade as quickly.
Tracking Lance down took some time, as he was slippery when he wanted to be.
He had admitted to Keith one night from inside Blue (where Keith had finally tracked him down after searching for literal hours, Lance—we were gonna watch some movies Pidge set up and you missed it—) he still needed time to get used to being around people again.
Typically the only two times Lance had seen other living things was during brief celebration parties, or in battle when he was mowing down everyone in his line of sight.
Keith understood. He didn't expect him to pop back into being his usual energetic self, but Lance was more reserved than Keith imagined he would be, more jittery and nervous about contact (whereas in the past it wasn't uncommon to see him draped over Hunk in the lounge area, where Keith definitely did not stare at his exposed stomach where his shirt hiked up) and he scolded himself for sometimes missing the way he used to be.
People changed, especially after traumatic events. Shiro did. He was still the Shiro from before the Kerboros mission that Keith remembered, but there were a lot of things that were different about him now. He was quieter, more contemplative, and much, much more serious, which Keith never imagined was even possible.
Lance was still Lance, and Keith knew he could get over himself long enough to accept the new facets of Lance's personality, the good and the bad. He carefully admitted to himself just how deeply he cared about Lance, and his thoughts wandered back to figuring out his current location.
He checked the medical bay first, but came across nothing but an opened Altean first-aid kit, missing some antibacterial ointment and a cold compress pack.
When Keith walked into the kitchen area, sweaty and sticky from both the running and the earlier training, he saw Lance's head poking up from beneath a counter. He hadn't noticed him yet as he had knelt down to grab a plate, and Keith stood at the door, awkward. He wasn't quite sure what to say.
They were still reeling by the time everything settled, and before they realized what happened the air had changed between them.
The kiss came out of nowhere. Lance was dying, and keith didn't know what else to do. He thought he wouldn't say anything when it looked like they were going to lose Lance, but then Blue had given him a sliver of hope that one night in the observatory, and he was so afraid of losing Lance that when the time came to keep quiet he was mashing his face against his dying friend.
The fact that Lance probably felt the same way still touched at something fragile inside of him, and Keith still had trouble coming to terms with the fact that someone was interested in him. He spent so much of his life ostracised from everyone, then held up on a pedestal at the garrison, that it still seemed so surreal. Lance insisted on being cheesy and embarrassing by holding his hand sometimes, but Keith hadn't tried kissing him since the first time he did it.
He leaned on the frame, still unsure what to do, but Lance lifted up to his feet and took notice of him. "Yo," he greeted, then wandered over to the side of the room, squeezing the handle to the food dispenser to dump its contents onto his plate. "Here for some after-workout goo?"
"No, I'm here for you." Keith blurted honestly. The spoon Lance stuck in his mouth clinked against his teeth as his eyes widened and mouth twitched. He let out a muffled 'oh,' and sat down at the table, eyes not leaving Keith. Keith uncrossed his arms and slid into the chair next to him, then he tapped the back of his own neck where Lance had gotten hit. "How's the head?" Lance shrugged.
"S'alright. Doesn't really hurt all that much." He slumped forward slightly, lost in thought. Listlessly he dipped his spoon into the green mess on the plate, and his hunger finally forced him to lift it to his mouth. He barely had an appetite after what happened, but resolutely would not take the food goo for granted. The taste was so tolerable that he didn't even have to pretend that he was eating his mother's black bean soup, like he used to. "Can't believe I kicked Shiro, though. Way to go, Lance!" He lifted his arms up theatrically in the air, then dropped them back down onto the counter. "Attack the team leader instead of the gladiator, that's great teamwork." His head sank, and Keith regarded his display with confusion.
"Not... really? That wasn't like you, though. What happened?" Keith had been too busy back to back with Pidge and didn't look to see what was happening until Lance let out a strangled noise and Shiro flew back.
Lance scratched at his neck, looking away. He cupped his hands around the bottom ridge of the plate. "Remember what I was telling you about last week? In the observatory?"
Oh. "...Those flashbacks?"
"Yeah." He looked ashamed, and Keith hated that. He had no reason to be ashamed.
"Well, do you have any idea what's bringing them on?"
"...I think it was Shiro. Well, his arm. When I saw it, it-it was like I was back there again—back when I was on my own, and I was fighting all those soldiers, and I was killing them and—"
"Hey, easy." Keith leaned in, and rested his hand on Lance's heaving back. "You're not back there, you're right here." Not knowing what else to do, Keith scrambled and held Lance's hand.
Lance breathed out, and tried to regain his bearings. It was warm in the cafeteria, and Keith's added body heat (God did he need a shower, though) helped calm his shaking hands. "I- Yeah. I know. " He looked down and closed his eyes. "I don't know what's up with me.. I guess this has been a lot to deal with."
"...Wait, are you talking about this, too?" Keith raised their clasped hands. Lance quickly turned his head towards him, eyes wide.
"No! No, the whole. Uh. Flashbacks thing. This is. This is fine. I mean, it's fine, isn't it?"
Keith felt himself go hot. "Of course it's fine.." He looked away in embarrassment and saw Lance do the same in his peripheral vision, but neither retracted their hand.
"...I guess it is kinda weird though, huh?" Lance looked back over at their enclosed palms fondly, twisting Keith's wrist gently towards him. "How the heck did you and I, you know—Keith and Lance, neck and neck—how did we end up together?" Keith bumped their shoulders together.
"I've been asking myself the same question." They chuckled quietly, and when Keith squeezed his fingers against the back of Lance's hand, Lance squeezed right back.
After a moment, Lance broke the comfortable silence. "...Hey, dumb question."
"What, from you? Never."
"Shut it, I'm being serious here. Um. When'd you.. y'know. Realize you were into me?" Lance almost bashfully looked away, and Keith had to think about that. That wasn't something that had ever come up before, surprisingly.
It happened so slowly, Keith couldn't pinpoint any certain moment where he realized he had feelings for Lance. He mourned for his teammate and his friend when he thought he was gone, and then as time went on mourned for the feelings he never realized were there until it was far too late. But then things had miraculously fallen comfortably into place when Lance returned.
Answered with Keith's silence, he couldn't help but to blabber on. "Because if I'm being honest I've been into you since like, forever. Even though you were a mullety asshole and I had it in my head that we were ultimate rivals." Lance truly cared about you, Blue had told him.
"Could've had me fooled." Between the one-sided rivalry and the constant flirting with every encountered alien, it never crossed Keith's mind that Lance was interested in him. Lance was attractive, but Keith knew better than to fall for people who clearly did not feel the same way. Lance had a peculiar way of showing interest.
"Well it's not like a thought I had a chance with you.." he mumbled, then grimaced. "Wait, ugh, no, forget I said that. That sounds desperate when I say it out loud. Hey—Don't look at me like that!"
Keith squinted at him skeptically. "Anyway... I guess I never actually realized, uh, that, until after you went missing." After a thought, he added, "And I watched those recordings."
Lance immediately burned with embarrassment at the mention of the log recorder. "Oh, geez, right. Those.." His spoon long abandoned, Lance tapped nervously on the counter with his index finger, gaze flitting around the room rapidly. "I uh, definitely wasn't at my best when I was making those, was I..?" Keith didn't see how that was relevant, but before he could speak Lance was struck with a thought.
"Wait, so you see me at pretty much my absolute worst, and that tips you off that you've got the hots for me? That's weird. You got low standards or something, man?" he snickered. Keith scowled.
"No. What are you even saying? You had to go through this—this awful thing on your own, and the odds were stacked up against you, but you were still trying really hard to do what was right." He had to push the sincere words out with difficulty. Why was Lance asking him this? "Saving all those aliens and those planets, even when it probably seemed impossible.. that's... really admirable. I guess I just never got to see that side of you until then."
Lance hummed in response, clearly unsatisfied by his answer. "Sounds to me like you're just into the idea of... what'd they call me again?" Lance snapped his fingers in the air, trying to remember his old moniker.
Keith's tone grew sour at what he was implying. "...The Blue H-"
"The Blue Hero! That's it!" Lance smiled, then turned dead serious. "Sure you're not just into that guy? Actual me's.. not exactly the same.." He trailed off, and Keith didn't miss the bit of vulnerability in his voice.
"No, Lance, I'm not just into the idea of you," Sweat was forming on his red face, and Keith hid it inside of his free palm. "Ugh, why do I have to clarify this? Look." He dropped his hand and stared Lance hard in the eyes. Lance leaned back from the intensity of his gaze, swallowing thickly. "You made me realize how important you were to me, and even if I wasn't seeing things as you did them, when I did, I realized just how—how great you are, and how lucky we are to have you back, okay?!"
"...Oh." Lance was struck dumbfounded. "Okay." Keith huffed, mortified from having to lay out his feelings like that.
"Anyway. I definitely prefer being able to experience you in real-time, and not some 'Blue Hero' from some junky outdated recordings. Even if you are obnoxious sometimes." Lance came back from his dumbfounded state, and grinned, feigning hurt.
"Whatever, we both know I'm a delight. You practically just admitted it there, Keith buddy." Keith made a displeased noise and turned his head away, grumpily resting his cheek on his hand propped up on the counter, unwilling to reply. He could feel Lance's grin grow exponentially from beside him.
Lance shifted his chair closer to Keith's, and leaned their shoulders back together.
"...So, we cool? Like, You And Me. Us." Keith looked back at him and was distracted by the top of his neck, just below his hairline and just above the hood of his jacket. He reached over and lightly touched the reddish bruise that was starting to come up. Lance looked at him, expectant.
"Yeah, we're cool," Keith snorted. That was obvious. He nosed at Lance's cheek, and pushed their lips together.
"Log... Whatever. No one's gonna see these anyway. Feels like I've been by myself forever, but Blue says it's only been about two and a half months." Lance laughed, empty and hollow. The dim glow of Blue's wiring surrounded him in the recovery area of the hull. An irregular tapping beat came from the wall Lance propped himself up on as he softly banged his head up against it.
"I don't even know why I'm trying anymore. I want to help these planets Zarkon's attacking, but honestly? If we get caught, we're gonna do more harm than good." He drew his legs up to his chest, voice muffled by his scuffed, dented armor. "The only way we're gonna make any sort of impact is if we have Voltron. But we don't." He sounded miserable, and his voice cracked as his eyes grew increasingly wet.
"If I don't find some way to get—get at least Blue back to everyone else.. That's it. We lose. Earth'll get taken and... and everyone's gonna—" He hiccuped. "—die because.. I can't do this." He leaned his face into the corner on the wall, and sniffled, helmet long forgotten on the small cot.
"I'm not a good pilot or a good paladin. You got stuck with me, and I can't even get you back to the other lions because I dunno how to fix your long range communications, or decode Galra intel to maybe figure out where everyone is.. Or do anything but get my ass handed to me by these assholes..!" Lance covered his face, repeatedly wiping the tears and the snot that fell freely. He continued tapping his head on the wall. "How is any of this—fucking—fair?!"
After the incident with Shiro, through his actions he made it abundantly clear that asking him personally for help was out of the question. They had missions, diplomatic and not, and Shiro did his best to be frustratingly doting on Lance. Often times, they would have to split up for whatever their current mission objective was, and Lance would almost never fight with Shiro outside of their lions unless the situation desperately called for it. He wanted to keep Lance as far away from Galra, and as far away from him as he possibly could. He was babying him, and Lance was livid.
It was hard enough dealing with the twist in his gut at the sight of anything remotely Galran, the excessive sweating, the pounding headaches, all the times they had stumbled back onto the ship after a mission, and Lance would make a bee-line for the bathroom, stomach eager to return its contents to the back of his throat—but Lance was dealing with that. He would manage. But the avoidance, and the looks Shiro would give him. Lance couldn’t deal with that.
So when he approached Keith for some help with some one-on-one combat training, Keith couldn't help but oblige.
"I've tried talking to him about it, yeah." The two sauntered into the training deck late in the night at Lance's insistence. He had his hands shoved in his jean pockets, pouting sourly.
"He keeps saying he wants to give you as much room to recover as possible." Keith held his hands up and crossed them in an attempt to imitate his leader, chest puffed out as far as he could manage. Lance grumbled, and would have found the impression hilarious if he wasn't so grumpy. Keith was still his usual reserved, quiet self, but occasionally Lance would get to see Keith with his guard lowered.
"He's been walking on eggshells around me ever since what happened," Lance muttered.
"He needs to be provided a safe environment to heal in," Keith continued, toeing the line between verbatim and mockery. He respected Shiro, he always did. But he could still get things wrong. He made mistakes just like the rest of them, and this was one of them.
"Well what's he gonna do until then? Throw a blanket over his arm every time I see him? Color all the purple Galra junk with space markers so I don't feel queasy when we face off in their purple ships with their purple interiors and their purple guns? No, I just have to get over this."
Keith remained quiet, and they both tossed their jackets on top of one another on the floor. He wasn't sure how else to help Lance through this. Keith wasn't very good at talking his feelings out, but he was great at hand-to-hand combat. If that's what Lance thought would help him overcome his issues, he would do everything he could to help.
"You ready? Shiro's better than any of us at close-combat, so I won't hold back."
Lance gave a confident grin, echoing his demeanor in the past when he was forced to practice with Keith. Except now, Keith figured he actually had the experience to back his confidence up. "Yeah. Let's do this."
Keith lunged forwards, but Lance was ready. They fought, and something seemed to shift in Lance. He fought with the ease of someone who had been in countless battles, reflexes sharp and swings calculated, and Keith quickly realized that Lance fought dirty.
He didn't bother feinting most of the time, too focused on winning as quickly as possible. His blows were brutal, and Keith could keep up, but felt his limbs burn with exertion early on.
He was thankful that his clothes were form-fitting in that moment, as Lance didn't hesitate to grab onto whatever would give him an edge. With a swift grab, Keith's hair was twisted painfully in Lance's grip, and he ripped his hand back and attempted to connect a kick to the back of Keith's legs. They flew out in front of him, but Keith paused for only a split second, evaluating is chances. He wasted no time grabbing the front of Lance's shirt, pulling him down with him. The two scrambled apart and faced each other from a few feet away. The sour smell of sweat from the both of them filled his lungs, but Lance's steeled gaze showed he was far from ready to quit.
Keith huffed. "When'd.. When'd you start fighting like that?" Lance lowered his fists, and raised an eyebrow.
"Take a guess, genius. I tried to uphold myself like a respectable voltron paladin for a while, but that almost got me killed on like, the regular." He smiled a lopsided smile at Keith, split lip opening slightly. "Better change your style up there Keith, you're gonna have to if you wanna stand a chance." He was joking around, but it held a serious implication to it. keith wondered how many of the Galra Lance had killed. He wondered how many he had killed.
They continued to fight. Not everyday, but on their off-times when there was no imminent danger or planets to rescue (there were always planets to rescue, but even paladins of Voltron had their limits). Lance called them their fight-date nights. Keith never fancied himself someone who would ever go on regular dates, so he figured this was fine.
Lance was definitely the romantic one, and never failed to rub that fact in Keith's face, despite the fact that he was still awful at it himself. He insisted on bringing Keith space goo in bed regularly (after an encounter on a particularly volatile planet that left Keith with what Pidge dubbed Space Flu. Lance dragged him from his lion, into a healing pod, then later pushed him into bed, complaining the whole time that he had gotten plenty of Space Flus, and he managed to drag his own butt around without crushing anyone with his massive ass, seriously, what have you been eating, dude. Hunk and Coran whipped up some sort of foul soupy concoction that Lance practically force fed him, and he stayed in his room even when Keith smelled like sweat and vomit, awkwardly petting his hair and reassuring him he'd be fine), and he cluttered up his room with space junk (—"romantic souvenirs!!"—) that for some reason Keith didn't have the heart to throw out. It was, however, all delegated to his closet.
His efforts were far from perfect, but Lance was definitely trying, and knowing that he was trying to make him feel special when he slathered Keith’s face with toner and moisturizers and slapped on face masks, or when he dropped into Keith's room in the dead of their designated sleeping schedule to drape himself along his back and pass out, reminding Keith that he was there, he was back, he was okay—that made everything tolerable.
They still bickered, but it had settled into something warmer, and the only time things would flare back up and get heated was when Keith tried to bring up Lance's time stranded alone with Blue.
Lance never seemed to want to speak much of it. But Keith knew a few things about repressing traumatic memories, and how they could resurface in completely unexpected ways, and he worried for Lance and his team. He knew Lance was a great pilot now, a great fighter, and overall a pretty great guy, but he wasn't invincible.
Shiro was a pillar of strength for their team, and even he confided in Keith on quiet days, as if he were his secret confidant. As if having any sort of weakness was some sort of dirty secret. He never got much sleep, and sometimes he could see the corpses of alien prisoners he had to face-off against while he was held captive, eyes lifeless and myriad of blood colors pouring down his arm. He had to be strong, for the sake of the universe, for the sake of his team. But Shiro knew he had weak points. He let Keith know about them too, because keeping everything bottled up was the best way to ruin himself, and Shiro couldn't afford to do that.
Keith searched for the words to make Lance open up, and hoped that he was at least talking to Hunk or Coran about his problems, even if he wouldn't talk to the guy he was supposed to be dating.
If anyone could coax him into talking, apparently it wasn't Keith. But he would try. He owed Lance the effort, after all he did trying to get back to them.
When he found no words, Keith decided to return Lance's jacket.
He had never found the right time to do it, anyway—not wanting to just sneak it back into his closet like a kid trying not to get caught. But for a long time he didn't even want to have a conversation about it. The heavy dread that pulled him mechanically through his days when he thought Lance was all but dead had lifted and settled into his memories, but he could easily recall the sensation if he tried.
Team Voltron was his family. The princess, Coran, his teammates, Lance. Losing even one of them was almost too much to bare, and Keith didn't want to drudge up those painful memories.
But he couldn't ask Lance to do the same for him if he wasn't even willing to acknowledge his own issues. It waited in the back of his closet, an ancient dusty relic.
It wasn't difficult to make new clothes for the paladins, but Lance stubbornly insisted he keep several copies of the same jacket. The original had been lost sometime in the three months they lost track of Lance—a story Lance pointedly refused to tell, going so far as to tear up and try to break Keith's heart with his turned away gaze and hunched posture, looking so small and frail in that moment—and Lance was delighted when Coran raised a newly made jacket for him. It wasn't the same as having the original, but its frayed cuffs were there, and the scuff on his left sleeve was there, and the hole in the inside pocket was almost lovingly poked through. Coran learned a new Earthling celebratory dance when Lance grabbed him by his hands and spun them until momentum threw them apart, always happy to brush up on his alien diplomacy skills.
Lance would appreciate Keith returning his jacket, original or not, so he tucked it against his chest and exited his room.
Everyone had a routine on the ship, and the artificial lights of the castle would be dimmed and brightened to mimic Earth's times. It was Pidge's idea, Allura and Coran still ignorant to the more intricate human functions like their circadian rhythm. She had no use for it considering how little sleep meant to her, but she knew what Hunk was like after a few bad nights of sleep. He was jittery and nervous regularly; without sleep he was a waking nightmare.
The time was closer to the end of the day, and usually after dinner Lance would retire to a few key locations—his room, Hunk's room, the observatory, or his lion. He kept his presence scarce, but lately he usually stuck to the same locations in case anyone intentionally looked for him.
The observatory was closer, so Keith made his way up there. His room was closest to it out of all the other paladins, which originally had not interested Keith whatsoever, but Lance seemed to like it up there, and Keith was beginning to understand why.
Sometimes he regarded being out in space with a soft sense of comfort, other times seeing it as the cold, desolate wasteland it was. But on the deck with Lance, wrapped in blankets pulled from their bedding, talking about nothing important or not talking at all, occasionally joined by Hunk or Pidge (Shiro would join them sometimes, as well, but lately his presence was missed), Keith felt the warmth return.
The room was taken up with work benches, diagnostic-computers, and all kinds of gear Keith didn't have a hope of identifying. Pidge sat in a jumble of beeping complicated looking scanners and Altean tech in the middle of the space, head tilted up at the transparent ceiling. She heard his approaching footsteps and turned to look at him, and let out a quiet noise as she gave him a nod in acknowledgment, hands barely pausing at one of her many keyboards.
"Hey, what are you up to?" He wanted to keep the conversation light and short because he was on a mission, but Keith also enjoyed talking to Pidge. He appreciated her honesty in everything she did, from how she talked to how enthusiastic she was about technology. She was easy to get along with, and Keith definitely did not mind when she wandered into Red's hangar, eager to dig under his lion's hood.
"Decoding Galra intel," her reply was friendly, but distracted. She wasn't looking to have a full-blown conversation either, by the looks of it. Her hands flew across her keyboard, and the pitter patter of her typing had Keith quietly marvel at how talented she was. He thought for a second.
"Is that from way back at that crash site?" That felt like forever ago to Keith. He remembered her briefly talking about gathering info to find her family. She raised an eyebrow.
"No, dummy, what do you think I do when we have to infiltrate Galra ships? Change all of their desktop backgrounds to the Voltron logo?"
"Oh, uh. Right. " He was a decent engineer, having built his own hover bike and anything that required electricity to run back on his shack on earth, but some of the things Pidge did seemed to fly miles above his head. "Any luck?"
"Not really." Her reply was almost too fast. She sounded disappointed, and the lighting-fast keystrokes slowed to a snail pace. She looked at her screens without seeing them. "The Galra have been the dominating race of the universe for the past 10,000 years, so I guess it makes sense they're not easy to hack."
Keith swayed on his feet, and hid his pitying look from her. "I guess so. Sorry to hear that."
"Nah, don't be." She looked over to him, eyes clear and grin sharp with confidence. "I'll figure it out." Keith didn't doubt that.
"You'll find what you need, Pidge. If anyone can, it's gonna be you." She nodded, and swung a leg out to face him.
"We found Lance after all that time, didn't we? They're out there, just like he was." Her eyes drifted down Keith's torso. "...Why do you have his jacket, anyway?"
Keith unconsciously drew it closer to his chest, not knowing how to explain his actions. "Um."
Her eyes narrowed before her nose drew up as if she had just smelled Hunk's boots. "Oh, it's one of your gross schmoopy couple things, isn't it?"
"No! I'm only.. returning his jacket. That he left in my room," he lied, then immediately regretted it. "Wait-no, that's.. Q-Quit lookin' at me like that!"
"Uh-huh." She turned back to her scanners, looking like she was ready for the conversation to end. The typing resumed. "I kinda prefer being kept out of the loop with anything related to your love lives, so I don't need any more details. Lance stole my headphones again, so he's probably in his room."
"Right, yeah. I was.. about to check there anyway.."
"'Course you were." Keith just about died on the spot. He turned and stiffly made his way towards the exit, but Pidge called out to him as he almost made it to freedom.
He tried to suppress a groan. He was done being humiliated. "Yeah?"
"I'm, um, really happy for you guys. All of this awful stuff's been happening, so it's nice to have at least one or two good things in your life, y'know?"
A good thing. Lance was definitely a good thing, Keith thought. "Yeah.. Thanks."
He made it to Lance's bedroom, alive and well, and unsurprisingly found the lights dimmed and light, soothing music from Pidge's headphones from around Lance's bed. Bingo.
Keith groped blindly through the darkness, using his sense of touch to locate the side of the room. Shadows and blurs sharpened and came into focus quickly, despite the near pitch-darkness of the room, and he could make out Lance's figure splayed out on his bed. Keith was happy to see a faint smile as he quietly approached him, not wanting to disturb Lance just yet. For a moment he considered just quietly hanging the jacket up in his closet and leaving before Lance even knew what happened. But he was on a mission. He had things he needed to talk about.
Lance looked calm, and Keith regarded him fondly. He almost felt like it was just another day that Lance had overslept and missed the beginning of team training again, and Keith had been sent over to drag him out of bed.
He stepped over and placed a gentle hand on Lance's shoulder, who immediately shot up and launched at Keith, shoving him painfully against the wall next to his bed. Lance realized what he did before the headphones shifted from his ears and landed on the sheets.
"K-Keith, shit!" Lance tore himself away from Keith, horrified. "Sorry!" His hands reached out, but he stopped himself. As Keith peeled himself from the wall and massaged the wrist that was forced behind him, he frowned. How did he forget how jumpy Lance was?
"Don't worry about it." He slowly reached out and lowered Lance's shaking hands by loosely holding his wrists and guiding them down onto his lap. His grip lingered against the muscles in Lance's arms jumping beneath his skin sporadically. "I shouldn't have snuck up on you like that, I forgot what that does to you."
Lance didn't look up at him, brows drawn in, clearly frustrated. "No, you shouldn't have to-" He shook his head.
"I.. I just.. I wanna get over this, Keith." Keith didn't speak, he only nodded and shuffled in a bit closer to Lance, the blanket underneath bunching in between them. "It's over. I know that. My brain knows that. But it's like my body won't listen. It's stupid."
"It's not stupid, stupid. Would you get mad at Shiro for something like this?"
"What? No! He's different, he's allowed to be messed up." His continued ignorance to his own problems irritated Keith to no end.
"And you're not?" Apparently he had to defend Lance's actions from Lance, which was ridiculous.
"Did I have my arm ripped off and replaced with an evil alien robot arm? Uh, No." Even in the darkness, Keith could feel how hard Lance rolled his eyes.
Keith's temper flared. "Lance! Stop downplaying what happened to you, what the hell! You." He jabbed his finger against Lance's chest, not missing the way he tensed up and forced himself not to move, eyes flicking down and then shooting back up to meet keith's. "You went through something no one should ever have to go through. But you did, and you made it through, and now you're here." His gaze softened. "No one, not even Shiro, could just pop back up from something like that like nothing happened. you're allowed to be messed up too. We'll work on it, okay?"
It was a lot to take in, but all of Lance's energy seemed to seep out of him in that moment. "...Okay." He took notice to how close they were, and slowly looked down at Keith's lap. "Hey.. How do you have my jacket? I just put it in the laundry shoot, didn't I?"
He knew Lance was just trying to change the subject, but he felt a desperate need to defend himself as shame coursed through his veins. "Oh, uh. It's-It's one of your old ones. I took it when you were gone."
Lance flushed. "Oh, wow. That one? I actually thought that Hunk took it," he chuckled. "Y'know, since he's into that mushy sentimental crap. Mystery solved, I guess." His laughter grew. "Guess he's not the only one."
Keith tried to shove the jacket in his face, but Lance grabbed it and held it close to his chest, then pulled Keith in. "Thanks." his smile was so soft, and his eyes so full of fondness, keith had to hide his face and pulled Lance against him with all his might. He didn't miss the telltale bump of Lance's bayard underneath his pillow, and thought that if he squeezed tightly enough, he could share all of Lance's problems between the two of them. He was a tough guy. He lost his parents when he was young. He used to live in a desert. The least he could do was share the burden of whatever was going on with Lance.
When the rise and fall of Lance's chest soon evened out, Keith resolved to bring everything up later.
Asking someone to bare their innermost issues to help them overcome their internal trauma they refused to even acknowledge was harder than Keith thought, and after a week he was frustrated with himself for taking so long. He cared about Lance, and while he didn't dare let the echo of the word boyfriend enter his head, the entire concept seeming strangely off-limits for someone like keith, he was still going to do something.
He walked into the lounge area with Lance snoozing away on Hunk's lap, who was fidgeting under him restlessly. "Oh man, Keith, am I ever glad to see you, can you help me out?" He wandered over, still sweaty from the training deck. Hunk kept his voice quiet, but insistent. "You know how Lance has been having those nightmares ever since he got back?"
That was news to him. "Uh, no..?"
"Oh... Well, okay, that's clearly a talk you guys need to have with each other, and while I'd love to serve as a mediator, I really have to pee, AND I haven't actually had breakfast yet, so if you could help me out that'd be awesome." Hunk gestured to the dozing Lance.
Keith crossed his arms. "Why do I have to take over, can't you just, I dunno, let him sleep there by himself?"
"No can do man, he can't sleep unless someone else is around."
"Oh." Hunk was slowly slipping away, holding Lance up gently for Keith to take, practically boneless in his arms. He did, and gingerly took a seat.
Hunk's legs shook. "Are you cool with this? Because if you aren't you might wanna grab a mop because I dunno how long I can hold out." Keith blanched at what Hunk was implying.
"Okcoolthanksbye," Hunk whispered and scuttled off, leaving Keith to realize just how intimate the position was. It wasn't like they hadn't slept in one another's presence before, the events of the week before still fresh in his mind. But Keith was reminded of when Blue first arrived in Lance's body. His sweaty hands wiped against the firm cushioning of the sofa, and he wiped Lance's hair from his forehead.
He was here this time. He was back. It was still almost hard for him to believe. When he woke up, it would be Lance looking back up at him, and Keith savored the feeling in his chest. He didn't dare wake him up, but gently placed his palm on Lance's cheek. His thumb trailed down to his bottom lip, and stayed there. Even Keith could appreciate how nice looking Lance was. When he wasn't opening his dumb mouth to say dumb things, Keith couldn't help but stare. He wasn't the most attractive person he'd ever met, but just knowing it was Lance made his scrawny, elongated features endlessly endearing. Keith thought he could kiss him in that moment, but didn't, embarrassed at his own thoughts.
Lance groaned and reached up, lightly grabbing Keith's hand. He was still half-asleep. "H'nk, buddy.. Don't get weird on me.." he slurred, voice thick with sleep. "I gotta boyfren, y'know.." Keith yanked his hand away like it was burned.
"Uh, sorry. I-It's me." Lance opened his eyes with an effort. For a second he was completely disoriented.
"Wha-When did... Didn't I fall asleep on Hunk?" Keith gave a breathy exhale through his nose, one corner of his lips turned upwards..
"Yeah, but he's on a bathroom break right now, I'm his replacement. Hope you don't mind." Tension eased out of Lance's body, and as he smiled Keith couldn’t even be bothered to work up any annoyance over his legs, now tingling with sleep.
"I guess you'll do." He took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. "...Any idea how long I was out?"
Hours earlier, at the dining table, Keith distantly listened to Allura discuss the inner mechanics of the Castle of Lion to Shiro, and stared at the two empty seats on either side of him, usually taken by Hunk and Lance. Pidge had taken her breakfast to go, and admitted she had no idea where they were, either.
"A few hours, I think." Lance looked surprised, and let out a hum. He still looked tired. "Hey.." Keith started, "You never told me you were getting nightmares.." He kept his voice from holding an accusatory tone, but didn't like how Lance hid that from him. He knew Hunk and Lance were close, but he thought he at least deserved to know. Lance stiffened a bit, looking guilty.
"Y-Yeah, sorry.. I didn't think it would be this bad and.. I guess I didn't wanna scare you away with all my crazy." His nose bumped against the fabric of Keith’s shirt as he unconsciously tried to hide himself away, and Keith pinched his exposed ear. "Ow!"
Keith thought about the week before. "You're not going to scare me away with all your crazy, Lance. Tell me about what's happening from now on, alright?" Lance drew his bottom lip up stubbornly, ready to say something bratty, but Keith cut him off. "I'm.. really worried about you. Listen, I think we should—we should talk." Lance's retort died on his tongue. He studied Keith for a moment.
"...Well, we're talking right now, so mission accomplished, dude." The corners of Keith's lips turned downwards.
"You know what I'm talking about, Lance."
"..Uh, not really. But, can we maybe not do this right now? I’m still pretty tired..."
Keith sighed in irritation, but relented. He shifted his body a bit, and got comfortable.
"...Fine. Get some sleep. We're talking later though, alright?”
Lance's eyes were already closed, and he nudged closer to Keith's torso, jostling the two of them slightly. "Mh," he confirmed astutely.
There was shattered glass and large chunks of debris framing the dark corner as Lance turned away from the screen, pressing his forehead against the cinderblock wall to shield his blotchy face from the rest of the universe. The only light came from the recorder. He was shaking.
"Log thirteen. I.. I knew they weren't all robots, and we've blown up so many ships, even before all of this, but I never—I never saw one of them after I, oh, God-" Lance slapped a hand over his mouth, covered in blood.
He lurched off to the side of the viewport and retched violently. The recording cut off soon after.
Chapter 12: Epilogue Pt 2
(Hey! This is part two of the two part epilogue. It's been a blast writing this, and I don't think I could have done it without all the kind words and support! Thanks, guys.)
Epilogue Part 2
Team bonding day rolled around, and Allura and Coran eagerly joined the paladins now converging in the lounge area. The bright morning castle lights shone down gently from the ceiling which were soft and inviting, now that they had all acclimated to castle life. Keith wouldn't admit he initially found the dull flickering bulbs of his shack more comforting than the grand castle lighting, but as the months drifted by, he realized he had started to like them a bit more.
They weren't doing any combat training since it was team bonding day, and at Hunk and Lance's very insistent suggestions (complaining), they did their bonding exercises from the comforts of the circular sofas. It was normally an area reserved for informal debriefing and where Allura had spent many nights eagerly listening in on the tales her father and the other previous paladins would share. But never actual training. Breaking ancient paladin tradition wasn't something Allura was fond of, but she tried to be flexible.
He hid his reluctance well, but Lance's quintessence remained locked tightly within himself, and she knew something had to be done if he was to recover properly. Allura considered herself a fairly capable ruler despite how new she was to the role; knowing when to show discretion and restraint when sensitive situations called for it, democratic lessons from thousands of years ago still fresh in her mind.
She found Lance earlier that morning after a passing encounter with Shiro in the halls of the castle, hours before the other paladins would be awake. Shiro's perimeter patrols were no secret to her—her mice always relaying information they thought relative to their princess—and though the castle's defences would be more than sufficient to alert them to any intruders, Allura did not mention it to him. She was sure Shiro already knew, anyway.
Lance sat cross-legged, his back to her, in the blue lion's hangar. Blue had lowered their body as close to the floor, and therefore as close to Lance as they could, and he rested his fingertips against their chin. She approached carefully, leaned her head down towards him and extended a warm hand onto his shoulder. She hoped Lance would be receptive to her idea.
"Paladins," She pulled herself from the memory, then glanced around at everyone in the lounge. It was on the fourth level of the complex, and she had taken a seat next to Lance in the middle, who looked a bit nervous. "I was thinking we could do something.. a bit different today." They had discussed what she wanted them to do, and Lance only needed a bit of encouragement before quietly relenting. Everyone turned their attention to her.
"Oh... So no meditation and poking around in each others' heads today? Because I found this really cool recipe for some alien toffee squares that I was kind of hoping to share," Hunk mentioned. Coran made a noise of clear interest.
"Hmm, well, you'll have to show me that, but not right now. Today we're going to do some lion bonding!" Pidge squinted through her glasses.
"Isn't this supposed to be team bonding day though?" With her 'secret' long out, Pidge looked forward to the exercise. Sharing her thoughts with her teammates, equally as willing to give their own, was a strangely calming experience.
"Your lions are as much a part of the team as you all are," Allura calmly explained. "You spend a great deal of time with your lions in battle, but there is certainly reason to warrant spending time with them outside of it, as well."
"I already do, though." Pidge frowned. She spent plenty of time with her green lion. She was always focusing on upgrades, and she could tell how pleased her lion was to get the attention. She may not have caught on to seeing through her lion's eyes right away, but the two of them were practically as thick as thieves now, and ten times as dangerous. The green lion loved her inquisitive nature, and always rumbled with excitement when their little paladin designed new upgrades to test out.
Lance waved a hand dismissively in feigned nonchalance.
"Allura's talking about the linked connection thing I have going on with Blue," he started, and felt a small sense of satisfaction when Shiro's head turned slightly towards him, a glint of interest in his eyes. Lance was sure that having to spend an entire morning under his instruction would add to Shiro's overall discomfort of any time spent in his company, but Allura had made some good points earlier when they spoke that morning. This would be good for everyone.
"Correct. There are ancient records of past paladins bonding closely with their lions as Lance has, and they were some of Voltron's most skilled pilots. I believe everyone would benefit from attempting to form deeper connections with their lions."
Each of the paladins held what Hunk named the 'bonding helmets' they frequently used during team meditations, and Lance ran his thumb across the light surface absentmindedly. He rolled his neck as well, and Keith eyed him carefully at the emergence of the habit.
"You mean our lions are gonna take us over like what you and Blue did?" Hunk asked, suddenly sweaty. "Are my eyes gonna glow all yellow?! I didn't think we'd be doing this today. Should I have gone to the bathroom before this?!" Lance grinned.
"Hey, hey, don't worry 'bout it, big guy. We're not doing anything like that for a while. That's advanced stuff—we're just doing the basics today." He looked confident, flexing his fingers with the pride of a practised professional. But a flicker of apprehension flashed across his face. "Uh. I, I haven't actually done this since I got back, though. So uh.. let's see if I can still do it." Lance chewed the inside of his cheek, then wiped his dry lips with the back of his hand.
He knew he would probably never lose the ability to link their minds after all the time they spent together, but also knew that Blue was drained after keeping Lance alive for so long. He agreed when Allura had asked him that morning to help train the other paladins to the same level where he was, and Blue seemed fine with it, but at their insistence hadn't tried linking their quintessence since he returned. Lance could still feel some of Blue's ancient memories burned into his mind, white hot and blinding, and knew they would never fade. Parts of his mind essentially belonged to them now—an unfortunate side-affect of prolonged exposure to their presence inside his body—and Blue did not want to expand their territory anymore than they already had.
"Blue?" Lance closed his eyes, and waited. He called out to his lion in his mind, and it only took moments before he got a response. He felt a familiar chill run up his spine, t.v static tingles curling and sweeping all around him, then the recognition that he was no longer alone enveloped him. His head was filled with the quick, swirling melody of Blue, both elated to be back with their paladin but now with an overly cautious energy thrumming in the background of both of their thoughts.
He opened his eyes, and they glowed a familiar neon blue. Shiro looked upon him with wide eyes.
"Are you.. the blue lion?" he asked, "..And Lance?"
"Yes," Lance's tone was robotic, matching how it had been for all those months following his rescue. Keith didn't like it very much, despite the fact that he had come to respect Blue, even like them. "It is nice to speak with all of you again."
Hunk laughed uncomfortably. "You too, Blue. But, uh. Lance.. IS there, right?"
Lance's head nodded slightly, slowly. His features picked up into something more animated. "Yup, still here." His voice only had a slight echo to it, compared to Blue's. "Ugh, feels weird for us both to be in here, though.." Keith now looked on with an unabashed fascination with the rise of Lance's personality.
Pidge scooted up closer to Lance, dissecting him. "What's it feel like?" She leaned forward to study his face for a brief yet intense moment.
Lance shrugged. "It's hard to describe.." He covered his mouth with a curled index finger. "..You know how sometimes your lion puts images directly in your brain?" She nodded. "Like that, only all the time and way more intense." Pidge hmm'd as she tried to imagine the feeling.
"How did you two get to the point where you could connect like this..?" Shiro inquired, clearly taking the training exercise very seriously. Lance and Blue figured he would probably be the first to get the hang of things in the group, considering how naturally gifted he was.
"Well," Blue began, turning Lance's features into something that definitely had some smugness to it. "My bond with my pilot was already quite strong before we were separated from all of you. It grew all the more profound during our short time spent alone, but only because my paladin is my best paladin." Keith rolled his eyes, no stranger to Blue's high and mighty opinion of Lance.
Lance threw his head back and laughed without reserve until Keith kicked at his ankle. "Hey, I didn't say that! That was all Blue." Watching Lance's face and posture go back and forth was a bizarre sight, and despite the advantages of having such a close bond with their lions, Keith hoped that if he got to the same point, he would only have to do it when other people weren't looking.
"Anyway," Lance looked more serious, but not quite Blue-level serious. "It's not all that hard to do. It's just." He thought for a moment, then straightened his back. "Kinda tiring." Keith recalled the sensation of seeing through his lion's eyes—something he was able to learn how to do months ago, after intensive amounts of practice—and wondered if this would feel at all similar. Though tiring to keep it up for too long, the scope of range of his lion's eyes was a lot wider than his normal vision, and Keith fought much more effectively from their point of view. If he and the rest of his team could master connecting with their lions, maybe they'd give Zarkon a run for his money sooner than they thought.
"Alright, so," Lance began, "You start by learning how to see the images the lions communicate to you, which we all already know how to do. After that the goal is to be able to do that, only all the time. Eventually, once you get the hang of it, it seems less like images and more like.. words?" He wasn't used to having to articulate how to work the magic bond with his giant metal space robot. He thought of what else to say. "You have to treat it like when we do team exercises with each other, because if you don't let your lion in your head it won't work. So you can start by picturing your lions and letting them in your head to talk to you."
Coran nodded sagely, as if he completely understood exactly what Lance said. "And uh. Like I said. It's pretty exhausting, so don't try to do it all the time. I didn't really have a choice, but... There's no big hurry." Lance looked away, then Blue looked up, directly at Keith. They held a knowing smile. "And Keith.. I wish you luck." They promptly retreated from Lance's mind, and Keith squinted. What did they mean by that?
Lance snorted. "Oh, man, yeah. Red almost never lets anyone link up with them. Good luck, man." Keith huffed out indignantly, and shoved the bonding helmet over his messy hair. He'd see about that. Hunk and Pidge followed suit, and holographic depictions of their respective lions flickered into view. Lance stood up, surveying his class, then stopped off next to Shiro, silently staring at the helmet still in his hands, and planted himself heavily into the seat next to him.
When Shiro didn't move, he took a long, deep breath while studying him for a few moments, then broke Shiro's deep train of thought by elbowing him slightly in the ribs. "Hey, look alive," he half-heartedly joked, but Lance caught the startled look which flicked across his face before it settled into something more attentive.
"Oh, uh. Right." Shiro glanced around at the others with looks of fierce concentration on their faces. Keith and Allura stared at him along with Lance. He quickly slid his helmet on and closed his eyes, not wanting to catch their concerned gazes, and the black lion appeared in front of him.
Lance scrutinized him as if he were seeing him for the first time, but said nothing. He wasn't sure exactly what he should say. He didn't like how Shiro treated him like he was something fragile or already broken (he wasn't, he could fight and he could help, he just needed some more time to get over his issues), but Lance especially didn't like to see Shiro so distraught looking. He knew it was probably best not to derail conversation away from the exercise, knowing there was a time and a place for any kind of heart-to-heart, but only with reluctance did he leave him to go and help everyone else.
Keith especially would need his help, Lance thought with just a bit of satisfaction. After just as reluctantly pulling his attention away from Shiro, Keith shifted back and forth on the sofa with his eyes closed in frustration. His nose was scrunched up a bit, and Lance could see the muscles of his jaw clenching and releasing every few seconds. Even his angry face was kind of attractive, Lance observed, and he knew he'd be seeing a lot of it in the next while. Red was very temperamental, after all.
After around only one hour, it was quickly realized just how draining the training was. Hunk flopped over, the helmet sliding out of place and deactivating, and moaned dramatically. “Uuugh, why's this so hard? I'm wiped." The yellow lion was surprisingly talkative.
"That's why I said we're only doing the basics today," Lance said, then added with playful authority, "Remember, patience yields focus." He looked at Shiro for his reaction, but was met with barely anything. Shiro lifted the helmet up from his head and nodded.
"Lance is right, everyone. We know how to approach working on our bonds, but for now, let's call it quits."
Lance thought he might have found it amusing for him to have plagiarized his own words, or at least gotten annoyed at the blatant phrase theft, but it almost seemed like he didn't even remember he had ever said it himself. Lance frowned and plopped next to Hunk on the sofa.
"Yeah, feel free to do it on your downtime, but don't go crazy with it. Keith."
Keith narrowed his eyes. "I wasn't planning on it, Lance."
"Alright, alright." With the start of a headache forming, Shiro stood up and faced everyone. "We all did well today, but don't overdo it. The Galra could make a move at any time, and we have to be ready for that." There was a shift in atmosphere as training officially ended, and they gathered their things to resume their usual routines.
Lance echoed his words jokingly from the comforts of the couch. "Yeah, great work, team. Get some rest, you've earned it." Shiro quietly excused himself without much to say in retort, and Lance didn't miss the way he wobbled slightly. No one did. Pidge lifted from the seating, and waved to Lance.
"Thanks for the lesson, Lance." He flashed a thumbs up at her. Coran was close behind Pidge, and Lance didn't doubt they were going to follow Shiro. Warmth spread through his chest knowing his team had such a great support system. Shiro would be okay.
He watched them leave, until Allura blocked his view with a sympathetic smile. “Lance, I want to thank you for agreeing to help everyone today.” He felt himself heat up from the words of gratitude. “I know this must be hard considering what lengths you had to go to in the first place to obtain such abilities,” she said softly, and Lance's smiled faltered slightly. “So please, let us know if it gets to be too much.”
“Y-Yeah! Yeah, it's no problem. Really. I'm just surprised I didn't think of it first,” he lied coolly. “It's pretty awesome being in charge of everyone.”
She rolled her eyes, and Hunk turned and pushed his foot against Lance's side, who let himself be shifted to the other side of the couch, both of them laughing obnoxiously. Allura wouldn't be deterred, however. “Of course.” She straightened herself up and turned slightly towards the exit. “I'll take my leave then. I'll see you at, erm. What did you call it, dimmer?”
“—Dinner.” Keith cut in before Lance could affirm that yes, it was called dimmer.
“Right. I will see you all then.”
Keith rubbed his temples in an attempt to clear the tension from them as Allura left, and wiped the sweat from underneath his tangled hair. He was exhausted. Hunk and Lance were settled like stones on the couches, and as he studied the curved line of Lance's back where he sat facing Hunk, he suddenly felt a bit less tired. He joined next to them, contemplating what to do next, and Lance reached over and slapped the top of his thigh playfully.
"Nice work, man. I think you managed to pull Red out of their shell today!" Keith had done practically the opposite, and Lance's snickering and very much condescending tone had Keith twisting his legs away from the barrage of slaps, and he snatched the offending hand from midair.
Lance quickly folded his fingers over the back of Keith's hand like a cage with devilish satisfaction, and though Keith wanted to punch him in his smarmy face, he just grunted and looked away, biting, "Unlike you, my lion isn't the easiest one to connect with."
With a grin, Lance puffed out his chest proudly. "Jealous? You're right though, Blue's like—the best. Sucks to be you!"
"Hey, lay off, Lance." Hunk chastised, "Keith did his best! He's got it the hardest out of all of us, doesn't he?" Hunk still had his bonding helmet resting on his stomach, and gently patted it. "The yellow lion's really nice, and said it's not gonna be super hard for us to link up because we work really well together, but Keith's really gotta earn his lion's respect. Isn't that its whole M.O?"
"Yeah, whatever. Excuses, excuses."
"Wh—You were the one who said it was gonna be harder for me!"
"Actually," Lance corrected, "Blue's the one who said that, not me."
Keith felt his skin start to heat up in frustration, and let out an angry noise. His palm was getting sweaty still in Lance's calloused one, so he wiggled it out, then threw both hands up in the air. "No it—Ugh! You're impossible." He concluded with a growl, looking away. He could smell Lance's freshly washed hair as he gazed at the wall.
"Nah, I'm just the best when it comes to uh, connecting with robot space lions, or whatever."
"A robot space lion whisperer, if you will." Hunk offered, to Lance's delight.
"Right! Don't worry Keith," Lance turned the most shit-eating grin at him. "You've got The Robot Space Lion Whisperer to teach you all the secrets to connecting to your lion. Think about it, all these lessons are gonna be bonding experiences. You love those." Keith groaned, picturing all of the future training lessons there would be ahead of him. Of course Lance would agree to be a teacher, what better way to lord how great he was over everyone else?
“How long do you think we're going to be at this for?” Keith was almost afraid to ask.
“As long as it takes,” Lance gave him the same grin he always did after saying something particularly obnoxious, lips upturned impishly, framed by his normally nice looking dimples, and Keith thought his cheeks would split from how wide it was. Great.
"Yeah, no kidding." Hunk's voice was surprisingly unaffected by the bickering beside him. He sounded more contemplative than anything. "There's no actual deadline other than, y'know, the looming threat of the Galra conquering the universe. But there's nothing like classes, or homework.. Or family holidays, or.." Keith and Lance stopped and turned to look at Hunk, both not missing him curling in on himself a bit. "Other normal life things to keep us busy.."
He went on as the two beside him shared a look. "I mean, how long have we been out here for..? I think it's been longer than a year at this point." Hunk lifted his chin to stare at the blank ceiling. "..I wonder what they told our parents after we left.."
"They—They said we dropped out of the garrison of our own free will," Lance pushed out quickly, startled by his friend's sudden reservation in demeanour. Hunk turned to look at him, confused.
"They said we disobeyed direct orders, then took off into the night or something. I'm not sure if that's what they told everyone, but I'm guessing they kept their story pretty consistent to avoid suspicion..."
Keith pulled a knee towards himself, thinking. "We didn't ask your mom to keep quiet about us, though, so she may have told other people about it."
"I dunno. It's a pretty crazy story to begin with, Amá probably knew people wouldn't buy it. Plus, me and Hunk got busted for sneaking out all the time, who do you think people are gonna believe?"
"W-Wait wait wait, what are you guys talking about?!" Hunk's voice was almost hysterical, raised in panic. "How do you know what they told them?! How do you—Oh." It finally clicked, and Keith and Lance shared a look of confusion, before it clicked for them as well.
"I thought you told them about all that!" Lance hissed at Keith. Keith shook his head and stared at him incredulously.
"I thought it wasn't important! We agreed to not mention it to anyone in case you didn't come back—and then when you did we had other things to worry about!"
"Uh, no! I think knowing about any trips back to Earth is pretty important!" Hunk had no idea what to say. He was shocked they had apparently been to Earth, and a smaller part of him was furious they didn't bring him. He had a thought. "Did you, by any chance, happen to visit my.." Hunk paused, his throat growing tight. "—My.." Lance went cold.
"N-No, sorry, buddy.." Guilt forced Lance to hunch down and avert his eyes. "There—There wasn't a lot of time.."
Shoulders squared, Keith sat defensively at the curve of Lance's inturned arms. "We went back when Blue was passing out all the time, remember that? Didn't exactly have the luxury of touring the place." The realization that they had gone when Lance was dying hit Hunk with force, and immediately he looked down in shame.
"Right, yeah, that was stupid of me to even— ..Geez, what was I thinking.. I'm sorry." Lance's lip quivered, and he gripped the fabric of the back of Hunk's vest, pulling the two of them closer together.
"Hunk, we're gonna get you back home too, okay?" Hunk sniffled, and Lance pushed their knees against each other. "Hopefully under better circumstances than mine, though," he joked feebly, and Hunk laughed despite it not being funny. He was silent for a few moments, and felt their sympathetic stares on him.
"...Yeah, okay. But only if we visit the pizza shack you always were going on about, too, deal?" Lance let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding in, and leaned his head on his shoulder.
Keith looked on, and was struck with the uncomfortable realization that he didn't belong there in the moment. It felt too intimate between the two, and he was on his feet before he thought his actions through. Lance and Hunk both looked up at him, and the vulnerable moment made him realize just how ill-suited he was at offering comfort and emotional support.
He remained standing, and panic quickly bubbled up from his stomach as the silence stretched between them for too long. Lance's initial confusion shifted into understanding, and he saved the day. "So uh.. I think me and Hunk are gonna chill for a bit, you gonna hit the training deck or something?"
"Y..Yeah.." That didn't sound like too bad of an idea, actually. He'd be checking on Shiro first, though. "Will you guys... be okay..?"
"Yeah, I think so." Hunk tried to smile at Keith, and his heart squeezed with sympathy.
"..Okay. But come find me if you need anything." As he left, Lance hoped the unspoken demand of 'don't go crazy with the combat simulator' echoed between them. He got on Keith's case enough about it, but trying to tell Keith not to beat up combat drones like a maniac was like trying to tell him not to breathe—it was a pointless endeavour. The guy was stubborn.
With the two of them alone, Hunk spoke up. "Hey, Lance?" Lance hadn't bothered moving, and Hunk could feel his jaw as it moved against his shoulder.
"Did you...Did you think you would ever make it back, when you were separated from us?" The question seemed to come out of nowhere, and surprised Lance. Hunk shied away from asking Lance a lot of questions about what happened, telling him he was there if he wanted to talk, but never outright tried to get him to say anything, picking up on Lance's reluctant vibes.
Lance didn't really want to think about back then, but knew that out of everyone, he had really only told Keith and Coran anything about what happened. He didn't want to expose Pidge to the horrors of what the Galra were capable of, even though he knew she probably had a good idea, and he was sure Shiro had enough terrifying stories about dealing with the Galra of his own to deal with. Allura had offered, just as everyone else had, to be there for Lance if he wanted to talk (which he didn't). But most of all he didn't want to scare Hunk anymore than he already was.
After coming to the understanding they were possibly the only ones who stood a chance of saving innocent beings from Zarkon's rein, Hunk was on board with being a Voltron paladin, but the fear of what they were going up against didn't vanish. Hunk was trying to be brave like everyone else for the sake of the universe, but all of them were scared, and he was no exception.
But he guessed it wasn't fair to keep the details from his friend if he really wanted to hear about them. "...Honestly? No." Hunk's veined eyes widened. "You.. saw those recordings I did, right?" He nodded.
"About a month and a half in I figured I was probably never gonna see you guys again." Lance curled his legs in. "It got pretty bad after that." A shallow breath caught in Hunk's throat.
"I never thought I'd see you again, either.." He wrung out his hands, eyes glued to the floor. "When I figured out how to track you down, even though it was a long shot, I kept hoping we'd find you—and we did! We did. But..." His eyes had a glossy sheen to them. "It wasn't you. For a while. And then you came back, and now you're h-here but-" Lance lifted his head and looked over when Hunk's voice started to waver.
"It was pretty much a miracle you didn't die, wasn't it?" Tears fell freely out of the corners of his puffy eyes, and Lance quickly bundled him up into a solid hug. He wept silently against his bony shoulder, sniffling loudly every few seconds.
"Y-You could've died, Lance. We could all die pretty much at any point, and that would be it.." Lance nodded against his ear gently. It was bizarre to hear Hunk talk about the same things he had spoken about so nonchalantly in the past.
Having to face the realities of losing one of the people you cared about had a larger impact on Hunk than he realized.
"...I miss everyone back on Earth." He whispered after a few minutes, now leaning more of his weight against Lance, emotionally spent and subdued. "Even Mr. Iverson, and his weird eye thing."
"I know, bud.. I miss them too," Lance took a moment to reevaluate what he said. "...Except Mr. Iverson. His eye thing weirded me out."
"That's fair." After Hunk calmed down, he pulled back and wiped his snotty face on the back of his glove. "Sorry... for freaking out like that."
"Hey, don't worry 'bout it.. You wanna go get something to eat..?" When they used to sneak out late at night from their dorms, there was a dusty old pizza place open just as late as the local bars, and the two of them would slip into the worn seats near the window, watching the night life unfold at the bottom of the hill. He could never drag Hunk into the bars no matter how he pushed and prodded, but also didn't mind the musty diner air. It was all so thrilling back then, despite how civilian it was. Lance wondered if the place was still open.
"Uh, not really. We had breakfast like, an hour ago."
"Oh, right. Well, wanna go build some cool space crap or something?" Lance asked, hopeful. Hunk could tell he was trying to make him feel better, and appreciated the thought. Actually..
"Yeah, actually now that you mention it, I've got this thing I've been working on. It's really cool, I can show you." They dragged themselves from the couch and headed towards the workshop. There seemed to be a bit more energy in Hunk's step as he went on about what Lance definitely did not understand, and Lance was glad to see it.
Hunk kept his workplace relatively neat, considering the sheer number of projects he usually had on the go at any given time, and Lance only had to nudge a few things out of the way as they made their way past the yellow lion in its hangar and into the adjacent room. He tuned back into Hunk's technical babbling when he reached the crescendo of the explanation, evident by the huge breaths he sucked in and the grand arm gestures of Nerdy Excitement.
"So I thought, hey, why not try to use a geneva cam model to turn the constant rotational motion of their internal quintessence engines into intermittent rotational motion, right? Duh, Hunk."
"Yeah, duh, Hunk." Lance crossed his arms and nodded like the very knowledgeable mechanic he was.
"It pretty much makes the quintessential equivalent of a stoichiometric mixture, and since it produces a discharge of all the extra fuel it doesn't use up I had to feed the rest into this internal storage cell I built, only liquid quintessence is really finicky, so you have to separate it into really precise amounts!"
"Makes total sense." Lance wandered about before he stooped down and dug around in one of Hunk's toolboxes. From near the bottom he pulled out an innocuous looking tool with a red and yellow button. He hit the red one, and the tool melted in his hand and hit the floor panelling with a hissing plop. An undignified squawk forced its way out of his mouth and Lance jumped away and whipped his head around to see Hunk, still going on about flux whatevers. He hadn't noticed, thank god.
"Right? So I installed some gage blocks which I designed to a guaranteed accuracy of a few millionths of an inch, so now we don't have to worry about accidentally blowing a fuse in our lions, so to speak."
"Okay dude," Lance rubbed at his burnt fingertips. "I'm gonna be honest. You completely lost me." Hunk turned and blinked at him through his goggles a few times.
"Oh. Okay, basically I made this thing which'll help our lions run even more efficiently so we won't have to worry about running out of power on longer missions."
Lance actually perked up at that. "Whoa, that sounds awesome." Hunk beamed with pride.
"Right?! It's the coolest. I could really use your steady hands to help with these gage blocks, too. I mean. I-If you don't have anything else to do.." He trailed off, and Lance could see the same timid reservation seeping into Hunk from earlier. He felt his pulse speed up, desperate to keep that version of his friend from coming back.
"Psh, you know I've almost never got anything to do, man! Of course I'll be your space assistant mechanic. I'll pass you whatever space wrench you need!"
"..They're not called space wrenches, dude. What is up with you adding space before everything?"
"Hey, we're IN space, remember? Anything out here in space is automatically a space thing. You and Pidge? Space nerds. Keith? Space mullet." Lance briefly considered calling him his space boyfriend, but was surprised to find himself going up against his own timidness, and went with what was safe. "And Shiro? Space da-"
Hunk gasped. "Shh!!" He covered Lance's mouth and swiped his gaze around the empty room. That name was forbidden. "Earth's in space too, but you didn't do it there."
"Point taken." Lance lifted up a T-shaped tool from beside the workspace, inspecting the dull blue glow it produced from a glowing liquid contained in the center. "So what kinda space wrench is this?"
They spent the rest of the castle day cooped up in the workshop, and Lance didn't leave until the ache in Hunk's chest quieted down. It was still there, and Hunk didn't think it would ever leave. But having Lance back now—safe and sound, messing around like they always did back in the old days—that kept it calm and grounded.
"Your orders," said Lance, his voice flat and cold. "Now." His breathing was harsh, and matched the soldier he had pinned up against the jagged stoney wall. Keith watched Lance glance down at its mangled legs, bleeding profusely at what were once knees that had caved in from his calculated shots minutes earlier, before he stared back up into its equally mangled features from behind his hand.
They laughed loudly, showing their broken teeth stained with their blood.
Lance gripped the soldiers face tightly with his left hand, a stolen blade in his right. "You really don't wanna test my patience, man. Tell me your orders."
"Vrepit Sa! Vrepit s-"
He smashed the heavy handle of the knife into the soldier's cheekbone harshly which only offered a spongy resistance against the weight of the blow, tied the gag loosely to their mouth so it wouldn't take them too long to get out of it and call for help after Lance left, then rose up to his shaky feet.
Silence. The dim glow of a raging fire in the distance.
Lance already knew he was too late. The planet was littered with the decomposing remains of its original inhabitants, and he had followed the corpse trail to the center of the destruction.
Their orders didn't matter. Or, really, Lance already knew what they were. What they always were. Drain the planet of its resources. Take those fit for slave work and arena fodder, and leave none of the rest alive. The lone soldier he happened upon wouldn't give up any information he could use. None of them ever did. He wasn't sure what brought him to try to subdue and question them in the first place. A hope that, maybe, just once, he would find one who regretted what they were doing? Find one with some shred of humanity?
He supposed he was asking for a lot, considering they weren't human to begin with.
He walked forward to nowhere in particular, helmeted head swaying as he rubbed his armoured wrist under his nose, coming back with thick, pasty blood. He sniffed loudly.
"It's looking like another lost cause from down here, Blue. Are you picking up on anything up there?"
He remained silent before he removed his helmet and Keith had to look up at Lance's exhausted features.
Lance hugged the helmet to his chest and his airway seemed swollen shut from the strangled noise he made at the back of his throat. He then turned his face up towards the dark amber sky.
"...Come get me, then. We'll at least take out the base in the south and disable the beacon before we blow this joint."
Lance put his helmet back on, then shifted on the rough terrain to take one last look at the trembling soldier he had left crippled and gagged. He started towards them, then stopped himself.
They would never afford Lance the same amount of humility. He knew that.
The healing cube soared from his hand before he knew what he was doing. It bounced off of the stone pillar behind the soldier then landed next to them in the dirt.
Blue's brilliant aqua glow broke through the dark clouds above seconds later, and Lance watched his lion land in front of him, crushing the soft earth beneath their massive body. Their exterior was riddled with chips and burn marks, and Blue almost seemed to heave as they settled themselves down onto the ground, resting their head in front of Lance. He walked over and placed his hand gently on their mouth.
"Yeah, I'm okay. I know you're pretty beat too, but we're almost-"
Lance cut himself off and whipped around at Blue's insistence as a small Galran dagger flew towards him. It was thrown poorly, and landed only a few feet behind and off to the side of him as he took a step to the right. He studied it intensely before the sound of wet gagging lifted his attention towards the soldier he had left behind.
"Coward!" Their garbled shriek rang out from the recording, and Keith joined Lance as they both flinched from how desperate and broken the soldier sounded. They watched as their hands pulled at the loose dirt, dragging their useless legs behind them. Lance's bayard reactivated in his hands as he held his back against Blue.
"Only success, or death will stop me, paladin..! Finish the job, or bare me your throat."
He had already removed their helmet, and their head was completely unguarded. They had pulled out another small, hidden dagger after escaping their bonds, but Lance had also already disposed of their gun. They crawled at a snail pace.
It was an easy shot.
Lance didn't take it.
"Paladin—AUGH!!" They were silenced by a blast that ripped through and mangled their hand.
"...U-Use the cube to heal yourself, or bleed out. I don't care." Lance's voice trembled. Keith had made his way through some of the recordings by that point, and knew that Lance had killed before, many times.
But Lance never seemed to get used to doing it.
His hands still trembled as he backed into Blue's lowered jaws, shaking weapon pointed at the screaming soldier until the red light from the dark sky retreated into the cracks of Blue's closing mouth and only the hum of electronic systems could be heard.
Lance stumbled a few steps down the interior hull, hugging his armour tightly, before his legs gave out and he crumpled against the wall. His heaving breaths turned into desperate, choked out sobbing, and Keith was struck with an intense urge to reach out into the screen to comfort Lance, but couldn't.
"Are you kidding me?"
Lance's very much present voice in the storage room Keith sat in rang out from behind him, and he jerked around, staring wide eyed at a frazzled, furious looking Lance approaching from the doorway. He stormed past Keith rigidly with his face a deep red.
It took him a moment to speak up, and Keith realized he was struggling to get a hold of himself.
"What are you even doing looking at these again?" Lance cut in before Keith could say a word, and snatched the log recorder from the raised pedestal that drew directly from the castle—and therefore Allura's quintessence—for power. (Keith had discovered it one quiet night wandering around after a sparring session with Shiro. He always got worked up trying to prove, mostly to himself, that he could take on his leader, and that energy would always take a while to fade.)
"I—" He knew it was an invasion of privacy, but Lance would never talk to him about what happened. He had asked around, and he wasn't talking to any of the other castle's inhabitants, either. A part of himself Keith was disgusted with was curious, and rationalized that he needed to know what happened to be able to bring Lance to open up about it.
But mostly, he was just terrified of losing Lance to some unknown terror he would never speak of. If a specific memory that Keith didn't know about was chipping away at him on the inside, what was he supposed to do other than tell him things would be okay, when they probably wouldn't be? Lance couldn't move on if he kept things internalized, as much as he seemed dead-set on trying to do exactly that. Keith didn't want to see what almost happened to Shiro happen to Lance.
He felt like a failure for not being there for Shiro when he needed him, whose time locked up with the Galra was now an unbreachable topic. Shiro gave Keith the general idea, but never specifics. He tried to keep him away from all of the terrors they put him through, as if the knowledge alone could break anyone else who knew about it. But Keith wasn't weak. He could handle being relied on. He wanted Shiro to rely on him. He wanted Lance to rely on him.
What good was he if he couldn't even manage to help some of the only good things in his life?
"—Actually, changed my mind, I don't wanna know." The recorder sunk deep into Lance's jacket pocket, and Keith didn't think he'd ever see it again. "Just, don't, okay?" Lance's colour deepened, and he kept his arms knotted to his chest.
"Listen," Keith found his tongue and tried to defend himself. "I'm sorry I did this without asking." He forced himself to keep his voice at a normal register. "But you never tell me anything. I want to be able to help you, but I don't know enough about what happened!"
Lance scowled at Keith, the grip on his crossed arms vice-like and the fabric of his jacket was pulled tightly in bunches. "You do know what happened, I already told you," he spat. It was far too late in the day to be pursuing that particular topic.
"No, you never talk about anything specific. You always just bottle things up and tell me you don't want to talk about it."
Lance threw his hands against the sides of his head and gripped the short, curled hair above his ears. "What does it matter?! You don't need a play-by-play, and I don't need to give you one!! Dios, what's wrong with you?!" His tone of voice made Keith flinch.
He balled his fists and shook his head, frustrated with himself for not being able to say what he wanted to say. Distraught, he snapped. "Lance, I'm not doing this because I want to know what happened, I'm trying to tell you that not talking about what happened isn't healthy! It's reckless and it's stupid."
This close Keith could see his whole body tense up. Lance choked on his words, so he paused and sharply inhaled through his nose. He tried again.
"Yeah? Well, you're stupid, Mr. I-get-a-kick-out-of-invading-Lance's-privacy. You wanna help? Try minding your own business." He sounded congested as he spoke, and quickly turned his heels to head back towards the door. He had set out to find Keith for their usual fight date, but that definitely wasn't going to happen now. He felt sick. Having to see himself on that screen, even for a moment, it was like he was there again. The memory was in the forefront of his mind, no matter how much he wanted to forget about it.
He couldn't deal with his. Not now.
Keith instinctively took a step in Lance's direction, but his legs seized up and he froze in place as his mind took over. What was he supposed to say? Was he supposed to follow him and force him to talk? Lance would probably hate him if he did that, if he didn't hate him already. Keith's throat dried up. He didn't know what words he was supposed to use to fix things.
"You—You can't just pretend all of that never happened!" His voice cracked as he called out to Lance's back.
Not trusting himself to speak, Lance ducked his head and raised his middle fingers back at Keith in response before the doors slid closed behind him, and Keith was left with an angry, empty feeling. He looked down, chest heaving, and laid a hand on the empty pedestal.
It was stone cold.
The neon of his faintly glowing sneakers momentarily flashed off of the reflective windows Lance stomped past as he made his way back to his room, making him think he'd seen movement, and he flinched away in response. He stopped swiftly in his tracks and looked over at himself in the reflection of the surface. He hunched with a stooped posture, eyes sunken and face still marred by snot and tear marks. He hated what he saw, and rubbed harshly at his eyes with the back of his sleeve, frustrated by his own skittishness.
After a brisk walk through the halls Lance soon arrived in front of his room. He twisted past the door, moving to his left and kicked over the newly formed pile of space trinkets he had assembled from the last vendor planet they made a supply run to.
He permitted himself a few more moments to be angry, but then forced himself to calm down.
When his breathing steadied, but still riding the wave of adrenaline from the argument, Lance dug in his pocket and pulled out the log recorder. Sharp ridges that dug into his hand from his tight grip felt too familiar in his hands. He was sure there was probably important information on it. He had toured enough Galran ships back then, and while he couldn't understand all of the lettering engraved into the hallways and hangars and control rooms, maybe Pidge could translate it. Or maybe Allura could. Maybe it would give them some insight into how the Galra operated; squadron formations, prisoner reports from the walls of text from the ship's computers that Lance could never decipher, something.
He was sure that all the unintentional time he had invested into the log recorder could be of use to his team. He could be of use to his team.
Yet he was still nearly overcome with an urge to dump it unceremoniously on the ground and bring his foot down on it, over and over, until he could feel it crack beneath his heel.
Instead, he wearily tugged off his jacket and let it slide to the floor without the slightest intention of picking it back up. His mother always used to drill into him the importance of keeping a tidy living area, but Lance didn't feel very grounded in the virtues of home at that moment. The entire room seemed to bare down on him, and with slow deliberation he dragged himself in front of his bed.
The sheets were neatly tucked into the sides from earlier that morning when he and Keith had extracted themselves from them.
Keith was never good at making beds, since apparently neat and tidy living wasn't something he valued, but Lance could see the effort he put into it this time. It made him angry, and he didn't understand why. There was a faint sterilized mist of staleness that hung in the air as Lance stared at the traitorous sheets and tried to think about nothing.
A shower lifted his spirits, but only minimally. He sank back into his bed afterwards, anger ebbing away just as swiftly as it had come. It was gone, but bitterness remained just as strongly in its place. His feet kicked at the blanket and dislodged it, and he tried to ignore the satisfying feeling he got from doing that.
Lance shifted against his pillows, and stretched his robed legs out, crossing them at the ankles. For a moment he considered finding Hunk, but threw the idea away almost as quickly as he had thought of it. What could he even say? He also didn't think bothering Hunk with his problems was worth the risk of running into Keith in the hallway. Who knew where the guy was. He had probably ran off to Shiro by then, always looking for validation that he was right from the black paladin. But he wasn't. Not this time. He knew Keith was probably just worried, but it was still such a sore spot for him. Waking up from nightmares had become less common now that they didn't sleep separately. He was doing better.
Lance just needed Keith to be there for him, he didn't need him trying to root around in his brain to piece together why exactly he was so messed up. It was obvious.
After being forced to stew in his own thoughts for only a few minutes, Lance realized he was going to have to do something to avoid losing his mind.
Soft footsteps echoed through the halls as he marched into the first floor lounge, wearing a frown and his draping Altean robes with matching lion slippers in search of the very person he knew he'd find at this now very late castle hour.
Shiro was lost in thought, his lids drooped over bloodshot eyes. Unsurprisingly he had his full set of paladin armour on. At the sound of Lance's approach, he straightened from his position on the lounge seating and turned his head back, to look at him with faint surprise. He sat up as if he'd been waiting for the chat, always attentive to the needs of the other paladins. Keith had come to him earlier, tightly wound up like a coil ready to snap. I ruined everything, the vulnerable fear in his voice made Shiro pull him in and ask what was going on.
"You're up late," Shiro observed carefully. "Everything alright?" Lance smiled at that. He could ask him the same question.
"Peachy. Listen," Lance began, not interested in beating around the bush. He almost felt like Keith's constant unyielding demand for answers was rubbing off on himself, and frowned as the memory of their earlier fight popped back into his head. "I gotta ask you for a favor."
"Are you sure you're ready?"
Lance shrugged nonchalantly at Shiro's concern. They started slow, circling around one another in the training deck. Lance had been practising with Keith for weeks now, and he felt confident going up against Shiro. All casualness between them evaporated, and Lance quickly adjusted his armour braces, eyes never leaving his opponent.
"Ready as I'll ever be."
Shiro didn't activate his hand at first, and Lance quickly grew frustrated at how one-sided the match felt. He was supposed to be so much better at fighting than he used to be, but even without the disadvantage, Shiro still easily outclassed him, and Lance soon understood he didn't stand a chance if they dragged things out. Shiro had a fluid, engaging fighting style, which he figured was what happened when someone was forced to fight for survival against so many different types of enemies for so long.
In fact, he really didn't have any room to complain. Comparatively, he had gotten off easy with just a few months. He sort of had enough food and water to get by, and he had Blue to keep him company. He doubted Shiro was afforded those kind of luxuries, and Shiro never froze going up against Galra soldiers anymore.
If he could do it, Lance needed to do it too.
"I said I'm ready, Shiro! Get serious." His voice was hard from exertion. He was already sweating, and Shiro's pitying look drove him up the wall. His arms poised in front of him ached but he continued gripping harder than he needed to, terrified that if he didn't, he'd lose his resolve and back out. He hadn't even seen him activate his prosthetic, yet he was still a bundle of walking nerves.
"If you're sure.."
"I am! Quit babying me!" Shiro frowned and looked up from his hand, ready to retort, but Lance was not having that. "No, nope, less talking, more fighting, got it?"
Shiro let out a sharp breath through his nose, but obliged. His hand lit up and glowed a brilliant purple, and Lance forced himself to look and not flinch. Bile immediately rose in the back of his throat, and he felt his blood drain and replace itself with thick lead. Shiro quickly approached, and Lance pulled back his stance into a defensive position. Moving was difficult in the first place, let alone trying to evade Shiro's attacks, and as he came at Lance he struggled to keep up with the barrage of blows. The Galra soldiers in his peripheral vision were distracting, and closed in to make the room feel incredibly cramped.
Shiro noticed the sudden change in his demeanour immediately. "Lance, do you want to stop?"
"No!" Lance hollered, and attempted to land a punch in Shiro's face. He dodged without really trying, and Lance's chest felt like it was on fire. "Stop! Going! Easy on me!" He mustered his strength and pathetically shoved Shiro by the chest back a few feet, but he was hot on his trail. Tears stung at the corners of his eyes, and he ignored them.
Shiro watched as Lance rushed towards him, and was suddenly struck with a flurry of flashing images. The desperate, caged animal look he gave him, the aliens who in moments of pure terror ran at Shiro. They never had weapons, they were only cannon fodder, things to be tossed away for the amusement of the Galra empire, things to die by the hands of the champion. Shiro could see Lance impaled on his glowing arm and cried out, pushing him away with his human arm as Lance reeled an arm back for a punch. The sprawled, twisted shapes of what were once scared, innocent creatures, now with only the barest remnants of faces, contorted in agony all around him, and their roaring screams filled his ears while blinding white light filled his vision. He couldn't stop the screaming, couldn't do anything but murder innocent things, no different from the monsters above the arena surrounding him. He dropped forward to his knees to the swaying floor and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to will the images away.
After stumbling back from the push, Lance tumbled and hit the floor with a thud. He looked up at Shiro, who looked visibly nauseated. He was breathing heavily, and Shiro reached up to cover his mouth, eyes wide and watering. "..Shiro?"
He looked scared, but lowered his hand when he saw that Lance wasn't impaled on his arm. "W-Wha.." His breathing stuttered.
Lance looked at him, dumbfounded. "Are you-"
"It's okay-I'm alright. You just- You had this look about you, like you were right there in the arena with me, a-and I couldn't.." He squeezed his eyes shut, and Lance realized what he had forced Shiro to re-live. "I couldn't.."
Appalled by his own lack of sensitivity, Lance approached slowly and bent down to meet Shiro.
"Aw geez, I didn't even think that this might be hard for you, too.. I'm sorry, Shiro.." Lance spent so long berating himself for not coping well enough, that he forgot Shiro might still struggle with things himself. Shiro covered his face with his flesh hand.
"No, it's-it's normally not a problem.." His muffled voice came from behind his glove, and Lance felt his heart squeeze at the sight in front of him. Drying blood sizzled on Shiro's cooling prosthetic hand. It bubbled before evaporating with a smoky meat smell into the air, and Lance numbly realized his cheek was bleeding.
The energy seemed to go out of Lance, and he stared, unfocused, past Shiro. He laughed, but was startled by how harsh and unfamiliar it sounded. "Look at us, huh? Protectors of the universe. Can't even fight each other without freaking out.." Shiro looked up at Lance's self-degrading smile and noticed the slice on his face, then remembered he was supposed to be the composed one and made an effort to collect himself.
He got to his knees and wordlessly offered his human hand to Lance, who took it and hauled himself up.
"Thanks." Lance wasn't sure what he needed to say in that moment. It felt important, like he would miss an opportunity if he didn't speak up.
"Don't mention it. Let's go get that patched up." The two made their way to one of the deck's wide doors. Under Shiro's eyes looked even darker than before, which Lance noticed from the corner of his vision. Shiro remained mostly quiet, and Lance wondered if he didn't know what to say, either. It seemed so unlikely given how charismatic Shiro was, and how always ready he seemed to be able to give out deeply perceptive advice. But he had to remind himself that Shiro was human, too.
Lance heard himself blurt out, "Can we try again tomorrow?" And after the initial surprise, there was something so gentle and understanding in Shiro's gaze that Lance couldn't help but feel safe there with him. The nauseating purple sun spots from staring at Shiro's hand were fading, and the urge to throw up was quickly receding. It was still there, but having to look at it again now didn't seem as daunting of a task.
Lance figured he would make his way over to Keith's room after this. He'd been avoiding even thinking about him, especially since Keith was so adamant about getting him to talk about his feelings, of all things. But suddenly he was very tired and missed him.
Maybe he wasn't as okay as he thought. Lance was smart enough to understand that. He didn't want to think about the terrible things he went through, even if they weren't as bad as what Shiro endured.
Lance had survived a difficult ordeal on his own. He had a right to feel good about that.
After everything he'd gone through—the fighting, the isolation, the borderline starvation—all of it had changed him. He wished he could just pick out the useful traits he inherited, like his connection with Blue, and his sharper combat skills, but he realized he was stuck with everything now, the good and the bad.
But maybe that was okay, for now at least. He felt ready to actually move on, instead of just running from the parts of himself he didn't like.
Lance was ready to start talking.
(Thank you for reading!)
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