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Same as It Never Will Be

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They had all unanimously agreed to never call a mission simple again, even if the mission was only hiking to a stream a half-varga’s distance away to collect water. They had learned relatively quickly that whenever someone dropped that particular adjective, the universe felt as if it was being challenged and would proceed to jinx everything. Occasionally they still made mistakes, however, and someone, in this case Coran, would say, “It should be quick and simple!” and everyone would flinch and groan and prepare as best they could for something to inevitably go wrong. After all, just because they knew something bad was going to happen, they couldn’t just not go on the mission.

Which is exactly how Lance ended up dangling from a cliff while holding onto Pidge, who was holding on to Keith, who was holding on to the lowest hanging branch of a weird alien tree that made up the entire edge of the cliff. The canyon below was deep, so deep that Lance couldn’t even see an actual bottom, meaning that even if there was water or something below them it wouldn’t feel any different from smashing into concrete if they fell from this height. While this set-up reminded Lance of a bunch of dramatic movie clichés, the tree branch Keith had a hold of was perfectly stable, grown on this world with its greater-than-Earth level gravity, and wasn’t going anywhere. Keith’s and, even more noticeably, Pidge’s bodies, however, were a whole other story.

Even through the helmet face shields Lance could see the strain on Keith’s face as he attempted to hold all of their weight with one hand, as well as the pain and fear twisting Pidge’s face. They had radioed for help about ten minutes ago, but the others were still another ten away and Lance realized they wouldn’t be able to continue like this for that long.

“Guys, I think–”

“Lance, no! Just shut up, help will be here soon,” Keith snapped.

“Keith, if you know what I was about to say then you know it’s the only choice! The others are still ten minutes away and you and Pidge can’t hold out that long!”

“Fuck you, Lance, I’m holding up just fine,” Pidge gritted out, tightening her grip on Lance’s hand.

Lance could hear distressed shouting through his helmet’s comms as the others tried to reassure them that they were coming as soon as they could and that Lance was not to do ANYTHING stupid until then.

“Guys, seriously, we can’t–“

“Just shut your quiznack, Lance!” Keith snarled.

“Okay buddy, first of all that is MY line. Second of all, I don’t think you’re using that word correctly,” Lance retorted.

“Lance, this isn’t the time–“

“And THIRD, all of you need to stop interrupting me and listen!” Pidge let out another pained grunt but otherwise they all fell silent and Lance was given the stage.

“Pidge, you are so far beyond smarter than me and Keith so you must realize your body can’t hold out much longer if I have. Without my weight, Keith should be able to get you guys onto the branch or at least hold on until the others get here. Argh, quiznack this sucks, but yeah it makes the most sense if I just let go right? Otherwise there’s a huge chance that you and/or Keith can’t hold on anyway and fall with me. Honestly, you guys are great, I mean it. Can you just tell my family I’m sorry and I love them when you eventually reach Earth?”

“Nope, nope, nope, not happening, Lance, we’re almost there.” Lance heard Hunk muttering anxiously through his helmet.

“Pidge, don’t you dare let him go!” Keith yelled.

“Of course I won’t! Lance, stop being a quiznacking idiot!” Pidge’s shouting did something to upset their current precarious situation and suddenly she was screaming in pain and Lance started scrabbling at her hand clutched around his, trying to get her to let go. Between the pain and Lance’s desperate efforts her fingers managed to lose their grip and he was falling.

All Lance could hear was screaming from above and voices echoing in his ears through the comms in his helmet.

He wanted so badly to turn off his comms, but between the air resistance and panic he couldn’t seem to figure out how. He wouldn’t cry like he wanted to, wouldn’t scream his frustrations like he needed to because he didn’t want that for those that were listening, didn’t want those noises to be their last memory of him. He vaguely thought he could hear Keith shouting for his wolf, but it slipped out of his awareness and all he could think of was how scared he was and how he hoped the others wouldn’t miss him too much and how he really really hoped his family back on Earth would understand his choice. Even through the sound of the wind around him as he fell and fell and fell, Lance could hear a lion roaring, his lion. His Red, desperately trying to get to him, but far to big to fit into the available space. She was in his head, a crescendo of fear, but there was nothing she could do as Lance continued to fall.

He drowned out the voices in his ears as his eyes closed and a feeling of calm settled over him. Lance just imagined he was flying. It could be worse, at least it wouldn’t be painful this way.

Suddenly there was a popping noise and Lance’s eyes flew open to see Kosmo staring at him expectantly, and his hands reached out to grab blue-black fur.

Another pop and he was lying on the ground. Alive, dazed, and hands still buried in Kosmo’s fur.

Huh. So that happened.

Lance didn’t remember much of the following few minutes; he only knew there was shouting and someone was hugging him and that he was somehow alive. It felt like his entire brain needed a little while to reboot itself to adjust to this new reality where he was not, in fact, dead.

When his brain finally recalibrated everyone was there, Keith and Pidge included, and they were all gathered around him with a broad spectrum of emotions on their faces. He was now in a sitting position, right hand still gripping Kosmo, and Hunk sobbing into his shoulder. He could sense Red landing a short distance away, calm now that her paladin was okay.

“Hey guys, guess I’m not dead after all,” he eventually croaked at them, somehow managing a relieved grin.

Pidge let out an indignant screech and launched herself at him, sobbing while cursing him out, and Lance let go of Kosmo to hug both of his friends back. He couldn’t help but laugh, both from just how ridiculous Pidge and Hunk were and because he felt high off of the knowledge that he was alive.

Everyone gave him a hug or firm hand on his shoulder after that, lots of affectionate words were thrown as empty insults, and Lance soaked up the attention and love like a sponge. Hunk hovered and Pidge clung like a koala to Lance’s back the entire walk to the lions and the rest of their group, while Allura and Shiro walked nearby with twin faces of combined relief and exasperation. Kosmo wagged his tail happily and trotted between them.

Only Keith said nothing and looked murderous the entire time.

 

Later, after Coran finished looking Lance, Pidge, and Keith over for injuries (Pidge and Keith had needed to have their shoulders wrapped to prevent further muscle damage), Keith stalked over to Lance, who was sitting on Red’s left paw. Keith grunted and Lance scooted over to make room for the other man, eyeing him warily.

“Lance…do you want to die?”

“No, I don’t. I have so much to live for and things I want to do. I need to see my family again and swim at Veradero beach. Life is hard, but most of the time…I love living it,” Lance said, looking up and directly into Keith’s eyes.

“Then why?”

“Because despite what I want and despite what you want, we’re in an intergalactic war and sometimes we’re going to end up needing to make hard choices. Strategically, I am the most expendable paladin, Keith, you need to accept that.”

“No, Lance,” Keith whispered, his voice breaking on the blue paladin’s name.

Lance felt his gaze soften as he looked at the other boy. He wasn’t a fan of this conversation, but Keith needed to hear it.

“We’re at war and you’re our leader, Keith. You can’t let your emotions cloud your judgment. War requires sacrifice.”

Keith let out a distressed, choked whine, face crumpling. He looked like he had a million things he wanted to say, and no idea how to say even one.

“Besides, I’m fine! We’re all fine right now, and who knows, maybe that kind of scenario will never see the light of day a second time!”

They sat on Red’s paw together for another half-varga in comfortable but heavy silence, neither of them actually believing the words. As Keith’s pinky may or may not have settled against Lance’s, though, the red paladin found that he felt strong enough to face any future that came their way.

 

Later, as they all sat around a campfire and Hunk prepared dinner, Lance noticed someone with slumped shoulders and a tense face sitting by their own lion. They were sitting on their lion’s paw much like Lance had been not even hours ago. Frowning, Lance looked back at the rest of the group around the fire. Hunk was eyeing their slumped comrade in concern, but then he sighed, shook his head slightly, and turned back to cooking. Everyone else was too distracted with Coran and Romelle’s antics to notice anything amiss, so Lance pushed himself off the dusty ground and wandered over to the small huddled figure.

“Sup, Pidge, how’re the shoulders feeling?”

Pidge stared stonily ahead. “Peachy, just peachy.”

“Uh huh, so how are they really? What was Coran’s diagnosis?”

Pidge huffed, seemingly unamused with the red paladin’s prying. She refused to make eye contact with him, Lance noticed. He frowned momentarily before morphing his face into a more relaxed expression, hoping to help the green paladin feel a bit more at ease.

“They really are fine, or at least they will be. Coran couldn’t tell the exact extent of the damage with the healing pod sensors, but he says the muscles in both are just severely strained. Nothing some time won’t heal.”

“Time, huh,” Lance hummed. He watched as Pidge seemed to shrink into herself just a bit more, her small body practically radiating discomfort and misery. He closed the distance between them and sat beside her, right arm coming up to sit around her shoulders while he waited for her to find her voice.

“Lance, how would you feel if I died?”

Ah. So that was what this was about. He probably should have guessed.

“Well, Pidgey, I’m pretty sure I just threw myself off a cliff to prevent that very scenario,” Lance chuckled dryly, trying for casual. The small body that had been leaning into his embrace became stiff as a board between one breath and the next. Maybe too casual, then?

“I wouldn’t have died, moron.”

“Maybe,” Lance said. “I wasn’t willing to take that risk though. At the very least your shoulders would’ve been a lot worse, probably even permanently damaged.”

“Then I could’ve built new ones,” Pidge said rebelliously.

“With both of your arms busted and when we have so few supplies?” Lance calmly answered. She was talking in the hypothetical he had to remind himself, he needed her to be talking in the hypothetical or he wasn’t sure how to handle what she was proposing.

“Yeah. Matt would’ve helped me, so would Hunk. Look at Shiro, Lance, body parts can be replaced, people can’t.”

“It’s your body, Pidge, don’t take it so lightly.”

“I’m not, but I’d rather have mechanical limbs than lose anyone in my family again.” Lance heard tears in her voice even though her face looked dry.

“Okay.” Lance found that was the only thing he could bring himself to say. He has felt like Pidge was the little sibling he’d never had ever since they’d launched unknowingly into space that day, that’s why he had been so mad at the thought of Ezor and Zethrid touching her, but to know she also saw him as an older brother… that meant more than Lance felt he had the words to express.

Pidge seemed to understand that her thoughts had been successfully communicated, however, and relaxed into Lance’s one-armed hug once again. Both leaned back against Green as they watched the stars spread out above them. They continued to watch in companionable silence until Hunk’s voice called against the quiet for them to come to dinner.

 

“Hey, buddy, how’re you doing after everything earlier?” Hunk said, ladling some thick brown mush into a bowl before handing it to Lance.

“Oh yeah, man, I’m fine. I ended up the least injured of the three of us actually.” Lance replied cheerily. He couldn’t help the face he made when he noticed the neon green chunks floating in the mush, however, which of course Hunk noticed immediately.

“Don’t diss it until you try it, Lance, the green bits are some kind of plant from the planet we stopped at last time. It definitely has an interesting color, but Coran assures me it’s safe and it even makes the stew taste like beef stew!”

“Beef?” Pidge had procured her own bowl and was spooning at it warily from nearby.

“Yeah, beef! Don’t worry though, no Kalteneckers were harmed in the making of this meal.”

Pidge, ever the skeptic, raised her eyebrows before walking away to sit with the others, continuing to poke at the stew as if something might jump out and bite her. Romelle and Coran launched into some kind of discussion on Altean culture between now and ten thousand years ago, while everyone else ate their stew and softly chatted with one another or listened to the energetic discussion taking place. Even Keith drifted closer, placing a bowl of stew down for Kosmo to eat. Lance watched Keith rest his hand on the large wolf’s back with a fond smile on his face. Just as Lance decided to go over and tease the boy about something mullet-related, a hand fell on his left shoulder.

“Lance, you know you’re my best friend right?” Hunk voice was low and serious and Lance found himself pausing at the shift in atmosphere, before turning around to face Hunk. Lance tilted his head a little as he took in the serious expression on Hunk’s face. What was…oh right, of course.

“Yeah of course, buddy, you’re mine too. I’m sorry I scared you earlier, but I’m fine. Everything is okay,” Lance said, his hand reaching up to grip Hunk’s forearm comfortingly, the one attached to the hand that was still gripping his shoulder.

Hunk’s face pinched slightly and his grip on Lance’s shoulder tightened briefly as his eyes seemed to probe Lance’s face. Whatever he was looking for though he seemed to find it, as Lance saw Hunk’s entire body visibly relax and felt his grip loosen.

“Yeah, okay, but if you ever pull something like that again I’m going to tell your mom AND Veronica, Lance.” Hunk smiled and took his hand from Lance’s shoulder while Lance jerked his own hand off of Hunk’s arm in response.

“You wouldn’t!”

Hunk fixed him with a look. “I would, and you know it.”

“Betrayal, thy name is Hunk,” Lance gasped, eyes wide in mock disbelief. They both ended up laughing after that, a lot of things passing between them without any verbal communication, just quiet understanding.

Lance and Hunk ended up eating their weird alien stew dinner over by the campfire with the others. Lance made it his priority to physically drape himself over his best friend’s body once they had all switched to swapping stories across the campfire.

 

After dinner, Lance leaned back against Hunk’s side as he and Keith exchanged petty, teasing remarks, while Hunk talked animatedly to Pidge about something to do with recoil shocks and kinetic energy.

“Everyone, I have something I wish to discuss with all of you,” Allura announced from her place in the misshaped campfire circle the space crew had going on.

“The stage is yours, Princess,” Shiro replied.

“You see, I wish to make a slight deviation in our travel plans.”

“A deviation? But, Princess, it’s already going to take us–“

“One point five years, damn it,” Pidge growled out, cutting off Coran’s confused squawk.

“Yes, but regardless of the time estimate, I feel this detour shall be worth the additional, well, time. You see, there is a planet in the next system that belongs to the Scorraks and I wish to visit and possibly accelerate our trip,” Allura continued.

“Oh, of course! The Scorraks! That’s brilliant, Princess!” Coran said enthusiastically.

“Um…what? Scorraks?” Hunk edged in uncertainly, holding an index finger up in a nervous
question.

“The Scorraks are an ancient race that used to be close allies and friends with Altea. While I can no longer look up any details to confirm that this is still the case, the Scorraks were known for their ability to control time to an extent and I am hoping they may have a way to hasten our journey.”

“What do you mean, like the ability to move faster within the realm of time or to hasten our perception of time’s movements?” Pidge asked, glasses slipping slightly down her nose in her excitement.

“Wait! Holy Kaltenecker, Allura, are you saying the Scorraks can time travel?” Lance chimed in eagerly, leaning forward slightly.

“Lance, there’s no way time travel could exist, that just gets into way too many paradoxes to even think about. Maybe it could be something similar to the Quantum Abyss that Keith was in before, but I can’t even fathom the amount of energy that would be required to control such a fabrication of time within such a limited frame of reference,” Pidge replied, pushing her glasses back up into place.

Lance pouted, leaning once again against Hunk and folding his arms while he sulked. Hunk shot him a sympathetic smile.

“I…do not know, actually,” Allura said uncertainly, clasping her hands together in front of her.

“You don’t know?” Romelle asked skeptically.

“No, my father was never very forthcoming about the Scorraks’ abilities.”

“She’s right you know,” Coran put in. “King Alfor was very hush-hush about anything to do with the Scorraks’ abilities. He feared the knowledge would reach the ears of those who would abuse it,”” Coran elaborated.

“I don’t know if this is a good idea…shouldn’t we just continue on our way? We don’t know if whatever the Scorraks can do will actually be able to help us at all. It sounds like we might just be wasting time on a pointless detour,” Hunk said uneasily.

“Yeah, I’m going to go with my boy Hunk on this one, Allura,” Lance said, a sense of unease in his gut.

“I believe the possible reward will be worth it,” Allura countered. “And even should this lead turn out to be a false one, it will not add a significant amount of time to the journey.

They end up discussing it for another varga, and while some of them (namely Hunk and Lance) were still uneasy about the deviation, they all agreed that even the possibility of reaching Earth more quickly was, at the very least, worth an investigation. They finished gathering supplies -- including a few more mystery ingredients for Hunk to experiment with -- and divvied up who would ride with who. Romelle got into Blue with Allura, Kaltenecker and Coran were in Yellow with Hunk, the mice were with Pidge in Green, and Keith would take Shiro and Kosmo in Black. Lance was going to be alone in Red until their next stop, and that was perfectly fine with him.

Their temporary campsite was packed up and loaded into the lions and everyone had started boarding to take off when Shiro hesitated as he watched Lance carry a box into Red.

“Shiro, you coming?” Keith called from Black’s open mouth, Kosmo at his side.

“I’m going to ride with Lance actually,” Shiro announced casually. Keith tilted his head slightly and narrowed his eyes in contemplation before quickly glancing between the two and returning his gaze to Shiro. He gave a jerky nod of his head in approval.

“Uh, sure, no problem,” Lance replied, unsure of what exactly was happening right then. He and Shiro didn’t usually avoid each other or anything, and they got along just fine, but admittedly things had been a bit awkward between them since Shiro had taken over Kuron’s body. Lance wasn’t even sure why it was awkward though, he understood that it wasn’t Shiro who had said and done all those things and as far as Lance knew, there wasn’t any way for Shiro to know that anything awkward-worthy had transpired between them. Did Shiro retain Kuron’s memories or had he seen things happening through Black? Or had simply someone told him? Did Shiro remember that while on the astral plane, he had tried to reach Lance once and Lance hadn’t understood? Did Shiro blame him for not realizing the truth sooner? …Like he blamed himself.

‘Yeah, he probably does,’ Lance thought morosely as he took up his position in Red’s pilot seat, shoulders slumped, and listened to Shiro settle into the cockpit somewhere behind him.

About twenty dobashes passed in silence as all the lions lifted off and left the green, craggy terrain behind them, shooting once again into the stars.

“Lance, if you had died, who do you think would have had the responsibility of telling your family what had happened?” Shiro asked, suddenly right behind Lance’s chair. The unexpected question startled Lance out of his thoughts and made him jump a little in the seat.

“Uhhh, I mean Hunk probably?” Lance hedged, not sure where this conversation was going.

“No, Lance. As your commanding officer the responsibility would’ve fallen to me.”

There was silence in the Red Lion cockpit as Lance took that in, unsure how to respond to such information.

“Oh,” Lance eventually responded eloquently.

“Lance, I swore to myself that I would get the five of you home, sane and intact, no matter what. I almost wasn’t able to keep that oath today.”

The Cuban boy looked forward into the universe speeding by them and thought about how to respond to that. This wasn’t the conversation he had been expecting whatsoever, although in hindsight maybe he should have expected it; almost everyone else had already taken their turn admonishing him after all. Which also didn’t make a lot of sense. Lance knew everyone on the team cared about each other, but they had never expressed it quite like this, and never about a situation that Lance so strongly felt he made the right call on. If anything, Lance felt everyone should have been praising him for making that call, not chiding him like a child.

“What would you have done if you’d been in my place hanging over that cliff, Shiro?”

“I – what?”

“What would you have done if Pidge and Keith were holding you up above that abyss and were likely either going to irreparably damage their bodies or end up falling with you? I thought at least you out of everyone would understand why I made the decision to fall.”

So Lance was a little grumpy at this point, even possibly a tad vindictive. Sue him.

“Well, I –“

“You would have done the same thing, Shiro, we both know it,” Lance said, cutting him off, though guilt for making Shiro sound so unsure reared its ugly head in his chest.

“Well, maybe you’re right, Lance, but also maybe after losing both my parents back on Earth, living most of my life knowing I had an early expiration date, leaving the man I loved behind to follow my dreams only to get kidnapped and tortured by aliens for an entire year, losing my dominant arm on the whim of said aliens, ending up back in space yet again to fight an intergalactic ten thousand year old war in a giant robot space cat before dying and put back into my own clone’s body, I’m not ready to lose anyone else important to me,” Shiro calmly answered, leaving Lance once again speechless and unsure of how to react.

“Um, I guess that’s fair,” ended up being the best response he could manage. Lance shrunk into his seat a little more, shoulders hunched and shame reddening his cheeks.

“You haven’t lost anything yet, Lance. You’ve been displaced for sure, but nothing important to you has been permanently lost. You’re not allowed to self-sacrifice yet, not until you know what loss really means. I know I’m being selfish and what I’m saying might be impossible…but none of you are allowed to die, Lance, you all are going to make it home. I won’t fail you.”

Shiro gave his speech with such smooth confidence that Lance couldn’t help but believe every word. When Shiro stepped up beside him and ruffled Lance’s brown hair, he knew he should have felt like he was being treated like a child, but instead the gesture combined with Shiro’s easy smile compelled Lance to give a bright smile in return.

He didn’t realize that he’d lost hope that everything would be okay until that moment, when hope found itself nestling back inside his chest.

Maybe Shiro was right. Maybe Lance hadn’t lost anything permanently.