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Lilac Sky

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Before

Shiro’s standing on the mound of dirt that barely counts as an incline when Keith walks out at sunrise.  He heads straight over to his best friend, who doesn’t even turn around.

“It’s good to have you back.”  Keith starts, resting his hand on Shiro’s shoulder.  The sun’s barely coming up, but that hasn’t stopped him from being wide awake before, and it certainly won’t now.

“It’s good to be back.”  Shiro’s about as awake as Keith is, which is a relief considering their adventure the night before.  He looks different, still the same Shiro as before but with a new scar spread wide across his nose and a white tint to his bangs that is absolutely not the result of being dyed.

“So what happened out there?”  Keith’s hand slips off, frown forming on his brow.  “Where…were you?”  He hesitates to ask, especially considering how recently Shiro woke up.

Shiro sighs, turning to stare at a patch of dirt somewhere in front of them.  “I wish I could tell you.  My head’s still pretty scrambled.  I was on an…alien ship.  Somehow I escaped.”  He sounds surprised, not that Keith can blame him.  The fact that aliens exist still isn’t acknowledged by most humans.  “It’s all a blur.”

He turns again to look Keith right in the eye.  “How did you know to come save me when I crashed?”

Keith struggles a moment, eyes drifting over Shiro’s new arm.  Alien technology.  “You should come see this…”  He gestures with his whole body, using the motion to turn and lead Shiro back to the desert hut.


 

Now

Keith’s feet hit the deck, and in a split second he’s already off and running.  They just came off the most important mission of their lives and yet his senses are tingling.  Something bad happened to Shiro, and he knows the itch won’t go away until he sees his best friend up close.

His breath comes out in harsh pants already, adrenaline keeping him upright as he sails past his teammates, too slow getting out of their own lions.  “Keith?”  Lance voice drifts into his ears, concern filling his very being, and the adrenaline kicks it up a notch.

The other four are hot on his tail before long, all of them running to the black lion, still lying disturbingly still.  The eyes are dark, no sign of movement inside or out.

“Shiro!”  He shouts, the name ripping itself from his throat as he reaches out mentally, willing the lion to open up for him the way he does when he calls for Red.  It does, and the four – no, Allura and Coran are with them already, making it all six – of them burst inside.  The doors into the cockpit itself take forever to open, long enough for Keith to calm his breath.  Patience yields focus.


“Shiro?”  Lance asks the second the door opens, caution in his voice as he steps forward.

Keith takes in the cockpit of the lion.  The chair is empty, the black Bayard shoved ceremoniously into the slot.  They all step forward anyway, as if Shiro had slumped far enough in the seat to be hidden from the door.  But even crowded around it, they can all see the same thing.  The thing Lance voices out loud anyway.

“He’s gone.”

Allura’s hands shake against the back of the chair.  She looks like she’s using it to support her weight.  Keith can’t see the rest of the team, his vision narrowing to a point on the Bayard, but he feels Lance next to him.  It’s a tingle, strongest at the base of his wrist, the sensitive skin hidden under his gloves. 

The place where his words are.

Everything around him is dark, the only focus he has left is the Bayard.  He itches everywhere.  He can’t breathe. 

Keith doesn’t feel himself sink to the ground, but he does feel when two hands come to rest on his shoulders.  There’s an overwhelming sense of worry, fear, but deeper than that is an undercurrent of calm.  Keith grasps at it, desperate, and pulls himself back to reality with some effort.

Coran and Allura are nowhere to be seen, but Pidge and Hunk are still there, faces averted in what he can clearly read as discomfort, even in this state.  In front of him, far too close for his sanity, Lance is leaning in, eyes searching his own.  “Keith?”  He asks, a spike of concern hitting Keith square in the chest.  “Buddy?  You ok?”

He looks away, needing to see anything but Lance.  He settles on the Bayard again for a second, but his anxiety kicks in again.  Another shot of worry hits him and he turns his head, focusing on Pidge instead.

Their hair is sticking out in a permanent state of helmet head, a look he’s gotten used to over their time in space.  The familiarity of it comforts him.  Partnered with the calm pulsing beneath his skin, he manages to bring his breathing back to normal.

Keith brushes Lance’s hands off, surprised at how easily they fall away.  He ignores the blue clad hand offered to him, using the chair to help him stand instead.

“Keith?”  Lance says his name again, the nagging unease still present in his words and posture.  Keith ignores him.

“Pidge, I need you to hack into…Black here and get a full log from the battle.”  He goes straight into pretending to be the leader, emulating Shiro as best as he can.  As long as he keeps moving, as long as there’s a plan, he won’t break down again.

Confident in his ability to walk a solid distance without collapsing, Keith steps away from the chair, heading out of the lion.  The spluttering behind him indicates that Lance isn’t letting him off this easy.

“Keith, wait!”

He ignores it, the way he’s been ignoring Lance since the moment he realized something was wrong with Shiro, letting the doors slide shut behind him.  He’d take off running again if his legs weren’t shaking so bad.

“Keith!”  Lance’s voice is closer than he expected.  He’d gotten too lost in his head.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”  The words roll off his tongue easily.

Lance’s hand is on his shoulder, pressing its deceptive warmth down.  The tightening of Lance’s fingers paired with a jolt of anger are Keith’s only warnings before he’s jerked around to face the blue paladin.

He stumbles, off balance on his shaky legs.  Lance’s hand holds him steady, keeping Keith upright seemingly without effort.

“You really need to calm down.”  Lance is frowning as he speaks, perfect skin marred by temporary frown lines.  Keith focuses on that rather than the view behind Lance.  He’d been flipped around to face the black lion again, still as dark and unmoving as it was five minutes ago.

Lance, in contrast, is dynamic and alive.  His gaze is focused on Keith, eyes flitting between his as if searching for something.  A year ago he wouldn’t have believed the blue paladin was capable of such depth, but time has a funny way of changing things.

His wrist itches.

“We’re going to find out what happened to Shiro, and we’re going to get him back.”  Lance promises.  There’s nothing but earnestness in his expression, honesty in his emotions.  Keith wants to believe, wants to scream, wants to collapse into Lance, wants to spit in his face.

His body doesn’t listen to him.  His shoulders release their tension, dropping from where he’d been unknowingly holding them stiff.  He opens his mouth but has nothing to say, so he closes it again, fully aware that he’s gaping like a fish.

Keith’s eyes flick back to the black lion, leading Lance’s there with the movement.  In a moment, Keith feels the paladin stiffen, the clench in his own stomach.  Guilt, he realizes belatedly.

“We should probably shower.”  Lance says, turning Keith effortlessly again, away from the lion this time.  “And get ready for dinner.  I’m sure Coran has…something for us.”

He’s chattering, rambling to distract him.  Keith nods, the wave of pure calm hitting him again.  He takes a deep breath, not resisting as Lance leads them out of the hangar. 

Lance may have talked the entire way to the showers, or he may have been completely silent.  Keith isn’t sure.  He loses himself in empty breaths as he walks, letting the familiar hallways ease him into a false sense of security.

“I’ll come get you for dinner,” Lance promises, voice dragging him back to reality.  He leaves Keith at the entrance to the showers with a pat on the shoulder and a wave.

He has no idea how he got here.

Showering is the furthest thing from Keith’s mind, but with the lack of alternatives popping up in his imagination he gives in and heads inside.  Despite it being immediately after a mission, there's no one else in here.  Lance had already walked away, but even Pidge and Hunk are mysteriously absent.

He pushes it from his mind, thoughts dangerously close to veering back into panic mode, and turns on the shower.  Lance had waxed poetic about them their first week here.  “Instantly the temperature you ask for, no waiting necessary,” he’d fawned.  His face had glowed as he'd talked, growing more animated until Coran had interjected his two cents about the recycling system of the water.  At the time Keith had laughed along with Pidge, poking easy fun at the blue paladin.  Now, though, he reaches for the memory as a crutch.

It anchors him as he strips out of his paladin suit, setting it down piece by piece.  The gloves come off last, as they always do.  He’d never been particularly fond of his hands, but his soulmate’s – Lance’s – tendency of writing on the sensitive skin on his inside wrist cinched the deal for him. 

Now he’s never without his gloves if he can help it.

The shower is hot immediately, but Keith tests it anyway, body moving through the motions automatically, before he steps in.  He lets the water fall over his shoulders, zoning out at the glass in front of him.  Panic doesn’t take over again as he focuses on his breath.  In for three counts, hold for two, then out for four.

Keith itches his wrist absently.  Today’s words are already fading.  I’ll definitely find you, even if I have to search all the stars in the sky.♥  He read them ten times this morning before they left on their mission, etched them into his memory.  Now, twelve hours later, he’s trying to purge them from his skin the same way he’s trying to purge the whole mission from his memory.

Keith struggles to keep himself here in the present, but the more his mind wanders, the closer it gets to Shiro.  Shiro.  Fuck, though what is he going to even do

Counting his breaths isn’t working anymore, thinking about Lance’s stupid daily words isn’t either.  Nothing is helping because Shiro is just gone.  Again.

He’s lost in his head again, brought back only by the sharp sound of knocking on the bathroom door.  “Keith?  Buddy?  You ok in there?”  The bubble of worry is back in his chest.

Keith jerks his head up, staring through the glass at the door.  If Lance walks in and sees him like this he’s not…he won’t…

“Keith?”  Lance’s tone changes, the bubble of worry erupting into a different shade of panic.  “Are you alive?”

If he doesn’t say something, anything, Lance is going to open the door.  “I’m fine.”  Keith chokes out, voice a pitched higher than he’d meant.  He stands up, stepping further under the stream just in case Lance walks in anyway.  “Just finishing up.”

The emotions in his chest fizzle, morphing together into something Keith can’t quite name.  “Alright.”  Lance might be on the other side of the door, but the distrust is clear in his tone.  “Coran said food’s ready as soon as you finish.”

“I’ll be right there,” Keith promises, shutting off the water.  Shit, had he been in there that long?

He opens the glass with a hiss, a burst of air drying him most of the way off.  He usually brings a towel to keep his hair from dripping down his back, but this time he doesn’t have anything, having come straight from a mission.  Dammit.  As if he doesn’t already have enough to deal with.

“Lance?”  He calls out, barely loud enough to be heard on the other side.  Half of him hopes the blue paladin has already left for dinner, but he knows better than to hope too much. 

Especially when he can feel Lance’s emotions still.

“Yeah?”  Lance responds almost immediately, tone eager.

Keith pushes down his own shame, his own emotions still present enough despite their proximity.  “Can you get my clothes?”

Confusion, realization, then…embarrassment?  All three feelings flood through him in rapid succession.  “Uh,” Lance clears his throat, the embarrassment still humming under Keith’s skin.  “Yeah sure.  Be right back.”

He hears footsteps moving away from the door.

Keith closes and opens the door to the shower itself while he waits, the rush of air drying him completely before Lance gets back.

Lance knocks twice on the door.  “Keith?  I have your clothes but, uh, I don’t think I can just crack this open and slip them inside.”

He gets out of the shower finally, shaking the last traces of dampness from his hair.  “Just close your eyes then.”

His heart jolts, a flush of something as Lance hesitates.  “Alright.”

Keith presses the button, letting the main door open with a hiss.  Lance lets out a squeak, but as the steam clears out of the room – Keith hadn’t realized it was that warm – the blue paladin is holding out his clothes.  His eyes are closed, covered by his free hand and his body is half turned away.  There’s a flush across Lance’s nose, pink against the usual brown, so he snatches his clothes and steps back into the room, forcing the doors closed again.  The sudden movement has his heart stuttering, so he focuses on taking a few calming breaths.

“Are you decent?”  Lance asks after a beat, squeak still in his voice.

“It’s been ten seconds, Lance.”  He growls, tugging on his pants with more force than necessary.

Arguing with Lance is normal, and normal is exactly what he needs right now.  Keith pulls on his shirt and shoes, opening the door to face the music, but this time the blue paladin is standing there with his back fully to him.

He sighs in exasperation, resisting the urge to kick Lance’s foot.  “Don’t just stand there,” he argues just to keep their argument going, keep things normal.  But Lance doesn’t bite.

“Come on.  Everyone’s waiting.”

Everyone. 

Keith freezes again, barely two steps out of the bathroom.  It’s a punch to the gut that an hour has hardly passed and already he’s forgotten about Shiro.  Ice creeps up his stomach to his chest.

He doesn’t realize that he’s stopped walking until he feels warmth on his shoulder once more.  Keith looks up, eyes meeting Lance’s.  He both sees and feels the worry in them, concern and pain and depth he would’ve never expected from the blue paladin.  Lance is a mess of contradictions that Keith doesn’t want to explore, but the weight of his hand is the only thing keeping him tethered to the floor of the ship.

“We’re going to get him back,” Lance promises again, punctuating the words with a squeeze of his fingers on Keith’s shoulder.  He has no reason to trust Lance, no evidence that the blue paladin can pull through and really do what he says he can.

And yet.  It calms him.

Patience yields focus.  He reminds himself, imagining the words in Shiro’s voice.  He closes his eyes, focusing on his breathing.  Lapsing into another panic attack isn’t going to get Shiro back any faster.

When he opens his eyes again, he’s calm.  In control.  Keith gives Lance a nod.  Lance nods in return, giving his shoulder one last squeeze before releasing him to the cold air of the castle around them.  Together, the two of them head into the dining room for a subdued dinner.


 

Five days pass and Pidge still hasn’t found anything.  They’re all getting antsy, tones sharper than normal.  Lance forces himself to keep to his daily beauty routine, normalcy ruling supreme while the world around him apparently turns to shit.  It’s easy in theory, muscle memory taking over, but at night he lies awake for hours.

He’d thought it would get better as the days passed.  That searching for Shiro would turn into their new normal.  But after five days of Pidge not finding anything, tensions are wearing thin around the castle.  Lance can feel it in the empty hallways as he walks through them, in the kitchen where he hears someone – Hunk or Coran – cooking quietly and alone.  He sees it in the line of tension across Pidge’s shoulders when he passes the black lion’s hangar.  When he reaches the bridge, he can almost touch the tension, it’s so palpable.  He’s surprised he doesn’t choke.

Allura is the only one he sees in the room, back to him as she scans through the universe.  Literally.  “Princess –“

“Not now, Lance.”  She interrupts, not even giving him a chance to finish his sentence.  “Go help Coran.”

Allura doesn’t turn to look at him, instead flipping through the giant map of the universe around her.  She’s searching for Shiro in her own way.  Aside from Pidge, Allura’s the only one of them who can conceivably do anything.  Lance is worthless at this. 

He can’t even worry properly.

“Yeah.  Let me know if you need anything.”  Despite not being able to see her face, he can guess she has bags under her eyes that match the ones he’s seen on the rest of the team.

The princess waves her hand, dismissing him wordlessly.

So the bridge is out.  He’d tried helping Pidge on Day 2, but they’d thrown him out after less than 10 minutes of him hovering, trying to help.  Hunk could be anywhere; if he didn’t want to be found he could make that happen.  Lance had learned that the hard way back in the garrison.  It’s always best to leave Hunk in peace until he calms down.

That leaves Keith.  Lance isn’t particularly looking forward to confronting the red paladin because yes, it would absolutely turn into a confrontation.  Keith’s been training too hard lately.  Lance had figured it out on Day 0 when Keith had a full blown panic attack in the black lion.  Keith’s just as worthless as he is at finding Shiro, and the way he’s decided to go about it is apparently by working himself into an early grave.

The whole situation pisses Lance off to no end.  He let him go almost five whole days without a confrontation, but if Allura is sending him away then fuck that.  Shiro is gone, the team is falling apart, and he’s pissed.  In fact, a confrontation with Keith about his obsessive training regimen sounds like exactly what the doctor ordered.

Lance heads straight for the training deck, no longer needing to bypass the area now that he’s ready and willing to get into this fight.  Fuck Keith, he’s already mad.  Even if the red paladin caves and admits he’s being an idiot – unlikely – Lance is going to punch him square in his fucking perfect jaw.

He stomps as he walks, righteous anger fueling his pace.  The halls are predictably empty, sounds from the training deck echoing through them.  They’re loud even here, crashing growing louder as he gets closer.  Lance doesn’t have to be able to see inside to know exactly what’s happening, but the visual image solidifies it for him.

Keith is battling not one, not even two, but three – three – of those robots.  From where he’s standing in the doorway, frozen in disbelief, Lance can see the sweat at the nape of Keith’s neck.  His stomach flips uncomfortably and he curses as he pulls out his Bayard, forming his trademark gun.

The robots have Keith surrounded, and while they don’t appear to be striking to kill, they are wearing him down noticeably.  Keith is focused on the two in front of him and completely misses the move the one behind him makes, bringing its staff down right between his shoulder blades.

Or it would have, if Lance weren’t standing there. 

He doesn’t stop to think, just takes aim and pulls the trigger, breathing out as he shoots.  The gun lets out its little pew, shooting its laser directly at the back of the robot’s neck.  The machine crumbles to the ground before it can make contact with Keith, its staff cluttering uselessly off to the side.

But Lance can’t celebrate just yet; Keith clearly heard his entrance and has turned himself to face Lance, slack jawed.  The action gives the two other robots attacks of opportunity, and Lance has to shoot them both in rapid succession.  He misses hitting the second one square in the eye-hole, but it crumbles regardless.

“What,” Keith pants, “the hell?”

Lance blows off the imaginary smoke from his gun, dispersing it back into handle form.  “I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘thanks Lance, you’re so great.  The very best in fact’.”  He corrects, stepping onto the deck and letting the doors slide shut behind him.

“No.  I think the phrase I was looking for is ‘what the hell’.”

Irritation flares in Lance again, mixed with a sick satisfaction.  He’d wanted a fight and Keith is clearly not going to disappoint him.  Excellent. 

“I get that the whole training yourself to death thing was taking too long, but if you really wanted something faster it would’ve been nice if you thought about who has to clean up after you.”

Lance is pleased to see his own irritation mirrored in Keith’s glare.  The red paladin hasn’t dropped his Bayard’s form yet, gripping the handle stubbornly in his gloved grip.  “What are you talking about?”

“This!”  Lance gestures around, flinging his arms dramatically.  “You knew I’d be the one to walk in and have to mop up your blood!”

To his surprise, Keith actually wipes the back of his hand across his jaw.  He examines it with a squint, as if trying to find a trace of blood on the back of his glove.  The ridiculousness of it all startles an incredulous laugh from Lance’s lips.  “You’re kidding me, right?”  He asks Keith, taking another step forward.

His Bayard is back in handle form, but that could easily change.  He’s not sure he likes the idea of a distance vs melee battle though.  If he misses, he could actually hurt Keith, and although he’s here for a fight, he’s not really looking to do more than maybe make the red paladin’s lip bleed or give him a bruised jaw.  ‘Course, if Keith gets up too close, Lance is shit out of luck.  Aside from Shiro and Allura, Keith is the best at hand to hand combat, and his sword is no joke.

So Lance does the next best thing.  As if he planned it, he sets his Bayard down on the ground and walks over to the nearest robot, the one he shot first.  He scoops up the staff and feels the weight of it in his hands.  Lance knows he’s not particularly good at close range battle, but this is easier for him than true hand to hand against Keith I-think-I’m-a-ninja Kogane.

“Come on, pick one up.”  He uses his own staff to point towards the other two robots.

“What?”

Lance points more aggressively, jabbing the staff forward.  “Pick up a staff, idiot.  If you want to get beat up so bad, I’ll do it for you.”

He half expects Keith to argue more, for their battle to be predicated with a pre-battle ‘are we gonna do it or not’ argument.  But Keith shuts his mouth, juts out his jaw, and scoops up the nearest staff.  He tosses it between his hands once, settling into a stance that looks easy, natural.  “I don’t think I’ll be the one getting beat.”

Lance recognizes the challenge in his voice and quirks his lips up in a smirk.  It’s as close to the old Keith as he’s seen in five days.  He adjusts his own stance to mirror Keith’s; Lance is nowhere near as practiced in this, but they’ve done more than one staff exercise as part of their group training.

Lance runs at him first, before Keith can get the chance.  The red paladin might be known for being a hot head, but Lance can give him a run for his money when it comes to moving without thinking.  He lashes down with his staff, a straightforward whack that Keith blocks easily.

Keith counters with one of his own, using his staff like a sword with arcing swings.  Lance blocks the hit with some effort, the weight of the hit evidence of all Keith’s strength training.  He uses shorter swings for his own hits, not aiming for anything too creative, and Keith parries all his blows.

Lance catches the wild look in Keith’s eyes, the only warning he gets before Keith flips his staff over, coming at him from below.  Lance throws himself bodily to the side, flipping over himself and holding tight to his own staff before righting himself.

He’s barely regained his footing, but Keith is already running at him.  The red paladin swings at eye level, and Lance ducks, feeling the air whoosh above his hair.  Right now, he’s thinking maybe challenging the guy who does literally nothing but train to a sparring match was not his best idea.

Keith swings again, faster than Lance can properly react, and he barely gets his staff up in time to redirect the hit.  He doesn’t block the blow, remembering the strength behind Keith’s last attack, instead twisting his staff so the weight is redirected.  It’s clearly the right move – the red paladin’s eyes widen as he stumbles, not having expected that.  Lance mimics Keith’s earlier move, flipping the staff around and whacking him on the butt.

“Gotcha.”  He smirks, internally high fiving himself for having actually landed a blow.  And the first one, at that.

Keith catches himself, turning his sweat soaked face at him with a growl.  Lance takes a physical step back at that; Keith does not look happy.  He doesn’t even look human, the anger in his eyes more like the Galra they battle.

Keith comes at him fast, body low and grip on his staff so tight Lance can see the whites of his knuckles.  The feral anger in his eye is what freaks out Lance the most, making him scramble backwards.  His heel catches on something – the robot he’d forgotten about – and he stumbles just as Keith jumps.  By luck, he manages to catch Keith’s staff on his own, hooking it underneath.  He falls, clutching onto his staff for dear life, and the momentum of it causes Keith to flip over his head.

The red paladin goes flying backwards and there are two thuds; one from Lance hitting his ass on the ground and the other from Keith’s own fall.  Lance lies there gasping for air before tilting his head to look at the other paladin.  Keith had dropped his staff somewhere mid-flight and is just lying there on the ground looking as winded as Lance feels.

Overall the fight didn’t even last a full minute.

Wincing, Lance forces himself into a seated position, finally letting the staff fall.  Admittedly, this had been a terrible idea.  One of his worst.  But he does feel a little better.  Keith, on the other hand, looks like shit.

He has circles under his eyes, and his skin’s paler than normal.  He’d looked tired when Lance had walked in, geared up for a fight, but now he looks…destroyed. 

And a little pathetic. 

Lance forces himself upright, feeling the beginnings of a bruise on his tailbone from the fall, and walks over to the red paladin.  He means to offer his hand, help Keith up, suggest – kindly – a shower and sleep.  And probably food.

Actually, come to think of it, Lance can’t remember seeing Keith join them for a meal since he’d forced him to join them for dinner the first night.  No wonder he looks like shit.  He probably hasn’t had a decent meal or a full night’s sleep in nearly a week.

But Keith brushes the hand away as soon as it’s offered, pushing himself off the ground and swaying right into Lance’s side.  Lance manages to catch him, but Keith’s heavier than he looks, and he lets out an “oof” as he rights himself.  Keith smells of sweat and steel and the stench of the training room, but it’s not as bad as it should be.  Before Lance can get a second whiff to figure out why, Keith’s pushed off of him.

“Don’t touch me,” he growls, swaying again.  Lance reaches out to support him, but Keith smacks his hand away.  “I said don’t touch me!”

Really?  Lance isn’t supposed to be the reasonable one here, but the entire goddamn castle is moping while they’re all in standby mode waiting for Pidge to come up with some kind of magic cure-all, and he is so fucking sick of this shit.  “At least let me help you get to the kitchens,” he grits out.  It feels a bit like poking a bear, but fuck it.  Keith isn’t the only one who’s tired and upset and missing Shiro.  All of them are acting like they’re the only ones who care but they all care, and Lance is starting to feel like he’s the only one who sees it.

“I don’t need your help,” Keith insists, and Lance is done.

“Are you fucking kidding me Keith?”  He stomps two steps, closing the distance between them, and grabs Keith’s shoulder, spinning him around.  The fact that Keith is so easy to maneuver should give the red paladin a clue, but apparently he can’t take a fucking hint. 

“Believe it or not, you’re not the only one in the castle who misses Shiro and can’t do jack shit about it.  Surprise!  Everyone misses him and the only two people capable of doing anything are Pidge and Allura and my guess is they both sent you away same as they did to me.”

Keith’s eyes widen a little in surprise.  He opens his mouth to say something, but Lance barrels on before he can.  “And I wasn’t kidding when I said that you’re training yourself into an early grave.  Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately, Keith?  You look like absolute shit – no let me finish – you look like shit, and I’d bet my entire life’s savings it’s because you haven’t been eating or sleeping.”

Lance pokes him in the middle of his chest.  “Seriously, do you have any idea what day it is?  I’d tell you, but I’m still not sure how to read calendars out here, so instead I’ll give you a hint: it’s been five days since Shiro went missing.  Almost a full goddamn week, and you have been training almost the entire time.  So before you keel over right here and right now, we are going up to the kitchen where I am going to watch you eat or so help me, I will force feed you myself.  And then you are going to take a shower, because you reek, and then you are going to go to bed or at least lie there in the dark for a minimum of eight earth hours because you are freaking me out.  Kapish?”

He expects a fight from Keith, expects him to shove him away and repeat that he doesn’t need help so that Lance will be forced to resort to stalking him until he collapses for real.  But the red paladin is always full of surprises, and today it’s the way he sags into himself, eyes dropping to the floor in embarrassment.

“Okay,” he agrees so softly, Lance almost asks him to repeat himself.

“Okay?  Okay!”  Lance nearly jumps for joy, because for the first time in forever, he’s actually doing something helpful.  And for Keith of all people.  “Food first,” he reminds, spinning Keith towards the door.  He keeps one hand on his shoulder because he still doesn’t fully trust Keith to not duck away and run back to the training deck, but Keith shuffles forward surprisingly obedient.

He guides Keith back towards the kitchen first.  Because yeah, the guy totally stinks, but whenever Lance is as exhausted as Keith looks he passes out the second he gets back to his room.  So the room is the last item on his agenda.

“Anyway, I don’t think that was really my best moment, but we should do it again anyway.”  Lance jabbers on as they walk, mostly to keep Keith awake.  He’s performed the same duty for his sisters back on Earth; it comes second nature to him.  Out of the corner of his eye, he spies the twitch of Keith’s head towards him, so he barrels on.  “Sparring I mean.  Obviously I’m the sharpshooter of the team, but I can’t always rely on you guys to watch my back.”

He sees Keith swallow, his throat working with a click, and realizes he’s staring.  Lance clears his throat and looks forward again, cheeks and nose pink.  “You want to spar.  With me.”  Keith doesn’t ask it as a question, just states it incredulously.

“Sure, why not?  It’s not like we have anything…better to do.”  He trails off at the end, mind finally catching up to his mouth.  Ok so that was definitely the wrong thing to say.  His brain whirs, trying to backtrack, but nothing quite comes to mind.

“Yeah ok.”

Lance whips his head around so hard he cricks his neck.  Keith isn’t glaring.  He doesn’t look angry at all, actually.  “Ok?”

“Yeah…ok.”

Lance is a little too distracted by that to notice where they are and nearly walks smack into the door to the kitchen, an action only prevented by it opening on its own.

“Whoa, sorry about that.”  Hunk sidesteps, his eyes lighting up when he sees Lance.  “Hey!  You're just in time, I whipped up some lasagna.  Well kinda.  Space lasagna.”

“With worm mucus or without this time?”

Hunk scoffs, feigning offense.  “You trust me so little for someone who keeps you from starving out here.”

“Awww you know I love you buddy.”  Lance spots a flash of movement behind Hunk and sees Keith heaping a pile of what looks like blue lasagna onto a plate.  His shoulders relax, releasing a tension he hadn’t noticed.

Hunk shifts, turning to see where Lance is staring.  “Oh hey Keith.  There's some space basil to top it with on the counter behind you.”  The yellow paladin walks over, showing Keith the proper way to eat his latest culinary masterpiece.  Lance leans against the doorway, watching.

Hunk is looking a little worse for the wear, circles under his eyes – though his are nowhere near as dark as Keith's – and his hair is noticeably greasy.  Lance wonders what Hunk’s been up to and if he's heard from Pidge.

But it took him a lot of effort to even get Keith out of the training deck.  If he brings up anything related to Shiro now, there’s no way he’ll get the red paladin to sleep.

“Lance?  You want some too?”  Hunk already has a plate in hand, scoop of lasagna dripping over it.  As if on cue, his stomach rumbles, reminding him that he can't remember the last time he ate anything.

He pushes himself off the wall and takes a seat across from Keith.  “I'd never pass up space lasagna,” he declares.

It doesn't look as appetizing as real lasagna, but considering some of the crap they've had to eat out here – plus all the green goop – it could be worse.  And after the first bite, he's reminded that Hunk is basically a gourmet chef disguised as an engineer.  “Your talents are wasted out here.  Wasted.”  Lance declares, brandishing his spork dramatically.  Hunk chuckles, looking somewhere between embarrassed and pleased at the praise.

Overall, even with Keith staring blankly at the table while he eats, it's a decent meal.  He gets a chance to catch up a bit with Hunk, both of them carefully avoiding the ten thousand pound Not-Keith Galra in the room, and the food’s good.  None of the other inhabitants of the castle join them, but that's ok.  Baby steps.

Hunk leaves after making sure Lance and Keith put their dishes in the cleaning rack, and it occurs to Lance that his best friend had only stayed to make sure they were well fed.  Good ol’ Hunk.

But now that the yellow paladin’s gone, there’s no distraction from the fact that Keith is two seconds from collapsing where he sits.  Lance stands up, stretching and makes a show of being responsible.  “Alright, shower time.”

The responding stare from Keith is so dead-eyed, Lance almost reconsiders forcing him to clean himself off.  Leaning in stops that thought before it forms.  Keith reeks.  Maybe it was because the entire training room reeked before, but Lance hadn’t noticed just how bad it was until now.  Damn.  “I can carry you if you want.”  He offers, half serious.

Some life flashes back into Keith’s eyes, not as much as Lance would like but enough to glare.  “No.”  It’s a sign of how tired Keith is that his comeback isn’t more than a word.

Lance shrugs and steps back, breathing sweet clean air.  “Hurry up.  I have better things to do than babysit your ass.”  He’s lying, but there’s a sense of comfort that comes with insulting Keith.

“Never asked you to,” Keith growls, but there’s no heat behind his words.  Lance hears the scrape of a stool behind him and knows Keith’s following him.

He leads them to Keith’s room first to get clothes because nope, not again, and when Keith heads in to shower he sits against the wall in the hallway to wait.  Lance hums a tune, half a song from earth, half made up shit from ‘music’ he’s heard out here.

Alone in the hall, he has a chance to roll up his sleeve and look at his wrist.  His words from today are fading.  Have you ever been awake early enough to see the sunrise?♥  There are no new words, no answer, but that’s not unusual.  His soulmate had responded a few times, back when they were younger, but even then it was short clipped words.  Sometimes an answer to a direct question.

More often than not it’s nothing at all.

Instead, he gets doodles or paintings.  Nothing quite like art.  If Lance had to describe it, he would call it stress relief.  It’s overwhelming when his soulmate communicates, their own feelings override Lance’s completely, paralyzing him.  He ends up frozen wherever he is, riding the waves of emotion till they end, leaving him with swirls or connect-the-dots or, more recently, colors that climb over his limbs, painting him in technicolor.

They’re no artist, that much is apparent, but doodling on themselves clearly calms them.  Lance is most overwhelmed when they start, the emotions levelling off into calm by the end.  They’re working through things, he knows that, but he wishes sometimes – selfishly – that they would go about it a different way.

He’s terrified of what would happen if they need to work through something while he’s piloting Blue.

Luckily, for now, his soulmate only seems to communicate at night.  Or at least, during Lance’s night.  Though it’s been a while since he last heard from them; since before Shiro went missing at least.  Long silences from them aren’t unusual, and he can only hope it means his soulmate is in a state where they’re not overwhelmed.

“Lance?”  The door to his right hisses open, and Keith steps out, dirty clothes draped over his arm.

Lance shakes thoughts of his soulmate away.  He has a tendency to think of them, wonder about them, in his downtime.  But now, he needs to be here making sure his teammate is going to get some sleep.  “Done?”  He asks, rhetorically, standing up.

The door closes behind Keith.  “Yeah.”

They fall in step, heading towards Keith’s room.  The red paladin isn’t fighting this, so Lance doesn’t really need to keep babysitting him, but he keeps going anyway.  He’s committed to this, ok?  He doesn’t need a reason.

But that does make it awkward when they reach Keith’s door.  Lance may be committed to making sure Keith sleeps before he dies from exhaustion, but he’s definitely not going to go as far as tuck Keith in.  So he pauses at the door, needing a script or something to go off of.

“Uh…thanks I guess.”  Keith mumbles, staring resolutely at the floor.

Well at least he’s not the only one feeling awkward.  He resists the urge to make a big deal about Keith thanking him.  The guy’s tired.  He’ll give him shit for it another day.  “Yeah, anytime.”  He scratches the back of his neck.  “Well, see ya later then I guess.”

He takes a few stilted steps away, stopping at the sound of the door opening.  He turns back, one more thing left to say.  “Wait, Keith.”

Keith’s head whips to him, startled. 

“Turn off your alarms and stuff, ok?”  Lance clarifies.  “I’ll get you if we need Voltron.”

The look Keith gives him is almost grateful.  “Thanks.”

Lance stands there, waiting for Keith to make it all the way into his room.  He makes sure the door closes and that he sees the glow of the light flip on then off again a few seconds later.  He’ll definitely make sure to tease Keith for thanking him twice.  Another time.

Chapter Text

Before

“Shiro, wake up.  It’s me, Pidge.”

Lance blinks, or at least he tries.  His eyelids are heavy, hard to lift; he can’t quite manage it.

He’s confused at first, the only clear memory he has is of his name, but awareness comes back to him in waves as he finally opens his eyes.  He sees someone, a boy in green armor, crouching next to him for a split second before they’re ripped away.  Lance watches him fly through the air, detached from the moment which is as imaginary to him as a person named Pidge.

He blinks once, drowsy, as time moves slow around him.  Out of the corner of his eye he sees someone in white and black armor and thinks Shiro but the word doesn’t mean much to him.

“You really thought your little hologram trick would work with me?”

The thing that grabbed the green boy is now holding him aloft in one giant hand, far out of proportion to the rest of its body.  Which is…purple.  And has eyes on its chest and giant furry bat ears and…Lance is positive he’s dead because nothing makes sense.

But everything is heavy and numb – which is maybe something he should be worried about – so for now he thinks it’s not so bad to lie here and watch whatever this is unfold.

The thing turns its head, and Lance’s eyes lazily follow its gaze as the sound of a sword being unsheathed fills the room.  His eyes pass over a beautiful dark-skinned woman – he makes a note to hit on her later, even though she’s way out of his league – and rest on the guy in red armor.

Two things happen in rapid succession. 

First is the rush of knowledge that hits him like a wave.  IminthecastleoflionsShirostiedupThatguyhasPidgeholyshit.  He forces himself partially upright, pulling out his Bayard as the Galra general turns to threaten Keith and Allura, Pidge’s life literally hanging in the balance.

“Stand back.”

Without thinking, Lance shoots his gun, blasting the Galra in the back, and giving them the distraction they need.  The Galra pitches forward, losing his grip on Pidge, and the green paladin gets flung across the floor.  Lance barely makes out the sight of the general turning to face him before the second thing happens.

A burst of pain explodes, like Lance’s nerves had been shut off and just now turned back on.  His entire body burns, his insides broken and caving in on each other.  The movement from lifting his weapon and firing it is enough to make him swoon, and in a breath his Bayard is back in handle form as he collapses against the platform behind him, senses overwhelmed.

He’s not sure how long it takes for him to come back to consciousness, but when he does the battle is over.  He blinks up, somehow both completely and not at all surprised to see Keith standing in front of him, hand extended.

“Lance?  Are you ok?” 

He reaches up, even though he knows there’s no way he can stand.  Not right now.  To his relief, Keith grabs his hand and kneels down beside him.  Lance struggles up anyway, pain be damned.  “We did it,” he breathes at the floor before turning to give a genuine smile to Keith.  “We are a good team.”

He swears for a moment that he gets one in return, but then the pain rushes into his body again and he falls into blackness.


 

Now

It’s two hours too early to be awake.  Lance has been on the same sleep schedule since he was thirteen and got his first zit, so he knows that it is way too early to be awake.  But that doesn’t seem to matter to Allura, whose voice pulses through his noise cancelling headphones announcing “all paladins, report to the bridge at once.”

Lance knows Pidge is the one who did this, even if they claim ignorance.  No one else, with the exception of Hunk (who would never betray him), has the capability to hack into Lance’s headphones and connect them to the intercom.

Damn Pidge.

If this were a real emergency, Allura would’ve sounded different.  They’ve been in space for long enough, Lance can tell the difference between a training summoning and a ‘we’re actually being attacked’ summoning.  This may not sound like a ‘we’re actually being attacked’ summoning, but it’s also not a training one.

Lance pulls himself out of bed quickly, forgoing his morning routine and simply pulling off his face mask.  He tosses it out, figuring slippers are good enough for a non-emergency and heads to the bridge.

Unsurprisingly, he’s the last one to arrive.  Everyone else is already hovered around the main console while Pidge types away at it.  Despite the angle, Lance can see the dark circles under their eyes and the slump in their shoulders.  But the console is still off, so he can’t be all that late.  His eyes sweep to everyone else’s appearance, and Lance freezes.

Keith has bedhead.

Keith, Mr. My-Hair-Is-Always-Perfect-Even-Though-It’s-A-Mullet, has bedhead.

Lance’s attention focuses on that to the point where his brain overloads.  Complete malfunction.  Short circuit.

Because Keith has bedhead.

“Ah, Lance.  Nice of you to join us.”  It takes a moment for Coran’s voice to filter its way into Lance’s mind.  What really does it is the moment when he realizes Keith’s looking right at him and has probably seen him staring.

He needs to get a hold of himself.

Lance shakes his head and steps forward with a yawn.  “Wouldn’t’ve missed it.”  He stands next to Hunk, peering over Pidge’s shoulder to try and see what they’re doing at the console.  “So what exactly is ‘it’?”  He asks, using air quotes.

It is that I was finally able to grab the video feed from the black lion.”  They slip something, a chip, into the console, typing madly.  “It took a lot longer than I thought, which was kinda weird because why would that be an issue?  I could pull all the other lions’ video feeds no problem.”

Wait, Pidge can do that?  “Hey!”

They ignore him.  “But for some reason I couldn’t get the feed from the black lion.  It took a lot more work.  Then I was able to get it, but it was so corrupted I couldn’t actually see anything on it and I had to go through and scrub everything.  It’s pretty fascinating, actually how that works here –“

“Pidge,” Allura interrupts, firm.

“Right, sorry.”  Pidge clicks one last button with their finger and steps back to join them.  “There’s no audio.”

The video starts to play above them, crackling occasionally.  Shiro is there, sitting in the cockpit of the lion, and even though there’s no audio Lance knows exactly what’s happening.  He’s thrown back into the memory as if it happened a few seconds ago, not six days.

“This is our last chance,” he reads on Shiro’s lips, hears in his mind.  Shiro jerks his handle forward.  “Let’s finish this!”

There’s a crackle, a glitch in the video, then Shiro’s jerked back against his seat.  They must’ve hit Zarkon at this point.  A pause, then: electricity crackles up Shiro’s arms.  His spine jerks up automatically, teeth gritted together, and Lance doesn’t remember this.

With a look of fierce determination, Shiro slams his Bayard into the slot and turns.  The entire lion lights up bright purple, and Lance does remember this part…in a way.  His had been blue, a blue so blinding it had pierced into his very body.  In a detached sort of way, he wonders if everyone else was lit up in their own color.

The screen crackles again as white light from what Lance knows is the explosion fills the video from the outside.  He sees a shadow, a flash of movement, before the entire video feed goes white.  It cuts out in a second, skipping the part where they had been ripped apart into five lions, instead displaying nothing.  As if the power had been cut out.

No one says anything.  Even though the video had been silent, Lance had felt the whole thing in his bones, as if it had been screaming at him.  Now, the silence is deafening, suffocating.

He clears his throat.  “Is, uh, that it?”  Keith shoots him a death glare.  “What?  We already knew most of this.”

Keith opens his mouth to argue, but Pidge cuts him off.  “Lance is right.”

“I am?”

“There’s something here you can only see if you slow it way down, hang on.”  There’s more frantic typing.  Then.  “There.  Now watch.”

They’re back to where the cockpit is bathed in purple, Shiro’s mouth open wide in a silent shout.  The white light appears from the outside, the strange shadow directly behind him.  Pidge pauses the video.

“Pidge, zoom in on that.”  Allura leans in, pointing at the shadow.

“Already on it.”  The video zooms in, image focusing as much as it can and –

“That’s one of those druid guys.”  Hunk speaks up, sounding almost as shocked as Lance feels.  How did it get in there?

“Step through the video, Pidge.”  Allura’s voice is all commanding, but Lance can feel the dread in it.

The video zooms back out to see the whole cockpit.  Pidge steps to the next frame and the druid is right behind Shiro, golden eyes glowing visibly.  Lance shivers at it, and he already knows what’s going to happen before they get there.

The next frame shows the druid, arms around Shiro, the black paladin’s eyes wide in surprise.  Then, they’re gone, the cockpit empty.  The video fills with white and blacks out.

So that’s it then, Lance registers numbly.  The Galra have Shiro.  They may have defeated Zarkon – jury’s still out on that one – but the Galra have Shiro.  Keith can’t be happy about this.

The thought takes a second to sink in for the entire group, but once it does the room explodes into utter chaos.

“We’re going in after him.”

“How can the druids even get inside the lions?”

“He’s probably with my brother –“

“You guys this is crazy we can’t just go in –“

“We’re going in, Lance don’t be –“

“– do you think they can breathe in space too, I mean – “

“– in another gladiator ring –“

“– yeah ok and then we can’t ever form Voltron because we’ll all be dead – “

“– not gonna wait a year to find him missing another limb –“

“– we already know they can make copies of themselves like shadow clones –“

“– being experimented on –“

“– suicide, Keith –“

“– don’t care about –“

“Enough!”  Allura’s voice booms out at them, anger etched in the lines on her face.  “Arguing is not going to help us save Shiro.”  She has enough authority in her voice, commands enough respect from them in general, that they shut up.  The princess gives them one last glare before turning to her advisor.  “Coran, what do you think we should do?”

They turn as one, expectant, to Coran.  He’s stroking his moustache, face screwed into an expression of grave concentration.  “The Blade of Marmora has been in this fight for longer than we have.  It’s possible they have someone on the inside – or at least knowledge of – the prisons.  We should circle back to them.”

Lance had completely forgotten about them, but now that Coran mentions it, he realizes he should’ve noticed the distinct lack of Slav’s rambling about alternate realities and the cold look in Allura’s eyes when the Galras entered the room.  “Oh yeah, where are those guys?”

“Only a few quintants back now.  We’ll get in contact to make sure they haven’t moved.”  Allura steps up to the main console and takes out the chip, giving it to Pidge.  “Coran, we’ll need to finish our diagnostics before we get there.”  Her tone reveals the distrust she still holds for the Galra, though the utter hatred from before has faded a bit.

Pidge takes the chip with a yawn, tilting their head back enough to where Lance can see the full extent of the dark circles under their eyes.  They can’t have slept that much over the past week.  The spike of guilt that he couldn’t do anything to help hits him again.

“I’m gonna get some sleep.  Call me if you need me.”  They give a half-hearted wave accompanied by a second yawn.  Pidge stumbles towards the door, somehow miraculously not falling over.  That doesn’t stop Lance from tracking them ‘til they leave the room.

Hunk’s the next to move.  He stretches out his back and neck before heading to the door as well.  “I’m off to check on our lions.  Make sure everything’s up and running.  You know…just in case.”  Hunk slips through the door and they barely slide shut behind him before Keith stalks towards them too.

He doesn’t say anything, just stomps out the doors, brow furrowed in a frown.  Lance watches him leave then turns to look at Allura and Coran.  The two Alteans are leaning over the console, discussing something – strategy? – between themselves in low voices.  Lance glances to the door again, now shut behind Keith then back at Allura and Coran.  He groans a little and stomps off after the red paladin.

He doesn’t have to follow Keith to know where he’s going, so he ducks back into his room first.  He’d be damned before he gets his pajamas all sweaty just to keep Keith from trying to kill himself again.

By the time he gets to the training deck, Keith’s already started.  The doors slide open with a whoosh, but the red paladin doesn’t look away from his battle.  There’s only one robot this time, which should be comforting, but Lance can tell from here – without checking any sensors – that the level is a little higher than he should be starting off on.

Dammit, it is too early for this.

Regardless, Lance lets out a loud sigh, stepping in and once again shoots the robot down dramatically to announce his entrance.  This time when Keith turns, there’s no surprise in his face.  Just irritation.

“Is it your life goal to piss me off?”  He asks, releasing his Bayard from its sword form.

Lance releases his own and walks forward, kicking the robot out of the way.  “I told you before I wanted to spar with you, remember?”

“Now is not the time, Lance.”  The way Keith says his name is a curse.  It annoys him, but it also annoys him how easily it annoys him.

So he spits it back out at the red paladin.  “Oh I think it is, Keith.”  Keith just glares, and Lance throws his hands up in exasperation.  “Just get a damn stick and spar with me.”

They glare at each other, Lance jutting his lower lip out in a pout, for a few moments before Keith sighs and looks away.  Score 1 for team Lance.

“Fine,” he gives in with a mutter.  “Drop staff weapon.”  The ceiling opens, dropping out a second staff for Keith to use.  He picks it up and gestures to the robot lying still.  “Move that out of the way this time.”  Lance does, grabbing its staff and getting into position.

This time, Keith doesn’t wait for Lance to charge; he moves first.  Lance has a split second to regret not warming up before he’s forced to dive to the side to avoid getting smacked in the skull.  He rolls over and up onto his feet, but then he’s diving again because, damn, Keith is fast.

He usually doesn’t mind it, appreciates it in fact, the way Keith can dart from attack to attack, taking enemies out.  Right now, when all the red paladin’s attention is on him, Lance isn’t really enjoying it.  Last time, he’d managed two hits out of pure luck without a warm up.  But this time?  This time Keith is both warmed up and well rested and Lance doesn’t stand a chance against his speed.

He manages to dodge the next few attacks from Keith, flipping and rolling away, but the red paladin comes at him before he can get up from a kneel, and Lance is forced to raise his staff in defense.  Keith’s strength is intense, impressive as always, and Lance is a little surprised the staff doesn’t snap at the hit.  Not completely surprised, though – these are magical Altean weapons after all.

“Thought you wanted to spar,” Keith grits out, raising his staff for a second attack.  Lance blocks it again, redirecting the hit the way he’d done the day before.  But Keith doesn’t get surprised a second time.  He flips around so fast Lance almost misses it until he feels a harsh slap to his back, and he’s the one stumbling forward this time.

He rights himself, turning to face Keith, chest heaving even though they haven’t been going very long.  “Stop dodging the attacks and fight me,” he growls pointing his staff at Lance.

Fine.  Keith wants a fight?  Lance can give him a fight.  He readjusts his grip and charges the red paladin.

There’s no way he can beat Keith, not really.  Keith is too fast for him, too strong.  But Lance also knows Keith’s weakness: he’s all impulse, no strategy.  Lance, meanwhile, is all strategy.  Or…mostly strategy.

Sometimes strategy.

He’s easily parried, but this time he doesn’t duck away immediately.  He swings again, only to get blocked again.  But he only gets those two offensive hits in before Keith puts him back on the defense.

Which is actually what he wants this time.

He watches Keith, trying to catch a pattern of some kind or something that would give him an opening.  He gets smacked three more times in the process, slaps of pain he knows will turn into welts later.

But it’s totally worth it because he finds the weakness he’s looking for.  Keith is almost ambidextrous, but his right-handed dominance manifests itself in the way he shifts his weight slightly between attacks.  That’s his opening.

Lance never had the patience for chess.  He could strategize his movements out well enough, but planning out different scenarios and waiting for the other person to make their move grated on him when he tried.  He’d rather have them make their move then figure out what to do based on it than play what-if scenarios in his mind.

So chess isn’t his calling, but mid-battle tactics?  Yes.  He can think fast on his feet and perceive the area around him well enough to use it to his advantage.  And right now, Keith has him backed up to where the wall is on his right side.

He waits until Keith swipes at his left, then uses his best wall running skills – admittedly not very good – but he still makes it the three steps it takes to get around Keith without being hit and take a swipe at his back.  Lance stumbles when he lands, his swing going a little wide, but he still manages a thud to Keith’s elbow.

Keith’s right arm goes limp – he must’ve hit him right on the funny bone – and the red paladin spins around in surprise.  He swings with his left hand, and before Lance can react he feels the crack against his skull.

Stars burst in front of his eyes and he tilts, dropping the staff and barely catching himself on the wall.  His ears are ringing, and Lance feels like Hunk must have in the simulator.  He’s gonna hurl if he doesn’t sit down.  He sinks down on the ground, vision still a little fuzzy, but the dizziness doesn’t go away so he lies all the way down.

Lance concentrates on his breathing, closing his eyes.  When he doesn’t feel like he’s going to vomit all over the place, he opens them again.

“Are you ok?”  Keith is sitting next to him, staff nowhere to be seen, looking somewhere between guilty and worried.  Good.

Lance waves at him and makes to sit up, but ends up lying back down again because nope, too soon.  “Totally fine.  Didn’t just get blasted in the skull or anything.”

“I didn’t blast you, idiot.  I hit you.”

He groans.  “Same thing.  Did you have to be such an asshole about it anyway?  Jeez.”

The guilt disappears, replaced by the familiar look of irritation.  “I didn’t mean to hit you in the head.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

Lance.”

“Right, right.  Didn’t mean to give me a concussion.  Whatever.”

The guilt is back.  “I didn’t give you a concussion.”  Keith looks like he means to be menacing, but it comes out as more of a question.

It hurts, but Lance is pretty sure he doesn’t have a concussion.  Kinda sure.  Maybe sure…he should probably get his head checked.  “Great apology, Keith.”

Keith’s face screws up in concentration.  He looks pained, and for a moment Lance thinks he might actually apologize.  He leans up on one arm, expectant, but then Keith’s face twists back into a scowl.  “Go get in a healing pod, idiot.”

The red paladin gets up, arm still hanging limp at his side.  He looks like he might say something else before he changes his mind and stalks out.  Lance lets out a weak huff of a laugh and flops back down on the ground.  At least he hit Keith pretty hard.

 


 

 

Keith regrets leaving almost immediately.  He’d been the one who told Lance to fight him for real; he shouldn’t have gotten so mad when he actually did.  His elbow still hurts like a mother, and his fingers are starting to tingle unpleasantly as feeling comes back to them, so he holds it awkwardly against his side as he turns back to the training deck.

He gets a fizzle of irritation as a warning and darts back into an alcove just in time to see Lance stumble out.  The blue paladin leans against the wall for a second, and Keith can feel a rush of confusion followed by determination.  Lance pushes himself off the wall and heads down the hall in the direction of the med bay, grumbling to himself.

Keith presses himself further against the wall even though he knows Lance won’t notice him as he tromps past. 

“– stupid.  Can’t even offer a real apology –“

And then he’s gone, stomping away from the training deck.  Keith breathes out a sigh of relief.  Lance will be ok if not a little irritated, but that’s nothing unusual.

With the training deck empty, he thinks he might finally be able to clear his mind by hitting things.  Keith heads in but one look at the gladiator still on the ground just takes his mind back to his and Lance’s ‘spar’ earlier and the desire to train disappears. 

Sometimes he wishes he were able to stay angry at Lance.  To actually be pissed at him for having ruined what could’ve been a perfectly good training session, leaving him with just enough bruises to feel like he was doing something of value to help Shiro.

But he can’t.

He could feel Lance when he’d walked in, even if he hadn’t acknowledged him initially.  Lance had come to make sure Keith didn’t do what he’d planned; work himself until he was too exhausted to move or injured.  Whichever came first.  Lance was worried about him and had done what he thought was best: tried to distract him.

And it had worked, even if only for a moment.

The worst way to repay Lance for helping him would be to give him a concussion and then go back and do what Lance had tried to stop him from doing in the first place.  Since he’d already failed on point one, the least he could do would be not train himself to death.

“End training sequence.”  The floor opens in three places, under the gladiator and staffs, letting them disappear.  With a disappointed sigh, Keith turns back out and leaves the training deck.

A delayed sense of responsibility leads his feet to the med-bay before he fully realizes where he’s going.  He hovers outside, rocking on his heels, and debating whether he really wants to go in.  Eventually, curiosity – and a mild sense of worry – wins out, so he walks in, relieved to find it empty.

Lance is already in the pod, eyes closed like he’s sleeping.  He might be; Keith isn’t really sure how the pods work.  He looks peaceful, notably less injured than when he’d first ended up in one of them. 

Keith takes a look at the console.  Lance must’ve put himself in the pod, because the console’s language is in English, courtesy of Pidge.  The guilt creeps in on him again; he definitely gave Lance a concussion. 

No one else is in there to see it, so he rests his hand on the glass.  “Sorry,” he murmurs, sincerity creeping into his voice.  It bothers him to see Lance helpless like this, bothers him more knowing he’s the one who put the other paladin in this position.

He’d stay longer, but he doesn’t know when Lance will wake up and he really doesn’t want to be here to witness it.  Keith needs to find something else to distract him.  Something that isn’t getting beat up by the gladiators or pacing around anxiously.

His feet lead him out and down to the main hangar.  Keith’s only surprised for a moment before he feels the familiar purr from Red in the back of his mind.  Their connection is comforting, something he’s gotten used to even though it took some time.  With Shiro missing and his nerves running on full alert, he shouldn’t be shocked he came down here where her presence is strongest.

Keith walks immediately over to her, resting his hand on her leg.  He wants to go flying, but he doesn’t think that’s advisable.  Is it?  Red is encouraging, almost daring him to go.  He wants it, wants to feel the rush of freedom he couldn’t get no matter how fast he pushed his bike on Earth.

“Keith?”  Hunk’s voice interrupts his thoughts, the yellow paladin stepping out from behind his own lion.  They’ve been keeping them all in the main hangar, a unanimous – if unspoken – decision after Black lost Shiro.  He wonders if having all the other lions close comforts her.

“Hey.”  Keith steps away from Red, hand lingering on her armor a moment before dropping away.

Hunk has a sheen of sweat on his skin, a drop of it rolling down his cheek.  He’s holding a tool in his hand, and there are parts strewn around Yellow’s paws.  “Want to work on Red?”  He asks, motioning to the box behind him.

Keith isn’t completely hopeless as a mechanic; he went through all the required classes at the Garrison on how to maintain and emergency repair their fighter ships.  He’d also managed to keep his bike up and running out in the desert by himself, though that was mostly because it was a good bike.  He’d be the first to admit that he’s no mechanical genius, though.  And working on Red takes more skill than he has.

That’s all Hunk’s thing.

“Uh…no.  I was actually…”  Keith trails off.  He’d let his feet lead him here, so he’s not really sure what he’d been planning.

Hunk squints at him, clearly not understanding.

He feels Red’s presence, more insistent this time.  “I wanted to go flying,” he admits.

The yellow paladin’s face falls, like he had been dreading that answer.  “Yeah…Can’t let you do that, Keith…sorry.”

He’s never really understood how the connection between lion and paladin works, but at this moment he thinks that’s closer to what soul bonds were meant to be than what he and Lance have, because he can feel Red’s disappointment as clearly as his own.  “Why not?”  He asks, voice rougher than he intended.

“Uh…”  Hunk, for his part, looks supremely uncomfortable.  “Well for one, we’re not really sure if Zarkon is really defeated.  Also, Allura thinks you might take Red and go hunt for Shiro alone.”

That is…exactly the kind of thing Keith would do.  Actually, he’s surprised someone had to mention it to him for him to even think of it.  He opens his mouth then closes it again, thinking.

“Oh no.  Nonono.  Don’t even.”  Hunk shakes his head, walking over to Keith and turning him physically away.  “I know that look.  I roomed with Lance remember?”

The mention of the blue paladin, no doubt still recovering from the knock to his head, temporarily stops all plans of sneaking out with Red.  But that still leaves him at a complete loss on what to do.  He can’t go back to the training deck, he can’t go sit alone in his room, and he can’t take Red out for a spin for fear – completely founded – he’d zoom off to save Shiro on his own.

Even so, he doesn’t want to leave Red’s side.

“At least let me stay near the lions.”

Hunk falters.  He wants to say no, that much Keith can tell, but he’s always been weak to the desires of others.  “Ugh, fine.  But stay where I can see you.”  He points the tool – an alien  screwdriver? – threateningly at Keith before spinning on his heel and returning to his own lion.

As much as Keith still wants to, as much as he can feel Red wants to, Keith resists the urge to hop in the cockpit and fly away.  Instead, he sits down on top of her paw and leans back against her.  The cool metal against his back is pleasant, even though it’s not quite the same level of distraction as flying.  He closes his eyes and tilts his head back against her, listening to Hunk work.

Hunk isn’t loud, but he’s not quiet when he works either.  The sounds come in a steady stream, small clashes and muttering, and eventually Keith gets curious enough that he opens his eyes to watch.

He can’t tell exactly what Hunk’s doing, but the paladin is standing on Yellow’s paw as she holds him up close enough to get to her stomach.  He has a hatch open that Keith doesn’t remember seeing before, but then again, he’s never really explored the inner workings of the lions.

Keith may not be able to see what Hunk’s doing, but it’s interesting anyway.  Maybe it’s the way he lets out a huffed “quiznak” every time something falls on his toe.  Or how no matter what he does, the paw Yellow’s using to hold him up never falters.  Their bond is different than Keith and Red’s. 

Keith jumps out into space and trusts that she’ll catch him.  He flies so fast the g-forces make spots appear at the edges of his vision and trusts that she can handle it.  He does things without thinking and trusts that she has his back.  He’s never tried bonding with her outside of flying.

Maybe he should.

He gets caught up in watching Hunk, trying to figure out what he’s doing.  It isn’t until he gets an unfamiliar fluttering in his stomach, a kind of nervous excitement, that he wonders how long he’s been sitting there.  Long enough for Lance to wake up is the answer.

Keith hops up, giving Red a pat.  “I’ll be back,” he promises in a low voice.

Lance is already close enough to feel, so it’s too late to outrun him.  Instead, Keith settles for pressing himself against the wall as the blue paladin sweeps in, all smiles.  “Hunk!  Buddy!  I am starving, you still planning to whip up some space calzones today?”

Keith hears the metal clang of a tool dropping on the ground and the associated “quiznak” that follows, but he doesn’t stay to hear the conclusion of the space calzone conversation.  While the doors are still open, he slips out quietly, avoiding the inevitable confrontation.

But now that he’s out, he’s left with the same problem.  What is he supposed to do

“ – clocked me on the head –“  He hears Lance’s voice still too close to the other side of the door and starts moving before a decision can even be made.  In some ways it doesn’t matter what he does; it just matters what he doesn’t do.

He avoids heading back to the training deck at least, marching off in the exact opposite direction.  The bridge is out too – he really doesn’t want to talk to Allura – and so is the kitchen, for now.  Which leaves the rest of the castle.

Keith’s never really explored the rest of the castle.

They’ve been in an alien castle-ship, flying around fighting more aliens, and yet he’s never taken the time to look around more than he absolutely has to.  Running through the halls trying not to die doesn’t count.  Neither does trying to corner an intruder.  The pool adventure counted, but that ended before it could really begin.

So.  Castle exploration.  It could be worse.  At least by doing this, he’s learning more about the ship.  Could come in handy if anyone tries to sneak onboard again.

The ship is built like a labyrinth, all twists and turns and hallways that lead to dead ends or airlocks.  It’s interesting at first, especially when he figures out how to fix the gravity to actually enjoy the pool.  But he’s never been much of an explorer, especially when there aren’t mystery lion markings on the walls.  Besides, even though he’s physically moving, his mind isn’t as distracted as it would be out on the training deck.  In fact, after he’s made his way through the deepest halls at least twice, not only is he bored, his mind is also no longer focused on where he’s going.

So it goes back to Shiro.

Fuck this.  He decides angrily, slamming his fist against an airlock door that might be the same one Lance almost flew out of all that time ago.  He needs a real distraction and he’d already made sure Lance was fine.  No amount of misplaced responsibility is going to keep him from diverting his attention.

He heads back to the training deck, determined to take on a minimum of four gladiators this time, but stops short just before turning down the hall.  There’s a feeling, a soft amusement, in his stomach.

Lance.

Keith peeks his head around the corner and sure enough, the blue paladin’s already there.  He’s sitting in front of the doors to the training room, humming something under his breath and staring at the ceiling.  His head jerks down suddenly, like he heard something, and Keith darts back into the other hall.

So it’s gonna be like this huh?  Well, at least Lance isn’t known for being the most patient person on the team.  All Keith has to do is wait until he gets bored.  He leans back against the wall, mentally settling in to wait for Lance to get fed up and inevitably leave.

He waits.

And waits.

…And waits.

Eventually his feet start to hurt, so he sits down.

Lance’s emotions are muted, only palpable because of the short distance.  Keith spends his time absently picking at them, trying to decipher each nuance.  There’s irritation and impatience – understandable since he’s feeling the same thing – but also some amusement and general contentedness.  Occasionally prickles of worry knot his stomach, but otherwise there’s nothing particularly strong or negative to Lance’s emotions.

In a way he’s offended.  Lance should be worried, should be just stressed and panicked as he is about Shiro’s disappearance.  Instead he hears a few notes and realizes Lance is actually singing.  Singing and not upset.

He wants to be pissed off, and he is in an abstract sort of way.  But he can’t seem to get too mad at Lance, or at least he can’t stay too mad at him.  Besides, it’s hard to be upset when the base of his stomach is pulsing with a pleasant warmth. 

Not exactly what he’d wanted from his soul bond.

Lance may not be known for his patience, but even Keith has to admit that he’s worse in comparison.  He lives on instinct, emotion.  And after sitting there for who knows how long, listening to Lance hum and sing, the irritation gets to be too much. 

Fine.  Lance doesn’t want him to train?  That’s just fine.  He could use some sleep anyway.

He sneaks off, Lance’s emotions slipping away as he puts some distance between them.  Because he knows where Lance is right now, he heads into the kitchen to grab some food before going back to his room.  He’s exhausted, even if he doesn’t want to admit it, to the point where he’s out like a light once his head hits the pillow.

His dreams are another story.

He dreams that he’s crashed on a strange planet, Shiro bleeding out from a magical glowing wound and just out of reach.  He dreams he’s back in the Garrison, hearing about the Kerberos mission going missing through a classmate because no one thought to tell him.  He dreams about Lance in the cryo-pod, unnaturally still after he’d saved Coran’s life from the bomb that had nearly cost them Voltron.

He dreams that he’s running, his feet hitting the deck in quick slaps as he makes his way across the hangar to the black lion.  His senses are tingling; something bad happened, he’s just not sure what.

The others are hot on his tail, all of them racing to the black lion.  Her eyes are dark, no sign of movement inside or out.  He shouts – or at least tries to – but no sound escapes from his throat.  Silently then, he wills the lion to open up for him.  Patience yields focus.

The doors open, and Keith rushes directly into the cockpit, his stomach sinking low as he looks around.  He can see the outline of someone sitting in the cockpit this time, but it’s too early to feel relief.  He ignores the sense of wrongness and races to the front of the chair.  He has to see for himself that there’s nothing wrong.  That everything’s ok.

But when he finally gets a good view, all he sees is empty armor.  Empty blue armor.  He jumps back, smacking against the console and finally looks around.  He’s in the cockpit of the blue lion, and this time it’s Lance’s Bayard that’s shoved into the port.

Keith wakes up in a cold sweat.

He’s nervous, twitchy, and he can feel the beginnings of an anxiety attack coming on.  Icy claws climb up his chest, constricting his throat.  He sits up and tucks his head between his knees, focusing on the shape of the sheets underneath him, trying to calm his breathing.  It’s been a long time since he’s had a full blown mental breakdown; he hasn’t had one since before he’d saved Shiro back in the desert.

He needs to calm down – he knows that – but when he gets like this, especially at night, it’s hard to control.

Once his breathing is closer to normal, he gets up.  The panic attack isn’t gone yet, just delayed, so he needs to act now.  He hasn’t done this since the discovery that Lance is his soulmate; he’d been trying to avoid it.  Keith sends a quiet apology to Lance and grabs his pen, collapsing back on his bed, exhausted from just that small amount of movement.

The minute the pen hits his skin, he already feels marginally better.  It’s therapeutic, marking himself like this.  There are theories, papers he’s stumbled across, which suggest it’s because of the connection you have with your soulmate when you mark your own skin.  He’s seen other papers claiming it would be just as effective if soulmates didn’t exist.

Keith doesn’t give a shit.  It makes him feel better, and he doesn’t care why.

The drawing takes shape slowly, curves and swirls that connect in the rough rendering of a tree up his left arm.  He traces over it again, adding sharp spikes to each of the branches.  It’s a shape he’s made over and over again, on paper and on his skin.  It’s what he turns to when he’s out of control.

By the time he reaches the last branch, his breathing is normal and the icy tendrils in his chest are gone.  He feels better, maybe even better enough to fall back asleep.

But there’s a prickle under his wrist, a tingle in his skin.

Guiltily, he turns his hand over and watches the letters chase each other, marking the area over where the ones from the day had already faded.

I’ll always be here for you.

No heart follows the sloppily written words, as if Lance had been half asleep writing them.  There isn’t even enough conscious emotion to keep them on his skin for long; they’re already fading.  But the damage is done.

He’d woken Lance, and he’d been in enough of a panic that his doodle’s going to last at least a couple of days.  The itch stops now that the words are complete, and he knows Lance has fallen back asleep.

Keith doesn’t want to deal with another panic attack, not after he’d already gone and marked them both up with this one.  He closes his eyes and tells himself that he’ll deal with it in the morning.  It’ll be fine.  He convinces himself to lie back down and at least try to fall asleep. 

It’s easier than he’d expected.  He doesn’t dream this time, images coming and going in snippets instead, but it’s not a particularly restful night either.

Chapter Text

Now

This isn’t the first time Shiro’s woken up in an unfamiliar place with no memory as to how he got here.  It’s not even the second time.  Shiro would sell his very soul if he could guarantee that this will be the last time.

He sits up and looks around, and his first thought is that he’s still asleep and this is a dream – a very vivid one at that – because he’s back in an unmistakably Galra prison.  A darker voice tells him that the real dream was Voltron, and now he’s finally woken up back in the real world.

Shiro shakes that thought away.  There’s too much detail, too much chronological logic for it to have all been a dream.  The Galra could’ve planted images of him reuniting with Keith – and possibly Pidge too – but there’s no way they could’ve invented Lance or Hunk in such detail.  Even Allura and Coran, the Arusians, the Balmerans…he’d like to think the druids’ magic couldn’t create that much.

So either he’s dreaming now or he was captured again.  Either way, it doesn’t hurt to get up and look around.

He sits up and looks around the cell.  Single cell, one bed, one sort of toilet and sink – the Galra equivalent at least.  It looks similar to the prison he’d been trapped on when he’d gone into the gladiator ring.  That means he’s on a planet somewhere, not on a ship.  Could be a good thing or a bad thing; he’s not really sure.

Shiro lets out a grunt of frustration.  Why can’t he remember what happened?  He reaches up to tug his hair, but –

Fuck.

Oh…shit.

His arm’s gone.

His arm is gone.

There’s nothing there when he lifts his shoulder, no limb past part of his bicep at least, a pale line where the cybernetic part had connected with the rest of his body.  Shiro stares at the line until his vision blurs and he’s forced to blink.  He keeps his eyes closed, willing down the panic.

Breathe. 

In for three counts, out for four.

This isn’t the first time he’s lost his arm.  He survived it before, and he’ll do it again.  He just needs to find the black lion.

Shiro’s eyes snap open.

The black lion.  Of course.

Zarkon had been able to reach out to the lion from huge distances.  Shiro should be able to do the same, right?  He squeezes his eyes shut again and tries to reach out with his mind.  Almost instantly, he’s hit with a wave of nausea and a headache.  Shiro stops reaching with a groan, lying back down and staring up at the ceiling instead.

The Galra must’ve messed with his connection.  He would’ve done the same thing in their shoes.  The only other explanation would be –

No.  He’s not going to think like that.

The other paladins and Allura are ok.  They have to be.  He wouldn’t have let himself get captured if they weren’t ok.  He would’ve done everything in his power to keep them all safe.  He knows that.

The problem is…he can’t remember what happened.  He has a vague recollection of a giant teladuv, a plan – details missing in his own mind – to take down Zarkon, and…nothing else.  He can’t remember a single thing beyond that.  In fact, he’s not even sure if those are his last memories, or if they’re getting mixed up with his half-baked plan to rescue Allura.

Shiro lets out a growl, no longer as certain that his memories are as chronological as he’d thought before.  He loses himself to the spiral, and it takes some time before his surroundings register once again.

“Oo-mun.  Oo-mun!” the voice permeates through the right wall of his cell, directly next to his bed.

“Are you talking to me?”  Shiro asks after a beat, when no one else responds.

He hears a chuckle to his left before the first voice answers.  “You are Oo-mun yes?  Stop making so much noise.”

Oo-mun, Shiro belatedly realizes, sounds a lot like human.  “You know what I am?”  He asks, getting closer to the right wall and dropping his voice to match the alien’s volume.  “How?”

“R’ung Tak saw you brought in.  Shared the news while you were still groaning unconscious.”

That brings up more questions than answers in Shiro’s mind, but he focuses on one for now.  “How long was I unconscious?”

“About 3 giznars.”  The answer comes in the form of a deep baritone from the left and is even more unhelpful than the last one.

“How many, uh, doboshes is that?”

Laughter comes from all around this time.  “Oo-mun, no one counts in doboshes anymore.  That is a dead time system.”  More laughter.

All in all, this conversation is doing nothing more than frustrate and further irritate Shiro.  “Dammit just tell me how to get the guard's attention so I can confront Zarkon face to face!”  He explodes, not sure he's snapped like this since he left earth.  An unfamiliar voice in his head murmurs we’re traveling by teladuv?  But he shakes it off.

The laughter stops.  “Zarkon?  Oo-mun do you not know where you are?”

No,” Shiro emphasizes, because of course he has no idea where he is.  He needs to find out, needs to get out of here and back to Voltron.  But most of all, he needs to regain control over himself.  What was it that he’d told Keith before?  Patience yields focus.

“This is the rebel prison, Oo-mun.”  This time, the voice comes from the left, a deeper timbre than the first.

Shiro’s ears perk at that.  For once, things might actually be working out in his favor.  “Rebels?  Great!”  And he really means that, even if he isn’t sure why they would’ve imprisoned him in the first place.  “I’m a paladin of Voltron, I –“

“You do not understand, Oo-mun,” the deep voice interrupts.  “These are not rebels like the legendary Blades.  These are rebels who support Zarkon’s successor.  The prince.”

Prince.  Shiro can’t remember hearing anything about a prince when he’d been imprisoned before, and neither Allura nor Coran had mentioned it either (though they’d been asleep for 10,000 years to be fair).  “What prince?”

Silence answers his question for so long, Shiro almost asks it again.  But the voice on the right speaks before he needs to.  “You don’t know much, do you Oo-mun?”

For a moment, Shiro sees red.  Usually he has no issues controlling his anger, but his stress is already high and these prisoners haven’t been helpful at all yet.  “How could I?  You haven’t told me anything,” he snaps, wishing he had his robotic arm back so he could slam his fist through the wall.

“Prince Lotor is Zarkon’s son,” the voice to the right answers.

“Zarkon’s – “  He sits up suddenly, disgust and shock hitting him.

The deeper voice speaks up again.  “The prince is not someone to be trifled with.  It would be better to stay quiet, Oo-mun.”

The words are ominous, filling Shiro with a sense of dread.  Coupled with the confusion at his situation, Shiro decides to drop it for now.  He doesn’t like it, but he’ll stay quiet.  He’ll wait and learn and find his way out of this prison and back to his team.

It’s just a matter of time.

 


 

 

Seeing Lance walking around with what Keith has mentally coined the Anxiety Tree is not something Keith’s looking forward to.  Sure it had made him feel better at the time, and even now he’s no longer on the edge of collapsing into a panic, but that doesn’t mean he wants to see the results of his feelings being forced on someone else.

So he sets about avoiding Lance.

It works well enough at first.  He eats breakfast way later than normal, accepting the goop spewed out at him, rather than whatever Hunk might’ve made earlier – if anything.  The goop has always been…less than appetizing in appearance, but the taste isn’t too bad.  It’s more the fact that they haven’t eaten any of what Lance calls “real food” – Earth food – that makes him hate it so much.  Hunk does his best to replicate tastes or create something new and delicious, but it’s really not the same.

Keith shakes his head, forcing himself back into the present.  If he stays too much longer, the others will come in for lunch.

He heads for the training deck next.  It’s a long shot, he knows.  If Lance is looking to corner him, this is the first place he’ll go.  But he tries it anyway.

Muted emotions, too dim for him to identify, creep into his mind as he approaches.  The tingle joins not long after, starting at the inside of his wrist and working its way towards his stomach.  A part of him – more daring and reckless – wants to keep going, see the damage he did to Lance’s perfect skin.  A much more real part of him, though, isn’t in a masochistic mood, so he turns on his heel and heads off towards the depths of the castle again.

Keith uses the time to explore more, though he’s already seen everything.  At this rate, he’ll be able to navigate the whole place with a blindfold.  Which he supposes could come in handy at some point.

He spends the remainder of the day down there but eventually gets hungry and ends up back in the kitchen.  He’s been thrown off of the normal eating schedule, so he doesn’t have to worry about running into anyone.  The downside is it means he has two full meals of goop instead of whatever goodness Hunk had cooked up for dinner.  He resigns himself to his fate, but he spots a sign hanging on the hose, written in what must be Hunk’s handwriting.

I made some leftovers for you, so don’t eat any goo. – Hunk

His stomach swoops at the sight and he finds the leftovers, separated into portions helpfully labeled for Pidge, Allura, and Keith.  It’s something similar to spaghetti and tastes a hell of a lot better than what he’d planned on eating.  Keith makes a mental note to join the others tomorrow if he can; feelings towards Lance aside, he misses the rest of Voltron.  They’re his friends, the closest thing to family that he has right now.

And he’s lonely.

---

Despite his attempts at positive thinking, Keith isn’t exactly excited over the prospect of seeing Lance so soon after his panic attack.  So he counts himself unlucky when he runs into Lance first thing in the morning.  “Morning, mullet,” the blue paladin greets over his bowl of mush, and Keith’s eyes go straight to the mark on his arm.

Or rather, they go to his sleeve, because Lance is wearing his jacket.  He breathes a sigh of relief for a moment before frowning.  It’s too warm for Lance to need to wear his jacket, and Keith knows for a fact there was enough raw emotion in him when he did it to last at least two days. 

Which means Lance is wearing it to cover the still present, likely still vivid, tattoo from earlier.

“Geez, you look like you swallowed some of this crap,” Lance brandishes his spoon at Keith, splattering some of the gunk over the table.  “And I know that’s not possible, because I’ve been in here for like an hour and you haven’t eaten any.”

Keith grabs a bowl, heading for the food simulator.  “You’ve been in here for an hour?”

“Hour, varga, whatever.  Thing was jammed and I had to clean it out.”

“The thing?”

The muffled sound of chewing comes from behind him.  “You know, the thing.  The food…thing.  Tube or whatever.”

Despite himself, he’s actually a little amused.  “This thing?”  He asks, displaying the hose.  He means to be calm, collected, but he ends up hitting the button and some of the goop splutters out of it, dripping down the side and onto his hand.  “Shit.”

A bubble of amusement fills his chest, followed closely by Lance’s laughter.  “Careful, man.  I just unjammed that.”

Keith manages to pour his serving of goop into his bowl – without spilling anything further – before turning to glare at the blue paladin.  “I wasn’t going to jam it.”

“Maybe not intentionally but it got jammed somehow before.”

“Are you implying –“ Keith cuts himself off before he can rise to the bait, his eyes drawn back to Lance’s arm.  The other paladin’s sleeve had ridden up as he went to take his bite, and Keith sees the tip of his drawing, the same deep black as the pen he’d used.  So instead, he swallows down his comeback and slams his bowl down at the table across from Lance.

He ignores the look he gets as he forces a spoonful into his mouth.  “Geez, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” Lance grunts.  Familiar irritation fills his stomach, replacing the happy amusement from before.

Fighting with Lance is normal, he reminds himself.  Being irritated with each other is their default setting.  But honestly…Keith hates it.  Even if they weren’t soulmates, they still have to get along.  They have to be able to form Voltron.

And even if they didn’t have Voltron, it’s not like Keith enjoys fighting with people.  He has a hard enough time being around them; it’s not like he wants to make things harder on himself.

“Past few weeks have been…difficult,” he grunts, reaching his words out like an olive branch.  Almost immediately the irritation coming from Lance disappears, replaced with something softer.

“Heh…that’s putting it lightly.”

Keith looks over at that, but Lance is deliberately not looking at him.  He clears his throat, suddenly uncomfortable, and changes the subject.  “So…uh…do you know why we didn’t just wormhole to where the Blade of Marmora is?”

“Mmf.”  Lance tries to speak around his food, but it doesn’t quite work.  He swallows and tries again.  “Yeah.  Allura was pretty worn out from the battle and powering the really big wormhole.  Plus she’s been…you know…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but Keith doesn’t need him to.  She’s been working herself too hard, same as Pidge.  Same as he was before Lance interfered.  “You and Coran didn’t make her take a break?”

Lance laughs at that, but there’s no mirth transferring over to Keith and his expression’s unreadable.  “Coran might have, but I didn’t.  She wouldn’t listen anyway.”

She wouldn’t.  Allura’s stubborn, almost as bad as Keith is.  She wouldn’t listen to anyone except Shiro, but…well…

Keith stabs his spoon into his bowl angrily, cutting off the thought before it can start.  He searches for something to ask Lance, some way of changing the subject, but Lance – thankfully – beats him to it.  “Where were you yesterday?”

“Huh?”

“I thought you’d head to the training deck but you never showed.  You didn’t eat with us either.”

Keith frowns.  “Why were you looking for me?”

At that, Lance shifts his weight, not meeting Keith’s eyes.  A fluttering fills his stomach, making him nauseous enough to pause his eating and watch Lance’s response.  “I thought maybe…you’d want to train together again?  It was pretty fun, even if you did give me a concussion the other day.”

“I did not give you a concussion!”  His stomach roils from his own emotions this time.

“You kinda did actually.”

“So then why would you want to train with me again?”

Lance stands up, his spoon clattering in the empty bowl.  Keith isn’t sure what he did wrong, but somehow the blue paladin went from mildly teasing to pissed off in less than a second.  “No reason I guess.  Never mind.”  He carries the bowl over and clatters it into the tub.

Keith’s stomach sinks.  Maybe it’s an effect of the soul bond, but he really doesn’t like seeing Lance upset.  “I’ll train with you,” he mumbles before he even realizes what he’s saying, and he hopes Lance can’t hear him.

But of course Lance can.  “What?”  The blue paladin whips around so fast, he would’ve flung his dishes all over if he’d still been holding them.

Keith’s face heats, so he stares resolutely down at his bowl instead.  It looks disgusting.  “I said I’ll train with you.  If you want.”

He makes the mistake of looking up at Lance then, just in time to see the blinding smile spread itself across his face.  A happy buzzing fills his stomach, nauseating him even further.  “Really?”

Keith doesn’t trust himself to say anything, so he just nods.  Lance pumps his fist.  “Awesome!  I’ll see you down there in a bit, ok?”  He doesn’t even wait for an affirmative before racing out of the room.

More training with Lance.  Willingly training with Lance this time.  Keith’s stomach rolls unpleasantly again, and he gives up on his breakfast, dumping his dishes and goop in the tub before heading out.

---

Lance is changed and stretching by the time Keith makes it to the training deck.  He has two staffs on the ground already, like he’s been waiting for a while.  Keith knows he can be too quiet – he once scared Pidge while they were working and got electrocuted for it – so he clears his throat to announce himself.  Lance spins around with a grin.  “Hey!  Took you long enough.”

His excitement is palpable, and Keith finds himself almost grinning too…then his gaze drops along with his mood.

Lance is wearing a tank top, showing off the artwork Keith had left on him just two nights prior.

The blue paladin notices his gaze and his own smile drops off his face.  He shifts his weight, moving his arm partially out of view.  “Go ahead, get it over with.”  His voice is deceptively light, glare angled towards Keith in a challenge.  All in all, it’s not the reaction Keith was expecting.

“Get what over with?”

Lance frowns, face screwed up like he thinks Keith’s being deliberately obtuse.  “Whatever comment you want to make.  Go on, don’t hold yourself back on my account.  I’ll just make sure to hit you harder.”

Lance, Keith realizes, thinks he’s going to make fun of his soul mark.  Anger and disbelief hit him simultaneously, making his mouth gape open for a second before he pulls something out.  “You think I’m going to make fun of you?”

The blue paladin shrugs, shuffling his feet.  “It’s…”  Keith swallows down the lump in his throat.  “It’s your business.  And yo– your soulmate’s.”  He stumbles over the words, flushing and looking away. 

Now would be a good time to say something, too tell Lance hey by the way I had a matching one I washed off the other night and I have some words you left me this morning under my gloves, wanna see?  But Keith is a coward, at least when it comes to this, and he still doesn’t have his own feelings sorted out.  What if Lance wants to talk about it? 

And Lance would want to talk about it, of course.

But what if he wanted something out of Keith?  Lance hasn’t made it a secret that he wants a romantic soul bond, contrary to Pidge’s platonic one.  It’s not that Keith doesn’t want a romantic bond or anything, he just…

He doesn’t want a relationship that’s only there because of a soul bond.

“Yeah?”  Lance’s voice isn’t as strong as normal, the slight shake snapping Keith out of his own thoughts and back to reality.  The blue paladin clears his throat.  “I mean yeah.  It is my business.  That’s right.”

Keith feeds off the confidence coming from Lance and injects it in his own words.  “Besides, you’re not going to be hitting me,” he tells the other a small smirk playing on his lips.

“Is that a challenge?”

Don’t rise to the bait, he reminds himself, rolling back his shoulders in a shrug.  “No.  We’re not fighting each other.”  He drops his head to his left shoulder then his right, stretching out his neck.

“We’re…not?”  Uncertainty plagues Lance’s features for the first time.

Keith shakes his head.  “No.  We’ll fight the gladiator this time.”

He tries not to feel too pleased when Lance’s face explodes in a smile that could rival the sun.

Lance wanders off as he finishes stretching, grabbing one of the staffs and spinning it around.  “So…what?  We just start the simulation?”

“Yeah…?”  Keith’s eyes track him as he walks, suspicion clouding his mind.

“Hmm…what level were you thinking?”

Oh, so now it’s going to be a debate on what level to start with; there’s always an argument when it comes to Lance.  “I don’t know.  Maybe four?”  It seems like a reasonable warm up level for the two of them.

“So something like…start training level four.”  Lance raises his voice at the last part, followed by the gladiator dropping from the ceiling right behind Keith.

Shit, he knew he should’ve be suspicious.

The gladiator makes a swipe for him, and Keith abandons his stretches to roll away, scooping up the second staff and taking his stance next to Lance.  “You couldn’t wait till I was ready?”  He asks, side-eyeing the blue paladin.

“You snooze you lose Keithy,” Lance lets out a laugh and then he’s off, running towards the gladiator.  And people say he’s the reckless one.

Keith rolls his eyes and follows after him, aiming to flank the gladiator.  He isn’t as annoyed as he should be, too filled with pleasant emotions to really be upset about being tricked.  He digs his staff into the ground and pole vaults himself over Lance and the gladiator, relishing in Lance’s jaw drop as he sails over the blue paladin.

So yeah, he’s kind of showing off.

Lance isn’t as bad at melee combat as he claims – or as Keith sometimes thinks – and between the two of them, the gladiator is taken down faster than he’d thought.  Lance deals the finishing blow, slamming his staff right into its eye, making it go dark before it disappears back into nothingness.  They stand there, facing each other now that the gladiator is gone, and Keith is once again reminded that they do make a pretty good team, just the two of them.

“Let’s do level six next,” Lance says, breaking the silence.

“What?”  He’d half expected Lance to call it quits after one battle; after all they’d only done one the other two times they’d trained together.  Of course those sessions were a little…rough, ending with Lance winded or wounded or both.  This time it’s different; Keith can’t quite put a word on Lance’s emotions but he looks exhilarated.

“We beat that one too easy, so clearly we have to go up to a higher level.  I’m thinking we skip five and go straight to six,” Lance explains, propping his staff up on his shoulder like it’s his gun.

Keith wants to train with his Bayard, should practice with a sword instead of a staff, but Lance specifically asked for hand-to-hand training.  Or he thinks he did.  Maybe he’ll teach Lance to use a sword.  He has two now after all.

Keith shakes away the thoughts.

“Start training level six,” is the only response he gives.  He smirks at Lance’s squeak, the blue paladin having to dive away this time when the ceiling opens directly above him, dropping the second gladiator out.

---

Level six takes them longer than level four by quite a bit.  Keith isn’t convinced the levels are linear in their progressions.  He tosses down his staff when the gladiator finally dissolves back into code, dripping with sweat.  Lance lets out a dramatic groan and collapses on his back, flopped out like a fish out of water.

“Tell Hunk to liquefy whatever he’s cooking and pour it into my mouth.  I’ll be lying here waiting,” Lance groans, dramatic as always.

Keith sinks down next to him, his muscles complaining at the movement.  “Why do I have to be the one to tell him?  Also: gross.”

“Because you do this everyday, so you can probably walk.”

Keith experiments in lifting his arm, wincing at the motion.  “Yeah…not happening.”

Lance chuckles at that.  “I guess we’ll just starve.”

“Are you always this dramatic?”

Another chuckle.  “Of course.  It’s all part of my charm.”

“What charm?”

Keith snorts at the affronted sound Lance makes, letting out his own grunt when Lance slams his hand down on his stomach.  “I have plenty of charm, I’ll have you know.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Well then prepare to get your socks charmed off…once I can walk again.”

Keith swallows, throat suddenly dry.  He doesn’t want Lance to try charming him.  Or even just being charming around him.  Hell, he can’t even figure out what he wants from Lance in the first place.  How is he supposed to handle Lance trying to mess with his mind?

“Yeah…I…uh, will?”  He rasps out eventually, words lost to the groan Lance lets out when he finally chances sitting up.

“How do you do this every single day?”  He lets out another long groan, standing all the way this time.  “I feel like I could use a healing pod right about now.”

Keith stands back up, wincing a little at it.  He’d never gone for training level six before, even if he had taken on a whole slew of trained swordsmen in the Blade of Marmora.  The Alteans certainly were a different level of intense.

“I’m gonna go see what magic Hunk’s cooking up for us, wanna join?”  The invitation takes him by surprise, which is the only reason he can think of for nodding dumbly and following Lance out of the training room.

 


 

 

“Hunk, my main man!”  Lance greets when they make it to the kitchen, wrapping his arm around his friend’s shoulder and regretting it almost immediately.  Ok, yeah that hurts.  He’s gonna be in pain tomorrow.  Level six was a bad idea, he’ll admit that.

Hunk, for his part, lifts the pan in his hand and moves it out of the way.  “Lance, watch it.  You should know better than to interrupt me when I’m in The Zone.”

“Whoops.”  Lance moves his arm off Hunk, backing up and standing at the counter by Keith.  “But also, we’re starving.  Are you gonna be done soon?”

“Dude, you’re a varga too early.”  At the very least, Hunk sounds apologetic.

It doesn’t stop the loud complaint – ‘dramatic’ as Keith would say – coming from Lance’s lips.  “I’m gonna die.”

Keith bumps into his side.  “Just eat some goop.”

“But it’s not what Hunk is making,” he whines, just for the reaction.

He’s not disappointed.  Keith snorts and out of the corner of his eye, Lance catches him roll his eyes.  “You’re ridiculous.”

“Not dramatic?”

“Very dramatic,” Keith assures him, patting his shoulder as he steps away from the counter.  “I’m gonna shower and change.  See you guys at dinner.”  He waves at them both before he heads out.

Hunk replies with a “see ya in a bit” and a nod, while Lance can’t do anything except stare at the other paladin while he walks away, wondering if their exchange counts as flirting or not.

“Mhm…thought so.”  Hunk’s voice jerks him from his thoughts and back to the present.  The yellow paladin’s turned away from the stove and staring straight at him with a knowing look.

Lance flushes for no reason.  No…there’s a reason.  He just hopes Hunk isn’t going there.  “Thought so what?”

“Lance, we’ve been together for years.  Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“But that makes it so much easier to deny.”  He keeps his own tone light and joking, aiming for a change of subject or at least a swift end to this one, but Hunk doesn’t buy into it.

“Lance.”  He even has his Serious Face on this time.  “What are you doing?”

He drops the act.  “Hunk, we’re just…look Keith is in a bad place right now, I’m just helping him out.”

“By getting all hot and sweaty with him?  Seriously, what were you even doing?”

His flush turns to a deep red.  “I – It’s not like that!  What the hell, Hunk, we were just training!  In the training room!  With the robot!”

“Ok first of all, it’s a gladiator.  And second of all, isn’t that three days in a row you’ve trained with him?  Usually it’s hell even getting you to train with the rest of us.”

Lance lets out a huff of frustration, because Hunk isn’t getting it.  It really isn’t like that.  “He didn’t train yesterday, and it doesn’t matter.  He and Shiro are…I dunno.  Whatever.  They’re really close, and you didn’t see him that first week, man.  He was really messed up.”

Hunk sighs, clearly giving up against Lance’s stubbornness.  “I’m not saying he wasn’t.  We’re all worried about Keith, you know.  Just like we all miss Shiro.”  He takes a deep breath, like he’s expecting a fight from his next words.  “But I’ve seen how messed up you get over this too, Lance.”

This being Keith.  This being Lance’s crush on Keith that he swore up and down he was over.  This being the mark Lance’s elusive soulmate left on him two nights ago that Hunk still hasn’t commented on.  He wants to deny what Hunk’s saying; tell him that this time, he really does have his shit figured out.  That he’s totally over Keith this time and not to worry about it.

But none of those things are true, so all he says is: “I know, but I can’t help it.”

Any other person would tell Lance what to do; tell him that he needs to give himself space.  But this is Hunk, and Hunk’s learned that that’s not what Lance needs.  Lance needs to make his own mistakes, move at his own pace.  “Just be careful, Lance.”

“Yeah…yeah…”  Lance takes a breath and mimics Keith’s actions from before, pushing himself off the counter.  “I could use a shower too.  I’ll be back for dinner.”

Hunk nods and waves him off, the worry never disappearing from his eyes.

---

Lance tells himself he’s not disappointed that Keith isn’t still in the showers.  He’s relieved.  Totally relieved.  Not having to be in the presence of a mostly naked Keith with water dripping down his –

But he doesn’t have to worry about that, because Keith isn’t here.  (He takes an extra cold shower anyway.)

By the time he heads back towards the kitchens, the designated varga is mercifully over, and the smell of…

“Did you make tamales?”  He asks as he walks in.

Hunk is grinning as he turns around, pulling what look like bright green husk-less tamales off the stove.  “They smell like it, right?”

Lance wrinkles his nose at the sight.  Why is everything in space neon green?  “Yeah…they don’t look like it though.  Are they even…do they count as tamales?”

Hunk shrugs.  “Kinda.  The spices are as close as I could get and obviously there weren’t husks so I had to improvise cooking methods but it still tastes amazing, Hunk’s Honor.”  He holds up three fingers in a salute.

“Everything you make tastes amazing, Hunk, you know that,” Lance assures him.  His stomach lets out a loud growl.  “So…food?  Ready?”

“’Course,” he motions to the plate already holding a pile of the space tamales.  “Dig in.”

Lance obliges, grabbing one and sliding into a seat at the counter while Hunk finishes up right as Keith walks back into the kitchen.  “Took you long enough, Mullet.”

Unsurprisingly, Keith rolls his eyes at him, but there’s a hint of a smile on his face this time too.  “It wasn’t a race, Lance.”  And yeah, ok, Lance definitely needs to figure his shit out fast because his stomach has never yo-yoed like that before.  Keith's expression falters for a moment, making Lance wonder if his own face has given something away, so he flashes a brilliant grin, the cockiest one he can manage and goes for: “everything’s a competition, my dude.”

Keith’s reply is interrupted by a plate smacking the table in front of him.  Hunk shoots Lance a significant look, wordlessly reminding him about the conversation from earlier – he may not tell Lance what to do, but he can be overprotective in his own way – and drops another tamale on Lance’s plate.  “I ate about five of these while I waited for the rest to cook and I am beat.  Try not to destroy the place while I’m out.  I like cooking in here.  And also that plate should be enough for everyone, so don’t eat them all or shove them down each other’s shirts or whatever.”

“I would not –!“  Lance starts, indignant, but Hunk interrupts him before he can even finish saying he would not shove them down Keith’s shirt.

“And ‘enough’ is not one per person either, Lance.”

“I wouldn’t do that –!“

This time, Hunk silences him with a look which clearly says I roomed with you for two years.

“Ok, yeah I would totally do that.  But not when we’re in space, come on dude!”

“Even if Keith challenged you to an eating contest?”

Lance opens his mouth then closes it again, because ok yeah Hunk totally has him there again.  To his surprise, it’s Keith who saves him this time.  “Yeah, yeah.  No eating contests or other food-based contests that’ll deplete our resources.”  He seems sincere enough, but he’s also sporting a slight smirk, like he thinks the whole situation is hilarious.  Lance has to bite back his own smile, blinking at Hunk instead and trying to look innocent.

Hunk squints between the two of them, like they had planned this as some kind of ruse before nodding.  “Good.  And clean up the kitchen too, would you?”  He asks as he leaves the kitchen, not hanging around to see if there’s an answer. 

He tricked them pretty good, getting them to clean up for him; one of Hunk’s few vices is his hatred for cleaning.  Seriously.  Lance never considered himself a neat freak, but he ended up having to clean up after Hunk when they roomed together at the Garrison.  It kinda paid off when Hunk would cook for him or help him with his homework, but he has to admit he’s pretty happy to have a room to himself and doesn’t have to deal with Hunk’s dirty socks all over the floor anymore.

“Did he just…?”  Keith is still staring incredulously at the door the yellow paladin had disappeared through.

“Yeah, believe it or not this isn’t the first time he pulled that one on me.”  Lance shrugs and takes a bite.  “He cooks, you clean.”

“I guess that seems fair.”

Lance shrugs.  “Fair enough.  I mean, he actually made something neon green taste almost like Earth food, so…”

Keith grunts in agreement and they go back to their dinner.  It is kinda strange, Lance realizes, knowing that he and Keith haven’t had a real argument all day.  Or, well, at least not a big one.  He thinks this might be the longest period of time they’ve gone without exploding at each other since they’ve met.

“So what’s the plan for tomorrow?”  He asks as Keith takes a bite.  Keith’s eyes open wide and he takes a breath then…suddenly he’s choking.  And coughing.  Lance smacks him on the back a few times, only to earn a side-eyed glare making him stop.  Eventually, Keith calms his choking down and gulps down some water, still glaring even if it’s not directly aimed at Lance this time.

“What the hell?”  Is all Lance can manage, because what the hell?

Keith won’t meet his gaze though, choosing to answer the tamales instead.  “Nothing, you just startled me.”

Startled him?  What the actual hell?  “Rude,” he says before he can stop himself.

“Rude?!”  Keith splutters, finally turning angrily to Lance, fight in his eyes.  Maybe a full day without an argument was too much to ask.  “How was me choking –“

But Lance doesn’t actually want a fight, even if he technically started this one.  So he takes a deep breath and tries to be the bigger person.  “Not important, never mind.  You gonna answer my question?”

Keith doesn’t choke this time, just stares at Lance with that unreadable expression from earlier.  “I don’t…”  He trails off, frowning like he’s irritated he said anything in the first place.

When no more words seem forthcoming, Lance takes the conversation into his own hands.  “Well, I figure if I’m gonna beat you I should probably at least start by training with you every day.  Best way to learn your weaknesses you know.”  He completes it with a wink he thinks is convincing.

“You want to train again?  Already?  Aren’t you sore?”

Lance winces a little, painfully aware of the fact that yes, he is very sore.  Shut up.  “Yeah but I also can’t let you get better than me.”

“I already am better than you.”

He picks up his tamale to toss it at Keith for that, but Hunk’s voice warns him not to and he lowers it again.  “You’re lucky this isn’t goop or I’d have no problems throwing it at you.”

“And you’re lucky I promised Hunk I wouldn’t challenge you to any competitions that would deplete our resources,” Keith counters.

He opens his mouth and closes it a few times, mimicking a fish out of water before finally landing on: “touché.”  Prolonged exposure to the red paladin is clearly not good for his health.

Lance lets his spork clatter to his plate as he polishes off the last of his space tamales.  Leave it to Hunk to make a perfectly acceptable dish out of radiation colored food.  “Well, this has been fun.  I’m gonna hit the hay, but I’ll see you on the training deck in the morning.”

He takes longer steps to the door, leaving Keith’s bemused face behind him.  He waits until the door closes behind him before high tailing it down the hall, needing a head start for when Keith finally figures out what he did.

It takes a moment, but then he hears the distinct sound of the kitchen door whooshing open accompanied by a: “hey!”  But he’s already too far gone.

 


 

 

Lance is eighteen the first time he sees Keith.  He doesn’t stand out much, aside from his outdated hairstyle, and Lance almost doesn’t notice.  Almost.  He catches a whisper of “isn’t he dreamy” as he passes by the most beautiful girl’s desk, and he turns around, cocky smirk in place, to introduce himself but she isn’t looking at him.  She and her friend are staring at the guy with the outdated hair – seriously mullets went out of style decades ago – giggling, and the asshole doesn’t even notice.

Lance hates him immediately.

The hatred only increases as Mullet Boy – as Lance calls him – beats him at every class, placing first without seeming to break a sweat, and works his way to the top of the fighter class pilots, while Lance is still working to break out of the cargo class.

Who he doesn’t hate is his roommate, a randomly assigned engineer named ‘Hunk’ (he lives up to the name, that’s for damn sure) who he hits it off with immediately.  They become fast friends, bonding over everything from movies and games to having a hard time finding clothes that fit their frames – though for opposite reasons – and eventually, even their odd soulmates.

Lance has always been a romantic, always wanted a soul bond like Guinevere and Lancelot or Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, a dream his soulmate clearly didn’t share.  And as fate would have it, his roommate (and now best friend) has a similar issue.

“They only draw these strange symbols.  I looked it up, but it’s not a language that I can find.  Not even a code,” Hunk confesses to him after Lance had gone on and on about how the only conversation he and his soulmate had had was when he was sixteen.

“Maybe they want to make up their own code,” Lance suggests, tilting himself over the bunk bed to look down at Hunk.  Hunk’s frowning like he’d already thought about that and just shakes his head.  He’s not the type to want to talk things over, not like Lance is.  So like a good friend, Lance changes the subject.  “First chance to fly is next week.  I’m definitely gonna kick Keith’s ass this time.  He has no chance against me in the simulator.”

Hunk chuckles.  This isn’t the first time Lance has complained about Keith, and it won’t be the last time either.  Mullet Boy is always trying to one-up him, Lance is convinced.  He’s mentally proclaimed Keith as his eternal rival, screw whoever else is ahead of him in grades.  Keith is the one he needs to beat.  “Sure you will, buddy,” Hunk agrees.  He’s teasing, but Lance knows he actually believes it.

And he does too until he’s standing there, watching Keith on the screen.  Because Lance may have studied his ass off regarding everything and anything there was to the theory of flying – the only thing he had to go on before this – but that’s nothing compared to Mullet Boy’s natural instinct.  Everyone's staring awestruck at the screen, including the instructor, and it’s no wonder. 

Because, damn, the guy can fly.

His jaw actually drops, his heartrate picking up pace as Keith flips the ship over to fit through an archway as easily as a tailor would thread the needle, and it’s not even a real ship so why is his heart beating so fast

So ok, yeah, Lance knows Keith’s objectively attractive – the girls in his class would never let him forget it even if he wanted to – and Lance has long since come to terms with the fact that he’s less than straight.  But this, watching Keith handle the imaginary space craft like it’s second nature to him, this is the first time Lance has stopped to consider that he might actually have a crush on Keith.

And that changes everything.

Keith is calm and collected when he steps out of the simulator, even as Lance’s heart has doubled in rate.  Iverson doesn’t have any of the nasty comments he had for any of the previous trials.  No can someone tell me what he did wrong?  Or that looked good but there was a glaring error, would someone like to point that out?  Just silence, then: “alright, next.”

Lance gets shuffled forward as the line moves, three from the front now, and he knows there’s no way he’s going to beat Keith after a performance like that.  But he also doesn’t care as much anymore.  He wants to talk to the guy, not thinking much past the moment, so he steps out of his place and into Keith’s path as the guy tries to walk through.

“Hey, the name’s Lance.”  It’s pretty smooth, he has to admit.  His voice doesn’t shake at all, even if he’s nervous.  He sticks his hand out to shake as well, just to further project the feeling of confidence he wants to portray.  “That was really something.”

This is the part where Keith is supposed to smile at him, thank him for the compliment and promise to watch his run too.  Or maybe he’ll be the type to blush and look away, shuffle his feet and say it wasn’t that great, all embarrassed.  Lance wouldn’t mind that either.

Instead, Keith looks at the hand for a second, like it's some kind of alien, before pushing past him without even an excuse me.  He walks away leaving Lance ignored.  Rejected.

Lance seethes as he gets shoved back into line and doesn’t stop seething until after he’s bombed the simulation – but not before failing to perform the same tailor move Keith had done – and gone to meet Hunk in the cafeteria.  He’s still seething about it as he eats, ranting at Hunk as he stabs his spoon into the mashed potatoes.

“I really hate that guy,” he declares, shoving another spoonful into his mouth.

Hunk looks dubious at that.  “Sure you do, buddy.”  He’s made it pretty clear what he thinks of Lance’s little ‘obsession’ as he calls it.

“I do!”  Lance shouts, splattering mashed potatoes across his tray.  “I mean who just ignores someone like that?  What a dick!  I hate him, I hate his mullet, and we are never going to be friends!  Rivals forever do you hear me?  Do you hear?!”

He gets ten laps for being too loud and getting potatoes on the ceiling, but he thinks he made his point pretty clear.

A few years and several galaxies away from the memory, Lance wakes up, his own voice echoing in his ears.  He shoots a mental apology to his past self, because he and Keith may still be rivals, but they’re also kind of friends.  Or at least, Lance has finally come to terms that he actually wants to be.

The dream had been jarring enough to wake him up a few hours too early but he could really use the rest, especially after the training session that day.  So he punches his pillow, flips himself over, and closes his eyes trying to think of anything but Keith before he falls asleep this time.

It doesn’t really work.

 

Chapter Text

Before

Before Voltron, Keith hadn’t thought he would ever care for another person the way he cares for Shiro.  With his blood relatives gone, Shiro had been the only one he had…until the Kerberos mission.  He’d never felt a loss so powerful than when he’d heard the news.  And he’d never felt a relief so potent as he’d felt when the escape pod had crashed in the desert, revealing a damaged but very much alive Shiro.

Nothing would ever top that.

And then Green had fallen out of the sky, Pidge’s shout echoing in his ears.  Keith’s stomach had dropped so suddenly for a minute he’d thought Red had been hit too.  Even now, a day – or two? – later, he’s still haunted by the strangled shout followed by an agonizing silence.

It’s enough to drive him straight into a panic attack.

He blanks out as he paints, pen not enough to get his fear across.  He needs to somehow mark out a space for Pidge on his arm with more than a thin black point.  He’s not a painter – his previous attempt at this medium an unpleasant memory – but this one’s easy enough.

By the time he’s done, his left arm is entirely green with a few leaf-shaped gold spots flecking it.  They look more like golden freckles but they do the job.  He’s calmer now than he was before, no longer shaking from the never ending what ifs.

The tingle starts a few minutes later.  Somehow even hundreds of light years away, his soulmate can still feel his emotions.  Keith frowns at his wrist, watching the words form.  Soul bonds make less and less sense the longer he’s in space.  Pidge has a theory that the bond would decrease with such a large distance, but it doesn’t seem to apply to him and his soulmate.

And a bond that can reach further than the one he has with Red?  He doesn’t like it.

For a terrifying second, Keith wonders if this is how Zarkon keeps finding them.  He’s had the fear before – the fear that he’s bonded to a Galra.  He wants to rule it out.  After all, whoever he’s bonded to speaks English and, even if the Galra could, he can’t picture an invader of the universe writing such…sap on his wrist.

He can’t keep going in circles like this.  He’s been awake for at least two Earth days, between the battle to free the Olkari and the constant jumps away from Zarkon.  Keith needs sleep.  Even Pidge had disappeared into their room, falling asleep on their feet.

He gets up and washes his arm off, no longer needing the paint to remind himself that Pidge is still here, alive before going back to his bed.  His mind empties itself more easily than he’d expected, and Keith falls into a merciful sleep.

---

He’s sitting at the kitchen counter, eating orange porridge for breakfast while Pidge sits across him, presumably working on figuring out how Zarkon keeps finding them.  It’s a peaceful morning, better than the night before.

The peace doesn’t last.

“Pidge!”  The shout jars Keith’s eardrums, making his eye twitch.  It’s too damn early for Lance to already be shouting.  He grumbles and digs back into his food, doing his damnedest to ignore the blue paladin.  Since when was Lance a morning person anyway?

“Lance, it is way too early –“  Pidge starts, only to be interrupted.

“I finally have the evidence to prove your stupid theory wrong!”  At that, Keith does pay attention.  He has no idea what Lance is talking about, but anyone challenging Pidge’s theories is always entertaining to watch.

Sure enough, he catches the distinct twitch of Pidge’s head as they turn to glare at Lance.  “My theories are never ‘stupid’, Lance.”

“This one is,” Lance assures, yanking off the arm of his jacket and shoving his arm in Pidge’s face.  “Ta-da!  The artist soulmate strikes again!”

“Lance your soulmate is literally a shit artist,” Pidge scoffs, clearly uninterested.

“That was one time!”

“And every time before and since has still produced bad art.”

“I resent –“

“But I am curious how the bond was able to reach this far…”

Keith doesn’t care about anything they’re saying.  He's frozen, mind and body ground to a halt in the middle of lifting his spoon to his lips.  His attention is fully focused on the arm Lance is still waving in front of Pidge’s face. 

Because there, in green and gold from his elbow down to his wrist, is the painting he’d done last night.

The light catches on a gold streak, Keith’s one attempt at making vines, and he can’t get the words out of his head.  Lance, your soulmate is literally a shit artist.

Suddenly he’s back in the desert again, hunting conspiracy theories and chasing smoke trails to try and forget about the fact that his best friend has gone missing.  He hadn’t had to resort to drawing on himself in a long time, but the anxiety had gotten to him in a way that even a hundred pushups couldn’t cure.  He couldn’t find his pens, but there was a paint brush and paint set under the sink and that had to be good enough. 

He’d splashed the colors on his skin, hoping to get the same results from the paint as the pen.  It hadn’t worked as well – the shapes weren’t coming out right and he had no idea how to deal with the running colors.  Keith had been struggling enough with the paints as it was, increasing his anxiety instead of relieving it, and as his hands shook he’d knocked the blue over onto the orange, ruining the already terrible painting on his arm. 

In his frustration, he’d screamed and started pouring color after color on, angry tears falling from his eyes because it didn’t fucking matter anymore.  Shiro was gone.  He’d abandoned the brush in favor of his hands and smeared all the colors together in a fit of rage.  

When the anxiety attack had finally ended, he’d looked down to find his arm a disgusting brown and blotchy from his tears.  It looked like actual shit.  He’d gone to the bathroom to wash it off, only to discover that the act of cleaning up the paint was more calming than painting himself had been. 

Later that night, his wrist had tingled and he’d turned it over to see a heart and I hope you’re feeling better now.  Guilt had flooded him almost immediately – he’d forgotten about his soulmate.

Now, seeing the crude rendition of a forest and leaves on Lance’s arm, he’s forced to remember all the other shit – figurative this time – that he’s left on Lance. 

Lance

Lance who has apparently been writing little hearts and encouraging comments to him.  Lance who had tried to connect with him when they were younger and was ignored for years but never gave up. 

Lance who pilots like he’s the only one in the cockpit, even when he’s not, and never gets motion sickness from it.  Lance who declared a rivalry with him back before Keith even really knew him.  Lance who flirts with every remotely attractive alien they come across. 

Lance who is now walking around bearing his mark, the green standing out attractively on his dark skin.

It’s too much.

“Keith?”  Pidge is the one addressing him, but both of them are giving him strange looks.  It’s only then that Keith realizes he’d tossed his spoon down and stood up, his stool clattering to the ground behind him.

He takes one last look at Lance’s arm before forcibly ripping his gaze away from them both.  “I’m late for training with Shiro.”  He’s lying, but neither Pidge nor Lance seem to care about that.

Keith turns to walk away, his progress interrupted by Lance this time.  “You’re not gonna finish your breakfast?”

“Not hungry.”  He shoots back the response without looking back, not wanting to see the damning evidence on Lance’s arm again.

It doesn’t matter; it’s burned into his mind anyway.

 


  

Now

Lance gets laid out by the robot the next day when Keith misses an easy block.  Payback for when he’d left Keith to clean the kitchen yesterday, he’s sure.  Lance shoots a glare at him from his place on the floor.  “Real nice, Keith.  I know you did that on purpose.”

“Why the hell would I do that on purpose?”  Keith’s already on the defense, arms crossed over his chest as he glares at Lance.  If only he’d been this defensive with the robot instead of letting it destroy Lance.

“Because you want to beat me and you know I’m exhausted.”

“If you’re that tired, why’d you even bother to train with me?”  Keith glares at him, but there’s no bite in his voice.  He almost seems – dare Lance dream it – concerned.

He huffs, laying his head back on the deck.  Lance still hasn’t moved from the spot he’d landed when the robot had tossed him halfway across the room.  To be honest, he’s a little afraid to.  “I told you, I don’t want you to get better than me.”

Lance half expects more arguing or the same cocky ‘I’m already better than you’ bullshit from the day before, but instead he hears a groan and a clank.  When he looks over he sees Keith flopped on the ground same as him.  He raises his eyebrows, earning a scowl that messes with his insides.  “Shut up, I’m tired too.”

Lance laughs, lifting his arm and examining the back of his hand.  His knuckles are a little red from a hit he took straight to them.  Not worth getting in the healing pod.  He hears a sharp inhale, and looks over again to see Keith staring at his forearm. 

Oh, right.  He’d almost forgotten about the ten thousand pound gorilla that is his still-visible soul mark.  No one in the castle has said anything about this one, which is weird considering that Pidge and Hunk always have comments.

He’s expecting the same antagonism from Keith.  “Got a problem?”

Keith’s eyes shift over, making contact with his.  He looks guilty, like he hadn’t expected to get caught.  Well, he shouldn’t have been staring then.

“No?  Why would I?”  His tone isn’t as combative as it usually is.  He must actually be tired if he’s not rising to the bait like he normally does.

But Keith also isn’t looking him in the eye anymore, so Lance doesn’t quite believe him.  “You kinda seem like you do.”

“Well I don’t,” Keith bites back.

“I’ve caught you staring at it a few times so just say it.”  Lance’s weird soul bond is low hanging fruit – at this point he’s almost irritated Keith isn’t saying anything about it.  He’s only had artwork appear on him once before since they got into space, and they’d all seen it that time too.  Maybe it’s too easy; maybe that’s why Keith won’t take the bait.

Keith glares straight at him, expression dark and unfamiliar.  “Why do you think I’m going to harass you about your soul mark?  You didn’t even make it.”  The words are dripping with venom so poisonous Lance almost chokes on his response.

Almost.

“Because it’s weird!  And it’s weird you haven’t said anything about it!  Everyone else does!”

To his surprise, Keith looks…almost terrified.  What the hell?  “I already said it’s your business.”

And suddenly Lance gets it. 

Because everyone else – everyone who’s ever made comments on Lance’s soul marks, really –all want to talk about their own soulmate.  Hunk hadn’t said anything until he’d been ready to show Lance his own weird marks.  Pidge brought it up so they could discuss their soulmate theories.

But Keith – and Shiro and Allura – have never been forthcoming about their own.  (Speaking of, do Alteans even have soul bonds?  Lance makes a mental note to ask Coran about that later.)  Which means Keith – and Shiro and Allura – don’t want to talk about their own.  Maybe they don’t have soulmates anymore.  Maybe they, like Pidge, can’t keep in contact with their soulmate back on Earth. 

Or maybe Keith’s just a secretive asshole who likes to keep important things like his Galra heritage under wraps.

“Well…good then,” Lance says finally, sitting up with a grunt.  “I don’t think I can take another robot, even if we go down to level 1.  Unless you want to fight and I’ll just sit here and shoot.”

If Keith’s confused by the sudden change of topic, he doesn’t show it.  Instead he stands up and rolls his shoulders as if the whole bout had just been a warm up for him.  It probably was.

“No one said you have to keep going.”

“No one said you have to keep going,” Lance shoots back automatically.  He’s on edge, despite not having a reason to be.  They’re getting closer to the Marmorites and the entire castle is tense – it’s starting to wear on him.

Keith rolls his eyes.  “Great comeback, Lance.  One of your best yet.”

Their responses are both automatic, but Lance knows their hearts aren’t in it.  Keith’s standing stiffly, gripping his sword too tight.  And Lance would bet his last five Earth dollars that it’s not because of their near-fight about his soul mark.  No.  He bets it has everything to do with the Marmorites.

He sighs.  As much as he’d like to hang around and watch Keith work up a sweat with the robots – which he wouldn’t, of course – he could use a shower, some food, another shower, and maybe a massage from Hunk.

“Don’t work yourself too hard, alright?  If I come by around lunch and you’re still here, I’ll shoot you instead of the robot this time.”

“Gladiator.”

“Don’t get snarky with me, mister.”

For a second, Lance swears he gets a smile from Keith, but the red paladin turns away, giving him a view of his mullet instead.  Lance resists the urge to stick out his tongue.  “I mean it!  I really will shoot you!”

“I’d be more concerned if you were aiming for the gladiators.”

Lance huffs in indignation.  “I’ll have you know that I’m an excellent shot!”

“Just go eat your food.”

Lance doesn’t listen to Keith, he doesn’t.  He was already planning to leave to get food anyway, that’s all.

---

The alarm goes off early that afternoon, sooner than Lance had been expecting.  The sound is followed Allura’s booming voice, drawing both Lance and Hunk’s attention.  They’re in the hangar, working on Blue this time.  Nothing huge like Pidge’s upgrades, just maintenance, but it’s something Lance felt was overdue.  (Also, Hunk had run out of things to do with Yellow and had started baking himself into a panic.  Lance had to do something about it.)

“Paladins, report to the bridge.”  That’s all Allura says, nothing more nothing less.

Hunk pokes his head out from where he’d been working under the console and meets Lance’s eyes.  They both immediately drop their tools and head out of Blue, with Lance shooting a mental be back, buddy behind him.

Pidge is already there, and Keith arrives half a minute behind him and Hunk.  Lance tries not to stare, he really tries.  Keith had clearly not given up on training.  His shirt is sticking to his chest from all the sweat, which should be disgusting, but just reminds Lance how attractive he is.  Goddamn…

Hunk clears his throat, and Lance jerks his head back to the rest of the group.  Only Hunk seems to have noticed, which is probably a good thing – he’d actually drooled a little.  Disgusting.

“We’re less than a varga from the meeting location,” Allura tells them, not looking back.  She’s standing with her back stiff, hands resting on the controls.  Lance wonders if she’s bracing for a jump in case this is a trap.  Allura might have come a long way, at least in her treatment of Keith, but she still clearly doesn’t trust the Marmorites.

“I thought it would be a few more days…er…quintants.”  Pidge rubs their eyes, moving from where they were standing to their usual seat.  Lance takes that as his cue and moves to his own seat.

“Originally it was going to be, but they decided to move towards us as well,” Allura says stiffly.  Yup, she still doesn’t trust them.

Lance shoots a glance over at Keith, not surprised to see him standing just as rigid as Allura, though maybe for different reasons.  He bites back his comment.  Now is not the time to lighten the mood.  Instead he looks over at Hunk.  Poor guy is nervous, shaking his leg under his own console.

Roughly thirty earth minutes, or half a varga – Lance totally knows how to tell time in Altean – passes in stiff awkward silence.  Lance observes them all: Coran typing away silently, Allura standing stiff as a board, Keith glaring holes into space like it’ll make them move faster, Hunk who can’t stop shaking his leg, and Pidge who looks tired enough to pass out right there but is probably more awake than the rest of them put together. 

The Marmorites better have good news, or this meeting isn’t going to go well.

“Princess,” Coran finally speaks, voice cutting through the tension in the room.

Allura nods.  “Put them on the screen.”

The space around them is replaced by a screen, the long haired Galra’s face taking the screen.  Korian?  Vorivan?

“Kolivan, thank you for meeting us here.”  Ah, Kolivan.  Right.

“Princess Allura, may I ask what this is about?”  The Galra gets straight to the point, formal as always.

“I would prefer it if we talked about this on board my ship.”

At that, Kolivan pauses.  He’s quiet for a moment, wearing an expression Lance can’t quite figure out.  He can’t read Galra expressions.  Probably a good thing Keith got his looks from his human side.  Though he would look cute with those fluffy purple ears…

No.  Now is not the time.  Focus, he reminds himself, bringing his attention back to the present.

“Of course.”  The connection cuts and the room bursts into a flurry of activity.

Allura moves away from the controls, heading towards Coran.  “Scan the castle, I want to see when he arrives.”

Pidge is already pulling up something on their own console, symbols moving faster than Lance can follow.  “Already on it,” they announce, “I have heat scans on the entire ship so I should see – oh there he is.”

Keith is over there in an instant, followed by Hunk.  “How did he get in here without a ship?”  Hunk asks as he leans over Pidge’s shoulder, clearly awed by the whole thing.

“Probably the same way Ulaz did,” Pidge responds, typing something.  “Sending the location to you, Coran!”

“Roger that!”

“Maybe they have transporters.  You know, like Star Trek?”  Hunk suggests.

Lance, not wanting to be left out, joins the party too.  “The ‘beam me up, Scotty’ ones?”

“Yeah, exactly.  I mean they have space tacos and used those two black holes for their base.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they could.”

Pidge nods, as if that makes sense.  Keith, though, is just frowning at the moving dot on the screen as it heads down the map towards the control room.

Lance takes a little pity on him.  “Star Trek was this old tv show and Scotty –“  He cuts himself off when Keith abruptly stiffens and walks towards the doors.  “Uh…Ok?”  He shoots a confused look to Hunk, who just shrugs back.  Rude.

The dot on Pidge’s monitor shows up as being just outside the control room, so they all turn around.  The door whooshes open, presenting the Marmorites’ leader.  Before Keith can step up – which he looks like he desperately wants to – Allura is there.  “Kolivan, welcome.”

“Princess Allura, to what do I owe this honor?”

Lance doesn’t know a lot about Galra, but if he had to guess he would say Kolivan’s skin is pale under all that fur.  He’s probably grieving, he realizes.  The Marmorites lost two of their own the same day Shiro disappeared.

Keith opens his mouth, clearly wanting to say something, but Allura speaks smoothly over him.  “We’ve found ourselves in need of the Blade of Marmora’s help once again.”  Lance would’ve thought it was unintentional, but he sees her shoot a sideways glance at the red paladin.  Keith looks like he’s positively fuming as he stands there.

“Of course,” Kolivan agrees, still frowning.  “We have no news that Zarkon has recovered –“

“That’s not it.”  Lance can see the tick in Allura’s jaw, a clear sign of the internal debate she’s no doubt having.  “One of the paladins went missing in the battle with Zarkon.  We have reason to believe the druids got a hold of him.  Where would he be?”

Kolivan’s eyes sweep over to where Lance is standing near both Hunk and Pidge before they glance back at Keith and then rest finally on Allura.  “The Champion has gone missing?”

Another tick.

“Do you have any contacts on the prison ships?”  Allura ignores the question.

“No.  Galra command has scattered, last we heard.  We’ve lost contact with most of our informants since the battle.  There’s a group of us who went to establish contact.  They’re near the Blevian system.”

“Bullshit.”  The word is almost quiet enough to be a whisper, but the strength of it carries across the room.

“Keith,” Allura warns.

His eyes snap up.  “No.  This is bullshit,” he repeats.  “Are you able to help us or not?”  He turns to Kolivan, and even from where he’s standing Lance can see the barely contained fury in Keith’s face.

“Calm down.”

“Fuck this.”  Keith turns sharply on his heel and storms out.

Next to him, Lance hears Hunk’s low whistle.  He doesn’t wait to see what happens next though.  Lance isn’t sure what drives him, but before he knows what he’s doing he’s bolting out of the room, after Keith.

He races down the hallway, but it doesn’t take long for him to catch up to the other paladin.  “Keith –“

“Back off!”

Lance takes a deep breath and grabs Keith’s shoulder, stopping him before he can make it any further.  “Sorry, buddy no can do.”

For a wild minute, Lance thinks Keith might punch him, but instead he actually takes a breath and looks away.  “I’m not going back in there.”

“I wasn’t gonna make you,” Lance promises.  Keith gives him a look like he doesn’t buy that for a second.  “Ok, ok.  So I don’t really know what I was gonna do.  But you were acting kinda weird, alright?  I got…” 

What?  Worried?  He can’t tell Keith that. 

“…curious.”  Oh nice, good one.  10/10 on that one, Lance.

Keith apparently doesn’t notice his hesitation.  “It doesn’t matter alright?  This whole thing is bullshit.”

“Yeah, I got that in there.”

“It’s a wild goose chase!”  Keith ignores him, throwing up his arms in frustration.  He pushes Lance away.  “It’s a fucking wild goose chase and meanwhile Shiro’s being tortured.  Or worse: they put him back in the ring again!  And we’re supposed to be happy with the scrap of news that someone else somewhere else might have news about it?  Well fuck that.”  He starts to storm off.

“Keith,” Lance already has to chase him down again.  He grabs his wrist before he can go to much further.  “Keith hang on, it’s not that bad.  I mean you found him last time, remember?”

Keith lets out a half-crazed laugh.  “I didn’t find him, Lance.  I knew something was supposed to happen that night and I followed the signs.  They just happened led me to Shiro.  I didn’t know what I was going to find.  That was dumb luck.”

“You know what else was dumb luck?  Me convincing Hunk to sneak out that night.  Seeing Pidge and following them to the roof where we saw you and Shiro.  Touching the blue markings on that cave.  And yet all of that led us here, and now we’re all paladins of Voltron.  Isn’t that kind of like fate?”

“What?  Like a soulmate?”  Keith scoffs.  And ok, yeah, that hurts.  Lance has been looking forward to meeting his soulmate since before he could talk, and hearing the guy he admires – and is maybe still crushing on – play off his dreams like they’re moronic isn’t pleasant.  But this isn’t about him.  This is about Keith and getting Shiro back.

So he nods.  “Yeah kinda.  I mean the universe wouldn’t push us all together just to let Shiro get away again that easy, right?  We’ll get him back.  Everyone here would kill to get him back, literally.  And for the record none of us are happy we have to chase down leads instead of breaking into a prison and kicking some Galra butt.  We all really, really want Shiro back too.”

He’s positive that’s not gonna work.  Keith is going to push him away and tell him he doesn’t get it.  And even though Lance does actually really get it, he’ll let Keith go and sulk and he’ll just stay alert for when he inevitably tries to train himself to death again.

But Keith is nothing if not full of surprises.  He breathes in, looking ready to yell, but when he exhales it’s with a sharp drop of his shoulders, tension giving out.

“I guess.”

“You…do?”  Lance clears his throat.  “I mean yeah!  You do!  See?  It’ll work out, I promise!”  He pats Keith a couple times on the back before reminding himself that he really shouldn’t be touching him unnecessarily.  “So promise me something: don’t try to kill yourself training again, ok?  I can’t keep babysitting you.”

Keith rolls his eyes but doesn’t argue to Lance’s surprise.  “Yeah whatever.  I’m gonna go…sleep or something.  Get me when it’s dinner time.”  He shoots Lance an almost smile and walks away.

That…didn’t go as bad as he’d thought.  He stands there, staring after Keith’s long disappeared back until Hunk comes out and asks him what’s taking so long.

 


 

 

 

Keith goes back to avoiding Lance the next day, though at this point he’s avoiding more than just Lance.  He knows his outburst had earned a talking-to from Allura – it would’ve with Shiro.  And he just…doesn’t want to deal with any of that.

The difference is that this time he doesn’t have to go out of his way.  No foreign emotions plague him as he makes his way towards the training deck.  He manages to train for most of the day without any distractions aside from thirst, exhaustion, and hunger.  In a way, it’s a relief.

But in a much more real way, his focus shifts.  Instead of watching the gladiators, reading their movements, predicting their attacks, he finds himself obsessing over every shift in his stomach, every tingle under his skin, every sign that there’s something that isn’t quite him controlling his emotions.

The result is him being thrown halfway across the room.

It’s funny, the irony of it.  He’d been so afraid of distraction he’d brought about his own defeat.  Amusement curls low in his gut, and the next thing he knows a flying water bottle nearly nails him in the face.

“Whoops, meant to throw that a little to the left.”  Keith looks up from where he’s lying to see Lance’s grinning face approach.  Well that explains a lot.

“Any more to the left and you would’ve hit me.”

“Exactly.”  Lance is joking, everything in his stance – in his emotions – tell Keith he’s just kidding.

But he rises to the bait anyway.  “You couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn if you tried.”

“Excuse you, I am an excellent shot,” Lance retorts.  Nothing changes in his expression, but there’s a twist in Keith’s stomach.  He frowns.  That’s…new.  His own feelings must be coming back, despite Lance’s presence.

“What’s the water for?”

If Lance finds the change of subject random, he doesn’t say anything.  “Uh, hello?  Blue paladin here.  I am the water god.”

“So you bring people water now.”

“Sure, yeah, let’s go with that.”

Lance is so weird, Keith decides.  He has every tool he needs in order to understand him – hell anything further and he’d actually be able to read his mind – and yet Keith still doesn’t get him.  Case and point:

“You’re laughing at me.”  Lance sounds affronted at that, a pout already formed on his face and Keith is so confused.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You’re smiling,” Lance accuses.

He is definitely not smiling.  Keith raises a hand to his lips and pauses.  Wow…ok so he is smiling.  When did that start?

“No I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.  And why else would you be if not to make fun of me, huh?”

Why else?  That’s a good question.  The only family he has – that he knows of – has been captured for the second time, they don’t have any real leads on where he is, and yet here he is smiling. 

Because his soulmate made him smile.

Keith’s actually been having fun with Lance, had when they were training together too, to the point that he can forget that Shiro’s just…gone.  Again.  He’s off in some Galra prison, and Keith’s over here having a good time because his soulmate smiled at him once or twice.

This is why he hates soulmates.

If the universe knew him at all, it wouldn’t have tied him to someone who could make him forget about Shiro so easily.  That thought is enough to make him stop smiling.

Keith peels himself off the ground, wiping his hands on his pants and deactivating his Bayard.  He can’t meet Lance’s eyes anymore.  The amusement and happiness is still swirling around his stomach, but the icy stone of guilt is weighing it down enough to clear his mind.

“Anyway, you may think you have everyone else fooled, but I know you’ve been practicing in here for hours without food.  I’m gonna try and con Hunk into making dinner early, wanna join?”  Lance asks. 

Keith has no idea how his soulmate can’t feel the change in Keith’s mood the same way Keith can read the changes in his.  He has some theories but…he tries not to think about them too much.

Keith’s hungry, near starving even.  The last time he ate was before they met with Kolivan.  And yet…  “No thanks.”

“Dude…I can practically hear your stomach growling from over here.”

Lance is exaggerating; Keith’s stomach isn’t making any noise.  But his anger flares anyway.  “Look, I don’t want to eat with you guys ok?”  He snaps.

The change is instant.  The happiness in his gut is replaced by something cold, colder than the guilt.  And the smile on Lance’s face slides off as if it hadn’t been there in the first place.  Keith instantly misses it – Lance looks a thousand times better with a smile than without.  “Yeah, ok.”  His voice is wrong too.

Something in Keith twists.  He’d gotten mad, yeah, but he’d never wanted to make Lance look like that.  He sighs, dropping his head into his glove and rubbing his temples.  Maybe Lance has a point; he is really hungry.  And tired.  And the combination is not helping his current mood.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he clarifies.  “I just” –  can’t be around you because you make me happy and I shouldn’t be happy right now – “don’t want to run into Allura after yesterday.”

“No, I get it.  It’s fine.”  Nothing changes between them.  Maybe Lance can feel Keith’s emotions.  Maybe he’s known this whole time about them being soulmates and he hasn’t told Keith because he actually hates it.  Maybe –

“Lance, really.  I promise I just need some time to be alone, ok?  I need to think about things.”  He cuts his thoughts off before they can get any crazier than they already are.

The tension loosens, unexpectedly.  Keith looks up to meet Lance’s eyes and he gets the distinct impression that Lance actually understands him.  “I get it,” he repeats, but it doesn’t sound so sarcastic this time.

Keith breaths out, releasing the tension in his shoulders.  He’s not sure he could handle it if Lance were genuinely mad at him.  “Thanks.  I promise I won’t do anything stupid.”

Lance shoots him a crooked smile.  “If you do, you have to include me in your plans this time.”

Even with his limited social skills, Keith understands the gesture for what it is: an olive branch.  So he smiles back, or at least tries to.  “Course I will.”

To Keith’s surprise, Lance actually does leave him alone after that.  Part of him is relieved.  He doesn’t have to worry about avoiding him or anything anymore.  But at the same time, Keith already misses him.  He hates to admit it, but he likes the swirl of emotions he feels when Lance is around, and how it almost always brings him up from whatever dark thoughts he was in before.  Lance is a ball of sunshine, illuminating Keith from the inside out, and he hates that he craves it.

---

Lance doesn’t bother him the rest of the day and no one else seeks Keith out either.  He trains himself to exhaustion the next day too, only stopping when the gladiator clips him on the temple and he sees stars.

Keith’s grown so accustomed to having Lance dart around, guiding him, even in these short few days, that not having it throws him for a loop.  Automatically, he heads to the kitchen, pausing when he hears voices inside.  It’s Pidge, not Allura, so he goes in this time.  He’s pretty hungry.

But, of course, Pidge isn’t alone.

“You gotta eat more than just that spoonful you know,” Lance wheedles, pushing the bowl towards them in a move so familiar it tugs at Keith’s chest.

Pidge shoots Lance a glare.  “Give me back my computer.”

“Not until you eat the rest of this bowl.”

He can always come back later.  Keith takes a step back, but somehow Pidge catches him.  They spin their head around to glare at him too.  “Keith!  Tell Lance to back off.”

“Keith, tell Pidge they need to eat.”  If Lance is surprised to see him there, he doesn’t look it.

“I did eat.”

“One bite does not equal a full meal.”

“Keith.”

Keith.”

He’s getting a headache.  “I’m not getting in the middle of this,” he grouches.  Since he can’t sneak out unnoticed, he may as well get food of his own.  Given that Pidge is now being force fed the green goop, Keith figures Hunk hasn’t cooked anything today.  So he gets his own bowl.

“We can’t let our little Pidgeotto waste away.”  Lance is amused, as always.  Now that Keith has actually managed to sit down and start eating, he can tell the difference between the pangs of humor and the pangs of hunger in his stomach.  He can’t go two steps without running into Lance, even when the other paladin isn’t seeking him out.

“God, fine, I’ll finish the bowl.  Just give me back my computer,” Pidge grumps, giving in.  Keith shoots them a look of understanding.  Been there, done that.  It’s always easier to just give into Lance’s wishes than keep fighting him about it.

Lance holds out on Pidge’s computer until they finish eating.  Pidge leaves and Lance looks at Keith, mouth open as if he has something to say.  He closes his mouth and shakes his head instead, giving him a crooked smile before leaving Keith to finish his food in peace.

---

He happens upon Lance again when he wanders to the hangars to visit Red.  He’s too exhausted to keep training, and he really doesn’t want to wander aimlessly around the castle again.  He knows there’s no chance he can get Red out into space without some resistance – though he can probably fly fast enough to get away if he wants – but right now he just wants to sit with her.  With Shiro gone, she’s the best friend he has.

“Hey girl.”  He’s greeted by a soft purr in the back of his mind.  She can tell he’s not his usual self.  He wishes he could tell her that everything’s going to be ok, but that wouldn’t be true and she would know.

So instead he promises her he won’t do anything stupid – not without telling me first – and just sits in the cockpit.  Comfortable, warm, relaxing.

And then he hears them.

“I’m just saying.  Next time we need a crystal for something, you should be the one who goes.”

“And I’m saying we shouldn’t need them that often.”

Red, sensing his curiosity, zooms in on the hangar below.  As if Keith needs it.

Lance and Hunk are walking towards Blue, carrying a case filled with tools and spare parts between them.  They set up under the lion, working on who knows what.  Upgrades or repairs or something.  Red sends him the clear impression that she wouldn’t mind repairs, but upgrades are not welcome.  She’s fine just the way she is.

Keith chuckles at that, relaxing again.  He hasn’t forgotten about Shiro, not the way he does when he’s with Lance, but he’s not beating himself up – figuratively or literally – either.

---

He passes by the med bay when Lance is cleaning the next day.  Later, by accident, he spots Lance sneaking a bowl of food into the control room.  That’s when he figures it out.

He and Lance may be the most useless when it comes to finding Shiro, at least until they can actually rescue him.  So, Lance is doing whatever he can to help.

They’re lucky to have Lance as part of their team.  Shiro may be their leader, but Lance is the glue that holds them together.  And maybe…maybe Keith’s a little lucky to have Lance in his life too.  If it weren’t for him he would’ve gone out chasing Shiro by himself long ago and probably would’ve gotten himself captured too.  Or worse.

The soul bond is probably what pushes him here now, standing outside Lance’s door with his fist paused, ready to knock.  Right now he thinks he’s ok with that.  He needs something to keep him grounded, to stop him from panicking so much about Shiro.  And if Lance is what does that?  He’s going to stop questioning it.

So he knocks.

“Just a sec!”  A crashing comes from inside, and when Lance finally opens the door he’s robed and face-masked.  “Keith?  Hey, everything ok?”

This was a supremely stupid idea, but it’s a little late for regret now.  “I don’t need you to avoid me anymore.”

Lance laughs.  “I wasn’t avoiding you.  I was giving you space.  Remember?  Like you asked.”

“I want to train together again.”

“I hate to break it to you buddy,” Lance leans forward, resting his hand on Keith’s shoulder, “but it’s bedtime.”

“Tomorrow then.”

The blue paladin grins, making Keith’s stomach swoop.  “Alright.  Don’t get started without me.”           

Chapter Text

Before

It starts with an itch.

Keith scratches his arm absent-mindedly, trying to focus on what his teacher is saying. School, he’s decided, is incredibly boring. Teachers lecture about barely relevant topics then assign busy work with the idea it’ll keep the students out of trouble.

As if.

The only reason Keith likes going to school at all is because it’s better than being at home. He has no idea who his mother is – his dad certainly isn’t telling – and his dad is only home about thirty percent of the time anyway. He’s pretty sure his dad is searching for something - that’s the reason he’s gone so often - but that doesn’t stop the quiet from creeping up on him.

If schoolwork is designed to keep him from doing drugs and sleeping around, then it’s working. It doesn’t stop him from breaking and entering though. His name is known in the local precinct by now for busting windows and breaking into places he doesn’t belong as he tries to piece together clues left behind by his father. Sticky notes here, newspaper clippings there…Keith is positive they’re all related to the thing his dad keeps disappearing over.

So now he has to get signatures from all his teachers every day, saying he attends class. It’s fucking stupid.

Keith continues scratching at his arm, finally giving up on listening and looking out the window instead. If he were a pilot, if he could have a speeder, he’d be able to fly around faster than his dad. He could actually help instead of being forced to attend a high school lecture on – he turns his head back to the projector – Napoleon’s failure to invade Russia.

Who the fuck would be stupid enough to invade Russia in the winter?

All Keith wants to do is go back home and continue searching. He’s not even sure what he’s searching for, but something inside him tells him that he’ll know it when he finds it.

He spends his lunch holed up in the classroom, gathering his notes and trying to find a pattern, a clue. He could only bring one notebook with him, so everything is written down as second hand at best. If there’s a clue in the way things are written, a code like in those books and movies related to the way the words lie on the page, he won’t see it here.

His notebook is snatched from his grasp, bringing his attention back. He thought they were done with this back in middle school. But jocks still get all the glory, all the benefits of having hit their growth spurt by high school. Meanwhile Keith is still stuck as the gangly short kid, even at sixteen.

“Give it back.” He doesn’t raise his voice, knowing better than to fight them. Again.

“We’re just looking. Dying to know what’s so interesting that you’ve holed yourself up away from everyone else.”

“Give it back,” Keith repeats.

“Why don’t you make me?” The guy’s sneer is taunting, just like every other bully who thought he was an easy target. So Keith can’t really be blamed for punching him in the face.

It still lands him in two weeks’ worth of detention.

The worst part of detention is that you can’t bring anything but homework. They actually check. Backpacks and cell phones are confiscated, only text books and notebooks are allowed. And since Keith got in a fight over his personal notebook, all of his are checked for schoolwork too.

It’s completely unfair.

So instead, he gets to read about how stupid Napoleon was for trying to invade Russia in the winter. Or he gets to stare out the window. Those are his options.

He stares at his textbook, reading the same sentence for the fifth time, itching his arm. He’s in his second week of detention, only a few days left now, and certain things have stayed consistent: one, he’s been stuck reading about Napoleon the entire time, and two, his arm will not stop itching.

The itch prickles at his mind as well, bothering him until he’s sure it’s going to drive him insane. He’s sick of reading about the history of Europe. Sick of looking out at the same back road. Sick of sitting in a fucking chair, unable to move without risking a third week of detention.

He scratches his arm so hard he thinks he might’ve actually drawn blood. With a mental curse, Keith yanks his sleeve up, trying to see what kind of bug bite has made him itchy for the past two fucking weeks, and pauses.

Because there is no bug bite.

Instead there are words, entire sentences, tracing themselves across his skin. Some are faint, some look freshly written. They are written in all kinds of colors, as if different pens were used to write different thoughts.

And Keith didn’t write any of them.

Everyone on Earth knows about soulmates, everyone knows about the markings. Some people wear short sleeves, tank tops even, showing off their marks to the world – no doubt hoping to find their soulmate. Others keep themselves completely covered, opting to keep it a secret so they can meet naturally. (Though if they have the ability to write who they are on your skin, then there’s nothing unnatural about it, as far as Keith is concerned, but no one seems to give a shit about that.)

It’s not that Keith thought he wouldn’t have one. It’s just that Keith hasn’t thought about it at all. Beyond trying to make his dad stay home and wondering if this time, he’ll really disappear for good, Keith hasn’t thought of much.

He’d forgotten soulmates were a thing.

But now he’s given a harsh reminder of it in multicolored words, weaving their way across his skin. There are too many things to read, too many to decipher. It’s overwhelming how much his soulmate has to say, when Keith himself has nothing to offer outside where’s my dad?

Besides, he realizes with a frown, aren’t soul marks supposed to come with emotions? Why can’t he feel what his soulmate is feeling? Is it because he’s only noticing them now, after all the words have been written?

No, that can’t be the case. Because at that moment, the back of his hand starts to itch. Keith turns it over and watches in wonder as letters scrawl out over the back of his hand. Are you from outer space? Because you’re out of this world!

A pickup line. His soulmate just scrawled a fucking pickup line on the back of his hand. Where anyone could see it.

“Kogane.”

Keith’s head snaps up at the sound of his name. Immediately, he balls his hand into a fist and hides it under the table. Today’s detention teacher is standing, book under her arm. “Yes?” Keith asks, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart, the chanting in his head saying please don’t ask to see my hand. Please, please, please.

“It’s five. You’re free to go.”

Keith glances at the clock. Sure enough. He’d managed to kill almost forty five minutes staring at the marks on his arm. He rushes to gather his things, cramming them in his backpack under the bemused gaze of the teacher. He mumbles his goodbye as he races out the door, hand shoved firmly in his pocket.

He manages to ignore it for days. The itch doesn’t go away. In fact, now that Keith’s aware of it, it increases. As do the words. They scrawl up his arm until there’s no room, and then the itch starts on his legs. Somehow, he’d managed to land himself the most talkative soulmate in the world. One who doesn’t get a hint when Keith doesn’t respond.

The time isn’t right for a soulmate. He’s too focused, too intent on his own projects. He doesn’t have time to devote to another person right now. Especially not one as overwhelming as his soulmate apparently is.

Keith stays silent so long that he gets used to the constant itch. It’s comforting in a strange way, and if he concentrates hard enough when his soulmate starts writing, he can almost decipher emotions. Nothing more complicated than positive or negative, but at least some feelings are there.

And it’s…a little fun. At the very least, it’s a welcome distraction from the fact that his father hasn’t been home in over a month – longer than normal. So when the itch starts to dwindle, Keith panics.

His soulmate, apparently, can take a hint. It just takes them a little longer. The itching comes less and less regularly, leaving his legs first as the words confine themselves to a small area on Keith’s arm. The sentences, too, are shorter. And the feeling Keith gets every time is firmly in the negative category.

It isn’t until one night, several weeks after he first noticed the words, that Keith does anything. He’s lying in bed, staring at the ceiling as he listens to a thunderstorm rage outside. He loves thunderstorms, loves the way the lightning splits open the sky and the rain floods the desert. But tonight, he can’t enjoy it. Because he’s too busy stuck debating whether or not he should report his dad as missing.

He gives up on sleep when a particularly bright flash of light bursts through his curtains, followed by a rumble of thunder that shakes the walls of the house. He needs a distraction, something to take his mind off things.

Keith tosses his blanket off himself and turns on his lamp, hoping the power won’t go out. He grabs a pen and lays his arm out on the table. His pulse pounds in his chest when he clicks it, banging in his ears when he touches the tip to his skin.

His heart nearly stops after he finishes his question, the first thing he’s ever written to his soulmate. Hey, are you awake?

 


 

 

Now

True to his word, Lance is awake when Keith knocks on his door the next morning, dressed and ready to train. There’s only minimal griping about losing his beauty sleep, and this training session ends up being as good as the one previous.

He might be getting used to being around Lance.

Lance is cheerful as they walk down the halls to get breakfast after. He talks a mile a minute, and there’s a warm contentment settling in Keith’s stomach. To his surprise, he finds himself almost smiling.

Keith stares forward, hoping Lance won’t notice, but he can’t help but sneak glances at Lance out of the corner of his eye.

“…so Hunk ate the entire thing anyway, even though I warned him, and sure enough he vomited in the simulator. I mean it wasn’t the first time, and it definitely wasn’t the last time, but man. You should’ve seen the look on Iverson’s face…”

He trails off as they enter the kitchen and catch sight of Allura sitting there, eating a bowl of green goop. It’s been a long time since Keith saw her outside the bridge. He can’t imagine Allura is getting much sleep either.

“Allura!” Lance greets, overly excited as usual. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Allura gives Lance a tired smile. “Lance.” Her eyes dart over. “Keith. Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Lance repeats, heading to the tube and pouring goop out into a bowl. He passes it to Keith and starts filling a second one. “Is that a saying for Alteans too? Or did you pick that up just from being around us?”

“The castle acts as a universal translator. The sayings are similar enough in our languages that it translates to what is more familiar. I’m sure Coran would be happy to go over the details of it with you.”

Keith takes his bowl to the end of the counter furthest from Allura, though with how small the area is, he doesn’t get as far as he’d like. Being around her is awkward – last time he saw her he’d shouted at her, and he hasn’t gotten around to seeing her since then. He’s positive that he’s the one who needs to say sorry, but apologizing has never been his specialty.

So instead he sits there while Lance and Allura talk over him.

Or at least, he plans to. The conversation between them dies a quick death, and the room is filled with awkward silence. Lance takes the seat in between them and chows down on his food like there’s nothing wrong. Or he’s just hungry.

Despite their closeness, Keith’s having a hard time figuring out Lance’s emotions beyond his own. With a start, he realizes why: they’re the same. Lance is feeling just as awkward as he is, but he’s dealing with it by filling his stomach.

Nausea climbs up his throat. Keith turns the spoon around the bowl, clanking it on the sides a few times before giving up. He’s not hungry anymore.

He pushes his stool back, startling Lance. “I need to shower.”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Not really. I’ll eat later.” Keith flees without dealing with his food.

---

Half of him expects Lance to be there when he gets out of the shower, ready to drag him off to the next distraction. Instead, he’s greeted with an empty hallway.

Keith tells himself he’s relieved. He needs peace – he’s always been more of a solo kind of guy, so having some respite from Lance is a blessing.

But then he gets into the kitchen and sees a covered bowl of goop with a note attached. Don’t forget to eat, Mullet.

His heart performs an unnecessary backflip in his chest. Lance is just being nice, he reminds himself. Lance grew up with a lot of siblings; it’s totally natural that he would want to take care of his teammates. After all, Keith caught him taking care of everyone else. There’s nothing special about Keith. Nothing at all.

The goop does taste a little better than usual, though.

He spends the day polishing his sword and trying to transform it back into a knife. The Galra in the Blade of Marmora were able to transform their swords at will, but he’s been having a hard time with it. Sure he got it to turn into a sword, but it would be nice if he could carry it in when it was smaller and then transform it later. He really wants to wield two swords.

Keith polishes his sword in the common room rather than his sleeping quarters. The area’s bigger, and the lighting’s better here. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the rest of the team can get in. Because he is definitely not hoping that a certain blue paladin will come in with the hope of taking a nap on the couch.

Definitely not.

The sword is flawless, buffed until Keith can see his reflection unhindered, but he still doesn’t leave. For one, he’s not sure how to spend his days. Pidge has hobbies – he knows for a fact that they’ve been trying to learn Altean on top of practicing their coding skills. Hunk cooks and is constantly trying to figure out ways to upgrade his lion. And Lance…is Lance. He probably figured out how to swim in the Altean pool or something.

He’s sitting there, wondering if the bond is what makes him want to go to the pool or if he just needs something to do when Allura’s voice sounds over the speaker.

“Paladins, report to the bridge.”

There is no red alert, no flashing lights, and yet her voice is strained. Keith can tell even over the intercom. Something happened.

He gets up and grabs his sword, booking it to the bridge. He’s second to arrive – to Lance for once – but Hunk and Pidge follow immediately after. Allura is dressed in her battle suit rather than the gown, her face grim. Something definitely happened.

Keith’s mind darts around the worst case scenarios. The Blade of Marmora found Shiro, but they can’t get to him. Or Shiro’s dead. Turned against them. Back in the arena. Maybe the place they’re going was destroyed and the leads are all gone. Or –

“Hey. Keith. You ok?”

Keith looks over, catching sight of Lance, concern filling his face and his gut as he stares at Keith. He’d spoken low, but there’s no way no one else has noticed them standing here like this. He takes a deep breath. “Yeah. I’m fine.”

Lance doesn’t believe him, Keith can tell. Warmth leaves his shoulder, and Keith belatedly realizes Lance’s hand had been there. He wants it back.

“We’ve received a distress signal,” Allura announces, pulling the screen between her and the paladins. She clicks something and it zooms in on a small red flashing light. “This is Faelara. Ten thousand years ago they were minor supporters of the Altean cause, but as a peaceful people they did not participate in the war. We will be stopping and responding –“

“Are you serious?” Keith blurts out, irritation already bubbling to the surface.

Allura shoots him a sharp look. “Keith, I understand that your number one goal is to rescue Shiro. Believe me, all of us are working on it. But it is Voltron’s duty –“

“We don’t have Voltron!” Keith shouts. “Without Shiro there is no Voltron. So how is it our duty –“

“Keith,” Lance warns, but Keith ignores him.

“What possible chance do we have if we can’t form Voltron? Our number one priority should be getting Shiro back, and then we can focus on our duty.” He doesn’t mean to be so harsh, but he knows that it comes out that way by the shocked silence that follows.

Hunk is the one who breaks it. “Dude…that’s cold.”

Keith turns to him, wanting to shout that the only cold thing happening is them abandoning their search for Shiro, but he catches sight of Hunk clutching his own arm. The anger in his stomach churns, and Keith looks over at Lance who is openly glaring daggers at him.

Something about that strikes him, and he backs down. “Fine,” he growls. “How far out of the way is this?”

Allura looks like she has something more to say to him but instead zooms out on the map. She clicks a spot and a purple dot appears. “Not far at all. It’s a time delay only. Faelara is on the way to the Blevian system.”

Well that makes it a little better at least.

“How soon until we get there?” Pidge asks, speaking up for the first time. Keith glances over, but he can’t get a read on them. Are they mad like Hunk, Lance, and Allura? Or are they on his side. After all, they have to feel the same about Matt.

“Less than a varga,” Coran answers. He, at least, doesn’t seem to hate Keith. Or at least, he’s better at hiding it than the others.

---

Allura takes charge once they get in their lions, and everything feels wrong. For one thing, the orders are coming from the ship rather than the field. For another, though she’s taken charge before, Keith is used to hearing Shiro’s voice when he assigns tasks.

“Pidge, I need you to get there first and alert us to the situation. Lance, you hang back since you have greater range than the others. Hunk and Keith, prepare to go on the offensive. Good luck, paladins.”

They take off, leaving the castle. Pidge takes the lead, disappearing from view as they head towards the planet. The rest of them head to a nearby moon to hide. The planet is still a ways away, but Allura seems to be taking this one slowly. The castle hovers a ways behind them, ready to fly in when necessary, but not wanting to break their cover.

Everything about this feels wrong.

“Alright,” Pidge’s voice sounds over the comm link. “Approaching the planet now.”

“Careful, Pidge.”

“Quiznak.”

“What?” Allura’s voice is tense again, ready to snap. “What do you see?”

“I think it would be easier if I showed you. Stand by.”

A second passes and then an image fills Keith’s screen. He curses, the sound mirrored by Lance and Hunk. A battleship and full fleet are surrounding the planet. They have no chance without Voltron. Finally, Allura will see reason. They’ll abandon this planet, save Shiro, then come back –

“Alright, you know what to do. Take down the battleship and the fleet will flee,” Allura announces.

“Wait, what?”

“You snooze you lose, Keithy!” Lance shouts, and the blue lion goes flying past him. Shit. Shit shit shit.

“Keith, on your left!” Keith’s attention is ripped away from Lance at Hunk’s shout, and he barely avoids getting clipped by a shot from one of the Galra fighters.

Lance is a decent pilot, and Pidge needs someone to back them up. He can handle himself. Keith, meanwhile, needs to focus his attention on taking out as many fighters as he can with Red’s speed and fire power.

Yellow is made more for defense than offense, so Keith ends up taking the lead. The fleet is large enough that going for the battleship without chance of forming Voltron isn’t really an option. Not one they can walk away from anyway. He carves and cuts his way through, leaving Hunk in the dust behind him.

Their strategy falls apart completely when Lance joins the fray. All four of them are in the midst of it, trying to draw the Galra away from the planet they were attacking. And it’s sort of working, even if it’s painfully slow and doesn’t feel like they’re making any headway. They need Voltron. It’s only a matter of time before one of them –

“Shit! They’re aiming for the planet!”

“What – Lance!”

By the time Keith realizes what Lance is doing it’s too late. He’s already zooming away. Not towards the planet though. Not even towards the battleship. Instead, he’s heading to the space between them – the space where the battleship’s main gun is aiming.

“Lance!” Keith shouts again, urging Red forward as fast as she can go. He zooms through the fleet, glad Red is the fastest of them all, heading straight for the battleship. Red cuts through the ships, but it’s already too late.

The blast hits Blue, and Keith feels it all the way through his core. Red pulls up short as pain rips through his body, breaking out in a scream he hears echoed by his teammates. “Allura!” He screams. “Do something!”

 


 

 

The blast hits Blue so hard Lance slams back against his seat. He blacks out for a moment, coming to when he hears the sounds of his teammates’ screams in his ears.

“Allura! Do something!”

Blue is weak. He can feel her still, but she’s sluggish. One more hit like that, and she won’t make it. Neither will Lance.

“Baby,” he whispers to her. “We gotta move. Please, girl.” She twitches but can’t do much more than that. If only they could form Voltron – he knows for a fact that the magical connection between the lions would help her heal faster.

As if out of a dream, he catches sight of something black in his screen. Lance is positive he’s dreaming, because that looks an awful lot like the black lion. Blue confirms his suspicions, though. It is the black lion.

“Shiro?”

“Lance! Lance, can you hear me?” Allura’s voice fills the cockpit, and an image appears on the dash. She’s wearing a helmet.

“Allura, are you…in the black lion?”

“He’s alive!” she shouts. Immediately, he hears the other three paladins’ voices as well. “Lance. You need to move Blue. Keith and Hunk managed to temporarily disable the cannon, but that won’t last long. Can you fly?”

He nods, then remembers that she might not be able to see him. “Uh, yeah. Blue thinks she can fight if we could form Voltron.”

Allura hesitates. “We can certainly try.”

Blue flickers, life coming back at the promise of joining the rest of the lions. The cannon doesn’t appear to be back online, but Lance still urges her out of the blast area as quick as he can. They might both be willing to take a hit to save a planet, but he doesn’t want to keep her in danger unnecessarily.

“We’re operational,” he announces into the comm once the non-essential controls flutter back to life. He’s always wondered how the lions can recover so fast – how they can come back from nearly being dead without having any maintenance. Or how they fly when he’s literally never filled Blue up with fuel.

But now is not the time for that.

“Paladins, on me,” Allura announces, voice strong.

Lance isn’t sure what the others did, but the Galra aren’t shooting at them right now. The perfect opportunity to form Voltron. Except –

“Will it work with you?” Pidge is the one to ask the question before Lance can open his mouth.

“We’re going to find out.”

That’s a good enough answer for Lance. “Let’s try it,” he urges them. “Now, while the Galra are distracted.”

It feels…different. Lance isn’t sure how to describe it; it’s just. Different. He gets that special Voltron feeling as they fly in formation, but something’s a little off. His lion morphs, regardless, forming the right leg, and he feels the other four slot into place, but it’s still…weird.

Once they’re formed, he finally gets it – it’s because Allura’s not Shiro.

The hot red that is Keith, the calculating green of Pidge, Hunk’s warm yellow, all of those are humming happily on the edge of his consciousness. But the balanced violet of Shiro is gone, replaced by something else. Something more pink, emotions more volatile.

Allura.

“Holy quiznak, guys,” Hunk exclaims once they’re all together. “Guys we actually formed Voltron.”

“How was that so easy?” Keith asks, and Lance can feel the distrust, the irritation humming at his edges.

It’s so unmistakably Keith of a reaction that he can’t help but laugh. “Relax, guys,” he tells them, voice light. “We’ve been following Allura since the beginning anyway. Is this really that different?”

“Lance, while I appreciate your support, now is not the time,” Allura tells him in her Leader Voice.

He locks down any thoughts of her and Shiro being made for each other before they can fully develop. Allura’s right; they need to focus.

“Keith, Pidge, form the sword,” Allura commands. Her voice is shaking though, bordering on desperate, and Lance can tell why.

They may have formed Voltron, but the link is already coming apart at the seams.

“Got it,” Pidge confirms, and moments later Lance feels the tell-tale sign of Voltron’s sword forming. He and Hunk are of one mind when they fire their thrusters; they can all feel how precarious their hold on Voltron is.

“We need to take out the ion cannon!” Allura tells them, though they don’t need the help. They charge in, aiming directly at the cannon and slice through.

Luckily for them, the mere sight of a fully formed Voltron tearing the cannon off their main ship is enough to scare the Galra. The fleet retreats, fighters firing lasers back at Voltron to cover their escape as they jump to hyper speed.

And just in time too.

They manage to hold it together until the last fighter disappears, but the strain is too much on them. With a collective shout, Voltron breaks apart, and Lance’s mind is ripped from the others back to himself as he floats in space in the blue lion.

“Is everyone alright?” Allura asks after a moment.

“Yeah.”

“I’m okay.”

“Fine.”

“Never been better, beautiful,” Lance finishes, flashing a wink he knows she doesn’t see. He hears a heavy sigh over the comm that could belong to any of them.

“How’s Blue?” Hunk asks, mild worry in his tone. Good old Hunk, always worried about him.

Lance pulls up her vitals on his console. “I can land her, but she needs rest and some maintenance before we take on another Galra fleet.”

“Take her back to the castle,” Allura instructs. Lance catches sight of the black lion flying down towards the planet. “I will greet the citizens while you heal. Have Coran look you over as well.”

It’s an order, not a request, and it’s one Lance should definitely obey. With a sigh, he heads back to the castle, taking Blue to her hangar so she can get some much-needed rest. “You deserve it, girl,” he tells her, stroking his fingers over the controls. She responds with something like a purr in his mind. She also prods him, a reminder that he has his own wounds to heal.

He stumbles out of his lion, last to arrive, and nearly runs smack into Keith. “Um, hey?”

Keith looks like he can’t decide between punching him and hugging him and instead decides on something halfway. He smacks Lance’s shoulder, but there’s no heat behind it. “You are a goddamn idiot,” Keith growls. If Lance didn’t know better, he’d say there was emotion behind the words.

He peers over Keith’s shoulder and catches sight of Pidge and Hunk hovering at the bottom of the ramp. Lance waves a little at them too. “Hey guys. I’m totally fine. Thanks for worrying.”

Pidge rolls their eyes. “You are ridiculous.”

Hunk though, stares at him meaningfully. “Don’t do it again.” His voice is unnaturally serious, his eyes glinting with something half-warning and half-worry. Lance nods to him, trying not to look as weak as he feels. If Hunk sees anything out of the ordinary, he doesn’t remark. Instead he turns and follows Pidge out of the hangar.

Lance sighs, hunching over. His legs are jelly, ready to give out on him at any moment. “Keith, buddy?”

“What.”

“Can you get me to a med pod?”

Keith’s eyes widen, but Lance doesn’t have a chance to see much more than that before he tilts forward. Really, he should get an award for trusting his teammate, because he doesn’t doubt that Keith will catch him.

He does.

---

Falling out of the med pod onto Keith less than a varga later is not unpleasant. It’s weird, though, collapsing onto his rival. Certainly almost as weird as getting his help into the pod in the first place. He’s definitely imagining that Keith holds onto him too long and seems reluctant to let go.

“Miss me that much?” He teases when he’s finally released. His legs are still a little wobbly, but it’s more like they usually are when he comes out of the pod than residual weakness from his earlier injury.

“Allura wants us to get dressed up. You have formal clothes in your room. We need to go down to the planet.”

“Why aren’t you dressed up then?”

Keith shifts his eyes, looking away from Lance. “Someone had to stay to tell you.”

His heart flips despite himself. “So everyone else is down there?”

“Yeah.”

Keith waited here. For him. It doesn’t mean anything, Lance reminds himself. Keith’s the only one who knew he couldn’t really walk. He’d intentionally hid that from Pidge and Hunk, not wanting them to worry. Of course Keith waited. That’s what teammates do.

Doesn’t stop the grin on his face. “Let’s get ready then.”

---

When he’d talked about wanting feasts and parades in his honor, he’d mostly been kidding. But this? This is nice. Really, really nice. Not that saving the Olkari wasn’t nice. Or any of the other species. But they’d never really had the chance to stay and hang out before.

Granted, this was so Blue could recover overnight, giving them a full day of repair time before they hit the Blevian system. But still. A feast in their honor.

It’s a literal dream come true.

And the Faelarans? Wow. They are…wow. A really pretty species. They’re all pink, various shades, but no matter what color – hot pink, pale pastel – and no matter their size – tall and slim or short and stout – they are all amazingly beautiful. They’re no mermaids, but they are…wow. Really wow.

It’s all Lance can say for a while.

“Wow,” he tells Hunk again. “This is seriously amazing. Did you think there were people this pretty in space? Because I thought Alteans were the prettiest. Damn.”

Hunk rolls his eyes, seemingly over his anger about Lance trying to sacrifice himself again. “I get it, Lance. You’re attracted to everything.”

“Not everything. Just the Faelarans. Man, do you think they dance? Do you think I could get one of them to dance with me?”

A growl meets his ears.

Lance turns to glare at Keith. Pidge had left ages ago, fed up with Lance’s fawning before he’d even finished his first round. Keith, for some insane reason, had stuck around. “Got a problem?”

“Do you think about anything aside from parades and girls?” Keith starts.

“Excuse you! I think about plenty of things. Tell him, Hunk.”

Lance turns, but the area next to him is empty. He swears he hears something like a snort coming from where Keith is still standing. “Oh can it, Mullet. You’re just –“

“Blue Paladin?”

A voice distracts him from coming up with something Keith is jealous about. It’s a good thing too, because Lance can’t think of a single thing. So instead he turns to the new voice and catches sight of the most beautiful Faelaran walking towards him. She’s a pale pastel pink, which perfectly complements her silver dress. She’s also wearing more jewelry than the others, meaning she must be someone important.

He swallows. “Yes?”

She smiles, snatching Lance’s breath away. “I thought so. I am Lae, Princess of Faelara.” And okay, wow a princess. This isn’t a fantasy he’s had or anything. Nope. “I want to personally thank you for the part you played in banishing the Galra.”

He blinks, taken aback by how real his fantasy is becoming. “What?”

“You are the one who took the shot from the battleship, are you not?”

When Lance speaks, his voice comes out a squeak. “Yeah?” He clears his throat and tries again. “Uh, yes I mean. That was me.”

“We are still a peaceful people, despite what the Galra have been doing with our sciences. A blast like that would’ve destroyed this city. Half our population would’ve been dead in an instant.”

“Oh,” is all Lance can say. What is he supposed to say to that? He’d jumped without thinking. Of course, saving a civilization is the best case scenario, but he hadn’t been aware of what exactly it had meant when he’d done that. “That’s the duty of a Voltron paladin,” he chokes out eventually.

“May I have your name, Blue Paladin of Voltron?”

“Lance.”

“Lance, then. Please accept this token of thanks.” Before he can react, she’s right in front of him. Lae leans in, planting a soft kiss, feather light, on his cheek. He blinks and she’s back where she started. She gives him a little curtsy and disappears before he can do more than gape at her.

 


 

 

“You have a visitor.”

Shiro looks up at the voice. He’s bound against a table, held tight by a cuffs around his hand and ankles. His entire body aches, and his breathing is labored as if he ran a marathon. Sweat drips down his brow, and his head pounds. But there are no new wounds.

Not visible ones anyway.

He doesn’t say anything to the comment. It doesn’t matter what he says; they are fully in control of the situation, he knows that. So instead he just stares defiantly at the Galra guard until they disappear out the door.

The druids have been coming and going; he’s not surprised by anything anymore. But the next person to step through the door isn’t a druid. It’s a Galra, tall with long white hair, flanked by two guards. “Leave us,” he orders them in a smooth voice. The guards bow and disappear, leaving him alone with Shiro.

This Galra isn’t particularly bulky, doesn’t have the same physique as Zarkon, but there’s something off-putting about him regardless. What he lacks in stature, he more than makes up for by the intimidating aura rolling off him.

Shiro knows exactly who this is.

“Prince Lotor, I assume?”

The Galra smirks, teeth hidden behind his lips. “They told me the Champion was strong. They never mentioned he was clever too.”

“Still am,” Shiro growls.

“And defiant.”

Lotor steps closer, and Shiro has to resist the urge to flinch. He can’t let them know they’re getting to him. He’s seen it before, back in the arena. One sign of weakness, and they exploited it until you broke. He bites the inside of his lip instead, willing himself into an appearance of outward calm, even if his insides are squirming.

“What do you want from me?”

Lotor tuts, shaking his head. “Me? I’m just here to see what all the fuss is about.”

“You won’t get your hands on the black lion. Voltron will never bow to you.”

Lotor laughs. It’s a cold, harsh sound, sending shivers down his spine. “You confuse me with my father. I have no interest in Voltron.”

That throws Shiro for a loop. He’d been certain that the only reason he was taken was so Zarkon could re-forge his bond with the black lion and take over Voltron. He’d thought the druids were doing something to him – something to break his connection with Black. He’d been so sure.

“Why are you torturing me, then?”

Lotor leans in, creepy smile playing on his lips. “Oh, my dear Champion. I’m not torturing you. Believe me.” He leans back again. “I told you. I want to see what the fuss is about. The druids took you for my father. Now they’re mine, just like you are. Consider this me taking inventory.”

Shiro feels like an object, a bug at best, under Lotor’s gaze. The prince’s eyes sweep over him, seemingly uninterested. He stops on the stump of Shiro’s arm, poking it. His finger is cold, colder than Shiro expected.

Against his will, Shiro flinches. “Ah, so you can still feel this. What about where it was cut?” Lotor asks, reaching for it. Shiro twitches, trying to pull it out of Lotor’s reach, not wanting Lotor to touch him, but it’s useless.

Lotor grabs his entire stub, fingernails pinching into him as he holds Shiro still. And just like that, everything freezes around them.

“Champion,” Lotor breathes, voice cold, digging into Shiro’s bones with every word. “These marks on your skin. Where do they come from?”

“None of your business.” Shiro bites his lower lip after saying that, cursing himself. He shouldn’t have said that. He should’ve lied. Told the truth. Something else.

Because now he has Lotor’s full attention.

“Really, now? I think you’ll find that it is.”

The urge to tell the truth, to get it over with, wells up in Shiro’s stomach. He tries to force it down, but it pushes his way up his throat until he opens his mouth. “I was born with it. My mom called it a special birth mark. It used to look like a flower.”

His eyes open in horror, but Lotor is smiling softly. He didn’t mean to say that. Why did he say that? “A flower? Was it a flower you’d seen before?”

“No. Never. That’s why it was a special birthmark.”

Don’t answer, he told himself angrily. Don’t say anything.

“But you don’t know what it was for?”

“No.”

Lotor has that smile on his face again, the one that sends terrifying shivers down Shiro’s spine. “Champion, I believe that you were brought to me for a reason.” He unbuttons his jacket, filling Shiro with a cold dread.

Lotor removes his jacket before starting to roll up his sleeve. Shiro suddenly doesn’t want to know what’s under it. “Do you know what that reason is?”

Shiro shakes his head, relieved that he no longer feels the need to speak.

“Then perhaps this will enlighten you.”

Lotor turns his arm towards him. Shiro is unable to look away, unable to close his eyes. Instead he’s forced to stare at Lotor’s arm, where a patch of purple skin bears a pink tattoo of a flower – the full version of the flower Shiro once had on his own arm.

Chapter Text

Now

Keith glares at the departing back of the princess as she leaves. He doesn’t trust her. Doesn’t trust her at all. He catches a sigh come from where Lance is standing and turns his glare in that direction instead. Lance is still standing there, staring dreamily after her.

Keith nearly shatters the glass in his hand.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Lance breathes. His gaze is still focused on the area filled with pink Faelarans, no doubt staring after the princess.

Keith's eye twitches, irritation prickling up his neck. He tries to clamp down on it, bites his lip to keep the words back. But they come out anyway. “Aren't you worried about your soulmate?”

Lance shrugs a little, infuriatingly not looking at him. “It’s not cheating. We talked about it.”

He blinks, shocked. Because Lance is definitely lying. There’s no way they talked about this. Keith would’ve remembered saying something. He's said so little to his soulmate that he remembers every word.

Lance winces, reading something from Keith’s silence. “Okay. They didn’t really say that. But I did ask them once.”

“You did,” Keith deadpans, disbelieving. He's judged his soulmate wrong all these years. He'd thought he was bonded to someone caring, committed to him. Lance may leave little love notes on his wrist, but clearly he’s nothing more than a playboy.

“Yeah. I did. A long time ago.” He glares at Keith. “So there.”

And Keith…is at a loss for words. He can’t remember that scenario, but he can remember the writings Lance used to do when they were younger. The one-sided conversations Lance had on his skin. How long it took for him to realize that the faint itch creeping up his skin was his soulmate.

Cold drips down his spine, pooling in his gut. Lance isn’t lying. Keith doesn’t want to ask his next question, the obvious question. But he’s all instinct and bad decisions, and a masochistic part of him wants to feel it. Wants the guilt. “Did they say anything?” He asks, knowing full well what the answer is.

Lance goes very still, hardly even breathing. “No,” he admits softly, his whisper twisting a knife in Keith’s gut. “They didn’t say anything at all.”

He shouldn’t get mad. Keith takes a deep breath, trying to quell the storm brewing in his gut. This isn’t Lance’s fault. If anything, this is his fault. He shouldn't project that onto Lance. But that doesn’t stop Keith from turning on his heel and storming away.

He heads out of the ballroom without even being stopped and continues storming down the hallway. Why did he bother staying that long? He doesn’t even like parties. It’s all forced socialization, pretending to remember names, smiling and trying not to give Voltron a bad reputation. No, that stuff is Lance's thing, not his. He’d just been there for…

Keith doesn’t want to think about why he’d been there.

He shakes his head as he stomps up the stairs, trying to clear images of brown skin marked by his pen. Of that same smooth skin being kissed by someone else. This is what Lance wants. Keith’s in no position – soulmate status notwithstanding – to stop Lance from doing whatever he damn well pleases.

“Ooph…”

Keith is halfway down the hall to his sleeping chambers when he hears a voice and a thud come from the other side of the door he’s passing. Keith stops short, hand itching for the Bayard he left on the ship. That sounded an awful lot like the princess. For a moment, he's torn between bursting in to save her and rushing back to the ballroom for backup. But nothing about this planet has given him the feeling people want them dead. So instead, he knocks. “Allura?” He can't recall seeing her leave the party, but it has to be her inside.

A clatter, and then: “Keith? Is that you?”

“Yeah. Are you alright? I thought I heard something.”

“Can you help me?”

Keith looks down the hall, but there’s no one there aside from him. It’s not like he expected Lance to follow him anyway.

Luckily, the door isn’t locked. All Keith has to do is press his hand to the door pad – why do all alien races use door pads anyway? – and the door slides open.

He just stares. And stares. Keith stands there and stares so long, in fact, that the door slides shut, and he has to press his hand to the pad to open it again. This time he steps inside.

Allura – proud princess Allura, survivor of the destruction of Altea – is caught in her dress.

 “Princess?” He asks, warily. He can’t see any of her body through where the fabric has been tugged up, covering her head. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get Pidge or…” He’s not sure who the or should be. Coran maybe?

“Don’t you dare walk out that door,” Allura warns, stern voice muffled by the fabric. Her head is completely covered, only a few white strands of her hair sticking out of the top. “I need help getting out of this dress.”

“Uh…” If Allura weren’t so terrifying, Keith would run out of here and grab Pidge instead. Getting a girl out of her dress is not his thing. (It might be Lance’s thing though.)

Keith pushes that thought away. “Wouldn’t that be um…not proper?”

“I’ve been stuck here for ten doboshes. I hardly care what’s improper or not.”

Keith rolls his shoulders back and steps forward. Allura’s okay with it, and Lance got kissed by a random alien princess. This is hardly like he’s cheating on his soulmate or anything. He can help her with her dress without feeling guilty. He can make this not awkward.

What would he even have to cheat on anyway?

When he pulls on the fabric though, something gives a squeak. “Was that you?” He asks, panicked, immediately stopping his motions.

“No, that’s the mice.”

“The mice are stuck in your dress,” Keith deadpans. He gets the feeling that Lance would find this hilarious. That is, if he weren’t trying to hit on Allura the whole time.

No. He needs to stop thinking about Lance.

“How do I get this off?”

“You need to pull the zipper all the way down.”

Keith fumbles around, desperately trying to find the zipper without groping Allura on accident. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He tugs at the fabric, searching for this imaginary zipper. “There isn’t a quiznaking zipper at all.”

“Stop tugging,” she orders, words accompanied by another panicked squeak.

“I'm just trying to find the zipper,” he insists, continuing to pull the dress around.

“Keith you’re making it worse. My hair's – ouch!”

Allura’s shout is accompanied by four distinct, panicked squeaks. Immediately, he feels bad. He’s not irritated with Allura; he’s irritated with Lance. He shouldn’t snap at Allura or intentionally disobey her because he can't get a grip on himself.

Keith freezes completely. Actually, he should apologize. He and Allura haven’t had a real conversation since he’d shouted at her. Twice.

“Allura.”

“What?” She snaps, voice still muffled.

“I’m sorry.”

A pause. “Oh.” She seems to understand that he’s not apologizing for tugging on her dress – though he should apologize for that too – because her tone softens. “Keith, we’re all worried about Shiro. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know,” he admits begrudgingly. Because he does know. He knows Allura and Lance and Pidge…all of them, the whole team cares about Shiro. They all want to get him back. To see him as leader. Which actually brings up the question: “How were you able to pilot Black?”

Allura sighs, as if she’d been expecting the question. “Keith, as much as I would love to talk about this, I would prefer to be able to move my arms first.”

Oh, right, of course. She’s still stuck. “Stay still.”

It takes a bit of maneuvering – more carefully this time – but he finally finds the zipper. A good portion of fabric is stuck between the teeth where it shouldn’t be. He tries not to pull too hard – every time he does the mice squeak like he’s hurting them – and gets the fabric away from the zipper.

Once Keith manages to free Allura from her trap, he turns away, looking determinedly at the door. This is better. At least they can maintain some form of propriety. “Please hand me the dress on the bed.” Or he could go to the bed and hand her the dress. He keeps his eyes averted as he passes her again, grabbing the dress there. It’s softer than the one he’d just helped her out of, looser than he’s seen her wear before, and it's short sleeved – something Keith can't remember ever seeing her wear, now that he thinks about it. If Keith had to guess, he’d call it a nightgown. Well, at least he’s not the only one who wants to get to bed early.

He hands it back to her without looking and stays facing the bed while he hears her rustling in the background. It’s amazing how the concept of a bed seems to exist in some shape or form in all the races they’ve encountered. Some things really are universal. Like language, beds, Lance's ability to consume his every –

“You may turn around now,” Allura tells him.

She looks softer in the nightgown, even if she’s still standing as stiff as usual. Keith isn’t sure what he said before counts as a proper apology or if it’s just that his presence here is awkward for her. It’s certainly awkward for him.

“How did you get stuck anyway?” He asks, more out of lack of anything else to say. Lance would know exactly what to say.

“It happens sometimes,” she replies curtly. “You were asking about the black lion?”

“I want to apologize first. I know you all care about Shiro too and –“ He cuts himself off as his eyes drop to the skin of her right arm. The nightgown had shifted, showing off more of her arm than before, and Keith catches a glimpse of what looks like a tattoo there.

It’s a flower with three petals, two of which are grey, but one – the top one – is pink. Seeing another marking on Allura isn’t that strange. She and Coran both have marks on their faces; it’s not a stretch to think they’d have more markings elsewhere. But one like this, one of this particular flower…

Keith’s seen it before.

He knows the mark because he’s seen it a thousand times. On Shiro. Before he left for Kerberos, Shiro used to wear short sleeves. Sleeves where Keith could see his arm and the strange flower on it. People would always ask is that a tattoo? The lines were almost too smooth for it to be a birthmark, but it also didn’t look like ink or henna or any other added marking. And Shiro would always reply the same way:

I was born with it.

Keith had only seen it once after Kerberos, after Shiro had lost his arm. Only one petal remained; the same petal that’s pink on Allura’s.

That can't be coincidence.

The gears in Keith's mind clank together, his thoughts beginning to whir. Shiro and Allura having nearly matching tattoos…could that be? Does that mean?

“Keith?” Allura asks. Apparently, he’s stood in silence too long. She gives him a strange look, reminding him that he’d cut off midsentence. He doesn’t even remember what he’d been about to ask.

He shakes his head. “Nothing it’s just…you have a strange...mark.”

Almost immediately, Allura jerks her other hand up, covering the mark on her arm. “It’s nothing,” she says, too fast for Keith to think that it really is ‘nothing’.

The gears speed up, and a sneaking suspicion creeps up his spine, sending shivers down his back. This could explain everything, every question he'd been too afraid to ask. But he has to be careful. He’s suspected, for some time now, that bonds – soul bonds – might be different across the universe. That not everyone has words trace themselves across their bodies.

What are the chances? What are the chances that he and Lance, Allura and Shiro…

After all, they’re paladins of Voltron. Fate or destiny or whatever brought them together. Why wouldn’t they be made of sets of soulmates? For all he knows Hunk and Pidge are bonded too. That’s the issue with fate – they don’t have a choice in this matter.

“Allura,” he starts slowly, “how do Alteans find their soulmates?”

She flushes, ducking her head. For a moment, Keith thinks that Alteans might be more private about soulmates. “It depends,” she says slowly, carefully.

“Depends on what?”

“Perhaps Coran would be better to ask,” she says, eyes darting around, looking for an exit.

But Keith isn’t going to give her one. “I’m not asking Coran. I’m asking you.”

She sighs, finally dropping her hand before taking a few steps back and sitting on the bed. “Please, have a seat.” She motions to a chair behind Keith. He sits down, glad she’s not kicking him out.

And waits.

“Alteans are…adaptable,” she starts. He wants to ask questions but bites his tongue instead, letting her speak at her own pace. “If we’re bonded to another Altean, we’re born with just a soul mark.” She points to her arm. “Like this.”

 “Just?”

“Yes. We are a chameleon race. You’ve seen me change.” Keith nods. “Alteans are made for peace, exploration.” She frowns. “Coran would be much better to ask, you know. I believe he studied soul bonds when he was younger.”

“You’re doing fine,” Keith assures.

She hesitates but doesn’t protest again. “If we are bonded with another race, someone not from Altea, we take on their characteristics along with our markings. I believe they take on our own as well, though how defined their marks are, I’m not sure.”

“And other races?” Keith asks, voice tight. “What about them?”

“They would take on our soul marks, like I said.”

“No, I mean what if other races are bonded to someone else? What if a Galra were bonded to a human?” Or a half-Galra, he leaves unsaid.

Allura frowns. “Keith what is this about?”

He’s said too much. Keith shakes his head, knowing how suspicious he looks. “Nothing. Never mind.” He stands up, ready to leave and be done. He did what he needed to do: he helped her out. And he even apologized for before.

“You know,” she sounds almost as awkward and uncomfortable as he feels, “you can tell me anything. You can trust me.”

“I know,” Keith assures her, heading towards the door. He pauses just as he reaches it, hand hovering over the pad. “Allura,” he asks, turning to look back at her, “do you know who you’re bonded to?”

Her expression shudders for a moment, anger crossing her features before it settles into a carefully neutral mask. “No,” she replies, too earnestly. “I don’t.”

---

Keith can’t stop thinking about the conversation with Allura that night. He lies in bed, staring at the ceiling as he tries to piece through what she's said, how she's acted. There’s something about her bond she doesn’t want to talk about, and that's something Keith understands, probably more than anyone else here.

What he doesn’t get is why. Her mark is just like Shiro’s; she should be glad to be bonded to him.

Except Shiro hasn’t worn a short sleeved shirt since coming here, so she might not know. If she did – if Shiro did, for that matter – then wouldn’t they all know? She’d have no reason to keep it hidden.

So maybe she doesn’t know.

But then why the anger? Why the careful expression? Can she feel Shiro from here? Does she know he’s in danger, know he’s in pain?

Or maybe she’s not bonded to Shiro at all.

Shiro's never had contact with his soulmate. He'd keep it private from everyone but told Keith about it once. They'd been talking, Keith finally confessed that he can barely feel his soulmate; he'd thought his connection was corrupted. That maybe there was something wrong with him. Perhaps Shiro had told him to make him feel better. Or maybe he just needed to get it off his chest. He'd had no contact with his soulmate, ever.

He’d worried that the timing was off – that he hadn’t matured soon enough for his soulmate. Or maybe his soulmate wouldn't mature until he was lying on his death bed. He'd told Keith in a soft voice, almost unheard over the desert wind, that there was something wrong with him, and that he'd been destined to remain bondless.

They hadn't talked about it again.

But if Shiro were bonded to an Altean – especially one who’d been asleep for ten thousand years – that would explain the silence. It would explain the strange flower on his arm.

Shiro's had three pink petals, but Allura’s flower has two grey and one pink. Maybe color has something to do with it. Maybe Shiro’s bonded to a different Altean. Allura had said they were like hers. Maybe Alteans all had the same soul marks with different colors or patterns inside?

Keith is going to go insane thinking about this.

He does know one thing, though; different races have different soul bonds. That confirms his suspicions about his and Lance’s. He’s still not clear on exactly how theirs works, but the fact that he can feel Lance’s emotions without Lance writing on his skin doesn’t seem as odd anymore.

Keith has a thousand more questions than answers. The problem is, he can’t ask without Lance figuring it out. He can’t satisfy his curiosity without telling Lance that they’re bonded. And he’s still not ready. Not yet.

Thinking about Lance warms him to his core, being around Lance makes him happy. He can’t stop himself from liking Lance, no matter how much he wants to. He wants to believe that it’s real. That it’s not fate pulling their strings, creating false feelings between the two of them.

And what will Lance do when he finds out? He’ll be angry, probably. Furious that Keith didn’t tell him before. Pissed that he ended up bonded to Keith in the first place. And then things will get weird between them again, just when they were finally starting to get along.

He doesn’t want to lose Lance, especially not from a stupid soul bond. So Keith is going to figure this out first; figure out his own feelings. Figure out what to say to Lance, how to make things right so they can…

He’s not sure.

That’s the problem. Keith needs to figure out how he wants that sentence to end before he talks to Lance, before he becomes the bearer of bad news. Before he breaks Lance’s heart by telling him the soulmate he’s been looking for all his life is just Keith.

 


 

 

If Lance is completely honest, he’s a little sad to say goodbye to the Faelarans. Not only are they the most beautiful aliens they’ve encountered – objectively speaking of course – he’d actually felt…welcomed. Wanted, personally.

Him.

He still can hardly believe that the princess had kissed him. Sure, it was on the cheek, but still. Especially since she makes sure to say a personal goodbye to him before they leave. “I cannot thank you enough for saving our city, Lance of Voltron,” Lae says, loud enough the others can hear her. “You are welcome back any time.”

Once again, she surprises him before he can do anything aside from blush and stutter. This time, Lae places two fingers on his cheek, right above where she had kissed him the night before. “Be safe.”

He can’t help but stare after her as she leaves. In fact, he’s only broken from his daze by the distinct sound of a growl next to him.

“Jealous?” He asks, smirking at Keith as the two of them head back into the castle.

Keith huffs, ignoring him completely. He counts that as a win.

---

The Blevian system isn’t far. They could wormhole there in under an hour – varga, whatever – but it’s not wise to tire Allura out right before they jump into the unknown. Especially if they need Black again.

“Hey, Allura,” Lance speaks up. Hunk’s disappeared to perform repairs on Blue – alone because he ‘can’t think when Lance is hovering there chattering about girls and Keith’, whatever that means – and Pidge is with Coran working on…Lance really doesn’t want to know actually. Sometimes, with those two, it’s better not to ask. Honestly, Lance is just glad Coran didn't pull him aside to clean the pods again.

Keith’s still here, though, and Lance sees him perk up at his voice. Almost as if he’d been falling asleep in his chair. Cute.

She hums in response, which is enough for him to go on. “How come you were able to pilot the black lion? Can you pilot all our lions? Is it because you’re Alfor’s daughter?”

He almost swears he sees Allura tense up. “I’m not sure.”

“I thought you said you knew about it last night,” Keith pipes up.

“No,” Allura clarifies. “I said I would talk about it.”

“Wait. Why were you with the princess last night?” Lance turns to Keith. He can't help it. Can't help the nausea threatening to choke him. Keith wouldn't…not with Allura. Right?

Keith gives him what could be politely called a death glare. “You seemed busy enough. I’d be surprised if you even noticed I left.”

“Paladins,” Allura interrupts. They both quiet down. “Please.”

Lance shoots one last glare at Keith, who returns it, unamused, before asking again. “So how do you think you can pilot Black?”

“I’m not sure,” she repeats. This time she turns to them completely, letting the castle continue forward without her help. “But I suspect it’s like you said before; I have already been leading this team for some time. I suspect the black lion sensed that, especially since one of the other lions and paladins was in danger.”

Lance winces a little. Admittedly, that hadn’t been his brightest moment. He’d actually thought he was a goner for a moment. “We could form Voltron,” he points out.

“We probably couldn’t now,” Keith speaks up.

Lance turns to glare at him. “Oh yeah? Why not, Mullet?”

“We couldn’t after the battle with Sendak either, Cargo Pilot. Or did you forget that already?”

“Keith’s right. It’s unlikely we could form Voltron again now without bonding the way you did before.”

“Well I would be more than willing to –“

Lance.” It’s so Shiro, the way Keith says his name. Disappointed, irritated, lecturing.

He opens his mouth to retort, but Allura cuts him off. “Okay, both of you out.”

“What?”

“I don’t care where you go, but you can't keep arguing here.”

Which is how they find themselves kicked out to the hall.

Lance crosses his arms over his chest, glaring at Keith. “Good going, Mullet. Now we’ll never find out how Allura piloted Black.”

Keith, never one to disappoint, rises immediately to the bait. “She already said she doesn’t know. What more did you think she would’ve told us?”

Lance throws his hands in the air. “I dunno! Some theories, maybe? Why are you so pissy anyway?”

“Oh I’m the pissy one? That’s rich,” Keith scoffs.

But no, Keith is the pissy one. Has been since the party last night, and Lance is having a hard time understanding why. There's a small side of him, the optimistic side of him that wants to think Keith’s jealous that Lance was kissed by someone else. But Lance has a soulmate and so does Keith, and hoping things like that is a slippery slope of misery. And a much more realistic side of him is positive it’s something else, probably unrelated to the mission at all.

Probably related to Shiro.

Lance has spent the past several weeks giving his all, trying to cheer Keith up. Trying to get him to think of something – anything – other than the fact that Shiro’s missing. He could’ve sworn it was working, that they were getting somewhere close to being friends. And then Keith had to go and do…this. Whatever this is.

“Straight up, why don’t you like me?” Lance asks before he can stop himself. He clamps his jaw shut so hard his teeth clank painfully. He wants to take back his words, snatch them from the air and swallow them back down, but it's already too late.

Keith just stares at him, mouth agape. He opens and closes it a few times, clearly searching for an answer. Lance's stomach sinks deeper each time. “I like you,” Keith mutters finally, face contorting somewhere between a frown and a pout. The result makes him look constipated.

Lance’s stomach shoots back up – overshoots into his chest – at the words, his heart pounding too hard to be healthy. He knows Keith doesn’t mean it the way it sounds; he means the words literally. As in he doesn’t not like Lance. “Oh,” he replies, intelligently.

“Why do you think I –“

“Paladins, to the bridge,” Allura’s voice commands over the intercom, interrupting Keith before he can finish his question. It’s a good thing, too, because Lance isn’t sure he knows how to answer it.

He turns on his heel and walks right back into the bridge, the first to arrive for once. Granted, it’s because he and Keith hadn’t made it more than three feet from the door, but regardless. Another win for Lance.

Keith enters just behind him, but Lance ignores him, heading straight to the blue console. A planet is visible through the windows in front of them, and Allura is at her controls, back stiff. “Are we there, princess?” Coran’s voice announces both his and Pidge’s arrival. Hunk follows almost immediately, grease smudged on his cheeks.

Hunk immediately meets his eyes with a smile and a thumbs up. Lance breathes out a sigh of relief he hadn’t known he needed; Blue’s alright. The lions really are impressive, healing this quickly. He'd actually thought for a moment out there that she was a goner.

“Yes,” Allura answers Coran curtly. He heads to his station while Pidge and Hunk sit at their own consoles.

Almost immediately, a face appears on the screen. They’re wearing the same mask Lance recognizes from when they’d met Kolivan. A Marmorite. “Princess Allura,” they greet, voice deep yet feminine. “It is good to see you alive.”

“Yes,” Allura replies, voice tight. “We were sent here by Kolivan. He said you have knowledge of some of the remaining Galra prisons.” Straight to business, then. Not that Lance thinks the Marmorites would be all that into small talk. Allura’s shoulders are stiffer than before, just as stiff as they’d been the first time she’d heard of a Galra helping Shiro escape. Really, he’s not sure why she won’t trust them. She forgave Keith after all. Apparently enough to have private nighttime meetings with him.

No. Now is not the time.

“We will convene onboard your ship, by your leave.”

“Take a shuttle. We will hail you,” Allura instructs. The Marmorite inclines their head and the image cuts out.

She turns to the team, posture still rigid. “Suit up and meet back here immediately.”

“Suit up?” Pidge asks.

“Like in our armor?” Hunk adds.

“You don’t think we need to fight them, do you?” Lance tacks on at the end.

Allura doesn’t waver. “Paladin suits and return here. We need to be ready for any possible outcome. These are not the members of the Blade that we already know. Now please, suit up and return here as quickly as possible.”

Lance jogs to catch up to Pidge and Hunk as the three of them – plus Keith – head out. “Hey, what do you think that was?”

Hunk shrugs. “Who knows? Allura wasn’t all too happy about meeting with the Blade in the first place.”

“That was before,” Lance argues. “I thought she was over that.”

“Maybe over Keith and the Blades we know,” Pidge adds. “Not like it’s that easy to forgive a whole group that killed your family.”

That…makes sense. Lance nods to himself as they part, Hunk and Pidge continuing to their rooms. Keith walks past him too, and on impulse, Lance calls out for him. “Keith!”

Keith turns. Which isn’t great, because Lance has no idea what he plans to say. He needs to think fast though, because Keith is standing there, staring at him with one eyebrow raised as if to say what do you want, Lance? And really, that shouldn’t make his heart beat as fast as it does, but here they are. “Yes?” Keith prompts when Lance stays silent too long.

“I like you too,” Lance tells him dumbly, words tumbling over themselves to come out. Immediately, his face flushes, the implications of what he said hitting him after the fact. Oh, god, Keith probably noticed it too. “I’m gonna just…go get changed.”

He darts in his room, cursing how slow the door closes. Luckily, Keith doesn’t follow him, so Lance has a chance to lean back against the wall and try to calm himself down. He’d basically confessed to Keith. Something he’s been trying to hide for years, and he’d just blurted it out without thinking.

No, it’s okay. He can save this. Keith said he liked Lance first, and Lance knows that was just a friendly thing. Keith cares about him, just like he cares about Hunk and Pidge. (Not the same way he cares about Shiro, though, but Lance is going to ignore that for now.)

A few deep breaths, and Lance finally calms down enough to change into his paladin suit. He needs to be smooth and professional. With Shiro gone and Allura acting all anti-Galra again, someone needs to be the friendly representative for team Voltron.

He’s the last one to arrive on the bridge, as usual. Allura doesn’t even blink. She’s dressed in her own battle suit – when she had time to change, Lance has no idea – and the other three paladins are seated at their consoles. He keeps his gaze firmly away from Keith as he sits at his own.

“The shuttle is en route,” Allura tells them, not even looking. She must have a sixth sense to know that Lance had just arrived, dang.

The bridge's atmosphere radiates tension, no one breaking the silence. Ordinarily, Lance would try to break it with a bad joke or pick up line, but his mind is stuck on I like you too, and he’s really in no condition to make anyone else laugh. In fact, if he opens his mouth now, he’s afraid he’ll let something else slip that definitely shouldn't.

So instead he sits like the rest of them, quiet and prepped; it’s almost as if the entire castle is holding its breath. At least until an alert pops up on the screen, and Allura turns to them. “They are entering the shuttle bay. Coran, stay here and keep an eye on the bridge. Pidge, I want you looking out for any technology that could be disguising another ship or someone sneaking inside. Hunk and Lance, you will come with me.”

“Allura,” Keith speaks up.

“I need you here as our backup, Keith. If Pidge sees anything suspicious, you go there immediately and take care of it.” She shuts down any argument he might have, already sweeping out of the bridge. Lance jumps up to follow, exchanging a look with Hunk, who shrugs.

Today is really weird.

“Why just us?” Lance asks as they take one of the lifts down to the shuttle. The silence is deafening, and he needs some kind of external noise to drown out what’s going on in his head.

For a moment, he thinks Allura might ignore him completely. She side-eyes him before speaking. “I don’t trust them.”

“Yeah, I gathered that.”

Joke clearly not appreciated, Allura purses her lips. “The Galra Empire may be fractured, but so is the Blade. We don’t know much about these members aside from what Kolivan told us.”

Lance waits a second for more detail, but none seems forthcoming. So he prompts again. “So why just me and Hunk?”

“Shiro’s disappearance isn’t common knowledge. I don’t want them to see four paladins asking about prisons.” She turns to look at them. “It’s better to intentionally show less. Pidge will make sure that nothing sneaks up on us, Coran can pilot the ship, and Keith can act as back up.”

Allura falls silent, and Lance doesn’t ask any more questions because just then the doors slide open, revealing a Galran shuttle and two Marmorites, dressed in full gear. “Princess Allura,” the shorter one greets them, stepping forward. They have the same voice as the one in the video.

“I do not deal with those who won’t reveal their faces,” Allura tells them, voice terse.

The shorter one inclines their head. In a moment, both the Galra have banished their face masks. Lance doesn’t recognize them at all – not that he’s surprised – but he gasps anyway. Both the Galra are women, and both women’s faces are scarred. The short one – the one Lance assumes is the leader – has a burn marring half her face, turning it shades between indigo and black while the rest of her face is closer to blue. The taller one doesn’t have a large burn or a single scar like Kolivan’s or Shiro’s but instead has thin white marks visible even from here. He’d always thought the mask was to hide their identities, but maybe it’s actually to hide their battle scars.

Or both.

“I am Lanor, and this is Ka,” the short one introduces them both.

“I am Princess Allura of Altea. And this is Hunk and Lance, paladins of Voltron.”

Lanor nods, no doubt already aware of all their identities. “Kolivan contacted us saying you were looking for information regarding Galra prison ships.”

“We are.”

Lanor motions with her hand, and Ka steps forward. She swipes under her nail, revealing a chip, which she offers. Hunk steps forward, taking it. “That is all the information we have on a ship nearby,” Lanor explains. “We don’t have much. Our mission was not to search for prisoners.”

“It’s a start,” Allura acknowledges. She seems minutely more comfortable now that she knows the names and faces of the Marmorites.

“Of course,” Lanor nods. “We would be honored to aid the paladins of Voltron on a mission –“

“That is unnecessary.”

“If you would allow me to finish.” Allura nods, successfully cowed. “Ordinarily, we would be honored to aid the paladins of Voltron on a mission, but our own resources are limited. We need to complete what we came out here to do before we can help anyone.”

Allura winces a little. “Naturally. We…appreciate the assistance.”

“Very well. If there’s nothing more, we must return.”

“No, there isn’t anything more. Please contact us with any other information you learn.” Lance nudges Allura. “And…thank you, for this.”

Lanor inclines her head again. The two Galra head back to their shuttle. The three of them watch as the shuttle takes off, waiting as it leaves.

“So…” Lance starts, once they’re alone. “That went well.” Hunk snorts.

Allura spins on her heel. “Coran, is anything else trying to board us?”

“No, princess.” His voice echoes tinnily out from her earrings. Lance looks at Hunk again, but neither of them are any more aware of what’s going on in the princess’ mind than before.

They both hurry to catch up, and the three of them get on the lift headed up again. “Pidge,” Allura instructs, “we have a chip with information. I want this analyzed in a way that won’t compromise the castle.”

“Roger that.”

When they arrive back at the bridge, Keith is no longer sitting – and wow, doesn’t Lance just hate that he automatically searches him out – and is instead pacing like a tiger in a cage. He nearly bolts over as soon as they walk in, but Allura nods to Hunk, who goes straight to Pidge with the chip.

Lance hangs back, watching Keith’s questions get brushed aside by Allura. He knows Keith cares about finding Shiro more than almost anything else. Honestly, that’s probably the reason Allura chose Lance to speak with the Marmorites instead of Keith. He’s volatile lately, lashing out at everyone. They need to get Shiro back, if just to calm Keith down.

So he walks forward once Allura leaves him and rests his hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Hey.” Keith turns to him, eyes wild. “We got some info.” He knows the bridge probably heard everything they said, but that doesn’t stop him from saying it anyway. “There’s a prison ship nearby.”

“Guys!” Pidge calls out. “I think I found something.”

“Already?” Hunk asks as Lance and Keith both rush to hover over them both.

Lance can’t make heads or tails of what’s showing up on Pidge’s screen, but they helpfully translate before he can even ask. “The ship picked up new prisoners recently. Just a few days – quintants – after our battle with Zarkon.”

A hand wraps around his wrist, gripping him tight. Lance’s words twinge, his heartrate increasing almost tenfold when he realizes it’s Keith touching him. “Do you think…?” Keith asks, voice soft, almost desperate.

Pidge looks over at them both, serious expression on their face. “I think they might have Shiro.”

 


 

 

Before

The only way this is possible is if Galra blood runs through your veins. The words race through Keith’s mind, a never ending chant, as he sits on his bed. The sword is lying in his lap, gleaming  up at him. A physical representation of all his worst fears.

He’s Galra.

No one said anything. The Blade didn’t say anything aside from telling him the one thing that won’t leave him be. Shiro didn’t say anything either; he just rested his hand on Keith’s shoulder and gave him a wordless look that Keith knew meant I’m here to talk if you need it. Pidge and Hunk had gaped at him, seeming like they wanted to ask him something before Coran came to take him to the med pod. Lance had this strange, almost calculating expression on his face as he watched Keith get taken away, and Allura…

Allura wouldn’t even look at him.

In all honesty, Keith’s a little afraid to leave his room. He’s suspected this for a long time, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. Galra. The race that destroys entire planets then kills or enslaves their people. And he’s one of them.

His stomach roils unpleasantly, anxiety and nerves spinning around so fast it almost makes him sick. It takes Keith a moment to realize the emotions aren’t his. His eyes snap up to the door, and he finally notices the sound of footsteps pacing back and forth outside his room.

Lance.

Aside from the knife and that door pad back on Balmerra – and just that feeling Keith got that he wasn’t entirely human – Lance is the strongest evidence he has of Galra blood. Or at least, Keith thinks he might be. How else can he just feel Lance’s emotions? Even when the marks fade, when his skin is untainted, he can still tell when Lance is close, what Lance is feeling. Being Galra has to be the explanation for that.

The nervousness fades along with the footsteps as Lance disappears down the hall. They haven’t talked at all since Keith came back. What would he even say? Hey, I’ve known for a while that we’re soulmates. By the way, I’m also Galra. Surprise.

Yeah, that would go over real well.

A knock on the door shocks him out of his thoughts. Lance hasn’t come back already, had he? There’s no way. He would’ve felt that. Unless something’s wrong. Unless Lance figured it out and somehow managed to close the connection between them. Is that even possible?

“Keith?” Shiro’s voice calls from the other side. “Can I come in?”

He tucks the sword under the bed before answering. “Yeah, come in.”

Shiro opens the door, entering alone. So Lance hasn’t figured it out. Good. “What’s up?” He asks, feigning nonchalance.

Shiro sees through it completely. “How you holding up?”

Keith sighs, not faking it anymore. “Not sure. It’s…a lot.”

“We fly giant space lions that transform into an even more giant robot that punches ships.” Shiro gives him a smile, taking a seat next to Keith on the bed. “Everything out here is a lot.”

“I…” Keith swallows. “What do the others think?”

“I had a talk with Pidge and Hunk; they shouldn’t bother you with twenty questions.”

Keith nods, he’d expected as much from them. “And the others?”

Shiro looks away, a little uncomfortable. “Coran seems fine with it, though he’s been through a lot. I doubt much can surprise him these days. Allura…It might take a while for Allura to come around.” Still nothing about Lance, though. Keith’s almost afraid to ask but Shiro finishes. “And Lance seemed a little surprised, but I don’t think he was upset.”

Even if Allura is the only one to hate him, that’s still more than enough to rest heavily on Keith’s conscience. He’s somewhat related to Zarkon, the Galra responsible for the destruction of her home planet and the death of her father. “So what now?” He asks, trying to distract his thoughts from going back down that path.

“The others are out there working on a plan to defeat Zarkon. I came to get you.”

“Oh.”

“Keith, the red lion chose you, the same way the other lions chose the rest of us. No one can take that away from you, no matter what blood runs in your veins.”

Keith smiles, a small one but still there. “Thanks, Shiro.”

“C’mon,” Shiro says, standing up. “Last I checked, Lance and Kolivan were onto something.”

Chapter Text

Before

Soul marks come at different ages for different people. They all tend to come around puberty, though the exact age isn’t officially known. Theories revolve around ages, since the marks don’t work until the younger soulmate hits puberty.

Really, it’s the only reason Lance looks forward to puberty at all.

He starts writing early, far too early. But that doesn’t stop him from writing. Some kids have journals, but Lance writes about his day on his body. Every evening after school, he breaks out his pen and starts scribbling about what he did and who he was with.

When he doesn’t get a response, he’s not deterred. After all, he’d started writing at the ripe young age of seven. Still, he makes it a habit, journaling to his soulmate. Years pass, and he still doesn’t let the lack of response get him down. The girls shoot up first, many of them jumping up in the middle of class, declaring that they can feel something crawling up their skin.

It’s always their words.

But girls hit puberty faster than boys, something Lance learns at eleven years old. Boys can hit puberty earlier, but really he might have to wait as long as fourteen. And as school and swimming and extracurriculars – to pad his Garrison application, of course – build up, Lance forgets to write some days. His schedule doesn’t have enough leeway, so in order to write to his soulmate – now using the special skin-safe pens his parents bought him so he wouldn’t get sick from the ink, whatever that means – he takes to marking down his small thoughts in class.

Where his skin used to be covered in swirling sentences, descriptions of his day, even small doodles, it’s now short sentences, sometimes just one word, and often a pick up line he means to try on the girls who come to watch the swim meets.

He shoots up in height suddenly at fifteen, proving that late bloomers are the ones you really have to wait for, and his high school swimming career takes off. He’s under pressure to get good grades, just to stay on the team let alone to get into the Garrison post-high school.

But none of that stops him from writing to his soulmate.

Except that he’s sixteen and still hasn’t heard so much as a peep back. His friends have all gotten responses from their soulmates already, and they waste no time in telling him how it feels. Apparently it’s amazing; a burst of foreign emotions accompanied by a tickle across their skin. And once that’s all over? Communication. There are others who haven’t met their soulmates yet, doomed to end up with someone younger than them. And the fear takes over. Because if he’s bonded with a girl, that means she can’t be older than thirteen. She might even be as young as eight. If his soulmate is a guy, he has more time. But still. He’s wanted to meet his soulmate for nine years now, and he hasn’t heard so much as a peep.

It’s disheartening to say the least.

All the girls at his school keep turning him down, either because they have their own soulmates already or they’re still holding out for them, not even wanting to “cheat” for a smoothie and a movie. (The rhyming doesn’t even sway them a little, which Lance doesn’t get at all.)

On top of that, he’s not doing as well in school as he should. Lance has always been a straight B student, but to get into the fighter pilot program he wants, he needs at least half of those to turn into ‘A’s.

And as his hopes dwindle, so do his messages. Their quantity shrinks, and the feelings he’s transmitting – would be transmitting if he had a soulmate yet – aren’t the most positive anymore. He can’t help the wave of overwhelming stress that crashes over him, forming itself into tears as he cries over his fear of never meeting his soulmate. Never getting a response until he’s too old.

So he can’t help but lie frozen in his bed when the fear curls around him too tight one night, squeezing his heart harder than normal. He closes his eyes against the emotion, willing down his racing heartbeat, and it’s only because he’s so focused on calming himself down that Lance notices the tickle running across the inside of his wrist.

Lance’s breath rushes out of him. He’s torn between the painful, earth shattering fear overwhelming his body and the knowledge that his soulmate is speaking to him for the first time. Lance waits, motionless, for the feelings to disappear, for the marks to stop spreading across his skin. When he does, he looks down to see just a question: hey are you awake?

They’re the first words he’s ever gotten from his soulmate.

 


 

Now

Lance’s luck doesn’t hold out. Immediately after Pidge’s exclamation, Coran snags him away, insisting that he help clean up. He grumbles as he cleans the cryopod, still hating the rule of if you use it you clean it, but he kinda gets it. They’re going to a prison ship. Chances are, no matter who they find there, they’re going to need full use of their cryopods.

The only saving grace is that Coran stays in here with him, meaning Lance can finally ask him about the whole ‘Allura piloting the black lion’ thing. “Hey, Coran…and he’s gone.” Lance looks around, but the Altean is gone. He opens every single pod, just to make sure the castle hadn’t gone haunted again – if it ever stopped – but it looked like Coran really had just pulled a disappearing act. Perfect.

“Hey, buddy. I was wondering where Coran spirited you off to.”

Lance spins around at the voice. “Hunk, my bro, my savior,” he declares. “Don’t make me clean these alone or I’ll die of boredom.”

Hunk chuckles but grabs a rag and takes over the pod next to him. “Sounds like we might’ve actually found where Shiro is.”

“I’m trying not to get my hopes up,” Lance confesses, fist clenched around the rag he’s holding. He wants to find Shiro because he cares about him – the guy’s been his hero for years – but also because he can’t bear to see Keith continue to beat himself up. Every time Lance thinks he’s brought him out of his funk, something happens and Keith just falls right back into it. If Shiro were back for good, maybe Lance could permanently bring Keith out of his shell.

“I think Pidge already got theirs up,” Hunk tells him, finishing the pod next to Lance. The two of them grab the cleaning supplies and shift down to the next two. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them type that fast. They really are convinced that we found him.”

“Dang. You make something good for dinner, and I’ll get them to bed. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Oh, hey, Lance. I thought you might be in here.”

Lance whips around so fast, he accidentally sprays his shoe with cleaner. “Keith!” He clears his throat, trying to sound less pitchy. “Hey.” He ignores the pointed look Hunk’s giving him. “What’s up?”

“I was gonna train. You wanna join?”

Holy quiznak. Lance has fallen into an alternate reality where Keith goes out of his way to spend time together. He never wants to leave this world. “Do you ever get sick of training? Enough is enough, am I right?”

And, oh hell, Lance is definitely never leaving, because even from across the room he can see the soft smile curl itself over Keith’s lips. “There’s no such thing as too much training.” Before Lance can do more than stand there, gaping like a goldfish, Keith turns away with a wave. “I’ll be in there if you need me.”

Be still, his beating heart. Lance clutches at his chest, trying to contain the imminent heart attack. He knows his face is beet red, but that doesn’t matter, because the only one here is…

Hunk clears his throat.

Right. Hunk is here too. Lance schools his face into something less obvious than the dopey grin spread across it right now and looks over at him. “What? We’re just…”

“I’m not an idiot, Lance.” Hunk levels him with a look.

“Okay, so I’m spending more time with him. I know it looks bad, but I’m dealing with it.”

Hunk sighs. “Lance…we need to talk.”

“I’m committed to my soulmate, Hunk. I promise. Keith is just –“

“That’s not what I meant.”

Lance frowns, now officially confused. “So what did you mean then?”

Hunk wrings his hands the way he does whenever he doesn’t want to speak. Usually because he knows he’s right and doesn’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings. Lance doesn’t exactly relish being on this side of the motion. “I saw your soul mark. The spikey tree.”

“Yeah, we talked about it. You said it looks painful.”

“And I stand by that.” Hunk rests his hands on Lance’s shoulders, easing him down to sit next to the cryopod. This is never a good sign. “Remember back in the Garrison when we had that ethics class and talked about soulmates?”

“Sure,” Lance shrugs. “I mean we didn’t really talk about them that much. More if soulmates should be allowed on the same mission.”

Hunk nods encouragingly. “Right. But there was an argument Pidge made about platonic soulmates, remember?”

“No.”

“Okay, I don’t remember a lot about that either. But what I do remember is that they pulled statistics showing that thirty percent of soulmates end up platonic. And I remember that because I couldn’t fall asleep that night and kept thinking about it for weeks and months and –“

“Hunk,” Lance stops him before he can spiral. “First of all, you and your soulmate are definitely not platonic, so you can stop worrying about that.” He holds up his hand as Hunk opens his mouth to interject. “And second of all, I know where you’re going with this, and you’re wrong.”

“Lance –“

“No,” Lance insists, knuckles whitening as his hands clench. “You’re wrong, Hunk. We’re not platonic. I can feel it.”

“Lance.”

He turns around, ignoring Hunk.

“Lance.”

Still doesn’t turn back.

“Lance, please look at me. Just hear me out and then you can shout about how wrong I am. Okay?” He’s using his calm, soothing voice. The one Lance can’t say no to.

So he sighs, flopping back down next to Hunk on the stairs. “Okay.”

“You are my best friend in the entire universe, you know that right?”

“Yeah. I do,” Lance agrees, finally looking over at his friend.

Hunk smiles. “Then you know that all I want is for you to be happy.” He nods. “Keith makes you happy, and honestly? I think you make him happy too.” Lance scoffs, but Hunk holds his hand up, stopping him. “I think you should go for it.”

Lance can’t help it; he lets out a snort. “Good one, Hunk.” Really, it’s not funny at all.

“I’m not joking.”

“There is no way Keith would give me the time of day, let alone a chance. Besides, what will I do when I meet my soulmate and we are definitely not platonic?”

“What if you never meet your soulmate?” Lance stops laughing abruptly. Hunk’s gaze is sharp, serious. “What if you meet them and they’re with someone else? There are no guarantees Lance. I met Shay by chance.”

“That’s not funny.”

“You make Keith smile. Keith makes you smile. You’ve been hung up on him since the Garrison.”

“You’ve been against me and Keith since the beginning,” Lance argues, entire body cold. “You told me to be careful.”

“I know,” Hunk sighs. “And I’m not telling you to not be careful. But I think maybe I was too hasty, encouraging you to wait for someone who won't even bother to talk to you outside when they need to ‘work through something’.”

“That’s not true, we talked before.”

“Yeah, once. When you were sixteen.”

“They care.”

“No, Lance,” Hunk raises his voice, clearly frustrated. “You care. And I supported you because I thought I should, but I think maybe I was wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t have encouraged it.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lance tells him in a low, dangerous voice.

“Lance, I don’t like seeing you torture yourself over this. It kills me, you know that. But I’ve been watching the two of you together for a while now, and I have to say I think he’s a better choice than your soulmate.”

Lance stands up again, done with this conversation completely. “Hunk, I love you to death. But no one, no one, is better for me than my soulmate.” And with that, he sweeps out of the room, not stopping to look back.

---

The castle’s filled with a strange intensity as they fly to the area the Marmorites said the prison ship is. Coran has Lance scrub all the cryopods at least five times, telling him that he’s “well on his way to earning his cleaning stripes.” Not that Lance cares about that at all. With all the cleaning he’s done, he hasn’t seen Keith or Hunk since his and Hunk’s argument.

And he knows Keith’s back to training too hard. How he knows that is beyond him; Lance just senses it. He should go and stop him, make Keith take a break before he hurts himself or trains himself into a coma. Keith might listen to him; he has thus far. And Lance knows he’s doing it in preparation for saving Shiro this time, rather than pure frustration over not being able to do anything. He can sense it.

But even more important than that? He needs to find Hunk and make up.

Lance has no plans to apologize, not when he doesn’t think he was in the wrong. Regardless, he and Hunk have never fought this long before. Never longer than a few hours at most. Sure, this time it’s because Coran keeps pulling him away to clean, but still. He doesn’t want to go into a battle without knowing that he and Hunk are best friends forever. And he doesn’t want the last words he’ll ever say to Hunk to be said in anger.

He gets his chance when Allura calls them all to the bridge. Luck’s on his side, because he gets to the hall just as Hunk and Pidge reach the door. “Hunk! Wait up!” Both of them turn, but Pidge says something Lance doesn’t catch and disappears inside, leaving just the two of them in the hall.

“Hunk, hey man, listen –“

“No, Lance.” Hunk holds up his hand. “I want to apologize first. I know how you get about your soulmate, and I shouldn’t have pushed. I was just so happy to see you happy, I didn’t really stop to think how it sounded.”

Lance heaves a sigh. Thank god; he didn’t want to get in another fight with Hunk. “It’s okay. Best friends for life, no matter what.”

“Oh good.” Hunk pulls Lance in, engulfing him in a hug. “I’d be really upset if we went out there and got killed and you were still mad at me.”

“Way to be positive, buddy.”

Hunk finally releases him. “Now let’s get in there and find out how we die.”

“Do you even hear yourself?” Lance asks, his question falling on deaf ears as they enter the bridge.

Allura barely looks over when Lance and Hunk walk in. “The prison isn’t far,” she starts, pulling up the 3D star map and zooming in. “This is our location.” She circles a general region of space. “And this is the prison ship’s location according to the chip we received from the Blade.”

“Psst…” Lance leans into Hunk, whispering in his ear. “We should call them the Marmorites.”

“Good one, Lance.” Hunk holds out his fist for Lance to bump. He does, and they keep the explosion silent, but when he looks up, he catches Keith watching them with a raised eyebrow. That shouldn’t make Lance’s stomach flop over onto itself the way it does – especially after the conversation he’d had with Hunk – but it does anyway.

“Coran pulled schematics of the ship model based on Pidge’s findings,” Allura continues, either ignoring them or having not heard.

“Wait, we can do that?” Hunk asks, staring at the ship schematic.

Allura shifts her weight. “In a way. These are the ship schematics for this model of prison ship, but not for the ship we’re after in particular.”

“Why would we need that?” Lance frowns. “We’ve been on ships like this one a hundred times. We kinda know what they look like now.”

“Because, my boy!” Coran interjects. “This way we can plan things out more easily.” With a flick of his wrist, smaller versions of all seven of them – including Shiro – appear on the map.

Lance immediately walks closer, enamored with the tiny version of him floating in space. “Holy quiznak, this is awesome.”

“I don’t think you’re using that word right.” Lance’s head whips over to find Keith right next to him, also staring at their ‘mini-me’s with a small half-smile on his face. Of course: he’s looking at the small Shiro. “These are pretty awesome though.”

“You guys are dorks.” Pidge’s voice is accompanied by the entire schematic, minis included, zipping away to where the green paladin is standing. “This is what we have so far.” They move the six of them away, pulling Shiro’s figure around and dropping him in a cell to their left. “This is one of the cells we think Shiro’s being kept in.” Pidge touches the figure with their other hand and pulls their hands apart, creating two Shiros. The second one gets dumped into a matching cell on the opposite side of the ship. “This is the other cell he might be in.”

Lance’s jaw drops. “You can make duplicates of us? That’s so cool!”

Pidge ignores him. “I think we should do what we did on Beta Traz and split up, try to break them both out.” They look at Lance, almost smirking. “This time you should actually know what to look for instead of a giant space dog.”

“Haha, very funny Pidge.”

“I don’t get it,” Hunk says but is completely ignored.

“I think we should go in, guns blazing,” Keith says. “The Galra are basically defeated. We go in ready to fight, and they’ll give up and hand over Shiro.”

Lance shakes his head. “I don’t think so. They might do something desperate if cornered, and I don’t think we should risk it. I’m with Pidge on this one.”

“Even about the space dog?”

“No.”

“I agree with Lance and Pidge,” Allura speaks up before Keith can argue. She flicks her wrist and the whole thing flies over to her. She grabs Pidge’s figure, dragging it to a central room on the schematic. “Pidge will need to get inside to hack into their system. This is the control room.” She grabs Lance and Keith’s figures next. “Lance and Keith will help Pidge break in, then split up to check the different prison cells.” She splits them up, placing them in the halls leading to the rooms with the two Shiros.

“Joke’s on you, Keith,” Lance taunts. “She sent me to the real Shiro.”

Keith levels him with a look. “Neither of them are real, Lance. This is a hologram.”

Lance huffs, crossing his arms against the fluttering butterflies in his chest. “You always have to take the fun out of everything,” he grumbles, lying through his teeth.

“Hunk,” Allura interrupts, shooting them both glares, “I think you should remain outside in Yellow. We will need someone to provide backup.”

Lance frowns, walking over to where Allura has the hologram pulled up. “We still have the ion canon to deal with. Plus all the guards…” He trails off, dragging Hunk to where he’s floating outside the ion canon. “I think Hunk should take it out and distract them.”

“Great. I get to be shot at by evil Galra. Sounds fun.” Hunk, for his part, doesn’t sound excited about it at all.

“Then I will go in Black and help him.”

“Yes, thank you Allura,” Hunk says, clearly relieved.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Princess.” Luckily, Coran speaks up.

“Why not?”

“We need you to stay here in the event we need to jump quickly,” he explains.

Allura frowns. “What if we need to form Voltron?”

Lance pipes up. “Well, Shiro should be in there, so we could…”

“He’s probably injured,” Keith snaps. “We’re not making Shiro pilot while injured.”

“Allura could just run really really fast to the black lion if we need Voltron,” Hunk, ever the helpful one, supplies.

Pidge shakes their head. “No. No way. If we need Voltron for this we have bigger issues.”

Lance nods, agreeing. “Pidge is right. The three of us are going to sneak on board in one ship, so at least two of us are going to be short a lion unless we use a pod.”

“No,” Pidge grumbles. “The pod with the stealth tech on it was destroyed when Keith and Allura took it for a joyride that one time.”

This time, Lance gets to be the one to glare at Keith and Allura. “Oh yeah. I forgot about that.” Allura, to her credit, at least looks a little cowed. Keith just looks constipated.

“So we’ll take Blue?” Lance asks, perking up.

“This is different than Beta Traz,” Pidge tells him. “We don’t need to get a sonar scan from a ways off. We need to go in unseen. We should take Green.”

“Very well,” Allura nods, curtly. She’s been a lot less fun since Shiro disappeared. Lance doesn’t want to read too much into it, but it’s a little hard not to. “Lance, Keith, and Pidge will fly in undercover on Green, Hunk will take out the ion canon from out here, and Coran and I will stay in the ship out of range, ready to provide backup if necessary. Do you have a plan to get inside?”

Lance grins. “Totally. We’re gonna Into Darkness it.”

“You’re joking,” Pidge deadpans.

“What’s ‘into darkness’ mean?” Keith asks.

Hunk groans. “It means I’m glad I’m taking out the ion canon.”

 


 

‘Into darkness it’ turns out to mean launching themselves out from the green lion and free-flying straight at the prison ship. Keith bites down on his lip to repress the whoop of excitement at the rush as they fly across space. Lance doesn’t even bother hiding it.

“Woohoo!” He shouts, voice echoing in Keith’s helmet. He can’t help the smile creep over his lips at Lance’s shout, even as Pidge shushes him. The three of them shoot their grappling magnets at the ship at the same time, tugging themselves towards the ship too fast to say anything else.

Lance whisper shouts back to Pidge once they land on the side of the ship. “You never told me it was this cool!”

“Wait,” Keith asks, “you’ve done this before?”

“Yes, for Beta Traz. Shut up the vent’s opening.” Pidge silences them both, bringing their attention back to the mission at hand. Keith has a thousand questions. Well…really just one. He swallows it as they climb up the side, ducking one at a time through the vent as it opens. Keith goes first, makes sure the coast is clear, then helps Pidge once the vent opens again. Lance brings up the rear, Bayard already in rifle form as he drops down into the passage along with them.

“Alright, where do we go next?” Keith asks as Lance sweeps the area.

Pidge pulls up the display from their wrist, zooming into the area of the ship that they’re in. “Go straight then we’ll take a right.”

“On it.” This time Lance takes the lead, following Pidge’s directions. Keith follows the two of them, activating his Bayard. There isn’t enough space in this hallway for him to leap over Pidge and Lance if the Galra come at them from the front. He hopes they come from the back.

No, that’s not right. He hopes the Galra don’t come at all.

“Now a left,” Pidge instructs. The three of them go left once Lance clears the area. “Okay stop.” They stop. Pidge’s voice drops to a whisper, even though they aren’t projecting out from their helmets. “We’re right above the control room.”

Lance turns back, leaning into Pidge’s space. “Does that mean we get to Under-“

“No, Lance. We are not going to shoot through the floor,” Pidge interrupts.

And that sounds really fun. “Why not?” Keith whispers to Pidge.

Lance lets out a huff, borderline a squeak. “Yeah, Pidge, why not?”

“Because it’s too loud. Shut up, both of you, I need to think.”

Keith nearly growls. They’re so close to getting Shiro back, and he doesn’t want to give that up, so he reigns in his anger as much as he can. But he really can’t reign it in that much. “Why don’t we just use my sword then, like on the Balmera?”

Both Pidge and Lance look over at him like he’d just answered their prayers. “What?”

“Dude,” Lance leans in. Too close. “Do the thing you just said.”

“Right. Get close.” Both he and Pidge turn, pressing their backs to his. For a crazy moment, he thinks he can feel Lance’s heat radiating through their suits. But the moment passes, and he stabs his sword through the floor instead. It’s immensely satisfying how easily his sword cuts through metal. He reaches around them, Pidge and Lance squeezing in as necessary so he can sweep around them.

He barely gets his sword back in front of him before the three of them drop, floor falling out from beneath them. Keith catches another whoop from Lance before the vent hits the ground with a clang. After that, time speeds up.

Keith rolls away, swiping his sword at the feet of the nearest sentry. Gunshots sound behind him, but Keith doesn’t turn. He goes for the next sentry, taking it out before finally standing up. Lance lets off one more shot at the same time Pidge pulls their grapple-weapon, and the last sentries fall.

Pidge doesn’t even pause their movements, heading immediately to the console. “Let me check the halls before you leave,” they instruct, plugging in. Keith shifts his sword, moving over to stand by Lance, watching the door just in case.

“I’m in position,” Hunk sounds over their helmets.

“Hold until Pidge is in,” Allura responds.

A few seconds pass before Pidge tells them: “I’m in.”

“Should I move now?” Hunk asks, nervous as always.

Allura ignores the question. “Pidge, what do you see?”

“Looks like the schematics were right. This is just the control room for the prisons. A red alert shouldn’t send them this way.”

“Hunk,” Allura commands.

“On it!”

Keith tightens his grip around his sword, glancing sideways at Lance. Their eyes meet, and he can see Lance’s grin through the glass. Nerves, excitement, and something Keith still can’t put a name to swirl in his stomach as a thick stew. He responds with an uptick of his own, something between a smirk and a smile, and the stew spins too fast. He turns to the door again, needing to focus.

“Hold until I see where the guards go,” Pidge reminds them.

“Copy that,” Lance responds for them both. It is absolutely not cute or endearing.

They wait, suspended in time until they hear the tell-tale boom from outside. The ground shakes under them, and Keith stumbles, leaning into Lance. He pulls himself upright and away immediately, not lingering no matter how much his body screams he should.

Running footsteps sound outside the door, many of them marching in time with each other. More sentries then. Keith’s knuckles are white under his gloves from how tight he’s holding his sword, he can feel it.

“Hold…” Pidge warns, voice low. Next to him, he feels more than sees Lance shift his weight, gun held at the ready.

More footsteps come from outside, pounding. Galra guards. Keith takes a deep breath, closing his eyes as he listens to them run past. A few more seconds pass.

“We’re clear,” Pidge finally announces. Both Lance and Keith relax minutely. “Both of you need to go right once you get out the door.

Keith looks back to them, where they’re already pulling up a secondary search with Matt’s picture. “You’ll be okay here?”

“I always am.” They nod to the door. “Get out of here, Keith. Lance already has a head start.”

A glance behind him reveals an empty room. “Dammit,” Keith curses under his breath before sprinting to the door. He’s rewarded with a chuckle from Lance.

“You snooze you lose, Keithy.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Luckily, Lance hadn’t gotten too far. He’s barely down the hall when Keith makes it out there, pulling to a stop alongside him. “You didn’t think I’d actually leave you back there do you?”

The words are laced with amusement, but Keith pushes down on his own response. This is a serious mission; they’re going to get Shiro back. He needs to focus. So he nudges Lance’s shoulder with his own. “Come on.”

They walk down the hallway, sweeping the area. A few more booms shake the floor, making both of them stumble. At least Hunk is still out there putting up a fight. “Hunk, you havin fun out there?” Lance asks, laugh clear in his tone.

“This is so not fun, Lance! I’m surrounded! I hate being surrounded!” Another boom, and Lance is the one who stumbles into Keith this time. He helps Lance right himself, not looking over, as they keep moving. “You guys better hurry this up!” Hunk shouts afterwards, sounding stressed but at least not injured.

Keith keeps turning back as they move, making sure no one’s following them. So far so good. “Heads up, guys. There are a couple sentries coming your way.” Or not.

They back up against opposite walls, facing each other. Lance makes a series of hand motions, pointing at himself and Keith, then the hallway, then his wrist and…Keith has no idea what he’s trying to say. “What?” He whispers harshly.

Lance’s sigh fills his helmet. “We need to time our attack,” he whisper-shouts back.

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“Just…ugh. Just do your thing, I got your back.”

Keith waits until he hears the pounding footsteps, clearly metallic, echo down the hallway. He jumps out from where he’s hiding, launching himself at the first sentry. He manages to take it out before it can do anything, but the second one gets off a few shots before Lance silences it.

“Crap. They heard that,” Pidge tells them.

“Heard what?” Keith demands.

“Keith!”

Keith turns just in time to see a figure dart out from the hall they’d just passed. It’s not Galra, not a sentry. Keith doesn’t have time to register what it is – or who they are – beyond someone covered in dark robes, before they’re swinging at him. He ducks, opponent’s blade cutting the air above him, Lance’s shout still echoing in his ear.

The blade sings again, and Keith rolls away. The metal clanks against his armor, reverberating against his chest. It hurts more than something that’s just a knife should. He stands, stumbling back a little at the pain in his ribs. Too slow. The knife leaves the figure’s hand, spiraling towards him.

He winces, bracing himself, but a blast sounds out, and the blade’s shot out of the air. Keith’s jaw drops as he looks over at Lance. “I got you, buddy!”

Keith doesn’t even have time to register how amazing that really was, because they’re turned towards Lance now. They bear down on Lance, but the sharpshooter doesn’t waver. He focuses his blasts on the figure, shooting them again and again in the chest. It slows them a little, but they still move relentlessly forward, even as Lance backs up until he’s level with Keith.

Pidge shouts at them. “You don’t have time for this! Get out of there now! We have a mission!”

“This isn’t working!” Lance shouts at him, ignoring Pidge.

The thing – person, whatever it is – gets closer and closer. “We need to move! Now!” Keith yells, grabbing Lance’s wrist and tugging him after he lets off one more shot. The two of them turn together and race down the hall.

“Keith, right! Lance, left!” Pidge shouts in their ears. Not hearing footsteps too close, Keith pauses. He still hasn’t let Lance’s arm go yet. He drops it finally, hand falling in a fist at his side. “He’s coming up behind you,” Pidge warns. “You need to move!”

Lance flashes him a grin. “See you on the flippity flip.” He doesn’t even have time to reach out before Lance turns, running down the hall.

“Keith, move!” Pidge’s shout brings him back to the present, back to the very real sound of heavy footsteps pounding relentlessly down the hall towards him.

He growls, cursing at himself and charges down the hall, directly in the opposite direction of Lance. Please let him follow me, please let him follow me. Keith’s mind chants in time with his steps as he runs towards the prison. The prison where Shiro is. He needs to get himself together. “He’s on your tail, Keith,” Pidge tells him, voice tense.

Great. He got what he wanted. Perfect. He picks up the pace, willing his mind to go blank as he sprints. He huffs as he charges down the hall, following Pidge’s directions. They instruct him and Lance, alternating as each of them reach different crossroads. Keith’s reaching them faster, though, and soon Pidge is focusing mostly on him. “Crap, Keith, he’s right behind you.”

“How?” Keith pants. His legs are cramping, close to giving out. He’s never run this fast for this long before. But at least they’re after him, not Lance.

“Keith!”

He drops, sliding along the floor as another blade flies over his head. Seriously, who is this? They’re not dressed like a typical Galra. His mind whirrs, remembering the Galra he’d saved in the Weblum. He hadn’t been dressed like a normal Galra either, but this one’s more different. Apparently it doesn’t matter how little time they have. This guy isn’t giving up.

Keith stands, gripping his sword. He has a moment to wish he’d brought his Luxite blade before the figure lunges at him. They’re still using a knife. Keith parries, ducking in close. He slams the handle, knocking the knife out of their hand. Then he shoves against the figure’s chest with his shoulder, putting all his weight behind it. It works. They both stumble, but Keith holds his ground as the figure falls. He doesn’t even look before turning and continuing.

“I recognize those pants,” Pidge breathes.

Lance grunts. “Yeah, they’re all wearing the same pair, Pidge.” He’s already at the prison. That means there’s just one. Or at least, only one knows they’re here. “Can you lead me to the shuttle bay now?”

“Go back the way you came, but turn left at the first crossroads. Keith, the guy –“

“Just tell me where to go,” Keith grits out, speeding up from a jog to a run. “Lance, are any of them Shiro?” The fact that he has to ask means he already knows the answer, but he waits to hear the sigh from the other side.

“Sorry,” and Lance really does sound sorry. “None of them are even human. He must be on your side.”

If anything could make his cramped legs move faster again, it would be that. “Pidge.”

“Turn left.”

He practically skids out as he takes the curve too sharp. Keith picks it up, not sure if the person is still following him, kicking into a burst of speed. “Whoa, slow down!” Pidge shouts in his ear. “You passed it! Two doors back.”

Keith turns back around, going back two doors. Now’s the moment of truth. The moment where he’s gonna see Shiro again. He takes a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heartrate.

“Guys,” Hunk interrupts, voice more tense than before. “Not to rush you, but I kinda need to rush you.”

“Lance, Keith, update,” Allura commands.

“I’ve gotten the prisoners from my side,” Lance answers, smoothly. Nothing wrong on his end yet. “We’re making our way to the shuttle bay, so I need you to keep them distracted, buddy.”

When Keith doesn’t speak up immediately, Pidge does it for him. “Keith’s outside the other cell now.”

“Hurry up, both of you,” Allura tells them. “We need to get out of here before they call for backup. Pidge, do you have a way out?”

“There are some escape pods in here.”

“Good. And Keith?”

Keith takes one last deep breath, opening his eyes. “I’ll find the shuttle bay and get us out of here,” he recites.

“You really need to move,” Pidge reminds him.

Now or never. Keith puts his hand on the door pad and holds his breath as the door slides up. He can’t help it. “Shiro?” He calls out, turning on his speaker and ducking inside before the door’s been raised all the way. The prisoners in the room turn and look at him, confusion and fear mirrored in all their faces. All their alien faces.

Shiro’s not here.

Keith represses his disappointment as much as he can, but that doesn’t stop the small whimper from escaping his lips. He clears his throat. They still have to complete the mission. “I’m a paladin of Voltron,” he announces robotically. “We’re here to rescue you.”

He turns to lead them out and barely catches sight of the black figure before something slams into his helmet and he’s knocked to the ground. The air whooshes out of him as he hits, but Keith still has enough presence of mind to kick his feet out, knocking the figure down too. He pushes himself up, watching the stranger do the same. He sees the knife on the ground and kicks out again, pushing it away as the figure reaches for it. Which is how he sees it.

A human hand.

Not just a human hand, though. It’s a human left hand. “Shiro,” he breathes. It has to be Shiro. He’s the only one who can beat Keith in battle – other than Allura. A human left hand. Keith just needs to get the cloak off his head, see his face.

Objective changed, Keith crouches as the figure scrambles on all fours towards their knife. He puts all his weight into his legs then pushes off, launching towards the figure. He grabs them, wrapping his arms around their waist but not before the figure can grab the knife. The two of them slide back on the metal floor. A sharp pain in his left side forces a gasp out of his mouth as they move. Fuck. Shiro stabbed him.

Keith fumbles, tugging at the cloak. He yanks it hard, pulling it down as the figure wriggles. A ripping noise sounds in the air, accompanied by another boom. The floor shakes, and Keith falls again, taking half the fabric with him. He struggles up at the same time the figure does, and for a moment they stare at each other in shock. Until Pidge’s shout echoes in Keith’s helmet.

“Matt?!”

Another boom sounds too close, accompanied by terrified screaming from the prisoners. Metal scrapes on metal, and Keith jumps out of the way as the head of the yellow lion comes crashing into the ship.

“We need to get out of here now!” Hunk shouts, voice projecting out of Yellow as the lion’s jaw opens wide.

Keith turns to the prisoners, cowering in the corner. “You heard him! Get in there!” They all jump, running towards the open mouth and piling on.

Keith looks around and finds the figure – Matt Holt, Pidge’s brother, holy shit – lying still on the ground. He rushes over. Matt’s out cold, still alive but definitely unconscious. He must’ve been knocked out when Hunk crashed through the wall. He grunts, hoisting Matt up and drags him backwards into Yellow.

As soon as they’re inside, the jaw snaps shut. Keith struggles to hold his balance as Hunk pilots them away. He doesn’t let Matt go but instead continues dragging him past the prisoners and up into the cockpit. Hunk barely glances at him when he gets in. “Who’s that?”

“Matt Holt.”

A pause. Then: “Wait, what?!”

Chapter Text

Now

When Shiro had hit puberty, he’d done what everyone else had; he wrote a note to his soulmate on his arm. He hadn’t been like some, sketching out a long introduction, wanting their first marking to be memorable. But he also hadn’t been like others, those who claimed they weren’t like everyone else, who wrote a simple ‘hey’ or waited for their soulmates to write first (if they hadn’t already).

No. To him, soulmates meant family, and family meant always being there for each other. So when he hit puberty, his first words had been nothing more than a simple greeting. Something along the lines of ‘hello, my name’s Shiro, and I’m your soulmate.’ Though he doesn’t remember the exact words anymore.

Not hearing from his soulmate hadn’t fazed him at first. Soulmates aren’t always the same age. They’re close, most of the time. But often, one of them has to wait a year or two before hearing from their partner. He figured he must’ve been the older one.

But one year had ticked into two, then three. Eventually, Shiro had stopped trying. Had stopped thinking he had someone out there meant for him. He was one of the unmarked; the rare few who either had no soulmate or whose soulmate wouldn’t be born for a long time. (Or those whose soulmates died too young.)

He’d never let it bother him. Marks are all as public or private as people make them, and Shiro had chosen to keep his private. Besides, there had been more important things. Getting into the Garrison for example. And then once he was in, passing his classes, making the Kerberos mission, going to space. Worrying about soulmates was for people who had time, who weren’t role models for countless recruits and cadets.

So finding out, years later, that this had been the real reason. Zarkon’s son. It’s…

Is this why he’s the black paladin? Because he’s irrevocably tied to the son of the original one?

Shiro jerks, body twitching when he hears the clang of the door opening. His head drops to the side as he looks around himself, trying to remember where the hell he is and how he got here. A blink, then two, and his surroundings finally unblur themselves.

He’s back in the room with the druids, tied to some kind of…metal bed thing. His left arm’s too weak to break free in this state, and his right arm is still missing. Shiro lolls his head to the other side, squinting at the black figure there. It could be Lotor. He can’t tell. Something sharp pokes his leg, and Shiro’s next blink lasts long enough that when he opens them, he’s alone in his cell.

“Oo-mun.”

Shiro groans and rolls off his bed. He barely makes it to the toilet before emptying his stomach. What comes up is mostly bile, the acid burning his throat. He can’t remember the last time he ate, but judging by the pink in the toilet, it can’t have been recently.

He flushes it before collapsing on the ground. Pink isn’t a good color, but he’ll deal with that later. Just like he’ll deal with pulling himself over to his bed later. Right now, he just wants to lie on the cool, metal ground and rest his eyes a little.

“Oo-mun!” The shout’s more urgent this time, forcing Shiro’s eyes open. He’s still alone in his cell.

“I think it’s dead.” This voice comes from the other side.

Shiro pinches the bridge of his nose. Clearly, he won’t be getting any rest. He heaves a deep sigh and pushes himself up off the ground. “I’m not dead.” It’s a struggle to get back to his bed. Eventually, though, he manages to reach it, and collapses down, strength gone.

“Where did they take you?” The first voice asks. It takes him longer than it should to remember his name.

“R’ung Tak?” He asks, tongue weighing heavily in his mouth.

“No, Oo-mun. R’ung Tak was taken away half a movement ago.”

Shiro doesn’t have the energy to figure out what the hell a movement is. He stares up at the ceiling, wondering how long he’s been here in a time system he understands. How much longer will he be here? Is his team even looking for him?

He can’t stand to be here much longer.

Time’s lost all meaning anyway. Has for a while. Sometimes, he’s awake in his cell like now. The aliens around him shout around at each other, only quieting when one of the guards walks by. Other times he’s tied to that table, being poked and prodded by the druids.

He never sees them drag the other prisoners out, never sees them with the druids. Only him. Then again, he can’t tell what’s up or down sometimes. He opens his eyes to dizziness, closes them to pain.

The worst, though, is when Lotor comes in to check on him.

He sobers Shiro up enough to bring full awareness of his surroundings. Worse, even. Lines sharpen even more than they ever have before, colors differentiating from each other more starkly than he can remember. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears, feel each breath against his ribs. His left fingers tingle with awareness, and it’s all too much. Far too much.

This is one of those times.

He remembers being in his cell, remembers asking about R’ung Tak. But beyond that…it’s as if part of his life had been zapped away from him. Shiro knows what’s coming next, too, because he knows what happens every time he feels this. Feels too much.

Sure enough, Lotor sweeps through the door. Shiro can smell him from here. He can make out every strand of hair, the fleck of blue in his otherwise grey irises. It’s too much. Shiro clenches his eyes shut, hand balled into a fist.

“Champion,” Lotor greets with a drawl. Shiro flinches. He hates the sound of his nickname, especially when it’s spoken by his…by Lotor. He grits his teeth and doesn’t answer, but that doesn’t stop Lotor. It never does. “Is this how humans treat their soulmates?” He asks wryly.

“You’re not my soulmate,” Shiro responds robotically. It’s the response he always gives; the only thing he can think whenever he sees Lotor. Because it can’t be him. He can’t be bonded to a monster – to Zarkon’s son.

“Ah, but I am.” Lotor’s words are accompanied by a single finger, stroking down the side of Shiro’s cheek. He shivers, despite not being cold. “Tell me about human bonds,” he insists.

Shiro sets his jaw and doesn’t respond. Lotor’s fingers grip his chin, turning his face. “Tell me,” he repeats, voice slow, dangerous. “About human bonds.”

The same feeling as before overwhelms him; the feeling like he will tell Lotor the truth no matter what. “We write on ourselves.”

“Really,” Lotor hums, stepping away. “Go on.”

He doesn’t want to. Shiro tries to keep himself quiet, tries to force his mouth to stay shut, but like every other time it doesn’t work. “The words appear on our soulmate in the same place.”

“And what about when humans are bonded to someone different?”

“I don’t know.”

“Interesting,” Lotor remarks. He taps a finger on his chin as he paces back and forth. “Are you the only one with this mark instead of the normal writings?”

“That I know of.”

Lotor smirks. “Well aren’t you a lucky one, then.” Shiro doesn’t answer. “One last question: do the others on your team know about you?”

Shiro glares at him. He’s going to answer, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. “No.”

If anything, the prince’s smirk widens. “Sleep well, Champion. I will return.” With that he sweeps out. The druids reappear, a needle grasped firmly in the hand of one. Shiro watches it, watches the too gold liquid slosh around. Every small shadow etches itself into Shiro’s vision, but he watches it anyway. Feels too sharply as the needle stabs into his skin. He keeps his eyes open even as the now-familiar darkness curls around the edges of his vision, creeping in until he sees nothing, is no one.

 


 

 

Keith clutches Matt’s unconscious body close to himself the full way back. He feels the shake of the ground as the lion lands, the split second of near-weightlessness that indicates the castle’s jumped into a wormhole, and still he doesn’t release Matt. Hunk gets up, and looks over at Keith before his eyes dart to the door out of the cockpit. “Uh…”

“Take care of the prisoners, Hunk. I can handle this.”

He waits, hanging in the cockpit while he listens to Hunk put on his charm, the comfort his mere presence provides. From where Keith is crouched, he can’t hear the exact words, but he catches the calming tone Hunk uses. The prisoners will be fine; he’s not worried.

Instead, for the first time since Shiro’s disappearance, Keith’s mind is on something other than his lost friend – brother – or Lance.

When the sound of the prisoners dissipates, Keith finally makes his way out. He’s strong, but Matt’s dead-weight is heavy, and Keith’s head is still spinning from the battle. He makes it as far as the lion’s open mouth before he’s bowled over, losing his grip on Matt. “That’s my brother!”

Keith sits up, head spinning. Matt had clonked him harder than he’d thought. He looks over and sees Lance, arms wrapped around Pidge’s torso, wrestling them away. They make brief eye contact – or at least Keith thinks they do – before Lance tilts his head to the right. “Get him to a healing pod.”

He frowns but nods and struggles back up. He hooks his arms under Matt’s armpits and drags him backwards off the lion. He focuses on his motions, looking behind himself so he doesn’t drop himself or Matt off the side of Red. Hard to ignore, though, are the shouts of protest and sounds of struggle he hears coming from above. Lance is having a hell of a time holding onto Pidge it seems.

Simply because of that, because he doesn’t want to get knocked over again, he chokes down both the pain in his head and the pain in his side and soldiers onwards. He drags Matt out of the hangar and down the hall to the infirmary before stopping for breath. His side is burning up, but at the same time it feels completely frozen. Distantly, Keith knows that’s not a good thing, but he’s more focused on trying to figure out how to get Matt vertical and lift him into the healing pod.

“Need some help?”

Keith looks over and catches sight of Lance standing in the doorway. He has a tight smile on his face, but now that Keith examines it, he can feel that the tight ball in his stomach isn’t his own. He considers opening his mouth to respond, but the nausea is a bit much, so instead he simply nods.

Lance is there in a moment, and the two of them manage to prop Matt up. For how small he is, he certainly weighs a lot. They lift him, just enough to get his feet over the lip, and drop him down into the cryopod. It closes up as Keith steps away, but the vertigo is too much, and he tilts into Lance.

“Whoa there.” Lance helps him upright, but his hands don’t leave Keith’s shoulders. He hopes they never do. “You alright?”

Keith swallows past his dry throat, ignoring the question. “Where’s Pidge?”

“With Hunk. They were getting pretty squirmy, and Hunk’s their favorite.” Aside from Shiro floats unspoken in the space between them.

“I need to talk to them.” He makes to move away, but Lance’s grip stops him. Ordinarily, breaking away wouldn’t be a problem. But his head was hit pretty hard, and Keith’s side is completely numb at this point. (Besides, he’s not sure he wants to walk away from Lance.)

“No. You need to heal.”

Keith halfheartedly tries to shove Lance away. “I’m fine.”

“Dude,” Lance steps in front of him so Keith can’t look away, “I’ve had a concussion before. Remember? You gave me one.”

He groans. Now is not the time to be having this argument with Lance. In fact, never would be a good option.

“Keith, seriously. Get in the pod.” Lance’s hands push at him now, guiding him towards the nearest unoccupied cryopod. “You’re bleeding out all over the floor.”

“’M fine…” Keith mumbles, feeling the exact opposite of fine. He doesn’t want Lance to stop maneuvering him, because then he’d have to let go. He never wants Lance to let go.

He stumbles, leg giving out on him, and Lance catches him. “You are the exact opposite of fine.”

Keith stops even bothering to try keeping his head up, instead letting it loll to the side the way it wants to. He’s torn between collapsing completely, vomiting, and telling Lance the truth. Maybe Lance is right. “Not fine,” he admits.

“No, you’re not.”

The roll of his stomach might be the nausea, but he’s not sure anymore. “Pod?” He manages, not really in control of his motor functions anymore.

“Yeah, buddy. We’re gonna get you in a pod.” His heel hits back against something, and with Lance’s guidance, he lifts it. His back settles against the cool metal of the cryopod, and the next thing he knows, Lance’s warmth is gone. Keith doesn’t have time to protest, doesn’t have the energy to lift his hand and reach out. Instead, the glass shuts in front of him, leaving him alone in the cold.

---

No one catches him when he wakes up. Keith stumbles out of the cryopod, cold and confused before he regains his balance. It takes him a moment, as it always does, for him to remember what happened, why he’s in the cryopod. When he does, his gaze flips around the room.

He’d thought he was alone, but now he sees he’s not. Illuminated by the soft light that imitates night is Pidge. They’re staring at one of the pods, and Keith doesn’t need to walk over to see who’s inside. He does anyway.

Matt is inside the pod, as suspected, eyes closed peacefully. Keith stands a foot behind Pidge, awkward and unsure. “Um…” He starts.

“He looks better than I thought,” Pidge tells him in a soft voice.

“Oh?”

Pidge steps forward, resting their hand on the front of the pod. “He’s been gone for longer than Shiro. I figured he’d be worse off when we found him.”

Keith evaluates Matt, really looking at him. The roots of his hair are white, his hair itself longer than the picture Pidge has, hanging past his chin. He’s still wearing the outfit he’d been in when he’d attacked them on the ship – obviously, Keith realizes, since he and Lance had put Matt in the pod – but Keith can see two very human hands. His pants aren’t in good shape, though, and Keith spots a glint of metal under them. He suspects Matt isn’t as whole as he appears, especially considering that he’d attacked them in the first place.

 “Pidge,” Keith starts carefully, “I think something is off about him.” He can’t get out of his head the memory of just how strong Matt was during the fight. How he’d taken Lance’s shots right to the chest and had barely slowed down.

“He was captured by the Galra, of course something’s off about him,” Pidge snaps.

 “I mean…are you sure this is really Matt?” And not a droid or something? He keeps the last part to himself, especially when Pidge turns to him, murder in their eyes.

“You think I wouldn’t know my own brother?”

“No, I do –“

“You don’t.” Pidge reaches into their pocket and pulls out a pen. For a second, Keith stares at it, body tensed. He half expects Pidge to attack him with it, stab him with the nearest weapon they could get their hands on. But then they put it to their hand, and Keith gets it.

His gaze snaps to Matt’s hand, eyes wide, as words trace themselves across the back. Found you. He looks back at Pidge, mouth agape as they put the pen back in their pocket. Pidge thrusts their hand out for Keith to check the words, and he steps forward to see the same two words written there. Found you.

“I thought you were bonded to someone on Earth,” he says finally.

Pidge shrugs. “I lied.”

“Why?”

Pidge looks back at Matt. “Platonic soulmates are rare enough, but relatives as soulmates are even worse. People look at you weird when they find out, so we usually don’t tell anyone.”

Platonic soulmates. Platonic. The word reverberates against Keith’s skull, pounds against his ribs. Pidge is right; platonic soulmates are rare. Rare enough that Keith had forgotten they even exist. He’d thought his bond with Lance was causing his feelings. He hadn’t even thought…

But that means his feelings towards Lance aren’t the bond. They’re his feelings. They’re real. All this time he’s been fighting something he never needed to fight, and Keith realizes he knew that already. Deep down he always knew: he likes Lance. He likes him despite Lance being his soulmate, not because of it.

It hits him like a freight train; his heart stops. When it starts again, it’s with new knowledge. The knowledge that he wants Lance, he wants to be with him. He wants to –

“Wait what?” He asks, catching Lance’s name. Pidge had continued talking even while Keith zoned out.

“I said, that’s why Lance’s bond is so weird.”

Keith’s heart pounds against his chest. “Why is it weird?”

Pidge sighs. “You weren’t listening at all were you?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine. Listen this time, because I won’t repeat it again.” Keith nods. “When the Kerberos mission took off, Matt and I communicated via our bond. He sent updates on where they were, how dad was doing, we just talked. But as they got further from Earth, the words were fainter and didn’t last as long. And then they just stopped coming. We were still getting reports at the time, I mean they weren’t even to Kerberos yet. So I figured out distance weakens the bond. They’re strong enough to span a full planet, but not a full galaxy.”

“That makes sense.” It explains their theory better, the one Lance keeps trying to refute.

Pidge nods. “Yeah. That’s why Lance’s is so strange. His marks are just as dark and long lasting as they were on Earth. The only way that makes sense would be if they were close to us.”

Keith’s heartrate picks up. He immediately regrets asking Pidge to repeat themself. “Well he’s a weird guy,” he says lightly. Too light.

“I know he’s not bonded to Hunk. The art appears on his right hand, so it can’t be Shiro either. There’s a chance it’s Coran or Allura, but they would’ve said something when he walked around with that green painting…”

They trail off, eyes widening as they look at Keith. His entire body drops ten degrees. “No,” he says before Pidge can say anything.

That was a bad idea. “Oh my god,” Pidge breathes.

“No,” he repeats, because it’s all he can think right now. No. He’d tried so hard, worked so hard at ensuring no one would find out. He’d barely marked Lance at all since finding out – just the once, even. And now it’s all crashing down around him.

“Holy shit. Does he know?”

“No.”

“Does Shiro?”

Keith shakes his head. “No one knows. Not even Shiro.”

“Holy shit.”

“Please, Pidge. Please don’t tell anyone.”

“Oh my god.” For all intents and purposes, Pidge appears to be in shock. Not that Keith can blame them; he’s in shock too.

And then they start giggling.

“It’s not funny,” Keith snaps. None of this is funny. He has to be the one to tell Lance, he can’t have Lance finding out like this; he’ll hate him. It’s already going to be hard enough as it is.

“Oh my god,” Pidge giggles, ignoring him. “You’re the shit artist.”

Keith bristles. “That’s what you’re taking out of this?”

“Why do you draw on yourself if you’re so bad?”

“Because,” he grits out. This is not the conversation he imagined having. “It helps calm me down.”

Pidge tilts their head, evaluating him. “Hunk has breathing exercises for his anxiety. You could talk to him.”

“Yeah, I’ll think about it,” he lies.

Pidge nods, somewhat serious expression back on their face. “Why haven’t you told Lance yet?”

“Because.” Keith isn’t going to explain himself to anyone who isn’t Lance.

“Are you ashamed of him or something?”

“No!” Keith shouts. Then again, quieter. “No. That’s not it.”

“Because that’s exactly what he’s going to think when he finds out.”

Cold fingers grip Keith’s heart. He figured Lance would be mad at him, but he’d never thought that Lance would think he’s ashamed of him. Keith’s not ashamed. The opposite, really. How is he supposed to explain himself, though? How is he supposed to tell Lance that he kept the truth to himself? How is he supposed to say why?

Pidge is still looking at him expectantly, Matt glowing unconscious in the background. Matt and Pidge, platonic soulmates. Pidge who knows about him and Lance, decidedly not platonic soulmates. He needs to get out of here. “I have to go,” he says. Keith turns on his heel and leaves before Pidge can say anything else to throw his world out of alignment.

He doesn’t get far. He speed walks out of the infirmary and runs into Lance almost immediately. He’s too preoccupied with his own whirling emotions to notice any change, and he literally runs into Lance.

“Whoa there, buddy,” Lance says, catching himself on Keith. “Holy cheese, are you made of stone or something? You hit me, aren’t you supposed to be the one who gets knocked over?”

Keith blinks at him. Are you ashamed of him or something? “Space ship to Mullet, come in Mullet.” Lance waves a hand in front of his face. Because that’s exactly what he’s going to think when he finds out.

“Keith? Are you okay?”

He shakes his head. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You don’t look so fine,” Lance argues. “Are you sure you were in there for a full round of the cryopod? You were stabbed.”

“Just a little.”

Lance snorts. “Just a little. I swear, Hot Head, only you could say you were ‘just a little’ stabbed.”

Keith pushes away, no matter how much he wants otherwise. “I’m fine,” he repeats.

“You know that’s not gonna work, right? I’m not going to leave you alone to go train yourself back into the cryopod.”

“What?”

“C’mon, Keith. I’m not an idiot. I know you’re upset we didn’t find Shiro.”

Shiro. God, Shiro. Again, he’d forgotten about Shiro. Lance exists, and Keith’s every thought is consumed by him. “I’m just going to go to bed. I’m tired.”

Lance raises a single eyebrow and looks Keith up and down. “Alright.”

Keith pushes past him and walks down the hall, but Lance catches up, walking alongside him. “I said I’m going to bed.”

“I know,” Lance says. “But I don’t trust you.”

Keith rolls his eyes but doesn’t protest. Protesting just makes it worse, he knows. Lance walks him all the way to his room, as if he really thinks Keith will rush off to the training deck. He can’t tell what Lance is feeling – his own emotions are still running too high to feel anything but them. For all Keith knows, Lance plans to stand guard outside his door to make sure he won’t sneak out.

He wasn’t lying. He is tired – something about the cryopods heals them but leaves them exhausted when they come out. He tilts forward onto his bed and passes out before he can think too much about Lance.

---

Everyone’s already sitting at the dining table when Keith wanders in. He’d gone to the kitchen upon first waking up, but Hunk pushed him out saying, “Dinner’s not ready, go wait in the dining room like everyone else.” And sure enough, everyone else is already sitting around the table.

Keith pulls up the chair next to Lance out of habit, but the minute he sits down he feels the tension at the table. “What’s going on?” He mutters to Lance, watching Pidge glare at Allura.

“We’re trying to figure out what to do with Matt,” Lance whispers back quietly.

Clearly not quietly enough, though. Pidge’s head whips over, her glare focused on the blue paladin now. “There is nothing to figure out. Matt’s my brother. We’re going to let him stay in the castle with us.”

“Pidge,” Allura says gently, as if this isn’t the first time she’s said this. “Matt attacked two paladins of Voltron. We need to be sure he’s in his right mind before we let him wander around the castle.”

“I’m not going to let you tie him up!” Pidge shouts, fists banging on the table.

“I definitely picked the wrong time to come out,” Hunk remarks. A few plates float around him, lowering in front of everyone once he gets close enough. Hunk sits next to Pidge, across the table from Lance and Keith. “Dinner’s ready,” he adds, as if no one has noticed.

Apparently no one has. “We’re not suggesting tying him up, Number Five,” Coran says. “We need to do a proper scan to make sure nothing’s wrong with his head.”

“Nothing is wrong with his head!”

“No offense, Pidge, but how do you know that?” Lance asks, ignoring Keith’s mental wish for him to stay out of it.

“Really, Lance?” Pidge snarls. “You’re going to side with them? You were all for rescuing Shiro back on Earth!”

“Shiro wasn’t trying to attack us,” Lance argues. “Besides, I don’t agree with keeping him knocked out. I think we should wake him up and put him in one of those memory things we tried on Sendak.”

“Those only work if the person in the pod is willing to talk,” Coran reminds them.

Allura shakes her head. “No. We are not going to attach him to the castle in any way that could corrupt it. Not until we know what’s wrong with him.”

“I thought the issue before was the corrupted Balmeran crystal?” Hunk asks, head tilted.

Lance nods. “Yeah. So we shouldn’t have a problem putting him in there and seeing why the quiznak he was attacking us.”

“I’m not going to risk it,” Allura insists. “Not after last time. We’re leaving him unconscious”

Hunk shakes his head. “This would be easier if Shiro were here,” he mumbles. The team ignores him.

“My brother is not some threat! I’m not going to let you keep him here as a prisoner!”

“And what if he tries to hurt someone again?” Allura shoots back.

“He won’t,” Pidge insists. “I’m sure of it.”

“What if we take a vote?” Lance pipes up, looking between Allura and Pidge. “We’re all a team, and we’re all on the same ship. We should all have a say as to what happens.”

Pidge glares at Lance but nods. “Fine.”

“Very well,” Allura agrees. “We shall vote. What are the options?”

“I say we wake Matt up and let him go free,” Pidge says, arms crossed over their chest, stubborn.

“I think we should wake him up but put him in the memory pod thing,” Lance offers.

Allura nods. “And I think we should keep him under until we know how to handle him. Coran?”

“I agree with the princess,” Coran says readily. Pidge snorts.

“Hunk?” Allura prompts.

Hunk looks around at the entire table. He pushes his index fingers together, nervous. “I uh…I agree with Lance. I think that memory pod thing sounds good.” Pidge huffs, glaring at Hunk as if he’d just betrayed them completely.

“Keith?” Allura turns to him.

His mind flashes back to the battle. To him and Lance racing away, Lance shooting him continuously. Matt had hit him hard, stabbed him, done more damage than someone his size should be able to. He’s more versatile than he has any right to be. The Galra did something to him, something that made him like this. And until they figure out what it is… “I agree with Allura,” he says, not looking at Pidge. “I think we need to keep him under until we know how to handle Matt’s strength.”

He can feel Pidge’s glare on him, even though he still refuses to look. Allura stands. “Then we will keep him under. Coran, update the pod settings. I am going to speak with the prisoners to see what they know about Shiro.” Both Alteans leave without eating, leaving the paladins alone with tension so tight, Keith could cut it with a knife.

“Pidge, I’m sorry. I want to do what’s best for Matt too –“ Hunk starts, only to be interrupted.

“Matt’s my soulmate.”

Keith’s eyes snap over to Pidge. They’re glaring at him, fury not even disguised. “What?” Lance asks. Keith doesn’t need to look over to know his mouth is hanging open, just like Hunk’s.

“I thought your soulmate was on Earth,” Hunk says.

Pidge doesn’t look away from Keith. “No. My brother is my soulmate, and I know that’s really him.”

“Pidge, no one’s saying it’s not him…” Lance starts, trailing off when Pidge finally shoots their glare to him instead.

“But you still don’t trust him.”

“You saw him in the hallway,” Lance insists. “He was way more powerful than he should be. He almost killed Keith.”

“So we should just let him stay frozen forever then?”

“Hey, I didn’t say that,” Lance argues, voice hard. “I wanted to keep him awake, remember?”

“In chains,” Pidge argues back.

“No. In a memory pod, those are two different things.”

“Yeah,” Hunk points out. “Lance and I were kinda siding with you.”

“Not siding with me enough.”

“Pidge, calm down,” Lance says holding his hands out.

Hunk nods. “Yeah, eat some of the dinner I cooked before it gets cold.”

But Pidge doesn’t calm down. Keith can see it in their eyes, see the anger directed at them all but mostly at him. He knows a storm is coming, and he can’t do anything about it. “Do you know what it’s like to suddenly stop hearing from your soulmate?” They ask.

This is the storm.

“Pidge,” Keith warns, voice low.

“Uh, yeah?” Hunk says. “It’s not like the Balmera is always nearby.” Wait, what?

But before Keith can say anything or ask Hunk what the hell, Lance speaks up. “You know I do,” he says softly.

“I do too,” Pidge says. “And now that Matt’s back, I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Okay,” Keith steps in. “We won’t let that happen to you, Pidge. We just want to make sure we don’t have another issue with the castle.”

But Pidge ignores him. “Lance, if you found your soulmate would you let them go? Would you let us keep them unconscious?”

“That’s different,” Lance argues.

“Why? Because your soulmate hasn’t tried to hurt any of us?”

Hunk’s head whips back and forth between Lance and Pidge, but Keith glares pointedly at Pidge alone. “Pidge, drop it,” he warns.

“I…I don’t know who my soulmate is,” Lance says. “But I don’t think they’ve tried hurting –“

“Because your soulmate won’t talk to you,” Pidge says.

Keith feels the moment the knife digs in. The cold drop in his stomach that only partly belongs to him. “That doesn’t have anything to do with Matt,” Lance argues weakly. This isn’t fair. Pidge is pissed at him not Lance, and yet Lance is the one suffering for it.

“Do you ever wonder if your soulmate hates you?” Pidge asks, twisting the knife.

Silence follows the question. The cold in Keith’s stomach expands throughout his full body, and out of the corner of his eye he can see Lance’s flush. But it isn’t embarrassment. It’s something closer to…Keith’s breath hitches.

Shame. Lance is ashamed of himself.

Then, suddenly, Lance pushes his chair back with a clatter, standing up. Keith sits there, completely frozen, unable to do anything aside from gape at Pidge. Pidge, who he thought was his friend, but turns out to be vindictive. And then Lance speaks, and the shame Keith feels only partially comes from him. The rest is all his own.

“I don’t have to wonder that, Pidge. I already know,” Lance says, voice quiet. He disappears, leaving them all sitting at the dining table, watching their food get cold.

“Pidge.” Hunk breaks the silence, voice colder than Keith’s ever heard it. “I love you, but if you ever go that far again, you will regret it.” His face is set in a hard line as he speaks, to Keith’s surprise. He’s never seen Hunk like this before. Once Hunk finishes, he stands up, scooping his plate up with him. He glances at Keith, as if he wants to say something to him too but thinks better of it and instead turns and leaves.

Pidge at least looks cowed. Not that Keith can blame them; being yelled at by Hunk can’t be pleasant. But still, that doesn’t stop the rage stirring just under Keith’s skin. So he stands up, making both his and Lance’s plates float up with him.

“I understand that you’re angry,” he tells Pidge, hands clenched into fists so tight he can feel how white his knuckles are. He has to remind himself that Pidge is his friend. He cares about Pidge, and he doesn’t want to ruin this. No matter how careless their words were. “But you’re mad at me, not Lance. Next time you want to make me hurt, you hurt me. Leave him out of it.”

Pidge’s head drops forward. They don’t say anything though, and Keith doesn’t wait to see if they will. Instead he turns, guiding the plates with him, and walks out of the dining room.

He checks the kitchen, just in case, but Hunk’s alone inside, eating with a fury Keith doesn’t want to interrupt. Hunk’s not who he plans to eat with anyway.

Keith follows the feeling in his stomach, the overwhelming shame mixed with anger and sadness. It gets stronger as he walks, but he already knows where he’s going. He walks with purpose down the hallways, stopping right outside Lance’s room. The pain in his stomach is overwhelming this close – so much so that he has to lean against the wall and take a few deep breaths to calm himself before knocking.

“Go away,” Lance responds, voice muffled through the door.

But Keith isn’t going to leave him alone. Not when Lance is feeling like this and it’s his fault. So he opens the door. “You haven’t eaten,” he says, pushing the food inside before the door closes behind him.

Lance is lying down in his bed, clothes still on. His back is to Keith, but upon hearing his voice, he hunches in on himself. The knot in his stomach pangs, but Keith ignores that too. “You should eat. We never know when Voltron will be needed.”

He takes a seat on the floor when Lance doesn’t respond, leaning back against the bed. He knows he’s no good with words. Words are Lance’s thing, not his. People in general aren’t really his thing. But he owes Lance enough to at least try. “I…uh…I’m sorry about Pidge.”

“’S not your fault,” Lance mumbles. “They’re just mad about Matt.”

That's not true, but Keith shrugs. “Still shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“It’s whatever.”

But it’s not whatever. It’s the opposite of whatever. It’s Lance thinking his soulmate – thinking Keith – hates him. When Keith very much does not hate him. He sighs, leaning his head back against Lance’s bed. “Are you gonna eat?”

“Not hungry.”

“I’m not leaving until you eat.”

Lance’s heavy sigh hits Keith’s ears followed by his rustle. Lance kicks him in the shoulder as he sits up. Keith expects him to sit there, but Lance slides down the side of his bed, sitting on the floor next to Keith. He reaches out and takes his plate, and the two of them eat in silence.

“I know this is payback for me not letting you train yourself to death,” Lance says once he’s about halfway through his plate.

Keith shrugs. “Maybe a little.”

Silence falls between them again. It’s far from comfortable, the way the silence between him and Shiro is. Lance can never stay quiet for too long, though. “Hey Keith?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you know who your soulmate is?”

For the second time that day, Keith’s blood runs cold. He’s not ready, not yet. They haven’t found Shiro. Pidge’s words earlier might’ve opened his eyes, but he still can’t tell Lance. He will, though, as soon as they find Shiro. “I…” Keith stutters.

“Sorry.” Lance shakes his head. “That was personal. I know you don’t like talking about it.”

He knows? Well, Keith hasn’t exactly gone around talking about soul marks the way everyone else does. That has to be clue enough. It’s not like any of them are, though. Not even Lance, that much. They have more important things than that.

“It’s…okay,” he concedes.

“My soulmate doesn’t really talk to me,” Lance admits quietly. Keith’s grip around his fork tightens so much he has to drop it. “Sometimes they draw stuff, like doodles or whatever, but mostly they’re quiet.”

“I see,” Keith says carefully.

“You don’t have to listen if you don’t want. It’s kinda stupid, I know.”

He is absolutely the last person Lance should be talking to about this. He should be talking to Hunk, but instead Keith is here. And whatever Lance is going to say – and Keith has a feeling he knows what it is – he wants to say it. So Keith does what he thinks soulmates are supposed to do and pushes his discomfort aside. “No, it’s okay. You can talk about it if you want.”

“I leave them notes every day.” Keith’s heart skips a beat at that. “Just little things. I tell them good morning or that I hope they have a nice day.” Lance chuckles, but there’s no humor behind it. “Sometimes I leave little pickup lines. Embarrassing, I know.” But it’s not. It’s not embarrassing. It’s sweet and pure and more than Keith could’ve ever hoped for in a soulmate. Not that he can say that.

“I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” Lance continues. He drops the plate the floor, fork clattering against it.

Keith doesn’t know what to say. “It’s okay,” is all he manages to come up with.

“Pidge is right,” Lance declares. “They might’ve just been saying it because they’re mad, but they’re also right. My soulmate definitely hates me.”

“No.” Keith can’t hear any more of this. He drops his plate to the ground and grabs Lance’s shoulder, turning him so they’re facing each other. “Don’t think like that.”

“How else am I supposed to think, Keith? They don’t even draw on themselves unless they’re hurting!” Lance shouts, hurt pounding in Keith’s chest.

“Maybe,” Keith swallows. He needs to tread carefully here. “Maybe they aren’t ready yet.”

“Or maybe they hate me.”

“They’re your soulmate. I’m pretty sure they can’t hate you,” Keith argues. He won’t have Lance walking around thinking he hates him.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“No,” Keith insists, irritated. “Not whatever.”

“Keith. Drop it.”

He opens his mouth to keep arguing, but one look at Lance stops him. “Fine. Are you going to be okay in here?”

Lance snorts. “Not like this is any different from any other day.”

He nods. He’d promised he’d stay in here until Lance ate, so now he doesn’t have another excuse to stay with him. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“You always do.”

It’s a strange reversal of their relationship. Keith wants to stay and cheer Lance up until he’s laughing. Wants to make him feel better the way Lance made him feel better about Shiro. Instead he grabs the plates and stands up. “Goodnight,” he says as he walks away.

“Yeah. Night.” Keith makes it to the door before Lance stops him. “Hey Keith?”

“Yeah?” He asks, turning back.

Lance is slumped against the bed, frowning at the ground. The pain is less intense than before, but none of the negative emotions are gone. Just muted. “Thanks,” Lance says.

“Anytime,” he promises. He means it too; he’ll do better from now on.

Chapter Text

Now

Lance stares at his wrist the next morning, pen hovering over the skin. He’d left marks last night after Keith had left, the faded text still outlined where he normally writes his words. Do you – it says. Cut off at the end. He’d immediately stopped writing it, debated crossing it out, even, but that would probably be worse. Leaving it means he can write something over it. A black mark would mean his soulmate might know something’s up.

Now, in the morning light, Lance might be able to come up with something to keep his soulmate from sensing his doubts. He thinks for a bit before tracing over the two words, pen not quite holding the line as he rewrites them. Close enough. Do you ever watch the sun rise? He asks before tossing the pen away.

Why is he even writing to his soulmate?

Lance sighs, running his hands through his hair. He’d neglected himself the night before; despite the way he and Keith had left things, he hadn’t exactly been in a good place at the end of the night. He’d skipped his skin routine, and he’d barely even managed to pull on his pajamas before he burrowed himself under his covers and willed himself to sleep.

And if there are tear tracks down his face, he certainly isn’t going to acknowledge them.

He washes his skin and moisturizes, covering the dark circles under his eyes with the lotion. It doesn’t quite work; Hunk, at least, is bound to notice. Regardless, it’s as good as it’s going to get. Lance plants a smile on his face, pinches his cheeks to bring some life back into them, and wanders out to the kitchen.

It’s really too much to hope that he’d be alone.

The other three paladins are there in various states of breakfast. Hunk is partway through a bowl of goo, sitting far away from where Pidge is sitting, seeming to have already finished most of theirs. Keith is standing at the wall, holding the goo’s dispenser in his hand, but he pauses when Lance walks in. The red paladin’s eyes dart between Lance and Pidge, his posture stiff, as if he’s expecting a confrontation.

Hunk, too, looks up and freezes, goop dropping almost hilariously off his spoon into the bowl. “Hey…Lance…” Hunk draws out both words, side-eyeing Pidge obviously, but the green paladin is so wrapped up in their computer that they don’t even notice.

Or, at least, that’s what Pidge would like them all to think.

Lance can tell that they notice; he sees the way their shoulders are set, the fact that their eyes haven’t moved since Lance walked in. Their fingers are frozen over their keyboard, and Lance can feel the tension in the room, thick enough he could cut it with a knife. Of all the people on this ship Lance could be at odds with, Pidge is one of the last he’d thought possible.

“Pidge,” Keith murmurs, voice sharp despite being barely over a whisper.

The green paladin’s eyes snap up, staring straight at Keith’s before they dart towards Lance, guilty but still cold. “Sorry,” they say grudgingly.

It’s not even a real apology.

“It’s whatever,” he accepts with a shrug, aiming for nonchalance. “No biggie.”

Pidge winces, as if Lance had struck them rather than accept their half-assed apology. Their eyes flit between Keith and Lance before settling back on Lance. “It was uncalled for,” they say, sounding significantly more sincere than before. Guilty, even. “I shouldn’t have lashed out at you.”

Lance scratches his arm, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “I get it,” he says. “I’m not mad at you. It’s really not a big deal.”

Abruptly, Pidge stands up, snapping their laptop closed. They dump their goop and set the bowl aside. “I’ll be around,” they mumble. Lance steps aside as Pidge brushes by; the green paladin barely gives him a second look before they disappear through the door.

Lance looks up, meeting Hunk’s gaze, but Hunk looks just as confused as he feels. A clatter sounds from Lance’s right, and he looks over in time to see Keith stalk away from the goo dispenser towards the counter, leaving the hose dangling out of the wall. What the heck?

It’s not worth asking, Lance decides, grabbing his own bowl and filling it with goo. With Pidge gone, the tension in the room dissipates slightly, sliding into awkwardness instead. He sits at the counter, making Hunk sit between himself and Keith, ignoring the part of himself that rebels at that choice, pushing to sit next to the red paladin instead.

“No leftovers from last night?” he asks, hoping the two of them will accept the subject change rather than pushing it.

Luckily for him, they do. “No, there are leftovers,” Hunk replies easily, returning his attention to his bowl, “but they’re not exactly breakfast material if you know what I mean.”

“This isn’t exactly breakfast material either,” Lance points out.

Hunk tilts his head thoughtfully before nodding. “Yeah, no, you’re right. I really ought to make some pancakes or something.”

“Omelets,” Keith supplies.

Lance’s head snaps up, eyes meeting Keith’s own. “Why omelets?”

Keith looks away, cheeks pink. “No reason…I just used to like having them on the weekends, especially with pancakes.”

The confession is soft, innocent. It’s so cute that Lance’s cheeks heat up, and he’s sure his skin matches Keith’s in hue now. How could he not fall for Keith, honestly? He never had any chance. “You –“

Hunk clears his throat, cutting off Lance’s words before he can even think them.

Lance’s mouth slams shut. What had he even be about to say? Shit…he’s losing touch with reality if he’s able to forget Hunk is here when he’s literally right in front of him. He needs to get it together before he does something stupid like confess.

“It’s settled then!” Lance shouts too loud, trying to recover from his mishap. He nearly drops his spoon, his exclamation startles him that much. “Uh I mean,” he tries again at a normal volume, “we’ll definitely have to make pancakes and omelets one of these days. No more goo for breakfast. We can get Allura involved,” he goes off, getting into the idea already, despite just now having made it up. “I kinda know how to make some fun shapes with the batter, but Hunk can get way more intricate with it. And we have to make a moustache pancake for Coran, because how can we not? Oh, and we should all make moustache pancakes for ourselves to surprise him, because –“

Hunk stops his train wreck of a speech with a soft hand on his shoulder. “We will, Lance. I’ll put together a list of ingredients I need for next time we get a chance to go shopping, and we’ll arrange it all then.”

Keith, who had been staring wide eyed at Lance while he’d gone off, softens noticeably. “That sounds fun.”

Lance almost melts right there.

The red paladin stands up, somehow already having managed to finish his breakfast. “I’m gonna head to the training deck for a bit,” he addresses Lance. “Wanna join?”

“Uh…” Lance looks desperately at Hunk. He can’t spend alone time with Keith. Not right now. He’s afraid of what he’ll do. “I…uh….”

“You can join too,” Keith invites Hunk, almost as an afterthought.

Hunk shakes his head with a soft smile. “Nah, I’m good.” He points his spoon at Lance. “Besides, I think I need Lance’s help looking over Blue after her repairs.”

A rush of gratitude for Hunk spreads through Lance. “Yeah,” he agrees easily. “I really should visit her.” He’s not even lying; he hasn’t had a chance to spend quality time with Blue since they’d taken that hit aimed for Faelara.

“No biggie,” Keith mirrors Lance’s own words back at him, complete with a soft smile that has Lance’s heart hammering a thousand beats a minute. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

Lance can’t help the way his eyes follow Keith’s back as he disappears out the kitchen, leaving him and Hunk alone.

This time, Hunk doesn’t clear his throat. He doesn’t say anything, in fact. When Lance finally pulls his jaw off the floor and reminds himself that there’s more to this reality than a mullet-haired Galra and his nice ass, he turns and finds Hunk eating, pointedly not looking at him. Lance almost calls him out for it, getting as far as opening his mouth, before the words really sink in. Blue’s been injured since they’d taken the hit in place of Faelara, and he hasn’t gone to see her once.

Suddenly, Lance isn’t all that hungry anymore. He’d managed to eat half his bowl, but there’s no way he’ll be able to manage any more. “You ready to go see Blue?” he asks.

 “Aren’t you going to finish that?”

“Nah.” Lance shrugs. “Not hungry enough. I’ll save it for later.”

“Alright.”

They make their way down to Blue’s hangar, more at ease around each other than they had been since their fight.

“I can’t believe that you guys found Matt in that ship,” Hunk says, eyes darting around belatedly, obviously checking for Pidge. “I mean I kinda could hear what was happening, but I was a little distracted with my own thing. What did happen?”

“It…was weird. We were on the ship, everything going pretty well, and then Pidge said something about someone hearing us, and all of a sudden this dude in a mask appeared!” Lance exclaims. He tells the story as best as he remembers, flailing his arms around exaggeratedly. Hunk’s a great audience, oohing and aahing at all the right places. They aren’t in the best situation with Matt, but talking about it like this makes Lance feel better. Makes him feel as though Pidge isn’t pissed at him for wanting to keep Matt imprisoned.

“That is super weird,” Hunk agrees after Lance gets to the part where he got the prisoners into the shuttle as planned. “When Keith dragged that guy in I thought he was another prisoner at first. Then he said it was Matt, and it took me a second to put two and two together.”

“Yeah.” They both fall silent as they enter Blue’s hangar. Lance closes his eyes, letting her presence wash over him. She’s worried about him; he can’t hide how he feels from her, even if he wants to. Otherwise, he can’t feel any pain on her end. Whatever had happened to her when they took that shot has already been taken care of. Hunk is a genius.

She chuckles, mirth filling Lance’s soul as she feels his thoughts. They can’t speak to each other, not in the traditional sense, but she fills him with knowledge, sending pictures and emotions over to him. Hunk certainly had a hand in helping her heal faster, but the very essence of Voltron is what really did it.

“Do you ever think of how amazing Voltron is?” he asks.

Hunk, who is already at her feet, tools pulled out, glances back at him. “Uh, yeah? Like all the time, dude. Why?”

Lance walks forward, laying his hand against Blue’s paw to a content purr. “She’s fully healed already.”

“Is she?” Hunk asks, surprised. “Wow. I thought for sure I had to work on her for another day.”

“You don’t.”

Hunk tucks his tools away. “Awesome. I’m still going to show you around though. I made a few upgrades based on the ones I did with Yellow, but I adjusted them to fit her a little better.”

Blue drops her jaw open and the two of them walk inside. Hunk shows Lance around, pointing out the upgrades he’d made. They’re small, nothing like the ones Pidge makes on Green, but Lance is still glad to know about them. Blue hums, pleased when she feels that.

Lance takes a seat as he plays with the controls, feeling how Hunk eased them, made them more like the game controllers he’s used to. He’d been able to pilot Blue well before, but this should push him over the edge. “Man, I am so gonna kick Keith’s ass once we get out flying again,” Lance laughs, fingers brushing over each of the new buttons.

Hunk chuckles a little but pointedly doesn’t say anything.

“I think you’re right.” The words claw their way out of Lance’s throat before he can even think about it. He hadn’t planned on saying them, but now that they’re out there, he can feel how true they are. “I think I shouldn’t keep waiting for my soulmate.”

Hunk frowns. “This isn’t because of what Pidge said last night, is it?”

“No,” Lance insists. Hunk levels him with a look. “Okay, it might be a little. But it’s not like I wasn’t thinking about it before. I mean…my soulmate doesn’t really write to me a lot. At all, actually.”

Blue’s concern envelops him, and Lance forcibly pushes it aside.

“Lance…” Hunk hesitates.

Lance shakes his head. “I’m serious. This isn’t some self-pitying spur of the moment thing. I…My soulmate means a lot to me. But I’ve also been…” he searches for the right words, “into Keith for a long time.”

Hunk purses his lips, thoughtful before finally speaking. “Keith’s good for you. I said it before, but I really mean it. I think you’re good for him too. I haven’t seen him smile as much as he does when he’s around you. And that’s even with Shiro still gone.”

Lance winces at the reminder of their still-missing leader. “I don’t really think he feels the same about me, though.”

“There’s no way he doesn’t,” Hunk scoffs. “He was blushing earlier today. Keith. Blushing.”

“It could just be because he was embarrassed,” Lance argues.

“You two definitely forgot that I was in the room with you,” Hunk counters.

Lance opens his mouth to argue again but ends up closing it. “Point. But I still don’t think he likes me. He hasn’t really had friends before, except maybe Shiro.”

“True,” Hunk agrees.

“And,” Lance presses, “even if he did, there’s no way he’d be ready to do anything until after we found Shiro anyway.”

“That…yeah okay, he wouldn’t.”

“Exactly.” Lance frowns. “Besides, I don’t think Shiro or Allura would be huge fans of two of the paladins dating.”

“Screw what they think. We’re fighting for the sake of the universe. Just because I don’t get to see Shay all the time doesn’t mean that you guys shouldn’t be allowed to date. It might even help us form Voltron better.”

“Unless we get in a fight or break up,” Lance points out.

“You won’t break up.”

Lance rolls his eyes. “Just because I’m giving up on my soulmate doesn’t mean Keith is. And what happens when he finds them? He’s not gonna hold back on my account.”

“You’re really giving up on your soulmate?” Hunk asks, voice sober.

All the mirth that Lance was feeling, despite it being contrived, fades. His face falls, and he’s forced to push aside Blue’s emotions again. “I don’t really see any other way,” he admits.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

They fall silent, only the sounds of the moving ship between them for a moment.

Hunk speaks up first. “Well, I’m cheering for you no matter what.”

Lance smiles softly. “Thanks Hunk.”

The yellow paladin is the first of them to move. “I’m gonna work on my lion if we don’t have any more repairs for yours. Yellow was telling me that one of their paws was feeling a little off after the last battle, and I’ve been meaning to take a look at it.”

The two of them leave Blue and Hunk scoops up his tools. Lance catches sight of a few space USBs inside his bag and frowns. “What are those?”

“Hmm?” Hunk asks, looking to where Lance is pointing. “Oh. Those are some of Pidge’s programs for hacking into the Galra software. I swiped some of them just in case.” Just in case we get separated goes unsaid.

“Good idea,” Lance compliments. “I should do that too.”

“Oh I have extras.” Hunk scoops a couple out, looking at them intently. “Okay,” he says after a moment, “I lied. I only have duplicates of a few of them.” He holds one out for Lance to take. “This one is for surveillance. Pretty useful but not as good as getting another Rover. I’ll see if I can get extras of some of the others. They keep updating the code so that the Galra can’t block it, you know.”

Lance nods. He’d had to take basic coding back in the Garrison, so he knows a little. Not enough to follow Pidge when they talk about it, but enough to understand that someone would want to change code after it’d been hacked at least once. “Thanks. Need help with Yellow?”

“Nah,” Hunk shrugs. “Besides, don’t you have a certain Galra to woo?”

Lance flushes. “I’m not going to woo him. Yet.”

“Well you could at least go spend time with him. He’s probably on the training deck, getting all sweaty…maybe he even put his hair in a ponytail –“

“I’m going,” Lance interrupts, absolutely picturing Keith sweating with his hair in a ponytail. He probably has his jacket off too…

“I’m really leaving,” he declares a second time, turning on his heel before he can pass out just from his imagination. Hunk’s laughter follows him out of the lion’s hangar as Lance all but races to the training deck.

---

He doesn’t make it that far.

Lance’s path leads him past the infirmary, and a glance in there reveals Pidge, standing in front of Matt’s pod. His heart drops at the sight. It’s easy to forget, when they’re out here risking their lives for the universe, that they’re all still so young; Pidge most of all. They stand head and shoulders above the rest of them with their understanding and intelligence, so it’s easy to forget. But there are moments like this, little glimpses Lance gets, that remind him that Pidge is still so much younger than them; all they want is to get their family back.

He steps inside after a beat, but Pidge doesn’t give any indication that they’ve noticed him. “Hey,” Lance starts, not wanting to startle them as he walks up behind them.

Pidge looks back, barely acknowledging him. “Hi,” they say turning their face back to stare at Matt.

“How’s he doing?” Lance asks, wincing at his own question. Given how touchy Pidge was before, he’s not sure that was the best start.

“Well, I think I know what’s wrong with him.” Pidge isn’t the one to reply. Lance glances over, noticing Coran in the room for the first time. He’s bent over the main control panel, frowning as he pokes at the screen. It’s a testament to how upset Pidge is that they aren’t right there with him.

Lance walks over to him. “What is it?”

“Well…” Coran starts, trailing off as he messes with things Lance doesn’t understand. They really ought to all make a point to learn Altean. And Galran.

“Well?” Pidge speaks up, voice sharp. Lance glances back at them and sees them glaring at Coran, glasses glinting. This must be the first the Altean has mentioned anything about helping Matt.

“Hmmm?” Coran looks up, momentarily seeming to forget what they were talking about.

“You know what’s wrong with Matt,” Lance reminds him gently before Pidge can explode.

“Ah, right, so I do.” Coran spins his control around so Lance and Pidge can see it. “Come closer, I’ll explain.” He waits until they do before clicking something. A silhouette of a human appears on the screen. “I took the liberty of taking readings of all you humans whenever you’ve been in the pod. I thought it might come in handy in the future, and it did!” He seems immensely pleased with himself, even going so far as to tug at his moustache.

When neither Pidge nor Lance seem as enthused as he is, he continues. “Specifically, I took neural readings.” He zooms in on the brain, and something that looks remarkably similar to an MRI scan appears on the screen. “This is a view of Lance’s brain while he was healing. I took readings both times. I admit, though it isn’t a large sample source, it was comforting to see that his brain activity remained consistent between readings.”

This is the point that Pidge would ordinarily insert a joke about there not being much going on up there to Lance, but they don’t. Instead they ask, “So what did Matt’s look like?”

“Excellent question.” Coran swipes across the screen and a new reading appears. A startling amount of purple appears on the screen, covering parts of the brain Lance can’t remember the names of. “This is Matt’s,” Coran says unnecessarily. He points to the outline of the colors. “You can see that the overall brain activity is in the same pattern as Lance’s.” Lance wouldn’t say that he could see that, but Pidge nods, clearly following along. “However, the actual content is quite different from what we saw from him.”

“How?” Lance asks, not sure if he should understand.

Coran looks back and forth between him and Pidge, but Pidge appears just as confused as Lance is. “Quintessence,” he tells them simply.

He doesn’t get the reaction he seems to want. Lance is the first to speak. “Uh…don’t we all have quintessence or whatever?”

“Well, yes,” Coran says. “But ordinarily your quintessence is a part of you. It’s part of your life force, your soul in a way. It’s what connects you to your soulmates and your lions; it’s what connects the lions together into Voltron.” But that’s your quintessence. It’s a tricky thing to measure. We didn’t even see Lance’s on his chart!”

“Then why can we see it on Matt’s?” Pidge asks, zooming into the front of the silhouette on the screen.

“Because that’s not his quintessence. It’s pure quintessence; the same kind we saw them transporting on their hidden base.”

Lance’s head snaps up. “Wait, what?”

“They’re injecting him with that?” Pidge asks, breathless.

“I’m not certain on the method, but I don’t think that’s the important part,” Coran clarifies. “He’s been exposed in some way, and his body is swimming in pure quintessence.”

Pidge nods, but Lance is still lost. “So…is that why he attacked us or something?”

“It’s certainly what made him stronger,” Pidge speaks up. “This is what Zarkon takes to keep himself alive.”

“Oh.”

“I think he only attacked us because he didn’t know who we were. Matt was taken by rebels.”

Coran frowns. “Not necessarily, Number Five.”

“What do you mean ‘not necessarily’? Pidge snaps, the fire from the night before emerging once again.

“Unfortunately, I have strong reason to believe that prolonged exposure to pure quintessence like this can corrupt intelligent beings such as humans.”

“What makes you think that,” Pidge demands.

“A few things.” Coran points to the area where Pidge is zoomed in. “In Altean that’s called the –“ Lance blinks as Coran says something he can’t even decipher. There are more consonants than vowels.

Pidge doesn’t seem phased. “In English that’s the Frontal Lobe.”

“Very well, easy to remember,” Coran accepts. “The Frontal Lobe is well known to be the part of the brain that houses personality. Damage to it can cause external damage too. It can even go so far as to make a good person evil!”

Pidge waves their hand. “Yeah we know that already. Humans have their own research.”

“Excellent.” If Pidge’s sharp tone is putting Coran off at all, he isn’t showing it. “You should notice that the greatest concentration of quintessence is here, in the Frontal Lobe.”

“Yes, but,” Pidge presses, “you said there were a few things that made you think that. What are the others?”

For the first time in the whole conversation, Coran looks uncomfortable. “Ah. About that…I am sure you remember that Zarkon was the original Black Paladin.”

“How could we forget?” Lance speaks up, glad that they’re finally back on a topic that he can understand.

“A long time ago he wasn’t so bad. He was…close friends with Alfor. The two of them were thicker than Udaloo blood brothers!”

“Skip to the point,” Pidge interrupts.

“Right, well, Voltron was created by a comet found by Alfor and Zarkon, as you may know. But more than Voltron came out of that discovery. That was how quintessence itself was discovered. We had always known that there was something which connected living matter together, more than even our best scientists had been able to discover. But that comet helped reveal that connection as quintessence. Alfor’s best scientist – my good friend, Honerva – was the researcher who headed the experiments. Unfortunately, because the experiments were conducted on Daibazaal – the Galran home world where the comet landed – both she and Zarkon were in prolonged contact with the quintessence. Their lifespans extended, but so did their greed.

“Zarkon’s always had a greed for battle, for power, and Honerva had a greed for knowledge. The quintessence enabled both of those things. It took some time for Alfor to discover what was happening with his friend, and by the time he did it was too late. Honerva and Zarkon met a fate worse than death, and they are still suffering from the effects of their experiments ten thousand years later.”

The room is silent. Lance is still working through what Coran just told them, but Pidge beats him to it. “So you’re saying that what made Zarkon evil…is in my brother’s brain right now?”

“Unfortunately yes,” Coran tells them apologetically.

“Whoa,” Lance says. The whole thing is more than he can understand, especially right now. “I only followed about…half of that.”

“Can you fix him?” Pidge interrupts again.

Coran winces. “Honerva was the one who had the most knowledge on quintessence.”

“Can you fix him or not?”

“I can try, but I make no promises.”

Pidge glares at him but clearly has nothing more to say before they turn on their heel and march back to Matt. Lance glances apologetically at Coran. “Do you need help?” he asks quietly.

Coran eyeballs Pidge’s back. “They’ll help me when they’re ready,” he answers, sounding certain.

Lance nods. He’s not of much use when it comes to the science side of Voltron. Hell, he’s not even sure he knows what Coran was even talking about. Pieces of it made sense, but the whole thing? Not really. He’s always been more of a pilot than a scientist. “You know how to get a hold of me if that changes,” he says.

Coran smiles at him, softly. “Thank you, my boy.”

That’s as good a dismissal as any. Lance leaves the room, skirting out of Pidge’s way as he does so, and walks with a purpose away from the med bay.

Zarkon wasn’t evil, he gets that, he really does. After all, Zarkon was the original black paladin, and Lance would like to think that the head of Voltron wouldn’t intentionally choose an evil pilot. Zarkon and Alfor were friends, he also remembers. It makes all the more sense why Allura hates him so much; he betrayed her father.

But all that stuff about quintessence and Frontal Lobes…he’s not sure he followed. All he knows is that something in the quintessence is what made Matt so strong and what made him attack them on the ship.

And that Keith was definitely right in agreeing with Allura. Lance can’t imagine the pods holding a conscious Zarkon.

His feet lead him automatically before Lance’s brain catches up to them. One minute he’s walking down the halls, thinking about what Coran had just told them, and the next he’s standing in front of the door to the training deck, hearing sounds of grunting and clanging coming from inside.

Keith must still be in there.

The doors slide open with a hiss, and sure enough, Lance gets full view of Keith battling one of the gladiators. He’s not wearing his armor, and he’s also not wearing his jacket. Lance can’t see the front of him from this angle, but the back of Keith’s shirt is sticking to his shoulders, hugging the muscles there.

Hunk was wrong about one thing though: Keith’s hair isn’t pulled up. The strands are dripping with sweat, sticking to the back of his neck. He takes out the gladiator and turns to face Lance, wiping the sweat off his forehead where Lance can see it’s sticking there too. And god, he’s still wearing his gloves despite being in short sleeves.

Lance has never been so dehydrated in his life.

“Hey,” Keith greets, wearing an honest to god smile on his face. Lance is going to pass out.

Instead, he averts his eyes, studiously ignoring the sudden drop of his stomach, and walks in all the way. “Hey,” he replies, pleased with the fact that his voice didn’t crack.

“How’s Blue?” And Keith, bless his beautiful, mullet heart, sounds genuinely concerned.

“She’s good,” Lance tells him, stripping off his jacket. He’s regretting wearing long sleeves already; it’s hot in here. (Though that could just be because of Keith.) “They’re pretty amazing, actually. The lions I mean. Hunk did some repairs, but she made it seem like most of the healing is just a part of Voltron.”

Keith hums, setting down his swords. It had taken until now for Lance to notice, but he’s training with both swords. The Bayard deactivates, going back into its handle form, but the Galra blade stays in sword form. Lance wonders absently if it could transform back into a knife if Keith wanted it to. “That’s good. After the hit you guys took, she didn’t look so good.”

“She didn’t feel so good either,” Lance admits.

Keith’s face twists into a scowl. “You shouldn’t have done that, you know.”

“I wasn’t going to let them die.”

“You didn’t know that they would,” Keith argues.

“I didn’t know that they wouldn’t either,” Lance counters.

He can see another argument on the tip of Keith’s tongue, but for some reason the usually combative paladin backs down. “Don’t do it again.”

Lance shrugs. He can’t promise that, and he doesn’t want to make an empty promise to Keith. He also doesn’t want to fight with him either – or at least not verbally. So he changes the subject instead. “I saw Pidge and Coran just now.”

Keith’s face hardens. “About what?”

“Pidge looked upset. They were back to standing in front of Matt, you know.”

Keith growls, rolling his shoulders back in a shrug. “Doesn’t mean they should’ve taken it out on you.”

“That’s cute,” Lance blurts out before he can stop himself.

Keith’s head snaps over to him. “What?” he asks, face a little flushed.

That’s even cuter.

But no. Lance can control himself. He’s not going to do anything until after they get Shiro back. He and Keith are finally getting along, and he’s not going to risk ruining it because Hunk read Keith’s emotions wrong. He will, however, not stop himself from flirting with Keith, just a little.

Just enough to get another blush.

“I said it’s cute. When you care about me, I mean.” Lance wills his own blush down, swinging his arms as a warm up to give himself something to do other than fidget. Out of the corner of his eye he watches Keith, mentally congratulating himself when he spots the red on Keith’s cheeks which hadn’t been as dark earlier.

“I care about you,” Keith grumbles. He fidgets, scratching the inside of his wrist as he avoids looking straight at Lance.

“Care about me enough to train?” Lance presses, grabbing the staff from the fallen gladiator. “I could use some one-on-one time with our resident hand-to-hand expert.” He completes it with a wink, and this time Keith’s entire face flames, blush extending all the way down his neck.

Lance wants to chase it, see how far down it goes, but now is not the time for that.

“W-what are you doing?” Keith stutters. “You never compliment me.”

“Charming?” Lance asks, waggling his eyebrows. He needs to keep the tone light, not make Keith think he’s flirting with him for real.

Even if he is.

Keith frowns, eyes ticking as he visibly works through the words. Eventually he understands. “Is this because you want to prove you’re charming?”

“I do think I said I’d charm the socks right off of you.”

“So you did.” Keith’s face is thoughtful, expression almost pained, and for a second, Lance thinks he might’ve gone too far. But then his face softens into that small secret smile he wears sometimes and he picks up the Galra sword holding it out. “Are you ready to train?”

Lance’s eyes drop to the sword being held in front of him before raising to look at Keith. “Uh…are you…giving that to me or something?”

For some reason, that makes Keith flush again, not as red as he had before but close. “I think you should learn to fight with more than just a staff.”

“Ooh,” Lance drops the staff taking the sword in his hand. It’s warmer than he thought it would be. He wonders if that’s because Keith’s hand was so warm while he was holding it, or if it’s part of the type of metal. It’s like he’s inadvertently holding Keith’s hand.

Lance pushes that thought away.

“Gonna fight me with your Bayard then?” he asks instead.

“Yup.” Keith picks up his Bayard once again, pushing his bangs back from his face.

“You know,” Lance says, throat suddenly dry, “after this we should talk to Allura and see if we can find you a hair tie for when you’re training.” Or walking around. Or just existing.

Keith runs his fingers through the back of his hair with a wince. “Yeah. We should.” Lance grins. Keith steps forward and smacks Lance’s leg with the flat of his sword. “We’re training now, though. Tighten your stance.”

If Lance had been in the situation where he’d be teaching Keith to shoot, he’d probably be cocky, show off a little, brag about his own skills when Keith’s shots went wide.

Keith doesn’t do any of that.

He’s not the most patient with Lance, snapping at him more than once when Lance messes up, but Lance can see the red paladin reel himself in when he does. He tries again, voice in a forced calm patience, and in those moments, Lance can see Shiro in him.

If Allura couldn’t pilot Black, Lance would gladly follow Keith.

The thought jars him enough that Keith’s next swipe hits his wrist, causing him to drop the sword. Keith tuts. “I told you to focus on where I’m going, not where I am,” he scolds.

Lance scowls immediately. “I know. I wasn’t looking at where you were.”

“What were you looking at then?” Keith challenges.

Lance falters. “Nothing,” he admits. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

He expects another explosion from Keith, another surge of the fiery anger. Instead, Keith lowers his Bayard, dismissing it back into handle form again. “You’re tired,” he says, as if the thought had just crossed his mind. “I forgot that you’re not used to this.”

“Not all of us are obsessive with training, Keith,” Lance retorts, reeling himself in from sticking his tongue out like a child.

Keith shakes his head, sprinkling little droplets of sweat around him. “It’s not an insult. I didn’t realize how much time had passed is all.” Now that he mentions it, Lance’s arm is feeling a little weak, his shoulders already sore while his legs shake. Shit, had they really been going at it that long?

“Oh,” he replies eloquently. “I hadn’t either.”

“Guess time really does fly when you’re having fun,” Keith says with that slight smile.

Lance’s heart almost hammers out of his chest. He swallows. “Uh, yeah,” he stammers before finally recovering. “I mean how could you not have fun with me? I’m a quiznaking pleasure to be around.”

Keith snorts. “Sure, whatever.”

“Don’t whatever me, young man!”

“I’m older than you!”

They jab at each other as they leave the training deck, stopping only to grab their jackets. The door to the infirmary is closed when they walk past, and Lance’s stomach hardens. “We should check on Pidge too.”

“I don’t think Pidge wants us around,” Keith remarks, voice once again cold.

Lance winces, remembering that Keith doesn’t know. “No, man, not about that. Coran figured out what’s wrong with Matt.” Keith stops in the middle of the hallway. It takes a second for Lance to realize what happened before he, too, stops and turns back. “What?”

“What’s wrong with him?” Keith asks.

Lance leans over to check behind Keith, but they’re far enough down the hallway from the med bay that Pidge wouldn’t immediately hear them if they walked out. “Quintessence poisoning. Or something.”

Keith frowns “Quintessence poisoning?”

“I don’t really understand it either,” Lance admits, “but it sounds like it’s the same thing that turned Zarkon evil and kept him alive for ten thousand years.”

“So Matt was working for the Galra?”

“Uh…I guess? That would make sense now that you mention it. How else would he have gotten the quintessence? They have that shit on lockdown.”

Keith’s teeth worry at his lower lip, and Lance’s attention drops, honing in on them. “Does Coran know how to fix it?” Keith’s lips say.

Lance shakes himself, gaze raising to meet Keith’s eyes. “He said he has an idea. Not sure what it is or if it’ll work, though.” Keith nods. “But,” Lance says quickly, before he can forget, “I think you were right.”

“What?”

“About keeping Matt under. I don’t think those pods could hold a conscious Zarkon, do you?”

Keith shakes his head.

“Pidge’ll figure it out soon,” Lance assures him. “They’ll see that you guys were right. We’ll fix Matt and wake him up, and then we can meet him properly then.”

“Yeah…” Keith agrees slowly. He starts walking again, and Lance falls into step alongside him.

“What’re you thinking about?”

Keith shakes himself. “Nothing. I hope Coran figures it out soon.”

“Me too.”

Lance misses Pidge’s presence, even though it hasn’t even been a full day yet. But when he and Keith finish showering and wander into the dining room to see what’s for dinner – they’d trained that long – Pidge isn’t there. Coran is absent too, no doubt working on healing Matt, but Allura is there at least.

She seems just as frazzled as before, and she keeps shooting guilty looks at Pidge’s normal seat. The princess doesn’t stay after they eat, excusing herself to do…whatever she’s been doing. Lance has a feeling she’s been scouring the solar systems, feeling for Shiro’s quintessence, but he isn’t going to bring that up to Hunk. Not when Keith’s still present.

The three of them don’t hang around long either. Lance is tired; training with Keith earlier had been more exhausting than usual. So he heads straight to bed when Hunk gets up, leaving Keith sitting at the large dining table with a frown on his face, deep in his thoughts.

He’s finishing up his nightly routine – he isn’t going to skip a second night in a row of his skin care – when he hears a soft rapping on his door.

“Hang on!” He shouts, washing the suds off his face. Lance checks himself in the mirror. He still has dark circles under his eyes, but they’re much less dark than they were earlier. He answers the door, expecting Hunk.

But that isn’t who greets him.

“Keith?”

“Hey, can I come in?” Keith asks, looking around as if he’s afraid to be seen.

“Uh, sure.” Lance steps back. “What’s up?”

“Remember when you told me not to do anything stupid, at least without you?”

Lance frowns, thinking back. “Yeah. Vaguely.”

Keith smiles at him, teeth glinting in the light. “I’m ready to do something stupid.”


 

Before

“The entire hangar’s only being guarded by a few sentries,” Keith remarks. He and Lance have made it into the heart of the Balmera, virtually undetected, and now they just need to keep these ships from taking off. He stands, activating his Bayard. “Let’s go.”

“Whoawhoawhoawhoa,” Lance grabs him by the shoulder, pulling him back. Keith levels his best glare at the blue paladin. “Cool your jets, Keith,” he whisper-scolds. “Don’t you remember all that stuff about this Balmera thing being a sensitive animal?”

“Oh.” Keith remembers now. “Right.” So then how the hell are they supposed to take out the Galra if they can’t go blasting in there?

“Yeah, so we can’t just blow things up like a psycho,” Lance taunts, rubbing salt in the wound.

“Oh you got a better idea?” Keith snaps.

Lance grins. “I do.” He points. Keith follows Lance’s finger with his eyes. “We sneak into the control room to shut down the bay doors. That’ll trap the ships in.” He smirks at Keith, obnoxiously smug.

“That -!” Keith’s mind catches up to his mouth. Dammit. “…Actually…is a better idea.”

They sneak across the walkway, somehow managing not to be spotted and crawl into an air duct at Lance’s whim. Luckily the control room isn’t very big, so they aren’t forced to navigate a maze, but that still doesn’t stop them from arguing.

“No, it’s over here,” Lance argues as Keith activates his Bayard. The blue paladin’s pointing at the floor under himself.

Keith sighs. “I’m going.” He cuts through the floor as easy as if it were a piece of bread, and Lance falls through. Fortunately, he was right: he lands right on the sentry. Unfortunately, Keith is positive he’s going to have to listen to Lance brag about it for the next…until they defeat Zarkon. (Maybe even after.)

Lance doesn’t seem in a bragging mood just yet, for some reason. “Keep an eye out for those guards,” he instructs. “I’ll see if I can find a way to shut those hangar doors.”

Computers aren’t much of Keith’s thing, so he sees no reason to fight Lance on that. He nods, even though Lance isn’t looking at him, and creeps off to the windows. The sentries are all still standing there, backs to the control room. They haven’t even noticed that it was infiltrated.

Lance hmms and groans behind him, no doubt starved for attention since no one else is here to witness his antics. Keith does his level best to ignore him, keeping watch the way he was instructed. Eventually, Lance sighs. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he admits. “It’s all Galra gibberish.”

Well, the sentries aren’t moving. Keith slips back to Lance, nudging him aside with his shoulder. “Let me see.” Lance isn’t wrong. The entire control panel is Galra gibberish. Lance’s plan wasn’t a bad one; it’d worked up until this point. The problem is that neither of them are Pidge. His eyes dart up the screen, settling on a strange shape at the top. It almost looks like…a hand? Worth a shot.

Keith puts his hand on it, just to see what it does. The rectangle around it lights up red and the console makes a hopeful dinging sound. Outside, in the hangar, the doors start to close, alarms going off as they do so.

“Whoa.” Lance can’t seem to hide how impressed he is. “How’d you do that?”

“I…just put my hand on the handprint.”

Keith only has a brief moment to ponder the fact that he and Lance really do make a good team, no matter how much Lance likes to pretend they don’t, before Allura and Shiro are on the comms, instructing them to head deeper into the Balmera. To the core.

“Copy that,” Lance responds for them both. “We’re on our way.” He’s up and moving, barely giving Keith a glance.

Without words, Keith already knows what Lance thinks he should do. He stands up and slashes the console so the hangar doors can’t be opened again and follows Lance out the door just as Lance blasts the door control too. Maybe when they get back, he’ll shove Lance’s words back in his face. That’ll teach him to forget their bonding moment.

Chapter Text

Before

The Galra have been more ruthless in their attacks ever since Voltron saved the Olkari. They’ve been appearing incessantly, not allowing the team to even sleep. Coran’s acting weird, Hunk’s getting delusional, and even Pidge is going on less sleep than usual and has gotten crankier. But Allura thinks that this time, Zarkon won’t be able to find them. It’s about time too; they all need this break.

Really, Lance should be taking full advantage of this. He needs a nice long beauty nap, and he definitely ought to leave a note for his soulmate. He checks his wrist as the thought crosses his mind hazily.

Blank.

When was the last time he left a note? It had to have been before the last mission, but he can’t quite remember. And yet…nothing. Not a single word asking if he’s still alive.

He sighs and hits the button for the elevator. He should be sleeping, but right now he misses Earth more than usual – the trees on the Olkari home world were too similar to the ones back home – and he needs to do something that reminds him of home before he can drop into a panic.

That’s why he’s wearing the swim trunks he found in his closet.

The doors open, and he steps into the elevator in a daze. Hopefully he doesn’t faint in the pool and drown. What an anticlimactic death that would be; battling the Galra for the fate of the universe, and he goes and drowns. Champion swimmer Lance McClain, drowning in an Altean pool. It’d be hilarious if he had the energy to smile.

The doors are stopped by a hand, and he looks up to see an exhausted Keith standing there with a towel on his head. He doesn’t even have his usual gloves on. “What the heck do you think you’re doing?” he asks, irritated but still too tired to put any real heat behind his words. Crush or no, he is not in the mood for some inane competition against Keith today.

“Allura said there’s a pool,” Keith grumbles, walking in as if Lance’s glare means nothing to him. “I’m gonna go check it out. Whattya think you’re doing?” He slurs.

Lance sighs. “Same thing,” he mumbles as the doors close.

“Look,” Keith declares sharply. As if Lance were the one to mess up his plans rather than the other way around. “You stay on one side of the pool, and I’ll stay on the other, and we’ll be far, far away from each other.” Lance side eyes him, but if Keith is looking at him through the towel, he can’t tell. He looks ridiculous with that on his head. If Lance had more energy, he’d make fun of it. Maybe take a picture to savor for eternity. “Very far away,” Keith emphasizes just as the elevator shakes ominously. Lance looks up, as if something on the ceiling could answer his mental question of what the cheese?

And then all the lights shut off.

“Uh…” Lance blinks, looking around wide-eyed, but he can’t see anything. Not even Keith. He glares at the red paladin anyway, as if it were his fault, and the two of them sigh in unison.

They stand there, ignoring each other completely as they wait for the power to come back, but it becomes painfully evident that that isn’t happening anytime soon. Lance sighs again. He does not want to deal with being trapped in an elevator with Keith for god knows how long, and he definitely doesn’t want to deal with the teasing he’s bound to get from Hunk immediately following it.

He needs to figure out a way out of here.

They could try to pry the doors open, but they’re between floors so that’s no-go. They could climb out the top and try to make their way up the elevator shaft, but Alteans don’t seem keen on having easy handholds, and neither of them have their suits on. It’s not like they could wall walk their way up on their hands and feet, spanning the elevator shaft either, Keith is definitely too short to manage that.

Oh.

“Hey Keith,” Lance breaks the silence. “Have you ever seen Emperor’s New Groove?”

Keith grumbles, as if offended Lance interrupted his silent brooding time. Or maybe he was sleeping. “No, why?” he asks, voice tight, like he’s expecting Lance to make fun of him.

“I have an idea…”

 


 

 

Now

To Keith’s surprise, Lance doesn’t fight him on his plan. He’d come up with it in the spur of the moment, expecting Lance to be able to just…fix the details as necessary. And Keith isn’t disappointed when Lance does just that. They hash them out in Lance’s room, and by the time they sneak out into the hallway – wearing their paladin armor – it’s well past midnight ship time.

Lance has them go the long way, sneaking past the bridge to see if anyone’s still awake. Keith’s heart lurches when he sees Allura in there, sleeping hunched over in the black paladin’s chair while the star map floats innocently above her head.

We’re all worried about Shiro. You do know that, don’t you?

He shakes his head as Lance guides them past. Now is not the time; they have a mission.

By some miracle, the infirmary is empty when they reach it. “Looks like Coran convinced Pidge to go to bed,” Lance says, speaking Keith’s thoughts.

Keith’s head snaps to him. “I was thinking that,” he breathes. The Galra bond doesn’t let Lance read his mind, does it?

Lance shrugs. Did he just answer? Keith can’t figure it out. He thinks really hard do you want a cookie right now, because it’s the only thing that pops into his mind, but Lance doesn’t reply. Instead, he slips over to the main control where Coran had been and presses a few buttons. “How awake do you want him?”

“Enough to be aware,” Keith answers, walking over to Matt’s pod. “But not enough to fight back. And keep the pod closed,” he adds as an afterthought.

“I know, I know, geez. I’m not an idiot.”

The cryopod lets out a hiss, but the glass doesn’t open. Instead, Keith sees the frost disappear from the inside, melting away. It takes some time, but color finally floods Matt’s cheeks, and Keith holds his breath as Pidge’s brother’s eyes flutter open.

Matt’s eyes look a lot like Pidge’s when they first open, but the minute consciousness dawns in them, they narrow into slits. “What is this?” he asks coldly.

Lance’s breath hitches behind him, but Keith doesn’t turn. He knows Lance is still at the controls, ready to freeze Matt the moment he acts up. They don’t have a lot of time. “Why were you in the prison ship?” Keith asks.

“Who are you?” Matt counters.

“We’re the ones asking the questions,” Keith retorts. “Why were you in the prison ship?”

“I don’t answer to anyone except Haggar,” Matt growls.

This time, Keith’s the one who sucks in a breath. So he was right: Matt is dangerous. He’s working with the witch. “What did Haggar want on that prison ship?” he presses. “If you work for her you didn’t need to sneak around on there.”

Matt snorts. “You don’t know a lot, do you?”

“Answer the question, Matt.”

For a moment, Matt’s eyes widen. He looks like Pidge again, more innocent than evil. “How do you know that name?”

“Answer my question first.”

The air around Keith seems to freeze as he waits for Matt to contemplate his next words, but it thaws when he finally speaks. “Fine.”

“What were you doing on that ship?” Keith asks for the fourth time.

“Haggar’s orders,” Matt answers. “There’s a certain prisoner she wants to get her hands on.”

A certain prisoner. Keith’s heart hammers in his chest. “Why not have the Galra take the ship straight to her?”

“Most of the prisons have been taken over by the Prince’s supporters.”

Keith frowns. “The prince?”

“Lotor. He has the Champion.”

“Shiro…” Lance breathes behind him. The nerves in Keith’s stomach double as Lance’s emotions join his own. Who Lotor is – a prince, apparently – isn’t important. The fact that he has Shiro is.

“Do you know where he is?”

“If I did I wouldn’t tell you.”

“Lance, freeze him.”

The cryopod hisses again, and Keith watches the frost slowly reappear. “You really think I’ll give in to torture?” Matt taunts.

He’s been poisoned by quintessence, torture clearly isn’t going to do it. “I can tell you where your family is,” Keith tries instead.

That works. “We have reason to believe he’s being transferred to the prince on a private ship,” Matt grits out. The pod goes silent. “It’s due to pass through that quadrant. We’ve been checking every ship.”

Keith has the answer he needs. “Put him under.”

Matt growls. “Traitor.” For the first time, he thrashes around in the pod, slamming his fist on the glass. It shakes ominously.

“Lance!”

The pod hisses and frost fills it completely. Matt freezes before he can slam his fist against the glass again, but it’ll be obvious to anyone – especially Pidge – that he’d moved. “We need to leave,” Lance says, appearing right behind Keith. When Keith doesn’t move away from where he’s standing, Lance’s hand rests on his shoulder. “Keith.”

“Right.” Keith shakes his head. “Let’s go.”

Part A of the plan complete – and shockingly successful – they move on to part B. The two of them sneak down the halls, checking each intersection to make sure no one is around. They shouldn’t be; it’s the middle of the night. They head straight to the hangar, but instead of going for one of their lions, they creep towards the shuttles.

Keith feels Red prodding him, wondering where he’s going without taking her. He sends back reassurances, urging her not to follow. The last thing they need is for one of the lions to go missing; that would be a surefire way to alert the team to them missing.

So instead, they go straight for a shuttle, and Keith is reminded sharply of the last time he’d snuck out. Back then, he and Allura had happened upon each other by chance. This time, Lance hops in the shuttle, taking the pilot’s seat.

“Scoot over,” Keith hisses.

Lance shakes his head. “You snooze you lose. I’m flying.”

Keith huffs but gets in the passenger seat. “Just try not to crash.”

He barely gets in before Lance takes off, the shuttle glass forming above them. “Relax, Keith. I’m an excellent pilot.”

The thing is, Lance is a good pilot; he’s gotten much better since they became paladins. But that doesn’t mean Keith’s going to tell him that. Not yet anyway.

It’s easy enough for them to make it out of the ship and into space. Just like when he and Allura had run off, no one follows them. Keith’s eyes dart to Lance’s fingers as he types the coordinates into the controls, plotting their course. “How did you know Matt would know where Shiro is?” Lance asks.

Keith shrugs. “Just a feeling. I thought of it when I was fighting the gladiator before you got in. That maybe Matt was trying to save him too. But then when you told me about what Coran said, I thought maybe the Galra were doing something with him.”

“Dang,” Lance breathes. “That’s actually pretty smart.”

Keith flushes. He knew he couldn’t handle Lance actively trying to charm him. He’s not sure what got into Lance’s head that started these compliments earlier, but they’re slowly killing him. “How long’s it gonna take for us to get there?” he asks, hoping Lance won’t notice the color painting his cheeks.

“Not long. Less than a varga.”

“Good.”

Keith isn’t good at waiting in general. It’s even worse being in here with just Lance and his own anticipation. His entire body is on high alert, all his nerves firing.

The varga passes painfully slowly, and yet Keith still can’t manage to relax. His mind ping pongs between getting Shiro back and the scent of Lance which is slowly overwhelming their pod. If he has to wait too long, he’s going to snap, and he’s not sure what he’ll end up doing.

Meanwhile, Lance is focused on guiding them towards the coordinates where they’d found Matt, looking far less tense than Keith feels.

After what feels like an eternity of complete silence, Lance speaks. “We’re here.”

Keith looks around. This region of space looks no different than the rest, but Lance cuts the speed anyway, letting the shuttle hover. Keith looks right and left, up then down. Nothing.

“Where is it?” he asks, desperate.

“Matt did say that they didn’t know when it was coming through. We might be here a while,” Lance points out.

No, no. They can’t be here a while. Keith is not made to sit still and wait. He needs action. He needs to move. He needs –

Lance’s breath hitches. “Is that it?”

A Galra ship appears in a streak of purple. It looks identical to the ship they’d just rescued the prisoners from, too big for one passenger. But still. “Intercept it,” Keith orders breathlessly.

Lance doesn’t need to be told twice.

With a skill he hadn’t had back in the Garrison, Lance flies them on an intercept course, aiming at the blind spot. He finds the entrance into the shuttle bay, just large enough for their small ship, and like a true tailor, threads them through that needle.

Keith’s entire body lights up with pride as Lance lands, and only half of it is his. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of a goofy grin spreading across Lance’s face, and he can feel the shadow of it on his own.

No, Keith reminds himself. They’re here to find Shiro. He needs to focus.

So when the shuttle stops, hidden behind the first of the Galra fighters, he jumps out without congratulating Lance. A prickle of disappointment immediately fills him with regret, though, so when Lance leaps down alongside him, he murmurs a soft, “Nice flying.”

His heart nearly explodes from the smile Lance grants him.

The two of them creep around behind the ships, poking their heads out after each one. Sentries are standing around, preventing them from taking a straight shot to the entrance doors. Lance nudges his shoulder. Keith turns to look at him, and Lance nods diagonally upwards. Keith follows where he’s looking and sees a security camera. Ah. So even if they took out the sentries quietly, they’d still be spotted.

He nods his understanding back to Lance, and the two of them pick their way slowly around the edge of the room.

Stealth is not much of Keith’s thing. He prefers action to waiting and fighting to hiding. But he understands why they’re doing it this way, and he’d learned long ago that Lance knows what he’s doing when he plans something out. Sure enough, though it takes far longer than Keith would like, they do make their way to the front of the room. Above them is a landing with an open hallway and no doors to open. Unfortunately, though, it’s manned by a Galra.

Keith waits as Lance assesses the area, but when Lance turns to him with a shake of his head and points above their heads, Keith knows there isn’t a better way. The landing is just a little too tall for him to jump. Keith frowns at it before he hears a soft thud and glances over to see Lance down on one knee in front of him, fingers hooked together as he holds his hands out, palms up to Keith.

He gets it.

Keith steps on Lance’s hands and jumps at the same time Lance boosts him up. It works. He lands right in front of the Galra, and slams into them using the handle of his sword. Guard taken care of, he leans down and holds out his hand, pulling Lance up onto the landing.

The two of them take off down the hallway hopefully before the cameras can catch them. “That was awesome,” Lance admits while they run. Keith tries not to feel too proud of that.

“It was,” Keith agrees. Something sounds in front of them, and he throws out his hand against Lance’s chest, pushing him back against the wall next to them. Keith pushes against him, using himself as a shield as he keeps his head poked out by the support beam. He sees three sentries round the corner and turns his head towards Lance, hoping they won’t be seen.

It’s a bad idea.

The sentries march towards them, their feet echoing around the hallway, but Keith can barely hear them over the pounding of his heart. Or is it Lance’s?

He’s never been this close to Lance before, not even when they train together. Their chests are pressed against each other, and their noses almost touch, their faces are so close. Keith can feel the heat of Lance’s breath as he exhales, but one sharp intake of air reveals a scent Keith swore he’s never smelled before, and shit did Lance always smell this good?

Lance’s tongue darts out, wetting his lips, and Keith’s eyes cross as he focuses on the movement. They’re pressed against each other enough that he can almost imagine Lance’s tongue against his lips instead. Keith would only have to lean in a little; he could tilt his head just so and slot their lips together.

“I think they’re gone,” Lance exhales. Keith startles back to reality. They’re on a Galra ship to save Shiro. Shit, he needs to pull himself together.

He steps away from Lance and looks up and down the hallway. Sure enough, no more sentries. Lance clears his throat. “Let’s go. It should be this way.” Keith moves the way Lance indicates, his stomach rolling around uncomfortably.

The rest of their trek to the control room is uneventful.

Keith manages to pull himself together by the time they get there, jumping ahead of Lance to dispatch the sentries in the room. So far, aside from the one guard in the hangar, they haven’t encountered any Galra. He’s not sure if it’s a good thing.

“So what’s the plan from here?” he asks as he checks the door to make sure they weren’t heard.

“I’m gonna hack into their system,” Lance replies easily.

Keith snaps his attention back to Lance. “What?”

Lance holds up a chip, as if that answers all his questions. “Hunk gave it to me. Didn’t think I’d be using it this soon though.”

 

 

Curiosity gets the better of him, and Keith makes his way over to the console, where Lance has already inserted the chip he’d been showing off. “What is that?” he asks, leaning over Lance’s shoulder to look.

“Pidge’s program.”

Keith tries to read Lance’s expression, but the other paladin is frowning, focused on the computer. He forces his gaze to look down at it as well. “I thought they typed it in manually.”

“I think they do sometimes. I don’t really pay attention,” Lance admits.

Keith frowns. “Then how are you planning to use it?”

“We had to take basic programming in the Garrison. You left before those classes, but we did. I’m not really very good, so I’m kinda banking on Pidge having done most of the work.”

“Can you even read Galra?”

“Don’t have to.” Lance points at the screen, and Keith focuses on the characters. Sure enough, English appears on the screen. “They’re pretty impressive.”

“Yeah,” Keith breathes. When he gets back, he’s gonna have to thank Pidge for putting their magic in chip form. Well…after Pidge apologizes to Lance properly.

“Quiznak, this is harder than I remember,” Lance huffs.

The screen is nowhere near as interesting as Lance’s face, and Keith’s having a hard time convincing himself not to stare at it. But he caves, and sure enough, Lance is much more interesting. He’s chewing at his bottom lip, frowning in concentration as he stares straight at the console.

 

 

“Shouldn’t you be able to handle this?” Keith jokes, hoping he sounds less breathless than he feels. “You’re the Garrison star now.”

Lance snorts, lip popping out from between his teeth. “Can it, Dropout.”

The scent Keith picked up before is stronger when he leans in closer to Lance’s face. It’s his moisturizer, he realizes. He’s never had a chance to smell it this close before, and it’s absolutely intoxicating.

He wants to know what it tastes like.

For some reason, Keith had wanted to wait, but right now he’s having a hard time remembering why that was. Waiting is for people who aren’t bonded to Lance, he decides. Keith sucks in a breath, leaning in more. “Hey, Lance,” he whispers, “after this –“

“Aha!” Lance exclaims, shout bursting Keith out of the dream state he’d fallen into.

He moves away from Lance, shaking himself. They’re here to save Shiro, he reminds himself yet again.

“I got it,” Lance adds.

Keith turns his attention back to the screens as Lance pulls up the security footage of the entire ship. He scrolls through each camera, showing sentries, empty hallways, Galra hanging out in a breakroom, and –

“Shiro,” Keith gasps at the same time Lance inhales a sharp breath.

Immediately, Keith’s attention is returned to the mission at hand. Shiro is here. Shiro is here, on this ship. Imprisoned. And…and he doesn’t look good.

Keith’s glove squeaks around the shoulder of Lance’s armor where he’s gripping it, and he leans forward, as if he could transport himself through the screen into the cell where Shiro is lying. He wishes he could. “Shit…” Lance says.

‘Shit’ is an understatement. Shiro appears to be either asleep or unconscious, his body thinner than it had been last time Keith had seen him. Even through the camera, it’s obvious how pale his skin is, how damaged his body is.

And he’s missing his arm.

Before, back when they’d rescued him on Earth, he’d had both, even if one was cybernetic. This time, the Galra enhancement is gone, leaving Shiro looking small. Keith’s heart freezes in his chest, his stomach leaping into his throat when he realizes just how bad of a shape his best friend – a man who may as well be his brother – is in.

“We need to get him out of there,” Keith hears himself say.

A blue gloved hand rests on his forearm, and Keith is finally reminded that Lance is in the room with him. He looks up, throat dry, as if Lance has all the answers in the universe. “Lance…” he begs.

“We’re going to get him out,” Lance promises. “We’re going to get him back to the castle and heal him.”

“How do you –“

Keith’s question is cut off by a blaster shot. It grazes his armor harmlessly, but the shot successfully drags Keith’s attention to the door. The door he was supposed to be watching.

Three sentries are in the doorway, shooting at him and Lance. Keith hears Lance activate his shield, but he can’t be bothered to do the same before he leaps into action. “Keith!” Lance shouts, but he ignores the cry.

Shiro’s injured, and these sentries are shooting at Lance. Keith can’t be expected to think straight.

They’re just sentries, but Keith fights recklessly anyway. He swings wide, bad habits Shiro had worked hard on breaking coming to the surface. Keith leaves too many openings, doesn’t pay enough attention to all the targets. He focuses on one sentry, raising his Bayard higher than usual. A shot from a sentry he’d been completely ignoring hits him square in the hand.

Keith shouts and drops his Bayard. Two other shots sound, followed by the remaining sentries crumpling to the ground. He’s breathing harder than he should be, cradling his hand against his chest. It hurts.

He folds in on himself, as if wrapping his body around the injury could somehow make it stop hurting.

“Keith.” Lance is there, reaching for him within a moment. “Hey, come here, let me see it.”

He’d never thought he’d be this much of a wimp over a small wound, but he’s also never been shot before. But he needs to suck it up. “I’m fine,” he argues, straightening up. His entire hand is pounding, telling Keith that it is not in fact fine. But he’ll live.

If they don’t get Shiro out of here, he might not.

Lance huffs. “Don’t be an idiot. We can wrap it or something if we need to, just let me see.”

“No, I don’t need your –“

Lance snatches Keith’s hand, cutting him off. Keith tries to jerk his hand back, but Lance holds on relentlessly. He removes the gauntlet and peels off Keith’s glove, and Keith only has a moment to regret letting him do that.

Because the next moment his hand is bare.

“Hmmm…” Lance hums. “It’s a little burned, but I think your armor took most of the damage,” he assesses. “Nothing a healing pod can’t –“ He freezes the same moment Keith does. Keith’s breath catches in his throat when he finally gets a look at his hand. His whole hand.

Lance’s thumb brushes over the sensitive inner skin of Keith’s wrist, where the fading words Do you are still written.

Emotions flood him, chasing over each other faster than Keith can track. He catches confusion, understanding, relief, anger, and then…

Keith looks up, staring at Lance’s face, trying to gauge exactly what he’s thinking, but his soulmate’s expression is blank. There’s a stew of sensations swirling around Keith’s stomach, but Lance’s face betrays none of what he’s feeling. His chest pangs, and Keith can’t tell if it’s him or Lance.

No.

Lance doesn’t meet his eyes.

No, wait.

He drops Keith’s hand from his, holding out the ruined glove and his gauntlet.

Not like this.

Lance walks back to the console, brushing past Keith as if he means nothing.

It’s not supposed to happen this way.

“I’ll lead you to Shiro through the comms,” Lance says, voice mechanical.

The world crumbles around Keith.

“You need to hurry before more sentries come this way,” Lance continues. When Keith turns to him, he’s already seated at the console again, facing the door but not looking up at Keith.

“Lance…” Keith reaches, finally finding his voice.

“No,” Lance tells him firmly, coldly. He closes his eyes, and Keith can feel the sorrow clawing up his throat. The way it’s clawing up Lance’s. He takes a deep breath and when he opens his eyes again, he’s staring straight at the console, refusing to look at Keith. “We don’t have time for this right now. We’re here to rescue Shiro, remember?”

Right now. Never before have two words filled Keith with such a confusing combination of hope and dread. “I remember,” he whispers.

Lance nods once, sharply. “Then hurry. I’ll lead you to him and back to the shuttle.”

Keith opens his mouth to retort before slamming it shut. Lance is right; they don’t have time for this right now. He needs to rescue Shiro. So instead, Keith gives a sharp nod to Lance that the blue paladin doesn’t even see and heads out into the hallway.

“Keep going in the direction we were headed,” Lance instructs, voice filling Keith’s helmet. His stomach is still rolling, his chest still pangs, but Keith listens, taking off in a jog down the hallway. His entire being is screaming at him to turn around, make things better between himself and his other half, to fix this, but Keith shoves that down.

Lance can wait. Shiro, as it turns out, cannot.

With that thought in mind, Keith picks up the pace, upping his speed from a jog to a run. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Lance orders. “Slow down.”

“Shiro’s in danger,” Keith argues. He isn’t far enough away to not feel the jolt of pain from Lance.

“I can’t give you good directions if you move too fast,” Lance argues. Somehow he manages to sound pissed and mechanical at the same time.

This is the absolute worst way for Lance to have found out. They’re in the midst of trying to save Shiro, but now half Keith’s energy is focused on trying to tell how upset Lance is. “Okay,” he agrees, slowing back down to a jog. “Where do I go now?”

“Turn left at the next intersection,” Lance instructs. “But hide as soon as you do. Sentries are coming down the hallway you’re in now.”

Keith listens, turning sharply into the hallway Lance means. He presses himself against the wall behind a support beam, trying not to think about the last time he’d hidden from them.

It doesn’t really work.

“They’re approaching,” Lance murmurs, voice as low as if he were right there with Keith. Keith hears the sharp clanging of the sentries marching down the hall and holds his breath. If they turn down the hall and see him, he’s going to have to fight them, and there’s no way he can keep himself quiet.

But the pounding fades away, continuing down the hall where Keith had just been, and he lets out a sigh of relief. “Keep going down this hall,” Lance says. Keith takes off.

Lance leads him down several more hallways, each looking the same as the others. He’s glad Lance stayed in the control room to lead him, rather than joining him out here. They likely wouldn’t have been able to find their way without help of the cameras. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to avoid conflict, the way they are now.

As much as Keith wants to fight the sentries instead of hide from them, he listens to Lance. He trusts his soulmate to get them through this. “Turn right down the next hallway,” Lance instructs. “There will be a door at the end. That’s where Shiro is.”

“Is anyone else nearby?” Keith exhales.

“No.”

He bursts into a sprint, closing the last of the distance between himself and Shiro’s cell. True to Lance’s words, there aren’t any sentries or Galra between him and the door. Keith slows to a stop, standing directly in front of the door. His mind flashes to the video feed of Shiro lying there, sickly and helpless, and suddenly he can’t bring himself to open the door.

“You’re there,” Lance tells him after a moment. “The door only needs your hand.”

Keith swallows. “He’s still inside?” he asks, voice small.

“Yeah.” To Lance’s credit, he sounds sympathetic. “We need to get him out of there,” he reminds gently. Despite everything before, he’s still encouraging Keith. That’s all it takes to give him courage. Keith presses his hand to the pad, and the door slides open.

Shiro’s inside, lying on the small bed, eyes closed. Keith bursts into action.

“Shiro!”

He races in, kneeling next to him, fingers pressing against the side of Shiro’s neck. Keith closes his eyes, focusing.

Then he feels it.

The soft beat of a heart. Weak, struggling, but unmistakably there. “He’s alive,” he chokes out.

“Bring him back,” Lance instructs. “We need to get out of here.”

“Shiro?” Keith asks, shaking him. Shiro’s eyes opens slightly, but they don’t focus and slide shut almost immediately after. “He’s not waking up,” he tells Lance, hopelessly. Lance will know what to do.

“Can you carry him?”

“I think so.”

“Then do that. We can wake him up in the shuttle.”

“I’m sorry,” Keith apologizes to Shiro’s unconscious body. “I need to move you.”

Shiro’s body is heavy, but it’s lighter than it had been the first time he’d rescued him with Lance, all that time ago back in the desert. Keith drags Shiro’s arm over his neck, taking his weight there. He can’t drag Shiro easily, so he lifts him up in a princess hold after tucking his Bayard away. Shiro’s head falls into Keith’s shoulder, and Keith feels his breaths against his neck.

“I’m not going to be able to fight,” he informs Lance.

“I’ll guide you back. Just move,” Lance answers, words clipped.

Walking with Shiro’s dead weight in his arms is no easy feat. Despite Shiro being lighter than before, Keith’s arms still ache, holding him like this. His legs start shaking before he even gets to the first intersection. “Please tell me there’s a fast way back,” he grits to Lance.

“Go back the way you came and stop when I tell you to.”

It’s not exactly the answer Keith wanted to hear, but he sucks it up, adjusting his grip on Shiro so he doesn’t drop him. Lance reminds him which hallways to turn at, telling him when to stop and hide. The back of Keith’s neck is drenched in sweat, he can already feel it coating the inside of his helmet.

“Stop,” Lance instructs, voice harried. Keith stops short, heart hammering. “There’s a different way you need to go.”

“What? Why?”

“Don’t ask questions, just move,” Lance snaps. “Head right here instead of straight.”

Keith obeys him, mind full of question marks. “Now where?”

“Keep going straight.” The clipped tone of Lance’s voice isn’t gone. “There will be a door on your left. That leads you straight into the shuttle bay.”

“Already?”

“It’s a shortcut, just take it.”

Keith uses the wall to help hold Shiro up as he presses his hand to the door. No sentries or Galra are there waiting for him, not that he expects it. Pidge’s program has worked so far; Lance hasn’t left him off course. He has Shiro. He’s on the far side of the hangar from their shuttle. From here, Keith can’t see it, but he also doesn’t see a blockade of sentries, which means they hid it well enough.

“Alright, I’m here. Where now?”

Silence.

“Lance?”

“Shit,” Lance breathes softly.

“What?” Keith doesn’t like the sound of that.

 “Nothing,” Lance replies, voice terse. “I think my way to you is blocked.”

“What?” Keith exclaims, worries justified when he hears the sound of blaster fire through the comm on Lance’s side. “Lance?!” His fingers tighten around Shiro’s body. “Lance!” he repeats when Lance doesn’t immediately respond.

More shots from the other side. “I’m going to find another shuttle,” Lance says eventually, voice breathless.

“Where are you?” Keith asks, clutching Shiro against his chance. There has to be a way he can help Lance and save Shiro. There has to be.

“Going to the other side of the ship,” Lance pants. Keith hears more gunfire, and he realizes Lance is sprinting further from his reach. He wants to scream, wants to hit something, wants to do anything that isn’t just standing here like an idiot.

“What am I supposed to do?” Keith asks, harried. Sentries pound past where he’s hidden behind a Galra fighter, and he realizes that Lance has somehow managed to clear the area of everything in his path.

Lance grunts. “Get Shiro out of there!” he shouts.

“What about you?!” Keith demands, standing stubbornly where he is.

“I told you! I’m getting another ship. Don’t shoot me down when I come out!” More blaster shots. “Get Shiro out of here!”

Fuck. Keith clutches Shiro tight to his chest, arms and legs both shaking now. He half walks, half jogs to the shuttle, moving as fast as he can with Shiro’s body in his arms. Whether intentionally or not, Lance has completely emptied the shuttle bay of enemies. Keith doesn’t know if someone’s watching the cameras and could catch him sneaking around out here, so he doesn’t stop.

Lifting Shiro into the shuttle is another problem all on its own, but Keith manages it after three tries. Shiro will have bruises when he wakes up, but things could be so much worse. Keith climbs into the pilot seat where Lance had been not even an hour earlier and holds. Despite what Lance had said, he isn’t going to abandon him in here.

“How you doing?” he asks, trying not to let the dread creep into his voice.

Lance lets out a dark chuckle. “Just peachy,” he grits in response, voice still breathless. “Shiro safe?”

“He’s in the shuttle with me,” Keith tells him. “Where are you?”

“Not sure,” Lance admits. Keith doesn’t know if the fear he feels is Lance’s or his own. “But I’m gonna get to a shuttle, I promise.”

Keith reaches out, trying to distinguish between his own emotions and Lance’s. He feels nothing through their bond that makes him think Lance is lying, but that doesn’t stop the scream that’s clawing up his throat. He forces it down violently. “You better not be sacrificing yourself so we get out of here,” he threatens.

Lance politely ignores the way Keith sounds more like he’s begging than demanding. “Don’t worry, Hothead. I’m going to get out of here. Easy peasy.”

“Lance –“

“Are you still in the hangar?” Lance asks, voice harsh. Keith hears an onslaught of blaster fire, but he can’t tell if it’s coming from Lance or coming for him. The blue paladin grunts, so at least Keith knows he’s still alive.

“Yes,” Keith replies, stubborn.

More blaster shots. “Get out of there,” Lance instructs, voice followed by more gunfire. The enemies around him must be increasing, but Keith can’t see a damn thing. He’s completely useless in here. “I’m not kidding,” Lance continues. “I’ll be there in a minute just…” he trails off as more blaster shots sound in Keith’s helmet. When Lance speaks again, he’s panting once more. Sprinting again. “Just go!”

Keith wants to argue, wants to take the shuttle and blast through the hallways. But these shuttles aren’t equipped for real battle, and a groan from next to him reminds Keith that he has to get Shiro out safe. Any dumb actions he takes will have consequences for all three of them.

With a growl of frustration, he powers the shuttle and lifts off, flying out of the hangar recklessly, nearly clipping the ship on the walls as he does. He isn’t happy with this; isn’t pleased that he had to leave Lance behind. “So help me, Lance, if you don’t –“

Keith cuts himself off as a blast bursts through the side of the Galra cruiser. “Was that you?” he demands.

“Heh…yeah…” Lance grunts. “Had to get some of them off my tail.”

He doesn’t sound good, not good at all. Keith’s stomach plummets. “Lance, are you hurt?”

“A little,” Lance admits, voice pained.

Shit. Shit. Keith should’ve been in there with him. He shouldn’t have let Lance stay back in that control room, no matter how much that might’ve helped. He should’ve ignored Lance when he said not to come back the way he came, even if that did get him and Shiro to the shuttle unharmed. He should’ve…

“Where are you now?” he demands.

Lance’s breath is labored through the comm. “I’m…at the other hangar…” Lance pants. “I’m gonna take…an escape pod…”

That’s not good. It either means there are too many sentries between Lance and the ships or Lance isn’t in any shape to make it that far. Or both. “Escape pod,” Keith replies. “Got it.”

He hears nothing for a while. In reality, it can’t be more than a few seconds, but to Keith it feels like hours. “You better not be too injured,” he threatens, alarms blaring in his head.

Silence aside from panting fills his helmet for a moment until Lance speaks again. “Shit,” he whispers. “Sorry, Keith.” There’s a distant clang, almost like a door closing, and then a much louder crash as if Lance had collapsed against a metal wall, followed by silence.

“Lance?” Keith demands. When he doesn’t hear a response, he tries again. “Lance?!”

A shock of movement draws Keith’s attention, and he sees an escape pod shoot out of the Galra cruiser. Lance’s pod. Relief floods his body, followed by immediate nerves.

Lance still isn’t responding.

“Lance?” Keith tries again. Still nothing. “Lance, I swear if you’re dead I will personally murder you,” he promises as he speeds the shuttle to the pod. Energy gathers around the cruiser, and for a moment, Keith’s terrified that they’re going to get shot at and die right there. But a purple glow surrounds it, and the ship jumps into hyperspace, leaving Keith, Shiro, and Lance miraculously behind.

Chapter Text

Now

“Keith,” Lance walks up to him. “Hey, come here, let me see it.”

“I’m fine,” Keith argues, stubborn as ever.

“Don’t be an idiot. We can wrap it or something if we need to, just let me see.”

“No, I don’t need your –“

Lance cuts Keith off, snatching his hand. He peels off the armor, carefully followed by the gloves Keith refuses to take off, and examines Keith’s hand. It’s blackened, but not bleeding at least, so he probably doesn’t need it wrapped. “Hmmm…It’s burned, but I think your armor took most of the damage.” The shot doesn’t look like it pierced his skin at least. Sure, it’s gonna hurt like a bitch, but it’s a lot better than it could’ve been. “Nothing a healing pod can’t –“ Lance’s eyes drop to Keith’s wrist, and he freezes.

There are words there, written in Lance’s handwriting, but he doesn’t remember writing on Keith’s wrist. His thumb brushes absently over the skin; the slightly faded words aren’t raised, and the ink doesn’t smear. It takes a moment for everything to soak in, and in the end, it’s the words themselves that do it.

Do you

They’re the only two words on Keith’s wrist. The only two that would’ve remained after Lance’s botched attempt to save himself from embarrassment. He can’t feel the ink on Keith’s wrist, because the ink was never there.

It was on Lance’s.

The few drawings his soulmate had given him since he’d left Earth have been so clear. At first he’d thought they were evidence against Pidge’s stupid theory, but now…

It’s been Keith the whole time.

Relief is the first thing Lance registers when the realization hits him. He’s not cheating on his soulmate by being in love with Keith because Keith is his soulmate. He doesn’t have to choose, doesn’t have to worry about what’ll happen if Keith finds his soulmate, doesn’t have to continue beating himself up over this.

Then reality catches up to him. He’s had two marks since being in the Castle of Lions. Everyone’s seen his marks. Hell, Keith outright stared at his mark when they trained. Why do you think I’m gonna harass you about your soulmark? he’d asked. You didn’t even make it. The poison Keith had spoken with makes sense now, the fact that he’d been staring at it does too.

Keith doesn’t want to be bonded to him.

Lance clamps down on the grief that threatens to burst out of his chest, forcing his expression into one of neutrality. He can’t look at Keith; if he does, he’ll lose the whole façade he’d just worked to create. What he needs – what Voltron needs – is to get Shiro back. He and Keith can deal with their problems later, if they do at all. He pushes Keith’s glove and gauntlet back into his hands and walks away, putting the whole room’s worth of distance between them.

“I’ll lead you to Shiro through the comm,” Lance hears himself say. “You need to hurry before more sentries come this way.”

He turns the console so he’s facing the doorway, just in case, and takes a seat. The hallway outside looks clear in both directions.

“Lance…” Keith breathes, and Lance knows he’s going to say something about what he’d just seen.

“No,” he interrupts before Keith can get any further. He clenches his eyes shut, afraid of the sob clawing its way up his throat. He takes a deep breath, reminding himself firmly of what they’re here to do and opens them, staring unseeingly at the screen in front of him. “We don’t have time for this right now,” he reminds himself as much as he reminds Keith. “We’re here to rescue Shiro, remember?”

“I remember,” Keith whispers, words somehow still managing to carry across the room.

Lance nods. “Then hurry. I’ll lead you to him and back to the shuttle.”

He doesn’t look up to see if Keith’s listening to him, but he doesn’t need to either. The door slides open then shut, and Lance sees Keith through the camera. “Keep going in the direction we were headed,” he instructs, watching Keith take off that way.

Lance follows his progress with four screens up: one showing the camera where Keith is, one showing where he’s going, one showing where he’d come from, and one as the map Lance is using to guide him. But then Keith, for some reason, decides to speed up. Lance loses the screen of what’s in front of him.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down,” Lance orders.

“Shiro’s in danger,” comes the clipped argument. Lance’s stomach jerks. Keith’s already forgotten about him, already moved on to Shiro.

“I can’t give you good directions if you move too fast.”

To Lance’s surprise, Keith agrees easily. “Okay. Where do I go now?”

Lance looks at the map, using it to pull up the camera for where Keith needs to be. Up ahead, he sees sentries marching down the hall. “Turn left at the next intersection,” he says. “But hide as soon as you do. Sentries are coming down the hallway you’re in now.”

Again, Keith doesn’t argue. Lance watches him turn into the hallway and press himself against the wall behind a support beam. Lance’s face heats, remembering how they’d hidden that way to get here. Keith had been so close, closer than he’d ever been before. For a moment, Lance almost kissed him, but then –

But then Keith is his soulmate against his will.

“They’re approaching,” he murmurs the warning. They shouldn’t be able to hear him through Keith’s helmet, but he’s not going to be responsible for Keith getting caught. He isn’t that petty. Once they pass by the hallway, Lance changes the camera to check in front of Keith’s new direction. No patrols. “Keep going down this hall.”

Lance makes a mental note to thank Pidge once they’re back. He switches the console easily between the different cameras, guiding Keith in a zig-zag pattern that keeps him from intersecting with any sentries or wandering Galra. Going like this, they won’t get caught. Their chances of getting out with Shiro safely in their custody is looking more and more likely.

The route isn’t perfect, and Lance can read Keith’s irritation in the way he sets his shoulders as he continues twisting and turning down the hallways. Despite that, the red paladin doesn’t argue, doesn’t question any of Lance’s commands. Lance can’t help but think it’s because he saw the soul mark.

How long was Keith planning to keep it from him? Forever? Was he going to let Lance live his life without knowing that he’d already encountered his soulmate? Was he going to confront Lance about it only to rip the rug out from under him, telling him that he didn’t believe in romantic soulmates? He’d already made it clear how little stock he puts in things like fate and destiny.

He’s already shown his disdain for soul marks.

Surely there must've been a hint before this. Something Lance just couldn't see. It’s not like he’d been writing somewhere he couldn't ever see. He must’ve seen Keith's wrists before. Or he could’ve if Keith didn't insist on wearing his stupid gloves all the time. The only time Lance had seen him without them was…

When they'd gone to the pool. Lance hadn’t written to his soulmate – to Keith – in days, because Zarkon wouldn’t leave them alone. Keith must’ve only had them off because he knew Lance wouldn't see, wouldn’t figure it out.

And what if Lance had taken Hunk’s advice, like he’d been meaning to, and asked Keith out? Would Keith have laughed at him? Told him that, not only was he not interested in being a rebound because Lance’s soulmate couldn’t love him, but also that he was Lance’s soulmate who couldn’t love him?

Fuck.

Lance shakes himself out of it when he sees where Keith is. The mission’s almost over. He needs to see it to the end. “Turn right down the next hallway,” he tells Keith. “There will be a door at the end. That’s where Shiro is.”

“Is anyone else nearby?” Keith asks, breathless.

Lance glances at all the cameras, but there isn’t anyone. “No,” he says in time to watch Keith burst into a sprint. Shiro’s important to all of them, Lance reminds himself. He’s the head of Voltron, Lance’s hero, and Keith’s…best friend or family or something more. Lance doesn’t know.

It doesn’t matter.

Instead of running in, grabbing Shiro and running out – the way Lance expects him to – Keith stops short, standing frozen in front of the door. Lance can’t see his face, but he can imagine how terrified Keith must be. He’d seen Shiro’s prone form earlier; even through the camera feed, he hadn’t looked good. Lance would be terrified to see that in person too. Shiro didn’t look dead but…

“You’re there,” he says aloud. “The door only needs your hand.”

He hears the tick of Keith’s throat as he swallows. “He’s still inside?” he asks, voice small.

Lance’s heart goes out to him. No matter what Keith may think, Lance still cares about him. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “We need to get him out of there,” he reminds Keith gently.

His encouragement, no matter how small, works. Keith presses his hand to the door, sliding it open. Even though Lance can see inside the room from his screens, he holds his breath.

“Shiro!” Keith shouts, rushing in as soon as the door opens. He must be checking for a pulse or something, because he crouches by the bed, fingers pressed against Shiro’s neck.

A blip appears on the screen Lance is watching. Something he can’t understand, written in Galran. Lance doesn’t touch the screen, willing it away. It goes, but it’s followed by a voice coming through the panel to the left. “The prisoner’s cell has been opened. Report.”

Well…shit.

“He’s alive,” Keith chokes as Lance hastily pulls up more cameras. The sentries are moving away from their patrols, converging on the prison cell where Keith and Shiro still are.

“Get him out of there,” Lance orders. “We need to get out of here.”

“Shiro?” Keith shakes the still body. “He’s not waking up,” he declares, panicked.

Shit, shit, shit. They need to get out of there. Now. Lance doesn’t want to make things worse, though. Not with how freaked out Keith already is. “Can you carry him?”

“I think so.”

“Then do that,” Lance orders. “We can wake him up in the shuttle.”

“I’m sorry,” Keith says. Lance opens his mouth, but then he realizes Keith’s speaking to Shiro. “I need to move you.” He manipulates Shiro into his arms easily, and Lance is struck once again with how impressive Keith really is. “I’m not going to be able to fight,” Keith says.

Lance pulls up the cameras. There’s a way out, but Keith needs to go. “I’ll guide you back. Just move.”

Keith stumbles to the first intersection, at least getting them out of the cell. “Please tell me there’s a fast way back,” he grits.

“Go back the way you came and stop when I tell you to.” Keith pauses for a second, and Lance almost screams at him again, but then Keith finally moves as instructed.

By some miracle, the way Keith had come before is free of sentries. At least for now. He leads Keith back the way he came, keeping one eye on the screen showing the path in front of Keith and the other eye on the path behind him.

Lance pulls up the next hallway and sees a hoard of them marching towards an unsuspecting Keith. “Stop,” Lance tells him, trying to keep the panic from his voice. He’s not going to be responsible for Keith dying out here. “There’s a different way you need to go.”

Now, of course, is when Keith chooses to question him. “What? Why?”

“Don’t ask questions, just move,” Lance snaps. “Head right instead of straight.”

Keith doesn’t question him this time. He goes straight, as Lance had said. “Now where?”

“Keep going straight,” Lance says, looking through the map. As luck would have it, there’s a shortcut to the shuttle bay they arrived in right there. Small miracles. Or maybe not so small. “There will be a door on your left,” he tells Keith. “That leads you straight into the shuttle bay.”

“Already?”

Lance sighs. “It’s a shortcut, just take it.”

He leaves the camera on Keith but ignores the actions on the screen. Instead he pulls up the different hallways, looking for the sentries and Galra. Several have already converged on the open cell. “The prisoner has escaped,” the same voice comes through the console next to him. “Report.”

Shit, shit shitshit shitshitshit. The sentries are headed towards the control room now.

“Alright, I’m here,” Keith says. “Where now?”

Lance ignores him for a moment, pulling up an escape route for himself. Things are not looking good. “Lance?” Keith asks.

“Shit,” he breathes. His way to the shuttle bay is completely blocked. Even on a good day, he couldn’t take out that many sentries by himself.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Lance tells him. “I think my way to you is blocked.”

“What?” Keith’s exclamation is ignored when the door to the control room is blasted in, a group of sentries already shooting at him. “Lance?!” Lance ducks behind the console, transforming his Bayard. He takes a deep breath before turning and firing three shots, taking down as many sentries in rapid succession. He ducks back down, taking a deep breath. Five more that he’d seen. “Lance!” He turns again, firing off five shots as he leaps over the console. All the shots land by the time Lance himself does, and he spares no time bursting into a run.

He breaks out of the control room and immediately heads down the hallway he’d led Keith down the first time, trying to remember the map from before. Shit. He should’ve taken out the cameras when he had the chance. Too late now.

“I’m going to find another shuttle,” he informs Keith as he runs.

“Where are you?” comes Keith’s response.

Lance skids around a corner, narrowly avoiding getting close lined by a sentry’s gun. He kicks one in front of him down, taking advantage of the training he’d been doing with Keith. “Going to the other side of the ship,” he pants, ducking on instinct as more shots ring over his head.

“What am I supposed to do?” Keith demands, and Lance almost laughs. As if Keith cares as much about him as Lance does about Keith.

He doesn’t have a chance to laugh, though, because the way in front of him is blocked. A litany of shitshitshitshit fills his brain again. “Get Shiro out of there!” he yells.

“What about you?!”

Lance shoots wildly at the sentries in front of him, not taking as much time to aim as he usually does. Most of them land anyway, and the sentries who fire at him have about as much training as storm troopers, because all their shots go wide. Lance takes two steps up the wall next to him kicking one in the face and using his momentum to knock it down. He lands on his other foot, rolling his ankle. A spike of pain shoots up his leg, but he keeps going.

Shots sound from behind him as he runs. Most of them land wide, but a few are too close. He slips around a corner, and his luck runs out. He catches a glimpse of something shiny, feels a sharp pain at his side. Lance spares a glance to the side as he keeps running, sees a Galra soldier holding a blade of some kind.

He stumbles as he runs, hand coming up to his side. It’s wet. He looks at his palm as he runs, red meeting his gaze. That…isn’t good.

“How are you doing?” Keith asks, master of timing as always.

Lance gasps out a dark chuckle at the question. “Just peachy,” he manages to grit out. “Shiro safe?”

“He’s in the shuttle with me. Where are you?”

Lance slows, looking around. There aren’t any sentries or soldiers in his immediate vicinity at the moment, which is the good news. The bad news is that it doesn’t look familiar at all. All the halls on these ships look exactly the same, and he’d lost track of where he’d turned long ago. For all he knows he’s made his way too deep into the ship to escape. He doesn’t want to tell Keith that, but he can’t lie to him either. With a wince, Lance brushes his fingers over his injury again. They come away warm and wet, a sign that his bleeding isn't slowing at all.

“Not sure, but I’m gonna get to a shuttle. I promise.”

He speeds up again, his own words giving him the will to move. He’s not going to go down here; he’s not going to let himself get captured or killed right when they manage to rescue Shiro. “You better not be sacrificing yourself so we can get out of here,” Keith chokes out. The red paladin sounds somewhere between panicked and pissed.

Lance isn’t an idiot. He knows Keith cares in some way. They are friends, even if that’s all they’ll ever be. And as much as he wants to ignore Keith after what he saw, he knows they need to talk. He has a reason to get out of here safe, even if it's not the reason he wanted. “Don’t worry, Hothead,” he assures. “I’m going to get out of here. Easy peasy.”

 “Lance –“

“Are you still in the hangar?” he asks, voice harsh.

“Yes.”

“Get out of there,” Lance orders as he shoots down four of the sentries firing at him. “I’m not kidding. I’ll be there in a minute just…” Soldiers start to appear too. Lance wants to throw something at them and scream for them to cut him some slack please. “Just go!”

Lance bursts around a corner, fighting against the weakness already creeping its way through his body. All he wants to do is collapse, but he can’t. He needs to keep moving; he needs to get out of here. As great as it is that all the Galra are chasing him rather than going after Keith and Shiro, Lance isn’t planning to sacrifice himself. He doesn’t want to. He wants to get out of here, get back to the Castle of Lions, and take a long nap to recover from all the events of today.

More sentries are following behind him now, feet crashing in a cacophony of clangs as they chase him down the hallways. Lance nearly skids into another hallway before he sees even more sentries. At this rate, he’s going to be trampled to death. He needs to rest; his side is worse than any cramp he’s ever had, somehow both shooting pain through his body with each step and going numb simultaneously.

He catches sight of canisters as he runs past another hallway. Lance lets off a prayer that they’re what he thinks they are and shoots. By some small miracle, they are. His helmet automatically activates at the resulting blast.

A slew of sentries goes flying out the newly created hole in the side of the ship before a large door slams shut behind them, and Lance gets tossed into the wall, feet sliding out from under him. He catches himself on the metal, fingers slipping where his gauntlets are still wet with his blood. For a moment, Lance stumbles forward at a snail’s pace, leaving his trail of slime against the wall as he moves. “Was that you?” Keith demands, voice forcibly reminding Lance that he has something to get back to.

Lance’s side pangs when he pushes off the wall and tries to force himself back into a run. He’s not moving as fast as he was before. “Heh…yeah…Had to get some of them off my tail.” He rasps, voice coming out weaker than he intended.

“Lance, are you hurt?” Keith’s worry is evident, even through the haze Lance’s mind is swimming in.

“A little,” he admits.

“Where are you now?”

He turns down the next hall and nearly collapses in relief. The other hangar. He made it. Lance wants to cry from relief but instead he ducks behind the entrance before he can be shot. There are too many Galra. He’s not going to make it to any of the fighters, let alone a shuttle. “I’m…at the other hangar…” he pants. He peeks his head out, but the sentries let out an onslaught of fire at him. Lance ducks back, looking for a backup plan. His eyes land on escape pods across from him. Not the best plan, but he trusts Keith to get him out of this if he can get into one. “I’m gonna take…an escape pod…” he tells Keith.

“Escape pod, got it,” Keith replies. Lance drops his hand to his side again, feeling the warm liquid continue to drain out of him. He lets out a grunt as he stumbles to the escape pod controls. “You’d better not be too injured,” Keith threatens, voice softer than it should be.

The pod a ways off from him opens, not exactly what he’d hoped. One of the sentries lands a lucky shot on the pods’ control panel, though, and that’s the only chance Lance has. The pod is on a timer, too. He doesn’t have much time.

Lance stumbles towards it, but his way is immediately blocked by a Galra soldier. He’s…he’s not gonna make it out of here. “Shit,” he whispers at the realization. At the very least, he decides quickly, he can make it harder on the Galra to get Voltron. “Sorry, Keith,” he says as he rips off his helmet.

Lance throws his Bayard into the pod, followed by his helmet as the glass to the pod closes. He watches as it drops, getting sucked out to safety, to where Keith is hopefully ready for it, thinking he’s in there.

“Found you,” the soldier says. As if it were some huge challenge, considering the destruction and obvious trail of blood Lance had left in his path.

“Good going, Sherlock,” he retorts, collapsing hard against the wall as the adrenaline rushes out of him. His hand clutches at his bleeding side, as if he could quell the flow of blood. It’s a lost cause, he knows it is. This isn’t how Lance wants to go. This isn’t the legacy he wants to leave behind. But his one way out is gone, and there’s no fighting it now.

The ship lurches underneath him, giving truth to his words. If he had to guess, he’d say they jumped to hyperspace.

Keith better have gotten out.

“What’d you call me?” the soldier demands, hand wrapping roughly around his shoulder.

It’s not even an insult, but Lance isn’t going to tell him that. “I called you Sherlock,” he clarifies. And then, because he can’t hold it in, he spits at the soldier’s feet. Red hits the ground.

“Why, you –!”

“Enough.”

A new voice enters, and Lance looks up, locking eyes with a new Galra. Female this time, with short cropped hair and blue pursed lips. She’s devastatingly gorgeous. His vision’s getting a little hazy at this point, but he feels like pushing his luck, just to see if he can.

“Hello there, Beautiful,” he chokes out, weaker than he should. His legs shake, and since they aren’t doing him much good, he lets them collapse under him.

“This is what freed the Champion?” Beautiful asks.

The solider huffs. “I’m sure he wasn’t alone in it. We’ll find the others and the Champion.”

Lance snorts. Keith better be far away from here or else all this wasn’t worth it. Beautiful chooses to ignore him. “Don’t bother. He isn’t on the ship anymore.”

“We can go back and get him, General.”

“Save it.” She waves her hand at Lance. “Clean him up and patch his wounds in whatever way it takes.”

“We’re…keeping him alive?”

Beautiful levels the soldier with an unimpressed glare, appearing offended that he’d question her authority in any way. Hell, as far as Lance can tell, she probably is. “The Champion is gone, but Lotor can still have a paladin of Voltron as his prisoner. Take care of him before he bleeds out all over my ship.” And with that she sweeps out.

Lance’s head lolls into the wall next to him, mind reeling. Half the exchange makes him think that the worst is yet to come for him, and the other half…well it means Keith and Shiro got out. That’s all that matters.

Shit, though, he really doesn’t want to end up in the gladiator arena like Shiro. He can barely even survive a prison break; there’s no way he could survive in a place where he’s expected to kill whatever monsters the Galra choose to pit against a paladin of Voltron. Or worse: other prisoners. He shivers, but if it’s from the chilling thought or the blood loss, he isn’t sure.

He’s rustled firmly upright by the soldier. Lance doesn’t fight it, leaning into him as the Galra grumbles. Lance catches words like lackey and beneath me and half-breed but none of them hold any real meaning to him. He’s not paying much attention to that though; Lance is too focused on the fact that he’s being taken away to who-knows-where, and that his team won’t have any idea where he is, just like Shiro.

Or wait. Maybe he can tell them.

“Hey,” he asks as he’s shuffled down the halls, “do you have a pen?”

“What was that?” the soldier snaps.

“Pen? Pencil? Writing utensil?”

The Galra doesn’t respond at first, continuing to half-carry half-drag him down the halls. They get to a room that looks an awful lot like the infirmary on the Castle Ship before he’s roughly shoved against one of the pods. Lance blinks, opening his eyes to dark black encroaching on his main vision. “Make it fast,” the Galra says, shoving something in his hand.

Lance looks down at it slowly. A beat, then it registers. It looks more like a crayon than anything else. He lifts it to his arm, knocking off the armor there and peeling back his sleeve.

It might look like a crayon, but it writes smoother than ink. Lance finishes his sentence and drops the crayon on the floor, sensation leaving his fingers. The last of the adrenaline is gone, taking his energy with it and now he’s just cold.

“Leaving a note to yourself?” the soldier asks, lifting up his arm. Lance wonders if he can read the words or if the Galra don’t know English. “Doesn’t matter. I’m sure you’ll figure out what happened when you wake up.”

He gets shoved backwards into the pod, and Lance spares one last moment to stare down at his arm, squinting at the message he left there. Taking me to Lotor. Short and simple. He can’t feel much, but he’s hoping the message will stay there long enough for Keith to be able to see it. He’s banking on that; perhaps the only good thing to come out of being bonded with the red paladin. Keith will know what it means, Lance tells himself. He’ll figure out where they’re taking Lance, and he’ll mount a rescue mission just like they did with Shiro.

He trusts Keith.

 


 

Throk pokes his head out from behind the support beam he’s pressed against. Haggar is still murmuring to the druids, the same way she has been for weeks now. Ever since Zarkon’s battle with Voltron. He’d been on the ship to witness it; he’d seen the way Voltron had played them for fools, using the Emperor’s obsession with the weapon to their advantage.

They’d clearly worked with others in order to make their plan work. He’d heard rumors coursing through the ship about a betrayal, someone in possession of a Luxite blade who had been involved with letting Voltron go free the first time.

It wasn’t until after the second fight with Voltron that the turncoat was revealed to be Thace.

It’s a shame, too, because Thace had potential as a commander. Throk never harbored any ill will towards him the way he did towards other, less deserving Galra like Morvok. Nor was he too easily manipulated, controlled only by his emotions the way Sendak was. Perhaps the reason he was so calculating was because he’d been an agent for the legendary Blades of Marmora. A group that had been nothing more than a fairy tale until that battle.

A group that, alongside Voltron, had crippled their Emperor to the point he hasn’t emerged from his room since.

Throk isn’t convinced he’s still alive.

So here he stands, watching Haggar converse with the druids the way she has since that fateful day. What she has hidden in that room, Throk doesn’t know. But today is the day he’s going to find out. He’s been watching long enough that he knows her pattern, he knows when his chance is.

Sure enough, the druids leave a moment later in a puff of smoke that never ceases to make Throk’s fur stand on edge. Haggar’s eyes dart around the hallway, and he presses himself against the wall again, holding his breath as if she could hear it. Perhaps she can; Throk isn’t convinced that she’s even a Galra. Universal laws don’t apply to her after all.

He waits, counting the beats of his heart, calm despite what he plans to do until he’s certain she’s gone. When he pokes his head out again, the hallway’s empty. Throk steps out, checking around himself as he approaches the door to Zarkon’s chambers. Given the situation, he doesn’t expect to be able to open the door with just his hand.

But he’s no moron.

Throk dons his glove, the one he’d had made specially for this occasion, and presses it against the door. It opens easily for him, as expected. He’d gone through quite a few channels to gain access to this, but a glove which acts as Haggar’s print is a worthy investment.

He steps inside, letting the doors shut behind him before evaluating the room. Tubes line the walls, coming down from the ceiling into a body lying still on the bed in the center of the room. Throk approaches warily, hand on his blade, but his suspicions are confirmed once he gets close enough.

Zarkon.

“Sire,” Throk whispers, simultaneously hoping his Emperor will answer or remain asleep. He does the latter, not even twitching in indication that he heard his commander’s call. Throk’s grip on his blade relaxes as he approaches closer.

Zarkon appears to be in a coma or something similar. His chest doesn’t rise and fall in a state of natural sleep. Instead he seems still, almost dead with how frozen his body is. The battle with Voltron had done quite a number on him: irreparable damage from the looks of it.

Throk turns his eyes to the tubes coming down. As a commander, he recognizes the color and viscosity immediately as quintessence. His ships have transported enough of the substance between bases and central command enough times for him to recognize it on sight. He’s no scientist though, and the meaning behind it is a mystery to him.

A small part of him wants to believe that Haggar is working for the Empire, and that the quintessence is there to keep Zarkon alive or possibly bring him back from whatever damage Voltron had dealt him. A much larger, more insistent part of him knows that the witch cannot be trusted. With Zarkon in a weaker state, dissent has already begun to creep across the Galran ranks. Commanders – including Throk himself – have already begun whispers over who should replace Zarkon on the throne if the Emperor were truly out of commission.

The rebels under Lotor have been gaining power, a foothold in the Empire that the banished prince has never held before. Not while his father was alive. The rebels who fought for freedom alongside Voltron have been more aggressive as well, uprisings in Galra controlled planets have increased tenfold in the past few weeks, and the commanders know these will continue until a strong leader is once again visible on the throne.

Haggar, Throk knows, will try and take the throne for herself. She will act in Zarkon’s stead for now, continuing to use his name as a weapon. But it is only a matter of time before she uses it less and less and begins to push her own agenda forward. She’s been a force to reckon with alongside Zarkon, but her manner of battle isn’t one Throk can get behind. Despite his actions in this chamber, he’s always been more of a traditionalist.

Galra fight hand to hand. Messing with minds is a sign of weakness, and he will not tolerate it under his rule.

Throk reaches out to the nearest tube of quintessence, fingers itching. He aches to rip it from Zarkon’s veins and let what will be, be. If the quintessence is keeping him alive – unlikely – then he will pass, and Throk will battle the other commanders, defeating them all until he becomes the new Emperor. His reign will be forever known as the golden age of the Galra.

Perhaps he should let the quintessence kill Zarkon instead.

His fingers barely brush the surface of the tube before his hackles raise. “Throk,” comes the whispered threat. He spins, sword in his hand faster than most can even draw.

The witch is blocking his entrance, hood low over her face, as it always is. “Haggar,” he greets. Her appearance here isn’t unexpected, though he’d been hoping to avoid a confrontation.

“You’ve been lurking around the hallway for some time now,” Haggar remarks, not moving or even sounding surprised to see him in Zarkon’s chambers. “I was wondering when you would finally enter this room.”

“You could not expect to continue this without being found out,” he announces, adjusting his stance in preparation for the attack.

Haggar doesn’t attack. She stands there, silently regarding him. “And what,” she starts, voice measured, “exactly do you think I am doing?”

“Hiding the Emperor’s true state, keeping him from waking up with your dark magic.”

In a blink she’s gone. All of Throk’s fur stands on edge as he turns, looking for her. He’s never seen her disappear the way her druids do, but it doesn’t matter. He’s bested many enemies. She may have a dark power, but she’s no match to his expertise.

The world around him turns black. Throk stumbles a step back, grip faltering on his sword. He blinks hard once, twice, several times, but the darkness doesn’t go away. He holds out his hand in front of his face, but even that he can’t see. “Coward!” he declares with a shout. “You are not a true Galra to fight me like this!”

“Is that so?”

Is that so?

Is that so?

The words echo around Throk. He spins for each of them, swiping at the darkness with his sword but the witch remains annoyingly illusive. “Fight me like a Galra!” he shouts again, stabbing forward with a lunge. He hits nothing but air each time.

In another blink a figure appears through the darkness. Throk nearly drops his blade but manages to maintain his hold on it at the sight of himself, eyes glowing a deep red. “I see what is inside your heart, Commander,” his own voice taunts him. “You think yourself worthy of being Emperor of the Galra Empire?”

Throk growls. “Your witchcraft will turn the Empire against you. Your presence weakens us. We need a show of strength; something only a true Galra can give!”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Throk hears a gasp from Haggar for the first time, and the blackness disappears. The sudden appearance of light has him stumbling sideways. He catches himself on a tube and looks around, adjusting to the appearance of the intruder.

His eyes widen at the sight. “Lotor,” he breathes.

The prince ignores his presence, turning his attention to the witch instead. “Mother,” he greets, and Throk’s eyes nearly bug out of his head. No wonder Zarkon had kept her close all these years. “I see you haven’t changed since I’ve left.” The prince wears a wry smirk on his lips as he says it, as if amused at a private joke.

“How kind of you to visit your father,” Haggar replies, fingers twitching.

“I am certain he appreciates it,” Lotor deadpans, sarcasm dripping from each syllable.

This is his chance, Throk realizes. He can take out both Lotor and Haggar as they argue, and secure his rightful place either at Zarkon’s side or as his replacement. He strengthens his grip on his blade and charges before they can say anything further.

It’s all over in a moment.

Lotor sidesteps Throk’s attack, arm slipping under Throk’s blade. The prince’s hand contacts his chest, and Throk is thrown back, as if he hit a brick wall. His sword flies out of his hand, landing in Lotor’s fist.

Throk doesn’t even have a chance to catch his breath before his own sword is being pointed at his chest. His throat clicks as he swallows, eyes tracing up the blade to the prince’s cool gaze. “You have flawless technique, that I’ll grant you,” Lotor remarks passively, as if he’s not interested in the conversation at all. “Still, you must realize at some point that such an obvious attack will get you nowhere.”

That should be the end of it. Lotor’s defeated him, so easily despite the thousands of fearsome enemies Throk has left wasting on the battlefield. Were he in the same position, he wouldn’t hesitate to end Lotor’s life.

But the prince is nothing if not filled with surprises.

He lifts the blade up, examining it with a cool detachment. “Luxite would’ve been more appropriate,” he remarks to himself.

“Lotor,” Haggar interrupts. Her stance is obviously stiff, even from where Throk is lying on the ground. She fears for her life, as well she should. “Say your piece and leave Galra command.”

Lotor turns away from Throk, paying him as little mind as one would to a bug under their shoe. “Now, Mother, is that any way to greet your long lost son, moving back home at last?”

“Zarkon banished you,” she hisses. “You are not welcome here.”

“Hmm…” Lotor hums. “So it would seem.”

Faster than a flash of lightning he spins, somehow making it all the way to the edge of Zarkon’s bed. He plunges Throk’s sword deep into the Emperor’s prone body, and Haggar lets out a scream as he does. The prince removes the sword, dripping wet, and swipes it across the bed. Something thuds off it, rolling across the floor to stop at Haggar’s feet.

It’s a sickeningly familiar color.

Throk remains frozen on the floor, staring in horror at the scene before him. Lotor wipes the blade on the bed, turning slower as he approaches Throk again. Throk stiffens, but all the prince does is drop the sword at the ground alongside him.

Lotor doesn’t slow until he reaches Haggar, who is crouched over, clutching her chest. The prince rests his hand on the witch’s shoulder, and Throk stiffens in time with Haggar. “There, there, Mother,” the prince mock-comforts. “That’s the way I plan to run things around here. If you don’t like it then I suggest you leave before you, too, lose your head.”

He brushes past her, leaving the room with no resistance.

Chapter Text

Before

The gladiator is trying to kill him.

That’s the only coherent thought Keith has as he sprints down the hallway, its glowing red eye forefront in his mind. He can almost hear it, too, metallic boots clanking against the floor as it chases him in his imagination.

Wait.

Keith turns, dropping to the floor just in time for its weapon to zing over his head. Keith swipes, knocking its feet out from under it, which gives him enough time to stand up again. But the gladiator doesn’t need rest.

It swings again, and Keith raises his Bayard just in time. Their blades crash against each other once, twice, a third time before Keith becomes increasingly aware that he’s in over his head. He breaks away the moment he finds an opening and sprints off down the hallway.

The gladiator doesn’t stop. It chases him out of the training deck, forcing Keith to run at breakneck speed until he can’t outrun it anymore. Keith cuts the corner of the next hallway, turning in the hopes that he could trick it, but it doesn’t even slow. Fear claws up from his stomach into his throat as he’s forced to raise his sword again. Four swings is all Keith gets in before a boot to his chest sends him flying across the floor, his back slamming hard against the wall behind him.

Keith leaps to his feet to the sound of a muffled, “Keeeeeeeeith!”

Lance is standing on the other side of a glass door. “What are you doing in there?” he shouts over a mechanical voice saying…something.

Lance points, shouting incoherently, and Keith drops his head in time to not get it chopped off. “I need help!” Lance yells as Keith jumps to the side, narrowly avoiding another attack. “Because if you don’t get me out of here right now, I’m gonna be sucked out into space.”

“Doors opening,” the mechanical voice announces ominously.

Keith leaps to the side, parrying the next blow from the gladiator which continues to bare down on him relentlessly.

“I’m getting sucked out into space!” Lance shrieks.

All Keith can hear is Lance’s screams echoing over the crashing of his weapon against the gladiator’s. A side glance reveals the harrowing sight of Lance barely holding on, body flying parallel to the floor. A burst of desperate energy flows through him, and with a shout Keith shoves the gladiator back against the door, stabbing the button next to it with his knife.

The door slides open.

The effect of the vacuum is instantaneous. The gladiator is sucked out, and Keith barely manages to reach the wall before he can get sucked out as well. Somehow, Lance is still holding on as he screams himself hoarse.

He has to get Lance out of there. “Keith! Keith, come on!” Lance shouts, reaching.

It’s a battle against the vacuum for Keith to reach in without flying out, but he’s determined. He curses his height as he stretches his arm out as far as he can reach, his muscle pushed to their limit.

By some miracle, their hands connect.

Keith uses all of his strength to pull Lance out of there and safely over to the other side before hitting the button to close the door again. He collapses against the wall, panting. What the hell was Lance doing in there? What made him think it was a good idea to trap himself in an airlock? How stupid could he possibly be?

He doesn’t bother to wait until he can catch his breath before he rounds on Lance. “What were you doing out there?!” he demands, heart still hammering from the fear of seeing him almost launched into space. He’d almost…

Lance doesn’t answer, turning to Keith in a panic. “Who was that guy?” he demands in turn.

“He was trying to kill me!” Keith shouts angrily.

“Well is he the Castle?” Lance retorts, somehow calmer than Keith despite almost dying. “Because that’s who’s trying to kill me.”

Keith opens his mouth to shout back at him, but the words sink in. The castle. The gladiator. Oh. Oh.

The realization hits Lance at the same time. Their eyes widen in unison, and immediately they’re both up and running.

 


 

 

Now

Hunk isn’t surprised to discover that Lance and Keith have gone missing. To be honest, he’s surprised it took them this long. Of the six of them, they are the two least equipped for a search that doesn’t physically require them to do the searching.

He’d been thinking about the omelet conversation while making breakfast and had been working on coming up with a list of space ingredients they could use for them. Space ingredients wouldn’t make a perfect Earth-omelet, but he’s positive he can come up with something. After all, he’d been able to make the other space-food edible and delicious.

In fact, he’d even managed to turn the goop into something resembling a pancake. It had certainly been close enough that he’d decided to go wake up Lance and Keith to see if they wanted to help make them.

Keith hadn’t been in his room. That wasn’t surprising. Hunk had figured that, if he were anywhere, he’d be training. But why get him himself when he could wake up Lance and give him the pleasure?

He’d knocked. And when Lance hadn’t answered, he’d knocked again. After the third time, Hunk had barged in, ready to drag Lance out of bed and force him to go talk to his crush, dammit. But Lance wasn’t in there.

Initially, he’d thought Lance might’ve been training with Keith. He’d been all set to get them from the training deck and force them to take a break.

Then he saw the letter.

It was written in paper, sticking out like a sore thumb on Lance’s pillow. Curiosity has always been one of his greatest vices, and privacy has never really been his strong suit. So he can hardly have been blamed for reading the note.

It was addressed to him.

Hey Hunk,

Don’t get mad, ok? Me and Keith went to get Shiro. Keith has an idea for how to find him and I think it’ll work. I don’t want to tell you what it is because…well we don’t really want you guys to follow us. Keith swears he can be stealthy, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Anyway, if you’re reading this that means it worked and we’re not back yet. Please don’t tell Allura. She’ll definitely try to follow us. We’ll be back soon with Shiro in tow. Promise.

Love ya buddy, Lance

So he’s not surprised that they’re missing.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not pissed.

Hunk crumples Lance’s letter in his fist, counting his breathing until he calms down. This is so like Lance: leaving a note telling Hunk not to get mad. He knows Hunk is going to get mad. But his anger isn’t directed at Lance.

It’s directed at himself.

This is, after all, his fault. In the beginning, he’d had his doubts, but the longer they’ve spent in the Castle of Lions, the more Hunk’s come to realize that Lance should forget his soulmate and be with Keith instead. He’s been warring with himself over it for months, frequently switching sides in his internal battle.

On the one hand, Hunk’s seen how bad it can get.

He’d roomed with Lance back in the Garrison and had figured out Lance’s crush before him. He’d seen through Lance’s façade so easily, seen the way Lance looked to Keith for approval even more than the professors and upper classmen. Even more than his professed hero. Hunk had teased him about it at first, thinking it was hilarious.

And it was, until one night.

They’d gone to bed like normal, and Lance had waited until it was dark and silent before speaking, his voice barely above a whisper. “Hunk,” he’d whispered. “Are you awake?”

“Yeah.”

“I think I like Keith,” Lance had admitted.

Hunk had almost chuckled. Almost. But Lance’s voice had sounded so much smaller than he’d ever heard it so he’d swallowed his laugh. “I think you do too,” he’d agreed neutrally.

A sob came from Lance’s bunk. “Does that make me a bad soulmate?”

The decision had been easy at the time. Lance had never made it a secret how much stock he laid into soulmates. They are, after all, your destiny.

So Hunk had taken it upon himself to try and help Lance rid himself of his crush. He’d encouraged Lance’s negative comments about Keith, hoping they would help the crush disappear. He’d even celebrated with Lance when Keith had been kicked out of the Garrison, giving Lance the opportunity to join the fighter class like he’d always dreamed.

The longer Hunk spends with Lance though, the less he likes Lance’s soulmate.

After all, whoever it is only brings him pain. Lance’s soulmate refuses to talk to him and only draws on themself when they’re suffering. What’s more, they don’t hold back their negative emotions, which have caused Lance to collapse into a worthless heap more than once. The number of times Hunk has had to calm Lance down from a panic attack caused by the messages from his soulmate is higher than he’d care to count.

On the other hand, Keith’s been amazing for Lance. Sure, he’s not perfect, but he makes Lance smile. Not just that: Lance makes him smile too. The only good thing that’s come from Shiro’s disappearance is that Lance and Keith have gotten closer. It’s good for Keith, having someone to keep him from self-destructing, but Hunk isn’t blind.

It’s been good for Lance too.

Lance has been training more, smiling more, worrying over his soulmate less. The mission to free Faelara had been what pushed Hunk solidly onto Team Keith. They’d all been terrified when Lance had gone flying on an interception path in front of the ion cannon. But the raw fear in Keith’s scream has haunted Hunk’s dreams ever since. Things could’ve ended differently, so much worse, had Allura not been able to pilot Black.

Hunk hadn’t wanted to hurt Lance when he’d meddled, but he doesn’t regret anything he’d said. He’d been over the moon when Lance had told him that he’d consider it…once they got Shiro back.

And really, that should’ve been the first clue that Lance would do something stupid like this.

Hunk had planted the seed in his mind, and Keith had nurtured it to fruition. So now Lance is out there somewhere, trying to bring Shiro back, and this is at least 95% Hunk’s fault.

Hunk worries his lip with his teeth, trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do now. The letter says not to go to Allura, and Hunk isn’t a bad friend. At the same time, though, he’s worried. Lance and Keith have been gone for hours at this point, off who-knows-where, trying to save someone who’s remained elusive for weeks, despite all their best efforts.

Maybe…maybe he’ll give them a few more hours. Half a day at maximum. After that, he’ll definitely take it to Allura.

But what if they’re already hurt or worse? What if the only way to save them is this paper in Hunk’s hand, and by not giving it to Allura he’s abandoning them to their own deaths?

Oh god, what if they’re already dead because he didn’t come to Lance’s room earlier? He probably could’ve stopped them if he’d gotten out of bed when he’d woken up from his nightmare –

“Guys?” Pidge’s voice echoes over the intercom, breaking up Hunk’s invasive thoughts. “Can you all come down to the lions’ hangar?”

Unfortunately, it does nothing to stop the panic swelling in Hunk’s chest. Pidge’s voice isn’t reassuring at all. If anything, it causes him to worry even more. They sound stressed. And, Hunk realizes with his heart banging painfully against his ribcage, they shouldn’t even be in the lions’ hangar. Pidge has hardly left their brother’s side since bringing him back.

He clenches the paper in his fist so tight it might fuse with his hand and races out of Lance’s room. Every worst case scenario cycles through his mind at least twice as he runs. Lance and Keith are back, injured without Shiro. One of them is dead. Not all of them made it back. None of them made it back.

Bang, bang, bang.

His feet pound on the ground as he sprints, pushed by fear and adrenaline alone. Something’s wrong. Something is absolutely wrong. The timing is too convenient, too ominous. Lance and Keith didn’t just happen to disappear at the same time Pidge found something in the hangar.

Hunk arrives to find Pidge and Coran already standing there. Allura hasn’t arrived yet, and there’s no blood on the floor indicating an immediately in-danger teammate as Hunk skids to a stop. He doubles over, wheezing as his body catches up to itself. “Hunk! Are you alright, my boy?” Coran’s hand rests on his shoulder as he asks the question, concern evident.

Hunk huffs, holding up a finger as he catches his breath. “What’s wrong?” he finally wheezes.

“Look and see for yourself,” Pidge answers.

Hunk squints up at them, remembering their last interaction. It had been far from pleasant, so why are they standing here now, acting like nothing had gone wrong. And then he catches sight of it.

Hunk straightens up, resting on Coran, who takes his weight as if he’s no heavier than a child. “Why is the blue lion’s barrier up?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Pidge replies. “Where’s Lance?”

Hunk opens his mouth to answer, but before he can, Allura appears. “What is all this about?”

“The blue lion’s barrier is up, Princess,” Coran replies, gently releasing Hunk to stand on his own.

Allura frowns, staring at the lion. She’s quiet for a moment before turning to Hunk. “Where is Lance?”

“Uh…” Hunk looks at her, then Coran, then Pidge. If Allura doesn’t know why the barrier is up, that can’t be a good sign. He tosses his plan of waiting a few hours and holds out his fist, the corner of the note barely evident. “He and Keith went to get Shiro.”

“What?” Allura snaps as Pidge snatches the paper from Hunk’s fist, narrowly avoiding giving him a paper cut.

Pidge unfolds the note, eyes scanning over it rapidly as Coran hovers behind them, looking at the note curiously. “Is that what your language looks like?” he asks, ever the scientist.

None of them answer.

“Dumbasses,” Pidge remarks, passing the note back to Hunk.

“Read it out loud,” Allura demands, tone leaving no room for refusal.

Hunk doesn’t even have to look at the note again. He may not know the words by heart, but the meaning is etched in his soul. “He and Keith figured out where Shiro is. They’re going to get him.”

The princess’s eyes widen, but Pidge speaks before she can say anything. “Not exactly. Lance said in that note that they think they figured out a way to find Shiro.”

“And how did they do that?” Allura demands again.

“It doesn’t say,” Hunk apologizes.

Coran hums next to him. “They might’ve gone back to the Blade,” he suggests.

Pidge shakes their head adamantly. “Keith wouldn’t have done that,” they point out. “Last time we met with them he got irritated about it being a wild goose chase, remember?”

“Ah…” Coran winces. “That is true.”

“Wait,” Pidge says. Hunk knows what they’re thinking, his mind going there too. Their eyes meet, the way they usually do when they reach an epiphany. “What about Red?” Hunk asks, finishing the sentence for them both.

They race to the red lion’s hangar, despite Hunk’s body rebelling at the mere thought. If Blue’s barrier is up, then Red’s must be too; after all, that would mean both paladins are somewhere far off from the castle. But when they get there…

Red’s barrier is down.

Coran speaks for all of them when he asks, “What does this mean?”

Confusion clouds Hunk’s mind as he tries to make sense of this. “Why would Blue’s barrier be up but not Red’s?” he asks.

Pidge frowns. “Well Keith’s always throwing himself in danger. Maybe Red’s just getting ready to go save him again.”

“That is plausible,” Coran agrees. “There’s much still we don’t know about the lions. Princess?”

Allura is the only one to not have any input. She simply stands there, frowning at the red lion, as if it could somehow answer all her questions.

Hunk focuses on bringing his heartrate back within a normal range after having sprinted so much in the past few minutes while they all stand around theorizing. In reality, until they find where Lance and Keith went, this mystery is about as solvable as Shiro’s location as far as Hunk’s concerned.

That’s when a mechanical voice echoes around the hangar. “Altean shuttle approaching,” it announces calmly.

“Altean,” Pidge mouths as Allura’s head snaps up.

Coran straightens up, the most relaxed of them all. “That must be them now,” he decides simply.

It might not be, Hunk disagrees mentally.

They wait as the shuttle flies in. Hunk watches it enter, touching down smoothly alongside the other shuttles. It doesn’t look any worse for wear; there are no signs of it having been in a battle.

The moment the shuttle’s power cuts off, the four of them swarm it. Allura’s long legs easily surpass the rest of them, allowing her to arrive at the ship before the rest of them. The glass disappears and they all gasp in unison.

Collapsed in the passenger side is Shiro.

“Shiro!” Allura immediately grows almost a foot in stature, followed by the sound of something ripping. Either she doesn’t think it’s an issue or she doesn’t care because she reaches into the shuttle and pulls Shiro out as if he weighs nothing. Once he’s cradled in her arms she shrinks back down.

They all surround her, and Coran once again speaks for them all. “He doesn’t look good.”

He doesn’t.

Aside from being unconscious, he appears malnourished, the dark circles under his eyes evident even as he sleeps. His breathing is raspy and labored, his skin sickly pale. But what draws Hunk’s attention – all their attention really – is his arm. Or rather, the lack thereof.

He’d come back to Earth with a Galra arm after being taken the first time. This time, they’d apparently decided to remove it, leaving Shiro with nothing more than a stump ending halfway down his bicep.

Hunk swallows sharply, refraining from making a comment. “Coran,” Allura instructs sharply. “Get the healing pods ready.”

“Yes, Princess.” He doesn’t hesitate. Hunk and Pidge part easily, allowing the two Alteans to sweep past them, out of the hangar.

Shiro taken care of, Hunk looks back at the shuttle which Keith is now climbing out of. The glass reappears after him, and the fear begins to claw its way up Hunk’s throat again. “Where’s Lance?” he asks, unable to mask his panic.

Keith doesn’t answer, but Pidge inhales sharply. “Is that…Lance’s helmet?” Pidge whispers. Hunk’s eyes drop to the object in question, cradled in Keith’s arms.

Keith blinks at them, face blank. The words register slowly, and he looks down at the blue helmet he’s holding. His hands shift, and Hunk catches sight of the blue Bayard as well. Keith swallows, throat clicking visibly before nodding.

It’s Keith’s speechlessness that allows Hunk to find his voice again. “You have about ten seconds to explain what happened,” he growls as he steps forward, “before I punch you in the face.”

Keith’s mouth opens and closes, his throat working before he finally speaks. “He said he wasn’t going to sacrifice himself,” he whispers hoarsely.

“What?” Pidge asks sharply.

“He promised he’d make it out,” Keith replies, as if that should answer everything.

Hunk’s hand shakes as he balls his hand into a tight fist. “Where is Lance?” he repeats in a trembling voice.

For the first time, Keith seems to realize that Hunk and Pidge are standing in front of him. He looks up, meeting Hunk’s eyes. There are marks on Keith’s face that might be tear tracks, but Hunk’s vision is too jittery to focus. Keith looks between him and Pidge before dropping his gaze to his arm. He keeps his hold on Lance’s helmet and Bayard as he pushes up his sleeve wordlessly.

Taking me to Lotor

Hunk blinks at Keith’s skin, brain working to understand what he’s looking at, because it doesn’t make any sense. That’s Lance’s handwriting. Hunk knows it as well as he knows his own.

His eyes track upward to Keith’s face, and Hunk finds the red paladin staring back at him, expression twisted into something painful. Keith opens his mouth to say something, but Hunk can’t hold himself back anymore.

He punches Keith in the face.

 


 

 

Keith rubs his jaw as he walks into the infirmary. He deserved that punch, still does actually. He deserves a hundred more punches and worse for letting Lance run off like that.

He should’ve gone after him as soon as he had Shiro safely in the shuttle. He should’ve flown the shuttle into the other bay to pick him up. He should’ve stayed hidden on the ship when it jumped to hyperspace.

He should never have let Lance talk him into separating them.

Pidge isn’t in there yet, no doubt calming Hunk down. Despite their fight earlier, Keith’s sure they’re the only one who can reach Hunk now that…

He doesn’t let himself finish the thought.

But Keith isn’t alone in the med bay. Allura’s there already, standing silently in front of the cryopod holding the unconscious Shiro. Keith tells himself that the pod would’ve put him under anyway, but that doesn’t make it any better. Shiro still looks half-dead.

The internal lights of the pods are the only ones on in the room. Allura’s face is illuminated by them, casting her in an otherworldly glow. As Keith approaches, she reaches out and touches the glass just above where Shiro’s arm is cut. She doesn’t look around as he walks up, but she notices him regardless. “Did you know about this?” she asks softly.

Now that the Galran prosthetic isn’t covering part of Shiro’s arm, he can clearly see the one remaining petal of his strange birth mark. It’s the same shade of pink it always had been, the same shade Keith remembers of the flower on Allura.

“Yes,” he murmurs. The air in the room feels fragile, too easy to shatter, so Keith treads carefully with his words. “I didn’t know how Altean marks worked, but I suspected.”

Allura nods silently, her fingers not moving from the glass.

“Princess,” both of them turn at the voice to see Coran silhouetted in the doorway, backlit by the hallway lights. “You should be sleeping.”

Keith’s attention flies back to Allura. She gives him a brief look, and he understands that she isn’t ready to tell anyone else yet. Her head turns to Shiro, giving him one last glance before she closes her eyes and turns away. “Yes. I should,” she agrees. With a small half-smile at Keith, she sweeps past him out of the room.

He thinks that’s the end of it, but Coran hasn’t left either. “You should sleep too,” the older man says. Keith can’t make out his expression here, but his tone drips with sadness. He’d grown close with Lance too, after all.

“I will,” he assures Coran. Whether Coran believes him or not doesn’t matter. The older man nods to him, stepping back and letting the doors slide shut.

Keith turns back to where Shiro floats pitifully in his pod. He’s back, and he’s alive. Everything else can be dealt with. They’ll handle it together, as a team.

What a joke.

Keith closes the remaining distance to Shiro’s pod. His head falls against it with a dull thud that he hears more than he feels. He can’t feel anything, not really. Not the way he’d grown accustomed to.

There’s no tickle of amusement in his stomach, no irritation making his eyes twitch, no fluttering of his heart. There’s no Lance. And no matter how many scenarios Keith comes up with for what he could’ve – should’ve – done…it doesn’t matter.

Lance is gone.

“I fucked up,” he confesses quietly to Shiro, hoping his words can somehow permeate the glass. “Shiro, I…” He can feel them now; tears falling hot and wet against his cheeks. “Tell me what to do,” he whispers.

Shiro stays silent.

The door slides open with a hiss, and Keith straightens automatically, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. His still bare hand. He’d left his glove somewhere – on the Galra ship probably; it doesn’t matter. His chest clenches at the reminder, and Keith swallows down another round of tears.

“Keith.”

Pidge.

They approach slowly, as if Keith’s a cornered animal they’re afraid of scaring away. “I thought I’d find you in here.”

“I had to check on Shiro,” Keith manages, voice breaking on the last word. He forcibly averts his eyes, staring at the stump of Shiro’s arm instead, reminding himself of the one thing he hasn’t fucked up yet.

It doesn’t make him feel any better.

“I know,” Pidge remarks quietly. Their feet pad softly on the floor as they pass Keith, heading over to the other lit pod. “I get it.”

Silence covers them for a while, blanketing Keith in a false comfort. Shiro may be unconscious, but his presence is still calming in a way, especially after having been gone for so long.

“You know,” Pidge remarks, breaking the silence. “I never really thought about what happened with the other prisoners we saved.” Keith looks over at them, frowning. They’ve freed more than one group of prisoners since forming Voltron. “When we saved Matt, I mean,” Pidge clarifies, as if reading his mind. “I was so focused on him I didn’t even bother to think about the others.”

“Oh.” He hadn’t thought about them either. Lance had hurried him into a pod as soon as Pidge was taken care of, and by the time he’d come out they were all gone.

“Hunk took care of them, of course. Made sure those who needed to be healed were. Got them all some food, set them up in a little shuttle so they could fly home.” Keith nods, turning back to Shiro, but he doesn’t respond beyond that. “What I’m saying,” Pidge pushes, “is that I know what it’s like to be so focused on one thing that you lose sight of everything else.” They swallow audibly. “I almost left Voltron, remember?”

A faint shadow of anger flares in Keith’s chest. “I didn’t lose sight of Lance,” he argues, ignoring the voice in his head that insists he did.

“Maybe not in that moment, but there were a lot of moments leading up to that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks coldly.

Pidge sighs. “It means we’re not idiots. I know Hunk could see it, even if he never said anything. We both knew Lance had a major crush on you.”

Keith’s heart lurches painfully in his chest. “What are you implying?”

“I’m not saying you led him on. For the record, I think it was pretty obvious that you had a major crush on him too,” Pidge retorts. “Have,” they add belatedly.

“He’s alive,” Keith whispers to Shiro’s prone form. He doesn’t know how, but he knows that Lance is alive still. Something tells him he’ll be able to tell if that changes regardless of what species he really is.

Pidge shifts their weight a few times, clothes shifting enough that Keith eventually looks back over at them. They’re twitching their fingers, staring at their hands guiltily. “I’m sorry,” they whisper eventually. When Keith doesn’t respond, Pidge looks up, eyes misty. “I shouldn’t have pushed Lance like that.”

He swallows hard, throat working painfully around the newly formed lump. He should reassure them that everything’s fine. That this isn’t their fault. But a small part of him reaches out, wrapping around any excuse to blame someone other than himself, and he says nothing.

“I…I don’t want the last thing I said to him to be ‘do you think your soulmate hates you’.”

“That isn’t the last thing,” Keith argues, no real heat behind his words.

Pidge shakes their head. “That wasn’t a real apology and he knew it.” They wince. “Know it,” they correct.

Already Pidge is slipping into past tense when referring to Lance, already they’ve written him off as a lost cause. But Keith…he wouldn’t give up on Shiro and he won’t give up on Lance. “We need to find him,” he says urgently.

“We will,” Pidge assures softly.

The urgency hasn’t left Keith though. He grabs his arm, covering the words that are already fading on his skin. Taking me to Lotor. That’s the clue Lance gave, clearly expecting Keith to go after him. But the words don’t make any sense to him, and even if they did, he doesn’t know where Lotor is. He doesn’t know where Lance is being taken or what will happen to him when he gets there.

Hell, he doesn’t even know who Lotor is.

They saved Shiro, but Lance took his place, and Shiro’s in worse shape than Keith’s ever seen him in his life. So what does that mean for Lance?

“No,” he insists, turning back to Pidge. “We need to find him now.”

Something in his face alarms Pidge, their eyes widening as they take a step back, away from Keith. “We will,” they repeat. “We’ll find him and bring him back, just like we did with Matt and Shiro.”

Realization hits him in a massive wave. “Matt knows,” Keith breathes. He looks away from Pidge to their brother in the pod. He looks better than Shiro, even if he is still frozen in position to break out of the pod. The way he and Lance had left him.

“What?” Pidge asks sharply. “What do you mean Matt knows?”

Keith steps closer to Matt’s pod, considering. “We woke him up. I thought he might know where Shiro was, and he did.”

“What,” Pidge repeats, voice somehow even harsher than before.

“He trusted me,” Keith breathes to himself, remembering the skeptical look Lance had given him initially before conceding to his plan. “He didn’t question me.”

“Matt did?” Pidge asks, confused. When Keith doesn’t answer, their hand grabs his shoulder shaking him as they turn him to face them. “What are you talking about? How did Matt know where Shiro was?”

“Matt’s working for Haggar,” Keith says simply.

Pidge drops their hold on him. “No he isn’t.”

Keith ignores them. “Haggar wanted Shiro back, but that Lotor guy was transporting him…somewhere. He didn’t know why, but they’ve been checking all the ships going through that area. We just…we got lucky.”

Pidge sucks in a breath. “You woke Matt up. That’s why he’s like this.”

“He’d know where Lotor was taking Shiro,” Keith continues, caught in his own world. “He’d know how to find him. We need to wake him up, Pidge.”

He makes to turn, but Pidge grabs his arm, bringing him to a sharp halt. “No,” they say firmly. “You’re clearly not in your right mind right now. You need to sleep.”

“No –“

“Keith. You got Shiro back and lost Lance in the same day. You need rest,” they argue, more mature than their age would suggest. “Please. I don’t know what you’re saying, but I can’t let you touch Matt again. Coran had to start the quintessence bleeding process all over again…”

The words don’t mean much to Keith, but the raw pain in Pidge’s voice does. Just because Keith lost his…lost Lance doesn’t mean he should be the reason for Pidge to watch their brother suffer.

Two sets of soulmates reunited, Keith realizes. He jerks back, away from Pidge and their brother, remembering the words Pidge had etched on their skin. Found you. He stumbles away from Shiro’s glowing pod, recalling the way Allura’s fingers had rested on the glass, just over where her own soul mark is permanently tattooed on Shiro’s arm.

“I have to go,” he chokes out, turning and bursting out of the room.

Without any warning, more tears escape and flow freely as he runs, thick enough to blur his vision. He gasps for air, turning the hallways, needing to get away as fast as he can. Two sets of soulmates reunited at the same time that he lost his own. He can’t…he shouldn’t…

Something slows him when he gets close to his room and he stops one door earlier.

Nothing should be different about this one, but the air is thicker in front of it. He steps forward, resting his palm on the cool metal and closes his eyes.

Lance.

The name is the only thought in Keith’s mind as he opens the door, stepping inside. The room greets him with the same overwhelming smell Keith had experienced on the flight to save Shiro. He chokes out a single huff of laughter, causing the tears to splatter over his hand as he covers his face.

What had he been thinking? That he’d open the door and find Lance in here, waiting for him? Making fun of him for worrying, as if this had all been part of some elaborate plan?

Keith stumbles forward, stopping just short of Lance’s bed. He shouldn’t get his dirty armor on Lance’s nice sheets. He shouldn’t lie on them at all.

He listens to the first thought but completely ignores the second. Keith unhooks his armor with shaking fingers, letting the pieces clatter to the ground before he trips forward, falling onto Lance’s bed.

Keith buries his face into Lance’s pillow, soaking the cover as he continues crying. He screams into it, entire body shaking with the effort. Fuck. Fuck. This isn’t how it was supposed to happen. They were supposed to save Shiro and bring him back, laughing the way they had on the way out. Keith was supposed to confess, and Lance would be mad at first, but Keith would make him understand. He’d assure Lance of his feelings until he stopped thinking Keith hated him, and then he’d get up the courage and kiss him, the way he’d barely been able to hold himself back from doing on the ship.

There’s no ghost of feeling crawling through his body for the first time since they’d left Earth. He’d never known how cold his body was without it. Keith curls around the pillow, trapping any remaining body heat from when Lance had been here hours ago.

What if Lance is being tortured right now? What if he’s too injured to fight back?

Why hadn’t Keith gone back for him?

He’s never hated himself the way he does right now. Every blink torments him with a new horror. Lance locked in a cage. Thrown in the gladiator arena. Tortured. Executed. And every time he opens his eyes, he’s forced to see the sheets under him, the pillow where Lance’s head had rested the night before, safe and warm. So he closes them again.

Agony, Keith realizes, is something which is easily able to drag him into a downward spiral. Any other time, when it had gotten to be too much, he would’ve grabbed the nearest pen or brush and traced shapes across his skin, letting the motion calm him down from a full blown meltdown.

But this time, no sweet I hope you feel better or I’m always here to talk if you need that will follow. There’s nothing but more pain waiting for him, even if he does draw on himself.

Wait.

Keith jerks upright. Lance had left a message on him. He might still be within reach.

Keith all but bolts out of the bed. He tears through Lance’s things until he finds a pen. The pen Lance had used to write all those little notes on himself.

Keith forces the thought down at first but lets it crawl back up when he remembers that the strength of his emotions will help them travel a further distance. Lance, he writes frantically, letters falling into each other as his hand shakes. Where are you?

When Lance doesn’t immediately respond, Keith puts the pen to his skin again. Tell me where you are, he adds.

Still nothing.

I’m coming for you

Keith scratches that out.

We’re coming for you he corrects.

If they won’t go, Keith will go by himself, he decides. He’ll take Red this time and fly until he feels Lance in his gut again. He’s not going to let them go weeks without doing anything, not like before. He won’t sit. He won’t be patient. He should be out there now

His skin itches.

Keith looks down to where Lance had written on him, waiting for the words to appear. Expecting them. He waits and waits, focusing on the itch under his skin, the sure sign Lance is writing to him again.

Nothing.

And then, to Keith’s horror, Lance’s words from before disappear. aking me to Loto, it says, each letter disappearing one by one.

He lets out a cry, grabbing onto his own arm, as if he can catch them and force them to stay. The words don’t listen to him, and his arm remains stubbornly blank. No emotion crinkles through his heart, no scribbles appear on his skin. And yet his arm still itches.

He grabs the pen, writing more frantically than before.

Don’t you dare die

Lance

Lance

Lance can you see this?

Keith falls asleep with the pen still in his hand.

Chapter Text

Before

Lance had grown accustomed to not hearing from his soulmate. They’d spoken once, back in high school, and Lance had thought for a wild moment…

But no. His soulmate isn’t ready to talk to him.

That doesn’t stop Lance. He still leaves a little note every day, even though he never receives a response.

He tells himself he’s okay with it. His soulmate is just shyer than average, afraid to open up. Someday, Lance tells himself, they’ll realize that Lance is trustworthy. But until then, he will have to be patient.

They speak to him in more than words anyway; they open themselves up to Lance, sharing their deepest emotions. Lance cradles that knowledge close to his heart, reminding himself that not everyone expresses themselves as vocally as he does. Revealing their pain to him is a sign of trust, something he holds close to his chest.

His soulmate feels things more deeply than others, Lance is sure of it. Because whenever they share their feelings with him, it leaves him paralyzed, unable to move or even breathe until the feelings leave him. Sometimes, Lance wonders if his soulmate knows what they do to him, if that’s why they stay silent. If they feel guilty for it.

He tries to assuage their fears, reassuring them after every shared moment that he’s there for them, ready to listen whenever they’re ready to talk. He only hopes his feelings reach them too. He hopes they know that he wants to support them, no matter how much they feel. That he’ll always be there for them.

He grasps onto that promise now.

In a passive way, Lance is aware of his surroundings. He’s conscious of the fact that Hunk is cradling him in his arms. He’s aware that there are voices talking around him. He’s aware that he’s still physically in the Garrison building, even if it feels like his soul’s been ripped out of his chest and transported somewhere else.

All he feels is pain.

The details appear and fade before Lance can chase them down and see what they mean, but Lance gets the gist. His soulmate, wherever they are, is in unspeakable agony. His arm is on fire, but Lance can’t move his body to roll up his sleeves and see what they’re drawing.

He feels a scream claw its way up his throat, forced there by his suffering soulmate, but Lance can’t even open his mouth to let it out. Grief, loss, sorrow, anger, pain, rage, fear…they all swirl around inside him until he can barely remember his name. Loss, Lance realizes. His soulmate lost someone very close to them.

He hears a distant whimper, which fades as his vision goes white.

When he finally comes to, the first thing he feels is warmth. His hands are cramped, and Lance realizes belatedly that he’s clutching Hunk so tight he’s likely cutting off his friend’s circulation. He releases him slowly, his fingers loathe to change their positions. His cheeks are wet, and his entire body is shaking uncontrollably, and Lance hears those whimpers again.

Oh. They’re coming from him.

“Lance,” Hunk murmurs. “You with me, buddy?”

Lance turns his face, burying it in Hunk’s shoulder. He inhales the familiar scent of his best friend, soaking it all up as he struggles back to reality. “What happened?” he chokes out, voice raspy.

Hunk’s arms tighten around him. “Do you remember anything?”

Lance wracks his brain, vague memories surfacing. “We were headed to the training simulator?” he asks because he can’t remember.

“Yeah,” Hunk answers softly, encouraging. “We were talking and all of a sudden you just…you froze.”

“Oh,” Lance says, not recalling this at all.

“You had this expression I’ve never seen before, and then you collapsed in the middle of the hallway. I tried to snap you out of it, but,” Hunk swallows audibly and Lance burrows himself further into his friend’s embrace. “You wouldn’t respond,” he finishes finally.

“Oh,” Lance repeats. “Sorry.”

Hunk drops his nose to Lance’s hair, nudging him. “Was it your soulmate?”

Lance swallows, still refusing to move. “Yeah,” he admits softly.

“Where?”

“My arm.”

“Do you wanna look at it?” Hunk asks gently.

Lance thinks about it for a moment before nodding. He peels himself away from Hunk slowly, immediately colder than he had been a few seconds ago. His hands won’t stop shaking as he fumbles at the zipper of his uniform’s jacket, getting more and more frustrated as he tries in vain to take it off.

Hunk takes pity on him, gently moving his fingers away and unzipping Lance’s jacket for him. They’re sitting on Hunk’s bed in their dorm room, Lance realizes. Hunk must’ve carried him back here when Lance collapsed.

He moves, trying to help Hunk, but his limbs won’t respond, body rebelling at being controlled by him instead of his soulmate. Hunk peels Lance’s jacket off, setting it to the side as Lance looks down at the message left by his soulmate.

Like usual, there are no words, or if there are, they’re covered by paint. It has to be paint, because Lance doesn’t want to think of the implications of it being anything else.

“That…” Hunk trails off, clearly searching for the nice words. The kind words.

Lance finishes it for him. “It looks like shit.”

“Uh…yeah, it does.”

Lance continues to stare at his arm, trying to figure out what the hell his soulmate was communicating by painting human feces on his arm. The grief and pain had felt so real. He refuses to believe something like this could be meaningless.

“Maybe they were trying to draw something else,” Hunk offers. “But they messed up and painted over it.”

“Maybe,” Lance agrees.

Both of them sit there and continue to stare at it silently for a while. “I think I should take a picture anyway,” Lance speaks up. “I’ll save it and ask them about it when we finally meet.”

Hunk nods and hands him his phone without comment. Lance snaps a picture and saves it alongside the other ones his soulmate had left. The folder is smaller than Lance would like, but larger than a folder filled with pain inducing art should be.

Someday, Lance tells himself, all of this will make sense.

 


 

 

Now

Keith wakes up in a state of confusion. His cheek sticks to his pillow, leaving a wet print on it when he lifts his head. His bed feels different. He’s on top of his covers rather than under them, for one thing. For another…he can’t find his knife.

He sits bolt upright, but a glance around the room reveals that he’s not in his own room. This is Lance’s.

The memories come rushing in all at once, and Keith has to press his palms into his eyes to stop them from bursting out. Or so it seems. He folds in half, breath leaving him a rush. Lance. He’d somehow managed to fall asleep in Lance’s room after leaving him a thousand messages on his skin. Keith doesn’t have to look to know there’s no response, but he checks anyway. The only words there are the ones he’d written using Lance’s pen. The same pen that had written the messages on his inner wrist every day since they’d come to the Castle of Lions.

Lance, who thought his soulmate hated him. Lance, who has no idea how much Keith wants him. Lance, who deserves better than this. Lance who is gone.

He needs to get Lance back.

Keith forces himself off the bed, wincing when he realizes he’d fallen asleep in his sweaty under suit. He’ll make it up to Lance; he’ll wash his sheets when they bring him back, he’ll let Lance take his bed instead. He’ll give Lance both their rooms and sleep on the couch instead.

But he needs to bring Lance back before he can do that, so he pulls his armor on and wanders out, stopping in his room only to brush his teeth – while refusing to face himself in the mirror – before heading to the main areas.

The others aren’t in the dining room, they aren’t in the living area, they aren’t even in the kitchen. Keith briefly panics, thinking they left to find Lance without him, but when he goes to the infirmary to check on Shiro, he finds them all gathered in there. Pidge is standing in front of Matt’s pod as if they hadn’t moved since the night before. Allura and Hunk flank Coran by the central monitor, though Allura keeps shooting glances over at Shiro’s pod.

The dark circles under her eyes have faded since the day before.

“Ah, Keith, welcome,” Coran greets enthusiastically. Unlike Allura, the circles under his eyes seem to have gotten darker.

Keith approaches them, stopping once he’s alongside Allura. He avoids looking anywhere near Hunk, instead frowning at the monitor. He can’t read Altean, so it’s an exercise in futility, but it gives him something to look at that isn’t any of his teammates. “What are you doing?” he asks, voice raspier than he’d expected.

“As I was just telling Hunk and the Princess,” Coran answers genially, “it appears as though Shiro has gone through some of the same quintessence poisoning that Matt was subjected to.”

That is enough to take Keith’s attention away from Lance. He glares up at Coran instead of the monitor. “What?”

“Well, we didn’t know what to look for before,” Coran explains, “but some of the quintessence has left ‘scars’, if you will, on Shiro’s natural quintessence. It’s likely that his first round of imprisonment by the Galra is what subjected him to that. There is some newer quintessence as well, but it’s far less rampant in his system than in Matt’s.”

Keith turns his glare to the pods where the two people in question float, blissfully unaware of what’s happening outside themselves. “Is that why he wouldn’t wake up?” Keith asks quietly.

“Um…no…” Coran says, awkwardly. “That’s most likely caused by malnutrition.” He clears his throat. “The good news,” he says in a much brighter voice than before, “is that I’ve figured out how to remove the poisoning from both boys. It will take some time, more so for Matt there, but –“

“How does it work?” Pidge interrupts, attention drawn to the group.

“Excellent question, Number Five,” Coran declares enthusiastically. “As with many poisons, the best way to handle it is to bleed it out, so…”

Keith steps away, ignoring the rest of them as they dissolve into scientific jargon and Altean words he doesn’t understand. What he does understand is that Shiro will be awake soon. Shiro is back and safe. He can’t get enough of that thought. For a while there, he’d been terrified that he’d be forced to spend the rest of his life searching for Shiro the same way he’d been searching for his dad all those years back.

Now he can spend all that energy on Lance.

“How long is it going to take?” he interrupts, turning back to look at Coran, refusing to even glance at the others.

“Matt will take several quintants,” Coran replies apologetically. “Perhaps even a full movement.”

“And Shiro?” Keith prompts.

“Once I get the program in there, it shouldn’t take more than a few vargas. A quintant at most.”

A day, Keith’s mind translates helpfully. He has to wait a full day for Shiro to wake up. Meanwhile Lance is gone, getting further and further away from him with every breath he takes. Without another word, he spins on his heel and marches out of there.

He almost goes back to Lance’s room, the promise of being near something of Lance’s tempting him, but his heart lurches when he sees the door in front of him, and he keeps walking instead. After trying to avoid Lance for so long by wandering the halls, Keith knows the Castle better than anyone except the Alteans.

He lets his feet carry them where they want, his mind bouncing between Shiro waking up within the day and Lance being gone. It’s sick, how calm he feels knowing that Shiro’s back when Lance is gone. Whenever he thinks that, his mind slams back to the fear that Lance is going to be too far away, that they aren’t going to be able to get Lance back.

The irony of that thought isn’t lost on him.

When he blinks, he’s not in the hallways anymore. He’s standing in the lions’ hangar, standing directly in front of Red. He meets her eyes and her presence fills him, sympathizing with his anger over Lance’s disappearance. He steps forward as she lowers her head.

“I thought I might find you here.”

Keith jerks around, hand automatically going to his Bayard. He relaxes when he realizes it’s just Hunk, then tenses again when he remembers their last interaction. “Hunk,” he greets warily.

Hunk ignores him, stepping up to Red. He glares at the lion, and something about the way he does it – or the way Keith flinches – makes Red raise her head up, away from Keith. “I thought you might try to chase after Lance by yourself,” Hunk continues.

Keith opens his mouth but clamps it shut, deciding to let Hunk speak instead.

“You guys did sneak off to save Shiro without the rest of us, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you tried the same for Lance. After all, he is your soulmate.” At that, Hunk finally looks Keith in the eye.

Keith steps back as if hit, emptiness echoing painfully in his chest. “Yes,” he admits softly. “He is.”

Hunk breathes out a sigh. “That explains a lot,” he says, more to himself than to Keith. He stares Keith directly in the eye. “How long have you known?”

Keith swallows, searching for something safe to talk about. “How’s Blue?” he asks, wincing at his own words. He’s supposed to be getting the topic off Lance not keeping it there.

“Her barrier’s up,” Hunk answers, voice hard.

Keith frowns. “What? Why?”

“It’s been up since before you got back yesterday,” Hunk answers impatiently. “That’s not what I asked you. How long have you known about Lance?”

Reluctantly, Keith accepts that he’s not getting out of the conversation so easily. “Since the Olkari.”

Hunk frowns, mind working before the lightbulb turns on. “The green arm?” he asks.

“Pidge,” Keith states simply.

“That was supposed to be Pidge?”

Keith winces. You’re the shit artist. “I still couldn’t get over watching them fall out of the sky.”

Hunk’s face twists into something sympathetic. “That was pretty scary. I thought we’d lost them there.”

“Me too,” Keith agrees softly.

“But you kept it to yourself,” Hunk pushes. “Why?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Hunk steps forward, anger rippling through the air. “Yes, well I do,” he shouts. “And I just lost my best friend. I think I’m allowed to ask questions!”

“This isn’t relevant!” Keith shouts back, face tingling where he’d been hit the night before. He doesn’t back down though, his own hands clenching into fists, ready to attack Hunk should the need arise.

“It’s relevant because Lance left you a message!” Hunk yells. “That message you showed was addressed to you but he hadn’t known who his soulmate was just yesterday!”

Hunk isn’t holding his tears back, and it’s because of that that Keith deflates. “Okay,” he concedes. “I’ll tell you.”

“Why didn’t you tell Lance?” Hunk repeats when Keith doesn’t immediately continue.

Opening up isn’t something Keith does. This conversation is one he’d wanted to have with Lance, and Lance alone. But Lance isn’t here, and Hunk is in pain, and it’s entirely his fault. The least he can do is try. “I thought the bond was making me like him.”

Hunk frowns, clearly not understanding. “So you don’t like him?”

“No,” Keith says quickly. “That’s not it. I thought it was forcing me to feel things.”

Comprehension dawns slowly over Hunk’s face. “You thought…”

“Yes,” Keith answers before Hunk can finish it. He can’t…he hasn’t even told Lance. He doesn’t want his confession to be to someone else.

“Keith,” Hunk says softly, “soul bonds can’t force you to feel things you didn’t already feel.”

“I know that,” Keith argues stubbornly.

“Do you?” Hunk asks. The question’s innocent, but those two words hold too much weight, too many memories, and Keith’s knees decide to give out on him, dropping him to the ground with a clang. Immediately, Hunk is there, reaching for Keith with concern on his face. “Keith? Buddy?” Hunk’s thumb swipes across Keith’s cheek, brushing against the still present bruise.

Keith winces and Hunk mirrors the action. “Sorry,” Hunk says. “I kinda gave you a black eye. That can’t be comfortable.”

Nothing about Keith feels comfortable right now, but he doesn’t say that. Instead he says, “Lance saw his words on my wrist.”

Hunk freezes.

“I got shot,” Keith continues. His hand still burns. He hasn’t gotten it checked, but his entire body, all the way down to his molecules, hurts in a way the healing pods can’t. “Lance insisted on taking a look. He saw. He saw and he sent me away to get Shiro. He led me there without letting me get hurt, and then he wasn’t able to get back. He said he was going to the other side of the ship. He promised he’d be in the escape pod. He promised.” And just like that, everything from last night comes out in a rush, and Keith can’t see through his own tears anymore. “Fuck,” he declares as Hunk pulls him close, wrapping him in an embrace.

“Shh…” Hunk comforts. “There, there. It’s…it’s going to be okay.”

“We need to get him back,” Keith insists. It’s been thrumming under his skin. It’s the reason he’s in the shuttle bay. It’s why Red lowered her head before Hunk interrupted. “I need him back.”

“I do too,” Hunk agrees.

They stay silent for a while as Keith sobs against Hunk’s chest, cursing himself for feeling so weak. He should be up, moving towards action, the way he had when Shiro disappeared. But instead he feels like all his energy has been zapped, taken away along with Lance.

“I’ve never told you about the first time I saw Shay, have I?” Hunk asks quietly when Keith’s cried himself dry. He shakes his head, not wanting to move away from the soft warmth Hunk emits. “After Sendak blew up our crystal, Coran and I went to the Balmera, as you know,” Hunk starts. “When we first saw the Balmerans down in the cave, it was pretty freaky. They have glowing yellow eyes, and they came out of the darkness. I can’t say I reacted well. But then I saw Shay, and she wasn’t a monster or even a Galra.”

Hunk takes a breath. “I didn’t notice it at first, but when we came out of the caves with the crystal, things were a little clearer. I could see colors I couldn’t see before. Greens and blues looked different for the first time. I could tell what was orange and what was red. I didn’t really think much of it, I thought maybe it was a side effect of being around Altean technology. That maybe it cured us of minor things, like colorblindness. But after we rescued Shay, she pulled me aside and explained it to me. I wasn’t colorblind; I just hadn’t met my soulmate before.”

Keith breaks himself free from Hunk’s embrace finally. “You’re bonded to someone who isn’t human?” he breathes.

“Yeah,” Hunk replies simply. “But that’s not what made me want to save her. I wanted to save all of them, but I especially wanted to save her. Pidge was just teasing about me having a girlfriend, but…I wanted it. Lance knew how I felt, and I knew how I felt, and it wasn’t because of a soul bond. It was just how I felt.”

The answer had been here the whole time. He hadn’t needed to go to Allura or Coran or the Blade to find out why his soul bond was so strange. Hunk had had the answer the entire time, but Keith had never thought to go to him, because he’d been too afraid that Lance would find out. Too afraid that what he was feeling wasn’t real when it always had been.

“Hey,” Hunk draws his attention again. “If you didn’t feel something for Lance, the most the soul bond would’ve done would be make you good teammates.”

“I…” Keith hesitates. He never has to answer though, because Coran’s voice sounds over the comm.

“Hunk, Keith. Shiro is waking up.”

 


 

 

The Galran healing pods are nowhere near as good as the Altean ones. Lance stumbles out, healed but still feeling like complete shit. He’s shoved unceremoniously into a cage, and the soldier stomps out, ignoring Lance’s shouts asking how long he’d been in the pod.

Despite it being freezing in the cell – the same cell they’d saved Shiro from – Lance rolls up his sleeves. He remembers, sharper than he’d like, learning that Keith, Keith, is his soulmate. He’d left a message, and he wants to believe that Keith will write back this time. That he’ll tell Lance not to worry, that Voltron is on their way, and that he won’t stop until he finds Lance the way he did with Shiro.

The only words on his arm are his own.

Tak e to Lot are all that haven’t been smeared off. He rolls his sleeves back down, painfully aware that he’s been stripped of his armor. He’d tossed his Bayard away – a stupid decision now that he thinks about it – and he doesn’t even have his jacket.

He collapses back onto Shiro’s bed, dragging the small sheet over himself. It is freezing in here. The only good thing about him getting to wherever he’s going is that he won’t be here anymore. The bad thing, of course, is that he has no idea where he’s going and no idea what to expect when he gets there.

Lance doesn’t know how much time has passed since he and Keith parted ways. He doesn’t know if he had written on his arm while Keith was still in range. He doesn’t know how long he has left in this space ride from hell. All he knows is that sometimes the rumbling under his feet jerks to a stop for a short period before starting again. Apparently the Galran version of hyperspace travel isn’t as good as the Altean teleduvs either.

He dozes off for a bit, body exhausted and not at all recovered. His side aches where he’d been stabbed earlier and all that running has caught up to him. Even with the cold temperature, he falls asleep easily, but his sleep is fitful, and he wakes up too easily, feeling even worse than before.

Maybe Shiro had been unconscious because this was so boring. Lance chuckles to himself at the bad joke. Anything to make this better.

The ride ends with little fanfare. If there’s a comm, it doesn’t project into the cell. Lance can’t hear anything going on outside. The only reason he knows they’ve stopped is that the rush of hyperspace has ended and the rumble of the engines has stopped completely. They’re floating in space now, and he assumes that wherever they are is the end of the line.

He wraps the sheet around himself like a cape, sitting up and facing the door. His eyes are heavy, and he’s even more tired now than he had been when he’d first fallen asleep. Regardless, he doesn’t take his gaze off the door, watching and waiting for someone to enter.

Lance has no gauge of time, no way of telling when it was that he first sat up, but he doesn’t move. He stays frozen for so long that he jerks when the door finally does whoosh open.

The soldier from before is there, along with one other. Or so he assumes. They look the same with their helmets covering most of their faces. “Beautiful didn’t come to get me?” Lance snarks, voice hoarse and weak.

“General Acxa doesn’t need to trouble herself with you,” one of them replies in a surprisingly feminine voice.

They don’t wait for Lance to stand, lifting him bodily up by his armpits. His bare feet scrape the ground as they drag him out of the cell and down the hallways of the ship. It’s just as well that they carried him; he’s not sure he can stand on his own.

They pass the occasional sentry, but most of the crew must’ve been unloaded, because they don’t encounter anyone else. He’s taken out a different way than he and Keith had snuck in, and Lance doesn’t expect to recognize where they’ve taken him, but he does. He gasps when he realizes it, recognizing the location despite never having been inside before.

He’s in Zarkon’s Central Command.

He should’ve suspected it, in a way. He’s a paladin of Voltron, the Galra Empire’s arch nemesis. Of course he would be taken to Central Command. To Zarkon himself.

But…hadn’t they said something about the prince? Lotor…something? Maybe…the prince guy is capturing the paladins for Zarkon?

The questions whirr around Lance’s head as they drag him down unfamiliar hallways, passing by helmetless Galra who all stare at him as they pass. He can’t tell if they recognize him or if it’s just strange to have a human dragged by soldiers down the hallways.

The soldiers stop, rustling him off to the side as a fully armed battalion comes marching down the hall towards them. These hallways are wider than the ones on the prison ship, sporting more people, but for a terrifying moment, Lance is positive they’re coming for him.

As they approach, he catches a glimpse of a Galra in chains in the center. Someone he doesn’t recognize, and his first thought is oh they must be a Marmorite. There’s a commotion down the hallway intersecting with theirs, and another Galra runs at the battalion. “Traitor!” the Galra roars, drawing his sword.

It ends before it even begins.

An alien – Galran? – appears out of thin air directly in front of the charging Galra. She ducks under his sword, tossing him over her much smaller body where he clatters to the ground. The entire hallway is silent as she calmly picks up his sword and walks over to him, placing her foot on his chest. “He is to be publicly executed, per the emperor’s orders,” she announces, voice playful despite the implication of her words. “You wouldn’t want to disobey him, would you?”

A shiver runs up Lance’s spine. She looks sweet, playful. She has a long multicolored tail hanging off her head that resembles a ponytail, and she is exactly the type of woman Lance would ordinarily hit on. But something about her screams danger in all his nerve endings, and he bites his lip hard when she turns her attention away from the fallen Galra and faces him instead.

The battalion marches on through all of this, not pausing as they pass by Lance. He can’t keep himself from staring at the Galra in the center. His face is slack, jaw hanging open on one side as if the bone had been broken. His teeth are sharp, but his eyes are dull, empty. Lance shivers and looks away.

He meets the eyes of the woman instead. Lance flinches away, but his feet still aren’t touching the ground, and the two soldiers keep their tight grip on his armpits. She examines him the way one would a bug under their shoe, making Lance feel woefully inadequate.

“So,” she says brightly. He feels both Galra soldiers stiffen, and it’s encouraging to know that he’s not the only one put off by her. “You’re the one Narti brought instead of the Champion.”

Lance clenches his jaw rather than answering. He doesn’t like that they’ve all been calling Shiro ‘Champion’ the way those prisoners they’d freed all that time ago had. He knows Shiro spent time in the gladiator ring – they all do – and he’s not stupid enough to think Shiro wants to be remembered for that.

“Not very talkative are you?” she asks in that same terrifyingly bright voice. “We’ll work on that.” She points to the female soldier holding him. “You are free to leave.” She then points to the other one. “You come with us.”

Lance’s feet hit the ground hard, his legs shaking to support his weight as the female soldier releases him. She salutes the new woman with a “Vrepit Sa” and leaves them, walking as if a ghost were chasing her.

The woman doesn’t give another order; she simply turns and starts walking away. The soldier’s grip tightens around Lance, pinching his muscles with the force of it. His legs shake like a newborn foal’s with every step, but the soldier doesn’t give him the luxury of gaining his footing.

His feet scrape against the floor, he stubs his toe more than once, and overall he would’ve rather have the two soldiers continue to carry him all this way. They reach a large set of doors before she turns around and holds up her hand, telling them to stop. She pulls out a comm and steps away, speaking into it quieter than Lance can hear.

“What’s in there?” he whispers to the soldier.

“Shut up,” is the response.

“Just trying to make conversation,” Lance complains with a shiver. He’s still cold, despite no longer being inside the prison cell. The air in here feels objectively warmer, but Lance can’t get the chill out of his bones.

Finally the woman reappears, wearing a smile that has Lance wishing he were back in that freezing cell. “The emperor will see you now,” she announces cockily.

At her words, the massive doors open and the soldier forces them both inside. She slips in behind them, bounding up the room faster than they walk. It’s clear what the room is as soon as they enter. A throne is on the far side of the room, flanked by two soldiers Lance can’t make out from here.

The walkway to the throne is long, creating a rising sense of drama as they walk. Lance would expect no less from Zarkon, after all. They stop at the foot of the steps leading up to the dais, and he finally gets a chance to see who he’s been brought to see. Beautiful is standing to the left of the throne, gazing at him impassively. A larger Galra woman Lance has never seen before is on the right, growling at him as he looks at her.

And in the center is someone who isn’t Zarkon.

“Emperor Lotor,” the woman greets with a bow. She lifts herself from the bow and goes to stand alongside the large woman, shooting Lance a grin that makes his skin crawl.

Lotor. The name is one Lance recognizes from earlier, but he’d been sure the title stuck to the front had been ‘prince’. He digests the new information slowly, filing it away for later.

With how large and intimidating Zarkon had been the few times Lance had gotten a glimpse of him, he’s surprised at how…lithe his son – the prince would have to be his son, right? – is. He doesn’t look small by any means; even sitting Lance can tell that he’s just as tall as Shiro if not taller. He’s slender and shockingly beautiful. He has hair like Allura’s, flowing down his back, and he wears confidence easily as he cocks his head, observing Lance.

He’s another one Lance would’ve hit on before. That same shiver of dangerous, don’t engage slides down his back as Lotor waves for the soldier to release him. He forces his legs to hold his weight. His knees shake once, but they don’t betray him.

“So,” Lotor speaks, voice like velvet. “This is what you brought me in lieu of the Champion.”

“He and another broke onto the ship,” the solider replies defensively. “They took the Champion.”

Lotor raises his hand. Before Lance knows what’s happening, the bright alien has bound off the dais. He sees the flash of a blade, and the soldier falls to the ground. Lance’s knees shake once more, but he turns his eyes back to the throne. He’d never been in Zarkon’s presence before, but he gets the impression that he’s dealing with an entirely different beast here.

“Take that away,” Lotor instructs simply, and the woman obeys him without a word, dragging the soldier away.

Once they’re gone, he stands up from his throne and takes the few steps down until he’s standing directly in front of Lance. “You are the blue paladin,” he says, “correct?”

Lance bites back his answer, not wanting to give Lotor any information if he doesn’t have to. If anything, that seems to encourage the Galra. “Ah, so you still have some fight left in you,” he says with a smirk.

Lance remains silent.

Lotor walks around him, observing him as if he were a piece of meat. Once he’s behind Lance, he rests a hand on Lance’s shoulder, breath cold on his neck. “You and your team are nothing more than flies. I’m told those are bugs from your planet which are minor annoyances but easy to kill.” His hand slips around to the other side of Lance’s shoulder as Lotor walks around until they’re facing each other.

“But you took my favorite prisoner from me, and that is unforgivable. But empty threats aren’t enough for you, are they?” he asks softly, voice promising murder.

Lance bites his tongue.

“I could make you speak,” Lotor says. “But I think that you’re the type who learns better from a demonstration.”

 Lotor snaps his fingers, and Lance hears the doors open behind him. His head spins, heart hammering as he thinks irrationally, please god don’t be Keith. He frowns when he sees who it is. He doesn’t recognize them, but he does recognize their beauty.

They’re Faelaran.

The captive is being led by an unfamiliar Galra, but Lance ignores them, staring at the Faelaran instead, mind working overtime as he tries to figure out what this new twist means. Had…had the Faelarans been lying? Had they not really needed saving?

But no, that can’t be the case. This one is clearly a captive; their skin is paler than any of the shades Lance had seen on their planet, and their eyes have that same dead quality as the Galra prisoner Lance had seen just earlier.

He stares at them as they approach, led by the Galra. They stop in front of Lance, and Lotor steps back. “Narti,” Lotor says.

The Galra nods silently and rests her hand on the Faelaran’s shoulder. The Faelaran jerks as if shocked and steps forward to Lance. Automatically, Lance jerks back, but the Faelaran catches his arm before they can. He flinches, closing his eyes against whatever’s coming, but all he feels is cool fingers on his face.

Lance gasps and opens his eyes, but the throne room isn’t in front of him anymore.

Visions flash by, faster than he can follow. He’s in high school, scribbling on his arm furiously. He’s in the Garrison, watching Keith get further and further ahead of him. He’s collapsed on Hunk’s bed, arm painted brown. He’s on the castle ship, fighting alongside Keith against a gladiator. He’s in the prison ship, staring at Keith’s wrist with his words written on them.

And then the visions shift.

He’s Keith, scratching his arm alone in a classroom. Putting pen to his skin while a storm rages outside. Throwing paint on his arm in a rage with Shiro’s picture hanging in the background. Painting himself green and gold. Staring at Lance’s arm – my arm, Lance reminds himself – as he’d shoved it in Pidge’s face. Drawing the spikey tree. Getting shot in the hand and insisting he didn’t need help.

The fingers disappears and Lance stumbles forward, disoriented as the throne room reappears in front of his face. His cheeks are wet, images replaying themselves in his mind even as he stares in horror at the Faelaran who steps away.

“He is bonded to the red paladin,” they say in a weak, shaking voice. “His mate is half Galra.”

Lance’s heart hammers in his chest. He turns in horror to look at Lotor, who is now seated back on his throne. His lips curl slowly into a smirk. “How fortuitous,” he remarks. “Perhaps it was not a mistake that led you to me.”

“No,” Lance chokes. The word forces its way out of his throat without his permission, giving Lotor the ammunition he needs to widen his smirk. He doesn’t even need to speak for Lance to know what he’s going to say, what he intends to do.

“Your soulmate will come to rescue you,” Lotor says. “Your bond will lead him here.”

“No,” Lance repeats, needing to stop Lotor from speaking any further.

“And when he does, I promise I will kill him in front of you.”

No,” Lance says for the third time. His legs finally betray him, knees giving out so he collapses on the ground hard.

He stares blankly at the stairs in front of him, images of Keith drawing on himself still playing on repeat in his mind.

“Take him away,” Lotor instructs. Hands grip Lance under his armpits once again, and he’s dragged out of the throne room without a struggle.

Chapter Text

Now

Keith is going crazy. He swears he was only down with Red for a few minutes, maybe a half hour at most, and yet Shiro’s already waking up. He rushes back to the med bay without bothering to slow down for Hunk.

Pidge, Coran, and Allura are the only ones left waiting for them. For all Keith knows, they never bothered to leave.

“As expected,” Coran greets as he walks in, “a few Vargas was all it took.”

A few Vargas? But it had only felt like a few minutes.

Hunk arrives, huffing and puffing as the cryopod ticks, announcing the end of the healing cycle. Keith and Allura both jerk forward at the same time, but Keith gets there first, catching Shiro as he stumbles out of the pod.

He’s just as light as he had been when Keith carried him out of the Galra ship. Shiro’s body is cold, chilled from the freezing process this time, or so Keith hopes.

Thankfully, he isn’t unconscious anymore. “Wha…?” Shiro asks dumbly as Keith helps him right himself once again.

He keeps his hold on Shiro as the black paladin stands upright, still grasping Keith for support. His brow is creased in a frown as his eyes sweep over the area, and for a brief moment, Keith’s terrified that the Galra took his memories from him again. That Shiro won’t remember any of their time as Voltron.

Then Shiro’s eyes widen, comprehension dawning in them before he pushes away from Keith, stumbling back towards the pod. “No, no, no, no,” he repeats until his back hits the pod. Keith’s suddenly afraid that the Galra did something much worse to him if he’s terrified of his friends.

“Stay back!” Shiro shouts, holding his hand out in front of him defensively.

“Shiro?” Coran asks softly, the first to recover. “Do you recognize us, my boy?”

Shiro stares at him, eyes wide. His gaze scans over all of them before landing on Keith, standing right in front of him. “Keith,” Shiro insists, “you have to get me out of here.”

“Hey,” Keith murmurs slowly. “It’s okay. These are our friends,” he promises.

Shiro shakes his head. “No, you don’t understand. I’m bonded to Lotor. He’s going to find me here.”

Gasps echo collectively behind them, and Keith hesitates. He’d thought that Allura’s mark meant for sure that she was bonded to Shiro, but her mark has two grey petals, while all three of Shiro’s had been pink before they’d disappeared.

But then…would that mean Lotor had a mark that matches Shiro’s? Matt had said ‘prince’, so Keith had assumed he was Galra. But maybe Lotor’s really Altean? One last remaining Altean, taking over the Galra Empire? How does that make sense? Unless it wasn’t the mark that made Shiro think that. Maybe Lotor wrote on himself and it appeared on Shiro’s body. Or maybe Lotor really is Galra and is able to feel Shiro’s emotions the way Keith can feel Lance’s.

Which still doesn’t explain how Shiro had a mark that once looked just like Allura’s. Does that mean Shiro’s bonded to an Altean? Or is it really just a birth mark? And what about Allura’s reaction to seeing his mark? What does that –?

Keith’s spiraling thoughts are stopped when Allura rests her hand on his shoulder. “You aren’t bonded to Lotor,” she tells Shiro softly. “He’s had that tattooed on his skin for a long time.” Shiro stares at her, eyes wide as Allura eases his arm up and around her shoulder. “I will explain,” she says, holding him upright.

Keith backs away, giving them space to walk slowly out of the infirmary. He stares after them as they disappear out the door, leaving him unable to have done anything at all.

“You don’t think…Allura and Shiro?” Pidge breathes behind him.

Hunk whistles. “We really are all fated to be up here,” he murmurs, voice barely loud enough for Keith to catch it.

“Did you know?” Pidge asks.

Keith turns around, assuming the question is directed at him, but he finds Coran on the other side of the interrogation instead. Coran winces. “Well…no. I’ve seen the princess’ soul mark, of course, when she was much younger, but as she got older she stopped confiding in me. I assumed, like most young adolescents, she believed she had found her match in someone whose mark did not match her own.”

“What do you mean mark singular?” Pidge asks, frown marring their face. “Soul marks aren’t permanent.”

Had Lance been here, Keith might’ve spoken up, admitted that he knew more about this topic than Pidge. He would’ve smirked over at Lance, as if to say hah, who’s the dropout now? While in reality he just wanted to see the look on Lance’s face – jaw slack with shock, eyes open wide – when he one upped not only him but the rest of the team as well.

The reminder of Lance’s absence is enough to send a stab of pain through Keith’s core, and he stumbles. None of the team notices, too focused on Coran’s answer to pay attention to Keith’s reaction.

“Altean soul marks are permanent,” Coran says simply.

“Like you’re born with them or…?” Hunk asks. He seems more interested in the nuances of the soul bond than surprised at the differences, the way Pidge is. Of course he is. His own soulmate apparently gave him colors. A permanent mark rather than temporary ones can hardly be shocking.

“Wait,” Pidge interjects before Coran can speak. “Wait. Are soul bonds…different?”

Coran smiles, obviously excited at the prospect of teaching. “Of course!” he exclaims. “Soul bonds are part of xenobiology, and as we know” – he pinches his beard as he speaks – “soul bond creation is an important part of evolution.”

“Evolution…” Pidge breathes in wonder. “How can different species be bonded then? Can they? Is it even possible that Shiro is bonded to Allura?”

Coran hums, but Hunk answers first. “I’m bonded to Shay,” he admits. Keith had thought that he’d been the last to know, but it’s clear from the way Pidge’s jaw drops open and the way Coran smiles at him with crinkling eyes that he wasn’t. “And she’s Balmeran,” Hunk adds, as if he has to clarify.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Pidge demands, smacking Hunk on his arm.

“That’s interesting,” Coran notes, ignoring their antics. “Ordinarily it takes several generations for a species who has made contact with others before they start to see bonds outside their world.” He turns to Pidge. “As for Shiro…it is indeed possible for him to be bonded to Allura, but I haven’t seen a mark on him to know. Besides, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the bonded pair must be the ones to announce themselves.”

“But how bonds manifest isn’t. A universal truth, I mean,” Pidge clarifies.

“Correct,” Coran confirms.

Pidge’s question answered, Keith pushes forward. There are more important things to know than how an Altean soul bond works. Specifically, the princess’ last words stick out in Keith’s mind. “How does Allura know who Lotor is?”

The only clue he has as to where Lance went is taking me to Lotor. Keith gets the feeling that once he figures out who Lotor is, he’ll figure out where Lance had been taken.

Coran winces, eyes shifting to the side. The expression is so strange, so completely out of place on him that it takes Keith a moment to place it. Coran feels guilty. “Coran,” Keith presses. “Who is Lotor?”

“He’s…ah…Zarkon’s son.”

Silence fills the room so completely, Keith’s sure they could hear a pin drop. Hunk’s the one to break it, tone as dangerous as it had been when he’d hit Keith. “What.”

“Zarkon and Honerva, an Altean scientist. They had a son, all those years ago. He and Allura were childhood friends, growing up together and relating to each other as only royalty can.” Coran frowns. “Allura was still young when she insisted she never wanted to see him again. Hormones at that age run rampant, you know. Every species has an equivalent.” He clears his throat. “I can’t say for sure what it was, but they stopped speaking. Even as his godfather, I didn’t get the chance to see him again…and, well, I assumed he’d passed on. It has been over ten thousand years, after all.”

“Wait,” Pidge says. “You’re Zarkon’s son’s godfather.”

Hunk growls, and Keith has to agree with him this time. Lance is off somewhere, trapped with someone who is apparently Zarkon’s son and also is alive after ten thousand years. Zarkon’s son, who is Coran’s godson and former best friend of princess Allura.

“Yes,” Coran admits, still looking guilty. “Honerva and I were good friends,” he explains. “And Lotor was a talented, intelligent boy even at such a young age. Despite being half Galra, he exhibited the more Altean trait of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.” Coran’s eyes go misty with the memories. “He used to follow me around at work when he was on Altea, asking questions about different species. Like most his age, he had an obsession with soul bonds, and since it had been one of my areas of study –“

“You studied soul bonds?” Keith interrupts. “Of different species?”

Coran frowns. “Yes. I studied many things in order to be a good advisor to King Alfor.”

“Back up,” Pidge intervenes. “You said he had an obsession with soul bonds?” They give a significant glance to Hunk, who whistles. “Didn’t Allura say something about a tattoo…?” he asks.

“That is something you should ask Allura,” Coran replies. “I can’t answer for what I didn’t see.”

Keith growls. “So you’re saying that Lance is off with Zarkon’s son, who also has a strange obsession with soul bonds.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘strange’ –“

“And he just had Shiro, who came back spouting nonsense about Zarkon’s son being his soulmate,” Keith barrels on. Now that Shiro’s awake and scared but at least unharmed, he’s back to focusing on what’s important: Lance’s disappearance.

“I highly doubt Lotor’s going around, trying to make people think he’s their soulmate,” Coran remarks with a frown.

Pidge mirror the frown, but they look at Keith like he’d opened their eyes to something they hadn’t considered before. “I don’t know about that. Shiro came back and immediately tried to leave. If Allura is his soulmate, that’s pure luck. That and the fact that Lance and Keith saved him. We don’t know what he’ll do to Lance in order to tear the team apart.”

“He may be your godson,” Hunk says softly, “but he’s also our enemy now.”

Coran nods. “Lotor is different than Zarkon,” he says. “Even before Zarkon changed to be what he is now, Lotor took after Honerva more than him. I am…not sure how any of them survived this long, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has something to do with the quintessence poisoning.” He nods to Matt as he speaks. “Honerva’s research into it is ultimately what led to the war between the Galra and the Alteans after all.”

As fascinating as the history of the Galra is, Keith isn’t interested. He needs to know enough about Lotor to find him, kill him, and rescue Lance. In that order. Putting a name to a faceless entity isn’t as important as getting his soulmate back alive. His soulmate.

He remembers Shiro jerking away from them, swearing up and down that Lotor’s his soulmate, that they need to get away from him or he’ll find them all. The thought of Lance having the same reaction as Shiro spawns something dark and painful in his gut.

“Coran,” he speaks up, interrupting Hunk who had been saying…who knows what. “Is it possible to change who someone is bonded to?”

“Change who they’re bonded to?”

“Would…” Keith clenches his fist. “Would Lotor be able to break Lance’s bond and replace it?” Is that what he’d tried to do with Shiro? Had he succeeded?

“Not easily,” Coran offers.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what? So it is possible?” Hunk asks, scandalized.

Coran taps his finger on the side of the console nervously. “Yes and no. Soul bonds are a complicated, ever evolving science. No species is the same as another, and what is impossible for one is an everyday occurrence for another.”

“There are species –“ Pidge starts, but Keith interrupts them.

“So if we leave Lance there long enough his bond could be broken?” he demands.

“It is highly unlikely,” Coran comforts. “Like I said, no species is the same as another, and humans…”

Keith tunes him out as he continues, focused instead on the possibility that his bond with Lance could be broken. No two species are the same, Coran had said, but Lotor is half Altean and half Galra. If he really did – does – have an obsession with soul bonds, Lance’s bond would be the easiest one for him to manipulate.

Because Lance is bonded to a half Galra.

Keith stumbles backwards, slamming into Matt’s pod. It’s cool against his back, hard enough for him to return to reality and see his teammates – his family – around him. He can’t be here anymore.

“I have to go,” he stammers out before spinning on his heel and sprinting out of the med bay. He doesn’t go to the training deck, the way he would’ve before. He doesn’t go to Red, even though he wants to get away. No. Keith runs straight to Lance’s room, not even pretending that he’s going anywhere else.

He doesn’t remove his armor this time as he makes a beeline straight for the bed, collapsing face first on it. The sheets and pillow are already starting to smell like him, even after just one night. But Keith flips the pillow over and inhales a deep breath. Lance.

It smells just like him.

If he closes his eyes, which he does, he can almost pretend Lance is right there, poking him to get sleep, eat something, shower, take care of himself. Lance is reclining against the side of the bed, going over the plans with Keith again.

“Hmm,” he’d remarked when Keith had told him his idea. “I dunno, what makes you think Matt would know?”

“What else was he doing on that ship?” Keith had retorted. “Maybe he was trying to save Shiro too.”

“Pidge does think he’s been saved by rebels,” Lance agreed. “It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

“Got a better one, Cargo Pilot?”

“Can it, Dropout. We’ll try it your way.” Lance had grinned at him, completing it with a wink. He hadn’t asked why Keith had come to him instead of taking his idea to Allura or the rest of the team. He hadn’t insisted on including them either. He’d been content to sneak out and save Shiro, just the two of them.

Really, Keith shouldn’t have been surprised by that. After all, when he’d saved Shiro out in the desert, Lance had waltzed in after sneaking out from the Garrison. He never did figure out how Lance knew where to be. Keith makes a mental note to ask him when he gets back.

Being in Lance’s room, surrounded by Lance’s things and Lance’s smell is only comforting for a short time before the anxiety creeps back up his stomach into his neck. Lance isn’t really here, and the longer Keith stays in here without him, the more the room starts to lose Lance’s scent. If they don’t get Lance back soon, it’s all going to disappear.

He sits up, grabbing the pen that’s still tangled in the sheets from the night before and pulls off his armor. The pieces hit the floor with a loud clang, but Keith doesn’t pay attention to it. He rolls up the sleeve on his arm, looking for writing from Lance, but the only thing that remains are his own words. Some of them smeared.

Sometimes being ambidextrous comes in handy.

With his arm mostly taken up already, he pulls up his other sleeve and puts the pen to the skin there.

Lance, he writes, where are you?

Are you hurt? is the next question to spill out of him.

Say something, he demands, irritation already rising again. Lance hasn’t responded, likely he’s already too far away, but every second Keith’s skin remains unmarked and not itchy is a second that clenches his heart even more. His entire chest is too tight, muscles pulling tight over his rib cage to the point where Keith is sure they’re going to cramp.

Lance

Lance

Lance

“Keith? Are you in there?” Hunk’s question is accompanied by three knocks.

Keith knows he hasn’t been particularly quiet, what with the throwing of his armor and all. As much as he wants to keep himself locked up in here, not let anyone else tread on this territory, he knows he has no right to keep Hunk away from Lance’s things. “Yeah,” he replies gruffly.

He hadn’t spoken particularly loudly, but Hunk apparently heard him, because the next thing Keith knows, the door is opening and Hunk walks in. “Hey,” Hunk greets, holding out a bowl of green goop. “I figured you probably hadn’t eaten in a while.”

Keith frowns at the bowl, as if its presence had offended him. When had he last eaten? Certainly not since he and Lance had left to save Shiro.

Keith accepts the bowl as Hunk sits on the floor and after a glance at the still neon green food, slides down the side of the bed until he’s on the floor next to his discarded armor. “Thanks,” he grunts. The food doesn’t look particularly appetizing, never has really, and Keith isn’t hungry, but Hunk had gone out of his way to bring it to him. The least he could do is eat it.

It tastes disgusting, worse than usual. What little flavor it had is all gone, and Keith is forced to choke down the jello-textured mush without it. He gives up after three bites, and sets the bowl on the floor, looking over at Hunk expectantly.

But Hunk is too busy staring at his arms.

Keith glances down, realizing that he still has both sleeves rolled up. He probably looks insane, with words tracing up and down both his arms. Sure, plenty of humans walk around with their soulmate conversations clear as day for everyone to see. But Keith isn’t one of those people; aside from their conversation back in high school, he’s never properly written to his soulmate before. So for him, this definitely looks insane.

Hunk’s eyes trail up to meet his own, wide. “When did you write that?”

Keith swallows. He isn’t used to people knowing about him yet. He feels naked, so he tugs the sleeves down over his arms, trapping his words inside. “Last night…and just now,” he answers, staring intently at Lance’s closet instead of looking at Hunk.

“No response yet?” Hunk asks, as if he needs to.

“No,” Keith whispers. “He’s too far.”

“We’re going to get him back,” Hunk promises. “We just –“

“We’re wasting time,” Keith insists. “Shiro’s awake, and even if he weren’t, we should be putting all our efforts into getting Lance back.” He loves Shiro, more than he’d thought he could love another person after his dad left, but what’s happening with him can wait. Lance is out there right now, trapped with someone who is obsessed with soul bonds.

“Do you think it’s possible that Lotor’s going to break our bond?” Keith asks, barely concealing his panic.

Hunk shifts, freezing before he moves too close. “I’m going to touch you, is that okay?” Keith shrugs, trying to come across as passive, even as his body is screaming for something, anything to comfort him. When Hunk approaches, he doesn’t flinch away, letting the yellow paladin push his food aside and rest his hand lightly on Keith’s arm. Keith had been hoping for a little more than that.

“I don’t think he knows how to do that. Like Coran said earlier, humans are new to this whole space thing. Lotor hasn’t had time to study how a human bond works. Certainly not well enough to figure out how to break it.”

“But I’m part Galra,” Keith argues. “And so is Lotor.”

Hunk shrugs. “Sure, but his other half is Altean. Yours is human. That’s still different enough.”

“He could still break the Galra part,” Keith presses.

“And that would leave the human part,” Hunk argues back. “The part here.” He pokes Keith’s arm. “And here.” He pokes Keith’s chest.

Keith swallows down the lump forming in his throat. He’s been on a razor’s edge since getting shot in the hand – something that still needs healing – and he’s a hair’s breadth from snapping. He wants a hug, wants to feel Hunk’s warm arms wrap around him once more, but he doesn’t know if he’s allowed to ask. Just the day before, Hunk had punched him in the face – another thing that isn’t healed – but he seemed to have forgiven Keith just as quickly. Had he forgiven Keith? Or is this just pity?

“What does a Galra bond do anyway?” Hunk asks. “I mean I’d figured they were all different when Shay told me…you know…but I’d never really thought about what Galra ones are like.”

Keith swallows. “I can feel him.”

Hunk’s eyes widen. “Right now?”

“No.” Keith shakes his head. “Just when he’s close. I can feel his emotions.”

“Like the lions…” Hunk murmurs, staring down at Keith’s half-eaten food.

Keith’s head snaps so he’s directly facing Hunk. “What did you say?”

“I said that’s like the lions.”

Like the lions.

Keith jumps up, nearly up-ending his bowl. “Whoa, Keith what’re you doing?”

“I’m going to Blue,” Keith tells him, heading to the door without pulling his armor all the way back on. He has his shoes on at least. That’s good enough.

“Blue’s barrier is up!” Hunk exclaims, clattering behind him.

Keith shakes his head, opening the door. “I’m gonna try.”

 


 

 

Prison in Galra Central Command is slightly less freezing than the cell on the ship, but that doesn’t stop Lance from shivering uncontrollably as he burrows into his one blanket. The cold probably doesn’t even phase the Galra; they all have fur. He glares towards the entrance to his cell as another shiver wracks his body.

He feels like absolute shit.

It’s been hours, possibly longer, since he’d been brought here after ‘meeting’ the new emperor. Lotor. Just thinking the name makes Lance shiver again. He’d thought dealing with Zarkon had been scary, but clearly Zarkon had been child’s play compared to his son. His MO had been taking over planets and finding Voltron, both easy things to handle.

Lotor is an enigma.

Lance isn’t brilliant like Pidge, isn’t as good at immediately reading people as Hunk, and doesn’t have the innate knowledge that Coran and Allura woke up with. All he has is his ability to come up with good battle strategies – only if they involve Keith apparently – and his shooting skills. Neither of which is very useful while he freezes his ass off in Galra prison.

His mind won’t leave him alone with what Lotor had said, what he’d been forced to see. He’d written before, trying to give Keith a clue as to where to find him, wanting Keith to get him the hell out of here. But now…he wants Keith to stay as far from this place as possible.

He’s not even sure he wants the rest of the team to come anywhere near this.

Lance drops his head into his mattress – really that’s a generous term for what he’s lying on – and coughs. Shit, the cold is really getting to him. He can’t get sick, not in here. If he’s sick, he can’t get himself out. What he needs to do is he needs to get out and get as far away from Lotor as possible.

But should he go back to the castle?

Lance swallows hard, thinking. He doesn’t want to bring hell back onto the ship. He definitely doesn’t want to take it back to his family either. Earth is out. The castle is questionable. He could join up with the Marmorites. Sure, he isn’t Galra, but he’s bonded to one. That should be enough to get him in the club right?

God, he’s bonded to Keith.

He’d nearly forgotten, in all the chaos, that he’d just discovered their bond. It makes sense, too much sense really. Why Lance has always felt drawn to Keith, why he couldn’t stop himself from falling for Keith even as he told himself he needed to save his feelings for his soulmate. Why he’d do anything for him.

Keith can’t find out that last part. Not ever. But more importantly, Lance can’t let Lotor know that either. It would put Keith – and Voltron – in greater danger. Though, Lance argues with himself, most soul bonds already have that aspect implied. Isn’t that why Lotor had said that? Had promised that?

Keith’s going to be killed just to prove a point.

Lance clenches his fist, coughing into the bed again. He’s not going to let Keith get killed. If Keith writes to him, he won’t write back. He’ll send Keith the wrong way. He’ll pretend that he died, just so he can keep Keith far far from here.

A rustling comes from outside his cell, and Lance sits upright, grasping the blanket around himself. It’s colder when he sits up, the warmth he’d left pooled on the bed missing from the air around him. The door slides open, revealing the bright woman from before. The dangerous one. He shivers again.

“Time to go,” she declares happily. “Up and at ‘em.”

Lance glances around himself, wondering who the hell she’s talking to. Not that much time had passed, what does she mean up and at em? “Oh,” she says, visibly deflating. “You’re already up. Shame; I was told I could use whatever means necessary to wake you.” She finishes with a wink, and Lance wishes that the large growling woman had been the one to get him instead.

Or the solider but, well, he’s dead now.

He gets up without putting up a fight and abandons his blanket in the room, stumbling on half-frozen feet towards the woman. He’s aware of how weak he looks, but he hopes it’s only half as weak as he feels. The Galran healing pod really hadn’t done much for him, he decides. The blood loss combined with being trapped in the worst insulated prison ever – or the best, if they’re really that cruel – has brought him down to a state where he can’t even hope to make a run for it. He’d make it to the first hallway and collapse, but he can’t let the Galra know that.

So instead, he trudges down the hallway behind her, forcing himself to stay upright, no matter how much he wants to sag into the wall next to himself and sleep. The smallest comfort is that nowhere in Galra Central Command feels warm, so at least they aren’t being exceptionally cruel to him. The entire place is a torture chamber.

The woman leads him from his cell into another one, but this one is larger and devoid of a bed. Instead, it has what looks like a medieval torture rack in the center while several hooded figures stand around the edges. Lance recognizes them for what they are, even if he’s never fought them personally.

Druids.

“What is this?” he asks, aiming for accusatory or at least angry. He hopes his voice doesn’t sound as pathetic to them as it does to himself.

“This is what Lotor had prepared for the Champion,” the woman remarks casually. “I think he planned to do some tests on him but,” she shrugs, “guess you’ll have to do.” She waves at the druids. “He’s all yours.”

As much as he wants to, Lance doesn’t resist the druids when they grab him. Their hands remind him of dementors, and he wants to vomit. The torture device in the center of the room is nothing more than a slab of metal, but the second Lance is on it, shackles appear out of nowhere, clamping him down.

He chokes on his need to vomit again.

The druids don’t pay any attention to him, instead moving about, preparing various different vials. Lance’s mind flashes back to Coran’s words, previously forgotten. Quintessence poisoning, he’d said. The same thing that had turned Zarkon evil.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He really needs to get out of here.

When the druids don’t immediately stab him with the needles, Lance lets the curiosity overcome him. “What are you guys doing with that?” he asks, aiming for nonchalant.

The only answer he gets is silence.

“Hey,” he raises his voice higher. “I’m talking to you.”

They continue to ignore him.

Against his better judgment, Lance struggles against the bonds holding him in place. “It’s really rude to ignore someone when they’re talking to you!” he shouts, just trying to get a reaction. It’s the wrong thing to do.

One of the druids looks up, meeting his eyes with its creepy raven’s mask. At least, Lance hopes it’s a mask. And then the druid disappears in a puff of smoke. Lance blinks, eyes opening as the druid reappears directly in front of him. He chokes down a shout as its hand wraps around his throat, cold and clammy. “Silence,” it orders. Lance opens his mouth to retort, but his voice won’t come out. His eyes bug nearly out of his head, but the druid simply tilts its head and spirits itself back to the liquids, even though it could’ve walked the two steps there.

Lance opens and closes his mouth, trying to speak, but nothing comes out. Whatever it did to him has completely prevented him from making any noise. He can’t even whisper.

The door slides open with a soft whoosh, audible now that Lance can’t speak, and he looks up to see Lotor himself walk in. “I see you’ve silenced our prisoner,” he remarks in a wry voice. “I didn’t think he was talkative enough to warrant that. I’m glad to learn that I’m wrong.”

The emperor waves his hand, and a pressure Lance hadn’t realized was resting on his throat disappears. He coughs, relishing in the sound it makes and glares up at Lotor. “What are you doing with that stuff?” he asks, voice working perfectly normally if not a little hoarse.

“’That stuff’ as you call it, won’t be necessary,” Lotor states conversationally. The druids freeze in unison as the emperor steps forward. Lotor keeps his gaze levelled on Lance, observing him the way one would a creature in a zoo. “You may leave,” he instructs. At first Lance thinks he’s talking to him. He opens his mouth to make a snappy retort, but the druids in the room all vanish in simultaneous puffs of smoke, and he shivers instead.

“Much better,” Lotor comments, closing the distance between them. If Lance’s hands weren’t bound, he could reach out and touch him. He shivers again. Too close. “Now, blue paladin, tell me your name.” Lotor looks over at the table the druids were working on and steps over to it, sifting through the items there.

Lance isn’t going to answer. He’s going to make this as difficult for Lotor as he possibly can.

Or at least, that’s his plan.

“Lance,” he answers, mouth working of its own accord. His eyes widen in horror at his own admission. Why did he say that? He shouldn’t be answering Lotor at all. Every answer he gives is more information Lotor can use to hurt the people he loves, the planet he comes from.

Lotor smirks, pulling something off the table and returning to Lance. “Lance,” he purrs, voice raising the worst kind of goosebumps on Lance’s skin. “What a perfectly boring name.”

Lance bristles at that but actually manages not to reply this time. Instead he stares skeptically at the object in Lotor’s hand. It looks vaguely familiar, but Lance can’t quite place it. “What’s that?” he asks, figuring that if he’s allowed to speak he may as well ask questions.

“This is a blip,” Lotor tells him, holding it up. When Lance doesn’t show any signs of recognition, he elaborates. “A writing utensil.”

Lance tenses immediately. “Why?” he asks, even though he suspects he already knows the answer.

“Humans are an interesting species,” Lotor remarks. Cold fingers scratch at his arm, tugging up his sleeve. “Their soul marks are temporary and changeable, even if their bonds are not.”

Lance frowns. Humans? But then he remembers what Hunk had told him about Shay bringing all the colors into his world. He’d thought it was silly at the time; she’d never seen the sky so of course she’d never have seen colors, and the castle probably just healed his eyes. The Balmerans had been trapped in their own caves for so long they’d made up silly stories.

Not that he told Hunk that.

But now, Lance doesn’t think that’s as silly. “What do you mean humans?”

“My, but you are a curious one, aren’t you?” Lotor whispers, voice dangerous. “The Champion never spoke his mind so easily. He needed more encouragement.”

The blip presses into his skin, and Lance lets out a yelp before he can bite it back. Lotor isn’t holding back, pushing it hard against his arm as he – Lance glances down – writes? The symbols look vaguely familiar, likely Galran, but he can’t tell what the emperor is writing on his skin. All he knows is that it hurts.

“How does it feel?” Lotor taunts. “You are weak and useless, lost by even your own team. Does it make you feel pathetic?”

The feeling Lance experiences in that moment is closer to confusion than pathetic. What is Lotor doing? Doesn’t he know?

It occurs to Lance that Lotor doesn’t know. The next scratch on his arm is painful, deep enough to draw blood, but Lance lets out a snort instead of a yelp. He doesn’t mean to; some combination of Lotor’s partial information, the cold that’s settled deep into his bones, and the fact that he’s prisoner to Zarkon’s son forces it out.

At least it irritates Lotor.

Lotor’s gaze snaps away from the words he’d been writing to Lance’s face, settling in a glare. “What,” he snaps, “is so funny?”

Lance snorts again, action followed by a giggle. He can’t help it. “It’s not going to work that way,” he admits with a laugh. “Whatever torture you’re trying to do to my soulmate.”

The blip stabs into his arm hard once more while Lotor stares at him. Lance doesn’t laugh this time; he lets out a cry of pain, aware of liquid dripping down his arm. Fuck that hurts.

“You think this is funny, paladin?” Lotor spits, not even using his name. “Perhaps I need to teach you the true meaning of pain.”

Lotor doesn’t move, not that Lance can see, but the pressure around his neck returns, tighter than before. Out of the bottom of his vision, Lance can make out black smoke, surrounding his neck. He opens his mouth, running out of air too quickly. He hadn’t been feeling well coming into this room; there’s no way he can handle being choked half to death.

His vision develops black spots by the time Lotor releases him. “Most species,” the emperor spits as Lance sucks in huge gulps of air, “rely on oxygen to survive.” Lance coughs, throat screaming in pain with each one.

“But something just as important,” Lotor continues, as if Lance weren’t already dying right in front of him, “is their soul bond.” He grips Lance’s chin with his fingers, forcing him to look up again, where Lance’s head had sagged down against his chest. “Do you know why?”

Lance responds by coughing right in Lotor’s face. He hopes a human space cold is fatal to Galra.

Lotor’s nails dig into Lance’s cheeks, his grip tightening around Lance’s jaw enough that Lance is afraid he’s going to break it. “Because they are your other half, or so the stories go. They have different names in every language, but the meaning is the same: one soul in two bodies.”

Lance sucks in the air as long as he has it, the frigid oxygen freezing his lungs. If he dies from a space cold before they can rescue him, Hunk is going to kill him.

“Do you know why you feel sick now?”

Lance stills, choking back on his next cough. He’d been trying to keep himself from being too obvious, and yet Lotor had somehow figured him out anyway. The urge to answer the question overwhelms him, and Lance blurts out, “Because I was stabbed, and your healing pods suck.” Well, at least he’d been able to insult them a bit.

“The healing pods we use are identical to the ones in the Altean castle,” Lotor remarks conversationally. “Try again.”

Lance doesn’t bother to fight down the urge this time. If his voice is the only way he can battle Lotor, he’s not going to give up. “Because it’s cold as shit in here,” he snaps.

Lotor tilts his head. “I was unaware human feces were cold.”

Lance’s lips curl up as he celebrates his small win against the terrifying Galra. “It’s a saying.”

“Explain,” Lotor commands.

“It means that it’s quiznaking cold in here and –“

“Not that.” Lotor rips his fingers from Lance’s face, likely taking some of the skin with it. “Why will the messages not work?”

Lance doesn’t want to tell him; he doesn’t plan to tell him. The less Lotor knows, the better. The universe clearly has other plans for him, though, and he opens his mouth, spilling the secret. “Because I need to be the one writing it.”

Lotor’s eyes widen, and for a second Lance thinks he might’ve won this round. But then pure glee appears on Lotor’s face, and Lance’s stomach sinks. “Even better,” the emperor remarks.

The shackle against his hand disappears with a clank as it slides back inside the slab of metal Lance is attached to. Lotor presses the blip into his hand, and Lance’s fingers wrap automatically around it. “Write,” Lotor instructs.

Something compels Lance to obey him again, no matter how little he wants to. His arm moves against his will, crossing his body. It stops just short of pressing the blip to his skin, held in place. A cold fear creeps up Lance’s spine. Lotor had enabled him to speak at the beginning, and Lance can’t control his words or actions now.

Something tells him that’s not natural.

“Tell him that you’re in pain. You need him to hurry,” Lotor instructs. Lance tries to fight it, really he does. But his hand moves on Lotor’s instructions, scratching the blip against his skin in the words that Lotor wants, even without Lance moving.

The emperor backs up and bends over, observing the words as Lance writes them. “Fascinating,” he remarks, as if Lance were doing something mundane. “That is the human language? How hideous.”

Lance forces down the hatred for Lotor as inspiration strikes. He may not be able to prevent himself from doing what the emperor commands, but he can still control his own reactions to it. Pidge’s theory had been that distance could prevent soul marks from transferring between soulmates, but emotions are crucial in how easily a soulmate can feel the marks. Lance wouldn’t be surprised if stronger feelings could travel longer distances as well.

“Tell him that you’re in Galra Central Command,” Lotor continues when Lance stops writing.

His hand moves again, and Lance forces himself to think about boring things. Food, the bone-chilling cold, whether his skin will develop wrinkles earlier because he doesn’t have his moisturizer in the prison.

“Good,” Lotor remarks when Lance stops writing again. Lance’s hand moves, dropping the blip into Lotor’s waiting hand, and the emperor stands upright again. “How long do we wait until your soulmate responds?” he asks, question followed by the same urge to respond that Lance had felt before.

Lance almost laughs again. “He doesn’t.”

“Explain.”

“My soulmate. He doesn’t respond. Ever.”

Lotor’s fist slams on the table, rattling the jars of liquid the druids had been messing with earlier. Lance twitches against the slab, blinking hard at the sound. Lotor draws a hand over his eyes, the raw anger there transforming into something more passive, patient. He has an anger problem, Lance realizes with a jolt. Lance is lucky to still be alive.

“No matter,” Lotor growls. “There are other ways.”

With that ominous promise, he sweeps out of the room, leaving Lance alone with one arm free.

The druids don’t immediately return, but Lance doesn’t know how long he has to himself. The table with the liquids is barely within reach, but the blip is nowhere to be seen. Lotor must’ve taken it. Rustling from outside the room forces a sense of urgency into him, and Lance grabs the nearest object he can.

A syringe, filled with what he assumes is quintessence. Fuck. This is a terrible idea. But he doesn’t have anything else.

With a prayer that his assumption is correct, Lance unblocks all the feelings he’d held in since being captured; the fear, the pain, the disbelief that his soulmate is Keith. He takes the needle and stabs it into his arm, deep enough to draw blood, but not deep enough to draw too much.

He scratches his skin, getting the words out as best as he can before returning the syringe. He misses the table, dropping it with a loud clatter on the floor. Before the door can open, Lance tugs his sleeve back down, hiding the words he’d written there, at least for now.

Don’t come for me

Chapter Text

Before

Lance stares at his arm, skin still tingling. Hey, are you awake?

His soulmate wrote to him. As the sensation disappears, elation takes over. His soulmate wrote to him. His messages must’ve finally gotten across to them. Or maybe they’ve both been writing without responses this whole time and his soulmate finally hit puberty.

It doesn’t matter. His soulmate is talking to him, and he needs to write back. Lance bursts out of bed and grabs his nearest pen, an unfortunate angry red. It’s alright, he can translate his emotions across once he starts writing. Who cares about the color.

I’m awake, he replies. Hi I’m your soulmate, he adds because he can’t help the giddiness in his stomach. He’s not a loser, he’s not weird. Just like with his height, he’s a late bloomer. He doesn’t know who his soulmate is, but he already loves them. He knows they’re going to end up together, happily ever after in a house near the beach.

But that’s a little too intense for a first meeting, so instead he stares at his arm, waiting for the response. His soulmate is left handed, Lance realizes as he stares at the words on his right arm. It’s insignificant, but Lance can’t help it; he’s excited by even this small knowledge.

His discovery is interrupted as the tingle starts again, accompanied by a twist in his stomach and the sudden downturn of his mood. His soulmate, despite reaching out to him for the first time, isn’t in a good place. Lance stares at the skin on his arm where the tingling originates, fear dripping through him as they appear.

Never mind

Lance panics. No, he writes back, I’m here for you. You can talk to me.

Silence.

Lance wills his soulmate to write back, even if all he gets is sadness and fear. He doesn’t want his first conversation with his soulmate to end with Never mind. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. They’re supposed to bond, get to know each other. Learn each other’s likes and dislikes, find out what they have in common - why they’re destined for each other.

But his arm remains stubbornly blank.

Lance grabs the red pen again, putting it to his skin in an effort to bring his soulmate back. I’m your soulmate I’ll listen, he tries.

When his soulmate doesn’t immediately respond, he almost throws the marker across the room. But he gives it one more attempt, because he’s not going to give up on his soulmate, even if their first conversation isn’t everything he dreamed it would be.

I’m here anytime you want to talk. Don’t worry if you wake me up. Promise.

When nothing follows that either, Lance really does throw the marker across the room. It hits the wall and bounces off, landing harmlessly on the floor. He buries his face in his hands, cursing himself for getting so excited when his soulmate was clearly in a bad state. He should’ve kept his emotions in check, contained himself better until he’d gotten a feel for their mood.First contact is special, a moment that’s supposed to be treasured by both people. Those who have already paired up – most people he knows at this point – tend to transcribe the conversation on paper or take photos for posterity. Lance could do that, the conversation is short enough that he could save it for him and his soulmate to look at later.

When they meet, his soulmate can explain what it had been all about. Lance is positive it’s just a misunderstanding after all. They’ll meet and fall in love, the way he’s always dreamed, and his soulmate will tell him that they were just young and scared and overwhelmed by how intensely Lance felt – will still feel – for them.

They’ll laugh about this sometime in the future, and Lance will wish he’d saved the conversation somehow, even though it’s already etched itself into his memory. This will all be a distant memory; the two of them as teenagers, unable to communicate yet.

But right now Lance doesn’t feel like laughing, so he lets the conversation fade, unrecorded.

 


 

 

Now

Lance has no idea how long he’s been in Galra Central Command. All he knows is that the longer he’s stuck in here the worse and worse he feels. His coughing has gone from an occasional hack here and there to a frequent attack leaving him doubled over, and he’s constantly shivering. He hasn’t seen any mirrors to check his appearance in, but the circles under his eyes are deep enough to feel. His skin is sinking into his face, and if he weren’t positive he’d caught a space-cold, he’d make a joke about being a space-zombie.

To no one.

The Galra are cruel, but they clearly plan to keep him alive, because he gets fed on a seemingly regular schedule. What that schedule is, Lance doesn’t know; time has lost all meaning at this point.

He knows what they’re trying to accomplish; why they’re keeping him alive.

He’s bait.

Lance sleeps when he can, curled into himself and breathing on his hands to keep them from freezing. Lotor had never told him why he felt so sick, but Lance has a feeling he knows why. Galra soul bonds are different than human ones. He’d never given much thought to different species’ soul bonds before. After all, he’d thought he was bonded to a human.

Apparently not.

Keith. Even just thinking his name ignites waves of fear, elation, anger, confusion, understanding…too many emotions. Lance can’t keep track as they course through him.

He definitely loves Keith, Lance thinks. It’s hard to be surprised by the thought, especially when he’s not sure he can even feel his toes anymore.

If Lance were being honest with himself, he’s probably been in love with Keith for a long time. He’s not always the most introspective, not the type to dive deep into his emotions to decipher their meaning, so it’s not surprising to him either that it’s taken him until now to figure it out.

So he loves Keith, Keith who is his soulmate, Keith who isn’t fully human.

It’s crazy to think that had been Keith the whole time, drawing those shitty little drawings on his skin, paralyzing Lance with the intensity of his emotions.

He wonders if it’s a Galra trait, feeling so deeply. Maybe that’s why he’s sick. He’s not near Keith, so he’s violently ill. That’s his theory at least. After all, Lotor had never answered.

Violent is a strong word. What Lance feels is more like a disappearance of his limbs, starting with his extremities as it works its way inward. He wonders if Keith’s feeling the same thing back on the ship. If the team is panicking, looking for Lance while Keith curls up in his crop-top jacket as if it could keep him warm. Thinking about it just makes Lance want his own jacket. His is made for the cold, the kind of weather he wasn’t used to when he was accepted into the Garrison. Everyone else had run around in short sleeves, as if fifty degrees Fahrenheit was a perfectly normal temperature, while Lance had been bundled into both a sweatshirt and jacket, wishing the Garrison had built their campus in southern California instead.

The Galra ship is a lot colder than fifty degrees.

The door to his cell opens, and Lance barely shifts his head to look up. It’s the quiet one this time, the one with no eyes. He blinks at her, confused until she steps in, wordlessly. Lance isn’t sure she even can speak.

She doesn’t prove him right or wrong, simply resting a hand on his shoulder. He sits upright, body no longer moving under his control and stands on numb feet. Somehow he’s able to move, even though he’d felt like a statue just moments earlier. More druid magic, he’s sure.

Lance drags his feet down the hallways, walking in front of the silent Galra, as if he knows where he’s going. He doesn’t walk to the torture chamber he’d been in when Lotor had him brought out of his cell the first time, and Lance isn’t sure if that’s a good sign or a bad one.

The place he’s taken to is unfamiliar, but he knows the moment he’s arrived because his feet stop moving. The door slides open, and he’s made to move again.

Rather than being forced into another small, cramped room, the way he’d expected, Lance is standing on a walkway leading out to a sheer drop off. When he gets closer to the edge, he sees what the drop off leads to.

Space.

Lance sucks in a breath. No, there has to be some kind of glass or other barrier here, blocking him from falling into the abyss. If there weren’t, he’d already be sucked out. He shouldn’t panic. His legs stop moving once he hits the very end of the walkway, and Lance stands there as still as a statue, somehow managing to stay upright despite feeling as if he’s going to tip over and find out what’s really at the bottom of the room.

“Thank you, Narti,” a smooth velvet voice echoes around the room, and Lance’s blood runs cold from the sound. He doesn’t need to look to know it belongs to Lotor, but he looks anyway. “That will be all.” The prince waves and the silent woman bows, leaving the room.

Narti. Lance will have to remember that. If he ever gets out of here, knowing the names of the Galra Lotor keeps close to him might come in handy.

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” Lotor remarks as he approaches. “My mother designed it, of course. A way for her to harvest quintessence. Or search for quintessence. She and my father used it to search for Voltron, which was a waste, as far as I am concerned.” He tilts his head as he stands directly in front of Lance. “Though I am sure you would find it fascinating.”

Lance grits his teeth but he isn’t compelled to say anything, so he stays quiet this time.

Lotor regards him for another moment before turning his gaze to the side. He gestures at something, and before Lance knows it, a platform rises up alongside the walkway. “Get on,” Lotor commands.

Lance opens his mouth to retort that Narti froze my legs, thank you very much, but before the words can escape, his legs shake, nearly giving out on him. Lance stumbles a few steps, completely under his own control. He turns to glare at Lotor, but the prince is wearing a self-satisfied smirk at his predicament so he doesn’t add any fuel to that fire.

He makes it onto the platform without falling over, but the minute it moves, he loses that battle. Lance falls flat, slamming his hand into the hard surface below him. The platform flies, lowering him into the abyss. He can’t see any evidence of glass, but even as he gets closer, no air whooshes out of his lungs. He isn’t sucked out into space, he doesn’t get lightheaded from the disappearance of oxygen. There’s a barrier somehow.

Five more platforms lower around him, four holding the masked druids, while the fifth bears Lotor himself. The platforms don’t lower as far as his own, and Lance is forced to look up at Lotor and his druids.

Lotor smirks as his platform stops in front of Lance’s, closer than the others. If Lance could stand, he would stand up and glare back, but his feet are still numb and Lance isn’t sure he can command them to hold his weight anymore.

“You’re growing weaker the longer you try to keep your soulmate away,” Lotor informs him, mocking. He talks a lot, clearly proud of how much ‘smarter’ he is than Lance and his team.

Ordinarily, Lance would love to prove him wrong. But given the stakes and what he’s seen, he hopes his team has learned to move on without him.

“Your soulmate is experiencing something similar,” Lotor continues. “All you need to do is reach out to him, and tell him where you are. Tell him to rescue you, so you can be whole once more.”

His theory is correct then. Lance heaves out a shaking breath. “I don’t have a pen.”

“Pen?” Lotor asks, tilting his head the way he does when Lance says something that doesn’t translate perfectly to Galra. The ship must have some universal translator installed on it as well, Lance thinks passively. Or else they wouldn’t be able to communicate with the planets they conquer.

“Blip,” Lance corrects, edging as much hatred into his voice as he possibly can. Lotor’s right; he’s getting weaker. He can’t even handle the verbal sparring they’d had just the other…however long ago that was. But at least he can make it clear how much he hates him every time they speak.

Lotor laughs.

It’s a terrifying sound, forcing goosebumps up Lance’s spine. If he could’ve gone his entire life without hearing that, he would’ve been happy. “Humans are quite stupid,” Lotor laughs, dropping the insult as casually as the thinly veiled threats. “All you have to do is think about him. Reach for him, paladin, and you will find him.”

“Maybe you’re the stupid one,” Lance spits, some energy back in his body. He’d been thinking about almost nothing but Keith since he’d arrived here, and he hasn’t ‘connected’ with him or whatever bullshit Lotor is spewing.

Black smoke encircles his neck, and Lance is lifted off the ground by it as easily as if he weighed the same as a feather. “Careful, Lance,” Lotor whispers. Lance wishes he hadn’t told Lotor his name. He wields it like a weapon, and Lance doesn’t like the power it gives him. “Or I might kill both of you even slower.”

With that promise, the smoke dissipates from around Lance, and he crumbles back to the platform with a painful clank. Lotor steps back onto his platform and it raises up and away from him. “Reach for him with your mind,” Lotor orders. “Or I will make you.”

Lance is feeling a little dangerous, a little daring. He’d been choked and dropped and generally tortured. He isn’t going to make this easy on Lotor, so he glares up at him from the platform and whispers, “Make me.”

He’s slammed back into his own mind, almost the same way as when the Faelaran had made him reveal Keith as his soulmate. Unfortunately, even thinking about that moment is enough for Keith to enter the forefront of his mind. He sees Keith standing there, looking the same as when Lance had confronted him out in the desert, when they’d saved Shiro.

Lance stares at Keith, from his mullet to his crop-top jacket down to the knife hooked on his utility belt and all the way to his boots. Keith stares back at him, just as confused as he had been when they’d saved Shiro from that tent prison in the desert. Lance opens his mouth to warn Keith to stay away, don’t come for him, but Keith dissipates in a puff of smoke.

“Keith!” Lance shouts, reaching for him. He runs after him, needing to get to him, to tell him to save himself, but all that he can see around himself is space. Purple and black and dotted with stars. “Keith!” he tries again.

He really needs Keith to get the message. He can feel the cuts on his arm under his sleeve still, but he has no guarantee that the words got across to him. If they did, that means Keith’s too close. And if they didn’t…then Keith doesn’t know better than to not follow him.

“Keith!” Lance yells once more, voice cracking with how hard he shouts.

Reality rearranges itself around him so suddenly that Lance experiences vertigo for a second. When he blinks, the first thing that appears in his vision is the blue lion. “Blue?” he asks, voice echoing around himself. He doesn’t have to ask, though, to know that it’s really Blue. He can feel her. Somehow she feels further away, as if she’s not standing right in front of him, staring down at him. Her concern surrounds him, echoing in the space despite her not making any noise.

“Lance?”

Lance’s gaze snaps down from Blue to his own eye level and he sees

“Keith?”

Keith, wearing full paladin armor, stares at him, mouth agape. “Is this real?” he asks, echoing the same way Lance and Blue did.

“I…I don’t know,” Lance admits. Everything about it is surreal, and yet something tells him that yes, this is the real Keith.

“Where are we?” Keith asks, looking around himself.

It’s a great question. As far as Lance can tell, they don’t even look like they’re on the same plane of existence that they live on most of the time. “Is that Red?” Lance asks, noticing the red lion for the first time. She’s behind Blue by a ways, but she’s still very clearly there. Distantly, Lance can sense concern coming from her as well.

Keith turns back, staring in the direction Lance is looking. “I guess?” he asks, looking back at Lance. “How are you here?”

“I don’t know,” Lance lies. He doesn’t want Keith to know what Lotor is doing to him, doesn’t want to give Keith any ammunition with which to rescue him. “How are you?”

Keith shrugs. “I was in Blue, looking for you again” – wait, what? – “because I thought I’d be able to feel you again after…hey, what was this about?” Keith shoves his sleeve up, holding his arm out to Lance accusingly.

Lance stares at it, his words etched under Keith’s skin. Don’t come for me

“You got that message?”

“Lance, why don’t you want us to come for you? Where are you?”

The reason for Lance pursuing Keith returns to the forefront of his mind, and Lance surges forward, grabbing both of Keith’s shoulders. “You need to get away from me. As far as you can,” he insists.

Keith’s eyes widen, and his hands come up to grab Lance’s, but Lance tightens his grip, not letting Keith peel his fingers off. “Lotor’s going to kill you, all of you. You need to get away from me.”

“You sound like Shiro,” Keith breathes.

Lance has no idea what he means, but the echoing is getting louder; Keith and Blue feel even further than before. Red is nowhere to be seen. “Don’t come for me, Keith,” Lance warns, fingers empty. Keith is almost a football field’s distance away from him. The red paladin jerks forward, as if he hadn’t realized Lance was getting away from him. But Lance doesn’t return, he lets himself get pulled back as Keith runs towards him.

“Lance!” Keith shouts, voice getting more and more distant.

“Don’t come for me,” Lance repeats, trusting the strange universe to transfer his words to Keith.

Lance!”

His eyes snap open, the large room inside Galra Central Command coming back into focus. His cheeks are cold and wet, his vision blurred. Lance clenches his eyes shut again, aware that more tears leak out of them when he does that.

“Excellent,” Lotor’s voice echoes in the room. “Take him back to his cell.”

Lance barely notices the movement as the platform raises up. Someone grabs him, forcing him off the platform and drags him back to his cell, but he doesn’t pay much attention to that either.

He’d actually reached Keith. He’s not sure how he’d been able to do that, but he has no doubts that that was real. Lance had reached out, and he’d reached Keith. Not only that, somehow his words from before had reached Keith, which means Keith is too close. Regardless, he’d told Keith not to come, not to rescue him. He’d even told him that Lotor wanted to kill him.

Keith wouldn’t come for him now. He’d made sure of it.

---

Lance isn’t sure when he falls asleep, because he loses track of time again. One moment, he’d been staring at his wall, mind still stuck on the connection he’d made with Keith. The next, he’s being roughly shaken awake.

He blinks one eye open, eyelid heavy. The large Galra woman is standing in front of him, glaring down at him as if she’s offended to have been ordered to bring him in. “Get up,” she snaps impatiently. “I’m tired of asking.”

Lance hadn’t heard her speak before, but he’s not surprised that he’d missed it. He can’t feel his arms anymore. He closes his eye again, hoping she’ll leave him alone, but rough hands grab him, and he’s tugged out of bed unceremoniously.

“Pathetic,” she spits.

Lance doesn’t have a retort; he’s having a hard enough time keeping his eyes open as it is. She drags him out of the cell, and Lance closes his eyes against the rush of nausea that accompanies the sudden movement. He sucks in the frigid air through his nose, sending the ice into his lungs as he breathes and tries not to vomit.

As soon as it starts, it stops.

Lance cracks his eye open again to find himself once more inside the small, cramped room with the metal slab ready and waiting for him. He can’t bring himself to care too much.

“He’s cold as ice,” the Galra holding him snaps. “How much longer do we have to wait?”

“Patrols have spotted evidence of an Altean wormhole passing by the outskirts of a nearby solar system. They should be here any moment,” a voice that Lance immediately recognizes as Lotor’s responds. If Lance never hears him speak again, it’ll still be too soon. “Put him on the table.”

He’s hoisted up again, and with little fanfare, Lance’s back slams into cold metal, his hands strapped down on both sides before his legs follow suit. His head sags down against his chest, and Lance doesn’t even try lifting it or opening his eyes.

Whatever they plan to do to him isn’t going to be pleasant, so he’d rather not anticipate it.

A cold hand slaps him on his cheek before sharp fingernails dig into his jaw, lifting his head. “Open your eyes, paladin.”

Compelled to obey, Lance’s eyes slowly open.

Lotor is standing in front of him. Too close. “Don’t you have more important things to do?” Lance croaks.

Lotor smirks. “Unlike my late father, I don’t have any issues attending to the needs of the empire and my personal projects.”

“Late?” Lance asks, voice raspy.

“Oh yes,” Lotor remarks, turning away from him. The table is set with vials of liquid again. Lotor lifts up a syringe and observes it as if he could decipher something through the glass. He holds it out, and a druid appears, taking it from him. “Galra do not give up their thrones while they can still draw breath. He was so focused on Voltron, that he wasted his last days as Emperor recovering from your battle. He was ruled by his obsession, so I ensured he never wake up again.”

Lotor nods to the druid who approaches Lance, syringe held high. Lance doesn’t want whatever is in there in his body. He winces, twitching away automatically, but the clamps on the table have him successfully held in place.

The druid grabs his arm, and then there’s a sharp stab in his arm. Somehow, Lance can feel the liquid enter his veins. It burns, the way drinking a hot liquid burns as it goes down your throat. The burn travels down his arm at first, igniting needles in his fingers, before it wraps around and goes back up, spreading thin enough that Lance loses track of the location.

“What is that?” he asks, panicking a little.

“Raw quintessence,” Lotor answers conversationally. “This will heighten your senses, make you more aware of what’s going to happen next.”

True to Lotor’s word, Lance regains feelings in all his limbs. The lethargy dissipates a bit, his heartrate raising enough that Lance is no longer in a state of feeling disjointed, separate from reality. Instead, he’s very much here, in the torture chamber with Lotor, and there’s nothing he can do to pretend otherwise.

As if that weren’t enough, desperation claws over Lance, freezing him in place. He sucks in a breath when he realizes what’s happening, but it’s too late. The desperation takes over, and in that moment Lance loses track of his surroundings.

His breath is ripped from his lungs, heart hammering faster than it has any right to. And to top it off, his arm tingles so much he’s surprised it doesn’t light itself on fire. “No,” Lance gasps as the feeling starts to fade away from him, pulled back like the tide.

“Check his skin,” Lotor commands before Lance’s vision can properly rearrange itself.

Rough fingers tug up his sleeves, revealing his not-yet-healed plea for Keith to not come for him first. Lotor tuts, but then his other sleeve is tugged up, and the prince hums in approval. Lance is terrified, but he has to look. He has to know.

He drops his gaze from the smug prince down to his arm, squeezing his eyes shut at the words that have appeared there. I’m definitely coming for you, it says. Lance wants to cry, wants to scream, wants to hurt someone, something. But he’s strapped to this torture slab, and he has no way to send a message back to Keith. He’d thought his warning had been enough, but now Keith is on his way, close enough that his words appear without issue on Lance’s skin.

This is not what he’d had in mind when he’d wanted a soulmate.

“They must be close,” Lotor remarks, almost to himself. “We can begin.”

The syringe returns to the table, and this time the druids step towards him without any tools. Somehow, that doesn’t make Lance feel any better. He’s seen how their magic works, how it fucks people up. He’s been on the receiving end of Lotor strangling him without touching him more than once.

Without a verbal command, the druids raise their hands at the same time, and Lance is engulfed in darkness. His every nerve is on end, and even though he can no longer see the slab, he can still feel it against his back, the clamps still hold his arms and legs in place. Lance looks around, trying to find where Lotor is, where the druids are, anything, but he can’t see. Aside from the feeling of metal behind his head, he can’t even tell that he’s turning his head.

And then eyes appear.

A thousand eyes, all glowing gold, all staring at him, pupil-less. It sets him on edge, but it’s nowhere near as bad as he’d thought it would be, as he’d expected a torture chamber could be. Until pupils appear in them, and he recognizes all the eyes as belonging to Lotor.

“Let him see his soulmate,” Lotor’s voice echoes around him, coming from everywhere the eyes are.

The eyes don’t disappear, simply fading into the background, as if to clear a space. Lance doesn’t have to wonder what the space is for, because in an instant Keith fills the void, wearing his stupid red jacket.

Unlike the contact they’d made before, Lance is aware viscerally that this isn’t Keith. This Keith is a shadow of the real one, likely created from his imagination. This one doesn’t hold a candle to the real Keith.

“Lance?” Not Keith asks, voice not sounding quite like the real Keith’s.

Lance ignores him. He doesn’t know what game the druids are playing, but he isn’t going to participate. Not today.

“Lance?” Not Keith repeats, and when Lance blinks, he’s standing right in front of Lance. Not Keith rests his hand on Lance’s arm, right over where his words are written, and even though he’s not real, the words tingle. “Why are you ignoring me?”

You ignored me for years, Lance bites back from saying. This isn’t an argument he’s going to have with Not Keith. It’s an argument he’ll never have, because he warned Keith, and Keith shouldn’t even be within range. He should be flying in the exact opposite direction.

But of course that’s not going to work. It never was, and Lance doesn’t know why he thought it would. Keith leaps into danger without thinking, no matter how many people warn him not to. Keith fought Zarkon himself once because he was there. Of course Keith’s going to try barging into Galra Central Command to sweep Lance out of there.

What an idiot.

“Don’t you care,” Not Keith continues, forcing Lance to look at him again, “that I’m hurt too?”

And even though Lance knows it’s not real, he falls for it anyway. “What do you mean you’re hurt?” he asks sharply, unable to keep the real concern out of the question.

“Without you,” Not Keith tells him, shrinking back into himself, “everything feels cold. I’m sick, and it’s only getting worse. I need you here with me.”

“No,” Lance argues, more to himself than the mirage, “this isn’t real. You’re not real, and even if you were, you shouldn’t be here.”

“I can’t survive without you,” Not Keith presses, sounding even less like the real Keith and more like the Keith of Lance’s Garrison days’ dreams.

“Get out of my head,” Lance directs to Lotor’s floating eyes instead. “I’m not falling for this.”

“Very well,” Lotor says, not seeming bothered by it at all. “Kill the soulmate,” he instructs.

Not Keith lets out an inhuman scream, and Lance’s eyes snap back to him. Red, darker than the jacket, stains the front of his chest, spreading slowly. He knows it’s not real, knows it’s not really Keith dying, but that doesn’t stop the slow panic working its way through his body.

“Don’t give in, don’t give in,” Lance mutters to himself, holding onto the knowledge that this isn’t the real Keith. The real Keith is out there somewhere, hopefully safely secured inside the castle by Shiro and Allura, not dying.

But god, when Not Keith screams his name, it sounds just the way it had in that other plane, when they’d connected in front of the blue lion. “Lance!” Keith shouts, sounding for all the world as if he’s truly in pain.

Red appears from his stomach this time, as if he’s getting stabbed repeatedly in different places, and left to bleed out. Lance squeezes his eyes shut when Keith shouts again. “Lance!”

“It’s not real, it’s not real,” he repeats several times. When Keith’s shouts can still be heard over his repeated assurances, Lance raises his voice, nearly shouting himself. “It’s not real! It’s not real!” If he had control over his hands, he’d be covering his ears right now.

Then, all of a sudden, the noise stops.

Lance sucks in a breath, terrified of what he’ll see when he opens his eyes. Eventually, he forces his eyes to crack open. Darkness. Not Keith is gone, not even leaving a pool of blood behind, the way Lance had feared. Lotor’s eyes, too, have disappeared, leaving Lance once more in pitch blackness.

It sets him at unease, but this is infinitely better than watching Keith die, so he isn’t going to complain. He breathes easier, more confident that everything he’d seen wasn’t real, until a sudden pain erupts in his shoulder.

Lance cries out, but when he looks down, he can’t even see his own body. He struggles against the bonds that have him trapped, but he can’t do much more than wiggle his body. It hurts, feeling remarkably similar to when he’d been stabbed by the Galra soldier while trying to escape the prison ship. He wouldn’t be surprised if Lotor had just stabbed him.

“Show yourself, coward!” he shouts, voice laced with pain.

Lance immediately regrets demanding that.

The torture room doesn’t reappear in front of him, the way he expects. Instead Keith’s form solidifies in front of him, Galra knife embedded in Lance’s shoulder.

“It’s not real,” Lance gasps, but then Keith twists the knife. Lance shouts at the resulting pain, betrayal coursing through his veins. The stabbing has prevented him from sensing as easily that this isn’t Keith, the way he had before. He wants to believe it’s not Keith, he really does.

But this time, Keith’s in full paladin gear, and that’s harder to wish away.

“Keith,” Lance chokes out as Keith pulls the blade from Lance’s shoulder. “Why are you doing this?”

Keith doesn’t answer him. Instead he pulls the knife back and stabs in again, piercing Lance’s other shoulder this time. Lance lets loose another shout, but Keith doesn’t even seem to register hearing it.

It’s possible, Lance realizes in a panic, that Lotor’s put some crazy druid magic on him too. That Keith doesn’t even know that he’s killing Lance. Betrayal courses through him, followed by fear and panic. This is exactly the sort of thing Lotor would pull. He’d make Keith kill Lance with his own two hands, then reveal what he’d done afterwards until Keith tore himself apart.

The perfect way to get back at the two responsible for stealing his prisoner. And isn’t that what Lotor had been on about when Lance had first gone in the chamber?

“Keith, hey, listen to me,” Lance grits out, swallowing down the pain as best as he can. “It’s me. It’s Lance.”

Keith doesn’t respond to his voice at all.

“Keith, buddy, I need you to listen to me,” Lance tries again. Keith pulls out his knife, and Lance bites back a sob. It hurts so fucking bad. “Keith don’t do this,” Lance begs. “You’re not going to like it when you see what happened. Come on please –!” The last word is shouted as Keith stabs again, in Lance’s stomach this time.

If only he had a blip or a pen or something – anything – to write on himself with. If only one of his hands were free. He could tell Keith to stop. Keith would have to look at his skin. He’d see what he was doing, and he’d back off. He’d find the real Lotor, and Keith would kill him instead, and they could avoid this whole heartbreak.

But his hands are bound the same as before, and no matter how much he struggles, Lance can’t free himself from the restraints. He doesn’t want to die like this, doesn’t want Keith to be the one to end him. Doesn’t want to be the cause of Keith losing his goddamn mind the way Lance knows he will if he doesn’t stop.

Lance is crying now, openly sobbing as he begs Keith to please stop. “Keith, stop. Don’t end it like this. You have to know I’m here somehow. Come on, fuck. Don’t do this.”

Keith isn’t aware of Lance at all. He doesn’t respond to his voice, no matter how hard Lance tries, and Lance gives up, crying from the pain and insanity of it all. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. He was supposed to meet his soulmate, and they were supposed to talk about why they – Keith – never wrote back to him. They were supposed to laugh about it, all a misunderstanding, and then they were supposed to fall in love and live happily ever after.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The fourth time Keith stabs him is in the sternum, directly between both his lungs. He would expect to feel his ribs crack, bones breaking from the force of the knife being pressed in, but he can’t tell the difference between that and the pain of being stabbed. “Keith,” Lance blubbers, not actively trying to reach him. He wonders how many times Keith will stab him before it’s all over. Wonders how much longer he has to live.

The ground rumbles beneath him, and light floods into Lance’s vision, blinding him.

“The Altean ship is here,” one of the druids speaks, and Lance opens his eyes.

Keith isn’t there.

His head jerks down to his body, but there’s no blood spilling out of him, his clothes aren’t even pierced. His muscles all ache, phantom pain of the stabbings still coursing through him, even as the world rights itself in front of him.

None of that was real.

“Go,” Lotor orders someone. “I will stay here.”

“Lotor,” a woman’s voice interrupts, clipped. “The Altean princess has been spotted. We need you up here.”

Lance’s head whips around, but the only people in the room are him, Lotor, and one remaining druid. Lotor closes the distance between them, grabbing his jaw again and forcing Lance to look him in the eye.

The prince’s eyes track his own face, searching for something in his expression, but Lance is too exhausted to wonder what it is. The quintessence must be leaving his system, because the weariness from before has returned two-fold, and his entire body feels weighed down by lead. He’s vaguely aware that tears are still tracking down his face, uninhibited despite not seeing Keith anywhere in the vicinity.

“Continue hurting him,” Lotor commands as he steps back. “I want his soulmate to feel it.”

“Yes, my lord,” the druid replies with a bow.

Lotor walks away, pausing as he reaches the door. “And do whatever it takes to prevent him from being rescued. I won’t have him disappear the way the Champion did.”

The druid simply bows this time, as Lotor sweeps out the door. Lance stares at it blankly, mind still clanking slowly to catch up. Keith…Keith isn’t here yet. Keith hadn’t stabbed him, hadn’t tried to kill him. He’s still safe, and Lance isn’t dead yet. He breathes a sigh of relief which turns into a wince of pain when his chest expands too fast.

The druid waves its hand at Lance, but before Lance can see what it intends to do, his head drops forward and darkness consumes him.

Chapter Text

Hunk hadn’t lied when he’d said Blue’s barrier was up. Keith skids to a stop in front of it, mind racing to figure out how to get in. He stares up at lion, the same way he had back in the cave, and Blue stares back, silent behind her barrier.

Maybe you just have to knock.

Hunk arrives behind him, panting as if he’d sprinted the whole way after Keith. “I told you,” he huffs, and Keith doesn’t have to turn around to know he’s bent at the waist, grasping his knees. “Blue’s barrier is up.”

Keith ignores him, raising his hand and rapping on the barrier twice, the way he remembers Lance doing it in the cave. Blue’s eyes flash, boring into Keith, and the barrier dissolves away.

“Holy quiznak,” Hunk gasps. “How did you do that?”

Once again, Keith ignores him, walking up to Blue as she lowers her head and invites him inside. He doesn’t hesitate as he enters, heading straight to the cockpit. He sits down in Lance’s seat and he can feel Blue. Her presence is weaker than Red’s, distant despite how close she is physically.

He moves the chair forward, resting his hands on the controls and closing his eyes. Connected like this, she almost feels like Red. Blue emits a twinge of annoyance, but it’s undermined by a sense of affection Keith doesn’t feel he deserves.

“Whoa,” Hunk’s voice enters the room, and Keith opens his eyes. “Blue really did open up for you.”

“Yeah,” Keith agrees softly.

“Do you think it’s because you’re Lance’s soulmate?” Hunk asks, sounding genuinely curious.

“Doesn’t matter,” Keith replies. “But I think Blue can help me find him.”

“What?”

Keith ignores him for the third time, closing his eyes once more. Blue seems to already know what Keith wants from her, and he can sense her encouragement. So he does what he should’ve done in the first place: he reaches.

Together with Blue, they push outward, and Keith can immediately tell that he’d made the right call; Blue is amplifying the range of his soul bond. Keith had never tested it before, never thought about his bond having a limited range, but somehow he just knows that this is further than he could’ve reached on his own.

He tries to lead Blue in the direction he thinks Lotor’s ship went, but she spans out uniformly in all directions. Keith doesn’t know if it’s because she can’t control which direction she reaches or if she thinks Lotor’s ship went a different way. They reach further and further, spreading until Blue’s presence is stretched thin at the seams, spider-webbing into holes. They spend an eternity searching and still, it’s not long enough.

He can’t feel Lance.

Blue’s disappointment is palpable, amplifying Keith’s own. He presses his fingers to the inside of his wrist, the place Lance usually writes, as if that could summon him. Even though he and Blue keep reaching, he can’t feel anything. No hint of laughter, no spike of pain. Lance is too far for them to even get a whiff of his essence. But they keep reaching, regardless, until Hunk finally shakes him.

“Keith, wake up,” Hunk says, shaking him harder.

Keith blinks his eyes open, the blue light momentarily disconcerting. “I’m not sleeping.”

“You’ve been quiet for a really long time. It was freaking me out.”

“Sorry,” Keith mumbles. He’s not really sorry at all.

“C’mon,” Hunk nudges him, “being in here without Lance doesn’t feel right.”

Reluctantly, Keith lets Hunk peel him away from Blue’s controls. Her presence immediately weakens again, but it doesn’t completely disappear. She won’t give up on finding Lance either, he can feel it. Maybe Pidge can come up with some way to amplify the signal.

Hunk leads him out of the lions’ hangar, and Keith doesn’t fight it. He lets Hunk dictate their direction, passively aware of their surroundings. They pass by the shower area, and Keith’s painfully aware that he hasn’t cleaned up since before he and Lance left to rescue Shiro. He’s still wearing his white under suit, the material chafing as he marches down the hall behind Hunk. He could stop, tell Hunk he needs a shower, a change of clothes, a nap. Hunk would wait for him. He might even encourage him.

But Keith doesn’t want any of that. He doesn’t deserve any of that until Lance is back the same way Shiro is.

Coincidence or fate leads them to the main dining area at the same time Shiro and Allura come around the corner. Keith’s stomach flips seeing Shiro up and walking, even if he does appear to need Allura’s help. Regardless, he’s here and he’s awake. It’s all Keith had wanted, despite Shiro being a little less whole than he had been before.

Allura shoots him a small smile as soon as she sees him, conveying her gratefulness. Keith has to look away; he doesn’t really deserve that. Sure, he’d gone through hell to get Shiro back, but he’d lost Lance in the process.

Hardly worth getting excited over.

“Keith,” Shiro rasps as soon as he notices them. He has dark circles under his eyes, and they seem sluggish as he tracks his vision away from Keith. “Hunk,” he continues as soon as he notices the yellow paladin. “Thank you for saving me.”

“Oh, uh, I didn’t really have anything to do with that,” Hunk admits, scratching the back of his head. “That was all Keith and Lance.” Keith feels the side glance but chooses to ignore it. He focuses on Shiro instead. He appears marginally better than when they’d taken him out of the pod, worlds better than when Keith had carried him out of the cell. Still worse than before Kerberos.

“Oh,” Shiro frowns. “What about Pidge and Coran?”

“Keith and Lance snuck out without letting us know where they were going,” Allura tells him softly, carefully. It occurs to Keith then that she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know. Allura and Coran had carried Shiro off.

“What about me and Coran?” Pidge’s voice comes from behind Keith, and he turns to see them and Coran walking down the hall towards them. Oh god, not now, Keith thinks desperately. Please not now.

“I was going to thank you for saving me,” Shiro tells them slowly.

Pidge interrupts before he has the chance to finish. “Yeah, well, that was all Keith and Lance.” They shoot a glare at Keith, as if they’d wanted to be included in the plans. In a way they were; Lance used their program to lead him to Shiro. But Pidge doesn’t know that yet. No one knows that, because Keith hasn’t told anyone.

“Where is Lance?” Shiro asks the forbidden question.

Keith isn’t going to let anyone else answer. “They took him to Lotor.”

Shiro’s eyes widen, pupils standing out dark against his pale skin. “The Galra captured him?”

Keith doesn’t answer, not wanting to lie, but not wanting to tell the truth either.

“How did they capture him?”

Keith clenches his fist. “They cut him off from getting back to the shuttle.”

“How did that happen?”

Keith glances at Hunk, who is clenching his jaw. He already knows the gist; Lance is his best friend after all. But that doesn’t mean Keith wants to tell everyone else. “He stayed back to guide me to you.”

“And you let him?”

“I didn’t let him,” Keith corrects, not looking at Shiro. Not looking at any of them. “Lance did that on his own.”

“Why didn’t you try and stop him? Keith, we’ve talked about this. You can’t just go in guns blazing. We work as a team –“

“I didn’t let him!” Keith shouts, anger past the boiling point. He didn’t let Lance do anything. He tried to…he’d wanted to…he’d…

And do they really think that he’s not sitting here beating himself up about all the things he could’ve done instead? All the ways he could’ve prevented the actual worst thing from happening? Because every time he pauses, every time he slows down enough for the thoughts to catch up to him, they do. He could’ve let Lance take out the sentries from afar; then he never would’ve seen the mark. He could’ve insisted that Lance download the map into his suit or some shit; then they never would’ve never been separated.

He could’ve told Lance about being his soulmate a long time ago. Then they could’ve worked through it together instead of…this.

But Shiro is completely oblivious to what’s going on in Keith’s mind. He clearly seems to think that lecturing Keith is the right path. “I told you that you needed to learn to control your impulses if you wanted to lead this team when I was gone,” Shiro continues, voice still weak.

“It doesn’t matter!” Keith slams his fist back against the wall behind him. Next to him, Hunk flinches. “What matters is getting him back,” he continues quieter.

Shiro opens his mouth, but Allura cuts him off before he can argue further. “Keith’s right. Shiro, do you have any idea where Lotor was having you taken?”

Shiro frowns, shaking his head. “No. They didn’t tell me much. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been…moved.” Keith flinches. He needs to stop lashing out at the nearest thing when he’s frustrated. First Allura, now Shiro. “We could try asking the Blade of Marmora if you’ve been in contact with them.”

Wild goose chase. Just like getting Shiro, this is turning into a wild goose chase. Keith wants to tug his hair out, wants to launch himself into space, wants to shout.

He does the last option. “This is bullshit!” Hunk lays his hand on Keith’s shoulder, but Keith shoves it off. “We’re sitting here doing nothing and meanwhile Lotor’s going to break our bond!” The fear forces itself out of his throat until he’s heaving like he’d just run twelve miles in one go.

“’Our’ bond? What are you talking about?” Shiro asks, frowning.

“This!” Keith tugs his sleeves up, no longer caring how crazy he looks. There’s still no response from Lance, but that doesn’t make the scribbles on his arms mean any less. Lance’s name is written on there at least five times; there’s no way they could misunderstand.

And Shiro doesn’t. Allura gasps at the same time Keith watches Shiro’s mouth form the word ‘Lance’ and he has to leave. He shoves past them furiously, not quite making a run for it, but it’s a near thing. He stomps his way down the halls to the training deck, the only place he knows he can go to get out this furious anger under his skin.

Both his Bayard and his Luxite blade are back in Lance’s room, so that’s a no go. Instead, he calls down a staff and starts at level three. It’s a nice low level, something that’s challenging enough to hold his attention but not so challenging that he’s going to get his ass handed to him.

Or rather, that’s how it should be.

Keith’s mind isn’t in the battle. Every time he swings his staff, his mind flashes back to Lance. This is how they’d trained together the few times they could.

Pick up a staff, idiot. If you want to get beat up so bad, I’ll do it for you.

He’d be disappointed to see Keith in here now, training against a bot he has no right to lose against. Keith is getting his ass kicked so easily, easier than he really should be given that this is a training level he usually warms up with these days.

I get that the whole training yourself to death thing was taking too long, but if you really wanted something faster it would’ve been nice if you thought about who has to clean up after you.

Keith huffs out a grunt when the gladiator clips him in the stomach, sweeping him across the room. His back hits the wall, and Keith crumples to the floor pathetically, all of the oxygen leaving him in a rush. Even that isn’t enough to make him forget Lance. Nothing is working.

At least the deck’s safety features seem to be working. Keith lies there, not getting attacked even when he starts to feel cold, the sweat he’d built up too easily cooling against his skin. When Keith finally peels himself off the floor, the gladiator is gone, and there’s a water bottle sitting there for him. He considers leaving the bottle, just to spite whoever left it for him, but his throat burns. He grabs it and drains half of it before he even leaves the room.

There’s no reason to pretend he’s going anywhere else, so Keith heads straight to Lance’s room, rubbing his head where it had hit the floor when the gladiator threw him. Didn’t mean to give me a concussion. Whatever.

Keith throws the water bottle across the hall.

He’s still disgusting when he enters Lance’s room, but that doesn’t stop him from collapsing on the bed without stripping out of his under suit. In an absent way, Keith knows he really should shower and change, especially before getting into someone else’s bed. But he can’t bring himself to. Maybe if he never changes, Lance will only be gone a day.

He knows that isn’t how it works.

Besides, if it did work that way, then Lance’s smell wouldn’t dissipate so quickly. Keith flips over the pillow again, but it hadn’t soaked up any new Lance smell. He’s half considering getting up and rifling through Lance’s closet until he finds his jacket – or better yet, that robe he wanders around in sometimes – when he feels it. It’s faint, fainter than it’s ever been before, but it’s still distinctly there.

Feelings that aren’t his own.

Keith jerks upright, tugging at his sleeves. There isn’t an itch, not yet. So he closes his eyes instead and focuses on feeling for Lance. The emotions don’t make sense to him yet. They’re a swirl of negativity, which isn’t unexpected even if it is unpleasant to feel. They’re too faint and Keith’s not sophisticated enough to tell anything other than that Lance is unhappy.

Then the itching starts.

It’s on his arm. An itch just under his skin, deeper than the itches he usually feels when Lance writes to him. Keith’s eyes open, and he stares at his skin, at a loss.

Don’t come for me

Keith’s glare turns dark, as if he can burn the words away just by willing it. Because now that Lance is finally writing to him, these are not the words he wants to see. The itch disappears, pulling away before Keith can claw it back. He wants to vomit. What the fuck.

What the fuck.

He’d wanted Lance to write to him, but not like this. Keith leaps off the bed and sprints to Blue for the second time that day. Her barrier drops the minute he’s close enough, and Keith goes straight into the cockpit.

“Help me,” Keith begs, still not quite sure the best way to communicate with the lions. “He’s close enough to reach me. Let me try again.”

Blue reaches out, taking Keith with her once again. They push to the edge almost immediately. Either Lance is out of reach again, or he’d somehow been able to overcome the distance in a way Blue and Keith can’t.

Blue releases him, even when Keith digs in, insisting that they keep looking. She wants him to sleep, showing far more maturity than Red. “Fine,” Keith concedes with a growl. “But I’m staying here in case he tries to talk to me again.”

Blue doesn’t argue, so Keith doesn’t move, instead settling down to sleep in the lion.

It’s uncomfortable, cold, unpleasant, and it doesn’t smell anything like Lance despite Blue being his lion. But Blue casts a comforting calm through his mind, easing him into a state of relaxation and allowing him to nod off.

---

Keith! Keith! “Keith!”

The last one sounds like a real shout, and that’s the only reason Keith opens his eyes. He frowns, not recognizing his surroundings. He’s not in the castle ship, even though he remembers – vaguely – falling asleep there. Wherever he is doesn’t feel real; he’s standing on stars, and the space around him is empty aside from them.

No, not quite empty. Keith feels Blue’s presence right behind him, and Red’s further back still. Where is he?

“Blue?” The question echoes around the space, and Keith’s attention jerks back as he immediately recognizes the tone.

He stares and stares, not quite believing what he’s seeing. Finally, his mouth catches up to his mind. “Lance?”

Lance, standing in front of him in full paladin gear, snaps his gaze down from Blue and stares directly at Keith.

“Keith?”

Somehow, despite the surrealism of their surroundings, this feels real to Keith. As if Lance is really right there, close enough to touch, rather than far away somewhere out of Keith’s reach. “Is this real?” he asks anyway, not sure if he should trust his instincts, given that he’s standing on stars and hasn’t died yet.

“I…I don’t know,” Lance replies. That answer is enough for Keith to believe that yes, this is real.

“Where are we?” Keith asks, once again glancing around the space they found themselves in. It doesn’t look like anywhere they’ve ever been. It doesn’t look like anywhere in the known universe.

“Is that Red?” Lance asks, not answering Keith’s question.

Keith turns back to see where Lance is looking, and catches a glimpse of her tail. “I guess?” Red isn’t important, though. What’s important is Lance, and the fact that he’s somehow here. Wherever the fuck here is. “How are you here?” he demands. He’s been trying so hard to reach out, to get to Lance, and all of a sudden they’re together without any fanfare.

“I don’t know. How are you?”

“I was in Blue, looking for you again because I thought I’d be able to feel you again after…” the marks. Don’t come for me. How could he have forgotten? “Hey, what was this about?” Keith shoves his sleeve up and thrusts his arm out to Lance.

“You got that message?” Lance asks, rather than answering Keith’s question.

“Lance, why don’t you want us to come for you?” Keith demands. Lance can ask whatever he wants, but that’s not going to stop Keith from coming to him and dragging his sorry ass out of there. “Where are you?”

Lance’s eyes widen suddenly and surges forward, grabbing Keith’s shoulders, eyes wild. “You need to get away from me,” Lance insists. “As far as you can.” Keith reaches up, trying to grab Lance’s hands, to assure him that he’s not going anywhere, no matter what, but Lance tightens his grip before he gets that chance. “Lotor’s going to kill you, all of you. You need to get away from me.”

No, you don’t understand. I’m bonded to Lotor. He’s going to find me here.

It’s exactly the same.

“You sound like Shiro,” Keith exhales. He needs to find out what Lotor’s doing. At least Lance hasn’t said that he’s Lotor’s soulmate. But Keith needs to tell him that he’s going to fight for him, get him back before Lotor can fuck with him any more than he already has.

“Don’t come for me, Keith,” Lance warns, voice further away.

He’d been grabbing Keith moments ago, and now he’s almost a hundred yards away. Keith jerks forward, bursting into a run. He needs to get to him, pull Lance back. Maybe he can pull Lance all the way back, if he could just get his hands on him. “Lance!”

“Don’t come for me,” Lance’s voice echoes around him, even as Lance’s figure gets further away.

Lance!”

“Keith!” Keith’s eyes snap open to the sound of his name.

“Keith, are you in there?”

“Keith! Red’s going nuts!”

None of the voices belong to Lance. His surroundings register slowly, blue lights appearing first, followed by familiar yet different controls in front of him. Right. He’s in Blue. Keith sits up where he’d slumped over in Lance’s chair and rubs the back of his stiff neck.

Lance.

He bolts out of his seat and races out of Blue, the barrier lowering as he does so. Apparently Blue is only letting him in right now. Allura, Shiro, and Hunk are all standing there, concern etched on their faces.

“Keith, what’s going on?” Allura asks sharply once he skids to a stop, barrier closing behind him.

“Red’s losing it,” Hunk adds.

Keith ignores that, going to Allura. “I know where Lance is. Can you pull up a map?”

To her credit, she doesn’t ask questions. Allura gives him a sharp nod and spins sharply, marching with purpose.

Keith keeps his sleeve down, hand wrapped around where the new words had appeared. He has a bad feeling about this, and the only way he knows how to handle it is by hunting down Lance himself and bringing him back.

Allura pulls up the map as soon as they reach the room, and Keith reaches out to Blue again, letting her nudge him in the right direction. “He’s this way,” Keith traces a path through the stars.

“How far?”

Blue helps Keith move his hand a little further. “I think he’s around here, but it’s fuzzy. Blue can sense him.”

Allura purses her lips. “Then suit up. That’s where we’re going.”

Keith doesn’t need to be told twice.

He nearly rams over Hunk and Shiro as they reach the room too late. “Keith,” Shiro tries to stop him, but Keith brushes him off. “What’s going on? Where’s Lance?”

“Ask Allura.”

“Keith,” Hunk stops him. “What happened?”

Keith covers the words again, even though the jacket hasn’t moved, not looking at Hunk. “It doesn’t matter,” he tells him. “We’re going to get Lance back.”

Hunk releases him, and Keith dodges Pidge and Coran as they finally appear. He doesn’t want to explain things more than once, not when they are this close to getting Lance back. So instead he races out of the hangar and back to the floor they live on.

His armor is in Lance’s room, scattered on the floor. He tugs it on as fast as possible, checking Lance’s words once more before clipping on his arm pieces. On a whim, he grabs the Luxite blade, hooking it onto the outside of his suit, even though it’s not as convenient as it had been in knife form.

Keith grabs the pen he’d been using to speak to Lance. Once they’re in range, Keith is going to send him a message telling him just what he thinks of Lance’s request to not come for him. He pauses just before leaving Lance’s room, then grabs the jacket from his closet. He doesn’t know what condition Lance will be in when they find him; how easy it’ll be to find his armor if he’s not wearing it.

And he selfishly wants to have Lance’s smell fill the cockpit of his lion as they go to rescue him.

He rushes back down to the hangar deck, Bayard in hand. Keith could fly Blue, he knows he could. He can feel her begging him to, wanting to be part of the mission to save her paladin. But Keith bypasses her hangar and goes straight to Red.

Red is the fastest of them all. In her, he can get to Lance the soonest. And she knows him in a way Blue can’t. As much as he trusts Lance’s lion to get him out safe, she’s the one he has to take for this. It has to be Red. Besides, even though Lance isn’t her paladin, she’s just as invested in saving Lance as Blue is.

Inside Red, his connection to the other lions strengthens Blue’s presence. It overwhelms him; she can feel Lance. He’s within range.

Or, at least, he’s within her range.

Keith pulls the armor from one arm and finds a fresh location on his skin to write. Lance has to know that Keith is coming for him. He has to know that Keith isn’t going to give up on him, no matter what Lotor does. He has to know that Keith would comb the entire universe inch by quiznaking inch until he finds Lance and brings him home.

He has to know that.

There are a thousand things Keith wants to say, but words have never been his strong suit. So he focuses on what he’s feeling, on how he wants – needs, desperately – to get Lance back. How Lance can beg and plead and claim the world will end if Keith comes for him, but Keith isn’t going to stop because of something as insignificant as a threat to his own life.

I’m definitely coming for you

He seals the promise with his armor, not even checking for a response. Lance can write again, tell him not to come, and Keith will ignore it. He’s not going to check for a response until he has Lance safely in his arms, back in Red.

Keith clenches his fists around Red’s controls, desperate for action. Blue’s reach is further than his own, but Keith doesn’t know by how much. Sitting and waiting like this is killing him. He grits his teeth, pleased that his lion, at least, is just as impatient as he is.

“We’re nearing the location Keith found,” Allura’s voice blares over all the intercoms what feels like a thousand years later. “Paladins to your lions.”

For a moment, Keith wonders who will fly Black. Allura should stay on board, ready to wormhole away if there’s any trouble, and Shiro…Shiro only has one arm now. He might not be in any condition to try. But it doesn’t matter; they won’t be able to form Voltron anyway, not without Lance. Just like when they’d saved Matt, they’re going to have to do this without Voltron.

And then, all other thoughts disappear, because he can feel it. Lance.

He’s worried, scared, in pain. It’s a faint trickle of emotions swirling in his gut. They’re close enough that Keith can feel him without Blue. Fear takes over, covering all the other emotions emitting from Lance, though it isn’t strong enough to overcome Keith’s own emotions. He focuses on it as the feeling gains strength, confirming that Allura is moving them in the right direction. They’re almost there, Keith can tell.

Pain engulfs his shoulder, as if he’d been stabbed, when Keith knows – he knows – that nothing’s wrong. He lets out a shout before he can stop himself, biting down on his lip hard enough to draw blood.

“Keith?” Pidge asks, clearly worried. “What’s happening?”

“They’re hurting him,” he gasps. “I can feel it.”

“Allura?” Hunk calls. “Are we close enough?”

“Not yet,” comes the strained reply. “We’re still in the wormhole.”

Keith grits his teeth against the pain still rolling through his body, but a muffled shout still escapes his throat. “Hurry,” he demands.

“Keith,” Shiro’s voice calls over the comm, “you should stay in here.”

Keith shakes his head. He’s not going to stay in here, not when Lance is out there, being tortured. The pain is a side effect, something he can handle. “No.”

Before Shiro can argue, Allura shouts. “We’re out!”

Keith launches Red immediately, ignoring Shiro’s shout. Lance is nearby. He’s so close. Keith is not going to risk losing him. He can handle whatever torture they’re doing to Lance. It’s better that he take it and suffer through it than give up and force Lance to endure even more.

A collective gasp fills his comm, as they all see the ship where Lance is being held. They’ve encountered it before, more than once.

Galra Central Command.

“I thought Lotor wasn’t working with Zarkon?” Pidge shouts as a volley of fighters launches towards them. As usual, the Galra appear prepared for anything.

“It doesn’t matter,” Keith argues. “What matters is –“ he cuts himself off with a scream as excruciating pain shoots through his body, originating at his other shoulder. His vision goes temporarily white, and the screaming in his helmet is overshadowed by the screaming in his head; though whether it’s from him or Red or Lance, Keith doesn’t know. All he knows is that he can’t move. He can’t breathe. He can’t think past the pain.

He adjusts to it, body relearning itself through the pain, when a thud sends Red careening through space. Keith squints, barely making out shapes through the white noise still surrounding him. Yellow; he sees a burst of yellow. Hears a voice laced with concern speaking to him, but he can’t make out the words.

Keith closes his eyes again as fear, betrayal, sorrow, and above all pain, races through his body again. Lance. He needs to get to Lance.

The pain doesn’t stop. It just moves. Down to his stomach, paralyzing Keith once more as he clutches onto something – anything – begging for this to stop. He needs to get to Lance.

It moves to his chest next, and Keith chokes on his own breath. He needs to get to Lance.

A rumble shakes Red, vibrating Keith in his seat, and the pain lessens enough that he manages to lift his head and look out at the battle around him. Blinding blue light shoots from somewhere behind him – the castle ship – as the fighters and warships continue to pour forward, as if there’s no tomorrow.

They don’t have much time.

He reaches out, the same way he had when he was in Blue, feeling for where Lance is. He follows the pain, welcoming it even as it fades, easing down to an ache. There, in the middle of Central Command. That’s where Lance is.

Red doesn’t need a signal. She feels it the moment he does, and she’s shooting forward. Without Keith actively guiding her, she doesn’t pull the same stunts he does, doesn’t dodge attacks as skillfully. But she’s still insanely, perfectly fast as she pushes through the ships, blasting fire at any of the ones that stand in her way.

“Keith!” Hunk shouts. “Where are you going?”

Lance is in there. He’s in there, and Keith needs to get to him. But his mouth isn’t working properly. The raw terror still coursing off Lance is pulsing through his veins, pushing him forward the same way it’s locking his mouth shut. He doesn’t stop reaching for Lance, even as he flies, making sure they don’t move him, that nothing happens.

The fear falters, rippling through him, and when Keith next reaches out he can’t feel it.

He can’t feel it.

Panic rushes through him and Red speeds up, head-butting a fighter back into Galra Command, breaking open a port with it. Keith grips the Luxite blade tight in his fist as Red launches him into the ship. He rolls out of her, narrowly avoiding getting run over as she continues sliding across the floor, shooting sparks in her wake.

Lance’s presence is faint, fainter than it’s ever been before. Keith takes that knowledge and harnesses it, racing at full speed, nearly blindly down the hallways. He follows it, not paying attention to his surroundings, cutting down Galra and sentries that stand in his way. When they come too fast, he pulls his Bayard in his other hand, cutting down two at a time, not checking to see if they’re all down before he continues running, following the fading feeling of Lance.

He kicks down the door in front of him once the feeling is strong enough, and finally finally Keith sees him. He’s hooked against a metal bed or something, being held upright with shackles. His head is lolled forward, eyes closed, but the fact that Keith can feel him at all means he’s still alive.

There’s a druid with him, performing some kind of magic, but they whip around when the door’s kicked in. The only advantage Keith has is surprise. He moves fast, faster than he’s ever moved before, and before the druid can pull its disappearing act, Keith is there. He stabs it right through the chest with both swords, then kicks it back against the table behind it. It collapses to the ground and doesn’t get up again.

Keith turns his attention to Lance. He’s paler and thinner than he had been last time Keith had seen him, and despite the commotion, he hasn’t woken up. Keith fumbles with the slab, trying to undo the cuffs, but there’s no button, nothing he can see controlling it. He puts his Bayard away and stabs through the metal with his Luxite blade, praying that he doesn’t accidentally cut Lance in the process.

Luxite breaks through the restraints as easy as if they were butter, and Keith barely manages to catch Lance as he tumbles off the slab. He’s lighter than he had been before. Completely devoid of the paladin armor, and Keith doesn’t know where to find it.

“You need to get out of there,” Pidge informs him through the comm.

Hunk shouts his assent. “I can’t hold them off much longer!”

Keith drags Lance over his shoulder, holding him fireman style and moves his sword to his other hand. “Red!” he shouts. “I need an extraction!”

Distantly, he hears a roar, and Keith stumbles out of the room, heading towards the sound. He can move faster with Lance cradled in his arms than he could with Shiro, but that doesn’t make this easy. There are enemies between him and Red, and he can’t afford to let Lance get shot.

With a grunt, he throws his blade at the approaching Galra, and manages to embed it in his arm. Not where he was aiming, but close enough. He adjusts his hold on Lance and charges the Galra, pulling out his blade and simultaneously kicking the soldier over. He tucks the sword back into his belt and grabs the gun the soldier had been holding. He doesn’t have as good of aim as Lance, doesn’t even have the sheer firepower that Hunk has, but it’s better than nothing.

Keith shoots ahead of him, taking down sentries and Galra as much as he can as he flies past them, held up by willpower and adrenaline alone. Red roars again, and Keith muscles his way down a corridor just in time for the red lion to barrel through it herself. She narrowly avoids hitting him as her jaw drops open, but Keith isn’t going to lecture her. He throws himself in, and she clamps her jaw shut behind him, taking off before he can make his way to the cockpit.

He adjusts Lance once he’s inside, cradling him in his arms instead. Keith tosses off his armor and feels for a pulse, the way he had with Shiro. He closes his eyes, willing the sounds of battle away until he feels it. Sluggish but steady; the ba-thump of Lance’s heartbeat.

“Keith? Do you have him?” Coran asks, voice strained.

“Yes,” Keith breathes, pulling Lance closer to his chest. “Yes, I have him.”

“Then get back here!” he shouts.

Keith jerks his head up, back to the battle. The yellow and green lions are already high tailing it away from where Keith is. He needs to move. He holds Lance’s shoulders to his chest with one hand, and attempts to pilot with the other. Red knows him well enough to adjust to the movement, and she bursts through the fighters trying to cut him off from the ship.

Out of the corner of his eye, he makes out one of the shuttles high tailing it to the ship ahead of him, but he ignores that, aiming for the castle ship, which is rapidly shooting, providing them cover. Space rumbles around him, and Keith urges Red forward those last few feet, flying too hot into the lions’ bay. He doesn’t get out yet, instead turning her to face the outside so she can shoot fireball after fireball at the fighters approaching.

The ship jerks forward, fast but not fast enough, pulling them out of range of some of the slower fighters. The warships and Central Command can still reach them with their guns; something they are taking advantage of.

“Allura, hurry!” Hunk shouts, and Keith doesn’t have to wonder why. The main Galra ship, Zarkon’s ship, is powering up its main gun to shoot at them.

“Hold onto your lions!” Allura shouts.

Keith feels the elongation that comes with a wormhole generation. The distance between himself and the nearest fighter expands, and Keith clutches Lance tight to his chest. If they’re launched out the back again, they’ll be stranded on a planet together.

As if his mind is read, the doors slam shut just as the speed kicks in. Red digs her claws into the floor, but she slides back anyway, hitting the door hard. Keith hears twin thuds around him, indicating that Hunk and Pidge met the same fate.

It isn’t until the sound of shooting outside stops that the reality seeps in: they made it out.

Keith tosses off his helmet, throwing it to the side, and leans in, listening to Lance’s breathing. Again, faint, but still there. He seems to be in the same shape Shiro had been when he’d brought him back; something that does not sit well in Keith’s stomach. Carefully, he leans down, grabbing Lance’s jacket, and drapes it over its owner.

He lifts Lance gently, holding him close to his chest as he carries him down and out of Red. Hunk and Pidge are already standing there, and Allura and Shiro come running down before his feet touch the ground.

“Is he…?” Hunk asks, looking close to tears.

“He’s alive,” Keith confirms. “But he needs the healing pod now.”

Hunk swallows, blinking rapidly, and Pidge sniffles as Keith races by, carrying his battered soulmate in his arms. Coran opens the pod for Keith as soon as he enters the infirmary, and Keith rests Lance inside as gently as he can. He leaves the jacket on Lance, draped over his shoulders as the pod shuts.

It’s Lance. It’s really Lance, and Keith can finally breathe again.

The words he’d written in Red are visible on Lance’s arm. I’m definitely coming for you. His other arm bears cuts making out Lance’s words. Don’t come for me. It really, truly is Lance.

He stands there, unmoving as the cryopod begins its cycle, cooling down the inside to the point that the outside is cold to the touch.

A heavy arm rests on his shoulder, and Keith looks up to see Hunk standing there. “Shower, get changed,” Hunk tells him, staring at Lance. “I’ll keep watch until you get back.”

Keith doesn’t want to leave, feels the tug telling him he needs to stay. But his throat closes up, a lump forming, and he doesn’t want Hunk or Allura or Pidge or even Shiro to see him cry. So he obeys the advice, promising himself that he’ll only be gone a minute this time.

Chapter Text

Confusion. That’s the first thing to hit Lance when consciousness returns to him. He tilts forward, landing on something soft and warm, and for the first time in a long time, he doesn’t devolve into a coughing fit. Either the Galra finally made a decent healing pod, or something else happened.

“Lance? Buddy? You with me?”

Hunk’s voice brings Lance back to the present, and his initial thought is that there’s no way this is real. Lotor has apparently decided to switch tactics.

Regardless, he grabs onto Hunk’s shirt and uses it to hoist himself upright. A strong whiff of that pure Hunk smell – strong enough to mean that Hunk hasn’t showered for a few days – meets his nose, and Lance’s eyes widen. One thing that Lotor hadn’t been able to recreate had been smell. None of his visions ever carried a smell different than the room they’d been in.

Lance clings to Hunk’s shirt as he gets mostly upright and blinks, glancing around the area. Shiro’s standing without help, though still missing an arm. Pidge is there too, eyes wide behind their glasses. Allura and Coran are standing behind the cryopod control panel. And so is…

Keith.

Lance locks eyes with him, and to his surprise, Keith doesn’t look away. He stares at Lance with an intensity that proves it’s really him. This isn’t some illusion created to make Lance think Keith is really here, or that he’s really with Keith. He knows, deep in his soul, that this is the real Keith.

Which means he’s really in the castle.

That’s simultaneously relieving and concerning. How many times had he warned Keith? How many different ways had he told Keith not to rescue him? And yet here Lance is, cradled in Hunk’s arms, staring at Keith across the med bay in the castle.

“What the hell happened?” Lance croaks, throat sore.

“We got you out of there,” Hunk answers, despite the fact that Lance had clearly been asking Keith. He squeezes Lance in a gentle hug. “We saved you.”

Really, that doesn’t answer Lance’s question. But given the amount of shit he’d been subjected to, he just…doesn’t care right now. He’ll care later. Much later. Right now, he needs to get information to Allura, take a shower, and sleep. In that order. “Allura,” he addresses the princess, finally ripping his gaze from Keith’s. Hunk finally steps away from him, turning so Lance can continue to lean on his shoulder. “We need to talk.”

Allura hesitates a moment but reads something in Lance’s expression and her own hardens. “Very well.”

“Common room,” Shiro interrupts, looking at Keith for some reason. “So Lance can rest.” Keith nods minutely at Shiro, and Lance suddenly understands.

Shiro knows about him and Keith already.

Actually…

Lance catches the tension in Pidge’s stance. He notes the way Hunk is resolutely not looking at Keith, and he realizes: they all know. Which is exactly what he doesn’t need right now.

Hunk guides him to the common room, and Lance dutifully pretends that Hunk isn’t supporting a vast majority of his weight. He’s grateful when they reach the couch, so he can lean back against the cushions without appearing weak.

Lance is sure he’s not fooling anyone, but it’s nice to pretend.

Hunk protects his left while Pidge flanks him on the right. Neither of them say anything, but they don’t have to. Keith gives the three of them a look before settling across from them next to Shiro and Allura. Coran had stayed behind.

“You wanted to talk?” Allura asks gently.

Lance nods. “I was taken by Lotor. He’s the emperor now.”

“What happened to Zarkon?”

Lance frowns, trying to remember. His head feels fuzzy. Fuzzier than it had the last few times he’d come out. His eyes widen when he remembers the new emperor’s cold expression. “He’s dead,” Lance tells them. “Lotor killed him.”

Keith, Hunk, and Pidge are all shocked at that, judging by the sudden stiffness of their shoulders. But Allura and Shiro aren’t surprised at all. Allura’s face hardens, and Shiro looks like he’d suspected that all along. Maybe he had known; after all, he’d been imprisoned by Lotor before Lance had.

“There's more,” Lance continues. “His generals are different than Sendak and the ones we fought before.”

"Different how?" Allura presses.

Lance frowns, trying to remember exactly who he’d thought was the biggest threat. “There's one, her name is Narti, and when she touches you, you...you do what she wants you to.” He can't explain it any better than that.

“Do what she wants you to?” Hunk asks, looking constipated. “Like...you kill people and stuff?”

“Maybe,” Lance concedes. “I don’t really know how it works, but when she touched me, I’d walk. Even if I didn’t want to.” Or didn’t think he could. “Stuff like that.”

Pidge straightens their glasses. “So she can plug herself into your nerves and fire your synapses the same way she can fire her own?”

“Uh...” Lance looks over at Allura and Shiro who seem interested in the answer and not at all confused by the question. “Maybe? I dunno. What she did was different than what Lotor can do.”

Shiro sits up straighter, staring at Lance with an intense expression. Almost as if he knows exactly what Lance had meant by ‘what Lotor can do’. But Pidge is the one to ask. “What do you mean? What can he do?”

Allura speaks before Lance can. “He’s been studying Altean magic,” she explains. “He tried to fight me with it on the ship.”

“Studying Altean magic?” Hunk repeats. “Where did he learn that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Allura interrupts, cold. “What matters is that he has the ability, and he’s proficient.”

“If he’s proficient,” Pidge speaks up, “then how did you get out of there?”

“Yeah,” Hunk adds. “One minute you were leaping out of your lion, and the next, Black was flying back to the ship! Did that seem too easy to anyone else? That was too easy right?”

“Lotor may be trained, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Allura answers darkly. “And I assure you; it was anything but easy.” Clearly, she doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Great,” Lance says. “Then you should use those to trick him when we confront him again.” He looks around at the others. “Assuming you haven’t defeated him yet.”

“We haven’t,” Shiro speaks up. His eyes are dark, haunted as he says it, and Lance has never felt more connected to the black paladin in his life. He’s always looked up to Shiro, always wanted to have a conversation with him that didn’t involve Shiro snapping at him for flirting with someone. Now that he finally has the chance, he’s not sure it’s a conversation he wants to have.

“As much as I’d like to, that trick will only work once. I couldn’t use alchemy when Lotor and I knew each other ten thousand years ago, so I was able to use the element of surprise. That surprise is now gone.” She nods to Lance, sending him a kind smile. “It was worth it to get you back.”

Lance flushes, looking down at his lap. Compliments from princesses. This is the second time his dream has come true, and he still doesn’t know how to handle it. “Thanks, Allura.” He swears he hears a growl from the other side of the room, but it might just be his stomach. He hasn’t eaten in a long time.

“Do you remember anything else?” Allura pushes.

“He needs to rest,” Keith speaks for the first time, his voice harsh. “Stop pressuring him.”

Despite his weakened state, Lance’s stomach performs a backflip, and his cheeks heat even further. He pushes it down for now, looking straight in Allura’s eyes. “He has a Faelaran with him,” Lance answers. “They were able to read my soul bond.”

A collective gasp sounds around the room.

“They were able to what,” Pidge whispers. Shiro just looks pained.

“They sensed my soul bond,” Lance repeats.

“What was he doing with your soul bond?” Allura presses, still serious.

He opens his mouth to explain further, but the words get caught in his throat. They might know that he’s bonded to Keith, but Lance isn’t ready to talk about it in front of a group yet. Especially not without having a few choice words with Keith first.

“Enough of this.” Keith stands up. “Lance needs to rest. Coran said the healing pod couldn’t fix everything and that he needed real sleep.” He shoots an impressive glare at Hunk who nods in response and stands up, holding his hand out for Lance.

“I agree,” Hunk encourages. Lance pulls his gaze from Keith to stare at Hunk, who is giving him what is supposed to be a smile, but looks more like a guilty grimace. What happened between them while Lance was gone? “But not until after you’ve eaten.”

His options are to give in to Keith’s – and Hunk’s – demands or stay here and answer Allura’s prying questions regarding his captivity, so the choice is an easy one. Lance accepts Hunk’s help off the couch and into the kitchen.

Either everyone else got the vibe that Lance wasn’t ready to talk more or they had an unspoken agreement to leave him in Hunk’s care, because none of them follow. He and Hunk arrive at the kitchen without being stopped, and Hunk helps him onto a stool. He hovers just long enough to make sure Lance doesn’t slide off before going to the goo machine and pouring a bowl for Lance.

“Haven’t had a chance to cook really,” Hunk admits, siding the bowl across the counter to him. “After all this, though, I’ll have a good argument to convince Coran to take us grocery shopping. I have a whole list of things, starting with space eggs for space omelets…”

Hunk’s voice washes over him as Lance takes a bite of the green goo instead. It tastes exactly how he remembers; nothing special or appetizing. But Lance can’t remember the last time he’d eaten, so it’s the best thing he’s ever had.

He only makes it halfway through the bowl before his stomach can’t take anymore, and he pushes it back towards Hunk. Hunk had fallen silent sometime after Lance had taken that first bite, choosing instead to watch Lance eat. He takes the bowl, not commenting on the remaining food, but also uses that as his chance to bring up the subject Lance had expected ten minutes earlier.

“So, uh, about Keith.”

Lance’s stomach sinks. He’d been expecting this conversation, especially with Hunk. He’s never been able to contain his curiosity.

“What about him?” he asks, trying for nonchalant. He’s not sure if he succeeds, but at the very least his voice doesn’t crack.

Hunk dumps the remainder of the goo and rinses the bowl before setting it carefully in the dishwasher, as if he doesn’t know how to ask what he wants to ask. “He came back without you, you know. Carrying Shiro.”

Lance flinches. This is Hunk’s not-so-subtle way of lecturing him. Telling him that more people than just him were hurt by his recklessness.

He can imagine it now: Hunk waiting with Lance’s note, Lance’s promise, in hand, only to see the shuttle land with Keith and Shiro but not him. Had the situation been reversed, Lance is positive he’d punch Keith in the face, crush or no. “Sorry about that.” And he really means it. Lance had never had the intention of getting captured. He’d never wanted to sacrifice himself.

“It’s…” Hunk draws a hand over his face, and Lance can almost see the word ‘fine’ slide off him and land on the floor. It isn’t fine, and Lance knows that. So Hunk doesn’t finish that sentence. “You’re back now,” he says instead. “That’s all that matters.”

“Yeah…” Lance agrees, holding back another wince. He’s not sure it’s all that matters. They haven’t taken out Lotor yet, and his head does feel fuzzy.

“C’mon.” Hunk nudges him where he’d been slouching. “We should get you cleaned up before you go to sleep.”

Hunk helps him to the shower and hovers outside as Lance washes up. Lance can hear his nervous pacing as he cranks the water up to scalding hot. He shivers involuntarily upon seeing his body. He’s skinnier than he had been before, but at least the physical marks are gone, including the one he’d given himself.

The mental ones are still very much alive.

Lance scrubs his body almost raw, as if he could wash away the feeling of Lotor’s druid magic. It’s a phantom clinging to his skin, so there’s no such luck, but it was still worth the try. He washes until his skin is bright red and Hunk’s pacing has reached the point that Lance knows he’s going to start panicking. Then he turns off the water and towels off, accepting his pajamas and robe from Hunk.

Hunk stares openly at his arms when he comes out, clearly searching for words. Lance wonders if he saw the warning Lance had left on Keith’s arm, and if he’s looking for the original. He may as well get the conversation over with.

“Keith’s my soulmate.”

It feels weird, saying it out loud like that. Keith’s my soulmate. He hadn’t denied it when the Faelaran had discovered it, and he’d thought about it almost every moment he was trapped in that prison, but he hadn’t said the words out loud before. Keith is his soulmate.

“Yeah…” Hunk says, clearly uncomfortable. “We all kinda…know.” He grimaces after speaking, as if Lance hasn’t figured it out already.

“I figured you did.”

“He was really beat up about –“

“You know he didn’t tell me?” Lance interrupts, anger flaring. He might be woozy. He might not be ‘fully healed’, whatever that means. But he’s here, and he’s present enough to be irritated at Keith. His fucking soulmate who couldn’t even be bothered to say ‘hello’ when Lance had returned.

Hunk’s mouth slams shut, but he nods.

“Keith didn’t even…” Lance groans in frustration, struggling with the words. With how to describe just how unfair it had been that Keith had let him find out like that when he could’ve just told him. A thousand times. “I found out because he got injured, Hunk. He got shot and I took off his glove and boom! There were my words. I don’t think he planned on telling me in the first place.”

Hunk shakes his head vehemently. “I don’t think that’s true.”

“Don’t you dare take his side!” Lance shouts. “He lied to me!”

“Whoa, Lance…” Hunk approaches him with both hands out, and Lance flinches out of his reach. It’s stupid, silly. He’d been leaning on Hunk, relying on him for support just a few minutes ago, but that doesn’t stop the sudden flare of fear in his gut.

The sudden no don’t touch me that rushes through his mind.

Hunk must be able to read that in his expression because he stops, staring at Lance with wide, frightened eyes. For a moment, they just stand there staring at each other without blinking. Then Hunk lowers his hands. Lance’s blood pressure drops back to normal.

“Sorry,” Hunk says, no doubt not even sure what he’s apologizing for.

“It’s…” This time Lance is the one to struggle for that last word. In his mind it falls to the floor alongside Hunk’s. Now they’re even. “I think I should go to bed,” he finishes instead.

If Hunk wants to argue further, he stomps down on the desire forcefully enough that Lance can’t see it. He helps Lance out of the showers and back to his room. When they get there, Hunk hovers, clearly not wanting to leave Lance alone. In a way, Lance doesn’t want to be left alone. But in another way, he doesn’t want to be smothered by Hunk’s kind, yet overbearing, presence.

“Lance,” Hunk says once Lance is safely on his bed. “If you need anyone to talk to, I’m always here. I’m your best friend, and I’ll side with you no matter what. You know that right?” Lance nods mutely. “But,” Hunk continues comfortingly, “I think you should talk to him before you get too mad and ice him out.”

Lance stays silent a moment, chewing on Hunk’s words. “Okay?” Hunk presses.

“Okay,” Lance agrees with a sigh.

“Get some rest,” Hunk encourages. “Do you need anything else?”

“No. Not right now.”

Hunk squeezes Lance’s shoulder before letting go. “It’s good to have you back. I really missed you.”

Lance chokes on his response, unable to do anything more than nod at Hunk as he leaves.

Fortunately, Lance is able to fall asleep within moments of Hunk leaving his room. Unfortunately, he wakes up every few minutes during the first hour in a disoriented panic and with the distinct impression that the guards are outside his door. He’s able to calm himself each time by looking around and reminding himself that he’s back in his room on the castle, and he has the smell of fresh laundry detergent on his sheets to prove it.

He’ll have to thank Hunk for washing his sheets for him.

---

Lance wakes up the next morning, not quite refreshed, but considerably better than before. He can get out of bed and dress himself without needing to lean on Hunk. His legs are a little weak, but they aren’t wobbling anymore, and his head doesn’t feel as fuzzy.

But most importantly, he doesn’t feel cold.

Lance leaves his room in a decent mood only to find Keith’s jacket outside his door. It’s laying there, crumpled up against the wall as if it had been discarded casually and forgotten. Lance frowns at it. Maybe his thought that there were guards outside his door weren’t exactly wrong.

He’d just been wrong about which guards.

Lance…doesn’t know what to do about Keith. Accepting the bond had been one thing when he’d been trapped with Lotor. Now that he’s actually here, in the same place as Keith, he doesn’t know how to handle it. He’s still angry, maybe irrationally so. Keith had hidden it from him, and he can’t figure out a reason why except that Keith doesn’t want to be bonded to him. Figuring out Keith is a problem Lance can’t put off forever.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try.

He makes his way into the kitchen, rumbling stomach leading him there, only to find out that he can’t even avoid Keith a little bit. The red paladin is sitting there, jacketless, eating goo with an empty look in his eyes while Hunk is filling a bowl and humming happily. It is by far the strangest scene Lance has walked into, so he stops in the doorway and just stares.

Hunk turns and sees him first, face breaking into a grin. Lance feels better, and based on Hunk’s expression, he looks better too. “Hey, Lance,” he greets cheerfully. “Want anything special for breakfast? We have bowls of goo, plates of goo, trays of goo, and goo that I can squirt directly into your mouth.”

“I’ll take a bowl,” Lance replies, small smile unfurling on his own lips.

There’s a clatter, and Lance looks over to see Keith staring at him, stricken, with his spoon on the floor. The jovial atmosphere drops several degrees. Lance can’t help but stare back at Keith. He hasn’t figured out what to say yet, how to have this confrontation. He was planning on avoiding Keith for at least a few days, but here he is, day one. Already forced into the same room as him.

Hunk clears his throat awkwardly. “Well I have to be…literally anywhere else.” He walks up to Lance and shoves the bowl he’d been filling in Lance’s arms. “Here, uh…good luck,” he mutters as he rushes out the door.

Lance’s fingers shake around the bowl, threatening to drop it, and that’s the only thing that forces him forward. He sets the bowl on the table and sinks onto the stool, finally breaking eye contact with Keith.

Just because they’re in the same room doesn’t mean he has to talk to him.

He focuses on his bowl, pushing the goo around with a spoon. His stomach growls, reminding him that he came here to eat, not play with his food, and he shoves a generous bite into his mouth. If he’s eating, Keith can’t make him talk.

And really, it seems like Keith isn’t even going to try to make him talk. Lance sneaks a glance at him, and Keith is still sitting there staring at him with his mouth open like a fish. He looks silly like that, really. If Lance were in a teasing mood, he’d tell Keith to close his mouth before he started catching flies.

But he’s not in a good mood, and this is too awkward for him to handle right now. So instead he turns his attention back to his food and shovels the food into his mouth to avoid conversation.

A thousand remarks flash through his mind. Hello to you too Keith.

Oh yes I feel great thanks for asking.

Take a picture, it’ll last longer.

None of them quite grasp the raw pain that Lance is feeling. He feels split open, like a fresh wound. Keith is his soulmate, and Keith still won’t talk to him. Everyone in the castle knows Keith is his soulmate, and Keith hasn’t said a single fucking word to him since he got back. Lance had resigned himself to dying by Lotor’s hand to keep him away from Keith, and Keith can’t do anything but stare at him while he eats.

So yeah, it hurts. It hurts a fuckton. It hurts worse than nevermind, than the shit art, than the spikey tree or the green arm. It hurts more than any of the soul marks Keith had left on him combined, and so Lance can’t be happier than when Allura speaks over the intercom, summoning him to the bridge.

He pushes himself away from the counter, not bothering to toss his bowl in the sink, and out of the corner of his eye he sees Keith flinch. Good. He should feel bad.

Keith doesn’t stop him from sweeping out of the room.

When Lance reaches the bridge, Allura is the only one there. She’s standing in front of their main communication screen with a serious look on her face and nods to Lance when he comes in. The bridge door opens and closes behind him, and Lance turns to see that Keith had followed him. He opens his mouth to tell Keith that Allura had just asked for him, thank you very much, but then Allura speaks.

“Keith, good. You should be here too.”

Lance slams his mouth shut.

Keith glances at him strangely, and Lance almost wants to bolt out of the bridge. He’s not a coward though, no matter what Lotor might want him to think, so instead he marches resolutely to where Allura is standing.

Once they’re both alongside her, she hits a button and a video feed pops up showing Princess Lae of Faelara. She smiles upon seeing them, just as beautiful as Lance remembers. “Lance of Voltron,” she greets. “It is pleasant to see you again.” Keith clears his throat. “And of course the red and black paladins as well,” she smooths over gracefully. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a few questions for you,” Allura responds. “Lance,” she says, turning to him, “you said you saw a Faelaran with Lotor, didn’t you?”

She’s giving him an out. Lance can nod, let Allura take over the conversation, or he could use this opening to speak up about what he saw. Part of him wants to take the passive route and step back. The other part feels more than sees Keith tense next to him, so Lance steps forward instead.

“There was one,” Lance clarifies. “They touched me and…they could read my soul bond.”

Lae pales, her pretty pink turning grey. “Alren,” she breathes. “He’s still alive.”

“Who is Alren?” Lance asks.

“And how could he read our bond?” Keith speaks up, angry. Lance’s stomach swoops at the word ‘our’. Keith had called it their soul bond.

Lae looks between the two of them before answering. “Alren is my brother, and he is one of the Gifted. One of those of our people who can read the bonds of others. Tell me, Lance, when you saw him did he seem…well?”

Lance hesitates. Lae nods sharply and turns her attention to Allura again. “They were the ones who were targeted when the prince’s generals came to our planet at first.”

Allura’s frown deepens. “They came before the ones we fought?”

“I do not know who the galra were who attacked us when Voltron came to our aid, but the generals had taken Alren long before that. I thought he had died by their hands long ago.”

“Why would they take someone who can read bonds?” Lance asks.

Keith speaks up before the other princess can answer. “Can you break bonds?”

Immediately Lance runs cold. Why would Keith ask something like that? Does Keith hate being bonded to him so much that he’d ask to break it?

“Of course not,” Lae answers, offended. “Even the Gifted can do nothing more than read them. The Galra and other races have long sought us out, using our research into soul bonds to try and manipulate or break their own or others.”

“Then what would Lotor want with reading soul bonds?” Keith presses.

“Even the power to read a string of destiny can allow you to change it,” Lae replies.

Allura regains control over the conversation smoothly. “Princess Lae, thank you for answering our questions.”

“It is the least I can do,” Lae responds smoothly. “I am sorry I couldn’t be of more help. Faelara will be here for the Coalition, if we are ever needed.”

“Thank you,” Allura says, cutting the feed.

Lance doesn’t wait any longer. Frustrated and angry he turns from the screen and storms out of the bridge.

 


 

 

Keith isn’t the least bit surprised when Lance stomps off the bridge. He’d felt the anger brewing under Lance’s skin the moment they laid eyes on each other in the kitchen. Lance is pissed at him about hiding their bond, just like Keith had feared.

He’d given him time yesterday, letting Hunk and Pidge take care of him, but Keith isn’t renowned for his patience. So he sets off immediately after him.

Lance’s injuries had been to his mind and his quintessence, according to Coran. He hadn’t dealt with the same level of poisoning that Shiro and Matt had, but there had still been some. The mental pain means that the healing pods couldn’t heal him completely.

It also means that Keith catches up to him easily.

He grabs Lance’s arm before he can get any further. “We need to talk.”

Lance’s anger flares. “Oh, so now you want to talk to me?”

Keith frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Seriously?” Lance snaps. “This is the first time you’ve talked to me since I’ve been back.”

This time Keith is the one who’s angry, though his is directed inward. He’d been so focused on Lance, seeing Lance back and safe that he hadn’t gotten out of his head long enough to speak to him. “I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I didn’t mean to, but I need to talk to you –“

“Well I don’t want to talk to you,” Lance states matter of factly. He tries to pull his wrist out of Keith’s grasp, but Keith just tightens his fingers. “You hate the bond so much that you’ll ask some alien you don’t even like to break it. But, sure, I’m supposed to believe you want to talk?”

Keith freezes, grip loosening. Lance’s hand slips out from his, but he doesn’t run away. “I don’t want to break the bond,” Keith breathes eventually.

Lance snorts. “You have a funny way of showing it.”

“I don’t.”

“Were you ever planning to tell me?”

“Of course I was!” Keith shouts. It’s crazy – but maybe not surprising – that Lance could think Keith wouldn’t like him, wouldn’t want to be with him, when Keith has been so far gone on him that even Pidge tried to comfort him. “I was gonna tell you right after we saved Shiro.”

“Mhm,” Lance says but it's clear he doesn't believe Keith. “You kept it a secret for, what? A few months? A year? Were you planning to keep it from me forever?” Keith opens his mouth but Lance cuts him off before he can. “You know what? Nevermind. I don’t want to hear about that right now.”

“But –”

“I'm not ready yet Keith, drop it.”

And Keith…he can understand that. Or at the very least he can respect it. He doesn’t push it, and he doesn’t stop Lance when he turns and leaves this time. If Lance wants to avoid him, then he’ll let him. He’ll give him time, because it’s the least he can do.

Keith glances down and looks at the slowly fading words on his arm. Don’t come for me. They’re still there.

When he’d brought Lance back to the castle, he’d seen them carved in Lance’s skin. The healing pods had taken the words away so that not even scars remain, but they’re still very present on Keith’s skin.

He clenches his hand into a fist, frustrated beyond reason. Why wouldn’t Lance want to be saved? What had Lotor been doing to him while he’d been strapped on that thing?

“Keith?”

Keith looks up at the sound of his name to see Shiro. He still looks unbalanced without his right arm. The healing pod may have fixed him and taken out the quintessence, but Shiro is clearly still not used to having only one arm.

“Shiro.”

“Are you alright?” Shiro asks, walking up to him. “You’re crying.”

Keith lifts a hand to his face and finds that his cheeks are, in fact, wet. He hadn’t even noticed. He wipes them furiously, blinking away any more tears before they can fall. “I’m fine,” he insists stubbornly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I passed by Lance on my way here. He looked upset.” Keith winces. “Did you two fight?”

Keith shrugs, mostly because he doesn’t know how to classify what just happened between him and Lance. “I guess,” he says finally, because maybe it had been a fight.

Shiro tilts his head, staring at Keith as if he can read everything there. He probably can. Shiro knows Keith better than Keith knows himself sometimes. “You don’t have to talk about it,” Shiro says carefully, “but sometime I would like to hear about how you discovered your soul bond with Lance.”

He doesn’t say ‘when’, doesn’t accuse Keith of keeping it a secret the way Hunk and Lance had. Because Shiro knows him so well, he knows that Keith needs time to process things. He knows that Keith doesn’t always come to him with everything; after all, he’d kept Shiro in the dark about his heritage until it had been forced out. This is no different.

And even though he thinks – knows – Shiro would have advice for him, now is not the time. Shiro’s doing better and better each day, but he isn’t back to his old self yet. Now that Lance is back, though, Keith can finally appreciate Shiro’s presence fully.

“I’m really glad you’re back,” he confesses. He doesn’t know what he’d do without Shiro. It scares him. He’d always considered himself a bit of a lone wolf, but he’s become so attached to this rag-tag family on the ship that he’s not sure he’d survive by himself anymore. Especially without Shiro or Lance.

Shiro smiles at him, his stump twitching before he reaches out and rests his other hand on Keith’s shoulder. “I’m glad to be back.”

“I told you I’d keep searching for you.”

“You did,” Shiro agrees. “You found me, and you found Lance.”

He hears something come from the bridge, and Shiro’s gaze leaves his and looks over his head. “Shiro,” Allura speaks, walking up alongside them. “Are you ready?”

“Of course, princess. I just need a moment with Keith.” Allura nods at the two of them and continues down the hall.

“What was that about?” Keith asks.

“Matt is waking up,” Shiro replies simply. “Want to join?”

Keith thinks about it, about Matt fighting him with unnatural strength in the Galra ship and how Pidge had nearly brained him just to get to their brother. He thinks of how upset Pidge had been when no one had wanted to wake Matt up, and how there’s no way Hunk would let them be alone for when Matt wakes up. Which, of course, means that Lance will be with him.

“No,” Keith mutters. “I don’t think so.”

Shiro doesn’t press it. He nods and says, “You should visit him when you’re ready. From what I hear, you’re the one who saved him. I’m sure he’ll want to thank you.”

‘Save him’ isn’t how Keith would word it, but he doesn’t argue. Before Shiro can walk away, Keith rests a hand on his arm. “Sometime I’d like to hear about how you discovered your soul bond with Allura.” He states it seriously, but there’s a smile playing at his lips.

“Very funny,” Shiro says, humor in his voice. “She told me that you knew.” Keith flinches. “Relax, Keith. I’m not upset.” He scratches the back of his head before continuing sheepishly. “Thank you for taking care of the team. I shouldn’t have been so harsh on you when you came back without Lance. You trusted him, and that’s what a good leader should do: they should trust their team.”

Keith swallows hard past the lump in his throat.

Shiro nods at him. “I’m always here if you need to talk.” And with that, he heads off to the bridge.

---

Keith wanders to the training deck. If he needs to keep clear of Lance for the rest of the day, then the very least he can do is spend it beating the crap out of some gladiators.

The problem with that plan, of course, is that Keith isn't in any shape to take on a gladiator. Instead, he's out of shape and exhausted from having slept on the cold floor outside Lance's room the night before. After the third time the gladiator throws him to the ground on a level he knows he would've been able to beat a few weeks prior, Keith admits that he shouldn't have come here.

He lies down and stares at the ceiling, contemplating what to do with the rest of the day. Matt's awake, according to Shiro, so chances are Pidge is spending their time with him. Hunk might be with them both, which means Lance might be where Hunk is. And Shiro, of course, will want to spend time with his old friend, so Keith can't spend time with him either. In fact, lying here and thinking about how he's definitely going to have bruises from the gladiator is the best way for him to spend his time. There's no way Shiro's in any shape to train, there's no way Matt is going to train, so this is the safest spot for him to hide from Lance.

“Give up already?”

Keith sits up at the sound of Allura’s voice. He turns his head to see her dressed in her battle suit, hair pulled up in a bun. He's surprised that she's here; he would’ve thought that she'd want to spend her time with Shiro.

“Allura,” he greets, forcing himself to his feet. “What are you doing here?” He winces at his own words. They come out harsher than he'd intended. “I meant...I thought you'd be with Shiro.”

“Shiro is with Matt,” she answers, stretching her arm across her chest. “They have much to catch up on.”

Keith frowns. “Weren’t you going with him?”

Allura raises her hand and a staff drops from the ceiling into it. “I did. But Matt was...overwhelmed when he woke up to a room filled with people he didn't recognize. Perhaps you had the better idea in avoiding it.”

“Oh.” Keith doesn't ask the question that’s eating away at his mind; doesn’t ask if Hunk and Lance are still with them. He’s dying to know the answer, but even if he were to know, it wouldn't change the fact that Lance had explicitly said he needs time and doesn't want to talk to Keith right now. “So you came to the training deck?”

“Of course,” Allura says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. “I knew you would be here, and I wanted to speak with you further.”

Keith raises his eyebrows. “You want to speak with me? But, why me?”

“Because,” Allura says, positioning herself so her staff is facing Keith. “You never revealed to anyone that Shiro is my soulmate.” With that said, she attacks.

Keith raises his Bayard automatically, the hilt transforming into its usual sword shape. He parries her blow, dodging the second strike as Allura swings low. Keith rolls out of the way before landing up on his feet, ready for her next attack. “Doesn’t that mean you shouldn't talk to me? I kept my suspicions from you, too.”

Allura charges, inhumanly fast, and Keith has to raise his Luxite knife this time. It transforms into a sword, but it’s too slow, and he gets slammed back into the wall behind him. He’s not as good with two blades as he is with one, not yet. He's been training, but it's harder than he'd thought, despite being ambidextrous.

The princess doesn't give him time to breathe, running and leaping at him. Keith lifts both swords and blocks her blow with them crossed in front of her face. With a burst of energy he didn’t think he had left, he splits them apart, forcing her to leap back this time.

Allura lands, flipping the staff behind her, prepped to attack. “It means that you are trustworthy, Keith. Soul bonds are sacred to Alteans; only those who are bound to each other can reveal the bond. No matter the circumstance.”

It doesn't make a lot of sense to Keith, but it's better than nothing. “Alright, so what do you want to talk about?”

Allura flips the staff in front of her this time, gripping it in both hands almost defensively. “Lotor.” Her knuckles whiten around the weapon when she says his name.

Hot anger courses through Keith's veins. Lotor. He's never met the new emperor, Zarkon's son, but he already hates him.

“He knew we were coming, didn't he?” Keith asks. “He let us take Lance.” He'd been bothered by it before, after Hunk had said something. Even though it hadn't felt particularly easy to him, it had been far too easy for them to get in and out of Galra Central Command. They'd done it before, but that time they'd had help from a member of the Blade, even if they hadn't known it at the time. Even with the plan which had ultimately led to Zarkon's death, things hadn't been easy. They'd lost Shiro in the process. So how had they this time, without a plan or a single clue as to where they'd been going, get Lance out without losing a single person?

“That's possible,” Allura agrees. “Especially considering what Lance said, about the Faelaran reading his bond.” She nods towards him. “Lotor would have known that you are Lance’s soulmate, and that he could use that to get Voltron to come to him.”

“So then...what does that mean?” Keith frowns. Strategy isn't really his thing. He's more about action and hitting things. He doesn't do well with sitting back and thinking. “Do you think he's...tracking us somehow? Like when Zarkon had been tracking the black lion?”

“Keith.” Allura sets the tip of her staff down on the floor, no longer holding it like a weapon. “Lotor is not a god. He is not infallible no matter what he would have his followers and enemies think.”

“No, but...” Keith glares at the blades in his hand, letting them shrink back down to their base forms. “How did we get Lance out?”

“I was not lying when I said I took him by surprise. It's been ten thousand years since we last saw each other,” Allura tells him. "I was a different person back then.”

“You and Lotor were friends?” Keith asks. He shouldn't be surprised. After all, Coran knew Lotor and Zarkon back in the day. He hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about it, though. He'd been too focused on getting Shiro and then Lance back from Lotor to think about him as a person. Now, of course, Lotor’s all he can think about: how to kill him so he can never hurt another person Keith cares about ever again.

“Yes. We were...close,” Allura admits. There's more there that she isn't saying, but Keith isn't going to ask. He hadn't asked her about her soulmate, he hadn't told her about his suspicions regarding Shiro, and he isn't going to ask her now why she'd been close to Zarkon’s son. “I want you to know that. I suspect...” Allura hesitates. “If Lotor did not make a move against Zarkon for ten thousand years, then there's a reason he did so now.”

“Isn't it because we weakened him in the last battle?”

“Perhaps. But Lotor is not weak,” Allura disagrees. “He may not be what Zarkon and most Galra consider 'strong', but he has his own way of fighting. What Lotor lacks in strength, he more than makes up for in his wit.”

“Then we should take him out before he can plan anything.”

Allura whips out her staff, slamming Keith in the stomach before he can react. He lets out a huff of air, collapsing in on himself. “Make no mistake,” the princess tells him calmly, “he is no weakling either. Galra are strong by nature and so are Alteans. He is stronger than you and the other paladins through his genes alone.” She kneels in front of him, meeting his eye. “I know what you are thinking, Keith, but it would not be wise for you to face him head on.”

Keith looks away, straightening up. He can't pretend that isn't what he's been thinking. He's never seen Lotor's face in his life, but he has a vague dream of ripping the new emperor's head off his body with his bare hands. That would teach him to mess with Keith's loved ones. “We should mess with his soul bond,” Keith grumbles. “See how he likes it.”

This time she taps his head with the staff. It's softer than she had hit him before, but that doesn't stop Keith from wincing on impact. “You know that to be impossible, Keith. You were there when Princess Lae told us it could not be done.”

“I know.” That doesn't stop him from wanting it.

“Besides,” Allura says softer, almost as if speaking to herself. “Lotor's soulmate died long ago. He killed them himself.”

Keith's eyes widen. “How do you...?” He doesn't finish the sentence; doesn't know if he wants to know the answer to it.

But this seems to be the thing Allura wanted to speak with him about, because she doesn't avoid the topic. “As I said: long ago we were close, Keith. None of this is about you, nor is it about Lance.” She turns her back to him. “Lotor is already planning his next attack, and I will not lie to you, Keith; I am no match for him.”

“But you're Allura,” Keith insists. “You can take on anyone. I've seen you do it.”

She shakes her head, keeping her back to him. “This is different,” she insists. “This is between me and him. I need you to promise me something.”

“Anything,” Keith promises. She helped him get Lance back, after all. She's Shiro's soulmate. In a way, she's tied to Keith too.

“When the time comes, you will help me take care of Lotor.”

Keith's eyes widen at the princess' back. “Take care of,” he repeats. “You mean...?”

“I cannot ask Shiro to do this for me, not after –“ she chokes on her next words. Keith steps forward, letting his Bayard get absorbed into his suit in favor of resting his hand on her shoulder. The feel of it must've done something, because Allura steels her resolve. “And I cannot ask Hunk or Pidge either. They may dislike Lotor in their own way, but this is...personal.”

She doesn't mention Lance, but she doesn't need to. Keith knows that he, at the very least, will do whatever it takes to leave Lance out of the final confrontation as much as he can. He doesn't want Lance – or Shiro – anywhere near Lotor. Not after he already took them both once before.

“I understand,” he tells her.

“And I do not want the others to know about this.”

“Right,” Keith agrees.

Allura turns her head towards him, granting him a slight smile. “You should visit Matt, if you get the chance,” she tells him, effectively ending the earlier conversation. “You did rescue him too.”

Keith winces. “That's what Shiro said.”

“Shiro isn't wrong.” With another smile, Allura steps out of his grasp towards the door.

He spends the next few hours getting his ass handed to him by the gladiator. Apparently, his reserve energy had all been used up in his short spar with Allura. He stays far longer than he should, earning a few extra bruises along the way, but it's all in an attempt to continue giving Lance space.

Unfortunately, his altruism is in limited supply. Keith only lasts until he finishes eating dinner alone in the kitchen – the rest of the team is having celebratory goo in the dining room with Matt – before he decides that Lance has had enough time. Well, he probably hasn’t, but Keith is sick of being alone when his soulmate is finally on the ship with him again.

He stomps to Lance’s room, ready to confront him and demand they talk, but his will fades once he sees the door. His jacket is still lying where he’d abandoned it this morning to get breakfast. He’d thought for sure that Lance wouldn’t be awake for a while, so he hadn’t thought anything of leaving it there. Lance isn’t an idiot though, no matter how much he might play at it. He probably figured out that Keith had spent the night in front of his door.

He could do the same thing tonight. He could give Lance another night of space and just sit in front of the door, feeling all the changes in his emotions to convince himself that Lance is really there, really alive.

But a foreign sadness stabs him, and Keith can’t let Lance be alone while he’s feeling that way. He knocks, expecting a fight, but Lance is nothing if not filled with surprises. “Come in.”

Keith half expects to see Lance broken and small, the way Shiro had looked when Keith had rescued him, but Lance is sitting on the side of his bed, whole and undamaged.

“Are you…?” Keith asks. He’d meant to say ‘okay’ but he already knows the answer to that.

“Guess you’re done giving me space,” Lance remarks with a sigh. He sets down the pen he’d been holding and rolls down his sleeve. “I’m a little surprised it took this long.”

“I want to talk to you.”

“You said that before.”

“I meant it,” Keith argues stubbornly. “I wasn’t planning to keep it from you forever.”

“And I meant it when I said I’m not ready to hear about it yet,” Lance counters, just as stubborn.

Keith almost pushes it, but then he realizes: Lance isn’t angry anymore. There’s frustration, sadness, irritation, yes. But no anger. All the anger from before is gone. “You’re not mad at me anymore?” Keith asks, surprised.

Lance shakes his head. “No,” he grumbles. “Lord knows I want to be, but I can’t stay mad at you for some reason. Stupid soul bond.”

“The bond can’t make you feel anything you aren’t already feeling,” Keith says, walking forward and sitting next to Lance, far enough apart that they aren’t touching. “Someone really smart taught me that once.” Lance frowns at him, so Keith clarifies. “Hunk.”

“Great. You’ve been talking about us to Hunk.”

“He made me,” Keith insists. “I wanted to talk to you first, but Hunk was upset when I came back alone.”

Lance considers it for a moment before conceding. “Yeah, okay that’s fair. I’d have done the same in his position.” He steels himself before giving Keith his full attention. Keith can’t look away. “So what did you want to talk about?”

“The bond,” Keith answers honestly. “But we don’t have to talk about…before if you don’t want to yet.”

“What is there to say about it? It exists. Everyone knows.”

Keith growls, frustrated. “That’s not…Lance don’t be difficult. We both know what your bond meant to you before. Don’t pretend it’s nothing now just because you’re mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you,” Lance argues. “Remember? I can’t stay mad at you.”

“You could if you wanted to,” Keith counters. “If you’re not mad that means you don’t want to be.”

“What makes you think I’m not trying really, really hard?”

“Because I’d be able to feel it if you were.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that supposed to mean?” Lance snaps, sounding just like when they’d first met. When their fights were actually fights.

This is the time. Keith stares at his knees, gripping them with tight fingers. “I can feel your emotions,” he confesses.

Confusion. Fear. Anger. Embarrassment.

“What?” Lance asks, sounding much more nervous. There are a thousand butterflies in his stomach, and Keith can feel them all flapping around. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means exactly what it sounds like. Alteans get permanent soul marks, Balmerans are color-blind before they meet their soulmates, and Galra can feel their soulmates’ emotions.” Another swoop of Lance’s stomach hits Keith. “You don’t have to freak out about it. This isn’t new.”

“Don’t have to freak out?” Lance squeaks. “You’ve been able to feel my emotions this whole time?”

Keith frowns. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about that.”

“That was before I realized you could tell that I was in love with you!” Lance shouts, clearly still freaking out.

This time, the swoop of his stomach is purely his own. “You…” He chokes on the word, staring incredulously at Lance.

“Don’t act so surprised,” Lance grumbles. “If you’ve really been able to feel my emotions this whole time then there’s no way you didn’t feel that.”

Keith thinks of all the pings of Lance’s emotions he couldn’t name when they’d been together. Maybe he had known, even if he hadn’t known he’d known. “I’m not good with emotions,” he admits.

That earns a snort from Lance. “That’s the understatement of the year.”

“Shut up.” But Keith doesn’t really mean it. Most of the sadness has disappeared from Lance, leaving behind a nervous buzzing. It isn’t the most pleasant feeling, but it’s better than what had prompted Keith to knock.

“So what now?” Lance asks. Keith shoots him a confused glance. “I can’t exactly keep my feelings hidden from you anymore, so there’s not much hope I could pretend to want a platonic bond.”

“Who said I want a platonic bond?”

Lance stares at him, mouth agape as if he hadn’t considered that as an option. “Kogane, you are something else,” he breathes.

This, Keith realizes, is his chance. Lance is back, Shiro is safe, and there’s no secret soul bond itching to get out. This is the moment he can prove how serious his feelings for Lance are. He can lean in and press their lips together, the way he’d wanted to on the Galra ship.

Keith leans in minutely, but Lance speaks before he can close the gap. “We should talk about this after we defeat Lotor,” Lance whispers. His own eyes are on Keith’s lips, like he’d been thinking of doing the same thing.

Keith straightens away from Lance, looking away again. “Should I go?”

Lance sighs, sinking wearily onto his back. “I'm not kicking you out Keith. You can stay.” When Keith looks over, Lance is eyeing him. “I know if I kicked you out, you’d just guard my door again.”

Keith flinches. “I needed to make sure you were safe.”

Lance turns his head to stare at the ceiling, but Keith doesn’t miss the pink flush on his cheeks. “Thanks for saving me, even though I told you not to.”

“I try not to listen to you too much,” Keith jokes softly.

“Oh haha…” Lance smacks him on the leg, setting Keith’s body on fire. He gets quiet before clearing his throat awkwardly. “Are you really planning to stay the whole night?”

Keith thinks about going back to his bed after having slept in or near Lance’s the past few nights. “Yeah.”

“Well if that’s the case, I require pajamas.”

This time it’s Keith’s turn to be shocked. “What?”

“Pajamas, Keith. Please tell me you don’t sleep in your clothes.”

“I…don’t…” Keith answers carefully. “Why am I getting pajamas?”

“Man you really are dense.” Lance sits up and pokes him on the forehead. “I said you can stay the night. That means get changed and come back.” He stands up, and Keith vaguely registers that he’s wearing his usual clothes, so he needs to change too. “Take your jacket too.”

“You’re letting me stay with you?”

“I said I wasn’t kicking you out,” Lance replies. “Except for right now. Because I need to change.” He turns and shoots Keith a crooked smile.

Keith rushes to change as fast as humanly possible. Despite the awkward tension between them, Keith wants nothing more than to be back where he can hear Lance’s breathing and check his pulse whenever he starts to panic. He hadn’t even known that there were red pajamas just like Lance’s blue ones waiting for him in his closet. They’re soft and strange, but that had been Lance’s rule for Keith staying the night in his room, so Keith puts them on and races back to the other paladin’s room.

Lance is, of course, already changed and sitting on the bed when Keith gets back. He doesn’t look up when the door opens, but Keith can feel the rolling of nerves indicating that Lance does actually know he’s there.

Keith settles down on the floor, facing Lance’s bed. It’s colder in the pajamas. He should’ve grabbed his blankets and pillow before coming back.

“What are you doing?” Lance asks, breaking the silence.

Keith raises his eyebrows at the blue paladin. “Uh…sleeping?”

“Keith. You’re supposed to be sleeping up here.” Lance taps the bed next to himself.

“Then where are you sleeping?” Keith asks stupidly.

Lance stares at him. “Also here,” he answers finally.

That’s when Keith realizes what Lance means. He flushes, his cheeks matching the red spreading over Lance’s own face. “Oh,” he says articulately.

“Or not,” Lance backpedals, lifting the blankets and shoving his feet under, while deliberately not looking at Keith. “It was probably a stupid idea –“

“No,” Keith interrupts. He stands up and covers the space between them in two steps. It’s a bad idea; he’s not used to looking down on Lance. For some reason, it makes him feel more exposed than he already is. “I mean. It’s not a stupid idea.” He swallows and stares at the wall behind Lance’s head. “I’d like to sleep with you.”

Lance lets out a strangled noise, and Keith’s words sink in. He can feel the heat radiating off his own skin from how flushed he is, and he can’t tell whose butterflies are creating a hurricane in his stomach. “I mean!” he shouts. “Just sleep!”

There’s a long pause with neither of them saying anything before the sheets rustle. When Keith finally lets himself look at Lance, the other paladin isn’t looking at him. Instead he has the sheets held up in a clear invitation. Keith swallows hard and gets in before Lance can change his mind.

They shuffle around awkwardly, clearly trying to touch each other as little as possible. But eventually they realize that with the small twin sized mattress, they’re going to have to get over that. Keith lets Lance get comfortable, then settles with his back against Lance’s, face towards the door to protect against intruders.

“Thanks,” he says eventually. “For letting me stay.”

“Doesn’t mean I forgive you,” Lance tells him. There’s such an obvious pout in his words, no energy behind them, that Keith huffs out a laugh. “But,” Lance continues sleepily, “I like the warmth.”

---

Sleeping in the same bed as Lance is unarguably the best sleep Keith has gotten possibly ever. Keith had needed Lance’s smell surrounding him when Lance had been gone, but now that Lance is back, he doesn’t think he can survive without it.

So when he wakes up in the morning and reaches out, only to find the other side of the bed cold and empty, he bolts upright in panic. Making it to Galra Central Command, saving Lance, bringing him back, sleeping with him…all of it feels surreal compared to the reality of waking up alone in Lance’s room again.

He jumps to his feet and almost bolts out of the room when the door opens, and Lance walks in with two bowls in his hand. He frowns at the sight in front of him. “Keith?” he asks, and Keith realizes that he looks ridiculous, poised to run while only in his red pajamas. His hair is probably sticking up at odd angles.

His heartrate doesn’t slow immediately, but the panic recedes upon hearing Lance’s voice. Confusion rolls off Lance and into Keith as they stare at each other across the room.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Keith demands.

“You were pretty out of it,” Lance tells him. “I didn’t think you’d notice.”

“I thought it was a dream,” Keith admits.

“I’m sorry,” Lance apologizes. He holds out the food. “I brought breakfast?”

Keith straightens up and takes the bowl. “Thanks.” Green goo again. Hunk had promised omelets before. Omelets and pancakes. “Hey, when do you think –“

The castle alarms go off.

“Paladins,” Allura’s voice sounds over the comms. “Report to the bridge immediately. This is not a drill.”

Lance and Keith exchange a look before dropping their goo and running to the bridge, still wearing their pajamas. They encounter Hunk right before they reach the bridge. “What do you think this is about?” he asks.

“I dunno,” Keith answers seriously. “But I have a feeling it’s something about Lotor.” He wouldn’t mind finding Lotor and putting his knife right through the new emperor’s heart.

“Only one way to find out,” Lance says, and the three of them enter the bridge.

Everyone else is already there, along with Kolivan’s masked face on the screen. Keith meets Pidge’s gaze, noticing the unusually pale tint to their skin. Matt is standing behind them, hand resting protectively on their shoulder, though he looks nervous. Shiro’s hand is clenched into a fist, his face clouded in anger. Allura looks at the three paladins with a serious expression.

“Lotor’s been sighted,” she informs them. “Near Earth.”

Chapter Text

The silence that follows Allura's announcement is deafening. Given the lack of immediate reactions from everyone else, Lance can only assume that he, Keith, and Hunk are the last three to find out. There's a buzzing in his ears, as if a thousand bees have seen fit to make their refuge there as the words sink into him.

“Earth,” Lance repeats when no one else speaks. “Lotor's been sighted...near Earth.”

Just saying the words is enough to make his chest tighten. It feels like an icy hand is wrapped around his lungs, squeezing them tighter and tighter, making it hard for him to breathe.

“Yes,” Kolivan responds through the screen. He turns his attention back to Allura. “There is more than one Blade hidden within Lotor's ranks,” he remarks. “They will not make their move until I give the word.”

“Give the word,” Lance demands, stepping forward. Keith grabs his arm, holding him back before he can move too far.

Allura frowns. “How soon can you get word to the other members of the Blade?”

“An attack of this scale requires more planning in order to ensure victory,” Kolivan replies skeptically.

It sounds so painfully similar to the argument he'd given back when they fought Zarkon that Lance bites back the urge to leap at the screen. “That's a bullshit excuse!” he exclaims. “We took out Zarkon when we weren't sure the plan would work. We can take out Lotor when he's threatening our own planet!”

“Lance...” Hunk whispers, concern rolling off him in waves, but Lance doesn't spare him a glance. He's so angry he's shaking, his wrist nearly vibrating in Keith's own. Keith refuses to let go, and Lance only spares a single thought at the irony that Keith is holding Lance back from doing something stupid before focusing his attention on Allura, who is still talking.

“Send word to who you can,” she says, glossing over Lance's outburst. “We need every ally we can get.”

Kolivan nods solemnly. “Of course.” With that, the video cuts to black.

“Allura,” Lance starts, voice low in warning.

“Coran,” Allura orders, still ignoring Lance. “Send word to the Coalition and include the coordinates. Every ally who has wormhole capabilities will be needed.”

“Yes, princess!” Coran salutes, turning to the console and working on it with rapid fingers.

“Allura,” Lance repeats, shaking out of Keith's grip to step forward.

Allura turns to him, eyes flaring. “The Galra will not destroy another planet,” she assures him in a dangerous voice. “I will not let Lotor win.”

The promise only placates Lance slightly. Allura's been fighting to save all the planets they can, but this is Earth. Where Mama makes garlic knots and his younger brother Steph struggles with his homework. It's where his sister Kristine is working on saving the environment and his older brother Lucas finally settled down and got married. It's his home, the place he's been longing to return to since they got here, and now its very existence is being threatened by Lotor.

“Matt,” Allura addresses next, voice bringing Lance back to the present. Her voice is soft, but despite that, Matt twitches as if poked. He'd been overwhelmed when they'd woken him up after the quintessence had been bled from his system. Having a bunch of strangers standing around him in a new place had been...probably a bad idea. Pidge had stepped forward to take care of it before shooing everyone but Shiro out, and Lance had thought that him being on the bridge meant he was feeling better.

From the looks of it, he's just as nervous as before.

The older Holt shifts his weight, eyes darting between the paladins and Coran before settling on Pidge, who gives him a slight nod. “Yes?” he asks.

“You worked for Haggar, correct?” Allura asks, voice kind despite the implied accusation in the question.

“Ah, yes,” Matt concedes, looking at his hands. He fiddles his fingers, tapping them against the chair until Pidge wraps his hand in their own.

“It's okay, Matt,” they assure him. “We all know you were brainwashed.” They shoot a glare to where Lance and Keith are standing before turning their attention back to Matt.

“Did she say anything about Lotor? About what he'd want when he took the throne?” Allura presses.

Matt shakes his head. “Haggar didn't tell us a lot of things.” He frowns again, as if something had just occurred to him. “I think I remember overhearing that Zarkon didn't want Lotor as emperor, though.”

“Why wouldn't Zarkon want his son as the emperor?” Hunk asks. Something about the question seems to bother Keith. His hand tightens around Lance's wrist as he steps forward so they're side by side again.

For some reason, Matt glances at Coran this time before he answers. “I think he was banished?” He lilts the end of the last word, as if asking a question. But Coran seems just as baffled as everyone else at the knowledge that Lotor had been banished previously.

“Why would Zarkon banish his own son?” Hunk asks, nearly repeating his own words from earlier, voice incredulous.

Matt scratches the back of his head. “My memories aren't very clear,” he admits.

“Just tell us what you can remember,” Shiro encourages. Matt gives him a grateful look.

“There were rumors that everything leading to Zarkon's coma was Lotor's doing. Even the reemergence of Voltron was credited to him.”

Allura scoffs. “That is ridiculous.”

Pidge raises their eyebrows. “They think we're working for Lotor?”

Matt just shrugs. “Like I said, my memories are hazy.”

And as interesting as this all is, Lance is more concerned with the immediate problem. Namely: “What about Earth?” he demands. “Shouldn't we be leaving right away?”

Allura straightens up. “Yes,” she agrees. She's the only one in her battle suit; the other paladins are all still in whatever they'd been wearing before, though Lance and Keith are least prepared for battle in their pajamas. “Suit up, paladins. Coran, prepare the ship.”

That's all Lance needs to sprint out of the room, ripping himself out of Keith's grasp. He's out in the hallway by the time Keith catches up to him, grabbing him again and pulling him to a stop. “Keith,” Lance jerks his arm, but Keith isn't letting him go. “You heard Allura: we need to suit up.”

“Not until you calm down,” Keith demands, eyes searching Lance's own.

For a moment, Lance forgets. He opens his mouth to demand how the hell Keith knows that, but Keith beats him to the punch. “Your emotions are a mess, Lance. You need a clear head before you go into battle.”

And then he remembers.

“My family's there,” Lance whispers since he can't hide his emotions from Keith. “I can't let Lotor kill them because of me.”

“Lance,” Keith murmurs, thumb tracing circles against Lance's arm, as if that could comfort him. “I don't think he's doing this just because of you.”

“Then how do you explain this?” Lance asks, voice growing hysterical. “You rescued me yesterday, Keith! And now he's already at Earth?”

“Shiro's from Earth too,” Keith reminds him. “And so am I, and so is Hunk, and so is Pidge.” He steps forward, close enough that Lance can see Keith's individual eyelashes. They're so long; how had he never noticed that? “Lotor took Shiro before we saved him, remember? I don't think Lotor's near Earth just because of you. And even if he was,” Keith squeezes his arm, “that doesn't change the fact that we'll stop him.”

Lance can feel tears pricking his eyes, just the thought of Galra Central Command floating above Veradero Beach enough to choke him in panic. “What if we can't stop him?”

Keith drops his forehead, pressing it against Lance's. They go cross-eyed looking at each other until Lance has to look down instead. “We'll stop him,” Keith promises him. “We saved Shiro and you from him. We can save Earth too.”

There's a beat where Lance thinks Keith might close the gap between their lips, but Keith straightens up instead. He gives Lance a grimace that might be his attempt at a smile.

He's still mad at Keith in a way. Well, not mad exactly. They established that the night before. He definitely loves Keith, and he's definitely thrown at the knowledge that Keith might want...something with him in the future. He can't feel Keith the same way Keith can feel him, or at least he doesn't think he can, so he doesn't know what that 'something' might be. But if they really can save Earth and defeat Lotor for good, he thinks that this might be the first thing he does.

And then he realizes that he has other problems right now. “Shit.”

The half-smile falls off Keith's face. “What?”

“I don't have a suit.” He'd been stripped of it on the Galra ship. All that the castle has is his helmet and Bayard. At least the Bayard is here on the ship. He knows from Shiro flying Black that he could fly without the Bayard, but he wouldn't be able to fight so well out of his lion.

No suit though poses other problems.

Keith frowns as if the problem Lance posed is the greatest problem of their time. “I can just wear my normal clothes,” Lance thinks out loud. “It'll probably be fine as long as I don't get launched into space accidentally.”

At that, Keith glares at Lance as if he'd just suggested murdering an entire planet. “What if you have to fight hand to hand?”

“Then I try not to get shot.”

“You should at least have armor.”

“Keith, I really don't see any options here...”

Keith's face lights up as if he's had an epiphany. He starts down the hall, pulling Lance along with him. “I have an idea.”

---

They don't head back to the bridge after they change; instead they go straight to the hangar bay. The other paladins are already there, except for Allura, waiting for the word. Shiro's in his armor, looking distinctly unbalanced. Keith takes one look at him and opens his mouth, but Pidge speaks before he can say whatever's in his head.

“Lance, where's your armor?”

Lance glances down at himself, flushing. Keith had tugged him down the hallway into his room, and Lance had stood there watching as Keith rooted around in his closet before pulling out the purple and black suit on him now. It's the armor I got from the Blade of Marmora, he'd explained as if Lance hadn't recognized the same style of armor that Kolivan and the others wear. It's not as good as the paladin armor, but it should at least help.

“I think it's still in Galra Central Command,” Lance answers nervously. He hopes it is, at least. His helmet can't create a seal against the skin tight armor he has on right now, so he's still screwed if he gets launched out an airlock even though he has some protection against being shot at. “I have my Bayard, though.” He holds it up, just to prove it to them.

“Is that Keith's suit?” Shiro asks, and Lance's face gets even warmer.

“It's better than nothing,” Keith declares stalking past them. “Shouldn't we be getting in our lions?” What little of his face Lance can see is about as red as his own feels.

“Are you piloting?” Hunk asks Shiro, mercifully changing the topic.

“No,” Shiro starts.

“I am.” Allura finishes the sentence over the ship-wide comm. “Paladins, we are nearing the quadrant. Get in your lions.”

As if reminded of the very real danger they face, Hunk and Pidge hurry off into the hangar. Keith is already walking that way, but Lance pauses, glancing over at the very stressed out Shiro. “You're still coming right?” Lance asks quietly. He'd hoped Keith wouldn't notice, but of course he had and stopped.

Shiro gives him a half-smile reminiscent of Keith's grimace earlier. “Allura and I think it'll be easier to form Voltron if I am at least in Black,” he says, voice more than a little self-deprecating.

Lance opens his mouth to assure Shiro that he's valued for more than just that, but Keith talks before he can. “Lance, come on.”

Shiro nods to him, and Lance follows Keith. “I still don't get how Allura could pilot Black,” he whispers when he thinks they're out of earshot.

Keith gives him an incredulous look.

“What?”

Keith shakes his head. “Nothing. It's not important. Be careful alright?”

“I'm always careful,” Lance jokes. He gives Keith a salute before heading to Blue.

Blue greets him with a happy rumble when he gets into the cockpit, flooding him with warmth and the assurance that she's happy to see him. Despite the situation they're leaping into, it makes Lance smile. In some ways, this is just another distress signal. Another planet in need. Another chance for Voltron to defeat the Galra and save the day.

But it's also Earth.

“Let's do this,” he mutters to her, hands clutched around the handles. It feels like home. Her desire to save Earth fills him, and somehow things seem less hopeless than they did before. The comms stay silent, and distantly Lance can sense Red and the other lions all waiting with bated breath.

Finally, Allura breaks the silence. “We've arrived,” she announces seriously. “All lions but Black, launch.”

Lance barely presses on the handles before Blue launches. He's second out of the hangar only to Red, followed by Green and Yellow. “Holy quiznack,” he breathes once he finally sees the sight before them.

They're at Earth, sure enough. Galra Central Command is floating menacingly above it, surrounded by a full fleet of cruisers. Fighters launch almost immediately upon the lions appearing. They have their work cut out for them.

“Pidge, Keith, take out the fighters heading towards Earth,” Shiro says as Black finally joins them. Lance turns Blue so he can see what Shiro's talking about, and sure enough a group of fighters is heading directly towards the atmosphere. On impulse, Lance urges Blue forward, but Shiro speaks again. “Lance, Hunk, you're with me. We're going to take out Central Command.”

It sounds great, but Lance would rather be protecting Earth. If even one fighter is missed, it could be disastrous. Lance will never forgive himself if even one person dies in this attack.

“I think I should help,” he insists as Red and Green rush towards Earth.

“We need to stop Lotor from doing to Earth what Haggar did to Voltron,” Allura states matter-of-factly. Before he can suck all the quintessence out of Earth is what she means. Lance grits his teeth. It isn't ideal, but he can do that.

“Coran?” he asks.

“Yes, my boy?” His face appears in the corner of Blue's display.

“Don't let the Galra touch Earth.” Lance's request is echoed by hums of agreement from all his fellow paladins.

Coran nods, expression grim. “I would prefer to save you all from experiencing the same pain we did from losing Altea.”

“Precisely,” Allura agrees sharply. “Which is why we're ending this once and for all.”

With those words, the remaining three lions rush to Central Command. As with the times they'd fought Zarkon before, there are dozens of cruisers between them and the large ship. The priority is, of course, getting to that main ship, but when all their cannons keep needing to be frozen in order to allow them to pass, it gets exhausting. Lance misses one, and the shot narrowly misses the yellow lion.

“Sorry about that buddy!” he shouts. Hunk gives him a reassuring smile before jerking Yellow to avoid hitting the cruiser in front of him.

Lance freezes that cannon before headbutting a large dent into it and flying off. “We got this, beautiful,” he murmurs to Blue. She purrs back, filling him with a sense of satisfaction.

“Lance, behind you,” Shiro warns in a calm voice.

Lance speeds up before pulling Blue into a steep climb. The Galra fighter doesn’t move as quickly, so Lance flips over, shooting a stream of ice at them. It hits them and clips the ion canon, preventing the canon from turning before it shoots, and the Galra inadvertently shoot one of their own.

“Nice one Lance!” Hunk shouts. He angles Yellow into the side of the cruiser, slamming a large armored head into it. It does far more damage than Blue's headbutt on the other cruiser, folding in a whole portion of the ship as if it were made of tin foil.

“Did you see that?” Hunk whoops. “I have an armor head!”

“It matches your armor claws!” Pidge shouts back with a laugh, voice followed by the sounds of fighters being taken out closer to the atmosphere. It feels like a normal mission like this. Take out the Galra fleet and save the planet below.

Then Blue gets hit hard from behind, a blast slamming into her hard enough that Lance nearly falls out of his seat. He lets out a shout, gripping the controls with white fists to stay in place. “What the -” he's interrupted by a second hit, this time from the side.

His brain rattles in his skull, and he jerks Blue to the side on instinct, narrowly avoiding a third hit.

Three cruisers have descended on his former location, and are still targeting Blue directly. With a start, Lance remembers that Lotor knows he's the blue paladin. He's been specifically targeted.

It doesn't feel so much like a normal mission anymore.

“Watch out!” Hunk's shout alerts Lance of a fourth cruiser, gearing up to shoot him again, though with the ion cannon this time. The same weapon that had nearly destroyed Blue and landed him in the healing pod when they'd saved Faelara.

Blue's alarm fills him along with his own, and the two of them jerk to the side. But she's not going to be fast enough. They're gonna be hit again, and there's nothing he can do about it. She's not fast like -

A streak of red flies past him, and a wave of fire hits the Galra cruiser before it can complete its shot. “Are you alright?” Keith demands, his face appearing on Lance's screen. He looks angry, but Lance knows it isn't at him. Somehow, he knows that the anger on Keith's face is entirely directed at the Galra and Lotor.

Or maybe he's just projecting.

“I'm good,” he breathes. Relief settles easily over Keith's face, as if all he'd needed was to hear Lance's voice. He doesn't leave the comm, instead staring at Lance, looking like he has something to say. Lance technically already confessed to him, but right now seems like a good time to repeat it, just in case Keith didn't get the memo before. The words get caught in his throat, so instead Lance thinks as hard as he can at Keith, watching a blush spread over Keith's face as the message gets received.

“I hate to break up the moment,” Hunk interrupts, “but we have more incoming.”

Keith's face disappears off Lance's screen at the same time that Red flips away, turning towards another one of the cruisers. Lance turns the other way, freezing a set of three fighters that try to sneak up on them from behind. Loud shots sound from behind him, and when he turns Blue again – after he's sure their backs are safe – the cruiser's on fire. Blue fills him with amusement for some reason, growing more amused when Lance doesn't catch onto her inside joke.

“Keith!” Pidge shouts, face appearing on the comm. “As great as it is that you're on speaking terms with your soulmate, I could really use your help taking out these fighters! They're targeting the Garrison ships!”

“Garrison ships?” Lance asks, but his question is ignored. He looks to see for himself, and Blue has to give him a zoomed in view of what's happening closer to the atmosphere.

Sure enough, the Garrison does have some ships out, trying to do what they can, but the Earth technology is so much weaker than what they're fighting against that they can barely break through the atmosphere, let alone fire any weapons. “Earthlings still use projectiles?” Coran speaks up, the castle ship flying towards Earth to help the green lion. Lance swears he sees a small shuttle launch out of the ship, but it's a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of moment.

“Coran, distract them for us. We need to form Voltron,” Shiro instructs.

Green is the last to join them, flying from near the planet itself before the five of them blast off, ready to combine. The Voltron feeling that Lance gets when they combine fills him, but this time feels strange. Not the same strange as the time when Allura had combined with them and they'd come apart at the seems but strange like -

“Are both you and Shiro...in Voltron?” Pidge asks, voicing Lance's thoughts out loud. He couldn't have worded it any better himself either. There's no other way to describe it; it's like there are six of them instead of five, but somehow it still feels like there are only five of them.

“I...think so,” Allura answers, sounding just as confused as them. “I may be piloting Black, but Shiro is the true black paladin. We suspected his presence would make combining easier. It would seem as though that is the case.”

“Just when I think we can't get any weirder...” Hunk mumbles, and Lance hums in agreement.

“It doesn't matter,” Keith declares, as straightforward as always. “Let's take out Lotor before he can do anything else.”

“Keith, Pidge, form the sword,” Shiro commands. “Lance and Hunk, we need speed. We can't afford to get distracted by smaller ships.”

“We got this,” Lance promises with a cocky grin. “Right, buddy?”

“Right, buddy,” Hunk agrees, and together they fire their thrusters.

As one, Voltron launches at the Central Command ship. Shiro's warning hadn't been in vain either, because the minute Voltron appears on their radar, the Galra fleet focuses their attention on them. “Coran,” Allura commands. “Is there anything you can do to help keep them off us?”

“I'm outnumbered myself, princess!” Coran answers, sounding flustered. Sure enough, it looks like the castle ship is having a hell of a time trying to keep the Galra away from the Garrison fleet and Earth itself.

He can't be in two places at once, but neither can Voltron, and the cruisers are doing a great job at completely distracting them from Central Command. The entirety of Voltron is brimming with impatience and irritation as they fight cruiser after cruiser.

“Looks like you could use a hand,” a familiar voice sounds over the comm, and an Olkari's face fills the screen. Ships of various kinds, Olkari, Marmoran, and others Lance doesn't recognize enter the space, shooting at the cruisers. They're smaller and less equipped than the castle ship and Voltron, but right now they can use everyone they can get.

“Apologies, princess,” Kolivan states, appearing on screen again. Slav's head is half visible behind him. “These were as many as could be gathered in a short time.”

“Nevermind that,” Allura states, taking her role as leader of the Coalition smoothly. “Voltron will handle the large ship. Please assist Coran in defending the planet and taking down the smaller ships.” Both the Olkari and Kolivan nod before their faces disappear.

“Keep pushing forward,” Shiro urges them. He and Hunk push on the thrusters again, and Voltron bursts through a cruiser, leaving an explosion in their wake.

A bad feeling fills Lance as they get closer to their goal, especially when the ship doesn't shoot at them. The reason for that is made clear a moment later. Lance lets out a gasp and unintentionally lets up on the throttle, causing Voltron to jerk sharply to the right. Hunk compensates while Lance regains his bearings and the two of them work to bring Voltron to a halt, facing the ship itself.

“They're gonna suck all the quintessence out of Earth,” Pidge breathes.

Lance can't speak. He can't think of anything except the faces of his parents and siblings, staring at the sky and watching the nightmare above them. He doesn't know what it feels like to have your quintessence pulled out of your body, but if it's even half as unpleasant as being injected with quintessence, then it's miserable. He doesn't want that to be how his family dies. And he doesn't want a space battle over Earth to be the last thing his family sees.

“We have to stop them,” Lance exhales, as if it's not already obvious.

“Coran,” Allura starts. “How do we stop this?”

“I am not sure, princess,” Coran responds, sounding haggard. “Honerva was the expert at quintessence research. Whatever they're using isn't powered by anything mechanical. The druids are likely the power source. We need someone to get inside.”

“There's no time,” Keith speaks up. Even if they had someone inside, it would still take time to get to wherever the druids are now. Time they don't have.

The black ball of energy pulses once, and Lance doesn't hesitate. “Hunk!” he shouts, and that's all he needs for Hunk to understand. The two of them force Voltron forward in unison. It's not the best idea he's ever had. Hell, it's not even an idea at all. Lance is just following his instinct, but no one is telling him to stop.

Voltron flies forward, and for one heart-sinking moment, Lance doesn't think they'll make it. But a split second later the blast hits. Blue screams in his head, distantly echoed by Red and the others. The pain overwhelms him, and he screams too. He thinks he hears the others screaming, but his ears are ringing too much to be sure.

It feels exactly the way it had when they'd taken out Zarkon. They'd thought they'd won that time, and Haggar had caught them by surprise. This time, they'd gone into it knowing exactly what to expect. The blast doesn't last forever, and when it ends, Lance collapses forward onto his controls. Blue's completely silent, the way she'd been before. It's as if she'd been ripped right out of his soul.

How many more times can they take a blow like that before the lions can't come back online anymore?

“Princess!” Coran shouts. “Paladins!”

Allura's the first to recover. “We are still here,” she replies hoarsely. The fact that she can talk at all is impressive. Lance feels like he's one second from dropping onto the floor of his lion.

“Lance,” Keith's voice sounds out in his lion. Lance lifts his head but the video feed is dead. He has no idea what state any of the rest of them are in. “Are you...” Keith doesn't finish his question.

He doesn't have to.

“I'm still here,” Lance confirms, forcing himself upright. He moves Blue's controls experimentally, but predictably, nothing happens. “Blue isn't responding, though.”

“Neither is Yellow,” Hunk announces.

“Or Green,” Pidge adds.

Lance lets out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. All of them are alive. If they make it out of this battle, he wants to take a long nap. Preferably on a beach somewhere sunny.

“Allura!” Shiro shouts, and Lance's attention falls to his window.

A moment after Shiro's shout, a streak of pink flies towards Galra Central Command. “Allura!” Keith is the one to shout this time. “What are you doing?”

“Lotor is this way because of me,” Allura answers calmly. “It's high time I ended this.”

Keith wants to argue, Lance can tell, so Lance does it for the both of them. “What are you talking about?” he calls to Allura. After all, he's still fairly positive that the reason Lotor's attacking Earth is because of him, not Allura.

“Concentrate on bringing your lions back,” she instructs. “Leave Lotor to me.”

“Are we seriously going to let her do that?” Pidge asks.

Shiro sighs, sounding exhausted with just his breathing. “Focus on bringing the lions back, like Allura said. We can't help her if we don't do anything about it. Focus your energy on bringing them back.”

Lance closes his eyes, letting Shiro's instructions wash over him. “Some of us still have family down there, some of us don't. But no matter what, we don't want to lose our home. Do we, Hunk?”

Hunk's determination fills the bond faster than it had when they'd fought Zarkon. “No,” he declares. Lance knows he's picturing his parents, the same way Lance is picturing his own family. “We don't.” The yellow lion lets out a roar.

“What about you Pidge?” Shiro asks.

Pidge's resolve floods through the bond. “I want to see my mom again.” The green lion growls, coming back to life.

“Lance?” Shiro asks, voice softer than before.

Lance swallows, picturing what Lotor had almost taken from him. He'd hurt Shiro and threatened Keith, and now he's trying to destroy everything and everyone Lance has ever cared about. As long as Lance is still alive, he won't let Lotor threaten anyone else, ever again. “We're going to take Lotor down,” he swears. Blue rushes back into him, soul realigning once more with his as the cockpit once again fills with light.

“Keith?”

“No,” Keith answers quickly, stubbornly. Red fills Lance as well, aligning herself alongside Blue. Her presence isn't as strong, but it's just as right when it snaps into place in his heart. “He's not taking anyone else from me,” Keith finishes. Lance's stomach flips over.

“Good,” Shiro says, face appearing on the screen as Black comes back to life. “Then let's finish this.”

Voltron comes back online with a roar that vibrates in Lance's bones. He knows the moment Keith activates the sword without anyone saying anything, and he can tell Hunk is already powering up the shoulder cannon. They've never been this in sync before.

“Fire,” Shiro orders.

Lance turns Blue so they're facing the direction of the largest fleet of Galra ships right when Hunk lets loose on the cannon. A dozen shots fire at once, zeroing in on all the ships they'd been aiming for. The fighters explode in a series of fireworks while the cruisers get lit on fire in multiple places, but Voltron is already returning their attention to the real threat.

The Galra Command ship has its real guns out finally, and all of them are now aimed at Voltron.

“We need to take out those guns,” Shiro informs them all unnecessarily. “Hunk.”

Hunk fires again, but this time something deflects his shots. Moments later, a new ship appears. It's Galra but looks different than the others; smaller than the warships but larger than the fighters. The screen crackles, and the familiar blue face of one of Lotor's generals fills the screen. “Hand over the princess and the Champion, and we'll leave your planet alone,” the general announces calmly. In the corner of her display, Lance spots a flash of red; one of the other generals.

“I know them,” he mutters to the team. “She's the one who took me.”

Anger spikes through the Voltron bond, and the transmission crackles once more before disappearing. “Then we're taking her down,” Keith growls.

The red lion jerks forward, out of sync with the rest of the team. Shiro either doesn't or can't hold him back, and the whole being of Voltron wavers for a second. The bond, which had been so strong a moment before, falters before it's ripped apart, and they're back as five lions.

“Keith!” Pidge shouts as the red lion races towards the ship. “We need to form Voltron again!”

But Keith isn't listening. He's zooming straight for the new ship, not even trying to dodge the shots it's firing at him. Lance curses and shoots off after him, activating his sonic boom on Blue's back. “Beautiful,” he addresses her. “We need to hit just the Galra with this. Not Keith. Can you do that for me?”

She purrs in his head, reassurance that she'll do nothing to hurt her fellow lion or his soulmate inside. Lance doesn't hesitate. “Keith, duck!” he shouts, shooting the sonic blast.

The red lion drops at Lance's shout, and Lance hopes it's fast enough. This weapon feels different than the sonic boom and he can't see the waves coming off Blue the way he could when he'd fought the sea monster. The only sign he has that it hit is the shudder of the Galra ship moments after his attack. The blaster shots which had been targeting Red stop abruptly, and the ship rocks dangerously.

“Good girl,” Lance compliments. Distant amusement hits him from Red, but Lance doesn't focus on that because the team is shouting at him.

“Did you just shoot an EMP at the Galra?” Hunk asks, excitement clear in his voice.

Pidge jumps in before Lance can answer. “See if you can hit a different frequency,” they instruct. “You might be able to take out their power.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“I don't know,” Pidge shoots back. “She's your lion!”

“We'll hold them off until you figure it out,” Shiro tells him. “But figure it out fast.”

Black flies past Blue, momentarily distracting him. “Wait, how are you flying Black right now? Didn't Allura jump out?” Lance asks.

“Lance,” Keith lectures. “Focus.”

Lance almost mocks him for that. Almost. But Keith is right. Central Command is now pointing its guns down towards Earth, while the other ships fight to take out Voltron. He needs to do what he can, and if Blue can knock out the power of this smaller ship, then she might have a chance at the bigger one too.

He just needs to figure out how to unlock it.

“I need you to take out their power,” Lance says, closing his eyes as he reaches for the bond he shares with the blue lion. “Whatever frequency...or whatever it takes to do that.” She acknowledges him, focusing on finding what he needs. He keeps his eyes shut, waiting for her as patiently as he can, even as he hears shouts from his teammates and the sounds of battle all around them.

She lights up the moment she figures it out, and somehow Lance thinks he can see what she sees. He moves his hand, trusting her to guide him, firing the pulse before opening his eyes again.

He can't see the pulse, but the strength of this one is enough to send Blue flying backwards from the kickback. She zooms backwards, slamming into a ship behind them, but the small fighter can't withstand the size of Blue. It snaps in half, the pieces flying past Lance's vision as they tumble head over tail.

“Holy shit,” Hunk breathes. Pidge whistles, and Shiro's breath catches. Lance is still reeling from the shot, but whatever happened was clearly impressive because when Keith speaks, his voice is filled with awe. “Can you do that again?”

By the time Lance gets control over Blue and turns to see the ship where Lotor's generals had been, he sees what they're talking about. The strange small ship is damaged completely beyond repair. While it isn't falling apart, it is completely dark aside from the bits which are sparking ominously. The ship had been pushed close to Earth from the blast, closer than even the international space station.

The ship tilts dangerously, pulling in by Earth's gravity. It teeters for a moment before falling. Four small escape pods fly out of it, but they're too late. All five ships are tugged down, and Lance hopes they don't fall too close to any cities.

“Look,” Pidge calls, and Lance follows to where Green is facing. A fleet of the Garrison ships, unable to break the atmosphere has branched off and is flanking the falling ship and pods. “Guess they can't pretend there's no such thing as aliens anymore, huh?”

Lance lets out a laugh, Hunk chuckles, and even Keith huffs in amusement.

“Lance,” Shiro instructs. “Can Blue do the same to Galra Command?”

Lance swallows. That ship is a lot bigger. A lot a lot. Blue agrees; she's not sure she can take out the entire ship. “Uh...I dunno. We can try though.”

“Do it.”

“Keep them off me again,” Lance requests. “It takes Blue time to find the right frequency.”

“Don't worry about us, buddy,” Hunk assures. “You do your thing.”

Lance closes his eyes, focusing again. He tries to help Blue as much as possible, but for the most part all she needs from him is silence. This one is harder than the last. The ship is large, and Blue isn't sure she can find a frequency that could knock out the whole ship. “Just the weapons then,” he murmurs. She reaches out again, and Lance feels the moment she finds what she needs.

Just like before, Lance keeps his eyes closed when he launches the weapon. He sees that the other lions aren't in the way as he moves his hand. Blue still gets thrown backwards from the force of it, but Lance is prepared this time. He regains control faster, and Blue doesn't tumble nearly as many times.

The weapons sticking out of the Galra ship all fall at the same time, sparking the way the generals' ship had. Hunk whistles. “That's a pretty sick weapon.”

“I wonder if there's a way to get that onto Voltron,” Pidge muses.

“Only one way to find out,” Lance points out.

“No,” Shiro stops them. “We're doing better as lions than we had been as Voltron. We should stay split up. The Coalition ships need assistance. There's still a large portion of the Galra fleet trying to enter Earth's atmosphere. We need to take them out before we can experiment with Voltron's weapons.”

“Fun sucker,” Pidge mutters under their breath.

Lance snickers, high on the feeling that he'd actually single-handedly prevented Earth from getting destroyed. It's a good feeling. A great feeling. He's taken out their guns, the druids haven't attempted a second attack, and the generals' ship had been taken out. He's feeling pretty good up until a large explosion forces his attention back to the Command ship.

A hole's been blown through the side, shooting sentries and debris out into space. Something about that doesn't sit well with him, but it isn't until Keith speaks up that Lance realizes what exactly it is.

“Shiro, where's Allura?”

Lance's blood runs cold.

“She flew towards that ship,” Shiro answers, voice tight. It doesn't take a bond with the lions to know exactly what Shiro's feeling, because Lance feels it too. Allura's in there. They can't just destroy the ship, not until they get the princess out safely.

“Allura?” Hunk calls, as if she wouldn't have answered already if she could hear them. “Are you there?”

Silence.

“Coran,” Shiro speaks. “Do you have any sign of Allura?”

“Negative,” Coran replies, sounding stressed. “I believe there's something jamming all signals from going into or coming out of the Galra ship. Matt has also gone black since he left.”

“What?!” Pidge shouts.

“We're working on it,” Slav's voice speaks up. “There is a 74.2% chance that the system will be unjammed in 26.3 doboshes.”

“Twenty-six minutes is unacceptable,” Shiro growls as a second blast sends sentries flying out of the Galra ship.

“I'm going in.” Lance shouldn't be surprised that it's Keith who volunteers first. He shouldn't be surprised that Keith wants to do something stupid and reckless to rescue not only Allura but apparently Matt as well. And really, he isn't surprised.

But that doesn't mean he's happy about it.

“Keith,” Lance warns. “Don't.”

“I'm going to end this,” Keith declares. “I'm going to be the one to kill Lotor.”

Surprisingly, before Lance can argue any further, Shiro speaks up. “Get in line.” Venom nearly spits out of Shiro's mouth as he says it, and Lance once again thinks that he's grateful he hadn't spent as long in Lotor's care as Shiro had.

“What if we need to form Voltron?” Pidge asks, voice strained. “'You can't just leave.' Isn't that what you told me?”

But nothing they say is going to keep Keith from going, and Lance knows it. He turns on his video message, transmitting himself to the others. “Don't you dare do anything stupid. You hear me?” he demands, but his voice comes out weaker than he'd intended.

“Just watch my back,” Keith responds, his own face appearing on Lance's screen.

For a second, the video feed gives Lance the rare view of one of Keith's small smiles. But the feed cuts out as Red races towards the ship. Lance watches Red fly before Keith launches himself out of her, streaking towards the ship the same way they'd broken into the prison to save Matt.

Lance smiles despite himself. “He Into Darkness-ed it,” he whispers.

“Lover boy,” Pidge snaps. “Move. Your soulmate isn't the only one in there.”

Right. Matt's in there too. Two soulmates and Allura are in there, and it's their job to keep all three safe. For the first time, Lance is jealous of Hunk. Shay is off on the Balmera somewhere, likely out of reach of their bond. She's safe from this battle while he and Pidge have to stay out here and fight while their soulmates are in there, risking their lives out of reach of the comms. Meanwhile, whoever Shiro's soulmate is, is probably somewhere down on Earth, relying on all of them to keep the planet from being destroyed.

Lance turns his attention away from the Galra ship for now, focusing on not letting anyone – allies or enemies – near where Keith and the others are now inside. And now that he's finally looking away from Lotor's ship, he can see what a disaster this battle has become.

The Galra fleet is significantly reduced, but so is the Coalition's. There are still Olkari ships left that he can recognize as well as ships he's never seen before, but there are absolutely fewer allies now than there had been when they'd arrived.

He wants to help, but Red's floating defenseless nearby and Keith...

“Hunk,” he starts, already regretting speaking. He shouldn't ask Hunk to do this for him.

“Already on it,” his best friend declares. Yellow flies past them, heading to their allies. “You guys better not let anyone hurt your soulmates or I'll be super pissed.”

“We won't,” Shiro replies, bafflingly. He doesn't tell Pidge and Lance that they need to help the cause rather than stand guard here. Instead, he stays with them for some reason.

Lance doesn't have time to think about that, though, because the Galra have finally figured out that something's gone wrong at their headquarters. All but a few of the cruisers which had been previously focused on breaking through Earth's atmosphere and fighting the Coalition turn their attention to the three lions guarding the ship. They split up as the cruisers fire weapons at them; Lance moves to guard Red, Pidge flies down to take out some fighters newly headed their way, and Shiro takes Black up. The black lion isn't flying as smoothly as Lance is used to seeing it; clearly Shiro's having a hell of a time trying to pilot one-handed.

But if any of them can do it, it's Shiro.

Lance freezes two fighters that try to sneak up on Black from behind while vines sprout from one of the fighters trying to attack him. The cruisers at least aren't charging their ion cannons with the Command ship at risk if the lions dodge, so they have that to their advantage. Lance freezes them anyway, not wanting to risk it if Shiro or Pidge venture too far from him.

Vines sprout constantly from the smaller fighters, causing them to crash into the cruisers, each other, and one even flies into the large Command ship with an explosion. “Watch it, Pidge!” Lance shouts, heart hammering in his chest. Keith's still okay, though. He can feel it.

“I can't exactly control where they crash!” Pidge shouts, just as stressed.

“Paladins,” Shiro lectures halfheartedly. The black lion slices through several fighters, cutting them in half with the jawblade. Shiro's able to destroy bits of the cruisers with it as well, though it doesn't have the same impact as Voltron's sword. If only they all had a Voltron...

Blue chuckles around him. He gets the impression that thoughts like that were what started the war in the first place. “Alright,” he agrees, “only one Voltron. I still think it'd be helpful though.”

“What are you mumbling about?” Pidge asks, still strained like before.

“Nothing.”

And then something happens.

Lance can't exactly explain it. There's a strange feeling in his gut, and a pull in the direction of Galra Central Command. His attention gets dragged away from the fighters he's been steadily taken out in time to see a small Galra ship – strange like the ones the generals had been flying but smaller – bolt away from the battle; away from Earth.

Red jolts to life, shooting away from where she'd been floating harmlessly toward the ship. Lance's stomach drops along with her when he sees two small figures fly out from the bottom of the ship. From here, they look almost identical, but he doesn't have to see details to know who they are.

Neither does Shiro. “Keith,” he says before Lance can speak. “Allura. What are you doing?”

“We're going to take out Lotor,” Keith replies firmly, leaving no room for questions or doubt. Red snaps the two of them up in her mouth and races away from Earth, after the ship. She's faster than any of the rest of them, and even though Lance sends Blue flying after her, he knows there's no way he has a chance of catching them.

“Keith!” he shouts. “Don't do this!”

“He hurt you,” Keith growls. “I'm going to make him pay.”

Red gets further and further away, chasing the small ship which is almost as fast as she is. Lance urges Blue faster, but she just...can't. He's left behind, fear and anger clawing up his throat as Keith goes beyond his reach.

“Keith!” he yells again, but this time Keith doesn't respond.

“Lance!” Shiro calls after him. “We need help here!”

It's only the rare urgency in Shiro's voice that makes Lance obey. He sends Blue back into the fray, passing the moon as he does. What he sees is chaos.

Part of the Galra fleet seems to have accepted defeat, turning and running into their own wormholes. The other half has given up on attacking Earth, and has now turned their whole attention back to Voltron. “We need to take over Central Command,” Shiro instructs.

“Matt's still in there!” Pidge reminds them, making vines explode out of a whole slew of fighters.

“We'll take it from the inside,” Shiro decides. “Lance, can you get in?”

“Yes,” Lance declares. He doesn't care what it takes, he can get in.

Blue, feeling his irritation and fear at not being able to follow Keith away from Earth, scans the ship, locating the best way for him to enter without needing a helmet. It's one of their launch pads, so without any preamble, Lance angles her towards it, flying in that direction.

She smashes past several fighters that block her way, slamming into the launch pad. Her claws scrape on the floor, back smacking into the ceiling more than once as she skids to a halt. Lance grabs his Bayard, transforming it into his rifle before racing out.

He takes out the sentries one by one, rushing past them without bothering to check if his shots landed. The hallway, when he reaches it, is a mess. Sentries are strewn about, sparking wires sticking out of them. Keith and the others really did a number on them, didn't they?

It makes him nervous when he doesn't meet any enemies as he runs aside from the sentries in the landing area. That is, until he turns the corner and runs smack into a uniformed Galra. He raises his gun at the same time the Galra raises their sword, and they both pause for a moment.

“I recognize that sword,” Lance blurts out. He doesn't recognize the exact sword, but it has the same mark on it as Keith's.

“You are a fellow Blade, I see,” the Galra remarks, lowering his weapon. Lance frowns before remembering that he's wearing Keith's suit.

“Oh, uh, not really,” he admits, lowering his gun. “My...uh...Keith lent it to me.”

He earns a strange look for that, but a sound of struggle distracts him. The two of them turn to see the source of the noise right as a sentry goes flying out of a hallway and slams into the wall. In unison, both Lance and the Galra raise their weapons again.

Shiro emerges moments later, holding a blaster in his one hand. He and Lance make eye contact before he, too, lowers his weapon.

“Hunk and Pidge are holding off the ships,” Shiro informs him. He glances at the Galra. “Are you one of the Blades Kolivan said was inside?”

“I am Larnok.”

“What's the situation?” Shiro asks, all business.

“The Blade along with the help of the Earthlings and Altean have managed to take out the lower levels. Regris, our other member, is currently trying to regain communication ability.”

Shiro nods. “Lance, you're with me.” Lance gives one nod to Larnok before running off with Shiro.

They meet resistance as they make their way up the ship, but it's less than Lance would've expected. It seems as though the disappearance of Lotor and his generals has destroyed the morale of the other Galra. More than one escape pod launches as they battle their way up the levels, leading to fewer confrontations as they reach the top.

The last confrontation they face is a group of Galra barricaded inside a room Lance suspects is important. Shiro rams into it with his shoulder, but it doesn't budge. “Lance,” he grunts. “I could use a hand here.”

“Move,” Lance tells him, raising his gun up. Shiro drops out of the way, and Lance shoots the control panel. It explodes into sparks, and the force holding the door closed lets up. Lance can see half a body on the other side, but before he can shoot again, Shiro rams into the door with a shout.

The door buckles, giving in. Four Galra stand on the other side, three with raised weapons facing them. Lance shoots two of them, gun still raised, while Shiro tackles the third. Lance turns his gun to the fourth, but the Galra, smaller than the others, raises its hands in the universal sign of surrender.

Lance still handcuffs him.

Galra dealt with, Lance and Shiro enter the room. Shiro lowers himself to where the arrested Galra is sitting. “Turn off the communication jammers and open a frequency to the entire fleet,” he orders, voice cold.

The Galra, nearly shaking in fear, stands up. Lance has to undo the handcuffs temporarily, but the Galra doesn't fight them. He clicks a few buttons before lowering his hand to the scanner. “It's broadcasting,” he says softly.

Lance handcuffs him again as Shiro steps forward.

“Attention Galra fleet, this is Takashi Shirogane, black paladin of Voltron. We have taken your command ship in the name of the Coalition and Altea. Surrender now or be destroyed.”

He presses the same button the Galra had, and a little red light that Lance assumes means broadcasting is shut off. Moments later, Coran's face appears on the screen. “The Galra are surrendering!” he declares.

Shiro sighs in relief, collapsing into the nearest chair. Lance does the same, breaking into laughter. “We did it,” he says. “I can't believe we did it.”

Shiro shakes his head. “We still haven't defeated Lotor.”

The smiles dies on Lance's face, adrenaline fading as he remembers what had led him onto the ship in the first place. “Keith,” he breathes.

And then pain overwhelms him.

Chapter Text

Keith doesn’t have a lot of ties to Earth. His father died when he was young, leaving him to raise himself alone in the shack that used to be their garage, and he’s long since accepted that his mother is either dead or one of the Galra. He never had a lot of friends on Earth either; he’d always been more of a loner. He’d never connected with anyone before he met Shiro. It took until he went to space to find people he really cared about.

But that doesn’t mean he wants to watch Earth get destroyed.

Lance, he knows, has deep ties to Earth. He can feel the fear and the nerves still thrumming through the bond, though they’re not as suffocating as they had been before. If for no other reason, Keith has to save Earth to ease his soulmate’s nerves.

In some ways, this feels just like every other battle they’ve fought. The Galra are attacking a planet. The people of the planet attempt to fight back, but aren’t sufficient enough to defend it. Voltron comes in and does what they can to save the day. Normal. Routine.

But this time, it’s their planet.

Despite it being a tough battle – one of their toughest, Keith has to admit – things seem to be going their way. They’re doing better in their lions than they had as Voltron, which has a lot to do with Lance’s EMP weapon. And Lance’s EMP is…amazing. Lance is amazing.

Keith’s known that for some time now, but this is something else.

And then an explosion bursts through the Central Command ship, rocking the satisfaction that had been coursing through the lion bond.

“Shiro,” Keith speaks up. “Where’s Allura?”

When Shiro replies, his voice is strained. “She flew towards that ship.”

“Allura?” Hunk asks. “Are you there?”

Nothing.

“Coran, do you have any sign of Allura?” Shiro asks. He’s doing a good job keeping his emotions from spilling into the lion bond, but Keith knows him too well to not notice. Shiro’s terrified, and Keith doesn’t blame him. If it were Lance in there right now, Keith wouldn’t even be able to think.

The conversation continues without Keith paying attention to it. Instead, his mind is working through the issue. Allura’s on the Galra ship. They can’t contact the ship from the outside. The answer is so simple, Keith’s surprised they haven’t said anything about it yet:

They need him.

Now that Shiro doesn’t have his Galran arm, Keith is the only one who can access anything in their ships. He shouldn’t be in his lion right now. He should be over there, helping Allura.

“I’m going in,” Keith offers before anyone else can offer. It has to be him. He’d made a promise with Allura, after all. He can’t let her go in there and kill Lotor by herself.

And besides, he wants to be the one to do it.

“Keith,” Lance warns, and Keith’s stomach roils unpleasantly. “Don’t.”

Lance’s emotions are a mess again, nerves amped up to ten despite the underlying determination there. Lance is going to let him go; Keith knows it. But he doesn’t like it. “I’m going to end this,” Keith tells him. “I’m going to be the one to kill Lotor.”

“Get in line,” Shiro adds darkly.

“What if we need to form Voltron?” Pidge asks. “‘You can’t just leave.’ Isn’t that what you told me?”

It is what he told Pidge. But that doesn’t matter. Nothing matters if they can’t take out Lotor. If they can’t save Earth, save Allura, save themselves. Nothing matters. “Don’t you dare do anything stupid,” Lance tells him, voice shaking ever so slightly. “You hear me?”

Keith wants to kiss him. When he gets back – if he gets back – he’s not going to do a damn thing until he kisses Lance until neither of them can breathe.

He should’ve taken his chance in the hallway before the battle.

Keith turns on his video, so he can see Lance one more time. Just in case. “Just watch my back,” he murmurs to Lance, granting him a small smile.

And then he’s off. Keith races straight for the Command ship, closing off his helmet. He climbs out of the cockpit and launches himself out of Red before she gets there, flying straight for the ship.

“He Into Darkness-ed it,” Lance’s whisper fills his helmet, and Keith’s heart swells three times its size.

“Lover boy,” Pidge snaps, “move. Your soulmate isn’t the only one in there.” It’s the last thing Keith hears before he shoots into the Command ship and hits the ground with a hard thud. It takes him a moment to register his surroundings. He’s in some kind of air duct he thinks, which is probably the only reason no one’s attacked him yet. He needs to move.

Keith pulls out his Bayard and slices a hole in the floor, falling through the duct and landing in the room underneath. Perhaps that’s a mistake. He activates his shield just in time to not get shot by about fifty sentries.

Sentries aren’t particularly challenging, but the sheer number of them is overwhelming, especially without his team at his back. Especially without Lance.

Keith slices his way through them as best as he can, using his speed to his advantage. But with a sword, he can only attack one sentry at a time. Despite the adrenaline coursing through his veins, despite the need to be the one to kill Lotor, despite the desperation to end all of this so he can get back to Lance and Shiro and the rest of the team, Keith is getting tired.

And he can’t even radio for help.

Just when Keith is starting to panic, the blaster shots which had been hitting his shield at a terrifying rate…stop. He takes down the sentry in front of him, stabbing through it and removing his Bayard with a spray of sparks. The sentry falls, revealing two masked Blades behind it.

Keith blinks at them, and the masks stare unblinkingly back. Finally, the shorter of the two speaks. “You are the red paladin.”

“Uh,” Keith responds intelligently, heart pounding against his temple as his adrenaline finally starts to fade. “Yeah.”

“If you are here to assist the princess and her guard, they have already started descending into the lower levels.”

Keith’s mind is still whirring. He has no idea who Allura’s ‘guard’ is, and he can’t really think about that right now, not with his chest still heaving from his battle. “Oh,” is all he manages to say. The Blade steps to the side, in a wordless gesture of after you, telling Keith his rest is far from over.

“Thanks,” he says, finally turning off his shield. He grants them one last nod before racing out the door and into the hallway.

They’ve already taken out the sentries – and some Galra – in the hallway, leaving Keith a clear path.

If only he knew where he was going.

“Princess,” Keith asks, hoping that the comms within the ship will work, “where are you?”

Silence.

Keith curses; he should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy. Now he’s lost somewhere in Galra Central Command with no idea where he’s supposed to go and no contact with anyone. He doesn’t even know what the Blades have already done, if there are more Blades than just the two he saw, or if more sentries are on their way. All he knows is that he needs to start heading down.

He continues down the first hallway, taking a left on instinct and slams into a Galra. Both of them reel back, Keith stumbling a few steps to keep himself from falling. When he regains his balance he looks up to see the Galra staring at him slack-jawed. This one isn’t wearing a Blade suit, so Keith immediately takes them for an enemy and charges.

He’s faster than the Galra can anticipate, managing to slam them headfirst against the wall. Keith presses his sword against their spine, leaning in close so they can’t move. “How do I get to the lower levels?” he demands. When they don’t respond immediately, he twists their arm until they let out a cry. “I asked you a question.”

“The lifts,” they gasp.

“Where are they?”

“Right at the next hallway.”

Keith pulls them back and presses his Bayard to their neck. “Move.”

“Where are we going?” the Galra asks. This one must be new or else not well trained, because Keith’s never thought of himself as intimidating, but they’re breathless like they’re afraid he’s really going to slice their throat. He had threatened to do that, he supposes, but he’s so used to Lance’s mocking when he’s trying to be serious that he’d assumed everyone else would react the same way.

“Shut up,” Keith responds.

He takes a right like the Galra had said, and sure enough, there are lifts waiting for them. Keith doesn’t trust them to not immediately run and shut off the lifts, so he forces them inside along with him. It’s a good thing too, because he can’t read Galra and he has no idea what the buttons say.

“Take us down,” he orders the Galra, moving the Bayard from their neck to their spine again and letting them step forward. They do that, but when they reach the console they freeze.

Keith’s pulse spikes. “What’s the issue?” he asks, aiming to keep his voice gruff rather than nervous. What if they call someone? What if they lead Keith into an ambush?

“Which floor?” the Galra asks, their own voice shaking. They sound even younger than they had when they’d spoken before. Keith almost feels bad; he clearly ran into a trainee or intern or something, and now this kid thinks they’re going to die.

He tightens his grip on his Bayard. They need to think they’re going to die, or else Keith won’t get out of this situation. “To where Lotor is.”

The Galra twitches but hits a button. For a second, Keith thinks they really did call for someone, but then the lift moves down just like he’d asked.

They descend for what feels like forever, the Galra still standing frozen in front of the console with Keith’s Bayard to the back of their spine, until the lift finally slows to a stop. Keith steps behind the Galra, nudging them forward so that they’re standing in front of the doors when they open.

The hallway is empty.

The Galra visibly sighs in relief, but Keith just smashes the broadside of his sword against their head, causing them to crumple into a heap in front of him. They’ll wake up with a headache, but at least they’ll wake up.

Keith darts away, not exactly sure what he’s looking for aside from Lotor – which will be fun because he has no idea what the new emperor looks like – but once again as soon as he turns down the hallway he runs smack into someone else. This time, they’re on him before he can see what’s happening.

A sharp whip of a tail smacks his helmet off, and Keith swings with his Bayard before he sees the familiar three eyed mask of the Blade of Marmora.  “I’m a paladin of Voltron!” Keith shouts before the Blade can do any more damage. Immediately the attack stops, the Blade stepping back to reveal a second member. “Where’s Allura?” Keith asks. Maybe these were her ‘guard’.

“She has gone into the chamber already,” one of the Blades answers.

“Is that where Lotor is?” Keith asks, picking up his helmet.

“We believe so.”

That’s good enough for Keith. “Where is it?” one of the Blades points behind Keith, and he turns to see a large set of doors decorated with the symbol of the Galra Empire. “Be careful, young paladin,” the Blade without the long tail speaks. The other’s tail twitches. “This emperor is different than the last.”

“I’m counting on it,” Keith responds darkly. If the Blades aren’t going in, that means they have some other plans. Whatever they’re up to is their business, because he’s going to be the one to kill Lotor.

Keith tugs on his helmet before he reaches the doors and shoves them open, both his own luxite blade and his Bayard in his hand. Maybe he should use his shield again, but the adrenaline is back in his veins. Knowing that he’s this close to Lotor, he doesn’t care. He wants to end it like this; not defending himself from blaster shots.

No one immediately shoots at him when he enters, which is a good sign. Keith steps forward, eyes adjusting to the light – or lack thereof – and hears the sounds of battle distantly in front of him. He’s on a long walkway with sheer drop offs at his sides instead of walls, and there’s no one in view. He steps forward cautiously, certain that the sounds of battle are coming from in front of him, despite being unable to see anyone fighting.

No, Keith realizes. They aren’t in front of him.

They’re below him.

He steps to the edge of the walkway and looks down at the battle below him. There’s no floor; platforms float over what seems to be a sharp drop into empty space. It can’t be, Keith knows, because otherwise he would’ve long since run out of air, but the sight is enough to set his nerves on edge. The platform nearest to him has someone on it fighting off three druids at once. One of the druids vanishes and reappears on a different platform, giving Keith a view of the person fighting them.

It’s Matt.

His pant leg is half ripped, revealing a prosthetic leg similar to the arm Shiro had before he disappeared a second time. He’s using a staff, like the ones the gladiators fight Keith with in training, and he’s somehow managing to hold off the druids with it, despite them occasionally shooting terrifying black orbs at him. He dodges one particular orb, shot by the druid on the other platform, by jumping off and falling to a lower platform himself.

That action reminds Keith that there are other platforms in the room. His attention is drawn to the middle of the room where a second fight is taking place on a stationary platform.

“Lotor,” Keith growls. It has to be Lotor. Keith’s never seen the new emperor, but instinctively knows that the Galra fighting Allura in the center of the room is Lotor.

Target acquired, Keith now just needs to get over to him.

Lotor has a sword out, blade a dark black that doesn’t appear to be made of luxite. It’s unlike any other sword Keith’s seen before. Allura is using a gladiator staff like Matt, and seems to be doing a decent job of holding him off. But what’s weird is that they’re both glowing. Keith almost rubs his eyes to rid himself of the strangeness, but one of the constantly moving platforms floats near enough to the edge that he thinks he can make a jump to it.

Keith backs up before sprinting for where the platform was, hoping it didn’t move already, and leaps. It’s a long drop, and the platform is moving away, even as Keith falls. He engages his thrusters, pushing himself almost close enough.

Keith deactivates his Bayard, letting it dissolve as he reaches, pulsing his thrusters as high as he can. He stretches his arm out, fingers reaching, and barely manages to grab the edge. His forward momentum almost causes him to lose his grip, but somehow Keith manages to hold on and doesn’t even drop his luxite blade. He tosses it up onto the platform before hoisting himself up.

Lotor doesn’t see him yet.

Keith crawls to his feet, grabbing his sword and activating his Bayard again. The platforms are moving slowly around the room in a pattern that would take too long for Keith to determine, so instead he takes a running leap at the next platform.

Allura and Lotor’s platform is stationary in the middle of the room, and the two of them are too engrossed in their battle with each other to notice him. Keith lines up to make it to the next one, still working on his mostly linear path when something cold hits him from behind.

He stumbles a few steps before falling to his knees, weapons clattering out of his grip. What the – what the fuck was that? He raises his hand to his back, more than a little concerned that it’s going to come away dark and wet. There isn’t anything there that he can feel, but a large weight seems to be pressing him down regardless.

Then he remembers.

“Look out!” Matt’s voice shouts, and Keith rolls to the side just in time for a black ball to fly past him.

Druids.

Keith grabs his luxite blade and rolls over just as a robed figure appears above him. He slices at their hands, but his weapon is really no match for magic. It is, however, enough to make them disappear momentarily. Keith uses that moment to grab his Bayard and scramble to his feet.

The other two druids have disappeared as well, leaving Matt alone on his platform. He has his staff held in front of himself defensively, and now that Keith’s on the same level as him he can see the difference between Matt when he’d been on the ship and Matt here.

He looks more like he had when Keith and Lance had woken him up.

Keith tries not to shiver at the thought, instead looking around for the druids. But they’re nowhere to be found. “There!” Matt shouts, staff pointing up to the ledge Keith had been on earlier.

All three druids are standing there, facing Keith with what appears to be a single-minded focus. Lightning crackles from each of their hands, joining together into a black ball between them. It’s larger than all the others before it, larger than Keith himself.

And, of course, it’s aimed right at Keith.

The ball is still growing even as he watches it, but it’s already big enough to be unavoidable. It grows quickly until it’s larger than his platform. He’s going to die before he can even reach Lotor.

A blast sounds from Matt’s location, and Keith breaks his gaze from his inevitable demise. But Matt isn’t there anymore.

He’s above the druids.

He’d jumped, higher than a human – or even a Galra – could ever hope to. Matt falls towards the druids like a stone, staff still in hand, and lands on the middle one before it can react. The staff pierces through the druid’s skull, and the creature crumples as Matt lands, dropping his entire weight on it. Immediately, the black ball disappears.

This is his chance.

Keith fires his thrusters and leaps off the platform towards the one in the middle, but he’s made too much noise to stay undetected. Keith knows the moment Lotor notices him. He makes eye contact with the emperor, and in that small moment Lotor smirks.

Keith’s going too fast to slow himself down when Lotor throws Allura in his path. “Shit!” Keith shouts, deactivating his Bayard. He slams into her, wrapping his arms around her as they both careen away from Lotor’s platform. He’s able to move his thrusters enough to land them back on the platform he’d jumped from, but all his breath whooshes out of him when he slams into it with Allura’s weight on top of him. Keith’s shoulder screams in pain where he hits.

Allura’s the first to recover, rolling off him and standing. Keith stands up, groping around for his luxite blade which he’d dropped on impact. It’s teetering on the edge, about to fall when Keith grabs it. Just in time.

“Well, well, well. The red paladin. This is my lucky day,” Lotor drawls.

There’s a cry, and a thud as a collection of black fabric lands in front of Lotor on his platform. Keith turns around and looks up. Matt is on the ledge still, looking down at them with his staff in hand. The other two druids have disappeared to other platforms, separating themselves from Matt. Keith can’t make out the details of his face, but it appears grim as he stares down at them all.

Lotor nudges the druid’s body with his shoe, pushing it off the platform. “Lance defeated your other ship too,” Keith declares, unable to stop the pride from working its way into his voice. “And now I’m going to kill you.”

“Are you, Red?” Lotor asks casually, not seeming at all disturbed. He tilts his sword back and forth, looking at it instead of Keith. “My father said the same thing once.”

Keith growls, tired of the conversation already. He runs and jumps Bayard forming already. Keith uses both swords, raising them above his head in an X. He swings them down together as he falls, aiming directly for Lotor’s head.

The emperor raises his own sword almost lazily, blocking the blow with ease. He flicks his sword up, throwing Keith back as if he were no more powerful than a flea. Keith prepares himself for a second strike, and just in time. Lotor’s sword clangs against his own, forcing Keith down to his knees with the force of it. Lotor’s stronger than he appears. Much stronger.

A thud shakes the platform as Allura joins them, staff held in front of her in preparation for an attack. “We are ending this Lotor. You can give up peacefully, or I can take you out now.”

Immediately, the weight holding Keith down disappears as Lotor turns his attention towards the princess. “Why would I surrender?” Lotor asks. “I have the advantage.”

“The Blade of Marmora and Voltron are outside, waiting to take you down,” Allura declares. “It’s over.”

“Ah,” Lotor responds, smirk evident in his voice. Keith stands warily, wondering why Allura isn’t taking her chance. Why isn’t she striking? “But Voltron isn’t out there. After all, the red paladin is right here.”

Before Keith can brace himself, Lotor’s sword swings out, catching Keith’s own. The momentum of it lifts him into the air, throwing him off the central platform.

“Keith!” Allura’s shout fills his ears, but Keith can’t see anything aside from the ceiling flying overhead. He’s hit with a hard weight, and the two of them land with a hard “ooph” onto something solid.

“Are you alright?” Allura asks, rolling off him. Keith sits up, trying to catch his breath.

“Yeah,” he grunts. He’s distracted by a commotion coming from the ledge above them, taking his attention off Lotor to look up. Members of the Blade of Marmora rush out and join Matt, effectively turning the tides in their favor.

Keith turns his attention back to Lotor, who is getting further away the more the platform he and Allura are on move. Lotor meets his gaze in a smirk.

And then he dives backwards off his platform.

The bottom of Central Command must actually open into free space, because when Keith looks down, he sees a small fighter appear. Lotor lands in it, speeding away from the battle.

“Keith,” Allura says, voice low in warning.

“Yeah,” Keith agrees.

The two of them launch off their platform, activating their jets in order to aim their fall closer to where Lotor had just disappeared.

“Keith, Allura,” Shiro’s voice crackles in Keith’s helmet the moment they break out of the bottom of the ship. “What are you doing?”

Red is there already, as she should be, and Keith aims for her open mouth. “We’re going to take out Lotor.” Allura lands in there with him, determination on her face. He immediately gets in his chair and sends Red flying after Lotor.

“Keith!” Lance shouts. “Don’t do this!”

But it’s too late. Even Lance can’t pull him back from this. Lotor hurt Shiro. He took Lance away from Keith. He tried to destroy Earth. Keith isn’t going to let him disappear only so he can come back and hurt Lance again.

“He hurt you,” Keith growls. “I’m going to make him pay.”

And with that, Red launches away from the battle of Earth, flying into the solar system faster than anyone can catch him.

“Keith!” Lance shouts, and Keith knows Lance is following him even though Blue can’t keep up with Red. He shuts off the comms, pushing away the worry balled tight in his stomach. Lance can save Earth with or without Keith there. They both have their own jobs to do now.

“Are you sure about this?” Allura asks him, giving him one last out. “This is my burden.”

“I’m not backing down.” Keith tightens his fist around the controls, not even looking at her. “We both almost lost someone to him.”

Lotor’s ship is fast, but Red is faster. Lotor is clearly a good pilot, dodging every attack Keith aims at him. Keith’s being too predictable.

It reminds him of a time that he’d been sparring with Lance. Lance had waited until Keith had attacked then run up the side and hit him in the elbow. His entire arm had gone numb almost immediately, and even though Keith had lashed out from it, he’d still been impressed that Lance could land a blow at all. This time, he wants to be Lance.

He waits until Lotor dodges an easy attack before jerking Red to the side. He shoots with her tail right at the joint of the ship, and Lotor can’t dodge it in time. His shot hits and the ship goes careening to the side, slamming into the nearest moon before he can recover.

Kerberos.

Keith drops Red down onto the moon. Allura’s already left the cockpit and launched herself out, landing on the moon’s surface when Red does, the two of them kicking up dust. Keith jumps out of the cockpit following Allura just a little behind. He has both weapons in hand again, ready to fight.

Lotor stumbles out of his crashed, smoking ship, looking more rumpled than he had in the entire battle in Central Command.

“Lotor,” Allura addresses, voice murderous. “This does not have to end in blood.”

Lotor laughs, bent over, clutching his side. There’s something sticking out of his armor, something that had stabbed him in the crash. Good. Keith hopes he suffers forever. “You and I both know this only ends one way,” he responds. “The only change is that you brought this weakling paladin to die alongside you.”

Keith’s anger flares. He wants to murder Lotor. He wants to string him up by his fucking neck and make him suffer before he dies. “You tried to break our bond,” he snarls.

“I could not break your bond even if I tried,” Lotor snaps, sounding breathless. “That talent died out with the last blue paladin’s race.” Lotor turns his gaze to Keith, standing up straight even with the shrapnel in his side. “I would have preferred to kill you in front of him, but one can only hope he’s still close enough to feel it.”

That’s all it takes for Keith to move.

He rushes the emperor, feeling Allura at his side, but she reaches him first. She closes the distance to Lotor with long legs, growing several inches to do so. She grabs the Galra by his neck and shoves him back up against his own ship, his feet dangling off the ground. Keith slows to a stop at her side, both swords held in front of him, ready to intervene when needed.

To Keith’s shock, Lotor’s own legs grow as well until his feet hit the ground.

Allura’s strong, more powerful than Keith or Shiro or even the two of them combined. And yet, Lotor manages to grab her wrists and slowly peel her hands away. His head jerks forward, slamming into Allura’s own hard enough Keith can hear a crunch. The princess stumbles back, releasing him, and Lotor grasps the shrapnel in his side, pulling it out of his body with a hiss.

His other hand covers the wound, emitting some of the same black Keith had seen earlier, masking the hole. Keith jolts forward, eager to be the one to end Lotor, striking first with his Bayard then with the luxite blade.

Lotor counters the first one using the shrapnel, but he isn’t so lucky with the second. Keith catches his hand, his sharp blade slicing neatly through his gauntlet. Lotor hisses again, slamming his shrapnel forward.

Keith raises his sword in time to block the blow, braced for the weight. Lotor’s weaker this time, suffering from the wound to his side. He doesn’t bring Keith to his knees the way he did before. The emperor growls, strands of hair sticking to his face inside his helmet. A drop of blood drips down one of them, painting the side of his face.

But he’s still stronger than Keith.

Lotor swings with his free hand, hitting Keith from the side and sending him sprawling to the ground.

Before he can finish the job, Allura appears in front of Keith, just as large as she had been before. Lotor swings the shrapnel, but Allura grabs it in midair, stopping Lotor’s attack. She slams the palm of her hand against his chest, and Lotor flies back, hitting the side of his ruined spaceship with a loud crack.

Allura points the shrapnel down at Lotor. “This ends now,” Allura declares.

“Why do you even want that pathetic human as your soulmate?” Lotor pants. Keith struggles to his feet, ready to act as backup if Allura needs it. “You don’t believe in fate.”

“That was before.”

Lotor laughs, spitting blood inside his helmet, staining the glass. “Are you really so eager to see your revenge carried out even with Zarkon gone?”

“This isn’t about revenge,” Allura responds calmly. “It never was.”

“If you’re going to kill me, then do it.”

Allura raises the metal, ready to deal the final blow. Lotor closes his eyes, as if accepting his fate. When Allura swings, it’s with intent. Lotor couldn’t block it if he tried.

But it doesn’t hit.

The shrapnel hits the ground rather than the emperor, kicking up dust at him instead.

“No,” Allura says stepping back. “I will not end it like this.”

Lotor opens his eyes, genuine confusion on his features.

“I am not going to kill you,” Allura continues. “I am going to make you pay for your crimes. It is what my father would have wanted.” She whispers the last part, sadness entering her voice.

“What about Shiro?” Keith asks. “What about Lance?”

Allura turns away from Lotor. “Keith, I know what I said before. But that is not what Voltron should be. We should be a symbol of hope.”

“Weak,” Lotor mutters.

Keith sees the flash of a knife. Before Allura can react, Lotor’s moving. Keith jerks to intercept, slashing out with his luxite sword. He knocks the knife out of Lotor’s grasp, keeping it from stabbing Allura in the back.

But Lotor is far from defeated.

The black sword appears again, forming in Lotor’s hand as if he’d conjured it from nothing. It stabs into Keith’s already injured shoulder before he can block it, shooting pain through his arm. He lets out a cry, dropping his own sword.

Keith jumps back as pain explodes from the wound, filling his body. This isn’t an ordinary blade; it feels as though it’s slicing through him from the inside out.

Lotor doesn’t give him time to recover. His long fingers wrap around his throat, crushing the material of the suit as if it’s made of foil. Keith struggles for air, opening and closing his mouth like a fish, but the flow of oxygen from his suit is completely cut off.

The entire exchange had taken less than a minute, but already Keith knows that he’s not getting out of this alive. The pain is excruciating, eating him from the inside while his lungs cave in on themselves, unable to draw in even a single breath.

“I still have a promise to keep to your weakling soulmate,” Lotor breathes, helmet pressed close to Keith’s own. Drops of blood add to the smear inside the helmet, but Lotor isn’t dying fast enough for Keith to live. “He will at least feel this.”

Keith reaches up, fingers grasping for purchase on Lotor’s own armor. His hands slip off every time, growing weaker and weaker with each moment that passes without air in his lungs. Black spots pop into his vision, growing and taking over everything but Lotor’s face. His head rushes, feeling somehow both heavy and light at the same time. This is how he’s going to die.

He hopes Lance isn’t close enough to feel it.

Lotor’s face disappears from his vision in a flash of red. There’s nothing holding him down anymore, but Keith still feels a phantom weight on his chest. He paws at his own neck weakly, but his armor is too crushed for him to do anything about it. His hands lose their strength, dropping to his sides.

Something hits his chest hard, a weight lifts off his head, and Keith sucks in a harsh breath of air. He coughs, reaching for his neck again, but gloved hands move his own away. Something touches his shoulder, and a wave of cold fills him, quenching the fire. It feels as though it’s being sucked out of him, and when Keith’s vision stops shaking, he sees someone in pink stepping back.

“Allura?”

“I am here.” She crouches down in front of him, red showing up sharp against her pink and white armor. “Your armor was choking you. I had to remove it.”

“Where’s Lotor?” Keith rasps, sitting up.

Allura helps him up, and Keith realizes he’s in the red lion’s cockpit. Outside the window, he can still see Kerberos; Lotor’s ship stands out against the ice, and there’s a small figure collapsed on the ground, red surrounding it. “I did not want to kill him,” Allura tells him, sounding genuinely regretful. “But he gave me no choice.”

“Are you hurt?” he asks, looking her over. She looks a little bruised but other than the red on her armor, he can’t see a wound.

Allura looks down, seeing what Keith’s talking about. “The blood is not mine,” she replies.

Keith stumbles over to the chair and collapses in it, gripping the controls but unable to gain the energy to actually fly her.

“We need to get back to everyone else,” Allura reminds him.

Keith doesn’t need to be told twice. Red takes off, heading back towards Earth. Galra Central Command has moved, floating nearer the moon than Earth alongside the Castle of Lions and fleet of other allied ships. The lions are nowhere to be seen, so Keith targets the castle, flying towards it in the hopes that the rest of Voltron is inside.

Allura stays long enough to ensure Keith can stand on his own before all but running out of the cockpit. He understands the need to make sure their soulmates are alive. But he’s terrified.

What if something happened while he was gone chasing Lotor?

What if Lance isn’t here anymore?

Finally, the need to check on Lance overcomes his fears, and Keith drags himself out of the cockpit. He walks out of Red, stopping short before he can even get down the stairs. Lance is standing there, waiting for him. Now that Keith can see him, he can feel the impatience and the nerves, amplifying his own.

Lance’s eyes meet his own, an intensity in them that Keith’s never seen before. For a moment, the two of them stand frozen, just staring at each other. Lance is the one who closes the distance between them. He doesn’t run, doesn’t charge, he just marches up the steps with an intention in his gaze that keeps Keith pinned where he is.

And then Lance is there. He grabs Keith by his arms and before Keith can speak, Lance slams their lips together.

Keith’s eyes widen for a moment before his mind catches up to reality and they close, letting him feel everything.

 

 

 

Lance’s fingers tighten around his arms, holding him with a desperation that Keith can feel in his soul. Lance’s lips are chapped, and he doesn’t open them, doesn’t try to deepen the kiss in any way. When he backs away, Keith can feel the apology bubbling up, and he’s not going to let Lance take this away from him, so he surges forward, recapturing Lance’s lips with his own.

His hands grab Lance’s waist – still clothed in his suit – and pull them together as he kisses Lance like he needs him to breathe. Lance tastes like sweat and battle and Keith wouldn’t have it any other way. He sucks Lance’s bottom lip right between his teeth, intentions bouncing between gentle and the need to mark him.

And if Lance thinks he’s going too far, he doesn’t pull back. If anything, he gives just as good as he gets. His fingers somehow wind up in Keith’s hair, keeping them from separating too far. He lets out a little breathy gasp when Keith sucks his lip again, and when he pulls back, it’s so he can return the favor.

Keith’s knees buckle, nearly giving out completely when Lance does that. He can’t help the sound that comes out of his mouth any more than he can help the way his hands squeeze around Lance’s hips hard enough to bruise, had the armor not been on him. And when they finally break apart, Keith is breathless, Lance is panting, and there’s a light in Lance’s eyes that Keith has never seen before.

“So,” Lance whispers hoarsely. His voice is enough for Keith to want to lock them both in the red lion and not come out again for a while. “That’s what it’s like to kiss your soulmate.”

Keith snorts. He can’t help it. Lance is so fucking…cute. And funny. And perfect. He lets his head fall to Lance’s shoulder, smelling Lance’s scent under everything else. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he murmurs.

Soft lips press against his head, even though his hair is probably disgusting, and Keith’s stomach swoops. “I’m not the one who went racing after Lotor,” Lance reminds him.

“Had to stop him from hurting you again.”

“And?”

He wraps his arms around Lance, just to let him know that he’s still here, and that he’s not going anywhere. “Allura finished him off. He won’t come back.”

Lance exhales a large sigh that Keith knows is relief. “Good. Are you injured?”

Keith doesn’t answer right away, so Lance urges him upright, staring right into Keith’s eyes. “Keith,” Lance warns. “No bullshit. I need to know if you’re hurt.”

“Shallow cut. I’ll go into the pod later,” Keith promises.

“Just a little stabbed?” Lance asks, voice bordering on teasing.

Keith smiles back. His head is still reeling and he really should go into the pod later, but right now he can’t imagine being anywhere but with Lance. “Something like that.” He surges forward, sealing their lips together again.

They stay like that for what could be only a few seconds or several days before there’s a harsh “ahem” behind them; someone clearing their throat. Lance breaks away reluctantly, and Keith keeps his hold on him as they look to see who it is. Unsurprisingly, Hunk, is at the base of the Red lion, grinning up at them in a way Keith knows means he will never hear the end of it.

“Once you’re done making out, we have to go address Earth,” Hunk says, amusement bleeding into his voice.

“Address Earth?” Lance asks.

“Well, some of Earth,” he corrects, as if that explains everything.

Lance continues to stare, clearly confused, until Hunk relents. “The Coalition went to get some of the Garrison officials and brought them up here. They want to meet the people who saved Earth.”

Keith snorts. He can’t help it. The Garrison, who had covered up everything that happened to Shiro, who could barely manage to get a ship to Kerberos, is finally going to have to confront everything they pretended didn’t exist. Amusement rolls off Lance in waves, giving Keith a giddy feeling he’s sure has nothing to do with his head injury. “Guess we shouldn’t keep them waiting then, huh Keith?” Lance asks, voice barely containing his laughter.

“Probably not,” Keith agrees. ”Pidge already down there?”

“Oh yes,” Hunk assures. “Disappeared as soon as they heard.”

Lance bursts out laughing.

It’s like this that the three of them head to the bridge. Walking with his arm around Lance’s waist isn’t particularly easy or comfortable, so they eventually settle for releasing each other, though Lance intertwines their fingers and keeps himself close enough to Keith that their shoulders bump when they walk. This, Keith decides, isn’t quite enough. But when Lance smiles at him softly when they walk, it’s not all that bad.

The Garrison officials look supremely out of place when they finally see them. They’re all standing at attention, but it’s clear they feel uncomfortable by the way they flinch when the bridge door opens. And it’s not like Keith blames them. Slav and Kolivan are on board, as are a few delegates from Coalition planets who had come to their aid. But aside from the odd aliens, they’re clearly made uncomfortable by the sight of Shiro and Matt standing alongside an alien princess. As expected, Pidge is next to Matt, not even trying to hide their wide grin.

Keith can’t help the smirk that spreads over his face when the Garrison officials turn and see them walking through the door. “These are the paladins of Voltron,” Allura introduces. “All humans from Earth, as you can see. And that is Matt Holt, who I am told went missing on a mission to one of your moons.” Keith can hear the amusement in her voice, can see the twinkle in her eye as she lays the blow on the Garrison.

And to Keith’s absolute pleasure, one that he feels mirrored in Lance next to him, Iverson is there. If this is what it feels like to have birthday presents, then Keith can see why people look forward to it.

Iverson recognizes them all right away. “Holt, Gunderson, McClain, Garret, Kogane,” he recites, eye wide.

“Actually,” Pidge speaks up. Clearly they’d been holding it in until the rest of the team had arrived. “My name’s Holt too. Katie Holt, remember?”

Iverson’s mouth drops open, and Lance and Keith burst into simultaneous laughter.

They do, eventually, regain their sense of professionalism. The Garrison apologizes to all of them for the cover ups and promises a full reveal of what had happened. They also volunteer a group to help Pidge and Matt find their missing father, though they look as if their teeth are being pulled when both siblings insist that their civilian mother be included in the search party.

Keith, Lance, and Hunk are all offered spots as officers and honorary graduates, which Hunk politely declines for them all. Keith can’t trust himself to speak, and Lance feels strangely irritated by the whole thing.

Overall, even though they’re the first other humans the team’s seen since they left Earth, Keith’s glad to see them go. The Coalition packs up as well, but not without Slav giving some kind of strange advice to Shiro that makes him look like his face has turned into a lobster.

And then, finally, it’s just the eight of them again.

“So…” Hunk says. “What now?”

Allura looks two seconds from collapsing, despite Shiro’s arm which has wound its way around her waist. Coran, too, has dark circles under his eyes that seemed to have just developed over the past several hours. And now that the adrenaline is wearing off, Keith can feel the exhaustion taking over. “I don’t know about you guys,” Pidge says. “But I’m going to sleep.”

“Me too,” Matt agrees. “I’m not exactly ready for a tearful reunion just yet.”

No one stops the siblings from disappearing. “We are not done just yet,” Allura points out. “Haggar is still out there somewhere, and the remaining druids disappeared according to Matt’s intel.”

Keith wants to protest, tell her that really they’ve done enough. But Shiro gets to her first. “I think,” he says gently, “that that’s something that can wait until everyone’s taken a vacation. We have a whole Coalition to help us, remember?”

“Indeed,” Coran agrees. “One thing your father had a hard time learning was that you don’t have to do everything yourself.”

“But –“

“No buts,” Shiro tells her, guiding her slowly towards the door. “We all need a break, including you.” As they pass, Shiro shoots Keith a soft smile. Of all the people to be bonded to Shiro, Allura’s the best one, he thinks.

“Well if we’re all going to bed…” Lance starts. “Then we’ll see you guys for breakfast.” He tugs Keith’s hand lightly, and the two of them follow Allura and Shiro out. Keith doesn’t resist Lance’s pull, even when it leads to the showers. “I wanna go straight to bed,” Lance mutters when he drops Keith’s hand. “But I think you promised that you’d get in a pod.”

“Lance.”

“Just for a few hours. An hour minimum. Please.”

Keith wants to argue. He wants to insist that he’s staying with Lance no matter what, but his head throbs and his throat is sore despite not talking. The blood has long since stopped flowing from his shoulder, but he knows that he could still use the pod. So instead he squeezes Lance’s hand. “Be there when I get out?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Lance assures him.

---

Keith is only in the pod for an hour, the minimum he’d promised Lance, when it dings. He falls out of it, catching himself. At first, he thinks Lance had broken his promise and left him alone. But then he sees the blue paladin – his soulmate – collapsed against a nearby pod, snoring softly. Keith can’t help the small smile that spreads across his lips.

He taps Lance on the shoulder, waking him up. “Hey,” he greets when Lance’s eyes blink slowly open. “Good as new.”

Lance blinks a few more times, confusion clear in both his face and emotions before the memories catch up. “Oh, good.” He yawns. “Shower and bed?”

“You didn’t shower while I was in there?”

Lance stands up, reaching out and grabbing Keith’s hand again. “Figured it’d be easier to convince you if I wasn’t already sleeping.”

Keith wants to point out that Lance had already been sleeping, but instead his heart pounds at the thought of showering with Lance. That…that couldn’t be what Lance had meant. Right?

He panics for a moment until they reach the showers and Lance drops his hand, going into a separate stall. Lance must’ve been prepared, because when Keith steps out, his pajamas are sitting out and Lance – who had somehow managed to shower faster than Keith for the first time ever – is already dressed.

Keith doesn’t have to worry about Lance not letting him stay the night again, either, because as soon as they get to Lance’s room, he pulls Keith inside. “I hope this is okay,” Lance whispers when it’s just the two of them. “I don’t really feel like letting you out of my sight for too long.”

It’s exactly what Keith’s feeling too.

He feels calmer with Lance’s heart beat pounding against his palm, the two of them curled into each other like they’re afraid of what will happen if they have even an inch between them. Lance doesn’t stop Keith from leaving open mouthed kisses on every available surface of his skin, not yet biting no matter how much he wants to.

“So,” Lance asks, repeating Hunk’s question from earlier. “What now?”

Keith can think of a lot of things he wants to do with Lance, now that Zarkon and Lotor are defeated. But he doesn’t know where to start. “Maybe with a vacation? Like Shiro said?” he suggests. “We could travel around the world.”

Lance hums, playing with the short hairs hidden under Keith’s mullet. Keith’s eyelids grow heavy, and he grabs Lance’s night shirt, anchoring himself here, in this moment. “Vacation sounds nice,” Lance agrees softly. “But I was thinking…if you’re alright with it, I mean…” Nervousness creeps through the bond, and Keith suddenly feels less tired. He stares at Lance, at the way he’s chewing his lower lip, like he’s afraid Keith would say no to whatever he’s going to suggest. As if Keith could. “Do you wanna meet my family?” Lance asks finally.

Keith didn’t think he could fall further, but in that instant, he does. He leans forward, pressing his lips to Lance’s, willing away all the worries that Lance might still have lingering on their bond. “I would love to,” he swears.

Chapter Text

The team parts ways after breakfast the next morning. Lance knows it’s not forever, but that doesn’t stop him from crying and clinging to Hunk as the yellow paladin packs up his lion. “I’m gonna miss you, buddy,” Lance cries, and Hunk lets out a wail like he’s being hurt.

“Babies,” Pidge grumbles. The two of them shuffle their way over to Pidge, and cram them into a group hug, despite Pidge’s protests.

When Hunk finally breaks free, his eyes are bloodshot and puffy. “I really love you guys,” he declares.

Pidge huffs. “It’s not like you’re disappearing forever.”

“No, but…” Hunk trails off, but he doesn’t need to finish what he’s saying for Lance to know what he’s thinking. But things are different now. They’re no longer defenders of the universe. Not the same way as before. As Allura had pointed out, there are still things to do, things they need to come back for, but it’s different. They don’t all need to be here all the time anymore.

The danger’s so far gone that they’re each taking their own lions to different locations.

Hunk draws out his goodbye, hugging everyone – even Matt and Coran – before he leaves with a sniffle. “Say hi to Shay for me!” Lance shouts before the yellow lion’s mouth closes. Hunk shoots him a thumbs up, tears still streaming comically down his cheeks. He’s taking a side trip to the Balmera before returning to Earth so he can introduce his soulmate to his family. Great minds.

Pidge and Matt are the next to leave. They pack up Green with little fanfare, planning to first head to the Olkari for extra ships so the Garrison can keep their promise in helping search for Sam Holt. Pidge tears up when they say goodbye to Shiro and Keith, and Lance has to tease them about. “Shut up,” they say, punching his shoulder. “At least I didn’t get snot all over Hunk like you did.”

“Hunk got his snot on me too!” Lance informs them defensively. Pidge makes a gagging noise but doesn’t take it any further than that.

Shiro doesn’t leave. He spins some bullshit about a paladin needing to stay with the castle as a representative when they return to the Coalition, which makes absolutely no sense until Lance brings it up to Keith after Pidge is gone. “He and Allura are soulmates,” Keith tells him matter of factly. “They found out after…” he trails off, guilty look

“After you brought Shiro back?” Lance finishes for him.

“Yeah,” Keith confirms. Lance squeezes his hand.

After he finds out, he takes it upon himself to raise his eyebrows at Allura suggestively whenever Shiro stands close to her. He succeeds in making her blush, which is a win in and of itself.

Keith and Lance stayed longer for reasons which they never talk about, but Lance knows anyway. Shiro. Keith’s worried about Shiro, even after the battle for Earth. Lance doesn’t quite get it; Shiro’s doing better than he had been when they’d first rescued him back on Earth.

But Shiro must’ve said something to Keith, because Lance finds himself shuffled towards the lions less than a day after the Holts leave.

He and Keith argue – loudly – over which lion to take. Lance is partial to Blue, for obvious reasons. She was the first one they found, and they found her on Earth. Plus, she’s his lion, and he wants her nearby.

“Red hasn’t seen Earth yet,” Keith argues. “She deserves a chance.”

“Well she seems perfectly content to follow you,” Lance counters. “How about we fly down in Blue and let her follow.”

“Lance. I am not going to abandon my lion and force her to follow like some pack-mule.”

“Keith,” Shiro interrupts before Lance can use his definitely well-thought-out counterargument. “Lance. You’re each taking your own lion, and that’s final.” He says it sternly, but his tone is marred by the fond smile on his face.

If they had more time, Lance would spend it hanging out with Shiro. Just the two of them. They have a lot to talk about, after all. But Shiro seems happy, and Lance knows he is happy. Reliving their time in Lotor’s clutches might not be the smartest idea right now.

With Shiro’s help, he and Keith come to an agreement. First, they’ll fly both lions down to Keith’s shack in the desert. Red will stay there, along with their supplies for their world tour, and then Keith will get in Blue and they’ll head to Matanzas, where Lance’s family is.

Even though it’s just a short trip to Earth, Keith doesn’t let Lance go without a goodbye kiss, dragging their temporary farewell out until it’s almost as long as Hunk’s. By the time they break apart, Shiro and Allura have already disappeared. Keith leaves first, but Lance makes sure to say a special goodbye to Coran. The older man squeezes him so hard all the air leaves his lungs. “You come back,” Coran insists. “Don’t forget about me just because you’re with your real family.”

“You’re my family too,” Lance promises, patting his back. Coran pushes Lance towards Blue after that, wiping his eyes subtly.

---

“What’s Veradero like?” Keith asks nervously once he’s in Blue with Lance. He can tell by the way Keith’s fingers drum on his shoulder, the subtle shake to his voice. The way Lance’s stomach has knots that he doesn’t think are his own.

He hums. “Veradero’s a resort town. I actually live a city away, in Matanzas.”

“Oh,” Keith’s fingers stop tapping for a second before resuming. “What’s Matanzas like then?”

“It’s nothing like New York City, if that’s what you’re worried about. But it’s definitely louder than that little desert shack you’ve been living in.”

“I’m not worried,” Keith grumbles, stubbornly.

Lance chuckles but doesn’t argue, turning and kissing Keith’s fingers. “They’ll love you, babe. I promise.”

Keith shudders at the nickname, and Lance swears that he’ll only use it in private if this is the reaction he’s going to get. As it is, it’s hard as hell to keep piloting Blue towards home and not stop her midair to pull Keith down for a real kiss the way he wants to.

Through some miraculous show of willpower, Lance manages to get Blue to the park near his neighborhood. The two of them grab their bags, and Lance presses his hand to her nose before they walk away. “Stay nearby, beautiful.” Blue rumbles pleasantly in response, content that she’s close to the water this time rather than trapped in a desert cave.

Lance grins but doesn’t repeat the sentiment to Keith.

Keith gets progressively more and more nervous as they walk, his palms sweating in Lance’s grasp. He’s gritting his teeth too, and although it’s kinda adorable, Lance can’t have him freezing up in front of his family. So he nudges Keith with his shoulder. “They’ll love you,” he repeats.

Keith shoots him an exasperated side glance.

“No, seriously, Keith. They will love you. You’ll be adopted by them before we –“

“Lance Inigo McClain!”

“Shit.”

Keith stiffens, and even Lance winces as the woman yelling stomps down the steps from his home. “Hey, Mama…” Lance greets, sheepishly.

“Don’t you ‘Hey Mama’ me,” she snaps. “You save the planet and then you don’t come home for a full month? What kind of ungrateful son are you?”

He winces again. “Are you sure it was a month? It definitely only felt like two days…”

“Time dilation,” Keith whispers, and Lance almost stomps on his foot.

“Mama, I promise it was only a couple days.”

“Really,” she deadpans. She stops right in front of them, hands on her hips. “And why should I believe that?”

“Time dilation,” Keith speaks up. “We were further from Earth, so to us it was only two days, but to you it was a month.”

Finally, she seems to notice Keith. She looks him up and down, eyes narrowing in on their entwined fingers before her disapproving glare turns into a beaming grin. “Is this your soulmate?” she asks kindly.

She’s always been too attentive for her own good. But right now Lance isn’t going to complain. “Yeah,” he says, looking at Keith who is staring wide-eyed at him. “This is Keith. He’s another one of the saviors of Earth.” The universe, really, but he’ll get to that eventually.

“Of course he is,” she beams. She pulls Keith away, taking her under his arm. “Let’s get you inside and fed. Do you like garlic knots?”

“Um, yes?” Keith glances helplessly back at Lance, and Lance can’t help but grin.

He hoists his bag higher over his shoulder and follows them in, nearly taken out by his younger brother. “What the hell, Steph?”

“It’s Stephan now,” his brother declares, crossing his arms over his chest. He’s grown, Lance notices with a pang. Aged. More time has passed here than up in space, he knows. When he’d left, Stephan was going into his last year of middle school. Now, he looks like he’s been in high school for a few years. “Where have you been?” he grouches, and Lance has a moment to regret coming back in time to witness his little brother’s rebellious stage.

“Space,” Lance tells him, crossing his arms over his own chest. “Haven’t you heard?”

“Everyone’s heard.” A third voice enters, and Lance looks over to see their youngest sibling, Amelia, poke her head around the corner. She takes after their mom the most, and it’s even more evident now. Amelia’s the spitting image of their mother in her own pre-teen years.

“Amelia,” he greets her. “Hey.”

“Hey,” she smiles back at him. She’s always been shy, quieter than the rest of them. “Everyone’s here. Even little Emily.”

“Emily?”

“Lucas had a kid,” Stephan says, still clearly grumpy. His hair is longer too, darker than Lance knows is natural and stick straight in a way that is definitely not natural. Great. He’s having an emo phase.

But rather than focusing on that, Lance asks, “I’m an uncle now?”

“Yup,” Amelia says, popping the p at the end. “So let him in so he can say hi.” The last part is directed at Stephan. Stephan relents, and Lance is finally allowed into his house.

It’s a flurry of activity inside. Like Amelia had said, everyone’s there. Lucas waves hello from the living room, and Lance is forced to leave his bag in the entryway, alongside Keith’s, so he can go in and greet everyone. Emily is a little over a year old, she has Lucas’ crazy hair, and she toddles around the room from person to person, saying hello to everyone. Lance goes to meet her, but he’s nearly closelined by a dark arm, shooting out from the entryway.

“Not gonna say hi?” Lance turns to see his older sister, for a split second before he’s tugged into a hug.

“Kristine!” he exclaims as she squeezes him too tight; the way she used to when they were kids.

“What the hell? You saved the planet,” she declares finally releasing him.

“Yeah, isn’t that your job?” he asks, and she snorts.

“I’m working on it,” she replies.

It’s like that with everyone. Kristine doesn’t get another word before Olivia is tugging him away, pulling him into a hug. And then it’s Lucas and Natalia. And then his uncle comes booming into the room and pops his back as he lifts him bodily off the ground. Aunt Victoria scrutinizes him over her glasses, but even her eyes are wet when she pats him on the shoulder.

Lance had grown up with this, noise all over the place, so he should be used to it. But he’s been in space so long with only six other people, that being back in the heart of it is suddenly…overwhelming. He breaks free, grateful that little Emily is distracting enough for none of them to complain about him sneaking into the kitchen.

As he’d suspected, Keith is inside, wide-eyed as he holds a whole bowl of steaming garlic knots while Lance’s mother wanders around, pulling ingredients from the cupboard. “Hey,” Lance greets as he walks in, and Keith turns his wide-eyed ‘help me’ stare at him. “Mama, are you already putting Keith to work?”

“He looked frightened of all the people outside,” she remarks distractedly. “Do you know where I put the garlic shaker?”

“It’s your house, Mama,” Lance answers. “How would I know?”

“It’s on the counter.” A new voice enters, and Lance turns to see his father enter the room. He beams down at Lance, moustache sporting a few white hairs that weren’t there before Lance left. “Welcome back.”

He wraps Lance in a hug that’s almost as good as Hunk’s. “I missed you,” Lance tells him, wrapping his arms around his dad. For the first time, he feels like he’s finally come home.

“We missed you too,” his father assures him before releasing Lance from his embrace. “And who is this?” he asks, nodding to where Keith is standing stock still, clutching that bowl in both his hands.

Lance’s eyes dart between Keith and his mom before answering, “Keith’s my soulmate.” It still sounds strange, saying it out loud.

His father straightens himself up to his full height, eyes going stern. “And what makes you think you’re good enough for my son?”

Keith, if possible, looks even more uncomfortable.

“Papa,” Lance scolds. “Don’t tease.”

“It’s a serious question!” his father defends, the macho act disappearing almost instantly.

Lance finally takes pity on Keith and grabs the bowl out of his hands, stealing a knot for himself before setting it on the counter. “He helped save the planet too, you know.” Lance nudges Keith, who approaches his father so stiffly he looks more like a robot than a human.

“Mister McClain,” Keith says formally, extending his hand. “I’d like your permission to date your son.”

Papa looks at Keith, then at Lance, then bursts out laughing. “Dear,” Mama interrupts. “Stop terrorizing our guest and make yourself useful.” She grabs the bowl before Lance can steal another garlic knot and plops it into her husband’s hands. “Take this out to your other children and your grandchild.”

“Yes, dear,” he agrees, kissing her on the cheek. He winks at Keith before disappearing out of the kitchen, taking his garlic knots with him.

“So where are we sleeping?” Lance asks once it’s just the three of them. “I assume Stephan has my old room now?”

“You’ll take the guest room in the basement. Kristine has the other one down there,” she informs him.

“What about Lucas?”

“He has his own house nearby. They moved back down about a year ago.”

There’s a lot Lance has to catch up on, but he’s not going to spend all his time doing that now. So he grabs Keith’s hand, and tugs him out the back of the kitchen. “You better come up for dinner,” his mother threatens as they leave.

“We will,” he promises, tugging Keith with him.

They make it to the entryway without being caught, then grab their bags and trek down to the basement. Lance scopes out the room close to the stairs, the good one, but Kristine clearly claimed that one. It’s fine. He has Keith. They don’t want to be too close to the stairs. “Kristine took the good room,” he tells Keith, “but that’s alright.”

“What makes it the good room?” Keith asks once they get into their room, and Lance closes the door.

“Bigger,” Lance answers, dropping his bag on the floor. “Not as drafty.”

Now that it’s just the two of them, he doesn’t hesitate to close the distance between them. He pulls Keith into him, and kisses him like they’d been apart for several years rather than several minutes. “Sorry,” he apologizes when they break apart. “I had to do that.”

“Lance,” Keith breathes, pulling him in again. If Lance had intended for them to unpack, it’s too late, because they don’t get any further than dropping their bags on the floor and falling onto the bed.

They lose track of time completely until his mother’s shout echoes down the stairs later. “Boys! Dinner!”

Lance breaks apart reluctantly. “She’ll come down and get us herself if we don’t go.”

Keith looks like he wants to argue, but he nods instead. “There’s always after,” he says, and Lance leans in to kiss him once again.

“Keith Kogane, the romantic. Who would’ve thought?”

“Shut up.” Keith shoves Lance off, sending him tumbling to the floor.

Lance cracks up. The fluttering appears in his stomach again, small butterflies he thinks might be Keith’s. “Hey,” Lance says, standing up. “You’re doing great. Survive dinner, and tomorrow I’ll take you out to Veradero beach.”

“Sorry,” Keith apologizes, getting off the bed. “I’m not used to this many people.”

“I’m not really anymore,” Lance admits. “Which is why we’ll get away tomorrow.”

---

They do not, in fact, get to Veradero beach the next day. On Lance’s insistence, they have omelets and pancakes the next morning – something that makes Keith’s eyes widen while Lance’s stomach flutters with butterflies again – and the fact that Keith’s handy with tools comes up. Mama puts him to work doing all the things Papa hasn’t gotten around to yet, while Lance spends time with his siblings. Lance ends up helping out with Emily, then assisting Amelia with her homework, then going to lunch with Kristine, then running errands with Olivia.

The world may have been saved from destruction by aliens, but that doesn’t stop it from turning. School is in session, and work never ends. After a few days, Kristine has to go back to LA, and Lance is the only one not too busy to take her to the airport. He’s exhausted after nearly a full week of doing things, and he’s hardly seen Keith the entire time they’ve been out here. It’s torture.

When he gets back, he’s surprised to see the garage open, an old hover bike sitting in there. Lance approaches quietly, noticing Stephan – emo Stephan who has avoided him since their first encounter – standing next to it, holding a bag of tools.

“Now give me the wrench,” Keith’s muffled voice comes from under the bike, his gloved hand sticking out from it. Stephan fumbles through the bag finally giving Keith a wrench. Keith’s hand disappears then reappears again. “The other wrench.”

Stephan hands him that one instead, and Lance stays in the shadows, watching quietly. “How’d you learn how to do this?” Stephan asks, sounding interested in something for the first time since Lance got back.

“My dad,” Keith answers. “When I was younger he showed me how to fix things.”

“That’s cool. My dad can do things around the house, but machines…not so much.” Lance has to stifle his laughter. It’s true; his dad is a pretty helpless handyman. Even things around the house, he’s not as good. Lance gets the feeling that Keith’s been roped into things not just because Papa doesn’t have time, but because Mama doesn’t trust him with it.

“I have a bike like this,” Keith offers. “So I know how to fix these when they break down.”

“That’s cool,” Stephan says. And it sounds like he actually means it too. The feeling Lance has towards Keith is so fond in that moment, that Keith drops the wrench and pushes out from under the bike. Lance disappears before Keith can spot him.

That night, after the calmest dinner they’ve had so far – just them, Amelia, Stephan, and his parents – Lance tugs Keith aside. “Your hover bike’s in Blue, right?”

“Yeah?” Keith asks. “Why?”

“Go get it and meet me back here,” is all Lance tells him. “We’re going for a drive.”

Once Keith leaves, he goes inside and grabs a bag, packing it with desserts and sodas that his mom has stashed away. “Going somewhere?” Mama asks when he notices Lance digging through the cupboards.

“I’m taking Keith out.”

“One of the dates in your list?”

Lance’s ears flush red. “Mama…” he complains.

She laughs and kisses his forehead. “I think it’s sweet.” She disappears and reappears a moment later with one of their large beach towels. “How much longer are you staying?”

It’s a topic they haven’t broached yet, but Lance knew it was coming up. He and Keith have their world tour planned, and even though Allura never gave them a ‘return by’ date, they can’t stay here forever. Or rather, Lance doesn’t want to, now that he knows there’s still so much to do, so much to see. “Not much,” he decides. “Maybe another day or two?”

She nods, not looking surprised at all. “With all that fancy technology you have out there, I expect to hear word from you more often.”

“Of course,” Lance promises.

“And if you and Keith get married, you do it here on Earth. You understand?”

“Mama…”

The rumble outside reveals that Keith’s back. “Be quiet when you come back!” his mother warns.

“We will!” Lance calls back, racing out the door. Keith is outside on his hover bike. Lance hops on behind him, remembering the last time they did this – the only time they did this – was when they saved Shiro. He spares one look up at the house and sees Stephan staring out at them before Keith races off.

“Where are we going?” Keith asks, but Lance shakes his head. “Just follow my directions,” he insists.

He directs Keith to Veradero beach, and they reach it long after sunset. Most of the crowd is gone, all the families certainly are, and once they hop off the bike and head to the beach, the only people remaining are other couples. “So,” he teases Keith. “This is Veradero beach…”

Keith shoves him. “Very funny, Lance.”

Lance laughs. “Aww, I’m just teasing.” They walk a little ways down the beach before Lance stops them. The other couples are all giving each other space, so he’s not afraid of them getting interrupted here. He pulls out the towel from the bag and lays it on the sand, plopping down on top of it. “Ta-da. Picnic on the beach.”

It’s a little too dark to see, but Lance gets the feeling that Keith is raising his eyebrows at him. “We already ate.”

“Dessert,” Lance insists. “Just…sit down. I’ve wanted to bring you out here for a long time.”

Keith doesn’t argue, sitting so close to Lance that there isn’t space between their legs. “Yeah?” Keith asks. “How long?”

Lance stares at the moonlight reflected in the water for a long time before answering. “Since I learned what soulmates were,” he confesses, looking down at his hands. “Kinda silly isn’t it?”

“No,” Keith murmurs. “It’s not.”

“Bet you didn’t dream about the dates you’d take your soulmate on.”

Keith turns towards him, and Lance feels gentle fingers under his chin until he looks up at Keith. “I didn’t think about soulmates much,” Keith confesses. “Because I was too busy thinking about myself.”

“That’s not true,” Lance argues, frowning.

“No,” Keith shakes his head. “It is. Listen…”

And Lance does.

 

 


 

 

 

They get back to Lance’s house late that night, so late dawn is already starting to creep over the horizon. Keith had confessed everything. He’d told Lance about his dad, about the itch in his arm, the paint, the Olkari, his fears that he’d only liked Lance because of the bond. Everything. Lance should’ve been mad at him for keeping everything secret. Instead, Lance had invited him home to meet his family. Lance should’ve been upset that Keith spent so much time thinking about himself instead of replying to the notes that Lance left for him constantly. But Lance pulls him in for a kiss and tells Keith that he’s happy to be together. And now that everything is finally out in the open, Keith thinks that they can start their relationship.

For real.

They sleep in late the next day, well past noon, and by the time they get out of bed, Keith knows. He knows what Lance is thinking because it’s what he’s thinking too. He likes Lance’s family, loves them even, but it’s time to go.

Lance is the one to make the necessary goodbyes. The only thing that Keith insists they do is wait for Stephan and Amelia to get back from school before disappearing. In the short time that they’ve been here, he felt like he’d developed a repertoire with Stephan. And Keith knows what it’s like to have someone disappear, especially at that age.

So they wait, they say their goodbyes, and they have dinner before they leave on Lance’s mother’s insistence. Lance gets pulled away by his mother, something about needing proper food to travel with, and Keith gets a tap on his shoulder from his father.

The two of them step outside quietly, and Lance’s father is the first to speak. “Jill’s already given him grief about this, but I want you to know that you have my blessing. If you can’t get back to Earth for whatever reason, don’t think you have to hold out on marrying him just so we can be there. We’ll have a nice reception for you when you return.”

Keith flushes immediately. He and Lance have barely been together a week, and already Lance’s parents are talking marriage. “Oh…uh…Mister McClain…”

“Antony,” he interrupts. “Please.”

“Antony,” Keith corrects. “I think marriage is a long ways off. We actually haven’t been together all that long, and…” Keith doesn’t know what the ‘and’ is, but still. They haven’t been together nearly long enough to talk about marriage.

“Keith,” Antony rests his hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Trust an old man like me: time doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in love.” He pats him once more on the shoulder, breaking away when Lance appears at the door.

“Jeez, there you are,” Lance grumps at Keith. “I can’t carry your bag and mine. Get in here and help.” Keith looks back at Antony who gestures to Lance, as if to say don’t look at me, go help him.

It takes them longer than it should, but finally they manage to get their bags – and plenty of food – and leave Lance’s house. Blue is still in the park, the place she’s been the whole time. Her barrier is up, but upon seeing Lance and Keith, she lowers it, letting them inside. “Hey beautiful,” Lance greets her once they’re in the pilot seat. “You miss me?”

Keith smiles at the purr she replies with.

With Blue, the flight to Keith’s shack in the desert is short, taking about the same time as it took them to get from Lance’s house to Veradero beach the night before. It’s night here too, and the two of them pull their bags out of Blue, dumping them in the house.

“It’s a good thing Mama gave us a ton of food,” Lance remarks, opening the fridge. “Because I’m not sure there’s a grocery store nearby.”

“No,” Keith agrees. “It’s about an hour and a half to the nearest one. By hover bike.”

The look Lance shoots him over his shoulder is filled with such disbelief Keith almost laughs. “That’s ridiculous.” He finishes filling the fridge and walks over to where Keith is leaning back on the counter. Lance plants his hands around him, crowding Keith there, but Keith can’t find it in himself to want to escape. “Now what, Kogane?”

“We’re flying out tomorrow, right?” Keith reminds him. “We should get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” Lance asks, raising one eyebrow suggestively. “We finally have a house to ourselves. We’re an hour and a half from the nearest people. And you want to sleep?”

Keith’s stomach heats at the suggestion, spurred on by what Lance is absolutely implying. “You don’t think that’s too fast?” he asks, hands already moving to Lance’s hips. His words are at odds with his actions, with his emotions. He and Lance hadn’t been able to do anything beyond kissing yet, for fear that someone would come down into the basement and interrupt them, but Keith’s been aching for more since Lance pulled him in for that first kiss in the Castle of Lions.

And god, now that Keith can finally get his hands on a sliver of Lance’s skin it’s nowhere near enough. He doesn’t know how he could’ve ever thought it would be enough. He can’t think of anything, actually, the moment Lance’s fingers slip under his shirt, brushing against the sensitive skin on Keith’s lower back.

“I think we’ve moved plenty slow,” Lance whispers, “don’t you?”

Keith nearly breaks the counter when he pushes off it. He grabs Lance bodily and pushes him towards the bedroom. Lance laughs the whole way, and even though it’s just the two of them, Keith slams the door behind them.

---

They don’t do a tour of the world. They don’t even do a tour of the desert. Keith doesn’t know what they’d been thinking, assuming they could go more than a few seconds without touching each other.

After the first night, he doesn’t know when he’ll ever be able to go without touching Lance again. Keith doesn’t know if it’s because they’re soulmates, because he’s part Galra, or just because it’s Lance, but he can’t go more than a few moments at a time without him.

When Lance’s mom had given them all that food, he’d thought it was ridiculous, but now that they definitely aren’t making it out of the house – they barely even make it out of the bedroom – he thinks it was probably good foresight on her part.

And when they do make it out of the bedroom, they just end up doing the same thing in a different location. The couch, the kitchen counter, the floor, the shower. Lance even teases Keith enough that they go outside and have sex on his hover bike. Afterwards, he’s grateful that he’d at least parked it back behind the house, away from their lions.

He’s not sure he could take Red’s teasing if she’d seen.

An entire week passes this way, and still Keith isn’t tired of it. He isn’t tired of Lance, isn’t tired of being around just him, isn’t tired of anything. They could go on like this for another year, and Keith still wouldn’t be ready to go back to the ship, to go back to their real life.

But that morning, Lance gets up, not even bothering to put on clothes anymore, and Keith follows him, hypnotized into the kitchen. Lance bends over – he does that on purpose, Keith knows he does – as he opens the fridge. He pulls something out and stands up, closing the fridge and turns back to Keith, frowning down at the frittata in his hand. “This is the last one.”

“Oh. What else do we have?”

Lance looks up at him. “Nothing.”

Keith chews his bottom lip. They could go out and get groceries. Prepared meals so they don’t have to take long breaks just to cook. They could also fly back to Lance’s house and ask his mom for more food. But both things involve putting on clothes and leaving, and Keith isn’t sure he wants to do that. Not just yet.

“What are our options?” he asks as Lance turns on the oven to heat their breakfast up.

“I think you know what our option is.”

Just like before, Keith doesn’t need to wonder what Lance is thinking, because he already knows. Allura had never given them a ‘return by’ date, but he can feel the impatience in Red, echoed somewhat quietly by Blue.

It’s time for them to return to space.

“One more time,” Keith presses, pushing Lance up against the counter after their breakfast is safely in the oven. He kisses down the side of Lance’s neck to his collarbone, sucking on the mark he’d left there yesterday. Or earlier today. Or three days ago. The days have all blended together in a tangle of sheets and the smell of Lance’s skin all over him.

“You’re incorrigible,” Lance grumbles, but there’s no heat to his complaint. No real fight against this.

They have just enough time for one round before their breakfast is ready. Keith drags Lance from the heat of the kitchen and takes him on the couch, savoring it the way he does every time. He kisses Lance like he’s going to lose him again, makes love to him like it’s the last time. And even though he’d sworn to Lance’s dad that it was far too early to be thinking of things such as marriage, ‘forever’ sounds like just the right amount of time to spend with Lance.

They shower and get dressed after they eat, packing what few belongings they’d unpacked back into the lions. Keith drags his hover bike in Red this time, remembering the feel of Lance’s arms wrapped around his waist when they rode to Veradero beach. If they get the chance to do that on another planet, Keith is going to take it.

Lance is standing outside Blue when Keith finishes packing, staring out at the desert with a wistful gaze. Keith’s stomach drops, and Lance turns to look at him. “Everything okay?” Lance asks, worried about him of all things.

Keith approaches, because how can he not? He wraps his arms around Lance and lays a kiss on the exposed skin of his neck. “If you don’t want to go back, you don’t have to.” Confusion. “You can stay, I mean. Here on Earth. With your family.”

“Without you?” Lance asks, sounding alarmed. “Why?”

“You seem sad to go.”

Lance pushes Keith away but keeps his hold on Keith’s shoulders, holding him just far enough to make eye contact. “I love Earth, and I love my family. But I wanted to be an astronaut, remember? I applied to the Garrison to be a fighter pilot, to go up to space. I want to be up there. I want to explore, with you. So yes, of course I’m sad to leave Earth. But we’ll be back. There’s no big, bad Galra threat to stop us from coming back whenever.” Lance shakes him slightly, smile creeping over his face. “Besides, I’ll be up there with my soulmate. What’s not to love?”

Keith’s breath hitches. Love. Lance hasn’t used that word since Keith had first confessed about how the Galra bond worked. He knows Lance feels it, can tell the depth of Lance’s feelings every time they touch, every time they kiss. But Lance hasn’t said it again.

Probably because Keith hasn’t said it at all.

Keith doesn’t know if it’s too soon to say it, but he wants to. The problem is: he isn’t good with words. He’s come to terms with his feelings for Lance internally, but vocalizing them? That’s a completely different story.

He really, really wants to say it though.

“Come on,” Lance urges. “We should get going. Allura should’ve given us enough juice to jump to wherever the castle is.”

They have to fly separately again, the way they did coming down here, but parting this time is infinitely worse somehow. Keith hasn’t been further than a door’s distance from Lance since they’ve arrived at the shack in the desert, and putting two lions between them feels a bit like he’s being forced away from his supply of oxygen.

Red expresses nothing short of exasperation at him, making it clear that she thinks he’s being dramatic. Regardless, Keith urges her to follow close to Lance as they leave Earth’s atmosphere, and Blue makes the wormhole.

The castle ship is near Olkari when they exit the wormhole. Coran’s face is the first to appear in their video feeds when they jump out. “You came back!” he sounds incredibly enthused, and Lance laughs. “Told you: you’re family,” he assures the older man, and Keith can swear he sees tears forming in the corners of Coran’s eyes.

“Well don’t just float there, come in!” Coran demands.

The green lion is in the hangar, as is the black lion, but Yellow is nowhere to be seen. Keith seeks out Lance the minute they get out, and Lance simply turns and kisses the top of his head. “Ah, young love,” Coran announces his presence, interrupting them. “Nothing is more beautiful than the sight of a fully formed bonded pair.”

“Not sick of Shiro and Allura yet?” Lance asks, laughter in his voice.

“Quite the opposite,” Coran assures them. “Speaking of, Pidge has returned and we’re working on designs for his new arm. Come take a look.”

Lance gives Keith a look, and Keith shrugs. The two of them follow Coran to the med bay where Pidge and Matt have designs spread out on various screens, while Shiro stands shirtless in the center of the room, looking uncomfortable. He catches Keith’s eye when he and Lance appear. “Keith,” Shiro begs. “Tell them I don’t need to stand here like this.”

“Oh, he definitely needs to stand there like that.” Allura appears from behind them, resting a gentle hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Don’t you think?” The looks she gives him is obviously conspiratorial, and though Keith doesn’t really want to think about the fact that she and Shiro have probably spent their time alone much the same way he and Lance have…but he isn’t going to begrudge them their obvious happiness.

“I wouldn’t argue with Allura,” Keith replies carefully. Next to him Lance lets out a low whistle. “No,” Lance agrees. “I definitely would not.” Keith elbows him hard enough that he coughs.

“Would you four stop being so disgusting?” Pidge demands “I need someone to measure the diameter of Shiro’s arm.”

“On it,” Allura volunteers immediately, and Keith knows better than to argue with that as well.

Lance peels himself away from Keith and wanders towards where Pidge and Matt are working. “Nice to see you too, Pidgeotto,” Lance greets. “Yes, Earth was lovely. Oh? I look tanner? Thank you.”

“Shut up,” Pidge instructs without looking up. “Be useful or be gone.”

Lance clutches his chest. “Ouch. What did I do to deserve that?”

Matt glances up. “Don’t mind them. They haven’t slept for three days.”

“Three days?” Lance declares, affronted. “What kind of soulmate are you, Matthew? Get them to bed.”

“The kind of soulmate that stays up with me instead of forcing me to do things I don’t want to do,” Pidge grumbles. Lance glances at Keith who nods. Together, the two of them approach Pidge, and before they can figure out what’s happening, Keith snatches them up. “Ouch! Traitor! Put me down!”

“Nope,” Lance answers for them both. “You need to get to bed. And you,” he rounds on Matt. “Are worse than Pidge. Go to bed and let Shiro put his shirt on.”

“Shirt stays off,” Allura calls from the background, followed by Shiro’s protests.

“Okay, shirt stays off, but you come with us.” Lance rounds up Matt, ignoring his protests, and together, Keith and Lance get Matt and Pidge out of the infirmary.

“Why are you even here? I thought you were looking for your dad?” Lance asks the siblings.

Pidge yawns, so Matt answers for them both. “The Olkari and the Garrison have started checking with the Blade. Mom sent us away until we’ve ‘taken a break’.”

“We had a plenty long break,” Pidge grouses. “Mom just thinks we’re workaholics.”

“To be fair,” Lance points out. “You are.”

Keith manages to stop Pidge’s weak attempt at hitting Lance, especially since their hand swings wide. Lance is right; they’ve clearly been awake too long.

They manage to get both Holts locked in their rooms with the promise that they will at least lie down and pretend to sleep for eight hours. Keith has a feeling that they’ll find a way around it, but Pidge’s eyes are closing involuntarily. Maybe they’ll actually get some rest.

Lance grabs Keith’s hand again the moment they’re alone in the hallway again. He brings Keith’s fingers to his lips, kissing each knuckle right where the glove meets skin. “Why do you still wear these?” he asks.

“Habit,” Keith says. “Plus, I know you like them. You made me leave them on during –“

“Oh my god!” Pidge shrieks from inside their room. “For the love of god move away from my door before you discuss your sex life!”

Both he and Lance flush, and if they run away, well, no one else needs to know that.

As much as Keith wants to drag Lance back to their room – because they are absolutely going to share a room now – he lets Lance take them into the main bridge area instead. Shiro, fully clothed, is in there with Allura and Coran, all musing over a star map. Despite the two being soulmates, Keith can see the clear attempt to remain professional. Shiro’s eyes dart to Allura more than they had before, and they stand closer together, but for all Coran had said in the hangar, they don’t seem to be as all-over-each-other as he and Lance are.

“Where’s Hunk?” Keith asks once they enter. He’d been looking forward to seeing the yellow paladin again. They’d bonded while Lance had been gone, and Keith had been hoping to see him again now that everything has calmed down.

“Still on Earth, I assume,” Coran replies. “Though I imagine he’ll be back shortly, bringing his own soulmate along for the ride. What a place this will be, then! The perfect ship of love.” He looks happy, too, even though there’s a glaringly obvious issue with what he said. None of them bring it up though, and Keith isn’t going to push it. Coran’s past is his business. If he wants to share, then he can share. Keith isn’t going to press him.

“So what are you doing?” Lance asks, pulling them closer. He doesn’t break away from Keith this time, and Keith feels no need to hide their bond from anyone. As he gets closer, he sees small marks up the side of Shiro’s neck, tiny pink hearts that look like they were drawn on someone else’s skin.

It’s an intimacy that he and Lance haven’t had since they reunited. And it gives him an idea.

“Zarkon and Lotor are dead,” Allura tells them, “but the Galra Empire lives on. It’s fractured; factions have risen up, each following different commanders of Zarkon’s inner circle. That makes it easy to defeat as a whole, but there are still planets who need to be freed. A further, perhaps more pressing issue, is that Haggar hasn’t been seen since Zarkon’s death. We’ve followed every rumor of a sighting, but they’ve all been just that. Rumors.”

“We’re deciding the next moves,” Shiro inputs, actually answering Lance’s question. “There’s a small planet, still under Galra rule, which has recently turned on its distress beacon. We’re deciding if we should go in person or send someone from the Coalition to handle it.”

“We’re one lion short of Voltron,” Allura adds. “So it’s a risk if we go ourselves.”

“What’s the fun if there’s no risk?” Keith asks, and all eyes land on him. He glances at Lance who is giving him a look mixed with awe and disbelief. “Well it’s true. We didn’t come back here to hang out on a ship and do nothing. We came back to explore strange new worlds, right?”

“Seek out new life and new civilizations,” Lance adds with a smile.

“And go where no one has gone before,” Shiro finishes for them all.

Allura and Coran look between the three of them, clearly confused. “Then it’s settled,” Shiro says when the Alteans do nothing more than look lost. “We’ll take care of the distress beacon. It’ll take a day or two to get there if we keep not using the wormhole.”

“Why no wormhole?” Lance asks.

“In case Hunk decides to find us,” Allura answers. “A wormhole can’t take you to another wormhole.”

“Indeed. We also need to account for Pidge and Matt’s search for their father,” Coran reminds them, turning to the console. “If they continue to use the castle as their base, we will need to be accessible to the Olkari.”

“Right,” Shiro agrees easily, leadership resting easily again on his shoulders.

His and Lance’s part of the conversation is clearly over, and Keith’s eager to be alone with Lance again. It’s only been a few hours since they left Earth, but he’s already antsy, already itching for that precious alone time with his soulmate. So he tugs Lance along with him, heading out of the bridge. “Call us when you need us,” he instructs.

“What was that?” Lance asks once they’re in the hall.

“Just…” There’s an itch under Keith’s skin, one that had been forming since Antony said ‘marriage’, one that had grown when Keith thought the word ‘love’ and had nearly exploded when he’d seen the hearts on Shiro’s skin. “I need to talk to you about something.”

“Uh…alright?” Lance doesn’t argue though, doesn’t resist the way Keith pulls him back to Lance’s room.

Everything is pretty much in the same place it had been when they’d left two weeks ago. It feels like they’d been gone for a lot longer. Keith drops Lance’s hand once they get in, immediately rifling through the desk.

“Uh, babe?” Lance asks, the nickname making Keith’s stomach swoop. Lance only uses it when they’re alone, but the nickname does something to Keith. He doesn’t indulge in the desire now, not yet. “Whatcha doin?”

“Looking,” Keith informs him, tossing the pillow to the side. Not there.

“Looking for what?”

Keith doesn’t answer, getting on the ground and peering under the bed. It’s sitting there innocently, and he pulls it out triumphantly. Lance stares. “You were looking for a pen?”

“Yes,” Keith answers, sitting down and uncapping it.

“Why?”

“Just…close your eyes.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I can’t do this if you’re watching me, okay? Just close your eyes.”

Lance gives him a strange look but obeys. Once he’s sure Lance’s eyes are closed, Keith takes the pen to his skin. There’s a better place to do this, one that won’t show up as easily, but the front of his arm is where he does it. It’s where Lance had begged him not to come, where Keith had screamed Lance’s name a thousand times on his skin. Their arms have been covered by words enough times, that there’s no way Keith could write these words anywhere else.

And now, writing in front of Lance, he can see what happens.

Lance’s head tilts back, eyes still closed, and an expression of pure ecstasy reigns over his features. His breathing is shallow, his stomach warm, and when they’re sitting so close, he can feel everything Lance is feeling, which is everything he’s feeling amplified back to him tenfold. It’s…overwhelming, awe inspiring, and for the first time Keith wishes he really could draw so he could capture this moment forever on canvas.

When he finishes, Lance opens his eyes, lowering his head. He looks at Keith, eyes wide, and Keith knows that Lance doesn’t need to look down at the words to know what Keith wrote. But he looks down anyway, and Keith feels happy tears that aren’t his own pricking the corner of his eyes.

I love you

“I love you too,” Lance whispers. He might be crying, Keith might be crying too. He isn’t sure. He doesn’t want to know. Keith surges forward, capturing Lance’s lips in his own, and together the two of them fall backwards onto their bed.

This, Keith decides, is what the beginning feels like.