Lance sat on the windowsill, watching Pidge pry another story out of Keith about the time he’d spent in the quantum abyss. Keith indulged her, albeit unenthusiastically.
It had been a slow process trying to get back to Earth. With no ship, they had no Teludav, and with no Teludav, they had no way to create a wormhole. So they’d been traveling for weeks by lion, leapfrogging planet to planet for pit stops.
Meanwhile, news of Lotor’s demise had spread through the galaxy, and while it had bolstered faith in Voltron, it had also cut ties with most of their Galran allies, save for Commander Bogh’s forces and of course, the Blade. Sendak and his Fire of Purification squad had already retaken a number of planets.
Not to mention Haggar was still out there, scheming.
This war was far from over.
But Voltron needed a new ship. And a vacation. And hell, Lance was antsy to see his family. To smell and taste the sea salt in the air, to see familiar faces in the streets—human faces.
Like Marco and Veronica. Jessica. Luis. Mom. Grandma.
His niece and nephew.
Even the street hecklers.
He never thought he’d miss everyone this much.
He hoped his mom didn’t hate him for leaving. He knew she probably did. But at least Holt would have delivered Lance’s message by now. And maybe his sincere apology would quell her fury.
“What were the insects like?” Pidge asked.
“The insects? Were they like arthropods? Did they look uniform…endemic? Or were they parasitic, like they all came from different planets?”
Keith sighed, and Lance could hear the sharp edge of exasperation in his voice. Unfortunately, Pidge understood machines far better than humans. “They looked native…endemic. I guess. But they pretty much looked like anything else I’ve seen. Just…more colorful.”
Lance had been right about Keith being…bigger. The knobby knees and elbows had been swallowed by lean muscle. His shoulders were broader now—he hadn’t been wearing his old jacket, and Lance suspected it had more to do with a change in size than it did a change in taste. Keith had also returned with a new sense of confidence and mellowness, the kind that only time can cultivate.
Lance tore his gaze away.
Keith had aged two years.
He’d been gone two years.
But it had been nothing for the rest of them. Keith had just been absent for a few months, consumed by his missions with the Blade, or so they had thought.
Then he’d shown up like this.
The disconnect showed between Keith and the rest of Voltron. He was older now. More mature. He’d changed too rapidly for the team.
Yeah, Keith still pulsed with impatience and anger at times, but his outbursts were less volatile. He didn’t rise to the bait like he once did, he just smirked or blatantly ignored any provocation. And Lance didn’t know what to do with that. None of them did.
Instead of the emo edgelord that spent all his time in his room, New Keith had spent a great deal of time catching up with the team and actively participating in planning the route back to earth. It was like no one knew him anymore.
Sometimes Lance wondered if any of them ever really had.
The exception of course being Shiro.
The bond between them was stronger than ever. The first few days after Shiro's return, Keith had been at Shiro’s bedside twenty-four-seven, watching over him, making jokes about the new scar on his face, holding Shiro’s good hand. Lance didn’t have a detailed account of what happened that night, but whatever they’d been through had brought them even closer than before. Lance had once been jealous of that bond, of Shiro’s subtle favoritism, but now, he understood that what they had surpassed friendship and the network of this team.
And now, between Shiro and Krolia and Keith’s new wolf-dog, it looked like they’d formed their own family. A unit within the unit.
Lance was happy for Keith, and he hoped he would stay—for Voltron’s sake. After all, it was under Keith’s leadership that they’d rescued Shiro and defeated Lotor. And with him and Shiro practically sharing one mind…what better duo existed for the Red and Black Lions?
With Shiro’s patience and logic, and Keith’s passion and quick thinking, they would balance each other out, balance the team out.
It was an ideal partnership, and it reassured Lance that his absence would not hinder the team’s progress.
Besides. It’s not like the team needed him anyway. He was just a fill-in-the-blank guy. He filled the role the team needed when Shiro or Allura or Hunk wasn’t there to deliver the same sentiment.
Everyone else had a fixed role—tech wizards, leaders, hopeful enthusiasts. Shiro would lead. Keith, his fiery right hand. Pidge and Hunk would keep the team together, fill the empty spaces with their brain power and wholesome troublemaking. Allura and Coran and would continue navigating a world of magic and technology, guiding the team to victory.
Lance could finally go home.
Keith was glad to be back.
He and Krolia had reported back to the Blade on their mission to find the enriched quintessence. They’d requested a leave of absence to visit Earth, and although Kolivan hadn’t liked the idea, he’d permitted the vacation with little resistance, most likely due to Lotor’s disappearance and the impending collapse of the Galran Empire. He’d still thrown in a “two years not enough?” quip, as expected.
Now it was just a game of hopscotch to get Voltron back to the Milky Way.
And Keith hated road trips.
Confined spaces, blurry scenery, motion sickness. Too much chatter.
But it wasn’t so bad. His mother was here, and she granted him plenty of space. Blue, the cosmic wolf, was also a silent companion that Keith treasured. And Shiro...
Shiro was alive and recovering. It had taken a few days to calm him down about their fight, and Keith still caught him staring guiltily at the new scar on his cheek. But it didn't take long for the man to get back on his feet, hovering over Keith like a second mother, brimful of gratitude and fatherly praise. If Keith had to hear Shiro tell his mother one more fucking story about his childhood—
At least Hunk and Pidge were putting together a new arm for him, so Shiro could finally start piloting the Black Lion again, and Keith could have someone else take the wheel when his legs cramped up.
Keith glanced back at Pidge, but she was still ranting about the titanic whales.
"...wonder how they migrated there. Did a planet like explode, and the algae or bacteria just got ejected into space somehow? Then it splattered on the whales and started evolving?"
"Pidge, that doesn't make any sense."
"Neither do titanic whales in space!"
Keith shared a look with his mother, and a soft grin lit her face.
It had been strange, living with such small company for two years only to return to find that no time had passed. Suddenly his friends were younger, sillier. Unfocused.
Keith could sympathize with Shiro trying to lead these kids on a mission. How they'd ever gotten anything done was a mystery to Keith.
Keith's eyes slid to Lance, where he sat at the window sill, staring blankly into space.
That relationship in particular seemed to have shifted the most.
Their historic bickering seemed so…inconsequential now. Lance still grated his nerves, but it was almost…endearing, the way he tried to communicate through jabs and taunts. Keith couldn’t tell if he’d just missed Lance over those two years and welcomed the behavior, or if the insults just didn’t affect him the way they once did.
Keith suspected it was probably a mix of both.
Keith had seen a lot in the quantum abyss, past and future moments, on and off again for two years. He’d had a lot of time to reflect on who he was—who he wanted to be. He’d relived many moments with Lance, and he’d seen glimpses of a future where they had become better friends. Better teammates.
He’d seen himself piloting the Black Lion, Lance as his second. They’d still taken shots at one another, but it had felt different. Almost familial. Or…even…
Whatever those visions had held, Keith had decided their rivalry needed to end. It was only holding them back. From now on, Lance would have to find a new way of engaging with Keith, and hopefully a proper friendship could manifest.
Of course, that would require Lance to talk to him first.
He studied the boy in the corner, separated from the team. He was paler than Keith remembered. He also had bags under his eyes, which surprised Keith the most, considering Lance's elaborate skin care regimen and obnoxious sleep schedule.
Each day that passed, Lance appeared to take one step back from the team, away from his friends. He’d left Keith in the spotlight shortly after Shiro's revival, never once taking his place at the podium or attempting to boost his own ego. It was disconcerting.
Keith had thought Lance was just guilty about the entire Shiro thing, but Shiro assured him they’d talked it out. Maybe Lance was just nervous to go home?
He watched Lance sigh quietly, and their gazes locked from across the room. Keith didn’t pull away like he might have once. He frowned instead, trying to decipher Lance’s mood, but Lance broke the contact too quickly.
He was already walking away before Keith could say anything.
Lance crept out of his room. It was too big. Too spacey. He was used to the small cot in the Castleship, and before that, the barracks at the Garrison, and before that…his bunkbed with his older brother, Luis. Lance remembered turning the bunk into a fort when he was young, stockpiling snacks and drinks in their own imaginary space pod.
Even back then, he’d known he wanted to be a pilot.
He’d just never anticipated he would have to be so far from home.
Biting his cheek, he made his way through the giant hallways, feet cushioned by his blue slippers.
A hospitable planet had cleared an entire building to host Voltron and their friends. The residents had called their presence an honor, showering the team with gifts and an incredible feast that for once did not consist of space goo.
Once, Lance would have basked in that glory. He would have bragged about Voltron’s exploits and flexed his arms for the crowd. Snuck out to explore the night life and maybe pick up a girl or two.
But now….all he cared about was getting home.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Earth. Her colors. Her lovely plainness. The warm sand beneath his feet and the comfort of familiarity…of acquaintance. He knew Earth. He knew which animals would bite and which ones to throw a bone. He knew what to eat, where to swim, how to breathe.
They were such simple things, but they were things he’d taken for granted.
Sleepy but sleepless, Lance wandered to the courtyard, where the military kept watch over the lions. He nodded at the guards in thanks, and the giant humanoid creatures bowed their heads and backed away to give him privacy.
Lance looked up at Red, sticking his hands in his jacket pockets.
“You tired, buddy?”
The lion just stared at him blankly, eyes dead to the world.
Sometimes Lance wondered just how sophisticated these lions really were. Were they alive? Were they really sentient?
They certainly seemed to have a will of their own.
“Road trips suck, huh?” he muttered. He didn’t bother deactivating the force field. It would just tempt him to board the lion and take off. He sat at the foot of the craft instead, staring up at his friend, his partner. “Allura called you unstable, did you know that? Said you were the most difficult lion to master because you’re so temperamental.”
The headlights flickered irritably, and Lance grinned. “I mean, you definitely didn’t welcome me with open arms.” Lance remembered trying to tame the lion for weeks. He’d gotten banged up in the cockpit more than once. “But I earned your respect eventually, didn’t I?”
The eyes glowed solid yellow, a signal Lance loosely interpreted as affirmative.
“Yeah. But now...now I’m not sure I deserved it." He looked down. “I’m grateful for what you gave me. For the strength. I was finally starting to feel…worthy.” He’d gotten a sword and everything. The upgrade, the lion’s cooperation—it had all made him feel important. “I don’t want to leave you, Red, but you and I both know I was just a substitute. Keith’s more of a hot-head like you anyway—you remember. You’ll be in good hands.”
The lights faded sadly, and Lance bit his lip.
“Take care of them for me, Red.”
He hoped the lion would still let him in come morning. If not, he supposed it would present a good opportunity to transition Shiro and Keith back into their rightful roles without having to explain why.
Lance stilled, glancing over his shoulder. Keith stood there in his old gray shirt and black pants, staring at him in confusion.
“What are you doing out here?”
Lance looked away, shrugging. “Couldn’t sleep.” He waited for Keith’s footsteps to signal that he’d gone away, but Keith didn’t leave. “What about you? Your sleep cycle still off?”
Keith revealed that the quantum abyss had screwed with his circadian rhythm. He’d taken six days to wake up on schedule, and he still passed out in the middle of group discussions now and again. Lance would never admit it, but the way Keith fought so hard to stay awake—blinking rapidly, squinting intensely, jerking upright every time he started to nod off and pretending nothing happened—that shit was cute.
Lance’s gaze flicked up to the displeasure on Keith’s face. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“You’ve been acting weird since I got back.”
Lance hated that the attention warmed his blood. “How have I been acting weird?”
Keith opened his palm to the sky. “You’ve been less…you. No more sarcastic comments. No biting remarks. No flirting. You’ve hardly even spent any time with the group.” Keith narrowed his eyes. “What happened when I was gone?”
God, what hadn’t happened?
Allura had unintentionally bruised him in a place deep inside his chest, and his world had faded to a pathetic shade of gray. Lance had failed to protect the team from Lotor. He’d failed to see the enemy in Shiro.
And Keith…Keith had always been a constant on this journey. He was the person Lance could start a fight with, butt heads with, ridicule. He was a means for Lance to normalize events that were anything but normal. And towards the end, when Keith had become leader, Lance had gone to him for help, for advice. He’d become his friend.
And then he’d left.
He’d left Lance with a Shiro that was never Shiro and an Allura consumed by all things Lotor. Even Pidge had been busy with family matters. Keith left, and Lance had scrambled to keep the team together.
But Lance didn’t resent him for it. He just wished it would have been him instead.
Maybe then Keith would have realized Shiro wasn’t himself, and Lotor would never have wormed his way into their lives.
“A lot of things happened,” Lance said finally. “Shiro died and came back. You came back completely different, and you brought along an Altean and your hot mom. Lotor was our enemy and then our friend and then our enemy again. We lost the Castle. A lot has changed. A lot is going to change.”
Keith didn’t seem satisfied with that response, but Lance wasn’t keen on opening up to him further. He’d opened up to Keith once about his concerns, and while Keith had assured him things would work out, he’d never offered a solution. Now, Lance had a solution of his own.
“I’m not completely different,” Keith protested, and then his eyes narrowed dangerously. “And don’t call my mom hot.”
“You are. And she is.”
“How?” Keith cried.
“She’s got nice eyes, and a pretty great—”
“No. How am I different?”
Wasn’t it obvious? “I don’t know,” Lance said. “You’re…calmer. You take charge without hesitating. You’re less you.” Keith’s brow furrowed at his own words. “Plus…”
Lance shut his mouth before that slipped out.
“Plus?” Keith prompted.
Lance rolled his eyes, throwing his hands up. “And your shoulders are huge, okay! Did you take steroids in the quantum abyss or something? You’re jacked, dude.”
It was pretty unfair, actually. How was Lance ever supposed to compete with him now?
Keith stared at him for a while, his mouth slightly parted—in awe or bemusement, Lance wasn’t sure.
But then he cracked a smile, a soft, amused smile that Lance hadn’t seen in a long time. And somehow, Lance found himself grinning back.