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Smile For The Stars

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       In his lifetime, Lance had heard a good handful of people threaten to hurl him into the void. Suspect one: his older sister when he would coyly wriggle his way out of doing his chores every week. Suspect two: Pidge, back at the Garrison, each time Lance had attempted to steal their headphones. The list goes on and on. Of course, they had all meant it in a purely metaphorical manner. There was absolutely no way Lance would ever actually get hurled into the void, right?

 

        Fucking wrong. Lance’s slams painfully against the roof of his lion as he bitterly curses the pitiful existence of seatbelts on the pilot’s seat. As his lion spins around maniacally, Lance struggles to fight his way back into the chair, to get his hands back on the gears, regain some control of this thing. The view from outside the window is an absolute blur, flashes of white, purple, dancing in a spiral far too quickly for Lance to comprehend.

       

        His stomach lurches. Dios, I’m gonna puke, he thinks miserably. A sharp forward tug of his lion sends Lance colliding with the control panel, a stick shift digging painfully into his stomach. And here we go. Lance doubles over, narrowly missing his feet as he pukes into the cockpit.

 

        While he was bent over, the world outside had gone a blinding white. The glare makes Lance shut his eyes, hands pressed against his forehead, throat burning.

 

        Suddenly, he is filled with an inexplicable amount of panic. Once he realizes that this overwhelming sensation seemed to be pouring straight from his lion, Lance tugs his head up. A flash of green landscape is hurtling towards him at an alarming rate from outside the window – he’s crashing.

 

        Only one word runs through his mind as his hands scramble onto the gears, pulling back, pulling his lion up: fuck. The momentum is too strong and he only barely manages to stop himself from nose-diving into the ground, struggling to guide his lion towards its side.

 

        The impact happens too quickly. A boom rattles through Lance’s bones, compresses his chest, sends him tumbling against the left wall of the cockpit. He hits his head – again – and his left arm goes numb.

 

        Great. Everything is definitely going great. Lance slides down onto the floor and crumples. His head is fucking pulsing. Someone is beating on his brain with a goddamn hammer, he can feel it. It’s vibrating his entire skull. Gingerly, Lance puts a hand onto his forehead, convinced that he’d feel it physically throbbing intensely under his palm. He doesn’t, but he draws his hand back and finds blood.

 

        Here we go again, Lance thinks, as bile rises up in his throat. He hunches over towards the side, gagging. He can barely feel his head slick with blood, merely a small tingle as it runs down his hairline, but it still makes him terribly nauseous.

 

        He pukes for the second time, his stomach clenching painfully. I’m dying. 

 

        After a few minutes of spluttering and gagging, hunched over, Lance manages to pull himself back up into a sitting position. He stares up at the roof of the cockpit, sweat beading down his forehead, making his wound sting sharply. He’s dizzy, fighting for consciousness.

 

        Through his hazy eyes, he can make out a dark blur at the doorway. Confused and bleary, Lance wills his vision to focus. He almost wishes that he hadn’t. Something is peering it’s head through the doorway at him.

 

        Lance’s mind, however fuzzy it may be at this point, began racing and drawing conclusions. First, Lance crash-landed on an alien planet, one that he got stranded on after being viciously flung through a wormhole. Additionally, he didn’t know where the rest of his teammates were. They could be anywhere in the entire galaxy. They could even be in an entirely different dimension. Conclusion: Lance should be all alone now.

 

        Except he wasn’t, because some alien monster was staring at him from the doorway.

 

        Naturally, Lance starts screaming.

 

        Naturally, said alien monster starts approaching.

 

        This is it, it’s over.

 

        Adiós, mundo cruel,” Lance moans, raising his arms in a final attempt to shield his face. “Dios, ayúdame.

 

        Heavy footsteps draw nearer. There’s a beat of silence. Lance holds his breath, probably the last breath he’ll ever hold.

 

        Then, “Relax, it’s just me,” the alien monster grumbles.

 

        Wait.

 

        “Keith?!” Lance cries, eyes widening.

 

        Through his fuzzy vision, Lance can make out the boy’s long, dark hair and his heavy eyebrows, sitting low on his face.

 

        “Yeah, it’s me,” Keith confirms.

 

        For a moment, Lance is relieved. He’s safe! He’s going to live to see another day! He has managed to escape dying at the hands of an evil alien, once again!

 

        Then… he realizes that it’s Keith. Keith is here! And Keith has those eyes… He’s staring down at him with his stupid dark, dark eyes – eyes that had Lance mesmerized. And they’re starting to make Lance feel weird, like he’s going to throw up again and he really does not want to throw up again. Especially not in front of Keith.

 

        Naturally, since Keith is here, Lance starts screaming again.

 

        This makes Keith stiffen, eyebrows knitting as he continues to stare down at Lance, taking in the way he leans limply against the wall. He looks disheveled; his hair is tossed in all directions and caked in dark blood, his face is badly bruised, and his feet are limply splayed next to a pile of throw-up. It’s pitiful.

 

        “What the hell?!” Keith snaps, squatting down in front of Lance and putting his hands on both his shoulders. “Laaaance. Calm down. It’s me, KEITH. Stop yelling, now.”

 

        As Keith’s hands meet his shoulders, Lance promptly shuts his mouth and wriggles away from Keith’s grasp, his left arm flaring. “Owowow, don’t do that,” he says.

 

        Lance catches his breath for a second as Keith pulls back an inch. He notices that Keith isn’t in his fighting gear, only his usual stupid black skinny jeans and dark t-shirt.

 

        When did he have time to take off his red suit? Lance wonders. Keith looked awfully put-together, showing no sign of recently crash-landing. How long has he been here?

 

        “Sorry, I-” Keith stammers.

 

        “Whoa! You’re face is bleeding,” Lance interrupts abruptly, noticing the gash on Keith’s left cheek. “…Looks like it hurts, dude.”

 

        Keith squints at Lance for a moment before touching his own cheek in disarray. He looks shocked, like he hadn’t noticed the wound before.

 

        He’s an idiot, Lance thinks to himself, amused.

 

        “Oh. Well, your face is bleeding, too,” Keith says, pointing up at Lance’s head.

 

        “Mierda. Don’t remind me!” Lance moans. “Gonna throw up. Can’t think about it.”

 

        “Evidently you already have,” Keith says, staring pointedly at the mess beside Lance’s feet.

 

        Defensive, Lance shoots him a withering look and spat, “I get nauseous really easily, okay, tough guy?”

 

        For the first time in his life, talking is a chore. The thrumming between Lance’s ears grows heavier as his  vision keeps going black around the edges. Probably not a good sign.

 

        “Hey!” Keith says, much too loudly. The word sends a painful drum through Lance’s skull.

 

        “Stop yelling,” Lance manages to choke out, doubling over.

 

        He swallows hard, his throat raw from puking, and clutches at the wound on his head. Was it weird that he couldn’t feel his head bleeding? Everything was going numb, he didn't feel any pain, save for his aggravating headache. Did this mean the bleeding stopped, or was he beginning to lose feeling in his body? Did this mean he was going to die? He’s probably going to die.

 

        “Are you okay?” Keith asks.

          

        “Uh? I don’t feel pain?” Lance responds, dumbfounded. “It’s gone.”

 

        “That's just the adrenaline. Just… hang in there. Lance, can you walk?” Keith presses. His voice is still raised. Why is he talking so loud?

 

        Lance kicks Keith’s shin weakly and shushes him, deciding then and there that he wasn’t going to speak to someone who wouldn’t stop yelling at him. He glances up, finds Keith staring at him worriedly, brows drawn tightly over his dark eyes. For a moment, Lance reconsiders his choices.

 

        Hesitantly, he responds, “Yes… you’ve seen me? Walked since I was, like, one.”

 

        “No, I meant… like, right now,” Keith says, his voice strained.

 

        Keith smacks a hand across his forehead and Lance can’t help but stare at the gash on Keith’s cheek. It looks painful, but Keith shows no sign of being bothered by it. Lance wonders if Keith could feel pain. Though this was a new development for Lance, he feels like maybe Keith has been able to withstand pain his whole life. Keith is probably really strong… and pain-less.  

 

        “Look, we need to clean your wound. I have water and supplies on the ground. So, can you walk right now, or what?” Keith asks again.

 

        Lance made a noncommittal noise, shrugging his good shoulder. “How about you go and clean your wound?” he asks instead.

 

        “Okay, I will. Now get up, I’m taking you with me,” Keith says, rising to his feet.

 

        Turns out, Lance can’t walk anymore. He’s not sure when he forgot how to, but his legs went all wobbly the moment he tried to push himself off the ground and everything started spinning around, like he was trapped in the wormhole again. And he really, really didn’t want to be reminded of that right now.

 

        “Swear, dude… knew how to an hour ago,” Lance insists as Keith slung Lance’s right arm around his shoulder, letting Lance’s injured arm hang limply at his side. After lugging Lance’s deadweight off the blue lion, the thin fabric of Keith’s black t-shirt was damp with sweat. His back was soaked; Lance could feel it against his skin as he draped himself against Keith’s shoulder. He tells Keith so, earning no response.

 

        Keith drags the pitiful Lance, who was stumbling on his weak, useless feet, across the ground, leading him to a group of tall boulders in the distance. Lance wonders if he lost the ability to walk in exchange for his new ability to not feel pain. Though, he was beginning to doubt this newfound skill, because, while he couldn’t feel the injury in his head, he could very much feel whatever the hell it was that was drumming against the inside of his skull.

 

        As Keith sat Lance down against a – what was that, a tree? – and began rummaging around in an ugly knapsack, Lance asks, “Hey, can you see my head moving?”

 

        “What?”

 

        “Like. In that old cartoon. Tom and Jerry. When the mouse, can’t remember if that’s Tom or Jerry… maybe Jerry, hits the cat with a hammer. And then there’s a giant bump on his head. And you can see the bump, like, throbbing,” Lance explains, weakly throwing his hand out for dramatic effect. “Is my head like that? It feels like that.”

 

        “No, it’s not like that, Lance,” Keith mutters, pulling out a silver bottle and a rag from the ratty knapsack.

 

        God, what the hell. That little bag thing was so ugly. He tells Keith this, and earns a wilting glare. Better than nothing.

 

        Keith asks, “Can you take your gear off?”

 

        This makes Lance’s heart jump, his mind instantly wandering off to the wrong place, one where he pictures Keith peeling off his gear with those steady hands, his eyes eager…

 

        “Woah, there… isn’t this a little too sudden?” Lance jokes loudly, desperate to cut off his thoughts.

 

        It wouldn’t be too sudden. Lance knows Keith doesn’t mean it like that in any way, but Lance can’t help but pretend that he does. It wouldn’t be too sudden – Lance has wanted it since the first time he laid eyes on him, has thought about Keith saying something like this to him for so, so long…

 

       Lance blames it on his injury. He hit his head too hard, that's why he was thinking these things. 

 

        Keith is blinking at him in confusion. “Well, I think your shoulder’s probably hurt, too, and it’ll be better if you’re not in your heavy gear.”

 

        “Yeah,” Lance agrees quickly.

 

        Lance tries to rid himself of the pilot suit, adamantly refusing to let Keith help him. It takes a while to disassemble and pull off all the pieces, and Lance’s head is spinning angrily by the time he gets to the last portion of gear on his injured arm. Finally, he lets Keith help him carefully slide off the gear, avoiding contact with his flaming shoulder, until Lance is left in his jeans and tee.

 

        Keith begins pouring water from the can onto the rag and tells him, “I’m going to clean your head up now, okay?”

 

        “Ah, okay – AAAAAUUUGHHHHH!”

 

        Lance’s previous belief that he could no longer feel pain has officially been disproven. Lance could definitely feel pain, alright. In fact, he thinks that this very moment is teaching him the definition of pain. Never, in his entire life, before this moment, had Lance felt something as painful as the burning sensation that the wet rag pressed against his head injury was sending through his body.

 

        “KEEEEITH!” he screeches, grabbing onto Keith’s arm with his right hand and desperately trying to yank the wet rag away from his face.

 

        “Stop!” Keith cries, his voice a hard hit against Lance’s skull. God, Lance’s entire head was on fire.

 

        Keith wrestled against Lance’s weak grip, insistently pressing the rag against the wound on Lance’s head. The damp towel fucking stung like a motherfucker and Lance was going to die. For real this time. The sharp, burning feeling pulsed from his wound, forcing his eyes closed.

 

        “Basta, basta! Por favor,” Lance whimpers, jaw clenched. Sweat dribbled down the bridge of his nose. “Stop… That really, really hurts.”

 

        “Sorry,” Keith grits, his face contorted, chewing on his lip in worry. “I have to.”

 

        “Nooooo, you don’t,” Lance moans, eyes misty, wiggling away from the rag.

 

        He stops struggling abruptly as one of Keith’s hands comes up to the right side of Lance’s face, holding his head in place. Wide eyed, Lance watches Keith’s concentrated face, barely feeling the rag still burning against the top of his head.

 

        Not only was his head on fire… so were his cheeks, hot under the palm of Keith’s steady hand, aflame under Keith’s touch. He winces as Keith starts dabbing at the blood caked over the side of his forehead, but doesn’t flinch away, pressing his cheek into Keith’s palm.

 

        After thoroughly wiping at the injury again several times, Keith finally pulls away, dropping his hand and leaving Lance’s cheek cold. Lance didn’t realize that he was still gripping Keith’s forearm until Keith gently guided his arm away from Lance’s grasp. They caught each other's stare, briefly. Those dark eyes bore into Lance’s soul.

 

        “Don’t cry,” Keith demands tersely, looking away.

 

        “Not gonna,” Lance murmurs, though he knew he probably had tears in his eyes.

 

        Lance slumps back against the tree he was propped up against, shutting his eyes. He hears Keith rummaging around some more in that knapsack of his, and, for a moment, he’s filled with panic. He really didn’t want Keith to do any more painful cleaning shit to his head again.

 

        “What are you getting?” Lance asks, warily.

 

        “Nothing. Rest.”

 

        Lance doesn’t argue, because suddenly, his eyelids felt too heavy to open. Resigned, Lance leaves them shut and begins patiently waiting for his head to stop burning.

Chapter Text

       For a moment, Lance is disoriented, staring up at an unfamiliar stretch of… pink sky? The intensity of his lingering headache dulls after a few seconds of blinking up in confusion, until his memory catches up to him.

 

        The team had been in the midst of battle, decimating entire Galra armies with the help of their allied planets. Zarkon was just about finished, but before they could deliver the final blow, he had opened up a wormhole in a last-ditch effort to stop Voltron from defeating him. The team had managed to land a fatal blow into the center of Zarkon’s ship, killing him and the last of the Galra leaders.

 

        Lance remembers that, for a moment, there was silence; everyone was too shocked to speak, afraid that any word might break this spell, and everything that just happened would revert back to chaos. Lance had only a few seconds to fully register that they’d finally – fucking finally! – defeated the Zarkon bastard, before the wormhole was tearing a rift into the sky. And then Voltron crumpled, separated, the five paladins spiraling up into the air.

 

        Hurtling through a wormhole, crash landing, his head had been bleeding… and then…Keith? That had happened, right?

 

        Slowly, Lance pulls himself onto his elbows and glances around. For some reason, he thought he had landed in a grassland, but gradually, Lance realizes that there was no grass. This place was barren, like a desert, except… the ground was green. The rocks and cliffs surrounding them were all green. Did he land on some strange, leprechaun planet?

 

        Confused, Lance runs his fingers along the cracked, rocky ground, pulling up a fistful of green dirt. Hastily, he wipes his hand off on his jeans, unsettled by his strange surroundings. 

 

        Footsteps. Lance turns his head slowly, as to avoid knocking his brain out of place again. Keith is there, crouching down beside him to examine him at eye level, asking if he’s okay.

 

        Lance doesn’t answer, just blinks slowly up at him, eyeing the gauze Keith had used to patch up the gash on his cheek. Hesitantly, Lance places a hand on his forehead, realizing that his wound had also been bandaged. When did that happen?

 

        “You’ve been out for a couple hours,” Keith tells him. “Do you feel better?”

 

        Lance finds it in himself to nod in response, heaving himself up onto his elbows. His head feels clearer – nothing but a dull ache where he had collided with the roof of his lion – and he’s regained feeling in his left arm.

 

        “Water?” he asks hoarsely.

 

        Jeez, he sounds awful. The roof of his mouth feels terribly dry, his tongue is heavy, and swallowing feels like sandpaper is sliding down his throat. The faint taste of bile stains his tongue.

 

        Keith shuffles through his knapsack and hands Lance the can of water – “Be careful, we’ll have to make this last.”

 

        “Only one bottle?” Lance asks warily, staring down into the container, already half empty.

 

        “Well, yes, but I think we should be able to find some around here if we end up running out. Every planet needs water to support life and here we are, right?” Keith says.

 

        “Wow, guess you’re pretty smart, for a drop-out,” Lance jokes, though he’s not entirely sure that Keith’s right.

 

        Even if there was water on this planet, it could be miles and miles away. Lance scans the area again, seeing nothing but green rocks and cliffs far into the distance.In the center of the little clearing they were in, Lance’s lion lies collapsed on its side in a pile of green rubble. Besides, there was no guarantee that the kind of life that lived on this planet even needed water. There was always a chance that they survived off of something else. 

 

        Hesitantly, Lance turns the can of water around in his hands, debating on whether or not he should take a sip. Despite the dryness of his throat, he worries about what would happen to them if they were stranded out here for a long, long time. Would it be wise to waste all the water right now? How long could humans even last without drinking anything?

 

        “Just drink, Lance, you don’t look too good,” Keith insists.

 

        Lance relents, lifting the bottle to his dry lips. He takes a large gulp and lets the water sit in his mouth for a moment. It’s warm, but Lance is in no position to complain; he’s grateful for whatever he can get. He lets it soothe his rough tongue and finally swallows, savoring the feeling of it running down his dried throat. It’s tantalizing and Lance has to stop himself, forcefully yank the can away from his lips, before he downs the entire bottle and leaves them with nothing.

 

        “Shit, we’re almost out,” Lance says forlornly, peeking into the bottle. “How long do you think we’ll be stuck here?”

 

        Keith takes the bottle from him and sighs, shrugging. “I don’t know. I think we should try to contact the others first.”

 

        “Any idea where they are?”

 

        “No. I didn’t see or hear any other landings, besides yours… But, look –” Keith’s tone drops eerily as he points up at something behind Lance.

 

        Slowly, Lance manages to twist himself around, staring past the tall boulder that he was leaning against. Up in the air, inky and dark against the light pink atmosphere, a wormhole splits a rift in the sky.

 

        It was menacing; glowing white around the edges and vibrating with power as it holds open the sky, an entryway into the universe. Through the portal, Lance can see the angry white glare of a thousand stars, flaring against a bruised galaxy.

 

        “Holy shit!” cries Lance, gaping up.

 

        It was hard to imagine that he had shot through that portal, hard to imagine that he had once been somewhere on the other side, somewhere amongst those stars. He tries to squint into the wormhole, make out something in the endless scatter of stars and galaxies, but it’s all too far away. Was there a way they could reenter the wormhole and wind up back where they had fought the final battle against the Galra? Or would it take them somewhere else entirely?

 

        The portal looked oddly out of place – much too powerful for this dull, seemingly empty planet, pulsing with too much energy, radiating too much darkness. For all its ominous grandeur, it was strange seeing it in the otherwise empty, harmless sky.

 

        “That wormhole’s been open for hours. I don’t know about you, but I have a bad feeling about this,” Keith mutters, staring up at the portal, perplexed. His voice drops low when he adds, “This could mean that something else is coming.”

 

        His tone sends a chill down Lance’s spine. He’s not sure he likes the sound of that, the way Keith had said ‘something’ instead of ‘someone.’

 

        “M-maybe it’ll just be one of our friends?” Lance pipes up hopefully.

       

        Keith lowers his head and frowns, staring hard at the ground. “Maybe. But I doubt it. That wormhole was created by Zarkon. Most likely, whatever’s on its way won’t be too friendly.”

 

        The terrified look in Keith’s eyes doesn’t sit well with Lance.

       

        “Hey! Don’t say that!” Lance chides lightly, clapping Keith on his shoulder, desperately trying to get rid of that helpless, frightened expression on his face. “I mean, I came through that portal and I’m probably not as bad as, like, an angry Galran fleet hell-bent on revenge, right?”

 

        His chest warms when his joke earns him a smile from Keith. God, if there was anything Lance was proud of him self for, it was the fact that he could get Keith to smile sometimes. He remembers how hard he had tried to earlier on, before he had gotten to know Keith better. Remembers the way all his jokes fell flat, earning him nothing more than a cold stare.

 

        Now, as the edges of Keith’s lips curve upwards, Lance can’t quite ignore the warm feeling in his chest.

 

        “Yeah. It’s probably not as bad,” Keith agrees lightly, nudging Lance’s arm. “Comes pretty close, though.”

 

        Lance grins back at him and punches him playfully on the shoulder.

 

        “Don’t worry ‘bout it! We’ll totally be fine!” Lance assures. “It’s been – what? – hours since we first got here and nothing’s come through that wormhole yet. Maybe it’s still there just because Zarkon’s all dead now, or whatever, and can’t close it back up. You know, ‘cause we killed him. Remember that?”

 

        “Obviously I remember that, Lance,” Keith says, rolling his eyes.

 

        “Hah, okay, just making sure. Anyway, let’s figure out how to get outta here!” Lance says, clapping his hands together. He was eager to start plotting their escape now that Keith didn’t look like a lost puppy anymore. “Got a plan, hot shot?”

 

        At that, Keith throws him a sharp look, before quickly glancing away.

 

        “Uh. No? Not really,” he says helplessly, crossing his arms indignantly. “I only have a small idea, and I’m not sure it’ll work.”

 

        “Aw, c’mon, what have you been doing this whole time while I was passed out? Were you watching me sleeeeeep?” he teases.

 

        Keith stiffens and draws his shoulders up, spluttering, “No! I – I was watching that wormhole and making sure no aliens came and killed us!”

 

        Lance laughs, holding up his hands in surrender. “Whatever you say.”

 

        “I liked it better when you were unconscious,” Keith mutters.

 

        “Ouch!” Lance cries, clutching his chest in feigned offense. He grins at Keith to show that he’s only messing around, before saying, “So, let’s hear your so-called ‘small idea,’ yeah?”

 

        Keith unfolds his arms and sighs, running a hand through his hair. He’s got that concentrated look on his face – the one Lance has come to recognize like the back of his own hand, not that he’d ever admit to studying Keith’s expressions – that makes his lips purse slightly and his eyebrows fall heavy over his eyelids.

 

        “Well,” Keith starts. “I think our only hope now is finding our helmets. That way, we can use our comms and try to contact the others. If that doesn’t work out, maybe we can try to send a signal out from our lions somehow.”

 

        It seemed like their most obvious route to find help and Lance desperately hopes that at least one of their helmets’ communicators would be able to reach someone on their team.

 

        Patting Keith’s back approvingly and nodding to himself, Lance declares, “Not bad for a guy like you, Keith. Seems like you're finally taking after me with my brilliant, rational ideas!”

 

        “Shut up.”

 

        “I’m complimenting you, dude. Listen, my plan was to just sit on one of these rocks and cry. And then I was also considering trying to jump through that wormhole with my own two feet,” Lance says, shrugging. "I think your plan deserves to be Plan A."

 

        Keith giggles into his hand, causing Lance’s heart to skip a beat. He remembers a time on the Castle Ship when Lance could have only dreamed of making Keith smile, let alone giggle.

 

        One time, after furiously watching Hunk and Pidge sit around and joke with Keith from the corner of the dining room, Lance found himself boiling with inexplicable jealousy. Lance had stormed up to his two friends afterwards in distress.

 

        “How were you guys making him do that?!” he had demanded, jabbing an accusatory finger at each one of them in turn.

 

        “Huh?” they had answered, dumbfounded.

 

        “Make who do what?” Hunk had asked, lifting one of his heavy brows.

 

        “Keith! How were you making him, you know, smile and laugh and stuff?” Lance had clarified, hands placed firmly on his hips. “The guy never even so much as looks at me with a nice expression on that stupid face of his.”

 

        Pidge had burst out laughing halfway through Lance’s ramble, sharing an exasperated look with Hunk, much to Lance’s confusion.

 

        “What?!” he had demanded, leaning down to scrutinize Pidge at eye-level.

 

        “Dude, calm down you look like you’re going to murder someone!” Pidge snickered, propping their glasses higher up on the bridge of their nose. “Why are you asking anyway? You wanna make your mortal enemy smile, too? Jeez, Lance, seems more like something you’d wanna make a crush do…”

 

        Lance stiffened, pulling away, face burning. “D-definitely not! I was… just… uh…”

 

        “Dude, just be nice to him, that’s all,” Hunk had offered, elbowing Pidge in the side while giving Lance a sincere look. “You’re a good guy, just lighten up and he’ll think you’re fun.”

 

        Pidge had continued their cooing: “Lance, I can’t believe this. You actually want to make Keith smile! That’s so cuuuute –”

 

        “Shut up, Pidge!” Lance had screeched, slapping a hand over their mouth.

 

        Oh, if only Pidge and Hunk could see him now! Pidge would probably be really smug about it, that little shit… Red-faced, Lance quickly squashes the thought of them, refusing to think about how his friends were inevitably somewhere far, far away from him, refusing to wonder if anything bad had happened to them. Hopefully, if all went well, he would be able to contact them soon, assuming that their comms weren’t broken.

 

        Lance quickly pushes himself onto his shaky, weak feet to distract himself from his thoughts. Keith looks startled as he wobbles his way a few steps forward, watching Lance cautiously, as if he’s afraid that he might topple over.

 

        “Quit worrying!” Lance says, putting his hands on his hips triumphantly. “I can stand just fine, see? Let’s go find our helmets! Mine’s somewhere back in my lion.”

 

        Lance grins with feigned enthusiasm back at Keith, not wanting to make him worry, not wanting to let the subtle dizziness he was feeling get to him. Thankfully, Keith looks convinced as he gets to his feet, slings his stupid knapsack over his shoulder, and begins trekking towards Lance’s lion, motioning for Lance to follow along after him.

 

        Lance knows that to only way for him to stay distracted from thinking about what might happen to the two of them if they couldn’t find a way to get help from their friends is by talking. Talking has always distracted him from his mind, so he immediately starts firing off at the mouth.

 

        “So, how long were you stuck out here alone before you were graced with my presence?” Lance asks as he strides beside Keith.

 

        Keith scoffs, shooting Lance an exasperated look. “I wouldn’t exactly say I was ‘graced’ with your presence. That landing wasn’t exactly graceful,” he jokes. Before Lance can retort, Keith answers, “I would say around… two hours?”

 

        “What?!” Lance cries. “Two hours? …How the heck does that work? We got thrown into the wormhole at the same time!”

 

        Keith makes a noncommittal sound, shrugging his shoulders.

 

        “I cannot believe you beat me here by two whole hours, man!” Lance cries. “You definitely cheated. There is no way that could have been done without the involvement of some hacking of physics.”

 

        Keith sighs, hand against his temple. “What are you on about...?”

 

        “You know – oh… yeah, you’re right, what am I on about? Hacking physics is more of a Pidge thing than a Keith thing, isn’t it?” Lance reasons, shrugging. “But it is really weird how much faster you got here. I don’t understand wormholes at all, dude. Hey, bet you got real lonely all alone out here, huh?”

 

        “Jeez, it’ll really take more than a hard hit to the head to get you to stop talking, huh?” Keith laughs.

 

        Lance laughs along with him, though he knows, deep down, that talking is all he can do to distract himself from said ‘hard hit to the head’, from the way the ground seemed to be tipped slightly to the left, from the fact that they were stranded on an unknown planet, thousands of light-years away from their friends and families.

 

        Lance does fall silent for a beat when they approach his fallen lion. It had carved a massive skid mark into the green ground, overturning rubble and dirt in its wake, head nearly buried under a heaping pile of boulders.

 

        “Ah. She doesn’t look so good, does she?” Lance mourns, taking in the somber sight.

 

        Something felt off.

 

        Keith grimaces up into the blue lion’s dark, empty eyes. They stand there, gazing up at the dismal scene in silence, Lance’s heart heavy for a reason he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

 

        Finally, Keith says, “C’mon,” and Lance begins following him over the massive rocks, struggling to keep his balance on his two feet as he climbed over the rubble and squeezed himself through dusty crevices, until they reached the entrance to his lion. The hatch is still wide open from when Keith had fought his way inside and dragged Lance from the site of the crash landing.

 

        “You know, I really hope I didn’t puke in my helmet,” Lance mutters as they make their way into the cockpit.

 

        It’s eerily empty inside, tinted pink from the sky outside.

 

        Lance tries to recall whether or not he had thrown up inside or anywhere on his helmet, though the memory is all a spinning blur, filled with panic and nausea, and he can’t be certain if he did or did not.

 

        “You sure puked all over the floor, that’s for sure,” Keith recalls.

 

        “Hey!” Lance cries defensively, cringing.

 

        Thankfully, they find Lance’s helmet lying haphazardly beside the pilot’s seat. It’s clean, though not safe from a few dents along its dome and a large crack splitting through the shattered visor.

 

        “Wow, it’s wrecked. It’s a really good thing I was wearing it, I guess,” Lance states, letting out a nervous laugh at the thought of what would have happened to his skull if it hadn’t been protected.

 

        “Yeah,” Keith says quietly.

 

        Lance reaches down and picks up his helmet, inspecting it warily. Bits of jarred glass from the visor tumble to the floor. Wires are jutting out in all directions from inside the helmet.

 

        “I think it’s busted,” he says, defeated. “I don’t think the comm is gonna work.”

 

        Suddenly, Lance feels a firm hand on his shoulder. Spinning around, startled, he finds Keith glaring at him intently, face pressed close.

 

        “Try it anyway,” Keith insists, his determined eyes sending shivers down Lance’s spine.

 

        “O-okay,” Lance stammers, fidgeting with his helmet.

 

        Hastily, he manages to slide it onto his head, wincing as it presses against his bandaged wound. Putting a hand up to his earpiece, he calls out to anyone on the other end, listening hard for an open signal.

 

        The whole time, Keith is staring at him intensely, his mouth set in a resolved line, hands clenched into fists. Lance swallows nervously, eyes darting away from him, caught off guard by Keith’s sudden, apparent determination.

 

        “Hello?” Lance repeats, only to be met with silence.

 

        “Try again,” Keith insists.

 

        “It’s not working, Keith,” Lance tells him, sliding the helmet off his head and dropping it onto the cockpit floor.

 

        He feels his stomach plummet. Now their only hope of getting a hold of the others was with Keith’s comm. Lance wont let himself think about what would happen if that didn’t work either.

 

        Keith lets out a loud, frustrated groan, kicking Lance’s helmet across the small control room. He drops his knapsack onto the floor and pushes past Lance, standing over the gears.

 

        “Come turn this thing on, then,” he demands loudly, fiddling with the switches.

 

        Confused at the aggressive outburst, Lance obeys. He scrambles next to Keith and places his hand on the main stick shift. When he pulls down, nothing happens.

 

        His heart sinks.

 

        Nervously, he glances over at Keith, who had been watching him expectantly. Lance gulps, knowing that he was going to let Keith down.

 

        “Um… you know that whole ‘special connection with your lion’ thing we all made a big deal about?” Lance begins, laughing nervously. He watches as Keith’s expression stiffens. “Um, yeah, so right now I am feeling just about absolutely no connection at all…”

 

        “What?”

 

        “I… I don’t think I can get her to turn on,” Lance says, staring down at his lion’s dark control panel, hand still gripped tightly around the stick shift.

 

        “Yes, you can!” Keith cries. He jabs an angry finger at the gears. “It always works!”

 

        Taken aback by Keith’s insistence, Lance pulls at the stick shift again, though he knows it’s futile. Normally, his lion would have sparked to life the moment Lance was within a few feet from it. He knew something had been off when they had stood outside, gazing up at the lion’s dark, lifeless eyes from down below. His lion had never been unresponsive like this. That’s why he felt so strange.

 

        “That usually does it, Keith,” Lance says, his voice tired and resigned. He pulls down again for emphasis. The lion remains still and dark. “She’s busted, too, I guess.”

 

        Keith seethes, glaring at Lance as if he was somehow to blame for this. He looks absolutely terrifying, especially in this strange dull, pink lighting.

 

        “Hey, man… it’s okay!” Lance yelps, holding up his hands in surrender. “We’ve still got hope! Your lion’s probably tougher than mine! Maybe we can get yours to work!”

 

        Under normal circumstances, Lance would have never let those words escape his mouth. Hell, he didn’t think he would ever admit that Keith’s lion was stronger than his, unless he was being held at gunpoint. Of course, he reasons that the angry, boiling Keith in front of him qualified as a dire enough situation.

 

        Lance flinches and prepares himself for sudden death as Keith lets out another irritated groan. However, instead of launching himself at Lance, Keith slams his fist into the control panel.

 

        “Hey!” Lance cries out, grabbing Keith’s arm and pulling him away from the gears. “Chill out, hot shot, what’s gotten into you?!”

 

        Keith groans again, spitting out, “Don’t call me that,” as he jerks away from Lance. His dark hair mats against his forehead as a bead of sweat runs down the side of his face, sickly pale in the strange lighting.

 

        “It’s okay!” Lance repeats, shocked at the sight of Keith struggling to gain his composure.

 

        “No! Aghhh!” Keith yells, kicking at the pilot’s chair. “It’s not okay!”

 

        “Dude! Stop beating up my dead lion!” Lance wails. “Just calm down! We still might be able to get a hold of the others using your comm or your lion! It’s fine, Keith! There’s still hope!”

 

        Although Keith abruptly stops kicking at the chair, he doesn’t lower his voice as he screams back, “And what will we do if that doesn’t work?!”

 

        “It will work, you idiot! Chill out!” Lance cries. He doesn’t understand Keith’s sudden outburst. “Besides, this was your idea! Stop doubting your own plan!”

 

        Keith hushes, staring down at his feet with his hands still balled angrily at his side. His dark hair hides his eyes, falling heavily over his face, making him look even more terrifying than he already was in his angered state. Lance fights the urge to push those thick bangs to the side.

 

        After a few moments of nothing but Keith’s heaving breaths, he responds: “Fine. Let’s go.”

 

        Wordlessly, Lance follows him – picking up the knapsack Keith had discarded before his tantrum – out of the cockpit, shooting one last, longing look at the little room where he’d piloted so many battles against enemy Galra soldiers. The dark and empty feeling he got as he stood there sent an eerie shiver down his spine. Hastily, he clambers down the stairs after Keith, hopping down onto the ground. Keith snatches his knapsack from Lance’s hands without a word of gratitude.  

 

        The tense silence that hangs between them is stifling. Lance wants to ask why Keith had reacted so violently, but he’s afraid of causing him to snap again. This time, instead of aiming his fist at the dashboard, Keith could be aiming his fist at Lance’s face. He’d rather not risk it.

 

        As they headed off in the opposite direction, Lance keeps glancing back at his blue lion’s dark and lifeless figure, buried amongst green rubble. As he turns his head back around, he catches Keith staring at him with an unreadable expression on his face.

 

        “What?” Lance asks.

 

        “Nothing. Don’t be upset about your lion,” Keith says tersely.

 

        “I – I’m not!” Lance lies.

 

        “Okay.”

 

        Lance isn’t sure where they’re heading; he can’t spot Keith’s lion anywhere in the distance. He follows him silently across the clearing, under a stone overpass, and through a passageway lined with cliffs. After a while, he begins to notice that the shadows are eerie and green and Lance is suddenly almost certain that the world is tilting at a very sharp angle. Once in a while, he stops just to make sure he doesn’t loose his footing and topple over.

 

        “Are you okay?” Keith asks from a few feet ahead.

 

        Lance stands still with his hands braced on his knees, focusing hard on his shoes, trying to anchor his mind with something still and constant.

 

        “I’m fine!” Lance assures, though he feels sweat prickling on his forehead.

 

        Keith is at his side, asking him if he needs to take a break. With shut eyes, Lance insists that he’s fine before standing back upright, waiting expectantly for Keith to lead the way again.

 

        Fighting the horrible dizziness, he trails along after Keith until they reach another small clearing, with a large pile of stone in the far corner. There, lying at a vertical angle with its head pointed upwards, facing the pink expanse of the sky, its hind legs wedged between the stones, is Keith’s red lion.

 

        “Hah! Sick landing,” Lance comments.

 

        “No. Bad landing,” Keith scoffs, crossing his arms. Catching a glimpse of Lance’s puzzled expression, he explains, “I don’t even know how I ended up like that. After I crashed and tried to climb out, I was disoriented and I fell fifteen feet from my lion’s head onto the ground. That’s how I got this.”

 

        He points at the bandaged gash on his cheek.

 

        “Oh. Well, at least it was better than mine? Hey! Wait –” Lance stares up at Keith’s lion, the cockpit looming fifteen feet above them. “Shit. How are we gonna get up there?”

 

        “That’s the problem,” Keith says bitterly. “I told you… it wasn’t going to work. We’re doomed, Lance. We won’t be able to find a way to contact the others.”

 

        Lance’s blood runs cold. He stares up at the lion’s head, far up in the sky. This couldn’t be. There had to be a way to get up there. He wasn’t going to let a little bit of height stop him from getting off this foreign planet.

 

        “I’m gonna climb this bitch,” Lance decides, stepping onto the heap of rocks and making his way towards the lion.

 

        “Lance!” Keith calls after him.

 

        He doesn’t turn back. He can feel the blood rushing in his ears, his heart pounding against his ribcage, can feel his palms slick with sweat, but he doesn’t turn back. He can’t just stand there. Keith’s comm could be working. They could find a way to get a hold of the others. All he had to do was climb his way up this hill of rocks and get into the cockpit.

 

        He leaps from one boulder to the next, hardly caring about the fatal fall that would await him if he missed a step. By the time he reaches the top of the heap, his head is spinning and there’s a constant screeching sound ringing in his ears. He stops, leaning against the red lion’s flank, clutching at it for support.

 

        Distantly, he hears Keith calling his name again. Ignoring him, Lance stares up at the lion, searching for a ledge or a nook or a cranny, anything that he could use to climb his way in. It’s hard to find anything through the black edges of his vision.

 

        “You’re really stupid, you know that?” Keith remarks, hopping onto the rock, beside Lance. He steadies him with a hand against his shoulder.

 

        “How so?” Lance asks, leaning into Keith’s touch.

 

        This earns him a deep sigh. “You really thought it was a good idea to scale a giant stack of boulders in your physical state. That’s how.”

 

        “I don’t understand,” Lance jokes, grinning at Keith. He holds up a wobbly thumb of reassurance, showing him that he was perfectly fine.

 

        “Lance,” Keith says, his tone dropping. “I really don’t think we can get in.”

 

        “Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, hot shot!” Lance says, grinning at Keith’s flustered expression.

 

        “I told you not to call me –”

 

        “Look!” Lance interrupts, pointing up at a ridge along the lion’s chest. “See that baby? We can grab onto it and pull ourselves up to the head and get into the cockpit. Now, get on my shoulders.”

 

        “Wh – what?!”

 

        “Do it! C’mon!” Lance insists, bending down. “I’ll lift you up and then you can climb on board!”

 

        Keith takes his hand off of Lance’s arm, shaking his head vigorously in disapproval.

 

        “That’s not going to work,” he says.

 

        “Yeah, it will! C’mon! I can lift you, I swear. You know I can, man!” Lance says.

 

        Absentmindedly, he thinks back to all those times aboard the Castle Ship when he’d snuck up behind Keith, wrapped his arms around his waist, and lifted him off his feet, just to see the way his face got all red when he was flustered.

 

        “It’s not that!” Keith is saying. “It’s… just that I still don’t think I’ll be able to reach that ledge.”

 

        Lance glances back up at the ridge, eyeballing the distance that stood between them.

 

        “Simple!” Lance cries, stepping back. “Just stack some boulders up here like stairs and then we’ll be like two feet taller. That’s all the boost we need.”

 

        Keith blinks at him for a moment, before he relents, shrugging. “I guess that is a pretty good idea.”

 

        Lance staggers to the edge of the boulder they were perched on, peering over the ledge for a loose rock that he could lift up. He’s filled with instant regret as the ground below him seemed to jump up at him, the green below squashing itself with the boulders, like the scene had been stuck into the bellows of an accordion.

 

        “Okay, not doing that,” Lance decides, gasping and stumbling backwards, pressing his back flat against the lion’s belly.

 

        “Here,” Keith says, getting to his knees and leaning over the edge of their platform.

 

        Lance watches the way his back muscles go taut under the fabric of his black T-shirt. Keith hoists himself upright, biceps straining as he clutches a large rock, about half his size, up with him.

 

        “Oooh, tough guy!” Lance coos endearingly, stepping aside so Keith can put the rock down in front of the lion, right below the ridge they were aiming for. At his remark, Keith stiffens. Quickly, Lance adds, “If I wasn’t recovering from a brutal blow to the head, I could definitely lift twice as much as you.”

 

        “Oh. I’m sure you could,” Keith mutters.

 

        Soon – though it feels like an eternity for Lance as he wills himself not to stare – Keith has a pile of three large rocks atop one another, forming a makeshift staircase. Lance climbs up first and waits until Keith comes up beside him.

 

        “Um, are you sure you’re… stable enough to lift me up?” Keith asks hesitantly.

 

        “I am just the stablest!” Lance assures, grinning and squatting down for Keith to climb onto him.

 

        “That’s… not a word,” Keith mumbles, as he straddles Lance’s shoulders.

 

        He tries not to think about how his head is nestled right between Keith’s thighs as he hoists him upward, shoulder and arms straining under the weight.

 

        “Hurry!” Lance grits, struggling to keep his balance on his wobbly legs as Keith’s body weight threatens to topple them over.

 

        “What’s that you said about being stable?” Keith calls down to him. A moment later: “Got it!”

 

        Keith hoists himself up by the ridge on his lion’s chest, kicking his legs into the air off of the back of Lance’s head, to which Lance gives a cry of protest. He manages to pull himself up to the entrance of the cockpit, skin glazed in a thin layer of sweat.

 

        “Nice!” Lance calls up to him, giving him a thumbs-up.

 

        “I have a rope!” Keith yells down.

 

        He disappears from Lance’s sight beyond the ledge, leaving him wondering why Keith would conveniently have a rope with him. A second later, a thick, knotted rope comes whizzing down, just barely brushing past Lance’s ear.

 

        He yelps in surprise, pulling back. “Where the heck did this come from?!”

 

        Keith dangles his knapsack down over the edge.

 

        “Oh, that old thing. Of course,” Lance mutters. Why the hell did Keith just happen to have that little survival bag with him? Not that Lance was complaining. It had pretty much saved his life back there.

 

        The climb up was tough, but Lance refused to admit that to Keith, who was watching him the whole way up. Every time Keith told him to be careful, Lance brushed it off, but his heart was thudding angrily in his chest and he was terrified of taking one wrong step that would send him tumbling down below. His head was starting to spin again, the vertical tilt of the lion doing nothing to help with his nausea, and his grip on the rope was tightening until his knuckles were white. Thankfully, he finally pulls himself onto the ledge with Keith, panting like a madman.

 

        “Nice,” Keith says, flashing Lance a thumbs-up.

 

        “Copy-cat!” Lance cries.

 

        They sit for a few minutes, Lance catching his breath and rubbing his palms against his jeans, trying to soothe the angry burning that the rope had caused. Finally, the world stopped spinning and Lance’s vision cleared.

 

        “Let’s go,” he says and they climb into the cockpit.

 

        Lance had never really been in Keith’s lion before. The inside was a bit smaller than Lance’s and the controls were completely different. They have to walk uphill a bit, due to the way the lion’s head was angled, to get to Keith’s red helmet, strewn aside near the dashboard. It was unharmed, save for a dent near the top and a scratch along the side.

 

        “It looks like it’s in better shape than mine!” Lance says optimistically.

 

        Lance’s stomach was churning with nervousness. Silently, he sent a prayer up to whoever was listening that this would work. All they needed was for one of their friends to be on the other end of the line and then they could explain their situation. Their friends would come soon enough and save them and then they could go home. Lance could finally go home. All he needed was for Keith’s communicator to work. For someone to hear their call.

 

        Keith nods in agreement. “Let’s hope this goes well,” he says, sliding his head into the helmet. His thick bangs get pushed flat against his forehead under the visor.

 

        They both take shaky breaths. Lance clenches his sweaty palms, fingernails digging into his skin.

 

        “Hello?” Keith begins calling, hand pressed tightly against his comm. “Shiro? Pidge? Hunk? Anyone?”

 

        Lance waits with a bated breath, staring hard at Keith’s expression, waiting for their final verdict. There’s a long moment of silence, both of them frozen in place. Lance can hear the blood roaring in his ears. Then, Keith stiffens and he meets Lance’s eyes with a shocked look on his face.

 

        “There’s – there’s definitely a signal…” Keith says, his voice barely above a whisper.

 

        Lance sucks in an excited breath. Someone was on the other end of the line! They could get help! They were saved! 

 

        “But,” Keith says, his voice gravelly. God, Lance hated that word. Horrified, he begins to realize that this expression of shock on Keith's face is grim and laced with fear. “No one’s answering.”

Chapter Text

       For a moment, Lance is frozen still, an icy feeling running through his veins. He can’t breathe, staring at Keith’s terrified expression until his vision goes fuzzy.

 

        The next instant, his brain snaps back into function, filling his head with dreadful thoughts. Their unanswered call must mean that all the others were gone. Every one of his friends were probably dead. They would have answered the message if they were still alive. They must not have been as lucky as Lance and Keith - they're landings must have gone horribly wrong, or something had gone and finished them off. 

 

       Lance was never going to see Hunk – his best friend since childhood, or Pidge - the closest friend he had from the Garrison, ever again. He had thought that maybe Shiro would be able to survive, but that seemed unlikely now. Even Coran and Allura must have met their ends.

 

       No one was going to come rescue them. Lance was never going to go home.

 

        There’s a clatter and Lance looks up, shocked out of his stupor, to see Keith hurling his helmet at the wall. He looks deranged: dark eyes boiling with anger, stray strands of his dark hair sticking up as if he’d been struck by lightning, skin sticky with sweat. If Lance could feel anything other than the emptiness in his chest, he would be terrified at the sight of Keith.

 

        “Fuck!” Keith yells, running his hands frantically through his hair.

 

        Whatever ounce of calm he had regained after his small, short-tempered breakdown in Lance’s lion was soon lost again. Helplessly, Lance stands to the side and watches as Keith begins kicking at the walls, feeling nothing but his own desperation welling up inside of him, clawing its way up from his gut and into his throat, threatening to spill tears over his face.

 

        He wants to sit down and curl into himself until he disappears, but he’s unable to move. He cant do anything except watch Keith take out his anger, desperation, and fear with his fists, smashing the control panels and gears until he collapses against the dashboard. Keith lies there unmoving for what feels like hours. The cockpit is empty except for their ragged breathes.

 

        Slowly, Lance manages to peel himself away from his cold spot in the corner, carefully picking his way over to Keith’s shaking form. He can’t feel his legs moving, doesn’t even feel as if he’s inside his own body.

 

        Keith has his forehead pressed against the dashboard, shaking his head back and forth desperately, like he’s trying to convince himself that none of this is happening. His quivering hands still clutch at the gears, knuckles swollen and bruised an ugly shade of purple.

 

        “Come on,” Lance hears himself saying.

 

       He doesn’t feel the words leave his mouth, barely registers that he’s speaking.

 

        Keith looks up at him with bleary eyes, hair tangled and matted with sweat. Slowly, they stumble out of the cockpit. The sky outside is dark and a slight chill makes their skin prickle. Lance loses his grip a third of the way down the rope as he tries to slide down from the lion’s chest, hands raw and bleeding as he lands hard against the rocks below. Keith lands recklessly, stumbling a few feet forward. Barely pausing to regain his composure, he leaps down the heap of rocks and starts pacing aimlessly along the edge of the clearing. Lance watches him visibly tremble. It takes Lance a long time to climb back onto the ground and his palms are a scraped up mess, but he can’t seem to feel it.

 

        There was truly nothing they could do now. It seemed pointless to try to send a signal out from the red lion if none of the other paladins were alive to receive it. No help was coming for the two of them. Soon, they’d die on this foreign planet alone, millions of miles from Earth, without ever knowing what happened to their friends, without ever seeing the glory that they had helped bring about with the defeat of Zarkon.

       

        All they had to survive off of was a quarter of a jug of water and a rope from Keith’s knapsack. They’d be dead by the next morning.

 

        “Please, tell me you have food or something in that god damn bag of yours,” Lance begs, balling his hands into fists.

 

        Keith stiffens, pausing from his mindless pacing. He shoots Lance a poisoned look, but Lance is too devoid of feeling to care. Quietly, Keith shifts, lifting the strap of the knapsack over his head. Without warning, he balls it up and flings it at Lance.

 

        “Hey!” Lance cries, dodging.

 

        The knapsack hits the boulder behind him with a clatter, crumpling onto the floor.

 

        “What the hell, man?!” Lance yells, his voice ringing off the cliffs at the edge of the clearing. It comes out a little louder than he had expected, rage and desperation nearly causing him to scream.

 

       "Of course I don't have fucking food in there! Who do you think I am?" Keith snaps. 

 

       Someone who could usually make me feel better about anything just by being there, Lance thinks bitterly. Not this time. 

 

       "What the hell are we going to do?!" Lance asks, his voice high.

 

        “Don't fucking ask me! I don't know! No one’s coming to help us, Lance!” Keith snarls.

 

        His hands are quivering at his sides. Lance looks back at Keith desperately, wishing badly that one of them could somehow take them away, get them off this forsaken planet. 

 

        “I know this!” Lance cries, his voice cracking. Softer, he repeats, “Dios, I know this.”

 

        He thinks of his mom back on Earth, probably worried sick about him. Lance never even got to say a proper goodbye. He had just disappeared the day they found the blue lion in the middle of that cave all those months ago. His poor mother would probably never know what really happened to her son.

 

        He thinks of his father, of those days that he would take Lance to go fishing with him in their little boat. He thinks of all his siblings and cousins, wonders if they miss him too much.

 

        He thinks of the sea. He thinks of his little bedroom in his house on the water. He thinks of how he will never see any of these things again.

 

        It’s all a cruel twist of fate. They had finally, finally defeated Zarkon and the Galra Empire. Their mission was done. Lance was supposed to be home. He had always told himself: “All you have to do is survive the war with the Galra, Lance, and then you can go home.” And he hadn’t believed it any time he told himself that he could do it, but it happened. Here he was, unfortunately, alive, while Zarkon lay dead, wherever he was, somewhere in the vast expanse of the galaxy. Lance won the fucking war. But he wasn’t home. He wasn’t going home.

 

        It felt numb. Lance was going numb.

 

        He gets the feeling again: the world was tilting on its axis, sending Lance stumbling. He tries to steady his feet, but his vision goes dizzy with stars. Somehow, he ends up on the ground, back pressed against a boulder, knees pulled tight to his chest. He’s shaking and the ringing in his ears starts up again.

 

        He wonders if it hurts to die. He had heard stories of sailors who died at sea after mere days of being stranded out in open water with no food or water. His father had told him these stories. They were supposed to be just stories. He wasn’t supposed to be one of these sailors. Isn’t that what he always said? ‘Don’t worry, papa, if I ever become a sailor, I’ll always come back home!’

 

        “I’m never going to see my family again,” Lance whispers, though he’s only vaguely aware that he spoke the words out loud.

 

        The finality of this realization hasn’t quite sunk in. He’s too numb to feel anything. He hugs his knees tightly to his chest, burying his face into his arms. He can hear only his ragged breathing.

 

        Suddenly, Lance feels the collar of his shirt digging against his throat as he’s hoisted up roughly by the scruff of his tee. Keith is glaring angrily at him with dark pupils, a fistful of Lance’s shirt clutched tightly in his bruised hand. He pulls Lance so close that Lance can see the bloodshot veins running across the whites of his eyes.  

 

        “Tough shit,” Keith spits in his face before promptly shoving Lance up against the tall stack of rocks piled behind them. “Everyone misses their family.”

 

        Shocked and confused by the sudden attack, Lance pushes back hard against Keith’s chest, sending them both tumbling onto the ground. Keith stares up at him with wide, challenging eyes.

 

        In a split second, Lance felt the emptiness in his chest fill up with something else entirely. It’s hot and angry and Lance nearly goes blind with rage. Who was Keith to dismiss his feelings like that? Lance was fucking allowed to miss his family. It’s all he’s been doing since they left Earth. Every night he stayed up worrying over whether or not his family was doing okay without him, whether or not they even missed him, whether or not he would ever see them again.

 

        Keith, of all people, should know how much they mean to him. While they hadn’t really gotten along in the beginning, Lance had been confident enough to call Keith his friend after a few weeks together. He had decided that he was able to tolerate Keith’s obnoxiously brooding behavior and had started wanting to try to spend more time with him.

 

        One time, the two of them had even stayed up late talking to each other under the sky deck, Lance blabbering on and on about his family and all the things he missed about Earth. He had tried to get Keith to tell him stories about himself and his life, but he never got to hear about it because Keith went all quiet and Lance decided not to press.

 

        Lance would have thought that Keith would at least understand how Lance was feeling right now. He had told him everything about his family that night because things had gotten a little too bad and he was just a little too homesick. Evidently, the things that Lance had said didn’t stick to Keith. He didn’t seem to care about how Lance felt at all. His words were a cruel dismissal, just another reason to prove that Keith would never really care about Lance, especially not in the way Lance cared about Keith. It stings like hell.

 

        Propelled by the hot white flash of rage, Lance lands a brutal punch into Keith’s gut.

 

        “Qué mierda?! What the fuck did you just say?” he screams. He feels tears prickle at the edge of his eyes. Blinking them away angrily, he cries, “You’re a god damn heartless asshole!”

 

        Keith shoves Lance off of him, gasping for air with an arm wrapped around his stomach.

 

        “Lance, sorry, I –”

 

        “Shut up! Bastard!” Lance screeches.

 

        He goes in for another punch, but Keith manages to knock his fist out of the air. Though the night sky is dark, Lance catches a glimpse of Keith’s eyes flashing underneath him. Keith scrambles up and rounds on Lance. For a second, he looks as if he’s going to kick Lance to the floor and bash his skull in.

 

        Then, he hesitates for a moment, eyebrows furrowing slightly. If Lance’s senses hadn’t been overtaken by his rage, he might have taken that as a sign of surrender, might have heard the way Keith had tried to apologize. However, his anger drives him to throw another punch, this time landing a blow against Keith’s jaw.

 

        An almost inhuman noise escapes Keith’s lips as Lance’s fist collides with the underside of his chin. The impact sends him stumbling backwards. Wheezing heavily, he clutches at his jaw and glares daggers into Lance, eyes dark underneath his bangs.

 

        Adrenaline courses through Lance’s veins. He’s ready – God, he’s fucking ready for whatever Keith can throw at him. He wants to punch, wants to fight. It feels good. The feeling of his fist colliding against Keith’s jaw had sent a sharp spark of pain up his own arm. It felt good to feel something. It felt good to feel.

 

        He rounds on Keith, eyeing his bent figure menacingly. Lance yells, dares him to make a move. For a moment, it looks as if Keith is going to take the bait. Lance’s heart hammers against his ribcage, his breath picking up. He’s fucking ready.

 

        Keith straightens, flicking his head to the side to push his dark hair out of his eyes. There’s an expression on his face that Lance can’t quite read.

 

        Then, without a word, Keith turns and flees out of the clearing.

 

        Lance startles, watching in surprise as Keith’s dark form disappears through the valley. Frustration bubbles in Lance's gut at the anticlimactic disappointment. He had been charged and ready to go. The clearing feels colder and emptier than before.

 

        “Yeah, run, you fucking shit!” Lance calls after him, though he already feels his anger seeping away, replaced with a cold feeling of panic in his chest.

 

        He slowly lowers his fists and drops to the ground in defeat. As all the adrenaline in his body from the tussle slowly drains from his veins, he begins coming back to his senses. His whole body hurts. The cuts on Lance’s hands start to sting, his knuckles start bruising, and his ears start ringing again.

 

        Falling onto his side, he stares blankly up at the dark sky with his cheek pressed against the cool ground. His eyes lose focus as he gazes over at the wormhole in the sky, its edges still pulsing menacingly and glowing an eerie white. It casts strange shadows across the clearing.

 

        Seeing no need to hold them back anymore, Lance feels tears spilling over his cheeks, hot against his skin. His throat clenches painfully as he begins sobbing, lying numbly against the cold, hard ground. He can’t even pinpoint the exact reason he’s crying – everything in the universe went wrong. He was going to die completely and utterly alone.

 

        Now, even Keith had left him. He had let Lance know that he didn’t care about him and then he had stormed off. Lance had lost all his friends. With a bitter feeling, Lance realizes that perhaps punching Keith was the last thing he would ever do in his miserable life.

 

        His eyes begin burning and he feels the ground start spinning. He squeezes his eyelids shut, desperately trying to ignore the way the planet kept tilting further and further on its axis, trying to ignore the gut-dropping feeling that he was going to fall off the edge of the world.

 

        He’s not sure how long he lies there. He cries until his tears sting so much against his cheeks that it’s unbearable. His stomach already feels the faint tug of hunger.

 

        He doesn’t feel himself slip into a restless sleep.

Chapter Text

       Lance knows he’s dreaming, but it feels more like a strange memory than anything else. Keith is there. This part isn’t new to Lance. This is how he knows he’s dreaming.

 

        Except, this time Keith’s eyes are gone. His hair casts a dark shadow over his face and Lance can’t see his eyes. It unsettles him.

 

        Keith tells Lance to shoot.

 

        Lance has his bayard in his hands. He tries to activate it, but nothing happens.

 

        Someone grabs his arm. He looks up. It’s his ma. She’s got her dark, frizzy hair pulled up in a ponytail, like she always does, and she wears a grin. It reminds Lance of love and laughter and reassurance. The warmth from her smile doesn’t reach Lance.

 

        Despite this, he wants to hug his mother. His arms don’t reach for her. He tries to meet her eyes, only to find that she doesn’t have any.

 

        She tells him he needs to shoot. His bayard activates.

 

        “Who?” Lance asks.

 

        His ma points. At the other end of her finger is Keith.

 

        Lance tries to lift his gun but he can’t. Suddenly, Keith grabs for the weapon and picks the gun up for him. He aims it at himself.

 

        Lance looks back. His ma is gone.

 

        He turns back to Keith, but he’s gone too. Suddenly, everything goes cold and Lance screams for Keith.

 

        He feels himself submerge under a cold wave.

        The chill knocks him awake. Lance gasps, a cloud of his white breath rising from his mouth. The air is frigid. He’s shivering, dazed, and confused. The fleeting memory of his dream is already beginning to slip away, but the haunting sight of his ma and Keith leaves a heavy feeling in his heart. 

        He can still feel traces of his tears caked along his cheeks and his mouth is dry, throat raw from sobbing. He shoots upright, hands clasping at his arms, shivering uncontrollably.

        The clearing is dark, though illuminated by the glow of the wormhole hovering in the air. Long, eerie shadows stretch their way across the ground. Spooked by his dream, the creepy atmosphere around him makes his heart nearly stop dead in his chest. Lance tries not to think about what might be lurking in the shadows.

        He wonders why his dream had felt so familiar. The image of Keith, eyes hidden under the shadows cast across his face, sends another a shiver down his spine.

        The fleeing memory of his mother hits Lance with an overpowering sense of nostalgia. He longs for her, aches to see her again. The smile she had given him in his dream felt wrong, much too empty, and it doesn’t sit right with Lance. It wasn’t her, but he found himself desperately clinging to the image of her smile. God, he wants to see her so badly.

        “Mamá…” he sobs, pressing his face into his palms. He can already feel tears prickling in his eyes. “Te extraño.”

        Lance can’t help himself – he starts crying into his hands, nose and cheeks stinging in the cold. Sorrow tugs at his heart.

        He wonders what his ma was doing right now, wonders how she’s been dealing with his disappearance. It’s been nearly a year since he last saw her. He was supposed to have gone back from the Garrison for the holidays. Of course, that had never happened because he had been forced to defend the goddamn universe.

        At least I got the job done right, Lance thinks bitterly.

        At least his family was safe back on Earth. Even if he would never make it back himself, it would have all been worth it to protect his family.

        He hopes they know how much he loves them. He wishes he could tell them.

        The cold starts fiercely stinging against his wet cheeks, so Lance tries frantically to pull himself together. He wipes at his eyes and nose with his sleeves. He feels miserable and pathetic sobbing so much, though he supposes that none of this would really matter soon.

        Besides, it’s not like anyone was around to see him cry. Keith had abandoned him, hadn’t he?

        The thought doesn’t exactly help calm him down. He feels another cold wave wash over him, hauntingly similar to the shock that had hit him in his dream.

        Though he’s still bitter about the fight they had gotten into earlier, deep down, Lance knows that he has to find Keith. He has no one else left except for Keith.

        It doesn’t matter if he had said hurtful words to him – none of that mattered in the long run. Lance is worried. He wonders where Keith had run off to, what he’s been doing this whole time, if he’s cold. If he’s… dead.

        At that thought, Lance immediately jumps to his feet. The sudden movement brings his numb limbs back to life. He has to find Keith. He couldn’t have gone very far, though Lance isn’t sure how many hours he’d been asleep. Reluctantly, Lance wonders if Keith would really abandon him for good in the middle of the cold night to wander around on an alien planet alone. That seemed much too cruel and too stupid, even for Keith, considering all they had now was each other. He hopes that Keith hasn’t gone too far.

        Lying in the cold air for hours had done nothing good for Lance. His bones feel frozen solid as he starts across the clearing, muscles tight. He has no plan, no idea where he’s headed, and a dull, throbbing pain springs to life in his head again. All he knows is that he has to move in order to warm his muscles up and stop himself from freezing to death. All he knows is that he has to find Keith.

        He doesn’t make it very far. From the dim light coming from the wormhole up above, Lance can make out a dark figure hurrying towards him. When Lance freezes the shadow follows suit, crouching ominously near the entrance to the clearing a few feet away.

        Lance curses his sour luck. Hasn’t he suffered enough in just one day?

        The hair on the back of his neck prickles and he feels his pulse quicken, heart beating like a caged bird trapped between his ribs. Lance’s blood chills enough to match the cold air. Suddenly, he’s unsure if he’s even awake. He gets the sinking feeling that he’s trapped in his dream. As he eyes the unmoving figure, he tries desperately to will himself awake, pinching hard against the skin on his arms.

        Nothing happens.

        Perhaps Lance won’t have to wait until the painful binds of starvation take a hold of him or for the relentless cold to freeze his heart over. Perhaps this is how he will die – at the hands of this shadowy figure. Lance wonders if it makes a difference. Either way, he wasn’t getting off this planet alive. Might as well make it quick.

        The figure begins moving again. Lance feels the blood rushing in his ears. He desperately feels his pockets for his bayard. It’s not there and he can’t remember where he put it. He’s defenseless.

        As the shadow makes its way into the clearing, the glow of the wormhole catches on the side of its face. A shiver runs down Lance’s spine and he halts completely.

        “Keith?!” Lance hears himself calling in disbelief.

        At that moment, it seemed that his luck had turned for the better.

        Instantly, terror relinquishes its vice-like grip on Lance, his fears dissolving into the cold night air as his eyes land on Keith. His dark hair and pale skin is illuminated under the glow from above. 

        Lance thinks he looks like an angel – heavenly-faced and glowing, looking at Lance with those big, dark eyes of his. Lance tells himself that he’s only thinking these things because he’s going delirious with relief. 

        “It’s really you! You’re here! You’re alive!” Lance cries. “Where the hell have you been, you jerk?!” 

        His voice comes out quaking as his teeth chatter in the cold, but he doesn’t notice. He feels lightheaded at the sight of Keith. Closing the short distance between them, Lance runs up to him and stops right before him. He’s shivering, but he manages to shoot a grin down at Keith, who stares back up at him in shock. 

        At the look of dismay, Lance demands, “What?” 

        He hesitantly takes a step back, afraid that he had done something wrong. Though, what could he have done wrong? What was there left to be worried about? It was just the two of them and no one else and soon even they would be gone. 

        Slowly, Keith shrugs and whispers, “Thought you’d be angrier.” 

        “What? …No!” Lance cries, heaving a deep sigh of relief. Before he can stop himself, he reaches over and brushes Keith’s bangs off of his forehead, hand resting on the side of Keith’s face, fingers tangled in his hair. He meets Keith’s eyes and feels another light rush of relief. The creepy image of Keith from his dream dissipates. “God, no I’m so glad –” 

        He chokes up, willing himself not to cry, not here in front of Keith. Thankfully, it goes past Keith’s head unnoticed. He keeps staring at Lance with his wide eyes, long lashes fanning out, casting shadows across his cheeks. The glow from the wormhole catches and glints off of Keith’s irises. Lance wants to tell him that he has all the stars in the universe in those pretty eyes of his – always has wanted Keith to know this – but he doesn’t do it. He saves it for later, though he knows they don’t have much time left. Vaguely, he wonders if he’ll ever tell Keith at this point.

        Lance leans forward and wraps his arms around Keith’s torso, pulling him close. This takes Keith by surprise; Lance can feel him tense up. He’s warm. So warm that Lance can’t help but to press his face into the crook of Keith’s neck.

        “Y – you’re shaking,” Keith says, hesitantly returning the embrace with an arm around Lance’s shoulders.

        “I am!” Lance cries, teeth chattering. “It’s fucking f – freezing.” 

        Keith’s skin is so warm. Lance can feel strands of Keith’s soft hair tickling his cheek. It feels good to hug someone. It feels good to hug Keith. 

        “I can’t believe y – you came back,” Lance chatters. 

        He can feel his whole body shivering. He’s not quite sure if it’s entirely from the cold. 

            He knows that he’s being uncharacteristically soft with Keith and much too touchy, but he can’t help himself. He had been afraid that he would never see him again. 

        “Of course I’d come back…” Keith whispers. His breath tingles against Lance’s ear. “…You’re not mad anymore?”

        How could Lance ever be? He knows he should still be upset at Keith – what he had said had been hurtful – but right now, all Lance cares about is that he’s seeing him again. 

        Lance shakes his head, nose pressed against Keith’s neck. “I’m just happy you’re here.” 

        He feels Keith let out a heavy sigh of relief, the arm around his shoulders tightening its grip around him for a moment. Then, Keith pulls away. Subconsciously, Lance feels himself try to follow him, drawn to his warmth, but Keith puts a hand on his chest and stops him. 

        “Lance,” he says.

        “Hmm?” Lance asks, drawing back.

        Suddenly, he pulls his head out of the clouds and comes back to his senses. He steps a little farther away from Keith, suddenly conscious of how close he had been to him, of how many boundaries he had just broken. Dreadfully, he remembers that Keith has always been a little closed-off and worried about personal space. He hopes it hadn’t been too… weird.

        Keith doesn’t seem to be focused on any of that, however.

        “We need to get you warmed up,” he says simply, as if it was the only thing that matters right now.

        “Wh – how?” Lance cries.

        There’s a glimmer in Keith’s eyes and for a second Lance wonders if he misheard him. He doesn’t understand the excited expression on his face. 

        Lance lets out a surprised sound as Keith grabs his hand and pulls him out of the clearing, back in the direction that Keith had come from. 

        “You’ll never believe our luck!” Keith says excitedly as he hauls Lance by the hand after him, fast on his feet. 

        “Luck? What luck could we possibly have– whoa!” 

        Lance can’t keep up with Keith’s fast pace, legs still numb from lying in the cold for so long. He stumbles over his own feet, barely catching himself from sending them both tumbling.

        “S – slow down,” he begs. “I can’t feel my legs.” 

        “Oh. Sorry,” Keith says. 

        He turns and makes sure that Lance is steady on his feet, asking him if he’s okay. Lance can vaguely feel himself nodding, though all he’s really focused on is the way that Keith’s fingers are twined with his own.

        “Sorry,” Keith says again. 

        He turns and starts leading Lance along by the hand again. They’re walking at a normal pace now and Lance tries not to feel too disappointed when Keith lets go.

        A heavy silence stretches between the two of them.

        “Uh,” Lance says after a few more quiet steps. “So. Where are we going?”

        “To the fire,” Keith answers. 

        “The what?!”

        “You heard me,” Keith says, grinning at Lance slyly.

        They round the corner of a large cliff. In the distance, Lance can make out a warm orange glow in the middle of a dirt ravine. Suddenly, the dreaded feeling that had been weighing down on him ever since they had failed to contact their friends dissipates. For a strange moment, Lance feels like everything is going to be alright.

        “Keith!” Lance cries, shocked and confused. “How the fuck did you start a fire?! Do you know how useful that would have been for me?”

        “You know, I figured you’d appreciate it. That’s kind of why I went back to find you,” Keith says, his usual sarcastic tone creeping into his words.

        For once, Lance isn’t annoyed at his dumb, condescending way of speaking. He lets out a laugh and pulls Keith by the shoulder for another hug.

        “Fuck you, man!” he says. “And here I was, ready to die a cold, lonely death!" 

        He’s only half joking, but his tone is light. He’s so, so relieved to see the fire in the distance, with it’s enticingly warm glow beckoning them closer. He’s fighting the urge to sprint towards it. He’s so fucking relieved could cry.

        Keith doesn’t respond to his remark, studying Lance with a scrutinizing expression on his face. Maybe now wasn’t the best time to joke around, but Lance didn’t know how to do much else. He flashes Keith a wide, exaggerated grin to try to convince him that it’s alright.

        They finally reach the fire and Lance melts. After hours in the cold, he lets the warmth engulf him, soaking it up like it was the summer sun on the days he would go surfing with his older brother on Veradero beach. He curls up beside the flame, sitting down in the dirt with his knees pulled into his chest, closing his eyes as the heat seeped into his bones, thawing his frozen limbs.

        “How the fuck did you make a fire, Keith?” Lance whispers, voice sluggish and tired from the feeling of warmth coursing through him. 

        The planet was nothing but rock and dirt. There was no firewood to start a flame. The fire before them was enclosed in a circle of rocks, with nothing visible at the center. No wood or paper to keep the fire going.

        “I never thought I’d say this but living alone in a desert for a year comes in handy sometimes,” Keith says, laughing. He pats at one of the little pouches hanging from the side of his belt. “Kept a box of matches in here.” 

        He gives a kick at the ground, sending dirt flying into the flame. The fire flares brighter for a second, making Lance’s eyes sting, though he doesn’t quite mind. 

        “Turns out this dirt burns like coal,” Keith explains excitedly. “I couldn’t believe our luck.” 

        Our luck. Lance smiles at the inclusion. 

        “Dude. Did you just go around lighting things on fire, hoping something would work?” Lance asks, laughing. 

        “Well, actually, you gave me the idea.”

        “What?! Me?” 

        “Yep. When I found your lion gracefully landed –” Keith jumps back, grinning, as Lance swats at his leg. “– in that clearing, there was a little fire going in a patch of dirt near the rubble. That’s how I got the idea.” 

        “Well, gee, I guess you can thank me for saving our asses this time!” Lance declares. 

        “Yep, all you, buddy,” Keith says.        

        Lance’s heart lurches as he feels Keith place a rough hand on his head. He lets out a cry of protest as Keith ruffles his hair playfully. 

        Lance’s chest swells, butterflies fluttering in his stomach. Begrudgingly, he shooes Keith’s hand off of his head by madly batting his arms up at him. 

        Keith lets out a snicker. Quietly, Lance glances up at him. He’s standing over him, gazing into the flame with a small grin on his face. The light casts an orange glow over his pale face and Lance can see, clearer than ever, the tired look on his face, dark bangs hanging under his eyes. Still, somehow under this strange lighting, with every scar and blemish from the long, grueling day behind them illuminated in the firelight, he looks beautiful. 

        Lance swallows a bitter taste in his throat, hugging his knees tighter. Suddenly awfully unsure what to do with himself and desperate for a way to shake away his thoughts, he quickly goes back to doing what he does best. 

        He shoots an aggressive remark at Keith. 

        “You know, you’re a real bitch for running away from a fight like that,” he says, staring adamantly into the flame. 

        Keith lets out a sigh and says, “See, I knew you were still angry.” 

        “W – yeah, obviously!” Lance sputters, despite knowing that it contradicts what he said earlier. 

        He had the right to be angry.

        A silence stretches between them. Lance doesn’t take his eyes away from the bright flame, staring unblinkingly up at the embers crackling away into the night air.

        Slowly, Keith sits down next to him, arm propped up on his knee. Lance shoots him a quick glance, before looking away again.

        Silence.

        “Look,” Keith finally starts, breaking the tension between them. “I’m really sorry about what I said. I – I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

        For a moment, Lance is shocked, barely registering the words that Keith had said to him. Was that… an apology? Did Keith just apologize to him? He subtly pinches himself on the arm, just to make sure that he isn’t still trapped in a fever dream. 

        “You’re allowed to miss your family,” Keith continues, mumbling as if he’s embarrassed to say it, like he can't believe that he's apologizing to Lance either. “I know how much they mean to you.”

        Lance finally pulls his eyes away from the flame to properly look at Keith. The bright light leaves dark shapes dancing in his vision, but he can still see Keith sitting close beside him. He’s looking at his shoes, messy dark hair falling over the side of his face, but Lance can still make out the earnest expression in his eyes.

        His heart swells and he nearly starts crying again. 

        “Wow, Keith,” he whispers, voice low because he knows if he speaks normally, his words will come out shaky. “I guess you do know how to be nice sometimes.”

        Keith’s head snaps up and he shoots Lance a sour look.

        “C’mon, Lance, I was trying to be sincere!” he cries, giving him a light shove. 

        Lance lets out a laugh, but quickly stops short when he catches a glimpse of the side of Keith’s face. 

        His heart wrenches at the sight of the purple bruise fanning from Keith’s lower left cheek, following the curve up his jaw to the underside of his chin. Just above it, the bandaged gash from Keith’s landing had been exposed, revealing a deep scab. 

        “Ah, shit,” Lance mutters. 

        He feels a pang in his chest, realizing that the punch he had thrown earlier did much more damage than he thought it would have. Immediately, his spirits drop.  

        Gingerly, he reaches towards Keith, who abruptly realizes what Lance is doing and turns away. 

        “Dude, that looks like it really hurts!” Lance protests. “Let me see it.” 

        “It’s fine!” Keith insists, turning his back to Lance.

        “No!” Lance says, tugging on his shoulder. “Look at me, you idiot.”

        “I’ll be fine!” Keith cries, elbowing Lance’s arm away. “It doesn’t hurt!”

        “Bullshit! Stop being so stubborn all the time,” Lance begs.

        He crawls over until he’s sitting in front of Keith, back towards the fire. Keith is still craning his neck to hide the wound from him. Worried, Lance cups a gentle hand under Keith’s chin, carefully avoiding the bruising. He made to tilt Keith’s head towards him to get a better look at the damage he’d done, but Keith flinches away, making Lance’s gut twist.

        “You liar, it does hurt,” Lance mutters. Softer, he whispers, “I’m so sorry.”

        Keith elbows his arm away again and crosses his arms in front of his chest, finally turning towards Lance.

        “It’s fine. It doesn’t matter, I’ll be fine,” he grits.

        “Fuck,” Lance whispers. He can feel panic rising in his chest. He repeats, “I – I’m sorry, I didn’t think it would – fuck.”

        Lance hates the feeling of uselessness that had started welling in his chest. He had no way to help with the bruise that he had given Keith. If only they had ice. Ice always helped with bruising. But, no, there wasn’t anything he could do. It was all useless.

        Suddenly, the spell of relief from finding Keith and discovering the fire is broken. Lance is hit, once again, with the painful realization that there was nothing either of them could do to survive for very long on this lonely, lonely planet.

        Death is inevitable, he lets himself think, shockingly abrupt.

        “It’s okay!” Keith is insisting, trying to meet Lance’s wild eyes. “Calm down, I forgive you! Don’t worry!” 

        Lance runs a frantic hand through his hair, shaking his head.

        “It’s not just that – it’s – what are we going to do, dude…” he whispers.

        “What?”

        Lance gestures vaguely around them with his arms.

        “Look at us. We’re stuck out here. We’ve got nothing. We're going to die of starvation. We’re basically fucking sitting here, waiting for our deaths,” Lance moans.

        At that, Keith fixes him with a stern glare.

        “Hey,” he says loudly, jabbing a finger at him. “Don’t think like that.”

        “Well, how do you expect me to think?!” Lance cries. “You want me to pretend everything’s fine? That we’ll just survive on this random fucking planet where there’s no food and no water?”

        Keith stiffens at Lance’s snide remarks.

        “No, dumbass, calm down. What I’m saying is that we’ll last a few more days… and then we can worry,” Keith murmurs.

        “How do you know we even have a few more days?” Lance cries, wringing his hands. “It’ll all be over soon! We don’t have shelter or food or –”

        “Let me finish!” Keith interrupts.

        He shuts his eyes and sighs, before looking back up at Lance. Keith reaches into another one of the pouches on his belt and pulls out a few small, thin white packets. Lance recognizes them immediately: packets of portable space food. Back at the Garrison, they kept a steady stock of them for pilots when they went on missions.

        “Are you fucking kidding me? So now you tell me?!” Lance cries, suddenly feeling another small spark of hope ignite within him. “How?!”

        “Stole them after I got booted from the Garrison. Kept them around. They're meant to last a really long time,” Keith says slyly. He tosses the packets onto the ground beside them. “Hungry?”

        Lance stares at them for a moment, mouth twisting in consideration.

        “Nah,” he decides. “Save them.”

        Keith nods in agreement.

        “Jeez, you just keep saving my ass, don’t you?” Lance mutters, feeling his panic subdue a bit now that he knows they have at least a meager supply of food. Moving from his spot directly in front of the fire to sit back beside Keith, he adds, “You’ve really got us covered…thanks…”

        Keith shrugs like it’s nothing. Lance wonders how he could be so calm all of a sudden, when a few hours ago he had been so full of rage, punching and kicking at anything in sight. He probably ran off to let off some steam. Lance wishes he could appear as calm as Keith, though he knows his face probably reflects how terrified he feels. Somehow, it’s not so bad now that Keith’s here.

        After a moment, Keith glances over at Lance and says, “Really, it’s fine. Don’t worry about the bruise, okay Lance?”

        Lance props his chin into his hands and lets out an indignant noise.

        “I just feel bad. I shouldn’t have hit you, you know…” he murmurs, unable to meet Keith’s eyes.

        “And I shouldn’t have said what I said back there, but I still did,” Keith says. “So we’re even.”

        They sit in silence, side by side, watching the fire flick golden embers into the dark night sky. Lance tries hard not the think about their situation. At least they have the fire and a little bit of food. If he just pretends that he’s sitting around a campfire back on Earth with Keith, it feels as if everything is going to be okay.

        The warmth emanating from the fire nearly lulls Lance to sleep, his eyelids slowly sliding shut. 

        Until he Keith speaks up. 

        “You know what I think about a lot?” he asks, his voice a low hum over the crackling of the fire. 

        “What?” 

        “The Garrison. Think the Commander was pissed when you guys disappeared?” Keith muses. 

        The answer surprises Lance a bit, but he can’t say that he didn’t think about the Garrison from time to time as well.

        “Huh, that big guy? He’s pissed about everything, isn’t he?” Lance says, giving a laugh.

        “Hmm, from what I remember, yes,” Keith agrees. He pauses for a moment before continuing: “It’s kind of sad that you guys won’t get credit for saving the universe and stuff. Everyone back at the Garrison will never know what you really did.” 

        Lance blinks over at Keith. He, too, had thought about what everyone back at the school thought about his disappearance, wondered if they had all wrote it off as a mystery. It was probably easier to call it that instead of saying that he had gone off in a giant blue lion to defend the universe and never returned – not that they had any way of knowing. 

        Something seems off about the way Keith words what he’s saying.

        “What do you mean ‘you guys’? Are you talking about me, Hunk, and Pidge? You know you also did all that stuff too, right?” Lance says. “Give yourself some credit, man.”

        “Well, I guess, but I got kicked out… remember?” Keith says, his voice slightly amused, yet Lance can detect a bitter twang in his words.

        “Oh.”

        Lance supposes that part was true. When they first found the blue lion, it had been almost a year since Keith flunked out of the Garrison. Lance clearly remembers the day he found out that Keith was gone. Seeing his empty desk that day had left a strange, hollow feeling in his heart for a long, long time. Lance supposes that by the time they left Earth, the Garrison wouldn’t have known that Keith was also part of their mission. The thought makes Lance terribly sad.

        “Well, who cares if everyone back at that stupid place knows what we did or not. All that matters is that we know. Besides, thanks to us, the Commander can keep bitching to all the cadets back on Earth because we saved Earth’s ass. And I’m not too sure if people are going to be grateful for that,” Lance says lightly, hoping to lift Keith’s spirits.

        Thankfully, it earns him a snicker from Keith.

        “You’re right. I’d take the Earth being destroyed over having to listen to that guy yell at me any day,” he agrees. 

        They sit there giggling hysterically at that. Lance thinks that given their situation, they’re allowed to laugh at the thought, despite how ridiculous it was. He’s grateful for this – this small moment where he can forget his sorrows in his laughter.

        The moment is lost quickly and Lance and Keith fall back into a tense silence.

        “Hey,” Lance says after a few minutes. Suddenly curious, he takes this chance to ask a question that’s been on his mind for a very long time: “Why’d you get booted from the Garrison?”

        Keith turns and looks at him, blinking his eyes hard in surprise.

        “Oh,” he says. “No one’s ever actually asked me that before.”

        “I’ve always wondered,” Lance admits.

        Keith’s expression grows even more surprised and suddenly, the words coming out of Lance’s mouth feel a little too personal, things that he never thought he’d share threatening to spill past his lips. He holds these thoughts down, however, knowing that what Keith was about to say would be personal for him, too.

        “It’s kind of stupid, really,” Keith says, holding his hand up in surrender. “What did they tell you it was?”

        “Discipline issue,” Lance tells him, echoing the words that the instructor had told their class.

        “How vague,” Keith murmurs. 

        “Spit it out, Kogane,” Lance prompts. 

        “Okay, okay. Don’t laugh. I tried to steal a ship and fly out to Kerberos to find Shiro…” Keith mutters, running a hand through his hair in exasperation. “Didn’t even make it out of the hangar.” 

        Now it’s Lance’s turn to be surprised. He looks at Keith with his mouth deliberately hanging open to convey his disbelief. 

        “Dude. Stealing a spaceship? Okay, now that’s, like, taboo at the Garrison! They tell you on day one and then every day after that: ‘don’t try to steal a spaceship’!” Lance cries. “And… Kerberos? Really? This was after Shiro and them went on that mission thing, right? Really?

        “Stop!” Keith groans, hiding his face in his hand. “I know, I know, I said it was stupid.”

        “Dude. Why did you think that was a good idea?” Lance asks, throwing his head back with laughter.

        All this time he had come up with so many possible theories as to what the hell Keith could have possibly done to get himself kicked out of the Garrison. Back then Lance had always seen Keith as a conceited hothead always looking for a fight. He had always supposed that the ‘discipline issue’ had something to do with getting in a fight with someone. Lance had thought it could have been with a high-ranking officer or, perhaps, Keith had beat up another student. He never would have thought it would be because of a plan as doomed as trying to steal a Garrison spaceship.

        “Oh, come on!” Keith cries. “Shiro was pretty much my only friend. What else was I supposed to do?” 

        Keith says it in a joking manner, picking fun at himself, but Lance can tell that it was probably what had actually been going through his mind when he was formulating his plan. 

        “I had a lot of time to myself afterwards to rethink my actions,” Keith admits, letting out a scoff. “Really don’t know how I thought that would work out. There was no way I’d ever get close to finding Shiro, anyway.” 

        By the drop of tone in his voice, Lance can tell that Keith is thinking of Shiro right now. Lance begins to as well, wondering what ever happened to him. He quickly pushes the thought away, refusing to make himself get too worked up again.

        “You know,” Lance says loudly, clapping Keith on the back to distract him from his thoughts. “The only reason Shiro was your ‘only friend’ back then was because you never paid attention to me. I totally would have been your friend, dude.” 

        He’s not entirely sure why he chooses to say this – perhaps he was just desperate for a way to steer the topic away from Shiro – and he’s not entirely sure if what he’s saying is true. Back then, at least, he didn’t know if he wanted to be Keith’s friend. He just felt drawn to him for reasons he wasn’t entirely sure of and that scared him. So, he resorted to being mean to Keith, of all things, as if that would have helped him at all. 

        Keith must be thinking the same thing, because he gives him the most quizzical look and says, “Bullshit. You hated me back then!” 

        “No, no, no. I wouldn’t say I hated you!” Lance cries, rubbing the back of his head in puzzlement, unsure of how to explain it. 

        “Uh, I do recall you saying ‘Hey, Keith, I hate you’ a couple times,” Keith muses.

        Lance is glad that his tone is light and that he’s pulling an exaggerated thinking face to show that he doesn’t take it to heart. 

        It’s not that Lance hated him. It was just that Keith had always had something about him that just made Lance feel… things. He had told himself adamantly that it was jealousy and he quickly found himself belittling, making fun of, and picking on Keith because it was the only way that Lance could make himself feel better about himself. Picking out Keith’s flaws just to prove that he wasn’t perfect, that he wasn’t better at everything compared the Lance. 

        He’s not entirely sure when the whole jealousy façade crumbled, but he knows now that jealousy was definitely not the only thing he had been feeling whenever he looked at Keith. Knows now that it wasn’t what made his heart quicken, made him always think about Keith and his soft hair and his big pretty eyes and his lithe body… 

        Lance wants to tell him everything. He wants to. His heart is beating rapidly, jumping up into his throat. He wants to tell him. 

        From the beginning: 

        When I first saw you back at the Garrison I couldn’t stop wondering who you were for ages. Then you ended up in my flight class a year later and it was just about the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But then I started getting really confused because I had no idea why you interested me so much.

 

        Then you started showing me up at everything and being the greatest at everything there ever was to be great at, so, naturally, I got really jealous. Or, I thought I was jealous. Maybe I was just impressed and…intrigued. Well, the only way I could deal with this weird mix of feelings was by convincing myself and everyone else that I hated you, when really I just wanted to be more like you, because I think you’re cool. And I maybe even wanted to get to know you really badly, but you always had this mean look on your face and my ego always got the best of me and it always made me nervous just looking at you.

 

        That’s kinda how it started. So then I just made fun of you because I had a lot of internal conflict with myself regarding you and the only way I thought I could make myself feel better about it was by convincing myself that I hated your guts.

 

        And I felt really upset when you got kicked out of the school and for a long, long time I repressed these thoughts and convinced myself to forget about you. I thought it was a miracle when I saw you again. You were running to rescue Shiro the night I was on the roof with Hunk and Pidge.

 

        And here we are now. I can’t believe that I’m here with you until the bitter end.

        He thinks all these things but his tongue sits heavy as a rock in his mouth and he can’t bring himself to say it out loud. For months, he had sworn to himself that he would take these feelings with him to the grave. It looks like that would become a reality now. 

        Instead, he just gives a small laugh and shrugs, saying, “Nah, that never happened. I guess all that matters is that we’re pals now, right?”

        Keith is silent for a moment, studying Lance with his soulful eyes. Lance almost has to look away, but he’s determined to hold his gaze to avoid looking suspicious. 

        Finally, Keith gives him a small smile and says, “Yeah. Pals.” 

        Lance feels the tension between them fizzle away and they lean back on their palms, gazing into the crackling fire – a lonely orange glow in the middle of the vast, vast cold.

 

       

Chapter Text

         Lance wakes up with his cheek pressed against the ground. For a moment, he’s disoriented, blinking away the ghostly images of towering Galran armies that had haunted his sleep.  

        He doesn’t remember falling asleep. It takes him a second to remember everything that had happened last night, but his memory catches up to him when he looks around and sees the same dreaded green landscape and the little circle of rocks surrounding the ashes of the smothered fire.

        Still not lifting his head, he strains his eyes and finds Keith sitting at his feet, his nose buried between the pages of a book.

        A book? Why does Keith have a book?

        Ignoring his questions, Lance lets himself stare for a while, not wanting to face reality, wanting to stay asleep. He lies there, watching the way Keith’s hooded eyes dart back and forth between the words on the page.

        He had seen Keith read a number of times back on the Castle, had forced Keith to explain to him the plot of a dozen books he had read because Lance had never been a big reader. It was hard for him to stay focused, hard for him to piece together all the letters on the page and form words, make a story out of them. Books didn’t seem interesting until Keith explained them.

        It’s a peaceful moment, lying there, watching Keith in silence. He’s lost in thought until Keith’s eyes stray from the page and meet his own.

        “Oh,” Keith says once he realizes that Lance is awake. “Good morning.”

        Lance feels his face heat up, feeling odd because he’d been caught staring. He quickly looks away and pushes himself upright, muttering out a ‘good morning’ in return.

        He feels the day spin into motion, the temporary peace of sleep lost, as Keith shuts his book. Quizzically, Lance asks him why he has it with him.

        “A book comes in handy when I get bored,” Keith says, shrugging.

        “No, but, how do you have it with you?”

        “Kept it in my bag.”

        “Bag?”

        Keith flashes him a grin and holds up his knapsack. For a second, Lance’s mind blanks. The last time he saw that ugly thing, it had been hurtling towards him at full speed. Keith had tossed it at him in anger before running off and leaving him in that clearing. The memory leaves a bitter taste in Lance’s mouth.

        “How did you get that?” Lance demands in bewilderment. “I thought we lost it.”

        “Jeez, you ask so many questions. I went back to find it when you were asleep. We need water to make breakfast,” Keith says.

        At that, Lance perks up.

        He watches Keith reach over and pick up one of the packets of space food. Only then does he realize how much he’s bothered by the sharp pang of hunger in his stomach. He had always thought the stuff in the little packets looked gross back at the Garrison, but now his mouth waters painfully at the sight.

        “Dios. ¡Estoy tan hambriento!” Lance finds himself gasping, crawling over to where Keith was crouching.

        “What?”

        “I’m so hungry,” Lance repeats, sifting through the little white packages.

        They were all the same: labeled ‘HAMBURGER’ in shitty synthetic font underneath an equally shitty drawing of a hamburger. And it looks absolutely delicious.

        There’s not much in the pile, only four packets – their meager supply. In the back of Lance’s mind, he worries about what will happen when the last one is finished, but he’s much too famished right now to stop himself from ripping open the first package.

        “Hand me the water, Kogane,” he demands, licking his lips in anticipation.

        Keith rolls his eyes but obliges, reaching in his bag and pulling out the can of water. Though there’s not much inside, thankfully, it only takes a few drops to transform the bland powder into an even blander, pathetic excuse for a hamburger.

        Despite this, Lance gets a sudden rush of excitement and gives a hoot, crying out, “This is the second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”

        His spirits suddenly lifted, he pulls the hamburger out of the package and grins over at Keith.

        “What’s the first?” Keith asks innocently.

        “Uh, nothing,” Lance says quickly, pulling the hamburger in half and splitting it between the two of them. “Let’s fucking eat, man!”

        He tries to make it last, he really does, but his enthusiasm gets the better of him. He hasn’t seen real human food since he left Earth nearly a year ago. He never really got used to the slimy goo Coran made as an excuse for food, though he supposes that he does miss that stuff. He misses Coran.

        He doesn’t have much time to wallow about it, because the savory taste of shitty, dry synthetic hamburger is sliding down his throat and Lance swears he’s never felt better. At least, not since he crash-landed on this god-forsaken planet. At that moment, nothing he had ever eaten back on Earth – not pizza or his ma’s New Year’s Eve cooking – could begin to compare.

        It’s gone in an instant and doesn’t fill up his stomach at all, but that doesn’t phase the grin plastered on Lance’s face.

        “That was so good!” he cries, throwing Keith a thumbs-up. “Dude, how come you didn’t tell me you had normal Earth food all this time?”

        “Because if I did –” Keith says, taking the last bite of his half of the hamburger. “ –We wouldn’t be eating right now.”

        Lance can’t argue with that and tells Keith that his point was fair enough. He has to fight the urge to rip open another packet of space food, so he lies back and stares up at the sky to distract himself.

        The planet doesn’t have clouds or stars – just a pink sky stretching on and on in every direction, with nothing to see except the giant wormhole hanging high in the air.

        Lance squints up at it, eyeing the countless stars scattered in the galaxy on the other side. His heart yearns to be among them. Space had started feeling like a prison some time during their war against the Galra, but now, it felt like an escape once again. He felt like he did back on Earth, back at the Garrison, when he would drag Hunk along with him and sneak out onto the rooftop to watch the stars. They would dream about what was waiting for them out there. Whatever it was, he hadn’t expected it to be this.

        Despite the desperate longing and the inability to change his dead-end fate, Lance resolves to try not to be too morose about it – at least not yet, since they still had meager rations of food and it didn’t look like they would meet their demise quite yet. He’d spent enough of yesterday sulking and falling apart, enough of yesterday being a burden to Keith. He decides that it’s his turn to try to lighten their doleful moods.

        Besides, wasn’t that what he was good at? Cheering people up? He could do it one last time.

        He’s not sure how long he lies there in silence, but he’s startled out of his mind when, suddenly, Keith’s head pops into his line of sight. Surprised, Lance jumps up and nearly knocks their foreheads together.

        “What the –” he cries, falling back onto his elbows and glaring up at Keith.

        He swallows hard, eyeing the way Keith’s hair fell over his forehead as he looks down on him. Propped up on his elbows, he slowly realizes how close their faces are.

        The world feels frozen in time.

        His heart starts beating fast when he realizes Keith is reaching for his face.

        “Hey –”

        Lance freezes abruptly when Keith’s warm hand comes up to his head and brushes his hair to the side. He’s mesmerized by the concentrated look in Keith’s eyes, mesmerized by the way Keith’s fingers are laced through his hair.

        Lance’s heart hammers wildly in his ribcage and he feels his palms start to sweat, suddenly afraid. He tries to pull away, but Keith tugs him closer.

        “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Lance blabbers, eyes flickering down to Keith’s lips. “What are you – wait. Keith, I don’t –”

        “What?” Keith asks. “Let me do this.”

        This? What does he mean by ‘this’? It can’t be…

        The close proximity makes Lance’s head spin. He wonders what could have prompted Keith… Could it have been the way Lance was last night, the way he had hugged him, the way he had pulled him so close? Was that what gave Keith the idea? He can’t think of anything else that would make Keith want this.

        He wonders if Keith is doing this because he wants to or because he feels like he has to. It all feels so sudden, so unexpected, even for Lance, who had been pining for a moment like this ever since he first laid eyes on Keith.

        Lance isn’t fucking ready. He doesn’t know what to do with him self. It’s all so sudden. He had never even expected Keith to want this, to feel this way, but there’s a determined expression on Keith’s face, like he’s sure of it. He’s staring somewhere above Lance’s line of sight, as if he’s afraid to meet Lance’s eyes.

        “Wow. O – okay,” Lance stammers, relenting.

        Hesitantly, he shuts his eyes, terribly unsure of himself. Ignoring the off feeling in his stomach, he waits for Keith’s lips to meet his, his heart jumping into his throat.

        There’s a long moment of tension.

        The only thing he feels is Keith peeling off the gauze that had been wrapped around the injury on his head.

        Confused, Lance’s eyes fly open.

        “Your head doesn’t look too bad anymore,” Keith is saying absentmindedly, over the ringing in Lance’s ears.

        Oh.

        That’s not… what he had expected. Lance feels his face light on fire. His cheeks scorching, he diverts his eyes to the ground in utter embarrassment, silently praying that Keith hadn’t realized what Lance had thought they were going to do. He sits there heavily, wallowing in shame as Keith starts rewrapping the gauze over Lance’s wound.

        Suddenly angry, Lance fights the urge to shove Keith away from him, uncomfortable with how close they are. He doesn’t push Keith away; he’s trying to be patient. It wouldn’t help if they got into another fight. It wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t going to throw a fit.

        Jesus Christ, I thought he was going to fucking kiss me, he thinks, glaring miserably down at himself. What is wrong with me, he would never, never, never, just give it up just give it up stop stop stop.

        Lance feels humiliation wash over him like a tidal wave. He wants to disappear. He wants to fucking disappear.

        “I just wanted to make sure it didn’t worsen or get infected,” Keith is saying, finally pulling away.

        Lance still can’t look at him, face burning.

        “It’s fine, I forgot all about it. You know, you don’t have to baby me around like this,” Lance says harshly, his words coming out rougher than he had intended.

        He flinches at his own aggressive tone. He knows this feeling all too well – the way Keith did things that just made Lance so inexplicably angry. Not at Keith, but at himself for hopelessly feeling the way he feels. Even now, when his days are numbered, death waiting around the bend, he still can’t stop Keith from messing with his head. It’s pathetic. Everything about himself is so pathetic.

        Keith shoots him a strange look, shaken by the abrupt way Lance had spoken to him.

        “I was just making sure you were okay,” he mutters.

        He’s looking at Lance with his brows furrowed in worry and hurt, hands fiddling together like he’s nervous. When Lance sees his cut-up cheek and bruised jaw, his indignation immediately resigns, suddenly remembering what happened the last time he had gotten angry with Keith.

        It wasn’t going to happen again. It wasn’t.

        Lance takes a deep breath, willing himself to stop feeling so irritated.

        Sighing, he says softly, “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

        The unsettled expression on Keith’s face eases off and he even flashes Lance a small smile.

        “Hey, what about you?” Lance asks, pointing at the exposed wound on Keith’s cheek. “Are you sure that’s going to be okay?”

        Keith gingerly touches his cheek and shrugs, “I’ve had worse.”

        At that, Lance raises his eyebrows, gibing playfully, “Oooh, look at me, I’m Keith and I’m cool and tough!”

        Keith punches at his arm lightly, grumbling at him to shut his mouth. Lance giggles into his hand, scooting away. He’s silently glad that the tension he felt was slowly ebbing away, his flushed face cooling. Hopefully, Keith couldn’t tell he had been blushing like a madman.

        A silence stretches between them as Keith settles down a few feet from Lance and pulls out the book he had with him from earlier. As Keith’s eyes start scanning the pages, Lance sits beside him, observing the small book and trying not to fidget around too much.

        After a while, the quiet starts to get to Lance, making him feel jumpy. He takes a deep breath.

        “Um,” he begins, desperate to break the silence. “Watcha reading?”

        He needs to talk. He can’t possibly sit still without saying a word. It will drive him mad. He’ll be stuck with his own thoughts, which was something he couldn’t handle.

        “Poems,” Keith answers blandly.

        Lance breathes an eager sigh of relief, grateful to be able to spark up a conversation.

        “Oh,” Lance says. He remembers Keith’s fixation with poetry back at the Castle. “Is it that one book with all the sad poems that you were obsessed with?”

        “I wasn’t obsessed,” Keith protests. “ And I told you, they’re not all sad.

        “Uh huh, sure,” Lance teases. “You read me, like, three and they were all sad. Read whatever one you’re on right now and we’ll see about that.”

        Keith looks as if he’s about to start, but he pauses for a moment, squinting at the page.

        “No, you won’t get it and you’ll think it’s sad,” Keith sighs.

        “Oh, look at me, I’m Keith and I understand poetry because I’m all cool and deep,” Lance taunts playfully as a ploy to get Keith to give in. After a pause, he presses, “Read it anyway.”

       Keith hesitates for a moment, then shrugs and recites, “Death is nothing at all./

It does not count./ I have only slipped away into the next room./ Nothing has happened./ Everything remains exactly as it was./ I am I, and you are you.”

       The words hang in the air.

            “That doesn’t even rhyme,” Lance speaks up, thinking it over. “And yeah, that’s fucking sad. Why are you reading a poem about death… You do realize that we’re –”

            “It’s not sad, actually,” Keith interrupts, as if he doesn’t want to hear what Lance is about to say. “See, I knew you wouldn’t get it. He’s saying that death isn’t the end. He’s saying that when you die all you do is step into another room. It’s comforting.”

            Lance ponders it for a moment. It makes sense, in a way, though he’s not sure he agrees. The weight of all the deaths of his friends didn’t feel like ‘nothing at all,’ as the poem so kindly put it. It was a burden that was so hard for him to handle that he chose to find any distraction to keep him from being left with his thoughts. It wasn’t ‘nothing at all.’ The poet seemed to take death a little too lightly – he must not know what it feels like to see it all around him.

            “I never understood poetry,” Lance mutters. “And it hurts my head to read it.”

            “You say that about everything,” Keith says.

            “Yeah, ‘cause reading’s hard, dude,” Lance retorts. “I don’t get how you can just read one book over and over again. Doesn’t it get boring?”

            Keith shrugs.

“This one’s my favorite, so no.”

“Wow. Nerd. Hey, I bet you’re the kind of person who feels personally offended by people who dog-ear their books, aren’t you?” Lance asks.

            “Jeez, you talk way too much,” Keith mutters. “But, yes, that’s an act of treason against mankind.”

            Lance snickers.

            “And you’re probably that one person who does the dog-earring, aren’t you?” Keith says, rolling his eyes.

            “Yeah, I would be,” Lance replies.

            “Lance. How does it feel to be a crime against humanity?” Keith deadpans.

            At that, Lance bursts out laughing. He hadn’t expected Keith to say that, especially not in such a serious manner. He’s not sure if Keith knows this, but his biting sarcasm actually came across as hilarious to Lance sometimes.

Keith watches his outburst with a somewhat bemused expression, eyeing Lance as he clutches at his stomach and cackles.

            “Dude,” Lance giggles, wiping at his eyes. “You’re funny as hell, you know that?”

            “Really? I didn’t… mean to be?”

            “Hah! It’s fine dude, it’s cool. Thanks for the laugh, really,” Lance says, clapping Keith on the shoulder. “I would go fucking crazy if I was alone out here.”

            He sighs heavily, his stomach aching.

         “Anyway,” he says after he’s calmed down, drawing the conversation back to their previous topic. “I totally would fold down the pages in my books, because how else am I supposed to remember what page I’m on? But, you know, I haven’t actually tried reading since, like, third grade, so. Well, I have, but only because I was forced to. It’s ‘cause it takes me like ten tries to understand what ever the hell all the words mean. Well, maybe not ten. More like two or three tries. I don’t know. I’ve just always had trouble with it.”

            “That’s okay,” Keith says gently.

            Lance blinks at him in surprise. He had just been ranting, not really expecting Keith to comment, but the two words leave a light feeling in his chest.

            “Nah,” Lance says quickly, shaking his head in dismissal. “I’m just an idiot.”

            Keith gives him a look of dismay, which surprises Lance even more.

            “No, you’re not,” Keith insists. “You’re smart. I remember. You got better grades than me at the Garrison. Just because reading’s hard for you doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. Everyone finds different things difficult. Like, I think talking to people is hard.”

            Keith looks like he’s about to say more, but his mouth hangs open for a few moments before he abruptly shuts it. He blinks heavily, like he’s surprised by what he just said.

Lance is equally shocked.

            “Wow, Keith, what’s with you being so nice all of a sudden?” Lance laughs.

            “I – shut up!” Keith stammers.

            Lance can’t help it; Keith’s words send a warm feeling shooting through his veins and he feels a grin spread across his face. He adores this side of Keith – the caring, gentle side. It was rare to come across it, but Lance is glad he gets to see it once in a while. It’s cute, the way he stammers out those comforting words, like he wants badly to make Lance feel better, even if he’s unsure of what to say.

            “Thanks, Keith,” Lance says sincerely, giving him a smile. Then he pauses, realizing something. “Hey, wait – so you do remember me from the Garrison? I thought you only knew that I was a cargo pilot.”

            Keith’s face flushes and he glowers at Lance, mumbling, “Well. I remember you, I guess.”

            “Wow, I’m so flattered!” Lance says teasingly, though the words hold every ounce of truth.

            Lance had been convinced that Keith hadn’t paid him any attention at all back when they were in school together. He had practically lost sleep over it, wallowing over how he had tried so hard to muster up the courage to talk to Keith or even get Keith to notice him, only to fail miserably. Except… he hadn’t failed! Keith did pay attention to him. He would have been bouncing off his dorm walls if he had known this back at the school.

            When he sees the huge grin Lance throws his way, Keith grumbles something under his breath and turns the page in his book distractedly.

            A warm feeling spreads through Lance’s chest.

            “I like it when you’re nice,” he blurts out abruptly.

            Startled, Keith shoots him a baffled look, eyes darting over the features on Lance’s face.

            “Wh – when I’m nice?” Keith asks, mystified.

“Yeah!” Lance says, suddenly hit with a bold stroke of confidence. He stammers out, “I mean, I – I like you all the time. I mean! Like, you’re essentially tolerable all the time. But, when you’re nice it’s… nice. Sorry. That makes no sense, does it? What I’m trying to say is… under that mullet and all that weirdness and anger and obsessions with books and sad poems… I think you’re sweet.”

            Lance isn’t sure where that came from. Just a few minutes ago, he had been falling apart over the way Keith made him feel, embarrassed because he had misread Keith and had thought that he was going to kiss him. Now, he was pouring out his feelings without a second thought. Maybe it’s the way Keith had spoken to him so earnestly, so determined to make sure Lance didn’t really think of himself so poorly. Maybe it was Keith himself giving Lance the confidence to say all these things. It feels good to finally tell him at least a portion of his true feelings.

            When Lance finishes and falls silent, Keith is staring at him with wide, star-struck eyes.

            “Oh,” he says weakly. “Thank you.”

            He could do it now, Lance thinks. He could lean over and kiss Keith now. It would make sense if he did it now. Keith was looking at him with his big, pretty eyes and his pretty mouth is hanging open just a little. Lance could easily tilt his head and fit his own mouth against those nice, pale lips. He could do it now.

            He wants to. God, he wants to so bad.

            But he doesn’t.

            He doesn’t because something small and hot hits him on the arm, trickling warm down his elbow.

            Confused out of his stupor, Lance glances down in shock. All he sees is a drop of water rolling down his forearm.

            “Is that…?”

            More droplets land on his forearm. Lance cranes his neck and squints up at the sky. Water lands against his forehead, unusually warm.

            “Rain!” Lance cries, jumping to his feet, quickly forgetting about what he had planned to do with Keith.

            His heart starts pumping fast, excitement flooding his body as he holds out his palms and lets the water droplets fall against his hands. He hasn’t seen or felt rain in a long, long time. It twists his gut with nostalgia, but something feels off about this. The rain drizzling onto his palms feel too hot, leaving his skin warm, heat collecting as it pools in his palms.

            A particularly large raindrop lands against the back of Keith’s neck and he cries out.

            Lance freezes. Suddenly, he remembers something Coran had told him when they first started their mission in space – something about how Altean rain hadn’t been anything like Earth rain. Something about how the planet had rained molten rocks.

            Alarmed, Lance quickly drops the small pool collected in his hands, letting it splash at his feet. With a sinking feeling, he realizes that while this planet may not be raining rocks, the scorching water pouring down from the sky certainly didn’t seem much safer than what Coran had mentioned to him.

            Making a grab for Keith’s wrist, he pulls him up and cries, “This rain is burning. It’s dangerous! We need to find shelter!”

            Rubbing at the back of his neck, Keith nods in alarm. Lance hastily shoves their meager supply of food into Keith’s knapsack and hurriedly shoulders it. He drags Keith along by the wrist. He has no idea where to go, but he stumbles out of the ravine and runs towards the cliffs in the distance, hoping to find a covering of some sort.

            The rain is picking up, getting heavier and heavier as they make a dash for safety. Lance’s scalp and bare arms burn as the water pelts down on him, scorching hot. His clothes are soaked, much too warm for his comfort, prickling against his skin.

            “Lance, I know a place!” Keith cries out suddenly.

            Now it’s Keith turn to lead, dragging Lance, who tightens his grip on his wrist, in the direction of a small cave in the side of a cliff.

            “Ow, ow, ow, ow,” Lance yelps as they sprint for cover, the rain pummels down on him, now burning at a nearly intolerably high temperature.

            His skin is going numb by the time they duck into the dark cave. Keith drags him away from the entrance and into the eerie darkness to avoid the heavy raindrops pelting their way inside.

            “OWW!” Lance moans, hopping around in a desperate attempt to shake of the hot water clinging to him.

            Keith is rubbing tenderly at his arms, grimacing at the red flare of his skin. Their clothes are darkened, soaked thoroughly. Lance tries to wring out his shirt, wincing at the way the blistering fabric burns his hands.

            “Fuck this damn planet!” Lance cries, pacing around in agony. “No wonder this place is practically deserted. It’s either freezing cold or raining fucking hot ass water. Fuck.”

            Outside, the light drizzle of rain had grown into a storm, thick streams of water pelting down around the cave, roaring viciously in the wind. Light sprays splash against the ground near the opening of the cave, threatening to reach Lance and Keith.

            “C’mon,” Keith says, grabbing Lance’s soaked, warm sleeve and tugging him towards the dark center of the cave.

            Staring warily into the thick blackness, Lance suddenly feels inexplicably nauseous.

            “Why,” he chokes, unable to stare into the indefinite darkness and turning his eyes back to the small stream of light coming from the entrance of the cave.

            “The rain’s too strong, it’ll reach us if we stay up here,” Keith says, giving Lance’s sleeve an insistent tug.

            “I’m –”

Scared of the dark? That wasn’t it. Lance couldn’t quite put a finger on what made him so uncomfortable about going deeper into the cave. Not wanting to be difficult, he swallows his nerves and lets Keith lead him into the hollow darkness.

            The further they get from the light, the more Lance feels himself get fidgety. The walls around him start getting dimmer and dimmer, until he can barely see his own nose ahead of him.

            Though he can still feel the pull against his sleeve, Lance gets the irrepressible urge to cry out, “Keith, are you there?!”

            “Yes,” Keith hisses.

            Nervously, Lance asks, “You scared?”

            “No,” Keith replies firmly.

            That doesn’t exactly cheer Lance up. If Keith wasn’t scared, Lance definitely wasn’t going to say anything about his discomfort.

He steels himself up as they continue on in silence. Lance can’t see anything, though he knows they haven’t walked far from the light at the entrance. He wonders how Keith knows where they’re going.

Their footsteps start echoing around them and suddenly, Lance feels his chest compressing. He feels dizzy, enclosed, trapped. He can’t tell how close the walls are or how wide and it terrifies him, far beyond his comprehension.

            Freezing up, he tries to find his breath quietly, but he lets out a ragged gasp.

            “What’s wrong?” Keith cries.

            “I – I can’t,” Lance gasps, jerking backwards.

            The sudden movement sends him tumbling against the dark floor, his back slamming against the hard ground. When Keith loses his grip on his sleeve, Lance feels himself panic, his breath catching in his throat.

            He feels like a string, a tether tying him to safety, has been cut. He’s never felt so lost.

            “Lance?” he hears Keith cry, somewhere above him.

            He can’t speak.

            He’s hyperventilating, chest tight. The walls are closing in. He curls up in a ball, protecting his head – from what? He’s not quite sure.

            “Lance?!” Keith cries again.

            Lance feels warm hands meet his skin, taking hold of his arms. He panics, squeezing himself tighter.

            “Hey. It’s just me. I’ve got you,” Keith says firmly, pulling Lance up blindly.

            He feels like he’s suffocating. He can vaguely feel Keith’s hands planted firmly on his shoulders, but it doesn’t do much to ground him. He wants to curl in on himself and disappear. He feels like he’s floating in a vacuum, with the walls compressing down on him. It’s confusing and disorienting and he can’t breathe.

            “Come on,” Keith is whispering gently, grabbing hold of Lance’s clammy hand and squeezing it firmly.

            He pulls Lance close and starts guiding them back towards the entrance of the cave. Lance can hear nothing except the blood rushing through his ears as he stumbles along, leaning against Keith’s shoulder. He feels drawn towards the Keith’s warmth – comforting, familiar, grounding.

            He has to get out of here. He fights the urge to sprint forward, knowing he won’t be able to see where he’s going, knowing it won’t do him any good to let go of Keith.

            They finally reach a dull stream of light. The deadweight in his chest doesn’t start clearing up until he can fully see the murky light from outside streaming in from the cave’s entrance. His hearing slowly starts picking up the roar of the rain pattering against the cliff’s edge.

            His face burning with embarrassment, Lance drops to his knees and stares blankly at the dim wall across from him, trying hard to breathe evenly. He puts a hand on his chest and holds it there, willing for the weight pressing down on it to vanish. He feels his heart pounding under his palm.

            “I’m sorry, are you okay? I’m sorry!” Keith is crying out, hovering at Lance’s side like he’s unsure if he can get close or not.

            Lance takes a long, long time before he’s able to speak, swallowing the lump in his throat and whispering, “I’m fine. I couldn’t breathe, but I’m fine.”

            It’s just one break down after another for him and he feels weak, pathetic. He can’t look Keith in the eyes.

            “That doesn’t normally happen,” he says firmly, just to clarify. “I don’t know what it was. It – it just…”

            He takes another shaky breath, falling silent in defeat.

“H – hey,” Keith stammers. “It’s okay.”

            Lance wants to be irritated. At both himself and at Keith. Anything. He wants to be annoyed at the way he was being so weak, at the way Keith felt like he needed to fucking coddle him like he was a defenseless child. Even if he felt like it, he didn’t need Keith to treat him like he was so helpless.

            He inhales long and deep, shutting his eyes to try to stop himself from getting angry. He doesn’t want to be angry. But he feels it welling up inside of him, uncontrollable and threatening to make him explode.

            “Don’t cry!” Keith begs desperately, pausing from his nervous pacing.

            “I’m not,” Lance grumbles, though he begins to realize his face had been scrunched up as if he was holding back tears. “Sorry – just forget about it. We can stay here, can’t we?”

            The heavy rain doesn’t seem to be reaching them from the entrance several yards away.

            “Yeah, of course,” Keith says. “Sorry. I just – thought it would be safer if we got further away. I’m sorry.”

            “I said forget about it!” Lance cries, his voice wavering. God, I’m really going to cry. “Seriously, it’s fine. Just stop.”

            His voice cracks. He’s fucking weak. He can feel his walls crumbling, tears welling up in his eyes.

            He’s grateful that Keith doesn’t say a word as he presses the heels of his palms against his eyes; desperately choking back his wet sobs. His throat aches in sorrow.

            Everything was too much. He was terrified. The trapped, crushing sensation of the darkness of the cave terrified him. He had never experienced anything like that before. The boiling hot rain plummeting from the unfamiliar sky terrified him. The way his skin still stung from when he’d been scalded by the rain terrified him.

            It was nothing like home. On Earth, rain had been calming – a peaceful lull against the windowpane on a dim evening, a cool relief on a hot summer’s day. Nothing like this.

        He used to love the rain.

        He used to love the rain back on Earth.

        He used to love the rain and now, it too had been ruined. Lance wonders if he’ll even have a single cherished thought to think about before he dies. It seems like all his memories are full of sadness, nostalgia, and suffering.

        Over the howling of the rain, he hears an odd sound – a sharp tearing noise. Blinking past his tears, he turns and makes out Keith ripping out a page in his little book.

       Confused, Lance manages to gasp out, “What are you doing?”

       If Keith hated folding down the corners of pages, surely he wouldn’t be one to rip out a page, would he?

        He sees Keith reach into his pocket and pull out a slender object.

        “Write,” Keith says blankly, holding out the separated page and a red ink pen, offering the items to Lance.

       Lance wipes at the tears clinging to his lashes, staring up at him, disoriented.

       “Write what?” he asks, breaths choppy and uneven.

       His voice sounds pitiful to his own ears.

        “Whatever. Write what you’re feeling right now. Anything. It’ll calm you down,” Keith explains, still holding out the page from his book and the pen.

        “I don’t – know what to write,” Lance stammers, shaking his head weakly.

            He doesn’t understand what Keith is trying to get him to do, doesn’t understand how that will solve anything.

        “Write a letter or something. Trust me, it works. I wrote all the time when I was alone in the desert back on Earth. I was scared and it helped,” Keith insists.

       When Lance still doesn’t take the paper and pen he’s offering, Keith’s expression crumbles.

       “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do. You told me not to baby you around, but I want to help. This is all I can think of. Please,” he whispers.

        At the pleadingly earnest tone of Keith’s voice, Lance’s stubborn demeanor drops, despite still not quite understanding why Keith thought this would help. It doesn’t exactly make much sense, but if it’ll make Keith feel better, Lance will do it.

        Wiping the traces of his tears off his cheeks with his sleeve and swallowing the painful lump in his throat, Lance nods weakly and takes the pen and paper. The page is small with thick text printed across it on both sides.

        “It’ll help, I promise,” Keith says. “Write someone a letter. Write how you’re feeling. It’ll make you feel better.”

            A letter…

            Keith looks at him expectantly, like he’s waiting for Lance to give him a sign of acknowledgment.

            “I’ll write to my family,” Lance decides. “Give myself some closure.”

         He presses the pen against the page, left hand quivering. He hasn’t written anything in a long time. He’s never been one to write or keep a journal. He’s not sure where to begin, what to say.

        He tries:

           

        I miss you.

 

            There’s a good start – it says so little, but so much.

            His thin, slanted handwriting stands out red against the black ink of the poem printed on the page. Three simple words, holding all too much feeling, written over the first stanza on the page.

            He continues:

 

            I am stuck somewhere far away and I won’t be able to come home.

 

            It gets easier from there, Lance’s feelings pouring out onto the page.

 

            You will never know how much I love you guys. I’m sorry I never got to say it to you more, especially to you, Isabel. I would tell you guys tenfold if I could only have the chance, but I don’t. So it goes.

 

            He finishes the first paragraph, turning the pen between his fingers. He looks up to see Keith leaning against the cave wall opposite of him, flipping through the pages in his book.

Lance takes his time thinking before he continues:

 

            Ma, last night I had a scary dream about you. It made me miss your smile and your hugs and everything. A lot of things are scary. I’m afraid of dying. My friend read me a poem that said that dying is only stepping into another room. If that’s the case, I’ll be there waiting. I hope I’ll see you all again soon.

 

            Love, Lance

 

            By the time he’s finished, the front and back of the thin sheet of paper is filled with his skinny, lopsided handwriting. The poem is unreadable, buried underneath the red words.

            He caps the pen and folds his letter, burying it deep in his back pocket. There’s nowhere else for him to put it, and he feels safer knowing it will be with him when he dies. He only wishes he could mail it back home.

            Keith was right. Writing did relieve some of the tension that had been coiled tight in his stomach. In a way, he feels as if he somehow got the words across to his family, that they somehow knew how he felt, were somehow telling him that it was okay. He no longer had tears in his eyes.

            “You were right, it does help. Thanks,” Lance tells Keith from across the small cavern, voice raised over the droning of the rain. After a pause, he asks, “Why don’t you write your family something?”

            Keith looks up from his book and fixes Lance with a sad, long gaze. He looks like he’s lost in thought, considering his next words.

            “I’ve been writing them for a long time,” he finally whispers.

            His haunted tone puts Lance off for a moment.

            “Well,” Lance says, unsure what Keith means, but not wanting to fall silent. “Why not someone else? Shiro, maybe? One of our friends?”

            Keith doesn’t break his somber gaze, only blinks slowly for a few seconds.

            “Yeah,” he finally says, studying Lance’s worried expression. “I guess I will.”

            Lance tosses the pen over to Keith, who catches it swiftly and turns to a page at the very back of his book. As Keith lifts the pen to the page, Lance turns and watches the rain pelting against the ground, slipping it’s way a few feet into the cave.

        At this point, there’s a torrent falling from the sky, heavy boiling sheets of water sending smoke rising up from the ground. Lance shivers at the thought of being stuck out there, underneath the scalding downpour. He rubs at the tender, raw skin on his biceps and shoulders absentmindedly.

        Suddenly, Keith lets out a choked gasp, nearly dropping his pen to the ground. The sound echoes through the hollow cavern. Startled, Lance looks over at him. He’s staring forward with glassy, unseeing eyes, brows furrowed in horror, mouth hanging open.

        “What is it?!” Lance demands, afraid.

        Keith shakily puts down his book and clutches his forehead, face pale.

        “Keith!” Lance cries, terrified by the tortured look in his eyes.

        “I –” Keith splutters, blinking in confusion.

        He doesn’t seem to hear Lance’s calling. His head twists and he stares out at the entrance to the cave, out at the storm.

        “What is it?!” Lance repeats, voice desperate.

        There’s a moment of silence. Lance waits with bated breath as Keith gazes intensely outside, unmoving. Lance can hear nothing but the sound of rain pouring down around them.

        Then, Keith stands.

        “Something’s coming,” he whispers, his voice tormented.

        Without looking back at Lance, he starts walking out into the rain.

Chapter Text

Keith is walking stiffly, limbs jerking as if they’re disconnected from his mind, as if he’s in a trance. Lance, blinded by confusion and panic, scrambles to his feet and bolts after him. He makes a wild grab for Keith’s limp arm, managing to stop him just before he steps out into the rain.

“Are you insane?” he cries, tugging Keith backwards with a firm grip. “The rain’s probably a thousand degrees by now. You’ll die! What are you doing?”

Lance is taken aback when Keith abruptly crumples against him, dragging them both to the ground. Lance’s knees hit the cave floor hard. Keith is pale-faced, eyes wide and petrified, staring up at the ceiling as if he’s seeing something that Lance can’t see.

“Keith?!” Lance asks, shrill-voiced.

He gives him a gentle shake, trying to bring him out of his trance. Keith doesn’t respond, just sways back and forth as Lance shakes him, head lolling. His unresponsiveness terrifies Lance. Desperately, he cups Keith’s face in his hands, trying to meet his eyes. His cheeks feel uncharacteristically cold and clammy under Lance’s palms.

Don’t die don’t die don’t die, Lance begs silently.

“Keith, please,” he says again, his voice cracking.

Suddenly, Keith’s eyes snap back into focus, dark pupils dilating as he meets Lance’s terrified look. The color drains from his already pale face as he clutches at Lance’s arms. He gasps out his name, squeezing tight.

“Keith,” Lance breathes, pressing their foreheads together momentarily. Panicked, his words come rushing out in a violent flood: “I thought you were dying. Jesus. What’s wrong? Are you okay? What do you mean ‘something’s coming’?”

Keith’s grip on his arm is starting to hurt, his nails digging into Lance’s skin like he’s holding on for his life. Perhaps he is. Lance scans his face, sick with worry, desperately willing Keith to stay with him.

He looks like he’s about to speak, but the words don’t make it past his lips. He’s interrupted by a loud crashing sound. It’s deafening, loud enough to be heard clearly over the heavy roar of the rain. The ground shakes, tossing debris down onto them from the cavern ceiling.

The crash is followed by a booming thud, as if something landed hard somewhere in the distance. Lance feels his blood chill. A dreaded, paralyzing fear spreads through his body and he can’t bring himself to move.

“Keith, what’s going on?” Lance whimpers, sweat trailing down the back of his neck.

“I – I don’t know – ow!” Keith screams.

The cave trembles again as another loud thud echoes from outside. Keith has his eyes screwed shut in agony, pressing his head against Lance’s chest.

Lance pulls him closer protectively, glancing through the cave entrance. He nearly expects to see a monster looming outside, peering back at him, but he can’t make out anything past the heavy sheet of rain and steam. He feels himself break out in a cold sweat, his throat tight.

“Lance,” he hears Keith grit over the thundering of the rain.

Quickly, he turns back to him. Keith jerks his head up and meets Lance’s eyes with his wild gaze.

“Something’s happening,” he chokes out.

Lance can barely hear his strained, hushed voice. The cave ceiling groans, raining down bits of rock onto them as another booming noise shakes the ground.

What’s happening?! What is that noise?!” Lance hysterically, his heart hammering wildly.

“I – don’t –”

Lance lets out a scream as something lands heavily atop the cavern, the deafening sound reverberating through his bones. The walls around them quake, sending heavy chunks of debris toppling onto them. Instinctively, Lance wraps his arms atop Keith’s head, using his body to shelter him. A large piece of rock collides with his shoulder blade, making him wince in pain.

Whatever it is that’s on top of the cavern starts moving, their steps ringing across the walls, shaking loose more and more scattered fragments of rock from the ceiling. Lance holds his breath, paralyzed with fear. The pain throbbing from his shoulder blade clouds his mind, but he’s certain that the cave is going to collapse on top of them.

Keith’s vice-like grip on Lance’s arm tightens once more, digging viciously into his skin like he’s trying to get his attention.

Another shower of stone. Whatever is up there takes another heavy step.

“Lance,” Keith says loudly from below his arms.

“Y – yeah?” Lance stammers, staring up at the ceiling nervously.

He feels Keith wriggle his way out from underneath him, bringing his face level with his. Lance looks at him, his vision blurry from the tears that had started welling in his eyes. Keith fixes him with a grave look, his eyes darting back and forth like he’s taking in every feature on Lance’s face with a panicked urgency.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” he says solemnly, voice distant over the roaring in Lance’s ears.

Lance doesn’t get to hear what he was going to say.

Another ear-splitting sound resonates around them as their unknown terrorizer takes another step above the cavern and lands heavily on the ground. The impact nearly jolts them into the air.

Huge chunks of rock crash down from the ceiling. Lance quickly reaches over and pulls Keith out from under the path of a plummeting boulder. It narrowly misses his head, colliding against the ground and sinking a few feet into the earth. They both stare down at the crater, shocked silent. Lance can feel Keith shaking against him.

For a moment, it’s still and eerily quiet – nothing but the steady droning of the rain. Lance takes a shaky breath, heart pounding, and tries to steel himself up for whatever comes next. The air is tense, like a taught wire, and Lance can feel nothing except for the beating of his heart.

Suddenly, Keith lets out a high gasp. At that same instant, a familiar roar echoes from outside. The sound reverberates deep into the cave. Lance recognizes it instantly.

“Red!” Keith cries out in astonishment.

He untangles himself from underneath Lance’s arms and scrambles to his feet. Lance twists himself around sloppily, wincing in pain at the ache in his shoulder. He freezes at the sight, unable to believe their sudden turn of luck.

The yellow eyes of Keith’s red lion are piercing through the haze of the rain, washing the cavern with a warm glow. As Keith runs towards the entrance of the cave, his lion makes its way forward, footsteps making the ground vibrate, though it no longer strikes fear into Lance’s heart. It peers its head into the cavern.

“I don’t believe it,” Lance mutters in disbelief, his mouth hanging open.

Keith is hollering excitedly, hurtling himself against the lion’s giant snout, hugging it in astonishment. After a few moments of laughing incredulously, Keith stands back flat on the ground and turns to Lance, who is still frozen in shock.

“Look who it is!” Keith cries, reaching up and patting his lion on the muzzle. He turns and cooes, “Good kitty.”

Recovering from his initial shock, Lance slowly gets to his feet and stumbles beside Keith. As he cranes his neck to look up at the red lion, an airy feeling makes his chest expand like a balloon. Lance is beside himself with relief. Mimicking Keith, he reaches up and gives her snout a long hug, breathing out deeply.

The lion unhinges its jaw, inviting them inside. Lance and Keith exchange a look before following one another into the cockpit. Keith’s helmet and bayard are strewn against the ground by the pilot seat.

“Is this really happening?” Lance says in awe, glancing around. “Or are we dead? Or is this a dream? Or –”

Suddenly, he feels a sharp sting on his forearm and gives a yelp, jumping backwards.

“Hey! What’d you do that for?” he demands, rubbing at the spot where Keith had pinched him.

Keith snickers, a sly grin on his face. The fear in his eyes from a moment ago had disappeared completely. He snarks, “Oh, you could feel that? That probably means this is real.”

“Completely unnecessary,” Lance mutters, rolling his eyes, though he’s glad that they’re bantering again. It almost feels like they’re going to be okay, they’re going to be safe now.

Keith’s lion gives a sudden jerk at that moment, sending both of them tumbling into the pilot’s seat. Lance lands hard against the chair, knocking his sore shoulder, a tingling numbness crawling down his arm. He lets out a groan as Keith lands on top of him, back pressed against Lance’s chest. His long, messy hair finds its way into Lance’s mouth.

“Dude!” Lance cries out, voice muffled. He spits out tufts of Keith’s hair and shoves at him. “Get – off of me!”

Keith is deadweight atop of him, shifting slightly so that he’s seated perfectly on Lance’s lap.

“Get off!” Lance cries, panicking. He feels his face burning. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Shut up!” Keith snaps, exasperated. He leans forward and reaches for the control panel, hand wrapping around the stick shift. “She’s telling me to get us out of here!”

Lance shuts his eyes briefly, desperately willing himself to ignore the heavy, warm feeling of Keith’s weight against his thighs, ignore it, ignore it, ignore it.

As Keith pulls the gear backwards, the lion slowly backs out of the cave. Despite being a pilot for years, Lance finds himself feeling a bit dizzy at the movement, strangely nauseous.

“Jeez, can I at least get out from underneath you?” he begs Keith, pressing against his back with his fist. “Seriously, man –”

The words get knocked right out of Lance’s mouth as Keith suddenly pushes the gears forward and the lion abruptly spins around and dashes forward. Lance lets out a startled cry. He can hear the rain pattering noisily against the roof and the heavy sound of the lion’s metallic paws crunching against the ground beneath them. The way the lion’s unsteady body swiveled slightly as it ran made Lance’s head spin. He decides it’s better if he stays put.

“Where are we going?!” he demands.

Not taking his eyes off of the controls, Keith mutters, “You must be fun on road trips.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Just be quiet! You’ll see when we get there!”

The lion’s pace picks up, paws gliding over the ground, before Keith twists at the controls and it gives a strong heave, leaping into the air. The flight is shaky at first, the lion wobbling a few feet off the ground. Lance shivers, recalling his crash-landing and finds himself wrapping his arms around Keith’s waist and pressing his cheek against his back to keep himself steady.

“You know, usually when I go on road trips, I know where I’m going before I get there,” Lance mumbles, staring cautiously out the front window. The rain outside obscures his vision of everything except a momentary glimpse of the wormhole hanging in the air. Lance freezes for a moment. “Wait. Please don’t tell me you’re planning on flying us through that thing…”

Keith snorts, shaking his head incredulously. “How dumb do you think I am? That wouldn’t do us any good. Who knows where we’d end up?”

Lance lets out an exaggerated sigh and says, “Oh, thank God you’re finally thinking rationally for once.”

“I’m going to eject you from this seat if you don’t shut up.”

“You’re sitting on my lap. You’d fly out, too.”

“I said shut up.”

The lion is slowly spinning dangerously onto its side, sending Lance’s stomach twisting into a knot. His grip around Keith’s waist tightens.

“Dude, are you sure this thing is safe to fly?” he chokes out.

“It’s fine,” Keith grits, fumbling wildly at the controls. “She knows what she’s doing.”

She might know!” Lance cries. “But do you?”

Despite this, Lance feels the lion start tilting back upright. The flight gets a bit smoother the longer they continue. Keith’s lion easily speeds through the rain and, even though Lance can barely see out the window, Keith seems to know exactly where they’re going. They sit in tense silence as they make their way through the storm. Several times, Lance realizes that he’s still hugging Keith from behind. Several times, he’s reluctant to untangle his arms around Keith’s warm waist. So he doesn’t.

After a while, Keith pulls the gear down and his lion tilts its head towards the ground and descends from the sky. They land abruptly on a high ledge, shrouded from the rain by an arching cliff above them. Water pours down from the edge of the cliff, enveloping them.

“Okay, so is this the final destination?” Lance asks cautiously.

“I guess so,” Keith answers. “This is where she was telling me to go. Seems pretty safe here. We’re safe from the rain and probably don’t have to worry about the ceiling caving in on us anymore.”

Lance gives a nervous laugh, rubbing gingerly at his shoulder. He doesn’t realize that he still has an arm wrapped around Keith’s waist until he feels him shift on top of his lap. Quickly, he pulls away, leaning against the headrest. He can feel heat start to pool in his cheeks again.

“Uh, do you think you could get off me now?” he chokes.

Keith looks back at him with a surprised expression, like he’s forgotten that Lance was even there in the first place.

“Oh. Yeah,” he says hurriedly, quickly getting up.

Just as Keith gets to his feet, his lion jerks abruptly, sending him tumbling against the control panel. Lance grips onto the armrests tightly, looking around in confusion.

“What the hell?” he cries. He glares accusingly at Keith. “What was that for?”

Keith is leaning heavily against the dashboard, rubbing his forehead with a pained expression.

“I don’t know!” he snaps, gritting his teeth. “It wasn’t me.”

He doesn’t take his hand off of his forehead, nor does his expression soften.

After a moment, Lance hesitantly asks, “Hey, are you okay?”

Keith remains silent for another long while, pressing his head into his hands. His eyebrows knit, like he’s deep in thought.

“I – I feel like Red’s trying to tell me something else, but I…” Keith begins in a whisper, peaking his eyes open and staring at the ground, transfixed. “I don’t know what she’s trying to say…”

Lance isn’t sure how to respond to that, not knowing what he could do to help. He didn’t have any connection with the red lion, after all. He hates feeling so powerless, watching Keith struggle, without being able to do anything.

“I’m sure it’ll come to you eventually!” Lance says brightly, waving his hand dismissively. “Besides, it can’t really matter that much, you know? We’re safe here and that’s what counts for now, am I right?”

At Lance’s reassuring words, Keith’s expression finally softens, though he still rubs at his temples with his fingers.

“I guess,” he mutters, voice so low that Lance almost doesn’t hear him.

The weary statement hangs low above their heads as the two sit in disarrayed silence in the cockpit, quite unsure about what to do next. Outside, rain slides down around them like a curtain, a liquid sheet pouring down from the top of the cliff. Lance feels as if he’s hidden behind a waterfall. The dark pink fog of the sky outside casts dancing, pale fragments of light into their little hideout. It’s almost pretty, like a dream, if Lance lets himself pretend. He doesn’t.

He gets fidgety after a short while, so he stands up and paces nervously around the cockpit before declaring that he can’t stay in there any longer. He dares to venture outside, only because he feels safe with the red lion guarding him. It looms behind him like a warden as Lance stands at the edge of the ledge, peering out from at the stormy distance through a gap in the steady stream of water around him.

The rain seems to have died down a bit, though the ground still steams and Lance can feel a sheen of sweat build on his forehead from the heat that rises up to meet him. He notices that the rain avoids a large circle of land in the distance and looks up to find that it’s the area directly below the wormhole. Somewhat unsettled, Lance feels as if the portal looks different – glowing a bit brighter, pulsing with a stranger sort of energy. He tells himself it’s just the dark, muddled grayness of the storm that accentuates it.

Lance peers further down, directly at the distant haze of the ground below him. He’s struck with the inexplicable urge to jump. He could topple himself over the edge and plummet to the ground and then he would be free. But he doesn’t. The thought makes him feel guilty.

He is still staring transfixed at the ground as Keith exits from the red lion and creeps up silently behind him. He tugs on Lance’s arm with a subtle perturbed urgency, like he can tell what Lance is thinking.

Lance only notices the hunger gnawing at his stomach when Keith produces one of the packages of space food from their dwindling ration. They wolf down the synthetic hamburgers in silence as the rain continues on.

There isn’t much to be said. Lance mentions that the water falling around them from atop the cliff reminds him of the waterfall he had seen at a beach somewhere off the coast of Cuba. Keith asks him if it’s nice in Cuba and Lance tells him that yes, it’s beautiful there and then they fall silent again.

Keith has a troubled look on his face, like something is bothering him and Lance wants to ask, though he has a feeling he already knows. It’s the same puzzled, concentrated expression, with his dark eyebrows drawn over his glazed eyes, lip pulled tight. He must still feel as if his lion is trying to tell him something.

Time passes. The sky darkens and Lance knows that night is falling as the air around them chills. As his eyelids grow heavy with drowsiness, he only vaguely notices that it has started to hail. The raindrops have frozen over into small pellets of ice, shooting down from the sky like bullets, embedding themselves into the ground. Lance is grateful for the cliff extending above their heads, shielding them from the sky’s cold ambush. The waterfall they had been engulfed behind freezes over, as well, now a tall wall of ice enclosing them in. Nothing but a gap connects them to the lonely world outside.

Just as the vague crippling, anxious feeling that he had experienced back in the cave begins creeping up on him again, Keith seems to take notice of the worried look on Lance face and urges them back inside the lion.

The frigid air outside leaves them both shivering in the cockpit. Lance’s mind is bleary with fatigue and he doesn’t notice that he’s instinctively burying himself close to Keith as the two settle down on the floor. They fall asleep tangled in each other’s warmth.

 

-

 

Lance had always been a heavy sleeper. Sometime deep into the morning, he wakes with his cheek pressed against Keith’s warm chest. There’s a pale arm slung loosely around his shoulders. He looks up and sees the underside of Keith’s face, his sharp jaw, still purple from Lance’s fist, and his eyes staring up into the distance, out the window and towards the sky. He must know that Lance is awake, but he doesn’t make to move his arm. Lance wonders what this means.

Outside, the frozen wall of ice has thawed but the steady waterfall from yesterday has dwindled down into a weak stream. The rain has subsided into a light drizzle. As Lance stands close to the edge, he doesn’t feel heat from the droplets falling from the sky. Unable to resist himself, he reaches out a finger and feels for the rain. Keith’s alarmed cry is cut short when Lance smiles. The cold from the night must have cooled the rain down somehow because the droplets falling onto Lance’s now extended arms are cold and refreshing, reminding him of home. So they sit at the edge with their shoes off, reaching their legs out to feel for the rain.

Lance is nearly beside himself with joy. The familiar feeling of rain – not too hot and not too cold – dissipates the tense fear that had settled inside him like lead weighing down on his heart. It’s not much, but something so simple helps him, eases him down just a little bit and he’s laughing genuinely for the first time in a long, long time. He stretches his legs out, balancing dangerously close to the edge of the ledge, wiggling his toes against the cool rain.

“Be careful or you’ll fall,” Keith says, his voice light with laughter.

He holds onto Lance’s hand as if he’s really afraid that Lance will topple over the edge. Lance wants to twine their fingers together. Keith’s feet are hanging idly at the side of the ledge, occasionally kicking a leg up into the air to feel for the rain, and he gives no sign that he means anything by the gesture.

Lance obediently scoots backwards a bit. Keith hesitates a moment before letting go, leaving Lance to kick his feet back and forth in puzzlement. The gears in his mind turn things over for a bit.

“Hey,” Lance says after a while.

Keith turns to look at him slowly, movements sluggish. Suddenly, the moment feels like a dream. Keith feels and looks like a dream – ideal and inviting and safe. Lance swallows.

“What were you going to tell me yesterday?” Lance asks. At the blank look from Keith, he clarifies, “In the cave. You said there was something you needed to tell me.”

“Oh,” says Keith. He pauses for a moment. In a small voice, he jokes: “Just wanted to remind you that you’re dumb.”

“That’s not what you were going to say.”

“Yes, it was.”

“Well, I’m actually not dumb because I know that’s not what you were going to say,” Lance insists, laughing at Keith’s playfulness.

Keith giggles along with him but doesn’t answer his question and the silence makes Lance wonder.

It’s then that Lance knows – watching Keith smile like a carefree child, kicking his legs out into the rain – that he’s in love. Probably has known it for a long time. Only then does he truly feel it, though, deep in the root of his bones. He’s in love with Keith.

No one’s ever looked at Lance with eyes as open as Keith’s, flooding with emotions – concern, relief, joy, everything. There was a time when Keith’s eyes were closed off, unreadable, nothing but a set of beautiful, dark voids that set something off in Lance that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Now, he can clearly see the light in them as Keith smiles, the shine of a thousand stars paling in comparison to the glint in his eyes.

No one’s ever held Lance underneath palms as delicate as Keith’s, soft fingers ghosting gently over his skin like that morning, curled up on the floor together underneath the soft drizzle of the unfamiliar world around them.

No one’s ever been so patient, so understanding towards him. Keith was always there for him, always. And it took Lance a whole war and a fatal, doomed crash landing on a foreign planet to realize. If only things were different. If only they weren’t stuck out here, sitting here playing with the rain, waiting for their deaths. Lance mourns over everything they could be missing out on.

I love you, he wants to say. Tell me you love me, too, before it’s too late.

Sorrow in his bones, Lance forces himself to look away from the dream sitting next to him.

He’s cruelly knocked out of his stupor when he realizes that the sky is glowing an angry shade of purple, much different, much more sinister, than anything he’d seen so far. Keith notices too and they both get to their feet in a panic, their small moment of joy destroyed.

“Get back in the lion!” Keith cries.

They make a run for it just as the wormhole hovering in the air flashes a bright white. Lance, his eyes burning from the sudden light, vision blotted out with dark spots, stumbles into the cockpit and collapses. His heart is beating violently in his chest, confusion and anger welling up inside him.

There’s a sudden screeching sound that violently rips through his head and he feels like his ear drums have blown out. No matter how hard he presses his hands against his ears, the sound doesn’t relent. Loud, shrill, and piercing.

The rain is gone when Lance manages to catch a glimpse outside. His heart stops dead in its tracks when he sees that the world seemed to be engulfed in a violent purple light. The ledge they’re perched on starts trembling, mimicking the way Lance is shaking in the pilot’s seat.

Keith is strewn across the ground, hands wrapped around his head, desperately trying to shut the piercing sound out. Lance panics, knowing that they should try to get out of here, try to escape whatever it is that was making that shrill screaming noise.

Shakily, he tears his hands from his ears, gritting his teeth as the sharp noise grinds against his eardrums. A sharp pain shoots through both sides of his head, but he doesn’t relent. He tries desperately to move the gears, but the stick shift stays locked in place.

Please, he begs the red lion. Please stop being stubborn.

“Keith!” Lance screeches, prodding urgently at his limp form with his foot. “Keith, get up, please, I can’t get this thing to move!”

The cliff starts trembling even harder, rocks tumbling off the edge and knocking into the lion, sending Lance stumbling against the armrest.

Keith gives a weak groan, turning his head to the side to stare blearily up at Lance.

“Come on!” Lance yells, fixing him with an intense, desperate gaze. “You can do it! You have to get us out of here!”

He only hopes Keith can hear him over the deafening noise. Thankfully, something in Keith’s eyes hardens and he slowly pushes himself to his feet. Lance watches as he hesitantly takes his hands off his ears and wraps his fingers around the gears.

A large boulder knocks into the side of the lion, sending it stumbling off the cliff’s ledge. Lance lets out a terrified scream as they plummet toward the ground. Keith fumbles desperately with the gears, chewing his lip between his teeth. Lance’s scream quickly melts away as the lion pulls itself back upright, shooting back upwards into the air.

“Woo! Way to go, Keith!” Lance cries, pumping his fist into the air.

Suddenly, another wave of the shrill screeching noise pulses against the lion and makes the hair on the back of Lance’s neck stand on end. Lance’s blood chills unpleasantly, the way it does when he hears nails scratching against a chalkboard. Except this was a million times worse.

“Fuck! Fuck, what the hell is that?” he screams, though he can’t hear himself over the deafening noise. He’s plunged into silence.

He vaguely feels Keith stumble and land against him in the pilot’s seat, though he it seems as if he’s lost the use of all his senses, rendered useless by the ear-splitting screech coming from God-knows-where.

Distantly, he feels the lion spin out of the air. It’s an all too familiar feeling. He feels himself lifting off of the seat as the lion plummets downwards, upside-down. His stomach turns, and for a second, he’s afraid that he’s going to puke all over Keith, though that seemed to be the least of his problems.

Something knocks against his palm and Lance manages to pull his eyes open, despite his heavy lids. Keith’s helmet had tumbled over to him, hovering in the air.

Suddenly, Lance is struck with an idea. They don’t have much time.

Quickly, he gives Keith a sharp nudge with his elbow. Thankfully, Keith is fully conscious and turns to look at Lance with wild, frightened eyes. Lance quickly grabs onto the helmet and shoves it onto Keith’s head, motioning wildly toward the control panel.

“Hurry! You have to get this thing back on track or we’ll crash and die!” Lance screams, gesturing vividly, though he’s not sure that Keith can hear him.

Fortunately, Keith seems to get the message because he twists back around and makes a wild lunge for the dashboard. Lance holds his breath then and prays, prays, that Keith can regain control of the lion.

He feels them start spinning even faster, nearly sending Lance crashing against the cockpit wall, but he’s learned from last time and hastily makes a grab for the armrest, fingers digging into it with a death-grip. He feels the lion groan, feels it jerk sharply to the left, though Lance is no longer sure if he can trust his sense of direction. He’s struck with an overwhelming sense of nausea and has to focus on not hurling all over the floor.

He’s terrified, palms clammy as he prays to whoever is listening to help them, save them. He’s not ready to die. They’ve survived so much together. He doesn’t want to die.

The lion gives another violent jerk and Lance’s face collides with the headrest, knocking the breath out of him. He’s not sure how Keith is holding up, not sure if Keith is even still at the controls or if he went flying somewhere in the cockpit. He’s not sure if Keith still has control of the lion. His blood chills at the thought.

In what may be his final moment, Lance calls out for him. He feels the lion collide with the ground, a jolt nearly knocking Lance’s bones out of his skin. He shuts his eyes, ready for another impact to kill him.

It never comes.

For a moment, everything is still. From the ground, the high-pitched shrilling noise isn’t as loud and Lance can hear his own ragged breathing, can hear Keith panting somewhere behind him.

His neck aches as he slowly lifts his heavy head, turning around in the seat and leaning back. He’s shaking. Through the window, Lance can see that they’ve somehow landed safely on the ground. It’s… a miracle.

Keith stumbles backwards, collapsing sideways onto Lance’s lap and leaning against the armrest. He gasps loudly, sweat dripping down the bridge of his nose and sliding down his neck. With shaky hands, he slides the helmet off of his head, dropping it to the ground. Underneath, his hair is wild and tangled, forehead glistening with a sheen of sweat.

For a moment, the two of them just sit there in stunned silence; Keith stares up at the ceiling, breathing heavily, while Lance stares at Keith.

“What the fuck,” Lance heaves after a while, gazing at Keith in awe. “How… did you… do that…?”

Keith shifts, wiping the sweat off of his face with the back of his hand. He takes a few more shaky breaths, before answering, “What? Like it’s hard?”

“Dude,” Lance breathes. “You. Did you really just do that? Like, we were falling. We were spinning. So fast. We were gonna die – there was no way anyone could have stuck that landing. But now we’re on the ground. How. What the fuck. Keith. How.”

Lance feels like crying with relief. Before he can stop himself, he flings his arms out and pulls Keith into a tight hug, burying his face into Keith’s shoulder.

“You really are the best pilot ever, Keith!” he cries, voice quivering with emotion. “How the hell did you do that? We were spinning so fast! And you somehow landed us on our feet! Jesus Christ. You’re the best. You’re the best.”

He has to stop himself from letting his all feelings slip out. He takes a few shaky breaths, reveling in Keith’s warmth. Slowly, he lifts his head and rests his chin on Keith’s shoulder, grinning up at him. Keith is staring down at him, red-faced, with his mouth twisted in a somewhat shy smile.

“Uh. Thanks…” he mutters, eyes quickly darting away.

He gives Lance a hesitant pat on he arm, though he refuses to look at him, staring adamantly out the window. His expression suddenly hardens.

“Um. I think we should keep moving,” he says suddenly.

Alarmed by the sudden urgency in his tone, Lance leans over and follows Keith’s gaze. The sky outside was glowing the same ominous purple, casting the green landscape in its strange light. There was still a faint screeching noise coming from above, though Lance can’t really hear it anymore. He’s not sure if it’s because he’s gone deaf. There’s a painful ringing in his ears.

Keith shifts, pulling himself upright against the dashboard, his weight pressing into Lance’s thighs.

“Dude, I can move if you want…” Lance says hesitantly.

However, as Keith pushes the stick shift forward to full speed, the red lion starts dashing across the ground, the momentum plastering Lance against the seat.

“Never mind!” he cries out, gripping tightly at the armrests.

The lion races through the valley, paws churning up rubble in its wake. The ride isn’t smooth, Lance and Keith nearly knocking heads a few times as the red lion darts back and forth.

Lance has no clue where they’re headed. Whatever it is they’re escaping from, there really is no way to take shelter. They don’t even know what they’re running away from, don’t even know where they can hide. The planet is just miles and miles of dirt and rock and valleys. And there was no way Lance could handle taking cover in a cave again. That hadn’t gone all too well last time.

The world outside flashes a bright white and suddenly, Keith lets out a strangled gasp. The lion tilts its head upward, face pointing up at the wormhole. Lance’s eyes widen in shock as he stares up at the menacing portal, now pulsing brightly. The stars within it seemed to shine with a newfound intensity, purple galaxies swirling, blending together, glowing with a sinister light.

Lance can feel Keith shaking. Instinctively, he wraps his arms around his torso and pulls him close.

Another hot, white flash.

A chilling purple glow.

Lance feels his breath lodge within his throat, sweat dripping down the back of his neck.

There’s a blinding, muted flash above them, as if something just exploded within the wormhole and, without another sound, the portal flickers for a moment, before disappearing in the blink of an eye. Lance blinks up at the empty sky in confusion.

There’s a deafening boom.

Lance feels it in the core of his soul, rattling through his bones. He wants to scream, but he can’t, the force of the sound compressing his chest. Just presses his face against Keith’s shoulder and holds his breath. The ground beneath them trembles and Lance can hear the metallic gears of Keith’s lion groaning. Lance can feel Keith heaving with each breath he takes, his shoulders shuddering. He lets out a wet gasp and lifts his head, staring dolefully out the window.

“It’s here,” Keith rasps eerily, his voice dry.

Lance’s skin prickles.

“Wh – what do you mean?” he whispers shakily.

He can’t stand that tone of voice. Keith sounds so frightened and broken and it nearly destroys the tiny sliver of hope that Lance has been desperately clinging to all this time. Keith was what gave him strength, what made him go on. If Keith was afraid, Lance wasn’t sure what to make of himself.

Slowly, Keith turns and looks back at Lance with a terribly haunted expression, his eyes stretched wide, pupils sharp.

“I – I felt it. Back in the cave. Something was coming. It’s here now,” Keith whispers.

He’s trembling violently in Lance’s arms, lip quivering like he’s about to cry. Alarmed, Lance pulls him closer, pressing their foreheads together, his palm cupping one of Keith’s cheeks.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Lance says, though his wavering voice betrays him. “We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine, okay, Keith?”

 Keith shakes his head vehemently.

“I can feel it. It’s evil, Lance,” he whispers.

Lance feels himself start to shake, though he desperately tries to fight it off, breathing deeply. He can’t let Keith know that he’s terrified. He wants to be strong for him.

“We’ll… be fine. We’ve fought thousands of evil things, haven’t we?” Lance insists.

“But I don’t want to fight anymore,” Keith sniffles and he sounds so sad, so broken, like a whimpering child. “We were supposed to be done with it.”

Something inside of Lance breaks. Keith is right. They had both thought it was over with when they defeated the Galra in the war. Even Keith, whom Lance had always assumed loved fighting and whom Lance had always admired for his relentless eagerness for battle, was tired of it.

“Just one more,” Lance finds himself insisting. “Just one more fight, yeah? We can do this. Just one more.”

He tries to force a smile onto his face, wiping at Keith’s eyes gently with the pads of his thumbs. Keith swallows numbly, staring wide-eyed back at Lance. His dark pupils search Lance’s face for a moment, before a look of determination settles on Keith’s expression.

“Yeah,” he breathes.

They stay there, foreheads pressed together, for only a split second longer before Keith is turning back around. They start flying aimlessly, Keith hell-bent on searching for whatever it was that they were up against. Lance knows deep down that he wants to turn around and hide, knows that his first instinct would be to run and let it find them, if it had to come down to that. He doesn’t quite like the idea of charging headfirst towards whatever it was that was waiting for them. They didn’t even have a plan. And if it really is as evil as Keith says it is… Lance doesn’t want to think about it or he’ll be sick with fear

Suddenly, there’s a thud.

A hooded figure drops atop the lion’s snout, nearly causing Lance’s heart to stop beating. Keith cries out and abruptly slams the break down, the lion swerving as it skids to a halt.

The figure doesn’t tumble off. It remains standing perfectly upright, something terrifying about its calm demeanor. Lance’s blood chills. A pair of cold, poisonous yellow eyes gleam at them from deep within the hood.

Keith aggressively forces the lion to swivel its head to the side, attempting to knock the figure off. The hooded creature doesn’t budge, feet still planted firmly on the lion’s snout.

Angrily, Keith lets out a strangled shout and jerks the lion’s head upwards, palm slamming down against one of the buttons on the dashboard. Lance feels the cockpit shake as the lion unhinges its jaw and fires out a bright red beam of light. When the glow of the laser shot fades, they find the figure still perched calmly in the same spot, still peaking tauntingly through the glass at them.

Before Lance can stop him, Keith cries out again and steers the lion’s head downwards, plunging its nose into the ground. Lance lets out a yell as the cockpit jolts, the force knocking his skull painfully.

“Keith –” he gasps.

The figure dodges away just as the lion’s snout plunges into the earth, sending rubble into the air. Raising a long, clawed hand, the figure shoots a stream of purple electricity towards the red lion from its bony fingertips in retaliation.

“Look out!” Lance cries.

Quickly, Keith pulls the lion’s head back up, slamming down on the button again. Before the lion’s laser beam can charge up, the purple sparks cloud their field of vision, electricity buzzing outside the window. Lance feels the currents of electricity course through the red lion as it jolts abruptly.

 

“Fuck!” Keith grits, desperately slamming his hand down on the controls. He pulls the stick shift and nothing happens. “The controls are dead.”

“Shit.”

Keith stands and peers through the window, glaring down at the figure that stands below them. It peers up at the lion with its ominous yellow eyes. Lance can visibly see Keith shaking, though he’s not sure if it’s because of anger or fear.

“I’m going to go confront that thing,” Keith decides, whipping around.

“What?!” Lance cries incredulously. His heart falters. “I’m sorry, I think I went deaf earlier, what did you just say?!”

“I said,” Keith mutters, picking up his helmet off the ground. “I’m going to go confront that thing.”

Lance gapes at him. Desperate emotions well inside of him as he sees the determined look on Keith’s face, so different from the terrified expression that he had worn earlier. It’s always been like this, hasn’t it? When faced directly with danger, there was just no way Keith could step down from a fight. He was so, so stupidly brave. And Lance is terrified.

“There is no way in hell you’re doing that,” he says, weakly hoping that he can get Keith to change his mind.

Keith doesn’t listen to him. He rounds the corner of the pilot’s chair and bends down, pulling out his bayard from underneath the seat. Urgency builds up in Lance’s chest. There’s so much he has to say. So much he can’t say. Not now. Not yet.

“Keith.”

“Stay here, Lance.”

“Are you fucking stupid?!” Lance cries, standing up. “I’m not letting you go out there!”

Lance feels his heart beating rapidly, his throat tight.

“There’s nothing else we can do,” Keith says over his shoulder as he makes his way for the entrance. “Red can’t fight or move and that thing doesn’t look like it’s going to leave us alone any time soon. One of us is going to have to go out there eventually.”

“I’ll come with you!” Lance insists, sprinting over and grabbing onto Keith’s arm. He doesn’t want him to walk through the door. There’s still so much he has to say.

“No. You don’t have your bayard or your armor,” Keith says calmly, not meeting Lance’s eyes. “It’s safer for you if you stay here.”

Lance feels his hands shaking. He knows, deep down, that there’s no way to convince Keith to back down from a fight. But, there was also no way that Keith was going to walk away from this fight alive. All he had was his helmet and his bayard for protection. That monster out there could kill him without lifting a finger.

“Don’t go,” Lance begs. “You’ll die.”

I love you, he thinks sadly. Please don’t go.

Keith doesn’t listen. Perhaps if Lance could voice his thoughts out loud, Keith would have. But he can’t say it and Keith doesn’t stop. He tugs away from Lance’s grip and puts his hand against the palm recognition feature, sliding the cockpit door open. Panicking, Lance latches onto Keith, wrapping his arms tightly around him and pulling him back towards the pilot’s seat.

“You’re such an idiot!” he screams, anger and desperation in his hoarse voice. “You’re not doing this! Stop being irrational and think about it! What you’re doing is stupid, stupid, stup –”

There’s a crashing sound against the window and another shock of electricity engulfs the lion.

“Don’t you see what it’s doing?” Keith hisses, elbowing Lance roughly in the face. “It could easily destroy us right now, but it’s not! It wants one of us to go down and talk to it. If I don’t go, it’ll blow up Red and kill us both! You get that, right?”

Lance can feel tears welling in his eyes. Keith is right. He knows it. But he can’t bear to let Keith go on his own. Can’t bear to stay here alone while Keith has to face whatever was down there. Can’t bear to lose him like this.

“No!” Lance says indignantly.

He gets another sharp elbow in his face, causing him to let go of Keith and stumble backwards. The blow hurts and Lance sniffles wetly, wiping away at the tears in his eyes. While he’s disoriented, Keith dodges out from his grasp and slips out the cockpit door.

“Stop!” Lance screams deliriously, scrambling after him.

Before he makes it to Keith, the door slams shut, echoing terribly throughout the cockpit. Lance’s heart sinks and he feels tears sliding down his cheeks as he pounds desperately against the door.

“Keith!” he screams, his throat raw. “Come back! Come back! I can’t lose you!”

He nearly chokes on his own breaths, unable to breathe properly. He’s never felt panic like this before. He’s about to lose the only thing he has left. He couldn’t even bring himself to tell Keith how he really feels. Maybe that would have made him change his mind, maybe it would have gotten him to stay. They could have figured something out. He can feel himself going dizzy, knees threatening to give out from underneath him. His fists go numb as he bangs against the metal door.

Suddenly, the doorway flies open again. Taken aback, Lance nearly tumbles out into the hall. Keith is there, catching him by the collar of his shirt and pulling him upright. He shoves Lance back into the cockpit and follows, pressing him up against the wall.

Lance’s vision is clouded, blurry from his tears. He sees nothing but those beautiful, sorrowful eyes staring sadly at him. He clutches at Keith desperately, wanting to hold on forever. Fingers run through Lance’s hair, delicately caressing him. It’s only for a split second. Lance barely registers Keith’s warm mouth pressing against his lips. And then he’s gone again. The doorway shuts, echoing.

Keith is gone. Lance is left alone, clutching at the empty air and everything he’s ever lost, sorrow in his bones.

 

Chapter Text

            When Lance was younger – three, maybe four years old – he had been invisible; his timid personality got buried under the high-energy roar of his older brother and sister, his ma and pa never quite hearing him underneath. They were only two years older than him, a pair of rambunctious six-year old twins who always stole the show from him. He got tired of being scolded by his ma for bickering with Isabel over the remote, because she seemed to prefer her over him. He got tired of being stomped out by Sebastian’s loud and proud personality, which had always buried Lance’s accomplishments underneath. He had had an irrational fear that he was the least favorite of the three and it ate away at him every day. He hated it – feeling rejected by his parents because he wasn’t as charming and convincing as Isabel or as smart and creative as Sebastian.

So, he learned to be louder. Louder than his siblings, louder than anyone else in the room. He drove himself up, over the crowd with his voice, drawing attention to himself everywhere he went with his newfound boisterous nature. And it worked. People started paying attention to him.

He had always been a high-energy kid, bouncing off the walls the moment he first learned to walk, but because he grew up in a house with two other loud toddlers, he learned how to be outgoing when he was around other people. Because of this, making friends at school had been a breeze for Lance, ever since his ma had dressed him up in his uniform for his first day of pre-school, slipping him into his second pair of hand-me-down shoes that were always a little too big for him. Other kids seemed to flock towards him like a crowd, eager to hear him crack more jokes, eager to listen to what he had to say.

He always gathered a crowd easily through the years: elementary, to middle, to high school. People took notice of him because he was loud, this he had grown accustomed to. They listened to him, he listened to them. They grew to like him, he grew to like them. They grew to trust him, he grew to trust them. That’s how friendship went for Lance. And he trusted people hard, believed in his friends with everything he had. And his friends had always trusted him back, hadn’t they?

So – why? Why hadn’t Keith ever listened to him? Everything else was there – friendship, trust. At least, he hoped so. God, he hoped so. So why didn’t Keith ever listen? He was always too bold and brash, too irrational, and Lance could never do anything about it, no matter how loud he was, no matter how loud he screamed.

It makes him shake. With what? Anger, fear, confusion? He’s not sure anymore. The only thing that he’s certain of is that he’s failed, in some way. He’s failed. He had tried everything: he had begged, cried, screamed. But Keith still left. There must have been something else Lance could have done to get him to stay, something else, if he had only known how. But what good was he? All he can do now is lean against the wall, shaking, chasing a phantom taste on his lips.

In a daze, he stumbles over to the door, desperately pressing his palm against the screen. It doesn’t open. In a fit of terror, he wedges his nails between the gap where the door meets the wall and pries. It doesn’t budge.

“Open, god dammit,” Lance hisses, throwing a blind punch towards it. He’s too numb to feel the shock. “Open. Open.”

His chest feels like it’s constricting, the tight binds of anxiety crushing his ribcage. He can’t breathe. He has to get out there and stop Keith from fighting that monster. He has to. Angrily, he turns his chin to the ceiling.

“Listen, Red!” he yells. His voice is horse and it burns his throat to speak after he had yelled so desperately after Keith. “Listen. You’re stupid fucking paladin is going to get himself killed if you don’t open the fucking door and God-help-me, I can’t –”

He breaks off, voice catching in his throat.

“I can’t handle that,” he whispers, ducking his head and choking back a sob. A shaky breath. “I can’t – just sit here and let him die. So, please… Let me out of here.”

The door stays shut.

In frustration, Lance presses his head against the wall, trying desperately to control his trembling shoulders. His ears are ringing, the sound pounding against his skull. His left eardrum feels ruptured, split from the deafening noise of the alien’s landing.

Gathering himself up, Lance abandons his hopes of prying open the door and spins around. He clambers his way towards the dashboard and throws himself against the window, half hoping he would burst through the glass. He doesn’t, of course, but he gets a glimpse of what’s going on outside through the wires of electricity dancing around the red lion.

The sight on the ground chills his blood. Below him, the hooded figure is standing directly at the mouth of the lion, shrouded in a purple cape embroidered with gold seams. The seams seemed to depict designs of a dozen faces, all wearing expressions of agony. They all seemed to strain against the fabric, like tortured souls threaded into the eternal prison of the cloak. Behind the figure’s hunched form, a small spacecraft lies embedded into the ground from its landing. The hood pulled over the figure’s head shrouds its face of everything except the unmistakable glow of its yellow eyes. A Galra, Lance realizes with dread.

Frantically, Lance presses his face against the glass and darts his eyes around in search of Keith. He traces the Galra’s golden gaze towards a spot directly below the red lion and has to strain his eyes to see him, but he’s there. Keith is there. Standing defensively with his bayard raised in his fists, his face obscured by the visor of his helmet, looking so stupidly brave.

Lance wants to reach for him, pressing his hands against the glass. He’s so, so far away and he can’t get to him. He can’t. It’s torturous – having to watch through the windowpane without being able to protect Keith. It’s torturous.

He has to watch with flooding eyes as the Galra takes a menacing step forward. Her legs are as thin as her arms and her fingers, knobby kneecap popping as she moves towards Keith. Through the blood roaring in his ears, Lance can vaguely hear its raspy voice, can vaguely see it beckoning towards itself with its bony hand, sparks sizzling at the tip of its claws. But Lance is only focused on Keith, pressing his nose against the glass and leaning close, as close as he possible can, staring only at Keith’s small form.

Get away, he thinks desperately. Get away. Come back to me. Please.

For Lance, everything is happening as if the world had shifted on its axis, as if something is not quite right about reality. Lance feels like he’s watching everything in slow motion, like he’s out of synch with the running of the clock, like his heart is beating just a little too fast, like he’s not quite there. He’s underwater, his ears are clogged, water fills his nose, his lungs and he’s spinning away, dizzy, dizzy, dizzy. This can’t be happening. Keith can’t be doing this.

He hears the familiar, distant sound of Keith yelling something in retaliation, stupid, stupid, stupidly hotheaded as he always is. Lance wants to slap him across the mouth and shut him up. But, of course, he can’t. He can’t do anything as he watches Keith activates his bayard, red sword glinting in the fading light of the dark sky like a dying beacon of hope. He can’t do anything as Keith charges forward. He can only scream, though he can’t hear it in his own ears, as he watches the Galra raise its cracked palms, electricity snaking across its fingertips. Lance feels the air in the cockpit tense, wiring like the static buzzing from the Galra’s hands. A shock of purple sparks fire without a moment of hesitation and strike Keith down in a blinding flash of light.

Lance is screaming, voice rubbing his throat raw and red, but he can only hear the blood pounding in his ears. He feels a hollow opening rip through his heart as he watches the only thing he has left in the world collapse in a heap, helmet knocked off his head. Something cold wraps its hand around Lance’s heart and he curls into himself against the dashboard, forehead pressed against the window. He keeps screaming even as the light fades, eyes wet with tears, unable to look back down. He can’t – can’t bear to see.

“Please!” he yells. He’s not sure who he’s talking to anymore. He can’t hear his own voice. “Please, you have to – you have to let me go help him!”

Lance is choking on every word, breathing too rapidly from his lungs to keep up. His fists have gone numb. He doesn’t realize that he’s pounding on the windowpane until he feels his knuckle split open. He’s not sure what’s going on anymore. His tears blur his vision and his senses, stinging his cheeks and leaving a salty taste against his tongue.

“Red…” he whispers, trying to steady his shaking hands against the dashboard. He doesn’t recognize his own tortured voice. “Red. Open the door. I have to save him…He’s hurt…”

 His voice dies out, simmering into a weak, wet cough. He doesn’t know what he would do if he could get out there. Lance is used to having a plan. He can usually come up with something, anything. There was always something he could work with, but now he’s left blank. He doesn’t even know if he can still save Keith anymore, or if –

The cockpit door slides open.

Lance freezes for a moment, staring out into the still hallway. Somehow, the red lion had heard him. Had listened to him. He almost can’t register it – the door is open. A miracle? His mind is frozen, held in place by the firm hand of shock, his eyes fixed unseeingly outward.

And then he’s running. Ignoring every ache in his body, in his heart, he’s running out the door, his footsteps echoing in the empty hallway. The faint sound of electricity buzzing and of the Galra’s menacing laugh gets louder as Lance barrels down the stairs, half delirious with desperation. He pushes himself to run faster at the sound of Keith’s shaky voice, both relief and urgency flooding through him.

He’s alive, Lance thinks. He’s alive.

He makes it down to the entrance at the lion’s mouth, now level with the two on the ground. He can see Keith, collapsed on his side a few feet in front of him. His vision tunnels and he nearly leaps out into the open to reach him, but catches himself before he barrels straight into the Galra’s path.

He hesitates in a moment of battle between his mind and his brain. Part of him is ready to throw caution to the wind and dash to Keith’s side, part of him knows that doing so will only get him killed. After a moment, he chooses to dodge behind the entranceway before the alien can spot him, desperately holding down the urge to run to Keith and make sure he’s okay. From where he hides, however, Lance can clearly see that Keith is hurt: his pale skin is battered and bruised, his limbs are twitching from the electric shock. It makes Lance sick.

“Come with me,” the Galra is saying, extending a bony hand towards Keith, who scoots backwards defiantly. Its voice is dry and raspy and the sound grinds against Lance’s stinging eardrums. Up close, Lance can see the devilish gleam of its golden eyes and the jagged fangs that line its mouth. “Why would you want to rot away on this planet? There’s nothing left. All the inhabitants perished in the war. You won’t find help here, but I can give you everything – power, eternal life. We can rebuild our lives and the Galra Empire.”

“Why would I ever want to work with you?” Lance hears Keith grit out, spitting each word onto the ground.

There’s a rumble that Lance realizes is the Galra’s laughter, low from the back of its throat. It’s golden eyes gleam.

“Because what other choice do you have? Where else will you go from here?” the Galra figure purrs. “Surely you know what will happen to you eventually if you stay here? I’m saving you!”

Lance tenses, holding his breath tight and clenching his fist. He wants to run out and attack, but he has nothing. He’s empty handed. He has to wait for the right opportunity, though he has no idea when that may be. He has to wait.

“I’d gladly take death over working for the Galra. I thought I’ve made that clear,” Keith spits, ever so defiant.

Lance feels his knees go weak, the ground swaying beneath him. This fucking idiot.

Don’t rile it up, Lance silently wills Keith.  

“Isn’t that what they all say…” murmurs the figure, tilting its head to the side. Lance braces himself for it to attack. If it came down to it, he was ready to run out there and throw himself in front of Keith. Thankfully, it continues speaking: “Think about it. I’m powerful. I’m the only surviving Galra from the war. I was there when you and your team destroyed Zarkon and his little friends on that ship. I got out.

And you’re powerful. I’ve seen what you can do. I’ve heard what they say about you. You possess a hunger for blood. Together, we can rule the galaxy! We can recruit new members to join our cause. No one will be there to stop us.”

From the excitement of its elaborate fantasy, a row of teeth gleams from beneath the shadows of the figure’s hood, revealing the creature’s devastating smile. It leans close to Keith’s collapsed form and hisses, “Where exactly is the rest of Voltron, anyway?”

Keith clenches his fists, visibly shuddering with rage.

“Not around anymore, are they? Hm. You see, we’ll be unstoppable!” the figure insists, holding out its clawed hands. Its yellow eyes gleam with a wicked sort of light. Very, very quietly, its voice barely a whisper floating through the tense air, it taunts, “I know what you’re afraid of. I think it would be wise if you listened to me.”

“I’m not afraid of anything!” Keith fires back, stumbling to his feet.

A lie. Though it was something Lance might have believed, had he heard it a few days ago, before this whole mess occurred, he knows now that it’s a lie. There are things that Keith is afraid of – many things. He’s afraid of fighting, for one. Lance can see it in the way his legs tremble as he stands his ground, in the way his shoulders tense up. Keith is afraid to do this. And yet, he won’t back down. It makes Lance want to weep, makes him want to yell for him to stop, tell him it’s okay, whisk him away to somewhere safe.

But it’s not okay. Lance sees right through the Galra’s cruel game, plain as day, but Keith pummels into the scheme headfirst. It’s trying to rile him up. It must know what Keith is like: impetuous and reckless and headstrong. It knows it can get him angry just by taunting him with its withered, empty words. Once it’s had its fun toying with Keith, it’ll take him down easily. It’s just trying to tire him out.

Don’t fucking fall for it, Lance pleads silently. You’re smarter than this.

The hooded figure lets out a shrill cackle, the sound cutting through the air and piercing Lance’s ringing ears.

“You’re lying to yourself, dear boy. I know everything you’re afraid of,” it muses, putting its hands to the thick hood draped across its face. Its voice drops a pitch. “Do you know who I am? I don’t believe we met properly during the war… No, I never did get the privilege to face Voltron personally… though it was something I dreamed of doing, I had… other business to attend to. Do you know what Zarkon used me for?”

The sound of Lance’s thrumming heart makes it nearly impossible for him to eavesdrop. He feels as if something important is about to be unveiled, like the tense moment before the climax of a movie. He steadies himself against the wall, readying himself to charge out into the clearing if the figure decided to attack.

“My name is Meitum, Wielder of Fear!” the Galra declares, its voice booming across the valley. As if on command, the words cause dread to spread within Lance’s chest. “I was known as the Enchantress of Terror! Zarkon employed me to torture his prisoners and I was good at my job. I could see everything that they feared. And I could manipulate their minds, make them relive their worst memories, make them face everything they were scared of all at once. Over and over again. What fun we had. I made a lot of them run from petty things: demons, a shadow in the darkness, spiders... We did have a lot of fun with spiders.

But, it all got boring after a while, as you know. Then, something interesting happened. I started looking at their fears and do you know what I saw? Myself. Standing there in all my glory. And I thought to myself, where’s the fun in that?”

Meitum lets out another piercing cackle. She throws her head back, still clutching at the hood around her face, grinning like a maniac. The golden, embroidered faces along her gown sift around as if they’re floating, trapped in the torrents of the fabric, expressions twisting in agony. Behind her, the sky darkens.

“Can you believe it? Everyone was afraid of me. Do you know how boring it got after a while? Nothing new, nothing exciting! How tedious. It’s been a long while since I’ve had some fun. I’ve been dying for another taste…” she murmurs, cracking her knuckles. She steps forward until she’s towering directly over Keith. “Let’s take a look at you, shall we?”

The atmosphere darkens, sky melting into a shadow overhead. A cold wind blows its way across the valley, dry breeze making its way towards Lance. He ducks further back into the entranceway when a chilling feeling spreads through his bones. He tries to tell himself that it’s all a game, a trap, but his heart is still beating rapidly and a cold sweat is spreading through his body.

Who was this monster? What was she capable of?

He watches in horror, paralyzed by an invisible force, as Meitum’s jagged claws fasten tightly around the brim of her hood, slowly pulling the thick cloak down from across her face. As her head emerges from the shadows, she smiles another deranged grin. Her long forked tongue flits at the edge of her mouth, swiping past her jagged fangs. Lance can almost hear the terrified moans of the souls woven into her cloak, writhing around one another with ghastly looks of horror on their faces.

As she drops her hands, Lance eyes wander to her head, horrified. Atop her forehead, situated directly between her pair of menacing golden eyes, sits a third eyeball. It’s sickening to look at, even from afar; bulging out of Meitum’s skin, purple eyelid stretched thinly over the red, veined pupil. The eyeball, far too large for her skull, strains against her skin and threatens to pop out of her head and roll onto the ground. The dark iris seems to glow with a malicious light, black like a void, drawing everything light and good and hopeful into it and away from the world.

He hears Keith let out a morbid scream as the eyeball fixes him with its terrifying gaze, stretching impossibly wide, iris narrowing to a slit. Meitum’s bony hand is curled around his throat, long fingers wrapping easily across his pale neck. Her clawed thumb digs into Keith’s cheek, holding his head in place, locking his eyes into her snake-like gaze. Lance wants to run and save him, but he’s being held back by something, an immovable force wrapping itself around his mind and tethering him to his hiding spot.

“Interesting,” Meitum murmurs, blinking her golden eyes. The eyeball bulging out of her forehead remains unmoving, staring into the depths of Keith’s mind.

Keith lets a choked sound, gasping viciously and fighting for his life. His hand twitches, fist closing tightly around the hilt of his sword. In a weak, choppy movement, he swings his arm at Meitum, blade slicing into her arm and leaving a tear in her cloak.

Meitum scoffs, throwing Keith to the side. He lands limply on the ground with a faint thud. Her third eye shuts slowly, thin and ridged skin stretching across the bulbous pupil.

“So I see,” she murmurs, her voice chilling, taunting. She flexes her palm, wriggling her bony fingers. “Interesting. Not what I would have expected from someone like you. What is it that you humans say? You can’t judge a book by its cover?”

She steps lightly across the ground, unsteady movements swaying her body back and forth. Her hand coils back around Keith’s neck, dragging him to his feet.

“Ah, so it’s true. You’re an orphan… Of course it would be something as simple as abandonment,” Meitum chuckles, digging her sharp claws into Keith’s throat. He lets out a dying gasp, bayard clattering to the ground as he scratches desperately at her hand. “Losing everyone you care about? I don’t even have to do a thing! It’s happened already, hasn’t it? How should I play around with your mind? What should I make you see?”

Keith lets out another pained choking noise, throat wet and constricted. At Meitum’s horrifyingly cruel words, something snaps inside of Lance. He bursts out of his trance. Without a second thought, he fights off the terror in his bones and dashes out from his hiding spot at the mouth of the lion. He charges toward the Galra, rage causing his vision to go red at the edges.

“Let him go!” Lance bellows. “Don’t fucking hurt him!”

Alarmed, Meitum’s grip loosens and Keith takes the chance to kick his way out of her grasp, tumbling to the floor. He stares at Lance with wide, petrified eyes, chest heaving for a breath of air.

“No! Lance –” he gasps, voice raw.

Meitum lets out a sinister chuckle, eerily calm. As if on cue, the sky darkens even more and another cold breeze chills Lance’s blood. He’s still charging for the monster at full speed, adrenaline pumping through his veins, ready to tackle her to the ground for manhandling Keith.

She spins towards him, loose robes flying through the air, her arm swinging at him. Lance ducks to the left and tackles her side, shoulder colliding with her bony ribcage. With his ear pressed momentarily against her robes, he hears a fleeting, tortured wail of one of the faces sewn into the fabric. The sound fades as Meitum tumbles towards the ground, a groan escaping her thin lips.

“Keith, are you –”

Before she even hits the earth, Meitum flashes back onto her feet. Her agility stuns Lance as she dives at him, zigzagging left and right out of his field of vision. He’s pinned to the ground before he can register what happened, her claws digging into the dirt by his ears. All he can see is her thin, pointed chin and rows of fanged teeth grinning down at him.

“Who do we have here?” she hisses, dark forked tongue flicking against his cheek, burning against his skin. “What a pleasant surpri –”

She stops abruptly, spinning around at lightning speed and catching the blade of Keith’s sword in the palm of her hand, stopping it mid-swing. Keith stands behind her, petrified, stunned by her fast reflexes. In the split second that she’s distracted, Lance takes the opportunity to pull his feet out from underneath her, kicking her off of him with as much force as he can muster.

“Keith, stay down!” he yells, just as he dashes after her.

Once again, Meitum barely lands before she’s back on her feet, swift and agile, moving in a flash of white. Something glows and she’s wielding a large scythe in her hand, the blade purple and curved at a sharp point. Meitum swipes her body to the right and brings the scythe down fast, but Keith blocks it with the blade of his sword, the two weapons clashing together. Keith charges forward, his sword colliding with the handle of her scythe again and again as he pushes her backwards and away from Lance.

“Take a break, Keith,” Meitum purrs, swinging the scythe carelessly. “I want to have some fun with your precious friend for a minute. I won’t hurt him, if that’s what you’re scared of. I promise.”

Keith lets out an enraged cry, ducking under the blow of the scythe and sliding out from under Meitum’s raised arm. He twists around and slices the blade across her back. Her golden eyes flare, third eye popping open with a sickening noise, pupil darting around in agony. In an instant, her quick, proud demeanor crumbles. Her scythe dissolves in a flash of light as her arms fly to her wound. She lets out a horrendous scream, jaw unhinging, revealing rows and rows of fangs within her gaping mouth. Her tongue wreaths about like a snake, twisting in pain. The sight is horrifying. The agonizing screams escaping her mouth makes Lance nauseous. She convulses and falls, crouching on the ground like an animal. She screams out in a low, monstrous voice, resembling a demon that had just crawled to the surface from the depths of hell. Lance can see a gash split across her back, purple skin gaping wide open, something gold and wet gleaming beneath.

Before Keith can bring down his sword in a final blow, she twists around and hits him with a shock of electricity, sending him flying backwards. His sword clatters to the ground.

Lance cries out and gets to his feet. He doesn’t make it very far because Meitum turns and charges at him on all fours, like a rabid werewolf. Her third eye is stretched wide in excitement, an eerily wide smile plastered across her thin face.

He screams as she collides against him, knocking him back to the ground. The sound is cut off when her claws dig against his throat. He tries to thrash away, but her thumbs hold his head in place, forcing him to stare up at the terrifying, deranged eye swelling on her forehead. He tries to tear his eyes away, but a strange force draws his gaze toward it.

“S – top!” he hears Keith cry, faint over the sound of blood roaring in his eardrums.

Meitum cackles once again, the sound chilling, like bones scraping against one another. It spreads over Lance, numbing him until he can feel nothing but terror. His heart threatens to burst through his ribcage and he feels as if the world is tipping on its axis. He can barely breathe underneath Meitum’s heavy grip upon his throat, feeling his consciousness slipping away from him. His head plunges under a cold wave.

“I just want have some fun with your friend,” Meitum purrs above him. “It’s been so long since I’ve messed with someone’s mind. It’ll be quick…”

“Don’t – please!” he hears Keith beg, a small voice tethering him to reality as his eyelids flutter. “let… go… I’ll do anything… please…”

Keith’s voice gets further and further away from him, as if Lance is floating away from everything, floating into the glowing red lure of Meitum’s third eye. Unable to look at anything else, he floats into the deep pit of her slanted iris. He tunnels into the void, leaving his consciousness behind, feeling lightweight and static all over. Nothing but darkness surrounds him. He tries to turn his head and look back, but he can’t feel himself moving. He wants to go back, wants to tell Keith not to listen to Meitum, wants to tell him to run away, run far, far away.

The darkness wraps itself around him, squeezing out all the air in his lungs until he’s fighting for his life, thrashing against nothing and everything all at once. He remembers something – a terrible memory that he had tried desperately to bury away: the frozen feeling in his limbs that gradually crept up on him as he pounded desperately against glass of a healing pod, desperately trying to get Coran’s attention.

Where is he?

He’s standing inside the machine, legs slowly freezing over as he bangs his fists again and again against the glass, yelling for Coran. He looks around. Feels at the glass, real beneath his fingers. He’s back in the Castle. He’s reliving the memory. He slams his hands until his arms freeze over too, a painful tingle spreading to the tips of his fingers.

And then the pod lowers into darkness and his chest is too tight, he can’t breathe, he can’t see, the walls are closing in on him.

Above his head, somewhere, he hears the roar of rain but he feels nothing against his skin. Suspended from his senses, he hovers in darkness, cold running through his veins – ice or terror, he’s not sure anymore. He can feel his pulse racing in his throat.

He takes a step. He can’t tell if he’s moved forward or backward or anywhere at all. He’s lost his sense of direction. The sound of his footstep echoes faintly over the rain’s heavy crash, though he doesn’t feel the ground beneath his feet.

The moment feels strangely familiar, until he realizes he’s in a cave. It’s the scene from the other day: walking into the dark depth of the cavern to take shelter from the burn of the rain. He reaches for Keith, but he’s not there. He’s terrified. He can only hear his footsteps ringing behind him as he moves further and further into the cave, unable to turn around.

Still struggling to breathe, he feels his heart throbbing in his chest, each beat sending a sharp ache through his ribcage. Lance wants to stop and tear his heart out, wants to rip out his lungs. He suddenly feels the cavern walls, cold against his shoulders, pressing against him. The dark passage is getting narrower. He presses his palms against the walls, straining to give himself some room to breathe. He wants to will his legs to stop moving, but he can’t. He keeps walking forward into the quickly narrowing cavern, squeezing himself to death with each step.

Step. Step.

His breath lodges in his throat. He hears someone behind him in the darkness. Their footsteps are strangely heavy and slow, echoing eerily in the blackness. The cavern shakes.

Hyperventilating, Lance forces himself to run away from whatever is following him, too afraid to look back, though he knows all he will see is the eternal darkness surrounding him. His legs feel like lead, he can’t run, he’s wading forward, barely gaining any ground, and whatever is behind him is getting nearer.

The walls are closing in, in reality this time. He feels the cavern passageway get smaller. He can feel it squeezing his shoulders, weighing down on his head, forcing him to fold his body down against himself. He screams at himself to stop. He screams because it hurts and it’s terrifying and he wants to stop.

He barrels into a dead end, his face, streaked with tears, pressing against the darkness. He can’t move.

Step. Step.

Silence.

The rain and the footsteps approaching him cease abruptly.

He opens his eyes. He’s staring out from behind a glass window. A pair of brilliant, dark eyes are staring back at him. Keith. Lance reaches for him, but his hands meet the windowpane and he’s left pressing his palms against the glass. He’s reliving another memory, both distant and painfully familiar.

He looks around. The airlock. He recognizes this memory as well, a dreaded feeling making his throat heavy. A rigid, mechanical voice begins counting down from ten as he looks desperately into Keith’s unwavering eyes, trying to will him to help him. Keith saved him last time. He could do it again.

With each second that passes, the airlock grows smaller and smaller until Lance is crouching down against the floor, the walls and ceiling pressing down onto him.

Help me, Keith, he begs.

It’s too small, too tight, he’s scared, he’s scared, he’s scared.

“One,” the voice says solemnly and Lance feels himself shoot backwards as the airlock doors fly open. He’s plunged back into darkness and silence.

“Interesting,” he hears a familiar voice murmur, surrounding him from every direction at once. Meitum. “Enclosed spaces. That was fun. Let’s see what else we have to work with.”

Around him, the blackness illuminates with the silver seeds of a million stars, stretching across the vast expansion of space. He’s hovering without a helmet, the oxygen expelled from his lungs. Everything burns. His chest strains for air, but he can’t inhale, can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.

He tries to tell himself that it’s not real. Meitum is messing with his mind. It’s not real.

But it feels real. He can’t breathe and it’s real.

Something barrels into his arms, the force sending him flying backwards. A shadow falls over him and he cranes his neck, staring up at the bow of a looming spaceship. He spins into the ship, crashing against the wall in a room lit with a familiar purple glow. He’s been here before. A Galra ship. He looks down at his arms. He holds his activated bayard in his hands, fingers wrapped around the trigger of his gun.

A loud pop. His heart stutters and he pulls the trigger in a panic, firing without aim. The familiar echo of gunshot and the boom of canons fill his ringing ears and he screams as he fires into a crowd of soldiers charging toward him.

They’re Galra soldiers rushing toward him, shooting at him with their loud weapons. But among them, he catches a glimpse of familiar faces – he sees Hunk running at him with his hands up, like he’s trying to get Lance to stop, but a bullet from Lance’s gun hits him square in the chest and he collapses atop the growing pile of dead soldiers.

Lance wavers for a moment, finding Pidge among the crowd of Galra faces. They look at him with wide, terrified eyes, shaking their head firmly and motioning for him to lower his gun. Something pops behind him and Lance jumps. His fingers wrap around the trigger again and he shoots down the front line of soldiers, among them, Pidge.

He has tears in his eyes by the time he sees his ma, running wildly towards him with her face twisted, caught somewhere halfway between a smile and a scream. His heart chills.

No.

Her frizzy ponytail falls loose as soldiers barrel past her. Shakily, Lance shoots them all down to keep her safe. The last trace of a smile disappears from her face and she’s screaming, eyes pulled terrifyingly wide as she stares at him in horror. He almost doesn’t recognize her.

“You’re a monster!” she cries, staring down at the heap of bloodied bodies around her.

“I know,” Lance says shakily. His gun trembles in his hand. “I’m sorry. Please love me.”

She crouches down on her battered knees, vacant eyes staring down at the dead faces of Lance’s victims. With shaky hands, she takes hold of a familiar but battered, lifeless face. Lance’s father. His eyelids are red and swollen, dried blood caking at the corners of his mouth. Beneath him, Lance recognizes the still faces of his siblings – Sebastian, Isabel, Zoe, Daniela, and Nico. They lie motionless and bloody in a pile at his weeping mother’s feet and Lance stares at the scene until he can’t see through his tears anymore.

“I always loved them all more than you,” his mother says dryly.

Lance’s throat aches. He can’t wipe away at his eyes. He can’t let go of his gun.

“You’re a monster,” he hears his mother call after him as he turns and walks blindly into the aftermath of his massacre. The stench of death rises around him. He can’t feel himself moving.

He sees Shiro folded in on himself, his right arm mangled, chest riddled with bullet holes. To the left of him: Keith. There is a dark circle of blood plastered on his forehead where one of Lance’s bullets had sunk into his brain. He lays limp, arms astray. His hair is splayed out atop his head like a halo and he looks terribly, terribly pale. Lance collapses at his side, cupping his cold cheeks in his shaking hands.

Footsteps. Lance reaches for his gun and finds the barrel aimed at his ma, who approaches him with a cold look in her eyes.

She tells him to shoot.

With an icy feeling, Lance realizes that he’s seen this scene before as well; this had happened in a dream, not so long ago – in the clearing on the first night on the planet. She had told him to shoot at Keith behind him. Lance turns, but no one’s there. Keith is already lying dead in front of him. Lance feels cold.

“Who?” Lance says, reciting the line from his dream.

Once again, his ma lifts a finger. This time it points at him. Obediently, Lance raises his gun to his head, staring up at his ma.

 From below him, Keith starts screaming. Alarmed, Lance looks back down at him. Suddenly, the mangled flesh surrounding the bullet hole on his forehead twists with a sickening churning sound. A glowing red eye pushes its way out from the wound, chunks of brain sticking to the wet surface of the pupil. It blinks once, pulling down the bloodied flesh of Keith’s forehead, and Lance finds himself staring into Meitum’s snake-like iris.

“War, death, and rejection,” Meitum mutters, voice rasping out of Keith’s mouth. His body is still except for the opening and closing of his lips. Suddenly, he convulses and lets out another scream before Meitum’s voice takes over again. “Interesting. What else, what else?”

 The scene spins away from him as he falls backwards, his body hitting the floor, but his consciousness slipping through it, back into darkness. He plunges through the void, unable to feel his limbs, unable to hear anything except the distant echo of Keith screaming. It’s coming from somewhere to his right. His right. He finds himself registering his sense of direction, turning his head towards the noise. The raw emotion in the scream does something to Lance, makes a strange feeling spread through his chest beneath the fear that had been overpowering his senses.

He hears another tortured scream coming from somewhere in the distance, somewhere past the darkness. The desperate sound hits Lance with a sudden rush of determination and he starts fighting his way through the void. He feels as if he’s swimming against the current, a thousand miles within the depths of a dark, dark sea, clawing his way to the surface. He knows it’s not real. He has to get out.

His head bursts out of the water, skin burning from the sudden rush of cold air. Lance lets out a gasp as he pulls himself out of the trance, sudden sting of the light and the noise and the smell from the air around him shocking his deprived senses.

Above him, the sky is swirling with dark energy, wind gusting across the valley as if a storm is brewing. To his right, he sees Meitum crouching over Keith, body haggard and sickly, her gashed back oozing golden liquid onto the folds of her tattered robe. Her bony arms are bent at sharp angles, making her appear broken and damaged, swaying on all fours and grinning like a madman down at Keith’s still form. Her third eye swells, thin eyelid stretching forward until it hovers just a millimeter off of Keith’s pale face. He’s forced to stare back, eyes wide and vacant, mouth twisting as he lets out another horrified scream, seeing something wicked that only he and Meitum can see. Meitum’s grin widens, sharp teeth stacked atop one another, yellow eyes glinting in delight, reveling in the thrill of torment.

“Let him go!” Lance cries out, voice shaking with rage. He’s disoriented, grappling at the ground to hold himself steady His heart is beating rapidly in his chest as the chill of fear continues to spread through his veins, but anger quickly heats up in his gut. “Don’t fucking touch him!”

Meitum wavers. Her horrendous third eye twitches, its veined eyelid fluttering and its slanted pupil dilating. She twists her head around violently, golden eyes wide in shock. Suddenly, Keith lets out a gasp, breaking free of his hypnotic state as Meitum’s eye loses its focus.

“Impossible!” Meitum screeches, scuttling off of Keith. Her movements are abrupt and uneven now, the agility and speed she had possessed earlier gone. She leans heavily on her right side, her thin arms bending at extreme angles, as if they’re about to snap. She crawls her way slowly over to Lance, swaying dangerously. “How did you break free from my spell?”

As she stumbles towards him, head lolling back and forth from the effort of pulling her body forward on her bony limbs, Lance looks around in desperation. He can feel his temples pounding. Spying Keith’s sword strewn on the ground near his feet, he leaps for it wildly, grabbing onto the hilt. As he rolls back to his feet, he holds up the weapon, weak arms trembling.

“G – get away,” he warns, his quaking voice betraying his bravery as Meitum continues to approach him on her unsteady arms and legs.

Meitum lets out a laugh, the sound steadily growing shriller and more deranged. She swivels her head back, jaw hanging wide open as she cackles into the open air. The sight of her fangs sends a chill down Lance’s spine. He can feel sweat sliding down his neck.

“You act so brave,” she taunts, scratchy voice spiking the hair on Lance’s arms. “But I know you’re scared.”

Without warning, she surges forward in a flash of long limbs, like a spider scuttling towards its webbed prey. The only thing Lance sees is her third eye bulging in excitement, veins popping up along the eyeball as she lunges towards him with a devilish grin spread across her face.

He swings Keith’s sword blindly, a terrified cry escaping his lips. The edge of the blade collides with something, the force of Lance’s swing propelling it through a mass of flesh. There’s a sickening, wet squelch that sends every inch of Lance’s skin prickling with goose bumps as the blade slices away at a chunk of skin. With a sticky plop, Meitum’s eyeball flies loose, thin strands of her purple skin tailing onto her severed eyelid. The red pupil darts about wildly, iris dilated as it lands against the ground. As Meitum’s horrifying shriek rings across the valley, Lance watches in frozen terror as the wet eyelid blinks weakly once, twice, and then the red eye pales. The iris shrinks away as the pupil becomes stark white, the evil draining until there’s nothing left but a shriveled, slimy sphere lying dilapidated on the ground.

The wind picks up, carrying away Meitum’s deranged yowling. She claws at her forehead, screaming as strings of her severed flesh dangles across her fingers. Her jaw stretches in agony as her golden blood begins to ooze into the palm of her hand, running down her hallow cheeks.

“You – you despicable – monster!” she bellows, her voice shrill. Lance flinches. “MONSTER! That’s what you are! A monster!”

Her attempt at making Lance recall the hallucination of his mother only makes him angrier.

Shut up!” he spits, taking a step towards her convulsing form. “I’ll cut the rest of your fucking head off!”

Clearly taken aback by his strong response, Meitum’s golden eyes widen in surprise. Scoffing, she raises a frail arm, body trembling in effort, and fires a weak bolt of electricity in Lance’s direction before scuttling backwards like a wounded spider. The voltage simmers against the ground, coursing towards Lance. He manages to leap away, but a few sparks jump at him and catch his leg, sending a painful spike up his calf.

As he doubles over in pain, clutching his numbing leg, he hears Meitum hissing Keith’s name. She crawls over to him frantically, hobbling on two feet and an arm, palm of one hand pressed against the wound on her forehead. She leaves a trail of gold blood in her wake, staining the ground dark under the shadows of the sky.

Keith is sitting dully against the ground, his upper body hunched forward in defeat. His head hangs at an axis on his neck as he stares blankly at Meitum as she hobbles towards him, his dark eyes glum and vanquished. He doesn’t react as she collapses on the ground in front of him, the force against her body spraying drops of her golden blood onto his skin. Doesn’t even blink as she covers his hand with her bony fingers.

Lance wants to run to him, but the throbbing pain pulsing in his leg paralyzes him. He collapses to his knees.

The atmosphere darkens even more, a harsh wind carrying with it a foreboding feeling, the graying sky hanging low over the valley like a dark omen. Everything billows in the wind – Lance’s hair flies into his eyes, the flapping sound of Meitum’s tattered robes fill his ears.

“Keith,” Meitum rasps again. She gives him a weak smile, pain in her dimming eyes. “Join me!”

Keith stares down at her dully, unseeing, like his mind is elsewhere and he can feel none of this. His cheek is stained with droplets of Meitum’s blood.

“We can take over the universe! We’ll finally have it all: Earth, everything! It can all be ours!” she insists, tightening her grasp on his hand. “You and I… we’re the same! I’ve been abandoned all my life – everybody’s afraid of me! No one wants to stick around me. Zarkon only ever used me to torture the prisoners with my little mind games. I wanted to fight but he left me at the jail for centuries, he forgot about me there. But I was always hungry for battle, just like you! Zarkon’s gone now. It’s all in our hands. We can unite! Join forces and terrorize the galaxy! No one will ever forget about us again!”

Meitum is quivering, foam collecting at the corners of her thin lips. She smiles wider as she continues, “Besides, what’s stopping you from taking over Earth? What have you got to protect back there? I never did understand... Are you trying to save mommy and daddy back at home? Is that what it is?”

At that, Keith eyes snap back into focus, gaze furious. His haunted expression twists Lance’s gut, nearly overpowering the throbbing sting in his leg. Lance registers the words, remembers Meitum revealing earlier that Keith is an orphan.

All this time… the reason that Keith’s never shared anything about his family with Lance was… because he didn’t have one.

Lance suddenly understands the fit of rage Keith had hurled himself into on their first day on the planet. All Lance could do was moan about never seeing his parents and his siblings again. He had never even considered what Keith was feeling. He had never even known.

Everyone misses their family,” Keith had said, bitter voice burning a hole in Lance’s heart.

Lance realizes something else.

I’ve been writing to them for a long time,” Keith had whispered in the cave… He had told Lance to write a letter to his family to help him feel better about never seeing them again. Lance had been confused as to what Keith meant at the time, but now he realizes.

How had he missed it? How had he not known? Lance feels selfish and miserable and painfully sorry all at once, the realization hitting him like a cold wave.

He hates the miserable look on Keith’s face, hates the way he can see his lower lip trembling as he stares down at Meitum with his tormented eyes. A hot spark of rage ignites in Lance’s chest. Fighting the painful strain creeping up from his leg and weighing down his entire body, he pushes himself to his feet.

 “I didn’t think so…” Meitum chuckles.

“Shut your mouth,” Keith spits.

An excited glow lights up Meitum’s golden eyes.

“You’ve got nothing to lose, Keith,” Meitum purrs into his ear, pulling him close. “No one’s waiting for you back on Earth. Everyone’s already forgotten about you. If you stay here, what will you become? Why not make something of yourself instead? Why not make them all remember? Join me… we can conquer Earth… Everyone will know your name.”

“Don’t listen to her, Keith!” Lance screams. Each movement feels like his muscles are tearing, but he manages to stumble his way over to Keith’s sword.

Meitum pauses, pulling her face away and tilting her head towards Lance, though she doesn’t take her eyes off of Keith.

“Does your silly friend ever shut up? Why do you humans always care so much about one another? I never did understand. It’s a shame. We could recruit him as well, but he has precious family back on Earth. It would never work. Doesn’t it make you angry? His loyalties would compromise him,” she murmurs. “Why don’t I teach him a lesson and –”

“I’m not joining you,” Keith cuts in abruptly, desperate to distract Meitum from her thought. “I… don’t care about any of that. It doesn’t matter. It’s not just about me. There are – there are others who do have families and friends on Earth. Millions of people, in fact. People that love their families more than anything in the world. What does it matter if I don’t know what that feels like? Doesn’t mean I won’t fight for them…”

His eyes flicker over to Lance, who is slowly making his way over to Meitum’s arched back with Keith’s sword quivering in his hands. For a fleeting moment, their eyes meet beneath the grit and the tears and the fear. Lance feels a warm surge of determination, the same feeling that pulled him out of Meitum’s terror hallucination.

“I’m not joining you,” Keith spits again, finality in his tone.

Meitum stiffens at his abrasive tone, drawing back, oddly stiff. Her claws dig into the back of Keith’s hand, drawing blood and making Keith wince. In one terrifying low breath, she whispers a single word: “Pathetic.”

A sudden rush of urgency floods his body and Lance forces his legs to propel him forward, dragging his heavy body towards Meitum. He has to end this now.

“I’ve heard tales of people like you,” she murmurs, unaware of Lance coming up from behind her. The wind billows the drapes of her cloak. The moaning of the souls sewn into the fabric of the cloth drowns out the howling of the air. “You orphans, engaging in a futile chase after love all your lives. I know how the stories go. It’s just that – a futile chase. You will never, never find it anywhere in the universe becau –”

Angrily, Lance cries out, “Don’t listen to this bitch, Keith!”

Through the angry red edges of his vision, Lance sees Meitum stiffen in shock at the close proximity of Lance’s voice. Before she can even turn, Lance finds the strength in himself to lift his deadweight arms. He propels the sword through the air. The tip of the blade finds its way deep into Meitum’s back with the sickening sound of flesh tearing. He feels the blade lodge its way through bones and heart. Meitum lets out an agonizing wail, foam gurgling at the back of her throat. With a final surge of strength, Lance shoves the sword deeper, until the hilt rests snug against Meitum’s ragged shoulder blades, the tip of the blade protruding out from her chest.

Her final cry is cut short, gurgling and dying somewhere in the depths of her dry throat from the forward force of the blade. Lance feels her struggle for only a moment before the life abruptly leaves her crippled body, her head and chest crumpling downwards. The moaning of the souls in her cloak immediately cuts off, leaving the valley echoing with the ghost of their cries and Meitum’s final breath. Then, everything is plunged into an eerie silence. The sky clears.

Slowly, Lance begins to hear his own ragged breathing as the adrenaline drains from his body. Weakly, he presses his foot against Meitum’s spine, prying the blade from between her ribs. As Keith’s sword clatters to the ground, Meitum crumbles in a heap upon Keith, thin body oozing with golden blood. A terrified noise slips past Keith’s lips as he stares down at Meitum’s corpse resting upon him, eyes wide with terror. Hastily, Lance kicks her off of him, sending her body flying. She lands with a hollow thud a few feet away. It’s over.

Keith collapses onto his side, leaning on an unsteady elbow. For a moment, he doesn’t move, merely hanging his head low. Lance watches him cautiously, feeling his heart beat violently. He places a shaking hand against his chest, feeling the heavy thump beneath his palm. He tries to tell himself to calm down. It’s over.

Suddenly, a wet, choked noise slips out of Keith’s mouth. He pukes abruptly, spilling wet bile onto the dirt.

Panicked, Lance drops to his knees, ignoring the burning sensation that shoots up his leg. He lightly tangles one hand in Keith’s hair, holding back his thick bangs from his face. Keith sobs as he retches, chest heaving like he’s fighting for air. Feeling powerless, tears begin to slide down Lance’s cheeks as he watches Keith gag, stomach heaving, despite having nothing to throw up.

“You’re okay,” Lance repeats like a mantra, running his hand up and down Keith’s spine. His voice is quivering. “I’m so sorry. You’re okay.”

Keith lets out another pained gagging noise before his retch melts away into a violent weep. He shuts his eyes, tears pouring down his pale, dirt-streaked face, dribbling down his chin. He sniffles, nose wet and bright red. Lance is horrified at the sight of Keith looking so fragile and broken, knife twisting in his gut. He pulls Keith firmly to his chest, pressing his lips against the crown of Keith’s head.

“Shhh,” he whispers soothingly, delicately tracing a hand down his curved spine. “It’s going to be okay. I got you. She’s gone, she’s gone.”

Keith sobs miserably against Lance’s collarbones, pressing his wet face against his chest and clutching his shirt like a terrified child, as if he’s afraid that Lance will leave him.

“I’m so sorry,” Lance says again, quietly. “None of what she said was true. It’s not true. It wasn’t real, you’re okay.”

He sits there, clutching Keith to his body, towering over him protectively. He holds him close for a long, long time, caressing his skin soothingly, taking Keith’s hand in his own, running his fingers through his hair until Keith’s ragged breaths return to normal and his eyes dry. Even after he’s calm, Lance doesn’t move.

“Feeling better?” he asks tentatively, peering down at Keith, who still has his face pressed against his chest.

Keith gives a small nod. Neither of them move for a long moment. Then, quietly, Keith shifts, making to slip out from beneath Lance’s arms.

“Hey,” Lance murmurs, pulling him tight. He doesn’t want to let go. He’s afraid to let go. “Don’t move yet, okay? I’m cradling you.”

“What?” Keith asks, his voice hoarse, turning to stare up at Lance.

Lance smiles weakly down at him. “Cradling you,” he repeats. “In my arms. Paying you back for that one time.”

Keith blinks his puffy, red-rimmed eyes up at him, lashes fluttering. Something like a smile dances across his lips.

“You remember…” Keith murmurs, expression airy. “I thought you said it didn’t happen.”

“Of course it happened,” Lance says. He feels tears threaten to spill from his eyes, so he shuts them. “I could never forget.”

He feels Keith reach up for him, wrapping his arms around his neck, running his fingers through Lance’s hair. Sighing with relief, Lance holds him back, clutching Keith to his chest like a lifeline, burying his face into his shoulder, burying away everything they had gone through. He wants to hold him close and never let go, wants to feel his warmth forever. He loses himself in the feeling of Keith’s arms, feeling the rise and fall of Keith’s chest, so, so glad that he’s alive.

He doesn’t let himself wonder how long this will last. 

Chapter Text

Lance can’t feel his legs. The incessant burning had numbed him during his weak climb back into Keith’s lion, and now, he isn’t even sure if he still had legs to begin with. Keith looks no better than Lance feels. He’s collapsed against the wall beside him, clutching at his bleeding hand with a look of agony on his face. Lance feels a mixture of pain and worry, for both himself and Keith, but he can’t bring himself to move or speak. When Keith meets Lance’s eyes, however, his expression hardens and he sets his jaw stubbornly and Lance feels himself stiffen in defense.

“You’re an idiot,” Keith spits, glaring daggers into him.

The bitter, abrupt words cut deep into Lance’s chest and he stares over at him in confusion, his worry rapidly dissolving under a hot spark of rage. Why was he acting so ungrateful?

“Oh, I’m the idiot?!” Lance cries out incredulously. He rounds on him but has to bite back a wince as a sharp pain runs up the length of his body. “You listen to me, fucker, don’t call me an idiot when you were the one who ran out there without a god damn plan. You’re lucky you’re even alive right now. You could have gotten fucking killed. What the hell were you thinking?”

Lance can feel his heart pounding in his chest, the beat sending heavy thrums vibrating into his skull. It hurts. It hurts, but he can’t control his rage.

Keith stares back furiously, his sunken eyes glowering at him from beneath his frazzled layer of dark hair.

Gritting his teeth, he bites back, “I could have handled it, Lance. I didn’t need you going after me!”

“Oh, like you would have done just fine without me, huh? You clearly had it all under control,” Lance spits, narrowing his eyes. He’s breathing hard and every breath sends a sharp pain through his ribs, but he can’t pause to calm himself down and his words keep tumbling out of his dry mouth. “Because you were clearly the one who killed Meitum back there. You clearly didn’t fucking need me saving your ass!”

Keith opens his mouth to retort but Lance quickly cuts him off, unable to stop now that he’s started. He feels propelled by an inexplicable bout of rage, a fire boiling in his chest.

“You should have just listened to me and stayed here. None of that shit would have happened if you had just listened to me. Do you see all that shit we had to go through because you decided you wanted to be all brave and go out there and confront that thing? I cannot believe you just ran out there like that, you gave me a fucking heart attack and –”

“The same thing would have happened even if I hadn’t gone out there,” Keith mutters. “How stupid are you? Do you really think we would have been safe in here? What, you take her for the type to just sit around and wait for people to confront her? You think she wouldn’t have come up to get us herself?”

“We could have fought her in your fucking lion!”

Lance is yelling now, his voice rubbing his parched throat raw.

“She shot some shit at Red and paralyzed her, do you not remember anything?!”

“All I remember is you scaring me half to death, Keith!” Lance cries, his voice cracking. “I told you not to go and you still ran out there. Do you even think before you act? Tell me, do you ever stop and think?!”

“Shut up! I did what I had to do. You didn’t need to follow after me. Why are you always trying to be a fucking hero…like you’ve got something to prove?!” Keith screams back at him.

He’s clutching tightly at his hand, his shoulders shaking with rage. Lance stiffens and has to stifle the sudden urge to punch him square in the jaw.

“I wasn’t trying to prove anything, you bastard. I was trying to save you,” Lance hisses.

“Well, I didn’t need your saving.”

“Yes, you did!” Lance cries.

His voice rings through the air in the abrupt silence that follows. It takes him a second to realize that he’s driven his fist into the wall, just inches from Keith’s stunned face. Alarmed, he pulls back and staggers to his feet, stumbling towards the doorway. He can feel his head pulsing, torrents of blood rushing through his ears and a shrill ring drilling into his eardrums, but he can’t feel his legs.

“Lance,” he hears Keith call after him, voice distant and small.

He’s limping aimlessly, body swaying as he inches his way across the room. Pain shoots up his side and he winces, clutching at his waist. Alarmed and half sorry, he can’t find it in himself to look back at Keith. He’s afraid that he’ll lose himself to his anger again. He has to get away, try to calm himself down. He stumbles, tries to look down at his feet to steady himself and catches sight of the back of his hand, already swelling.

“Lance!” he hears Keith cry again, louder and more desperate.

At the sudden alarm in his voice, Lance finds himself pausing. He turns around slowly and finds Keith cowering against the wall, staring back at him urgently with wide, misty eyes. He’s still shaking, though it looks more like it’s out of fear than anger now.

 “Wh – what’s wrong?!” Lance cries, stunned by the terrified look on Keith’s face, his anger ebbing away.

It’s then that Lance truly notices, for the first time, how battered Keith is. His face is smeared with grime – dirt and a mixture of his own blood, as well as Meitum’s – and the hem of his shirt is tattered, hanging limply off his bruised body.

“Where are you going?” Keith asks urgently, his voice breaking.

He’s staring at Lance with his eyes stretched wide, as if he’s trying to reel him back in. His heart still pounding, Lance tears his eyes away and stares down at his hands, at his sore knuckles, and forces himself to breathe.

“I – I don’t know. Nowhere,” he stammers.

The devastated look in Keith’s eyes eventually ropes him back, his numb feet carrying him unsteadily. It’s then that Lance catches his first real glimpse of the deep gash on Keith’s hand, takes in the sight of all the blood gushing from the wound. Keith is clutching at it with his spare hand, his fingers stained dark red.

“Keith! Your hand!” Lance cries out, flooding with panic.

The dark red stains splattering against the ground makes Lance sick with worry and he fights back the nauseous feeling creeping up in the pits of his stomach.

“I’m okay,” Keith says softly.

He’s not okay. The wound is bad: three deep, messy cuts from where Meitum’s sharp claws had sank into his skin and dragged through his flesh. Lance can see his mangled skin poking up from beneath the thick stream of blood oozing down his forearm.

“Jesus, Keith. Fuck! I – I have to try and clean that up or something,” Lance says shakily, the last bits of his anger scrapped away.

He stumbles over to Keith’s discarded knapsack in the corner and drags it over, collapsing heavily on the ground. Lance can feel Keith’s eyes boring into his skull as he shuffles through the bag and pulls out the roll of gauze and a rag. When he looks up and meets his eyes, Keith flinches and turns away.

“Let me see,” Lance says.

Wordlessly, Keith holds his hand out towards Lance, who was to swallow down the bile that rises in his throat at the sight of the wound. The claw marks are long, carving through the flesh above his wrist, slashing through the back of his palm, and upturning the skin right at the end of his knuckles. When Lance gently cups his palm, blood flows in a thick stream into his hand.

“I’m sorry,” Keith says suddenly, turning back to Lance with the same desperate look in his eyes.

“I – it’s fine!” Lance stammers. “It’s just blood. I’ll get it cleaned up in no time.”

Keith shakes his head. The movement makes him wince and Lance wants to tell him to stay still.

“No,” he says quietly, his voice weak. “I’m sorry for yelling. Don’t go, okay?”

Lance feels his gut twist with guilt and he swallows the lump in his throat.

“Don’t worry. I’m sorry, too,” he says gently. “I won’t leave.”

Keith winces as Lance presses the rag against his wound, screwing his eyes shut and clenching his jaw. The blood keeps flowing, staining the fabric of Lance’s clothes orange and drenching the rag. Hastily, he reaches for the gauze and binds the wound tight, though that, too, stains a dark red, even after Lance wraps it around his hand multiple times. The entire time, Keith leans against the wall with his head lolling to the side and his eyelids fluttering. Terrified, Lance wonders if Meitum had drawn enough blood to make Keith faint from blood loss.

“Hey,” he says desperately, cupping Keith’s cheek in his hands. “Stay with me.”

The shadows cast by Keith’s long lashes dance across his face as he blinks weakly. He looks up at Lance with hooded eyes, his tongue running across his dry lips.

“I’m okay,” he says hoarsely.

His voice is raw and hollow as it rises from his dry throat. The paleness of his lips give Lance a sinking feeling and he hurriedly digs through the bag in search of their meager supply of water.

 “Drink, Keith,” he says urgently, holding the bottle to his lips.

“How much is left?”

“It doesn’t matter, just drink. Drink it all if you have to,” Lance insists.

As long as Keith can get a sip of water, he can’t bring himself to care about the unbearable dryness of his own throat. With trembling hands, Keith guides the bottle to his lips and drinks, his eyes falling shut. Just as soon as he started, the last of the water slides down his throat and Keith pulls back.

“It’s all gone,” he says solemnly.

Trembling, he sniffles and drops his head into the crook of his elbow. “I’m sorry, Lance.”

Alarmed, Lance reaches for him, placing a gentle hand on his quivering shoulder.

“It’s okay, Keith! Really, it’s fine –”

His voice breaks, betraying him. It’s not fine. They’ve run out of water, which also means that they won’t get to make use of the last of their small ration of food. If thirst didn’t take their lives first, the gnawing hunger in their stomach would soon be the end of them.

“What are we going to do?!” Keith cries, voice muffled against his arm. “This is all my fault.”

“No,” Lance says firmly. “None of this is your fault.”

“Yes, it is. You said so yourself.”

The sharp blade of guilt twist his gut.

“No,” he says again, this time weaker. “I didn’t mean that at all, Keith. I was just upset for no reason. It’s not your fault, okay? I didn’t mean it like that.”

“But you’re angry with me.”

Even with his head buried in his arms, Lance can tell that he’s crying again and the sound of his wet sobs break his heart. Urgently, Lance takes hold of Keith’s uninjured hand and twines their fingers together.

“I’m not,” he insists. He tries to say it reassuringly, but he only sounds panicked. “Keith, I’m not angry, I promise. I was never angry. I was just worried about you.”

When he doesn’t stop crying, Lance continues, rambling, “I’m sorry I lost my temper, but I wasn’t mad at you. I could never be mad at you. I was just really scared that you were going to get yourself killed when you ran out there like that and I couldn’t let that happen. That’s why I went after you. Because I was worried. Not because I had something to prove or anything like that. I was just worried about you. But then you said that I was an idiot for caring about you, so I just got upset, but it was never because I was angry at you, okay?”

He runs his fingers through Keith’s long hair soothingly, pushing back his bangs. He still can’t see his face. He wants him to stop crying. Why won’t he stop crying?

“Keith, look at me, I’m not mad,” he insists.

Keith lets out another weak sob and shakes his head. Lance tries to comfort him, but he doesn’t know if he’s doing much good as he hesitantly wraps an arm across Keith’s shoulders. He half expects Keith to shake him off, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t let go of Lance’s hand. It’s silent in the cockpit for a long while, save for the sound of Keith sniffling into his arms. Eventually, he sags against Lance’s chest and buries his face into the crook of his neck and it makes Lance wants to sob as well. He’s clutching onto Keith’s hand with a sense of urgency, somehow hoping that his touch will convey how he’s feeling.

“I’m sorry,” Keith gasps out again over the silence, clutching Lance’s hand like a lifeline.

“Keith, I’ve already said – ”

“No,” Keith snivels. “I’m sorry for what I said.”

He lifts his head then. His eyes, red and rimmed with tears, hover just inches from Lance’s face.

“I was scared you were going to get killed, too,” he says, his brows furrowing. “I went out there hoping she wouldn’t kill you. But I did need you to save me, I was just hoping you wouldn’t because that would mean that you would be risking your life.”

Keith’s voice quivers, raw and full of emotion. His eyes dart away quickly and Lance feels something stir deep in his chest. The sincerity of his words make his eyes prickle and he blinks rapidly, hoping he can hold back his tears.

“Keith, I would have, no matter what.”

Keith grimaces, gritting his teeth. Hesitantly, he brings his face level with Lance’s, staring warily at him. He worries his lip between his teeth as if he’s choosing his next words carefully. Lance realizes then that he still has his hand wrapped loosely around Keith’s fingers and he gently runs his thumb over the ridge of his knuckles, hoping to ease him on.

“What is it?” Lance asks, confused and unsure of what to do. He doesn’t understand why he’s so upset, but he wants to, desperately.

“You don’t hate me?” Keith finally breathes out, voice cowardly and small.

Taken aback, Lance tightens his grip on Keith’s hand firmly.

“Of course I don’t,” he whispers, tilting his head forward to try to meet Keith’s eyes. He stares intensely at him, studying the way the rosy evening light fell against the curve of his jawline. “You know I don’t…”

Lance wants to say more, but he can’t bring himself to do it, the words catching in his dry throat. He breaks off suddenly when he notices how close they had gotten. He thinks, for the first time, of the way their lips had been pressed together for that one warm, fleeting moment. Wonders if it actually happened. Keith stares back at him in silence, his eyes darting across Lance’s face.

“…Yeah,” he murmurs after a pause, squeezing Lance’s hand back. “I just – …never mind.”

Lance yearns to lean forward and close the gap between their lips. He almost does. Almost. But, a haunted look flashes across Keith’s face before he gets the chance to budge. He stares at Lance, his eyes sunken and hollow, ringed with dark circles.

“What’s wrong?” Lance repeats.

“I’m just used to doing things on my own,” Keith says quietly and his eyes well with tears.

He stares wide-eyed at Lance, his pupils empty and tired, yet so strikingly alarmed, as if he’s seeing something that only he can see. Frightened by the dead look in his eyes, Lance brings a hand to his face, hoping to pull him back to reality. Keith remains unmoving, doesn’t even blink when Lance’s fingertips brush against his cheek. Horribly unnerved, Lance untangles his hand from Keith’s and brings it up to his shoulder, shaking him gently.

“Keith?” he asks cautiously. “What’s wrong?”

Keith sways forward, gives no sign of moving on his own accord. Lance is terrified. The last time Keith had been so unresponsive, they had been stuck in that cave, beneath the pouring rain, and he had been disoriented by the foreboding feeling of Meitum’s arrival. He isn’t sure what this means now.

“Keith, what’s wrong?!” he repeats, sharper.

Tears start falling from Keith’s still and unblinking eyes, his pale lips trembling. Lance shifts so that he’s kneeling right before him, examining him nervously.

“Hey, talk to me,” he pleads, still shaking him gently.

His heart starts beating violently in his chest, battering his bruised ribcage. He’s afraid – terrified – that Keith is going to collapse at his feet and die. He can’t die.

“Keith, please!” Lance begs. “Say something.”

Keith’s glassy eyes slide shut, then snap back into focus, though he doesn’t quite meet Lance’s gaze, staring off just above him, as if something is hovering in the air. Spooked, Lance spins his head around. Nothing. He turns back when he hears Keith splutter, finds him clawing at his throat. Nearly going numb with fear, Lance desperately takes hold of Keith’s wrists, careful to avoid the wound on his hand, prying them away from his neck. He cries his name out, begging him to come back to his senses. Keith presses his back up against the wall, eyes wild and deranged, shaking his head violently.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he spits, straining against Lance’s grip. “I can’t!”

He’s breathing rapidly – too rapidly, but Lance doesn’t let go of his wrists. He’s afraid he’ll start choking himself again.

“That’s okay!” Lance says quickly. “You – you don’t have to. Just, please, try to relax, Keith.”

Another glance at his terrified eyes and Lance thinks he knows why Keith is panicking. Meitum. It must be. Why else would he look so terrified? He must be remembering what she had made him see.

“Keith, listen, it wasn’t real,” he says.

He repeats it over and over again, and Keith stiffens, staring at him in bewilderment.

“You’re okay now,” Lance assures, pressing his head against Keith’s forehead.

The gesture is familiar now and he can feel Keith slowly relax against him, can feel his breathing slowly return to normal.

“It wasn’t real.”

There’s silence in the cockpit yet again and Lance stares down wordlessly at Keith’s lips, still just inches away from his face.

What feels like hours later, Keith breaks away slowly, tilting his head to the side and peering up quietly. There’s a lingering teardrop smudged at the corner of his cheek, but it’s chased away by the light filtering in from the window and the small smile that creeps onto his face when he meets Lance’s eyes. The curve of his lips makes Lance’s chest flutter and he’s relieved that Keith has returned to his senses. Distantly, he wonders what Meitum had made him see, but he knows he can’t ask.

“Feel better?” he asks cautiously, examining him.

As Keith nods, Lance slowly lets go of his wrists and inches backwards. His heart is still beating unevenly, wary that Keith will break down again.

“Your head was bleeding, you know…” Keith murmurs, reaching up and pushing the hair off of Lance’s forehead. His voice sounds stable now, showing no sign that he had just been sobbing. “You must have hit it again, but it’s stopped now.”

“Oh?” Lance says absentmindedly, studying his expression.

He hadn’t realized, nor could he bring himself to care. He can’t tear his eyes away from Keith – the way their faces were hovering so close together, the way he can see every feature of Keith’s face, buried beneath the blood and the dirt and the grime, the way Keith’s brilliant eyes, so raw and full of emotion, are staring right back at him.

“Yeah, but it looks bad,” Keith is saying. Lance watches the way his lips wrap themselves around his words. “You might have a concussion.”

“Oh?” Lance repeats.

“Yes. Now I’m especially worried because you keep saying that,” Keith says, pulling away. Lance blinks at the sudden loss of close proximity. “Are you okay?”

He doesn’t seem to realize the way that Lance had been staring at him, too invested in the wound on Lance’s head.

“I’m fine,” says Lance dismissively, shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t even feel a thing.”

“It could be bad if you do have one –”

“What does it matter in the end?” Lance says quickly. He shrugs his shoulders again. “There’s nothing I can do about it now.”

The finality of Lance’s words make both of them stiffen, the brief relief of having escaped from Meitum vanishing abruptly as the reality of their situation catches up to them once again. Despite having escaped Meitum, nothing changes the fact that they’re still stranded on a deserted planet, now with no food or water left. Keith looks at him with sad, red-rimmed eyes, and for a moment, Lance is afraid that he’s going to cry again, silently cursing himself for bring it up. The air in the room is stifling. Lance can feel Keith’s hot breath against his cheeks. A sense of urgency floods through Lance as he wonders how much longer he’ll be around to see Keith’s eyes, his face, hear his voice… He wants to lean in, close the gap between their lips, feel him, and be safe…

He doesn’t.

He has to pull back, has to look away. Shakily, he turns and scoots away with his back pressed against wall a few feet from Keith, pulling his knees to his chest.

Lying at his feet are Keith’s helmet and his sword. The dome of his helmet is dented and scuffed, visor completely shattered and his sword is stained with blotches of dark gold, bits of Meitum’s skin still clinging to the blade. The sight makes him sick.

In the aftermath of the fight, long after Keith had calmed down and they had finally untangled themselves from one another, Lance had stood over the sword as it lay bloodied against the ground. He had gotten an eerie feeling that Meitum was still watching him, could still hear her raspy voice between his ears. When he turned, he stared unmoving at her severed eyeball lying in a heap among strands of her thin, torn skin – nothing but a white orb against the ground.

He had been paralyzed with fear of both Meitum and her torn, bleeding corpse, as well as what he had done. He could still feel the way her flesh had split open, the way he had driven the sword through her ribcage, could still feel her shuddering with her last breath against his hands. He had not been able to move until Keith kicked the severed eyeball into the distance, and then they had both trudged painstakingly back into the red lion, leaning on one another for support.

Lance looks down at his hands then. They’re grimy and stained and he can’t tell whether it’s with blood or dirt anymore. Suddenly, he’s afraid that none of this is real. He has the same gut-wrenching feeling, struck with the same overwhelming sense of terror, as when Meitum had been meddling with his mind. What if this was all a hallucination? What if he was still trapped in his nightmare? Rubbing his hands against his jeans, he glances around the cockpit, dizzy with paranoia. He’s almost certain that the walls will melt away and that he will be plunged back into darkness.

Keith turns and reaches for him, grabbing onto Lance’s wrist and holding him steady. Lance jumps in surprise, shocked out of his stupor. Suddenly, he’s anchored back to reality, feeling the warm press of Keith’s fingertips against his skin. Wordlessly, Keith pulls Lance’s hand up and twines their fingers together again. It’s warm and familiar and comforting, and yet, it makes Lance want to weep even more, knowing that this, too, would be gone soon.

Lance steals a glance at him. He’s staring straight ahead with his lips set in a firm line. With his head tilted to the side slightly, Lance gets a clear view of the underside of Keith’s jaw and of the purple bruise spreading across his skin from when Lance had punched him. A wave of shame washes over him as he remembers the reason for their fight, remembers what he had realized when Meitum had spoken to Keith.

“I – I’m so sorry,” Lance blurts out, turning away. He hugs his knees tighter, grips Keith’s hand tighter. “I didn’t know.”

He feels Keith turn towards him in puzzlement, studying him. The look on his face must give it away, because he sees Keith visibly shrink backwards against the wall.

“Know what?” he says regardless, though his tone is flat, as if the question is empty, as if he knows perfectly well what Lance means.

Lance chews his lip, deciding against bringing up the fact that he had just found out that Keith was an orphan. He feels sour, having known Keith all this time without quite knowing him, in the realest sense of the word. He’s sorry that he had to find out this way.

He can’t bring himself to speak and the silence cuts through him like a blade. He vaguely notices that his foot is tapping nervously against the ground, the tip of his shoe clicking, relentless and irregular, against the floor. He tries to get himself to stop, but he can’t. The absence of movement makes his stomach coil with anxiety, makes the ringing in his ears unbearable. Tapping or not, it all feels the same to him. He can’t quite register that he’s moving. Can’t quite feel his foot. Again, he’s struck with an overwhelming panic, convinced that none of this is real.

What if he was still trapped in Meitum’s spell? He had no way of knowing if this was real or not. It seemed terrifying enough, worse than anything Lance had ever felt. He glances around, unnerved, squeezing onto Keith’s hand just to make sure that he can feel it beneath his fingertips. He can. Warm and familiar and comforting.

“Keith, what did she make you see?” he blurts out and his words float into the air unanswered.

The sky outside is darkening to a murky pink. It’s different without the glow of the wormhole shining down from above, somehow lonelier. As the evening stretches on, the tiny cockpit slowly falls into shadows. A curtain of darkness hangs low across Keith’s face and he blinks down at the ground, silent and unmoving.

Lance wonders how long they will sit there before they die. Wonders which one of them will go first. He wants to sob. Wants to reach over and kiss Keith before it’s too late, and yet, somehow, he still can’t. Even after all this time, even now, knowing that there wouldn’t ever be any more time – he can’t. Can’t even bring up the way Keith had pressed him against the wall earlier, touching his lips ever so gently against his own. Can’t even remember the feeling, though he wants to. It’s all a blur and he begins to wonder whether that had all been a figment of his imagination, just another moment that Meitum had willed him to experience.

“I was running,” Keith speaks up, finally answering the question that Lance had thrown into the air. He doesn’t look at Lance as he talks, his eyes darting around out the window. “And it was dark. Darker than it is now.”

The sound of his voice makes Lance stiffen, knocked back into reality. He squeezes his hand again, just to be sure.

“It was dark for me, too,” he says. “But not like this. Darker. I’ll never see anything as dark, ever again.”

He wonders if that’s true. Wonders if it will be dark when he dies. Perhaps. Perhaps Meitum will be waiting for him there…

Unnerved, he rubs his empty hand against his thigh. Feels the fabric of his jeans skim against his palm. Can’t feel his palm against his leg. What does this mean?

“I got to the shack,” Keith continues, leaning his head back forlornly. “The one I lived in… after I… left the Garrison.”

Lance stares ahead, waiting for him to continue. Outside, the fading sky casts a somber shadow over Keith’s face and his sad, small voice mirrors the dying light. He hears Keith take a deep breath before he speaks up again.

“Everything was on fire,” he whispers slowly, his voice tortured.

His tone makes Lance’s heart freeze for a moment in his chest, spooked by the vicious way he spat out the words, as if the very mention of fire lit a flame in his throat and scalded the tip of his tongue.

“They died in a fire. My parents,” Keith explains. A pause. Then, he adds, “You couldn’t have known. No one knew.”

A tense silence falls upon them and Lance regrets ever speaking, ever bringing up the topic. Keith’s words leave his lips weakly, foreign to his tongue. Lance feels his breath still as he watches him, realizing abruptly that this must be the first time that Keith has ever spoken about the subject to anyone. He curses himself, silently willing Keith not to cry. He doesn’t think he can handle it if he cries again.

Bitterly, Lance swallows and wonders how long Keith has had to bury these memories away. Though he supposes it would be good for him to talk about it, just this once, before he joins them in the afterlife, Lance hesitates to prompt him further. He knows Keith will just fall silent, as he had every other time Lance had unknowingly pressed him to tell him about his family. His gut twists and he wants, desperately, to take back every word that’s ever left his mouth and to pull Keith into his lap and hold him. He feels so far away, though he’s sitting right beside him. Lance wants to close the distance between them and hold him close. But all he can do is squeeze his hand.

Still, he has to at least try.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Lance asks quietly. Hesitantly, he adds, “I’m a good listener. I’ll listen to you all night if you want me to.”

He’s surprised when Keith gives a small nod. He’s almost unsure that he saw correctly, suddenly doubting himself, doubting that Keith would trust him enough to tell him something so personal. Lance nearly backtracks, opening his mouth to tell him that it’s okay if he doesn’t want to, really, but he sees the determined look in Keith’s eyes and the protest dies at the tip of his tongue.

He watches as Keith takes another weak breath, staring out the window unblinkingly. He runs his tongue across his bottom lip, steeling himself up and Lance feels the tension in the room like a taut wire, his heart leaping into his throat.

In a low voice, Keith begins, “It was a long time ago – I was around three… One day, my parents told me they were going to visit my grandmother. Just for today, they said. She lived across the country and she hadn’t had the chance to meet me yet. She wasn’t able to come down when I was born. I remember… my mom telling me that she wanted to see me.

My parents – they were going to pick her up. It was a really long drive, about eighteen hours there and back. They told me they were going to leave me at a neighbor’s house. Thought it’d be better than having me crying the whole car ride there, I guess. And I remember being scared. I just – I remember, so clearly, that I just had an awful feeling about it. I guess I just didn’t want them to leave me alone. I –”

He breaks off, laughing coldly.

“I thought, for sure, that they were never going to come back to get me, that I’d never see them again. Of course, that was all just… me being a kid. But… I guess I was right…”

He swallows heavily, blinking rapidly as if he’s fighting back tears. Lance squeezes his hand tightly, holding his breath.

“I remember… throwing a fit the day they were supposed to leave. Just crying and crying because I was scared of being left alone. I wouldn’t calm down. My parents had to call my grandmother, tell her they were going to be late because I wouldn’t stop crying. I think they were angry. They ended up leaving, though. They did. I – I don’t know what they said to me before they left.

My neighbor – I remember, she said they wouldn’t be back until very late in the night. I stayed up long after midnight waiting, but they never showed up,” Keith says. He hangs his head, worrying his bottom lip. “My neighbor tried to explain to me. I was crying, and she was trying to explain to me. I had fallen asleep on the chair by the window waiting for them and she woke me up. I had expected it to be my mom, but it wasn’t and I was confused. She tried to explain to me.

Said that my dad… lost control of the car sometime in the night. They left to come back home late at night, and of course, driving nine hours back would have been exhausting. It must have been too dark for him to see, he must have been very tired, something like that. A tire lit up as they were skidding off the road. They hit a tree, a fuel line in the engine ruptured, a spark ignited, and the whole car caught on fire. Something like that. She said they would have gotten out alive if there wasn’t a fire. Said they would have lived if there wasn’t a fire… but there was. And all three of them –”

He breaks off suddenly, shutting his eyes and hiding his face in the crook of his arm. Lance stares helplessly at his shaking form, dark now in the shadows of the evening. He can feel his own heart sinking, feel the pain in Keith’s words as if they were his own.

“I just always think…” Keith gasps out. “What if I hadn’t made such a fuss that day? If I hadn’t been such a fucking crybaby, they would have left in the morning like they planned to. They would have gotten there sooner if I had just let them leave when they wanted to. They would have gotten home by evening and it wouldn’t have been dark out and none of that would have happened. They would have come home if it hadn’t been for me.”

“Keith, you were three years old,” Lance says softly. “You can’t blame yourself for that. It wasn’t your fault.”

His voice threatens to crack as he realizes that Keith has probably been wallowing in his shame and regret for years, convinced that it was his fault, that he was responsible for what had happened.

“If I had just let them leave early in the morning, they would have come back before it got too dark,” Keith insists, his voice hoarse and muffled. “I can’t – stop blaming myself. It’s – it’s my fault and they were angry with me before they left because I was throwing a fit and I never got to tell them I was sorry.”

“No,” Lance insists. He leans forward, leveling his face with Keith’s. “They weren’t angry with you, Keith. You were so young back then, of course you would have thrown a fit. It’s not your fault. There’s nothing you could have done. It – it…”

He falters, at a loss of what to say. How could he possibly make Keith feel better? Everything that came out of his mouth just sounded weak and Lance wasn’t sure if he was saying the right thing or if his words were just making everything worse. It seems that all he can do is make things worse. He wants to tell him that there was truly nothing else he could have done, but the words sound too harsh and Lance doesn’t know what else to say.

Distantly, he recalls something that Keith had told him earlier. Something. A poem. The one he had read to him when they had taken cover in the ravine, from his little black book.

“Hey, remember what you said to me?” Lance asks, putting his hand on Keith’s shoulder.

Keith tenses up at the touch, but doesn’t flinch away. Lance racks his brain, searching for the right words.

Urgently, before it slips his mind again, he recites, “’Death is nothing at all.’ That poem you read me. You said it meant that death isn’t the end. Right? That means they’re still here – just… they’ve just stepped into another room.”

There’s another long moment of silence. Slowly, Keith shifts. He lifts his head hesitantly, staring blankly forward with his brows furrowed. Lance is relieved to see that he isn’t crying.

“You like those poems. Want me to read them to you? I’ll do it – where’s your book?” Lance asks, determined to keep it that way.

He makes to move, turning to scan the floor, but he stops when he hears Keith speak up again.

“No,” he says, grasping Lance’s hand to hold him in place. “You… you don’t have to. I – you’re right. You’re right, but I still wish it didn’t happen. I just – I wish things could have turned out different… I wish they had just taken me with them, or something.”

He falls silent again, chewing his bottom lip between his teeth. Then, with a scoff, he turns to Lance and says, “Isn’t it ironic? I’m supposed to be the ‘guardian spirit of fire’ or whatever. I always thought that was funny.”

Lance has to look away sadly, unable to watch as he grits his teeth and wipes at his eyes with the back of his palm.

“Sorry,” he whispers.

“It’s okay,” says Keith, his voice strained. It’s not. There’s a pause as Keith turns his thoughts over in his mind, before he asks softly, “Do you think they would be proud of me?”

His voice cracks mid-way through the sentence and Lance can feel his heart shatter between his sore ribcage. He wants to weep because Keith – this amazing boy – looks so small and helpless, teary eyes darting along the floor in uncertainty, as if he’s afraid to hear the answer. Lance wonders how long Keith has been asking himself this, wonders how he could ever doubt himself, wonders if he knows just how stunning he is.

Lance feels angry. He’s upset with the universe for having robbed the world from an angel, stolen his family before he ever got the chance to learn about love and support. It’s unfair. He wonders how long Keith has been deprived of solace, wonders about the last time someone told him they were proud of him and truly meant it. Lance hasn’t said it enough. He hasn’t said anything enough.

“Of course they would be,” he says firmly, reaching forward and wrapping his arm protectively around Keith’s shoulders. He feels his voice brimming with emotion, threatening to spill. “Of course they would be proud of you. You’re incredible, alright? You’re amazing and everyone knows it. You’re incredible, Keith. I mean, look at you! Why wouldn’t they be proud? You’re the best pilot of our generation. And you’ve done so many cool things! Like, you defeated a whole army of evil aliens and you saved Earth! And you’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Ever, Keith. I – I really, really think you’re great. And your parents would think just the same, if not more.”

He has to slow himself down at the end, nearly confessing all his feelings to Keith right then and there. He wants to tell him about the way that he had caught his heart with a golden string, stolen it out from right under his nose, and reeled it away the moment Lance had first laid eyes on him all those years ago at the Garrison. Wants to tell him about his lovely eyes and his charming smile and the way his laugh makes Lance’s knees weak, always has and always will.

He can’t, however and he brings himself to a halt, biting his tongue and waiting in silence with bated breath as Keith stares forward in shock. He turns to Lance slowly, his eyes still wet and red, though the sad look on his face is buried under a newfound expression of wonder.

Sniffling, he asks, “You think I’m incredible?”

Lance smiles at him softly, tugging on his arm gently and pulling him up from where he’s slouched against the wall. With Keith level to him, he pulls him in for a proper hug, snaking his arms around his neck and holding him tight.

“Yes,” he whispers. “You’re the most incredible person I’ve ever met in my life.”

There’s more he needs to say.

Keith sits stiffly for a moment and Lance can nearly feel him breathing rapidly. Then, he crumbles against Lance’s shoulder, gripping his back tightly and burying his nose into his neck.

He tells Lance everything – the way he struggled for years trying to understand why his parents never came back, wondering what he had done wrong, feeling as if it was his fault, as if they were punishing him for the way he had thrown a fit the morning of that fateful day. He tells him about the regret that haunted him every waking moment, chasing him into his dreams, still lingering like a shadow in a dark corner, even as he grew older.

He tells him of the time he had spent in a wide range of orphanages, struggling to find a family that could… or would keep him. It never worked out and he always found himself back at the orphanage, among a dozen other children with no homes. They all ended up finding somewhere. All except for him.

Because he stayed with so many temporary families, he had to jump around from different schools nearly all his life. Everywhere he went, he struggled to make friends, never really having any that he could keep in the first place. He only had a few kids who he could speak with during middle school and one close friend during his first year of high school. He tells Lance that he misses this one friend awfully, says that it was the only time he had truly been upset about switching schools again. Eventually, however, he gave up on the prospect of friendship and family. What was the point if it never worked out? Why try if no one ever wanted him? He was used to being forgotten, used to giving up and letting go. He told himself he would never get attached to anything. And he never did.

He had first heard of the Galaxy Garrison from the only person who had ever bothered speaking to him: Shiro. During Keith’s last few months of high school, he had lived across the street from him for three years with his longest foster family. Occasionally, Shiro would return during the holidays from being an instructor at the Garrison, rolling up the drive while still in uniform. One day, sometime deep into the holiday season, with Christmas lights strung all throughout the neighborhood and a frosty chill billowing through the air, he had caught sight of Keith sitting alone on the porch. It was nearing Christmas Eve and Keith was beginning to wonder if he would get presents from the family this year. It wouldn’t have been the first time he didn’t find anything waiting under the tree. Shiro had simply walked up to him, introducing himself.

“I’m Shiro,” he had said. “How come I’ve only seen you around a few times?”

“I’m Keith. The Myers’ just adopted me a few years back. What’s the uniform for?”

Half a year later, Keith enlisted and got accepted into the Garrison, seemingly finding a purpose for himself for the first time in his life.

“But then I saw your ugly mug and everything was ruined again,” he jokes, giggling into the crook of Lance’s neck.

Lance laughs along with him, silently grateful that Keith is feeling well enough to tease him. It makes it easier for Lance to breathe. He feels as if there’s been a shift – something had changed between them. For the first time, Keith had let down his guard, peeled down every defensive wall he had built around himself, shown Lance who he truly is.

He tells Lance about the utter panic he had felt when Shiro, his first and only friend, had disappeared during his mission to Kerberos.

“I just felt abandoned all over again,” he explains, a distant look in his eyes. “He said to me ‘I promise I’ll only be gone a little while,’ and he told me to stay out of trouble. I kept telling myself not to throw a fit and it was hard. I just knew he wasn’t going to come back because no one ever came back… I scolded myself, told myself that this was why I had promised to never get attached to anything ever again. But, Shiro... he was like an older brother to me, he changed my life. And then they announced that everyone on the Kerberos mission was dead and I – I just couldn’t accept it. I had to see for myself, or do something, anything…”

It’s then that Lance truly understands why Keith had panicked and resorted to trying to steal a Garrison spaceship. Of course he would; Shiro had been the only constant in his life – the first after so many had come and gone with the wind. Of course he would.

“I was devastated when I got kicked out,” Keith says.

Me too, Lance thinks, pressing their foreheads together.

“I felt like I lost everything all over again. I thought for sure that I had found something I could do in life, somewhere I could be. The Garrison was the first place that really felt like home…”

It contrasts what Lance had always felt. To him, the Garrison was never home. Home was when he was tucked away on the couch on a warm summer evening, with his brothers and sisters rumbling downstairs and the sound of his pa blasting the TV in the kitchen as he and his ma cooked dinner together. Home was never the dull hallways and the bright lights and the strict rules, never the Garrison.

“I couldn’t believe that I lost everything again. I was certain, then, that no one wanted me. If I couldn’t even get that place to keep me, what good was I?” Keith mumbles.

He sighs and shrugs weakly, running his fingers through the strands of hair curled at the base of Lance’s neck.

“I hate the Garrison,” Lance says suddenly. He blinks with realization. “I can’t believe they would just kick you out like that. Didn’t they know you had no place to go? You had to live in a shack.”

Keith sighs again, laughing somberly. Lance’s brows furrow, not finding it remotely funny.

“Oh, they knew I had nowhere. Don’t remind me of the shack,” Keith mutters bitterly. He sighs and presses his nose into Lance’s shoulder and Lance brings his hand up protectively against Keith’s back. “I begged Commander Iverson to let me stay, I told him I didn’t have much of a home, I had no way of getting back to the orphanage, not that I was ever going to go back there in the first place. He told me I had tough luck and then shut the door.”

“Motherfucker,” Lance mutters distastefully. A pause. “You know, he knew Shiro wasn’t dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“Pidge –” Lance says. He breaks off because speaking their name aloud for the first time in so long makes his heart twinge. A bitter taste rises in the back of his throat as he remembers what he had done to Pidge in his hallucination. He sees the bullet striking them in the chest, sees their blood splatter. Swallowing the bile in his throat, he continues: “Pidge broke into Iverson’s files. Trying to find their dad and brother. The files clearly said it wasn’t because of pilot error, clearly showed that they suspected the crew was still alive. And yet, Iverson still said they were all dead.”

Keith stares up at Lance incredulously, his mouth hanging open.

“Motherfucker,” he imitates, pulling back for a moment. His eyes have a troubled, glazed look, as if he’s thinking it over hard. “This means that… he definitely would have tried to play off your disappearance, too, Lance. Aren’t you worried? What do you think he told your family?”

Keith’s eyebrows are drawn heavily over his eyes and he’s gazing at him with a look of intense concern. Lance lets himself wonder as well, though he gets a dark, sinking feeling thinking about his family.

“I… I actually… um, I think it’s better if my family didn’t know the truth,” Lance admits, suddenly thinking of Meitum’s spell and the way his mother had stared at him with a look of pure horror and disgust. “I don’t know what they would think of me. If they knew I… killed so many… aliens? People? Just – if they knew I killed.”

He pulls his arms back, staring down at his hands, sees them drenched in Meitum’s blood, sees them stained with the blood of his enemies, the blood of his friends. Sweat beads along his hairline as he rubs them against his jeans subconsciously. A bad habit. His jeans burn underneath his palms.

I’m a monster, he thinks.

He feels the sickening thunk of Keith’s sword pushing through Meitum’s chest.

“Hey,” Keith says softly. He laces his fingers through Lance’s, his palms warm. “They would never think of you any different.”

Suddenly hyperaware of Keith’s fingers wrapping around his palm, Lance feels heat creep to his cheeks. Before, when he had been the one grabbing onto Keith’s hand to reassure him it had been fine, it had been different. But now, he’s unsure what to do, suddenly flustered as Keith twines their fingers together.

“Iverson’s a bitch and no matter what he told them, they still love you. They love you, even if they do know everything you’ve done,” Keith murmurs, his voice cool and soothing.

His eyes glance upwards, meeting Lance’s abashed gaze.

“Want to tell me about them again?” he asks quietly and his voice sends shivers down Lance’s spine.

The sky outside had darkened completely; nighttime had crept up behind them without either of them noticing. The cockpit, now swathed fully in shadows, gives Lance an eerie feeling, reminding him of the stifling darkness that had surrounded him when he had been under Meitum’s spell. However, as the stories tumble out of Lance’s mouth, he manages to smile as Keith pulls him closer, grateful for his comfort and presence.

Sometime through his detailed description of the time Isabel had stuck his head down the toilet in a quest for vengeance, he notices Keith nodding off. So, they shift and lie down, and Lance half hopes to get some sleep, but the shadows that slide along the walls keep morphing into Meitum. She walks by with her robes billowing behind her, the moans of tortured souls slipping away after her, and Lance can’t possibly fall asleep. When he shuts his eyes, the darkness only reminds him of the stifling black memory of the cave that had shrunk down upon him, of the ice cold darkness of the sea that he had sunk deeper and deeper into as Meitum’s voice boomed around him.

He lies fully awake, heart hammering in his chest as Keith shifts next to him, a warm presence anchoring him to reality. He struggles against the hunger that won’t stop gnawing at his gut, feeling as if something is clawing its way through his stomach. He tries to will himself not to panic, but he can’t stop wondering if tonight is the night that the hunger will finally take him, can’t stop hearing the sickening squelch of Meitum’s flesh severing beneath his hands, can’t fight off the nauseous feeling.

He turns to glance at Keith. In the darkness, Lance can see him lying on his back, engulfed in shadows. His hair is splayed out above him, hanging off his face. He looks young, peaceful as he sleeps, quiet and calm and beautiful.

Lance blinks, suddenly feeling as if he’s seen something like this before. He squints down at Keith. Blinks again. When he looks back down, Keith’s face is smudged with blood, his skin deathly white. The heavy metallic stench of blood surrounds him. Lance wants to scream in horror, but the sound lodges itself in his dry throat. At the center of Keith’s forehead, a deep bullet hole churns as Meitum’s round eyeball pushes its way out of his brain, red and slick with slivers of Keith’s brain.

He knew it. This was all an illusion. He hadn’t escaped. Meitum was still toying with his mind.

A wretched noise escapes his lips and he pushes himself off the ground in alarm. He stumbles, his leg burning as he topples away from Keith’s corpse. His heart hammering wildly in his chest, he finds himself crumbling onto the dashboard. The persistent ringing in his ears becomes deafening and Lance lets out a terrified gasp for air, pressing his hands against the side of his head.

He can’t figure out if this is real. He doesn’t think it’s real. All this time, he had just been under Meitum’s spell. None of this is happening. Wake up wake up wake up wake up. He tries to snap out of it, fear taking hold of his heart with its icy, vice-like grip. But he can’t. He opens his eyes. Shuts his eyes. Opens his eyes. The scene doesn’t change. He still sees the dashboard spread out below him. Wake up.

There’s a tight hand on his shoulder. He screams, trying to push it away. He feels the ghostly chill of Meitum’s claws sinking into his skin. He can’t tell if his arm is moving, can’t tell if the hand is still on his shoulder. Terrified, he scrambles forward blindly, clambering his way atop the dashboard, pressing his hands against the window.

“Lance.”

“Get away from me, get away from me! I’m sorry!” Lance cries, cowering.

Let me go, he begs.

He wants to wake up. But he’s afraid of that, too. Afraid of what he will find waiting for him in reality. He feels nothing but terror, feels his limb go cold.

“Lance! It’s okay!”

A muffled pause.

“It’s me! Keith!”

Keith?

He freezes.

But, how? If none of this is real, how? He shuts his eyes and presses his head against the window, willing himself not to fall for it. It’s just Meitum messing with his mind. He isn’t actually there.

He feels hands.

Warm and familiar and comforting.

Could he possibly dream those up?

They trace the skin along his knuckles, up his arm, around his shoulders. He feels Keith’s warmth press against him as he climbs atop the dashboard alongside him.

“You’re okay…” he’s whispering.

His hands are in Lance’s hair, rubbing comforting circles against his scalp. It feels real.

“I’m sorry I scared you. You’re okay now,” he tells him.

Blood still rushing in his ears, Lance takes a deep breath, opening his eyes. The scene is the same. The dashboard is still underneath him. He feels it against his palms, against his knees. It feels real.

Cautiously, he leans heavily against Keith. He’s shaking and he tries hard to steady himself.

“Sorry – “ he chokes. He lifts his head, staring out the window, down at the dark ground. His skin prickles as his eyes involuntarily wanders over to the scene of his crimes. He sees Meitum’s corpse, lying small and distant in a heap at the center of the valley, robes stained dark with blood. “I just – I keep… seeing her.”

Keith follows Lance’s gaze to Meitum’s dark, dilapidated figure. Gently, he takes Lance’s chin in his fingers and tilts his head up. Startled, Lance feels himself tense up, his heart beating rapidly.

“Don’t look,” Keith says softly. “Just look up. In the morning, I’ll fly us away from here, okay?”

Lance stares up at the dark, empty sky.

This doesn’t feel real. It reminds him of being trapped in his dream. Dark and empty. There are supposed to be stars. He had seen stars in his dream, as well, but they had been close, he had been suspended among them. It was supposed to be different from that. There were supposed to be stars in the sky and he was supposed to be underneath them, far away, and he was supposed to be looking up at them. But the sky is empty.

Confused, he asks Keith if this is real.

He feels a hand tighten on his shoulder.

“Yes,” Keith tells him. “This is real, I promise. Everything is real.”

Suddenly feeling very urgent, Lance turns and tells Keith, “She made me see you. I shot you in the head and you were lying there, dead.”

He feels his eyes prickle. He holds Keith’s wrist tight, afraid he’s going to lose him. Keith is staring at him with sad eyes.

“…She made me see you, too. You were there – in the fire. I tried to pull you out, but I couldn’t,” Keith says. There’s a brief pause and Lance can hear nothing but the sound of his blood rushing through his ears. Keith says, “Lance, I’m afraid of losing you.”

His terrified, brittle voice pushes Lance over the edge and he feels his tears slip from behind his eyelids, hot against his cheek.

You’re going to, he thinks sadly.

“Don’t cry, please,” Keith begs.

“How can I not? We’re going to die, Keith. We’re going to die and I’m scared. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear to see you die. I can’t bear to be alone, be without you,” Lance sobs.

He’s bawling hard now, tears flooding his vision and stinging his cheeks. He feels empty, hope having slipped away from between his fingers long ago. He wonders if he’s relieved that all this is real after all. He almost wishes that it isn’t.

“Please, don’t cry,” Keith repeats.

He cups Lance’s cheeks in his hands, catching his tears against the pads of his thumbs. Lance grips his wrist, struggling for air. He can’t breathe through his nose and something is clogging up his ears. It hurts to cry, his shallow breaths pressing up against his bruised ribcage. He tries to stop himself, but he control the way that he’s gasping for air and the tears that keep falling and the way his chest is hurting.

“Please,” Keith says again. “Smile, please. I – I want you to smile. Don’t think about any of this. We’re alright for now, aren’t we? That’s all that matters.”

Lance keeps gasping as Keith continues wiping away his tears. He can feel him hovering close to him, his face only a few millimeters away from his. The pads of Keith’s thumbs are warm against his cheeks. Their close proximity works to calm Lance down. Warm and familiar and comforting. He fights back against his tears, slowly regains his breath. Even under the shadows of the night and the bleariness of his vision, Lance can suddenly see every feature on Keith’s face. He’s right there in front of him and suddenly, Lance can’t breathe again, though this time it’s not from his tears. Keith is staring at him earnestly with his dark eyes and Lance wants to lean forward and kiss him.

So he does.

He does because every bone in his body has been yearning for it since the day he first laid eyes on this boy, does because they’re running out of time and he has nothing to lose, does because he knows this is real and thinks that Keith wants it, too.

His lips are chapped but soft against Lance’s, mouth warm. He inhales sharply as Lance presses their lips together tentatively in the darkness. Lance shifts and holds himself up with his hands placed on Keith’s shoulders and Keith’s fingers tighten around his jaw, pulling him in closer, his breath heavy against his cheek.

Drawing back for air, Lance stares down at him with their foreheads pressed together. The gesture is so familiar to him know, it almost feels as if this was just another ordinary moment passing by for them. Except it isn’t and sparks are igniting in Lance’s heart and he almost wants to cry again, though this time it’s because of the sight of Keith’s blown out pupils and his wet, parted lips and the way he’s gazing up at Lance in awe.

“Why didn’t you do that sooner?” Keith whispers slowly, running his fingers along Lance’s skin, tracing his lips.

“I wanted to,” Lance says, shaking with excitement.

Keith lets out a small laugh.

“You’re smiling,” he says, his eyes dotted with all the stars missing from the sky. “I love your smile.”

Flushing, Lance’s gaze darts away, but he feels his grin spreading. Laughing again, Keith laces his fingers around the back of Lance’s neck and pulls him down for another shy kiss. When they break away, Lance’s head is spinning. He pulls back slowly, sitting upright and drawing his knees to his chest, his stomach fluttering. He has to hug himself tight to keep himself from toppling off of the dashboard in ecstasy.

For a stifling moment, it’s quiet in the small room, not a sound on the desolate planet. Lance is afraid that Keith is reconsidering, until he feels his hand against his. Leaning his head against Keith’s shoulder, they stare out into the night in silence, a thousand words dancing at the tip of Lance’s tongue.

“There aren’t any stars…” he ends up pointing out softly, gazing up at the blank sky, unable to shake away the strange feeling it gave him.

He hugs his knees tighter to his chest, suddenly feeling very, very lonely. With the wormhole gone, the sky is left desolate and empty, cut off from the rest of the universe. He’s tucked away in a forgotten corner of the world, in a place that even the stars had left behind.

“You’re right,” Keith says sadly. “You liked stars.”

He remembers floating, suspended among the stars under Meitum’s spell, straining for air and he reconsiders.

“I did. I used to. I don’t know if I do anymore.”

Keith looks down sorrowfully. After a moment, he asks, “If you ever saw them again, do you think they would make you smile?”

He doesn’t know. Doesn’t think so. But, he can tell Keith wants to make him feel better, so he lies.

“Maybe… Yeah. I think I would smile for the stars.”

Keith lets out a gentle huff of breath, pulling Lance closer to his chest. Quietly, he mumbles into the crown of his head: “Then goddammit, I wish I could bring you all the stars in the universe.”

Lance feels his heart jump, his cheeks flaring. Flustered, he turns and presses his face into Keith’s chest, clutching at the hem of his shirt.

You’ve got them all in your eyes, he thinks to himself.

In a rush of emotion, Lance turns and stretches himself up to press their lips together again, this time hungrily. He feels Keith stiffen in surprise, a startled moan smothering itself against Lance’s lips. Keith’s breath is hot against his cheek as he works their lips together, pressing himself against his chest. He pauses, reaching up to cup the side of Keith’s jaw gingerly with his hand and pulling away just an inch to touch their noses together.

That time, he could feel it. It was so much more than the fleeting moment they had shared the first time Keith had pressed him against the wall and locked their lips.

He leans back down. This time, there is no sense of panic, no urgency, nothing but the warm feeling igniting like fire in his bones as Keith runs his tongue along his bottom lip. He wants to draw him closer and feel everything, wants to tell him everything. He tries to convey the thoughts that are running through his mind to Keith without using his words, tries to show him the dizzying love that brims in his heart with the way he’s grabbing desperately at Keith’s jaw, the way he’s pressing their chests together, the way he’s breathing harder and harder, losing himself in their feverish kiss. But he doesn’t feel like it’s enough. He needs Keith to understand.

He pulls away hurriedly, gasping for air.

“Keith,” he murmurs, pressing their foreheads together. His head spins as he stares down into his eyes and he has to steady himself against his shoulders.

“Lance…”

Keith looks blissed out underneath him, his lips wet and bitten red, his dark eyes hooded.

“I – I like you,” Lance blurts out. He sees Keith’s breath hitch in his throat. “A lot. I always have –”

Keith smothers his words, pressing forward for another kiss. His hands bury into Lance’s hair, pulling his head to the side and slotting their lips together.

"Ever since – I first – saw you…” Lance pants into the corner of Keith’s mouth.

“You couldn’t have,” Keith whispers back.

“But I did. I saw you at the Garrison. I thought… you were beautiful.”

Keith shakes his head adamantly, his eyes fluttering open.

“There’s no way someone like you could have…” he murmurs, tracing Lance’s lips with his fingers.

“What do you mean?”

Keith leans in again.

“You’re so… you,” he explains. “Everyone loves you and you’ve got the world wrapped around your finger and you can do anything.”

Lance wants to laugh because Keith isn’t making any sense.

“That’s not true –”

 “Oh, be quiet. It is,” Keith insists.

Keith surges forward, cupping his hands around the back of Lance’s head as he pushes them over, pressing Lance up against the window. Lance lets out a startled cry, stifling his gasps as he feels Keith’s dizzying, warm weight against him. His whole body is on fire.

“But you’re also a little shit,” Keith whispers slyly. “Why do you make me feel this way?”

Lance does laugh then, breathy underneath him.

“No one can resist my charm,” he jokes.

Keith smiles down at him and shrugs, pressing a wet kiss against the side of Lance’s neck. Startled, Lance lets out a soft whimper. He can’t think right when Keith does that – when he kisses him first fervently, when he shows Lance that he wants it too. It makes him weak, makes his arms shake, his head spin.

“I guess you’re right,” Keith admits.

Lance giggles into Keith’s chest, his heart fluttering. He can’t believe this is happening. Can’t believe that this is real and happening. Giddy, the two manage to pull themselves away from each other and off of the dashboard, curling up close against one another on the ground.

Lance turns to his side and gazes at Keith in wonder, pondering how he could be so lucky, yet so unfortunate to have him and lose him all at once. He wishes that he could freeze this moment. Wonders if he’ll be allowed to keep any memories when he dies. He supposes he’d hang on to this one. Hang on to the way Keith’s fingers keep ghosting against his lips.

“You make me… feel so…” Lance begins, but he trails off.

“So…?”

“I don’t know. I can't explain it.”

“I make you feel so ‘I don’t know’. That’s sweet, Lance, you –”

Lance cuts him off abruptly, pulling Keith’s face towards his. He’s going to hang on to the feeling of Keith’s lips, the way his tongue feels against the roof of his mouth, the way Keith gasps against Lance’s cheek. Hang on to the way Keith is looking at him as if he’s a treasure. Hang on to the way Keith smiles at him. He wants, more than anything, to remember Keith’s smile.

Even if he doesn’t get to keep any of his memories when he leaves this life, he doesn’t think that he can forget the curve of his lips, the way his eyes crinkle at the corners, the feeling Lance gets in his chest every time he lays eyes on this boy.

He’d find some way to remember.

 

 

He didn’t realize that he fell asleep, but he knows this is a dream because it’s cold. It’s cold and terrifying and lonely, but he knows it’s a dream. If this were real, it would be warm because Keith is warm.

His foot kicks against something on the ground and it feels strangely like a body. Spooked, Lance turns away and lets the chill engulf him.

 

 

He wakes with his arm draped across Keith’s warm torso and the memory of his strange dream leaving goose bumps running down his spine. He lets out a yawn and the movement sends a sudden sting up every inch of his body. Wincing, he lets out a pained yelp and he feels Keith shift in alarm.

“’Morning,” Lance grits out, rubbing at his shoulder blade.

“You alright?”

He turns and finds Keith staring at him in concern, the pale, rosy morning light casting a pretty glow across his face.

 An angel, Lance thinks.

If it weren’t for the sharp throbbing in his leg, he would have thought that he had died and gone to heaven already.

“I am now,” Lance murmurs, grinning and nuzzling into Keith’s side.

Keith shuts his little book of poems and puts down his pen. Lance blinks up at him in surprise, only now noticing that he had been writing something – writing someone. He wonders if it’s addressed to his parents.

“Lance,” Keith says, shifting carefully beneath his weight. “You know, you sleep a shit ton.”

“It’s a talent of mine.”

Keith laughs, a golden sound ringing blissfully into the air and it deludes Lance into thinking that it’s all going to be okay. He imagines being tucked away on a bay with Keith, that same laugh rising into the summer sky, as golden as the sand sifting between their toes. He wants to pretend their lying under the sun, soaking it up without a care in the world. He doesn’t want to think about how it will never happen.

Keith’s voice knocks him out of his fantasy.

“Let’s get up,” he says gently. “I want to get us away from here.”

“Where to?” Lance asks, rolling over and sitting up against the wall.

He runs a hand through his hair, disheveled from the night before, blinking his bleary eyes. He watches as Keith gets to his feet, his body battered and small, looking fragile under the morning light.

“I was thinking back to that cliff from earlier,” Keith says, making his way over to the pilot seat.

He’s unsteady on his feet and it makes Lance nervous watching his weak steps. Hastily, he scrambles to his feet and takes hold of Keith’s arm to steady him.

“Sit on my lap again,” he says slyly, grinning at him.

Keith flushes and grumbles, but lets Lance guide him toward the pilot’s seat.

“How’s your hand?” Lance asks, peering over Keith’s shoulder once they’re seated.

The gauze wrapped around his palm is stained dark with blood, but Keith waves it off dismissively.

“I’ll be fine,” he says with a shrug.

While Lance is still fretting over the wound, Keith twists and plants a quick kiss against his lips before spinning back around. Lance blinks in surprise, suddenly remembering that last night had actually happened. As Keith’s lion revs back to life, Lance sighs and presses his burning face against Keith’s shoulder blades, his stomach fluttering.

Red is unsteady as she clambers slowly to her feet. Her gears groan as she strains to stand upright, the entire cockpit shaking precariously. Lance curses nervously, staring over at the dashboard. The screens are flickering, jumping all across the control panel like a glitch.

“Fuck, are you sure she’s good to fly?” Lance asks.

Keith just nods his head determinedly, pushing the gears forward. Lance gulps and holds his breath, clutching at the hem of Keith’s shirt as the lion runs forward on all four of her creaking paws. As she leaps into the air, Lance’s stomach pummels as he feels the cockpit tilt to the side.

“Not this again!” he cries out, leaning back against the seat to steady himself.

“Relax, Lance, she can handle this,” Keith insists, glancing over his shoulder. “Just one last flight, you know?”

The words make Lance fall silent.

Keith steers the lion up and away, leaving Meitum’s corpse lying alone in the valley, her dark, dilapidated form shrinking until it was nothing more than a speck against the green ground. Despite the bumpy, rickety flight, they manage to reach the cliff and land where the jut of stone pokes out from underneath the curve of the valley. The waterfall that had encased the hideout is gone now, just as everything else is.

They shift of off the seat and settle back against the wall, angled where they can see out the window, out at the vast and empty, empty world around them. There’s a strange finality to the moment, tense and silent, and Lance knows that this is where they will perish, hidden under the curve of the valley above them, staring up at the blank and empty sky. He’s a million light years from home and there are a million things he will never get to say to his family, but with a letter he had scribbled in a cave with their names on it sitting in his back pocket and a beautiful boy holding his hand, he thinks that maybe it will be alright.

He looks over at Keith. He looks half asleep under the morning light, his eyes hollow and sunken, and Lance mourns for him, thinking of all he’s lost in life and all that he deserved, but never got and never will get.

“Did you sleep well?” Lance asks, desperate to break the silence and pull himself out of his thoughts.

Keith smiles weakly and shrugs a shoulder. The movement looks as if it exhausts him and his whole body sinks backwards.

“It was alright,” he murmurs, turning to look at Lance with his hooded eyes.

The corner of his mouth tilts upwards on his bruised face and Lance doesn’t stop himself from inching closer and kissing him.

“We have really bad timing,” he murmurs sadly, nudging the tip of his nose against Keith’s cheek.

As Keith cups his cheek and pulls closer, Lance thinks he hears something over the ringing in his ears, but it’s quickly drowned out by the rapid thumping of his heart as Keith runs his tongue over his bottom lip.

“Late is better than never,” he’s whispering.

Lance can feel Keith’s hand trembling, can hear his breath catching in his throat, can hear a low buzzing noise coming from somewhere in the distance. Perhaps it’s just his heart.

“I had dreams,” he tells Lance. “They kept me up.”

“I’m sorry,” Lance mutters, tracing the curve of his jaw with his fingertips. “I had one, too.”

His skin is soft to the touch, but weathered down and scuffed. Lance almost wants to cry again. But he feels as if he should be saying something, instead.

“Keith,” he says suddenly, pulling away.

Keith’s hand trails after him as he turns his head and looks around the cockpit.

“What is it?”

Lance stares at the empty room, his eyes darting along the walls, out the window. He can’t shake the feeling that he hears something. Though his ears had been ringing for hours on end, this noise is strange and different, yet vaguely familiar. It’s not his heart, it’s not his breathing. But, it’s something he’s known before.

“Do you hear that?” he demands.

“What?”

“Listen.”

Keith falls silent, following Lance’s eyes around the room. Plunged into total silence, the sound rings out now more than ever – faint, but persistent, the sound of static. Confused, Lance gets to his feet and stumbles around the cockpit, his head tilting towards the noise.

“Do you hear it, too?” he asks, turning backwards.

Keith nods slowly, his brows furrowed. As Lance turns his head back around, he stumbles, foot knocking against something on the ground. It parallels to the dream he had last night and makes his skin crawl. Keith’s helmet topples out from underneath his shoe, rolling noisily against the ground and colliding into the wall. The noise becomes more prominent. They can both hear it clearly: a buzzing static sound.

Lance’s eyes land on Keith’s helmet and his heart quickens. Numb, he stumbles over towards it and puts his hand on the dented curve of the dome. His heart stutters, then nearly stops.

“Keith,” he whispers, blinking his eyes to make sure that he isn’t seeing things.

Through the crushed visor, there’s a glowing red light, blinking on and off and casting its faint glare onto the floor. From the battered earpiece, the persistent sound of static pours out and Lance can make out, faintly, someone’s voice desperately calling out.

His arms shaking and his vision blurring with tears, he says, “There’s a signal.”

Someone from their team is trying to contact them.

 

Chapter Text

It’s been so long since he’s heard such a familiar voice. Suddenly, Lance is taken back to the corner of a dingy classroom at his high school, grinning cheekily at the boy sitting one seat over from him. He’s stretched out across a booth, one arm propped up against the seat, the other slung across the table as they chat over lunch on a bright weekend afternoon. He’s lounging across the sofa in his dim living room with a movie blasting on the television, he’s leaning back against the rooftop beside him, gazing up at the stars in wonder, he’s skipping to class with him on a slow day at the Garrison, he’s whispering his deepest secrets to his best friend in the bunk below him as he stares up at their dark ceiling, he’s crying because it’s been so long since he’s heard Hunk’s voice and he never thought he’d hear it again, but here he is and here Hunk is, calling out for someone to answer him from behind the earpiece.

Lance stumbles, clutching onto the dented helmet sitting haphazardly over his head. His heart is pounding in his chest and the blood is rushing between his ears, making his head go dizzy and his knees go weak. He falls, but he doesn’t feel his himself hit the ground because everything has gone numb.

Buried beneath a layer of static, he can just make out Hunk’s voice, high and desperate, begging for someone to say something. There’s commotion in the background on the other end of the line, but all he can focus on is Hunk.

In a small, shaky voice, Lance breathes out his name, more of a question than anything, just to check and make sure that it really is him, though he doubts that he could ever mishear his best friend’s voice.

He hears Hunk’s voice cut out and a loud uproar in the background of the line, a mixture of voices fighting for the microphone, as messy as all the emotions running through Lance’s mind.

“ –Keith?!” he hears Hunk cry out, his voice high and alarmed.

It’s so sudden and wrong that Lance finds himself laughing with relief, tears sliding down his cheeks as he props himself up against the wall.

He has to take a few shaky breaths to ground himself and by the time his head stops spinning, he’s out of breath and his voice is airy. He answers, “No, Hunk… man, it’s – it’s me –”

Hunk gasps at the other end, the sound distorted by the crackling of static.

“LANCE!” he’s hollering and his voice is quickly drowned out by the sound of the others calling out his name.

The booming of their voices rush out from the earpiece, nearly shattering Lance’s eardrums, but he can’t seem to bring himself to care. He’s still laughing, half delirious with relief and he’s pressing a hand against the earpiece to bring himself closer to his friends.

“Oh my god, Lance?! Lance, is that really you?!” he hears another familiar voice cry out.

“Pidge,” he hears himself sighing, shutting his eyes to stop the onset of tears.

He’s shaking because this can’t be real. This can’t possibly be real.

“You little fucking shit!” Pidge is screaming and it’s so familiar that it makes Lance laugh because he’s back on Earth, far away from this isolated planet, and everything is suddenly okay again. “We all thought you were dead, you asshole!”

“There was no signal or anything from your lion, we all thought you were done for,” Hunk wails and Lance can tell that he’s sobbing.

Another string of incoherent yelling. He only manages to pick out one voice at a time.

“Are you quite alright?” someone asks and it sounds like Allura.

“Lance! It’s so good to hear your voice, we’ve searched everywhere for you!”

“Where are you?!”

“Don’t worry, we’re tracking down your location as we speak!”

“You absolute jerk, you had us all so worried.”

“Just give us a moment, we’ll be there as soon as possible, okay?”

He almost can’t keep up with all the questions, his head spinning. The mixture of voices makes his ears ring, but to his relief, he can make out everyone calling out to him. Everyone’s there. Everyone’s alive. Hunk, Pidge, Shiro, Allura, and Coran. They’re all okay. This can’t be happening.

“You – you guys,” he chokes, his voice quivering. “Are you really all there?”

“Yes,” he hears Coran call out. He rambles on about something, but there’s a muffled stream of static and Lance can’t quite make any of it out. His voice cuts back in. “ – and then Allura and I managed to track down Pidge. Then, we located Hunk and Shiro floating around a few thousand miles away from there. All we’re missing now is you and… Keith.”

There’s a tense silence.

“Lance, where is Keith?” Shiro asks hesitantly and Lance wants to giggle at the fear in his voice because what has he got to worry about? Keith is right here and he’s perfectly fine and the both of them are going to get off this hellish planet and they’ll be able to see their friends again and go home to Earth, where the sky is blue and everything is beautiful, and they’ll never be alone again.

“He’s fine,” Lance says, his voice shaky. “He’s right here.”

He pushes himself to his feet and stumbles over to Keith across the room. He can’t quite see him, his figure a dark blur beneath his tears, but Lance can just make out the way Keith’s mouth is hanging open in disbelief. There’s another explosion of chaos from the other end of the line just as Lance slips off the helmet and holds it out to Keith with his shaking hands.

“They’re all alive, Keith,” he whispers, wiping at his eyes with the heel of his palm. He blinks, smiling softly at him, and the moment feels as if it’s a brittle dream. “We can go home.”

With wide eyes, Keith takes the helmet in his hands, staring down at it blankly. From the earpiece, the buzz of their friends yelling can be heard rising faintly into the still air, but Keith doesn’t move. Just turns the helmet slowly in his hands, as if he doesn’t quite register what’s going on.

“Keith,” Lance says. “They’re asking about you. Everyone was really worried.”

“Yeah,” whispers Keith, his voice dry. He turns the helmet over once more, shaking his head slowly. “I – I just… can’t believe…”

He drifts off, gazing quietly into Lance’s eyes. It’s then that it hits Lance with full force – they’re safe. They can go home now. He’d spent so long running from the thought of dying on this lonely planet, without ever knowing the fate of his friends or ever seeing his family again or ever getting to spend more time with Keith. Now, it all feels surreal. He almost can’t believe that his friends are all still alive, that he’s speaking to them right now, that Keith is sitting before him and there’s a new window of endless possibilities for them. It almost feels like a cruel joke, like the final sliver of hope that will all be snatched away from him once he opens his eyes and wakes up to reality. But, it’s not going away and it’s real and he and Keith will make it out of here alive and Lance will whisk him away and they’ll spend their days together back on Earth, out on the beach, in the sand, and everything will be lovely and beautiful and safe.

“Keith –” he chokes out, his vision blurring again. Desperately, he digs his palms into his eyes to wipe away the tears. “God, Keith, we’re going to be okay…”

“Don’t cry,” Keith whispers.

“I’m not. Well. These are – happy tears. I’m… I can’t believe this,” he stammers, sniffling into his hand. “Oh, my god. We’re going to be okay, Keith. They’re okay. We’re okay.”

He hears the sound of Keith’s laugh, soft and angelic, ringing out in the tiny cockpit. For once, it sounds hopeful and alive. Alive. They’re going to stay alive.

He feels Keith’s soft fingers brush against his face, trailing down his cheek and wiping away at the tears that streak his skin. He shifts, pressing their foreheads together, and Lance’s eyes flutter shut. He never wants to remove himself from this moment, wants to bathe in it forever, wants to feel this light for the rest of his life. Perhaps he will.

Keith fumbles with his helmet without pulling his eyes away from Lance, his finger flicking up a switch at the base of the earpiece. The sound of static rings out, loud through the speakerphone. Lance can hear the commotion still raging on the other end of the line, echoing now, through the small room.

“Hello?! Hello? Lance, are you still there? Coran – is the signal still working? …Lance?! Hello?”

“Maybe we got cut off…”

“No, it says here that we’re still connected…”

Lance snickers into his palm and calls out, “Guys, don’t worry we’re still here. Keith, say hi.”

“Hi…” he murmurs in a daze, as if he can’t quite believe that he’s hearing their voices again.

Simultaneously, everyone cries out his name in relief. Lance can almost picture them, all huddled around the microphone in anticipation. Keith smiles and presses his hand against his forehead, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I can’t believe this,” he whispers.

“Keith, is that really you?” Shiro asks, his voice blaring as if he’s pressing his lips against the microphone in shock.

At the sound of his voice, Keith freezes and his eyes abruptly wet with tears. Shiro’s name leaves his tongue in a voice no higher than a whisper.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me,” he murmurs, taking hold of Lance’s hand with his clammy palm.

He ducks his head, blinking back his tears as the line erupts with loud, excited voices.

“Oh… my… God? We’re all alive?!” Pidge is crying out and Lance can tell that they’re hopping up and down.

Keith laughs again suddenly and the sound rings through the air like bells and Lance is laughing too and holding onto his hand, burying his face into his chest, kissing him on the mouth, laughing, laughing because there’s no way that this is actually happening.

“We’re going home, Keith,” he whispers into his ear and he knows that their friends can probably hear him and hear the way his voice is trembling with excitement and intimacy, but he can’t bring himself to care. “We’re going home.”

“Yeah,” Keith says, nuzzling his nose into Lance’s cheek.

They stare into each other’s eyes and for the first time, Lance thinks past tomorrow and past this bleak planet and into the life they’re going to lead back on Earth.

“Hey!” he hears Pidge calling out. There’s snickering and he hears Shiro mumble disapproving words, before they ask cheekily, “Did you guys finally get together or what?”

Hunk is laughing hysterically and Lance feels his face heat up.

“Shut up, Pidge!” he shrieks, pulling away from Keith.

Keith is giggling into the crook of Lance’s neck and it’s the only thing that’s keeping him from leaping up and yelling at Pidge some more. But now, with the sound of his friends snickering and Keith pressing his smiling face against his skin, the tense and desolate feeling that had plagued him ever since he crash-landed on this planet dissipates completely. Even now, in the heat of embarrassment, Lance can’t help but feel hopeful.

“That’s enough, Pidge,” Shiro scolds, exasperated, but Lance can hear the amusement in his voice.

“You guys can go on so many cute dates once we get back to Earth and –”

Static.

When the line clears, Shiro is scolding them.

“I said enough, Pidge!” he cries, but he’s laughing and so is everyone else on the other end of the line. He splutters and tries to pull himself together, saying, “Okay, okay, calm down everyone… Lance, Keith, just stay put, okay? We’ll be there in a couple hours, we see your location on our maps – …we can stay in touch and –”

Static buzzes, distorting his words, before the line cuts off. Lance freezes, spooked by the sudden silence that had fallen upon the room. He picks up the helmet and looks inside, searching for the glowing light of the signal they had just lost.

“Hey, guys, are you there?!” he calls, panicked.

Keith has his hand on his shoulder and pulls him back down towards him.

“It’s okay, Lance, they said they’re coming to get us, right?” he tells him softly.

Lance stops, stares at the helmet silently, and then places it back on the floor. He nods, sinking back into Keith’s arms, wondering how he can be so calm and smart and brave. He traces Keith’s collarbone with the pads of his fingers. There’s a slight feeling of unease sitting like a stone in his chest but he pushes it away, instead focusing on the bright light that awaits them at the end of the tunnel – a light of a future and a life back on Earth.

His heart is fluttering in his chest and he finds himself grinning again. He reaches up and pulls Keith down for a kiss, and then another, and another, and he’s lying against the floor and Keith is crawling on top of him and his hands are in Lance’s hair and they’re pressing their lips together eagerly. Keith is smiling and his eyes are bright and he looks so young and happy and Lance feels tears welling at the very sight of him.

Keith freezes, looks down at him in concern, and then hastily pulls back, climbing off of him.

“What’s wrong?” he asks worriedly.

“Nothing!” Lance cries. He laughs. “Absolutely nothing! There’s nothing wrong, everything is fine and I’m just so happy, Keith. Keith, we’re going to live and we’re going to go home and it’s going to be alright! I’m so happy.”

He sits up and pulls him close. He can’t seem to keep his hands off of him. They lean in for another kiss and press their foreheads together and Lance’s heart beats like a drum in his chest.

Time slides by and Keith has his poetry book pulled out and is scribbling something along one of the pages and Lance leans on his knees and watches him in wonder, watches the way his eyes scan the page, the way his tongue pokes out of his mouth and rests on his upper lip in concentration. The pale light from outside is casting a beautiful shadow across Keith’s face, illuminating his cheekbone a rosy color.

“Let’s go outside, Keith,” he whispers eagerly. “It looks so pretty outside.”

It does. For the first time, Lance sees beauty in the pink sky stretching out above him. He helps Keith, who stumbles and struggles to stay upright, out of the lion and onto the ledge. Keith is panting and sweating when they settle down by the edge of the cliff, their feet dangling. He sighs and leans up against Lance as they stare out into the distance.

“See? Isn’t it beautiful? I never noticed how pretty the sky was. Did you?” Lance asks.

“No,” Keith murmurs.

Lance stares up for a moment and then grins cheekily.

“You know what else is beautiful?” he asks slyly, nudging Keith gently.

He groans and slaps his hand against his forehead in exasperation.

“Youuuu,” Lance cooes, his face split with a wide smile.

Keith laughs and shakes his head, giving Lance a light shove.

“Shut up, weirdo, you’re a sap!” he grumbles, though his face is red and he’s smiling just as wide as Lance is.

He sighs and presses his cheek against Lance’s shoulder, blinking up at him slowly.

“You okay?” Lance asks quietly, after a long pause. He presses a hand against Keith’s forehead. “You feel really hot…”

“I’m okay…” Keith whispers, but his voice sounds weak. “Just hungry.”

“Me, too. Just hang in there, okay? They’ll be here soon and we can eat all of Coran’s space goo. All of it. As much as we want,” Lance says. “Doesn’t that sound nice right now?”

Keith nods, his mouth curved in a soft smile. Once Lance has started, he can’t bring himself to stop talking. The words rushing out of his mouth helps ease his worries about his friends not showing up and about the way Keith looks so thin and pale, the way he had wobbled on his feet, the way he’s breathing erratically. Talking helps remind him of what they have to look forward to. Plus, he likes seeing the way Keith smiles at him as he listens to him.

“When we get back to Earth, I’ll take you to this one place that serves the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. And that’s saying a lot because I love cheeseburgers and I’ve tasted so many,” Lance continues, rambling. “You’ll love it! And then we can go to the pizza shop by the beach with the wicked breadsticks. You’ll love that, too.”

His stomach grumbles just thinking about it.

Keith is silent for a moment, before asking, “Where will I go after that?”

Lance turns to look at him.

“You can stay with me, silly,” he says, grinning. “My house is pretty cool. It’s loud and cramped and I have, like, twenty siblings, but I think you’ll like it.”

“You only have five.”

“Okay, same thing, Keith,” he says defensively. “And Nico is loud enough to count for fifteen more brothers… Hey, do you know how to surf?”

“No.”

“I’ll teach you! And we can stay out on the beach all day long and it’ll be so fun, Keith, I’m so excited, I can’t wait!” Lance cries.

Keith smiles at him, his eyes lighting up.

“Me, too,” he breathes. “Promise you will?”

“Yes, duh, I promise! I can’t believe this is happening…” Lance murmurs, shaking his head. “We’re going to get out of here, can you believe it? I can’t. We’re going to live.”

Keith blinks down at his feet, his lashes fanning out over his cheeks. He seems quiet, mulling something over in his head as he leans heavily against Lance’s side. Quietly, he turns and presses a heavy kiss against Lance’s cheek.

They sit and wait, hands clasped together, watching as the sky darkens and their final day on this deserted planet slides past them. Lance is eager and tells Keith’s stories and plans all day. Keith smiles and laughs in response, but he’s strangely quiet, and Lance wishes that he could make Keith understand that it’s going to be okay, that he can find a place for himself on Earth.

He ignores the hunger gnawing at the pit of his stomach, telling himself that it’ll be okay soon, he’ll get to eat as soon as their friends come find them. As night falls upon them, Keith’s entire body weight is slouched against Lance’s shoulder and he’s breath is labored.

“Lance,” he whispers softly, nuzzling his nose against his ear. His voice is strangely brittle. “I’m tired… let’s just sleep for a little bit, okay?”

The airiness in his voice worries Lance a bit and he turns to look at him with concern. The dark rings under his eyes stand out prominently in the shadows and he looks sickly and exhausted, but the thought of going to sleep gives Lance a bad feeling. He thinks that he’s afraid of sleep, afraid of his dreams.

“They’ll be here for us soon, though,” he insists, staring up at the dark sky. “Let’s just stay up and wait.”

Keith whines, tugging persistently on his sleeve.

“Just for a little bit, please,” he begs, his voice sluggish, words blending together. “I’m so tired…”

Sighing, Lance turns back to look at him again. His dark eyes are hooded in exhaustion, his face slack. He looks miserable and Lance finds himself unable to deny him. What harm could it do? They won’t be asleep for long. They’ll wake up once they hear the others coming for them. Lance steels himself up and hopes that his nightmares don’t crawl their way into his dreams this time.

 “Alright,” Lance murmurs, pressing a quick kiss against Keith’s cheek.

Keith sighs in content as the two shift, lying back against the stone. Lance drapes his arm across Keith’s shoulders pulling him in, pressing his face into his chest.

There are a few moments of silence and Lance is suddenly struck with the strong urge to tell him something, afraid that Keith has already fallen asleep.

“Keith,” he whispers, running a hand through his hair.

Keith hums quietly in question, his eyelids fluttering. Lance pauses for a moment, staring at the dark shadow of his form, at the way his side rises and falls slowly with each breath that he takes.

“I love you,” Lance breathes.

He lies still as his words float into the night sky. There’s a faint crook of Keith’s lips as his warm hand reaches up to grasp Lance’s.

“I love you, too,” he whispers and Lance tries to memorize the sound of his voice in the darkness.

Feeling satisfaction and a strange heaviness in his chest, his eyes slide shut. The last thing he sees before falling asleep is Keith’s peaceful face, just inches away from his nose.

 

 

 

It’s cold when he wakes up. A piercing white light drives its way beneath Lance’s eyelids, shocking him out of his sleep. He’s disoriented, his head spinning and a strange, nauseous feeling rising in the back of his throat. A strong wind is billowing and tugging at his hair and Lance pulls his head up in confusion. Blearily, he blinks the sleep out of his eyes and sees a large, white ship descending from the sky.

For a moment, he’s puzzled, watching the ship land heavily onto the ground in a cloud of dust, a sharp light shining through the haze. His heart hammering wildly in his chest, Lance puts a hand on Keith’s shoulder, trying to shake him awake so that they can retreat back into the lion. He freezes abruptly when he recognizes the Castle.

“Keith!” he cries out, shaking him harder as realization dawns upon him. “Keith, they’re here!”

A dock falls from the door of the ship, landing sharply on the cliff a few meters from where the two of them are huddled together on the ground. His heart hammering in anticipation, Lance turns towards Keith’s still, sleeping form.

“Wake up, Keith, they’re here!” he says excitedly.

He puts both hands on his shoulders and shakes, but something starts to feel off. Suddenly, it feels as if his head is submerged underwater. The whirring of the ship behind him becomes muffled and distant and it almost feels as if he can’t breathe because he realizes that Keith isn’t moving and what is going on why won’t he wake up why does his skin feel so cold. Lance leans over him, taking hold of his chin and tilting his still face towards him, horribly pale under the beam of the ship. His hair is spread above his head like a halo. Hasn’t he seen this before?

“Keith?” he whispers.

The world is moving in slow motion.

Shouting from above. But Lance is underwater and he can’t quite hear anything from all the way down here. A shadow falls over him. Someone grabs onto his shoulder, tugs at him. Tugs again. Pulls him to his feet. Keith’s limp hand slips away from his grasp. A shadow falls over his still body and he’s still not waking up. People crowd around him. Lance is being dragged away. Someone guides him towards the blinding white light. It hurts his head. Is he dying? They’re shoveling something into his mouth. It tastes awful and Lance turns his head and pukes.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” they’re saying and it sounds like the voice of someone he was very good friends with. “We thought you’d want something to eat.”

The lights are too bright. He doesn’t even remember how he got here. He’s lying on a table. Someone is rubbing at his arm. He feels a sharp numbness spread from the inside of his elbow, up through his veins. His eyelids grow heavy.

He sleeps.

 

 

 

            He gets out of the healing pod and wakes up on a bed in a small clinic. He turns his head and he sees Hunk and Pidge sitting at his bedside. He tries to ask them what’s happened, but nothing comes out of his throat.

            “Hey, Lance,” Hunk says, but his eyes look sad.

            The two of them look faintly familiar, yet so much like strangers. When did they get so tired? Why are their eyes so red?

            “Hey… Do you know where you are?” Pidge asks, leaning over him and putting a hand on his forehead.

            He feels himself shrug.

            “You’re in the Castle. Everything’s going to be okay. Alright, Lance?” Hunk says and it sounds as if he’s trying very hard to convince Lance to believe him.

            Pidge nods and tells him that he’s been resting up in a healing pod for about a week and they should be back on Earth any day now and is there anything you need, Lance, do you feel okay, can you talk.

            Lance blinks up at the ceiling, feeling empty. Something is missing. He licks his lips once. They’re dry. Twice. He’s forgetting something.

            “What happened?” he finally croaks out.

            They’re quiet for a moment. Lance turns to look over at them. The somber looks on their faces scare him.

            “What do you mean?” Hunk asks quietly.

            Lance blinks at him slowly and his eyes burn. He repeats the question.

            “Well…” Pidge murmurs, glancing over at Hunk.

            “Um, well, like Pidge said, you’ve been out for a really long time. You were pretty badly injured when we found you. Uh, the reports said you had a pretty bad concussion and a dislocated shoulder blade, uh –”

            He cuts off, raising his brows as if he’s trying to remember more and a feeling of dread stains the pit of Lance’s stomach.

            “The nerves in your left leg were badly damaged. And the nerve cells in the cochlea, which means… uh, partial deafness,” Pidge recalls, twiddling their thumbs.

            It’s strange to hear this because he didn’t feel as if any of that had happened to him.

            “Yeah. Um, but you should be all good now. Not to worry,” Hunk assures.

            He reaches for Lance and wraps his thick fingers around his palms. Lance blinks down at their hands for a moment, feeling inexplicably frightened. Suddenly, he stiffens and sits bolt upright, yanking his hand away from Hunk’s gentle grip. He twists the sheets, staring blankly at the empty beds beside him. Something is missing.

            “Lance?!” Hunk cries out.

            “Hey, don’t move around like that, you could still hurt your –”

            “What happened?” he repeats.

            Neither of them answered his question before.

            He turns and stares at them and the look on their faces remind him of something foreboding, something terrible. They stare back at him gently, like he’s a child.

            The beds are all empty and something is missing.

            “Where’s Keith?” Lance asks quietly.

            Hunk stares at him with a broken gaze that Lance has never seen him wear before. He feels suddenly very afraid and has to turn away. He wishes he hadn’t asked. He doesn’t want to know.

            “Lance…” Hunk whispers softly and he wishes that he wouldn’t speak to him like that.

            Still, he holds his breath and waits for an answer, tears prickling at his eyes because he already knows what they’re going to say.

            Pidge lets out a soft sigh. There’s a beat of silence. Then, they very, very quietly they whisper, “Keith passed away, Lance… I’m so, so sorry.”

            The words don’t make any sense and he stares down at his hands in silence, repeating the phrase over and over in his mind. Keith passed away? His hands look empty and they’re missing something.

            “His… he’s… he’s in one of the healing pods,” Pidge chokes, voice cracking. “His vitals were gone the moment he went in. We were too late. I’m sorry.”

            Lance yanks the sheets out from above him and tosses them into a pile on the floor beside the bed. He gets up and walks away from Hunk and Pidge and their sad expressions and their gentle voices and their useless answers.

            He hears heavy footsteps behind him. He starts running. He slips and collapses against the frame of one of the empty beds. There’s a hand on his shoulder and he tries to nudge it away. But he’s screaming and crying and he can’t do all three things at once. Someone else rushes in. The numbing sensation is back, spreading up through his arm like fire in in his veins, and he sleeps.

 

 

 

            He wakes and he wishes that he hadn’t. This time, he’s alone in a small room, lying in the only bed. He turns his head and realizes that he’s not alone. Shiro is leaning against the corner, looking much more tired than Lance can ever recall.

            “Hello, Lance,” he says and he’s using the same tone that Hunk and Pidge had used and it irritates him.

            “What was that thing?” Lance asks.

            “What thing?”

            Lance looks down at his arm and sees a patch of cotton wrapped tightly around the inside of his elbow.

            “The thing that makes me sleep.”

            “A tranquilizer.”

            Lance stares down at his arm until his vision blurs and he has to force himself to uncross his eyes, but it’s too much effort.

            “Give me some more,” he demands.

            He hears Shiro walk towards him, his steps heavy against the ground. There’s a hand on his shoulder. He wishes people would stop touching him.

            “No, Lance,” Shiro says firmly.

            It’s so different from the irritatingly sympathetic voice that everyone had been using on him. Lance blinks in shock and his eyes snap back into focus.

            “You’re going to have to tough it out from here on out, do you understand?” Shiro asks and Lance thinks that if he just starts screaming now, he’ll get the tranquilizer and then he can sleep and forget about all this.

            “Lance?”

            He doesn’t reply.

            “Lance, do you understand? We’re all going to be strong and deal with this ourselves, okay?”

            “Yes,” he finds himself answering.

            Shiro sighs and sits himself down onto the bed beside him, staring quietly at his hands. He tries to ask him how he feels several times, but Lance can’t bring himself to answer. He doesn’t know how he feels. He feels empty.

            “I’m so sorry,” says Shiro, though Lance isn’t sure what he’s apologizing for.

            “Why?” he rasps. “It’s all my fault. Not yours.”

            He can feel Shiro’s eyes on him.

            “It’s not your fault.”

            “It is. I should have done something.”

            “Like what? There was nothing you could have done. It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

            Shiro doesn’t understand. Lance pulls his knees to his chest and buries his face against his thighs and wishes for everything to disappear.

            “You know, you meant a lot to him,” Shiro speaks up and his voice is shaky.

            The words make Lance feel sick.

            “I don’t want to hear about it,” he snaps.

            He can’t think about it. Can’t think about Keith. He can’t bear it.

            “Okay,” Shiro says calmly. He takes a deep breath. “If you ever change your mind, I’m here, okay?”

            There’s silence.

            “You should lie back down, Lance.”

            He does.

 

 

He’s awake and he lets Pidge and Hunk hold his hands and take him to the sky deck to watch the Earth as it slides into view. The planet is strange to him and it feels unreal. He tries very hard to remind himself of everything that awaits him, but he can’t think of much. All he can remember are the nights that he spent with Keith, sitting by this very window.

Hunk has his arm draped around Lance’s shoulders and Pidge is lying across his lap as they stare down at their home. He wants to pull away because he doesn’t want them to touch him, but they look like they need it much more than he does so he can’t bring himself to nudge them away. It all feels off. He swallows the bitter lump that rises in his throat whenever he looks at them. They both look terribly sad and tired, dark rings hanging low beneath their eyes, mouths pressed into thin lines.

This moment should be exciting. But it’s not – it’s dull and somber and all three of them feel close to tears and it’s unfair because haven’t they waited so long to finally come back home?

Lance’s thoughts are blurring together in his head. He wants to say something to his friends, wants to ask them what happened to them, but his tongue sits like lead in his mouth and he doesn’t feel like he’ll ever speak again. If he speaks, this all becomes real. If he keeps quiet, only he will have to bear the burden of his thoughts. But if his thoughts leave his mouth, they’ll escape from the confines of his imagination, into reality, and all three of them will know that none of them can ever escape this nightmare.

Shiro, Allura, and Coran creep up behind them and Lance doesn’t notice until he catches a glimpse of Allura’s silver hair glinting off the dark window. They say hello to him and they use that same tender voice and Lance wants to scream, but how can he when they all look so sad and his throat feels so dry? There’s a tense moment of silence, before Hunk finally speaks up.

“What will you guys do on Earth?” he asks Allura and Coran.

They shrug and Lance feels the same way. What will he do?

The six of them huddle by the window as the ship creeps closer and closer to Earth. Lance can’t stop feeling sorry for himself. He can’t stop thinking about how unfair this all is. He feels himself start to shake. It’s unfair because there are only six of them sitting here when there should be seven. Keith isn’t here and he’s the one who deserves it the most, more than Lance ever will, because he lost so much in his life and why couldn’t he be here right now, where is he, they should be sitting next to each other looking down at their home and Keith should be smiling and Lance would smile back and that’s how it’s supposed to be that’s how he thought it would be. Except he’s not here and he’s not smiling he’ll never smile again and neither will Lance and it’s unfair.

He’s crying and Pidge is sitting up because his lap is shaking too much for them to keep lying on. They’re all looking at him now and he knows they all have that sad look on their faces. He hears Hunk start to sniffle as well, feels his hand tighten around his shoulders. Lance can’t take it anymore and he shoves Hunk’s hand off of him because the touch makes his stomach coil, makes him feel like he’s suffocating. He half hopes they’ll tranquilize him again and make him sleep so he can get away from this hell. He doesn’t think he can go on. He wants to go to sleep and never wake up so he won’t have to face this it’s too hard he can’t do it.

He can’t stop crying, half hysterical, gasping for air and he knows that everyone around him is sniffling and now he’s ruined it all for them, made them all cry when they’re supposed to be happy. He has to get away from them because he’s making them all sad. He wants to run away and find Keith and twine their fingers together and tell him everything that he’s afraid of, everything that makes him want to sob until his eyes roll out of his head, but he can’t because Keith isn’t here and that’s the very reason he’s in shambles.

Somebody is tugging on his arm. He can’t calm down. Tries to, but can’t catch his breath. They pull him away from the window and he watches Earth disappear around the corner. Shiro is lugging him down the hall, into a small room and Lance hangs his head and prays for a tranquilizer because he wants the terrible ache in his heart to go away.

“Lance,” Shiro says and his voice is shaking.

His pale hair hangs limp over his forehead and he’s staring intensely at Lance with red-rimmed eyes. The sight nearly shocks Lance out of his fit because it’s strange seeing Shiro without his composure, strange seeing him blink away his tears.

“I know you’re upset,” he says quietly and he won’t take his hand off of Lance’s shoulder. He pauses for a moment. “That’s okay. We all are.”

Lance stares at him blankly. If there’s a point that Shiro is trying to make, he doesn’t see it.

“You’ve got to stay strong, okay, Lance?”

Isn’t it pointless to give him this kind of talk? Because he won’t listen. He can’t be strong. He can’t. He’s weak and he needs a tranquilizer to put him to sleep so he doesn’t have to face his reality he wants to run away and forget about everything why does Shiro think he can be strong how could he possibly be strong he’s nothing like Shiro he can’t do this.

“You’re a tough guy, okay? You can do this. We’ll all be okay.”

Lance looks at him stiffly. Doesn’t respond. Footsteps down the hall. The others burst through the door and squeeze into his room and suddenly everything is too small. There’s not enough room for him in here and he wishes that they would leave him alone because it’s getting hard to breathe. He wants to yell at them to go away get out of here please I can’t breathe.

Pidge pushes past Coran and Allura and runs at him, their face blotchy and smeared with tears. Before Lance can stop them, their arms wrap around his torso and the feeling makes his skin prickle. He doesn’t know why he can’t stand it. He doesn’t know why he wants Pidge to get off get off get off they’re suffocating him.

“Don’t touch me,” he rasps, voice scratchy after being silent for so long.

He shoves Pidge off of him and they go stumbling backwards, landing hard against the floor. The air in the room becomes unbearable, everyone’s silent, looking at him with open mouths and Pidge is on the ground, staring up at him in shock. A moment passes. Their eyes harden and then they’re pushing themselves to their feet, storming towards him, jabbing a finger at him.

“You have some nerve,” they’re saying, but Lance can barely hear because his ears are ringing and he wants to throw up because he just pushed Pidge.

Why did he push Pidge?

He would never do that.

Who is he?

“We spend days worrying over you and all you can do is mope and grumble and wallow in your self pity,” they’re spitting.

“Pidge…” Coran mutters nervously.

“You think you’re the only one upset about this?!” Pidge says and they’re screaming now. “You think you’re the only one, don’t you?! Well, you’re not. Look around, Lance! It’s not all about you! We were all his friends!”

Lance flinches and stumbles backwards. Coran hurriedly steps up and pulls Pidge away from him. They kick and scream and yell and Shiro and Coran are snapping at them to quiet down, don’t speak to Lance like that. They shoot back, demanding to know why he gets all this special treatment, says they’re coddling him like a baby. Allura barks at Shiro and Coran to let go of Pidge, tells the two that they’re helping with absolutely nothing. Hunk begs that they give each other some room, tries to shove everyone out of the room, but no one listens to him and he stands there indecisively, shooting nervous glances at Lance and then at Pidge.

No one speaks to Lance. He stares down at his feet with his ears ringing and his eyes prickling because he just shoved Pidge and the team is falling apart right before his very eyes, falling apart in the aftermath of their war. He’s destroyed everything it’s all his fault why can’t he do anything right.

Finally, Allura shoulders her way through the chaos and demands for everyone to quiet down and the room falls into a tense silence. Everyone breaks away from each other and steps back.

“All this arguing will not change anything!” she cries out, shooting withering looks at each one of them. “What we need to do now is figure out a plan before we land on Earth. Touchdown will happen within thirty minutes from now and we don’t have the time to turn on each other!”

Everyone stiffens, looks around in horror while smoothing down their shirts, realizing the chaos they had just caused. Lance tries to listen as the team formulates a plan, but it’s hard when he can’t even bring himself to look at any of them.

They decide that it’s best to land near the Garrison. Shiro says it’s risky, but what other choice do they have? It’s their best bet for coming back into contact with society and they might as well finish where they started. The plan is to land the ship, convince the Garrison that they’re returning in peace, and exit when everything is safe. Allura and Coran will activate the invisibility cloak that Pidge had installed on the Castle and retreat with the ship to a small cove a few miles off the coast. Shiro will try to reach out to them once everything is settled, try to help them start a life on Earth. The Alteans exchange a glance and nod in determination and the whole room pretends not to see the terrified look in their eyes. There’s a concession made between everyone and Lance feels detached because none of them even checked with him to see if it was alright. Then, the five turn and drain out of the room and Lance is left alone with an apology for every single one of them dying at the tip of his tongue.

           

           

 

He slips away just as the Castle breaks through Earth’s atmosphere because the moment feels insignificant to him and he has to distract himself. He slides into the hangar and stares up at the lions. They’re all there, except for Blue, left abandoned and alone on the deserted planet. He takes a deep breath and makes his way over to Keith’s lion.

Clambering his way through the mouth and into the cockpit, he stands in the quiet room. It’s eerily dark and still, entirely different from the last time he had been in here. The last time he had been in here. He looks over at the wall and sees Keith sitting against it, sees the way the pink light had shone in from the window, illuminating the side of his face, pictures him from where Lance had been perched with his chin on Keith’s knees, watching his face as it was buried in the pages of his book. The window is dark now and there is no light and there is no Keith.

He sits down in the pilot seat, his lap empty, and he cries into his hands and curses the universe for all its cruelty. Cries and curses fate for the way things turned out, for the way it left him alone and cold and forced to face the world alone. He feels so alone and empty, as if a part of his soul had been stolen from him.

Then, he gets up and leaves behind the dark room and every memory that it’s ever held. Before he steps outside, he grabs the knapsack strewn out by the door. That’s one thing he can’t bring himself to leave behind.

 

 

 

They’ve landed in the square of the Garrison and there’s a commotion outside. Soldiers with guns surround them and Lance wonders why they would choose to land here, of all places. He stares out at the soldiers with Keith’s knapsack strung across his shoulders and he half wishes that one of the guns would fire at his chest.

He’s pulled away from the window by a gentle hand around his wrist. He turns and sees Coran, looking at him with wet eyes. Something twinges in Lance’s heart.

“You be good, Lance,” he sniffles and he looks like he’s about to move to hug him, but he stops himself abruptly.

He wipes at his eyes. Lance studies him and feels a new wave of sadness wash over him, fresh and agonizing, a clawed hand sinking itself into his heart. This is goodbye, isn’t it?

“Will you be alright?” Lance croaks, suddenly worried.

Coran nods at him firmly. “We’ll meet again.”

Lance isn’t sure that’s true.

“Enjoy the rain,” Coran says.

Something breaks inside Lance. He wishes Coran wouldn’t talk this way. Unable to stop himself, he moves forward, wrapping his arms around him and hugging him tight.

“You, too,” he rasps, biting back tears. “It’s nice on Earth. You’ll see.”

His mind is racing and he wants to tell Coran more, wants to say thank you for everything, I’ll miss you, thank you for taking care of us, thank you for the food, thank you for being there for me, I’ll miss you so much, I hope you do well on Earth, be safe. The words don’t come out.

Coran is moving on to hug Hunk and Allura is approaching him and suddenly, Lance doesn’t know what to do because he’s still used to a disapproving look in her eyes, a look of authority, but now she just looks sad. She’s still a picture of exquisite beauty, with her clear eyes and silver hair, though her features are worn and dull now, tired and somber.

“You’re very brave, you know that?” she asks him in a brittle voice, standing in front of him.

She’s wrong, but Lance doesn’t tell her that. She looks far too sad to be told that she’s so, so terribly wrong.

“You, too,” he manages to say.

“I hope you take care,” she murmurs. She hesitates, then asks, “May I have a hug?”

They embrace silently. Lance hopes the hug speaks a thousand words for itself and he tries not to think of this as goodbye, though he knows that it is.

“Guys…” Hunk calls out.

The commander outside is hollering something through a microphone and the front line has their guns raised menacingly. Hurriedly, Coran and Allura break away from the paladins and take their places at the control panel. Shiro is standing to the side, clutching the microphone in his hands.

“Now, Shiro, hurry, they really don’t look happy!” Hunk cries nervously.

Shiro fumbles with the microphone and Lance can see his hand shaking.

“Don’t shoot!” he demands, his voice ringing out into the crowd below. “It’s Takashi Shirogane… I return in peace!”

He sees he soldiers down below freeze in confusion at the sound of Shiro’s voice. The men glance around at each other and a few lower their guns precariously. The commander barks something at them and the soldiers snap back into attention.

“Don’t shoot!” Shiro repeats firmly. “I bring home three of our students. Do we have permission to exit this ship without being harmed?”

The soldiers start meeting his eyes through the windowpane. A visible wave of murmuring spreads through the troop as they pick out Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Shiro standing at the window. The commander visibly stiffens, rapidly fires a question into his earpiece, waits, then motions for the troops to drop their weapons.

Shiro sighs in relief, the sound echoing over the square. The ship’s entrance slides open and Lance follows Hunk and Pidge blindly out onto the ground. The sky above shocks him – blue and bright and unfamiliar. He feels the watchful gaze of the troops boring into his skull. He feels detached, barely even registers as two soldiers crowd in on him and pin his arms behind his back. He hears a commotion – Shiro and the commander yelling at one another, the roaring of the Castle in the background. Confused, he turns and sees the ship rumbling, smoke billowing from the launchers as Allura and Coran make their retreat.

The troops are raising their weapons and Shiro tries frantically to distract them. It’s as if the world slows on its axis. Lance sees him and his stomach pummels; he’s holding a white sheet in his arms, holding the bundle delicately to his chest, and Lance wants to puke because he knows who is lying beneath the cloth. He wishes he could tear his eyes off of the scene, but he can’t stop staring at the body that Shiro is carrying and he feels the breath leave his throat oh god he can’t breathe help oh god.

One of the soldiers jostles him, pushes him away from Shiro, and shoves him towards the back doors of the facility. He snaps out of it, meets frantic eyes for a split second with Hunk, who looks disheveled and sick, until his friend is shoved into the crowd of soldiers and disappears from sight. Pidge fights against three guards as they struggle to lead them towards the doors. Their face is pale as a sheet, but their eyes are hard and unwavering and they don’t meet Lance’s desperate stare.

Suddenly, he hears the rapid fire of gunshot and his gut twists. Terrified, he jerks his body forward, fighting against the guard’s grip on his arms. One of the soldiers knees him in the shin and he stumbles forward. He glances back and winces at the sight of bullets ricocheting off of the Castle’s particle barrier. The gunfire doesn’t cease, even as the ship slowly vanishes from sight as they activate the invisibility cloak. He’s shoved inside the facility and his ears won’t stop ringing and it’s getting hard to see without the edges of the world going black oh god he still can’t breathe properly.

“He doesn’t look too good,” he hears one of the soldiers mumble to another.

“Hey, kid, you alright? What’s your name?”

Lance can’t answer.

The guard walking ahead of him looks back at him warily.

“Can you speak, kid? What’s happened to you?” he barks.

Panting, he struggles to calm himself down, struggles to think over the rapid firing of his heart in his ribcage, the echoing of gunshots in his ears.

“Lance,” he manages to spit back, annoyed and disoriented.

“Alright, Lance, we’ll get you to your room and then Commander Iverson has asked to see you. You’ll be taken in for questioning shortly,” the guard explains.

They come to a stop at a door. The soldiers behind him pat him down and tug off his coat. One of the guards reaches for the knapsack strung across his shoulders, yanks at it. Lance panics and knocks his hand away, clutching onto the bag like a lifeline.

“Give me that, you’re not to have anything potentially hazardous in this facility,” the guard growls.

“It’s not hazardous! It’s just a bag,” Lance protests, wriggling out of the guard’s grip.

Another guard grumbles and joins in, tugging on the knapsack.

“No, please!” Lance begs, tightening his grip around the strap.

“Hand it over, Lance,” the first guard insists.

He knees Lance in the shin, sending him stumbling.

“Enough with that,” the third guard barks.

He walks over, heels clicking against the linoleum floor, and snatches the knapsack from Lance. Desperate and close to tears, Lance stumbles after him.

“Stop, please, I need it!” he pleads, his voice flooding with panic.

The third guard shoots him a strange look, as if he pities him, before sliding the door open and shoving Lance inside the room. Lance spins around just as the door shuts and he screams, pounding his fists against it because he needs the knapsack it’s all he has left of Keith he needs it give it back oh god.

No one comes so he stops, leans back against the wall, and slides to the floor. The room is cold and empty, the florescent light above boring into his skull. Lance shakes violently, hugging himself tightly. The echoing of gunshots ring in his ears, makes him feel as if the world is tilting and reality is slipping away from him.

He’s not sure how much time has passed by the time the door opens and another set of guards order him out. They escort him down the hallway and as they pass by windows, instructors and soldiers stare at him with cold, judging eyes. The halls begin to get more decorated as they turn the corner and approach Iverson’s office. He squints and notices new posters and awards framed upon the walls, proclaiming Iverson as ‘the man who saved the world from alien destruction’ and Lance wants to laugh because what has Iverson ever done to save the universe?

The office itself is ornately decorated and lined with even more faulty headlines proclaiming the Commander’s bravery. Iverson himself sits in his tall chair, chin propped up thoughtfully on his desk, studying Lance as he stumbles into the room. The guards shut the door and move to stand behind him as Lance is forced into the chair opposite of the Commander.

Perched on the desk is a clipping from a newspaper with the same headline as before: ‘Iverson – The Man Who Saved The World From Alien Destruction.’

It reads, ‘Earlier in the week, The Galaxy Garrison was visited by an onslaught of strange, extraterrestrial attacks. On June 10th, faculty and students reported a UFO sighting that crash-landed onto campus grounds. The following day, faculty reported another strange sighting. The second spacecraft is described as being a prominent blue color and having an odd resemblance of a feline. Commander Iverson has since put down these alien attacks with his powerful army of both trained professionals and upcoming students alike. There have only been reports of three students missing on campus, though officials are taking steps to locate their whereabouts. It’s uncertain if the disappearances are linked to the extraterrestrials, but the possibility is high. Not much is known of what could have happened, had these extraterrestrials chosen to land anywhere else in the world. All we know is that, luckily, they paid a visit to the top military space exploration programs that knew exactly what to do in such a situation. The world has The Galaxy Garrison and Commander Iverson to thank for our safety and global security.”

Lance finds himself scoffing and he sees the guards and Iverson stiffen.

“What is it?” the Commander demands.

Lance stares at him silently, studying his beady, dark eyes and the grimace on his face, the way his thumb rubs against the messy beard sprouting from his jowls to his chin. His hat sits upon his head, the commander emblem glinting in the light like a crown of deceit.

Lance laughs again and points at the framed newspaper clipping.

“That’s all a lie,” he hears himself say. “There was no alien attack. The first sighting was Shiro returning back to Earth and you know it. I was there, I saw. And the second sighting wasn’t even a ‘visit’. We were leaving Earth. I know, because I was there, too.”

Iverson narrows his eyes, his mouth curving downwards in a menacing frown. He resembles an angered pit-bull and the sight is almost laughable. Lance knows this look all too well, knows the man is about to open his mouth and spew harsh words at him. He can’t bring himself to care.

“You didn’t save the world from anything,” Lance spits. “There was nothing to save it from that day. We saved the world. I know because I was there and I know that the Galra never even came close to Earth. None of this whole ‘global security’ thing was because of you, it was because of me and my friends.”

Iverson stiffens in his chair and slams his hands down onto the desk. Lance flinches, but doesn’t back down.

“You’d best keep your mouth shut, McClain,” the Commander hisses, bristling and leaning in close to Lance. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know everything I’m talking about,” he says calmly. There was a time when he wouldn’t ever consider talking back to the man hovering in front of him, but now, he’s abandoned all concerns, sickened just by looking at the liar. “I know more than you ever will. You make up stories and lie to the people just to make yourself look good, just to save your reputation.”

“And people believe me,” Iverson says slyly. “Go on and talk if you must, but who will trust a kid over my word?”

Lance glares at him. A sneer spreads across the Commander’s face. He settles back in his chair, sure that he’s won, and tells Lance that there’s no way on Earth he’ll ever let him call home, not in the state he’s in, not until he’s been quarantined and inspected and cleared.

“Brainwashed by aliens, is what you are. The world will thank me for finding you and nursing you back to health,” he says, grinning to himself, proud of the new lie that he had just concocted.

Lance falls silent and stares at the elaborate wall behind Iverson’s head. He catches a glimpse of himself on a MISSING STUDENT poster plastered between the plaques nailed to the wall. It’s an old photograph of himself grinning at the camera, taken a long time ago. He doesn’t recognize the boy in the picture. He spots two more posters, one for Hunk and one for Pidge.

There’s nothing for Keith. Keith with his bright smile and hopeful eyes and Keith wrapped in cloth in Shiro’s arms.

Lance suddenly feels so angry that he’s shaking in his seat and he spits, “You know, there was someone else that should have come home.”

Iverson narrows his eyes at him, as if willing him to be quiet.

 “You know, don’t you? You must know. Shiro brought him in,” Lance accuses.

Iverson’s mouth twists in a distasteful frown and his jowls sag.

“Keith Kogane,” Lance says shakily. The name leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, makes his throat burn. He hisses, “Do you even remember him? You kicked him out without a second thought and now he’s – dead. You’re a corrupt bastard and you don’t care about anyone else but yourself. Keith isn’t coming home and you won’t even spare an ounce of regret. You’ll lie and pretend that you don’t know about him because that’s all someone like you ever does: lie.”

Iverson tenses. Two instructors round the table and take hold of Lance’s arms. They drag him away with blood roaring in his ears and he holds Iverson’s poisonous glare all the way down the hall until he’s forced to round a corner. His heart beats in his chest, blood pounds against his skull, and he can’t help but panic because Keith is dead. He said it out loud and now it’s real. Keith is dead.

 

 

He lies on the tiny bed and worries. He worries about Coran and Allura, lost and alone on this planet that they can’t call home. Worries about Hunk, wonders how the guards and how Iverson treated him. Wonders how they treated Pidge, wonders if Pidge is terribly upset with him, if Pidge hates him, worries about never apologizing. He rolls over and buries his face into the stiff sheets and sobs, thinking of the way he had shoved them, of the hurt look in their eyes, staring up at him from the ground. He thinks of Shiro, carrying down a body wrapped in a white sheet, and his gut wrenches. Sick to the stomach, he pulls himself to the edge of the bed and gags, but he has nothing in him to throw up. He can’t stop thinking of Keith, unmoving, wrapped in cloth, carried lifelessly in Shiro’s arms and he sobs and dry-heaves until he’s gasping for air.

He rolls over and falls into a tumultuous sleep.

There’s an awful banging on the door and he wakes with a jump, screaming because he’s sure that someone is shooting at him. There’s a firm hand on his shoulder and another placed over his mouth and Lance is staring up at the guard from earlier, the one who had stolen Keith’s knapsack from him.

Fueled by a sudden rush of anger, Lance knocks his hands off.

“I’ve brought you your dinner,” the guard snaps, pointing at a plate and a thin glass of water on the desk beside the bed.

He turns on his heels and storms out, pausing at the doorway. Stealing a quick glance back, the guard tosses something else into the room, then steps out into the hallway and shuts the door.

Confused, Lance stumbles out of bed, his back aching, and makes his way to the dark pile on the floor. He collapses, gasping and pulling Keith’s knapsack close to his chest, eyes flooding with tears and silently thanking the man for bringing it back to him.

He doesn’t touch the knapsack for days after that. He hides it under the bed, afraid that a guard will see it and confiscate it. He can’t bring himself to look at it, let alone look through it. It brings back painful memories, makes him think of Keith perched on green rocks, looking out into the distance with a hardened look on his face, his jaw set tightly. Makes him think of Keith looking back at him and grabbing onto his hand and pulling him along, makes him think of Keith and his beautiful eyes and his voice, Keith curled up beside him, Keith huddled against the wall, leaning back against the rocks, reading his little black book, Keith and his tears and his hopeful smile. He doesn’t touch the knapsack.

Guards barge into his room without knocking, bringing him a plate of food each day – once in the morning and once in the evening. It’s stale and taste strange to him and sometimes his stomach can’t keep it down because he’s not used to solid food, and he finds himself crouching against the bin, emptying his stomach. Day in and day out. Then a grumbling guard will make a comment about the stench and send a janitor in and the janitor will grumble as well and scoop up the mess.

He doesn’t let himself think about Keith. He shovels the notion of Keith to the very pits of his mind and buries it in darkness, leaves it there, hopes that he forgets everything about him because he can’t bear the pain. His heart aches. He lies in silence, waits for the familiar click of the keys and the guard with the plate of food and thin glass of water, takes meager bites of his meal and he doesn’t let himself think about Keith. He hopes that soon he’ll have no memory left of him and all he’ll have to do is lie and wait, eat, then lie and wait some more.

One day, two guards come into his room and take him down the hallway. They make him sit on a chair in a ward and they take his vitals, poke him with needles, measure his heart rate, ask him why he’s bouncing his leg up and down like a maniac, slip a strange pill onto his tongue. Each day, between his meals, a set of guards come into his room, bring him to the ward, sit him on a chair, and he tells himself that he’s managed to forget all about Keith in the midst of his newfound routine. Each day, he gradually spends less and less time in the ward, they stick less and less needles up and down his arm, write less and less down, until one day, all together, he gets his first meal and then his second and no set of guards ever walk in to take him to the ward.

That night, shaken by the sudden loss of structure in his routine, he slides off the bed and reaches underneath, his heart leaping into his throat. He pulls out Keith’s knapsack and stares at it in silence. Lying inside is Keith’s poetry book, black cover faded and worn at the edges. Gently, he fans out the pages, a faint, nostalgic smell that he can’t quite pinpoint rising into the air. It feels as if he’s holding a lost memory in his hands. He presses his hands against the pages delicately, shutting his eyes and picturing Keith’s thin fingers dancing across the page, tracing the letters. He sighs, flips the book open gently to a page that’s been heavily creased, and his heart stops dead in its tracks.

The page is scribbled over in blocky letters, penned out in red ink, spreading down the front of the page and filling up half of the back. His chest tight, Lance skims over the words hungrily, reads silently:

 

Lance

 

Right now you’re crying because you miss your family. I know a bit about what that feels like. I don’t like seeing you cry. It feels wrong. You’re a happy person and I like seeing you smile. You make others happy. You make me happy. I imagine if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably done a bit of crying lately. I just want you to know that it’s okay to cry, but just know that one day, you will smile again. I know you will. You have the best smile I’ve ever laid my eyes on. The universe shouldn’t have to lose a smile like yours.

Give the stars a smile for me, will you?

-- Keith.

 

When did he write this?

Lance’s tears are blurring the lines and smudging the ink and Keith’s words are running down the page in messy blotches. He tries to stop himself, holds the book out and away from his face, reads it over and over and over again, tries to picture Keith sitting with his knees pulled to his chest, nose buried between the pages, scribbling out this note. Did he know he was going to leave him? Is that what it was? Is that why?

Suddenly inexplicably angry, Lance yanks at the book, tears the page out of the seam and rips it up, cursing the world, nothing is fair nothing is fair nothing is fair.

He’s lying against the ground, cold and heavy-hearted, sobbing because of what he’s done. Keith’s letter is in shambles, clutched in his hands, pressed against his heart.

He tries to piece the torn halves back together, but he can’t, there’s no way, it’s crumpled and ruined and Keith’s penmanship is smudged and distorted and the page is pulling itself apart, thin and delicate because of Lance’s tears.

He gets up, rummages through the room for tape, anything, anything, but the room is empty except for the bed and the desk and the bin. He needs tape because the letter is still ripped up and in pieces in his back pocket and it’s weighing down on him like a stone and he wants to cry and tear his eyes out he can’t focus what has he done what has he done it’s ruined Keith I’m sorry. He hits his fists against the door once, twice, three times, again, again, help me, help me I’ve ruined everything again.

A guard comes in, then two, then three. Push him down, tell him to calm down, drag him down the hall, back in the chair, a needle up his arm, in his vein, a machine strapped to his head, vitals on the screen, a clipboard hovering in the hands of the doctor beside him, a pill on his tongue. They’re whispering, they don’t know if he’s stable enough, he was so close, they’ll have to keep him a bit longer, though, he won’t be cleared any time soon, but he was close, good thing they didn’t let him out of here sooner oh god that old injury on his head’s split open again. He feels another prick in his arm and he’s blacking out and when he wakes up there’s a throbbing on his forehead and they tell him they’ve given him five stitches for his bleeding head.

After that, his routine is back on track. In the morning, there’s a plate of food on the desk. Then a set of guards take him to the ward. Pins, needles, contraptions, pills, a clipboard. At night, another plate of food on the desk. Repeat.

One day, someone knocks on the door and he can’t be bothered to sit up even though no one ever knocks on the door. He’s lying with his back sinking into the mattress and if he shuts his eyes, it almost feels as if he’ll fall right through. He doesn’t get up because he’s cemented in place and he won’t get up because why would he when he can just lie here forever.

He hears the keys jingle, then he hears them fit into the lock, and he thinks that it’s strange that someone chose to knock before they came in because they never knocked.

One of the instructors pokes his head in and his eyes fall warily onto Lance’s still form and Lance wonders if he appears dead and that’s why the man is looking at him so strangely.

“You’re being sent for,” he says gruffly and Lance doesn’t understand what he means.

He blinks at him vacantly. The instructor rolls his eyes and jabs a thumb behind him, out the door.

“You’ve been cleared. Get a move on, you’re going home, McClain.”

He still isn’t quite sure what this means, even as he pulls himself up and out the room and into the hallway with all its bright lights. He follows the instructor through the corridors. When he trudges past windows, instructors and commanders peer out at him in wonder. The man leads him to a set of double doors at the end of a narrow hall and sends him on his way.

Confused, he puts his hand on the door, pushes, and meets eyes with his mother. Suddenly frightened, he makes to duck back behind the doors, but she’s crying out his name and her voice sounds so painfully familiar that he almost feels alive again. He stiffens as she dashes over to him, pushes herself up on the tips of her toes, and wraps her arms around his neck. She smells like something that he knows better than the back of his own hand and her voice is ringing like a song in his ears, she’s thanking the Lord above, sobbing about a miracle, murmuring Lance, Lance, Lance over and over again. He wants to pull back and run away, retreat back to the confined of the tiny room that he had spent the past few weeks in, wants to get away from her because he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, he isn’t who she thinks he is.

His father is there, standing off to the side with a hand over his mouth like he’s trying to hold back a sob. Come here, come here, it’s your son, he’s alive, come here, his mother beckons, her voice shaky, and he’s rushing over with wet eyes. Lance wants to disappear as they pull him close, his chest tight, and he knows it’s wrong because here they are, his parents, he’s seeing them again after believing that he would never come home. And yet, all he wants is to get away from them because it feels so, so wrong.

He forces himself to hug them back, clutching at their sides, though he’s stiff and keeps his head held high, staring back at the wall behind them. He can’t look them in the eyes, knows they’ll see his face and realize that it’s not him, it’s not their son, it’s not who they think it is, it’s not.

His mother won’t stop weeping, pressing her face into his neck, her tears warm against his skin, and his father has a firm hand on the back of his head, holding him close, and Lance won’t look at either of them, won’t speak to them. He feels distant, as if this is just something out of his imagination, a dream, a nightmare. He shuts his eyes and nearly wishes that he had perished on that planet because this isn’t right, he’s afraid, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, why can’t he look them in the eyes?

Mijo, mijo, I can’t believe it, I can’t –” his mother is choking out.

She puts her cold hands to his face, tries to tilt his chin towards her and Lance panics. He yanks his head away and stumbles backwards. He hears his mother cry out, the sound a mixture of hurt and worry, and sees his father put a hand on her shoulder.

“Give him space…” his father warns gently.

“Sorry, sorry,” his mother cries and it makes Lance’s heart sink because why is she apologizing, she shouldn’t sound so sad, he wishes he could make her happy, all he ever does is make people sad.

A cab is waiting for them outside the door with a man dressed in the Garrison uniform waiting at the wheel, glowering at them impatiently. His father puts his arm around his mother’s shoulders, hesitates, and extends a hand out to Lance. He takes it wordlessly and follows his parents out of the facility, into the cab, and down the dusty road.

It’s only then that Lance realizes that he’s left Keith’s knapsack in the room. He turns, presses his nose against the window to hide his face from his mother beside him, and shuts his eyes as he cries.

 

 

 

The road becomes familiar as the cab whizzes by the bay, an imprint straight out of his memory. It’s strange seeing this again, seeing cars speeding past, humans walking down the street, trees, a blue sky. How long has it been since he’s had this? He feels oddly out of place. The beam of the sunlight is starting to hurt his head. He’s forgotten what it had been like to observe daily life pass the world by. He doesn’t belong here.

He catches a glimpse of the sea, the glint of the sunlight among the waves. He remembers this place – remembers every inch of this town. Recognizes the diner that they used to go to every Saturday morning, the barber’s shop where he got his haircut, the park he used to take his little siblings to.

Suddenly overwhelmed, he looks away from the window and down at his feet, his eyes wet. His mother grabs his hand, squeezes. The world around him feels hazy and unreal and he can’t process that this is happening. He doesn’t belong here.

“You’ve been missed, Lance,” his mother is saying. “Oh, the rest of them are so excited that you’re back, Nico was up all night asking when we would come get you – he was so excited when we got the call. Of course, they all asked if they could come, too, but we thought it would be a little too much for you.”

Lance doesn’t say anything because suddenly, he’s thinking of his brothers and sisters and he’s afraid. He doesn’t want to face them, doesn’t want to see them. They’ll want to know how he’s doing, they’ll hug him, they’ll ask him questions, and they’ll think he’s someone who he’s not, and he’ll just make them all sad.

The cab turns sharply and pulls onto a rocky road situated a few feet off the coast, lined with tall palms that stretch up into the sky. Feeling sick, Lance watches as their house pulls into view. As the cab comes to a stop, he stares at it silently, suddenly feeling as if something terrible and foreboding waits for him inside. How had everything happened so quickly? How is he back here already?

“Welcome home,” his father says gently.

Outside, the house looks even stranger. It’s exactly as he remembers it, but he’s not used to the way it looms overhead, faded shingles blocking out the sunlight. In the driveway, there’s his father’s old Volkswagen, parked with its wheels turned into the shade. The lawn is strewn with toys: a shovel and a pale, a tiny racecar, a stuffed doll. The scene is all too delicate and familiar and Lance feels as if it will slip away from him at any moment. He doesn’t belong here.

His parents pause outside the doorway, exchanging a glance at each other. His mother tightens her grip on his hand and his father pulls him close with an arm around his shoulder.

“Lance,” his mother says. “Mijo… will you look at me, please?”

Lance’s throat burns as he swallows, tapping his fingers nervously against his thigh. He can hear the desperation and worry in his mother’s voice, sees the way she stands before him tensely. Slowly, he lifts his eyes and meets her gaze.

His heart twinges at the sight of her familiar face – her hair pulled up in a bun with loose strands framing her cheeks, the crinkles by her eyes as she smiles, the warmth radiating off of her. He feels his eyes start to water and he quickly turns his gaze away.

"It’s so good to see your face again. You are so beautiful,” his mother tells him, her voice light. “My beautiful boy. I’m so lucky to have you here.”

Lance sniffles, running the back of his hand across his eyes. His shoulders start to shake and his father pulls him closer, wrapping both his arms around him. He hears his mother let out a sob, feels her press her face into his neck.

“We’ve missed you,” his father whispers.

Lance swallows a sob, splutters, and manages to rasp, “I missed you, too.”

And he means it. He does.

He takes a deep breath and lets his parents lead him inside the house. He feels numb as his siblings charge at him, barreling down the stairs and knocking into his torso.

“Give him room, give him room,” his father demands, shooing them away.

He has to pry Nico and Zoe from their grips.

“Jesus, Lance, it’s so good to see you,” Sebastian is saying, staring at him in wonder.

“Lance, Lance!” Nico yells, jumping up and down. “Where have you been? Is it true you got abducted by aliens? Lance, Lance, tell me, tell me! Hey, whoa! Why do you have a weird scar on your head? Are those stitches? Cool!”

He’s jumping up around, tugging on Lance’s sleeve, and Zoe and Daniela are nodding in agreement. Lance can’t meet his bright, shining eyes, can’t look at the smile on his face. What is he supposed to say? Here is his little brother, excited, patronizing him and asking him too many questions that Lance doesn’t want to answer.

He’s grateful when his father scoops Nico up in his arms and tells him to hush for now, your brother needs some time for himself, okay? Sebastian and Isabel help him usher Zoe and Daniela out of the room and into the kitchen. As she leaves, Isabel gives him a quick pat on the shoulder before hurrying after the rest of their family.

Lance is left alone with his mother. When he looks at her, he feels terrified. He can’t help but think of all the strange dreams he’s had about her, of the way she had looked at him with cold, empty eyes, of the way she had stared at him in horror, her hands stained with blood, the way she had called him a monster. Surely, she can see right through him, see all the terrible things he’s done. What would she think of him, if she knew how many people he’s killed. What would she think of him if she saw the blood on his hands, if she saw the way he had driven a sword through Meitum’s heart?

I’m not your son, he wants to say. I’ve done terrible things.

His mother doesn’t seem to pay it any attention. She’s holding his hand, tugging him into his room, showing him around as if he’s never been here before. It almost feels as if he hasn’t. She guides him into the kitchen, shows him pictures of himself, shows him clippings of newspapers that they had kept that had pictures of him, pictures that declared that he was missing.

“We were so worried, Lance,” she sobs. “We asked everyone to help us find you. Oh, it hasn’t been the same in so long. When we saw on the news that the Garrison got attacked by… aliens, we were so worried. And then when we heard that you were one of the missing students – oh, you and Hunk and another lovely child… It was just awful. Oh, we should have never let you join that space exploration program.”

She’s hugging him again and all he can say is, “There was no attack,” and he regrets it instantly because now she’s looking at him in confusion, asking him what he means. He shakes his head and says, “Sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying,” and she seems to believe him.

She cooks a big homemade meal, Lance’s favorite, and he sits with his family and eats it. It tastes bland in his mouth and he almost feels like puking it back up. He doesn’t say much throughout the dinner and he can’t meet anyone’s eyes and eventually, they give up trying to ask him questions.

That night, in his room, his mother hugs him for a long time and is wary to leave him alone.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” she asks for the eighth time.

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

He knows he’s lying.

He isn’t okay.

He falls into a turmoil, rather than sleep. He sees the image of Nico pulling on his sleeve, jumping up and down, smiling, smiling until his face turns into one of a look of horror and then he’s dropping to his knees. He falls to the floor, blood seeping from his shirt and suddenly, it’s the scene from Meitum’s spell and his mother is behind him, sobbing. She’s wearing the clothes from today, but they’re stained dark red with blood.

“You’re a monster!” she’s accusing him. “Don’t ever look at me again!”

Lance looks back down at his dead brother, wonders where all the blood is coming from, until he sees the gun in his hand and he hears gunshots, gunshots, gunshots, sees himself firing at the dead body, firing all around him.

“Give him some space, give him some room,” his father chokes. He’s lying on the ground at her feet and there’s blood leaking out of the side of his mouth. “Get away from him. This isn’t our son.”

Lance wants to scream that he’s sorry, wants to beg for them to love him again, tell them that he’ll try to be who they think he is. He can’t because they’re both dead, lying in a bloodied heap. He hears Meitum’s laugh echoing from above. She’s here and she’s haunting him because he killed her, he drove the knife straight through her heart, he felt her ribs crack beneath his palms.

He runs forward and the scene is shifting, the bloody floor melting away beneath his feet. He’s standing on a familiar ledge and his foot hits something. A body. He looks down. It’s Keith, lying pale and unmoving, his cheek smudged by the dirt from the tip of Lance’s shoe. Panicked, Lance drops to his knees and shakes him. This is his last chance to wake him up. Wake up, Keith, please, wake up.

He opens his mouth and screams and suddenly there’s a blinding light shining down from above and Lance thinks that it’s the ship coming to take him away from Keith and that it’s too late, it’s too late, he’s not going to wake up, is he?

It’s not the ship. The light in his room is switched on and his mother is shaking his shoulders, whispering desperately, mijo, mijo wake up it’s a nightmare.

It is, isn’t it?

Lance clutches onto her like a lifeline, shaking violently. He gasps for air, chokes, and she’s thumping on his back, telling him to slow it down and breathe.

“He’s dead,” Lance moans, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Ma, he’s dead.”

“Shhh, baby,” she’s whispering and it sounds so nice in his sore ears.

“He’s dead,” Lance insists.

He whimpers, pressing his face into her shoulder. His ma pulls him close and rubs his back, rocking him back and forth. She hums to him under her breath, tells him that it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay now, we’ll work through it. Lance feels as if he’s a child, sitting in his ma’s lap, young and innocent and free of every horrible memory that haunts him.

“I love you, ma,” he splutters.

He holds his breath, waits for her to shove him away, tell him he’s a monster, a monster, Lance, I know what you did, no son of mine is a cold blooded killer.

Instead, she whispers, “I love you, too. Always. My brave baby. So strong.”

Lance feels himself tear up, his eyes and chest aching. He shakes his head. This isn’t right. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

“Yes,” she insists, pressing a kiss to his forehead.

“Mama, I’ve killed people,” he sobs.

“Shhh… baby…” she says. Her hands are running through his hair and it feels so nice and how can she be so kind to him now that she knows what he’s done? “It’s okay now. You’re still my boy. Always.”

Lance melts in her arms, wants her to hold him forever because he knows now what it’s like to think that he’s lost her and he never wants to feel that way again. She doesn’t stop humming to him and the tune lulls him to sleep.

 

 

 

They get a letter with information about the funeral the next day. Lance goes into his room and cries. Then he sits on his bed and watches the day pass him by through his window and he wonders how on Earth he could possibly attend. He does anyway.

The funeral is small.

He sees Iverson, dressed in his Garrison uniform and looking solemn and Lance wants to punch his teeth out because he doesn’t belong here and Keith wouldn’t have wanted him here. But he’s here anyway.

He sees an old couple. They know Shiro and introduce themselves as the Myers and he remembers Keith telling him about them.

There’s another boy who looks about the same age as Lance and he stands there nervously, twirling his car keys around in his shaking hands. He says that he knew Keith during their first year of high school and that he was terribly saddened by the news and that he came all the way from Texas just to see his old friend one last time. He remembers Keith telling him about him, as well. He says to the boy, Keith told me he missed you a lot. The boy sniffles and nods and pulls Lance in for a hug and he forces himself to hug back.

There’s a lady in her mid 60s, her hair greying and falling in thin strands across her face. She sniffles and dabs her eyes with a rag and says that at least he’s with his family now, he was so upset when I had to break the news to him all those years ago, awful having to tell a child that they’ve lost their whole family, awful, awful, awful. Lance wishes she wouldn’t put it that way.

Hunk is there with his family and they speak to Lance’s parents. Hunk is teary eyed, but he tries his best to smile at Lance, regardless.

“Hey, buddy,” he says and he sniffles, hesitates for a moment, then pulls Lance in for a tight hug.

Lance sighs and hugs him back.

“How’ve you been?” Hunk asks him, looking at him with concern. “I heard they didn’t let you out until a couple days ago.”

“What?”

“The Garrison. They kept you a really long time, didn’t they?”

“… I guess.”

“Well, I’m sorry and I would have come visit you, but every time I went over, you’re mom told me they still hadn’t cleared you, yet. I didn’t know you were home.”

“That’s alright,” Lance says. “…I’ve missed you, Hunk.”

“I’ve missed you, too.”

Pidge arrives shortly after, wearing a dress and looking lovely and it makes Lance nervous because he doesn’t know if they’re on good terms. They haven’t spoken since he had pushed them down back in the Castle.

“It’s fine, Pidge isn’t mad,” Hunk insists.

“How can you be sure?”

“They told me. And they were really worried about you, too. Kept asking when you would get let out.”

He still finds himself apologizing before he even says hello.

“Pidge, look, I’m really sorry about the way I acted –”

He stops abruptly because Pidge is pulling him down for a hug, telling him to shut up, I’m sorry for yelling at you, and their eyes are wet and they’re crying and so is he.

Lance tells himself that he won’t look at the body, but he’s standing over the coffin, regardless. He hasn’t seen Keith since their last night on the planet and now, here he is. He’s so much more beautiful than his memory or dream could ever portray, with his hair falling perfectly across his forehead and his long lashes fanning out over his face. He’s dressed eloquently – a black suit with a red tie – and he looks peaceful, with his lips pressed in a thin line and his eyelids lightly shut. Now, if he would just open his eyes and look up at Lance -----

It’s hard to grasp the fact that Keith won’t ever open his eyes again. It’s hard to grasp that he’s gone. It’s hard to grasp that Keith’s not there, this isn’t him, he’s gone. But he is here, he’s lying right in front of Lance, looking asleep, lying in a beautiful casket, looking beautiful himself and why can’t he just lift his head? He can swing his lithe legs over the edge and hop down and smile at Lance and they can get out of here. Lance can tell him about everything that he’s missed, though it hasn’t been much. He can tell him about the new pizza parlor they built right next to the one that he had promised that they would go to, the one with the wicked breadsticks, Keith, do you remember? He can tell him how he spat in Iverson’s face the day he got back to Earth and Keith will grin and give him a pat on the back and they would share a laugh and everything will be okay.

But he isn’t opening his eyes.

His ma takes hold of his hand and guides him over to the pews because the procession is starting now and Shiro is standing behind the microphone. His Galra arm is gone, replaced with another prosthetic. Lance is numb as he sits between his parents. He doesn’t want to listen to all the different ways Shiro can word the phrase ‘he will be missed.’ He silently wills Keith to listen to him and get up, idiot, get up now, what are you doing lying around. Keith will stir and then poke his head up. He’ll roll his eyes when he sees the room and finds them all gathered here, worrying over him.

“Who are half of these people?” he’ll ask and then he’ll climb out of the coffin and make his way over to Lance.

But he doesn’t.

They’re lowering the cover of the casket now and Lance is panicking because Keith is still inside. He tries very hard to catch a final glimpse of his still face and embeds the memory into his head, wants to hold onto it forever.

They follow a string of black limousines out into the graveyard and then they lower Keith into the dirt and say their last goodbyes, but Lance can’t find it in him to say anything, so he turns away and he never sees Keith again.

 

 

 

Most nights, he lies in his bed, afraid to fall asleep. He stares up at the dim glow-in-the-dark stars tacked to his ceiling and he thinks that when you love someone, it means that you’re going to lose them.

His ma sends him to the hospital after reviewing the medical reports that the Garrison had sent to her. All the probing and prodding they had done to him over the course of the few weeks had been meant to assess his health. He had a damaged shoulder blade that had healed and a badly split head that had started bleeding after a fit he had thrown. Nico always gawks at the scar. One thing that proved worrying was the permanent damage in his left ear and his mother takes him to the hospital for it.

Then, she takes him to a therapist and he tries very hard to share what’s been bothering him, but it’s hard to admit to a stranger sitting in a chair that you have nightmares because you were thrust into an intergalactic war and then isolated for an extended period of time on an abandoned planet and then visited by an alien witch that induced lasting visions of terror onto your every day life.

His ma knows. He tells her first after the therapist had suggested it, saying that if he’s not comfortable telling a stranger this, he should start out with someone familiar. He shakes the entire time and begs her to believe him and she smiles and says, “Mijo, I believe every word of it and you’re so, so brave,” and Lance feels relieved.

He tries to spend time with his family after that. He goes out to lunch with them. He tries his best to answer Nico’s questions, now more reserved after their pa had scolded him for asking too much. He sits and watches movies with Zoe and Daniela. He talks with them at the dinner table and the meals start tasting less bland and more like something that he can grow to enjoy again. He goes to the beach with Sebastian and watches him surf because he doesn’t feel like taking it back up, yet.

“Another time,” he tells his older brother.

“Alright, I’ll be ready to show you up when the time comes,” Seb jokes, grinning like the devil because he knows that Lance has always been the better surfer.

Sometimes, it even feels normal.

But, sometimes, he’ll stand on the beach with his toes buried in the sand and he’ll let himself imagine, just this one time that Keith is there beside him. He’ll teach him to surf, just as he had promised that last morning they had together. He pictures Keith’s laugh rising up into the sunny sky, pictures Keith dashing into the sea. Keith will come up, out of the water, and he’ll turn back and smile at Lance………

He takes the fantasy and locks it away, throws the key to his thoughts out to sea. It always washes back to shore the next time he’s on the beach and he finds himself coming back every morning, burying his toes in the sand, shutting his eyes and imagining what it would have been like if the universe hadn’t stolen Keith away from him. He sits and sits until it becomes unbearable and he retreats back into his room. Some days, he won’t come back at all and Seb will wander out onto the beach looking for him.

“Let’s go back inside, Lance, everyone’s worried about you.”

He still can’t share everything with his therapist. How can he admit that he can’t get over the boy that he lost? How can he talk about the way he had woken up that night, so eager and relieved, only to look over and find him lying still, pale, and dead? How can he explain that he feels empty and incomplete because this boy isn’t here with him and he misses him so much and it hurts it hurts so much please help me. He can’t tell his therapist any of these things so he looks for someone else that he trusts.

He finds himself at Hunk’s doorstep. They go back to Lance’s place and ask his pa if they can take the rickety, old Volkswagen for a ride and he only agrees after Hunk spends ten minutes giving him puppy dog eyes. They pump the flat tire until it’s full enough, then Hunk climbs behind the wheel and they drive.

“How’ve you been, man?” Hunk asks.

The window is rolled down and the wind is whips his hair into the air.

“Been okay. I’m better, I think. You?”

“Me, too. Have you been going to that therapist?”

Lance sighs and stares up at the cars zooming by.

“Yes, but it’s hard telling him things.”

“Me, too.”

He wants to tell Hunk about Keith and the way that he can’t possibly get him out of his head, they way he sees him everywhere. He can’t, however, because he realizes that Hunk must be struggling with the loss, as well, and bringing it up wouldn’t help him. So he decides to stays silent.

Hunk steers the car down a foreign lane and Lance stares in surprise as they pull onto the highway.

“Where’re we going?”

“I have an idea. Call Pidge. Tell them we’re on our way.”

They speed down the interstate and make a turn off an exit half an hour later. Pidge lives in the outer area of a small downtown city and they’re waiting for Hunk and Lance as the two pull up outside the apartment.

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite losers,” they say, grinning.

A song plays on the radio as they make their way into the city and Lance opens his mouth and sings along and he feels a little happy and much more real than he’s felt in a long time. They grab a bite to eat at a small restaurant and then wander out to a park by the river.

The sun is out and the sky is a brilliant blue. Sometimes, the color will still startle Lance. Not today. He sits under the trees with his friends and they watch the city life and the world bustle by.

They do talk about what happened.

Hunk goes first. He explains how he had been flung through the wormhole, how he hadn’t ended up anywhere, how he spent days floating out in space, staring out the window at the vast expanse of the universe stretching out before him.

“It was terrifying,” he whimpers. “I would stare out and all I would see was miles and miles of darkness and I kept wondering what was out there, if they were watching me, if they were going to come and kill me. Luckily, Coran and Allura found me before I could starve to death or anything. But, geez, I can’t ever be alone now and the dark terrifies me more than ever.”

Lance pats him on the shoulder gently and lets him cry into his shoulder.

Pidge says that they’re lucky that they landed on the same planet as Allura and Coran because they were rescued relatively quickly and spent most of the time in the Castle looking for everyone else.

“I’ve… been living with my mom,” they murmur, voice dropping. “It’s a little disappointing that I never did find my dad or my brother…”

“I’m sorry, Pidge,” Hunk and Lance both say and they mean it, they really do.

They both know how badly Pidge wanted to find their family. It must hurt more than anything, knowing that they’ve failed.

“It’s alright. I’ve got my mom. And you two,” Pidge says and they flash their goofy smile.

It’s Lance’s turn and he finds it hard, but he starts at the beginning. He tells them about his crash-landing, the way he had knocked his head and given himself a concussion without knowing it. The way Keith had found him, the way the two of them had fought and then found refuge. He talks about the planet, with it’s strange sky and the boiling rain that fell from it. He describes the starless nighttime and how strange it had been to look up and see absolutely nothing.

It’s hard to talk about Meitum. He gets chills just thinking about her. He can’t go into detail, but he tells them about the witch and how he had seen terrifying things and how he still sees terrifying things and how he thinks that he’ll never get over these terrifying things. He tells them about her third eye, the way he had sliced it clean off her head and the way he had driven the sword through her chest. It feels good to tell them this because he knows they’ll believe him.

He can’t talk about Keith or what the two of them shared or about the promises he had made to him that he never got to keep or about the way they had kissed and the way Keith’s lips felt against his…

He falls silent and he lets the conversation drift away from him, grateful for a break from the spotlight.

“Shiro bought a apartments for Allura and Coran,” Pidge mentions after a while. “Last I heard, they still haven’t tried Earth food.”

“I mean, the goo was good, but are they really going to live off of that for ever?” Hunk says, laughing.

Lance smiles along with them and he hopes that Allura and Coran are doing okay. If this world doesn’t even feel like home to him sometimes, he wonders how they must feel about it.

Evening is creeping up on them by the time Hunk drops Pidge back off. Lance hugs them tight and waves at them until the car is rounding the bend and Pidge is far out of sight.

“That was fun,” Lance says. “Thanks for that.”

Lance’s ma insists that Hunk stays over for the night. He eats dinner with them at their table and tells embarrassing stories about Lance. He makes everyone laugh and Lance marvels over how he can be so wonderful.

They fall asleep in Lance’s room with a sitcom blaring on the television and it’s the first night in a long time that Lance gets through without a single nightmare.

 

 

 

It’s been a year since the funeral and Lance wakes up feeling like shit. He’s tried his best to forget about Keith, but he still finds himself waking each day wondering what it would be like if he hadn’t lost him. He wants to go to the grave, but he’s afraid. He decides that he can’t.

His ma asks him about it anyway.

“No,” Lance insists, shaking his head. “It’s fine. I don’t want to go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

He goes out onto the beach and sits and the day passes by without him paying it any attention. He changes his mind just as the sun is setting and he panics because he has to go see Keith. It’s been a year and he misses him and nothing’s been right for a long time and he has to go see him.

“Honey, it’s too late to go now. First thing tomorrow?”

“No, ma, I need to go right now,” Lance begs.

“I’ll take him,” pipes up Isabel.

Lance finds it strange because he’s never quite gotten along with his older sister, but he’s sitting beside her in the Volkswagen and she’s driving him to the graveyard.

“Isabel, I want to get flowers,” Lance whispers.

“Okay.”

They stop at a grocer’s and Lance runs inside and picks up the best bouquet he can find in there. He sits in the passenger seat with his hands shaking, clutching the batch of roses in his lap. The ride is quiet and Lance can hear nothing but the road roaring by beneath the wheels.

Isabel coughs, ducks her head and tucks a strand of her long, dark hair behind her ear. She steals a glance at Lance, her brown eyes sad.

“What?” he demands.

The street thunders underneath the wheels and his sister doesn’t say a word. Lance wishes that he could switch on the radio or something. He glances at the clock nervously. It’s already 9 o’ clock at night and he wonders if anything good will be on. The moon is sitting high in the sky and he’s gazing up at it, forgetting that he had even asked Isabel a question, until she speaks up.

“Did you love him?” she asks quietly, staring out the front window.

Lance stiffens and stays silent, glaring at her. Why is she asking him this? Is this a joke?

“I hear you crying about him in your sleep at night,” she continues.

“Stop.”

“I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “It’s – just… you can talk to me, if you want to.”

Lance stares down at the roses and he feels tears start to prick at his eyes. Hasn’t he been looking for someone to talk to about Keith all this time? He hadn’t been able to share his feelings about Keith with anyone, not even Hunk or Pidge and here is his sister, giving him a chance to let everything out. He tries to sniffle inconspicuously, turning his face away.

“Yes,” he says tersely. He sighs, pressing his forehead against the window and his chest hurts so much. “Yes, I did.”

Isabel reaches over and takes his hand, squeezing reassuringly and it’s strange for Lance, because all they’ve ever done is bicker and get into each other’s hair. But, here she is, his big sis, Izzy, holding onto his hand and telling him it’s okay, go on and cry, Lance, it’s going to be okay, tell me about him.

He’s beautiful, Izzy, and he’s brilliant and I’ve admired him ever since I first laid eyes on him and he deserved the world I told him everything was going to be alright, but I lied, didn’t I? because he died anyway and oh god I can’t possibly tell you all the wonderful things about him it would take all year.

“I miss him so much,” Lance chokes. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Yes, you can. You’ve been doing so good so far,” Isabel whispers.

“It’s not fair.”

“I know it’s not. I’m so sorry. But, he wouldn’t want you to be sad, would he?”

Lance pauses, sniffling and blinking away his tears.

“No, he wouldn’t,” he whispers. He remembers something. “…He wrote me a letter…”

“A letter?”

“Yes… I –” Lance chokes. “I ripped it up. It’s – it’s gone. I don’t have it. I –”

“That’s okay!” Isabel says, squeezing his hand. “Do you remember what it said?”

His heart is pounding in his chest because he hasn’t thought of the letter ever since he had destroyed it, but the words are still ingrained in his mind.

“Yes. He said… he said that he knows I can smile again,” Lance says.

He sits there, wondering how he could have forgotten about the letter up until now. He remembers the lines: You make me happy. I imagine if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably done a bit of crying lately. I just want you to know that it’s okay to cry, but just know that one day, you will smile again.

A new wave of tears flood his vision as Isabel says gently, “See? He knows you can do it, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

“He believes in you.”

“Yes.”

They’ve pulled up at the graveyard and Lance is staring out the window, his hands shaking. He turns, surprised to see Isabel’s eyes wet with tears. Frowning, he reaches over, and wipes them off her cheeks. Then, he steels his breath and gets out of the car. He holds the roses in his hand for a moment as he stares down at Keith’s headstone, before placing them gently on the ground before it. He lowers himself onto the ground and sits before the tomb and the roses, staring at the name engraved in the stone and thinking that it’s so strange that Keith is buried somewhere underneath this earth, lying in the casket, gone and never coming back.

“I miss you,” he says quietly and he hopes that he can hear him.

He sits for another long moment, then gets up and heads back to the car.

“Thanks for taking me,” he tells Isabel and they head back, the moon shining overhead and casting a pale glow on the road home.

 

 

 

It’s years later, deep into the late hours of the night when Lance remembers something that Keith told him a long, long time ago. It resonates so clearly in his mind that he can hear it in his voice.

Slowly, he gets out of bed and slips out of the house. The night sky above him is littered with stars as he heads down the rocky road and slips between the palm trees, down a wooden pier, and onto the beach. There’s a small shed where he keeps his surfboard and he rummages around inside. It’s been ages since he’s last held it under his arm, since he’s last made his way down to the shoreline.

The moon is casting a hazy glow over the sea, but the surface of the ocean is surprisingly calm. The board splashes as he places it into the water and sits on it with his legs crossed. He paddles out to sea with Keith’s voice ringing in his ears, telling him that death is nothing at all, it’s just stepping into another room, they haven’t really left.

The wide, night sky spreads over his head and he thinks of Keith, reading him poems and telling him that it’s going to be okay. He closes his eyes for a moment, pictures Keith grinning at him, waiting for him in another room. He thinks of Keith and the way that he had trusted him like he’s never trusted anyone before, of the way they had huddled together, the warmth that radiated off of him, the way Keith had clutched onto him like he was a delicate child. He thinks of their last morning together – the way the pink light had cast a mystical glow over his face, the way they had sat, feet dangling over the edge of the cliff, talking about the life they never got to lead together on Earth. He pictures Keith waving goodbye to him, dark eyes bright and catching in the light, as he turns and steps into another room.

When Lance opens his eyes, a thousand silver stars blink down at him, reminding him of all the beauty that’s left in the world and of everything he’s gone through and of everything he’s yet to go through. Give the stars a smile for me, will you? He sighs, dips his feet into the ocean, and smiles up at the stars above as they watch over him.