I listened to Chaos Chaos's "Do You Feel It" on repeat the entire time I was drafting this story. This is also the longest one shot I've ever written. (25000 words and 45 pages. Holy shit.) It could not be split anywhere though; it was meant to be told as one story.


Cores of Diamond


Keith's relationship with Lance begins in the exact same way as all the other most tide-turning events of his life. That is to say, messily, and long before he knows about it.

.

.

When a lanky, indignant, and loudmouthed boy crashes Keith's rescue mission, Keith is a mile high on adrenaline. He's just followed a disembodied, borderline paranormal feeling blindly into the fresh wreckage of a possibly alien crash site in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, only to find Takashi Shirogane himself, alive, a full year after his death.

Keith is reeling.

The raw relief at seeing Shiro's face clashes violently with the rage and betrayal that comes with the confirmation that yes, the Garrison has been hiding things all along. Just like he thought. Secrets as heavy as black holes, judging by the hell he sees in the scar on Shiro's face, the mystery in his arm, the haunted circles beneath his eyes. Keith is struggling to subdue all of these emotions until later, or never, so he can get Shiro away from the men who betrayed him, the men who covered up his disappearance with the words 'pilot error'ㅡ and that's when the boy waltzes in and demands a part in the rescue mission.

So when Keith says, "Who are you?"ㅡit's genuine.

It's only when the boy emotes and huffs and adds with disbelief, "Um, the name's Lance," that his face lights up any pathways in Keith's memory.

Between the crash site escape and the ensuing chase through the cold starlit desert, Keith doesn't have much time to reminisce on his time at the Garrison, or any other pilots he may or may not happen to remember.

But once the night is quiet and they're safeㅡfor the momentㅡat Keith's shack, he lies on the floor beside the couch where Shiro is sleeping and can't help running his hand over his memory, feeling for that face, that voice, that spark of challenge in Lance's eye. His hand snags every so often. A bright, sterile classroom, and a snarkily answered question. The dim interior of the simulator and a challenge to a race that ended in Keith winning. The roof at night; Keith used to sneak up there but he stopped after he kept running into another boy out of bounds who didn't seem to like him very much. As the others slumber on in his shack, Keith rolls that last memory over in his mind, trying to bring shape to the boy from the rooftop. The soft outline of his Garrison uniform under the moonlight, and the defensiveness to his aggression. It bothers Keith that he never realized that boy from the roof was the same one from the race. The same one that used to glare at him from across the mess hall.

Frowning to himself, he rolls his head to the side to look at the boy now, where he's sleeping on the floor on the other side of the one-room shack, his head resting on the big guy's leg and his legs draped haphazardly across the stomach of the smaller boy (who might actually be a girl, now that Keith looks more closely). For most of Keith's time at the Garrison, he had this vague idea that the other students disliked him, because he was always getting called out and challenged. But now that he thinks about it, really thinks about it, every boy that ever did that looked roughly like this one, didn't they?

Is it possible that it was just.. only ever this Lance guy?

Not for the first time, Keith regrets retreating so thoroughly into his own world at the Garrison. But in the end, it doesn't matter, because in the morning those three will go their separate ways from Keith and Shiro, and Keith will likely never see Lance again.

Except that doesn't happen at all, and when Lance touches the carvings Keith's been studying for a year this time they light upㅡand Keith knows in this moment that Lance is supposed to be here. Is maybe supposed to have been here all along.

So he tries to pinpoint when exactly they first met, because with all this 'teamwork' talk from Shiro and Allura, it feels important, especially since Lance is so insistent on this alleged rivalry between them at the Garrison. It's obvious he's never going to win Lance's trust and camaraderie unless he understands why Lance hates him in the first place, so he does what he always does when he's trying to solve a mystery. He traces it back to the beginning.

Except memory is a fickle thing, and it's never that easy. Not knowing who Lance was back then makes it hard for Keith to locate the memories now. Like searching for a file in a database without knowing the title or the size or the contents. He uses like-terms instead. Searches his memory for anything Lance-sounding or Lance-shaped or Lance-colored. The results are unreliable at best, downright muddy at worst. It's three months post-wormhole now, two and a half months post-Arus, and Keith is almost ready to give up on the whole idea of remembering exactly when he and Lance met. But then it comes to him.

He and Lance are escorting a high-profile ally to the surface of a dwarf planet, and to Keith's great annoyance, the ally is beautiful. So he has to endure Lance's poorly thought out advances the entire ride down to the surface. It's only when they're nearly there that Lance says something oddㅡnot odd because he said it, and it's a pick up line, but odd because of the way the pick up line rings a bell in Keith's head. The way it tugs a string that goes back and back and back… Years back.

Keith goes silent for the rest of the trip.

He mulls over the mystifying sentence for almost a week before he fumbles his bayard in the middle of a battle, having finally, finally remembered why Lance's words sounded so familiar.

When he first flew in to Arizona to start his training at the Garrison, there was a three and a half hour shuttle-ride from the Phoenix airport to the base south of Tucson. And when Keith comes back to the memory later, long after that battle is over, he remembers. He remembers a boy vaguely Lance-shaped stopping at his row and leaning on the back of the seat to hit on him. He remembers brushing the guy off. Not much else.

Could that have been Lance? Could that have been Lance with his stupid, flirty way of trying to make friends? The thought plagues Keith for a long time. The uncertainty. The idea that he was the one to push Lance's attempts at friendship away first, and that's why Lance is so unreceptive now, and that this whole 'rivalry' thing is his own fault after all, and that he earned every inch of Lance's resistance. But it isn't until a full year away from Earth that he breaks down and gives in and just asks him about it.

Except he ends up at Hunk's door instead of Lance's, somehow.

"Oh my god," Hunk giggles uncontrollably. It's midnight castle-time and he's standing at his doorway in pajamas looking like Christmas came early. "You do remember that! I knew it!"

Keith shuffles on his feet. "I mean, not really," he clarifies. "I remember that it happened but not much else. I was just curiousㅡ"

"ㅡif that was Lance," Hunk finishes giddily. "Oh yeah, that was Lance. He and I actually met on that shuttle too. He moved to my row after you shot him down and let me tell you, it wasㅡ" There's a pause in which Hunk's face does a funny thing, where he looks nostalgic and amused and sympathetic all at once, and then a sudden look of uncertainty crosses it all out and he throws his hands up. "You know what? That was such a long time ago. WOW time flies. Doesn't it? It's not important, right?"

Keith frowns. "Yeah. I guess not."

But the thing is, it feels important. Somewhere out there in the multiverse is a version of reality where Keith was paying attention that day, and he'll always wonder what became of that Keith's friendship with Lance.

The beginning, for Keith, instead of a crowded, shaky bus rolling through a desert city, will instead have to be when he went to Lance after their first true battle on Arus to help him up, and for the first time ever, Lance's defenses were down. He didn't even realize Lance had defenses until that moment. Not until he was staring straight through miles and miles of open sky to some something solid and tangible and real far below. Something dazzling.

Of course, then it was Lance's turn to forget. (Keith still hates the universe for that one.) So it takes many months before he lets Keith see that far down to the surface again.

Years before he lets Keith walk there.

.

.

When everything changes it changes like this: They're alone on the castleship, and Lance is insane.

.

.

More specifically, Coran has taken Allura and Hunk down to the surface of a small planet at the edge of an unfamiliar galaxy to stock up on supplies. The castleship is orbiting the planet now as the rest of them wait. To pass the time, Shiro and Keith are training together when Pidge comes in and hauls Shiro away to run something by him, some freshly unearthed clue as to her father's whereabouts, and the resulting conversation ends with Shiro informing Keith that he and Pidge will be back in a few hours.

Keith knows they're gone when he hears Green's distant, excited roar cut out halfway through, the vacuum of space swallowing the sound.

Then comes Lance.

He wanders in five times over the next hour as Keith hacks away through levels six, seven, and eight with the attack drone, complaining about this and that. Seeing as Keith's a little busy, he ignores most of it. Until the fifth time when Lance is suddenly standing between Keith and the drone.

"Keith, I'm bored," he drawls, and Keith has to veer sharp-right to avoid spearing Lance in the chest. "This castle is lifeless, please entertain me."

Keith glares. The flow of the fight is gone, and he's missed the opening that would have won him the round. "Entertain yourself," he snaps.

Lance just rolls his eyes and dodges the drone's incoming side-swipe by dancing out of the way. He gives Keith a thoughtful look as Keith defends against the blow with renewed vigor, then says, "Fine, I will," and dips out of the room without another word.

And Keith, gullible idiot that he is, thinks that's the last he's heard of it for today.

Five minutes later Lance is back, and he's hitting the emergency off-switch on the underside of the drone's chin before Keith can even open his mouth to tell him not to.

"WhatㅡHEY!"

"You've been at this for more than two hours," Lance says, and kicks the dead drone away. It crumples to the ground at Keith's feet. "Time to train my way. I put that stuffed animal Hunk won at the meteor shower festival last month on the main control panel on the main deck upstairs. First one to get it wins. No rules, no holds barred, weapons set to stun." As he speaks a wicked grin spreads across his face, and as he finishes he whips his bayard from the back of his jeans, spinning it once around his thumb before activating it into a small pistol. "On your markㅡ"

Keith balks. "Are you serious?"

"ㅡget setㅡ"

Dumbfounded, Keith hits the tiny switch on the bottom of his sword hilt, switching it to 'dull.'

"ㅡGO!" Lance shouts, and Keith wonders (as they both make a mad dash for the training room door) why he always lets Lance goad him into these games. Then they're at the door, pushing and shoving until they fall through in tandem as a tangle of limbs. Lance breaks free first and then he's skidding around the corner to next hall.

For all Keith's speed in the air, Lance's long legs and lean torso give him the advantage on the ground. Keith throws his sword, but Lance ducks itㅡbarelyㅡand makes it to the elevator with enough time to spare to close the doors before Keith gets there. He can hear Lance cackling on the other side as he collides full speed with the silver door. But then he's jamming his sword into the panel on the wall, prying it off to reveal the circuitry beneath. The scream of frustration Lance emits when the elevator screeches to a halt some twenty feet above Keith is painfully satisfying. He's grinning ear to ear as he books it for the staircase down the hall, hoping to head off Lance three floors up before he escapes the dead elevator.

But Lance is a freak when it comes to climbing. By the time Keith enters the final stretch, the last hallway, Lance is already crawling out of the dark elevator shaft, having used his bayard to prop the fried doors open. Lance seizes Keith's ankle as he flies by, sending him flat on his face, and a second later they're wrestling on the floor like dogs.

Keith thinks, as he shoves at Lance's face and Lance straight up bites him, that Shiro would have an aneurysm if he ever found out about this 'training exercise.'

For a brief instant Lance manages to get his bayard close enough to fire off a shot that actually hits Keith, straight in the bicep, and his entire right arm seizes violently and then goes numb. It's like he's been tased. Lance chucklesㅡchucklesㅡlike this is the most fun he's had in weeks, and Keith bares his teeth before flipping another switch on his sword hilt with what little thumb movement he has left, the curveball that sends his sword flying to his other hand.

But Lance has his knee on Keith's left wrist before the bayard has even finished remanifesting there, and Keith would be clawing that smirk off Lance's face if his arms weren't pinned.

"The thing about fighting your friends," Lance pants (and Keith is half-pleased by the fact that Lance is winded, half-pleased by the way that it sounds), "is that they know all your dirty little tricks."

Keith flushes angrily, forcing his body's natural reaction back whence it came with a sledgehammer. An idea has just occurred to him. He glances at his left handㅡthe one Lance's knee is currently restrainingㅡand says, "Ow."

Like clockwork, Lance's knee eases up.

Without hesitation Keith lunges. Lance cries out with betrayal and shock as he's slammed mercilessly onto his back, and Keith is already up and running when he shouts back, "And they know all your dirty little weaknesses too!"

"Son of a biㅡ "

The last word is drowned out by Lance's gun as he fires wildly after Keith. Once, twice. The light glances off the walls as Keith beelines sporadically to throw off Lance's freakishly predictive aim and hurtles through the door to the main deck.

It's dark right now with the flight system in stasis, so the gray-silver deck is lit only by the eerie blue lights on the control panel around the room and the far off emergency lights scattered between ceiling tiles. Then Keith sees it: the fuzzy purple blob on the central dias. But his split second hesitation costs him dearly. A shot catches him in the back of his calf and he stumbles mid-step, turning just in time to raise his sword up between himself and Lance.

They're grappling hand to hand again, but they're less than five feet from it now, which means Keith is less than five feet from victory.

He sees it in Lance's eyes, too. The desperation. The fire. He hasn't seen Lance this worked up in a while; his hair is wild, his pupils dilated wide, his movements erratic and lacking much of the coordination that is usually his prime advantage when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. He's taking undue risks, and Keith is so taken aback by the ferocity of Lance's offense that he slipsㅡliterally slips. The partially stunned leg gives out and he falls to one knee, his sword still lodged on the underside of Lance's pistol, keeping it pointed away from him. Like any soldier Lance takes the opening. He shoves Keith's sword away (when the hell did Lance get so strong?) and swings around to Keith's other side.

Toward the dais.

His calf is screaming as he launches himself upward after Lance. He's gonna pay for pushing his body like this later but he doesn't give a flying fuck as long as he wins.

Lance's lower back collides with the dais as Keith hits him with his entire body weight, and the resulting grunt falls directly into Keith's ear. The world narrows to these three square feet where they're throat to throat. Keith has his left arm under Lance's right, blindly searching the cold stone surface for anything fluffy, and his numb right arm pushing back the best it can against Lance's attempts to shove him off.

Looking back, later, Keith will agonize over which one of them started it. All he knows is that he desperately wants to win but Lance's entire body is in the way and it's as infuriating as it is distractingㅡLance isn't even trying to grab the animal anymore, he's just trying to keep Keith from getting at it! So Keith is growling now as he swipes at the unseen platform behind Lance, and if his huffiness is any indication then Lance is as frustrated as Keith. The problem is that every time Lance huffs it's fanning Keith right on the mouth, and it's making Keith think more about how close their mouths are than how close the trophy is.

Suddenly he's not trying quite as hard to grab the animal and Lance isn't trying quite as hard to push him away. Of course, the second Keith stops trying altogether is the second his hand falls on the prizeㅡa spot of fluff on the cold, cold stoneㅡbut when he heaves out a shuddering breath of triumph and drags it toward him it brings his arm into full contact with Lance's back. Now Lance is closing his eyes, and yes, there's no mistaking it, he's clutching at Keith's shoulders instead of pushing. The huff comes again but this time it's into Keith's mouthㅡwait why did I open my mouth

ㅡand just like that they've gone from scrapping to kissing.

Keith has no idea who started it but neither of them are ending it, either, and it's somehow even worse than the fight was. It's messy and angry and handsy and Keith isn't thinking anything at all while it's happening. He's not even Keith. He's nothing but the lips on Lance's, the tongue between his teeth, the nose smashing into his, the hand fisted on the back of his hand-me-down army jacket, the knee between his legs slowly bruising itself on the dais behind him, the hand still holding the stupid stuffed animalㅡthe hand that forgot what it was holding when it tried to move to Lance's chest as they faltered for breath.

And then suddenly he's Keith again.

Because Lance is pulling away, dazed and surprised, to look down at the trophy in Keith's hand. A lightning flash of emotion cuts through Lance's surprise, starting with hurt and landing on something like fury. But it's swift, and it's gone. All of it replaced by an eerie blank slate. Before Keith can even register anything beyond the fact that they're no longer kissing (which sucks ) Lance is already shoving his way out from between Keith and the dais. This time Keith stumbles backward with no resistance. His stunned leg buckles under his weight and he nearly falls.

"Congrats," Lance says emotionlessly. "You won."

Keith opens his mouth in shock, but nothing comes out. His engine is still stuttering, still trying to restart. Maybe he doesn't understand how that just happened, or why, but he liked it, though. He thought Lance liked it. He thought…

"Lance?" he calls out shakily after the retreating paladin. "Lance!"

He might as well have been shouting Lance's name at the wall for all the good it did.

.

.

FUCK.

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.

It's two full day cycles before Keith sees him again.

That time is largely spent in the training room, projecting all his confusion onto the attack drone and then sending it to its doom, over, and over, and over. Four long years of backbreaking work has brought them from bitter rivals to begrudging allies, to trusted teammates, to partners, to friends. All of that, blown, in one moment of insanity. The thing is, he doesn't know what he did wrong. Was he forcing himself on Lance? Is that what it was? When it was happening, he would have sworn up and down that Lance wanted it as much as he did… But if so, then what (dodge) the hell (duck and roll) was his problem? (Final blow, and the drone goes down.)

If only he could fix every problem by stabbing it.

In the end he winds up at Lance's bedroom door, banging on it with his fist until it slides open to reveal a disheveled and exhausted Lance, who then opens his mouth like he's planning on unleashing a flurry of Spanish swears that have been amassing in his lungs for two days.

"I'm sorry," Keith blurts. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry."

Lance's mouth is still open but all that comes out is a quiet, "Oh."

The skin under Lance's eyes is oddly pink, and the lines there more defined than usual. Has he been crying? The guilt in his gut twists like a knife at the very thought. He is such a piece of shit. How could he have read this so hideously wrong? He must have. He must have been pushing himself on Lance without realizing it, or, or something, because Lance obviously didn't want it the way Keith did.

You fucked this up so bad. Fix it. Fix it!

"I'm sorry," he insists, one more time for good measure. This time there's no frustration in it, just sincerity, and maybe a hint of begging.

The sincerity is what softens the crease in Lance's eyebrows. He shuffles on his feet and looks away, leaning on the doorjamb with one shoulder and crossing his arms defensively over his chest. "It's fine," he says, detachedly. Then he hits Keith with that look he gets when he's trying to intimidate, even though it's never worked and there's very little heat behind it right now anyway. "But you shouldn't use cheap tricks like that just to win games, dude. It's heinously uncool. But, yeah. It's whatever. See you at breakfast, mullet." Then the door is shut.

It's not until Keith is laying in bed ten minutes later that he bolts upright, the pieces finally snapping into place.

Lance thought you were just distracting him so you could win the game, and he was crushed about it.

He was crushed about it. In the dark room Keith stares at the maps and sketches that line the wall across from him, trying to make sense of it. What the fuck. What the fuck?

If that's why Lance was upset then doesn't that mean he wanted it?

.

.

That night Keith leaves the stuffed animal outside Lance's door.

.

.

The next morning Lance is back to normal.

Well, mostly. At least he's not ignoring Keith anymore, but he's a little subdued around him now, which is driving Keith insane. He wants to broach the subject. He needs to. On the surface Lance seems to be over the whole thing but Keith most certainly isn't. He can't simply let this go. Not when Lance doesn't know that kiss meant something to Keith, a thousand things each scarier than the last, and definitely not when there's a very real possibility that Lance meant something by it too. But Lance does a good job of making sure that he's never totally alone with Keith after the apology. There's always something. Boredom, hunger pangs, a random need to run diagnostics on Blue, the increasingly frequent and all-encompassing urge to pee. Poor excuses, all of them, and Keith grows more and more frustrated every day. Every time they're in the same room together he has half a mind to drag Lance away by the collar until they're finally alone and demand they talk about this properly.

But he has no fucking idea what to say, anyway, so he doesn't.

Three weeks of this garbage has Keith at his emotional wits-end. Something has to give or he's going to end up lunging across the dinner table someday and either punching Lance square in the jaw or kissing him right on top of all the food. One of those.

One night as he wonders if he could get away with doing both at once, Keith stabs into his bowl of alien fruit a little too harshly. The ceramic bowl rings loud enough over the celebratory chatter at the city council's table to draw a sharp glance from Shiro. But Lance doesn't notice. He's still sitting directly across from Keith, putting every terrible move in his arsenal on the woman to his leftㅡthe captain of the guard in the comet-city they've just liberated. A lithe, speckle-skinned, humanoid beauty named Jendi. He shoves the forkful of fruit into his mouth as Lance bursts out laughing.

It's baffling how beautiful such unrestrained laughter is even through a gross mouthful of food, and even more so that this Jendi woman seems to agree. She laughs too, and her hand comes to rest on Lance's forearmㅡwhere it stays for literally the rest of the meal.

It's disgusting, really, but it has nothing to do with the reason Keith eats his main dish more violently than usual. Nothing at all.

At one point Jendi asks Lance if he'll show her "how they dance on the other side of the quadrant." Barf, Keith thinks, she's as bad as he is, and for a split second he wonders if he channeled Pidge and said it out loud, because that's the exact moment Lance remembers that Keith exists. And there's that old smirk. The 'look what I've got that you don't,' smirk Lance always adopts when he thinks he's winning whatever arbitrary contest he's currently challenged Keith to.

It's such an absurd and illogical retrograde in their dynamic that Keith almost blows his fuse right then and there. I'm fucking GAY, you absolute fish! I don't want her!

Not everyone can be as blissfully unobservant as Lance, however. As it turns out, somebody has noticed Keith's absolute disinterest in women, and makes it his mission of the night once the dinner has concluded and the music commenced to get Keith to dance with him. Normally Keith would be disinterested in that as well, for lack of experience. But the look of shock and irritation that the whole interaction puts on Lance's face has Keith's mouth saying yes before his brain catches up. Keith lets himself be led by the elbow out of the dining hall and into a glittering domed chamber a mile high.

New Carthas is built inside a large comet. Every crater here is domed over with glass, protecting the city from the harsh void of space, and beyond the glass lie the stars, and the one larger and steadily approaching star this comet belongs to. It's nearing its perihelion with the star right now, which means all the dormant water within the body of the comet is heating up and expanding. Yona explains all this as he leads Keith across the floor in an unfamiliar dance, pointing at the geysers where they erupt steadily from small golden fountains around the room from somewhere far, far below their near-weightless feet. The ground rumbles softly as they near each geyser and fades again as they dance away.

Dancing has never been a thing in Keith's world, but on a world with gravity this low even the worst of dancers appear graceful. Each step takes them three times as far as it would have on Earth, and each time it takes them three times as long to touch back down. Keith is actually having fun, which is unexpected, but he can't help the intrusive thoughts. The fear that Lance is having more fun.

"The ones on the surface layer outside look even more beautiful," Yona says, mistaking Keith's discrete glance around the room for Lance as appreciation for the scenery. "Do you want to see?"

Keith's eyes fall on Lance where he's leaning against the opposite wall, no Jendi in sight, and the annoyance is evident on his face even from across the chamber. Then Jendi appears with two cups in her hand, and Lance breaks eye contact to look at her. Keith huffs. "You know what?" he says. "Yeah. I do."

So he follows Yona out of the chamber into a tunnel-like passageway where the marble walls turn to stone and the ground slopes up into what feels like a miniature research station on the seafloor. Except instead of the seafloor it's the barren, holey surface of a comet that surrounds them, and instead of ocean above them it's open space and the looming white dwarf star. In every direction as far as the eye can see, geysers spew from the steadily heating ground, coating the rocky outer shell of New Carthas in a makeshift fog atmosphere that has the stars all shimmering beyond it. Keith's so enamored that he almost forgets about Yona entirely until there's a hand on his arm.

Shocker: Keith is thinking twice about having led this guy on now that they're actually alone and it's more about Yona than annoying Lance.

And yet, he's spared the job of letting him down.

"Oh, whoops."

Keith turns away from Yona's hopeful face so fast he almost snaps his neck. Lance?

"Didn't realize this room was occupado. Thought this might be the way to bathroom."

"Lance, what the fuck," Keith hisses, because there's no way any of that is true. Lance followed them!

But he doesn't look ashamed of it in the slightest. "Sorry, am I interrupting something?" he asks innocently, eyes shifting from Keith to Yona, who looks intensely uncomfortable at the sudden turn of events.

"None of your business," Keith snaps.

Yona taps his fingers together. "Um.. maybe I should go."

Lance moves out of the doorway and into the room, gesturing welcomingly at the unhindered exit. "Yeah, maybe you should," he grins. "Keith looks mad and he gets a little stabby when he's mad."

"Lance!"

Yona shoots a look over his shoulder at Keith, and a little wave. "It's okay, I'll see you back inside."

Then he's gone, and they're alone, and Lance is just staring. Eyeing Keith like he's never seen him before in his life.

"WHAT," Keith finally snaps. "What do you want?"

The look intensifies. It's like Lance is being torn between amusement, confusion, anger, and triumph, and he can't seem to decide where to put his hands. Crossed, hips, palm up, hips again. "You were gonna make out with that guy, weren't you?"

Keith flushes. "It's none of your business!"

Lance crosses the ten feet between them in one cheeky, weightless bound. The emotions start to sort themselves, until all that's left is the triumph. As if Lance has just won whatever game it is they've been playing all evening, and he's climbing the steps to collect on his prize. "You don't even know him," Lance laughs.

Of all the stupid things to say. "Like you have any room to talk."

Lance is way too close now and Keith steps back to regain some healthy space, but the glass wall is right there behind him. Lance's grin widens at Keith's surprise when he raps his head on the glass. He throws one hand up to the glass by Keith's head to slow his forward momentum and leans on it, the most shameless of flirtatious grins on his face. Keith stares at his mouth in disbelief.

When Lance speaks again his voice is low. So much lower than normal. "You know," he hums, "if you wanted another kiss so badly, you coulda just asked."

The spell on Keith shatters.

With rekindled anger he shoves Lance away. "Would you stop mocking me for two fucking seconds?" he shouts.

Lance stumbles back, falling way farther than Keith meant to push him because of the gravity, until he bounces off the far side of the dome and catches himself. His silhouette is framed by the spray of starlit water against the harsh blackness of space outside their bubble of glass as his hand goes to his chest. To the spot where Keith pushed him. All the playfulness has been wiped from his face. Hurt colors his voice when he says, "I wasn't mocking you."

The admission has Keith so taken aback that he can't think of a response quickly enough before Lance shakes his head and leaves, muttering under his breath all the way.

The nearest geyser sputters itself out beyond the glass where Lance was standing until a second ago, and the last of the water cascades down in slow motion, the gravity of the comet just barely keeping it from flying off into space.

What the hell just happened. Was he being serious? Was that real? Why is it so impossible to tell when Lance is messing with him and when he isn't? Why is he like this?

He's not sure what the exact plan is when a few minutes later he's falling slowly (damn this nonexistent gravity) back down the sloping passageway toward the musical sound of strings and the pervasive hum of the chatter and celebration going on in the central chamber. All he knows is that whatever this is, it's got to stop. Everyone on the team has noticed the weird new rift between he and Lance, and if he lets that rift get any widerㅡwell, it doesn't matter because he isn't going to. That's the plan. Whatever the hell that was up there in the bubble, whatever Lance was trying to communicate by riling him up and then suddenly turning the charm on and then defending it as sincere in the mother of all twists… Whatever it was, it was a moment . That much was cold, hard fact.

So Keith re-enters the chamber with the intention of dragging Lance away from the party to do what they should have done the second they kissed on the control deck weeks ago. Talk.

Of course, the second his eyes fall on Lance the plan comes screeching to a halt. There he is, not twenty feet away, dancing with Jendi again like nothing happened. Like nothing happened! They meet eyes and Lance must see the fury on Keith's face because for a second he looks terrified. Then Keith is wheeling around, bounding out of the room as fast as the gravity will allow him to, back the way he came. He takes a wrong turn and ends up sloping down instead of up but he doesn't care, doesn't give a shit where this hall is going as long as it's away fromㅡ

"Keith!"

God damn it. He speeds up and pushes off the wall as he rounds a corner to pick up speed, into a dark passageway lit only once every ten feet by a pink overhead lamp.

"KEITH!" A hand grabs his shoulder and his feet aren't back on the ground yet so he has no leverage to pull himself away. As a result he's hauled backwards three whole feet before he catches himself on the wall. "For Christ's sake," Lance is saying, "slow down. Where's the fire?"

"Get off," Keith snaps, and is finally able to wrench his shoulder from Lance's hand.

Lance's face contorts with anger. "What is your problem? "

"YOU," Keith shouts, and his voice is cracking now like it always does when he starts to lose it. "You're myㅡ I thought you wereㅡ" He thought Lance was flirting with him for real this time, he thought something good was happening, he thought they had amoment, but he always thinks they've had a moment and it's never meant anything to Lance before, so why should Keith have expected any different now? He clenches his fists because his hands are shaking. "Justㅡ just go back to Jendi and leave me alone."

Lance scrunches his eyebrows in confusion. "Who?"

What in the everloving fuck.

"The girl you were just dancing with?" Keith says, throwing his hands up. "The girl you've been talking to all night!"

"Her?" he balks. "Are you kidding? I barely know her! You're more important and there's obviously something wrong with you. It's… It's me, right? You're mad at me?" He takes Keith's bewildered silence as confirmation, and heaves a long sigh before rubbing at his neck self-consciously. "Look, I really wasn't mocking you back there and, and I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable okay? I think I read this all wrong. I thought maybe youㅡ" The speech is derailed as Keith snaps and seizes two handfuls of his shirt and slams his back against the wallㅡa less powerful gesture in this low-G environment but still enough to knock the words out of his mouth. Startled, he looks down his nose at Keith, eyebrows raised so high they've almost disappeared into his shaggy bangs, and gasps, "Oh shit," like he's expecting Keith to deck him in the face.

But Keith kisses him instead.

There's a small noise of surprise at the back of Lance's throat, and then he throws his arms around Keith's back and drags him in the rest of the way. It's rough at first, full of all the same pent-up frustration that their first one on the control deck was. But it fades. Slowly but surely, until Keith's hold on his shirt is weakening and their lips are sliding together more like light rain than a thunderstorm. The mystery of whether Lance wants this or not vanishes into the night, never to be seen again. Nobody kisses like this unless they mean it.

When Keith pulls away, his hands still loosely fisted in Lance's collar, Lance's hands slip from his back and fall limp to his sides like he's been stupefied. Keith hits him with a deadeye, no-bullshit stare. Do you get it now?

The dazed, somewhat starstruck sparkle in his eyes says he gets it.

"I'm telling you, Lance definitely went this way," someone saysㅡHunk?ㅡand Lance almost leaps out of his skin. Keith turns to look and sees Hunk and Pidge rounding the corner. Hunk opens his mouth to speak again but then he takes in their position, his eyes falling on Keith's hands worriedly. "Woah, you're not fighting are you?"

"This is a peace party," Pidge reminds them with her arms crossed. "Can you guys wait to throw down till we're back on the ship? Shiro's been looking all over for you guys and he'd be pissed if he knew you were fighting in front of our new allies."

Mortified, Keith releases Lance's shirt and backs away. But Lance isn't embarrassed at all; he's totally fine with having nearly been caught red-handed. He's back to normal. Glowing, even. "Don't worry, we're done fighting. Right Keith?" he winks.

Well that was new.

"Um.. right," Keith says, and for once, he genuinely believes it.

.

.

That's the last time Keith ever sees Lance flirt with anyone.

.

.

But aside from the fact that they're no longer fighting, nothing else changes between them. Not really. Until they spar again one morning the next week and it ends in another heated kiss, and Lance grins like an idiot afterward for the rest of the day. Which is… something.

To be honest, Keith is a little shocked at how easy the transition is from friends to more. Lance doesn't ask questions or offer any answers himself, which is perfect, because Keith doesn't have any answers anyway or know what questions to even ask. It becomes the routine, the quiet agreement. It usually goes like this: a stalking forward, a glint in the eye, and then they come together. There's never any words. Never a need for words when Keith can read the intention and desire so plainly on Lance's face. When they're paired up for reconnaissance, half the time Lance is making eyes at him, and a quarter of the time it gets to Keith badly enough that he lets Lance distract him from the mission until Shiro's voice is crackling over their comms, asking why they went silent and causing them to jump apart.

It's mostly random at first. Overindulgence in the training room, chance encounters in the kitchen at night, stumbling into one another on one of the many observation decks. But weeks go by and the randomness dwindles. Now their training schedules have started to converge, though they never talked about that. Now Keith is showing up to the kitchen at midnight even when he's not hungry. Now he goes to the same observation deck at the same time every night, and Lance is there, and one night three months after their first kiss Lance follows him from the dark starlit hall through the silent castle back to his room.

Lance spends a lot of time in his room after that. Always at night, always late, always after the others have all fallen asleep. Sometimes Keith does something stupid in battle and he knows Lance will show up later that night, eyes blazing, and shove his way in to kiss him until Keith forgets what he even did in the first place.

But it's not always like that. Sometimes Lance shows up out of nowhere and just sits there reading or listening to music while Keith goes about his business. Sometimes he walks around, eyeing the many trinkets Keith's picked up around the universe: the lovingly crafted gifts from children, the interesting relics Keith's bartered for at trade depots, the medals hanging on the wall, the collected maps, the assorted drawings of the places they've been. He rambles a lot while he does this, sometimes snacking on the little pouch of berries he keeps in his pocket. This and that, the latest mission, Hunk said such and such earlier, I'm hungry, Keith, I'm bored, Keith, teach me to draw, Keith.

Keith, look at me.

So Keith stops and looks up from whatever he's doing and Lance is kneeling at the edge of his bed, looming over him, and that's where the words always end.

Sometimes they kiss until they can't keep their eyes open anymore. Sometimes they try. Sometimes it's like a battle to see who can stay awake the longest, and more than once they fall asleep in the middle of kissing because of their inability to admit defeat. And there's always defeat. As much as he'd like it to go on forever, Keith inevitably falls asleep, and Lance is inevitably gone when he wakes up again.

.

.

Then, one day, Lance is the one who does something stupid in battle.

.

.

It's a rescue mission.

There's two binary stars en route to collide, and there's a planet in orbit around one of them that is doomed by proxy. They get the distress call from Těnnero as they're passing through the system and immediately go to their aidㅡapparently most of the planet was evacuated years ago, but one small stubborn village remained, convinced that the scholars were wrong. Until now. Těnnero's orbit has completely dissolved and the planet is literally falling into its star.

The mission is simple in theory: get in, get everyone, get out.

But there are a lot of people still living here, and they are not all living in the same place. They start off in the jets, but fairly soon they've realized the true scope of this rescue mission, and they hand the jets off to Coran and Allura to shuttle people to the castle. The paladins get in their lions to move more people at once.

Every time they get back the ground has broken up more and more. Great chasms filled with lava have rent through the landscape now as the awesome force of tidal heating tears the planet apart from the inside out. At this rate the planet will be destroyed long before it ever plunges into the star. The ground is awash with earthquakes, each worse than the last, and by the time they get down to the last few trips the terrain has devolved into an apocalyptic hellscape. In the sky, beyond the haze and the smoke and the roiling atmosphere, the binary stars Těnnero once belonged to are going out with a blaze of glory. Pieces of each lie splattered into space for thousands of miles by their opposing gravitational fields, as if billions of gallons of burning hydrogen are no more than child's fingerpaint.

It's the closest thing to the end of the world that Keith has ever seen.

When they take their lions in for the last load of stragglers it seems like they're just in time, too. Less than two miles away, what looked like a mountain when they arrived blows its top violently to spew even more fire and smoke into the irradiated sky. The shockwave and sound of it rips through the village and shakes them all nearly to their knees.

"That's everyone. Time to go," Shiro commands as a pyroclastic cloud of ash begins to descend the mountain.

"No, no," someone says, a small timid creature tugging at Shiro's elbow. "There's a family that lives at the base of that mountain! They're still waiting!"

Shiro's eyes snap to Keith and he speaks into the comm. "Did anyone pick up a family from the base of that mountain?"

A green speck vanishes into the red clouds far above them, and a yellow speck follows it from a mile or so away. There's a resounding "No" on the comm from Pidge and Hunk, and Keith echoes it.

"I'm already on it," comes Lance's voice, and there it is. The blue speck. Going the wrong direction.

"Lance wait," Keith says, and he's already sprinting toward Red. "Let me do it, Red is more suited toㅡ"

"No time," Lance replies.

Keith swears loudly and colorfully as the Blue speck speeds toward the mile high cloud of ash that's rolling down the fire-wrought mountainside.

Red's lower hull is full of screaming passengers as Keith flies full throttle toward the erupting volcano. He thought he saw Blue stopping by what looked like a building as he flew toward them, but both Blue and the potential house have since been swallowed by the rolling plumes of smoke and ash. "Where are you?" Keith shouts. God, it's so loud here, and terrifying not to be able to see the eruptions. All of his instruments are going berserk. He narrows his eyes at the blinking blue dot on his scanner, but even as he looks it glitches out and switches spots. "I can't get a proper read on you."

The comm crackles in his ear, delivering Lance's voice in tantalizing patches. "ㅡgoㅡackㅡfouㅡ"

"Lance? I can't find you, what are your coordinates?" The world outside is an undulous wall of grey and black and that deadly red glow.

"ㅡKeiㅡ"

The world shakes below them. For a moment all of Keith's scanners freak out and he has to throw his helmet off and cover his ears to keep from going deaf at the sudden explosion of sound. The ash around his lion lights up; hellfire rains from below.

"ㅡull upㅡPULL UP!" It's Shiro's voice crackling now, from his helmet on the floor. "KEITH PULL UP!"

Survival kicks in and Keith hits the throttle, sending Red rocketing into the sky, up and up until he's bursting out of the ash a mile above the volcano, looking down at the fresh desolation below in abstract horror.

The mountain is gone.

"Lance," he rasps. "Lance!" Red's systems sputter to life and Shiro's face is on his screen not a moment later.

"Where's Lance?" he says, and Keith has never seen Shiro so afraid before.

"Iㅡ I didn't.." Keith's hands are shaking as he looks down at his dashboard, eyes flitting across the restarting systems for any sign of Lance or Blue. The scanner that was showing Blue's location before is now empty. The dot is gone. Just, gone. Like the mountain.

"No, Keith, return to the ship," Shiro says, and only then does Keith realize he's started to direct Red back into the ash.

"Fuck that!" he shouts. "I'm going back!"

"You have passengers," Shiro reminds him sharply, "and Blue… has gone dark, Keith. You saw it too." He doesn't have to say it; Keith hears it anyway in the broken way the words tumble from Shiro's mouth.

Lance is gone.

If he didn't have passengers, Keith would go back down into that unnavigable nightmare and keep searching until the planet plunged itself into the sun. But he does, so he sets his jaw and flies home.

It's clear when he arrives in the castleship's main hangar five minutes later that everyone else's communications got messed up too, because no one seems to know what's happened.

"Where's Lance?" Hunk asks casually, as if he expects the answer to be that Lance has just stepped out for groceries. That's their problem. They've gotten so used to this, to beating the odds, that when the odds come for revenge not a single one of them expects it.

Shiro climbs out of Black and drops to the ground, looking thoroughly shaken. "Keith," he says, "I'm sorry."

The civilians linger in Red's jaw behind him, and Keith can hear a baby crying somewhere else in the hangar. It's unreal. Like he's an intruder in someone else's dream. Who cares if Shiro is sorry? Who cares about fucking anything.

"Guys?" Hunk's voice breaks new registers, and Keith doesn't dare look over at him and Pidge. "Where is Lance?"

"He was on the mountain when it blew," Shiro offers softly. "and Blue disappeared from the radar."

Silence descends on the room. "No," someone says. Slowly, disbelievingly, and the raw terror in it cuts through Keith's chest like a knife. Makes it harder to pretend that it's not set in stone yet. "No no no nonono..." It's Pidge. He recognizes that against his will as the refugees whose lives he chose over precious time to search for Lance continue to file out of Red. Keith squeezes his eyes shut and tries to tune her out as she grows more frantic and starts to plead with Shiro to do something, because she never asks for help and because she's the techie and because she would know if it was possible Blue survived despite what the scanners said, and because he's never heard her cry before and it's threatening to unravel what little is left of him.

"I'm going back down," he rasps at no one in particular.

He knows it doesn't make a lick of sense. That if Blue went down on that mountain then the fractured planet would have swallowed her whole the second she fell. That in all their travels, none of the lions have ever just vanished like that from the scanners. That it all points to one thing.

But no one tries to stop him. He's so numb anyway that he probably wouldn't have heard them if they did.

He fires Red up, moves into the airlock at the end of the hangar, opens the hatch to fly into spaceㅡ

ㅡand smacks straight into Blue.

"Lance?" he gasps.

That's definitely Blue he's just smacked intoㅡblack with smoke yet unmistakeableㅡbut Lance doesn't answer over the comm. The silence is terrifying, and Keith doesn't even ask Red to do anything at all; Red bites Blue on the arm all on her own and hauls her directly into the airlock. When the inner hatch opens Keith is already vaulting over the back of his chair and exiting his lion to get to Blue. He can hear everyone reacting in the hangar but he's got tunnel vision, now, and then Blue's opening her jaw and there's Lance stumbling out.

"Well that sucked," he jokes, and Keith slams into him. "Oof," Lance says, "watch out, Keith, I've got kids coming out of here behind me."

But Keith doesn't let up on the bone-crushing hug until Hunk is there ripping Lance out of Keith's arms to hug him and pass him around for everyone else's turn. He's... laughing? He's just laughing. Keith rakes his eyes over Lance, searching for limps or injuries, but comes up empty. And Lance just goes on laughing as he's passed from Hunk to Pidge, who's embarrassed at her emotional outburst and tries to wipe her eyes surreptitiously before her turn. Lance has the good grace not to draw attention to it, but upon seeing her face he stops laughing and immediately launches a grand brushing-off of his ever having been in danger in the first place.

No one really buys it, but they let Lance do it anyway.

"For the love of god," Hunk sniffs, taking a second turn after Shiro and Coran, "don't ever scare us like that again."

Even Allura demands her turn to hug him, and takes the longest, and on top of that Keith has never seen Shiro this relieved before in all their time together. All of it serves to drive home how insanely lucky Lance is to have come home unscathed.

He's aliveㅡhe's fineㅡhe's not even injured beyond a few scratches. Keith manages to restrain himself after that initial tackle in front of everyone, but just barely, and he ends up lingering about an inch off Lance's elbow throughout the vague retelling of what happened on Lance's end of this fiasco, and then lingering still as Hunk and Pidge and Coran start to theorize about what could have happened with everyone's communications, and why Blue got the worst of it. Lance does nothing to regain his personal space, for which Keith is grateful. The civilians break off with Allura and Shiro for food and water and rest while Coran and Pidge and Hunk take a look at Blue's fried system to get her back online.

It's about an hour into the Blue Lion fix-a-thon that Keith finally breaks. "Lance," he says, "can I talk to you for a minute alone?"

He must have sounded angry because Pidge pokes her head up from the box of tools to look at him sharply. "Give him a break, Keith, you would have done the same thing if you'd been the one closest to that family."

But Lance, who has been sitting next to the box and staring off into space for quite some time now doing nothing but eating those alien berries he carries around in his pocket, rolls nimbly to his feet. "Nah, it's cool. Lead the way, Red."

So he does.

He leads the way out of the hangar, into the hall, up three flights of stairs and down six more halls, until Lance is dragging his feet and sighing, "Where are we going? Keith, stop. Stop."

The hand that touches his shoulder is what finally makes him listen. He turns to Lance, the dimly lit corridor swimming out of focus. He doesn't know what he was planning on saying. Something like don't you dare do anything like that ever again, or you should have let me go instead, or so what if I'd I have done the same because your life is worth a thousand of mine. Whichever stupid thing he was gonna say dries up in his mouth, though, when he sees Lance's face. Gone is the lighthearted jokester that brushed off his brush with death so that Pidge would stop crying. Gone is the reckless bravado that sent him flying toward that volcano in the first place. Lance won't look at him, either; he's staring at a spot just off Keith's left shoulder and biting his lip so hard Keith wonders if it's going to bleed. Then he heaves a great big shuddering breath and slouches forward, letting his forehead fall onto Keith's shoulder.

Keith is dumbstruck.

He was so ready to lay into him. So ready to demand to know why wasn't taking the fact that he almost died seriously.

Slowly, Keith's arms creep around Lance's back, and Lance reciprocates immediately, clinging to Keith's shirt like he'll float off into space if he isn't hanging on. Seeing Lance break down is heart-wrenching.

"Lance, how close was it?" Keith asks numbly.

Lance slumps an inch farther, tightening his grip and transferring a bit more of his bodyweight onto Keith. He's several inches taller than Keith now and he's a heavy guy, so Keith tightens his grip too.

"Really close," is all Lance says.

Keith lets this go on for a few minutes, and when he does start to pull away Lance makes a small noise of complaint in the back of his throat that somehow manages to make Keith happy and sad all at once. "Come on," he says gently, "just a bit farther." Lance's watery heartbreak turns to quiet hope as Keith takes his wrist and pulls him on down the hall.

When they get to their landing Keith passes Lance's room by and leads him to his own. Lance continues to follow his lead even once they're inside, as Keith discards his armor piece by piece, then the flight suit, leaving nothing but the light t-shirt and boxer shorts they all wear underneath. Under any other circumstances Keith might be combusting over this. But Lance is on autopilot right now and the blank look in his eyes is kind of scary. So Keith climbs into bed and pulls Lance along, who follows like a rag doll and collapses on the pillow beside Keith and stares at the ceiling like the answers to life, the universe, and everything might be written there in code.

This is the part where you're supposed to say something.

There was a solid ten minutes today where he believed Lance to be dead and gone. He has a shining silver chance, now, to tell Lance all the things that were rolling through his head then like thunder. But now that Lance is here his tongue is heavy. The words sound so small in comparison to the feeling; the scale of the truth so daunting in comparison to the physical space between them, the only space he knows how to cross. So he stays silent as a tear rolls down Lance's cheek, and takes his hand instead. This much he can do.

It's funny. For all the months they've been meeting up in the dark to kiss each other senseless, this is the first time they've actually held hands. Lance must think it's funny too because the smallest of smiles flickers across his face before his fingers curl into Keith's.

.

.

Lance is always gone when he wakes up, but Keith's never felt heartbroken about it before today. The empty spot beside him where Lance was laying when Keith fell asleep last night howls at his side now like a cold loud void. He should have stayed. When Keith rolls over and lets his hand fall on the empty pillow, the fabric there is cool and lifeless. He should have stayed…

.

.

Or maybe you should have asked him to.

.

.

Almost scarier than near death experiences is how quickly they move on from them. By the next morning the others are back in good spirits, and by the following evening it's as if nothing happened. This is just the way of it, Keith supposes. They've all had their run-ins with death before and they've all learned to cope in their various ways. It would be crippling if they all stopped functioning every time someone had a close call. Even Keith, for whom the universe briefly ended, is back in the swing of it by the time they finish dropping off all the refugees two days later.

He doesn't know whether it's a healthy way to cope, or not, but it is what it is. Life marches on.

Three days after the rescue mission on Těnnero, Allura brings the castleship back to that star system so they can watch the end firsthand; the final dance of the two binary stars.

"This is a rare and fascinating event," Allura explains when everyone questions her sudden interest in stellar affairs. "It's not often that anyone gets to observe such a spectacular thing from such close quarters. We simply cannot miss this. Besides," she adds, glancing surreptitiously across the dinner table at Lance before clearing her throat and clapping her hands happily together. "We've all earned a night off, I think. What better way to spend it?"

So they take the night off.

Keith eats and showers and wanders onto the north tower observation deck where they're all supposed to be meeting, where he's met with impatient hellos from everyone. The glass spans in a wide semi-circle up here, exposing half of the entire universe. Argent and Aurum hang against the backdrop of the spiral galaxy in full display; the two doomed stars that have been battered time and again with near misses before this as their orbits slowly fell out of balance, leaving bright, glowing pieces of themselves strewn about the star system like misshapen children. Shiro and Allura and Coran have brought chairs up from some other floor and are lounging near the glass. At their feet are about a dozen pillows, where Hunk and Pidge are lying with their limbs strewn haphazardly in every direction.

"Took you long enough," Pidge says through a mouthful of what Keith assumes is the Altean equivalent of movie popcorn.

Allura reaches down into the bowl to grab a handful too. "Yes, we only have fifteen minutes left until it starts. Did you see Lance on your way up? He'll miss the beginning at this rate."

Keith frowns. "No."

"Petition to nominate Keith to find him," Hunk says.

"Whatㅡwhy me?" he balks.

Hunk blinks at him amusedly. "Um, because you'll find him and round him up the quickest because you have no patience and you like watching things explode."

...Crisis averted. "Okay, I see your point. I'll be right back."

"Hurry!" they chorus after his retreating back.

.

.

As always, Keith finds Lance in the first place he looks.

.

.

Over the last three days Lance has spent most of his time down here in the hangar with Blue, doing what he can to help as Pidge and Coran repair her computer, as Hunk repairs her engine, and taking it on himself to clean every last speck of debris and smoke off her outer hull. So Keith is unsurprised to find him here now. But he's not working on her, which is surprising. Instead he looks lost in thought, lounging back on her paw and staring up at her, almost like he's having a silent conversation. Keith does that with Redㅡnot in words, but in pictures, and feelings. He can't help wondering what sort of feelings are crossing over between them now.

It's amazing, how little they know about the universe still. For all of Altea's hyper-advancements in technologyㅡinconceivable and magic by human standardsㅡthere's still so much to the universe that they don't understand. About life, about energy and matter and their relationship with each other. In the end even Coran couldn't explain what exactly happened with the lions' and their comms, chalking it up to the death throes of the dying planet's quintessence. Maybe this is what Lance and Blue are thinking about. As Keith watches, Lance groans loudly and drags his hand down his face, pulls out his pocket comm like he's gonna use it, but then presses it to his forehead and groans even louder. He pockets it again and pulls out that pouch of berries instead, popping one into his mouth. He relaxes then, visibly. But only by a degree or two.

"Forget about the light show?" Keith asks from the doorway.

Lance launches to his feet and smacks his head on Blue's jaw. "Okay ow. Keith , hey man. Ah-ha-haoww. God, that hurt..."

Keith is torn between laughter and sympathy as he crosses the hangar. Somehow Lance looks simultaneously relieved and terrified to see him, which is a feeling that Keith has become intimately familiar with over the last few months. But the terror takes over and Lance fumbles his words. "Forget? I didn't forget. No, I'm… I was gonna..? Aw jeez. I can't do this." He swipes a hand down his face again, looks over his shoulder at Blue, and pops another berry into his mouth.

Momentarily distracted, Keith eyes the pouch in Lance's hand. It's something that's been nagging at him for a while, this berry pouch. How Lance is always carrying it around but only ever eats one or two of them at a time. (Except the day he almost died.) But he's never bother to ask.

He's starting to think that maybe he should bother more.

"What are those anyway?" he says before he can stop himself.

Lance snaps back to attention, flushing all the way down to his neck. "Oh, uh…"

He looks down at the pouch and shoves it into his pocket, the other hand rubbing sheepishly at his neck. Even after all this time, Keith still half-expects Lance to say they're called nunya berries , or just plain fuck off. But he doesn't.

"Anxiety meds," he finally answers, dragging his feet on each word as it comes out. "Pidge's been bringing them back for me from the trade center on Destum. They're actually not meds, per se," he rattles on with forced enthusiasm, picking up speed as he goes. "They're just berries. I can't pronounce the name. But they do the job better than anything I was prescribed on Earth. It's au naturale, which is neat I guess. I always felt weird shoving all those pills into my body. I guess the berries contain some kinda chemicalㅡ I dunno, but uh.. Yeah, it's safe. All that jazz. They've been using them there for millennia… Come on, don't look at me like that," he finally breaks, and Keith's jaw clicks shut. "All judgy. You asked and I'm not ashamed of it."

Yes, Keith is reeling a bit at this revelation and Lance's honesty, but, "I'm not judging," he insists. "I just… anxiety meds? You took one immediately after I came in. Do I give you anxiety?"

"What? No!" Lance splutters, waving his arms. "Noㅡ"

"It sure seems likeㅡ"

"No, no, it's not like that. I was just nervous okay? I was nervous because I was gonna ask you, I mean I am gonna ask you, I mean, I'm asking you right nowㅡ" Lance takes a deep breath, pushes his hair out of his eyes, and says, "Do you want to ditch the others and watch the collision with me instead?"

Keith blinks. Oh. "Just us?"

"Yeah," Lance says earnestly. "Like, in Blue." He jams a thumb over his shoulder toward his lion with an anxious smile.

So far all of their non-platonic encounters have been totally spontaneous. Sure they've fallen into an unspoken routine, but that's exactly it. It's unspoken. There are never words.

Well, there are words. In fact, they talk way more than they used to. But the words are never combined with the kissing. They're either friends on team Voltron or they're two horny idiots messing around in the dark. There's no inbetween. There's never an attempt to name whatever it is they're doing. But for the first time ever, it dawns on Keith that maybe Lance wants to.

"Sorry," Lance frets, and Keith realizes he's been quiet for too long. "Shit, I knew this was a bad idea."

"No, hang on. Just to be clear," Keith says slowly. "You're asking me out on a date. Right?"

For some reason this brings Lance from frantic backpedaling to irritation. The redness on his face creeps as far out as his ears, turning his warm brown skin an even warmer shade. "I'm asking you to ride shotgun in my ten thousand year old sentient spaceship while we watch two megaton balls of nuclear hydrogen cannibalize each other," he huffs, "not to an ice cream social!"

"Shut up," Keith mumbles affectionately, and pulls his own comm out of his pocket to hit the 'talk' button. "Sorry guys," he says into the receiver. "We won't be able to make it back to the deck. You'll have to watch without us."

The line crackles, and then there's a chorus of anger and dismay, followed by Pidge's voice cutting through the rest. "Why? " she hollers. "What did Lance do this time? "

"Hey!" Lance screeches back, and yanks the comm from Keith's hand to yell into it. "I resent that you little dust mite!"

Keith rolls his eyes and snatches back the comm. "He didn't do anything, Pidge, he just wants to take Blue out and watch the collision a little closer, that's all."

There's a shuffling noise and then Allura's voice comes through laced with concern. "That is not a good idea boys. The castleship is already orbiting almost as close as we can get to the stars without falling beyond the point of escape velocity. The orbital calculations are extremely delicate for two bodies orbiting each other, especially when they fall out of balance like this."

"Tch," Lance says. "Relax, Lu, I've got it covered. I triple-checked my math and had Hunk check over it too."

"Oh so that's what that was," comes Hunk's distant voice.

"And you're going too, Keith?" Shiro asks, with an undercurrent to his tone that makes Keith take evasive action.

"Why not?" he says, looking away from Lance. "The closer to the action the better. See you guys in a few hours." He thinks he hears Pidge muttering 'wish I thought of that' before he disconnects.

" Nice ," Lance whoops the second the line is broken, and pats Blue's leg, prompting her to lower her jaw and let them in. He hauls himself up in one swift motion. "You ready to go then? I put some snacks and stuff in the cockpit alreadyㅡ" Lance trails off as he looks over his shoulder at Keith, who's having something of a mild heart attack.

Kissing Lance he's gotten used to. Sinfully used to. This?! Uncharted waters. He's not ready. He's not. Oh my god, he screams at himself internally, why did you say yes, you are not ready for this at all.

" You okay?" Lance asks softly.

"Yeah," he lies, and god he can't stop fidgeting.

Lance always knows when he's lying though, and a fond smile crosses his face before he turns around fully and sits down to face Keith at the edge of Blue's jaw, legs swinging out wide. He pulls the pouch out and beckons Keith toward him. "Hey, uh.. not to sound like a drug dealer from a twentieth century PSA, but do you wanna try one of these?"

The joke soothes Keith's nerves enough for him to take a step closer, which he knows is exactly what it was intended to do. He eyes the pouch. "What do they do exactly?"

"Calm you down," he shrugs. "Help you direct your own thoughts instead of drowning in them. I dunno. It's hard to explain. It's nice, though. Kinda like… like a big glass of ice water when you wake up thirsty."

"Yeah, okay," Keith agrees. Maybe it will help him calm down enough to go through with this.

He steps forward into the triangle of space between Lance's knees as Lance pokes his pointer and middle finger into the pouch to grab one, whereupon Lance fumbles the pouch and swears. When he pulls out the two fingers there's a crushed berry between them. Red liquid seeps out of it down his fingertips toward his knuckles. "Shit," Lance says, "that was the last one. Damn it. There's more up in my room, though, I could go get another if you w-an..t...?" Lance's voice cracks and falters as Keith takes his hand by the wrist, stubbornly refusing to meet his eyes as he does so.

The smart half of his brain is screaming don't do that oh my god are you fucking insane, and yet, the other half (the just do it half) always seems to win when it comes to Lance. The squeak Lance makes when Keith puts his mouth on his fingers is lost in the sudden head rush that washes over him and down through his bloodstream, buzzing through his veins. His eyes flutter shut. It's like nothing he's ever felt before; like falling back into a warm pile of pillows that just keeps going and going and going. An ocean of pillows. He lets himself sink into it, slowly, rocking back, and hardly notices when he lets go of Lance's hand and sways back a full step before catching himself. After regaining his footing, his eyes crack open. Slowly, like he's never used them before. It's so bright in here. But the extra light doesn't hurt his eyes at all; it's more like his eyes have suddenly developed an extra photoreceptor. Blue's soft interior lights dazzle and dazzle behind Lance's curious face, framing him in a silver halo and showering him in refracted hyacinth shatters.

"Wow," Keith murmurs.

"Um, yeah," Lance says, his voice not quite recovered yet, "Wow. You're gonna be the fuckin' death of me, Kogane. Come on," he adds more practically, "we're gonna be late."

Keith clambers up after Lance in somewhat of a daze, following him to the cockpit where he hangs onto the back of Lance's seat and simmers as Lance fires her up and takes them out into open space. The initial wave of euphoria ebbs and softens. After a couple minutes, Keith feels almost back to normal, save for the fact that he's a little more focused and a little less strained, and all the lights still have that shattered look about them. The arm of the spiral galaxy they're currently in looks a hundred times sparklier than it did when Keith looked out at it from the north tower twenty minutes ago, and the stars Argent and Aurum even more so. The splattered pieces of star from their recent near collisions litter the sky ahead of them as Lance consults his charts and navigates them into a safe orbit, but Keith has his eyes on the brightest objects in the sky: Argent and Aurum, who have already begun to shake hands.

Each of the binary stars is at least five times the size of Sol, and each and every one of the microscopic black sunspots littering their molten surfaces must be hundreds of times the size of Earth. The stars are almost touching, now. As Lance maneuvers Blue into place Keith watches the curious display of gravitational force. A cone of light has appeared now on each star where they're closest to each other, reaching out, much the same way a tornado forms. He expected them to just... crash. Of course things are never that simple on a scale of this magnitude. By the time Lance is satisfied that their orbit is stable, the cones have touched and formed one long hourglass, a bridge between stars a thousand planets long. It's…

There's no other way of putting it. It's fucking beautiful.

"You didn't say the berries made everything prettier," Keith mumbles.

Lance twists in his seat and strikes a roguish pose with one finger-gun under his chin. "You talkin' about me?"

Keith rolls his eyes good-naturedly. "You know what I'm talking about, you ass."

Lance chuckles and turns back to the view Keith is so enamored with. "Yeah, I know. It's awesome right?"

"You think they're like… hallucinogenic?" he wonders.

"Pidge dissected them pretty good before she let me eat any," Lance shrugs. "I don't remember all the mumbo jumbo she said, but the simple answer is 'mildly.'"

"Huh." Keith taps the back of the chair. Lance wasn't kidding when he said they help you calm down. He's never felt as comfortable around Lance as he does right now, and the wall that keeps him from saying everything he's thinking cracks, just a bit. "Did you know," he says, "that the main chemical in 'magic mushrooms' is so unique from all others on Earth that it's been theorized to have come from space?"

"By who? The guys who theorized crop circles came fromㅡ Wait. Do you think crop circles were actually done by aliens?"

Keith whacks him on the back of the head. "The mushroom thing is not a conspiracy, it's a scientific hypothesis, made by scientists."

"I'm just teasing you," Lance laughs. "But also, that question wasn't rhetorical."

"Um… I guess it's possible? Think about it. What's more likely? That one of these tens of thousands of intelligent civilizations felt like pranking a relatively primitive civilization, or that a bunch of dumb humans actually coordinated a giant hoax spanning decades and continents involving pictograms and corn? Anyway, pay attention, I think it's starting." He gestures at the bridge of light between the stars, which has changed from an hourglass shape to a fat writhing snake.

"Right. So…" Lance eyes him dangerously over his shoulder, not paying the stars any attention at all. "You wanna sit on my lap?"

Keith glares. "I can never tell when you're making fun of me or not."

"What? I'm not making fun of you. ...Right now, at least. I'm not," he defends when Keith's glare deepens. "I was being serious. We're gonna be out here for hours, you really wanna stand the whole time?"

"I guess not," Keith agrees, and he has to admit that the prospect is tantalizing.

But when he moves around the chair to do so, Lance shouts, "WAIT!" and launches upright, dislodging Keith before he's even sat down to scramble to the back of the cockpit. He throws open a hatch there and pulls out a couple of pillows, and a bag of what Keith assumes are the snacks he mentioned before. He throws the pillows into the chair, vaults over the top back into it, reaches to the control on the side and leans it back a few inches, then pats his lap expectantly with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face that Keith has ever seen.

Keith stares. "You always keep this much shit in your lion?"

"Nope. Just for you, babe."

Keith lets it slide and settles into the space between Lance's legs, leaning back onto his warm chest and pushing the pillows around until they're both comfortable. He recalls his earlier thought about the berry feeling like falling into pillows. It seems insane, like cosmic irony, that he should experience such a thing now, here, in this reality. He sighs, and Lance's arms slide around his waist. Just like the holding hands thing, they've never done this before, either. And all Keith can think as he lays the back of his head onto Lance's shoulder is why the fuck not?

They watch the stars in silence for awhile. Watching the bridge of light widen and grow and writhe with life as Argent and Aurum get closer and closer to each other. Keith wonders how many times this bridge of light has formed and failed and collapsed before now, eyeing the splattered stardust that litters this ruined star system, imagining what such a thing would look like.

"After Těnnero," he says after a good ten minutes of silence, "I expected this to be more… I dunno. Violent." From the surface of that dying planet, the binary stars looked like they were in the final throes of of a gory, painful death. Out here, in the silence of space, it doesn't look like death at all.

"Hm," Lance hums in his ear. "Yeah. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that sound doesn't travel out here. If we could hear that shit it'd sound like four million atomic bombs going off at once."

"Not just that," Keith says, not quite able to put his finger on what he wants to say. "It's… graceful? It feels like I'm watching something that was supposed to happen rather than some freak cosmic accident."

"Uh-huh. Maybe it was supposed to happen."

"Look who's the conspiracy theorist now."

"Ha ha," Lance fake laughs, then points to the star on the left, the slightly bigger one. "Look at that giant sunspot down there on Argent. Kinda makes it look like Jupiter don't you think?"

"Yeah, kinda," Keith agrees. "You think Jupiter's red spot will even still be there when we get back? They were saying the winds were finally dying down."

"I hope it's still there," Lance says immediately. "I always wanted to go to Jupiter so badly, more than any other place in the solar system. I had maps of all its moons on my walls, and Commander Romanov's face everywhere. He stole my dream as the first man down into Jupiter's atmosphere so, naturally, I wanted to be the first to Jupiter's core."

Keith, who's been listening raptly, snorts. "Pshh," he says, "you can't go to the center of a gas planet, you'd be crushed by the weight like ten miles in no matter what you were piloting."

"Psh yourself," Lance says, and it sounds like he's mad but his hold on Keith's waist only tightens, gently. "We're two hundred and seventy million light years from Earth, watching two binary stars collide in a galaxy humans haven't even discovered yet. I'm pretty sure anything is possible."

Keith lets that sink in for a minute, focusing on Argent and Aurum with that in mind. Really, Lance does have a point.

Argent's black spot is slowly distorting now as the gravity of Aurum disrupts the surface of the other star, bleeding at the northwest edge. Keith can't help the image of Jupiter that Lance has put into his mind, and he wonders what the odds are that Lance will ever see that dream come to fruition. He's not the only human who ever felt a siren's call toward the depths of that gas giant. Since the dawn of astronomy humans have looked up from Earth at Jupiter in wonder, dreaming of the mysteries that lay beneath its shroud of stripes, it's outer layers. They've been to all of its moons by now and sent hundreds of probes falling to their deaths into the atmosphere, all of them sending back streams of video until the atmosphere swallowed them for good. None of them ever made it past the first ten miles. Even Commander Romanov and his crew only went six miles deep. Relative to Earth, that's no closer to the surface that the ISS.

It's easy to see why Lance is so taken with the idea of travelling to Jupiter's core. The wanderlust, the starward eyes, the desire to leave your footprints on a landscape that no one else has ever walked before, to stick your flag thereㅡit's a fire that burns in the engine of every astronaut's heart. It roots there in youth and festers in training and blossoms into a passion the first time they leave the ground. It drives them toward the stars. Toward the unknown. It's the same exact fire that propels Keith toward Lance.

And Jupiter is the king of all discoveries left to still be made in the Solar System. The crowning mystery. So it follows, by natural progression of logic, that Lance wants to be the one to stick his flag on the innermost circle of one of humanity's biggest historical mysteries and declare it his forever.

"Did you know," Keith says after yet another long silence, "that the cores of gas planets have been theorized on Earth to be made of diamond?"

"No way. You're just messing with me now, aren't you?"

"Not at all, actually. I read about it once in an Arthur C. Clarke book, and it turned out it actually had basis in science. There've been a few papers about it."

"No shit, that's crazy!" When Lance started giggling, Keith's whole body shook with his. "I never even thought about it. I mean, I knew it was dense down there, but it never crossed my mind that the atmosphere could… it's entirely possible that their cores have been compressed into solid diamond, isn't it? God, that's so crazy ," Lance repeats, desire ringing like a gong in every drawn out syllable. "Crazy that we've been all over the damn universe and we never even got to explore our own backyard before we left. I would kill to set foot on that diamond core, Keith. You think Blue could handle that much atmospheric pressure? What do you think, Blue? It's a bit like swimming. Just… through millions of tons of gaseous elements instead of water."

A low rumble, something like a purr, buzzes through the air around them.

"I'll take that as a maybe," Lance purrs back. "How about you then, star pilot? Where was your dream-destination before we left Earth so very far behind?"

The words star pilot have Keith tripping over his answer. He's not used to Lance asking intimate questions like this, let alone complimenting him, however sarcastic the compliment may be. But the answer is easy, so he gives it. Or, stammers it. "Uh… well. Before I got kicked outㅡI mean kicked out of the Garrisonㅡway before, back before Shiro left for Kerberosㅡhe told me they were planning an interstellar mission. To Alpha Centauri. It was still far off, but it had already been approved by the time the Kerberos mission launched."

"Shuddup," Lance gasps. "The Garrison? To Alpha Centauri? No way! They didn't have that kind of tech yet!"

"They didn't, but it was in development. They were keeping it a secret because of that funding scandal with the national budgetㅡyou remember that. It's probably still only mid-dev right now, if they're on track."

"But why, though?"

"I don't know. Maybe for research or something, Shiro never said. But I think it's probably just the same reason we went to the moon."

"To prove they could," Lance supplies. Keith hums in affirmation, a low rumble in the back of his throat that has Lance tightening his hold around Keith's waist, almost imperceptibly. Lance goes silent after that, and it lasts for so long that Keith is sure that they're done with the subject. Argent and Aurum consume Keith's attention once again, their light burning into his retinas. But then the side of Lance's head comes to rest gently on his, and he says, "So you wanted to go?"

He's not sure what to make of the question. It sounds loaded. It's full of other questions that Keith can't hear and meanings he can't hope to untangle from one another.

"Yeah. I did."

"Hmm. I think I would've gone too," Lance says quietly, his warm breath fanning Keith's neck and sending goosebumps up his legs, "if things had turned out that way. If the Galra had never sabotaged the Kerberos mission, if we never found Blue, if none of this ever happened. I can see it. What does Slav always say? 'In another reality, it's already happening.'"

"Lance," Keith huffs with tired amusement. "The Kerberos mission alone was four months, and that asteroid was in the Kuiper Belt. You know that a mission to Alpha Centauri would have taken something like ten years, right? Then there's the research, and getting home again..."

"Yeah, so?"

Keith rolls his eyes in disbelief. "So you'd have been fine leaving Earth and your family for twenty-something years?" He doesn't say it to hurt Lance, he just can't believe Lance would say something like that even in jest when being away from his family for the four years alone has almost killed him.

But the pause this time is just long enough for Keith to realize he may have said something wrong. He's about to apologize when Lance takes a deep breath and says, "At least in that case I'd know for sure I'd eventually be going home."

That hits him like a sledgehammer.

He whispers Lance's name, the word dripping of sorrow, desperately trying to think of what to say. Why does he never know what to say?

But Lance doesn't seem to hear him, anyway. "And besides," he goes on reverently. "As long as you were there... I'd go anywhere."

The words trickle down into Keith's body, one by one, like snowflakes. Gently, he pushes himself up just far enough that he can turn his head to look at Lance. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust, the negative-light ghost of Argent burnt into his view of the cockpit, a few blinks before the afterimage of the stars fades into Lance's face.

There's a quiet vulnerability there. It reminds him irrevocably of that time on Arus, of the moment when he met the real Lance for the first time. Except this time Lance doesn't try to cover it all back up. Keith can tell he wants to, that he's nervous and uncertain, but he does nothing to retreat. Instead he takes a deep breath, washing away yet another layer as he does so. "I was thinking about you," he says, his rich voice almost a whisper now. "On Těnnero, I mean. There was a minute there when I really thought it was over for me. And I thought your life was supposed to flash before your eyes or something, but I…" His eyebrows are creasing now in intense concentration, like this is the hardest but most important thing he's ever had to say. "I kept hearing your voice on the comm, coming through in patches, and all I could think was that I wanted to see your face again. And hear your voice," he says as his own ragged voice breaks, "and touch your skin…"

A long shuddering breath works its way out of him as Keith touches his cheek with his fingertips, experimentally.

"You understand, right?" Lance whispers. "I'm not bluffing about Alpha Centauri, Keith. I would have gone with you on that mission even if it took a hundred years. I'd go anywhere. I'd follow you into hell if that's where you were going."

He leans his face into Keith's touch, eyes searching, boring into Keith like two drills, searching.

This is the part where you're supposed to say something, he tells himself. But he doesn't know how. He's not the wordsmith Lance is, doesn't know how to take something larger than life and make it tangible. So he does the only thing he knows how to do beyond a shadow of a doubt. He shows what he feels, by flattening his hand out on Lance's cheek and placing his own lips gently on his.

Every kiss before this has started with a glare, or a smirk, or a challenge. This is the first time Keith kisses him chastely. This one is a promise. An answer.

Then he kisses him again, long and deep, and it's anything but chaste. He twists in his seat as he does so and one of Lance's hands slides down to his thigh to take a handful of his jeans in a vice grip, the other hand threading into his hair. The kiss changes again, from slow and passionate to hungry and desperate. Keith gets up and climbs back on, this time facing Lance with his knees on either side of his hips. Even still, he can only get so close with the chair in the way. His knees hit the back of it as he returns to the kiss. Lance must sense his frustration because he grabs Keith by the hips and lifts him up just enough so that Lance can slide forwardㅡa simple act but an oh so intimate one, because now they're puzzle-pieced together, their hips flush, and he can feel every last contour of Lance's body against his. It drives him crazy, and his hands are up under the back of Lance's shirt before he has time to really think about it, roaming the soft skin, tracing his spine up to the burn scar he's had since Arus. He lingers there, fingertips skirting the sprawling outline.

Then Lance pulls away, and Keith's heart stops. Should he not have done that? But then Lance grabs his arm, takes his hand, and pulls the glove off of it. Oh.

"I wanna feel your hands on me," Lance says, and wow he's never heard Lance's voice that low before. He swears his heart skips a beat as Lance takes the other one off too, tossing them both over the back of the chair. "Time for payback," he says cheekily, and Keith doesn't even have time to wonder what he means before Lance presses a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss onto his left hand. Surprised, Keith sucks in a sharp breath. Who knew hands had this many nerve endings in them? He certainly didn't. Was Lance this wrecked when Keith licked that stupid berry juice off earlier? Lance smirks slyly at Keith's reaction, and his hand surprises Keith yet again by ghosting at his hip, under his shirt, just above his belt. Keith rolls his hips into the touch reactively, then chokes and freezes because he's essentially just rubbed his erection against Lance's. It's not like it's the first time it's ever happened, but it's certainly the first time it's happened when there's time to actually follow all the way through on it. And boy does Keith want follow through.

And maybe Lance does too, because he lets go of Keith's hand and moves his own hand instead to the hair at the base of Keith's skull, raking his fingers up the nape of his neck in a way that sends a shiver down his legs. "Holy shit, man, don't stop. Do that again."

Keith… admittedly, does not like being told what to do. But he's pretty sure he would step into the airlock without his flight suit on right now if Lance was the one who told him to.

So he lets his hands stray back under Lance's shirt and rolls his hips again, a lot more purposefully this time. Lance swears, his hands flying to Keith's hips and goading him into it a third time. His hands are so far up Lance's shirt now that he thinks, you'd better just take it off, so he tries, but then it turns into a short battle of 'who can get the other's shirt off first.' Lance starts laughing when it starts to get violent, and Keith wins shortly thereafter. But Lance rips Keith's shirt off right after that and Keith doesn't exactly feel like gloating when Lance's mouth is on his neck.

Then Lance is pulling back again. Keith starts to complain but comes up short when he opens his eyes to look at Lance and sees him raking his eyes down Keith's body, slowly, then back up again even slower than before. By the time Lance gets back to Keith's face he's sure it must be redder than his lion. "What?" he huffs.

The intensity falters by a couple shades. "I, uh… I don't wanna pressure you, but you should know, I have.. ah.. supplies. If we needed them, you know? Not that we have to need them, but I mean, if we were to need them, they're there." He eyes a small compartment (where Keith keeps water in Red). "Over there."

If not for that berry juice still thrumming soothingly in the back of his mind, he might have ruptured something. As it is, he covers his nerves shockingly well. "You keep condoms in your lion?" he deadpans.

Lance hmms and haws. "You say that like it's dumb. I thought it might come in handy one day and would you look at that, I was right, as usual."

"The sheer audacity of this is mindblowing."

"You say that," Lance smirks, "and yet, I'm not hearing a no."

"Ask nicely," Keith teases, and to his surprise the smirk falls right off Lance's face. It's replaced with something serious. Something very serious, reserved for only the deepest darkest nights.

"Keith," Lance hums, invoking Keith's name like it's the first word in a spell, "I wanna be inside you, like, yesterday. I wanna make you see so many stars you'll never be able to go into space again without thinking about me. If I could make you feel even half as good as you make me feel every time you so much as glance in my direction, I'd count it as a win. I want to be with you," he finishes wistfully, and with the careful way he chooses each word in that last sentence, despite the context, Keith knows he's talking about so much more than sex.

"Okay," Keith breathes, stunned. That's all he can manage in the wake of Lance's words, in the direction of his gaze. He feels like he's touching the light in a lighthouse, burning his hands on the bulb, slowly going blind. "A simple 'please' would have sufficed…"

Lance is already reaching for the compartment when he snickers and says, "I don't do things in halves, mullet."

"You're really gonna call me that while I'm taking off your pants?" He unbuttons Lance's jeans to emphasize the point, then stands to undo his own belt.

"Wait," Lance says, and serious Lance is back yet again. It's a wonder Keith doesn't have whiplash yet. "Let me?"

When Lance kisses the skin above Keith's belt, he shivers. Then Lance is standing, dragging his mouth up along Keith's stomach as he goes, then his chest, then his neck, and then he's kissing him again, fumbling a bit as he unbuckles Keith's belt without looking. His hand lingers on the Marmora blade tied to the left side of Keith's hips, and Keith feels him smile.

"There's a joke about swords and pants in here somewhere," Lance hums. "Give me a sec.."

Keith growls, and shoves Lance's pants and boxers off his hips in one annoyed motion, earning a startled yelp from Lance, then pushes Lance back down into the pilot's chair to finish removing his own pants himself. He knows he must be totally flushed, but the overwhelming exasperation he feels at Lance's utter Lance-ness does even more to soothe his nerves than the berry did. It grounds him. "I could kill you," Keith grumbles, "you know that?"

With unabashed lust Lance rakes his eyes down Keith's body. His hands fly up to Keith's hips as Keith kicks his pants away and starts to climb back on again, but despite the serious look in Lance's eyes, his voice comes out musical and teasing. "Ah, you could," he says. "But then who would rock your world?"

"I'm sure I'd find someone."

"Keith!" he shrieks in betrayal, and Keith leans in to whisper in his ear.

"Shut up," he says, and rolls his hips just like before. Except this time there's nothing in the wayㅡit's just skin on skin.

Suffice it to say Lance does not shut up. Keith almost wishes he would though (almost, but not quite) because the pleased sex noises pouring out of Lance's mouth unfiltered are doing unspeakable things to his heart, waking primal urges he didn't even know existed until this very moment. He isn't going to last long at all if Lance keeps this up.

"I've never done this with anyone," Keith confesses when Lance's hands start to roam again, one trailing up Keith's spine to thread in his hair, the other trailing down.

"S'alright," Lance murmurs into the crest of his jaw. He nuzzles the bone there with his lips first, then his nose. "Me neither. We'll start slow, okay?"

Keith nods. This is actually happening, isn't it? He's expecting itㅡhe hears the pop of a plastic bottle capㅡbut still, when Lance pushes one wet finger inside him it's like nothing he's ever felt. He sucks in a breath and his back arches, his arms tightening around Lance's shoulders in a vice grip. He gasps, inwardly, but doesn't hide it well enough. Concern crosses Lance's face and then he starts to retract his finger, which has Keith shuddering and keening out the most embarrassing noise he's ever made in front of anyone ever.

The concern evaporates. Lance looks totally blindsided at Keith's reaction. The playful flirting is all gone too, and what's left behind is pure curiosity, and something even gentler. Something softer. He furrows his eyebrows and pushes back in.

Keith melts.

His eyes flutter closed as Lance explores him, and Lance's thumb touches his temple. "Keep your eyes open, babe."

He cracks them open. "Why?" Honestly, he's not sure he can.

"I gotta read you," Lance murmurs. "Duh. Since you never say shit out loud."

This cuts through the haze of physical sensation, getting Keith to actually obey and keep his eyes open and locked on Lance's, much to his own surprise. Since when does he do whatever Lance asks of him? He isn't sure how he feels about this development. The need to restore the balance of power between them overwhelms him, so he reaches for the lube and upends it unceremoniously onto both Lance and himself.

"Whaㅡ Moderation, you animal!" Lance exclaims.

"Whoops." He presses their dicks together again and closes both hands around them.

"Oh my gohohod," Lance whimpers, and kisses him hard, bucking upward into Keith's hands. Then suddenly there's a second finger coming into play, and why does this feel like a competition still? Why is it always a competition with him? For once Keith's not annoyed at the relentless, unending rivalry thoughㅡin fact he's never been more turned on by anything in his life.

Soon Keith gives up on keeping his eyes open. He lets his forehead fall onto Lance's shoulder, giving in with abandon to the urge to grind down on Lance's hand. But the moment his forehead touches Lance's shoulder, Lance freezes.

"Oh shit," Lance gasps, "the stars! I forgot!"

Having also completely forgotten what they were doing out here in the first place, Keith cranes his head around so fast he nearly hurts his neck. The big collision is finally under way. The bridge of light is gone and the bodies of the stars have met now, distorting at the edges where they touch, sending ripples of molten hydrogen away from the epicenter for millions of miles. Tidal waves the size of asteroid belts. Explosions glitter like freckles along the stars' skin, and solar flares are whipping out and away from the point of collision, slowly to their eyes but in reality hurtling through space at millions of miles a minute. It's incredible. It's devastatingly beautiful.

"Hang on," Lance says, and Keith's breath hitches as Lance pulls his fingers out to scoot forward and grab at Blue's controls. "One of those flares looks a little close. Lemme adjust our trajectory." He spends the next minute conversing in half-spoken sentences with Blue and messing with their orbit until he's convinced they're in the clear again. All the while Keith watches the stars' deaths with rapt attention and wonder. He's so taken with the incomprehensibly scaled light show that he isn't even aware Lance has finished maneuvering Blue until his hands are on Keith's hips again. "You know," he says, and nuzzles his nose into the side of Keith's neck, "we could watch while we do this."

Keith turns back to Lance and rolls his eyes. "I don't have eyes on the back of my head, Lance."

Lance rolls his eyes even harder. "I mean, you could… you know." He blushes, here, and finishes the sentence with an incomprehensible hand gesture, one finger twirling in circles. Keith blinks at the gesture in confusion, which for some reason seems to endear Lance instead of annoy him like it usually does when Keith fails to understand his ever-increasing hand gesture vocabulary. "Up," he smiles, "get up." So Keith gets up, but it's not until Lance is standing too and nudging him to turn around that Keith gets it.

"OH," he says, and feels like an absolute idiot.

"This okay?"

This is more than okay, but all he can do is nod. Lance is pressing himself against Keith's back now, and Keith can't even see the stars in front of him; all he can see is Lance, in his mind's eye, what he's doing back there and what it must look like. There's the crackle of foil, the rustle of fabric, and then Lance is putting one of the white pillows in front of Keith on the dash and easing at Keith's back until he bends a little. His elbows come to rest on the pillow. A fresh solar flare erupts from the epicenter and parts from the stars in a graceful, sweeping arc, and Keith is so distracted by it that he almost forgets what they're doing until Lance is pressing his tip to Keith's entrance. One of Keith's arms jerks up as Lance pushes in, to get a better grip on the dashboard. In his clumsy grab he accidentally hits a leverㅡthey both jump as Blue roars and sends a icy blue laser beam firing off into space. Keith watches as it flies, thinning and thinning and splitting a blob of stray hydrogen in half hundreds of miles away.

Two warm hands come to rest on the sides of Keith's waist, holding him steady. When Lance speaks he sounds like he's torn between laughing at him and coddling him. "You okay down there, Red?"

Before Keith can answer, the view of the stars is obscured by an incoming video call from the castleship flashing on the screen. The others are trying to hail them. Keith's stomach drops out through his feet. He knows they can't see themㅡthat they haven't answered the call yetㅡbut the mere knowledge that one button-press is the only thing keeping the others from seeing this is almost too much.

"Dang," Lance says, and he sounds a lot calmer about it than Keith feels. "They probably saw us fire, huh. Should we answer? They're probably worried."

"Lance," Keith blanches, "it's a video call." And your dick is literally inside me, you moron.

"Oh. Right," he laughs, and hits a button that makes the call disappear from the screen. "We'll call them back later, yeah?" With that, he starts to move. He pulls out almost all the way, then pushes in, a little farther than before. So slow.

"Yeah," Keith breathes. "Later."

While Lance finds his rhythm Keith sinks into the pillow. He wonders if Lance is even watching the collision at all when he feels Lance's nose at the nape of his neck and his breath on the curve between his shoulder blades, each one hot and sharp and staccato.

As for him, Lance will get exactly what he wants. He's never going to be able to look at another star again without thinking of Lance. He can't take his eyes off the raveling spools of light, thousands of miles long each, and the image of it all is forever joining with Lance. The stars in the background, those are Lance. The arm of the spiral galaxy they're currently in, curving out in a wide parabola, away and away, that's Lance now too. Light, and darkness, and Lance. All of it is stained with the feeling of him, now. Their steady orbit becomes the breath on Keith's neck, the black network between the clusters of stars the ebbing away as Lance retreats, and the stars themselves the feeling of him returning. Again, and again, and again.

He's always pictured sex with Lance as a fast and rugged and chaotic thing, snuck between training sessions or resultant of a fight or the exultance of still being alive after a particularly rough battle. This is nothing like that. It's tender and paced. It'sthoughtful.

One of Lance's hands snakes up onto his, fingers entwining. Light, dark. It's aesthetically pleasing, he thinks, Lance's skin and his in juxtaposition. Each finger between his like the space between stars.

The other hand finds its way into Keith's hair and takes loose holdㅡat which point Keith smirks wickedly over his shoulder. "I knew you liked my hair."

"Damn," Lance says, though he doesn't sound guilty at all, "you caught me." Without warning he tightens his grip on Keith's hair and goes in hard. Keith gasps.

Not a second later the comm line rings again, and Lance slaps 'ignore' on the first ring this time, hissing an inaudible curse. "Sorry man, did I hurt you?"

"No," Keith tells him breathlessly. "God no, do that again."

But Lance doesn't have any time to take him up on the request, because the line rings a third time, and this time it comes through on emergency mode, which means that it's going to video automatically in ten seconds unless input with an override code. Keith reads this in a disclaimer beneath the call, and then takes one terrified look at the countdown beneath it.

10… 9… 8...

One panicked glance at each other tells them neither of them know the code.

They scramble apart, getting their shirts off the floor from the pile of clothes and tearing them on just in time for the video call to go live. Keith has ended up in the chair and Lance is hiding behind it. Neither of them are wearing anything at all except their shirts, which is relatively okay because the camera only shows them from the shoulders up, but still. Fucking, still. He can feel his soul leaving his body as Hunk's face appears on screen.

"GUYS!" he shrieks. "What the quiznak!"

"Are you two alright?" Shiro asks, gently pulling Hunk out of the way until the rest of them come into viewㅡall of them. All of them are here for this. Great!

"We're fine," Lance assures them.

"What is going on?" Allura leans toward the camera worriedly, the bucket of Altean 'popcorn' tipping out of her lap and spilling on Pidge. "Why were you ignoring us? And why did you fire your laser cannon earlier?"

"We've been busy watching the collision," Lance huffs, "and we fired by accident. No biggie."

But they don't look convinced at all. "Are you guys fighting or something?" Hunk crosses his arms in a motherly way, glancing back and forth between Keith and Lance.

"What? No," Keith says. "Wh-why would you think that?" He prays to a higher power that he's not as red-faced and ruffled as he feels.

For her part, Pidge is halfway between amusement and extreme concern. She brushes off the spilt popcorn and leans one elbow on her knee. "Because you both look mad and because Red has been freaking out down in her hangar," she says. "She roared so loud a second ago that we heard it all the way up here."

When Keith glances over his shoulder at Lance, he's giving Keith a downright filthy look. Keith is on fire. "No, we're not fighting," Lance says. "Keith here just banged his knee really hard on my dashboard, the clumsy fool."

Pidge snorts. "What, seriously?"

Keith glares daggers at Lance. Was that a fucking innuendo?! "Yeah," he agrees, because he really has no choice. "Yep. That is what happened."

"Alright," Shiro frowns. "But please don't ignore calls like that. We were worried after we saw Blue fire."

"Sorry," Keith mutters. He lowkey wants to die. If this call doesn't end in five seconds he honestly might.

"Did you guys see that last flare?" Pidge says. "It must have been ten light tics long at the least!"

"Yeah we saw it," Lance says. Keith can hear the impatience simmering below the surface, threatening to boil over. "Pret-ty crazy."

"I think it's lost enough mass now that it won't go supernova," Coran interjects, "which means we're officially witnessing the birth of a new solar system!"

"It's insane to think all that stray stardust will end up as planets someday," Hunk adds.

Shiro nods in agreement. "We're incredibly lucky to be here for this."

"You know what this means, right boys?" Allura says to Lance and Keith giddily. "We'll get to apply for a change to the universal star-map! Which in turn means we may very well get to name the new star system!"

"My vote's on 'Mario the Stario,'" Pidge chimes in, and then her face darkens as she glares at Shiro. "But no, Shiro says. It has to be serious, Shiro says."

"Hey, are you sure you guys aren't arguing?" Hunk says suddenly. "Because you both look super pissed off right now."

Keith's hackles are fully raised. He's miles past the point when his fuse would have normally gone off. "We're notㅡ"

"Oh relax, Hunk," Allura giggles. "They're probably just fighting over who gets to sit in the pilot's seat."

"Oh my god, we're not fighting! " Keith bursts, "We're having SEX, okay! BUZZ OFF! " With that he jams his fist on the dash, hanging up on them. Their gobsmacked faces vanish from the viewing screen.

And Keith immediately regrets ever being born. Oh no, why did he do that? Why did he do that?!

"Oh my god, I don't know why I said that, Lance, I'm such a fucking idiotㅡ"

But then Lance bursts out cackling, louder than Keith's ever heard him laugh before, and totally derails anything else Keith was going to say. "DID YOU SEE THEIR FACES!" Lance wheezes, and he's leaning over the back of the chair now, banging both fists on it. "Keith, KEITH, that is the funniest thing that I've ever witnessed in my whole freaking life!"

"Um... yeah," he giggles, a little taken aback. "I guess it was pretty funny."

Butterflies swoop through his stomach as Lance leans down and hits the latch on the side of the chair that drops the back of it back until it's at a gentle slope instead of a ninety degree angle. Then Lance is looming over him, nudging Keith's thighs apart and climbing onto the chair on his knees between them.

"Kinda wish this was a bed," he hums. "The world's comfiest space-age memory foam mattress, developed by NASA…" He throws his shirt back to the floor as he rambles, then tugs Keith's off as well. "D'you remember those thirty minute commercials they used to play for those?"

"Would you stop talking, oh my god."

Then Lance pushes back in with none of the slowness he had before, picking up a devastating rhythm that soon has Keith melting into the chair and clawing at Lance's back.

"Y'know, you keep telling me to shut up," he hums in Keith's ear, "but I have this sneaking suspicion that you really like the sound of my voice. You like it when I talk. You like the stupid shit I say."

"I hate you," Keith whimpers.

Lance just chuckles, right in his ear, and damn it all Keith hates it when Lance is right. Because he's so, so right. Close now, closer than he's ever felt before, Keith reaches down to touch himself. His breath is hitching, his hips twitching on every thrust as Lance brushes that spot again and again with relentless persistence.

Lance speeds up in response to Keith's hand slipping between them, his lips dragging against the side of Keith's neck. "Don't finish yet," he says. "Wait for me. I wanna go at the same time."

Keith, who is very much on the verge of defying Lance's request, huffs in disbelief. "I don't exactly have control over it, Lance."

"C'mon babe, just hold out for like three more minutes, I believe in you."

"Oh, for the love ofㅡ" Keith shoots back sarcastically, "ㅡbite me."

Then he feels Lance smirk against his skin.

"W-wait," he stammers, "don't actuallyㅡa-ah."

The unexpected drag of Lance's canines at the base of his neck is apparently one thing too much for his body, because he immediately finishes.

He takes one shuddering breath and as he exhales all the mounting pressure spills out, up his stomachㅡprobably on Lance's too, which wow is that a mental image. Only when he's over the crest, when he remembers how to breathe and see and generally exist in a universe that isn't just 'Lance,' does Lance slow and remove his teeth from Keith's neck. When he pulls back it's only just far enough to look Keith in the eyes. With tender trepidation he looks back and forth from one to the other, slowing his hips even more, like he's searching for something. Keith knows he must look completely wrecked right now. He feels more naked than he's ever been in his life. Like every veil has been pulled away, every careful wall he's ever constructed torn down and left in rubble. He doesn't know what Lance is looking for in his eyes, but he must find it because suddenly Lance is coming too, his hips stuttering, his lips bumping into Keith's but not in a kiss; more like a shout than anything else.

Where Keith was quiet, Lance is anything but.

When he's done he collapses onto Keith's chest, shouldering him with his entire upper body weight. Despite his heaviness, the weight is oddly comforting. To cement him in place Keith wraps his arms tightly around Lance's waist, burying his face into Lance's flyaway hair. They lie together like this for a solid five minutes before Lance presses a kiss to his cheek and rolls off to dispose of the condom.

"I can't believe you came because I bit you," Lance snickers as he settles into Keith's side, tucking himself under Keith's arm and hooking their legs together as he takes in the new changes wrought in the stars while they were occupied with each other.

Without missing a beat Keith deadpans back, "I can't believe you came because I came."

At that Lance props himself up on one elbow, looming over him, eyeing him like he's missed something terribly important. Keith feels his heart stutter, like there's a bird sleeping in his chest and Lance just startled it into flight. They've never done this, eitherㅡthe after. One of them is always sneaking away, or they're falling asleep, or they're running back into the fray. But they're in the middle of nowhere right now and there's nowhere else to be.

And Keith doesn't want to go, anyway.

.

.

No one is there to greet them when they get back. Keith is glad because holy fuck that's gonna be one awkward conversation.

.

.

Outside the hangar Keith breaks for the shower, shooting a few furtive glances up and down the empty hall before pulling Lance down by the collar and pressing a shy kiss onto his cheek.

But Lance shows up again a few minutes later, at the showers. Keith knows it's him because he can hear the telltale sound of five to ten bottles of unknowable hygiene/beauty products shifting against each other in a canvas bag. The shower water burns hot on his skin as he watches the shadow of two feet moving slowly and purposefully across the strip of yellow light at the bottom of his shower stall. The shadow pauses. Like Lance is waiting for something.

Brushing his wet hair from his eyes, Keith unlocks the door.

.

.

They don't encounter anyone at all on the trek from the bathroom back to their floor. Maybe they're avoiding them. Keith would be avoiding them too if it had been anyone else that pulled the stunt he and Lance just pulled.

When they get to Keith's door, he grabs Lance's arm to keep him from continuing on to his own door.

Lance laughs. "Gotta drop off my shower bag first, loverboy."

Ignoring that, Keith punches in the code to his door and pulls him in anyway.

"Fine, fine. Jeez, you're insatiable." The bag comes to rest against the wall just inside the door.

They end up just lying together, legs loosely tangled beneath the sheets, foreheads touching, arms folded between them with their fingers intertwined. Keith is exhausted, and he's never been more comfortable in his life. It's a matter of minutes before he starts to nod off. He's got one foot in a dreamㅡstars, wet sand, and blue glowing stone andㅡLance starts to get up. Keith jolts awake and his fingers tighten around Lance's automatically.

Vulnerability courses through him when Lance glances at their hands first and then Keith's face, and hits him with that look again, that searching look, like he wants to take his ship down but, pilot that he is, won't dare until he finds a solid surface to land on.

He wants me to say it, Keith realizes, but he doesn't know how .

Lance stays anyway.

.

.

And, for the first time ever, he's still there when Keith wakes up.

.

.

Keith's never been good with words. This is a cold, shitty fact, and he's painfully aware of it. So he overcompensates with other things. He puts his shower stuff in Lance's shower bag so Lance feels like he has to leave it here. When Lance leaves his jacket on the bed one day, Keith hangs it up in the closet instead of taking it back to him. He finds Lance's slippers left behind in one of the rec rooms one morning and brings them back to his own room instead of Lance's. Lance sees them there, later that night, and for a moment it looks like he's going to say something. But he just rolls over onto his back and looks at the ceiling like it goes on forever.

It's not until the next time Lance does laundryㅡthree weeks after their date in the starsㅡthat Lance says something.

"Do you have something you want to ask me?" he says bluntly.

It's laundry day. He saw Lance pulling all his clothes out of the laundry room a few minutes ago, and Keith immediately beelined for their floor. He's been waiting in his open doorway ever since for Lance to come walking down the hall.

Keith frowns. Yes, he does, but he doesn't know what he'll do if Lance says no.

So he steps aside, eyes flitting to the basket, to Lance, to his open door. Lance rolls his eyes in a show of extreme exasperation, shifts the basket in his hands, and saunters into Keith's room with all his clothes. Then Keith pretends to be extremely busy sharpening his luxite knife as Lance very pointedly hangs all his clothes in Keith's closet. It works, until Lance is done and turns around and finally sees the thing that Keith has been waiting for him to notice, half-hoping Lance will go nuts with happiness and half-hoping he'll pretend he doesn't see it and spare Keith the embarrassment of having to explain it.

As the patron saint of the unpredictable, Lance of course does neither.

Keith's sharpening movements slow as Lance drops his empty laundry basket and walks slowly across the room toward the other side, toward the painting of Jupiter that Keith has been working on for the last couple days between training and sleeping, and hung up just this morning. It's so bigㅡabout three by three feetㅡthat he had to rearrange everything on that wall around it. All the medals and drawings and maps, reordered to accommodate the newest addition to the wallspace. It's not his best. (He only ever had pencils, growing up, and Coran helped him dig up the paint from some old storage room, meaning it was so old he had to add all manner of chemicals to revive it). On top of that, it's done from memory, so it's probably not scientifically accurate in terms of the horizontal stripes and their exact colors and ratios. But still. He's proud of it. And he's kind of hoping Lance likes it.

But Lance has been quiet for a solid minute now as Keith waits with bated breath to hear what he's going to say. He lowers his knife to the bed as one of Lance's hands comes up to touch the painting, right on the Red Spot Keith was so unsure whether to include.

It's only when he hears Lance sniff, sees the hand on the painting curling into a fist, that he realizes Lance is crying.

Instantly Keith slides off the bed, hurrying over to touch him on the shoulder. "Hey, hey, what's wrong?" But Lance won't look at him, and to be quite honest his reaction is freaking Keith out. He has no clue what he did wrong. "Lance, talk to me."

For some reason Lance rolls his eyes at this, but he does look at Keith finally, not bothering to brush the tears away from his face as he does so. "You're not going back, are you?"

Keith blinks. He wants to say, I don't know what you're talking about, except he does. He knows exactly what Lance is talking about. What he doesn't understand is why it's relevant. "Why are you asking me now?" he says incredulously.

Lance bristles. "Just answer the question. You're not, are you? You're not going back."

Keith's hand falls off Lance's shoulder. "No," he admits. "I'm not." He's sure Lance already knew the answer.

Even so, it doesn't stop Keith's answer from devastating him, making his lip quiver and his shoulders hitch. The disappointment rolls over him like a wave, shuttering his eyes against any light there was left in them. And Keith doesn't understand at all. So he grows defensive.

"What is your deal right now?" he says. "I know you want to go home, Lance, I get that. I do. Your family is there and… and I'm not like you. There's nothing left for me on Earth. I'm not going back. But you're not going back forever. I mean.. I'll miss you," he says, his voice impossibly small. "But it won't be forever. Right?"

They're back with Lance refusing to look at him. Keith tries to touch him, to get his attention, but Lance shrugs him off angrily and turns away.

"Lance, answer me," he says, hoping he doesn't sound as desperate as he feels but knowing that he does. "You're not going back forever, right?!" But Lance won't answer and he won't let Keith touch him, and Keith finally loses it. "Lance, what the fuck," he blurts. "How can you even think about doing that? I know it's your family but what about us? You'd turn your back on all of thisㅡall these places we've been and people we've saved? I thought this meant something to you. That you wanted to be here. But you're just gonna leave me the second the war's overㅡ"

Lance's eyes snap to him. "Don't make this about your abandonment issues, Keith, that's notㅡ"

"Oh, fuck you."

"I never said I was going back forever!"

"Then what the hell is the problem?" Keith snaps back. "I would never stop you from going home, Lance, I just… want you to come back again. Please," he begs. "Please tell me that you'll come back."

Confliction threatens to tear Lance's face apart, weighing on his shoulders as he goes silent again. The silence is answer enough to break Keith's heart.

Tears are burning at his own eyes now, and it's only through sheer willpower that he's able to keep them from spilling. Through clenched teeth he reminds Lance, "You said you'd follow me into hell."

Lance looks equally as heartbroken, and to Keith's surprise and confusion, even a little betrayed. "Yeah. And if I didn't, you'd just go anyway, wouldn't you."

Keith is stunned speechless as Lance stomps out of the room without another word, leaving Keith to reanalyze everything that just happened with a fresh filter. Taking another look at the entire fight through the context of the betrayal in Lance's eyes, he realizes he has no fucking idea what they were even fighting about. He has no clue what brought it on in the first place or why Lance was even upset. All he knows is that it's not over. They're not done.

So he goes to find Lance.

.

.

For the first time in months, he doesn't find Lance in the first place he looks.

.

.

The first place he looks is Lance's room.

After a few minutes and a few rounds of knocking, he decides Lance is either not here or he's ignoring the knocks. So he goes ahead and checks. It takes him a second to remember the passcode for Lance's door, which feels wrong considering that Lance has had Keith's memorized for months now. When Keith walks in, he finds the room dark and empty. Lance isn't here.

And yet Keith lingers in the doorway, eyes flickering about the room, trying to find something to catch on. Anything. But the only thing here are cold, blank walls and a half-made bed. There's a shirt on the floor near the opposite wall, and that purple stuffed animal Hunk won at the meteor shower festival (the thing that started all of this in the first place) is lying at the foot of the bed. But other than that the room is a ghost town. You'd never guess that someone has been living here for almost four years.

The door slides shut as Keith slips into the room the rest of the way. How many times has he been in here, really? Six or seven? Eight, tops, including now. And seeing Lance's room, how desolate and dreary it is, it's easy to see why Lance always wants to be elsewhere on the ship. It was actually shocking, the first time Keith came here. He'd always thought of Lance as the kind of person that would have loud art plastered over every wall, and photos, and on their date Lance described his own room back in Cuba to be much the way Keith had always imagined it. So why doesn't this room look anything like that? The absent photos are the most baffling thing. He's seen Lance's files on his comm; he knows Lance has taken well over ten thousand pictures since they first arrived at Arus. So why aren't any of them hung up?

Slipping across the room, Keith finds himself at Lance's closet, which has been left open, leaving a pitch black crevice in the already dark room. It too is mostly empty when Keith pushes the door open wide. There's one jacket left hanging, a couple pairs of pants, a set of Altean formal wearㅡ

ㅡand a wooden box at the very bottom.

Like a drowning man to a life saver Keith's eyes lock onto the box, and before he knows it he's crouching down, running his fingers over the rough texture of the lid, so out of place in the immaculate, silver room. Maybe he shouldn't, but Keith cracks the lid anyway. Inside is a jumble of gold and silver and ruby and emerald and sapphire; all manner of jewels and ribbons catch the soft blue emergency lights glowing behind Keith, reflecting back at him from their tangled pile. Even in the dark, he recognizes the medals. Each of the paladins has done their own thing with their medals. Lance was the only one Keith was unsure about, where he's been stowing them or whether he's even been keeping them at all.

For a few sullen minutes, Keith just sits there, picking through the box. Remembering each liberation, each victory, and Lance's place within it: how Lance gloated and boasted and joked about parades and parties, and generally acted like king of the world. Where is the disconnect between that man and the man who puts all those medals into a box at the bottom of his closet?

Not for the first time, Keith wonders if he even knows Lance at all.

.

.

Keith doesn't find Lance in the second place he looks either, or the third, or the fourth, and after about an hour of searching Keith finds himself wandering toward the sound of Hunk's and Pidge's and Allura's laughter. When he eases into the rec room where they're all playing cards, everyone double-takes at him.

"Woah," Pidge says, "are you okay?"

Keith shuffles on his feet, dodging the question. He doesn't even want to know how puffy and red his eyes are. "Have any of you seen Lance?"

"Oh dear," Allura says.

"Are you guys having trouble or something?" Hunk asks softly, and for some reason it doesn't sound intrusive when it's coming from Hunk. "He's been out of it all week."

"Sort of," Keith mutters. "I don't know."

"I'll help you find him," Hunk offers, and throws his cards down, earning a triumphant screech from Allura, who's apparently just won by default.

Once they're alone in the hall, Keith falls into step beside Hunk. He seems oddly confident in their destination given the fact that Keith just spent an hour searching this enormous ship. As if reading his mind, Hunk says, "He always goes to the map room when he's sulking over you."

The image of a sulking Lance slinks into Keith's mind, aggravating his guilt into something downright poisonous. "Like since we started seeing each other?" Keith asks. "Or was that back when he hated me too?" A few seconds later Keith looks up at Hunk, wondering why he hasn't answered yet, only to find that Hunk isn't there anymore. Turning, he finds that Hunk stopped walking about ten feet back and is now staring at Keith very strangely. "What?"

"Dude," Hunk says, cocking his head at him like a puppy. "Hang on. How long do you think Lance has had feelings for you?"

"Uh..."

Something tells him that by this point in their relationship, he should know the answer to that question. But he doesn't, and something in the way Hunk is looking at him tells him that no matter what he says his answer is going to be wrong.

"Maybe you should ask him," Hunk says, as he catches up to Keith and keeps going.

Great. One more thing Keith's messed up along the way. "Hunk," he says, "I have no idea what I'm doing. I think.. I think I fucked this up."

But Hunk only smiles down at him fondly, the gentle curve of his mouth at odds with the fear lurking Keith's stomach like an overfilled balloon. "None of us have any clue what we're doing either, man, least of all Lance. It's gonna be okay. What happened?"

It's easy to break under Hunk's umbrella of comfort. "He's been kind of moving in with me?" he blurts, hugging his chest. "Slowly? We never talked about it out loud, but… yeah. I put up this Jupiter painting for him because he told me he always wanted to go there. I guess I felt weird with everything in my room being mine, you know? I wanted something to be his. I thought he would like it. But when he saw it he lost his mind. I don't understand, Hunk."

Tentative understanding flashes on Hunk's face. "Okay, yeah, you need to talk to him, dude. Ask him why he's never put anything up on his bedroom walls here. Lance is a man of words, Keith. You gotta use them sometimes."

They're at the deck now and Hunk stops walking about three feet from the door, leaving Keith to go on alone. But Keith hesitates with his finger on the keypad. Mulling over Hunk's question. How long do you think Lance has had feelings for you?

How long...

"Since the shuttle ride?" Keith asks quietly.

There's a beat of silence, and then: "I think you know the answer to that."

Well, he does now. Keith rests his forehead on the cold metal door, too terrified to go inside. "I feel so fucking stupid right now."

So Hunk inputs the code for him and the door slides open, leaving Keith to stumble and catch himself. "Better late than never," Hunk whispers conspiratorially in his ear, and then the door hisses shut between them.

The room is dark, yet awash with light. The universal starmap is open, projecting a microscopic version of the Milky Way galaxy from floor to ceiling, each star represented in a speck of light, each nebula a splash of neon paint in the darkness. There's no doubt at all that it's the Milky Way because Lance is lying prone in the center of the room on the floor, staring up. If he's heard or seen Keith wander in, he gives no indication.

The tap of Keith's boots on the tile floor is so loud in the silence, and echoes off every wall, but still Lance doesn't move.

The thing is, Keith has always thought Lance to be the oblivious one. Oblivious to Keith's indifference to their alleged rivalry, oblivious to the fact that Keith wanted nothing more than to be friends, oblivious to Keith's affections. But he takes a moment now, still wallowing in the possibility that maybe Lance liked him first, to consider that Lance has been equally as frustrated with Keith all along. That all the while as Keith tried desperately to convince Lance to let him in, Lance was pushing back not because he didn't want to, but because he was fighting just as hard for the exact same thing. That maybe the boy from the rooftop at the Garrison didn't want Keith to leave. That the boy from the simulator race wanted Keith's attention more than he wanted to beat him. That the boy from the shuttle ride really did just want some company.

The Perseus Arm of the spiral galaxy flickers as Keith walks through it, the holographic stars splashing through his body and reappearing again on the back side of him. He passes through the Orion Spur too and Lance's eyes flicker to him briefly, then back to the star he's lying directly under. Keith stops with his boots by Lance's arm, by the empty berry pouch that lies on the silver floor. The Sun looks the same as almost every other star in its galaxy from this vantage point, but the thing that makes it instantly recognizable is the shape of the system that surrounds it. The map is burnt into Keith's bones. Tiny Mercury hugging the star, then Venus, Earth, and Mars, then the Asteroid Belt that separates the inner planets from the gas giants, magnanimous Jupiter, ringed Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the Kuiper Belt (and Pluto), then the Oort Cloud shrouding it all in what could almost pass as an atmosphere if Keith didn't already know that it was made of countless tons of ice and dust. From the center out the star system rings of familiarity in a way no other star system does, or ever will.

When he was a child, before he left his father for good, he had a solar system mobile hanging in the center of his room. That image is what stirs up in his heart now like silt in a river, clouding his eyes.

He has so many questions.

But he's beginning to understand, now, where he's been going wrong. So he sits down at Lance's side, folding his legs as he goes, and clears his throat.

Start small.

"The reason I'm such a packrat," he begins, "is because I didn't have much of anything growing up. When the courts finally severed my dad's parenting rights I didn't get to take much of anything with me. I didn't have much to take, anyway. Then, moving house to house, I eventually lost what little I had left. Clothes, shoes… That was it, really. So I guess now that I have somewhere safe and permanent to put it all, I just keep everything."

He chances a peek at Lance and finds that Lance has turned his head toward him now and is looking at him oddly. He doesn't look angry, anymore. Just curious.

"Lance," Keith says, very carefully. "Why do you keep all your medals in a box at the bottom of your closet?"

The adam's apple on his throat bobs as Lance swallows thickly, then he begins to shuffle about and eventually pulls himself into a cross-legged sitting position, a mirror of Keith. They're facing each other with their knees touching. Sol shines on between them at shoulder level, its planets slowly turning on their mock orbits, but Lance's attention is on Keith, now.

"When we first got here," Lance begins, placing each word down with infinite trepidation and precision, like he's stepping through a minefield. The guilt eats its way a chamber deeper into Keith's heartㅡthat Lance could feel this uncertain because of him. "To space, I mean," Lance clarifies, "to the castle when it was still on Arus, I had it in my head that this was all temporary. I was ready to go home at a moment's notice. Even after we went through that first battle and everything got serious, it still felt wrong to keep anything in my room or hang anything up, because it didn't feel like my room, y'know? It was like a hotel room, and I was going home soon so why bother?"

Keith's hands are curled into fists on his jeans. That was four years ago. Four long, eventful years. "And what about now?"

"I know it's stupid," Lance says, and he pokes longingly at the bright star between them. His finger passes straight through. "I know it doesn't make any sense. But if I make a home of this place, it feels a bit too much like letting go."

"So that's why you hated the painting?"

Lance stops poking at the star and his hands go to his face, dragging down and back up and through his hair. He groans loudly and dramatically. "Ughhh, I don't hate the painting, Keith, that's the fucking problem."

"I don't understand."

Lance's hands freeze over his face and he groans even louder than before until he's almost shouting into his palms. "I don't know what I did to get you to finally like me but I can't lose you," he manages to say through all the groaning. Then he pulls his hands away. "And if I go back to Earth without you, I know that I'm never gonna see you again."

The implications of what Lance just confessed are so deep and multilayered that Keith can't possibly hope to understand them all at once. So he blurts the first thing that comes to mind. "Why the fuck would you think that?"

Lance is unmoved by Keith's shock. He looks more tired than anything, and disappointed, and lost. "You're always leaving everything behind," he says. "It's just, what you do."

"Like what? " Keith barks defensively, even though he knows exactly what Lance is going to say.

"Like your dad. Like ten different foster families. Like you left me behind on the group formation part of our placement test our first year at the Garrison, which hurt my final grade enough to get me placed as a cargo pilot instead of fighter class." Lance ploughs on, ignoring Keith's gobsmacked reaction. "Like you left the Garrison behind without a second thought, on a hunch , a freaking hunch, nevermind how hard it is to get in as a pilot there, nevermind the fact that you were the top of our class and would have led a historical career. Like you tried to leave us when you suspected you were part Galra. Like youㅡ"

"I did that to protect you guys!" Keith flounders. "And I don't remember the thing with the test. I didn'tㅡ I wasn't doing it on purpose, okay? I neverㅡ"

"Hang on," Lance says, and his voice has gone all soft again. "I'm not trying to accuse you of anything, man. I'm just…. I'm afraid."

"Well don't be, " Keith shouts, and his voice cracks the way it always, always does when he's losing control. "For fuck's sake, I'd been searching for Blue for a year by the time you showed up, Lance!"

Lance tilts his head, eyebrows furrowing as he tries to follow the turn of the conversation. His mouth opens like he's going to say something, but then he closes it again. Waiting for Keith to elaborate.

And to Keith's everlasting surprise, when he opens his mouth again, the words come. "I didn't even know what I was looking for," Keith says, a bit calmer this time around. "Just that I felt something out there in the desert, calling me. The first time I felt that call, it wasㅡ"

The echo of the rain from that day is still wet on Keith's skin even five years later, the deluge forever pouring in some distant corner of his memory. The petrichor filling his nose and his lungs, the heady odor of wet sage, the grainy flecks of mud on his ruined boots, the flashes of lightning stretching across the sky for miles and miles across the red wasteland, no breathing room at all between each flash of light and clap of thunder.

"It was right after my freakout in the mess hall, when I was dishonorably discharged. I took my hoverbike as far into the desert as it would go before I ran out of gas, and even then I kept walking. It was the worst monsoon of the summer, too, and the riverbed was starting to flood. I'd been following the river for so long by that point I didn't realize I'd ended up down a small canyon, and the walls there were too steep to climb. I was thinking it'd be funny if I drowned in the middle of the desert, and… and that's when I heard Blue."

Like an indomitable force Keith can feel Lance's eyes on him, but he stares at his own hands in his lap, watching the memory unfold inside him, blooming up from the darkest of places. "Or, felt her." The lion roared in his mind with such intensity and with such little warning that for a minute Keith was dead certain he'd been struck by lightning. But the feeling lingered and lingered and didn't hurt, pulling on him with an invisible string. This way, this way. Up and away from the rising river, toward a jagged switchback he hadn't noticed before, leading him to safety. And as he clambered up the wet canyon walls away from certain death, led by a benevolent invisible force, his hand touched on a carvingㅡa pictogram etched into the rain-soaked cliff face. Ancient, unknowable, and alien.

"That was the closest thing to a religious experience that I've ever had," Keith says to his hands.

"After that, my entire life became solving the mystery of that desert. Every time I found a clue was like another breath keeping me alive. For nearly a year that was all I had. It was all I cared about. And even still, no matter how much I uncovered, there was so much more I didn't understand. I couldn't interpret the cave drawings, but I knew they were the key to something that would change my life foreverㅡthat would change the universe as I understood it. And then Shiro came, and you and Hunk and Pidge, and we followed the new clues to a cave I'd never been to before, and there were those drawings again. More than I'd ever seen in one place, and they were the same, except this time you were the one who touched them, and they just… lit up, " Keith finishes in a rush of wonder, out of breath and heart hammering in time with the memory. How can he possibly convey how he felt in that moment? How his entire life hinges around the second that those carvings came to lifeㅡimpossibly, wonderfullyㅡunder Lance's hands, permanently altering the course of everything. How his life hinges around Lance.

"It was like magic," Keith breathes, "and I thought…"

When he finally chances a glance at Lance, he wishes he hadn't. Because Lance is looking at him the same way he was looking at Sol when Keith entered the room. Keith swallows, hard. His hands are fisted so tight on his jeans that he might never be able to pry them off again.

"When that wall lit up under your hand it changed everything for me. I knew."

Tears prickle at the corners of Lance's eyes. "Knew what?"

That's hard to answer. "That there was some kind of order to all thisㅡthis chaos," he says, sweeping one hand out to gesture at the rest of the stars in the room. "That I was going to fall in love with you someday. I don't know, it just… it felt like we were supposed to do things together," he says insistently. "Go places. You and me." The tear teasing at the corner of Lance's left eye breaks rank and falls. Slowly, purposefully, Keith reaches across the void between them and takes his hand. "We could be fighting this war until the day we die," he says, "or it could end tomorrow. Either way, I will never leave you." It pains him that Lance could possibly think such a thing after all this time, and he knows he should have said this months ago. Years ago. "If the day comes that you go back to Earth, I will still be here when you get back. I waited a year for you in the desert, Lance. I can do it again."

A grin splits across Lance's face, even as a second tear falls. Lazily he swipes at it with the back of his hand, the grin stretching into something downright silly. "Ha," he laughs shakily, "you said you loved me. Gay."

Of course. Keith pulls his hand away to cross his arms in exasperation. "That is your takeaway from this? Seriously?"

Still smiling like an idiot, Lance scoots closer to him, knocking their knees together, pushing himself right up into Keith's personal bubble. "I love you too," he hums, "like, Greek tragedy levels of love, and that speech was literally the most romantic thing I've ever heard in my life and I fucking love youㅡbut you're an adorable idiot and you missed the point as usual." His grin softens around the edges as Keith gives in to Lance's advances and lets him unfold Keith's arms to twine their hands together. "I don't want you to wait for me at all," Lance says. "I want you to come home with me. Not just back to Earth, I mean I want you to come home with me."

"Oh ," Keith says. "Ohh…"

"Yeah."

"Oh."

Lance rolls his eyes. "And no it's not gonna be forever. Yeesh. You seriously think I'd be able to just retire on Earth after all the crazy shit we've seen? Yeah right. I just.. want the option to go back when I want," he says wistfully. "And I want you to be there. With me. I want you to have a place on Earth to go back to."

The hologram of Sol is hovering just in front of Lance's chin, now, and Keith feels the corner of his mouth twitching as he eyes the microscopic blue dot, third from the sun. "Okay," he says, and it's amazing what beautiful things a single word can do to Lance's face. Keith watches it light up and feels something shifting inside him permanently. "So someday I'll go home with you," he says. "But until then, is mine okay?"

Lance's eyebrows shoot up. "Whaㅡoh my god, are you asking me to move in with you?"

Heat flaring on his cheeks, Keith squirms in Lance's grasp. "You pretty much already have."

"Yeah," Lance bursts, "but you just said it! Out loud! We made so much progress today, holy shit, I'm gonna overload."

"So is that a maybe, or…"

"Dude, yes, obviously yes. Come on!" And then he's leaping to his feet, pulling Keith along with him as he races for the door.

"Where are we going?"

"To get the rest of my stuff, duh, then to have a housewarming party!"

"I can't believe it was that simple," Keith murmurs to himself, but Lance hears him and turns around in the open doorway, hands coming up to rest on Keith's cheeks.

"Keith, honey, it's always been that simple. All you ever had to do was ask and I'd have been yours faster than the speed of light."

As Lance bathes him in the warmest, fondest look, Keith blinks up at him, and yet another memory flashes out from the depths. The moment on Arus when Keith caught Lance with his guard down. The way Lance looked at him then like there was nothing to be afraid of, even in the face of doubt and danger and death. The way he held Keith's gaze like he had nothing to hide. The way he tilted his chin up as Keith leaned in to pick him up and carry him to safety, almost like he was hoping Keith would kiss him. The way Keith wanted to kiss him. Wanted so badly to stick his flag there on that dazzling foreign landscape; to map it, to learn it, to claim it as his forever.

So Keith does now what he should have done way back then.

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Better late than never.


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