Lance was thirteen the first time someone outside of his family patted his head.
Before that, it was only something his mother did to appease him when he wanted attention from her while she was caught in conversation with a group of aunts and uncles, or something his older siblings did both to tease and to assure, an affectionate better luck next time.
At worst, it was patronizing, a reminder that he was small and young and, in a family with so many people, would be seen that way for at least half a generation more no matter how much taller and older he'll get in the next few years. At best, it was comfort he couldn't resist, a warm touch that didn't need words, short of the complete vulnerability of surrendering to a hug.
Lance had always been susceptible to missing home. Silence wasn't a good match for someone who grew up comfortable in beautiful, organized chaos, in constant chatter and loud comings and goings, and at thirteen-years-old, truly alone for the first time and faced with so many strangers his age during his first week at the Garrison, the sick lurch of homesickness made itself comfortable without trouble.
He succeeded in keeping the tears at bay for two days, determined to approach as many unfamiliar faces as he could with as big as smile as possible. But bravado took energy even at that age, and by the third day he was over-brimming with unrealized emotions, his small heart quivering with the force of having to keep all of it in.
He hadn't wanted anyone else to see. He didn't want to be that kid that cried for his parents, for his siblings—not when everyone else seemed to be doing fine, seemed to be adjusting much, much better than him.
Lance thinks, even now, that he'd found a good hiding spot to cry. And yet someone had found him anyway—found him a sobbing, stuttering mess, the names of all his family left unsaid because he knew for a fact he'd only cry harder, hiccup faster, if he allowed himself to go there. His eyes had been too swollen with nonstop tears when he heard someone approach, and it took Lance a while to make out a boy he would later recognize from half of his classes, dark-haired and hesitant, one cheek covered with a polka dot bandaid at odds with the muted browns of their uniform.
The boy hadn't said anything. He only watched Lance keep crying, mouth opening and closing but nothing coming out. Lance would have said something, probably, if he'd been able to through his hiccups—but he could only keep staring and crying as the boy finally closed his mouth one last time.
Then moved to sit beside Lance.
Just like that: silent, still, sitting calm and unspeaking as Lance cried and cried and cried.
Until he was exhausted at the end of it, lungs and eyes wrung out. When Lance's sobbing dwindled into quiet sniffles, the boy suddenly reached out—the movement certain had his hand not been shaking—and laid his palm on top of Lance's head.
A heavy, reassuring weight. The same pat Lance's family would have given to comfort him, to assure him everything was okay, to remind him to breathe.
So he did. Lance breathed in and out until each breath was even and as calm as the other boy's. He inhaled and exhaled until his chest hurt a little less, until his lungs felt a little less empty.
And when it was finally quiet, he took the hand that the boy quietly offered him and followed him back to the dorms.
Days after that and Lance would meet Hunk, would find other friends that would help the homesickness sting less.
Weeks more and Lance would learn, after endless hours of keeping an ear out, that the name of the boy who helped him was Keith Kogane.
Months later and they would hardly share any classes—not with Keith running ahead of everyone else, never looking back, leaving everyone behind, Lance included.
Years later and Keith would drop out abruptly, leaving Lance a position to be promoted to and frustration that wouldn't wane for a long time.
Years later and Lance would find Keith in the desert and follow him all over again—away from the Garrison, away from Earth.
Years later and Keith would leave their team, and Lance would find himself off-balance yet again.
Years after all that and, Lance thinks, nothing has changed.
Somehow he finds himself that same kid from half a decade ago, homesick and desperate to belong again.
The twig comes hurtling through the trees at him without warning.
Startled, propelled by little more than reflex as his grip slides up his broadsword, he slices it in half. It falls in two pieces on the ground at the same time Keith's new pet pops into existence without warning.
Lance yelps, raising his bayard—but the wolf doesn't even look at him as it lands, only runs circles around the twig halves before noticing Kaltenecker.
They stare each other down. No cautious bark, no moo in greeting, the wolf unperturbed and Kaltenecker ever impassive, not even pretending to graze on the pumpkin-brown grass around her.
The team has temporarily docked on a small planet called Calceus, taking a detour on their way to Olkarion to pick up Matt from his extended shopping trip. When they caught him up to date, the same used parts he bought for potential upgrades to the Castle were reevaluated, their value now regarded not for repair but for how helpful they would be to Pidge and Hunk's plan to get them back to Earth without access to the teludav. Hearing them discuss it left vague nausea in Lance's throat, unwanted reminders of the emptied rooms and never-to-be-relived memories that had blown up with the Castle, and he excused himself to retreat to where they all landed the Lions, a heartache he couldn't trace unfolding where he couldn't touch it.
He doesn't think anyone even noticed him slip away.
For a planet so industrial by reputation, Calceus' hills are lush with trees and grass miles beyond the steampunk factories and makeshift tent shops of city proper—but the color is all wrong, the oranges and yellows and browns of the leaves trapped in an eternal autumn that Lance, born and bred in sun and water and sand, has never really tasted, never really breathed.
Still, it's hard not to imagine himself experiencing autumn on Earth instead, an alternate universe where he hadn't left for space, for other galaxies and solar systems, before he had even gotten the chance to visit and live somewhere with snow, to play tourist in other Earth countries just long enough for him to miss Cuba as painfully as he does now.
He's blinking fast and stubborn at the sky when Keith slides out from between the trees.
Harried as he scans the clearing, his hair messy like it had caught on something and he'd carelessly tugged it off. Lance stares at him.
Keith stares back.
Intently enough, surprised enough, that Lance has no choice but to look away first, clearing his throat.
"Are you—" Keith starts, but doesn't finish as he catches sight of his wolf and sighs. Relief, uncomplicated and near childish.
Infectious, too, because the knot that has begun to tighten in Lance's chest seems to uncoil at that. "It's alright, hotshot," he chirps. It's easier to adjust his expression like this, easier to hope Keith hasn't seen the heat that has been forming in his eyes. "You can chill. Marmaduke over there is safe with me. And Kaltenecker. I'm an animal whisperer at this point, doesn't matter what corner of space they come from, they all flock to me."
Keith doesn't say anything and keeps staring.
Lance refuses to feel awkward about it. He refuses to feel awkward about this new Keith—who returned a tiny, minuscule bit taller, who returned with the same even single-mindedness, only sharpened, only more focused. Lance refuses to feel awkward, period, but it's more complicated than it has to be when this new Keith hasn't even glanced at him twice in succession since he's been back, but stares at Lance now like he's the one that aged two years, like he's the one with new features to memorize, with expressions to relearn.
This new Keith who tilts his head at Lance, and, just as Lance is starting to feel self-conscious, says; "Is that—"
Lance perks up. "An Altean broadsword? Pretty sweet, right?" he says, as if Allura hadn't had to tell him what it is. "I was training. Don't know how much of it you did in two years but—"
"You're—but you shoot."
"That, I do," Lance says, and the smile he gives Keith is genuine. It comes without trouble, and that, too, is relieving. "Why, you think I'm gonna take your place as—"
Keith frowns. "Lance."
Voice serious, wrong, and the relief turns cold with the rest of Lance's body.
He doesn't like it. He doesn't like this growing knee-jerk urge to move out of the way when Keith talks like that. That's never been the case between them—should never be the case, because the Keith that Lance has thought about over the past few months is the Keith that does not fail to respond, to shove back. At their best and worst moments there is always the urge to push, always a pull Lance can count on in return. Words and actions and emotions around Keith are always surface level instinct, things Lance never has to think about because they are as automatic as a flint catching fire at the slightest friction.
"The others are still with Matt," Lance says, changing topics as smoothly as he can. It should work. He wants it to work. "If you wanna—"
"Did something happen?"
Lance hesitates anyway. "What do you mean?"
Keith isn't the type to shuffle in place, not really, but he manages his own version of it, eyeing his wolf like somehow it will give him the words he needs. "You're… off."
A funny thing to come from Keith, of all people, and Lance's huff is only half-forced. "Like—more badass? Definitely more badass, right? Like, I don't know if you heard, but I kinda died—"
Keith moves forward so fast Lance almost takes a step back. He stops himself, hardly, but it leaves them much closer to each other than they were before, Lance too aware of Keith's wide eyes, the twitch in his knuckle-points.
"Okay," Lance pushes out. "So you haven't heard." He lets that sink in, lets himself wonder for a brief second how insignificant his momentary death must have been to slip unnoticed between all the other threads of important conversations worthy of catching Keith up on. "Huh. Of course not."
"What do you mean—What do you mean you died?"
"I mean that I died. Like ka-boom. Na-da. No more Lancey-Lance. Took Red with me down for a sec there, too." Keith looks even more alarmed at that, so Lance shakes his head, cocks a hand against his hip. "But hey, no big deal. We got him back. And me. I'm back and better than ever. Feels like nothing happened. Nothing at all."
"So yes," Keith says, and doesn't even blink, "something did happen."
Kaltenecker and Keith's wolf don't move, either, as if sensing the hitch in Lance's throat that he refuses to allow to give him away.
He doesn't let it morph into a sigh. Not here. He'd told himself he could keep it together around the others, had slipped once around Pidge and Hunk and suffered their teasing and the hurt from that for it, and there should be no exception.
But leave it to Keith to say something so simple to stand in for something much, much bigger.
Something doesn't even begin to cover the desperation Lance feels when he thinks of Earth, of his family, of his home, of the life he had before this. It doesn't involve the knowledge that the desperation is there because being on Earth was the last time he didn't have to think about belonging. He just felt it, just did, and being around his siblings and his parents and the people he grew up with didn't come with sleepless nights, with constant second-guessing that piled up and ate away at him.
He didn't have to wonder if he had a place at the dinner table, in the living room with the rest of his siblings squished into the worn couch. It hadn't come with the doubt that kept growing as he sat at a makeshift table with the rest of his team, wondering what he was doing there until that turned into certainty that he didn't have a place there anymore.
Lance feels so, so small, and he wonders why the universe is so intent on making Keith find him like this, even years later.
"Nah, just thinking about the whole going back to Earth thing, you know how it is," he says aloud, simply, because at this point it's become a predictable sentiment, a compact way of admitting what he's feeling without lying. I miss home isn't quite right anymore. When Lance says home, he means feeling like he's home. Even when he was homesick those first several months, he had the others, had a group of people he was learning to call friends and family. He doesn't think he has that, anymore.
He'd been homesick before. It wasn't this. It isn't this exhaustion that never leaves, the hours of sitting in the dark playing games that don't distract him, the reflex to stay away from the group before they can move away from him and confirm what his nightmares tell him. It's draining, slicing thin layers of skin off him, hardly felt past an itch until it had cut deep enough to start hitting nerves, to start drawing blood.
"And I'm tired," Lance continues, feeling that heaviness slip back in, ever elusive until it no longer is. "Since—you know. Crazy past couple of days. Or—past couple of years for you, I guess." He wonders if he should ask Keith about that. He knows he should, feels the need to. But he's nowhere near brave enough for that yet, not when everything feels so tentative, so fragile, around Keith. He continues with; "You and Scooby over there can have the place for your game of fetch and I'll—"
"It's not fetch if he doesn't bring it back to you, really."
Lance doesn't realize he's started walking away until he has to turn back to Keith. "Well," he retorts, the need to be difficult around Keith—to drag away the sombreness that hasn't left Keith's face, to kick through this tension he doesn't want to be aware of around Keith—remaining a base instinct, "it's not really a dog if you got it off the back of some space creature. Dogs, you adopt. Or buy. Whatever. This is like coming home from the jungle with a coyote and trying to teach it—"
"Coyotes don't live in jungles."
"You know what I mean."
Keith hums. "No," he says, mild. "I really don't."
His mouth might twitch. It's hard to tell. But it transforms his face, turns him into someone more recognizable, more familiar to the sudden slam of Lance's heartbeat at that, and the Keith of Lance's clearest memories shifts into place.
"There you are," Lance blurts out.
Lance wills away a flush from his face by force of will. It creeps up his nape anyway. "I mean—you know—I was talking to Kaltenecker," he stammers, inching away from Keith. "There she is. My best girl. Giver of the best milk in the entire universe. We were just leaving—"
The two of them stop at the same time. Kaltenecker hasn't moved. Figures.
"You're not—" Keith tries again. "You're really not staying?"
Something about his voice—subdued and bare, nowhere near a whisper yet so placid—guts Lance, and he finds himself compensating for the lack of edge in it by exhaling as loudly and as sharply as he can.
"Yes, Keith," Lance says, stomping further away. "I'm really going. As soon as Kaltenecker decides to move."
Kaltenecker keeps staring blankly ahead.
"Oh, sure," Keith says behind Lance. It isn't quite a laugh in his voice, but it's breathless in a way that should be mocking but feels familiar instead. Lance makes a face at him. "Any day now."
"Don't mind me," Lance grits out. Kaltenecker doesn't budge.
There's a sound behind him that seems like a scoff—but it's too soft, too amused. "You can stay, you know."
A definite laugh this time, but when Lance glances behind him, Keith has crouched down to pick up the twigs, face hidden. "Sure. You're not."
Lance attempts one last push against Kaltenecker before heaving an annoyed huff. Then, stubbornly, he plops down on the brown grass next to her, arms crossed, as if that will prove something to either his cow or Keith.
Keith doesn't look at him, but he must sense what's happening, because there's a lift at the corner of his mouth that he isn't even bothering to fight when he stands up again.
Lance doesn't know what to do with it.
In the end, they all stay in the clearing until the others get back, watching the sky darken as Keith's twigs are left uncaught. Lances watches, too, as the sunset starts casting shadows upon Keith's face—in some parts older, different than the last time Lance lived with him, yet, as his eyes widen the first time his wolf catches something and brings it back to him, as familiar as the jolt of warmth that comes when those eyes turn back to meet Lance's.
Later, Lance will parse the delayed relief at seeing a flicker of a smile on Keith as fear—fear that Keith changed too much too fast in the weeks he'd been gone, in the years it's been for him, had changed into a person Lance doesn't know anymore, much less ever catch up to.
Entertaining that thought any further fills him with dread, with even more heartache, swelling inside his heart until he doesn't think it can contain any more. But, much older and much stronger than his thirteen-year-old heart, it manages. The feelings don't explode in his chest like he thinks they will, and instead he's left trying not to stare at Keith over their tasteless Calceusian dinner, wondering why it feels so intense, why he can't seem to feel anything else but his heartbeat when he looks up and sees Keith talking to his mother, why he feels so reassured to see Keith back with them, even if it doesn't make anything better, even if it doesn't change that Lance doesn't even want to try joining the conversation at this point.
For there to be fear, there should have been hope there to begin with. Lance knows that. For there to be relief, there should have been something to be scared of. But what? Losing Keith? Of course he's scared of losing Keith. Keith is a teammate, a member of the Blade or a Paladin or not. It's easier to hide behind the blanket of rivalry, to pursue Keith as someone to catch up to instead of anything else, but Lance still knows they count as friends, one way or another. It was natural, to want that back in his orbit. He'll feel the same way about any of the others.
The statement doesn't bury itself as deeply in his head as he wants it to.
They decide to stay in Calceus for a bit longer, finding a place to stay in what must pass as a cottage-for-rent in this planet, as if this galaxy is just one stop in all the states they will visit in a road trip.
It's a strange thought to be willingly staying in a foreign place for this long; it's too liminal, their rooms too blatantly temporary. With the Castle, it was easier to adjust to living this new life when he could make his bedroom his, when he could go about all the things he used to do, just somewhere different, just with the same faces in a new context. Now, he has to live out of his Lion, shuttling things back and forth like it's some glorified storage unit because he doesn't have his own bathroom anymore, doesn't have a place to even briefly unpack his things.
Hunk and Pidge don't even bother with rooms of their own, setting up camp in a corner of the shack they'd taken over. Matt and Coran hover around them as they work, too, and like that, the team finds foundation all over again, grief over the Castle and the rooms they lost momentarily forgotten with other things to keep them busy.
Lance wants to feed off their optimism, but it's taking more and more of him to be around them with no grounding element of his own, and the sooner he accepts that instead of trying to insert himself every time, the sooner he'll stop having to process rejection and coax himself into bouncing back each time. That kind of cycle takes energy.
Years of practice hasn't made it any easier to present a specific facet of himself to other people when he's always been keenly aware of the rise and fall of his own emotions as they come and go, and always preferred projecting them outward. He doesn't know what to do with this new instinct to curl inward and disappear into himself for just a few minutes, breathe in and out, maybe find his footing again instead of listening to the voices in head that feed the isolation and vulnerability, stuck on the pang of disappointment when Hunk sides with Pidge, Pidge sides with Matt, and so on until he starts pairing them all up himself and finds himself left over.
He's lost his ground, he thinks. He doesn't know how to act around the others, all of them content to perceive one version of Lance—lovesick, homesick, goofball—that he doesn't feel like being every hour of the day anymore when all those traits are parts of a more multidimensional whole instead of single representations of him.
He sets a time quota for himself and stays with the others for the whole duration of it, waiting to see if something will change and he can say something to pitch in with the team engineers. When the time runs out and he doesn't feel any better, no better-equipped, no more useful, he excuses himself again to go back to the clearing a second day in a row.
He has every intention of training again, or taking Kaltenecker back to the grass despite her betrayal the day before, but he finds himself stopping in front of Blue.
She still looms over Lance like she did all those months ago, her paint chipped in some parts, other corners dented, but her head high and regal above him. She seems omnipotent like this, and if he thinks back to how it felt the first time he bonded with her, he can almost believe that—believe in something divine, much bigger than him and everything he's feeling.
Blue had chosen him back there in the desert, he reminds himself. He'd felt her pulsing, felt her come alive, thrum with warmth and acceptance and familiarity he could get drunk on.
Lance doesn't like this urgency that had replaced this feeling, this helplessness that thrums under his skin now. It was bad before, but now even that urgency has lost direction, has just become something ever-present and hot. None of the promise he'd very, very briefly allowed himself to feel as Blue responded to him for the first time. None of the belonging he began to seek the first time he'd accepted paladin of Voltron as a label applicable to him.
He can feel himself spiralling just staring at Blue, can feel the concave void in his chest deepen, and he groans out loud, frustrated with himself, half-screaming it at the sky and revelling in the brief moment of catharsis it gives him.
Until something heavy drops on him from nowhere, tackling him to the ground before he even notices what it is.
"I'm starting to think it imprinted on you."
Lance can't see Keith past the mound of space fur trying to sit on him, but he raises a hand at the general direction of Keith's voice and says, muffled; "Of course it likes me, I told you I'm a space animal whisperer."
Keith's wolf takes that as its cue to start licking Lance's face, and after several seconds of involuntary giggles and oofs and Keith, help me's, Lance finally resigns himself to it, closing his eyes and praying that Keith's wolf is actually playing with him and not preparing to eat him.
Except it hops off Lance, nudging his face one last time, and he can breathe again.
"Did you train him to do that, you—" Lance sputters as he sits out, wiping nonexistent hair from his mouth. It's all for show, and he can't help scratching behind one of the wolf's ears, preening himself when it melts against his hand. "You—you—"
"Me what, Lance?" Keith says, and has the nerve to sound amused. He's standing over Lance, arms crossed, and his wolf runs a circle around both him and Lance, as if ecstatic about what it's done.
"You—bowl of space goo," Lance finishes with as much venom as he has in him.
It isn't much at all, not when there's a space dog around, but Keith's face contorts into what looks like a frown. His eyebrows don't look annoyed, though, and the huff he gives Lance is almost a laugh, if Lance is the type to believe it is. "Nice. Good one. You miss the goo that much?"
Lance wishes it doesn't have to be this hard to look at Keith. He hates the gnawing in his chest and the tumble in his stomach every time he has to look up a little farther than he did last time. He doesn't want to process new emotions to replace ones he hasn't even allowed himself to acknowledge yet, much less contemplate. He doesn't want to name them, not when he's still stewing in what he's sure is genuine heartbreak over Allura, and so he glares up at Keith.
"Jeez," he spits out, "why are you so big?"
The words dawn on him a second too late, slower than the rise of Keith's eyebrows, both confused and interested, and Lance clears his throat, sticking his pointer finger up in the air to shove it at Keith's direction. "I'll catch up to you in weeks, you'll see."
The amusement is back, but Keith sighs around it as he offers a hand. "Height isn't a competition, Lance."
Lance stares the hand down. "Everything's a competition with you and me."
Keith stares at his own outstretched hand, too, like he's second-guessing the fact that it's his. "That's—" He shrugs, coming to a decision, and stretches his hand forward further. "That's just you."
It should sting, yet Lance doesn't even have it in him to chase that. He tries to grip Keith's hand too hard to make up for it, letting Keith carry most of his weight as he hauls himself to his feet, but he gets distracted by the drag of their palms against each other.
Delayed, Lance bites out; "Right."
He moves to let go.
Keith doesn't let him, hand tightening around his. "Lance—no, that's not what I meant," he says, and he's trying to get Lance to look at him, probably, but Lance doesn't want to, not when he doesn't even understand why he'd felt so bad when Keith was gone, and not when he doesn't want to understand just yet why he feels the way he does now, looking at Keith, remembering he's back with them, with him. "Lance, you know I don't see you as a—you know—what's the word you use?"
"Right. I don't see you as… that."
Lance lifts his chin. "I know."
"No, stop misunderstanding me on purpose—"
"On purpose? Since when do I misunderstand you on purpose?"
Keith levels him a weighted stare.
He's still holding Lance's hand.
Lance wants to tug it away, wants to stop feeling the warmth threatening to move farther up his arm, but Keith's hold on him is firm.
"Lance—Do you really not remember?"
Lance, too confused to stop himself, looks up. Keith's eyes are soft, willing Lance to—to what? It's unbearable to be on the other side of whatever it is, though less so than the part of Lance that immediately knows what Keith means.
"What?" he says anyway. "Remember what?"
Keith sees right through him. "The bonding moment."
"The bond—no, buddy," Lance says, laughing nervously with it. It's a blatant lie. He knows it is. Keith knows it is. It's a blatant lie when he can close his eyes and remember the weight of Keith's cradle, the momentary lapse of weakness where Lance had allowed himself to stay where he was and not question it and who it was with. An echo of a young boy's comforting hand atop his head. "I told you—I was—"
Keith releases his hand. "Right. Okay."
Against his more rational side, it's Lance that tightens his hand this time, keeping Keith in place—until he realizes what he's doing and pulls away, taking one step back. It doesn't impede the heat that has reached his face by now. "No, yeah, you're right—I—" I remember, is how it's supposed to go. He swallows instead and repeats; "You're right. I just—difficult. Being difficult. Me."
He waits for Keith's irritated sigh, for a so why did you lie then?, but the puff of air Keith releases at that gives nothing away. "You always are."
"Hey," Lance says, half-hearted.
"So damn difficult," Keith continues, with the sigh Lance had been expecting. Not quite irritated, almost absent-minded. "And yet. I can't believe how much—"
"Oh-kay," Lance cuts in. "Did you come here to tell me how insufferable I am? Because I kinda left the others to avoid that—so maybe—maybe you can go join them and have a little Lance-Is-So-Difficult Club meeting while I—"
"I was waiting for you, actually."
Lance immediately frowns. "Waiting?"
Keith frowns back. Lance doesn't know if it's supposed to be meant for him. "I thought you'd be training again."
"I—" Lance pauses. "I was—I mean, I was going to." Another pause. "Why?"
Keith keeps his eyes on the ground, staring at the brown grass like it's wasted, melted Halloween candy. "I thought I'd train with you."
Lance looks around the forest. "Okay? Again—why?"
Keith exhales—shaky, barely controlled. It's near thrilling for Lance to hear it again. "Since—you know. Sword."
Slowly, he lets the smile spread across his mouth, ignoring the distant thought that he hasn't thought about smiling like this in a while—smiling like he won't be able to bite it back no matter how hard he tries, smiling like it will hurt his jaw more if he doesn't. "So you do feel threatened," he says. "You think I can out-sword you, knife guy? You think I can—"
"I'm regretting this," Keith announces, turning around. His wolf, as if to prove a point, stops walking circles and sits on the ground. "Train by yourself."
"No, wait, Keith—"
It doesn't even take the whole sentence for Keith to stop.
He eyes Lance. "If I train with you, do you promise to be serious about it?"
Lance shrugs. "Hey, I'm serious when it matters. I've been serious these past few days, haven't I?"
Keith's expression shutters—so cleanly closed for a second that Lance wonders if he said something wrong—before he shrugs. "Yeah, I know," he says, and it's hard to tell if he's being playful or not. "It's not a good look on you."
"Excuse me, everything's a good look on—" Lance tries again.
"Let's go, Lance."
This time, Keith's wolf moves to follow him—but it doesn't walk all the way after him, stopping to look back at Lance.
The Garrison hadn't versed him in what to do when a space creature saved from the back of another space creature looks at him like this, expectant, and he doesn't know what else to do but follow.
"Your mind keeps wandering," Keith tells him the next day, pushing against Lance's sword until he stumbles back.
They'd walked to the clearing together this time—their clearing, at this point, and Lance has to try harder than usual not to feel anything about that shift—and Keith had proceeded to kick Lance's ass at training, three rounds in a row.
Not that Lance would ever admit to it.
He gets back to his feet now, dragging the back of his palm against his cheek, and braces himself.
Aiming and shooting is to Lance second nature, a dance his body will always remember like reflex because its choreography is so ingrained in his muscle memory: cock the gun, lock on a target, take a deep breath before firing. Don't jerk, keep steady. But fighting with a sword involves coordination of muscles and parts he doesn't have to think about when his bayard is a gun, involves balancing corners of himself that refuse to work together under Keith's watchful eye.
"Stop forgetting you don't have to restrict yourself to one hand," Keith is saying. There's an awkward lilt to his voice as he watches Lance, as if he's finding out what he's saying long after the words are out of his mouth. "Your bayard is not a solid thing. It doesn't have to be stationary. The sooner you get used to a knife being an extension of your body—"
"It's not a knife, it's a broadsword."
"Even better," Keith says. "Longer arm."
Lance grins. "Try again."
Keith widens his stance and adjusts his grip on his sword. He doesn't fight with both hands around it, just one, grip delicate like it weighs nothing, like he can balance it atop his fingers if he so wishes.
Lance doesn't have that grace, not quite yet, but he wants to learn, so he watches, too, looking over Keith and waiting for the slightest movement.
His body is prepared to move the exact moment Keith does, and Lance easily dodges two swipes with a step backward and a duck, too aware of his breathing pattern when one foot skids loud against the ground.
Keith takes advantage of the distraction to slide his sword under Lance's, putting pressure to tug it off his hand, his body angled and balanced forward.
Lance takes a quiet breath and wills his bayard into his other hand.
He swallows back surprise when it obeys, sending Keith's sword swinging high when the resistance abruptly disappears. Lance spins his sword around his wrist once before angling it towards Keith, who's driven onto the defensive as he tracks the arch of his lost bayard in the air. It leaves the bottom half of his body open; Lance easily goes for his legs, pushing on both knee joints until he knocks Keith to the ground.
He drags his weight over Keith to stop him from getting up—it shouldn't have been enough to stop him, not when hand-to-hand combat is a factor Lance admittedly did not take into consideration, but Keith surrenders to the press of Lance's body against him, just stays on the ground and allows Lance's sword to hover above his chest.
Not a complete win, but fair enough that Lance feels giddy with it, unable to help but smile down at Keith. "How'd I do—"
He trails off when he finds Keith's eyes wide and his body unmoving. He's breathing fine, so Lance knows he hadn't knocked the breath out of him, hadn't hit him too hard—yet still, Keith stares, blinking up at Lance, glance flicking down briefly before returning higher to meet Lance's eyes, mouth opening and closing.
It doesn't do wonders for Lance's self-consciousness, but he's frozen in place, too, Keith's body warm under him, close enough that Lance can feel his bayard's vibration thrumming through where their bodies connect.
Keith's bottom lip is chapped, Lance realizes. Chapped like he'd been worrying on it—and Lance can see it, even if he's never seen Keith do it, even if Keith doesn't seem the type. He can so easily see the drag of Keith's teeth over his mouth, can envision Keith's lips pressed together in a conscious effort to stop it.
Keith had always been an eye-catcher. It hadn't always been his looks that made him so; when Lance first met him it had been more the expression on Keith's face that had Lance's glances always finding their way back, willing Keith to notice and look back at him though afraid of the moment he would. As they grew up, those same expressions rendered Keith untouchable, even farther away from the boy Lance had met that first week.
It was a source of both admiration and frustration for Lance back then, who in the early stages of puberty felt like he had to try a little harder to feel attractive in his own skin, had to put in a little more effort to believe it when he calls himself that. At thirteen, it was Keith's eyes that Lance will remember a long time after, and in the years to come, it will also be one of few things left unchanged as their bodies grew up, as their faces began to lose the softness that Lance hadn't realized he associated with the Keith that had comforted him back then.
If getting to know Keith long enough to have another conversation was difficult when they were both new at the Garrison, it was impossible by the time Keith amassed admirers among both student body and faculty.
That had felt unfair, because Lance had wanted Keith's attention first. Way before any of them did.
But whether or not he was first didn't change anything. Keith never did remember comforting him. He never did get Keith's attention.
No one else did.
It didn't lessen the sting of it.
Lance dissected that bitterness as competitive fixation, had latched onto that until he felt that it had become true. Keith made it easy as he grew up away from what should have been Lance's circle, and Lance didn't have to try too hard to take the way he can't seem to stop finding Keith in crowds and turn that into a potential rivalry he can use to motivate himself, to turn feelings he didn't quite want to understand at that age, when anything complicated hit him harder than he wanted it to.
But Keith from before didn't always have this look in his eyes. They were always the most expressive thing about him, no matter what, the first to give away disinterest or lack of recognition or irritation, a reliable gauge for Lance to process his emotions around instead of his heart pulsing with just hurt, hurt, hurt. It was rare that Keith's eyes were ever like this—tender, calm, self-assured, trained on Lance like they fully intend to stay there.
Then Keith clears his throat and looks away.
"Lance?" he finally says, voice unsteady.
That shakes Lance back into blinking, more and more until he has enough brain cells back to consciously clamber off Keith. "Right," he says. "My bad, I—"
Keith doesn't move until Lance is off him, and even then he sits up slowly, eyes following as Lance crosses his legs under him.
Lance wants firmly to believe that it's a foreign feeling, being on the other end of Keith's relentless stare—but the weight of it and the way his stomach churns even as he puts some distance between them is not unfamiliar at all, and neither is the gallop of a heartbeat he thought he'd had enough years of practice getting under control.
They're quiet for too many beats, the silence stifling but Lance unable to say anything until he's sure his voice would come out even.
It still doesn't, when he finds himself saying; "You don't have to keep coming here, you know."
Keith frowns, settling back with his hands at his sides. "Are you sending me away?"
"No," Lance says, too loud too fast. "Just—you know—you have a choice."
Keith lets silence fall back for a moment. Then, flatly, he says; "And I'm choosing to be here."
The words—when arranged as just that, as just letters and syllables that anyone can say—don't sound like they should have come from Keith. But then Lance plays it back in his head and hears his mind's version of Keith say it again, and again, forcing Lance to understand even as he resists it.
He tugs at the grass beneath him. It doesn't give away, not like it would have on Earth. It's flat and stringy underneath his palm, stimulation against nerves that feel overwhelmed enough as it is.
"With me?" Lance says.
It's like someone had snapped their fingers in front of Keith; his eyes flick away fast, in less time than the span of his blink. "With you."
There's no inflection to this, either, and that, more than anything, is what catches Lance off-guard. Sentiment as fact. Nothing on Lance's end to influence that choice, not when Keith strips everything into its bare bones and offers it to Lance like that. A dry, honest statement that provokes no question.
"Oh," Lance says, his throat as dry. "Because of training?"
Keith exhales, but there's no exasperation in it. "Sure, Lance," he says, getting up, dusting off pretend grass and dirt from his legs. "Go again?"
Lance can't sleep that night.
The room he'd gotten had an uneven slanted roof, and he finds himself staring at the spots where the wood had dented as he replays the exact cadence of Keith's voice when he'd said I'm choosing to be here, as though exposure therapy would convince his heart to stop responding to that each time.
It doesn't work.
Maybe because half of him doesn't really want it to, wants to just sit in it, drown in it, without questioning it.
It's nothing new, nothing strange. He was raised in a household of romantics. He grew up listening to stories of meet-cutes from aunts and uncles celebrating twenty-year anniversaries, hearing words like first love and soulmate thrown around so often yet never losing the severity of their meaning, and seeing older cousins engaged and then married to their high school sweethearts.
The first time a cousin brought her first boyfriend home, he'd looked so overwhelmed to meet the whole family, and yet Lance had watched as the look eventually melted away, replaced by fondness, by complete, undisguised affection, every time the boyfriend would look at Lance's cousin. He never forgot that, never forgot how, even in a house full of noise and chaos, no one else existed for them but each other. Like to be loved is to be seen, so simply and so irrevocably.
And so Lance had grown up believing—knowing—that love made you better. It was supposed to, because to love someone and be loved back was to be embraced for who you are, to be chosen and acknowledged and known.
He was raised in a family that didn't know anything as well as it knew how to love, completely and intensely, and even after years away from them, Lance still feels full with that love. He feels it, when he dreams about his family. He feels it, when he murmurs to himself at night in Spanish, recording messages for people that aren't there to hear them yet, and people Lance had never really been certain would ever hear them.
He feels love in every bone in his body that aches for home, and he feels it in the desperate beats of a heart that needs to love, needs to be there for other people, regardless of what it is he gets in return.
Lance is afraid, that it doesn't feel enough anymore.
It doesn't feel enough when a bigger part of him—a part much bigger than the one that wants to give love, and keep giving, because he has so much of it, so much he doesn't know what to do with all of it—yearns to receive it. The part that craves to be the one seen instead of be the one watching, to be the one heard instead of the one listening.
It feels childish, a sentiment that doesn't belong in what is technically a war.
It feels selfish, too, to want something this badly, to long for it so deeply, and yet not even be sure he's worthy of it.
There are plenty of emotions and thoughts he isn't ready to process, Lance knows. And he's always allowed himself that much because he's a teenaged boy living inside a shell of a version of him held together by carefully sewn strings, trying to contain the homesick, crying child and the scared boy that had at one point genuinely feared the endless expanse of space. If he let himself accept the things that he'd always just shoved aside, that shell will collapse, will start cracking exactly where it's been stitched whole, and Lance doesn't know if he'll be able to put himself back together anymore if that happens.
But Keith—Keith keeps on knocking against the surface of that shell, even without meaning to. Keith, showing up where Lance is. Keith, staring at Lance like it's all he wants to do. Keith, saying things like with you, so matter-of-fact. Keith, not willing Lance to understand, yet there anyway. A presence Lance never thought he'd miss until it was gone, until Keith had left and Lance had hours and days and weeks to confront the pieces his absence keeps nicking off Lance's heart for each moment he stays gone.
Keith, feeling like the only thing in Lance's life now that's grounding.
Lance knows he's found boys attractive before, and that had been fine to chew and swallow around, to digest, because attraction, he knows what to do with, no matter who it's trained towards. Attraction, he knows how to act upon. His idealisms about relationships and romance, he knows how to handle and set in motion. Even better when he knows he has no chance—when he's in a position where he doesn't ever have to contemplate being with the person, where he gets to focus on what he's feeling and giving and doesn't have to wrestle with the concept of the person liking him back.
But being around Keith the way he has the past couple of days feels like fumbling with the broadsword, over and over, again and again, a weight his hand is unused to carrying yet his bayard tells him he's meant to be holding anyway. He hadn't actively willed it to turn into an Altean broadsword, and yet it responded to him, told him what he needed to use before he'd even known it was an option.
Or maybe he's only tired from training that day, his palm itching for the phantom weight after hours of practicing with it.
Lance turns in bed and tries to convince himself of this.
This doesn't work, either.
"I wonder if the leaves here are ever green, too," Lance thinks aloud, tilting his face up to the sky.
Even now he still expects skies in other planets to be blue, and he's surprised to find this one grey and muted, colorless if not for whatever it is passing for sunlight in this side of the galaxy.
Beside him, Keith hums.
Lance hadn't gotten sleep at all, and he feels it lead-heavy in his bones, pinning him in place. Without the Castle, other alien species have a trickier time contacting them, and all five active pilots have taken turns making rounds with their Lions—patrols, almost, all of which done alone and in silence. The galaxy seems caught in a standstill in the Lotor aftermath, as if the rest of the universe is as unsure about what comes next as the Paladins are.
When Lance had gotten back with Red, Keith was already in the clearing, and Lance had gotten two long minutes of watching Keith whisper and nuzzle his wolf, unaware of watching eyes.
The wolf noticed Lance first, and he'd been all too happy to give in as he bent down to receive it in his arms, cooing who's a good boy? you are! in various stages of exaggeration meant to annoy Keith. Sure enough, when he'd looked up, Keith was watching them, face blank and giving nothing away.
Lance had waggled his eyebrows and grinned at him, determined not to surrender to the clenching in his chest that hadn't left since the night before.
Keith had huffed and looked away.
Lance counted that a victory.
But Keith's pet refused to leave Lance alone after that, rolling and running around him without giving him enough distance to even walk over to Keith without thinking he'll trip, much less give them space to train. No amount of ordering or pleading from Keith changed this; Lance gave up first, sitting down on the ground and waiting for both Keith and his dog to join him.
Lance doesn't quite know how that evolved into him and Keith lying on the ground, Keith's wolf more than happy to play pillow for them. He hadn't noticed how silent it got here, either, how still, not even the sound of rustling leaves or swaying grass to stand in for white noise. He can hear Keith breathing, the sound magnified in the silence, and can feel it where their arms are pressed against each other, every inhale jostling Lance the slightest bit, a reminder that Keith is there, steadfast.
He has his eyes closed, though the sunlight isn't bright enough to warrant it, and there's a quirk to his mouth that Lance can't seem to look away from. The picture of peace, of tranquil, and even as Lance's thoughts poke and prod at each other, one half of him willing him to turn away and the other too content to keep staring, it's even more difficult not to relent to each calm rise and fall of Keith's chest.
Lance wants to know what he's thinking, what he's imagining so concretely that he has to have his eyes closed, what it is about it that's making him almost smile.
But he loses his chance when, without opening his eyes, Keith says, his daydream apparently uninterrupted by Lance's voice; "Leaves on Earth are only green because they have green chloroplasts."
Lance knows that. It isn't the answer he's looking for. "Mm, yes. Talk dirty to me." Keith nudges him, and Lance, laughing, adds; "Nerd."
"How am I a nerd if it's basic knowledge?" Keith opens his eyes, and doesn't seem surprised to find Lance already looking back. They're so close, little over a palm's breadth away.
Neither of them move back.
Lance wants that to mean something. "How is a word like chloroplast basic knowledge?"
"It is," Keith insists.
"Nope," Lance sings.
Keith nudges him again.
"Fine, then, tell me, Mr. Straight A's," Lance says, tilting his head to laugh again, and watching Keith's smile widen to more than a quirk at that, "why do leaves turn orange?"
Keith scoffs. "I'm not."
Keith seems startled at that, like he hadn't quite been believing this conversation was real up until now.
"Keith?" Lance says.
"You're not what?"
It's a visible, visible thing, when Keith hesitates—tongue darting out against his lips before he swallows, eyes flicking up then down, then back to meet Lance's. It isn't really soft, when he speaks, but the quiet shake to it makes it almost seem like it is. "Straight."
"Oh," Lance says. His hand twitches, eager, suddenly, to touch Keith, to physically stop the frown from travelling any farther across his face. "Okay."
"Yeah, I—" Keith clears his throat, shifting higher against his wolf. Lance doesn't call him out on it. "Anyway—I—"
Lance digs his elbow gently against Keith's arm, hopes that would chase away some of the tension he can feel bleeding out of Keith. "Well?" he prompts, voice light. "I said Straight A's. You're not getting out of giving me an answer."
Keith breathes out. Lance counts one, two, three, four seconds before he feels Keith relax next to him again.
Voice obviously robotic on purpose, he tells Lance; "The chlorophyll breaks down when it doesn't get as much sunlight as it used to. Then they fall because the stems start weakening when the leaves can't make food anymore."
"So leaves need attention to live," Lance says. "And when they start getting a little less love, they start getting weaker."
"That's not what I said."
"It's what I'm hearing."
Keith releases another long, drawn-out breath. This one feels personal, and Lance lets him be, staying still.
They're quiet for the next few minutes, Lance self-conscious about matching Keith's breathing pattern.
Then Keith says, sudden and nearly too loud; "What are you thinking now?"
"I—" Lance flounders, caught off-balance. Honest, no time to filter his words; "People are kinda like leaves, aren't they? Or—leaves are kinda like people?"
It isn't the answer Keith was expecting, and he stews on it for a moment before rolling on his side to peer at Lance. "What do you mean?"
It demands conscious effort from Lance not to move as well. "Just—you know. Leaves wither without sunlight."
People wither, too, without love and company. Lance thinks he'd know; he doesn't know how else to describe what he's been feeling in the past months if not weakening, withering, fading away into a less complete version of himself.
"You don't need sunlight," Keith says. "You are—"
He stops abruptly, and Lance frowns. "That's not what I meant—but—okay, technically—sure, I still do need sunlight. We both do."
"I mean—" Keith says. "You're a human being. You're not a plant."
"Thanks," Lance deadpans. "The fearless pilot of our Black Lion, everyone."
"All living organisms in the end," Lance points out.
"It's not the same thing."
"No man is an island, buddy," Lance says. "You know this."
It's Keith's turn to frown. "I do?"
"I'm not—" Keith pauses. "I don't think I'm much of an island anymore."
"Exactly," Lance says. It's true, and it soothes him to know it is—to see Keith unwinding in the last few days, coming to terms, bit by bit, with the presence of both his mother and his brother, and the contentment he's allowed to feel about that.
Lance nods in satisfaction up at the fog-grey sky. He thinks some of the leaves on a nearby tree move, but there's not enough wind for this to be true.
He keeps staring at it as he says; "I'm glad you found your mom," because this far away from the illusion of stability, of anything real he can ground himself upon past Keith, he feels that it doesn't matter. A dream. A passing, well-acted thought. Moments with Keith have a habit of feeling like that, sometimes, of making Lance feel like he's blanketed by something that will always protect him, like he's floating in a pocket of time where he couldn't be weighed down by anything, just grounded. "And that you got Shiro back. I'm sorry I—"
"Don't go there," Keith murmurs.
Lance bites down on his tongue.
Does Shiro hate me, he wants to add. But he's scared. He's still scared. He knows, logically, what the answer really is, trusts Shiro more than anything not to hold it against him, but the guilt is there, rock-heavy and iron-hot, and he knows it will take a lot for it to leave, for it to fade away until it doesn't keep him up when he lets it anymore.
"Lance—" Keith starts. When he's facing Lance like this, his voice sounds so much louder, so much closer, demanding all of Lance's attention. "You—you're my family, too, you know."
He stops, stalls, surprised by what he said.
"Me?" Lance says.
"I mean—you and the paladins. And Coran. It's—"
This is the part where Lance is supposed to say aw, Keith, so you do like us, but he can see the struggle there as Keith's mouth works to form the words, and can't find it in himself to interrupt.
"I had to get back to you," Keith continues, as muted as it is hasty. You, he says, and Lance knows he means the team, means the others, means his family, yet there is a weight to the way Keith's voice shakes as he says it. Keith remembering something that echoes and bounces in his head alone. A memory that must haunt him, because a hand clenches and unclenches right next to Lance's shoulder. "I had to. The comm—I couldn't listen—and not do anything—"
Lance wants to take Keith's hand, wants to still it under his own so neither of their hands have to shake. That urge to comfort spikes through him, impales him right through the heart and leaves it quivering.
It was his instinct to give comfort. But with Keith it was different—was something less I have to and more I want to. Arrogant, almost, in thinking there was anything he could give Keith to soothe away what two years in a place beyond time gave him, what life-or-death missions with the Blade had before that.
"But you did," Lance says, a whisper he doesn't mean to do. "You got to us as fast as you could."
"Thanks to Shiro," Keith says. "And Black."
"Thanks, too, then, Shiro and Black," Lance says, but it comes out a lot less light than how he wanted. Truer than he'd realized. "But—I'm glad you're okay. I'm glad you're doing well. I—"
His voice dies in his throat.
It shoots up through him, when he stops and realizes he'd been about to say I missed you. Something in him is screaming at him to say it, but it stutters and falls away with a whine that he feels down the line of his torso, a squeezing so tight that he has to breathe in sharply to get it to loosen.
"I'm glad," Lance repeats, trying to find the same footing from earlier. But I missed Keith, god, I missed Keith so much keeps tossing itself in his head, and he's too dizzy with it to really realize what else he's saying.
He is glad, and maybe a little jealous, too—to see Keith so firmly planted where he is, a sense of assurance keeping him much more whole than he already was before.
"I'm sorry I stomped past you like that," Keith says. "I was—I didn't—"
Lance knows exactly what he means without clarification, and he wills back a flush, embarrassed on Keith's behalf for an apology he doesn't think he himself would have been able to say. "Hey, to be fair, we were dealing with some shady stuff."
"Then," Lance says, "I'm sorry I called your hypothetical older brother the cooler one."
His accompanying laugh is too breathy, pushed past the block in his throat too late. It leaves him self-conscious, when Keith stares at him for it, as if trying to track where the sound came from—until it works, coaxing a mirroring one from Keith, who's quick to cough around it.
It doesn't fool Lance, and he's still grinning to himself when Keith suddenly adds; "What is it about you?"
Lance blinks, and lets the grin fall.
"Months and years away," Keith begins, "and I still—"
Yet again, he stops mid-sentence.
Lance levels him a look. "Keith, buddy, sentences are like vegetables. You gotta finish them."
Keith returns the same look. "That doesn't make sense."
"I always make sense."
"No, you don't," Keith says. "You really don't. Nothing about you makes sense to me."
Lance puffs out a breath. "And here I thought we were friends now."
"Hey—no—don't leave me hanging—"
"I think I want to take a nap now," Keith declares, rolling once again onto his back, eyes fluttering shut.
He tries to throw an arm over his face. Lance catches him by the forearm before he could. There's another smile hovering over Keith's mouth, and Lance pokes it with his other hand, frowning.
"Keith," he says, drawing it out.
Keith nudges Lance's hand away. There's scarcely any force behind it, but Lance lets it happen.
"Hey," Keith says, enough of a rush behind the one word to let Lance know this is something Keith had been sitting on. There's guilt there, too, when he continues; "Hunk was looking for you today."
"Oh?" Lance says. "What—and?"
Keith shrugs. "I didn't say anything. Don't worry."
"Why not?" Lance leans farther back, feeling no resistance from Keith's wolf. His hand drops back on top of his chest.
Keith is watching him, searching him. "Did you want me to?"
"No, I—" Lance says. Did he want Keith to? But it would mean giving up this pocket of stillness here, and the comfort of having a place to escape to. He doesn't think, either, that he's ready to talk to Hunk—it's a dam waiting to break down, and he doesn't think he'll ever truly forgive himself, if he dragged over mounds of indiscriminate resentment to a friend. "Not yet."
"Thanks—for covering for me."
"I won't tell Hunk."
Keith must feel it. "No man is an island, huh," he says. "And yet you've been keeping to yourself."
Lance angles his head to look at Keith. Eyes shut, mouth soft, so close again. One of them must have moved to inch back closer. Lance doesn't need to know which one.
"You're here, aren't you?" he says.
Keith hums. "Yeah," he says, and Lance doesn't know if his voice softens of his own accord, or if it's because he's genuinely drifting off. "I'm here."
Lance sits inside Red that night and makes the mistake of listening to old recordings.
He's never done this before, had always been content pretending that the messages he records to someday maybe give his family were voicemail messages instead, left behind in the ether for his family to find. A matter of time-zone differences. But the recording device he'd snatched off Pidge months ago is almost full, and, against his better judgement, he listens to the first one he recorded.
He doesn't even make it halfway through. He can't bring himself listening to his fast, cheerful Spanish from back then, so childish and so sincerely excited to be in space—yet so false, too, giving away none of the fear, the apprehension and trepidation, that he knew he was already feeling back then.
The recordings were enough for that Lance, but not for this one. Not when listening to himself talk worsens the pang in his chest. Not when it's so close, when he'd spent so much time thinking of going back home as a someday and a maybe that to have it be a soon feels too much for a body that's already full with contained emotions.
He takes a deep breath. In. Out.
It doesn't ache any less.
He flinches when Red suddenly moves, and he's worried he'd thought something, an unconscious command, but Red is only lowering his head. Lance can sense him opening his jaw, and somehow he isn't surprised when, seconds later, Keith climbs up.
The panic that crosses his face would be funny, if Lance was in the mood for it.
"Oh, I—I didn't know you were inside."
It's dark outside, barely any natural light filtering into Red, and it's the darkness, the lack of concept of day and night, that has Lance saying; "Would you not have come up if you'd known?"
It surprises Keith as much as it does Lance. He stands there, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, unspeaking as he surveys the boxes stacked in multiple corners.
Lance gestures towards them, sparing a thought in his head for Red to give them some light. It floods the small space at once, easily, lets Lance see the way Keith's eyes travel around. "Welcome to my crib, I guess."
"It's a lot less cramped than mine," Keith says.
"That's because Kaltenecker isn't here—"
Keith steps forward—fast and unthinking. "Wait—Lance."
"What?" Lance still has his recorder in hand, and he tightens his grip around it, inching back in the pilot's seat.
"I just—" Keith says. "Your face—"
Lance hadn't thought about it—hadn't realized turning the light on would leave his face, expression and red eyes and all, bare for Keith to see. He scolds himself in the seconds it takes for Keith to approach, resisting the urge to bite down on his own bottom lip.
"No need to be cruel," he manages. "I just haven't put my face mask on yet—"
His voice breaks—dies completely in his throat—when Keith's bare hand finds itself against Lance's cheek, tilting his face up for him. It's the first time, he registers distantly, that Keith has touched him without Lance initiating since he'd been back; he always waited, or kept his hands to himself, hesitant to touch.
There's no hesitance now as Keith kneels in front of him. He doesn't seem quite aware of what he's doing, either, but Lance lets him, lets Keith lean forward to murmur; "What's going on? What happened?"
"Nothing," Lance says, putting as much chirp into it as possible. He doesn't shake his head. As much as he'd like to deny it, he doesn't want Keith's hand to leave, doesn't want Keith's thumb to stop rubbing against his jaw. Comforting, warm. "I just—I can't sleep. That's all. You know how it is."
"But why come here?"
—because no one will get to me here. But maybe Red is still loyal to his old Paladin, the same way Lance, sometimes, still feels tethered to Blue. Lance would be, too, if that Paladin was Keith.
He doesn't get to finish. Keith moves even closer, lifting himself higher on his knees as Lance tries to duck his head, hiding his face. It feels almost unconscious on Keith's part, chasing contact with Lance's eyes.
"I didn't—" Keith says. "I didn't get to ask you last time—Are you okay?"
"Am I—" Lance laughs. "Am I okay?"
Keith pauses. "I mean—you died, Lance."
"Oh—that—well—yeah—" Lance breaks off, and he doesn't know if it's the oddness of the question making his head spin or the fact that the drag of Keith's hand leaves his cheek hot. "But I'm alive. Clearly. I'm alive, aren't I?"
"That wasn't what I asked. I asked if you were okay."
He pronounces every syllable here like it's silly Lance doesn't know there's a gap between the two, a blatant difference—and it's the ridiculousness of Keith, of all people, telling him that, that probably has Lance breaking.
The first tear spills over involuntarily, the result of a blink allowed too fast, and Keith moves quickly, propelled by something Lance can't identify, thumb running down Lance's jaw to wipe the tear away.
"No—sorry—it's all good—"
Lance claps a hand over his own mouth. It doesn't impede the sob that rips through him, and then there are tears coming with it, spilling one after the other, sticky and salty and blurring his vision.
He doesn't exactly register the noise Keith makes—surprised, maybe, pained, somehow—only feels Keith's other hand come up to brush his hair back. It's startlingly delicate, every movement purposeful in all of its tenderness, leaving Lance feeling brittle, breakable.
"Lance," Keith murmurs, voice impossibly soft, "would you let me hug you?"
He doesn't really wait for an answer, only pulls Lance forward like he, too, is afraid that Lance would break into pieces for him. But Lance is strong—he's always tried to be, even when he wasn't, and even now, he still wants to hold himself together, willing his tears to stop because Keith is here, and—
"You don't have to be strong," Keith says, in between hushing noises Lance hadn't realized he was doing. "Okay? Just—cry. I—I don't have anything to wipe your face with, but you can use my shirt—"
Lance chokes on a laugh. "That's gross, Keith."
He doesn't resist when Keith guides his head to his shoulder, wrapping another arm around Lance's back. It's a complete, encompassing embrace, a comforting cradle, and Lance doesn't have it in him anymore not to think about the last time Keith did this.
Around a hiccup, Lance says; "You don't remember, either, you know."
Keith doesn't say anything, just keeps brushing back Lance's hair from his face, uncaring if Lance's tears are starting to soak through his black shirt. And Lance doesn't know what else to do but cry, now that he's even gotten to this point—surrender to the heat in his eyes, the tightness in his chest, the shake of his own shoulders.
It hurts to cry, more than anything, and Lance hates to be doing it, hates to have regressed to the same sobbing he did as a thirteen-year-old.
But Keith holds him through it, his hold never loosening, his warmth never receding.
And so Lance lets himself be a child, tired and homesick and so many other things, crying without parsing what he's crying about. He surrenders to the need to cry, the desperation for catharsis, ballooning over and over again in his chest, popping once it's full and then blowing itself up all over again. He can feel his body thanking him for it, for the scratch in his throat and the hitch in his lungs that it's spent too long denying the luxury of attention.
Lance cries until he feels sore with it, cries until he can blink again without tears, until he can breathe without it coming in sharp and painful.
Keith must sense it—he lets Lance go, reluctantly, lets him catch his breath settled back against the seat.
But his hands don't stray far. They settle on Lance's knees, rubbing circles that Lance thinks is meant as much for Keith himself as it is for him.
"I do remember," he murmurs.
Lance scoffs, dragging his forearm against damp eyes. "Liar."
"I do," Keith repeats. "You were the kid from before, weren't you?"
"What gave it away?" It doesn't have enough bite when Lance's voice sounds raw, wobbly. "Me accusing you of not remembering?"
Keith is undetterred. "You cry the same. The exact same."
"Wow," Lance chokes out, "you're a natural at this."
"I think I'm doing a much better job than I did before," Keith says. "I didn't know who you were back then. I didn't know what to say."
"You didn't have to say anything."
"I could have asked you what was wrong."
Lance manages a smile, and finds that it doesn't take as much of him as it would have earlier. "Not much different than what's wrong now," he says, too quiet. "Keith, this is embarrassing for me—"
"Don't," Keith says. "You don't have to do that."
Lance sighs, but it's half-hearted. This time, he lets himself take Keith's hand, lifting it from one of his knees and cradling it between his two palms. Like a lucky clover, or a coin, when you're wishing upon it before throwing it into a fountain. "Didn't you say I was difficult?"
"You are," Keith says. "I didn't say it was a bad thing."
"How can it not be a bad thing?"
"Nothing about you—" Keith moves his hand back. For a second, Lance thinks he's pulling away, but it's only to wrap his hand around Lance's, palm over palm, fingers through fingers. "Nothing about you is a bad thing."
"Sweet-talker," Lance says.
"No, that would be you," Keith returns. "I'm just being honest."
Lance doesn't know what he's supposed to say that, so he laughs, a half-choked one-note laugh that has Keith reaching for his face again.
"I know you don't think highly of me most days," Keith starts, but Lance is already shaking his head halfway through.
"That's not true. That's not true at all," Lance says. "I think you're amazing. And frustrating. And everything I want to be."
It's more honest than he's truly been to and around Keith in a while, and he doesn't blame Keith for saying nothing. He continues to kneel where he is, holding Lance's hand, waiting for his breathing to even out.
Then, hesitantly; "Hey, Lance?"
"I—" Keith clears his throat. "I say 'Vol' you say 'Tron,' Vol—"
It's so unexpected that the laughter tears out of Lance, out of his control, shaky and uneven but so, so genuine, and Lance is hiccuping this time on a laugh as he says; "Tron."
Keith smiles, no teeth, the edges of his mouth soft. "And there you are," he whispers. "The Lance that I know."
"The goofball?" Lance says, his sudden laughter melting into a soft smile of his own.
"No, the cool ninja sharpshooter," Keith says.
"Nothing about this—" Lance gestures at himself. "—is a cool ninja sharpshooter."
"I'm the judge of that," Keith says, curling his index finger to wipe off a remnant tear from Lance's right eye. "You don't see yourself. I do."
He's so, so close, and so beautiful, and when Keith moves even closer, just a little bit, Lance can't—doesn't even try to—deny that he wants him to. Wants Keith to close the gap, to keep touching him.
More than he's wanted most things, a need that burns through him in that one moment that they look at each other, a breath apart.
Want, Lance is familiar with. Need is something else altogether, leaves him shaking as he waits.
But Keith moves away.
He leans back though it looks like it pains him to, everything about his body unwilling. "Let's get back," he murmurs. "You must be exhausted."
The disappointment wins over the exhaustion, still.
Aloud, he says; "Okay."
Keith keeps his promise. He doesn't betray Lance's hiding spot to Hunk.
Instead, he betrays it to Allura.
"Where's Keith?" Lance can't help but say when he arrives at the clearing and finds her there instead, staring up at Blue. She's heartachingly beautiful, her hair down and her smile tentative when she sees him, and Lance waits for the jump of his heartbeat.
It comes, but it's a skip he hardly notices as she comes closer.
"He said I might find you here. I asked if he could give us some time to talk."
"Us?" Lance says. "You want to talk to me?"
"Yes, I—" Allura hesitates. "I'm afraid there's a conversation long overdue."
"Oh yeah?" Lance knows where this conversation is going. Still, he gives himself the extra minutes of playing the fool. "Wanna—go sit—walk around?"
"Let's—" It doesn't make it any easier, seeing the tension in Allura's shoulders, the dread obviously there. "Let's stay here."
"Sure," Lance says. He knows, knows, knows exactly what's about to happen, but he can't fight back his restlessness, his hands turning clammy and his legs jerky. "I'm gonna—I'm gonna pace, though. I'm—uh—I'm listening."
Allura's eyes follow him as he begins a circle around the clearing. "Lance, be honest with me—are you distancing yourself from the team?"
Lance appreciates, at least, that Allura is easing him into it. "I'm just having some alone time."
"Some alone time—with Keith."
"Yeah," Lance says, and thinking about it eases his heartbeat back into something manageable. "With Keith."
"You've been different since he left."
It isn't a question. Lance shrugs. "You? How are you doing?"
It's enough, somehow, to see Allura softening at that. There is love there, if not the one Lance wanted, once upon a time, nor the one he still wants to be worthy of right then, but it's overwhelming in its own frangible way, seeing her look up at him like this. Fond, composed. "There's nothing at all I am sure of right now. I fear that every choice I make is the wrong one."
There's camaraderie to be found, too, in how she says it, opening herself up to Lance, coaxing him to do the same. For once, Lance takes it, shrugs and says; "I'm kinda on the same boat."
"And yet you worry about me nonetheless."
"Is that—" Lance's voice breaks. He tries again; "Is that bad?"
"Lance, I don't want you to think—"
Allura has run out of preliminary things to say. He can hear it in her hesitation.
She's waiting for him to bring it up first.
And Lance loves her—has liked her like he'd never liked anyone before, could maybe fall in love with her and drown in the emotions he can only feel around her—and he knows, as he calls up the words to his mouth, that a part of him would always want to do things for her, if it will make it easier, if he could help even a tiny bit.
But it's a love that would change, and a love that won't always exclusively be because she's Allura and he's Lance.
So he smiles. His best and brightest. "I know," he says. "Let me down easy, yeah?"
Allura's face crumples—and that isn't what Lance wants at all. He wanted her to be happy, wanted to be one to make her happy above everyone else, and wanted her to be one to make him happy, too.
Not this. He doesn't want to make it difficult for her.
"It's okay," Lance says.
And it is.
He knows rejection. He knows second-guessing.
It stings. But that's on him. It isn't on Allura. Not on whatever it is she feels for him, nor the responsibilities she still has to her own healing heart. It's all the same for everyone, in the end, when it comes to love. All vulnerable. Helpless to its whims.
"I don't want this—" Lance doesn't think he's seen Allura fiddle with her fingers like this before. Genuinely uncertain about what she should be saying, at odds with what she needs to say. "Lance, I don't want you to think it's because you're not enough. You are."
"Princess," Lance says. "You don't have to do that."
"No, I want—" Allura shakes her head. Even this, she approaches with the same headstrong calm, delicately held in place but there nonetheless. Always there. "I need you to know that I cannot imagine this team without you."
"Let me finish. Please."
Lance sighs. He stops walking, stops right in front of her. He doesn't move any closer. He thinks he would have, any other time, any other instance before, but there's something right, too, in the two of them standing like this, in front of each other.
"Blue has been in my head, Lance," she says. Imploring, the clear up and down of her voice nothing but pure need for him to understand. "I know how good of a person you are. I know how good you are to other people—strangers, family, even people that do not always deserve it. And I admire that about you—that you are part of this team is a privilege I never saw coming. You know that, do you not?"
Lance's mouth is dry. "No," he says, too honest. "No, I don't think I do."
Allura reaches forward to touch his cheek, hovering, barely there. "I think—I believe—I know that you hold this team together. You were chosen for a reason, and I do not want you to ever forget that," she says, quiet. "You are destined for great things. I told you this and I believe in it with all my heart. Do you understand me, Lance?"
Her palm doesn't come with the same dizzy rush that Keith's touch had come with. Her embrace before hadn't either—had been warm, had been comfort he craved, had been so many things. But mostly he'd been sad. Desperate for her. For himself. For the position they found themselves into.
It isn't sadness he feels now, as he lifts a hand to take the one she has on him. He squeezes it once, another time, then lets her go. Waits for it.
"But?" he says.
"But," Allura says, voice dropping short of a whisper, "I don't feel the same way about you."
Lance anticipates the clench of his heart.
It comes, more sudden than he thinks it would, but it isn't as painful as he is expecting. A dull ache, coming to the forefront where it was vague and easy to move around just before.
"You are dear to me—all of you are—" Allura continues, her voice not shaking once, and Lance still can't help but watch her, transfixed, as she smiles, sincere, no pity in it. It hits him full-force then, how much he appreciates that. That it isn't hard at all, to return her smile, and know that it, too, is sincere. "But as true as that is, this is not something I will compromise on. Not even to spare you heartbreak. I'm—"
—sorry, probably, but Allura is Allura, everything about her all the things that magnetized Lance, and there's no apology.
There isn't one needed.
"I don't want you to," Lance says. "Don't worry about me."
"I think I am the one that ought to be saying that." Allura presses her hands together in front of her, downwards, finger-pad to finger-pad, a prayer in reverse. "Who do you let worry about you?"
Keith, Lance's brain thinks traitorously.
He shakes his head, drags his feet against the grass, evening out his next breath.
Allura hesitates only a beat, before reaching up to hold his cheek one more time, fleeting. Lance doesn't attempt to memorize the warmth of her hand this time.
She moves to step past him, to walk away, and Lance blurts out; "Allura?"
He hears her stop behind him. He doesn't turn around to see her face.
"Thank you," he says, "for being braver than me."
He thinks Allura might laugh. A lovely, lovely sound that he bundles up and locks away in his heart. "You are incredibly brave, Lance. I don't know how that could be."
Lance stares at the ground, at grass that doesn't belong in his memories, at a place they would leave, too, at some point. A rest stop before Earth. Before home. "I'm trying."
"It is the best most of us can do right now, isn't it?"
She doesn't sound like she believes it, but that's always been one thing Lance and Allura had in common—the ability to trust in something, steadfast and true, until it's done, made real, accomplished.
"Yeah," Lance says. "I guess it is."
Lance is waiting out in the hall when Keith comes out of Shiro's room.
When he sees Lance, he stops so fast that his shoes skid against the old flooring, almost dropping the empty glass in his hand. "I thought you and Allura were talking."
"We were," Lance says. "Thanks for ditching me, by the way."
"Sorry," Keith says, knee-jerk. "For—for telling her where you go, too."
Lance leans back against the wall and looks at Keith—just looks at him, cataloguing details he hadn't realized he was already keeping such careful track of, following features he knows so well, knows the warmth of, the steady firmness, the careful gentleness.
He thinks of Keith from the night before, kneeling before him in the Red Lion. Keith, close. Keith, warm. A quiet, steady fire.
Lance, relieved for reasons he doesn't articulate to himself, smiles. "I need to talk to Shiro. I'll see you later?"
Keith blinks, taking a step back and startling himself with the sound of his own footstep. By the time he nods, Lance is already brushing past him, easing Shiro's door open and, with one last glance at Keith out in the hallway, closing it behind him.
His hands are still clammy. A different reason altogether now, but his heartbeat still thuds, nervous, a little terrified.
Shiro's standing by the window, watching the streets beyond. He doesn't look surprised to look up and find Lance standing there instead of Keith, his smile having no trouble lifting his mouth into something kinder. "Lance."
"Hey," Lance says, unsure where to look, unsure where to put his hands. He'd changed out of his armor, assuming he and Keith aren't going back to their spot that day. He shoves his hands into his pockets, then changes his mind, twisting them in front of him instead. "Okay, I have three things to tell you, so let me just get the first one out of the way, I—"
"If you apologize," Shiro says, dry, not uncharitable, "I'm gonna have to get Keith to drag you back outside."
"Oh," Lance says. He doesn't know why that sends heat flooding his cheeks. "Uh."
"He said you were crying last night."
Lance closes his eyes tight, floats in the brief humiliation he feels, then exhales as he opens them. "You—you weren't supposed to know that."
"I'm assuming no one was," Shiro says.
Lance stares down at the floor. "You—you, uh, assume right."
"Lance." Shiro moves from the window to the bed, his footsteps light and unhurried, as if Lance will be spooked out of the room if he dares move any louder, any faster. "Is there anything I can tell you right now that you will believe?"
"Honestly?" Lance keeps his eyes on Shiro's feet. "No."
"Nothing at all? Not even if I remind you that everyone's safe? That I'm here?" Carefully, Shiro sits down on the bed. "That no matter how events played out, we're all still here? We have each other. And we're going home."
It sounds rational, laid out like that. The guilt still wins. "I could have done something," Lance says, unable to keep avoiding Shiro's eyes when he has to stand over him. "For you."
"Who says you didn't?" Shiro returns. "Who says you haven't been doing anything for me? Or for the team?"
Lance looks away, not trusting himself to even breathe.
"Lance, you don't have to offer all that you have to us," Shiro says, voice softening even more. "That's not what makes you a part of our team—our family. You just are. And I do understand—what you feel, why you're thinking what you are. But I know with absolute certainty that you have done a lot for the rest of us. It's not a question of whether it's more or less than enough. Do you hear me?"
Lance nods, down at the floor, closing his eyes and breathing in and out. He doesn't want a repeat of last night. Not in front of Shiro. He's trying to be braver.
Shiro doesn't demand a more clear-cut response, patting the space beside him on the bed. Lance, reluctant, takes that more as an instruction than it is an invitation, settling himself down, hands curled around each other to stop them from shaking.
"What are the two other things?"
Lance frowns. "Two?"
"You said you had three things to tell me."
"Uh," Lance says. "They're not gonna sound good one after the other."
Shiro raises an eyebrow. "Sure."
"One—" Lance takes in a deep breath, feels it fill his lungs before releasing it. He thinks, distantly, that he'd been ready to let go of it for a while. Yet it was also a constant, the one grounding thing he had left, the one thing he can still trust about his feelings to be true.
That doesn't hold true anymore.
"Allura rejected me."
Shiro's mouth works open and shut for several excruciating moments, before; "Oh."
"And I don't think it's gonna impact Voltron or anything—"
"Lance," Shiro says. "It's fine. How are you—how do you feel?"
"I—" Lance searches himself for an answer to that question and comes up empty. It will be awkward, he thinks, for the next few days, to look at Allura while they're with the rest of the group—this time not with the same hope of potential he'd always held onto, but with the firm knowledge that they'd sorted it out, that it was a hypothetical scenario that had come and gone. Aloud, he finds himself saying; "Shiro, do you think I'm selfish?"
Shiro frowns. "Selfish? No—why?"
"Because I want things," Lance says, "that I don't feel like I deserve."
Shiro takes that and thinks it over, as if he's trying to pick apart Lance's words for a translation Lance himself won't give. "What about that is selfish?"
Lance lays one palm flat on his chest. "I just think that I have—" he starts, staring down at his hand until it steadies. "I have so much here—and I don't—I don't know how I can want to have something when there's nothing about me—nothing about any of this—that's better than any other option—and—I'm not making sense, aren't I—"
"Lance," Shiro murmurs. "What is this about?"
"I've never met someone like Allura, you know?" Lance says. "She's smart and she's brave and she's done so much—and she's kinda everything I wanna be—or that I wish I already was." It's the exact same thing he told the mice, yet it comes with a lot less fear this time, saying it loud, to another human being. "And it's really frustrating because I feel like—like I'm doomed to like people that I think are better than me—and because of that I'll never trust myself enough to really fall for someone knowing—thinking that—I won't be the choice worth choosing—"
"Lance," Shiro repeats. "What's the third thing?"
"I think," Lance says, because in front of Shiro, in front of those knowing eyes, he can't be anything but honest, "I like Keith."
Shiro's face doesn't even change, and maybe he shouldn't be the person Lance is going to for this—but it's out, and Lance knows it's the truth, fighting so long to stay wrapped and buried under all the things Lance is capable of feeling that it feels, almost, like the after-pain of a breath that had stayed held underwater for too long.
"No—I know," Lance says. "I definitely know."
He'd always been attracted to the people he wanted to be, had always been more comfortable with the external version of himself he wanted to be around other people. Needed to be, because if someone was to strip him bare—past the flirtations and the personas and the jokes and the laughter that, while all genuine enough, are there because they're things he can rely on to hold him together—he doesn't think he'd survive it without feeling shattered into pieces.
But even when he hadn't known it, Keith had his own orbit. More so now with his eyes much brighter than they ever were, like he'd done everything he can, good or bad, and come out all the better for it.
Maybe a younger Lance would think that he's magnetized to that because he covets it—but four years later and Lance knows that it's only something he wants to drink in, to be on the other end of, to feel and watch without feeling like he still has to question it.
And maybe he's scared—because Keith makes it so, so easy even when Lance doesn't want it to be. Even when Lance doesn't think it should be.
"Do you plan on telling Keith?" Shiro says, lowering his voice.
"I don't know," Lance says. "Maybe."
"What's stopping you?"
"Uh—" A lot of things, Lance should be saying, but he rolls it back over in his head and can't seem to recall any of them. "I just—you know. Me."
"Lance," Shiro says, dragging himself forward on the bed to properly look Lance in the eye. "I think—when someone wants to be with you, there is no such thing as too much."
"Whatever it is you think about yourself," Shiro talks over him, firm, "it is enough for someone."
"How do you know that?" Lance says. "How do you just know?"
"I guess you don't always," Shiro relents, running a hand through white hair and sighing. "But it's not about deserving someone or being worthy or being chosen or being less or better than someone else. It doesn't matter to the other person. There are no other options. Not when you're all that person sees. I can vouch for that much."
He keeps his tone even, matter-of-fact. There's no arguing with that, even if Lance had wanted to.
"And I don't think there's anything selfish at all," Shiro continues, "about wanting that for yourself. Nothing selfish at all about wanting anything."
"No?" Lance says.
"No," Shiro agrees. "If it is selfish, then you deserve to be it. Or—at least I think so."
He says it with such certainty, such finality, that Lance can only take the words and hope to digest them, swallow them down and pretend it doesn't scare him all the more.
"Yeah," Lance says. "Yeah, okay."
"Why does your Mom know my name?"
Keith, mid-perusal of a round container of purple goo, freezes.
Pidge had started repairs on Shiro's arm the day before, and though they all had a wide array of tech scraps available to them, it was another thing to find creams that would soothe where the juncture of Shiro's shoulder had started to ache. Keith hadn't waited even a moment before offering to spend the day scouring the Calceusian market—not at all surprising, nothing about it worth questioning, until Krolia turned to him and said, loud enough for the entire group to hear; "Take Lance with you."
Casual, nonchalant, and Lance wouldn't have questioned that, either, if not for how odd it was to hear his name dropped so suddenly. Keith's mother was friendly and even-tempered, and Lance can see what it is about her that had helped coax out a mellow side to Keith in the time they spent together, but she'd maintained formality with the rest to the best of her ability. An awkwardness, more likely, reminiscent of her son, enough that Lance has a hard time flipping back through all her interactions with the other paladins and finding an instance where Krolia had ever addressed them by first name, barring Shiro, in a casual setting.
But there was no space to think he'd misheard—not when the rest of the room heard it, and all other pairs of eyes swivelled to turn to Lance, then back to Keith.
Lance hadn't minded, and he announced as much, ignoring the long two minutes Keith spent trying to stare daggers at his mother. Krolia remained indifferent, eyes away and expression calm, everything but concerned about what she said.
"Why wouldn't she?" Keith says now.
"I mean—you're right," Lance says. "But like—I don't know."
"Did it bother you?"
"That she said my name?"
"I just didn't think it was—" Lance lifts a jar of orange cream to sniff it, and immediately makes a face. "Relevant."
Keith caps the purple goo, careful as he puts it back on the sales table. The market tent was surrounded on all sides, and it's only out of luck so far that they haven't been trapped in conversation with any of the merchants nor be recognized and roped into things they hadn't visited the market for.
"You might have come up," Keith says, as they move on to find another stall selling ointments, "once or twice."
"In all that time it was for you."
"In all that time, yeah."
They take a turn into an alley, following directions from a local they'd encountered earlier. It's narrow, shadowed by rows of fabric hung up in what appears to be makeshift clotheslines, and they dodge around them as they walk through.
"Just once or twice?"
Lance almost careens into Keith, noticing him too late when cloth the size of a baby blanket momentarily hides him from view. He has to brace himself with a hand between Keith's shoulder-blades, steadying himself against a suddenly immovable Keith.
When Lance looks up, at last sure he won't send them both falling onto the ground and taking all these alien blankets with them, Keith's eyes are busy searching his face.
"What were you talking about?" Lance says. "When I came up?"
"Just—" Keith begins.
Before he ducks under a worn brown cloak and disappears.
Lance has to sidestep two more blankets, careful not to touch them, before he catches up to Keith, rooting him in place with a hand around the wrist, more reflex, more want, than anything else.
"Hey, no, Keith, come on," he says. "Vegetables. Sentences."
Keith stares down at Lance's hand around his arm, and keeps his stare grounded there.
He feels the exact moment Keith's instinct to run away kicks in—he tries to break away from Lance's hold before catching himself, his arm falling limp with Lance's hand.
"Lance, about the other night," Keith starts.
"No," Lance says. "No, no, no, you're not beating me to it. I said it first."
"You haven't said anything—"
"What were you gonna do the other night?" Lance rushes to say, unfiltered.
Keith's eyes finally jerk up from where their bodies are connected, startled. "What?"
"When you—when I—you were gonna—"
"Lance," Keith says, and there's a pleading note somewhere in there, ringing familiar and relatable in Lance, "you don't want to hear it right now, trust me."
As he speaks, his arm wriggles in Lance's grip, willing it to loosen—then sliding down when it does, finding Lance's hand and sliding their fingers together without Keith looking, without Keith being conscious of it.
And, Lance thinks, maybe it is selfish. Maybe it isn't. Maybe he's selfish and idealistic and a desperate romantic—but he wants this, wants Keith's touches and Keith's stares, Keith's half-smiles and his scoff-laughter, wants the way he softens around his goddamn space dog. He wants that more than he's craved most things in his life, wants it because it had hurt so, so much when it was gone.
Maybe Lance had cried away a bit of his heart all those years ago and given it to Keith. And maybe Lance had spent all that time after chasing that part of himself he didn't realize he'd parted with.
"I am," he says. "I am trusting you. I have been trusting you. So—just—just tell me."
He tightens his hand around Keith's—dragging Keith's attention to it. Lance thinks he might be shaking, but when Keith decides to squeeze Lance's hand back, abrupt, somehow impassioned, he stills under Lance's palm.
"I wanted to kiss you," Keith says.
It's Lance, this time, who stills.
He doesn't know what other answer he'd been expecting—maybe he'd been expecting, hoping, dreading that Keith would dodge the question one more time and they'll be forced to let it go. Keith doesn't look at him, just keeps looking down at their hands once again like he doesn't believe it's theirs, or like he expects Lance to release him any moment now.
Lance doesn't, just focuses on keeping his voice level, calm. "Why didn't you?"
Keith sucks in a sharp breath. "Lance, what kind of person would I be if I kissed you in that moment?"
"But you wanted to," Lance says quietly.
"Of course I wanted to," Keith grits out. "Lance, I can't do this when—"
"You know," Lance cuts in, rubbing a circle against Keith's palm with his thumb, "I wasn't just talking about that time you saw me crying at the Garrison."
Keith frowns, so completely and truly confused that Lance finds himself shaking his head.
"Whenever we had a class together, I would run to our classroom to make sure I had a seat near you," he says, unbidden, and then the rest was spilling out; "That time one of the vending machines stopped working, I was the one that left the juice on your desk even though you didn't drink it because you thought someone poisoned it."
He can't tell if any of this means something to Keith—it might be that Lance is the only who remembers it, it might be that it's something of such little significance in Keith's past that the memories hadn't stayed. But they have stayed for Lance, and he can't seem to stop; "That time someone left a note on your desk saying your hair sucks—that was me too. I gripped my pencil weird so no one can track the handwriting back to me. I used to ask to go the bathroom whenever I knew your group is getting out of your turn at the simulation because I knew I'd be passing you in the hall. When we had that assembly before breaking for the holidays, I thought you looked so sad—so I took Eli Greer's hat so he'd chase me around and then I thought maybe you'd smile—"
When Keith kisses him, he tugs Lance forward by the hand like he's afraid Lance would disappear before their lips touch, like he wants to reassure himself of Lance's corporeal existence, right there, in front of him. The warmth of his other hand on Lance's jaw, magnified by the echo of his touch from two nights ago, is the last thing Lance registers before his mind whites out, melts into Keith's complete warmth.
Lance had been young and he hadn't known—hadn't wanted to know, because it was complicated, because Keith never even looked at him back then. Because having a crush on someone, wanting them to like you back, was in itself commitment, was the unspoken expectation of someone you liked deeply to look back at you and see someone worth reciprocating all that attention for.
And that only set you up for painful rejection.
Yet the way Keith kisses him is more than that—he kisses Lance like he's more than worth it, something precious, and it's impossible not to shake when Keith drags his thumb across Lance's jaw as he pulls away.
"There," he murmurs against Lance's mouth. "Happy?"
This—this isn't rejection. This is Keith looking at Lance like he'd been holding back, like now that he had the green light, the permission, he, too, couldn't contain all the words and the need that's been there.
Lance doesn't want him to. He doesn't trust himself enough to speak just yet, but he takes another step closer to Keith, listening, dizzy with the reality of what's happening, not quite processing as much he is just feeling.
"I don't like that—that you've been feeling all these things," Keith continues, voice unsteady with the rush of a barely controlled outburst, "and that you've been—"
"Okay, hey," Lance manages.
"And I don't like that I don't know what to do for you," Keith says. "I don't like seeing you crying like that and—not—not being able to do anything. You're not—you're not supposed to—I can't—not you being unhappy—or in danger—or—"
"Keith," Lance whispers, finding the courage to let go of Keith and wrap his arms around him instead, pulling him close, close, close. Around them, the hung clothes sway with an imperceptible breeze. "You can't pick a fight with emotions."
"I know," Keith says, right by Lance's ear. It takes him a few more moments, before his hands find their way around Lance, too. "I've tried with mine. In all the time we've been out here in space."
"And I like you," Keith says, simple, no hesitation this time, whispering it like if he said it any louder, the wind will blow it away where no one will hear them. "God, I—I like you so much."
"I missed you," Lance says, finally, finally, easy on his tongue and light up his throat now. "I missed you so much while you were gone. I—uh—missed you yesterday."
"What?" Keith says, a small, disbelieving laugh in his voice. Lance knows now that the tug in his chest at that is the need to hear it again, to see it, maybe kiss it and swallow it for himself. "I was right there. I'm right here."
"Yeah," Lance says, tightening his embrace. "You are. And I like you, too." He holds Keith through it as he tenses, his body reacting to the confession without a sound. "Even though I know you trained your space dog to track me down—"
"Maybe I did."
Lance leans back, though his hands remained twined around Keith's neck. "What?"
Keith shrugs, the picture of fake, unconvincing innocence. "Or maybe you're just a space dog whisperer."
"I totally am," Lance insists.
Lance gets to see it this time, when Keith laughs, but it's Keith that leans forward first—only to stop a breath away from Lance, blinking himself into awareness.
"Wait—" he says. "Can I?"
Instead of answering, Lance pushes back the flutter in his stomach and kisses Keith. He unfolds under Lance's mouth, no resistance, nothing but the press of his own lips against Lance's, more and more, closer and closer, until Lance stops thinking altogether, nothing but Keith, Keith, Keith.
It's him that pulls away, shocked back into coherence when he remembers a crucial fact, and Keith sighs, equal parts amused and annoyed.
Lance slants a crooked grin at him. The first one in weeks, he thinks, that made his own heart really bloom with the happiness behind it. "You still haven't answered my question."
Keith keeps a hand, a welcome weight, on Lance's back. "What question?"
"What did you tell your Mom about me?"
"Lance," Keith sighs. "Is that important right now?"
Lance lifts his chin. "It's very important."
Keith pretends to consider it—before he steps away, letting go of Lance so abruptly he almost staggers back with the sudden missing weight. "You know what else is important? Ointment for Shiro."
"That's—" Lance doesn't let Keith go far, doesn't even let him step out of sight. His heart is beating so fast, still, but he lets it propel him forward, pushed by adrenaline, by need, by a sudden, overwhelming optimism he hadn't realized he'd been chasing. "Yeah, that's important. Even though you're only saying that to get away."
Keith waits for him, hesitating only a couple of seconds before holding out an open palm to Lance's direction. "We'll talk more later, okay?"
"Yeah," Lance says. "Yeah, okay—I like talking."
"Good," Keith throws back.
"Great." Keith waves his hand. "Are you taking this, or…?"
It isn't a joke, knowing him, but Lance finds himself laughing anyway, the laughter bubbling inside him, full and soft and light. Much later, he would have to talk to more than just Keith; he'd have to talk to Hunk, to Pidge, have to get ready again to fight a war he'd never anticipated in childhood.
But for now there's this: Keith's hand sliding over his, Keith's unconscious smile as Lance laughs, and, beyond all of it, in a future he wants to believe in—the promise of returning home.