He can hear them both, echoes of their voices ringing in his ears. They sound so distressed, he wants to help them, wants to soothe them, to tell them it will be okay, but he- he can’t-
-listen to me-
-he doesn’t know what to do, he wants to answer them both, to go to them both, but he feels like he’s being torn in two, their desperate voices pulling him in opposite directions. He needs them to know, needs them to hear him , but the voices are rising in volume, in pitch, overwhelming-
-I’m here, I can hear you, but please, I need a moment-
-I don’t know what to do, wait-
-They need his help, they both do, god he can tell, it’s in their voices but he’s being rent into two, twenty, a thousand pieces-
-I can’t, it’s too much- he has to make a decision and it’s too much-
-I’m sorry, I can’t-
When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is Shiro.
He’s standing in front of him, so close it’s a little startling, brow furrowed and eyes serious. Lance can feel something, the lightest of pressures like the memory of a touch, and he glances down to see that Shiro’s got his hands gripping Lance’s elbows.
Below their feet, Lance can see inky, infinite blackness, dappled with glittering masses of stars, swirling nebulas and sweeping patches of what almost look like fog, or clouds. He drags his gaze up to find that there’s no horizon line, no definite separation between earth and sky, though somehow he still, instinctively, knows that there’s a difference.
Which one is real and which one is a reflection? , he wonders. The question rises in his mind, tugs him towards a place that he immediately flinches away from. Not now. Not yet. He’s not ready.
“Lance.” Shiro repeats, drawing Lance’s attention away from their surroundings and back up to his face. His brow is still furrowed, but his eyes have softened. Now he just looks concerned, and a little sad, and something about it makes Lance want to shy away again.
“Sh-Shiro. What is this place? Wh-where are we?”
“This- this is... another realm, Lance, another plane of existence. I’ve been here since- I’ve been here for a long time.”
Lance sucks in a breath, and he remembers this place, five streams of quintessence, four voices calling out for Shiro, and Shiro calling back-
Lance, Lance, listen to me!
“The fight with Zarkon,” he breathes, and he doesn’t- doesn’t think he even has a body, oh god , but he feels like his gut is churning anyway. What happens if you throw up on the astral plane , he thinks, a little hysterically, and his breath stutters out in what might be a strained laugh.
Shiro’s frown deepens, then he nods. “My body… was dissolved, or destroyed, I don’t know. But the Black Lion saved my essence somehow, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Although Lance can’t feel Shiro’s fingers tightening, a curious kind of warmth radiates from where they’re connected and they drift closer together as Shiro talks, further sparks of that strange, fleeting warmth spreading as they brush together- chests, bellies, thighs. Lance thinks that if they could, they’d both be trembling.
“You died,” he says, voice so low it’s almost inaudible. Shiro closes his eyes and nods again. Lance moves even closer, now fully embracing Shiro, and it isn’t truly possible but in that moment he feels heavy with realization, like he’s going to sink right through Shiro and into the abyss below them. The warmth intensifies as Shiro clutches him tighter, and Lance takes several deep breaths into Shiro’s neck.
“You died,” he repeats, not pulling away, not wanting to see the look on his face. “Which means I- I died too.”
Lance isn’t sure how long they stand like that, tangled up in each other. He supposes, vaguely, that it doesn’t really matter anymore, but it still feels strange to be standing like this for any length of time without eventually growing tired.
He mentions this to Shiro, tightening his arms to make it clear he’s not ready to pull away yet. Shiro hums in agreement and then pulls them down, moving so fluidly that Lance barely registers what’s happening before they’re stretched out horizontally, Lance sprawled on top of Shiro with his head pillowed on Shiro’s broad chest.
Which shouldn’t, by the way, be at all comfortable considering the armor they’re both wearing, but. Perks of not having a body, Lance supposes.
It also shouldn’t matter whether they’re vertical or horizontal or floating perpendicular to each other, since there’s no gravity and no ground, just an imperceptible line between reflection and reality. But Lance’s brain starts to hurt when he thinks about it, so he decides to leave that thought aside for now and goes back to nuzzling Shiro’s pecs. Which he… also can’t really feel.
Is there such as a thing as an astral headache?
They lay there for a long while, and it should begin to feel awkward, probably, considering the fact that he and Shiro were never super close when they were- well, alive. Lance is so not complaining, and Shiro seems perfectly content to keep holding him, so he just- lets himself bask.
Unfortunately, Lance’s brain eventually catches up to the proceedings, and his curiosity overcomes his need for uninterrupted cuddle time.
“So if you’re here, then the Shiro that we got back…?”
“A clone,” he confirms, something dark in his tone, “created by the witch. She’s- she’s been using it to spy on you guys.”
Lance sucks in a sharp breath, holds it, then lets it out in a gusty sigh. “That… explains a lot of things actually.” After a moment of heavy silence more, something else occurs to him. “How do you know that, anyway? Can we- can we watch the others from here?”
Shiro shifts a little, and Lance can feel his chest rise and fall beneath his cheek. “Kind of. At first it was mostly glimpses, things I could see through my connection to Black. I had to be tuned in, so I could encourage Black to accept Keith as her new pilot when the time came.”
Lance huffs out a laugh. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, dude.”
Shiro goes still beneath him. Panicked, Lance immediately tries to backtrack.
“I didn’t mean that! I’m not- I mean, Keith was- listen, I’m not like, bitter or anything about it, not anymore, it kinda worked out and I totally get that you trusted Keith the most, I didn’t-”
“It wasn’t about that.”
Lance shuts up, mid ramble, and tries to quell his urge to fill the awkward silence with nervous chatter. Shiro, he knows, is a “weigh your words” kinda guy, and Lance is trying to be accomodating for that. Eventually, after several long, mortifying moments, Shiro continues.
“It wasn’t about who I trusted most, or who was best suited for the job. If Black had had her way it would have been Allura who took over. But I was in there, riding shotgun, so to speak, and she listened to me over everything. And I chose Keith because…”
He trails off and Lance takes a moment to absorb that information. It kinda makes sense, because with as badass and leaderly as Allura is, he never really understood why Black hadn’t gone for her. The fact that Shiro was there, guiding Black’s choice towards Keith, is both enlightening and not.
Lance waits for Shiro to continue, and when he doesn’t, Lance prompts him.
“You chose Keith because…?”
Shiro’s voice is quiet when he finally continues. Ashamed. “Because I… was being selfish. I didn’t want- I knew that Keith didn’t want to be the leader, not really. I never doubted that he could do it, but I… I was holding on, I guess, to the hope that I could somehow, one day...come back. And I wanted- I wanted there to still be a spot for me if I did. Allura, she would have been spectacular, a true leader, a true Black Paladin, and I-.”
Shiro’s voice breaks here, but he continues before Lance can get past the lump in his own throat to say anything. “It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right, not with the universe at stake, not with what it did to the team- to you. I threw all that aside because I just- I didn’t want for someone else to take over, for their bond with Black to- to replace mine.
“I didn’t want- I didn’t want to disappear. ”
Lance is surging upwards before he can really think about it, his knees falling to either side of Shiro’s torso, and stares down at Shiro’s face. Shiro’s eyes are closed, his handsome features twisted with guilt and misery. Something corresponding wrenches in Lance’s own chest, and he fits both his hands on either side of Shiro’s jaw.
“Shiro, hey no, Shiro look at me. Look at me okay?” Lance pauses, waits for Shiro to finally meet his gaze, and then continues. “That’s, that’s not selfish at all. Nobody wants to be- replaced - god Shiro of course it’s not selfish to be afraid of that. And nobody- nobody - was looking to replace you, okay? Allura, Keith, even- even me, none of us walked into that lion that day thinking that if we were chosen, it would be permanent.
“You- you’re the real Black Paladin, and you always will be.”
Shiro sits up suddenly at that, jostling Lance, but pulling him in again before he can fall backward. Shiro buries his face in Lance’s neck, shuddering breaths wracking his body. Lance imagines that he can feel the brush of Shiro’s lips against his neck, murmuring words into his skin, like a plea, like a prayer.
“Thank you… thank you.”
It’s another long, indefinable length of time before either of them is ready to pick up the thread of conversation from where they left it off. They’ve shifted again, now laying side-by-side, hands clasped tightly in the space between them. They’re both too desperate for connection to let go. At least for now.
“I don’t know how long I’ve been here, exactly, but I know a little bit about what’s been going on out there.” Shiro says, voice quiet and a little apologetic, like he’s sorry to disrupt the calm silence surrounding them. “I might need you to fill in some blanks for me, but I’ve been keeping tabs on things, I can get impressions through Black, mostly, and Kuron-”
“Oh it’s ah, japanese for clone. It’s what I’ve been calling him in my head. And also where I think Haggar got the name from, my memories or something.”
Lance turns his head and squints at Shiro. “You’re gonna have to help me out buddy: Haggar what?”
“Right- you- right, sorry. Um, sometimes, when I’m focusing on Kuron, I can… hear Haggar. I think she’s got some way to access him remotely, or something, so she can watch what’s happening. I’ve heard her refer to him as ‘Operation Kuron’.”
Lance mulls that over, an idea forming in his mind. “The clone- Kuron- he gets headaches. Patches of memory loss. He told me- he told me he doesn’t feel like himself. If Haggar’s using some kind of magic gobbledegook to hijack him or whatever, than I think- I think he doesn’t know that he’s a spy.”
A horrible thought strikes him then and he bolts upright. “Wait, if you can hear Haggar or sense her or whatever, can she sense you? Does she know you’re here? Because that’s some bad fucking juju man. Shit, what if-”
Shiro stops him with a hand on his arm, shifting so he’s kneeling opposite Lance. “It’s alright Lance, calm down, don’t worry. I don’t think she knows I’m here. I think Black is… protecting me somehow. I’ve been able to slip into Black’s consciousness and sometimes Kuron’s, but the only times I’ve ever registered anything entering this realm have been when you... arrived, and when you were all calling me on Olkarion.”
Lance can’t help but duck his head at the reminder. Guilt creeps up his throat. He’d been right there . If Lance had just held on for a moment longer, if he’d been stronger, or better , he might’ve-
“You tried to tell me but I- I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry Shiro, I... I didn’t know. I could’ve-”
He screws his eyes shut, startled to feel a trail of cold slide down his cheek. Turns out that even without a body, you can cry on the astral plane.
Good to know.
The cool sensation is immediately followed by a familiar tingle of warmth. Lance opens his eyes to find that Shiro has moved closer again and is wiping away his tears. Despite himself, despite the grief and guilt threatening to choke him, Lance is helpless but to lean into the warmth, into Shiro’s comfort.
“Lance- Lance, listen to me. If I don’t get to blame myself for what happened with Black, you don’t get to blame yourself for anything else, alright?”
“No. You didn’t do anything wrong, okay? You didn’t fail me, or whatever it is you’re thinking, because there is nothing else you could have done . You were in the middle of a firefight, torn in two directions, and you had to go back to the team. You did exactly what you should have done, and I’m glad you did. They needed you.”
Lance shakes his head, dislodging Shiro’s hand from his cheek and scrambling backwards, suddenly, desperately, needing the distance.
“You don’t understand! Even if I couldn’t have stayed, I didn’t say anything! I should have told Allura, or something, but instead I- I just… let it go. Hell, even he knew something was wrong and I just, brushed it off. Told him it was nothing, that everything was okay.”
Lance buries his face in his hands. “Fuck I can’t believe I was so stupid .”
Everything is quiet for a long moment after his outburst, and Lance keeps his head down, wishing he could feel the heels of his palms grinding into his eye sockets. He doesn’t want to look at Shiro, doesn’t want to see the look on his face.
Warmth touches the back of his neck. He looks up with a gasp and Shiro is there, again, a little tentative looking, but with one hand cupping his head and the other reaching out to grasp his hand. Shiro stops there, gives Lance the opportunity to protest, but Lance is tapped out. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want Shiro to leave.
“You’re not stupid for caring Lance, for having compassion. You were trying to support him- support me . It’s what you do , for me, for Keith, for Allura. You’re a leg, Lance, and a right hand. You carry us.”
Shiro’s voice is strong, unwavering, and so full of sheer sincerity that Lance find it hard to push aside his words. Shiro sounds like- like he believes in Lance.
When Shiro continues, his voice is softer. “And it doesn’t matter what happened earlier. When I called you this time, you came to me. You found me. I will never stop being grateful for that, for you . I thought I was going to stuck here, alone, forever. That eventually Kuron would become strong enough to push me out entirely, or someone else would bond with Black, and I would just… fade away.”
At that, Lance can’t help but move forward, into Shiro’s space, their foreheads resting together. Shiro sounds so- so lonely …
“Maybe it’s selfish of me, but- I’m glad you’re here Lance.”
Lance laughs, a little, and clutches Shiro tighter. “Hey, what did we decide? I’m not stupid, and you’re not selfish. I- I’m glad I’m here too. I don’t want you to be alone again.”
Shiro pulls back again, just enough that he can look Lance straight in the eyes. “Neither of us are going to be alone ever again, okay? We’ve got each other. Whatever happens, we’ll figure it out.”
Time passes, and it doesn’t. They spend most of it wrapped in each other’s embrace, talking quietly. They compare notes, Lance filling Shiro in on the things he hadn’t been able to glean from Black or Kuron’s points of view. Lance tells him about everything up until the mission to repair the omega shield, voice faltering when he describes how he’d seen the plate short, the crackle of electricity, the realization that Allura was directly in its path...
His voice peters out then, and Shiro remains silent too.
Well. There’s not really much to be said about it anyway.
They drift. There aren’t really atmospheric conditions of any kind where they are, and they don’t have bodies to be affected by any kind of wind or current anyway, so they don’t technically move. Regardless, it doesn’t quite feel like they’re entirely stationary either. Lance has the vague sense that the distance between where they are now and where they were moments before is expanding, somehow. It’s almost as though, as opposed to moving through the universe, the universe is… moving past them.
This is why it’s startling when Lance feels a very distinctive ripple of something wash over his body. Above where his head is resting once more on Shiro’s chest, he hears Shiro curse. For a brief moment, pinpricks of warmth light along his waist, where Shiro’s hands have been placed and where Lance can imagine his fingers would be digging in- if they were corporeal.
“Lance,” he says, voice urgent, “that’s- we have to move.”
“What is it?”
“That’s a quintessence disruption.”
Lance disentangles himself from Shiro, straightening up and talking a moment to scan the stars around them. There’s nothing he can see, no discernible change. Automatically, without a word passed between them, he and Shiro move so they’re back-to-back.
It’s ridiculous, since there’s nothing in this place against which it could possibly be useful, but Lance is overwhelmed for a moment with the desire for his bayard.
Something is coming.
Suddenly, another ripple moves through the space around them, so strong that Lance is actually pushed back a little.
“Holy quiznack, what- a quintessence disruption, like what brought me here?”
“And like what I felt when the team came here from Olkari, yes. But this… this is different. I’ve never felt anything this strong.”
A third ripple moves over them, but this time, it’s accompanied by a voice. Lance’s breath hitches. He knows that voice.