Keith picks up on the third ring.
He sounds good. A little sleepy, though; maybe it’s night where he is.
“Hey, man. Did I—did I wake you?”
It’s day where Lance is. It’s clear skies, with fresh snow on the ground. It’s cold, where he sits huddled against the cave opening. But the sky is bright, the blizzard having moved on, and this foreign planet glitters like diamonds. It’s pretty.
“Mm, no,” replies Keith, obviously lying. Lance smiles. “What’s up?”
“Ah, nothing much. You—you can hang up if you’re tired.”
“It’s alright, I was going to call you later. I need to get up anyway, got a mission in a few minutes.”
“Yeah? Doing what?”
Keith laughs, a low and raspy sound. “You know I can’t tell you.”
“Then tell me something you can.”
Keith obliges him, going into detail about mundane things. About how Kolivan nearly managed to cook something edible yesterday, about the cute animal he got to pet on his last mission. He regales Lance with tales of strange beasts he’s encountered, some hostile, some gentle. Recounts for Lance all the ways he’s learned to incapacitate somebody, which is just typical of him. It makes Lance fond, so very fond.
Keith mentions pop-up markets, lists off strange goods and wares that he’s seen. He describes the flavour of exotic food haltingly, struggling with his words, and Lance feels too affectionate to laugh. He does laugh when Keith reveals how he’s been buying all the bootleg Voltron merch he finds in those places, though.
“I could show you,” Keith offers. “It’s quite the collection; kind of proud of it.”
Lance laughs faintly. “How about we save it for—for the next time we meet in person?”
“When’s that happening, by the way? It’s been a while.”
“Meaning you miss us dearly, don’t you?” he teases. Keith grumbles at him, and he grins to an absent audience. “But, ah, I don’t think we’ll see each other anytime, um, soon, unfortunately.”
“Things are getting busy on your end, huh?”
Lance hums. His gaze slides down to his right leg. To torn skin and shredded muscle, white bone peeking out. To blood, to a soaked-through suit, to the pool under his shin painting the snow-dusted ground a stark red.
He smiles weakly. “Something like that.”
It starts with a battle, as usual.
Only, something is off this time. Someone is off, a strange thread out of harmony with the others. An inexplicable sour aftertaste, a fleeting discomfort that makes you question whether it’s real.
When they form Voltron, a note rings flat and Lance flinches, stomach rolling. When they form Voltron, they’re noticeably—ill-fitting. They work, but barely.
It’s enough for the Galra.
It starts with a battle and ends with Voltron losing. With them splintering a second time. They’re forced apart by Haggar’s meticulous schemes and Zarkon’s unrelenting bloodthirst. They’re surrounded, beaten, and thrown into separate wormholes. Galaxies apart, completely cut off, and at the mercy of their hunters.
Lance crash-lands on a planet of ice.
Red dives head-first into a snowbank. Lance blacks out. He fights his way back to consciousness, awakens to a darkened cockpit and the seat restraints digging into his torso. Red doesn’t respond to any of his commands and nobody answers him when he tries the comms. Either Haggar’s done some magic bullshit to block them or—or they’re already occupied.
But a flock of fighter jets emerges from the darkening cloud cover and Lance knows he can’t wait for rescue.
He leaves, activating the particle barrier behind him. It feels like tearing a limb off, leaving Red behind, but as long as he has the bayard, the most they can do to Red is lock him up.
As for his pursuers—he knows he has to drag them to the ground, even out the playing field.
Standing in the midst of a growing snowstorm, with nothing but white, white, and more fucking white to be seen, Lance thinks that once again, he’s not paid enough for this shit.
Even with his suit’s temperature controls, the air is biting, unforgiving. And who knows what surprises this place has in store. He bets there’s at least one man-eating beast slumbering under his feet.
His eyes alight on a crevice, dark and deep. He scans it, finds it to be the start of a cave system, and a plan unfolds in his head.
You don’t survive this long in a space war without having some measure of intelligence. Believe it or not, Lance did learn some survival and strategy shit at the Garrison. And he’s picked up some tricks from Rolo, Nyma, and the other rebels these past few years.
With the blizzard picking up, his footsteps are covered up as quickly as he makes them. The enemy will have to lock onto his heat signature; something they’ll be hard-pressed to achieve in this storm of sleet and hail and diamond-hard snow.
By the time their footsteps are echoing through the caves, Lance has scoped out his terrain, has run the calculations on his angles and picked out positions to snipe from.
He leads a dozen soldiers into hastily-erected traps. Ambushing them, picking them off one by one, quiet as a tiger and twice as deadly. If he were a lesser man, he’d find it funny how they slowly lose their minds over having the tables reversed. He feels like a ghost, untouchable, even as his body begins to lag from the freezing temperatures.
Even as he fucks up.
As he slips and falls and breaks his leg, crying out loud enough to alert the enemy.
And what of it? So what if he bleeds like a river? It helps him fool those last two soldiers into complacency.
So what if he can’t feel anything now? He’s the last man standing. He’s made sure no word gets back to the Galra about Red’s whereabouts. In a day, the lion will be buried under a mountain of snow and ice; they’ll never get their hands on Red.
All that’s left for Lance to accomplish is to hide the bayard. Maybe he’ll just bury it with himself. That should be enough.
He drags his body up out of the caverns, through sheer will and a liberal use of his sputtering jetpack. He tries his comms, again. Tries calling for his team, tries the Coalition frequencies. Static. The storm is gone, but still, there’s nothing but bzzt bzz bzzztttz. He slumps back against the opening, exhaling shakily.
His teeth are chattering, his nose suspiciously numb and fingers following close behind.
Lance knows he can’t wait.
He calls Keith.
“Where are you?” Lance asks, although he’s pretty sure it’s—
“Illuczir system, second quadrant. Can’t tell you more than that.”
—too far out for Keith to arrive in time, yeah. He considers telling Keith about his situation but dismisses it. Even with wormhole capabilities, Lance’s got a couple more minutes, tops, before this planet freezes him, or he shuts down from blood loss and hypothermia. And the Blade definitely do not have wormhole tech.
At least now he can say he tried all avenues of survival. Keith can’t be mad.
“So, what are you up to?” asks Keith.
“Just…chillin’,” replies Lance. He presses his lips together, delirium lingering in his throat. Hah, chillin’. It sure is. Half his energy is spent on not making sure his teeth don’t chatter. He’s already stuttering enough as it is. “Let—let me know when you need to leave. Don’t wanna keep you.”
“I don’t mind. Having your voice in my ear as I sneak into enemy lines—it’ll be just like old times.”
Old times. Just-six-months-ago times. Has it really been that long? That short? How can missing someone ruin your sense of time so thoroughly? Lance feels like life is dragging, bled of colour, and yet he can’t help thinking that he’s missing out. That he could be out there with Keith, doing good, amazing things. Instead, he’s here. Instead, he’s…
“Yeah, we—we should do that again, sometime. Think the Blade’ll let me tag along one day? Jus’ for you,” he teases. Does his voice sound too thin? It’s getting harder to breathe.
“Man, if only. I swear, Kolivan puts me on with the worst partners. You’re practically a godsend in comparison.”
Lance knows he’s just teasing, but the words still make his cheeks warm. Precious blood, wasted on stupid hormonal things. What does it say about him, that he doesn’t mind it?
“Who’re you partnered up with this time?”
“Rindal,” groans Keith. “He’s the one with the—”
“Giant dragon-donkey-looking pet, I—I remember. Gets in your way?”
“Slobbers all over me,” Keith grouses. “Rindal’s—fine, I guess—but I think I’ll always prefer you at my back. God knows how many times I almost died because he thought it’d be ‘good training’ to leave me on my own.”
“I—” Lance tries to inject some cheer into his words. “Y’know you’re my favourite, too, samurai.”
“Wow…wish I could send a recording of that to past us, just to see how they’d react.”
“Past Lance would try to—try to kill me for it,” Lance says, prompting Keith to burst into snorts.
The sound pulls a smile across Lance’s cold face. He wonders who makes Keith laugh, now that he’s with the Blade. Who jokes with him, when things get too dour? Who watches out for a particular scowl that says Keith’s at his limit, who embarrasses themselves to get that look off his face?
Who will do it after—after Lance is gone?
“Hey, are you alright?” Keith asks. “You sound…sick. Are you on bed rest or something?”
Lance licks his lips. He blinks, slow, eyelids heavy. “Hah, shit. Guess you caught me, huh? Yeah, m’ bored outta—outta my mind.”
“What happened? No, don’t tell me, just—I should let you get some rest—”
“No!” He jolts forward, panic slicing through him. His leg protests violently, screaming at him, and he clamps a hand over his mouth. A groan slips out, whisper-thin. Fuck, shit, that hurts. “I mean, you don’t—you don’t have to go, I—I just woke up.”
Keith takes a moment to reply. “What’s wrong with you that the pod couldn’t fix?”
“It—it’s just. Residual fatigue. I—Coran said I could—could sleep it off.”
“…He said that, huh?”
Lance closes his eyes, light-headed. If his mind was clearer, he’d know if Keith bought that or not. As it is, he can hardly remember why it is that Keith shouldn’t know he’s injured. Because Keith would get upset? Yeah, that—he’d get upset. Okay, don’t tell Keith. Keith will get upset.
It’s getting colder. Lance exhales shallow puffs of white. He breathes in and frost pierces his lungs. “Hey, you—you there?”
“Yeah. I’m here. Just getting ready to fly out.”
There’s a scuffle over the line, a hiss like a door has closed, a cabin sealed in and ready for flight. Ambient noises that Lance knows so well now, a year into this war. He wishes he remembered what the sound of his mom’s laughter was like. Or the sound of his feet on wet sand, on creaky porch steps, warm from the sun.
He peels his eyes open. His vision is hazy. The sky blurs into the cave ceiling. Blue and more blue, white and ice and pure light. Blinding. You could mistake this for heaven. Did he reply yet? He should. “O-okay. Sorry, d’you—did you wanna hang up?”
Keith hums absently. “Do you remember when you caught a cold during the Tyg-klor mission?”
Lance, already fading in and out, thinks he imagined the strange question until Keith repeats it. “I—guess?”
“And how you came out a day early, and when you coughed at dinner, Coran stuffed you back in the pod for five extra minutes? Even though we all told him you were fine?”
“Right, so you’re telling me that that same man told you to ‘sleep off’ whatever it is that’s got you sounding as weak as a day-old kitten.” Keith scoffs. “Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on?”
Alright, so Keith didn’t buy it at all. He shot down that lie easier than he would a stationary target.
When did he learn to do that? When did they get close enough that Keith could figure out his lies so quickly?
“It’s nothing,” replies Lance. “M’ fine.”
“Nope, try again. Where are you?”
“I’m—Keith, I’m in the castle, okay, I lied about the other thing, but really, I—everything’s fine. You don’t need to worry. I just—I just wanted to hear you for a bit. That’s—that’s all.”
“I said, try again. Where are you?”
“And I said, in the castle—”
A loud noise on the line interrupts him, like something was just hit. “Okay, enough. Rindal, get me a lock on his signal. Tell Kolivan his delivery run can get reassigned. And Lance, don’t even think of hanging up.”
He would, if he could move his fingers. He would cut the signal if he could, because he doesn’t want Keith to realize just how far away he is, how late he’ll be to rescue Lance. He doesn’t want Keith to blame himself for how this will end.
But he can’t feel his leg anymore, and his body is so heavy. There’s frozen sweat on his upper lip and his blood has iced over on the ground; a glistening red pond. It’s almost pretty.
He exhales, sliding further down the wall, wincing as his leg is jostled. God, it looks like fucking shit. The sight of it made him puke earlier. There’s acid on his tongue. “It’s no use, Keith.”
“Shut up, just stay wherever you are, I’m—” A pause. Some mumbling, then a low curse. “Shit, really?”
“I’m too far out,” Lance confirms dully. At this point, there’s no point pretending. “Got no idea where—where Haggar sent me but m’ not showing up on—on any of the maps we know. I checked.”
“I’ll find a way. Where are the others?
“I don’t—dunno. We—got separated. Listen, Keith,” he says, gaze fixed to the clear, gleaming stalactites above him. “You should—you should find ‘em first, I’ll—I’ll be fine. I can wait.”
“One thing at a time,” Keith shoots back. “If you don’t know where they are then I wouldn’t know where to begin searching, but you—you, I can reach. So just stay put.”
“And I’m telling you that it’s no use,” Lance says, a spark of irritation in his voice. Doesn’t Keith get it? Doesn’t he understand that it’s pointless? Lance is going to be—be fucking dead in another minute, so why won’t he give it up? Why won’t he just stop?
Keith inhales sharply. “What?”
Shit, he said that out loud. As quickly as it came, the fire leaves him. He’s all the weaker for it, as if it had gathered up what strength he had and drained him of it. When he speaks, his voice is a hoarse whisper. “Broke my leg, Keith. ‘S a hole in it. Lost too much—too much blood, an’ I’m about to freeze soon. So, just—just stop. Okay? Just give up.”
“Give—give up? Fuck, are you seriously asking me to leave you to die?” Keith demands, voice shaking with—rage? Fear?
“I’m asking you,” says Lance, “to stay on the line with me.”
Because Lance is—Lance is afraid. Lance is alone and shaking and he is so fucking scared. He wants to go home. He wants his friends. He wants to be found. Even if it’s hopeless, he wants it, so bad. He wants to believe Keith is made of miracles, that he can spare one more for Lance.
He wants to believe, really, but he can’t. He can’t.
“Just—just pretend, Keith. Just talk to me, ‘cause I don’t wanna—don’t wanna be alone. Just give me this. It’s enough.”
He doesn’t want this to end with them fighting, as he breathes his last. He just wants Keith’s voice in his ear, just a small comfort. It’s all he needs.
Keith denies him that. “No. No, I can’t—I can’t do this. You need to keep trying, Lance, you’re not dying here.”
“What d’you want me to do?” Lance asks tiredly. “Y’think I haven’t—haven’t tried everything? Haven’t done my best? I did, and this—this is where it got me.”
Keith doesn’t reply, but there’s noises on the line, distant yelling. It sounds he’s in a hurry. It sounds like he’s still trying. Like he still believes.
“Wanna know why I called you?” Lance looks out the open sky, the vast stretch of snow-covered land. Crisp air, mountains in the distance, and not a living thing in sight. You could mistake this for Earth’s ice caps. You could mistake this for a little bit of home. Lance is choosing to.
“Shut up, Lance. Save your energy.”
“Wanted to tell you that m’ glad—I’m glad we got to be friends.”
“I swear to god, if you don’t shut up right now, I’ll kill you myself.”
“Little counter-productive, but very—very on-brand of you,” Lance laughs quietly. “Y’know, I’m also really proud of you—your growth, man. Red will—he’ll be glad to have you back, but you gotta—gotta know you’re a good leader, too.”
“Lance, you better not be saying what I think you’re saying.”
His head falls back, neck too weak to hold it up. He licks his chapped, frozen lips, and smiles an empty smile. “Last words, yeah. Let—let the others know I’m sorry, won’t you?”
Keith swears viciously, choked and strained and Lance really is sorry. He’s so sorry it had to be Keith who gets this call. He’d been half-hoping Keith wouldn’t pick up.
In the distance, a bright spot is rising. Lance thinks it might be a distant sun, too distant to provide much light, much heat. If he could lift his hand, this is where he’d end the call, this is where he’d turn off his comms and throw his helmet one way, his bayard the other, down the cave system.
All he manages to do is fall onto his side. He curls up as best as he can and pays no mind to his leg, or the tears sliding down his face, burning so hot. His eyelids are sliding shut, his breaths coming shallower and shallower.
“Hey, Keith?” he whispers. “Think m’ gonna take a nap, now. ‘Kay?”
“No, no, no, stay awake, Lance, do you hear me?” Lance thinks Keith’s voice should be louder, but it fades in and out on Lance. It’s difficult to grasp onto, impossible to heed. “Fuck, god fucking dammit—Lance, just hang on, please, I’m going to be there soon, just—I’ll be right there, please, Lance, please.”
“Don’t think…don’t think I can,” Lance murmurs. “M’ sorry, Keith. M’ really…really sorry.”
Before the darkness takes him, he imagines someone’s shadow slipping over the ground in front of him. He imagines that it’s Keith, come to save him. He imagines big hands, cradling his head, lifting him up.
When his eyes finally slide shut, he’s smiling.
Lance wakes up.
Lance shoots upright and finds himself staring at a man-eating monster. Fuck, he knew it. Why does he always have to be right about these things?
“Lie down,” says the monster. “The damage is to your leg, but you shouldn’t be up, regardless.”
Lance lies down. Stalactites stare down at him. They look different from the ones before. Or do they? He was too out of it to memorize them.
“Um,” he ventures. “What’s going on?”
That’s a safe question. That’s a question that covers all the bases like where am I, and who are you, and why the fuck haven’t you eaten me yet?
“I found you bleeding out by one of my caves. You made quite the mess,” comments the monster. “Not to mention the bodies you decorated it with. Ruthless little one, aren’t you?”
“They came after me first,” he grumbles.
The monster laughs; it’s terrifying. “I am Laytk. You are in my main residence. Your wounds have been cleaned and dressed. The exposure you suffered from the cold and the blood you lost have been treated. You’re lucky I know the healing arts.”
Healing arts? What kind of magic does this person know? It would’ve taken an immediate application of a healing pod to save him, and Lance doesn’t see any around here.
He turns his head to meet his savior’s, um, multiple eyes. Seems kind of mean to call them a monster now, or a man-eater. “Then I guess I should thank you for saving my sorry ass, huh? Thought I was really going to die.”
“Oh, you definitely did,” replies Laytk blandly. “I just brought you back.”
A chill runs down Lance’s spine. Okay then. At least now he knows death is just like sleeping, basically. “Are there more of your people around? Because if there are, I have to warn you the Galra are probably going to send another scouting team.”
Laytk tilts their large, hairy head. “Well, we’re not the only ones here, if that’s what you’re asking.”
That’s a creepy way of saying it, Lance is thinking, when there’s loud thud somewhere to his left. He jerks around, rising onto his elbows.
Keith stands by the cave opening, in all his rumpled elite assassin glory. There’s an overturned crate at his feet, pouches spilling out of it.
“Lance,” he breathes.
Lance gapes at him. “Keith?”
“Speak of the devil,” Laytk says, getting to their feet (all six of them). “I’ll leave you to it. Paladin, please pick up your goods.”
Keith wordlessly does so, stepping aside to let Laytk trundle by. His gaze remains locked on Lance the whole time.
Lance swallows. “H—what are you doing here?”
“I’m going to kill you,” Keith says evenly, marching up to him.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a moment, man—” Lance scuttles back, legs dragging. His pleas fall on deaf ears as Keith stalks forward, expression intent and hands reaching out to—to—
—pull Lance into him.
To wrap warm arms around him, so gently, so securely. To envelop Lance in his scent, hold him up off the floor, effortlessly cradling him. Like he’s precious.
“I thought I lost you,” Keith whispers, face buried in Lance’s neck. “I thought you…”
He squeezes Lance, then, jaw clamping shut—and Lance’s heart hurts, because he knows with all the certainty in the world, that just then, Keith’s throat did that thing where it closes it up, where it kills his voice, because it had become too much. Because he was about to cry.
Lance’s hands come up, gripping onto Keith, hard. His vision blurs. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, Keith.”
There’s a wetness at his shoulder. Keith’s breath leaves him in shudders as he holds himself back. Even when he breaks down, he’s the quiet type. He doesn’t let Lance go for a long while, and Lance gets lost in his warmth, feeling safe for the first time in—in however long, he doesn’t even know.
Keith pulls away, scrubbing at his eyes. He lifts his head, fixing Lance in place with his indigo eyes, his long lashes. “We’re lucky Laytk found you when he did. I came as fast as I could, but…” He looks away. “Even if I had been on time, I wouldn’t have known what to do. You were right.”
Lance cups Keith’s face in his hands. “I’m glad that you—the fact that you came anyway…you were right. I didn’t want to be left behind.”
Keith latches onto his wrists. “I would never do that to you.”
He turns into Lance’s touch, presses a kiss to his palm.
Lance’s breath hitches.
It’s not like he didn’t think of…of telling Keith how he felt, as he lay there bleeding out. The words had bubbled up on his tongue, knocked against his teeth, begging to be admitted. But it wouldn’t have been fair to burden Keith with that. Not when he didn’t have the freedom to reject Lance, knowing he was dying.
Though with the way Keith is looking at him now, Lance isn’t so sure of that rejection anymore.
“I’m coming back,” says Keith.
Lance nods. Then the words sink in and his jaw drops. “Coming back? Like—like to—?”
“To Voltron,” Keith confirms.
“But what about finding your mom? What about searching for your family?”
“And what use,” Keith asks, “is finding one family, if I lose the one I already have? What use is chasing after a memory, if I lose you in the process? If I lose someone I can already hold, someone I can love up close?”
Lance is shocked speechless. He can do nothing but stare.
“I thought I lost you,” Keith says again. He gathers Lance’s hands in his and lowers his head, until his lips are brushing over Lance’s knuckles. “I found Red. I found your blood. I found the place where you had died, your bayard on the ground, and I thought I lost you. I thought I was never going to hear you laugh again. Never see you wink and do your stupid fingerguns, never share another breakfast with you.
“I’m coming back.” Keith looks up, catches his gaze with his own burning eyes, full of promise, full of fire. “To you. Because I refuse to live a world that you’re not in.”
Lance is drowning. Lance is going to open his mouth and his love is going to rush from his lips like a waterfall and he’s going to die from how much he wants to kiss this boy.
Keith beats him to it.
With calloused hands, he cups Lance’s face, draws him in, and kisses him.
Lance melts into it. His cheeks are too warm, his eyes are stinging, but when Keith kisses him, it feels so right. It feels like the first breath you take when you break the surface of the sea, like closing your eyes and turning into the wind on a hot day. Lance kisses back, tries his best to give his entire heart and soul to Keith through their lips, with his gasps.
When they break apart, Lance says, “I missed you, so goddamn much. If you try to leave next time, you’ll have to take me with you. You’re stuck with me now.”
Keith smiles, tugs him in so their foreheads touch. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“I’m serious.” Lance squishes Keith’s cheeks. “No takebacks. I’m stupid in love with you, okay?”
Keith darts in, pecks him on the mouth like it’s easy. “Get some rest, Lance. We’re taking a look at Red first thing tomorrow. I’ve already sent Rindal off to gather the Blade and find our friends. We’ll talk about this later.”
“Hate it when you’re all leader-y.”
“That’s not what you said earlier.” Keith pushes him down, pulls the blankets up and tucks it around him. He brushes the hair back from Lance’s forehead and plants another kiss there. “And it goes both ways, you know. You’re stuck with me, too.”
Lance wiggles an arm out and nabs Keith by his collar, catching his lips in a thorough kiss. When he pulls back, Keith looks pleasantly dazed.
“Perfect,” says Lance.