It’s ironic probably. There’s part of Lance’s brain that’s aware of that at least. It happens too slow and too fast all at once. His heart, pounding louder than ever, lurches into his throat and it’s a long enough moment for several curses to fly through his head, – no, you idiot, you bull-headed, stubborn asshole. Keith! – a long enough moment for him to grind his teeth and bite down on his tongue so hard that he tastes the slight copper as his own blood fills his mouth. It’s a long enough moment that he automatically alters the path Blue is taking, instinct overriding every logical cell in his body. Blue sighs, already resigned, really?
And he should have seen this coming, he knows he shouldn’t be surprised and yet here he is. Why is he surprised? This is Keith and Keith, more than anyone Lance has ever known has always been a glory hound, always taken the ‘act now, think later’ path in life and was probably diagnosed at birth as a certified idiot; Lance would bet good money that he’s won Asshole of the Year every year since.
And so really, why did Lance think now would be any different? What because recently they’ve not been fighting so much? Recently when he’s shuffled to breakfast he’s found Keith has saved him a spot, stern expression pulled into place despite the softness of the gesture and the way his hair has curled slightly from where he’s been sleeping, little flicks dancing in the air around his head. It’s not cute exactly, but it’s definitely not uncute. Did Lance really believe that that meant they’d changed?
A whine crawls its way out of Lance’s throat because if he’d known this morning that this would happen he wouldn’t have hidden his real smile behind a smirk. Or maybe he would have. There’s still time, after all. He’ll show Keith his real smile tomorrow.
- - - - -
It happens on a routine mission. One that Coran deems a ‘walk in the park’, looking at Hunk out of the corner of his eyes and beaming happily when he nods to let him know he’s used the phrase correctly. The mission itself is so mundane that afterwards Lance can’t actually remember anything except for Hunk’s soothing voice trilling off every idiom he’s managed to successfully teach Coran so far and the little snort that escaped Keith when Shiro suggested a few idioms of his own; Keith always snorts when he finds something genuinely funny. Lance wonders when it was exactly he started to notice stupid things like that.
Only Shiro and Keith were needed, which wasn’t completely unusual exactly, but definitely irked Lance in a way he couldn’t explain. Almost like he, Hunk and Pidge were still playing catch-up to them. Not yet equal.
“Stop pouting.” Pidge flicked his knee, hard enough to bring his focus back to their game.
“I wasn’t pouting!” Maybe he is now though. If he wasn’t he wouldn’t have missed Keith and Shiro sneaking into his room.
“Hey look, it’s you.” Keith has to lean completely over his back to gesture at the stack of cards piled in the middle of Lance’s bed. A blue zero rests on top of the pile.
“Very funny.” It is a little funny. Funnier still when Pidge laughs, eyes sparkling, and Keith’s warm giggles ghost down Lance’s neck; Lance lays down a blue five on top. If only he’d had the blue one he could have made a come-back of sorts. Now Keith will think he’s one-upped him on something.
“No need to look so sour, we only came to say goodbye.” We. Of course. Because Shiro and Keith have always made the best team, regardless of who else happens to be straggling along with them.
“He’s only sour because he’s losing.” Hunk knocks his leg into Lance’s, the smile curling at the corners of his mouth completely at odds with the comforting gesture.
“At his own game?” There’s a teasing lilt to Keith’s voice that sounds suspiciously like Pidge. In fact unless Lance could feel the words rumbling up out of Keith’s chest onto his back where they’re still connected he’d be inclined to believe it was Pidge.
“At his own game.” Confirms Pidge; they’re not even trying to be subtle about how much they’re ganging up on him anymore.
“You know it’s not my game right? Uno is everyone’s game! World renowned for bringing families closer together only to tear them apart again in less than an hour.” As much as Lance would like to take credit for the invention of Uno , it would be fundamentally wrong.
“World renowned?” Shiro cocks an eyebrow at Lance, smiling friendly at him from where he’s examining Pidge’s hand.
“In Lance’s world at least.” Pidge pokes out a tongue and at any other time Lance might have chosen to point out the fact that not only did he not have to teach Pidge any of the rules but Pidge had been keen to help create their space-deck of Uno cards, dragging everyone along to colour in and cut out the cards that matched their Paladin colour… Or maybe it was Hunk who had suggested that was the best way to tackle the task? Either way Pidge was there. And Lance would point it out were that not the exact moment Keith chose to lean even further over him, fingers brushing against his as he plucked a card from Lance’s hand.
“Pick up four, Pidge.”
“Whose side are you on?” Shiro looks almost confused as he hands Pidge the four cards, helping to arrange them into some order no one else can see.
“No one’s,” Lance feels Keith shrug as he starts to move away, “we only popped in to say goodbye.”
“Thanks.” Pidge sends a glare over the top of their hand, fooling no one into thinking they’re serious with how their eyes are crinkling at the edges. “Bye then!” Shiro chuckles, hand petting Pidge’s hair down fondly.
“See you later!” Hunk doesn’t even look up, let alone stand up to hug them. Things like this are routine now; not unusual enough to even disrupt their card game.
“Try not to let Lance win.” Keith says, hand almost sliding up Lance’s arm as he pushes himself off of his back. Lance shivers from the sudden lack of warmth. That’s all it is.
“You just helped him.” Pidge points out, as if they’re suddenly exasperated by the situation.
“Mhm,” Keith’s eyes shine in the doorway, hand held up in a half-wave, “I wonder about that.” The door closes before Lance really has a chance to say goodbye, or to think about wishing them luck. It doesn’t matter though; they have more chance of succeeding than Lance has of beating Pidge at Uno .
- - - - -
They come back late. And not just later than expected, but in the dead of the faux-night-time thing Coran has rigged up. Lance doesn’t know why he’s up in the first place. It’s like his body just knows something isn’t right. He jerks awake, cold sweat drying on the back of his neck and behind his ears, head ringing of Keith’s voice but he can’t make out what he’s trying to say. He shivers. Probably he just needs a drink of water.
He’s padding through the castle hallways, big fluffy socks thumping light patterns onto the hard floor when he first hears the noises. And Lance is smarter than he’s often given credit for, but he’s also not the type of person to not follow suspicious noises when he hears them, regardless of whether his only weapon is a freshly filled up water bottle.
He finds Keith, wheezing brokenly as he’s hoisting Shiro into a healing pod. There’s a lot of white noise that rushes through Lance’s head but for some reason the words that manage to work their way out of his throat are perhaps the least helpful.
“What are you doing?” Keith doesn’t turn to look at him, seemingly neither surprised nor concerned by Lance’s appearance. Instead, his fingers skitter down the length of Shiro’s arm and Lance feels strangely rooted to the spot. There’s blood. A lot of blood. A lump rises into his throat that he can’t seem to shift but no matter how much he wills his legs to just move he can’t.
“Lance.” Keith huffs out, voice a sharp splinter through the room, and Lance rushes to his side before he’s even realised he can move again.
“What happened?” Shiro feels too light in his grasp, but looks strangely uninjured.
“I don’t know,” Keith admits, all but falling away from Shiro now that Lance is there. He leans with his left hand on his thigh, gulping in mouthfuls of air. Lance focuses on Shiro, knows that Keith will only kick his shins in later if he doesn’t, watching with a cold, ugly feeling rolling at the pit of his stomach as the pod swallows him.
“What’s wrong with Shiro?” It’s a losing fight, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.
“I don’t know.” Keith looks up feebly from the floor, eyes pleading, and Lance really wants to yell at him. Because Shiro is fine as far as he can see. Asleep, sure, but not so different from those few times Lance had had to haul Hunk back to his room after he’s inhaled way more beer than any one man should. Keith on the other hand is pressing a hand on a deep wound in his side, presumably to keep his insides inside him.
“Idiot.” Lance fumes, tugging Keith from the floor a little too roughly maybe, but there isn’t time for niceties. Keith is bleeding. “Why didn’t you contact anyone?” Someone would have helped them if there was trouble. Did he not know that by now? Or did he just think if something was able to knock-out Shiro and injure the great prodigal Keith that none of them would stand a chance?
“Don’t tell anyone.” Keith’s grip on his arm is too light, laughably light, and so Lance does just that, pushing him away with an ugly laugh falling from his tongue. Keith’s lip wobbles and Lance forces the way that clenches at his chest down, deep down into the coldness spreading from his stomach.
“Why not? Scared of sullying your perfect reputation?” He knows he’s being unfair, knows his anger is borderline irrational, but he can’t help but feel as if this would have been preventable if Keith wasn’t too damn proud to ask them for help. They’re supposed to be a team. And team members don’t bleed out all over the floor whilst other team members meander about the castle in search of water. That’s rule number one! Or at least in the top five rules.
“Please.” Lance pauses, hands holding Keith inches away from fully settling into his healing pod. He’s never heard Keith use that tone of voice before. He’s pretty sure Keith has never asked him please before either.
“Why not?” His hand flutters, jittery and confused, to brush Keith’s hair from out of his eyes. There are scratches along his forehead, a gash nicked at the top of his ear. “What happened?” He regrets asking as soon as Keith answers, wishes he’d just pushed him back into the pod – it’s not like he isn't in need of immediate help – and run around the castle bashing a pot and pan together screaming at the top of his lungs what he’d just discovered. But Keith does answer, tongue poking out to dampen his lip slightly.
“It was Shiro.” He manages, eyes rolling shut. Lance pushes him away mostly out of instinct, fingers flying off of him as if burned and watches in growing dismay as the pod closes around him and begins assessing his wounds. I don’t know. His head hurts. Please. Lance drops to the floor, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes as if that will make the screaming in his head stop. It was Shiro.
- - - - -
“You didn’t tell anyone.” Lance blinks up at Keith, focusing all of his efforts on scooping another mouthful of green breakfast gloop and acting like he doesn’t want to leap up and hug Keith. And maybe check his side to make sure his organs are staying put.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He slurps as noisily as possible around his spoon, knowing that Keith hates it when he does that.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” There’s a frown in Keith’s forehead that Lance wants to squish with his thumb.
“You asked me not to.”
“And since when do you ever do anything I ask?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Lance huffs, concern, worry and relief all falling away in favour of the anger he’s been hoarding, “since you bled all over me and ruined my pyjamas maybe!”
“Oh.” Keith’s eyes widen. He catches his bottom lip between his teeth, studying Lance carefully, as if he’s unsure if this is some kind of elaborate trick or not. “Thanks.”
He pulls out the chair opposite Lance, perching on the end. Lance raises an eyebrow incredulously when Keith reaches out and takes his spoon from between his fingers, using it to ferry a huge mouthful of breakfast slime into his mouth.
“That’s it?” He feels a little winded. It’s been just over a day since he shoved Keith up into his healing pod, but it’s all he’s been able to think about since. Keith kindly hasn’t mentioned what Lance supposes are very obvious bags under his eyes, or the quite frankly offending stench his armpits are working up, but that doesn’t mean he can draw a line under this episode with an oh, thanks. Keith hums thoughtfully.
“We bumped into this galra,” he mumbles around a second mouthful, not meeting Lance’s gaze, “this galra that Shiro knew. I think.” He swallows, the bobbing of his throat captivating.
“He said something to Shiro,” Keith’s hand grips around the spoon tighter and it’s only then that Lance realises he must be forcing himself to eat so as to have something to occupy his nerves with. They’re not so different after all. At least not all the time. “And after- after Shiro changed. He wasn’t the same anymore.”
“Why didn’t you call back for help?” That’s what’s been playing on Lance’s mind the most. An emptiness has taken up residence in his chest whenever he thinks about how incompetent Keith must think he is to not even call for him in a dire situation.
“We couldn’t.” Keith’s voice is lower than before, his eyes flickering side to side. “The lions, they started acting weird. Black especially. They were,” he swallows again; free hand drumming along the table top, “rejecting us.”
“Rejecting you?” Lance’s mind free falls. He thinks about what he’d do if Blue started to reject him and immediately slams the idea down. It’s not a nice train of thought.
“Certain functions weren’t working. I tried calling. I tried calling so many times.” Lance makes a noise at the back of his throat to try and convey he understands. “I had to knock him out.” His eyes finally land on Lance’s, hundreds of questions reflected in them. “It was the only way.”
“He hurt you.” Lance’s voice doesn’t crack like he sort of expected it to. Watching Keith, strong, impossible, unbreakable Keith, tremble his way around green space gloop is upsetting him on a fundamental level; like the very foundations of his life in space are cracking.
“Not really.” Keith shrugs, eyes falling away from Lance’s all too quickly. He unconsciously scratches at his ear, the one no longer semi-detached from his head. “I’ve had worse.” Lance doesn’t believe that for a second, but it sounds like neither does Keith. Like he’s trying to convince himself it wasn’t that bad and Lance just happens to be here to witness it.
“Shiro’s still healing.” He says instead, though Keith must have realised that when he stumbled out of the pod next to him. It was probably the first thing he thought of checking on. “But when he gets out he’s going to grovel at your feet for an entire month or I’ll shave off his eyebrows in his sleep!”
“You wouldn’t do that.” Keith’s mouth tips up on one side. It’s barely there, but it is there. Lance feels emboldened.
“I would.” For you. Keith looks at him, eyes trailing patterns across his face.
“Thanks.” Two thanks in one conversation, Lance would normally say, man this sure is going to be a thrilling diary entry.
“Anytime.” He says instead, face oddly warm when the other side of Keith’s mouth curls up too.
- - - - -
“Lance.” Keith’s voice crackles through the connection, far away but impossibly close all at once. Lance’s eyes seek him out in the middle of the battle, widening when they see him only facing off a smaller galra ship, not even shooting. Lance’s scoff gets caught in his throat when he realises Keith isn’t firing at it. What if Red has started to reject him again?
“I’m here buddy.”
“It’s him,” Keith’s voice is steady, as if he’s just reporting on the day’s weather, and so it takes Lance a moment longer than maybe it should for his brain to make the connection. Keith suspended mid-fight to stare at a singular retreating galra ship as it disappears back through Allura’s wormhole.
“No!” Lance sees the ending before it happens.
“No!” And Lance’s line of focus drops to include only the way Red surges after the galra ship as it retreats, away from them, away from the closing wormhole.
“I’m sorry.” Keith’s voice sounds farther away than before, like it’s being torn from his throat, but that doesn’t make a shred of sense. Because it’s never been a close fight. Given the choice between Lance or Shiro, well, Keith is going to chase after Shiro every time.
Lance watches, unable to tear his gaze away even as the tears prick hot and heavy over his cheeks. No, you idiot, you bull-headed, stubborn asshole. Keith! He alters his path, urging Blue to move faster with every cell in his body. But Red was behind them, so close to the wormhole that all it takes is a shuffle and they fall back through.
It happens too slow and too fast all at once. The wormhole shrinks into non-existence just as Red’s tail slips over the edge. Lance charges Blue through where it was mere seconds ago, just in case his eyes are playing tricks on him and Red is still with them on their side of space. But he isn’t. Lance’s heart is beating so loudly it takes him a moment to even realise it’s him screaming Keith’s name. It’s probably ironic; Lance only realises he’s in love with him after he disappears.