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Aequor Viridi Mutaris

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Queen Luxia was incredibly grateful to Hunk and Lance for their help with the defeat of the Baku. Of course, anyone would be grateful for being freed from a people-eating, brainwashing monster, but Queen Luxia was so grateful that she insisted on throwing a great feast for the Paladins and her people.

Lance, of course, was a little weary of dining with the meraliens again. Hunk was excited for the food again; despite the brainwashing, he did remember how delicious the wide range of seafood had been. Luxia extended the invitation to the rest of the Paladins upon their arrival. Shiro accepted the invitation graciously and the whole team donned their suits and bubble-helmets to join the Queen for dinner.

Once the feast was underway, Lance abandoned his skepticism. He wanted to assume the best of people, anyways. Who was he, Keith? Besides, Plaxum, Blumfump, and Swirn seemed to trust the Queen.

Luxia was going all out for this bash. The feast was to take place in the palace, in the Great Hall, or so Luxia called it. Like many other rooms in the palace, The Great Hall’s walls were transparent and looked out into the bioluminecent garden, which glowed in the dark waters. The interior of the hall was decked out in similar lights along the domed walls. Rows of thick rock tables were bedecked with crystalline place settings. Which sparkled in the light of the glowing shells which lit up the hall like candles. The meraliens filtered in, taking seats along the long tables, murmuring with excitement. On a raised platform above the others, The Paladins, and Plaxum, Blumfump, and Swirn were given seats of honour at a special table, along with the Queen and some of her advisors.

There was a band playing odd instruments up on a balcony above them. Lance vaguely wondered how the sound travelled through the water. Luxia assured them there would be no hypnotizing this time.

The food came out, brought out to the people and the Paladins in unison by servers all wearing ornate uniforms.

“These are traditional outfits,” Luxia said, “The palace servers wear these for the largest celebrations-- the last time was when our people won a long war against the Kiljoons.”

“I remember that!” Plaxum exclaimed, bubbles swirling up around her long hair-like tentacles, “I was just a small fry at the time--”

“Pidge is still a small fry.” Lance said.

Pidge rolled her eyes, “Fry is a word for a baby fish, it has nothing to do with height, Lance.”

“I knew that!” Lance started, but his obviously stellar retort was interrupted by the servers bringing their food to the table of honour.

Large plates of broiled fish, fried breads and plants which still looked crispy despite the water. Gelatinous bowls of... something, thick and warm like soup. There were plates of greens, and cooked fruits which were cracked open to reveal a gooey inside. It tasted savoury like an egg. Luxia dipped the crispy bread-plants into the insides. There were other seafoods like shrimp and oysters, all browned and served with a grain similar to rice.

Lance wasn't sure where to start. It all looked delicious, despite being alien. He looked to his left; Hunk was already serving himself one of everything. Lance laughed, patting Hunk on the back.

“Slow down there bud, I don't want to have to do CPR if you start choking on a fishbone. Hey, do you think the technique of CPR would change if we’re underwater?”

“You're thinking of the heimlich, Lance. CPR is for someone who isn't breathing.” Keith said through bites of a stringy green plant.

Lance narrowed his eyes, “You're not breathing when you're choking! Are you just eating that leaf by itself?”

“But that's different-” Keith looked down at the plant in his hand. “Yeah, it’s seaweed. Or, like seaweed.”

Shiro cleared his throat, giving Lance and Keith both a stern glance, “We really appreciate your generosity, Queen Luxia. On behalf of all us, thank you.”

“Oh, there is no need for thanks, Paladin. This feast is in thanks to you,” Luxia said, gesturing out towards the rows of meraliens happily feasting, “If it weren't for the bravery and compassion of Hunk and Lance, and the tenacity and intelligence of Bumpflump, Plaxum and Swirn--”

“Hunk and I were pretty smart too--” Lance mumbled before being silenced by Shiro’s raised hand.

“We would still be in the clutches of the Baku,” Luxia shivered, and let out a woeful sigh, “Oh, goodness, I can't imagine... how many of my people were sent to the waiting mouth of that monster, and under my rule--”

“It was not your fault you Highness,” Allura interjected. “You did all that you could. We should look to the future instead of blaming yourself for the past.”

“I’ve heard stories of the grace of the Alteans, and now I know it is real,” Luxia said with a bowed head, “Thank you.”

“Uh,” Lance nudged Plaxum, who was nibbling on the crunchy green plants next to him, “is there a little boy's room here? The men’s bathroom? Or, uh, of gendered or non gendered distinction?”

“Huh?” Plaxum tilted her head to the side, “Do you mean the personal waste disposal area?”

“Right, that. Where is it?”

“Just down those stairs,” Plaxum said, pointing to stairs to their left which led down towards the rows of meraliens below, “then through that door, and up another set of stairs. Then you turn left, right, left, left, right at the second door, and left two more times until you go up another little incline-- not stairs, just a little incline-- and it'll be the fourth door on the right!”

“Riiiight.” Lance nodded, stretching out the “i” in an absurd way. Keith rolled his eyes. Lance ignored it.

“I can accompany you, if you want.” Plaxum said, which made Lance’s face turn red as he imagined himself and Plaxum, alone in the personal waste disposal area.

“U-uh, oh, thanks, Plaxum. But don’t worry! I will admit it's not the most straightforward route but I, Lance McClain, have an excellent sense of direction. I’ll be right back.”

He made it down the stairs and through the doorway before getting lost.

The hallway, like all the rest of the hallways in the palace, were chiseled out of deep blue rock. Lance was only able to see thanks to sporadic blue lights strung up along the ceiling. In fact, the further he went, the darker it seemed to get.

“Okay... okay. You got this Lance. It was through the door, up the stairs, left, right, right... left? God damn it, who built this castle? Why is the bathroom so far away? Or, uh, personal waste disposal area.” Lance muttered to himself as he swam up another short set of stairs, “And why do they have stairs, anyways?! You can just swim up and down them!”

He turned left again, and entered a hallway which was considerably brighter and larger. There were no other doors or offshoots save for one large glass one at the end of the hall.

That must be it, Lance thought as he swam-shuffled down the long hallway. But as he got closer, it became immediately apparent that this was no bathroom, or alien equivalent. Through the frosted glass door, he could just make out... flowers. What is this? Another garden? Curiosity overcame his bladder’s needs, so he pulled open the door to look inside, maybe there was someone inside who could point him back towards the bathroom. The door was surprisingly heavy. Lance let out a groan as he pulled it open, causing a whoosh of water as it forced the water behind it out of the way. The rush of water to fill back in pulled Lance forward into the strange room.

“Hello? Anyone here?” Lance called out, his voice not as confident as he had hoped. This room was much warmer than the hallway outside. In fact, it felt several degrees warmer, like he was swimming in a bathtub of water. Yikes, starting to feel a bit like a fish in a boiling pot here... He took off his gloves, but it did nothing to help with the heat, “Hello? I’m trying to find the bath--et, personal waste disposal area!”

There was no answer. The reeds and underwater blooms swayed in the gentle current of the room. Damn, I bet everyone is at the feast, Lance sighed loudly. He watched the swaying leaves of the colourful plants for a moment. They really were beautiful. I’ll just look around quickly, then get out of this sauna.

The place was filled with plants. Some were like seaweed, and snaked up and along the ceiling. There were some which resembled anemones, their long blue fronds disappearing into a hard carapace as Lance floated past. A walkway snaked through the garden, and Lance followed it, amazed. Small shrimp flitted through the stalks and leaves like bees. Lance laughed as some danced around his fingers, one brave shrimp even landing on his pointer finger, “Wow. You guys are really cute! Hey, you don't happen to know where the bathroom is, do you?” He lifted his hand to look the shrimp in the eye. It scuttled away, “Huh. Didn't think so.”

He continued along the path. The plantlife changed from mostly browns and greens to more spectacular colours; reds and teals and yellows, glowing with mild bioluminescence. There was one large plant with broad purple leaves with yellow spots which vaguely resembled a face. Lance studied it for a while, running a finger along the leaves. They were rough, like a palm tree. Lance was pondering what purpose the face-spots served when another plant caught his eye.

He floated over with a quiet “oooh!” It was stunning. The thick bamboo-like stalks extended up to the ceiling. From these stalks bright red petals bloomed; actually, upon closer inspection they were not petals, but thick, pointed tubes. Thorns? The ends were actually a dark green, and sort of...glistened. He noticed a thick, green sap oozing out of some of these thorns.

“That's so cool, I wonder what this goop is made of, it's obviously not water soluble like tree sap. Actually, it looks water resistant--” he ran his finger along the thorn to touch the sap, “--ouch! Ack!” He pulled his hand away as pain bloomed through his finger. He shook out his hand and brought it close to his face to inspect. Blood seeped out of a tiny cut, creating a little red cloud in the water, “Oh, god damn it! Right, riiiight, you're not supposed to fondle the specimens.” He thought back to his old biology teacher recounting those exact words in  school, the time Lance picked up the worm they were dissecting and pretended to slow dance with it.

He sucked on his finger. The pain wasn’t really going away. It wasn’t intense, just a dull throb. Still, he decided it was time to head back. He probably shouldn’t be in this weird greenhouse by himself, anyways. Probably should have thought of that before slicing your finger open on a weird alien plant.

He swam back through the garden, suddenly feeling claustrophobic and a little too hot. Actually, it felt like the whole room was swaying. What’s going on? God, it's so hot in here. He was sweating in his air bubble. More than sweating. By the time he made it back to the big glass door, he was panting. He just barely got the door open, collapsing to his knees and gasping for breath. The cool water of the hallway was only a small comfort. The dull throbbing of his finger had spread, now encompassing his whole arm. His fingers were feeling a bit numb. Something was very wrong. I should call the others, he thought, remembering the comm device on his suit in a flash of brilliance. With numb fingers he fumbled with the controls.

“G-guys... not feelin’ so hot. Should probably.... come help?” He mumbled into the radio, hoping the slurring of his speech was only his imagination.

“Lance?” Shiro’s voice sounded. “What's wrong, where are you?”

“Plants?” Why was everything he said coming out like a question? “I found... plants... m’dizzy.”

“Alright, stay where you are, I'm coming to get you.”

Okay, I can do that. Lance struggled back to his feet, but the ground was swaying so much he stumbled against the wall. The ground isn't moving. I'm just real dizzy. He really shouldn't have been goofing around with alien plants. Now he was going to die from alien plant poison, and probably would piss himself too since he still had to pee. He used the wall to slowly walk back towards the main hallway.

His stomach was turning in knots. His head felt like it was full of cotton balls, and he was still sweating. He stumbled into the main hallway, panting with his hands on his knees. His limbs were starting to feel like noodles. Painful noodles. His legs were shaking from just the exertion of standing, even in the water.

Suddenly the ground violently shifted under him, and it was enough for his legs to give up as he fell forward. He floated through the water, flipping onto his back at some point as his eyes closed. Well, this is it. I'm going to die belly up like a dead fish.

“Lance? Lance!!” Shiro rushed through the water and pulled Lance down into his arms. “What happened?” He looked over at Plaxum for a moment, hoping she’d have answers.

Plaxum looked as perplexed as Shiro, “Maybe he ate something he’s allergic to?” She looked around, noticing the hallway which led to the greenhouse. There were many dangerous plants in the greenhouse, which is why it's locked, and kept by a trained attendant. It couldn't possibly be unlocked, he couldn't possibly have gone in... right?

Plaxum looked back to Shiro, but the black paladin was already quickly swimming back the way they came.

“Guys, we need to get back to the ship. Princess, tell Queen Luxia that we need to go. Coran, prep the med bay.” Shiro barked out orders through the comm link.

“What's going on?” Pidge asked.

“Lance was injured, I don't know how. We need to get him in the pod.”

Chapter Text

After a lot of commotion and a hasty exit from the feast, Lance was brought back to the sip. Coran took his vitals and dressed him in the special med suit, before he was placed in the regen pod.

“This is interesting,” Coran tapped his chin, looking over a print out the machine spit out moments before, “it appears to be some sort of reaction to an outside body. Plaxum’s theory of an allergic reaction could be correct. Or, perhaps a poisoning?”

“Poisoning? It couldn’t have been from the food, none of the rest of us are having any reaction.” Pidge said, “besides, who would want to poison us? Zarkon was more of a shooty-shooty type of guy, so I doubt it was some delayed attempt by him.”

“And even if it was poisoning, why would they poison just Lance?” Keith frowned, pacing. He had been pacing in front of the regen pod since they stuck Lance inside it, “maybe it wasn’t Zarkon....it could have been the Queen.”

“But if it was Queen Luxia, why not poison me, too? I helped defeat the Baku as well.” Hunk said, crossing his arms, “I don’t think it was her. I trust her.”

“You trusted her before she tried to kill you last time!” Keith pointed out. Hunk shrugged.

“Okay, true. But why would she posion one of us? Why would she want to poison us, anyways, we helped her!”

“Unfortunately, at this time we cannot rule it out,” Allura said, shaking her head, “Shiro, what did he say to you over the comm?”

Shiro exhaled, thinking, “something about plants? There were no plants where we found him, or at least, I didn’t see any, and Plaxum didn’t point anything out--”

A siren blared through the bay, accompanied by a flashing red light which appeared on the top of Lance’s regen pod. A holoscreen popped up in front of Coran, equally red, and flashing something in Altean.

“Well that’s weird,” Coran mumbled to himself.

Keith spun around to face him. “What’s weird?”

“Well, it says the regeneration vesture has been compromised.” Coran knit his eyebrows and tweaked his mustache.

“What does that mean?”

“The suit,” Pidge said, moving to Coran’s side to read over the screen, “it means the suit’s broken.”

“Uh guys...” Hunk started, peering into the pod.

“That’s never happened before. Could there have been a breach in the pod-” Coran was cut off by another screen flashing in front of his eyes. A voice rang out into the room.

“Error, error, oxygen intake declining. Reaching critical levels.”

“Guys!” Hunk shouted, “there’s something up with Lance’s face.” He pointed into the pod.

“What?” Shiro squinted, taking a step towards the pod, only to flinch back when it hissed open. A plume of steam rose up out of the regen pod as Lance fell forward and out. Hunk tried to catch him but missed, and the boy collapsed onto the floor.

Except...was that Lance?

It was Lance. Or at least, Lance’s top half. He laid on the floor writhed and flopped like a fish out of water. Which was very fitting, because Lance no longer had legs, just a long, blue fish tail. A tail which was swinging in every direction, nearly knocking over Hunk and causing Coran and Pidge to jump out of the way. It was long, longer than his legs had been, and covered in shimmering blue scales. The fin was also blue, but streaked with red. It looked a little sad and deflated without water to let it fan out. Wrapped around his tail and torn into pieces was what was left of the regeneration vesture. The top half of the suit was still intact, though warped along his back, where the fabric was pushed out by a fin that grew along the center of back, all the way from just below his butt, up to the back of his neck. It too laid lamely against his tanned skin, even as he flailed on the floor. The sides of the white suit were ripped, allowing small glances of long folds in his skin, which extended up from above his hips to under his armpits, curving around his body. His sides were spasming violently, the skin around these slits twitching as they attempted to perform an action which was impossible. Lance was wheezing. He brought his hands up to his throat, gagging. His hands were also scaled, and as he wrapped them around his neck, his fingers were stuck together--no, they were webbed. Thin blue membrane stretched between each finger.

Lance didn’t seem to notice as he wheezed again. What was going on? Where was he? He could hear a commotion around him but barely registered it. His legs didn’t seem to want to get under him, even as he tried to stand. Actually, most of his body didn’t seem to want to listen to him at all. His lungs were burning. He couldn’t breathe. He was taking in breaths but he was still suffocating! His sides were spasming painfully.

“...hhh....” Lance tried to say something, anything, to communicate that he literally couldn’t breathe, but no words came out. Right, you need air to speak. But...he was breathing! It was as if the air was just passing right through him.

“That’s definitely never happened before!” Coran shouted.

Pidge started pulling her hair in a panic. “How is that even possible!?”

What’s happening to me?! Lance was starting to lose consciousness. The edges of his vision were blurring. I’m going to pass out

Keith’s skin prickled with adrenaline. Time seemed to slow down as everyone shouted around him about Lance’s new appearance. He can’t breathe, why can’t he breathe? His eyes darted around and landed on Lance’s convulsing sides. Those are gills-

Keith dashed forward and scooped Lance up in his arms, ignoring everyone else. He racked his brain for the route back to the pool as he ran through the halls of the palace. He could hear the pained gasping as Lance tried to breathe, which only pushed his legs faster. Just hold on a little longer!

He burst into the pool room and skidded to a halt in the middle of the floor. The water swooped down and pulled the two of them up into the pool.

 

Lance he wasn’t quite aware of anything that was happening until he was dunked underwater. He had passed out somewhere in the hallway. Am I...underwater? Confusion flooded his thoughts as he was submerged, something tight around his waist. Keith. He was wrapped tightly around Lance’s chest like he was afraid to let go. Well, now we can both drown, I guess. He still wasn’t sure why they were underwater.

Lance’s sides heaved, and suddenly he coughed, violently. A flurry of bubbles erupted from his sides, rising up around them like a cloud of smoke as the two sunk to the bottom--or top--of the upside down pool. Lance gurgled and coughed again, inhaling a mouthful of water. I’m going to drown! He thought, every sense screaming that this was wrong.

But...he didn’t drown.

Actually, he felt much better. He sucked in another gasp of water, then another, completely confused as to why he wasn’t dead yet. Maybe I am dead and this is just what heaven looks like. He squinted, remembering Keith around his waist, wait, no. Now that Lance was looking at him, Keith didn’t seem to be enjoying this strange breathable-water thing Lance was. Lance batted Keith on the shoulder, “Dude, dude you’re gonna drown, stop giving me a bear hug.” At least his voice was working now. It carried surprisingly well through the water.

Keith looked up with wide eyes, which softened once he saw Lance was okay. He let out a sigh, which he quickly realized was a terrible idea. Bubbles of sorely needed air poured out of his mouth. Clapping a hand over his mouth, he kicked off the bottom of the pool and swam upward. He broke the surface, gasping for air--which turned to a scream as he fell to the floor. Stupid Altean pools.

The doors burst open as the others rushed in. Pidge and Hunk rushed to Keith’s side, while Shiro stood back, surveying the scene. He looked up and saw Lance in the water--he was staring at his own hands. Shiro grimaced. This wasn’t going to be good.

He knew what it felt like to wake up...different.

“Oh dear, no one’s lowered the pool yet!” Allura said, stopping next to Shiro, “Coran--”

“I’ve already got it, Princess!” Coran was by the door still, at a touch screen panel built into the wall. He pressed some buttons on the screen, and suddenly the pool creaked.

Hunk looked up from helping Keith to his feet. He suddenly realized he, Pidge, and Keith were directly where the water was about to be, “uh oh.”

He dropped Keith and ran. Pidge squeaked out a scream and followed.

Keith looked up, “Shit.”

A second later, the water wooshed, and came falling down to the floor, sweeping Lance along with it.

Keith held his arm above his head in a feeble attempt to ward off the onslaught of water. His body was thrown around and smacked straight into Lance, forcing out the little oxygen still in his lungs. Now it was Lance’s turn to bear hug Keith, trying to keep him at least somewhat close to the surface. The pair was pushed out from the centre by the rush of water as the pool settled into its new position. Lance broke the surface and hauled Keith up out of the waters. The red paladin grabbed onto the side of the pool, soaked, coughing, and still buzzing with adrenaline. His eyelid twitched as he looked up at the group. “A little warning would have been nice!” he shouted.

“Yes, sorry about that!” Coran called, waving.

“Sorry Keith!” Hunk said, far back enough from the pool that he and Pidge didn't even get splashed.

“Yeah, thanks.” Keith said, dripping with sarcasm, but also with water. He pulled himself up out of the pool, wheezing out the last of the water that filled his lungs. He sat on the edge of the pool and stripped off his jacket, wringing it out into the water. He caught Lance’s eye, and his face softened ever so slightly, “thank you, Lance.”

Lance clung to the side of the pool, just his neck up out of the water. He opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by Shiro’s quick advancement to the poolside.

“Lance,” Shiro said, voice tight with concern, “are you hurt?”

Lance blinked, looking down at himself, “well, I wouldn't call this hurt, per say. Different, yes, but not in pain.”

He really was quite different. He hadn't realized the extent of the changes, not until he had been alone in the water. Time had seemed to slow. He noticed his hands first. His long fingers capped with black nails and webbed together with a thin membrane. The blue scales snaking up his arms. They were along his jawline, too, up to his ears which had changed to long, fin-like crests on the sides of his head, mostly covered by his hair. He could feel them with his fingers. Of course, the most shocking was his tail--it even felt weird to say in his head. A long, scaled tail he could move on command; not that his movements so far had been very graceful. The underside of his tail was light blue, while the sides and back were a more vibrant colour, and flecked with black and red spots. The tailfin was just as vibrant; it was quite beautiful now that was fanned out in the water, swaying gently beneath him. Of course I'm blue. Hell would have been wrought if I was red. He wasn't even mad. Blue was the best colour.

He ran a hand along the junction between his tail and his skin, just beneath his belly button. Even though he could see the changes, his mind was still having a hard time wrapping around it. Was he dreaming? It was an awful vivid dream if that was the case. Maybe this was a side effect of that poison--wait, poison? He had been poisoned? Oh, right! The plant that had pricked him. Maybe this was just his brain firing the last of his electrons as he died. Cause of death: excessive and extreme plant hugging. He really needed to calm down when it came to cozying up to alien fern and fauna.

Not that it mattered, since this was all some sort of dream he was having as he died, “Man, I'm going to miss being alive.”

He hadn't even realize Shiro had been talking to him again.

“...What?” Shiro squinted skeptically at Lance, concern rising to a new level. “Are you sure you're okay?”

Keith huffed and pushed his hair back out of his face. “You're not dead, stupid.”

“Oh yeah? If I wasn't dead, then why do I look like a side character from The Little Mermaid?” Lance stuck his tongue out at Keith, at which point he discovered his tongue was black, and his teeth were sharp and pointed.

“You're not dead! Though I can understand why you'd think this was some awful dying dream. This isn't even anything I ever thought was possible in reality!” Pidge said, rushing to the edge of the pool and sitting down cross-legged next to Keith, “then again, I suppose at one time we didn't think aliens were reality, either, and now look where we are!”

“Sitting in a pool. It's not even a heated pool!”

“Oh, I can fix that!” Coran called. He went back to pressing buttons on the screen.

“My point is, especially when it comes to aliens, anything is possible,” Pidge continued, “I mean a pool just fell on Keith and he somehow didn't die--”

“No help from you!” Keith interjected.

“Right. Sorry! Anyways, what I'm saying is--”

“I turned into a mermaid because aliens?” Lance offered.

“Yes! Isn't it exciting?” Pidge gushed, “the world has infinite possibilities, some which I never even considered!

“Yeeaah, I wouldn't really call this exciting.” Keith frowned at Lance.

“Lance, I know this must be overwhelming, but we need to know how this happened,” Shiro said, “do you remember anything from before you passed out?”

“Uh, well I tried to find the bathroom,” Lance said, trailing his hands through the water and watching as his webbed fingers displaced the water, “which I never did find, so I probably pissed on one of you ‘cause I don't have to go anymore.”

“Lance, please, just tell us what happened.” Shiro groaned.

“Yeah, yeah, I was getting to it!” Lance huffed, “anyways, I got lost while looking. If you think this castle is a directional mess, you should have seen this. I found this room at the end of a hall with a glass door. I went in looking for someone--y’know, to ask for directions. But it was empty. Well, empty of sentient beings...save for the shrimp. It was full of plants, like a greenhouse. Plants and shrimp.”

“Shrimp?” Allura, now standing next to Shiro, “is that a human creature? Are they dangerous?”

“Only if you're allergic to shellfish,” Hunk said, “we had some shrimp at the dinner! Remember, it was drizzled with that sticky brown sauce? Mmm...”

“No, I don't remember, because I was too busy being turned into a mermaid, apparently,” Lance said. Keith snorted. Lance gasped in mock outrage. Keith ignored it and pressed on.

“Did anything strange happen in the greenhouse?”

“Wouldn't you like to know, Mr. Kogane. Are you just asking so you can laugh at me again? I'm in crisis, Keith!”

“What? I wasn't laughing!”

“Just answer the question, Lance.” Shiro said, his voice starting to sound more annoyed than concerned.

“Okay...so the greenhouse was full of alien plants,” Lance continued, head tilted back slightly, gazing up at Shiro, “and being myself, I got way too excited by the marine life. There was just so many different types of plant and underwater flowers that I'd never seen. I went to the back and...there was this flower...well, not so much a flower. It was a thorny bush, it was covered in these thick red thorns that oozed green fluid.”

“And you touched it.” Keith said, flatly.

“Yeaaah, not my smartest move, I’ll admit,” Lance sighed, “I gotta stop fondling the specimens. I touched it and it pricked my finger.” He turned over his right hand to show them, but the wound was gone, or at least indistinguishable from the thick scales across his fingers, “That's when I started feeling woozy, and called Shiro on the comm.”

“So, they just had a plant that turns people into mermaids?” Hunk asked. “How is that even a thing?”

“Interesting, it makes me wonder what the biological and ecological justifications for such a plant to exist,” Pidge wondered aloud, “why would a plant need to turn one species into another?”

“The Baku,” Hunk offered, “the merpeople was its food source! Maybe this plant had something to do with that. The Baku could have used this plant to just create its favourite food, instead of having to search more meraliens out!”

“Maybe it's some sort of symbiotic relationship,” Lance said, “there are lots of mutually beneficial relationships in marine biology. Maybe this plant turns things into whatever form it's host wants, and receives protection and a food source in return.”

Keith raised an eyebrow, “How do you know so much about marine biology?”

“I like fish, okay?” Lance frowned, “before the whole space cadet thing I wanted to work at the aquarium in my town. I'm not an idiot, you know.”

“You didn't know ‘variable’ meant.” Keith said.

“I know what it means! I was just stressed and overstimulated, okay? We’re all science majors here! Except maybe you--what did you major in, anyways?”

“Flying.”

“That's not a--”

“Coran, Allura, do you know anything about a plant that turns people into...other things?” Shiro turned to the Alteans, raising a hand to silence the two bickering.

“I haven't heard of such a thing.” Coran said, pulling on his moustache hair.

“I’ll research it.” Allura said, “I’m sure if the meraliens were cultivating it, there's an entry in the universal database.”

“Then that will be our next move. We’ll have to figure out what this thing is so we can figure out how to give Lance his legs back.”

“Right, my legs,” Lance said, slowly, “oh god, I don't have any legs...”

“Listen, we’ll figure out a way to turn you back,” Shiro said, “for now...you can't breathe air, can you?”

“Don't think so, before when I was breathing air, it was like it was passing right through me,” Lance said, though his voice was quiet.

“Alright. I guess the pool is your new home for now, Lance.” Shiro ran a hand through his hair and looked to the others, “Keith, you and I will go up to Lance’s quarters and bring some of his things down. Pidge, Hunk, you start to work on some way to get Lance out of this pool.”

“I’ve been thinking about it this whole time,” Pidge nodded, ideas already spinning in her head, “really, we just need a water filtration system to push water through his gills--I mean, I’m assuming those slits on his sides are his gills. If we could just make a portable system--”

“I’ll leave you to it,” Shiro said, smiling with a nod.

“Coran and I will do more research on this plant,” Allura said, “and we’ll contact the meraliens. I’m sure they know how to reverse the process.” If there is a way at all, she thought, but didn’t say aloud. She didn’t want Lance to give up hope. He was starting to look very shaken, as the shock wore off.

“And I’ll just...stay here, I guess.” Lance said, looking out across the pool. Shiro knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder.

“We’ll fix this, Lance. Don’t worry.” He smiled kindly, then stood, “alright, let’s get to work.”

Suddenly Lance was alone again.

After he watched the last person leave the room, he let go of the pool wall and slipped back underwater.

Underwater was silent, save for certain sounds which carried through the water much better than before. A rhythmic whirring noise, which was the filter on the other end of the pool kicking to life. He could hear his tail parting the water under him. Or the bubbles forming and popping as he moved his hands though the water. Sound does carry better through water. Humans just aren't built to hear it.

He pushed away from the wall. For a few feet he scuttled forward using his hands as paddles. It was much more effective than if he had been human. He flipped onto his back and studied his tail. He was almost afraid to even try to use it--as if flexing his tail would somehow mean this all really was real and not a dream.

He still wasn't entirely convinced he wasn't dreaming.

If he was dreaming, he was a little annoyed he didn't innately know how to control his tail. He really hadn't even tried to use it yet, ignoring his entire bottom half. It was overwhelming. His tail extended much farther than his legs ever had, and it felt odd to be so long. It also moved through the water differently, creating drag and thrust he wasn't used to, even as he flexed it experimentally. Muscles he didn't have before flexed and pulled. It felt weird, and sore. Actually, his whole body was sore. He hadn't realized before. He was still so overstimulated, his brain felt like a ping pong ball in a glass jar, being shaken by some mean kid who didn't want to give him a break.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Was it still a breath if he was breathing air? He wasn't even sure if his mouth had a pathway to his gills or--you’re overthinking this. Just calm down. He took another deep breath.

Lance opened his eyes again,staring down at the long blue tail under him. He had no idea how to use it. I guess there's no time like the present to learn.

He gave his tail an experimental flick, trying to move like every finned creature he had ever seen.

He wasn't expecting how easily it would propel him. Suddenly he was tumbling forward, flipping through the water. “Woah! Aghhh!” He flailed his arms, effectively stopping his forward momentum. Now his head was close to the bottom of the pool, and his tail was bent backwards like he was doing a pike dive off the diving board. He slapped himself in the face with his tailfin.

Never mind, I don't think this is a dream created by my dying brain as my life force slowly fades away. But I kinda wish it was because I just slapped myself in the face with my own goddamn tail.

He sunk down to the bottom of the pool. Okay. Maybe this wasn't so bad. It was kinda cool, actually. He loved the water! Well, specifically, he loved the things that lived in the water. Not much lived in this pool except bacteria, probably. Should he even be in here? Surely ten thousand year old water wasn't the best to circulate through your body.

But the tail was still cool. He'd be great at swimming, once he learned how to use it. It was like learning to walk. Except with one fat cartilaginous leg rather than two boney ones.

He sat up, still resting on the bottom of the pool, and started to pull off the tattered remains of whatever he was wearing. Was this the regen suit? God, I must have busted the bottom half into pieces. He was thankful for having been in the regen pod for the change. Given how sore his muscles and joints felt, it couldn't have been a pleasant change if he had been conscious. He pulled the last of the suit off over his head and let out an audible gasp as the fin along his back finally unfurled. It felt like finally stretching your legs after being cramped in a small car for a while. How ironic.

Lance sat on the bottom of the pool for a while, thinking and overthinking. He tried swimming a few more times, with mediocre results. He just couldn't get his tail to move properly. He kept cartwheeling through the water. Patience yields focus. He thought to himself, not for the first time, c’mon, this can't be that much harder than piloting a robot space lion. He tried again and managed to fumble his way across the pool without doing a flip this time. Well, it was an improvement, at least. He floated back down to the bottom of the pool, okay, it's at least as hard as piloting Blue. At least Blue’s on my side.

He heard some distant voices. They grew a little louder, and louder. Keith and Shiro, probably. He could hear Keith’s voice a little more clearly. He was probably closer to the pool. He could just faintly hear the calling out his name.

Oh right, I'm sitting at the bottom of the pool, they probably can't even see me. Lance thought. He sat up, getting ready to attempt to swim back up to the surface, when Keith’s head popped into view over the edge of the pool.

“Lance? What are you doing?”

Lance used his hands and his tail the best he could to swim back up to the surface. He popped his head out next to Keith’s, “What, I was sitting down. If you haven't noticed there isn't much furniture around.”

Keith shrugged. “Was a little worried. Here, we brought your stuff. Not all of it clearly, because of the water.”

“Keith tried to grab your blankets,” Shiro said with a smirk.

Keith glared up at him. “You didn't need to tell him.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Lance said sweetly, then added, “you were worried about me, Keith~?”

“Anyone would be worried, you nearly just died.” Keith huffed and set down the box in his hands.

“That's so sweet,” Lance cooed, “Hey, did you happen to bring me a t-shirt?”

“We didn't bring any clothes, sorry. I didn't think you needed them.” Shiro said.

“Right, I guess I don't,” Lance frowned, “it’d probably feel weird, anyways. I have a fin on my back, the regen suit was pressing on it pretty hard. It's just...I just feel naked, yknow?”

“Well maybe we can figure out something,” Shiro smiled, optimistic as always, “I bet you're not the first to need a slit down the back of clothes.”

“We could probably even see you some,” Keith said, standing up from his crouched position at the edge of the pool. Lance squinted, noticing Keith’s outfit. The kid was bare save for a pair of red shorts.

“Wait. Why are you naked?”

Keith frowned and crossed his arms. “I'm wearing shorts.”

“And no top.” Not that Lance minded. Wait, no. What?

“My clothes got soaked, remember?”

“Oh yeah. Wait, do you not have any other clothes?”

“No.”

Lance stared at Keith, mouth agape, with as much drama as he could muster, until Shiro broke the silence clearing his throat.

“Lance. How are you feeling about all this?”

“Huh?” Lance was genuinely caught off guard by the question. How was he feeling? Honestly, he was trying not to feel anything at all about it. He was still in shock. He must be. That was the only reason he wasn't freaking out, “I'm fine.”

Shiro suddenly sat down, cross-legged, by the edge of the pool, “Hey, Keith, why don't you go get us some dinner? We didn't really eat much at the feast.”

Keith glanced between Lance and Shiro, then nodded. “Yeah okay.” He headed out of the room.

Lance watched him go, a ball of anxiety sprouting in his chest now that he was alone with Shiro. He wasn't sure what he was anxious about. Awkward silence settled between the two of them. Shiro didn't seem to want to break it any more than Lance.

“What's up?” Lance said, sounding so lame he would have laughed if it wasn't him saying it.

Shiro did smile, looking up from staring down at his hands in his lap, “I just thought I'd talk to you. This is pretty scary. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I don't know.” Lance shrugged, “I don't know how to feel yet.”

“That's understandable. A lot has happened in a short time. I think anyone would be overwhelmed.”

Lance nodded. How did he feel? He wasn't sure. Every time he tried to think of how he felt, he just felt numbness.

“How did you feel when you first woke up?” Lance asked, quiet. Shiro’s breath hitched so subtly that Lance was unsure of if he heard it at all.

“I felt...like everything I felt was too much to bare, and so I felt nothing at all.” He looked down at his hands. At the metal replacement the Galra had given him, “And then, slowly, I did feel all those things. The pain of the truth. The anger I had towards whoever did this to me. I felt hurt, and alone, and very scared,” he pulled his eyes away from his hands, and looked to Lance, his eyes soft, “It's okay to feel these things, Lance. It's normal. And I don't think anything I can say will prevent you from feeling them. But I want you to know that we’re here for you. The whole team, you're not alone.”

“Thanks Shiro.” Lance said, because he wasn't sure what else to say. He couldn't even muster a sarcastic response. Shiro didn't deserve a sarcastic response, he was like the human embodiment of a pastry puff.

“You can always talk to me, if you need to.” Shiro said. He straightened as he remembered something, and turned just enough to reach into the box Keith set down nearby, “speaking of which, we brought your helmet down. So you can contact us on the comm if you need something.”

Right. Because he was confined to the pool. It wasn't like he could just get up and walk to the kitchen for a midnight snack. He had to ask someone to get it for him. The anxiety in his stomach grew. Like a burning in his stomach, in the back of his throat, in his eyes. It was the beginning of a crashing realization.

He literally couldn't leave this pool. He literally could not walk out, even if he could leave the pool, because he couldn't walk.

How can I be a paladin if I don't have legs? If I can't breathe air? If I can't even leave the water?

It felt a knife was twisting in his gut. He felt cold. He felt like he couldn't breathe.

What if they can't turn me back? I'll never fly Blue again! I can't form Voltron...I can't go back home like this, my family---

“Lance!” There was suddenly a pair of firm hands on his shoulders. Lance jumped and looked up. Shiro was leant over the edge, one hand on either of Lance’s shoulders. He let out a quiet sigh and his eyes relaxed once Lance looked back at him, “Hey. Are you back?”

“Yeah.” Lance breathed, his voice far shakier than he thought.

“We’re going to figure this out Lance. I promise.”

“Okay, yeah.” Lance replied feebly. He wiped his eyes. He hadn't realized he had started to cry. He hadn't cried in a long time.

“Shiro? Shiro are you there?” Allura’s voice suddenly echoed through the pool hall. Lance flinched, startled, while Shiro pulled back, looking towards the door. Allura’s face was displayed on the command screen.

“Yes, I'm here Princess. What's going on?” Shiro stood and walked away in one fluid motion. He stopped in front of the panel, arms crossed.

“Oh good, I'm glad I found you. I need you here in the command center. Something’s come up that we need your help with.”

Shiro glanced back at Lance, his mouth a thin line, “Are you sure? I'm a little busy right now.”

“You can go,” Lance said. The last thing he wanted to be was an inconvenience, “I'm fine. Really.”

“If you could come now, it would be a great help to us,” Allura said, “unfortunately this is pressing matter.”

Shiro sighed, “Alright. I'll be right there, Princess.”

“Thank you, Shiro.” Allura nodded, and the command turned blank once again. Shiro bowed his head, and turned back to Lance.

“Sorry, Lance, I--”

“No, I know. It's fine,” Lance waved it off, “I’ll be fine. Seriously. You have important space stuff to do. I get it.”

“I’ll be back after,” Shiro said. He headed for the door, looking back at Lance, “don't hesitate to call if you need something. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be here,” Lance mumbled to himself, watching Shiro go. He sunk back down under the water, “it's not like I can go anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Keith balanced three plates of goop in his hands as he shuffled down the hallway. One for himself, one for Shiro, and one for Lance. It definitely didn't look nearly as appetizing as the feast they had left, but at least it was food. He was getting used to the goo at every meal. But he would kill for some bibimbap.

He finally came to the pool hall. He triggered the motion sensor with his knee, and the door slid open.

Lance was not by the poolside. Shiro was gone, too.

“Lance?” Keith called out, focusing on setting down the three plates on one of the boxes they had brought down, “Lance, I brought us dinner. Lance?”

Not even a ripple from the pool. Keith frowned, going to the edge of the water. He could see Lance at the bottom of the pool again. This time, though, he was curled in on himself, laying on his side, his face buried against what used to be his knees. He wasn't moving.

“Lance!” Keith paced the side for all of two seconds before taking a deep breath and diving into the pool. Goddamn it, Lance. Realistically, he shouldn't be so worried about him. Lance could breathe underwater now, and was probably just tired, Keith knew that. But horrible images and worst case scenarios kept flashing in his head. He needed to be sure.

He reached the bottom and laid a not-so-gentle hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance tensed at his touch, which was a good sign in the way that dead people don’t tense up. Keith let out a sigh which poured from him in a cloud of bubbles. The relief was short lived. Lance uncurled ever so slightly, turning to face Keith. His face was ashen. His eyes were red. He looked awful.

Keith jerked back, biting his lip to stop himself from gasping. Shock, then confusion, crossed Lance’s face. Then something more indescribable. He looked sad and embarrassed all at once. Keith was still, unsure how to proceed. Lance wasn't okay. He wasn't hurt, Keith couldn't rescue him. But he wasn't okay. Time seemed to slow, and stop. This wasn't like a battle. He couldn't maneuver to the best position to take down the enemy. His credit as an ace pilot wouldn't help him as he sunk to the bottom of a pool next to his friend who, honestly, looked like shit. How do I fix this?

“Keith?” Lance’s voice, surprisingly clear through the water, pulled Keith from his clouded thoughts, “what...why are you in the water?”

Keith didn't have an answer, at first. Why was he in the water? He opened his mouth to reply, only for water to rush in. Oh right, underwater. He gestured to the surface and paddled away, hoping Lance was following. He broke the surface with a hacking cough. His lungs spasmed trying to rid themselves of the water he had inhaled.

“Are you trying to drown yourself?” Lance popped up beside him, “what was that about?”

“I brought you dinner.” Keith breathed, doing a half-hearted stroke until he got to the side of the pool.

“Uh...thanks?” Lance followed him to the edge of the pool, “you know you don't have to dive in and tap me on the shoulder to let me know. I can hear you from up here.”

“You weren’t answering.” Keith pulled himself out of the water and sat on the edge. He pulled the plate closer to the two of them. “What’s wrong?”

Lance hesitated to reply, “I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine.” Keith lowered his voice in what he hoped was a comforting tone. “It’s uh... okay if, if you wanna talk. Or not, that’s fine too.” He looked down and idly kicked his feet in the water.

Lance stared at Keith for a while with raised brows, “Uh. Okay. Did Shiro put you up to this?” His brows lowered into a definite squint.

Keith looked up, genuinely hurt. “What? No! I just,” he sighed, “I just wanted to help. But whatever, you don’t have to tell me.” He went to stand.

“No! No, don’t go!” Lance grabbed Keith’s leg as he stood, as if he could hold him there. He let go just as quickly, and sunk a bit deeper in the water, “I mean. Please don’t leave? It’s kinda lonely in here.” He wanted to sink all the way into the water and maybe disappear.

Keith sat back down.

Lance held onto the edge of the pool, and sighed. He was quiet for a another moment, unsure of what to say, “what would you do if you couldn’t be a pilot anymore?”

Another silence filled the room. Keith bit his lip and looked down at the water. He wasn’t good at this kind of thing. He’d never had to cheer anyone up before. “Lance, you’re still a pilot. This isn’t permanent-”

“But what if it is?” Lance cut him off with a shout that echoed through the hall. He gripped the pool’s edge with tight knuckles.

Keith frowned. “Then... then we’ll find a way around it. You can still move your tail. Maybe we can put a new seat in the blue lion too.”

Lance stared at him, “Keith. That’s the stupidest idea. Seriously, what?”

“I don’t know! It was just an idea!”

Lance stared at his scaled hands against the tiled floor. The scales were thick, plating together like pieces of a puzzle. Scales were great. Great for protecting against cuts, or predators. Great for keeping out nasty skin infections. Not so great for feeling things. It felt like he was wearing gloves, “I’m worried this might be permanent. You can’t just change someone’s metaphysical and biological workings and then change it back. I mean honestly I’m surprised I didn’t die from it the first time. Like no wonder I’m so hungry, the caloric requirements for something like that must have been crazy.”

“What?” Keith took this as a cue to pass Lance his plate of food.

“C’mon, man. You should know this,” Lance took the plate, but not without some raised brows, “it’s not even a biology thing. It’s just simple conversion of energy. Like, if it takes twelve hundred calories to grow me a fish tail, then I need to consume twelve hundred calories so I won’t drop dead. How many calories do you think is in Altean goop?”

Keith frowned, “Well, yeah, I know that. I just didn’t expect you to be saying it.”

Lance scoffed, “You forget the word ‘variable’ one time--”

“You forgot ‘hypothesis’ too.”

“Keith! You’re supposed to be comforting a friend in crisis, here!”

Keith covered his mouth with his hand to hide his smile, “Sorry.”

Lance rolled his eyes as dramatically as he could while shoving spoonfuls of green slop into his mouth.

Keith slid a second plate of goo over to Lance. Shiro wasn’t there to eat it anyway. “Where’s Shiro, by the way?”

“He got called away by Allura,” Lance said between bites, “he felt real bad about leaving me here alone. We were having a bro bonding moment,” he paused for a second, “kinda like we’re having right now.”

Keith forgot how to talk for a moment, “...We’re having a bonding moment?”

“Yeah. A bro bonding moment. A bronding moment,” Lance smiled, leaning on his elbows,“I’m telling you my feelings, you’re attempting to make me feel better. You know?”

“Yeah, I’m not very good at comforting people.”

“I don’t think you’re very good at ‘people’.”

“That too, I guess.” Keith rubbed the back of his neck. Lance laughed.

“Well I guess it helps that I’m only half a person now.”

“Lance, no.”

Lance pushed away the first plate and pulled the second towards him. It was such a tragedy that he had missed literally all of the feast. It was even more tragic that Alteans as a race hated having any flavour or texture in their food, “Maybe less than half. Thirty-five percent?”

His thoughts started to wander again. He had a bad habit of spiralling thoughts, he always had. It came with the whole Attention Deficit thing, he guessed. He wondered if his brain worked differently now. It would make sense, especially if the plant was a symbiotic partner to the Baku. Was he being brainwashed? Well, not so much brainwashed but  brainaltered . Like a sleeper agent. Maybe it was all part of some plan to turn him against the others. The tail was an odd choice, though.

“Well,” Keith started, pulling Lance out of his thoughts, “I'm only half human too. Maybe more, I don't know. Hunk has me questioning this now.”

Lance blinked. He had completely forgotten about the whole Galra Keith thing, “Oh yeah. But you can still form Voltron if you're purple.”

“Do I look purple to you?” Keith frowned.

“You could get purpler. Maybe there's a secondary Galra puberty where they grow their fur. We don't know.”

Keith pictured himself covered in purple fur. He grimaced. “I hope not.”

“I'm just saying. How can I be a leg if I don't have legs?”

Keith covered his mouth to hold back his snort of laughter. Lance squinted.

“I'm being serious!”

“I know, I know. My bad.”

Lance pushed away his empty plate. His second empty plate. Right, caloric deficiency. He pushed away from the pool’s edge; holding himself up by the armpits was killing his arms. He wished the pool had a shallow end so he could at least sit and eat.

He dunked his head under water, then set to floating on his back, staring up at the ceiling, “I mean, at least my top half didn't change into a fish. Can you imagine me with a fish head and human legs? That'd be awful. At least I get to be a sexy mermaid.”

“Yeah I guess there's that,” Keith shrugged.

“You just agreed! You just agreed that I'm a sexy mermaid.” Lance rolled over just so he could smirk at Keith.

Keith puffed up like a startled cat, his cheeks flushing pink. “I didn't- it's not- y-you phrased it that way on purpose!”

“The tail is pretty sexy. If you're into that sort of thing.” He winked at Keith.

“Oh my god,” Keith groaned and buried his face in his hands. “Why am I talking to you?”

“Because you love me~” Lance teased, floating on his back again, tilting his head back so he could see Keith, “and because if I was alone I'd probably fall into a pit of despair. And have a panic attack. And die probably.”

Keith stared at him, his mouth a thin line. “Anyway,” but he really had nowhere to go from there. Lance’s fake flirting was too much for his poor heart. Is there ever a time where fake flirting is actually real flirting?

Lance watched him with a small smile, “God, dude. You're so funny when you get all flustered,” he suddenly rolled backwards, diving down under the water. Mostly because the floating was making it hard to breathe. But also because it probably looked cool.

Anyway, ” he needed a subject change now , “are you feeling better?”

Lance bobbed back to the surface, pushing his wet hair out of his face while nodding, “Yeah. Thank you. I mean it.” He smiled, his teeth pointed like a shark’s. It made Keith's heart skip a beat. He smiled back.

“No problem.”

The sound of the hall doors sliding open pulled Lance’s attention away from Keith's smile. Shiro walked in, looking tense. He relaxed a little when he noticed Lance and Keith, “Hey. Sorry for disappearing. Got called in by the boss.”

“Awh, that's cute that you call her the boss, because it's true.” Lance cooed. Keith rolled his eyes and leaned back, his forgotten food still in his lap.

“What did Allura want?”

“Well. We received a transmission from Queen Luxia,” Shiro started, slowly, like he was afraid of what he was saying, “and...well, they found which plant we were talking about. But...they've never heard of it changing a meralien. They didn't even know it could do that. I'm not sure how much help they’ll be with solving this problem,” he sighed, “Sorry, Lance. They don't have a cure.”

Chapter Text

“Sorry, Lance,” Shiro said, “They don't have a cure.”

Heavy silence filled the hall. No one wanted to break it. Suddenly it was hard to breathe.

“That's okay.” Lance said, his voice small. If Shiro said something in return he didn't hear it. All he could hear was his ragged breath in his ears. He stared at Keith’s knees to try to stay focused. He could feel his thoughts starting to slip away from him again. Why was he like this? Like this darkness was always bubbling under the surface. He thought he had been over it. He hadn't had a bad panic attack since he was admitted to the academy. Hell, he had helped defeat an alien overlord with only mild anxiety. Well, mild-to-severe. But he had managed not to lose himself even once. It was probably the adrenaline . And...it was fun . Working in a team. And the connection he felt with Blue. Every time they suited up it was like a rush; like jumping out of an airplane except that he knew that the chute would open. He had helped so many people, and, yeah, it had been stressful, but damn was it worth it. And nothing beat shooting down attacking ships. He was the sharpshooter, after all.

But...that was all over now.

He was aware of someone speaking to him, but they felt so far away. He was mildly aware of how he was panting, of how fast his heart was beating. So I'm doing this again, I guess. He

was freaking out again. In front of Keith, and Shiro. This was so totally uncool. Oh god. His arms were shaking. If the meraliens didn't have a cure, likely no one did. The last little shred of hope Lance had was just stuffed into a cannon and shot into space. He would be stuck like this forever. That was it. Hashtag confirmed. His life as a paladin was over. His life as a human was over. What was he going to do? Go home to Cuba and live in the ocean? He wasn't even a saltwater fish! No, he’d have to stay in space, in some tank of water, doing nothing because everything he loved required him to breathe air.

Lance covered his face with his hands. His stupid scaled hands that could barely feel anything. God, he hated this. Why did he have to touch that damned plant? Why couldn't he have just left that whole room alone, like a normal person? Why couldn't he just for once not have the attention span of a flea, and just stay on track? Why couldn't he be normal?

He hadn't even realized he had sunk back down to the bottom of the pool until he felt the rough tile against his back.

“I knew this would happen. I knew I shouldn't have told him so soon.” Shiro bowed his head, his arms crossed.

Keith let out a frustrated groan, pacing the edge of the pool, his hands in his hair, “What are we going to do? He’s at the bottom--it's not like we can--why does he keep doing this?!”

“I don't think we can do anything.” Shiro said, evenly, “maybe we should give him space.”

“Lance doesn't need space. He needs someone there to anchor him,” Keith wasn't sure how he knew this, “when he panics, he needs reassurance. We can't reassure him when he's at the bottom of--” he stopped mid sentence, an idea forming in his head. Suddenly he was racing out the door, “I’ll be right back!”

“Keith? Keith, where are you going?” Shiro called after him, but Keith was already barrelling down the hallway. If he couldn't bring Lance to him, he’d just have to go to Lance.

He skidded into his room, nearly tripping over the pile of wet clothes and towels he left earlier. He made a mental note to clean up later as he grabbed his paladin armour. Two minutes later he was crashing back into the pool hall. It took three wide running steps to get to the pool edge and suddenly he was diving in. He barely registered Shiro’s confused cries from the surface.

Lance hadn't moved. But he was moving ; his whole body was shaking. It wasn't until Keith had gotten close that he realized the boy was crying. Sobbing, into his hands. Keith reached out and grabbed Lance by the shoulder. Lance tensed, startled. He lowered his hands to see Keith, fully in his paladin armour, offering a tentative smile.

Time seemed to stop as the two stared at each other.

Lance moved, and for a second Keith thought he was going to swim away. Instead, he was pulled into a tight hug as Lance wrapped his arms around his neck.

Keith tensed. He wasn't prepared for this at all. He wasn't prepared for this closeness . Under his helmet, his face flushed, a deep red blush spreading across his cheeks. Oh god, what if Lance sees, what if he finds out... He took a deep breath, staving off that line of thought. It didn't matter right now. The only thing that matters right now is comforting him. He wrapped his arms around Lance’s middle and buried his face-- well, helmet-- into his shoulder.  

“Hey, it's okay. We’ll get through this, it's okay...” Keith rubbed Lance’s back in long strokes alongside his newly acquired fin.

It took Lance a minute to reply. He was still crying-- he could barely catch his breath between sobs which racked his body and made him shudder. Slowly, he caught his breath, his sobbing turning to sniffles, “Why are you here?”

Keith held him tighter, “Because I thought you needed it.”

“Yeah...” Lance murmured, slow and quiet, “I thought you guys had all left.”

“I uh, went to get my armor. Shiro’s still up there too.”

“Oh. I mean I wouldn't blame you for leaving. I’d want to leave, too.” Lance relaxed his tight grip around Keith’s neck, but didn't pull away. His head still rested on Keith's shoulder, “If I could. I'm sorry I freaked out.”

“You don't have to apologize. You didn't do anything wrong.” Keith continued to idly trail his fingers up and down Lance’s back. He didn't even know if Lance could feel it through his scales.

“I beg to differ. I probably shouldn't have gone in that greenhouse. I'm pretty sure that was trespassing, and therefore ‘wrong’.”

Keith couldn't help but roll his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah...I really wish I hadn't, though. I don't want to stay in a pool forever, Keith. I’ll go crazy. I don't know what I'm going to do...”

“I know... it must be really scary,” Keith “but it’s only been a day. Hunk and Pidge are working on a device that'll let you leave the pool. And even if Luxia doesn't have a cure, that doesn't mean we can't find one on our own.” He pursed his lips and held Lance tighter. “So just hold on, it'll be okay.”

Lance was quiet for a while. Keith had the sneaking suspicion he was falling asleep.

“Hey, are we having another bonding moment? You're cradling me again.”

Shit. “Oh, sorry,” Keith started to pull away. Lance tightened his hold, pulling him back.

“No, no, it's fine,” he mumbled. His eyes were closed. He was definitely falling asleep, “I mean. Please don't leave me alone?”

Keith could feel the blush reforming on his cheeks and his heart speeding up. He prayed that Lance couldn't feel it through his suit. “Okay,” he whispered.

“...So I guess you do remember,” he said, after a moment of silence.

Lance let out a questioning ‘ hmm?’

“Remember what?”

“Our bonding moment.”

“I've been informed by several sources,” Lance shifted, curling inwards while still using Keith’s shoulder as a pillow, “I heard it was hella cute.”

“Yeah,” He let out a tiny sigh, “it was.”

Lance didn't reply. A few minutes later, he was sleeping peacefully against Keith’s shoulder. His tail twitched in his sleep. Keith didn't dare move.

Once he was sure Lance was totally asleep, he fired up the comm device on his helmet, calling Lance’s. Hopefully Shiro hadn't left the hall yet.

“Hey Shiro, are you there?” He whispered into the comm, watching the way Lance’s sides pushed out and pulled in with every deep breath.

It was a minute before the comm crackled with a reply.

“Yes, I’m here. What's going on?”

“I'm trapped.”

“What?”

“I mean, Lance fell asleep on me. So I'm trapped here for a bit.”

“He fell asleep? Is everything okay?”

Keith was curled up with his crush asleep against him. Despite everything he would still say things were better than good, “He’s fine, I was able to calm him down. I think he just exhausted himself. I'm not going to wake him up.”

 

***

 

Lance woke up with a start. He flailed, in a haze of confusion, forgetting where, and what, he was.

Right. Bottom of the pool. Mermaid. Curled up against...Keith? He blinked, noticing that the pillow he was leaning against wasn't in fact a pillow at all but a human. Not just any human, but his rival human. Oh god I fell asleep against him? Lance let out a inward scream, remembering every embarrassing moment of the night before. What time was it? Keith was still asleep, snoring gently with his head tilted back against the wall of the pool, despite Lance’s flailing.

Probably the worst part was how his tail was wrapped gently around Keith’s waist. Lance’s face turned red, how long has it been like that?! Oh god, we’re cuddling. He fumbled to unfurl his tail, jostling Keith enough to cause him to stir. Lance’s inward screaming became a little more outwards.

Keith's eyes shot open at the sudden sound. He braced his hands against the wall of the pool and looked around, frantic-- until he saw Lance. “Why are you screaming?”

Lance's face turned even more red, “Just. Got startled,” he finally released his tail from around Keith’s waist and slid away, sort of half-floating-half-swimming a few feet away. Maybe from here Keith wouldn't be able to tell how his face matched the red armour.

Keith let out a sigh and relaxed his arms. “How are you feeling?”

Lance thought about it for a moment. He felt exhausted, sore, hungry, and still incredibly freaked out. But mostly hungry, “Hungry. Mostly.”

Keith nodded, “I'll get breakfast.” He kicked off the bottom of the pool and swam to the surface. “I'll be right back.”

“Oh, uh,” Lance followed him, “it's morning, then?”

“Yeah. Nine seventeen to be exact.” Keith’s eyes flicked to the clock in the top right of his helmet’s display.

Lance smirked, “So we slept together all night?”

“So you are feeling better.” Keith pulled himself out of the water and sat at the edge. “That's good.”

Lance pushed his wet hair out of his face, and held onto the edge of the pool, “I’ll be fine if I don't starve to death. I'm seriously hungry. Caloric deficiency, remember?” He peered out along the poolside. There were two boxes full of things from his room; books, mostly, Pidge’s headphones and his music player, some of the little figurines he’d collected that he found around the castle, and his fidget toy. There was also Keith’s leftover plate of goop from the night before. Lance was tempted to pull it over and eat it, even if it looked a little crusty. “Awh, you brought my fidget cube! I'm touched.”

“Oh,” Keith looked over at the cube resting on the top of the pile, “is that what that is? It was on your bed so I thought it was important.”

“Yep. I bring it with me everywhere so I'm not a twitchy mess. Which is why I had it with me when we found Blue.” He leaned as far out of the pool as he could, holding his breath. He still couldn't quite reach it. Keith pushed the box forward within his reach. Lance grabbed it with a wheeze, “thanks.”

Lance slipped back down into the water, clicking the switch on the cube and already feeling a little tension dissipate. His mom had gotten him this toy to help him focus in school. It didn't really help his attention span, but it did help with the annoying leg bouncing.

Keith watched Lance sink back into the water, focused on his little cube. Now that he thought about it, he had seen Lance playing with it before. It never occurred to him that it was for a real purpose and not just to distract himself. “I'm glad I grabbed it then.” He pulled off his helmet-- it was getting sweaty in there-- and stood up. “I'll be right back, I'm gonna get breakfast. Try to stay calm until I get back,” he said, mostly joking.

“Uh huh,” Lance glanced at him from over his shoulder, “I've got my cube. You're all but replaced, Kogane. Also, seriously, I'm dying. Hurry with the food please.”

Keith smirked, “You got it.”

 

***

 

Pidge and Hunk were already in the kitchen eating their breakfast goo when Keith walked in. Hunk waved in greeting, and Pidge gave him a devious grin. He hadn't expected either.

“Mornin’,” he muttered. “Hey, Hunk?”

“Yeah man?” Hunk said through a mouthful of goo.

“Um, if it's not too much trouble, could you make something for Lance? Like more than just the goo? He says he's starving, caloric deficiency and all,” Keith said.

“What?”

“That's what Lance said... I don't know.”

“I know what it means, I just didn't expect you to say it.” Hunk shrugged, “But yeah I'll whip something up. Poor guy must be feeling awful after all he's been through.” He stood and moved toward the fridge.

“Thank you,” Keith put his helmet on the table and sat down. Pidge sidled up to him, the same grin plastered on her face. “What?”

“Oh you know exactly ‘what’, Keith.” Pidge said, her eyebrows waggling beneath her glasses.

“No, I don't.”

Pidge huffed and rolled her eyes. “I heard you and Lance had a little sleepover.”

Oh. That. “Where’d you hear that?

“Shiro.”

Betrayal, ” Keith whispered under his breathe.

“So how did you not, like, die?”

Keith looked down at himself, “I had my armour on.”

Pidge rolled her eyes. “No, I mean how did your heart not explode?”

“Oh.” Keith looked away and tapped his fingers against the table. He stood up, completely ignoring the question to get himself a plate of food goo before sitting back down next to Pidge.

“It almost did,” he mumbled. Pidge nearly choked on her goo laughing. “Shut up Pidge, this is hard enough as it is.”

Pidge smirked, “Oh, please. You've been harbouring this crush since you met him. And now you spent the night in his arms! You have to tell me all the juicy deets.”

Keith sputtered, “There are none. He was having a panic attack, that's it.” He stabbed at his breakfast with his fork. “Besides, he freaked out about it when he woke up.”

“Awh,” Pidge frowned, “well obviously he trusts you. That's a good first step.” She patted Keith on the arm. “Have patience young paladin.”

“Pidge I'm like three years older than you.”

Shhhhhh, ” Pidge held a finger over her mouth, “patience.”

Keith rolled his eyes, “You can't just make someone like you with patience. Besides, I don't think Lance likes... guys.”

“He can be obnoxiously straight sometimes.” Pidge agreed with a sigh, “fish are known to sometimes switch genders and sexualities to reproduce. Like the clownfish! Maybe now that he's a mermaid you have a chance.”

“Pidge. I cannot believe you just said that.”

Pidge grinned, her fork in hand. Hunk returned to their side of the kitchen, holding a large bowl of... something. It was brown with chunks in it. Keith and Pidge grimaced in unison.

“Here, I made this for Lance. High calorie, high protein, and it tastes a bit like beef,” he pushed the bowl towards Keith with a look of slight distaste, “I’ll make something better for him next time, but at least this should make him full.”

Keith opened his mouth to thank him when Pidge piped up, “Hunk, is Lance straight?” Keith groaned and put his face in his hands.

Hunk blinked. “As far as I know, yes. Uh, why are you asking?”

“No reason.” Keith said, a little too intensely through gritted teeth. His eyes burned holes through Pidge.

“Oh,” Hunk said slowly, his mouth turning into a smile as he realized what was happening, “you have a crush on him, don't you?”

Keith stood and grabbed the bowl in one sudden action, “ thanksforthefoodHunkbye.” He moved to dart away, face hot, when Hunk grabbed him around the shoulders in a tight side hug.

“Hey, don't worry Keith, it happens to the best of us,” Hunk laughed while Keith tensed at the touch, “his eyes are pretty dazzling.”

“I'm going to go give this to him now.” Keith peeled himself away from Hunk, stockily moving to the door, “thanks again for the food.”

“Hey, wait, before you go,” Pidge called. Keith sighed and paused, turning to look. Pidge smiled, “tell Lance we’ll be by later to work on our working model of the water respiration vest,” she beamed, looking to Hunk, “Hunk and Coran and I were up all night figuring out a functioning prototype. Well mostly Hunk and I. Coran was busy doing...Coran stuff.”

“I’ll let him know.” Keith curtly nodded, then turned and left before they could embarrass him any further.

Once Keith had left, Pidge turned to Hunk, her elbows rested on the table and her chin balanced on her hands, “Oh man. He’s got it so bad.”

 

***

 

Keith was pleased to find Lance by the side of the pool, tinkering with his music player, rather than having an episode at the bottom of the pool. The boy’s face lit up when Keith entered the room, though Keith noticed his eyes were trained on the bowl of food in his hands rather than on Keith.

“Oh thank god,” Lance gestured wantonly towards the approaching food with as much drama as he could muster, “I could feel the life draining from me. What is that?”

“Hunk made it for you,” Keith said, setting down the bowl and spoon in front of Lance at the poolside, “apparently it tastes like beef. It's supposed to be high calories, I think.”

“That's awesome , Hunk is great.” Lance set to work shovelling the stew-esque goo into his mouth. Just like with dinner the night before, he struggled figuring out how to hold the spoon right in his webbed fingers. They all wanted to move in unison, and when he tried to force them to move more separately, the membrane between ached from the stretch. He ended up palming the spoon like a caveman.

“Are you really that hungry?” Keith asked, sitting cross legged at the water’s edge. Lance nodded.

“I told you. My body had to use a ton of calories building a new biological structure for me. I'm just making up the difference. I'm sure the increased appetite wear off in a bit,” he paused, thinking, “unless it's a side effect from said new biological structure. Then maybe I'll just eat like Hunk forever.”

“Or until we can change you back.” Keith said, insisting. He didn't want to give up hope, even if Lance seemingly had. Lance seemed to ignore him.

“So, like, everything I ever do to entertain myself doesn't do well in water,” he said between bites, “the MP3 player, the books, I guess I could play with the little figurines but I'm not as into playing with dolls as I was when I was seven.”

“Oh yeah, I guess that is a problem...” Keith scratched his head. “You want me to bring you a bag to put your iPod in?”

Lance squinted, “The headphones?”

“Doesn’t it have a speaker?”

Lance thought for a moment. “Oh yeah... I guess I would be able to hear it.”

“And it’ll travel through the water, so you can still move around.” Keith added, imagining Lance dancing.

“I’d have to learn how to swim first,” Lance said with a snort, “I mean, I know how to swim , of course. Just not with this. It’s surprisingly hard.”

“Oh...” Keith said, not quite sure what to say. Lance seemed to be rambling anyways.

“I guess it isn’t that surprising, actually, since it’s literally using muscles and bones and tendons that I didn’t have before,” he finished the bowl and resisted the urge to lick the inside clean, “hey, Keith, do you know how to swim?”

“Uh, mostly. I mean I know the doggy paddle. Water’s not really, my thing .”

Lance grinned at him, tapping his chin, “well there’s something we can do to pass the time.”

Chapter Text

A few hours had passed since breakfast. It was now decidedly the afternoon, and Pidge and Hunk felt confident enough in their prototype to bring it down to the pool. They had been working on it since the previous evening, stopping only for coffee and the subsequent washroom breaks.

While Pidge had thought up the theoretical model, Hunk was the one who brought it to life. The theory was rather simple; Lance, if he was like most fish, breathed by water passing over his gills. The gills then absorbed the oxygen into his bloodstream. So, theoretically, they just needed a way to get aerated water over his gills, continuously.

What they came up with was the water respiration vest. Basically it was a vest with water balloons attached to the sides. The balloons were actually made of clear fiberglass, and were situated snugly over the gills. These would be filled with water, fed by tubes which ran up over his shoulders and into two tanks on his back. One was oxygen, the other was water, with a built in filter. They sat on either side of a hole cut in for his backfin. The vest had to fit tightly as to not allow any water leakage, so it was made out of an awkward plastic material that Pidge was sure Lance was going to hate.

While Pidge had worked out all the logistics, Hunk had put the thing together. He was an engineer, after all. Coran had helped them assemble all the parts-- well, most of the parts. Some things Pidge had to scrounge around for. She may have disassembled a thing or too. They all had to make sacrifices.

Pidge and Hunk brought down the vest on a cart along with some parts and some tools, for adjustments, and some paper and pens for note taking.

“Alright so remember what Shiro said. Lance has been pretty shook up about this whole thing, we don't want to make it worse.” Hunk said, as they neared the pool hall. Pidge threw him an encouraging smile. Hunk had been worrying about this all night. It made sense; Hunk was Lance’s best friend, and seeing his friend in this condition was...shocking. Seeing your friend in distress because of this condition was even worse.

“Listen, Hunk, what we just spent the last fourteen hours working on is going to help him! I think he’ll be happy.”

“Right, but what if it just makes it worse? What's a better way to point out that someone is different than having to make things especially for them? We’re just going to be calling attention to the problem! What if he freaks out again?” They came to a stop outside the pool hall. Pidge put her hands on her hips, giving Hunk a look. He did have a point. Lance had been through an incredibly traumatic experience. She wouldn't be surprised if he was despondent. But they had to do this to help him.

“Alright. We’ll be careful. And supportive! If he gets upset we’ll be there to help.” She nodded. Hunk nodded in agreement.

The two took a deep breath in unison. Pidge waved to the sensor, and the door slid open.

The hall was filled with screams. Pidge felt her heart jump into her throat, her brain signalling someone's in danger before her eyes could process what she was seeing. Wait, that’s not screaming, that's....

Laughter. The pool hall was filled with laughter.

Lance was in the pool, predictably, near the center. He was causing most of the racket, trying and failing at not laughing and ended up laughing a lot. He had his arms wrapped around the source of his laughter; Keith, out of his paladin armour and back in his swim suit, kicking and flailing about. He was laughing too, though much quieter. He was floating on his back, attempting something that looked like the backstroke, except that he seemed to be having a hard time moving his arms and legs at the same time. Lance was treading water next to him, keeping Keith afloat with two hands against his back.

“I think I almost got it.” Keith was saying, staring intently at the ceiling.

“Okay. Let's see it.” Lance moved his hands and floated backwards to give Keith space. The red paladin immediately flailed, starting to sink.

“Wait! Lance! You can't let go, I can't float on my back!” Keith flailed hopelessly until Lance came close enough for him to grab onto.

“Hey, how are you going to learn if you keep using crutches?” Lance laughed, “you know, my mom says she taught me how to swim by throwing me in the ocean and hoping for the best.”

“That's either an untrue story or child abuse. Seriously if you let go I'm going to drown.”

“I won't let you drown! I'll have you know I'm actually a certified lifeguard.”

“Great.” Keith let out a quiet laugh. Lance felt his heart skip a beat and wondered what it meant.

Pidge smirked at Hunk, who looked back at her with raised eyebrows.

Pidge pushed forward, clearing her throat, “hey guys!”

Lance let out a scream, nearly throwing Keith off him. Keith flailed a bit in the water, face red, until he doggy-paddled his way back to the edge. Lance was still recovering from being startled, being overly dramatic as usual. He had one hand over his heart, taking deep breaths of air-- which technically didn't do anything but it looked more believable.

“What are you guys going here?” Lance asked, still flustered.

“We brought the respiration vest.” Hunk said. He pushed the cart to the poolside.

“Oh. Well some notice would have been nice!”

“I told Keith this morning!” Pidge said. Lance squinted at Keith.

Keith blinked, “Oops.”

Pidge snorted, “Well I'm sorry to have interrupted your...whatever that was.”

“Swimming lessons,” Lance said, “Keith like barely knows how to swim.”

“Wait, didn't you swim in that acid when we were getting the scaultrite?” Hunk frowned, helping pull Keith out of the pool.

Keith shook the water out of his hair, “well, yeah, but I was wearing my armour for that. Also it's not like I can't swim at all. I'm just not good at the frontstroke.”

“Or the backstroke, or the breaststroke.” Lance said dryly. Keith rolled his eyes.

“Yeah pretty much any stroke.”

“Well you can get back to that later, right now we're doing this.” Pidge put her hands on the cart and gestured to vest. Hunk picked it up to give Lance a full view. Lance grimaced.

“What the heck is that thing?” His lip pulled back in disgust, “what's it made of? That's gonna weigh a thousand pounds!”

“When it's full it only weighs thirty.” Hunk said. Lance huffed.

“Hey, if it gets you out of the pool,” Keith reasoned evenly. Lance crossed his arms and dismissively waved his hand.

“Yeah, but it's not worth it if it looks like that.”

“I'll keep it in mind for V2,” Pidge said dryly, “we’ll make the next one out of pleather.” Lance gasped.

“Pleather is an atrocity to the fashion world.”

Pidge was about to retort when Keith cut her off, “Alright, let's get to business. How is this going to work?”

“Well, air and water comes from these tanks, down these tubes, and into this area over his gills,” Pidge said, pointing to the appropriate areas on the vest, “it works fine so long as Lance’s anatomy functions as we expect it does. The only problem is we were sorta working blind. Some things might not be exactly fitting right, so we’ll have to make some on the spot adjustments. But we planned for that.”

“Okay, what do I do?” Lance leaned against the side of the pool, his tail swishing lazily in the water behind him.

“Well...that's the other problem,” Hunk said, “there's some parts in the filter that aren't waterproof-- kinda a flaw, I know--so really the vest...can't get wet.”

“How ironic.” Lance said flatly.

“We’re going to have to get you out of the pool to put it on.”

“Riiiight. You might have missed this but I don't do so well out of the water.”

“It won't take long.” Pidge said, sounding less confident than Lance thought she should.

“If you hold your breath you should be fine.” Keith said, deciding not to point out how long he was out of the water when he first fell out of the regen pod.

Lance mumbled something angrily, before exhaling sharply, “okay, fine. Let's do it.”

***

Keith and Hunk each took one of Lance’s arms.

“Alright on three, okay?” Hunk said, gripping Lance’s arm a little too tightly. They had cleared a spot next to the pool, and gathered not only the vest but all the other tools necessary so they'd be nearby for fast work. Pidge stood at the ready with the vest open, her eyes trained on Lance.

“On three.” Keith nodded. Lance made an uncertain noise.

“Okay. I'll take a deep...breathe? On two. I'll try not to flop around. That happened last time and it totally was involuntary.”

“If you start flopping around i’ll hold you down.” Keith said. Lance raised a solitary eyebrow.

“You want to hold me down, Keith?”

“Okay,” Keith said, completely ignoring Lance,  “on three. One, two--”

Lance felt the twist of anxiety hit him in the stomach, but he forced himself to take a deep breath of water. Breathing in the water, he found, was completely different than breathing air. It was mostly an automatic process. He could draw in water through his mouth, but as far as he could tell it didn't do much. He wasn't sure how his vocal chords worked. He had a feeling they worked by water passing over them, rather than air, because he he was out of the water he couldn't speak, as if he were out of breath. His sides expanded in and out, pushing water in and out over his gills, at a faster rate than when he breathed air. When he took in water, it would sit inside him before being pushed out. It made him feel heavy. It didn't feel satisfying, like taking in a deep breath of air. He only felt a change when he was out of the water, or more specifically when his gills were out of the water. When his gills weren't doing their primary function, they started to spasm, and his sides would twitch.

That's exactly what started happening when Hunk and Keith pulled him out of the water.

It's annoying how little control I have over my own body. Lance thought, and they pulled him out onto the deck. His sides immediately started to spasm, like they were trying to ventilate on turbo speed. Lance tried to stop it, but quickly realized he had little to no control over his gills at all.

“Okay, move fast.” Keith let go of Lance's arm and stood by, his mouth a thin line. Pidge moved forward and threw the vest over Lance’s back and squished his backfin. Lance let out a little yelp, and his tail twitched, flying up and hitting Hunk in the side.

“Oh! Sorry Lance!” Pidge said, busily moving the vest into place. Lance gave a feeble thumbs up. He was still on his stomach, but propped up by his hands like he was doing a pushup to allow Pidge and Hunk access to the front. There was a tight zipper and a series of buckles which she was trying to pull into place, but Lance wasn't exactly holding still.

His tail was twitching more and more the longer it took to affix the vest. Keith put his hand down on the lower part of Lance's tail to hold him in place. It was surprisingly smooth and nice to touch. He put his other hand closer to his hip and started running his fingers over the scales. Lance let out a little wheeze and glanced at him from over the shoulder. He turned back to watching Pidge, though, so Keith took it as a sign to continue. Maybe he barely felt it at all, like with his hands. But the way his skin twitched under Keith's fingers suggested that he could feel it pretty well.

“It's secured,” Pidge said, nodding to Hunk, “turn it on.”

“Turning it on.” Hunk fiddled with something on the back; Lance couldn't see, and really didn't care. He was definitely feeling the suffocating feeling now, and was starting to feel a little dizzy. Please work, please work or throw me back in the pool.

There was a click, then a whirring sound, like the filter of a fish tank or a pool. Then Lance felt the rush of water against his sides, and the fiberglass pods on either side started to fill. Seconds later Lance was able to suck in enough water for a breath. He let out another wheeze-- this one more out of exhaustion than a lack of air. He lowered his arms and flopped down onto the pool tile. It worked , he was breathing !

“Lance? Lance, is it working?!” Pidge was suddenly shaking his shoulder. Lance forgot the others couldn't read his mind.

“Yeah, it's working,” he breathed, his voice scratchy, “I was just...catching my breath.”

Pidge punched him in the arm, “you scared me!”

“Ow,” he propped himself up again, rubbing his arm with a frown, “sorry I was concentrating on making sure it worked!” He smiled, looking up at Hunk and Pidge, “it works. Thank you. Really.”

“Of course man. We're not going to keep you in a pool forever.” Hunk patted him roughly on the shoulder. Lance smiled and pretended it didn't hurt. He was still a little sore.

“And what exactly are you doing?” Lance looked back over his shoulder at Keith, who was still running his fingers along Lance's tail. Keith pulled his hand away like he was touching fire.

“Uuuuuhhhh,” Keith stammered, not forming any real words. How could he explain how smooth and pleasant his tail was without sounding weird? He could see Pidge’s shit eating grin from over Lance's shoulder. “Was that not okay?”

“If you're going to touch my butt at least give me some warning first.” Lance squawked. There was the slightest hint of a blush spread across his cheeks. Keith stared at him with a look of shock and embarrassment, his mouth open but not making any words. Pidge felt sorry enough for him to change the subject.

“Alright, Lance, why don't you sit up. We have some adjustments to make.”

***

The water respiration vest worked for all intents and purposes, but it still wasn't comfortable. The fabric was stiff and dug into his sides when he leaned forward, and after about ten minutes the water felt a little stuffy and sour, like old recycled air in an airplane. It was also heavy and cumbersome, and awkward to move in. But Lance didn't complain...much. Because the vest meant he was mobile .

Well, sorta mobile. There was still the problem of him literally not being able to walk. Actually, out of the water, his tail was little more than a floppy sack of potatoes.

They decided to bring Lance upstairs to the medical center, to do some x-rays and make sure that all his organs were working in some sort of order. Hunk carried him, because Lance didn't trust the cart at all. It didn't even have wheels.

“I think Coran will meet us in the medical center,” Pidge was saying as the four trailed through the castle, the dull buzz of Lance’s vest echoing through the halls.

“Why?” Lance looked back at Pidge over Hunk’s shoulder. He could see Keith behind her, staring off probably thinking of space or something.

“Well, he and Allura are really the only ones who know how to work the equipment,” Pidge replied, “and I'm pretty sure Allura is busy. She’s been working on the ship, trying to fix everything that went down during our fight with Zarkon. Coran and I were supposed to be helping too, but...” she gave Lance an accusatory eyebrow raise.

“Hey, not my fault.” Lance pouted, “Well, sorta my fault. But, in my defence, you don't have to do this.” They could have warped back to the meraliens planet and launched me off the ship in a evac rocket if they wanted. Which might have been better for them, “I don't want to be a burden.”

“Ugh, shut up Lance. You're not a burden.” Pidge smacked him on the forehead.

“Hey!” Lance reeled his head back, removing one hand from around Hunk’s neck to half-heartedly swat at Pidge, “you don't need to get physical! I am totally being a huge burden. Hunk is carrying me. He’s literally being burdened by my weight!”

“You don't weigh that much.” Hunk said. Lance patted the back of his head.

“Shhh, burdened.”

“You're part of the team.” Keith said.

“And you know you'd do the same for us.” Pidge added, “you can stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

“Right. I'll get right on that.” Lance rolled his eyes. Hunk bounced him in his arms, causing Lance to squeal, “Hunk! Don't scare me like that! And stop laughing! I don't want my coccyx shattered because you were giggling.”

“Sorry man,” Hunk snorted though rumbling bouts of laughter, “did the plant make your voice change too or did you always scream like that?”

***

Coran met them in the med center, waiting by the doors of the large domed room. The medical center was where the Alteans kept their regen pods, but also where they kept several other types of medical equipment. The central room had the regen pods, as well as several exam tables and triage stations. Then in offshooting rooms were some sort of MRI machine, or possibly X-ray, something like an ultrasound set up, and a few other rooms with machines which looked much more intense.

“Alteans are one of the most advanced races in the field of medical science,” Coran was saying, leading them through the main hall towards the smaller ones, “er, well, we were . Perhaps with what remains here we still are. Yes, all of this is highly advanced, particularly the regeneration pods. Ah yes, but you wanted to use the imaging hardware, hm?”

“That's right,” Pidge nodded, trying to stay focused. She wanted to run to the nearest machine and pull it apart to figure out how it worked. She really would never get tired of Altean tech; it was so much more advanced than what earth had in ways she had never considered. And downright outdated in others. Simply fascinating. But she could check out the cool computers in the medical center after her friend was finished having a medical and probably existential crisis. For now she had to focus on what they’d come for, “we wanted to take x-rays of Lance’s...well, body. So we can see what really happened, under the skin.”

“X-ray?” Coran quirked his moustache, “oh, the Deci-centi Radiation Imager. X-ray, well that does have a ring to it.” He led them away from the main hall and into a side room. This room was small in comparison, or maybe it just felt small because of the size of the machine. The Deci-centi Radiation Imager was about the size of a truck, made of white metal, and affixed with a strip of blue lights along the bed. The bed-- which was really a hard metal bench with a curve to it like a hammock-- ran longways under a sort of canopy that crossed over it like a four poster bed. The canopy was also made of metal, but had a shiny blue underside which reflected like a mirror.

“Interesting,” Hunk said, whistling in appreciation. He set Lance down in the bed almost immediately, while Coran spoke at the others. Pidge was nodding eagerly, while Keith mostly looked confused.

Lance stared up at himself. It was the first time he had really seen his reflection. He didn't recognize himself. And it wasn't even the scales, or the teeth, or the fin-like ears. It was the way his mouth was pulled in a thin line, and the way his eyes stared back at him, wide and ringed with exhaustion, and...scared. Because he was scared. When will I stop being so completely terrified?

“You okay?” Keith asked, standing beside him now for who knows how long. Lance tried not to jump out of his skin, startled by the sudden voice pulling him out of his thoughts.

Jesus ,” the respiration vest whirred into a higher gear as Lance tried to catch his breath, “don't sneak up on people like that!”

“I...I didn't sneak up on you,” Keith frowned, “I was right there and now I'm right here. I thought you saw me move the foot and a half to the left.”

“Well, I didn't. You nearly gave me a heart attack. Or equivalent. I'm pretty sure I still have a heart based on how quickly it's beating! ” He put a hand to his chest, where he really could feel his heart finally slowing down.

“You've never been this jumpy,” Keith said with a bit of a smile. He crossed his arms, the smile fading, “this really does have you freaked out, doesn't it.”

“Of course it does, you’d be freaked out too.” Lance said, a little more aggressively than he meant. Keith’s expression didn't change a bit.

“I am.”

Lance felt the pointed aggression drain out of him, “you are?”

“Yeah? Of course. We all are.” He sat next to Lance on the bed, his arms still crossed. Lance wasn't sure what to say. They sat in silence for a moment, Coran’s distant chattering like background noise.

“You're right. I'm sorry,” Lance finally said, leaning forward as far as the vest would allow and covering his face with his hands, “you've been there for me the whole time, and Shiro, and Hunk and Pidge and Allura and Coran. You've all been so supportive and helpful. Like, fuck , you cradled me--

“To be fair, you hugged me . I just reciprocated.” Keith said. Lance peered between his fingers to give Keith a look . Keith smiled and laughed. It made Lance feel better. He dropped his hands.

“I guess it's just easy to feel alone. Like...I feel like a leaf that fell into a river and now am being swept away in the water.”

“Well at least you can breathe underwater,” Keith said. Lance squinted at him. “I mean, like, even if you're swept away, you won't drown. And we'll  be there to pick you up again.”

Lance stared at him for a while, “was that a joke?”

Keith snorted, “I mean, it was supposed to be inspirational. But I guess, yeah.”

“You should tell more jokes. You look so much happier when you're laughing.” Lance said with a smile, “much cuter. Like a hamster or like a really happy dog.”

“Oh,” Keith said, because he wasn't sure how to respond to being called cute , “uhm.”

“Hey, Keith,” Lance said, barreling over his floundering to get to the next topic, “why were you petting my ass earlier?”

“Oh, uh, well,” all of Keith's composure had flown out the window, “I didn't think it was your butt. It was more of your hip region.”

Lance silently raised his brows, secretly enjoying the way Keith was flustered. The kid's face was turning red. Was it the butt touching? In truth he hadn't minded the ass petting at all. Keith was right, it wasn't really his butt. But the feeling of hands running across his scales had actually felt really good. He wouldn't mind if Keith wanted to do that again later. When they were back in the pool and not being watched by three others who didn't need to know how much he enjoyed having his scales rubbed.

Maybe it's because I called him cute? Was that weird? Lance had a moment where he realized he had called Keith cute and totally meant it. Did he think Keith was cute? Well he definitely wasn't ugly . And if Lance had to classify him, he would put him under cute when he laughed and maybe hot when he was kicking ass fighting. Not that Lance found him hot. Because he didn't find other men hot.

You can call a guy hot and not find him hot , his inner monologue reminded him.

That's stupid, obviously if you're classifying Keith as hot, you've noticed him being hot and therefore find him hot. Another part of his mind said. Lance furrowed his brows.

Okay, maybe he is hot. He does know how to swing a knife. And wears a tight black shirt. And has nice hair. But you can't find Keith hot in that way , because you're totally straight. You like tits and ass and hot chicks, not an emo guy with a mullet.

Lance realized he was staring at Keith, but he wasn't actually seeing him. It felt a bit like his brain was breaking. I do find him hot in that way . This line of thought was completely new to him, and suddenly felt so obvious but also so frightening. Do I feel the same way about Keith as I feel about a hot chick? Holy shit. How did this happen?

“Uh...Lance?” Keith noticed Lance spaced out a minute ago. Was he having another panic attack? He put his hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance screamed.

The other three stopped chatting and looked over at the two on the bed. Lance looked like he was about to explode.

“Are you okay?” Keith asked, his voice ripe with concern. Lance stared at him with a strange, wild expression. His eyes slid over to the others.

“Hunk? Can I talk to you? Now? Outside? Alone?”

Chapter Text

Hunk carried him out into the hallway, which admittedly felt a little awkward, but it was better than staying in that small room next to Keith .

Lance wasn't angry at Keith, not at all. He was unsure of how he felt, because of new information that had just dawned on him. He was pretty sure he was totally into Keith, in that way. The thought of it was making his head spin.

Hunk set him down on the floor, propped up against the wall. He sat across from him, crosslegged.

“Alright, what's up? You look like steam's about to explode out of your ears.” Hunk had seen pretty much every expression in the Lance dictionary, but this was a new one. Lance groaned and tilted his head back against the wall.

“I think I might be gay?”

Hunk stared at him for a minute before saying, slowly and calculating, “Alright? And, uh, why do you think that? I've seen you drool over pretty much every girl in the solar system, man.”

“I know, I know,” Lance leaned forward again, rubbing his temple, “I still think I love babes. Really. But. I think I find Keith hot.”

Hunk managed not to laugh. Of course, he wasn't laughing at Lance. He was laughing at the irony of the whole situation. It felt like the stars were aligning. “You think Keith's hot? He is pretty dreamy.”

Right? It's the hair, I think it's been the hair this whole time.” Lance was saying, mostly to himself at this point, “Or, or maybe it was when we were fighting side by side in the Balmera and he glanced at me . His eyes are purple , did you know that?! I remember noticing before but now I'm like, why did I notice? Because I'm in love with him? Oh my god. What am I going to tell my parents? I've had so many girlfriends they're just going to be as confused as I am! What am I going to tell my exes? Hunk I'm the ladies man , my image --”

Hunk scooted across the hallway, putting one hand on either side of Lance’s shoulders and shook him ever so slightly, “Lance! Calm down man.”

“I can't be calm!” Lance cried, gesticulating wildly, “I'm having a crisis!

“You're not having a crisis Lance. You just have a crush.”

“I'm dying .” He screeched.

Hunk rolled his eyes and shook Lance’s shoulders again. Lance exhaled so sharply it sent bubbles out of his gills.

“Lance, dude. I love you, you know that. But you have to calm the fuck down,” Hunk said evenly, emphasizing each word with a gentle shake.

Language .” Lance huffed, with only half as much sarcasm as usual.

“You are an awesome man, Lance. But god damn are you stupid sometimes.”

Rude, ” Lance cried, pushing Hunk’s hands off of him, “I open up to you and you call me stupid --”

“No, you're being stupid with all these dumb worries you're having!” Hunk rested his hands on his knees, slightly smiling despite how Lance scowled.

“They're not dumb! I don't even know how people are going to react! Like ‘hey remember Lance, the ladies man? Well he’s gay now! And what if people hate me?” Lance cried, “what if you hate me? I don't even know if you're cool with this--”

“Oh my god Lance,” Hunk huffed, “of course I'm cool with whatever you are,” he offered a smile, “if I can handle you growing a tail I think I can handle you liking boys. Besides, I don't think you're gay.”

“Getting the hots for a dude is pretty gay.” Lance said, “I mean, not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just-- for me-- uh--”

“I think you're bi.”

“...What.”

“Bisexual?” Hunk said, “Or, I mean, depending on things you could be pan, or demi, or just queer.”

“I only understood one of those words.”

“...Which one?” Hunk cocked his head to the side.

“Uh. Well two. I know what a pan is. I use one all the time.”

“You're so stupid.” Hunk buried his head in his hands.

“If I had legs, I would walk right out on you. Instead I'm being forced to suffer.

“Alright. You really don't know this stuff?” Hunk leaned back on his hands. Lance shook his head silently.

“Not really. I've never...had to think about it before.”

“That's like four percent of the population you've never thought about!”

“I'm sorry ,” Lance rubbed at his eyes with a pained grunt, “I never thought to learn about a population that I didn't belong to beyond ‘gay is okay’.”

“Oh my god,” Hunk took a deep breath, “ Lance.

“Just tell me the basics!” Lance nearly shouted. Hunk stared at him. He took in another deep breath through his nostrils, using one hand to push back his hair.

“Alright. You have the LGBTQ, right?”

“No. What?”

“Oh my god shut up just let me explain. LGBTQ. It goes on. I, A, P, there's a lot. They're all equally important and, personally , I think we should just just put them all in the acronym but, yknow, then it'd be, like, twenty characters long and take forever to say--”

“Right.” Lance said. Hunk exhaled.

“Anyways, I digress. They stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.”

“Hey, I know the first two!”

“Great. So bisexual, it means you're attracted to both men and women.” Hunk watched Lance’s face expectantly. He blinked back.

“You can do that?”

“What? Of course you can! Why wouldn't you?”

“I guess I just always thought it was one or the other.”

“Listen, think of it this way,” Hunk said, folding his hands together in his lap, “You know how some people like apples. And some people like oranges. Some people like both. Some people don't like either. And some people, like me, like all food, and don't care if it's an apple or an orange or a banana, or a kiwi...”

Lance nodded. It made so much sense he felt a little stupid for having never considered it before. The more he thought about it, the more sense it made. He had been thinking about this all wrong. It wasn't that he had been gay this whole time, and every woman he had ever found attractive had been a lie to himself. No, it was that, this whole time, he had been attracted to women and men.

So much of his life made much more sense now.

Hunk was still listing foods. Lance cut him off midway through the word ‘turkey’.

“So I'm not gay.”

“I mean, not unless you suddenly aren't attracted to women.”

“Hunk, please . I love pussy.”

Hunk laughed, but then made a face, “Well, technically....”

Lance stared at him. The lesson continued.

 

***

 

Keith watched Hunk hurry Lance out the door. His gut twisted with anxiety. What happened? Did he say something wrong? Was Lance so utterly offended by his earlier action that he suddenly had a change of heart and hated him forever??? He stood up and paced around the room, his hand clenching and unclenching into nervous fists.

“Dude, what happened over there?” Pidge asked.

“I don't know!” Keith shouted unexpectedly. “I mean, I don't know... All I said was that I didn't touch his butt and then he just stared at me for five minutes before screaming?”

“That is weird,” Pidge said, “the weirdest thing being why didn't  you touch his butt? I thought you were totally in love with his rounded posterior.”

Pidge . No,” Keith said thinly, “I didn't touch Lance’s butt because, A, he didn't ask and it would have been rude to touch without permission and B, I was way more focused on the scales than the butt.”

“Who brought up the butt touching in the first place? Were you trying to come on to him?”

“No! He asked,” Keith started pacing again, his hands in his hair now, “it must have been the whole butt incident. I freaked him out too much. Now he doesn't even want to be in the same room as me. I messed up, Pidge! I messed up the team and Voltron all because my stupid brain wanted to touch his scales!”

Pidge had the audacity to smile, “Why did you want to touch his scales?”

Keith waved his arms around violently, “Because they're soft! I like soft things!”

“If you like soft things why do you like Lance? He's like a beanpole, if beans came in square.”

“Pidge, this isn't the time--”

“Really if you like soft you should be going after Hunk. That guy is like a pillow with legs and arms to hug you with.”

Pidge.

Pidge grinned wide, her glasses shining in the light of the Deci-Centi Radiation Imager, “What? I have a point.”

“You don't have a point at all!”

“Listen. If Lance had a problem with you he wouldn't go to Hunk to complain. He'd tell you outright! He already did that for the first week he knew you! He would literally shove his hatred of you in your face and probably make a dance routine and song about it.”

Keith tapped his foot. “That does sound like him, yeah. Okay now you have a valid point.”

Coran strolled over to the pair, his hands in his pockets, “Is Lance alright?”

“Your guess is as good as ours.” Pidge said, “I’m sure it's probably just some Lance drama. Thanks for helping us today, Coran.”

“Ah yes, teen drama. Ah, that brings back some memories to my younger days,” Coran breathed wistfully, “though I don't remember being quite so moody .”

Pidge smiled, thinking of some stories Allura told her of the infamous Coran time loop, “I bet you were a level headed teenager, Coran.”

“Quite right there, number five! But even I was not without some ‘drama’, though in comparison to what you kids go through it was probably quite mild.”

This launched Coran into a twenty minute long retelling of his youth.

“...Alfor and I were surrounded by Deroopies, but I knew their secret. You see Deroopies hate the smell of mint--”

Coran’s fascinating albeit lengthy tale was cut short by the sound of the door sliding open. Hunk crossed the threshold, Lance in his arms like a really long sack of flour. He looked fine , which gave Keith back the bit of hope he had been whittling away at during Coran’s story. While he was still quite sure the butt touching incident had caused the outburst, he had also thought of several other suspects; the whole cradling thing, the beef slop he had eaten for breakfast, the respiration vest, or a continued anxiety attack due to the whole transformation situation. But Lance looked fine , which ruled out the small chance he had been dying of food poisoning or a suit malfunction, and possibly the anxiety attack. Keith still wasn’t willing to rule out the butt touching incident.

“Good, good, you’ve returned!” Coran exclaimed cheerfully, waving for the two to enter, “I was just retelling some tales of my own time as a rebellious teenager. Ah, Alfor and I, we were friends from the start and we had some times--”

“That's great, Coran, I think we’d all be happy to listen to all the crazy tales of your teenhood sometime,” Pidge said, standing, “but now that Lance is back I think we should move on with the imaging.”

“Right you are, number five, right you are,” Coran said, bouncing over to the machine, “we’ll have this done in a few tics!”

“Yeah, sorry about that guys,” Lance said, “I didn't mean for that to take so long.”

Hunk set Lance down on the bed of the machine. Lance gave him a thumbs up and a smile. “Thanks Hunk.”

“No problem bud.” Hunk patted him a little too forcefully on the shoulder and backed away. The machine was starting to whirr to life.

Keith stood back, eyes trained on Lance. The blue paladin wouldn't look at him. He was certain it was on purpose.

“So what am I doing?” Lance asked, looking to Pidge. She came over to him, looking over his long tail, then to the humming machine.

“Well. We’re going to take x-rays with this machine. At first I thought we’d have to take the vest off, but Coran’s told me that's not necessary. Of course neither Coran nor I are trained in medical technology, but, really all you need to do is lay on this bed here.”

“On my back or on my stomach? I can't really lay on my back, with the vest...”

“Tummy time it is.” Pidge snorted, “You need help getting into position?”

“I got it.” Lance said.

Lance didn't have it. Pidge had to drag and push him into the right position. But, eventually he was set properly, and the machine crackled as Coran punched in instructions. The others stood back. They watched as the canopy shifted and moved, and extended down over Lance, forming a tent-like shroud of metal.

Inside, Lance closed his eyes and tried not to panic. He had never been claustrophobic, but this metal encasement felt like a blue-tinged tomb. His hair stood on end while the metal vibrated around him. He took a deep breath and focused on not moving. He thought of things he loved; home, the ocean, his family, his guitar, Blue. His thoughts kept wandering, though. He couldn't stop thinking about Keith. How he made him feel. His thoughts felt like a bowl of spaghetti. He felt even more like the leaf in rapids than he had before. He didn't even want to look at Keith now, because it still made him feel confused. But he had caught the boy's face out of the corner of his eye, when Lance refused to look at him. He had look hurt.

I have to tell him something .

He couldn't just avoid Keith. Hell, he didn't want to avoid Keith. He just wanted to avoid the way Keith made him feel. I guess that part is unavoidable. It wasn't an entirely bad feeling. Actually it was the same he felt every time he saw a pretty girl, but so much more intense. And there was this uncomfortable feeling...he was still uncomfortable with this new identity. He was uncomfortable with the idea of liking another boy. And the worst part was he was pretty sure Keith was the straightest straight guy. They were bros! He was pining after a guy who couldn't even reciprocate. It was making his stomach twist.

But none of that was Keith’s fault.

The Deci-Centi Radiation Imager suddenly clanked, then let out an unpleasant screech as it moved again. The metal tent was lifting away. Lance let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. The fabric of the vest was really digging into his skin. He hadn't noticed until now.

“How was that?” Pidge was asking, though Lance’s head was still swimming in thought and he only caught the tail end. He blinked up at her until his slow moving brain was able to piece together a sentence.

“It was fine. A little creepy.”

“Well hopefully you won't have to do it again.” Pidge smiled. She helped him sit up, “it’ll take a while for the image to be created and printed, I think.”

“Yeah, Coran said four hours,” Hunk said, having crossed the room as well and now standing over Lance, his arms crossed. Lance peered around him. Keith was nowhere to be seen. “so we’ll just have to wait until then.”

“Four hours?” Lance echoed, “there's no way I'm sitting around in this vest for that long.” In fact he wanted to get out of the respiration vest ASAP. The water tasted sour, and it was so tight it was starting to make his ribs hurt. Not to mention he felt so useless. His tail couldn't even work in the way it was designed to. His tailfin laid limply on the floor under him.

“We’ll have to make version two more comfortable. It's only been an hour.” Pidge hummed, tapping her chin. She was already thinking of ways to improve the vest. Hunk nodded, looking just as distantly thoughtful.

“And the battery life. It only has a two hour charge--”

“What? You didn't tell me there was a time limit!” Lance cried, suddenly very aware of how long they'd been using the vest.

“Hey, we didn't want you to freak out and refuse to try it,” Hunk said, motioning with one hand like he was pressing an invisible button, “the vest would still work manually, it'd just take more energy from you. In theory.”

“I want to go back to the pool.” Lance said. Hunk nodded.

“Sounds reasonable. But Coran was telling me about something that you might want to check out.”

 

***

 

They exited the small room that housed the Deci-Centi Radiation Imager. Coran led them down the hallway towards another room on the very end. He was chatting away about something-- Pidge and Hunk seemed to be fairly into it, but Lance wasn't paying the least bit attention. Hunk had told him that Keith had left while he was having the x-rays done. I messed up. Now he’s mad at me . He had realized avoiding Keith was stupid. Sure, the boy now brought up some foreign and strange emotions for Lance, but they were still friends . Actually, Lance considered Keith one of his closest friends. Maybe he was just worried Keith wouldn't want to be friends with him anymore if he found out Lance had the world's worst crush on him.

Which is exactly why he told Hunk not to tell anyone.

“Yes, here we are.” Lance was pulled out of his daydream by Coran’s all too cheery voice and the sound of a door opening. He looked up to see Coran gesturing in through the threshold, “right where I remember them. Hm. We might need to charge the battery, though.”

Lance was about to ask him what he was talking about when Hunk moved enough for him to see.

Inside the room-- which was really more of a closet if he was being honest-- were several wheelchairs. Though, to be fair, they didn't have wheels. They were white disks with a black chair fixed on top, which looked a bit like a barstool from the sixties. Before the chair there was also a thick white shaft with a touch screen command center. It looked like a hoverboard with a chair and a steering wheel.

“That's awesome ,” Lance said, his voice high, “do they work?” All the wheelchairs were resting on the ground like someone had stolen their wheels.

“They should.” Coran nodded, his hand twirling his moustache, “It has been several...millennia since they've been charged. I’ll plug a few into the castle’s energy distribution system, that should do it.”

“Even if it doesn't, I bet I could get it working.” Pidge was all but bouncing on the spot, her eyes wide and pouring over the new tech in front of them.

“I bet you could.” Lance said, smiling. The idea of being able to drive around on his own had lifted his mood about three hundred feet. He shifted in Hunk’s arms, and a painful jab to the side reminded him of the vest, “but, uh, until then, I’d like to get out of this torture device.”

“Alright, I’ll take you back to the pool.” Hunk said. Lance patted him on the arm.

“You're a great friend. Can you get me some more of that beefish stew too?”

Chapter Text

Keith trudged into the kitchen, his hands in his pockets and his eyes to the ground. He was so invested in his brooding that he didn't even notice Shiro and Allura eating an early dinner by the counters.

“Keith!” Shiro raised his non-metal arm in greeting, as the other was holding a slime-filled fork, “Getting dinner for Lance?”

Keith wrinkled his nose, “No.”

Shiro glanced to Allura, who looked just as surprised by Keith’s reaction, “Oh, I thought you were helping Lance with his... situation.”

“Well, now I'm not.” Keith trudged past the two of them to sit as close to the corner as he could.

Shiro frowned. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

“Come on, I know you do.”

“…Maybe.”

Shiro exchanged glances with Allura again. She smiled warmly and patted him on the shounded.

“You help your team. I’ll be in the command center.” She got up and waved behind her as she left the room.

Shiro waved back before turning his attention on Keith. “Alright, what's wrong? Why're you mad at Lance?”

Keith huffed. “He just started ignoring me for no reason!”

Shiro leaned his head against his fist. “No reason, huh?”

“At least no reason that's can think of,” Keith sighed. But... that wasn't entirely true. The butt touching incident still weighed heavy in Keith's mind. He definitely didn't want to tell Shiro about that, though. He couldn't imagine the bad dad jokes that would spout from that conversation. “We were talking, about to take x-rays, then he stared at me for five minutes like a scared animal! And when I put a hand on his shoulder, he just screamed and told Hunk to get him out,” he threw his hands in the air. “What does that even mean??”

Shiro scratched at his chin, “Okay, that is pretty strange. But Lance has being going through a lot lately. You know he has anxiety problems, too. I'm sure it wasn't your fault.”

Keith sighed. Shiro was trying very hard to cheer him up, “When he got back from outside he wouldn't look at me. At all. He was ignoring me. I asked Hunk but he wouldn't tell me, and what he did tell me just made me more confused? So I left. Now I'm here.”

Shiro knit his eyebrows. “What did he say?”

Keith leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms and staring pointedly at the table in front of him, “I asked if Lance was okay. Hunk said yes. Then I asked if he was mad at me. He just grabbed my by the shoulders and said, and I quote, ‘it's not your fault- well- it sort of is- but it's a good thing!’ What is that even supposed to mean?” Keith slumped onto the table, burying his head in his arms. “Why is it so hard to be a person?”

Shiro gently patted him on the back. It wasn't good that the team was being so cryptic with each other. He made a mental note to give them all a talk about being open with each other.

“I trust Hunk,” he said, “Maybe this whole thing isn't as complicated as you think it is.”

“Well it’d be easier if they just told me what was wrong.”

Shiro smiled, “Why don't you just ask Lance directly?”

Keith turned away and scoffed, pouting angrily. Shiro continued to pat him on the back, happy that he was past the teen drama phase in his life.

“I'm not going to talk to him. He's the one being avoidant! He can come talk to me.”

“Keith, he’s not being avoidant. He literally doesn't have legs, he can't just stroll in here. You have to go to him.”

Keith exhaled sharply through his nose, knowing Shiro was right but not wanting to admit it.

Shiro didn't know Keith had a crush on Lance. He had never told him. Actually, he had never actually told anyone. Pidge just seemed to know one day and had become his confidante. Now Hunk knew, too. But, they were the only ones who knew Keith was even gay. Not because he was ashamed or anything. The others had never asked, and Keith felt it was a little irrelevant when they were fighting alien overlords in giant robot lions.

The crush was the real reason Lance’s dismissal hurt so badly. Had he figured it out? Maybe that's why he had screamed. He had connected the dots and now felt very uncomfortable with Keith. He had had that happen before. That hurt worse than anything physical ever had.

“I know. It's just... I thought Lance and I had gotten over our... differences. I don't want us to go back to hating each other.” Keith said. He looked up and glanced at Shiro. The man looked so sorry for him.

Shiro opened his mouth as if he was going to say something when Hunk strolled in, a bounce in his walk. His cheerful whistling died as soon as he saw the grim expression on Keith's face.

“Oh hey Keith! Shiro.”

Shiro gave a slight wave, “Hey Hunk.”

Keith only grunted in response.

“I didn't know you were in here, Keith,” Hunk said, moving towards the cold storage receptacle-- or fridge, as he liked to call it, “if I had known I would have told Lance. He was asking where you went.”

“Oh was he?” Keith said, his tone dry like chalk. Hunk grimaced. This was awkward.

“Uh, yeah. He wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh, now he wants to talk?”

“Keith, please.” Shiro said, a little more ‘Black Lion Shiro, Leader of Voltron’ than ‘Good Pal Comforting a Friend Shiro’. Keith raised a single eyebrow at him.

He was avoiding me.” Keith said, “Why does he want to talk now?”

“I think it's because of why he was avoiding you,” Hunk said, currently scooping cold beef stew out of a large container and into a bowl.

“Which you won't tell me!”

“Hey! I was sworn to secrecy.” Hunk said, a firm hand chop emphasizing his point, “I don't take that lightly. I told you what I could.”

“Sounds like you'll have to go to Lance if you want to know why.” Shiro said. Keith exhaled sharply, glaring at Shiro.

“I thought you were on my side!”

“I am on your side!” Shiro said, “I just think... maybe this is for the best.”

“We're all on the same side. There are no sides,” Hunk nodded, “We’re a circle.”

Keith stared at Hunk. That was an exceptionally corny line, even for him. Shiro looked like he was trying not to laugh. Keith growled.

“Okay. Fine.”

“You should bring him dinner.” Hunk offered, gesturing to the bowl in front of him, moments before placing it into the sonic reheating cube-- the microwave.

Keith huffed again. “Sure, whatever.” While he was annoyed with the whole conversation, he was actually very glad Hunk gave him a reason to go see Lance. It would have been a disaster and a half if he had gone without any objective, he just knew it.

“We need to support Lance,” Shiro said, “despite whatever feud you have going on. Despite anything. We’re a team.”

Keith pushed a hand through his hair, trying to hide how much his words stung. So now they want to be supportive of Lance? Maybe he was just bitter, but the team hadn't always been so supportive of him. The microwave dinged.

“I'm only going to give him his food,” Keith pushed away from the table.

“You should talk to him,” Hunk said, “I really think you should talk to him.”

Keith squinted at Hunk. He wasn't sure if he was being cryptic or just really enthusiastic. He took the bowl of slop.

“Why can't you just tell me why he was ignoring me?” Keith finally asked. Hunk put up his hands in defence.

“I told you! Sworn to secrecy!”

Keith yelled some nonsense words, throwing up the hand that wasn't carrying the bowl of stew, “Whatever! I'm going to ask him and he better not tell me it's a secret!”

He stormed out of the kitchen. Shiro watched him go, shoving a spoonful of goo in his mouth.

“Ah, young love.” Hunk sighed, “I wonder when they'll kiss.”

Shiro nearly choked on his goop.

“Wait, what?”

***

 

Keith kicked his shoes all the way down the hall. He was still wearing his bathing suit, but at least had a t-shirt on, so he wasn't walking back to the pool hall looking like he was ready to dive in.

He was angry. But really he was only angry because he was worried. He was worried about Lance, and what was actually bothering him. He was worried he had found out Keith was gay and wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

What else could it be? Why else would Lance have reacted that way to him? He had screamed. They had literally been talking about the time Keith had rubbed his backside. Actually, recently, he and Lance had been doing a lot of ‘bonding’. Maybe it had all been too much for Lance. Maybe it had only been the fear of this change, the vulnerability that had Lance opening up to him. Maybe now all that had worn off and he realized how much he hated Keith after all.

By the time he'd reached the pool hall his feet were dragging, having lost all his previous venom. He hesitated in front of the door. Maybe he should just leave the bowl there and leave, not talk to Lance after all.

“Maybe this whole thing isn't as complicated as you think it is.”

Easy for you to say Shiro. He wasn’t the one with a crush on the boy who probably hated him. Lance is just going to say none of this mattered… again.

Keith sighed and let the door slide open. What was the use? Whatever was going to happen would happen.

His anxiety peaked when he crossed the threshold into the pool hall. But the anxiety quickly vanished. Lance was not by the poolside.

Of course he really should have expected this. It was pretty obvious hanging with half his body out of the water by the side of the pool was a chore, so of course Lance would be at the bottom. But still, not having to face the boy the second he walked in the door was a relief.

Lance's things were still scattered around the poolside, moved into two piles away from where they had pulled him out earlier. Keith kicked a box, debating whether he should leave the bowl of food and run. Eventually he set down the bowl on the box and peered over the side of the pool.

Lance was in the water. He wasn't curled up on the bottom, like Keith was half expecting. He was actually moving around through the water semi-successfully. He had something in his hands-- the little cube from before. He was throwing it through the water and then catching it again. We really need to bring him something to entertain himself with.

Keith hesitated, apprehension building in his gut once more. He shook his head. Whatever. “Hey. Lance?”

Lance heard something on the surface. He looked up, squinting at the shifting silhouette distorted though the water’s surface. Who was that? It must be Hunk with my food. He was starving. He left the fidget cube on the bottom of the pool and swam up to the surface, eager to eat.

But it wasn't Hunk. It wasn't Hunk at all. Once he broke the surface, and had pushed his hair out of his eyes, he realized it was Keith staring back at him. Shit.

“You're not Hunk.” Lance said, because it was literally the only thing his brain could manage to piece together. He was just happy he hadn't screamed again.

“Glad to see your eyes haven't failed you.” Keith replied, deadpan.

“Not yet, but who knows, maybe this is an advancing disease and in a few days I'll only be able to see underwater, too.” Lance moved towards the food which he spotted resting on one of the boxes a few feet away. He tried to reach for it but, once again, it was just a bit too far. This was so unfair. Keith watched him struggle.

Keith frowned. “Don't joke like that,” he knew it was just that, only a joke, but it still made his gut wrench.

“I'm allowed to joke about it, it's happening to me. Why did you bring me food and then put it out of reach? Why are you torturing me?” He was still trying to grab for the bowl. He was seconds away from physically beaching himself when Keith showed him mercy. He picked up the bowl and handed it to Lance, “Y’know, this brown stuff looks disgusting, and it is, but it's also making my stomach fire off enough ghrelin and peptide YY so that I don't have the urge to gnaw off my own arm in hunger.”

“Uh.” Keith squinted. Lance shoved food in his mouth and didn't bother talking for a while. For some reason Keith didn't leave.

“Why’d you bring me dinner?” Lance finally asked, “I specifically remember asking Hunk to bring me the gooey brown ambrosia.”

Keith frowned, feeling a little offended. “He said I should bring it. And to talk to you.”

Lance groaned, “Of course he did. What else did he say?” His insistence was a little rattling.

Keith's expression turned sour as his previous anger resurfaced. He crossed his arms. “Nothing.

“Good.” Lance squinted, “I swore him to secrecy.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Lance watched Keith's face. He was pissed. Lance contemplated telling him the truth. He promptly voted a hard no on that, “Listen. It's been a weird day and a half, okay?”

“You were ignoring me.”

Lance felt like he was being strangled, a bit. I wasn't ignoring you, I was avoiding you, because your face makes my heart feel weird. Right, that would go over well, “Uh. Yeah. I guess I was?”

“You didn't even-” Keith's voice hitched in his throat, “you didn't even tell me what I did wrong!”

Oh shit. This wasn't going well at all. Lance set down his bowl-- only half eaten-- and suddenly wished he hadn't abandoned his cube at the bottom of the pool. He would be clicking the hell out of the switch right now, “N-no, you didn't do anything wrong, Keith. I told Hunk to tell you that. He told you that, right?”

“What he said made no sense!” Keith threw his hands up, all his frustration pouring out of him. “It's not my fault, then it is my fault, and I'm supposed to be happy about it?”

“Uh,” Lance said, voice small, “to be fair that's pretty much the situation. Well. He added that last part himself,” Lance frowned as he thought about it more, “I don't really know what he means by that.”

Keith nearly screamed. “Then what is it!?” He didn't know why he was so desperate to know the truth. Lance was talking to him. Lance obviously wasn't so disgusted by him that he was ignoring him completely. But still it nagged at him. Why was he supposed to be happy about it?

Lance took a deep breath, bubbles rising up around where his torso disappeared under the surface, “Have you ever been so sure about something, something about yourself, and it just... suddenly changes one day and it's like everything's different? Everything that you thought you knew was wrong?”

Keith stared at Lance silently. What did this have to do with anything??? But he could see Lance's perturbed expression, the seriousness in his eyes. It wasn't an expression he saw often on Lance. It made Keith’s stomach drop. This was something important to him, something that was clearly eating at him. Keith's breathing evened out as he slowly calmed himself. He sat at the edge of the pool.

“Yeah,” Keith said simply, “I'm part alien. That was pretty life-shattering.” He meant to sound reassuring, but it came out sounding sarcastic.

“Right,” Lance wasn't looking him in the eye, rather staring down at his own hands because it was easier, “I guess you’d understand then. I'm sorry I was ignoring you before, it's just...” He was really struggling on how to say this. He was still partially certain that Keith would run away screaming if Lance told him he totally wanted to kiss him unironically, “there were things about me that I was totally sure of. And then suddenly I realized that, hey, I’m not that guy. And I was just having a really hard time thinking about it with you right there... staring at me...”

Keith squinted, “...Is this about Voltron? Do you not want to pilot Blue anymore?”

What?!”

“...Clearly I was wrong, let's move past this now.”

“Wait, no, no,” Lance took this opportunity and ran with it, “you thought I was talking about Voltron?!

“It was a logical assumption, based on what you were saying--”

“No it wasn't!” Lance cried, “Keith, I had a panic attack about not being able to pilot last night, you were there!

Keith shoved his face into his hands, “What else am I supposed to think!? You're not actually telling me anything!

Lance started laughing because Keith’s face was turning red, “I can't believe you thought I wanted to give up being a part of Voltron!” It felt good to genuinely laugh. It was like he could feel the tension dissipating like steam, “I love Blue, we're very happy together! Very, very happy!”

“Well I'm glad you're laughing. Ha ha Keith doesn't understand people, we've already established this. I guess I can leave now.” He made to stand, but Lance stopped him, putting a hand on Keith's knee.

“No, don't go, I’m sorry,” Lance was still snickering. He didn't move his hand until it was awkwardly apparent that they were making direct skin contact. He slid his hand away and banished it under the water, “I would do anything to be able to fly Blue right now.”

Keith was still staring at the spot where Lance had been touching him, “I’ll keep that in mind next time you vaguely talk to me about your problems.”

“I don't want to be vague,” Lance sighed, “I have to be vague.”

“Are you dying or something? Because despite whatever Hunk may think I would not be happy about that.”

“Why don't you just stop guessing.” Lance said. He went back to fiddling with the spoon in his bowl of stew. Holding on to utensils was hard with webbed fingers, “You're not very good at this.”

“So you're not dying then,” Keith said, “well, there's that.”

Lance sighed deeply, giving Keith a look. Half of him desperately wanted to tell Keith the truth. The other half was incredibly scared of Keith's reaction. There were just so many variables. Keith was part Galra, and already had to deal with that stigma. So maybe he would understand. The situations were pretty similar. But what if Keith misunderstood? What if he second guessed every interaction they had ever had? Keith could be suddenly grossed out by Lance's fondness of human contact and never want to bro hug with him again.

Why did he even call it a bro hug? It was really just a hug. He cringed, remembering bronding moment.

“Can you at least tell me how I caused this?” Keith asked. Lance lowered himself in the water, drumming his fingers against the tile.

“Well... uh...” God, how did he say this without totally giving it away, “It was your face?”

Keith stared at him, “What the hell?” He noticed Lance's cheeks flushing, despite the way the boy was attempting to slip away under the water, “Hey, you can't just swim away!”

Lance gave him what Keith assumed was as close to the middle finger as he could get with his webbed fingers, then disappeared under the surface.

Keith stood, shouting, “Wha- did you just flip me off? You asshole! Don't swim away from me!” But he could see Lance was doing just that, retrieving his cube from the bottom of the pool. Keith let out a strangled scream. Why wouldn't anyone tell him anything?!

He paced by the poolside for a minute, but Lance wasn't coming back up.

Keith moved his bowl of food just far enough away from the pools edge, then left the room.

 
Hunk was waiting for him outside the door.

Chapter Text

Hunk pulled back from the door as Keith barreled through.

“Were you... listening at the door?” Keith asked after he saw Hunk pull back in shock. He was still simmering with anger, and his voice came out acidic.

Hunk put on a fake smile, “What, me? No I-I definitely wasn't-- listen that's not important right now.”

Keith knit his eyebrows. “Hunk? What's going on?”

Hunk scratched nervously at the back of his neck. “I'm so sorry Keith but I uh, I kinda told Shiro. About the whole, Lance thing.” He shrunk back into himself like a turtle. The icy glare Keith was giving him was not making him feel better, “I'm so, so sorry please don't hate me.”

Keith stared silently at Hunk for so long, Hunk started to sweat. Finally Keith shut his eyes and took a long, deep breath. Hunk shrivelled.

“Keith, we're still friends and teammates so please take that in consideration when-”

“Five.”

Hunk flinched. “What?”

“I'm going to give you-”

“Keith don't do this-”

“-five seconds to run-”

“-buddy, this isn't the worst thing that could-"

“-before I kill you.”

Hunk’s eyes went wide. “You can't be-”

“Five.”

Keith!

“Four!”

Hunk started to run, “ I'm sorry!!

Keith kept his word and waited three-ish more seconds before giving chase.

“Hunk! I am not in the mood for this!” Keith screeched, sprinting after the quickly disappearing teen. “What happened to sworn to secrecy? ” Keith was much faster than Hunk, and was quickly gaining. He wasn't sure what he was going to do when he caught him, but he was waffling between strangling the boy or crying on his shoulder. He watched Hunk disappear around a corner. Keith skittered around the corner behind him. I've almost got you, Garrett--

He suddenly impacted with something, bouncing off it and landing hard on his ass. Since when was there a wall-! Upon further inspection, it was not a wall, but Shiro. He was completely unphased by Keith crashing into him seconds before. Holy crap he’s like a pillar of meat -- Keith was suddenly being pulled up by the arm.

“Why is half the team chasing each other through the halls?” Shiro asked, though he didn't sound angry or even stern. Actually, he was smiling at Keith in a way that vaguely made him feel uncomfortable.

“Shiro, I don't have time, I need to kill Hunk.”

“Woah, slow down. You know paladin rule number one is not to murder each other.” Shiro said, crossing his arms. Keith was still trying to look past him for Hunk, “besides, I think you might want to thank Hunk after what I’m about to tell you.”

Keith squinted. “Why the hell would I do that? He told you... the thing.”

Shiro laughed. It both unsettled Keith and made him even angrier.

“What, now you're laughing at me too?”

“No,” Shiro said, “I’m just...amazed at the situation. Here, walk with me.” He clamped his hand down on Keith's shoulder in a way that told Keith he wasn't getting away. Shiro half-guided-half-dragged Keith down the hallway and towards the common area. Also, possibly coincidentally, away from wherever Hunk had disappeared to.

“Hunk did tell you, right?” Keith looked up at Shiro, a small flame of hope still in his heart that maybe Shiro hadn't actually found out. It wasn't that he cared that Shiro knew he was gay. No, it was the whole ‘Lance Thing’ that he absolutely did not want anyone else to know about. Pidge already shot him waggling eyebrows every time he stood next to Lance. The last thing he needed was the rest of team Voltron being his personal romance cheerleaders.

“He told me a few things,” Shiro said as the entered the common room, “some things you might find interesting.”

“What?” now Keith was confused, “Uh. Okay, just so we’re clear, he told you... about me...”

“Yes, Keith,” Shiro eyed him with an amused smile as they sat, “I actually can't believe you never told me yourself. What were you possibly worried about?”

Keith shrugged. “I wasn’t really. It just never came up.”

Shiro hummed. “I get it. Well, that's not what I wanted to talk to you about anyways.”

“It's not?” Keith leaned back in the chair and gestured lazily with one hand, “Is it the...thing with...”

“Lance?” Shiro offered, raising his brows, “Well, yes, actually.” The little shred of hope left in Keith's heart shattered. He leaned forward and rubbed his face with his hands.

“Ugh, so Hunk did tell you about that.”

“Is that why you were trying to kill him?”

Keith glared at the floor. “Yes.”

Shiro grinned at Keith, crossing his arms behind his head, “Well, like I said, you should be thanking Hunk. And to his credit, he didn't mean to tell me. Though, he did end up going into a lot of detail,” he frowned, “actually, remind me to talk to him about not revealing secret information. He's terrible at it.” Shiro’s smile quickly returned. He vaguely looked like the Cheshire Cat.

Keith wanted to die.

“Oh god,” he groaned, “What did he tell you?”

“Well, stories of a pining romance.”

“Don't say that.”

“Young love.”

“Shiro no.”

Requited love.”

Keith stared at him, “It's un-requited. Unrequited is when it's one sided. That's the problem.”

Shiro raised a single brow, “No, I meant requited,” his grin expanded out into a smirk, “I know what the word means, Keith.”

Keith stared at him, his mouth open just a bit. His eyes slid into a squint, “What do you mean?” He was confused, “I don't get it.”

Shiro snorted, uncrossing his arms and leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. He looked Keith in the eyes, “Turns out Hunk wasn't just your confidante. He's been keeping secrets for Lance too, and he let it all spill.”

Keith felt a bit like he was dreaming. He had never seen Shiro be so giddy over something so dumb like gossip, “And you're about to tell me?”

“Well, unlike Hunk, I'm not sworn to secrecy. Besides,” he gestured broadly with one hand, “currently the team is all whispering behind each others backs, chasing each other around the halls, or straight up ignoring each other. And that's all within one day. So, I figured, maybe just communicating for once would help,” his smile quirked to the side, “I'm just facilitating that communication. Also... well, now that the Galra attacks have died down... it's pretty boring around here.”

Keith stared blankly at him, for the third time in five minutes, “The first down time you've had in years and you're gossiping about teen romance.”

Shiro snorted, sitting up, “Do you want to hear what Hunk told me or not?”

Keith quickly nodded. “Yes, very much, please tell me.”

“Alright,” Shiro said, after what seemed like forever, “Hunk told me the reason Lance was acting so weird around you is because he realized he’s attracted to you.”

It took a moment for Keith to react. This was all so absurd, he was still fairly sure he was dreaming. His head was starting to feel like a shorted out circuit, “Lance? Me? Lance doesn't... men?” He was only somewhat aware he had left out key words in that sentence. Shiro started to laugh, but Keith was too stunned to scowl.

“I didn't pry, but Hunk told me Lance had a ‘realization’, which is probably why he wouldn't look at you earlier.”

Keith didn't respond. Lance? Attracted to him?? He couldn't believe it. He didn't believe it at first, but the more he thought, when he remembered what Lance had said to him...

“Have you ever been so sure about something, something about yourself, and it just... suddenly changes one day and it's like everything's different?

“And then suddenly I realized that, hey, I’m not that guy.”

Was that really what Lance was struggling with?

Finally Keith spoke again, his voice just above a whisper. “So that's why he was ignoring me... and why he was blushing,” He looked up at Shiro, his eyes widening. “That's why it was because of my face!”

Shiro snorted, trying to hold back a laugh, “He said that?”

Keith stood up, his hands flying to his hair. “Hunk knew the whole time- that's why he was being so weird!” It felt like all the tension and frustration building inside him all day just faded away. Everything made so much sense now. Keith slapped himself in the forehead and groaned. “I asked if it was about Voltron.” He ignored Shiro’s laughter and sat down again as the sudden realization sent warmth through his chest. Lance was attracted to him. This whole time he thought he didn't have the slightest chance and was just going to suffer silently. But now... maybe...

Keith then frowned. “But... plain attraction doesn't necessarily mean he wants to be with me...” Even if Lance had admitted that he, for some reason, thought Keith was attractive, he probably didn't want to date him. There were lots of people Keith found attractive! Like Shiro! But like hell he wanted to date Dad McGee. He grimaced at the thought. Shiro was like a brother to him.

“Well, I only really know what Hunk fleetingly told me, but I think the implication was there.” Shiro leaned back and held his hands up in defense. “But don't take my word for it, I think you'd have to ask Lance yourself.”

Keith put his hands over his mouth. He could feel his cheeks flushing with heat. This could actually happen. By some generous god or stroke of luck, Lance McClain-- who Keith had had a burning crush on since they were sucked through a wormhole together-- was having the same flustered, blushy feelings for him. This sort of shit never happened to Keith!

He stood and paced in aimless circles. What was he going to do? Was this for real? He hoped it wasn't some sinister prank. He would probably die if Hunk popped out of a ceiling vent or something shouting ‘just kidding!’

Actually he probably would die after killing Hunk if that were the case.

“So are you going to tell him?” Shiro smiled, pulling Keith out of his fervent pacing and spinning thoughts.

He stopped and thought about it, but when he closed his eyes, all he could see was Lance’s frightened face. “…No. I can't.”

Shiro frowned. “Why not?”

“Because... it wouldn't be right.” Keith said with a sigh. Shiro shifted in his seat, raising a brow.

“What do you mean?”

“If this is true... and I mean if, seeing as it’s all gossip,” he started, pacing again, “then Lance not only just went through a huge physical change, but is now going through a crazy, shocking revelation that's bound to weigh on him emotionally. And he's already been a mess since the plant pricked him. No wonder he was freaking out...” Keith crossed his arms and frowned. “I also can't tell him that Hunk immediately spilled his secret. That'd make him even more depressed. And say I don't mention Hunk, and just confess to him, I don't think that'd be a good idea either. He's already struggling enough with this, I think that would just stress him out.” He looked up at Shiro, looking like a lost puppy. “I should at least wait… right?”

Shiro sat back, a weird, satisfied smile on his face, “That's a very responsible thing to do, Keith. I think it's the right thing to do, too. I'm very proud of you.”

Keith somehow managed to not roll his eyes. He kept pacing, pushing his hands through his hair. He he was filled with nervous energy and had to get it out, “I... I am going to go back to talk to him again.” He felt a little ashamed at how he had stormed off, when Lance was obviously having a hard time. He needed to be supportive, and instead he exploded with frustration.

Lance was right, he was a hot-head.

Shiro rocked forward onto his feet, then crossed the room to clap Keith on the back, “Try not to lose your cool this time. And maybe later you should apologize to Hunk.”

“Right,” Keith cringed, “I think I scared him.”

“I would say so. I've never seen him move that fast before.”

 

***

 

Keith waited a bit before going back to see Lance. He wanted to give him some time before he walked back in there. Though Keith's feelings had done a flip, Lance was probably still embarrassed and brooding on the bottom of the pool.

Keith went back to the kitchen and ate dinner. The kitchen was, thankfully, empty. He ate his usual bowl of lightly flavoured green jelly. Afterwards he rummaged around the pantry, finding a bag full of little granola squares which somewhat resembled protein bars. He remembered seeing Shiro eating these before, so he assumed they were edible. He brought them with him back to the pool hall.

“Hey, Lance? I know you probably don't want to see me--” Keith called out the moment the metal door to the hall slid open. He had expected to find Lance under the surface. He had not expected to find Lance most of the way out of the water, splayed out on the tile, red in the face and stretching an arm out towards the bowl of half eaten slop. The bowl he moved. Shit. Lance was making some horrid gasping noises as his sides contracted. His gills were fully out of the water; actually, all of him was out of the water except the very tip of his tail which dipped, twitching, just below the surface.

Lance looked up at Keith, a silent scowl on his red face. This time his face was red due to suffocation rather than embarrassment. He didn't stop glaring at Keith, even as he finally grabbed the bowl and shoved it closer to the edge. He pushed himself backwards off the tile and slipped back under the water.

Keith grimaced. He wondered just how long Lance had been trying to reach it. “Shit, I forgot I did that. I'm so sorry Lance.”

Lance popped just his head out of the water, not even bothering to push the wet hair out of his eyes. He was still giving Keith the death stare, “Really? You really forgot? Or did you come back just to watch?”

Keith frowned. He walked to the edge of the pool and sat, cross legged, setting down the bag of protein bars next to him. “No, I came back to apologize.” He pushed the bag in front of him, a weak attempt at a peace offering. “I overreacted-”

“Ya think?” Lance’s eyebrows disappeared under his wet bangs, his voice gravelly.

Keith huffed. “Yes. I do think. Which is why I said it.” His face softened. “I'm sorry... really.”

Lance studied him silently for a moment, “Did Shiro tell you to do this? Or maybe Hunk?”

“What?” Keith reeled back, offended. “Of course not! Why would-” he sputtered indignantly.

“The Keith I know would never apologize.”

“Well, Galra Keith does apologize.” He crossed his arms and frowned. Lance started to laugh, slow and bubbling up from in his chest.

“Did you just say Galra Keith? I thought you hated that!” He flipped onto his back and floated away, his arms wrapped tightly around his stomach as he cackled.

Keith sighed and dragged his hand down his face. “I do. I don't know why I- I'm mad at myself for saying that.”

Lance sank down into the pool. His laughter bubbled up through the water, along with literal bubbles. Keith couldn't help but smile. At least he's happy. He hoped this meant he wasn't angry anymore.

“I brought you these protein bars,” Keith finally said, one hand patting the bag. He scooted forward and dipped his still bare feet in the water. Lance surfaced to his right, hanging onto the pool and still snickering as he pushed his hair out of his eyes.

“What? We have protein bars?” He eyed the bag skeptically. Keith shrugged and made a noncommittal noise.

“I've seen Shiro eat them a few times. I thought maybe, with the, uh, caloric deficiency thing--”

“Hey you remembered the words! Proud of you.” Lance pat his knee. Keith moved his knee away defiantly.

“I remembered from the start you jerk! If you don't want them I'll just bring them back to the kitchen--”

“No, no, no, I want them,” he moved through the water to Keith's other side, inspecting the bag. The bars were dark brown and grainy, and not individually wrapped which made him assume they'd be stale, “I'm still so hungry. I thought I'd be over the deficit by now.”

“Maybe just existing takes more calories now.” Keith suggested, “I mean you have more muscles, and you're always doing the... gill breathing thing.”

“Yes, Keith, it’s called breathing.” Lance said, quickly patting Keith's thigh. Keith tried to move that leg too, but it was ineffective. Lance wouldn't stop giving him a shit eating grin. Keith took it as a sign that he wasn't angry anymore.

“I don't know anything about fish. It could have been called something else.” Keith said, trying to sound angry but he was smiling. Lance smiled back at him, and suddenly Keith felt a lot better.

“Nah, I mean it's not usually described as ‘breathing’ but I guess in general both processes end up doing the same thing; adding oxygen to the blood stream.” Lance leaned his head on his arms, which were still clinging to the tiled edge of the pool, “It doesn't feel the same though. Is that weird? That I can feel the difference?”

Keith shook his head, “Not at all. I'd be surprised if you couldn't.”

“This whole thing is weird,” Lance said, “It's something I literally thought was impossible.,” he snorted, stumbling upon a realization, “I guess maybe I shouldn't give up on reversing this, since apparently the impossible isn't so impossible anymore.”

Keith grinned, “Well, once you add aliens, is anything impossible? I'm literally an interspecies hybrid, that's some pretty freaky shit.” He looked down at his hand. “How I look entirely human is still a mystery.”

“I don't know, maybe there's Galra things you never noticed,” Lance said, “like your eyes. They're purple right? Is your penis barbed? I feel like Galra have barbed penises. They're sort of cat like, or bat like. Actually some of them look reptilian too. The species’ array is pretty fascinating.”

“My penis isn't barbed.” Keith said flatly. Lance waggled an eyebrow.

“Are you sure? I could inspect it if you want.” Despite his cool demeanour, Lance's cheeks were tinged red. Keith could feel his pulse in his throat. Some distant part of his brain told him to roll with Lance's teasing. Now that he knew Lance's secret, he was seeing the situation differently. This was the perfect opportunity for a little test. I wonder how far he’ll go. The fake-flirting had always been a little torturous for Keith. Now he could give Lance a bit of payback.

Before he could think about what he was doing, he was smirking back at Lance, casual and joking. “Sure, why not?”

He just hoped his own cheeks didn't betray him as Lance's did.

Lance's eyes grew wide, but he kept a surprising amount of cool, “What, you're offering?”

This was a dangerous game of chicken which could end up with Keith pantless.

“Well, you're naked, it would only be fair?” Keith's sentence curved up into a question as he lost his nerve. Lance was staring him down with an amused smile that made Keith feel a bit like prey. If Keith was making him uncomfortable in any way the boy wasn't showing it. He was the fake flirting master.

“I guess so,” Lance snorted, “y’know I asked you and Shiro for a shirt last night and you still haven't pulled through. I guess you just like seeing me naked?” He ran one hand down his bare chest. It was too much for Keith.

He hunched over and buried his face in his hands. “I can't believe you.”

Lance smirked, “What, can't handle the heat, Kogane?” He pushed back from the wall, bobbing playfully in the water, “I thought fire was your element.”

Keith shoved Lance’s head under the water. This proved ineffective. Lance only continued to laugh at him under the water. Keith laughed with him.

Lance eventually swam away from Keith's not-so-iron grip. He surfaced a few feet away, “Hey, what time is it?”

“It's like seven.” Keith said, then added, “Why?”

“Well after I devour at least three of these protein bars, maybe we can keep trying to fix your backstroke.”

Chapter Text

It was past midnight. Actually, it was probably closer to two in the morning, but time was hard to gauge in a windowless room without any clocks. Lance was unfortunately awake. He couldn't sleep. The pool wasn't exactly an inviting place for rest; it was empty and white like the inside of a solitary confinement cell.

Lance was trying to keep it in his mind that this was a temporary place for him. He wasn't going to be in the pool forever. But still he wished there was some furniture or something. It was just so empty. There wasn't even a pillow or a blanket to lay under. A wet blanket isn't very conductive to heat, it sort of defeats the point of having one in the first place, he thought to himself, lying curled up on the bottom of the pool. He didn't need the heat from a blanket. He just wanted the weight of it against him, the secure, safe feeling it brought. And maybe it would make this place feel less like a prison.

Keith had left a few hours ago. The two had hung out for a bit longer, swimming and talking. Then Keith had dried off and left to go to bed. He was probably asleep now. The second he left, Lance had felt incredibly alone.

Lance grumbled, giving up on pretending to sleep and rolling into a sitting position. The bottom of the pool was stuccoed tile, for grip against wet feet. Lance’s thick scales prevented the coarse flooring to rear against his skin. Actually, for most of his body he didn't even feel the prickly texture. He did have sensitive areas, though, like his shoulders, between his gills, and his face. Also, along the base of the fin which spanned the length of his back, from the nape of his neck to just below the curve of his butt. Or, where his butt used to be.

As he had recently found out, the scales along there were super sensitive. That was the reason he had snapped at Keith earlier that day; not because he thought it was weird, by because it felt... good. Like, too good. Honestly, he might have popped a boner if Keith had continued, and if he still had a penis. He wasn't sure if he did anymore.

There I go, thinking about Keith and boners in the same line of thought. Lance pushed away from the floor of the pool and let himself float away. As a kid he had spent a decent amount of time in the water. He was on the diving team at his high school and actually competed in some high level competitions. He was used to the low-gravity feeling of being submerged in water. But it was completely different when he never needed to surface. On top of that, it was as if his density had changed. He could float fairly easily without even moving his tail. He idly wondered if he had a swim bladder and didn't even know it.

He was getting better at swimming, though. He started to move his tail in a way that felt natural, and it propelled him through the water easily. He was getting better at maneuvering through the water as well; turning, and diving. It was like a puzzle was starting to fit into place. He could feel every muscle in his tail and move it. It was starting to feel like a part of him.

Earlier, when Keith was attempting a sad excuse for a backstroke, Lance had swum literal laps around him. It felt wrong to admit it, but swimming was fun. As much as he hated being trapped in the pool, he wasn't getting bored of doing flips and dives, or speedy laps around the edges. He was still getting a thrill from moving so fast through the water, being literally submerged in his element. It was like the water was a part of him, like he was meant to be there, like this form was built exactly to cut through the water gracefully (though he was still working on the grace).

This feeling terrified him. He didn't want to accept this. He didn't want to be stuck like this.

It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't feel so alone.

His thoughts turned back to Keith. He wondered what Keith was doing right now. Probably sleeping.

He couldn't even place how he felt about Keith anymore. It was like his relationship with the guy had changed fifteen times in one day. Up until that morning, Keith had been his rival, then his friend, and then his close friend. Keith always had his back in battle. Keith carried him to safety when he was injured in a fight. They had had so many bonding moments. Keith was the one who saved his life, carrying him to the pool when he was suffocating. Keith was the one who stayed with him through the night, who had calmed him down from a major panic attack. And there had been a million other things, small things, that had been so important to Lance. Like when he could get Keith to laugh. Or when they bickered and Keith got a little angry or flustered but never backed down and still called Lance a friend. Or when he brought him dinner, more than once, because Lance was stuck in a pool and couldn't get dinner for himself. Or when he was teaching Keith to swim and Keith wrapped his arms around Lance's head and Lance could feel the heat of his body.

But then Lance had realized that some of these things were important to him not just because of friendship. He had gotten confused, because it felt like someone had pulled a rug out from under him. Then he got avoidant, which made things worse, because then Keith had gotten angry at him.

Lance had realized then that he didn't want to lose what he had with Keith already. Honestly, nothing had to change. There were still so many important moments he could have with Keith, even if their relationship was purely platonic. He wouldn't give that up for the world. Even if it stung knowing they could never be together in this way he yearned for, and, he realized, had been yearning for this whole time. He just had never realized it. It was like another puzzle that was falling into place.

He floated around for a while longer, and eventually tried to fall asleep again. But it was no use. He just couldn't sleep in this empty white square.

He swam back up to the surface, searching for his fidget cube. He found it by the now empty bag of protein bars. The buttons weren't clicking the way they should ever since he brought it underwater. Just another thing that he loved that totally didn't work when drowned.

He noticed his paladin helmet out of the corner of his eye, a bit far from the rest of his stuff and rolled on its side like it was abandoned. He swam over to I the nearest edge, and pushed himself slightly out of the water to grab it. The helmet rolled to the tiled edge. He ran his hand idly over the curve of its top. I wonder if Keith's awake.

He slipped his hand into the helmet and found the manual comm panel. There were four buttons, each a different colour, corresponding to each of the other Paladins. It was for direct communication between two of them. He pressed the red one. The comm link crackled to life. He slid the helmet onto his head and whispered into the mic, “Hey Keith, you awake?”

There was a moment of silence before his helmet crackled once more. Keith’s tired voice sounded, “I am now. I thought there was a demon in my room for a sec, so thanks for that.”

Lance snorted, “C’mon Keith, you know demons aren't real. It would have been some freaky alien in your room more likely. Asking if you were awake, for some reason.”

“Either way, my heart still hasn’t calmed down.”

Lance smirked to the empty room, “So I make your heart race, babe?” He tried to ignore the way his stomach did a flip when he said it. He realized that the vibrating heat that expanded out from his chest was familiar. I really have always felt like this, haven't I?

The sound of breathing came through the link. It might have been a laugh, might have been a snort, it was hard to tell. “Yes.”

Lance's heart skipped a beat and started racing. Ironic. He pushed on, trying to sound cool, “So, uh, how attached to your bed are you right now?”

“Not at all. I’m on the floor.”

“What? Why?” Lance mulled over the possibility that Keith slept on the floor regularly.

“Because your damn message scared the shit out of me, I fell out.”

Oh,” Lance started to laugh, “You fell out of bed? That hasn't happened to me since I was, like, seven!”

Keith scoffed. “Hey shut up, I thought someone was attacking me!”

“Heh, did you swing around your knife? Or, sorry, blade.”

More silence. “Maybe.”

Lance cackled, “Remind me never to wake you up, I might get shanked.” He snorted, listening to Keith's quiet laughter through the helmet, “Okay, well, since you're out of bed anyways, want to come bring me some blankets?”

“Why do you need blankets?

“Because I'm a human who enjoys comfort. Seriously, I'm just curled up on the rough ass floor alone, and you're wondering why I want a blanket. I, unlike you, don't like to sleep on the floor.”  

Keith laughed. “Shut up, it’s your fault I’m on the floor.” There was shuffling from his end. “Do you want yours or one of the extras?”

“Doesn't matter, just, like, all of them.” Lance said, “I'm going to make a little nest in the corner.”

“Okay.” Lance could hear the shuffling as Keith moved around. He hadn’t turned off the link. Lance listened to him moving around. It was oddly comforting. Eventually Keith spoke up again, “Alright, I'm coming down.”

“Thanks,” Lance said, smiling. The comm link went quiet. Lance pulled off his helmet and set it down on the edge of the pool. He sighed. Keith was too nice to him. And he just let Lance push him, with all the fake flirting.

Well, technically it was real flirting, wasn't it? Just real flirting against a straight, brick wall.

Keith showed up a few minutes later, carrying a huge bundle of blankets. He was wearing his paladin armour.

“You're the best,” Lance called, watching him cross the distance between the door and the pools edge, “Why’re you all dressed up? Wanted to pretend this was a mission or something?”

“I thought I’d help you set it up,” Keith said, surprisingly quiet. He really did look like he had just rolled out of bed, “And I can't breathe underwater, so I thought this would be easier.”

“You really are the best.” Lance swam away from the edge a bit as Keith dumped the whole pile of blankets unceremoniously into the water. He smirked slightly.

“So you're finally admitting it.” Keith said. Lance tried to keep his cool, but the look Keith was giving him made his heart spasm. God, he's so cute.

Lance didn't have any quick witted replies lined up, so he turned mechanically away from Keith and started dragging the floating blankets under the water. They eventually sank as they got waterlogged. Lance dove under the water and pulled them down to the bottom, finding a corner to arrange them in. He heard Keith jump in the pool after him, and the two quickly got all the blankets to somewhat lay on the ground. One of the blankets wanted to float despite being absolutely soaked. Lance shoved it underneath one of the heavier ones. There were a total of five blankets that Keith had brought. He used two as a bed, one as a pillow, and the other two he used as actual blankets. They weren't exactly warm, but the weight of them against him as comforting. Lance immediately pulled them over himself, bundling himself up like E.T.

“Much better,” he sighed, his eyes closed. Though, admittedly, it felt a little stuffy under the blankets; maybe because his gills were essentially blocked.it was worth it though. He peeked open one eye, searching for Keith. He was sitting cross legged across from him. Lance immediately felt his face grow hot, because Keith was watching him and smiling, “What?”

“Nothing,” Keith looked away, but his smile didn't disappear, “Hey, I brought you your bathrobe,” He pointed back up to the surface, where a light blue clump of fabric floated. Lance hadn't even noticed it before, “Because you said you wanted a shirt. I thought maybe the bathrobe would be gentler on your fins.”

“Awhhh!” Lance cooed, trying to sound playful but truthfully he was a little overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness, “You’re so sweet.”

Keith smiled and shifted so he was leaning forward slightly, his elbows resting on his knees, “I know.” He was giving Lance a seriously smouldering look. Lance was having a hard time looking away.

“Oh my god,” Lance said, slowly, a moment of heavy silence later, “You keep doing this.”

Keith squinted, “Doing what?”

An impish smile cracked across Lance’s face. Keith could tell some smug shit was coming, “You keep flirting back with me. Fake flirting. Y’know the thing I do where I pretend to flirt with you because you get all awkward and flustered and it’s funny? The totally fake, platonic flirting?” His smug expression was waning, “Anyways, you keep doing it back to me.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “I have no idea what you mean,” he looked away, his nose upturned, but the grin was still plastered to his face. Lance sputtered.

“You know what you're doing!” He could see Keith's grin under the glass of his helmet. Why would he be doing it on purpose? He couldn't think of a good reason why Keith would start dealing back the shit Lance kept slinging at him, except to purely mess with him, “You're enjoying it, aren't you?”

Keith smirked. “Aren’t you?

Lance's brain shorted out for a minute, and every witty answer he ever had, even in his emergency backup stash, disappeared in a poof of smoke. He couldn't think of anything to say, and had already stared at Keith for a few seconds too long. His mouth betrayed him, “Yes.”

Keith’s eyes widened for just a second before he smiled again, soft and barely there. He looked down, bringing his knuckled to his mouth had his helmet not been in the way. “Cute,” he muttered before jetting up to the surface to grab Lance’s robe.

Lance watched all this, his mouth slightly agape. What the fuck was that. He flopped down onto his stomach and all but hid among the blankets. He's fucking with me! Now that he acknowledged the way Keith made him feel, it was a thousand times more torturous. He was definitely losing his cool. He would have to talk to Hunk about this. How do you survive a crush on someone who doesn't like you back? It was like every interaction was making his heart hurt. C’mon Lance, you've been dejected by hundreds of women. Why are you losing your cool over one guy?

Well, because it wasn't just some guy. It was Keith. And because Keith kept doing stuff like this. It was worse than a rejection. Keith didn't even know he was rejecting Lance, and he kept flirting with him.

“Here.” Keith had come back and Lance hadn't even noticed. He threw his bathrobe at him. It floated lazily through the water before landing on Lance's back. “You need anything else? If not, I’m gonna go.”

“Wait, no,” Lance pushed himself up, the bathrobe floating off him and onto the floor, “You're going?”

“Well, yeah. It’s two in the morning I was gonna go back to bed.”

“Oh.” Right, of course he was going back to bed. Why would he stay? Lance looked away. “Yeah. Duh. Sorry.”

“Do you want me to stay?” Keith asked, “I can stay the night again. If you want.” Lance didn't notice how eager he sounded, he was too relieved.

“That'd be great,” Lance breathed, lowering himself back down onto his tummy, “It gets pretty lonely down here. And, y'know, if you haven't noticed, I don't really love being alone.” He was literally never alone, before. He had a house full of people back home, then the garrison where they bunked together in groups of four. The castle was the first time he had ever even had his own room. It was weird, and he had dealt with it--maybe even enjoyed the personal space a bit--but he wasn't feeling so bold now. He just wanted someone nearby. Maybe specifically Keith. Either way, he was relieved Keith had offered.

“Uh,” Keith was looking pointedly at the bed of blankets Lance was now laying directly in the center of, “Are you going to move over, or do you want me to sleep on top of you?”

Yes. Lance's thoughts betrayed him. He pushed that arrant thought aside, “Oh, now you're all concerned about sleeping on the floor. You were all fine letting me sleep on the prickly ground!” He scooted over, allowing Keith to roll onto the bed next to him. They were side by side now, staring at each other as they laid on their sides. Lance gave Keith his bathrobe for a pillow and wrapped the blankets around himself.

“Fish don't need beds.” Keith said. Lance scoffed.

“I'm not a fish, I'm a human, Keith!”

“I know that,” Keith snapped, “I mean none of us thought of it because, well, fish don't sleep with blankets!”

“Maybe they'd like them. We never asked the fish.” Lance said. His eyes were already feeling heavy. The two had settled into a comfortable closeness. Lance could hear the whirring of Keith's suit, the subtle crackle of the helmet’s stereo picking up his breathing. Lance watched his face with a lazy smile.

“I mean I guess that's true.” Keith said. He was watching Lance with the same soft smile. They regarded each other for a minute that seemed to stretch out forever. There was a distant clawing anxiety in the pit of Lance's stomach, every anxiety he'd had about Keith bubbling deep inside him. But he pushed that all away for a moment, because laying there, lost in Keith's purple eyes, felt perfect.

What a day.

“Hey, Keith.” Lance said, a few minutes later. Keith had actually closed his eyes and had started to fall asleep. He blinked them open with an inquisitive hum.

“What?”

“Did you ever tell me why you were touching my butt earlier?” If Keith had ever answered, Lance hadn't heard it over his internal screaming. Keith groaned.

“You're still caught up on that?”

“No, I just... wanted to know.” Lance said lamely, because he was still a little caught up about it. But probably not for the reasons Keith was assuming.

Keith frowned and looked down at the space between them. “Your scales are smooth.”

“What?” Lance's eyes flicked down to his scale covered hands, “They are?” In all honesty, he had barely even touched his tail, and the scales on his hands made it hard for him to feel much of anything.

Keith nodded. “Yeah I... I like soft things.” He clenched and unclenched his fingers as if he was holding something.

“You do?” Lance had never pegged Keith as a soft sort of guy. He seemed more like the type who liked sharp and pointy knives.

“Yeah, it just... feels nice. Feels right.”

“Hmm,” Lance thought about it for a minute, “Is it just my tail? Are my hands soft too? I wonder if it’s thicker, like how the palms of our hands are thicker because they come into contact with stuff. Hm,” he acted mostly on the impulse to prove his theory. He grabbed Keith’s hand and pulled off the glove, and touched their palms together, “Is it soft?”

Keith pursed his lips and stared down at their hands. His palms had always been more sensitive than they should be- it was why he always wore gloves- so the direct contact felt strange at first. He could feel his heartbeat quicken, his cheeks flushing. They were almost holding hands and the dull warmth coming from Lance’s palm made his chest tighten.

Slowly, Keith shifted his hand down to drag his fingers over Lance’s skin. It certainly was soft, the boy moisturized regularly after all, and his scales were just as smooth as the ones on his tail. Keith nodded. “Yeah, it is. I like your tail better though.”

“Interesting,” Lance said, apparently oblivious to the fact that the two were pretty much holding hands now, “What’s the webbing feel like?”

Keith lightly stroked the webbing once Lance spread his fingers. He smiled. “It feels kind of like silk.”

Lance suddenly tensed at the contact and made a strange, strangled noise. The fin on his back stood up on end and his tail twitched in a rolling shudder. But he didn't pull his hand away, because it didn't hurt. Actually, much like when Keith stroked the base of his fin, it felt really, really good. The noise was embarrassing, though. He clamped his free hand over his mouth.

Keith froze and glanced up at Lance. I was hard to see his expression in the low light but that noise. “D-does, did that hurt?” His voice came out a squeak. He definitely hoped it was a cry of pain, because it had sounded downright erotic and he wasn't sure how to react to that.

“N-no, didn't hurt,” Lance said, his voice wavering and tiny. He relaxed a little, his hand still in Keith's, “just... sensitive.” Even in the darkness of the pool, Keith could tell Lance's face was red. Probably redder than he'd ever seen it.

“Oh...” Keith felt his own face grow hot. He couldn't help it. Not when he was laying next to Lance, holding hands, and Lance was making those noises.

He wondered if he should just tell Lance the truth. Just to take Shiro’s advice and tell Lance that he was in love with him. Lance had to know, right?

He had to have noticed how Keith hadn't pulled away his hand, or how the redness of his face rivaled Lance's. He had to have realized that Keith was no longer hiding the fact that he was enjoying this. He was even flirting back with him. Maybe Lance had finally realized.

But maybe that was giving Lance too much credit. If there was one thing about Lance, it was that he wasn't great at realizing things that were pretty obvious to everyone else. That's why we're laying here nearly cuddling and holding hands and he still probably thinks I'm straight.

“That's why I snapped at you earlier,” Lance said, pulling Keith out of his thoughts, “Y’know, when you started touching my tail today?”

The butt touching incident. Keith was well aware, “I remember. What do you mean ‘that's why’?”

“I snapped at you because where you touched me was really sensitive too.” Lance said, followed by a belated awkward laugh, “I just wasn't expecting it.”

“Oh,” Keith said, his eyes wide, “that's... oh,” he had made Lance feel like that, in front of everyone, just out of the blue and not even on purpose, “I thought...”

“What?” Lance was smirking.

“I thought you were really freaked out that I touched your butt,” Keith said. He ignored how Lance started to giggle, “I didn't even go near your butt, did I?”

“No. And to be fair, I wasn't lying when I said I technically don't have a butt anymore.” Lance was still giggling. He raised a playful brow, “You thought I'd be that freaked out about you touching my butt for no reason?”

“You were freaking out about me touching your butt for no reason!” Keith cried, “That's literally been most of the day today! What was I supposed to think? I thought you were really upset!” He huffed and rolled his eyes, “When you asked me about it last time, you started screaming.”

“Right,” Lance's face paled. Keith watched him mentally scramble for a few seconds, “It doesn't matter. I don't care if you touch my butt. Er. I mean. I wouldn't scream if you touched my butt. Just. Sorry about the screaming.”

Keith just shook his head, smiling, “I’ll avoid touching your butt from now on.”

“If you can try,” Lance said, rolling onto his stomach and readjusting the blankets over him. He finally let go of Keith's hand. Keith wasn't sure what to do with his hand anymore so he lay it lazily in the space between them, “I know my ass is irresistible. You'll be begging me to let you rub my lovely scales again.”

Ah, yes, the classic McClain cheekiness. Keith raised his brows, but didn't bite Lance's bait. This would lead down another path that would get them both awkwardly flustered again. He decided to change the subject.

“I've been thinking about what you said earlier.” He started. Lance was quick to reply, looking a little relieved himself for the change in subject.

“I've said many things today,” Lance said, “What thing that I said inspired you so much that you're still thinking about it?”

“When you said you'd give anything to be able to fly Blue right now.” Keith shifted, crossing his arms in front of him and resting his chin against them. He tilted his head to the side, looking to Lance.

“Yeah, I would.” Lance sighed, not looking back at Keith now but staring off somewhere distant, “I just know she's worried about me. I can feel it. I think she knows something's wrong. I should have gone today, with the vest, but god is it uncomfortable,” he idly drummed his fingers against the blankets, “And above all, I miss flying. I don't even know if I could, now, when there's more than one foot pedal...”

“That's what I was thinking about,” Keith said, “Tomorrow we could go flying. You and me, in Red. I mean, I know it's not Blue, but...”

“You'd do that for me?” Lance asked. His voice was quiet, hopeful, “Really?”

“Uh, yeah, of course,” Keith wasn't sure why he looked so shocked, “Actually, I was thinking we could go back to the water planet. Have Allura open a wormhole and we could go talk to Queen Luxia ourselves.”

Lance's expression turned from shocked to an eager grin, “We could ask more questions about the plant, like why they even have it. We could probably even get samples! Even if the meraliens don't have a cure, maybe we could make our own!”

Keith grinned back at him. There was something in Lance's eyes; not just happiness, but a growing hope that had been slowly fading. Lance noticed Keith was staring, and grinned back at him.

“Tomorrow. After we look over the x-rays,” Lance said, “We can have Pidge and Hunk bring them here, along with the wheelchair. Then we can go down to the bay, and get out of here.”

“Wheelchair?” Keith asked, brows knitting together ever so slightly. Lance blinked.

“Oh yeah, you didn't see, because you left.” His tone was more than a little accusatory.

“I left because you were ignoring me.”

“Right, I did do that. Sorry about that again. It was just. Uh,” he trailed off, almost admitting something he didn't want to, “Anyways, Coran found these old space wheelchairs. Floating chairs. They don't have any wheels. That way you won't have to carry me to the lions.”

“Shame.” Keith said, before he could catch himself. To his relief, Lance just let out a quiet laugh.

“I'm sorry the butt touching has come to an end,” he said, “Well, actually...” he paused for a moment, then shifted onto his side. Suddenly he moved a lot closer to Keith, nearly closing the distance between them. Keith just barely managed to contain the strangled sound of shock, as a weight hefted down across his hip and down his leg. He looked down and realized what it was; Lance had curled his tail around Keith's leg. Lance was giving him a strange look; half pleased with himself and full of daring, the other half expectant, and a little embarrassed, “There, for easy access.”

Keith slowly reached out, placing his bare hand on Lance’s tail, somewhere around where his thigh would have been, and far enough away from his back fin that it wouldn't cause that reaction. Smooth, soft, rhythmically interlocking scales dragged under his fingers. Each scale was smooth, like hammered metal, with shallow ridges on the tip of each, creating tiny hills and valleys which felt so satisfying on Keith's fingertips. The dark blue scales were thicker, he realized as he ran his hand along Lance's tail, completely forgetting where he was, what he had been doing. He was sucked into the task, it was all he could focus on, transfixed by the feeling shooting through his fingertips. The white scales on his front were much thinner, and in turn he could feel the heat of Lance's body through them. Every so often there would be a dark red or black scale which too felt different. Keith was obsessed wit’s learning each one.

Keith was prone to hyperfocus. It didn't happen with everything, and it didn't happen too often, but there were times where he would be engrossed by something for minutes, or hours. It happened a lot when he was training. He would practice for hours and not even notice how exhausted he was. It happened when he first started searching the blue lion. Sometimes it happened more randomly, like seeing an interesting painting, or a cool object. He’d run his fingers across the hilt of his blade a thousand times.

He hadn't even noticed he had been entranced by Lance's tail in the same way until a quiet snore pulled him away. He looked away from the shimmery blue scales to see that Lance had fallen asleep.

Awh. Keith smiled fondly. Lance had a baby face when he slept. It was adorable.

He reached up and gently stroked Lance’s cheek. “Goodnight.”

 

***

 

“I think we should all give up walking and just use these things.” Hunk said, sitting cross legged on the seat of a space wheelchair- which without wheels was entirely more like a scooter.

“Yeah, imagine the scooter races we could have on these babies.” Pidge nodded. She was sitting on the other of the only two that were charged. There were eight in total; enough, she figured, for an epic trans-hallway relay race.

She and Hunk were in the med bay. She had just picked up the printed out X-ray from the day before. She hadn't even had a look at it yet; instead, it was safely deposited in a manila envelope and put next to the Respiration Vest V2 in the bucket of things they were bringing to the pool hall. After getting the X-ray, she and Hunk had pushed and pulled the two charged scooters out of the closet they had been crammed in for the past ten thousand years. After a bit of dusting and fiddling, she had figured out how to turn them on. Now she and Hunk both sat in one, parallel to each other in the med bay hallway. Was it a hallway, or a racetrack?

“I bet this thing has a decent top speed,” Hunk grinned. He was clicking through the command panel, fiddling with different settings. The chair revved promisingly, “Awh yeah, baby. Time to fly.” He grabbed the handles and pressed down on the accelerator switched. The chair revved again, then went.

Well, it certainly went somewhere, or rather barely anywhere. The space scooter moved forward at a steady, slow speed. It was barely faster than walking. It made an adorable little put put put noise as it snapped along down the hall.

“What? Awh, cmon!” Hunk cried, throwing up an arm. Pidge was cackling.

“It's so slow!” She revved hers and started puttering down the hall after Hunk. Behind her chair trailed the bucket with the vest and the X-rays, which they had fastened to the back of the chair with some rope. It dragged behind her chair along the floor. A tech wizard and an engineer, and a bucket tied with a rope is what we came up with. She laughed, following Hunk as he-- slowly-- turned the corner and headed for the med bay doors. Soon enough they were out of the bay and headed down to the pool hall.

The plan was to meet Lance to look over the X-rays and try out the newest edition of the respiration vest. Pidge and Hunk had worked late into the night again, trying to fix the vest so that Lance could wear it for more than two hours. They had all but ripped the first version apart, taking the tech out to use in version two. The tech had been good; it had been functional. Lance's biggest complaint had been about the uncomfortably stiff fabric and the heaviness of the filter and water tank.

The tank was remade out of a slightly lighter material; fiberglass rather than metal. The water that filled it would still be heavy, but that was unavoidable. The filter was changed slightly to run a little more efficiently; actually, that's what Pidge had spent most of the night working on.

Hunk, meanwhile, had scavenged through the castle to find a better fabric. He cannibalized an old spacesuit, which was made out of a fabric similar to a wetsuit, and had resewn the vest out of it. He wasn't a great seamster, but he felt it was acceptable, and more importantly it was waterproof, and a lot more comfortable.

It was still morning, but it was nearing afternoon. Hunk hadn't seen Keith all day. Actually, he hadn't seen Keith since he tried to kill him the night before. He was probably still brooding in his room. As far as Hunk knew, Keith was always brooding alone in his room when they weren’t physically in the same room as each other. Brooding, or training.

He wondered if Keith was still angry. Hunk hadn't meant to spill the beans to Shiro. It had been a complete accident, and once Hunk had accidentally insinuated that Keith and Lance had a thing for each other, he sorta... accidentally... kept elaborating. Then Shiro had gotten a weird smile, and had left for the pool hall. Really, Hunk was just doing Keith a favour by giving him the heads up before Shiro cause too much damage! He couldn't believe Keith had actually tried to chase him down.

Actually, he could totally believe it. This was the same guy who entered some Galra trial because he liked to get his ass kicked, apparently.

“So who do you think is going to go for the kiss first, Lance of Keith?” Pidge said, a mischievous smile on her face.

Of course, after Hunk had told Shiro, and had told Keith that he had told Shiro, Hunk immediately told Pidge the whole thing. The way he saw it, it was almost unfair not to tell her. They were a team, after all.

“Lance,” Hunk said, “definitely. Keith's been holding it in this long.”

“Yeah, but he always acts first then thinks later.” Pidge said.

“So does Lance, even though he doesn't admit it. Especially when it's for a cute girl. Or guy, I guess.” They rounded another corner, turning down the hall for the pool, “Remember the whole Nyma and Rolo situation. And Keith is, like, a thousand times cuter than Nyma.”

“I mean, I guess so.” Pidge said. She didn't find anyone that cute. She'd rather have a thousand puff aliens than a significant other.

Pidge hopped off her scooter and triggered the door sensor. The door slid open, and a second later the two were puttering in across the pool tile. The stuff around the edge of the pool was getting increasingly more cluttered. There was now an empty plastic bag, several bowls, and a lot of dirty spoons scattered among other things, mostly things from Lance's room. Pidge parked her scooter just inside the door and hopped off, with Hunk following suit behind her.

“Lance? Hey, Lance!” She called out, but was unsurprised when Lance didn't pop up on the surface. She still wasn't certain how good his underwater hearing even was. He probably couldn't hear her. She went to edge, peering down over the tile to look for Lance in the water. “...Oh my god.”

Lance was indeed in the water, sleeping by the looks of it. But he wasn't alone. Next to him, wrapped up in Lance's tail, was... Keith, wearing his paladin armour. The two curled up against each other, a mess of limbs and blankets and one long tail curled up around Keith's leg.

Pidge gasped, a sly grin spreading across her face while Hunk came over to see what she was so excited about.

“Oh my god,” Hunk echoed. He broke out into a grin of his own, “I wonder which one kissed the other first.”

“Keith, I know it.” Pidge said. Hunk snorted.

“How much you wanna bet?”

“Loser has to listen to one of Coran's stories, take notes, and write a five page essay on the topic, then present and orate the essay to the other.” Pidge said. Hunk groaned loudly.

“You're a monster, Pidge.”

Pidge smirked, and was about to retort when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked back towards the pool, “Wait, I think they're waking up.”

At the bottom of the pool, Lance was just coming to. He felt great, though a little stiff from sleeping on the goddamn floor. When he opened his eyes, Keith's face was the first thing he saw.

I could get used to this. Memories from the night before came flooding back. He had asked Keith to stay to keep him company. They had been talking, and on a whim Lance purposefully curled his tail around Keith's leg. Keith for some reason didn't freak out, but rather started petting said tail so intensely he was still doing it when Lance drifted off to sleep. Keith's hand was still resting gently on Lance's hip, still bare. Lance could feel the heat radiating from the point where their skin touched. It felt electric. He didn't know why Keith hadn't put a stop to this, why he hadn't told Lance to stop when he had moved closer, or why he hadn't left when Lance had wrapped his tail around him. Keith had stayed, he had stayed the night, next to him. Lance had no idea why.

Maybe he felt guilty. Maybe he felt sorry for Lance, because of the transformation. Maybe he was just letting Lance push closer to him out of pity.

Lance pushed the thought out of his mind. He didn't care, he just wanted to enjoy the moment, because it was truly a moment to be enjoyed. Keith was still asleep. He looked so peaceful, so much younger than he did when he was awake. It made Lance's heart ache a little.

He unfurled his tail and pushed himself up a bit until he was propped up on his elbows. Keith stirred, his eyes flying open. They settled on Lance and softened. The wordless expression made Lance's heart skip a beat.

“Mornin’.” Lance said, pulling himself into a fully upright position. Keith smiled and stretched, letting out a tiny yawn.

“Good morning.”

The pair gazed silently at each other for a minute longer, until Lance heard something. He looked up towards the surface.

“...Shit.”

“What?” Keith followed his gaze, and saw the warping image of Pidge and Hunk peering down at them through the water, “Oh.” He could almost see their smirks already.

Lance threw off the blankets and pushed himself up and away, swimming a few feet away before heading for the surface. Keith watched him for a minute before following him up after him.

A nervous anxiety started to bubble in his gut. What was he going to say? ‘It's not what it looks like!’, right, like that was going to work. He was straight up cuddling with Lance. Keith was never going to live this down. He could already imagine what Pidge was going to say, ‘Hey did you kiss him? No? You didn't even tell him that you were gay? God, Keith, no wonder you've never dated anyone before.’ Right.

He just hoped Pidge waited until Lance was not around to chastise him.

Keith broke the surface a few feet away from the edge. He feebly doggy-paddled to the edge of the pool, where Lance was already talking to Hunk and Pidge. He only caught the tail end of what Pidge was saying, but it was enough.

“--and how long were you going to keep it a secret?” She was grinning but crossed her arms as if she were annoyed.

“I don't know what you're talking about.” Lance said, keeping surprisingly cool. Keith popped off his helmet and hung on to the edge next to him, looking between him and Pidge.

“Why are you being coy? I thought you’d be bragging!” Pidge cried, hands on her hips. Lance looked genuinely confused now.

“What? Bragging? Bragging about what?”

“Uh, c’mon. That you finally did it!” Pidge said, looking between them with a smile, “That you and Keith are together!”

Lance immediately turned red, looking between Pidge, Hunk, and Keith while stammering.

“What? Together? Wh-- don’t be crazy, what are you-- Pidge, I don’t even, Keith and I, it, he’s not-- what? Haha...”

“We’re not together.” Keith said firmly. He wanted to scream but managed to keep it internal. He gave Pidge a trademark Kogane Death Stare and pulled himself out of the pool. Pidge’s face turned from confusion, to embarrassment, to horror.

“Pidge, what are you even talking about? Keith’s not Lance’s type, right?” Hunk came to Lance’s rescue, patting Pidge on the shoulder a little too hard.

“Uh, yeah, duh. He’s missing the, uh, the tits.” Lance said. Keith raised his brows. Really?

“Oh, I just, I thought, since you were sleeping next to each other...” Pidge said, eyes wide. Keith shook his head again.

“I was just being supportive of a friend.” He said. Lance nodded.

“Yeah, I asked him to, er, well I had a totally bad panic attack last night and Keith offered to stay with me. Y’know, as bros. Bros do that,” Lance went to run a hand across the back of his neck. He winced when his sharp nails ran into his backfin, “Why are you here again?”

“X-rays,” Pidge said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder towards the scooters, “and respiration vest.”

“Right,” Lance breathed, “Let's... let's do that.”

Pidge nodded and turned, nearly sprinting to the bucket. Keith started pulling off his armour. He realized his glove was still at the bottom of the pool.

“Lance,” Keith said. Lance jumped. He turned mechanically to look up at Keith.

“Huh? What?”

“I left my glove down there,” Keith said. He could tell Lance was already overthinking. He could almost see the buzzing of words behind his eyes, “can you get it for me?”

“Uh,” Lance said slowly, as the words turned the gears in his head, “yes.”

“Stop overthinking it,” Keith said.

“I'm not overthinking!” Lance cried with a face that clearly said he was overthinking it.

“It's no big deal, Pidge just made a mistake, right?”

Lance stared up at him for a moment. For a second he looked like he wanted to say something, but then it passed and he nodded, “Yeah, is, dating? Psh, like I'd date you even if I was... into that, haha... anyways, I'll go get your gloves.” He dove down under the water. Keith used the time to give Pidge another glare.

“Sorry!” Pidge cried, holding the manila envelope in her arms, “I thought maybe you had actually told each other your feelings.

“You told her about Lance?!” Keith's glare moved to Hunk, who withered.

“She needed to know! I don't like leaving people out!”

“You are the worst at keeping secrets! I'm never telling you anything!”

“Maybe if you guys just communicated like adults rather than hiding your feelings, this wouldn't be a big deal.” Pidge said.

Keith opened his mouth to reply, but Lance popped back up to the surface. He threw Keith’s glove down on the tile, “There. It's a little wet.”

“Ready to check out the X-rays?” Pidge piped up, holding out the envelope. Lance nodded.

”Yeah, let’s have a look. See what the damage is.”

Chapter Text

The X-rays didn't look good. They didn't look good at all.

There had been a small hope in Lance that this could all be reversed surgically. Part of him believed they would look at the x-rays and see that his legs were still there, under the scales and fascia. That they could be surgically separated relatively easily, that they could pull back the scales and his old skin would be underneath. It had been naive, and logically he knew this. Biologically and physiologically he knew it was highly unlikely. A process that changed his whole oxygenation system would not leave the bones and musculature of his lower half untouched.

But seeing the hard evidence in front of him still hurt.

The machine had taken something like a 3D scan, like an ultrasound but in incredible detail. They could see every vein, every ligament, and every bone in Lance's body, across three different images. The scan which showed his bone and muscle structure was the most jarring.

Lance's legs were still there, but he knew he’d never walk on them again. His hips were still intact, with his pelvis bone being the last of his original bones from the waist down. From his hip bones, the tops of his femurs were still in their sockets, but the bone mass only travelled down an inch before disappearing. Then there was a gap, and another fragment of his femur reappeared. This pattern continued down the length of his femur, fibula and tibia. It was as if his leg bones had been broken into pieces. It made sense; why waste energy dissolving all the bone during transformation, but mutilate the bone enough to allow for the tail to move correctly. He had a suspicion the missing bone deposits had been repurposed, becoming a part of the spine-like structure which ran the whole length of his tail. It extended off his spinal cord, with thin rib-like protrusions every six inches; these were most likely made of cartilage. It reminded him of a fish, which was essentially what he was now.

His patella was completely gone-- this he was unsurprised about, seeing as he could bend his tail backwards without feeling a kneecap dislocate. His feet seemed to have been repurposed into fin bones. Any hope of salvaging anything from the waist down was gone.

Lance stared at the images wordlessly. His veins and arteries had been rerouted, as had a lot of his organs. His heart had been moved to the other side to make room for some organ he wasn't even sure what the function of was. He had several new organs he didn't even know about, or what they did. He did have a swim bladder, around where his lungs used to be. His lungs were still there, but about the quarter of their original size. They didn't look functional at all. Even if he did have legs, he'd never breathe air again.

He could hear the others nervous chatter behind him. They were worried about him. He could tell. Hunk and Pidge both had to take some sort of biology classes, and even Keith had to have noticed the messed up remains of his legs.

He shouldn't have even looked at these, he knew it was going to be bad, he knew it was going to--

I'm never going to walk again. I'm never going to have legs, I'm never going to breathe air. I can never fly Blue, I can never be a Paladin, I can never go home--

“Hey, Lance,” Keith's purple eyes filled his view, and Lance was suddenly aware of a pressure on his shoulders which he hadn't noticed before, “You with me? It's gonna be okay.”

“Heyyy,” Lance straightened, and noticed he was shaking. He felt a bit like he had just woken up. What was going on again?

Oh right. He was sitting on an alien scooter, wearing a breathing device for his gills, and was currently pouring over visual evidence that he was permanently changed. His thoughts started to spiral again. There were so many things he always wanted to do, that he wouldn't be able to now. Things that he loved to do that he couldn't. Most places weren't meant for him now. I can never go home...

“You're thinking too much again.” Keith was saying. Lance only barely heard him. Keith gently shook his shoulders, “Lance, c’mon, come back to us.”

“Is he okay?” Hunk asked, pretty certain that Lance was not okay. Lance was shaking, his breathing shallow, and his eyes were wide but unseeing. He had been looking over the x-rays when he just went silent. Hunk hated that Keith was the first to notice. Hunk was supposed to be Lance's best friend. He had seen Lance panic before; before tests at the garrison, mostly. He never panicked in the face of danger, something Hunk envied. Lance never panicked at things that wouldn't hurt him physically. He panicked at what truly scared him; being unable to do something he needed to do, something he loved. He had been perpetually worried about failing a test that would get him kicked out of the Garrison. This was like that but tenfold. He would never fly again, he could never fly again, and the realization was hitting him hard. Hunk had seen this spaced out look before, but never this bad. He had never seen Lance visibly shake like a leaf, or be despondent. Hunk looked to Pidge, who watched with equal worry on her face.

“He’s panicking again,” Keith said sharply. This attack was as bad as the last one  He rubbed Lance's shoulders and gently shook him again, “Lance?”

“I'm fine,” Lance said, finally, not sounding fine at all. His eyes focused again, and he blinked, looking at Keith, “Why do you keep shaking me?”

“Because you weren't responding,” Keith said. He didn't stop rubbing Lance's shoulders. Lance looked exhausted. He felt exhausted. He had the three X-rays in his hands; he unceremoniously shoved them towards Pidge.

“Yeah. I was... I'm good,” he said, “I shouldn't have looked. I should have known they wouldn't make me feel better.”

“I'm so sorry Lance,” Pidge said, “I didn't think--”

“It's fine,” Lance shook his head, staring down at his hands, “I needed to know. And now I know.” He took a deep breath and looked away, back towards the pool. Pidge dropped the X-rays and launched  herself into a hug, wrapping her arms tightly around Lance's shoulders.

“I'm sorry! I had hoped there was something we could do-- maybe there still is? If surgery or biological modification isn't an option, maybe biomechanics or technological augmentation-- maybe I can build you some mech legs, or we can change the lion to be controlled entirely by your hands---”

“I said it's fine, Pidge.” Lance said, but his voice was soft. Grateful. He hugged Pidge back until she finally pulled away. She wiped away some tears, “Hey, don't cry for me. Why are you crying?”

“I don't know,” she sniffed, “I don't want you to leave Voltron, and I don't want you to be sad.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Hunk said. Lance nodded in agreement.

“We have an infinite universe at our disposal, I'm sure there's something we can do.” He said. He was acting more confident than he felt, if only to cheer up Pidge. She gave a small smile and nodded.

“We can do it, as a team,” she wiped away the last of the tears, “I just want us to stay a team.”

“I'm never leaving the team.” Lance said. Not unless I'm forced to. That might be in the very near future, but he pushed the thought away.

“Yeah, what kind of team would we be without Lance?” Hunk said, crossing his arms with a smile.

“We need our sharpshooter. You don't find one of those every day.” Keith said. Lance broke out into a smile.

“I am the sharpshooter,” he said. He ran a hand through his wet hair; it was entirely ineffective with his webbed fingers, “Thanks guys. You're the best. I don't know what I'd do without you.”

“We couldn't do anything without you, Lance.” Pidge said. Hunk nodded behind her. Even Keith was smiling. Lance was starting to feel better.

“Thank you. Seriously,” he paused for a moment, and a hunger pang ripped through his stomach, reminding him he hadn't eaten yet, “Hey. Can we go get some breakfast?”

 

***

 

The scooter didn't have a very high top speed, but Lance still appreciated the fact he could travel down the hall without being carried. As much as he loved Hunk, being pressed up against his pecs wasn't exactly how he wanted to spend parts of everyday.

They moved towards the kitchen in a group, Hunk, Pidge, and Keith surrounding Lance in a way that felt protective. Hunk and Pidge were chatting about possible improvements to the respiration vest. Keith followed silently, his eyes ever so often drifting to Lance. Lance could tell he was still worried about him. As per usual, he was brooding about it silently rather than actually talking to Lance about it. That was fine by him; he didn't really want to talk about feelings right then, anyways.

They passed Shiro and Allura in the hallway. Allura had been talking excited about something rather technical about the ship, while Shiro idly nodded. Allura noticed the others first, spotting Hunk and Pidge as they rounded the corner, followed closely by the other two. She waved.

“Paladins! Good morning! Oh, hello Lance!” It was the first time Allura had seen Lance since he’d changed. He could feel the way her eyes raked over the vest, and the wheelchair. The apprehension in her smile. She pitied him and it made him feel even worse, “It's so nice to see you out of the pool. How are you?”

“Great.” Lance said in a tone that sounded less than great. Allura gave him an apologetic smile, and glanced to Shiro.

“Shiro and I were actually just discussing some possibilities.”

“We've been in contact with the meraliens, but Queen Luxia so far hasn't had any useful information for us,” Shiro said, “So we've been looking for help in other places. Allura remembered a few different races who can shapeshift.”

“Well, only two, the Osmaks and the Dékas. Unfortunately Alteans never had a great relationship with either race, but the Osmaks have agreed to look into it.” She smiled hopefully, looking again to Shiro, who nodded.

“That's great!” Hunk said, Are we gonna go there?”

“Not yet,” Allura said, “I don't think Lady Hegal of the Osmaks would appreciate us showing up at her palace uninvited. They are a very private and prideful race. However I will be contacting her again today, so perhaps we will have an invitation by tomorrow.”

“Lance and I wanted to go back to the meraliens.” Keith said, his arms crossed, his expression serious.

“I don't know if that's a good idea,” Shiro said, “With all our questions, I'm sure Queen Luxia thinks we’re blaming her and her people for this.”

“Well, I mean, they are the ones who had a plant that turns people into mermaids.” Lance said.

“I understand that,” Shiro said, “but we have to be diplomatic. We can't piss off everyone in the universe.”

Lance frowned, “The way I see it, she's still indebted to us. Remember the time she and all her people were eaten by a space worm thing? No you don't because Hunk and I were there to save them!”

“Calm down Lance.” Shiro said in his Serious Leader Voice. Lance exhaled sharply and crossed his arms, but didn't say a word. Shiro sighed, “Listen, I know you're anxious to figure this out. But we have to be smart about it. Aliens all have their own customs and societal rules. If we don't abide by their rules, it could be very bad news for us.”

“Lance is right, though,” Keith said, evenly, “they do owe us at least some sort of help. We're not asking for much, we just wanted to go there, I don't know, ask a few questions, maybe get a sample...”

Shiro let out a deep breath, his eyes shut tight. He pinched the bridge of his nose, “Alright, fine. You can go.”

Yes!” Keith cheered, doing a tiny fist pump. No one else cheered. He looked around, awkwardly, then cleared his throat, “I mean, uh, thanks, Shiro.” Lance let out a muffled snort of laughter, trying to hide his laughing in his hands. Keith scowled at him and gently shoved his shoulder, “Shut up, Lance.”

“Please do be courteous,” Allura said, hands clasped together in front of her, “Remember you are representing all of us, and the Paladins of Voltron.”

“Am I nothing but charming to everyone I meet?” Lance replied, eyebrow wiggling. Allura gave him a weary glance.

Keith rolled his eyes. “I’ll keep him in line.”

“Uh huh, sure Keith. Where we're going, we don't need lines,” Lance purred, “Seriously, I can swim circles around you--”

“Just behave yourselves.” Shiro said. He was doing the Team Dad thing again. Lance put on an easy smile and pointed dual finger guns at him.

“We’ll be in and out in a day. Do you think I want to stay around and have tea? C’mon, I want to get my legs back already!” he leaned forward on the handlebars and revved the engine, then took off down the hallway at a crawl. Keith watched him turn down the hallway towards the kitchen, because he was probably still hungry.

“Please be careful.” Shiro nodded to Keith. Keith nodded back, and Shiro sighed. He crossed the gap between them and rested a hand on Keith's shoulder, and added quietly, “Don't let him get his hopes up too high, okay?”

Keith nodded again, lips thin. Shiro patted his shoulder and walked away. Allura followed, nodding to the Paladins in farewell. Keith watched them go. Shiro's lack of confidence in Queen Luxia didn't sit well with him.

“Breakfast time?” Hunk broke the silence, gesturing down the hallway Lance had just puttered down.

“Breakfast time.” Pidge nodded. Keith offered a feeble smile, and the three went to join Lance in the kitchen.

 

***

 

“I missed you so much!” Lance cried, squishing his face against the cold, white metal. He was at the base of Blue’s leg, arms wrapped around as much of her as as he could manage, which wasn't very much seeing as she was a giant robot lion.

Blue’s eyes glowed, and Lance could feel her. She had missed him too.

Lance had driven the scooter up as close under the lion as he could manage, but still had to lean far over to hug her. He leaned a bit too far over, and slipped off the chair, faceplanting into the metal and sliding down it onto the floor, “Oops.”

“Lance!” Keith rushed over to help Lance back into the chair. “Try to be more careful.”

“I did that on purpose,” Lance said, being completely unhelpful as Keith hauled him back up into the scooter by the armpits. He was a little tired of being manhandled. “I was spending some bonding time with Blue.”

“By falling on your face?” Keith said, raising an eyebrow. He managed to pull Lance back into a sitting position.

“Did kinda hurt a bit, actually.” Lance repositioned himself on the chair and rubbed the back of his neck. He smiled regardless. He was happy, he could feel his lion’s presence, in his core, like a warm hug. It was helping push away the swirling, dark feelings that still tied his stomach in knots.

Keith rolled his eyes, but he was smiling, too. Lance seemed much happier now that he was with Blue. He was getting pretty good at deciphering Lance's moods. While he had been chatty and seemingly happy during breakfast, Keith could tell there was something dark underneath. He could tell Lance was still shaken from earlier, from seeing his X-rays and seeing in actuality the severity of his condition. It was in the way his jaw was set tight, how his eyes didn't sparkle like they always did. Keith caught him more than once while they ate, when he wasn't talking, when his cheerful facade would fade, and he would stare at his hands. His face would fall, and his eyes would go dark, and Keith could almost see his thoughts spiralling again.

So Keith would put his hand on Lance’s arm, and smile, and try to bring him back to the present. Lance would smile back, but was strained. He hated seeing Lance this way. Seeing that strained smile made his heart hurt, in a way he had never felt before. It was then that promised himself to do everything he could to make Lance smile again, to keep him smiling.

To keep the light in his eyes.

Keith patted Lance on the shoulder,  “Spend your bonding time upright from now on.” He snorted, then started to head over to the Red Lion.

“Hey, where are you going?” Lance called after him. Keith turned, eyebrows raised.

“Uh, to Red, so we can get out of here?” He was wearing his armour again, his helmet under his arm. After breakfast he and Lance had gone back to the pool, where Keith put his armour back on, and Lance sat around a little too quietly. The second version of the respiration vest was a lot easier to wear, but still a hassle to take off, so Lance sat on the edge of the pool with just his tail in the water, not saying much of anything until Keith was ready. Then Keith had pulled him back up into the scooter, and they had made their way down to the bay where the lions were kept.

“Right,” Lance sighed. He reached out a hand and placed it on Blue’s leg. The feeling of the cold metal against his sensitive webbing made his back fin quiver, “Sorry, baby, gotta go do some business. Even though we're taking Red, it's not because I didn't want to take you. It's because I literally don't have legs.”

“Did you, uh, want to go inside?” Keith asked, walking back over Lance, who looked at him in confusion.

“What?”

“Inside Blue,” Keith repeated, “We can go up inside for a bit, if you want.”

“I do want,” Lance said, looking up at the giant lion's face, “I don't know if this dumb scooter would fit. Sorry, the scooter isn't dumb, I love not having to be carried everywhere. But it's still too bulky for the cockpit.”

“I could just... carry you up there.” Keith offered. Lance stared at him for a minute.

“I literally just said how I'm enjoying not being carried--”

“Do you want to go up there or not?” Keith frowned. Lance sighed.

“Yeah, I do. Fine. Cradle me.” He lifted up his arms in invitation.

Keith snorted. “Wouldn’t be the first time,” he muttered before lifting Lance up in his arms bridal style.

“Don't drop me.” Lance said, half serious. He wrapped his arms around Keith's neck, and his tail around his waist-- so that it wouldn't drag across the floor, and also because it made him feel better about the dropping thing. Not that he had wrapped his tail around Hunk. He justified it to himself in the fact that Hunk was stronger than Keith, and he didn't need to hold on as tight. Of course he wasn't wrapping his tail around Keith's waist as some odd sign of affection, and also because he was a little cold and Keith was warm. Of course not.

He wondered idly if he was cold blooded now, and had just never noticed in the warm climate of the castle. That could be a problem later.

“I won’t drop you, you weigh like ninety pounds.” Keith drawled sarcastically. Lance scoffed.

“Excuse you, I think I gained weight with this tail. So ninety one pounds, thank you.”

Keith started to laugh. He laughed so hard his whole body started to shake. Lance clung to him tighter as he was bounced.

“Ack! Keith! Don't drop me!”

“I'm not going to drop you!” Keith wheezed through bouts of chuckles. Lance couldn't help but laugh too. He hadn't seen Keith laugh that hard, ever. And the joke wasn't even that funny.

Blue leaned down and opened her jaws to let them inside. Keith carried Lance over to the cockpit, and set him down in the pilot's seat. Lance slid down into it like he had never left; this space fit him perfectly. Well, except for his tail, which was a little too big and in turn was crammed unceremoniously under the dashboard.

“Awh yeah,” Lance ran his hands over the accelerator and the command panels, feeling the hum of Blue through the surface. He also felt the cold. Actually, he mostly felt cold. He suddenly wished that he had worn a shirt after all.

“Jeez, Blue, could you turn up the heat in here?” Lance griped. The deployment bay was not heated; there was no need to keep metal lions warm. The air inside of the cabin and cockpit was chilly; he had never noticed it before. He swore he could feel the heat leaving his body. The oddest part was that he wasn't shivering; he felt cold but moreso he felt heavy.

“You're cold?” Keith asked, leaning against the head of the chair, “It's not cold in here.”

You're wearing clothes.” Lance scoffed, “Besides, I don't think I'm great at insulating myself. Makes sense, water is a great insulator in general, if I'm a tropical fish I don't need an internal heating system...” The metal of the chair, and the floor, and the command center was all so cold. It bit into him, sucking the warmth out of him. He started to worry.

“You're not an fish Lance,” Keith said, “You've got arms.”

“What does that even mean? I know I'm not a fish, I mean, my very fishlike anatomy still works like a fish regardless of arms.” He gestured pointedly at his lower half.

“You threw a fit when I said you were like a fish last night!” Keith cried.

“I'm allowed to call myself a fish.” Lance said, crossing his arms. It took more energy than he expected, so he stopped moving. That's fine, I’ll just never move again, “Real talk though I think I could be coldblooded.”

Blue let out a low growl, making the whole cockpit vibrate. Keith frowned.

“What, like a lizard?”

“Reptiles, amphibians, fish,” Lance said, his words slow, his eyes closed, “Great for metabolic efficiency, not great for surviving in cold climates.” His internal temperature was dropping quickly and all he wanted to do was sleep.

Blue whirred to life, and warm air blasted into the cabin through unseen vents. But the room was still cold, and it would take minutes before it would be warm enough to raise his body temperature.

“Lance?” Keith said, noticing Lance's closing eyes a little too late.

“Yeah, I'm...” Lance slurred, but never finished that thought. It was way too tiring. He decided to give into the whole ‘sleep’ thing.

“Lance?” Keith said, with rising anxiety, “Lance? Shit.” He came around to the other side of the chair, in front of Lance. Lance was asleep; he could just faintly see his eyes moving under his lids, and the shallow movement of his sides contracting as they took in water from the vest. But he was barely moving. Keith threw off his gloves and touched Lance's arm; he was really cold, way colder than any human should be.

“We really should have seen this coming.” Keith hissed to himself, or Blue, if she was listening. He pulled off his armour and peeled off the underlining black suit. He was wearing his black t-shirt underneath. After a moment of debate, he threw that off too. Skin to skin. Unfortunately he couldn't take off Lance's dumb vest, but he figured breathing was more important.

Before he could think about it, he pulled Lance up out of the chair, and sat down in his spot. He gathered Lance up in his lap, facing him, and wrapped his arms around him, rubbing up and down his shoulders and tail, trying to warm up as much area as he could. He wrapped Lance's tail around his waist, to increase surface area contact, “C’mon, Lance, warm up buddy.”

Lance didn't move for a full, tense minute. Eventually his tail started to twitch. Then his eyes opened, and he made a quiet, questioning hum, but he still didn't move. Keith could feel he was already a bit warmer, but he didn't stop running his hands along his arms and tail.

“You awake?” Keith asked, trying to sound calm and casual even though he was internally very much freaking out. Lance lifted his head slightly off Keith's shoulder.

“Are you naked?” He mumbled, giving up on holding up his own head and resting it back on Keith's shoulder.

“Shirtless,” Keith said, “I'm still very much wearing pants.”

“Ah, okay,” Lance murmured, “...Why are we hugging?” God, he was so tired, he wanted to go back to sleep but a tiny voice in his head was telling him that wasn't a good idea.

“I'm warming you up. You passed out from the cold. It works with snakes, I thought it’d work here too.”

Lance made a noncommittal noise that meant that was very smart thinking Keith thank you, but sounded more like, “Mm.” Right, they were in Blue, he was apparently cold blooded, and the cold totally just made his body’s metabolic system shut down and try to hibernate.

“We need to get you a sweater to wear over this vest. Maybe a heated sweater... Do those exist?”

“I bet Pidge and Hunk could make one,” Lance said, a little slow to reply, “We’d just need to...” he trailed off. God, talking took so much energy, why'd he do it so much. He was starting to feel a bit more awake, but he was still seriously debating going back to sleep.

Keith sighed and patted Lance on the back, careful to avoid his fin. “Sorry Blue, it’s a bit too cold in here.” A low rumble sounded around them. Keith had no idea what it meant. The heat turned off as Blue lowered her head to let them out. “Thanks.”

It was a bit difficult to stand up while still holding Lance. It was even harder to grab his helmet and chest piece. Impossible, even. So he nudged them across the floor with his feet.

“I can carry it,” Lance offered, quietly, making lazy grabbing motions with his fingers.

Keith pursed his lips. He couldn’t exactly hand them to Lance. Instead, he squatted down as far as his legs let him. “Quick, grab it-”

Lance reached out and grabbed the helmet with one hand. He just barely caught the chest piece by the inside of the neck hole, “Got it.”

They left the t-shirt behind. Keith could come back for it later.

Keith nearly toppled forward standing back up, but despite how his knees protested, he didn’t fall. Lance held on tightly with his tail, his arms draped over Keith’s shoulders and not providing much grip.

“Don't drop me.”

“This is the third time you've said that! I'm not going to drop you!” Keith huffed. Lance believed him, because he was still impressed Keith had managed that squat. He was partially amazed and partially turned on. He must never skip leg day.

Keith carried him out of the Blue Lion, and quickly crossed the hall over to the Red Lion. When they approached Red, she immediately leaned her head down and let them board. The inside was already heated up warmer than room temperature. Keith grinned. Red always knew exactly what he needed. “Good kitty.”

Lance was already a bit more awake, holding his own head up and looking around. So this was what the Red Lion was like. He'd never been inside before. Keith carried him over to the cockpit, and paused.

“We forgot something.” Keith said. Lance looked around. It was very possible, his brain was still pretty scrambled and just waking up, but he didn't see anything wrong.

“Huh?”

“We don't have a place for you to sit.” Keith said, navigating around the chair and eventually just sat down, Lance sprawled across his lap, “Normally extra people just stand or crouch behind the pilot, but...”

“Right.” Lance said, “The scooter?”

“If it wouldn't fit in Blue, it won't fit in here.” Red was even smaller than Blue, and the cockpit was even more jampacked.

“Well...” Lance sighed, resting his head on Keith's shoulder again, “At least this is comfortable.”

Red rumbled, shaking her head slightly, jostling her passengers. Keith tensed suddenly and sputtered.

“Red!” He cried, as the lion purred, “Red, stop!”

“What'd she say?” Lance asked, a bit of playfulness seeping back into his voice. Keith took this as a sign that he was finally warmed up enough.

“Nothing.” Keith said, but his face was red. Lance wondered what she had said that would make Keith blush.

“Thanks for warming me up.” He finally said.

“No problem.” Keith replied. Lance noticed he was still running his hands along his tail. Red rumbled again. Keith rubbed his face with his free hand and let out a tiny sigh.

Lance's brain was starting to work again. He realized the situation he was in. Once again he found himself cuddling with Keith. This time they were both shirtless. Why does this keep happening? God, he was suffering. Keith looked like he was suffering too, actually, for a different reason of course. Right? He looked incredibly embarrassed. Gears started to turn in Lance's brain.

He shifted back so he could see Keith's face clearly, and squinted. Keith blinked back at him.

“Uh... what are you doing?”

“What’d the cat say?” Lance asked. Keith pointedly looked away.

“Nothing.”

“Riiiight,” Lance's mouth quirked up into a smile, “then why do you look so embarrassed?”

Keith let out a strained cry, “It, look, it's nothing. Let's just go already.” He sat up, jostling Lance a bit, and reached for the accelerator. He throttled up. The engines whirred, and died. Red let out another rumble. It sounded like laughter. Keith let out another strangled shout, “Red!”

“Interesting.” Lance said, looking between the nonfunctioning accelerator, and Keith’s face.

Keith threw up his arms, jostling Lance again, “Allura is waiting! We don't have time--”

“I’unno, I think we have a little time--”

Lance! Whose side are you on?”

“Technically I'm on your lap, not your side.” Lance said. Keith nearly pushed him off, “Is that why you're blushing?”

“I'm not blushing!” Keith said, his face very much red, “It's just really warm in here!” He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself a bit, then tried the throttle again. This time Red revved and kicked on, the thrusters igniting. The whole cabin vibrated. Keith let out a sigh and smiled, “Finally. Thank you.”

He pushed up on the throttle and moved his hands to the nav sticks. They, along with the foot pedals, steered the Lion; though it was sometimes more of a suggestion than a command.

“Hold still,” Keith said to Lance, who nodded and tried to stay close to his chest, leaving room for Keith's hands to move. Keith typed in commands to the touchscreen command center, as Red slowly flew down the bay towards the deployment area, where the bay doors opened out into space.

Keith toggled something, and Allura’s face popped up against the cockpit window-- the vidcomm.

“Hey Allura, we're ready to go now. Can you open up a wormhole for us?” Keith nodded to the projection. Allura nodded back.

“Of course. Opening wormhole now.”

Red rocketed out of the bay doors and into the open space. The endless view of black nothing and stars always left Keith breathless. Now he was breathless because Lance was crushing his lungs a little. Before them a wormhole opened. Keith steered towards it.

“Thanks Princess.”

“Be safe,” she said. Then she squinted, leaning forward towards the camera, “Is that Lance in your lap?”

“Hey Allura!” Lance said, turning to face the vidcomm. Keith let out a strangled, distressed cry.

“Alright, thanks Allura, bye!” He immediately disconnected from the call. A second later, they rocketed through the wormhole, and disappeared.

A second later they reappeared from the other side, flying high above an endless ocean. Keith sat back, relieved they were nearly there already, “Gotta love wormholes.”

Keith guided them down, letting them crash into the water. The lion immediately began to sink, propulsion slowing to a crawl. Red wasn't built for the water like Blue, and the voyage down through the depths was slow.

Lance was getting antsy, not just because he was sitting on Keith's lap, but also because Red was going at an agonizingly slow pace, exacerbated by the fact that he was sitting on Keith's lap, “How long is this gonna take?”

“You bored already?”

“Yes,” Lance said, though that wasn't totally true. He was sat with his tail across Keith's legs, under left arm, over the side of the chair, and wrapped just slightly around Keith’s left leg so that it wouldn't touch the ground, which was still pretty cold. Lance's arms were hung around Keith's shoulders, helping him stay upright, with their chests pressed against each other, Lance facing backwards. He drummed his fingers across Keith’s shoulder, trying to think of something to talk about.

“Hey Keith, do you know about, uh, like,” this was an awful subject, why was he saying this, “sexualities and stuff?”

“Huh?” Keith glanced at him, squinting a bit.

“Y’know, like,” Lance tried to remember everything Hunk had told him the day before, “so I just found out about this, do you know what ‘bi’ means?”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “You just learned this?” he asked, voice flat.

“What! Why does everyone keep reacting like that!” Lance gestured wildly with one hand, “I didn't-- no one ever told me, okay?”

Keith smirked. “Yes, I know what it means.”

“You do? Where did all you guys learn this stuff? Jeez, my town was really, uh,” Lance tried to remember the word Hunk had used, “heteronormative?”

Keith snorted. “I thought that was common knowledge. Why are you bringing this up?”

Lance grimaced. He wasn't sure why he was bringing this up. Actually, he knew why, he just wasn't sure if it was the best reason. After Hunk, Keith was his closest friend. Hell, in some ways, he was probably closer to Keith; he was pretty sure Hunk would do an impromptu sleepover with him, but Keith had actually done it.

Something that had been weighing on him since he had realized how he felt about Keith was telling him the truth. He felt he owed Keith an explanation, for the way he's been acting, but also for his insistence at closeness, because despite how much he needed it, he also wanted it. He wanted every hug, every touch. He outwardly put up protest, barely, but inside he loved the fact that Keith held his hand, and curled up next to him last night, and was cradling him closely now. He felt like every one of these moments were at his insistence. And Keith just kept going along with it, because he was a nice guy and didn't know that Lance craved his attention.

Lance felt like he owed Keith an explanation, because he felt like he was taking advantage of his kindness. Keith was trying to be comforting while Lance was in crisis, and Lance was taking the attention romantically. It was unfair, Keith was straight, and Lance was forcing him into moments with romantic implications that he couldn't even reciprocate. He had to tell him. He had to at least let Keith know that every time they touched, his heart skipped a beat. He had to let Keith decide if he wanted to be friends knowing how Lance felt.

What if he doesn't want to be friends anymore? What if he never wants to talk to me again? I don't know if I could take that, I don't know if I can tell him--

He realized he hadn't replied to Keith's question yet. His brain was spinning in circles, and when he opened his mouth, all that came out was, “Uhhh.”

Keith frowned, looking over at Lance. “Hey, are you alright?”

“Uhm,” Lance's heart was pounding in his chest. He had to say it, he knew he had to, but the anxiety was strangling him, “I’m, uh, bringing it up because-- and don't freak out, okay-- but I think-- well, I know, actually--”

“Yes?” Keith looked at him, with an encouraging smile that almost killed Lance.

“That I'm, uh, bi?” Lance didn't mean for it to come out as a question, but it did. He watched Keith's face, worried and hopeful all at the same time.

“Oh.” Keith said, a moment too late, and not sounding surprised at all, “Cool.”

Lance stared at him blankly. That wasn't the reaction he was expecting, “Cool?”

“Yeah, cool,” Keith glanced between Lance and the ocean outside, like he was doing a way more intense driving job than he was, “What do you want me to say?”

“I don't know, something more than cool.

“...Really cool?”

“It’s not really cool!” Lance cried, throwing up his arms, “I’m in crisis and you're just saying it's cool? I just poured my heart out to you, Keith! Aren't you upset? Weirded out? It's weird! I'm sitting in your lap Keith.

Keith put a hand on Lance's arm, stopping his flailing, “Hey, hey Lance, calm down. It’s okay,” he smiled warmly, trying to be comforting. “It’s not weird at all. I'm not upset, why would I be upset?”

Lance let out a quiet huff, looking away, “Because... I don't know, I've been... doing stuff like this,” he gestured down at their laps, “And you're straight, you might find it gross.

“It's not like you're diseased, god,” Keith sounded a little offended at that, “You're not gross, Lance. Don't ever think that.” His expression softened again, and he raised his brows, “Besides I wouldn't do all this stuff if I wasn't okay with it.”

“And you're okay with it?” Lance asked, voice small.

“Yeah,” Keith said. He was very much okay with it. In fact he was super okay with it, “and, you're wrong.”

“Huh?” Lance wa still reeling from how well this had gone, “about what?”

“I’m not straight.”

“What?”

“I’m very not straight. I’m like the opposite of straight.”

Lance blinked at him, “what.”

“Lance, I’m gay.” Keith smiled, amused at the dumbfounded expression on Lance’s face. Lance was still staring at him.

“You're gay?”

“Uh, yeah,” Keith laughed quietly, shaking his head a bit, “You thought I was straight? Pidge figured it out within a week,” he looked upwards, thinking, “then Hunk found out, but I'm pretty sure he knew already--”

“Wait, Hunk knew?” Lance cried. He knew Keith was gay and didn't tell Lance? They could have avoided this whole embarrassing conversation! Keith nodded.

“Yeah, I mean, it's not a secret.” He shrugged, silently amused by Lance's face. He looked like his brain was exploding, “It's not a big deal, Lance.”

“It's sorta a big deal for me,” Lance said, frowning.

“I’m glad you trust me enough to tell me.” Keith turned back to look out the windshield, trying to hide the smile on his face. Lance sighed and smiled.

“I'm glad you're not freaking out,” he said, finally feeling a sense of relief wash over him, “I was so worried I'd lost a bro, that you'd be upset, and I'd pushed onto the ground like a sack of potatoes.”

“How heartless do you think I am?”

“You’re not heartless at all.” Lance said, smiling. He leaned back against Keith, feeling weightless.

The two were quiet for a while, as Keith navigated them closer to Luxia’s castle.

 

Chapter Text

Queen Luxia’s castle was not far from where the wormhole dropped them, though it felt like it took forever to get there.

Keith parked Red nearby, then after some intricate maneuvering, slipped out from under Lance and moved out of the cockpit and into the cabin to put his suit back on. Lance watched him, peeking over the back of the chair, watching him pull the black undersuit over his bare chest. He was apparently not as stealthy as he thought, because Keith caught his eye, and smiled at him.

“What?” He asked, half laughing, moving now to the white hard armour. Lance looked away, completely embarrassed that he had been caught.

“Just making sure you put it on the same way as me.” He lied, even though it was a lame ass lie and he knew it. Keith snorted.

“Sure, Lance.”

“I don't know how you get dressed, man! It was interesting. Can't a guy just appreciate how another guy puts on a suit of armour without being questioned about it?”

“Uh huh.” Keith was wondering when, or if, Lance would ever admit to having a crush on him. He had a feeling Lance would never admit it first. And he would do that... probably... eventually... now that Lance had come out to him. Just not yet. He didn't want to overwhelm him. Keith still wasn't one hundred percent sure Hunk had been right about the crush thing; though, the fact that Lance was bi helped his case, Keith was still nervous that Lance would reject him if he ever confessed his feelings.

The way Lance had been staring at him just now certainly was a point in the ‘totally is into you’ column, though.

After Keith was completely suited up, he carried Lance down to the exit. Red opened her mouth, and the water filled in up to the exit threshold; the whole cabin was like an air bubble. This was handy, since the respiration vest couldn't get wet. So Lance sat on the edge of the threshold, his tail dipped down into the water, and peeled the vest off, holding his breath. He handed the vest to Keith, and unceremoniously scooted off the edge and plunged down into the water.

The water was warm, thankfully, though a little salty, and tasted a little weird. Lance worried about being a freshwater fish until Keith appeared next to him in the water.

“Ready to go?” He asked, nodding his head towards the looming castle above them. Lance nodded.

“Yeah, let’s go get some answers.”

Luxia and a guard-- one of the large seal-like aliens-- waited for them outside the castle gates. Allura had sent them a message about Keith and Lance's arrival. The Queen and her guard were not the only ones waiting; Plaxum, as well as another meralien who Lance had never met, waited for them as well.

“Welcome back, young Paladins.” Luxia said in her serene, authoritative voice, as the two came to a stop before them. She blinked and gave a curious smile to Lance, “So what I've heard is true.”

Lance nodded, “We’ve come to do some research.”

“Of course.” Queen Luxia turned to Plaxum and the other meralien, “I've called upon two of my people who will help you in your search. Plaxum, of course, you've already met,” she gestured to the girl, who smiled and bowed quickly. Luxia moved to the other alien, who was already bowing, “This is Codir, he is one of our most knowledgeable garden attendants, he will tell you everything he knows.”

Codir nodded. He was dark green, with blue stripes along his tail. His long hair-like antennae was freckled with yellow spots. He had a strong jaw, and small, blue eyes, but he looked kind, as he nodded and smiled to Lance and Keith, “At your service, sirs.” He wore a long jacket, tied at the waist by a strip of brown fabric. Lance wondered where he could find some snazzy mermaid clothes.

“Well then, let's get started?” Keith suggested. Luxia nodded.

“Would you like a bubble helmet, Keith?” She offered. Keith shook his head.

“No thank you, your majesty. I'd like to keep my helmet to be able to communicate with my team members.”

“Very well.” Luxia nodded, and turned. Keith hoped he hadn't offended her. He looked to Lance, who shrugged. They followed the meraliens into the palace.

 

***

 

“I'm afraid we don't have much information to offer you.” Codir said, leading Lance, Keith, and Plaxum through the winding, stone halls of the palace. Lance kept close to Keith, blinking away flashbacks from the last time he had been in these halls. The Queen and her guard had left them in Codir and Plaxum’s ‘able hands’ shortly after they entered the great hall. Now it was just a matter of retracing Lance's steps.

“Any information you can give us we'd be grateful to have.” Keith said. He looked over his shoulder to Lance, who nodded, though it looked like he was barely paying attention.

“It was an unordinary and unfortunate set of circumstances that led to this situation.” Codir said, “Firstly, Mr. Lance somehow wandered all the way from the great hall to our garden facilities.”

“Got lost looking for the bathroom.” Lance said, refocusing on the conversation when he heard his name.

“I'm so sorry about that, I thought I gave clear enough instructions!” Plaxum said with a grimace.

“No, it's my fault, I should have asked you to come with me.” He finally said, somehow managing to contain the flood of sarcastic replies that popped into his head. Plaxum smiled, giving him a weird look he could only barely place due to her alien features.

“Well, maybe it's not so bad! Now you're better built to live underwater! You could live with me if you want.” She clasped her hands together and giggled, and Lance realized she was looking at him the way he looked at most pretty girls. He tensed when she grabbed his arm, leaning up against him, “I think I like you better this way!”

“Uhhh...” Lance stared back at her blankly, his mouth not willing to form words as his mind did its version of a shrug.

Keith’s eyelid twitched under his helmet. He wanted to yank Lance away from Plaxum and hide him away from her. But that would have been over the top, even for him, and Shiro said to be diplomatic. Instead he crossed his arms and tried not to spit venom when he said, “Lance already has a home with us, with Team Voltron. He doesn’t want to live here.”

“Awh, you don't have to fight over me.” Lance said, while extricating himself out of Plaxum’s arms, “I appreciate the offer Plaxum, but uh--”

“He's not interested.” Keith said. Lance raised his brows, giving Keith a look. Really?

“I just thought you'd be better suited for life with us, now,” Plaxum said, tilting her head to the side, “instead of among all those air breathers. I thought maybe you're not equipped to be a Paladin anymore. I noticed you're not wearing your Paladin armour. Isn't it because it doesn't fit anymore?”

Lance frowned at the way she said ‘air breathers’. Two air breathers saved her and her species. He had thought Plaxum had been cooler than that.

Of course, what she said was true. Altean tech wasn't designed for non-air breathers, or anyone who didn't have legs. He couldn't even argue, he wasn't equipped to be a paladin anymore. If they couldn't figure out a way to reverse the changes, living among the meraliens was likely his best option.

Keith clenched his jaw, trying to reel in his anger. “Lance is still a Paladin of Voltron, and we are working to get his legs back. That's why we're here! We wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for your people who turned him into a mermaid in the first place!!” Keith felt his face go hot as he got angrier, letting loose all the frustration and worry for Lance he had built up, “Like who keeps dangerous plants out where people can touch them!? And now Lance has to put on a stupid vest and ride on a dumb scooter and who knows if we can even form Voltron anymore, like, y’all fucked the universe--” He gestured wildly, letting an errant ‘y’all’ slip in anger, “Y’know Lance loves flying and this team and now I've seen him have, like, five panic attacks because of this shit, and it's your fault--

“Keith, please,” Lance grabbed his arm and shook him not-so-gently, “calm down buddy.”

Keith pulled his eyes away from Plaxum, who at least looked appropriately horrified, to Lance. Lance was giving him a strained look, his jaw tight, his eyes sad. Keith felt himself deflate. He looked away, eyes falling on Codir. Codir looked grim.

“Sorry,” Keith said, letting out a deep breath that fogged up the inside of his helmet for a second, “sorry, I didn't mean half of that.” The other half he totally did mean. Lance let go of his arm.

“Let's just keep going.” Lance said, voice low. Codir nodded.

“We’re almost there,” he gestured forward and the group started down the hall again. Keith swam next to Lance, opening his mouth to say something, but Lance frowned at him, shaking his head. Keith shrank back, and trailed behind the group.

“I would like to mention that we don't just leave dangerous plants sitting around,” Codir continued, “Mr. Lance somehow gained access to one of our highly secured greenhouses. Ordinarily only highly trained workers are allowed inside.” They turned the corner. Lance went cold as a very familiar door loomed before him. The door to the greenhouse was just as ominous as before. He could see the brightly coloured flowers through the frosted glass as they got closer. The sight made his stomach twist.

“I believe on the day of the feast, one of my fellow botanists were so excited, they left the door unlocked on accident.” Codir reached into his jacket and pulled out a red card. He waved it in front of the door handle, which beeped and clicked as it unlocked. Codir returned his card before pulling open the door.

Lance sucked in a breath as the wave of warm water washed over him. He looked back to Keith. He was still annoyed at him for that outburst-- though the exact reason why he wasn't sure. It had been embarrassing; even though he tried not to be embarrassed about his panic attacks, mentioning it felt like Keith was rubbing it in his face. It also hurt him to know that Keith, and the others, were having the same anxieties, and it was his fault. This had turned into an anger towards Keith-- after all, if he had kept his cool, he wouldn't have even said those things-- but the anger was quickly fading. He wasn't angry anymore, he was just sad. He knew what Keith had said-- that they likely couldn't form Voltron, that he couldn't fly, that all of this was riding on what they could find out today-- was true. Somehow hearing the truth from someone else was worse than knowing it on his own.

But, truthfully, he needed Keith. Because going through the door again was something he couldn't do alone.

He waited for Keith to catch up, giving him a look that he hoped portrayed how anxious he was. He wanted to hold Keith's hand but he knew that, no matter how nice Keith was about these things, he probably wouldn't and that'd be so awkward Lance would probably die. Instead he took comfort in Keith's reassuring smile, and the two followed Codir and Plaxum into the greenhouse.

The water in the greenhouse was again much warmer, but this time Lance could feel it much more intensely. It was like he was swimming in a hot tub, but also drinking hot, salty water. It made him feel gross and heavy.

Codir led them through the plants, chattering about the various different uses for some of them; most of them were rare foods, which is why they were kept in a locked greenhouse. Others were harvested for their beauty, or medicinal purposes. Some were poisonous, but none, Codir explained, had ever had the effect on them that it had on Lance.

Colourful blooms and thick reeds swayed in the current above them. Some poured out into the walkway. Lance avoided them all, keeping as close to Keith as he could without it being too weird. It was definitely still weird, but his anxiety was at an eleven, he didn't have his fidget cube, and he didn't care if Keith thought he was a little weird because honestly Keith owed him one after that outburst.

Lance saw the large plant with broad yellow leaves that looked like they had faces on them. Despite the heat, a chill went down his spine. It was right after I saw this plant! I remember, I looked up from these leaves and noticed--

“Based off your description, I think the plant you're looking for is this one.” Codir said. Lance followed his gaze, already knowing he was right.

It was as magnificent as it had been the first time. The plant towered above them, its thick stalks stretching up towards the glass ceiling, covered in the bright red thorns that stood out against the dark green stalk like beacons. The thorns all glistened with the thick green sap, now more than it had before. Lance froze at the sight of it, grabbing Keith's hand so he would stay with him. Lance planned on staying far away from the thing, in fear that another prick would turn him all the way into a fish or some other horrific mutant. He kept a firm grip on Keith's hand in fear that Keith would get too close and get transformed too. The only thing worse than all this, the transformation, losing his legs, losing his life as a pilot for Voltron, would be seeing Keith go through it all, too.

Keith glanced back at Lance for just a moment before looking away. He squeezed Lance’s hand in a way that he hoped was reassuring and stayed put.

“Yes, that's it.” Lance said when he managed to get his mouth to work again. He wanted to scold himself for getting so scared about a plant. Another part of him told him he was totally justified in his fear. This plant was literally the root of all his problems, no pun intended.

Codir and Plaxum didn't seem to care that the humans stayed a good ten feet back. Codir silently considered the plant for a moment.

“This plant is called the Red-tipped Lightpole. In the darkness it's thorns light up with bioluminescence. It's also harvested for its flavour. It's an interesting plant as it was imported here by another race a very, very long time ago.” He hummed to himself in thought, looking up at the tops of the Lightpole’s thick stalks, “It was import only until, well actually, until about fifteen years ago.”

Plaxum gasped, “That's when the Baku settled here. I knew I'd seen that plant somewhere else!”

Codir nodded firmly, “Yes, prior to fifteen years ago, the Red-tipped Lightpole wouldn't grow here. We tried several times to grow it in our own gardens, as we use it for food, but any planted stalk would just shrivel. We thought it was our water, as that happens with some plant species. Then it seemed like it started growing natively overnight. This specimen here is one of the ones we took from the Baku garden to keep inside. We have been studying its bioluminescent, as well as trying to figure out why it suddenly began to occur naturally in the outside. Of course now I suppose it seems obvious it was because of the Baku.”

“So it is tied to the Baku,” Keith said, thinking aloud. He looked back at Lance. “What exactly was the Baku again?”

“It's the giant worm thing that tried to kill Hunk and I.” Lance said.

“It grew flora on its back, which brainwashed our people for years!” Plaxum said, “It ate our people, as well! We were its food source! Only a few of us survived by wearing squid on our heads.”

“It was a whole thing,” Lance said to Keith's confused look. He turned back to Codir, “We already theorized all this. We think this plant symbiotes with a predator host, or maybe exclusively a Baku. It has to ability to change organisms into the predator’s main food source... in this case, it was you guys, which is why I now have this.” He gestured down to his tail. Codir tapped his chin thoughtfully.

“Perhaps that is why we have never had any sort of transformative reaction,” he said, “we already are the Baku’s preferred food source.”

“Also explains why it wouldn't grow until you guys got a case of the Bakus,” Lance said, “This thing probably won't grow unless it has a predator to trigger it.” He dared move a little closer, too caught up in thinking to remember to be scared. “You said it was imported by another race?”

“Yes, the Nyxirians, from Nyxir.” Codir said, “They had their own name for the plant. They called it, hmm let me think... it was named Aequor Viridi Mutaris,” He smirked ever so slightly, “It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the Nyxirians love their long words. We renamed it of course, but the original is still used as its scientific name.”

Lance looked back at Keith, smiling the same way he did when they were fighting off an enemy, “We know its name and where it came from. Maybe we can track down the Nyxirians, find out what they know... maybe they have a cure?”

“We haven't dealt with the Nyxirians in years,” Codir said, “in fact all our trade partners have been neglected since the Baku took over. We have much work to do on that front.”

“We need a sample.” Lance said, nodding to the Lightpole, “for studying. Maybe we can figure out something in the lab.”

“This is one of the only Red-tipped Lightpoles left,” Codir said, “all the others died alongside the Baku. I'm not sure if I should compromise our last remaining specimen--”

Please,” Lance cried, surprised by the desperation in his voice, “please, it's the last chance I have.”

“I'm not sure I should desecrate our specimen for someone who blames our people for this accident.” Codir said, this time with a bite to his words and a pointed look to Keith. Lance moved in front of Keith, blocking him from Codir’s scornful gaze.

“Please Codir. You know we're the only reason why you even know a Baku was enslaving you. We're the only reason why you and your people are now safe from being eaten.” Lance said, staring Codir down now with an intense electricity in his eyes. Codir didn't back down, staring back, his coldness unbreaking.

“I am under the command of Queen Luxia to give you information,” Codir said, “not specimens. I am usually a kind soul, I'd like to think, but after being blatantly blamed, for the fate of the universe no less--”

“I am really sorry about that,” Keith said, leaning out from behind Lance, “I didn't... I didn't mean it like that, I was just-- this whole thing has been really stressful, it just got the better of me.” He was trying to regain his role of being diplomatic. He cleared his throat, “Im truly, deeply sorry. If you could just let us have a small portion--”

Codir shook his head. “I'm sorry. I understand it's important to you, but I don't think we can be of any more help to you.” He moved a hand to his coat, pulling out a small device, which looked something like a walkie-talkie. He pressed a button, and it beeped, “In fact I this your visit has come to an end. I'll have the guards come to escort you out.”

“Oh no, no, please--” Lance looked between Codir, the plant, and Keith, feeling his last resort starting to slip away. There was the loud yawning of the big metal doors swinging open. Two large alien seal guards appeared in the doorway. Lance immediately noticed the large spears they held in their arms. They were staring at the humans.

“Plaxum, will you escort our guests out?” Codir moreso demanded than asked. Plaxum looked between Codir and Lance with large eyes. The tension in the water was palpable. Lance was still holding onto Keith's hand, but now he gripped it maybe too hard. He stared up at the Red-tipped Lightpole, a sense of dread building up inside him. They had gotten so close to something, if not the solution, and now it was being ripped away...

“They saved us, Codir!” Plaxum suddenly cried. Codir looked as shocked as Lance did as Plaxum suddenly bolted, swimming up to the Red-tipped Lightpole and snapping off about a foot of the top. Codir gasped, then roared, lunging forward to catch her, but Plaxum was too quick. She was already swimming away, darting past Lance and Keith, “Follow me!”

“Time to go!” Lance cried, glancing back at Codir, only to see him charging towards them. He gripped Keith's hand and rocketed off, putting his newly aquatic body to good use. With one good kick of his tail he took off, dragging Keith along behind him.

The two guards still stood at the door, but Plaxum was able to slip between them before they even realized what was happening. The guards only hesitated for a second, quickly recovering before Lance was able to get though. Lance halted before the door as the two seal guards shifted, blocking the door with their massive bodies. They readied their spears in unison, pointing them towards the humans, slowly creeping forward.

“Shit.” Lance glanced over his shoulder, making eye contact very briefly with Keith behind him. This was it. He had no weapons, no armour, no Lion. There was nowhere to go. Codir advanced towards them seething in a vengeful rage.

Keith's eyes were lit with fire. Unlike Lance, he was still very much armed. With a burst of energy from his jetpack, Keith jumped and flipped over Lance, pulling out his bayard and crashing the blade down into the guards’ spears in one fluid motion. The seals were momentarily stunned as their weapons were knocked out of their hands. Keith landed between them, driving the butt of his bayard into the jaw of one, then the other. The guards collapsed, crashing down in the flowers around them, leaving the door wide open. Lance was still watching with his mouth slightly agape when Keith grabbed him by the hand and propelled through the opening.

They exploded out into the hallway, the momentum carrying them down the straightaway to where the hallway forked. After a quick glance around, Keith spotted Plaxum swimming away down the corridor.

“There! That way!”

At his shout, Lance sped off after her, dragging Keith by hand as they swam down the hallway. Commotion around down the hallway behind them. Lance didn't need to look behind him to know that more guards were following them.

Plaxum slowed only slightly, allowing Lance to catch up, “We have to hurry. I'm sure Codir called an alarm, all the guards in the palace are probably after us!”

“We're screwed,” Lance said, darting around a corner after her. Keith, holding on to Lance by the hand, wasn't as agile in the water. He just barely managed not to crash into the wall. Lance tugged him along, grateful that he had practiced swimming after all. They turned another corner, “They're all going to be waiting for us at the gates, where they know we need to go. They're just going to catch us on our way out of the castle!”

“There are lots of secret ways out of the castle,” Plaxum said, suddenly slowing to a stop. She looked up. Lance and Keith followed her gaze. There was a small, circular hole chiselled into the rock ceiling. It reminded Lance of an air vent, except formed from rock and also underwater. It would be just barely wide enough for them to crawl through. Plaxum wasted no time swimming up to it, pushing the stolen plant through before wriggling in after it.

“You go first, then you can pull me up.” Keith said, just as several guards appeared at one end of the hall.

“There they are!” One shouted. The large men raced towards them, brandishing their spears.

“No need to tell me twice.” Lance said, shooting up to the hole. It was a tight squeeze; the rock cut against his back fin as he pulled his shoulders and hips through, but he didn't complain. The tunnel the hole fed into was not much wider.

“Hurry!” Plaxum, not far down the tunnel, cried. Lance nodded, turning and peering back down into the lower hallway. Keith was staring up at him, eyes wide. He could hear the seal guards approaching.

Lance held out his hand. Keith jumped, paddling through the water until he grabbed hold. Lance hauled him up through the opening, dragging him back until he was completely inside. As his feet pulled up into the tunnel, the guards appeared, reaching and grasping at Keith's disappearing feet. Unlike any action movie he'd ever seen, they did not have gravity keeping them from reaching up into the space. One guard thrust his hand up into the hole before Lance could drag Keith back far enough. The guard’s muscular arm grabbed hold of Keith's ankle and started to pull, dragging him back down into the hallway below.

Lance cried out, holding Keith under the armpits and starting a game of tug-o-war he knew he couldn't win, “Fuck! Keith!”

Keith didn't hesitate. He brandished his bayard and slammed it down on the guard’s hand, several times. The guard screamed out in pain, finally releasing Keith's foot. The paladin clamoured away from the opening before the guard could try again. As the injured hand fell away, three more took his place, but the guards were too large to fit through the opening. Lance watched, arms still around Keith's chest, as hands crawled up into the space, clawing at the ground and reaching at nothing. It was like something out of a horror movie.

“We have to keep moving.” Plaxum said, placing a hand on Lance's shoulder. He jumped only slightly.

“Yeah, okay.” He let go of Keith, patting him on the back, “good thinking with the bayard there.”

“I wasn't really thinking,” Keith said, “just acting.”

“Well, that's what you're best at.” Lance replied, his tone jokingly dry. Keith flashed him a smile, before nodding his chin towards Plaxum.

“Let's go.”

 

***

 

“This hallway should lead us out.” Plaxum said. The three had been travelling through different corridors, shafts, back hallways, and tiny tunnels for fifteen minutes. The whole time Plaxum kept a quick pace, leading them through the twisting castle in what must have been record speed. She never got lost. When Lance asked her how she knew the way, she simply said, “Blumfump, Swirn, and I did a lot of reconnaissance work here. We couldn't get caught then, either. And besides, meraliens have a naturally great sense of direction.”

“That explains why the castle is so meandering.” Lance replied flatly. He was starting to feel a real sense of hatred towards whoever designed the place.

After what felt like forever, Plaxum led them down a narrow hallway, out through a door, and out into the open ocean. They weren't at the front gates of the castle. In fact, they looked to be a mile away from the castle, having emerged from under a sand bluff covered in thick green reeds.

“We’re out,” Lance sighed, floating forward and down into the sand. A cloud of loose sand kicked up around him on impact, “I didn't think we'd make it out.”

“I told you there were secret ways out of the castle.” Plaxum said. She crossed her arms and smiled, the stolen shaft of the Red-tipped Lightpole in one hand.

“I never doubted you, Plaxum,” Lance said, pushing himself up out of the sand, “you're the best.”

“I'm sorry about what I said before,” Keith said, a little awkwardly, “I’m sorry I yelled at you Plaxum. You're pretty cool.”

“Thanks!” Plaxum said, “But you were right. It really is at least partially our fault. I couldn't just sit back and watch Lance suffer when he helped save our people!” She smiled at Lance, who smiled back. She looked down at the plant in her hand, holding it gingerly, keeping her fingers away from the thick thorns. Despite knowing it couldn't hurt her, she was still wary of the thing, “I don't know how much this will help, but you deserve to at least try.” She offered the stem to Lance, who visibly recoiled. Keith took it instead, very carefully, keeping his fingers far away from the thorns.

Plaxum turned and pointed to the distance, over a hill, “Your Lion is just over that hill, but it's probably surrounded by guards.”

“Not for long,” Keith said, pressing a button on the side of his helmet. He could feel Red powering on, and a second later the sound of her engines revving travelled through the water. She appeared quickly, blasting over the hill and landing just behind them, trampling reeds and causing fish to scatter, “And now she's here.”

“They'll be coming soon, so you better get out of here.” Plaxum said, staring up at Red in visible awe. She dragged her eyes away from the Lion, her awe turning grim, but her eyes also read a confident excitement, “I’ll go down there and distract them. I won't let them know you took the plant, I'll say I dropped it somewhere. That should take at least some of the heat off of you, and give you enough time to get out of here.”

“But what about you?” Lance asked, his eyebrows knit, “We can't just leave you to them! What are they going to do to you?!”

“Don't worry, now that the Baku is gone, Queen Luxia would never hurt one of her own,” Plaxum said, “the worst she'd do is kick me out of the castle, and, well, Blumfump, Swirn, and I were just talking about how we preferred living on our own anyways.” She smiled, her head tilted, “I'll be fine!”

“Lance, let's go.” Keith said, backing away towards Red. The Lion bowed and opened its mouth for them, “Thanks again Plaxum. You just saved us.”

“I can't thank you enough, Plaxum.” Lance said, nodding, “Honestly. Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Plaxum said, leaning forward and planting a kiss on Lance's cheek, “You know, the offer still stands if this doesn't work out! You probably won't be allowed back into the castle, but you could live with us!”

“I, uh, I appreciate the offer.” Lance said, one hand rubbing the spot where her lips had just been.

“Alright, let's go.” Keith said, grabbing Lance's arm maybe a bit too aggressively and pulling him back towards the Lion, “Thanks, bye!”

“Goodbye Plaxum!” Lance called out as Keith tugged him up into the ship. Plaxum smiled and waved.

“Good luck becoming an air breather again!”

Chapter Text

Keith threw the stalk in through the threshold, then pulled himself up into the cabin. A second later he pulled Lance up into the cabin, leaving him wriggling on the floor to go get the respiration vest. Keith all but threw the respiration vest at him, then kneeled in front of him to help fasten all the clips. A second later he pressed the button on the back and the vest kicked to life, the pods on the side filling with water.

Lance exhaled loudly, closing his eyes, “It always feels like it takes forever to put on.”

“The next version should have the button on the front so you can just put it on yourself.” Keith said, standing. He pulled off his helmet, shaking out his hair as Red closed her mouth, closing the exit under them. Before he took off his gloves, he picked up the Red-tipped Lightpole and hid it away in one of the many compartments in Red’s cabin. Lance watched him like he was holding a lit stick of dynamite.

“Be careful with that!”

“I am being careful,” Keith said. He snapped the compartment door closed and hurried back to the pilot’s chair. Red was already rumbling, her engines already firing. Keith barely had to touch the throttle for her to take off, speeding away through the water. Lance yelped, sliding across the floor as they accelerated, throttling upwards towards the surface.

“Hang on to something back there.” Keith said with a quick glance over his shoulder. There was the sound of something scratching against metal, then a low thump.

“Easy for you to say!” Lance cried, pushed up against the back wall where he had crashed, “You're in the one designated sitting spot!”

“Just hang on!” Keith snapped. He pulled back the throttle and jammed down on the accelerator, sending Red into a steep climb. Red wasn't good in the water, and who knew if Queen Luxia had an army she could send after them. It seemed like a lot of effort to go through for a piece of plant, but he didn't want to risk it.  He needed to get them out of the water, fast.

It wasn't until Red broke through the surface and glided into the night air that Keith relaxed a bit. He stabilized the Lion, giving her the command to navigate back towards where the wormhole had been. Once she was essentially on autopilot, he got up and went back over to Lance.

Lance didn't look too amused, laying in a bit of a heap in the back corner of the cabin, propped up by one hand, the other drumming on the metal ground, “Oh hey, nice of you to remember that you left me back here on the ground.”

“Uh, I knew the whole time.” Keith rolled his eyes as he held out his hand.

“Knew, and yet didn't care,” Lance said with feigned hurt. He stared at Keith's hand, “What are you doing, trying to help me stand up? Just come over here and pick me up already.”

Keith huffed and threw his head back. Lance did have a point, and he didn’t actually know what he intended to do once Lance took his hand, and Lance was giving him the classic Lance sass for it. He supposed that was one of the reasons he liked Lance. Without another word he crouched and picked Lance up, throwing him over his shoulder like Santa Claus. Lance only put up a mild protest, his hands dangling down Keith's back and far too close to his butt for him to handle.

“How are you so strong?” Lance cried, as Keith carried him back over to the pilot's chair. Keith was all around smaller than Lance but totally just hoisted him up like he was an inconveniently sized bag of flour.

Keith shrugged, maneuvering his way back over to the pilot’s chair and sitting down, letting Lance slide into his lap, “I'm strong? I mean I do work out.”

Lance considered this for a while, staring at Keith in a way that made him feel vaguely uncomfortable, like he was being studied, “I think it's because you're part Galra.” Lance finally said. Keith frowned.

“How does that explain anything?”

“Because you've, on multiple occasions, lifted me completely off the ground like it was nothing, despite being all around a small dude.”

Keith frowned and looked down at himself-- not that he could see anything past Lance and under his armor. “I’m not that small.” He was lean.

“That wasn't the important part of the sentence.” Lance rolled his eyes, a fondness in his voice, “I mean that whole squat thing you did earlier that I barely remember was pretty impressive. And just now, you're not even sweating despite having lifted like a hundred and seventy pounds--”

“I thought you said ninety one.”

“Shut up,” Lance stuck out his black tongue with a playful smile, “Anyways, my theory is that you're just naturally stronger. Y’know, Galra genes and all that.”

“Hm,” Keith still wasn't sure how to react to anything that had to do with his Galra heritage. He felt disconnected to the whole thing. He certainly didn't feel Galra, even after passing the trails of Marmora. He knit his brows, thinking about it, about how this one small part of him had changed how everyone, even his friends, treated him. Galra Keith...

“Hey, it's no big deal, it's just cool.” Lance said, shifting to rest his head on Keith's shoulder, his arms still around his neck. The casual way he did this, as if it was a totally normal, everyday thing, made Keith's heart skip, “Speaking of which, it's really cold in here again. Uhh....” His eyes trailed down to Keith's chestplate. He had been thinking about their skin-to-skin contact since they got back on the ship. He wanted it again, he needed to feel the warmth radiating off Keith's skin, the faint pulse of his heart, the electric feeling of skin brushing against skin. But, apparently asking Keith to take off his shirt was just a little too much.

Apparently he should of asked outright.

“Oh, yeah,” Keith shifted towards the command panel, pressing a few buttons. A second later the heaters came to life, blasting hot air at them, “better?”

Lance stared at him, his face blank and he internally debated if what he was about to say was a good idea, “You need to take your shirt off.” That did not come out right Lance what the hell, “I mean, uh, y’know, like before, the heat, it's... better....” he let out a lame laugh, looking pointedly at nothing, his face beginning to match Keith's armour.

“Oh- oh, that, uhh, yeah sure. Gimme a second...” Keith looked away from Lance, trying to hide the flush of his cheeks. He could tell Lance was blushing too. He knew Lance wasn't just cold.

God they were terrible at this.

He pulled off his gauntlets and chestplate, throwing them over the back of the chair. They clattered against the ground behind them, but Keith barely noticed. He was unzipping the front of the black underlining, exposing his bare chest. Oh right, his shirt was still abandoned on Blue.

Lance didn't even give him time to pull his arms out of the undersuit. The boy leaned forward, sliding his hands between the fabric and Keith's body, running his hands along his chest and around to his back. He could feel Keith's breath catch in his throat.

He didn't know what he was doing. This was so far past a bro bonding moment, but he didn't care. His scaled hands could barely feel anything, but they could feel the heat of Keith's body and the feeling was addicting. He could feel Keith's heartbeat through his skin-- something he wasn't sure he could do before the transformation. He could feel the pace quicken as he brought his hands back around the front, running his thumbs over the shallow crests and slopes of Keith's abs. God, he's so hot. He trailed his fingers along Keith's chest, lost to the feeling, like there was a charged current running through them both.

Suddenly Keith let out a stilted keen, halfway between a moan and a sigh. Lance pulled back, looking up at him. Keith was watching-- had been watching-- with half lidded eyes, his bottom lip between his teeth, his eyebrows knit. He dragged in a ragged breath, “S-sorry.”

“No, I, uh--” Lance pulled back, unsure of how to react. Had he done something wrong? “I shouldn't have--”

“Keep going,” Keith said, barely a whisper, so quiet Lance wasn't sure he had heard right. He hesitated, but Keith took his hands, pulling him back towards him, “please?”

Lance nodded. This was all so surreal. But he was still riding the adrenaline from escaping the castle, and he was feeling pretty brave. He leaned forward again, trailing his hands around Keith's hips and then up along his back to his shoulderblades. They were pressed against each other, the heat radiating off of Keith was almost overwhelming, but Lance couldn't get enough. He trailed his fingers along the small of his back, and pressed his face into the crook of Keith's neck. What were they doing? He was so confused, about what this meant. Keith was letting him do this-- no, Keith had told him to keep going, Keith was enjoying this. Lance pushed away these thoughts, because it all didn't matter right now. All that mattered was how utterly amazing it felt to be curled up against him.

Keith's breath was stilted, shallow and catching in his throat. He brought his shaking hands up around Lance's waist, then slipped them under the vest’s tight fabric, running them along the line where his scales turned to skin. Lance shuddered, and let out a squeak when Keith moved his hands to his back, gently rubbing circles against the sensitive skin where his fin grew out along his spine. Lance tensed, his tail curling tightly around Keith's leg. An electric sensation erupted out from his core, all the way to the tips of his fingers, like static. It was overwhelming, intense, it lit a fire inside him. He pressed harder against Keith, listening to his heart, his breath, his bones move.

This was such a perfect moment. So surreal, but so perfect.

Keith leant back, eyes dragging their way up Lance’s body and settling on his face. Lance stared back at him, wordless, his eyes wide and wondrous. Keith pulled one hand away to cup Lance’s cheek. Lance leaned into his warm touch, his eyes drifting closed.

Keith gently stroked Lance’s cheek with his thumb before moving it lower to play at the corner of his mouth. Lance opened his eyes again to see Keith staring at his mouth. Lance’s heartbeat quickened as Keith gently stroked his bottom lip. Is he gonna-? Keith leaned forward.

The vidcomm crackled to life, ending the moment so abruptly that Lance screamed a little. Shiro's head appeared, stretched across the screen in front of them.

“Alright, please let me know why Queen Luxia just contacted us claiming-- what are you doing?” His expression changed from stern to confused shock. Lance pulled back from Keith, a look of horror spreading across both their faces.

“I- it’s not-,” Keith stammered, and suddenly stood, dumping Lance onto the floor. His brain and his body were not working in unison, mostly because his brain was scrambling for something, “just, uh, what'sgoingon?” He glanced down and quickly scrambled to zip up his suit.

Lance laid on the floor, eyes closed. He probably deserved this.

“Uh,” Shiro took a deep breath and kept going, “We just received word that you two stole a, ahem, ‘priceless botanical specimen’ from the Queen’s greenhouse.”

“That may have happened, yeah.” Keith said. Shiro frowned.

“I told you to be on your best behaviour, and you took that as an invitation to steal from our allies?”

“They weren't going to give us a sample! They--”

“It doesn't matter. Just get back here. Allura’s going to open a wormhole for you. We’ll talk about it when you get back.” Shiro said, voice terse. The vidcomm went dead. Keith deflated, slumping back into his chair.

“Shit. We're in deep shit.”

“Ehn,” Lance, still on the floor, waved it away, “it'll be fine. What is he going to do, ground us? It's not like we could have just left empty handed. I mean, we could have but, well, that would have sucked. For me, mostly. Besides, Plaxum's the one who stole the plant, technically.”

“I may have assaulted some guards,” Keith said, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, rubbing his face, “That wasn't Plaxum.”

“Well, I really appreciate it.” Lance said, “I don't care what Shiro says, if that plant can get me my legs back it was worth it.”

“Yeah, I agree,” Keith said. He would do anything to get Lance his legs back, “Let's get back to the castle.” He pulled Lance up by his armpits without another word.

“You're manhandling me again!” Lance cried, but he didn't actually sound mad. Keith had been doing some pretty sweet ‘manhandling’ a few minutes ago and Lance didn't mind if that continued. Though it was immediately obvious that that wouldn't happen. Keith wasn't even looking at him, staring straight our the windshield into the night sky, his jaw set and his lips a thin line.

“Sorry.” Keith said without sounding sorry at all. He was tense, probably milling over every way he had fucked up in the last two hours and how stern and disappointed not angry Shiro was going to be. It was going to be rough, only made worse by the weird authority/older brother dynamic Keith and Shiro had that Lance could never really understand.

“You're overthinking it.” Lance said, leaning back against him. Keith looked down at him and smiled, and Lance could see the worry fade from his eyes.

“Hey, no, you're the one who overthinks things.” He laughed quietly. Lance felt a little better.

A wormhole appeared in the sky, a big black circle shattering the starry night. Keith retook command of the controls, steering Red towards it with ease. A second later they were coasting through, and the wormhole closed behind them, leaving the night sky as if nothing had happened.

 

***

 

“This is not good at all. Not good.” Coran was pacing in circles in front of them, “The meraliens are a peaceful race, or they were ten thousand years ago. Who knows if they'll seek vengeance, or what modes of vengeance they have. They may very well be militarized--”

“I highly doubt that, Coran.” Allura said, sitting on one of the couches in the main seating area. Keith sat on the couch, too, while Lance was sitting in his scooter, leaned forward against the handlebars, his tail flopped down onto the floor. Shiro stood still in front of them, silently listening since Keith and Lance pled their case a few minutes prior. Allura sighed, “I don't think they would go through so much trouble over a simple plant. Especially after all we've done for them.”

“Yeah, the simple act of saving them from a life of brainwashed enslavement to an alien plant worm.” Lance sneered. Shiro gave him a look, arms crossed.

“We’ll have to make a trip to personally apologize.” Allura said, looking between Shiro and Coran, “Us three, maybe bring them a gift.”

Lance grunted, “Why even bother? They're obviously not the most helpful people.”

“Because we can use all the allies we can get,” Shiro said, speaking for the first time since they arrived, “And we definitely don't need to be making enemies.”

“Even if they are jerks.” Keith grumbled, sinking lower into his seat.

“Even if they're not the nicest of people.” Shiro nodded.

“They weren't nice because you stole from them!” Coran said.

“No, we stole from them because they weren't nice!” Lance said, “And we didn't steal anything!”

“We were given stolen contraband,” Keith added.

“Well as far as Queen Luxia cares, you've stolen from her people,” Coran sighed, “Even if it was for a noble purpose.”

“So we’ll go apologize tomorrow.” Shiro nodded, looking to the two boys, “You two will stay here. Actually, I don't want either of you going out on your own-- or together-- until further notice.”

“What, you're grounding us?” Lance said, disregarding the irony in the fact that he literally couldn't leave on his own even if he wanted.

“I just don't want you two messing up any more foreign relations until you've learned to keep a cool head in tough situations.” Shiro was looking directly at Keith. His tone relaxed slightly, “Look, I know the plant's important to changing Lance back, but maybe if you had just talked to Luxia instead of stealing from her botanists and beating up her guards....”

Keith looked down at his feet. “You’re right... I really messed up.”

Lance bit his lip. He didn't think Keith had messed up at all. If they didn't get a sample of the plant, they couldn't analyze it, and they couldn't figure out a way to reverse the process... if there was one. He wanted to scream this at the others because they didn't seem to get it. Without Plaxum and Keith, any hope of getting back to normal would be locked in the back of some greenhouse underwater. But he held his tongue. He had a bad habit of making things worse if he kept trying to prove his point.

“Despite the trouble you've caused, I'm glad you got a piece of the plant.” Shiro finally said. Allura nodded. Even Coran seemed to agree, though his arms were crossed and he was pulling at his moustache like he was trying to pull it off.

“I just hope it amounts to something.” Coran said, “I suggest you make use of the castle’s extensive research engine, that should generate some leads.”

“I was going to bring it to the lab.” Lance said, pausing, “I mean, if you guys even have one. I don't know if you do?”

“Yes, though I'm not sure how similar to your human laboratories it is.” Allura said, “I can take you there later. For now, I have some calls to make.” She stood, smoothing out her dress, “Actually, I'm going to do that now, if you'll excuse me.”

“I'll come with you, Princess.” Coran said, moving to walk in line with her. He nodded his goodbye to the other three, and the two Alteans left the room. Lance let out a loud sigh, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling.

“Why are they so uptight about it? C’mon, Shiro, you gotta know how important it was to get the stupid plant! The Queen’s overreacting anyways!”

“Maybe,” Shiro said in his calm and even voice. The voice of reason, “But I'm not a master of alien relations. They have a lot more experience than we do. I'm sure if Coran thinks it's a problem then it's a problem. And I don't think it's wise to be insulting alien races when there's seven of us and hundreds, if not thousands, of them.”

“Codir probably told her that we tried to murder him,” Keith mumbled. Lance groaned.

“It's really all his fault, if he hadn't been so stuck up.”

“Maybe if I hadn't screamed at them about how they fucked the universe.” Keith sighed.

Shiro snorted. “You said that?”

“Yeah he did,” Lance said, a grin cracking, “Actually he said, and I quote ‘y’all fucked the universe’.”

“Really?” Shiro looked to Keith, barely containing his laughter, “y’all?”

Keith stared at Lance, wide eyed. “I did?”

“Uh huh, it was a definite contraction of you and all.” Lance smirked, “I've never heard you say that before.”

Keith covered his mouth with his hand and leaned his elbow on his knees. “Shit.

“Hey, language.” Shiro said.

“Hey, fuck you.” Keith frowned.

Shiro laughed, then added with a smirk, “I've heard you say it before though, when you're stressed,” he turned to Lance, “it's because of where he grew up.”

“Wait, where did you grow up?” ‍Lance raised a brow. Judging by Shiro's face it was going to be good.

“No, no let’s drop this. It’s not important.” Keith looked between Lance and Shiro, his jaw clenched.

“Whaaaat, just tell me!” Lance said, “I told you where I'm from! Dude, I invited you to my house and you won't even tell me where you're from.”

“Nope, it’s not the same,” Keith crossed his arms. “You will never know.”

“C’mon man, don't tell me you're embarrassed about being from Texas.” Shiro said, a definite smug grin on his face. Lance gasped.

Shiro!!” Keith cried. “I hate you!”

“Uh huh.” Shiro crossed the space between them and had the audacity to ruffle Keith's hair. Keith smacked his hand away. “You know I'm not sworn to secrecy.” He winked, an action Keith wanted to stop immediately and never see again.

“Well it would have been nice, Takashi!” Keith spat, saying his name in the most obnoxiously Southern way.

“I can't believe this!” Lance cried, hands pressed to his cheeks, mouth agape in a hyperbolic display of shock, “You're southern and you never told me! Oh my god. Can you say ‘ride ‘em cowboy’ for me?”

“No.”

“What about ‘there's a snake in my boot’.”

“Lance, no.”

“Okay, okay, how about a good old ‘howdy partner’?”

“Lance, you’re not even American, stop it with the stereotypes.”

“Hey, stereotypes is like all I know about Americans.” Lance said, leaning his head against his elbow. Shiro laughed.

“Alright, I'm going to go help Coran and the Princess with this meraliens thing.” He said, sighing. He gave them a serious look, “I'm serious about the no flying thing. And please be more careful next time.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Lance said, “next time I'll be sure to kiss their ass the right way.”

“Lance,” Shiro gave him a deadpan look. He turned to leave, stopping just before the door, when he turned and added, “by the way, I'm glad you two have worked out your differences.” He winked again and slipped out through the door.

Keith stood and shouted after him. “Bye Shy-ro-gain!

Lance almost fell off his scooter laughing, “What even was that? Was that supposed to be his name?”

“He hates it when people say his name wrong,” Keith said, sitting down again, “that’s why he goes by Shiro. And it’s why I butcher it whenever he’s being a dick.”

Lance gave Keith the fondest of looks, “You're so salty.”

“I- I’m what?”

“Y'know, salty? Like, uh, sassy and spiteful.” Lance gestured vaguely, completely unsurprised by this, “How is it you're the American and you don't even know the slang?”

“I lived in a shack in the desert.”

“I mean before that!”

“The Garrison...?”

“No, before that!

Keith stared at Lance blankly. “Another shack. In another desert.”

“A Texan desert?” Lance’s eyebrows were much too far up his forehead. They were getting dangerously close to waggling.

“Fuck you.”

“Don’t you mean, fuck y’all?

“I’m gonna murder you.”

Lance cackled madly and puttered away on his scooter.

 

***

 

“Sooo, tell us what happened.” Pidge said, kicking her feet in the water, sitting on the edge of the pool. Next to her sat Hunk, cross legged and tinkering with the back of the respiration vest.

“What? Tell you what?” Lance asked, mid stuffing something like an egg roll in his mouth.

Keith whipped his head to the side, balking at Pidge. His mind snapped to the slight possibility that she knew about what had happened on the Lion. The post-escape body touching incident. He hadn't stopped thinking about it since it had happened. She knows. Shiro told everyone and they know. “What?” His voice came out much higher than he’d hoped.

“Y’know, at the palace,” Pidge said, “you went to a different planet? To get the plant? Remember? It was like twenty minutes ago?”

Oh. Keith cleared his throat. “Oh, right, that.”

Pidge squinted at him. Keith was incredibly bad at lying, and he was suddenly acting... avoidant, “Why, did something else happen?”

Lance and Keith exchanged glances. Keith shook his head and replied a little too quickly, “No.”

“Well I almost died. Again.” Lance said, hoping it would be enough to throw her off the trail, “Turns out I'm cold blooded. Good thing the Alteans invested in a heated pool or I probably would have found out way too quickly to figure it out.”

“Oh man. That's amazing!” Hunk said, looking up from his work, “What happened?”

“He passed out. I had to warm him up.” Keith said. He glanced back at Lance. The trajectory of the conversation was steering right back to the Do Not Talk About territory.

“Red put the heaters on full blast.” Lance said, navigating the conversation with much more ease than Keith ever could, “Keith didn't even have to tell her. Has anyone ever actually studied the whole lion-paladin connection? Can they hear our thoughts all the time? Like Siri but sentient.”

“That's not like Siri at all.” Pidge said, incredibly serious. “That’d be like if Siri was connected to your brain and listening at all times.”

“Siri is listening at all times.”

“Not to your brain!”

“I know! It was still an okay metaphor Pidge!”

“Actually it was a simile,” Hunk said, “you used the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ in that sentence.”

Keith smiled, silently thanking whatever god that allowed them to steer clear of that topic.

“Whatever,” Pidge waved her hand at them as if waving away the dumb conversation, “did you guys get the plant?”

“Yeah...” Lance grimaced, before stuffing another egg roll in his mouth, “Keith sorta stabbed a few dudes though.”

“I didn’t stab anyone.” Keith frowned. “Well--”

Well?” Pidge exclaimed. “You stabbed someone?”

“It was more of a slicing motion.” Lance said, gesturing with his free hand, “I don't think he actually drew any blood.”

“But why?” Hunk asked, “I thought they loved us! They threw us a feast.”

“Well-- ok here’s the thing. The guy, Codir,” Keith said his name dripping with venom, “he wouldn’t give us a sample--”

“Cause you yelled at him and Plaxum.” Lance said.

Keith huffed. “Yes, I did do that. Anyway. He wasn’t going to give us a sample, even though we really needed it. So Plaxum broke off a piece and told us to run.”

“Awh yeah, Plaxum’s the best.” Hunk said.

“Why did you yell at them?” Pidge asked, not letting that little fact slip through the cracks.

“Because he loves me.” Lance said, giving Keith a playful smirk.

Keith closed his eyes, ignoring Lance. “Because... well, I’dunno, I got mad.”

“They weren't being that understanding of the whole situation,” Lance said, “and Keith lost his temper.” As usual. “Then he sorta took it out on Plaxum... and then Codir decided he didn't want to help us at all.”

Whaaat, you yelled at Plaxum?” Hunk cried, staring at Keith, “Plaxum’s my girl.”

“I thought Shay was your girl.” Pidge grinned.

“Hey, rude,” Hunk said, looking mildly embarrassed, “can't a guy have more than one homegirl?”

“I apologized,” Keith said, slightly offended.

“Uh huh,” Lance looked up at him, smiling, “She looked so sad, Keith. How could you do that to her? And then she went on to save our asses anyways.”

“Are you trying to make me feel even more guilty?” Keith wrinkled his nose.

“So what are you going to do now?” Hunk asked, going back to his tinkering, “Now that you do have a sample and everything.”

“Analyze it in the lab,” Lance said, “do some research and see if anyone’s ever figured this out. Codir said they imported the plant, which means it comes from somewhere else natively. Maybe we can figure out who that was and see if they ever figured out how to reverse the effects.”

“Do you think there is one?” Pidge asked, “A way to reverse the effects I mean.”

“Well, I'm hoping.” Lance shrugged, looking away, “I don't want to be a fish forever. Though if I am I have a home with Plaxum, apparently.”

Keith made a weird noise, then cleared his throat as if to cover it up, “We’ll figure it out before it comes to that.”

Lance snorted, raising an eyebrow, “Okay. What if I lived with Swirn or Blumfump instead? Would that make you happier?” He smirked up at Keith. He sure did get touchy around the subject of Lance spending any time with Plaxum.

Keith knit his eyebrows. “No. I want you here.

“Awh, you're so sweet Keith.” Lance winked and blew Keith a kiss. Keith stared at him stone faced. Pidge squinted at them.

 

***

 

Pidge and Hunk stayed for a while longer, and while it was fun to hang out together again, Lance honestly couldn't wait for them to leave. He wanted to sit Keith down and talk about what the fuck that had been. He hadn't been able to think about anything else since Keith had unceremoniously dumped him on Red’s floor.

He couldn't believe he had totally fondled Keith and the guy wasn't freaking out about it at all. Actually at the time he looked like he had been enjoying it. He had even asked him to keep going, for god's sake! And Lance had really enjoyed it too. Honestly, he wouldn't mind if they continued where they had left off. He wasn't sure what this all meant, though. The fact that Keith was acting like it hadn't happened had him the most worried. Granted, they hadn't been alone together since, and Keith was sorta a secretive guy. Maybe he just didn't want to talk about it. Lance felt the whole face-touching-about-to-kiss-maybe thing was hard to just let go. Then again, maybe it wasn't a big deal at all. Maybe that was just a thing bros did, when they both liked dudes? He wasn't sure.

He was still very new to the whole ‘liking dudes’ thing, but he couldn't imagine it was much different than liking chicks, which meant that... Keith was maybe into him? For some reason the idea that Lance's crush could be mutual just boggled his mind. There had been a while where he had been certain that Keith downright hated him. Then there had been a period of mutual contempt, then a fledgling alliance, and eventually a friendship. He realized now that for most of that time he had also been madly in love with Keith. But to think that Keith could ever have felt the same way was... almost unimaginable.

Though he had been imagining it since that moment in the Lion. Maybe this crush was mutual? It was becoming a more and more likely theory.

He was a man of science. He had to test this theory.

So when Pidge and Hunk left, Lance sidled up to Keith-- well, as much as he could, given he was in the water and Keith was sitting on the pool’s edge-- and put a hand on his knee.

“Hey.” He tried to sound seductive, the same approach he had when trying to woo the ladies. Of course, he had never been successful with wooing a lady, but he figured Keith wouldn't be able to resist his waggling eyebrow and charm. He imagined Keith would throw himself at him and confess his love soon after, proving his theory correct.

Keith stared blankly at Lance. “What’s up?” He stared at him a minute longer when Lance didn’t respond. “Why are you doing that with your eyebrows?”

Oh right, Keith was a brick wall when it came to any sort of human interaction. Lance rolled his eyes. That approach wasn't going to work. He'd have to try something else to test his theory. Maybe he could try actually flirting, “So, uh. Good job stabbing those seal guards today.” Real Flirting, as it turns out, is much harder than Fake Flirting.

Keith frowned. “I didn’t stab anyone, the blade wasn’t even out.”

Lance sucked in a deep breath. He was bad at this, “No, I mean. I uh, I know you didn't stab them I was just being, uh, conversational.”

Keith blinked at him, staring silently for a few moments. His eyes slowly drifted over to where Lance’s hand still rested on his knee. “...Conversational?” He mumbled.

“Yes, that is a word.” Lance replied flatly, “Can't a dude have a conversation with another dude?”

“I guess...” Keith knit his eyebrows. Why were they having this awful conversation? How was Lance so calm when all he was thinking about was what happened in the lion? Lance looked like he had a specific objective he was trying to achieve with this so far thrilling discussion, but whatever it was Keith couldn't figure it out, “Why are you rubbing my knee?”

“Uh,” Lance stared at the knee in question while looking like his brain flatlined for a moment. Why was he rubbing Keith's knee? “Uh. It looked cold?”

“Lance, I’m warmer than you are.” Keith said. He put his hand over Lance's, “See, I'm a hot blooded mammal.”

“It's warm blooded, Keith.” Lance said, feeling the urge to abort this theory test now. Now he was the one getting flustered, Keith looked mildly intrigued. “Now you're just holding my hand!”

“You put it there first.”

“Yeah, I was testing a theory.” Lance said. He regretted this when Keith's eyebrows started to raise.

“A theory?” Keith asked, “What, that my knee is warm?”

“No.” Lance started to pull his hand away in an attempt to flee under the water, but Keith held on.

“Then what is it?” Keith started to grin, noticing how red Lance's face was getting.

“It's not important!” Lance cried. This was a disaster. He could tell he was blushing crazily, mostly because Keith was holding his hand. This was the opposite of what he wanted. Keith didn't look bothered at all. In fact he looked amused by the whole thing.

Keith tugged on Lance’s hand. “Lance, what theory? C’mon I wanna know.” Lance sunk down into the water until only his eyes were above the surface. His eyes and his one trapped arm. Keith was tugging at his arm, his smile a smug grin, “Lance, why are you being so grumpy about it? Just tell me!”

Lance moved quickly, sliding his hand upwards and grabbing onto Keith’s wrist. Then he pulled, dragging the boy down into the water. Keith sputtered and screamed as he fell in. Lance cackled, “What? What did you say Keith? I can't hear you over your splashing!”

Keith surfaced, sputtering and trying to wipe the water off his face. “You got my shirt wet again!”

“Oh no, you're going to have to take it off now.” Lance said. Ah yes, the good old Fake Flirt. He was much better at this. Much to his amazement, this got a bigger reaction than any of his Real Flirts.

Keith sunk down into the water to hide his blush. Lance gasped audibly at this development.

“You're blushing!”

“No-ugblrb!” Keith gurgled on the water, apparently forgetting his mouth was still under. He spit out the water and wiped off his mouth. “No I’m not!” Lance snickered.

“You sure about that? If your face was next to the red lion I wouldn't be sure which was which.”

Keith splashed water in Lance’s face. “That’s dumb!”

“No, it totally proves my theory, I think.” Lance said.

Keith moved closer to smack Lance in the chest. “What stupid theory!?”

“There's one last test I’d have to run before I can say for sure one way or the other.” Lance said, holding onto Keith's hand when it had smacked against him. Keith stared at him, then stared at their joined hands.

“And what's that?” Keith asked, his voice significantly softer.

“Well, I’d have to get your permission to run the test,” Lance said, idly tucking a stray tuft of wet hair behind Keith's ear, “Y’know, clear it with the ethics boards and stuff. Do I have your permission?”

“Uh.” Keith said, still caught up on the tender hair tuck and what the ethics board had to do with anything, “Yes?”

“Okay.” Lance closed his eyes, psyching himself up, and took a deep breath. Then he leaned forward, closing the gap between them, and planting a kiss on Keith's cheek. He pulled back with the dumbest smile on his face, “Okay, so, how'd that make you feel?”

Keith slowly brought his free hand to his cheek. “I...” He looked up at Lance, his eyes sparkling. He grabbed Lance’s face and pulled him down into a kiss, their lips meeting and pressing against each other in a way that was almost desperate. Lance coped, leaning into it, moving his hands to cup Keith's cheeks. He never wanted the kiss to end. He had only had a handful of kisses in his life, and this one was by far the most perfect. Maybe because it meant the most. Maybe because it felt so good; when his hands could barely feel anything, what he did feel was meant so much more, felt so much more intense. Maybe it was because it was Keith, and he was a mermaid in space, which were quite extraordinary circumstances for a first kiss, therefore making the kiss rather extraordinary as well. Whatever the reason, Lance thought it was a Very Good kiss, and it seemed to stretch on forever. It theoretically could have, if Keith hadn't pulled away, seeing as Lance didn't need his mouth to breath anymore.

Keith slid his hands down to rest on Lance’s shoulders, his trembling arms unable to keep himself afloat. He looked up at Lance, a tentative smile tugging at his mouth. “Your lips are soft.”

Lance shrugged. “Well I moisturize, so...” he trailed off.

Keith burst into a fit of giggles, all the nervous tension washing away. He wrapped his arms around Lance’s neck and leaned against him.

“So I guess my theory was correct,” Lance mused, “you do like me!”

“I have for like, five months now, but thanks for noticing.”

“Wait, what?” Lance leaned back to stare at Keith, “Really? Since we met again?”

“Uh, about a week after.”

Really? And you just kept it all inside?” Lance said, “Dude. I Fake Flirted with you for months!”

“Yeah, literal torture.” Keith put a hand over his mouth, trying to calm his laughter. “I thought you were straight man.”

“I mean, I did too.” Lance said, but he couldn't stop grinning, “You're laughing so much. You're so cute when you laugh, Keith.”

Keith hid his face against Lance’s shoulder. “Shut up,” he said, but the smile never left his face.

Chapter Text

 

“So, like, you've never seen any marvel movies?” Lance asked, “None at all? Not even the Avengers? It's a classic!”

“Nope.” Keith shook his head. “Never really been a movie person.”

“No wonder you never get any references.” Lance groaned, “Not even Captain America? Civil War was pretty good. Robert Downey Jr. was dreamy.” He said, realizing his ironic gay crush on the man probably wasn't as ironic, and way more gay than he originally thought.

“These words mean nothing to me.”

“You don't know Robert Downey Jr.?” Lance groaned loudly, “Or do you not know what ‘dreamy’ means? God, so you haven't seen any of the four Jurassic Park trilogies? Original was the best. Jeff Goldblum? Also dreamy.”

It was very late, probably past two in the morning. The two had been talking for hours, just enjoying each other's company. They had, for a little bit, talked about feelings, but talking about feelings was something Lance liked to avoid. Even good feelings, like finding out that your crush has a mutual crush on you, which was, arguably, one of the best feelings. The conversation had been mostly giggles and embarrassing confessions. It turned out that Keith had had a crush on Lance for a long time, which was downright amazing to Lance because he hardly survived living with a realized crush for two days. Although, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he had had feelings for Keith for a lot longer, but he was so wrapped up in... being a ladies man, he never even let himself admit to the feeling. He figured he had been holding it in this whole time; looking back on things, like his love for The Goldblum and his slick, untoned chest in Jurassic Park, made much more sense than “I want him to bone me for ironic reasons”. Not that boning the ghost of Jeff Goldblum wouldn't be ironic.

Honestly, since coming out, he felt much better, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Of course that weight had been briefly replaced by the crushing realization that he was enamoured with a teammate. But now, now he felt like he could fly.

Which, honestly, was even more ironic.

So the conversation had quickly moved past their awkward feelings-- though that continued to come up-- and onto more important topics, like an extended catalogue of which movies Keith had and had not seen. This often corresponded into what slang terms Keith knew, which weren't many.

“Of course I know what dreamy means, I’m looking right at it.” Keith said with a smirk.

Lance made a strange, gurgling screech, at least in part due to the fact they were both under water. He couldn't take this new Flirting Keith, it was too much for his poor heart, even though Keith was laying curled up against him and the two had totally kissed, like, more than once.

Keith snorted, grinning wide at Lance. “What?”

“That was too smooth, I can't take it,” Lance said, starting to laugh, “not from you!”

The two were curled up together, limbs freely intertwined, Lance's tail wrapped around Keith's leg in a decidedly possessive way. Keith was wearing his armour, except his gloves. He braved the wrinkling fingers so he could run his hands along Lance's scales. The two were under Lance's blankets, not that they were doing much, but Lance liked the feeling, so Keith was wrapped up under the blankets with him. They had been like this for at least a few hours, though at one point they had swam back up to the surface to do some good old fashioned canoodling.

Keith laughed quietly into the back of his hand- which served no purpose as his helmet was in the way. “What, you dish out this shit all the time, but can’t handle me calling you dreamy?

“No.” Lance said, “It's too weird. I mean I know I'm dreamy, but I'm so used to you calling me stupid, or weird. You're not being mean enough.”

“What you want me to be mean to you?”

No, I’m just not used to it. Not that you've ever been that mean to me. Except literally yesterday when you were ignoring me.”

“Nope, that was you, I merely ran away.”

Merely, okay sir Lancelot,” Lance rolled his eyes as dramatically as possible, “you also just said you've never heard of Jeff Goldblum, I take that as a personal offence.”

“Shouldn’t you be Lancelot?” Keith quirked an eyebrow. “And sorry I don’t have time for old movies.”

“When we get back to Earth I’ll show you all the classics,” Lance said, “Have you seen The Princess Bride? Don't even tell me, I'm sure you haven't. Maybe something more recent, uh... Marco’s Big Adventure? That only came out like three years ago!”

“That sounds stupid,” Keith grimaced.

“Yeah it was pretty bad. It was based off another classic from the 1990’s, but they totally lost all the character in the reboot.” He thought silently for a moment, “Okay, have you ever even seen a movie?”

“Uh, stupid kids’ movies when I was little. I barely remember them.”

“Hey, kids movies can be art, okay. Have you seen anything from Pixar? Jeez,” He huffed out a sigh, which formed a bubble that floated away to the surface. Lance watched it and added, “I love movies. When we get back to Earth we can spend days watching all the good ones, even ones from the twenty first century.”

“You really miss Earth, don't you?” Keith asked, quiet. He didn't need Lance to answer. He knew, out of all the Paladins, Lance probably missed home the most. He never really understood, maybe because he didn't have a home to go back to. He preferred space. He was surrounded by people he loved and who loved him, he got to do exciting missions and help people, and there were aliens everywhere. Space was way better than Earth. But anytime anyone mentioned Earth, or going home, Lance got a distant look in his eye.

“Yeah,” Lance said, somberly, “not just Earth, I miss my family. My home. Being home, yknow? My mom's cooking, being able to ride my bike down to the beach. I even miss the noise of the dumb gulls. I miss speaking Spanish at home.” He sighed, “I mean, I love being out here, fighting for the greater good of the universe, shooting up baddies and saving aliens and stuff. I just... I feel so far from home.”

Keith was quiet for some time. “I don’t have a home to go back to.”

“Uh, yeah, dude, what have I been talking about this whole time? You can come home with me! How else are we gonna watch awesome 90s movies?”

Keith wasn't sure what to say, because Lance had just offered his home to him in the most casual way possible, as if it was a totally normal thing. Lance was entirely too nice. They had kissed like three times and he was alluding to bringing Keith home with him, “I... that's... what?”

“What, did you want to go back to the desert hut?” Lance looked at him as if he thought Keith might have actually preferred the hut in the middle of nowhere, “I just thought maybe you'd want to come back with me? I mean we get along pretty good and, uh, I know my house is pretty crowded but I think my mom would love you. Uh. Once she gets over the whole ‘gay’ thing. I mean, me being gay-- well, bi-- not... my parents are pretty open, they wouldn't. Y'know. Uh.”  

Keith stared at Lance in disbelief before his expression softened. He wrapped his arms around Lance’s neck and pressed himself against him. “Yeah... yeah I’d like that.”

“...What, coming home with me or my parents?” Lance asked, genuinely confused.

Keith held on tighter. “Coming home with you, you dork!”

“Oh! Yeah, I’d like that too.”

 

***

 

Keith woke up first the next morning, sore and stiff. Night three of sleeping on the bottom of the pool in his armour was not great on his joints. He felt a bit like an old man, especially his neck, which cracked ominously when he turned to the side to see Lance, who was still asleep. Lance was asleep on his side, most of him splayed across Keith, especially his tail which was wrapped so tight around Keith's leg he actually couldn't feel his foot. Lance didn't seem to mind sleeping on the floor nearly as much at he did; if he was ever stiff in the morning, he didn't complain. Keith had a running theory that most of Lance's bones had been replaced with a thick cartilage that let him bend much better, and maybe sleep on a hard surface without feeling like he was eighty years old. At some point during the night Keith had put his gloves back on, because his hands had gotten so wrinkly they hurt. Now he moved a gloved hand over Lance's back, trying to wake the boy up gently, “Hey, Lance. Lance, wake up.”

“Mm?” Lance squished himself closer to Keith, stirring but not opening his eyes, “Whas it?”

“You gotta get up off me, I need to piss.” Keith grunted. He started to sit up, rolling Lance off his chest.

“Wha...” Lance opened his eyes, now face down in the pile of blankets. He propped himself up on one elbow, looking up at Keith with a dumb sleepy smile, “Where you goin?”

“To the bathroom,” Keith said, untangling himself from Lance's tail and the mass of heavy, wet blankets and quickly jetting away to the surface.

Lance followed him up, breaking the surface with a yawn, “Why bother leaving to go?”

Keith looked back over his shoulder and squinted at Lance. “What?” He paddled over to the edge of the pool and pulled himself out.

“Why bother getting out of the pool to piss, I mean, it's already contaminated by me.” Lance shrugged.

Keith made a face, “You’ve been peeing in here this whole time?”

“Dude, uh, where else am I meant to go?” Lance said, as if this were obvious, and his pool peeing wasn't a totally gross thing, “I don't see you ever offering to bring me to the bathroom! And if you remember, I literally had to go since before I was turned, so, yeah, I've been going in the pool. Oh my god, stop making that face, it's not that weird. The pool is filtered.”

Keith didn’t stop making that face. “I’ve been swimming in that water! Oh god, it’s been in my mouth!"

“Fish poop in the ocean all the time,” Lance said, matter-of-factly.

“I’ve never been in the ocean!” Keith cried, pulling off his helmet and shaking out his hair.

“You know how much fish shit was probably floating around in the castle yesterday? At the feast?” Lance stuck out his long, black tongue in the most annoying manner possible, “Besides, I’m breathing it all in. You're lucky. The skin is not super permeable to water, anyways. Its harmless.”

Keith stuck out his tongue in return, “Blegh! Well I’m not gonna piss in there and add to your giant toilet, thank you very much. Besides, I’m in my suit, I’d just be peeing on myself.”

“Right,” Lance said, “and here I am, naked. It's actually pretty liberating, not having to wear clothes. At least my penis doesn't hang out, flopping around against my tail. I don't actually know where my penis even is, or if I even still have one.” He shrugged, as if this was a normal thing to say.

Keith, apparently, didn’t get the memo and shrugged with him. “It’s probably inside, like a snake. Or, wait, I guess fish are different than reptiles. Do you know if fish have dicks?”

“They don't usually. Some fish like sharks do, because they're live-bearing animals rather than most fish that just jizz on a bunch of external eggs to procreate.” Lance said, coming to an awful realization. He let out a wail and buried his face in his hands, “Keith, how are we going to have sex if I don't have a dick?”

Keith coughed, choking on nothing. He sputtered out nonsense before actually finding words, “I- I’m gonna go pee, I’ll bring back breakfast.” Keith stood mechanically and marched out of the room to the tune of Lance's cackling laughter.

“Wait, come back, Keith! I was joking! Sorta!”

Keith didn't turn around, slipping out the door. He flashed Lance the middle finger on the way out.

Lance gasped, feigning shock at the rude gesture. “Keith, how could you! Bring me back two servings of breakfast! And more of those protein bars if they got them! Please!” He watched the door slide close. With a sigh, he grabbed his fidget cube from the edge of the pool and slipped back down under the water.

 

***

 

After visiting the bathroom, Keith made his way to the kitchen. Somewhat unfortunately, Shiro, Pidge, and Hunk were all eating breakfast in the kitchen as well. Keith tried to quickly conceal the dopey grin that had been on his face since the night before, but apparently not quickly enough. Pidge was giving him the look, the smug look that said that she knew.

This was going to be awful.

“You look happy.” Pidge said, her voice sing-song. Keith frowned silently at her as he reached for a box of cereal.

“I’m always like this,” he muttered.

“What, poorly hiding your feelings behind a mask of stoic indifference?” Pidge raised an eyebrow, “I mean you try, but I know.”

“Know what?” Shiro asked, looking between Pidge and Keith.

“Nothing, Te-kooshi.” Keith frowned at Shiro. He was still upset with him for spilling the Texan beans. Hunk snorted.

“Is that supposed to be his name?”

“Must be something good.” Shiro said, sipping from his warm caffeinated morning-time beverage. Or whatever the Altean term for coffee was. It was green.

Keith huffed as he sat down. “No, it’s not, because it’s nothing. There is nothing to be told, end of story.”

“Then why’re you wearing your armour?” Pidge asked, “You slept in the pool again last night, didn't you!?”

Shiro raised his brows. Keith's face flushed. He had forgotten to change.

“I-I’ve been doing that? Lance gets anxious when he’s alone, what’s so weird about that?”

Shiro's brows raised even higher, “You've been sleeping together?”

Keith internally screamed. “Why are you saying it like that?”

Shiro shrugged, taking another sip, “I don't know, just makes sense with what I saw yesterday--”

Keith externally screamed, trying to drown out whatever else Shiro was about to say.

“Admit it, you two fucked!” Pidge cried, jumping up out of her seat and pointing at the accused, her other hand slamming down against the table, making the cutlery jump. Shiro nearly spat out his warm caffeinated morning-time beverage. Hunk gasped, hands flying up. Keith screamed even louder.

“Pidge, language,” Shiro cried, “Jesus!”

“I think this situation required the vulgarity.” Pidge said, crossing her arms.

“There is no situation!” Keith cried.

“You are making some baseless accusations, Pidge.” Hunk said. Keith offered him a look that he hoped conveyed his thanks.

“I am not,” Pidge said. She waved a hand towards Keith, “Evidence number one: slept all curled up next to Lance again last night.”

“That doesn't--”

“Evidence number two: whatever it was Shiro saw.” Pidge continued. Shiro nodded, as if this was a perfect explanation.

“Well, it was pretty damning.” Shiro said. Keith glared at him.

“That was not--”

“Evidence number three: Keith's face is totally super red and he's excessively defensive!” Pidge slammed her hands against the table again, “You wouldn't be half as defensive if you didn't totally bang!!”

“We just kissed, Pidge, we didn't have sex!” Keith cried, widely gesticulating and almost knocking his bowl of cereal everywhere. It wasn't until after he had said it and noticed everyone's shocked faces that he realized what he had said.

“You kissed!!” Pidge screamed.

Keith groaned and hid his face in his hands. Shit.

“Awh, that's adorable!” Hunk said, clasping his hands together, “I’m so happy for you guys! Wow, I can't believe Lance actually got someone to kiss him.”

Shiro's eyebrows continued to raise. They were reaching critical heights.

“Hey, do you think I could cater your wedding?” Hunk said, “I've always wanted to try my hand at catering.”

“You'd be a great caterer, Hunk,” Pidge said, “We could work together to plan the whole event! It would be so cool, we could set it up with lights so it flashed different colours as they walked down the aisle--”

“Who said anything about getting married!?” Keith cried, “We just kissed, that's it! Just, it's not a big deal!”

“It's kinda a big deal.” Pidge said. Hunk nodded behind her.

“Congrats.” Shiro said, nodding with a smile, “I’ll be your best man, right?”

“I hate all of you,” Keith said, slumping forward and dropping his head onto the table.

“Uh huh,” Shiro stood and downed the rest of his coffee, leaning forward and patting Keith on the shoulder as he did.

“Don’t touch me Ta-Kesha.” Keith grumbled, unmoving.

“Ah, to be young and full of feelings again.” Shiro said, “Well while you're moping, Coran's going to be in the lab today to help you analyze the plant sample. Allura and I are going to visit Queen Luxia to try and repair the damage you two lovebirds did yesterday.” He gave Keith's shoulder one last shake and a pat, then started to leave the kitchen, “I’ll see you guys later.”

Keith lifted his head. “Wait,” Shiro turned around, “don’t any of you dare tell Lance you already knew.”

“I'll try to act surprised about this extremely obvious fact.”

“No, not the kiss,” Keith said, “don't tell him that I knew he liked me before he told me last night.” He pointed at all of them. “Or that you knew. Well, I guess except you Hunk.”

“Hunk knows all.” Hunk said. Pidge snorted.

“You shush, it’s your fault everyone found out in the first place.” Keith huffed. Hunk nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, true.”

“I won't let him know that we knew.” Shiro said, turning to leave, “but I'll have you know I don't agree with all this secrecy! Now behave while Allura and I are gone. And remember, no flying.” He looked pointedly at Keith.

Keith rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay dad.

Shiro nodded, only just barely overcoming the urge to roll his eyes in response. He left the room, leaving Pidge and Hunk grinning expectantly at Keith.

“So what did Shiro see yesterday?” Pidge asked, wiggling her brows.

“If you don’t want me to cut off those eyebrows, you better keep them down.” Keith said, only slightly joking.

Pidge didn't stop waggling her eyebrows, “Hey, I’m just rooting for you, okay! You did it! You got the boy!”

“We just kissed,” Keith said, “honestly, you're all making such a huge deal out of it--”

“We had bets,” Hunk said, “Who kissed who first?”

“You what!?

“My money was on Lance... sorry, Keith.” Hunk said, “He was pretty excited about the idea of kissing you the other day.”

“I bet for you,” Pidge said, “because you're impulsive and can't control yourself at all.”

“Wow,” Keith said, “thanks?”

“Who was it?” Hunk pressed, “C’mon, who kissed who first?”

“I-I don’t know!” Keith sputtered out.

“You don't know?” Pidge cried, “How do you not know?”

“Like, what qualifies?”

“Keith, what does that mean?

“I mean... Lance did-”

Hunk pumped his arms and cheered, “I knew it!”

“-but it was on the cheek. And then I kissed him on the lips right after, and, uh... so, I don’t know what you want?” Keith trailed off, his mind starting to replay the previous night’s antics. His dumb smile returned.

Pidge tapped her chin with her forefinger, “I don’t know, technically it was Lance, but you really did the real kiss. I mean, are you sure Lance didn’t kiss you ironically? He’d kiss someone on the cheek for the irony.”

“I think he’s kissed me on the cheek ironically.” Hunk said.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t ironic,” Keith said, rolling his eyes, “unless he went on to make out with me ironically--”

You made out!!!” Pidge cried. Keith groaned loudly and stood.

“Why do I keep saying things!?” He cried out, asking no one in particular except maybe some benevolent god that might be watching who would like to smite him right about now. He abandoned his cereal in favour of rummaging around in the fridge for something for Lance to eat.

“We’ll call it a draw,” Hunk said to Pidge, “because, let’s be honest, neither one of us wants to write an essay on Coran.”

“Not unless I’m getting a grade for it.” Pidge said. Keith pulled the rest of the bucket of slop out of the fridge and tucked it under his arm. He crossed back to the table and picked up his cereal before beelining for the door.

“Bye.” He said.

“Wait, where are you going!?” Pidge cried, “We were still talking!”

“Nope. Bye.” Keith slid through the door, and disappeared into the hallway. Pidge rolled her eyes and sat back down.

“I can’t believe they kissed.” She said, smiling up to Hunk, “Hey, do you think the Lions could kiss if we made them?”

 

***

 

Keith silently entered the pool hall. He beelined to the poolside, bowl of cereal balanced in one hand, and the pot of beef-ish stew tucked under his arm.

Lance popped up at the edge of the pool, pushing his wet hair out of his eyes, “Awh yeah, I'm so hungry-- did you just bring the whole pot of stew?”

Keith ignored him and mechanically set his bowl down by the edge of the pool, followed by the pot. He grabbed his helmet and put it on before unceremoniously falling into the water. Lance watched him belly flop into the water and float down with only mild concern. He snorted and started laughing, diving down after him.

“Oh my god, what are you doing!?” He laughed, swimming a literal circle around Keith, who was starfished and floating lazily down to the bottom without so much as kicking his legs.

“I’m going back to sleep.” Keith said. He sounded like he hadn't slept in years.

“What?” Lance laughed, because Keith had floated down to the bottom of the pool and now laid there, unmoving, “What happened!? You look... haggard.”

“They are relentless.” Keith said, rolling onto his back and staring up at Lance with a hollow, horrified expression. Lance curled up on top of him, letting his tail haphazardly trail down Keith's splayed legs. He grinned at Keith.

“Did you run into Pidge and Hunk? You're giving me a Pidge and Hunk face.”

And Shiro.”

“Ooh, the hat trick.”

Keith shut his eyes tight, as if warding off a migraine. “It was awful. They know. I’m sorry.”

“I mean I guess they were going to find out eventually.” Lance said, after a brief moment of silence, "We weren't exactly hiding it. Like, at all.” He laid his head down on Keith's chest. When Keith didn't reply immediately, he tapped his fingers on the top of Keith's helmet, “It's not a big deal, Keith! Cheer up, grumpy pants.”

Keith covered his face/helmet with his hands and groaned. “I know! I mean obviously we were gonna tell them, eventually. I just... sorta wanted to have time for it to sink in for me first. Could we keep it to ourselves for at least a day? Or maybe even a few hours? But as soon as I walk in the room Pidge, starts screaming saying we fucked! And the others didn’t try to deny it either!” He sat up, forgetting Lance was lying entirely on top of him. Lance rolled off him, and onto the ground next to him.“Sorry- and Shiro was absolutely no help at all. And to top it off, Pidge and Hunk now know he saw something yesterday, and Pidge is never gonna stop bothering me until I tell her. Which I won’t.

“Man they're way overestimating our sexual prowess.” Lance said.

“I know, right!” Keith sighed, hunching over. “I’m not equipped to deal with this shit.”

“It is pretty difficult navigating the inter and intra-personal relations on this ship.” Lance said, with a sly smile, “Luckily you have me, who is absolutely amazing at personal relationships.”

The corners of Keith’s mouth quirked upwards into a small, tired smile. “If you were so good at relationships you’d’ve had a girlfriend long ago.”

“I've been on a spaceship, thank you,” Lance said, sitting up and leaning up against Keith, “besides, obviously I was just saving myself for you.”

“You didn’t know you liked me until two days ago.”

“Subconsciously. I've subconsciously liked you and have been saving myself for you for a long time. Duh.”

Keith leaned his head on Lance’s shoulder. “Guess I lucked out then.”

“Uh huh,” Lance said, feeling a flutter in his heart. He still couldn't quite believe this was real and actually happening. He wrapped his arms around Keith's waist, wishing he didn't have to wear his paladin armour to, y’know, breathe, “They have it all wrong. I still don't have a penis.”

Keith took a deep breath and let it out in a quick rush through his nose, “Lance.”

“What? It's a big concern of mine!” Lance cried, “You're not even allowed to talk, you still have your penis-- well, as far as I know, seeing as I've never seen it. Uh.” He lost a bit of his nerve, because Keith was staring at him and now they were talking specifically about Keith's penis, and for some reason too much for Lance.

Keith nodded, an amused smile on his face. “I do still have my penis, thank you very much.”

“Good to know.” Lance said, stiffly and way too loudly, his face turning a little red, because now he was imagining Keith's penis in great detail. “I’ll keep that in mind for future projects. Anyways. Uh,” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat, which was useless underwater and just made bubbles fly up between them, “You still going to sleep?”

Keith thought for a moment. “Nah, I feel better after talking to you.” The two smiled at eachother for a moment. Finally Lance looked away and sighed.

“Well, in that case, I really would love to eat whatever you brought in that pot.”

Keith nodded. “It’s just the rest of the stew.”

“Sounds stew- pendous.” Lance said, darting away before Keith could swat at him for that awful pun.

Keith swam after him, bobbing up to the surface and lazily swimming to the edge of the pool, “I changed my mind. We're breaking up.”

“What?” Lance stared at him for a moment, then snorted, “was that a joke?”

Keith grinned. “What do you think?”

“My longest relationship ever, it lasted a whole day. I can't believe this.”

Longest?” Keith raised an eyebrow.

“Listen.” Lance said, but offered no other explanation. He hung off the side of the pool and pulled the pot of stew towards himself. There was already a spoon inside-- well, more of a small ladle, but it would do. Lance spooned some of the slop into his mouth, awaiting its synthetic beef goodness.

He took a big mouthful, and immediately gagged, almost spitting the food out all over the pool tile, “Oh god, it’s cold! You didn't warm it up?”

Keith’s smile fell. He had kinda forgotten that vital step in his rush to dodge way too personal questions, “Oh yeah. Uh, sorry.”

Lance frowned, genuinely disappointed because he really was hungry, and cold fake beef stew was probably the last thing he wanted to eat, “The cold really brings out its gelatinous texture.”

“I could go heat it up? Sorry, I just... really had to get out of there.” Keith popped off his helmet, setting in down on the tile.

“No, I get it. You didn't want to stick around in a war zone.” He laughed. He pushed the pot of disappointment away across the tiled egde, “I bet Hunk and Pidge are gone by now. I could put on the vest and we can eat together in the kitchen. After that we're supposed to go meet Coran in the lab, anyways, remember?”

“Yeah.” Keith nodded, crossing his arms and leaning them on the edge of the pool. “I really hope they’re gone. I have no doubt Pidge is gonna interrogate me the next time I see her.” He turned to Lance, his eyebrows knit. “Why does she care so much about the minor details of my life?”

“Because she's a goddamn information addict. She needs to know a lot about everything.” Lance shrugged, “She's like a super smart child prodigy and a super smart, uh, super nosey Keith guru. She's got like the extended edition of the Keith user’s manual. And you know she reads tech manuals as a bedtime story,” Lance smiled, “Actually, I might have to ask her for a copy of the user’s guide. Though I do think I’m a naturally gifted Keith savant--”  

“This is a stupid analogy, just stop,” Keith rolled his eyes. He let out a short huff in frustration. “Even if it wasn’t an invasion of privacy... she’s too young to be asking about my sex life.”

“I mean she's been kicking Galra ass, why can't she talk about two hot dudes boning?”

Keith’s cheeks flushed red as he pushed himself up onto the tile. Lance thinks I’m hot? Well, theoretically he knew this already, but hearing it said was still... quite something. He ignored the fact that Lance called himself hot like a conceited asshole, and focused on the main point, “I don’t want to talk about it to anyone!”

“Awh, not even me?” Lance asked, in a playful voice, “We’re never going to talk about this thing we’ll hopefully both be taking part in. Or maybe we can only talk about my side of it, like only what I did.”

“Shut up.” Keith said, feeling his face go hot. He walked away from the poolside, looking for the respiration vest. He found it a few feet away, by the abandoned scooter.

“It'll be like those censored government documents where half the sentence is blacked out and you can only speculate about what happened based on the five words that are still there.” Lance continued, gesticulating far too much, “The five words are ‘thrust’, ‘entered’, ‘roughly’--”

Shut up!” Keith cried, “Do you want food or not?”

“Alright, alright," Lance relented, if only because he didn't want to risk not getting breakfast, "Let's go.”

 

Chapter Text

The kitchen had indeed been empty, thank god. After shovelling breakfast down their throats, Keith and Lance found their way to the castle's laboratory. It took them a little too long to find the lab. First they stopped to get Keith a change of clothes. Pretty quickly after that, they got completely lost, after which they promptly took a detour to make out in private in what looked a lot like a janitor’s closet. Then they got lost again, for a good ten minutes, winding up in the medical bay before finally finding the laboratory. Or moreso they found Coran, who was waiting for them in the hallway outside the laboratory.

“I've been waiting nearly a whole varga for you two!” Coran started with his usual obscene amounts of gesticulations, “The youth of today, no consideration for time management.

“Sorry, Coran,” Keith sighed, “we got lost.”

“Oh? Why didn't you reference the castle map?” Coran was already turning on his heels and heading towards the door behind him, which presumably led to the lab, “It’s clearly written on every hallway console, you just have to navigate through the console to get to it, but it is quite handy. You know when I was young I used to get lost in here all the time, but that was even before the hallway console existed--”

“Thanks Coran, we’ll keep that in mind next time,” Lance said, trying to stop a Coran story before it could even begin, “You were going to show us the lab?”

“Oh, of course. This way,” he gestured towards the door. It wasn't the same solid metal doors as most of the rest of the castle, but rather made of tempered glass, that opened inward rather than sliding to the side. Lance steered the scooter in right on Coran's heels. Keith followed, arms crossed. He had never been in a lab before, but he was certain this was hardly similar to a lab on Earth.

The room was longer than it was wide, with two stainless steel counters running the length down the center of the space. To the left was a basin and a computerized machine that Lance assumed might be the handwash station. To the right was refrigeration storage, a freezer, and a storage unit filled with beakers and flasks, utensils, gloves, writing instruments, and a few other alien things Lance didn't know the words for. Next to the door was a computer station with an Altean keyboard, a microscope, and a little metal disc, all hooked into the computer via glowing wires.

Farther down the space got much more alien. There was several big pieces of machinery, something that looked like an autoclave, and two hooded workstations. It was chilly and smelt like rubbing alcohol; that much, at least, was familiar to an earth lab.

Lance grinned. Some real badass scienceing was about to go down.

“I put the sample into the cryostasis storage container,” Coran said, pointing towards the fridge. He turned and pointed towards the computer, “This console contains our vast database. I think the database would be a good place to start. Simply place a cutting of the sample on this little disc here-- the protoscanner. It will scan the sample on a molecular level and search our database for any entry across the universe.”

“That's awesome,” Lance said, leaning as close to the little protoscanner as he dared, “does it work with everything? If I put my finger in it would it scan for any other Lances in the universe?”

“I wouldn't recommend it, seeing as the protoscanner uses lasers to break down the sample to its molecular level to scan it,” Coran said, far too calmly. Lance slunk away from the protoscanner with a grimace.

“Right. Be careful around the alien tech.”

“Touching alien stuff you didn't know anything about is how we got into this mess in the first place.” Keith said, standing back with his arms crossed. Lance rolled his eyes.

“C’mon Keith, you can't just be in space and not touch all the alien stuff.”

“Let me show you these other machines,” Coran said, gesturing towards the back of the lab, “but first, wash your hands and put on gloves. You don't want to contaminate or be contaminated by anything in here... not that there's been anything in this lab for ten thousand years.”

“Ooh, sounds like the beginning of a sci-fi horror movie.” Lance mused, wiggling his fingers towards Keith in a not-so-menacing way, “Have you seen The Thing?

“What thing?” Keith raised an eyebrow.

“No, The Thing,  it's a movie,” Lance didn't know why he thought Keith would have seen a movie from 1982 and subsequently 2012, “These scientists in Antarctica or something crack open billion year old ice and find a frozen evil alien that can morph into whatever it wants and eats people. And dogs.”

“Sounds fun.” Keith said, flatly.

“Sounds a bit like the Osmaks. Though they don't tend to eat humans, or animals for that matter. Actually I believe they're primarily vegetarians.” Coran hummed, “Your human media seems to paint most alien races in a rather unfavourable light.”

“Most humans are scared of what they don't know.” Keith said, shrugging off his jacket and hanging it on the coat hooks near the door. He took off his fingerless gloves and stuffed them in his jacket’s pockets, before attempting to use the handwash station, “I mean, I’ve always thought that stuff was pretty cool--”

“Is that why you're obsessed with mothman?” Lance asked. Keith frowned at him.

“I am not obsessed with mothman. Just because I enjoy speculating--”

“You had a poster of him in your cabin next to a map with potential mothman sightings!”

“People don't just lie about seeing Mothman, Lance. There's something going on, okay--”

“Hey do you think mothman was based off the Osmaks too?” Lance laughed. Keith glared at him.

“Pidge thinks mothman is real too.”

“What is that supposed to prove? She's twelve!”

“She's fourteen and a genius Lance.”

“I’ll be over by the Automated Nano-Probe Essence Extractor.” Coran said, slinking away.

“Look you scared away Coran with mothman.” Lance said, scootering over next to Keith at the handwash station. It looked a bit like a sink but instead of a faucet there were buttons and several holes in the wall. Lance pressed a button at random. A stream of blue goo shot out of the wall, right into his face. He screamed, wiping the goop off his face, “Ack! What is this? Soap?”

“The mothman heard you talking shit.” Keith said. Lance snorted.

“Yeah, okay.”

 

***

 

After some brief training on the different machines and workstations, Coran left them to work on their own.

“I’ll be nearby,” he said on his way out the door, “Remember to hit the emergency button if anything goes wrong.”

“Nothing's going to go wrong.” Lance said, waving him off, “We’re just analyzing the sample, it'll be fine.”

“Well, be very careful regardless.” Coran gave them both a look, “Alright?”

“Yes Coran,” Lance huffed, “We’ll be careful.”

“Very careful.” Keith nodded. They were both suited up, wearing white lab coats and purple gloves.

Coran nodded, “Alright. I’ll be back later to check on you.” He saluted them and left the room, leaving the lab in Keith and Lance’s ‘able’ hands.

“Sweet,” Lance of course was still on his scooter, which had to have the handles sanitized with ethanol, along with all the workstations. He was also still wearing the respiration vest, so that he could breathe. His lab coat was pulled on overtop and looked utterly ridiculous and squished his backfin in an unfortunate way, but he figured it was unavoidable seeing as they were designed for a far more humanoid figure. It was strange not to consider himself ‘humanoid’. “It’s science time!”

“Where do we start?” Keith asked. He was holding his arms out in front of him like a surgeon who had just washed his hands.

“Let's get a cutting of the stem. We’ll put one on a slide and the other we’ll put on the protoscanner.” Lance said, already driving his scooter over to the storage unit to search for some scalpels and slide plates.

“I’ll get the plant, then.” Keith said. He turned to the fridge, pulling it open. A cloud of condensed air billowed out in his face.

“Be careful with it!” Lance said, his voice shrill and turning shriller as Keith pulled out the frozen plant specimen.

“I am being careful.” Keith snapped. His fingers were far from the thorns, holding the plant like it was a bomb. He set it down on the metal table within the sanitized area. Lance watched it with the same expression you'd have seeing roadkill. The Red-tipped Lightpole crackled and hissed as it thawed.

“Okay, so,” Lance drummed his fingers on the table, his nails clacking against the stainless steel, “do you know how to prepare a slide?”

“No?” Keith frowned. Lance frowned back at him.

“What, did you not take grade ten biology? How were you accepted into the Garrison?”

“Just tell me what to do Lance.” Keith sighed, rolling his eyes.

“Okay so I’ll prep the slide. You can cut a slice off the end of the plant because I don't want to get anywhere near it.” Lance handed Keith an 11 blade scalpel. Keith held it like he was about to shank someone with tiny knife. Lance found a box of glass slides and plucked two out, setting them down on the table, before turning back to rummage around for some saline. He nearly toppled out of the scooter reaching for a bottle of something that resembled saline, but the important part was that he got the bottle without anyone’s help. Keith was still standing in the same spot still holding the scalpel like he was ready to throw down, “Keith just cut the plant.”

Keith pursed his lips. “Right, right, I’ll do that.”

“Really small, like, nearly translucent.” Lance said, “so we can see it under the microscope.”

Keith nodded and turned to face the plant. He was suddenly very aware of how thin his purple gloves were. He wished he had his paladin armor on while handling the demon plant. With the lightest touch, he held the stem of the lightpole in place while he sliced off the thinnest piece he could manage. It wasn’t until he pulled away that he realized his heart was beating fast in his chest.

“Nice,” Lance breathed, realizing he had been holding his breath the whole time. He picked up the pair of tweezers he had set out on the table earlier and plucked up the tiny slice of stem. He had put a drop of the saline on one of the slides while Keith was still trying to figure out how to hold the scalpel. Now he gently placed the cutting within the saline, and pressed the second slide down on top to make a saline-and-plant sandwich. The most scientific of sandwiches, “Alright, now we need a thicker cutting for the protoscanner.”

Keith exhaled, staring down at the plant like it was an evil alien about to attack. Lance didn't blame him. In fact, he shared the sentiment. He watched Keith cut into the stalk again, this time producing a cutting the size of a quarter.

“Okay, so, I'll just pop this into the protoscanner,” Lance said, now using the tweezers to pick up the new cutting, “why don't you bring the sample over to the extractor. I’ll run a cross reference on this thing while you extract the venom out of the thorns. With the extracted venom maybe we can figure out an antigen or... something.”

“Mm-hmm.” Keith did as Lance said and brought the plant over to the alien machine. The extractor was a pretty simple machine, use wise. It did one thing; extractions. It was built in two parts; one half was a glass box, in which the sample was placed. The other half was a computer with a maneuvering system that looked a bit like a joystick and steering wheel. You controlled what was essentially a giant needle inside the box, piercing into your sample and pressing a button to initiate the extraction. The needle drained into a pipe, which led to a removable glass vial next to the controls. After you extracted your essence from the sample, you would remove the glass vial and replace it with an empty one for the next extraction.

Keith opened the box and set the lightpole down in the center. After some careful maneuvering, he had the bright green venom draining into the small glass vial. There were four thorns on their specimen. Each thorn seemed to fill about half a vial. The first vial went smoothly. After the first thorn was drained, Keith moved onto the second. After the second thorn was drained, he removed the vial of green liquid carefully, setting it down on the table behind him.

The third thorn drained slower, the venom dripping out into the vial agonizingly slowly, the machine making a mechanical drrr drrr noise, like a rock caught in a pool filter. Keith leant down and stared at the vial. He straightened and looked over to Lance. He was busy with the protoscanner, typing commands into console, his back to Keith. Finally the venom finished draining, the drips slowing to nothing. The machine quieted as Keith steered the needle out of the third thorn and into the final one.

The extraction started at a fast pace, but quickly slowed again. The machine continued to protest, the grinding noise growling louder, more insistent. Keith looked to the vial. It was three quarters of the way full.

“C’mon, you're almost there.” Keith said, kneeling a bit to get a better look at the vial. He wasn't sure if this was normal, if the machine was supposed to be making that noise. Some of the machines Coran had shown them had been noisy by design. The venom’s drip into the vial had all but stopped. Keith sighed, about to move to shut off the machine, when the vial began to vibrate.

What happened next happened too fast for Keith to process in time. The vial vibrated, and the machine hissed as suddenly whatever had been creating a blockage in the tube was cleared. Venom rushed down the tube and into the vial far faster than it could handle, with an explosive rush of gasses. With a sound like ice breaking or the crack of thunder, the vial shattered, sending pieces of glass and venom everywhere. Most notably onto Keith, who had been kneeling, staring at the vial. Before he even knew what was happening, glass and venom hit him in the face with enough explosive force that shards of glass cut into his skin.

He reeled, a shrill scream erupting from his throat as he fell back into a cart holding his tools. It crashed to the ground behind him and sent the chime of metal clanging throughout the room.

Keith panicked, bringing his hands to his face and hissing as he nudged a piece of glass still lodged in his skin. The venom burned in his open wounds, and even worse in his eyes. It burned like fire, so intense he wanted to claw his eyes out with his fingers because surely that would hurt less. He could barely open his eyes when he tried. When he did, all he saw before him was a stark white blur. “Lance.” Tears streamed down his face as his body tried flushing out his eyes. “Lance!!

“I got you, I’m here,” Lance was suddenly very close, his voice unsteady. Keith realized he couldn't see him at all, even as two arms grabbed him under his armpits and pulled him upwards, “Just stay calm Keith, okay?”

Keith gripped Lance’s arms once he finally got his footing. “It’s in my eyes- I can’t see!” His breathing was labored, his fingers dug harshly into Lance’s skin, and he couldn’t hold back the sobs of pain as the venom began to course through his veins. “Get Coran!” His whole body was shaking in pain and adrenaline and he bit his tongue, fighting the urge to scream. The pain was intense, he felt like he was being swept away, drowned by it.

“Coran’s already on his way,” Lance said, his voice strained as he tried to stay calm. He was pulling Keith down into his lap. Keith obliged, as the ground was starting to shift beneath him. He was getting dizzy, maybe from the pain. He focused on breathing, losing track of what was happening in the room until he was being forced to stand again. He held onto something, he wasn't sure what, except that it was cold and metal.

“Open your eyes if you can.” Lance was saying, but it sounded so distant, so quiet. A second later water was blasted into his face. The eye wash station, Coran had literally just trained them on it. Keith tried to open his eyes and nearly fell over. Lance’s hands were on his hips, trying to hold him up.

“What happened?” Coran’s voice cut through Keith’s white haze like a knife. Keith didn't respond; currently all of his energy was being focused on keeping himself upright and not drowning in the stream of water that was spraying in his face.

“The extractor,” Lance was saying, his voice shaky, “it exploded-- I-I don't know why, I wasn't looking, he just screamed and fell over--”

“Stay calm Lance,” Coran said, “Take a deep breath.”

Keith heard Lance take a ragged breath, the grip on his hips tightening. The water shut off, but Keith barely noticed. He was just trying to stay upright, his hands braced against the metal basin, as the whole room seemed to tilt under him. His eyes were still burning, burning intensely, and his limbs ached, like he had run a marathon. His stomach was turning in knots, and he was so dizzy, he wasn't sure how he was still standing.

Suddenly the world shifted violently and his feet left the ground. He was certain he had fallen until he realized he was being carried, probably by Coran. His head lolled back as he realized he didn't have the energy to keep it upright. Too late he realized he was passing out, as the white nothingness turned to grey, and then black.

 

***

 

“Where are you taking him?” Lance asked, his voice thin like cracked ice. He wished more than anything he had legs so he could jog with Coran down the hallway rather than putter after him in the world's lamest scooter.

“Med bay,” Coran said, or rather shouted. He was several feet ahead of Lance, his long legs taking great strides down the hallway.

“He’s going to turn! He’ll need water!” Lance cried, his gut twisting at the thought.

“If your incident is anything to go off of, it will take at least an hour for him to change,” Coran said, before disappearing around a corner. Lance could hear him shouting back at him, “We’ll administer first aide to his eyes in the med bay, then bring him to the pool!” Coran’s voice got quieter and quieter as he ran down the hallway towards the med bay.

Lance groaned, slumping forward against the handlebars. He bit his lip and tried not to cry. He sat there for a moment, alone in the hallway, feeling useless, his breathing ragged. The respiration vest was making some awful noises, trying to keep up with Lance’s breath rate. He had to calm down. He would be no good to Keith if he was in some hallway having a panic attack.

He straightened up and took a deep breath. He threw off his gloves and the lab coat, abandoning them in the hallway, then made his way to the med bay as quickly as he could.

When he made it to the med bay, Coran had Keith on one of the exam tables already. The man was applying some sort of white paste around his eyes, where the skin was an angry red and blistering. Lance came closer. Coran shoved a roll of bandages in his hands.

“Bandage his eyes for now,” Coran said, gesturing to Keith's face. Lance paled. Keith looked horrible. His breathing was shallow and his skin was pale. His hair was soaked from the eyewash station and he had stray hairs pasted against his forehead. His eyelids were swollen and red, as was the skin all around his eyes. He had red splotches all down his face from where the venom had touched his skin. Along his cheeks were bleeding lesions where glass had cut him. Coran had already dislodged any stuck pieces of glass; there were a few bloody bits of glass on the table. Lance took a deep breath and started to wrap the bandage around Keith’s eyes and cheeks. Red blood seeped through the fabric already. The sight alone made Lance’s hands shake. He felt like he was going to pass out.

“Lance, take a deep breath,” Coran said, putting a hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance looked up at him, blinking. His vision was blurry, “We don't need two patients.”

“Y-yeah,” he looked back down at Keith. He dropped the bandages because his hands were shaking too bad, “Sorry, I, shit--”

“Go sit over there,” Coran said, his voice surprisingly gentle, “I’ll handle this. The other Paladins should be here soon.”

Lance nodded numbly. He parked the scooter a few feet away and watched Coran work. The man was taking Keith’s vitals, attaching a heart monitor to him. Lance knew why Coran was doing all this manually; they couldn't just throw Keith into the regen pod unless they wanted a repeat of last time. He would be monitored in the med bay until shortly before he stopped breathing air, then he would probably be chucked into the pool, just like Lance had been. He’s going to change, isn't he? He's going to lose his legs too, he’s going to be in the same hell that I am--

“What's going on?!” Pidge bursted into the room, rushing over at full tilt, “We were in the kitchen and heard the alarm go off, we came rushing down!!”

Hunk rushed in after her, wearing an apron. He probably had been cooking. His eyes met Lance’s. Suddenly the dam burst and Lance started to cry. Hunk was pulling him into a hug an instant later-- physically pulling him out of his seat. Lance clung to him and cried into his shoulder.

Pidge went to Keith’s bedside, gasping. She looked up at Coran, “What happened!?”

“It seems the Automated Nano-Probe Essence Extractor exploded in his face.” Coran said, “Or rather, the vial containing the plant extract. I believe the substance was corrosive, or acidic, it burnt his skin where it landed. And since it was the venom that caused Lance to transform, the same will most likely happen here.”

“Oh jeez,” Hunk said. He held Lance against him like a baby. Lance wrapped his arms around Hunk’s neck and cried into his t-shirt. Pidge bowed her head, a hand snaking under the rims of her glasses to run at her eyes.

“So what are we going to do?” She asked, finally.

“Help me take off his clothes. I need to assess what is happening. I'm sure he won't need them soon anyways.” Coran said. Pidge nodded and helped him remove Keith’s gloves, lab coat, and t-shirt. His sides were red, like a bruise, the skin thinning. His fingernails were turning black and pointed. Dark scales were pushing up under the skin, starting at his fingertips, along his jaw, and his hips. His ears too were red and starting to deform. It was awful to watch in slow motion; somehow the shock of Lance’s transformation had been easier to bear than this slow, agonizing pace.

Lance couldn't watch. Hunk set him down on one of the exam tables, his back to Keith. Lance was trying very hard not to freak out. Crying had helped a little. Hunk had seen him panic before. He knew how to distract him, how to keep his mind from falling into that pit. Hunk spoke gentle words to him, quietly, while the other two worked Keith’s pants off his changing body.

“Go to the console and call Shiro or the Princess,” Coran told Pidge before Keith’s pants came all the way off, “They should come home immediately.”

Pidge nodded and headed for the console. Coran finished undressing Keith, setting down a towel for modesty, though that wouldn't be needed for long. Keith’s legs were already covered in black scales. The bruises on his sides were getting worse, turning red, the skin splitting apart to make room for new structures underneath.

“Maybe we should take him to the pool now?” Hunk asked Coran, watching all of this over Lance’s shoulder.

“Yes, we will. Just give me a tick.” Coran replied. He was moving fast, seemingly doing twelve different things at once. He kept checking to make sure Keith was breathing, checking his pulse. Keith certainly was still breathing, for now, his breath laboured and shallow. Coran wrapped a second bandage over the first; this one seemed to be made of plastic, waterproof. It would keep the wound dry even underwater.

Pidge came back, “Shiro and Allura are on their way back!”

“Very good. Let’s move to the pool hall, then.” Coran nodded, “But first I need you to look in that drawer over there, there should be a blue bottle with a label reading ‘decahydros osoline’ on it.”

“On it,” Pidge ran behind the exam tables, where a line of storage containers were pushed up against the wall. She rummaged through a bin full of different bottles.

“What's that for?” Lance asked, finally managing to actually speak.

“It's a painkiller,” Coran said, “it should help with the burns on his face.”

Pidge came back with the bottle; it wasn't a pill bottle but a vial with a dark blue liquid inside. Coran already had a needle prepped. He inserted the syringe into the top of the vial, extracting several milliliters of the blue substance; he wasn't sure how much to give Keith, whose body mass was currently changing. He expelled an adequate amount injected it into a vein on Keith’s right arm. The skin was quickly turning black, the scales already completely covering his hands and slowly spreading up his forearms. His legs, too, had turned black, and now were merged together from his hips to just below his knees. There was a faint crackling noise, like the crunching of snow, as bones were broken and reformed. It was disturbing to watch, this half-finished transformation. Lance couldn't look. He stared down at his hands and focused on breathing.

“Let’s take him to the pool hall now.” Coran said, “I think the process is nearly complete.”

 

***

 

They opted to push Keith to the pool hall on a gurney rather than carry him. This was so they didn't interrupt the process too severely, especially when new biological systems were being made, and bones were being relocated or replaced. Keith was currently very fragile. They carefully rolled him onto his stomach, as a bright red back fun started to grow out from his spine. His tail continued to grow, growing longer, his legs completely merged now, save for his toes, which were quickly morphing into a tailfin. His tail hung off the back of the gurney as they rushed down the halls to the pool hall, for the second time that week.

Hunk carried Lance, because his scooter was too slow to keep up, but also because Lance really needed a hug.

Keith’s gills finished developing along the way. Two long slits on either side, from below his armpits to just above his hips. The fibrous membrane inside was a deep red and looked like blood. Just like with Lance, his sides started to spasm as they tried to pull in water that wasn't there.

“He can't breathe,” Lance said, pointing out the extremely obvious.

“We’re almost there.” Coran said, voice tight. They were running down the hallway as fast as they dared. They really were close; the door to the pool hall was just at the end of the hallway. They would be there in seconds. Pidge ran ahead and held the door open for them.

Keith woke suddenly, gasping for a breath that wouldn't come. He was on his stomach, and he couldn't see, he couldn't breathe. He tried to say something but all that came out was wheezing. Well, this is weird. He had this feeling that something bad had happened, but he couldn't remember what. He felt a bit like he was flying, his head spun, he felt disconnected from what was happening. Despite the fact that he was suffocating, he was surprisingly okay with whatever it was that was going on.

A second later, however, he was being lifted up, and then promptly dropped. Water splashed around him as he was suddenly submerged. This is weird. He suddenly could breathe. He took a deep breath, feeling the cool water rushing into him, like a breath of air. This is really weird, where am I? He was certain he was underwater, but he could have also been in space. His limbs all felt like they weren't a part of him. Actually, he couldn't even feel his feet, or his toes. Or, he could feel them, but they felt odd, and achey.

He came to rest on a surface, maybe a floor. He ran his hands over it; he was certain it was tile, but his hands felt numb. Why couldn't he see? He brought his hands up to his face. There was something wrapped around his eyes. A bandage, maybe? He knew there was something wrong with his eyes. He had a feeling he knew what was wrong but he couldn't remember. His brain felt like a bowl of noodles that wouldn't connect together.

“Is he okay?” Pidge asked, peering over the edge of the pool. Keith was just laying on the bottom in a heap. He wasn't really moving save for touching his face.

“I did give him a dose of the decahydros osoline,” Coran said, “He might be a bit dizzy.”

“He also just changed into a mermaid,” Lance said, currently sitting on the edge of the pool fumbling with the clasps on his vest, “it's pretty disorienting. Hunk, uh, can you help a brother out here?”

“Yeah man,” Hunk kneeled and shut off the water pump and the filter with the press of a button on the back of the vest. The water drained, just as Lance unclasped the last clasp and unzipped the zipper. He shirked off the vest and dove into the water without hesitation.

Lance swam down to Keith’s side. The boy was sitting there absently, not really doing anything. Lance took his hands, holding them, “Keith?”

“That's me.” Keith said, quietly. Just like Lance, his voice carried underwater. He was calm, and probably high as a kite on painkillers. Coran went a little overboard with the decahydros osoline.

“How do you feel?” Lance asked, just a little jealous of Keith’s calm demeanour. His own hands were still shaking, and he still felt like he was on the verge of tears.

Keith’s shoulders twitched in an attempt to shrug. “Weird.”

Lance couldn't help but laugh, “Yeah, some weird shit did just go down. Do you remember what happened?”

Keith hummed in thought. “I... I blew up.”

“Yeah, sorta.” Lance said, “You were using the extractor when it malfunctioned. You got hurt, the venom got in your eyes. That's why your eyes are bandaged closed for now.”

Keith nodded, touching his face again. “So... that’s why... it's dark. Wait,” he turned his head in what he assumed was Lance’s direction, “venom? ...The plant, I...” He pulled his hands away from his eyes and rested them on his hips. He could barely feel anything through his fingertips-- that in itself was alarming-- but what he could feel was... smooth. His legs... his legs were gone. “Oh.”

Lance grabbed his hands again, holding onto them. He curled up next to Keith, pulling the boy into a tight hug. A selfish part of him enjoyed this, the ability to touch each other without a suit or a vest in the way. Completely uninhibited. He had never wanted this in these circumstances, but still he was happy to have it, to be able to hold Keith and feel his skin. He wasn't so warm anymore.

“I'm here,” Lance whispered, nuzzling his face into Keith’s neck. He had his hands wrapped around Keith’s waist, his tail wrapped around Keith’s, like two puzzle pieces that fit together, “We’ll get through this, okay?”

“Okay,” Keith mumbled. His head was still reeling, he couldn’t fully process anything. Even feeling his own scaled body felt... like it wasn’t real. He tried to move his legs, what he could feel of his legs. He had new muscles and new sensations he had never felt before, new tendons and ligament which he could stretch and pull. He hesitantly tried to move these new muscles, which resulted in a small flick of his tail. Okay. A part of his rational brain told him this was not a good thing. He had actually been turned. This was not good. But despite this he was more incredulous than fearful. He felt a dissociation, like none of this was real. He couldn't quite put thoughts together for long. He pulled back away from Lance and touched his face again, “Wait, but... why can't I see?” He he felt like he had asked this before but couldn't remember.

“Your eyes are bandaged.” Lance said, “Remember?”

“Oh,” Keith dropped hands and slumped forward against Lance again, “No I... my brain, it's noodles.”

Lance let out a tiny laugh, “Noodles?”

“Yeah... don't connect.” Keith said. He wanted to go back to sleep, his body was sore, his eyes felt sore, his brain wasn't working.

“Right, noodles don't connect, makes perfect sense.” Lance rubbed his back, “You're so out of it right now, aren't you? Coran must have given you the good stuff.”

There was the sudden sound of splashing. Lance looked up to the surface to see someone had dived in. It was Shiro, wearing his Paladin armour, having probably just got back from the meraliens. He looked so tired.

“Hey,” Lance said, sheepishly, realizing that Shiro’s life was getting even more hectic mainly due to him and Keith.

“Alright, what happened?” Shiro sighed, floating down to the bottom of the pool and sitting cross legged next to the pair. Keith lifted his head slightly, noticing Shiro’s voice.

“Hey man,” Keith drawled, “what's up, hon?”

Shiro stared at him.

“He’s a little out of it, Coran gave him some pain meds,” Lance said, “for his eyes. The extractor exploded in his face. It wasn't his fault! We weren't being stupid or rambunctious or anything. It just happened.”

Shiro sighed, “I believe you. I don’t think you would have done this on purpose. I’m just concerned, for you both, and, well, now that both of you are--”

“Hey.” Keith interjected, literally raising a hand. Shiro paused.

“...Yes, Keith?”

“I’m sorry.”

Shiro frowned and shook his head, “Keith, you don’t have to say sorry, this isn’t your fault-”

“For calling you Te-Kesha. I was just mad.”

Lance and Shiro stared at Keith for a moment as the boy just laid there, unmoving. Shiro cleared his throat. “That’s alright. Uh, as I was saying. This whole debacle has cost Voltron an arm and a leg. Literally.”

“This is no time for jokes, Shiro!” Lance huffed, though he prefered jokes to the alternative, which was crying. Shiro threw him a comforting smile.

“We’ll figure this out, Lance. This is only temporary. I know you’ve had a hard time with this.”

“We don’t know how to change back, every day it seems like less and less of a possibility,” Lance said, his eyes trained on Keith’s shoulder. He had freckles there Lance had never noticed before, “And now I got Keith wrapped up in it, too. I should have... I don’t know, I should have just done the analysis myself, he got involved and now I’ve ruined his life too--”

“Hey, no one’s lives have been ruined,” Shiro frowned, “It’s only been a few days, Lance. We have a whole galaxy to explore and find an answer. You just need to keep faith and keep focused.”

“I’m hungry...” Keith mumbled, unmoving, “I’m really hungry guys.”

“Right, caloric deficit.” Lance patted him on the back. He looked to Shiro, “Can you get us some food? Or get someone to get us some food, please?”

“Sure,” Shiro smiled. He gave Lance a older-brotherly shoulder pat and kicked off from the bottom of the pool, “I’ll be back in a moment.”

Keith moved again, bringing a hand up to touch Lance’s face.

“What’re you doing?” Lance pulled his hands away if only because he was worried Keith would poke him in the eye.

“Was just making sure you’re real. Just... makin’ sure.” Keith said. Lance snorted.

“Yeah I am unfortunately quite real.”

“Okay, good,” Keith sighed, like he was seriously concerned about Lance’s realness, “I fell asleep for a second and thought you weren’t real.”

“Nope, totally, one-hundred-percent still real.”

“Alright, good,” Keith repositioned himself against Lance’s chest. He leaned in close and kissed Lance on the cheek, before promptly nestling in against his neck. A second later he was snoring quietly. Lance sighed and ran his fingers along his back.

Well, at least he wasn’t alone in the pool anymore.

Chapter Text

“Wow, he's stoned out of his mind isn't he?”

“He’s not stoned, he didn't smoke a joint, Hunk.” Lance huffed.

“He’s totally blazed out of his mind, look!” Hunk cried, gesturing to Keith, who was having a hard time finding his mouth with his fork.

Shiro had come back with some leftovers from the kitchen; something that looked like purple fish and rice over vegetables. Lance had to literally drag Keith up to the surface, as he was either unable or unwilling to use any of his limbs or do any swimming of any kind. He also wasn't doing a great job of keeping his head above the water or hanging off the side of the pool, and kept slipping under mid bite. In fact staying above the water and eating at the same time was so hard for Keith’s inebriated motor skills that Lance and Hunk both had to help hold him up so he could continually poke his fork into his cheek in the search for his own mouth.

“I'm just saying, I don't think you use the term stoned when not talking about weed.” Lance said, “Right Pidge? You have my back, right?”

“I am merely a child who knows nothing about drugs.” Pidge said, glancing over to Shiro, who raised his brows at her.

“I may have given him a bit too much decahydros.” Coran said sheepishly. He and Allura were standing back, while the other three were sitting by the poolside. “It should wear off in a varga or two.”

“That's great,” Lance said, “What are we going to do when he wakes up and has a tail instead of legs?”

“Are you talkin’ about me?” Keith asked, slowly turning towards Lance. Lance couldn't see his eyes under the bandage but he was pretty sure Keith was squinting.

“Don't worry about it, bud. Just keep eating, your body probably just expended several thousand calories that you'll need to replenish ASAP.” Lance said, patting his shoulder. Keith made a weird noise that sounded a bit like a horse neighing.

“I can't see the food though.” He whined, dropping his fork into the pool. They watched it sink to the bottom. It might as well have fallen into the abyss.

“Yeah, you couldn't have gotten something easier to eat than rice?” Lance threw a glare at Shiro.

“Sorry, I just grabbed whatever was in the fridge.”

“It's technically not rice.” Hunk added.

“It tastes good.” Keith mumbled, “Can't see it.”

“I can go look for more of those protein bars,” Hunk offered, “I think there's still some in the pantry.”

“We have a pantry?” Lance said, “Uh, sure! That’d be great!”

“I’ll be right back!” Hunk let go of Keith’s arm and stood, heading for the kitchen. Keith immediately started to sink again.

“Oh my god, Keith, please,” Lance gave up trying to hold him up by the arms and opted just to pull Keith into a hug. Keith seemed pretty amenable to this idea and wrapped his arms around Lance's neck, hanging off of him rather than the wall. He curled his tail around Lance’s and pressed his face into his chest. Lance sighed, “Okay, fine. This is fine.”

“Awh, cute.” Pidge sighed, “Lookit you, hugging.”

“Well, it's more of a death grip than a hug,” Lance said, one hand resting under Keith’s ass to keep him from dragging them both under, “He is pretty cute, though.”

“And to think two days ago you were ignoring him.” Shiro said, his brows scooting upwards on his forehead again. Lance rolled his eyes.

“I'm sorry you're such an old man that you've forgotten how overwhelming hormonal teenage emotions are. Also I was going through some stuff, okay!?”

“Shh,” Keith raised his head and dislodged a hand from around Lance’s neck, only to push his fingers dangerously close to inside Lance’s mouth, “Why’re you always so loud?”

“I'm loud?” Lance frowned. He looked out to the others, “I’m not always too loud, right?”

“No Lance you're totally super quiet all the time,” Pidge said. She was currently making some mechanical adjustments to the respiration vest, but she didn't even look up from her work to sarcastically reply.

“To be fair, you are all rather loud,” Allura said, “but I don't think that's a bad thing for a Paladin.”

“You're too loud,” Keith said, “I’m tryna sleep.”

“Oh,” Lance said, “I thought you wanted to eat?”

“Yes.” Keith said, laying his head down against Lance’s chest again. He didn't elaborate. Lance sighed while Pidge giggled.

“Why don't you let him sleep?” Allura said, one hand on her hip. She was still wearing her Paladin armour, her hair pulled into a tight bun atop her head. She looked incredibly tired as well.

“Because he needs to eat so he doesn't go into some sort of starvation coma.” Lance said, readjusting his hold on Keith, with only a mild complaint from the sleepy boy, “Though I think the drugs are doing a good job of that.”

“Uh huh,” Keith murmured, “you're so nice.”

“Why thank you,” Lance cooed, “you're pretty nice too.”

“Awh,” Keith sighed, “I’m so gay.”

“Aren't we all.” Pidge said, nodding. Lance squinted at her, wondering if all of Voltron has been gay this whole time and he didn't know it.

“On the bright side we’ll have something to tease Keith about later.” Shiro said, “You know, after he is a brooding, angsty mess.”

“I wonder if we can keep giving him painkillers and just skip that step.” Lance said.

“Wait,” Keith leaned back again, enough urgency in his voice that Lance thought he might be actually lucid for a minute, “wait...” He didn't say what they were waiting for.

“Yes?” Shiro asked, after a good few seconds of expectant waiting.

“Wait.” Keith said. Shiro gave him a look which was wasted on the fact that Keith couldn't see anything.

“What are we waiting for?” Lance asked, trying not to laugh.

“Why can't I see?” Keith asked for literally the fourth time. Lance snorted.

“I told you, you hurt your eyes.”

“I don't know about that, they feel fine.” Keith huffed, like he was genuinely annoyed. He leaned back against Lance, “This is... I am being unfairly detained.” He sounded so incredibly Texan in that moment that Lance couldn't help but laugh.

“Oh my god,” Pidge snorted, “is he Texan now?”

“Jokes on you, I was Texan the whole time.” Keith said, mostly mumbling into Lance’s shoulder.

“What?” Pidge looked between Shiro and Lance.

“It's true,” Lance said, only feeling a little bad for letting out Keith’s secret. Though, to be fair, he had told Pidge himself, not that he'd remember that later.

“He’s from good ol’ Orla, Texas,” Shiro said, “y’know, before living in a shack.”

“Where the heck is Orla?” Pidge cried, “I can't believe he’s Texan! Oh god, all the ‘bigger in Texas jokes’ I can make now--”

“Imagine baby Keith with a thick accent,” Lance snorted, his shoulders literally shaking from laughing, “I wonder if he has a pair of cowboy boots?”

“Where is Texas?” Allura asked, “Is it another planet near Earth?”

“It could be another planet.” Pidge snorted.

“Lance,” Keith said, “I'm tryna sleep and you’re moving.”

“Sorry bud.” Lance hummed, gently petting Keith’s hair, “You should stay awake, Hunk’s coming back with some food for you.”

“Okay, okay,” Keith said, “I’m suffering.”

“Me too.” Shiro said, so flatly Lance wasn't sure if he was joking or not.

“Wait,” Keith said again, “we need... we need to...” This idea seemed to lose steam, or he lost his train of thought, as he stopped talking for no apparent reason.

“What do we need to do?” Pidge asked, taking the bait, opening Pandora’s box.

“Voltron,” Keith said, “we need to.”

“We’ll get right on that.” Lance said.

“Tron.” Keith said. He huffed, then added, “You're supposed to say ‘Vol’.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, are you trying to do the chant?”

“Tron.” Keith said again.

“Vol?”

“See. We need to.” Keith patted him on the cheek.

“I’ll be sure to change the name to ‘Tronvol’ as soon as possible.” Coran said. Allura laughed.

“That sounds like some hideous monster!”

“Terrifying indeed. It will have the Galra quake in their boots at just the name.” Coran nodded. The group laughed, except for Keith, who kept saying ‘tron’.

 

***

 

Hunk finally came back what felt like an eternity later. He had another whole bag of the mysterious protein bars. By that point Keith had all but fallen asleep, and was pretty grumpy when Lance woke him back up. Of course, seeing as he was still tripping balls on decahydros osoline, his grumpiness was mild at most. Really he just ate the protein bar agonizingly slow and spilt crumbs all over Lance and in the water.

“Let him sleep it off, when he comes back around you can call us back for support, if you want.” Shiro was saying, “If he’s upset. He might not be.”

“I think he’s going to be upset,” Lance said lamely, “How could he not be upset. I’m upset for him. I'm twice as upset as before!”

“Don't be upset, we’re so close to figuring this out.” Hunk said, sitting on the edge of the pool and eating Keith’s leftovers with a pair of chopsticks he had brought from the kitchen specifically for this purpose.

“I don't think we’re any closer than we were two days ago.” Lance sighed, “All we’ve accomplished is add another causality to the list.”

“You haven't even gone into Blue yet,” Pidge said, “I’m sure she could give you some answers.”

“Right.” Lance frowned. Part of him hoped that would be true. Another part of him wasn't sure he could handle going into Blue if that wasn't the case.

“Maybe your armour will still fit,” Hunk nodded, “If it changed to fit us before, maybe it will again? We haven't even tried.”

“There are still a lot of things we haven't tried,” Shiro said, “and from what I understand, you left the proto-thing scanning in the lab. You still did a cross reference on it.”

“That's true.” Lance sighed. He'd have to go back later and check that out. He still had hope that the analysis would turn up something. If not... he was starting to have hope in other things. Which was good, because he had the feeling he would have to give some of that hope to Keith in a little bit.

“What're y’all talkin’ about?” Keith mumbled. He sounded about a thousand times more Texan than he usually did. He was still curled around Lance, trying to eat this protein bar and seemingly having more success than he had had with the rice.

“Just the fact that you're a mermaid.” Lance said.

“Oh yeah,” Keith said, “tail.”

“Yep,” Lance smiled, “and gills and a backfin.”

“...Is it pretty?” Keith asked, “I can't see.”

“Yes, very pretty,” Lance said, blushing as he was suddenly very aware of everyone watching them.

Keith’s colouring was quite spectacular. His tail was a shimmering black, with bolts of red and orange trailing up from the base like fire against a black night sky. His tail fin was also like fire, reds and oranges and whites, from a dark blood red to pale peach. The colours were striking against Lance’s dark blues, as their tails entwined together. The webbing between Keith's fingers was also blood red, as were the membranes on his finned ears. The scales along his jaw were black and peach. His back fin had black spines, the webbing speckled from dark red to a light pink. He was gorgeous. Of course, Lance had always thought Keith was gorgeous, but the black and red tail certainly was striking in its own right.

Keith nodded against Lance’s chest. “Cool. You’re pretty too. Like suuuper pretty. Can I kiss you?”

Oh god. If Lance hadn't been visibly blushing before, he certainly was now, “Keith, buddy, we’re-- everyone's watching.” He glanced over and saw Pidge watching them with a smirk.

Keith frowned and let out a high pitched whine like he was going to cry. He started whimpering as he ate the protein bar.

“Maybe later?” Lance said, “I’ll write an I-O-U, okay? With interest.”

Keith mumbled something unintelligible as he continued shoving the protein bar in his mouth.

“Maybe we should go.” Hunk said, showing Lance some mercy, “Uh...”

“Yes, I think you have this covered, Lance,” Shiro said, pushing himself up, “we’ll give you some privacy--”

“Wait, you're all just going to leave!?” Lance cried, half of him not wanting to be alone, the other half seriously concerned about what Shiro thought he and Keith could possibly do with some privacy.

“I can stay!” Pidge said with a grin that looked like bad news. Lance grimaced.

“Nope, no, Shiro’s right, I can handle this on my own.” Lance said, “Besides, the second he stops eating, Keith's just going to float to the bottom of the pool and sleep, anyways.”

“So you don't want my company?” Pidge frowned.

“Pidge, I’d love your company, but I know for a fact that you're just hoping for Keith to say more incriminating evidence!” Lance said, punctuating this sentiment with the very mature move of sticking out his tongue at her.

“That's not the only reason” Pidge rolled her eyes. She stood, holding the respiration vest against her chest, “C’mon Hunk, lets go work on respiration vest number three for our ungrateful friends.” She stuck out her tongue at Lance. He gasped.

“You just want to stick around so you have more fuel to tease us with later!” Lance cried, “You already have the Texan thing, isn't that enough for you!?”

“Heh, true,” Pidge cackled, “that should be enough for at least a few months.”

“Alright, c’mon, let’s go,” Shiro put his hand on Pidge's shoulders and started to guide her out, “Remember to call me if you need anything.” He called back to Lance.

“You can call me too,” Hunk said, “We’ll be in the workshop. Don't freak out, okay? Or if you're going to, call me first.”

“I'll keep that in mind.” Lance said flatly, but he smiled anyways. The three other Paladins left the room.

“I’ll be back later to change the bandages,” Coran nodded, “And of course you can contact us if anything happens with his health.”

“Right.” Lance nodded, “Thank you for your help earlier Coran.”

“Of course,” Coran nodded, “there's no need to thank me, my boy. If anything, I'm sorry I didn't use my better judgement and stay in the lab to supervise you.” he sighed, pulling at his moustache, “Now, I'm going to go see what damage has been done to the lab. I’ll keep you updated with the cross reference process.”

“Thank you anyways,” Lance sighed. Coran went to leave with Allura, but Lance stopped him, “Wait! Coran! Keith’s eyes... do you think they'll be okay?” It was a question that had been eating away at Lance since the accident. In a way being blind would be worse for Keith than losing his legs. You can't fight an enemy you can't see.

“Are you talking about me?” Keith mumbled, nuzzling against Lance’s neck. The boy was a menace.

“That remains to be seen,” Coran said, adding, “no pun intended. Unfortunately I didn't inspect the damage to his eyes as thoroughly as I should have, but given the circumstances I was a bit hurried. It does appear the majority of the venom hit along his nose and cheekbones, so hopefully that means the damage to his eyes is not as severe as it looks. Likewise I did apply a healing serum under the bandage... I'm not sure this would help any corneal damage, but it will minimize the inflammation.”

“Okay,” Lance breathed. Coran sounded hopeful. He tried to be hopeful, too. Lance would never forgive himself if Keith lost his vision. That being said, they were both currently missing their legs, so blindness might need to take a spot in line of Things Lance Will Never Forgive Himself For.

“I'm sleep.” Keith said, dropping the last bits of the protein bar in the water before letting go of Lance and sinking down under the surface.

“Keith, goddamn it, stop dropping food into the water, we have to breathe this shit.” Lance huffed, attempting to hold onto Keith and failing. The kid was slippery. Whatever, it wasn't like he could wander off into traffic or anything. Lance set about picking the crumbs out of the water as Coran bowed.

“On that note, I'll leave you.” He said. Lance smiled up at him.

“Thanks Coran. Seriously.”

Coran simply nodded and turned, escorting Allura out.

Now the pool hall was empty save for the two transformed humans. Lance picked the rest of the soggy crumbs out of the water before diving down to find wherever Keith had sunken to.

Sure enough Keith was directly below him. Lance attributed this to the fact that Keith was too out of it to even fully acknowledge the fact that he had a tail and could breathe underwater.

Lance floated down to the bottom of the pool. Keith was laying on his stomach in a rather unflattering position, possibly asleep already. Lance sat next to him and eyed the pile of blankets that was also his bed on the other side of the pool. That would be way more comfortable for Keith, even if he was drugged at the moment.

“Keith? You awake buddy?” Lance gently shook the boy’s shoulder, admiring the way Keith's long hair danced away from his head underwater.

Keith hummed, just barely stirring in the water. “Yeah?”

“Why're you laying on the floor hon? Let's go use the blankets like civilized people,” Lance gently tried to get him to sit up. That was a chore, getting his tail under him. Keith still managed to somewhat sit on it, though he apparently didn't feel it. He probably didn't feel much of anything, which at this point was a good thing.

“Okay,” Keith mumbled as Lance moved him around. Instead of moving toward the blanket pile however, he just wrapped his arms around Lance’s neck again. Lance hummed, and kissed him on the cheek. Keith was being adorable. Well, more adorable than usual. It was literally the only good to come out of this shitty situation; adorable, clingy Keith.

“Alright, here we go.” Lance lifted Keith up into his arms and managed to swim him over to the blankets. Thank god for the buoyancy of water. He laid Keith down, and laid down next to him. He was exhausted, and it was only early afternoon.

Keith barely waited for Lance to situate himself before wrapping his arms and tail around him in a vice grip. He hummed happily, nuzzling against the boy’s chest.

“I bet you won't even remember this later,” Lance snorted, wrapping an arm around Keith and idly running his fingers along his back, “I could say whatever to you and you'll probably say some nonsense back and you won't remember later.”

Keith wiggled in place, trying to get closer to Lance. “Yeah.”

“I could say I love you but I feel like that's a little predictable,” Lance mused, “and a little cheap, like some plot in a romance novel where the characters have only known each other for a few weeks and have only known each other's feelings for a few days and yet somehow feel love for each other despite their unfamiliarity. You just can't get a real meaningful relationship in, like, three days.”

“You’re warm,” Keith muttered as he settled down against Lance, “and loud. Too loud. It’s sleep now.”

“Impossible, I'm cold blooded.” Lance said, which got him a hand to the face.

“Sleeping.” Keith said, patting Lance’s face somewhere between his nose and his ear.

“Alright, alright, you win.” Lance took Keith’s hand and kissed it, “Time to sleep.

 

***

 

When Keith woke up, the world was dark and heavy. It took him a moment to realize he was awake. He couldn't see anything, and he felt like he was floating. Something was very wrong. He felt like he had been asleep for a thousand years and that his head was filled with cotton. What's going on?

He tensed. He was pressed up against something, and a heavy object was laid across his chest and holding him down. For a brief moment his mind panicked, running down a list of all the worse case scenarios he could be in, the most probable was that he was captured by Galra and they had imprisoned him and had blinded him. He tried to sit up but his whole body felt sore and slow, like he weighed a thousand pounds. His head felt too heavy for his body, and he could barely pick it up. His face ached with a dull burn. He tried to bring a hand to his face, but his arms felt so heavy it was like he was moving in slow motion. He tried not to panic, to stay calm and figure out what was happening, but his brain was moving in slow motion. He let out a tiny whimper as he tried to sit up again.

“Are you actually awake this time?” A calm, easy voice said. Lance. It was Lance’s voice, and it was very close. The weight against his side suddenly disappeared, and he felt the thing next to him shift. Lance, of course, Lance was laying next to him. They... were underwater. Memories were starting to come back. They had been in the lab, he was extracting the venom from the thorns of the Red-tipped Lightpole. The vial of collected venom had exploded. That's why his face hurt. That's probably why he was blind, too.

“C-can't see...” Keith managed to mumble, still trying to get his limbs to work properly.

“That's because you're wearing a bandage over them.” Lance said.

Oh, okay. “I’m not blind?”

“Not as far as we know.” Lance said, “You're actually awake, aren't you? How are you feeling?”

“Feel like shit. What do you mean ‘actually awake’? Was I talking in my sleep?”

“That's the most coherent thing you've said in hours.” Lance said, a laugh in his voice, “You woke up every once in awhile to mumble some nonsense at me.”

“I- what does that mean?” Keith let his head drop and groaned. “Jeez my head hurts. What happened after the extractor exploded?”

“Well...” Lance trailed off. Keith heard him take a deep breath, “Coran carried you to the med bay, drugged you, covered your eyes with a bandage because they were bleeding everywhere, aaaand then brought you to the pool because you, uh, turned into a mermaid and stopped being able to breathe air.”

Keith was silent. He turned... Slowly, he moved his arm despite the aching pain that caused him, and felt his own hip. Sure enough, his fingertips were met with the faint feeling of scales. “Oh.”

“Right,” Lance breathed, his voice hitching, “Now don't freak out. We’re going to be okay, alright?”

“I’m not freaking out.” Keith said with a sigh. “I’m tired and disappointed and upset, but not freaking out.”

“That's... good.” Lance said. He hadn't expected this outcome. He sighed and cupped Keith’s cheek, running his thumb across his skin, “I’m sorry I got you into this.”

Keith blew air out his nose, causing small bubbles to float up between them. “Don’t apologize, you didn’t make me do anything.” He lifted his hand up to rest on top of Lance’s. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”

“What? Why are you sorry?” Lance was currently making a list in his mind of all the reasons why he should apologize.

“I messed up the extraction. Now we only have one vial of venom left. The other one literally blew up in my face.” His words were slow and measured, because his head still felt like a giant cotton ball. He was sure he was still a little drugged.

“Ehn,” Lance grunted, “that was an accident. That wasn't your fault. I made you do it, and you got hurt because of it.” He took a deep breath, his thumb pausing in its smooth, gentle strokes, “I should have been more careful, I really, really didn't want this to happen to you. God--”

“Stop catastrophizing,” Keith frowned, “you're worrying too much again.”

“I would argue that I'm worrying the exact right amount given the situation.” Lance said flatly.

“No,” Keith could just imagine the way Lance was rolling his eyes. He could just about hear it in his sigh. Keith ignored him and decided to abandon the subject. Instead he attempted to sit up again. His whole body felt heavy and slow; part of this was due to the resistance of the water, but part was due to the fact that his limbs felt weirdly disjointed.

He managed to muster enough abdominal muscles to sit up. His fingers felt numb, even as he raked them across the tiled floor-- no, not numb, just dull. His lower half was the oddest sensation. It didn't feel like his two legs were pressed together, like he thought it would. No, instead it was a whole new sensation he hadn't thought possible. New bones and muscles twisting in ways he never would have known. It didn't feel real, just because it was so foreign. His tail was tucked halfway under him and to the side. It was vaguely uncomfortable. He wished he could see what was happening. Maybe that would make it easier to comprehend. At the moment he couldn't even figure out how to move his tail other than a twitch or two.

“What are you doing?” Lance asked, and Keith heard him moving next to him.

“I’m trying to move.” He grunted. “Everything feels weird.”

“Yeah, it does,” Lance said, scooting a little closer. Suddenly Keith felt Lance’s hands on his tail. Lance rubbed little circles up and down the length, hard enough that it made the scaled skin tingle, “This might help. Being able to feel it all, that is. Gotta increase the circulation. It’s longer than you’re used to, so it feels like a weird phantom limb...”

“O-oh. Alright.” Keith pursed his lips and tried not to look too caught off guard. Slowly he gained some feeling in his tail and gave it an experimental flick. It hit Lance in the face. Lance reeled back, but laughed.

“Was that payback?” He snorted. He went back to rubbing Keith’s tail, working his fingers in tight circles along the end where his tail sprouted off into his tailfin. It was like a massage for muscles he had never felt before, but were suddenly cramping until Lance kneaded the knots out, “Maybe give me some notice before you try, next time.”

“Yeah, sorry. That was, I didn’t mean to, uh. I can’t see.” Keith stuttered out, mentally cursing his voice for betraying him like this. He was sure he was blushing, and hoped it was too dark in the water for Lance to see. His hands just felt... really good. It was making Keith incredibly flustered. Judging from Lance’s voice, he could totally tell.

“Uh huh, how do I know you weren’t just yearning to slap me in the face?” He purred, his fingers trailing along the frilled membrane of Keith’s tail. He knew what he was doing, he must, because it felt the same on his own tail. The area was incredibly sensitive and the touch was... nearly erotic. If Keith’s face wasn’t red before, it certainly was now.

“Because, i-if I did, I wouldn’t have waited until, ah-! Until I grew a tail.” Keith managed to blurt out. He bit his lip and leaned his head back, not bothering to try and hide what Lance was doing to him anymore. With his eyes injured and currently useless, every touch was a surprise, and far more intense than it probably should have been.

“True.” Lance snickered. Keith could all but hear his waggling eyebrows, “Gee, are you feeling alright, Keith? You seem to be having a hard time talking.”

“Ugh, shut up, you know what you’re doing.” Keith clenched his fists in the blankets and let out a high pitch keen.

“Hell yeah I do,” Lance at least sounded flustered himself. He stilled his hands for a moment, his voice hesitant, “Y-you’re okay with this, right?”

Keith breathed out a laugh. “Yeah, feels good.”

“And you’re not high anymore, right? You can consent? Look, I don’t want to do anything if you’re too drugged to consent.”

Keith snorted, bringing a hand to his mouth. “Yeah, I’m not high. Still a little dizzy, but I’m all here,” he smiled and held out his arms, beckoning Lance closer.

“Alright,” Lance said, leaning forward over Keith. Keith wrapped his arms around Lance’s torso. He couldn't see, but he could tell Lance was leaning over him. He gasped quietly as he felt Lance's lips brush his neck, and then suddenly Keith was being turned, as Lance rolled onto his back, pulling Keith on top of him, “I just want to make sure you'll remember this later.”

Keith smiled and brought a hand up to cup Lance’s cheek. “Why wouldn’t I remember?”

Lance laughed, “Well, I'm guessing you don't remember what you were saying earlier.”

“I thought you said I was just rambling in my sleep.”

“Oh, oh no. Before that, you were fully conscious and talking. Well. Not exactly fully conscious, but awake enough to eat most of a protein bar,” Lance said, wrapping his arms around Keith’s torso, running his hands along his spine, where his backfin sprouted from his skin, “You don't remember any of that, do you? Hunk and I had to hold you up so you didn't sink to the bottom of the pool.”

Keith shook his head. “Nope. Last thing I remember was being blasted in the face with water.” It was hard to concentrate with Lance’s hands running along his back. The skin there was just as sensitive as his tail. Now Keith understood why Lance got so flustered about the Butt Touching Incident.

“The last thing you remember is getting blasted in the face? Sounds like a good Saturday night to me.”

Keith smacked Lance in the neck. He was hoping for his arm, but his aim was off seeing as he couldn't see. “Lance!”

What?” Lance was snickering, “Hey. You said you thought I was pretty. So pretty, actually. Super pretty.”

“I did?” Keith tilted his head to the side just the slightest bit. “How high was I?”

Lance gasped, “So you don't think I'm super pretty?”

“Of course I do! I’d just never say it like that.”

“You said it in front of everybody. Everyone but Kaltenecker that is.” Keith could hear Lance's grin, “You also wanted to kiss me. I think you're secretly an exhibitionist, Mr. Kogane.”

Keith groaned and flopped down onto Lance’s chest. “Oh god. How high was I??

“You nearly started crying when I didn't kiss you,” Lance said, his voice lilting pleasantly. Keith felt his hands on his cheeks, cupping his face, “Which, if I remember correctly, I still owe you one.”

Keith smiled, “Oh yeah?”

“Uh huh, I gave you an I-O-U for one kiss, with interest,” Lance said, “Do you mind if I repay my debt now?” He leaned in closer, and Keith could feel the water shift around him, could hear the thrum of the current. Maybe he was being hypersensitive, making up for his lack of sight. But not being able to see didn't make the kiss worse. If anything, it made the anticipation even more arousing. He could feel Lance so close to him, feel his heartbeat in his chest as they laid against each other.

“I would like that.” Keith breathed.

Lance pressed his lips into Keith's, and suddenly the feel was all that mattered. It was like closing your eyes for a kiss, but so much more intense, because Keith didn't have a choice. He was lost in this void of nothingness but the touch and sound of his partner. And it was amazing.

Lance pressed his lips into Keith's, tentatively at first, but there was an urgency, a hunger, behind it. Keith kissed him back, matching his need, he needed this, he needed Lance. Lance make a quiet little humming noise, and Keith could feel the noise buzz against his lips, a gentle tingle against his skin. He echoed the hum with a giddy giggle. He leaned in closer, bracing his elbows on either side of Lance’s head. Lance pulled away ever so slightly, taking in a breath he didn't need, then leaned in and kissed Keith again, this time with more force, his hands roaming across Keith’s back. Keith shuddered. The feeling was intense, he felt like there was a fire burning inside him, or lightening crackling . Every touch was like bolts touching down, causing sparks under his skin. Keith was lost to the feeling.

Lance opened his mouth slightly and Keith took it as an invitation. He kissed him greedily, hungrily, pushing his tongue between Lance’s teeth and rolling it against the top of his mouth. This was met with a coo, and Lance shuddered under him. Keith took this as a good sign. He continued more aggressively, his tongue dancing against Lance’s. His own tongue was alien to him, longer, more dexterous. He curled his tongue against Lance’s like a dance, and Lance shook under him, letting out a quiet moan. It felt like lightening.

Lance curled his tail around Keith’s. it felt natural, right. It felt magical when their scales slid against each other, when their sensitive tailfins brushed lightly together, which sent sparks up Keith’s tail and to his core. The feeling was nearly too much, Keith had to pull away to catch his breath, or else he felt he might be swept away. He realized he was panting. Lance started to laugh.

“Was that up to your quality standards?” Lance breathed. Keith laughed, still trying to catch his breath.

“Yeah. Even better.” He nuzzled against Lance’s cheek.

“I still owe interest,” Lance purred, and suddenly his lips were on Keith’s neck. Keith gasped, the light touch sending shocks down his spine. Lance smiled against his skin, then started to kiss along his shoulder, up along his neck and across his jawline. With a playful growl he raked his sharp teeth across Keith’s skin, leaving tiny bite marks on his neck and shoulder. Keith wouldn’t have thought it would feel good, but it did. It felt amazing. All Keith could hear was the beating of his own heart in his ears, and the gasping pant of his own breath as waves of arousal and pleasure washed over him. It all felt so good, not just Lance’s kisses, but the fact that he was kissing Lance, that they were together not in a dream but for real. And now they were experiencing this romantic, erotic thing together.

Of course, he was blind, they were mermaids, and kissing at the bottom of a pool in space. So it wasn’t exactly the scenario he imagined happening if he and Lance ever got together. But somehow it was still perfect.

He felt something shift inside him. A shift, and then a pop, as something slid out. Keith let out a cry, a little because it felt good, but also because he wasn’t sure what just happened. It felt a bit like his guts had fallen out. He pulled back from Lance, bringing a hand to his lower stomach where his insides had slid out, “A-ah, Lance?”

“Oh my god,” Lance said, “Okay, so... now we know that you have a dick.”

“What?” Keith cried, gingerly touching the thing. Upon closer inspection, or really palpation, it was definitely his dick. At least, it felt like his dick. Keith sat up, covering it with his hands, “Oh my god.

“Oh my god is right,” Lance said. Keith screamed.

“Don’t look at it!”

“Hey! How do you know I’m looking? You can’t see anything!”

“I can feel you staring!”

“Yeah, okay.” Lance snorted, “Why are you blushing!? Wasn’t getting a boner the whole point!?”

“I don’t know! I didn’t expect this!

“Yeah, the fact that it slides out is kinda weird. What did it feel like?” Lance was now moving from the playfully aroused to the scientifically fascinated. Suddenly he was talking about Keith’s dick the same way he talked about cool plants.

Keith swiped at him, smacking him in the side just below his gills. “I’m not a science experiment!”

“Hey, c’mon, mine hasn’t come out yet, I just want to know what it’s like! Maybe I don’t have one? Hm.”

Keith slouched forward, curling in on himself. “It... it felt like my guts fell out. But... not painful at all.”

“Interesting,” Lance went back to rubbing at Keith’s sides, “...can I see it?”

Keith could feel the heat pooling in his cheeks. “I... um-”

“Paladins? I have returned to change your bandages. Can you hear me?” Keith jumped as Coran’s voice echoed down through the water. Oh shit. Coran.

“Oh shit, it’s Coran,” Lance pulled Keith against him, trying to hide what was happening below his waist from the Altean up at the surface, “Hey Coran! I can hear y... he’s not going to be able to hear me under the water why am I bothering.” He patted Keith on this shoulder and let go, “Okay, I’ll go up there and stall him. You stay down here and figure yourself out.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Keith whisper-shouted at him.

“I don’t know! Think of your grandmother!” Lance pushed himself out from under Keith.

“I don’t have a grandmother!” Keith cried.

“Then think of my grandmother.”

“I don’t know your- ugh!”

“Wouldn’t work anyways, my yaya is a beautiful lady.” Lance said, “Think of Coran seeing your fishstick.”

“Don’t call it that!” Keith blindly swiped in the water again, this time missing Lance entirely.

“I’m going to go stall him.” Lance said again, then clapped Keith on the back, and swam away. Keith could hear the muffled speech as Lance started to distract Coran-- which, honestly, was the easy task.

Keith groaned and slumped forward. What was he supposed to think about? Girls? No, he wasn’t repulsed by women. His mind scrolled through a list of the most unflattering random things: a lamp, the mud on his shoes, all the snakes that roamed his shack in the desert, the stick alien they saw at the space mall, a llama. Nothing worked, everything he thought of only lasted a second before his brain drifted back to Lance. The feel of Lance’s hands on him, of kissing him, and the sight of his beautiful face. He thought back to when they were in the Red Lion together, when Lance’s hands roamed across his sensitive skin, the boy writhing against him when Keith slipped his hands under the vest to feel Lance’s backfin. It was such an erotic and wonderful memory- that is, until Shiro interrupted them.

Keith grimaced. Shiro.

The image of his stupid eyebrows raising to his hairline flashed in Keith’s mind and-- oh, that took care of his problem. Keith felt his penis pull back inside with the same odd pop as it had going out. God, it felt weird. He wasn’t sure if getting a boner was worth it anymore.

Now he had the task of swimming up to the surface. He first found the floor. Good, step one complete, now he knew that he was, in fact, facing the right way to go up. He pushed off the floor and started to float. He kicked his tail, or tried to. The first two attempts were more of a spasm rather than a kick. He envisioned The Little Mermaid, which was one of the few movies he had seen. He channeled his inner Ariel and kicked out again. This actually propelled him forward. He grinned and kicked again, and he was actually moving forward. Or, he was, until he slammed face first into a wall.

“Agh! Ouch,” Keith winced and reeled back, his hands flying to his nose. He hoped he hadn’t broken it. He seriously didn’t need another facial injury.

“Keith, oh my god,” Suddenly Lance was next to him, Keith felt his arms on his shoulders, “Did you just swim face first into the wall?”   

“...Maybe.”

“Oh my god. Why were you swimming when you can’t see, anyways?” He took Keith’s hand in his own, tugging him away, “C’mon.”

“I only had to go up, I didn’t think it’d be that hard.” Keith rubbed his nose. “Is my nose broken?”

“I don't think so,” Lance said, pausing to look, “Will you stop trying to break your face?”

“I wish I could.” Keith sniffled and scrunched his face a few times. Lance sighed, tugging him upwards.

“Well, before you decide to stick your head in the filter, let’s go talk to Coran about your eyes.”

He pulled Keith up to the surface and guided him over to the pools edge. Keith wasn’t great at swimming and Lance had to help him not sink until he could cling onto the side of the pool.

“Good evening, Keith. How are you feeling?” Coran said, signalling that he was right there, probably sitting by the poolside.

“Uh, pretty sore. And dizzy. My nose hurts.” The area around his eyes had slowly gained more feeling, that feeling being pain. It had been a dull sting when he was with Lance. Hitting into the wall just now had disrupted the skin, and it now burned under the bandages. “Eyes hurt too.”

“His nose hurts because he just face planted against the wall.” Lance said helpfully.

“I would avoid doing that in the future.” Coran said, equally helpfully.

“Yeah, I’ll try.” Keith replied, his voice flat.

“Let’s see these eyes,” Coran said, and suddenly he was touching Keith’s chin, tilting his head up. Keith flinched away, not expecting the hands on his face.

“Oh, jeez, please warn me before you do that.”

“My apologies, Keith. I’m going to remove the bandages off you now, and I’m going to hold your chin while I do it to keep you still. Is that alright?” Coran’s voice was calm, reassuring.

Keith nodded and leaned as much as he could against the side of the pool.

Lance watched Coran’s steady hands cut the plastic bandage with thick metal scissors. Coran had come prepared, with more syringes, bandages, the waterproof plastic stuff, scissors, cotton swabs and bottles of salve and saline, and even a scalpel. The plastic bandage fell away. Underneath the the white fabric dry, save for the patches where blood had seeped through underneath.

“I’m going to cut the under bandage now. When I pull it off, it might sting a little, so be prepared.” Coran said. Keith gave a stiff nod, and Coran started to cut. He cut a slit through the white cheesecloth, then started to pull it off Keith’s face. Keith clenched his teeth and hissed as it peeled away, exposing his wounds to the open air. The skin stung as the cheesecloth pulled away dead and dying flesh. Lance grimaced. It looked painful. The area around Keith’s eyes was bright red and pink, mottled with dark, dead skin. It was still swollen, like a puffy mask around his eyes. Along his cheeks and eyebrows were scabbed areas where glass had been lodged. Those, at least, looked to be healing nicely. Keith’s eyelids were still swollen, too, but they looked significantly better than they had.

“Well, it’s about how I expected,” Coran said. He let go of Keith’s chin and quickly got the cotton balls and one of the bottles, “Alright, I’m going to start cleaning this with some alcohol. This may hurt, but that means the skin is still alive. Okay?”

Keith grunted. He wasn’t too happy about it hurting even more, but it couldn’t be avoided. “Yeah, okay.”

Coran started the cleaning process. It felt a bit like he was raking a cheesegrater across Keith’s face. Lance dutifully rubbed Keith’s back.

“The skin is pink, which is good, unless humans are far more dissimilar to Alteans than I had realized.” Coran said, “Pink tissue will grow back healthy. These burns are not as bad as I had thought, originally. I don’t think the venom is as acidic as we had assumed. Hopefully this should heal in a few days with some healing serum.” He stopped cleaning, picking up a little black tube. It turned out to be a flashlight. He clicked it on and pointed it in Keith’s face, “Can you try to open your eyes for me?”

Keith did as he was told. There was a little resistance, as his eyes were glued shut with gunk, but eventually he got them open. He immediately regretted it. The tender skin of his eyelids burned with every movement and his eyes instantly welled up with tears. He closed them again. “Ow...”

“They’re still sensitive, then.” Coran frowned, “Let me give you some pain medication. That should help.”

“Not too much.” Lance said.

“I’ll give him less than last time, don’t worry,” Coran said. He put down the flashlight and started fiddling with a vial and a syringe.

“Okay,” Keith mumbled. He held out his arm, the pulled back just a bit. “Uh, where’s the needle going?”

“Your arm,” Coran said, “can I have your arm, my boy? I’m just going to swab it, then I’ll give you the needle.”

“Yeah,” Keith resumed his previous motion and laid his arm down on the floor, exposing his vein.

Coran did as he said, swabbing the area with an alcohol soaked cotton ball before inserting the needle and injecting the blue fluid into Keith’s vein, “There you go. You should start to feel better almost immediately.”

“Do you think he’ll be able to see again, Coran?” Lance asked, his voice tight. He was rubbing Keith’s back maybe a bit too aggressively. Really he should have been taking this anxiety out on his fidget cube, wherever it was. The fidget cube couldn’t feel anything.

“Well, I can’t tell just yet. I am hopeful. I would need to see his eyes first.” Coran said, picking up the flashlight again, “Keith, could you try to open your eyes again?”

Keith did just that. This time, it didn’t hurt at all. The painkiller took effect right away, and left him feeling a little giddy even. It didn’t stop his eyes from watering, however, but that didn’t matter too much. He looked up at Coran-- or, what he thought was Coran. All he could see were blobs. The one in front of him was pink and blue.

“Can you see anything?” Coran asked.

Keith squinted. “Sort of.”

“That’s good?” Lance said, trying for a statement that came out as a question.

“What do you mean? What do you see?” Coran pressed.

“Everything’s like, blobs of color.” Keith turned towards Lance, who was currently sporting a dark blue with a brown spot. That was probably his face.

“That’s good!” Lance nodded, looking to Coran, “that’s good, right?”

“It is excellent,” Coran said. He was inspecting Keith’s eyes. His eyes were smoky, covered in a cloudy film, “I believe they should heal well. Perhaps not to what they were before. You may require glasses.”

Keith frowned. He didn’t like that thought. “Don’t you have some alien medicine that will fix them?”

“Well, that’s what we’re doing already,” Coran said, “but Alteans aren’t magic. Well, aside from the quintessence, that is. That is pretty magical, if you ask me. Now tilt your head back, I’m going to put in some eyedrops.”

“Awh, but Keith, you’d look so cute with glasses,” Lance cooed.

Keith groaned and leaned his head back. Tears were streaming down his face, but for some reason he was totally okay with it. Actually, he was pretty okay with a lot of things again.

“I’m hungry.” He said, suddenly turning to look at Lance, despite the fact that Coran was currently attempting to put eyedrops in his eyes.

“Try to stay still, Keith,” Coran said, gently pulling his chin forward again.

“I can tell the drugs are working again already.” Lance said, patting Keith’s shoulder, “I’m hungry too, bud. We’ll get some food after this, okay?”

“Okay.” Keith blinked as Coran dropped the eye medication into his eyes. It didn’t hurt at all. A second later Coran was smearing a paste all over the inflamed skin around his eyes. That didn’t hurt, either.

“How long will it take to heal, do you think?” Lance asked, as Coran started wrapping the white cheesecloth bandages around Keith’s eyes again.

“With our medicine, perhaps three days until he won’t need the dressing or pain medication anymore. The eyes will take a little longer until his vision is completely restored. Of course, if we can solve this aquatic issue before then, a trip to the cryopod will fix you up in a few hours. Until then we have to use the old fashioned method of letting bodies heal on their own.”

“What if I go in with the vest on? What’ll happen then?” Keith asked as he gently patted the gauze on his face. Coran gently pulled his hands away and started wrapping the plastic bandage over the fabric one.

“I’m not certain, but I don’t think it would work. Firstly, you need to be wearing the regeneration vestment for it to work, and those are designed for a far more... bipedal figure. Without wearing the suit, the healing would not work, and most likely give an error and not do anything.” Coran sighed, “Natural healing in this case seems to be our best if not only option.

“So I have to deal with him being loopy for three days?” Lance said, “Lucky me.”

“Wow, thanks for your support in my time of need,” Keith deadpanned. “I’m not that loopy.”

“Hey, I’m just having war flashbacks from earlier today.” Lance said, “You weren’t there. You don’t know.”

Coran snipped the end of the plastic bandage and fastened it closed. He patted Keith’s shoulder in the most dad-like way Lance had ever seen, “Don’t you worry, we are all here supporting you. Both of you. Even if you do say something rather embarrassing due to the influence of drugs.” He smiled, despite the fact that Keith couldn’t see it, “Now, you said you were hungry?”

“Wait you were there too?” Keith said.

“I said everyone but Kaltenecker,” Lance said, “Everyone was there.”

“Oh.” Keith said, finding it increasingly hard to care much about most things, “okay.”

“I’ll bring you something to eat.” Coran said, standing. He started to leave, but paused by the door, “By the way, Keith. I’m not sure what a Texan is, but I think it’s a lovely accent. I’ll be right back!” He slipped out the door and was gone.

Chapter Text

“Okay, so these are Water Respiration Vests version three and three-point-five.” Hunk said.

“What's the difference?” Lance asked, raising his brows and wrinkling his nose ever so slightly, “What’s the point-five of a difference?”

“Well,” Pidge said, holding up one of the two new vests, “this one’s got a slightly longer tank on it.”

“It's not even bigger. It's just longer. They have the same net weight.” Hunk said.

“What’s the point of making it that way?” Keith asked, staring straight ahead at nothing and not facing anyone. “Why bother revising it if that the only difference?”

“I think it looks cooler.” Pidge said, “It's sleeker. You'll see.”

“It's not sleeker.” Lance said, “It looks the same except one of the tanks is longer.”

“Well, whatever, the point is it works.” Pidge said, sticking her tongue out at Lance, “Do you want it or not?”

“I mean of course I want it.” Lance said, “I’m just critical of why you'd make the tank longer on one.”

“They should run better than version two. We spent all yesterday building a more efficient filtration system.” Hunk said.

It had been two days after the incident in the lab, and six days since Lance last breathed air. Keith was still blind, though his face was healing, and still taking pain medication that left his brain a little fuzzy. They had spent the whole previous day lounging around in the pool doing nothing but eating, talking, and getting bandages changed. Now it was early into the afternoon of the next day, and while the morning had progressed mostly the same, after lunch Hunk and Pidge had rolled in with two new vests for them.

“So the water won't taste like shit, then?” Lance asked, running a hand through his wet hair. His hair was really taking a beating from the chlorinated water of the pool. He wanted to spend a few hours doing a deep conditioning routine, but they had bigger things to worry about at the moment. Though, the health of his hair was up there on the list.

“Wait, you can taste the water?” Pidge grimaced.

“Well, I mean, it's not really like tasting, it's more like inhaling, which, in turn, is connected to tasting. Y’know like when you go somewhere stinky and you can taste it? Like that.” Lance said, as if this were completely normal. Though judging by Hunk and Pidge’s faces, it wasn't that normal, “Keith knows what I'm talking about. Right Keith?”

Keith grunted and sank a little in the water. “Yeah.”

“You're no help.” Lance splashed him, turning back to Hunk, “He knows what I mean.”

“Did you want to try the vest now?” Hunk asked, ready to move past this weird topic.

“I mean I'm always up for some out-of-pool experiences.” Lance said. He patted Keith’s arm, “Are you feeling up to it?”

“Otherwise known as ‘oop’.” Keith muttered.

“What.” Lance seriously considered if Keith was having a stroke, “Oop?

Keith smiled in his general direction. “Yeah. Out-of-pool-experience. O-O-P-E. Oop.”

“Oh my god.” Hunk said.

“You're such a nerd, holy shit.” Lance snorted, trying not to laugh. He laughed anyways, “Oop, what the fuck!?”

Listen, I’m still on these drugs, it just popped in my head and I was talking before I thought about it,” Keith snickered as he spoke.

“I need to try it. Who says we break into the med bay and get decahydros osoline wasted?” Pidge said.

“No.” Lance said, “Pidge, really?

“What, it looks fun!” Pidge shrugged.

“Keith you're warping our young, impressionable friends views about drugs. How could you?” Lance said sarcastically.

Keith scoffed, “What, I say one weird thing and it’s all my fault?”

“To be fair, you've said a lot of weird things.” Hunk said.  

Keith shook his head, grinning. “It’s not even fun, I’m just dizzy all the time. And not in a good way, like a nauseous way.”

“No drugs while saving the universe,” Lance said, “We can't form Voltron if we're fucked up.”

“Hey, it was just a random thought,” Pidge grumbled, “Shiro would kill us, anyways. Actually, Shiro would kill us, then Allura, then Coran. Like, they'd kill us, somehow revive us, and then kill us again.”

“For a drug that makes you feel like you’re dying anyway. Not worth it.” Keith idly shook his head for much longer than necessary.

“Are we going to try out the vests.” Hunk breathed, totally done with this topic, too.

“Yeah, let's go. Keith, you wanna go first, or second?” Lance turned to Keith, gesturing despite the fact that Keith was blind.

Keith shrugged. “I’ll go.”

“Alright, so, this is your first time out of the water, you'll probably flop around like I did.” Lance said, “So, uh. Try not to?”

Keith grinned. “Duly noted.”

“I mean, I could hold you down if I go first.” Lance said, “Since you like to be held down~”

“Okay. That’s fake, but okay.”

“You can't deny it, sir.” Lance cried, “Just last night-”

“Please stop talking!” Hunk cried, “I don't want to know!”

“I do.” Pidge said, “You're into that sort of thing, Keith? I knew it!”

“See, and this is why I denied it.” Keith turned where he thought Pidge was. “I admit to nothing.”

“Guilty by omission.” Pidge smirked. Hunk groaned.

“Guys, please.

“Okay, okay, just have me go first, then I'll help with Keith.” Lance said.

“Alright. Oh! Let me run down the list of other improvements we've made,” Hunk said, holding open the water respiration vest version 3.0.

Lance pulled himself up out of the water backwards so he was sitting on the edge of the pool, holding his breath. It had taken some practice, but he could pull himself out all on his own-- a skill that was surprisingly difficult given how heavy his tail was and how his body had the tendency to flop around against his volition.  

“So we updated the filters, made a better running motor that's way lighter, too. Also added an ‘on’ button to the front, instead of just on the back, so now you can turn it on yourself.” Hunk said, holding open the vest for Lance. Lance shirked it on, nodding, because he literally couldn't say anything. He zipped up the front and started fastening the clasps. There were only three rather than four, for whatever reason. Just as Hunk said, there was a small electronic pad on the right shoulder with two buttons: one red, and one green. He pushed the green one, because logically that would be on. Luckily, Hunk and Pidge were logical people. The motor in the filter kicked to life, and the plastic bulbs over his gills started to fill with water.

“It is lighter,” Lance said, once he had taken a deep breath and could talk again.

“Uh huh, basically instead of using old parts we just made new ones,” Pidge said, “so they run better and are lighter.”

“That's awesome,” Lance smiled, “You guys are like tech wizards.”

“I prefer engineering magician.” Hunk said.

“Are you going to pull me out?” Keith huffed.

“Right, that's a thing we need to do,” Lance turned back to Keith, who was still hanging off the edge of the pool, except now he was also frowning, “Are you ready? It’s gonna suck, you have to be ready.”

“I’m ready.” Keith sighed. Really, how bad could this be? He just had to hold his breath.

“Okay,” Lance scooted to the side while Hunk got into position above Keith, “Just try not to flop around too much, alright?”

“I’ll do my best.” Keith nodded and tried to take in a breath, which proved very difficult since he wasn’t really sure how to work his gills.

“I’m going to pull you up now,” Hunk said, and gently put his hands under Keith’s armpits. Keith tried not to tense too much at the sudden contact, “On three, alright? One... two... three!”

Keith tried to take a deep breath, just as Hunk pulled him up out of the water. Suddenly Keith was laying on his stomach on the cold tile floor, and it was then that he realized he not only didn’t know how to inhale, but he also didn’t know how to hold his breath. His gills just seemed to work all on his own, and he had no control over them. His sides immediately started to spasm, trying to take in water that wasn’t there. It was a searing, burning sensation that started in his sides and cut through his core, like the burning of your lungs when you’ve run too long. Likewise his tail was not obeying him at all. Out of the water his whole lower half seemed to have a life of its own. Maybe it was in part due to the panic of not being able to breathe, or maybe it was just that he was not used to the weight of his tail and subconsciously twitching. Either way, his tail was freaking out, just like Lance’s had when they first pulled him out. Keith took in useless breaths, trying to regain control of his body-- his completely foreign, alien body that wasn’t listening to him in the slightest.

“Get the vest!” Hunk was saying, somewhere over Keith. Suddenly Keith’s tail made contact with something, and there was a slick slap of scales against skin, “Ack! Lance! You were supposed to be holding his tail!”  

“Hey, I was about to!” Lance was laughing, and then Keith felt hands against the base of his tail, holding it down, “You have to watch out, too!”

“Ah, it stings,” Hunk cried. Keith wished he could see if only to try to communicate via eye contact to hurry up. His sides were still contracting painfully.

“Sit him up, I’ll put the vest on!” Pidge cried. Keith was suddenly being pulled upwards into a sitting position. Of course, this meant Lance had to let go of his tail. His tail started to flop around again.

“Ah!” Hunk let go of Keith, trying to duck out of the way of his tail, which, realistically, was nowhere near hitting Hunk again.

“Don’t let go!” Lance cried, but the series of events was already in motion. Keith teetered, wobbling without Hunk’s support. He flailed blindly, but his tail spasmed again, slapping against the tile, and sending him falling back into the pool.

Keith had never been so relieved to fall into a pool before.

Keith panted in the water, not that it did anything. He turned his head towards the others and frowned. “That was the worst thing ever.”

“That did suck even worse than I thought it would.” Lance conceded, “You smacked Hunk in the face, that’s where it all went downhill.”

“I’m fine,” Hunk sniffled, eyes teary, “Just surprised me, that’s all.”

“You shouldn’t have let go of his tail!” Pidge cried, looking pointedly to Lance.

“Okay, but I thought if he was going to hit anyone it would have been me,” Lance said, “I didn’t expect his tail to be that wild.”

I didn’t expect that to hurt so much.” Keith reached out to grab onto the pool’s edge and only grabbed water. He patted around him, but never felt the cool tile. “Uh, how far away am I?”

“Here,” Lance leaned out over the side of the pool and caught Keith’s hand, reeling him in, “It does kinda burn, doesn’t it?”

“You could have let me know that!”

“Hey, I did say it would suck!”

“Let’s try again.” Hunk said, “This time we’ll have the vest ready and Lance will hold down Keith’s tail better.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll hold it down,” Lance said, “You ready, Keith?”

Keith nodded and squeezed Lance’s hand. He didn’t want to try again at all, but at the same time he didn’t want to be left alone in the pool.

“Just breathe in and hold it. Shit, do you even know how to do that? It took me days to figure it out.” Lance asked, squeezing Keith’s hand in response.

“No, I don’t. I tried to but, it didn’t work.”

“It’s tricky. It’s like... in your sides, not your chest,” Lance hummed, “Pretend you’re a cup filling with water. It pulls in through your sides.”

Keith frowned. “What the fuck does that mean Lance? Am I- am I the only one who doesn’t get this?” Maybe it was the drugs making him dizzy, but he thought maybe he was having a stroke.

“No, it doesn’t make any sense.” Pidge said.

“It’s hard to describe a feeling, okay?” Lance snapped, “Listen, it’s all in your sides. To hold your breath you have to, uh, pull in your sides. Like you’re sucking in your stomach except... it’s your sides... listen, just try it.”

“Well, I’m ready when you are.” Hunk said, once again positioning himself over Keith.

Keith huffed. “Fine.” He tried doing what Lance said. He tried to single out his sides, the muscles around his gills, the new structures he hadn't had before. After a few tries, he started to understand what Lance meant. It felt like he was hollowing himself out, creating a space for water to flow in, rather than sucking in air. The process started to feel more controlled. “Okay, I think I got it.”

“See, I'm not crazy. A cup filling with water!” Lance kissed Keith's hand then scooted away, getting into position, “Alright, let's try this again.”

“I'm ready, Hunk.” Keith nodded, “Let's do this.”

“Okay, on three,” Hunk put his hands under Keith's arms again, ready to pull him up, “One... two... three!!”

Hunk pulled Keith up out of the water for the second time, twisting him around into a sitting position all in one movement. Lance sprang into action immediately, flopping down on top of Keith's tail like it was a runaway bull. Pidge was already ready with the vest, taking Keith's arms and pulling them through the armholes.

Keith tried to hold his breath. It wasn't easy-- he still wasn't used to it-- but the burning sensation wasn't as intense as the first time. His body still twitched and his sides still contracted painfully, but he held on. Pidge was already snapping the buckles closed. She fastened the last one shut and pressed the green button. The vest purred to life and gurgled, seconds later the clear pockets on either side started to fill with water. Keith exhaled slowly, and his body slowly stopped shaking. The burning faded. Lance let go of his tail, sitting up.

“See, not so bad!”

Keith made a face. “The water tastes weird.”

“Can you believe it tastes better than it did?” Lance snorted. He wrapped his arms around Keith's shoulders, kissing his cheek, “Now we have free range of the whole castle!”

Keith blushed and hid his face in Lance’s shoulder, but he smiled despite himself. “Okay...”

The pool hall door suddenly slid open. Shiro walked in, whistling cheerfully. His whistle died when he noticed the four teens staring at him, “Oh, uh. Did I walk in on something?”

“Hey Shiro,” Lance said, his arms still wrapped around Keith's shoulders despite how red Keith's face was getting, “We’re just trying out the new respiration vests Pidge and Hunk made. Why are you here?”

“Oh, well, Coran's busy doing... something, so he asked me to come down and change Keith's bandages.” Shiro crossed the room, joining the four by the poolside, “He said you should be able to keep the bandages off this time.”

Keith removed himself from Lance’s chest to face Shiro. “Really?”

“That’s what he said. Except more... Coranic.” Shiro said. He rummaged around the increasingly cluttered poolside, finding where Coran kept the medical supplies.

“Oh man.” Lance wiggled, shaking Keith’s shoulders, “You won’t be blind anymore!”

“And no more of that painkiller!” Hunk said.

“Well, he said we could still use that if it hurts.” Shiro said. He came back to Keith’s side with a pair of scissors and a handful of cotton swabs.

Keith groaned. “Ugh, I’m sick of those, they make me stupid.”

“Yeah but it’s cute.” Lance said, finally releasing Keith at Shiro’s request, “Oop.”

“Oop?” Shiro raised a brow.

“Don’t even ask.” Pidge laughed. Shiro chuckled.

“Alright. Stay still Keith. I’m cutting the bandage now.” Shiro snipped off the plastic bandage first. It unfurled and fell to the floor. Next Shiro cut the cheesecloth bandage, slowly unwrapping it. It pulled away easily, the wounds no longer oozing but scabbed over and healing. While the area around Keith’s eyes was still red and pockmarked with scabs, it was no longer swollen. His eyelids looked almost normal.

“That looks a lot better,” Lance said, glancing over to Hunk and Pidge, “You didn’t want to see it two days ago.”

“It feels better, too.” Keith said, his eyes still closed. The area was still sensitive, even the cool air of the poolhall felt prickly against his raw skin, but it wasn’t painful.

“Open your eyes.” Shiro said.

Keith took a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes. It didn’t hurt this time, but merely felt tingly and overly sensitive-- which wasn’t anything he wasn’t used to. He blinked a few times and looked around the room. It was very bright, so bright it took his eyes a second to adjust. Everything certainly had more form, but his vision was still blurred. He squinted, scrunching up his face. It was making him dizzy. Squinting made it minutely better.

“You’re squinting.” Lance said, “Can you see?”

“God it’s so bright in here.” Keith rubbed at his eyes and immediately regretted it. The sensitive flesh stung at his rough touch. “It’s blurry. It’s better than last time, but still blurry. ”

“Huh, maybe you will need glasses.” Lance said.

“Where are we going to find glasses in space?” Hunk frowned.

“Do you think the space mall has a walk in optometrist?” Pidge asked.

“I bet Coran knows how to do optometry,” Lance said, “He knows how to do everything else.”

“Do you want to keep the bandage off?” Shiro asked, while Lance, Pidge and Hunk continued to debate whether or not Coran would know anything about human optometry.

“Yes,” Keith blinked a few more times, looking down at his hands. Things close to him were mostly in focus. For the first time he could see the thick black scales that covered his hands and arms halfway to his elbows, “It's better than nothing. And it doesn't hurt too bad.”

“Well, I still have to put this goop on you.” Shiro held up the bottle of salve Coran had been smearing on Keith's face for two days now. Keith sighed and closed his eyes. He kept still as Shiro dabbed the white paste across his skin with cotton balls. It hurt, like a cat scratch, not enough to warrant another dose of the pain medication.

“We could try to go to the space mall, now that Keith and I both have the respiration vests.” Lance said, having joined Pidge in the belief that the space mall would have an optometrist that could deal with human eyeballs.

“Keith's eyes are still healing, they could still get better.” Hunk said, “There’s no point going until he’s completely healed.”

“Besides, you're still grounded.” Shiro said, “You're not going anywhere.”

“What! Still? You're still mad about the Luxia thing?” Lance cried. Shiro gave him a look.

“Yes.”

“Okay, okay,” Lance threw up his hands, just barely missing the side of Keith's head, “I thought it might be a good idea to get out of the Castle, y’know, since we’ve been trapped in the same room for two days.”

“I think we should get back to the lab.” Keith said, his eyes narrow from squinting, white paste smeared across his skin.

“Nah, nope, I don't think so,” Lance said, shaking his head.

“What,” Keith squinted at Lance, “why not?”

“I, well, I don't know, maybe because the last time we were in the lab, you had most of your face melted off.” Lance said, his voice paper thin. Keith could just imagine the anxiety brewing in the pit of Lance’s stomach, threatening to spill out. Lance liked to put out an outward appearance of being cool and collected, but Keith was growing accustomed to the little mannerisms that showed when the boy was getting anxious about something. Cutting himself off mid sentence was one.

“But what about your research?” Shiro asked. Lance scratched at the back of his head, looking anywhere but at Shiro.

“Yeah, I’ll get to it! I just, I just don't really want to go to the lab today, alright? Or preferably ever, but that's probably not an option. Science does need to happen in a sterile, supposedly safe environment and therefore a lab is necessary for most en vivo sciencing.” Lance grinned as if it wasn't totally apparent the very idea of going back into the laboratory made him nervous.

“I'll be there to help.” Keith said. Lance grimaced.

“I don't know if that's the best idea,” he said, slowly. Keith frowned, so Lance hastily continued, “Listen, I just don't think it's a great idea, seeing as you can't see, and because last time you were in the lab you managed to nearly blind yourself and also lose your legs.” He gestured broadly with his hands solely because he wasn't sure what else to do with them, “I want to avoid any other worse case scenarios, thanks.”

“It was an accident, Lance. It's not like you caused it. You can't just ban me from the lab.” Keith said, lips thin and jaw tight. He knew Lance was just trying to protect him. But inside his pride was furious that someone was making decisions for him, barring him from something.

“Uh, I could argue that I did cause it,” Lance said, “I can't ban you from the lab but I could really heavily suggest that you don't--”

“You don't need to protect me, Lance.” Keith said, “I can take care of myself.” He regretted it the second the words left his mouth. Lance visibly deflated, looking away and down at his hands. Keith felt his heart sink. Shit. He sucked at being a person, he never said the right thing--

“Hunk and I can do it.” Pidge said, intervening before Keith could say anything else.

“It's fine, whatever,” Lance said, voice flat, “It's not going to make a difference anyways, we’re going to be stuck in this pool forever.”

“Now don't say that,” Shiro said, “We’re all working towards a solution. Which reminds me...” he leaned back and smiled, looking between his fellow Paladins, “I know I said you're grounded, but I think we should see what happens if you try to fly your lions.”

Keith looked up at Shiro, wide eyed. “Wait, seriously?”

“Yeah! It was actually Allura’s idea,” He grinned, “The Lions choose a Paladin who suits them, yes, but they're also designed to suit their Paladin. I'm not sure how it works, but Allura seemed to think that something might happen if you sat in the pilot's chairs and connected with your Lion.”

“And what if nothing happens?” Lance asked.

“I have a feeling something will happen.” Shiro said. He stood, stretching out like an old man, “Alright, let's get those scooters over here.”

 

***

 

Before being accepted into the Garrison, Lance had a therapist. Her name had been Marina, they met every two weeks. He liked her because she was the only one aside from his parents who thought going to flight school was a good idea, let alone possible for him. Marina would probably be saying that he was not dealing with his anxiety in a healthy way at the moment. That is, bottling it up inside rather than talk about what was bothering him.

He was silently stewing over every word that Keith had said to him in the previous conversation, as the group travelled down to the holding bay to visit the Lions. He was really good at that, meticulously analyzing a past situation. He was pretty good at analyzing a present situation, too, when he wasn't distracted by something, which happened a fair bit. Making good split second decisions was probably what made him a good Paladin.

That is, if he ever got to be a Paladin again.

That was the question that was at the center of his anxiety. Was he going to be stuck half fish for the rest of his life? Probably, seeing as the idea of going back into the lab made him want to vomit, which was bad. The idea of having Keith back in the lab made him want to vomit, too, which was decidedly worse because Keith didn't seem to appreciate being told not to do something.

You don't have to protect me, Lance.  I can take care of myself.

That had hurt. Of course he wanted to protect Keith. He didn't even mean to be overbearing! He just wanted to keep Keith safe. He wasn't doing a very good job, evidently, seeing as Keith was currently puttering along on a scooter due to not having legs. Maybe that's why he didn't want Lance's protection. Lance apparently wasn't great at it.

Lance didn't say a word the whole trip down to the Lions. Mostly he was lost in thought-- trying to dissect the previous conversation and figure out every way he had fucked up-- but also a bit out of spite, because he wasn't over enthused about the idea of sitting in Blue.

Well, honestly, he was excited, because every interaction with Blue was exciting. Like a conversation with an old friend. He would never grow tired of his connection with his Lion, with what they could do together. But he was scared. There were a thousand ‘what ifs’ flying through his brain, and his fear turned into mild bitterness. Another reason Marina would be rolling in her grave about-- y’know, if she were dead, which hopefully she wasn't.

Lance could tell Keith had been staring at him for the majority of the trip, which wasn't great because the guy already couldn't see very well and nearly drove into the wall.

Hunk chattered on about something the whole way to the holding bay, taking up Lance's abandoned position of conversation maker. The others joined in, even Keith, trying to keep the atmosphere light despite Lance’s gloomy attitude.

“Your armour might change as well.” Shiro was saying, as they neared the entrance to the holding bay, “I'm not sure if it works the same way, but seeing as it's built to adapt to the wearer...”

“I'm not sure if it was built to adapt to a tail, though.” Keith said, “I wouldn't even know how to begin putting a pair of pants on.”

“Just roll up your tailfin and stuff the whole thing down one leg.” Pidge suggested. Keith grimaced. With how sensitive the membrane of his tailfin was, that sounded like an awful idea. An awful, painful idea.

“No thanks. I'd like to keep my tailbones intact.”

“What, are there even bones down there?” Pidge frowned, trying to recall Lance's x-ray from earlier in the week.

“No, just cartilage,” Lance said, deciding then to join the conversation though without his usual gusto, “It'd still hurt, wouldn't advise it.”

Lance glanced to Keith, who was looking back at him, squinting-- but that was probably due to the fact that he couldn't see very well. His mouth was turned down in a little frown, and his brows were furrowed slightly. He looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't. He looked like he wanted Lance to say something, but he didn't, either.

Instead Shiro said something, as they entered the the holding bay.

“Okay, guys. We’re going to have to carry you on board I think. The scooters won't fit.”

“Yeah, I had to carry Lance on board when we went to visit the meraliens.” Keith said, as the group finally came to a stop before the Red Lion. The Lions were all around them, looking over them. The holding bay was where they were kept when not being flown. All five of the lions were sat, looking stoic and regal, and though they sat unmoving, the Paladins could feel them. Like a faint heartbeat.

“Hunk, you get Lance, I'll carry you, Keith.” Shiro said. He moved towards Keith, who visibly prickled. He had forgotten he would need to be physically picked up and carried somewhere, and by Shiro of course. It would be incredibly awkward and also a lot of physical contact Keith wasn't too enthused about. He would rather crawl onboard.

“Uh, Shiro... uh, you're the best and all but... maybe I can try driving the scooter up there anyways?” Keith said. He glanced over and just barely was able to see that Hunk already had Lance in his arms. They were watching him now.

“What? What's wrong?” Shiro asked, arms extended out already ready to pull Keith up into a bridal carry.

“I... I don't know. It's just... kinda weird, I mean I'm literally naked.” Keith said. Shiro looked at him. He gave him a look. 

“Keith, really?”

“You're technically wearing a vest.” Pidge said. Keith squinted in her general direction, but she was lost to the fog that was anything more than five feet away. There was a blob that was vaguely Pidge-coloured so he frowned at that.

“Listen, it's not you, it's just... I don't really like being touched, okay?” He crossed his arms and looked away frowning.

“Now that's not true.” Lance said, “You like some touching.”

Keith tensed up, hugging his arms closer. He huffed and sent bubbles billowing up along the sides of the vest. “I thought you weren’t talking to me!” He didn’t mean to sound so angry, he was more embarrassed than anything. God, he really didn’t know when to shut up.

“Just let Shiro pick you up, I've been doing it for days, it's not a big deal.” Lance snapped, purposefully ignoring what Keith said.

Keith recoiled for a second before whipping his head around and practically pouting into his shoulder. But his glare quickly faded into a small frown. He sighed and dragged a hand down his face, slumping down against the scooter’s controls.

Shiro sighed, and opened his mouth, about to lay down some solid advice, when Red whirred to life, her eyes glowing, her body unfurling as she suddenly stood. The five Paladins stared up at her as she loomed over them, a deep rumbling and mechanical whine emanating from her chest.

Shiro stepped back. The Red Lion was somewhat unpredictable. Keith let his arms drop into his lap and squinted up at Red. “What?”

“What’s happening?” Pidge asked, backing up with the others. Shiro shrugged.

“Whatever it is, I’m watching from over here.” Lance said, as if he had any control over where he was while in Hunk’s arms.

Red growled, tail twitching. She took a step forward and lowered her head down, so close Keith could touch her cold metal nose. He did exactly that. The metal vibrated under his hands with the resonance of her rumbling.

“What?” he repeated, and paused, before adding, “Yeah, I’m gonna go, okay?”

Red murred, an odd, mechanical noise that echoed through the bay. She pushed forward, trying to what one could only assume was nuzzle Keith, but the robo-lion didn’t know her own strength. She pushed her nose into Keith’s chest and pressed forward, effectively pushing him and the scooter over. Keith crashed to the ground with a yelp. Red stood over him, head tilted inquisitively, a purr kicking up in her chest.

“What the shit, Red?” Keith cried as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. “Are you purring at me?” He scoffed and held his arms out, “You just knocked me over!”

The others were laughing, even Lance, who was trying his best to stay gloomy.

“What did she say?” Shiro asked, braving the wrath of Red and walking back over, if only to help Keith up.

“She just missed me.” Keith begrudgingly let Shiro pick him up off the floor. “It’s only been a few days, Red.”

“Yes, but it’s been an emotionally tough few days,” Shiro said, trying to figure out the best way to carry Keith’s weight. It was a strange distribution of weight, because his tail was longer than his legs had been and quite a bit heavier, too. It didn’t help that Keith didn’t curl his tail around Shiro’s waist, like Lance did with Hunk, so the end of Keith’s tail flopped along around Shiro’s knees, “She can probably sense it. They’re good at that.”

Red kneeled down and opened up her mouth, allowing Shiro and Keith to enter. Before they did, Shiro turned to the others, “Hunk, you take Lance up to Blue, then you and Pidge board your Lions. I’ll get in the Black Lion, and we’ll see if we can form Voltron.”

Chapter Text

Red’s heating system was already cranked up high by the time Shiro carried Keith up into the cabin. The air was already stuffy and warm, enough for Shiro to make a face, but Keith barely felt a difference. It was smart thinking on Red’s part, though. He didn't want to start to freeze like Lance did, because he certainly wasn't up for shirtless cuddles with Shiro.

“God, it’s boiling in here!” Shiro grunted, setting Keith down in the Pilot's chair before tugging at his shirt collar, trying to fan himself a bit, “Is it always so hot in Red?”

“No, it's so I don't get cold and shut down,” Keith said, shifting in his seat to better situate himself, “When Lance and I went to the meraliens, Blue was cold enough that he started falling asleep.”

“What?” Shiro leaned against the dashboard, crossing his arms, “Why?”

“Something about being cold blooded,” Keith shrugged, “You know how snakes fall asleep if they get too cold? Same thing for fish. I guess Red’s just trying to prevent me from getting too cold. It's what she did for Lance, too.” Keith smiled. Red seemed to know exactly what to do before even he did.

“I see. Maybe we’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.” Shiro hummed. He scratched his chin, looking off into the distance for a moment. Keith tried to reposition himself in the pilot's seat in a way that was a little more comfortable. His tail was too long and pressed awkwardly against the foot pedals and underside of the dashboard. The back of the vest and his backfin pressed awkwardly into the chair if he leaned back, and the plastic sides of the vest which held water over his gills pressed against the armrests. The Lion really wasn't built for his current form. He sighed.

“Sorry for being difficult back there,” Keith said, watching his hands as he ran his fingers along the armrests. He still wasn't used to how dull everything felt, “I’m just still getting used to this. And I don't really like getting touched, or touching things, that's why I used to wear my gloves...” He hadn't worn his gloves since the accident, because they wouldn't fit over his webbed fingers. That little detail had been more distressing than he had expected. Not that he had really let anyone know how distressed he had been. He had been keeping any negative emotions about the whole accident under strict lock and key around Lance, because Lance was already stressed out enough about it.

“You know I don't blame you at all,” Shiro said, his tone serious but his mouth in a slight smile, “You've been dealing with some real bad shit, I'd be worried if you didn't act up every once in awhile.”

“Yeah...” Keith looked up at Shiro, but he couldn't quite make out his face. Everything was so blurry. He wondered if he'd ever be able to see again. You can't fight enemies you can't see, “I’ve been trying not to react at all. I don't want to upset Lance. He hasn't been handling this well at all, and he feels guilty about the accident. I don't want to give him a reason to worry.”

“You can't just not feel,” Shiro said, “Believe me, I've tried. You can't push away emotions, you can't lock them away. They always come back worse than before. You have to deal with these things now. You're not protecting Lance by hurting yourself, Keith.”

Keith blinked and looked down at his lap. “...I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Yeah. You’re right.” Keith ran his hand through his hair, which was ineffective due to the fact that his fingers were all conjoined by webbing. “It’s just... really hard for me to do that. I’m not the most... open person, you know.”

“Oh, I know.” Shiro flashed him a smile, “You can always talk to me, Keith. You know that.”

“I know, I know.” Keith sighed. He closed his eyes, giving his poor strained eyes a break, “God, I’m just... angry. I’m not worried, I’m not sad, I’m just angry.” He brought his hands up and covered his face, his sensitive skin prickling under the scaley touch. He let out a quiet groan, “I’m not angry at Lance, not at all. I’m angry at the fucking universe for making us go through this. What the fuck. Why us, Shiro? Haven’t we gone through enough?”

“The universe isn’t keeping score, Keith,” Shiro said. Keith dropped his hands and looked at him.

“It’s just not fair. I’m losing everything. My parents, my place at the Garrison, my human-ness. And now my legs and my eyes. I fucked up and now Lance isn’t even talking to me. I just, everything gets fucking taken away from me.”

“You’re not going to lose Lance over some words,” Shiro said, “Listen, Keith, you have every right to be angry. I know how you feel. To feel like everything’s been taken from you,” He uncrossed his arms, glancing down at his metal arm. His eyes didn’t linger there for long. His hands balled into fists, and he looked back to Keith, “But you’re wrong. Not everything is gone. You have us, you have a family here. And we’ll be with you, we’ll support you, even if you’re blind and breath water.”

“I’m useless if I can’t fight.” Keith said.

“You’re never useless, Keith,” Shiro said, “We’re going to figure this out.”

“And if we don’t?” Keith hissed. He felt like he was having deja vu. He had just been on the opposite side of this conversation a few days ago with Lance. But it was much different when it was your life in jeopardy.

“Listen, Keith, you can be mad for the rest of your life if you let the anger consume you.” Shiro pushed off the dashboard, taking a step forward so he was standing over Keith. His arms were crossed, his mouth in a tense frown, “You can’t let that happen. That’s not who you are. You don’t give up. I know that. So why are you giving up now?”

Keith leaned forward, bowing his head, “I’m not. I’m not giving up.”

“You sound like you are. Giving up on finding a cure, letting yourself get devoured by this anger.”

“No, I’m... I’m just scared, Shiro.” Keith let out an unsteady breath. His eyes were tearing up, and it stung. His fingers felt icy, despite the heat. He was terrified of losing his vision, losing his ability to fight. Like Lance, whose self worth was dependant on Voltron, Keith couldn’t imagine life without the point of a knife. He didn’t want that life. He didn’t want to live in a world where everyone was nothing but blobs of colour. He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t imagine never standing again. Never fighting his way through an enemy base again, never flying through space, dodging shots and firing them back. It was so painful, so terrifying, that it turned his blood cold. And in defense, because he could not handle any intense emotion, that fear had turned to anger in his stomach, like he was fighting back even against his emotions.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Keith raised his head to see Shiro knelt beside him, a hand on his shoulder, a kind smile on his face.

“It’s going to be okay, Keith. I’ve seen you be scared before. You always push through. You’re a fighter.”

He had been terrified at the Trials of Marmora. The want, the need for answers had steeled him, kept him fighting, fighting his fears and the pain. But this was different, wasn’t it? What was he fighting for?

Red rumbled. The cabin vibrated around them, resonating up Keith’s spine.

Right. He had to keep fighting for Red, for Voltron. To defend the Universe.

“I’ll try,” he said weakly, blinking through teary eyes. Shiro smiled.

“I know we can get past this, Keith. We’re going to find a cure, I know it. I can feel it. It’s just another fight we’re going to win.”

“I hope you’re right.” Keith sniffed. He was suddenly being hugged. He barely flinched. Hugging Shiro didn’t feel awkward at all. He hugged him back, “Thank you Shiro.”

“No problem, kid,” Shiro pulled away and stood. He rustled Keith hair, “Why didn’t you come talk to me days ago?”

“Because I can’t walk, Shiro.” Keith deadpanned. Shiro cringed.

“Ah, true. I’m sorry I didn’t come to talk to you. I really should have. I thought you would have talked to Lance about this.”

“Not about feelings,” Keith spat the last word like it was something disgusting, “Not right now.”

“You need to talk about feelings in a relationship,” Shiro said, “even painful feelings.”

“I know...”

“I already said this once, but it’s still true. You can’t protect him by hurting yourself. Just be open. You two can support each other. And you can always talk to me, or any of the others.”

Keith sighed. He really should try to be more open about his feelings. It was so much easier just locking them away. But if he was going to survive this, he was going to need to deal with the painful emotions. If not he was just going to get angrier, and that would help no one.

“I know. You’re right Shiro. Thank you. Again.” He gave a small smile. That seemed to satisfy Shiro enough. He turned and looked at the dashboard, eyes trailing over all the lit up controls.

“Are you ready to talk to your lion?”

“As ready as ever.” Keith sighed. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he was certain it’d be something. He curled his fingers around the controls, closing his eyes. He could feel the thrum of Red’s engine buzzing through his spine. He could feel her spirit connected with his. When he closed his eyes and cleared his mind, he could feel her as part of him.

“I’ll leave you to it.” Shiro said, giving Keith a gentle brotherly shoulder squeeze. He left the cabin, exiting the Red Lion.

Keith didn’t open his eyes. He exhaled slowly, steadily. He concentrated on his heartbeat, feeling it’s pace slow. He was calm. He cleared his head, he felt his connection to Red. It was like a place in his own being, connected by a string. Her presence grew, and grew, until she was all he could feel. His own self was lost. He was one with the Red Lion. And suddenly, he wasn’t sitting in the cockpit anymore.

 

***

 

Blue was still cold when Hunk carried Lance up into the cabin. The heating system kicked on almost immediately after, as if Blue remembered belatedly that her captain was now very cold sensitive. But Lance knew it would take a while before the metal fixtures warmed up enough not to send him into hibernation mode.

“You’re going to have to hug me, Hunk,” Lance said without any other explanation just before Hunk set him down in the pilot’s chair, clinging against Hunk even tighter.

“What?” Hunk raised a brow, giving him a quizzical look.

“It’s too cold in here, I can tell, I’m going to pass out if you put me down,” Lance said, arms wrapped tightly around Hunk’s neck, his tail curled even tighter around his waist and left leg.

“Oh, right. You’re cold blooded, aren’t you?” Hunk readjusted his hold on Lance before sitting down with Lance in his lap, “That’s how you got Keith to cuddle you all the way home from the meraliens planet.”

“I mean, it’s not like I planned it,” Lance cried, trying to arrange himself so he had the most amount Hunk warmth and the least bit of cold metal, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it definitely worked out to my benefit, aside from the passing out bit.”

“Now you have to settle for me.” Hunk snorted. Lance laughed.

“Hunk, it’s never settling if it’s with you.”

“Uh oh. I’ll have to tell Keith about this, Lance. Your rampant flirting is getting out of hand.”

“Ugh,” Lance rolled his eyes, leaning his head back against Hunk’s shoulder. The Respiration Vest’s sides dug painfully into his hips, but it was worth it because Hunk was nice and warm, “I don’t know, he probably wouldn’t even care. He doesn’t seem to want my affection.”

“What?” Hunk’s brows furrowed, “Is that why you were being so quiet? Because of what Keith said?”

“Yeah,” Lance frowned. He didn't elaborate, and Hunk wasn't sure if he wanted to. Though, knowing Lance, he probably did want to keep talking.

“You're just worried about him, I'm sure he gets that.”

“Does he!? Cause he said pretty specifically not to bother.” Not that Lance could not worry about Keith, or literally anything. In fact his worrying had taken a significant upswing in the past six days and he wasn't sure if he would ever not worry about everything ever again, “Is it crazy for me to not want him to go into the lab and blow the rest of his face off!? Because that's what's going to happen.”

“That's not what's going to happen, Lance. You're catastrophizing.” Hunk said, as gently as he could, “Chances are nothing's going to happen if either of you go back into the lab and are careful.”

“That's what I thought last time but then the first machine Keith touched literally exploded in his face and now he's a mermaid!!” Lance waved his arms around, mimicking an explosion, “I feel like it's not an absurd request for me to ask him not to go back there so I don't pull out all my hair imagining all the ways everything could go wrong. But no, he had to take offence to that--”

“Hey, calm down man,” Hunk said, rubbing Lance's back with one hand, his other hand resting on where Lance’s knee would have been if he still had knees, “you don't need to freak out over this. Take a deep breath.”

“No.” Lance hissed, purely out of spite, “I'm not freaking out.”

“You're kinda freaking out a bit.” Hunk said, “Just a little. C’mon, take a deep breath with me.” Hunk breathed in deeply, looking Lance in the eye, waiting for him to join in.

Lance scowled for a few more seconds before giving in to Hunk’s big brown puppy dog eyes. He took a deep breath and breathed it out with Hunk, “You know that does nothing for my respiratory system. It doesn't actually bring any oxygen into my blood as far as I know. It's all for show, I'm not actually doing anything when I breathe in through my mouth.”

“It helps your brain.” Hunk said, as if that was at all a true fact, “Clears it, yknow?”

“Sure,” Lance rolled his eyes, “Whatever.” He pouted in silence for a few seconds, before taking a breath and adding, “I mean I know we only just got together and stuff but we've been friends for a while and I didn't think he'd ever ask me not to care about him.”

“What? When'd he say that?”

“He implied it.” Lance grumbled, tracing shapes against Hunk’s back with his fingers, “And in turn it implies that he doesn't really care about me.”

What?” Hunk leaned back just so he could look Lance in the face, “Where are you getting that from? Keith cares a lot about you. He always has, ever since we all got on this ship.”

Lance paused at that. He wondered if Keith really had always cared about him and he had just never noticed. He was pretty sure they had been rivals for a good amount of time.

“I don't know... He doesn't even seem to care that I fucked up his legs and eyes.” Lance looked away, “He hasn't been reacting at all to this. The blindness, the whole mermaid thing. He hasn't talked about it at all, really. Shuts it down every time I bring it up. I don't think he cares that much.”

“I don't think that's it,” Hunk said, “I think he's probably not talking about it so you won't feel so guilty. But you've figured out a way to feel guilty anyways.”

“Maybe,” Lance frowned and stared at his hands, “That does sound like a dumb thing Keith would do. Maybe he's been brooding in silence this whole time and I've just been freaking out too much to notice.”

“I know Keith cares a lot about you,” Hunk said, “Y’know I bet he got so defensive about the lab because he just wants both of you to get your legs back. He doesn't care if he gets hurt in the process as long as the outcome is that you're cured.”

“Bluh, why would he be like that?” Lance laid his head against Hunk's shoulder and buried his face in the boy's t-shirt. In reality Blue’s cabin was probably warm enough now that he could sit on the metal seat and not lose too much heat, but really he just wanted to keep hugging Hunk because it was making him feel better, “That's idiotic. I don't believe you.”

“No offense to Keith, but isn't that just like him? Why don't you just ask him yourself, after?” Hunk asked, being completely reasonable. Lance gasped as if this was an absurd request.

“I can't, I'm currently ignoring him.”

“That's dumb,” Hunk rolled his eyes, “Talk to each other like adults.

“Yeah but I don't have to be an adult for like another year.” Lance frowned, “Okay, fine. I'll stop being petty and talk to him later. I'll probably cry. I hope you're happy.”

“I just think this is all your anxiety, making you think Keith hates you or something,” Hunk said, shrugging, “Remember the time at the Garrison where you were convinced you were gonna fail that test because the teacher looked at you after and you thought it was some sort of sign.”

“It wasn't a normal look Hunk it had a meaning.

“But you didn't fail so... I mean if there was a meaning , that wasn't it.”

“Ugh,” Lance groaned, because he knew Hunk was right. Hunk was always right with these things. This is why he talked to Hunk and got hugs whenever he was feeling especially unnerved, “I’ll talk to him. We’ll have a heart to heart. Maybe we'll kiss after. That'd be nice.”

“Is Keith a good kisser?” Hunk asked, before adding quickly, “I just wanted to know! No reason! I've just wondered, okay?”

Lance gave him a look, a single slender brow raised, “Really?”

“What! That's a totally normal thing to ask, okay? Besides, I know you're pretty okay.”

Lance rolled his eyes. “We only kissed once and that was a year ago, I think I've gotten better since then.” His kiss with Hunk had been on a dare and another one of the moments that, looking back, really should have told him he wasn't straight years ago, “Yeah Keith’s a good kisser. Really... intense.”

Hunk waggled his brows, “Ooo~!”

“No, stop that, put your eyebrows back where they belong,” Lance playfully shoved Hunk’s shoulder. When Hunk didn't stop the eyebrow waggling, Lance started shifting in his lap, as if to stand up and leave, “Alright, you can go now, I think it's warm enough in here.”

Hunk was laughing, “Okay, okay, sorry. Sorry!”

“You've ruined the moment. Now leave me so I can have a heart-to-heart with my robocat.”

Hunk snorted, lifting Lance easily by the armpits and setting him down in the empty seat once Hunk had moved out of the way. Lance huffed because he was being manhandled again. Hunk left the pilot’s chair nice and warm, at least. Lance curled his tail up around the base of the chair and settled in, trying to sit comfortably in a chair while wearing the respiration vest. That was nearly impossible. He tried to rid everything from his mind. It was just he and Blue, now.

“Have fun. I’ll be waiting in my lion for you.” Hunk said, patting Lance on the back a little too hard before leaving the cabin. Lance watched him go with a smile. Hunk was honestly the best at making him feel better. He also was totally down for bromantic cuddles without thinking it was weird or questioning Lance’s sexuality even once. Though, maybe he should have questioned his sexuality at least once. That would have saved Lance from a lot of confusion later on.

Gotta clear my mind. Lance shifted in the seat and wrapped his fingers around the throttle. Clearing his mind was always the hard part. He had a mind that didn’t like to stay still. He could feel Blue’s presence within him, running like a stream though his mind. Her presence grew. It grew to be a river, crashing and loud and unable to be ignored. Lance dove in, letting himself be swept away in her current.

 

***

 

It was incredibly warm in the room, it made his head dizzy. But the haze only clouded his mind; his eyes could see once more. He looked down to see a long white coat wrapped around his black tail.

He was in the lab again, mixing together different colored liquids in a beaker. He couldn’t see the names, but he knew what they were. She told him what they were. A vial was in his hands. The lightpole venom. There would only enough for one dose, but that was okay. It grew hotter in the room, but that was okay too. It would all be okay.

Lance would be okay.

 

***

 

It was cold. There was no water to insulate him from the frigid, piercing air. He could hear the whirr of the water respiration vest behind him and the trickle of water flowing over his gills. He was still transformed, a quick glance down at his blue tail told him that. But a voice in his head told him it wouldn't be like this for long.

He was in the common room, sitting on one of the couches. Keith was sitting next to him, his figure almost lost to the haziness of this vision. A shadowy figure stood before them-- Shiro? He was facing two other figures, but he could not make out who they were. A feeling inside him told him that they were important, that this was important.

 

***

 

Lance wheezed and sat up, trying to shake the fog out of his brain. A close encounter with the Lionkind always scrambled his brain a bit. He physically shook his head, and realized he had been laying down. Where am I?

Lance opened his eyes, blinking against the bright light. He was... nowhere. Nowhere he had ever been before, at least.

Above him was a galaxy alit with stars, stretching across a distant horizon. Below him was darkness. He seemed to be floating. He still had a tail in lieu of legs, but his respiration vest was missing, and despite not technically being in water he seemed to be able to breathe. That's because this isn't real.

Keith popped into existence in front of him. Literally popping in with a sound like a bubble bursting. Just like Lance he was still sporting the shimmering black and red tail, and missing his vest. Keith sat up, his hands pushing against nothing. He looked around, blinking.

“Lance?”

“Hey,” Lance said, “Man why am I dreaming about you?”

Keith blinked back at him, then turned, looking up at the starry sky above them, “You're not dreaming. I think we're on the astral plane.”

“The what?”

“Shiro told me about it. It’s sort of a mindscape that’s connected to the lions. It’s where he fought Zarkon for Black.” As Keith spoke, Lance noticed the red glow that seemed to outline him.

“So you're not a part of some weird dream,” Lance said, “I guess that's possible. Usually when I dream I'm on a beach somewhere. And have legs. You're glowing, by the way. Like, physically glowing. Like a red laser aura around you.”

Keith looked down at his hand. “You are too. Except blue. Who would’ve guessed it, right?” he rolled his eyes and dragged a webbed hand over his face.

“I know, shocking,” Lance looked down at his hands. Just as expected there was a glowing blue aura around him, like he was a ghost or something. He stretched out his arms above him and his tail under him. They were floating on nothing, a sensation similar to floating through the water, but he felt weightless. Kicking his tail sent him spinning gently backwards, “Your face isn't scarred. Can you see?”

Keith touched his face and pursed his lips in a flat line. “Uh, yeah I can. I didn’t even realize it.” He looked over at Lance, then quickly lowered his eyes. “So, what do you think we’re doing here?”

“I don't know,” Lance pursed his lips, suddenly remembering that he was supposed to be ignoring Keith out of spite. Except that he told Hunk that he'd be an adult and talk to his... boyfriend ? “Maybe the Lions want us to talk?”

“Oh. Yeah, maybe.” Keith tapped his fingers against his own tail, unsure of where to go from here. He tried copying Lance and flicked his tail out. He ended up flipping over and floated through the empty space facedown. “Shit.”

Lance snorted, grabbing Keith's arm to stop his somersaults, “Keith! Jeez. It's going to be three years from now and you're still going to be terrible at swimming with a tail.”

Keith rolled his eyes and pulled himself towards Lance. “In three years I won’t have a tail. And neither will you.” He averted his eyes, a small smile tugging at his lips. “Red showed me something.”

“So you had a vision, too?” Lance frowned, “What did you see? Mine didn't make any sense.”

“Yeah,” Keith nodded, “I was in the lab making the serum. She showed me how I’m supposed to make it!” He grinned. He conveniently left out the part where there was only enough for one of them.

Lance prickled, frowning, “Keith...”

“It’ll be fine. A machine blew up on me one time, what are the odds of that happening again? Besides, I wasn’t even using a machine in the vision.”

“Keith you don't even have vision. How are you going to make a serum?” Lance let go of Keith's arm to bring his hands up to his hair, “It's dangerous, and how do we know it's even going to work!? I don't... listen, Keith, the last time you were in the lab, the literal worst case scenario happened--”

“Lance!” Keith cut him off, “I said it was going to be fine, don’t you believe me?”

“No!” Lance cried, “Why don't you care about how I feel!? I was the one who brought you into the lab in the first place, I caused this, I caused you to lose your vision, and now you want to go back, and act like I’m the one who's crazy!?”

“No you didn’t!” Keith yelled back, “decided to go with you, I went into the lab on my own, the machine failed and I wasn’t wearing the goggles. It’s all on me! You don’t need to blame yourself every time I fuck up, Lance!”

Lance sighed and looked down at the nothingness below them, “...I should have told you to wear goggles, I didn't, didn't have the proper PPE--”

Keith grabbed Lance by the shoulders and shook him roughly. “What did I just say!? This isn’t your fault Lance! Stop getting hung up on it!”

Lance stared at Keith and did his best impression of a sad puppy, “But... but Keith... Keith, what if?

Keith sighed and slid his hands down to hold onto Lance’s elbows. “What if this is our only chance? I know you’re just worried about me, but I don’t care how badly I get hurt. As long as I can help you, it’s worth it to me.”

“Stop being so Keith,” Lance groaned. He leaned forward and rested his head on Keith's shoulder, gently resting his hands on the boy’s hips, “I don't want you to get hurt, Keith. It might be worth it for you but it would kill me to see you hurt again. It's not just that I'm worried. But it hurts me to see you in pain, to see you like this...”

Keith wrapped his arms around Lance’s back, tucking his head into the crook of his shoulder. “It hurts me to see you like this. You’re having panic attacks every five seconds. It’s not fair, none of this is. I just want to change back as soon as we can.”

“It's not every five seconds,” Lance gave a half-hearted huff, “Besides, maybe I wouldn't be panicking if my, uh, my...”

“...Boyfriend?” Keith offered. Lance was happy his face was pressed against Keith's neck because his cheeks were burning.

“If my, uh, boyfriend would calm the fuck down for a second before running off into danger.”

“I don’t... always do that.” Keith traced lines across Lance’s back. “I, I caused like, one of those problems that way.”

“You ran off and tried to fight Zarkon on your own! Or what about the time you tried to fight all of the Blade of Marmora and got your ass beat?” Lance grumbled, “Or when we broke out Shiro and you drove us off a cliff. You never think about the danger of a situation if you think you're doing the right thing. And now I bet you want to go back into the lab and mess with the light pole venom even though it's dangerous because you don't care that I care about you!!”

“I-” Keith deflated. He took a deep breath and tried to swallow the lump forming in his throat. “I do care,” was all he could say.

“Then please promise me you won't go to the lab,” Lance murmured, his voice quiet. His words just seemed to disappear into the void around them, “We’ll figure out a different way to change us back, okay? But the lab was a mistake. I have a bad feeling about it. Promise me you won't go there. Please?”

Keith tightened his grip on Lance’s skin.

He wasn’t being fair. Lance was afraid, but he wasn't being fair. Truthfully, Keith would have happily stayed away from the tech that nearly blinded him, but Red had showed him the vision. She told him what he needed to do. How could he stay away from what she wanted? From what he knew he had to do. He trusted Lance, and admired him in many ways, but the ten thousand year old magical sentient lion knew better. He couldn't miss the chance to get Lance his legs back just to appease his anxiety.

Or... maybe he could do both. Lance couldn't be anxious about something he didn't know was happening.

Keith sighed and set his jaw. “Okay,” he lied, “I won’t go.”

Lance’s face lit up with a smile. He leaned back and looked Keith in the eyes, “Really? You'd do that for me? Listen, I know it sounds crazy, I know it's just me being worried but I have a really bad feeling about it. You promise you won't go?”

“I won't go,” Keith said, looking away, his tone flat. He hoped he didn't give away the fact that he was already formulating a plan on how to get into the lab without Lance knowing. He wasn't a great liar, “I know it's important to you, so, uh, I won't go. We’ll just figure something else out.”

“You're the best,” Lance wrapped his arms tight around Keith in a hug, “Everyone else would have just talked me out of it. Or laughed at me. No one ever trusts my judgement.”

“That's not true,” Keith sighed, feeling guiltier by the second, “We all trust you a lot, Lance.”

“I guess I don't have a great history of decision making.” Lance pulled away from the hug, hanging into Keith's hands.

“It's okay, I don't exactly have a history of good decisions, either.” Keith smiled. Lance smiled back and the two stared fondly at each other for a while, at least until the moment was somewhat ruined by Lance yawning.

“Why are we still here? We made up, we talked. Why are we still projections on the astral plane?” He swatted his hand through the air between them, watching how the glow trailed behind his form ever so slightly if he moved too fast, “Hey how do you think astral projections work? Do you think it'd hurt if you punched me?”

Keith made a face. “Possibly? I don’t really want to try though.”

“What, you don't want to punch me? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, man. When literally ever else am I going to give you permission to punch me in the face. Actually don't punch me in the face, punch me in the arm. My left arm, not my shooting arm. This is for science.”

Keith glanced down at Lance’s arm and punched him half-heartedly, not enough to actually hurt.

“That didn't hurt at all,” Lance frowned, rubbing the spot where Keith had all but pat his bicep, “You didn't even try. C’mon Keith! Pretend I'm Zarkon.”

“I’m not going to do that!” Keith snapped back. “Why do you want me to hurt you?”

“For science,” Lance said, “empirical testing. When we get back into our bodies I’ll see if my arm still hurts. Then we’ll know whether or not injuries produced on the astral plane carry over into the real world.”

“We could just ask Shiro! He’s already been in a fight here!”

“Oh yeah,” Lance frowned, “Damn. I guess you don't have to punch me, then.” He pushed away, idly floating away through space, “I can't think of any other good reason for why we should be here if it's not for some theory testing. Why do you think we're still, uh, finned?”

“Maybe because that's what we're used to?”

“Please. I've been a bipedal mammal for the majority of my life, I don't know about you.”

“I mean, recently. And we’ve been thinking about it a lot. Or at least I have been,” Keith rolled his eyes, “I'm pretty sure the astral plane has a lot to do with our mind. We've been so fixated on having changed forms, it's changed our astral projected form too.”

“Hmm, I like this theory,” Lance said, fingers tapping on his chin as he floated past Keith, “But if that were the case, wouldn't you still be mostly blind?”

Keith frowned. That's right, I should be blind-- He thought about it for a second before his eyes twinged and shifted physically, unfocusing instantly. Keith groaned and brought his hands to his eyes, rubbing at them. The sudden change had hurt a little.

“What? What happened?” Lance asked, trying to sound nonchalant but there was a hint of anxiety in his voice.

“Were you thinking about me being blind too?” Keith sighed. He lowered his hands, revealing the red irritation that scabbed around his orbital bones--just like they did in real life, “The second I thought about it, it changed.”

“That's so cool!” Lance cried, way too excited about the whole thing in Keith's opinion. He grabbed Keith by the shoulders and shook him just a little, “You know what this means, Keith? It means we can actively influence and change our characteristic while in here!”

“Okay?” Keith squinted, willing his eyes to focus on something, preferably Lance’s face, “So...?”

“So it means we can have legs again!” Lance cried, “Well, on the astral plane, at least. We just have to think about it real hard.”

“Oh,” Keith smiled, “Shit. That's... that's actually pretty cool.”

“Hell yeah!” Lance slid his hands down to Keith's elbows, and even with blurred vision Keith could see his grin, “Okay, okay. So just... think about how we should totally have legs right now. Like it's only be normal to have legs, right? That's our natural state of being.”

“Right.” Keith closed his eyes. He thought about himself; how he saw himself. What did he look like? Average height, hair that was honestly a bit too long now, pretty skinny but also pretty fit, two legs, two feet, two arms. Purple eyes.

Keith™.

The weirdest sensation washed over him. It felt like fireworks crawling up his body. When he opened his eyes he could see clearly again.

And he could clearly see Lance’s dick.

Looking down, he could quite clearly see his own dick, too, because both he and Lance were buttass naked.

“Ack!” Keith stumbled back and fell onto his bare ass onto a floor he couldn’t see trying to cover himself with his hands, “You’re-- we’re naked!

Lance seemed more interested in staring at the ground beneath their feet, “Weren’t we floating a second ago? Now there’s a ground here?”

“Lance! You’re dick is hanging out,” Keith screech, physically unable to pull his eyes away from it because it was right there. Lance just had his hands on his hips, hips cocked ever so slightly to the side just like his sly smile.

“What? We’ve been naked this whole time dude!”

Keith sputtered, his face bright red, “But not, not like this

“I’ve seen your cock before dude.” Lance frowned, “I thought I was the one who was going to be weird about this. Like, you’re the gay one, right? I thought you’ve been showered in penis before.”

“I need to be prepared first.” Keith said, his voice flat and stone cold. He was still staring at Lance’s dick. It was like staring into the void, and the void was staring back.

“Don’t just stare at it dude, you’re being weird.” Lance said, finally moving his hands to cover himself up. Keith pulled his eyes up to meet Lance’s.

“I wasn’t staring.”

“You were staring slack jawed and drooling a little.”

Lance, please.” Keith groaned. His face was so hot he could probably fry an egg on his cheeks. But by the looks of it, Lance wasn’t so calm himself. The boy’s cheeks were rather red, too. Keith idly wondered how he ever thought he was straight.

“One or both of us failed to envision ourselves wearing clothes.”

“I was wearing clothes, I assure you.” Keith lied.

“I wonder if...” Lance mused aloud. He held out his arms like he was about to dance the Macarena. There was a low hissing noise, and a blue t-shirt and black pants materialized onto his body, “This is so rad. Look, I’m doing squats!” Lance did a few squats in front of Keith, then kicked out his legs, “Legs!”

“How did you do that?” Keith asked.

“What, squatting? I used my leg muscles. The trick is to keep your back straight”

“No, made clothes appear!” Keith cried. Asshole.

“Oh. Just think about it, the same as with your legs!” Lance bent at the waist and wrapped his arms around his knees in a feat of flexibility Keith could never replicate. In that moment Keith was quite certain Lance was some sort of mutant, or at least also part-alien.

“Okay,” Keith stood, closed his eyes, and thought of his usual outfit. Not that he could imagine himself wearing anything else. Back home he had seven pairs of the same black shirt because he just liked it. The same black shirt materialized across his chest and arms, appearing like pixels on a screen. It felt like bugs crawling on his skin. His pants and jacket appeared in much the same way, along with boots. Lance still wasn’t wearing shoes, apparently too overjoyed just to see his toes again. Keith was more relieved to be wearing clothes, “Okay.”

“This must be what the Lions wanted us to see,” Lance said, offering Keith a hand. Keith took it and was pulled up to his feet, “We can always come back here, right? Even if we’re stuck as mermaids forever, we can still come back to the astral plane and have legs!”

“Okay, but how does that help us in the real world?” Keith frowned. He regretted bursting Lance’s bubble immediately as the boy’s face fell.

“True, still can’t fight the evil of the galaxy if we can’t walk,” Lance sighed. He pushed his hands through his hair, enjoying even just the feeling of having unwebbed fingers. He thought silently for a moment then brightened, “Maybe there’s a way to take this form into the real world? I bet there is a way. Why else would they show us this?”

“I thought they wanted us to talk?” Keith was confused. Could there be a way to transfer your form from the astral plane to real life? It couldn’t be true. If it were, why did Red show him making the antidote in the lab? No, the serum would be what would change Lance back.

For him, he wasn’t sure yet. Red also showed him that there would only be enough antidote for one person. The choice of who got their legs back was clear.

“Uh, maybe both,” Lance wandered back over and was suddenly in Keith’s personal space, wrapping his arms around Keith’s waist, his hands slipping up under his shirt and pressing against his back, “I’m sorry I flipped out and ignored you. I’m just... this whole thing has just been so hard--”

“I know, it’s okay,” Keith leaned into his chest, threading his own arms around Lance’s lower back. He idly played with the belt loops on Lance’s pants, “I know it’s been hard on you. I’m sorry I can’t just... make it better.”

“You have made it better,” Lance murmured, “by saying you won’t go to the lab. Just knowing you won’t be in danger makes me feel so much better.”

Keith squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his face into Lance’s shoulder. This was the first time he had ever hugged Lance standing up. They hadn’t hugged before Lance couldn’t stand anymore, “You can’t protect me all the time Lance, I’m going to be in danger! We’re part of Voltron, that’s what we do.

“This is different.” Lance said.

How is it different?” Keith threw his arms out. “We put ourselves in potential danger to protect others, Lance.”

“Yeah, but I’m not usually the one putting you in danger!” Lance cried, hands also flying.

“You're not putting me in danger. I'm making my own decisions, Lance.”

“Why are you always so willing to take risks that end up hurting you?” Lance turned around on his heels, rubbing at his face and groaning. He stared out into the nothingness.

Keith stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Lance’s middle. “Because it’s worth it.”

Lance was glad Keith was behind him because his face flushed and his heart skipped a beat, “Awh.”

Keith flushed, realizing what he had just said. “I-I mean it though!”

Lance mumbled something mostly incoherent, shuffling his feet, then added, “Aren't you mad at me for doing this to you? That's why you won't talk about it. About the transformation, the blind thing. You shoot down the topic every time I bring it up. It's because you're mad at me, isn't it?”

Keith tightened his grip and buried his face in Lance’s neck. “No. I’m not. I’ve told you before, I’m not mad at you,” he muttered.

Lance frowned at his feet, “Then why won't you even talk about it?”

Keith was silent for a long moment before he spoke again, his voice small and pitiful. You need to talk about feelings in a relationship, even painful feelings. “Because I’m scared.”

Lance felt his heart skip, again. His stomach felt heavy, like he had swallowed lead. It was hard to imagine Keith, Keith Kogane, as scared of anything. And yet, Lance believed him.

“Yeah... me too.” Lance turned, pulling Keith into a tight hug. Keith hugged him back just as tight. Lance squeezed his eyes shut. They stung with tears. He felt a bit of hope, a bit of solace in the fact that even Keith was scared. They were in this together, they were both scared, but at least they had each other. It didn't matter whose fault this was, because it sucked either way. Keith wasn't mad, he was scared. He was just as scared as Lance, “Keith, y’know... even if we don't ever change back to normal... at least we’re together, right?”

Keith forced a smile, even though Lance couldn’t see it. “Yeah. At least I have you.”

Lance laughed quietly, “You, me, and Plaxum.”

“Don’t ruin it.”

What, she offered her home to us.” Lance kissed Keith on the cheek, “I think it would be a lovely arrangement.”

“Maybe,” Keith huffed. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna welcome me back to that planet.”

“Plaxum would. Blumfump and Swirn are pretty cool, too. Maybe we would need to get our own place, though. We don't want another ‘oh-shit-Coran’s-come-to-change-your-bandages’ situation.” He moved his lips lower, kissing Keith’s neck and clavicle.

Keith groaned. “Don’t remind me.”

“Hey do you think if you pop a boner on the astral plane you'd pop a boner in real life? We might need to test this theory. For science.”

Lance.

What, it's like the one time we're ever going to be alone ever. Hey, do you think if I imagine myself with a huge-- ” He was interrupted by a tingling feeling, beginning in his finger tips. He huffed and pulled back, seeing his non-corporeal body starting to dematerialize. He glanced to Keith, who appeared to be experiencing the same material unbinding, “Oh, I guess we’re going back now. Either that or we've died.”

Keith huffed out a laugh. “I doubt we’re dead. I guess they really did just, want us to talk.” He gave a shy smile.

“Maybe this was all just some pre-death dream on my part. Just neurons firing as they die. Man and my own brain won't even let me fuck you.”

Keith rolled his eyes. Most of his body had dissipated at this point. “Lance.

“Well I guess we’ll find out in a moment.” Lance blew Keith a kiss, and disappeared completely. Keith remained on the astral plane long enough to roll his eyes, then disappeared as well.

 

***

 

Keith snapped his eyes open. There was the sound of mechanical parts turning, grinding, moving. The cockpit was alive. It was moving, changing. The dashboard pulled forward, closer, but the footwell pushed back, allowing more room for his tail. The pedals retracted and instead a second lever much like the throttle pushed up from the floor next to him. He didn’t need to use his legs to operate Red anymore. He could do it all from with his hands.

Red rumbled. The deep vibrations rung out from her core and emanated outwards, making the metal ring with resonance. She let out a roar, and Keith could hear another echoed back at her. Blue?

You are my paladin. Keith felt Red through the connection. He smiled. He caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye; to his left, where his bayard would go, something else appeared. He couldn’t quite make out what it was until he picked it up and brought it close to his face.

Goggles. A pair of red and white... goggles. Keith snorted, incredulous. Red was nudging him to put them on.

“No way...” He mumbled aloud. He slipped the band around his head and situated them on his face. At first everything was still blurry, though tinted slightly blue. Then the goggles audibly stuttered and hissed like a mechanical device moving into place. The strap tightened around his head until it fit snugly. The goggles made a sound like a flash camera taking a picture, and suddenly the glass front cleared. He could see. His sight wasn’t blurry anymore. Suddenly he could see his hands, his tail, the dashboard. He could see out the windshield, where the other lions were waiting in the bay. He could see, “No way. This is crazy, Red!”

The commlink crackled to life and Shiro appeared against the windshield before him, “Keith? I’m guessing you’re awake?” He squinted, “What are you wearing?”

“They look ridiculous, don’t they?” Keith sighed, but he was still smiling. He touched his face, his clawed nails clacking against the glass of his goggles, “They just appeared in the cockpit.”

“But why are you wearing them?” Shiro asked. Lance suddenly appeared on screen as well, under Shiro.

“Guys, so the Lions are totally magic, right?”

Keith lit up. “Blue did it too?”

“If by ‘it’ you mean spit out some cool biohacker cyborg gill things, then yes,” Lance said, looking down at something off camera. He glanced back up and blinked, then squinted, “Are you wearing glasses?”

“I was just asking the same question,” Shiro said, “Wait, Lance, what happened with Blue?”

“She, uh, popped out these two devices that, sorta, attached themselves into my sides,” Lance said, looking off screen at something again, “like facehuggers for my gills. I don’t even know how they work but they broke the respiration vest in their excitement to clamp down on my sides, and I haven’t died yet, so.

“Damn, that’s cool.” Keith mused. “But what I meant, was rearrange the cockpit so I can pilot with just my arms.” He beamed down at the controls. The lions really were amazing. “Also, she gave me magic goggles.”

“Shit,” Lance said, spinning his head around, “It is all changed in here! I didn’t even notice, I was too busy, uh, being attacked by metal clamps. Also I’m bleeding a bit? I bet it’s fine--”

“What happened?” Pidge appeared on screen, next to Shiro, “Did you guys go to the astral plane? Uh, Keith, are you wearing glasses?”

“They’re magic.” Keith said lamely.

“We did go to the astral plane!” Lance said, “Oh shit, Shiro. Okay, so after you fought Zarkon on the astral plane, did your real life body get hurt?”

“What?” Shiro squinted again.

“Keith wouldn’t punch me--”

“Because it’s stupid.”

“I couldn’t test the theory.”

“Hey, what’s going on?” Hunk’s face flashed up on screen, completing the telecommunication quadrant, “Did something cool happen in Red and Blue?”

“Uh, hell yeah!” Lance cried, “Check out Keith’s magic goggles!”

“Why are they magic?” Hunk asked, leaning into the screen and staring at Keith, “I highly doubt they’re magic . Because, y’know, magic doesn’t exist. It can all be explained through science--”

“Uh, excuse you. I just spoke with my boyfriend on a plane of nothingness where I could grow legs or a huge dick. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is--” Lance started.

“Oh so you’re boyfriends now?” Pidge smirked, eyes sliding from Keith to Lance.

“That’s not important right now.” Keith said, face flushing, “What’s important is seeing if we can still fly.”

“Keith’s right. We’ll have plenty of time to talk later.” Shiro said, “But we need to see if we can form Voltron.”

“Aight, aight,” Lance grinned. Keith hadn’t seen him this happy in days. Since... before, “C’mon Keith, let’s test this out.”

“I’ll have Allura open the doors,” Shiro said, nodding, “then, just follow my lead.” He cut his comm, disappearing from the screen.

“You’re going to have to tell me all about the astral plane.” Pidge said, wiggling her eyebrows.

“You’re going to be way more excited about these things on my sides,” Lance said, glancing down again, “Alien engineering and tech. So much better than our shitty human stuff.”

“I can’t wait.” Pidge grinned. She winked, and disappeared.

“Let’s do this.” Hunk nodded, before disappearing as well. Lance smiled at Keith.

“You ready?”

“You bet your ass I am.” He smirked deviously, though the goggles just made him look silly. Lance snorted.

“Just try to keep up babe.” Lance winked and blew him a kiss.

“I don’t think I’ll have any problems.” Keith laughed, eyes sparkling, his mouth pulled up into a smile. He looked beautiful. Lance laughed back, disappeared. The commlink blinked off.

Keith couldn’t stop grinning.

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe that worked. I can’t believe it. Holy shit.

“Lance, language.” Shiro scolded, arms crossed, sitting back on the couch. But he was smiling, sitting next to Allura, looking quite proud of his team. They had done it.

They had formed Voltron again.

With the new modifications to the Blue and Red lions, Keith and Lance were able to fly just like they used to. Of course it did take some getting used to flying with just their arms, but the two of them just so happened to be amazing ace pilots. Keith had taken to it first, quickly figuring out the controls and new mechanics. Allura had them run a few drills to get used to the new configuration. While Keith was quickly attuned to using his hands, Lance slammed into Hunk’s Lion a few times when he confused the throttle with the pitch control. Turns out the throttle was still on the left.

Once Lance figured out what all the buttons and levers did, they had attempted to form Voltron. That took about three tries, probably due to nerves, or maybe Lance wasn't connected to his Lion enough now that she was stick shift. Third time's the charm, apparently, because on the third try the team was able to form Voltron.

And it had felt great.

And now on a post-Voltron high, they were relaxing together in the common area.

Lance was on the couch across from Shiro and Allura, one arm over his head and leaning slightly to the right because Coran was currently poking at his left side, inspecting the strange metal gill covers Blue had given him. Well, forced on him was a better word. Each one of the gill covers were about a sixteen inches long and only about three inches wide; about as long as his gills were to begin with. They were made out of metal links that was able to bend and move with him, like metal armour for his sides. The top of the devices were flat and covered in a shiny blue metal, one end also adorned with unlabelled buttons. There were six metal pins along the edges of each device that had physically dug into his skin to hold them in place. That had actually really hurt and continued to sting a bit when he moved, but seeing as he could somehow breathe without a clunky respiration vest on, he wasn't complaining.

He wasn't sure how the devices--  which he called ‘breathers’-- worked, at all. They were quite thin, but seemed to have no problem flowing water over his gills. He could feel the water, like he was still underwater, by where the water was coming from was beyond him.

“I knew it'd work,” Hunk said, currently sitting on the floor with Pidge. Pidge had stolen Keith's goggles and had somehow hooked them up to her laptop and was running a diagnostic on them, “I knew we’d be able to form Voltron.”

“Right, sure. I remember all of you guys using the word ‘if’ a lot. Like, ‘if we can figure this out’--” Lance yelped as a stinging pain shot up his side. He glanced over at Coran, who grimaced.

“Sorry Lance, did that hurt?”

“Uh, only a lot,” Lance frowned, “What are you doing again?”

“He's just checking to make sure these additions are actually good things,” Allura said. She was sitting next to Shiro on the opposite couch, hair pulled up tight and legs crossed. She was actually wearing her Paladin suit. She had helped them navigate through the surrounding area to form Voltron. She was also preparing to leave on a trip to meet an alien race she had contacted a few days ago about Lance’s, and now Keith's, predicament. Shiro was going with her; they were set to leave in the morning.

“Well, I doubt the Lions would ever harm their Paladins, unless the Paladins betrayed them,” Coran said, currently furiously dabbing a cloth against one of the pin wounds on Lance’s side, “I’m actually just making sure you're at no health risk here. These metal pins actually went in quite deep.”

“Oh, yeah, I noticed.” Lance said. He winced again as Coran pressed his cloth around the irritated area.

Keith was sitting next to him, currently glaring at a bowl of soup. His tail was splayed across Lance’s lap, and he squinted angrily at his food, because he couldn't quite see it very well. Pidge had stolen his glasses.

“This tastes funny,” he frowned.

“That's because it's slime.” Lance said, a little too loudly. He was still riding the adrenaline rush of actually being able to fly .

He was starting to have hope again. Hope that he could still be part of team Voltron. He could still fly, he could still shoot. If they could figure out the suits, maybe he and Keith wouldn't be so useless after all.

He was a bit weary about being hopeful, but at the moment he pushed the weariness aside. The thrill of flying, of being one with Blue, was keeping all the anxiety and fear away. For now.

Besides, Keith had promised not to go back to the lab. He had nothing to worry about for now. Well, almost nothing. Not being able to walk was still a big concern. Maybe the Lions could help them with that, too.

Keith still frowned at his food. “Yeah, but it's different than usual. My whole mouth tastes stale.”

Lance blinked at him for a moment, “Oh. That's probably just the respiration vest. The water gets stale after a while.”

Keith closed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah I think that's it. I don't like it”

“I can't wait to get ahold of one of those breathers, Lance,” Pidge said, “Maybe we could replicate it for you, Keith. Make water respiration vest version four-point-oh.”

“I don't think you're ever getting these out.” Lance said, gesturing down to his side, “It feels like the pins dig down halfway through me.”

“Actually I do think there's a way to release them,” Coran said, “Theoretically, If I just press this bu-- Oops!

Lance yelped and jumped as pain shot through his side again, this time followed by a dull throb. He looked down to see Coran holding an unattached breather in one hand, the other pressing a cloth against Lance’s side. The breather had popped right off, all six pins retracted down to the size of toothpicks. They still looked rather nasty, and now Lance had six holes left slowly oozing blood, “Uh, ouch!?

“Sorry Lance, my finger fumbled like an intoxicated Burribble!” Coran said. He set down the breather on the couch and reached for more cheesecloth to clean up Lance’s wounds, “I could give you something for the pain if it's too much.” He handed the breather to Hunk, who excitedly poured his eyes over it without a word.

“No thanks, I don't want to turn into a moron for a few hours,” Lance snorted, “It's really not that bad.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Wow rude.” Even so, he set down his empty bowl and wrapped his arms around Lance’s neck, leaning his head on his shoulder. He may not be able to see, but he could feel how tense Lance still was under his tail. He was panting shallowly as half his respiratory system was no longer working. Lance wrapped an arm around Keith's back, resting a hand along his back fin under the vest.

“This must operate with some wormhole technology,” Hunk said, holding the breather in his hands a bit like he was holding a baby, “it’s like a mini portal opening to somewhere where there’s water. Look,” he flipped the breather over, showing off its faintly glowing underside. It was lit up light blue, like an LED display. Hunk pushed his fingers down into the light, and they disappeared, pulling back wet, “it seems to be only activated by a biological component. Makes sense, or else it would be endlessly flowing even when not in contact with a pair of gills. I just want to know how they managed to make a pocket portal that can bend...”

“These goggles are pretty awesome, too,” Pidge said, looking up from her laptop. She reached over and picked up the goggles, holding them up above her head like it was some magical artifact, “They're definitely Altean tech. My computer’s currently downloading a blueprint and scanning it's software, but, from what I can tell, these little blue lights on the side are scanners. They emit a light that scans your eyes,” she lowered the goggles, now pointing to the lightly glowing circles set flush against either side of the goggles, “then they take that information and the glass is able to shift, correcting the wearer’s vision.”

“That's incredible.” Shiro blinked.

“Oh my god, yes! Altean tech is always amazing.” Pidge gushed. Allura smiled.

“Is it really that odd? Aren't all glasses like that? You know, change to fit the wearer’s needs?”

“No, glasses have to be made especially for each person,” Hunk said.

“That sounds terribly inefficient.” Coran said with a raised brow. Lance snorted.

“Well that's humans for you,” Lance grinned, “a race fuelled by consumerism.”

“Yeah, okay,” Keith would have rolled his eyes if he could open them all the way, “can I get my glasses back? I can't see anything.”

“Nope, not until I'm finished with the digital imaging.” Pidge said. Keith was almost certain she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Well,” Shiro cleared his throat and sat forward, elbows on his knees. He looked around at the group with a smile, “I wanted to tell you all how proud of you I am. I know we’ve been through some tough times lately, and a lot of uncertainty when it comes to our future. Today we came together and overcame that uncertainty.”

Lance smiled, but there was a darkness behind the smile. Everyone understood it. They could form Voltron, yes, but returning back to normal was becoming more of an impossibility every day.

“We’re not giving up on finding a way to return you to your prior form,” Allura said, “We sent out calls for help several days ago and only now are receiving word back from some of the races we asked. Shiro and I are planning to go out and meet with the Osmaks today.”

“You sure you don't want Keith and I to go?” Lance smirked, throwing an arm around Keith's shoulders and jostling him a bit. Keith groaned at the sudden jostling.

“You're banned from talking to alien races on our behalf, anyways.” Shiro said, so flatly Lance wasn't sure if he was joking or not.

Right. Even the cute ones?” Lance asked. Keith elbowed him in the gut and glared up at him, “Hey! Watch the sides man, I got stabbed a bit ago.”

“Uh, especially the cute ones. We don't need another Nyma situation.” Hunk said, handing the breather back to Coran.

“Or Keith murdering you,” Pidge added with a grin.

“Okay, firstly, I’m a loyal, happily monogamous man,” Lance said, “Secondly, I can still look at cute girls, right? Right Keith?”

“Not the way you usually do.” Keith frowned and crossed his arms.

“The way I usually do usually gets me slapped by someone,” Lance said, “It's not like I'm drowning in puss.”

Hunk snorted. Shiro groaned. Allura looked up at him curiously.

“What's puss?” She asked.

No,” Shiro whispered.

“Don't even ask,” Pidge snickered.

“ITs not important.” Shiro sighed, rubbing his temples.

“I’d like to know as well.” Coran said, “Is it a type of food?”

“Yes.” Lance said. Pidge screamed. Hunk burst out laughing, and Lance couldn't keep a straight face for long; he cracked up, and the laughter was contagious. Even Keith was snickering. Coran frowned.

“What? What's so funny?”

“It's nothing, Coran,” Shiro said, a smile cracking his stern facade, “I’ll... I’ll tell you later.”

“Very well, I’m almost finished with young Lance here,” Coran said. He held the breather in his hands, aligning the pins with the holes in Lance’s side, “I’m going to reinsert the device now, Lance. It might sting a bit.”

“If you have to,” Lance whined. Coran didn't seem to care for his preference, pressing the breather against Lance’s gills. The pins automatically deployed, lodging themselves deep into Lance’s sides again. Lance winced as pain bloomed up along his ribs, “Ow.”

Keith frowned and looped his arms around Lance’s waist, resting his laced hands on his hip. “Poor Lance.” He pouted and leaned his head on Lance's shoulder once more. Lance huffed, exhaling sharply through his nose.

“I'm being stabbed in the side, Keith,” Lance whined, trying to be as dramatic as possible. Keith attempting to comfort him might just be the cutest thing he had ever seen, “I need to go back to the pool so you can take care of me. I'm injured.

Keith giggled softly. “Gay.”

“Uh, that's you, Keith.”

“Oh my god,” Pidge said, “get a room.”

“Only if that room's underwater.” Lance said, sticking out his tongue. He pulled away from Keith, however, bum-scooting towards their scooters, which were parked close to the end of the couch, “Legit we need to go, though. Keith's probably breathing in some nasty old water by now.”

“Yeah, it tastes awful.” Keith frowned, “It tastes like what a skunk smells like.”

“Yuck.” Pidge grimaced.

“Hey, you're not the one tasting it.” Keith’s frown deepened, “And I can't see so it's even worse.”

“What's that thing people say when you lose a sense?” Lance mused, currently trying to maneuver himself onto his scooter from the couch without any help. Everyone watched, awkwardly, wondering if they should offer help, “When you lose one sense the others get more sensitive? Or something? So the water tastes bad tenfold.” He had one arm on the handlebars and the other on the seat of the scooter. Using his upper body strength he pulled himself off the couch and onto the scooter seat-- or tried to, because his hand slipped off the handlebar and he fell, face-planting in a heap half on the couch and half in the footwell of the scooter, “Ow.”

Keith looked for the source of the sound and squinted. “Did you just fall?”

“No,” Lance lied, pushing himself up again. Shiro was already standing over him, offering to pull him up, like he did every time Lance needed to do something normally requiring legs, “Shiro stop standing over me like I'm an invalid.”

“I'm not standing over you.” Shiro said, clearly standing over him, “I'm offering assistance because you fell off the couch.”

“You're standing over me,” Lance swatted at him, “I didn't fall, really, I more, uh, slid down off the side of the couch.” He grabbed the handlebars with one hand like he was about to do a sick pull up, planted the other firmly on the seat, and successfully pulled himself up, “There. Despite those who have doubted me, I have succeeded.”

“Do you need help, Keith?” Shiro asked, ignoring Lance with a quick eye roll.

Keith blinked. “With what?” He couldn't actually see what Lance was doing, aside from falling off the couch, maybe.

“Oh,” Shiro looked between the scooters and Keith, “with... with getting on the scooter?”

“Oh. No,” Keith scooted down to the end of the couch, where his scooter was just next to Lance’s. He was actually getting quite good at navigating space with little to no vision, and finding his scooter where he had left it wasn't hard. He was also getting better at maneuvering himself, tail and all. Just like Lance, he put one hand on the handlebars and the other on the chair, and lifted himself off the couch and onto the scooter. Unlike Lance, he managed not to slip and fall, “I’m good.”

Pidge’s laptop beeped. She glanced down at the screen, then leaned forward and unceremoniously disconnected the goggles and waved them towards Keith, “Here, Keith. Your goggles. The blueprints are done downloading.”

Shiro snatched them from her hands and handed them over to Keith before she had the chance to throw a pair of glasses at a blind guy.

Keith pulled the goggles over his head and smiled. The lenses clicked and shifted, focusing. “Thanks Pidge-- you're not Pidge.” He blinked up at Shiro. “Thanks Shiro.”

“Did you really think the looming shadow over you was Pidge?” Lance laughed, leaning his elbows on the handlebars of his scooter and raising his brows now that Keith could see them, “Did you think she'd grown two feet since you last saw her?”

“I was looking down, shut up,” Keith swatted at Lance's shoulder.

“Shiro's not two feet taller than me.” Pidge squinted.

“Yeah I think he might be more.” Hunk laughed. Lance cackled. Pidge rolled her eyes.

“Don't worry Pidge, you'll hit a growth spurt and be taller than all of us one day.” Shiro said, crossing the space again, tussling Pidge’s hair as he passed her. Allura stood  

“We should get going,” she said, “Shiro and I will be back soon. A few quintents, perhaps. The Osmaks aren't the most... expedient race.”

“Awh, man, what are we supposed to do until then?” Hunk frowned. Lance sighed.

“Sit around the castle? Fun.”

“I could find some chores for you to do.” Coran offered.

“Actually sitting around the castle sounds great,” Lance said, “I’m tuckered out from all the Voltroning today.”

“Speaking of which, remember: no leaving the castle, no joy rides,” Shiro looked between Keith and Lance, “and please keep yourself out of trouble. I don't want to come back to even less human parts, okay?”

“Yes, mom,” Keith drawled. Shiro snorted.

“Alright. We’ll be back in a few days.”

 

***

 

Lance and Keith went back to the pool alone. Their pool, really. Lance was recognizing it more and more as their space. And it was full of their stuff. A lot of Keith's things had been brought down by the poolside, like his knives, his books, and an assortment of other things he had seemingly hoarded in his room. Things like scraps of fabric, rocks, papers. Things that felt nice to touch. But they felt nicer when everything wasn't wet and his fingers weren't covered in scales.

Keith's mild hoarding had leaked into the pool, as well. The bottom of the pool had slowly accumulated a waterproof activities and items, like more of Keith's knives, a soccer ball, more blankets, several spoons which had honestly just fallen in the water and never brought back up to the surface, Lance’s fidget cube, and this weird little egg shaped toy Coran had brought them that swam around through the water on its own.

“So do you think this stuff is waterproof?” Lance lowered himself off his scooter and sat on the edge of the pool, letting his tail dip down into the water. Feeling the water catch in his tail fin felt right, it felt natural. It felt better than being out in the cold air. Normally he would have dived right into the water off his scooter, but he still wasn't one hundred percent sure the Lions’ gifts weren't going to electrocute them the second they were submerged.

“I sure hope so, or else we’re gonna have to stab you every time you get out of the water.” Keith sat himself down next to Lance, copying his motion and dipping his tail in the pool.

Lance cringed, “Ugh, no thanks.” Getting stabbed twice was bad enough. His sides still dully ached every time he twisted. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking, “I bet the tech is waterproof. Or else it's a bit useless for us, right? And our lions are waterproof. On the outside. I wonder if Blue is waterproof inside, too. She is the water element, after all.”

“Yeah, you're probably right. But...” Keith slid off the goggles and experimentally dipped them into the water. Pulling them out again, they were completely unaffected. “Okay cool.”

“And what if that wasn't waterproof? What if that electrocuted us?” Lance cried.

Keith blinked, then smiled. “Then we'd be dead.”

Lance stared at Keith for a second, before his mouth curled up into a smile and he cackled, “You're such a dork.” He leaned over and pecked Keith on the cheek, then pushed off the edge of the pool and dove down into the water.

Thankfully, he was not electrocuted. In fact, there was no change at all when he slipped under the water. The breathers kept their quiet hum as they worked, even submerged underwater. Whatever fancy tech the lions spat out, it was all, thankfully, waterproof.

And being underwater felt so much better anyways.

Lance swam back up to the surface, popping up next to Keith, who still sat on the edge with his tail dipped into the water, currently trying to get the goggles back on his head, “Need help, sir?”

“I'm fine. There's just, water on the inside now. I did not think that through.” Keith shook off his goggles before pulling them over his head. “Oh wait did you mean with the vest?”

"I was wondering if you needed help finding your way back to heaven, mi ángel." Lance purred, taking Keith's hand and blessing it with a kiss.

Keith snorted, grinning. “That's the gayest thing you've ever said.”

“After some brief contemplation of past situations, I don't think it's even close,” Lance said, “Is something gay if you didn’t know you were gayish at the time?”

“I think it still is,” Keith gripped Lance’s hand and smiled. “I'm gonna take the vest off now. Get ready to drag me into the water if I'm not fast enough.”

“I’m good at dragging people,” Lance said. He let go of Keith’s hand and assumed a ready position with his hands out, prepped to grab Keith around the tail if need be, “Okay, go.”

Keith nodded and looked down at his vest. It would be much easier to have someone help him, but he needed to learn how to take it on and off by himself. He took a deep breath through his nose- then a breath through his sides before he shut off the tanks. The filter and pump stopped, the low whirring behind him ceasing. He only had a few moments before he would start to convulse. He quickly undid the straps and shrugged off the vest and his gills immediately started burning against the cool air. Quickly, with shaking arms, he scooted off the edge of the pool and unceremoniously dropped into the water, knocking into Lance as he fell.

Lance let out an audible gurgle and a torrent of bubbles as the two of them sank down into the the water, bodies entwined in a way that felt so right. They sank down to the bottom of the pool, Lance with his back to the tiled floor and his arms and tail wrapped around Keith, who laid atop him, “See, not so bad. You'll get better at it.”

“Won't have to,” Keith said, slowly, his hair fanned out around him, swaying gently in the current, “we’ll be back to normal soon.”

“Oh yeah, right,” Lance hummed, looking away. He was silent for a minute, thinking with a small frown. Then he turned back to Keith, smiling, “You look so dorky with those goggles on.”

Keith rolled his eyes. It actually hurt a bit. His eyes were still a bit sensitive, “You’re avoiding the subject.”

“What subject?” Lance frowned.

“We’ll be back to normal soon.” Keith repeated. He dragged his fingers along Lance’s collarbone, feeling the dip and curve of the bone, “You're acting like you don't think that's true.”

“I mean, it might not be,” Lance grumbled. He took a deep, useless breath, drumming his fingers along Keith’s back, “We can't change back biologically, there's not going to be some sort of cure.”

“We don't know that! We haven't even tried,” Keith cried, “You won't let us! You're refusing to even try finding a biological cure, you won't go back to the lab--”

Lance looked hurt. He sat up, pushing Keith off him, “I thought we were over this. You said you wouldn't go back to the lab.”

“I won't.” Keith said, “That doesn't mean that I don't think we should.

“Listen, I've just accepted this,” Lance said, gesturing down at himself, his tail curled under him, “And, I've been thinking... maybe it's not so bad? Like, we’re together, we can still form Voltron, I don't know how we’re going to run around a planet fighting but I'm sure we can figure something--”

“Lance, you're-- you sound insane.” Keith cried, his hands up in his hair grabbing fistfuls of his black locks, “You just want to stay like this!?

“Well...” Lance looked away, staring up at the surface, “I mean... maybe, yeah? It's not that I want to. I don't want to. But I don't see anyway how we can ever turn back. I'm okay with that.”

Keith settled on the tiled floor across from Lance, staring at him silently for a few moments. What he was about to say needed to be said gently, “I'm not okay with it. I don't want us to be stuck like this forever.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Lance... there is a way we can turn back. We can make an antidote, I saw it. Red showed me. We have to go back to the lab.” Keith watched Lance physically bristle. He kept going, “I know I said I wouldn't but we need to, we need to. I'm not going off a hunch here, Red showed me exactly what to do, I could go there right now and save us--”

Lance groaned, curling in on himself. Keith watched, unsure how to comfort him. He watched the boy pull at his hair, his tail curling around himself in a way that almost looked painful, “Keith, you said you wouldn't go, you promised. On the astral plane, remember? Oh god, you're going to go back, you're going to get hurt--”

“I'm not going to get hurt,” Keith said. He moved closer to Lance, wanting to hold the boy close. He settled for putting an arm on his shoulder, “Lance...”

“I know I'm being insane.” Lance said. His voice was strained. He leaned against Keith and stared up at the surface, “It’s completely irrational, I'm sure. I feel like... if you go to the lab, something really bad is going to happen. I feel like my brain is breaking.

Keith’s heart jumped into his throat. He pulled Lance against him, wrapping his arms around his waist, “You're not being insane.”

“I am, though. I should just let you do this. Fuck, I should just do it myself. I'm the one who’s been trained on lab procedures,” Lance cried. He had spent countless hours in labs prior to being launched out into space. Though, to be fair, the only lab accident he had ever witnessed prior to said space launch was someone once got a paper cut from the MSDS sheet for ethanol. What had happened to Keith had been horrifying, beyond horrifying. And even though he knew Keith had seen something, the thought of anyone, especially Keith, being back in that lab with that poison made him want to claw his own eyes out. There was so much that could go wrong. He had a deep seated bad feeling about the whole thing, “Keith. I know Red showed you something. But I just... I would never forgive myself if something happened to you. I just... I would fly out into space and hurl myself at a star or something.”

“Lance,” Keith frowned, voice firm, “don't joke about that.”

“I'm not joking,” Lance cried, “I already feel like this is all my fault. Please don't go.”

“I won't go,” Keith said, “I'm not going to go back on my promise. I won't go to the lab. Okay?” He kissed Lance on the cheek, his goggles knocking against the top of the boy’s head.

“Okay,” Lance murmured, “I’m sorry I'm insane.”

“You're not insane. You're a guy who has various different anxiety disorders, who is fighting aliens in space, unmedicated, chosen by robot lions, and got turned into a mermaid by a space plant.” Keith kissed him again, his lips twisting upwards into a grin, “You're doing pretty good in my opinion.”

Lance felt heat rushing to his face and realized he was blushing, which he supposed was better than crying, which is what he felt like doing.

Keith felt like crying too, but not from happiness. He could already feel the pending betrayal in his gut like molten lead starting to cool.

“I don't know what I did to deserve you, but I'm glad I did it.” Lance murmured. He kissed Keith, a slow and sweet kiss that gave way to many more kisses, until the pair drifted off to sleep, curled up together on the bottom of the pool.

 

***

 

Keith slowly moved his hand in front of Lance’s face, trying to discern if the boy was asleep. Lance didn't even flinch, continuing his soft snoring as Keith's waving created a gentle current across his face. Lance was asleep. Which was good and bad. It was good, because it meant Keith could sneak away without being caught. It was bad because now Keith would sneak away.

Keith extricated himself from Lance’s clutches. Lance was like an overly attached octopus, clinging to Keith with both arms and his tail. It was utterly endearing and annoying. Lance was too cute when he slept. He snored a little, even underwater. He slept with his face pressed into Keith’s shoulder, a feat only made possible surely due to the fact that his gills were on his sides and he didn't use his face to breathe. Keith wasn't sure what he looked like asleep, but he was sure he didn't look that stupidly sweet. He probably had a sleeping bitch face.

Keith somehow managed to pull away from Lance, using a move out of Indiana Jones and replacing his mass with some wadded up blankets. Lance was none the wiser, curling around the bundle of blankets and burying his face in them. Keith had never see Indiana Jones but he had heard Lance talk about it a bunch of times and he knew there was some switcharoo trickery in the film.

He swam up to the surface, popping his head out of the water and hanging off of the side of the pool. He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. The pool hall still had its lights on; they were never turned off because neither Lance nor Keith ever wanted to go through the hassle of getting out of the pool to turn off the lights anyways. It was also dark enough at the bottom of the pool that they barely noticed.

The water respiration vest was right where he left it in a heap on the edge of the pool. He fiddled with it for a second, trying to get it into a position where what he was about to do wouldn't suck as hard.

He took a few deep breaths to prepare himself, then sucked in as much water into himself as he could like a deep breath. Then he pulled himself out of the water, which proved harder than he had expected and for a few seconds he flailed face down on the pool edge tile.

He managed to flip himself over and sit up, his tail still half in the water. He grabbed the respiration vest and pulled it on with shaking hands. His sides were burning, and a feeling of panic was growing like a flame in the pit of his stomach. His tail twitched and his sides started to contract, as his webbed fingers struggled with the vest’s buckles. He managed to secure the vest. He turned it on, letting out a short gasp of relief as the vest whirred to life. Water trickled over his sides, and he took a deep breath, trying to quell the shakiness in his core and in his hands. That sucked, but at least he didn't fall back into the pool again.

He sat at the edge of the pool for a few minutes, catching his breath again. He peered back down into the pool. Lance was still asleep, curled around the blankets like an octopus. He was a whole different level of clingy, and it was incredibly adorable.

Keith took another deep breath, this time eyeing the closest scooter. The two scooters were parked by the edge of the pool, convenient for flopping off of them into the pool and pulling yourself into them when getting out. He did just that, scooting to the scooter and dragging himself up into the seat by the handlebars.

Having no legs or functional lungs was so inconvenient. He couldn't wait until he could just walk somewhere again. Or sneak, like he would be doing now, instead of puttering away out of the pool hall.

According to the control panel on the scooter, it was currently two in the morning. The halls were empty, everyone was asleep, and Keith managed to make it up to the lab without crossing paths with anyone.

The laboratory was exactly as they had left it. One vial of extracted Red Tipped Lightpole venom sat on the broad metal table. The smashed vial was still scattered across the floor near the extractor. On the desk by the door, the protoscanner was still turned on, flashing a bright blue to signal that it's scan was finished. The plant sample had been fully analyzed.

“Yeesh,” Keith frowned. It probably wasn't good for the machinery to be left on for so long. How much power did they take to run anyway? He puttered over to the protoscanner and touched the screen, silently apologizing to Allura.

The screen beeped and pulled up the file for the Lightpole. The picture shown was much larger and more magnificent than the small cutting kept in the meralien’s castle.

“Shit,” Keith muttered. The article was written in Altean. How could he have forgotten about that? He'd have to learn their alphabet sometimes, it couldn't be too hard if Pidge managed to learn it so quickly. At least- not impossible. He'd ask her where the room was another day, and be sure to put the safety on.

He selected the button with the sound icon and prayed to whatever god that it would be in English.

His prayers were answered as a soft feminine voice rang out from the machine.

Aequor Viridi Mutaris- locally known as the Red-tipped Lightpole- is an aquatic, parasitic plant indigenous to planet Nyxir. Originally harvested and exported by the Nyxirians, the Red-tipped Lightpole is cherished for its unique musky flavour when it's leaves are dried in tea. The plant, especially its thorns and petals, however, are highly dangerous. The thorns contain a venom inside that is acidic to open skin with a hardness index less than twenty-three. This venom is also dangerous due to the transformative nature of the plant’s symbiotic mechanisms.”

“Right,” Keith hummed to himself. He already knew all this from what Codir told them-- before he and Lance stole the plant and probably got themselves banned from the planet forever.

“The Red-tipped Lightpole is parasitic to its indigenous habitat and, when the opportunity is present, forms a unique symbiotic relationship with the predator of its present food chain. The plant grows in the presence of or on a predator-- most commonly Dridars, Bakus, and Urlex Majora-- gaining nutrition and protection from other species and plant life. In return the Aequor Viridi Mutaris uses its venom to physically alter animals into a form closely resembling that of the predator’s main food source. This transformation can be debilitating to the prey. At times the transformation can render the creature unviable due to an changed internal structure that is incompatible with life.”

Keith shuddered, thanking whatever god let him keep his heart inside his body. An impromptu rearranging of his organs didn't sound like much fun. Not that the transformation had been much fun, anyways.

He tapped on the screen, hoping to make the audio go faster. They'd already theorized this, he already experienced this, he wanted something new. Something useful.

“Scientists across the universe are still searching for a stable and reliable procedure for victims of the Red-Tipped Lightpole. The Nyxirians, whose planet the plant is indigenous, have what appears to be a natural resistance to the venom, most likely from millennia of natural selection among the race. The Drekarts theorize ground ‘Refari’ stone can reverse some changes, however this is unsubstantiated. There has been several studies into the root molecular structure of the Aequor Viridi Mutaris, and the latest research shows a link between the transformative enzyme-- labeled ‘T-27’-- and a neutralizing element of rubidium; in the presence of rubidium, studies have shown evidence of a reversal of some tissue affected by T-27.”

He needed to get in contact with the Nyxirians first. They were the ones who produced the plant in the first place, they probably knew something, right? And what about the Drekarts, or these ‘scientists’ who theorized about T-27? He had to get in contact with them too somehow. Red had shown him what to do but...some of the specifics he had to work out on his own. This could take a few days-- or nights, really.

There wasn't much more information about the Red-Tipped Lightpole. The protoscanner had created an atomic map and a scan of its genetic makeup and DNA patterns. Keith stared at the data for awhile until he remembered that he had no idea what any of it meant. The others were the ones who were good at science. He just liked to fly and shoot stuff. Yeah, he was good at school and retaining information, but it was never to this degree-- the Garrison only required basic classes for fighter pilots.

“I need to get this in English.” Keith mumbled to himself, taking the mouse in hand and clicking around the computer the protoscanner was hooked up to. He managed to make it to some sort of desktop-like hub. The background was of some Altean lady wearing a bikini. Apparently the last lab tech's legacy was living on millennia in the future. Keith clicked around the hub for a few minutes, trying to find the settings so he could get the computer to be in English. He eventually did somehow turn to language “Earth”, which initially turned everything to French. He messed around with the language settings, changing it from French to Arabic, then to Urdu, then to what appeared to be Russian, and then back to French, before finally finding English. At this pace he was going to go back to the pool before he even figured out what to do.

He clicked around to all the applications- most of which he had no idea what they were for. One took forever to load to only show a picture of what looked like a purple toad while the speakers blasted a blaring roar. He hated this one.

After about five minutes he found an icon of a planet with bright blue rings circling it at different angles. Was that supposed to be Altea? The shortcut was named “IGCS”. He clicked on it. The application booted up, looking hideously similar to AIM messenger from the early 2000s. It was a simple blue rectangle with a long list of names, each with a red, green, or yellow circle next to them. The top of the rectangle bore the name of the app: “Inter-Galactic Chat System”. So it was space AIM Messenger. The computer was signed in as ‘Altean Castle Of Lions Lab2’ and appeared to have a cute blue yupper as an icon.

“What the fuck.” Keith breathed, and started scrolling down the list of names. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them. They were helpfully arranged by star system, which was incredibly useless information to him. It was only by a miracle that he found “Nyxir” in the list, and they appeared to be online. He double clicked the name and a new chat window popped open with a little space at the bottom to type with the helpful message type something here!

Now came the hard part- creating a message. He was never good with talking to people, especially new people, especially especially new people he knew nothing about regarding culture and customs. What if he said something that turned out to be insulting? He didn't want to start a war because he was a socially inept.

But this was something he had to do. It was the only lead he had, and who knew how long it would take for him to find another. He took a deep breath through his nose to calm his nerves, and set his hands on the keyboard.

Hello my name is Keith, paladin of Voltron.

No that was terrible. He sounded so pretentious. He backspaced and started again.

Hi, how are you? My name is Keith. Djdntjt

He dropped his head onto the keyboard, squishing his glasses against his cheekbones. Why was it so hard to sound like a person? What was it Allura always said to new races?

Greetings.

Perfect.

 

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Greetings. I was wondering if you could give me any information on the blue tipped lightpole?

 

He got a reply almost instantly.

 

 

NyxirBase27: omfk we thought all the alteans were dead!!! how are u?

NyxirBase27: do u mean the red-tipped lightpole? ksap 

 

Keith stared at the screen, his eye twitching. What the hell was happening?

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Yes, I do mean that, the… acorn varidy mutariss?

NyxirBase27: ksksksksks yeah we know about it ksap

NyxirBase27: it's like our biggest export, ksks, it's kinda what we're known for ksap

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: What are those things you keep saying?

NyxirBase27: uh it's like in my language dude

NyxirBase27: kricki simpa asto por

NyxirBase27: it means I'm laughing ksksks

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Oh

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ok

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Anyway, do you know about its transforming abilities?

NyxirBase27: uhh yeah, duh.

NyxirBase27: omfk

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Can You Give Me Information

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Please

NyxirBase27: ohh that's what u wanted ksap

NyxirBase27: well us nyxirians don't really gotta worry about the plant that much

NyxirBase27: we have a special organ that makes us immune to it's poison

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: What about others species?

NyxirBase27: did u get changed?

NyxirBase27: ksaaaaaaaap

 

Keith wondered why he was talking to this person. He wanted to die. Or kill them. Maybe.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Yes, I was changed, and I need to figure out how to reverse it

NyxirBase27: there's like not really a way to get changed back

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: The file I have says something about T-27

NyxirBase27: yeah I heard some scientists in Urorilix were looking for a way to reverse the mutagen

NyxirBase27: I think they were using some chemical? I can't remember ksap

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Rubidium?

NyxirBase27: ksks I guess ksap

NyxirBase27: I would talk to the Urori about that

NyxirBase27: I can link u to their chat if u want

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: That would be nice

NyxirBase27: u Alteans are so funny ksappp I'm glad you're not all dead ksksks >;;)

NyxirBase27: those are my antennae I'm not mad btw

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I see

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Can I have the link now?

NyxirBase27: yeah hang on

NyxirBase27: sg.htw://urorilix_scibase@igcs.ibs

NyxirBase27: u can hmu if ur ever in SG-562 btw >;;)

NyxirBase27: u sound cute >::*

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I have a boyfriend sorry thanks for the link bye

 

Keith panicked, clicked the link, and closed out the window. A new window popped open. Keith had to collect himself before starting the process again.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Greetigs. I was wondering if you could give me any information on the red tipped lightpole?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I meant greetings I'm sorry

Urorilix_scibase: Is this the Altean ship?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Yes

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: It says so in the username

Urorilix_scibase: I thought the Alteans had perished to Zarkon’s evil reign millennia ago.

Urorilix_scibase: Am I speaking with an Altean?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Not exactly

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Actually not at all, I'm from earth

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: But there are Alteans still alive I promise

Urorilix_scibase: Hmm.

Urorilix_scibase: How did you access this chat, Earthling?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Well, I'm on the castle ship right now, I'm a paladin of Voltron. I'm using the computer in the lab.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I was just linked to you by a Nyxirian

Urorilix_scibase: Oh my, you had the misfortune of conversing with a Nyxirian?

Urorilix_scibase: My condolences. They're not the most... verbose group.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Tell me about it…

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I think they flirted with me??

Urorilix_scibase: At any rate I am honoured to chat with a Paladin of Voltron. But what brings you to my little chat window?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I was told you were researching the red-tipped lightpole, I need information on a possible cure

Urorilix_scibase: You don’t happen to have been changed, have you?

 

He felt much more relaxed talking to this person. He felt oddly comfortable giving them information.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I was, along with another paladin

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: My lion showed me how to make a cure, but I don't know some of the ingredients she showed me

Urorilix_scibase: Interesting. Well, my name is Otorii Irigan, or at least that's a general English translation for you. My colleagues and I have been working for years about the incredible transformative power of the Aequor Viridi Mutaris. We’ve managed to isolate one enzyme in the plant’s venom which holds that transformative power

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ah, my name’s Keith

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: You mean T-27?

Urorilix_scibase: Exactly! Have you read some of our work? Well, we’ve found that T-27 is the enzyme that literally burrows into its victim’s DNA and changes it. However we’ve found an agent that not only neutralizes this process, but has shown promising signs of reversing the damage.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: The rubidium

Urorilix_scibase: Yes! Curiously an injection of rubidium can neutralize the changes of Aequor Viridi Mutaris, and if administered fast enough will prevent the victim from changing. We found the Nyxirians have an organ that creates their own natural rubidium. That is why the race is immune to the plant's effects.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: What about reversing the effects?

Urorilix_scibase: Well...

Urorilix_scibase: Reversing, unfortunately for you Keith, has been promising in clinical trials but our tests have not had the type of success you are likely looking for.

Urorilix_scibase: While we have been able to reverse some small changes in studies, such as unfusing joints which had fused or reversing a change of hair colour, reversing more complex or extensive changes have not been successful due to the fact that levels of rubidium at that concentration is lethal.

 

Keith felt his heart stop. His eyes stared at the screen but he couldn't see anything, as the sound of rushing blood filled his ears. Lethal? That couldn't be right, this was his only lead. He leaned forward against the desk, trying to steady his breathing. The respiration vest pressed awkwardly against his ribs, the goggles clacking against the desk. Further reminders of how he had been changed, and how he would likely stay. He took a deep breath, concentrating on the dull hum of the respiration vest’s motor. Stay calm. Don't get away from yourself. He sat up and pushed his hands under his glasses to rub at his eyes before looking back up at the screen. Otorii’s words stared back at him, almost mockingly. He could still make it work. There could be something that made the element safe for injection. After all both sodium and chlorine were dangerous on their own, but combined to make salt. Red wouldn't have shown him how to make the serum if it wouldn't work. He could add a neutralizer, or maybe an amplifier for the rubidium, or maybe…

 

 

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Are you sure its lethal to all species?

Urorilix_scibase: No, I am not certain. It would be impossible to know it's effects on every being. However I am quite positive rubidium would be lethal in the quantities needed to reverse your changes, Keith. I wouldn't suggest attempting to use it at this time.

Urorilix_scibase: I would, however, be interested in knowing what your Lion showed you. I have heard many stories about these Lions of Voltron and their incredible insight.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I don't exactly know which ingredients I used in the vision, most of them are coming back to me in waves as I see them here in the lab

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: But I think I need to fill in some of the gaps myself, that's why I contacted the Nyxirians in the first place

Urorilix_scibase: Rubidium is a good place to start. The rest of the ingredients to this cure is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

Urorilix_scibase: I will forward you my research papers. Perhaps you’ll be able to connect the dots in a way I haven't been able.

Urorilix_scibase is sending giffdaropor.pdf

Urorilix_scibase: The original paper is, of course, in Urorilixi, but your computer's translation software should be able to translate it for you.

Urorilix_scibase: Good luck with your search. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions, or of course if you do manage to find a successful cure.

Urorilix_scibase: also, one last thing Keith. Please do not inject yourself with Rubidium. The only thing worse than being changed by the red-tipped light pole is to be dead because of it.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Thank you, I really appreciate it

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I'll write down my process as I do it and tell you if it works

Urorilix_scibase: I look forward to it. 

 

Keith pushed back from the computer and bowed his head, his fingers running idly across the scales of his tail. It was just past three in the morning. He had at least another hour before he had to go back to the pool. Lance wouldn't wake up for a few more hours, but he was hesitant to chance being gone for so long. Besides, the water in the respiration vest was already starting to taste a little funny.

He closed out of IGCS, and clicked back over to the protoscanner system. The first thing he needed to do was find a source of rubidium.

He opened a new search window and typed rubidium into the dialogue. The search came back with over a million entries of items that contained rubidium. Keith sighed. They had to have at least one of these things on the ship, right?

It was going to be a long night.

 

Chapter Text

Keith snuggled up next to Lance, gently pulling away the wadded up pile of blankets that was serving as his placeholder in his unknowing boyfriend’s arms. Seeing as Lance barely even twitched as Keith curled up against him, Keith was fairly sure his absence had gone unnoticed. It was just past six in the morning; he had wanted to be back before five, but he had gotten a little engrossed in methods of extracting 5-hydroxytryptamine. He needed to find a more easily acquirable amplifier, maybe one that didn't have numbers in its name.

But even though he had come back to the pool late, Lance didn't seem to notice at all. In fact the boy-come-mermaid just yawned, pulled Keith a little closer, and twined their tails together before going back to snoring quietly. Keith felt his heart flutter. He was still getting used to this boundless affection. Lance was even affectionate in his sleep. Keith was pretty sure he was an unmovable, lifeless plank when he slept. Keith wasn't a very emotive person in general, or rather, he was selectively emotive and sleep wasn't one of those selected times.

He pulled off his goggles, setting them aside. The world went blurry. Maybe the serum he was making would restore his vision. He hated how the goggles pressed against his cheekbones and eyebrow line; that being said, he was happy he had a way where he could see at all. Without Red’s offering he was nearly blind.

Keith relaxed, using Lance’s bicep as a pillow. He tried to fall asleep but adrenaline was still pumping through his veins. He had spent the night in the lab, secretly, and he was already so close to finding a cure for their... mermaidism. He knew rubidium was the key, he just needed to find an amplifier, and some other chemicals that would stabilize and neutralize the venom, since it was still very much acidic, and he would prefer to not have his veins burned. Thinking of all of the things he still needed to do and the ever growing list of things that could go wrong was the main reason he couldn't fall back asleep, and was still very much awake when Lance finally stirred to a mild wakefulness.

Lance yawned again and peeked open his eyes for a fraction of a second before squeezing Keith a little tighter and shutting his eyes again, “Mmmgmornin.”

Keith couldn't help but smile against Lance’s skin. “Was that supposed to be ‘morning’?”

“Mmhm,” Lance stretched his arms above his head, “good morning.”

Keith sat up and grabbed his goggles again, “Is it?”

“Mmhm,” Lance hummed again, still very much laying down and barely opening his eyes, “Why wouldn't it be? Are you still mad about the lab thing?” He peeked an eye open at Keith, “You're still mad about the lab thing aren't you?”

“I'm not mad, I'm just a little upset.” Keith attempted to curl in on himself and ended up somehow slinging his tail over his own shoulder. “I don't like sitting around and waiting.

“We’re not waiting,” Lance said, “we’re, uh... existing.”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “Well I don't like existing like this.” He pulled his tail back down and folded his arms against the scales.

Lance looked down and away, staring down at his own tail, “I know. I wish you hadn't been changed. Fuck. At least then it’d just be me stuck in the dumb pool for the rest of forever.”

Keith sighed through his nose, sending small air bubbles through the water. “I know.” He turned and wrapped his arms around Lance's neck. What he wanted to say, was ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself, this isn't your fault, we’re going to be okay,’ but what came out was, “Stop feeling bad.” Nice going Keith, he was truly the master of saying things.

Lance snorted, “Yeah, okay, I’ll get right on that.”

“That’s… that came out wrong.” Keith pursed his lips and looked off to the side.

Lance laughed quietly, leaning in and kissing Keith on the cheek, “I know. Hey, I know a way we can change the subject,” he slid his arms around Keith’s waist, trailing his palms down to where Keith’s ass used to be. The boy's cheeks flushed a pretty shade of pink that matched his scales.

“Lance… you-- we just woke up.”

“A big healthy breakfast,” Lance grinned, biting his bottom lip and batting his eyelashes in a way that was ridiculously alluring. His hands were still busy exploring along Keith’s backfin, sending little electric shocks up Keith’s spine.

Keith covered his face and groaned. “Lance!

“Whaaat, c’mon, you haven't even seen your own dick yet. And neither of us have seen mine. I gotta make sure I still have one. It's scientific research.”

Keith slapped Lance's shoulder. “I saw yours in the astral plane.” He knit his brows and frowned.

“Oh yeah,” Lance smirked, now leaning forward and lightly brushing his lips against Keith’s neck, “But now it's a fish cock. It might look different. We have to find out. It's for science, babe.”

“You horny idiot,” Keith muttered under his breath. But he took up Lance's face in his hands and crushed their lips together in a kiss that lasted far too long to be innocent. Lance laughed, his bottom lip sore and red from Keith’s sharp teeth tugging a little too hard.

“Hey, I'm only one of those, and I'm not an idiot.”

Keith laughed quietly, a laugh that turned into a gasping shudder as Lance kissed at his neck and collarbone again, “F-fine. I’ll agree to run some experiments. For science.”

“Sweet.” Lance purred, trailing his kisses down Keith’s chest and stomach, “For science.”

 

***

 

“Hey, Lance?” Keith started, staring up at the light refracting through the water’s surface as he laid at the bottom of the pool. His head was pillowed against Lance’s stomach, who was currently clicking mindlessly at his fidget cube. It was late afternoon. Keith still hadn't slept, but he felt taking a nap might be too out of character for him, and a bit suspicious. So instead he was listening to Lance click the switch on his fidget cube endlessly, because Lance could click that thing for hours without finding it the least bit annoying.

“Yeah?” Lance asked. Click clack click clack click--

“So, uh. You took biology, right?”

“Yeah. I was even halfway good at it, too.”

“So you know a lot about the human body, right?”

Click clack -- Lance paused his clicking and sat up slightly, eyeing Keith with a squint, “I mean, yeah? Not that it's much help now, seeing as we’re like forty percent human, if that’s why you're asking.”

Keith shrugged. “I'm just curious. I mean the others are still human, it's still information to have.”

Lance narrowed his eyes and stared at Keith for another minute, “Okayyyy....”

“Uhm. So out of all the elements on the periodic table, which one is the least poisonous to humans?” Keith asked, continuing to stare up at the surface. Lance continued to stare at him.

“I'd say maybe carbon, seeing as we’re all made of it.” Lance said. He gave up on sitting up and laid back down, throwing his fidget cube up into the water and watching it slowly float back down, “Everything's made of carbon. Or at least it was on Earth. There are theoretically silicon based life forms. I wonder if Zarkon’s made of silicon.”

Keith raised an eyebrow, “That's kinda cool. We need oxygen too, I know that. And hydrogen too?”

“I’d say yes, seeing as we’re laying in a pool full of both right now,” Lance snorted. He raised a hand and waved his webbed fingers through the water like he was smelling a fine wine, “Mmm, dihydrogen monoxide.”

“Oh. Oh right, that's what water is,” Keith felt stupid for even asking. “What else are bodies made of?”

Lance raised an eyebrow, “Why?”

“I told you, curiosity.”

“The body’s made up of a lot of things. At it’s base we’re all carbon. Our blood contains oxygen. Our bones have calcium and phosphorus. Our RNA and DNA have nitrogen. The rest... uh, shit I needed to know this for a test once. Potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium... And iron, cobalt, copper, manganese, iodine, zinc, fluorine, boron, aluminum, molybdenum, silicon, chromium, and... shit it starts with an ‘s’.”

“Silver?” Keith offered. Lance laughed.

“Yes, silver. We’re poisonous to werewolves. No, I think it's selenium.”

Keith nodded. He didn't recognize many of those words. “Aren't a few of those metals though?”

“Yeah. Iron, aluminum, zinc, copper... I think you can walk down to the store and buy a cheap ass metal chain out of any of those.”

Keith sat up and looked at Lance. “So certain metals are safe for injection!”

“I mean I figure if you inject pure aluminum into your blood you’d have a rough time.” Lance said, looking lazily up at Keith.

“Right, I meant in a solution.”

“In small enough doses, sure.” Lance said, “Are you looking for a new kick? Is that what the kids are doing these days? Injecting iron into their veins? I don't think it’ll give you a high, Keith. Just do cocaine like normal people.”

“I-- no!” Keith sputtered. They were getting off topic. He was trying to skillfully get some information out of Lance. Unfortunately he wasn't quite skillful at... talking.

“Listen, I get it. You take a few doses of decahydros ocaline and suddenly you're searching the periodic table for your next hit,” Lance smirked. He paused, then eyed Keith, “You're not actually looking for drugs to inject, right? Literally nothing on the periodic table will give you high from injecting. Well I mean maybe it will but I feel like it gives you a high by destroying half your brain cells and imploding your liver.”

Keith frowned at Lance. He hated the ocaline, it made him dizzy and nauseous. Why would he look for something else? But then, he got an idea. “You… you got me.” He laid back down against the blankets. “I found a bottle in the med bay that say it had uh, what was it? Rubidium? I was just wondering what that would do.”

Lance stared at Keith. Then his face cracked and he started laughing, “I don't believe you! Like you'd be a drug addict. Haha, you're way too straight laced for that! Psh, Keith the druggie. Yeah, okay. You'd be trying to inject vitamins so you'd get healthier.” He rolled onto his side and kept laughing. Keith glared at him. Here he was, trying to get information out of Lance and instead he was getting roasted.

Keith closed his eyes, his jaw tight. He was so close to the answer he wanted. “Shut up, it was just a pain killer,” he lied. “I just don't know if that stuff’s safe for humans.” He looked up at Lance. “So do you know?”

Lance wiped his eyes, wiping away the tears of laughter, “Why are you looking at painkillers? Do your eyes still hurt?” He sounded genuinely concerned at the end there. Keith felt bad for misleading him.

“A little. Only sometimes. I get like, small headaches,” Keith said. Which wasn't entirely a lie. He'd had headaches his whole life, usually too mild to even warrant medication. His accident sure didn't do anything to help this though. “But the osaline was way too strong, and this one had an ingredient I didn't recognize. It said rubidium?”

“Rubidium?” Lance echoed, “Why the fuck was there rubidium in a pain killer? They inject rubidium into you when they're trying to find a brain tumour since it sticks to tumour tissue better than regular brain tissue and can be seen by imaging,” he flipped onto his back, floating now a few feet above Keith, going back to clicking his fidget cube, “Or like, it turns fireworks purple. And I could be wrong but I think it's similar to potassium...” he squinted and looked back at Keith, “I mean I don’t think it’d kill you but I’d be careful bringing that stuff in here seeing as it explodes when it touches water.”

Right. Explodes in water, a very important mental note. Keith was learning so much. He pushed off the ground and swam up to Lance. “It's used to find brain tumours? That's pretty cool. How much is used?”

“Fuck if I know, I don't have and never plan to have a brain tumour.” Lance said, “I mean I think ingesting it orally would be pretty okay if it's rubidium and not rubidium hydroxide. Like it's similar to potassium, and that's like what bananas are ninety-nine percent made of. I don't think taking this weird painkiller would kill you, if that's what you're worried about,” He smiled at Keith, gently patting his face, “Why don't you ask Coran for like Altean Advil or something though? Probably safer. That makes me wonder if they have Altean Ritalin though. You think there’s an equivalent to Escitalopram?”

“I don't know what that is,” Keith said. But he still smiled. “Thanks for telling me,” he kissed Lance's cheek, “You have no idea how helpful that is.”

“You're welcome, my sweet,” Lance hummed in reply, “Potassium’s pretty rad too, though, you wanna hear more about potassium?”

“Sure,” Keith smiled. He was still excited from his new find, but also just liked hearing Lance talk. And new information was never a bad thing.

“Okay, well...”

Lance rambled his way down the periodic table of elements for another few hours. Eventually Keith was able to pry himself away with the promise of going to the kitchen for food. Luckily Keith didn't need to persuade Lance too long to get him to agree to staying in the pool. In all honesty he didn't seem too keen to get out of the pool, anyways. That was a little worrying to Keith. Lance seemed to have lost any want to change back. Maybe it was a combination of things; the accident in the lab making him not want to tackle making a serum again, and the way life sans legs was getting easier the more they got accustomed to it. Maybe it was also because he wasn't so alone in the pool anymore. Either way, Lance was giving up hope that they would ever change back, and that was unacceptable to Keith.

That's why the red Paladin had spent all night in the lab working on finding a solution despite it being the one thing he promised Lance he wouldn't do. He wasn't going to let both of them lose hope.

He puttered his way down the castle hallway after successfully getting out of the pool and putting on his own vest. It was quite an amazing feat. Lance was very impressed, and thankfully didn't ask how Keith had gotten so good at getting out of the pool and putting on the vest on his own.

Pidge was in the kitchen eating some green noodles and typing on her laptop when Keith steered his scooter up to the fridge.

“Hey,” Keith said, pulling up next to the fridge far enough away that he could maneuver the door open while sitting.

“Hey,” Pidge looked up from her computer, looking a bit like she hadn't seen him come in, “Nice to see you on dry land. Where's Lance? You guys have been in the pool all day!”

Keith blushed, thankful that he wasn't facing Pidge. “It just, felt like a pool day.” He grabbed a bowl of purple goo and scooted up next to Pidge. “He was just telling me about the uses of different elements in medicine and human biology.”

“Human biology, eh?” Pidge raised a brow, “I’m sure he showed you exactly what bodies can do.”

Keith pouted. “Pidge, stop being gross.” But he couldn't hide the flush of his cheeks. She wasn’t wrong, Lance had given him a lesson in that, too. “Say, do you know stuff about medicine?” He said, changing the subject.

“Why, is something wrong?” She asked, “Coran’s the best if you need something for your eyes still.”

He shook his head, “No, I just need to know about one specific thing?” He took a deep breath. On one hand, he didn't want Pidge asking unnecessary questions, but on the other, he didn't have the energy to dance around another conversation to get what he wanted. Plus, even if Pidge knew it wouldn't be a disaster. “Do you know anything about rubidium?”

Pidge wrinkled her nose, “Rubidium? I mean I know it's used in tech sometimes. It's a metal.” She eyed Keith, smirking a bit, “Why? Why do you want to know about some random metal?” Her face told Keith she already knew why.

“For science.”

She rolled her eyes, “For science? En vivo or en silico?

“I don't know what that means, Pidge.”

“It's Latin, sciences use it to feel cool when they're talking about life sciences or theoretical science.” She snickered, looking back down at her computer.

“Okay, then life science. How much can be injected in a human body before it becomes lethal?”

“Rubidium?” Pidge asked. She snorted and shook her head, turning back to her laptop, “I don't know, a couple hundred milligrams? Why?” She gave him a cunning look, “Did you figure something out? Have you figured out how to change back?”

Keith made a face. Of course Pidge would figure it out. It’s not like he was trying very hard though. “I have some theories.”

“How the fuck did you connect changing back into humans with rubidium?” Pidge cried, letting her arms flail a bit too excitedly and almost knocking over her bowl of noodles, “Did you research it in the lab? You must have! It was the protoscanner, right? That thing is awesome, I bet it told you loads of stuff! Did Lance help?” She smirked, “Lance probably figured it out, right? Let's be honest, it's not like you know anything about science--”

“Okay, no,” Keith held out his hand and covered Pidge’s mouth, “I'm gonna stop you right there before you insult me even further. First of all, fuck you. Just because I don't specialize in your fields that doesn't mean I'm an idiot. Second, no, Lance didn't help. In fact, I'm only telling you this now because he doesn't even know, and you better not tell him.” He pulled his hand away and dragged it down his face, pushing up under his goggles to rub at his tired eyes. “He didn't want me going back to the lab because of what happened last time.”

“You didn't tell Lance?” Pidge echoed, “I mean, you didn't promise him you wouldn't go to the lab or anything, right?” Keith shut his eyes and groaned.  Pidge screeched, “Keith! You promised him, didn't you?! And now you're sneaking around behind his back--”

“What else was I going to do? He won't listen to reason, and flies into a panic attack every time I so much as mention the lab. And now he's acting like he's just, okay with it!” Keith fisted his hands into his hair and let his head drop onto the scooter's handlebars. “Who knows when we're gonna get another lead like this? Red showed me how to make the serum, I can't just not do it because my boyfriend has eighteen fucking anxiety disorders!”

“Not eighteen, just like, five,” Pidge said. She sighed, propping her elbow on the table and holding her chin in her hand, “You said Red showed you? That's... well, I bet she's right. But Lance is going to be so upset when he finds out. All eighteen of those anxiety disorders are going to have a field day if he finds out you lied to him and were sneaking around behind his back doing the one thing he asked you not to do,” She gave him a tentative smile, “I know Lance acts like a big shot and everything but he’s really sensitive about stuff.”  

“I know,” Keith leaned forward against the handlebars, crossing his arms over the command panel and pressing his face against his scaled forearms. “I didn't think that far ahead. Maybe if I can do it he'll see that the lab’s not so dangerous.”

“I think he’d focus on the part where you were lying to him,” Pidge said. She thought for a moment, staring down at her bowl of noodles like they were whispering ideas to her, “If you let me help you, we can just say I was the one in the lab. He doesn't need to know you were in there in the first place. We’ll just say you told me the steps... or something.”

Keith was quiet for a moment, staring at Pidge. “Really? You'd do that?”

“Yeah, of course,” Pidge grinned, “We all want you back to normal just as much as you do, and if this lab-made antidote is the way to do it then I’m all for it. I’m also all for not having you and Lance break up due to lying and deceit. I worked way too hard to get you two together in the first place for it all to go to shit after, like, a week anyways.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “He wouldn't do that,” but even as he said it, a knot of fear coiled in his gut. Lance wouldn't… right? He shook away the thought. “Thanks Pidge, really.” He grinned, relieved to know he wasn't on his own with this anymore.

Pidge picked up her bowl of noodles and started scarfing them down quickly, “Where do we start? You gotta tell me everything you know so far!”

“Well, the first thing we need to do is find out the exact amount of rubidium a human can take, we can work from there.” Keith replied. He was starting to feel the buzz of excitement bubble up in his core. It was like he was about to head out on a new mission, but rather than being alone in the desert he had team Voltron behind him. Well, parts of the team. With Pidge’s help, figuring out how to change back didn't seem so impossible anymore.

They were so close to having legs again, he could feel it.

 

***

 

Lance sighed as he finished another lap around the pool. Swimming laps wasn't as fun when it was about as much of a challenge as walking from one side of the room to the other. Come to think about it, walking from one side of a room to the other would be much more of a challenge, and maybe something that would keep him entertained. Lance was bored. Keith had left forever ago to get food and still hadn't come back yet. Sure, Lance could get up out of the pool and go find him, but that would take effort, and Lance just didn't have it in him to expend much effort anymore.

Maybe he was depressed. I mean, if I wasn’t depressed I’d be concerned, the boy thought to himself, flipping in the water and swimming back aimlessly towards the other wall, I don’t think anyone could be transformed into a monster and not be depressed. He was concerned about Keith. Keith seemed to be handling the whole situation ridiculously well; though, to be fair, he had been high for at least two days after the incident, and that probably softened the blow a bit. But this morning Keith had been acting a bit... weird. He had looked incredibly tired, too, like he hadn't slept at all. He was probably up all night tossing and turning in some deep, angsty insomnia, Lance thought miserably touching the far wall and turning to swim back the other way, and it's all my fault.

He felt incredibly guilty about what had happened in the lab, and he felt even worse about not being able to go back to the lab. He could be finding some sort of cure using the venom. Maybe they'd be walking again by now. But instead he was swimming laps in the pool because he felt like he might explode if he step foot anywhere near heavy machinery or that goddamn plant.

Maybe step foot was the wrong phrase.

What was worse was that he had made Keith promise him not to go near the lab, too. Keith had told him that Red showed him how to make an antidote. That seemed too good to be true to Lance. What if this antidote wasn't really an antidote? What if it just finished the job and turned them into some horrid fish monstrosity? What if the acidity of the venom burned their veins and killed them? It just seemed like a Very Bad Idea™. Of course, logically he knew this was a risk they should take. He used to like taking risks. But not looking before he lept is how he got into this mess to begin with.

So now he was forcing not only himself but also Keith away from any sort of cure. The guilt was palpable. Keith would probably break up with him and go to the lab himself eventually. It was all such a mess and it was all his fault.

“Lance? You in here?” Lance looked up towards the surface to see a blurred image of Hunk looking down towards him. Ahh, water refraction, making people look silly through the water since... forever.

Lance swam up to the surface, popping up out of the water and grabbing onto the pool’s edge. He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes, “Hey Hunk, what’s up?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering where you were. I haven't seen you all day.” Hunk said, shucking off his shoes and rolling up his pants legs. He sat on the edge of the pool and dipped his toes in the water, “Oh man, the water's warm.”

“If it’s too cold I'll fall asleep and die,” Lance said with a smile. He pulled himself out of the water and sat next to Hunk; a cool trick made possible thanks to his handy dandy breathers, which still pierced his sides and helped him breathe. They didn't hurt anymore, but were still annoying in a dull, nagging sort of way every time he twisted his core a bit too fast. Hunk was staring at the breathers, obviously still very impressed by the technology. Lance snorted, “Hey, stop staring at my gills. My eyes are up here, sir.”

Hunk snorted, managing to tear his eyes away from the alien tech, “Sorry man. I'm still just impressed those things work. And they're waterproof.”

“Thank god or I’d be some fried fish right now.” Lance laughed. He watched his tail fin sway back and forth in the pool beneath them. Hunk kicked his feet lazily.

“Where’s Keith?” He asked. Lance shrugged.

“He went to the kitchen to get us dinner. He left a while ago. Probably just eating first, he still gets way hungrier than me,” Lance was pretty much over any caloric deficiency he had from the transformation. He still got very hungry, but not the I’m gonna fucking die if I don't eat sort of hungry.

“Oh, and you didn't go with him?” Hunk blinked, “I’d have thought you'd stay out of the pool all the time now that breathing air is easier.”

“Nah,” Lance waved his hand dismissively at the thought, “it's still so inconvenient. And I don't know if you've noticed but the scooter fucking sucks, it's so clunky and has a top speed of about point-zero-zero-five miles per hour.”

“Yeaaah, maybe we’ll work on a better mobility solution next,” Hunk said. He paused for a moment, eyeing Lance, “Worth it though, right? I mean, being out of the pool back with everyone else.”

Lance shrugged. He stared at his lap, “Is it? It's a lot of hassle. I’d rather stay in the pool, honestly.”

Hunk looked confused, then concerned, “What? Why? I thought you wanted out of the pool.”

“I mean, yeah, I do, but...” He sighed, leaning back and staring up at the ceiling, “I mean maybe this is just a sign of what I always thought.”

“And what’s that?” Hunk asked. Lance glanced down at him, his blue eyes dark. They were missing that sparkle.

“Just... maybe I'm not meant to be in Voltron. Maybe I'm not meant to be part of the team. I’m kinda extra, anyways. You guys could just leave me in the pool, get someone new for Blue.”

“What?!” Hunk shook his head, putting his hands on Lance’s shoulders and staring at him wide-eyed, “Lance, you're a huge part of the team! We couldn't do what we do without you!” He shook him a little, “Man, don't discredit yourself! You're our sharpshooter!”

“Yeah, you guys keep saying that,” Lance rolled his eyes, “I haven't shot anything in weeks and probably can't even pull a trigger because my fingers are all stuck together,” he held up his hands, splaying out his fingers as far as the webbing would allow. Hunk pulled him into a hug.

“I think you need a hug.” He said. Lance groaned.

“I don't need a hug.” He staunchly replied, but his mouth betrayed him and turned upwards into a smile anyways. Hunk’s hugs were just too powerful. They didn't even need Voltron, they could just launch Hunk out in a space catapult to hug enemies and they'd take down the Galra empire in two quintants.

“I thought you were feeling better about this,” Hunk said, his arms still wrapped tightly around Lance’s shoulders, “the transformy thing, I mean. You can fly Blue no problem! We can still form Voltron! And Shiro and Allura are off finding a way to change you guys back!”

“I’m not convinced they’ll find a way,” Lance said. Hunk let him go, and Lance instantly wished he hadn't. He looked down at himself, absently running his fingers along his scales, “So when Keith and I went into our lions, they showed us stuff. Like, a vision, of the future maybe. Keith said his was a vision of him in the lab mixing together a serum that would change us back.”

“What? Really?” Hunk gasped, a hand flying up to his mouth, “So that means it's possible, right?”

“I mean, maybe?” Lance shrugged, “What I saw didn't even make sense. It was just us on the couches upstairs. We were still half fish, and Shiro and Allura were back. I don't think they find an answer. They come back empty handed and we’re still not breathing air.”

“But you said Keith saw that a chemical antidote was possible.” Hunk frowned, “If Shiro and Allura don't come back with anything, it's because they're not supposed to. You're supposed to make that antidote, whatever Keith saw in his vision!”

“That's the problem,” Lance said, slowly, “I made Keith promise me he wouldn't go to the lab.”

Hunk blinked at him, then stared at him with narrowed eyes, “...Why?”

Lance huffed and threw up his arms, “Because, if he goes into the lab he’s going to die.”

“That's not... what?”

“Listen, last time we went into the laboratory and went near that demon plant, Keith stopped breathing air and nearly went blind,” Lance cried, articulated by some poignant hand gestures, “I’m convinced if either of us go back-- especially Keith-- the lab will blow up or the rest of the venom will turn us fully into fish, or something--”

“That's just your anxiety talking,” Hunk said. Lance huffed again.

“Yeah, I mean, I know that,” Lance crossed his arms and rolled his eyes, “I still made Keith promise me he wouldn't go. He really wanted to go do this, he’s convinced Red showed him how to make the antidote. But I’ve forced him not to, and now we’ll be stuck as fish forever. I mean, sure, maybe I’m not meant to be a Paladin. But Keith....”

Hunk kicked his legs idly in the water, “The solution seems pretty simple to me.”

“Yeah? What?”

“Just... let Keith go to the lab.” Hunk said, as if it were that simple. Lance frowned at him.

“No.” He shook his head, “Nope, no. Sounds like an awful idea to me.”

“Or you could go yourself.” Hunk said, “Or, best idea, you go together.

“Actually the worst idea,” Lance said.

“Rude. Keith’s the one who knows what to do. You need him there, even if he doesn't touch anything.”

“He can't even be out of the water that long, with the respiration vest. It starts to taste funky after a few hours,” Lance said. But his eyes were distant. He was thinking, “He could write down what he saw. Sit in the lab not touching anything, direct me on how to do it...”

Hunk smiled, and patted Lance on the shoulder. “So you're going to do it? You're going to go to the lab?”

“I think I have to,” Lance sighed, “It's not fair to Keith. It's my fault he’s a mermaid in the first place. It's not fair of me to keep him that way. And it's not fair to the universe to keep both me and him from team Voltron.” Even if they could fly the lions, they still couldn't walk, or run, or have any type of upwards mobility which was kinda important when storming a Galra base, “We need to do this. And... y’know, I sorta miss walking and stuff,” he smirked at Hunk, “As much as I've enjoyed being carried by you.”

“I can carry you when you have legs, if you want,” Hunk smiled, patting him again, a little too hard this time, “So are you going to tell Keith, then? Get started right away?”

Lance grimaced, “Well... I mean, what's the rush, right?”

“Lance!”

“Listen, it's still making me anxious, and I've been unmedicated for weeks, so considering, I think I can sit on it for a day,” he glanced up at Hunk, “or two.”

“Okay, okay,” Hunk said, “I won't make you do it today. You have to do it tomorrow.”

Hunk,” Lance whined, “Hunk, it's hard.”

“You're so bad at this! Remember the time in Advanced Cargo Inventory you missed one assignment and then kept putting it off until you failed it.”

Lance flopped backwards, which was a mistake that sent pains down his squished backfin. Whatever, it was worth it for the dramatics, “Listen. It's easier not to deal with something.”

“Yeah, I know.” Hunk smiled wryly, “C’mon, I can come with you if you want.”

“No, I'll do it,” Lance waved his hand, “I’ll do it. Tomorrow.”

 

***

 

I’ll do it tomorrow, Lance thought to himself, arms crossed behind his head as he lazily floated through the water. It was two days since he had promised Hunk he would speak with Keith about the whole lab thing. Two days of I’ll do it tomorrow. God, Hunk was right, he was really bad at getting certain things done. Or maybe he was just really good at procrastinating. He was an expert procrastinator. Really he should be getting an award; except whoever was giving out the award would probably keep putting off the ceremony and he would eventually just give up on ever hoping to receive his trophy.

It was late night. Past midnight. Keith was laying on his back at the bottom of the pool doing something with his bayard. He was waving it around a bit and mumbling to himself. Lance was staying the hell away from that mess. For some reason Lance couldn't explain, Keith had been getting increasingly... odd, lately. Lance blamed it on the whole stuck as a mermaid for life thing. Also maybe because Shiro and Allura hadn't come back from their diplomatic trip and Keith was probably a bit worried about it. It looked like Keith hadn't slept in days, but he had. Lance had seen him do it. They fell asleep together and Keith was always there when he woke up, not to mention the two or three hour long naps Keith had had over the past few days. Prior to this Lance had no idea Keith was capable of napping. Keith didn't usually sit still long enough to nap.

Maybe it was time for bed.

Lance turned over and swam down to the bottom of the pool, floating down next to Keith slowly as to not startle him. Keith was waving his bayard sword around in front of his face like a weird light show or some challenge to get as close to his face as possible without cutting his nose off. He wasn't even wearing his glasses, which were strewn somewhere on the pool floor. Lance was careful not to sneak up on the mostly blind boy, because he was fairly certain he’d get stabbed, “You ready for bed?”

Keith huffed out a breath of air, sending small bubbles up to the surface. He let his arm fall, the blade of his bayard fizzling away in a white light. He looked at Lance, his eyes heavy. “You can go ahead if you want.”

“I feel like we should both climb aboard the sleepy train,” Lance said. He nestled down on the ground next to Keith, leaning on his elbow. His tail curled around Keith’s in a way that still made his heart skip a beat, “Have you been having problems sleeping, man? You look exhausted. Like, I-haven't-slept-in-three-days-please-kill-me tired.”

Keith frowned. Lance was startlingly accurate. He shrugged. “I always do.” He looked at Lance and tapped the side of his head. “Light insomnia.”

“Oh,” Lance said, “yeah. I get that. I used to get insomnia all the time before tests,” he curled up closer next to Keith, resting his head on the boy’s chest, hoping that wasn't too forward even though they were already dating, “You're anxious because of the transformation stuff, aren't you? It's keeping you up at night.”

Keith nodded. It wasn't entirely wrong. He was anxious about their transformation, and the reversal of it. And he supposed that was what was keeping him up. “Among other things, yeah.”

Lance sighed, “I’m sorry. About... everything.” He sucked in a deep breath of water, trying to work himself up. He wanted to tell Keith it was okay to go to the lab. He wanted to. But the anxiety inside him felt like it was strangling him and keeping the words inside, “Hey, Keith?”

“Hmm?” Keith hummed, putting an arm around Lance's shoulder. His eyes were closed but he was just resting them.

“You ever want to tell someone something but you feel like you can't?” Lance looked up at Keith’s face. He looked a bit like he were asleep. His eyes opened a crack and met Lance’s.

“Yeah. All the time.”

“We probably shouldn't be keeping secrets, y'know?” Lance said, slowly.

Keith's heart stopped as a wave of panic washed over him.

Lance broke the silence and laughed awkwardly, “I mean not that I'm keeping secrets from you, I mean, in general, ah ha ha...” He glanced up at Keith, then looked away, “I mean, aside from the whole ‘hey I secretly love you’ thing.”

Keith tried to steady his breathing. Remain calm and slow his rapidly beating heart. “You’ve never said that before.” He squinted, “You love me?”

“What,” Lance stared at him, then stared blankly at the wall, “Uh. I mean. Uh,” his face was growing increasingly red. He actually had no idea what to say. He was, miraculously, lost for words. He wasn't an expert at dating but he knew the ‘L Word’ was usually a Big Deal™ and came after months of painstaking dating. Was it too early? Did he just commit a dating sin? Great, now Keith was going to think he was too clingy and break up with him and hate him for turning him into a half-fish-half-human monstrosity. Well, maybe monstrosity was a bit too harsh. Lance secretly thought Keith looked rather good as a mermaid, actually. Not that it was relevant at the moment, seeing as if he didn't say anything he could never lay eyes on Keith again without literally dying of embarrassment. He had to say something, Keith was staring at him. Fuck Lance say something, “Uh. Sure.”

Keith snorted out a laugh. “You don't sound too sure.”

“I-- what? Listen, I was flummoxed by the question--”

“Flummoxed!?” Keith sat up on his elbows to look at Lance. “Did you seriously just say that?” he laughed, not even trying to hide the huge grin on his face.

I’m sorry, is my vocabulary too advanced for you?” Lance scoffed, feigning insult, “Look, I was just startled by the fact that you'd ask me for confirmation on whether or not I love you, which the answer is yes, but I wasn't really expecting to say it in, like, the next three months. So I was flummoxed.

Keith laid back down, still quietly laughing. Sleep deprivation sure did make everything a whole lot funnier. “Okay, okay, that's fair.” He turned to smile at Lance. “It's just a stupid word.”

Lance smiled at him, and the two smiled silently at each other for a minute until Lance cleared his throat and said, “Well?”

Keith blinked. “What?”

Lance turned red again, for unknown reasons, probably because he had to say it again, “I just, well, I just professed my love to you, dude, and you made fun of my word usage.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah me too.”

Lance squinted at Keith. Keith didn't see it, though, because his eyes had slid back closed, and Lance was pretty sure he was mostly asleep again, “What, you're not going to say the magic words?”

“Please and thank you?”

“What?!” Lance actually sat up out of pure shock. What the fuck? Was Keith actually awake having this conversation? Lance was starting to accept the theory that this was all some sort of awful fever dream, “Keith. Keith, buddy. I said I love you. You're supposed to say something touching and romantic. Are you awake? Fuck me.”

Keith opened one eye. “Love you too, Lance.” He let his eyes close again and dropped his head down on the floor. “Wait, you want me to fuck you?”

Lance grinned. His core felt warm and fuzzy, and suddenly he couldn't stop smiling. He curled up again next to Keith, “Maybe later. We should sleep. I think if you tried to give me another blowjob you'd fall asleep on my cock.”

“Mmhmm,” The corners of Keith's mouth turned up in a vague smile. “Okay.”

Lance laughed quietly. He leaned over and kissed Keith on the cheek before settling down against him, “Night, Keith.”

Keith only hummed in response.

 

***

 

“Keith! Psst, Keith. Wake up!”

Pidge kneeled at the edge of the pool, trying, in vain, to whisper-shout down to Keith, who appeared to be asleep. Keith wasn't supposed to be asleep. He was supposed to meet her in the lab an hour ago. Pidge had predicted something like this, especially after Keith told her he hadn't slept at all in the past three days. He worked all through the night in the lab and made it back to the pool just before Lance woke up. Apparently Lance had no idea Keith was even leaving. Pidge preferred to keep it that way.

But, now the boy was curled up-- quite adorably actually-- next to Lance at the bottom of the pool, and Pidge had been trying for ten minutes to wake him up through useless quiet screaming.

This isn't going to work, she thought to herself, standing up and surveying the poolside, my voice can't penetrate through the water. I'll have to try something a bit more... solid.

There was a lot of junk by the poolside. Old dirty dishes, knives, action figures, books, clothes. Stuff from the two boys’ rooms. Lance’s bayard laid by the edge of the pool, next to the respiration vest version two and what looked like seven spoons. Pidge grinned and grabbed one. She hesitated and grabbed the rest of the spoons, and kneeled at the pool’s edge again.

Simple parabola equation, she thought to herself, peering down at where Keith was snoozing and visually measuring the distance between him and the surface, and the surface and herself. She stood again and took a few measured steps back, just arc it right... she swung her handful of spoons back and lobbed them over her head. They went sailing up into the air and arced beautifully, splashing down into the water with seven little splooshes. The spoons continued their journey underwater, drifting down through the silent pool, glimmering in the dim light. They floated down like silvery leaves until they reached their destination. Seven spoons landed perfectly on Keith’s body, three of them making a little pile between his nose and his chin. One landed on his forehead, and several landed on his chest. One landed several feet away on the other side of Lance. Keith’s eyebrows knit together and he groggily opened his eyes. His vision was silver.

“Yeah!” Pidge threw her hands up in a quiet cheer, quite pleased with herself. She watched Keith unwind himself from Lance and sit up, her little pile of spoons lazily rolling off of him and floating down onto the pool floor. Keith blearily looked up at her, but didn't wave back to her until he had found his goggles and had put them on. He swam up to the surface, pulling his goggles away from his face once he had surfaced to let the water out.

“Hey Pidge. Sorry, I must have fallen asleep. What time is it?” He whispered.

“It's like two in the morning,” Pidge whispered back, “Y’know if you actually slept during the day maybe you wouldn't be so tired.”

“Don't want Lance to suspect anything,” Keith shrugged, “He already asked why I was tired earlier. He can't find out about this.”

“Right, extreme betrayal, I remember,” Pidge held up the respiration vest two-point-five, “Ready to go?”

“Yeah, let’s go.” Keith took a deep breath and hoisted himself up out of the water. Pidge helped him put on the vest, and in less than five minutes the two were heading off to the lab at Keith’s scooter’s top speed, which wasn't too fast. Before they left Keith gave Lance one last glance; he was still sleeping peacefully at the bottom of the pool. If Keith learned anything from this experience, it was that Lance slept like a log, and that rice is very hard to eat blind.

Keith felt a pang of guilt, leaving Lance sleeping in the pool. But as he and Pidge made their way to the laboratory, he knew it would all be worth it. They were so close. Pidge had analyzed the Urorlixian scientist Otorii’s paper on the use of rubidium as a catalyst the transformation of T-27. That was, after she spent several hours pouring over the wealth of information in the protoscanner and the IGSC system. Keith had lost her for half a night to the computer, and he was pretty sure she was spending her days scanning things with the scanner, too. Regardless, they had made progress. Otorii had contacted them again with some possible chemical amplifiers that wasn't also lethal to humans. He also helped them figure out correct ratios, specifically concerning how much rubidium was needed to, theoretically, reverse all of Lance and Keith’s changes.

Pidge had sourced the ingredients herself. She had spent the night prior pulling apart old Altean computers trying to find rubidium parts in the batteries. Then she hummed a funeral dirge before dumping the desecrated parts in an empty closet in the basement. The chemical cocktail concluded an amplifier he'd found in the cabinet, a stabilizer, the catalyst-- the rubidium--, the transformative agent-- the plant venom-- and a benign chemical that served as a medium for the solution. Five ingredients in total. It seemed so simple. But it was exactly like he had seen in his vision. Throughout the whole process as they discovered the ingredients and ratios, the words and numbers popped back into his mind. The haze over certain parts of his vision were clearing, and telling him these were the exact measurements they needed-- or when they were wrong. He hadn't known much about chemistry, but he knew this for certain.

This night was the night. He and Pidge had assembled the ingredients in their bottles and vials, and tonight was the night they were going to mix them together. Just like Red had shown him. Keith was uncharacteristically anxious. So many things could go wrong. But Lance’s future depended on this. He couldn't let his nerves stop him now.

Pidge sat on the big metal table in the center of the lab, with a white lab coat on, purple gloves, thick safety glasses on, and her hair tied back. Lab safety was important. She had a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other, scribbling down some equations, finalizing chemical ratios for a single dosage. She squinted at her papers, doing the calculations again. They had all their ingredients on the table in front of her. Three bottles of chemicals, a vial full of metallic filaments, and the vial of extracted plant venom. Their only vial.

The math wasn't adding up.

“Keith, we have a problem,” Pidge said, her voice stiff and cold. Keith looked up from setting up a Bunsen burner. Pidge’s eyes were wide, scared.

“What?”

“We don't have enough,” Pidge said, looking down at her calculations again, “I've run the numbers three times. There's only enough here for one dose. We don't have enough of the venom-- we won't have enough of the serum for two people.”

Keith's shoulders relaxed. “Oh, that.” He looked back down at the burner. “I know.”

“What?” Pidge looked at Keith incredulously for a moment, her eyes sliding down to the single small vial of venom, “Keith, we can't get more venom. That was our only sample.”

“I know,” Keith snapped. He dragged a hand down his cheek and sighed. “I knew from the start. My vision only showed one dosage, but it's fine.”

Fine?” Pidge’s voice cracked. She paused and took a breath, then continued in a calmer tone, “Keith, what are you going to do?”

Keith didn't meet her eyes, a sad smile pulling up at the corners of his lips. “Isn't it obvious?”

Pidge closed her eyes and sighed. Her head reeled for a moment. But she knew Keith was much too stubborn and prideful to change his opinion. She slowly opened her eyes and looked at him solemnly, “Okay, I get it. You're sacrificing yourself for Lance. But what are you going to do, Keith?”

Keith clenched his jaw tight. “I… I'm not sure. We'll figure something out later. Right now, Lance needs it more than I do.”

“Alright.” Pidge said. She looked back down at her sheet and started working again. Keith stared at her incredulously for a minute.

“Alright? That's it?” He let out a breathy laugh, “I thought I was going to have to convince you, I thought there would be some... emotions....”

“What's the point,” Pidge shrugged, “I know I can't change your mind.” She smiled smugly, “You're really stubborn.”

Keith scoffed. “I'm not that stubborn.” He rubbed the back of his head, “Am I?”

“Yes, and now you have to change your gloves ‘cause you've contaminated them.” Pidge said. She stuck her tongue out at Keith, and he laughed.

He was so grateful to have Pidge.

 

***

 

It was still another two hours until they had finished the preparations and were ready to create the solution.

“It's pretty funny, don't you think? The words?” Pidge said, seemly out of the blue to Keith, who had been completely engrossed in measuring out exactly 3.76mg of 5-hydroxytryptamine on a tiny little scale that was set to Altean and impossible to read anyways.

“What?” Keith looked up at her, eyes hazy with exhaustion. He was running on pure adrenaline and a sugar cookie they nabbed from the kitchen.

“The words,” Pidge said, holding up a glass erlenmeyer flask that contained Benzotriazole, their stabilizer, “‘solution’. We’re making a solution and a solution. A solution of chemicals that is a solution to a whole ton of problems.”

“...You haven't been sleeping much either, have you,” Keith squinted through his goggles. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the scale in front of him, “You know Altean, right? What number is this?”

Pidge walked around to Keith’s side of the table. He was sitting on a rolly chair stolen from a different room, with his back to the door and the long metal table in front of him. Pidge had been working on the other side.

“Four-point-eight-six.” Pidge said.

“Fuck.” Keith picked up the tiny metal scoop and started scooping away some of the powder.

“Well once you have that sorted out, I'm ready to go.” Pidge said. She walked around to the other side and screwed the erlenmeyer flask of Benzotriazole over the Bunsen burner. The 5-hydroxytryptamine had to be added slowly over heat, then the rubidium until the metals were melted and the solution was brought to a boil.

Once Keith had won the fight against the 5-hydroxytryptamine, and had also measured out the powdered rubidium, the two ingredients were added to the Benzotriazole already in the flask and set to a boil. The solution turned from a dull grey-blue to a bright blue as the chemicals reacted to each other and the heat. Pidge added the base medium with a dropper. The bright blue colour faded back to a duller blue, but it was still glowed dimly in the poorly lit lab.

“That's not the right color. It’s supposed to be darker.” Keith said, leaning probably a bit too close to the Bunsen burner, resting his scaled elbows against the cold metal of the table. It was probably a good thing that he was keeping close to the heat. The cold only made him sleepier.

Pidge stirred the solution in the flask with a glass wand, “We have to wait for it to boil down a bit. It'll turn dark blue and thicken. Then we’ll remove it from the heat and stir in the venom.”

“So we’re waiting for a pot to boil, then?” Keith said.

“Pretty much,” Pidge laughed, “that’s like, eighty five percent of chemistry.” She stirred a bit more, “the rest is math.”

So they waited for the solution to boil down. Just as Pidge had predicted, and Keith’s vision had predicted before that, the solution turned dark blue and thick, like toothpaste. Pidge removed the flask from the heat and set it on a wire stand.

“Now the venom.” Keith said. Pidge nodded. She stepped back from the table, letting out a small rush of breath as if she had been holding it in this whole time. Her eyes landed on the little corked vial filled with the last of the red-tipped lightpole’s venom. Such a small amount of fluid that could cause so much damage.

“Do you want me to do it?” Keith asked, noticing her hesitance. Pidge grimaced and groaned.

“Yeah, I was about to ask. I would, I mean, it's not like I'm scared or anything. I just, we seem to have a bad track record with it--”

“Pidge,” Keith cut her off and smiled, “it's okay.” He understood Pidge’s fear, the last two people that had handled the plant were now half fish. One slip up and the tally could go up to three. Keith on the other hand, was already turned, and blind. What more could the venom do to him?

“Okay,” Pidge breathed. She took another step towards the door, “You can add it. I'm going to go get us some syringes.” Truthfully she didn't even want to be in the same room as that awful green stuff. She pulled off her gloves and threw them in the sink, then headed out the door, “I’ll be right back. Add it slowly and stir it with the glass stick thing.”

“Got it,” Keith called back after her before turning back towards the table. His heart was racing in his chest. All their work was almost complete. Three sleepless nights of lab work, countless hours of worry and grief, weeks of anxiety, depression, hurt. It was almost all over.

Who would have thought the same vile poison that created the problem would also be the key to undoing it.

He reached for the vial, his hand frozen hovering just over it. He shut his eyes tight and shook his head, this was no time to hesitate. He snatched up the vial and pulled the stopper before he had time to think about it. The sharp scent hit his nose in a matter of seconds-- it nearly made him gag.

All his instincts wanted to just dump the venom in and get it over with, but even he knew how stupid that was. If too much poured in at a time, the Benzotriazole wouldn't have time to stabilize the reaction between the venom’s corrosive elements and the rubidium. This was a critical moment, one that he remembered clearly in his vision. With one final deep breath, he grabbed the stirring rod and slowly began to pour the venom in the solution.

The gummy paste quickly started to fizzle and turn a pale green. The smell was horrible and stung his sinuses. He pulled the collar of his lab coat-- already stretched over his respiration vest and backfin-- over his nose and mouth, coughing into it before continuing his work. It was mesmerizing, watching the mixture fizzle and shift back into a liquid state. The colors swirled as he stirred and reminded him of mixing paint. Except smellier. The venom was a quarter of the way drained and the solution had the consistency of yogurt-- a good sign.

Keith poured the liquid in slowly, steadily, focusing on the task and nothing else. He was blind to his surroundings. Hold the vial steady, stir the solution, pour it slowly. Half the vial was emptied into the flask now. They were so close. The enormity of the moment began to truly dawn on him. This was the last moments in Lance’s struggle, he would finally be free from the pool, free from this awful form, free from what was hurting him--

Keith’s body reacted before he even heard the sound. The loud bang of a door flying open. Pidge returning with the syringes. The door flew open and cracked against the wall, a sudden sound in a silent moment. It happened so fast, and so loud, right behind Keith’s head. His body reacted from years of practice. Muscle memory, his hands were trained to fly to his side to brandish his sword. But his hands had been occupied, holding the vial of venom and the stirring rod above the flask. That didn't stop him from jerking back like he had done thousands of times before, his hands flying to his hip to grab a knife that wasn't there.

He dropped the vial.

He watched the vial fall from his grip, and time seemed to slow, almost stop, as glass clattered against glass, and the vial skittered across the top of the erlenmeyer flask. Half of the remaining venom poured into the flask, the other half spattered across the counter and floor. The vial clattered against the countertop and crashed to the floor, shattering on the tile. The metal countertop started to fizzle, the corrosive properties eroding away at the surface. The flask seemed to come alive, the solution inside bubbling up an acrid black foam that rose up out the mouth of the flask and over the edges. It splattered across the counter, hissing and frothing, pooling into Keith's lap. He quickly pushed himself away and watched in horror as his and Pidge’s hard work spilled onto the floor. The foam slowed its crawl and hardened to each surface like lava turning to rock.

Keith could hear his heart beating loud in his ears, and the dull buzz of the fluorescent lights. The rest of the world was silent, dead, gone around him.

All his work. Wasted. Lance’s salvation, their only hope now lay drying on the ground amongst shattered glass and thick crusted goo.

A burning fire formed itself in Keith's stomach. He was furious. He was so close to finishing his serum and Pidge had ruined it all by opening a door. He whipped his chair around, fire in his eyes.

“What the fuck did you just--!” He paused, his face fell. But Pidge wasn't standing in the doorway.

It was Lance.

Chapter Text

Lance laughed quietly, curled up against Keith, his boyfriend, who had just said I love you in a totally non ironic way. Sure, the guy was mostly asleep, but to Lance it still counted. He had never had someone say that to him, not someone he wasn't related to at least. And, the craziest part, is that he felt the same. He leaned over and kissed Keith on the cheek before settling down again against him, “Night, Keith.”

Keith only hummed in response. Lance closed his eyes and quickly drifted off to sleep, his mouth still upturned in a smile, a warm buzz alight in his core. He never knew one boy could make him so happy.



***



Lance woke with a start a few hours later. He sat up, uselessly panting for breath, his eyes adjusting to the darkness and suddenness of being awake.

Bad dream, he groaned, rubbing his eyes. He had dreamt Blue had stopped responding to him. A nightmare he hoped would never happen. He dropped his hands into his lap and glanced to the side, expecting to see Keith still snoring next to him.

But Keith wasn't there. Instead there was just... a bunch of spoons in his place. What? Confused, Lance looked around the pool. Keith was gone.

A Very Bad feeling made its home in Lance’s stomach.

His brain jumped to the worst conclusions. Maybe saying the L word was too soon, and he had freaked Keith out so much he had ran, or scootered, away.

Maybe he was in the lab. Maybe he was dead in the lab.

Okay, calm down, you're just freaking out now for no reason, Lance thought to himself. He stared at the spoons. Maybe he went to the kitchen for food? Maybe this was some weird fucked up way to signify that? He had a sinking feeling that wasn't the case.

He probably just should have waited for Keith to come back, but Lance wasn't really the ‘sit around and wait’ sort of guy. He swam up to the surface and pulled himself out of the water. Keith’s scooter was gone as well; not that it was surprising, wherever he went he probably didn't crawl there. Lance pulled himself up into the remaining scooter and headed to the kitchen.

Keith wasn't in the kitchen. He wasn't in his own room, either. With a growing feeling of doom, Lance made his way to the lab. No, he won't be there. He wouldn't do that to me, he promised–

Lance paused outside the door. He could see the lights were on inside. His whole body shook, and he wasn't sure why– was it nerves? Anxiety? Yeah, there was definite anxiety building inside him, like a building crescendo in his core. He felt tense like a guitar string pulled too tight. Like a boiling kettle about to blow. Twice he hesitated, almost turning back. He'd rather not know, live in ignorance than find out what he knew was happening. But that was ridiculous. He was a lot of things but he wasn't a coward. So he steeled himself and rammed his scooter into the swing door, and it slammed open against the inside wall.

Keith was in the lab. He was wearing a way too big lab coat, gloves, and his goggles. He was hunched over, pouring a vial into a flask. When Lance rammed through the door he let out a tiny screech and flinched, dropping the vial of green liquid. The dark substance in the Erlenmeyer flask bubbled and spit, foaming into a grey discharge that bubbled out the top and landed on the table and floor and on Keith’s lap, hissing quietly. The vial shattered on the floor, the fluid inside corroding the floor and burning brown puddles. Keith screeched again, head whipping around to the door.

“What the fuck did you just–!” his ire died in his throat, his face turning pale under his goggles. “Why are you here?” he asked, his voice small and dry. Lance swallowed hard, his head spinning with boiling emotions.

“I could ask you the same question.” Lance managed to spit, because anger was easier to process than the hurt that was threatening to spill out.

Keith clenched his teeth, his jaw set tight. He looked over at the mess he'd just made all over the counter. “You… weren't supposed to wake up…”

“Yeah, well, I did,” Lance hissed, “Oh, right, I wasn't supposed to find you doing  literally the one thing I asked you not to do! What the fuck–”

“This was something I needed to do!” Keith shouted. “You wouldn't listen to reason and freaked out when I told you I knew the cure for your goddamn legs!” He shoved out his hand, gesturing to Lance's lower half.

“I can't believe you're trying to blame this on me! Acting like I'm the bad guy here!” Lance cried, his voice pitching up and cracking.

“No I'm not, you asked me why!”

Lance was starting to lose his shit. You should leave before you say something you regret, “I know I was being paranoid, I know I wasn't listening to reason, but that's because I was worried about you. I feel so insanely guilty about what I did to you–”

“You didn't do anything to me!”

“–I was just trying to keep you safe, because you're important to me!” He took a breath, and added quietly, “Apparently how I feel isn't that important to you.”

Keith growled, only letting himself feel frustration and anger rather than anything else. “Of course I care! I didn't want you worrying about me for no reason,” he pushed himself across the room towards Lance, sliding in the swivel chair by using his tail. “I couldn't just sit by and do nothing when I knew the antidote!”

“If it was so important to you, why did you promise me?” Lance looked away. He wished he could walk away, but if he could they wouldn't be having this fight.

“How else was I supposed to react when you started talking about killing yourself?” Keith managed to scoot himself a few feet in front of Lance. “That shit’s fucking terrifying!” Keith's breath hitched. He could feel a tight knot forming in his throat.

“Yeah, so is imaging your boyfriend dead on the floor because of some stupid plant  you decided to touch,” Lance let out an angry groan. “You know what, fuck you. I trusted you, Keith! You promised me! And you went behind my back and did whatever you wanted anyways. I don't care if it was for a good cause, it still fucking hurts.”

Keith scowled, pushing himself right in front of Lance. Hot tears spilled down his cheeks as his anger boiled over into fury. “I did this for you!” He jabbed his finger into Lance's chest. “I did everything for you, and you fucked it up! And you can't seem to get over yourself long enough to see that. Now our only serum is broken on the ground and we're both stuck as mutant fish!” He shoved Lance in the chest. Lance grunted in surprise and anger, and before he even knew what he was doing, he had shoved Keith back so hard it knocked him off his chair.

“You did it for me? Well I hope it was fucking worth it.” Lance said. Then he turned his scooter around and cruised away, leaving Keith on the floor.

Keith watched Lance leave rather ungracefully in the scooter. The door fell back and shut with a loud clang, leaving Keith alone with the buzzing lights.

He sat unmoving, staring open mouthed at the closed door. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He suddenly couldn't breathe.  His breath came in short bursts. He fucked up. He fucked up with Lance, with the serum, with everything.

He grabbed the chair and stood it back up with shaking hands, but climbing back on proved impossible. He tried pulling himself up off the floor and knocked the chair over again. He let out a shout, scrambling to fix the chair upright again. Eventually he gave up and let it fall, the loud clang serving little to drown out his choked up sobs. Every breath felt labored and stunted as if something was blocking his airway. The vest on his back felt way too heavy. It must be stopping him from breathing. He tried to loosen the vest and only succeeded in dribbling some water down his sides before he gave up on that too. Instead, he just curled in on himself, bringing his hands to his eyes as violent sobs wracked through him.

That's when Pidge returned, finding Keith in a mess on the floor, along with the antidote. Or what she assumed was the remains of the antidote, smashed on the ground and burned in a messy chemical reaction. She dropped the box of syringes by the door and rushed to Keith’s side. His goggles were steamed up so much that she couldn't see his eyes. He seemed to be hyperventilating, and sitting in a tiny puddle of water. She would have assumed there was a malfunction in the respiration vest if not for the clear evidence that their science project had gone horribly wrong.

Shit. She wasn't great at this counselling thing. She related more to computers than other humans; or even half-humans, or even half- half- humans. Keith was laying in what looked like the remains of a shattered bottle of venom. Luckily the venom seemed to be neutralized, and no longer corrosive, nor did it seem to have any effect on Keith aside from what was possibly a burn on his lap. He, luckily, seemed to have missed most of the broken glass, as well. Still, Pidge wasn't taking any chances. She took off her lab coat and threw it on the ground before kneeling down on top of it next to Keith.

“Keith?” She started, a bit meekly because he was sobbing. He didn't seem to register her presence at all. She put a tentative hand on his shoulder, “Keith! Keith, are you hurt?”

Keith head shot up, his eyes frantically scanning Pidge before he threw his arms around her. “I- I f-fucked up, Pidge!”

“It's okay, you're okay,” Pidge murmured, popping off his glasses before pulling him into a hug, “Keith, breathe dude, take a deep breath!”

“I can't- I- chh,” Keith coughed and hiccuped through a string of nonsense words. He held onto Pidge's shoulders, trembling in her arms. He felt like he was  dying.

“Listen, you're fine, we’ll just go get another sample of the plant venom. I'm sure Otorii has some, or... something. It's okay, we’ll just start again.” Pidge said. She rubbed his back because that felt like something she should do, although she wasn't sure if he could even feel it through the vest.

“No! No,” Keith grit his teeth and pulled away to press the heel of his palm against his eyes. It stung, but he didn't care.“Lance! He-” he broke into another sob.

“Shh, just focus on breathing,” Pidge said. She grabbed his hands and held them because they were shaking terribly, “C’mon Keith. Breathe.”

Keith took in a few shaky breaths, but still felt lightheaded. He tried breathing through his gills, sucking in the water from the vest.

In, and out. In, and out.

It helped a little. He still felt depressed out of his mind, and kept crying, but at least now he could breathe without spit running down his chin.

“That's better,” Pidge murmured. She hoped her voice wasn't as shaky as it felt. She had never seen Keith so upset. Actually, she had never seen Keith show this intense of really any emotion except maybe anger. It felt odd, out of place, and she wanted it to stop; not just for her own reasons but also because Keith was suffering. She rubbed his forearms, feeling the tiny raised bumps of his scales under her fingertips, “Okay. What happened?”

Keith wiped off his chin and sniffled. “Lance c-came in. I knocked over the serum.” He paused as his voice gave out, swallowing back the sob that threatened to surface. “And, and we fought and, oh god he hates me.” He curled up again, hiding his face in his hands.

Pidge blanched, heart dropping. Oh shit. That was literally the worst case scenario, save for maybe having the lab explode and killing everyone.

“Forget the serum, we’ll figure that out later.” Pidge said, “As for Lance... god. He’s going to be upset.”

“He is upset! I fucked up so bad-” Keith's breath started to quicken again, he flung his hands out to grab onto something and only got air.

“Shh, Keith, Keith,” Pidge caught his hands again, “You know, I know Lance pretty good. Sure he’ll be upset but he’ll get over it if you talk to him. You should go talk to him. He’s probably making up ways of how this his fault in his head right now.”

Keith frantically shook his head. “We’ll just fight more, I know it.” They always did, they constantly butted heads even after they started dating. Right now, after what happened, they'd definitely clash violently.

“Maybe not,” Pidge said, drawing out her words as she searched for some sort of potential scenario where the two wouldn't fight. Keith was right, the two of them both were hot heads and had bickered for the first two weeks of knowing each other straight. But, Lance cared a lot about Keith, and vice versa. It seemed like a lot to throw away after two weeks of dating, “You just need to talk to him. Listen to him, don't try to butt in with retaliation like you always do.”

“I do not!” Keith butted in.

“You do, you both do it. It's like you can't help it! I swear if he had any other lion it'd be Red because you're both so hot headed!” Pidge cried.

Keith rolled his eyes and scoffed. Yeah, like that'll ever happen.

Pidge sighed, “I can talk to him if you want. But I think you should talk to him first.”   

Keith sniffled, wiping one of his eyes. “I don't think that'll help. He's gonna hate me now and never wanna see me again.”

“No way!” Pidge shook her head, “Lance admires you way too much to hate you. He's had a crush on you for, like, forever. Since the first day he saw you when you were in the same class at the Garrison!” She laughed quietly, “Of course he didn't know it was a crush at the time but I thought it was pretty obvious. You mean a lot to him, that's why he was always butting heads with you in the beginning. He wanted your attention anyway he could get it.” Honestly, the fact that Lance and Keith had huge crushes on each other had been so obvious to her since day one. She wasn't sure why it was such a shock to everyone else, including Lance himself, “I know this is a huge betrayal for Lance, but... you need to apologize and show you care about him. And he’ll forgive you. I know it.”

Keith was quiet for a moment aside from his sniffles and hiccups. “I don't… I don't think I can right now. I'll just lose it.” He curled forward, wrapping his arms around the back of his head.

“That's okay!” Pidge said, “In the morning, maybe? For now, just let him go cool off. It’ll be okay, Keith. I know it!” She patted him on the back and handed him back his goggles.

Keith took his goggles but didn't put them back on. He just sat on the floor, which, now that he'd calmed down, was sapping the warmth from him. He was getting slow and really wanted to sleep, which probably wasn't a good thing. He looked to Pidge, “Uh, could you help me up?”

“Sure,” Pidge nodded, and stood. A few awkward minutes later and Keith was back on his scooter watching Pidge sweep up all the gunk off the floor. She was extra careful around the burn marks left by the venom, wearing thick rubber gloves and safety goggles. She threw all the debris into the hazardous waste bucket, “I’m just glad you didn't get hurt. Uh, physically I mean.”

Keith hummed and looked down at his lap where the serum had landed earlier. What was left was a few dried, crusty lumps on his scales. It hadn't gotten under to his skin, thankfully, and only left a gross looking stain.

Pidge finished dumping the garbage and pulled off her gloves, heading for the sink, “You really have bad luck when it comes to lab accidents.”

“Yeah,” Keith muttered. Maybe Lance was right to worry about the lab. Though, this second accident was kind of Lance’s fault to begin with… “Thanks for your help Pidge but I… I'm gonna go.” He wanted to be alone. She didn't need to see him cry anymore.

“Go where? The pool?” She asked.

Keith flinched, grimacing at the thought. Lance might have gone there. And even if he hadn't, there was a high chance of them running into each other. Besides, all of Lance's stuff was in the pool, and each one would serve as a new reminder of how he’s fucked everything up. No thanks.

“No. I'll find somewhere else.” The tinny taste of the water was a reminder that he didn't have much time left in the respiration vest. He needed fresh water ASAP. Pidge eyed him like she didn't believe he’d find somewhere else.

“O...kay...” She said, “Are you sure? I don't want to find you dried up somewhere tomorrow.”

“No, I'm fine. Don't worry.” Keith waved her away. ‘Fine’ may be an overstatement on how he felt, but he knew what he was doing. He steered his scooter towards the door, letting Pidge open it for him.

“I will worry, but that's because I'm your friend.” Pidge said. She pulled him into a surprise hug, “You’ll get past this, I know it. Both of you will.”

“Thanks Pidge.” Keith sighed. He allowed himself to relax just a tiny bit and hugged her back. But then he pulled away, murmuring, “Goodnight.”

“Night, Keith.” She replied, and stood by the lab door watching him drive away down the hallway.



***



Lance drove down the hall, webbed fingers tight around the handlebars of his scooter. He had a destination in mind and was heading straight for it, praying he wouldn't run into anyone else in the hallways before getting there. Though, it was four in the morning, and two of the Castle’s inhabitants were currently away on business. But it would be just his luck to run into Coran right now. He didn't think he could make it through one of Coran’s stories. He’d lose his shit and probably start crying, which would be embarrassing.

Actually, he was surprised he hadn't started crying yet. Maybe because he was too busy being angry. Being angry was, for some reason, easier than sadness. Maybe because it didn't show weakness in the face of the person who made you feel so shitty. And that person happened to be Keith. That just made him angrier, and sadder. He really should have expected this from Keith, maybe he was naive to think the guy had changed from being bullheaded and a bit insensitive. Yeah, totally should have seen this coming.

He just still couldn't believe that Keith had not only broken a promise, but had lied to him for... who knows how long? What else had he been lying about? Maybe this whole ‘relationship’ had been a lie, just to get Lance to admit he liked men so everyone could laugh at him behind his back.

Okay, now he was crying a bit. Maybe more than a bit. He had to stop the scooter for a minute so he could clear his eyes because he almost ran into a wall.

But he eventually made it to Hunk’s room.

Barging in without knocking, he beelined over to Hunk’s bed and pretty much threw himself onto the sleeping teen, “Hunk I'm dying–”

Hunk was startled awake, “huEH?” He sat up straight, looking around sleepily, nearly knocking Lance onto the floor, “What's going on!? What!? Who!?”

“Hunk–” Lance squeaked, hanging on around Hunk’s midsection to avoid being pushed off the tiny bed. His tail flopped around, trying to find something to curl around, settling on a bunched up area of blankets and what felt like Hunk’s foot.

Hunk blinked sleepily, rubbing his eyes. Finally he yawned, “Lance? What are you doing here? What time is it?”

“Probably around four,” Lance said. Hunk squinted.

“In the morning!?”

“Yeah, sorry. Emergency,” Lance said solemnly. Hunk looked at him and flopped back down onto his back with a groan.

“What happened?”

“I'm in need of your best friend services,” Lance said, “Keith and I had a fight. Like, a big fight. I pushed him out of his chair.” He started tearing up again. That had been such a dick move, like pushing a kid out of their wheelchair. Thinking back it didn't even feel like it had been him who pushed Keith. It felt like the whole fight had happened to someone else.

“Oh shit,” Hunk eyed him, “you pushed him?”

Lance covered his face with his hands, “Yeah,” his eyes were leaking again, goddamn it, “He... I woke up in the pool earlier and Keith was gone. I checked everywhere, found him in the laboratory.”

“Oh,” Hunk said, “and... let me guess, you didn't ever tell him that was okay.”

“I was going to!” Lance cried, “I hadn't gotten around to it yet! But I guess it's a moot point ‘cause he had decided to go and do some mad science in the middle of the night behind my back anyways!”

Hunk sighed, “And you caught him?”

Lance nodded, sniffling, “I walked in on him in the lab, mixing two liquids. One I think was the venom. You know, the extracted venom we got from the plant the last time we went to the lab, when Keith nearly got his eyes burned off?”

“Yeah, I've heard of it.” Hunk said.

“I guess I startled him or something because he dropped the vial and it shattered on the floor,” Lance said, “this black gunk started foaming everywhere. Chemical reaction between whatever he was mixing. He got mad at me. Then he said that it was all for me. And then I pushed him out of his chair and left.”

“Yikes,” Hunk finally said. Lance nodded.

“I should have expected this,” he murmured, “That's what I get for dating goddamn Keith Kogane.”

“Nah, what are you talking about?” Hunk rubbed Lance’s back like a good best friend. Lance shrugged.

“I don't know why I expected him to keep his promise. He was so deadset on getting this cure that Red supposedly showed him. I should have known he would try to do it anyways. I'm just... hurt that he had to do it behind my back.”

“You can't control him, Lance. It's not your fault he chose to do something.”

Lance groaned, “I know! But... y’know if I had just let him go in the first place and didn't have this awful paranoia about everything–”

“Hey! I just said it's not your fault, stop blaming yourself.”

Lance frowned silently for a minute, trying to find a reason that wasn't his fault, “...Okay, but what if it is, though?”

Hunk sighed, rubbing his back a bit more intensely, “Keith chose to do what he did. He chose to break a promise. You didn't make him.”

“I didn't give him much of a choice,” Lance grumbled, “Sneak off to the lab or stay as a mermaid forever. I should have expected it. I don't know why I'm so hurt...”

“Because he still betrayed you, even if it was, according to you, expected,” Hunk said, “Of course it's going to hurt.”

Lance nodded, staring down at his hands. He was laying next to Hunk on the tiny single bed like two sardines packed together. Heh, well, I’m the sardine, maybe. “But... listen, I know this is going to sound like another one of my paranoid anxiety theories.”

“Okay...?”

“But, what if,” he took a breath, “What if this was all just some plot to make fun of me?”

“...What?”

“I bet this was all just some awful plan to make me confess to liking men so you guys could all laugh at me.”

“Lance!” Hunk had the audacity to sound offended, “That's... Lance, I like men, Keith likes men. Shiro likes men. We’re all queer. Why the fuck would we care if you do too?”

Lance frowned, mumbling, “I don't know.”

“That, my friend, is definitely some paranoid anxiety and internalized homophobia.” Hunk patted his head. Lance continued to frown. At least he wasn't crying anymore.

“Maybe,” Lance said. He still wasn't convinced this wasn't all some sort of ploy to humiliate him. Or just make him feel like shit. If it wasn't a made up plot, that meant all this hurt and anger was real. He reared up again, “God, I fucked up.”

“Awh, no,” Hunk said, now moving to rub Lance’s arm.

“I did! I orchestrated this series of actions that led to me throwing the best thing that’s ever happened to me out of his chair!” He cried. He leaned forward and buried his face in Hunk’s pyjama shirt. Hunk shushed him.

“You keep blaming yourself!”

“That's because it's my fault!”

“It's not though! You just have a proclivity to blaming yourself.”

“Yeah, okay Mr. Thesaurus,” Lance sniffed, “Proclivity, what the fuck?”

“Now you're just avoiding what I said.” Hunk said.

“I heard what you said,” Lance grumbled in reply, “I’m just... having a hard time believing you.”

Hunk let out a little laugh that was mostly a sigh, “Listen, I've known you for a while, and you're really good at beating yourself up.”

“I just happen to always be the problem.” Lance said quietly.

“That's not true at all!” Hunk cried. “Lance, the world doesn't revolve around you, you're not the catalyst to every problem you come across!”

Lance glanced up at him, squinting, “Rude.”

“No, what I mean is... you can't blame yourself for everything. It's literally statistically impossible for everything to be your fault.”

“True.” Lance said. He thought about that for a moment, “Touching that damn plant in the first place was my fault, though.”

“I mean, I guess, but it was an accident.”

“So technically, this is all my fault.”

“Technically you're completely missing my point!”

Lance grumbled, but didn't have anything to add. Maybe Hunk was right. Maybe. He couldn't control Keith’s actions, or anyone else’s. Keith chose to go behind his back in the first place. Sure, there were some things Lance could have done to prevent that from happening, but Keith chose to do what he did. Was what he did really that bad, anyways? Wouldn't Lance do the same thing if the positions were swapped?

“I don't know what to do.” Lance finally said.

“Do you want to talk to him?” Hunk asked. Lance let out a puff of air.

“Not really.”

“You're going to have to eventually. We can't form Voltron without a leg. You can't leave me to do all the work!”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like I'll still be a Paladin anyways, without legs.”

“Hey, we've already talked about that! We’ll figure it out!” Hunk pulled him into a hug, though it seemed to be a ploy just to look closer at Lance’s breathers, “Besides, you still got these cool pocket dimensions to help you out!”

Lance rubbed at his sides. The areas where the breathers’ rods stuck into his skin were still sore, “I guess.” If anything, he couldn't leave Blue, and being permanently kicked from Team Voltron was his biggest fear; though he had been trying to get himself braced for this possible outcome since he first transformed.

“Do you want to patch things up with Keith?” Hunk asked when Lance stayed silent for an uncharacteristically long time. Lance shrugged.

“I… I think I do.”

“You think you do.”

“I mean, yeah, I do! I want things to go back to how they were. I don't want to throw away what we had. I know it was short but it was... perfect.” Lance sighed and rubbed his face, “But I can't just... just let it go...”

“Let him apologize to you.” Hunk said. Lance nodded.

“Maybe. Maybe if he apologized and meant it. I don't know. It'd have to be special because he could just be lying again.”

“Give it a few days. I bet Keith feels guilty. You're really important to him, he’ll come back to you.”

“Apparently not important enough.”

Hunk nearly cringed at the ire in Lance’s voice. “Keith’s not perfect. He makes mistakes. I'm sure to him, he was doing the right thing.” He put up his hands defensively, “Not that I'm defending the guy, or on his side or anything. I'm just saying...”

“Yeah, I know. I know,” Lance flipped over onto his stomach, “I’ll have to think about it. I don't want to see him for a few days.” He huffed, because the anger was creeping back into his thoughts, seeping into the intense sadness that came with the thought of losing Keith. The anger made the sadness easier to bare.

“What about the pool?” Hunk asked, brows raised.

“I'm sleeping here tonight.” Lance said, glancing back at Hunk, “Uh... if you don't mind. Then I'll hang out in my room. I don't need to be in the water, thanks to my handy breathers.”

“Of course I don't mind.” Hunk said. He shuffled around in the bed, trying to get comfortable, “Plenty of room for the both of us in this tiny bed.”

“Is that sarcasm I detect?” Lance scoffed, “You're being sarcastic at me in my time of need.”

“Four in the morning is the time of need for sleep.” Hunk grunted. Lance smiled.

“Yeah okay.” He curled up under the covers, marvelling at the feeling of being in a bed and dry for once, “Hey, Hunk?”

“Yeah man?”

“Thanks, dude.”



***



Each of the Paladins’ bedrooms were equipped with a personal bathroom, with a toilet, sink, and cubicle shower which was shaped more like a healing pod than an earth shower. Only some of the rooms had full bathtubs; Shiro's was one of them. He had picked the room only because it was closest to the command bay. The others had teased him when he panicked and insisted it wasn't because he was special and they were still all equal in the team.

This is where Keith headed, not having a tub of his own and very much needing some fresh water. Once he had broken into Shiro’s room, which was just as boring as he could have imagined, he jammed his scooter into the tiny bathroom. He stared down at the tub, realizing all too late that it was way too small for his full body. He sighed. He'd have to make it work, so he filled it up with warm water and flopped in after taking off his vest.

His tail hung out of the water, laying limp over the side. It was the only position where his gills were fully submerged and his neck wasn't bent. With his face fully under the warm water, he stared up at the ceiling. After his crying session, he felt exhausted beyond belief, even more than he'd already been after three nights of no sleep. But he couldn't fall asleep fast enough, and started thinking about Lance again.

Pidge assured him it'd be okay, but Keith still wasn't convinced. She didn't see the look on his face, didn't hear the betrayal in his voice. He felt a familiar tightness in his chest and started crying again without realizing. He took off his goggles, no point in wearing them anymore. His hot tears mixed in with the warm water. It felt oddly relaxing, unlike the last time. Now that it was over he was pretty sure he had a full on panic attack in the lab.

He suddenly awoke again. For a moment he tried to sit up and move, forgetting where he was. Oh right. He was laying awkwardly in Shiro’s bathtub. He must have fallen asleep crying. He wondered how long he had been passed out, adjusting himself slightly into a more comfortable position, and eventually just sat up in the tub with his gills still mostly under the water. The water had cooled and was getting a bit too cold, so he turned on the tap again and let it run with very hot water.

He wanted to talk to Shiro. Pidge was good council, but Shiro understood him more. But he was still out in space talking to some random aliens. He sighed and leaned his chin on his hands at the edge of the tub. He suddenly regretted coming to Shiro's bathroom. It was so cramped and lonely and he doubted he'd be able to get out on his own; and he had no way of asking for help.

“Fuck…” He ran his hands through his hair. Once again he acted without thinking things through. He lifted his head up to glance around the room when-

Was that…? Keith squinted at a thin, rectangular device sitting on the bathroom counter not two feet from the bath. It is! A tablet; one of the ones each of the Paladins had in their rooms for communication and, in some cases, entertainment since it came with games pre-installed. Keith didn't question why Shiro had left his tablet in the bathroom. Honestly he didn't want to know. What he wanted was to get his hands– his wet, slippery hands– on that tablet.

He tried to reach out and grab it, but his fingertips just barely brushed against the counter. If he wanted to reach the tablet he’d have to pull almost his whole body out of the water. That’d be unpleasant, but he had gotten pretty good at not spasming everywhere when his gills were out of the water. Taking in a deep breath he hoisted himself up and reached out as far as his scaly arms would go. His sides were already burning, but he wasn't giving up so easily. He grasped at the tablet, his claws fumbling and sending the device tumbling off the sink and onto the floor. It bounced on the tile and landed next to the tub. Oh god, please don't be broken… Keith fell back into the tub, caught his breath, and sent a half hearted prayer to whichever god might be listening before reaching down and grabbing the tablet. Apparently the gods had been listening, because the device was completely unharmed from its lost fight with gravity. It powered on with no trouble, and thankfully wasn't locked to Shiro.

Keith had to hold the tablet an inch away from his face to see the screen, but he didn't want to bother putting his goggles back on. He searched through the tablet and found Shiro’s commlink was even a contact on the tablet. Keith didn't hesitate to press “call”, hoping Shiro would actually pick up and wasn't busy talking to some aliens or something.

The commlink connected with a pleasant chime. Shiro’s face appeared on the screen.

“Hello-- woah! Keith? Is that you?” The man squinted, trying to decipher what he could see, which was half a set of giant eyes and a mess of wet black hair. Keith pulled the tablet away from himself slightly.   

“Hey,” Keith said, “Yeah, it's me.”

“What’s going on? Are you– wait where are you?”

Keith tilted the tablet to show Shiro his surroundings.

“Is... that my bathroom?”

“Yeah.”

“...Why are you in my bathroom?”

“Yours has a tub.”

“Right, and I see that you're using it. Why aren't you in the pool?”

Keith clenched his jaw, he could feel the threat of tears building up again. “When are you coming home? Uh, back, back to the castle.”

“Soon,” Shiro said, sensing Keith’s distress, “Allura and I are heading back now, actually. We just spoke with the Ozmaks. They–”

“Allura's with you?” Keith squinted. He didn't see her in the image.

Allura's face slid into view from the side. She waved a hand. “Hello Keith.”

“Oh, hi.” Keith gave a weak wave back. He felt a bit like he was being strangled, but not physically. It made being congenial bit hard.

“Do you want to talk to me alone?” Shiro asked.

“I could listen to some music if you’d like.” Allura said. She rummaged around off screen then reappeared with a pair of headphones.

“Yeah, that'd be nice.” Keith said. He was glad Allura understood. She was so good at noticing other’s emotions sometimes. The princess smiled and slipped on the headphones, moving out of frame again. Shiro sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Alright, she can't hear a thing. What's wrong, Keith?”

Keith took in a shaky breath. “I fucked up Shiro.” The tears spilled over against his will. He quickly ducked his head down and tried wiping them away, but only smeared his face with water.

“Is anyone hurt?” Shiro immediately asked, instantly concerned for his team. Keith shook his head.

“No, we’re... no one’s injured.” He breathed, and Shiro breathed a sigh of relief with him. There was a moment of silence. Shiro continued when Keith didn't offer any further details.

“Does it have to do with you and Lance? The transformation thing?”

“Yeah. I just... I fucked up everything, Shiro. It's a mess.”

“Keith, whatever happened we’ll figure it out. You know we will.” He let Keith take a breath before adding, “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Keith nodded and swallowed back the lump in his throat. “You know how Red showed me that vision? The one with the serum?”

“Right, when you and Lance were in your lions.”

“Yeah, that one. She showed me exactly what to do, I... I knew it was our best chance at changing back. If I could just get into the lab and figure out what it was we needed, I could make it based on the vision.”

“I’m guessing Lance still isn't over the accident, is he?”

“No, he... he didn't want me to go to the lab at all. He made me promise I wouldn't go.”

“...And you went, didn't you?”

“…Yes.”

“And, judging by your reaction, that didn't go over well at all.”

Keith sighed. “No. I was going in at night while he slept. And… last night he woke up and found me there.”

Shiro shook his head, his eyes soft, “Awh, Keith... You should have known better.”

“I know! I know... I just... we were so close to finishing this antidote. I figured if I could change him back, then maybe... maybe it wouldn't matter that I had lied to him.” He dropped the tablet slightly, his arms growing tired. He rubbed at his face and shifted his cramping body. This tub was not all that comfortable.

“Lying is never a good idea, Keith.”

“I know that, I know, just,” Keith voice broke, trailing off into silence, “I don't know how to fix this.”

“I don't think there is an easy fix. Just an apology and time. Have you spoken with him since?”

Keith shook his head. “No, after I cried on Pidge I just came here and fell asleep. I don't even know what time it is.” He squinted at the screen, pulling it close to his face again. “Ten. I slept for six hours.”

“I think talking with him will give you some peace of mind. You look awful.”

“Well, I feel awful.”

Shiro smiled sadly. He paused for a moment before leaning in, saying, “Get some food, take some time to relax, then track Lance down and apologize. Let him be mad at you, but let him know that you  know you messed up. He needs reassurance. Lance is already insecure– hell, you both are. But Lance needs reassurance that, despite the fact that you made this mistake, you still care about him. Because you do, right?”

“Of course I do!” Keith cried. “It, I just… he pushed me off my chair. I'm not sure he'll ever forgive me.”

“He pushed you?” Shiro shook his head, “I’ll have to talk to him about that....”

“I mean, I shoved him first,” Keith scratched at his neck. “He just wasn't on a stool.”

“Keith. You need to learn to control yourself.”

Keith groaned and leaned his head back against the wall. “I know! I know.”

“It's okay, you're learning. We're all learning how to deal with our emotions.” Shiro gave him a reassuring smile; one that Keith didn't really see due to the fact that he was mostly blind. “It's a work in progress.”

Keith didn't reply, thinking instead about how great it would be not to have emotions. He hated how much his emotions controlled him. He wished he could divorce himself from these feelings; even if he had to lose the happy ones, maybe it would be worth it. A robot wouldn't be experiencing this heartache right now. Maybe not a robot, but an emotionless zombie. He was so tied into his emotions, he wasn't sure who he would be without them; without his anger, his jealousy, his fear. Without those he certainly wouldn't be in the situation he was now.

“How close are you with finishing the antidote?” Shiro finally asked after some silence; it could have been moments or minutes, Keith had been too lost in thought to tell.

He grimaced. The antidote. The question was like reopening a scabbed over wound.

“We were almost finished with it.” Keith said, “I dropped it on the floor. We don't have any more venom to base the serum off of, so... we’re fucked.”

“Maybe not.” Shiro said, “Allura and I spent the day talking with a whole panel of aliens.”

“Fun.”

“I’m hopeful. You should be too.”

Keith wasn't hopeful. He thought back to what Lance had seen; a future where they were still transformed, still stuck like this... Lance had been as sure of it as Keith was about the serum. Help from other species was a dead end, just like the smashed remains of the serum on the laboratory floor.

“Y’know, Keith, you could always try talking to Red.” Shiro said, “She helped you out last time. Maybe she’ll do it again.”

That was true. Red always seemed to know what to do; being an interdimensional sentient robot came with its perks he supposed.

“I'll go spend some time with her. Clear my head.” Keith said. Shiro nodded.

“Good. Allura and I will be home soon, two days max. The Ozmaks wanted to get some stone from another planet, and this little ship doesn’t have warp. I wish I had brought Black, not sure why I didn’t, honestly–” He rubbed at his face. He looked like he was tired of sitting in a small spaceship.

“Two days?” Keith groaned. Two whole days of suffering until he’ll have his hopes crushed again.

“We’ll be back before you know it. Go talk to Red. Then go talk to Lance. Eat some food. You’ll feel better.”

“I hope so.” Keith said, because he couldn't imagine feeling worse. He did want to get out of this tub before his whole body became one giant cramp. Food sounded like a good idea. But talking to Lance... he’d get to it eventually.

Shiro was smiling and nodding, “Two days. We’ll be back. Hold tight, Keith. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks Shiro.” Keith said. Shiro saluted him, and the screen went dead. Keith set the tablet down next to the tub. He needed to get up, go visit Red, and then go find Lance.

He could do it. He just needed to get up out of this tub. It was easy. He just needed to get up.



But by the next morning, he still hadn’t left the tub.

Chapter Text

“Have you seen Keith?” Pidge asked, slowly as if not to invoke unwanted emotions. It had been a full day since The Lab Incident; actually, seeing as it was closer to noon, it had been about thirty hours. Pidge hadn't seen Keith since that night in the lab. She had been giving the guy his space. Keith liked his space. He liked being alone. But thirty hours was a long time to be missing. She had already checked most of his hangouts, well places he could feasibly be hanging out in while being unable to breathe air. He wasn't in the fighting arena, the lions, the pool, his room... he hadn't even been in the laboratory. Pidge was worried.

Lance let out an annoyed grunt, “No.”

“Listen, I know you're not on great terms at the moment, but I'm worried about him. I asked Coran if he had seen him, and he said no, too.”

“I haven't seen him at all.” Hunk said, gesturing with a screwdriver, “You're right. He’s our friend, we need to make sure he’s okay.”

The group was together in the workshop. Lance had taken to following Hunk around like a lost puppy. He didn't know what else to do, and was afraid of being alone with his own thoughts. His thoughts had not been kind to him lately. He was curled up on the couch, wearing one of Hunk’s sweaters which pressed uncomfortably on his back fin, and had a blanket wrapped around his top half, because the workshop was cold, and air was not a great conductor of heat. It was almost odd wearing clothes again. His hair was completely dry for the first time in forever, and he felt like a fish out of water. Wait, bad choice of words. Absolutely horrible. Was that a pun? I punned myself. He adjusted the blanket around his shoulders. “You haven't seen him at all? Not even in the kitchen?”

“Not at all.” Hunk shook his head. He was sitting on a stool at one of the three work stations in the little room. The tabletop was mostly cluttered with machine parts and junk, but at the moment Hunk had a pad of paper wedged between the metal. He was working on the blueprints for an improved wheelchair, seeing as the scooter fucking sucked.

Pidge sat next to Lance on the couch, typing away at something on her laptop. Lance had glanced at the screen a few times. He had seen pictures of Matt.

Pidge frowned. She did look deeply concerned. Something was eating away at the pit of Lance’s stomach, something he didn't want to acknowledge; He was worried, too.

“You've searched every room?” Lance asked, slowly, like he was trying to be nonchalant about his interest.

“Not every room.” Pidge said.

“He has to be in water.” Lance said, “There's no way he’d be in the vest this long, it would physically hurt. He has to be somewhere with water.”

“He wasn't in the pool.” Pidge said.

“Are we sure he hasn't left the ship?” Lance asked. Pidge shook her head.

“Coran said there's been no travel activity.

“Maybe a bathroom?” Hunk suggested, “Y’know, like in a shower or something?”

“Shower wouldn't work. Not a stable enough supply of water.” Lance said. Trying to breath water in a shower sounded like hell, like trying to breath air in a snow bank.

“I thought you didn't care about finding him.” Pidge said. Lance scowled.

“He’s still a Paladin, he’s still a part of the team! I don't want him to be dead somewhere shrivelled up like a raisin because he went off to be a loner somewhere where he couldn't breathe!

“Right, that's the reason,” Pidge said, “It's totally not because you still love him.”

Lance glared at her silently, not opening his mouth because he wasn't sure what profanities would come out; or maybe it would just be a loud screech. Hunk made a noise and shook his head.

“Pidge, leave him alone.”

“I'm just saying...” Pidge shrugged, “Maybe the reason he hasn't come and apologized to you is because he’s in trouble.”

“I don't want that to be the reason!” Lance cried, “I’d rather he be fine, and just being an asshole!”

“He could be in a bathtub,” Hunk said, cutting off Lance before he could really start screeching, “Some of the bedrooms have a bathtub in it, remember? All the ones in the Royal suits, and the high ranking officer rooms.”

“Shit. I didn't check those.” Pidge said. She pulled up a map of the castle on her laptop, giving it a quick glance, “Okay. I'll go check.... any chance you want to come with me?”

“No.” Lance pulled the blanket tighter around himself. Hunk at least seemed to think about the question for a minute before replying.

“I would, but... I mean, I don't want to leave Lance alone.”

“What?” Lance squinted at him, “What am I, on medical watch or something?”

“No, you're just emotionally distressed and probably a bit lonely.” Hunk said, completely reasonably. Lance grumbled but didn't reply, because everything Hunk had said was true.

“Well, I'll go alone, it's no problem.” Pidge set her laptop aside and stood, stretching quickly. Lance watched her with dull envy.

“Call us if he’s a shrivelled raisin.” Lance said.

“I think I'll call Coran first for medical assistance.” Pidge said, “But, hopefully, he’s just been moping around being a loner.”

“Yeah, hopefully.” Lance murmured. He flopped down sideways onto the couch into Pidge’s vacated spot, and watched her leave the room. Anxiety clawed away at his insides like a trapped animal.

 

***

 

Pidge checked the Royal suites first, to no avail. They were all empty. She crossed the main hall and headed to the other block of barracks designated for higher ranking officers. Shiro had taken a room in this block. They had fancier bathrooms and were a bit bigger, but Shiro claimed he took the room because it was closest to the command center. Indeed it was close; Pidge had to cross the command center to get to the area. Coran was in there, and gave her a quick wave as she walked past. She waved back and noted his location, just in case Keith was a shrivelled raisin somewhere.

He wasn't in the first two rooms she searched. In the third— Shiro’s room— she found Keith’s scooter wedged in the doorway between the bedroom and the bathroom. A promising sign.

She entered the room. “Keith?” There was no answer. A chill ran down her spine and all she could think about was raisins. She crept closer to the bathroom and peered in. There was a figure in the bathtub; a figure with a long black tail, face down in a filled bathtub. “Keith!”

Keith still wasn't moving. Pidge climbed over the scooter and ran to the side of the tub. Keith was unmoving and for a tense moment her heart kept to her throat as she assumed the worst. The water was cold. His tail was completely hanging out of the water, curled up and over the side of the tub. Keith’s body was face down. His sides twitched; he was breathing, slowly.

“Keith! Shit, Keith--” Pidge kneeled next to the bathtub and plunged her arms in, wrapping them around Keith and turning him around. She then pulled his head out of the water, before pivoting around to turn on the hot water. Cold water splashed up and ran over the edge of the tub, but she didn't care. Keith was deathly cold. She tapped his face a little roughly, “Keith, wake up! Please wake up!”

He didn't wake up for a tense three minutes, during which she let the cold water drain away so Shiro's room wouldn't flood. She wrapped her arms around his torso, trying to lend him her body warmth. It still took far longer than she expected for him to wake up. When Keith did, his eyes barely opened, and he still didn't move much else. It took another full minute before his brain seemed to process his surroundings, and he actually responded to Pidge’s worried pleas.

“Hey Pidge.” His voice was barely a whisper, his words slurring awfully. Pidge let out a sigh of relief.

“Thank god,” she breathed, still hugging him in an awkward way, kneeling on the wet tile and half hanging over the lip of the tub, “Keith, you were passed out in the water, absolutely freezing--”

“Oops,” Keith closed his eyes again in a slow blink. He did make the effort to wrap his trembling arms around Pidge, because she was warm and he was, suddenly, aware of how cold he felt. “The water,” he vaguely pointed towards the running tap and hoped Pidge knew what he was saying.

“Water?” She squinted, “You must have fallen asleep, and the water went cold. Y’know, this is why you were sleeping in a heated pool. God, you could have died.”

“S’cold…”

“Yeah, I know it's cold!”

“Make it… not,” he let his head fall back into the chilled water, too tired to keep holding himself upright. He was so incredibly tired, he felt like he could sleep forever, and was vaguely annoyed that Pidge had woken him up. There was a nagging feeling inside him that told him he shouldn't sleep, but he was too tired to listen to it.

“The hot water's running-- No, Keith, c’mon, keep your head above the water.” She was getting absolutely soaked pulling him out of the water again. It was fine, at least the bathroom had plenty of towels around.

“M’tired though.” Keith whined.

“You're tired because you're cold. C’mon, sit up.” She pulled him up again, letting him rest his head against the tiled wall. She resorted to turning on the shower head and spraying the hot water on Keith. This seemed to perk him up a bit. He groaned, sounding more alert by the second.

“Pidge? Pidge, blech, stop, you're spraying water in my face!” He actually moved his hand in front of his face, blinking his eyes open.

“That's the most coherent thing you've said in ten minutes.” Pidge said. She moved the spray down to his shoulders instead.

Keith squinted up at her, looking around the room blearily. “What are you doing here?”

“Saving your life.” Pidge said. Now that she wasn't freaking the hell out, she noticed how awful he looked. Not just lips-are-blue-from-cold sort of terrible. He looked gray, his eyes red and puffy, and rimmed with dark bags. In all honesty, he didn't feel that great either; his head was still foggy, but he also felt nauseous and above all else, sad.

“I was just sleeping,” he muttered. “What's going on?”

“You were freezing cold. The water was cold. I think you fell asleep and let it chill. You could have died Keith! You're cold blooded now, remember?”

He blinked blearily at the wall. He wanted to go back to sleep, but also wanted Pidge to hug him again. Would it be weird if he asked her to hug him again?

“Have you just been in here since yesterday night?” Pidge asked. Keith’s brain was still rebooting.

“What time is it?” He asked.

“Noon. On Friday.”

“Oh. It's Friday?”

“I haven't seen you since Wednesday night, in the lab. No one has!”

“Yeah, I was here.” Keith murmured. He let his eyes close again, “Called Shiro. Was going to talk to Lance. Fell asleep.”

“Wait, wait. You've been in this bath tub for two days!?” Pidge cried. Keith nodded gently.

“Yeah.”

“You haven't eaten, have you?”

“Nah. I'm not hungry, I'm fine.”

“You're not fine, you're the furthest from fine, actually!” She stood, turning away from him and letting out a frustrated groan. Boys, honestly. She turned back to him, “C’mon, let's go get you some food. I bet you're starving.”

“I don't want to move.” Keith replied. Pidge gave him a look, a look Keith didn't see since his eyes were still closed. Pidge sighed. She sat down on the toilet.

“Okay, okay. Don't rush it. I'm sure you feel like crap after turning into a fishsicle. You just wait here. I'll go let the others know you're okay. We were worried about you.”

“You were?” Keith peeked open an eye to look at her.

“Of course we were, Keith.”

Everyone?

“If by that you mean Lance, yes.

Keith squinted at the far wall, cogs his brain moving slowly, “Lance still cares about me?”

Pidge rolled her eyes, “You boys are so over dramatic. Of course Lance still cares about you. You still care about him, don't you?”

“Yes,” Keith cared a lot about Lance. That's why he had sat in a bathtub for a day and a half. He couldn't deal with the fact that he had thrown everything he cared about in the trash just for some serum that had smashed on the ground anyways.

“Hiding in Shiro’s bathroom nearly killing yourself doesn't show Lance that you care about him.” Pidge said.

Keith thought about that. He didn't remember falling asleep, but he remembered not caring if the bathwater turned cold. Had he done this on purpose? Was he punishing himself? How was that helpful? God, he sucked.

“I am kinda hungry.” He finally said, sitting up a bit. He felt intensely nauseous, dizzy, and still felt so cold. He craved a hug from Lance. Knowing he couldn't get one made him want to curl up and cry again.

“I could bring you something.” Pidge offered. Keith shook his head.

“No, I want to get up. Get out of this tub.” He flexed his tail and a cramp shot up his spine. This triggered another twinge of nausea in his gut.

“Probably a good idea. Where did you put the respiration vest? Where are your goggles?”

“Took it off over there somewhere.” Keith said, gesturing towards the sink. Pidge found it in a heap next to the scooter, as Keith fished his goggles out of the water.

“You should be gentler with it, you know. It's delicate machinery.” She said, giving it an ocular once over.

Keith shrugged as he shook the water off of his goggles. Pulling them over his head and fastening the strap, the room came back into focus. It looked smaller than he remembered.

Pidge walked back over to the side of the tub. She turned off the shower and plugged the drain again. She held up the vest for Keith, “Ready?”

“You might need to help me out of here and onto the scooter.” Keith said, “I’m, uh... I'm really dizzy.”

“Okay. Okay,” Pidge looked between Keith and the scooter. She was not strong enough to lift Keith, especially with a tail, even if he was trying to help. “Just wait here. I'll go get Coran.”

Keith's head shot up to stare at Pidge, earning him another wave of vertigo. “What? No, that's embarrassing. I don't want anyone to see me right now.”

“I don't think I can lift you on my own.” Pidge frowned. Keith waved her off, already moving into position, sloshing the water around in the tub.

“I can do it, just... catch me if I fall.” He braced himself against the side of the tub, preparing to push himself up to sit on the edge. Pidge watched him, a grim look on her face, holding the vest up in position and planning how she was going to catch him if he did fall.

Keith took two deep breaths, then pulled himself up out of the water and onto the edge of the tub, his back to Pidge and the water in front of him. He wobbled, an awful wave of dizziness hitting him along with the overwhelming burning sensation in his sides. Pidge was ready and waiting with the vest, however, even when Keith started to sway leftwards, forgetting what he was meant to be doing in the moment. Pidge roughly grabbed his arm-- to which Keith protested as his arm was what was keeping him upright-- and shoved it through the arm hole of the vest. She did the same with the other side, while holding Keith upright, because losing an arm completely flummoxed him and he started to fall backwards out of the tub. She managed to get the vest zipped up and turned on in seconds, but not before Keith slipped down off the edge of the tub, taking them both down. He laid, mostly sprawled over Pidge, for a good five seconds trying to catch his breath and stop the room from spinning.

“That wasn't so bad.” Pidge finally said, patting him on the arm. Keith wheezed. He thought he might pass out.

“I wanna die.”

“No.” Pidge said, pushing him off her lap and sitting up.

“I'm still cold.” He said. He managed to push himself upright, watching Pidge as she stood and crossed the room. She handed him some towels.

“Here, dry off. I'll go raid Shiro’s closet. I bet he has a sweater that would fit over the vest.”

 

***

 

Though some feat of strength, Keith was able to pull himself onto his scooter, and manage to stay on the scooted the whole way to the kitchen. He needed help getting from the scooter into a chair at the dining room, which was a little embarrassing, but he chalked that up to not having eaten in a while and also having almost frozen to death. He also was ridiculously stiff and his neck hurt if he looked left. Staying in Shiro’s tub probably hadn't been his smartest idea ever.

Pidge had found a large sweatshirt of Shiro’s that fit over his back fin and vest. Keith was wearing that with the hood up, as well as a hat, and had a blanket around his shoulders. He resembled a mountain of fabric. He sat at the dining room table alone while Pidge went to get him some soup-goo.

He fell asleep again for a few minutes, and was rudely awakened by Pidge shoving a bowl of goo into his hands.

“Here, eat this.” She said. He didn't really feel like eating anymore. He felt more like crying.

“I lost my appetite.” Keith muttered. He shoved his fingers under the rim of his goggles to furiously rub at his eyes. The tightness in his throat made it feel like he would choke if he tried to eat.

“You need to eat something.” Pidge said gently, “You have no energy because your blood sugar is super low. Being so cold probably doesn't help.” She nudged the bowl closer, “It's warm, it'll make you feel better. I’ll go get you some orange juice, that'll raise your blood sugar.”

“We have orange juice in space?” Keith frowned. Pidge rolled her eyes.

“Orangish juice. Stay here, I'll be right back.”

“Okay.” Keith let his head rest against the table again. The bowl of soup was warm, and he wrapped his fingers around the bowl. Yes, delicious, delicious warmth… He thought back to the time Lance got too cold in Blue, how he had curled around Keith craving warmth just like Keith was now. Thinking about it left a lump in his throat. Keith would give anything to be curled up against Lance right now, even if he wasn't warm.

“Hey, I brought you juice,” Pidge returned, sitting down next to him. He jumped, which honestly was more of a twitch; he hadn't heard or seen her come in. Maybe he had fallen asleep again. He forced himself to sit up, holding out his hand for the cup. Pidge gave it to him, and watched him slowly take a sip.

“Thanks, Pidge,” Keith finally said, “You care about my wellbeing more than I do.”

“I know. Don't worry. You're my friend, Keith, I'm not just going to let you waste away, even if you think you deserve it.” She smiled and nudged the bowl of soup towards him again, “Eat the soup, it'll make you feel better.”

Keith was feeling better after only a few sips of orangish juice, so he took Pidge’s advice and spooned some soup goop into his mouth. It tasted fine, though the texture was a little slimey. He forced himself to swallow despite the fact that he felt like throwing up again.

“There, see? Not so bad.” Pidge said.

“I think I almost threw up.” Keith groaned. Pidge frowned.

“I could find you something else to eat?”

“No, the soup’s fine, I think it's just... my brain.” Keith sighed. He spooned another spoonful into his mouth. It was easier the second time. Something awoke in the pit of his stomach. He was in fact hungry. He kept eating, slowly. Pidge grinned at him.

“Okay, you stay here. I'm going to go message the others that you're okay. Also I messaged Shiro when I was in the kitchen. Turns out he knew you were in his bathroom. Probably should have gone to him about your disappearance first.” She sighed and shook her head. Keith gave her a tiny smile.

“I called him in the bathroom yesterday. He left his tablet on the sink.”

“Yeah, so I heard.” She stood up, “I’ll be right back. Keep eating your soup!”

Keith nodded and watched her disappear into the kitchen. He was feeling better already. Or, he had been, until he heard distant familiar voices. Approaching familiar voices. His heart leapt to his throat, and his body went rigid, head turned towards the door.

The voices got louder and louder, until the door opened and Lance scootered through, Hunk behind him. Lance’s eyes met Keith’s, and he froze in place, so suddenly Hunk walked into the back of his scooter.

“What, why did-- oh.” Hunk paled, looking between the two, “Uh, hey, Keith. Hey, Pidge was looking for you!”

“She found me.” He replied, voice tight. He stared at his bowl, unable to look at him. He could feel Lance’s presence. His stomach was doing flips, not from nerves but rather a cruel nausea. He regretted leaving Shiro’s bathroom. This was exactly why he hadn't left in thirty hours.

“Where were you?” Hunk asked. Keith shrugged.

Clearly he doesn't want to talk.” Lance said. Keith flinched at the sound of his voice. But Lance didn't have his usual sarcastic ire. Maybe he couldn't muster it.

“Oh,” Pidge walked back into the room, her tablet in hand. She was looking at Hunk and Lance, “So that's why you weren't answering your messages. Hey guess what? I found Keith.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” Lance said.

“Wait, where was he?” Hunk asked, “He doesn't look great.”

“I'm right here, I can hear you.” Keith snapped. The others were talking about him like he wasn't sitting a foot away.

“Well, you didn't answer my question a second ago!” Hunk cried. Lance made an odd annoyed sound, but it didn't come out right. He sounded moreso disappointed.

“Let’s go. I can tell he doesn't want to talk to us.” Lance said. He started backing up his scooter. He stopped once he heard the pitiful choked off sob come from Keith.

The boy was hunched over the table, grabbing fistfuls of his hair. He swiftly turned around to face the others-- a terrible idea in his current state. He fought off the vertigo and managed to stay upright in his chair. Tears welled in his eyes and threatened to spill over. He looked an absolute mess.

“Of course I want to talk! Fuck!” Keith bent over and covered his face, his voice cracking. He didn't want it to happen this way. He was still a powder keg of raw emotions, and hearing the anger in Lance's voice was the match.

The room was uncomfortably quiet. Pidge stood by Keith, arms crossed, glaring at Lance. Lance was staring at Keith, trying to look mad but looking heartbroken instead. Hunk was feverishly patting his shoulder as if it was helping the situation at all.

The silence seemed to endure for hours, only broken by the ragged sound of Keith’s breath.

“You want to talk?” Lance finally asked, quiet and gentle.

Keith opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a whisper. Instead he gave the slightest nod. Lance turned and looked up at Hunk, then to Pidge.

“Mind giving us a second?”

“Sure,” Pidge looked both hopeful and suspicious, like she had ideas for what she wanted to happen and what she thought was going to happen. She looked to Keith, “Are you going to be okay?”

Keith wiped at his eyes, trying to compose himself once more. It didn't do much good. He shrugged at Pidge's question, unsure himself. Pidge sighed.

“Okay, fine. Eat your soup before it goes cold!” She pointed at the bowl, giving Keith the eye. Then she pointed at Lance and gave him the eye, “Make sure he eats his soup.”

“You gotta eat, Keith.” Lance said.

“Thanks.” Pidge rolled her eyes again, then headed for the door, “We’ll be in the kitchen. Don't stab each other.”

“We’ll try not to.” Lance said lamely. Hunk gave him a sympathetic look, before heading out the door after Pidge. The room was quiet again. Lance drove his scooter a bit closer, a few feet away from Keith and on the opposite side of the table. The two boys stared at each other for a moment. Lance looked away, because Keith looked miserable, “You gotta eat, man. You look mostly dead.”

“I feel it too,” Keith mumbled. Lance frowned, looking away, his eyes falling to the floor.

“So... where were you hiding? You weren't in the pool.” Lance said. He sounded a bit like he was talking about the weather, but really awful weather that made him sad.

“Shiro’s room. He has a tub.”

“I knew it,” Lance said, “Fuck, you were there the whole time?”

Keith glanced up before returning his gaze back to the green glob of ‘soup’. “Yeah. Pidge said I... was passed out. The water went cold.”

Lance felt a pain in his heart. He wasn't sure why. It was confusing; he wanted so badly to be angry at Keith, to want nothing to do with him. But seeing the boy in front of him now, all he wanted to do was pull him into a warm hug and keep him safe. “You know, you're not very good at taking care of yourself.”

“Maybe I deserved it,” Keith pursed his lips to stop them from trembling. Damnit, he was about to cry again!

Lance was frowning at the ground. He wanted to say no, you don't deserve any of this, but part of him was still bitter. But looking up and seeing Keith’s eyes tear up and his face twist in pain that wasn't physical hurt him. And he didn't want to make that pain worse, even if Keith hadn't apologized, even if he had betrayed him, Lance couldn't just sit there and make the boy he loved hurt more. He took in a shaky breath. “Keith, you--”

“Lance I'm so sorry,” Keith blurted out. With those words, the dam broke, and tears poured down his cheeks. Lance’s heart ached. This was the apology he had been waiting for, that he had been so adamant about needing, but now, in the moment, he would give anything to get Keith to stop, if that meant he would stop crying. “I shouldn't have gone to the lab, I shouldn't have promised you,” he lifted his head to finally meet Lance's eyes, “I just wanted you to walk again!”

“I didn't want you to,” Lance cried, “I... I don't even know if I want to walk again!”

“What!?” Keith braced himself on the table, leaning over his soup. “You-- why do you keep saying that?” He growled and pulled off his goggles. They were getting fogged up anyway.

Lance’s voice was quiet and measured, like he was reciting something he had repeated a thousand times. “It's easier to want to stay this way than to live with being forced to stay like this. It's easier just to give up, Keith. That's what I did. If you could have just given up any hope of changing back like I have, we’d still be happy together.”

Keith sank back in his seat and stared down at his lap. His tail was half covered by the blue fluffy blanket wrapped around him, while the end was curling and uncurling anxiously around the leg of his chair. He hated it. “I'm not happy.” He muttered.

“I know. That's why I'm... I'm sorry I kept you from doing what you needed to do. I'm sorry I made you promise not to go to the lab.” Lance said, his voice trembling. There was something lodged in his throat, a painful sadness. Looking at Keith made him sad, thinking of the sacrifices Keith had made, for him, and to think Lance had thrown it all back at him-- “I’m sorry the cure smashed on the ground. I'm sorry you tried so hard and I... couldn't accept it.”

Keith was quiet for a moment, a sad smile on his face. “Even after everything I did, you're still blaming yourself…”

Lance looked away, “That's because it's my fault. If I wasn't... If I wasn't so neurotic and paranoid....”

“You're not neurotic--” Keith started, but Lance cut him off.

“I am paranoid. My brain makes up things to be worried about. Y’know, I was certain that this was all just some plot for you to make fun of me. That you didn't actually like me, you just wanted me to admit I liked men so you could laugh at me--”

Keith, shook his head, his stomach clenched in empathetic pain for the boy across the table from him, “Lance... Lance that's ridiculous, I--”

Lance wasn't slowing down. “And even then, even when I felt so badly... y’know, I didn't know where you were for a day and a half, and I tried not to care, but I couldn't stop thinking about you. I thought you were dead somewhere. I honestly did. I can't stop worrying about you, it's fucking everything up,” he dropped his head into his hands, pulling his hair into his fists. He was wearing a sweater, and as he hunched over it pulled tight across his back. He wished he wasn't so awful. He had been mad at Keith, but honestly he was more mad at himself. If he could just chill for a minute, “I pushed you off your chair....”

“Lance...” Keith could see the boy spiralling again. Fuck, he wished he could just get up and walk over to his side, to pull him into his arms....

“I felt so betrayed, I made myself angry at you. I made myself try to not care about you, and knowing that you hid yourself away in a bathroom, nearly killing yourself--” He cut himself off, the lump in his throat strangling him.

“Lance!” Keith cried, leaning forward in his seat. He grit his teeth and let out another sob. He slammed his fists on the table, his head hanging. He didn't know how long he sat there, head spinning, ears fills with his heartbeat and the whirring of the respiration vest. Suddenly he felt something press against him, and jumped at the unexpected touch. But looking up he realized it was Lance, having apparently crossed the room, pulling him into a hug. Lance was sniffling, burying his face in Keith’s neck.

“I’m so sorry, Keith, I messed this all up. I'm sorry I'm such a mess... I want to stay mad at you forever but I can't because I need you, I'm just a wreck--”

Keith wrapped his arms around Lance and squeezed him. “No, no I'm the one that fucked up. I'm sorry… I'm so sorry I couldn't…” he pressed his nose into Lance's shoulder, his tears soaking into the boy’s sweater. Lance was quiet for a while, holding on tight and shaking. The shaking slowed, then stopped. The tiredness crept back into Keith’s eyes, and he thought he could fall asleep there in Lance’s arms. But finally Lance said something:

“I can forgive you if you forgive me.”

Keith squeezed his arms around Lance again. “Of course I do.” You didn't do anything wrong.

Lance sniffled, “I forgave you a minute after it all happened.”

“I'm sorry I didn't come apologize sooner. I wanted to, I was just... I couldn't... leave the bathtub.”

“I think that's called executive dysfunction.” Lance said. He let out a small laugh, “Hey, have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”

“What?” Keith squinted, face still hidden in Lance’s shoulder.

“It's a depression thing. You could join our club of unmedicated mentally ill paladins. I'm the club leader.”

Keith snorted. His heart suddenly felt a thousand times lighter. He missed hearing Lance's voice, hearing him joke around, his laugh- he missed Lance. Even though it had only been a day and a half, it felt like an eternity had passed.

“No. Never been diagnosed with anything really.”

“When we get back to Earth I'll hook you up with my therapist, Marina. She’d have a field day with you. She loves virgin brains.”

“I'm... I'm not a virgin anymore?”

“No, no I mean your brain-- y’see, it's because you've never had your brain picked before...”

“Oh...” Keith squinted, still mulling over the word ‘virgin’. His brain was coming down from the adrenalin of their heart-to-heart, and he felt like he was running on fifty percent power. He could very well pass out again if given the chance. At least now, with Lance pressed up against him, their tails intertwined, he was nice and warm.

“Shit. I forgot. You're supposed to be eating this soup,” Lance said. He pulled back, to which Keith protested, “You need to eat the soup! Uh... why do you need to eat the soup? Pidge didn't say.”

“Uh,” Keith stammered, “because… I haven't eaten in two days?” He shrunk back in his chair, already preparing for the onslaught.

“Theoretically you should be fine. A human can go two weeks without eating before dying.” Lance said, “Your glucose levels are probably really low, though, that's probably why you look so tired and pale. You're not diabetic, right? I mean I doubt you are, if you were you'd probably be in a coma right now. You must have a massive headache, though. Really you should eat. Two days, Keith? Fuck. Don't run off ever again.” Lance pushed the bowl of soup closer to Keith. It was getting close to the edge of the table with how many times people had nudged it towards him.

Keith only nodded. Lance was right, he did have a massive headache, and crying so much didn't help at all. “Yeah, I should.” He shoved a spoonful in his mouth and grimaced. “It’sh cowd…”

“Awh man, okay, let’s get Pidge in here to warm it up again.” Lance turned towards the door that led to the kitchen, cupping his hands around his mouth and yelling, “Hey Pidge!! The soup’s cold!!”

Pidge’s voice yelled back, “He was supposed to eat it before it got cold!!!”

“We were kinda busy!!” Keith yelled. Which was another terrible idea; he winced and held a hand to his head.

The door slid open and Pidge appeared in the doorway, at first looking annoyed, but that instantly changed with a gasp, “Guys!!!”

Lance wrapped an arm around Keith’s shoulders, smiling, “Yeah, we cried it out like actually emotionally capable people.”

Keith turned away and wiped his eyes, attempting to hide the fact that he was still crying. Just a little. Lance leaned in and kissed his cheek.

“I'm so happy!! I knew you would get back together if you just talked to each other!” Pidge cried. She leaned back into the kitchen, calling out, “Hunk! Lance and Keith made up!!”

Whaaat? Awesome!” Hunk called back, appearing in the doorway a second later.

Keith huffed. “Guys, jeez. Did you have a bet on this, too?”

“Maybe.” Hunk said, “You couldn't have made up yesterday? I would be five bucks richer.”

“Did you apologize?” Pidge asked, looking pointedly at Keith.

Keith rolled his eyes. “Yeah Pidge, I'm not an animal.”

“You sat in a bathtub for over a day, I’d still say you're an animal.” Pidge huffed.

“Uh, can we go back to the fact that you keep making bets on us?” Lance cried, gesticulating wildly with one hand.

“I'm sorry you're so predictable.” Hunk said. Lance frowned.

“I'm not predictable. I'm the cool, unpredictable one!”

“Well, we knew you'd get back together, it was just a matter of time,” Pidge said as she crossed the room. She took Keith's near-untouched bowl of soup, “Neither of you wanted to be mad at the other.”

“Yeah, that much was painfully obvious.” Hunk agreed.

Keith shrugged, nodding absentmindedly. Lance exhaled.

“We’re too good at fighting and not that great at talking. I mean, talking about feeling. I'm pretty good at talking. I could go for hours without any help or need.”

“That's true,” Keith said, “the other day you talked about the periodic table for over an hour.”

“You asked me about it! What, am I supposed to just not talk about the basis of all existence?” Lance said, smiling. It was so good to see him smile. It was all Keith could focus on, “You can't just mention the periodic table in passing, Keith. There are a hundred and eighteen elements, it's not a light conversation topic. Besides, you were asking about random elements! I don't even-- wait!” He gasped, turning to stare at Keith with wide eyes that narrowed with developing realization, “Was all that for your antidote?”

Keith floundered for a moment, not quite sure what to say. His brain was still trying to catch up to the conversation; Lance was talking a bit too fast for his thawing brain.

“Yeah, it totally was, we were trying to figure out if rubidium would kill you or not.” Pidge said. Lance gave her a look, eyebrows raised.

“Well that sounds ominous. Do you have an insurance policy out on me or something?”

“No, rubidium is an agent that negates change in the T-27 cell, which is what gives the venom its transformative powers in the first place,” Keith said. He leaned over and propped his elbow up on the table. Pidge was still standing by with the soup in hand. He was actually starting to feel really hungry now. Hopefully she remembered she was supposed to be reheating his food soon, “Rubidium sort of negates the transformation, and with a pure enough dose it will actually reverse it. That's what we were hoping to do.” He sighed. It still hurt to think of the serum smashed on the floor of the laboratory.

“Oh god,” Lance said, looking Keith in the eyes, “It’s so hot when you talk about science.”

“Wha-!? Lance!!” Keith cried, his face heating up.

“Talk to me more about chemistry,” Lance purred, leaning in closer, “Did you make a solution, babe? Shit, did you use the erlenmeyer? You little fox--”

“Lance, stop, please,” Hunk cried, clamping his hands over his ears, “My ears are bleeding, I can't--”

“What, you think we just lay next to each other in the pool not touching? What's wrong with expressing some sexuality?” Lance frowned.

“Lance, stop talking, right now.” Keith had his fists clenched, planted firmly on the table. This was not a conversation he wanted to have in front of Pidge and Hunk. Lance was leaned in close, resting his chin in the nape of Keith’s neck. He whined.

“But I have to make up for lost time!” He murmured, nuzzling into Keith’s neck, “So many cuddling hours lost. Besides, you're still so cold, I need to warm you up!”

“You're cold-blooded too!” Keith cried. He glanced over at the other two in the room; though, they were blobs of colour, seeing as he hadn't put his glasses back on yet.

“You can make my blood go hot, if you know what I mean.” Lance grinned.

“Pidge, can I have my food now?” Keith cried, exasperated, his hands slamming on the table and the unscaled parts of his face bright red. Lance was laughing in his ear. Keith couldn't believe how fast he was back to his normal joking self. Maybe Lance just bounced back emotionally. Keith was still healing in that regard. He was still fighting off the physical effects, too, like the fact that he was starving.

“Oh, right.” Pidge glanced down at the bowl in her hands that she had nearly forgotten about. She grinned, “I’ll be right back.”

Hunk stopped her, raising a hand, gently shaking his head, “Oh, no, you're not giving him that turd soup.”

“What.” Pidge squinted, “Hunk you made this.”

“I've changed since then.” Hunk said.

“That was yesterday.

“Changed.” Hunk took the bowl from Pidge’s hands and disappeared into the kitchen. Pidge stared deadpan at the back of his head. Lance laughed.

“I think that was Hunk’s exit strategy so he doesn't have to deal with us anymore.” He said, one hand idly rubbing Keith’s back over the blankets. Keith groaned. He just wanted to eat.

Coran burst into the room, so suddenly it made all three Paladins jump.

“Paladins!” He cried, but Lance slammed his hands down on the table and cut him off.

Jesus Coran!”

“Oh, sorry, I hope I didn't startle you,” he said, looking like he wasn't sorry at all, “I do have an urgent message for you. I'm glad I found you here, but I had a feeling you would be; the kitchen seems to be a favourite gathering spot of yours.”

“I think it's due to the fact we like to eat.” Lance said.

“What did you want to tell us, Coran?” Pidge asked.

“Good news. Shiro and Princess Allura have returned from their trip, and they’ve brought visitors!”

“The Ozmaks are with them?” Keith perked up. Shiro hadn't told him that.

“Yes, the Ozmaks. Such an interesting race,” Coran tweaked his moustache, nodding, “They have transformative powers, harnessing the power of their planet’s core. Their planet is in actuality a large meteor, which in itself quite fascinating...”

“Cool, Coran, you said they had transforming powers?” Lance asked. He exchanged glances with Keith, “Like, they can change stuff? Transmutation of power?”

Coran gave a curt nod, “Yes, I've witnessed it myself! A beautiful young Ozmak, her name was Quilgat, she was just lovely, stunning blue hair--”

“Okay...” Lance raised his brows, “What’d she do, turn a puppy into a horse?”

“I don't believe the Ozmaks have horses,” Coran frowned, “nor puppies.”

“Can they transform things or not?” Keith huffed. “Or can they just shapeshift?” He was getting irritable.

“Yes, they can transform matter. That is percisely why we called them for help to begin with. And I must say, it's absolutely magnificent to watch. Quilgat was able to transform a Pulfot into a Quigmirle! Stunning.”

Lance looked to Keith, smiling, “Y’know, maybe I was wrong. Maybe there is still hope after all.”

Keith grinned. He took Lance's hand and squeezed it. He had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, flashes of Lance’s vision coming back to him. But he ignored it.

“Are they here now?” Pidge asked.

“Oh, yes, they should be docking currently.” Coran nodded with a little bounce in place.

“Well? Let’s go meet them!” Lance cried. He readjusted himself onto his scooter and started backing up and away from the table and Keith.

“Wait!” Keith cried, desperate, “I’m starving, I haven't eaten yet, can I please just get something to eat!?”

There was a moment of silence. Lance broke it with a snort.

“I literally forgot you haven't eaten in forever.”

“HUNK!” Pidge turned in her chair and yelled, “HOW MUCH LONGER ON THE FOOD?”

“LIKE FIVE MINUTES!!” Hunk’s voice yelled back. Keith groaned and laid his head on the table.

“Give us like five minutes, Coran.” Lance said, “or, uh, maybe ten.”

 

***

 

Keith sat on the couch in the common room, currently shoving spoonfuls of noodles into his mouth. Lance sat next to him, an odd, far away expression on his face.

“Hey,” Lance turned to Keith, “I’m cold. Are you cold? We’re not meant for this ‘air’ thing. We’re supposed to have water keep us warm.”

Keith paused, his mouth full of noodles. He shrugged and swallowed. “Well yeah, we already knew this. That's why I'm wearing a sweater.”

I’m wearing a sweater, too,” Lance said, “And it's awful. My back hurts. I can't believe you're wearing the vest and a sweater.”

“I need it to live, so.”

“Oh, yeah, cause you don't have these nifty breathers painfully inserted into your sides.” Lance started, and was about to continue his sarcastic tirade when Shiro entered the room. He was followed by Allura, Coran, and then two aliens Lance had never seen before.

They weren't... the most attractive aliens. They really were barely humanoid in shape; they looked a bit like bugs, with hard, russet carapaces and six pairs of arms on their upper half. Their lower half had six strong legs with hoof-like feet that pointed outwards. Their bodies were slender, as were their faces, which were devoid of all features save for four almond shaped yellow eyes. They weren't wearing any clothes, which was fine seeing as they didn't seem to have anything to cover. Lance felt intimidated. Were these the Ozmaks? They were here to help... right?

Hunk and Pidge, who were sitting on either side of Lance and Keith, stood immediately. Lance had been around enough aliens to know you were meant to be gracious. He would be standing if he had any legs to stand on.

“I want to thank you again for coming all the way here with us, Tel and Auro. Your decision to help means the universe to us,” Allura said, standing to the side and gestured to the Paladins, “These are our Paladins of Voltron. Paladins, this is Tel and Auro from the Ozmaks on planet Yekia.”

“Nice to meet you,” Lance said, leaning forward with a hand outstretched, patented Charming Lance Smile on his face, “I would get up to shake your hand but, well, that's part of the issue.”

“We Ozmaks do not shake hands.” The Ozmakian on the left said in a dull monotone. Lance cringed, pulling back his hand and shrinking back a bit.

“Oh, uh, that's okay! A high five, maybe?”

“You can't give an alien a high five!” Hunk hissed, eyes darting between the Ozmaks and Lance. Lance scoffed.

“What? Who said aliens don't appreciate a cool fiver--”

“Lance,” Shiro stood between the two aliens and the couch, arms crossed and eyebrow raised. A chill went down Lance’s spine. He had seen this before. This... this was what Blue had shown him.

This was important.

This whole time he had thought she was showing him that Keith’s cure wouldn't work. And, maybe she had been. The serum hadn't worked, it had smashed on the floor. But Blue had shown him what would work. She had shown him the Ozmaks coming to return them to their human forms, but he had been too focused on... well, everything else to understand the significance.

“Tel and Auro have graciously agreed to travel out here to the Castle of Lions to transform you back to humans.” Allura said. She had a diplomatic smile on her face. Lance knew her well enough that should would totally give the aliens a high five if she could, and if she knew what a high five was. He wasn't sure if he had shown her that one yet. She did know how to fist bump, and the thought of Allura fist bumping aliens at an intergalactic conference threatened to make him laugh. The Ozmaks didn't seem like the laughing type.

“Thank you.” Keith said with a smile, showing far more maturity in the situation than Lance could muster. Maybe it was the nerves. Lance just wanted to crawl away every time Tel or Auro looked at him.

“We’ve never seen an affliction like this before.” Tel or Auro said, coming forward. They took Keith’s arm, turning the scale covered limb over in their hands, “Not a living specimen.”

“We have never transformed a being afflicted from Mutaris before.” The other alien said. It came close to Lance and studied his face. He felt a bit like an ant under a microscope. The alien touched his face with their hard, sleek fingers. He gulped, trying to keep a poker face, but these aliens were creeping him the fuck out. The other was still running its hands over Keith’s arms. Lance knew him well enough that the boy was suffering from the contact.

“Wait, what do you mean ‘not a living specimen’?” Pidge asked. The alien giving Lance a face rub turned to look at her.

“With Mutaris, the afflicted do not always survive.”

“Incompatible organs, or an unfit environment…” Keith muttered, not taking his eyes off the alien rubbing his arm. At least they were only touching his scales.

“Right,” Lance couldn't move his head, so he strained his eyeballs to the side to look at Keith, “Like an artery connecting to a swim bladder or something.”

“We have agreed to attempt to use our transformative powers on your biological structure.” Keith’s alien said. They turned to the other, “Tel. I believe it is possible.”

“Yes, Auro.” Tel said. Tel turned and addressed Allura, “And afterwards you will show us the Lions, yes?”

“As agreed.” Allura nodded. Tel nodded in reply. They turned back to Auro, saying something in a chittery language. Lance shuddered. It was creepy hearing them talk, seeing as they didn't have mouths.

“Well, uh, I'm all for it.” Lance said. Auro stopped touching Keith and stepped back, yellow eyes falling on Lance now.

“Yes. Let's begin with you.”

“Is there anything you need?” Coran asked. He clapped his gloved hands together,” A change in location, perhaps? If I remember correctly, you require light to aide in the transformation.”

“You remember incorrectly.” Auro said. Lance somehow managed to hold in a laugh as Coran tried to recover.

“That's right, I must have been thinking of the Yellarps--”

“Is there anything you require?” Allura asked, patting Coran on the shoulder, probably to try to get him to shut up.

“Lay on the floor.” Tel said to Lance, “Take off your clothes. That is all.”

“Well, okay, but I do have a boyfriend who likes knives, just so you know.” Lance started to scoot to the edge of the seat, before flop-falling onto the floor. Keith rolled his eyes. Tel and Auro stared at Lance, even while he struggled with taking off his sweater.

“What is this?” Auro asked while Lance tried to separate his head from the clutches of the fuzzy sweater. The alien pointed to the sliver breathers attached over his gills.

“Tiny pocket portals, actually!” Hunk said, “Pretty incredible, if you think about it. I'm still not sure how a portable, stable black hole is possible--”

“They let me breathe out of the water.” Lance said, “Water shoots out over my gills so I don't suffocate in this inhabitable airy habitat.”

“You need to remove them.” Tel said.

“Okay, but, uh, you might not have heard but... they're how I breathe.”

“Lance, be nice.” Shiro said.

“I am being nice, I'm just also quite fond of breathing and in result being alive.”

“You must remove everything that is not biologically part of you.” Auro said. They stood over Lance, really quite intimidating, like they could t-bag him at any time.

“Lance...” Keith urged, “Hold your breath. You can do it. It'll only be for a minute, and then you won't need the breathers anyways.” But there was always the possibility that it wouldn't work. Even if he had messed up the cure, Red had told him that that was the way to fix this.

“But,” Keith started, “just in case…” he crawled off of the couch and scooted himself up next to Lance. “I'll be here with them, if you need it again.” He put his hands on one of the breathers, offering a reassuring smile.

Lance just looked at him for a moment, studying his eyes, looking for any sign that Keith was just as unsure as he was. But Keith was strong, his eyes were soft and reassuring. Lance smiled back. If Keith was sure, then he was sure, too. Sure, Keith could be impulsive, but he was often times right. Lance could be his impulse control if Keith could be his confidence.

They really did make a great team. He had been so stupid, being mad at him. Parts of him was still mad, in all honesty, but he pushed the sore feeling of betrayal away in favour of the soft gaze of forgiveness. Besides, what would it matter? They were both about to be changed back to normal!

“Okay,” Lance nodded, looking up at Tel and Auro, “Alright. I'll pull them out when you're ready to go. That way I won't be flopping around on the floor like a dying fish.”

Tel and Auro stared at him. He took it as a sign of approval.

“Okay. Ready.” Lance said, slowly, all his doubts and fears suddenly coming rushing over him like a wave. He glanced to Keith, searching for reassurance, getting a gentle smile and soft nod in return. Lance took a deep breath and nodded, too, “I’m ready.”

Tel walked around to Lance’s left side, Auro standing over his right. They said something to each other in their own language, before crouching down, their sice knees bending inwards like a dog. They touched his bare skin and under their fingertips Lance felt an odd electric sensation, like the very atoms that made up his existence were all vibrating at once. It left him feeling uneasy.

Lance squeezed his eyes shut and fumbled his fingers around the breathers. With a stifled groan he pulled them out. They pulled against his skin, the metal rods sliding out from under his flesh with a sickening plap. It stung badly, an itching pain that spread up his sides. But he hardly noticed it. He was concentrating on holding his breath, even as his sides began to ache in a way that was becoming too familiar. This would be the last time he would have to feel that cramping pain.

He handed off the breathers to Keith with fumbling fingers. His head was spinning, not just with the suffocating sensation of being out of water, but with nerves. His mind was a flood of what ifs; or moreso, one what if. What if it didn’t work?

He didn’t have long to think about it. Tel and Auro’s grip on him tightened the second the breathers were out of his hands. The odd tingling sensation intensified until it was uncomfortable, like his whole body was pins and needles. Lance’s eyes screwed shut, and he tried to think of something else, anything else, even as the tingling turned to pain. His tail twitched and contorted against the cold floor; it felt like his scales were being pulled off one by one. Tears started to pool in the corners of his eyes, and a strangled cry tore out of his throat as his tail ripped in two; or so it felt, and likely looked. Faintly he could hear the others gasping and murmuring in the background but it was barely audible over the sound of blood rushing in his ears.

The pain peaked, feeling white hot and stinging in his sides, but then it subsided. Lance pulled in a ragged breath, a breath, he realized, of air. His lungs expanded in his chest, filled with air, oxygen separated from the carbon dioxide, moved from the bronchioles to the alveolus and into his capillaries, bringing that delicious oxygen to his pulmonary arteries. He was breathing air.

He opened his eyes. There was lots of motion around him, but he barely noticed it. He was staring down at two bare legs. His own two bare legs.

Holy fucking shit. It worked.

“I'm just, I'm just going to, uh,” Lance’s view of his feet was suddenly obscured by a head of black hair as Keith all but laid on top of him, covering Lance’s lap with his arms. Lance stared at him, confused, for a good few second until he realized why.

It had worked, and he was completely buck ass naked.

“Oh my god.” Lance whispered, partly because he had legs again, but also because Keith was laying on his dick.

It was then that he realized there was much congratulating going on around him. Shiro clapped him on the back. Hunk and Pidge were suddenly next to him, both talking very quickly and over each other. Allura was thanking the two aliens, and Coran was shaking Tel’s hand, though Tel didn't seem to understand the gesture and was staring at their joint hands curiously.

“We did it.” Keith smiled, warm and brilliant like the sun on a summer day. Lance smiled back, tears prickling in his eyes.

“I can't believe it. Blue was right all along.” Lance said incredulously. Then he grinned, adding slyly, “Hey, Keith. You're on my dick.”

“Wha-- Lance!!” Keith sputtered. If they had been alone, he might have tried his hand at Flirting Back. His cheeks burned bright with shame over the possible lines that were running through his head. Unhelpfully, Lance was doing the eyebrow waggling thing, making it worse, “Do you want to be naked!?”

“I don't know, babe, do you want me to be naked?”

“Lance,” Shiro interrupted what would have been a great string of innuendos, “You should get up and walk. We need to make sure everything is back in working order.”

“Right,” Lance nodded, looking down past Keith to his toes, “Walking. Haven't done that in a while.” He looked to Keith, then back up at Shiro, “Uh, Shiro, if you haven't noticed... I'm not wearing any pants.”

“Oh.” Shiro’s eyes darted to Lance's Keith-covered crotch area, “Is that why... Keith...?”

“Yeah.” Keith and Lance replied in unison.

“Hah, jinx” Lance snorted, “You owe me a space soda.”

“Here,” Hunk came forward, holding the sweater Lance had just been wearing, “wear this.”

“That is a sweater, Hunk.” Lance said. Hunk gave him a deadpanned look.

“Yes, I am aware of that. Wrap it around your waist, man.”

A few moments later, Lance had Hunk’s sweater tied around his waist in a way that covered his junk and most of his butt; though Pidge had left the room at the threat of seeing Lance’s ass, and Lance didn't really care if any of the others saw his bare ass anyways.

Keith was back on the couch, breathers laid to the side. The others watched as Lance rolled onto his knees. It felt... odd, honestly, like going back to a family friend’s house even though you hadn't been there for years. Familiar but strange at the same time. In a move similar to that of a baby giraffe, Lance pushed his hands against the floor and got his feet under him. It was easier than he expected, probably due to the fact that he had been walking for a good sixteen years of his life. His legs still felt odd, and cramped when he flexed his muscles in any way. They were sore like he had gone real hard at the gym the day before and was now regretting it.

“Standing,” Lance said, mostly to himself, though Shiro, Allura, and Coran all started clapping embarrassingly.

“Good job, Lance!” Allura cried. Lance felt a bit like dying.

“Uh, thanks? I've, I'm just standing, I've stood before--”

“Can you walk?” Shiro asked. Lance nodded, looking down at his feet. He wiggled his toes. He felt like he could walk.

“Yep, gonna... gonna do it.” Lance took a breath. He was psyching himself out. Why was this even a problem? He should be running already, he was so happy, but...

But his legs were still sore. Actually, they were more sore the longer he stood there, and as he raised his leg to take a stride his calf cramped badly. Something felt wrong. He brushed it off and took another step. His legs cramped again, this time both legs, from the ankle to his hips, and the pain was so intense he cried out and fell to his knees.

“Lance?!” Multiple people cried out his name all at once, but he only heard one voice; Keith, watching him with worried eyes from the couch.

“Something’s wrong.” Lance gasped out as his lower half throbbed. He cried out again as his hands contorted under him, joining in on the painful contractions that seemed to be engulfing his whole body.

Something was very wrong.

“What's happening to him?” Allura cried, as Lance laboured on the floor, trying very hard to keep breathing. But breathing was becoming very hard.

“His legs!” This was Hunk, undoubtedly pointing, though Lance couldn't see it and barely heard it. His legs? What was happening to his legs? They were aflame with rolling cramps, and now were unresponsive as they gave out from under him, leaving him on his stomach on the cold floor.

“He's changing back!” Keith cried, voice high and strangled.

Lance tried to refute this, tried to shout out no, I'm not! But he realized too late that he couldn't speak, that he couldn't breathe.

He couldn't breathe.

 

Chapter Text

Lance writhed on the floor, gasping for breath that he no longer needed. He needed water, his whole body was screaming for it, but he couldn't deliver. He should have stayed in the water.   

His sides ached as they were split open, his gills returning, spawning in agony. Scales pushed up out of his skin like blisters that popped, leaving that same shimmering blue crawling up his legs. Lance tried to let out a strangled cry, but no sound came out. His lungs could no longer push air over his vocal chords; he couldn't make a sound. But the pain was overwhelming, and if he could have screamed he would have in the hope that it would provide some relief.

But the pain wouldn't stop.

Suddenly needlepoints stabbed into his skin all up his side. Cool water flowed over half his gills which he sucked in greedily.

His legs cramped, moving together as if on their own. His skin started to tear as the scales joined the gap in his legs-- no, his tail. The pain was unbearable. His new gills abided him and he was finally able to scream.

And then, by some mercy of some god, he passed out.

 

***

 

Lance opened his eyes, but shut them again just as quickly when all he could see was blinding white light. Where was he? Was he dead? Did that horribly painful transformation finally kill him? He blinked open his eyes again, his pupils finally focusing on the light which, after a few seconds of study, he deemed to be a ceiling light.

So maybe he wasn't dead.

But his whole body felt fuzzy, like when your foot falls asleep after sitting on the floor too long. Except… of course, he didn't have feet anymore, right? Not unless this whole adventure had been some awful dream and he had just woken up the day before going to the Meraliens’ feast-- or better yet, in his bed back home, with his mom cooking breakfast downstairs…

He pushed himself up into a sitting position, even though his arms dully ached. Where was he? His brain was foggy, not quite functioning correctly. He was laying on a bed in a white room. There were several other identical beds in the room, but his was the only one currently occupied. God, he felt woozy. His sides hurt, and a quick inspection with his hands told him why; he had the breathers in his sides again, the six new entry holes red and painful to the touch where someone had stabbed the device into him so he could breathe. Right, can't breathe air. I was suffocating… He expelled the thought as quickly as it had appeared. Didn't want to think about what had just happened. The memory made the ache in his bones worse.

There was a blanket pulled up over him, keeping his cold-blooded body warm. With a shaky hand he pulled back the blanket. His tail laid out before him, twitching on command. Blue and sparkling in the bright white light. His fins were deflated in the dry air. A feeling of disgust and sadness settled in his gut when he looked at himself.

“Lance?” A cold hand settled into his shoulder. “You're awake.”

Lance turned his head to see Keith's weak attempt at a reassuring smile. He sat next to the bed in a folding chair, a white blanket draped across his lap. Both of their scooters were parked near the foot of the bed, watching them almost mockingly.

“Unfortunately,” Lance croaked. He didn't even realize how sore his throat was. “What happened?”

Keith's smile fell as his face turned sullen. “The Ozmaks’ magic didn't work. Or, it did, but… we must still have the T-27 in our systems. You just transformed back again.”

Lance groaned and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. “The what? Was that a Terminator reference?”

Keith wrinkled his nose but ignored the question he didn't understand and answered the one he did. “Uh, T-27. It’s the transformative agent in the lightpole.”

“The plant…” He groaned, rubbing his face, feeling the scales grate against his skin and was again reminded that he was back in this body that he hated. He let out a ragged breath, feeling the pinch of the metal in his sides, “…I passed out?” This, of course was evident, but his brain wasn't quite piecing together what had just happened as quickly as it could after that pain.

“Yeah,” Keith looked away. “I may have gone on another angry tirade while you were out.”

Lance looked blankly at Keith. “May have?”

“…I did.”

Lance rubbed his face again, ”Great. I'm sure the Ozmaks were thrilled with that. Now we’re going to be in trouble with another alien race.” He flopped back on the bed, ignoring the pinching pressure against his backfin, his hands pressed against his eyes. He supposed he was in the med bay, for obvious reasons. He hated why he was there. That bitter hate was boiling in the pit of his stomach, growing the more he thought about it.

“Hey, hey- this time I had a good reason!” Keith raised his hands up in defense. “They were being dicks about everything. And accused us of just playing a big prank on them to hurt their pride! As if we didn't have a human being writhing on the ground in pain- Shiro backed me up even!”

Lance didn't reply, having tuned out halfway through Keith’s first sentence. Not because of disinterest but rather one thought leading to another until his mind was spiralling again. This was all so unfair. He thought this was it, that they had found the answer with these aliens. Why didn't it work? The Ozmaks boasted their power, they seemed so confident, everyone had. They had been so close, he had walked, he had been so close he could feel it beneath his feet but… god, the pain had been so intense, so unlike the first time…

He nearly gagged thinking about the pain again. He felt residual pinpricks along his tail. His tail. Why did this have to happen to him? Out of everyone in the universe, it had to be him, because he was too stupid to not touch foreign flora, and then he had to go and ruin Keith’s life too, he was terrible, just the worst, he deserved this suffering. And to think he was almost content with it before… but those few steps he had taken was like eating for the first time when you've been starved. But now the food was taken away, and he was going to die this way…

“Lance?” Keith gently shook Lance’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Lance let his hands drop, startled by the tears that fell when he did so. He hadn't noticed that he had been crying, “No, I'm not okay, Keith.”

“Yeah… I-” Keith paused, looking deflated. Wordlessly he pulled himself up onto the edge of the bed, leaning over Lance with a face screwed up in worry. He hugged the boy, hooking one arm under his neck and murmuring into his shoulder. “It's… it's gonna be okay.” But even he didn't sound too sure of his words.

Lance was quiet for a while, trying his best to believe Keith. He just felt so… bad. He was so sick of being so goddamn sad all the time. What did his therapist, Marina, tell him again? That he had a habit of being a tad pessimistic about things, that he tended to dwell on the his anxieties and things that go wrong.

So he tried to change the subject. Maybe not a one-eighty but a shift of a few degrees.

“I don't remember much of what happened after I fell,” he mumbled, turning his head to look at the other boy, “I think you stabbed me in the sides?”

“I put your breathers back on.” Keith murmured into his neck.

“Thanks for that,” Lance said, “I couldn't breathe. Obviously. Speaking of which… how long has it been? Shouldn't you get out of that dumb vest?”

“It's fine, don't worry about me.”

Lance wrinkled his nose, “Uh, it's my job to worry about you. Where is everyone?”

“They were here, well, Shiro, Hunk and Pidge at least. Shiro carried you here but had to go back to deal with the Ozmaks. Hunk and Pidge went to get some food for you since, well,” he made a face, “caloric deficiency or… whatever.”

“Oh god you're right, I'm starving,” Lance groaned as some of the bitterness in his stomach turned to hunger. He sat up again, his bones creaking like he’d been asleep for days. He gingerly touched his sides. The holes where the metal sliced into his skin didn't hurt as much as he thought, though coagulated blood oozed out around the edges.

“I guess I put the breathers on a bit crooked or something, it was bleeding a lot before,” Keith said. He gestured to a bloodied rag that had been under Lance, who hadn't noticed it at all, “I held the towel against your sides…”

“Awh, how sweet.” Lance hummed, genuinely touched, “I'm genuinely thankful you stabbed me. Don't worry, I won't hold it against you.”

“Thanks.” Keith tried to sound sarcastic, but his words didn't have quite the umph behind it.

The medbay doors slid open. Lance sat up, and Keith turned to look at the door. Allura walked through, wearing her suit, currently in the process of pulling her hair into a ponytail. She looked incredibly tired.

Keith tensed, preparing for the scolding he was no doubt about to receive. He had not behaved in the most… professional way. But Allura’s expression softened as she approached. She gave Lance a sad smile.

“Hello Lance. How are you feeling?”

“Okay. I mean, as ‘okay’ as I can I guess,” Lance shrugged, a motion that made his sides twinge.

Allura sighed as well, “Yes it is… a difficult situation. I'm very sorry. To both of you. I feel I've failed you,” her head bowed, “I had hoped the Ozmaks would have brought a solution, not more pain. I’m terribly sorry you had to go through that, Lance.”

“None of us knew that he would change back again.” Keith said, placing a hand on Allura’s arm from his place on the bed. He would have put it on her shoulder if he could have reached, but he hoped this awkward pat on her forearm was still comforting in some way. “It's not your fault at all.”

“Yeah, it wasn't really anyone’s fault,” Lance nodded, “I mean who could have guessed the plant’s juices are still in my body? I mean, maybe I should have guessed it,” he frowned, “I am the biology guy.”

“Either way, I am still sorry about this whole situation. This past encounter has only exacerbated the issue.” Allura shook her head and sat on in the recently vacated folding chair pushed up next to the bed. Her hands were folded in her lap, “I think Coran and I have managed to placate the Ozmaks. Well, if I were being honest, it was mostly Coran. I was rather furious of their claims.”

Right?!” Keith cried, throwing his hands up, “They thought we were pulling some sort of prank--”

“I would have preferred you to be a little more diplomatic with your replies,” Allura said, “But ultimately I agree with you. They were being… what's the word you used? Motherfuckers?”

“You called them motherfuckers.” Lance raised his brows at Keith, honestly a little impressed.

“Listen, they were being dicks.”

Lance smirked, wiggling his brows at Keith, “Now you're just teaching the princess bad words.”

Allura frowned, “Oh, goodness. Which one is the bad word? Motherfucker? Is motherfucker a bad word?”

Keith cringed. Lance snorted.

“No, no, of course not Allura,” He said, “No, it's actually a colloquial greeting!”

“Really,” Allura raised a brow and crossed her arms, “Then why was Keith angrily shouting nice greetings to the Ozmaks?”

Keith let out a breathy laugh. Lance looked flustered for a moment, trying to think of a reply that was logical and convincing. Luckily, he didn't have to come up with an answer. The medbay doors once again slid open with a mechanical creak. Pidge walked in, followed by Hunk who, most importantly, was carrying a tray of food.

“Yessss,” Lance scooted to the edge of the bed, letting his tail fall off the edge as he opened his arms to the approaching Paladins, or more accurately the food they brought with them, “Yaaas, you're the best, thank you so much, god I'm starving.”

“Didn't think you'd wake up so fast!” Hunk said, hurrying across the room, tray in hand. He had brought sandwiches made with some sort of meat and the weird purple bread they had bought last time they had gone to the space mall. There was also a bowl of soup and noodles, some cookies, and some weirdly shaped space fruit that looked like a cross between a mango and a ginger root. Lance wanted to eat it all. In fact he was going to eat it all, the second that tray made touchdown in his lap.

“He was out for a good half hour,” Pidge said, “really that's already a lot, we should check you for a brain bleed or oxygen deprivation.”

“I'm fine, I just passed out from the intense pain.” He waved his hand until it was filled with a sandwich, at which point he unceremoniously shoved the thing into his mouth.

“Not ideal.” Keith said. Lance waved it off. Keith rolled his eyes.

“Coran will want to run tests anyways,” Allura said. She stood, brushing residual crumbs off her lap, then smiled to Lance, “Well, I'm glad to see you awake and apparently in good spirits. I'm going to go track down Shiro, I think he must be with Coran placating the Ozmaks,” she looked incredibly tired for a moment, “So I'll go help with that.” She rolled her eyes, grimacing for a fraction of a second, “Anyway I will be back later.” She gave a little bow and left, leaving the four Paladins alone.

“So this sucks,” Hunk said, taking Allura’s spot in the chair next to Lance, pushing the tray of food onto the bed between Keith and Lance. Lance shrugged, currently on his second sandwich.

“How are you feeling?” Pidge asked. Lance swallowed and paused his eating long enough to say something.

“I'm feeling… well, I mean, that whole experience was a painful let down.” He grimaced, trying not to remember the pain in his sides.

“It was a failed attempt. Those happen all the time!” Hunk said, “Don't let it get you down. We’ll find something else that works.”

“I don't know what else there could be,” Lance murmured, “It wasn't just a failed attempt. It was supposed to be the solution.”

“There's still the antidote Keith and I worked on,” Pidge offered. Keith sighed.

“Not anymore, not after… the incident.” He frowned, “We would need another sample of the plant, and we don't have any.”

“I mean, why not just fly out to wherever and get some more?” Hunk asked.

“Has to be from the same plant,” Keith said, “Or else it'll try to change us back to a different species. The specific plant Lance originally touched is the one that has the T-27 enzyme trained to change beings into mermaids, and when reversed can change things back from mermaids. Any other plant will just change us back to whatever it was programmed to change things into. Or probably just wouldn't work at all.”

“Uhh, I think I know what you mean?” Hunk blinked.

Lance sighed. “What he means is the only red-tipped lightpole that can help us is locked away on the meralien’s planet.”

“Which you can't get to, since we’ve been universally locked out since Keith kicked that guy in the face.” Pidge said. Keith furrowed his brows and crossed his arms.

“I didn't kick anyone at all!”

“Either way, Voltron isn't allowed anywhere near that planet anymore.”

“Well, their loss,” Lance mumbled through spoonfuls of soup, “They'll come calling next time the Baku brainwashes them all again.”

“Maybe we could take the stuff from them again,” Hunk said. He tapped his chin, thinking aloud, “They don't have much in ways of defense. Maybe we could just run-and-gun our way in?”

“That doesn't seem right, just blowing them away with lasers. We’re supposed to fight bad guys, not people who are annoyed at us for kicking them in the face.” Lance said.

“I didn't kick him in the face!”

“We could infiltrate their palace.” Pidge offered. This idea seemed to hover in place for a moment as they all thought about this possibility.

“You mean, like… ninja our way in?” Lance asked, slowly, “We could go in on Green, with her cloaking shield, we’d be unnoticed.”

“Yeah, but Green’s not great underwater.” Pidge pointed out.

“Could you put the invisi-lion on Blue?” Hunk asked.

“Probably. It would take a few days, but I don't see why it wouldn't work.” Pidge nodded.

Lance grinned, nodding. There was a tiny voice of doubt nagging him, reminding him that he really shouldn't get his hopes up again, not after a second failed attempt.

He thought back to Marina, sitting across from him in a high backed chair, smirking, “You're really good at knocking yourself down, aren't you, Lance?”

Maybe this plan was feasible; it was what they were good at, working as a team, playing to their strengths to get the mission done. They'd even be on a water planet, where he and Keith would be useful for once! It seemed so doable.

Then that tiny voice in his head spoke up again.

“Wait, how do we even know your magic potion will work?” He asked, looking to Keith. The boy made a face, his tail twisting under him.

“I know it would have worked. Red told me.”

“Yeah, and Blue told me about the Ozmaks.” Lance was still a little bitter about this. That was half the reason he had been so convinced the Ozmaks would be able to change them back, because he had seen the scenario before and was so certain it was good news. But Blue wouldn't have betrayed him like that. Maybe he had just misunderstood. Maybe it had been a warning, and he just hadn't seen it.

“I’m certain about it,” Keith insisted, “Otorii was sure about it too-- Oh god, Otorii!” He groaned, hands flying to his hair.

Lance blinked at him, “Oh-whaty?”

“Otorii, the Urorilixii I talked to about the T-27 stuff,” Keith said. When that didn't seem to clarify anything, he continued, “When I was researching more about the red-tipped lightpole, I found this weird space chat system and talked to a…scientist from Nyxir, the planet the plant is indigenous to. They pointed me to Urorilix, and Otorii. They'd been researching the plant too, he confirmed some of my theories actually, and sent me his research notes. He asked me to send him mine once I finished the cure. I totally forgot until now.”

“Wait, wait. There was a space chat agent!?” Lance cried, “Where!? You're telling me this whole time I could have been talking to sweet alien babes over astrobook messenger and no one told me about it!?”

“I got flirted with by a weird alien,” Keith said flatly, “You don't want it.”

“Wait, hang on, that sounds like exactly what I want,” Lance said. He then caught a glimpse of Keith’s face, “-ted. Wanted, of course. Sorry babe.”

Keith frowned-- almost pouting. “Yeah, you better be,” he muttered.

“Okay, well, we should go send him that research, then.” Pidge said.

“Yeah, it'd be rude not to.” Hunk nodded.

Keith nodded. “It would help him out a lot,” he paused, scrunching up his eyebrows in thought. “And maybe he can help us too.”

 

***

 

It took a bit of convincing to get Lance back in the laboratory. Or maybe 'a bit’ was an understatement. It took quite a lot of convincing, actually, and a little begging. Lance changed his mind several times along the way, but ultimately drove his scooter in right behind Keith.

“Oh god, we forgot to clean up in here.” Pidge muttered as she shuffled in, wedged between Lance and Hunk in the line. She was right; everything was where they had left it after The Incident, including the hardened gray rock of their antidote firmly glued to the counter. The Erlenmeyer flask was stuck amongst the mess, cemented along with the glass stirring rod.

Keith waved it off. “We’ll clean up later.” He scootered up to the desk and tapped a bunch of random keys to wake up the computer again. Lance wrinkled his nose, eyes narrowed.

“That's a health and safety hazard. Don't you know how to dispose of hazardous waste? I expected that much from at least you, Pidge.”

“Hey, stuff was happening, I wasn't just going to leave Keith on the floor to start throwing chemical neutralizer onto everything.” Pidge rolled her eyes. She wandered over to the protoscanner, giving it a pat like it was a cute puppy, “Hunk, did you see this thing? I was telling you about it before, remember?”

“Oh yeah, the proto-doodad!” Hunk came to her side and started patting the machine too. Lance squinted at them and momentarily wondered if toxins in the air was affecting their cognitive function.

“Keith, they're petting the technology.”

“Yeah, they're weird. Ignore it,” Keith said nonchalantly.

Lance motored over to the computer, parking his scooter next to Keith's. He leaned forward against the handlebars, his tail flicking lazily under him, periodically brushing against Keith's. He let out a snort, nodding his chin towards the computer.

“Who’s the hot babe?”

The computer's desktop wallpaper was still of a bikini-clad Altean woman. Keith let out a breathy laugh.

“No clue. Probably some random model. I forgot to change it.”

“Change what?” Pidge glanced over. Keith looked over his shoulder at her and smiled.

“This computer, the background is whatever the last person to use it set. It's an Altean lady in a bikini.”

“Are you sure you didn't set that yourself?” Lance asked slyly, “If you did I'm not even mad. I’m just saying, if there's a folder of bikini shots on this computer somewhere--”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Lance, if I wanted some eye candy it would have been a dude, you know this.”

Pidge abandoned the protoscanner and came up behind Keith. She stared at the Altean woman in quiet contemplation. Hunk followed her, and the group stood, silently admiring the woman's assets for a few moments.

“It's weird, huh? Knowing this whole place used to be full of people just like us?” Hunk said.

“I don't know anyone who looks like that.” Keith said quietly with a frown.

“Y’know, my brother had a background pic just like that, except it was a girl from an anime.” Pidge snorted.

“What's an anime?” Keith asked. The group stared at him in varying levels of shock and/or disgust. Keith threw up his hands and huffed, “What?! I lived in a shack.”

“For a year, what about the other seventeen!?” Pidge cried. She leaned over the desk and took the mouse, “Hey, do you think this thing is connected to earth’s internet? I want to show you Hatsune Miku.” She clicked around the desktop, trying to find an internet browser. Not that the universe at large had an ‘internet’, more like a long distance mesh network. But the principal was the same, and either or would bring her to anime, hopefully. She clicked on an icon that looked promising. An application started up, the title page scrolling across the screen. Pidge wrinkled her nose, “What’s ‘Inter-Galactic Chat System’?”

Keith nodded at the screen, “Space AIM.”

“Space AIM?” Lance asked, “Oh, is this the chat agent you used to talk to flirty aliens with?”

“Yeah.” Keith wrestled the mouse from Pidge and clicked over to the settings, setting himself to ‘invisible’ before the Nyxirian could see he was online. “That…guy was really weird. You want to see the conversation?”

“Not at all,” Hunk said, “Where's the science dude you talked to?”

“Otorii,” Keith said as he brought up the Urorilix window. “Here, let me write down my notes. Pidge, bring me that paper?”

“Sure,” she walked across the room to the large metal table where they had done their work. On the table was sheet of lined paper with poorly scribbled pencil notes. The sheet’s edge had been covered by the black goo-- the pencil was completely lost to the hardened black sludge. She picked up the paper and gently freed the stuck edge, losing only part of one sentence and what looked like a crudely drawn diagram. She brought it back over to Keith, “Here you go.”

“Thanks,” Keith set the paper so it would stand next to the monitor and busied himself with typing out his notes into a document. It wasn't nearly as formal and sophisticated as Otorii’s reports, and read more like a cake recipe. But he felt it got the message across anyway.

Lance read the notes over Keith's shoulder, nodding and humming affirmingly like he was peer reviewing the thing, “I can't believe you figured this all out. Like, I know you had the help of a magic robot but still. I'm so impressed.”

“I helped,” Pidge said, “…a little. Honestly it was mostly Keith.”

Lance cooed, leaning up against the Red paladin, “Babe, you're so smart.”

Keith turned to look at him, blinking, “What’d you say? It's hard to type with stuck together fingers, I was concentrating…”

“You keep working hard babe, we’ll go do… something else.” Lance said. He gestured to the other two and backed his scooter up, puttering across the room and leaving Keith to type out his notes one key at a time. The three converged again closer to the door, a little too close to the mass of goo for Lance’s liking.

“We could clean up the mess.” Hunk said, jerking his thumb towards the goop. It looked like hardened magma, and upon closer proximity, smelt a bit like sulfur. Lance shook his head and let out a cry of disgust.

“Yeah, no, what are you crazy!? I'm not going near that thing, it's probably a major health risk. We're probably all going to get cancer just from being in this room with it.”

“Well we can't just leave it.” Pidge crossed her arms. Lance huffed.

“Well I don't see why not. Let's just quarantine this whole section.” Lance grumbled. Hunk rolled his eyes.

“As much as I wish it was, ignoring something isn't solving the problem.”

“If everyone ignores it then it doesn't exist anymore.”

“Lance, that's not how anything works.”

Lance frowned, crossing his arms and leaning back in his seat.

“Forget about the goop. We should be thinking about this plan.” He said, trying to change the subject because the black shit made him uncomfortable. He avoided making eye contact with the stuff like it was an aggressive animal.

“What's there to talk about? It sounds straightforward enough to me.” Pidge said, “Right after this I'll get to transferring the cloaking shield onto Blue. Then we'll ride onto the planet undetected.”

“Yeah but what about the rest of it?” Lance said, “The Meraliens are going to be guarding that garden even more than before. I bet they'll have guards inside. We can take the ducts that Plaxum showed us last time to get in, but we can't get seen. I don't think they're too keen on Paladins right now.”

“And we're saying no to the blasting?” Hunk asked.

“No blasting. Well, maybe just a teeny bit of blasting if the situation is necessary. But by principal, no blasting.”

“Do you think Plaxum could get the sample for us?” Pidge asked, “If we don't have to go in at all, but have it come out to us…”

“Well, Plaxum's probably not in their good books either.” Lance hummed, “I mean they saw her helping us last time…we could ask, I guess, but it'd be better if we had someone who the meraliens didn't know.”

“I got it covered,” Keith said, apparently having been listening in for a while now. He was turned slightly in his scooter to face them, “Otorii. We could use Otorii.”

“Wait, what?” Lance frowned, “What do you mean?”

“Otorii’s a scientist specializing in the lightpole.” Keith moved his attention back to the computer to send his file. “What do you want to bet the Meraliens would welcome him in to have a look at their plant? He pops in, sneaks a sample, and brings it to us waiting outside, and we all rush back here and are walking the next day. I'm sure he'd be willing to work with us if it means figuring out the antidote.”

“You think he’d do that for us?” Lance asked, scootering back across the room. Keith nodded.

“I think so. I mean, I’d have to ask him once he gets back online, but…” He suddenly groaned, facepalming, “I just remembered. We can't use the Lions. We're grounded!”

“Awh fuck, I forgot.” Lance joined his groan.

“Hey, technically Pidge and I aren't grounded,” Hunk said, raising his hand, “I just wanted to point that out.”

“We could just sneak out,” Pidge offered.

“We need Allura to open a wormhole to get us there.” Keith said. Pidge sighed.

“We’ll just have to ask Shiro,” Hunk said, “I’m sure he'll say yes--”

“Ask me what?” Shiro asked, suddenly in the doorway. The four Paladins all screamed, Lance startled so bad he nearly fell out of his scooter.

“Where’d you come from!?” Lance gasped, clasping his chest like he was having a heart attack.

“Dealing with the Ozmaks,” Shiro said, sounding as unamused as possible in that second, “I was looking for you in the medbay, but you weren't there. I was actually just on my way to your bedrooms when I heard your voices down this hallway.” He put his hands on his hips and looked about the group, “What are you guys doing in here?”

The Paladins were silent, nervously shifting in place. They all glanced between themselves, before the other three settled on Keith.

Keith frowned. “So were doing this?”

Shiro raised a single brow. “Should I be concerned?”

No, no, not at all!” Lance said. Shiro squinted.

Keith signed. “Okay, so, you might not like this, but we think we have a good plan--”

“Do you?”

“Let me finish!” Keith cried. He took a deep breath, “Sorry. You know how I was making the antidote?”

“Yes, that's what… that is, right?” He pointed at the black mass behind them. Keith grimaced.

“Uh, yes.”

“Last time we talked about it, you were sitting in a bathtub incredibly upset because of the antidote. So what's your good plan?”

“Yes, I was. But now, we think we can get more of the venom to make a new antidote for the both of us.” Keith scooted just a few inches away from the computer, gesturing for Shiro to come stand next to him. “I contacted this scientist, and he helped me out. I'm pretty sure he'll help us with getting another sample of the plant.”

“Well, that's great!” Shiro leant against the desk. He gave a dubious smile, “What's the part I'm going to be upset about?”

Well,” Lance drawled, slowly, as if to postpone Shiro’s inevitable reaction, “Y’see, we’re going to need a specific sample. Uh… from the same plant that changed us in the first place.”

“You mean the one from the Meraliens.” Shiro said.

“Yeah.”

“The planet you successfully barred Voltron from.”

“…Yeah.”

“They won't even know we're there,” Keith quickly interjected, “We’ll fly in on Blue fitted with Pidge’s cloaking shield.”

“Then Keith’s science bro Otorii can swim on in under the guise of being there to check out the plants.” Lance said.

“Now why would they let Otorii in to look at the plants when the last time they did that, their plant got stolen?”

Keith and Lance exchanged stumped looks. Shiro was right, the Meraliens were likely to be weary of any outsider being around their plants after what happened last time.

“Wasn't their plant dying, since the Baku was killed?” Pidge started. She paused for a second, as if to wait for the loading bar in her brain to catch up, “Since Otorii is such a well known scientist specializing in the Red-Tipped Lightpole, if he goes in claiming to want to inspect the plant and show them ways to keep the thing alive…”

“Maybe then they'd let him go in and get close to it!” Lance finished excitedly.

“Then he’ll just get a sample, and we can use to extract to make the antidote!” Keith nodded.

“Hold it,” Shiro said, interrupting the group's building excitement, “There's a few problems in this plan. Firstly, this Otorii hasn't even agreed to put himself into the line of danger, let alone agreed to play a part of this plan yet. Secondly, if the Meraliens refused to give us a sample, I'm not sure they'd so easily give one to Otorii. And, thirdly, you're grounded.

“Shiro!” Keith whined his name like a child. “We need to go back, it's the only way we can change back to normal.”

“I understand that, Keith, I do,” Shiro said. He paced for a moment before stopping, rubbing the bridge of his nose, “We need to be smart about this, okay? We can't just launch into a half finished plan. We're a team, and a team needs a solid plan to follow, not one based on assumptions.”

Keith looked away, frowning. “We weren't done yet,” he muttered.

“I’d like to point out that you didn't say the issue was that we’re grounded,” Lance said, “Are we… not grounded?”

“You're still grounded,” Shiro said.

“Awh, man.” Lance threw his head back and groaned at the ceiling.

But, I didn't forbid any approved flights.” He said, a sly smile on his face. Lance cheered.

“Woo! Awh yeah! That's awesome, Shiro, I’d kiss you except that you're old and I'm taken!”

Shiro dryly laughed, “I appreciate that, Lance.”

“So, wait, are you saying you approve of our plan?” Pidge asked. Shiro shook his head.

“Not quite. At least, not yet. Keith, I want you to get in contact with your scientist.”

“Right. On it.”

“Pidge, I need you to get to work on outfitting Blue with the cloaking shield. Hunk, if you can, get in contact with Plaxum. We need eyes on the Meralien's castle before we can infiltrate it,” Shiro listed off orders, nodding to each Paladin with the slightest smile. His eyes fell on Lance and turned stern, “And you should be resting. You've been through a lot already today.”

What,” Lance let out a whine of indignation, “I’m fine, I ate some food, my sides only hurt a bit, and I'm not nearly as freaked out by this room as I thought I'd be. So I'm currently winning.

“Yeah, well, you can go win in your dreams. Go and rest, maybe take a nap.” Shiro said, coming up behind Lance as if to herd him towards the door.

“Okay! Okay! I will, in a bit.” He said, expertly maneuvering away and coasting up next to Keith, “Keith will make sure I do. Right Keith?”

Keith looked up from the computer, glancing between Lance and Shiro. “Yeah, definitely.”

Shiro stared at them contemplatively for a second, before sighing and nodding, “Okay. Alright. I'll go tell Allura and Coran, I’ll comm you if there's any changes.”

“I’ll go down to the bay, start removing the shield from Green,” Pidge said.

“I’ll help,” Hunk said, moving towards the door behind Pidge, “While we work I can figure out how to call Plaxum!”

“Sweet, the plan’s really coming together guys.” Lance gave what was approximate to a thumbs up, approximate due to the fact that his fingers no longer moved independently. Pidge laughed and Hunk gave him a thumbs up in return. The three non-mermaid paladins left the room, leaving Keith and Lance alone with the black sludge and the clacking of the keyboard. Lance watched Keith type for a few minutes. The boy was focused, getting the same look on his face as he did when he was training. It was cute. But eventually Lance grew bored enough that he couldn't not interrupt him, so he scooted to the edge of his chair and leaned over, throwing an arm around Keith's shoulders.

“So is Otorii online yet or…?”

“Not yet.” Keith leaned back and crossed his arms. “I've sent him the file, and explained what happened. Now, we just wait.”

“I mean,” Lance reached up and pointed at the screen, “you are invisible. Maybe he can't see you?”

“Well, I was just talking.” Keith said, but he frowned. “Maybe I should, just so he knows I'm still here.” He clicked his status back to online. Almost instantly he got a pop up. A message from Nyxir.

He turned it back to invisible.

“You know what, I'm just gonna tell Otorii to message me regardless.”

“And… we just come back tomorrow and see what he said.” Lance said. Keith nodded in agreement, typing out a short message with his forefingers. Lance watched him for a while, then leaned over, resting his head against Keith’s shoulder. He was starting to come down from the adrenaline rush of not only the painful transformation, but of planning cure attempt number three. The endorphins and glucose from eating probably helped with that high. But now he was coming down off it and remembering just how shitty the past three or so hours had been.

He must have lost track of time, tumbling down a line of thought that wasn't so great. It wasn't until Keith shifted enough to move his head that Lance snapped back into the present. Keith was looking at him, with a subtle kind of fondness that made his heart beat faster. He smiled back, laughing, “What?”

Keith looked away, though his smile didn't falter, “I’m just happy we have another chance.”

Lance hummed quietly, “Yeah, me too. Third time's the charm? Maybe?”

“Hopefully,” Keith said. He leaned forward a bit and stretched his arms up above his head. His tail uncurled, straightening out under the desk as the boy stretched. Then he dropped his arms and glanced back at Lance, “Ready to go back to the pool?”

“Yeah,” Lance sat up straight in his chair and grabbed the handlebars again, looking over his shoulder so he could back up. His eyes fell upon the remains of the extractor at the back of the room, but he ignored the unpleasant feelings the sight sent through his core and instead focused on not hitting the metal table behind them as he backed up, “You must be ready to get out of that vest, and I'm ready to lay on the floor and pretend to be dead for a while, so let's go do that.”

 

***

 

Otorii didn't reply for two days. Keith kept going back to the lab and checking the computer, even once setting his status to online and braving the Nyxirian, who, of course, messaged him right away.

 

 

NyxirBase27: Hello Paladin! You're back online finally!

NyxirBase27: Hopefully you don't ignore me this time >::(

 

That was entirely Keith's plan. He moved his mouse across the screen, ready to close the chat window. A new message flashed on screen.

 

 

NyxirBase27: I know you're looking for Otorii, but he won't come online. I know where he is ksap!

 

Keith paused, reading the message and then reading it again. Was this some sort of bait? Was the Nyxirian just trying to get him to respond? But… they were right. Otorii hadn't responded in several days. Keith took a deep breath and took the chance.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Where is he?

NyxirBase27: I knew you were there! Ksksksksks

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: If you don't tell me where he is I'm going to block you

 

Not that Keith knew how to block people on this system, but he could sure figure it out.

 

 

NyxirBase27: noooo don't block me!

NyxirBase27: I really do know where he is. He’s in danger.

NyxirBase27: He’s here on Nyxir. He and his team were taken captive four quintents ago.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: What the fuck

NyxirBase27: YeAHH

NyxirBase27: it's a bit of a long story, actually.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I’ve got time

NyxirBase27: okay. Well.

NyxirBase27: things here aren't going so well. There's, uh, some conflict. Our planet is currently going through what we call a 'civil war’.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I know what that is

NyxirBase27: oh sweet! You're so smart (=)

NyxirBase27: well, Otorii and his team of scientists have been on and off Nyxir for deca-phoebs. He's actually really famous y'know? I got a signed copy of his book ksksksksks

NyxirBase27: anyways the rebels kidnapped him and his team to ransom against the government. Because we're trying to crush the bourgeoisie, y'know?? You gotta do what you gotta do.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: wait, we? Are you one of the rebels?

NyxirBase27: well yeah I mean of course. But I didn't think kidnapping them was a good idea. I don't think the king cares about foreign scientists.

NyxirBase27: that's why I'm telling you!

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: But aren't you a scientist?

NyxirBase27: yah

NyxirBase27: what a scientist can't be a rebel?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: But you work for the government

NyxirBase27: aaah no??

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Hmm

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I guess our planets are very different in that sense

NyxirBase27: your scientists work for the government? Damn sounds like you guys need a civil war too ksaaapppppp

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: okay well anyways

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: so you want us to come and break out Otorii?

NyxirBase27: well I figured that would be the best for your interest. You wanna know how I know you were looking for Otorii? He told me about you!

NyxirBase27: or, at least, a paladin of Voltron who was changed by the Aequor Viridi Mutaris >::0

NyxirBase27: that's you isn't it?? So I thought “I'll give that cute paladin a call”

NyxirBase27: or a type I guess ksksksksks

NyxirBase27: my name is Ti-Bala, btw. If you come to get the scientist I can help you. I know where he is and I can sneak him and his team out.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: thank you Ti-Bala… but why are you doing this for us?

NyxirBase27: I thought that was obvious >::0 you sound cute! ksksksksks I'm just kidding I know you said last time that you had a 'boyfriend’.

NyxirBase27: in all honesty I don't think it's right that we have the scientists in the first place. Some of us are pretty mean to them even though they've been helping us for deca-pheobs.

NyxirBase27: aaaaaand I was hoping your big robot could help us blow up the capital maybe >::)?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: what!? We're not going to blow anyone up!

NyxirBase27: awh <::( I guess we'll just have to kill Otorii as an act of defiance against the state.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ti-Bala I swear to… god or something

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: okay, listen, I'm not the leader of Voltron and I can't make decisions like this but I will ask about… liberating your… people… peacefully

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: WITHOUT blowing anyone up

NyxirBase27: yay!!! >::D (=) (=) (=)

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: what even is that

NyxirBase27: what?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: that symbol (=)?

NyxirBase27: oh! It's a heart silly ksaaapppppp you aliens are so cute.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: … okay

NyxirBase27: why >::U does it not look like that for you?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: no

NyxirBase27: well, what's it look like? Ksks

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: uh like this

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: <3

NyxirBase27: awhhhhh you sent me a heart!!! >::D (=) (=) (=) >;;*

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ti-Bala I swear

NyxirBase27: kskskskskskskskskskksksks

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I'm going to go talk to my team about this, I'll be back in a bit

NyxirBase27: okay! I'll try to stave off the angry rebels.

NyxirBase27: jkkk it's the middle of the night here everyone's asleep ksap

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: ok

 

Keith slouched back in the seat of his scooter. He took a deep breath, sighed, and somehow managed not to scream. Then he backed up out of the space, steered his scooter out the door, and headed down to the pool.

Chapter Text

If Keith had had legs, he would have kicked down the door for the dramatic effect. Except that the door to the pool hall was a mechanical sliding door and would have opened before his foot touched it. Either way, he felt like kicking down a door as he puttered into the pool hall.

“Hey! So we’ve got a problem!” he cried, scootering across the tile towards the pool at max speed.

“Uh oh,” Lance sat on the edge of the pool-- out of the water because Shiro was also in the room. It looked like the two had been talking, though Lance was still wet so it couldn't have been for too long.

“Did you get in contact with Otorii?” Shiro asked. He had one boot off, like he had been in the process of removing them, but Keith had interrupted the action, and now he stood with one bare foot next to the pool.

“No, but I know where he is,” Keith said in one long breath, “He’s on Nyxir. He and his team were captured.”

“Captured? By who?” Shiro's brows knit together and his arms crossed.

“Nyxir? Like, wait, isn't that where the plant’s native to?” Lance scowled, thinking of the Red Tipped Lightpole again. Keith nodded, parking his scooter next to Lance's and lowering himself off the seat onto the floor in a graceful, well practiced motion.

“Yes. Otorii's team made trips there several times, since they study the Red Tipped Lightpole, but now the planet’s having a rebellion. The rebels kidnapped the scientists for ransom— why they thought this was a good plan, I have no clue.”

“How do you know this?” Shiro asked.

“That chat system, right?” Lance offered, “You said that Nyxirian was bugging you the other day.”

Keith nodded and pointed at Lance. “Bingo. Their name’s Ti-Bala. I still don’t know if they’re a guy or girl.” He was silent, contemplating this for a moment. “Or if their species even has the same concept of sex and gender. But that’s not the point. They’re one of the rebels, they told me everything, and wanted us to break out Otorii and his team.”

“One of the rebels asked you to liberate a group of hostages taken by those same rebels.” Shiro asked, sounding incredulous and maybe a bit annoyed. Keith just nodded, perhaps missing the subtlety of Shiro's inflection.

“Yeah. I said I would ask, but… well, I mean, we need Otorii…” He ran his webbed fingers through his hair, “And they… wanted us to, uh, maybe help liberate their people.”

“Wait, what?” Lance raised his hands like a referee calling for a timeout, “They want us to do what?

“Uh, they said 'crush the… bourgeoisie’?”

“And if we do that, they'll release the scientists.” Shiro said.

Lance balked. “I mean I would hope so! What do they expect us to do? Fly in and shoot lasers at all the fancy buildings!?”

Shiro thought about this quietly for a moment, while Lance continuously and incessantly monologued; an art he had perfected, just as Shiro had perfected the art of tuning him out.

“Fine. If this will get us closer to getting you two back to normal, then we'll do it.” Shiro finally said, cutting off Lance's current tirade.

“Now, I did say peacefully so—” Keith started hurriedly, then paused, blinking, “Wh- did you just say yes?”

“Yes. I did say yes.” Shiro said, “Did you think I would say no?” He seemed a little offended by this assumption.

“I mean you do say no sometimes,” Lance said, “Especially recently, post going to the Meraliens and getting Voltron banned from the planet forever.”

Shiro nodded, brows raised, “Okay, true. I'm saying yes this time, because we've tried, and failed, two times to get you two standing again. We're going to try a third time, and, if need be, a fourth, a fifth, however many times it takes until we've got this solved. We're not going to give up.”

“Isn't insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?” Lance griped.

“We’re not doing the same thing,” Keith frowned. “We’re trying different things.” He scooted across the tile, coming to sit next to Lance, idly running a hand along his backfin.

“Don't give up, Lance.” Shiro said, belatedly adding a smile, “I have a good feeling about this.”

A wry smile crossed Lance's face, “I’m trying to have a good feeling, too.”

“Okay, well, this is all great but I have to get out of this vest.” Keith said. Lance gasped.

“Oh, shit, sorry. Here, let me help--”

“Lance, seriously, watch your language--”

“What?! Shit is, like, a baby curse word. It's barely a curse word at all. It's not like I said fuck.

“Lance I swear to god--”

“Can you just help me?” Keith wrinkled his nose, already unclasping the snaps along the front.

“Of course, babe,” Lance shooed his hand away and started undoing the clasps for him, “I mean, you could just take this off yourself…”

“I could, but I don't want to.” Keith hit the 'off’ button, holding his breath while Lance helped him shirk off the vest. He slid down into the water, taking in a deep breath, feeling the cool water rush into his chest, like taking a deep drink of water after a long run.

As ironic as that is.

He bobbed back up the the surface, floating over the the edge of the pool next to where Lance's tail dipped into the water.

Shiro crossed his arms, staring off into the distance like he did when he was thinking. “This Ti-Bala, how soon do they need confirmation?”

“I'm guessing as soon as possible.” Keith said.

“Alright. I'll go get the others. Let's meet back in the lab in an hour.”

“Wait, back in the lab?” Lance grimaced, “Why do we ever need to go back to the lab ever again?”

A single eyebrow was raised, “That's where the computer is, right?” Shiro gave a little smile, like he was issuing a challenge. Before Lance could respond, the man turned and headed towards the door, “An hour. See you there.”

Lance screwed up his face like he had just sucked on a lemon. He crossed his arms and grumbled nonsense. Keith patted Lance's tail like you would pat someone's shoulder.

“The lab is fine, Lance, you've been there, like, five times since the incident.” He said.  

“Yeah and I hated it every time.” Lance huffed.

“But did anything bad happen? Did you die?”

“The opportunity was there.” Lance stuck out his black tongue, deftly dodging his pointed teeth. He pushed off the edge of the pool and slipped down into the water, doing a flip and popping back up behind Keith. He tugged on the boy's hand, pulling him back down under the surface, and the two drifted to the bottom together.

 

***

 

An hour later Keith and Lance were back in the lab, despite Lance's objections. They were last to arrive, puttering down the hallway in a two-man parade to meet the group standing outside the laboratory doors. Everyone was there, including Allura and Coran. Keith suddenly felt a twang of doubt in his core like a growing cramp. What if Ti-Bala was fucking with him? If they were, he would personally fly down to Nyxir and strangle the alien.

“You're here,” Shiro said with a smile. “Why don't you tell everyone what we're doing.”

“Yeah, he wouldn't say anything to us,” Hunk crossed his arms, pouting at Shiro.

Keith squinted at Shiro. “Why not?”

“I wanted to give you the honour,” Shiro said, “Besides, a good leader needs to know how to explain things to a group, so think of this as practice.”

“Ah, yes, public speaking, a skill rather than a talent.” Coran nodded, bouncing on his toes.

Keith rolled his eyes. “Alright, well we need to go to Nyxir.”

Allura grimaced. “Ugh, do we really?”

“Didn't you say you couldn't use just any plant?” Pidge asked. “I thought we needed to go back to the Meraliens’ planet.”

“Change of plans.” Keith said as he puttered towards the door. “We need to make another stop first. Otorii and his team have been taken captive, and we have to save them. And, maybe liberate the planet, I don't know.” He muttered that last part.

Hunk shook his head and held up his hands. “Hang on, hang on, I thought I heard you say 'liberate the planet’.”

“No you heard him right,” Lance said with a sarcastic twinge to his voice, “This Nyxirian wants us to win the war for the rebels in exchange for Otorii, who we need to get the damned plant.”

“I'm not sure if Voltron should be stepping into a political fight.” Allura frowned.

“This is a chance to change them back.” Shiro said, “We need to take it.”

Pidge looked back to Keith, “I agree, but… why are we all standing outside the lab?”

Keith pushed open the door, ramming it with his scooter. “Gotta talk to Ti-Bala first.”

“Who’s Ti-Bala?” Hunk asked.

“The Nyxirian that flirted with me.”

“The Nyxirians sure are a feisty bunch, eh?” Coran said, then laughed jovially and tweaked his moustache, “You may not believe this, but I had a fling with a Nyxirian when I was a young lad. Funny story, actually, we had such a ball, riding gordeks and sitting under the asmitian trees, watching the Nyxirian sunsets. It was a good three quintents, but alas our love couldn't last….”

“As much as we’d all love to hear this, there are more pressing matters at hand.” Shiro said, patting Coran on the shoulder as they all filed into the lab.

“I told them that I'd talk to my team about the whole 'liberating’ thing.” Keith tapped the keys to start up the  computer. “But we still need more information. Like, I don't know if the rebels are actually a bunch of asshats, we don't know!”

“Oh dear, what… what is this?” Allura was momentarily distracted by the ever present black blob, still hardened across the table and floor in the middle of the room.

“That's failed attempt number one.” Lance said, giving the mass a wide berth and parking himself between Keith and the right hand wall.

“That doesn't seem safe.” She said with a grimace.

“That's because it's probably not.” Pidge said. Allura gave her a rather horrified glance.

Keith waved his arm, impatiently clicking the mouse, “Okay, I'm logged back in.”

“Ooh,” Allura bounced over, leaning on the back of his scooter and peering over his shoulder, “IGSC! This is quite the relic, I remember using this on my own chat system when I was a child. I wonder why it's still installed on this device.”

“It seems pretty active still,” Pidge said, “Or, at least between science labs.”

“Yeah, this Nyxirian is pretty much always at their computer.” Keith murmured.

“Are they online now?” Shiro asked.

“Uh…” Keith clicked over to his chat box with NyxirBase27. A little green icon told him they were indeed online. It was a bit odd that they didn't contact him first. He steeled himself with a deep breath and started typing.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ti-Bala?

 

It took an uncomfortable amount of time for the Nyxirian to reply.

 

 

NyxirBase27: Hello! Sorry, I was just away from the computer for a second ksksksksks

NyxirBase27: did you talk to your team?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: yeah… they're actually with me now.

NyxirBase27: >::O the whole group??

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Yeah, all of them

NyxirBase27: that's so cool! Hi paladins!!! I'm a big fan (=)

NyxirBase27: I especially like how you messed up the Galra empire. We need some of that empire overthrowing stuff here ksaaapppppp

 

“This is exhausting.” Hunk groaned, rubbing at his face.

“Yup.” Keith nodded.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: They say hi

NyxirBase27: woo hoo!

NyxirBase27: okay, did you tell them about my little proposal?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: I s

NyxirBase27: ???

NyxirBase27: >::O where'd you go?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Hello, this is Pidge, Green Paladin of Voltron.

NyxirBase27: what is this a late introduction? >;;)

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: No this is an entirely different person

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Keith was typing too slow so I kicked him out of the way

NyxirBase27: so his name is Keith >(=)0

 

Pidge squinted at the screen. “What does that mean?”

“I’m assuming it’s heart eyes,” Keith said. He pointed at the symbol in the middle. “That’s what hearts look like to them. And then that would be their mouth.”

Hunk made a face. “How do you know that?”

“I’ve had a very long and grueling conversation with them,” Keith sighed.

 

 

NyxirBase27: okay so like, did keefy tell you guys about how I want to overthrow the Nyxirian government?

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Yes, we've been told.

NyxirBase27: so what's the answer? You gonna help a pal out?

 

Pidge looked from the screen to Shiro, “What is our call?”

“We're going to do it.” Shiro said with a curt nod. Allura frowned, but said nothing.

“We need more information first.” Lance said, “don't say yes just yet. Ask them why they want to, well, plan a coup?”

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Why do you want to overthrow the government and why do you need our help?

NyxirBase27: I think you need our help.

NyxirBase27: I mean we got your scientists ksksksksks >>::)c

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Are you threatening us!? Listen, we’ll come down there and ki ruro 3+3+_bbd†

NyxirBase27: ok

NyxirBase27: what

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: hi this is Keith again

 

“You can't threaten the aliens, Pidge!” Keith said, now typing after shoving Pidge off her chair.

“What!? Are we going to negotiate with people who threaten us?” Pidge cried, letting Hunk pull her back up to her feet.

“I have spent too long navigating through this awful interaction for it to turn south now!” Keith shouted, flailing his arms about.

“I don't think they were even being threatening,” Lance said, pointing absently towards the screen, “They're just a bit cheeky, y'know? It's funny.”

“Just ask them what they want us to do.” Allura said, rubbing her temples.

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: what exactly do you want us to do?

NyxirBase27: wait what happened

NyxirBase27: oh hi Keith >::) what happened to your friend >::0

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ti-Bala, we’re trying to finish this as quickly as possible, can you just tell us what we need to do

NyxirBase27: Okay! Ksap you are so serious.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: yes

NyxirBase27: okay so, the capital city of Nyxir, An’Batal, is currently divided into two groups. There's the lower class and the upper class, well, put simply I guess ksksk.

NyxirBase27: The upper class, the Heigo, they've been oppressing us lower class people for years! I joined this group of rebels rising up from the depths of poverty to climb up the tower of privilege and BURN IT DOWN >>88D

NyxirBase27: The Heigo is all controlled by one Nyxirian, Obaju Kroku

NyxirBase27: when this night cycle ends he will be in An’Batal for the sun season festival. The rebels are planning an attack on the Heigo who will be in the city.

NyxirBase27: but what we want the mostest in the world is Obaju in our hands so he can PAY for what he's done to us!!!!

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: hmm...

NyxirBase27: so I was thinking that while the rebels storm the festival and start fucking up people Voltron could come in and capture Obaju!

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: please don’t do that

NyxirBase27: don't do what >::0

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: attack innocent people

NyxirBase27: Awh you mean the rest of the Heigo?

NyxirBase27: Personally I wouldn't be opposed to a genocide of the class. But I guess they're 'innocent’ in the way that they were born into the class system rather than creating it like Obaju.

NyxirBase27: either way the rebels want Obaju. That's why we have these scientists in the first place!!

NyxirBase27: Our big problem is that Obaju is very well protected and I don't think us poor rebels have the ability to get through his defenses >::( That's why our plan is to attack them all and take out as much of the people defending Obaju as possible.

 

Keith pulled back, biting the claw of his thumb.

“This isn't good.” Lance said, leaning back and shaking his head, “We can't use Voltron as a war machine for other races. Were supposed to be fighting for peace!”

“I know, I know!” Keith said with a wave of his arm. He looked back at the rest of the group, each one wearing a torn expression.

“If we could deliver Obaju to the rebels...” Hunk started, “then we have no blood on our hands if they kill him.”

“We’d still deliver him to his death.” Allura said.

“If we intervened in a way that allows the rebels to do all the dirty work...” Lance offered. Shiro crossed his arms and nodded.

“Right. If we can separate Obaju from his defenses, the rebels can ambush him and do whatever they want with him. No one else needs to get hurt.”

Pidge hummed aloud, staring up at the wall as if it would give her an answer. “But what would get him separated from his group?”

Keith turned back to the computer and started typing, “Maybe Ti-Bala knows.”

 

 

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: okay. I've been discussing it with the group.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: were not going to kill anyone ourselves. That's not what Voltron stands for.

NyxirBase27: oh so you don't want the scientists!! That makes it easier for me ksap

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: Ti-Bala, one more FUCKING TIME

NyxirBase27: >88O

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: don’t interrupt me

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: anyway what we will do is help your team of rebels get this guy. Ohaju.

NyxirBase27: Obaju

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: yeah I typoed. fish fingers

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: we need to know how we can separate him from his defenses

NyxirBase27: well if we knew we wouldn't need your help ksksksks!!!!

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: okay let's start with... what ARE his defenses?

NyxirBase27: oh it's him and a bunch of guards. Six of them. He also has two mongbeasts.

 

Lance wrinkled his nose, “What the fuck is a mongbeast?”

 

 

NyxirBase27: When he's in public he's always with his guards.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: And when he's in private?

NyxirBase27: ksap I have no idea but I don't think he like sleeps with them or anything ksaaap

NyxirBase27: I don't know if he's ever alone, but there are times when he's less guarded.

Altea_CastleOfLions_Lab2: like when?

NyxirBase27: well...

NyxirBase27: rumour has it that he really likes dancing. He gets a private show every cycle.

 

Keith dropped his head on the keyboard and groaned. Why are these people so weird?

“Oh Jesus,” Hunk leaned over Keith's chair and squinted at the screen, “dancing?

“I mean that's understandable,” Lance said, “who doesn't love dancing? And dancers? Hot. I don't blame the guy.”

Keith threw his hands in the air. “So now we have to ambush this guy in the middle of a lap dance!?

“No, no, god,” Lance rolled his eyes, “isn't it obvious what we have to do?” He looked around, gathering no support from any of the others, “What!? Have you guys never seen Mulan? We have to dress up as dancers and distract the guy until the rebels can come in and murder him.”

“Lance, that is the worst thing you’ve ever said,” Keith shot him a glare.

“It's not a terrible idea...” Shiro started, looking far less appalled for Keith's liking.

“No, it's perfect! We go in disguised as beautiful dancers and put on a display for him while the rebels infiltrate and take him out!” Hunk said, his words gaining momentum, “That way we didn't do anything, we just happened to be there when the rebels attacked!”

Keith gave Hunk a withering look. “You seriously want to go with that plan? Does anybody even know how to dance professionally?”

Pidge raised her hand. “I took like three years of tap in middle school.”

“Pidge, I really don’t think that is the kind of dancing Ti-Bala’s talking about and quite frankly- I would prefer you stay a thousand miles away from this plan.”

“I can dance.” Lance said, running his hand through his hair with a bit of flair.

“You’re a fish.” Keith shot back. “What are we gonna do, wheel in a giant tank for you to belly dance in?”

Lance scoffed, looking dramatically offended. “Rude! Dancing isn't just with your feet, Keith! You dance with your whole body.”

“You'd just be flopping around on the floor!”

“You can dance in a wheelchair, Keith! Stop being ableist!”

“Lance, Keith, please!” Shiro snapped, “Stop bickering! We need to work together on this!”

“Ti-Bala didn't even say anything about this being overtly sexual!” Allura cried.

“Why would it be private, and a rumour if it wasn’t?”

“To be fair, almost every Nyxirian enjoys dancing,” Coran said, “It’s their national pastime.”

“What?” Keith cried, outright flabbergasted, “Why?”

“Who doesn't like dancing, Keith.” Lance said.

“We’ve got a plan, then,” Shiro said before Keith could respond, “Let's send Obaju an invitation for a private dance. Let's make it look like we're a dance troupe.” He eyed Pidge.

“Graphic design is my passion. I'm on it.”

“Great. We’ll need Ti-Bala in on this.” He looked to Keith, “This is how it'll work. We’ll fly in on Green so we can be cloaked. We don't want to announce our presence as Voltron. We’ll meet up with Ti-Bala. We need someone to stay with the scientists and help them escape when the time comes.”

“I can do that.” Keith said. He would do anything if it meant he didn't have to dance.

“Great. You'll stay with them until you get the signal from us. Then you'll need to escort them onto the lion quickly, and hopefully without attracting too much attention.”

“So then who’s going to be in the dance ensemble?” Lance asked, clearly leading into, “Can I be in the dance ensemble?”

Shiro thought for a second, “Yes. As long as you can keep up.”

“Hell yeah I can keep up, this thing goes all the way up to just past walking speed!” Lance grinned, patting the handlebars of his scooter.

“We have a faster one,” Hunk said, “in the workshop. I've been working on it for a few days, I could get it finished real quick.”

“That's great,” Shiro nodded, “then who else wants to join Lance in the group?”

“Bro,” Lance looked to Hunk, “bro, please.”

“Uh, of course!

Allura raised her hand. “I've taken lessons.”

Shiro frowned, “I think you're too easily recognizable, princess. Why don't you stay with Keith, do the leg work for him.”

Keith squinted at him. “Really?”

“Like I said,” Pidge interrupted, “three years of tap.”

“You're in!” Lance shouted, dramatically pointing at her.

Pidge shot her fists in the air. “Whoo!”

Hunk gasped, “What should our group name be? I'm thinking Le Garrison Trio.”

“It's perfect, I love it.” Lance gasped in response.

“Then I'll go with Ti-Bala,” Shiro said, “We need someone to keep an eye on these rebels. I won't do anything, I'll just be our link between them and us.”

“Alright,” Coran nodded, “then I suppose I'll stay here in the castle, keeping an eye on things.”

“Do you want to be a part of Le Garrison Trio Coran?” Lance said in sing-song. Coran shut his eyes and sighed.

“Of course I would love to. But, alas, I was born with two left feet. I'm better at directing.” He flashed a brilliant smile. Keith could barely control a groan.

“Alright, Nyxir will be phase one. Phase two is the Meraliens.” Shiro said.

“Ah, right, the whole reason we're doing this,” Lance nodded, “getting the plant from the Meraliens.”

Shiro looked to Hunk, “Did you get in contact with Plaxum?”

“Oh, yeah, I did.” Hunk replied, “She spoke with this lady named Fossum who’s like Codir’s personal assistant or something. She spoke with Codir about having Otorii come and inspect their plant and Codir was open to the idea.”

“Fantastic,” Allura clapped her hands together, “And Otorii would be okay with helping steal the plant?”

“Well, I haven't asked him yet.” Keith said.

“Oh, right, he's been held captive this whole time.” Allura sighed, “Well, we'll have to go forward on the belief that he will help us.”

“The important part is we have a viable plan,” Shiro said. He gripped Keith's shoulder, “Let Ti-Bala know the plan. Ask them when they'll be good to go. Everyone else, let's plan as if for tomorrow. Let's get going.”

Lance all but cackled, throwing his scooter into reverse. “Le Garrison Trio, move out! We've got some choreography to do!”

Keith turned back to the computer and rolled his eyes, but couldn't help but smile just a bit. The plan really was coming together. And, just maybe, this time it would work.

Chapter Text

The castle was alive with activity.

Keith, much to his dismay, was the team's connection to Ti-Bala and the Nyxirian rebels. This meant he spent a lot of the night and following morning in the lab, trying to coerce some sort of cohesive plan between the two groups of people. Most of the rebels were very much into the whole ‘dance group’ idea, even asking for a show beforehand. Nyxirians loved to dance.

The problem was that half the Nyxirian rebels still wanted to go through with their original plan; march down An'Batal with the scientists and ransom them for money. Many of the rebels still felt like stabbing people of the Heigo class was a great idea, too.

After a lot of back and forth between Keith and Ti-Bala and their respective groups, it was decided that Voltron would fly out the next morning, which would equate to the last hours of the current moon cycle for Nyxir. This meant the day's festivities would be nearly over and Obaju would be in his private chambers, probably quite ready to watch a dance display.

So Pidge whipped up an invitation for the King and sent it his way via a complicated email server that hid the ISP of the sender. Keith didn't really understand what she did or how it worked, he was just happy that it had worked . A few hours later they received back a confirmation stating 'his Highness Obaju Kroku would be delighted to receive the entertainment, Le Garrison Trio ”. Apparently Obaju had never seen a group of human dancers before and was pretty damn excited about it.

Meanwhile Lance had been working with Pidge and Hunk to make their dance outfits which were completely ridiculous. The theme, according to Coran, was 'space age Jazz Musical’. Whatever that meant. As far as Lance could tell, it meant lot of sequins, and he was hella into it.

“Okay, but do we really need the sparkly headbands?” Pidge griped, current holding a green bedazzled band against her brow with a look of mild disgust.

“Yes, it's the thread that's holding us all together.” Lance said, an equally sequined headband already tied around his forehead, making his hair stick up comically. His was,of course, blue, just as Hunk's was yellow. Hunk had championed for Pidge to wear red so that they each had a primary colour. Pidge in turn had stated ‘better dead than red’, which had pretty much ended the conversation.

Now they sat together in the living room, supposedly trying on the outfits they had pulled together from clothed abandoned around the castle. In reality, however, it had turned mostly into an hour of complaining about one thing or another. It had been a long day.

“Where did Coran even go?” Pidge sighed, letting the headband fall into her lap, “We were supposed to be going over this dance routine anyways.”

“Is the dance even that important?” Hunk frowned, “Like, how long are we even going to be dancing before the rebels bust in to murder this guy?”

“Whoa, there's not going to be any murder,” Lance said, “At least while I'm there. Not too keen on seeing a guy decapitated for his crimes against the lower classes.”

“Who’s getting decapitated?” The doors slid open and a very tired looking Keith rolled in. Lance could hear his respiration vest whirring from across the room. He probably hadn't been out of it since that morning.

“No one, hopefully,” Lance griped. He smiled, though, and pointed at his sparkly forehead, “What do you think? Will this dazzle the dictator?”

Keith shot him a weary smile. “I think you could show up in potato sacks and he’d still be dazzled. I’m pretty sure they’re very easily impressed.” He drove up next to Lance and ruffled his hair. “But I think it looks cute.”

“That's cause my face is attached to it,” Lance said sweetly, waggling his eyebrows. Keith snorted and rolled his eyes.

“You look exhausted.” Hunk said.

“Yeah, seriously. What have you been doing for the past, uh, seven and a half hours?” Pidge asked, completely abandoning the headband as she stood and stretched.

Keith rubbed his eyes. “Well it sure wasn’t sleeping.” He steered his scooter next to the couch and flopped onto it. “It takes hours to get any useful information out of those rebels. I’m shocked they even managed to organize this rebellion in the first place.”

Pidge walked over and joined him. “Ah, so Ti-Bala isn't an outlier in terms of temperament.”

“Nope,” Keith huffed. “They’re all like that. Everyone kept fighting over the computer to talk to Ti-Bala’s ‘cool new friend’, and then, ” he looked at the group with wide eyes, “I discovered there’s a video call feature. All of them. Are so. Loud.

“Was it just a room full of screaming Ti-Balas?” Lance asked, “What did they even look like? Wait, don't tell us! Hunk, quick, what do you think Nyxirians look like?”

Hunk thought for a second, “Well, I’d think that they’d be aquatic, since the plant is a sea plant, you know? So… more fish people?”

“Excellent points, sir,” Lance nodded. He pointed to Pidge, “Your thoughts?”

“I looked them up already,” Pidge said, “y’know, when I sent the invitation. I actually did some research.”

“You ruined the game for yourself,” Lance said, “well I bet they're four legged ant people. Just for diversity. Have we met quadruped aliens yet?”

“The Ozmaks had four legs.” Keith said.

“Oh, right. I tried to expunge that whole thing from my memory.”

“Well it is another water planet. More bog than ocean though.” Keith snorted. “They look like a mix of frogs and bugs.”

“Predator and prey.” Lance breathed.

“And that ‘kes kes’ laugh?” Keith ignored Lance. “Not even something I can imitate. It’s like a hissing chitter. It’s so annoying. Ti-Bala spent like ten minutes squealing about how cute I looked, and everyone joined in! I felt like a dog!”

“Can you blame them? You are pretty cute.” Lance cooed. Keith just groaned. Lance puttered over to the couch, squeezing his scooter in behind Keith's, “It's getting late. You should go sleep.”

“Yeah,” Keith muttered, “I need it after that. ” He snuggled into the couch and closed his eyes. “Wake me up when the mission starts.”

“You can't sleep here, you're still wearing the vest.” Hunk said.

“Yeah, there's no way the water quality is still good.” Lance wrinkled his nose, “It probably tastes like ass. Just go back to the pool.”

“No, let me die here,” Keith grumbled.

Lance sighed. “Babe you know I love your fucked up sense of humor but I’m serious, get up.” Keith only groaned again. Lance sighed, looking over his shoulder with only a slightly smug face, “Hunk?”

“You got it.” Hunk came over next to the two and picked Keith up like he were a kitten.

“Wait, no, stop,” Keith mumbled, but didn't resist. Hunk plunked him down on his scooter. Keith grumbled. He wouldn't have been opposed to Hunk carrying him all the way back to the pool.

“Why are you so exhausted?” Lance asked, adjusting himself on his scooter so his backfin wasn't so awkwardly pressed against the back of his seat. Keith sighed, his tail idly curling up in the space between his seat and the handlebars of his scooter.

“Talking to so many people is just exhausting.”

Lance shifted his scooter into reverse and started puttering backwards to free Keith. “Ah, right, I forgot you're not overly extroverted like some of us.”

“No, I mean… it doesn't help that Ti-Bala and their friends are extremely… draining.”

“It'll be worth it, though.” Pidge said, “Right?”

Keith noticed as Lance’s eyes fell to the floor. “Yeah, hopefully.”

“It's not even over yet,” Keith groaned, “I have to call Ti-Bala back in, like, three hours anyways. The negotiations are never ending! No one can make up their minds!”

Lance shifted back into drive and turned his scooter towards the door, Keith right next to him.The poor boy looked like he could fall off his scooter, and that maybe would be preferable to having to go back to the Nyxirians.

“Are we still heading out in the morning?” Hunk asked, “Cause I still have, like, seven things to do.”

“Same,” Pidge said, “I still have to put the thingy on the thingy.”

Lance squinted at her. “ What?

“You know,” she gestured vaguely with her hands, “the cloaking shield on Blue?”

“Oh, right. It's so much easier to understand when you use real words.” Lance squinted. “Did you just call Blue a thingy?”

“She's a thingy, you're a thingy, everything's a thingy when I'm this tired.” Pidge sighed.

“I feel you. I’m exhausted, too,” Lance started the train out of the common area, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Keith was following. Hunk and Pidge were close behind, leaving their dance outfits abandoned on the floor, “I still have to finish sewing sequins onto our pants and bowties. That's going to take all night.”

“Do you though?” Pidge said. “They’re already enough sparkle for a new galaxy.”

“Hah hah, no, they're not glittery enough.” Lance said, “Besides, I already finished Hunk's pants, we can't just have one person wearing sparkly pants and no one else!”

Pidge huffed, crossing her arms. “You're not even wearing pants, Lance! Only two of us are wearing sparkle pants and neither of us are too excited about it!”

“I like the sequins." Hunk said.

“I can't wear pants! That's kinda the main issue here!” Lance cried, “Besides, I’m going to bedazzle the new hyper fast scooter. Once Hunk finishes it.”

“Yeah… Gotta finish that.” Hunk breathed, “It's pretty much finished, actually. It's all built. It's just that every time I turn it on a cloud of smoke pours out of the motor, so… I’m working on it.”

“That’s not right,” Keith sleepily muttered.

“Okay, then let's take a break from practicing the dance routine for a few hours,” Lance said. They turned a corner and headed down the hallway that led to the pool. “I think we got the choreography down, anyways.”

They stopped outside the pool hall doors. Or, rather, everyone but Keith stopped outside the pool hall doors. Keith barrelled through the doors and beelined for the pool without so much as a 'bye’. Lance couldn't really blame him, though. Recycled vest water was the worst .

Pidge snorted, “It's not that complicated. There's a lot of arm flailing.”

“Arms are the main staple of my physique at the moment.”

“Besides, it's not flailing, it's gesticulating. ” Hunk added.

“Exactly, Hunk!” Lance held up his hand for a high five, which Hunk promptly returned, “and that's why you're my best friend.”

“Well, that, and because I listen to your rambling vent sessions.” Hunk laughed, “And because I cook you dinner a lot.”

“What did I ever do to deserve you?” Lance breathed, “seriously, what are you getting out of this relationship? I don't have much to offer except exceptional wit and charm. God. What time is it? We really should get back to work…”

“You're right,” Hunk said, glancing over to Pidge, “meet you down in the workshop in ten? I got cookies cooling in the kitchen, I'll bring them down.”

Pidge yawned. “Only if they're chocolate chip.”

“When did you have time to bake cookies and why didn't you give me any!?” Lance sputtered, feeling the deepest cut of betrayal. Well, not the deepest. That had been a week ago.

“There's always time for cookies, and if you didn't know that you're a fool.” Hunk said. He started back down the hallway, gesturing over his shoulder, “Just come with. I’ll even save some for Keith.”

Lance drummed his fingers against the handlebars, debating whether this was the best use of his time. In the end he decided that Hunk was right. There was always time for cookies. “Yeah, okay.” He revved up his scooter and followed Hunk and Pidge. Maybe a few cookies were deserved. Maybe they even deserved a few extra in preparation for the shit storm that was sure to come in the morning.

***

“Have we got everything?”

“Yes, Shiro. We've triple checked. I think we're all ready.”

Morning had come sooner than anyone had hoped. None of the team had slept, save for the brief hour and a half nap Keith managed to squeeze in before helping Shiro coordinate where they were going to meet up with Ti-Bala. Coran met up with Lance and Hunk to coordinate a half-assed dance routine while Pidge finished up the invisi-shield for Blue, promising to learn the routine on the way to Nyxir. A little last minute, but it would have to work.

Now the whole team was congregated in the docking bay. They had already gone through a wormhole to get as close to Nyxir as possible without being spotted by the planet’s defense system; not that Nyxir would have attacked, but there was an element of anonymity they wanted to keep. No one could know Voltron or Altea had anything to do with this.

Lance, Hunk, and Pidge were all wearing their dance outfits-slash-disguises. It only made sense to also be disguised; they couldn’t just waltz in there with their beautiful-albeit-recognizable human faces! That would blow their whole cover!

Lance’s disguise was so ridiculous Keith literally couldn’t look at him without cracking up. The red paladin had taken to staring at his tail rather intently during this little briefing. Lance was sitting in the flashy new wheelchair Hunk had made for him; It was far more like a wheelchair than a scooter like the Altean chairs had been. It was basically a chair that hovered a foot and a half off the ground via four blue propulsion engines ‘similar to the ones in our suits’ or so Hunk had explained. And much like the suits, the chair just seemed to move with him if he leaned forward, backwards, or side to side. It wasn’t great at responding when he wanted to go up or down, yet. But it was definitely a step— or rather, hover— up from the putter-mobile.

As for his disguise, Lance was rather fond of it, even if Keith burst out laughing the second he saw it. He was wearing a sequin-emblazoned polo shirt, blue in colour to match the sequined headband he also sported over gelled-back hair. The sequins continued onto a bowtie that, while looked cool, totally pressed on his backfin in a weird way. But, he had sewed on way too many sequins not to be committed to his bowtie, so he was wearing it even if he felt a bit like he was being strangled.

He was also wearing thick goggles, the very same ones he had worn to the space mall, though this time he wore them over his actual eyes. And, as his piece-de-resistance , he had found a long fake beard that vaguely matched his hair colour and had glued it on with some goo from the kitchen. It was holding surprisingly well. Keith wouldn’t make eye contact with him, but he was happy with the disguise.

Pidge was dressed similarly, albeit with a pair of pants. Very sparkly pants, covered with green sequins that mimicked Hunk’s yellow pair; though, she noted, her pants were visibly sparser with the sequins. This was probably due to the fact that Lance was still sewing on sequins a minute before she put the pants on. She and Hunk had polos and bowties that matched Lance’s. Pidge had the matching headband, too, but refused to wear it until they actually arrived at the venue, and only then just for the performance. She wore a long blond wig and a gaudy amount of eyeshadow, leaving her glasses safely behind in her room. She even put on lipstick; it was Allura’s, bright red, and clashed terribly with her outfit. She also had on a pair of makeshift tap shoes, which were really just dress shoes with flattened spoons glued to the heel and toe. Coran had choreographed a tap solo for her. She hoped they didn’t have to get that far into the routine, but if they did she had plans just to jump up and down and stomp her feet a lot, because she couldn’t remember a single thing from tap class.

Hunk also wore a wig, though his was an audacious blue, horrendously curly and pulled into pigtails on either side of his head. He wore sunglasses that completely obscured his face and also much of his vision. What part of his face that wasn’t obscured by the glasses was covered by a very bushy moustache that was brown and in no way matched his wig. But, the point was, he looked snazzy. The three of them looked snazzy. That is, if snazzy was a synonym for ‘completely ridiculous’.

Keith was still stuck in his scooter, though Hunk had tinkered with it a bit and it was a tiny bit faster. He held his helmet on his lap and had on a belt that held his knife and his bayard. He was, of course, still wearing the respiration vest. It hadn't exactly recycled the water since he had last worn it, so it tasted a bit like he was drinking in toilet water. The oxygen content was also lower than it should be, so he was constantly a bit out of breath. He hardly noticed, though. His mind was racing, adrenaline already pumping at the thought of this mission.

“Alright, then.” Shiro, wearing his full suit, the helmet tucked under his arm, “Lance, you’ll be flying Blue. Keith, Allura, and I will be hitching a ride with you.”

Lance nodded, his tail twitching under him. He side-eyed Keith, “No backseat flying, okay?”

“Shut up.” Keith grunted, hitting Lance on the arm.

“Hunk, Pidge, and Coran will be using the shuttle,” Shiro continued, nodding to one of the basic space commuters parked in the back of the bay.

Hunk raised his hand as if he was back in the classroom. “And this is because…?”

“Because they think we're the Garrison Trio.” Pidge said. Lance scoffed loudly.

“Pidge! Please, it's Le Garrison Trio. Take out the le and we're just some shlubs.”

“Right.” Pidge rolled her eyes, “How could I forget?”

“I’ll be flying,” Coran said. He was wearing an audacious patterned suit, looking like a hockey commentator. He was also wearing a strange conical hat, which he assured them was the height of fashion ten thousand deca-phoebs ago. “As your manager, it's only right that I get you to your performance.”

“Ans you're going to be doing most of the talking, right?” Hunk asked, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head. “You know I clam up in front of strangers.”

“When dealing with Nyxirians, I'm not sure I'll have to say much.” Coran said, rubbing his face, “I most likely won't be given the chance.”

“Don't worry, Coran, I have your back,” Lance said. He laid a hand on his chest with a bit of flair,. “I have what we humans call the gift of gab.”

“Ah,” Allura tapped her chin, “Is that when someone can drawl on incessantly about absolutely nothing of worth?”

“Yep, that's exactly it.” Pidge replied.

“Okay, okay, rude.” Lance huffed. He opened his mouth to say more, but Shiro interrupted him.

“We need to hurry this along. Ti-Bala is expecting us,” He said, “Get to your ship, I’ll explain the rest on route.”

The group split in two, half headed to the commuter ship, the rest headed towards Blue.

Keith sighed. This was where it was going to get awkward. Again. His scooter, of course, wouldn't fit in Blue’s cockpit, so they would have to improvise. Again.

Lance sat in the pilot's chair, of course, cooing to Blue as she purred to life. Shiro carried Keith on board. Keith had all but gotten over the embarrassment of having people carry him. It was the fact that Shiro gently placed him down in Lance's lap; there was nowhere else for him to go unless he wanted to be sliding around on the floor in the back. And it wasn't that Keith had a problem with sitting on his boyfriend's lap, it was that he was sitting on his boyfriend's lap while Shiro and Allura were watching . And for someone not wearing pants and not in complete control over his dick, this was a problem.

So he sat sideways across Lance, his arms wrapped around his shoulders and their tails interlocked, hoping he wouldn't get a boner.

“Babe,” Lance shifted, craning his neck to the side to see past Keith's giant head, “I can't see, babe.”

“Sorry, there’s not a lot of space.” With the new setup of the lion, he had to leave enough space for Lance to access the new throttle. That meant he couldn’t lounge across his lap like Lance had done him.

“Awh~!” Allura cooed from behind them, hands clasped together, “You address each other as babe? I assume that’s some sort of affectionate term. That’s adorable!”

Keith groaned, staring up at the ceiling. If ever god would need to smite him, now would be a good time.

“Yeah, we're pretty cute.” Lance said, trying his best to look cool but his cheeks were turning red. He shifted again, trying to find a position where he could see and wasn't also ramming his backfin into the back of the chair. Keith scooted his butt back, his ass settling right where Lance's dick used to be, and still was inside. Lance barked out a groan. In an awesome show of restraint he managed not to shove Keith off him, instead shifting his hips so that Keith slid to the side.

“Sh—sorry.” Keith breathed, his own face flushing under his already red scales.

“It's fine,” Lance eked out. He glanced behind him at the two other passengers, “Ready to go?”

“Ready.” Shiro said, walking forward from where he was wedging Keith's scooter upright against the wall. He held onto the back of Lance's chair, nodding to Allura to do the same.

“Awesome, let's get this show on the road,” Lance grinned in a way he hadn't in weeks. He leaned to the side, trying to reach the comm system, but he couldn't reach with Keith sitting on him, “Babe, can you hit the comm?”

“Yeah, sure.” Keith reached out, easily pressing the button. The comm system booted up with a chime.

Lance cleared his throat and called out. “Calling Centaur Two, do you copy Centaur Two?”

“What?” Pidge's tinny voice came back through the system, “Centaur?”

“Yeah, that's the codename for the shuttle.” Lance said.

Keith raised a brow. “Since when?”

“Actually, that commuter ship already has a name—” Allura started, but Lance cut her off.

“Listen, we needed cool code names and what's cooler than a centaur?

“Yeah, okay Lance,” Hunk voice came through the comm, “Next time you get transformed by a alien plant we’ll try for a centaur instead of a mermaid.”

Pidge snorted. “Are mermaids not just fish centaurs?”

“Can we just get going?” Shiro sighed, already rubbing his face tiredly.

“Right, mission,” Lance said, “Well Centaur One is all ready to go. Centaur two?”

“We're ready here,” Coran replied, “And I for one enjoy the name 'Centaur’, Lance.”

“Thanks Coran, you always got my back.” Lance grinned. He looked back at Shiro, “You going to call it, Cap’t?”

“Why don't you call it, Lance?” Shiro said with a slight smile, “Leadership looks good on you.”

Lance paused, seemingly taken aback. He turned back, feeling Blue swell with what felt with pride through the connection. He shook his head, recovering smoothly, or so he hoped, “Alright team. Let's head out! Coran, follow my lead. Once we get visual, I’ll flip on the invisi-lion and we'll split up. Okay?”

“Copy that, Lance.” Coran replied. Lance nodded, catching Keith's eye and smiling.

“Awesome. Then let's get this party started. I'm ready to stand on my own two feet again.” He pulled up on the throttle and Blue responded immediately, pushing off the ground with a roar.

They exited the castle, Centaur Two closely behind.

“Sending forward coordinates.” Pidge said. Seconds later a red blip appeared overlayed across Blue’s windshield.

“Perfect,” Lance murmured, swinging Blue around and accelerating towards the little dot.

“Commuter—” Shiro started, but paused when Lance raised his hand.

“Please, Shiro, use the codenames.”

Shiro sighed, “Fine. Centaur Two. Once we break atmosphere, be ready to meet at the rendezvous point. It should be in your data files already.”

“Behind the giant mountain,” Keith said, giving Shiro a look, “you told us before. There's literally one mountain on this planet. I think we got it.”

“I find the coordinates helpful.” Pidge said through the comm.

“Thank you, Pidge,” Shiro replied, returning Keith's look, “Anyways. We’ll leave Blue at the rendezvous point, invisibility cloaking still enabled. Lance will join Centaur two, and you will head into the city to meet with the contact that's been working under Obaju. They've been placed in the position by the rebels. They will bring you to Obaju for the performance.”

“Got it.” Hunk said, “But… are we really going to have to dance? Because we're not very good.”

“Oh, I'm sure they'll love you.” Allura said, “Nyxirians are very easily impressed.”

“While the dance group heads to the performance, we’ll be meeting up with Ti-Bala.” Shiro said, glancing between Keith and Allura. Keith groaned.

“What!? The point of me being in this position is so I wouldn't have to deal with Ti-Bala! I'm supposed to stay with Otorii and the other scientists!”

“You will be with Otorii. Once Ti-Bala brings us there.” Shiro said, “They also wanted to stay with you.”

“What! When did you even talk to them? I was talking to them and made it pretty clear that they were supposed to stay with you.”

“While you were sleeping,” Shiro said. “The rebels wanted to appoint someone to stay behind and make sure we didn’t take their captives before the mission was done. Ti-Bala was very adamant it be them.”

“And no one told me?” Keith cried. He huffed crossing his arms, “I knew I should have slept.”

“Ack!” Lance winced as Keith elbowed him in the side, “Babe, watch it, I’ve got needles in my sides, remember?”

“Ah! Sorry,” Keith patted Lance’s side, which really didn’t help in any way, but Lance didn’t stop him. It was cute, even if a little painful.

“When we meet up with Ti-Bala and the rebels,” Shiro said, bringing them back on topic, “I’ll head out with the team of rebels, while you three— Allura, Keith, and Ti-Bala— will stay with the scientists. You’ll wait there for confirmation that Obaju is captured, and once you have confirmation, you’ll escort the scientists from their holding cell back to the commuter ship.”

“It’s a good plan.” Allura said, “hopefully everything goes according to it.”

“Does it ever go according to plan?” Keith said flatly. Lance snorted.

“No, but luckily we’re good at thinking on our feet.” He paused, eyebrows furrowing, “Or… y’know. Other manners of mobilization.”

“Nyxir in range.” Coran’s voice crackled across the system.

“Sweet. Now we get to use our cool new tech.” Lance said. He looked at Keith, “Babe, can you hit the button for the cool new tech?”

“Y'know you can call me things aside from babe.” Keith chided, leaning over to hit a button he hoped would deploy the invisi-lion.

Lance's face fell, “You don't like ‘babe’?”

“It’s not that—“ Keith sputtered, “I just mean, nevermind. It’s fine.” He looked away. It felt weird talking about this in front of Shiro. Lance stared at him with a confused frown. He was pulled away from whatever spiralling line of thought was beginning to take him by Pidge's cry of triumph.

“It worked! Ha ha! I wasn't sure it would work.”

“You weren't sure it was going to work!?” Keith cried.

“Being a mechanical genius is hard on short notice.” Pidge replied.

Nyxir slowly came into sight. From space, it looked a dull green, an oblong ring of dust orbiting the planet along with three moons. As they came closer, the dull green turned to a slate blue, broken up by patches of verdant green.

“Breaking atmosphere in two hundred parsecs,” Lance said, “see you at the rendezvous point, Centaur Two. Going to end transmission now in case someone locates our radio wave.”

“Got it. See you on the ground.” Coran replied, and the line went dead. Lance prodded Keith, who in turn leaned forward and turned off the comm system.

They entered the atmosphere. It was a tad bumpier than expected, but Keith refrained from backseat piloting too much. Allura spotted the mountain first, not that it was easily missed in the sparse landscape. Indeed, the planet was mostly covered in water— not ocean like the Meraliens, but a gray-green bog populated mostly by scraggly reeds and thick, bulbous trees. From the sky they could clearly make out An’Batal, a patch of sparkling light against the dim marshes.

Lance swung Blue around the mountain, landing on the eastside, out of view from An’Batal, just in case the invisibility cloaking malfunctioned.

Centaur Two pulled around, landing in the marshy grass at Blue’s base.

“We have landed,” Lance said, retrieving his bayard. Blue murred and went still.

Keith smiled, sitting up ever so slightly. “Part one done.”

Shiro suddenly appeared hovering over them like a concerned parent. “You guys ready for this?”

“Beyond ready.” Lance drawled, “I’ve been waiting for this for weeks.”

“Me too. Let's just hope this try is the one that works.” Shiro said. Without much fanfare he hoisted Keith up over his shoulder like a fireman.

Keith sputtered, his hands flailing a bit before gripping Shiro’s shoulders. “A little warning would have been nice!” His tail flipped around, trying to find purchase, but only managing to slap Lance in the side of the head. Honestly, he deserved it, he had been cackling loudly.

Allura was laughing, too, really winning out in this situation and not getting slapped upside the head but rather able to laugh at the guy who did.

After some maneuvering and finagling, the team assembled outside, wheelchairs and all. The ground was soft and squished under their feet, mostly made of mud and thatch. The air was breathable but stank like dead fish and was disgustingly humid. It was also very warm, but the sort of muggy warmness that came from humidity and not sunlight. There wasn't much in terms of light. It was actually rather dim, like a never ending twilight.

“Eugh, what a dreadful place.” Allura groaned, lifting her leg and trying to shake the slimy mud off her foot. A glob flew off, sailing through the air in a grand arc and splattering on the ground with a gross squish. The group erupted in various sounds of disgust.

“This might be the one time that I'm glad I'm not walking.” Keith said. Lance patted his arm.

“Yeah, okay, don't jinx us.”

“Why are we all standing around?” Hunk frowned, shifting from side to side. He was getting mud on his sparkle pants, “Shouldn't we be getting going?”

“We have to wait for Ti-Bala,” Shiro said, popping his helmet on. Even if they could breath this air, the stench was enough of a reason to use the filtration system instead. Allura followed his lead.

“Ah, great.” Hunk commiserated. Whether that was to the fact he didn't have his helmet and therefore had to smell the funk or to the fact that they had to wait for Ti-Bala, he never explained. He pulled up his beard over his nose in a last ditch effort to mask the smell.

Shiro walked forward, looking out at the brown-grey expanse. While they were on somewhat solid ground, the mud quickly gave way to marshy water. Back westward the land was more solid. An'Batal was built on rock, but out here there was just mud and water. “They're supposed to meet us here—”

Shiro cut himself off, spotting a person shaped blob of slime emerging from the water. They crawled out of the lake and slowly rose upright before shaking off like a dog. Globs of mud flew just inches away from the group, nearly hitting Lance.

“Ugh! Hey! Watch where you're flinging that stuff! He cried, pulling his tail up against his chest and away from the flying mud blobs.

The person ignored Lance and wiped off their face, revealing four opaque, smiling eyes. They grinned, bouncing on their heels before rushing toward them. “Keith!!

Keith tried to back up in his scooter. “Oh no. No, no, no, Ti-Bala wait—! ” But they didn’t wait. Ti-Bala bounded forward, and leaped off the ground to tackle Keith in a great big hug. They knocked Keith out of his scooter and the two toppled over into the mud. Keith groaned, weakly trying to push his assailant off of him. “Please… get off.”

“Is that Ti-Bala?” Hunk whispered to Shiro, pointing at the alien trying to get as close as possible to Keith's face, “Or should we be worried about this person trying to smother Keith in the mud?”

“Hey! Get off him!” Lance leaned forward to help his downed boyfriend. Unfortunately he was forgetting the capabilities of his new wheelchair, and started zooming forward and nearly toppled head over fins into Coran.

Pidge was more than happy to take down Ti-Bala in Lance's absence. She went to jump forward, ready to pick a fight with someone roughly her size, but was unfairly held back by Hunk.

“No!! Pidge!” He cried, holding onto both her arms even as she squirmed in a vy at freedom, “Your outfit! You can’t get it muddy!”

“Guys! Calm down!” Keith shouted, extricating himself from the muddy figure’s grip, “It's just Ti-Bala.”

“Sorry!” Ti-Bala pulled back off of Keith, “I’m just so excited to see you in person!” With the muddy water all slothed off of them, the group could finally see them.

Keith wasn't entirely off base when he described Nyxirians as a mix of an insect and a frog. Though, if Lance were to describe Ti-Bala, he’d say they looked more like a mudkip. He couldn't fault Keith for not noticing the similarities between the Nyxirian and a mudkip, though, because he probably thought a Pokemon was a type of car.

Still, to Lance and anyone who had had a childhood, the Nyxirian looked like a mudkip. They were bipedal, with two arms and two legs, and four black, pupiless eyes. They wore a navy blue spandex looking jumpsuit with a little embroidered planet on the breast that looked vaguely like Nyxir. Their skin was moist, slimy looking, and a dull blue-gray in colour. From their forehead protruded two thin antenna with luminescent bulbs on the ends, their tail the same. Their feet, currently covered in mud, were very long with equally long webbed toes on the end, like build in flippers. Their fingers were similarly long and webbed.

But what made them look the most like a mudkip was the bright red protrusions on their head.

Actually, scratch that. The weird knobbly bumps looked more like a machamp.

God, Lance missed Pokemon. He vaguely wondered if it was still airing back home. Was Ash still ten? Were they making new increasingly unoriginal pokemon? Will Team Rocket ever catch Pikachu??

Lance was so lost in thought he missed Ti-Bala helping Keith back up into his seat and their initial greetings. Shiro, luckily, hadn't been ruminating about a Japanese animated children's show.

“Nice to meet you, Ti-Bala.” Shiro stepped forward and offered his hand, “I’m Shiro, Paladin of the black lion.” Ti-Bala stared at the outstretched arm for a moment. The three raised bumps that curved around their head like a trilobal mohawk started to flash with rose light. Ti-Bala smiled.

“Nice to meet you too, sir,” they said, their knobs lighting up like christmas lights. They then held out their hand in a mirrored motion of Shiro's, jutting out perpendicular to their body but making no motion to actually shake his hand. After an awkward second, Shiro took their hand in his and shook it. It was so incredibly awkward Lance had to physically look away. He wasn't the only one, though. He caught Hunk looking like he was in actual pain.

“Interesting,” Ti-Bala said, their voice high-pitched and tinny, “is this some human ritual? This is so awesome!! I've never touched a human before except for Keefy a second ago. You're a very nice looking human, Shiro. Are there more of your subspecies on earth? I wouldn't mind meeting more Shiros.”

“Uh, no, I—” Shiro actually looked flustered, glancing between Ti-Bala and Allura, “I’m the only Shiro. Uh. At least the only Shiro who looks like me, I'm sure there are other people named Shiro on earth…”

“Wow!! That's so cool!” Ti-Bala gasped, and opened their mouth to say more before Allura piped in.

“We’ll have lots of time for cultural exchanges later. For now, we need to hurry. We have a plan to execute.”

“Righto lady!” Ti-Bala clapped their hands together; less so a clap and more of a moist slap, “The dancers need to head into An’Batal. My friend Rag-Bok will be waiting for you outside the city gates.”

“Perfect!” Coran popped up between Hunk and Pidge. He clearly didn't want to stick around too long, a hand on either Paladin's shoulders, gently herding them towards the commuter ship, “We’ll head there now—”

Hunk apparently didn't get the 'do not engage in conversation more that absolutely necessary’ memo “Wait, how will we know it's the right guy?”

Ti-Bala threw their head back and cackled , though it sounded more like a horrifying clicking. Keith flinched and covered his ears. “Ksaaapppppp! You're so funny!! He's got a unique face, he's instantly recognizable!”

“Oh… kay.” Hunk said, still shook from that noise that had just come out of the alien’s face.

Keith sighed, dragging a muddy hand down his face, regretting it instantly. “Ti-Bala. That doesn’t help us at all.

Allura cut in, trying to be a bit more polite with her concerns. “What Keith means is that it's a bit hard for us to, er, distinguish… your…”

“We don’t know what your species looks like.” Keith interjected, “Everyone looks unique to us right now.” All his conversations with Ti-Bala had taught him you need to be very direct with them.

“Yeah, uh, no offense but you're the only Nyxirian I've ever seen.” Lance said, “So, like, anyone who looks vaguely like you I'm gonna think is Ragnarok.”

“Rag-Bok.” Coran corrected.

“Rag-Bok.” Lance echoed, though it was completely drowned out by Ti-Bala’s clicking laughter.

“Okay, so, I knew you guys would probably be morons or blind or something,” They said, hands clasped together, tail flicking behind them, “so of course I set up a super secret signal that he'll give to you! Here, I’ll show you.” Ti-Bala tools step back, hands on their hips, and started to blink. They blinked each eye once, waggled their antenna, then made their head bumps strobe a few times.

“Okay, easy enough to notice.” Lance said.

“Like I said, super simple.” Ti-Bala nodded, their antenna still waggling a bit, “You just have to do it back to Rag-Bok so he knows you're who you say you are!”

There was a moment of silence, quickly broken by Pidge crying out, “What?

“Ti-Bala,” Keith said, his voice gravely, “None of us have enough eyes or antenna to do that.”

Ti-Bala stared at him for a moment. Then they threw their head back and cackled loudly, “ksaaaaaaap you're so right! I totally didn't think about that! Oh well, you guys are all so cute I'm sure Rag-Bok will notice you right away!”

“Oh boy.” Hunk breathed.

“Let's get going then,” Coran said without skipping a beat, putting his arms around Hunk and Pidge's shoulders, “no time to waste!!” He turned and practically pushed the two paladins towards the ship, not that they really wanted to stick around that much anyways.

“That's my cue.” Lance said, throwing out a rally of finger guns. He turned his wheelchair around and started towards Centaur Two when he felt something catch his wrist. He looked down then up meeting Keith's eyes. The red paladin smiled, dropping his hand.

“Be careful out there.”

Lance smirked. “What do I have to worry about?”

Keith frowned. “I'm serious. Stay safe.”

“It's going to be fine. This is going to work this time. I feel it.” Lance said. He leaned in a kissed Keith, gently, “Leave the worrying to me. I'm much better at it.” He pulled away, suddenly very aware of everyone's eyes on them. He slipped a hand into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled something out, placing it in Keith's hand, “See you later.”

Keith watched him roll away onto the small ship. He glanced down into his hand. Lance had given him his fidget cube.

Keith was still watching the ship take off when Shiro spoke up.

“Let's get into position, too. Where are the scientists? And the rebels?”

“Oh, right!” Ti-Bala nodded, bouncing on their toes. They turned back towards the swampy water, “Luckily the rebels and the scientists are pretty much in the same place!”

Allura stepped forward, her boots squishing in the mud “And that is…?”

“Right there!” Ti-Bala threw an arm out towards the muddy water. They didn't elaborate any further, rather just started to wade into the mud, which made a horrible squelching noise.

“I…don't see anything.” Shiro said. Ti-Bala laughed.

“Under the water, silly!”

“Wait, what.” Keith’s attention was finally pulled back to the present.

Shiro’s brows furrowed. “They're… underwater?”

Keith nearly fell out of his chair, praying—no, pleading — that Ti-Bala hadn't inadvertently drowned the scientists, “Please, please tell me they're not in the water—”

“Ksap!! You guys are hilarious!” Ti-Bala cried, literally doubling with that horrible chittery laughter, “No, of course we have our super secret rebel base in the caves under this swamp. A lot of Nyxir is underwater, y’know!” The Nyxirian waded out further into the muddy water, submerging up to their hips, “C’mon! Can't y’all breathe underwater?”

Allura exchanged a pained glance with Shiro, who was already popping on his helmet. She sighed, following his lead. “Yes, I suppose we can.” She started wading out into the thick, goopy mud, the sludge swallowing her legs whole with a disgusting squelch. Shiro was behind her, wondering vaguely if the tar like mud would stain their suits.

“Wait!” Keith called out, “Hey! What about me!?” He managed to coax the scooter a few feet forward before the thrusters clogged with mud and the whole chair got lodged in the goop.

“Ah, right.” Allura turned.

Ti-Bala stopped, too, submerged up to their neck now. “I thought you could breathe underwater? Isn't that the whole reason you're here?”

“Okay, yeah, but the vest can't.” Keith jutted his thumbs towards himself and apparatus that was currently keeping him alive, “It can't get wet.”

Shiro started wading back towards the marginally more solid ground, “I’ll have to carry you in, then.”

“You’ll have to carry him pretty far, and quickly,” Allura said, “this mud is too thick for him to breathe, I'm sure.”

Keith shuddered at the thought of having to breathe in the brown, sludgy water. How was he going to breathe in that brown, sludgy water!?

“You’ll be fine,” Ti-Bala said with How was he going to breathe in the brown, sludgy water!?

“You'll be fine!” Ti-Bala cried with far too much confidence and far too little concern for Keith's liking. “The water is clearer once you get down past the surface.”

“I know!” Allura suddenly said, hurriedly wading towards the shore again, “I’ll throw you in!”

“What?” Keith cried. His shoulders tensed and his tail curled around the handlebars of his scooter, and despite this Allura was still approaching him, “No, no, what? Allura, I don't think—”

“I can use my transformative magic to change into something stronger!” She grinned almost ferociously, “Then I'll be able to throw you past the shallows and into the water where you can breathe.”

“Oh my kricki! That sounds like so much fun!!” Ti-Bala cried, “Can you throw me too??”

Allura sighed. “Sure, why not?”

Keith groaned, pushing his fingers up under his goggles to rub at his eyes. He didn't have much of a choice; either he would be strangled by the air while being carried out to actual viable water, or be strangled by the mud if he tried to crawl out through the sludge himself. Or, thirdly, be chucked fifty feet through the air and hopefully land in the water. All of the options were so bad it was like they were specifically created to be as bad a possible for him.

“Fine, whatever, throw me.” He grumbled, already beginning of to unclasp the vest buckles. He pretended not to notice Allura bouncing giddily next to him.

“Excellent!”

“I’ll help.” Shiro said, and suddenly everyone was back out of the water and crowded around Keith's scooter. When Keith glanced back up from his buckles, Allura was a good foot taller and definitely looked capable of throwing him fifty feet.

“I don't think that'll be necessary, Shiro.” Allura said sweetly. Keith somehow managed to hold in a snort.

The whole process of getting out of the vest and into Allura's arms while holding his breath was as terrible as usual. Like always, his sides spasmed, his gills burning, contracting in an effort to pull in water that wasn't there. Allura hoisted him into her arms, gently unravelling his tail when it wrapped itself around her forearm.

“Try not to flail around, Keith,” Allura said, “you'll go farther if you hold still.”

Keith nodded, a horrible choking noise escaping his mouth. Oh, right. He was suffocating.

“Just throw him!” Shiro said and Allura obliged, suddenly shifting back and then launching Keith into the air. As he was sailing over the muddy water he heard Ti-Bala's nonchalant warning.w

“Oh, yeah, watch out for the light poles in the water! They are kinda every—” Whatever else they said was suddenly cut off by the cacophonous sound of his his body hitting the water.

Water instantly flooded into him. The taste was overwhelming, almost overshadowing the relief of not choking. It didn't taste bad, per say. It tasted like really watered down grape flavoured cough syrup. But, just as Ti-Bala had said, the water was clearer out here, it also helped that he had goggles on. He listed for a moment a few feet under the surface, gazing down into the depths. It was much deeper than he had thought, dropping down farther than he could see. Several meters down he could see a large rock formation, most likely an underwater cave. All along the rock face he could see little patches of plant life, glowing ominously red in the dark waters. The Red-Tipped Lightpole. An ice cold chill ran down his spine.

He couldn't ruminate on the fact that the source of all his problems was in abundance around him for very long. A loud splash and a pillar of bubbles suddenly crashed down next to him. He he was pushed away in the subsequent current like a sock in a washing machine.

“That was so much fun!!” Ti-Bala emerged from the cloud of bubbles, kicking their feet and waving their arms around. Their head nodules pulsed red, “It's like I could fly for a second!”

Keith swam closer, idly rubbing his gills. “This water tastes weird.”

Ti-Bala rolled over in the water to face Keith. “Does it? I never noticed! I guess it makes sense since it is a fen.”

“…A what?”

“A fen! You know, like a bog but the water and soil are alkaline instead of acidic?”

Keith blinked at them. “Oh?” He forgot Ti-Bala was actually a scientist and probably knew some things. Some stuff. Smart stuff. “It's not going to kill me, right?” His head was starting to feel a little fuzzy, but maybe that was just from the adrenaline of being thrown fifty feet.

Ti-Bala shrugged. “Probably not?”

“Probably.” Keith said, but wasn't able to continue that thought. Allura and Shiro swam up, suddenly appearing out of a cloud of muddy water several feet away. Keith waved to them, “Hey! Over here!”

“Actually, down there.” Ti-Bala said as the two swam up, “That's our super secret base. Do you see it?” They were pointing to the giant cave system under them.

“Yes, I can see the big ass cave.” Keith said.

“Don't you think the Aequor plants are so pretty?” Ti-Bala sighed, clasping their hands together, “I love the red glow they give off.”

“No.” Keith griped.

Shiro and Allura finally reached them, their armour coated with a layer of brown-green sludge. Allura was back to her original self, looking down at the bunches of red below them. “So those are the plants?”

“Yep! So be careful not to touch 'em.”

“Allura and I have our armour,” Shiro said, exchanging glances with Keith, “You're unprotected. Be careful.”

“I will be.” Keith said, then, inexplicably added, “I don't plan on turning even more into a fucking fish.” He blinked, wondering why he had even opened his mouth a second time.

“Ksap!! Don't worry, they glow, so you'll see them from a mile away.” Ti-Bala half-slapped his shoulder and laughed, before diving down through the water, “Okay, follow me!”

Keith grumbled and rubbed his arm before following Ti-Bala down. He avoided Shiro's concerned-but-disappointed look the whole way down.

The cave was shaped a bit like a saxophone. The opening tunnel faced the surface, leading down deeper, before curving back upwards. They swam upwards again, eventually breaching the surface into an air pocket; a large area domed by slick black rock. The ground was likewise black and appeared wet; the torches on the walls light reflected off the stone in splotches of glimmering white. The cave was probably fifty feet tall and maybe a hundred across. It was clearly organized into two sections; one side was packed with crates, electronics, beds, and a little chicken hutch with several chicken-esque creatures running about inside. The other half of the dome was populated by beds and… people. Many people of many different races all currently peering blinking at the newcomers.

“Welcome!!” Ti-Bala popped out of the water with an uncanny grace, “To our little home!”

“Wow, this is extraordinary.” Allura pulled herself up out of the water, sitting on the edge of the rock. Shiro pulled himself out as well, popping off his helmet and looking around.

“Is this the rebel’s base of operations?”

“Yes!! It's also my lab,” Ti-Bala said, “My team is researching the effects of certain chemicals on these BokBoks.” They gestured to the hutch, “The government doesn't care a lot about science. I don't think they actually know this facility is here. But!! We had it at our disposal so I thought 'oh my kricki we can fit like a whole bunch of people in here!!’ and so here we are!”

“And that's why you had the computer system with IGSC on it.” Keith popped his head out of the water, hanging onto the rock lip with his body in the water. It was just like being back in the pool, except the water tasted like chemicals, “Where's Otorii? Is he in here?”

The group of aliens had started to gather around, and Otorii's name sent whispers through the crowd.

“Yeah, he's here somewhere.” Ti-Bala said. They turned and looked out into the crowd, “Hey!! Where's Otorii Irigan?”

One of the figures stood and stepped forward, the crowd parting around him. Even if they hadn't, it would have been hard to miss him. He about a foot taller than Shiro and looked like a bipedal bison wearing glasses.

“Oh my god he’s a fucking furry,” Keith whispered to himself. Shiro turned to him wide eyed, thankfully the only one that heard.

What? ” He hissed. Keith stared blankly back.

“I don't know why I said that.”

“Keith, I presume.” The giant blue bisonman stood at the edge of the water now. He crouched and offered his hand, “Dr. Otorii Irigan. Not exactly where I would have like to have met, but it's an honour to have finally met you in person.”

“Hi,” Keith said, taking Otorii's hand. It completely engulfed his own, “Holy shit your hands are huge… I don't know why I keep saying things.”

“That would most likely be the water,” Otorii said with a hint of laughter in his voice, “Nyxirian water has some… interesting effects on those exposed over longer periods.”

“Ksks!” Ti-Bala laughed, “Yeah isn't it great?? That's actually scientifically why we're all so fun.” Ti-Bala bounced on their toes. Keith blinked. So the Nyxirians were always high from their own water? That made a lot of sense.

“Oh,” Keith said, glancing around, “Okay, but. I need it to not die.”

“You’ll be fine,” Otorii said, “from what I heard, it's similar to imbibing in a few alcoholic beverages.” His eyes floated down to their hands. Keith was holding onto one of his fingers like a baby. Keith stared at this for a moment, then let go with a groan.

“I'm not usually… like… this. I’m really acting like an idiot, huh? Fuck, I'm fucking up our meeting. Sorry. This was supposed to be cooler when I imagined it in my head.”

“I’m enjoying it,” Shiro snorted. Allura was giggling behind her hand.

“Wow, I hate you?” Keith said, then turned back to Otorii, “We’re going to get you and all the other weird looking alien scientists out of here, okay?”

“The wonderful Ti-Bala and company have let me know this.” Otorii said, “I very much appreciate what you and the rest of Voltron is doing.” He stood and shook Shiro's hand, “Thank you. Which Paladin are you?”

“He's the black one.” Keith helpfully pointed out.

“My name is Takashi Shirogane,” Shiro laughed, “You can call me Shiro.”

“Thank you very much for your assistance, Mr. Shirogane.” Otorii said. He turned to Allura and bowed his head, “And you must be Princess Allura of Altea. You have no idea how amazed I was to learn there are still Alteans out there in the galaxy. It is quite the honour to meet you.”

“Oh! You don't have to bow,” Allura giggled, blushing a bit, “Thank you, sir.”

Otorii smiled and stood, nodding, “I assume, then, there is a reason we haven't left immediately.”

“Nope, gotta wait til Obaju’s been skewered!” Ti-Bala said, “Sorry Tori. We're trading you guys for Voltron's services.”

“I suppose that's how these things work,” Otorii said, “I personally don't mind playing a part in bringing down a terrible regime.”

“I want to clarify that we’re not skewering anyone.” Keith said, “Not Voltron. Were just. Holding the door open for the skewering to happen.”

“Hopefully no one will be skewered,” Shiro cut in, “Voltron stands for peace, and we're hoping to facilitate that.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ti-Bala snorted, sounding a bit like a chicken being stepped on.

“Ti-Bala, where are the rebels I will be with?” Shiro asked. Ti-Bala nodded over their shoulder.

“Just in the next room over. I'll show you!” They took Shiro's hand and pulled-slash-dragged him away.

“Goodluck!” Keith called, “Don't get stabbed!”

“I'll try not to.” Shiro called back, before disappearing with Ti-Bala down a connecting tunnel.

“And I guess we'll just wait here, then.” Keith said, looking between Allura, Otorii, and one of the scientists in the distance who looked a bit like a pogo stick. Actually, he wasn't sure if that was an actual sentient being.

“Yes, we will wait here,” Allura said. She sat on the edge of the pool, her legs dipping into the water, “I wonder how the others are doing.”

Keith threw his head back and let out a groan, “God I hope they haven't fucked it up.”

Chapter Text

“We’re going to fuck this up.”

“We're not going to fuck it up, Lance.”

Lance leaned back against in his seat, his arms crossed and his hands tucked under his armpits because otherwise he was sure he'd start pulling his hair out. He had given Keith his fidget cube. He thought it would be cute. Actually, it was cute. But it was also a mistake because now Lance was intensely anxious and had nothing to distract himself with.

He sat in a seat at the back of Centaur Two; the ship was a commuter craft and had seating for two dozen people in its passenger area. The seats lined the walls of the circular space, leaving a pretty big empty bit in the center. Pidge and Hunk were currently using this space to execute some pretty terrible dance moves. It wasn't leaving Lance feeling too confident.

“The probability of fuckery is pretty damn high,” he said, looking to his main opposition: Hunk.

“Where are your statistical analysis showing the predicted probability of failure?” The yellow Paladin asked, still wearing his gaudy disguise, including the beard, which made it a bit hard to take him seriously.

Still, Lance was ready to debate this. “The fact that Pidge doesn't even know the dance routine, I think, skews the probable results.”

“Okay, well, you can't just assume . You need hard empirical evidence,” Pidge said, adding sheepishly, “to be fair.”

Lance gave her a glance of betrayal. “Oh, you need empirical evidence? Fine! The fact that we've failed twice before will be citations one and two on the thesis I write about this fucking ordeal!” He threw his hands up, nearly knocking his wig off.

“Okay but this is something entirely new,” Hunk said, “Therefore it’s unaffected by previous attempts.”

“Yeah, you know that's not how probability works,” Pidge said, “One roll of the dice has no effect on the next.”

Lance grumbled. They had him there. He wasn't about to stoop to the level of theoretical mathematics and the law of attraction.

“Okay, well. I'm worried about it.” He uncrossed his arms and sat forward, his shoulders drooping, pushing his goggles up over his wig, “My anxiety is through the roof, I'm freaking out –”

Hunk sat down heavily next to him, “You're always anxious about these things and they always turn out fine.”

“Okay, but, sometimes they don't.” Lance countered, “Example: Keith nearly blinded himself.”

“All we have to do is dance.” Pidge said, “Which, by the way, we should probably practice again.” She started squatting with her hands on her hips like a two handled teapot, clacking her spoon-shoes against the metal floor.

Lance took a deep breath, feeling the water rush in his sides and fill his core in the way that had become so familiar. He exhaled through his nose. All he had to do was dance. Dance, and not get stabbed.

Though, if he did get stabbed and died, he wouldn't have to worry about being a fish any more.

Okay, that thought was a little morbid. He should focus on the dancing and leave the fucked up jokes to Keith.

“Just follow me,” Lance said, raising his arms above his head in a fluid, circular motion, “Honestly, it's mostly in the arms. Uh, for obvious reasons. So I figure your legs can be doing whatever as long as our arms are at least a little bit in sync.”

Pidge nodded curtly, her face tight with concentration. She threw her hands up, following Lance, bouncing from one leg to the other. Click clack click clack. Hunk didn't bother getting up from his spot next to Lance, possibly because his awful sunglasses made it hard to see, but he did raise his hands up just a little bit. It wasn't the most complicated dance move in the world.

Just as Lance was beginning to relax a bit, the door that led to the pilot area slid open. The pilot's cockpit wasn't exactly large; the door was right behind the chair, which Coran was currently sitting in, manning the controls. He peered over his shoulder at the Paladins.

“You better wrap it up. We’ve almost arrived.” He called back to the group, turning back to look where he was flying.

Lance tensed. “Ah, right, right . The mission. Right.”

Hunk stood, patting Lance on the shoulder, “I'll go get the wheelchair.”

***

They touched down outside An’Batal, on the backside of another hill. The four of them piled out of the commuter, disguises on and nerves high.

“Where's the city?” Hunk complained, his shoes sinking into the squishy ground. Pidge shooed away a fly the size of her fist.

“Up over the ridge,” Coran said, as the fly flew towards him. He swatted at it, “Damned tuskflies!”

“I hate this planet.” Lance grumbled, though he was secretly contemplating chasing down that fly to get a better look at it. Did it actually have tusks? What environmental pressures caused it to be evolutionarily beneficial to have tusks?

Aliens were neat.

Speaking of which… “Hey, so aren't we supposed to be meeting Ragnarok here?”

“Rog-Bok,” Hunk corrected him.

Rag -Bok,” Coran said. “Make sure you don’t call him that, rog is a very offensive word in Nyxirian.”

“Oh.”

“Ah, there he is, I believe!” Coran pointed off to a figure cresting the peak of the hill.

The alien was… round. Having seen only one other Nyxirian in his life, Lance wasn't prepared for this sort of diversity. But the alien assumed to be Rag-Bok was short, round, and a dull green colour. He had yellow markings on his squash-shaped head like a rorschach test.

The Nyxirian waddled down the hill towards them, coming to a stop a few feet away. There was a moment of anticipatory silence. Then the alien started… blinking. He blinked each eye once, waggled his antenna, and then his nubby head bumps strobe three times.

The Paladins exchanged glances. Coran stepped forward cautiously.

“Greetings. Are you Rag-Bok?”

“Yup, I'm Rag-Bok.” Rag-Bok said in a much deeper, froggier voice than anticipated.

Coran glanced back at the others. Pidge shrugged. Coran gave her a withering look and turned back, saying to Rag-Bok, “We’re the three humans and Altean. Ti-Bala sent us.”

Rag-Bok was unmoved. “Yup.”

“Uh. You're supposed to bring us into the city?” Lance offered.

“Yup.” Both set of his eyes were heavily lidded, like he had just rolled out of bed. He was dressed similarity to Ti-Bala, though he wore a silver coat and had a silver cuff on his tail.

“Alright, well, uh,” Coran bounced on his toes, his heels making a disgusting squish against the ground. “Shall we go into the city, then?”

“Yup. Follow me.” Rag-Bok turned and started waddling back up the ridge. Coran shot the Paladins another suffering glance, and signaled for them to follow.

Lance took up the rear of the line following Rag-Bok up the side of the hill.

They rounded the top, the city of An’Batal unfurling below them. It was a massive city, seemingly going on into infinity.

Surrounding the city was a heavy wall. There were small little outcroppings of tents and shacks dotted along the perimeter, though you could see the real wealth was within the walls.

“Hmm, I don't remember the giant wall. Is that new?” Coran said as they started down the trail towards the gates.

“Yup,” Rag-Bok said. Lance was in awe of his extremely diverse vocabulary. He was beginning to think Rag-Bok was secretly part yupper.

“Did Obaju put this up?” Pidge asked, “part of his evil regime, maybe?”

Rag-Bok just nodded this time.

They passed through a tiny encampment. There were two or three Nyxirians sitting around a fire, cooking a two tailed fish. They all wore outfits similar to Ti-Bala's, though they looked old and worn.

Lance spoke up as soon as they were out of the encampment, “Hey Rag-Bok, why are there all these people living outside the city in these crappy little shacks? Shouldn't they be in houses?”

“There were houses here once,” Rag-Bok said, “They're gone now. Obaju put up the walls, only let some people in. Everyone else lives out here in the marshes.”

“I don't mind that he's going to get stabbed so much anymore.” Hunk said, adjusting his glasses.

They kept walking; or rather, floating in Lance's case. They walked for a good twenty minutes as the sun disappeared over the horizon and the tall grasses around them came alive with foreign sounds. There was all sorts of alien life out in the boggy fields.

The gates finally emerged over the tall brush, and grew tall as they came up to them. The gates themselves were metal, wrought iron maybe, curled into the image of a giant Nyxirian face. The face had green gems for eyes that seemed to follow the outsiders no matter where they moved.

Standing at the gates were two Nyxirian guards, armed with spears and wearing the same awful silver jacket as Rag-Bok. One was short and stocky, like Rag-Bok, while the other was slim like Ti-Bala.

“Halt!” The tall one shouted. Their voice was high pitched and nasally.

The group stopped in their tracks. Rag-Bok didn't seemed bothered and took a couple more steps. “Hey.”

The tall one grinned, lowering their spear. “Hi! That didn't take as long as I thought it would! Oiya put your spear up against the wall!” They pointed to the other guard and sure enough, there was a spear leaned up against the wall behind them.

Rag-Bok waddled over to fetch it, his frog-feet slapping against the stone floor. “I brought guests.”

“I see that!” The tall Nyxirian grinned, head lights pulsing. “Hello! My name's Tobb. This is Oiya, and I guess you've already met Rag-Bok! He's not a very excitable guy but he's still fun. Right Rag-Bok? Remember when we had the office party and you danced on the table??”

“Yup.” Rag-Bok said. Tobb threw her head back and cackled in that clicking, irritating laugh.

“Anyways, who are you guys? You're not Nyxirian are you?”

“No,” Pidge said, “we're not. What an astute observation.”

Tobb laughed again. “Don't know what that word means but okay!”

“Were supposed to be dancing for the king. Or… equivalent.” Lance said with a tone of urgency that he hoped would move this along, “We, uh, need to get up to the castle?”

“We don't have a king?” Tobb said, completely missing the second half of his sentence.

“Tobb, today's the day,” Oiya, the short guard next to Tobb, said, “Remember? The day .”

Tobb blinked, then gasped, “Oh! That's today?? Oh my kricki I didn't know!! ” She dropped her spear, then fumbled to pick it up again, “I thought we were going to overthrow– uhh, I mean, um, do the thing next week!”

Rag-Bok didn't say anything. He looked like he was used to this sort of thing. A tuskfly flew at Corans’s face, providing a brief interlude of entertainment while Tobb blabbered on.

“I'll bring you to the castle,” Tobb said. “You know two guards always bring in the guests.”

“I'm sure we'll be fine with just Rag-Bok–” Coran said, but Tobb shook her head violently.

“No, no, no, it'll be fun, ksap! C’mon, let's go!! Oiya, watch the gate.”

“Uh huh.” Oiya blinked.

“Come. Don't talk to anyone.” Rag-Bok said to the Paladins, “Stay close to us. We’ll get you inside.” He turned and started lumbering through the gate, which opened with a mechanical wheeze.

“This is going to be so fun!!” Tobb screeched, scampering to catch up with Rag-Bok.

“Alright. Here we go. Keep your guard up.” Coran said, looking at each of the Paladins with a curt nod. He herded the humans in front of him, and the pack followed the two Nyxirians through the city.

Lance had been to New York city once. An’Batal reminded him of New York, with tall glassy faced buildings, old brick apartments, and sidewalks filled with people and flowery decorations. There were Nyxirians everywhere; tall ones, short ones, skinny jumpy ones. Their fashion choices were… interesting. While on the outskirts of the city the aliens wore jumpsuits, but farther into the city the fashion got bigger and gaudier. There were tulle skirts wider than they were tall, button down shirts encrusted with glittering gems, and headdresses adorned with feathers of every colour.

“Uh, what's this?” Pidge leaned over and whispered to Lance as they walked. She was referring to the sudden change in scenery. The dull brick houses were covered with huge white tapestries. The roads were bedecked in vibrant cloths of yellow and white, while orange banners lined the streets. There were stalls set up on the sidewalks, selling sweet smelling fruit and bubbly drinks.

Hunk looked around, eyes wide. “Oh, there's the festival on, remember?”

“Yes! This is the Sun Season Festival!” Tobb excitedly babbled. She pointed to an overhead banner depicting a glowing white sun, “This is the beginning of our sun season

The absurd clothing choices got even more dramatic as they entered the festival. “For twenty quintents the sun appears above and showers the planet in warmth and light. This is a festival that celebrates the season!”

“Wait your summer is only for twenty days?” Pidge wrinkled her nose, “What's it like the rest of the time?”

Tobb’s face clouded over. “Terrible.”

“Ohhhhkay, so how far are we from the castle?” Lance drummed his fingers on the arm rest of his wheelchair. The sun was low in the sky. This is taking too long .

“Castle?” Tobb asked, “Obaju doesn't have a castle. ” She threw her head back and cackled.

They turned the corner off a narrow street. The tall buildings fell away and the street opened up, and suddenly they were looking up at a huge… fishbowl.

“You gotta be kidding me.” Hunk groaned, rubbing his face and nearly pulling his beard off.

“Nope.” Rag-Bok said and continued down the street.

Obaju, it seemed, lived in a house inside a giant orb. A big glass biosphere filled with crystal clear water. Brightly coloured alien fish could be seen swimming through the waters, like a massive aquarium. Nestled in the pale peach dirt, looking a bit like a tacky aquarium decoration, was a house. It wasn't small, but it certainly wasn't a mansion either. It looked a bit like a farmhouse on a huge plot of land, and the farmers were very rich.

“It's underwater?” Lance asked, his voice slowly hitching higher, “He lives underwater !? Guys, they can't breathe underwater –”

“It's not underwater!” Tobb laughed with far too much glee, “I mean, it is underwater. But the inside of his house is dry.”

“Wait what?” Pidge frowned. She huffed, completely over this whole thing. Honestly, Lance couldn't blame her. He was pretty tired of Nyxirians too. “He lives in an air sealed house at the bottom of a giant water tank!?”

Rag-Bok yawned. “Yup.”

“He likes to watch the fish.” Tobb said.

“That is so incredibly pretentious.” Hunk groaned.

“Now you see why we hate him so much?” Tobb grinned.

Lance whistled. “I mean, you gotta admit it looks real cool.”

“It is incredible to look at,” Coran agreed, “Though a little… well, it's not exactly subtle is it?”

“He's got style, I'll give him that.” Lance snorted, “I mean, I know he's a dictator, but I admire his grandiosity.”

“Many of our people died installing the Great Orb.” Tobb said.

Lance kept quiet after that.

 

***

 

To enter Obaju’s not-so-humble abode, they had to enter through an airlock. Airlocks were nothing new, of course. There were several at the garrison, going in and out of the giant pool where the students trained for low gravity situations. The airlocks at the garrison weren't guarded, of course.

The two guards at the airlock were much more… intense than Rag-Bok, Tobb, or Oiya. For one, they carried large guns rather than spears. For another, they were wearing full armour; teal pearlescent that sparkled in the fading light. And thirdly, and possibly most importantly, the guards at the airlock were easily seven feet tall.

“Someone's been nursing the ‘roids.” Lance whispered to Hunk once the terrifying guards had waved them through. They travelled down a long tunnel now, a glass arch above them looking up into the water. If anything it was breathtaking. For a moment Lance even forgot about the anxiety clawing at his throat.

“No, I read about this when I was researching Nyxir,” Pidge said, “Nyxirians are like bees. There are three types of bees; the workers, the drones, and the queen. For Nyxirians, there are three types too; the worker, the lover, and the soldier.” She paused, “Uh, well, loosely translated, anyways. I feel like ‘the lover’ is probably… lost in translation.”

“Ooh, are you guys talking about our subspecies?” Tobb looked back at the trio with four sparkling eyes. She winked a single eye, “Guess which one I am!”

“Uh.” Hunk’s eyes flickered between Tobb and Rag-Bok. He didn't want to imagine either of them as 'the lover’. If those two at the door hadn't been soldiers, he would personally start a petition to rename the whole species.

“Ooh, I know this!” Coran cried, “You're a lover, while Rag-Bok is a classic example of a worker.”

“Yup.” Rag-Bok said. Tobb squealed and clapped her hands, dropping her spear in the process.

“You're right! Points go to the weird old guy!!!”

Coran's smile fell flat. “Well now you've just hurt my feelings.”

“What does the lovers mean?” Pidge asked, sounding like she didn't really want to know, but needed to know.

“Well,” Tobb started, picking up her spear, “ typically, we’re the ones who carry the eggs!”

“Eggs?”

“Eggs!!” Tobb grinned, “We’re really good at making babies! Other sub-species do the fertilizing, of course. But we add that spark of life!”

Lance tried to wipe that imagery out of his brain. “What type is Obaju?”

“Y’know I don't actually know.” Tobb said, “Today's the first time I'm gonna see him!”

“Oh good, I love surprises.” Hunk said, sounding very much like he hated surprises.

“Ooh! Me too!” Tobb bounced, “Who wants to make bets?”

Thankfully they had reached the end of the tunnel before Tobb could take bets. There were two more guards installed on this end of the airlock, as well. They raised their weapons as the group approached.

“Oh, hi!!” Tobb walked forward towards them like she had never feared anything in her life, “We're here with the Garrison Trio. They're gonna perform for our Great Leader.”

The two guards exchanged glances, then lowered their weapons. The left guard waved them in as the airlock doors hissed open.

“Actually, it's Le Garrison Trio ,” Lance said as he went past, “Just letting you know so you can look it up on space Spotify later.” Pidge shoved his wheelchair forward and forcibly removed him from any more interaction.

The room they entered next was… well, it was about as gaudy as the crazy outfits people were wearing outside. It was a long hall with tall ceilings and giant floor to ceiling windows that looked out into the water and cast rippling lights across the stone floor. Yellow and white banners were strung up everywhere and, just like in the city there were lit candles on every surface.

There were also guards everywhere, standing at every door and marching around like this was a military base.

Running down the center of the room was a pool filled with sparkling blue water. Green and blue reptiles that vaguely resembled alligators lounged in the water, all wearing gold collars.

“Watch out for those,” Coran murmured as they passed, “those are mongbeast puppies. They would gladly rip you apart for a snack.”

Lance said nothing, mostly because one of the mongbeasts was staring at him and he wasn't ready to become the tasty snack he was. Puppies ? Were these guys babies ? They were already the size of a golden retriever and not nearly as cute.

His thoughts were pulled away from the creatures with the sound of a door opening and heels clattering across the hard floor.

All the guards faced the door, giving what they assumed was a salute as a tall, purple skinned woman stepped out into the hall. Her yellow eyes glinted with pride.

“Why is there a Galran here?” Pidge whispered. Lance just frowned. He exchanged glances with Hunk, feeling the anxiety swell in his chest.

Coran, thankfully, didn't skip a beat. He bowed, giving the woman a suave smile, “Hello! My name is Cor… Dan!” He glanced at Lance, as if Lance was any sort of authority on fake names. He mustered

The Galra smiled, “It is nice to meet you, Ker-Dan. I am Nallek, Obaju’s personal assistant.” She smiled again, nodding politely. She was a gracious looking woman, her purple hair pulled back in a loose bun. She wore a yellow blouse and a dark skirt and festive heels with suns on them. Her gaze settled on each of the humans in turn. “And you must be the Garrison Trio.” Suddenly Lance was regretting their terrible disguises. Her voice was soft, but her eyes were cold and seemed to pierce right through him.

“It’s actually Le Garrison Trio,” Lance was saying before he could stop himself. He grimaced inwardly and attempted to save himself with a smooth handshake, “The name’s, uh…” He hadn't thought of a fake name. He hadn't thought of a fake name !! “P-Pike. My name's Pike.” Pike? What dark annals of his brain did he pull that name from? He was pretty sure that was what he named a character in a video game once.

Pidge had seemed to think it through a bit more. She waved, “I’m Katie, and this is Funk.” She jerked her thumb at Hunk, who looked offended .

“Funk!?” Hunk cried out, then remembered the aliens staring at him. He cleared his throat, “ Please, Katie, you know my stage name is DJ Funky.”

Pidge let out a strained laugh. “Yes, of course, how could I forget.”

“Very happy to make your acquaintance,” Nallek smiled very briefly before continuing, “Now, if you would follow me, Obaju is waiting in his chambers. He’s very excited to see you. I don't believe he's ever met humans before.” She turned, starting on her way back through the door she had come from. Tobb made an odd clicking chirp, bouncing on her toes.

“Uh, do we get to go? Or should we go back to the gates? I wouldn't mind watching a dance, I love to dance!” She elbowed Rag-Bok in the side, “Right Rag-Bok? Remember at the last Dark Season festival–”

“That won't be necessary,” Nallek snapped, not even bothering to turn around. “Return to your posts. Trio, please follow me.”

Tobb looked heartbroken. Rag-Bok had no reaction. Lance gave them a little wave as they disappeared behind the door.

Nallek walked quickly, her heels clicking with every step. The Paladins– minus Lance– had to speed-walk to keep up. She led them through countless doors and hallways; it almost seemed purposeful as a way to make sure they would never find their way out again.

“If you don't mind me asking,” Coran started as they passed through their fourth doorway and took a left down another hallway, “I couldn't help but notice you're not…”

“Nyxirian? No, I'm Galran.” Her glanced over, a devilish grin parting her lips. Her eyes were sharp, “But I left their ranks deca-pheobs ago. The Nyxirians have been kind to me. I owe Obaju my life.”

Lance drummed his fingers on his armrest, exchanging glances with Hunk and Pidge. They looked back with weary faces. Why was a Galran here? It seemed odd. Maybe this Nallek was part of the reason there was unrest in the people.

They turned another corner and entered a long and narrow hallway. The ceilings were low, the walls a warm brown decked with sconces. At the end of the hall was an ornate door, guarded on either side by armed guards and two giant mongbeasts. These things were huge , like the size of horses, if horses had six inch long claws. They were barely restrained by held leashes.

“Don't mind them,” Nallek said as if she were talking about someone's cat, “They are Obaju's personal mongbeasts. They go with him everywhere, except his private chambers. The left one is Auk and the right one is Dave.”

“Dave?” Pidge echoed hollowly.

Nallek smiled. “Yes, Dave means 'fierce’ in Nyxirian.” She reached out and scratched Dave under his chin. The door opened rather unceremoniously and Nallek walked through without so much as glancing at the guards, or at the Paladins for that manner. Of course, they followed her in, minding very much the two terrifying creatures on either side.

They entered Obaju's room; or chambers if you were feeling fancy. It was a split level space, the top area a loft that looked down below. They were currently in the top level, standing on white tiled floors and surrounded by dark panelled wood walls. The space was heavily furnished with all sorts of furniture. There was a heavy wood bed pushed up against the far wall, and another bed, this one wrought iron, behind the couch… which looked like it came from the IKEA catalogue. There were also seven (Lance counted) side tables, four rugs, and countless tacky statues and lamps and candles on every surface. The guy was a hoarder.

Nallek deftly maneuvered through the maze of stuff , heading for the stairs that led to the lower level. “Follow me, don't touch anything.”

They did as they were told. Lance curled his tail up close to avoid the damned thing knocking over one of the seventeen candles on marble top side table.

The stairs granted a small reprieve from the clutter. They were sleek, carved from stone like they had come from the ground itself fully formed. Lance's wheelchair didn't do well on stairs, despite the fact that it was a hovering space chair. Since it used propulsion off the ground to float it would drop suddenly at every step. The poor fish boy ended up bouncing down the steps, nearly bouncing out of his chair. He was saved by Hunk, who held onto the back of the chair and half-held it to minimize the jostling. This was such an ordeal that Lance vowed to personally abolish these steps, maybe with some dynamite, once he had legs again. If he had legs again. Actually, he was so filled with vitriol he vowed he would come back even if he was still a mermaid, armed with paving concrete, turning these steps into a large ramp. Maybe that was his new mission in life. If he couldn't be a part of Voltron, he would just cruise through space fighting against wheelchair inaccessible spaces.

He was so lost in creating his new pro-accessibility organization he missed whatever it was that Nallek said. She gestured around the room, like she was showing off a new car on a gameshow.

This area was… odd. Firstly, it was round, and the walls were carved from stone, like a Nyxirian-made cavern. Along the walls were doors leading out into what Lance could only guess was other rooms. Save from the doors, the space was pretty sparse.

But there were two focal points right in the center of the room. One was a pool of water. Though the pool was only a few meters across, you could see through the crystal clear water that the pool was very deep. It looked like a tunnel, diving down several feet before curving around to the left. It probably led straight out into the giant orb.

Next to the pool was a mud pit. It was about ten feet across, rimmed with thick stones. The mud inside bubbled and hissed like it was being boiled. The mud itself wasn't like the mud they had seen on the Nyxirian shoreline. No, this mud was smooth, a deep red like one of Lance's favourite clay masks. It also smelt sweet, like honey and lavender. This was clearly the nicest place on this whole goddamn planet.

But it was otherwise empty. Lance glanced between Nallek and the other two paladins. “So uh, where’s Oba–“

The mud started to ripple and slowly rise in a giant bubble. But it never popped, instead sloughed off to reveal a short and pudgy man covered in mud, looking vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum. The figure unsuccessfully tried to  wipe the mud off his face and gave a big grin.

“Welcome my guests!!” His voice bellowed and echoed throughout the room.

Nallek smiled and looked to Lance. “Garrison Trio. Our esteemed leader, Obaju Kroku.”

The Nyxirian gave a little bow. His head was shaped a bit like a potato, and once he stepped out of the mud it was apparent his body was rather potato shaped too. He was definitely one of the 'worker’ sub types. Lance was frankly relieved he wasn't a 'lover’.

Coran jabbed Lance in the side, gesturing silently to bow. Hunk and Pidge were bowing too as Obaju stripped off his mud covered suit to reveal a pristine, multi-coloured bathrobe. Or at least, it looked like a bathrobe, but by the look of the jewels encrusted on the collar, it was probably some special gown.

“My esteemed guests!” Obaju then said, clapping his hands together with a wet squelch. His voice sounded like a wounded squeaky toy, “I've been so looking forward to your performance! I've had performers from all over the universe but never humans !” His beady eyes fell on Lance and his face suddenly soured, “Wait! You're not human!”

Lance frowned, “I am, actually, human. I just–”

“I have several books on humans in my collection,” Obaju said, “Not one has ever mentioned a tail !!” He sounded so offended, as if Lance had just farted on his only child or something.

“He's sick!” Coran cried before Obaju could suck in enough air to continue, “He wasn't born with a tail!”

“He was infected by the Red-Tipped Lightpole.” Pidge said, “Not on this planet, a different planet!”

Now Obaju looked delighted, “Oh! The Aequor Veridi Mutaris! That plant is native to our planet, did you know? We Nyxirians are immune to its venom~” He took Lance's hand and patted it, “You poor sap. At least it seems you've gone on with your life. Good for you!”

“Uh… thanks?” Lance couldn't seem to muster his usual charisma, maybe because he was a bit terrified of this whole situation. Obaju was still holding his hand, now awkwardly stretching his fingers apart as if appraising his blue webbing.

“Perhaps we should move on to the sitting room?” Nallek offered gently. Obaju dropped Lance's hand and nodded, waddling off towards one of the doors.

“Yes! Yes, Nallek, great idea! This is why you're my most trusted advisor!”

Lance caught Coran's eye. The Altean looked as distrusting as Lance felt. Who was this Nallek, and why was she an advisor to Obaju Kroku? Obaju, so far, didn't seem like the evil dictator the Nyxirians had made him out to be. Actually, he just seemed a bit eccentric and liked expensive things. This made Lance wonder if Obaju was merely just a puppet for…who? Nallek? The Galran Empire? He wasn't sure, but he knew they should probably take Nallek into custody along with Obaju when the rebels showed up.

Hunk cleared his throat, looking pointedly between Lance and Coran and jerking his head towards the door Nallek was holding open for them. She was very much still watching them.

Right. Performance.

Lance's heart leapt into his throat as he glided into the sitting room. This room was quite small, very humid, and dark. The walls were wood, much like outside. The floor was hardwood, but covered by an ornate floral carpet. There were four chairs set in two rows facing a small empty area that Lance supposed was the 'stage’. Pidge was already standing in the space, hands on her hips, her blond wig and sequined headband looking absolutely ridiculous in the dim light.

Obaju sat heavily, bouncing in his seat. Clapping his hands together he looked a bit like a seal. “Oh I am so excited! I absolutely love these performances. Last week I had seventeen bee-bo-beeian dancers in here! It was delightful!” He sighed, “They looked like grass blowing in the wind.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Coran said, sitting across the aisle from the dictator. “I assure you my performers have been practicing all day for this performance!”

“Wonderful!” Obaju leant over the back of his chair, calling out to Nallek who stood by the door, “Nallek! Have Hoseph bring me and my guests some food and drink.”

“Yes, sir.” She bowed and left the room.

“Is Hoseph another one of your advisors?” Hunk asked. Obaju turned to him, looking disgusted.

“Oh goodness no , Hoseph is one of my slaves!”

Oh

My

God.

Lance felt the wind being sucked out of him. Theoretically. He felt the water rush out of him? The tide went out, if the tide was a metaphor for his calmness. He was no longer calm because Obaju had slaves!?

“A-ah, servants?” Coran offered, trying real hard not to assume the worst of Obaju. Unfortunately Obaju wasn't playing along.

“Oh, no, no. There is a difference between servants and slaves. Servants are people who serve you. Slaves…” His frog-like face curled into a malicious grin, “slaves are owned .”

“I had no idea Nyxirians took part in slavery.” Coran said, exchanging quick glances with the flabbergasted humans.

“Oh! Well it's a rather new implement,” Obaju said, “No previous leader has had slaves, and no previous leader has had such loyal followers from the lower castes as I have. I think the threat of internment helps keep the populace controlled.”

Lance was cringing, trying not to look too horrified. “Right.”

“Do humans have slaves?” Obaju asked. He lounged back in his chair as if he was asking about the stock market.

“Not usually, as of late.” Pidge said. Obaju clicked with his tongue, his head ridge strobing in long, drawn out pulses.

“Shame. What a shame.”

This was the worst , this was the worst thing ever. Okay, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration, especially given the past few weeks. But Lance especially hated cringey situations, and the awkwardness and horror that was settling upon this room was at threateningly high levels.

He really wished he had his fidget cube right now. He'd be hammering away at the light switch. Hopefully Keith was getting some use out of it, while Lance was forced to fidget with the armrests of his wheelchair instead. Subpar fidgeting material.

A knock at the door saved them from the increasingly awkward silence. Three small Nyxirians shuffled in, their heads bowed, carrying plates of food and drink. All three were wearing smocks, gold cuffs around their ankles, and long gloves that covered up to their elbows. They set the trays down on little tables that lined the left-hand wall, then left without saying a word. The food itself didn't look all that appetizing. Much like everything else on this planet, it looked awful.

Aside from Nallek, who was piling food onto a plate without a word, not even Hunk made a move towards the food. Obaju went back to lounging in his chair like some fat old king, his four eyes blinking lazily in the dim light.

“Now that we’re acquainted, shall we begin?” The way he said it didn't sound like much of a question. Coran nodded like a bobblehead.

“Yes! Le Garrison Trio , to your starting positions!”

Lance exchanged glances with Hunk and Pidge, wondering if they felt as panicked as he did. They hadn't made starting positions! Fuck, they had barely made a dance routine.

“Do you have your music with you?” Nallek asked, “Would you like to use our player?”

Lance felt his stomach sink to his feet-- or rather, tail fins. Music.

They had. Forgotten. The music .

How!? How had they forgotten the music ? A dance performance was made of two ingredients: dance, and music! How had he not remembered they needed something to dance to when sewing fourteen million sequins onto a headband!?

Judging by the panicked looks of the others, they were thinking the same thing.

“O-one moment, please.” Coran hurriedly stammered and pulled the Paladins into a tight huddle. There was a few moments of hushed screaming.

“We forgot about the music!”

“How could we forget the music?”

“What are we gonna do now?”

“We can’t perform without any music!”

“Paladins, please,” Coran hushed the three, “I know an ancient Nyxirian ballad!”

Pidge gave him a blank stare. “So you’re just going to sing over our dance?”

“Well, what other choice do we have?” Hunk said.

“Keith said they'd be impressed by anything.” Lance said, glancing over his shoulder at Obaju, who was happily slurping up a drink, “Time to test that theory. Let's get this train wreck over with.”

The emergency huddle disbanded. Coran turned back to the audience.

Le Garrison Trio 's performance will be accompanied by a vocal solo by myself. We're ready whenever you are, your Excellency.”

Obaju grinned, his wide mouth parting his froggy face. “I cannot wait any longer! Go ahead!”  

Well. Here goes… everything.

Lance hovered over to the center of the 'stage’, with Hunk and Pidge on either side. Coran stood off to the side, clearing his throat. He puffed out his chest, suddenly looking like an opera singer about to give a moving aria.

Except when he did start singing, it wasn't Puccini's Nessun Dorma . It sounded more like the hellish screeches of someone burning to death. Lance was so startled by the absurd noises coming out of Coran's mouth he forgot to even attempt to dance at first. It wasn't until Hunk nudged him in the side that he remembered this was supposed to be music .

So he started to dance. Or, attempted to. Back home in Cuba he loved to dance. Not that he took lessons or anything, but you couldn't go to a party and not dance. His whole family danced. Family reunions were like city-wide dance parties. Weddings were like a wave of dancing forms and the stale scent of alcohol. But… every other time he had ever danced in his life he had legs and actual music . So he had to make do.

He waved his arms to some sort of beat and gyrated his hips back and forth in his seat. He even curled and twitched his tail in time to try to sell the whole act. Next to him Hunk was reenacting Saturday Night Fever while Pidge was stomping around in her makeshift tap shoes. Coran continued to 'sing’ shifting now to sounding a bit like a dying whale.

It was so much worse than he could have ever imagined. It sounded terrible, it looked terrible. Lance felt terrible having subjected Obaju and Nallek to… this.  This was the worst thing he'd ever taken part in, and it seemed to go on forever.

Lance was pretty sure he had landed in the ninth circle of hell. Actually, he'd be going to the seventh circle of hell, because that's where those who commit violence against art go, and this was certainly a hate crime against dance.

It unexpectedly stopped. Coran's screeching petered out. Pidge gave a few more clacks of her shoes for good measure. Hunk bent over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath after the terrible idea of doing jumping jacks for the second half of the performance. Lance, trying to salvage an ounce of showmanship, threw out his arms and bowed at the waist.

He hoped when Obaju murdered them for that blasphemy that it would be quick.

Except, once again, Lance was startled into inaction. Obaju stood so suddenly his plate of food fell to the ground. He started clapping, a wet slapping sound echoing the room. All four of his eyes glistened, and it took Lance a second to realize the dictator was crying. Nallek however, stood behind him looking about as disgusted as Lance felt.

“That was so beautiful ,” He croaked, “That song , oh how wonderful! I haven't heard that song in many seasons, my grandmama used to sing that to me as I fell asleep…”

Lance exchanged bewildered glances with his fellow humans. Obaju rushed forward and started tearily shaking Coran's hands.

He liked it. He liked it?? What the fuck!?

Lance hated this stupid planet.

“I must take a picture!” Obaju gushed, gesturing to Nallek. He planted himself between Lance and Coran, throwing an unsettlingly moist arm around both. Nallek pulled out a camera and snapped a photo, capturing Lance's stunned disgust for eternity.

Keith was right. They’re impressed by anything.

“Oh my!” Suddenly Obaju's hands had crept up to Lance's hair, grabbing a handful rather unceremoniously, “You have a fur! I did not realize!”

“A-ah, well, it's actually hair--” Lance said, resisting the urge to throw Obaju off of him, “There's an actual biological difference between fur and hair--”

“I must add this to my fur collection!” Obaju announced, looking to Nallek, “Get my scissors, Nallek! Hurry!”

“F-fur collection?” Hunk stammered. His eyes flicked between Obaju and the door, as if he was thinking of running. Lance, too, was staring at the door, but that's because Shiro and the rebels were meant to be busting through it at any moment. But even as Nallek returned with a pair of silver scissors, the room remained starkly Shiro-less.

“Yes! I am absolutely enthralled by 'fur’,” Obaju said, glancing up at Hunk, “Nyxirians have no fur, you see. Nothing on this planet does! Well, except Nallek, of course. But I already have a Galran sample!” He was still uncomfortably petting Lance's hair, which was probably best because everyone else was wearing a wig. Not that it was certain Obaju could discern between a wig and real hair.

Nallek handed Obaju the scissors. They were long, sharp, with delicately curved handles.

“Uh, actually, Obaju sir,” Lance stammered, his eyes wide, “hair is actually sacred in human cultures.” He gently pulled away from Obaju’s enthusiastic petting. The whole situation was making his anxiety spike to an eleven. He was actually really fond of his hair and would prefer not to have an impromptu haircut. “I would very much appreciate it if all my hair stayed attached to my head.”

Obaju smiled warmly. “Well, I’ll happily take the whole thing.”

Lance blinked at the smiling frog man. “Wha…” he frowned, “the whole thing?”

“The whole head! It would be quite a pretty trophy.” Obaju squinted and started to examine Lance’s neck. The every hair on the boy’s body stood on end. He pulled away quickly, the color drained from his face.

“No no no! Just the hair will be fine!” He stammered, “I’m not that attached to it!”

“Excellent!” Obaju clapped his moist hands together and held out the scissors once more. Without ceremony, he grabbed Lance by the hair and snipped off a chunk from the back. Nallek held up a glass container which Obaju promptly dropped the brown locks into.

Lance lifted his hand to rub at his head, not too keen on the rough treatment. His eyes widened as his fingers ran over the part Obaju had cut. The area was almost the size of his palm, and nearly down to the root. The Nyxirian had effectively just shaved off a patch of hair with just his scissors.

“Oh…” Lance mumbled, trying real hard not to cry. Logically he knew it was just hair, something that would grow back, but his hair was one of the only things about him that was still his . Having it chopped off by an alien was possibly the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Aside from being turned into a mermaid that is.

Obaju smiled and turned to the other two. “Now some from you!”

“Errr,” Pidge barely contained her grimace. Her eyes darted back to the door. Where was Shiro!? Shouldn't he and the rebels be busting down that door?

Lance's eyes grew wide. What if the rebels couldn't find them because they were in this little side room? Shit .

Pidge held up her hands. “Uh, would it be alright if I cut it myself?”

The dictator scowled, “Why?”

“Uh, well, sir, human hair is actually like, uh,” Hunk’s eyes were flickering between Lance and Pidge as if he was hoping they would spontaneously start telepathically communicating with him, “well, you see, when human hair is cut it, uh…”

“Lets off a really terrible poison if it's cut wrong.” Lance bluffed, “I should have warned you before but I, uh… forgot?” His eyes fell onto Nallek, who didn't appear to be buying this act one bit, but also didn't seem to care enough to call them out on it. She just watched them blankly, holding the jar of Lance's stolen hair.

Obaju was quiet for a moment. He couldn't seem to make up his mind on whether or not to hand Pidge the scissors. “Interesting. I need to go back to that earth store in the mall. Clearly the books I have on humans.” He handed the scissors over to Pidge and watched her delicately cut a few inches off her wig. Obaju snatched the hank out of her hands and started running his thumb over the length. “Oooh, what an interesting texture!”

“Just be careful, it might still have poison on the tips.” Pidge said. Obaju gasped and nearly threw the hair into the open jar Nallek held. He grimaced at Hunk.

“I don't need your hair, two samples is enough. Especially since it could kill me.”

“Right.” Lance said. His eyes trailed over Obaju's shoulder to the door. Where were the rebels? He was filling with dread. What if they had been found? What if the rebel base was infiltrated?! God, he hoped Keith was safe. He knew Keith could take care of himself, at least when it came to combat. But there was always that possibility… Lance didn't know what he would do if Keith got hurt… again.

Lance was so focused on the door he missed what Obaju said, instead hearing the shocked stammering of Hunk.

“W-wait, what?”

Lance was pulled right back into the moment. Obaju had a horrible grin on his hideous face.

“You can't expect me to just let such talent leave . Oh no, no. I absolutely love dancing, so it only makes sense to have my own dancers!”

“That’s not possible,” Coran said.

“Yeah, we're not exactly looking for a full-time gig here,” Lance said, “We’re going to go home--”

“No, you won't.” Obaju raised his left hand, and out of the corner of his eye, Lance saw Nallek raise a weapon.

His hands flew to grab a bayard that wasn't there. He grit his teeth. They were prepared for a performance, not a fight.

The world moved in slow motion, like it did every time Lance was in combat. Nallek’s grip tightened around her gun, her lips curling up into a sinister smile. Lance could see Pidge moving forward, maybe to tackle the Galran woman. But she couldn't make it in time. Nallek's gun shivered and a bright white light engulfed the room.

Lance felt his heart beating so fast he felt it might burst, and then he felt nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Shiro thought of himself as a patient man. That's what made him such a good teacher; he always had patience, even with the 'problem’ kids. Hell, that's why he was probably the only one who could mentor Keith into the great young man he was today. Keith wasn't exactly a model student when he was younger. Keith had tested Shiro's patience on a daily basis. And then they met Lance. And Lance tested his patience for fun.

But Shiro had the patience of a saint. He had never, ever, blown up on someone before out if frustration.

But the Nyxirians.

The Nyxirians were getting real fucking close.

It was fine in the beginning. Shiro had followed the group of rebels, led by a short, wide Nyxirian named Kiri, out of the cave and into a tunnel. The tunnel was dark and wet and, as Kiri’s colleagues were so happy to tell him, were built by the rebels themselves to move between their base and An'Batal.

Kiri was especially proud of being the one who had thought to secretly tunnel into Obaju's dome.

“Obaju didn't always have the water dome,” Kiri said, “He had it built many cycles ago. He wasn't always so bad.”

That was the start of a conversation that never ended. Kiri and her group of rebels were an exceptionally chatty group, which wasn't ideal for sneaking into a dictator’s home.

Kiri went on about Obaju. Apparently he was originally voted into office, and from what Shiro could piece together from the winding anecdotes, Nyxir was originally a democracy. But that changed several deca-pheobs ago. Obaju declared himself Leader of the Heigo for Life, and murdered the dissenters.

Which was at least relevant information. But the topic derailed at some point and Kiri started talking about her wife’s nephew's exchange program on Olkarion. This just led them down a path of irrelevance that encompassed the whole group. Shiro learned a lot about Nyxirian-made clothing (an ancient art that was once one of their biggest exports), the different pets and household animals, Tobaron’s daughter's school performance of Space Othello, and the history of the colour blue as according to Nyxir.  

Luckily the tunnel wasn't entirely hard to traverse. It didn't branch, the turns weren't confusing. It was nearly a straight line between point A and point B.

If only their line of conversation was so straight forward.

Shiro was pretty sure the rebels would have continued talking until they had Obaju in a choke hold if he hadn't interrupted Kiri at some point.

“This is a dead end.” He said, and he was right. Their straightforward tunnel had abruptly come to an end. The damp walls, which had only gotten damper, domed around into a small nook that had no exit. It was truly just a dead end.

Shiro looked at the group of rebels, fully expecting one of them to suddenly realize they had forgotten to finish the tunnel. They stared back at him, the tall one in the back had his mouth hanging open. Shiro felt an unfamiliar rage boiling in his core.

“Mr. Shiro,” one of the skinny rebels in the front raised their hand, “we’re not at a dead end mister. Actually. Not that I want to point out you're wrong or anything but you're not technically correct–”

Shiro simply raised his hand. “Where's the way out?”

The Nyxirians all pointed at once just above Shiro's head. He looked up.

At first all he saw was more of the same impacted dirt, slick with condensation. He raised his arm, activating the flashlight. In the spotlight he could make out a fissure line across the rock, circling around him like a halo.

He didn't understand what he was looking at. “What is…?”

“Oh, well. It's a big rock.” Kiri said. Shiro's eyes slid over to her, waiting for her to start making sense. Another Nyxirian filled in.

“When we were building the tunnel, we couldn't have it open to Obaju's water or it’d all drain out and we'd be caught! So we put a big rock in to keep the hole plugged!”

Shiro stared at the big rock, then back at the Nyxirians. They all had the audacity to look proud of themselves.

“How are we supposed to get in if there's a giant goddamned rock in the way?” Shiro cried, trying very hard to keep his composure. His voice hitched up at least an octave.

“We just have to move the rock.” The Nyxirians named Tobaron whose daughter played Space Iago said.

Shiro inhaled sharply through his nose. “Okay. And how do you suppose we move the rock?”

This seemed to stump them. The small one in the front raised their hand.

“Yes?” Shiro gestured for the Nyxirian to go on like he had done thousands of times as a professor.

“Maybe you and Fot-Mir could push it out of the way?” They gestured back to the tall alien in the back. His antenna actually brushed the ceiling on the tunnel. “He’s strong and I think you might be strong too therefore you could both be strong and lift the boulder out of the way.”

“Good suggestion.” Shiro said, “I like the way you thought out your process. That's good.” Oh god, he really was slipping into proffessor mode now. Maybe that was just his way of coping with extreme frustration.

He could just imagine Adam somewhere in the universe laughing at his misfortune.

“Fot-Mir, come up here.” Shiro gestured for the tall man, stepping back to size up the boulder. It covered a fair sized hole, large enough for even Fot-Mir to fit through. But the size wasn't the problem, it was the pressure. There was a whole dome of water pushing down on this rock and if they even managed to move it, the resulting blast of water could sweep them all away.

“Okay. Everybody hang on tight.”

The group of rebels clasped each other’s hands. One of them held onto Shiro’s middle.

“Not me! The wall!” Shiro cried. These rebels were really wearing him thin. “Hold onto the cave wall so the water doesn’t wash you away.”

A small chorus of ‘oooh’s rang from the Nyxirians as the shuffled away from each other and onto the walls. Literally. They clung to the cave walls like geckos.

Shiro huffed. “Alright, let's move this thing,” he nodded to Fot-Mir, and they got in position.

His right arm started to glow and thrum in that way that had become familiar. Alien, but familiar. He and Fot-Mir each took an end of the rock. He took a deep breath. “Okay, on three. One… two… three!”

He pushed upwards. The rock did not want to move. He pushed even harder, a strained grunt escaping his clenched teeth. His bicep and thighs felt like they were going to explode. He could hear Fot-Mir struggling, too. The rock just wouldn't move. The pressure was too great, and they weren't strong enough.

They had to move this rock. Without it they couldn't get into Obaju’s home. That would leave the Paladins inside stranded and at the dictator's mercy, and who knows what kind of evil he could be. Leaving them behind was not an option. Even if it meant ripping his muscles in two, he would get this rock out of the way.

And then the boulder shifted. It shifted ever so slightly, letting a torrent of water escape from a crack the size of a fist. But it was enough. The intense water pressure pushed the massive boulder out of the way like it was made of paper.

Shiro was swept away in the initial blast of water. He was tossed back like a leaf in a river. Fot-Mir made a delayed attempt to catch him, but it was too late. Shiro was already being bounced off the walls by the tidal wave of rushing water.

He threw out his arm and it responded instantly. His fist extended out to a pointed tip, which he thrust into the wall. For a moment he did not slow down at all. Sparks flew from where the metal point of his arm scraped against the wall. He was suddenly jerked to a halt when his arm found purchase, jerking on his shoulder so badly he was certain it was dislocated. It hurt terribly, but at least he wasn't being swept away anymore.

Fot-Mir grabbed his free arm, apparently immune from being swept away either due to sheer size or their gecko feet. Either way the alien grabbed Shiro's arm and pulled him along like a tugboat.  

The tunnel was quickly flooded. Fot-Mir dragged him to the exit and then up through the hole. It was entirely unpleasant, not because Fot-Mir was a terrible person or anything, but because he pulled on both his arms to get him out of the tunnel. If Shiro's shoulder wasn't dislocated before, it probably was now.

Fot-Mir quickly guided him through the water to a place far enough away from the pull of the escaping water before he went back to plug the hole again. The rest of the Nyxirian rebels had gathered among some plants that looked a lot like seaweed. None of them seemed to have had any trouble with getting out of the tunnel, which was great news but also a bit baffling. Shiro decided not to think about it.

“We're here!!” Kiri was squealing, her voice carrying surprisingly well through the water. Annoyingly well.

“Shh, Kiri, be quiet.” Shiro hissed. He glanced around the group of rebels, “From here on out we need to be stealthy. We can't be making a lot of noise, okay?”

The small Nyxirian raised their hand. “What does stealthy mean?”

“It means we're hiding. We have to be quiet so Obaju's guards don't notice us,” Shiro said. “We're going to sneak into the house, now. Do we all remember the plan?”

“No, what's the plan?” Kiri asked. Shiro contained the urge to scream.

“Kiri, you're the leader of the rebels, why don't you remember your own plan!?”

She looked indignant. “Hey, I've made a lot of plans! I can't remember them all!”

“Fine. Fine! Here's the plan.” Shiro said. He used broad hand gestures, hoping it would help illustrate his words, “My team is currently in there alone with Obaju, distracting him. We're going to go in and you're going to ambush him.”

“That's why we brought our weapons!” Tobaron said, like he was just now figuring this out.

As a teacher, Shiro was taught never point out the students’ idiocy, even if they were a bit slow. He just continued on. “Right. So what we need to do now is figure out where Obaju and the Paladins are. Does anyone have any idea where his personal chambers are?”

The Nyxirians exchanged glances. Kiri shook her head, “We've never been to his house before.”

“And you don't have even a hunch?” Shiro sighed. He peered through the seaweed at the house shimmering in the distance, “Do you know anyone who would know where he is?”

“Oh, I know Paul.” Tobaron said, “He works as a guard and is a rebel too.”

Shiro had given up on understanding Nyxirian naming conventions. “That's great, where is he?”

“Paul… uh…” Tobaron glanced around at the others, “I'm not sure where he is.”

Okay. Fine. They'd have to do this a different way. Shiro looked through the plants at the house. It wasn't so far away. It was rather modest, too, as far as evil leader's houses go. It looked a lot like a two floor house from Utah, with the exception that there was giant glass windows on either floor.

“We could look in the windows.” Shiro said, mostly to himself. If they could look in the windows, they could narrow down where Obaju was by figuring out where he wasn't. The problem with looking in windows, though, was that people could also look out.

There had to be something else.

“Do we know how people get in and out of the house?”

“Oh, I know this one!!” Kiri cried, “I know the answer Mr. Shiro!!”

Shiro sighed. “…And what's the answer, Kiri?”

“There are two ways! There's the front entrance,” she pointed to the tunnel which ran from the outside directly into the house, “And there's Obaju's hole.”

“Obaju's… hole?”

“Yeah!” She pointed now to a spot of rocks near the house, “When we put surveillance on his house for a while, y'know to get information and stuff, we noticed he would just… appear in the water sometimes. We figured out there's a second entrance and exit to the house over there near those rocks. It only exits out into the water here, but Obaju uses it to take a swim every once in a while.”

“I don't know why, this water tastes awful.” The small Nyxirian said.

“You're right Ribi.” Tobaron's antenna waved through the water as he sported a look of distaste, “It's making me feel funny, too.”

“Then we should hurry and get out of the water.” Shiro said. He looked back at Kiri, who was also making a disgusted face, but quickly stopped when she noticed Shiro staring at her, “Kiri, are you sure there's an entrance over there?”

“Yes, I saw him come out of there myself,” Kiri said, “I'll show you.”

Shiro nodded. “We’ll all go together.”

“Then follow my lead.” Kiri suddenly looked very focused, making eye contact with each of the rebels before taking off into the open water. The rest of the Nyxirians followed suit, leaving Shiro to bring up the rear.

Kiri lead them diagonally across the open water and down the side of the house. Shiro was weary of the large windows, glancing up and around to see if anyone had noticed them. They kept close to the ground, swimming through the small patches of algae and other plant life. Even though he was wearing his armor, Shiro made sure he stayed far away from the patches of Red-Tipped Lightpole.

Kiri stopped suddenly, gesturing down at the rock formation at their feet.

It was partially obscured by reeds, but upon closer inspection, there was most definitely a hole in the rocks. It was big enough even Fot-Mir could fit through it if he squeezed in a bit.

“Let's go.” Kiri whispered, and jumped in. Before Shiro could object, all of the Nyxirians were diving down into the hole.

Shiro paused, sighed, thought briefly of running away somewhere warm and quiet, then dived in after them.  

 

***

 

Lance was jostled awake. He hated being jostled, and he hated being woken up, so really this was just the worst of both those things combined.

He grunted and tried to roll over, forgetting for a blissful moment that he was in fact not back home in a warm cozy bed but rather on a very cold and uncomfortable floor. Also his hands were tied, which really helped him recall where he was.

Lance opened his eyes. He was indeed on the floor, face down against a black and white checkered stone. They had pulled him out of his wheelchair! Rude.

Hunk was to his right, and apparently was the one jostling him. He was prodding Lance's tail with his foot.

“Stoooop…” Lance tried to roll over again, this time giving Hunk a dirty look. Hunk looked betrayed, as if he wasn't the one kicking Lance in the tail.

“Where are we?” Lance turned and saw Pidge rolling onto her back and sitting up, her arms tied around her back and her wig missing.

“I think this is one of Obaju's rooms.” Hunk said, “Check out that huge painting.”

The room was decorated distastefully enough to be one of Obaju's. There was indeed a giant painting hanging up that depicted Obaju sitting regally with one of his mongbeasts.

“Disgusting,” Lance said. The man had no sense of taste. Everything in this room– nay, this house– was gaudy as hell.

“Hoo boy,” Coran cawed from somewhere behind Lance, “I need a painting like that of me! I think it'd look nice just above the control deck, what do you think?”

“I think we're tied up and held captive in an evil alien’s mansion and we need to get out of here!” Pidge said.

“Shiro's coming to get us, right?” Hunk said, “He’s supposed to come here with the rebels. Oh god, he’s abandoned us, hasn't he? Honestly I don't blame him.”

“No, I think he might be lost.” Lance said, “We’re deep in Obaju's chambers. It was like a maze to get in here, remember?”

“You're probably right.” Pidge frowned, “I wish we had brought our helmets, we could have just sent him our location.”

“Can you just nerdbrain a way to locate him with what we got?” Lance asked. Pidge glanced around the room.

“There's no comm system in here. And even then, our hands are tied. Literally.”

“So then what do we do?” Hunk asked.

“We'll get out of here, don't worry young ones!” Coran said, “Perhaps I could sing to him again? That seemed to woo him last time.”

“No, no. Please no.” Lance groaned, planting his face against the floor, “He liked your singing and that's why he wants to keep us forever!”

“Or because Nallek realized who we are and has some loyalty to the Galra left.” Pidge said.

Lance opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by the soft clink of the door opening.

Obaju strolled in, followed closely by Nallek. The dictator looked smug, all four of his eyes narrowed, his mouth curled up at the corners. He waddled across the room, his body literally making a squish with every step, until he came to rest before the group.

Le Garrison Trio,” He smiled, “I am so sorry about this. I don't like to tie my guests up, I prefer to make them walk themselves to their cells. Though I suppose you're not really my guests anymore, hmm?”

“Why are you doing this?” Pidge cried, “Please, just let us go. I promise we'll come back for more performances! Anytime you'd like!”

Obaju threw his head back and laughed, “Oh! No, no, I don't share my property with anyone else!”

“Yeah, okay, so firstly; were not your property. Thirteenth amendment, bitch.” Lance hissed, “Secondly; you can't lock us up. We’ll find a way out.”

“Like you found a way in?” Nallek said, so benignly Lance almost didn't catch the way her eyebrows furrowed and her lips curled into a smile like she was hunting prey, “You thought you could just put on some disguises and talk your way into this place?” She snarled, pointing to Pidge specifically, or at least to her most definitely not blond hair.

“Ah, okay.” Hunk said, “So you noticed we're wearing wigs. Uhm. Some of us are self conscious about our natural hair colour.”

“What's happening, Nallek?” Obaju asked, looking up at his assistant. In that moment, he didn't look like the leader of the planet. He looked like Nallek's plaything.

“These people have deceived you.” Nallek said. She angrily pulled off Hunk’s wig, throwing it off to the side. Obaju gasped.

“You deceived me!”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that's exactly what she just said. Also don't try to pull my hair off. Its actually attached to me.”

“Who are you!?” Nallek growled, “Why did you come here!?”

“So you don't know who we are?” Hunk asked. He tilted his head back and exhaled loudly, “Ah, great. Okay. So you're not an evil Galra, then?”

Nallek straightened. Obaju laughed.

“No, no, Nallek left the empire deca-pheobs ago–”

“I pledge loyalty to the Galra Empire.” Nallek said. Obaju seemed to be the only one who was truly shocked.

“Nallek…? What is this about?” His antenna bowed to the side, a hand against his chest.

Nallek started to laugh. It was a cold, stark laugh. “You think I worked for you?” She said, “No. You're a puppet, Kroku. A puppet!” She suddenly moved forward, shoving Obaju to the ground. Her eyes sparkled with a mad glee, like she was savouring this, “You don't remember? You never remember. We've been over this before!”

“What are you talking about, Nallek?” Obaju croaked, sounding more offended than scared.

“Tell me, Obaju. When was the last time you did anything but eat and drink and watch your dances?” Nallek said, “When was the last time you set forth any sort of rulership over your people?”

Obaju's eyes glazed over, “I…”

“I am the one who makes the laws,” She said, “You merely sign them. I've ruled this planet for deca-pheobs, keeping it ready and waiting for when our Emperor Zarkon is prepared to take it!”

“Yeah, I don't think Zarkon wants this planet.” Lance said, “That's probably why he hasn't shown up here yet. He hasn't even sent out an occupying force.”

“Shut up.” Nallek hissed. She dug her heel into Lance's side. He let out a cry, writhing on the floor, but Nallek did not let up, pushing her heel farther against his gills, “Who are you but a rebel spy? The rebels are idiots. You're foolish for having helped them.” Lance gasped in pain, his tail twisting and twining around her leg.

“Stop! Stop it! Please!” Pidge cried. Nallek grinned. Lance cried out as she pushed down against him one last time, popping the breather out of its place against his gills through his sequined shirt. He gasped, suddenly losing half his source of oxygen.

“Just let us go. We have no stake in Zarkon’s war.” Coran begged.

“No, but I wouldn't mind having a few more personal servants.” Nallek said. She strolled closer to Coran, pulling a vial of glowing yellow fluid from her pocket, “Do you know what this is?”

“Quintessence.” Hunk whispered.

“Correct!” She turned to him now, and Hunk shrivelled under her gaze, “I originally came to this terrible planet to hide from Zarkon's war. That's when I met you, Obaju. I was happy to work under you, but… you were always too kind. Your people took advantage of you. It ate away at me, knowing how great your rule could become if you would just grow a damned spine.”

“I… I don't recall…” Obaju whispered, his voice shaking. Lance panted, trying to catch his breath. He glanced at Hunk, then to Pidge. Both of them looked grey in the face. Pidge was staring at the vial of quintessence with furrowed brows.

“Of course you don't recall!” Nallek said, sounding delighted, “You don't recall the quintents emperor Zarkon came to us. You wanted to turn him away, to refuse his offer, but I knew to listen to him. He showed me this.” She held up the vial. Her face twisted in a sickening smile, “Quintessence. Oh, the possibilities. There is unlimited power in this small vial. If we agreed to forfeit to Zarkon, he would give us access to this power. We could be great, a great force like the Galra empire! However you did not agree, Kroku. Not until you had a taste of it.”

What the absolute fuck. This woman was batshit insane. Lance frowned at her; he would have more witty quips if he could breathe properly. Then again, he wasn't a huge fan of being stepped on, and it wasn't like he could just run away.

But just laying there listening to this woman was… well, it was a bit boring. She was monologuing like a villain from a bad made-for-TV action movie. His eyes started to wander. He stared at her hair for a while. He wondered vaguely why female Galra tended to have hair. Did male Galra ever have hair? What sort of phenotypes and genotypes were shown in the Galra race? They were really all over the place. He’d seen some that looked reptilian, and some that were mammalian. It was weird.

Then he saw it. Out of the corner of his eye. The door, a good fifteen feet behind Nallek, slid open just a crack. Then, slowly, a face appeared in the crack. A Nyxirian face. Pushing through like a cat trying to fit through a space far too small for its fat head. Two eyes peeked through the space and darted around the room. As soon as they noticed the group all huddled in the far end, the face lit up and quickly retreated.

What the hell? Lance blinked a few times, wondering if he had imagined what he just saw. Was it the rebels? Why would the rebels be shoving their heads through cracks in the door? Surely they wouldn't risk pushing their head in somewhere it could get blasted off.

“What are you looking at?” Nallek barked, and Lance belatedly realized she was talking to him.

Luckily, Lance was proficient in lying. “Your hair is falling out of its bun. Just thought you might wanna know.”

Nallek glared at him, but a hand did fly back to her hair as she continued, “Do you know what Quintessence does to your body when you ingest it?”

“Oh boy, I would not eat the stuff.” Coran said, “No one should take in magic in such a high dosage. It will over take you.”

“Not in low doses,” Nallek said. “Low and frequent doses. It was genius, honestly. I could use Obaju as a tool. I could promise away this horrible planet to our emperor, as long as I kept him under my control.”

“You did not.” Obaju spat, “Nyxir is mine–”

“Was Nyxir always a class based society?” Nallek asked. Obaju shook his head. Nallek grinned, “A divided populace is easy to control. You used to live among the people. At whose suggestion did you build this mansion?”

“It… it was yours.”

“And from here you look down upon the peons. And my favourite… the dome.” She flourished with her hands looking up to the ceiling like she was being blessed, “The key to it all. Nyxirians… are idiots. They don't care for war, they don't care for conflict. Not naturally. They don't want to bother anyone, especially not their own. They were a race of lazy imbeciles. I brought order to this awful society. I set them where they belonged. But my most brilliant plan was to change their leader.” Her mouth turned up into a wicked smile, “I created a bloodlust in him. I turned him from an idiot into someone who yearned selfishly for what he– what I wanted.”

“How?” Coran asked, though by his tone, he did not really want to know. Nallek was all too willing to provide.

“The water.” She said, her eyes sparkling. “The water poisons these people. It clouds their minds, makes them lazy and stupid. But clean water… clean water frees them. I gave Obaju a dome and filled it with crystal clear water. But he still was not perfect. He did not have the drive. So…” She held out the vial of quintessence, “I gave him a drive for power. A sip of this and he's malleable to my commands. He's my puppet, with a bloodlust that doesn't question his fallen society. His hurt people. Another sip and he doesn't even remember.”

“So you just like watching the world burn while you wait for Zarkon to show up? He won’t. I bet he doesn't even remember you.” Lance breathed, trying very hard to sound confident. His eyes darted to the door, praying that Shiro would burst through it.

But he didn't.

“You like to talk, don't you?” Nallek said. She crouched in front of Lance. He suddenly felt very small. She grabbed him by the neck, her long black nails digging into his skin. He gasped as she hauled him up by the neck, staring at him like she was appraising a fish she just caught. Lance struggled, unable to break from her grasp, his tail curling and uncurling, searching for purchase against the floor.

It hurt. But he wasn't choking. Nallek probably expected him to be. She was probably looking forward to choking him. But his oxygen intake didn't go through his neck. So, while dangling from his neck was not ideal, at least he could breathe.

Blood was rushing to his head, his heartbeat in his ears overpowering all other sounds. But he could faintly hear the protests of the others. He could faintly see shapes moving around him. But mostly he could see Nallek's yellow eyes, filled with hate, with a malicious glee. He could see his own reflection in her eyes. He could see how scared he looked.

And he was scared. He was terrified.

What if Shiro wasn't coming?

What if he never saw Keith again?

“I could kill you,” Nallek said, “I would take great pleasure in it. You're nothing. No one will remember you. One drop of quintessence and your friends will forget you ever existed. I should kill you right now, you insolent, vile–”

Lance was suddenly dropped on the floor. For a moment, he wasn't sure what had happened.

Nallek let out a pained wheeze. She wavered, and crumpled to the floor. Her head landed next to Lance, her eyes open and unfocused. Purple blood pooled, warm, smelling like metal. Lance gagged, his neck throbbing.

The room was filled with a heavy silence as they stared at Nallek’s body.

Then the room erupted in sound as a wave of bodies flooded in. Nyxirians. The rebels. They shot Nallek. She was dead.

“Lance! Are you alright?” A hand appeared on his shoulder and a face appeared in his vision. Shiro.

“I-I’m okay.” He tried to say, though the words wheezed out like a broken accordion. Shiro sat him up, quickly slicing through his restraints. Lance rubbed his wrists with shaky hands.

Shiro moved on to free Coran. “I'm sorry we're late. We got lost.”

“You came just in time.” Pidge said.

“Thank god,” Hunk cried, “I’m so glad to see you, I thought for sure she was going to pop Lance's head off.”

Shiro frowned at the body, “Who is she?”

“W