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a culmination of things

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Foster homes weren’t good to Keith.

Not in one way. There was no one moment where Keith could exactly pinpoint, this is what’s wrong. This is what they’re doing.

It was a culmination of things. It was the noise from the dozens of other children he shared space with, the foster parents who wanted to be good at what they did but had too much on their plates, the adults that looked down on Keith because of his anger, so much anger. It was the nights spent alone, but never, ever alone, even when he wanted it, needed space to himself. It was the instability; the lack of consistency; the bouncing around from home to home to home because nobody could handle him. Or, nobody wanted to.

It was the fact that he was in them at all. That his father was dead. That he didn’t know how to deal with the grief, was never given the tools.

They weren’t good to him.

By the time he was ten, he was convinced he would spend the rest of his adolescence bouncing around, that he would never have a family of his own. That seemed okay to him, at the time; somehow, being alone, staying alone, just surviving until he was old enough to leave and care for himself and live his own life, felt like a better option than having someone take over his father’s position. His mother’s position, although he’d never known her. There was something about the idea of having another family replace what he did have, what he should have still had, that left his skin crawling and his whole body filled with…anger, maybe. At least, he assumed it was anger.

That was around the time he met Shiro.

--

Keith finds Lance in the training room.

He’s got his back to Keith, in the middle of a fight with the training bots. To Keith’s surprise, he isn’t using his Bayard, or any weapon at all for that matter. He’s going at it with his fists, side-stepping clumsily when the bot swings, aiming for Lance’s left side. He gets out of its reach just barely in time, and follows up with a right hook to the bot’s face. It connects with a crack, loud enough that Keith thinks if the bot were a person, Lance might have broken something.

The bot stumbles back in reaction to the impact, finding its footing before aiming a kick at Lance’s stomach. He sees it coming and jumps out of the way in time, but the force he uses causes him to stumble and fall on his ass, landing with his hands out behind him as if to cushion the fall.

“Shit,” he hisses, and just barely has time to roll out of the way before the bot slams a foot down where his right ankle was just a second ago. He stands to his feet again, composure regained from his mess of a fall, his fists held in front of him. His form isn’t perfect, but it’s alright. Passable. Keith wonders if Lance had ever gotten in a fistfight, before Voltron.

From his spot at the doorway, Keith can’t see Lance’s face, but he can hear the grin in his voice when he taunts something to the bot, a smug tone to the insult. It’s the most Lance thing Keith has ever heard—throwing juvenile insults at a training bot as he spars with it clumsily, alone in the training room as their makeshift clocks tell them it’s nearing one A.M. It’s keenly, absurdly him.

Keith stands there quietly until Lance has finished his sparring session, just watching as he moves. He doesn’t quite dance around the enemy like Keith has seen him do in battle, but as seconds turn to minutes he seems to grow more confident in his ability to miss the bot’s punches, to the point where Keith can tell he’s almost having fun. He’s sweaty, breathing heavily, his whole body shaking with the effort as he pushes forward, but a grin stretches widely across his cheeks when he finally calls End training and turns around, a hand wiping sweat from the back of his neck.

He stops in his tracks when he spots Keith.

“Jesus Christ,” he says. The hand on his neck drops down, subtly wiping the sweat on his suit. He’s not dressed completely for battle, only wearing the black under-suit. His armor sits in a pile in the corner, like he’d taken it off once he got too hot to wear it. “Don’t scare me like that, man. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“Sorry.” Keith pushes off the doorway and finally makes his way into the room. Lance sits down on the bench.

“How long have you been standing there?”

Keith sits down too, leaving a few inches between them. For good measure, maybe. “A few minutes.”

“Aw, dude. Sorry you just had to stand there the whole time.” On the floor beneath the bench, Lance has a water bottle. He bends down and picks it up, popping the cap so he can drink.

Keith watches him from the corner of his eye as Lance all but chugs. His Adam’s apple bobs when he swallows, sweat still dripping down his neck. Keith opens his mouth to say something—maybe, I didn’t mind, or, you don’t have to apologize—but the words get caught in his throat for some reason. He’s hyperaware of what that could be…interpreted as, if he said I didn’t mind. Leading to I didn’t mind watching you while you sparred, leading finally to I liked watching you. Not that Lance would ever think that deeply about it, probably. But Keith isn’t sure he wants to take the chance. Not when it’s this late. Not when they’ve only just started being…

Lance finishes drinking and pops the cap back down. He wipes water off his mouth with the back of his hand. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I didn’t want to distract you,” Keith says. He thinks about Lance landing on his ass, and adds, “It didn’t seem like you needed to take any more falls.”

Lance sets his water bottle next to him on the bench. His face is flushed a darker brown than usual, but that could be left over from all the exercise. “Guess you saw that then, huh?”

“Saw most of it.”

“Great,” he mumbles, leaning back against the wall the bench is pressed up to. He glances at Keith from the corner of his eye, meeting Keith’s gaze for just a second. A small grin makes its way to his lips. Somehow, even when they’re out in space and in the middle of a war, they aren’t chapped. They look—soft. “So?”

Keith raises an eyebrow. “So what?”

“What did you think? Other than the falling thing, I mean. I won that pretty easily, I’d say.”

He’s obviously fishing for praise, but why, Keith isn’t really sure. Other than just to brag, that is. But there’s something nervous about the way he won’t really look at Keith, the way he crosses his arms over his chest loosely. Lance doesn’t do that unless he’s irritated, upset, or nervous. Keith can’t think of a reason why he’d be any of those right now. Their conversation hasn’t been—…They’re good right now. So why would he…?

Regardless, he admits honestly, “You did good.”

Lance blinks. He glances at Keith again, this time lingering just a second longer. He uncrosses his arms, then sets them down on the bench on either side of him, his hand only a few inches from Keith this way. “Well,” he says.

“…What?”

“I mean—it’s just supposed to be ‘you did well.’ Grammatically.”

Keith scowls. He goes to stand. “I’m just gonna head back to bed—”

“Wait wait wait!” Lance grabs his wrist, tugging him back down to the bench. At the unexpected reaction, Keith pauses. “Sorry. I didn’t really know how to respond to that—I wasn’t expecting you to, like, you know, actually give me a compliment.”

Keith’s gut reaction now is to deny it, say something like it wasn’t a compliment, I was just telling the truth. But Lance looks genuinely sorry for the…odd response he gave. And Keith got out of bed tonight for a reason.

He settles back into the bench. “Why not?”

Lance still hasn’t let go of his wrist, but Keith isn’t going to point that out. His skin tingles where they’re touching. Lance asks, “Why not what?”

“Why were you so surprised that I complimented you on something when you did good?” He pauses. “Did well?”

Lance looks like he’s torn between wanting to laugh at Keith’s comment and wanting to burst into an explanation. What he ends up doing is letting his lips turn into a smile, just a brief, flittering thing, before his expression returns to neutral and he shrugs.

“I don’t know, man,” he says. “We haven’t exactly been best friends our whole lives.”

“We’re not…” Enemies, Keith wants to say. I don’t hate you. What he ends up saying is, “We’re teammates. Can’t I…” let you know when you’re good at something? But that’s like earlier. Easy for interpretation. So he doesn’t finish the thought. It hangs there between them for a moment. In the quiet, Lance seems to realize that he never let go of Keith, and he drops Keith’s wrist like it burnt him.

“So is that something we do now?” he asks, looking up from where Keith’s hand rests on the bench. Where they were just touching. “Compliment each other?”

“I don’t know,” Keith says, honestly. “Maybe.” It can be, if you want it to. If you’re okay with that.

Lance sighs. “I guess I’ll add that to my list of Stuff We Do. Stuff We Now Do. Things We Are Now Like.”

“You keep a list like that?”

He looks like he’s been caught, even though he’s the one that said it. “No. Why? Do you want me to?”

“No,” Keith says back just as quickly, even though the idea of Lance genuinely keeping a list like that makes him feel…something.

“Good.” Lance looks forward, to the wall on the other side of the training room. “Me neither.”

They sit in silence for a few tense, strange moments. Keith hadn’t expected this when he got out of bed tonight, unable to fall asleep and in need of something, someone to distract him.

The truth is, a list like that would definitely help them. Keith hasn’t been sure of how they’re supposed to act around each other for…weeks now. Since Shiro disappeared, their dynamic has…changed. When they first went out into space, they were antagonistic at first (Lance’s fault), then begrudging teammates, bordering on friends some days but returning swiftly to rivals others. It’s been like that with Lance since forever, Keith thinks: their relationship unclear. Their dynamic ever changing. Their attitudes and hatred or lack thereof for each other fluctuating with the day and maybe with the event.

But since Keith became the leader, it’s been changing even more, even steadier. Where once he would only consider them kind-of-maybe-friends-by-association-and-sometimes-by-necessity, he’s found, more and more each day, that they’re now…actually friends. They confide in each other. They joke around, spend time together outside of when they’re in a group. They’re…not just teammates.

At least, that’s what Keith thinks they are. That’s what he’d like them to be. But then Lance acts like this sometimes, like he’s not so sure, or like he’d rather they return to hating each other—or pretending to hate each other, because Keith didn’t even hate Lance to begin with—and getting on each other’s nerves and pushing and pushing until one of them explodes.

A list would help.

Keith imagines it. His List of Things They Do Now would look like:

  • Talk
  • Argue
  • Spar (sometimes)
  • Sit on the observation deck
  • Sit in the training room
  • Sit together, at midnight
  • Compliment each other (sometimes?)
  • Be honest (sometimes)
  • Be insincere (sometimes)
  • Talk about the team
  • Argue about the team
  • Make fun of the team
  • Cry (rarely; only Lance)
  • Admit to things we won’t admit to the rest of the team (rarely Sometimes)
  • Help each other (often)
  • Fight (sometimes?)
  • Get on each other’s nerves (only Lance) (both of us)
  • Sit in silence
  • Be there for each other in battle
  • Be there for each other everywhere else

It’s a confusing list.

“Why’d you come out here, by the way?” Lance breaks the silence. “It’s pretty late.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Keith says. Wanted to know if you were up. Hoped to god you were up.

“Ah, yeah.” Lance looks down at his hands, resting in his lap. “Me neither.”

“That why you decided to train?”

“Part of it,” he admits.

Keith looks at him, trying to detect something in his expression, but it’s otherwise blank. His breathing has calmed down, and he’s not sweating any longer, but he smells pretty bad. Not that Keith is going to point that out right now, nor is he going to move away because of it. Maybe he should, if he were smart, but the heat radiating off of Lance is somehow comforting enough to outweigh the smell.

He asks gently, “What’s the other part?”

Lance opens his mouth to say something almost as soon as the question has left Keith’s lips, but he pauses, maybe thinking it over. Keith waits for him to gather his thoughts, until he finally admits, “I guess I just realized lately that I’m pretty useless when I don’t have my Bayard to fall back on.”

Keith demands, before he can stop himself, “What?”

“Don’t look so shocked, dude, you know it’s true. I mean, I am pretty good with a gun, and my accuracy is, like, crazy impressive if I do say so myself, but—” Here, he stops, the bragging tone he’d adopted for the moment gone and replaced with a small frown. Keith doesn’t like it. “I don’t know. I just figured I needed to work on fighting without relying on a gun, you know? Like, what if something happens and I don’t have it, or what if I need to fight someone but I don’t wanna accidentally kill them? We never know what we’re gonna go up against.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Keith mumbles in agreement, because he gets it. He does. There’s not been a single thing they’ve really been able to predict since coming out into space, so, yeah, it is better to be preparing for something that might not happen than it is to be completely defenseless.

He just doesn’t know why that—that phrasing bothers him.

Lance isn’t useless.

But he doesn’t know how to say that. Instead, he nods. “That makes sense. That’s…good.”

“I still have a lot to work on, though,” Lance laments with a sigh. He stretches his legs out in front of him, raising them off the ground, and puts his hands up behind his head, elbows out. He drops his feet back to the ground, the sound loud in the training room. The acoustics in here have always been good.

Keith looks at his feet. “I can help you.”

“What?”

“With your, you know.” He makes a vague motion, unsure how else to explain. “Shiro used to teach me self-defense. Back when I was younger.” That was because of all the fights he got into, so that he could actually defend himself if someone tried to come at him, but he doesn’t say that part. “I can teach you if you want.”

For a moment, Lance just looks at him, and Keith’s mind is a whirlwind, the words he said catching up to him fully. He’s going to say no, he thinks, and opens his mouth to say something like forget it or but we don’t have to do that if you don’t want to or anything else that could clean up after him, but before he can say it, Lance breaks into a grin.

“Sure!” he says. “I mean, yeah! That’d be cool.”

 Keith doesn’t try to hide it when his own lips turn upward in a smile, almost hesitant. He nods. “Cool.”

He thinks about Lance’s fingers around his wrist.

--

The first time Keith met Adam, he was eleven.

He and Shiro had been outside, Shiro showing off his hoverbike (which Keith couldn’t help but think was THE coolest thing ON the planet, because, well, it was), when it abruptly started raining. The storm came out of nowhere. The sky had been free of clouds, blue and pristine and perfect all day, until before they knew it, rain was thudding down in sheets, slamming into them so hard it almost hurt to be out in it. The sky crackled with lightning, and Shiro, using his leather jacket to cover both of their heads, suggested they get inside somewhere.

The closest “inside” turned out to be his dorm room. Well, what Keith thought was a dorm room—he wasn’t sure if teachers actually called it that, or if it was only the students at the Galaxy Garrison who called their living quarters “dorms”. Either way, it was dry and kept them free from the rain and, best of all, it wasn’t the house of Keith’s most recent foster parents. This couple was young and well-meaning, but they were overbearing and just…a lot for a struggling child to deal with for more than a few hours at a time. He spent most of his time (if he wasn’t at school) running around outside and, after Keith met him, with Shiro.

Shiro’s place was warm, both in temperature and in atmosphere. The walls were white, the furniture what Keith later recognized as something industrial in style, but the place was cozy, and it seemed lived in in ways that his other foster homes weren’t. It wasn’t overbearing or oppressive or stifling. It seemed to radiate love, somehow, a feeling Keith wouldn’t place a finger on until years and years down the road.

The source of that love came out of a doorway, rounding the hall. “Takashi? You’re home earl—…oh. Hi.”

“Hi,” Keith said. He moved to stand behind Shiro slightly, hoping it would provide some kind of comfort. Shiro set a hand on Keith’s shoulder.

“Adam,” Shiro said, “this is Keith, the kid I was telling you about.”

Adam was the same height as Shiro, which to an eleven-year-old Keith meant he was basically a giant. He had tan skin, sandy brown hair, and a look about him like he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the kid standing in his doorway and dripping rainwater onto the carpet. But in a moment, he was smiling at Keith too, taken out of his surprise.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, moving to the doorway. “I’m Adam.”

Keith looked between Shiro, whose hand was still on his shoulder, and Adam, holding his own out for Keith to shake. “Do you guys live together or something?”

“More or less,” Shiro said.

“Oh.” Keith blinked between them again. “Cool.”

Adam put his hand down, accepting that Keith wasn’t going to shake it. Keith could feel Shiro snort in laughter next to him.

--

Blue drops the stick at Keith’s feet.

“Last time,” he tells her with a sigh. He picks the stick up, the place where Blue’s mouth had just been covered in her slobber. She’s standing with her ears straight up, her tongue lolling out of her mouth in excitement for Keith to throw it. He reels his arm back and chucks it as far as he can. As she zaps out of existence and back in again where the stick landed, Krolia says, “You spoil her.”

“Probably,” Keith admits.

Next to him, Krolia is tending their small fire, poking the embers with a moss-covered (or what Keith assumes is something moss-like) stick. She’s sitting with her legs crossed in front of her, her back against the log Keith is using as a makeshift bench to sit on.

He can see her from the corner of his eye, watching as Blue zaps back to him, the stick in her mouth. She all but jumps on him and drops the stick directly into his lap. He makes a face at the feeling of it on his suit.

“Your father had a pet like this,” Krolia says.

Keith pushes the spit-covered stick out of his lap and scratches Blue behind her ears to keep her from demanding he continue their game of fetch. “He had a dog with you?”

“Not with me, no,” she admits, still poking the fire. It quakes a little, dancing around her stick in disobedience. “Before we met, he had one, he told me.”

“Oh,” Keith says. “What was its name?”

“I don’t know.” Krolia frowns. “I don’t think I ever thought to ask.”

They fall into silence a moment after. Things have been…like that with Krolia, for a while now. It’s been three months since they made their home on the back of this space whale. Some days, the two of them have no problem falling into casual conversation, picking it up like they’ve been in each other’s lives forever, Krolia even falling into some semblance of mothering him, the way she’ll fuss at him for reckless things or reprimand him for something small or scrub at his cheek with a pond-dipped thumb to get the dirt off.

Other days, it’s different. Awkward. The weight of their time away from each other, of Keith’s life without her, of hers without him, so tangible and palpable and muggy between them, like they’ll burst or explode from the pressure pushing down. Those days, they don’t talk so much, or if they do, it’s only about their mission.

Today is some mixture of the two. They’re talking, trying to, but it’s not…as natural as Keith wishes it was. He wants them to act like they do on their best days, wants them to always be like that, but they’d gone through another memory recently—of Keith, at a foster home, of his foster mother screaming at him because he’d gotten in trouble during school, asking why he couldn’t be normal like the other kids, why he had to have such a temper, why he couldn’t just keep everything under control control control.

He had been eight at the time. The funny thing in hindsight was that the fight he’d gotten into—it wasn’t even physical. He’d just yelled at another kid for taking his seat at lunch. In the grand scheme of things, it was one of the most mundane reasons he’d ever gotten in trouble, and he’d told his mother as much with a laugh in his voice, but she’d seemed bothered by it, nonetheless.

She’s usually like this, when they go through a memory that isn’t pleasant, especially ones that brightly showcase her absence in his life.

“Why did you name her Blue?” Krolia asks, pulling them from the silence. Well—silence, except for the fire crackling in front of them and Blue’s heavy panting as she leans into Keith, still scratching behind her ears.

“Her color,” he says.

“That’s it?”

His mom’s tone is knowing, worryingly so. To avoid it, he keeps his eyes on Blue, moving from scratching behind her ears to under her chin. She leans up into it, obviously enjoying herself.

“That’s it,” he agrees.

“Hm,” Krolia hums. She pokes the fire a last time, then drops the stick into it completely. The flames lick at it hesitantly, as if consciously deciding whether or not to devour it. They seem to decide, yes, it’s worth it, because they grow around the stick a moment later.

Keith thinks about the memory they went through, about all of them. His mom has seen maybe more than he would have given her, had he had the choice, in terms of his childhood. And even a little bit in terms of his time with Voltron. She’d seemed sad, watching one where he was still piloting Red, back what feels like years and years ago when they were just getting used to their life as paladins, as if she felt for him, for his change, for leaving Voltron. He can’t imagine she wishes he hadn’t chosen to join the Blade completely—it’s how they even met at all—but he also can’t imagine she didn’t pick up on his own hesitance to leave, his own desire, somewhere still, to be a part of them again.

He doesn’t want to admit it out loud—because what good can that do?—but a part of him misses when they first began. When he was Red’s pilot, and Shiro was still the Black paladin, the time before Shiro’s disappearance and near-death. The time when he was in an odd equilibrium with everyone, some kind of routine that was never expected and yet somehow still comfortable for him. Consistent in its inconsistency, at the very least.

Maybe she’d picked up on his emotions in that memory. That he genuinely liked it back then.

“The Blue lion is what brought you and Dad together,” Keith says suddenly. He feels Krolia look away from the fire and up to him, then back once more to the flames, like she doesn’t want to overwhelm him with her attention. He’s thankful for that. They’re alike in a lot of ways.

“It was,” she agrees.

“And it’s what I felt, back on Earth,” he continues. “And kind of what brought me to Shiro, when I found him that time. It’s…the reason for a lot of things in my life.”

“You have a lot to thank it for,” Krolia says quietly. Her comments seem more for his sake than hers.

“And—” Keith opens his mouth to say it. To speak. And its pilot. Back before Shiro left. But he doesn’t know where that thought would even go once it’s out in the open. And, what? What about Lance? Lance, who piloted Blue originally, Lance who switched to Keith’s right-hand man, Lance who was there for Keith when he needed someone, Lance who was selfless and well-meaning and obnoxious and cocky and sweet and absolutely infuriating sometimes. Lance, who he isn’t with. 

Lance, who he’d more or less fallen out with.

Is that what Keith should call it? A falling out? Does he even have the right to call it that when it was his fault, when he was the one who chose to distance himself from the team, when he was the one who chose to leave as a pilot to join the Blade, when he was the one going on this mission for god knows how long? Could it be considered a falling out if he’d consciously chosen to do it?

Does he have the right to miss Lance the way he does now? Enough to name his fucking pet more or less after him?

Probably not, he thinks.

Krolia sets a hand on his shoulder. The touch is so unexpected that he jumps at it, startling Blue in the process. She sniffs at Krolia’s hand, probably smelling the meat they’d had for dinner, the scent still lingering.

“I get it,” Krolia says. Keith doesn’t know what she means by that, doesn’t really understand what she gets when he didn’t even say anything, but he doesn’t push it. He just nods, accepting her comfort.

He sighs, picking up the stick again. Blue immediately jumps off of him, ready to resume their game.

“Fetch.”

--

Keith found out that Shiro and Adam were dating from a classmate.

He was thirteen. He still hadn’t entered the Garrison—that wouldn’t be for another year, when he started high school, that he’d get to start there. It was his dream, more or less, at that point. To be a pilot. To be the best pilot there was, or at least to find something to work towards. Maybe it was influenced by Shiro’s status as maybe the best pilot in the history of the Garrison, or maybe it was because Keith knew he had a natural affinity for flying that made him want to pursue it. He knew he was good at it. He’d excel. It was the first time in his life he’d found something he was actually, really, genuinely good at.

But for now, he was still in middle school. At least the middle school he attended was affiliated with the Garrison, on their way for the students to head to the Garrison if they passed the exam. Keith kind of hated the school, but he liked that he lived on campus in dorms. It meant that he didn’t have to stay in foster care for most of the year. And when he had free time, he was mostly with Shiro, and sometimes Adam if Adam was there already. Maybe it was odd that he hung out with someone like Shiro—a young teacher, just barely into adulthood at that point but still somehow very much an adult. He was capable, technically, of taking care of Keith, but more in the way older siblings raise their younger ones than the way parents raise children. But Keith didn’t really have anyone else in his life, so he stuck to spending all his time with his mentor. He wasn’t good at making friends. And he didn’t really want them, honestly.

So the kid that told him wasn’t his friend. It was a peer, a guy named Trevor who liked to talk to Keith despite Keith never really talking back. Their assigned seats in Algebra I made it easy for Trevor to lean over and ask Keith for help, or for Trevor to make a stupid joke under his breath, or for Trevor to say things like, “So is Shiro, like, your dad?”

They were supposed to be working on a sheet together, because Trevor always wanted to pair up with Keith and Keith didn’t ever want to get up from his seat to find a different partner. But so far, Keith was the only one working on the problems.

He stopped where he was typing the problem into his calculator. “What? No.”

“Oh.” Trevor thought about it. “What is he, then?”

“I don’t know,” Keith sighed, already wishing this line of questioning would be over. “He’s…kind of like a mentor, I guess. I don’t know.”

“He teases you like a brother.”

Keith’s face warmed, thinking about the way Shiro made sure to make embarrassing comments whenever he was around the middle school. It wasn’t often, but he dropped by occasionally, promoting the Garrison for one reason or another. As eighth graders, they were the prime demographic the Garrison was aiming to convince to attend their school. Because of it, they had more than one demonstration or activity in collaboration with the high school during that year, and Shiro wasn’t shy to pick on Keith in public.

“He’s annoying like one,” Keith mumbled. “But he’s not.”

“Oh. What about his boyfriend?”

Keith blinked. “His what?”

“You know.” Trevor motioned to someone taller than him. “The guy he’s always with. That other teacher?”

“You mean Adam?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know his name. He’s got glasses, though.”

Trevor definitely meant Adam. But Keith—he’d never—well, it hadn’t exactly been…

Maybe Trevor was just making assumptions. Keith didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that this guy was right; after all, he hadn’t even known Adam’s name. Surely if Adam was actually Shiro’s boyfriend, Keith would have known that by now. Trevor was probably just going off of the way they acted together.

Which. Well.

Keith asked Shiro about it the next time they saw each other.

“Hey,” Shiro said as Keith pushed his way into his apartment, Shiro’s hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. “How was school—”

“Are you and Adam dating?”

Shiro stopped. They looked at each other for a moment, Keith holding both straps of his backpack tightly, Shiro still standing with the apartment door open with Keith a few feet inside.

“Yeah,” Shiro finally answered. “What brought that up?”

Keith frowned. “For how long?”

“Uh…three years this December.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me?”

Shiro frowned too. He closed the front door. He and Adam moved into this apartment a year ago, no longer staying on the Garrison property. Keith had never understood why, but they preferred to live off campus and just travel to work every day. All he knew was that it made it harder for Keith to get to Shiro on days when he needed him; it meant he had to wait for Shiro to come visit at the dorms, or he had to take a bus to see him. He had a phone, at least, as a gift from his current foster parents so he could call them, but it was still inconvenient for Shiro to live so far away from his middle school.

“I assumed you knew already,” Shiro said. Keith wanted to snap something back at him, like why would I know that already or why wouldn’t you just tell me that the first time I met you guys or something else as automatically irritable, because, okay, Keith was a little upset that he found out like this from Trevor of all people.

“What made you think that?” Keith demanded.

“Did something happen today?” Shiro asked, instead of answering Keith’s own question.

Keith huffed and shrugged his backpack off, leaving it on the floor as he made his way to the living room couch. He plopped down into the cushion, his arms crossed over his chest tightly. Technically he was here to get help with school work, as that was a big part of the mentor program, but he wasn’t going to bother with that now.

“Keith,” Shiro said gently, sitting down next to him on the couch.

“Nothing happened,” he mumbled. “This guy just…he called Adam your boyfriend, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Shiro let that sink in for a moment, only resting on the couch with Keith. They sat quietly. Then, he asked, “Does it bother you?”

“That you didn’t tell me?”

“No. That I have a boyfriend.”

Keith’s frown increased. “Of course it doesn’t. It…”

It didn’t bother him. That one he was completely sure of. He just wasn’t sure where the rest of what he was going to say disappeared to, why he couldn’t describe how it did make him feel. Throwing aside the fact that he was irritated he’d never realized they were dating, the knowledge that his mentor—his, as Trevor had pointed out, brother figure—was gay, or maybe at least just not-straight, made him feel…something.

It wasn’t a bad feeling, he pinpointed. But beyond that, he wasn’t sure.

“How come you never brought it up?” Keith said, instead of pushing to explain his own feelings on the matter.

Shiro shrugged, leaning back into the couch. “I didn’t mean to not bring it up. It just wasn’t something I thought to tell you, I guess. I assumed you’d picked up on it a while ago, and that you just…never wanted to talk about it before.”

“What makes you think I would’ve picked up on that?”

“The fact that I live with him, for one,” Shiro said.

Keith huffed. “I mean…yeah. But I just thought…”

It felt stupid to say now, but he guessed he’d just always regarded that as something normal for them. As far as Keith could remember, he’d never heard them say I love you or seen them kiss in front of him or anything else that would blatantly, obviously tip him off to the nature of their relationship, and he guessed…since he more or less had never really been in a normal home, he’d sort of assumed that best friends living together when they were adults was, like, a thing everyone did? After all, Shiro didn’t really have a family, as far as Keith knew. So it just made sense to him that he moved in with Adam once he was old enough.

Which. He felt dumb now, thinking back on it. But Keith had never been good at picking up on cues, or at telling what was the average and what was…not.

“Sorry,” Shiro said. He turned to give Keith a genuinely apologetic smile. “I didn’t realize you didn’t know. I promise I would’ve told you otherwise.”

Keith huffed another time, but now that the shock of not knowing something so fundamental about his best friend and mentor had worn off, he just felt bad for acting so…like this. He uncrossed his arms, resting them in his lap instead so he could pick at the dirt under his nails.

“So…” he started, a little hesitantly. “Does that mean that you’re, like…”

“Gay?” Shiro offered. Keith nodded. “Yeah, I am. Adam, too.”

That, like the news of them dating, made Keith feel…something he wasn’t sure of. Good feelings. He picked at his nails more intensely, feeling warm inside somehow. He thought about Trevor. He thought about the awkward, clumsy attempts at romance that his peers were going through, the drama he overheard kids talking about, whispering did you hear she broke up with him? and I’m like, in love with her and he’s so, so hot. Things he could never relate to. Had never wanted to relate to. The idea of romance felt…pointless to him. Forced. Unfulfilling, or at least unwanted.

The weeks after, though, as he started watching Shiro and Adam more closely, as he paid more attention to them, the way Adam looked at Shiro and the way he called him Takashi and the fond tone of his voice and the soft, gentle smiles they exchanged when they thought Keith wasn’t looking and the way they were always, always, always together, in anything and everything—slowly, it felt…a little less pointless. A little more real.

Keith had never really believed in love, not really, but thinking back to the day he met Adam, to Shiro’s tone as he introduced them, back to all the times they’d gone grocery shopping together and watched movies in the dark, Shiro and Adam on the couch and Keith on the floor with a bowl of popcorn in his lap, he thought maybe he could believe in it. Or at least that he wanted to.

--

He wanted to.

--

Keith runs into Lance outside Veronica’s old room.

Veronica, as in Lance’s sister. As in, her old room before she moved out for college, which was then converted into a guest room since the paladins decided to visit. As in, they’re staying in Lance’s home. His childhood home, in Cuba. Because the paladins decided collectively, once they were back on Earth, that they needed a bit of a break.

Lance stops in the hallway, his back to the door with his hand still on the doorknob behind him.

“Oh,” he says. His voice sounds off. “Hey. Keith. What’re you doing up here?”

Keith blinks, thrown off by this…whatever this behavior is.

“I was going to talk to Shiro,” he says. Shiro’s staying in Veronica’s room, mostly because it’s the furthest from all the noise and he’s the one most heavily in need of some downtime to himself. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, um…”

“You’re fine,” Lance says, waving Keith’s concern off with a flick off his wrist before Keith can even finish articulating the thought. “I was just, uh, talking to him, that’s all.”

“About what?” Keith asks.

“Nothing,” Lance squeaks. Far too high pitched, said far too quickly. “Just, you know. Nothing important.”

Keith doubts that, but not only because Lance is acting blatantly weird right now. The two of them have been hanging out a lot since coming back to Earth. It’s not that Keith has a problem with that or anything—he’s happy they’re getting along again. Lance had confided in him, right after they found Shiro out in space but before Keith left Voltron, that there was something different about Shiro now, and that it was bothering Lance. Their relationship had been deteriorating, Lance visibly uncomfortable around Shiro, up until the truth of what was going on was revealed. Even a little while afterward, as they made their trek across the galaxy to finally get to Earth, Lance had still been acting…weird, around Shiro.

One night, when they were camping at a planet still millions of lightyears away from their end destination of home, Keith had found Lance sitting up at the fire alone, Blue curled next to him. The others were asleep, or at least Keith assumed they were.

Keith wasn’t sure why, but he got up and sat with Lance. They didn’t say much for most of the time they were awake, but eventually, Lance admitted that the reason he was acting so off was because of the situation with Shiro.

In the almost-pitch-dark, Keith advised him to talk to Shiro about it. It can’t really hurt your relationship with him any more than it already is, right? he’d said. And Shiro…I know things have been rough lately, but Shiro’s himself again. And this Shiro—he’s not going to turn you away or shit on you or…anything else like that, if you try to talk to him about it. He’s there for you. He’d wanted to say more, to articulate actually what he meant, how much Shiro actually, really, truly would be there for Lance if he just asked for it. He wanted to articulate how many times Shiro had done the same thing for Keith.

But it would’ve felt…off, to bring that up now. He didn’t want to ruin the moment, somehow, by talking too much. So he’d left it at that. And Lance had sighed, carding his fingers through Blue’s fur absentmindedly, and admitted, Yeah, I guess you’re right. I will. Thanks, Keith.

Any time, Keith had said, and meant it.

He doesn’t know when the first time the two of them had a Talk was, but he knows that Shiro and Lance have been talking for a few weeks now. About what, he can only assume. He’s just not sure why Lance would be acting like this if their conversations were only about what Lance had discussed briefly with Keith. How much time could patching that wound take?

It doesn’t help that Lance has been acting weird around Keith now, since they got back to Earth. Maybe it’s because he’s finally home, finally back from being a paladin. Maybe it’s because they were separated for so long. Because of their falling out. Maybe he’d put aside the delicate nature of their friendship to confide in Keith during the trip home, but now that they’re here and that Lance has other people he loves in his life, maybe…

The idea of their relationship never returning to what it once was is scary to Keith. That much he can admit.

He thinks about his mom during their two years together, all the memories she’d seen. He thinks about her seeming so knowing about the origins of Blue’s name, never pushing him that inch further to just admit what he couldn’t. He thinks about how much he missed Lance.

He thinks, for the first time in a long time, about Adam and Shiro.

“I’m gonna go see if my mom wants help making dinner,” Lance says, pushing past Keith. Their shoulders brush on the way, but he doesn’t seem to notice it. Or at least, he doesn’t acknowledge it. “Talk to you later.”

“Sure,” Keith says. It’s to an empty hallway. He can hear Lance’s footsteps pounding down the stairs, escaping as quickly as he can.

--

The images showed more than just the past.

Keith knew that. He’d seen things—of Shiro, of their fight. But…he’d seen less foreboding things too. Of the team, on Earth. Of his mother, standing in an unknown but cozy-looking kitchen, her arms crossed loosely over her chest, speaking to a child that at the time Keith couldn’t identify, but who he would later realize was Lance’s youngest niece Clementine. Of Keith and Hunk years, years, years down the road, Hunk with a goatee and grease on his cheek, working on someone’s motorcycle in an auto repair shop, Keith standing around and exchanging jokes with him. Of Allura, wearing an elegant ball gown with a wide smile on her face, for once looking like the quintessential example of a fairy tale ruler, the audience around her basking in her kindness, her devotion. Of Pidge, heading off to college, of Coran, of Romelle.

Of Lance.

Lance and him, waking up in the morning next to each other, Lance with stubble growing out and a scar on his right eyebrow, his freckles darker and richer than they are now, a sleepy smile stretching across his face as he woke, the clock reading nearly noon. The two of them, nestled into each other. They looked so different in the vision that Keith had a hard time at first identifying it was them, but a moment of analyzing revealed that, yeah, there was no way it wasn’t; Lance had that same lopsided grin, the same dark blue eyes, the same mischievous look on his face as he woke Keith up with kisses peppered across his cheeks, his nose, his forehead, his neck. This Keith—whatever version of Keith this was—looked shaggier, his hair grown out longer, his jaw more defined and his expression more relaxed. Everything about him seemed content, but Keith recognized his own face somewhere in that foreign, unimaginable scenario.

And again, of them dancing in their apartment, of them arguing over something before Lance pulled Keith into a kiss, of them falling asleep on the couch during a movie, of them consoling each other when the memories got to be too much, of them at Shiro’s house, shaking hands with Adam; of them them them.

Two years was a long time to see the visions.

They didn’t slow.

Keith couldn’t say how he felt about seeing these. He couldn’t say whether or not they were true, or if they were just different realities, different versions of the same people like the ones the paladins had met all that time ago, different universes where maybe things did work out. He couldn’t say if these visions were destined to come true. At the time, as he was seeing them, he hoped to hell they weren’t going to happen, because he wanted to avoid fighting his own brother more than he wanted a happy ending.

Now, as they’re at Lance’s childhood home, sitting around the living room while his nieces and nephews play Mario Kart, Shiro sipping a smoothie Lance’s mother made for him, Pidge and Hunk and Romelle playing a board game on the floor, Krolia standing to the side with a genuine smile on her face, Coran telling Lance’s dad a story about his time as a teenager—

Now, as he’s already fought Shiro, as he’s come out of that on the other side, alive—

He wonders if he deserves that happy ending.

Or, if it’s not about what he does and doesn’t deserve, if he’ll get one anyway.

--

One night, while they’re all still staying with Lance’s family, Keith finds Lance on the beach.

He’s sitting at the shore. He’s barefooted, wearing Mickey Mouse pajama pants and a t-shirt that looks a size too small for him, reading Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause You Ain’t Me in bold font. By all means, he should look stupid, but Keith just finds it a little endearing.

“Hey,” Keith says when he’s still a few feet away, approaching. His flip-flops, borrowed from Lance’s brother, sink into the sand with every step.

Lance looks up, away from where he’d been watching the tide roll in and out steadily. “Hey,” he says, stretching out so he’s leaning on his palms behind him. Before, he’d been sitting with his knees scrunched up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He smiles. “What brings you to the ocean this late?”

“The Dr. Pepper I had during dinner,” Keith says.

Lance snorts. “Rookie mistake.” Then, “I didn’t realize caffeine kept you up that easily.”

Keith sits down on the ground next to him, mirroring Lance’s position as he leans back on his palms. The grains of sand dig into his hands, between his fingers. “Me neither,” he says. “I never really drank soda, before.”

“Never?”

“Not often,” he amends.

“Opposite of me, then,” Lance says. “That’s, like, all I drank for most of my childhood. I mean, soda’s super bad for you, so I pretty much stopped once I got older and realized how much better water is for your skin. But before that, I was addicted to Dr. Pepper. My mom hated it, but she still bought those huge value-pack boxes for me and Veronica.”

“Veronica was addicted to soda too?”

“Yep.” Lance moves so he’s no longer leaning on his palms, stretching until his fingers touch his toes. He does it easily, his nose basically pressed to his kneecaps. Keith didn’t realize how flexible Lance was.

“Why are you up?” Keith asks, instead of commenting on Lance’s flexibility the way he sort of wants to.

“Oh, you know.” Lance waves a hand in front of his face noncommittally. “The usual.”

Keith frowns. “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that.”

“Just thinking about…going back, is all,” he says. The tonal shift between them is palpable, dangerous. Lance pulls back up, no longer stretching, and leaves his arms by his sides. Keith sees him run his hands through the grains of sand, letting it fall between his fingers methodically. It reminds Keith of the way Lance was petting Blue the night they talked about Shiro, running his fingers through her fur to some kind of rhythm.

“You mean going back to space,” Keith clarifies. “Back to piloting Voltron.”

Lance nods.

The ocean rides up to them steadily, just barely reaching their feet before flickering back again, a teasing kiss of cold water to their skin. The ocean breeze is warm, the sand even more so, but the water itself is uncomfortable at best. The sun has been down for hours now, giving the water a chance to cool.

“I’m sorry,” Keith says.

He feels Lance look at him suddenly, surprise evident in his posture. “About what?”

“You having to leave your family again. I don’t…I mean, I don’t get it, but I get that it’s hard for you. I know how much you love them,” he says. And he does. He could tell that from the first time Lance ever spoke about them, but it’s even more clear to Keith now that he’s spent time with Lance’s family, seen the way he interacts with his siblings and parents and loves them all so, so deeply. So viscerally. So fully.

Keith’s only family at the time had been with him when they disappeared into space, and he’d never truly, really had any connection to Earth. Even his mother was away from that planet, somewhere out in the vacuum of the galaxy, fighting tyranny. Homesickness for Earth never came to him the way it came to the rest of the paladins; anything he missed from Earth was more about the lack of stability he had with Voltron more than it was about the actual, tangible place of Earth. He hadn’t ever fully understood the others when they expressed their desire to just go home already.

But he gets it now, why Lance was so heartbroken to be away from them for so long, why he was so ecstatic to be back. He gets it.

What he doesn’t get is the way Lance turns his gaze away from Keith, mumbling, “It’s…not that.”

Keith’s eyebrows furrow. He watches Lance’s profile, his downcast eyes and nose scrunched up just enough to be indicative of something deeper. “What do you mean?”

Lance opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again. He takes a deep, deep breath.

He says, “I think I should stay here.”

“What?”

“I should stay here,” Lance repeats, more sure of the statement this time. “I mean—think about it. You and Shiro are both back, and we’re stuck with one paladin too many again. I can’t make Allura just give up piloting Blue—”

“No,” Keith interrupts.

Lance continues like he didn’t hear him. “She’s the smartest choice to keep piloting Blue, it wouldn’t be fair of me to hinder her progress just because I want to feel included. And let’s face it, I’m the least important of the team. It would be better for everyone if I just stayed here and—”

No,” Keith repeats. “Shut up. Just—stop it.”

Lance’s face twists up into something resembling anger, but it’s just a degree off, a twitch too far to be genuine. It’s hiding something else. “You know I’m right. Voltron would be better off without me here.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“You’re not really making a compelling argument here, Keith!” Lance throws his hands up. “And just face it! It’s because you can’t make one. I’m the obvious choice to stay behind.”

“Shut up,” Keith repeats. His head is swimming. He thinks about Lance, back when Shiro was still gone, stepping up to be Keith’s right-hand man so easily. About the way they were friends, the way Lance helped him. He stands up, not bothering to brush the sand off his clothes. “Spar with me.”

“What?”

“Like we used to,” he says. “Come on, get up.”

Confused, Lance stands, finding his footing. “I don’t get what this has to do with anything, but fine. You first.”

Keith obliges him, taking the first swing. Lance blocks it, steps to the side, swings. Keith blocks it. They repeat.

“What the hell does this have to do with me staying behind?” Lance asks in between motions. Both of them are a little rusty, Keith can tell, from the weeks relaxing here, unbothered, unworried.

But they fall into rhythm easily, resembling a dynamic they had what feels like years ago—what is years ago, for Keith. They haven’t fought like this in a long, long time. It feels good, even when one of Lance’s swings connects with Keith’s side and leaves him winded.

He doesn’t stop, though. Neither of them stops until they’re too tired to continue, falling back into the sand, breathing heavily from the impromptu workout. To Keith’s muscles, it feels like they were at it for hours, but he knows logically it was only minutes. How many, though, he isn’t sure.

“Tie,” Keith says, laying back on the ground, unaffected by the sand no doubt getting in his hair. That’s going to be a pain in the ass to wash out later.

“Hardly,” Lance laughs, laying back too. He looks at Keith, their earlier argument seemingly forgotten, a tired grin on his face. “I totally won.”

Keith looks at him. Really looks at him. At his smile, white and straight and no doubt the product of years of braces. At his freckles, faint but there, at the way his hair curls on his forehead, a combination of untamable and yet stylishly kempt. At the small scar on his right eyebrow, the product of wildlife they encountered on their trek back to Earth.

“We need you,” Keith says. I need you.

Lance’s smile starts to fade as the topic is brought back to light. His eyes flicker up to the sky, away from Keith’s face. “Not really.”

Keith’s head is still swimming. He doesn’t know what to do, what to say to convince Lance that what he’s saying is the truth. He’s not sure what could even do that, when it’s so clearly ingrained in Lance’s mind that he’s…useless.

We need you. I need you.

He thinks about the scar on Lance’s eyebrow. About the vision of him, older. About the way it felt, the first time Keith ever tried to teach Lance hand-to-hand combat, all that time ago. About the bed, the light through the window, the content version of Keith with nothing to be afraid of. About Adam and Shiro.

For the first time in a long time, Keith swallows his own fear.

“Lance,” he says. “Look at me.”

Lance does.

There’s a moment before, where they just lay on the sand, side by side, their heads turned to each other and their noses almost touching with how close they are, only looking at each other in the moonlight, the ocean rocking calmly in front of them. For a moment, Lance looks right at Keith, and Keith sees himself, years down the road. Every odd moment between them, every intangibly weird feeling Keith has gotten about Lance, every evolving aspect of their relationship, every confusing thing—it culminates, collides, as they lay there, looking at each other.

Then he leans in. Closes the gap. Presses his lips against Lance’s, hesitantly, gingerly, like he’s afraid of what could happen, what is already happening. Lance’s lips are just as soft as Keith imagined.

Lance kisses back.

When they pull away, Keith has a hand on the back of Lance’s neck, their knees already bonking together from the way they shifted on the sand, trying to get closer, anything to get closer.

Against Lance’s lips, Keith says, “I need you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Years down the road, Keith wakes to Lance pressing kisses to his face.

“Mornin’,” Lance says, the greeting pressed against Keith’s cheek. Keith groans in response. He blinks his eyes open, met by the image of a smiling Lance, who swoops down to capture Keith’s lips in a soft kiss the moment their eyes meet.

“G’mornin’,” Keith mumbles once Lance has pulled away again. He wrinkles his nose. “You have morning breath.”

“So do you,” Lance laughs.

“Ugh.”

Keith pulls the blankets over himself further, trying to cocoon under the comforter as best as he can. Lance tugs at the blankets, halfheartedly trying to get Keith to come back out again, but Keith just buries himself further. It’s warm under here, unlike in their apartment with their broken heater.

“It’s almost noon,” Lance says. “We’re supposed to meet Shiro and Adam for lunch in an hour. If you need to take a shower before we go, you probably need to get up now.”

Keith groans again.

“C’mon, Keith, if you don’t get up we won’t make it in time. We can’t stand them up.”

“We can and we should,” he mumbles.

Lance laughs again. Keith wonders how long he’s been awake if he’s already laughing so easily and so fully.

“Babe.” Lance leans over in the bed, a hand on the blanket as if preparing to tug it off of Keith any moment. He doesn’t, though. He just steals another kiss, this time deeper, more insistent.

“Morning breath,” Keith repeats.

“I won’t fix it until you get up.”

Fine.” He throws the comforter off of him, kicking it away, irritated at being forced out of the warmth. But, as he glances at their clock reading 11:57, Lance is probably right. He gets out of bed, shuffling around the apartment and into the bathroom.

“Don’t take too long!” he hears Lance call from somewhere in the hallway.

“No promises,” he calls back.

Another laugh, more like a snort this time. Keith looks from the door to the mirror, catching his own reflection as he does so.

He sees it, in that moment, looking at himself in the bathroom: this then Keith. This Keith. This loving Keith, shaggy-haired Keith, square-jawed, scarred-cheek, relaxed Keith. This content Keith.

As he hears water start to run from in the kitchen, he thinks about how far away this moment used to feel. How something now so habitual, so loved, so mundane and yet extraordinary could have seemed untouchable. Foreign. Unimaginable. Gifted only in the brief glimpses of the future, in visions he wasn’t sure of.

And yet, it’s here. The smile on his lips. The man in his kitchen right now.

That love, like Adam rounding the corner of Shiro’s apartment over a decade ago.

Keith’s.