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To the End of the Universe (and beyond)

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Here's a thing Lance would never have believed if he hadn't seen it happen with his own two eyes: after they come back from the nexus of all realities, team Voltron falls apart.

He doesn't know whether it happens because Allura isn't there anymore, whether it's due to her absence or is something that was happening all along, and for a while he honestly doesn't give a good goddamn about it, not when the five of them stood there like assholes and let Allura offer herself up as the sacrifice to restore all the things Honerva had destroyed.

Lance doesn't do real well, there for a while. He functions, more or less, and Red is tolerant enough of him by now to go along with it when they need to help convince another petty warlord that they'd be much better off joining the Coalition than trying to pick up where the Galra Empire left off. Beyond that, well—grief has its hooks in him good and proper, and it's months before the drumbeat of she's gone, she's gone, she's gone recedes enough for him to really take notice of the people around him.

In retrospect, he probably hadn't cut Keith nearly enough slack after Shiro disappeared. Though, of course, Keith is Keith, so he got Shiro back in the end. Lance knows he's not the universe's favored child, knows better than to expect any such gift for himself, and can't bring himself to feel too guilty for not recognize Keith's grief back then.

But when Lance begins to emerge from his fog enough to start taking notice, that's when he realizes that things have changed: Pidge is spending time on the restored Olkarion, doing God and Hunk only know what, and Keith is off running missions with the reforged Blade of Marmora, trying to scrape the Galra into something better than what Zarkon's rule had made of them. Hunk is still on the Atlas with him, still pilots Yellow in battle and chivvies Lance into looking after himself, but they never really see Shiro anymore, not unless there's a mission briefing that requires them to coordinate strategies.

Lance only realizes all this at the anniversary, one year to the day, when they meet up with Coran at New Altea and he realizes it's the first time they've all been in the same place since—Lance wracks his brain and decides it must have been since they moved against the Aferraron consortium and broke up its stranglehold on the sector. And that had been months ago.

"We should do this more often," he says at the end of the night, when the private memorial they'd convened after the official one was breaking up. "I miss you guys."

Shiro smiles easily. "You're right, we should get together more regularly. Let's plan on it."

Once a month seems like it ought to be feasible, even in their busy post-war lives, and hey, they even make the first time happen. Keith shows up with his arm in a sling and sporting a black eye, which gives them plenty to talk about. "It's not a big deal!" he tries to insist, but eventually, after a lot of poking and prodding and the judicious application of some of Hunk's experimental home-brewed beer, they coax the story of how he'd ended up taking on a wild besloor in single combat, only to find out that doing so had meant he'd inadvertently pledged himself to marry the son of the local dignitary. Extricating himself from that had resulted in the injuries, as neither the slighted son nor his over-protective pack of sisters appreciated Keith's attempt at delivering an it's not you, it's me speech.

As they're laughing over this, Lance starts to think that yeah, maybe things are going to be okay after all.

Really, he thinks later, he ought to have known better.

Not that it starts falling apart right away—they make it through a handful of meetings more before Pidge cancels on them in favor of a conference on Olkarion. It's something to do with artificial intelligence and robotics, Lance gets that much out of her excited talk about it, so, well, more power to her, he guesses.

The next month, Shiro and the Atlas are caught up in a messy bit of diplomacy by other means in the Onama sector. By extension, so are Lance and Hunk, so all three of them miss the rendezvous. When the dust starts to settle, Lance checks his messages and sees that Pidge and Keith called the whole thing off, agreeing that they should just reschedule for when everyone will be available.

But they never do. Hunk's family has a thing, then Lance's does, then Keith disappears on a Marmorite thing and doesn't resurface again until just before the second anniversary.

This time it's Hunk who says, "We need to do this more often," to a general chorus of agreement, but no one actually steps up to go ahead and plan the next get-together.

Inertia is a hell of a thing.

Maybe it was just inevitable. Voltron was what brought them all together, and Voltron isn't a thing anymore. Lance and Hunk are still tight, and Hunk and Pidge keep up with each other through an incessant argument about tech things that Lance won't even pretend to understand. He gets the sense that all the wrangling they do is really just the engineer equivalent of whether the toilet paper goes on the holder with the loose end over the top of the roll or under it instead. Hunk and Pidge are having fun, anyway, and that's the important part.

Shiro… well, he's a busy guy, and he never was buddies with the rest of them the way he was with Keith. Lance doesn't know whether it would have been different if he'd just listened to the clone back then when the poor bastard had been trying to reach out to him. But he hadn't, and it's too late now. So Shiro hangs out with his bridge crew and Keith, Lance figures, and the rest of them will just catch up with Keith whenever he comes around to visit Shiro.

Only Keith doesn't come to visit.

Hunk is actually the one who picks up on that, right on the cusp of the third anniversary. Lance is sitting on a stool at the counter in Hunk and Shay's quarters, watching Hunk work his magic on a pile of ingredients while he works on a bottle of home-brew, when Hunk says, apropos of nothing, "So have you heard from Keith?"

Lance scoffs. "Of course not. My name isn't Shiro, dude."

Hunk looks up from his knife work then, his smile tight and unhappy. "Yeah, see, that's the thing. I asked Shiro about Keith, and he hadn't heard from him since late last year."

Lance puts his bottle down and straightens up out of his slouch. "Shit. Mullet's dead in a ditch somewhere and the Marmorites are too scared to tell us." He's only ninety percent joking. Maybe seventy-five percent.

"No, he's fine. I got a message back when I pinged him about the anniversary. He says he'll be there." Hunk scrapes the diced tegrak root into a tidy pile, frowning down at it. "He's pretty good about checking in with me, especially after his combat missions. He knows I worry and all."

Okay, that's news to Lance. "Huh. Someone finally managed to civilize Keith. Wonders never cease." Hunk frowns at him, but not like he means it, so Lance doesn't bother apologizing for impugning Keith's honor. "Anyway, I don't think I've talked to him since, ah, it must've been when he wished me a happy birthday, I guess. He's getting awfully touchy-feely in his old age."

Hunk points his knife at Lance. "See, that's my point. Keith manages to wish you a happy birthday, but Shiro hasn't heard from him in almost a year? How does that make sense?"

It doesn't, but Lance shies away from the implications. "Maybe Shiro needs to check his spam folder?"

Hunk's frown is for real this time. "Lance."

Okay, yeah, maybe he has a point. Lance slouches in his seat and rolls his bottle back and forth between his palms. "It is weird."

"I know." Hunk starts in on a vegetable Lance doesn't know the name of, slicing it into perfect pale rounds. "Something's wrong, Lance. It's not supposed to be like this."

"No," Lance says, quiet with the way his throat goes tight. "It wasn't supposed to be like this at all."

Hunk shoots him a quick, sympathetic smile, and they're quiet for a little bit, until Hunk ventures, "Maybe there's something we can do about it. You know, when we have them both in one place at the memorial."

Lance bites back the retort—of course they'll try to fix things for Keith, the universe's favorite son—because fuck it. Just because he's never going to get Allura back doesn't mean he can't lend Mullet a hand to straighten out whatever mess of things he's made with Shiro. It's what Allura would expect of them. "It's worth a shot," he tells Hunk before emptying the rest of his beer down his throat.

Hunk loops Pidge in and sets her on her brother, but either Matt has no insight into the Keith-Shiro situation or has the good sense to stay out of it completely. Lance reads Coran in, and the plan they all come up with is simple enough: get Keith and Shiro by themselves during the visit to New Altea and Allura's memorial garden and get to the bottom of the problem. Once they've come to grips with that, they can fix it, right?

Hah. Yeah. Right.

Pidge has the closest thing to success with Shiro, who always did have a soft spot for her. It's probably why she gets away with flat-out saying, "So are you and Keith fighting or something?" and even gets an answer out of him, if "No, of course not, why do you ask?" is an answer. Lance doesn't think it is any more than "Keith has really come into his own, he doesn't need to bother with me" is.

He can say that because he's the one who corners Keith at Allura's statue and sees the look on Keith's face when he asks him how he's doing. Keith says, "Fine, thanks." The thing is, he'd said the same thing and had the same look on his face that time when he took a pulse rifle shot to the side. He'd tried to pass it off as a minor flesh wound at the same time he was trying to hold his spleen in place, so yeah, no. Keith is not fine, obviously.

"Sure," Lance says, "yeah, okay, glad to hear it. Only…"

Keith closes his eyes and inhales through his nose. "Only?"

"Only it kind of seems like things between you and Shiro aren't fine."

"Of course they're fine," Keith says. Wow, Lance is glad Keith was busy with the Marmorites back when they were doing the Voltron Show, because Keith is a crap actor. "We're both busy these days, that's all."

Says the guy who Lance has personally witnessed put himself, his Lion, and the universe itself on the line for Takashi Shirogane so many times that they'd started a tally board to keep track of them all. Right. Busy.

He doesn't get a chance to push it; Keith says, "Sorry. Gotta go do something else now." Then he walks away.

"Welp," Pidge says later when the four of them convene to pool their information. "Something is definitely fucked up."

They nod over that, gloomy, and no one bothers saying what they're all thinking: they still don't know what it is that's fucked up. They bat ideas back and forth until they can't keep their eyes open anymore, but they don't get anywhere with it and end up stumbling off to bed to try again in the morning.

Lucky for them all, the Lions step in at that point.

It's maybe three in the morning, local time, and Lance feels like he's barely closed his eyes when he wakes. He doesn't understand why he's awake at first, but then he feels it again—Blue is calling him to her.

At three in the morning, Lance's brain is slow to kick into gear. He's stuffed his feet into his slippers and is out the door of his guest quarters before it occurs to him that Blue hasn't called for him like this since… well, since Red first roared for him.

By then, Pidge is stepping out of her room, knuckling her eyes and muttering not quite under her breath. "I hear you, I hear you, do you even know what time it is?" And there's Hunk lurching out of his own door, yawning prodigiously, and Keith—ugh, Keith looks fresh as a daisy, because of course he does, though he seems puzzled.

"Is Red calling you, too?" he asks when he catches Lance's eye.

"…no," Lance says slowly, "Blue is."

Before any of them can try to figure out what that means, Shiro opens his door, and—Jesus wept, Lance hasn't ever seen a look like that on Shiro's face before. Well, why would he have? Shiro keeps himself buttoned up and will smile, even grin, or make faces when Slav is being particularly anxious, but this—this gutted expression? No, he's never seen anything like it on Shiro's face.

That's gotta be the way Shiro wants it, however, because he shutters his expression at the same time Keith says his name and stretches out a hand in his direction. Keith lets his hand hang there for a second before it drops back to his side.

Well. Awkward.

Lance jumps in before he can second-guess himself and before Shiro can do anything else (because now it's Keith's turn to look gutted, Christ, what in the hell is going on with them?). "So, Black yelling for you?"

Shiro shakes himself, spine straightening like he's in full uniform on Atlas' bridge and not wearing sleep pants and a worn tank top. "Yeah. That's—yeah." He looks at the rest of them. "Is that—are the Lions calling for the rest of you, too?"

"Loud and clear," Hunk yawns, and Pidge nods.

As if to underscore the point, Blue calls again, insistent at the back of Lance's skull, her voice like the roar of crashing surf compared to the crackle of Red's. She's not the only one calling, either, if the way the other's wince or shake their heads is any indication. Even Shiro touches his fingertips to his temple before shaking his head briskly. "We had better go see what it is they want."

"And maybe why they want it at three in the fricking morning," Pidge mutters as they all start moving again, heading for the side door that's the closest exit to the memorial gardens and the little hill beyond where the Lions are waiting for them. "Three in the morning, for crying out loud. This had better be good."

Hunk stretches an arm over to tousle her hair. "They're probably just messing with us, right?" But even he doesn't sound like he believes it.

"I'm breaking Green down for scrap if she's fucking with me, so help me," Pidge mutters, not a lot of actual heat behind it.

Lance stops listening to them, because Blue's voice is washing against the inside of his skull, so familiar and dear that his chest aches with it, calling him to come, come, come. And Keith is slinking along ahead of him, head lowered and his hands on his elbows, holding them tight against his side, while Shiro strides forward at the head of their little pack.

Shit is fucked up, that is for goddamn sure.

New Altea's night-blooming flowers are perfuming the air outside, and something about the weight of the night sky and its stars and the gleam of the orbital structures manages to silence even Pidge and Hunk's idle banter. The five of them hurry across the grounds, following one of the graveled paths through the garden and past the statue before it gives way to the verdant, moss-like groundcover and even the scuff of their slippers is muffled.

The Lions wait for them at the crest of the hill, limned in starlight, their eyes dark until the five of them come to stand before them. Lance finds himself standing before Blue, of course, and he knows without looking that Keith is to his right, then Shiro, and Pidge, and Hunk, all of them in their original positions.

You're here, Blue says, her purr like the eddy of water and sand in a tidal pool. It's time to go.

He can't parse that, finds himself echoing, "Go?" at the same time he hears the others doing the same or similar—Pidge's "Go where?" and Hunk's "Huh?"

It's Keith who says, "You're leaving?"

Huh. Lance wouldn't have thought Keith could manage to sound resigned about anything, but shows what he knows.

He's been with Red long enough that he thinks he catches the echo of Red's annoyed chuff. Or maybe he just imagines that.

It's time to go, Blue says again, much more patient than Red, before she opens her jaw and leans forward pointedly—oh. She expects him to go with her.

The other Lions seem to expect the same thing, because they're offering up entrance, too.

"Okay, but where are we supposed to be going?" Pidge asks; she's got her feet planted and her arms folded across her chest, not budging where Lance is already stepping forward. For everything that's happened to him since they first tumbled into Blue's cave and he'd taken a seat in her pilot's chair, he's never regretted trusting Blue, not once. Hunk seems to be of the same mind, or so Lance sees when he checks, and so is Keith, but Shiro seems to be planted in place every bit as solidly as Pidge.

Pidge huffs at whatever Green is telling her. "Beyond? Beyond what? You're not making any sense!"

Lance looks to Blue, stretching out to her and echoing Pidge's question.

Blue chuffs inside his head, and her answer isn't in words. It's an image, a nebula Lance doesn't know, glowing with an inner light—then, like an optical illusion, the shape of the dust clouds resolve into a shape he recognizes, the curve of a spine and long, slender legs and a cascade of starlit hair.

It punches the air right out of his lungs, and her name comes out of his mouth like a prayer: "Allura."

Blue's answering purr shakes him to the foundations of his soul; he hears the others reacting, but their voices are distant and unintelligible. It's time to go.

"To Allura?" Lance says—croaks, really, and the fact that he can make any sound at all past the tightness of his throat is a fucking miracle.

Blue's chuff is just a bit amused, but gently so, as if to say, Where else?

"Whoa whoa whoa, that's a thing we can do?" Hunk says while Lance is still reeling.

"Sounds like it." Pidge uncrosses her arms, apparently satisfied now that the she knows what the agenda is. "All right, then."

It's time to go, Blue says again, insistent, which, yeah, totally, yes, she's right, why aren't they already moving?

"Shiro?" Keith says, and oh. That's why.

Shiro is still planted in front of Black, jaw set. "I can't just—I have responsibilities. I'm not even a paladin anymore!"

"Of course you're still a paladin!" is what comes out of Keith's mouth, which is all very nice and validating, but completely misses the fucking point as far as Lance is concerned.

He doesn't remember deciding to move, or even the steps from his place in front of Blue to where Shiro stands in front of Black, but it must happen since the next thing Lance knows is that he's got his hands on Shiro's shoulders and is hauling him in so that they're nose to nose, more or less. "Look me in the eye and tell me you've got responsibilities more important than Allura, Shiro." The wild curl of emotion balled behind his sternum lends him the strength to shake Shiro, whose eyes have gone wide enough that the dispassionate corner of Lance's brain is both gratified and mildly insulted. "Tell me what fucking responsibilities you think are more important than the woman who saved this universe—all the universes! Tell me, I fucking dare you."

It's no doubt for the best that Shiro doesn't take the dare. He closes his eyes, takes a breath, and closes his hands on Lance's wrists to remove them from his shoulders. "No. No, of course not, you're right. I'm out of the habit of being a paladin." He smiles, though it doesn't hit his eyes. "And I guess it's only appropriate that it needs all five of us. Let's go."

That's not as mollifying as Shiro seems to think it is, but whatever, Lance will take it as long as Shiro doesn't try to back out. "Good. Let's go." He turns away from Shiro, still almost vibrating with urgency—they're going to Allura, to Allura, and it sings through him to the exclusion of everything else.

Almost everything. Keith gestures at his face as Lance strides past. "Did you know that you're glowing?"

"Nope," Lance says, not breaking stride as he makes for Blue. The marks on his face feel like regular skin to the touch, and if they're glowing right now, it's not messing with his vision, so frankly Lance doesn't give a damn.

"Well, you are," Keith calls after him.

Lance ignores that, more concerned with how heading up Blue's hatch and into her cockpit feels like coming home, even before he comes to the pilot's chair and can run his hand along the back of it. The seat still fits him perfectly, even though he knows it fit Allura just as exactly. Blue's purr envelops him in her welcome as he puts his hands on the controls and she lights up.

"Shouldn't we go back for our paladin suits?" Hunk's voice echoes across the comms. "Or at least our bayards?"

"I don't think it's going to be that kind of trip," Pidge shoots back, which, good, Lance would have felt bad about snapping at Hunk the way he doesn't about Shiro. She pauses. "I hope not, anyway. Mom still hasn't gotten over that first time."

"Your mom is scary," Hunk says.

Pidge just groans. "God, don't remind me—oh, huh."

"I hope you're all buckled in." Shiro's voice sounds the tiniest bit strained. "Black says it's time to go."

It's an understatement: the words are barely out of his mouth before Blue and the other Lions are leaping into flight. Lance has his hands on the controls, sure, but he's definitely not in the driver's seat here. Blue might entertain suggestions, but he's pretty sure that she knows exactly what she plans on doing and is going to carry that out whether he endorses the idea or not.

As long as the plan is getting to Allura, though, that's fine by Lance.

"Okay, why am I even here if you're not going to let me fly?" Sounds like Red is of the same mind as his sister, and like Keith feels a lot less complacent about that than Lance does.

"Mystic Lion reasons, probably," Hunk suggests.

Before Keith can say what he thinks of that, they're being hailed from three different directions at once—the Atlas in orbit, the Altean castle, and the little Galra bird that Keith had touched down in. It's a mishmash of protocols and languages, but it all boils down to the same thing, most plainly put by Acxa: "What in the name of the Void are you doing?"

"Urgent Voltron business," Keith tells her. "I'll explain when we get back."

"You had better," she says before signing off.

Keith makes so much more sense after a person gets to know other Galra.

It's still the ghost watch, so the poor schmuck with the conn on the Atlas is too flustered to do more than splutter out a "Yes, sir!" when Shiro says, "Voltron is needed elsewhere. Please inform Commander Iverson that I may need to extend my leave by a few days."

Which leaves only the Alteans, and by Alteans, they really mean Coran. "Paladins, what's the situation?"

Because it's Coran, Pidge flicks over to a much more tightly secured frequency; her gremlin animation flickers to life on the screen to signal that her encryption is running.

When no one speaks, Lance realizes they're deferring to him. He clears his throat. "It's Allura," he tells Coran. "I think the Lions are going to take us to her."

Though he does his best, they all hear the stifled sound Coran makes. But his voice is clear and calm when he says, "Ah, of course. Safe journeys, then, and the ancients grant you good fortune."

"Thanks, Coran," Lance says. "We'll, uh. We'll see you again soon, I hope."

"So do I, dear boy, so do I."

There's not just a whole lot to say to that, so they leave it there and break atmosphere. The stars spread out before them and the Lions lay on the speed.

Lance is perfectly ready to let them take the lead, but Blue nudges him—oh. So they're not just here to be passengers. "Hey, did you just—" he says as Pidge pipes up with "Oh, that's what you want, why didn't you say?" and Hunk says, "Aw, I'm feeling all nostalgic!"

And Keith and Shiro are nearly in sync when they say, "They want us to form Voltron." Only Keith sounds pleased and Shiro definitely sounds strained.

"Makes sense," Pidge offers. "Black's the only one that can teleport and I get the feeling we're gonna need that from the way Green's talking about beyond."

They wait then, expectant—all of them, paladins and Lions alike, but Shiro is quiet, doesn't give the order. The silence draws out, turning awkward, until Keith breaks it, tentative. "Shiro?"

"Sorry, guys. I'm pretty out of practice with this." As an excuse, it only works until a person remembers that he commands the Atlas and transforms her into her mech configuration pretty regularly. "Anyway. Form Voltron!"

The last time they did this, it was for the desperate, unsuccessful battle to stop Honerva, but Lance still knows the trick of it. He sinks deeper into his connection to Blue, feels the vast presence of her encompassing him; it's like coming home in a way he never would have been able to identify if he hadn't spent so long working with Red. The bond between him and Blue resonates in his bones, unutterably right. He thinks he might be laughing in startled wonder as he reaches out to the others, to the sturdiness of Yellow-Hunk and the quicksilver brilliance of Green-Pidge. He feels an echo of what he's feeling when it comes to Red-Keith, who feels like the ache of a dislocated joint that has been set back into place. Even if it's right, it still hurts him—huh. He'd forgotten what the inside of Keith's head could feel like, always dialed up to eleven unless he was really focusing himself on his control. Which is not a thing he's doing right now, not with Shiro sitting in Black and what feels like every particle of Keith desperate to go back to the time when everything had been right.

Lance can feel the way Hunk and Pidge choose not to draw Keith's attention to how much emotion is bleeding into the Voltron connection. Pointing it out will only cause him to recoil from the bond, and anyway, politely ignoring the private things other paladins might be broadcasting was the only way to make sure that your own privacy would be respected in turn.

And maybe, maybe, if Keith keeps broadcasting like that, Shiro will take a hint, though what might bring him to that when he never has before is one of the mysteries of the multiverse.

But where is Shiro?

They're all reaching out for him, can feel the vast incomprehensible weight of Black's presence and the faint edges of Shiro himself, then—

"I can't." Shiro wrenches away from the connection and the Voltron bond falls apart. Lance thumps back into the limited boundaries of his own skull and hears the startled cries and curses of the other three as they do the same. He opens his mouth to say something, either What the fuck or maybe What the fucking fuck, but stops when he hears the ragged sounds coming from Shiro's comm.

Lance has been friends with Hunk for years. He knows what a panic attack sounds like.

So does Hunk, obviously, who says Shiro's name, once, twice, a third time, until Shiro makes a sound like acknowledgment. "I'm going to start counting for you, and I need you to breathe for me as I do—inhale on one, two, three, four, now hold, five, six, seven, eight, exhale on nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. And again, in on one, two, three, four…" He's so calm, so confident, that Lance falls into the same rhythm as Hunk counts for Shiro, and at least Shiro is with it enough to follow suit. The ragged edge of his breathing smooths out as Hunk counts, steady as a metronome, but Hunk keeps going for a while after that before he finally says, "All right, that'll get us by for now."

"Sorry," Shiro says, though Lance isn't sure he really sounds apologetic, per se. Ashamed, maybe, but not apologetic. "Sorry. I don't—I can't do this. I'm sorry."

"What's wrong?" Keith, of course, has to jump in right away. "What can we do?"

The way Shiro's laugh is bitter. "There's not anything you can do. This isn't something you can fix."

"You don't know that," Keith argues. "We can at least try—"

"Keith!" Wow. Lance hadn't known Shiro had it in him to sound that angry, not at Keith of all people. "You can't fix everything. Some things are just broken."

A notification pops up on Lance's screen. It's Pidge, and the message is brief, addressed only to him and Hunk: well this is awkward.

Hunk replies before Lance can, while Keith is insisting that that's not true, if Shiro would just let them try: shh Yellow says this is good, they need to have this fight.

Lance makes sure his mic is muted while he prods Blue—is Yellow right?

The most she's willing to commit to is that she's not convinced that her brother Lion is wrong. Huh. This is like listening to my parents fight, he tells Pidge and Hunk.

Meanwhile, Shiro is saying, "Trying can't change what's happened, Keith."

"I never said it could, but you won't even talk about it." Shiro's angry, but Keith—he sounds bewildered. Hurt. "Why won't you just talk to me?"

probably because shiros got issues like a library, Pidge notes, because she absolutely is savage enough to mock Shiro and Keith in the middle of their breakdown.

Mean, Hunk replies. True, but mean.

i just wanna know how hes going to weasel out of this, she writes.

Shiro isn't saying anything, though. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

When the silence drags out long enough, it gets heavy enough to press more words out of Keith. "Is it something I did?" Shiro doesn't answer, so Keith keeps going, stumbling along like a man in the dark. "If it's me—just tell me, I'll make it right, I swear I will, but I've done everything I can think of and it hasn't worked. I don't know what else I can do!"

Jesus Christ. They really shouldn't be listening to this, it's really no business of theirs, but Lance hasn't reached for the comms to turn them off yet and neither have Pidge or Hunk, if the garbled typing flying back and forth is any indication. Keith sounds miserable, the way he had back when Shiro had disappeared on them, and he sounds desperate, and most of all he sounds scared. Terrified, even.

And because his brain is just like that sometimes, it sparks a horrified realization for Lance: holy fuck, he types to the others, you guys the last time shiro formed voltron with us he DIED. No wonder he'd had that panic attack just now.

"Shiro, please—"

"Keith, stop." At least Shiro sounds about as rough as Keith does, so he's not actually unaffected. That's… that's probably good, right? Because Lance is really starting to wonder. "Stop it, it's too much. You can't keep doing this. You can't—I can't."

"I don't know what that means!"

Pidge is typing too fast for grammar or spelling, but Lance thinks what she types then is something like Good, now pin him down!

"Just—you have to let go, Keith, please," Shiro says. Begs, maybe. "It's too much."

The last time Lance'd heard someone make a sound like that, it was a Galra soldier with Keith's bayard buried inside his chest. He says Shiro's name like Shiro's the one who's stabbed him, betrayed. "I can't—Shiro, please. I need you. I can—I'll try not to be so pushy, but please—you're the best friend I've ever had—you're the most important person in the world to me—"

"Maybe I shouldn't be!" Shiro shouts, loud enough to make Lance rock back into his seat. "Maybe you should start living your own life!" He doesn't sound angry, in spite of the volume. No, he sounds anguished. "I'm a fucking mess, all right? There's so much broken inside my head that my shrinks have to call in for backup, and I'm never going to be okay, and you just don't get it, you keep throwing yourself away on me and I can't stand it anymore!"

Is that really the way Shiro—no, what is he even thinking, this is Shiro. Yeah, he probably does think that way. No wonder it's been so hard to reach him. No wonder he's pulled away from the rest of them.

"You think I'm throwing myself away?" Keith says it slowly, like the words don't make any sense to him and he's trying to puzzle out their meaning.

"You mean you don't? For God's sake, I've lost count of how many times you've nearly gotten yourself killed for my sake, and you just—you don't know how to quit, you won't give up when you should, you—" Shiro stops, breathing hard. "I don't know why you won't just give it up."

um hello has he MET keith? Hunk asks.

Keith doesn't say anything to that, not at first, and the three of them are hanging on, too intent on how Keith is going to answer that to bother with the chat. When Keith finally does break the silence, he's recovered some of his calm. "I know you remember our fight, even though you won't talk about it. That's fine. Nothing has actually changed, and it never will. I still love you—"

Lance sits bolt upright, jaw dropping, because what? When had that happened? Like, everyone knew it was that way, but it was supposed to be one of those unspoken things that no one talked about, not something Keith just goes and says like no big thing!

"—even if you don't feel like I should. I'm always going to love you, even though I know—" Keith's voice wavers slightly, but he keeps going in spite of it "—I know you don't love me. Not like that. And you can't make me give up on you, even if you've given up on yourself. And I don't care what anyone says, you're not broken." His voice goes fierce on that. "And even if you were broken, I'd still love you, because you're you and you're the best person I've ever known and—" He stops; Lance can hear him inhale and exhale. "Anyway. I'll try to rein it in. I'm sorry that I've been too much. Never was any good at moderation, but you already knew that."

Lance crams his fist against his mouth, gnawing on his knuckle. If Shiro doesn't pull his head out of his ass, then—he doesn't have any gear, he can't exactly space-march himself over to Black to shake sense into Shiro, but he'll do something.

"I don't deserve this," Shiro says, barely audible. "It's too much."

"It really isn't," Keith replies. "You deserve everything. I'd give it all to you if you wanted me to. Since that's not gonna happen, you'll just have to deal with me doing whatever I think I can get away with doing to look after you instead."

"You'll get tired of it eventually," Shiro says. "Everyone does."

Keith utters a rueful little laugh. "Yeah, no, not gonna happen. Fun fact: Galra mate for life, and Mom definitely passed that one down to me."

wait wait WHAT? Hunk demands; Pidge just holds the exclamation mark down until the screen fills up. Between the two of them, that does pretty well sum it up. Holy shit. Keith really doesn't know a damn thing about moderation. When he decides to go for it, he goes for it.

"They do not," Shiro says. "You're making that up."

"Believe me, I'm really not." Keith sighs. "It doesn't matter, anyway. You'd be it for me even if I was a hundred percent human. And I hope I'll get to see you happy again one of these days, even if it's not gonna be with me." He sighs again. "And… I miss my best friend, Shiro."

It’s a long, long moment of silence before Shiro admits, "I miss mine, too. Even if I really do think he deserves better than this."

Oh, thank fucking God, he's not going to have to figure out how to knock sense into Shiro's skull.

"…does that mean you're going to stop freezing me out?" Keith says, more tentative than Lance would have thought possible.

Shiro sighs. "I'll… I'll try. But I'm not exaggerating about being fucked up, you know."

"And I'm not exaggerating about how very little I care about that," Keith says. "Not as long as you'll let me stick around, anyway."

"I really don't know what I ever did to make you think I deserve this."

"You didn't have to do anything," Keith says, unbearably gentle. "You were just you."

Shiro huffs. "Yeah, sure, have it your way, I guess."

"I usually do."

okay so how do we uh break this up? Pidge types.

The way Lance figures it, they might as well rip the band-aid off fast. He unmutes his mic and clears his throat. "So! Now that all that's settled, do you think we can get back to the important stuff like going after Allura?" Because he's been really patient with their soap operatics, but only because he's pretty sure that resolving the Keith-and-Shiro melodrama is the first step in being able to form Voltron. Now that that's taken care of, he'd really like to get back to what they were doing.

Both Keith and Shiro are utterly silent for several seconds, until Shiro says, feebly, "You heard all of that."

Geez, Lance would give a lot to see their faces right then.

"Yeah, sorry," Pidge says, sounding not even a little bit sorry. "You could've opened up a private channel."

"You could have tuned out of a conversation that was none of your business," Keith grits out.

"Nah, we've been too worried about you idiots," Lance says, breezy. "But seriously: Allura? Forming Voltron for Allura? Now, please?"

The distraction works pretty well; Shiro hisses. "That's… going to be a problem."

Ah. Yeah. That.

Thank goodness for Hunk. "This isn't a battle," he says. "It's not going to be like last time."

"And even if Black did suck you back into the astral plane, we all know Keith would just jump in after you," Pidge adds. "He'd probably take Black apart with his bare hands if that was what it took to get you back."

"And we'd be right there helping him," Lance points out. "So there's that."

"Nothing's going to happen," Keith says firmly. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you ever again."

Shiro sighs. "That's really not a promise you can make and expect to keep," he says, wearily. "But all right. Let's form Voltron, guys."

"Thank you," Lance says, already falling backwards into his bond with Blue and reaching out to others. Pidge is a mess of unholy amusement at Shiro and Keith's discomfiture, but that's layered over a substrate of genuine relief that, as a favor to her, Lance won't call her on. Hunk is just relief, tinged with a certain amount of curiosity—so everything's normal there, Hunk always wants to know. Keith is part defiant and part embarrassed and part relief so pure that Lance honestly feels his eyes sting a little with empathy, all of it wrapped around a nugget of quiet resignation.

And then, uncertain at first, there's Shiro, a tangle of shame and embarrassment and fear, things that maybe were always there but that he'd always managed to keep away from the rest of them, as if the fact that he's as fallible as they are is a secret to hide. As if they'd ever think less of him for it.

Lance reaches back to him, ignoring the uncertainty and the fear to offer welcome and reassurance, and can feel the others doing the same. Okay, Keith is the only one of them whose presence in the Voltron bond is full of that kind of love, but it's not like the rest of them don't love Shiro, too.

Shiro's presence wobbles a bit in the face of their welcome, then solidifies and snaps into place, certain again (if still a little bit embarrassed), and forming Voltron comes as easy and natural as breathing.

"Welcome back, Shiro," Keith says, voice warm in the way that has always been reserved strictly for Shiro.

"Thanks," Shiro says; they can all feel how genuinely he means it. "I'm glad to be back." Then he laughs. "Now let's go find Allura before Lance vibrates all the way out of his skin, okay?"

"Did I or did I not wait patiently for you and Keith to have your big emotional moment just now?" Lance demands even as Voltron pours on the speed, pretty much of its own recognizance. "You know what they say about glass houses, Shiro."

The Lions break in before they can really get into the flow of the banter, nudging at all of them through the Voltron bond, wanting—

"Oh! So that's why you were glowing!" Hunk says. "Neat."

Lance reaches up and touches one of the marks Allura left on him, just like she'd marked every part of him—but it's more than just a sign that she was his, however briefly. "They're like a homing beacon," he says, wondering, already leaning into his memories of Allura, the elegant line of her back and the scent of her hair, the luminous glow of her eyes, her rage and grief and fury, her determination, her joy in simple, beautiful things, the wickedness of her humor—all the things she was to him, the wonder and terror of loving a woman as amazing as she was. Is. He can feel the others doing the same, because they loved her too, in their own ways, complicated and conflicted for Keith, with respect and admiration from Shiro, as a fascinating mystery and friend for Pidge, as a friend and sister for Hunk. All of that pours into Lance through the Voltron bond, and now, now he can feel the marks on his cheekbones and see the glow of them brightening, expanding to fill his vision as Voltron takes the multifaceted ways they all saw Allura and uses it to reach, to reach a little further—

And just like that, they're somewhere else, the five of them standing in a loose semicircle in a formless space filled with light. It's a place they've been before.

"The nexus of all realities," Keith says softly, looking around them in wonder at the same time he's sidling closer to Shiro, like he thinks he's being subtle. Of course, it does ease some of the tightness around Shiro's eyes, so maybe subtlety is overrated.

"So… now what?" Hunk asks after a moment of looking around and nothing happening. "Also, what happened to Voltron? That's our ride home, you know."

He can still feel Blue and feel the rest of them through the Voltron bond, so Lance figures that Hunk is just nervous and letting it out through idle chatter. Anyway, Lance knows what to do, though the source of that knowledge is an utter mystery.

Or maybe it's not. Maybe Allura slipped it into his head with that last kiss, just like she'd marked him.

He takes a step away from the others, looking out into the formless place—but it only seems formless. The longer he looks, the more he thinks he can see things in that light, wisps and eddies of other realities, glimpses of all the many possibilities there are, strange and wonderful. They're fascinating, tantalizing, but that's not what Lance is here for.

He clears his throat and calls her name, pours three years of loss and longing into each syllable as it falls off his tongue, and says, "It's time to come home."

It seems like a small enough act, too quiet to be effective, but it doesn't all have to be grand gestures and dramatic speeches. Shiro and Keith have that part covered, anyway. This is enough.

The threads of all realities stir and eddy, twisting around and over and through one another, before they part. The figure that they reveal shines too brightly to look at directly at first; Lance has to lift a hand to shield his eyes from its brilliance. The light dims as the figure steps forward, and it—she—begins to take on clearer edges, a familiar form—long legs and silver hair clubbed up for battle, the pink and white of familiar paladin armor, the brown of her skin and the ever-changing blue of her eyes and the familiar, adored curve of her smile—

"Lance," Allura says. That's all, but that's all he needs to fling himself forward, enough for her to spring to meet him, and then Lance has his arms around Allura and her mouth on his, and he forgets about everything and everyone else for the next little while.

Eventually they have to catch their breath, so Lance rests his forehead against hers. "Hi," he whispers. "I missed you."

"I know," she says. "I missed you, too. I didn't think it would take so long."

"Not complaining." Even so, Lance can't help the way he tightens his arms around her. Allura doesn't seem to mind, though. "I didn't think I was ever going to see you again."

"I wasn't sure," she confesses. "But I hoped." She brushes her fingertips over his cheek. "I hoped."

Yeah, okay. Lance definitely has to kiss her again for that.

"Yeah," Pidge says somewhere behind him, loud and clear. "This is exactly what it was like for the rest of us while ago when you two were having your moment, in case you were wondering."

"I wasn't really, thanks," Keith replies, dry as desert dust.

Lance gives them all the finger but goes ahead and draws himself away from Allura's mouth, however reluctantly. "I'm not the only one who missed you," he says, sliding his fingers between hers and turning back to the rest of their team.

They take it for the invitation it is; the next thing Lance knows, he and Allura are engulfed by the other paladins. There are hugs and laughter and tears, which is just the way it ought to be as long as none of them tries to detach him from Allura's side.

"But where have you been?" Pidge wants to know after the first frenzy of greetings.

Allura lifts a shoulder in a shrug. "Infinite realities take a great deal of time to restore."

"But if they're infinite, how can you really be finished?" Hunk wonders, which—Lance doesn't like that question one little bit.

"It's… the work continues," Allura says, slow. "But it also perpetuates itself now, and Honerva assists it when such is required. So I am no longer needed."

Lance exhales. Good. "I need you," he points out.

Allura smiles at him. "No longer needed by the multiverse, then," she says. "And I find I would quite like to go home now."

"Then let's go home," Shiro says, smiling at her and Lance. "There are a lot of people who are going to be very happy to see you."

"And I will be happy to see them." Allura lifts her free hand in an apparently careless gesture, but the threads of the realities swirl and brighten until Lance has to close his eyes against the glare. When he opens them again, he's sitting in Blue and New Altea hangs shining in space before them.

On his lap, Allura takes a breath. "It's just like I remembered."

"Good," Lance says, asking Blue to take them in as he presses his lips to her hair. "I can't wait for you to show me everything."

"I will," Allura promises as the hails from various sources begin lighting up the comms.

Lance lets the others deal with that and focuses on entering New Altea's atmosphere and piloting Blue back down to the hill from which they'd taken off—only a few hours ago, he sees when he checks. The early morning sun paints everything in rose and gold, and the wind from the Lions touching down whips Coran's hair furiously where he stands waiting for them.

"Coran," Allura says, breathless. "Oh."

Lance kisses her temple as Blue lowers her head. "Go. I'll be right behind you."

Allura catches him for a quick, heartfelt kiss. "Thank you." Then she's up, gone, running to greet her only living family.

Lance takes a moment longer, stroking his hands over Blue's console. "Thank you," he says, soft.

Blue rumbles a satisfied purr back to him.

Then Lance heads outside to keep his promise to Allura, who is already wrapped in Coran's arms.

As he hits the ground, he sees Shiro catch up with Keith, resting a hand on his shoulder and stepping close to say something. They're too far away for Lance to have any idea what Shiro is saying, but he sees the slack-jawed way Keith stares at him for a split-second before he throws himself at Shiro and kisses him with what looks like a lot of enthusiasm and very little actual skill.

Not that Shiro seems to be objecting. So that's all right, or will be soon enough.

Lance heads for Allura, heart lighter than it has been in a long time, but then, it's been a long time since the universe was in order. He reaches her in just in time for her to wrinkle her nose and say, "You built a statue?"

He can't help it; he throws his head back and laughs and laughs and laughs, happier than he'd ever dreamed of being. "Welcome home, babe," he tells her, sliding an arm around her and gathering her close. "Welcome home."