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            Lance isn’t sure when it all started. He could guess—but he’d probably be wrong. All of his memories feel hazy anymore, and sometimes he’s not sure if something actually happened or if he just dreamed that it happened.

            That’s probably a symptom of the sleep deprivation—the haziness. He’s so tired all the time, but he can never sleep. And when he does, it’s not for long—he knows the others have nightmares worse than his, especially Shiro, and they definitely have better reasons to be having them, so he keeps his to himself. They’re not important, and it’s not like they’re what’s keeping him from sleeping—there are other reasons for that. Not that Lance knows what they are, he just…knows they exist. Because the nightmares aren’t keeping him from falling asleep in the first place, that’s just—him. His head. Thoughts, whatever.

            It doesn’t matter. He just drinks about a gallon of the Altean equivalent of coffee and he manages just fine. No one seems to question it, either—he’s notorious for not being a morning person.

            Hunk had given him a few weird looks, though—Lance guesses he remembers that Lance never drank coffee at the Garrison except during finals because it jacked up his ADHD even more and didn’t mix well with his meds.

            He doesn’t have his meds now, anyway—what a shocker, he didn’t have them on him when he got kidnapped by a robotic space cat. Not a big deal, he’s fine, and Hunk never said anything outright so no one else knows about his ADHD and it’s totally fine.

            Mostly. It would be—if the combined effects of the ‘coffee,’ not having his meds, the sleep deprivation, and the constant anxiety weren’t fucking up his focus.

            “Lance!” Shiro yells, agitated, snapping Lance out of his thoughts just in time for him to smash the controls to the right and avoid the laser fire coming at him. “What was that? Where do you think we are, vacation? Focus!”

            Focus. Always focus. Pay attention, Lance. Stop getting distracted, Lance. Focus, Lance.

            “Sorry, Shiro,” he mumbles but the black paladin is already moving on, barking orders at the others.

            Sorry, Blue, he adds, the guilt at almost getting her hurt eating into their mental bond.

            She hums quietly, and just like that, he’s forgiven.

            If only it was that easy with everyone else.

            He forces his attention back to the battle, with an amount of effort he really can’t afford to give. The alarms had gone off around 4am—too early for him to be up without arousing questions, so he hadn’t had his coffee yet and there was no time to grab some before heading to the lions. And it’s been nearly three days since the last time he managed to snatch a few hours of sleep.

            There’s a flash of shadows in his peripheral vision, and he jolts, whipping around to look for the cause of it—but there’s nothing.

            He sighs. Not a good time for that to be happening, the middle of battle—and he’d like to say that the hallucinations are new, he really would, but they’re really…not. Apparently they’re a side effect of sleep deprivation—who knew, right? They’re never really anything concrete, just shadows and vague shapes that aren’t really there. Not terribly worrisome, just inconvenient, because—well, more distractions.

            Blue chirps in alarm, and he spins her into another sudden roll to avoid more laser fire.

            Yeah—yeah, I know, I’m sorry, Baby, I’m trying. I’m just a little out of it today. Help me out a little?

            She doesn’t use words, exactly—well, she does, but only rarely—but he can always understand what she means to say anyway. Right now, for example, roughly translated, she’s saying, ‘You’re a fucking liar—but of course I’ll help.’

            He chuckles weakly at her, feeling warmth for her rise up—Blue’s the only one who always detects and subsequently calls him on his bullshit. He would’ve crashed and burned ages ago if he didn’t have her.

            A quick scan of the battle shows things going their way, starting to slow down a bit—nothing new, really, this is one of the smaller fleets, it hasn’t even warranted forming Voltron yet, which is a fact Lance is very grateful for. Finishing it up should be a piece of—

            Nope, wait—spoke too soon. Fuck.

            “Keith is a moron,” he announces out loud. He’s only talking to Blue; his comms are muted on his end so he can hear everyone else but they can’t hear him.

            Blue’s only response is faint amusement—but there’s an edge of agreement there as well.

            Keith’s managed to dig himself behind enemy lines—there’s a gap behind him from the path he carved for himself, but he’s too far ahead of the rest of the lions and if he’s not careful the Galra will—

            Yep, they’ll do that. Lance curses, shoving the controls forward with more force than strictly necessary as he watches with a mixture of irritation, exasperation, horror, and fear as Galran reinforcements move to fill the gap behind Keith and box him in, surrounding him on all sides.

            “Keith!” Shiro yells on the comms, and Lance almost rolls his eyes before switching his transmissions back on to respond.

            “I’ve got him,” is all he says. He’s used to saving everyone else’s—especially Keith’s—ass in battle. It’s kind of become his self-appointed job. Better him than them, anyway.

            Blue growls, and he winces, but doesn’t acknowledge her otherwise. He knows he’ll get a lecture from her later, but right now it’s not important.

            They dig their way through the ranks of Galran ships, finally slamming through the last line and into the empty space around Keith, just in time to ice a ship trying to get the drop on him from behind.

            “Keith!” he yells, letting a bit of his worry flicker through before scowling and continuing with, “What the hell were you thinking? Are you trying to get yourself captured?”

            Instead of acknowledging any of what Lance said, Keith opts for the ‘pretend he didn’t do anything wrong’ approach and goes, “Lance! What took you so long? A couple ticks later and I would’ve gotten hit!”

            “What took—are you kidding me? What took me so long? Are you insane?!? What took me so long—what’s taking you so long to get it through your thick mullet that being reckless and getting ahead of everyone else is not a good idea?!?”

            “Well, Red is the fastest—”

            “It doesn’t matter if Red’s the fastest! One member of a team isn’t supposed to constantly end up separate from the others!”

            Ouch. That’s a little too close to home there, buddy.

            “Lance! Keith! Both of you—quit fighting! There are real enemies that actually matter right now, unlike whatever imaginary rivalry you two have!”

            Okay, double ouch.

            Lance takes a deep breath and forces a mocking cheer into his voice.

            “Well, if he would just stop thinking with his mullet—”

            “Lance!” Four exasperated voices shout his name at once, and he lets a bitter smile creep up at the corners of his mouth before refocusing on the task at hand.

            What’ve we got, Blue? Think you can handle them?

            The giddy excitement running through her—like a housecat in a field of mice—is contagious, and the bitterness fades from his smile until it’s genuine.

            Yeah, sweetheart—you’ve got this.

            With that, they launch into action, abruptly switching from defense to offense and wiping out nearly two lines of Galran ships with their first shot of ice. Lance closes his eyes and lets his consciousness sink into Blue’s, enveloping his thoughts in the calming waves of her mind, seeing through her eyes and feeling what she feels. It’s easier to stay focused if he and Blue are more one than two, because she can keep him on track. Plus, he can’t hallucinate through Blue’s eyes.

            Next to them, Keith and Red start their own offensive. Lance keeps track of them out of the corner of his eye, watching their back, and he notices that when they use the fire attack, Red’s mouth and face spark with electricity—Lance feels a flash of concern for the number of hits that Red’s already taken before shoving it away and setting his sights on just finishing the battle as quickly as possible. Keith might be stubborn, but if anything major was malfunctioning with Red, he’d say something.

            Probably.

            Inevitably, because Lance’s luck is shit, right when things are starting to look good for them again, someone takes a shot at Keith that Keith doesn’t see.

            He doesn’t even think—not coherently, just something about shit fuck Keith’s lion’s armor is shit and he’s already taken too many hits, and, suddenly, he’s right there, knocking Red bodily out of the way and taking the hit to his right side.

            Blue goes spinning, crashing into debris and Galra ships alike, and Lance gets knocked around more than he’s comfortable with, biting his tongue at one point when he hits his head and filling his mouth with the taste of blood.

            They finally come to a crashing halt against a bigger piece of debris, and Blue rights herself, shuddering. For one brief, terrifying moment, the power flickers, and Lance has a mini heart attack before it comes back on and stays that way.

            He winces, pressing a hand to his sore chest and forcing a deep breath into his lungs to get them to cooperate. A cough claws its way up his throat before he can get it under control, and he wipes blood from his lips with his face twisted up in disgust.

            It takes him a second longer to work through the daze from hitting his head and actually hear all the yelling coming from the comms, but when he does, he wishes he couldn’t.

            He fumbles for the transmit button with his right hand, using his left to bring up Blue’s damage reports and see the extent of it—to his relief, it’s nothing major, just a few minor repairs that’ll be done in an hour or two at most. Red’ll probably have worse by the time all’s said and done.

            “Lance! Are you okay? Lance, answer us!” Shiro shouts.

            “Nice to know you care, big guy,” Lance jokes, clearing his throat in an attempt to make his voice sound less rough.

            The relieved exhales and exclamations almost make Lance smile, but they’re over before he gets the chance.

            “The hell were you thinking, Lance?” Keith demands, and he rolls his eyes.

            “I was thinking, Mullet Brain, that if you and Red took one more hit you’d be down for the count. After Green, you have the least amount of armor out of any of us. You’re welcome for saving your ass again.”

            Yeah, he’s in for so much lecturing later.

            “It doesn’t matter right now—Pidge and I will take care of the last of the ships; the rest of you, head back to the hangars. Lance, stick around; I need to talk to you.”

            “Sure thing, bossman,” Lance drawls, not bothering to respond to the annoyed groans from the other paladins that follow his comment and switching off his transmissions again so he can slump in his seat and start to take stock of himself.

            He’s sore all over, and he feels the way he used to imagine his teddy bears felt going through the dryer when he was a kid—wrung out, battered, and bruised. His helmet’s intact, which is a good sign, but he did hit his head pretty good there for a bit and he doesn’t feel anywhere near a hundred percent right now—although that could be caused by multiple other factors that don’t include a concussion. Either way, he’ll have to watch it.

            His ribs and chest feel like shit, but that’s to be expected after being tossed around like a ragdoll. Beyond that—he’s pretty sure the blood in his mouth is just from biting his tongue, and nothing’s broken, just bruised. All in all, he came out significantly better than expected. He’s had worse.

            You good, Blue? I’m sorry for that, darling, I know I didn’t think—

            She grumbles at him. Quit that. We both made that choice. We’re the protectors, Lance.

            He smiles softly at her. Thanks, Blue. I promise I’ll have Hunk fix you up soon as possible, okay, my sweet girl?

            That seems almost a lifetime away right now with what he has to look forward to—getting yelled at multiple times in one day is not Lance’s idea of fun.

Chapter Text

            “Blue, c’mon.”

            You don’t want to go.

            “Yeah, well, who would—no, Blue, stop, I didn’t mean that I’m going to stay; c’mon, just let me out. It doesn’t matter if I want to go or not; the longer I wait, the worse it’ll be.”

            Her stubborn resolve softens momentarily, and he seizes his chance, gently pushing at her to listen.

            “Blue, sweetheart—cariña, please. If I take too long to go face them, it’ll only give them more of a reason to lecture me. I’ll come back after. Promise.”

            She growls, frustrated, but lets her mouth fall open so he can exit the cockpit. Forcing himself not to heave a sigh of relief, he stands and walks quickly out into the hangar, letting his hand absentmindedly stroke along the side of her jaw as he leaves.

            “I won’t be too long, Blue. Gotta check over your damages and all that—I’m not gonna let my best girl stay at less than top shape for long.”

            She hums affectionately, but he can still feel her reluctance to let him go. Her presence settles into the back of his mind—almost like a cat curling up in a high-up place to watch over things.

            He’s glad she’s not leaving him to face this alone—not that she ever would. But he’s not feeling too hot right now.

            After actually having to stand up and walk around, he’s reconsidering his earlier assessment of his injuries. Mostly his head—apparently he hit it harder than he thought, because his balance is shit, his entire skull is throbbing, and the bright lights of the castle are both painful and disorienting.

            Concussion, he guesses, wincing. Not as bad as the way his head felt after the explosion when Sendak captured the castle, but bad enough that sleeping without being woken up every few hours would probably be a bad idea.

            Not that he can get more than a few hours of sleep at a time anyway. But hell, that’s gonna make listening to everyone’s yelling about ten thousand times worse than it was gonna be already.

            His ribs might be bruised a little bit too, with the way they’re burning and aching every time he takes a breath. And no doubt there are a few cuts and scrapes hidden under his armor where the edges bit into his skin.

            He sighs, focusing on straightening his posture and appearing somewhat balanced even though he’s anything but.

            Not exactly what you pictured life in space as, is it? he asks himself, and the twist of his lips is too bitter to be called a smile.

            ………..

            “Lance, what were you thinking? Not only did you actions put yourself in danger, they put the rest of us, especially Keith, in danger as well!”

            “That’s not—” True, he wanted to say. If he hadn’t done what he did, Keith would be injured or dead or captured.

            “Don’t interrupt me—I’m not finished! I know you want to protect your teammates, Lance, and that’s admirable, but doing what you did helps no one. Taking that hit put you out of commission for several minutes during which Keith had to fight the Galra fleet on his own, without backup, and even allowed several warships to target Pidge and Green because you weren’t there to keep them at bay.

            “There were dozens of other ways you could have kept Keith from getting hit by that blast! Warning him, deflecting it with your own blaster, blocking it with ice—and yet you chose the one way that was guaranteed to leave the rest of us and yourself most vulnerable.”

            “Shiro—” Hunk tries, looking uncomfortable, but Shiro plows on without so much as acknowledging him.

            “And if you were watching Keith’s back properly like you’re supposed to, you would’ve seen that ship and taken it out ages before it became a threat.”

            “Shiro—” Keith this time, and that surprises Lance enough for him to take his resigned stare off of Shiro’s stern face to look at him—he’d been standing back with his arms crossed, looking just as angry if not more so as the black paladin, but now he’d uncrossed his arms and even taken half a step forwards, as if he were going to physically hold Shiro back from continuing his lecture.

            “Beyond that, Lance, you were completely unfocused during the entire attack—if Voltron had been needed, I find myself doubting very much that the team would have been capable of forming with you as distracted as you were,” Allura interjects, blue eyes hard and unforgiving.

            Well, that’s not fair, Lance thinks, brows furrowing indignantly. His focus hasn’t been great, sure, but it’s been better than it has been for a while now—and what is she even talking about, ‘the whole time?’ Besides that one slip-up, where Shiro had to warn him, he’d kept alert and aware and focused the whole goddamn time.

            “I agree he was maybe a little distracted,” Pidge says, speaking for the first time, and ouch, that hurt a little, for her to agree with Allura, “But I don’t think it would’ve kept us from forming Voltron if we needed it.”

            At least she trusts me in that aspect of things.

            “I’m not convinced,” Allura disagreed, stubbornly ignoring Pidge and staring Lance down. “Lance, have you been training outside of team training at all?”

            And that—that hurt. Maybe he’s not improving as fast as he’d like, and maybe the others are too busy with other things to notice, but he is improving. Training every fucking night isn’t going to make an insignificant amount of difference.

            He opens his mouth to reply that yes, of course he fucking has, but before he can, Pidge interrupts with, “Does it matter if he does? I don’t train outside of team training either.”

            Either.

            “Yes, Pidge, but your talents lie in other areas. Lance needs all the training he can get to remain a competent paladin,” Allura argues—well, not really, because her tone doesn’t allow for disagreement.

            It feels like they’ve got a chisel set against his heart, and every additional comment is a hammer blow cracking him open and into pieces.

            “Lance, I hope you take this failure as the lesson it is. You need to do better next time,” Allura tells him. “Do you understand?”

            “Yes,” he replies stiffly. “I understand.”

            “Good. Now, then—paladins, please take the time to rest. That fight might not have been the most difficult we’ve been in, but it was still taxing, and I expect to see you all at training this afternoon as usual.”

            Pidge and Hunk both groan at that—used to be, Lance would have too, but he can’t bring himself to pretend that he’s still the same person he once was right now, so he just nods.

            Blue tries to wrap his mind in calming waves of her own consciousness—nothing like the melding from the battle earlier, just an attempt at comfort.

            He wish it worked.

            The others disperse quickly—they all have things to do, like Pidge, Allura, and Shiro, or they’re actually going to attempt to get some rest as Allura said, like Hunk and Keith.

            Lance turns to head back to the hangar; he can’t ask Hunk about repairing Blue until he knows what repairs she needs.

            Before he makes it more than a few steps down the hallway, Coran catches up and falls into step next to him, twisting the end of his mustache while he glances behind them, as if checking to be sure that none of the others have followed them as well.

            “Perhaps Allura was a bit harsh,” he offers, tone cheerful as ever, and claps Lance gently on the shoulder. “I think you did marvelously, as always, my boy.”

            “Thanks, Coran,” Lance says, and offers him a weary smile.

            “Are you all right, Lance? There didn’t seem to be an opportunity to ask before the others launched into lecture mode. You took quite the hit—and that tumble afterwards, my! It couldn’t have been all juniberry blossoms and aurorises.”

            The fuck is an aurorise?

            Blue sends him a picture of a sort of warped rainbow with an amused hum in answer, and once upon a time, he might’ve laughed. No, that tumble definitely wasn’t all flowers and rainbows.

            “I’m fine, Coran. Thanks, though. For asking.” He’s the only one who’s bothered.

            “Of course, my boy! After all, it’s my duty to keep you all in tip-top fighting shape!” Coran exclaims, as always with his overexaggerated hand gestures and a grin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—I need to check on the castle defenses. We took a few hits ourselves there before things got back under control.”

            He turns down an adjacent hallway, leaving Lance with nothing more than a quick salute and a, “Make sure you get some rest, young paladin!”

            Coran’s good people, Lance observes. Blue purrs in agreement in the back of his mind.

            Unfortunately, he’s going to be disappointing Coran, because as tired as he is, he knows if he lays down to try and sleep, all he’ll get is his brain’s remix rendition of everything he did wrong and why he’s a terrible paladin that’s going to get all of his friends killed.

            Yeah. He and his brain aren’t really friends right now.

            So he goes to Blue. Always to Blue, because she’s always there for him and has never said a single harsh word to him. All she has for him is love and affection and support and he loves her back fiercely for it. And of course he’s not going to let her stay damaged for longer than she needs to be.

            The damages aren’t bad—he makes a list, mentally, so he can explain things to Hunk, but then the more he thinks about how minor they are the more he deliberates about doing them himself. After all, he has the time.         

            Blue, if I do the leg work, do you think you can walk me through your repairs?

            Of course, my paladin. Although I would prefer it if you would go rest like the others.

            Yeah, sorry, sweetheart, but that’s not gonna happen. So. Repairs?

            An annoyed growl. If you insist on continuing to pretend that you are not hurt, I suppose I would prefer for you to be close. Go ahead.

            Lance rolls his eyes, but his heart isn’t in it. It makes him ache, the enormous amount of worry Blue feels for him—and the fact that he knows it’s kind of warranted only makes it worse.

            Yeah. Let’s do this, mi sirenita.

            Repairing Blue is actually fairly calming. He lets her guide his movements, so that it’s almost like his body is on autopilot (except that Blue is the one piloting—makes for a nice switch in roles between the two of them), and he’s just absently thinking through things in the back of his head, vaguely paying attention to what he’s doing so that he can do it again in the future.

            His thoughts, for the most part, aren’t helpful. They actually kind of suck at first—mostly it’s him berating himself for doing something that got him lectured by Shiro and Allura.

            But Blue doesn’t particularly like those thoughts, so she starts multitasking—guiding him while simultaneously telling him stories or asking him questions about his life before her.

            It’s nice to talk about his family, even if missing them hurts so badly it’s like there’s a knife stabbing into his chest.

            When he’s done, though…

            Everything is always a thousand times worse when he’s not busy. That’s when all of his thoughts bombard him all at once and overwhelm him until it feels like he’s drowning in his incompetence.

            “Lance needs all the training he can get to remain a competent paladin.”

            Allura’s voice loops on repeat through his mind. There are other comments there, too, of course—Pidge, telling him to piss off for the third time in one day; some of the highlights of Shiro’s lecture; Hunk begging off on hanging out with him to help Pidge or Coran with some sort of mechanical project…

            The list goes on. Lance hates it.

            He’d go to the training room, to power through it and occupy his body to the point that his mind doesn’t have time to think about anything, but he knows that he’ll end up getting caught by people who want him to be resting.

            So he heads to the only other place that he knows he might be able to relax.

            ………………………………….

            Keith isn’t blind.

            Sure, yeah, he’s a little oblivious sometimes. And reckless. And probably more than his fair share of impulsive. But he’s not blind.

            Which is why he knows that something’s up with Lance. He’s known for a while, actually, he just—how do you go up to the guy who calls you his rival that you’re constantly arguing with and say, “Hey, you look like shit, wanna talk about it?”

            That’s on him. He’s bad at social interaction, in case ‘spending a year alone in the middle of a fucking desert,’ wasn’t clue or reason enough.

            After today, he’d meant to yell at Lance just the way Shiro and Allura had. Keith’s supposed to be the reckless one, not him, and what he did—gah!

            He can’t even really identify what it is that upsets him the most about it—just that Lance put himself in harms way for Keith, and that wasn’t right! That isn’t the way it’s supposed to go!

            His irritation was building and building until his skin felt itchy, like he was about to burst out of it—but as soon as Lance walked into the room, all of the words he was planning to say died in his throat.

            He looked like shit. Worse than shit, honestly—there was blood in his hair, not a lot, but enough that a trickle of it had dried on his left temple. His pupils were dilated to different sizes—an obvious sign of a concussion—and the way he walked, like he wanted to hunch in on himself but was forcing himself to stand upright, made it immediately obvious to Keith that he was hurting.

            At first, he’d just frozen where he was, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, mouth slightly open in shock, but then he saw Lance forcibly shove whatever pain he was feeling behind a mask and summon a rueful smirk before greeting everyone, as if nothing ws wrong.

            His mouth snapped shut and he couldn’t help but glare, because it was so stupid. He shouldn’t hide how he’s feeling from the team. Especially not from Keith.

            He’d taken a step forward with the intention of asking Lance how he was feeling, because it was so blatantly apparent that he wasn’t okay, but before he could, Shiro had started in on him, in the tone of voice that let Keith know it’d be a bad idea to interrupt.

            As he went on, though, Keith wishes that he’d been able to summon the courage to talk Shiro and Allura both down, because so much of what they were saying was so wrong. But he didn’t, and he watched the way the spark of indignant outrage in his eyes died after Shiro shut down his one attempt to defend himself.

            Hunk tries, but he might as well not have said anything with the way Shiro ignores him, and then suddenly the glue trapping Keith’s tongue to the roof of his mouth unseals and he finds himself blurting out an annoyed “Shiro—” but it doesn’t work.

            He wants to follow Lance as soon as it’s over, but Coran catches his eye and taps his nose warningly, making a type of shooing gesture to get him to leave.

            He’s reluctant, but he follows directions anyway, leaving Lance in Coran’s capable hands. He decides to head to his room to try and get some well-deserved and much-needed rest, hoping that Lance is doing the same.

            But then, as tired as he is, he can’t sleep. All he can see is the way that Lance’s face sort of…crumpled inward—the way each of Shiro and Allura’s words hit harder and harder and yet Lance still managed to keep up that mask which apparently only Keith is capable of seeing through.

            Honestly, he knows Hunk is busy, and distracted, but isn’t he supposed to be Lance’s best friend? Keith might not know much about friendship, but he’d say that they’re supposed to notice when their friends look dangerously close to either passing out or having a nervous breakdown.

            He’d given up on sleep after maybe an hour, deciding to track down Lance and demand answers—not that he thought it would work, he’s just. Frustrated. Because Lance looks terrible, and he’s not talking to anyone about it, and Keith doesn’t remember the last time he saw Lance eat something.

            So. Something needed to be done. And since no one else noticed anything, somehow, that leaves Keith.

            But Lance isn’t in his room. And then he’s not in the control room, or the kitchen, or with Pidge or Hunk.

            He checks the training room, but the only person there is Shiro, working out his anger on the practice droids. Keith’s tempted to join him, but his irritation with Shiro and his concern for Lance overpowers any longing he might have.

            Where the hell did he go? The Castle’s big, sure, but you shouldn’t be able to lose a whole person.

            Keith runs his fingers through his hair and tugs at it, frustrated. The hangar, maybe? With Blue?

            But that doesn’t feel right, for some reason, so he stops at the end of the hallway and looks between the three different options he has at this intersection—and then it hits him, and his feet are carrying him hurriedly towards the bridge, boots deceptively quiet on the metallic floors.

            The room is dark, and Keith prepares himself to be disappointed—but, no, it’s not completely dark. Someone has the map of the universe up, and after squinting and adjusting the the low light, he can make out the shape of that someone stretched out on their back on the floor.

            Lance. Fucking finally.

            Keith wants to stomp over to him and yell until he gets answers. He wants to shake Lance’s shoulders and tell him he was stupid for taking that hit. He wants to—

            He kind of wants to hug him. He looks like he could use one.

            So he sighs, softly enough that Lance doesn’t hear him, and quietly walks over to where he’s laying on the ground, staring up at the glowing diagram of a slowly spinning Earth before sitting on the floor about a foot away from Lance.

            He’d prefer to stay sitting, but he can’t really see Earth very well that way, so after a few seconds, he sighs again, just as soft, and lies back, pillowing his head on his arms.

            He doesn’t say anything. Lance is awake, he can tell that much, but he hasn’t said anything either, and Keith knows he doesn’t want to.

            This isn’t the first time they’ve done this.

            So Keith waits. It’s a comfortable sort of silence—they’re better at this than talking. That’s partially his fault; the words always get mixed up on their way out and end up sounding completely different than what he meant.

            But this…it’s easy. Easier than it should be, maybe—easier than Keith wishes it was, because it makes everything to do with Lance so much more confusing.

            Eventually, Lance sighs, and Keith takes that as an invitation to talk.

            He rolls over onto his side to see him better—Lance doesn’t even glance at him, and Keith is kind of glad for it. They’re not right next to each other, but they’re close enough that if Keith wanted to he could reach out and grab Lance’s hand where it’s pressed flat against the cool floor.

            The lights of the star map aren’t much, but with his eyes adjusted, they’re enough. Keith can still see the dark stain of dried blood on the side of his face, and the shadows under his eyes are even more prominent with the limited lighting.

            He looks tired—exhausted. The bone-deep kind, where sleep doesn’t help and everything feels like it takes so much more effort than it should.

            Keith knows what that feels like, but it’s something altogether unfamiliar to see it on someone else—to see it on Lance. Something in his chest aches.

            “Lance,” he tries, and his voice is much softer than he’s used to. Too soft, probably—he tries again. “Lance—there’s something wrong, isn’t there?”

            For a second, Keith thinks that Lance is gonna ignore him, but then he sighs through his nose—something that sounds far too world-weary to come from someone as young as he is—and reaches up with his right hand to run it down his face.

            “Nothing you can help with,” he finally murmurs, quiet enough that Keith has to strain to hear it.

            Keith opens his mouth again—but he doesn’t know what to say. Eventually he settles on, “How do you know if you don’t tell me?”

            Lance laughs—well. It shouldn’t be called a laugh. There’s no joy in the sound at all, and it’s such an uncharacteristic sound from him that Keith flinches.

            “I guess I don’t,” he says. He doesn’t add anything after, like Keith expects.

            “So why don’t you tell me?” he asks, trying his best to keep his voice gentle. “Lance—” He stops. Sighs. Runs his fingers through his hair again. Traces the profile of Lance’s face with his eyes. “We’ve been here enough times—you’ve listened to me enough—ugh. Just—you’ve been there for me when I’ve really needed it. You’ve been there for everyone. And—well, you know that it goes both ways, right? If you need me, I’m here.”

            Something about that seems to confuse Lance—his brow furrows, and he turns his head just enough to glance over.

            It’s not much, but it’s enough for Keith to notice his mismatched pupils all over again, and he moves without thinking, grabbing Lance’s chin to turn his face more, leaning closer to study his eyes.

            “Do you have a concussion?” he demands, struggling to keep his voice quiet if only because he knows loud sounds and head injuries don’t mix well.

            Lance winces. “Probably.”

            “Why didn’t you say anything?”

            He mumbles something Keith can’t hear.

            “What?” he asks, propped up into a near-sitting position now so he can watch Lance closer for signs of further injury.

            This time, he catches something about “didn’t think it was important,” and he has to quell the urge to smack him.

            “Lance,” he says, trying to be patient, “why the hell wouldn’t a concussion be important? Does anything else hurt?” Without giving him a chance to respond, Keith starts running his hands over Lance’s arms and torso, poking and prodding, mostly looking for more blood but completely unsurprised when Lance whines in pain at Keith’s hand pressing against his ribs.

            “Bruised?” he asks. “Or broken?”

            Lance glances at him but looks away again quickly, staring past him at the map. “Not broken. Maybe cracked, but probably just bruised. Not really much you can do for bruised ribs, so I didn’t mention it.”

            “You could use the healing pod,” Keith points out, but Lance shakes his head immediately—fast enough that he grimaces and grabs his head.

            “No,” he grits out. “It’s not bad enough to use a pod.”

            Keith sits back on his heels, crossing his arms and unsure whether or not to be annoyed or amused. “You’re not really proving that to be true at the moment.”

            Lance rolls his eyes. “I’m fine, Keith.”

            “Yeah, I don’t think so. Come on, let’s go to the infirmary—no, don’t give me that look; I’m not going to put you in a pod.” Even if I do think you’re being dumb for refusing one. “There’s other things in the infirmary, Lance, and plenty of them will help with your concussion and ribs. So,” Keith stands, dusting himself off and then offering a hand to Lance, “up. Now.”

            Lance stares at his hand for nearly a full minute, but Keith doesn’t budge, and finally he sighs and grabs on, letting Keith pull him to his feet.

            Keith has to steady him for a bit when he starts wobbling, but when he tries to put Lance’s arm around his shoulder to help him walk, Lance waves him off and starts walking on his own towards the infirmary.

            It frustrates and annoys Keith to no end, but he knows he’d be the same if their roles were reversed, so he lets it go and watches Lance with an unwavering stare, hovering close enough to be able to catch him if he starts to fall.

            He doesn’t know what’s going on with Lance. There’s something; Lance admitted that, at least—but for now, Keith has to focus on treating Lance’s injuries and maybe getting him to eat something.

            If he’s lucky, he’ll be able to convince Lance to get some sleep before afternoon training.

            Wait—training. Fuck. I’ll have to talk to Shiro; there’s no way I’m letting Lance into that room with a concussion.

            Filing that away to deal with later, Keith focuses on now. Watching Lance, the way he walks, the way he holds himself…his expression when he thinks nobody’s looking…it all only serves to convince Keith that he’s hurting something awful, and not just from physical injuries.

            Lance’s lips are set in a pained frown, and Keith realizes that he can’t remember the last time he saw Lance smile genuinely.

            There’s something very wrong. And even if Lance insists that they’re rivals, Keith never really felt that way.

            If he had to call them anything…he’d call them friends. And friends don’t stand by while their friends suffer.

            I can help you, Lance, Keith thinks, pleading. Please trust me.  

Chapter Text

            When Keith sees the full extent of Lance’s injuries, he feels like screaming.

            That urge to give him a hug also increases by about three hundred percent, and he has to physically stop himself from doing exactly that.

            They’d dealt with the concussion first—it wasn’t much to look at, which wasn’t surprising; the smallest head wounds bleed an ungodly amount, but there was a sizeable bump that made Keith’s own skull throb in sympathetic pain when he felt it.

            After digging through the cabinets to find the bottles that Pidge and Coran had worked together to label properly in English as well as Altean, Keith gave Lance two pain pills to swallow with a glass of water that would hopefully take the edge off for him. It’d actually taken some convincing on Keith’s part, and he had to ignore his impulse to just shove the damn pills down Lance’s stubborn throat.

            Then they’d gotten to the part where Keith told Lance to strip out of his armor, and when he’d been expecting an inappropriate comment—something like “Damn, Keith, if you want to see me naked so badly, you could just ask,”—all he’d gotten was resigned silence.

            Lance had methodically unstrapped his armor—and honestly, why was he even still wearing it? It’s not exactly comfortable—before finally pulling the undersuit down to his waist so that Keith could treat his ribs.

            He has to bite back a, “What the fuck, Lance?”

            Lance’s torso is covered in dark purple-black bruises, complete with multiple scrapes and abrasions located approximately where the edges of his armor would have dug in while he was being knocked around. And besides that, there are dozens of other bruises and cuts in various stages of healing that are very obviously not from their most recent battle.

            Keith has had his fair share of minor injuries, but never so many at once, and they always bother him. Shiro can always tell when Keith has a new bruise because of the way he acts, even when it’s barely a minor inconvenience; for Lance to have this many plus cuts and scrapes and none of them to have noticed…there’s a flash of anger and self-loathing that he has to push away so as not to get distracted. He needs all of his usual single-minded focus to get through this.

            He’s treated injuries before. His, Shiro’s, hell, even Pidge’s once or twice. But this is difference because the injuries he’s treating belong to Lance. He doesn’t know why exactly it’s so hard to swallow down his concern and just do what he needs to do, but…it is. It’s Lance, and it’s different, and he is so unprepared for this.

            Fortunately, where his brain might be frozen, his hands aren’t, and they’ve gone through the motions of cleaning and bandaging injuries so many times that it’s muscle memory by now. Before long, Lance’s ribs are wrapped tightly, the cuts have been disinfected, applied with ointment, and bandaged, and he’s been convinced to take another pain pill.

            The second pain pill may or may not also be a sedative. And Keith may or may not have withheld that information when he gave it to Lance.

            He needs to sleep, okay? The bags under his eyes are so deep and dark that he looks like he has two black eyes, and his face is gaunt and exhausted. He looks, overall, as if he hasn’t slept in weeks. It’s awful, and Keith can’t stand to see it and not do anything about it.

            Lance’s eyes start drooping just as Keith is finishing up the bandaging to keep his ribs still while they heal—even if they’re just bruised or cracked, overexertion or too abrupt of a movement could break them or injure them further—and after he dozes off and jolts himself back awake a few times, he blinks, realization dawning on his face, and narrows his unfocused gaze accusingly at Keith.

            “You drugged me,” he says, indignant, and Keith steps back to cross his arms and attempt to look stern.

            “That’s what medication does, Lance,” he replies, hoping to fend off on argument at least until Lance is too tired to really do anything about it.

            “No, you—Keith. You know what I mean. You sedated me.”

            “I gave you a pain pill.”

            “What the hell kinda pain pill was it? Altean morphine? You should have told me it was going to make me tired!”

            “Fucking hell, Lance, just lay down. Sleep. You and I both know you need it, and don’t you fucking dare try to deny it, because I can see how sleep deprived you are. You need to rest, or you’ll never heal and risk aggravating the injuries you already have. A concussion on top of sleep deprivation isn’t something I’d wish on anyone.”

            Lance opens his mouth, seemingly to argue, but all at once he seems to deflate, all the anger falling out of him with a frustrated sigh. His shoulders slump, and he rubs a hand over his face.

            “Pretty sure you’re not supposed to sedate people with concussions, Keith,” he mumbles.

            Keith rolls his eyes. “For the first 24 hours after a concussion, it’s recommended to rest. It’s one of the best ways to help the brain heal. So you’ll be fine, and also I’m doing you a favor. Go the fuck to sleep.”            

            “What, here? In the infirmary?” Lance asks, agitated. When Keith nods, his expression darkens, and his voice is stiff when he says, “I’m not an invalid, Keith.”

            “I’m not saying you are,” Keith says. “I’m saying that you’re injured and sleep deprived and who the hell knows what else, so you need to rest. Anyone else in your situation would need the same.” He pauses, giving Lance a critical once-over before continuing with, “Actually, anyone else would probably have passed out already. Don’t know how you haven’t yet.”

            Lance is still valiantly fighting sleep, but his eyes are half-closed and he looks like a stiff breeze could knock him over.

            “I don’t wanna sleep in the infirmary, Keith,” he mumbles. “’S not a fun place to wake up alone.”

            “You won’t be alone—I’ll be here. I’m not about to leave you by yourself when it’s become spectacularly clear to me in the past few hours that you have no idea how to take care of yourself,” Keith tells him. He tries for reassuring, and maybe it works at least a little, because he sees something like surprise and then gratitude cross Lance’s face.

            “…I guess ‘s fine, then.” He sighs again, and twists to situate himself on the bed, except he must be dizzy from either the meds or the concussion or some godawful combination of both because he freezes after barely moving a few inches and sways back and forth, covering his eyes with one hand while the other twists in the sheets that cover the cot to steady himself.

            “C’mon, Sleeping Beauty, under the covers,” Keith says softly, stepping forward to help him lay back. Surprisingly, Lance lets him, and is apparently too tired to come up with anything clever to say in response to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ comment like he usually would. “I’ll be here when you wake up. Sleep.”

            Lance mumbles something that might be ‘thanks, Keith,’ and then turns halfway onto his stomach, burying his face into the pillow. With one last sigh, his eyes fall completely closed, and his breathing becomes slow and steady.

            Keith pulls another blanket over his bare torso—he’s still wearing his undersuit, pulled down and tied around his waist, but the only thing covering his chest, stomach, and arms are his bandages.

            Keith hates the way the bandages look, unnaturally white against Lance’s dark skin. It’s startling, unsettling, and stirs something in his chest that makes it hard for him to swallow.

            Worry, maybe? Concern? Whatever it is, he doesn’t particularly like it.

            He sighs, rubbing his fingers against his forehead as if he could physically smooth away the tension there. It doesn’t work, and he stands, taking in one last long look of Lance to make sure he’s okay before turning and heading for the door.

            He has to talk to Shiro.

            ………………………..

            Lance doesn’t wake up in an instant.

            He’s not sure how long it actually takes, given how hazy he feels. His entire body is too heavy, and for a moment he’s afraid he’s going to sink into the mattress and disappear. Feeling comes back slowly, tingles starting in his fingers and toes and climbing up his limbs as awareness comes back to him bit by bit.

            He really hates sedatives. They make him feel foggy and vaguely sick, kind of like when you sleep in too long and spend the rest of the day feeling sticky and uncomfortable.

            At home, he might’ve spent somewhere between five to ten minutes groaning and rolling over in bed, trying to shake off the discomfort and also extremely tempted to go back to sleep.

            Here, he just stays still, keeps it all to himself, and opens his sleep-swollen eyelids once his brain is more than just half-awake.

            Despite Keith’s promise, he expects to be alone, laying on top of the stark white sheets under the harsh lights of the infirmary.

            Instead, the lights are dimmed, he’s covered by a soft blanket he doesn’t remember, and there’s someone sitting in a chair next to his bed.

            Except. It’s not Keith.

            “Lance. You’re awake,” Shiro says, setting aside the Altean tablet he was looking at. He’s wearing what passes for civilian clothes on the Castle, and Lance stares for a second, unsure how to react. “How’s the head?”

            “Fine,” Lance replies automatically.

            Shiro raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him. “I highly doubt that. Wanna try again?”

            Lance opens his mouth to say something along the lines of ‘no really I’m fine that rest was just what I needed I probably don’t have a concussion after all’ but he can’t bring himself to do it in the face of Shiro’s attentive gaze. “Sore, I guess.”

            “Yeah, I bet. Concussions aren’t fun.”

            “…yeah.”

            Neither of them really seem to know what to say after that, or maybe that’s just Lance and Shiro is actually perfectly happy to sit there in silence. Maybe the slightly-disappointed-but-mostly-just-concerned Dad Eyebrows Stare is his attempt to goad Lance into talking first.

            Unfortunately for Shiro, Lance isn’t feeling particularly talkative at the moment.

            They might have ended up stuck in an awkward not-stare-off for who knows how much longer if Keith hadn’t chosen that moment to slam the infirmary door open with his foot, loud enough to make Lance flinch and to break Shiro’s concentration.

            Not enough for him not to notice the flinch, though. Fortunately, he doesn’t say anything about it, instead choosing to turn to Keith, sigh dramatically, and just ask, “Why?”

            Keith doesn’t seem bothered by Shiro’s disappointment. “My hands were full.”

            “Keith, my guy—you have zero chill,” Lance tells him. “Is this a red paladin thing or a drama queen thing?”

            Keith’s forehead furrows in confusion, and he pauses to direct the full force of it at Lance. “Do you ever actually make sense?”

            “I do, just not to uncultured desert children,” Lance says. Shiro snorts, and for a second Lance allows the sense of surprised pride that warms his chest at making Shiro laugh.

            Then he lets it fade, too intensely bone-tired to hold onto any strong emotion for long.

            “I’m going to ignore that, because you have a concussion and one of the side effects is confusion,” Keith decides. “I brought you food and clothes.”

            Lance decides now would be a good time to sit up completely, so he does, ignoring the pain it causes in his ribs and the way Shiro jerks in alarm as if to push him back down. “Thanks,” he says.

            Keith stares at him disapprovingly. “You didn’t have to get up.”

            “Um, yeah, I kinda did? How else am I supposed to change or eat?” Lance points out.

            Keith wrinkles his nose, apparently less than excited about Lance’s solid logic. “I guess.”

            “Keith, after you set that down, would you mind giving Lance and I a few moments alone? I’d like to speak to him without an audience,” Shiro asks, and Lance really wants to laugh at his Professionalism™, considering he’s pretty sure they all know Shiro is just making this shit up as he goes along.

            Except, hey, it’s Lance he wants to have a Talk with. Shit.

            After a prolonged silent conversation that involves a lot of eyebrow movement, Keith shrugs and dumps his armful of stuff onto the bed next to Lance. “Yeah, sure. Call me back in when you’re done; I wanna make sure Lance’s head is still fully functioning.”

            Lance watches Keith leave, and he almost hates the part of himself that wants nothing more than for him to stay.

            Then he’s left alone with Shiro, and he wants to sigh in resignation, but instead he curls his legs up and rests his chin on his arms, waiting quietly for the lecture he’s sure he’s about to receive.

            What he’s not expecting is for him to look up and Shiro looking...hurt, almost. Recoiling from something he sees in Lance’s expression as if it’s burned him, eyes full of regret and concern and the tiniest hint of self-loathing.

            Lance’s shoulders stiffen, unsure what exactly it is about that look that makes him feel so distinctly uncomfortable and somewhat afraid, only sure that he wants to run and hide somewhere that Shiro’s eyes can’t find him.

            “Lance…” Shiro starts, voice soft and quiet. There’s a world of concern there—a gentleness as though he’s scared anything harsher will break something fragile.  

            I see you, it says.

            And that’s—not right.

            “I wanted to make sure you were okay, Lance,” Shiro starts again, and he looks so mad at himself that it physically pains Lance. Shiro isn’t supposed to look like that.

            “I am, Shiro—”

            “No,” Shiro cuts him off, shaking his head. “No, you’re not, and I can see that now. I don’t know why I couldn’t see it before. I guess I never got to know you the way I should have, and I’m sincerely sorry for that, Lance.”

            Lance opens his mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. He’s so confused—this isn’t anything like what he was expecting.

            “You were probably expecting a lecture, I imagine,” Shiro says, surprising Lance once again with his insight. “Something about how you shouldn’t hide your injuries like that ever again—and trust me, that’s what I had in mind at first. You gave Keith a pretty bad scare there, Lance. He’s worried about you.”

            And that’s confusing too, and Lance wishes his head didn’t hurt so much because it’s only making it harder to untangle this incredibly weird mess of things he’s feeling at the moment.

            “Sorry, I know you’re probably not up to a prolonged talk right now. Just—Lance. You know you’re not alone here? We’re with you—every single one of us. Remember that, okay?”

            Shiro seems to channel every ounce of empathy and hope into his last look, because Lance swears he feels it all the way in his soul. He shivers at the unfamiliar feeling of being seen—being known—being something so completely opposite of alone that he’s not sure there’s a word for it.

            He doesn’t flinch when Shiro stands, even at the harsh sound of his chair scraping the floor. He doesn’t look up when Shiro hesitates. He doesn’t stiffen when Shiro rests a comforting hand on his shoulder before leaving, the gesture somehow so incredibly soothing despite who it comes from that he can’t help but relax into it, just a little.

            This isn’t what he expected.

            A few minutes after Shiro leaves, longer than Lance would’ve thought but not long enough for him to scrape together a coherent response to what just happened, Keith comes back in and drops into the chair Shiro left with a sigh, sprawling his limbs everywhere and tilting his head back so he’s staring down his nose consideringly at Lance.

            Lance is starting to be suspiciously expectant of something just as confusing and profound as Shiro’s talk, but what he eventually gets is, “You hungry?”

            He blinks, glancing over at the untouched bowl of food goo on the other bed. His stomach feels suddenly achingly empty, and he realizes that he hasn’t eaten since dinner the night before.

            “Yeah, I could eat,” he says. Keith smiles at him, pulling himself suddenly into a straighter sitting position so that he can reach for the food and hand it to Lance.

            While Lance eats, Keith stays. Every time Lance looks over, he’s expecting to see Keith impatiently fidgeting, ready to leave, but he always seems content to wait there for as long as Lance stays. For forever, almost.

            “When you’re up to it, everyone’s waiting in the lounge. After I told them you’ve got a concussion, Allura and Coran decided to switch today’s training to team bonding, which could arguably sound worse except that it’s basically just gonna be making a pillow fort and yelling at Pidge for smuggling her laptop into it.”

            Lance almost laughs. “Yeah? Are you sure they’re all okay with it? I could train if—”

            “If you wanted to get yourself hurt worse? Yeah, I know. Which is why we’re doing team bonding, something that everyone’s on board with considering it gets them out of training for a day. No one wants to see the latest torture method Coran’s thought up for us after last night.”

            Lance tries for a smile, and he must succeed at least a little, because Keith returns it with a lopsided grin. “I guess I’ll finish eating and get dressed, then? Wouldn’t want to keep everyone waiting.”

            Keith’s smile softens. “No one would mind waiting on you, Lance.”

            And that—huh.

            Blue purrs in the back of his mind, the first reaction he’s gotten from her to realize that she was listening.

            They care about you, little paladin. You are not as alone as you feel.

            Lance smiles again. It’s easier, this time.

            “Thanks, Keith.”