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To Brighter Days

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This is the end.

That’s all Lance can think as the world goes down in flames. Because Haggar’s ship is burning, and Lance is still on it. Allura, Shiro, Pidge, Hunk, and Keith, they’re all still somewhere on it.

But not here, though. Not in this corridor where Lance is bleeding. They're elsewhere and Lance is alone in this dingy hallway, alone with the smell of sulfur in his nose, alone with the taste of iron, alone with some random nameless soldier with Lance’s blood staining his sword. Blood spills in a continuous drip down Lance’s face from his right eye where this surprise attacker got him. He doesn’t know how much of it is even left, but he knows he can barely see his opponent through all this pain and blood as the Galra (just a random footsoldier, how fitting) lifts his sword to come down at Lance with the final blow.

Maybe if he had more time he could reflect on his short life and list off all the hundred billion reasons why he can’t die today. But he doesn’t. Instead it's a wholly wordless emotion that swells in his chest when it hits him that he won't react in time to the enemy's blade, blurring into two images above him, rays of red light refracting from behind its tip and fanning out like solar flares. Longing is a smoke in his lungs; regret a metallic taste on his tongue. Every word left unsaid rings in his ears.

Then the ship rumbles and lurches, and the Galra slips.

When it happens, when the enemy’s sword doesn’t slice clean through his neck like it should’ve, a deep, guttural, and primal instinct takes over Lance’s body. With a flash of quintessence that blinds his uninjured eye too for a split second, Lance’s blaster lightens in his slack grip, changes shape, becomes the broadsword, and he twists his whole body to drive his sword forward and around and up, feinting at the last second to get through the soldier’s blind spot.

The broadsword sinks into the soldier’s chest with sickening ease. The sound is small against the shrieking background drone of the fractured and burning hull as the ship breaches the planet’s upper atmosphere. Down he goes.

But then, so does Lance.

The next rumble of the ship brings him to his knees, and his hands slip on the icy floor in his own blood. The entire right side of his face feels like its dripping with magma, with live bees, with bear mace on a burn wound. He doesn't know what to call it, okay, but the wound is screaming from his forehead to his jaw to the back of his brain. Getting your eye slashed open hurts . He tries to touch it, tries to feel what's left, but the world (or what’s visible of it through his left eye) goes all foggy and sideways, and for a moment he’s certain he’s gonna pass out. But then—

“Lance!”

The word floats at him like a lantern through the fog, and he lifts his head to the light. He’s dreaming now, right? Handheld slowly into death by a comforting hallucination?

No. No, the owner of that voice is really here.

The shape of him is a beacon of familiarity in this upside-down hellish nightmare, and Lance is just gone enough to let himself feel saved even though he knows better. Because somehow, at the end of the world, somehow Keith Kogane is here, emerging from the smoke and the flashing lights like some kind of hero. Despite everything, despite the taste of blood between his teeth, Lance feels his lip twitch upward into a tired smile. Because of course Keith is here. Of course. Where else would he be?

“Shit,” Keith breathes, coming in at a slide on his knees to get at Lance’s face, raising it with one firm hand below the chin and using his other hand to tentatively brush at whatever wound plagues the right half of Lance’s face, the one that makes him feel like a thousand poisoned needles are being driven into his pores. “Okay—i-it’s okay. It's superficial,” Keith manages to say, although his voice is tense and strangled and he's obviously lying. Keith doesn’t look so hot either, really. He’s been shot like ten times since they all split up, judging by the charcoal black singe marks on his armor, and although the armor seems to have held, especially on his chest plate where it counts the most, Lance knows how much those bruises fucking hurt it every time you get punched by a blaster at close range. He's had enough broken ribs to know Keith shouldn't have been sprinting like that just now. Not for Lance, at least. He should have been sprinting for a goddamn escape pod. “You’re fine,” Keith insists when Lance doesn't respond, “it’s just bleeding a lot—”

A breathless laugh escapes Lance then. Doesn’t Keith get it? The ship is compromised and crashing. Communications are down, so no Coalition backup. No paladin regroup. No lions. Haggar has almost completed her plan and when that happens nothing matters anymore. “‘M not fine,” Lance sighs, matter-of-factly even in his despair. “Keith, I’m bleeding out, and I’m half blind. This is my aiming eye,” he says when Keith still doesn’t get it. “I’m not gonna be sharpshooting anything anymore.”

If anything Lance’s words only fan the fire in Keith’s eyes. “Good thing you’re holding a sword, then,” he says, and Lance feels Keith's hand fumbling at his, forcing his slipping fingers into a tighter grasp around the hilt of his blue broadsword. Then, with a pensive breath of silence, Keith brings his own red bayard up between them. Concentration furrows his eyebrows deeply, and then Lance has to squeeze his left eye shut as Keith’s bayard vanishes in a flash of light. When Lance opens it again, Keith is holding a red blaster, and the exhausted-yet-smug look that breaks over his face like the light of morning can only be described as dashing. “You be short range this time. I'll take your long range shots.”

Comprehension comes slowly in his state of delirious pain. Since when…? “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Keith smirks at him, but it’s softer than usual. “Yeah,” Keith says, “well, let’s just say a good friend inspired me. Now come on, we gotta get to deck three before Haggar finishes. Everyone else was on the port side of the ship when it separated, so it’s up to us now.”

Lance takes Keith’s offered hand, but he still feels like he’s falling even as Keith puts the pressure on and moves to stand.

“Keith, wait,” Lance says, and he doesn’t even know what he’s gonna follow it up with, other than the fact that he’s not ready to move yet. He’s just not. His greatest strength has just been taken from him. He’s at rock bottom. “I— I can’t,” he says, his voice infinitely small. What the hell would they be thinking, going after the most dangerous alchemist in the entire known universe alone and injured and wielding each other’s weapons? It’s suicide. It’s a death sentence. “We can’t do this,” he breathes. “It’s insane, Keith. Even for us.”

It catches him off guard when Keith drops to his knees again, sinking down all the way this time so that he’s exactly on level with Lance.

“Look at me,” Keith says, and grabs Lance firmly by the back of the neck, bringing their foreheads together. The press is sharp and firm and grounding in a way that the descending ship is not, and suddenly, the universe isn’t so big and daunting. It’s really small, actually, like three feet wide, and the only thing in it is Keith, and the only sound Lance hears is Keith’s voice when he says, “We can do this, Lance, and we will. We’re gonna save everyone.”

The only thing that fits in Lance’s worldview are Keith’s eyes, wide open and seering, fractured stained-glass and violet. Can they really save the universe like that? Alone together? “You really think so?” is all Lance can ask, because he needs to hear Keith say the words. “You and me?”

“You’re acting like we’re in unfamiliar waters or something,” Keith huffs.

“Aren’t we?”

No,” Keith breathes. “Lance, you idiot, it’s always been you and me.”

Those six words taste like fucking rocket fuel. Swallowing the lump in his throat, igniting under Keith’s touch and unafraid for the first time in eons, Lance’s fingers ghost over Keith’s cheek. They flatten out when Keith follows, leans in, and he draws Keith even closer until their noses are slotted side by side. Until their breath is one entity and their lips are almost brushing. Until—

“Now get up,” Keith commands with exasperated fondness, right before Lance kisses him.

So Lance laughs, and he rises instead, and as Keith helps him to his feet he says, “Well alright then, Red. Let’s go end a war.”

And they do.

They end a ten thousand year war together in one lucky evening with a bit of brazenness, a lot of bravery, and just a smidge of stupidity, and they almost, almost, almost don’t make it.

But they do. Together Lance and Keith take down Haggar, and maybe Allura is the most dangerous alchemist in the known universe, because she takes down the entire Rigel star system collapsing the spacial rift Haggar tore open. But they’re able to ride away in the wake of the blast as it goes supernova, and they make it out. The sheer fact of it sinks in as they spill out of the castleship onto the nightside of a grassy moon to look up at the distant supernova from a barely-safe twelve light years away, flaring out across the scintillating starry sky in streaks of white-gold, unfathomably vast, unfathomably deadly, and unfathomably far away. Already the heat of the exploding star system as it licked their heels feels distant. It sinks in as the surrenders begin to trickle via comm link in from the remaining rogue Galra generals, already few and far between. It sinks in that they’ve won, but they don’t know how to react, other than to laugh and jump and cry and hug each other in random spastic outbursts, tripping in their exhaustion and hissing whenever someone brushes someone else’s wound but still hugging each other anyway because it’s over and they’ve won .

It’s over over over and life can go on.

So of course, it does.

 

 

 

 

 


 one week later


 

 

 

 

 

Lance has worn a lot of uniforms over the course of his life.

There was fútbol when he was in grade school, and then briefly swim team before he realized his dream of becoming a pilot might have to eclipse recreational sports for good, along with his fifty other time-consuming hobbies. Then there was the Garrison cadet uniform (he still thought he looked bleh in orange—it did nothing for his warm brown complexion, okay) which he wore almost every day from the age of thirteen to seventeen, except nights and weekends, and except winter and summer break when he would go home to Cuba and had to wear Marco’s old clothes since he always grew out of most of the stuff in his closet during his semester away.

Then, of course, the paladin armor.

He always expected to graduate from the Garrison and move on to the federal-issue spacesuits that all pilots wore during flight, and then one of the higher ranking commander uniforms later in life. Lance was an ambitious guy. There was simply no counting how many mornings he spent getting ready in his and Hunk’s dorm room mirror, imagining what he’d look like in one of those gray uniforms with the fancy lapels that identified rank. Imagining medals on his shirt. I’m gonna get sooo many medals, he would tell Hunk as he aimed for that ‘messy but handsome’ style with his hair that the ladies loved so much, and Hunk would nod and play along. Uh-huh. You sure will, buddy.

Of course, his life then took a sharp left turn, and Lance never got to wear a real Garrison spacesuit. He never will, now, because there’s no need when he already has one of his own.

The paladin armor... Now there is a confusing beat in the long history of uniforms he has worn over his lifetime. First the blue armor, then the red, then black, and then back to blue again. He still remembers his little cousins Benito and Gabi asking him which of the five lions he flew, when they first got back to Earth, after he passed Black back to Shiro but before he went back to Blue. How his stomach filled with liquid nitrogen at what should have been an innocent question, causing him to trip over his answer with a stutter until Keith popped in out of nowhere to save him. Smirking, propping one elbow on Lance’s shoulder, he told the kids: Lance has flown all of them at least once, actually. He can’t seem to make up his mind.

That’s when Mamá came up on Lance's other side and wrapped her arm around his waist. That sounds like my baby. He’ll make up his mind eventually, though, she said to Keith, who for some reason blushed intensely and set Lance wondering what kind of face his mother was making at Keith behind Lance’s back. He always does.

And he did. Make up his mind, that is.

Blue is… 

It’s a good color on him. It feels right. Feels permanent, this time. Which is a comforting feeling, when everything else in his world is currently amorphous and unknowable and impermanent in every possible way.

Winning the war for good was wonderful.

Waiting to see what will happen next is kinda… anxiety inducing.

Lance takes a deep, calculated breath as he looks himself over in the floor-length mirror hung on the wall of the room the Garrison has given him to stay in for the night. This particular uniform is new. It was the traditional style worn in court by the highest Altean generals, Allura told them as she presented the five paladins with the color-coded clothing, and humbly requested that they wear them to the various ceremonies they’ll all be attending over the next few days and weeks across the galaxy as they cement the Coalition’s place going forward, and celebrate with the many citizens of the various star systems they’ve liberated. They accepted, of course, and now Lance is wearing the same brilliant Altean-blue his paladin predecessor wore so many years ago, long before the war. The knowledge makes him swell with pride.

Although, it did take Lance a good ten minutes upon waking this morning to figure out how all the different buttons went together, and the golden lacing, and the singular medal of distinction that’s supposed to secure on the front. He’s pretty sure he’s done it correctly, now, and he’s about ready to go meet with everyone before the big televised Earth-wide event where Earth will be formally welcomed into the Coalition.

It’s strange, how much older he looks compared to the last time he looked into a mirror in this place. There’s a ghost of a scar on the crest of his cheekbone now trailing up through his eyelid (like a comet’s tail but uglier, ugh), tired lines under his eyes, broader shoulders, and a stronger jawline that kinda crept up on him. He pushes his hair out of his face, wondering when (if ever) he’s gonna get used to this eye scar. It's a habit now in the mornings to close his left eye and test the visibility in his right. When he does it right now, he can see, but… it's not perfect. Everything in the mirror goes from crisp to sorta fuzzy around the edges. Same as yesterday. Damn. It might be time to start thinking about left-handed training runs. Keith's relatively ambidextrous, so he can probably help, right? At least, if circumstances allow...

Sighing deeply, he opens his left eye again and the reflected details of his room sharpen. As his face comes back into focus he swallows down the creeping urge to mess with his hair again until it falls in a way that covers the scar a little more where it peeks through the top of his eyebrow. He doesn't, because he isn’t trying to impress anyone today. This isn't a fashion show, this is about peace and prosperity and unity and a step toward a brighter tomorrow.

Okay, no. He’s lying to himself again, and that has become a lot harder than usual these last few days. That voice in his head has grown louder, as of late. The truth is that Lance has always been trying to impress someone—like, one specific person, to be exact—and no matter how much older and braver and more mature he gets, this is apparently one weakness he’s never going to grow out of. If anything it's worse now that it's ever been.

God, he used to hate how much he craved Keith's approval. Hated Keith for not giving it almost as much as he hated him for making Lance want it in the first place.

Humans are stupid. We always end up hating the things we don't understand.

Giving in to the urge with a frustrated and self-deprecating groan, Lance goes back to messing with his hair again, desperately trying to get it to fall just so—until his comm begins to buzz on his nightstand.

“Answer,” he commands absently, and the buzzing stops. “Morning!” he shouts from across the room, “I’m still getting ready. Who is it?”

“Hey,” the caller finally says, and Lance freezes with his fingers threaded in his bangs.

Keith.

“Hey man,” Lance calls out, ignoring the flutter in his stomach that assails him every time his mind even remotely touches on the topic of Keith these last few days. “What’s up?” A long beat of silence follows, which finally gets Lance’s full attention. Abandoning the mirror, he crosses the room to the nightstand and picks up his comm to speak directly into it. “Any day now,” he jokes.

There’s some muffled grumbling on the other end, and then finally Keith comes out with it. “How the hell do you attach this stupid medal?” he blurts. “And there’s like, two completely separate layers of buttons? It doesn’t make any sense! Who designed this?”

“Probably aliens,” Lance deadpans. Of course Keith needs help, he should’ve seen that coming. “Hang on, I’ll be right over.”

The relief is palpable in Keith’s voice. “Ugh. Thank you.”

As he treks through the hallway he passes a frazzled but ready-to-go Shiro, who says, “There you are, Lance. Almost ready? We’re convening downstairs in ten minutes.”

“Almost,” he assures him, “just one more quick thing I gotta do!”

“Hurry!” Shiro calls after him.

Keith opens the door and yanks Lance inside his room the second Lance knocks. He has to bite back a laugh at the state of Keith’s dishevelment. “Dude,” he deadpans. “We’re going on live TV in front of the entire planet in like, an hour.”

“I told you I couldn’t figure out these ridiculous buttons,” Keith huffs, gesturing to the unbuttoned jacket of his uniform, revealing the regular old t-shirt he’s wearing underneath.

“I was mostly talking about your hair,” Lance says, already getting to work on pinning the medal on and righting all his messed-up buttons. Keith is right; the setup of the whole garment is super ridiculous, and unnecessarily complicated. But Lance isn’t really complaining because it’s giving him a minute alone with Keith, which is a hopelessly elusive thing that he’s been chasing after for days now to no avail, and Lance has something really important to ask him that he just can’t ask in front of everyone else.

Of course, now that he’s actually alone with Keith, he’s probably gonna chicken out.

“What’s wrong with my hair,” Keith wonders, his voice actually a little hurt. “I thought you said my hair wasn’t actually that bad.”

“No, not the haircut,” Lance says, grateful for the distraction from the real reason he was here. “You don’t look bad. It’s just that this is a prestigious ceremony, you know? You’re supposed to wear your hair differently than you do day-to-day at events like that. It’s a social thing. You don't have to, but.. it’s fun.”

“Ah,” Keith sighs disparagingly, rolling his eyes. “Okay, well…”

“I could do it for you on the ride over,” Lance offers, nearly done with the front buttons now. “If you feel like it. I’ve already done Allura’s and Hunk’s and Pidge’s hair this morning,” he quickly adds to make the offer sound a little less intimate. There is something utterly domestic about what’s happening right now. It’s just buttons and hair. Reign it in, Lance.

“Yeah, fine,” Keith says after a moment of thought. “Why not? I trust you.”

Lance’s heart skips a beat. This whole time he’s been hyper-focused on the buttons, and now that he’s finished with the last one where it hugs Keith’s neck, he still isn’t ready to look up into Keith’s eyes yet. A voice yells from deep inside his chest. Ask him, ask him, ask him you coward, ask him before it’s too late.

“Hey,” Keith prods, and Lance almost jumps when Keith’s hand comes to rest over his where he’s still clutching at Keith’s collar. “You okay?”

“Uh. Yeah,” Lance lies. Because how can he even begin to describe the turmoil in his gut?

Ask him, ask him, ask him.

“Lance,” Keith deadpans, prying Lance’s hand off his collar and getting up in his face now, squinting like he has x-ray vision and all Lance’s secrets are written plainly just behind his eyes.

Quailing under Keith’s white-hot scrutiny, Lance swallows, resisting the urge to stumble backwards. “It’s just, everything is happening so fast now,” he says, which is one little brick from the base of the leaning tower of truth. The whole thing wobbles dangerously as he gives it up. His voice shakes despite his willpower as he continues, stumbling over every syllable: “Everything’s about to change.”

“Oh. Well, yeah,” Keith agrees, a ghost of a smile dawning on him. Soft and vibrant and so, so warm. It wraps around Lance’s fear like a pair of steady arms. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

Lance blinks at him in abject surprise for a moment.

Then, he laughs—a wet, teary, and lighthearted thing—and throws his arms around Keith, dragging him into a full-body hug and burying his face into Keith’s shoulder, hairdo be damned. He giggles into it, refusing to ease up until Keith relaxes, folding himself slowly into the hug until it’s more of a mutual thing than Lance trying to squeeze the air straight out of Keith's lungs. It’s warmth incarnate, solid and stable, and he wants nothing more than to stand here forever, frozen in time, young and victorious, unburdened by the trials of yesterday and wholly unafraid of those tomorrow may bring. ‘You and me’ indeed. He has no idea when Keith started to make him feel this way, like no matter what happens everything is gonna turn out fine as long as Keith is there, but the feeling is both new and ancient all at once, and terrifies him just as much as it exhilarates him. It’s like being torn in a hundred directions at once, and all of them are Keith. Fuck, he has it so fucking bad this time.

When a knock sounds on Keith’s door his heart skips again. He makes to pull away automatically, but is surprised when Keith holds on fast and keeps him from moving even an inch away.

“Are you dressed yet, Keith?” Allura calls through the door. “We’re almost ready to depart.”

“Yeah, just give me one more minute,” Keith calls back, and the sound of departing footsteps has Lance’s heart rate calming again.

Slowly, he removes his face from the crook of Keith’s neck—and yet, Keith still doesn’t let go. This decision on his part leads to a very different sort of embrace, one that has Lance remembering that moment on Haggar’s ship and has his cheeks heating up, along with his veins, his stomach, his heart, his mind, his soul…

Keith just has that effect on him, lately.

It seems like he knows it, too. A small breathless laugh escapes him as he drinks in Lance’s muted panic, like he’s never been less panicked about anything in his life. It wakens in Lance that age-old need-to-be-the-victor that’s always colored their relationship and always kinda will. He’s probably just pleased to feel in control of a complex social situation for once, especially at Lance’s expense. Lance needs to gain the upper hand again. He needs to—

Ask him, the voice screams. Fucking ask him!

“Keith,” he says, although he is very distracted by the fact that Keith’s face seems to be closer than it was a second ago.

“Yeah?” Keith says, but Lance gets the distinct impression that he isn’t listening. His head is tilting, his hands straying from the hug. To.. to Lance’s collar. Woah. Okay.

“I... Do you…?”

“Yeah,” Keith whispers, his fingers brushing at the side of Lance’s neck, his breath minty and warm on Lance’s mouth, and Lance doesn’t know whether it’s a question this time or if Keith is answering the question Lance hasn’t even gathered the courage to ask yet. This isn’t just in my head at all, Lance thinks in abstract wonder as Keith’s eyelids flutter to half-mast. This thing between us.

This is real.

KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK; “Keith, we’re leaving!” Shiro calls through the door before he’s even finished banging on it, and before Keith and Lance have even finished springing apart in startled mortification. “And have you seen Lance? No one can seem to find him.”

While Keith hides his face behind his hand and makes a groaning sound, Lance has to laugh. “I’m in here too,” he answers loudly, “just helping Keith with his medal. We’re coming.” When they open the door and emerge from the room, carefully avoiding each others’ eyes, Shiro is already down the hall, having left them behind to run and catch up with Adam before the elevator doors close.

“Come on,” Pidge says, appearing out of nowhere and hooking them each through one elbow to pull them along down the hall. “Jeez, you guys sure took long enough. What were you even doing?”

“Oh, you know,” Lance says, carefully analyzing Keith’s face as he stares resolutely ahead at elevator doors. “Talking.”

“Talking? No, please don’t get sappy on me now,” Hunk says, appearing on Lance’s other side, “I’m already emotional enough as it is.”

“Sorry Hunk. Can’t help it,” Lance laughs, and the sound draws Keith’s attention. They lock eyes, and Lance finds himself unable to break it. “Just thinking about the future, you know?”

The corner of Keith’s mouth twitches upward, and this image—Keith, soft and strong all at once, hair swept to the side, tugged forward by one crooked arm, head tilting almost shyly toward Lance even as his confident posture betrays absolutely no fear, unable to keep himself from smiling—this image is what sticks in Lance's head through the entire ceremony, its afterimage glowing over everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

They’re leaving Earth tonight, so Lance flies to Cuba after the broadcast ends, for obvious reasons. The family throws him a going away party down at the sliver of beach nearest to the family home, tucked at the bottom of a steep hill off the edge of the neighborhood. The atmosphere is subdued but golden in the strangest of ways. Every smile is sad, but every tear is happy. The waves are hushed, the lights are yellow, the music is soft, and Lance cannot decide what he’s feeling. The night sky on Earth right now is brighter than it’s ever been in human history. The Rigel star system where Haggar made her last stand was once part of the Orion constellation, and now everything in that corner of the sky is outshone by the supernova left in her wake, an object brighter than the moon itself. It’s almost like a second sun, even this far away. Night doesn’t truly fall here now until the Rigel supernova sets over the horizon, and right now it’s at its zenith.

It was a quarter moon the day Lance left home for the Garrison when he was twelve. He remembers that clearly because he didn't know whether it was waxing or waning, and he remembers being overcome by sudden crippling doubt as he looked up at it. You wanna fly to the moon but you can't even remember what moon phase it is?

But the funny thing is, it's a quarter moon again and Lance has flown all the way to Beta Dorasi and yet he still doesn't know if the moon is waxing or waning. Maybe that means something. Maybe it doesn't. Either way, he's pretty sure Pidge and Hunk will rupture something laughing over it, so he tucks the info away to share later.

“What are you giggling to yourself about over here in the corner?” Veronica asks, and Lance sets his glass down on the table to look up at her.

“Just thinkin,’” he says. “This going away party kind of reminds me of the one you guys threw way back when I first left for the Garrison.”

Veronica looks around at the small crowd of family spread around the stretch of beach sand just below the house, her gaze slow and warm, and rests a hand on Lance’s shoulder. The little cousins are running around, yelling about how cool it was to see Tío Leandro and his friends on TV, playing ‘paladins’ with foam swords and nerf guns. His parents are snuggling on the rock wall, his aunts and uncles and grandparents are tucked into various chairs and chatting softly, and his oldest brother Marco has his son propped on one knee by the firepit and his guitar on the other, alternating between Brazilian jazz, Cuban pop from their collective childhoods, and American folk rock from decades gone by.

The genres should clash horribly in theory. But they never do, instead flowing smoothly from one to the next with never a jarring transition. Veronica laughs as Marco’s wife pulls the kid off his lap as punishment for slapping the guitar mid-song. “It’s weird how everything changes,” she says to Lance, “and yet, somehow.. it stays exactly the same.”

“Yeah,” Lance agrees, his voice thick in his throat as Allura's voice echoes in his head. It's been doing that a lot lately, ever since their first ever post-war meeting.

 

. . .

“I know what you are all wondering,” Allura says to them the morning that the last of them wake up from cryoregenesis, two days after the final battle. Pidge is still rubbing the ice crystals from her eyelashes as they all settle in the rec room to discuss what will happen next. There are so many of them in this cut-and-paste family now that they spill over from the couches onto the floor. Lance plops himself in on the floor to lean back on Hunk’s legs, flicking tiredly at the buckle on Keith’s boot where it dangles beside him from his seat on the arm of the couch. “Where will we go from here?” Allura says, her voice soft in the echoey space. “What is our new goal, now that the war is effectively won? Where is Voltron needed next?”

. . .

 

In a moment when no one’s looking he manages to sneak away, up the weather worn steps to the house where he grew up. The house where all his siblings learned to walk and speak and read. The house where his parents will probably live till the day they die.

It’s like walking through a memory, being in this place. After all this time away it’s still surreal, even though he's been back for a couple short visits now. The distant voices of his family at the beach below drift up the path to his ears along with the susurrus of palm fronds as he goes to the rarely-opened cupboard above the fridge and pulls down that bottle of wine, the one his parents bought the day he left home and promptly put away, saving it for his Garrison graduation day. Then he goes to the fancy Only For Royalty china cabinet and gets down every single wine glass in that thing. He even goes back on second thought for plastic cups for the kids, and a bottle of apple cider, puts it all in the twenty year old picnic basket that lives in the cupboard under the stairs, and heads back down to the beach.

“Hey, Marco?” Lance asks, clearing his throat as he makes it to the bottom of the stairs with the softly clinking basket cradled carefully in his arms. “Can I make a song request?”

The guitar quiets and Marco looks over, eyeing the picnic basket with curiosity. “Sure thing Lance, what song?”

“You still remember Gracias a la Vida?"

The beach—so full of voices—quiets now, and Mamá's eyes are shining and wet when she speaks, her voice raw with emotion. “Oh, mijo...”

“Don’t you start crying on me now, Mamá,” he chides jokingly, and sets about pulling the glasses out and lining them up on the picnic table one by one. He knows he’s pushing it with the emotions by requesting the same song Marco played on Lance’s last night before he left for the Garrison, but what can he say? He’s sentimental.

Marco has always been able to weave magic from his guitar strings. As he plucks softly at the guitar and opens his mouth to sing, a timeless sort of quiet falls over the gathering. His every footfall in the sand seems deafening as Lance goes around handing out glasses to the adults, patting the kids on the head as he passes them by and whispering for them to be quiet and patient while Marco sings. The kids swarm with respectful silence around Lance as he fills a second round of glasses, this time with apple cider, and even the older kids are humming with subdued excitement to take part in Lance’s toast. Marco’s voice wavers, and breaks a little as Lance wedges one final glass into the sand beside his brother, careful not to touch the guitar as he plays.

Finally the song comes to its slow lilting end, and Lance grins around at his family before raising his glass.

“To the future,” he proclaims, “and to the next time I’ll be home, when we're all at this house together again. Whenever that may be.”

 

. . .

“Is Voltron still needed at all?” Hunk asks, although it sounds like he already knows the answer.

“The war may be over,” Shiro answers from across the room, looking crisp and regal in his paladin gear even though half of them ae in pajamas and Pidge isn’t even out of her cryosuit yet, “but we are only beginning to piece the galaxy back together. We have a long road ahead of us, and we’re all gonna have our work cut out for us in the days ahead.”

“So can you describe what the days ahead might look like?” Romelle asks eagerly, leaning forward off the other arm of the couch so far that Lance worries she might fall off. “For those of us not versed in the recuperation period of galactic warfare—which is me, I'm afraid.”

“And me,” Hunk throws in, “just saying. Probably most of us here, actually.”

“Well,” Coran explains with infinite patience, “we still have many freshly made alliances to further solidify. There are whole planetary communities to revitalize after being ravaged for centuries. We have the skeleton of an old dictatorship to strip and a new government to build from the ground up in its place, technology and knowledge to share with our less developed allies, the last lingering pockets of Galra militants to snuff out, and countless new alliances still left to forge.”

“That’s a lot of work for one small team,” Krolia notes carefully.

“Yes,” Allura says Clinical, cold, and certain. “That is why—team though we are—we will be splitting up to accomplish these long term goals. Voltron is not needed for its combined firepower, now, but for its individual parts with those individual strengths, and for the people who were chosen to embody them.”

At this announcement she beams proudly at the five paladins seated in their various spots in front of her, and Lance feels the castle floor drop out from under him.

They're splitting up?

. . .

 

Mumbles of agreement sweep across the gathering as everyone raises their glasses skyward and then drinks (the kids doing this more dramatically than strictly necessary). The taste of wine is unfamiliar, way too bitter and way too sweet at the same time. But, it does go down a lot easier than some of the other crazy drinks Lance has tried out there in this wide, wide universe.

“Have you decided which mission you’re going to choose yet?” Papá says over the sound of hushed waves when everyone has drunk.

Lance taps his fingertip on his half-empty glass as his stomach flips over in his chest. The clinking sound is the loudest thing in the night. As confident as he’d like to pretend he is about this, he’s nervous. Terrified, even. Way more than he was to go on international television this morning, which amuses him a bit and helps break the tension in his chest. “Yeah, I've thought about it,” Lance says, and the air is heavy, the family hanging off his every word. “It would be pretty sweet to take the Earth assignment,” he starts slowly. “I've been gone so long.”

“...But,” Mamá says knowingly, and Lance sighs. The woman is seriously omniscient.

“But Shiro wants Earth,” he says slowly. “He wouldn't ask for it, but the rest of us—we already know, and we talked about it, and we decided to give the Earth post to him. He's patching things up with Adam, and Adam’s, y'know, here.” The family nods with empathy, and he feels his courage picking up. “Plus if I take one of the off-world assignments it's not gonna be like before where I had no idea when I was coming home. The bulk of the war is mostly behind us, so I'll be able to come visit for holidays and vacations, or if there's a random emergency... stuff like that. And the whole reason I left home in the first place eight years ago was to go to space, and I did that, but I… I’m not done yet,” he says quickly, fearing that this lingering desire to fly (somewhere, anywhere) is some kind of betrayal even though he knows it's not. He knows no one here will ever hold it against him. Just like they all supported him when he wanted to go off to the states to become a pilot, they'll support him now too. “So I'm not taking the Earth assignment.”

“Are you going to help Allura build the new government then?” Gabi asks, and Rachel interrupts her.

“No, no, Lance is more of a people person, he'd probably be a lot more help smoothing over relations with the retaken Galra-controlled planets.”

“Why don't you guys let Lance tell us what he wants instead of guessing?” their abuela says, rolling her eyes at Lance as she finishes her own wine and quietly steals Mamá’s. “What do you want, Leandro?”

The question sticks in his gut. It’s one that has plagued him at every turn at every junction from the day he was born, from his career aspirations to his place as a paladin to his convoluted love life.

What do you want?

 

. . .

“Alright, so,” Romelle interrupts after Allura has explained more in-depth some of the various functions they will perform as separate diplomatic entities once they split up. “You mentioned having one of the paladins out there on a mission forging brand new alliances. Can we have some more information on that? What sort of civilizations are out there who were not on the Galran side of the war, yet also not on ours?”

Allura blinks at her with round, owlish eyes before giggling once—sharply—and then bursts into a fit of laughter. Humanoid though Alteans are, Allura's inhumanity shines the most when she laughs. The sound is distinctly melodic and alien. Romelle’s eyes sparkle.

“What's so funny?” she asks, the face of innocence.

Matt cuts in here from Pidge’s side, leaning forward to spare Romelle. “Allura’s laughing because it kinda sounded like you thought we've discovered and been to every planet in the universe, and have already made contact with all the sentient species that are out there.”

“Have we not?” she asks.

Honestly, Lance can’t blame her for her ignorance; to the sheltered and cut-off Alteans who lived in those various secluded colonies for centuries on end, it must seem like those who’ve lived on the outside know everything. Like they've been everywhere there is to go.

How very wrong they are.

“Ah—no,” Allura giggles. “No. Consider: there are over a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. Every civilization we know, this entire interstellar war that dragged in over two thousand planets, all of it has taken place in only ONE arm of this single spiral galaxy,” she says, awe and inspiration bleeding out through her voice into the room. “There are over a hundred million stars in this galaxy alone with planetary systems we've never even been to. We have no idea what or who else is out there beyond this tiny section of the universe we have charted, but it is our duty to go out and find it. This particular task is not related to the war, and it is the most important one of all. This is our duty not as Voltron, but as sentient beings. This is peacetime exploration.”

Finally, finally, finally it settles in what Allura is suggesting. It’s a splash to the face.

Suddenly Lance is six years old again, crushed between Rachel and Veronica in front of the TV at 2am, watching the live feed of The Treader crew taking man’s first steps on Callisto. He’s nine years old, playing out-of-date spaceflight video games and wondering if he’s good enough to ever do it for real. He’s eleven years old, crushing an acceptance letter from the Garrison in one hand beneath the dinner table, taking shaky breaths as he searches for an opening in the conversation to break the news. He’s thirteen, flying the official Garrison simulator for the first time and hearing from Takashi Shirogane himself—the guy who was selected to go to Kerberos in a few years, the farthest manned mission ever embarked upon—that he just might have what it takes to go even farther than Kerberos someday. He’s fifteen, flying a jet without an instructor for the first time and gazing up in absolute wonder through the curved glass at the periwinkle sky, eyes flicking from one star to the next through the powdery clouds, wondering how far beyond the ground he could push this jet, wondering just how far he could go if he really, really tried.

Exploration. The all-consuming siren call of the unknown. It was the only thing that got him up at 4:25am Monday through Friday to make his bed at the Garrison in time for inspection. It was the only thing that kept him from throwing in the towel when the news of the Kerberos mission tragedy trickled down through the barracks in hushed whispers. It’s the only thing he’s ever wanted so badly he’d give up anything to have it.

Now, after a detour through hell and back, here it is. It’s here for the taking.

And the only thing he’ll have to give up is…

Oh.

His elation dims into something soft and sad. Lance tunes out Pidge and Matt as they talk about the nearest and most likely star systems to harbor the possibility of undiscovered civilizations, and looks up at Keith.

Keith’s attention is elsewhere; aimed somewhere in the distance, fixed on something Lance cannot see. The look in his eyes is glassy and bright and his fingers twitch on the arm of the couch, like he’s itching to slam forward his ship’s throttle, and suddenly Lance is thirteen again, and Keith is abandoning the group training exercise for the briefest taste of simulated freedom. Lance is fourteen and standing stupefied in front of the postings, wondering, after so many years of hard work, how the hell Keith made it into fighter class and he didn’t. He’s fifteen and Keith vanishes without a trace into the wide Sonoran desert. He’s sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and Keith tests the bounds of fate by disappearing again and again without telling anyone where the hell he’s going. Lance is nineteen and Keith leaves them, leaves him, like he’s done so many times before, and even when he’s twenty and Keith comes back Lance still wonders if he’s really going to stay this time, or if he’s just waiting to break formation again. In some way maybe he was never really here at all, and he’s already gone, and it’s already too late.

The naked truth is that Lance has seen this look on Keith's face before, and he knows exactly what comes after it.

Keith goes somewhere Lance can’t follow.

. . .

 

“Lance?” Rachel nudges his hip with her own drawing him back out of the reverie he couldn't stop slipping into. “Just tell us what's on your mind. It's obvious when you're working up to something big. It always is. Just come out with it already.”

Come out. Haaa.

“Yeah. Okay, so I want…” He trails off, eyes trained on the ripples fanning out from the center of the wine in his glass. “I want the exploration mission. ”

“Called it,” Marco says through cupped hands, and Lance grins ruefully into his glass.

“But the thing is,” Lance goes on, “Keith wants that mission too.”

A murmur ripples through the family; his Garrison rivalry with Keith was no secret. He probably logged upwards of a hundred hours worth of calls home ranting about Keith back in those days. Everyone here knows about it, and that Keith was the one who snagged the last fighter pilot spot from Lance’s grasp.

“The other thing is, I don’t wanna take it from him,” Lance admits. “Not this time. I want to go with him. Or, I want him to come with me. I don’t know. I just know that I don't wanna go anywhere without him.” His voice sounds infinitely smaller as he finishes, and clears his throat. “That is, if he'll have me. I haven't exactly asked him yet.”

“I knew it,” Veronica deadpans, and yanks Lance into a side hug so fast he nearly spills his wine down her shirt. “C'mere, you!”

“You could at least pretend to be surprised,” he grumbles when a quick glance around at the family tells him no one really is, although the kids seem a bit innocently confused by Lance’s declaration, like it’s a perfectly normal announcement to make and they don’t get why he’s making a big deal of it. He loves that. He really really loves that, so much that his eyes sting a bit and he has to look away from his youngest cousins before he starts crying out of sheer overwhelming love.

“When are you going to ask him?” Mamá asks with the same shining excitement coloring her voice that was there the day he set that acceptance letter on the dinner table.

Clearing his throat, Lance shoves Veronica away. “I dunno. I'm getting around to it.”

“Well you'd better do it soon,” Rachel scolds. “How much time do you have left before Allura wants you to choose your individual missions?”

“Three days,” Lance breathes, and although the words are still like a lead weight in his chest, they’re a little lighter now for having shared them.

“Cool,” she replies. “Three whole chances to confess your undying love, then. Even you can't mess up that many— HEY! LANCE— MAMÁ! TELL LANCE TO GET OFF, HE'S SPILLING MY WINE!”

 

 

 

 

 

“You okay?”

The glass is cold on Lance’s fingertips as he gazes out the observation deck window at Earth as it turns slowly below them—above them, beside them… direction isn’t really a thing in space. From this low orbit he can’t see the entirety of the American continents, but he can juuust make out the eastern tip of Cuba peeking out from behind a long stretch of swirling white clouds where they fan out across the Atlantic. On the heels of her voice Pidge’s reflection appears in the glass, and Lance addresses that instead of turning around.

“I’m fine,” Lance assures her. “Just enjoying the view.”

“You seem stressed about leaving,” she presses. “You know we’re gonna be able to come home so much more often now, right? On a regular schedule, even.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s… that’s not it.”

“A-ha!” Hunk says from immediately behind him, causing Lance to jump. “So he admits it. There is something up with him. I told you, Pidge.”

“And I told you he would tell us if he wanted to. Stop being nosy.”

Hunk gasps dramatically, one hand on his chest. “Excuse me, I am his best friend. It doesn’t count as nosy when I’m his best friend. If anything you’re the nosy one.”

A puff of melancholy laughter escapes Lance’s nose; he’s officially been distracted from his woes by their antics. “Man, I am really gonna miss you guys.”

Pidge and Hunk abruptly stop bickering. “No,” Hunk says, “nope, we’re not doing that.”

“Hunk—”

“No, not yet!” Hunk complains, shoving Lance away by the face as Lance attempts to sneak his way in for a stealth-hug. “I’m not ready!”

“It’s the end of an era,” Lance says anyway, scooping Hunk in for a hug despite his protests and capturing Pidge as well before she can escape with a hooked arm around her neck. “Who woulda thought the three of us bottom-rung flight-school screw-ups would end up all the way out here together?”

“Stop,” Pidge complains, and she might sound bored, but when she buries her face into Lance’s forearm he knows it's to hide the fact that she's sniffling.

“We still have three more days left before we even have to pick when and where we’re splitting up,” Hunk says. “And besides, the missions aren’t that far spread. It’s not like we won’t see each other all the time. We just won’t eat every meal together anymore,” he rationalizes. “Or train together every morning. Or… or have sleepovers in the rec room,” he says, slowing down now, “or throw 2am scavenger hunts to alleviate the deep space boredom… But we’ll still see each other all the time! Allura said there’s gonna be a lot of back and forth, and I’m holding her to that. We’ll be in constant contact.”

“Well, except for Keith,” Pidge says, and Lance’s stomach drops out. “Come on,” she says when Hunk has the audacity to look confused, “you know he’s taking that exploration mission. He was drooling when Allura explained what it was. And once he leaves for that he’ll be gone for months at a time. I doubt he’s even gonna talk to us while he’s gone, really. Like do you remember when he—”

“Who’s not gonna talk to us?” Shiro says, exiting the freshly opened elevator and walking out onto the observation deck with everyone else all spilling out of the elevator behind him, everyone who’s coming with them on the planetary circuit. Adam, Keith, Allura, Coran, Krolia, Romelle, Matt, the wolf… Their family is pretty big these days, and all of them just overheard the tail end of this conversation. Pidge opens her mouth to reply, but in a moment of panic Lance slaps his hand over it, talking loudly over her because the thought of Keith confirming outright that he’s taking that faraway mission is simply too much to bear at the moment.

“You!” he says to Shiro. “We’re expecting you to forget all about us during your honeymoon period as soon as you and Adam go back to Earth without us. I swear you forgot to breathe once when Adam walked in.”

He’s rewarded for the cover-up with some red-faced spluttering from Shiro, a wiggle of the eyebrows at Shiro from Adam, and everyone else hiding their giggles while Keith rolls his eyes at them all and pretends not to find any of this funny. But one glance at Pidge and Hunk tells Lance that his hold on his secret is officially slipping. There’s a glint of suspicion in Pidge’s eye now, and Hunk is downright fascinated.

“Uh,” Hunk says to him quietly as soon as everyone else moves onto a new conversation, and Lance glares at him out of desperation. “Okay,” he says. “Later, then.”

But Lance does not tell him later, nor does he tell Pidge, although the next day as they make the planetary circuit is so filled with mounting anxiety that it’s all he can do to keep them off his trail. Their day is packed, their agenda full, and Lance barely has a second to himself let alone a second with Keith. But he manages to spend every second of the day from the moment he wakes to the moment he falls asleep thinking about the impending fork in the road anyway. It doesn’t help that Keith doesn’t seem bothered at all. He spends a lot of time in quiet thought, but it’s not the tense and panicked kind that Lance is drowning in. If anything he looks like he’s at peace, which is just.. not at all a characteristic that Lance is used to associating with Keith. It’s one more reason on top of the existing mountain of them to spend his spare moments staring at Keith, boring holes into the back of his head, desperately attempting to read his mind.

Isn’t he bothered?  Isn’t he sad? Isn’t he going to miss them? Isn’t he going to miss Lance?

What about the moment on Haggar’s ship? What about ‘it’s always been you and me?’  What about the moment they shared yesterday morning before Earth’s induction? Lance would have sworn on his own future grave that Keith wanted to kiss him then just as surely as Lance wanted to kiss Keith back on Haggar’s ship, and that fact has haunted his every moment since, both waking and dreaming.

And what about all the other moments, huh? What about those? What about this.. this thing?

Their thing?

Lance… he doesn’t know what it is, exactly, this thing between them, but he knows what he wants it to be. He finally knows, but god dammit, the timing. When he’s finally ready, of course, of course, then they’re out of time. But if Keith feels cheated by it, if he feels pressured or nervous or sad, it doesn’t show at all when he catches Lance staring. Every time, the pensive faraway look in Keith’s eyes softens, grounds, and hooks onto Lance with as much casual, premeditated certainty as an astronaut doing a routine EVA.

He’s not scared at all, and it’s driving Lance absolutely batshit fucking bonkers.

When Lance finds him alone on the engineering deck on the second to last night, he has half a mind to shove him against the wall and kiss him stupid, and half a mind to whack him on the back of the head and ask him what his deal is. The scene is disarming, to say the least. Keith is barefoot, first of all. That’s a new habit he’s picked up since the war ended, walking around the castleship barefoot, and it does things to Lance’s heart, okay? He’s also got his hair up in a ponytail, and his loose sweatpants hang low on his hips, plus he's got on his ‘Encuéntrame en La Playa de Varadero’ sweatshirt of which Mamá gave all the paladins matching versions when they were all briefly in Cuba. It’s cute on him. It’s also the only time Lance has ever seen Keith wearing the color blue. (He has a sneaking suspicion Mamá did that on purpose.)

So focused is he on the roomsized projected holographic map that he has open that he doesn’t hear Lance walk in, even though Kosmo does, and his ears perk toward Lance and his tail begins to thwap softly on the floor where he’s lying at Keith’s feet. Stars and nebulae whir by between them as Keith flicks his wrist, scrolling the entire Milky Way galaxy around himself, head craned upward to look at the stars as they pass. Finally he stops on a brilliant nebula that Lance doesn’t recognize, cloudy and crimson around the edges, fraught with dense golden pillars and rich with stars, bleeding away inward into sapphire, indigo, and fiery icy white.

“Pretty,” Lance says, drawing up beside Keith with his hands shoved in his pajama pants pockets.

Keith jumps at Lance’s voice, but recovers quickly, eyes scanning once over Lance as he crouches down to scratch Kosmo behind the ears. He watches his alien wolf bask in Lance’s attention for only a split second before returning his attention to the unfamiliar nebula. “Yeah,” he agrees, his voice thick with tempered excitement. It runs under every syllable when he speaks like an electric current. “It’s just past the edge of Sector 79. The Tormannon Nebula. Matt says there’s over a hundred planetary systems in here ripe for habitable life, and get this. Apparently his rebel base picked up a jumbled radio signal being sent out from one of them a few months back.”

“Sounds like something of an adventure when you put it that way,” Lance hums, standing again for a better look at the nebula, and part of him wonders if maybe, maybe, he won’t have to ask after all. Maybe Keith will ask him. Wouldn’t that be wild?

But Keith is Keith, and he doesn’t ask.

He just grins at Lance and says, “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” and turns his attention back to the nebula, using his hands to zoom in closer to take a deeper look at the individual stars making up its cosmic architecture. The casualness of Keith’s words takes Lance aback. Like leaving everything behind is gonna be a cakewalk for him. Like asking Lance if he wants to go too hasn’t even crossed his mind.

It hurts. It makes him start to second guess. Is he is looking too far into this thing between them? Is it not as deep for Keith as it is for him? Probably not. Or maybe he waited too long. Still, gazing at Keith now, he can’t help remembering the conversation they had after the battle was over and Keith was loading Lance into a healing pod first, despite Lance’s protests that he needed one too.

Keith, what if I don’t get my sight back?

You will.

And what if I don’t?

You’re being stupid. What did you say to me when you found out I was part Galra?

That you’re still Keith.

Uh-huh. And you’re still Lance, even if you never shoot again.

...And it’s still gonna be ‘you and me,’ right? Even though it’s all over now? Even after this?

That whole memory is incoherent, buried under layers of pain, exhaustion, and disbelief. But he remembers with a dreamlike clarity the shape of Keith’s silhouette against the silver medbay ceiling, the tired smile Keith gave him as he drifted into unconsciousness, and the comforting weight of his answer.

As if I had a choice.

“It’s gonna be a nice change of pace,” Lance says to him carefully, “going out there into space like we always wanted, without going into war this time. I’m…” Here he takes a deep breath, eyes on Keith’s hand. God, he wants to grab it out of the air. His fingers twitch inside his pocket from the effort it takes to restrain himself from doing it. “I’m really gonna miss everyone though.” He says this last part pointedly, begging Keith to hear the naked truth between the words. I don’t wanna say goodbye to you yet, you friggin’ idiot. So tell me I don’t have to. Ask me to come with you.

But a simple “Yeah,” is all Keith gives him. “Me too.”

 

 

 

 

 

By the time the final day rolls around Lance still hasn’t mustered up the courage to ask him, and is living in a state of constant internal combustion. He’s the supernova now, and everyone in his orbit is feeling the aftershocks.

Hunk finally confronts Lance after one of those moments where he accidentally broadcasts the entire contents of his heart out through his eyes at the side of Keith’s head, halfway through Allura’s speech to a crowd of aliens on Olkarion on the second to last day, the morning after the moment in the map room. Lance realizes his mistake when he gets a sharp elbow to the side from Pidge, and an incredulous look from Hunk when Lance snaps out of it. Thankfully Hunk waits till after the speech to say something. But he doesn’t wait long, and has to yank Lance behind a pile of crates to do it, hiding from the others and the Olkari engineers who've been showing them the new spaceships they've been busy building inside a hangar nested in the forest surrounding their capital. These new ships are aesthetically reminiscent of the castleship, but are smaller and much higher tech, decked out with every advancement made in the last thousand years and fitted with the new wormhole technology made possible by the tech found in the uncovered Altean colonies. The ships are personalized. One for each paladin. At least, that's what Lance assumes. He didn't really have the fortitude to listen for more than two minutes before tuning out. Even though they’re all still only half built, just standing in their shadows tugs painfully at Lance’s heartstrings.

“Dude, Hunk hisses when Lance pretends not to know why he’s been hauled off around a corner. He then pretends to be super interested in the contents of the stacked crates surrounding them instead of answering. If he pretends not to have ears next would that maybe get him out of this conversation?

“What?” he tries innocently when Hunk shakes him by the collar.

“Don’t ‘what’ me,” Hunk blurts. “You know what I’m talking about. Lance, I’ve seen you look at people that way before. Like a hundred times. I know what that look means—!”

“It’s not like that,” Lance blurts back defensively, and suddenly it’s the most important thing in the world that Hunk understands this, as one of his oldest and dearest friends, and that he sees it for what it is. It's not just another stupid crush. Keith's not some random pretty alien making eyes at him on a trade moon. “I mean that it’s not like the other times,” Lance clarifies. It's definitely not like it was with Allura, although he doesn't have the time or willpower to get into the intricacies of falling out of not-love here and now. All that matters is: “This is different, Hunk. This is…”

Lance trails off and lets his head fall back on the crate behind him; he’s just spotted Keith and Allura standing at the loading bridge of one of the half-built ships. He’s pointing up at it and making gestures with his hands to two of the Olkari engineers working near the base. Allura responds, and the Olkari nod, and Keith goes back to gesturing, his hand motions small and precise. Lance wonders what kind of special features he’s asking for on his new ship. Knowing him, probably some kind of turbo drive, or a knife pocket under his pillow, or a space heater for Red’s hangar...

“Oh, wow,” Hunk says, snapping Lance to attention, and finally releases his stranglehold on Lance’s collar. “I see. This is the big one, huh?”

Lance nods, feeling the heat in his cheeks. “Do you think Allura would consider letting us tackle the exploration mission together?” he asks. “I’ve been too scared to ask her. I haven’t even asked Keith yet..”

“Ohhh,” Hunk breathes, and understanding washes over him. “That. Oh, jeez. No wonder you’ve been so high-strung.”

“Well?”

“I dunno,” Hunk says thoughtfully. “There’s a lot of stuff to be done here in this part of the galaxy, but… I really don’t know. I think you just need to ask, buddy.”

Lance swallows. “Yeah. I guess that’s what it comes down to.”

You just need to ask.

But the penultimate day ends, and the final day begins and then it too dwindles. They move on from Olkarion to the BoM base to Daibazaal to New Altea, to their last group stop at the planet Isadias, where a cultural ceremony for the new peacetime era will be celebrated. Allura refers to it as a ‘political function’ but it quickly becomes clear that this is more of a ball than anything else, through the fact that there is a fancy dress code and the fact that the Isadians call them a few hours before it's set to begin to request an Earth song choice from each paladin, to add the sounds of Earth to the many various musical cultures in attendance tonight. No one will admit it but Lance knows a freakin’ ball when he sees one. It’s clear what they’re in for from the moment they enter Isadias’s irradiant purple atmosphere, the southern end of sky alight with magenta and cyan aurora borealis, and the city below filled with thousands of soft glowing lanterns. Apparently even hyper-advanced civilizations still appreciate the aesthetic of firelight. They land, and they break off to their rooms to get dressed, and the evening comes and Lance still hasn’t asked. He hasn’t even managed to get Keith alone once today, and the maelstrom of emotions in his chest have started to converge into a black hole of emotion.

In other words, Lance is panicking.

“Hey Lance, hold up for a sec,” Shiro says, tugging at the back of his coat to keep him from entering the palace behind the rest of the paladins.

Groaning quietly in the back of his throat Lance watches Keith disappear into the towering golden doors, which then slip shut behind him, leaving Lance alone with Shiro and Adam. They’re kind of a package deal, these days.

The building is like a castle-sized cathedral, its walls flat obsidian black but lined with thousands of rainbow lights at every arch and corner and ornate curve of architecture. It’s beautiful and, like the constellations beyond it, utterly alien. For some reason Lance is more aware than usual of the fact that he’s standing on alien soil.

“What’s going on with you?” Shiro intones gently, speaking softly enough that the group of generals passing into the reception hall don’t hear it. Avoiding Adam’s kind but much more calculated gaze, Lance opts to cast his eyes downward at a yellow bioluminescent mushroom pushing up impossibly between two cobblestones on the steps. “Hey,” Shiro says, drawing Lance’s attention outward again. “You know you can talk to us, right?”

Rolling his eyes at Shiro amicably, Lance shoves his hands deep in his coat pockets. How quickly it became ‘us’ again after he and Adam made up. ‘We’ this, ‘Adam and I’ that. They’re like an old married couple. Lance is honestly amazed that he went so long without realizing Shiro had left half of himself somewhere back on Earth. “Are you guys ganging up on me?” he jokes.

“Yes,” Adam says, “and we’re both bigger than you, so— Ow. Takashi,” he complains, rubbing at his ribs where Shiro just elbowed him.

“Lance,” Shiro presses.

“It’s Keith, okay?” he blurts before he has time to really think about it.

“Told you. It’s always Keith,” Shiro tells Adam matter-of-factly, and Lance glares but presses on nonetheless.

“He’s…” He looks away, breathing deeply through his nose. “He’s gonna take the exploration mission.”

Shiro raises his eyebrows first at Adam, then at Lance. “Yeah?”

“And I wanna go with him,” Lance admits in one quick burst, quiet and rushed. “I just don’t know how to ask, okay? I don’t know if he wants that or—or me. What?

The faces they’re making shift from empathetic to bewildered at lightspeed. “Wait, hang on,” Adam says, waving his hands in confusion as if to dispel Lance’s words. “But Keith told us—”

“What?” Something hot and scary prickles in Lance’s stomach. “What did he tell you?”

Just like that Shiro’s bewilderment is gone, replaced by stoic indifference—the signature Dad Look. He places his hand right over Adam’s mouth when he opens his mouth to answer, and says, “Nope, this is between you and Keith. You need to talk to him if you want the answer to that.”

“What?” Lance shrieks, his voice slipping up into an embarrassing register. “You can’t just say that and then leave me hanging! What the hell, Shiro?!”

“Lance,” Shiro says gently, pushing down a laugh in a way that has Lance’s face burning, and places both hands on his shoulders. “Listen to me: take a deep breath and stop panicking. Just talk to him, okay? I would’ve been saved a lot of grief over Adam if we’d just wised up and talked to each other more instead of keeping it all in.”

“And we would’ve been a lot happier if we’d stuck together,” Adam winks, and then gives Lance a reassuring pat on the shoulder before straightening and taking Shiro by the hand to lead him up the last few steps and through the golden doors.

When Lance finally follows, he’s greeted by the most colorful mashup of culture that he’s ever seen crowded into one space before.

The idea behind this party is the coming together of cultures, or so Allura explained as she read off the invitation. Apparently Isadias was the cultural center of the old world long before the war. The fact that all these different cultures are able to come together like this again without fear is perhaps the most telling sign that the war is truly over, Allura told them, scarcely able to contain her happiness long enough to speak the words. It was one thing hearing that; it’s quite another seeing it. He’s never seen so many sentient species under the same roof before, and they’re all wearing their own vastly differing cultural formalwear too. The result is a slow-rolling dreamscape of shapes and colors beneath the mushrooms that are growing upside-down from the ceiling, far larger than the smalltime ones growing just outside. The ceiling mushrooms glow with vibrant blue bioluminescent light. On top of that, fainter orange light glows from beyond their lips, suggesting actual fire on the inside of their caps, which light their stalks up yellow and cast flickering shadows all across rafters and recesses of the flora-covered ceiling.

It’s hard to take his eyes off this wonderland of a ceiling, but eventually Lance manages it when he bumps into someone for the fifth time as he walks.

It’s pretty easy finding the others; humanoid shapes are always easy to spot in a sea of aliens. There’s Adam and Shiro in their simple black tuxedos near what looks like a bar, and Pidge and Matt dancing together right beside them, Matt in a white tux and Pidge in a knee length forest green dress. Just past them are Allura and Romelle in their matching Altean gowns, giggling together as Coran dances up a storm and draws a crowd with his antics without even spilling the drink in his hand. And then there’s Keith, standing with his mom on the far end of the group, leaning on the counter as the alien manning it sends a glass sliding toward him.

The lighting softens his edges in a way that leaves Lance breathless, and as he looks Keith turns his way, almost as if some sixth sense has alerted him to Lance’s entrance and his gaze. They lock eyes, and for a moment Lance feels released from the binds of gravity.

From the very beginning, Lance knew Keith was important, even if it took him years to truly understand why. Keith was always relevant to Lance's life in some way, even back before they’d ever spoken a word to each other. It’s surreal, thinking back to that first day at the Garrison so long ago, when he was young and naive and the road stretched out so much farther ahead of him than he ever could have known. The first time he ever laid eyes on Keith as he stepped out of Shiro’s car onto the hot, desert tarmac and looked up at the sky like it was made for him and no one else, he never could have guessed what was coming.

Never would have guessed that someday Keith would look at him that way, too.

Tonight, he tells himself, and smiles somewhat shyly at Keith as he envisions the impending conversation, then gives him a small wave before making his way over to the group.

An hour and a half (and one or two drinks) later he’s feeling a little less scared. Dancing is fairly distracting, and he lets himself be distracted by it for as long as possible, focusing on the celebration for a bit instead of Keith and the future. His bones warm up and he falls headfirst into the warm, jubilant atmosphere. He must dance with a hundred different partners just in the first hour alone, but he always ends up back at the homebase table that Pidge at Matt claimed near the beginning of the night, a round standing-table adorned with a white twisting light fixture in the center, where Lance finds various members of their group every time he ducks away from the dancefloor for food or drinks. As far as saving the universe has gone, this is the closest thing to a regular old party that they’ve ever gotten, and Lance? He is living for it.

On a rare occasion when they are all at the homebase table at once, Hunk is overcome with excitement and demands that no one walks away again until they have a toast. “To the best roommates ever,” he says, and Lance pats him on the shoulder empathetically when he sees that Hunk’s eyes are watering through the toast. “Have you guys all decided which missions you’re taking yet? I can’t believe it came up so fast.”

“Let’s not talk about that yet,” Shiro cuts in from across the table, and winks at Lance when he shoots him a grateful look. It’s annoyingly conspicuous.

“Right,” Adam agrees. “We still have the rest of the night to figure it out.”

At this point the alien manning the music station briefly lowers the music, then gets on the mic and says, “Hate to interrupt the flow of the dancefloor, but I’d like you all to be aware that these next five songs come from the home planet of our stars of the evening, the paladins of Voltron, and a little blue body of water and rock called Earth that sits about twenty thousand light years from here. This first one was picked by your Black Paladin, Takashi Shirogane. Take ‘er away.”

The first few chords come on, and Lance sets his half-empty drink down on the table with a loud clunk. “Shiro!” he shouts, nearly knocking over Hunk’s glass. “Shiro, you picked Elvis Presley?” Shiro half-grins at him from the middle of a whispered conversation with Adam, which is frankly a crime considering Elvis is currently playing and it’s his fault. “What the hell. Who even are you, a white grandpa? What songs did the rest of you heathens pick? I thought we were supposed to pick songs with significance or something.”

“Hey!” Shiro protests. “‘Love Me Tender’ is peak romance—”

“Shiro you are so invalid in your inexplicable love of Elvis that it’s not even funny,” Keith says, and Lance wheels towards him.

“Thank you, Keith!”

“I picked Ray Charles,” Hunk pipes in with one hand raised. “Is that valid?”

“The 8-ball says ‘yes,’” Adam says, still patting the very offended Shiro on the shoulder.

“Who is Ray Charles?” Allura asks.

“An old jazz musician. His music sounds kinda like your song choice from earlier, actually! Just, with less bells and more percussion. My parents were big fans so I heard a lot of him growing up while we were working in the garage. Hmm, I’m pretty sure Elvis ripped off at least one Ray Charles song too, now that I think about it…”

My song is a surprise,” Pidge announces unsolicited, and Matt turns his nose up at her haughtily.

“I still can’t believe you got to choose one, ONE Earth song to represent our race at a galactic cultural gathering, and that’s the song you picked.”

“You’re just mad you didn’t get to pick one.”

“Yeah, not fair.”

Romelle giggles, and to Lance’s surprise, Krolia joins in laughing, of all people. Keith chokes into his drink and looks up at his mother, and Lance doesn’t blame him; the sound of stoic Krolia openly laughing is strange and wonderful and disarming. “If every single attendee of this party was allowed to pick a three-minute song, the party would be seventeen Earth-days long,” she says.

“Heh,” Keith huffs at her side, and his eyes crinkle with amusement. “I think I’d be into that, actually.”

Something passes unspoken between them as they meet eyes, and Krolia’s amusement softens, becoming something much deeper. She sets her own drink down and tugs Keith into a tentative side hug, which Keith returns somewhat sadly, and Lance realizes with a bit of an unpleasant shock that tonight is goodbye for them.

It is for everyone, actually, and he knows that, he’s known it for days, but the weight of it slams into Lance afresh as he looks around the circular table at their strange, found family. Coran is the most openly emotional, hovering between Allura and Romelle the same way birds hover over their nests. Romelle seems to love it, while Allura tolerates it lovingly. (There’s a difference.) Matt and Pidge are also sitting awfully close for a pair of siblings that are currently mid-argument, and Lance knows it’s because they’re about to part ways again. The air between them all is heavy with little goodbyes.

All except for two.

Adam and Shiro are leaning in close to each other, still whispering back and forth in each other’s ears about things Lance can’t hear or even guess beneath the velvety drone of Elvis’s voice. They’re not saying goodbye, and it makes all the difference. It’s like they’re wrapped in a warm and golden protective bubble from the solemn atmosphere; because no matter what, there is one person here they will never have to say goodbye to.

God, how Lance wants that.

The slow and lilting Elvis song eventually comes to an end, and the DJ announces Pidge’s song, at which point Lance abruptly loses all of his chill. Because they’re on an alien planet, twenty thousand lightyears from Earth, but the smooth synth beat of fucking Africa by Toto is now blaring over the speakers, and Lance is going to explode from the amount of sheer overflowing love in his gut. “Oh my god. Pidge, you evil genius,” he shrieks, “I have to go dance to this, like, right now immediately. Hunk!” he begs, because Hunk is the most shameless on the dancefloor and therefore the funnest dance partner, but instead of agreeing Hunk slams the rest of his drink and comes over with a determined expression.

“Sorry buddy,” he says, “but I’m going to find Shay before my song comes on.”

“Godspeed!” Pidge hollers after him, while Coran claps him on the back as he goes.

“I’ll dance with you!” Allura says from beside Lance. “This song is a—what did you call it, again? A bop?”

“Uh—yeah,” Lance laughs, “yep,” and he very determinedly does not check for Keith's reaction as he follows Allura away from the table.

All night Lance has danced like an idiot and not cared at all, but suddenly, he feels keenly self-conscious. Even though it’s not like this is a slow-dancing song. It’s not a love song or anything. But Keith can see them, he saw them walk away to go dance together, and Keith knows he used to have a crush on Allura, and Lance never really found an opening to casually throw out hey, I’m over Allura by the way, her and I talked it out ages ago haha, in fact I don’t think I was ever into her as much as I thought I was, I was just confused and lonely as hell without blasting the fact that he only figured that out when he figured out where Keith fit into the picture. He tries not to be obvious about the fact that he’s searching the crowd for Keith to make sure he doesn’t get the wrong idea in his head about him and Allura before Lance gets a chance to talk to him. Tries, but probably fails. He can't seem to locate Keith anyway, as he too has left the homebase table.

“Your Terran way of dancing is rather fun,” Allura notes, her dress swishing elegantly every time she twists and turns. “It’s not all that unlike Altean dancing, in fact.” She sighs as the song flows from a verse into the chorus, trying to keep the mood light and fun even as she slows in her movements and becomes thoughtful, her eyes shining with a faraway glint. “It’s a shame we can’t all stay together longer,” she says, “to just be young and have some fun for awhile.”

“Yeah,” Lance agrees, stepping deftly backward so he doesn’t step on the trim of her dress as it finishes twirling long after she does. “It'd be nice, huh.”

“But these next-stage missions are important,” she says, although it sounds more like she’s talking to herself than to him. “Time is of the essence when creating a new age from the ashes of one recently ended...”

“Hey, Allura?” Lance says suddenly, a rush of bravery overcoming him at her mention of the missions. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” She stiffens a bit at the sudden seriousness of his tone, but he forges ahead anyway. “Keith is gonna take the exploration mission,” he rushes. “You probably know that, but I… I want that mission too.”

Allura freezes dead in her tracks, so suddenly that a Balmeran dancing nearby bumps into her and apologizes softly before dancing away. Blinking up at him in surprise, she opens her mouth to speak. But Lance hears his own words belatedly, and backtracks before she can answer.

“Wait— I mean, I mean I want that mission,” he clarifies, “but I’m not asking you to give it to me over Keith. This isn’t a rivalry thing. This is a…” A love thing, he wants to say, but can’t get the words out. He’s worried they’re written on his face anyway. “I want us to go together,” he settles on, “but I didn’t know how you’d feel about us teaming up, since you’ve been trying to split us all off to cover as much ground as possible. I get that. I do. But I think that we make a really good team,” Lance says, with a hint of begging in his voice this time since Allura looks pretty gobsmacked by all this, “me and Keith. But I… I haven't asked him yet, because I wanted to know if it's even possible first. You’re the boss, so. Please say yes?”

There’s a long silence between them as the song ends and the DJ announces Hunk’s choice, which turns out to be a song that Lance remembers Hunk jamming to over and over in days gone by as he slaved over half-deconstructed engines.

“Allura?” Lance worries. He can’t play it cool by resuming the dance because this song is even livelier than the previous; silly dancing time is over, and the dance floor is kicking it into high gear again. Therefore, their stillness amongst the throng is glaring. “What are you looking at me like that for?”

“I suppose I’m just surprised,” she finally says. “I think perhaps I’m missing something, here. Keith told me that you were—”

Here she cuts herself off, distracted by something over Lance’s shoulder. “What?” he presses, remembering similar words coming out of Adam’s mouth two hours ago. What is Lance missing?? “What did he—”

“Hello!” Allura perks up, speaking to someone behind Lance, and Lance turns to find Romelle standing there sheepishly, waggling her fingers at Lance.

“Can I intrude?” she asks, and Allura’s eyes sparkle as she silently asks Lance.

“I— yeah, okay.” But Lance’s mind is really not on the dancing-track right now. He’s reeling. “Wait, Allura, what has Keith been saying?” he asks, because she’s now the third person to hint at Keith talking about Lance and he’s starting to legitimately freak out about it.

But Allura doesn’t hear his question; she’s already swept Romelle up into the beat of the music in that Altean style of swing-dancing that Lance couldn’t keep up with if he tried, and they’re dancing away from him. “The answer is an emphatic yes, by the way!” she shouts at Lance casually as they twist away into the crowd, her answer so last-minute Lance almost doesn’t even catch it. And just like that, they’re gone. He continues to stand there watching them for a minute as their overzealous swing-dancing carries them farther and farther away, smiling to himself as he remembers the Allura of three years ago who used to stay up late on the observation deck crying when she thought no one was awake to hear her, who used to worry she wasn’t good enough or strong enough to carry the legacy of her people, who used to fear she would never come to see any of her people again. He also carefully observes the way Romelle looks at her like she’s a natural wonder, and he wonders if there’s anything there. Secretly, he hopes there is. Allura deserves someone who looks at her the same way they look at clouds and flowers and sunshine.

Back at the table, the only people left standing there are Shiro and Adam.

“Ah. See, now that’s the look of a man who has not talked to Keith yet,” Adam notes through a mouthful of weird alien bread as Lance joins them.

“I don’t even know where he is,” Lance groans, throwing his whole upper body out over the table.

“He went to find you,” Shiro says, and Lance’s heart flips over when Shiro abruptly cups his hands around his mouth and shouts over the lively last verse of Hunk’s Ray Charles song. “Hey, Keith!”

“Shiro!” Lance hisses, and flies up off the table, straightening, wheeling around to find that Keith is now looking their way from about fifty yards off.

He looks criminally handsome in his fitted black tux with his red tie hanging loose under his collar, his hair pulled back at the base of his neck to reveal the full length of that scar Shiro’s clone gave him, the one that stretches from his cheek all the way down to the side of his neck. Lance loves that he’s not averse to showing it anymore, that he doesn’t turn his collar up or constantly fix his hair so that more of it is covered. Shit, he’s coming over here now—

“Takashi, what’s that Lance is always saying?" Adam drawls loudly behind Lance. "About how he never misses?” 

“Yep, he’s our sharpshooter, alright,” Shiro replies, swishing his glass. “And I’ve never known him not to take the shot when it really counts...”

“You’re damn right I always take the shot,” Lance hisses back at them, eyes trained on Keith as he hurries toward them, almost running in his haste. He knows exactly what Adam and Shiro are doing, knows exactly which part of Lance’s psyche they’re poking at like a bear at a bee hive, but it works on him anyway. He'll be damned if he doesn't take the most important shot of his life.

There you are,” Keith shouts, seizing Lance by the elbow and dragging him bodily away from the table. “Come on, my song’s almost on!”

Keith is almost bouncing as he leads Lance straight out to the middle of the dance floor without even bothering to ask Lance if he even wants to dance first. He just goes right ahead and assumes, which is so utterly Keith that Lance feels himself falling for him all over again. The Ray Charles song ends as Keith finally comes to a stop in the crowd, having found a decently sized pocket of ballroom floor to stop in between dancers, and peers up at Lance through his eyelashes as the DJ announces ‘the Red Paladin’s selection’ in a way that makes Lance immediately suspicious. Curiosity has Lance perking up and angling his ears toward the nearest speakers. And then, it starts.

You and I in a little toy shop buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got..

“Keith,” Lance deadpans as the first line of the song plays out. This.. this can’t be it. This can’t be Keith’s song. This cannot be the ONE song that Keith chose to represent all of humanity at a galactic cultural gathering.

Set them free at the break of dawn till one by one they were gone..

“Oh my god!”

Back at base, bugs in the software flash the message: ‘Something’s out there…’

“What?” Keith bluffs, his face carefully blank and devoid of guilt.

Floating in the summer sky—

“Keith, you did not!”

‘Ninety-nine red balloons go by,’ Keith mouths at him with a completely straight face, and the beat breaks down into the ridiculous late nineties synth rock, and Lance officially loses it.

This stupid song is absolute peak hilarity and Lance doubles over wheezing at the sheer audacity of the entire situation, and soon he’s laughing so hard that he can’t get a proper breath in, for the entire first minute of the song.

It’s only when Keith picks him up by the tie (which, holy shit ) that he finally falls into dancing. Although, Keith is laughing now too, so it’s probably the messiest and giggliest dance that Lance has ever had with anyone before. His face hurts from all the smiling he’s doing. His blood is singing with liquid courage. It’s almost a crime how long it's taken for Lance to realize that the most fun he’s ever had out here in space has been with Keith, that it’s always been Keith. When the song ends a few minutes later, Keith is still grinning like a dumbass who won the lottery, and Lance has to know.

“So, uh, why on Earth did you choose that song, you absolute lunatic?” Lance barely manages to get out through his lingering incredulity as the DJ announces that Lance’s song is on next.

“Because I knew it’d make you laugh,” Keith says, his smile softening into something warmer. “You haven’t been doing enough of that, lately.”

“O-oh,” he stammers, flattered and embarrassed and flooded with so many butterflies that they might start fluttering out of his mouth. The floor disappears from under Lance’s feet as that sinks in, as his own song choice kicks in over the speakers and he remembers with a sudden jolt which one he picked and why. He really wanted to choose a song of more personal cultural significance, perhaps a Cuban song—but then, he wanted to pick something that Keith would understand so he could put in a clear ‘hey moron I’m deadass in love with you’ kind of message, so, in the end he had to compromise. Besides, Keith chose goddamn 99 Red Balloons so he doesn’t feel as bad now.

Keith is now noticing that Lance’s song choice is a slow one, and he shuffles awkwardly on his feet, wiping his palms on his pants in what he probably thinks is a surreptitious way but is super obvious to Lance, who’s pulled the same move about a million times. Those factors combined are enough to give Lance the boost of confidence he needs. Clearing his throat, he reaches forward—only to realize they’ve both reached out at once, but with opposite hands. Oh no, he thinks belatedly. He’s never slow-danced with another guy before so like, how does it work?? What is the hand-placement protocol???

A nervous laugh escapes him as they both notice their mistake, and then both attempt to switch hands at once. Maybe such a thing would be stiff and awkward if it was anyone else, but the unaffected way that Keith laughs the second time it happens chases away any possibility of that. “Here,” Keith offers, and steps forward, abandoning the classic waltz style dance for the chiller, more intimate version, placing both of his hands on the front of Lance’s shoulders as the soft harp arpeggio of the song fills the room and sends a hush over the atmosphere, and Florence Welch’s otherworldly voice has all the aliens of the galaxy quieting to listen. When the night has come... and the land is dark… and the moon is the only light we’ll see... Call Lance cheesy if you must, but he picked this song on the vague fairytale-esque dream that fate would allow him to dance to it with the person he loved most. “Problem solved,” Keith says. And Lance? He believes in fairytales. He’ll believe in anything when Keith says it like that. Like it’s easy. Like it makes perfect sense.

When his hands find Keith’s hips they’re sure and steady, and one of them snakes around onto the small of his back to pull him in closer as the song picks up and they fall into its sway. The crowd is dense but it feels like they’re alone, and Lance knows it’s time. There’s a reason Keith is standing here with him rather than anywhere else in this room. They belong together.

“Keith, I have something I need to ask you,” he says. “I’ve been trying for a few days now, but.. you know how it is,” he chuckles.

“Mhmm,” Keith hums, and his wrists cross behind Lance’s neck. They couldn’t be dancing closer if they tried.

“Do you want to go together on that exploration mission?” Lance breathes. The question is easy, now that it’s out. Now that he can’t possibly take it back no matter how Keith reacts once it all sinks in. “I think we’d be really good together, you know? We make a great team, and Allura even said yes—I just asked her a few minutes ago. So we can do this,” he whispers, “if you want to, that is. Just think about it. You and me, taking on the unknown… What do you say?” He forces himself to end his rambling. Then his shoulders tense as Keith’s arms slip from them, falling to his sides as he takes a step backwards and away from Lance, an alarmingly unreadable expression creeping over his face. “Keith?”

Keith’s answer is to swear inaudibly and abruptly pitch his head forward and hide his face in his hands.

Oh, no.

No no no.

“I—I’m sorry. Did I— Did I read this all wrong?” Lance stammers, totally at a loss for what to make of Keith’s reaction. “I have a tendency to do that.” He takes a step back himself, rejection settling hotter in his gut than it ever has before. But Keith lurches into action as soon as Lance moves, grabbing onto Lance’s wrist.

“No, wait, no,” he blurts, and Lance is surprised to see that his face has turned beet red between one moment and the next. “You didn’t read anything wrong, I just—” Lance is fairly sure he’s never witnessed Keith even experience embarrassment as an emotion before, but he looks more embarrassed in this moment than anyone Lance has ever seen before. He stubbornly stares off to the left, pouting when he finally comes out with it. “I might have just… assumed we were going together.”

The words take a solid five seconds to process. The world slams to a halt with Lance at the center while he tries to wrap his head around the words Keith just said.

“You…” Keith scrubs at his face with one hand like he could rid the blush that way, but the process only reddens his cheek even more. Lance can’t believe this is happening. “You assumed. You assumed we were going together.”

“Well it sounds stupid when you say it like that,” Keith grumbles almost inaudibly. “But you were being all… I don’t know! It was the way you were acting!” he flounders. “When we were talking in the map room last night, and at the Garrison before Earth's induction, and—and Haggar’s ship, and what you asked me when I put you in the healing pod for your eye. I just. I thought it was a given. Don’t you remember what you asked me then?” he finishes with an air of hopeless frustration. “Don’t you remember what I told you?!”

“Yeah, I remember.” Lance can’t help but giggle softly to himself now as Keith goes through the seven stages of grief in front of him over the misunderstanding. All this time, Keith’s been counting on this like there was never any question of an alternative. The song is ending now but Lance pulls him back into a dancing position anyway, this time with his hands on Keith’s collar. It’s a thin excuse to get his face in close to Keith’s, because he has half a mind to kiss him right here in front of everyone. He feels like such an idiot, and he just wants to laugh. “I can’t believe I’ve been panicking for a week straight, terrified you might say no when I asked you, and the reason you’ve been so annoyingly chill the whole time is because you thought you already had me in the bag. You’re so full of yourself, mullet.”

“Okay, well, while you’ve been off having your crisis I was busy making sure our new ship is gonna have two lion hangars,” Keith retorts sassily. “Two of everything, actually. I’ve been talking to the Olkari about adjustments for our ship for days, so you’re welcome—

“Hey!” Lance balks. “I would have done all that shit too if you’d uhh, I dunno, maybe asked if I wanted to officially partner up with you like a normal person instead of just assuming I’d read your mind and automatically know?!”

“You always read my mind,” Keith grumbles, “I don’t see why this should have been any different. Why is it different?”

“Because,” Lance hisses, “it just is! I wasn’t—” sure if you felt the same, “I mean I’ve never—” loved anyone the way I love you, and “I just—” don’t know what I’d do if I’m wrong this time around. The words well up in his mouth too much too fast and start to spill before he’s ready to say them, none of them coming out right. Anger and doubt are blossoming up now from a dark place in his gut. Nothing is ever set in stone in this universe, and even if Keith conveniently forgets about it, there was a time only a few years ago when Keith used to look straight at Lance and still never see him standing there. Even now, even knowing Keith wants to stick with him, Lance has no guarantee that Keith feels like that. That he feels about Lance the way Lance feels about him. He only has guesses. And sometimes, oftentimes, his guesses are dead wrong.

“Lance—”

Nothing is a given,” he says.

Sometime in the last minute they’ve stopped dancing again. They’re just standing here now, deadweight in a sea of dancers. Lance almost flinches when Keith’s hand leaves his waist and brushes tentatively at his right cheek, where he knows that ugly scar is even though he can’t see it without a mirror.

When he speaks, Keith sounds sad, and his eyebrows are furrowed in disbelieving realization. “You really thought I was gonna leave without you.”

Lance laughs; it sounds hollow, but he tries to ease up by echoing the lighter mood before their conversation took this sharp turn. “Well it sounds stupid when you say it like that.”

“Yeah,” Keith agrees, “it does.”

“Man, shut up,” Lance laughs, and although it’s tired, this time there’s a hint of actual amusement in it too. Feeling all fluttery again, he presses his cheek bravely into Keith’s hand, leaning down the two inches between them until their foreheads come together.  “When are you and I ever gonna be on the same wavelength?” he sighs wistfully, his stomach flipping a bit as Keith’s grip on his waist tightens. “Someday, right?”

Keith doesn’t laugh, nor send back his own jokey threat. Instead he turns thoughtful, and hesitates, and then finally says: “I’d really like it if that day were today, actually.”

Words fail Lance, but that's okay because Keith continues anyway.

“Can we get some air?” he asks, his confidence ebbing into something bordering on shy. “Like, step outside maybe? Somewhere quieter?”

“Uh,” Lance manages to eke out amidst feeling like he’s been blindsided by a stray cargo ship. “Okay. Okay, yeah.”

Quiet relief crosses over Keith’s face, followed by a small smile and a beckoning hand gesture as he pulls away, leaving Lance to follow after him numbly through the pulsing crowd and wonder privately to himself how he ever found such a kind and expressive person as Keith cruel or unfeeling. Growing up rocks if these are the kind of benefits you get as you pass GO and move from childhood to adulthood. Grow into Marco’s old jacket, hit the low notes in Johnny Cash songs, get through Keith’s impenetrable wall, fall in love… in that order, apparently.

“Sorry,” Keith says when he doubles back for Lance the third time they’re inevitably separated by dancers, but Lance just laughs it off and shoves his way around a group of unfamiliar deerlike aliens to meet up with him again, anticipation burning in his gut. Because he’s done this particular dance before. If none of the signs have been misread, then they’re off to make out in some dark corner or something. And Lance, oh man, is he ever up for that. Keith follows after with surprise when Lance slips ahead of Keith (who’s kind of just pushing aimlessly through the crowd) and enthusiastically takes over, leading him away from the main floor toward a small door at the far end of the ballroom. It looks like a promising exit. They wave amicably to the aliens that try to stop them or say hello or ask to dance, but Lance is a man on a mission and he doesn’t give anyone enough time to interrupt their momentum. So what if some people are starting to stare by the time they make it to the door he has his sights set on.

When he opens the door like the gentleman he is and makes an over-the-top gesture at Keith to walk through, he's totally beyond caring who sees at this point or what they think about it. Although, he does give one last glance over the ballroom as he prepares to follow after—tactical force of habit, hard to break—and happens to see Pidge and Matt standing near the west end of the room, looking right at them. Pidge is pointing at them and slapping Matt’s arm while Matt spills his drink slowly onto the marble floor.

Lance gives them a quick two-finger salute, mouths ‘what of it,’ and follows Keith through the doorway.

The door does lead outside the building, as it turns out, into some kind of side-garden area—if you can even call anything on this planet a garden. The flora on this planet sits even farther along the evolutionary chain from Terran plantlife than Lance is accustomed to. It’s just fungus fungus fungus as far as he’s seen. Fuzzy wisps grow here instead of grass, mushrooms instead of flowers, twisting soft tumbleweeds instead of bushes, and giant cobwebby nets instead of trees, reminiscent of ocean coral in appearance yet soft to the touch like a sponge, easily compressible. (Lance knows because he touched every single one of these plants on the walk here from the plaza where they landed the castleship.)

The door eases shut on squeaky hinges behind them, and the roar of the cultural shebang is abruptly muffled, leaving Lance’s ears ringing in its wake. The night air is somewhat chilly now that night has fallen, even though it’s almost hard to tell that it’s even night. Isadias is closer to the Rigel supernova than Earth, so close that instead of night falling when Isadias’s sun went down, the capital city was left in perpetual twilight, the sky a brilliant royal purple with only the brightest First Magnitude stars visible in the sky. It’s hard not to stare at Rigel once it catches Lance’s eye. It’s impossible not to look up at the night sky and not fall into recollections of the final battle that ended the war and of everything else in the years preceding it; impossible not to see the faces of everyone they lost in the war in every psychedelic rainbow spectrum curve of light left behind by the exploded star system.

A pair of Galra in Blade uniforms are walking up the stairs and toward the door, and dip their heads first at Keith, and then Lance as he half-jogs to catch up. “It’s strange how an act of nature so violent can look so beautiful, isn’t it?” one of them says to Lance, who finally drags his gaze away from the supernova.

“Sometimes the two things go hand in hand,” Keith says, and dips his head at the pair in return before moving on down the stairs. “Not here,” he says to Lance under his breath, igniting Lance’s gut again and making him imagine all the things they can’t do in a crowded garden garden, within earshot and eyeshot of the various milling people who seem to have had the same need for fresh air, and are standing about chatting beneath lampposts and tucked away on ornate benches. Without further explanation, Keith leads him away at a steady pace.

It’s weird how not weird this is. Lance tries to be chill and simply accept 'disappearing from a party together to make out’ as one more thing that he and Keith just suddenly do together now (along with the forehead touches, tight embraces, and multiple repeated incidents of prolonged desperate eye contact). It’s new, this level of intimacy. And yet, at the same time, it’s not really new at all, when Lance thinks about it. If anything, kissing could be considered a generous step down from some of the rawer moments they’ve shared. On battlefields, at bedsides, in the dead of night... things just got intimate, no matter what their actual friendship was like at the time or whether it even existed or whether Lance intended it or not. It just happened. He and Keith have always been kinda like that. Frenemies in the daylight, closer than blood in the moonlight. But the difference now is that this time there’s no explosions in the background; no friends to save or wounds to tend to or emotional support needed or anything like that. The worst of the war is behind them. It’s just them for once, and it’s nice. It’s a nice night for the pot to finally boil over.

The knowledge that maybe he really was right about Keith returning his feelings is a steady coalfire under his heart, and maybe Keith doesn’t feel quite as strongly as Lance does—no one ever does—but that’s okay. Lance will take whatever Keith is willing to give him.

They get about halfway down a fifty-yard long cobblestone footbridge leading away from the palace and toward the outer grounds before Lance stops him, pointing out that there’s still more people ahead of them.

“Let’s jump,” he suggests as an alternative, jabbing a thumb over the side of the bridge. Keith raises one eyebrow incredulously, then dubiously looks over the edge himself. It’s only about a fifteen or twenty foot drop, really. The bridge is only here because the ground beside them slopes steeply down from the path that circles the palace into a decorative garden area, where different species of brightly colored fungus are sectioned off into intricately patterned ‘flowerbeds.’ The walking paths down here are deserted as far as Lance can tell, and the farther in toward the main centerpiece of the garden they go, toward this colossal golden coral-like fungus the size of a weeping willow which towers over everything else in the smaller flowerbeds, the further from prying eyes they’ll be. It makes for a lovely sight from above, and Lance wants to be down there like, five minutes ago.

Directly below them is a flowerbed of rather soft-looking mushrooms, and Lance gestures to it.

“Our suits are gonna get ruined,” Keith points out, pulling his hand out of his pocket to flick Lance's collar.

“Jeez, when did you get so boring,” Lance teases, and Keith’s eyes narrow.

“You’re bad for my health,” he mumbles, “you know that?” And then he steps off the edge of the footbridge without preamble.

“Wha— Idiot!” Lance hisses, lurching over toward the edge when he hears Keith yelp as he hits the ground harder than he probably accounted for in the .02 seconds of forethought he gave that maneuver. He’s lying in a heap now, half buried in crushed gray mushrooms. “Do you wanna break an ankle? You should’ve hung off by your hands, then jumped, you stupid show-off! Like this.”

He shows Keith how it’s done (the right way,  thank you), but he ends up taking Keith down as he goes, who’s only just started to stand. “Ow!” Keith yells, elbowing Lance in the ribs as he laughs.

“Hmm,” Lance says, brushing off as much of the gray mushrooms smears as he can from his jacket as he stands, “now this is more like it. You wanna go get lost in the garden?”

Lance has to giggle again when Keith stubbornly smears the spores of a broken mushroom on Lance's sleeve as he sets off. Lance throws one at Keith's back and then hastens to catch up. He kind of likes that their relationship is still like this; that he can still hear the lingering echoes of that old rivalry even though he considers Keith his best friend now. Nobody ever gets it, and Lance can’t exactly explain it either, but what they have is special. It’s theirs.

The farther in they go, the more the various plants obscure the palace, and the slower Keith walks, the more thoughtful and distant he becomes. When the palace has become completely obscured and Keith still doesn’t seem keen on stopping, Lance starts to question whether Keith really dragged him out here just to make out. This seems.. bigger than that. This is a Keith who is working up to something. This was how he acted just before dropping the ‘I’m half-Galra’ bomb, and the ‘I’m leaving to join the Blade’ bomb. It chips away at the confidence Lance worked so hard for, and has him doubting everything again. The longer the silence stretches, the more Lance regresses.

“So…” he speaks into the silence, because that’s what he always does when he’s anxious, “what’s up, man? I kinda thought we were.. I mean, you look like you want to say something. You’re making that face.”

Keith’s profile is outlined in blue-gold by the glow that shines up from the mushrooms lining the path on both sides. Even his suit is outlined in it. He shoves his hands back in his jacket pockets, angling away so that Lance can see even less of him than before, which is annoying because when Keith isn’t talking all Lance has to go on is his face.

“Dude—”

“I just— I don’t like that you thought I was gonna just leave,” he interrupts in a rush. “After everything we’ve been through? Look, I’m not the same kid who fucked off into the desert without telling anyone,” he huffs, slowing in his steps, each echoing tap of his shoes on the cobblestone muffled by the surrounding foliage. “The fact that you thought there was a chance in hell I’d leave you behind without a word is killing me.”

“I’m sorry,” Lance says weakly, taken aback by the amount of emotion welling up in Keith’s voice.

Tentatively, he skips ahead and turns around so that he’s walking backwards, facing Keith. He looks… wrecked. Shit. Shit. Lance screwed it up again.

“Keith, man, I'm s—”

“No, don’t apologize,” Keith says softly, and Lance feels a flurry of butterflies unfold their wings in his stomach at the tender pitch to his voice. The paths are narrower now, the plants overhanging and encroaching farther beyond their designated patches the closer they get to the center of the maze, and as Lance walks backwards plump succulent leaves drag against his back before flinging away again as they pass. “It’s my fault for not being more clear.”

“Okay,” Lance manages to say. “Hey, it’s okay,” he repeats, nudging his fist gently under Keith’s downturned chin. They’ve almost reached the center of the winding garden now, and Keith’s every feature is tinted gold as they walk beneath the branches of the looming coral tree and are bathed in its golden bioluminescent glow. “It’s cleared up now. We’re cool. Same wavelength, right?”

“No,” Keith says, jerking his face away from Lance's hand. He comes to an abrupt stop on the path as they reach a fork in the path where it diverges into two, circumventing in a wide circle around the base of the coral tree. The sway of the branches above him means that the lattice of gold and shadow continue swaying across his face, his hair, and his shoulders. “No, we're not.” Eyes downcast, Keith pushes past Lance, leaving the path entirely to enter a large patch of soil encircling the coral tree, the inside of which is filled with densely packed golden mushrooms that match the tree in color, varying from chihuahua to great dane in size. “On the same wavelength, I mean,” Keith clarifies. “Obviously.”

Completely at a loss for how to react or what has got Keith so upset, Lance gives a quick glance around the garden and still sees no one immediately nearby, so he squares his shoulders the best he can and follows Keith offroad into the mushroom patch. If Lance had to guess he’d say these smaller ground mushrooms are actually a part of the larger coral tree, somehow, based on the color and texture. A symbiotic ecosystem, maybe. They're both bathed in that soft golden light now from above and below, now, and the leftover smears of white mushroom spores staining Keith’s suit shimmer with lingering bioluminescence of their own with every step he takes closer to the coral tree. It’s like someone went and dipped him in stars. It’s fitting, because in this moment, he feels as distant as unattainable as the stars themselves felt when Lance was a kid. When Keith reaches the trunk of the tree and has nowhere else to go, he makes a quarter turn back to Lance again, facing him without really facing him, his black suit a stark contrast against all the gold. Lance freezes where he is, still a few long strides away.

“There’s something you should know,” Keith says, his voice calm and intense. The way it gets before he pulls a stunt both insane and annoyingly premeditated. It’s different from his impulse voice. Deeper. Darker. Scarier.

“What,” Lance asks numbly. What other bombshell could Keith possibly have left to drop on him? Why is he acting like it’s something world-shattering?

Keith huffs at Lance’s blank confusion, glaring stoically at the ribbony, rippling fibers that run vertically to comprise the trunk, testing the texture of it with one hand.

“Hey,” Lance tries again when the silence stretches on, “Keith, whatever it is you need to tell me, you can just tell me.” He scuffs one shoe at the rubbery base of a mushroom, focusing on the cap as it wobbles in response at his waist. “It’s just me, you know? Whatever it is, it’s not gonna change anything.”

“I mean, I kinda hope it does change things, actually,” Keith mumbles, and when Lance looks up questioningly he finds Keith staring back at him through half-lidded burning eyes. Before he even has time to wonder what that means, Keith says it. “Because.. I’m in love with you.”

Every possibility that was flying through Lance's head flies right out, and now it’s empty, empty, empty, because did Keith just say…?

“It’s okay if it doesn’t,” he goes on quickly, “change things, that is. I’m not expecting anything. But I want you to know. I—I think it’s only right that you should know if we’re really gonna be shipping off to the far reaches of the galaxy together, anyway. My feelings for you... are not small,” he says, putting careful emphasis on each word in this sentence, “or new, or mutable, in any way containable. So I understand if you’re spooked, but I—”

“I’m not,” Lance blurts, unable to contain the rebuttal, “spooked, I mean— I’m not spooked,” he repeats sheepishly. Lightheaded. He's lightheaded. Where did the ground go? He attempts to rest one hand on the mushroom cap at his waist, forgetting that the stalk isn't rigid, and has to hastily right himself when it throws him even further off-kilter. “Sorry,” he squeaks, “keep going. Please?”

Lance’s little outburst seems to ease Keith’s anxiety a bit; his shoulders untense and he rolls his eyes goodnaturedly as he slumps back against the tree trunk. “Who am I kidding, you’re probably loving this.”

“Hell yeah I am. I’ve never gotten one of these before,” Lance says. “And I’m not really interested in getting another one after this, so. I’m savoring it.”

The small admission manages to turn Keith’s cheeks pink, but he ignores that in favor of addressing the other part first. “What, seriously? Never?”

“Nope.”

Keith’s eyes rake over his face; Lance’s claim seems to have left him dumbfounded. “Well I have no idea how,” he mumbles. “You were so fucking impossible not to fall in love with.”

Oh, holy shit. Lance doesn’t know how to react to this—arguably the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to any other person in the entire history of the universe—other than to let his jaw hang open like some kind of idiot. This is so much more than he expected that he doesn’t know what to do with it, how to begin, where to go from here. “When,” he fumbles. "H-how long?”

A little puff of laughter escapes Keith then; it seems he’s finally growing comfortable with the direction this conversation is headed. “Basically forever. You have no idea how many times I almost blurted it out. That time I went off to fight Zarkon solo, the time we were all injured at once on Lorn and got cut off from the castle, Haggar’s ship when we were— Pretty much every time we were close to death, I guess,” he laughs, his breath disturbing a few microscopic free-floating spores and sending them swirling away.

“Why didn’t you?” Lance wonders sadly, his brain reeling backwards through the years as he desperately tries to repiece their story together from Keith’s side. Basically forever, he said.

“I guess because I was always sure that it wasn’t the end, yet. That we'd have more time. That there’d be brighter days, and that we’d be there to see them.”

“So why are you telling me now?

Keith thinks about that for a long moment before answering, with a soft, slow drag of his eyes upward from the ground to meet with Lance’s. “I guess… I guess for the exact same reason.”

The next thing that happens is beyond Lance's control.

His feet just kinda move underneath him on their own volition, and then the mushrooms are parting around his waist, and then before his brain catches up to his instincts he's coming down on Keith's mouth hard.

No finesse. No forethought. It's so sudden and his momentum so unwieldy that he has to catch himself on the trunk lest he fall into Keith entirely. His fingers dig into the soft, spongy surface as he pulls back just as quickly as he came, un-mushing their lips with a wet popping sound and releasing a pent-up, shuddery breath. “This does change things,” he says. “Obviously. This changes everything.”

As soon as he speaks Keith comes to life. He surges forward, one arm encircling Lance’s waist and the other hand blindly grabbing at the back of his neck in one smooth motion until they crash together again. Lance takes a halting step backwards as he adjusts to the weight of him, making up for Keith's overzealousness by digging one heel into the soft soil, feeling his soul leave his body at the firmness of Keith’s grip, the warmth of his breath, the way he falters when Lance winds his arms around his waist and tilts his head, taking a split second to process the change before he tilts his head too and keeps going, like maybe he’s never bothered to kiss anyone for more than a few seconds at a time before this. Because it’s so Keith. It’s so fantastically familiar. Kissing him is not much different than sparring him at midnight, or goading him into a splash fight on the beach, or sharing a dance at the end of a war. There’s a melodic push and pull to it that’s unlike anything else in the universe. Every little drag of lip is rich with meaning, shouted reminders of history, tantalizing hints of future.

It’s like sailing in a hurricane, kissing Keith. All tongue and teeth and smushed noses, seams stretching on his coat as Keith buries his hand in the fabric like it's some kind of lifeline, lungs forgotten. There’s no breathing room at all between waves. It’s a wall of emotion, desperate and impassioned and never slowing, ever-mounting. It’s a constant struggle not to capsize under the pressure, and Lance has to believe this is what it would have been like if they had kissed on Haggar’s ship. This is that kiss, delayed. Delayed but inevitable like everything else between them. The swooping sensation is there in his stomach all the same, the world falling beneath him, alarms echoing out of freshly buried graves inside him, the smell of rubble and ash burning in his nose, the brightest desperation and the deepest longing mixing together as Keith’s hand on his neck becomes indistinguishable from his own skin, his brain whirlpooling into his heart until every feeling he’s ever felt in his entire life boils down to one. A blinding singularity.

Overwhelmed, he breaks the kiss. Keith is reluctant to let it end, and hangs onto Lance’s bottom lip with his teeth until the last possible second.

When he opens his eyes, it’s with eyebrows furrowed deep like he’s ready to complain. But the eyebrows ease up once he realizes the kiss isn’t ending at all; Lance has his palm on Keith’s chest now and he’s pushing him backwards, back toward the coral tree, because honestly? At the rate they’re going, they need some kind of anchor or they’re gonna fall the hell over.

The sight of Keith as he leans readily against the glowing trunk, the way he eagerly yanks Lance after him by the collar… It’s all so much to take in, so much more than Lance ever expected. He wasn't planning on confessing to Keith tonight at all. He was so focused on making sure he got a spot on that ship, on making sure Keith didn’t slip away from him, and he was fully prepared to settle for that alone. So this?  He’s gonna savor this.

This time he kisses Keith long and slow.

Gradually Keith melts into it, his wild desperation calming into something softer. With every passing moment it’s less like a battlefield kiss and more like a secluded garden kiss, tender and quiet and aching and small.

And then, somewhere in the middle of it all— Voices. Two of them, too muffled to hear, but distinct and nearby.

Before Lance has time to contemplate the political ramifications of being caught like this so early into the new era of government, before he even has time to pull away, Keith kicks his legs out from under him. Lance yelps as he goes down, and no sooner has he toppled into the mushrooms (which, um, that friggin’ HURT, thank you, Keith) than he hears the voices again. He stills on the ground as the person stops laughing.

“Would you look at that,” she says to her companion, presumably, “it’s the Red Paladin. Hello!”

“Um. Hi,” Keith calls out, his voice stilted.

“We thoroughly enjoyed your song choice,” the other girl chuckles. “Are you getting away from the music for a tick?” Rolling his eyes, Lance focuses on getting the damp soil off his face.

“Yep,” Keith says. “Just.. hangin’ out. You know, alone.”

“Ah,” the woman replies, and Lance punches Keith in the shin. He’s obviously trying (terribly) to cover up Lance’s presence, but he is just the absolute worst liar. If they haven’t figured him out, then now they just think he’s rude!

To Lance’s annoyance Keith’s wolfish teeth-baring works like a charm, though, and the pair quickly bid him a good night and make their way past the tree without any further attempts at pleasantries. Lance listens to their footsteps as they fade on the cobblestones, until they’re no longer audible. Then, the mushrooms start to rustle. Lance rolls over flat on his back as the one directly above him bends out of the way, revealing Keith’s adorably distraught face.

“Sorry,” he blurts. “I panicked!”

The smile that comes over Lance then probably looks as dopey and lovesick as it feels. “God, I love you so much.”

The panic slips off Keith’s face. “Oh,” he breathes, and then he opens his mouth slowly, as if to follow it up with something profound. But before he can, Lance’s grin turns sly and he kicks his right leg out, catching Keith’s behind the ankle and sending him crashing through the mushrooms flat on his ass. As Keith lies there muttering darkly under his breath Lance crawls over to him and flops down on his back again, shoulder to shoulder.

“Woah,” Keith says when he finally settles, his gaze turning skyward, and Lance has to agree.

Now that he’s actually looking, the view from down here is ethereal. There are all these little red bugs floating below the canopy of mushrooms, bopping a few inches off the ground, too slow and round and soft and quiet for him to possibly find gross. The hidden underside of the mushroom caps are even brighter than their smooth caps, because they’re filled with millions of those tiny spores, glowing steadily in the dark, glittering bright, each their own distinct microscopic world of light. It’s almost like looking up at the stars. Now that he’s not worried about losing Keith… jesus, all he can think about is stars. It’s like he’s six years old again. Enraptured, Lance reaches up and pushes one of the caps out of the way so he can see the night sky beyond, and the juxtaposition of these mushroom-stars and the real-stars seers forever into his brain. He is never gonna forget this.

“Man, this is gonna be so fucking awesome,” he crows, although he does attempt to keep his voice low in case any other partygoers are strolling around. Keith laughs to himself. “What?”

“Nothing,” Keith says. “I just.. can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you, I guess.”

The mushroom snaps back into place as it slips from Lance’s grasp. “Oh my god. Take a guy to dinner first,” he splutters.

“Okay.”

“Wha— Keith! You can’t just—!”

“Do you want to get out of here?” Keith interrupts, paying absolutely no attention to Lance’s internal combustion. “I wanna show you the ship. You didn’t even look at it while we were on Olkarion.”

Yes, god yes, holy hell yes. “But the party,” Lance says without any real conviction. “It’s the last night before we part ways with everyone else, isn't it?”

“Nah, the new ships aren’t even done yet, remember?” Keith says. “We have a bit of time left before we set sail.”

“Then what the hell are we still doing laying here in the dirt?! Let’s go!”

Maybe some whispers follow them back through the garden and across the dancefloor of the palace, and maybe their friends see their ruined tuxes and send a few giggles and raised eyebrows their way, and maybe they’re acting more like teenagers escaped from a high school prom in the the way they race each other through the streets of the lantern-filled city than two twenty year old decorated war heroes at a galactic cultural gathering. But honestly? Lance feels like they’ve earned the right to a bit of the teenage shenanigans they missed out on.

That, and the fact that love makes him stupid as fuck.

 

 

 

 

 

An hour, a wormhole, and a change of clothes later, they’re standing at the yawning open mouth of their ship. Even though Lance knows it’s not finished, was listening yesterday as their Olkari guide explained which systems weren’t in place yet, the ship looks complete. It’s shiny and new and all theirs. It’s almost winter here on this hemisphere of Olkarion, so it’s a good thing they changed. Keith has that Varadero sweatshirt on again, and he has the hoodie pulled up over his head, little tufts of black hair poking out around the edges, and his hands shoved deep in the pockets. He’s shivering a little as he jogs up the ramp, glancing back to make sure Lance is following.

They navigate the interior corridors with ease. It’s a lot smaller than the castleship and it’s a straight shot to the bridge from the ramp, but they pass that doorway up at first, meandering instead from room to room, just sort of soaking it all in. It’s dark and freezing in here, so they end up huddling kind of close together as they explore the ship, using their comms as flashlights. It’s more of a barebones skeleton than the comfortable castleship Lance knows, so far, the rooms mostly empty and unfurnished save for the technology which powers the ship. But that’s fine. There will be plenty of time ahead to fight over what color chairs to put in the dining room and what kind of posters to put up on the walls. The prospect of decorating with Keith is sort of dizzying, and Lance feels high on it as he bounces from room to room, throwing out suggestions which Keith either accepts instantly or denounces with indignant rage. There’s no in-between. It’s endearing as all hell.

“Lance, we are not putting a lava lamp filled with food goo in the game room,” Keith growls, his face screwed up in that quiet sort of frustration where it’s clear he can’t tell whether Lance is joking or not. “That’s disgusting.”

“Says who? You’re not the captain,” Lance huffs at him with dramatic flair, shouldering his way past Keith, out of the empty room he’s just deemed the game room.

“Okay, well you’re not the captain either,” Keith points out, and once that’s out there, there’s a tense, loaded moment where they just stand there staring at each other. A silent stand-off.

Then:

“I call pilot!” Lance shouts, and yanks on the strings of Keith’s hoodie to cinch it closed it over his face, effectively blinding him before shoving Keith playfully out of the way and sprinting down the corridor for the bridge. When he gets there he throws himself down in the pilot’s chair, just in time to shoot Keith a devious grin as he comes jogging onto the bridge with his hood thrown back and his hair a mess.

Keith rolls his eyes and points at the other chair on Lance’s left, half-built in front of a half-built console. It’s mostly just framework, right now, but it’s clearly going to be identical to the one already in place. “They’re modifying it into a dual-pilot system, dumbass. We're co-pilots when we're flying this thing.”

“Oh. I knew that.”

Chuckling to himself, Keith leans over Lance to hit a series of buttons on the dash. The dials and screens light up in front of him, and suddenly the dark arctic blue interior of the ship glows bright purple, brought to life. The black glass at the front of the bridge shifts, separating into segments like Keith has opened the blinds of a window, until it’s totally transparent. The vacant hangar is visible through the glass, now, lit only by the soft emergency lights embedded in the cement denoting the separation between ships. The open end of the hangar is visible from here too, sitting straight ahead at the end of a short empty stretch of concrete. Beyond that the dense Olkarion forest sits as a flat black foreground to the scintillating night sky, the distant arm of their galaxy a brilliant stripe that plunges down to meet the horizon line.

Keith smirks down at Lance, the glint of a challenge in his eye. “You wanna take her out for a spin?”

Tearing his eyes away from the end of the hangar, Lance shakes his head. “Are you crazy? It's not finished being built yet!”

“It’s built enough. It has all the necessary systems to get us off the ground, through the atmosphere, and back again.”

“They haven’t even put the life support systems in yet,” Lance laughs in disbelief. “There’s no heater. There’s no oxygen generator.”

“Yeah, but we’re wearing jackets."

“Hmm,” Lance thinks, drumming his fingers on the dash. “I suppose the exit through the atmosphere would heat the ship a bit, and then the existing insulation would give us some time to kill before the temperature plunges too low.”

Keith gestures around the bridge and adds, “And there’s enough oxygen in here to last us at least a few hours. So...”

“This is insane. Okay, let’s do it.”

Giddy, lightheaded, and more excited than he’s ever been in his life, Lance scoots over as far as he can to make room in the chair for Keith to squeeze into the chair beside him. Amazingly, there’s exactly enough room for them both to fit here comfortably. The ship’s control system is similar enough to the lions and the castleship that it’s only a matter of a few guesses to get the launch sequence underway, to set the engines ablaze and the wheels in motion. Only a minute later they’re breezing across the asphalt onto the tarmac, into the wide open view of the stars. Slowing the ship down again, Lance takes a second just to look up at it all, following the curve of the glass with his eyes until the sky disappears beyond the edge. He takes a second just to breathe. Everything is changing now, faster than light, and Keith was right that morning back on Earth. It is exciting.

His hand clenches around the throttle, but he doesn’t push it forward yet. Instead he relaxes it, uncertain. Maybe it’s stupid and corny, but this moment feels... important. It feels like something they should do together.

Before he can even voice the thought, Keith is leaning forward in the chair, nudging Lance’s hand to the side to take the left half of the throttle. The side of his palm burns where Keith’s is touching it, and when he looks up into Keith's eyes every other part of him starts to burn too, like a ship breaching the atmosphere, leaving the safety of the surface for good, breaking away and rising, rising, rising.

A calm fondness fills Lance’s heart, and he presses one quick kiss to Keith’s lips before turning back to the tarmac, to the long runway, and the stars beyond. Tightening his grip again, he breaks into a smile so wide that it aches, and on the glass he can see it reflected back at him on Keith’s face too.

To brighter days, then, Lance thinks.

And together, they take flight.