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the stars are bound to change

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Keith awoke from a shallow sleep to the sound of Allura's voice over the intercom.

“Keith! Lance! I need you both in the control room immediately.”

He could hear the urgency in her tone, and he hoped this didn't mean an attack was happening. Of course, if that was the case, why would she only summon him and Lance?

With a groan, he turned over and reached underneath his pillow for his dagger. Just in case. He'd fallen asleep in his clothes again, so he needed no further preparation before he dashed out of the room.

He had no idea what time it was, but judging by how groggy he felt, it was probably the very early hours of the morning. Yawning, Keith stepped into the hallway and the doors to his bedroom slid shut behind him.

The doors to Lance’s room, he noticed, were still closed––and when he paused next to them, he heard no sound of movement from within. He knew Lance had a tendency to drag his feet in the morning, and for about half a second Keith considered knocking to make sure he was actually awake. But he ignored the impulse and kept walking, hands balled into fists at his sides.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t have been necessary anyway––because as Keith turned the corner, he saw Lance already walking down the hallway. He was moving at a leisurely pace, hands crammed into the pockets of the sweatpants he was wearing.

It took Keith a second to realize that Lance wasn’t in his pajamas or his usual outfit but was dressed in some kind of workout clothes. Sure enough, when he turned around at the sound of footsteps, Keith could see a dark patch of sweat around the collar of Lance’s gray T-shirt.

Lance raised his eyebrows, but otherwise his face remained relatively neutral. Keith felt something stir behind his sternum––a strange, electric buzz that spread from his chest all the way to his fingertips.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation, but the nature of it had shifted lately. A few months ago, it had always been followed by a fiery rush of adrenaline that exploded into an irresistible urge to pick a fight. Somewhere along the way, though, that furious sense of rivalry had died down to a simmer, dulled by the exhaustion of endless battles. They had more important things to worry about, now.

Keith realized he was still staring, and he cleared his throat. “Hey.”

“Oh. Hey, Keith,” Lance answered casually, and then turned back around as he kept walking.

Keith picked up the pace a little until they were side-by-side, although he maintained a couple feet of distance between them.

“Any idea what this is about?” he asked.

“Don’t know.” Lance stretched his arms above him. “Are we in trouble or something? I feel like I’m getting called to the principal’s office.”

“Brings back memories, huh?” Keith could feel a slight, teasing smirk curl up one corner of his mouth.

Surprisingly, that earned him a half-hearted smile. “Yeah, I guess we both know a thing or two about that.”

Suddenly, Keith’s smirk faded and he had to look away. He didn’t expect Lance to know what his “disciplinary issues” at the Garrison had really been about, but it was definitely not a topic he wanted to discuss right now.

They walked in silence for a few seconds before Keith peeked at Lance out of the corner of his vision, noticing the dark circles under his eyes and the way his hair clung to his damp forehead.

“Were you … training?”

“Huh?” Lance blinked as if he’d been broken out of a trance. “Oh. Uh, yeah. Why?”

“Nothing. You’re just usually not up this early.”

For some reason, Lance seemed offended by that––his eyebrows knitting together into a frown. “Didn’t realize you had my schedule memorized.”

That old instinct to start a fight flared up in Keith again, but he tried to keep it in check. “Lance,” he said calmly, “there’s only seven people on this entire ship including me. So yeah, I do have everyone’s schedules memorized.”

Lance’s shoulders relaxed. A second ago he’d looked ready to argue, but now he suddenly seemed to … deflate. He looked down at the floor as he continued to shuffle forward.

“Yeah, I don’t know. Couldn’t sleep, I guess.”

For some reason, Keith felt like he was treading on the edge of something personal, although he didn’t quite know what it was.

"Well, we should probably hurry up. Allura sounded kind of worried."

"Yeah, okay."

They both walked faster.

When they reached the control room, Allura was pacing nervously in front of some kind of hologram. Coran stood close behind her, frowning at whatever was flickering across the display––what appeared to be some kind of code. Shiro was also there, standing at a slight distance with his arms crossed.

"There you are!" Allura exclaimed upon seeing Keith and Lance enter the room. "What took you so long?"

"Sorry. I was asleep," Keith answered lamely.

"And while Keith was snoozing, I was busy working out," said Lance, flashing a grin. But as soon as he saw the worried expressions of the three others in the room, he immediately sobered. “Is everything okay, princess?”

"Not exactly," she sighed, stopping in front of the controls. Her gaze flitted over the flashing messages one more time before she turned to Keith and Lance again, her hands steepled in front of her.

"I'm afraid I have a difficult task for both of you."

Without even thinking, Keith looked at Lance––to find that Lance was glancing back at him.

"Okay. What is it?" Keith asked.

"Late last night, we received a distress signal from a planet called Tethra," said Allura.

Her hands darted over the control panel, and images surfaced in the air around them: strange landscapes, tall hills and deep valleys made of some kind of spongy material, tall trees with glowing pods sprouting from their limbs.

"Whoa, looks like a pretty cool place," Lance commented.

“At one point, it was,” said Coran, stepping forward. “As you can see, Tethra is a naturally beautiful planet––well-known for its breathtaking bioluminescent flora and fauna.”

He linked his hands behind his back, as he looked over the holographic images. The fond glint in his eyes dulled, and his tone was tinged with nostalgic lament. “It was once very peaceful. In fact, I have wonderful memories of traveling there as a child. Unfortunately, it is not the same as it used to be.”

“It appears that over the past ten thousand years, Tethra has become a very war-torn planet,” Allura said. “I don’t know if I’ve interpreted the entire story correctly. My knowledge is only based on the message we received, which Pidge and I spent the past few hours decoding. Along with a bit of my own research, I’ve gathered that there has been great turmoil on Tethra in recent times.”

With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the hovering images, and the messages appeared on the screen again. Keith squinted at the symbols as if staring hard enough would bring their meaning to light.

“A group called the Khagia rose to power several decapheebs ago. They allied themselves with the Galra in hopes that Zarkon wouldn’t overthrow their government or destroy the planet. In return, the Galra provided them with weapons––mainly drones and sentries, from what I understand––in order to spy on and take out any rebellion groups.”

“Jeez,” Lance breathed out, and then crossed his arms. “Uh … you’re not asking me and Keith to take down an entire corrupt government by ourselves, are you?”

“No. That is a greater task that we will have to postpone until the entire team can go to Tethra. You two have a more immediate emergency to take care of.”

“Which is what?” Keith asked.

“The distress signal we received was from a Tethran rebellion group,” said Allura, looking over the message again. “Their village was invaded by soldiers. Most of them managed to escape, but many were captured by the Khagia.

“The rebel group began receiving messages that those captives are being held hostage. They …” She hesitated for several unsettling seconds. “They’re being tortured for information. The Khagia are sending out public threats, saying these prisoners will continue to suffer until they divulge the location of other rebel groups or until those groups step forward to turn themselves in.”

Listening to the story, Keith started to feel dizzy. A sour taste crawled up the back of his throat.

Allura let out a shaking breath. “One of the hostages is a child.”

Lance gasped. An ill feeling curdled in Keith’s stomach. They’d dealt with dire situations before. But this...

The princess held a hand to her forehead and swayed a little, and Coran grabbed her elbow.

Shiro stepped forward at the same time. “Are you alright, princess?”

“Yes. Just … very tired.” Her hand dropped again, and she sighed. “Normally, I would send the entire team on a mission like this, but I’m afraid that’s not an option. The castle is low on power after recent battles, so I’m sending Coran and Hunk to the Balmera to collect more crystals. I need to be here to guard the castle and decode the Tethrans’ incoming messages with Pidge’s assistance. I’ve also asked Shiro to stay here, so we’ll have both the Green and Black Lions in case anything goes wrong.”

Keith glared at Shiro, hoping maybe he’d say something––but he only received a bewildered look in response.

“So, you want us to go in and save the hostages,” Lance said. “Right?”

“Yes,” Allura answered. “The rebels were able to send us some of the messages the Khagia have been sending out. Pidge helped me to track the signal and locate where the hostages are being held. I’ve managed to find a map that you can download to your paladin suits.”

She brought up the map to demonstrate: a holographic series of pathways marked by strange symbols. A pulsing light hovered over one area of the map, presumably showing their destination.

“Okay,” Lance said slowly. “So, we’re just going to land on the planet, get in there, and free the hostages. I think we can handle that.”

Allura chewed her bottom lip. “I’m hopeful that you can. However, I must warn you that it will not be as simple as it sounds. Since the Khagia are loyal to Zarkon, they consider Voltron to be their enemy.

“Besides using your lions to journey to Tethra, you may not be able to use them on your mission or you may risk them getting captured or damaged. The planet is teeming with drones and other weapons that may fire at your lions on sight.”

“What are you saying we should do, then?” Keith asked. “Just leave our lions in the woods somewhere and do the whole mission on foot?”

“I’m afraid we don’t have another option. If you leave your lions somewhere inconspicuous with their shields activated, hopefully no harm will come to them. And you wouldn’t be leaving them unattended for very long, perhaps a day at most. Shiro and I can check on their locations to make sure they stay where they are, of course.”

Keith crossed his arms, looking over at Lance to try and gauge his reaction to all this information. He was looking over the map with a determined frown on his face, and Keith couldn’t discern what he was thinking.

After a moment’s hesitation, Keith cleared his throat. “I don’t know if this is a good idea, princess. This mission seems pretty intense, and I don’t know if we’re prepared to handle it––especially if it’s just two of us and without the help of our lions.”

“I understand that,” Allura said. “Of course, I wouldn’t be sending you to Tethra if I thought it was a suicide mission, or if I didn’t have faith you would be successful. But it is, ultimately, up to you.”

A heavy silence descended, as the princess waited for an answer. Out of the corner of his eye, Keith saw Lance shift his weight from one foot to the other, but he said nothing.

Finally, Keith shook his head. “I feel like this is only going to end badly. And if it does, you’ll be short two paladins. It’s not worth the risk.”

“Are you serious?” Lance blurted, finally speaking up. Keith turned in surprise to see the other boy facing him in a fighting stance––eyes narrowed, fists at his sides. “Of course it’s worth it! We risk our lives every day––that’s kind of part of our job description. How is this any different?”

As much as Keith wanted to avoid an argument, he felt a familiar heat rush through his veins at the challenge.

“Because it’s just a handful of people,” he shot back. “We’d be going to an extremely dangerous planet just to save a small group.”

“Yeah, and one of those people is a kid. We have to go down there. They need us.”

“A lot of people need us, Lance. The universe is kind of a big place, and we can’t save everyone in it.”

“Maybe not,” Lance said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t try.”

Shiro––who had been strangely quiet until this point––cleared his throat. “Keith, Lance. We need you both to focus.” He shot Keith a warning look, which Keith tried not to roll his eyes at. “It’s a difficult decision. We all realize that. But you have to make a choice now. Do you accept the mission?”

“Yes,” Lance said almost right away. “I’m going.”

Keith glared at the floor.

“Keith?” Shiro prompted.

He could feel the weight of everyone’s eyes on him––especially Lance’s––and his face burned. He didn’t know what Lance was trying to do here. Was this supposed to be some kind of challenge? A dare?

But, no. It was more important than that. Lives were at stake, here. And as much as Keith hated to admit it to himself, maybe Lance was right. It was only one small group of people, and Keith knew that shouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but they were defenders of the universe. As risky as it was, maybe this was what they were meant to do.

“Okay,” he muttered at last. “I mean, yes,” he corrected himself when Shiro glared at him. “I’m going, too.”

Allura gave a terse nod. “Then it’s settled. I’m afraid there isn’t much time to prepare, so please change into your armor and return here within half a varga.”

“You got it, princess.” Lance yawned and stretched his arms above his head. “Think I’m gonna hit the showers first, say bye to Hunk and Pidge.”

“Very well. Just be sure to get back here on time.”

“Don’t worry, I will.” He winked at her. “Try not to miss me too much.”

Keith rolled his eyes and Shiro warningly said, “Lance …”

Allura’s expression remained neutral, although there was a flicker of amusement in her eyes. “I think I’ll manage.”

“All right. Be back in a tick,” said Lance, and he dashed out of the control room.

As soon as he left, Allura and Coran fell into a murmured conversation that Keith couldn’t quite hear. Shiro moved over to the window, where he stared out at the stars with his arms crossed.

Keith had started to back away, but then he hesitated, before he walked over to where Shiro was standing.

He cleared his throat. “Hey, uh. Shiro?”

At the sound of his voice, Shiro turned his head. “Yeah?”

“Can I talk to you for a second?”

“I guess so. But shouldn’t you be getting ready?”

“It should only take a second. It’s just, I’m …” Keith glanced over his shoulder, but Coran and Allura seemed too engaged in their own discussion to hear him. Nevertheless, he lowered his voice a little. “I’m kind of … worried. About Lance.”

Apparently that wasn’t what Shiro had been expecting to hear, judging by how his eyes widened.

Keith’s face suddenly felt like it was on fire. “That’s––that’s not what I meant. It’s just … I don’t know if this is a good mission for him.”

“Why not?”

“Because …” Keith trailed off. Now that he was confronted with the question, he wasn’t sure how to answer it. His jaw clenched as he struggled to come up with the right words. “I feel like he’s been different lately. More … withdrawn? I don’t know. But I feel like something’s up with him.”

“So, you are worried about him.”

“No! I mean, maybe. I’m just saying he’s been acting weird, that’s all.”

“Hmm.” Shiro scratched his chin. “Do you think it’s that he’s been acting differently, or are you just starting to see him differently?”

Keith nearly choked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Shiro put his hands up defensively. “It’s not ‘supposed to mean’ anything. I’m just saying, maybe there’s more to Lance than you initially gave him credit for. I know he might not always act like it, but he takes this whole ‘defending the universe’ thing just as seriously as the rest of us.”

Instinctively, Keith wanted to protest, but the urge died down as he considered what Shiro had said. He found himself thinking about his encounter with Lance in the hallway––how he’d been so quick to brush off Keith’s questions, how there’d been a certain, unnerving hollowness in his expression. There was a mystery there that Keith hadn’t solved yet, something that made his skin itch.

“I don’t know,” he said at last, crossing his arms. “It’s complicated. I’m not saying I doubt that he takes this whole thing seriously, but I don’t know if I trust his instincts.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“Well … you saw him just now. He’s always willing to throw down his life without giving it a second thought. You know how he is. He has some kind of hero complex.”

Shiro smirked at that, to Keith’s surprise. “I think that’s something you two have in common.”

“What?” Keith sputtered. “But I’m not––I don’t––”

“I’m just saying, you both have a tendency to take risks, and it can get you into some hairy situations. But, listen. Lance is smart. He’s got some good skills. Plus, he’s observant and level-headed in battle. I think there’s a thing or two you could learn from him.”

This really wasn’t how Keith had been expecting this conversation to go. The offense must have shown on his face, because Shiro continued with a sigh.

“He could learn some things from you, too. Like you were saying, he doesn’t always see the bigger picture. He doesn’t always choose his battles well. I get it. But what I’m trying to tell you is that sooner or later, you’ll have to let the rivalry go. You’re teammates, and you need to learn to balance each other out.

“And this mission in particular is going to be challenging––so you’ll need to keep your head, and you’ll need to watch Lance’s back. I can count on you to do that, right?”

“Yeah,” Keith grumbled, but straightened when he saw the stern look on Shiro’s face. “I mean … yes, sir.”

Shiro smiled. “That’s more like it.” He cuffed Keith’s shoulder, almost too hard for it to be friendly. “Now suit up, cadet.”

--

Keith hated wormhole jumps.

Even though he’d experienced them countless times by now, he had never quite overcome the surreal sensation of all the molecules in his body being torn apart and thrown back together again. It always caused his stomach to plunge, like he was diving from the peak of an intense rollercoaster––except it was about a hundred times worse.

As the disorienting shock of the jump faded, Keith blinked his eyes open. His fingers tingled for a few seconds as he gripped at Red’s controls before the sensation faded.

Through the windshield, a dazzling display met his eyes, and he had to take a second to process what he was seeing. At first glimpse, it looked like a city stretched out far beneath them––an array of colorful lights scattered over the landscape like stars, glowing with hues of violet, blue, and green. Then he remembered what Coran had told them about the planet being bioluminescent, and he realized that these weren’t artificial lights, but light being produced by the planet itself. Two small suns hovered in the sky, shedding their rays over the peaks and valleys below.

“Whoa,” Keith heard Lance murmur over the comms.

Then there was a faint crackling noise before Allura’s voice came through.

“Keith, Lance. Do you read me?”

“Read you loud and clear, princess,” Lance answered.

“Same here,” said Keith.

“Good. I can see the wormhole jump was successful and that you are now flying over Tethra. You should be relatively close to your destination. Do you see the coordinates on your maps?”

A holographic map materialized over the control panel slightly to Keith’s left. His eyes scanned over the unfamiliar markings and scrolling Altean text, trying to make sense of it. At the very least, he could see the blue and red lion heads moving towards the pulsing white light that marked their destination.

“Yes, we see it,” Lance said.

“You should be moving directly towards it,” Allura continued. “Just be sure to land your lions somewhere safe. You don’t want to risk being spotted, and the Khagia have very high security.”

“Roger that,” said Keith. “You heard that, Lance?”

“Yeah, I heard.”

Lance sounded slightly irritated, and Keith tried not to let his tone grate on his nerves. They hadn’t even been on this mission for a whole minute yet, so now probably wasn’t the best time to start arguing.

They glided over the planet in silence for a while, with Allura checking in on them every few minutes. Otherwise there was no sound except the white noise over the comms, and the faint beeping and deep rumble of Red’s machinery all around Keith.

Occasionally Lance would start humming to himself, or make some remark to Blue about the landscape scrolling underneath them. It was a habit of his that Keith had once found annoying, but at some point––he couldn’t remember when––he’d started to find it strangely comforting. It at least distracted Keith from his worries and the overall severity of the mission. He found himself gazing idly out of Red’s windshield, to see Blue floating not too far ahead, almost ethereal in the glow of the rising suns and the sparkle of lights below.

Keith didn’t realize he’d been spacing out until Red jolted and growled. The sudden movement made Keith surge forward, almost banging his head on the controls.

“Whoa, hey!” he complained. “What was that for?”

Red only continued growling. The symbols along the edge of the windshield flashed, and Keith had a bad sense it was a warning.

“What’s wrong, Red?” Still no answer. “Uh, hey Lance?”

“Yeah?”

“Red’s acting weird. I think something’s off.”

“I feel like Blue is trying to tell me something, too. Allura, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” Allura answered. Her voice sounded tight with concern, and it was more muffled than it had been before. “I’m trying to sort out what’s going on. It seems there’s some kind of interference coming from the area around you … something trying to block communication.”

“Both our lions seem to think something’s wrong,” Keith said. As if to illustrate, Red growled again, her windshield flashing crimson.

“Trust your lions,” Allura advised. “I don’t know what’s …try to …” Her words dissolved into static.

“Princess?” said Lance. But there was no answer this time.

Keith held more tightly onto Red’s controls. “This isn’t good.”

“No kidding.” Lance scoffed. “Hey … do you see that?”

“See what?”

Almost as soon as the question left his mouth, Keith saw what Lance was talking about. Or rather, Red saw it, and a flashing indicator appeared on her windshield, locating the object flying towards them.

Whatever it was, it was moving very fast and leaving a thin trail of smoke behind it.

Adrenaline surged through Keith’s veins. “Shit … Lance, that looks like some kind of missile! Get out of the way!”

He yanked at Red’s controls, roughly veering her to the right––and too late, realized there was yet another missile shooting right towards him.

Time froze and Keith couldn’t feel or do anything in his state of panic. He was dimly aware of Lance yelling something, and then he felt a jolting impact shudder through the cockpit. Some huge weight had crashed into Red’s side, with such ferocity that it made Keith’s teeth rattle. They were thrown off-balance, and Red spun around rapidly a few times before she righted herself.

This had all happened in about five dizzying seconds. As Keith regained his bearings, he lifted his head to look out the windshield and saw Blue floating close by. All at once, he realized what had happened: Lance had pushed him out of the way.

The missiles exploded.

They went off in rapid succession, one after the other. Even through Red’s protective walls, the sound was so loud that Keith’s eardrums sang with pain. A wall of flame went up in front of the windshield. Keith cried out and closed his eyes against it as Red spiraled out of control.

They flew back, nearly flipping over from the force of the blow. Keith held onto the controls for dear life, as he was pressed painfully against the back of the seat and then thrown forward again, smacking his helmet against the dashboard.

He groaned, easing himself into a sitting position. The back of his neck was sore from the whiplash, and he rubbed at it and winced as he looked up again.

A cloud of dark smoke dissipated in front of him, revealing the soft glow of the planet underneath.

Red rumbled in questioning concern.

“Yeah. I’m okay, Red,” Keith assured her, although his heart still pounded fiercely. “What about you?”

Her diagnostics flashed across the corner of the windshield in response. Keith couldn’t quite make sense of them, but he couldn’t see anything that looked radically different than usual.

The relief only lasted about half a second, though, before he realized that the comms had gone completely silent.

“Lance?”

Only a faint crackling came back in response.

Suddenly unable to breathe, Keith wheeled Red around to look behind them.

And that’s when he saw Blue plummeting towards the surface of the planet with smoke pouring out of her side.

Chapter Text

Keith didn’t have time to hesitate. “We’ve gotta catch them, Red!” he yelled. His lion roared and leapt into action immediately, diving forward with as much force as she had.

They plunged downward at breakneck speed, trying to match Blue’s velocity. Gravity pushed Keith back against the seat so hard that he felt like his lungs were being flattened, but he couldn’t slow down.

Red finally caught up with Blue, and there was a horrific screech of metal scraping metal as Keith tried to maneuver his lion underneath Lance’s. He activated the rocket boosters, trying to slow Blue’s descent––but she was heavier than Red, and the two lions kept tumbling towards the ground at an alarming rate.

It wasn’t long until the treetops rose up to meet them, whipping Red’s windshield with black branches and glowing pods. Keith finally managed to cry out, grabbing at the controls and trying to steer Red upward. But at this point, there was no stopping their fall.

Keith braced himself for impact but was surprised to find that the ground was relatively soft. Both lions managed to land unsteadily on their feet, crashing through several rows of trees and sending black soil flying through the air.

Silence descended, and Keith was unable to move or think for a few seconds. He could only stare at the strange forest in front of them––impossibly tall trees with glowing foliage, large fern-like plants drifting in the breeze, things that looked like huge anemones growing out of the ground.

Then, regaining his wits, he tried to find his voice.

“Lance?” It came out barely more than a croak, and there was no answer from the other end. Keith leaned forward, hands still shaking at Red’s controls. “Lance, do you copy?” Silence. Keith could feel his throat closing up. “Lance!”

Finally, he heard an irritated groan through the comms. “Yeah, yeah, I copy. Jeez, stop yelling.”

Keith fell back against his seat, his hands dropping into his lap. A strangled noise escaped him, something between a cry of relief and a disbelieving laugh. He breathed hard, trying to slow the wild racing of his heart.

“Okay … okay, good,” was all he could manage to say. “You’re not hurt or anything?”

“Don’t think so,” Lance answered, sounding equally out of breath. “Blue’s not in great shape, though. How about you and Red?”

“We’re both fine, I think.” Red rumbled in agreement. “Hold on, I’m going outside.”

Bayard in hand, Keith stood from the pilot seat. He wobbled for a second, still dizzy from the fall, but he managed to quickly regain his balance and dash out of the cockpit.

Red lowered her head, opening her jaws to let Keith out. He jumped to the ground, feet sinking into the alien soil. Blue crouched in the near distance, yellow eyes flickering as smoke continued to billow out of her. The sight made Keith’s stomach clench. He started running.

Their crash landing had left a trail of scattered branches and seedpods, which looked like fallen stars on the ground. Keith kicked them out of the way as he ran, until he skidded to a stop in front of Blue. She was just beginning to slowly open her mouth with a deafening groan of metal, resting her chin on the ground.

Lance stumbled out, leaning down to rest his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. “This is really not how I wanted my morning to go,” he muttered.

Keith stood frozen a few feet away, suddenly feeling like his legs were going to give out underneath him. Something ached in his chest just to see Lance standing there, real and whole and complaining. Even though he’d said he was unhurt, Keith still looked him over and only was able to relax a little when he saw no sign of damage.

At last, Lance stood up straight and rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes met Keith’s and he offered a lopsided smile. “That was a close one, huh?”

A lot of answers raced through Keith’s mind––so many things he wanted to say at once. Raw energy sparked in his veins, some feeling he didn’t dare to name. But all at once it soured into fury.

“Yeah, way too close. What the hell were you doing up there?”

Lance’s smile fell, transforming into an indignant frown. “Uh, I was saving your life if I recall correctly.”

“I was going to get out of the way,” Keith said through gritted teeth.

“Really? ‘Cause it looked to me like you were just sitting there about to get blown up.”

“I … what? I wasn’t––” Keith groaned in frustration. “You shouldn’t have pushed me out of the way like that. You could have gotten us both killed!”

Lance crossed his arms. “Okay, but I didn’t. Looks like we’re both still alive––and last time I checked, I’m the one whose lion got damaged so that we didn’t both explode. So, you’re welcome.”

As tempted as he was to keep arguing, Keith knew Lance had a point. He had frozen up at the worst possible moment, and if Lance hadn’t shoved him out of the way, he shuddered to think what might have happened.

But the thought that Lance could’ve gotten himself blown up in the process … He felt a pang of guilt, remembering what Shiro had told him back at the castle. He was supposed to be watching Lance’s back.

“Okay,” Keith sighed at last. “You’re right. I panicked, and I should’ve been paying closer attention. Happy now?”

An edge crept into his voice on those few last words. Part of him wished he could swallow his pride for two damn seconds and muster a genuine apology, but it was too late now.

Regardless, Lance stared back at him with his eyebrows raised. “I … Well, no. I’m not exactly happy,” he said. “Blue got hit pretty bad. Not to mention someone just tried to kill us––”

Whatever he was about to say next, it was interrupted by a sudden crackling from their headsets.

“Lance? Keith?” Allura’s voice came through, staticky but urgent. “Can either of you hear me?”

“Yeah. We can hear you, princess,” Keith said.

She let out a heavy sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. We lost communication with you, but we could see Blue took some damage. What about Lance? Is he alright?”

“Aww, you were worried about me?” Lance cooed.

Keith rolled his eyes. “Yeah, he’s fine.”

“I can hear that,” Allura deadpanned. “I’m glad you’re both unharmed. But what happened? What condition is the Blue Lion in?”

Keith looked over at Lance, who was now pacing around Blue’s side to inspect the damage. Stumbling after him, Keith tried to give Allura an answer.

“Uh … we don’t really know. We were just flying over the planet, and then we lost contact with you. Almost right after that, some kind of missiles came flying at us and exploded. Red is okay, but … Blue was more in the line of fire.”

As if on cue, Lance sucked in a sharp breath. Keith was standing next to him now and followed his worried gaze up to where Blue had been hit. He nearly cursed at what he saw. A large chunk had been blown out of Blue’s side, exposing sparking wires and gears underneath. Dark smoke still spilled out of her with an audible hiss.

“How bad is the damage?” Allura asked when neither of them spoke. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah, still here,” Lance responded, his voice rasping a little. “She really doesn’t look good. There’s a big hole in her side. And when we got hit she just … stopped working. I don’t know if I can get her off the ground again.”

“Quiznak,” Allura muttered. “That puts us in a bit of a predicament. With the castle in its current state, I don’t think we have enough power to make a wormhole jump to Tethra. Regardless of whether or not you complete your mission within the day, we won’t be able to come and retrieve you until we have more crystals to power the ship. That may not be for another day or two.”

“So, you’re saying we’re stranded here?” said Keith, dread stirring in the pit of his stomach.

“For the time being, yes. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do––although I can send Hunk and Coran to the Balmera sooner than I had initially intended. Otherwise, you’ll just have to focus on finding those hostages and remaining safe in the meantime.

“It may not make much of a difference, really. As I told you earlier, I wasn’t expecting you to use your lions very much on this mission, anyway. And hopefully by the time you’ve found and freed the hostages, we’ll have the castle on full power again. Then we can come and find you.”

“Okay,” Keith said. “We’ve got it.”

Lance was still staring up at Blue, chewing his bottom lip.

“Lance?” said Allura.

That seemed to break Lance out of his daze. “Yes?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll fix the Blue Lion as soon as you return to the castle.”

He smiled softly. “Thanks, Allura.”

“Now, you shouldn’t be too far from where the rebels are being held captive,” Allura went on, sliding back into her authoritative tone. “According to the map, you should be able to walk there within about one varga. But remember, be very cautious. As I warned you, the planet is heavily patrolled by drones and sentries.”

“What about those missiles?” Keith asked. “Any idea where they came from?”

“I am not certain. But I imagine the Khagia keep a close watch on the skies. It could be they have some sort of automated weaponry that fires at anything that flies into the planet’s atmosphere.”

“Kinda wish we’d known that beforehand,” Lance muttered.

“So do I,” Allura sighed. “Unfortunately, we did not have much time to look into every detail of the planet’s current military tactics. I understood they were hostile, but it may be even worse than I anticipated.”

Keith had already been anxious about this mission, but now his worries grew about tenfold. They had crash-landed in the middle of nowhere, communication was spotty, they only had one functional lion, and there was a very real chance the evil alien government on this planet would hunt them down and kill them.

“I know this isn’t ideal, to put it lightly,” Allura continued. “But I believe in you, paladins. You’ve been through many dangerous missions before. I’m certain you will succeed at this one.”

As bleak as things seemed, her pep talk did ignite a spark of hope in Keith’s chest.

“Thanks,” said Lance. “We won’t let you down, princess.”

“I know you won’t. Now, please attempt to track down the hostages. I haven’t heard anything from their base in a while, and I’m beginning to worry.”

Lance finally looked over at Keith, and there was an unfamiliar hardness in his eyes. “We’re on it.”

“Please get back in touch with me as soon as you can. And good luck,” said Allura. With that, the comms went silent again.

Keith sighed, allowing some of the tension to release from his shoulders. “All right. You heard what Allura said. We need to get moving.”

“Yeah, okay,” Lance muttered, but he sounded distracted. His gaze drifted up towards Blue again, fixing on the gaping scar in her side. Keith could see the pain in his expression, as if Blue’s injuries were his own.

Something about the sight compelled Keith to reach out and rest a hand on Lance’s shoulder. He hardly realized what he had done until Lance stiffened and turned to look at him, and then he snatched his hand away.

Now Lance was watching him expectantly, and Keith was pretty sure his face had turned bright red. He cleared his throat, trying to find something reassuring to say.

“She’ll be okay, Lance,” was all he could manage.

Lance paused before he responded, as if he’d been waiting for Keith to say something else. “I know,” he said at last. “I just … It’s my fault this happened. I should’ve been more careful.”

“Hey, don’t say that,” said Keith, with a sudden ferocity that surprised both of them. He looked away, hoping Lance couldn’t see how badly his face was burning. “It’s not your fault. Those missiles came at us out of nowhere, and there’s nothing either one of us could’ve done to stop it. You reacted as fast as you could.”

Lance scoffed. “Oh, so now you’re giving me credit for saving the day?”

“Yes,” Keith answered, which shut Lance up. “Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier, okay? I was … I don’t know. I freaked out, and I shouldn’t have done that. You saved me and Red. So uh, thanks.”

It all came out in a rush, so jumbled that Keith wasn’t even sure Lance had understood him––especially judging by the look of shock on the other boy’s face. But then it quickly disappeared, melting into a crooked smile.

“Any time, mullet.”

Keith rolled his eyes, but he was surprised to find he was smiling back. “Okay. We need to focus.”

He sobered again, looking back and forth between their lions, which sat on opposite sides of the clearing. “We’ll just have to activate our lions’ shields and leave them here for now. There’s not much else we can do. Like Allura said, hopefully we won’t be gone for too long.”

Lance’s smile had fallen. “Right. Let’s do this.”

Keith sprinted back to Red while Lance approached Blue. In a matter of minutes, they had both turned on their lions’ force fields and met back in the center of the clearing with their bayards in hand.

“Looks like we’re pretty close,” Keith said, inspecting the small holographic map that hovered over his wrist. “Allura said it was about one varga away. That’s like … a little more than an hour, right?”

Lance shrugged. “Something like that.”

Frowning at the map, Keith turned in a slow circle as he tried to determine what direction they were supposed to go. “I think I’ve got it. Just stay close and keep your bayard out.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Lance activated his bayard, which turned into its blaster form in a flash of light. He paused to look back at Blue one more time. “I’m sorry, girl. I’ll come back for you soon, okay?”

Blue purred in response, the sound reverberating through the ground beneath them.

Almost at the same time, Red growled something that echoed in Keith’s head. He fought to understand for a moment––and when he did, his face heated up again.

“Uh … I think Red’s saying she’ll make sure nothing happens to Blue.”

Lance looked surprised for a moment, and then he grinned up at Red. “Aww. Thanks, Red.”

Red replied with a warm rumbling noise, and Keith looked from her to Lance in surprise. The whole exchange felt strangely affectionate. Even now Lance was still looking fondly up at Red, and it made Keith feel like the air was being squeezed from his lungs.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Lance asked all of a sudden, frowning.

Keith hadn’t even realized he’d been staring, and he looked away with a hurried cough. “I wasn’t … Nothing,” he stammered. “Let’s get going.”

Their trek through the Tethran forest was not an easy one. Keith stayed in the lead for the most part, using his sword to hack their way through the underbrush––which was mostly comprised of glowing plants that looked like jellyfish tentacles. On either side of their path, dark trees stood starkly against the bright blue sky, their bark dusted with bioluminescent moss. The ground was soft and pliant under their feet, made up of what looked like squishy black pebbles.

“I feel like we’re in some kind of giant fish tank,” Lance commented as they passed a dome-shaped purple growth that looked like it was made of round sponges. “Also man, it is hot.”

He was right. As the two suns rose high over the forest, the temperature had escalated exponentially. Their suits could keep them cool to an extent––they were equipped to withstand the weather of any planet, after all––but even with that, the visor of Keith’s helmet was fogging up a little, and he felt a bead of sweat trickle down the back of his neck.

“Coran said the air on this planet was breathable, right?” Lance asked.

“Uh … yeah, he did,” Keith murmured. He vaguely recalled what Coran had told them about Tethra before they left; he had mentioned that it was relatively “human-friendly” in that they could breathe the air, and that most of the plants were edible. Of course, everything Coran said on such matters had to be taken with a grain of salt.

“Ugh. I gotta take my helmet off for a sec.” Lance paused, pulling his helmet off and wiping the sweat from his brow.

Keith suddenly felt like the temperature had gone up another ten degrees.

“Are you okay?” Lance asked him, frowning. “You look kinda … sick. Do you need to sit down?”

“What? N-no, I’m just … tired,” Keith stammered.

He brought up the map again, squinting at it as he tried to determine their location. “Also, I think we’re getting really close. Try to keep your voice down.”

“Gotcha,” said Lance, without lowering his voice. He pulled his helmet back on and activated his bayard again.

After a few more seconds of inspecting the map, Keith gestured to their left with his head.

They moved at a more cautious pace now, treading carefully on the soft ground. Lance hovered a bit closer to Keith than he had before, hefting his blaster into position. Keith looked carefully over their surroundings, but so far he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary.

After another minute or so, they came to a clearing where the ground dipped into a deep valley, lined with hulking gray rocks.

Lance grabbed Keith by the arm, stopping him in his tracks.

“What is it?” Keith hissed.

He followed Lance’s gaze, and that’s when he saw it: a narrow gap in the hillside, descending into darkness.

“You think that might be it?” Lance whispered. He still hadn’t let go of Keith’s arm.

“It’s gotta be.” Keith shook him off. Everything was eerily silent, and it was starting to give him a bad feeling. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Wait,” Lance blurted.

“What is it?” Keith tried not to let too much impatience seep into his voice.

Lance hesitated, looking from Keith to the opening of the tunnel and back again. “Just … remember we have to be really careful, okay? It could be some kind of trap.”

Although his instinct was to argue, to say of course he already knew that, Keith bit back the words. He remembered what Shiro had said––that Lance was observant and level-headed. And when he thought about it, he knew Lance had proven those skills time and time again. Maybe it was time Keith started listening to him.

After a moment’s hesitation, he gave a single nod. “Okay. I’ll be careful.” When Lance looked dubious, he added, “I promise.”

Something flickered across Lance’s eyes, like he was on the verge of saying something else. But then he just nodded back in response.

They moved forward.

Neither of them spoke as they made their way down the hillside, using their jetpacks to jump over the steeper areas. Keith stayed in the lead, although he kept glancing out of the corner of his eye to make sure Lance was still close behind him.

When they reached the mouth of the tunnel, Keith paused at the sight of the yawning darkness beneath them. Bulbous, blue plants sprouted from the walls, lighting the way with a soft glow. If it wasn’t for the circumstances, it might have looked peaceful instead of threatening.

Keith gripped tighter to the handle of his sword. “Ready?” he whispered.

“Ready,” Lance echoed, holding his blaster out in front of him.

Side-by-side, they marched into the darkness.

It wasn’t long until the tunnel took a sharp turn, and then another. The further they walked, the darker it became––although there were still bioluminescent growths all over the sides, providing just enough dim light to see by. The tunnel also grew narrower, until the two boys could barely walk side-by-side without their shoulders touching.

At one point some small bat-like creature darted overhead and Lance let out a surprised yelp, bumping into Keith from behind. Keith turned to glare at him and received an apologetic wince in response.

Otherwise, there had been no signs of life. Keith tried to keep his senses on high-alert, but so far he hadn’t heard anything except for Lance’s raspy breathing over their headsets.

They came to another curve, and this time when they turned the corner, it branched into several different tunnels.

“Oh no,” Lance muttered.

Keith let out a frustrated groan, looking from one tunnel to another as if the universe would send some sort of hint.

“Uh … maybe I should try one tunnel and you could try another one?” he suggested.

“What? No way. We are not splitting up.”

“We don’t have a lot of time, Lance. We need to find these hostages as soon as possible, and if we don’t split up it might take us ages to find them together.”

“Maybe,” Lance admitted. “But I still think it’s too dangerous. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be ambushed by evil aliens by myself.”

Keith could see he wasn’t going to win this fight, and they were already wasting time by arguing. After a moment’s hesitation, he relented. “Fine.”

With that, they started to explore the maze of tunnels, weaving in and out of various entryways and encountering dead end after dead end. It got to the point where Keith started to worry they might never find their way out again. Or worse, they weren’t even in the right place.

He was just about to recommend that they turn back or else risk getting totally lost in this underground maze. But right when he was about to speak up, he noticed a weird scent filtering into his helmet.

“Ugh,” Lance said, apparently noticing it at the same time. “You smell that?”

“Yeah.” Keith came to a stop, inhaling again, and nearly gagged this time. It was a really putrid odor, something that smelled curdled and rotten. Like something decaying. Something … dead.

All of a sudden, his blood ran cold.

“What do you think it is, some kind of gross cave fungus?” Lance asked, but Keith was barely listening.

“Hold back a second,” he told Lance, turning towards another nearby tunnel. Bracing himself, he moved cautiously towards it.

“Keith? What are you doing?”

“Just … stay there, okay?”

Without waiting for a response, he ducked through the opening. The tunnel tilted slightly downward, and Keith skidded down the gradual slope and into the cavern beyond.

Everything froze.

The sight was so horrific that he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing at first. All he could see was a mass of shapes huddled on the ground, illuminated in the faint glow of the bioluminescent moss growing from the ceiling. Glowing purple liquid splattered the walls and the floor, and he felt dizzy as he began to understand what it was.

“Keith?”

Lance’s voice pulled him back to reality, echoing through the deadly silent chamber.

“What’s happening down there? Are you okay?”

Instead of answering, Keith stumbled back and sprinted up the tunnel again. Lance was still hovering by the opening. When he saw Keith, his eyes widened with concern.

Keith didn’t know what expression was on his own face, but he was sure his panic was visible. His head was reeling and bile climbed up the back of his throat. An unrelenting tightness constricted around his chest and he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak.

He fell back against the wall for support, feeling like he might pass out.

“Hey,” Lance said, and his voice sounded like it was coming from miles away. He gripped one of Keith’s shoulders, keeping him upright. “Dude, you’re freaking me out. What’s wrong?”

“They …” Keith started to say, and it came out weak and rasping. It took a few prolonged moments for him to speak again, finally voicing the horrible truth.

“They’re all dead.”

Lance’s face was blank at first, and then the terror crept into his eyes. Keith felt sick, seeing his wounded expression, feeling like somehow this was his fault––like he shouldn’t have told Lance what he’d seen, like he had driven a knife between his ribs.

“What?” Lance finally choked out. “No … no, no, no.” His hand went slack on Keith’s shoulder, falling away.

He moved towards the tunnel, and Keith dove in front of him. “Don’t––Don’t go in there. You don’t want to see ... ”

But Lance didn’t listen, didn’t even respond. Like he was possessed, he shoved past Keith and dashed into the tunnel. “Lance––” Keith started to say, but it was too late.

When Lance came stumbling back out a few moments later, he dropped his blaster on the ground and gripped at the side of the entryway, wheezing with panic.

“Oh, God. Oh, my God. No … no …”

He doubled over like he’d suffered a physical blow, one arm wrapped around his stomach.

Something snapped inside Keith then––at the sight of Lance in such distress, at the sound of him murmuring and hyperventilating.

“Lance,” he managed to say as he stepped forward. His voice wavered, and his throat felt tight and raw, but he still fought to say something … anything.

“We––We were too late,” Lance said faintly. He lifted his head, and Keith could see now that he was crying, tear tracks running down his face. “We were supposed to save them, Keith. They were––They were counting on us and we failed and we were supposed to––oh, my God. We failed them, we let them die, we––”

“Lance,” Keith said again, and this time it came out more firmly. “Look at me.”

Wordlessly, Lance looked up and their eyes locked.

Now Keith knew he had to come up with something to say, but words failed him. What could he possibly say? It wasn’t like he could change this. Although he’d only been in the cavern for less than a minute, the image had been branded in his mind’s eye: the bodies slumped on the ground, the collective pool of glowing blood, the reek of decay.

Too late, too late.

Dead.

Our fault.

He could only stand there with one shaking hand still gripping the handle of his sword, the other curling into a fist.

Lance was still watching him with wide, tear-filled eyes––pleadingly, almost. Of all things, Keith found himself remembering their conversation in the hallway that morning––had it only been that morning?––and how that brief darkness he’d seen in Lance’s expression had awoken an inexplicable fear inside him.

Only now did he start to understand it: someone like Lance didn’t belong out here. Someone who cared so deeply, who felt everything tenfold.

He was afraid of having to watch Lance break.

“Listen,” he said at last, desperately searching for some semblance of hope. He wished more than anything that Shiro was here right now to provide some guidance. He always knew what to say, how to inspire them all when everything seemed lost. Keith wasn’t like that.

“Maybe …” He took a deep breath. “Maybe they––they’re not all dead. There could still be a few survivors in there.”

From the unchanging, shattered look on Lance’s face, he wasn’t convinced. But he stood up straighter, still staring at Keith.

“I know it’s horrible,” Keith continued, his voice steadying a little. “But we need to go back in there. If any of them are still alive, we have to get them out.”

Lance was already shaking his head, his breathing still loud and rasping. He swallowed hard. “I can’t, Keith. Can’t … can’t go back in there.”

“I know,” said Keith. “Trust me, I––I don’t want to, either. But if there are any survivors, we’re their only hope. So, I need you to get it together for me. For them. Can you do that?”

Lance hesitated for another moment, squeezing his eyes shut and opening them again as he released a shaking sigh. Then at last, he gave a solemn nod and picked his blaster up off the ground.

The two paladins inched back down the tunnel, shoulder-to-shoulder in the darkness. Keith’s pulse thundered in his ears as he prepared himself to once again face the horror that awaited them in the cavern.

It was almost worse the second time, now with full comprehension of what he was seeing. The nauseating smell hit him in a wave, nearly driving him backward, and he felt dizzy at the sight of the corpses––strewn across the floor like they were worthless, like they had never had lives or families.

His jaw clenched as his grief and fury fought for dominance. Monsters. Whoever had done this, he was going to make them pay for it.

But right now, he had to focus on the task at hand: trying to see if, by any miracle, any of the hostages were still alive.

Lance and Keith exchanged a glance, their grim faces illuminated only by the dim luminescence of the cavern and by the soft glow of their paladin suits. Keith gave a single nod, a silent signal.

They split up and started searching.

Keith struggled not to retch as he picked his way through the sea of bodies, as his boots slid through the slick substance on the floor. He crouched down every few feet to inspect nearby bodies for any signs of life––a flicker of eyelids, a chest rising and falling, the flutter of a pulse in a wrist or throat.

So far, nothing. He didn’t even know how the Tethrans’ bodies worked, whether they even had heartbeats in the first place––but he could tell just by looking that none of them were alive. Some lay on their backs, the light fading out of their glowing eyes as they stared sightlessly upward. Others were slumped on their sides or lay facedown in the soil. Glowing wounds marred their bodies, tearing through flesh and cloth.

Keith felt too numb and horrified to look closely at any of them, but even so he dimly noted the variety in the species. The Tethrans were humanoid but had longer limbs and varying numbers of arms and eyes. Their skin tones ranged between blue and purple hues. About half of them had bald heads, while the rest had plant-like tendrils growing from their scalps. A few of them had dustings of glowing freckles on their skin, but most of them no longer showed any sign of bioluminescence––which probably meant they had been dead for longer. Keith’s stomach turned over at the thought.

He noticed with a frown that there was a distinct difference between what some of the Tethrans were wearing. While a majority were dressed in what looked like plain tunics, he had noticed several wearing military-like black armor. A few times he’d tripped over what looked like blasters––similar to Lance’s weapon but smaller.

Both paladins had been silent this entire time, except Keith had heard Lance occasionally whimper. Now he looked across the cavern to where Lance was kneeling, his back turned.

“Any luck?” Keith asked, although he had a bad feeling he knew what the answer would be.

Lance let out a weary sigh in response, his shoulders sagging. “No. Nothing.” He let out a shaking breath as he started to turn around and rise to his feet. “Maybe we should––”

Whatever he was about to say, it was lost in a startled gasp. In a flash he activated his bayard, crying out a warning. “Keith! Behind you!”

Keith whirled around, to find a blaster pointed right at his chest.

His pulse immediately skyrocketed and he gripped at his bayard––but he didn’t activate it. It had occurred to him, suddenly, the small stature of the creature pointing the weapon up at him.

She only was about the height of his waist and looked like she wouldn’t be much older than eight or nine in human years. Her skin gleamed faintly, a dark shade of indigo, sprinkled with small glowing dots that pulsated rapidly. She had shoulder-length hair that looked like some kind of undersea plant, drifting slightly around her face as blue light coursed through the strands.

Her four green eyes––two large ones with two smaller ones beneath them––were round and terrified as she stared up at Keith. She gripped the blaster out in front of her with two hands, another pair of hands in fists at her sides.

The alien child’s breathing was loud and rapid in the stillness, her arms visibly shaking. “W-who are you?” she finally managed to say, her voice small and timid.

Keith stood stock-still, his heartbeat hammering in his ears. “Hey … listen,” he said, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible even in his state of panic. “Don’t––Don’t shoot, okay? We’re here to help you.”

Lance had appeared at Keith’s side, and he quickly lowered his blaster with a gasp. “Oh, my God. This must be the kid, Keith,” he said quietly. “The one Allura told us about.”

Dazed, Keith nodded, his eyes still trained on the girl. She still had the gun pointed at him, her gaze flitting nervously from him to Lance and back again.

“Look,” he said to her. “We’re going to put our weapons down. You don’t need to be scared of us.”

He knew maybe the words sounded hollow, but he tried to put as much sincerity into them as possible. He’d once been in the same place as this girl, after all––a scared kid trying to fend for himself, untrusting of anyone who crossed his path.

Without looking away from her, he slowly crouched to the ground and put his bayard down before rising up again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance do the same.

The girl just watched them and whimpered in fear, although she lowered the blaster a few inches.

“We came to get you out of here,” Keith said. “We’re paladins of Voltron.”

That seemed to get through to her. At the mention of Voltron, all four of her eyes blinked at once. She was still breathing loudly and shakily in the tense stillness, but she let her weapon down. “You––You’re the paladins?” she rasped out, cautiously slipping the small blaster into the belt at her waist.

Judging by the awestruck tone in her voice, she had heard of them before. Exactly what she knew about them––and how much of it was true––though, Keith couldn’t be sure.

But he didn’t have time to explain or say anything else, because right then the girl rushed forward with a cry and threw her arms around him.

Chapter Text

Startled, Keith put his hands up in surrender, thinking maybe the girl was attacking him. But then he realized she was just … hugging him. She had flung her long arms around his legs, and her face was buried against his stomach as she shook with violent sobs.

Keith looked over at Lance in a silent question, but Lance looked equally shocked, staring at the girl with wide eyes.

At last, Keith patted the alien child on the back. “It’s gonna be alright,” he told her, as calmly as he could manage. “You’re okay, now. We’ll get out of here soon.” He was surprised at how automatically the words came to him, and realized distantly that it was the same thing he used to often repeat to himself as a kid.

The girl peeled herself away, although she kept three of her arms wrapped around him as she wiped a three-fingered hand across her face. Metallic tears streamed out of all four of her eyes. She shuddered with suppressed sobs, and Keith felt a twinge of empathy in his chest.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll come with us, won’t you?”

She nodded wordlessly, her grip around his legs tightening.

“Okay,” Keith said with a sigh, speaking more to himself than to anyone else. He looked up at Lance, who appeared to be on the verge of tears again––biting his lip, his eyes shining. “Lance? You ready?”

Lance sniffled and let out a shuddering breath. “Y-Yeah. Let’s get out of here.”

The boys picked up their bayards again, and then all three of them made their way across the cavern. Lance had lifted the shaking girl into his arms and winced every time he carried her over one of the glowing puddles on the floor.

They finally made it to the exit. Keith went up first and looked back and forth down the adjacent tunnel. Once he was sure the coast was clear, he gestured for the other two to follow.

Lance came up a few seconds later with the little girl still in his arms. He carefully set her down, crouching so he was closer to her eye level.

“Are you alright? Are you hurt at all?”

“N-no,” she stammered in reply. She was staring at the two paladins as the freckle-like spots on her face flickered. Her two right hands pressed against the tunnel wall, and her eyes glowed in the darkness.

Something occurred to Keith then. “You’ve never seen humans before, have you?”

The girl shook her head.

Suddenly, it made sense why she was looking at them like that. Keith knew first-hand what it was like to see aliens for the first time, and it was a shocking experience to say the least.

“We must look pretty weird to you, huh?” Lance said, obviously thinking the same thing. The girl just looked at him warily. “Well, we’ve never seen Tethrans before. … But I mean, we’ve seen lots of other aliens.”

He managed a timid smile. “Anyway, what I’m saying is, we know it can feel a little scary to meet aliens. But I promise you can trust us. Can you tell us what your name is?”

The girl hesitated before giving her quiet answer. “Zola.”

“Zola,” Lance repeated. “Wow, that’s such a pretty name! I’m Lance, by the way. That’s Keith.” He jerked his head in Keith’s direction. “I know he seems kinda scary, but I promise the only scary thing about him is his hair. Wait ‘til you see it.”

Keith touched his helmet. “Hey,” he said, frowning.

He wasn’t even sure if Zola could understand all of what Lance had said, but even just the tone of his voice had drawn her cautiously forward. Two of her hands still trailed along the side of the tunnel, while another hand tucked her hair behind a pointed ear, and her fourth hand scratched at the side of her leg.

As she inched forward, Lance kept a reassuring smile on his face––which Keith found admirable considering the circumstances. He’d seen how badly Lance had fallen apart earlier, and he knew how difficult it had to be for him to keep it together for the little girl’s sake.

He reached out to her, palm outstretched. “You can hold my hand if you want.”

Zola paused, then timidly stretched out one of her hands. Her three long fingers interlaced with Lance’s as he stood up.

“There you go,” he said encouragingly. “Now just stay close, okay?” He turned towards Keith. “Uh, do you remember the way out?”

“Not exactly,” Keith admitted. “Maybe the map can tell us?”

He tapped at his wrist, trying to bring up the map Allura had downloaded to their suits, but nothing happened. “I don’t think there’s a signal down here. Either that or something’s interfering with it.”

“Oh boy,” Lance sighed, then squeezed Zola’s hand. “It’s okay. We’ll find a way out of here.”

The three of them started down the narrow passageway. At this point, Keith didn’t care what direction they were headed, as long as they distanced themselves from that cavern as much as possible––from the stench of death, the haunting stillness, the bodies on the ground.

He was soon enveloped in the numbness of shock, unable to clear the violent images from his head.

And whatever horror he was feeling, he knew Zola was feeling it a hundred times more. All those people … they’d been people she’d known, her friends, possibly even her family. Keith glanced over his shoulder and saw that she was walking close to Lance, clinging to his arm as she stared down at the ground in front of her. Every so often she’d start whimpering or breathing very fast, and Lance would squeeze her hand in reassurance, softly telling her they’d be out of here soon.

They soon came to a fork in the tunnel where it branched in three different directions, and that was when Keith realized he had no idea where they were going.

“Um …” He looked between all of them in bewilderment and started to move towards the central one.

“Wait,” Zola blurted.

Keith and Lance both turned to stare at her in surprise.

She held tightly to Lance’s wrist, stubbornly fixed where she was standing.

“What is it?” Lance asked. “Is something wrong?”

The tiny lights on Zola’s face and hair blinked. “Not that way,” she said, her pointed ears twitching at some sound Keith couldn’t hear. She pointed to the tunnel on the left. “That one.”

The two paladins exchanged a questioning look, and Keith shrugged in surrender. Zola sounded certain of her decision, and she probably knew better than Keith or Lance did.

They followed her instruction and moved towards the tunnel on the left. Zola picked up the pace, dragging Lance along with her, until they moved past Keith. Both boys watched her, fascinated, as she stopped at yet another crossroads and tugged Lance’s arm as she moved to the tunnel on the right.

It seemed this alien child had suddenly taken the lead, and Keith and Lance did nothing to question it. She seemed to be acting on instinct, pausing at random intervals to tilt her head and listen. Whatever she sensed, she trusted it with certainty––always moving forward at a steady pace, pulling Lance by the arm as Keith followed behind them.

With Zola’s guidance, they made it out of the underground maze a lot faster than when Keith and Lance had been on their own. Even though Keith trusted Zola’s instincts, he still felt an enormous rush of relief when he saw a patch of daylight at the end of the tunnel.

They climbed into the open, with Zola still in the lead and the two paladins stumbling after her.

Keith blinked into the bright light. It felt surreal to be standing back where they had started, at the bottom of the rocky hillside. They probably hadn’t been underground for more than a couple hours, but it felt like it had been days.

“Wow,” Lance said, catching his breath. He turned to Zola. “How’d you find the way out so easily?”

Zola’s ears shifted again. “The wind moving through the tunnels,” she explained, as if it were completely obvious.

“You mean, you found our way out by listening to where the wind was coming from?”

She nodded.

“Whoa … that’s amazing. I wish my hearing was that good.” Lance paused. “You know, with skills like that, you’d be a pretty good asset to our team. Maybe you could take Keith’s place.”

“Very funny,” Keith deadpanned. He knew Lance was probably just trying to lighten the mood and keep Zola calm, but he didn’t feel like joking around right now. He needed a minute to clear his head.

His helmet was starting to feel suffocating, and he pulled it off and tucked it under one arm. After breathing the dank cave air for so long, it was an immense relief to breathe in the clear air outside, as humid as it was. Keith ran a hand over his hair, certain that it was sticking out in a million different directions.

He noticed that Zola was staring at him. She had shrunk back, four arms drawn close to her chest. For a second he wondered what was wrong, and then remembered once again that she was still probably getting used to what he and Lance looked like––especially now that they were out in the daylight, where they could be seen more clearly.

Lance gently patted her on the head. “Yeah, I know. His face is kinda scary. But don’t worry, it’ll grow on you.” He winked at Keith.

Keith glared back at him, although he’d felt a strange twinge in his chest at the comment. It’ll grow on you … what the hell was that supposed to mean?

He didn’t have time to fully think it over, because right then Zola started inching towards him. He knelt down so he was eye-level with her––the same thing he’d seen Lance do earlier.

“Hey, is something wrong?”

She didn’t answer. She stopped when there was only a couple of feet between their faces, her head tilted. Slowly, she reached out and placed a hand on his hair.

Keith stiffened in surprise, but he tried not to keep still as the alien girl lightly ran her fingers over the top of his head. With one of her other hands she fiddled with a strand of her own plant-like hair, comparing the textures. Then her fingers moved to Keith’s forehead and trailed down the bridge of his nose. Her touch was cool and leathery like the skin of a lizard.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Uh. That’s my nose.”

“Nose,” she repeated, trying out the word. She touched the flat spot in the middle of her own face, which was occupied only by a smattering of small glowing marks. “What’s it for?”

“Smelling … ?”

“What’s ‘smelling’?”

“Oh, you know …” Keith inhaled through his nose to demonstrate, and then realized that probably didn’t make much of a difference. How was he supposed to explain what smelling was to someone who had never experienced it? “It’s one of our senses. Like seeing or hearing or tasting.”

Zola only widened her eyes in response, baffled by this new information.

Lance had been silent this whole time, watching their exchange from a slight distance. When Keith looked up at him, he was surprised to see a faint smile on the other paladin’s face. But almost as soon as Keith saw it, it vanished. Lance stiffened, touching his helmet.

“Keith,” he said suddenly. “Put your helmet back on. It sounds like Allura’s trying to contact us again.”

Sure enough, a faint crackling noise erupted from Keith’s helmet, where it was still tucked under his arm. He quickly put it on and winced when the loud static hissed in his ear.

“Lance and Keith, do you copy?” the princess’s voice came through, grainy but still audible.

“Yes. We’re here, princess,” Keith said.

“Oh, good. You can hear me! I’ve been attempting to contact you for the past varga.”

“Sorry about that. We were underground and couldn’t get a good signal.”

“I understand. I’m just glad you’re alright. Is Lance with you?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Lance chimed in. “I sure missed the sound of your voice, princess.” For once, the declaration sounded genuine rather than flirtatious.

“I’m happy to hear from both of you as well. What is your status? I see you’ve arrived at your destination. ... Did you find the hostages?”

Keith’s throat tightened. He’d known that delivering the news was inevitable, but he still didn’t feel prepared for it. He and Lance looked at each other, and Keith could see his own dread and grief reflected on the other boy’s face.

“Paladins, are you still there?” Allura asked, a note of worry in her voice.

“Yes, we’re here,” Keith answered hoarsely. He braced himself for what he had to say, squeezing his eyes shut to ease their burning. “I … I’m sorry, princess.”

“Sorry?” the princess repeated. “Why?” Almost as soon as she’d asked the question, she gasped sharply at the realization. “Oh, no. No … You don’t mean …”

Everything suddenly felt too bright, too intense––the sunlight glaring in Keith’s eyes, the soil under his knees, the afternoon heat of the forest.

“I’m sorry,” he managed to say again, although he could barely hear his own voice. “We were too late.”

There was a long silence from the other end, the static broken only by the princess’s ragged breathing. It sounded like she was struggling not to cry.

“Allura, are you alright?” Lance asked.

“Yes. Don’t worry about me,” she answered faintly. A moment passed and then she asked, “... All of them?”

Keith and Lance exchanged a look and then turned their attention to Zola, who had been standing still in front of Keith this whole time. She had wrapped all of her arms around herself and was staring at the ground.

“Not all of them,” said Keith. “The child––the one you told us about––she’s alive. And she’s with us.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Allura breathed out. “Is she injured at all?”

Zola had told them earlier that she was unhurt, but Keith looked her over one more time just to be sure.

“No, she’s alright,” he reported.

“Good.” The princess sighed. “I received word from her people a short while ago. They had to relocate after escaping the invasion, but they’ve found a new hideout and have sent me their location so that I could pass it on to––to any survivors of the hostage situation.”

She stumbled over the last few words, pausing before she continued. “Seeing as the girl is the only survivor, however, I’m not sure where we go from here. If circumstances were different, I would have expected the surviving adults to escort her to the new hideout. But now …”

As the princess trailed off, Keith suddenly understood what she was saying.

“So, someone has to bring her there.”

Allura hesitated before answering. “I know it's not the mission you expected, but––”

“Allura, it's no problem,” Lance stopped her. He looked over at Keith, and they seemed to come to a silent agreement. “We can do it.”

“Are you certain?” the princess asked nervously. “It will be a dangerous journey due to the planet’s high levels of security. And as we’ve spoken about, you would have limited use of your lions––especially now with the Blue Lion damaged.”

Lance winced. “We know. But we don’t have a choice.”

“I suppose … The only alternative would be for you to wait where you are, and I could ask some of the rebels to come and find you. But I don’t know how long that would take.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Keith. “It would probably be a lot faster for you to send us their location and we can take Zola there. Besides, we don’t want to risk anyone else’s lives.”

There was silence from the other end, presumably as Allura came to a decision. “I think you’re right, Keith. I’m looking at the map right now, and I believe it should take you less than two days to get there by foot. Hopefully by the time you reach the rebels’ hideout, we’ll have the castle at full energy again, and we can retrieve you and your lions.”

Lance nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

“I’m sending you an updated map,” Allura continued. “It should be downloaded to your armor in just a tick. … Have you received it?”

A flashing notification appeared in the corner of Keith’s visor. “Yeah, we’ve got it.”

“Good. Of course, you can always contact me if I can assist you in any other way. But for now, I must take leave. I––I have to speak with the rebels and tell them …” She trailed off.

Keith felt like there was a heavy weight in his chest. He was painfully aware of Zola still standing a few feet from him, trembling and small and alone.

“We’re so sorry, princess,” Lance said, his voice wavering. “We should’ve gotten there sooner.”

Allura released a shaking breath. “It isn’t your fault. I hope you know that.” Neither paladin responded. “Are you still there?”

Keith tried to swallow the lump in his throat. “Yes, we’re here,” he answered, unable to look up from the ground.

“Keith. Lance,” Allura said, and this time she spoke with steady sincerity. “I’ve known many great warriors in my lifetime. You two are some of the bravest and most skilled warriors I’ve ever met.

“I wouldn’t have sent you on this mission if I didn’t truly mean that. And your lions must feel the same way, or they wouldn’t have chosen you as paladins in the first place.”

Involuntarily, Keith looked up at Lance and saw he was still staring fiercely downward, his eyes shining––although he squared his shoulders a bit at Allura’s words.

“Even the most accomplished warriors do not win every battle,” the princess continued. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t heroes. Sometimes the stars just don’t align in our favor.”

Keith contemplated those words, trying as hard as he could to believe them. In time, he knew he would probably understand. But right now their failure was too much of a fresh wound.

Still, he knew Allura was only trying to help them move forward. That was all they could do at this point.

“Thank you, princess,” he said.

“Of course,” she replied. “And remember that no matter what, you’re making a world of difference to this one girl.”

Keith’s stomach clenched. He had always known how much rested on their shoulders, how there were millions of people depending on them throughout the universe. But it was another thing to have a single child’s life in their hands, especially in such a dangerous environment. And after the horror she’d already experienced, he felt more determined than ever not to let anything happen to her.

“We understand, Allura,” Lance finally said. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Now I’m very sorry, but I must leave. Do you have everything under control?”

Keith and Lance looked at each other and nodded simultaneously.

“We’re good,” Lance answered.

“Then I’ll be signing off. But don’t hesitate to contact me if you need anything else. Good luck out there, paladins.”

With a faint click, the comms shut off.

They all remained silent for several long moments in the wake of Allura’s parting words. Keith still knelt on the ground, as Lance stood a few feet away. Zola stayed between them, hugging herself. Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears.

Keith almost wished that Allura would speak again and give them more detailed instructions. It felt strange that such a daunting task could be so simple, but he realized there really wasn’t much else they could do besides follow the map the princess had sent them.

Oh, and try not to get themselves or this alien child killed.

“I guess we should get moving,” Lance sighed. “Do you think we should head back to the lions to get some supplies first?”

“Sounds like a good idea,” said Keith, rising to his feet. “Allura said it might take a couple days, so we should probably bring some stuff with us.”

Both paladins turned to their new, small alien companion. She lifted her head to look at each of them in turn, her eyes round. Keith laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“How about you, Zola?” he said. “Are you ready to go?”

She didn’t answer right away. Then she hesitantly asked, “Where are we going?”

As he made eye contact with Lance over her head, Keith could have sworn he felt something electric in the air: a simultaneous resurgence of determination.

“We’re going to take you home.”

It took a little more convincing to get Zola to go with them. She remained glued to the spot, wary of these two strangers who had swooped in to rescue her. Keith couldn’t blame her. If he’d been in her place, he wouldn’t have fully trusted them, either.

And despite the horror she’d experienced in the cave, Zola kept glancing back at the mouth of the tunnel as if she were strangely drawn to it––like there was some subconscious part of her that believed she could still save the people who’d been trapped down there with her. Even though Keith knew there was no hope left for the others, he understood that feeling. Like they were leaving something or someone behind. It felt wrong.

But he and Lance were both patient, explaining that they needed to go to their lions before they could bring Zola back to her people.

At the mention of the lions, Zola’s ears perked up in curiosity. “You mean, the lions are here?” she asked timidly. “You brought them with you?”

“Well, yeah,” said Lance. “How else do you think we got here?”

Zola glanced past them. “Are the other paladins here, too?”

“Uh … No, it’s just us,” Keith answered. “The other three are busy with other things, so the princess just sent me and Lance.”

“Princess … you mean Princess Allura?”

It took a second for Keith to gather his wits, and then he realized it wasn’t that shocking that Zola’s people knew about Allura, considering they’d somehow managed to contact her in the first place.

“Yep,” Lance said. “That’s who we were just talking to. You have her to thank for sending us here.”

Zola seemed to have suddenly run out of questions. She swayed a little, like this was all too much information to take in at once.

“We should get moving,” said Keith, noticing that the two suns were starting to hang low in the sky. “I think we only have a few hours of daylight left, and we still need to get some supplies.”

He looked down at Zola. “Are you ready to go?”

She glanced behind her at the mouth of the tunnel one last time. When she turned back around, her mouth was set in a grim line––an expression that looked far too grave for such a small child. She nodded.

They climbed back up the opposite slope. A few times they had to use their jetpacks to jump from ledge to ledge. In those instances, Lance would scoop Zola up in his arms as they propelled upwards. The first time she yelped in fear and clung to him for dear life. But after a few times, she gained enough courage to lift her head and stare down in wonder at the ground falling away beneath them.

Soon they were on level ground again, and Keith brought up the map to guide their way to the lions. The journey back wasn’t as difficult, since Keith had cleared most of the path on their way there. But he could feel the afternoon heat getting to him, and all his muscles were already starting to ache.

Zola was quiet as she walked between Keith and Lance, hyper-aware of their surroundings. Her ears twitched at even the smallest sounds, and the markings on her face flickered every time she sensed something.

She kept one hand hovering near the blaster at her waist, sometimes touching it anxiously at sudden noises. Keith kept a wary eye on it. He hadn’t confiscated it, since he knew Zola was scared and probably wanted something to protect herself. He knew that feeling all too well; it was the same reason he kept his dagger closeby at almost all times. But he also worried about her accidentally setting it off.

Finally, he decided the responsible thing to do was to say something about it. “Hey, uh. Zola?”

She jumped a little as she looked up at him.

“Where’d you get that, by the way?” He nodded towards the weapon.

Zola put a hand over it, as if she were afraid he would take it from her. “One of the guards,” she answered.

“The guards? You mean the Khagia?”

He realized too late that maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned them by name, judging by the way Zola flinched.

Lance shot him a scowl that clearly said, Way to go, Keith.

“I––I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it,” Keith stammered. “I was just wondering––”

“They all got killed,” Zola cut him off, and the two boys stared at her in surprise. She stopped in her tracks, gaze fixed pointedly at the ground. A few tense moments passed before she continued, her small voice trembling as she stumbled over the painful words.

“Everyone except me. They were … The guards were––were shooting people one by one.”

Her words halted on a hiccuping gasp. A terrified look entered her young eyes, as if the massacre was unfolding right in front of her all over again.

“Someone kept covering my eyes so I wouldn’t see, but I could hear them …” Her breath shuddered out. “And then … I don’t know. Somebody got one of the guards’ weapons somehow, and then everyone started shooting at each other.”

She was visibly shaking now, and both paladins had moved towards her. Neither of them spoke. Keith knew they should tell her she didn’t have to continue, but he was so numb with horror that he couldn’t find his voice.

“There was this man next to me,” Zola went on haltingly. “He told me I should lie down and pretend to be dead. He––He got shot right after that. He fell down next to me.”

Her breath hitched on the words, tears building in her eyes.

“I had to keep holding still. Everything got really quiet, but I kept lying there for a long time. And then I heard you.” She lifted her head, looking warily back and forth between Keith and Lance. “But I didn’t know who it was, so that’s why I grabbed this.” She touched the blaster again.

A heavy silence descended as she finished the story. Keith felt like he’d been punched in the gut, sickened by the horrific details. He’d known that things like this were happening all over the universe, but it was another thing to hear it directly from such a small child. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the terror she’d been through … all those hours of lying alone in the darkness surrounded by the dead, not knowing whether she’d ever be rescued. It hit him with a dizzying sorrow, knowing what she’d had to endure and how that was something she could never erase from her memory.

Lance stepped forward and knelt down in front of her. “We’re so sorry, Zola,” he said quietly. “That’s––That’s so horrible. No one should have to go through something like that. It’s …” Words failed him, his sentence choking off.

Almost at the same time, tears started to stream from Zola’s eyes and her skinny form shook with a sob. “I want to go home,” she said, and then couldn’t seem to stop saying it. “I want to go home, I want to go home …”

“I know you do.” Lance took one of her hands between both of his, squeezing it gently. “And we’re gonna get you there, I promise. It’s gonna be a different place than your old home. But … it’ll still be home, because there’s people there that love you.”

Zola’s sobs had subsided, and she looked at Lance with tearful but hopeful trepidation. “My dads will be there, right?” she asked, her voice still choked.

“Your dads?” Lance repeated. “Were they … ? I mean, are they still––” He stopped himself, apparently realizing the insensitivity of the question he’d been about to ask.

“They weren’t taken. Just me,” said Zola, looking away. She wiped an arm across her watering eyes, her breathing going shallow again. “I––I miss them.”

“I know,” Lance said, still squeezing Zola’s hand. “And I bet they miss you, too. But I promise they’re safe. And it might take a couple days, but we’re gonna get you back to them.”

Keith had watched this whole conversation in bewilderment, floored by how well Lance was able to handle the situation. But when he thought about it, it wasn’t very surprising. He knew Lance had a lot of experience with kids. He’d mentioned his large family several times, and during their group mind-meld exercises Keith had seen him thinking about his younger family members … Siblings? Cousins? Keith wasn’t sure.

Lance stood up, still holding on to Zola’s hand. “Now we’re just gonna walk a little further to the lions, okay? Let us know if you need to stop or anything. But we must be really close now … right, Keith?”

“What? Oh.” Keith checked the map. “Yeah. We’ll be there pretty soon. Just a few more minutes, I think.”

“Great. I bet Blue will be super excited to meet you,” Lance said to Zola.

They kept going. Zola held Lance’s hand the whole time.

Soon, the shining orbs of the lions’ shields were visible through the trees. Keith winced a little at the lack of subtlety, especially knowing now that they’d have to leave the lions here for another two days. But they didn’t have another choice.

As they drew closer, Keith could see that the sphere encasing Blue was heavily clouded; there was still smoke coming out of her. Lance whimpered in dismay at the sight.

The lions’ shields went down as soon as the paladins approached them. The smoke surrounding Blue cleared, rising above the treetops. She was in the same position they’d left her––crouching low to the ground, her head resting between her front paws, her eyes dim.

“Hey, Blue,” Lance said, coming to a stop in front of her. “Still not feeling too good, huh, girl?”

She rumbled faintly in response, although her eyes glowed a bit brighter than they had before.

Zola yelped and jumped behind Lance, the lights on her face and hair dancing madly.

“Aw hey, it’s okay,” Lance reassured her. “Blue is super friendly! Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

She literally blows up battleships, Keith was tempted to say, but he figured now wasn’t the best time to point that out.

“There’s someone I want you to meet, Blue.” Lance stepped aside so that Zola was in Blue’s line of sight. “This is Zola.”

Blue lifted her head a little in delighted curiosity, letting out a low purr.

Lance chuckled and smiled at Zola. “Aww, she likes you.”

Zola hovered near to Lance, one hand wrapped around his wrist, but she shyly looked up at Blue and took a cautious step forward. The lions were already enormous in comparison to the paladins, and Keith could only imagine how much more gigantic they would seem to a child.

He was reminded of when he and the other paladins met Blue for the first time, how he’d felt a sudden swell of wonder and excitement––how he’d realized that he hadn’t been imagining the strange pull he’d felt in the desert, how all his searching finally meant something.

He of course had his own special connection with Red, but he could never shake off the fondness he had for Blue as well. She was, after all, the one who had brought all of them together. She was the one who had called out to Keith for months when he was alone in the desert, when he’d had nothing and no one else.

Lance smiled as he watched Zola take another few steps forward. He put his hands on his hips in a proud stance, as if he’d built Blue himself. “Pretty amazing, isn’t she?”

Zola nodded. The glowing freckles on her face pulsed in a calmer rhythm than they had before. “She’s so … big.”

“Sure is!” Lance agreed with a grin. “Want to go inside? I have to get some supplies anyway.”

Although she still looked timid, Zola nodded again. “Can I?”

Lance turned toward Blue. “Hey Blue, it’s okay if Zola comes inside, right?”

With a rumbling response, Blue lifted her head just enough to open her jaws in a silent invitation.

“I think that’s a ‘yes’,” said Lance. He reached out a hand, which Zola immediately latched onto, and the two of them started walking up the ramp into Blue’s mouth.

Without even thinking, Keith followed them.

“Uh, Keith?”

Lance had paused mid-step, and both he and Zola had turned to stare at Keith in curiosity.

Heat rose to Keith’s face. “Yeah?”

“Shouldn’t you be going into your own lion?”

“Uh …”

He scrambled for an excuse. If he turned around now, he would look like an idiot. The truth was, he couldn’t really say why he felt so compelled to go with Lance and Zola into Blue. It was just that, right now, the thought of being alone made him feel like the ground was being pulled out from underneath him.

“I just thought we should all stick together, you know?” he finally said, trying to make it sound as casual as possible.

Lance raised an eyebrow. “So … we’re gonna all go into Blue to get my supplies and then all go into Red to get yours? That doesn’t seem very … efficient.”

He had a point, but now that Keith had taken his stance there was no way he’d back down. “Whatever, it’ll only take like one extra minute.”

A moment passed and Lance narrowed his eyes, as if there were some secret message in Keith’s words he was attempting to decode. But then he just shrugged. “Okay, guess you’re right. Let’s go.”

He turned around again and led Zola the rest of the way up the ramp.

Keith was momentarily frozen, shocked by the experience of Lance saying “you’re right” to his face. But after a second he shook his head and hurried up the steps.

He hadn’t been inside Blue’s cockpit since the day they’d all found her on Earth, but somehow walking into it felt oddly familiar. Comforting, almost. Although of course Keith’s connection with Blue wasn’t as strong as Lance’s, he could still feel the strength of her quintessence all around him––an unfaltering friendliness that made him feel warm and accepted.

Lance was kneeling in the middle of the floor and had opened the hatch that contained all the emergency supplies. He was humming some old pop song to himself that Keith vaguely recognized but couldn’t remember the name of, as he shoveled things into a small backpack––food goo packets, hydration tablets, bandages, other miscellaneous Altean items that Keith didn’t even know the purpose of.

“It’s only gonna be a two-day trip, Lance. Do you really need all that?”

Lance scowled up at him. “Hey, I like to be well-prepared.”

Meanwhile, Zola had scurried over to Blue’s windshield, standing on her toes to put her hands on the edge of the control panel. Since Lance was preoccupied, Keith sidled over to make sure she didn’t touch anything too important.

Zola didn’t even seem to notice Keith approaching. The green orbs of her eyes were alight with wonder as she looked over the numerous buttons and switches. “What do all of these things do?” she asked.

“Uhh … They control the lion … ?”

“What’s this for?”

“Oh, that’s where the bayard goes in.” He held up his bayard to indicate what he meant. “Each of the lions has its own special power that the bayard unlocks.”

The markings on her face brightened as she continued pointing at various buttons on the dashboard. “How about this one? … And this?”

Keith tried to answer each of her questions, although truth be told he didn’t know what every item on the control panel was for. For some of them he had to give very hesitant answers, others he had to admit he’d never even used before. Nevertheless, Zola seemed content with his responses no matter how uncertain they were.

This went on for another minute or two. Finally, Zola took a step back and bumped into the piloting chair. She hesitated and then slowly sat down on it, skinny legs dangling and bare toes barely skimming the floor.

Keith leaned against the wall, arms crossed. “So … you said you’d heard of Voltron before?”

Zola seemed somewhat distracted, still gazing up through Blue’s windshield at the forest of glowing trees outside. “Mm-hmm,” she murmured. Her two lower hands rested on her knees, while her upper hands drummed on the armrests of the seat.

“People always told stories about it,” she said. “Except everyone said Voltron had disappeared a really long time ago. Then some people started saying that Voltron came back and that he’d come and save us. But my dads said I probably shouldn’t believe it.”

“And now look at you,” Lance said, rising to his feet again. “You’re actually sitting in one of the Voltron lions talking to two Voltron paladins. Pretty cool, huh?”

Zola had turned around to peer around the side of the pilot seat, and she smiled back at Lance as he grinned at her.

Almost right away, though, the expression fell from her face. Her pointed ears quivered, and she spun around again. She took one look out the windshield and gasped, diving towards the floor and cowering beneath the control panel.

“Whoa, whoa. What’s wrong?” Lance asked, appearing by Keith’s side.

Zola’s four arms were wrapped around her legs, which she’d drawn up to her chest. She was shuddering, her eyes wide and panicked, the spots on her face blinking rapidly. “Get––Get down,” she said in a panicked whisper. “There’s … There …”

Adrenaline ripped through Keith’s veins and his hand clenched around the handle of his bayard as he looked outside. At first, all he could see was the tall black trees surrounding them, their glowing pods bobbing up and down in the breeze.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Lance said after examining the view. “There’s nothing––”

“Lance,” Keith cut him off. “There is something out there. Look.”

Three small, dark shapes floated over the treetops. Keith had momentarily hoped they were just birds or some other harmless, flying creatures. But as they drew closer, that hope died immediately. He recognized those triangular shapes, blinking with green lights.

"Oh, no," Lance said faintly, realizing it at the same time Keith did. "Drones."

Chapter Text

The trio of drones buzzed over the clearing before they came to a stop in the near distance.

Keith nearly cursed, but remembered Zola was there and bit it back. "What do you think they're doing here?" he whispered instead, his heart starting to hammer.

"Don't know," Lance murmured, still gazing out the windshield. "They're just ... floating there."

He was right. The drones had spread out over the treetops, but remained frozen in midair as if waiting for something to happen.

"What do we do, just wait for them to leave?" Keith asked.

Lance shook his head. "Probably not a good idea. Maybe they're waiting for us to do something. Or I don't know, they could be sending the location of the lions to the Khagia. They could be tracking us."

"If that's true, we gotta take them down.” Keith looked around the cockpit, as if some solution would magically appear. “Do you think you could fire Blue up and, I don't know, blast them out of the sky with some ice rays?"

"I don't think Blue's in any condition to do that,” Lance said, and then hesitated. He clutched his bayard in one hand, looking down at it with a thoughtful frown.

"I could run over to Red, then," Keith suggested. "Blast some fireballs at them."

"Oh yeah, and probably start a forest fire. Great idea."

"And I guess you have a better plan?"

Lance paused, looking out the windshield again. "I think maybe I do." He took a step back. "Stay here with Zola, okay?"

He had started to turn around, but Keith caught him by the arm.

"Whoa, whoa. Did you want to clue me in on what the hell you're planning to do?"

Lance gave him a perplexed look, as if the answer were obvious. "I'm going to go out there and shoot the drones down."

He said it so matter-of-factly, Keith wasn't sure he'd heard correctly.

"You ... what? No way. That's crazy, Lance. You can't go out there by yourself."

He'd barely realized he was still gripping Lance's arm until the other boy shook him off.

"Hey, it's no big deal. I can do this."

Keith's jaw clenched. He felt like something was squeezing tight around his throat at the thought of Lance going out there alone.

"No, you can't. You're one person against three drones, and they could be explosive or have built-in lasers or something."

He restrained himself from pointing out that Lance also didn't exactly have a good history with explosive drones, but he didn't even want to think about that right now.

"I'll go with you," he said.

"And do what, throw your sword at them? I'm the one with the long-range weapon. Besides, one of us needs to be here to watch Zola."

At those words, Keith felt a pang of guilt. In the heat of the argument, he'd almost forgotten Zola was a few feet away from them, still curled up and whimpering on the floor.

"Keith," Lance said, and this time there was a soft seriousness to his voice that caught Keith by surprise. "Nothing's gonna happen to me, okay? I'll be back in a minute."

He shot Keith a crooked smile that didn't quite reach his eyes, and then he activated his bayard and dashed out of the cockpit.

Keith found himself paralyzed, a single word––"Wait"––lodged in his throat. But before he could speak, Lance was already gone.

He had half a mind to go running right after him, but he stopped in hesitation, torn. His attention turned to Zola again, who now had her forehead pressed against her knees. She was muttering something to herself that Keith couldn't quite hear.

Biting his lip, Keith looked up at the drones still hovering over the forest and back at Zola.

"Hey," he said quietly, kneeling down in front of her. "You okay?"

She lifted her face, which was now streaked with silver tears again. "Did they see us?"

"I don't know," Keith answered. “I don’t think so.”

He tried not to worry, but the dark tendrils of fear crept around the edges of his thoughts. Lance's sudden departure felt all too familiar––the empty smile and the promise to return.

He'd heard it before. From people who had never come back.

No, he thought. Not this time.

Coming to a decision, he started to rise to his feet. "I'm going after Lance. Stay here, okay?"

Maybe Keith imagined it, but he could've sworn Zola's skin tone shifted slightly, a green hue tinging her face. One of her hands shot out to grasp his wrist, stopping him. "No, don't leave!” she choked out. “What if––What if you––"

"Hey, it's alright,” Keith said, trying to sound reassuring. “You’ll be safe in here, and Blue will make sure nothing happens to you. Just stay down. Lance and I will both be back really soon, okay?”

Zola still looked hesitant, but she nodded and let go of Keith’s arm.

He stood up and turned around. He hated leaving Zola by herself, but he couldn’t just let Lance go out there on his own. And like he’d said, Zola was probably safest inside the lion, anyway.

Blue's mouth was still open, and Keith sprinted down the ramp and leapt to the ground. Right away, he saw Lance standing in the middle of the clearing, pointing his blaster at the sky. When he heard Keith, he whirled around in surprise.

"Keith, what the hell? I told you to stay inside!" he yelled across the distance.

"And I told you, no way!" Keith shouted back, activating his bayard. "You're not doing this on your own!"

He started to run forward. But right then, he saw a strange look come over Lance's face: like he was concentrating hard on something. Planning something.

"Blue," he called up to the lion. "Shield! Now!"

Keith barely had time to register the words before a translucent blue wall materialized in front of him. He almost ran head-first into it but managed to stumble back just in time.

Dazed, he stared at the force field for a moment, not fully comprehending. Then he looked through it, and he could see Lance still standing there, looking back at him with a triumphant smirk on his face.

Panic surged up into Keith's chest.

"Lance!"

He pounded a fist against the shield, resulting in nothing but a hollow thunk and the dissipating ripples that spread across the surface at the impact.

"You––No! Come on ..." he growled, but he knew it was hopeless. Lance had already turned around again, resuming his original position.

Keith watched in horror as the three drones spun in the air at once, the round lights at their centers all trained on Lance like glowing eyes.

For a split second, Keith considered trying to hit the force field with his sword, but he had a feeling it would do no good.

"Blue, come on. Let me out!"

No response.

"Please, Blue. He's gonna get himself killed––"

The last word had barely left his mouth when he heard the distinct sound of a laser firing.

His breath caught as he looked outside, just in time to see one of the drones explode over the treetops in a green ball of fire. Its shattered remains rained unceremoniously down on the forest.

Lance had been standing in position, gun pointed upward, but now he stood up straight to fist-pump the air. He let out a whoop of joy that Keith could hear over the comms.

"Oh, my God. Did you see that?"

"Yeah, I saw," Keith said, still feeling like his heart was in his throat.

He noticed, suddenly, that one of the drones was starting to fire up its laser, the tiny light growing rapidly brighter. Gasping, he pressed a hand up against Blue's force field. "Lance, look out!"

Just in time, Lance activated his shield and held it up. The drone fired, its laser hitting the shield hard and sending Lance stumbling backward with a cry. He ducked his head down, protecting himself with one arm, his blaster still hanging from his other hand.

Keith couldn't breathe. This wasn't good. Lance couldn't shield himself and shoot at the same time––he needed both hands to hold his heavy blaster, but he couldn't do that if he needed to hold the shield up. Plus, if he had to keep his head down, he wouldn't be able to see well enough to shoot accurately.

Meanwhile, the two remaining drones were circling close overhead, whirring loudly as their lasers started to ignite.

"Tell Blue to let me out," Keith said into the comms. He was starting to break out in a cold sweat. "I can shield you while you shoot."

"No time," Lance answered and grunted as another laser beam reflected off his shield. "Don't worry, I can do this!"

"No you can't, damn it!"

As if to prove Keith wrong, Lance swiveled lightning-fast, momentarily dropping his shield to aim and fire again. A second drone blew up with a boom that shuddered through Blue's force field.

One drone left. And it was pointing its laser right at Lance's back.

"Behind you!" Keith shouted, just as the drone fired.

For a moment, Keith's vision went white with panic. Time seemed to slow down, and he saw Lance turn around, saw his shield go up barely in time. The laser cracked against it, and this time Lance fell, the blast sending him rolling about halfway across the clearing before he managed to land in a crouching position.

Keith could see the look on his face now: a grimace that quickly transformed into a snarl of fury as he raised his weapon again, his shoulders rising and falling as he took a deep breath.

“Come on, Lance.” Keith didn’t realize he’d murmured the words out loud until after he’d said them.

Eyes still fixed on the sky, Lance smiled crookedly.

Then, he fired.

The echoing boom that followed was the best sound Keith had ever heard in his life. The final drone burst, smoking and spitting sparks as it plummeted to the ground.

Stillness settled over the clearing, and Keith held his breath––afraid to dwell in relief, dreading that more drones would appear or that the fallen ones would rise again. But after a few moments, there was still no sound or movement outside. Lance knelt tensely in the dirt with his blaster poised, but he finally let it drop with a loud sigh.

A humming noise rose around Keith, and the barrier in front of him fell away. He’d barely realized he was still leaning against the force field with one hand, and now he stumbled forward with a gasp.

There was a moment where Keith didn’t know what to do. He could only stand there with his fist clenched at his side, his other hand tightly gripping his bayard. His heart still beat hard against his sternum.

Lance sat heavily back on his heels, his bayard deactivating in a flash of light.

Keith ran towards him, deactivating his own bayard. “Lance!” He skidded to a stop next to the other boy, gaze quickly scanning over him for any sign of injury. He couldn’t see any, and he hadn’t seen Lance get hit. Still, he was dizzy with residual worry. “Are you okay?”

He reached down, and Lance smiled up at him as he grabbed Keith’s hand. “Yeah, I’m great.” He hauled himself to his feet. “Man, did you see me? Three shots, three drones. Boom!”

There was a wild delight in his eyes, a crooked slant to his grin that made Keith stare. His head buzzed as a million thoughts warred inside it, as he tried to comprehend this boy––this boy who had been staring death in the face only a minute ago and was now standing there smiling as if nothing had happened.

Keith didn’t realize he hadn’t spoken yet until he saw Lance’s smile drop. “Keith?”

He became aware that he was still holding Lance’s hand, and he quickly dropped it. “What the hell were you thinking?” he demanded. "You can't––you can't just do stuff like that."

"Stuff like what?" Lance said, frowning. "Save our asses, you mean?"

"I mean just running off on your own like that."

Lance scoffed. "Oh, that's rich coming from you, Mr. I'm-Gonna-Fight-Zarkon-By-Myself."

"That's ..." Keith felt himself flushing. He groaned in frustration. "That was one time," he said at last.

"I had everything under control," said Lance.

"No you didn’t! You went up against three armed drones by yourself and you could’ve gotten shot."

Something flickered and dulled in Lance's eyes. He took a step back as if Keith had physically pushed him. "Oh, wow. I'm glad you have so much faith in me."

Keith gaped at him, astounded. Something clicked as he realized what Lance was thinking. And how horribly wrong he was.

"For God's sake, Lance. It's not that I don't believe in you. It's that I don't want to see you get killed!"

The words came out more violently than he had expected, and it took a second before Keith felt the gravity of them weighing down on both of them. The ensuing silence rang in his ears, and Keith only caught a glimpse of Lance's shocked expression before he stared down at the ground and couldn't find the will to look up again.

"Keith ... I'm sorry," Lance said, the venom gone from his voice. "I didn't know that you ..."

"That what? That I actually care what happens to you?"

Again, Keith had spoken without thinking, like the words had been punched out of him. He dared to look Lance in the eyes again, and what he saw made something painful twist in his gut. There was a vulnerability there that he hadn't expected, an openness that usually remained hidden.

For once, Lance didn't say anything.

“We––We're teammates,” Keith stammered, frantically trying to cover up whatever he'd just unburied. “We're supposed to be working together.”

Lance's shoulders drooped. "I know," he said quietly and then looked away, rubbing the back of his helmet. "I’m sorry I ran off by myself and that I shut you inside Blue’s force field. I just ... I didn't want you to get hurt, either."

That hadn't been what Keith was expecting. For a moment he could only stand there, numbly processing the words.

Finally, he cleared his throat. "I get that. But that's something we just have to live with, you know? We all want to protect each other, but that doesn’t mean we can just throw ourselves into danger at the drop of a hat. The team can’t afford to lose anyone. The team needs you, Lance. It needs all of us."

He knew he was being a hypocrite, what with all the times he'd put himself at risk without a second thought. But that was different. That was him. The thought of Lance doing the same thing made Keith feel like there was no ground under his feet. Imagining the team without Lance, without his bad jokes and lopsided smile, filled his lungs with ice.

"We all know you’re a good shot," Keith said at last. “You don’t have to prove anything. You know that, right?”

There was more he wanted to say, a thousand reasons why the team couldn’t function without Lance, but he already felt like he had said too much––like he’d unintentionally exposed something he hadn’t meant to reveal.

Lance was uncharacteristically quiet, his expression unreadable. He looked like he might try to protest, but then he just nodded. “I know,” he said. “Thanks, Keith.”

“No problem.” Keith coughed. “Now, uh, we should get back to Zola and make sure she’s okay. And we should really finish getting our stuff together and leave this place.” He squinted up at the sky. “I have a bad feeling the Khagia sent those drones to track us, and there could be more on their way.”

Lance’s hand tensed on his bayard. "You’re right. We'd better get out of here."

When they burst back into Blue's cockpit, they found Zola still huddled under the control panel. She let out a squeak of surprise when they entered, hand moving towards the blaster at her waist, but she relaxed when she saw who it was.

"Hey, sorry about that," Lance said, catching his breath. "Nothing to worry about. We took those drones out."

"You took those drones out," Keith corrected him, and Lance looked at him with momentary surprise.

"Oh ... yeah. I mean, I shot them down. But I wouldn't have been able to do that without you watching my back."

Keith almost started to argue––that maybe he could have done more than just watch helplessly, if Lance had just let him––but then he realized Lance was genuinely thanking him, and that shut him up right away.

He glared at the floor. "Yeah, well. The important thing is that the drones are gone. We're safe."

For now, he thought about adding, but then realized that probably wasn't the best thing to say to a kid.

Lance took a step closer to Zola, who had scooted cautiously out of the shadows. “How about you, Zola? You okay?”

She nodded. The wild flickering of her facial markings had started to die down, but she still glanced out the windshield one more time in hesitation. "What if there's more coming?"

Keith snuck a look at Lance, who took a deep breath before he answered. "There might be,” he admitted. “We don't know. But if we get out of here right away, hopefully we'll outrun whoever is trying to track us."

"Outrun the Khagia?" Zola said. Her voice dropped nearly to a whisper on the name.

The way she said it made Keith nervous, as if the very notion of escaping the Khagia was inconceivable.

"Well ... yeah,” said Lance. “That's what we’re hoping."

Zola scratched nervously at one of her knees. “Will we really be able to do that?” She chewed at her lower lip. Her shoulders sagged, and she looked so defeated for someone so young. "We've been running from them my whole life. They always find us."

Something about her words struck a chord in Keith, stirring up half-remembered childhood feelings. He couldn't quite recall what had happened to him as a kid, but he did have a hazy memory of running from ... something. Big, calloused hands placing a dagger into his small ones. Someone telling him “Run.” That single word had chased him across the dust. It had been permanently written in his veins.

"Not this time," he said. Lance and Zola both looked at him in surprise. "You haven't had the paladins of Voltron on your side before. But you do now."

Zola lifted her head. “You’re going to take down the Khagia?”

Keith shifted uncomfortably, regretting that he had put himself on the spot like this. “I don’t know about that,” he answered. “But at least for now, we can promise we’ll get you to safety.”

He caught Lance’s eye as he spoke, and saw an unexpected, encouraging smile on the other paladin’s face. He felt like he’d been about to say something else, but he’d suddenly forgotten it.

--

After that, they wasted no time in gathering their things. Lance had packed everything he needed, so all three of them went to Red so Keith could get his own supplies.

They passed one of the fallen drones on the way. It hissed and sparked, which made all three of them jump. Zola cried out and grabbed at Keith’s leg. They all remained frozen for a moment, but the drone had gone still again, blackened and smoking on the ground. Keith hesitantly patted Zola on the head. “Uh … Hey, it’s okay,” he said, “Don’t worry, it’s broken.”

Zola’s grip loosened, but she still clung to his arm the rest of their way to Red.

Keith felt weirdly self-conscious being followed into Red’s cockpit, since it wasn’t something that happened very often. But he tried to ignore the unfamiliar feeling as he opened the hatch in the floor and crammed a handful of things into a bag.

When he stood up again, he noticed Lance was surveying the space around them with his arms crossed.

“Something wrong?” Keith asked.

“What? No,” Lance said, and then raised an eyebrow at the backpack Keith was holding, which had barely anything in it. “Is that all you’re bringing?”

“Uh, yeah,” Keith said, shrugging the thin straps onto his shoulders. “We’re going on a two-day mission, not a month-long camping trip.”

Lance shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

A minute later they were back outside. Keith took one last look at the smoking drones on the ground, and then quickly scanned the sky to make sure there were no more coming.

“Okay,” he sighed. “Looks like we’re good to go.”

The lions put their shields back up, and Lance gave Blue another heartfelt goodbye. “We’ll be back real soon, girl,” he said, putting a hand against the force field. “I promise.”

Keith looked up at Red. “Uh … see ya, Red.”

She purred back in response, and Keith couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll miss you, too.”

He called the map back up, and they began the journey towards their new destination. As Allura had said, it only appeared to be two days away at most––but that wasn’t taking any potential obstacles into account.

By now the suns were lower in the sky, which had taken on a faint pink hue. The afternoon heat had died down, although it was still very warm.

Again, Keith took the lead as they navigated their way through the unfamiliar terrain. He continued to use his sword to hack their way through underbrush and hanging vines. His right arm was starting to burn from the repetitive movements, but he grit his teeth against the pain and kept going.

He concentrated on moving forward while remaining aware of their surroundings for any suspicious movements. But even with his guard up, he managed to admire the ethereal scenery––especially as the light started to fade and the planet’s glow became more noticeable.

It almost felt like walking through a city at dusk, just as all the neon signs are starting to light up. As the sky darkened, the glowing pods in the branches stood out more starkly. Moss glittered on the tree bark, and the swaying tendrils of other plants drifted slowly on either side of their path.

Zola was quiet for most of the journey, observing the woods with attentive eyes and twitching ears. But from time to time she engaged in conversation with the paladins, even if it was only in short snatches.

Lance asked her about whether she and her people moved around a lot, and Zola explained that they often did. Sometimes they were able to construct some kind of temporary village––but they spent a lot of time living in the tunnels. Even in the most secluded areas, the Khagia often hunted them down.

“So this isn’t the first time you’ve been attacked?” Lance asked, horrified.

Zola shook her head. “It doesn’t happen very much, ‘cause we’re good at hiding. But we always have to be ready just in case.”

The way she said it, Keith had a feeling it was something her dads had told her many times.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I know what that's like."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance momentarily freeze before he started walking again. "You ... do?"

Shit. Keith knew he shouldn't have said anything––he tried to avoid discussing his childhood at all costs––but it had slipped out before he could stop it.

"Um." He sliced at another cluster of hanging vines, sending glowing seed pods scattering across the ground. His shoulder screamed in protest; it was aching pretty terribly now from all the effort. He tried not to wince. "It's ... I mean, no. I don't ... really know."

He mumbled out the words, hoping his companions would forget about the whole thing. But they were still silent, watching him.

"It's just ... ah." He rolled his shoulder, trying to ignore the burning. He kept trudging forward, glaring at the soil underfoot. "I know what it's like to move around a lot. To not really have a home."

"Wait, what?" Lance suddenly appeared right next to him, leaning forward slightly to peer at Keith's face. "You don’t have a ... ?" He stopped himself, standing up straight again. "Oh," he said, as if something suddenly made a lot of sense.

Now that he'd started to explain, Keith knew he couldn't back down. And strangely, he didn't find it difficult to keep speaking, like a dam had opened inside him.

“Lost my parents super young. Don’t remember them much. Then I moved around a lot as a kid, before ...” Before I got into the Garrison, he’d been about to say. But he trailed off, knowing that the mention of it would open another can of worms.

He looked down at Zola, who was walking between him and Lance. “Anyway, this isn’t about me,” he said. “I’m really sorry about what you’ve been through.”

Zola was quiet as she gazed back up at him, her indigo skin glowing in the dusk. She looked at the path ahead of them again. “I don’t remember my real parents, either. They died when I was really little.”

“I’m so sorry,” Keith said again. He wished he could think of something else to say. “I’m glad you found your dads, though.”

As soon as he said it, he worried it was a bad idea to bring up the topic. But Zola only looked up at him with a new glint of curiosity in her eyes. “What about you?” she asked. “Did you find new parents?”

Keith hadn’t been expecting the question. A flood of images washed over him––a rapid series of faces he hadn’t bothered to commit to memory, because he’d known their presence in his life was temporary. Foster parents. Group homes. Nothing permanent.

“Not really, no,” he admitted. A concerned frown crossed Zola’s face, and Keith shot her a halfhearted smile. “But hey, it’s okay. I’ve gotten pretty good at taking care of myself.”

He expected Lance to have some kind of sarcastic retort to that. In fact, he almost wished for it. Anything to break the tension. But Lance remained oddly quiet––and when Keith dared to look at him, he saw an unexpected, anxious furrow to his brow.

He looked like he was about to say something––but right then, something rustled in the near distance, and all three of them jumped in surprise.

Zola gasped and grabbed Keith’s arm, and he took a protective step in front of her as he held up his sword with his other hand. Beside him, Lance lifted his blaster. With his heart thumping, Keith surveyed the woods around them, but he caught no sign of movement. Nothing besides the soft glow of the reeds growing out of the ground and the bright pods bobbing in the trees.

“Probably just some animal,” Keith muttered at last. “But still, it’s getting dark. We should find somewhere to settle down for the night.”

No one argued with that. They kept moving forward, silently this time.

Zola didn’t let go of Keith’s hand.

Chapter Text

The sky had darkened considerably, leaving only the bioluminescence of the planet to light the way. The bright orbs of light dotting the trees and ground mirrored the stars above them, which created a surreal illusion like they were walking through outer space.

They soon came to a thick grove, where the trees were massively tall and wide. Keith had to tilt his head back nearly all the way back in order to see their branches, which created a thick canopy overhead, their foliage glittering against the darkness.

“Look,” Zola said suddenly, tugging on Keith’s arm.

He looked in the direction she was pointing and saw that one of the huge trees had a large gap in its bark, which was emitting a pulsing purple glow.

“What is that?” he asked.

Lance shrugged. “Should we check it out?”

Zola seemed to have made the decision for them, since she had already let go of Keith’s wrist and was now scrambling up the tree’s gigantic roots.

“Hey, wait up!” Lance called out, climbing after her.

It seemed Keith didn’t really have a choice, so he followed.

Like the rest of the tree, the roots were huge and gnarled, and it took some effort to clamber over them. But at last, all three of them made it to the opening.

Keith could see now that the inside of the tree was hollow, opening up into a cavernous space. Mushroom-like plants sprouted from the walls, providing the purple light they’d seen from outside. The ground was lined with some kind of spongy, mosslike material.

“Whoa,” said Lance, which was exactly what Keith had been thinking.

Without waiting another moment, Zola leapt inside.

“Wait––” Keith started to say, but Zola was already standing in the middle of the hollow space, gazing in wonder at her surroundings.

“Looks pretty safe to me,” Lance said with a shrug. “And we probably won’t find a better place to sleep.”

He had a point, so Keith barely hesitated before he nodded. “Okay.”

Lance stepped inside first, and Keith only paused at the entrance for another moment before he followed.

As he’d suspected, the ground was somewhat squishy, like stepping on foam. It was still relatively firm, but it gave way slightly under Keith’s boot. He took a few more tentative steps before he got used to the sensation.

Meanwhile, Zola was walking around the perimeter of the hollow and running her fingers over the mushrooms. Keith was surprised to see that they brightened at her touch and released colorful dust that looked like sparks. She turned around to smile at the paladins, waiting for a reaction.

“Whoa, that’s awesome!” Lance exclaimed.

After pulling his helmet off and placing it on the ground, he walked up to a nearby cluster of plants growing out of the bark. He reached out, fingers grazing over the fungi––and just like when Zola had touched them, they burst with glowing particles that sparkled in the air.

Curious, Keith touched some of the plants sprouting from the wall next to him. The starry explosion of dust was so immediate that he snatched his hand back in surprise.

Behind him, Lance sneezed, and Keith turned to look at him. “Whatever this stuff is, I think I’m allergic to it,” he muttered, wiping his hand under his nose. He had somehow managed to get the bioluminescent dust all over himself, and it twinkled on his face and in his disheveled hair like tiny stars.

Keith stared at him for a few long seconds before Lance noticed and frowned. “What?”

“Uh … nothing. You just. You’ve got some, uh …” Keith gestured vaguely.

“Huh? Oh.” Lance scrubbed his hands over his face. When he pulled them away again, he’d only managed to spread the particles everywhere, making it look like he had glittering freckles all over his skin. “Did I get it?”

Keith only snorted in response and burst out laughing.

Apparently that wasn’t what Lance had expected, judging by the way his eyes widened in surprise. Then he slowly grinned. “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

Zola had snuck up by Keith’s side to see what he was laughing at, and she also giggled at the sight. “You got it all over your face!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Lance said, trying again––unsuccessfully––to wipe off the dust. He was still smiling. “Well, now I kinda look like you, right?”

Zola smiled back, touching the glowing freckles on her own face.

For some reason, Keith found that he couldn’t stop laughing, although he’d gotten himself slightly under control now. He bit his lip and tried to hold it back, but he still shook with suppressed mirth.

Lance glared at him. “Hey, stop it.” He playfully shoved at Keith’s right shoulder.

Keith had temporarily forgotten how much his arm hurt, but that one little push sent fire racing through his muscles. He clutched at it, hissing in pain.

Lance’s smile vanished. “Keith? Oh, jeez. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to––”

“No, no. Not your fault,” Keith managed to say with a wince. “It wasn’t because of you. It’s, uh …”

Realization dawned on Lance’s face. “Oh, my God. You hurt your arm?” He stepped forward, his brow furrowed in concern. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I’m not hurt,” Keith insisted, shrinking away. “It’s just sore from carrying my sword all day.”

Lance looked like he wanted to argue, but then he just sighed and nodded. “We should all get some rest. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’m super hungry.”

All three of them sat on the ground. Keith and Lance produced some of the provisions they’d brought along from their backpacks. Zola looked skeptical when Keith handed her a packet of food goo, peering at it as it dangled from her long fingers.

“Looks pretty gross, I know,” Lance admitted. “But it’s actually pretty good!”

Keith wasn’t sure he agreed with that statement, but he didn’t say anything––just silently sucked some of the green goo out of the packet and swallowed it. It was only made bearable by the fact that he was starving.

As wary as she’d seemed at first, Zola gulped down the food goo packet once she’d opened it, and then ate two more within about the span of a minute. It occurred to Keith that she might not have eaten for several days, and he mentally kicked himself for not having thought of that earlier. But then again, they’d all had a lot of other things to deal with today.

They each downed a few hydration tablets after that. Of course, they weren’t as good as drinking actual water, but it would at least keep them from dying of thirst for another day or so.

By the time they were done, Zola was swaying and rubbing at her eyes. She also probably hadn’t slept at all since she’d been captured, and Keith’s own eyes ached with empathy.

“Hey, you must be getting tired,” Lance observed. “You should get some sleep.”

Zola played with a strand of her hair in hesitation.

Lance smiled at her. “It’s alright,” he said. “We’ll stay here and make sure nothing happens to you, okay?”

She still looked unsure, chewing at her lower lip.

Keith noticed a certain distant look in her eyes, like she was holding something back. “Is something wrong?” he asked her.

A moment passed before she answered. “I’m scared to go to sleep,” she said quietly.

The paladins exchanged a questioning glance before they both turned toward Zola again.

“Why?” Keith asked. “Like Lance said, we’re right here to protect you. It’ll be okay.”

Zola didn’t respond at first. She slowly wrapped her arms around herself, fingers shaking.

“I––I keep seeing it,” she said at last. “The cave. Th––That man. Falling down.”

It took Keith a second to realize what she meant, and then he realized she was talking about the man who had died next to her. Who had died protecting her.

She looked up, eyes teary and pleading for impossible answers. “Why did he do that?” she said. “Why did all of them …” She broke off, tears spilling from her eyes. “Why’d they all die except me?”

Now she was trembling and crying, and both paladins instinctively moved towards her. Lance put his hands on her shoulders, already murmuring comforting words. “Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay,” he kept repeating, although his own voice wavered with emotion and uncertainty.

Keith hovered closeby, chest aching with sympathy. Something felt painfully familiar about Zola’s words, and he realized it was because he’d heard Shiro say similar things before. He didn’t like to talk about his horrific experiences in Galra captivity, but on occasion he’d told Keith about the lingering nightmares, the flashbacks of all the deaths he’d witnessed in the gladiator ring––and the ensuing guilt, that haunting question of “Why them and not me?

Zola buried her face against Lance’s shoulder. “I didn’t even know any of them very well,” she said, the words muffled. She whimpered, stuttering. “I––I keep trying to remember them. Their faces. I feel like I’m forgetting them already. I …” Her voice broke into another heaving sob.

Lance patted her on the back, his own eyes shining.

“It’s not your fault, Zola,” Keith managed to say.

She lifted her head a little, looking up at him. He wished he could say more, but nothing seemed quite good enough. He couldn’t tell her it was okay because he knew it wasn’t.

“Keith’s right,” Lance said gently. “I … I’m so sorry about what you’ve gone through, Zola. But you have to know it isn’t your fault, okay? And you’re safe here with us. We’re gonna get you home again, we promise.”

--

After that, there wasn’t much else they could say. Lance just held Zola as she cried, until she started to grow limp with exhaustion. Eventually her hiccuping breaths evened out, and it was clear she had fallen asleep.

Lance lowered her to the ground, where she lay still. The markings on her skin and hair had faded to a duller glow, which pulsed gently in and out in time with her breathing.

Keith and Lance just watched her in a heavy silence for a few minutes, not speaking or making eye contact. When Keith managed to look up, he felt shattered by the mournful look on Lance’s face––the sheer exhaustion, the defeated look in his eyes. He wanted to say something, but it wasn’t like anything could change the situation.

Eventually they both started to gather up the discarded food goo packets and deposit them back into their backpacks. Then they moved back until they were sitting side-by-side against the side of the tree.

Neither of them had spoken yet. Lance leaned his head back, staring up into the darkness above them like he was searching for something. Keith picked at the moss on the ground, pinching off bits of it and grinding it to dust between his fingers. He kept looking at Lance out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him to break the silence as he always did, but Lance was uncharacteristically quiet.

Again, Keith felt that cold, unwelcome feeling settle in his bones––a sensation that something was off. Like he could see Lance slipping away, going somewhere Keith couldn’t follow him, and he didn’t like it.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked before he could stop himself.

That seemed to snap Lance out of his stupor, and he narrowed his eyes as he looked sideways at Keith. “What am I thinking about?” He repeated the question as if it were a phrase from a foreign language.

Embarrassed, Keith considered just muttering a “never mind” and dropping the conversation entirely. But then came the familiar rush of adrenaline, the thrill of a challenge hanging in the air. Now that he’d asked the question, there was no backing down.

“Yeah, you know … it––it’s been a long day. I just wanted to make sure you’re doing okay.”

He’d meant to make it sound casual, but it had come out a lot gentler than he’d intended. Now he felt like an idiot, because Lance was looking at him like he’d lost his mind. But then the defensive glare died out of his eyes, his expression softening.

Everything was still for a moment before Lance slowly sat up again, easing away from the side of the tree. He looked over at Zola, curled up on the ground, face twitching slightly in her sleep.

Keith was beginning to think Lance wasn’t going to answer the question, but then he suddenly spoke, his voice a lot quieter than it had been before.

“It’s just so horrible, you know? She’s so little. And the things she’s seen …” He let out a shuddering breath. “God, I can’t even … I keep thinking about my little niece, Isabel. She’s nine years old. I can’t imagine something like this happening to her.”

He chewed his bottom lip, eyes anxiously searching the ground in front of him. “And then I start thinking like … there’s millions of kids out there my niece’s age. Millions of kids who’ve been through the same thing as Zola … or worse. Zarkon’s followers are out there killing people, destroying planets, separating families. And it just––it kills me, because I want to save all of them, but I can’t. We can’t.”

Keith stared at him, shocked by the sudden confession. He’d asked the question in the first place, yet he hadn’t thought Lance would respond so sincerely.

Now Lance was just sitting there, his head lowered, looking completely wrung-out and hopeless. And Keith had an unexpected, overwhelming urge to just reach out and touch him. To wrap an arm around his shoulders, to hold his hand, to run his fingers over the dust particles that still glittered in Lance’s hair …

Oh, no. His mind clamped down on the ill-timed revelation.

Before he could look away, Lance lifted his head and their eyes locked. “How does it not drive you crazy?”

Keith blinked, not understanding. “What?”

“You know, this whole defending-the-entire-universe thing. Knowing that we’re responsible for all those lives, and there’s no way we can protect them all. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t seem to let it go.

“It’s not stupid,” Keith said right away.

“But it’s impossible. You said it yourself. There’s no way we can save everyone in the universe.”

Keith bit his lip and looked away guiltily, remembering their argument before they left––how he hadn’t even wanted to go on this mission, how he’d said that a small group of people didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

And now he looked at Zola sleeping on the ground, and he felt dizzy at the realization that if he’d won that argument, she wouldn’t be here right now. She would have still been trapped in that cave or lost in the woods somewhere or … worse.

“I know what I said,” he admitted. “And … yeah, maybe it’s true. Maybe we can’t save everybody. But, I also remember what you said––about how we can still try. We’re defenders of the universe. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

“Are you actually saying I was right?”

“Really? That’s all you got from that?” Keith huffed. “But … yeah. That is what I’m saying. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for what you said. You’re the one who convinced me this mission was worthwhile––and if you hadn’t done that, Zola probably wouldn’t have survived. So, I’m sorry I said those things.”

The apology came out in a rush, and Keith wasn’t sure if it had even made an ounce of sense. It didn’t help that Lance was giving him a long, bewildered look, as if he expected that any moment Keith would take it back. But when he didn’t, Lance snapped out of his daze.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I know you were just trying to think of the team. Like you said, we’re putting ourselves at a lot of risk here.”

Keith nodded, looking over at Zola. “But it’s worth it.”

Following Keith’s gaze, Lance smiled softly. “Yeah. It is,” he said, but then his smile faded. “I think I owe you an apology, too.”

“For what?”

“You know, for …” He gestured vaguely with his hands, not meeting Keith’s eyes. “For how I freaked out. Earlier.”

At first, Keith had no idea what he meant. But he quickly realized Lance was talking about what had happened in the cavern, how he’d completely broken down.

“Lance––”

“I know. I should be able to keep it together by now,” Lance cut him off, and then let out a shaking breath. “I––I guess I’m going to have to get used to seeing that stuff. But I’m trying, okay? I promise I’ll try to––”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

“You weren’t? Then, what … ?”

“I …” Keith faltered, fighting for words. All of a sudden he was back underground, watching Lance fall apart, and it made him feel like something tight was squeezing around his throat.

“Don’t apologize for that,” he finally managed to say. “What we saw down there … It was horrible.”

He tried not to wince as the sickening images rose to his mind again, but he couldn’t dwell on them for long without feeling like the panic would suck him under.

“There was nothing wrong with the way you reacted. Especially because I––I know how you feel everything so strongly, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s human. That’s you. And I don’t …”

He stopped himself abruptly, caught off-guard by the words he’d been about to say that were now lodged in his throat. I don’t want that to change about you.

The silence stretched until it felt taut, close to breaking. Lance was looking at him expectantly, posture tense and eyes wide. But when Keith failed to finish his sentence, his shoulders sagged.

"Thanks, Keith," he said at last, managing a weak smile. It only lasted for a second before it disappeared again. "I guess it's just ... sometimes, I wish I were more like you."

Keith sputtered. “You what?”

“Oh, don't let it get to your head, mullet. It's just, you seem way more cut out for this hero stuff. You kept your head back there, but me … I can’t. I always let my emotions get the better of me.

“And I can’t keep doing that. Because this isn’t the first time we’re going to fail. We’ll have to––to see more people die. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know how much of it I can take.

“I’m just so terrified sometimes. And I hate to say that, because we’re supposed to be heroes and all, and Allura keeps saying we were chosen for a reason, but … sometimes I worry there was some kind of mistake. Because I’m always so scared, you know? I’m not like you, Keith. I’m not … I’m not brave.”

Lance’s voice had gone quiet, and now he suddenly stopped and leaned forward, his head in his hands.

Dumbstruck, Keith sat there feeling like he’d been hit with an avalanche. He’d never heard Lance talk like this before. It felt almost surreal, and yet he also felt like everything was falling into place.

There was no sound except Lance’s uneven breaths scraping in and out. Keith could only sit there with a gnawing pain behind his sternum, trying to find the right words to say.

“That’s not true,” he managed at last, quietly.

Lance didn’t move.

Keith felt like he was back in the clearing when Blue’s shield had gone up and trapped him inside––like again, Lance was purposefully shutting him out, and the realization was unexpectedly devastating. He couldn’t take it, couldn’t let it happen.

He reached out and rested a hand on Lance’s back.

Startled, Lance tensed and looked up at him. Keith pulled his hand away, afraid he had somehow crossed a line he shouldn’t have. But now that he had Lance’s attention, he figured he might as well say what he wanted to say.

“You are brave, Lance.” This time he spoke with more conviction, calm and firm. “You’ve proven that more times than I can count. You’re always there to protect the rest of us on the team––not to mention all the lives you’ve saved all over the universe.”

Lance sat up a little more, although he still looked uncertain, his eyes sliding away from Keith’s.

“Blue chose you,” Keith went on. “She spoke to me for months out in the desert and never claimed me as her paladin because she waited all that time just for you. And I’ve seen how close you two are. There’s no way that’s a mistake.”

At that, Lance looked up again. He hesitated for a moment and looked like he wanted to protest, but Keith wasn’t going to let him.

“And it’s okay for you to be scared. We’re just some kids going up against an evil alien empire that’s been around for thousands of years. Of course that’s scary. It’s fucking terrifying. You think I don’t get scared, too? ”

Of all the things Keith had said so far, Lance seemed the most taken aback by that. He leaned away, blinking. “But you always seem so … fearless.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not.”

Keith looked away, staring up through the gap in the tree’s bark. Through the opening, he could see the canopy of dark branches and the stars twinkling beyond.

“I have a lot of fears, too. It’s just that expressing that kind of thing for me is … not easy. I didn’t grow up in the best of places, and most of the time I was just angry. Really angry. That kinda drowned out everything else for a long time.”

He could have left it at that, but Lance was still being patiently quiet. For some reason, now of all times, Keith felt all these things he’d been hiding start to rise to the surface and spill over.

“Then for a while, I thought things were finally coming together. I got into the Garrison. I met Shiro, and he was like the older brother I’d never had. He was really the first person to believe in me, to act like my life actually had some kind of direction. For the first time, I felt like I had an actual purpose. I wasn’t so angry anymore.”

Keith had to stop himself as the memories hit him like a physical weight, heavy and unrelenting. He lowered his head, fingers digging into the dirt next to him.

“But … you know what happened. Shiro went missing. I just … lost control. Got kicked out of school. I was totally on my own again.”

He didn’t want to dwell too much on that painful period of his life; he still felt cold and hollow at the thought of it, that feeling of being so small under the endless desert sky.

“And then I started to hear Blue. All these weird clues started coming together. Shiro came back. I met you guys, became a part of this whole Voltron thing.

“I don’t know if I believe in all this destiny stuff, but it really felt like the universe was handing me a second chance. And … that feels like so much pressure, you know? I’m always afraid I’m going to mess it up somehow. That I’m going to lose it all again. Because the last time I felt like everything was coming together …”

Keith trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. He’d never even attempted to put these fears into words, and it suddenly felt like he’d exposed too much. He couldn’t stop staring at the stars.

“I’m sorry, Keith,” Lance finally said. “I––I didn’t know––”

“It’s okay,” Keith stopped him. “It’s just … sometimes I wish I was more like you, too.”

Lance inhaled sharply. “Really? Why? I mean, obviously there’s my staggering good looks, but …”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and your modesty.”

“Hey,” Lance said, although he didn’t sound that offended.

“But seriously,” Keith went on, sobering again. “You’re never afraid to say what you’re thinking. To express how you feel about stuff. I’m not so good at that. I wish I was.”

Lance contemplated that for a moment before he spoke. “You could try.”

Keith frowned. “What?”

“To, uh … to tell me what you’re thinking,” Lance stammered. It was hard to see in the purple light, but Keith could have sworn there was a faint blush rising to his cheeks.

Keith’s own face was starting to feel oddly warm. “Like … right now?”

“Well, I guess I meant in general. That, you know, you can always tell me what’s on your mind or whatever.” Lance scratched the back of his neck. “But I mean, if you want to tell me what you’re thinking about right now, that’s cool, too.”

“Uh …” Keith’s voice rasped on that one incoherent syllable, and he cleared his throat. “I …”

He was suddenly very aware of how close they were sitting, how Lance’s knee was an inch away from touching his, how Lance’s hand slid ever-so-slightly towards his own on the ground.

And then he saw Lance’s face––an expression of … he couldn’t tell what it was. Just that it looked oddly focused and calculating, like he could see right into Keith’s mind if he tried hard enough.

Keith had a sudden, swooping sensation like his heart had plunged into his stomach. Like driving his speeder up the side of a steep cliff at breakneck speed. Like whenever Red did some crazy flip in the air. It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

He had a weird feeling like he wanted to jump to his feet and run away, and simultaneously he was glued to the spot in desperate anticipation for … something, and the conflicting emotions left him dizzy.

Lance took a deep breath like he was about to speak again and––

Zola screamed and shot upright, wheezing loudly.

The two boys sprang apart as if compelled by an electric shock. Keith’s pulse jumped up exponentially and he reached for his bayard on instinct. But he quickly realized there was no sign of danger.

“Hey, hey.” Lance crawled over to Zola. “What happened? What’s––”

Before he could even finish the sentence, Zola let out a sob and dove towards him, all four of her arms wrapping tightly around him. He froze before returning the embrace, pulling her onto his lap.

She curled up against him, face buried against his chest. “The––The cave,” she choked out at last, hiccuping between sobs. “My dads …”

“Shh, it’s okay,” Lance said. “You were just dreaming. Your dads are safe, I promise.”

That didn’t seem to reassure her very much. She kept crying, her small body shaking with terror, long limbs clutched around Lance like a lifeline. Her whimpers and sobs filled the hollow space around them.

Lance looked up at Keith with a worried, almost pleading expression, like he was begging for some kind of guidance. Keith hung back, afraid that he would somehow make the situation worse if he interfered. But he thought of all the times he'd been where Zola was now––a kid on his own, crying and scared––and knew that he would have given anything for someone to reach out to him.

Cautiously, he inched forward. At the sound of his slight movement, Zola's ears flicked and she lifted her head. She wiped an arm across her face, green eyes blinking and glowing in the dimness.

"Uh ... hey," Keith said. "Bad dreams, huh?"

Lance winced, like he thought that wasn't the right thing to say, and Keith momentarily felt like he'd done something wrong. But to his surprise, Zola's sobs subsided and she nodded wordlessly.

"I get those sometimes, too," Keith said. "They can feel so real sometimes. I know how scary that is."

Zola only whimpered in response, although she seemed to be shaking less than she had a minute ago. Now she was watching Keith like she expected him to say something else, and he struggled for words, anything that might help her feel a little better.

"But you're safe here, okay?" he managed at last. “We’re here to protect you, and uh … we can sit with you until you fall back asleep.”

Zola’s eyes were already starting to droop again, and she nodded weakly. Her breathing was still shaky, but at least it had slowed down a little.

“Everything’s gonna be okay,” Lance reassured her, shifting his arms so he was holding her a bit more comfortably. “We’re right here.”

He started to hum something quietly, and Zola curled towards him again, squeezing her eyes shut. A few more tears ran down her face, but she hastily wiped them away. The dots on her face flickered and dimmed as she gradually relaxed.

Lance rocked her back and forth and continued to hum absently, almost as if he didn't realize he was doing it. The humming shifted into singing, although it was so quiet that Keith couldn't quite make out the words or even tell if they were in English.

It wasn't long until Zola appeared to have fallen back asleep, her breathing slow and the markings on her skin pulsing gently again. But even then, Lance continued singing to her. He’d closed his eyes like he could see the melodies written on the backs of his eyelids. At some points he frowned and the words dissolved back into humming, but then he'd always find his way back into the lyrics again, a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Keith propped his elbow on one knee, chin in hand. He watched Lance this whole time in quiet fascination, the soft sound of his singing lulling Keith into a daze.

He almost forgot where they were––that they were completely alone on some hostile planet, that they still had another day of dangerous travel ahead of them. All those worries faded to the back of his mind. For now, the three of them existed in their own warm, secure sphere.

When Lance stopped singing, it felt like a sudden plunge into cold water. Keith snapped awake again, sitting up straight.

He realized Lance was smirking at him, and he frowned. “What?”

“Looks like someone’s getting sleepy.”

“Well, yeah. It’s … been a pretty long day.”

“Yeah. I’m tired, too.”

Lance yawned. He was still holding Zola, but now he maneuvered his arms out from underneath her as he lowered her onto the ground. Her face twitched in her sleep and then settled again, and she curled up on the moss.

Keith looked from her back up to Lance, who had a soft––almost sad––smile on his face.

“How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Just get her to go back to sleep like that.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Practice, I guess.”

“Right. You have a few younger siblings, don’t you?”

Lance looked confused for a moment and then shook his head. “I don’t, actually. I’m the baby of the family. Four older siblings. I do have little nieces and nephews, though.” He smiled warmly at the mention of them, although there was pain behind his eyes.

“You must miss them a lot,” Keith said without thinking, and then immediately realized how callous that sounded.

But Lance didn’t seem bothered by the statement. “I do,” he said quietly. “I think about them every day.”

“I know.” That earned Keith a confused glare. “I––I mean, I’ve seen you think about them when we do those team mind-meld things.”

“Oh, right.” Lance examined Keith with a new, curious gleam to his eyes. “You always think about your shack out in the desert.”

Keith stiffened. He knew that Lance had seen into his mind during those bonding exercises––he was very aware of that––but the comment still felt invasive.

From the way Lance’s smile fell, he realized that a moment later. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, uh …” He scratched the back of his head. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No, it’s okay,” Keith said, once he’d recovered from the shock. He rubbed at his right arm again, which was still sore.

“Do you miss it?” Lance asked suddenly.

“Miss what?”

“The desert. Earth.”

Oh. No one had asked Keith that question since they left. He hadn’t even really asked himself.

“Yes.” The one word came out hoarse, and Keith cleared his throat. “I really do. I miss it a lot.”

The two boys fell silent. Zola slept soundly between them, one of her hands curling into a gentle fist in her sleep.

“What do you miss about it?” Lance asked. Keith’s eyes snapped toward him, and he put up his hands defensively. “Okay, okay. Forget I asked.” He slouched over a bit, legs crossed, elbows resting on his thighs. “I was just wondering, since you never really talk about it. But, I get it. It’s––”

“The sunsets,” Keith blurted.

Lance sat up straight again. “What did you say?”

“I …” Keith’s face was burning, and he lowered his gaze in desperate hopes that Lance couldn’t see it. “Okay, that sounds really corny. But, yeah. I really miss watching the sunset.”

He didn’t look up, but he could practically hear the wistful smile in Lance’s voice.

“I do, too. And sunrises.” Lance sighed. “It gets so weird just being out in the vacuum of space. Time doesn’t feel real anymore. Like, yeah, we sometimes see the sun go up or down on other planets, but it’s not really the same––’cause like, it’s not the same sun.”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

Keith closed his eyes, and he could picture himself back out in the desert, could almost feel the warm glow on his skin.

“I used to go up and sit on the roof sometimes just to watch it. Or to look at the stars at night. It was … nice. Everything was so quiet out there. The sky felt so big.”

He blinked his eyes open again to the purple glow of the hollow where they were sitting, which was a stark contrast to the golden haze of the desert he’d been imagining. The jarring sensation cracked open an ache in his chest that he hadn’t known was there.

“I kinda miss all the lizards and snakes and stuff, too,” he said.

“Lizards?”

“Yeah, there were lots of them. Little ones, mostly. I used to find a lot of them around the shack and just kinda … let them crawl on my arms.”

Lance snorted.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. I just can’t believe you were some kinda desert Disney princess with little reptile friends.”

Keith rolled his eyes, although he couldn’t help but smile at that. “Shut up.”

“Hey, I’m not making fun of you! It’s cute,” Lance said with a grin, and then he abruptly coughed into his fist. “I mean, it’s––it’s cool.”

Keith was slightly taken aback by that choice of words, but he let it pass. He was already drifting back into his memories again, taking comfort in the few good moments he could find.

“I also really miss the rain,” he said at last.

He heard Lance suck in a sharp breath. “You … do?”

“Yeah. Why, is that weird?”

“No, no. Not at all. I just … I don’t know,” Lance stammered, shrugging. “You never really struck me as a rain-loving guy. Since, you know. Red Paladin. Fire element. Desert dweller.”

“Desert dweller?” Keith repeated. He huffed out a short laugh. “I mean, yeah. I did live out in the desert for a long time, but that’s part of the reason why I grew to love the rain so much. You know how it was out there––super hot and dry most of the time. Sometimes it didn’t rain for weeks. Months.”

As he spoke, Keith drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. Recalling those long periods of drought, he could almost feel the itching dryness in his throat, the dust stinging his eyes.

“I always waited for the rain,” he said at last. “Sometimes I didn’t know I was waiting for it––but whenever it was coming, I could feel it in the air somehow. It felt … electric, almost. I’d go outside and see those dark clouds way out on the horizon, and I’d just wait.

“It was really cool, ‘cause there’d be this dark curtain of rain in the distance, but it would still be sunny where I was standing. And I’d just watch it get closer and closer until it finally hit me.”

He could envision it so clearly even now: the darkness climbing across the sky, swallowing the golden light. The wall of rain slowly approaching. The smell of the damp earth. And at last, the raindrops on his skin, on his upturned face.

“I could’ve stood out there for hours. There was nothing better than that feeling. It felt like …” Keith trailed off, struggling for words––but to his surprise, they came easily for once. “It felt like coming home.”

He kind of expected Lance to laugh at him. But when he dared to look up, he saw that Lance was watching him with a certain, soft curiosity. Something about the look on his face made Keith feel a bit dizzy.

“I really miss the rain, too,” Lance said. “I loved to run outside and jump in all the puddles when I was a kid. My mom always told me I’d get a cold.” He laughed quietly. “She was usually right, but I never cared.”

The light suddenly died out of his eyes, his smile fading. And Keith felt a wave of desperation rush through him, tingling in his fingertips.

“You’ll see your family again,” he said.

Lance looked up at him in surprise, and then his expression softened. “And you’ll see your desert shack again.” He grinned. “With all your little lizard friends.”

Keith smiled, with an unexpected warmth blossoming in his chest. “And we’ll both see the rain again.”

“Yeah,” said Lance. “We will.”

They were quiet, sitting in the warm violet glow.

The silence broke when Lance yawned, stretching his arms over his head. “Man, I really am tired.”

“You should sleep,” Keith said.

“So should you.”

“Yeah, but probably one of us should stay awake and keep watch. You know, just in case. You can sleep first.”

Lance squinted at him. “You sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll wake you up in a bit.”

“Okay,” Lance said, shrugging. “Well uh … good night then, I guess.”

He lay down on the ground, one arm under his head, and closed his eyes.

Silence settled over the small hollow. Lance shifted a few times but eventually settled in a curled position and fell asleep. He and Zola were mirrors of each other, peaceful and still.

Keith watched them with a strange ache in his limbs, and it was something beyond physical exhaustion. He kept his arms crossed over his folded knees, chin resting on one wrist. He tried to time his own breathing with theirs, slow and steady.

Even in his sleep, Lance had a worried little furrow between his eyebrows, and Keith was almost tempted to lean forward and press a finger against it and smooth it away. But the very thought made his face feel hot with shame, like even thinking about it was crossing some invisible line. He tightened his grip around his legs, crushing his knees against his chest, trying to ignore the way his heart crashed against his ribs.

This was bad.

It was starting to dawn on him what he was feeling, what he was so afraid of, and of course it had to happen at the absolute worst time. It didn’t feel quite like a realization––more like something he had known all along but just hadn’t wanted to validate with a name. Maybe he had hoped that ignoring it would make it go away. But like the soreness in his right arm, it was something that had gradually caught up to him until he couldn't avoid it anymore.

This was really bad.

Looking at Lance was usually like looking at the sun; Keith couldn’t stare too long without his eyes shying away from the glow. He couldn't get too close without fearing he’d burn.

But right now, it was like gazing at a sky of stars. He could look and look and there was so much to see, so much he didn’t understand. It was selfish in a way, taking in all these details of Lance in his vulnerable state: dark lashes against his cheeks, little glowing dust motes in his hair and on the side of his face.

Keith had an unprecedented thought about what it would be like to see this every day, to open his eyes each morning to the sight of Lance’s sleeping form next to him. But he could only entertain the idea for about half a second before he nearly laughed at himself. The notion was ridiculous. Impossible.

They were in the middle of a war, first of all. There was no time for him to pursue these stupid feelings, even if he could figure out how to do so––which he highly doubted he could.

Oh, and also there was no way in hell––no way in the entire sprawling, war-torn universe––that Lance felt the same way about him. So, there was that.

Keith released a furious sigh, burying his forehead against his arms. His eyes burned.

God, his timing was awful.

Chapter Text

When Keith woke up in the morning, he was lying on his side, facing the gaping hole they had climbed through the night before. He blinked into the white light. As his eyes adjusted, he could see a figure silhouetted against the brightness, leaning against the side of the opening.

His pulse quickened in momentary panic, but he quickly realized it was just Lance, who had turned around at the sound of him shifting.

“Rise and shine, mullet.”

“Shut up,” Keith croaked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. He instinctively looked around to make sure Zola was still there, and she was still sleeping soundly a few feet away from him.

“You’re not super good at the whole ‘keeping watch’ thing, huh?” Lance said.

Keith turned to glare at him and saw an amused smirk on the other boy’s face. “What?”

“I woke up in the middle of the night last night and you’d fallen asleep sitting up.” Lance chuckled, pushing himself away from the side of the tree. “Didn’t look super comfortable so I …” He stopped talking abruptly, his smile faltering. “Anyway, I just took over, since you were asleep and all.”

It took a second for those words to sink in, and then the implication hit Keith like a slap in the face. He’d fallen asleep sitting up and had somehow woken up on his side which meant … Lance had moved him? Gently laid him on the ground? Oh, God.

Keith was fairly certain his face had turned about twenty different shades of red in the past few seconds, and he hoped that somehow Lance miraculously hadn’t noticed.

“I––I’m sorry,” he stammered when he managed to find his voice. “Didn’t mean to fall asleep on the job. How long have you been up?”

“Couple hours. Watched the sunrise. It was pretty cool actually, with the two suns and all. Kind of like that scene at the beginning of Star Wars, you know?”

“Uh … I haven’t seen it.”

Lance looked like Keith had insulted his mother or something. “You what? Keith, what the actual hell? You went to space exploration school!”

 

“I didn’t realize that was a prerequisite.”

“Well, it should be!” Lance said, crossing his arms. “I mean, that’s pretty much why I wanted to go to space school. Had to achieve my lifelong dream of becoming Han Solo. Or marrying him. I’m not sure which.”

Keith wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He tried to sit up straighter and was immediately met with the racing pain down his right arm again. “Agh,” he growled, clutching at it.

The wistful expression vanished from Lance’s face. He took a step forward, frowning. “You okay?”

“Yeah. My arm still hurts, that’s all. Think I might’ve pulled a muscle or something.”

“Is it worse than yesterday?”

“Uh …” Keith rolled his shoulder experimentally and winced. “I don’t think so. But it doesn’t really feel better, either.”

"Hmm." Lance knelt down next to him, and Keith became acutely aware of their close proximity. "Maybe I could ..."

He reached out and brushed a hand against Keith's arm, which nearly gave Keith a heart attack. He shrank back, probably more violently than necessary.

"What are you doing?"

"Sorry," Lance said hurriedly. "I just thought ... it might help if, uh ... I could rub your shoulder if you want?"

Keith was fairly certain he'd just died on the spot and been flung into another dimension.

"Keith?" said Lance, snapping him out of his daze.

"Yeah?"

"Are you okay?"

"Uh, yeah. Yeah, fine," Keith choked out. “That would be … fine. Good. Uh, go ahead.”

Wait, what? Was he actually agreeing to this? Oh, no. This was a bad idea. Very bad.

"Oh ... okay," Lance said, giving Keith a sideways look. He sounded somewhat surprised, as if he hadn't expected Keith to go along with it. He cleared his throat. "In that case, you might have to uh ..." He gestured at Keith's armor.

"Right. Yeah."

Keith didn't dare meet Lance's eyes as he unclasped the top part of his armor and slid it off, leaving only the black jumpsuit underneath.

"Okay," Lance said again. "I guess I'll just ... yeah."

He crawled over to sit behind Keith, who was still desperately trying to calm his panicked thoughts. He was freaking out over nothing, of course. Lance was just trying to be helpful, that was all.

Still, Keith went totally rigid when he felt Lance’s hands on his shoulder.

“Wow, dude. You’re like super tense.”

“Yeah, well …” Keith’s voice cracked a little, and he cleared his throat. “I’m a little more stressed out than usual, I guess.”

“I don’t blame you. This is the shoulder that’s bothering you, right?”

Lance pressed a thumb into the tender muscle on Keith’s right shoulder, which made him hiss in pain.

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Thought so.” Lance dug his finger into the sore spot again. “Sorry, this might hurt. But try to relax a little, okay?”

“Yeah. Okay.” Keith hadn’t realized just how stiffly he’d been sitting, and now he let his shoulders drop somewhat.

Meanwhile, Lance kept working his thumb along the outline of Keith’s shoulder blade, massaging at the muscle underneath it. At first, Keith winced at the sensation. But after a minute he could feel some of the tension easing out of the joint, as sore as it still was.

“I carry all my tension in my shoulders, too,” Lance said. “Probably because of my terrible posture.”

“You do slouch a lot,” Keith pointed out––and then mentally slapped himself in the face for saying it.

“Hey.” He could practically hear the pout in Lance’s voice. “But yeah, yeah. I know. Bad habit.”

They were both quiet for a few moments while Lance continued rubbing at Keith’s shoulder. His hands had moved up a little, brushing the hair off the back of Keith’s neck to work at the painful cluster of muscles there. Keith breathed in sharply and closed his eyes.

Lance sighed. “Man, I wish Hunk were here. He gives a really mean back rub. You should ask him sometime.”

“Yeah?”

“Uh-huh. He used to always give me shoulder rubs before big tests and simulations at the Garrison and stuff ‘cause I would always get nervous. Sometimes he still does before missions, but we don’t always have time. You know, one of his moms is a masseuse. I think that’s where he learned it from …”

Keith found himself smiling. He hadn’t realized it before, but Lance’s tendency to ramble could be oddly endearing––especially when he was gushing about their friends. Distantly, he wondered if Lance had ever talked about him like that when he wasn’t around. Probably not.

“Okay, my hands are kinda starting to hurt,” Lance finally said, letting go of Keith’s shoulder. “Is that any better?”

Keith felt suddenly cold at the absence of Lance’s kneading fingers, but he hoped the disappointment didn’t show on his face. He rolled his shoulder again. It still hurt, but at least it didn’t feel as tight and knotted as it had before.

“Yeah, a little. Thanks.” He still couldn’t look Lance in the eyes as he said it.

“Sure, uh … No problem.”

Keith picked up his discarded armor and started to put it back on, still staring intently at the mossy ground as he did so.

“Oh hey, do you hear that?” Lance asked suddenly.

The words made Keith freeze. Was there something outside? But when he turned to look at Lance, the other paladin was reaching for his helmet, which lay a few feet away.

“I thought I heard something coming from the headsets,” Lance explained, pulling his helmet on with a frown. “Allura might be trying to reach us.”

Keith reached for his own helmet. As he slid it over his head, he could already hear a crackling voice speaking over the comms.

“ … There? Paladins, can you hear me?”

“Yes, we can hear you, princess,” Lance said.

Allura let out a sigh of relief. “Good. I was worried when you didn’t answer. Is Keith there as well?”

“Yeah, I’m here. Sorry, we didn’t have our helmets on.”

“What’s going on?” Lance asked. “Everything okay back at the castle?”

“Yes, everything is fine here. We’re still getting a steady stream of messages from the rebels, which Pidge has been very busy decoding. Hunk and Coran have notified me that they’ve reached the Balmera and should be returning within the day.”

She listed these items off as if she’d rehearsed saying them, but Keith detected a waver to her voice that betrayed her anxiety. She was worried but trying to keep it together for their sake.

“What about you two?” Allura asked. “And Zola, is she alright? I sent word to her people that you’re bringing her to them. From what I heard back, her fathers were overjoyed to hear she’s alive.”

“We’re okay,” said Lance. “Zola is fine, too.” He paused to look over at where the alien girl was still curled up and sleeping on the ground. “She’s still asleep, but we should probably wake her up soon. We’ve still got another day’s journey ahead of us.”

“So I can see. I’ve been tracking your progress, and it appears you’ve been making good time. I hope you haven’t run into any trouble?”

The two paladins exchanged a glance.

“We did have a run-in with a few drones yesterday,” Keith admitted. “We went to our lions to get supplies and they had tracked us somehow. Luckily, Lance shot them down. We just hope they weren’t able to send any information to the Khagia before then.”

“I certainly hope not. I am glad you escaped unhurt. Just … be very careful on the remainder of your journey. If there is a chance that the Khagia know you’re there, it may put you in grave danger.”

Keith’s stomach dropped at those words.

Lance had a grim expression on his face, mouth set in a tight line. “We’ll be careful,” he reassured the princess. “Don’t worry, we’re gonna make it.”

“I know you will,” Allura said, although there was still an uneasy tightness to her voice.

Keith cleared his throat. “I hate to bring it up. But, do the rebels know … ?” He trailed off, the words caught in his throat.

There was only static over the comms for a moment before Allura spoke. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I informed them yesterday, shortly after I spoke with you. They know what has happened, and of course they are devastated.”

Keith bit his lip, his head still reeling at the memory of what they’d seen the day before.

“But they knew you did everything you could,” Allura continued after a pause. “Although it is tragic, they are also endlessly grateful that you rescued Zola.”

Honestly, Keith wasn’t sure whether that made him feel better or worse. Of course he appreciated the rebels’ gratitude, but he also felt as if they were carrying an enormous weight on their shoulders. They had already failed to save all those hostages. If anything happened to Zola … he couldn’t even think about it without feeling like he’d be sick.

“Your only mission now is to bring her home,” said Allura. “I know it’s difficult, but you must not lose sight of that.”

Something squeezed tightly in Keith’s gut. He looked over at Zola, who was still curled up peacefully on the soft ground, eyes closed and indigo skin glowing softly. Part of him wished that they didn’t have to wake her up, that they didn’t have to drag her back out into the danger outside.

“We won’t,” he said at last. “We’ll get her there.”

There was silence from the other end, only the buzz of static returning through the comms.

“Allura?” said Lance.

“… Hello?” The princess’s voice came through at last, although it came through muffled and tinny. “I’m sorry, paladins. It seems something is interfering with our communication again. Also, I think another message from the rebels is coming through. I should assist Pidge in decoding it.”

“Okay,” Keith said. “We should probably get going, anyway.”

“Tell Pidge and Shiro we say hi,” Lance chimed in.

“I will. Good luck, paladins.”

“You too, princess.”

The comms shut off again.

Zola woke up soon after that, and the three of them didn’t take much time in preparing to leave. After each downing a couple of food goo packets and gathering their supplies again, they headed back out into the forest.

The twin suns were already nearing the treetops, and Keith felt a pang of guilt at the realization that they had probably slept for too long. But then again, they had all probably needed the rest, especially Zola.

According to their map, there was still a little over a day’s worth of walking ahead of them, and Keith’s whole body already hurt at the notion. He had at least given up on constantly hacking at the underbrush with his sword, especially at Lance’s insistence that he should probably rest his arm.

Zola, on the other hand, seemed a bit more energetic than she had been the day before. She kept scrambling ahead of them, pausing to listen with twitching, attentive ears. The two boys were careful not to lose sight of her, although it sometimes meant having to sprint and stumble to catch up.

She also seemed more comfortable with them than she had when they first met. When she wasn’t scouting ahead, she walked closely between them, occasionally grabbing one––or both––of them by the arm or the hand when she heard a noise.

So far, they hadn’t encountered anything sinister. A few times, Keith had thought he heard the distant buzzing of drones, but the sky was clear every time he searched it. Still, his hand clutched tightly to his bayard at all times, just in case.

After they’d been walking for a while, Zola became more talkative. She told them a little about her life and her friends and listed off various games they all liked to play together, which didn’t sound very different from games Earth children played. Most of them involved climbing trees and hiding in the tunnels.

Sometimes she slipped into silence, a dazed look in her eyes––and at those points the paladins caught on that she was remembering what she’d undergone in the past few days. Without even discussing it they seemed to come to a resolution, where they would gently distract her by asking about the various plant species and animals they saw along the way. That always seemed to bring Zola back to the present, and she would identify their surroundings with names Keith couldn’t even attempt to pronounce. Tethra definitely had a vast variety of flora, just as Coran had told them before they left on the mission: tendrils of grass-like plants, spotted leaves, spongy moss. They all seemed to have a life of their own, glowing and drifting slightly as if moved by an invisible breeze.

Eventually, they came to a swampy area where the soil was soft and damp under their feet. Rotten logs lay half-buried in the ground, scattered throughout the clearing.

When she saw them, Zola gasped and tugged insistently on Keith’s arm. “Wait, I want to show you something.”

She led them over to a small, nearby log and knelt down, latching her long fingers underneath it. Keith and Lance crouched next to her as she overturned the log.

On the underside, an array of tiny glowing creatures wriggled and crawled. Most appeared to be insects and worms of some kind, but there were also a few larger, lizard-like animals clinging to the bark.

Zola carefully picked one up, and it just barely fit into the palm of her hand. It was neon orange with a glowing blue stripe down its back, a long tail, and––most strikingly––two heads, each blinking with beady black eyes.

Lance gasped and nudged Keith’s arm with his elbow. “Hey, it’s like your lizard friends back on Earth!”

Keith’s face heated up. He knew he had only told Lance about that the night before, but somehow he was still surprised Lance had remembered it.

“Lizard friends?” Zola repeated, tilting her head questioningly.

“Uh … yeah. We have something like those on the planet we come from,” Keith tried to explain.

Zola didn’t really seem to be listening; she was distracted watching the small creature weave between her three fingers.

“Here. You can hold it if you want.” With her free hand, she took hold of Keith’s wrist and dropped the lizard onto his open palm.

He stiffened in surprise but relaxed when the creature sat still in his hand. It lifted one of its two heads, blinking its round eyes at him, and flicked out a thin, black tongue. Keith couldn’t help but smile. It really did remind him of the small reptiles he'd found around the shack in the desert, what felt like an eternity ago.

Now the alien lizard was scurrying up the length of his arm, and Keith yelped in surprise as it jumped onto his shoulder, then somehow managed to crawl onto the front of his helmet and across the visor. It left a trail of bioluminescent blue slime in its wake, which Keith wiped off with the back of his gloved hand.

Lance snorted with laughter, and Zola smiled in delight.

"Yeah, yeah. Very funny," Keith said. He rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling as he plucked the lizard off the top of his helmet and placed it gently on the ground.

They moved on and walked for a while longer before they reached another small clearing. Trees grew thickly around its perimeter, hanging with bulbous purple objects that Zola explained were some kind of fruit. Before the two paladins could protest, she had already started climbing one of the tall trees.

“Just, uh … be careful,” Keith said, as he and Lance moved to stand underneath the tree.

Zola didn’t seem to be paying attention, but it didn’t look like she needed the warning, anyway. It was clear that she was accustomed to climbing, and perhaps her long limbs also gave her an advantage as she swung up from one branch to another.

She finally found a high place to perch and reached out to pluck one of the fruits from where it hung. “Here!” she called down and dropped it.

Lance yelped in surprise and just barely managed to grab the fruit before it could hit the ground. He stared at it curiously, turning it over in his hands. It was almost perfectly spherical, its skin a dark purple with lighter, glowing specks dotting its surface.

"Whoa ... sparkly," Lance observed, and he started to take his helmet off.

"You're not really gonna eat that, are you?" Keith asked, mildly horrified.

Lance shrugged one shoulder. "Coran said we could eat the plants here. I'm gonna take his word for it."

"Okay, well ... if you die because you couldn't resist eating a sparkly fruit––"

"Aw shut up, mullet," Lance cut him off, although for once there wasn't much malice in the nickname.

He bit into the fruit and chewed for a moment before his eyes widened. "Wow, it's actually really good. Here." He shoved it into Keith's hands.

Keith's instinctive response was to say there was no way in hell he'd eat this thing, but then again, it was tempting to eat something that wasn’t food goo for once. Plus, Lance hadn’t fallen over and died yet, so that was a good sign.

Keith pulled his helmet off and inspected the fruit for another few moments, noticing how it was an alarming shade of orange on the inside where Lance had bitten it. He was still a bit skeptical, but he took a bite out of it anyway. The flavor was not quite what he expected––kind of sour at first before it melted into something sweeter.

“Huh, that is pretty good,” he admitted.

“Right?” Lance said, and then looked at Keith's face and laughed.

"What?"

"You got juice on your chin."

"Oh." Keith wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Uh ... did I get it?"

To his surprise, the smile had vanished very suddenly from Lance's face. He looked weirdly ... dazed. "Yeah." He cleared his throat. "You––You got it."

Keith frowned. He had a feeling Lance was holding something back and was about to ask him what it was. But then it suddenly occurred to him that Zola had been very quiet for the past minute.

He looked up to see she was clinging to a high branch, her ears twitching.

"Hey, are you okay?" he called up to her. "Are you stuck?"

Without looking down at him, Zola shook her head. She held one long finger to her lips in a shushing gesture, which made Keith immediately nervous.

Suddenly tense, he scoured the skies for any sign of danger, yet he saw nothing but the suns shining brightly in the greenish-blue midday sky. When he looked back at Zola, she was looking around in a slow circle, presumably attempting to determine what direction the noise was coming from. Then she suddenly went rigid and whirled around, looking at something on the ground––something right behind Keith.

At the same time, Lance gasped sharply, staring at something over Keith's shoulder.

With all his senses suddenly on high-alert, Keith spun around, activating his bayard without a second thought, and he was glad he did as soon as he saw what was behind him.

Crawling through the thick underbrush at the edge of the clearing was a large creature unlike anything Keith had ever seen. As it emerged into the light, he could see it was roughly the size of an alligator and similar in shape. It had a flat head lined around the edges with countless yellow eyes. Its head and back were coated in thick black scales almost like plates of armor, which stood slightly on end as it approached. It crouched low to the ground on short legs, long claws scratching at the ground. A gurgling snarl built up in its throat.

If that wasn't worrisome enough, Zola's whimpering from up in the tree further convinced Keith that this was not a friendly creature.

Keith froze where he stood, paralyzed with fear for a few moments before his brain kicked back into gear.

"Zola, stay right where you are!" Keith shouted. Then he grabbed Lance by the arm. "Come on, we should––" He didn't even know what to suggest they do. Climb up a tree? Stay on the ground and try to fight this thing?

"Keith, look out!" Lance cried and shoved him off to the side.

Keith only had about a second to regain his wits and his balance. He wheeled around again just as he heard the creature snarl and saw it take an unexpected leap forward with a snap of its jaws––right where he had been standing only moments before.

Lance had managed to leap out of the way just in time. Now the monster stood between them, shaking its large head in confusion, dozens of eyes blinking rapidly.

Keith’s thoughts scattered in ten different directions at once as he tried to formulate a plan. All he could do was stand there with his sword held out in front of him. He looked from the creature to the tree where Zola was still cowering, then back to Lance, who had also activated his bayard and was standing motionless across from Keith.

At the same time, the two paladins looked up at each other, and Keith got the sense that Lance was trying to convey some silent message to him; there was a meaningful glare to his eyes, and he motioned subtly with his head. Somehow, Keith understood what he was trying to say. They had to get the monster as far away from Zola as possible.

Returning Lance’s signal with a nod, Keith took a hesitant step backward––but apparently, that was the wrong move. At the slight motion, the creature suddenly turned on him, yellow eyes all narrowing in on him at once. The slits of its pupils widened, and it bared a mouthful of deadly, sharp teeth.

Every curse word Keith knew rushed through his head at once as he tried to make a split-second decision. If he ran, the creature would probably attack him. If he went rushing at it with his sword, it would also probably attack him.

Apparently, standing still also made it want to attack him.

Keith saw a rush of movement, a blur of eyes and teeth and claws, and all he could do was throw his sword up in front of him and brace himself for the inevitable pain.

But it never came.

Right then, he heard a desperate cry of “No!” and a laser firing. The creature let out an odd shriek.

As Keith blinked his eyes open, he could see the large reptile shuffling backwards, the armored scales on its back standing on end. One of those scales now had a large hole blown through it, which was smoking slightly.

A similar trail of smoke snaked from the end of Lance’s blaster, which was still pointed right at the creature. He lowered his weapon to look wide-eyed at Keith––and Keith’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw the creature turn to glare at Lance. It whipped its tail, which Keith now noticed had a club-like appendage attached to it.

He was about to shout a warning, but it was too late.

The heavy end of the tail lashed out and hit Lance hard. He let out a short cry as he was flung sideways, crashed into a tree, and crumpled to the ground. His bayard flew from his hand and deactivated, skittering uselessly across the dirt.

The creature immediately turned with a loud growl, crawling towards where Lance now lay in an unmoving heap, and fire rushed through Keith’s veins.

Lance!”

He charged forward with a wordless yell, sword raised overhead––

Right then, he heard the sound of another laser firing again. But this time, it came from above. Two violet beams bounced off the creature’s scales in rapid succession.

Confused, Keith looked up––and that’s when he saw that Zola had unhooked the small blaster from her belt and was pointing it down at the creature with one shaking hand, her other three hands still clinging to the tree.

The creature saw her, too, its head snapping up to glare at her. Zola yelped and scrambled higher up into the branches. At the same time, the creature hissed and lumbered toward the tree, its long tail missing Keith by an inch as it whipped itself around.

"Oh no you don't," Keith growled under his breath. Then without thinking he shouted, "Hey, ugly! Over here!"

The large monster had reached the tree where Zola was situated and had just started to rake at the bark with its long claws. Fortunately, Keith's yelling distracted it. Its flat head swiveled around, yellow eyes narrowing at Keith again.

As much as he wanted to run, Keith stood his ground, staring the creature right in its hideous face. His fingers tightened on the handle of his sword. He hoped there was a challenging glare in his eyes, despite the fact that his pulse was racing.

In the corner of his vision, he could see Lance was moving––thank God––although he was doing so very slowly, and he let out a groan of pain that sent panic through Keith's limbs. The creature seemed to hear it at the same time, its head starting to turn again, and Keith knew he had to act fast.

He had a stupid idea and knew it possibly wouldn't work, but at this point he didn't really have a choice. Anything to stop this monster from hurting Lance or Zola.

With a wild cry––which he hoped would draw the creature’s attention to himself again––Keith ran for a nearby tree. At the same time, he activated his jetpack. With the added propulsion, he planted both feet against the trunk and pushed as hard as he could, sending himself flying through the air.

As he had hoped, the creature had lunged into the middle of the clearing, head tilted sideways to stare up at him with a row of menacing eyes. There was a split second where Keith panicked in mid-air, unsure if his plan would work, but he just had to raise his sword and hope for the best.

Luckily, he landed precisely where he had wanted to––feet planted on the creature’s flattened head, blade driving between two of the scales on its back.

He cringed in momentary empathy as the creature let out a warbled cry of pain, hoping that he hadn't hurt it too badly. He wasn't aiming to kill, just to drive the creature off. As he'd expected, its hide was thick and leathery, only leaking a small amount of glowing blue blood from the wound.

It only took about half a second for the creature to react, flinging its head back forcefully. Keith was thrown violently backward, and before he knew it he had hit the ground, stars bursting across his vision when he landed on his already-aching shoulder. He lifted himself up just to see the creature take a nasty swipe at him with its tail, and he rolled out of the way at the last possible second.

The creature paused at a slight distance away from him, shaking its head as if it could hear an unusual sound. It stumbled for a moment and Keith slowly began to lift his sword again ... but right then, the monster scuttled backwards, then turned and dove back into the underbrush.

There were a few tense moments as Keith watched the creature retreat, disappearing into the forest until he could no longer see or hear it, and he nearly laughed in disbelief. But he didn't have long to dwell in the victory.

Right away, he jumped to his feet and turned towards Lance. The other paladin was just starting to sit up, wincing as he did so.

Keith sprinted towards him. "You alright, Lance?"

"Yeah, yeah. I just––agh." Lance cut off mid-sentence, clutching at his side, and Keith felt a dizzying rush of panic.

"Oh, God. Are you––"

"I'm okay," Lance said tightly, waving Keith off. "Help Zola."

Keith hovered there for a second, unsure. "Right. Uh. Okay," he stammered. "I'll be back in a second. Just ... don't move."

Without waiting for a response, he turned and dashed to the tree where Zola was still hiding. He skidded to a stop, looking up, and could see her still clinging to the branches high above, only the green glow of her eyes showing through the thick foliage.

"You okay, Zola?" he called up to her.

Hesitantly, she nodded.

"You can come down now. It's safe."

Zola hung back a moment, and then carefully started to lower herself down from one branch to another. Keith remained at the roots of the tree, prepared to catch her in case she slipped and fell.

Finally, she reached the lowest branches, but she still clung to one of the tree’s limbs and peered down fearfully.

"It's okay," Keith reassured her. "I've got you." He held his arms out.

The freckles on Zola's face glimmered for a moment in hesitation, and then she let go of the tree.

Keith let out a small "oof" as he caught her. Right away, she threw her arms around his neck and buried her face against his shoulder. He could feel that she was trembling, and he gently patted her on the back. "Hey, it's alright. That thing ... it's gone, now."

"I thought it was gonna eat you," Zola said, her voice muffled.

Keith almost laughed at that. "I kinda thought so, too," he admitted. “But hey look, I’m okay. We’re all okay.”

At least, he hoped that was true. He glanced over his shoulder at Lance, who thankfully hadn’t moved––but he was still holding tightly to his left side and squeezing his eyes shut, which made Keith suddenly feel cold with worry.

“Come on, we need to help Lance,” he said to Zola, carefully setting her down.

They both reached him at once. Zola crouched down, one three-fingered hand resting on Lance’s knee, and her eyes widened as she stared at him holding his side. “Are you okay?”

He smiled weakly at her. “Yeah. I’m okay, Zo. Just hit that tree pretty hard, that’s all.”

Lance shifted like he meant to stand up, but Keith grabbed his arm. “Whoa, whoa. You’re not getting up yet. You could have broken ribs or something.”

“What?” Lance frowned at him. “I told you, I’m fine.”

“Well, I’m not taking any chances. Hold still for a second.”

Lance started to protest, but he didn't struggle as Keith took hold of his wrist and peeled his arm away from his side.

There was no blood or any sign of deformity that Keith could see, so that was good. He struggled to remember the first aid training they'd received back at the Garrison, but that had been ages ago. He could only hope he remembered the basics of how to check for broken ribs.

“Okay. Um.”

He pressed a hand to Lance’s side. Lance tensed at the contact but he didn’t pull away, even as Keith gingerly felt along his ribcage for any irregularity. So far he hadn’t felt anything, but it was still possible Lance could have cracked something under his armor.

"Does your chest hurt at all?"

"I ... no, I don't think so."

"Okay. Take a deep breath."

Keith kept his fingers gently pressed to Lance's side as he inhaled, his breath hitching slightly. He whimpered a little, but at least he didn't scream in agony or anything. Keith figured that was a good sign.

"Does that hurt a lot worse?"

"I mean, it doesn't exactly feel good," Lance muttered.

"Well, at least I don't think your ribs are broken. Probably just bruised."

He hadn't looked up at Lance's face this whole time––and when he did, he was surprised to find how close they were, only about a foot separating the visors of their helmets. Lance had an oddly dazed look in his eyes, his pupils dilated.

Keith frowned. "You don't have a concussion, do you?"

Lance blinked as if he'd just woken up from a dream. "Wait, what? Why?"

"N-nothing. Never mind," Keith stammered. "It's just ... your eyes looked kinda unfocused for a second."

"I didn't even hit my head!"

"Okay, okay. Just trying to save you from brain damage, jeez."

At this point Keith realized he still had a hand resting against Lance's side, and he quickly drew it back. "Anyway. Let me see if I have any painkillers."

He stared fiercely downward as he slipped the small pack off his back and rummaged around inside.

Lance sighed, shifting his position slightly. "I'm sorry."

Keith glanced up at him in surprise. "For what?"

"For ... I don't know. I feel stupid. I should have been more careful, or this wouldn't have happened."

"What? Lance, no. It's not your fault," Keith said. He pulled out a small plastic container and frowned at the round white pills inside of it. "Plus, that thing was literally about to bite my head off. If you hadn't shot at it, I'd be dead. You saved my life."

That word choice made it sound a bit more intense than Keith had meant it to––but then again, it was true. Still, Lance looked shocked when Keith dared to look him in the eyes again.

"Uh, anyway." Keith held the container towards Lance. "Here are those painkillers Coran gave us. He said only to take one at a time, I think."

"Right. Yeah," Lance said, taking his helmet off. He took the container from Keith and tipped one of the pills into his hand. Almost as soon as he swallowed it, his pinched expression of pain already started to ease away. "Dang, that stuff is powerful. Those Alteans don't mess around."

"Yeah, that's why you're only taking one," Keith said, snatching the container back from him. "God knows what's even in that stuff."

"Whatever it is, it works." Lance prodded experimentally at his side, and it didn't seem to cause him much pain this time.

"Don't do that," Keith said, frowning. "On the off-chance you did break something, you don't want to make it worse."

"Yeah, yeah." Lance didn't sound very concerned, but at least he stopped touching his ribs.

He smiled over at Zola, who still looked concerned as she peered up at him. "You okay, Zola?"

She nodded, rubbing at one of her arms.

"I saw you shooting at that thing," Lance went on. "I didn't know you could shoot that well! I could learn a thing or two from you."

Zola brightened at the compliment, and Keith looked between them in mild shock.

“But it was also super dangerous,” he added and glared pointedly at Lance. “Right, Lance?”

“Oh … uh, right. Very dangerous,” Lance agreed, attempting a more serious tone.

Zola’s smile faded and her ears drooped a little, which made Keith feel a twinge of guilt.

"But hey, we know you were just trying to help," he said, more softly this time. "And you did help. You distracted that creature from attacking us. It's just ... I was worried because it could have tried to attack you, too."

Zola bit her lip. "I know," she admitted quietly. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Keith said, giving her a small pat on the shoulder––the same thing Shiro always did to reassure him. And it seemed to work on Zola too, judging by the way her ears perked up again. "Just ... you need to be careful. We all do."

He looked up at Lance as he said it and received a smile and a nod in response.

"We will be."

Chapter Text

They didn't waste any more time. The suns were already high in the sky, and when Keith checked the map, he discovered they were starting to fall behind schedule. If they didn't get moving, they wouldn't make it to the rebels' base by the end of the day.

Still, he didn't want to rush Lance and Zola. Although they kept moving at a steady pace, Keith was concerned about the wellbeing of his companions. Neither of them complained, but Keith could see the pain and exhaustion written on their faces whenever he looked at them.

Since the incident with the monstrous alien creature, they were all a lot quieter than they'd been before. Their conversation had died to only occasional comments. Keith tried to stay more alert than ever, adding "giant mutant alligator things that want to eat us" to his mental list of things to look out for.

After another hour of walking or so, Zola started to drag her feet. Keith could see her starting to lag behind out of the corner of his eye, and when he turned towards her, he noticed how her shoulders were sagging and her head was slightly lowered.

"You okay, Zola?" he asked her.

She paused in her tracks and the two paladins followed suit, hovering next to her.

"Yeah. I'm just ... tired," she admitted. "And my feet hurt."

Lance looked at Keith questioningly. "I guess we could rest for a minute."

"I don't know." Keith glanced at the map again and winced. "We're not making very good progress, so we should really keep moving."

"Hmm." Lance frowned in contemplation. "I can carry you, if you want," he said to Zola.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Keith asked. "You're injured, Lance. Maybe I should––"

"I'm fine," Lance insisted for probably the fiftieth time. "Honestly, those Altean painkillers really did the trick. I don't feel a thing, promise."

"But––"

Lance gave Keith a withering look, and he decided to back down. They didn't have time to argue right now. "Fine," he sighed.

Lance crouched down so Zola could clamber up onto his back, one pair of her arms looping around his neck and the other pair wrapping around his torso. Keith was still wary, studying Lance's face for any hint of pain. He didn't see any sign of distress, so he begrudgingly decided to let it slide for now.

But it was clear after they'd been walking for another half hour or so that Lance––despite his claims––was not, in fact, fine. Keith had been keeping an eye on him out of the corner of his vision, and it wasn't long until he noticed the dull glaze of pain in Lance's eyes and the way he had to heft Zola higher up onto his back every few steps.

Finally, Keith spoke up. "I can carry her."

Lance and Zola both turned their heads to look at him.

"What? It's okay, I got her," Lance said.

Keith considered letting it go, but the hint of strain in Lance’s expression made his usual stubbornness flare up.

“Look, I just don’t want you to hurt yourself, okay?” he blurted. “Can you just––” The words had come out more harshly than he’d meant them to, and he stopped himself abruptly.

Lance had paused in his tracks, studying Keith’s face in surprise for a moment before he gave a reluctant nod. “Okay, fine.”

He stooped low to the ground so Zola could get down. She shuffled over to Keith, who bent down so she could drape her arms around his neck, and then he hooked his arms under her knees as he hoisted her onto his back.

They kept moving. Luckily Zola didn’t weigh very much, so carrying her didn’t slow Keith down, although he tried to keep the pace reasonable in case Lance was still in any pain. He kept sneaking momentary glimpses of the other paladin and several times was surprised to see Lance was already watching him––but he’d look away as soon as Keith met his eyes. At first, Keith thought Lance was mad at him for some reason, but at one point he could have sworn he saw a faint smile on Lance’s face.

Eventually Keith could feel Zola growing heavier on his back, and her chin rested on his shoulder. The two suns were starting to lower towards the horizon, and Keith judged that night was approaching quickly.

“I don’t think we’re gonna make it before it gets dark,” he told Lance after inspecting the map. “Looks like we still have about five vargas left to go."

Truth be told, Keith wanted to keep going, but he knew he was trying to push himself too hard and every part of him hurt with exhaustion. More importantly than that, he knew Lance and Zola probably couldn't keep going for much longer without stopping to rest.

"So you think we'll have to spend another night here before we move on?" Lance asked. He didn't sound particularly thrilled by the idea.

"Guess so. Unless you have another suggestion."

Lance shrugged one shoulder. "No, I think you're right. It's probably for the best. Besides, looks like Zola might be falling asleep."

"...'M not asleep," Zola grumbled, which made both paladins smile.

But right then, Keith suddenly felt Zola go rigid, her head lifting off his shoulder. He couldn't see her face, but from the way Lance's smile fell, he had a feeling something was wrong.

"What is it?" Lance asked her, his tone hushed. "You hear something?"

Almost as soon as he said it, Keith heard something, too––a distant but steady thumping, accompanied by the occasional metallic creak. He knew that sound all too well, and it immediately made him feel sick with dread.

Sentries.

He saw the realization reflected on Lance’s face. “We really can’t catch a break, can we?” he muttered.

Keith shushed him as he tried to think past the wild flutter in his chest. “We’ve gotta hide.”

Thinking fast, Keith surveyed their surroundings. He noticed that to the side of their path, the ground jutted out in a slight outcropping that dropped into a narrow ditch. It probably wasn't the best option, but it was the closest one and they didn't have time to find something better.

Keith motioned with his head, and Lance gave a grim nod in response. Zola clutched tighter to Keith's shoulders as he sprinted towards the outcropping and jumped over it. He winced as his feet skidded on the ground, rustling against the fern-like purple foliage that lined the ditch.

Without wasting another moment, Keith ducked under the outcropping and pulled Zola in behind him, clutching her against his chest. Lance scrambled in after them. There wasn't much room to hide all three of them, and Keith shifted back as far as he could, until his back touched the wall of earth behind him. Lance squirmed forward until he was just barely hidden in the shadows.

Keith could still see the faintest hint of light gleaming off Lance's armor. Without thinking, he reached out and grasped Lance's forearm, pulling him further under the outcropping. At the same time, Lance's hand scrabbled to grip Keith's shoulder.

Everything went still.

The two paladins lay facing each other with Zola between them. The glow of her skin pulsed in the dimness, and Keith angled his body forward a bit to shield her. Lance did the same, so their shoulders nearly bumped together.

Zola let out a single frightened whimper, but after that she was silent. She was probably accustomed to circumstances like these––hiding from enemies, not daring to move or make a sound.

In their small hiding space, Keith could have sworn his own heartbeat was as loud as thunder. He could feel it in his fingertips, hear it echoing in his skull like the crash of ocean waves.

He kept his eyes open and found himself seeking out Lance's face, which was illuminated in the soft glow from the inside of his helmet. His eyes were squeezed shut, a bead of sweat glinting on his forehead. Keith held even more tightly to Lance's arm, pulling him closer into the darkness until the visors of their helmets touched.

Lance's eyes opened suddenly and Keith felt a squeezing sensation in his chest at the fear he saw there. He usually didn't notice because Lance's eyes were so dark, but up close he could see they were a deep shade of blue.

In the near distance, the sound of trudging footsteps grew louder and louder. Keith tried to judge how many sentries there were. He could picture them in his mind––the robots marching in neat rows, the afternoon sun glinting off their armor, blasters crossed over their chests. By the sound of it, there was a large group of them. Ten? Twenty?

Through the ringing in his ears, Keith heard his own breaths rattling in and out, and he quickly held his breath, fighting to keep as still as possible. One of Zola's skinny arms wrapped tightly around his waist, and she pressed her forehead against his chest.

Every moment felt like an hour. The footfalls steadily grew closer until Keith felt the ground tremble underneath them. His heartbeats echoed the sound.

Don't let them find us, don't let them find us ...

The footsteps stopped.

Keith's lungs ached for air, and still he didn't dare to breathe.

Lance's eyes were wide, searching Keith's, and Keith could practically hear the unspoken question.

What do we do?

Zola shook violently between them, although she still bravely managed not to make a single noise.

A grim determination settled in Keith's bones as he weighed their minimal options. There was a chance the sentries would find them. He and Lance could try to fight them, but what if there were too many? What if they tried to hurt Zola?

Or ... Or.

He could tell Lance and Zola to stay here. Go out there himself. And ... do what? Turn himself in? Battle them on his own? Whatever, it didn't matter. They would only get to Lance and Zola over his dead body.

He had just about made up his mind, when he heard something from above: footsteps again. His heart lurched in his chest, his whole body tensing in preparation for whatever was about to happen …

And then he realized the footsteps weren’t getting any louder––the very opposite, in fact. The metallic creak of the sentries’ joints and their rattling footfalls were growing fainter until finally he could no longer hear them.

It was only when silence settled that Keith allowed himself to breathe again. He could hear Lance do the same, releasing a shuddering sigh of relief. In any other circumstance, Keith would have been mortified by how close they were lying together, still gripping each other’s arms, the visors of their helmets touching. But somehow, right now it felt … comforting. Secure.

Lance pulled away first, a flicker of a nervous smile on his face. “Close one.”

“Wait.” Keith kept a hand on Lance’s arm, holding him in place. “Not yet.”

They remained that way for another minute, Zola huddled and trembling between them, until Keith was certain he couldn't hear the sentries anymore––just the shifting of the trees in the wind.

"Okay. Sounds like the coast is clear."

Even though the sentries' footsteps were no longer audible, Keith was still tense as they emerged from their hiding place, one hand still gripping his bayard in case he needed to activate it. He turned in a slow circle, still trying not to make any noise. Fortunately, all he could see was the peaceful glow of the natural foliage. No sentries to be seen.

Zola lightly wrapped a hand around his wrist. "Are they gone?" she asked, voice slightly above a whisper.

"I think so. But we should still be really careful, okay?"

"Okay," Zola echoed with a serious nod.

Keith turned to Lance, who was hovering near his side and surveying their surroundings.

"It sounded like they were moving that way," Lance said, pointing. "So, we should probably go in the opposite direction ... or at least try to avoid crossing paths with them again. Is that gonna throw us off course?"

"A little." Keith brought up the map again, frowning as the small hologram hovered over his wrist. “Probably not more than an extra couple hours. Or vargas or whatever.” He closed the map. “In any case, we should probably start keeping a lookout for somewhere we could settle down for the night. It’ll get dark pretty soon.”

They continued on their journey, veering slightly off their original path. Zola had climbed onto Keith's back again; Lance had offered to carry her this time around, but Keith had stubbornly insisted.

It wasn't long before the suns dipped towards the horizon, and the sky deepened to a dark bluish-green. As night fell, the soft glow of the forest became more apparent around them.

Keith had remained steadfastly alert ever since they'd narrowly escaped the sentries, his heart skipping at even the slightest noise, but so far, they'd managed not to cross paths with any adversaries.

By the time the light had faded from the sky, Keith’s back ached from carrying Zola’s weight, and he could feel her head resting heavily on his shoulder.

“Okay, she's definitely asleep this time,” Lance said. He was walking beside them, staying much closer to Keith than he normally did.

The dim glow of his helmet illuminated the soft smile on his face, and the lights from the forest around them reflected off the visor so it looked like he literally had stars in his eyes. Keith forced himself to look away.

Zola hadn't protested Lance’s claim––or made any sound at all––so Keith assumed Lance had been right and that she was asleep.

“We should find somewhere to settle down anyway,” said Keith. He hoisted Zola higher up onto his back as they kept trudging forward.

It wasn't long before the trees thinned out and a large valley stretched out below them. The field below was lined with tall plants almost the height of cornstalks, bobbing with glowing bulbs; they looked almost like the cattails that grew along riverbanks back on Earth. On the opposite side from where they stood, across the sea of swaying lights, was a hill that looked almost like a large coral reef, pitted with large cave-like openings.

“Hey, that looks pretty promising,” Lance said as they emerged into the open.

Keith nodded his agreement. “Just keep your guard up. There could be animals hiding in those holes or something.” Most of the wildlife they’d seen on Tethra so far had been pretty small and harmless, but Keith still shuddered at the thought of encountering anything like the creature that had almost killed them that afternoon.

They picked their way down the slope and made their way across the field. Keith kept looking above and around them for any sign of danger, but so far there had been no movement except the plants swaying in the wind. The glowing pods hovered high above them like a canopy of stars against the pitch black of the night sky.

At last, they reached the foot of the hill and began to climb. The ground was somewhat firm and springy underneath their feet. As they passed by a few of the dark openings in its surface, Keith peered inside for any signs of life, but he couldn't see anything except the multicolored stalactites hanging from above.

Just to be safe, they walked until they reached a cave that was a bit higher up the slope. That way, they'd have a clearer view of the valley below. Keith led the way inside, giving the space another careful once-over before he knelt down to gently lay Zola on the ground. She remained fast asleep despite the jostling, the marks on her face glowing and fading in a gentle rhythm.

Keith rose again and stretched his arms above his head. Just about every muscle in his body protested in pain. He surveyed the back of the cave, which was lined with a pile of large rocks. Hopefully nothing was hiding behind them. The moss lining the walls and the hanging stalactites offered a warm, yellowish glow––almost the shade of firelight.

When he turned around, Keith noticed Lance was still standing at the mouth of the cave, his helmet tucked under one arm as he gazed down at the valley. As if sensing Keith's eyes on him, he looked up and smiled tiredly.

"I can take first watch, if you want."

Keith felt as if he'd suddenly been shaken awake. "What? Oh. Are you sure? You probably need the rest more than I do."

"Why?" Lance asked, frowning. "Because of my side hurting?"

"So you do admit it hurts."

Lance looked surprised for a moment before he rolled his eyes. "Well yeah, it hurts now––but it's been quite a while since I took those painkillers." He waved a hand dismissively. "Anyway, it's not that bad. And you took first watch last night, so this time it's my turn."

Keith sighed in defeat, not having the energy to argue about this anymore. "Fine," he grumbled. "But don't stay up for too long, okay? And wake me up if the pain gets really bad or something."

"Yeah, yeah."

They could have left it at that, but something about the thought left a sour taste in Keith's mouth. Lance had already started to turn away again, and suddenly something fierce and unexpected shot through Keith's limbs.

"Hey, Lance?"

Lance froze and looked at Keith over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised questioningly. "Yeah?" There was a strange uncertainty to that one syllable, something that gave Keith momentary pause.

"I ..." Keith's mouth suddenly felt very dry. His pulse throbbed in his ears. "Good ... work today," he said haltingly. He nearly winced, his mind screaming in humiliation. Was that really the best he could come up with?

A bewildered frown crossed Lance's face for a moment. But then he smiled at the compliment, as awkward as it had been.

"Thanks, you too," he said, although there was an oddly calculated tone to the words, like he wasn't sure how to respond. "We both did pretty well, I’d say."

Keith smiled back. "Well ... we're a good team, right?" He said it without thinking and immediately felt the color drain from his face.

At the same time, Lance’s smile faltered and his eyes widened. Despite his embarrassment, Keith couldn’t help but feel a tiny flicker of triumph. Maybe he does remember.

“Yeah,” Lance said, his voice rasping a little. “We are.”

A fragile silence hovered between them, but neither of them dared to break it.

Keith cleared his throat. "I guess I’ll try to sleep now."

A hardened look crept into Lance's eyes. If he hadn't known better, Keith might've thought he looked disappointed. "Okay. Good night, Keith."

"Night."

There was nothing left to say––nothing that Keith had the courage to say out loud, anyway––so he found a spot near the back of the cave, removed his helmet, and lay down. The ground wasn't as comfortable as it had been in their hideout the night before, but it was still a bit softer than Keith had expected, the material sinking slightly under his weight.

With one arm folded beneath his head, Keith started to close his eyes. He left them just a crack open for another minute, watching Lance’s silhouette against the opening of the cave. He stood still, the cave’s interior golden light reflecting off his armor––a warm contrast against the dark sky outside.

Keith began to drift off. But just before he fell asleep, he could have sworn he saw Lance turn around to look back at him.

--

He woke up what felt like only moments later, someone firmly gripping his shoulder and shaking him into awareness. Keith blinked into the dim glow of the cave to find Lance kneeling next to him.

"Keith! Keith, wake up."

There was a breathless panic to Lance’s voice that made Keith immediately sit up. As his vision focused, he could now see the wild panic on Lance's face––his eyes wide, his breaths rattling loudly.

"What is it?" Keith demanded. "Are you okay? Is Zola––"

His heart rate speeding up, Keith looked over Lance's shoulder and was relieved to see that Zola was still sleeping on the ground nearby. But if nothing had happened to her, then what––

"They found us," Lance choked out.

Those three words sent nails of dread down Keith's spine.

"There––There's so many of them. Everywhere," Lance kept rambling on, his voice high and shaking. He clutched at his hair with one hand. "Oh, God ... what do we do? We're trapped. We can't go out there or they'll ... they'll––"

"Lance, slow down," Keith stopped him, grabbing his shoulder. “What do you mean? Who––”

That's when he heard it: a loud droning like a huge swarm of hornets approaching, accompanied by a distant sound of footsteps thundering on the ground.

"How many?" Keith managed to ask, although he could barely hear his own voice through the ringing in his head.

"I don't know. There's drones and sentries and they're headed straight towards us ... there's like a dozen of each of them, maybe more." Lance looked over at Zola, biting his lip. "I––I guess the best we can do is hide Zola, and then go out there and ..."

Keith was barely listening. He had already lurched to his feet and stumbled towards the mouth of the cave.

"Keith!" Lance hissed, but Keith didn't respond.

He pressed himself up against the stone wall behind him, inching out just far enough that he could look outside. His stomach clenched and he barely suppressed a gasp at the sight.

As Lance had described, there were at least ten drones hovering across the valley, lights winking in the darkness. Between the rows of tall plants, the dark shapes of sentries moved at a steady pace forward––right towards the foot of the hill.

Numb with terror, Keith stepped back again. He found Lance standing tensely behind him, bayard in hand. There was a grim furrow to his brow as he studied the scene outside, a calculating gleam to his eyes.

"What are you thinking?" Keith asked.

"I don't know," Lance admitted, and now there was a flat, hopeless tone to his voice that made Keith's blood freeze. Lance was usually the one who could think of a plan on the spot. If he couldn't think of anything ... this was bad.

Keith tried to come up with something. They couldn't just wait here, cornered in the cave. Every moment that passed, the closer they were to inevitable capture––or worse.

He looked one more time out at the advancing drones and sentries, then back at Lance, and at Zola's small form on the ground.

His jaw set, and he made a decision.

"Hide Zola behind those rocks back there," he said, nodding towards the back of the cave. "Then ... do you think you could shoot down those drones from here?"

"Yeah, uh––no sweat," Lance stammered. "But what about the sentries? I mean, I guess I could try to shoot them all too, but there's a lot of them and I don't know if there's time to––"

"I'll take care of the sentries," Keith cut him off, activating his bayard.

It took a moment before the realization dawned on Lance’s face. “You … what? You mean––”

“I’m going down there.”

He started to turn around, only to be stopped by Lance’s hand around his wrist.

“What? No, no, no, no. That is not happening,” Lance said, the words rushed and frantic. “You can’t take on all those sentries by yourself. That’s insane, even for you.”

Keith tried to pry his wrist out of Lance's grip and was surprised when the other paladin refused to let go.

"Why, do you have a better idea? Because if we don't do something right now, they're gonna close in on us in like two minutes," Keith hissed, the words coming off more harshly than he wanted.

"I ..." Lance started to say, and then trailed off abruptly. There was a fire behind his eyes that was slowly dying, losing hope.

The anger Keith had felt a moment ago was quickly snuffed out. In its place, something painful and dangerous reared its head, a sensation that made him dizzy.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said.

Lance still didn’t let him go. “No, you––you can’t––” His voice was wavering now, close to breaking.

“Lance––”

No,” Lance suddenly burst. “It’s not gonna end like this! I can’t just stay here and let you go down there by yourself. They’ll kill you, Keith! Do you not understand that?”

Everything in Keith froze, his bones turning to ice. It’s not gonna end like this. There was a desperate weight to those words that hit him like a blow to the stomach. There were so many things he wanted to say at once, but saying any of them would make this feel too much like a goodbye.

“What’s happening?”

Zola’s small voice broke the tension, and both paladins looked over at her, startled. She had woken up and was now sitting upright, rubbing at her eyes.

Lance nervously bit his lip. “It’s … It’s okay, Zo,” he said, attempting a reassuring tone even though his voice shook. “We’re gonna take care of it.”

Already, Zola’s ears were shifting as she inevitably picked up on the sound of the approaching machines outside. She gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth as she scrambled backwards.

The sight of her so frightened made Keith’s determination multiply tenfold. He knew he was running out of time. If he was going to do anything, he had to do it now.

He looked at Lance again and felt a squeezing pain in his chest at the devastated expression on the other boy’s face. He could see that Lance was reluctantly beginning to accept the reality of the situation, as brutal as it was. There was nothing else they could do.

Keith breathed in deep. “Make sure she gets home, okay? If I don’t––”

“Stop it,” Lance said, quiet but firm. He was still holding Keith’s wrist, but now he suddenly grabbed Keith’s hand and held it between them, interlocking their fingers. “You’ll make it back.” He smiled weakly, despite the fear in his eyes. “You always do.”

Surprised, Keith smiled back, a new flicker of hope igniting him. He gave Lance’s hand a tight squeeze and then let go. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

He pulled his helmet on.

“Good luck,” Lance said. A wistful smile remained on his face, despite everything.

Keith tried to commit that image to memory, like it was the last thing he would ever see. He gave a serious nod. “You, too.”

Taking a deep breath, his sword heavy in his hand, he turned towards the mouth of the cave. He didn’t dare to look back as he ran out into the night.

--

The buzzing of drones filled Keith’s head as soon as he dashed outside. Within the last few minutes, the enemy robots had advanced considerably––the drones spreading themselves over the valley, the sentries methodically crashing their way through the field.

It didn’t hit Keith how outnumbered he was until he had nearly reached the ground. In the blue light of the surrounding plants, he could see the steel-gray gleam of the sentries’ armor almost everywhere he looked, the glowing insignias on their chest plates standing out harshly like wicked, taunting grins.

As he stumbled at the foot of the hill, he heard the rapid click of heads turning towards him and saw the faceless enemies all spotting him at once.

Blood rushed in his ears, all the muscles in his body tensing. But Keith forced a threatening snarl onto his face, raising his sword. “That’s right, come and get me!” he shouted.

It was probably stupid, but all he could think about was drawing the sentries’ attention to himself. Anything to keep them from getting to the cave, from getting to Lance and Zola.

They took the bait immediately, their blasters all trained on him at once. The whir of lasers igniting echoed all around him.

Keith only had about half a second to activate his shield, ducking behind it before the sentries started firing. He grimaced at the onslaught of laser bullets ricocheting off the small force field, sending him reeling back a few steps. Finding his footing again, he dug his heels into the soil and crouched low, trying to protect as much of his body as he could.

But he knew he couldn’t just cower there forever. Sooner or later, he would have to throw himself into the fray.

Once there was a slight lull in the shooting, Keith surged forward with a yell. He took every semblance of fear in his blood and trampled it out, digging deep down to summon some kind of wild, berserker rage.

The first sentry split evenly down the middle with a single sweep of his blade. The top half tumbled to the ground while the legs stood still for a moment before collapsing.

Keith didn’t slow down, immediately driving his sword through the chest of another sentry. A sick satisfaction burned through his veins upon watching the sparks of electricity that burst and died around the blade, before the mechanical soldier fell useless to the dirt.

Almost at the same time, shots echoed across the sky. Moments later, a burning drone crashed to the ground not far from where he stood.

“Nice job, Lance,” he said into the comms, holding up his shield again to block several laser beams.

“Two drones down,” Lance responded. “There’s like … ten more to go. How’re you doing?”

Two sentries were closing in on Keith, and he quickly rose up to behead one of them and disarm the other before running the sword clean through its abdomen.

“Not bad,” he answered breathlessly. “Just keep shooting. We’ve got this.”

They both stopped talking after that, caught up in the intensity of the battle. Keith tried to push everything else to the back of his mind as he threw himself back into the frenzy.

Everything was a blur of bright laser beams, the echoes of weapons firing one after the other. Miraculously, Keith was still unharmed. All his senses had escalated, and he acted on pure instinct as he dodged the lasers firing at him and made his own ferocious attacks, felling sentry after sentry until sparking metal parts littered the ground.

Meanwhile, the periodic explosions in the sky told Keith that Lance was making good progress with the drones. Occasionally he would see one of them tumbling from the sky in the corner of his vision. Each time he felt a momentary triumph, as dire as the situation was.

They were really doing this. They were going to make it.

Exhaustion was starting to seep into his limbs, and Keith could feel a bead of sweat trickling down the back of his neck. Every muscle in his body burned, and he was so out of breath he was starting to feel dizzy. But he could still see the telltale gleam of metal in the dimness: more sentries approaching.

Crying out again, he rushed at the enemies with newfound determination, blade swinging in one deadly arc and then another. Adrenaline rushed so fiercely through his veins that he barely felt anything anymore, except the sensation of his sword slicing through metal and wire.

Then very suddenly, everything was silent.

Another sentry lay smoking, divided in half at Keith's feet, and he numbly realized it had been the last one.

His gaze swept over the surrounding field one more time, just in case, but all he could see was the broken pieces of drones and sentries scattered over the ground.

Elated and tired beyond belief, he bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. His heartbeat still thundered in his ears.

Lance let out a triumphant whoop over the comms. "Got all the drones!" he announced. "How about you, Keith? Need any backup down there?"

"No ... no, I'm good," Keith wheezed out, gripping at the stitch in his side as he struggled to get his breathing back to normal. "Think I got them all."

He heard Lance laugh in disbelief, and he felt a slow smile start to spread across his own face.

"Wow, you really did it," Lance said. Keith couldn't see him, but he imagined Lance was surveying the scene from the mouth of the cave. "Sharp work, samurai."

Keith felt an involuntary flutter in his chest at the nickname. He stood up straight again, his eyes falling on a nearby drone on the ground, a perfect hole running through its center. "Not bad yourself, sharpshooter."

He was still grinning, but his smile fell when Lance didn't answer. "Lance? Everything okay?"

"Wait," Lance said suddenly, and the hushed tone of his voice had Keith immediately on edge again. "I thought I saw something ..."

"Something what? Where?" Keith hissed. His pulse picked up a panicked pace as he whirled around, searching for any sign of movement.

Right then, he heard Lance inhale sharply. "There's one left, it's ... Keith, behind you!"

Keith turned right away, but not before he heard the loud shot of a laser firing.

Something exploded against his chest.

It all happened in an instant, and yet Keith felt as if a century passed in that moment. He heard the sickening crack that rang through his armor, saw the warning red flashes inside the visor of his helmet telling him he'd been hit.

The blow sent him flying backwards, slamming into the ground so hard that he saw stars. The world pitched in and out of focus. He was numbly, distantly aware of the smell of burning metal seeping into his helmet, the unintelligible red symbols blinking across his visor, Lance yelling his name over the comms.

He could only lie there, stunned, as he tried to pull himself back to reality, but he couldn't think through the daze of shock. He knew he’d been shot, but he couldn’t feel anything at all except a dull throb in his collarbone where he’d been hit. Had it gone through his armor? Was he dying? Was this what dying felt like?

Scraping his wits together, he managed to raise himself up on his elbows––only to find himself staring right up at the sentry who had shot at him. The sentry who now had its blaster pointed right at his face.

Keith’s bayard had flown from his hand. He was defenseless. And the blaster was already whirring, its laser beam starting to ignite and––

A thin blue ray of light shot out of the darkness and blew a hole right through the sentry’s chest. Then another beam hit it. And another. And finally, one last laser beam tore through its head and sent it toppling to the dirt.

Lance, Keith realized. He tried to say it out loud, but he felt like all the air had been torn from his lungs. The world was growing dark at the edges, narrowing rapidly.

He collapsed back onto the ground.

Chapter Text

Keith didn’t know how long he lay there in a bleary half-conscious state. His thoughts fogged over and he couldn't feel anything, nothing at all, and he distantly wondered again if he was dying. Or already dead.

He didn’t remember passing out but he must have, because time seemed to leap forward very suddenly. Dark spots burst and dissipated across his vision. A loud buzzing filled his head, but it was already starting to fade.

As his hearing returned, he became aware of a voice somewhere nearby, although it sounded strangely muffled and he couldn't make out the words. He realized he wasn’t wearing his helmet––Had it fallen off? Had someone removed it?––and the night air was thick and humid on his skin. Then there was a firm pressure on either side of his face––someone holding it, their hands shaking.

By now, he had gathered that the voice he was hearing was Lance’s––and it became rapidly clearer as Keith regained full consciousness.

“Keith?” He’d never heard Lance like this, his voice choked up and breaking on the words, desperate pleas spilling out of him. “No, no … please, no. Come on, you’ve gotta answer me. Keith.”

“Lance?” he managed to say, although it came out weak and rasping.

His vision cleared to the sight of Lance hunched over him, a shadow against the night sky.

Lance let out a heavy breath like he’d been punched in the chest, sitting back on his heels. “Oh, my God. You’re alive. You …”

And then he was crying.

It took a second before Keith realized it, before he saw the tears streaming from Lance’s eyes and heard the sob that wracked through him.

An immediate, instinctive worry rose up in Keith at the sight, and he tried to lift himself off the ground––only to be stopped by Lance’s hand on his shoulder, pinning him down.

“Wait, don’t … Don’t move,” Lance stuttered out, wiping at his eyes with his free hand. “You’re …”

“I’m okay,” Keith said. It was his natural instinct to say it––but to his shock, he was starting to realize it was true.

Hardly able to believe it, he lifted a hand to his own chest. He winced when he felt the large dent in his armor, a jagged crack running down the surface from where he’d been hit. It was still warm from the heat of the laser.

But it hadn’t gone all the way through.

Lance must have realized it at the same time, and he inhaled sharply as he touched Keith’s chest plate, his fingers following the same trail as Keith’s had until their hands touched.

“You––You mean you’re not hurt?” Lance said, eyes widening in disbelief. “Not at all?”

Keith was very aware of Lance’s hand resting over his, and it took a moment for him to remember how to speak again. “I don’t think so.”

He sat up experimentally and cringed a little in preparation for the inevitable pain. But it wasn’t as bad as he had expected. He ached all over from the exhaustion of the battle, and he was pretty sure he’d been badly bruised under his armor where the laser beam had hit him. Otherwise, though, he’d made it out miraculously unscathed.

He glanced down at his armor and could see a blackened dent in the metal and the spiderweb of cracks surrounding it. “Whoa,” he wheezed. “I knew this was made out of some strong stuff, but …”

He trailed off as he lifted his gaze and saw the way Lance was looking at him. There were still tears lingering on his face, but he was oddly silent as he stared at Keith. His expression was intense and unreadable, shifting from awestruck to something almost furious in the span of one moment.

“You asshole,” he said, and he hugged Keith.

It took a second for Keith to fully comprehend what was happening, his whole body tensing at the unexpected contact. But then it slowly sunk in that Lance’s arms were around him––one wrapped around his shoulders, the other circling his torso. He felt the shuddering sigh that escaped the other boy, a gentle huff of air against his neck.

Against all odds, they were both breathing and whole and alive.

Keith hugged Lance back.

He closed his eyes, surprised at how fiercely they stung. His rapid heartbeat started to slow, the tension ebbing out of his limbs as he settled into the embrace.

“Never do that to me again,” Lance muttered against his shoulder. “God, I was so scared.”

“I know,” Keith said, a lump of guilt lodged in his throat. “I’m sorry.”

Lance pulled away, and Keith felt cold despite the humid climate engulfing them.

And then he saw the crooked, giddy grin on Lance’s face and he felt like he’d been shot in the chest again. They just looked at each other and Lance’s hands still lingered on Keith’s shoulders, and for a dizzying moment Keith thought maybe …

But then Lance suddenly sobered, clearing his throat as his hands dropped from Keith’s arms. “We need to get back to Zola.” He glanced at the destroyed robots around them and winced. “And uh, maybe we should also change locations.”

“Right,” Keith said. He'd felt a bit light-headed a few seconds ago, but he was beginning to feel grounded again.

Lance stood up first, offering his hand down to Keith, who grasped it without a second thought. He felt a little woozy upon standing, and Lance grabbed his arm when he swayed. "Whoa, there. You okay?"

"Uh ... yeah." Keith touched the dent in his armor one more time, still unable to comprehend how lucky he'd been. Everything felt like a dream, blurry and distant. "Just really tired, I guess."

Lance frowned, like he wasn't entirely convinced. "Okay. Well, you can lean on me if you need to."

Normally Keith would have probably refused the offer, but at the moment he was too shaken to feel embarrassed about it. Besides, he did still feel wobbly on his feet. It somehow felt natural to wrap an arm around Lance's shoulders, to have his sturdy presence right next to him as they made their way back up to the cave.

Before they even reached it, Keith could see Zola's tiny form standing at the opening, four hands in anxious fists at her sides. She gasped upon seeing them, the markings on her face brightening. Then she started running down the slope.

Keith’s arm slipped from around Lance’s shoulders. He knelt down to Zola’s height as she ran straight towards him and threw her arms around him, burying her face against his shoulder. She was surprisingly strong for her size, and Keith felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. He returned the embrace, lifting Zola off the ground and just holding her.

She drew away after a few seconds, looking Keith in the face with teary, glowing eyes. “You came back.”

He laughed softly. “Of course I did.” He met Lance’s gaze over Zola’s shoulder. “I always do.”

A teary smile lit up Lance’s face, and Keith felt like his heart was swelling to twice its normal size. Lance rushed forward and hugged both of them. And for a while the three of them just stood there like that––Keith still holding Zola, Zola with two arms wrapped around each paladin, Lance's arms encircling them both. They stood under the stars, above the wreckage sprawled in the valley below, just happy to be alive and together.

--

Once they'd all overcome the shock of everything that had just happened, Lance insisted once again that they find somewhere else to settle down, which Keith couldn't argue with. The scene outside the cave was a bit macabre, what with the dismembered robots scattered everywhere, and there was always a chance there were more drones and sentries on their way.

Even so, they didn't travel very far. After all, if they were being tracked somehow, it probably didn't make much of a difference.

Still, they moved across the valley, which was fairly vast, searching for another place to hide. Keith felt like he was in a daze the entire time, numb with exhaustion and disbelief. A few times he caught Lance looking at him with his brow furrowed in concern. There was something else in his expression too, something almost ... frightened, like he was looking at a ghost, and Keith was too tired to try and make sense of it.

At last, they found another cluster of hills, and a cave-like hollow in one of them that seemed hospitable enough. It was a little smaller than the last one they'd attempted to settle down in, but at least it was lower to the ground and more well-hidden by the tall reeds surrounding it.

Lance had been carrying Zola for the last portion of their journey, and she was already starting to fall asleep in his arms. As soon as they were inside the small cavern, he carefully knelt down to place her on the ground.

Zola didn’t let go of his hand. “Are we gonna be safe here?” she murmured.

He smiled at her. “Yeah, we are. Don’t worry, we’re here to protect you.”

“I know,” she said, eyes half-closed as she frowned in sleepy contemplation. “Are you gonna bring me home tomorrow?”

Lance patted her shoulder. “Yep! We’ve almost made it––just a little more walking in the morning and we’ll be there.”

Something seemed to occur to Zola then, and she opened her eyes a little and shifted slightly. Keith panicked for a second, thinking she heard something outside, but then she just said, “Where will you go after you take me home?”

Lance looked up at Keith, who was still standing over them, as if searching for some assistance in tackling that question.

Keith cleared his throat. “Well uh, we’ll go back to defending the universe.”

“Oh.” There was a note of sadness to that one syllable that Keith hadn’t anticipated. Zola was silent for a few seconds, rubbing at one of her eyes. “I’ll miss you when you leave,” she said quietly.

And there was a wrenching feeling in Keith’s chest at those words––because it hadn’t really occurred to him until then that, after this, they might never meet Zola again.

“Aw, Zo,” Lance said, his voice choked. He patted the back of her hand. “We’ll miss you a lot, too.”

--

It was maybe only a minute until Zola had fallen back asleep, and Lance let go of her hand and gently laid it on the ground. Then he got to his feet, stretching his arms.

“She’s such a good kid,” he said hoarsely, still looking down at Zola. He paused and then laughed a little. “You should’ve seen her after you ran off. She was ready to go running after you and help you take down those sentries with her own blaster. I practically had to drag her back into the cave.”

Keith couldn’t help but smile at that. “Well, you did tell her she was a good shot.”

“She is!” Lance said defensively, crossing his arms. “But I guess you’re right, I inflated her ego too much. She’s gonna become a ruthless war machine and it’s all my fault.”

They both grinned. But then Lance’s eyes fell on the huge crack in Keith’s armor, and he suddenly sobered again.

“You’re really sure you’re okay?”

Keith tried to cover the cracked metal with one hand, as if that would make it disappear. “Yeah, it’s fine. Really.” Almost as soon as he said the words, he became aware of the painful throbbing in his right collarbone, and he tried not to wince. “Hurts a little, but I think it’s just a bruise.”

He wandered to the back of the cavern, where a small pile of rocks stood against the wall. He carefully lowered himself to the ground. After a moment, Lance ambled over and sat down next to him, leaning against the rocks behind them.

Wincing, Keith started taking the top portion of his armor off––unclasping the pieces from his arms and then lifting the chest plate over his head. He held it out in front of him, groaning when he saw just how badly damaged it was. The blackened dent from the laser beam had warped the metal, causing it to cave sharply inwards. The resulting cracks spiraled out of it, marring the entire right side of the plate.

“Shit,” he muttered. “Allura’s not gonna be happy about this.”

“Hey, it’ll be fine,” Lance said. “I'm sure Coran can find a way to fix it. And I’m sure Allura will just be happy that you came back in one piece.”

Keith didn’t say anything. He kept staring at the hideous dent in the armor, realizing that if that laser beam had hit him just a little lower, if it had hit anywhere the armor hadn’t been protecting him …

Suddenly feeling sick, he put the chest plate aside.

Just to make sure he hadn’t broken anything, he prodded gingerly along his collarbone. It was still intact––not broken, from what he could tell––but he did hiss at the large bruise he could feel forming under the skin.

“You okay?” Lance asked.

“Yeah. Like I said, just a bruise.” He tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit, pulling it down just enough to examine the injured area. Sure enough, there were already dark splotches appearing along his collarbone.

“Oh,” Lance said, his voice strangely dry. His eyes shied away quickly, like he’d been staring into a bright light. “Do you, uh … Does it hurt a lot? Need painkillers or anything?”

Keith shrugged. “I think I’ll be okay for now. Might take some later if it feels worse.”

His hands dropped into his lap again. They were both silent. Keith noticed that Lance was still staring intently at the ground, biting his lip.

“Is something wrong?” Keith asked him.

Lance looked up suddenly like he’d forgotten Keith was there, and an unexpected fire entered his eyes. “Yeah, something’s wrong––you could’ve gotten killed back there. I told you not to go out there and you …” He faltered suddenly, unable to finish the sentence.

It took a moment for Keith to process the words, and then he felt that familiar flare-up of anger in his gut, that instinct to fight.

“What else did you expect me to do?” he shot back. “If I hadn’t done anything, those sentries would’ve gotten to the cave in minutes. They would’ve killed all of us. What was I supposed to do, sit there and wait for them to attack?”

“I don’t––I don’t know,” Lance stuttered, looking away again. He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s … I just …”

“You just what?”

I thought you were dead,” Lance blurted, and that immediately shut Keith up. He could see now how upset Lance looked, how tears were threatening to spill from the corners of his eyes again. “I saw that sentry going towards you and I started running, and then––then it shot you, and I …”

His hands clenched into fists in his lap. “I thought I was too late,” he said, more quietly now. “I just started shooting at it without thinking. But then I saw you and you were just … lying there.”

Everything was starting to come back to Keith, and he dimly remembered looking up just as Lance had shot that sentry to smithereens. He’d hit it square in the chest and he’d still shot it three more times.

And it hadn’t fully occurred to him until now, but now he imagined how Lance must have felt when he saw Keith on the ground with a smoking hole in his armor. If their roles had been reversed … Keith felt sick just thinking about it.

“I’m sorry.” He’d apologized already, but all he could do was say it again.

Lance didn’t respond. He was still glaring at the ground like he could burn a hole right through it. Like he hadn’t heard Keith at all.

“This is just going to keep happening, isn’t it?” he said. “You, always throwing yourself into danger.”

Keith frowned. “I mean, yeah. We’re in the middle of a war, that’s kind of inevitable.”

“That's not what I’m saying,” Lance said. Now he finally looked up, mirroring Keith’s scowl. “You’re getting too reckless, Keith. And yeah, maybe you always manage to scrape by, but what if someday that doesn’t happen?”

It all came out in a rush, like this was something he’d been holding back for a long time.

Keith’s jaw clenched as he tried not to lose his temper. “Me? What about you?” he fired back, dodging Lance’s question. “You’re the one who tried to take on three armed drones by yourself yesterday. Oh, not to mention that time you threw yourself in front of a bomb and nearly died.”

He regretted the words as soon as he said them, silenced by the surprisingly wounded look on Lance’s face.

But Keith wasn’t backing down now. He was furious in a way he'd never been before, in a way that made him shake uncontrollably to contain the emotion.

“Besides, it’s not the same when I do it,” he said.

Lance just stared at him. “What do you mean?”

And all at once, Keith felt something raw and painful crack open behind his sternum––something he’d struggled to keep hidden but couldn’t hold back anymore.

“You have a family, Lance,” he said. “You have a home and your parents and your siblings, your nieces and nephews, and you have them to go back to after all of this is over. Everyone will have that––people waiting for them back on Earth. But me … I don’t have that, okay? Even if somehow I survive through all of this, I’ll––”

“Whoa, stop,” Lance cut him off. He put a hand on Keith’s arm, startling him into silence. There was no trace of anger on his face anymore––only genuine, wide-eyed concern. “That’s what this is about? You think that when this is all over, you’ll have no one?”

Keith didn’t trust himself to speak. Now that Lance said it out loud, his fear suddenly had a shape and a name that he’d never dared to acknowledge, and it was like a knife to the gut.

“Hey, you know that’s not true,” Lance said, inching a bit closer to him. “After everything we’ve all been through together, you think we’ll all just forget about each other when this ends?”

Keith stared at the ground, his eyes burning. He still couldn’t answer.

“And what, just because you don't have a family you think no one cares about you?” Lance went on. “You think the rest of the team doesn’t care? You think I don’t care?”

Surprised, Keith lifted his head again, his heart starting to pound.

“It’s not just about filling a space on the team, you know. You're not just a––a placeholder.” Lance was stumbling over his words now. “It's not about Voltron. It’s about you, Keith. And if anything happened to you, we’d all be devastated. We all care about you. A lot.

“So don’t you dare try to tell me you have no one. You have the whole team, all of us. And when we get through this war, you’ll still have all of us. You––You’ll still have me.”

Lance stopped abruptly, slightly breathless after saying so much without stopping. His eyes widened as if he was surprised at everything he'd just said. Or maybe it was because he’d unconsciously moved toward Keith as he spoke, and now their faces were so close that Keith could see the way his pupils dilated in the faint green light of the cavern.

Keith’s mind blanked out then. Maybe it was the leftover adrenaline from the battle or the shock of his own miraculous survival, but he felt like there were entire galaxies in his veins. Like all the stars were aligning. Like he could do anything.

He kissed Lance.

It happened so fast that he barely realized what he had done, and then all the nerves in his body ignited at once like an electric current had shocked through him. He was suddenly aware of their mouths pressed together and Lance’s muffled exclamation of surprise against his lips.

In his haste, Keith had aimed a bit badly, the kiss landing a little too rough and off-center, but now he was too nervous to move.

And then the panic started to set in because Lance … wasn’t moving at all either, wasn’t responding except for his hand gripping more firmly to Keith’s arm––Keith had forgotten his hand was still there. His mouth remained stiff, pursed in a tight line.

It only lasted about two seconds, and then Keith pulled back quickly. The heat of mortification rose to his face, dread stirring in his stomach when he saw Lance’s expression––because Lance didn’t look happy. He just looked … shocked, his eyes round as he stared back at Keith.

“Oh,” he said, like he’d suddenly just remembered something.

Keith waited for more, any reaction at all. Lance was always so talkative; why was he being so silent now, of all times?

When he still didn’t speak, Keith felt his last flicker of hope sputter and die. God, he was an idiot.

“I’m … sorry,” he muttered hastily. “I have to …”

He couldn’t string together a complete sentence. All he could think was that he couldn't stay here, couldn’t look Lance in the face. He realized then that Lance was still holding his wrist loosely, and he shook it off as he got to his feet.

Part of him hoped Lance would call after him as he stumbled away, stepping around Zola and dashing out of the cavern. But only a horrible silence chased him out into the night.

--

He didn’t know where to go or what to do once he got outside. It wasn’t like he planned on going very far, just that he couldn’t be in the same space as Lance right now. He needed to clear his head.

Keith reached the bottom of the small slope and ran a few more paces into the field before he came to an unsteady stop. Shuddering breaths heaved out of him and his hands tightened into fists. Everything was so silent around him––nothing but the tall reeds swaying, glowing pods bobbing up and down like a sea of stars.

The scene blurred in front of Keith’s eyes.

He was so stupid. He’d known Lance didn’t feel that way about him and Keith had kissed him anyway––kissed his teammate, his friend, and that was something he couldn’t take back. Now Lance probably hated him. And that sense of rejection––the pain of knowing Lance didn’t like him back––stung a lot more than Keith had expected it to.

He wanted to cry. Or throw up, maybe.

He wanted to run, the same way he'd run across the desert the day he’d gotten kicked out of the Garrison, until his lungs burned and his legs gave out under him.

He wanted to be back on Earth. He wanted sunsets. He wanted the rain. He wanted ...

“Hey.”

Keith froze, turning at the sound of Lance’s voice. He was standing at the top of the slope. Against his will, Keith's heart sped up at the sight of him.

“So … what, you’re just going to run away now?” Lance said when Keith didn’t answer. He’d started to move down the hill, and Keith instinctively tensed at his approach.

“I …” Keith’s voice came out hoarse, and he cleared his throat. “I’m not. Running away,” he said haltingly.

“Then where are you going?”

Now that he was closer, Keith could see that Lance didn't look angry. If anything, he looked … confused, eyebrows knitting together in a slight frown.

“Nowhere,” Keith answered automatically. He cast his eyes at the ground. He wanted to say something else––say he was sorry and tell Lance he just wanted to be alone, but he couldn’t seem to form the words.

“Huh. Well, that’s good,” Lance said, coming to a stop about an arm’s-length in front of Keith. “That would’ve sucked. You know … if I’d waited all that time for you to kiss me and that was all I got.”

Keith didn’t process the words at first, and then they hit him like a tidal wave.

Surprised, he looked up. Lance was smiling––a small, nervous smile that made Keith’s heart trip fondly in his chest.

He felt dizzy with disbelief. His eyes still stung and he wiped a hand across them, a sound escaping him that might’ve been a laugh. Or maybe he was crying … he didn’t know anymore.

Lance cleared his throat. “So, uh …”

“So,” Keith echoed.

Cautiously, Lance moved even closer to him, placing his hands on Keith’s upper arms. He looked suddenly anxious and vulnerable, hopeful and scared. His shoulders rose and fell as he breathed in deeply, the same way he always did when he was trying to shoot a distant target … like he was about to take the longest shot of his life.

He pulled Keith forward and kissed him.

They sort of stumbled into each other––knees knocking together, noses bumping, lips meeting at a clumsy angle. Keith's breath caught, and then his eyes drifted closed as he tilted his head slightly.

There were a few awkward attempts as they tried to get their lips to fit together properly––quick, experimental brushes that soon gave way to longer, lingering kisses. Lance’s hands slid down Keith’s arms to his wrists, gently guiding them to his waist. Keith was more than happy to comply, sliding a hand to the small of Lance’s back, fingers digging into the soft fabric of his jumpsuit and pulling him even closer.

Lance smiled against Keith’s mouth before kissing him again. He cupped Keith’s jaw with one hand and tilted it upward while his other arm slipped around Keith’s waist. They were chest-to-chest now, hearts beating in fervent unison.

Keith was blisteringly aware of everything: the ardent movement of their lips against each other, the little huffs of their shared breaths between kisses, Lance’s thumb brushing his cheekbone, his own hands wandering uncertainly from Lance’s back to his shoulders to his waist …

He accidentally pressed against Lance’s bruised ribs and the other boy pulled back with a sharp gasp. Keith tried to stutter out an apology––shit, he had already ruined everything––but he couldn’t even get the words out before Lance’s hands grabbed his face. He kissed Keith twice as fiercely this time, fingers weaving into Keith’s hair.

When they finally broke apart, they were both breathing hard like they’d been running for miles. Keith’s hands were on Lance’s shoulders and Lance’s hands rested on Keith’s waist, like they’d been caught in the middle of a slow-dance.

Keith had a disorienting feeling like he was looking at Lance for the first time––this new version of Lance who had kissed him, who liked him, who was now staring at him with such starry-eyed adoration that Keith was tempted to look over his shoulder because there was no way Lance would look at him that way.

But then a slow, familiar grin stretched across Lance’s face and a fond warmth spread through Keith’s veins. That was the Lance he knew. Somehow, he realized, those two versions of Lance were the same person.

“That was so much better than my imagination,” Lance said.

It took a second for Keith to break out of his daze, and then the implication of those words suddenly hit him. “Your … you’ve imagined this before?”

Lance scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, not this scenario exactly. I always pictured something a little more dramatic like … I don’t know, after we defeated Zarkon maybe I’d theatrically dip you in front of the sunset or something. But spontaneously making out with you in a field when we’re supposed to be babysitting an alien kid is pretty cool, too.”

Keith was listening, but he didn’t know what to say. His entire being buzzed with this new information. Lance liked him. Lance had liked him long enough to have pictured something like this happening before.

“I was also kinda hoping I’d kiss you first,” Lance went on, a teasing glint in his eyes. “But you always just have to beat me to it, don’t you?”

Keith felt like he’d been hit over the head, and he was only just beginning to recover from the shock. He was amazed at how casually Lance was talking about this, how he'd slipped so naturally back into their usual banter. It was strange, because everything had changed and yet nothing had––and somehow, that felt like a huge relief.

He still hadn't said anything, and Lance’s smile had started to waver. Snapping out of his daze, Keith smirked at him. “I don’t know if that first one really counts.”

Lance looked away guiltily. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I kinda panicked.”

“Hey. It’s okay.” Without thinking, Keith reached up to lay a hand on the side of his face. Lance looked at him in surprise and he almost snatched his hand back, but then Lance reached up to hold his wrist.

It took a second for Keith to find his voice again. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have just … done that. I wasn’t thinking.”

Lance smiled crookedly. “You never do.”

“Hey,” Keith said, but he smiled back.

Laughing softly, Lance pulled Keith’s hand away from his face and just … held it, like he wasn't even thinking about it. He released a long sigh. “Ugh, Hunk is gonna give me so much grief about this. I kept telling him I’d wait to kiss you until the war was over and all, but he didn’t think I’d be able to wait that long. Guess he was right, as always.”

“Wait,” Keith sputtered. “Hunk knows that you … ?”

“Uh yeah, of course. I tell Hunk everything, you know that!”

“Hold on, does anyone else … Oh, my God. Shiro knows,” Keith answered his own question before he even finished it, his face immediately heating up. Suddenly, everything Shiro had said to him before they left started to make a hell of a lot more sense. It also explained why he’d kept pairing them up for training exercises these past few weeks, saying they needed to improve their “teamwork.”

God damn it, Shiro.

Lance was blushing a little too, a sheepish smile on his face. “I might’ve gone to him for advice once or twice or … a lot of times.”

What?”

“You guys are practically brothers!” Lance said defensively. “I figured, you know, he knows you better than anyone else ...”

“Oh, my God,” Keith said again. He pressed his forehead into Lance’s shoulder to hide his face.

Lance placed a hand on his back. “You’re not mad at me, are you?” He sounded genuinely worried.

“No, I’m not mad.” Keith huffed out a laugh, lifting his head again. “I’m just trying to process all this. I didn’t …” He looked down, voice lowering. “I didn’t even think you liked me.”

“I didn’t think you liked me,” Lance said, and then was quiet for a moment. He hooked a finger under Keith’s chin and lifted it up, looking him earnestly in the eyes. “But, uh … I do like you, by the way. I really, really like you. In case I didn’t make that obvious.”

Even though he already sort of knew it, Keith still beamed at hearing those words out loud. He felt like he must be dreaming, like he was glowing from the inside out.

He leaned forward to press one more quick kiss to Lance’s mouth and delighted in the flustered look on Lance’s face when he pulled back again.

“I really like you too, Lance.”

Truthfully, he thought maybe it was something more than that. But for now, this was enough: this fragile, beautiful thing that had only just begun.

Lance’s smile was brighter than all the stars in the sky. And for once, Keith didn’t feel like he had to look away.

Chapter Text

They took turns keeping watch throughout the night. Keith took the first shift, sitting back against the rocks. Lance dozed next to him, his head resting on Keith’s shoulder. Keith didn’t move a muscle, even though his arm was already sore and had started to fall asleep.

He remained more sharply alert than ever, his bayard on the ground only inches from his hand. Even the slightest noises from outside made Keith tense, but they always turned out to be natural sounds––the wind hissing across the fields, the distant calls of wild creatures in the forest.

It felt as if the world was encased in a bubble, contained only by a thin, ethereal film that could burst at any moment. Everything seemed deceptively peaceful: Zola sleeping soundly on the ground, Lance resting against Keith, the quiet of the night surrounding them all.

As Keith had told Lance the night before, he felt like the universe kept handing him second chances. He really didn't want to mess up this one.

When it was his turn to sleep, he was almost afraid to close his eyes––worried that when he opened them, he would discover that none of this had been real and that he had actually died out in that field.

But when he woke up in the morning, he was still alive and whole. His eyes blinked open to the sight of his cracked chest plate lying a few feet away––a painful reminder. He touched his chest as he carefully sat up. The bruise still ached, maybe even a little worse than it had the night before, but he was still grateful that it wasn't anything worse.

Then he noticed the cavern was empty.

Faint sunlight drifted through the opening, illuminating small dust motes floating in the air. There was only a soft indent in the moss where Zola had been sleeping. And the spot next to Keith, where Lance's warm presence had been before, was bare.

Suddenly frantic, Keith stood up so fast that his head spun. His ears roared as he dashed to the mouth of the cave and ...

At the bottom of the hill, Lance and Zola were sitting cross-legged on the grass. Keith couldn't see exactly what they were doing, except Lance was bent over and staring at something in his hands intently while Zola watched in fascination.

Keith's shoulders relaxed as relief flooded through him. As his eyes adjusted to the early morning light, he could see now that surrounding Lance and Zola were what looked pretty similar to flowers from Earth––plants with large violet petals fluttering in the breeze. He hadn't noticed them in the darkness the night before.

Even though Keith hadn't made a sound, Lance suddenly looked up like he had sensed Keith's presence. As they made eye contact over the short distance, something wild and unsure fluttered inside Keith's ribcage. He wasn't used to this.

But then Lance's whole face lit up, and it was like a beacon calling him forward. Telling him it was safe.

"Keith!" Lance waved at him, as if he thought Keith hadn't noticed them already––which, Keith had to admit to himself, was adorable.

"Hey." He tried to make the greeting sound as casual as possible, even though he was aware of the slight tremor in his voice and his unnatural, stiff posture.

But he relaxed a little at Lance’s soft smile. He was only just beginning to realize that this was all really happening. Him. Lance. He finally felt like he was waking up.

Keith picked his way down the small slope, maneuvering around a few rocks in his path. As he drew closer, he saw that Lance had a pile of the purple flowers in his lap.

"What are you doing with those?"

"Trying to teach Zola to make daisy chains," Lance said, holding up a few he had strung together. "Or ... well ... I know these aren't daisies, but close enough." He lowered the flowers again. "Sorry, I should've probably woken you up earlier, but I figured you were pretty exhausted."

"It's okay. I mean, I was," Keith stammered, lowering himself to the ground between Lance and Zola.

Lance looked at him with slight concern. "You feeling alright?"

"I ... yeah." Keith instinctively touched his right collarbone and tried not to wince at the pain. "Still kinda hurts, but not too badly. What about you?"

"Me? I'm fine. Side's a bit sore, that's all. But ... I'm good."

His voice grew a bit softer on those last couple words, and he gave Keith a crooked smile.

Keith smiled back hesitantly. "I am, too."

They just stared at each other for a few more seconds before Lance cleared his throat.

“Anyway … Allura called a little while ago. I told her everything.”

Keith’s smile immediately dropped. “Everything?”

“I––no, not everything,” Lance stammered, blushing. “I just meant, I told her about the attack. And about how you single-handedly destroyed like a hundred sentries.”

“It was like twenty at most, Lance.”

“Eh, details.” Lance waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway, she said the castle is up and running again, and they should be ready to make the wormhole jump soon. They're gonna meet us near the rebel base.”

He grinned in Zola’s direction. “You ready to go home, Zo?”

“Yeah!” she answered excitedly, the markings on her face glowing bright.

Lance chuckled. “Of course you are.”

He took the chain of flowers he’d been weaving together and looped them into a circle, and then placed the makeshift crown on Zola’s head. She reached up to touch it in curiosity.

“Turned out pretty nice if I do say so myself,” Lance said. “My big sister would be proud.” His smile turned wistful at those words.

“She taught you how to make those?” Keith guessed.

Lance nodded and grinned at him. “I can make you one, if you want.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”

“Okay, well … someday.” Lance winked, brushing his hands off on his knees. “Anyway, we should probably get going.”

--

It only took them a minute or two to gather together the meager remainder of their supplies from the cavern, and then they were ready to head out again. Their map indicated that the rebel hideout was a short distance away––only a couple of hours at most. After such a grueling journey, it felt surreal to Keith that it would be over so soon.

But this was really it. They’d almost made it.

All three of them were very quiet as they set out again. They walked a winding path through the valley as the hills grew taller and taller on either side of them, casting shadows on the ground.

Keith kept a careful lookout for any movements around or above them, but everything was still. The sky was clear, and the only movement was the tall plants waving in the breeze, flickering with bioluminescent spots.

Soon their path was flanked by scattered trees, which grew in number and proximity as they progressed. It wasn't long until they were back in the forest, cloaked again by the thick foliage overhead.

"We're close," Keith said, referencing the map once again. "If I'm looking at this correctly, we should be there any minute."

He closed the map and stopped in his tracks, surveying the dense forest. Lance and Zola stopped close behind him.

"Hear anything?" Keith asked Zola.

She was already turning in a slow circle, one of her pointed ears flicking. "This way."

Without waiting another moment, she bolted ahead. The two paladins darted after her. The forest rushed by on either side of them, as they stumbled over roots and crashed through thick hangings of vines.

At last, they stumbled into a small clearing and Zola came to a sudden stop. She was listening intently again, the marks on her face blinking in a rapid rhythm. Then she turned around with a gasp.

Keith was just about to ask her what she’d heard when he heard a rustle of movement in the trees behind them.

He turned to see a row of blasters pointed straight at them.

Instinctively, Keith activated his bayard. In the corner of his vision, he saw the blue flash of Lance doing the same. Both paladins stepped in front of Zola, shielding her.

Keith’s pulse rushed as he tried to process the situation as quickly as possible. He could barely make out the humanoid shapes in the shadows, hidden in the underbrush––just the glowing tips of their blasters, ready to fire. But one moment passed and then another without any attack.

“Who goes there?” a voice demanded.

Keith hesitated, lowering his sword slightly. There was a chance these people were the Khagia––and if that was the case, he didn’t want to answer their questions. But he decided to take the risk.

“We’re paladins of Voltron,” he called back. “We’re here to return Zola to her family.”

He moved aside one step to reveal Zola, who stood frozen.

At the sight of her, all the blasters lowered at once. Hushed murmurs went through the group, and then figures began to emerge from behind the underbrush––tall aliens with skin tones ranging from light blue to dark purple and the same pointed ears and glowing markings on their faces that Zola possessed.

One of the people stepped out into the open––a woman with her plant-like tendrils of hair pulled back, several silver piercings glinting in one of her ears. Her four glowing blue eyes fixed on Zola, wide with disbelief.

“Zola?”

Zola gasped, apparently recognizing the woman. “Seldanna!” She dove forward, just as the woman knelt down to embrace her.

They hugged tightly, a tangle of long limbs, the lights in both their hair glowing bright with joy.

The Tethrans still hiding amongst the trees started to emerge cautiously one by one, dozens of glowing eyes blinking in wonder. Their mutters of confusion turned into excited exclamations as they crowded forward, their weapons forgotten.

The woman, Seldanna, still kept her arms wrapped tightly around Zola as she looked up, addressing one of the men standing behind her.

"Go find Arjun and Ruavu at once," she said, her voice firm even as she wiped the tears from her eyes with one hand. "Tell them that the paladins have arrived ... and that their daughter is home."

--

The entire group was soon marching into the forest, winding a complicated path amongst the trees. Seldanna––who seemed to be their leader, since she kept barking out orders––lingered near Lance and Keith in the middle of the throng.

Zola had hurried towards the front of the crowd, a tiny figure compared to the other Tethrans. She was talking excitedly with the people around her. Keith couldn't hear what she was saying, but she kept looking back at him and Lance with a bright smile on her face.

Keith was still trying to overcome the shock that they had actually made it here. Even seeing Zola safe among her people, he still couldn’t quite believe it. After all the bad luck they’d been through in the past two days, he expected some random disaster to happen at any moment.

“Hey.” Lance appeared right next to him, lightly nudging his arm. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Why?”

“I don’t know, you look upset,” Lance said, frowning. “Are you in a lot of pain or something?”

“No, it’s not that.” Keith absently touched the crack in his chest plate again, trying to ignore the dull ache underneath it.

He considered leaving it at that, but he remembered what Lance had said a couple nights ago. About how it was okay if he actually talked about what was on his mind. And now that they were … maybe, possibly … a thing, now was probably a good time to start doing that.

"It's just ... it feels weird that we actually made it," he said at last. "And it's gonna feel strange when it's over. Which is weird, because we've been on so many missions before, but this one feels ... different, somehow."

He didn’t know if that made sense. But Lance, to Keith's surprise, responded with an understanding nod.

"I know what you mean. This mission has definitely been ... full of surprises."

They both smiled a little at that.

Just then, Seldanna walked up next to them. "I hate to interrupt," she said. "But I just wanted to apologize for our ambush upon your arrival. Princess Allura had informed us you were nearby, but we still had to remain cautious and we didn't see Zola was with you at first."

"It's okay. We get it," Lance replied with a shrug of one shoulder.

"We know you were just trying to keep your people safe," Keith added. "Zola told us about how often you're all on the run."

Seldanna's expression darkened, her mouth set in a grim line. "Yes. It is tiring," she said quietly. "We do our best to keep as many safe as we can."

Keith felt a twinge of remorse at those words. "We're very sorry about your loss. We tried to––to ..."

Seldanna stopped him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Do not blame yourselves, paladins," she said, although her voice wavered. "We barely expected help from Voltron at all. And we know you did everything you can. You are so young and so brave."

Her hand slipped from Keith's shoulder, and she fixed her shining eyes ahead. "We are heartbroken. Nothing will ever fix that. But it isn't because of you ... It's because of the Khagia. It's because of Zarkon's reign." She spat out the names in disgust.

"But to know that Voltron still exists, to know that you are fighting to end this era of terror––it gives us reason to hope." The marks on her face glowed brighter in accordance with her words. "And you can know that we will always be willing to fight beside you."

“Thank you,” Lance said sincerely. “It means a lot.”

“You’re very welcome. We are endlessly grateful that you came all this way to bring Zola back to us.”

“Hey, it was no problem. We may have hit a few bumps along the way … but we made it.”

Lance knocked his shoulder against Keith’s, and they exchanged a knowing smile.

“Yeah,” Keith said. “We did.”

Right at that moment, a surge of noise went through the crowd around them, with everyone bustling forward at once and pointing at something up ahead. "There they are!" someone cried.

Two Tethran men were sprinting towards them through the woods, pushing aside the various vines blocking their path and stumbling onward.

Zola saw them and gasped. "Dada! Papa!"

She ran to them. One of the men had one hand over his mouth as tears streamed from his eyes, and the other grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him forward. They both fell to their knees as Zola reached them, and then all three of them were embracing in a shaking heap on the ground.

An almost reverent silence swept through the crowd as everyone gave the small, reunited family a wide circle of space. Everything else seemed to fade into the background until there was nothing but Zola and her two fathers––long arms wrapped around each other, a hand stroking Zola’s hair. The only sound was their heaving sobs of relief, the two men saying their daughter’s name over and over and promising her they would never let anything happen to her again.

Without even meaning to, Keith had shifted to the front of the crowd. A lump had formed in his throat and his vision went fuzzy with tears. Something about the touching scene had unearthed some long-forgotten memory of being held that way, fierce embraces and whispered promises of safety.

Something brushed his arm, and he broke out of his stupor and looked up to see Lance standing right next to him. There were tears streaming down his face but a relieved smile breaking through them. A breathy laugh escaped him, turning into a sob halfway through. Keith smiled back reassuringly, reaching out to squeeze Lance’s hand.

When he turned again, he saw that one of Zola’s fathers had lifted his head and was looking up at the paladins. His three yellow eyes shone with such gratitude that in that moment, Keith felt the weight of the universe more strongly than he ever had before.

“Thank you,” the man said, voice trembling and breaking. “Thank you, thank you.”

--

Everything passed in a haze, but somehow they all ended up moving through a series of tunnels into the rebels’ underground hideout. The narrow tunnels opened up into wide caverns with towering ceilings. Everyone gathered in one of these large hollows, which was crowded with makeshift shelters and dozens of Tethrans milling about like it was some kind of small village. They all rushed forth at the new arrivals, exclaiming in relief.

It wasn’t long before Keith lost track of Zola in the crowd; so many people had gathered around her and her fathers that it was soon impossible to see them in the mass of bodies.

Nearby, Lance was crouching down to talk to a group of curious Tethran children, cheerfully answering their barrage of questions.

“Are you really the paladins?”

“Yep!”

“Where’s the lions?”

“Unfortunately we don’t have them with us. Had to hide them in the woods.”

“How’d you find Zola?”

“That’s kind of a long story, but maybe we can tell you all about it later!”

It took a while for things to calm down, but then the large group of rebels all circled around what looked like a huge fire pit, glowing with silent blue flames that didn’t let off any smoke. Food was passed around––some kind of crumbly bread and a soup that had glowing chunks in it. Keith had no idea what it was, but he was too hungry to care.

The two paladins sat side-by-side, legs crossed and their knees touching. Next to them, Zola sat with her fathers, taking turns sitting on one of their laps and then the other. Both of them kept a protective arm around her, all three of them murmuring things to each other that Keith couldn’t hear. But from the glowing happiness on their faces, he could tell they were overjoyed to be together again.

Throughout the meal, the Tethrans had been giving the paladins their space. Despite that, Keith had seen many pairs of eyes peering curiously at them, often falling on the glaring crack in Keith’s armor with a flicker of concern. He tried to avoid meeting any of their gazes, although he could feel them all staring.

When mostly everyone had finished eating, they started to grow more bold and inch towards Keith and Lance one-by-one, either to thank them or to start asking questions.

It wasn’t long until Lance just launched into the story of their entire journey from start to finish, which attracted the attention of everyone present. At first, Keith felt a bit anxious with all those eyes staring at them. But once he focused on Lance he felt calmer, entranced by the rise and fall of his voice and his enthusiastic hand gestures.

Occasionally, Lance would touch his arm or back when talking about him––bragging, really, in a way that made Keith blush and protest that he hadn't been that heroic. But their audience seemed to drink it all up in awestruck silence, only making a noise to gasp at certain intervals.

By the end, the Tethrans had all crowded forward much closer than they’d been before, teeming with questions––most of which Lance answered, although Keith and even Zola piped up once in awhile to add their own commentary. The story was a bit scattered and perhaps slightly exaggerated in parts––not to mention that certain details were excluded––but the rebels all seemed completely fascinated.

The circle eventually broke up, the Tethrans breaking away in clusters. In the shuffle, Keith found himself separated from Lance somehow and surrounded by Tethrans asking about his armor, how the lions worked, what the castle ship was like, who the other three paladins were. He answered each of them, although he didn’t handle the attention as well as Lance did, stumbling over his words and staring at the ground a lot.

He didn’t know how long this went on until one tall Tethran man parted the crowd. Keith immediately recognized him as one of Zola’s fathers.

“Excuse me,” he said to the others around Keith. “If you all don’t mind, I would like a word with the young paladin alone, please.”

Right away, the circle dissipated respectfully, the curious Tethrans backing away. Keith felt like he could breathe again. He nearly thanked the man standing in front of him, but he realized that might seem strange.

The Tethrans were all quite tall, and this man in particular towered over Keith, so he had to tilt up his head a little to look the alien in the face.

“Keith,” the man said, a hint of hesitation in his voice, like he thought perhaps he was mispronouncing it. “I am Arjun.”

He reached out to shake hands, his three long fingers totally engulfing Keith’s.

“Right, you’re one of Zola’s dads,” said Keith. “I’m honored to meet you.”

“And I you, paladin,” Arjun answered, and then glanced behind him. “Perhaps we should sit?”

They found a more secluded spot where a large flat rock jutted up from the cavern floor. They both sat on it, separated from the bustling crowd of rebels.

“I wanted to thank you personally,” Arjun said. “You risked your lives to save our daughter.”

“Oh … you’re welcome,” Keith stammered, starting to feel self-conscious again. “I mean, it’s all a part of being paladins. It’s what we do.”

Arjun had looked away, gazing into the near distance where his husband was holding Zola and talking quietly to a small group around them.

“We thought we’d lost her.” His voice rasped. “When they took her …” He had to stop for a moment, wiping a hand across his eyes. “It felt like the end of everything. Ruavu and I were out of our minds with grief. Zola … she’s our whole world.”

Keith nodded in understanding. “She's amazing. We couldn’t have made this whole journey without her help.”

Arjun beamed with pride at those words, the marks on his face brightening. “We are forever indebted to you. To Voltron.”

“No, really. You don’t owe us anything,” Keith insisted. “Like I said, it’s all just a part of being a paladin.”

Arjun chuckled a little. “You’re modest. I admire that.”

Right then, the familiar sound of Lance’s laugh echoed through the cavern, and Keith’s heart involuntarily seized up upon hearing it. He was instinctively pulled toward it, searching out Lance in the crowd. Keith spotted him nearby, smiling as Tethran children gathered around him, wrapping their arms around his legs and tugging at his arms for attention. As if sensing Keith’s eyes on him, he looked up and winked. Keith smiled back.

He didn’t realize how distracted he’d been until Arjun cleared his throat. “I’ve always heard legends of how strong the bonds are between the paladins,” he said. “But this connection you have with the Blue Paladin … it is something more than just that, isn’t it?”

Startled, Keith looked over at him. “How did you––” The words left his mouth before he could stop them, and then he felt heat rise to his face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry.” Arjun smiled apologetically. “I was only observing. I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“No, you didn’t. It’s just …” Keith scratched the back of his neck. “It’s all a bit … new. And confusing.”

“I see,” said Arjun. He paused for a moment. “Does he know?”

“Sort of. I mean, he does. But I don’t think he knows how much I––” Keith stopped abruptly. He stared at the rough cavern floor, knowing he should probably drop the subject, and yet he found himself blurting out, “I don’t want to scare him away. We’re in the middle of a war, and it’s …”

He couldn’t even articulate how complicated the situation was. How much it terrified him.

“I understand,” Arjun said quietly. “I was just as frightened when I realized I was in love with Ruavu.”

Keith tensed at the word love, expecting his body to reject it like a poison––but instead, strangely, it had the opposite effect. It felt warm and welcome as it settled into his veins, as it pulsed through him like a second heartbeat.

“It is only natural to be afraid of love during war,” Arjun told him. “After all, the more you care for someone, the greater your fear of losing them. I know that all too well.”

Again, Keith found himself staring at Lance across the distance––at that crooked grin, the way his shoulders shook when he laughed. He thought of the ice-cold fear that had gripped him when Blue had been shot down at the beginning of their mission. He thought of watching helplessly from behind Blue’s shield while Lance took on those drones by himself. He thought of that night––so long ago now, it seemed––when the bomb had gone off in the castle, how dizzy he’d felt upon seeing Lance limp and unresponsive in Shiro’s arms.

“It isn’t a weakness, you know,” Arjun said, interrupting his thoughts. His own gaze lingered on Ruavu and Zola, father holding daughter and smiling at her like she was the only person in the universe. “In these times, finding someone you love is the bravest thing you can do. It’s what makes you keep fighting.”

That gave Keith pause, and he immediately remembered the feeling of Lance’s heartbeat against his, Lance’s head resting on his shoulder as he slept.

Maybe it was worth it, he realized. The fear, the uncertainty … it was worth every moment.

“I know,” he said, smiling gently.

And he meant it.

--

Not long after that, Allura hailed the paladins to inform them the castle ship was entering Tethra’s atmosphere. They would have to leave almost immediately, she said. They had other missions to attend to, and they still had to find and collect Red and Blue.

The Tethrans led Keith and Lance through the twisting maze of tunnels and back out into the afternoon sun. Sure enough, the gleaming white of the castle had appeared in the sky, blazing light trailing from it like a falling star. The rebels pointed and exclaimed in awe.

“Well,” Lance said with a sigh. “I guess that’s our cue.”

“Guess so,” Keith agreed.

They turned one last time to wave to the Tethrans, thanking them for their hospitality.

“Where’s––” Lance started to say.

But before he could finish, Zola burst forth from the crowd and bolted towards them. “Wait!”

Both paladins crouched down as she leapt forward, throwing two arms around each of them. They both hugged her back like they would never let go.

At last, Zola lifted her head and looked at each of them in turn, her eyes shining. “Am I ever going to see you again?”

Neither of them answered as they exchanged a pained look.

Then Lance smiled, taking one of Zola’s hands in both of his. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But just remember that we’ll always be out there, okay? When you look at the stars, you can remember that we’re up there defending the universe for you.”

Zola’s eyes welled up, a sob wracking through her.

“Aw, hey now,” Lance said, although his own voice was close to breaking. He reached up to wipe away one of Zola’s tears with his thumb. “You gotta be strong for us, alright? The universe needs more brave warriors like you.”

Zola let out a shaking breath, and she managed a teary smile.

Keith squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll never forget about you, Zola.”

They all embraced one more time before the paladins finally stood up to leave. Zola’s fathers had both appeared behind her, and she ran to them as Keith and Lance started to back away.

All the Tethrans were waving to them now, crying out their final thanks and goodbyes. The paladins waved back.

Zola stood at the front and center of the crowd, a small figure in comparison to the other rebels––but she looked ten feet tall in that moment, a newfound determination on her face.

Keith would remember that image forever.

--

It was almost impossible to turn away––and when they did, Keith could hear Lance immediately start to sniffle and cry, and he could feel tears stinging in his own eyes.

The ship lit up the entire sky with blazing white light, like a third sun lowering towards the horizon. Keith put a comforting hand on Lance’s shoulder as they walked towards it together.

Lance looked at him and smiled through his tears.

And in that moment, Keith felt like the stars were shifting overhead.

It felt like the warmth of a thousand sunsets. It was like the rain on his skin after months of drought.

It felt a little like coming home.