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Ascension

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I.

It started after they found Shiro.

Or re-found him, Lance supposed. The guy had a nasty habit of shooting himself into space and leaving everyone on edge. It was a tricky situation this time – the final battle with Zarkon had somehow projected him into the astral realm, a place that only Allura and the lions had access to, and after months of advanced engineering and necessary soul-searching, he was back in the flesh. For once, he looked refreshed and anew, compared to the haggard paladins who spent sleepless nights trying to get him back to this realm of existence. When he stepped out of the black lion, he grinned, bright in a way that Lance had never seen before, and everyone rushed him immediately.

It was Keith who got to him first, tackling him to the ground. Shiro merely laughed in response, patting the younger boy on the back, and Lance could’ve sworn he heard a sniffle from the mophead buried into Shiro’s shoulder. Shiro merely smiled in response, muttering unheard praise into his ear, before gently pushing him off so he could stand up and greet the others properly.

As Keith wiped tears from his eyes, Pidge clung to Shiro like a sloth, dangling off of his arm and cheering with a youthful glee that warmed the entire room. “I can’t believe the teleporter worked!” She squealed, grinning up at Shiro as if she were waiting for approval.

He returned it in full, ruffling her mop of hair with a chuckle. “You always were the best inventor I knew,” he teased, pausing to laugh once more. “Aside from your brother, of course. But he was better at inventing terrible puns than teleporters.”

Don’t even compare his crappy puns to my robots,” Pidge chided, half-serious, letting go of Shiro’s arm with a swoop. “He couldn’t figure out a battery from a transmitter if he tried.”

“Oh trust me, he tried. It wasn’t pretty.” Everyone laughed, including Lance, swept up in the ebullience of the moment. From there, Shiro made his rounds; Hunk swept him up in a bear hug, on the brink of tears, rambling about how he was afraid he was gonna find Shiro as a pile of bones and meat, his face turning green at the thought; Coran patted him on the back, exclaiming the importance of proper hygiene in the fourth dimension and scolding Shiro for not attending to it properly; and Allura shared a fond gaze with him, commenting on how good it was to have him back, lightly touching his shoulder with something akin to nervous love.  And then it was Lance’s turn.

When Shiro finally pulled himself away from the princess, Lance stepped forward, waving his hand in the direction of Shiro’s gaze. “Hey Shiro,” he murmured, suddenly bashful, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Sucks that I’m no longer the number-one pilot in the castle, but you know, we all gotta make sacrifices.”

“Hm?” Shiro hummed, not even looking in Lance’s direction, his gaze wandering back to Allura. “Oh yes, good to see you too Lance. I hope you’ve been doing well.”

He turned away from Lance, waving his arm towards the entrance of the hanger. “Let’s go have some dinner team. There’s not a whole lot of food in the fourth dimension, and I am starving.”

The rest of the team whooped, patting each other on the back, and made their way to the entrance.

Lance watched them go.

 

He watched Shiro grin at each and every one of them, an unconditional sort of love that he parted with every member of Voltron, and suddenly Lance realized how alone he was.

His idol – Takashi Shirogane, the Garrison hero that he spent years trying to catch up to, the man he constantly aspired to be like, the leader of Voltron that he had shared so many near-death experiences with this point – barely gave him a glance. Barely gave him anything.

And it hurt. It hurt like hell.

Yeah, he didn’t have the personal history that Shiro shared with Keith and Pidge, nor did he command respect quite like Allura and Coran, and he wasn’t as universally talented as Hunk. He didn’t get top scores at the Garrison, he struggled in one-on-one fights with the Galra, and more than once, Shiro had to scold him to ‘be more serious’, to ‘stop fooling around’, as if Lance wasn’t constantly trying to improve every chance he got.

Lance always had a feeling he wasn’t as important to Voltron. When he thought about it, late at night, staring at the empty ceiling of his room, he realized that everyone had something special they could cling to for the team. But Lance didn’t. Lance never had that thing (he was tempted to call it ‘talent’), and no matter how hard he tried, it was always just out of reach, or someone like Keith was there to swipe it away from him at the last second. But he tried, and he succeeded, and the universe wasn’t completely destroyed yet, so he figured that maybe he was doing something right.

But the way that Shiro shrugged him off, after months of worrying about whether or not Shiro would ever come back?

He couldn’t look past it.

Lance’s idol saw nothing special in him.

 

Lance wasn’t special.

 

“You coming?” A voice calls out—who was paying attention to him, of all people? – and Lance turned to see Keith, looking at him with an eyebrow raised, tapping his finger against his arm impatiently.

A flurry of insecure thoughts took over Lance – why was Keith here? Shouldn’t he be with Shiro? Why stick around for Lance? – but those purple eyes sharpened suddenly, and Keith’s hand was on Lance’s shoulder, and Lance’s personal battle went from fighting his own conscious to fighting the blush that was rapidly reddening his cheeks.

“Come on, Lance. Don’t keep Shiro waiting.” Lance blinked, trying to fetch his mind from the gutters it had recently emerged from, and then Keith was smiling. Not the kind of toothy, pearly-white smile he was used to from his friends, but a thin line, curved slightly into dimples at the ends. Never did Lance think such a small smile could threaten his heart into cardiac arrest.

He blinked again, and realized that Keith’s smile was faltering, waiting for an answer. Quickly, he nodded, and that smile was back, before it was turning around and walking towards the entrance, trailing only slightly to wait for Lance’s feet to catch up.

Lance didn’t want to see Shiro at that moment, not really – but right now, that was the furthest thing from his mind, as he caught up to Keith and asked him if “his name was wifi” because he “felt like they had a connection”.

And seeing that sly smile again – well, Lance could live with that too.

 

--

II. 

 

Lance let out a dusty breath of air as he plopped down on the metal box, watching with a wary eye as Keith attempted to converse with the merchant.

Normally, Lance would take the initiative on the negotiation front, as Keith’s form of diplomacy often involved vague threats and, occasionally, a little too many bruises for Lance to handle. But they had been walking in this desert for hours to find this one, isolated merchant (who had some sort of mechanism for the castle that Coran couldn’t live without, for whatever reason, Lance couldn’t make sense of it). Heat was Keith’s area of comfort, not Lance’s, and so when they finally found the squirrelly trader, simultaneously eager and afraid of the two paladins, Keith offered Lance a moment of reprise that Lance accepted earnestly.

Besides, Lance realized; he could watch Keith under the guise of comradery. Even if that didn’t come close to what he really wanted from all of this. What he wanted was something more.

Lance watched. Keith stood there, impatient as ever, cradling his helmet under his arm and pushing his dusty bangs away from his eyes in a sloppy manner that shouldn’t have sent a shudder down Lance is spine like it did. But it did, and as Lance watched, his eyes widened as he thought - Keith was absolutely radiant.

Radiant in a way Lance never could have imagined. He wasn’t bright and loud, like Hunk, nor was he commanding and respected, like Shiro; no, he found his radiance in his mystery, a powerful force that could not be understood but demanded all the same. His stiff posture and crossed arms, his fierce gaze coupled with its intensely aubergine hue, it almost forced your eyes in his direction. Thin lips and strong eyebrows, both creased in disinterest, stared off into the distance in silence, somehow making him all the more alluring. His broad shoulders, hung high with tension, made him look bigger, more powerful, like he could shatter the earth with his fists and walk away with no trace of fatigue. A palm ghosted his knife, constantly wary, ready to strike at a moment’s notice, ready to force your eyes and look at him, see the burning passion in his eyes that could never be extinguished, not even when dealing with something as mundane as alien diplomacy in the middle of a desert.  

God, Lance couldn’t look away.  This was a boy that mama would be proud to see him bring home, he realized. This was a boy that he could cherish and love, in all of his dominating radiance, until the ends of time, and his mama would laugh, reminding him of crisp palm trees and the crackle of sea salt against his fingers, and tell him that Lance, mi niño, he is beautiful, just like you.

 It was a truth that he could never fully swallow, a constant lump in his throat that no amount of water could wash away.

Lance looked down at his hands. He knew, distantly, that they were beautiful. The skin was soft, and the fingers were long, delicate and thin, with neatly trimmed nails, the signs of hands that were well cared for. His mama would always hold them, tell him how soft they were, and how lucky someone will be one day to have the privilege to hold those palms, caress them with the love they truly deserve. Viewed from his mama’s eyes, his hands were blossoms, with vibrant colors and trimmed stems, covered in dew from the ocean breeze. They were blossoms, pure and blue, and they were beautiful.

He knew his hands were beautiful, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not see it.

When Lance looked down at his hands, he saw the thin lines of scars tracing across his knuckles, white and striking against the flushed skin. He saw his palms shaking in the heat of battle, missing every shot, unable to do the one job he was supposed to do best. He heard his own screams when he woke up at night, trembling from every pore, sweaty palms grasping at his own face in a desperate attempt to remember if he was even alive. He tasted Shiro’s bitter disappointment and felt the weight of the world in the crevice of his palms. Instead of blossoms, all Lance could see was ashes, dried up and cracking his skin into something gruesome and terrifying.

Mama would not be proud of him, Lance realized. There was nothing to be proud of.

Those thoughts sprinted in his head, unrelenting for even a moment, repeating the mantra failure, failure, failure to a point where the word no longer made him feel anything, was just a constant presence in his conscience-

“You okay?”

Lance flinched automatically, snapping his head upwards to see Keith, commanding as ever in his presence. If there was emotion in his pupils, Lance was not in the right mind to see it, nor did he suspect there was any in the first place – and the dumb, dopey look on his face didn’t prove otherwise.

In response, Lance hummed noncommittedly, gaze drifting back to his sweaty palms. “Just zoning out. No need to worry, mullet head.” He forced a smile up to Keith, who looked unconvinced.

“You were staring at your hands for a while. You looked….” And suddenly, Keith’s hardened stare flickered, like a flame caught up in the wind, before he straightened his shoulders and focused on Lance with an intensity that made Lance wonder if he had really hesitated at all. “You looked sad. Are you sure you’re….okay?”

And Lance was almost touched for a moment, feeling something foreign and fuzzy deep in his bones; but then he remembered that this was Keith, and Keith probably couldn’t tell an emotion apart from a weblum, and the moment was gone.

“Just thinking about how soft and pretty these hands are, buddy,” Lance crooned, sticking his palms out for Keith to see. “See? Smooth as cocoa butter. Which is impressive, considering I left my entire supply at home.” He grinned, only half-fake at this point, and watched Keith eye his hands with an unusual sense of trepidation.

“Yeah?” That hesitation was there again, but it lingered this time, with Keith biting his lip. Lance watched him, waited to see what he would do, and they stood there for a few, hollow seconds, waiting for something, Lance not realizing how slow his breaths were becoming and how the sweat dripped down the crest of his face in a non-pleasing manner—

--And then Keith was reaching up, taking Lance’s palms into his own with an uncharacteristically gentle touch, his cool skin a stark contrast to Lance’s (now overbearingly hot) hands.

Lance felt his mind short-circuit, his breath stop suddenly. Keith was touching him, examining his hands with a look that wasn’t quite scientific, kneading the palm in his fingertips—

--and all Lance could think about was the fact that Keith’s hands more calloused than his, much more scarred, but somehow pretty in their imperfection, somehow more beautiful than Lance could ever hope to attain.

Of course Keith’s hands were prettier than Lance’s. Lance was willing to bet that Keith had never seen a jar of cocoa butter in his life, but here Keith stood, with rough hands and bitten down nails, massaging Lance’s palms in his hands, and Lance couldn’t tear his eyes away. Not for a second. The scarred skin was fascinating, each thin white line holding countless stories of heroism, each callous showing just how hardworking and determined Keith was to save the goddamn universe. These were the kind of hands mama would be proud of, weathered hands that held years of experience and labor, and suddenly Lance’s hands felt too soft, too fragile, as if Keith could shatter them if he squeezed too tight.

“You’re right.” Keith’s stark voice shook him out of his reverie. “They are pretty soft.” Before Lance could think on that for too long, Keith was dropping his hands and walking away, back to the alien at the trading post who had finally found what they were looking for.

Lance should have taken that as a compliment. He took pride in his soft hands, his long fingers and neatly-trimmed nails with healthy, keratin-filled nailbeds. But now, he realized dejectedly, that his soft hands only meant that he wasn’t trying hard enough. His softness meant he could get killed in battle – not that was even that consequential, a voice in the back of his mind nagged- and it could get the universe destroyed.

His softness was his weakness. And as Keith now knew, Lance was weak.

Lance allowed his head to fall into those unscarred palms, and swallowed the bitter taste of dust in his mouth.

 

--

III. 

 

“The entrance is caving in, guys!” Lance’s hands gripped his bayard in a panic, eyes wide and blurred as his gaze shifted between the monitor and the entrance. The number on the screen flashed at him mockingly – 70% - and Lance grit his teeth and buckled down, trying vainly to wipe the sweat away from under his helmet.

A boom and a crash, and Galra soldiers were flooding in from a hole in the wall. Lance grit his teeth and took a deep breath, glancing up at the number again. 72%. Too slow, the information was downloading too slow, and the number of Galra trying to murder his face were growing every second-

“Lance, is the download finished yet?” A familiar voice called through the coms, followed by a grunt, most likely caused by the battle raging outside of the ship.

“That’s a negative, boss man,” Lance sighed, tapering off with a humorless laugh. He could hear the footsteps closing around the corner. “And from the sounds of it, I’ve got a lot of company who want to blow my head right off.”

“Then fight them off!” A younger, more urgent voice pierced through the comms. “We need that information, Lance, just wait it off a little longer-“

Another boom, loud enough to rattle his eardrums into numbness, and Lance knew his time was up.

He looked up at the monitor again. 75%.

He should probably retreat, and his mind was screaming at him that this was the rational thing to do. And God, he really wanted to – he’d been hit by those Galra lasers one too many times in his life, and the searing, flesh-burning pain that came with them was not so pleasant. But he knew how important this information was to Pidge. They’d been looking for the Holt family for months now, with barely any clues to trail from, and this information could prove to be the key to finally finding them. Everything Pidge did was to find her family, and Lance knew he was the conduit needed to attain that goal. More than anyone, Lance understood why Pidge needed her family so much.

Lance took another deep breath, readied his gun, and sat up on his knees-

“Lance, you need to retreat,” Shiro ordered, sounding strained and rough from battle. “There’s too many Galra in the base, you’re going to get yourself killed.”

It wasn’t hard to guess who was growling into the comm. “But Shiro! Matt and Dad could be in that database, this is the first lead we’ve had in so long-“

“But there’s also, like, a bajillion Galra in there!” Hunk’s stutter overtook the comms. “I’d rather make sure Lance gets back from this mission not as a piece of fried meat, thankyouverymuch!”

Lance.” Pidge’s voice suddenly went from frustrated to pleading, and Lance felt a lump grow in his throat. Pidge didn’t need to say anymore. He knew everything. He was the one that stayed up with her on some nights, letting her cry when the frustration of losing her family was too much. It wasn’t a trait she hid well – everyone knew she missed her family – but nobody but Lance knew just how far Pidge was willing to go to save her father and brother.

 

But Lance was also scared.

So, so scared.

 

The heated bickering continued in his comm, but all Lance could feel was the tremble of his fingers as the first Galra rounded around the monitor’s desk. Lance shot him down with ease, but now the Galra knew where he was hiding, and soon enough the drones began to circle around the desk in waves, too many for Lance’s lone weapon to handle.

He shot them down, one by one, but they were getting closer to slicing his neck, and Lance could feel tears brimming his eyes. He didn’t want to die here. Lance wanted to help Pidge find her family, and would do anything to help her achieve that goal, but in his heart of hearts he knew he was a coward. A scared, stupid coward who couldn’t stand up to a couple Galra soldiers for some vital information.

He ran. He shot the few Galra in his way and he ran as fast as he could, vision smeared with sweat and tears. In the corners of his eyes, he could see the searing purple flash of lasers shot at him, and he zig-zagged in a desperate attempt to throw them off.

He could hear his teammates shouting at him, telling him to wait and telling him to retreat, but it was all a blur, a sickly, nasty blur in his consciousness, and all he could think about was reaching Blue, and seeing his mama, and swimming in the ocean with Keith and eating pizza with extra cheese and thick, doughy crust. He was a coward because in these life-or-death moments, all Lance could think about was how much he wanted to go home, and see his family, even though he knew he would likely never see his own family again, even though he was abandoning Pidge’s chance to see her own.

Lance didn’t say a word as he sprinted towards Blue. He could hear Pidge screaming into the comm, begging him to stay, and he couldn’t say a damn word, because he was a coward, and he knew it. He felt it deeply as he barely dodged a laser before making it up Blue’s entrance, and he simmered in it as he flew out of the base, Pidge finally realizing what he had done, before the beginnings of a fractured sob echoed through the comms.

 

 

 

No one said a word as they flew back to the castle. Not that Lance knew. He turned off his comm the moment they were safe from harm, and he flew back in forced silence.

Two more minutes. If Lance had waited two more minutes, the download could have finished and he would have been home free. But Lance was a coward, and he ran, and now Matt and Dr. Holt were lost to the cosmos once more, and it was his fault.

He sobbed into his hands as Blue drifted, sobbed harder than he had in days. Blue began to pull at his conscious, trying to comfort him with warmth, but Lance shoved it away, knowing he didn’t deserve it, he didn’t deserve it, he was a coward and he didn’t deserve it. And deep in his mind, he knew Blue should have hated him for shoving her away – he had a history with pushing people away when he needed them the most – but she merely soothed him from afar, somehow understanding, and Lance sobbed harder, hated himself even more for everything he was.

When he found the courage to step out of Blue, long after they had docked in the castle, he did so tenaciously, as if hoping no one would hear him emerge. Yet when he made it to the bottom of Blue’s mouth, there stood the entire team with pitying looks, and Lance felt his misery swallow him whole.

It was Shiro who made the first step forward, and he made fragile eye contact with Lance. “We’re glad you made it out safe, Lance.” Lance watched him swallow and turn away. “It was a tough decision that you made. Your safety is more important than any mission is.” He hid it well, but Lance could see the disappointment in Shiro’s eyes. He was hoping for the information just as much as Pidge was, Lance realized belatedly, and now he had to grapple with the weight of two people’s disappointment on his shoulders.

The rest of the team stepped up and expressed their relief, and Lance replied with hollow statements. His mind was drifting away, thinking of his mama and then, Pidge’s mom, wondering how lonely she was on earth, how worried she must have been for Pidge, for her entire family, how lonely and terrifying it must be to lose not just a son or a husband, but everyone, in your family.

And then Pidge was in his face, glaring at him with tear-filled, shaky eyes. Lance’s mind scrambled, trying to think of an excuse, trying to echo the thousand apologies rattling around in his head-

“I could’ve found them.” Her voice was so, so fragile, and Lance couldn’t move. He couldn’t move, he was frozen, because if he so much as breathed he was afraid Pidge would break. “I had a chance, Lance. It took me weeks to find this lead, and I spent so many nights just trying to decipher Galra code to find these coordinates….”

She stopped, swallowed, and stared at Lance with a look that pierced his heart.

“I thought I could trust you.”

 

Pidge looked ready to spit at him, but turned away instead, stomping off to the entrance of the hangar. Shiro and Hunk followed after her, yelling at her to wait, and Allura and Coran exchanged worried glances, unsure of what to do. The air was stiflingly stagnant and Lance wanted to suffocate in it. One minute, two minutes, ten minutes passed, and Lance did nothing, said nothing, just stared at the ceiling, trying not to drown. He was drowning, he was failing again, and he as he listened to the distant sound of footsteps trailing away, he wondered once more why Blue chose him out of everyone in the universe. A coward like him couldn’t do anything, all he could do was drown and drown and drown.

“You’re being too hard on yourself.” There was a voice, too distant for Lance to hear clearly. The voice was followed by a touch, a hand on his shoulder, and when Lance still didn’t respond, the voice came back, calling his name.

Lance.” It sounded like a buoy, saving him from sea, and Lance looked down to see Keith, staring at him with those violet eyes and a determination that shook him to the core. “Don’t do that. Listen to me.”

And Lance listened. Lance realized that Keith was the only thing that he could listen to right now, because Keith was anchoring him with his gaze, and he was too scared to turn away.

“Pidge is just emotional right now, and you know that,” he started, and Lance flinched back automatically. Keith seemed to notice and stuttered for a moment. “I mean, well…..I….”

Keith took a moment to recollect his thoughts, and Lance watched him intensely. His brow furrowed and he growled mutely, the hand on his shoulder tightening momentarily before he turned back to Lance with a gentle expression.

“You did the right thing,” he uttered, and Lance didn’t believe him, not for one second. “And I know you’re not going to accept that, but know that everyone believes that – even Pidge, even if she doesn’t know it herself yet.”

Lance stared at him, mouth barely ajar. That gentle expression was still painted on Keith’s face, and it only softened when Lance began to feel the tears brim his eyes one more. Was this really Keith? Was Keith….comforting him? It felt too surreal, everything was so surreal, and his body was beginning to go numb, his hands started to shake-

-and just like that, Keith was holding his hand, using his other to grab Lance’s face and force him to focus into those desperately violet eyes.

You did the right thing, Lance,” he gritted, teeth born threateningly, almost scaring Lance into believing the words. “Your life is more important than any information. There’s always a chance we will still find them. But we couldn’t have saved you from that horde. You did the right thing.”

In the back of his mind, Lance knew Keith was right – and that was all he needed right now. That was all he needed to know that sometime, eventually, he was going to be able to overcome this. Keith had given that to him, and for that, he was eternally grateful.

But now, he just needed to be alone and away from everything. Lance put up a smile, just believable enough that Keith visibly slumped in relief, and Lance patted the hand on his face. “Thanks Keith,” He whispered, the one genuine thing in his structure, and he pried himself away from Keith’s grasp, padding over to the entrance. “I think I’m just gonna go to my room for a bit, y’know. Figure this all out.”

“Yeah,” Keith nodded, understanding. He waved him off, wearing that same thin smile that Lance had seen once before. It was just enough to made Lance’s heart swarm with heat, and he appreciated the momentary distraction that Keith had provided him with.

 

When he made it to his room, locking the door behind him, Lance collapsed onto the ground and screamed, a choked sob, finally letting out everything he had been feeling. It was miserable, his body heaving involuntarily with each forced breath, and occasionally Lance would close his eyes and there would be Pidge’s face, tear-struck and angry, telling him I thought I could trust you, and Lance would cry back, screaming I can’t be trusted, I can’t be trusted, fists banging on the cold, metallic ground and tears falling from his face until they were all dried up-

But then, like a whisper, he would feel the ghost of Keith’s hand on his shoulder, in his palm, on his cheek-

And, just for a moment, he remembered that he would get through this. 

 

--

IV. 

 

Lance never had nightmares back at the Garrison. When he slept, his dreams were always pleasant, filled with obscure thoughts of beautiful ladies and warm slices of pizza, telling him how beautiful he was as he steered the newest Garrison ship around the galaxy with his two best buds at his side, cooing and awwing him for being ‘the most magnificent pilot to have ever existed ever’. Dream were one of the few reprieves Lance got from life, and because of that, he slept often. And he slept well, because sleep was where his dreams became reality, if only for a moment, and when he did wake up, he could always be assured that his face would be clean and soft as he peeled off his facemask and gave himself fingerguns in the school-issued mirror. 

Ever since he had been catapulted into space against his will, though- sleep stopped being so pleasant. For one, the castle-issued rooms didn’t have very comfy beds, and his room was too bland and cold to make him feel at home in any way. That was already problem enough to have him complaining about his lack of sleep to literally everyone on the crew. What kept him silent about it, however, were the nightmares he would have. The more and more people that Voltron liberated- and the more people that they couldn’t save in the process- the worse the nightmares got. Before he knew it, Lance was spending his sleepless nights wandering the castle, hoping that he could find something that could lull him to sleep; and when that failed, he would slump back into his bed and stare at the ceiling until the system lights came on and told him it was time to get up and slave through another day of training, and he would grit his teeth and force himself forward, because Lance wasn't going to show his weaknesses to a team that already thought he was weak enough. 

His lack of sleep didn't go without notice. Shiro would ask him if he was getting enough sleep, and when he shrugged it off, ordered Lance to get some bedrest. Lance would slink to his room, but when he tried to force his eyes shut, they always threw themselves open, because Lance was terrified of the nightmares, and was terrified of the fact that they could strike at any moment. Sleep was no longer a comfort, but a bane that plagued him, and he was too scared to go through that, even if it was wearing him down in the process.

One night, though, sleep had managed to find Lance.

In front of him was an alien child (an Uryan, his subconscious noted, the most recent species they had dealt with), and it stared at him with big, amber eyes. The child was waving at him, beckoning at him to come over, and Lance waved back shouting at him with glee, running at him as fast as he could.

As he ran towards the child, however, the greenish sky hued with purple, growing menacingly with a thick doom, and suddenly there were Galra ships everywhere, blasting the planet with havoc and chaos. Purple lazers lit the earth on fire, and the child was screaming, pleading for Lance to help in any way he could. Lance screamed back, tried to move his feet, tried to do anything to save the child-

But his feet could not move. He was frozen, and even though his mouth screamed and screamed, no words came out, only blood. Blood flowed from his mouth and onto the ground, pooling at his feet, but Lance couldn’t stop screaming, couldn’t stop the blood from flowing, and then a figure was emerging from the blood, tall and menacing and terrifying in its structure; and then Lance saw him, saw the bright glint of his yellow eyes, and all he could feel was fear.

“Ah, my blue paladin,” Lotor purred, still covered in blood, tapping his chin with piqued curiosity. “I see you wish to save this child, no?” Flippant, Lotor strode over to the child, who was crying and screaming as he watched his home world fall apart. The prince picked him up then, shushing the child, before he sneered at Lance. “Such a young child, too, I can tell. And here has to watch his planet burn, while you stand here and do nothing.”

Lance’s body felt as if it were being stabbed by pinpoint needles. Lotor wagged a finger at him and tsked as his vision began to blur.

“This child has seen so much pain, already. He will have to burden this atrocity for the rest of his life.” As he talked, Lotor reached a hand around to his back, grabbing something that Lance couldn’t see. “This child doesn’t deserve that, no? It would be better to end his suffering now, instead of allowing him to live a worthless, miserable life.”

Save him, save him, his subconscious echoed, but Lance couldn’t move, and all he could feel were the pinpricks of needles against his skin, and the terrifying gaze of those darkened, yellow eyes.

“Let us help this child, my dear blue paladin.” From behind his back, Lotor pulled out the object – a thin, sharpened knife- and held it to the child’s neck. The child cried out in vain, wriggling in Lotor’s grasp as he tried to escape from the knife’s hold. Lance watched in horror as Lotor grinned at him.

“You couldn’t save them, Lance.” In a flash, the knife slit across the child’s throat, and there was blood all over-

 

Lance thrust forward from his bed with a piercing scream, hands desperately clawing at his own face. He could still see the child, it was in front of him, waving at him, and Lance reached out, trying to grab the child, but all he got were bedsheets, and he ripped at them, screaming, the images of blood still reeling in his mind, and oh god, oh god, he couldn’t save them, he could never save them, they were dead, they were all dead-

“Lance!” In his peripheral, Lance could see the glow of the hallway lights breach his doorway, and the shadow of a distant figure in the middle of that glow, but he couldn’t stop screaming, and he ripped the sheets with all of his strength, and he could feel the threads tearing in his hands, the only sensation he could tell was real, and he kept tearing at them, kept seeing Lotor’s glowing yellow eyes in the outline of the lights-

Lance! Calm down!” He felt hands on his shoulders, shaking him violently, and he lashed out, because Lotor had gotten to him, he was going to kill him next—but calloused fingers gripped his cheeks, and Lance saw a vaguely familiar shape in front of him, those eyes more worried than he had ever seen, but then those eyes were covered in blood, and Lance lashed out again, only to be forced down by strong hands.

He had stopped screaming, but he couldn’t stop shaking, tremors raking his entire body, and his breathing was labored. Vaguely, he sensed the hands on his arms leaving, only to land on his shoulders, and then, eventually, around his back. There was softness on his shoulder, then in his neck, and as his vision slowly, slowly came into focus, he could sense strands of black hair in his eye’s corner. As if he were listening through muddied water, Lance could hear words, you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok, and even though he couldn’t stop shaking, his breaths came slower, heavier, and he registered the weight on his shoulder as Keith’s head, oddly stiff and unsure, breathing in time with his own breaths.

It was a nightmare. He realized that now, distantly, but it still felt so real, like it had happened right in front of him, and before he knew it, he was crying, wet tears falling down onto the mess of black strands below his chin. A hand started rubbing his back, and the distant mantra became louder, albeit calmer, you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok.

“I-I-I…..” Lance stuttered against his will, and he felt Keith tighten his hold, his own breath grow wetter. “I couldn’t save them, Keith…..” A sob wrecked his voice, “I can never save them……I can’t save them….”

“It’s not your fault,” Keith whispered, his hand moving upward now to stroke Lance’s hair. “You did the best you could.” He paused, his head pressing closer into Lance. “There was nothing else you could do.”

“B-But…”

“Lance, you did so much for them,” Keith breathed, and then he leaned back, and suddenly Lance realized just how red those eyes were. “You…..were strong when those Uryans needed you….you’re strong whenever anyone needs you. I…..” And Keith stopped, forcing down his own tears, his bottom lip quivering slightly. “I wish I could be as strong as you, Lance. And I know you won’t believe that, but trust me…..you’re stronger than I could ever be.”

And then Keith was hugging him again, tighter, and Lance’s skin no longer felt like needles, and his breathing didn’t seem so wet anymore.

“Keith….”

Lance couldn’t believe that Keith was here, crying in his arms. He almost wondered if he was dreaming again; but this was much more pleasant than any of his dreams had been, and Keith’s hair felt too soft and too touchable, and for once, nothing was freezing Lance into place. Tentatively, he reached a hand up to stroke it, weaving the strands through his fingers. The gentle rhythm helped to slow down his heartbeat.

For what felt like hours, they sat there and Keith continued to hold Lance until the tremors subsided, and Lance slowly came back to reality, exhausted and mentally drained. He plopped his head onto Keith’s shoulder, and Lance dropped his arms to his sides tiredly.

“-mmm tired,” he hummed, and he heard a sigh, before Keith began to shift under him.

“Must be,” he quipped back, oddly sincere, and Keith began to get out of the bed before he felt a hand quickly grip his wrist.

“Don’t leave,” it came out quick and nervous, and when Keith turned to Lance, he saw those panicked eyes again. “I don’t know if the nightmares are gonna come back. I don’t know if I-“

“I wasn’t going to leave,” Keith hastily assured him, bringing himself down to eye-level with Lance. “I just wanted to help get you comfy. C’mon now,” Keith eased him down so he was laying on the bed, before laying the torn sheet over his body. “Let me go get you some more sheets, alright? I’ll be back in a second, don’t worry.”

He heard the door open and shut, and for a moment Lance was scared, but Keith’s assurance kept him sane. Lance focused on his breathing, one-two-three-four one-two-three-four, trying to keep his heart rate steady, and then the door was opening again and he felt more sheets layered on top of him, along with a gentle pat on his shoulder.

“That should be enough to keep you comfortable for years.” Keith sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at Lance, who looked back at him with a softened smile. He wanted to quip back, but his heart wasn’t into it, and Keith looked almost fond in that moment, and it did things to Lance’s stressed out heart.

“You’re so safe and warm,” Lance murmured, eyelids already falling asleep, and he curled his covered body around the hips on the edge of his bed. Before Keith could move, Lance’s arms awkwardly wrapped around him like a sloth, and he buried his face into the side of his thigh. “Thank you.”

And before Lance could hear any response, he was fast asleep, and in his dreams, he was piloting the galaxy with his two best friends while he ate pizza and whooped about how he was the best pilot in the world. The only difference was, instead of a beautiful lady at his side, there was Keith, fully clothed and smiling that thin, dimpled smile, telling him how just strong and amazing he was.

When he woke up, Keith was gone. Yet, when Lance skimmed the spot he sat with his fingertips, there was the lingering heat of someone who had left only recently. He smiled to himself.

 

--

 +1.

 

It was Shiro’s fault for sending Keith and Lance on another mission, together. That’s what Lance was convincing himself of, anyways, because as easy as it was to blame himself (and as much as his conscious wanted him to), it was Keith who had blown their cover and charged forward, with less tactical thought than a goddamn Yupper, and tried to slice his way through the hulking alien. Usually though, Keith somehow managed to conquer aliens that dwarfed him in power, because he was talented like that, and it made Lance angry, but then Keith would stand there with that damn smirk like he knew he was hot shit, and well, Lance felt a lot of things about that.

This time, though? No smirk. Not even a hint of it. It was just Keith, and Lance, and one big, orange, ten-armed alien barreling at them as they raced towards the Red Lion.

Lance would’ve laughed at the whole situation if he wasn’t so annoyed.

“Why did you-“ Lance huffed, nervously looking over his shoulder at the gargantuan that currently wanted to rip his head off—“Why would you think that charging after that thing could have possibly been a good idea?”

“He wasn’t that scary!” Keith growled, slightly less out-of-breath than Lance was, and Lance cursed himself for even noticing that. “At least, he wasn’t when he only had about four arms-“

“Yeah, Keith! But then you had to go and make him angry!” They duo turned a corner, with Lance slipping slightly at the sharpness of the turn, and cursing himself again when Keith turned the same corner with ease. “This is why we don’t charge after big, angry, many-armed aliens, Keith-“

“I get it Lance!” Keith yelled, and it was a lot more strained than Lance was expecting, so he decided to shut up on the matter for now. It was tempting to bait Keith when he was agitated like this, but recently, Keith’s broodiness had reached new heights. The push-and-pull that Lance had come to expect of their friendship was replaced with a brute annoyance. Instead of cracking insults at Lance like he was used to, Keith was eerily silent; more silent than he usually was, and once Lance realized this, he started to notice just how closed off the boy was becoming as well. Lance almost considered bringing it up to Shiro, or possibly even approaching Keith with the concern, but fuck it, when did anyone want to talk to Lance anyways?

He knew his role on the team – comedic relief with a smile, and nothing more. Lance didn’t have to look hard to see the annoyance in his teammates’ eyes whenever he made an improper quip. He knew that everyone on Voltron had their partner – Keith followed Shiro around like a lost puppy, Hunk and Pidge were practically inseparable once you put a robot in front of them, and Allura and Coran had immeasurable amounts of history between them. Lance didn’t have a pair. Deep in his mind, Lance hoped that one day, maybe Keith would be his match (not in that way, but also, maybe, he wasn’t completely opposed to the idea), but then Keith had started closing off again, and Lance knew it was because he was a fuck-up, and he didn’t pursue the issue further than that.  

Keith, however, didn’t want to play silent this time.

“You know, not everyone has a tactical brain like you do!” Keith was basically screaming, slicing away at any stray Galra androids who strayed into their path, and it took all of Lance’s focus to listen to his words and not on the impending stampede of arms behind him. “Not everyone can just magically talk their way out of bad situations, because not everyone is as good at talking as you are Lance, and not everyone can just charm the pants off of the enemy, and you know-“

Lance was well aware that Keith was still yelling, but now his mind was short-circuiting, because What? The? Fuck? Keith was complimenting him. Keith was complimenting him while they were getting chased by a huge, two-ton alien, and-uh, oh wow, Keith hadn’t stopped complimenting him, Lance realized, because now Keith was talking about how “he couldn’t aim as well as Lance” and a whole bunch of other garbage Lance couldn’t process.

“What the hell are you saying??!?” Lance yelled back, because he was too confused and overwhelmed now, and Keith was being weird, and he might die from this alien, and he just wanted to go home.

“Isn’t it obvious, moron? I’m telling you-“

The wall next to Keith and lance burst forth, dust and metal flying everywhere, and there Red was, with her maw wide open. The blast did enough to knock back the hulking alien, and before Lance could even think, he was dragging Keith’s ass up the maw, pushing him past the door, and slamming it shut with a swoop, his hand firmly pressed on the bright red button near the entrance.

“Does Red have to come and save you every time we are in the slightest bit of danger?” Lance sighed, exasperated, and he slumped down the metal door as Red automatically took off. Keith, still somewhat disillusioned, stumbled into the pilot’s chair and began to fly her out of the base.

“It’s not like I ask her to!” Lance couldn’t see Keith from his slumped position, but he could hear him remove his helmet and ruffle his hair, and he was tempted to slump over near the front of Red instead so he could see. Gay, his mind supplied helpfully, to which he replied, no shit, self.

There was a moment of silence, as Keith piloted them away from any immediate danger, and Lance took a moment to recollect himself. The silence in the hull was heavy, and Lance was thinking too hard now. He watched Keith, and the way his grip kept tightening around the handles occasionally, as if he was frustrated with himself. Likely because we failed, Lance shrugged, taking off his own helmet so he could wipe the sweat off of his forehead. Not that it matters. If this mission was that critical, Allura would’ve sent in the whole team.

The thoughts came easy to Lance, but he wasn’t sure if Keith had reached the same conclusion, because he kept gripping the handles tight and grumbling to himself.

“You know,” Lance started, gentle, and he stood up to move closer to the Red Paladin. “This mission wasn’t that big of a deal. Don’t beat yourself up over it, buddy, we can just reconfigure the plan and try this out again some other time.”

Keith said nothing. Lance raised an eyebrow at him nervously.

“Uh, are you doing good, Keithy? Keiffers? Keith-the-man-beef—“

“Stop it with the stupid nicknames!” Keith snapped, and Lance would’ve been nervous about it if he didn’t see how red the Red Paladin was slowly turning. Huh.

And just as Lance was preparing some sort of rebuttal, Keith did something Lance never expected; he turned away, a somber expression suddenly overtaking him.

“I just…..” In the corner of his eye, Lance could see Keith clutching the handles even tighter. “If we had waited five minutes, I’m sure you would have come up with some brilliant plan, but no, I had to go and charge in and ruin everything like I always do!” He growled the last bit, startling Lance.

“Keith, no, buddy, that’s not-“

“Oh shut up, Lance, it’s true and you know it!” He snapped at Lance, looking almost feral, and Lance felt himself shrink away. Keith softened immediately at that. “No, that’s not what I – I’m not trying to—I just-“

He threw his hands up in the air. “Why can’t I ever say things right?” Defeated, he let his arms drop to his face, and he slid down the pilot seat, groaning into his hands.

“I know you’re no craftsman at words, buddy-pal,” Lance started, clamping a hand on Keith’s shoulder, “but I don’t think the situation would have played out much differently if we had waited five minutes. Or even ten minutes—hell, an hour wouldn’t have made a difference.” He knocked on his head jokingly. “There’s not a lot going on up here, you know, I probably wouldn’t have been able to piece together a plan, so don’t worry about it-“

“No, no, no, stop it Lance!” And then, Keith was in his face, a mix of anger and sorrow painted on his face, and Lance was so, so confused. “Stop doing that thing where you put yourself down, alright! It just—it pisses me off when you do that.”

Lance raised an eyebrow at him, disbelieving. “It pisses you off?”

“Yeah, it really does.” Keith threw his hands out in frustration. “Lance, do you know just how many times you’ve come up with plans on the fly? Do you know how many times you’ve stopped me from making a stupid, impulsive decision, only to come up with a better plan that works perfectly? Do you know, Lance? Do you even have a clue?”

There was too much going on. Lance bit his lip and looked down at the ground, suddenly shy. “My plans aren’t that great.”

“”Are you seri-“ Keith shoved himself out of his seat and began pacing around the lion, hands gripping his hair. “Lance, you’ve saved my life more times than I can count! There’s been so many times where I just want to run in, break our cover and get it over with, and then I turn to look at you and I just—“ He groans, and sighs, letting his arms drop to his sides. Lance can see the sudden shift in demeanor on his face. “Jesus, Lance, you’re always so calm and collected whenever we go on missions, like you’re ready for whatever comes your way. And I just…..stab things.”

“You don’t just ‘stab things’, Keith.” Lance stepped forward, walking towards Keith. “You realize that 99% of the time that you just ‘stab things’, you end up winning and getting us out of sticky situations? And besides.” Lance looked towards the ground again, his insecurities finally getting to him. “I’m not calm and collected at all. I’m such a coward, Keith. And I don’t know where you’re getting all of these ideas about me from, but ha, I’m not that great at all, ha ha-“

“No. Stop.” Keith was staring at him, with that steeled violet gaze, and Lance could feel himself crumbling. He was going to break.  “Lance, you’ve got to stop shutting yourself down like that-“

“Oh WHO CARES!” Lance snapped. He could feel an emotional breakdown looming, and he was tired of Keith’s false reassurances. He was tired of everything.

“It’s so easy to try and tell me to ‘stop shutting myself down’ but you have no idea what it’s like to suck at everything! You’re Keith Kogane and you’re oh-so-perfect-everyone-on-Voltron-loves-me-and-my-piloting-and-fighting-skills! Even when you’re being stubborn you’re still cool! Everyone likes you, Keith, but you’re not me, you’re not a fuck-up, you don’t get scolded by Shiro on a regular basis and you don’t ruin everything you touch, you didn’t leave your family behind without so much as a g-goodbye, you don’t get ignored by Pidge whenever she says you’re getting ‘too annoying’, you don’t try and try and try to improve yourself at the training simulator only to make little or no progress, y-you don’t, you don't, you—“

His voice cracked, and Lance suddenly realized he was crying. Keith was staring at him, horrified, and he was crying.

Classic Lance. Of course he had to show how much of a fuck-up he was to the one person he wanted to impress the most.

He didn’t know what to do. There was no way he could stop the tears now. Slowly, he turned away from Keith, clutching his arms tight against his chest. “God. Of course I had to make this about me.”

“Lance….”

Lance could hear footsteps approach him, soft and cautious. He could feel a presence behind him, too close, but it didn’t move, didn’t do anything other than breathe warm air against his back. For minutes, that’s all it was; soft, choked crying, contrasted with the calm, steady breath behind him. He was almost ready to give up, hide himself away in the back of the lion until they got back to the castle, but then, there was movement, and—

--and Keith was hugging him around his back.

He was stiff. His arms felt too tense and he barely moved once he got his arms around Lance. But it was a hug; something Lance hadn’t received in ages, and just the pure physical contact alone made him feel tingly, and warm.

Keith didn’t speak, didn’t move for ages. And truly, Lance didn’t mind; if they could just stay in this hug forever, and forget about what had just happened, he would be happy. But of course, the universe never gave him happy, and Keith was never content to just move on. Soon enough, he could feel Keith’s forehead press against his shoulder blades.

“Do you really think that way of yourself?”

Lance’s breath hitched. The tears were beginning to form again. He was almost tempted to lie, but as dense as Keith was, he couldn’t slide his way around this one. And deep down, a faint flicker of emotion in the back of Lance’s brain knew that he needed this.

“…….I’m nothing special, Keith. Everyone can see that.”

“I must not be everyone then.” His grip tightened around Lance’s waist, and they were too close, and Lance was flushing red. “Everything I said earlier was true, you know. Even if you can’t see it yourself, it’s true.”

“No, Keith, it’s not.” Lance slumped into the hug, because now his mind was working against him, and he was so, so tired. “I’m not calm during missions, I’m terrified. I run away from things all the time. Even Hunk says that half of the time I do something cool, it’s because I panicked and ended up doing something so stupid it ended up working out.”

“And I don’t do that?” Keith asserted. Lance shut himself up. “You’re not the only one who’s scared out there, Lance. Every time I charge into battle like that, it’s not because I think I’m cool or whatever you think it is – it’s because I’m…..scared and don’t know what else to do but fight. It’s all I know how to do.”

“Well, at least you have something.” Lance bit back, unintentional, and, realizing what he said, sighed. “Sorry. I’m just….”

“Not in a good place, I know. Don't worry.” Warm breath fanned against Lance’s shoulder blades, and he felt himself ease up.

Lance’s mind felt bleary and tired, but he couldn’t shake off the ridiculousness of the situation. Here he was, standing in the middle of Red (Keith’s Lion), crying in front of Keith (his idol and….something more, maybe), being comforted by Keith Kogane (said idol), while Keith told him about his own insecurities. It was……

His mind couldn’t wrap around it. It felt too unreal. And yet, he had daydreamed of this very moment, where Keith would hold him and tell him everything was gonna be ok. Lance didn’t know what he had done to earn it, and he wasn’t entirely sure he had earned it in the first place. Keith deserved to be hugging someone better, perhaps Shiro, and making them feel better. Keith deserved the world, because Keith did everything right, and he was so talented, and god, ok, Lance wanted this, but he didn’t think he could have it-

“You’re getting self-conscious. I know.” Lance felt Keith’s forehead leave his shoulder blades, and he tensed up unconsciously. “Can I tell you something?”

What could Keith have to say at this moment? Lance was simultaneously nervous, and excited, and terrified, and anxious, and-

“Um. Yeah. I-uh…..yeah.”

Slowly, the arms untangled themselves from around his waist, and Keith stepped around him, so that he was now facing Lance with those damn violet eyes that made his heart go weak. Then, those gloved hands reached up and gripped Lance’s face, and stared.

“Everything I am about to tell you is the truth. Got it?”

Lance didn’t know how to react to that.

“I guess?”

“Hmph.” Keith let go of his face began rubbing the back of his neck in an uncharacteristically bashful move. “Well alright then. Here goes.”

Lance’s heart was beating much too fast. He was glad Keith let go of his face, because any longer and Keith would realize just how sweaty and gross he could be in stressful situations. But then Keith took a deep breath, steadied himself, and Lance’s mind went blank.

“Remember how when we were rescuing Shiro, the first time at least, and I said I didn’t remember you?”

Well, Lance wasn’t expecting that. Unconsciously, he chuckled, mirroring Keith’s posture by rubbing his own neck.

“How could I forget? Keith Kogane, hotshot pilot of the Garrison and my self-proclaimed rival who I recognized from a mile away, couldn’t even remember my name-“

“I lied. I remembered you.” Keith was blushing, looking away, and Lance’s heart thumped. “I remembered you pretty well, actually. You always used to try and wave at me in the cafeteria, but I never waved back. I didn’t know how to react, really, nobody ever just ‘waved’ at me like that. Even when I never waved back, you kept doing it, every day, at lunch.

“I didn’t get you at all. But I began noticing you around the Garrison, and I realized, you weren’t trying to seek me out because I was the top pilot like everyone else, you were just…..waving at me to be nice.” Keith looked back up at Lance, and there was something genuine in Keith’s eyes that Lance had never seen before. “You were so charismatic. Everyone wanted to hang out with you. Whenever you met a new person, you’d take it in stride and try to get to know them. You made everyone feel at home at the Garrison. I…..”

Keith swallowed, hard. “I was so jealous of you. But also, I wasn’t? I wanted to have what you had, but I also wanted to hang out with you, but then Kerberos happened, and I got kicked out. And you know, when I got kicked out, I was alone in that shack for months at a time. It made me regret ever ignoring those waves you gave me, because maybe if I had waved back, we could have been friends? You could have come out to visit me, and I wouldn’t have been so….lonely.”  

Keith stalled. Lance realized that his eyes were beginning to redden. Without thinking, he grabbed Keith’s hand in his own, rubbing circles into his palm. Keith’s eyes blew wide as he stared at the palm, then back at Lance, before that thin, dimpled smile came out.

“I don’t know why I lied to you back then. I think I was scared that you would think I was dumb if I remembered you, especially because I never actually treated you well, and then you hated me for forgetting you, and I was too deep down in this bullshit-rivalry hole to do anything about it. But even though we fought a lot, and you annoyed the hell out of me sometimes, being in such close quarters forced me to….notice you again.” His eyes shifted downward. “You were always such good friends with Hunk, even when he was panicking you always managed to calm him down and make him feel better. And with Pidge, she isn’t good at taking care of herself, but you always made sure she got sleep and ate food, and you always were able to talk about your families.

“Even with Shiro….I know it’s hard for you to see, but Shiro trusts you.” Lance was about to protest, but Keith silenced him with a glare. “Shiro has his flaws, and I know that sometimes he brushes you off and he doesn’t realize it, but…..if it were a life or death moment, I know that Shiro wouldn’t hesitate to trust you to save the day. He sees your potential just like the rest of us.”

Lance could feel the tears streaming down his cheeks, but he wasn’t sad; his skin was warm and his cheeks were red and he couldn’t believe any of this was happening right now.

“Lance, you’re the heart of this team. You make everyone feel better about themselves. I know that sometimes, we can get annoyed with you, and we really don’t show you enough appreciation, but without you….we’d be lost.” He paused for a sec, and looked back down, suddenly quieting. “I’d be lost.”

And Lance, he couldn’t help it, scoffed. “I’m sure you would be fine without me, Keith.”

“No I wouldn’t!” And god, there was that fire in Keith’s eyes, but it was directed at Lance this time. “You don’t understand, Lance – when Shiro was missing, I was a wreck. I couldn’t do anything. I felt like the person that mattered the most to me was ripped apart from me again, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Everyone else kept trying to assure me that we’d find Shiro, it would all be fine, but you – you didn’t do that.”

Keith’s eyes softened, and Lance tightened his grip on Keith’s hand instinctively. “You were the only one who really tried to make me smile during that entire time. You’d see me moping, and you’d force me out of my room and make me do something else. Remember when you forced me to play that stupid board game we found in the kitchen?”

“What, you mean Vrepit Sal’s Culinary Challenge?” Lance laughed, wet and genuine, and Keith laughed too. “That game’s a masterpiece, and you know it.”

“See, like that!” Keith pointed at him, suddenly serious. “Even right now, when you’re sad and self-conscious, you still try and joke and make me feel better. I don’t-“ Keith waved his hands in the air in a quasi-frustrated manner—“I don’t get how one human being can be so kind. I don’t get it. And I don’t get how you can’t see how kind you are. Because Lance,” Keith gripped his face again, but this time it was soft, and Lance savored the feeling of his calloused fingertips.

“Lance, you’re so damn special. You’re so, so special to me, and I know that you can’t see that sometimes, and it hurts me a lot when you can’t see that…..”

Lance watched as Keith’s adam’s apple bobbed in his throat, a new determination taking over his face.

“Let me help you see how special you are.” Keith began to rub his thumb against Lance’s cheek, and it wasfond. “I know….that I can’t just wish your insecurities away, but I want to help. Lance, you’re so kind, and you’re such a good shot, and you’re a team player, and uh, there’s so many things-“

“Y-you want to help me?” Lance squeaked, eyes wide. “What do you mean you want to….help me?”

“I don’t really know.” Keith sighed in admission. And then he blushed, hard. “I don’t know what you need. But…..I like you Lance, like….I like you, and it’s important to me that you feel good about yourself, because I want you to be happy, and I’ll do whatever you need to get there.”

Lance was about two seconds away from passing out, right there, on the spot.

Keith liked him. Keith. Wanted to be with him. Keith wanted to help him.

He wasn’t sure if he ever stopped crying, but now his heart was too painful to bear, and the tears began anew. Keith noticed this and panicked, reaching up to wipe them away. “I-I didn’t mean to scare you, Lance, I’m not trying to force anything, I’m bad with words, argh, I-“

“Nonono, Keith, you’re fine, it’s fine.” Lance, for the first time since they had gotten into the lion, smiled, no, beamed at Keith. “This is just….everything I’ve ever wanted. It’s not real. It doesn’t feel real at all.”

“Oh.” And then Keith, impulsive as ever, hugged him again, tight enough for Lance to physically feel how much Keith cared. “This is real. This is very real.”

“Yeah.” Lance looked up to the ceiling, and, tentatively, reached a hand up to stroke Keith’s hair. “Your hair feels too grimy for it not to be real.”

In his ear, Lance heard Keith laugh, hearty and loud, and he smiled softly to himself.

“Of course you had to comment on that.” Keith leaned back, still gripping Lance tight, and smiled. “Even when we’re being emotional, you can’t hold yourself back from commenting on my hair, huh?”

“Wouldn’t be me if I didn't.” Lance blinked, grinned, and in a moment of brevity, leaned down to kiss the tip of Keith’s nose. He could feel Keith redden under his grip, and he gleamed at how cute the sight was. “For someone who usually can’t talk his way out of a black hole, that sure was something.”

“Y-yeah.” Keith had turned into a blushy mess, unable to look Lance in the eye. “I just wanted you to feel better, ok! And then you kissed my nose and now I’m just-“

“Sssssh, babe, honeycakes, sweetie, calm down.” Lance kissed the tip of his nose again just because he could. “I don’t know if you want to date me or not, but if you do, those are just a few of the sweet, sweet pet names you’ll be rewarded with when you board this train.”

“I d-don’t.” Keith was sweating, unsure of where to look, and Lance wondered idly if he had broken Keith. “Are we dating? We can date, if that’s what you want, I mean, that-would-be-fine, I guess, y-yeah.”

Yes, Keith, that would be fine.” He kissed the tip of his nose again one more time for good measure. “Perfect, even. Then you can shower me in compliments aaaaaallll daaaaaay, and you’ll have to like it, because you’ll be my boyfriend.”

Keith sobered up suddenly, serious, but he smirked all the same. “If that’s what you need, I’ll compliment you every day. Every hour, even. Maybe even every minute, if you want.”

“God, don’t do that.” Lance chuckled. “I’ll be insatiable if you do that. You’ll have to compliment me every second. Twice a second, even.”

“A compliment every millisecond sound good?”

They both laughed, and held each other tight, delirious in each other’s warmth.

“Yeah.”

Lance smiled and looked to the ceiling.

“That sounds good.”