Years ago, Lance thought Voltron would end in a parade and a party. Ideally, it would end with him landing the final strike on Zarkon, and everyone else lauding him for his momentous, clever attack, his quick thinking, and his wits. Then, he’d celebrate into the night, and well- nothing really mattered what happened after that.
Instead, Voltron didn’t really end.
It had been years, since they defeated Zarkon. Decades, even, and yet they were still cleaning up the mess his thousands of years’ conquest and greed had wrought. As the empire fell, the line between ally and enemy blurred. Against a common threat, they stood united, but with the embers of an empire warm, dead, and for the taking, allies became vultures.
The galaxy still needed Voltron; for twenty-odd years, the galaxy needed Voltron. Lance wasn’t sure when the galaxy would stop needing Voltron, and if he was honest, the thought made him wince and ache .
The most recent threat was from an old ally faction, the Ilm, that fought alongside Voltron against the Galra Empire. The peace between them hadn’t lasted long, as one of the energy-rich starsystems on the far limbs of the galaxy fell into disarray after the destruction of the Galra empire. They sought after it, just as the Galra empire had, and the planet’s inhabitants sought Voltron.
Hours ago, Lance had made base on top of one of the planet’s tall, meandering cliffsides, scoping out for the entrance of the Ilm base. He’d found it, easily enough, and scoped out their patrol schedule, even easier. Now, he just had to guide Keith to the base so he could cut off their power supply, before the Ilm tech blocked their communications.
“This whole situation would be better if this planet wasn’t a sauna,” Lance said. “You seem to attract those, this is the fifth desert this month, let alone this year-”
“-you could stop requesting missions with me,” Keith replied, evenly. “Allura always sends me to deserts.”
A beat passed, and Keith added, “She can be so sentimental.”
Lance huffed a laugh. No- Keith was effective in the desert. He was effective everywhere, really, but no one else could stand the sand for more than a few hours, including Lance, so Allura always sent Keith.
Keith was just a blip on the sandy horizon, impossible to see without a good pair of goggles. They’d need to get him in, fast, before the patrols came around and spotted him.
Lance watched, as Keith turned right, left, and paused, peering around aimlessly. “Entrance is on your left, cowboy,” Lance said, snickering as Keith swiveled wildly to find it.
“I’m going in,” Keith said, tersely, and trying to cut off Lance’s snickering. “Comms’ll be off in a bit.”
Three, two, one- and communications were down. Keith had less than an hour to take down their power system, which, really, was only important as it meant Lance only had one more hour in the heat.
He didn’t move, flat on his stomach on his perch. It would be too much effort, and he still needed to watch out for more patrols. He knew they wouldn’t be around for the next hour, he knew their schedule like clockwork, but the situation felt off.
Lance knew from decades of experience to be wary of the premonition. They’d found the base too easy, and Lance had let communications cut too fast. The mission was going off without a hitch, and it set him off edge. They’d worked with these aliens before- it shouldn’t be this easy. He peered through his goggles to the entrance of the base, hidden in the swirls of sand.
No one following, no one entering; he had been watching from his perch from ages without as much of a peep. The Ilm hadn’t been discreet, when they worked together. Mostly, they requested discretion- they’d ask for him as long distance, or Pidge for espionage, when they needed help. They knew what Voltron could offer- what Lance could offer- and that meant that Keith wasn’t the one in trouble here.
Something rumbled, from the mountain above him. Dust settled, an even spray across his back and into his visor. Lance didn't bother picking up camp, or picking up anything, he only bothered to pry himself off the ground and book it. The mountain began to tumble on top him, first rocks, and then boulders, and then-
No, they wouldn’t be discrete with their attack, and Lance’s last thoughts before the mountain tumbles over him, were how he really should have seen this coming, and then, that he should’ve warned Keith.
The cool click of the healing pod released him, and Lance recognized the sound well enough to catch himself on the edge of the glass. As he did, a sharp pain pulled from his elbow, and he let go of the glass in shock and tumbled to the ground.
“Lance?!” said someone- Keith, Lance thought, from his crumpled view on the ground- and suddenly, he was being hauled to his feet.
“Haven’t done that in a while,” Lance said, wincing as his arm still stung.
The healing pod hadn’t worked. At least, not all the way- Lance had no idea the extent of his injuries from the mission previous, only where it landed him.
It was the first time this had happened to him. The pod didn’t fix everything, as they’d once hoped, especially as the paladins grew older. Pidge had a couple dysfunctional fingers, and Hunk, much to his eventual bemusement, a leg. The pod could only work with them so much, and their physiology had limits.
Apparently, this time, Lance had hit his.
Lance stretched his arm, fingers clenching, figuring out which muscles hurt. He pulled up the sleeve, but he could only see part of the stretching scar up his right arm. It extended from the palm of his hand at the base of his ring finger, up to his elbow, and further still.
He could remember the fleeting details of the mission. The landslide on the mountain, how the Ilm targeted him, Keith’s comms being offline in the most crucial of moments. A cascade of mistakes, on his end.
“Really messed that one up,” Lance said, eyes still on his own arm. He tried to stretch it, and watched the scarred skin pull on his forearm.
“No kidding,” said Keith. “Wasn’t your best moment.”
The comment didn’t sting; it really wasn’t, but at least Lance was here, and alive, with Keith. And Keith- Keith looked exhausted, and he rubbed at his eyes. They looked red, and Lance wondered how long he’d been out. Probably at least a couple days; while the pod didn’t heal everything these days, it would try.
“Should’ve seen it coming,” Lance said. Keith nodded shortly, and stopped rubbing at his eyes to cross his arms around his middle.
He fidgeted there for a moment, letting Lance look sheepish a moment longer, then unfolded, gripped Lance’s shoulder, hard, then soft, and pulled him in for a tight hug.
Keith’s head rested on Lance’s shoulder, hunched and tired.
“I barely got you out of there,” Keith said quietly, like it was a confession.
Lance laughed, because he couldn’t do anything else, and wrapped an arm around Keith, even though it hurt. He didn’t know how bad it was- he couldn’t remember anything from the landslide- but it had to be bad. On a scale of either of their past mishaps, by Keith’s reaction, it had to land at least in the top ten.
“You did, though,” Lance said.
Keith gripped him harder, and Lance added a small “thanks,” even though he didn’t really need to say it.
As the others had when the pod stopped working for them, Lance had to stay with Coran for some last checks to make sure he was good to go. It mostly meant uncomfortable stretches, as Coran babbled on, and Lance provided sometimes insightful, mostly silly, comments. Keith stood to the side, his protruding glares at both of them going unnoticed by Coran and sheepishly acknowledged by Lance.
Nowadays, Coran looked more like a peer to them, then a mentor. Alteans aged slower, and lived longer, so while everyone else peppered in grays and wrinkles, Coran, well, hadn’t. He looked just a scant ten years older than when they met him.
All the other paladins had aged, some worse than others. Shiro aged the worst of them all, white appearing and covering his head before any of them. Keith had aged gracefully, gray croppings of hairs filling out evenly, unlike Lance’s salt-and-pepper mix. He had also cropped his hair short, in solidarity with Lance’s own receding hairline.
After Lance gave a particularly pitiful groan at a stretch, Coran commented, “You know, I’m surprised none of you have picked up a protege, yet.”
“We’re not that old,” Keith countered, and Lance just snorted. Coran seemed bemused at Keith’s statement, too, and Lance was happy for Coran to be on his side. That was, before the stretching Coran had prescribed ached again.
Trying to cover another wince, Lance peered at Coran. “They had proteges?” he said, not trusting his voice with anything more.
“Oh, for centuries, there were a lot of traditions involved,” Coran said. Lance took the pause to stop stretching, but Keith glared him into continuing. “Ceremonies when a Lion would find a new paladin, a lot of feasts- oh, and before they were endangered, they’d bring in an actual lion-”
“There’s no actual lions here,” Keith cut him off. Lance wanted to elbow him.
“Shut up,” he mouthed to Keith. Keith raised an eyebrow, looking at Lance’s arm. He could deal with prolonging his stretches, but Keith didn’t seem to think so.
“You were all a strange bunch,” Coran continued, not fully reading Keith’s mood. “I mean, it’s not like we had an option. I mean, well-”
“Unless we wanted to get Zarkon to train us,” Lance interjected. “That’d be a good plan.”
“Stellar,” agreed Keith.
“Oh of course it wouldn’t have been a good plan, but it would’ve been more in line with how the Lions’ accept new paladins,” Coran paused, hand on his chin. “Maybe the Black Lion would’ve accepted Shiro earlier, had we’d gone through the proper procedure.”
Lance didn’t really see how having an evil emperor train Shiro would help, at all, but he didn’t comment.
“That’s pointless to think about,” Keith said.
Lance looked between the two of them, “It wouldn’t have been the best plan.”
“Well, yes, of course” Coran said. “But there’s so many traditions you side-stepped because of the emergency situation- typically, a Lion picks a new paladin before the old one is even dead!”
“It gives some room for the new paladin to learn the ropes, while the old one’s still there. Get used to the Lion, the team, everything like that,” Coran said. Then, he poked at Lance’s arm again. Lance whined, scrunching his face into something he hoped Coran could pity.
“We don’t really need to worry about that yet though,” Keith said. “We have it under control.”
Keith seemed to look at Lance for a response, and Lance shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’ll keep it in mind.” Despite his tone, he really thought he would.
After Coran was sure there was nothing more they could do for Lance’s range of movement, the two of them returned home to their tiny cottage on the cliff.
They had all started out all staying in the castleship, in their old dormitories, after they found a permanent, unoccupied planet to settle on. But as diplomats came to visit, and markets started forming, and then towns, everyone started to leave. Hunk was first, living in the center of the bustling marketplace, in an apartment with a living room that took up most of the place. Pidge moved out after that, to a room nearby, with an unperturbed view of the sky.
Shiro and Allura stayed at the castle, with Coran, and so did Lance and Keith, for a while. After years of both Lance and Keith dodging around commitment, they’d finally moved out of the castleship, and the various small dwellings outside it, to a tiny cottage they’d made themselves.
The cottage was small, more of a shack, really, with just enough to live in. Thick, naturally blue wood lined the outside, with a white trim to match. It stood near the edge of a cliff, just far enough away that erosion from the waves wouldn’t tear the place down in the years to come.
Inside the cottage, the bed lay in the living room, covered in quilts from Earth, the edge of the galaxy, and everywhere inbetween. He hadn’t seen much of his family, not since they’d made their last trip to Earth- they wrote, and talked over the long-distance communicators, but seeing was different. He kept the quilt close, and the memories closer, and he shared both with Keith.
A forlorn trunk stood at the foot of the bed, clothes piled on top. The kitchen was but a corner with stovetop, kettle, and an icebox, with just enough cupboards for dishes and a worn set of mugs. A tiny table hid in the nook next to the kitchen, with two chairs on each side, and five more folded up along the wall.
Unlike the sparseness of the rest of the place, they did have a generous bathroom. It was filled with soaps and scrubs and fluffy bath robes, one more worn in than the other. Keith could mock Lance all he wanted, but it was still a necessity, just as much as the speeder parked in the front. Keith appreciated it, more, as he grayed, but not nearly enough, in Lance’s opinion.
Shelves covered the wall in the bathroom and out of it, filled with knickknacks and unfinished wooden carvings. Every wall not covered in shelves for bathroom supplies or knickknacks, was as many windows as possible, and behind their thick glass, a view of the ocean waves.
Keith had hated that, the first week. The constant noise, droning on as a backdrop, and Lance hadn’t noticed since the same noise lulled him to sleep. It was only when he woke up to Keith with pillows plastered to his head, that maybe, this wasn’t the best idea.
They made it work, though-- new windows, for one, and whitenoise of the generator in the back room in the background helped, too. Keith liked the distance from the market, and Lance liked the climb down to the beach, so in a way, it was a compromise.
“Home sweet home,” Lance said, sing song, as he peeled off his shoes at the door and tossed them to the side. They didn’t make it very far, knocking against the wall and tumbling to the ground.
“Missed the basket,” Keith commented, and Lance tried to elbow him, with his decent elbow.
“I’m injured, ” he said, and Keith gave him a hard look. “Come on, if you’re going to give me grief about it, I might as well get the excuse.”
Lance watched as Keith’s face softened again, and he said, “Your elbow’s injured, you still could’ve made it.”
To prove his point, he tossed his own shoes in the basket himself.
“Kick a guy when he’s down,” Lance muttered, and Keith laughed.
During windy weather, the airships would land in the town. Their occupants would bring anything and everything to sell, filling the normally quiet markets with bustle, noise, and a bit too much commotion. Naturally, that’s when Lance dragged Keith for shopping. Keith would awkwardly weave between the the crowds and try to find something that could pass as edible to humans, as Lance ignored the task at hand all together and ventured to wherever caught his interest.
He was doing good, at helping Keith so far, but, as it always did, it ended.
“Exclusive here, folks, get your Blue Lion pendants here!” called a tinny voice from the edge of the crowd. Lance perked up, and Keith groaned next to him.
“I’ll go get the eggs,” Keith said. “You better be back in the hour.”
Grinning wide, Lance clapped him on the back in thanks, then meandered through the crowd to find the source of the exclusive Blue Lion pendants.
The shop with the pendants was tiny, shared with other artists equally vying for attention. Most had plenty of floorspace, but the seller he was looking for had just a corner, covered in tiny blue figurines.
They weren’t very good- the ears were much too big, taking up much of the Blue Lion’s face, with beady eyes in the center. The front feet were too small, and the back too large, and the back only had a bob of a tail. It looked more like a jackal than a lion, but each one had precise, tiny, initials at the bottom, varying from a tiny “E” to the the full name, “Est.”
“Would you like to buy one, sir?” yelled the tinny voice again, and Lance, surprisingly, had to look up. Perching on the top of a stool was a girl no younger than twenty, coated in thin, patchy fur. She had bigger ears than even the most impressive of the Galra; must be where she got the impression Lions had large ears from.
The stool wobbled, and the girl- Est, it must be- grabbed the side of her stand, nearly toppling over her merchandise. A neighboring stall hand scoffed, and Est glared, sticking her tongue out for good measure, as if nearly toppling into them was their fault.
Lance snorted, and picked up the largest of the pendants he could find. It had a chip in one of the ears, which was still much too large. He handled it carefully between his wrinkled hands, watching the girl’s expression.
“So, why the Blue Lion?” he said, trying not to smile too eagerly.
Est moved from her perch to sitting, knobbly knees hitting against the rim of her stool. “Blue Lion’s the coolest,” she said, and the stool wobbled again. She set a foot down, carefully, on the table in front of her, where the large pendant once lay. “He- the, the driver, pilot, whatever- he saved my home airship, when I was- like, ten years ago.”
Lance tried to remember the planet she was on, or what she was even referring to, but for the life of him, he couldn’t.
“And I’ve heard this- this is the planet,” Est swung her arms in emphasis, knocking into the artist next to her’s stall. She drew in on herself, and continued softly. “You know- the one, with Voltron, and the Lions, and- and, well, I’ve been making these since I was a kid, and I figured, this would be the place to sell them!”
Lance turned over the pendant in his hand carefully, looking from it to the others- if he looked close enough, he could see the age on some of the others, the rock cracking on the edges. Some looked less refined, the scratches shakier and the structure less finished.
One of them, in center stage, stood out as the newest. It shone bright and blue, and the little lion actually had a thin, jagged tail. Lance picked that up too, as well as one of the pendants hanging off the side of the stall.
“So, how much for the three of these?” he asked, and Est’s ears stood upright. The stool shook, and she finally had to climb down.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Um- the prices, they’re on the counter-” She moved some of the smaller lions, to reveal the smallest of price charts, tacked poorly on the table. Lance set down the figurines on the table, grappled in his bag for some credits, grabbed double the price, and handed it to the girl.
Est’s eyes widened, bigger than Lance thought eyes could get, and she yelled quick brashly, “You’re a big fan too!?”
She rambled on, still yelling, “Of the Blue Lion- or else- or else why’d you-”
“Of course I’m a big fan,” Lance said, before she could fluster more. “He’s the coolest, right? Best Lion, ice powers, dashing good looks-”
“I’ve always wanted to meet him,” interrupted Est. “To thank him, and everything, I thought maybe- maybe if I went here, I’d have the chance, and the airship finally needed to make a trip here, so I tried to get this stall-”
Lance barked a laugh, before he could stop himself, and Est’s ears turned back. “I’m sure you’ll meet him,” he cajoled. “It’s not a very large planet.”
Est looked at him, eagerly, and he noticed a swishing tail behind her.
“Really!? You think I will!?”
“Of course you will,” came a familiar voice from behind Lance, and Lance’s expression froze, and his right eye twitched. “The idiot you’re talking to is the Blue Paladin.”
Good things never lasted, and with Keith- sometimes, they were cut much too short. Lance gave a sheepish shrug, and set the two figurines into his bag. He couldn’t find the third pendant he set down, lost in the sea of Blue Lions, and with Keith, he probably didn’t have the time to look.
Est looked wildly between the two of them, then jumped back and knocked over her stool. “W-what?! I- I just- what?!”
“We have to go,” said Keith, pulling Lance by the arm. Lance could only smile wide at Est’s disappearing figure, watching as her startled eyes never left him.
When they collect their groceries and return home, Keith made sure to put their groceries away, however lopsidedly, and Lance turned the smaller, more polished Blue Lion over in his hand again. It was tiny, as if it had been carved down to the last pieces, but it shone bright in his hand. He wished he could’ve grabbed the smaller pendant, too, but the two he had would have to be enough.
“That doesn’t look like Voltron at all,” Keith said. Lance shifted over on the bed, allowing Keith the extra room. “Look, it- it barely has a tail.”
Lance huffed, still holding the tiny lion close to him. “At least it’s finished,” he said. He pointed his chin to the shelves, and their half-finished carvings. “You never finish anything.”
That didn’t entice a response- instead, Keith reached into Lance’s bag, pulling out the bigger, less finished Lion. He looked at the bottom, and traced his fingers over the engraved signature.
“We have more important things to do,” he said. “We’re not- we’re actually Voltron. We don’t have time to make tiny Lions.”
He sounded tired. Lance wondered, not for the first time, if Keith knew how to do anything but fight. Of course Keith did- they had their hand-built cottage, and his unfinished carvings, and the speeder in the front he’d tune. But maybe Keith was too single-minded on Voltron to see that himself.
“I guess,” said Lance, since he didn’t know what to say. At least not right now, lulled to sleepiness by the routine of the market. He stood up, taking the figurine from Keith’s hands. He set it on the shelf, next to Keith’s unfinished carvings and in clear view of the bed.
Keith stretched back, on top of the quilts. Lance pulled one from under him, hearing Keith groan as he did.
“Goodnight,” Lance said, softly, and Keith just shifted over, to make room in the bed.
In the middle of the night, Keith jerked awake next to Lance, and at first, Lance thought it was a nightmare. They weren’t uncommon, but by the lack of raggedness in Keith’s breath, and his utter stillness, it wasn’t that.
“Someone’s outside,” Keith said, fast and alert. He grappled at the side of the bed, propelling over Lance. “Hurry up- get a light.”
They stored the essentials by the door, shoes, lights, weapons. It was a comfortable cottage, but it could only be comfortable with precaution. Grabbing what they needed, both of them stalked into the night with more alertness than should be necessary during this moon-hour.
Keith looked to the ground for tracks, as Lance gazed through the trees. On the small enclave under the trees, they stored their lions, like giant, robot gargoyles, defending their tiny cottage from their perch.
Something rustled, in the trees. Keith’s gaze jerked toward it, and Lance followed his gaze and shone the light to where it lead.
Nothing- just a vole, two-feet tall on its hind legs. Nothing dangerous, and nothing they hadn’t seen before.
“Wasn’t that I heard,” Keith muttered, and continued on steadfast through the forest, Lance barely keeping up with the light.
Lance paused, sparing a look back toward the ocean, and at the cliff.
“Wait,” he called, and Keith turned his head back. “We should check the Lions, before we get too far out.”
They could defend themselves- it’s not like an intruder could do much to two awfully stubborn robot lions, especially on the cliffside. But Lance had a feeling, in the pit of his stomach, and he was going to follow it properly this time.
The two of them followed the small stone path leading to the cliffside, and Lance kept one hand on the side of the cliff, and the other on the flashlight. Keith did no such thing, following the path in stomps that, somehow, made little sound.
When they arrived at the alcove, nothing seemed off. In fact, Blue seemed- Blue seemed pleased, her normal gargoyle posture relaxed, head rested on her paws. Red, however, stood attentive as ever.
Lance shone the light in three passes along the cave, the stillness too quiet. Only waves hit the side of the cliff, sound reverberating against the walls of the cave loud and clear. Something else should be here, the scuffling of rodents or chirping of the nightbirds, but nothing in the cave moved.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he could see Keith watch him from his peripheral vision. Lance still couldn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean nothing was there.
Then, something in the back of his mind purred, low and rumbly. He jerked his gaze to Blue, with her head still placed on her paws. The reassurance settled him, not fully, but the tension in his shoulders fell and the light he carried drifted to point at the floor.
“They’re fine,” Lance said, voice so soft in the cave it didn’t echo off the walls. “C’mon, Keith, let’s get back to bed.”
Keith stared holes into the shadows at the walls, but as Lance left the cave, he followed. The purr in the back of Lance’s head only cut off when they were back at the cottage, wrapped up again in the menagerie of quilts on the bed.
The next morning, the communicator on the trunk of the bed buzzed once, twice, and then, buzzed itself on the floor. Lance made no effort to silence it, as it vibrated itself across the floor, but Keith pried himself out of bed and over Lance to the floor.
He groaned, from the floor, and Lance rolled over onto the warm bit of sheets Keith left behind.
Lance muffled a satisfied sigh into the warm spot, as Keith poked at the communicator to read its message. It raised his hackles, from the sound of his huff, and Lance blearily looked up at him from the satisfying bed nest.
“Another mission,” Keith said. “Desert, again. Going with the Black Lion- Allura’s piloting this time-”
“So I can go back to bed,” Lance said. He looked up at Keith, through bleary eyes, and could see the distinctive shape of a wrinkled frown. That wasn’t all Allura had said, then; they’d gone off on missions separately, before, and Lance could take a break from the desert sand.
Keith nodded, and poked at the communicator again. “She wants you to rest.”
His voice cut sharp, and Lance tried to wake himself up more for this conversation. Failing, he instead waved an arm at Keith, only a dull pain throbbing from his injury.
“Rest my lucky arm,” Lance said, “In this warm, warm bed.”
Keith sighed, loud and clear, and Lance closed his eyes again.
“I’ll be back in a day or two,” Keith said. He sat on the edge of the bed, weight shifting the mattress. “Don’t get yourself into trouble.”
Lance leaned up, and pressed his cheek against Keith’s back. “Mm, you either.”
With another heavy sigh, Keith stood from the bed and let Lance plop back down on the quilts. He grabbed the essentials- bayard, helmet, a fist full of armor- and left. Lance watched him, then listened until he couldn’t hear Keith over the rush of the waves, and tossed himself back over the warmth Keith left for him.
Lance got himself into trouble.
It wasn’t exactly trouble- but it wasn’t exactly calm. And, at the end of the day, Keith would toss it into the trouble bin faster than Lance could blink, so Lance could expect some huffs and aggressively cooked breakfast for a while.
Mid-afternoon the day Keith left for his mission, Lance had crawled out of bed, quilt still draping over his shoulder. He tossed it to bed, not bothering to pick up the corner as it trailed on the floor.
Chewing on some stale bread-ish food, Lance toed on his shoes and opened the door to an afternoon drizzle. Drizzle could be an understatement, as this planet did nothing in halves, and the rain reverberated off the roof of the cottage in a harsh tempo, and it pooled at Lance’s feet and in through the door.
He stepped out of the cottage, and shut the door behind him, to capture the dryness inside. Stretching and welcoming the weather, Lance walked down the path to the forest and chewed on his bread some more, sploshing the water in the puddles that pooled on the pathway.
By now, Keith had to have taken Red out of the lions’ cave, to whatever desolate desert he sought out. Still, Blue must remain then, and if there was anything to do on a rainy day, other than sleep, it was fly.
Lance kept his hand on the cool rock wall as he climbed down the stairs to the cave, footsteps careful on the slippery stones beneath him. It took more precision than the night before, with the slope drenched and nothing steady in front of him.
Eventually, he made it to the mouth of the cave, expecting the same scene as the night before. His lion, head on her paws, in alone in the cave and quiet as if she was sleeping.
He didn’t find it.
Instead, before his lion sat the girl from the marketplace. He hadn’t recognized her, at first- from the back, he couldn’t see much. But he could see her ears back turned, large and patchy, and around her lay several scratched stones, blue as the lion before her.
The Blue Lion had moved, again, head no longer on its paws. Instead, it stood tall and rigid, tail pulled in to her side and chin jaunting out straight and unmoving. She was- Lance couldn’t much believe it- posing. It didn’t look comfortable, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Inching forward, Lance looked to the scratched stones, and huffed a laugh. While they were malformed and unpracticed, the ears were right, this time.
The rain had hid Lance’s entrance, its pattering blocking out the noise of his footsteps, but it couldn’t hide his laughter.
At the noise, Est’s ears turned around to him, and her gaze followed, wide and startled. She leapt back, into the stub of Blue’s toe, and leapt away from that, too. The carving in her hand had fallen to the ground, and hit the floor in a quiet clunk.
“Um!” she said, before Lance could interject, “I was just trying to give you back- you forgot- but-”
She fumbled in the bag at her side, and pulled out the pendant Lance had left at the stall. She looked at it with her nose turned up, disdain pinching her expression.
“I asked around town, and they told me to go here, but last night- I- something out here-”
Lance looked to Blue as Est did, and a faint purr reverberated in the back of his mind. Apparently, Est had heard it, too, as she clenched the pendant to her tighter, fingers fidgeting around its strap.
“And I couldn’t give you this, not after actually seeing…”
She must have been here all night. That’s what Keith had heard, and why the Blue Lion seemed so calm. Lance tried to count the number of stones on the floor, but couldn’t. He had no idea how she managed to hide from Keith leaving, but she’d even stayed after that, carving away at the stone.
None of them seemed to be working out, and she seemed to realize that.
“That’s the Blue Lion,” Lance said. She blinked at him, then nodded, stiff.
Lance could feel the Blue Lion’s purr again, in the back of his mind, but fainter. It seemed to leave him, until the vibrations were but an echo. A familiar weight lifted off his shoulders, and while it felt bittersweet, he felt nothing short of a relief.
As Lance smiled wide, Est gripped the string of the pendant again. It shook in her hands.
“And kid, you’re her new Paladin.”
Est hadn’t moved, just stared blankly at the floor under her feet. She’d gripped the pendant tighter, pulling on the string until the pendant lay flat in her hand.
“I haven’t like- saved the world, or anything,” she said quickly. “I’m just- I’m just a shopkeeper, I don’t know anything about fighting.”
“I’m not retiring immediately,” Lance cajoled. “You’ll have plenty of time to learn the ropes.”
When Est didn’t respond, Lance added, quieter, “You don’t have to accept the job,”
Est’s eyes finally jumped up to meet his gaze. “I want to!” she said, eagerly, “There’s- there’s no problem.”
Her tail twitched as she fidgeted, moving her weight from side to side. There was a problem, somewhere- but Lance trusted the Blue Lion’s judgement to not poke at it, for now. He had time to poke the sleeping dogs later.
“I’ll do it,” she said, and Lance grinned.
Keith came home, only a day later, to a nest of quilts in the middle of the floor, dozens of tiny stone Lions on the shelves, and a pair of equally startled eyes boring into him. Est held Lance’s bayard in her hands, as Lance held nothing in his.
It didn’t take long to piece it together.
Lance watched, as Keith’s expression shifted from shock, to one of his more impressive scowls. He scowled with such determination and rigour, brow furrowed and frown holding terse and intimidating, that Lance had to be impressed. Lance wasn’t sure when he was privy to such an ornery smile last, but surely, this one overcame most.
Most in recent memory, that was. Maybe not back when they were on-again, off-again, due to a mutual series of missteps and mistakes, but certainly it overcame his pouting at Lance forgetting the groceries or breaking the speeder.
Est looked at Lance, ears pulled back.
“So, mean guy in front of you is the Red Paladin.” Est’s eyes couldn’t get wider, but they tried, twitching a bit before settling on their standard wide-eyed look. “His name’s Keith.”
Keith continued to scowl.
“Keith, meet Est, my protege.”
The scowl remained, even more pinched than before. “Lance,” he said, voice strained.
The three paused in silence, bayard set on the floor with a clatter. Lance tried to communicate something to get through Keith’s scowl- a nice, stern eyebrow furrow he learned from the very best- but nothing seemed to work.
Est tried to cut through the tension, with a sledgehammer of misplaced good intentions. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m- uh- the new Blue Paladin.”
Ordinarily, Keith would peel off his shoes and set his helmet down by the trunk of the bed, but he kept his shoes on and his helmet nestled between the crook of his arms.
“Okay,” said Keith, his tone souring through the word. He looked to Lance, now looking more uncomfortable than angry, but something still simmered beneath his expression.
Tension only left when Est did; Keith had made some off-comment about not even knowing where Est was from, and Est hadn’t thought of that either. With a rush of motion, she said she probably had to get back to her airship, and that she needed to tell her captain where she’d been, and an assortment of other, unintelligible words.
The door closed, but not all the way. It hit the door jam, and fell open again, rain splattering inside the house.
“This is the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Keith said. He watched the door, same grimace as before, as if that had been what offended him. Still keeping his gaze on the door, he set his helmet down.
Lance took in Keith’s profile, and the way his shoulders hung rigid.
“I’ve had worse ideas.”
Keith snorted, and some of the tension left. Not all of it- Lance could recognize that now, how Keith’s shoulders were drawn forward and his thin line of a smile not quite reaching as far as it could.
‘Okay- what about the time I tried to dump you mid-mission.”
At least that time, Keith laughed lightly, pulling off his gloves. He set them on the trunk, next to his helmet, and stretched his hands in front of him. He paused, staring at his hands, then drew them back to his sides.
“I still don’t know why you thought that was good timing,” Keith said, still investigating his own hands, running his thumb over his ring finger. “We weren’t even the only ones on the comms,” he added. “And-”
“-I know I brought it up, but it was to make a point, not re-live it,” Lance said with a wave of his hand. Keith still looked apprehensive, so Lance added, “Blue’s in on this one, this time; it’ll be fine.”
Keith didn’t expressly disagree; he just pulled a face of disagreement, and a noise of disagreement, but let the sleeping dogs lie. It looked like it took a lot out of him, and Lance clapped him on the back for the effort.
As the days passed by, the situation didn’t lighten as Lance had anticipated. Instead, it festered, and Lance could sense Keith’s disapproving tuts and huffs before he heard them.
Introducing Est to the other paladins had gone well- they weren’t as surprised, or against, the idea of a protege, even if they ribbed Lance for finding one first. Hunk and Pidge had taken to her fast, as she tried to keep up with their fast-paced conversation on the planet’s fauna. She didn’t keep up, not even slightly, but at least she tried.
Keith had taken to her like oil to water, eyeing her with the same suspicion of before. The most interest he showed was in her talking about the past, about the airship she traveled on, the planet’s she’d seen. It wasn’t a curious interest, but a probing one, making sure she held up to what she said.
Lance should address this- but there was so much to teach, that he found he didn’t have the time. Est’s airship would leave, soon, and he wanted to leave enough of an impression on her duty so that she didn’t leave with it, instead staying in the dorm of the castle ship with the Blue Lion.
Other than Keith’s intimidation, he thought she was taking to the idea of becoming the Blue Paladin. But Keith still stood, as prickly as ever over the idea, suspicious and unwelcome to the change.
For the most part, Lance ignored Keith’s disagreement, in favor of continuing training.
Lance had taken Est down to the shores, to show her the rockpools in the low tide. He’d been here before, with Keith, to collect starfish and blobby sea creatures in a bucket and release them back into the sea. Keith regarded the activity with much antipathy, but always came along anyway.
Keith never looked for anything himself, instead distracting himself by whittling on another inevitably unfinished carving as Lance enjoyed the water.
While Lance had thought Keith would stay back, this time, he hadn’t. After an hour of unperturbed time, Keith had stalked down to the shore, to sit on a nearby rock and whittle a carving.
He’d brought one of the sharper knives, the one with the intimidating polished point. The intimidating imagery contrasted with Keith’s normal beach wear, old cut-off jeans, ratty shoes, and a hat that covered his ears. Lance sighed and waved Keith off.
“Come on, ignore him,” Lance said. “Bringing that knife’s just cruel.”
Est didn’t look like she wanted to ignore him. Her tail swished from side to side, and she sent a glare in Keith’s direction every now and then. At one point, she stuck her tongue out at him, thinking he wasn’t looking.
It was Keith; of course he was looking. He just cut a deep slash into his latest carving, chopping off the unfinished vole’s ear. Then, he gave the piece a glare, as if it had been the cause of mistake.
Still, Est’s attention couldn’t stay on Keith for long. He’d become background noise, to the more interesting activity of prying poor, unsuspecting sea life from pools of settled water, just to set them back into the ocean.
After they’d collected and returned a fair bit of starfishes, Est had started giving Lance questioning looks. Whenever Lance caught her eyes, she’d look away to whatever was in her hands. When she was caught with nothing in her hands, Lance snorted.
“Something on your mind?” he asked, smiling as Est’s gaze darted to the sea.
“Um-” she started, trying to look back at Lance. She could only reach the starfish in Lance’s hands. Lance laughed lightly, looking at the starfish himself.
“Why’s your tattoo red?” Est said, her gaze no longer on the starfish in Lance’s hands, but the tattoo along his ring finger. It was just a small band, red and simple, but Lance tried to pull his hands away, nevertheless.
He looked to Keith, still whittling away at his piece of wood. Keith, despite his appearance of ignoring them, had to be listening to the entire conversation. Keith simply shrugged.
“He has a blue one,” Lance said. He set the starfish back down in the rockpool, and ran his thumb along the tattoo. “It’s customary, on our home planet, to exchange rings for weddings- but they’re kind of inconvenient. We can’t lose them, this way.”
“Oh! You’re together?” Est looked between the two of them. “Oh! Um, how, long have you been…?”
“Married for, uh, around twelve years,” Lance said. He hesitated, then added, “Together for twenty-one.”
“Twenty-seven,” pipped Keith.
Lance sighed, giving Keith a long, hard look. Keith stared at him back, then broke eye contact to smirk, and pretend to focus back on his whittling. He was chuckling- and Lance could not, ever, let this one slide.
“Why do I even bother,” Lance said.
Est looked between the two of them, bafflement clear on her face.
“Look- we’ve been dating steadily for twenty-one years, and only dating for twenty- five, the whole- you don’t start with the first kiss, and that wasn’t a kiss.”
“It was totally a kiss,” Keith said. “You’re just mad I made the first move.”
“No, nuh-huh, I’d been dropping hints for weeks-”
“You never made a move. ” Keith had set down his carving, forgotten and useless to him. He pointed the tip of the knife at Lance, as if that could even pass as a threat anymore.
“Your move stunk!”
Keith scoffed, still wagging around his knife like he would a finger. He knew the end of this one, as he always did, was a win for him.
“Twenty-seven,” Keith said conclusively, pulling himself up from his perch on the rock to return home, and Lance groaned.
Training pushed earlier and earlier in the morning, as Est sought to prove herself more and more. Lance hadn’t protested much. Well, he had complained about the dismal time of day before the sun rose, and about how morning people were the worst, but he hadn’t made a solid effort to stop.
They’d train down by the shore, before Keith even woke up. Mostly, when Lance didn’t bring along Blue, he’d try to teach her hand-to-hand combat. He wasn’t very good at hand-to-hand combat, he never was, but his ineptitude seemed like a reachable goal to Est. She’d throw herself into parries with all her strength, over-shooting more often than not. But when she hit, she’d hit, often leaving Lance with some new bruises.
Other times, when Lance brought along Blue, and he’d try to show her the ropes. This, he was much more proficient at, but Blue accommodated to Est well. It also helped that Blue liked the water, and didn’t mind taking an accidental nose-dive into it when Est hit the wrong lever.
Est had woken him up, knocking on the door before the sun even rose. Keith had groaned and kicked Lance in the shins with a muttered grumble of protest, knowing full-well the noise would end if Lance left. With as much alertness as he could manage, Lance pulled himself over Keith and out of bed.
It took less and less time, each day, to navigate down the the beach, even as the mornings started earlier and darker. Est knew where to go, and how to find the steps in the sprawling undergrowth consuming them.
“You’re going to have to give me a break,” Lance said. “It’s… there’s not even a sun out. I can’t even see my own two feet.”
Est peered at Lance, then in a movement Lance couldn’t quite see, lobbed something in his direction. It didn’t take much effort to dodge, Est didn’t have very good aim, but he still made an offended whine of protest.
“You can totally see,” she said, triumphantly. “It’s- if you couldn’t see that you couldn’t have dodged it.”
Lance looked to the ground; she’d thrown one of her pendants at him, one of the lions with elephant ears. It was an older one, chipped along the sides. The left ear had been chopped down to what could resemble a cat’s at the right angle, but was cut a bit too much.
“Quit being clever, it’s too early,” Lance said. He lobbed the pendant back at Est, his aim spot-on. Est fumbled her catch, and the pendant fell to the ground.
Kneeling down to pick it up, she looked at the pendant pointedly, then shoved it in her pocket. “Besides, you said today I could- I could test out your- the Blue Paladin’s bayard.”
That explained why she was overeager, a nervous ball of energy at too-early in the day.
“Right,” Lance said, digging in his pockets hoping it was there. It was- he had made a habit not to leave without it, even for training days. Gripping the handle of the bayard loosely, he revealed it from his pocket. Then, he swung it around one finger in loose, uneven twirls.
Est watched the bayard, wide-eyed as ever. When she finally seemed to relax, Lance tossed the bayard at her, laughing as she failed to catch that, too.
“You’re so mean ,” she complained. She held the bayard in her left hand, fingers drumming on the grip. She cocked her head, curious, as if absorbing all the bayard’s details could give her competency.
“Alright, now just-” Lance started, but Est had already gripped down on the weapon.
It had worked, the blue glow long and thin. Not a gun then- or hopefully not a gun. It could be a very long gun, but a very unreasonable one. Luckily, it wasn’t a gun, but a thin spear, pointed at one end with a thin splay of balancing metal at the other. The handle had shifted into a grip in the middle, on the balancing point of the spear.
Est seemed delighted, even though she couldn’t hold the weapon very well. She gave Lance a manic, toothy grin.
“That one’s cool, I just got a gun at first,” Lance said. “You can barely hold it with your- your tiny, chicken arms-”
That prompted Est to grip it harder, trying to pull it over her own head. She succeeded, but her legs wobbled. To hide that, she aimed the bayard at the ground and jammed it in the sand of the shoreline. It stood out of the sand, lopsided.
“It’s so cool,” she said. She prodded at the top in the sand. The tail of the spear stood out of the ground, metal bright and spiraling in a greenish shade of blue. It was more ornate, than any of the bayard weapons Lance had ever summoned, the detail almost artistic.
“It’s like a- a-” Est said. She paused, and her expression faltered. “Actually, it’s kind of…”
She poked the spear again, and it hardly moved.
“It kind of looks like a… like, an actual lance,” she said.
Lance snorted, covering his mouth to laugh, until he noticed Est giving the weapon a forlorn look. Her ears had pulled back, tips pointed toward the sand, and her eyes narrowed.
It wasn’t just a name- it was a mantel to live up to. Shoes to fill. Lance frowned, then gave the weapon a long, appraising glance.
“Looks more like a javelin to me,” Lance said. Est brightened, ears upturned. She gave the bayard another poke, and it shifted in the sand.
“Really?” she said.
“Yeah- go on, toss it, you toss javelins, right?” Lance motioned to the bayard with his chin. “I mean, I guess you tried to toss it. It didn’t get very far.”
Est huffed, tail puffing out. “I wasn’t trying to toss it!” she said. Despite her bravado, she didn’t seem miffed at the accusation. As much as she tried, she couldn’t hide the growing smirk on her face.
Gripping the middle of the javelin with both hands, she investigated the weapon, trying to figure out its weight. Then, with her left hand, she clenched the handle tight, and pulled her arm back.
“I bet you won’t be able to dodge this!” she said, and despite the threat of a javelin, Lance laughed.
As the weeks rolled on, everyone but Keith seemed to be on board with the idea of finding new paladins, too, with Hunk saying that maybe some of the market kids would be a good match, and Keith scowling when Hunk mentioned that.
To his credit- Keith had been trying, however reluctantly, to be a bit less ornery to the idea. It wasn’t much; he still regarded Est with the same derision a cat trusted a carrier. But at least he tried to keep a distance.
Distance could only quell his paranoia for so long.
In the mornings, Est would visit for training- it was more like Lance gossiping and telling grandiose stories of Voltron with some truth and some helpfulness- and this morning, Lance hadn’t woken up to her knocking. Only when Keith woke up for the door did he realize she’d already arrived, and had been trying to make conversation.
Keith had, as he always did, stalled by the kitchen, shoving a pan on the stovetop for breakfast. He wasn’t a very good cook- neither of them were- but he did learn how to not break the yolk in eggs. It helped, that the strange, green-tinted egg yolks of this planet were much more resilient than the runny yellow ones on Earth.
Keith didn’t know that, and Lance didn’t tell him. Keith was rather proud of his sunny-side up eggs.
The conversation wasn’t loud enough to reach over the sizzling of the stove. Only a whisper every now and then could be heard, mostly Keith giving one-word and even responses.
Eventually, though, something did stand out- and after one of them rose their voice, they didn’t stop.
“A couple months?” Lance heard Est squeak, her scratchy voice carrying through the room. “These are- you’ve been- you’ve only been wood carving a couple months?”
Something sizzled; Keith had placed an egg on the frying pan.
“He said I needed a hobby,” Keith said. His voice was softer than Est’s, but still raised. “So I got one.”
Lance rolled over, squinting to watch the scene. Est held one of Keith’s unfinished woodcarvings in her palms, and she had turned it over to the backside.
Keith never finished the backs of his carvings. He’d start one, for a couple days, then set it on the shelf as if that was the end of it. Then, after Lance dragged him to some mundane task he couldn’t keep his concentration on, he’d start another.
Est’s expression shifted, from probing to an ugly grimace, and an uglier pout. Her ears turned back, and she scratched at the back of the carving with the claw on the tip of her finger.
Keith’s carvings, despite being unfinished and unsanded, were good- unfairly so, Lance had to admit, for someone who didn’t see them as anything but an idle pastime. His figurines, mostly of the local wildlife, held careful markings and precise indents, looking near identical to their inspiration- or at least, the completed part looked identical.
“You don’t even put your name on them!” she exclaimed, her voice no longer lowered. Keith glanced, from her, to Lance in the bed, narrowing his eyes at the blanket cocoon Lance hid in.
“It’s- it’s-” Est said, her pitch raising. “These are all awful.” She slammed the figure back down on the shelf, and the shelf shook gently. She still caught another wood carving, as it fell to the ground, and returned it to the shelf. “You have- you have no talent, for this, these are all-”
Keith didn’t look at her; he looked at Lance, poking aggressively at the egg in the pan.
Help, said the look on his face. Lance did not comply.
Est looked to Keith, snapping her tail and her tone. “You should get a new hobby!” she said, then stomped out the door, not bothering to muffle the slam.
As soon as the shelves stopped shaking, Lance stretched out of bed, and Keith pointed an accusatory spatula at him.
“I know you were awake,” he said. The spatula shook, and gooey egg dripped off to the ground. “I told you this was a bad idea.”
Amusement fled, and Lance’s expression twisted into a small frown. “Come on, she’s just jealous- she’s not that bad.” He tossed the blankets from over him back on the bed, and twisted off the bed so his feet met the floor.
“We were worse,” Lance tried. Keith poked at the egg, much too aggressively, and then stared forlornly into the pan. Must have broken the yolk, yet again.
“That’s not the point.”
Lance scoffed, and dug his heel into the floorboards. He tapped his toes on the ground loudly, a couple times, before he said, “Then what is the point?”
The pan sizzled, and Keith took it off the heat. He poked at it a bit more, as if poking could fix the broken yolk, instead of just making it worse.
“I don’t know,” said Keith. He dug plates from the cupboard, and divvied the egg into portions. Keith knew more than he said. But something made him hesitate- uncertainty, or fear, a feeling Lance couldn’t follow.
Lance sighed, and stretched his arms. This wasn’t something he could prod at to fix. He didn’t even know where to start.
“You eat your mistakes,” Lance said. “I’ll go make sure she’s okay.”
Est hadn’t gone far. She’d made it as far as the start of the path to the Lions’ den, but no further. Instead, she seemed to be pacing, tail swishing from side to side as she fumed.
When Lance realized her pacing wasn’t going to end anytime soon, he interrupted her fuming. “Hey, kid,” he said. Est’s tail froze stiff, her ears turned back toward him. “Are you done pacing yet?”
“I wasn’t pacing,” she said quickly, before she’d even turned around to face Lance. Her ears still hung back, and she dodged eye contact like a personal mission. “I- wasn’t. I was going to go… I was checking on Blue.”
“You made it pretty far,” Lance said.
Est’s ears turned back even more, snarl on her face revealing pointed teeth. “I was getting there!” she said, adamantly. “I just didn’t- know if- I don’t know!” Her tail swished from side to side like a whip, but a whip losing its kick. “How can you even live with him he’s- he’s so-”
“He’s Keith,” Lance said. This didn’t quell Est’s frustration, and she kicked a lone pebble across the path. It careened off the edge of the cliff, too far to even hear the plop as it hit the ocean below.
She seemed to strain to hear the sound. When no sound came, her energy left, sapped out of her. She sagged her shoulders, scarl now a tight, small frown. With a huff, she sat down on the path, picking up another rock and tossing it off the edge.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “The Blue Lion chose me, right? That has to… that has to count for something.”
One, two, three pebbles she’d thrown off the edge of the cliff, and all of them were drown out by the sound of clashing waves.
Picking up the biggest pebble she could find, she gave it a good lob into the distance. “Why doesn’t he trust me?” she asked.
“Well,” Lance said, “He sleeps with a knife.”
Even the mere mention of Keith set off Est’s tail again. It flopped from side to side, kicking up dust. “I don’t want to work with him,” she said. “He’s the worst, he can’t- he doesn’t even- ugh!”
Despite emphasizing with the deep, unfiltered, and unexplainable frustration Est felt, Lance still laughed. He tried to hide it at first, but realizing Est’s ears could probably pick, he stopped trying.
“Don’t side with him!” Est said. “He’s such a- he’s so frustrating.”
“You know, he’s actually gotten a bit better,” Lance said.
Est huffed, turning away from Lance.
“Easy for you to say,” she said. “You’re the actual Blue Paladin. Of course that- being- of course he doesn’t bother you.”
Lance picked up the biggest rock he could, and tossed it over to Est. The sudden movement distracted her mid-speech, and she caught it between her hands.
“I’m not the Blue Paladin anymore,” he said. “Or not for much longer.”
Est toyed with the rock in her hand, tossing it from one to the other. It wasn’t a small rock, by any means, but she juggled it despite the strain. “I’m not- I don’t think I…”
“You’ll get there,” Lance said. “Try tossing that one.”
The rock made a satisfying plop at the bottom of the cliff, splash muffled from the waves but still audible.
Later that night, when Keith had cleaned up his misshapen breakfast and put together a reasonable if tasteless dinner, thrown together with leftover ingredients, Lance breached the conversation he should have breached earlier.
“You’re going to have to get along with her, sometime,” Lance said. “It’s not like she’s leaving anytime soon.”
Keith snorted, loud and derisive. He eyed Lance, doubt spread thickly spread across his face. He didn’t believe Lance at all.
“She’s not,” Lance repeated. When the doubt didn’t leave Keith’s face, Lance sighed, and leaned back into his chair. “Blue chose her herself.”
It was a hard argument to match; the appeal to the Lions’ sensibilities should work on Keith more than anything else, with the faith he placed in Voltron.
Keith broke eye contact, his steady disapproval wavering. “I don’t think you should be rushing into this,” said Keith.
“You’re one to talk,” Lance muttered, and Keith kicked his shin under the table. “And I’m not, ” Lance said. “We haven’t even taken her on a mission yet! This is like, snail-paced compared to what we did-”
“That’s not the point,” Keith said. “She doesn’t even know what she’s signed up for-”
“Oh, yeah, because that’s what you’re worried about,” Lance countered. With the opening he had, he added, “And it should be pretty obvious what she’s signed up for.” He motioned with his injured arm; there wasn’t much he could do to hide the marr he’d gotten in the desert, the scar creeping along his arm like a bad omen.
Keith eyed Lance’s arm, eyebrows furrowing. He bit the button of his lip, then looked back to Lance. “It’s not a good idea,” he said.
“You’re not giving me a good reason why,” said Lance. “Or an honest one.”
Keith opened his mouth, then closed it, expression dead-set. He never was much to impersonate a gaping fish, instead having the expression die fast to be replaced with ornery determination. “It’ll endanger Voltron,” Keith said.
Lance groaned, “You’ll endanger Voltron.”
Despite the retort being admittedly unwitty, this seemed to strike a nerve. Keith rubbed at the bridge of his nose with the meat of his palm, then stared dead straight at Lance again. He couldn’t seem to find something to say.
“We can’t do this forever,” Lance said.
Keith’s speechlessness disappeared, and he snapped, “I’m not retiring.”
“You’re going to have to-”
“I’m not, ” said Keith, with finality. “You’re not even that old,” he added.
He wasn’t; Lance could probably give it another decade, if he wanted to. That was probably the crux of the divide; Lance wanted this, and for whatever reason, Keith didn’t. Or, at least, he didn’t see why Lance would want it.
After a pause, Lance said, “I know. Do you want to do this forever?”
Keith wringed his hands, and didn’t respond.
It all accumulated, and like a towering rogue wave made from the overlap of smaller ones, it breached, fast and all at once.
Lance didn’t want to intervene; he wanted Keith to be reasonable about this, but reasonableness eluded him. Whatever he’d said the night before had just made things worse.
In the morning, at a truly unreasonable hour to be awake, Lance had gone out to the beach expecting to find Est. He’d catch her there training, in the early mornings, with what could amount to an approximate of her bayard. He’d try to catch her byj surprise to spar, and when morning came he’d let her try out the actual bayard.
However, that morning, Est wasn’t at the beach; Lance stayed by the shores, for a while, before heading back to the cottage. He’d assumed Est would be planning to meet him there, not at the beach.
Unfortunately, that assumption was correct.
He could hear the two of them before he could see them; the door was open, just a smidgen, enough to let noise out.
“Of course I know what I’m getting into!” yelled Est, her voice like scratching on a chalk board. “I’ve- I’ve talked to Blue, I know what-”
“You’re not the Blue Paladin,” said Keith. His voice was quieter, but with the edge of a knife.
Lance put his foot in the crook of the door, unsubtly knocking his shoes loudly against both the door and the frame. The door swung open, revealing both Keith and Est seething in the middle of the room.
Both of them turned to look at him, Est with a dramatic swivel and Keith with only a turn of his head.
Lance looked from Est, then to Keith, expression set into a frown. “Keith,” he said, “Calm down.”
“Come on,” said Keith. He stood rigid, arms crossed and posture tight. “This isn’t all fun and games.”
“I know that-” Lance tried.
“-we’re going to have to rely on her in battle, and you know how much one mistake can cost us,” he said. He looked pointedly at Est, then to Lance’s arm.
Some scars Lance’d show off, when he was younger, and others- others, he wouldn’t. This was one of those scars, mauled and ugly in a way that incited more impolite winces than fawning. It spliced his elbow in two, disfiguring the joint, and extended up his arm and to the base of his shoulder.
“It’s obvious how that happened, is it?” Keith continued. “That’s the kind of mistake that costs us, we can’t have a- a rookie on the team.”
It’s not like Est couldn’t put it together, but from the wide-eyed expression set on Lance, she hadn’t.
“You almost died, ” Keith said. The comment just set Est’s expression of wide-eyed panic into something worse.
“You almost die on like, a weekly basis!” Lance countered. “We haven’t even taken her on an actual mission yet, it’ll be fine, she’ll fully take over when I quit-”
“But you want to quit,” Keith said.
“Yes, I do!” Lance yelled. He pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes pinpointed on Keith.
Keith couldn’t seem to grasp that, mulling over the words with a furious expression.
Before Lance could even go through the motions of understanding, the argument stopped. The door slammed behind them; as they were fighting, Est had fled between them and out of the cottage. Despite the slam, the door didn’t shut all the way. Instead, it creaked open-closed-open-closed on its hinges, before settling on half-way open.
Lance had turned to give Keith a solid reprimand, but Keith’s eyes fixated on the door. His expression was lost, the door slamming grounding him back from the row.
“Go talk to her,” he said, voice strained. “I…”
Keith shook his head, opening and closing his mouth for something else to say. His shoulders sagged, and he shook his head a second time. “Nevermind, I’ll talk about it later,” he said.
Lance placed a hand on Keith’s shoulder, only for a moment, then left out the door.
Est had made it to the Lions’ cave, and Lance found her sitting on Blue’s left paw. Blue faced out the cliff to the ocean, and Est was watching the waves when she wasn’t rubbing at her eyes.
Lance tried to enter the cave quietly, but he didn’t manage it. Est saw him long before he could say anything, but she didn’t move. Instead, she just shrunk in on herself, eyes now set on the ocean waves.
She didn’t say anything, not even after Lance sat down next to her, on the lion’s paw. Instead, she sniffed, and tried to subtly look over at Lance. She wasn’t very subtle, and after Lance caught her gaze, she sighed and look forward.
“Your arm,” she said. She paused, then swallowed thickly. “I know that's happened before, you didn’t not say that, but…”
“It’s different seeing it,” said Lance. He placed a hand on his own elbow, over the scar that discolored it.
Est nodded, wrapping her arms tighter around her knees. “I’m not used to being afraid of things,” Est said. “I mean- I am. But I’m not used to be afraid of things that actually matter. ”
She sighed, setting her chin on her knees. Lance sat down next to her, watching her expression carefully as she looked off into the sunset.
“The airship attack, when I was a kid- I don’t actually remember it that well,” she admitted. “I was under the deck nearly the whole time, my mom told me to stay there. And I wasn’t…”
“I wasn’t happy with her, for ages, about that. I didn’t get a good look at Voltron, only- only the Blue Lion, when I snuck above deck, at the end of the fight. She was so mad, and I…” Est sighed. “I don’t think I really got why until now. I just thought it was really cool. And I thought being the Blue Paladin was- is- cool. But...”
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Lance said carefully. Est looked over to him, finally, and gave him a curt nod.
“I still- I still want to,” Est said. “I still want to pilot Blue, and she wants me to, and it’s been so cool, but it…”
Est wiped at her eyes again, corners watering again. Setting a firm hand on Est’s shoulder, Lance felt as some of her pent-up tension sagged.
“It took me a while to figure that out, too,” Lance said. Est’s ears propped up, curious, and her eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
“You- you’re lying,” she said, “You- you said you had to escape the Galra Empire from like, as soon as you found the Blue Lion-”
Lance waved a hand around loosely. “Well, I mean, I was flying a giant Blue robot lion no one I knew could ever even think about flying, even Keith,” he said, with a lopsided smile. “Especially Keith. It’s not like I really cared about the, uh, life threatening details.”
Est stared at him, mouth agape.
“I only realized that- this was bigger than I thought on our first mission. Our first mission, was to find the other Lions,” Lance said. “And we were trying to find Hunk’s Lion, for a while, I thought- I thought he was a goner.”
“It hadn’t hit me before then that this actually mattered, and not in a cool save the world kind of way. In a like, we’re putting something on the lines here, kind of way,” he said. Est had closed her mouth, but still stared at Lance as if he’d said something blasphemous.
The expression didn’t fade. Lance shook his head and continued, “The- the point is, I had no idea what I was doing, and I turned out great.”
“So I mean it when I say you’ll get there,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about… it being too much, you have the rest of Voltron to cover you.”
Est sniffed, but didn’t say anything, for a while.
“I don’t want to let them down,” she admitted. “I don’t want them to have to cover for me.”
“I’m not sure how to tell you this, but they have thirty years of Lion piloting on you,” he said. Est puffed out her cheeks, and looked away. “And they kind of know what they’re doing a bit more.”
“I thought you were here to help!”
“They’re going to retire eventually, too,” he said. “And eventually you’ll be the oldest one on the team, and you’ll be the one covering for the others.”
By the time he got back to the cottage, Keith had left. Sighing, Lance didn’t worry about it too much, and instead running himself a bath.
He’d insisted on the bathroom himself, making it as gaudy as possible since the bare minimum decor of the rest of the cottage left much to be desired. The tub was lined in tiles, most mismatched but almost all of them blue, sans the occasional shiny orange outlier. He’d set the tub himself, but still couldn't help himself from scratching away at the tiles and prying them off.
He wasn’t surprised, when halfway into the bath, Keith came in with just a knock of warning. Lance bleared at him from beneath a bed of bubbles, unwilling to pry himself from the tub.
“Sorry about, uh,” Keith started, cutting himself off before the most important bit, “Before. I’m sorry about before.”
Lance sunk further into the tub, waiting for Keith to continue.
“I know it wasn’t my place,” Keith said, and Lance splashed a good handful of water at him. “That’s not- that’s not necessary,” Keith hissed, and Lance splashed him again.
“It’s completely necessary,” Lance said. Before he could get another splash in, Keith grabbed his hand deftly.
“Ugh,” he said. “Your fingers are already pruning.”
“Not everyone takes power showers,” Lance said. He pulled his arm down, bringing Keith’s hand under the water with it. Keith had sat down next to the tub, on a tiny rickety stool he’d built himself. He hadn’t bothered fixing the unbalanced leg.
Keith shook Lance’s hand off, but kept his own hand in the tub anyway. “I was trying to apologize,” he said.
“By all means, continue,” Lance said. “You haven’t gotten very far-”
Lance spluttered, as Keith splashed a handful of bubbles in his face.
“Completely necessary,” Keith said, with a small smile. Lance huffed, and wiped the soap suds off his face.
After Lance cleaned the suds off his face, silence fell between them. Keith would drag his hand across the top of the water, making trails in the bubbles.
“You know what you’re doing,” Keith said. He shook off a clump of bubbles from his hand, back into the tub. “I… don’t.”
Despite the admission not revealing much, it seemed to take a lot out of Keith to say it. Like pulling teeth. His shoulders sagged back, and he continued to trail his hand in the tub.
“You don’t,” Lance repeated, trying to egg an actual response out of Keith.
Keith sighed, and he stopped trailing his hand in the water. Drawing it out, he shook off the suds, and scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, you’re fine with not being the Blue Paladin anymore,” he said. “I’m not sure on either of us not being in Voltron anymore.”
Water dripped, off of Lance’s hair and into the tub.
“We haven’t really done anything else,” said Keith. He was looking back in the tub, to the scar on Lance’s arm. The scar trailed all the way down his arm to his hand, and it nearly cut his tattooed ring in two.
“Keith,” Lance said carefully, sinking back into the tub, “We’ll be fine.”
Keith didn’t seem to buy it. He sat precariously on the stool by the tub, and it creaked under him.
“Voltron’s bigger than us,” Lance started. He watched Keith carefully, and knew the confused expression when he saw it. “We can't continue forever, that's- counter productive. It always seems like we're almost done but… defender of the galaxy isn't really a title that retires.”
“We have to quit sometime,” Lance said. Keith seemed resigned, and the stool teetered pitifully.
“But, uh,” Lance said. “We’ll be fine, we- we’re bigger than Voltron.”
A beat passed between them, and Keith said, “That’s cheesy. And your metaphors don’t work together.”
Lance splashed more soap suds at Keith, “It’s not cheesy, and they totally do, and-”
“-they don’t. They contradict each other.” Lance pulled himself out of the bath to look at Keith, worried he’d failed in his admittedly lackluster attempts at reassuring Keith.
He hadn’t; Keith wore a teasing grin, tension drawn out of him. “I get your point though,” he said.
Keith stayed in the bathroom until the tub water cooled to an unreasonable degree. He kept his hand in the water on Lance’s shoulder, until it had started to prune.
Keith at least tried, after that. He’d keep out of Est’s hair, and while he was probably still suspicious as he ever was, he spent less time deliberately antagonizing either Lance or Est. He’d roll his eyes, but Lance wasn’t about to take that small grace away from him.
It’s not as if either of the Blue Paladins were free from nonsense, at all.
Early in the morning, right before dawn lit up the shores, Est had come to the cottage as she normally did, but hadn’t asked for Lance. Instead, she’d banged on the door, charging in when Lance opened it.
“Red Paladin,” she said; she’d tried to mimic the severity of Allura’s tone, but it sounded silly from her, like a pair of shoes three sizes too big. “I’m challenging- uh- I’m challenging you to a race!”
“You’re challenging me to a race,” Keith repeated.
Whatever bravado Est had faltered under Keith’s unintentionally intimidating gaze. “I’m getting better at piloting,” Est said. Keith didn’t even blink. “And I bet- I bet we can beat you, totally. Easily.”
Keith looked at Lance, who simply shrugged.
“You realize Red’s the fastest,” Keith said. It wasn’t a statement of opinion; it was a fact.
“Yeah, and Blue-” Est started. She cut herself off, choosing to conceal whatever insult she had planned. “Blue’s better,” she finished instead. “She’s way cooler.”
With reluctance, Keith agreed to the terms; Lance had no doubt that Keith wouldn’t go easy on her. Even if he said he’d go easy on her, Lance knew as soon as Keith got into the race, he wouldn’t get out of it.
Despite Est being very adamant about the race and her inevitable win, she still requested Lance stay in the cockpit. He didn’t pry, just set up the comms and tried to hold on to the back of the pilot’s seat.
“Alright, Keith, you ready?” Lance said, watching Keith’s set expression in the commlink. Keith nodded, terse.
“Three,” Est said, already counting down. “Two, one-” she continued, her countdown uneven and tumbling forward. “Go!” she finished, then pulled the levers of the Blue Lion forward.
Almost immediately, the Red Lion overtook them, but instead of panicking, Est grinned, and dove the Blue Lion toward the ocean. Lance fell backward, with a crumpled slam on the floor.
“Lance, she’s going to get you killed!” Keith said, panicked, and Est had the gall to stick her tongue out at him.
“Nu-uh, there’s a shortcut, under the water,” Est said, grin excited and manic, “Under the cliffside, over there, and Blue’s better in the water-”
“Don’t tell him your plan,” Lance said. Standing up, he waved a hand behind Est’s head to make sure he was seen on the commlink.
“Fine!” she said. She glared at Keith through the commlink, then turned it off altogether.
“Est,” Lance reprimanded.
“Just hold on,” she said, tail swishing as she pulled the Blue Lion fully under the waves.
In the end, she still lost, but it was close enough for her to brag about it, and close enough that Keith was reluctantly impressed.
Lance had to cancel one of his and Est’s lessons, due to an incoming storm. The storms would hit the coast occasionally, causing waves to crash heavy and hard against the cliffside. They never eroded it enough for the cliff to crumble, but it wasn’t the kind of weather for flying or for sparing.
Instead, Lance waited it out in the cottage with Keith, wind noisily blowing around them. Some branches would bang against the windows, and they’d both jump, but the occasional branch aside, the cottage created a calm inside the storm.
Keith had been jumpier than normal, during dinner. He didn’t normally jump at lightning, but this time his concentration seemed scattered throughout dinner.
Lance didn’t understand why, until halfway through dinner. Without much fanfare, Keith grabbed Lance’s wrist, holding his palm opened. Then, he dropped something in the center of it, something small and cold.
Before looking down at the thing in his hand, he looked to Keith. Keith looked embarrassed, but he didn’t break eye contact. He only shrugged.
Looking in the palm of his hand, Lance found a small, wooden carving of a lion. The carving was cut from the same blue wood as the cottage. Every detail of the Blue Lion was etched on the surface of the figure, from the precise curve of her ears to the grooves of her tail. Most importantly, the statue was finished, a simple veneer of sealant over the Blue Lion.
Lance felt the grooves of the carving, then turned it over in his hand. Carved in the bottom, in precise strokes, was the smallest of initials, “K.K-M”
“Huh, you finally…” Lance trailed off, thumb
“It’s, uh, for Est,” Keith said, and Lance snorted.
“Listen,” Keith started, but was cut off by Lance’s snort turning into a laugh.
“Oh no no, you’re not giving this to her,” Lance said. “Oh, no, this is like, throwing down a gauntlet, like, if you gave this to her, I’d never be able to get her to do anything but carve Blue Lions. That’s all she’d do until either you died or she did, or her hands fell off. Actually, even then-”
“It’s not supposed to be a challenge,” Keith said, still looking affronted by Lance laughing at him. Unfortunately, Lance didn’t see this as a reason to stop laughing.
Lance waved his free hand around, keeping the small pendant gripped firm in the other. “I know, I know,” Lance said. “It’s just about the worst peace offering you could think of. You could’ve at least tried to make it less perfect. This is like, impeccable, this is the best Lion I’ve ever seen.”
It wasn’t like the competition was hard to beat, but Lance could bet this would blow any attempt out of the water. He ran his thumb over the initials on the bottom of the Lion again and smiled.
“You just want it for yourself,” Keith said.
“It’s for the good of Voltron that I keep it,” Lance said. “We can’t have the new Blue Paladin spend all her days carving stone, can we?”
“Lance,” Keith said. He looked at Lance desperately. “I’m- trying to- I’m trying .”
Lance set his free hand on Keith’s arm, thumb pressed at Keith’s elbow. “I know,” he said. “This is the first one you’ve finished.”
Keith turned his gaze to Lance’s free hand, to the pendant. Lance held it in a closed palm, string dangling toward the ground.
“I’ll give it to her when you retire,” Lance said.
“That’s kind of what I was trying to get at, that I…” Keith trailed off, then pinched the bridge of his noise.
“That I’m right,” Lance said. Keith gave him a withering look.
“You’re insufferable,” Keith sighed. “But you’re right.”
“Now that I’m right and you’re wrong, you should go find a protege too-” Lance started, and Keith groaned.
Keith gave Lance an attempt at a hard look, but it softened around the edges. “I’m not as lazy as you, I’m not going to be the second to retire.”
“Mmm, admit it, you’re just worried Red’ll reject everyone,” Lance said.
Keith didn’t respond, and the silence revealed that Lance had guessed right. Lance laughed, and after a pause, he curled the string of the pendant around his finger. Then, he leaned over and placed it around his own neck. He’d keep it there, at least, until Keith finally found his own protege. Then he’d maybe consider giving it to its intended owner.