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a road for lone travelers

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.:grief:.

            He ran.

            Running was what he was good at—it kept his blood pumping, kept him alive. Kept him from facing ceaseless questions and empty condolences from people who would never understand why it hurt so much, why he couldn’t move on like the rest of them, even after months.

            Keith scrubbed an arm over his face as he finally made it to the Red Lion, but those precious few seconds of trying to clear his vision cost him as he bodyslammed into a particle barrier and fell onto his back, pain blossoming in his nose as something warm and wet gushed forth, and ran over his upper lip. His head snapped up and eyes shot wide in disbelief at the red glow taking up the room, the humming louder than normal that should’ve acted as a warning to him—but when did he ever listen to warnings?

            “Keith.”

            The name came from behind him, a gentle call he didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to think about how he probably didn’t deserve—

            And then footsteps. Jogging. Jogging to catch up to him. Then a gasp, quiet, slightly stunned, probably as Lance took in the sight of Keith sitting on the floor with tears of frustration and anger and whatever fucking else was in the ball of feelings currently trying to explode from inside of him, with blood running down his face from his nose, with balled fists and a body coiled tight as a spring.

            “Leave me alone!”

            The order issued from the back of Keith’s throat, deep and wet and very un-leader-like, as Lance’s footsteps halted abruptly, too close to Keith for comfort. He kept his eyes closed and willed himself not to turn around, because if he turned around he’d be faced with the inevitable, that he needed to confront Lance—about this, about personal space, about whatever, something.

            “You’re hurt,” Lance said, more blunt than deadpan as he suddenly entered Keith’s line of sight, and bent down at his side, extended a hand to help him up. Keith considered batting it away and standing up on his own to prove a point, to prove he could handle himself, but something seized him—an urge to touch, be touched, let someone in, something scary, what the fuck—and Keith accepted the hand with a minimal amount of a sort of grumbling that sounded suspiciously like a choked sob.

            As soon as he was back on two feet, Lance yanked him the rest of the way forward, into an embrace that Keith lacked the energy to escape from.

            “I’m bleeding on your shirt,” he mumbled into an achingly familiar shoulder, a shoulder he hadn’t had the luxury of burying his face into in almost two years. He tried to ignore the hoarseness of his voice and the crack at the end of his statement.

            “It was bound to get blood on it at some point,” Lance replied, and maybe on another day he would’ve sounded bothered, would have complained that my favorite shirt is ruined and it’s all your fault, Keith, this is what I get for trusting a man with a mullet, but he sounded. Unbothered. Unconcerned. And instead of pushing Keith away and inspecting the damage, his arms—one tightened on his back, hand flat against his spine, while the other cradled the back of his head and kept. Keith close.

            “Let go,” Lance whispered, and Keith tried to lift his head, tried to look at Lance with bewildered eyes, because he wasn’t the one holding Lance. But then Lance held him a little tighter, added on, “It’s okay. Let go.”

            He tried—he’d give himself that, that at least he’d tried to squirm his way out of Lance’s grip. And to his credit, Lance would have let him. He eased up, started to let Keith go at the same moment Keith’s legs gave out, and he tripped and fell backwards, and would’ve smacked his head on the floor had Lance not lunged at the last second and caught his wrist.

            “Hey, hey, take it eas—”

            “Let go,” Keith snapped back at him, once his legs were solidly underneath him, and wrenched himself free, stumbled back another few feet, watched momentary shock cross his features. Then he turned before he could see that shock morph into disappointed defeat, resignation. Turned and ran, out of the hangar, wiping his sleeve over his face and ignoring the trail of blood left behind.

            He spent the rest of the day avoiding him, avoiding their other teammates, and persisted well into the night, sleep evading him no matter how hard he tried grabbing at it. Maybe it was the lack of a dinner, or the way his mind ran wild, or the guilt that expanded from a twinge somewhere near his heart to a full-on creature attempting to devour him from the inside out.

            Keith let out something akin to a growl and bolted up in bed, and threw his arms at his sides.

            “Fine! Fine!” he shouted at the ceiling. “I’m going, alright! Are you happy?”

            He wasn’t even quite sure who he was talking to as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stomped over to the door, opened it and poked his head out into the darkened hallway, and spotted Lance’s room just a little ways down, door closed as it should’ve been, because who in their right mind would leave their door wide open while they slept?

            Keith made his way down the hall, each step more apprehensive than the last, until finally he stood before Lance’s door and stared at it, at the gray slab separating himself from one of the only other people in his life who’d ever truly made an effort. He listened—couldn’t hear a sound from the other side—raised his fist—hesitated—and knocked.

            And got no response.

            He’s probably sleeping, you moron. Just like you should be.

            Tonight, Keith would just have to suffer while he fed the beast, because sleep wasn’t coming for him. So instead of heading back to his room, he waited a moment more outside of Lance’s, and then left. Continued down the hall. Moved back out to the main halls of the castle, and let his legs carry him all the way to the entrance to the bridge, only to find that the door down here was already wide open, giving Keith full view of a room bathed in pink light from the stars and nebulae around the ship.

            He almost missed the figure, huddled near the front of the bridge; a lump, silhouetted.

            Keith thought about turning, about leaving, but then the figure turned, inclined their head slightly, and Keith got a glimpse of the outline of Lance’s hair, tousled and curling slightly—its natural state, one Keith hadn’t seen much of nowadays.

            “Keith?” Lance’s voice scraped the silence, and for a moment Keith’s name hung in the air between them, until—until that urge returned, and Keith tensed, and, “Wait, don’t—don’t go.”

            Keith froze in place, pinned down by Lance’s eyes, and Lance carefully patted the spot next to him, shifted one foot like he would get up and come drag Keith over if he had to. In that space, that window of a few seconds, that second urge swelled, the same one that’d taken him over in Red’s hangar, however briefly it had lasted, and then Keith was—

            Moving. Forward.

            And forward still.

            Beyond the Paladins’ chairs. Beyond the elevators leading down to the Lions. Beyond Coran’s control panel, to the very edge of the platform that took up the majority of the bridge, to the short steps leading down to the windows, to Lance’s side. Tentatively, he stared at the spot Lance intended for him, and then lowered himself, sat down, stared at the floor, unsure of if he should’ve been looking there or out at the space beyond or—

            At Lance.

            Who carefully scooted an inch over.

            An inch closer.

            And another.

            And then he was close enough that if he moved any closer their shoulders would be touching, but he didn’t close that distance. He squished Keith’s personal space bubble but didn’t outright pop it.

            No, Keith did that.

            He scooted that tiny distance and closed it, rested his head on Lance’s shoulder out of a habit he’d spent too much time suppressing but now still seemed to come as naturally as breathing. Lance stiffened, at first; probably hadn’t been expecting Keith to be the one to do it; then he relaxed, and brought his arm around Keith’s back, hand resting at Keith’s waist.

            Keith allowed a small part of himself to pretend that things hadn’t changed, that these were those blissfully chaotic handful of months back at the Garrison just before the Kerberos takeoff and before the news of the mission failure broke, before he fled to the desert and never looked back, before he bolted his doors and windows on the darkest nights and didn’t answer to knocks and didn’t look out the windows to even check who it was.

            “Are you okay?” Lance finally asked, after some time.

            He asked like he already knew the answer. And he did—he’d been there to witness Iverson lose his vision in his left eye, and had seen Keith in the shack a year later, still cagey and closed-off to anyone who wasn’t Shiro, and then was effectively stuck with Keith the year after that—a poor excuse for a leader, a poor excuse for a friend, even.

            “Obviously,” Keith muttered, a half-hearted snark.

            But Lance didn’t even huff out a chuckle like he normally would’ve. He kept quiet, fingers tensing on Keith’s waist.

            “Bad question,” he said. “You’re not okay.”

            He took in another breath—Keith watched the rise and fall of his chest in their weak reflections in the window, knew Lance was steeling himself for something of a difficult conversation, and the ache rose up in Keith, sharp and uninvited, accompanied by the blistering desire to do what he did best, to get up and call it a night and claim he was tired, but the rest of him—his exhausted body, that one tiny rational corner of his brain, his other desire that he refused to put a name to—kept him rooted to the spot, more than content to remain in Lance’s grasp.

            Even if the conversation was about to take the turn down a road he really didn’t feel like traversing again.

            But you’re not traversing it alone.

            No, he wouldn’t be. It would have been comforting, if this wasn’t a road made for lone travelers.

            “Keith,” Lance started, and the weight in his name alone made Keith raise his head with a stab of panic, there and gone, a fleeting sensation that left his anxieties spiking—too fast to latch onto, not enough time to identify and decide whether or not he really needed to worry about it, which placed it in the camp of definitely worth worrying about

            “You know you don’t have to do this to yourself, right?”

            Lance’s voice drew Keith back to the present moment, and Keith furrowed his brow; Lance sighed, and instead of setting his eyes on Keith, he set them on the stars beyond the windows, the infinite universe stretching out all around them, swallowing the castleship, the Paladins…

            “Like…you can let people in. That’s allowed. You—hmm.” He stopped, swallowed as he carefully considered his next words like he could feel each and every one of Keith’s muscles tensing, as it got more and more difficult to suppress the urge to get up, to leave, to run. “You keep…doing this thing where any time people get close, you shut down, and…it just doesn’t work anymore, Keith.”

            Lance lifted his other arm in gesture to the space around them.

            “Look. We’ve been out here what, over a year now? Around a year? And we’re supposed to have gotten closer, right? We’re all supposed to be a team, supposed to be all bonded or whatever to fly Voltron properly, but sometimes…sometimes it feels like I haven’t gotten any closer to you at all. You don’t open up about your problems. You don’t talk to any of us except Shiro, and now that…”

            Lance stopped again. Licked his lips and dropped his eyes to the floor.

            “Now that he’s gone,” he finally settled upon with the smallest wince, “again, you’re just…closing in on yourself. That’s not healthy. Not for you, and not for the team as a unit, especially since…y’know, we need a Black Paladin, and—”

            “No,” Keith interrupted, and finally extricated himself from Lance’s arm, finally rose to his feet and turned with balled fists. “No one—”

            “No one can replace Shiro, I know.” Then Lance was on his feet, and that damn one inch Lance had on him seemed to stretch now, as he made it a point to get back into Keith’s face. “We’re not replacing Shiro. We’re finding a temporary Black Paladin, because Voltron needs to defend the universe from falling apart, and we can’t do that without a Black Paladin!

            He hadn’t even realized he was shouting until Keith flinched, and Lance heard his voice echoing around the empty bridge. He looked at Keith with wide eyes and took a rather large step back.

            “Sorry, I’m sorry, I just—Keith, I’m worried about you.”

            “You and everyone else in this fucking ship,” Keith fired back. “I get it, you all pity the loner! You all pity the loner who lost both of his parents and then his big brother for the second time and who hasn’t had the time to fucking grieve because we have a mission, we have to save the universe, we have to be child soldiers because you couldn’t keep your damn curiosity to yourself and got us fucking shot into fucking space!

            “Well who’s responsible for the loner title, huh, Mr. Lemme Go Off And Sulk By Myself And Never Tell Anyone What’s Wrong?” Lance snapped. “And for the record, you were the one going off exploring, you found the caves, Hunk got us there, and I just so happened to connect with Blue! But we were following your investigation! If we hadn’t been there, you wouldn’t have gotten to the caves in the first place! Excuse me for trying to help you!”

            “I never asked for your fucking help!”

            “You never ask anyone for help, and that’s the damn problem!

            “I never asked to be on this damn team, either! I tried to leave! And you know, maybe I should’ve, since I’m such a damn burden to the rest of you!”

            Keith’s voice cracked, and he stumbled back at the sound, wet eyes blowing wide and hands flying to cover his mouth as he stared at Lance, unsure of what to make of his own confession, unsure of what to make of Lance staring right back at him. His lips parted slightly, like he might’ve wanted to say something, but—that urge—whatever threads were holding Keith back, chaining him—

            Snapped.

            He bolted for the door, and heard Lance scrambling into motion behind him. Then something flew by his head and stunned him to a halt, as Lance’s shoe hit the wall, buying Lance enough time to slide between Keith and the door and throw his arms up as a barricade.

            “Wait,” he breathed out, “please, Keith—”

            He heaved a few more breaths, doubled over, still managing to shuffle back and forth every time Keith tried to get by him. He’d just raised his head when Keith finally caved and tried to charge right by him.

            “No, no you don’t!” Lance grunted, throwing arms around Keith’s waist and spinning around, until he’d shoved Keith back inside the bridge. He brought his hand down on the scanner next to the door and shut it, sealing them both inside, Keith taking a few steps back as soon as Lance let him go.

            “What the hell do you want, Lance?” Keith demanded.

            “To apologize?” Lance responded.

            Keith crossed his arms and turned his head away, dropped his voice. “Is that an answer or a question?”

            “To apologize,” Lance corrected, voice softer. He started forward, but drew back when Keith flinched again, and raised his hands to either side of his head in surrender. “I’m sorry, Keith. You’re not a burden, do you hear me?” His arms fell back to his sides, and he brought a hand up to rub his shoulder, cast his gaze to the floor. “You’re not a burden. I’m sorry that we’ve—I’ve—made you feel that way. I never meant to. I’m sorry.”

            Keith didn’t answer. Didn’t look up. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Lance turn his head and glance at the door, and then level his gaze back at Keith.

            “You said you never got the chance to grieve,” he whispered this time. “I’m sorry about that too. I-I know you’ve…had it a lot rougher than anyone our age should. But…” Lance cut another glance at the door, then to Keith again, “we’re alone right now. If…if there’s anything you want to talk about, or if you just need a shoulder to cry on…you can come to me, alright? I know we’ve…we…the past…” Lance tripped over his words, now, and finally made a noise of frustration and let his other arm drop back down. “I want to put the past behind us and move forward. I’ve wanted to, for…for God knows how long, and…”

            Lance started laughing, out of nowhere. Wet. Keith’s head snapped up at the first sound of a choked sob, and found quiet tears rolling down Lance’s face.

            “I’m sorry,” he muttered again, and dragged a sleeve over his face. “This is about you right now—”

            Lance cut himself off, mouth shutting so hard his teeth clacked as he found Keith suddenly right in front of him, a hand on his shoulder.

            “I’m sorry, too,” he managed around the lump in his throat. “I’m being an asshole. I shouldn’t be. You’re just…trying to reach out.” For a moment, he stared at where he held Lance’s shoulder, and slowly squeezed. “You’ve always been trying to reach out.”

            Lance took a few seconds, to let Keith’s words sink in, and then brought his hand up, gripped Keith’s shoulder, squeezed him back.

            “And you kept pulling away.”

            Lance took a step forward, then another, and another. Keith remained rooted to the spot, hand moving away from Lance’s shoulder, arm winding around his neck—and Lance’s slid down, under his arm, behind his back—

            And then Lance enveloped Keith in a tight hug, dug his fingers into Keith’s back, took fistfuls of his shirt, and Keith held on just as tightly, buried his face in Lance’s neck. Here, away from the rest of the world, guarded by the Blue Paladin—Red Paladin—that doesn’t matter, it’s just Lance—his tears flowed more freely, and he let himself cry. He didn’t intend to get loud about it—intended to keep himself as quiet as he could—but the first sob escaped him, and then another, and then that second rope snapped, and he went into hysterics.

            Years without tears.

            Here they come.

            He’d prided himself on it. He hadn’t cried a drop since that day he was booted from the Garrison. He’d bottled it all up and stored those bottles away, told himself he had to toughen up if he was going to survive, had to toughen up to prove his points and make a statement, that the Garrison—the universe—could take everyone and everything from him, but he wouldn’t break.

            Some days he didn’t have the energy for it.

            Others, he spent bent over the shabby sink in the shack bathroom, fingers digging into porcelain as he willed himself to get it together, and then worked himself to the bone, threw himself into his research until he crashed headfirst into dreamless sleep, utterly exhausted, and the cycle began anew each day when he rose.

            There was no sink to look into here, no mirror to stare into and see the bags under his glassy eyes and berate himself into pulling it together.

            No, there was just Lance and his arms and the stars, and every emotion Keith hadn’t allowed himself to feel for over two years.

            He didn’t know when his legs gave out, just knew that he was suddenly falling and Lance was suddenly supporting all of his weight, guiding them gently down to the floor. Lance hit his knees rather clumsily, and then Keith followed suit, two seconds later, the shock running through him and only making his grip on Lance suddenly tighten, while Lance winced and uttered some kind of apology Keith couldn’t really make out too well above his own crying, his own inner turmoil, thoughts like shrieks drowning everything else out.

            It took time for him to notice that one of Lance’s hands had strayed from his back to his hair, was tangling in his so-called mullet; that fingers were scratching at his scalp and twisting strands of his hair around, light, careful.

            “I’ve got you, I’ve got you. It’s okay. Just let it out.”

            Third and final rope. Fraying.

            Snapping.

            Another round of tears.

            Keith lost track of the hour, lost track of how long he spent weeping—for himself, for Shiro, for his mother, for his father, for the team, for Lance, for everything he threw away and everything that’d been taken from him, everything he could’ve been and everything he’d never be. For every injury he powered through with grit teeth and a makeshift treatment; for every agonizing all-nighter that he suffered because he couldn’t sleep, not when he was so close; for every thunderstorm, dust storm he’d ridden out by himself; for every dangerous excursion by himself into the desert, for the ones that ended up just fine and the ones that he barely scraped himself out of; for every battle the team suffered through, some ending well, some ending…

            Not very well at all.

            Some ending without a teammate, even.

            Teammate. The word ricocheted in Keith’s head, because he hadn’t been a very good teammate at all, really—he didn’t deserve that title from any member of the team, but they kept—they kept trying, Lance kept trying…

            He never stopped trying.

            Even after the fallout. After everything.

            “I’m so sorry,” Keith croaked, when he finally took a deep breath, when he was sure the worst of it had passed.

            Lance didn’t ask what he meant, but then again, Keith figured he probably knew, probably didn’t have to as he held Keith tighter.

            “I’m sorry, too.”

            “Can we…?” Keith trailed off, unsure of where to take his sentence. Try again? Start over? Go back to how it used to be?

            He ended up not finishing his sentence, instead settling the bottom half of his face into Lance’s shoulder, eyes unfocused as he stared at the wall and doors behind them. His muscles relaxed on their own accord, the longer Lance kept running fingers through his hair—gestures familiar enough to collapse his walls, familiar enough to let Keith be vulnerable for the first time in a long time, because no matter what, no matter if they fought or the history between them, Lance would keep him safe. Keith knew that much.

            “I miss you,” he finally admitted, so quietly he barely even heard himself. He knew Lance heard, from the way his hand momentarily stilled. But then he picked right back up, fingers holding harder to the back of Keith’s shirt.

            “Hmm, yeah,” he whispered back to Keith. “As ridiculous as it might sound…I miss you, too.” He swallowed hard, voice suddenly hoarse. “A lot, actually.” He sucked in another breath, loosed it. “I know a war isn’t really the best time or place, but…yeah. We can.”

            Yeah, we can.

            Those were the last words echoing around Keith’s head when he finally passed out in Lance’s arms, and the first ones when he woke up the next morning, and found himself cradled against Lance’s chest, Lance’s head just above his. Lance still snored softly, breath startling a few hairs at the top of Keith’s head every few seconds.

            You have another chance, Keith thought to himself, closing his eyes again. With him. With the team.

            Time to make it count.