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open your arms to me

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There for the grace of God go we
There for the grace of God go we
There for the grace of time and chance
And entropy's cruel hands
So open your arms to me
Open your arms to me

- OK Go, “The One Moment”

 


 

Lance can’t sleep.

He glances at the clock that sits on the table close to his bed and makes a face at the time flashing unrepentantly at him. It’s closer to morning than night at this point, especially considering all of his mornings are early nowadays. Truthfully, all of their days and nights are artificial in space -- it’s not really nighttime, just an arbitrary time they’ve decided that everyone should get their sleep in while they can. It’s not really nighttime, but he really should be sleeping, so the fact that he can’t is annoying.

Stupid Keith.

He scowls up at the dark ceiling above his bunk, picturing Keith's solemn face. He knows that everyone had been supportive when Keith had left earlier -- he’d been the same way, swept up in the relief that had been rolling off of Keith in palpable waves, just happy that he was happy. Lately that had been rare for Keith, and it was noticeable to all of them. All of them knew that he hadn’t wanted to keep being the Black Lion’s pilot, that the role of leader had never fit him the way Shiro seemed to want it to. 

Still, that didn’t mean he had to leave.

It’s dumb. It’s stupid that he’s thinking about this, because Keith has been coming and going with the Blade of Marmora for weeks now, and it’s never bothered him before. Okay, that’s a lie, it has bothered him -- they’ve all worried about Keith being gone, because they all know that the missions the Blade go on tend to be dangerous, the kind of missions Paladins of Voltron can't afford to go on. They’ve come back one or two or three men fewer several times now. The idea that one day they might come back and Keith would be --

Lance doesn’t wanna think about it. He rolls over in bed, pushing his face into his pillow and groaning loudly in frustration. He needs to sleep. They have about a hundred things to do this week, planets to visit and rallies to attend and supplies to give out. He can’t afford to be tired because he’s worrying about someone who can clearly take care of himself. Keith's always been the fastest, the best fighter, the best pilot. He'll be fine even if he is with the most reckless group in the rebellion.

He hasn’t died yet, Lance reminds himself.

But what if he has, and you just don’t know it, another part of him whispers. Fear trills along his spine, a chill that creeps and latches on and won’t let go, because he hadn’t considered before that -- that they just wouldn’t know what was going on with Keith, that he’d be totally separate from them now. What if something happened and none of the Blade told them?

What if Lance never got to see him again?

Lance is out of bed before he’s really aware of what he’s doing, throwing off the covers and hurrying to his desk, where he picks up his glass tablet and taps furiously on it. All of the Blade of Marmora communications are encrypted, of course, and Kolivan has expressly told them that contact should be limited, but thanks to Pidge, all of their personal devices have code on them that decrypts it for them. Lance quickly finds Keith’s communication signal and hits call.

A few seconds later, he realizes what he’s just done, panics, and immediately slams the 'end call' button.

“Shit!” he hisses through his teeth, throwing the tablet on the bed and recoiling away from it like it’s a poisonous snake rather than innocent alien technology. Its screen goes blank again, wiped clean the way he wishes his impulsive action could be. “What am I doing?”

He'd been so frantic to see Keith's face again, to reassure himself that nothing had happened -- he hadn't given any thought to how ridiculous he was being, calling Keith in the middle of the night out of nowhere, only hours after he'd left them in the first place.  

He’s not expecting for the tablet to light up with an incoming call, but it does. He's so busy grabbing his own face with his hands and groaning that he almost doesn't see Keith’s face flashing up at him -- it’s a picture he’d taken months ago, Keith sitting curled up on the lounge couch asleep. His mouth had been wide open in his sleep, his head tilted back at an unflattering angle, and it had been hilarious, which was why Lance had taken the picture, but looking at it now makes his heart ache a little bit for some reason. 

The call ends, and Lance breathes a sigh of relief, but then it immediately starts pulsing again, Keith’s picture insistently glowing at him. He runs a hand through his hair in disbelief, and then again to fix it when he realizes he’s messed it up. Why is Keith calling him back? Twice?

He’s tempted to let it ring again, to ignore it and pretend he has no idea what Keith’s talking about if he ever brings it up, but what if Keith keeps calling? He’s the kind of person who would do that, ignoring societal conventions (dropkicking them in the face, more like) and there’s only so much Lance can get away with ignoring. Besides, he’s the one who called first, so he should just man up and answer it, tell Keith it had been a butt dial or something, and go to sleep. That makes sense.

He still feels a weird, anxious squirm in his stomach as he answers the call and Keith’s face pops into view. His breath leaves him in a quick whoosh as he takes in the familiar sight of him -- the same dark eyes, and straight mouth, and messy hair as always, which makes sense, because it’s literally only been like, half a day since he left. Lance still feels some invisible heavy weight lift off his chest, the muscles in his shoulders loosening.

“Lance, are you okay?” Keith asks quickly, brow furrowed. His eyes flick all over, and Lance realizes that he’s checking to see if Lance is hurt, or if there’s an enemy around. It’s such a Keith thing to do, to jump right to the wrong conclusion, that Lance lets out a snort. Keith’s eyes stop moving and then narrow in on his face directly, and Lance holds his hand up, trying to look soothing.

“I’m fine, dude, sorry,” Lance says, still grinning. “I didn’t really mean to call you.”

“Oh,” Keith says, leaning back. Lance realizes for the first time that he’s in some kind of bunk as well, for once not in his Blade suit -- wearing just a black t-shirt, he looks rumpled and soft to the touch, his eyes half-lidded. Lance flushes, realizing all of a sudden that he’d woken Keith up.

“I’m really sorry, Keith, I didn’t mean to wake you up,” Lance says, hoping his blush doesn’t come through in the dim lighting of his room. Keith just yawns, shaking his head.

“I wasn’t really sleeping,” Keith says, grimacing. “Just sort of -- rolling around, to be honest.”

Lance blinks at him, then laughs again, this time at himself. He wonders if it’s the sleep deprivation or maybe the strange urge that always grips him when he’s talking to Keith, the one that says to keep pushing, to hold onto the intense attention that Keith always gives whatever he’s focusing on -- either way, he settles into his own pillow, tilting his head to the side so that he’s more comfortable, and says, “You wanna talk about it?”

Keith’s mouth twists into a strange shape -- not a smile, but more of a quirking of his lips, somewhere between skeptical and laughing. “Talk about what?”

“Not being able to sleep,” Lance says, rolling his eyes. “Is it because you’re in a different bed? I always had trouble sleeping in a new bed whenever I went to summer camp.”

Keith stares at him for a moment and then huffs out a breath, laying back down against his own pillows and tucking a hand up against his chest. He looks strangely vulnerable, younger than seventeen. “I don’t think so,” he says quietly. “Things like that don’t really bother me.” 

“I forgot,” Lance teases. “Nothing phases Keith, the unstoppable Blade of Marmora’s youngest ninja.” He feels warmth suffuse his chest as Keith scoffs -- the sound is less annoyed that it might have been a few months ago, before Keith was the Black Paladin and Lance at his right hand. It’s maybe even almost fond. Exasperated but affectionate. 

“We’re not ninjas,” Keith says, because of course that’s the part that he has an issue with. Lance feels his smile widen, almost enough that his mouth aches. “Anyways, you’re awake too.” 

Lance makes a face -- he’d been hoping Keith wouldn’t notice, because he doesn’t have any reason to be awake except: I can’t stop thinking about the fact that you left today and I’m wondering what I’ll do if something happens and I never see you again. It’s not exactly the kind of conversation you just have, especially when hours ago you were being supportive of your friend’s choices to leave and take on life-threatening missions in order to restore peace to the universe.  

“I was playing my video game,” he lies, and Keith laughs a little. It’s a soft laugh, strangely intimate in the dark. It makes Lance’s stomach twist again, adrenaline rushing like he’s missed a step walking down the stairs -- exhilarating but terrifying.

“You’re terrible at that game,” Keith says, but Lance can’t even be that annoyed because that definitely sounded fond.  

“That’s just your point of view,” Lance tells him primly. Just because he’s been stuck on one level for forever doesn’t mean anything. He’s just been getting a feel for the movements -- and he’s definitely been getting better, anyways.

“And the game’s, too,” Keith replies, still smiling. His brows are still furrowed, but he’s smiling. Keith has never smiled that much, at least not as far as Lance can tell, but lately it had been even rarer, and seeing it again now, in the dark with their voices semi-hushed, as if they’re children staying up at a sleepover, makes something in Lance that had been restless all night finally go quiet again.

Maybe it makes him a little braver, too. 

“Hey Keith,” he murmurs. Keith hums a little in response, his lashes fluttering as he blinks slowly. Feeling almost as if he’s whispering a secret, he asks, “Are you gonna be okay?”

He feels weird for asking it, but he can’t take it back, so he just watches Keith watch him, his dark eyes thoughtful. The silence stretches between them, but for once it’s not weird or uncomfortable, just…contemplative.

Keith closes his eyes for a moment, dark lashes on pale skin, then opens them. The screen of Lance’s tablet is unforgivingly crisp -- it documents every purplish shadow under Keith’s eyes, every crease around his mouth. But it also shows the different flecks of colors in Keith’s eyes, every blue and violet and gray shade blending into each other. It shows the freckles on his face -- there are exactly three of them, and one is near the corner of his mouth, and it lifts when he smiles. 

“I think I’ll be okay,” Keith says, which isn’t really the answer Lance was hoping for, but he doesn’t really know what he wanted to hear. That Keith would be happier with the Blade of Marmora? That he’d be miserable? Which would be worse? Keith swallows, and Lance watches his throat move with the motion. “What about you?” 

“Huh?” Lance asks, making himself look up again at Keith’s eyes. “What?”

“Are you gonna be okay?” Keith asks. His eyes lower, and his mouth hooks down into a small frown. “I know that I just -- I left, and things are different again--” 

“Hey,” Lance interrupts, because Keith’s expression is as openly worried as Keith will let himself be, and it scrapes at something in Lance. “I get it, Keith. We all do,” he amends. “If this is what you need to do, then...you should do it.” 

Keith doesn’t reply at first, just looks at him. It’s quiet again, but this time there’s something strange about it -- it’s not exactly comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable. There’s a weird tension in the air around him, heightened by the darkness, by the strangely intimate feeling of being tucked into bed but talking to someone. If Lance closed his eyes, he could pretend that Keith was in bed with him, that they were pressed close and not miles and miles apart. 

He keeps remembering how far away Keith is -- it feels like he should be able to reach out and touch him, put a hand against his shoulder or nudge him until the resigned expression fades from his eyes, but he can’t. He won’t be able to for a long time. 

“Thanks, Lance,” Keith says finally. His mouth quirks in a small smile. “I know you guys will be able to handle things.” 

“Of course we will,” Lance says, trying to lighten the mood with a wink and a grin. “We got the best sharpshooter in the galaxy, after all.” It seems to work -- Keith huffs another one of his half-laughs and settles against his pillow. “Are you falling asleep now?” Lance asks, as Keith’s laughter turns into a small, stretching yawn. 

“No,” Keith says immediately, although he clearly looks sleepier than he was before. “Are you?” 

“No,” Lance says automatically, always ready to compete with Keith, but he can feel the edges of sleep pulling at him; with his tension relieved, his usual exhaustion after a long day is wearing him down, making his limbs and eyelids heavy. But for all that ten minutes ago he’d been longing to fall asleep, he suddenly doesn’t want to be the first one to end this call. 

Keith gives him a pointed look, dark eyes under dark brows, then says, “So what did you guys do today?”

Maybe he doesn’t want to hang up either, Lance thinks, swallowing a smile. 

So Lance tells him about the quick training session they’d all gone through, and the meeting they’d had to discuss their supply run tomorrow. He tells Keith about how he and Hunk had been working on perfecting their milkshake making techniques, and that they were close to creating the ultimate milkshake. He tells Keith about how Pidge was supposed to be following up on a clue about finding her brother soon, and they were all really hopeful that this was gonna be it.  

He keeps talking, his mouth moving almost without his brain keeping up with it, just watching as slowly, slowly Keith’s eyes close, and his half-amused smile fades into a peaceful expression, and he falls asleep. Lance keeps talking for just a moment longer to be sure, then falls silent, his words tapering off into nothingness. He looks at Keith, curled up on his side with his hair mussed and falling into his eyes, his gently parted mouth, and feels a brief but painful ache behind his rib cage. 

“Goodnight,” he whispers, and ends the call, Keith’s picture flickering into black. Sighing, he tucks his tablet under his pillow, curls onto his side, and lets himself finally drift off to sleep.

 

.

 

The next night he’s getting ready for bed as his tablet starts chiming with an incoming call. Lance pauses, his shirt halfway over his head, and looks down at the screen -- Keith’s sleeping face with his wide open mouth flashes up at him. His stomach jumps as he hurriedly tugs his shirt down, fixes his hair from where it had gotten messed up in his rush, and answers the call. 

“Keith?” he asks, surprised.

Keith is sitting at some kind of desk tonight, still in his dark combat suit. His knife is laying on the table in front of him, shining blue violet in the dim lighting from a lamp that’s close by but offscreen. The light casts a golden glow over Keith’s skin, giving the illusion of a sunset falling across his face. 

“Hey,” Keith says. He sounds tired -- he looks tired, those purplish shadows deepening into something more gray. It’s only been one day, Lance thinks, feeling fear and annoyance rise up in his chest. One day shouldn't already have him looking like that, not when Keith's always been more restless energy and chaotic motion than boy.

“Are you okay, Keith?” Lance asks, then flushes, almost embarrassed to hear the obvious concern in his own voice.

“What?” Keith says, brow furrowed. “I’m fine, I just -- I wanted to know how the thing with Pidge went.”

“Oh,” Lance says, blinking. “Uh, why are you asking me?” 

Keith’s face does something funny, an expression passing over it too quickly for Lance to read it. “I just thought -- nevermind, it’s not important, sorry for interrupting--”

“No,” Lance says quickly, raising a hand as if he could reach out and physically stop Keith from hanging up. Keith stares at him, his impatience and confusion obvious even though a screen. “No, I just -- I would have thought you’d call Shiro, I guess.” 

This time, when an emotion flickers across Keith’s face, Lance can tell what it is: guilt. 

“I don’t want to bother him,” Keith says quietly. It doesn’t quite sound like a lie, but it’s not the entire truth, either. “I know he has to be busy.”

“Well,” Lance allows, “Yeah. He and Coran are discussing how to get more people to join the Coalition. They were busy with it for hours earlier today.” Still, everyone knows how close Shiro and Keith are -- like brothers, Keith had told him once, and for him to choose to talk to Lance instead means that whatever weird undercurrent that had been there for the last few months, the weird vibe that Lance had chalked up to tension over the Black Lion, that problem is lingering for some reason. “Uh, Pidge just left this evening. She’s checking out some arms dealer who apparently sold some explosives to the rebel group that rescued Matt.”

“On her own?” Keith asks, raising a brow.

“She says she can handle it,” Lance says, shrugging. Truthfully, he’s worried about her as well, considering how young she is and how dangerous everything is right now. There haven’t been any overt attacks from Zarkon, not against Voltron specifically, but armed forces have been chipping away at the Coalition where they can. Pidge is good at being sneaky, but she’s still just one person.

“I hope she finds him,” Keith says softly. "She's been looking for so long." He picks up the knife in front of him, twirling it between his fingertips almost unconsciously, the violet sheen of the blade casting flickering light across the screen. Lance wonders if he knows how he looks right now, a quiet mix of wistfulness and resignation on his face.

He says, before he stops to think about it, “What about you? Aren’t the Blade gonna help you find out about your mom?” 

Keith’s fingers still, the point of the knife pressed against the soft flesh of his forearm, like he’s about to tuck it under his sleeves. He looks like a deer caught in the headlights, but only for a moment -- then his eyes go perfectly blank and his mouth flattens into a straight line.

“Our priority right now is figuring out what the Galra are doing,” he intones. It sounds as if Kolivan’s words are funneling straight out of his mouth, and it makes something in Lance bristle in annoyance. “My personal problems are--” 

“It’s not like you have to go on a mission to find her or anything,” Lance interrupts, frowning at him. “Like, they can’t even tell you who owned your knife? If it was your mom, or some older ancestor?” 

Keith’s mouth curves into a scowl. “It’s not like a name is inscribed on the handle,” he says, waving the knife in front of the camera. “And you know the Blade creed--” 

“Ah, yes, secrecy and trust,” Lance says, rolling his eyes. 

“There isn’t exactly a roll call when you’ve been around for thousands of years,” Keith finishes, making a face. He looks frustrated, which isn’t what Lance was trying to do, but he’s also wondering why Keith isn’t more frustrated. It’s been months and months and Lance knows it has to bother him, that he’s no closer to knowing more about his family than he had been at the start of all of this. The Blade of Marmora were supposed to make things easier on them, but instead it just felt like the trust and secrecy were only going one way. Even the members of Voltron didn’t know how many Blade members there really were, or half of the faces of the ones they had met.  

But Keith knew them better than anyone -- Keith was the one who’d chosen to go with them. And it felt wrong to needle him about his mother when Lance knew it bothered him.

Lance just -- he knows how much he misses his family, his mother especially. He misses her smile, and the vanilla scent of her hair in the early mornings after her shower, and the lilting call of her voice waking him or calling him for dinner. He misses all of the things he’s missing out in space, her birthdays and each new gray hair falling into her face, all of the warm laugh lines deepening around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes. 

He knows that if he was in Keith’s place, he’d be dying to find her, to learn about her -- learn about himself. After they’d first found out, they’d been so busy running from Zarkon and then trying to stop him once and for all to really focus on it, but Keith was part alien. It had to affect how he saw himself and his life and his future, and none of them had really talked about it. Keith hadn’t talked about it. And it wasn’t that he thought Keith didn’t want to, but rather that Keith was just pushing it aside rather than focus on it.  

Whether it was because he was afraid, or because he wanted to be a team player, or what -- that, Lance didn’t know. But it felt wrong to keep ignoring it. He wanted for Keith to have at least the semblance of progress. 

But for all that he loved bickering with Keith, he didn’t want to fight with him right now. Not when his absence was still needling Lance like a loose tooth, unpleasant and painful in turns. He swallows his irritation and curls his mouth up into a charming smile.

“If it’s Kolivan, you should send him to me and let me butter him up,” Lance says, waggling his eyebrows. Keith gives him a blank look, but the corner of his mouth twitches. “Ten minutes with me and your new motto will be ‘openness and trust.’” 

Keith’s serious face cracks, and he laughs, his shoulders rising and falling; they draw Lance’s attention, dark and broad in the suit he’s taken to wearing. He doesn’t remember if Keith’s shoulders have always been like that, if he’s only noticing now because he’s facing Keith head on instead of constantly seeing his back as he left. They’re distracting -- Keith is distracting, Lance thinks. 

“I’d honestly love to see that,” Keith tells him, leaning forward and propping his chin in his hand. The Blade knife goes back down on the table, discarded again, the conversation dropped like usual, but Lance feels better for seeing Keith’s smile. “I might actually bet money on the outcome.” 

Lance opens his mouth to ask Keith which way he’d bet, already grinning teasingly, but there’s a shrill beeping noise on Keith’s end of the call -- Keith’s eyes cut to the side quickly, his mouth tensing into a tight line. 

“What’s that?” Lance asks worriedly, his heartrate automatically picking up to match the tempo of the alarm. Months of being on high alert for attacks have given him a quicker fight-or-flight response than a year of drills at the Garrison ever had. 

“I gotta go,” Keith mutters, tugging his hood up. He rubs a hand over his face quickly, like he’s trying to will energy back into his body, but all it does is muss his bangs. The hood casts shadows over his face that make him look almost unfamiliar, a stranger in Keith’s skin, and Lance’s heart shoots into his throat. “I gotta -- let me know how Pidge’s thing goes, okay?” 

“Keith,” Lance says, clinging to the tablet hard enough his fingertips hurt. “Keith--” 

The call ends, the screen going black. Lance lets go of the tablet, his hands shaking, his pulse unsteady for no real reason. This is what he wanted, he tells himself. 

“Be careful,” he tells his empty room, and then quietly goes back to getting ready for bed.

 

.

 

The next night, Lance doesn’t even wait for evening before he calls Keith -- as soon as Pidge has dragged Matt off to show him around the castle, with Hunk trailing behind explaining scientific stuff as they go, he hurries to his own room. Normally he’d try to tag along, to get to know Matt, but all he can think about is Keith’s expression when he hears that Pidge had done it, that after almost two years of searching, she’d found the brother she'd lost.

He taps Keith’s signal as soon as he has his tablet in hand, not even bothering to change out of his armor. It rings once, twice, three times -- Lance starts to worry that Keith won’t pick up, that maybe whatever pulled him away last night is still going on, but at the last second the call goes through. 

Keith is onscreen, slightly out of breath, his cheeks flushed. Startled by his sudden and disheveled appearance, it takes Lance a moment to realize that his hair is damp, rivulets of water running down the side of his face, a towel slung around his neck.

“Sorry!” he squeaks, feeling like he should cover his face with his hands even though Keith isn’t naked or anything -- he’s wearing his usual black shirt, which is slowly growing darker as his hair drips onto it. “Sorry, I didn’t--”

“I was already getting out of the shower, Lance, don’t worry about it.” Keith shoots him a half-smile, taking the towel and rubbing at his hair a little. “What’s up?”

“Hmm?” Lance asks, distracted by a water droplet that’s running down the side of Keith’s neck. He blinks and realizes that Keith is staring at him questioningly, and that he’s just been staring off into space in the meantime. “Oh! Oh, Pidge is back!”

Keith straightens, his eyes going wide. “And she--”

“She found him,” Lance says triumphantly, grinning. Keith goes completely still onscreen, and then he smiles -- his smile is soft, and relieved, and so warm that Lance can feel it even hundreds of thousands of miles apart. It’s makes Lance’s own smile grow wider, and he laughs, because this has been a really good day; Pidge had been so infectiously happy over her brother, and they’d handled another escort mission with no problems, and Keith was smiling, and he looked comfortable and soft after his shower, less like a vicious warrior and more like the teenager he really was.

“That’s great,” Keith says, reaching up to run the towel over his hair again. He disappears briefly behind it, and then reemerges, his hair fluffed up and so messy Lance can’t see his eyes at first. “She must be over the moon.” 

“Pretty sure she was floating when she walked in here,” Lance says, thinking about her bright eyes and how she couldn’t seem to stop moving around, like if she stood still for a moment it might all turn out to be a dream. “Hunk and I had to check and make sure the gravity in the ship was working right.”

Keith quirks another grin at him, and then does something Lance has never seen him do before -- he reaches behind his head and swiftly pulls his hair up into a ponytail, shaking his bangs out of his face impatiently. Something about the easy motion, the way it pulls all of the hair off the nape of Keith’s neck, the fact that he can see Keith’s eyes perfectly now -- all of it coalesces into a sharp pang in Lance’s chest, a sudden dryness in his mouth. 

He really wants to touch Keith’s hair for some reason. 

“--but I mean, I did meet him once,” Keith is saying, running his fingertips through the ponytail and straightening the hair out. “But it was just for a few minutes. He seemed like a good guy, though.” 

“Who?” Lance asks, confused. Keith stares at him, raising a single brow. It’s an expression Lance is familiar with, that sort of wry and vaguely unimpressed face that Keith brings out when Lance has said something strange, but for some reason, Lance feels himself flush. Keith looks -- different, with his hair up, cheeks still pink from his shower and bright-eyed with happiness for Pidge. Lance feels his own face heat up, scalding him from the inside out.

“Matt,” Keith says slowly, sounding bewildered.

“Right,” Lance says, feeling a little bewildered himself. He runs a hand over the back of his neck, trying to ignore the weird fluttering in his stomach. “Um, yeah, he seems great. I haven’t really spent much time with him, I came to -- I wanted to tell you that Pidge was back.”

“Oh,” Keith says, biting his lower lip. He glances down, then back up at Lance, smiling softly again. “You’ll have to let me know how things go when Pidge finally comes up for air, then. He pauses, then adds, “I bet Shiro was happy to see him, right?”

Lance considers, thinking about their hug, how Shiro had pulled Matt against him and held on tight, even if it had only been a few moments. The last time they’d seen each other had to have been when Shiro attacked him, but neither of them had mentioned that at all, just hugged each other close and then smiled with a sort of wonderment, like they were thinking Can you believe where we are? Lance almost wonders how it might feel, seeing someone basically come back from the dead.

To Keith, he says, “Yeah, I think so. Ha, Matt called him sir, which was hilarious -- kind of reminded me of you, actually.” 

Keith’s eyes flick to the side of the screen and then back, and he shrugs his shoulders. “When I was at the Garrison, he was my commanding officer for a while. I got used to it, even after -- everything.”

Everything? Lance wants to ask. What did that mean? Lance’s memories of Keith at the Garrison are admittedly few, all things considered. He has flashes of Keith’s name on the class ranking board, always right at the top; flashes of dark hair across the room, bent low over a book; flashes of cool gray eyes that barely catch his gaze before moving on. To Lance it had felt like he was one person lost in a sea of others, nameless and faceless and pointless, while Keith had always stood out to him. He was quiet, and pretty, and obviously talented, and Lance had noticed him.

When he’d left the Garrison it had been the talk of the entire school for weeks, because no one could agree on what had happened -- Lance hadn’t been in the fighter pilot class then, so everything was hearsay, and he’d heard rumors about Keith punching a teacher, or setting a trash can on fire, or just getting up and walking out without looking back. He still doesn’t know what the truth is. Even as well as he knows Keith now, he can’t say he knows what seems the likeliest option, because even now it’s hard to guess what Keith is thinking or feeling.

“That was a long time ago,” Lance says, quieter than he means to.

Keith hums, pulling the towel off of his shoulders and setting it down out of frame, leaning back in his seat -- Lance realizes he’s at the desk again, and Lance is just standing around in his armor holding a tablet at arm’s length, which is honestly beginning to feel ridiculous.

“You mind if I take my stuff off real quick?” Lance asks, but doesn’t really bother to wait for Keith to answer. He sets the tablet down on the desk, propped up against the wall, and starts unbuckling the plating from his chest first. He sighs as the pressure eases off of his limbs, then groans as he stretches, letting the armor fall carelessly to the ground. It’s the first time he’s been out of it all afternoon, and he closes his eyes and lets his arms lift high above his head, working out the knots in his shoulders.

Keith makes a strange noise, almost a cough, and Lance opens one eye. “What?” he asks, blinking.

Keith is looking offscreen at something, his mouth pressed in a tight line. “Nothing,” he says, his voice rougher than it had been a moment ago. Lance stares at him, confused at his changed demeanor, and then realizes that the tips of his ears are pink.

He starts to ask, “Are you o--” but Keith interrupts him with, “How’s Shiro handling being back in the Black Lion?” speaking so quickly that the words almost blend together. Lance’s mouth closes and then opens as he parses the sentence. Keith still won’t meet his eyes.

“He’s fine,” Lance says, tilting his head and sitting down at the desk. Shiro had taken to flying the Black Lion and being their leader again just as easily as if he’d never been gone. If Keith had gone back to Red and Lance was in Blue, it would be just like when they’d first started all of this.

Well, it was actually sort of weird, to be honest, to go from working so closely with the leader to going along for the ride, because Shiro didn’t need Lance’s advice or help where Keith had, but they hadn’t really been on a mission yet. It was probably just the adjustment period that felt strange, going from one style of leadership to another. “You haven’t talked to him?”  

“No,” Keith mutters, crossing his arms. His hair is starting to curl at the tips as it dries, and it softens his face despite his frown. “You’re the only one I’ve talked to since I left.”

The words set off a wave of flutters in Lance’s stomach, and he has to bite back a pleased smile, not really knowing why he wants to smile in the first place.  

“Oh,” he says, ducking his head. The fabric of his dark undersuit is clinging to him, itchy in the places where he’s sweated through it during the day, but he’s far more distracted by embarrassed tilt to Keith’s mouth, the way his eyes won’t meet Lance’s. It’s tempting to tease him, an urge that he can’t ever seem to resist when given the opportunity, because Keith always goes pink just across the bridge of his nose, and scowls and crosses his arms and looks so much like a ruffled cat that it makes Lance want to pet his head. 

But he can’t bring himself to do it now -- he doesn’t know if it’s the way Keith looks almost uncomfortable, or maybe that the distance between them makes it hard to find the humor where it might once have been. His fingers itch to reach out and touch Keith’s shoulder, right where the fabric is dark from his damp hair, to feel the cool cloth and the warm skin underneath. 

He hadn’t noticed how much of Keith was sensory to him until all of it was suddenly gone: the scent of him, something like gunmetal and mint that lingered around him, and the sound of him tapping his foot or humming something low under his breath, and the solid weight of his body pressed against his back as they fought side-by-side in battle.

I miss him, Lance realizes, but that’s unreasonable. It’s only been a few days -- you can’t miss someone like this only after a few days.  

Keith clears his throat, drawing him out of his thoughts. He swallows, realizing they’ve both been quiet for too long, that he should have said something ages ago. But for once, he doesn’t know what to say -- he’s afraid that if he opens his mouth, the wrong words will spill out, either I miss you or I want to pet your head or do you miss me? He can feel his face turning red, his stomach twisting. 

Keith says, “So what did you do today?”

Lance blinks, then looks up at him. Keith’s face is painfully awkward, but he’s looking at Lance with the sort of determination other people might give a particularly difficult puzzle, one they have to solve, and it settles something in Lance that had been starting to panic.

He’d asked the same thing a few nights ago, too, and let Lance’s voice lull him into sleep -- that had been their first night apart. It’s strange how it feels like longer, like they’ve been separated for weeks or months. Maybe it’s because Keith has been slipping away for a while now. 

(Lance doesn’t know how it happened, how one moment they were close -- heads bent over mission plans, joint training sessions on the practice deck, being able to look to his left and know that Keith was there, waiting for him, know that Keith trusted him to have his back -- and then the next Lance had been left with silences, with Keith sneaking out on missions with the Blade without telling anyone, with an obvious absence in the space Keith had once filled so easily.)

But, Lance reminds himself firmly, they’re talking now. 

“Well,” he says, leaning forward over his desk, “Today was another escort mission. The Lixlians were getting antsy about possibly being attacked while they delivered these weapons for the Coalition, so Hunk and I got to ride point--” 

The conversation goes on for another hour or so, Lance telling Keith about his day and the others, feeling quietly pleased whenever Keith smiles or laughs. Keith doesn’t offer up much about what he’s been doing, and he goes suspiciously quiet when Lance prods him, so he gives up asking, even though everything in him wants to push and pull until the furrow fades from his brow. 

Keith yawns in the middle of Lance telling a (slightly embellished, for dramatic flair) version of Pidge’s story of how she’d found her brother, and he realizes how long they’ve been talking, that Keith had obviously been getting ready to go to sleep when he’d answered the call in the first place. 

“Oh, sorry,” Lance says, wincing. “You’re probably exhausted.”

“I’m fine,” Keith says dismissively, brushing his hair out of his face. His eyes are half-lidded, and there’s a vaguely amused expression on his face. “So Pidge attacked Matt at first?”

“Are you sure?” Lance asks, looking him up and down. He looks relaxed for once, his shoulders lowered and his hands folded on the table in front of him, but there are still circles under his eyes, and even as Lance looks at him questioningly, he yawns again. “You don’t have some big mission in the morning you need to get rest for?” Lance presses. 

“I’m fine,” Keith repeats, rolling his eyes. He leans back in his seat, arms crossed over his chest, eyebrow raised challengingly. “Unless you’re tired?”

“No,” Lance says quickly, mimicking his position. His suit is actually kind of starting to chafe, and he knows he needs to take a shower and get ready for another long day tomorrow, but there’s no way he’s going to hang up when Keith is looking at him like that. “No, I’m good.” 

So, ” Keith says pointedly, “Pidge attacked Matt?” 

“Yeah,” Lance says, grinning. “So apparently he had on this mask or whatever, kind of like you guys do, and she--”

A shrill alarm interrupts him, making him actually flail a little, almost tipping out of his seat. Keith’s eyes widen and then narrow, and he turns his gaze offscreen, head tilting a little as if he’s reading something. A brief flicker of annoyance crosses his face, but then his expression is blank again -- it’s a face familiar to Lance, the same one he’s made before all of his missions with the Blade of Marmora. It’s tired, and a bit resigned, and a lot determined. Lance clutches the edge of the desk, stuck miles and miles away, and feels overwhelmingly helpless. 

“You have to go?” he asks, trying not to sound as disappointed as he feels. 

“Yes,” Keith says. He runs a hand through his hair, knocking the tie out and sending his hair falling around his face, curling against his cheeks. “I’m just -- I’ll talk to you later, okay?” 

The screen goes black before he can reply again. Lance bites his lower lip and sighs. He stands up, feeling heavier now than he had when he’d been fully armored, and goes to take a shower.

 

.

 

They have a late run the next day dealing with a small attack on one of the hospitals that have been set up on one of the planets they’ve co-opted for Coalition use. It means that at the end of the day, he’s still in the Red Lion, fully suited up, when he tries to call Keith.

In here, the image that pops up onscreen while the signal is sent is just Keith’s face, staring straight ahead -- it’s almost like he’s looking straight at Lance, actually, dark eyes and dark brow and a serious expression on his face. It makes Lance feel weirdly nervous for some reason, to the point he almost wants to look away. It takes him a moment to realize that the signal has stopped pinging.

The call hasn't gone through. 

Red rumbles around him, displeasure flowing through their connection. 

“Same,” he mutters with feeling, tapping at the controls to try the call again. This time he finds himself glaring at Keith’s picture, crossing his arms impatiently and tapping a finger against his armor as he waits for Keith to pick up. 

It still doesn’t go through. 

A flicker of unease goes through him, amplified by Red’s own worry bleeding into his own. 

“He got called away on a mission again last night,” Lance says quietly. His stomach twists restlessly, and he looks up at the screen, at Keith’s picture, wondering what could be keeping him. “I guess they could still be in the middle of it.” 

It’s been almost 24 hours though. Surely whatever they’d done would be over by now, wouldn’t it? Was this part of the quintessence thing they were looking into? Was Keith stuck now on some extended mission where he wouldn’t be able to contact them at all? 

The hair on the back of his neck rises and he shivers a little, slumping in the pilot’s seat. “I have a bad feeling,” he tells Red softly, wrapping his arms around himself. “Is that dumb?” 

Red sends a pulse of assurance through their bond, but it’s half-hearted -- he can tell most of her thoughts are of Keith, wondering where he is and what he’s doing. He knows that she’s bonded to him, that she’s his lion now and has been since they first swapped, but he can still feel the restless urge within her to find Keith, to save him from the danger he's inevitably found himself in. He wonders if it’s because of her that he feels the same way, his fingertips almost buzzing with the need to grab her controls and steer her towards space, to let her track down Keith and make sure he’s okay the way she’s done before.

But -- they can’t. It makes Red’s hackles rise, makes his own mouth curl into a frown, but they can’t leave. They have a responsibility here, with the rest of the team, to the refugees and allies they’ve made. And…Keith had made a choice, and they’d promised to respect it. 

“I guess I’ll try tomorrow,” Lance says out loud, running his fingertips along her controls soothingly. “I’m sure he’s fine. He’s just -- he’s busy, probably.” He wishes his voice sounded more confident, like a sure and steady leader instead of like a child trying to convince themselves a monster wasn’t under their bed. 

Red purrs a little, the sound a comfort despite his unhappy thoughts. He carries the feeling with him through the rest of the evening, his tablet tucked up close to his body, waiting for a call that doesn’t come.

 

.

 

Lance tries to reach Keith seven times the next day, but there’s still no answer.

 

.

 

He tries to ask Shiro about Keith’s sudden silence, but Shiro is reluctant to talk about it with him, brushing off his concerns and telling Lance to focus on what Voltron is doing right now. 

“Keith is focusing on his mission,” Shiro says calmly, examining a chart of Coalition members. He, Coran and Allura have been working on something big, something they say will gain them a huge portion of the solar system they’re currently in. It’s been in the works for weeks, even before Keith left, so Lance knows it’s important, but it still irks him that Shiro doesn’t seem to care that he can’t get in contact with Keith. 

“I’m worried about him,” Lance insists, and Shiro finally lowers the chart and gives him a look, a mix of resignation and exhaustion obvious on his face.

“I understand your worry,” Shiro says softly. He reaches up and rubs at his jaw, where stubble has started accumulating, and then sighs. “I’ve known Keith for a while now, though, and silences from him aren’t that unusual. As far as I know, you’re the only one he’s even reached out to since he left. It isn’t helpful to him or yourself to be anxious about him, though, Lance. We can’t help him from here.”

Lance swallows a scowl, ducking his head so Shiro won’t see the annoyance simmering in his eyes. “I know that,” Lance says tightly. “I just -- haven’t you guys heard anything from Kolivan?” 

“Not yet,” Shiro says, making a face. “They’re pretty tight-lipped about their plans. I’m not even sure which system they’re in right now.” 

“That’s--” Lance cuts himself off before he can curse in front of Shiro, fists clenching. He honestly thinks he might hate the Blade of Marmora right now, allies or not. “What about this thing you’re working on, are they not supposed to be part of that? Don’t we need to know what they’re doing?” 

“They’re scheduled to check in about two days from now, Lance,” Shiro says patiently. “We’ll hear from them soon enough, okay?” He reaches out and touches Lance’s shoulder, his hand solid and warm. Normally it would be a calming gesture, something Lance would quietly relish. He still sometimes has to remind himself that this isn’t just the Takashi Shirogane, pilot for one of the Garrison’s biggest research projects, one of the youngest pilots approved for a mission in deep space in the history of the program. He’s also Shiro, Lance’s team member, a fellow paladin of Voltron. He’s their leader, someone Lance, as the pilot of the Red Lion, is supposed to support, even if he needs less help than Keith had.  

Today, though, he slips out of Shiro’s grasp, his shoulder tight with tension. “Sure,” Lance says lowly. He walks away without waiting to hear if Shiro will reply, without looking back to see if he’s already gone back to his charts and his plans. 

Another call that night goes unanswered. Lance doesn’t fall asleep for a long time.

 

.

 

After another day goes by without an answer, Lance is mostly at the end of his rope. Coran spends the morning trying to hype everyone for another show to urge others to join the Coalition, but Lance doesn’t have the patience for it; he sneaks out of breakfast while everyone is discussing what changes might need to be made to the show, too stressed to stay around everyone. 

He can’t keep acting like everything is normal when Keith is gone -- he can’t keep pretending it’s fine that he hasn’t heard from him in days now. The hollow feeling in his gut, the one that’s been there since Keith left, has grown to encompass his entire body, so that everything he does aches a little, like he’s been wounded without realizing it. 

He’s barely around the corner before he hears familiar footsteps following him. He sighs, stopping as they get closer, drawing up next to him. He doesn’t even look up as he says, “I’m fine, Hunk.” 

“Yeah, okay,” Hunk says lightly. He has a knack for saying something innocently, but in a way that lets you know he doesn’t believe you, and it makes Lance glance sideways at him distrustfully. “That’s totally the face of someone who’s fine,” Hunk continues blithely.

“Hunk,” Lance says quietly, crossing his arms over his chest. “Seriously.”

“Listen dude,” Hunk says, a frown slipping over his face. “I know you’re worried about Keith -- we all are, you know that. But I’m worried about you.” He reaches out and pokes Lance in the chest gently. “You haven’t eaten anything today, and don’t think your makeup is covering up the circles under your eyes. And I don’t think I’ve heard you tell a joke for days, not even when Allura was going on and on about Kaltenecker’s sacrifices for our milkshakes -- you normally would have milked that situation.” He pauses, then raises his eyebrows pointedly up and down. “Get it?” 

“I got it, Hunk,” Lance says, smiling despite himself. It fades from his face a moment later, though, and Hunk’s tentative grin disappears as well. It leaves Lance feeling guilty as he sighs and leans against the wall, eyes closing. “I’m just -- I don’t know why I’m so freaked out, but I am,” he admits. Hunk doesn’t say anything, just nods his head encouragingly, so he continues, “I know that it was what he wanted, you know, leaving with the Blade, but I just -- I feel like it was the wrong thing. I feel like he belongs here, with us.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” Hunk says slowly, “But you know how unhappy he was as the leader.” 

“I know that,” Lance says quickly. “I know, and I’m not saying he should have had to keep doing that -- but I mean, he doesn’t have to be the leader to be part of the team.”

“He would have been miserable not helping out, though,” Hunk points out. “If Shiro’s the Black Paladin, then Keith would just be support here at the castle. You know how Keith is. He’d hate being the sixth wheel.”

Lance feels himself go still. Hunk notices immediately, because his brow furrows and he leans closer, like he’s going to touch Lance again. “Lance?” Hunk asks softly. 

Lance makes himself loosen up again, makes himself smile. It’s difficult when his entire chest aches like he’s been punched, but he manages. He’s always been good at putting on the face other people want to see.  “You’re right,” Lance tells him, letting his smile widen. “I’m just ansty, I guess, waiting for this big battle. And I am pretty tired, too. I think I’m gonna grab a quick nap before our show this afternoon, okay? Can you let the others know?” 

Hunk doesn’t look very convinced -- it’s not surprising, considering he’s Lance’s best friend. Hunk has always been able to tell when he's faking a smile -- he'd known when Lance's grandfather had died and he hadn't told anyone at the Garrison, had just silently guided him through the daily motions he was too numb to care about. They'd never talked about it, not really, but they hadn't had to. Their friendship transcended words sometimes, and Lance is glad for that now, because he knows Hunk knows he's lying, but he doesn’t call him on it, just sighs a little and nods his head. 

“Yeah,” Hunk murmurs. “I’ll tell them. I hope you get some rest, Lance.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Lance replies, pushing off of the wall and continuing on towards his room, sticking his hands in his pockets. He doesn’t look back, but he can hear that Hunk’s footsteps don’t start up even as he turns around the corner.

Lance waits until he’s locked in the safety of his room before he lets out the shuddering breath that’s been trapped in his lungs, leaning against his closed door as his legs give out. The sixth wheel, he thinks, distress rising in him like a wave, of course, of course -- of course Keith would feel that way, Lance had felt that way until he’d had that talk with Keith all those months ago. That helpless feeling of being extra, of being dead weight, of being in the way of the others -- he’d almost crumpled under that feeling, had only started to let himself breathe again when Shiro coming back hadn’t changed anything.  

He hadn’t realized that Keith would feel it too, not when Keith had been so fundamental for so long. He hadn’t considered that Keith would feel that itch, the one that said You’re holding everyone back. Guilt churns in his gut, has him doubling over and sliding to the floor.

Had Keith left because of what Lance had said?

He’d never even mentioned taking Red back, hadn’t ever hinted that it was what he wanted. But Lance knew he wanted to -- he knew it because he wanted to take Blue back, missed her like he was missing a part of himself, even though he knew she was in good hands with Allura.  

Why hadn’t that ever occurred to him? That his conversation might have affected Keith’s choice in joining the Blade of Marmora, so he wouldn’t leave Lance as the odd one out? 

“Shit,” he mutters, pressing his hands against his face. "Shit, shit, shit." His eyes feel hot, but he presses his palms against them until the feeling fades, until he can blink without worrying that he’s going to spill over. 

He’s so caught up in his thoughts that he almost doesn’t hear the beeping noise, muffled the way it is. It’s only after the third iteration that he realizes it’s real, and coming from underneath his bedcovers. Someone is calling him. 

He scrambles onto his feet and towards the bed, throwing the sheets back to see Keith’s sleeping face flashing up at him. He grabs for the tablet, almost rejecting the call in his haste, tapping frantically at the screen to answer in time. The display flickers briefly and then clears, opening on Keith staring at him. 

The words Lance has been desperate to say for days die in his throat. 

White is his first impression. The crisp white of the bandages, the paleness of his skin, the creamy white of the bed he’s lying in. But then next is the color red, spotted bright crimson in the middle of the bandages wrapped around his throat, over the arch of his cheekbone, layered on his shoulder. Black and white and red -- they're the colors of the Red Paladin, but they've never looked so wrong before.

“Lance,” Keith says quietly. His mouth tips into a soft smile, his eyes going warm.

Lance lets out a croaking noise, a choked gasp wrenching itself from his throat. He collapses onto his bed, cradling the tablet in front of him, wishing the image would change to Keith comfortable in his bed clothes, or, fuck, even Keith in his stupid suit -- anything but this, Keith bruised and battered and bleeding on a strange bed.  

“Keith,” he whispers; his voice is barely audible. “What happened?” 

“It looks worse than it is,” Keith tells him quickly. He shifts, trying to straighten a little, and a wince crosses his face. Lance’s hands ache with the need to grab him, to hold him still -- he can feel himself trembling, just a little. “The mission went -- bad. It was a trap and there was an explosion.” 

A shadow crosses his face, his mouth tipping down into something miserable. His eyes lower until his lashes are smudges on his pale face. “A few of us didn’t make it.” 

“Keith,” Lance says, gripping the tablet tightly and hoping his voice isn’t shaking, “Please come back. You need to be in a healing pod.” 

“They’ve got stuff here,” Keith says. He reaches up and runs a careful fingertip over the bandages around his throat, his expression thoughtful. Lance can’t decide if he desperately wants to hug him or shake him. “I’m not even going to scar. Besides, I’ll see you guys in a few days for the battle for Naxzela.” 

“You can’t fight!” Lance says incredulously. “You’re hurt, Keith, you can’t--” 

“I’ll be fine,” Keith says. It’s strange -- the more Lance gets worked up, the calmer he seems to get. He leans back onto his pillows and smiles at Lance, tilting his head to the side. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer the last few days.”

“Don’t apologize,” Lance says grumpily, leaning back against the wall. Looking at Keith makes his chest hurt, but he’s been wanting to see him for days now, and he can’t make himself look away, eyes devouring the sight of him, almost afraid that he’ll blink and Keith will be gone again. “I’m trying to be annoyed.” 

Keith huffs out a laugh, then makes a face, clutching at his chest. Lance bites his lower lip, his thumb pressing the screen over Keith’s hand. 

“I wanted to answer,” Keith says, his chest rising and falling unevenly. His brows are furrowed, his mouth quirked at the edges. “When you called. But at first we were still in the middle of the mission, and then…” He trails off, fingertips rubbing over the bandages wrapped around his shoulder and chest. “But I saw your calls.” A ghost of a smile flickers on his face. “I was glad for them, even though I couldn’t respond.” 

“What do you mean?” Lance asks, blinking.

A bit of color creeps back into Keith’s cheeks, and he drops his gaze to the bed. He clears his throat, then says, “Just -- I liked it.” 

The realization is sudden and startling in its simplicity. Lance stares at him, unblinking, as his heart does one long, slow roll in his chest. The heat almost surprises him, crawling up his neck and over his face like a rush of fire -- he only barely resists the urge to grab his face, trying to cover his blush. A single thought repeats over and over in his head like a mindless plea. 

Oh no, he thinks, mortified. Oh no.

“The picture I have of you for your signal is that time you walked into the middle of Pidge and Hunk’s watergun war,” Keith continues, as if he he can’t see Lance having a minor panic attack in front of him. Lance hysterically wonders if Keith is just oblivious or if he’s better at hiding his emotions than he’d ever guessed. “So that cheered me up too.”

“Glad to be of service,” Lance manages to say. His heart is pounding in his chest like he’s run a hundred miles, his pulse tripping madly. He really wishes he’d had this realization at any other point rather than while he was looking right at Keith. 

Keith squints at him, apparently finally catching on. “Are you okay? You look kinda worn out.” 

Lance makes a small noise, halfway between a squeak and a cough. “I’m fine. Just -- haven’t slept well.” 

And I think it’s because I’m in love with you. Fuck.

“Me neither,” Keith says, rubbing at his face, careful of the cut on his cheekbone. “We’re getting close to figuring out more about this new quintessence though. Naxzela will come first, but after that I think we’ll be onto something.”

Lance frowns at him, leaning in closer to the screen. “You should be worried about getting better, not your missions or whatever. Maybe I should ask Shiro or Allura if--”

Don’t,” Keith says sharply, loud enough that they both wince. His gaze softens, lowers, and then he sighs. “It’s not even that bad, Lance. You were worse off after the explosion on Arus, and you’re fine. I’ll be ready for the battle, and we can -- we can talk then.”

Lance looks at him, his heart twisting painfully in his chest, and sighs. “Sure,” he says softly. A silence stretches between them, Keith looking down at his bed and Lance watching him, and then Lance says, “So you’ll never guess what happened a couple of days ago.” 

Keith glances up at him, his dark eyes curious. “What?” he asks, tilting his head.

Lance smiles at him, and makes himself tuck away all of his feelings, at least for right now. He can panic over them later, when he has time to examine them and dwell on how the hell this happened. “Well, you know we’re still trying to get as many people as possible to join the Coalition, right?” Keith nods, his eyes going half-lidded as he gets more comfortable on his pillow. “Well, Coran kind...went overboard,” Lance says diplomatically.

“Coran? Going overboard?” Keith says wryly. “You don’t say.”

“Even for him, this was a lot,” Lance says, smiling, and launches into the story. Keith’s eyes go wide and he laughs in all the right places, listening attentively, but before too long the screen starts to tip, and his eyes start to close, and then Lance is murmuring quietly, watching Keith sleeping. He’s not as young and vulnerable as the last time Lance watched him do this -- now he looks rough and tense, his brow furrowed even in sleep. His hand is curled gently on his chest, empty and outstretched. 

Lance tells him, quietly so he doesn’t wake him up, “I’m going to get you to come back.” 

When he hangs up, he takes a deep breath, in and out, slow and steady, and then buries his face in his hands.

 

.

 

There’s nothing to do but wait. Keith is better the next day, and then fully healed the day after that. The mission to capture Naxzela and cut off a third of the Galra’s conquered territory has everyone buzzing; tensions mount the closer the planning phase comes to an end, until they’re all on tenterhooks, moments away from snapping at each other at the drop of a hat. 

Lance takes to wandering around the training deck, although he can’t tell if he’s masochistically punishing himself for his feelings by going somewhere Keith frequented or if he’s just searching out the quietest place in the castle. No one comes here now -- everyone is so busy getting all of the details right for this mission, gathering together all of the Coalition, making sure the smallest piece is ready and in place, that Lance seems to be the only one at loose ends right now. 

He practices a little, but his head is elsewhere, and after he’s thrown to the ground for the fourth time, he cancels the program and watches the Gladiator fizzle out, splayed out and panting on the floor. His lifts his arms to the ceiling and lets them hang there, watching his fingertips clench and unclench, waiting for his breath to slow.

He’s spent the last two days thinking; he wishes he could stop thinking, just for five minutes, but everything spins around in his head, a kaleidoscope of choices he’s made and things he’s said and all of the things he wishes he’d done instead. He keeps coming back to the same thing, over and over: I love Keith.  

He doesn’t know how this happened -- doesn’t know when his feelings changed from rivalry to grudging respect to friendship to this. It seems like it should have been one of those things easily tracked, point A to point B to point C and so on, but it feels more like opening his eyes and realizing he’s been drowning for months without realizing.

Or burning alive, maybe.

He wonders if it would be as frightening if Keith weren’t so far away right now, if he didn’t have guilt and terror warring in his gut every time he thought of him. He wonders --

“Ahem,” someone says, and Lance jolts upright on the floor, his bayard materializing as a gun in his hands as he swings it around to face the door. Allura blinks at him, her eyebrows raised high, but she doesn’t look concerned to have a weapon pointed at her in the slightest. Lance flushes and lowers the gun, giving her a rueful smile. “I didn’t mean to surprise you,” she says, walking carefully towards him. She’s wearing her own hesitant smile, her hair pulled back out of her face in a messy bun. 

“My bad,” he tells her, watching her come close enough to sit next to him on the floor. “I was thinking too hard, I guess.”

“Yes,” she says thoughtfully, tucking a wispy strand of hair behind her ear. “I thought you might be.”

Lance stares at her, confused. “What do you mean?” 

She gives him a sideways look, twining her fingers together and laying them in her lap. “When you were on Earth,” she begins slowly, quietly, “You were the first to bond with a lion. With Blue.” Lance nods his head, unsure about where she’s going. “Your bond with her was very strong, Lance. It was the bond that started the chain reaction that led us to where we are, that led to Voltron. It had to be strong. It still is -- I can feel it, when I’m in the Blue Lion. Perhaps you’ve felt something similar with Red, her connection with Keith.”

He nods again, slower this time. Allura smiles at him. 

“Blue can tell something is bothering you, which means I can tell something is bothering you,” Allura says. “I thought perhaps you might want to confide in your fellow Blue Paladin.”

Lance flushes, looking away from her. He wants to lie, to pretend that there’s nothing wrong, but if there’s anyone in this universe he can’t hide from, it’s Blue -- and if Allura is connected to her, that means she’ll know he’s lying. “It’s nothing,” he says instead, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them.

“Anything that distresses you is not nothing,” Allura tells him gently. “We’ve all noticed you’ve been...distracted, lately.” She pauses, and then carefully says, “Ever since Keith left.”

Lance stiffens. Allura makes a soft noise, indecipherable. When he glances warily at her, she’s covering her mouth with a hand, but he can see the amusement on her face. “What?” he asks her sharply, stung that she’s laughing at him. 

She must see his hurt, because she reaches a hand out and puts a hand on his shoulder, her laughter fading. “I’m not making fun of you, Lance. It’s only -- I’m just surprised it took you so long to notice, I suppose. You’re a very intuitive person, you know.”

Lance stares at her, only barely resisting the howling urge within himself to pull away and run, to escape a conversation he’s only barely managed to have with himself. “Well -- Keith’s different,” he says haltingly.

She sighs, a full body motion that conveys a both fondness and resignation at once. “Yes, that’s very true,” she says. “You do tend to make things difficult on yourself, don’t you?”

He snorts, feeling amused despite himself. “Because it’s Keith, you mean?”

Allura nudges him with her shoulder, smiling. “I meant because you waited until he was gone to have this revelation. Bad timing is unusual for you, Lance.”

Lance tightens his arms around his knees, closing his eyes. “Not that unusual,” he mutters. “I’m not very good at this whole thing, if you haven’t noticed.”

“Well, it’s Keith,” Allura says, patting his shoulder reassuringly. “He’s not very good at it either. That should be a comfort, right?”

Lance laughs, tucking his face against his knees. “Not really,” he says quietly. “I mean, I never know what he’s thinking. Sometimes I wonder if he’s thinking, or if he’s just rushing headlong because he trusts his instincts to save him.”

“That’s why he needs someone like you, Lance,” Allura says encouragingly. “You two were a fantastic pair when he was leading the team. You kept him -- grounded, I suppose.”

“But he’s gone now, isn’t he?” Lance asks bluntly, raising his head to look at her. “He left, because I took his place in Red and he didn’t want to hurt me, and now he’s out there risking his life and getting hurt and he’s too far and--”

“Lance,” Allura says, firmly and loudly enough that he immediately falls silent. Her stern voice had been the implacable Princess of Altea, but her face as she looks at him is Allura, soft and concerned. “Why are you blaming yourself for Keith’s choices?”

“Because -- before, when Shiro had just gotten back, I talked to Keith about my place on the team,” Lance stammers, feeling shame crawl up his spine. “And I think the reason he left was so that we wouldn’t have to shuffle the lions again. Because of me.”

Allura gives him a look. “Lance, Keith is a paladin, just like you are. He can decide for himself where he wants to be.” She goes quiet for a moment, her jaw tightening. “I’ll admit, I’m -- unhappy, that he chose to go with the Blade of Marmora. For all that they are our allies, their methods leave much to be desired. I don’t always trust them. But I do trust Keith.” Allura looks at him with her wide, pretty eyes, and she quirks a smile at him. “I know you do too.”

“Of course I do,” Lance says, sighing. His legs ache a little, so he stretches them out in front of him, tilting his toes inwards until they’re touching. “I’m just worried about him -- about what he thinks of his place here. If he’s only with the Blade because he thinks he has to be useful to belong, that’s -- I couldn’t stand that, Allura.”

Allura tightens her grip on his shoulder, squaring her own shoulders. “We’ll all talk as soon as we’ve retaken Naxzela, Lance. It’s too late now to change the plans -- Keith will have to be with the Blade to capture that cannon, but after that, I’ll do my best to convince Keith he belongs here with us.” Her smile goes sly, and she adds, “Perhaps with one of us in particular.”

“Allura,” Lance says pleadingly, his ears heating, “Please don’t do Zarkon’s job for him by killing me.”

Allura laughs, gracefully rising to her feet in one fluid motion. She looks down at him, reaching out and running her fingertips over the top of his head affectionately. “It’ll all be fine, Lance. Give yourself some credit -- you’re better at this than you think. 

He smiles at her, closing his eyes as she fixes his hair again and leaves just as quietly as she’d come. He feels -- better, although not his best. He doesn’t think he’ll be satisfied until Keith comes back, but he’s settled now, feels his thoughts slowing to a manageable pace.

He lays back on the ground, opening his eyes again, staring up at the ceiling.

Tomorrow. Everything will happen tomorrow -- the mission, and Keith coming back. They’re going to be one step closer to saving the universe, and Lance will be one step closer to -- to -- figuring something out with Keith. He doesn’t know what to do with these feelings, but he knows he’s got to get Keith back with the team, to tell him that he belongs with them. Lance feels a smile curving his lips despite all of his worries.

Tomorrow’s going to be good.

 

.

 

Everything is annoying.

“You guys aren’t even gonna meet up with us before everything?” Lance asks petulantly, crossing his arms. Onscreen, Keith rolls his eyes and fusses with his hood, making sure it falls properly.

“Kolivan says we’ll reconvene afterwards, but we’ve got to get control of this cannon while you guys deal with the Galra base on Naxzela. You knew that,” Keith reminds him, squinting a little.

“Well, yeah,” Lance says, frowning. “But I thought -- I just -- it’s been so long since--”  

But I thought I’d see you sooner. I just miss you. It’s been so long since I’ve heard your voice in the same room. He can’t make himself say the words out loud; it feels like too much of a confession in the wake of realizing his feelings. He glares at Red’s controls instead, her obvious amusement at his frustration only annoying him more.  

Keith makes a soft noise, one Lance can’t interpret. When he glances up at him, Keith is blinking at him, confusion apparent in his expression.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asks suspiciously, frowning at Lance. “Are you ready to do this?”

“I’m peachy,” Lance replies wryly, crossing his arms and sitting back in his chair. Outside of Red, the rest of the team is getting ready; Hunk is talking to Allura outside, both of them standing next to Yellow and Blue. Shiro is already in the Black Lion, and Pidge is saying goodbye to her brother as he gets ready to head off with the Coalition fighters. 

Lance watches them embrace, Matt’s hands pressed against Pidge’s hair, Pidge’s arms wound tightly around Matt; jealousy flares so strongly inside of him that he can taste it in his throat, has to swallow it back down so it doesn’t spill out. He sneaks a glance at Keith and wants, more than anything, to be able to hug him before this fight the same way. 

Keith looks back at him, his head tilted slightly, his dark eyes narrowed like a cat’s. He looks as if he’s trying to solve a puzzle again, and it makes Lance’s bad mood dissipate a little to think that Keith might care enough to try and solve him.

“Good luck out there,” Lance tells him, and Keith’s expression clears. 

“Same to you,” Keith says, quirking a small smile at him. He hesitates for a moment, then adds, “Take care of them, okay?”

“Me?” Lance asks, brow furrowing. “You do remember I'm just flying the Red Lion, right? Did you get a concussion and not tell me?”

Keith snorts, rolling his eyes. “I know which lion you fly, Lance,” he says. “And I know what kind of person you are -- you’re what held us together, when I was flying Black. I know you’ll do the same with Shiro and the team.” 

Lance’s heart twists so sharply in his chest that it leaves him breathless. He has to swallow several times to be able to speak; all of his words stick in his throat like molasses, slow and sweet.

For all that his feelings had crept up on him, he’s not really that surprised that he’d fallen for Keith when this is what he’s really like -- warm and generous and careful, hidden behind a prickly and silent and brave facade. Like a switch being flipped, Lance comes to an abrupt decision. 

“When this is over, we should talk,” he tells Keith. “Okay?”

Keith looks at him, eyes flicking over his face. Lance endures the stare, wondering if Keith can see his feelings on his face, if that’s why Keith’s gaze lingers on his eyes and mouth, but then Keith nods slowly, just once.

“Yeah,” Keith says. His mouth tilts up into a familiar half-smile. “Okay.”

 

.

 

Things go okay at first, which seems to be their usual mode of operation as far as battles against the Galra go -- the Coalition is managing against the battalion that comes out in full force to meet them, and Voltron makes quick work of the forces on Naxzela. Keith comes over the comms briefly to assure them all he has the cannon under control, and Lance’s stomach does a somersault that leaves him giddy and anxious in equal parts.

Coran tells them intermittently how the rest of the Coalition is doing, that the other planets are slowly coming under their control, that the battle is practically won at this point. Lance lets himself fall into the familiar routine of fighting, shifts Red’s controls automatically, his mind already on whether or not he should just come right out and confess to Keith or if he should build up to it, letting the romance happen naturally. He's always liked the idea of wooing someone, but at the same time, his feelings are already well on their way to overwhelming him -- he doesn't know if he can go slow.

He's absently contemplating whether or not Keith would like flowers when there’s a stirring over the communications, interrupting the congratulations Coran had been making just moments before.

“Our cannons have gone offline,” Olia says over the comms, sounding annoyed. “They must have been remotely shut down.”

“What now?” Keith asks. “Haven’t we basically covered everything?”

“Another battle cruiser is approaching,” Coran tells them, sounding worried. “There seems to be some strange attachment on the front, but it is just the one ship.”

“We’ve basically got Naxzela handled,” Shiro says firmly. Lance glances to his left instinctively, where he knows Shiro is controlling Black. “They’re too late to stop us now.”

“We’ll take care of the ship, Shiro,” Keith says. “There’s Galra ships here we can use to attack them."

“We’re on it, too,” Olia says. “Green Paladin, Matt Holt says to be careful.”

“Will do,” Pidge says, sounding exasperated but pleased. “Tell him ‘back at you.’”

“Let’s finish up here quickly so we can help the others,” Allura says, shifting so Voltron spins in place, looking around the wreckage and smouldering remains of the outpost they’ve been demolishing. The mines that had given them so much trouble are still covered in sheets of ice, glittering in the fog hanging suspended over them. 

“I think that might be--”

Pidge’s words are cut off by a shuddering below them, the ground shaking beneath like it’s trying to buck them off.

“Was that an earthquake?” Hunk asks, sounding startled. “Was it because of us?”

Before anyone can reply, a strange shape rises out of the ground near them, forcing them to step back or lose their footing. Lance frowns at his screens as they pan around and see that several of them are rising, all around -- in fact, it looks like the entire area around them is slowly filling with the cylindrical forms.

“What are those?” Shiro asks, sounding tense.

Pidge makes a distracted humming noise, her frantic tapping audible over the comms, and Hunk says, “I can’t detect any weaponry on them. I think they might generators.”

A chill creeps down Lance’s spine, making him sit ramrod straight in his seat. “We need to leave right now,” he says quickly. “Pidge, plot a course for us to join up with the others--”

“No,” Shiro says immediately. Lance’s brow furrows and he glances to the side again automatically, even though he knows he can’t actually see Shiro. “We need to investigate those machines.”

Lance feels his temper spike and has to bite his tongue against the first thing that he wants to say, which is are you an idiot? His skin is practically crawling with unease just looking at the machinery, can’t the others -- can’t Shiro tell that something’s wrong? They have to leave now.

Allura gasps before he can say anything more diplomatic, and then a wave of pressure forces Lance back into his seat, slamming his head against it and rendering him briefly speechless. Strangled cries tell him that the others are similarly restricted, and he spares a moment to feel viciously vindicated.

Fighting against the increased gravity, discovering the bomb at the core of the planet, realizing that they’re trapped here with no means of escape -- all of it just makes his fists clench tighter, his mouth thinning into a scowl. He listens to Shiro talking to them over the comms and thinks, desperation and fear and worry coalescing in his gut, that Keith would have listened to him. 

I don’t want to die here, he thinks, pressing his hands against his eyes until suns burst and die behind his eyelids, inhaling sharply. The barrier is too strong for them to break through, and he doesn’t want to die on this foreign planet in a galaxy he can’t even name, far away from his family, from his mother and father and siblings. He doesn’t want to die without kissing his mother’s cheek one more time, without stepping into the chilly ocean and letting the goosebumps spread over his legs like waves, without tasting salt in the air and the sweet flavor of turrones spreading on his tongue in the warm sunshine.

He doesn’t want to die without getting to kiss Keith at least once. 

The others are still talking amongst themselves, trying to figure out how they can get off so they can warn the others that the planet is a bomb. Lance tunes them out, tunes out everything, even the memory Keith’s sad, dark eyes, trying to think. Something is niggling at him, something’s just on the tip of his tongue and it feels important, but he can’t figure out what it is -- at least, not until Allura makes a frustrated noise.

“Allura,” he says, realization hitting him. He doesn’t say it very loudly, but the others all stop talking at once, and Allura’s face appears on his display, her bright blue eyes tired but expectant. “You can get us out of here,” he tells her, smiling encouragingly at her. “You felt that dark energy before anyone, your magic is connected to this.”

“But,” she says slowly, her eyes widening, “But I don’t know how to use it. Lance, I’m not trained! How can I--”

“You didn’t know how to fly Blue at first either,” he tells her, feeling Red’s growl of approval reverberate through his body. Blue’s reply is a distant echo in the back of his head, but he can still feel it, and it gives him hope. “Or how to save the Balmera with that ritual. We’re all sort of flying blind here, princess, but you can do this. You’re the one Blue chose.” He sends her another warm smile, even though he knows they’re losing precious seconds having this conversation. It’s something that should have been said already. “You told me yesterday that it was my bond with Blue that brought us all together, but you’re what keeps us together. You’re our heart, Allura, and I believe in you.”

Allura’s stares at him, eyes warm and wet, just for a moment, before she squares her shoulders. Her voice is steady when she says, “I’ll do my best.” 

Lance hadn’t been lying when he said he believed in her, but he still breathes a sigh of relief when they break through the barrier and their communications come back up. It’s a short-lived relief though, broken when Pidge says, voice tight, “The bomb is still going to go off.”

“Bomb?” Coran says, sounding alarmed.

“It’ll blow the entire rebellion to pieces in one go,” Shiro says, pushing Voltron to go faster. The planet of Naxzela grows more and more distant behind them, its swirling fog and purplish sky disrupted by the bright pink glare of the linked generators powering the barrier they’d just broken through. Lance spares it a glimpse before focusing his attention on flying towards the others.

“We’re attacking the ship that might be controlling it, but it’s not looking good,” Olia says, sounding grim. “We’re taking heavy fire and damage here, and their shields aren’t coming down." 

“We have less than five minutes before that bomb goes off,” Hunk says nervously. Lance feels Voltron jolt as the Blue and Yellow lions put on another burst of speed, but they can all feel the uselessness of the attempt, a frisson of tension spreading throughout Voltron as reality registers all at once -- they’re not going to make it in time. They can’t.

It’s such a hollow feeling. They’ve come so close to the edge of death so many times before, but this time there’s nothing they can do. There’s no magic solution that will take them from one end of a solar system to the other in five minutes -- there’s no way Voltron can save the day this time. The truth of it scrapes over Lance’s mind like claws, leaving gaping wounds -- he’s going to die here, lost in space, nothing but dust and debris left to mark his passing.

A soft noise drags him from his numb panic, alerting him to a new notification onscreen. Keith’s dark and steady eyes stare back at him, flashing with an incoming signal, one that’s clearly only on his channel. He accepts it, watching Keith’s disheveled and sweaty image flicker onscreen.

He’s vaguely relieved -- at least he won’t die without seeing Keith one more time, even if he never got to tell him how he felt.

The cockpit Keith is in is flashing with red lights, and there’s the distant sounds of weapons firing, audible even through the fortified ship’s sides. Lance opens his mouth to say something about Keith paying attention to what he’s doing, when he realizes that Keith is staring at him with something helpless and desperate in his gaze.

“Keith?” he asks, leaning forward. “What’s going on?”

“I was gonna…” Keith pauses, swallowing. His eyes shift forwards, like he’s checking where he’s flying, and then back at Lance. “After this, I was gonna tell you,” he continues, sounding choked. 

Something about the wild look in his eyes has Lance’s spine stiffening. “Keith, what are you--” 

“I thought I’d have more time,” Keith tells him quietly. His eyes are so dark, but they flash like fire with the red lights pulsing overhead. “To say the things I wanted.” 

Lance finally gives into the urge to reach out, touching the screen where Keith’s jaw clenches as he grits his teeth. “Me too,” he murmurs. He wants to close his eyes, to push out everything but the sound of Keith’s voice in his ears, to pretend this is just another call between them, that they’re lying in bed trading stories. But he can’t -- can’t bring himself to look away from Keith, from the messy curl of his hair against his cheek, the sweat dripping down his temple, the freckle by the corner of his mouth that lifts and then falls in a shaky smile. 

“I just needed to see you one more time,” Keith says. “To -- say goodbye, maybe.” 

“Please don’t,” Lance chokes out. Keith’s image blurs in front of him, the tears he’s been holding off this whole time burning hot and wet at the corners of his eyes. “This isn’t how any of this was supposed to go, please--” 

Keith’s gaze shifts again, and Lance realizes that a bright glow has started to creep over his face, almost as if a sunrise is breaking over the horizon. “Don’t be mad,” Keith says softly, looking back at him. His eyes are terrifyingly clear. “Take care of them.” 

Lance’s blood turns to ice in his veins. “What are you--” 

The screen goes black without warning, leaving him staring at nothing but the dark expanse of space passing in front of them as they fly faster than they ever have before. Lance frantically tunes back into the main comms in time to hear Shiro say, “What’s going on out there?” 

Olia’s voice comes through, strained and rough over the sound of laserfire. “We’ve only got seconds and we can’t break through, there’s--” 

The comms turn to static briefly, overwhelmed with the sounds of shouting and an explosion so loud it makes Lance’s teeth ache. For one long, painful second, he thinks that he’s died -- that this is the sound of the universe around them coming to an abrupt end.   

But they’re still moving, starlight streaking past them as they continue on their plotted path towards the Coalition fighters. They haven’t died. 

Don’t be mad.  

Lance breaks the silence first. “What was that?” he demands frantically, leaning forward in his seat. Only a stunned silence follows, and he feels something tear loose within himself, the last of his patience splintering into pieces. “What was that?” he asks through gritted teeth. His voice is more ragged than it’s ever been, ripping out of his throat like a growl. 

Surprisingly, it’s Hunk who speaks first. “Naxzela is going back to normal!” he says, his voice a mix of surprise and staggering relief. “The bomb is disarmed, and the generators seem to be withdrawing.” 

“Good job, Keith,” Shiro says warmly, sighing.

There’s no response. Lance’s grip on Red’s controls becomes painful, the sharp edges cutting into his palms. He bites down on his lower lip hard enough that he tastes blood, thinking that if he opens his mouth he might start screaming and never stop. 

“It wasn’t me.” 

Lance can’t stifle the choked noise he makes, slumping forward and covering his mouth his his hands, trying to hold in the heaving gasps that shake his entire frame. Keith’s voice is strange over the comms, almost numb, but it’s real, he’s still there, they’re all still here.

“Then who--” 

Allura’s words are cut off by an incoming signal, and a familiar voice comes over the comms. 

“Attention Paladins of Voltron and rebel fighters,” Lotor says coolly, his voice calm despite the ongoing chaos in the background. “I believe it’s time we had a chat.”

 

.

 

The decision to meet with Lotor out is one that Lance doesn’t agree with, but he has other things on his mind right now, and he doesn’t argue when Shiro and Allura reluctantly decide to hear him out. Everyone, even the Galra prince, agrees that they should secure the area and have this meeting in person, so everyone reluctantly converges on the Castle of Lions.

Voltron disbands just outside of the castle, and Lance flies Red inside of the hangar without paying attention to what he’s doing, trusting her to handle things. His mind is clamoring without rest, his pulse pounding in his veins like an uneven drumbeat.

“Coran,” he says over the comms, his voice a tightwire ready to snap. “Is Keith here?”

“Yes,” Coran says, sounding distracted. “He came in with Matt Holt’s team. It’s been decided that we’re all debriefing before we meet with Lotor. I believe Allura wants to make sure he’s alone and unarmed before we commence.”

“Where is Keith right now?” Lance asks, standing up and walking away from the controls before Red has even landed. Her presence in his mind is a low, gentle purr, an attempt at soothing his frayed nerves, but he barely acknowledges her.

“He’s in the changing room just off the main hangar,” Coran says. “Lance, you should prepare to meet with the rest of us in about thirty minutes. I’ve got to coordinate the rest of the Coalition forces and make sure our hold on the solar system is strong, but we’ll be discussing what’s going to happen with Prince Lotor soon.” 

“Got it,” Lance says quickly. “I’ll meet you all there. If the others ask I’m checking on Red’s engines, okay?” 

“Sure thing Lance,” Coran says absently.

Lance takes off his helmet and tucks it under his arm. Touching his feet to the floor of the castle grounds him -- this place is not his real home, could never replace Varadero, his yellow house with the tire swing out back, but it’s become something similar over the many months he’s been here. It’s where he’s curled up with Hunk on cool white floors, huddled under blankets and watching strange Altean movies. He’s hung around with Pidge near basically every maintenance hatch, handing her tools and equipment and bantering with her the entire time. He’s joined Allura training with the Gladiator, watching her hair flash just as quickly as the whip she twists, cheering her on. He’s listened to Shiro reassure them, and console them, and urge them on to victory. 

He fell in love with Keith in this castle.

It helps to be here when he makes his way quietly into the changing room, helps that it’s somewhere familiar. The room seems empty, but the sound of a shower running catches his attention. He follows it around the corner, where steam is streaming out of an open stall like smoke.

Keith is sitting on the ground of the shower, still wearing his Blade suit. His hair is plastered against the top of his head, which is resting on his bent knees. His hands are wrapped so tightly around his legs that his knuckles are white -- they tighten even more when Lance says his name softly.

“Keith,” he murmurs, dropping to his knees. Keith doesn’t respond, doesn’t even lift his head. A visible tremor runs through his body; Lance’s heart aches in his chest until he wishes he could pry it out, separate it from himself just for a moment to ease the pain. “Keith, please.”

“I’m fine,” Keith says, his voice muffled where his face is still pressed to his legs. “I’ll be out in a minute, I’m fine.” 

Lance’s shoulders heave once, just once, and he chokes out, “I’m not.”

Keith looks up then, his head lifting through the spray of water -- Lance can’t tell because of the shower, but it doesn’t look like he’s been crying. His normally blue gray eyes are dark, almost black, unfocused and distant.

“Are you hurt?” Keith asks, looking him up and down.

“Physically, no,” Lance says, laughing hollowly. “But I kind of feel like I’m gonna throw up, or fall over, or just -- fucking scream until I lose my voice, because I’m pretty sure you were going to kill yourself to try and save us.” Keith stares at him with those dead eyes, and Lance blinks at him and feels tears falling down his cheeks. “Maybe I’m a little hurt,” he murmurs. “I’m crying, so I must be.”

“I’m fine,” Keith says again, like he’s on autopilot. His eyes slide across the room, landing on the tiled wall of the shower stall. “I’m not dead.”

“Keith,” Lance says. “Keith, please look at me.” He wants to touch Keith more than anything; it’s all he’s wanted for more than a week, to be in the same place as Keith, to be able to feel the warmth of his skin and hear the teasing lilt of his voice when he smiled that half-smile, but he’s afraid that the slightest touch might make him shatter into a million pieces.

Keith’s gaze flicks back to him and lingers. His mouth parts and then closes again, like he’s thought of and then discarded whatever he was going to say. 

“I’m sorry,” Lance says quietly, twisting his fingers together instead of giving into the urge to brush the damp hair off of Keith’s forehead. 

Keith makes a soft, confused noise. “Why are you apologizing?” he asks, his voice a rasp that’s barely loud enough to be heard over the sound of the shower.

“We shouldn’t have let you go,” Lance mutters. His hands are tight enough around each other that it almost hurts, but he doesn’t let go. “We should have held onto you.” 

“I made the choice to go,” and there, finally, that sounds more like Keith, the annoyance creeping into his voice covering the muted numbness at last. “You didn’t let me do anything.”

“You don’t belong with them,” Lance tells him firmly. “They’re -- they don’t care about you, they only care about their missions, and we shouldn’t have let you think that you belonged with them, you don’t, you belong with us, you belong with --

“It’s not about that, it’s about saving everyone,” Keith says, his brow furrowing. Lance silently thrills in the way his fists clench, in the curl at the corners of his mouth, in the way his eyes are starting to blaze a little, familiar in their intensity.

“You’re part of everyone,” Lance reminds him, leaning forward a little, letting the distance between them close. Keith’s mouth tightens and he stares at the ground, watching water puddle at his feet. “You know that, right?” Lance presses.

Keith’s voice is a murmur. “I’m just one person, though.”

“We’re all just one person, Keith,” Lance says, trying not to sound exasperated. “That doesn’t mean you should sacrifice yourself for all of us--” 

“I had to,” Keith snaps, turning to face him again. “I had to, you were all going to die unless someone did something, we all were, I had to do something --”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Lance retorts, letting Keith’s temper spark his own -- arguing with Keith is familiar, at least, and it feels good to let the emotion out, to purge some of the aching in his chest. “You didn’t have to -- god, Keith, you’re usually reckless but not like that, not like you don’t matter--" 

“You matter more!” Lance’s mouth closes with an audible click as Keith’s chest heaves from the force of his shout, as it echoes around them on the tiled surfaces of the shower. Keith looks shocked at himself, but then his forehead creases and he hunches over, curling into himself a little. “All of you do, the Coalition and all of the refugees and our allies. You guys matter more than me.”

Lance’s fragile control finally breaks -- he reaches out and grabs Keith’s hand, too desperate to get through to him to even appreciate the skin-to-skin contact.

“You matter, ” he says insistently, tugging when Keith still won’t look him in the eyes. Something in him feels broken loose, rattling around inside of his empty chest like shards of glass. “You matter to me, to all of us, Keith. You have to know that we love you, that I--” 

It’s not how he wanted it to go, not at all -- he’d pictured roses and candles, or maybe a slow meandering confession as they held hands under the starlight by the ocean, or maybe even a desperate kiss at the end of a battle, hands clinging and mouths searing. 

He hadn’t pictured this, the two of them cold and wet and shivering on their knees on the hard tile of a shower, Keith miserable and Lance panicked, but he can’t not say it. It pours out of him like gasoline on a fire, a sudden spark that explodes into an unending flood of words.

“I love you," he says, and then it's all coming out at once, "That’s what I wanted to say to you after everything, I love you and -- and I need you, I’ve been so -- so messed up, without you, I’ve been so scared that you were gone because of what I said,” he can barely breathe but he can’t stop talking, why won’t he stop talking, “And I couldn’t take it if you died because you thought you didn’t belong with us, Keith, please don’t--”

Keith’s hand comes up to cover his mouth, palm pressed over his still moving lips. Lance stares at him, wide-eyed and finally, blessedly quiet. The silence stretches between them, broken only by the sputtering of the showerhead, the trickle of water flowing down the drain.

Finally, Keith licks his lips -- Lance’s eyes drawn automatically to the motion -- and says, “You love me?”

His voice is hesitant and unsure. Lance nods his head, because Keith’s hand is still over his mouth. Keith takes a slow, shuddering breath, and then lets it out. His hand falls away from Lance’s mouth and then runs through his hair, slicking it back against his scalp. 

“I didn’t -- I never thought you’d--” he mutters. He looks dumbstruck, his pale face flushing pink. 

“I do,” Lance says softly. “Even if you give me a heart attack basically five different times a day, and I’m probably going to go prematurely grey like Shiro, I do.

Keith snorts a little and looks surprised at himself. He unfolds a little, straightening up, seeming to realize for the first time where they are and what they’re doing. He glances at Lance, who’s starting to get damp himself from being so close to Keith. “We’re wet.”

“Astounding deduction, Sherlock,” Lance replies, smirking. He thought he’d be more terrified now, in this moment after his ridiculous confession, especially since Keith hasn’t really responded -- but all he feels is sort of relieved, both that it’s out in the open and that Keith is starting to look like a human being again, rather than a blank canvas. “What was your first clue?” 

Keith rolls his eyes, shifting onto his knees and out of the direct line of the spray. He’s dripping all over everything, but Lance doesn’t move away, doesn’t let go of his hand, threading their fingers together obstinately.

“I bet you didn’t even bring anything else to wear,” Lance continues, getting to his knees himself, frowning down at the water soaking Keith’s suit. “My armor will dry pretty quickly, but these suits are just--” 

The kiss surprises him. It’s warm and wet and lands on his open mouth, startling him into jerking away at first. Keith blinks at him, then goes red all over, flushing to the tips of his ears. He opens his mouth, maybe to explain or apologize, and Lance reaches out and fists his free hand in the fabric of the suit and pulls him back in before he can say anything.

This kiss is better -- they’re both ready this time, and when their mouths meet it’s smooth, lips sliding together. Keith tastes like water and something strangely sweet, like honey, and his hand comes up to cup Lance’s face, his palm cool against Lance’s hot skin. Lance’s heart is beating too quickly to count the pulses, leaving him dizzy when Keith opens his mouth on purpose, sliding his tongue into his mouth and drawing the breath out of his body. 

They stay pressed together for hours, or years, or maybe it’s only a minute or two -- it all feels the same to Lance when they pull apart gasping for air, both of them red and wide-eyed.

“What?” Lance asks, overwhelmed. Keith’s mouth is turning up into his usual half-smile, and it’s distracting. “Why did you -- what?”

“I -- feel the same,” Keith says haltingly. “The way you feel, I mean.” He makes a face at himself while Lance stares, open-mouthed.

“Oh my god,” Lance says, letting go of Keith’s shirt to grab his own face. “Oh my god, you really are just as bad at this as I am." 

“Hey,” Keith says mildly, looking annoyed, but Lance quickly leans in and kisses him again to distract him. Keith melts into it immediately, his eyes falling closed and then opening half-lidded when Lance pulls away. They narrow when he spies Lance grinning. “Don’t think you can do that all the time,” he tells him sternly, but he’s still smiling. 

“Okay,” Lance says brightly. He slowly gets to his feet, tugging Keith with him until they’re both standing, water dripping from them. “Ugh. This was not well thought out.”

“My room isn’t too far from here,” Keith says, shrugging. Water trickles from his hair and down the side of his face, sliding down the edge of his jaw. Lance reaches out and wipes it away, letting his hand linger. “What?” Keith asks, blinking at him.

“I’ve wanted to touch you again since you left,” Lance says quietly. He thrills when Keith’s cheeks turn pink, his stomach flipping giddily. “I’m indulging.” 

“I missed you too,” Keith replies softly, sending him a slow smile that ignites embers deep in Lance’s stomach. “Our calls -- they made everything bearable.” 

Lance squeezes his hand, feeling his heart heavy in his throat when he swallows. “So stay with us,” he says. Keith goes still and stares at him, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Stay with us and we’ll save everyone together.”

Keith’s mouth twists unhappily. “But I don’t want to make--” 

“We’ll figure it out, Keith,” Lance says firmly, ignoring Keith’s dubious expression. “I promise you, we’ll make it work somehow -- but your place is here, with us. It’s where it’s always been.”

Keith stares at him for a long time, his mouth pressed in a straight line. Lance looks back as confidently as he can, trying not to let the nerves he’s feeling show on his face. 

Keith glances back at the shower, still running with a rhythmic pattering sound in the background, and his eyes go dark, deep with an emotion Lance can’t name. Lance wishes he could reach out and smooth away the lines between his brows, could just wipe away whatever struggle is going on within him, but he watches patiently instead, letting Keith come to his own conclusions. “Okay,” he says finally, looking back at Lance. “Okay.” 

“Okay,” Lance replies, tightening his grip on Keith’s hand again, relief stuttering through his chest and leaving him temporarily breathless. “Okay.”

They leave damp footsteps as they leave the changing room, water marking their path towards Keith’s bedroom like a breadcrumb trail falling behind them. Their hands don’t let go the whole way.

Lance knows this isn’t the end of everything, knows that there’s no simple solution to the problems they have -- that Keith won’t settle for waiting while others risk their lives, that he’s going to have to confront Shiro about his leadership, that they have to deal with Lotor on top of every other problem they have.

But right now Keith’s hand is warm in his own, solid and reassuring. For a brief moment today, he thought he might never touch this hand again. He’s willing to focus on the things he wants to right now -- Keith’s gunmetal scent, and the heat of his fingertips against Lance’s wrist, and the sound of his footsteps easy and sure on the ground.

It’s enough, for now.