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Where the Heart Is

Chapter Text

 

The ship had been too quiet lately.

That was, at least, if you asked for Lance’s opinion, which no one had. He scowled at the ceiling from his sprawled place on a common room couch, cursing the silence for what felt like the millionth time. It felt like it was beating down on his eardrums, the absence of noise thrumming through his skull.

It wasn’t that there was any shortage of people on the castle. On any given day, the six of them could certainly make their own kind of ruckus, but the chaos involved in battle planning was its own monster. What Lance found himself missing was the noise that came with the pause - when all of them were mulling about doing nothing of great importance, but doing it together. He missed the low whistle of Hunk cooking, the constant clack of Pidge’s keys, the quiet hum of talking all around him.

They always used to spend downtime together, all packed into a common room, pillows and blankets and miscellaneous gadgets strewn among the couch… until suddenly, they didn’t. It was like a switch was flipped. There was some unseen hole there, some gaping void that they all felt, but no one felt brave enough to mention.

Personally, Lance was sick of it.

‘Paladins, please report to the main loading dock. We have a visitor.’

He made a curious noise as he sat up from the couch, head tilted inquisitively at the intercom. Interesting - they hadn't been expecting anyone, had they? Battles were becoming fewer and farther between, and coalition building was going smoother than ever. Unannounced drop-ins weren’t unheard of, but it usually came with news, and not often the good kind.

The thought made his stomach lurch, and he found himself on his feet and out the door before he could blink. The walk to the loading bay wasn’t far from the common room, but it was enough to string along Lance’s anxiety. He jogged through the hallways, and by the time the doors to the bay opened, he’d already convinced himself of a dozen different, horrific possibilities that could be waiting.

What he found instead was Keith.

Lance couldn’t help the immediate fizz of relief and excitement that boiled up in his chest as he spotted the Blade. Every time Keith came to visit, it felt like it had been a lifetime since they’d last seen each other, and it was always over far too soon. Lance understood - the mission came first. Still, he couldn’t help a bit of nostalgic wishing each time Keith showed up that maybe, this time, he’d stay.

He paused in the entryway, unable to help himself as he glanced the other man over. The last several times Lance had seen Keith, he had looked like a regular train wreck. He always seemed to have a new bruise or scar, and every time they met, Lance would swear that Keith had become tighter and tighter wound. This was why it surprised him so much to see Keith leaned against the side of the Marmoran transport pod, arms crossed easily as he talked to Shiro.

He looked so much better now, shoulders relaxed and eyes warm as he nodded to something Shiro said. There were still dark rings under his eyes, and his slouched form spoke of his exhaustion, but he’d lost the shade of dread that had come to be associated with the former paladin as of late.

Behind them, Lance spotted the large, slinking form of Ulaz emerge from the pod as well. Lance couldn’t help the little chuckle as Shiro perked up, muttering a few quick words to Keith before making a beeline to the Galran physician. It was the same thing every time they reunited, he mused, watching as Ulaz turned to greet Shiro with a soft smile of his own.

He wondered if he could have that with someone, one day.

Keith was watching them too. It was hard not to, the way the pair warmed up the room around them with their gentle antics. After a few more moments, Keith’s eyes flicked in his direction, and for a moment, Lance could swear they lit up even more as they met his. Wishful thinking, maybe.

“Lance,” he greeted, sounding warmer than he had in a long while. “It’s good to see you.”

“Same to you, mullet,” Lance replied, grin all over his face as he sauntered his way forward. Keith scowled at the nickname, but it was a friendly thing, the slightest quirk of a smile hiding at the edge of his mouth. The sight made Lance’s own grin widen. “So what super secret missive brings you here this time?” Keith’s expression faltered at that, flickering into something indistinguishable before settling neutral.

“Actually… I’m kind of. Taking a break from missions,” he admitted after a moment. “At least for a little while.” Lance stared at him, jaw dropping open at the thought of Keith taking a break from anything. The Blade never even stopped early for anything short of an emergency.

You? Taking a break?” His brain apparently decided that voicing this thought was the way to go. Welp, no backing out now. “What alternate reality did we stumble into this time?” Keith gave a short laugh at that, more of a snort than anything else.

“Everyone needs breaks, Lance.” Keith’s eyes danced with humor. “Even me.” Lance gave him a doubtful look, causing Keith to chuckle again. “Besides, with the Blades taking a new front on diplomacy, Kolivan decided it would be a good idea for a representative to be present for Coalition stuff, from time to time.”

“Sooo they sent you?” Lance asked, quirking an eyebrow. Keith just shrugged.

“I’m the least Galra-looking Blade,” he said. “Guess they figured it would be the best move.”

“Ah, I see. So your tiny-genes win again.” Lance stroked his chin as if looking thoughtful, expression breaking into another smile as Keith gave him a playful shove.

“Oh shut up,” he huffed, though his eyes betrayed his own amusement. Lance’s chest clenched, wondering if Keith had missed their pointless banter as much as he had. “Besides, Ulaz will be here too.”

“Ulaz is staying?” Lance asked, glancing back to the towering figure now across the bay. “Heh, wow, sure Shiro’ll be glad to hear that. He always looks at Ulaz like that guy hung the moon.” The pair had always had some strange chemistry between them, but it hadn’t been until recent events that it had become so painfully obvious. Nowadays, their mooning was just getting plain embarrassing.

“Yeah, even Kolivan wasn’t going to fight that battle,” Keith admitted, expression softening as he followed Lance’s gaze. “Ulaz going back to headquarters was more of a check-in to begin with, I think.” Lance nodded, but before he could respond, there was a loud clunk from within the Marmoran ship. Both men jumped, hands moving to weapons as they spun to peer at the open door.

It was then that Lance noticed that third Blade, one that he’d seen in the background of calls with Keith, but never in person. Regris stepped out of the doorway, ears giving a twitch as his one remaining eye settled on the pair for a moment before continuing his task. He set down the various boxes and supplies he was hauling from the small ship, stacking them neatly outside the ramp, before turning back up and repeating the process.

“Hey Regris!” Lance greeted, waving at the slimmer Galra in hopes that he would at least see it. His ears gave a twitch, and Regris rumbled in what Lance figured was acknowledgement before continuing with his task. Lance frowned. He knew that the younger Galra had been one of Keith’s field partners, before an accident had taken most of his sight and hearing, but seeing him without the Blade mask for the first time made him understand why. “Doesn’t stop for much, does he?”

“Nah,” Keith said simply, a certain fondness to the tone. “When Reg has a task, he’s very bullheaded about completing it,” Keith said, glancing back his old teammate with that same fondness before raising his voice. “Even when it gets him in great, big trouble.” An irate hissing echoed back at him, and Keith gave a snort of laughter. Lance couldn’t help joining in.

“Yeah, cause you’re never in bullheaded trouble,” Lance snickered, giving Keith a bump with his shoulder. Keith immediately denied this, and the pair lapsed back into easy conversation afterwards. Regris continued his task, moving around them when needed with little attention to them. After a moment, however, Lance couldn't help feeling that it seemed like a lot of boxes for one person to unload, especially with the heavy limp that Regris had acquired.

“Here, let me help you unload,” he offered, taking a step towards the rig.

“No!” Keith’s response was immediate. He darted in front Lance, causing him to jerk back. The paladin stopped, startled at the sudden change, as Keith shifted uneasily on his feet. “It’s just uh..” Keith seemed to struggle with words for a moment, and Lance stared at him, confusion radiating through him. “There’s some sensitive stuff in there, y’know? Regris has another drop-off after this.” He rubbed his thumb over the edge of his fingers, digits rolling against each other. Lance knew he only did that when he was nervous. “I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt mishandling something. We can handle it.”

“Okay?” Lance gave a little shrug, eyes still trailing after Regris as he re-entered the ship. Something about this felt.. off. That bubble of nervousness from earlier reappeared in his stomach, rolling around and tainting the excitement that had formed. He wasn’t stupid - the entire exchange reeked of hiding something. He just hoped it wasn’t anything important.

_ _ _

It wasn’t long after that the remaining paladins began to trickle into the loading docks. Pidge appeared first, and seemingly out of nowhere as she was suddenly beside them, causing Lance to jump in the middle of conversation and shriek way higher than he would ever admit to. She grinned up at him, the picture of completely unforgiving amusement, before reaching over to fistbump Keith. Lance felt utterly betrayed.

Allura was the next to appear, Coran trailing closely after her. The each gave their own little greetings to Keith; Allura with a gentle smile and a pat on the arm, while Coran exclaimed wildly on how Number Four had grown. (He hadn’t, at all, but the thought seemed to please Keith in a way that kept Lance from shooting it down, at least immediately.) The pair quickly became distracted, following Ulaz back and forth across the dock as he moved some new medical equipment. Keith simply watched them with that same fond look, not minding their sidetrack in the slightest.

Hunk brought up the rear, half-jogging through the door with a golden smile on his face and a fresh tray of (properly edible this time) cookies in his hands. Keith descended on the platter with glee, acknowledging Hunk’s apologies at being late with rapid nods as he stuffed an entirely unreasonable amount of baked goods into his mouth.

Soon enough, everyone was gathered around the platter, grabbing for a chance at Hunk’s cooking. Even Ulaz reappeared, slipping in between the paladins to see what the commotion was about. Shiro’s jibes got Keith to slow down, if not by much, before a sarcastic comment by Pidge got him riled right back up again. The group was all chatter and laughter, bumping shoulders and flashing smiles, and for the first time in what seemed like a long, long time to Lance, it felt like home again.

As the group talk lulled, Lance spotted Regris slipping off the ramp again. He held a large bundle in his arms, a blanket or cloth of some kind draping over most of his body and hiding whatever he carried as he skirted around the group. Lance squinted after him for a moment, curious about the contents, for a split second he swore he saw the bundle move. He blinked, looking again.. but it appeared to be nothing more than spare bedding. He shook his head - he really needed to stop reading those Altean horror novellas.

“Regris!” Hunk called out, looking up from the group when the Galra was almost to the exit. Regris seemed to freeze, ears twitching and pace slowing. “I brought cookies! Want to try some?” A moment, and Regris continued on his way, as if he’d never heard a thing. Hunk raised an eyebrow.

“Is he uh, alway that way?” He asked, looking a little put out.

“Yes,” Keith answered, entirely too quickly. “He uh, his hearing’s pretty shot, nowadays. He probably didn’t even realize you were talking to him.”

“Huh. Okay,” Hunk looked unsure, but just gave a little shrug, holding up the rapidly depleting platter of goodies. “Should I save him a cookie?” Lance could feel the sudden tension curling around the group, cutting into the warmth. Nope, no no no, he could not have that.

“Heck no, you snooze, you lose!” he exclaimed, immediately bouncing forward to snatch an unneeded amount of cookies. Pidge gave a squawk, reaching up to try and match him, and Lance could feel Shiro’s eyes rolling back in his head without looking. Mission accomplished.

“Yes, Hunk, he’d appreciate that very much,” Keith said, matching Shiro’s eye-roll with one of his own as moved to try and salvage a treat for his old teammate. The situation devolved rapidly, as to be expected, and eventually ended with a cookie chucked at an unsuspecting Regris, smacking him right in the face. The Blade failed to find the situation as amusing as everyone else did.

Shiro finally decided it was time to give the poor agents some peace, shooing the paladins away to let the three finish their tasks. He gave a smile over his shoulder as he herded the group, motioning for Lance to hurry along as well. The blue paladin conceded, flashing a thumbs up, before turning back to Keith.

“It really is good to see you again,” Lance said, reaching out to give Keith's’ shoulder a light squeeze. The blade smiled, chuckling quietly as he returned the gesture.

“You too, Lance.” The door hissed closed again behind them, quiet settling back down across the shuttle bay, and Lance hesitated for a moment. His gaze flashed back over Ulaz and Regris, arms clasped by the pod doors as they said farewell. Something felt unsaid, unease still lingering in Lance’s chest, but the words seemed tangled in his mouth. He wondered if he should say anything at all.

“...if you need anything, you let me know, yeah?” he settled on, eyes moving back to meet Keith’s again. “That’s what a team is for.” Keith seemed to pause for that moment, suddenly tense beneath Lance’s hand, as they stared at each other. Then, everything relaxed, and he nodded.

“Yeah,” he said back, voice quiet. “I will.” Smile creeping across his face, Lance gave Keith’s shoulder one more squeeze, before turning and heading back into the castle. Whatever the Blades were keeping quiet, it could wait for another day.

Keith was home. That was all that really mattered, right now.

 

Chapter Text

It started with the questions.

Lance was doing his usual post-training lounging in the main common room, limbs splayed every which way and tablet in hand. He was scrolling through a translated article Pidge had sent him when the doors hissed open behind him. He glanced up, flashing a smile as he spotted Keith traipsing in. Keith gave a little nod in return, looking distracted as he plopped into the space across from him.

“You alright, mullet?” Lance asked, quirking an eyebrow. Keith gave a nod, but otherwise stayed quiet, teeth worrying at his lip and finger rubbing together again. Unconvinced, Lance gave a little hum, returning his attention to his tablet while he waited for Keith to speak up.

“You know kids, right?” Keith blurted suddenly. Lance’s head snapped up, hands almost dropping his tablet as he stared at the Blade. That was definitely not what he’d expected to hear.

“Uh, yeah? I guess?” he answered, unsure of where Keith was going with this. “I mean, I have a ton of nieces and nephews, so I’ve spent time around them, if that’s what you mean.” Keith seemed to deflate at the answer, shoulders slumping back against the couch cushions.

“Oh. Alright,” he said in a quiet voice, eyes immediately drifting off again. Huh. Lance sat up a bit, leaning on an elbow and frowning in Keith’s direction. He knew that Keith didn’t always like to be poked, but he would be damned if that guy didn’t sometimes need to be.

“Why d’you ask?” Keith hesitated, fingers curling together again, and for a moment Lance thought he might actually answer.

“...no reason. Just thinking about it.” Keith was suddenly on his feet again, back towards Lance as he shuffled towards the door. “I should go, I’ve got a lot to do.” Lance opened his mouth, but Keith was already gone, door sliding closed in his wake. He let out a huff of air, equal parts annoyance and worry in the sound. He doubted Keith had anything of great importance to do, with training already done for the day, but he wasn’t going to pry. Not yet.

The odd questions kept coming, however. It seemed that whenever the two of them caught a moment alone, Keith took part of the time to ask him a question that would always catch Lance off-guard.

How old were his nieces and nephews? Did he ever babysit? What did they do for fun? What if they pitched a fit, or wouldn’t eat something?

“Why so interested in my family all the sudden?” He eventually asked, after Keith had finished listening with oddly rapt attention to him talk about his niece’s terrifying habit of scaling the kitchen cabinets. Keith jumped, eyes wide as if he hadn’t expected to be asked.

“I uh.. I just.. was curious?” He looked away again, arms folding as if to shield him. “You don’t talk really about them much other than missing them.” The thought of someone else caring, wanting to hear about his family and learn about them, sent a pang through Lance’s chest. He would’ve been ecstatic, to tell their stories - if it had been the truth.

It was times like this that almost made Lance wish Keith wasn’t such a terrible liar. He was blindingly honest, even when he shouldn’t be, and it just made the untruths stick in the air like a fume. Times like this, when knowing didn’t help him do anything but wallow in the ‘what ifs’, he almost wished he could’ve just believed them.

Something wasn’t right, and Lance had no idea what it was.

_ _ _

It continued with the disappearances.

Lance frowned as he made his way towards the kitchens, glancing around as he walked. He’d been looking for Keith all morning - starting with the Blade’s old room, and working his way through the training decks, and even Red’s hangar - and hadn’t managed to find even a single sign of the Blade. It was as if he’d vanished off the ship, leaving even his old haunts abandoned.

“Anyone seen Keith?” The question was out of his mouth before he was even through the doorway. Hunk turned from his spot at one of the counters, raising an eyebrow but not pausing in his stirring.

“Not since breakfast, no,” he said, frowning a little bit himself. “I figured he’d be in the training room by now?” It was the middle of the day, and old patterns would have put Keith exactly there. Except, he wasn’t.

“Believe me, I checked,” Lance sighed. He ran a hand through his hair, trying to figure out where else he should be checking. Keith had been a creature of extreme habit before, always going through the same tasks on their days off. He had expected those same habits to pick right back up. Had Keith really changed that much at the Blade..?

“His bedroom?” Pidge offered, not even looking up from her computer. Lance shook his head.

“Tried it. No answer.” He’d knocked for awhile, too, even sing-songing various insults about Keith’s hairstyle through the closed door, all to no avail.

“Maybe he’s napping?” Hunk suggested, starting to look a little worried himself. Lance snorted at the thought.

“Yeah right, it’s the middle of the day! That guy doesn’t know the meaning of ‘day off’.”

“Yeah, but he's here to take a break from the Blade, isn't he?” Pidge pointed out, finally looking up with a shift of her glasses. “Maybe he’s finally starting to realize that he’s overworking himself.” Lance scowled, shoving hands in his pockets. True, Keith was here on break - but taking it as complete downtime didn’t ring true to Lance. He just wasn’t the type to disappear into his room for hours on end.

“Maybe…” He flopped down onto a counter, ignoring Hunk’s pointed look about his butt on a cooking surface.

“Let’s not worry about Keith for now, yeah?” Hunk said, giving Lance a sharp nudge in an attempt to dislodge him from the counter. “It’s not like he’s left the castle - he’ll turn up soon.” Lance gave an unconvinced sounding hum, only proceeding to sunk further onto the counter. Hunk, ever a creature of blessed patience, simply threw in the towel. “Anyway, who wants to taste-test my newest dish? It’s a good one!”

Lance immediately perked back up, fighting off Pidge for the chance to be the first to try. The cheating little gremlin got the upper hand, causing Lance to screech at her for being such a traitor. By the time dinner rolled around, Lance had nearly forgotten about Keith’s odd behavior, as the Blade turned up for dinner like usual. Their mealtime banter was comfortable and familiar, everyone smiling and laughing like nothing had changed. Then, Keith loaded up his plate with seconds, quickly mentioned something about wanting to get some work done, and vanished again.

He wanted to think he was imagining it. A glance around the table, however, confirmed that he wasn’t.

_ _ _

Lance hadn’t meant to overhear them. He’d been unable to get to sleep, tossing and turning in his bed, before giving up and deciding to go grab one of the herbal supplements Coran had been recommending. He was just outside the medbay, one hand on the wall, when he heard the voices drifting out.

“-every day, understood?” Ulaz was saying, his deep, rumbling voice unmistakeable. Lance frowned, pausing in his place. It wasn’t uncommon for the Galran to be up this late, with his more nocturnal schedule, but rarely was anyone else up with him. Who was he talking to?

“Yeah, I got it.” Lance felt a jolt of shock as he recognized the second voice. Keith. “Thank you, Ulaz.” Thank you? For what?

“Of course,” Ulaz replied, his voice oddly soft. “Keep me updated, youngling. This is a delicate time.”

Delicate time? What the heck did he mean by that? Lance’s stomach dropped, anxiety immediately spiking as his mind raced with possibilities. Was Keith sick? Why wouldn’t he tell the others if he was, why go sneaking medicine from Ulaz in the middle of the night?

“I still believe it would be pertinent to inform the others of your situation,” Ulaz was continuing, the sound of his clawed feet shifting across the ground echoing. He heard Keith sigh.

“Not yet, Ulaz.” His voice sounded so little, Lance had to strain to hear it. “I will, I promise, I just.. time.”

“Time.” Ulaz gave a low rumble, a sound that Lance had come to recognize as a comfort for Galra. Guilt immediately swept into his chest, and Lance quickly stepped backwards, away from the medbay doors. The conversation wasn't meant for him, wasn’t meant for anyone but Keith and Ulaz.

It left a sour taste in his mouth. He shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have stayed to listen - but it left him with so many questions, and none of them had answers. What was wrong with Keith? Why did he need time to tell them? Didn’t he trust them enough? He quietly made his way back to his bedroom, knowing he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight regardless.

What exactly was Keith hiding from them?

_ _ _

“I think something’s wrong with Keith,” Lance said, hands wringing together in front him. The statement found Hunk raising an eyebrow for what felt like the dozenth time that week.

“Okay…” he started, setting down his mixing bowl and wiping his hands. “What makes you say that?”

“He’s keeping to himself,” Lance started, raising a hand to begin ticking off fingers. “And I mean, way more than usual. I’m always looking for him, and I can never find him. He ditches out of meals as soon as he’s done, and he never answers his door when I go by.” He’s pacing, too, feeling like he’s going to wear a whole in the kitchen floor at this rate. Hunk nods, looking concerned. Lance is unsure if it’s for himself or for Keith. “And he’s been asking all these weird questions?”

“Maybe he’s just trying to recuperate, like Pidge said,” Hunk offered. He was frowning, unsure of the situation, but trying his best to see reasonable explanations, like always. Lance appreciated that about him. “I mean, he’s had it hard at the Blade. Plus, he’s kind of always asking weird questions? He’s Keith.”

“Yeah but weird for him! He keeps asking me about my family and stuff.” Lance huffed, leaning heavily against the counter. “Besides, I haven’t even seen him on the training deck all week.” Hunk’s brows furrowed.

“Not even once?” Lance shook his head.

“Not. Once.”

“...yeah, alright, that is a little weird,” Hunk admitted, shuffling his supplies off the side to give Lance his full attention. The blue paladin jiggled his leg against the counter, staring downward as he debated if he should say something else. Well. If anyone was going to get a good gauge on the situation, it was Hunk.

“Plus, I saw him and Ulaz down in medical, the other night,” he admitted. Sure enough, Hunk gave him a pointed look, and Lance threw his hands up in defense. “Don’t give me that look, I was just trying to get something to sleep! Still, I kind of.. accidentally listened in.” He ran fingers through his hair again, shaking his head. “Ulaz was giving something to Keith. Didn’t say what it was for, but mentioned it being a ‘delicate time’.” He finished with air quotes, turning back around to look at Hunk. “What does that even mean?”

“Huh.” Hunk folded his arms, coming around the counter to join Lance. “Yeah, okay, that’s weird alright.” He went quiet for a moment, staring downward in thought. “...you don’t think he’s going into some weird Galra heat, do you?” Lance nearly fell over, vertigo hitting him from how quickly his head spun around to stare at the yellow paladin.

“Hunk. What the fuck?”

“What? It makes sense!” Hunk looked completely unfazed by this reaction. “I mean, I know my old cat Fifi started acting really weird when that would happen, like she was a totally different animal. Galra are basically space cats, right?” They had in fact, had the conversation about Galra being space cats multiple times - but it had definitely never included this shit.

“Yeah, okay, sure, but what the fuck?” Lance hissed, eyes wide with disbelief. Hunk merely shrugged.

“I’m just saying! Who knows what kind of weird Galra anatomy he’s got going on.”

“And what kind of ‘weird Galran anatomy’, exactly, are we discussing?” Lance and Hunk both jumped as Ulaz appeared behind them, yellow eyes peering curiously over the two of them. Damn, it was times like this that Lance remembered he was an agent as much as a medic - for someone as big as he was, his approach had been completely silent. Suddenly bothered, Hunk let out a nervous laugh.

“Nothing! Nothing, totally not talking about Keith, nope,” he tittered, walking back around the counter to pick up an oven mitt. Lance gave him a flat look, and Ulaz’s eyebrows went up. “Yeah, totally no weird space cat heats going on there. Yeah.” The sound of Lance’s palm hitting his forehead was so loud, the paladin was positive it could be heard all the way back on Taujeer. Ulaz, however, merely gave a chuffing laugh.

“I can assure you, however misinformed you may be, that Galra are not a species which undergoes heat cycles,” he said, amusement clear across his face. Hunk gave an exhale, fanning himself with one of the mitts as he leaned back.

“Oh, phew. Okay, that’s a relief.” He said, shaking his head as he moved back to the mixing bowl. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with that.”

“Yes, quite,” Ulaz said, glancing over the paladin again with that same amused expression. “One can only imagine the chaos that such a breeding pattern would create in the empire. Why, imagine-”

“Okay, nope, that’s enough!” Lance didn’t miss the sparkle of mischief in Ulaz’s eye. That little shit knew exactly what he was doing. Still, the physician cleared his throat, appearing ever the professional as he looked between the pair.

“May I ask what brought this particular discussion on, paladins?” He asked, still looking a little too pleased for Lance’s taste.

“Oh, Lance was just talking about something weird you said to Keith,” Hunk said, not even looking up from the ingredients he had returned to. Lance gave a sudden squawk, limbs flailing in indignation.

Hunk!!” he squeaked, immediately feeling the hot flush crawl up his neck. The yellow paladin glanced up, expression morphing into a sheepish grin.

“Oops. Sorry.” He did not look that sorry. Lance should have known - ever well-meaning, the big teddy bear just did not know how to keep a secret. Telling him anything may as well have been posting it on the lounge wall.

Welp, cards on the table, might as well go for it. Lance turned and stared down Ulaz, crossing his arms. The Galra looked utterly unimpressed.

“Listen, I know something’s up with Keith,” he said, getting right to the point. “He’s not himself, not since he came back.” He reached out, poking at Ulaz’s chest. “I saw you two down in the medical bay the other day - I know you gave him something!” Ulaz’s brows shot up, but those sharp, yellow eyes stayed unreadable. “Who gets medical advice in the middle of the night? What’re you two hiding, huh??” Ulaz looked at him, moment stretching on. Then he exhaled, a quiet thing, and smiled softly.

“Nothing to be worried about, I assure you,” Ulaz said, reaching out to move Lance’s hand away from his chest. “I was merely supplying him with some tomylian gel.” Lance deflated a little bit, disappointment settling over him.

“Oh. Okay.” All that, and it was just some tomylian gel. Wait. What was that even for?? He tilted his head, eyes squinting at Ulaz again. “And that would be for..?” The Galra shook his head, smile fading a little bit.

“I’m afraid that information is between myself and my patient.” He gave a little nod. “You understood, yes?” Lance did, unfortunately - but that didn’t mean he had to accept it. He nodded back.

“Yeaahhh, okay. Thank you anyway, Ulaz.” He turned, making his way out of the kitchens, and turning towards the Green Lion’s hangar instead.

_ _ _

“You said this was for Keith?” Pidge asked, adjusting her glasses as she glanced up from her computer screen. Altean symbols flicked past, Pidge’s translating matrix working furiously. Lance nodded, and she frowned, turning back to her screen and leaning in. “That’s weird - it’s a high caloric vitamin supplement.” She looked back up again. “It’s the kind of thing you’d give for someone who can’t keep weight on or isn't eating properly.”

“That’s… weird,” Lance muttered, leaning over her to look at the results for himself. “Why the heck would Keith need that?”

“I dunno,” Pidge said, shrugging. She was back to her keyboard again, keys clacking furiously. The medical information flicked away. “Guy’s been piling his plate higher than usual at every meal, you’d think he’d be getting enough already.” Lance’s frown deepened, words churning in his mind.

“Yeah, you’re right.” He had a lot think about, again. He sighed, frustration pounding behind his eyes, but he set a gentle hand on Pidge’s shoulder. “Thanks Pidge.” She shrugged, eyes still locked on whatever project she’d returned to. Lance turned and left her to it, feeling no closer to an answer.

_ _ _

It culminated when the alarms went off.

They’d been in a briefing session, gathered around a star map of their location in the center of the bridge. They were discussing possible infiltration using Keith’s Marmora skills, extracting information from an old mining colony, but Keith seemed hesitant. Allura was repeating the benefits of the information when the alarms started blaring, star map blipping out of existence to be replaced with a proximity warning for a Galra cruiser.

Before anyone could so much as blink, Keith had launched himself from the bridge, barreling through the doors and sprinting in the opposite direction from the pod bay. Baffled, Lance almost moved to follow him, spell only broken by the commanding voice beside him.

“Everyone, to your Lions!” Allura barked, already halfway to her elevator. The other paladins hesitated, glancing at each other with confused eyes, before quickly moving towards their own exits. Shaking his head, Lance spared one more glance at the bridge doors, before following after.

Keith didn’t show up until the cruiser was almost torn apart, his fighter jet picking off remnant Galra fighters at the edge of the battlefield. No one said anything, but Lance could feel Allura fuming through the bond, tinged with Shiro’s concern and Pidge’s burning curiosity. They hadn’t needed Keith’s help for this, true - but what if they had?

They returned to the bridge afterward, the debriefing quick, and Keith barely looked at any of them. He was running his fingers together again, shoulders tight and eyes distant. The moment Shiro and Allura called a finish to the meeting, he was back out the doors, and out of sight, leaving Lance to stare after him.

Something wasn’t right. The anxiety of it all clawed at his belly in an uncomfortably familiar way, leaving him empty and exhausted, and Lance knew there was really only one way to get to the bottom of this.

_ _ _

He went to Keith.

Of all the paladins, Keith had spoken to Lance the most, since returning. Some days, it felt like they were still in old times, the leader and his right-hand man, Lance and Keith, neck and neck. The rest… Keith was distant. Different. It was like his walls, so delicately torn down over their time together, had been built back up. Lance wasn’t having any of it.

If cornering Keith for an awkward heart-to-heart conversation was what he needed to get his Keith back, Lance would do it a million a times.

“Keith.” The Blade froze in his steps, turning back towards Lance with surprise. It took some planning, with how elusive the former paladin had somehow become. Lance cornered him after dinner the next day, finishing his own food quickly so that he could wait outside for Keith. Even now, Keith had a half-filled plate in his hands, fingers tightening around the edges. Lance stared him down. “What’s going on?” Keith hesitated, shifting from one foot to the other. He wouldn’t look Lance in the eye.

“I.. don’t know what you mean,” he said, low and cautious. Lance sighed, stepping forward to stand in front of the other man.

“Come on, man,” he pressed, his own voice dropping. “I’m not stupid - and you’re not yourself.” Keith kept shifting, uneasy, eyes still glued to the ground.

“Lance…”

“Keith.” Lance reached out, setting his hands on Keith’s shoulders. Keith’s head jerked up, shock written all over his face. “I just want you to know I’m here for you. No matter what.” He took a deep breath, closing his eyes one, before opening them and trailing them right onto Keith’s own. “I don’t know what you’re going through, but… you don’t have to do it alone.” Keith looked frozen, eyes blown wide as he stared back at Lance.

“What… are you talking about?” His voice nearly cracked, shoulders quivering under Lance’s grip.

“It’s okay, Keith.” Lance’s voice was practically a whisper. He kept his eyes on Keith’s, trying desperately to get him to understand. “You can trust me.”

A pause, silent. Then, something about that statement, said so softly between their locked eyes, seemed to melt Keith. Lance felt him relax under his grip as Keith’s eyes slid closed, a long exhale leaving him.

“Yeah.. yeah you’re right.” He looked back up, and this time, his eyes were shining. “I can.” He reached up, taking one of Lance’s hands from his shoulder and turning to tug him along. “Come on. I’ve got something to show you.”

Chapter Text

Whatever Lance had been expecting, it really, really hadn’t been this.

He’d followed Keith eagerly, despite his confusion as they wound downwards into an area of the Castle he’d never traversed much. They hurried past the cryopods and the medical bay, finally slowing in a hall that wasn’t much higher than the lion bays. They reached a door, and Keith paused, seeming to hesitate for the first time since they’d started moving.

“Listen, I.. I need you to understand something, Lance.” He shifted on his feet again, fingers running together. “This isn’t easy for me to trust someone else with, okay?” Lance nodded, watching Keith as he continued to fidget. “So. Please, just.. don’t freak out.”

“Okay?” Lance answered, trying to ignore the sudden clench of nerves in his stomach. The Blade gave him a little smile, squeezing his hand, before letting go to touch the door panel. It beeped quietly, opening to low light as Keith raised a finger to his lips. Be quiet.

The room was different from any of the others Lance had seen. Everything had a softer feeling to it, from the give of the floor to the rounded edges of the counters and low table. Blankets were strewn about the room, over the backs of chairs and across the squishy-looking cushions, ending in a massive pile across a large bed in the right corner. A projector of some sort shaped stars across the ceiling, the occasional streak of color flashing through it as a lion made its way across the pretend galaxy. Lance’s eyes followed Blue as her image flew by, skating through the stars before hovering above the bed. It was then, as the tiny Blue purred and circled again, that he saw it.

It wasn’t just blankets on the bed.

Curled up in the center, snuggled between layers of plush fabrics, was a small, lavender shape. Lance could just make out the fluff-tipped ears that poked out, the edge of a little jawline, and what felt like the tiniest clawed hand gripping the covers. It was tiny - they were tiny. They couldn’t be any bigger than a 4 or 5 year old back home, and Lance’s heart stuttered as he wondered just how young a Galra must be to be that small - because there was no way this was anything else.

It all fell into place. The questions Keith had been asking. The supplements from Ulaz. His absence from training, why he was never in his room anymore. The way he’d frantically darted away from the bridge the second the alarms went off.

The bundle that Regris had carried from the ship.

You have a freakin’ KID?!” He somehow managed, despite how short his breath felt.

Hssshhh! Keith hissed at him, eyes wide. He reached a hand over Lance’s mouth, trying to quiet him down, but the damage had been done. The little form twitched, head raising as a pair of sleepy golden eyes blinked into view.

“Kee..?” The voice was tiny too, barely more than a whisper as the kid rubbed at their eyes. They blinked again, eyes finally seeming to focus as they woke. Their tired gaze fell on him, and their body went stiff.

They stared at him, and he stared right back. This. Holy shit. This was a nursery. That was a little Galra. Keith was keeping a baby Galra in the castle, and no one knew about it!

Enthralled by the sheer ridiculousness of this discovery, Lance found himself stepping forward before he could think. Like a switch flipping, the kit’s entire demeanor crumbled inwards. Their clawed hands pulled the blankets tighter around them, ears drawn back against their head as they seemed to shrink. They pressed down, flat against the mattress with fur bristling, and a quiet, high-pitched keen echoed in the room. Lance froze, steps halting as he realized what emotion he recognized in those wide, gold eyes.

The poor thing was absolutely terrified.

“Hey, little birdie.” It took Lance a moment to register that it had been Keith, speaking those words. His voice was so startlingly different, soft and slow, and nothing like the brash young man he was used to. He watched, filled with some form of awe as Keith moved past him, approaching the little Galra with one hand outstretched. “It’s okay. He’s with me. I promise.” His fingers traced the edge of their ear, curling in to run through the white fluff around their jaw. The transformation was instant - their entire frame seemed to melt as they turned their head into his palm, eyes fluttering closed as they nuzzled into his palm. He ran a thumb across their cheek, smiling as it ruffled the velvet fur there.

“Good girl,” Keith murmured, so low it was almost unheard. It was a quiet moment, and though Lance knew it was not for him, he felt his heart ache as he looked at them. He thought of his own mother, and wondered if they had looked so soft when she’d comforted him long ago.

“Sorry to startle you,” he continued, hand moving down to rest on her small shoulder. “I wanted you to meet someone.” Her ears twitched, gaze drifting past Keith to settle on Lance again. She still looked nervous, eyes narrowing slightly at the unfamiliar face, but she was no longer trying to become one with the mattress, so Lance counted it as a win.

“This is Lance.” To Lance’s surprise, she seemed to perk up at his name. She sat up, slowly, blanket still tucked around her shoulders as she tilted her head at him. Something about the way her eyes glimmered up at him, curiosity beginning to stir in them, immediately ensnared him.

“Blue one,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. Keith chuckled, eyes flicking in Lance’s direction just long enough to catch the surprise across his face.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Keith shifted out of his crouch beside her, moving to sit on the bed and wrap an arm around her. As she snuggled into his side, he looked up, free hand raising to motion him over. Lance carefully approached, movements slow as she watched his every move. He kneeled down where Keith had been, and though the little cub still leaned back at his approach, there was still a hint of excitement to her.

“Lance… this is Jaybird.”

“Hi, Jaybird,” Lance said softly. He extended one hand, knuckles first, as if meeting a stray dog. It seemed the appropriate move, however, as Jay leaned forward to examine the limb. She gave it a delicate sniff, hesitating, before placing her own tiny, soft hand in his. He smiled gently back at her.

“Lance does really well with kits. I’m sure you’ll like him a lot.” She gave a tiny nod in response.

Lance slowly moved onto the bed, watching Jay closely to make sure she was okay with him. She pressed a bit closer to Keith, but otherwise stayed where she was. She.. wow, she really was little. Being next to Keith and still looking so small only accentuated the fact.

“How are you?” He finally settled on. This was, apparently, not the right thing say. She lowered her head, ears tucking back against her skull as she looked away. “Oh, okay, it’s fine. Here, uh-” He wiggled himself back up against the wall, leaving a few feet between himself and the others. Keith winced, looking at Lance apologetically as Jay stayed curled up, but he just shook his head. He’d dealt with shy kids before. He could do this. “Why don’t we just sit and be quiet, for a little while? Yeah.”

So they sat there, quietly, for longer than a little while. Keith kept murmuring words of encouragement to Jay, and she kept peeking up at Lance, ducking back down whenever he looked back. Lance kept quiet, offering the occasional smile when he noticed her looking - and if she was slowly peeling herself away from Keith, creeping in his direction? He pretended not to notice. It was only once she set a hand gently on his leg, touch hesitant but there, that he spoke again.

“Hi,” he said, still smiling as he looked down at her. She stared back up at him, this time, and he swore the stars glittering in her eyes were more than just a reflection.

“...hi,” she whispered. They held for a moment, just staring at each other, before Jay’s courage waned, and she tucked her face into his side.

All at once, he felt the familiar, roaring fire of Red rise in his chest. Her growl resonated in his ears, rumbling all through his being as he felt her looking through his eyes at this little thing. Mine too, she seemed to say. Small, but strong. Important. Protect her. Lance couldn’t agree more.

_ _ _

When all was said and done, Lance had managed to coax Jay completely out of the nest, and into his lap. She was curled half on, half beside him, having lost her fight against sleep as she lay there. He ran his fingers through her mane, admiring its softness. It didn’t seem like it was quite as thick as it should be, but Lance found himself admiring it anyway. He smiled down at her.

“Soooo,” he said, keeping his voice quiet enough to let Jay sleep. “You. Have a kid.” Keith said nothing for a moment, eyes ghosting over the pair beside him. He nodded.

“Yeah,” he replied, voice just as soft. “I guess I do.” Lance exhaled sharply.

“What the fuck, man. That’s-” He held up his hands at Keith’s immediate shift in expression. “I mean she’s great, I love her, but-” He glanced down, rubbing the velvet edge of Jay’s ear as he spoke. “That’s a lot. For anyone.” That got a dry chuckle, Keith reaching up to run fingers through his hair.

“Believe me, I know. She’s a handful even on her good days.” Lance thought about that. Thought about days since Keith’s return where the Blade had been constantly out of sorts, eyes always drifting to doorways, vanishing the second he had a chance only to reappear far later. He could only guess what the bad days for someone like Jaybird entailed - he couldn’t imagine that would be easy to handle. Especially alone.

“So why didn’t you say anything?” He asked, unable to hold the question in any longer. Keith sighed, leaning back against the wall and staring up at the star projection that still shone above them.

“I wanted to,” he admitted, eyes not leaving the twisting shape of Red above him. “But this whole thing is really new. I just wanted some time to figure it out. Besides.. you’ve met her now.” Keith glanced down at her, entire demeanor softening with just that action. “She’s.. she has special needs. She gets so scared so easily, and there’s just, a whole list of shit that could set her off.” He looked back at Lance, pausing, before his eyes returned to the stars. “I can’t just throw her into life on the ship and expect her to do okay. The others mean well, and yeah, they’d want to help, but that’s the problem. They’d want to help all the time. We don’t - she doesn’t need that. She needs quiet, and time.”

Time. Lance remembered the soft rumble of Ulaz’s voice in their overheard conversation, a comfort meant for more than just Keith. So much of that made sense now, and he found himself agreeing with Keith’s decision more easily than he’d expected.

“I understand,” he said, nodding slowly to himself. “So, I guess.. thank you, for trusting me with her.” Keith’s smile was soft, eyes shining with relief, and he nodded in return.

“Of course.”

With her still curled against his lap, Lance took a moment to really look Jaybird over. She was a familiar lavender color, probably not many shades off from Ulaz, and one of the fluffier Galra he’d seen. Longer, white fur wrapped around her face, settling down across her neck and shoulders like a tiny mane, but it was oddly patchy. Her ears, comically oversized, were darker, leading down to two pointed stripes across her forehead, and there was a circle of pale color around her nose and mouth. What really caught his interest, however, were the long, red marks leading down from each eye. The one on her left cheek stretched from eye to jaw unbroken - the one on her right, though, was broken in half by a thin strip of purple.

He'd only ever seen one other Galra with markings like that.

“She looks like Kolivan,” Lance commented, tilting his head to get a better look at the markings. Keith raised an eyebrow.

“What?” He scoffed, staring at Lance like he’d just grown a second head. “She looks nothing like him.” Well, okay, he had a point. Kolivan had little fur outside the ears and he definitely wasn’t as soft-faced or feline as Jay.

“I meant the marks,” he clarified. “I’ve never seen another Galra that has the red like that.” Keith stilled, expression shifting into something sour.

“Oh. Uh, yeah. They're not… very common.”

“They’re called mevhak.” Keith seemed to stumble over the pronunciation. “Omen marks. They’re meant to be a fortune of sorts.” He lifted a hand, moving it across his face as if tracing out familiar markings. “Ones like Kolivan’s are a blessing, said to bring the bearer strength or luck. But, marks like Jay’s..” He paused, hand hovering over his right cheek. “Broken marks are the worst of omens.” His hand dropped away, other fisted in the blankets. “It’s said that those with broken marks will always be followed by misfortune and misery.”

Lance knew plenty about superstition. Every earth culture was rampant with them, after all, even his own, but he’d always taken things with a grain of salt. Sure, ghosts were one thing, but ladders and black cats? If every superstition were true, you’d never be able to take a step in any direction without bringing ruin to your family’s life.

“Yeah, but folks aren’t really stupid enough to believe that shit, right?” He asked, looking at Keith doubtfully. Keith was silent. His fist tightened in the blankets, jaw tightening as he seemed to fight with himself, and Lance immediately went cold.

“Some believe it enough to sell off their own kit.” His voice was stiff, full of anger and laced with grief. Lance’s chest felt like ice, freezing over him and dripping down his spine.

Sell off??” Keith hushed him again, reaching a hand forward to stroke across Jay’s forehead as she stirred. She gave a quiet whimper, nuzzling into his hand, and Keith only spoke again once she had quieted.

“We think. It’s… hard to know for sure, how she ended up.. where she was.” The ice settling across him felt like it was hardening into slivers, cutting in and making it hard to breathe. He’d been so distracted over Jay being here, he hadn’t thought about learning where she’d been before. Now he wasn't sure he ever wanted to.

“Well,” he said, trying not to let the shake in his voice show. Like hell was he letting that sit. “It’s obviously bullshit. If you ask me, she’s one of the luckiest Galra in the universe right now.” Keith looked back at Lance, brow furrowing as he cocked his head. “She’s got you now, right?” Keith’s surprise was obvious across his face. Lance grinned back, ice melting and warmth bubbling up inside him as Keith looked fondly at Jaybird. The former paladin smiled too.

“Yeah. Right.”

Chapter Text

“Why the name Jaybird?”

The question arose the next day, the pair flopped comfortably in some of the cushions that spanned the right half of the nursery room while they lazily watched over their new shared secret. Keith hummed quietly, gaze tracking the kit as she scampered excitedly across the floor.

“Well, she didn’t have a name when she came to us,” he said, smile twitching as he watched her crash into one of the cushions. “At least nothing she would tell us. She was completely silent at first, actually. Wouldn’t even make more than a whimper for the first few nights.” He settled back in the cushions, eyes flicking up to the ceiling for a few moments before returning to Jay. “When she finally started to make noise, they were just these little things. Chirps, trills, chirrups - they reminded me of the old scrub jays back home. So, I started calling her ‘little jaybird’ as a nickname.”

“That is adorable,” Lance whispered, hand clutched to his chest dramatically. He was never going to let this go. Keith snorted in response, but his eyes sparkled with amusement as he gave Lance a shove.

“Shut up.” He was still watching Jay, eyes barely leaving her for more than a second. She was just running back and forth across the room, claws clacking against the floor as she went. Lance had no idea what her goal was but she certainly seemed entertained enough.

“Nah, I mean it! It suits her. Adorable name for an adorable girl.” And she certainly was adorable, currently sporting a slightly large onesie in the design of the Red Lion, complete with ears on the and a tail dragging along behind her. Lance had no idea where Keith had managed to find it, but it was the best thing he’d seen since his slippers of Blue. Keith chuckled again.

“Yeah, it is. My mom kept insisting I give her something more properly Galran, but..” He shrugged. “Jaybird was the only thing that stuck.” Lance nodded along.

“Yeah, I - wait, what?” It took a moment for his brain to parse the full meaning of that sentence. “Your mother?” Keith suddenly looked sheepish beside him, sinking further into the cushion as if to hide.

“Oh, uh. Yeah.” He gave another shrug, as if trying to make it the most casual thing in the world. It did not work. “Her uh, her name’s Krolia. She’s a Blade.” Lance gave a noise that was supposed to be a laugh. It came out more like a wheeze, and he honestly wasn’t sure which one was more appropriate.

“And this wasn’t?? Something you wanted to bring up?” he managed to squeak, staring at Keith and throwing his arms up. “Maybe?” Keith seemed like he wanted to say something, mouth opening and closing as nothing came out. He continued his attempt to morph with his seat as his face went red.

“I. Forgot.” Lance dropped his arms. Just when he thought he could not be more exasperated with this boy. First the whole ‘hey I have a kid’ thing, and now this?

“You forgot,” he repeated, voice flat. “To mention that you found your long-lost Galra mom.” Keith nodded. “Keith.

“There’s a lot going on!!” he protested, voice pitching up in embarrassment. Lance just kept shaking his head. How Keith ever survived on his own was a complete mystery sometimes.

“Kee?” They both started at the sudden voice. Drawn in by the sudden commotion, Jay was already beside them, halfway to crawling into Keith’s lap. “Loud. Why?” Keith made a motion at the girl, as if to say, ‘see??’, before helping her up.

“That’s just Lance,” Keith said, ignoring Lance’s scowl at the comment. Jay nodded, as if this made all the sense in the world. Lance scowled harder. “Sorry. We didn’t bother you, right?” She shook her head. Apparently done with her running, she settled down right in Keith’s lap, tucking her head up against his chest.

Deterred from conversation only by the sensitive child tucked between them, Lance gave Keith a look that said ‘we are definitely not done here’. Keith gave a grimace in response. Well, Keith had dug his own grave, and he was sure as hell gonna lie in it! ...but, later.

“Hungry?” Keith checked, running a hand through the white fluff on Jay’s neck. She shook her head. “Just tired?” She nodded, shuffling slightly in his grasp. “Alright.” They all sat there for a moment, calm washing over them once more in that special way that only Jay managed to bring. It didn’t take long for the kit to begin dozing off, her sudden burst of energy gone as quickly as it had arrived.

Lance took the time to just watch the two of them. If you’d asked Lance even a few days ago, the words he would’ve used to describe Keith would not have included ‘soft’, or ‘gentle’, and definitely not ‘sweet’. Yet, here he was, staring at just that. The half-Galra’s hands were gentle as they carded through the delicate fur of the kit - Keith’s kit, wow, that would still take some getting used to - and the fond expression on his face was one that Lance had never seen before. He murmured softly to her as she settled, getting no response other than the occasional movement of her head, but he didn’t seem to mind.

It was weird. Not in a negative way, but in the way that it was difficult for Lance’s mind to reconcile these two very different Keiths. Keith had always been like fire - ferocious, untameable. Ready to lash out and strike at the wind’s change. He guessed in some ways, he still was. Warm and soothing, wrapping heat around them like a blanket instead of a wildfire. Lance wondered, not for the first time, how well he’d even known the other man to begin with.

“Doesn’t talk much, does she?” Lance commented, once it seemed as though Jay was mostly out. Keith hummed an affirmative.

“Words are hard for her,” he said quietly, one hand still stroking through her fur. “We think she might’ve gotten in trouble for making too much noise, or maybe even for speaking at all. She barely seemed to know any words when we got her.” Oh, Lance hated the thought of that. Sure, he knew he was more vocal than your average person, but even someone quiet like Keith needed to speak sometimes. “From what I was told, though, she’s picking it up pretty quick for her age.”

“Yeah?” Lance smiled at that, eyes glued to the little shape curled up between them. “Clever girl.” He snickered as Keith gave his shoulder a playful shove. “How old is she then?”

“They were guessing somewhere between 5 and 7 decaphoebs.”

“That’s.. a pretty broad gap,” Lance said, raising his eyebrows. Older than he would have guessed, too. Did Galra age slower than humans? He realized, belatedly, that he had no idea. He’d never even thought to ask.

“Yeah.” Keith’s hand stopped in its motions, fingers hovering over Jay’s velvet ear. “She’d be small even for 5, but she’d also be ridiculously smart for that age. We don't know if her living conditions stunted her, or by how much if they did - we’re shooting in the dark, basically.” Lance hummed quietly in response, still staring at the little Galra. So, so small, and already been through so much. She was incredibly lucky, he realized. The Blades didn’t do rescue missions - they weren’t there to save a kit. Lance wondered, with a sick feeling in his stomach, if any of the other Blades had taken Keith’s route instead - would they have even bothered taking her?

“Well, she’s certainly steady on her feet, at least,” he commented, giving the dark thoughts a shove from his brain. It hurt, to think of something so precious being treated so poorly.

“Mmhm. Ulaz said Galran kits are mobile earlier than human babies, but they’re more reliant on body language and specific call sounds. Complex language comes later.” Lanced quirked his head, interested.

“Call sounds?” Smiling, Keith looked down at his lap and gave a short, chirp-like whistle. Jay’s ears twitched up, turning her head as she gave her own sleepy chirp in response, and lord if that wasn’t the cutest thing he’d ever witnessed. Lance had to resist the urge to steal her right then and there.

“I can’t chirp or purr for real,” Keith clarified, smirking at the expression on Lance’s face. “But she seems to appreciate the emulations.”

“You guys really are space cats,” Lance whispered. Keith snorted, grin widening as he leaned over and shoved Lance with enough force to send his cushion toppling to the side.

“Shut up.”

 

_ _ _

 

Whenever Lance had a spare minute, he found himself gravitating down towards that room. Sure, it wasn’t like he’d had anything of great importance to be done - lounging about in the common room, pestering Hunk in the kitchens, harassing Pidge in her lab - but some part of him still found it amusing that his pattern shifted so easily towards Keith and his little stowaway. It was easy enough to wander away. No one took much notice of him slinking down towards the nursery, outside of the knowing glance that Ulaz had sent him as he passed the medical wing.

There was something special to being the only Paladin who knew about Jaybird. The fact that Keith had trusted him, above anyone else, sent something warm and fuzzy down his spine. He was probably just being sentimental, but he couldn’t help the skip in his step as he approached the nursery again. He held his hand to the panel, satisfied as it beeped approval and hissed open.

To his utter delight, splayed in the middle of the floor was Keith. He was doing pushups, smile huge across his face, Jay perched in the middle of his back. He was counting out loud, saying each word clearly, Jay’s huge ears swiveled to listen. Teaching her numbers - cute. Noticing Lance in the doorway, Jay gave a squeak, pouncing off of Keith and locking her arms around one of Lance’s legs.

“Hey, chiquita!” He reached down, ruffling her white fluff. “Having fun?” She looked up at him, golden eyes bright as she nodded enthusiastically. “Good. Sorry to interrupt - mind if I borrow your dad for a little bit?” She tilted her head, face scrunching up in confusion and seemingly ignorant of the way Keith sputtered behind her. Lance realized his error a little too late, cursing internally as he smiled at her. “Er, Keith. Mind if I borrow Keith?” She frowned, looking disappointed that Lance wasn’t going to be staying, but shrugged in response. Lance took what he could get, glancing past her. “Keith, how ‘bout it?” Keith was still sitting on the ground, staring at him with eyes like moons.

“U-uhm… y-yeah, just, give me a second,” he stammered, getting to his feet and gathering up Jaybird in his arms. “It was about time for her nap anyway.” Adding further fuel to the space kitten theory, Jay took multiple ‘cat naps’ throughout the day, sleeping like a rock before suddenly bouncing up with the energy of a hundred suns. Some days were easier than others, though - today, she rumbled at the mention of a nap, wiggling in Keith’s grip as moved to deposit her on the bed. He plopped her in the middle of the blankets, and she huffed at him even as he drew one over her head like a cloak.

“Just, try? Please?” She regarded him with a scowl, and Lance had to fight laughter at how familiar the expression was - like father, like daughter. Finally, despite huffing again, she gave a little nod and settled down into her nest. Keith gave her a soft kiss on the forehead, and the rest of her resistance melted away. “There’s my girl. I’ll be back soon.” She gave a little chirp, and he whistled back. He turned, glancing back to make sure Jay was really settled, before following Lance from the room.

“Her dad?” Keith managed to squeak, door hissing closed behind them. H’oh boy, he’d been holding that one in for awhile. Lance sighed, reaching out to tug Keith along as he started walking.

“I mean.. Yeah?” He shrugged. “You took her in, you’re raising her; you called her your kid, right? That, kind of makes you her dad.” Truth be told, Lance hadn’t really thought about it that much. The words just, came out of his mouth. It seemed so natural, the relationship between to two of them, that he hadn’t even realized what he’d said until Keith had started spluttering.

“Yeah, but…” Keith was quiet, steps echoing as he followed behind Lance. “I-I don’t know, I’ve just never thought of myself as a dad before. She was just, a kid who needed help. I wouldn’t..” He took a breath, shuddering in the lull between them as they wound back up into the castle. “I couldn’t just leave her. I guess I never really thought about what that made us.” A silence fell between the two of them, thoughtful, as Lance led on. He heard Keith give a surprised noise as he realized where they were going, and they soon found themselves stepping through the doors of the training deck.

“We’ve got the place to ourselves - thought you could use a refresher,” Lance said, smirking as tugged his jacket off and hung it by the entrance. “Slack off for too long and even Pidge will whoop your ass.” Keith snorted, but there was a grin forming as he hung up his own jacket next to Lance’s.

“Pidge can already whoop both our asses,” he said, sitting down on the floor to start his warm-up stretches.

“...true.” Lance plopped down next to Keith, moving through his own warm-up routine and humming to himself. He grinned as he realized that Keith hadn’t caught wind of what his bayard could do now. Oh man, was he in for a surprise.

“Oh god.” There was a thump as Keith suddenly flattened on the ground, hands coming up to his face. “This makes Shiro her uncle. Shit, he’s gonna be pissed I didn’t tell him first.” Lance chuckled at that, amused but not surprised that Keith was still fixated on the topic. He gently pulled his shoulder into another stretch, watching as Keith slowly sat back up.

“...why haven’t you told him?” Lance asked, voice soft as the question escaped him. Keith sighed, the exhale blowing his bangs from his face.

“Shiro.. practically raised me, y’know? I’ve known him as long as I knew my actual father.” His hands fiddled with the material of his jeans, searching for purchase in something, before he reached back to pull his Marmoran blade from its sheath. He turned it over in his palms, smooth surface glinting in the artificial light of the castle. “I feel like sometimes, he has moments where he still thinks of me as that little kid I was when we met.”

“He thought you were mature enough to fly the Black Lion and lead Voltron,” Lance pointed out, reaching out to rest a hand on Keith’s shoulder. The former Paladin shrugged.

“Yeah, but that’s.. different.” Keith was scowling, a hand tightening around the hilt. “Soldier stuff. That’s always been instinctual for me.” He flipped the knife over in his hands. “The Garrison trained us for that.”

“Wow, if the Garrison trained you to fly a giant psychic lion I was definitely in the wrong program.”

“You know what I mean,” Keith said, rolling his eyes. He looked more amused than displeased at Lance’s joking, but there was still a wound-up feeling to him. He flicked the blade in his hands again, watching as it spun. “Just… I mean, Shiro loves kids almost as much as you do.” Lance smiled - Space Dad loving kids? What a surprise! - but then Keith was continuing, shoulders tightening and words tumbling out of his mouth as his hands flicked the blade faster and faster. “And I just worry that, he’ll take one look at everything I’m doing, everything I’ve done, and know that he can do it better, and, and-”

“And he’ll try and take over,” Lance finished, moving his hand up Keith’s shoulder to give it a squeeze. Keith bit his lip, gaze still locked to the knife as he nodded. His voice was barely a whisper as he responded.

“Even if it’s an accident, yeah.” They all remembered the chaos of not-Shiro, how he’d shoved Keith from the leadership they’d so carefully crafted, scorned the confidence they had slowly built for Lance. At the end of the day they knew now, that it hadn’t been Shiro at all, had never been Shiro - but the words and actions had already done their damage. It wasn’t so easy to shake them off.

“Hey. Keith.” He reached out, taking Keith’s other shoulder and turning the man towards him. Their eyes locked. “Listen to me - no one could do any better than what you’re doing. We’ve all made a shit-ton of mistakes in our lives, but this?” He shook his head, a gentle smile forming on his lips. “Isn’t one of them. You are perfect for Jay. You know how to make her smile, you know how to calm her down, you know exactly what she means without her even speaking. No one could do a better job of being a parent for that little fluffball than you.” His hands tightened  on Keith’s shoulders, never letting his eyes leave Keith’s even as they widened. “Okay?”

They held there for several moments, Keith just staring at him, until the Blade gave a tiny nod. Lance nodded back, satisfied. Then Keith… kept staring at him. Lance didn’t realize why until his gaze flicked down, aaannndd yep he was definitely still holding Keith’s shoulders. He immediately pulled his arms back, clearing his throat and feeling his cheeks heat up. Keith ducked his head, rubbing at the back of his neck, but Lance refused to let himself be embarrassed about it. He’d told Keith what he needed to hear, damn it, and if it made him look like a total sap, so be it!

“Thank you, Lance,” Keith said, and his voice wavered a little bit before he coughed. Lance just shrugged, smile making its way back onto his face. Keith exhaled, so much softer this time, and he glanced across the still-empty training room. “After telling you, though... I don’t know. Maybe I will tell him soon.” Lance felt his smile widen.

“She’ll love him, you know.”

“Yeah.” Keith laughed, that gentle one that made Lance’s heart do weird flip-flops, and his own smile appeared. “She will.” Their eyes met again, Lance could swear a spark shot down his spine. Fighting the warmth as it spread down his neck, Lance scrambled to his feet, bayard gripped tightly in his hand. Keith watched him, eyebrow raised, as he paced across the floor.

“Well, come on then. I didn’t drag you all the way up here to just sit around talking.” He flicked his arm, bayard flashing with light as his broadsword materialized. He felt a smug satisfaction ripple through him at Keith’s awestruck expression. Now this, he could handle. “I’ve got a lot of new tricks to show you, samurai.”

Chapter Text

The first time it happened, it was an accident.

Lance woke to an unfamiliar weight on his chest. He blinked his eyes open, momentarily confused at the swirling projection of stars that danced on the ceiling above him.

He looked down at himself, jolting at the glowing, golden eyes staring back. Unhappy with the sudden movement, Jay gave a squeaky rumble, shifting her weight on top of him. Lance exhaled in relief, letting his head fall back as he tried to calm his heartbeat. Right, tiny Galra kid, not an enemy, no threat of impending death. Thank goodness.

“Oh, jeez, you scared me,” he breathed, raising his head again and reaching out to run his hand over her forehead. She blinked sleepily back at him, looking not even the tiniest bit phased by this. She was sprawled across his chest, tiny claws pricking him through his clothes as her legs dangled off to his right. He now recognized the soft blankets and mounds of pillows that made up the nest-like bed in the nursery room, the Lions shooting through the stars on the walls. Right. He’d been exhausted after the mission yesterday, but he'd told Jaybird he’d come see her. He must’ve fallen asleep on accident. 

Jay gave a sleepy chirp. Next to them, a low whistle answered.

It was then that Lance became aware of the third body in the bed.

Stomach fluttering, he was suddenly acutely aware of the extra warmth pressed snugly up against his side. He glanced over, slowly, taking in the other body that was curled next to him. One arm was cradling his head, and the other slung over Jaybird’s legs as he whistled again, a seemingly unconscious action. His dark locks were splayed messily around his face, and he still looked dead asleep.

Lance didn’t remember falling asleep here, and he definitely didn’t remember falling asleep with Keith .

Jay chirped again, softly, and still Keith responded in turn. He really seemed asleep, his breathing even as he made no other move to answer the kit. It was, kind of precious, that he could respond to her so instinctually that it didn’t even wake him up? Precious for Jay, of course, and no one else ever, he told himself. Definitely that one.  

This was how he found himself in a conundrum. Their closeness left him buzzing, an odd sensation that made him feel the need to get up, do something, anything. He’d long ditched the habit of sleeping in, countless drills and missions getting him in the habit of an early rise. Between the two, he couldn’t stay laying here for much longer, or it was going to drive him crazy. Also, he kind of had to pee. 

The fact that Keith was still dead asleep was a true testament to how tired the Blade had been the night before. Lance didn’t want to wake him - not to mention how bitingly awkward it would be if he woke up to the pair of them like this . It was enough for Lance as it was. He’d have to be smart about this. 

Carefully, Lance started shifting Jaybird over to rest on Keith, instead. She gave another little rumble, her favored sound of displeasure, before deciding that the action was in fact, acceptable, and settling right back down. Now, he just had to maneuver himself out of the covers and off the bed without disturbing his slumbering teammate. After all, the best thing was to just, get out of here, and pretend this had never happened. 

His feet hit the floor, and he exhaled, relief settling over him. Perfect. Okay, now just out the door and- 

“Lance..?” He froze. There was a gentle sound of ruffling bedding, and slowly, he glanced back over his shoulder. Keith had barely raised his head out of the mound of blankets, eyes half-open and blinking sleepily after him. His arms were wrapped around Jaybird like a cocoon, holding her close to him as if to protect.

It had no right being as adorable as it was. 

“Sorry,” he laughed, a nervous titter that left his mouth dry. “Didn’t mean to wake you.” He half-turned, watching as Keith worked on returning to the land of the living. He’d never taken the Blade for a slow riser, but he still looked as if he were in a fog, gaze unfocused as Lance talked. “I uh, I must’ve fallen asleep on accident last night.” It took a moment, but then Keith shrugged, dropping his gaze to rub at his eyes. 

“S’okay,” Keith mumbled, a yawn working its way out of him. “Don’t mind.” Something about that statement sent Lance’s mind into a halt. It seemed to reboot after a second, words falling out of his mouth like badly-scripted dialogue. 

“Oh. Okay.” He heard himself saying them, felt himself nodding his head a little too enthusiastically. “Cool. Cool cool cool.” He stood there another few moments, weight shifting from foot to foot as they stared at each other. Not knowing what else to do, he cleared his throat, motioning at the door. “I’m just gonna… go now. Get ready for the day, and all.” He snapped his fingers at Keith, pointing at him with the familiar dual ‘guns. Keith merely blinked back at him. 

“M’kay.” He settled back down, Jay curled up against him, and that was that.

 Nodding to himself again, Lance quietly walked out the door and into the empty hallway. When the door slid closed behind him, his exhale turned into a groan of exasperation. Nope. Too early for this, he decided, fingers dragging down his face as started walking again. Definitely too damn early.

These two were going to be the end of him, one day. He just knew it.

_ _ _ _

Of course it was only so long that Lance could sneak around before someone else took notice. He’d been aware of that fact since the beginning of this mess. He just wasn’t expecting who it would be. 

“Are you quite alright, my boy?” Lance looked up from where he was kneeling, cleaning supplies in hand and suds trailing down his arms. He’d been scheduled to help Coran clean the medical wing, which was nothing unusual. He enjoyed listening to the man’s whimsical stories; the long, rambling speeches reminding him easily of his uncle’s tall tales back home.

“Huh?” It took him a second to parse the question. Coran’s brows furrowed, looking concerned even as Lance answered. “Oh, uh, yeah! Yeah!” He flicked his hand dismissively, soap bubbles fluttering to the ground around him. “Right as rain, my man.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Coran said, turning back to where he was polishing one of the healing pods. The buffer revved quietly in his hands, eyes keeping track of the machine as he worked. “You’ve been a bit absent, of late. Wouldn’t want you to feel unchecked.”

“Right,” Lance said. Guilt crept up his back. Coran had been his confidant for a long time, ever since that first night in the castle where his homesickness got the better of him. To not be able to talk through recent things with him… the feeling was like something ugly sitting in his chest. He kept having to remind himself that it wasn’t his secret to share, that it wasn’t his choice. It didn’t always make the task any easier.

Looking up from his cleaning, his eyes crossed the room to land on Ulaz. The Galran physician had taken up his own maintenance, sorting through the stored medical files and organizing the information within. He was so quiet, Lance often found himself forgetting the Castle’s newest medic was even there.

Ulaz looked up, sharp eyes catching Lance’s in a tick. He gazed back, seeming to take in the Paladin’s expression, before giving a tilt of the head. Right. Ulaz understood - he had been helping Keith with Jaybird from the start, and hadn’t whispered a single word. Lance wondered if that came naturally, to someone with a background like his, or if the fact that he was among friends made it even harder. He wondered how it felt with Shiro.

A hand pressed to his shoulder, and his attention was pulled back to the man who had moved to his side. Coran smiled.

“Remember if you need anything, I am always around to listen, hmm?” His voice was upbeat and non-threatening, the specific brand of Coran-talk that never failed to put Lance at ease. He smiled again, and this time, it felt a bit more real.

“Yeah. Yeah, thanks, Coran.”

_ _ _ _

Somehow, the sleeping arrangement kept happening. 

Lance blamed it on how often he would come down to the nursery after training now, already worn out and ready for a nap. How much more time he was spending there instead of relaxing, how easy it was just doze off with the late-night visits - how much Jaybird’s small, precious weight snuggled between them would remind him of his niece and nephew after a nightmare.

It didn’t seem to matter how he planned things, though. Somehow, in the inevitability of a capricious universe, he kept ending up in Keith’s arms. 

He played it off like he did everything else, with a great deal of complaining and far too many dramatics. He’d tease Keith about being a koala cuddler, scoffing and tossing his head as he’d extract himself from the other man’s grip when he awoke. He’d whine about having to get up for early practice, or about missing dinner, or about all the blankets being stolen from him. He’d launch immediately into how all this oversleeping was going to have an effect on his beauty regimen, mark his words, every time he ended up pinned to the mattress again. 

Anything, he figured, was better than acknowledging how much he liked it.

_ _ _ _

“So what’s up with you and Keithy-boy?”

Formerly half-asleep in his seat, dangerously close to landing face-first in goo, Lance jolted up. He narrowed his eyes at the source of his current displeasure, the castle’s light glinting off their glasses. Pidge was staring back at him with a familiar shit-eating grin, chin resting casually in her hand as she leaned across the table towards him.

“What are you talking about?” he asked slowly, still not taking his eyes off the mischievous younger paladin. She just snorted, lifting her other hand to play with the rat’s-nest she called hair as she continued to stare him down. Lance didn’t particularly like the look in her eye.

“Oh come on,” she scoffed, twirling finger twisting a knot even further into oblivion. “He starts disappearing, you start asking about it, then you start disappearing… a girl starts to wonder.” She brought her hand back down to rest under her chin with the other. “So. Are you two sitting in a tree or what?” It was a damn lucky thing Lance wasn’t still eating, because he would have choked to death.

I beg your pardon?! ” he wheezed, eyes blown wide at the question. Oh, no. No no no no no. He wasn’t even sure where Pidge was getting this idea, but he was shutting it down this instant.

“Oh, please. Even when you’re in the same room together, you’re both stuck at the hip, whispering to each other and smiling, ugh.” She scrunched up her face, nose crinkling in displeasure. “I mean, you could at least keep it to yourselves, y’know.”

He was not thinking about this right now - he was not thinking about this ever! He definitely wasn’t enjoying spending all this time with Keith as anything more than a teammate and friend. That was all they were, teammates and friends. Heck, the Blade coming to him first didn’t even mean anything. Lance was simply the one with the most knowledge on taking care of kids. It was just, convenience and necessity. Nothing more.

He wasn’t sure if thinking of it that way made it any easier or not.

“We are friends !” Lance insisted, arms flailing outwards in desperate gestures. “Teammates! Rivals!!

Okay, it wasn’t that he’d never… thought about it … but that was the furthest thing from his mind right now! Or at least, it was the furthest thing from Keith’s mind, he was sure. Keith was still struggling through this new relationship with his new daughter , he didn’t have time for… well. Whatever it might be between them. He wasn’t about to throw even more cogs into the works.

“Yeah yeah, so you claim…” Pidge said, back thudding against the seat as she leaned back and crossed her arms. “Sounds like a cover-up for a big ol’ crush if you ask me.”

“Oh, are we finally talking about Lance’s thing for Keith?” Lance whipped around so fast, he could have sworn he heard something in his neck snap. He stared at Hunk as he walked into the room, mouth hanging open. The Yellow Paladin simply stared back inquisitively, as if not understanding the problem. Lance flailed his arms again.

HUNK! ” He managed to squeak after a moment’s more flailing. Hunk shrugged, shifting the large jar he was carrying and at least having the decency to look a little shy.

“Sorry, was that not what we were talking about? I thought - well. I just thought it was obvious..” Attitude aside, the words still stung. Lance swallowed, hard. He couldn’t believe this was happening.

“No, Hunk, we absolutely were not -”

“We were definitely talking about the thing,” Pidge cut him off, leaning towards Hunk with that same smirk that Lance was starting to hate. “And it definitely is obvious.”

“There’s not a thing!” he snapped, folding his arms across his chest as he scowled. “The only thing between Keith and I is our rivalry, and that’s that! Now cut it out.” That should have been the end of it. He’d asked for it to stop - but Hunk glanced between the two other Paladins, brows furrowing as he set the jar down.

“Okay, but.. I mean, you had a crush on him back at the Garrison, right? I just figured that was still a thing.”

I KNEW IT!

Lance barely heard Pidge’s exclamation as she got to her feet. He felt as if the floor was yanked out from under him, staring at Hunk in disbelief. He’d told Hunk plenty of things during late, sleepless nights, both in the castle and back at their shared school bunk. Hunk had told him plenty in return. Fears, hopes, dreams - it felt as if they’d told each other everything. Never, never , had one of them ever spilled something the other had shared, and yet, Hunk did it so casually. He couldn’t… he couldn’t even process this.

“Excuse me?” he said, voice whisper quiet. Hunk stilled, frowning at Lance and tilting his head as if he didn’t understand.

“Well, you said that-“ Lance’s hands slammed down on the table. Silence followed.

No. ” He stood there, quaking, as he stared them down. He couldn’t even fathom what he was hearing right now - these two were supposed to be his friends ? They were treating his feelings like a joke! Emotions bubbled in his gut, and he huffed, fighting back the urge to slink off and cry to himself instead. “I told my best friend that, in confidence , and you’re just… spitting it around!!” Hunk opened his mouth, but Lance’s hand shot up, silencing the other Paladin and leaving him gaping like a fish. “I don’t know who you are right now, Hunk, but you’re not that best friend.” His hand dropped, but his eyes never broke contact. “You better figure your shit out, quick .”

He turned his back. He shot a glare sideways at Pidge for good measure, a sick feeling of satisfaction in his stomach as she shrunk away. He stormed from the room. 

_ _ _ _

His breaths came in and out quickly, and he was still swallowing back tears. His head swirled with emotions, and Lance found that he could concentrate very little on the halls around him. He let his feet carry him of their own volition, trusting that his body would carry him to a safe space even in this state. He didn’t have the mental capacity for anything other than replaying the scene over and over again in his head, his own words echoing in a voice that didn’t feel like his own.

He couldn’t believe this. He just. Couldn’t… What was with his friends, lately, if he could even still call them that? Acting like he could never be helpful, like his feelings were only something to laugh at, barely taking the time to give him a conversation unless it was to make him the butt of it.

At least with Shiro there had been a reason. That angry, doubtful person hadn’t actually been Shiro, hadn’t actually been his family member that had hurt him. These two, though - what was their excuse, he wondered? He just didn’t know. Didn’t understand. It filled him with bile in the worst way, and he knew it would be a good while before he felt like listening to them again. 

The soft beeping of a hallway sensor brought Lance back to himself. He was surprised, as he fizzled back to reality, to find that his feet hadn’t led him to Blue’s observatory. It was where he usually ended up, when his brain fogged up and everything became too much. Still, the hall around him was quiet, and his hand hovered over the panel for the nursery door. 

He’d never come here before, not during an episode like this. His mouth was dry and his head still spun, and he couldn’t even start to parse what Keith might think of him like this. Why was he here? His hand shook, still poised above the panel he couldn’t seem to bring himself to press. 

He didn’t have to. The door hissed open, startling Lance into stepping back. Keith peered inquisitively outward, violet eyes raking over him with unmasked concern. 

“I heard you out here,” he said, and Lance’s heart was racing. Keith watched him for a moment, chewing on a lip as he hesitated in the doorway. “Are… you okay?” The words were soft, laced with concern and not tinged at all with pity or malice. It made him feel safe, and wordlessly, Lance shook his head. Understanding flashed through Keith’s eyes.

“Can I touch you?” A nod. Keith’s hand settled on his shoulder, gentle. “Come on.” The pressure moved to his back, and he was guided inside.

He found himself sat in one of the beanbag-like cushions, tucked away into the corner of the room. A blanket ended up wrapped around his shoulders, and something warm and steaming was placed in his hands. The holograms of the Red and Blue Lions circled him, bright yellow staring through him in a way that felt far too real for mere projections. Something rumbled, in the back of his mind - something reaching through the debris to brush against him in a way that felt familiar and comfortable.

Rest.  

He sipped, whatever it was tasting earthy and floral and a little bit sweet, and let the quiet wash over him. 

_ _ _ _

He wasn’t sure how long he spent curled up in the corner. He’d dozed off, barely, hitting that state of not-quite-awake and hovering there for awhile.

His head was pounding, and he was grateful for the dim lights. 

There was a quiet shift nearby, and he raised his head to see Keith standing next to him. The Blade handed him a water pouch, slipping a small caplet into his other hand that Lance recognized as an Altean painkiller. He murmured a thank you, swallowing it down quickly before draining the pouch. 

“Better?” Keith’s voice was gentle, barely above a whisper as he watched Lance closely. He nodded. 

“Much. Thank you.” The quiet fell between them, a comfortable thing that they both settled in. “How did you, y’know,” The words were still hard, catching under Lance’s tongue, and he waved his hand in a tired attempt to convey meaning. “Know how to deal with that?” The corner of Keith’s mouth twitched up, and for a moment, he looked almost as tired as Lance felt. 

“We all have bad days, don’t we?” he murmured. It was only a few words, but it conveyed so much more. They brought a sense of relief washing over Lance, an acceptance and feeling of camaraderie he hadn’t even realized he’d missed until now. So often it felt like it was just him that felt this way, this broken and tattered thing that no one would help stitch back up. For someone else to acknowledge it meant more than Keith knew, he was sure.

“Besides,” Keith motioned over his shoulder, to where Jaybird still lay curled up in the nest, blissfully unaware of the conversation around her. “She’s had a lot of good days, lately. I learned through the bad.” 

Keith’s eyes flicked over him again, concern darkening his eyes. Lance didn’t know when he’d earned that sort of attention from Keith. He was grateful for it now. 

“Do you wanna talk about it?” Lance shook his head slowly. 

“Not right now.” 

“Okay.” No begrudging acceptance. No probing questions. Lance couldn’t remember the last time he’d been treated so well - he felt like he could cry, if he weren’t so exhausted. There was quiet between them again, suddenly so comfortable that he could wrap himself up in it like a blanket.

“.. do you want to sleep here?” It was Keith acknowledging this thing, and not shying away from it. It might have scared him before, but now… Lance took in a shaky breath. 

“..yeah.” He smiled, and it had never felt more real. “Yeah. I’d love that.”









Chapter Text

“I thought you were supposed to be off missions?”  Lance frowned down at the tablet in his hands, fingers skimming through the missions details they’d pulled up. The two were leaned over the table in Jay’s room, scouring over the details of what needed to be done.

“For the Blade, yes,” Keith said, fingers running through his hair as he scowled down too. “But part of being a representative and liaison is using my skills as Allura sees fit. I’ve got to keep up appearances.”

“I’ve gone over the mission files twice,” he continued, pacing back and forth in the small space. “It’s definitely a stealth run. It would be ideal to be able to involve the Blades directly, but Allura is concerned about transmission interceptions in this area. That makes Ulaz and I the best fit for the job. The only problem is…”

“Jay.” It wouldn’t be a problem if someone wasn’t so stubborn, but Lance kept that bit to himself. It was one of the only points of disagreement still standing between the two - Keith remained adamant about keeping Jaybird from the others. Despite how long it had been since she’d been brought onboard, and all the close calls, he still refused to tell their teammates. Lance had understood at first, sure, but it had been over a phoeb now. The persistence was.. beginning to worry him.

“Yeah,” Keith sighed, shoulders dropping as he came to a halt. “Getting there, getting what we need, and getting back out again, all without being caught, will take time. It could easily become a couple of quintants.” He was back to running fingers through his bangs again, strangs falling back to cover his furrowed brows. “I’ve never left her for that long to begin with, and she’s never even been alone for more than a few vargas since we rescued her.”

“Well, lucky for you, Keithy, you just so happen to be looking at a babysitting expert ,” Lance said, throwing a hand dramatically over his chest. The attempts to distract Keith from his worries didn’t quite work, but they managed to draw a small huff of laughter. He smiled at Lance, still tight and concerned, but it was a smile nonetheless. They’d take what they could get.

“I’m hoping.” There wasn’t any sarcasm to the phrase - only quiet trust. Lance reached out, hand clasping the other man’s shoulder and giving it a squeeze of reassurance.

“Let’s go get you ready, yeah?” he said, moving to get back to his feet. Keith nodded.

“Yeah. Alright.”

 

_ _ _ _

 

If there had ever been a walking definition of ‘mother hen’, Lance would not have thought it would be Keith Kogane. That is, until this very moment, where he found himself fighting to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head as Keith rambled.

“Okay, and remember she takes her naps at vargas sixteen, zero, and four, and she usually sleeps through from eight to thirteen.”

“Keith-”

“Now she’s picky with textures so I’ve left a list of what she’ll usually eat - remember she won’t eat it if you don’t first - oh and DON’T feed her dairy, it upsets her stomach, same with too much sugar-”

“Keith-”

“And she likes to play games on the tablet but don’t let her play too much or it makes her eyes hurt and gives her headaches, just a varga or two at most. OH, and-”

“KEITH!” Lance finally managed to break the spell, equal parts exasperated and affectionate. He clapped a hand on Keith’s rigid shoulder. “We’ve gone over this.. Enough times for me to stop counting, yeah? I’ve helped you take care of her for awhile now, I know what I’m doing.”

“I just-”

“A-bap-bap!” Lance cut him off, raising a finger to the Blade’s mouth. Keith went cross-eyed as he backed up, trying to stare at it. Lance couldn’t help smiling. “Keith. You’re worried. I get it. She’ll be fine - trust me.” Keith’s eyes shifted as Lance lowered his hand, meeting the other’s gaze. He paused a moment, before letting himself sigh, tension bleeding out of his form in the motion.

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m just-”

“A worrywort?” Keith huffed, indignant.

“A concerned guardian,” he said pointedly, fighting back a grin at Lance’s growing smile.

“Same difference.” Lance patted Keith’s shoulder again. “Now go out there and kick some tushie.” Keith’s eyebrow slowly raised.

“Really?”

“Hey, I’m kid-friendly! Unlike some people.” Lance smirked, receiving an eye-roll in return.

“Goodbye, Lance,” Keith deadpanned, turning to make his exit.

“Hey!” Keith turned around, one eyebrow raised in question. Lance grinned. “Good luck, samurai.” The Blade chuckled, waving a hand casually as he headed back through the door.

“Good luck, sharpshooter.” Lance chuckled at that, trying and failing to ignore the warmth that spread through him.

Hah, as if he’d need luck for this! Watching one sweet, quiet little kid for a few days. What a walk in the park.

 

_ _ _ _

 

He absolutely did need the luck.

Jaybird might have been fine, but Lance absolutely wasn’t. He groaned where he was splayed out, one leg hanging off the edge of the massive beanbag. How did Keith do this every day??

Even between training and mission planning and other miscellaneous Paladin duties, he’d always felt like he’d had some much-needed downtime. Adding Jaybird into the mix, however, changed things up more than he could even imagine. When he wasn’t with her, he was worrying about her, and the constant trips to and from her room weren’t a small distance to cover. It was already wearing on him. Count in that she was usually awake during their night cycle, and he could kiss any semblance of beauty sleep goodbye.

Jaybird wasn’t any perfect angel, either. As sweet and shy as she could be, she was still a child - and a Galran child, at that - and she had every attitude problem that came with the package.

One of the big conflicts had been the tablet Keith left with her. Despite the limited options of only a handful of simple games and her picture-word learning program, Jay seemed infatuated with the device. Once her allotted time with it was done, however, she’d put up one hell of a fight over it. Well-practiced whimpers and doe-eyes eventually devolved into hissing, growling, and attempting to shove the tablet (plus herself) into tiny spaces, none of which deterred Lance, but all of which were a pain in the neck.

She’d pouted for a good half a varga after he’d wrestled it away, too, refusing to get out from under her blankets for anything less than the promise of a special snack. Lance would definitely not admit that he had resorted to bribery to tame her, nope. He was a perfectly good space babysitter, thank you very much.

Lance jolted from his thoughts as a gentle nudge disturbed his leg. He relaxed, spotting Jay beside the cushion, eyes watching him curiously. He reached out and ruffled her short hair with a smile.

“Hey, tweets. Need something?” She blinked slowly at him, the silicone-like chew object Keith had left with her hanging out of her mouth. Her adult ‘fangs’ were coming in, apparently. If she didn’t have something to gnaw on, she’d use whatever was nearby - including herself, which was why the fur on her arms was still a little patchy. She stared at him, giving the object a couple more bites - and then promptly deposited it in his lap.

“Oh… thank you…” Lance said, trying not to let a grimace show on his face. The saliva-covered trinket was not the kind of gift he preferred, and she was pretty far past the general just-hand-adults-random-things stage, but who was he to judge? “You can have it back, though. I know how much you like it.”

Jaybird made a satisfied noise, looking entirely too proud of herself, before reaching out and retrieving the object. It went right back into her mouth, and she wandered away from him again.

The little monster was lucky she was cute.

 

_ _ _ _

 

Jaybird was bored. Lance could hardly blame her, considering that at this point she’d spent weeks contained in a single room. She’d already moved onto destructive behavior, shredding some sort of paper-towel like object into tiny bits with her claws and watching it flutter. Lance was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to be doing that.

“I know!” He snapped his fingers, hopping to his feet so abruptly she startled to her own. “Why don’t I take you to see something really cool?” Jay tilted her head at him, questioning. After a moment, she offered him a hand. Lance beamed, taking her hand with a gentle grip. “Awesome, let’s go!”

She followed him easily - up until he unlocked the door. When he attempted to guide her through the opening, she dug her feet into the ground, shaking her head and tugging against him. Lance glanced down at her, brows furrowed.

“Wh-?” Jay shook her head again, eyes narrowing as she continued to pull back.

“Kee say, no leave,” she explained, lifting her head to glare at the empty castle hallway.

Ah, right. Keith’s number one rule for Jaybird - do not, under any circumstance, leave the nursery . Lance frowned, not having realized how ingrained that particular boundary had become. He’d assumed that the girl would be thrilled with a chance to explore… there had to be a way to reassure her. He at least had to try.

“Aw, it’s okay, Jaybirdie.” He crouched down next to her, smiling despite the kit’s unsure glare. “He only wants you to feel safe. If you’re with me, though, there won’t be anything to be afraid of, right?” She seemed unconvinced. She stared at him for a few moments, seeming to consider, before she slowly nodded her head. Lance perked. “Right! So that means you can go!” Another moment of hesitation, and then a shrug. Well, he would take what he could get, he supposed.

He stood up again, ready to start walking, when-

“Wait.” Her voice was always quiet, as if afraid to speak too loudly. It was one of the only words she’d spoken to him since being left in his care, and he nodded immediately in response. Letting go of his hand, she quickly darted over to the bed, digging through the covers until she recovered her Red Lion plush - the aptly named "Little Red". Tucking the massive stuffed animal under one arm, she returned to Lance’s side, one hand up to take his again.

“Had to make sure we had company?” he asked.

“Red brave. Keep safe,” she said simply. Lance chuckled, knowing just how right she was.

Taking her hand again, just as gently, he lead her outside the nursery and through the castle’s long, empty halls. Her steps were still nervous, and she’d pause every few feet as if to check for a threat. Lance let her move at her own pace, knowing that trying to rush her would only make her more uneasy.

“Don’t worry. I’d never take you anywhere dangerous or scary,” he said, still smiling as Jay looked up at him. “I promise.” That word meant so much to her. She immediately brightened, her grip on his hand tightening as her steps became more sure. Lance decided then and there that if anyone ever broke a promise to Jaybird, it would be the last thing they ever did.

It didn’t take long before the door to the observation room was sliding open, and Jay’s eyes became wider than he’d ever seen them. She took a step forward, trembling, before looking back at him as if to ask permission. Chuckling to himself, Lance motioned for her to go ahead. Releasing his hand, she quickly scampered across the room, claws clacking loudly as she pressed her hands against the giant, star-filled window.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he asked, watching fondly as she nodded.

It didn’t take her long to begin making use of all the space. Her little footsteps pattered almost constantly as she moved from one side of the room to the other, and Lance honestly wasn’t sure if she was playing a particular game, or if she just enjoyed being able to run like this.

“Enjoying all the space?” he asked, grinning as she nodded frantically before racing by again. She pounced around the room, pausing every so often to just stare out the window, and Lance found himself truly content with just watching her. Sometimes she’d hold up her stuffed Red, as if letting the Lion fly alongside her, before returning the toy to an embrace.

She was just a perfect little thing, he decided. Quiet and still healing, yes, but perfect all the same. It was moments like this that he could she glimpses of who she really was, all bright energy and wide smiles. He couldn’t wait to see what she’d become one day, when all this playful confidence broke through the dust still coating her.

He was going to be a bit sad when she and Keith didn’t need him anymore.

 

_ _ _ _

 

Even a trooper like Jay got tired eventually. It took her awhile, between the excitement of somewhere new and all the day’s pent-up energy, but eventually exhaustion found her. She flopped up against Lance’s lap, snuggled into his side as she blinked at the stars through half-closed eyes.

“Ready to pack it in, gatita?” She shook her head, fighting back a yawn. “You sure? You must be tired by now.” She kept shaking her head, but the effort was obviously lackluster, big ears drooping as much as her eyelids. “Well, I for one am exhausted, so we’ll have to head back.” She made a whiny grumble as he gathered her in his arms, wrapping their blanket around the sleepy bundle. “I know, I know, such a partypooper. There’s always next time.”

The walk back was peaceful, Lance humming as he carried her, and they were back at the nursery without any more fuss. He settled her down gently in the big bed, reaching down to ruffle her hair again as she snuggled down against the pillows.

“Okay, big girl. Time for sleep.” He was gathering the blankets around her in that special way she liked, tucking them over and under, when she shifted and sat up.

“Lance?” He stopped. It was one of the only times she’d said his name, and the first he could remember where she’d said it correctly . His smile beamed back at her.

“Yes?” Her eyes gleamed that too-bright way in the low light, and she seemed to take a moment to find more words before she spoke again, voice already tinged with sleep.

“Can… can see Red, next time? Big Red?” She held up the plush Lion, seeming to make sure he understood who she meant. Lance’s smile wavered.

“Ah… not yet.” He wasn’t going to lie to her, but the way her face fell almost made him wish he could. “But, one day.” Red rumbled appreciatively in his skull. She was excited, but to Lance’s surprise, he could feel apprehension leaking through. He paused for a moment, thinking over his words before continuing.

“The Red Lion is a very powerful thing,” he said, watching Jaybird closely. “She’s good, yes, and wants to protect you - but she’s still a weapon, and weapons are dangerous. She isn’t something you can play with. She wants to make sure you understand that before you meet her.” The young Galra looked thoughtful at that. She stared at the ceiling for a moment, projected stars reflecting back to glitter in the bright gold pool of her eyes.

“Okay,” she said, nodding to herself as she settled back down. Lance couldn’t help but smile in relief. Red purred in his ear, pleased with such a clever and understanding little cub.

Good. Want to meet. Bring when ready.

That was that, then. If Keith wanted to argue, he’d have to take it up with Red.

 

_ _ _ _

 

Naturally, it all went to shit when the alarms blared.

Jaybird scrambled up from where she’d been napping, fur puffing out around her neck as she backed herself into a corner. Lance was on his feet in an instant, halfway to the door before he realized the more immediate problem.

It wasn’t that the alarms hadn’t gone off when he was with her before, but being her sole caretaker in the event raised the stakes to him. Keith had always urged him to go before, leaving Lance racing out the door while the Blade handled his kit. He realized, as if something were stuck in his throat, that of all the mother-henning Keith had done, he’d never gone over this. The god-damn irony of it all.

“Jaybird,” he turned, making sure he caught her gaze and attention. “Do you remember what Keith taught you to do in an emergency?” She stared at him, quivering, but managed a few small nods. “Good. Okay sweetheart, I need you to do exactly that.” Nodding again, she moved quickly to her feet, tugging one of her blankets along behind her as she clambered quickly off the bed.

She approached a section of the wall that Lance had never paid much attention to. At first glance it looked blank, but her claws quickly found the edge and she was popping the small hatch open. It was a space almost like a dumbwaiter, just enough for someone her size to crawl into and curl up in. It was exactly what she did. She hesitated as she looked back at him, one hand resting on the door to close it.

He hated this. Her eyes were wide and scared, arms clutching Little Red, and he didn’t know how Keith was able to turn away and run into battle when this was what he had to leave behind.

“I’ll be back soon,” he told her, edging towards the door. Her grip on her plushie tightened.

“N- NO!”

“Jay, I have to go.” She shook her head back and forth, eyes shimmering on the verge of tears. Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. “I will be back as soon as I can be, okay? I promise.” He regretted those words almost as soon as they came out of his mouth, knew he was taking advantage of how she reacted to that phrase as she stilled.

“Promise?” If anyone ever broke a promise to Jaybird, it would be the last thing they ever did.

He swallowed.

“Promise.”

 

_ _ _ _

 

As soon as he could be wouldn’t be soon enough, he realized too late.

The fleet had come out of nowhere, catching the team unaware and vastly underprepared. They’d already had their ships in formation by the time everyone’s Lions had made it out, and they’d barely even had the time to try individual fighting before needing to form Voltron for sheer survival. The castle’s barrier was quickly looking worse-for-wear, sending Lance’s already frayed nerves go into overdrive.

Even worse was their team.

Their connection as Voltron was shaky, and Lance knew painfully why. He could feel Hunk and Pidge wavering in their connection to him, afraid of reaching out and bridging that gap. He wasn’t much better off, unable to fight the recoil and sting of his mind when they collided. Shiro tried his best to coach them all through, but even he and Allura could feel the echoes of their fight in the meld.

Somewhere in the fight, another ion cannon took aim at the castle.

Lance could see it happening, but there was too much space between them, Voltron’s massive bulk unable to move quick enough, no no no no NO-

They all felt it as Red tore herself away in a roar of fire. Through the pained aftershock of it all, Lance could feel the others’ confusion and alarm, their tinges of horror, but they didn’t know, they didn’t understand . Red streaked forward like a comet, all red-hot fury and determination as she powered her way between the two ships.

The cannon fired.

Chapter Text

It had been quiet for a long time.

Jay had heard nothing but her own breath and heartbeat for what felt like ages, curled up tightly in her hiding place. Her arms ached from squeezing Little Red so hard. She’d long since cried herself out, tear tracks leaving her velvet fur tacky and uncomfortable.

She wasn’t supposed to leave, not until someone came and got her, not until she was told it was safe to come out. The alarms had long stopped, and the ship no longer rumbled angrily beneath her feet. It was nothing but still and quiet. She was still alone.

Someone should have been back by now. She felt it in her bones, some deep, instinctual thing that told her. Someone should have come for her.

Memories surfaced of being stuck in the dark and quiet for so long, too long, until even the promise of cruelty couldn’t keep her from crying for someone, anyone.

She gnawed at herself, trying to feel something that proved she wasn’t there anymore. There was a blanket around her and a soft friend in her arms, but they felt wrong under her fingers, fingers and claws that didn’t feel right to begin with, didn’t feel like hers. Nothing felt like her.

She wouldn’t be left here, she tried to tell herself. They wouldn’t leave her here. Keith wouldn’t leave her here, he promised, he did, told her she’d never be alone again, promised…

Lance had promised, too.

She curled up tighter, and tried not to feel alone.

_ _ _ _

 

To say it had been a rough battle would be a massive understatement.

Shiro sighed into his hand, standing alone in the medbay save for the single, glowing pod in front him. He couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. He knew that Lance had been having troubles with the others, particularly Pidge and Hunk, but he hadn’t expected it to escalate to this level, to the point where they could barely hold onto Voltron during a simple raid defense.

After all, the only reason Red was able to tear away so easily was that they’d only been holding together by a string to begin with.

He kept replaying the battle in his head, over and over, trying to find something he’d missed. Lance’s actions didn’t make sense. The shot would have done some damage to the Castle, certainly, but nothing catastrophic. The lower levels would probably have needed some fixing, but Coran and the majority of the ship would have survived with little problem.

So why had Lance thrown Red in front of the ion cannon?

Shiro jumped when a hand touched his shoulder, arm buzzing as his head whipped around. He settled when he found Coran’s kind eyes on him. He should have known that someone would check in on him sooner or later.

“I know it’s difficult,” the advisor said, voice echoing too loudly in the quiet of the room. “But perhaps it’s time to get some rest?” Shiro’s eyes drifted back to the pod, where Lance rested in apparent peacefulness. He sighed - Coran was right. Standing here exhausted wasn’t going to help the situation get any better.

“You’re right.” He turned back to Coran, offering a soft smile. “Thank you, Coran.” Coran nodded, understanding, before going about whatever business had brought him back to the medbay. Rubbing his eyes, Shiro exited and headed towards his quarters.

He made it only a few halls before he stopped. Skittering across the floor, towards the lower decks, were four very colorful little shapes. He frowned, watching as they continued on their way. Towards the exact area that would have been damaged by the cannon. Huh.

Looks like rest was going to have to wait.

_ _ _ _

Jaybird surfaced to the sounds of something moving outside the door. She froze immediately, terrified that even the beating of her heart would give her away to some enemy that had gotten into her home. The skittering noise got louder, closer, and Jaybird curled up as tightly as she could. Don’t find her, please don’t find her, please…

A tiny squeak caught her ears, a sound she knew, and her eyes snapped open. Squeezing in through the cracks was a familiar little creature, and Jay felt herself relax for the first time in vargas as she saw it. The blue mouse, smallest of the four, looked back at her, squeaking again in concern.

She liked the mice. They didn’t expect her to use so many words, not minding that she talked more with her hands and ears than her mouth, and told her funny stories in their own no-words way. They’d been visiting her since she’d arrived at the Castle, really, always popping in through the vents while she was alone. They always scurried off when Keith returned, though she wasn’t sure why. Maybe they just didn’t like adults.

Slowly, Jay inclined her head to the door, setting her hand on it as if to open it. Safe? The mouse understood easily, nodding and hopping back down off her lap to scratch against the opening of the door. Trusting him, Jay carefully slid the panel open, revealing the other three sitting on the other side. She let out a huge sigh of relief, happy to see them all looking okay. The pink one quickly made her way up to Jay’s shoulder, sniffing her all over as if to check that she was okay. The mouse lapped at the girl’s tear-streaked cheeks, making her giggle quietly at the sensation.

She slowly moved out of the crawl space, nose twitching and ears on the alert for danger. She was glad the mice had come to get her - but why hadn’t Lance?

“Lance?” she asked, voice still rough. The mice looked at each other, suddenly very quiet. The skinny one seemed to decide what to do first, stepping forward and beginning to mime. Jay perked up, watching closely as he pretended to shoot some kind of weapon before falling over to the ground. Her ears flattened in alarm, but the mouse quickly got back to his feet, acting dizzy before laying down and pretending to sleep. She mimed back with her hands. Resting? The mice nodded, the skinny one squeaking back at her.

She frowned. Keith had gotten hurt before, back at the Blade - but he’d always come to rest with her, once he’d gotten patched up. She guessed that didn’t mean that Lance had to, but… he’d promised to come back as soon as he could. Had he not meant his promise…? Or was he really hurt badly enough that he couldn’t come back to her yet? Both options left her antsy, gnawing at the fur on her wrist and grumbling.

Getting to her feet, Jaybird made a quick check of her surroundings. The nursery was dark and quiet, just as it had been left, and Lance’s jacket was still slung over one of the cushions. She ran her hands over the soft material, claws almost snagging on the seams, before leaving it and entering the tiny kitchenette. She sniffed around, her rumbling belly disappointed to not find anything but a few ration bars, which she couldn’t bring herself to eat. Sure, she’d seen Keith eat these before, but not these specific, unopened ones, sitting in front of her. Who knows what was in it, what it could do to her? She shoved them back onto the counter with a grumble, turning around again to end up at the door.

She stared at it. She wasn’t supposed to go out, it was Keith’s big rule, the one he made her promise to follow. Promises were important, you didn’t break them - even the bad people had followed their promises. Regardless, it left her pacing back and forth, eyes going between the safety of her bed and the prospect of what lay beyond the door. The mice were better than no company at all, but after everything that had happened, she found herself craving the sort of attention they could not give.

She remembered what Lance had said only the night before, when he had taken her to the room full of stars and wide open spaces. He only wants you to feel safe. She took one last, long glance back her nest-like bed, all pillows and blankets, normally such a safe haven - before reaching up and tapping her hand on the door panel.

Time to be brave.

_ _ _ _

He felt a bit silly, if he was being honest. He’d never particularly imagined that he’d ever spend time following rainbow mice around a space castle ship, but here he was. Life was an interesting thing.

He’d lost track of them somewhere around the dozenth hallway, the rodents no doubt having slipped into a vent somewhere.

Still exhausted and now even more thoroughly concerned, Shiro heaved a sigh and readied himself for the trek back up to the Paladin’s quarters when something caught his eye. Just down the hall was the doorway to one of the lower star observatories. The panel normally glowed green, indicating it was vacant - but at the moment, it was a bright orange. Occupied, but not locked.

Who in the world would be down here this time? Frowning, Shiro approached the room, opening the door and stepping inside. Surprisingly, he didn’t see anybody at first glance. He stepped further into the room, eyes flicking around the room and finding no sign of the other paladins. He did, however, spot something out of place. There was what appeared to be a blanket in a heap on one of the steps, a perfect little ball just left there.

Well. He may have ended up on a wild goose chase, but at least he could tidy up a bit while he was here, he supposed. Shrugging to himself, Shiro reached out to grab the blanket, when it moved.

He jolted back, immediately on the alert. His arm thrummed, ready to strike, and he squinted at the bundle. It was little enough that he’d thought it was just a blanket, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. Before he could examine the situation any further, Shiro was caught off-guard by a chorus of little squeaks. The space mice darted between his ankles, hurriedly climbing all over the bundle. The pink one seemed the most insistent, burrowing down into the cover itself.

That’s when he heard the whimper.

He lowered his arm, sighing. At this rate, his constant frowning was going to give him premature wrinkles. Unwilling to completely drop his guard, however, he reached forward, letting his human hand settle on the blanket. It touched a solid form, something small and shaking that tensed beneath him. Shiro had no idea what he was dealing with. Had someone snuck something on board? This better not be a repeat of the yupper episode - Lance had been told enough times already that the ship was no place for a puppy.

“Hey,” he said softly, hoping whatever it was could understand him. “It’s okay.”

The blanket shifted, slowly, and Shiro’s breath caught.

That.. was definitely not a yupper.

Chapter Text

Keith was exhausted. His Blade uniform was coated in dust and debris, his shoulder was throbbing, and the entire mess had taken far too long for his liking.

“You mind briefing Allura on the mission once we land?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at Ulaz. The physician nodded, claws sliding across the tablet in his hands.

“Eager to get back to our charge, are we?” he asked, not bothering to look up himself.

“Ugh, you have no idea,” Keith groaned, shaking his head as he returned his focus to flying. “I mean, I know Lance is responsible. I’m sure he’s taking perfect care of her. I just…” He couldn’t seem to find the words to describe the pull, the feeling in his gut that left him constantly on edge when he thought about Jay. He’d brushed off Lance’s comments about being a ‘worrywort’, but after this, he was a little concerned that he might be right.

“I understand,” Ulaz hummed behind him, the gentle click of claws against his device somehow soothing in the quiet of the cockpit. “It is perfectly natural to want to ensure your kit’s safety.” The thought made Keith relax a little. He sighed, leaning back as he could in the pilot’s seat.

“I’m a mess. How did I end up being the one with a kid?” Ulaz chuckled at that.

“The universe works in interesting ways, Keith,” he replied, finally stowing away the tablet and looking at Keith. “Mayhaps it is what you need in this moment.”

“Mmm.” Keith couldn’t say he was much into the idea of fate, or destiny, or the ‘will of the universe’. Still, something about Ulaz’s words soothed him, and he found himself nodding all the same. “Guess we’ll see.” Ulaz rumbled an agreement, moving to stand near Keith’s seat as they began their approach home.

It wasn’t long until he was settling the ship down in the castle’s hangar. He was out in record time, heading down the ramp and turning towards the halls that would lead him to the nursery with a purpose.

“Ah, there you are, Keith.” He turned at the sound of his name, eyebrows raising in surprise as he spotted Allura. She almost never came down to greet them at the hangar. Why this time?

“Oh, Allura! Yeah.” He rubbed at the back of his neck, trying to keep his eyes from darting towards the exit as he spoke. “Uh. Everything went fine - Ulaz will brief you.” He gestured back towards the ship as he turned to leave again. “I was just going to-”

“Actually, I quite need to talk to you,” she interrupted, stepping forward to block his path. Keith swallowed nervously.

“Right now?” Keith couldn’t scratch the feeling that something was up. Something glittered in her eyes, and he wasn’t sure he liked what he saw. It felt far too close to mischief.

“Right now. Don’t worry - it won’t take long.” She turned down one of the halls, waving her hand at him. “Follow me.” Keith hung his head, resigned to his fate. When the princess said something in that tone, it was definitely not meant to be a suggestion. Giving one last forlorn glance in the other direction, he followed Allura back into the castle halls.

_ _ _ _

 

“So, Keith,” Allura began, after they’d been walking for several minutes. “How have you been lately?

“Uh,” His brows furrowed in confusion. This was the important talk that couldn’t wait? Pleasantries in the middle of the hallway? “Good I guess?” She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Really? Nothing out of the ordinary?” She raised a finger to tap at her chin, looking at him from the corner of her eyes. “You’ve been wandering off by yourself quite a bit, haven’t you?”

“Just, uh, training, you know?” Keith answered. “Gotta keep up with my stealth for the Blade.” His mouth was so dry, he definitely needed water. Or a way out of this conversation. Preferably both, really.

“Mmm. Indeed. I suppose the Blade does specialize in such - infiltration, secrecy, the like.” Oh god. Keith felt like something was crawling up his spine. He didn’t want to know where she was going with this. “You know it’s interesting. My mice have also been disappearing of late.” Oh shit.

“Oh?” he managed to croak, trying not to let any panic seep into his voice. The mice, the thrice-damned mice , how could he forget about those little things? Nothing happened in this castle that they didn’t find out about eventually.

“Indeed! And the little things have been being quite secretive about where they’re going.” Allura looked over at him again, purposeful. “Perhaps you have an idea?”

“Uhm…” He struggled to find words, gaze dropping to avoid meeting hers any longer. “I-I don’t…”

“Keith.” She stopped, just in front of the doorway to the lounge. Keith stopped as well, feeling blindsided by her sudden change in tone. She turned, looking him over for a long, silent moment before continuing. “You do know that we are all dear friends here, and not just allies, yes?”

“Wh- of course I know that, Allura. You guys are- you’re like my family.” He paused, at that, before pushing forward with more conviction. “You are my family.” Allura smiled at him.

“I am glad to hear that.” She turned, doors to the lounge whisking open ahead of her. “Well, here we are, then.”

Immediately Keith noticed the differences. The sunken area in the center was covered in blankets and cushions, far more comfy than it usually was, and the lights were dim for this time of day. Shiro, who almost never stopped to rest in the lounge, was nestled in on the right side, blankets piled across himself. Pidge was sprawled out across from him, the computer glowing in her lap the only spot of normalcy in this entire situation.

“Guys? What’s..?”

“Sshhh!” Shiro raised a hand to hush them. His voice was barely above a whisper. “I just got her to doze off.” He motioned to his lap, which was when Keith realized who else was in the room. Keith could swear he felt himself choke on air.

Jaybird ?” He hadn’t spotted the familiar lavender and white at first, too preoccupied with the baffling turn of events, but sure enough, there she was. She was snuggled into Shiro’s lap, head resting against his chest as she dozed, ears twitching at the sound of her name. Keith half expected her to wake then, but she slept on, merely snuggling in closer to Shiro.

“Oh, is that her full name?” Pidge asked, eyes not even leaving her screen. “I was wondering if it was short for anything.” Keith stared between them, still baffled at what exactly was happening to him.

“Wh- how-” She pointed at the edge of the couches, where a very conspicuous quartet of rodents sat. They waved their little paws at Keith, who looked back in disbelief. “Allura said they wouldn’t tell her anything!” His voice was a hissed whisper.

“Oh they didn’t tell her anything,” Shiro said, voice still low enough to keep Jay sleeping. “I followed them.” He glanced over at the mice, who were bouncing their way along the tops of the seats towards him. “I’m still not sure if they meant for me to or not, honestly.” They squeaked again, giving nothing away as they piled down into his lap with Jaybird.

“It was a good thing I found her, though. I don’t think the mice could have taken care of her by themselves.”

“By- wait.” Keith was suddenly very aware of a missing presence in this room. He glanced about, worry building in his chest. “Where’s Lance? And Hunk?”

“Oh, Hunk is just over in one of the kitchens.” Allura chimed in. “He got very excited about trying new recipes for the little one.” She frowned. “Lance, however-”

“Lance in a pod,” Pidge cut in, still not looking up from her screen.

“A pod?” It had been a long while since any of them had needed an extended stay in one of the cyropods - usually a few vargas or so was enough to clear up the worse bangs and scrapes one got in a firefight. Staying in it for any longer period was not a good sign. Keith’s heart sank. “What happened?”

“He was a giant dumbass.”

Pidge.

“She’s asleep!” Shiro gave her a look that said this was absolutely not about that. She grumbled in response. “Fine. He wasn’t dumb, but he did do something completely unreasonable.”

“What she means to say,” Allura continued. “Is that Lance made some questionable decisions in a recent skirmish. Don’t worry,” she added, taking in Keith’s worried expression. “He’ll recover just fine. However, Keith.” Her gaze on him was pointed, now. “You must understand. He made the choice to protect the castle over his own safety - and I must be frank. Had we known about the situation, he may not have had to make that choice. There are precautions involved when keeping a child on a warship.”

Keith felt his heart sink. There was so much he hadn’t taken into account with this entire situation, and it was all, every single bit of it, coming back to bite him.

“I’m sorry," he blurted, unable to stop himself as the guilt sunk in. "I thought I could handle it. I didn’t - I didn’t think I’d be gone when there was a fight.” He thought about Jaybird alone, tucked into her little safety panel as she waited for someone to come and get her. Was that where Shiro had found her, still waiting? How long had she been alone? Had she been hungry? She must have been, she wouldn’t eat prepackaged food, you couldn’t leave her with any emergency rations.

A familiar, drowsy chirp broke him from his spiral. The little bundle in Shiro’s arm stirred, finally roused by the talk around her. Jaybird blinked blearly, golden eyes staring around the room before they landed on Keith. She perked immediately, ears shooting up and tiny tail wiggling under the blankets.

“Kee!” She scrambled out of Shiro’s grasp, ignoring the oof he gave as she bounced off his stomach. She barrelled into Keith’s legs, arms thrown around them. It was no surprise how quickly she found her way up and into his arms, rumbling happily as she snuggled against him. “Miss you…”

“I missed you too,” he told her. Keith felt a sense of comfort in having Jay back in his arms, even among all the stress. He ran a hand through the patchy growth of her mane, coming in all different lengths and making her look like a fox changing coats. Allura stepped up beside him, glancing down at the kit with surprisingly soft eyes.

“You can’t have expected to hide this forever,” she said quietly.

“Well, no, of course not!” He suddenly felt self-conscious of their eyes on him. How could he explain why he’d taken so long, hidden so many things? He knew why, but all his reasons suddenly felt like wet paper compared to what had happened. “I mean, I was going to tell you guys, I mean it. I just…”

He jumped at the sound of Pidge snapping her computer shut, looking over at her as she got to her feet.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she started, making her way out of the mess of cushions and blankets. “I’m not at all surprised you pulled this kind of stunt. I’m even less surprised that you roped Lance into it.” She looked at him, adjusting her glasses in that way she always did when she was thinking. “But, seriously, Keith? This was inevitable. I know you like to do things on your own, but statistically speaking, it would never be feasible for you to keep doing this yourself, with or without Lance. It’s just, too much.”

“You know what they say, it takes a village.” She shrugged. “I mean, the closest you’re gonna get here is a ship full of half-equipped adolescents, but - beggars,choosers, you know?” She turned, wandering off towards the exit. “That’s my piece, anyway. Have fun with the adults!”

Jay gave a little chirp in his arms, tilting her head as she watched Pidge leave. She then looked back up at Keith, clearly confused about what was going on. Keith shifted her in his arms, pressing his face into the white fluff of her head in an attempt to soothe them both. He was quiet for a moment, not looking up as he heard Shiro get to his feet and approach. Neither of them spoke either, giving him a moment to gather himself.

“You’re right,” he said softly, after several ticks had gone by. “I’m so sorry, I…Thank you. For taking care of her.” His arms wrapped tighter around Jaybird, as if the action could keep her safe from now on. “I thought that I… that we could handle it. I was wrong.” He looked back up at the other two. “Thank you for keeping her safe.”

“Of course, Keith.” Shiro clapped a hand on his shoulder, something so familiar that even now it brought him some comfort. “You’re not off the hook yet - but you look terrible. Why don’t you go get cleaned up, and then we can talk. Just us, yeah?” Slowly, Keith nodded.

“Alright.” He bounced Jay in his arms a bit, smiling at the pleased chirp it got him. “Come on then, little birdy. Let’s get you down for a nap, huh?” He chuckled as she protested, holding her close as they headed back down the corridors. It would, he decided, all be okay, after all.