“This is all my fault,” Lance sobs over Shiro’s lifeless body, slamming his fist into the ground. It’s not a side of Lance any of them have seen before. He’s always been one to hide his deeper feelings, using jokes and sarcasm to deflect away from what’s really bothering him. It took over a year for him to trust his team enough to show even a hint of a tear at the mention of his family, even though they all knew he was homesick, because how could you not be?
It’s heartbreaking to watch Lance break down like this, but at least Shiro isn’t around to hear him. Because if he was, he’d probably feel kind of bad.
Because– well. The thing is, Lance isn’t exactly wrong.
Lance sacrifices himself on a mission to repair a Galra labor colony’s heat shield, throwing the Red Lion in front of a blast that would have taken out two of his (okay, fine, Red! their) favorite ladies, Blue and Princess Allura alike, and that’s the moment two realities diverge:
In one reality, he dies. This is the end of the Tale of Lance, the brave Earthborn paladin who gave himself wholeheartedly to the cause. The people will build statues that never get his nose or chin quite right. Some will tell tales of Lance the Lover while others warble ballads of Lance the Loveless, but either way he lives on as one of the most remembered martyrs of a long, long war.
In another reality, Lance closes his eyes against the bright light of an explosion and opens them to the vast, empty darkness of Space. Instead of seeing metal lion debris and oxygen leaking from a broken helmet in a cinematic disaster movie scenario kind of way, which is sort of what he’d expected, he feels something like gravity holding his feet to the ground. When he turns around, he finds the Red Lion is behind him.
“Red! Are you okay?” Lance asks.
No response, but also no particle barrier, which is good. Maybe. Red is seated with its head held high and mouth closed, its eyes dark and empty. As far as he can tell, the Lion’s offline. Getting back into the cockpit won’t be easy, but that’s a problem for Future Lance to deal with. Present Lance just has to find a way up there.
He tries his jetpacks but they’re unresponsive, so he figures he must have taken a hit. What’s weird is that the rest of his armor looks fine. Actually, as far as he can tell, there’s not a scratch on him.
He taps his helmet to activate the comms and doesn’t even get static on the line. It’s just–
“Guys?” Lance calls, and his voice echoes strangely through the comms, coming back to him in waves. He does his best to squash his rising panic and ends up cramming it all into a hacky sack-sized lump in the pit of his stomach. “Can you read me? Is anyone there?”
No one is there.
He breathes: in, out, repeat. It’s just him and the Red Lion, alone in this strange space with whole galaxies wheeling above his head and a pale light coming from somewhere that makes his armor glow faintly and gives him familiar vibes (quintessence? his mind whispers) and his thoughts drift to Allura’s magic; finding the Blue Lion; connecting with the others and calling for Shiro to join them, watching his silhouette flicker into view and straining to hear him saying—
“Shiro,” Lance murmurs, lost in memory.
A beat. Then: “What are you doing here?”
Lance’s breath catches. That’s not how it went. Jeez, he’s only been lost in space for, what, five minutes? and he’s already losing his mind.
He jerks his head up and is startled to see Shiro himself standing right in front of him in full armor, except that he’s missing his helmet. Shiro looks just as startled and kind of pale in the weird glowing light, although maybe startled isn’t the right word because it’s more like someone’s just walked over Shiro’s grave.
“What am I doing here? What are you doing here?!” Lance demands shrilly. “I thought you were with Pidge!”
Shiro doesn’t respond. Instead, he turns to face the Red Lion, reaching up to put his left hand on its metal paw. The Lions are big enough that it should be like watching a tourist pose with the Sphinx but instead it’s kind of like he’s petting a cat. A really, really big cat. There’s something else about him that’s just seems kind of off, but Lance can’t place it.
Eventually, Shiro says, “No, I’ve been here.”
Something about the way he says it makes it sound almost like an apology, but that doesn’t make any sense, either. Impatiently, Lance waits for him to explain, but all Shiro does is ask more questions, still focusing on the Red Lion.
“What happened, Lance? How did you get here?”
“I don’t know!” Lance snaps. “Last thing I remember was knocking Allura out of the way when the shield blew. But we’ve gotta get out of here, Shiro! Too many people are counting on us, we can’t just go and disappear on them now.”
Shiro finally looks over at him.
“I’m not going to let you disappear, Lance. I’ll get you back, I promise.”
Is there something wrong with his ears? “Me?” Lance says incredulously. “Why are you saying that like we aren’t both getting out of here? I’m not just gonna leave you here. That’s not how we roll, you know that!”
Shiro doesn’t say anything. He just looks weirdly sad, and Lance can’t shake the feeling that there’s something incredibly wrong about this whole situation.
That’s when he realizes why Shiro doesn’t look right. His hair’s different. It’s styled the way it used to be, with the shaved undercut and the narrow fringe over his forehead. When did Shiro have time to cut his hair? Lance wonders, as his stomach kicks up the hacky sack of panic again. And where is his helmet?
His gut tells him he needs some answers, so Lance asks, “Hey, Shiro? When was the last time you saw me?”
Part of him expects Shiro to make a short-tempered comment about having no time for stupid questions, Lance, you know this is a serious situation, because that’s the kind of thing Shiro does these days, but that isn’t what happens.
“The last time I saw all of you,” Shiro says easily. Lance relaxes a hair because at least that makes sense, but Shiro’s not done yet. “Voltron was trapped, and you were all working to free him. You hung around longer than the others and I tried calling to you, but…”
Lance nods and does his best to ignore the fact that his stomach’s playing hacky sack for real. “And, uh, before that?”
“… a while ago,” Shiro says.
I thought you were with Pidge!
No, I’ve been here.
“After we fought Zarkon, the Black Lion tried to save me by bringing me to the astral plane, but my body… well, it didn’t make it. So I’m still connected to Black, but that’s about it,” Shiro says.
I’ve been here.
“I don’t know how long it’s been. This place can really mess with your head, and time passes differently here,” Shiro says.
“But I’m pretty sure I’m dead,” Shiro says.
He gives Lance a small smile, then pats Red with a quick double tap, and pulls his hand away as the Lion’s eyes abruptly light up a brilliant gold.
Lance gapes at them both.
“You, on the other hand, aren’t dead yet,” Shiro says just a little too cheerfully. “Neither is your Lion, looks like. Just needed a little energy boost is all, and that much I can do for you.”
That’s when the not-quite ground below their feet rumbles and Red roars deafeningly. Behind Shiro, there’s a light on the horizon that’s slowly getting brighter, and he feels the familiar rush of quintessence coming towards him. Lance! calls Allura’s voice, and she sounds– afraid? Worried? Something must be going wrong back there for her to sound like that. It’d be the easiest thing in the world to run to her now and he can feel Red urging him on.
Lance digs in his heels and stays put.
“But we found you,” he insists. “It took a while, sure, but you’ve been back for months. You’ve been flying the Black Lion. Why would you– This is crazy, I mean, I just saw you! You can’t be–”
He chokes on the word. Dead. It’s so– permanent.
Shiro tightens his jaw, and Lance can’t help noticing he looks even paler than he did before. “We look the same, but he isn’t me. That’s what I was trying to tell you last time. I think Haggar’s using him for something, but I don’t know what. I can only see him when he’s in the Black Lion, and it takes a lot out of me.”
The light’s getting brighter. Lance can barely even see Shiro anymore, just an outline of broad shoulders, the faint glow of Paladin armor. He can hear Allura calling his name again as Red growls insistently, already lumbering to its feet, and vaguely registers that Shiro’s still trying to tell him something with increasing urgency.
“–go now! Don’t– don’t worry about all that stuff I said. Just look after the team. Keep them safe. Will you do that for me?”
“But you’re part of the team too,” Lance tries to say, but he can feel himself slipping away and he’s not sure the words make it out. It’s hard to resist the familiar pull of Allura’s magic, warm and bright, just like her, but all he needs is just a little more time as he tries to draw in another breath–
“Hang on, Shiro!” Lance shouts into the void. “I’ll talk to Allura, there’s gotta be something she can do. I’ll fix this, I promise, and you won’t be alone here anymore–” and he’s babbling but he can’t help it, he doesn’t even know if Shiro can hear him, “I’ll bring you home! You’ve gotta believe me–”
That's the moment another two realities diverge:
In one reality, Lance wakes up and immediately tells Allura about what happened on the astral plane, how she and Shiro saved him, how they need to get him back. It takes some time, but they manage to rescue Shiro’s soul and free the clone from Haggar’s control, setting into motion a chain of events where everything turns out fine.
But in this reality, Lance forgets. When he opens his eyes, he’s so overwhelmed by the way Allura is looking at him that he ends up saying something very obvious (and, he later laments, not smooth at all): “You saved me.” There’s something else he wants to say and it’s right on the tip of his tongue but he’s still kind of fuzzy-headed from almost dying, so he decides that whatever it is can probably wait. It'll be fine.
“I believe you, Lance,” Shiro says.