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of desert grains and cosmic dust

Chapter Text

For Keith, the desert is where it all begins.

This is what he knows of everyday life: dry heat beating down over his head and shoulders. Sand all around, grit pressing against every inch of unprotected skin, throat parched dry, his arms and legs tanned in swathes of brown. A childhood spent chasing after lizards and waiting for his father to come home from work so they can sit under the star-dusted skies and paint constellations with their imagination.

Most people would call this inconvenient, to say the least, but Keith is not most people.

He sees the desert for what it offers him; wide, sweeping plains and a spotless blue sky above, flowering cacti and the life that comes awake after dark, when all else is still. He’s enamoured by the scorpions and weird little lizards that occasionally invade their house, fascination rooting deep at the sight of their bright, poison-hued bodies.

His father returns home with the sunset, as always, the dunes awash in a progression of colours, from brass, rose gold, and coral, to a finale of deep violet. Out on the porch, they watch night’s arrival as it brings a curtain of darkness billowing all the way out until the distant horizon. Right about this time, the final errant curls of smoke from Papa’s cigarette are often winding their way upwards, acrid scent accompanied by a soft crunch when the embers are extinguished beneath heavy boots.

“Come on up here, kiddo.” There comes the predictable grunt before Keith's heaved up and onto his father’s shoulders, looking down over the world laid out before them.

It's akin to standing at the summit of a mountain, high enough where Keith can reach up to dip his hands into the clouds, can smooth his fingers against the light of the stars like they’re clusters of fish in the black ocean above him. That's where he wants to be. That's where he yearns to explore, past miles and miles of sand to where he knows mysteries lie.

Their house is small and far from the town, but it’s built on a steady foundation of love. The desert is endless and his father’s hands tucked over his means safety, one palm alone large enough to envelop Keith’s.

For a little boy of six years, these are the factors that make home, home.

For a little boy of six years, it's far too soon when those memories are utterly ruined.

 

 

Keith wakes with a start at the sound of something clattering to the floor. His confused whine has his father rushing to reassure him with soft whispers and a quick kiss to his forehead.

“Hey, hey, you’re alright. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, kiddo,” he says, gently carding through Keith’s mussed hair.

Through the bleary squint of sleepy eyes, Keith can see his father is wide awake. There’s the strap of a duffle bag on his shoulder and he’s fully-dressed, like he’s about to go in for work. Keith frowns at him with all the concentration he can muster.

“It’s not mornin’ yet . . . Where’re you going?” He manages to ask through a wide yawn. His father smiles, but there’s something wrong with it. Keith blinks and stares harder, but he can’t pin the reason for the wrongness.

“Papa’ll be right back, alright? I promise, I just have to—I have an errand. I have an errand to run.”

Keith has no idea what an ‘errand’ is but he mumbles something in return and turns over onto his side, too drowsy to respond. His father pats him on his back, the comforting heat of his palm bleeding through Keith’s pyjama top. There’s a soft clunk and Keith sees his father carefully setting something onto the stout little table by their bed.

“Just in case,” Papa whispers.

Keith watches as his father turns, a slice of moonlight from the windows illuminating his broad back as he hefts the duffle bag securely over his shoulder. The night chill seeps in through Keith’s pyjamas when the door swings open, and he shivers. There’s a click as it falls shut. Silence reigns, broken only by the chirp of crickets.

Keith yawns into his palm, blinking tiredly. He curls up tight under the blankets and falls fast asleep once more.

 

 

He doesn't come back.

Not that night, nor the next day, nor the day after that.

Even then, it takes a few more years before Keith finally learns to stop believing in the promise of mere words.

 


 

“Approaching landing site now, Princess. ETA ten minu—uh. Vargas?” Keith hazards a guess at the foreign word as he squints at the readings on his dashboard.

“Doboshes.” Pidge corrects, barely looking up from where she’s fiddling with her datapad.

“Right. Doboshes.”

Allura acknowledges them with a terse affirmative and Keith tries not to sigh out loud, knowing it’ll only aggravate her. After his heritage had come to light, he’d learned that staying out of her way made things easier for the both of them.

“Copy that,” Shiro says over the comms, smoothing over the awkwardness with some opportune timing. “We’re approaching the other side of the base, keep us posted.”

“Yes, sir.”

Keith inclines the pod for a steep descent towards the swampy surface of Planet 23-7L, or, as Kolivan had called it, Merinoma. There’s a dense layer of fog off to their east, which covers at least two-fifths of the planet, but the rest is the sea-green of water. According to Pidge, it was a common factor over the entire planet; a giant body of water, varying in depth in some places by up to hundreds of kilometres, with tiny pockets of land speckled here and there.

Even from this distance he can see things stirring below the thrashing waves; the shadows of ray-like creatures floating in the shallows and several multi-limbed beings scuttling to safety a top the trees as Keith flies over them. The tail of something resembling a blue whale crests over the waves briefly before it plunges back into the fathomless depths.

Keith shudders at the sight.

Back on the Castle, during debriefing, Coran had pulled up a hologram of the creatures, prompting Lance to crow “Space whales!” and Hunk to back away with a queasy look on his face.

“Oh, ew, there’s way too many eyeballs on that thing!”

Coran had been uncharacteristically serious though, regarding them each with the same gravity that usually accompanied the words ‘Altea’ and ‘King Alfor’.

“These beautiful creatures are known as Cedaplods. They are known to be the largest living sources of raw Quintessence . . . assuming, of course, that hasn’t changed in ten thousand deca-phoebs.”

This was said with a glance over to the side, where the leader of the Blade of Marmora stood in grim silence. Kolivan had affirmed the unvoiced prompt while his right-hand man, Antok, loomed behind him menacingly. As a matter of alliance, they were an invaluable resource. As friendly conversationalists? Not so much.

“The Galra Empire has been exploiting and draining them of their Quintessence for countless deca-phoebs now,” Coran had continued, swiping over the display to bring up a second holographic, this one of the planet. It revolves beside that of the Cedaplod, sections of it marked out in red.

“They’re leaving behind the legacy of a dwindling population and a destabilising ecosystem. As we know, Merinoma is only one of many victims in the Galra’s experiments with the substance and there’s been rumours of them taking it farther; weaponising it, if you will. The Princess and I believe it vital we secure records on those experiments. We need to see what we’re dealing with if we hope to have any chance against Zarkon and the witch, Haggar.”

Then Allura had picked up the threads of the briefing, standing tall at her position at the helm.

“I must warn you, the data we have on Merinoma is outdated. It’s been far too many years since any of our allies have paid a visit to the planet, but we have no choice. Those records could make a difference in the final fight; retrieval is our only option. Are we clear?”

Lance had settled down with considerably less cheer after that. In contrast, Pidge began waxing poetic about Merinoma as she downloaded the data onto her device, rambling about a mineral native to it, or about the drug-like toxicity of the ‘Yvellian’ tree, whatever that was.

Keith remembers standing far in the back of the room and away from the helm, for both his and Allura’s peace of mind. He’d found himself drawn to the holographic alien whale. The Cedaplod was majestic despite its bulk, swimming with grace in the limited field of the projection device.  But the long, mournful cry drifting up from it had struck Keith as something pained and lonely. Desperate. Maybe he was just thinking too hard about it, yet . . .

Emerging from where his thoughts had taken him, Keith shakes them off, focusing on his flying. He chances a quick peek at Pidge, hoping she hasn’t noticed his distraction, but finds her hunched over in her seat, glaring down at the waters below them.

Whatever enthusiasm Pidge had felt earlier had been extinguished when an important factor about the planet had come to light. Now she was tight-lipped and quiet, preparing herself for far more pressing matters; for the information that she would hopefully find here.

Keith bites his cheek and presses the controls further, taking them in for the final descent. He’s not sure how much help he’ll be, but he’ll do whatever it takes if it means Pidge will talk about those stupid minerals again.

 


 

The clearing Keith aims for is a patch of dried mud between the towering trees. It’s a narrow landing zone with barely enough space for manoeuvring, even in spite of how small their pod is.

Not too narrow for him though.

He levels the pod out, setting them down with barely a jolt. Pidge gives him a distracted thumbs-up and springs out of her seat as he relays their arrival with the others. There’s a sudden burst of piercing screeches, a vocal imitation of static over the comms, and then—

“Team Strawberry, come in Team Strawberry.”

Keith rolls his eyes and Shiro’s voice cuts in before he can say anything.

“Lance, we talked about this. No code names.”

“Aww Shiro, but I have a whole list! You’ve gotta let me use some of these, look, we’ve got Team Traffic Lights, Team Christmas, Team Bushfire—”

“W-wait, if we’re going by our Paladin colours here, what does that make us?” There comes Hunk’s voice, predictably. “Team Bruised Mango? Team Empoleon? Ooooh wait, I got a better idea, how about Team Taller Than You, ha—”

“Guys, can we just focus for once?” Pidge snaps and Keith startles at the realisation that she’s already left the pod. He hears Hunk and Lance mumble a quiet “Sorry” as he scrambles up from his seat and heads down the walkway.

“We haven’t come across any kind of defense system on this side,” Shiro says, “There’s something going on. LIke Allura said, we’re not working on entirely reliable information. Be on guard.”

“Will do,” Keith responds, materialising his Bayard as he leaves the cockpit.

Lance speaks again, sounding more sober now. “Pidge, heads up, sonic scan coming your way.”

“Got it.”

It’s an odd world outside, just as unique as every planet they’d come across so far. The air is hot and humid, a fact that Keith’s suit immediately takes into account as the temperature regulators kick in. Even then, he’s sweating, perspiration gathering at his neck and hairline.

There are trees everywhere, branches gnarled and twisting up towards the sky to loom over their heads. Some are hardly any wider than the span of his hand, but then there are giants, sized at least four times the circumference of a Weblum’s tooth.

Stepping off the walkway, Keith lands ankle-deep in water and cringes at the feeling. The liquid is oddly thick, with a different surface tension. It’s a clear, pale green, translucent enough to let him see tiny alien fishes skirting away from his boots to hide in a shrub of violet grass. Keith takes a moment to adjust to the clingy water-mud substance and heads over towards where he can see the white of Pidge’s armour. He finds her kneeling at the edge of the copse of trees, tapping rapidly at her device.

There, within a few meters of their location, stands their target. The Galra base is a long, squat building set up within another clearing. It’s listing slightly to the side, foundation sinking into the mire. Keith goes to talk to Pidge but it suddenly strikes him that something’s not right. He stops and examines the building again, sweeping over the broken floodlights and the lack of sentries at the entrance. Most of the bases they’d infiltrated before had followed a set protocol, unless . . .

“Pidge—”

“I know,” she says, frowning as she looks up. “There’s no one home. The scan didn't pick up on any lifeforms within the base.”

Keith nods sharply, wondering at the new development. An abandoned base then. Well, that wasn’t entirely unusual, except—

“Why would they leave when there’re still so many resources left for them to exploit?” he asks, glancing meaningfully around them. The trees, the Cedaplods and the other creatures—the ones they’d seen in the sea and within the forest—all of it. The entire planet was teeming with the kind of Quintessence the Galra pursued with an almost single-minded intent, so why give that up?

“I don’t get it either. Kolivan said this was an extraction base, which could explain the lack of drones, but . . . well, it’s unusual, based on what we’ve seen of the Galra. Anyway, this place is deserted; systems are completely shut down, so I won’t be able to hack in unless I can access their power grid. We’re going to have to cut our way in.”

Keith registers the eerie silence, the stillness of the air. He frowns, shivering as his skin breaks out into a cold sweat. The forest is too quiet, tree trunks gleaming a shimmering green when he views them from the corner of his eyes.

“Pidge,” he says, hesitantly. “What if this is a trap? Maybe we should regroup and figure out wha—”

“What?” Pidge blurts, looking up with a scowl. “No way, are you kidding me? I’m not going back now that we’re here. There’s vital information on their terminals and we’re not leaving without it!”

Keith bristles and tries to fire back a reply, but she’s already marching away, setting off ripples with each irritated stomp. He sighs, clenching his fist around the handle of his Bayard, wishing she would just wait and listen.

It had started after Beta Traz, when Pidge had acquired the video of her older brother’s rescue-slash-capture from the prison where he’d been kept. Then, during the debriefing about the Merinoma base, Antok had mentioned work camps. Apparently, forced labour was universal and Team Voltron had yet to understand the brutal extent of what Galra considered efficiency.

The possibility of finding Pidge’s father there hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice, least of all hers. Even the tiniest breath of hope had her immediate attention now and once Pidge had sunken her teeth into a lead, there was very little they could do to dissuade her.

Keith moves to follow her without a word.

 


 

By the time Keith catches up, Pidge has summoned her own Bayard, already carving an entrance into the side of the base. The metal yields under the heated blade and she bends the sheet away from the wall until there’s a moderate-sized opening for them to slip through. Pidge pushes onwards and Keith follows, folding himself in after her. They stumble into darkness and an oppressive heat, finding their footing on the floor with a splash. Keith swipes at his helmet and the pilot light comes on, yellow beam bouncing off a curved ceiling and down either end of what seems like a rather long corridor.

There’s a foul odour hanging in the air, the floor flooded with stagnant water and littered with debris, the walls covered in patches of luminescent moss. Pidge raises an eyebrow.

“The Galra sure could do with some redecoration.”

Keith blinks at the comment and offers a shrug in response, to which Pidge only sighs. She turns away and begins walking, fiddling with her vambrace to bring up the map she’d put together. It somehow stings a little, like a dismissal. Keith wrinkles his nose, and hastens to catch up with her.

Everything’s fine. He’s just being too sensitive.

Still, he can’t help himself when he glances to the side of Pidge’s face, even if she isn’t looking at him at all, her focus entirely captured by the map. Her features are pinched, all her focus on the mission before her. Keith has to look away, resigned. The silence is uncomfortable and if Keith were anyone else, he’d try and break it just to ease the obvious tension in the atmosphere. He’s not sure where to start though.

On the other hand, he does at least know how to do his job right and he still has to update the others on their new situation. He taps into the comms and waits for Shiro to respond before he begins relaying their current course.

“Hey, guys. Pidge and I hav—”

His foot comes down on something rounded and it shatters easily beneath his weight. Keith has a second to glance down through the shallow water and register the remains of what looked like a grey, pockmarked rock.

It’s like the world tilts as everything goes wrong.

A sickly green wave of energy pulses out abruptly from the object, the water churning into a frothy, boiling white as it’s whipped away from where he stands. There’s a second pulse, one he can almost feel in his throat. Keith takes a step away but it’s too late and the rubble under his feet erupts outwards with a concussive explosion.

“Gah!”

Keith cries out as the force of the explosion flings him through the air, searing heat stinging his exposed face. He grunts as he’s slammed into the wall, hard, head cracking back against the metal, the breath jarred from his lungs into a fretful wheeze. Air pressure keeps him trapped there for another second before gravity finally takes hold. He slides down and lands on his hands and knees, the impact of it shooting through him in a flash of pain.

A moment later, the water comes rushing back, lapping at his wrists and his lower limbs.

Spots swim in his vision and he can’t hear beyond a strange ringing in his head. He gasps for air, confusion and adrenaline painting a numbing veneer over the pain he knows he’s bound to feel soon.

There’re hands on him and Pidge hovers beside him, looking rather spooked. She shouts something but it’s muted into a vague roll of words, the beat of his heart overriding every other sound.

With a small pop, Keith’s hearing clears and there’s the piercing screech of metal, a rumble reminiscent of falling rocks. His vision goes briefly white and he lets out a choked groan, clutching at his head.

“—you okay? Keith, talk to me!” Pidge is loud, her voice and the rest of it meshing and grating against his brain, turning it further into mush.

“I-I’m fine, I’m fine!” he croaks out and Pidge, mercifully, stops shouting. In exchange though, he can hear everything else clearly, each sound sending spasms of agony down his spine. He can hear their team clamour over the comms while the corridor around them begins to shake. Keith is lucid enough to scrape his thoughts together and realise that’s not a good sign.

Shiro’s voice comes through, clear and commanding.

“Keith, Pidge! Are you two alright? What’s going on, we heard an explosion!”

“We’re okay! But Keith just set off something like a mine, or like a bunch of them, the whole place is coming down!”

Shiro swears aloud.

“Can you two make it out?”

Pidge looks at him, so Keith answers, sitting up and pushing away the haziness as best as he can.

“Yeah. Yeah, we’ll be fine.”

“Then get out of there and back to the Castle, as fast as you can, I can see the north end of the building collapsing already. We’ll try to stabilise the base while you escape, but I don’t think there’s much we can do. Just hurry.Abandoned or not, there’s a chance the Galra left some sensors and I’m not much eager for a fight right now.”

“Roger that.”

Pidge stoops down to help him as he stands, pulling his arm over her shoulder. Keith hisses, his bruises protesting at her rough handling, but Pidge looks away sharply and his stomach sinks. He can see a sliver of her cheek from this angle, skin flushed an angry red.

Shit.

Shit.

She’s mad at him. He’d made a rookie mistake, not paying attention to where he’d been going. In doing so, not only had he ruined the mission, he’d also robbed Pidge of a chance to find her father.

He’s such an idiot . He has to apologize, but is that even enough?

“Pidge, listen—wait!”

Keith jerks back just as she’s setting her foot down, causing her to stumble. Pidge yelps and nearly brings him down with her, but she swiftly regains her balance and keeps them both upright.

“What the hell , Keith?” she yells, her voice cracking as she whips her head around to glare at him. But Keith is too busy staring down at the object before them.

“You were about to step on it!” he exclaims, pointing, and Pidge follows his gaze towards the floor.

It’s a pockmarked rock similar to the one he’d set off, placed almost innocuously in the shallow water. As Keith looks closer he can spot more of them; scorched and broken pieces with those same marks, strewn in the water like they’d already been detonated by someone before Pidge and him.

There are a few that are whole too: three, four—no, s even in his direct vision alone, just floating around the room without label or warning. It sends a chill through him as he considers it . . . that they’d been wading right through immense danger without a clue.

“I-it looks just like the thing that exploded on me,” he tells Pidge, and her eyes go wide in surprise. “The Galra must have set them up. Maybe.”

Pidge spares him a glance, then nods, wrapping her arm around his waist tightly. Keith manages to tame the flinch of pain that action brings, pushing his focus into just breathing and following Pidge’s lead.

“Come on. We can avoid whatever these are easily, but we should watch out for other traps.”

They make it out of the base in one piece and straight back to the pod, Keith wincing with each jostle that sends his head spinning and his bruises throbbing. He risks a glance over his shoulder, spotting an expanding cloud of dust sprouting up from behind the collapsing base.

Then they’re in the pod and Pidge lets go of him to situate herself in the pilot seat without a word. Sighing, Keith straps himself into the other seat, looking up in time to see the Blue Lion fly past them with a roar, mouth still fogging up in the aftermath of one of her signature ice beams.

They change their course, Pidge boosting and launching them up into orbit, following the tail of the Blue Lion. And they’re out, leaving behind the strange water world, with nothing to show for it.

 


 

Later, Keith realizes he hadn’t apologised.

Chapter Text

Keith’s mornings used to begin with a whiskery kiss on his cheek, his father’s rough stubble eliciting giggles from him before he was even fully lucid.

“Up and at ‘em, Firefly,” his father would say, and he’d lift Keith into his arms to swing him around until he was laughing and screaming, breathless with infectious joy. His father worked a difficult job, but Keith had never lacked for his attention.

There was a brief period when the brightness of his father’s smile had slumped with sorrow. There was a hole there, from something missing. Keith knows, vaguely, that it had been about his mother. But he can barely remember that time because not long after that, the usual cheer had made its return, his father smiling once again, as always. He’d never let such obstacles get in his way.

When Keith wakes up that morning, there's no kiss to greet him, no honeyed drawl to lovingly bring him to wakefulness. He’s curled up alone in his blankets, jaw opening wide on a yawn as he calls out for his father.

“Papa?”

There's no response. Keith tries again, but his words sink into the quiet, dreary air and there’s no reassuring sound in return. He feels his face scrunch, irritation welling up. He kicks at the blankets and carefully drops out of his bed, socked feet protected from the chill of the bare floor. They’re his favourite pair, the dark blue ones with little white stars; his father had helped him put them on last night, tickling his toes and sides until he'd shrieked in protest.

Scrubbing at one eye, Keith stumbles to the middle of the room, calling out again.

Nothing.

It takes him wandering around each corner of the small house to realise there's no one there. There aren't any rooms to search, so much as just the one that's been sectioned off into different functional areas. The corner that's the kitchen; the desk where his father does important things; the living room where Keith sits and pretends he can read the titles of his father’s research books; and lastly, the bed, tucked away against the right-side wall, where they sleep.

The only other room is the tiny bathroom and the door to that is wide open, clearly indicating its lack of an occupant. He's alone.

Keith's never been alone in his life and a shiver rolls down his entire body. Papa had always been there in every way possible. Whether it was the sound of his voice or the feel of his large hand ruffling his hair, Papa had always been there.

The silence is dreadful. With his father, it’s never this quiet.

It brings a vague memory to mind of the night before, being woken up to an urgent whisper; “I'll be back soon, kiddo”. The door falling shut.

Keith stuffs his thumb in his mouth and stumbles back to his bed, clambering in with difficulty. He wraps the blanket around himself, grunting in frustration when it tangles around his arms before finally settling right. He pulls it over his head, sits quietly in the center of the mattress and tries not to cry.

Papa would be back soon. He always had to go out for work for a few hours, and this was probably just that.

"I'm being paid for this, can't have the Garrison disappointed, right, kiddo?" he'd always laughed, and Keith had laughed with him back then, not because he'd understood anything, but because his father's laugh was the kind of sound that felt like a lungful of joy.

He must have gone out again. That's all it was. Even though he'd never stayed out so long before, not for the whole night.

Keith pulls himself further into the blanket and that's when the glint catches his eye. He pops his head out from safety and stares, mouth falling open. A blade is set on the table by his bed, swaddled away in its sheath and a bundle of white wrappings.

His father had never gone anywhere without it before.

The words float to him through a haze of drowsiness and heart-thumping fear.

"Just in case.”

Keith swallows hard and shuffles himself away from the blade. He'd never touched it before—wasn't allowed to touch it before. But Papa had forgotten . . . no. He'd left it behind.

He shakes his head and thinks instead about brushing his teeth. Or maybe . . . maybe this was just a story, like the ones his father read to him at bedtime. Maybe his father had been taken—and that thought makes him clutch harder at his blanket—but if he was missing, then Keith was supposed to stay here. That’s what he’d always been told. “If I'm not here, you stay put until I come get you, alright Keith?”

“It’s just like the stories,” he whispers to himself, “You stay here and the hero goes to save the world.”

Because Keith knows his father is nothing short of a hero and, in those stories, the hero always comes back.

 

-

 

Night creeps back in and Keith is shaking, and his father still hasn’t returned. He's tired. He's hungry. He doesn’t dare go near the windows or the doors. The high, warbling howls of coyotes echo in the distance. Keith swallows and slowly extends his hand out from the safety of his blankets, breath sitting tight in his lungs as he imagines a monster lunging out from the dark to snap at his unprotected fingers.

He makes it quick; grabs at the bundle on the bedside table and hurriedly burrows under the covers again. The blade’s leather sheath is cold against his skin, but somehow it feels reassuring. The smell reminds him of his father and all he knows is that he’s never felt safer than when his father had his arms around him. This isn’t the same, but at least now the coyotes wouldn’t dare enter his house. He has a sword. He is a knight. He can fight them off, he knows. He just hopes Papa comes home before that.

 

-

 

Two days later, crying from hunger and thirst and sheer terror, Keith stops believing and just wants his father back. It’s the unthinkable, imagining him gone, and it’s in a fit of desperation that he stumbles out into the unforgiving desert landscape, clad in nothing but his pyjamas and star-spangled socks.

 


 

When they get back, Allura is waiting at the bridge, arms crossed tight over her chest. Keith tenses at the sight of her, wincing as it sets off a throb to his bruised ribs and the sizeable lump at the back of his head.

Pidge stands stock still beside him.

Shiro, Lance and Hunk are already there and they brighten up, worry visibly sliding off to make way for relief. Shiro strides forward and grasps their shoulders, scanning them quickly for their injuries.

"Are you two okay? What happened?" he asks.

Keith finds his gaze rooted to his feet and hopes Pidge will take the initiative to respond. The girl shrugs away from Shiro instead, turning on her heel.

"We didn’t get the records. Keith can tell you the rest. I'm going to bed," she calls out after herself.

Keith stays frozen, hearing her steps fading into the distance. He barely registers Shiro asking Hunk to go after her. It's like a block of ice has formed in his stomach and he's just waiting for the fiery rebuke that will melt him away with it.

It never comes though.

Allura sighs and raises her eyes to the ceiling, as though she might find answers to the mysteries of the human species somewhere up there.

"I suppose that can wait till tomorrow," she mutters. She looks at Keith and whatever worry he’d seen earlier is shuttered away, like she’s consciously pressing a barrier between them. "Coran is waiting for you in the med—”

"I'll take him there," Shiro interrupts. His cheeks go pink as he belatedly realises what he's done. "I-I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to cut in—"

"It’s fine, Shiro.” She waves him off with another tired sigh and Keith wonders how much she had exerted herself, holding open the wormhole until their return. Another wave of guilt nips at him and he swallows, hard, feeling a telling sting at the back of his eyes. It's embarrassing enough to leave him trembling. He spins around and begins walking away, in some vain hope of squashing his emotions and staying somewhat dignified, especially after the disastrous mission they'd had.

That he'd caused.

He can feel Shiro's eyes on him as they trudge together down to the med-wing. Keith prays he'll be spared and that Shiro won’t ask him anything. But when has he ever been that lucky?

“Keith. Hey. Hold on for a second.”

Keith tries to ignore him, but then there's a hand at his elbow gently pulling at him until he's forced to stop. Keith steels himself, chin up and gaze unfocused, stiffly awaiting judgment or a reprimand.

“Keith.”

Shiro grasps his arms, dual points of comforting warmth even through his undersuit. Keith yearns to lean into the touch, but he doesn’t want to surrender to it either, not now. He’s not sure if he can handle it.

It's something Shiro seems to understand as well because, the next thing he knows, there's a rough yet comforting pat to his back and the contrasting softness of Shiro's lips at his forehead. Keith has to blink several times and hold his breath until Shiro pulls back.

Shiro smiles at him, sad, understanding.

"I don’t know what happened in that base, but I don’t think Pidge is really mad at you. She just needs some time.”

Ah.

His jaw locks at the simple statement. Keith doesn’t know what to do with it. Put like that, it seems obvious enough, insight that only he would miss because that’s just how he is. But . . . it’s Pidge’s family . It’s also not the first time he’s been told that someone’s not really mad at him. What even qualified as actual anger then, especially when he most deserved it? After Sendak’s attack on the Castle, Pidge had given up recklessly chasing after her family’s whereabouts and chosen to stick with them instead. In return, they’d all promised to help her with the reassurance that her individual mission was as much a priority as Voltron’s collective mission, and Keith had just gone and potentially ruined it for her.

There was no telling when she’d get another chance and every day that passed them was another opportunity slipping through. Keith knows all this. He knows how much Pidge had pinned her hopes on the Merinoma base. There had to have been some sign of the trap. So why hadn’t he been more careful?

He inhales, long and deep, before he gives in and leans forward to press against Shiro.

"I messed up," Keith admits, screwing his hands into fists. "I blew up the base, we lost the files we went in for in the first place and I. I destroyed a lead on finding her father.” Shiro goes still and Keith closes his eyes. “It—doesn't feel good.”

“Hey, now,” Shiro murmurs. His hand comes up to cradle the back of Keith's head, ruffling through the sweaty strands. “It’s not like you did it intentionally. You want me to talk to her?”

Keith sighs and shakes his head, pushing himself closer.

“No. I think it’s better if she sorts that out on her own. If not . . . I’ll talk to her myself.”

“Okay then,” Shiro says, without hesitation. “Just let me know what you need, alright?” That itself is enough to leave Keith melting, the strain from earlier lightening under Shiro’s whole-hearted support.

“Alright,” he agrees, and he hums as it earns him a kiss on his brow.

They stand there for a moment longer, absorbing the silence, easing away burdens and finding much needed comfort. Eventually, Keith feels like he’s returned to a semblance of normalcy as the barbs lancing his gut smooth out and he regains the energy to stand on his own. He pulls away from Shiro, but Shiro doesn't quite let go of him, lacing their hands together and tugging on his arm playfully.

The weight in his chest eases up just enough to let him breathe again and send Shiro a weak smile.

"Thanks, Shiro," he mumbles. Shiro only squeezes his hand in response. Together, they head to the med-wing, no more words needed between them.

 


 

There’s a child crying somewhere in the peripheral of his memories. This one unravels with the nimblest touch, thread pulled and tugged until it falls apart.

 


 

Keith wakes up slowly to the eye-stabbing brilliance of the Castle’s lights and he’s tempted to roll over and go right back to sleep. The remnants of a strange dream are just fading from his mind and there’s a deep ache in his muscles, like he’d forgotten to stretch after an intense workout on the training deck. He turns onto his side and reaches out, patting the rumpled sheets. They’re cool to the touch, whatever warmth there had been long leeched away.

Shiro must have gotten up hours ago and deigned to let him sleep in.

With a quiet huff, Keith heaves himself to his feet and has to withhold a groan of discomfort. His time in the healing pod had fixed up his injuries just fine, but he’d stumbled out more tired after the fact. Even now, after a full night’s rest, it presses down on him. He has to consciously shake out his limbs and straighten out his spine, throwing aside the lingering grasp of fatigue.

He wants nothing more than to lay back down and sleep the day away, but there’s the meeting in the morning and a training session later in the afternoon. He isn’t about to excuse himself from either of them.

 


 

He’s late when he wanders into the dining room for breakfast, everybody already seated around the table and digging in. The others greet him distractedly, but Shiro smiles and waves him over.

Keith feels himself relax at that, the pricks of uncertainty and the murky thoughts of yesterday's mission fading to the background as he seats himself beside Shiro. Hunk passes over a platter of something that looks and smells vaguely edible and Keith loads his plate up just enough to abate his hunger.

“I figured you'd sleep in a little late, so I didn't want to wake you up. Feeling better?” Shiro asks, lightly nudging his shoulder against Keith's. Keith shoves back a lot harder with a playful smirk and raises an eyebrow at Shiro's affronted face.

“I'd say so, yeah,” he responds, grinning. Shiro huffs a laugh and shakes his head. They fall into an amicable silence as they eat, Keith finding the food to be sweeter than he’d expected. He looks up to make some kind of comment, but it dies in his throat when he sees one of the seats is empty. It doesn’t take much to figure out why.

"Uh . . . where's Pidge?" he asks, and he's already bracing himself for the answer. There’s a hollow space opening wide in him as the rest of the team exchange glances. Surprisingly, it's Lance who responds and he seems vaguely sorry for what he's about to say.

"Hunk went to get her, but she said she wasn't hungry. She's . . . still a little upset from what happened yesterday, I think."

Keith slowly sets his spoon down, stomach churning with a sick twist. He thinks of their return last night and the way Pidge had barely looked at him, even though she'd helped him get out of the pod and limp all the way to the bridge.

The chair doesn’t make a sound when he scoots it back and gets to his feet. He's almost disappointed by that. The others stare at him.

"Where are you going?" Hunk asks, the spoon in his mouth wobbling as he speaks.

Keith doesn't look at him, or at Shiro, who he knows is bound to be watching him with careful eyes.

“I'm not feeling all that hungry either. Think I'll go find Coran, I've been meaning to ask him something about last night’s mission.”

He turns and walks away, sweat gathering at his palms. He hopes no one calls him out for the obvious lie. He hopes Shiro gets the hint and doesn't try to follow him. Part of him wants to go talk to Pidge, but the rest of him has the good sense to know that Pidge probably doesn’t want to see him.

He pauses at a fork in the hallway and debates with himself for a moment. Then, with a sigh, he takes the path on the left and heads towards the bridge, preparing himself for an uncomfortable meeting when the team eventually makes their way there.

 


 

The meeting turns out near unbearable, in Keith’s admittedly biased opinion. Pidge is present for it, but she barely holds still long enough to hear Allura out. Keith, meanwhile, zones out about five times before he can bring himself to pay attention. After breakfast, or the lack thereof, it’s like he'd been hit with another spell of exhaustion, drowsiness sapping at his strength and wakefulness.

With a shake of his head, he tunes in again just in time to hear Allura talk about their plans with the giant Teludav at Olkarion.

"Slav tells me the Olkari hit a problem with the material required,” she says, with the air of someone who has been forced to decipher the senseless rambles of a mad genius. “It’s something about the lack of friction combined with the speed at which we'll be flying, which he guarantees matters because otherwise, it leads to ‘disaster in the Roagon sun sector of the quiznaking fifth reality of another world’. In plain words, I’m not getting much from him.” She sighs. “Meanwhile, the Olkari’s work has been delayed and they’ve been complaining about . . . well. Slav."

This is met with a chuckle from Lance while Shiro purses his lips and looks away pointedly. Pidge doesn't say a word.

"They're finding a workaround that they can both agree on, for now, but it may take a few more quintants. Kolivan has gone to talk some sense into Slav; apparently he’s the only one who can." Allura finishes, with an irritated twitch of her ears.

"Now." Her tone sharpens suddenly and Keith folds his fingers together and tries not to fidget too much. "About the mission; we have much to discuss. Pidge? Report, please."

Keith looks over to Pidge and finds her looking down at the table, finger tracing out a random pattern over its surface. With a sigh, he speaks up.

"The base was abandoned when we got there."

All attention snaps to him. It takes conscious effort to keep himself from tensing.

"Pidge planned to hack into the power grid and boot the systems so we could—" He stops, dry throat sticking as he swallows, then starts again. "So we could access the terminals and get the information we needed."

Everyone shifts a little, discomfited by the things left unsaid. They’d known what was at stake. Pidge glares resolutely at the table, radiating upset from every inch of her body.

Keith sighs, tapping his boot against the floor in brief spasms. "We got inside fine, but that's where I set something off. I don't know what it was, except that it went off like a mine and triggered a whole group of them.”

“Hold on,” Shiro says in alarm. “You stepped on a mine ?”

He looks about ready to spring up to check on Keith himself, so Keith hastily tries to placate him. “It wasn’t technically a mine! Just . . . a harmless explosive?”

That draws the most deadpan stares from everyone, but Keith has no idea how else to put it.

“Look, I’m fine. The point is, the tremors from the explosion must have shaken up the foundation of the base. I’m pretty sure the building was half in ruin anyway, and the walls started collapsing around us right after that."

Keith shrugs one shoulder up, infinitely more casual than he feels.

"And then Pidge got us out of there," he says. This time he doesn't glance Pidge's way at all.

Allura has no qualms in that though, regarding him with a guarded stare. Keith grinds his teeth to quell his irritation. She’s trying, he knows that. It doesn’t make it any easier to bear her scrutiny, or the distance she's made between them.

"Then, we’ve lost the data, for certain,” she sighs. “Did you manage to get a glimpse of what you set off? Some kind of new weapon or trap?"

Keith frowns, his mind moving back to the mission and the moment he'd stepped on the trap. The crunch as his foot came down, the give beneath his feet as it shattered into shards.

A rock, with pockmarks on it . . . had it only been a rock?

"It looked like a weird rock, grey and about twice the size of my fist. It had some markings on it, but they were more like . . . gouges."

"Um. A rock?" Lance snorts, leaning back and crossing his legs over one another. "That's what brought you down, seriously?"

Keith flushes at the clear ridicule in the other boy's voice, bristling at the notion of being seen as pathetic. Or worse, a liar.

"I didn't say it was actually a rock, okay? I dunno what it was, just that it exploded when I stepped on it."

Lance cocks an eyebrow at him and just that tiny gesture alone makes Keith want to snap at him. Then Hunk raises his hand and rapidly fires off with several questions.

"Are you sure that was what you stepped on and not, I dunno, something else? Do we start looking out for Galra mines now, or are they making worse weapons than ever, like rock-shaped bombs that apparently blow up their own bases—"

Shiro quickly cuts in before he can divert the conversation any further.

"Keith, you said the base was abandoned; what makes you say that?"

Keith is about to answer when Pidge finally breaks.

"There was no one there, okay?" Pidge says, angrily. She's glaring down at her hands, clenched tight around her own knees now. "The Blue Lion’s scan showed no life forms in the base at all and the power was down anyway. They probably left a long time ago and we were wasting our time being cautious, except maybe not cautious enough because next thing we know, Keith blew it—"

"Pidge!"

She falls silent at Shiro's admonishment, her face set in a mask of mutinous fury. Shiro looks disappointed. Keith sits frozen, tries to contain the leaden feeling in his stomach, the prickle of numbness over his limbs.

"Pidge," Shiro sighs. "I know you're upset right now, but that doesn—"

"No. I'm sorry," she says, trembling. “I’m sorry, Keith. I-I didn't mean that. I'm just . . . I'm so tired of chasing after empty leads. Matt’s been taken by some bunch of fluffy-eared aliens and I have no clue where dad is. I can’t stand n-not knowing what’s happened to them. Sometimes it feels like it’d be easier i-if they just di—" she breaks off with a shuddering breath, eyes glistening with tears.

Shiro looks pained as he lays a hand over her hair and lets her push into him for a desperate hug. He holds her, rubbing a soothing hand over her back as everyone else looks away and tries to give her a moment.

Keith chews at the inside of his cheek, fists clamped tight in the fabric of his pants until his knuckles are bleached white. He remembers sunstroke days of following after an energy that tugged at his soul; cruel nights of pleading, begging, screaming himself hoarse, eyes on the empty skies.

It’s the wind down from “I don’t need you, I never have! You’re probably dead and good riddance!” to “I didn’t mean that. Shiro. Please, I’m so sorry, come back. Please come back.”

It's the grief that had torn through him, enough to have him clawing at whatever solace he could find, enough to have him scribbling nonsensical grief onto whatever strips of paper he had left.

—and it’s killing me when you’re aw—

It’s the uncertainty of knowing, and yet, not knowing. He thinks of Pidge and the half of her family that’s been rent apart, lost, their fates shrouded in mystery. It is a lot harder. It’s so much harder to not know what’s happened. To never know for sure.

Pidge finally pulls back and sits up, sniffling quietly with her face cast down to her lap, and the room is silent, as though waiting for someone else to keep the meeting going. Keith suddenly wants nothing more than to leave, but looking at Pidge, the way she's barely holding on even as she apologises to him, for his mess . . .

"I’m sorry too," he says, and he wonders if hollowness will be taking permanent residence within him. He means what he says, but he’s never felt less genuine. His reassurance means nothing, he knows all too well. Pidge must know it too, yet she stays admirably on track; nods his way and returns her gaze to the bare table, tracing symbols once more over its cool surface.

Keith has never felt less adequate.

 


 

The training session is a disaster. Keith doesn’t get what’s happening, but it’s like a cloud of bad luck has been following him since yesterday. Then again, he has to admit that this one is entirely on him.

A few weeks ago, Hunk and Coran had managed to get together and recreate some of the Galra battle techniques they’d seen in combat, applying the matrix to the training programme. The result was an updated Gladiator and a fresh set of drones to fight against, along with new settings for a challenging training session.

The problem is, Keith isn’t paying attention.

He’s doing fine at first: engaging the drones, leading a few around to one end of the room to take them out with a quick slash of his sword before joining Hunk in bringing down a Gladiator armed with a laser gun. Hunk keeps the bot at bay with two powerful shots of his gun while Keith runs in low and cut its legs from under it while it’s still recovering from the hits.

Pidge and Shiro have tag teamed another, while Lance gives the drones a run for their money, countering them with precision strikes to their laser barrel and causing a mini-explosion with each one.

And so they keep going, sometimes teaming up, sometimes on their own. The session keeps them on their feet, dodging and striking and constantly on the move; a test of their endurance, just as much as it is trains them progressively for the eventuality of a no-holds-barred fight.

Keith finds himself solo at one point, sweat trickling into his eyes and hair matted to the back of his neck. He’s panting, arms sore, but still at the ready as he watches for the next opponent. The last one lies in a pile, a metre away from him, where he’d smashed it with his shield before slicing it down. He swipes a hand over his mouth, licks his dry lips, watching the others as they engage their own bots.

His gaze drifts aimlessly over to Shiro and he can’t help it when he remains riveted there. He watches the man take out drone after drone, seemingly without thought, Galra arm activated, leaving an afterimage trail of purple as he cuts across the middle of a Gladiator bot and cleaves it in two. Shiro looks intensely focused, but there’s a small grin there too as he catches Lance’s eye; they give each other a quick thumbs up before switching partners again.

Keith wonders how he does it.

He’s always known Shiro was incredible, of course; it was one of those countless adjectives that people had always used while talking about him, back at the Galaxy Garrison. Incredible, polite, talented, impressive, an all-rounder, the golden boy and the best pilot the Garrison had ever seen of any generation. He’d heard those platitudes often enough and, once he’d gotten to meet the man himself, he’d known that Shiro deserved every one of them.

But even now, out here in space, Shiro just keeps proving himself, over and over. Keith had admittedly been worried at first, with the introduction of the new training sequence. Galra techniques and strategies in a place that’s meant to be different, meant to be safe , against a man who’d had to fight for his very life against them? Who still bore the physical and emotional marks of his trauma, with no relief to be found, even in his sleep?

No. Keith really can’t understand how he does it; how he shrugs aside the heaviness every morning and keeps his head up throughout the day. Shiro isn’t coping with it a 100%, Keith understands that much, but as far as he’s concerned, Shiro’s doing more than enough beyond trying his best. A part of him wonders if he will ever be able to achieve that kind of stoicism and what it would ta—

“Watch out!”

Hunk’s warning comes too late. Keith has a second to register the Gladiator looming over him, its eye glowing electric blue as it whirls on the spot, battle staff sweeping towards his chest. It’s a mistake born of distraction when he tries to duck down instead of leaping away.

The staff connects with his helmet and there’s a burst of pain . His head snaps to the side with a horrible cracking sound, and then he's airborne. He thinks, with a furious kind of whisper at himself, that this is becoming all too common. As fate would have it, he knocks straight into Lance, who suffers the sheer misfortune of being in the way.

They land on the floor with a thump and a shocked yelp from Lance. Dazed, Keith lays over the lumpy shape of a flailing Lance, every part of him suddenly sore.

“Get off of me!” Lance shouts, ineffectually shoving at Keith. It sets off another spark of pain and Keith heaves himself to the side with a muted whimper, sliding onto the floor on all fours. Shiro hurries over to them while Hunk calls an end to the training programme.

The noise of the drones and the Gladiator ceases abruptly. His ears ring, vision swimming as he tries to focus on the image of Shiro approaching and Hunk coming over to help Lance up. Shiro secures an arm around Keith’s shoulders and gently pulls him onto his knees, letting Keith brace against the grip until the dizziness clears.

“Are you okay?” Shiro asks urgently and Keith nods, then immediately regrets it. His head throbs and he sways but Shiro doesn’t let go of him until he’s stable again. He helps Keith remove his helmet carefully and it’s sheer relief as cool air hits the back of his neck, spilling over his heated face.

“Just stay off your feet for now,” Shiro says, but Keith doesn’t listen, the fresh air renewing him enough to give rise to a stubbornness, the only way he knows to react to this. His face only grows warmer, stomach squirming as he replays the last few seconds in his mind.

He’d screwed up . In front of the entire team. He’d lost focus and let himself get hit by a bot that he should have learned to bypass by now, just because he’d been stupidly distracted.

“Help me up,” Keith mumbles, grabbing at Shiro’s hands and struggling to get up. Shiro rolls his eyes but grasps him under the arms and lifts him easily to set him on wobbly feet, leaving a firm grip around his upper arm. Keith wants to be grateful, but the rest of him just wants to hide away for a few days until this is forgotten.

Lance, meanwhile, is standing as well, having picked himself up off the floor without Hunk’s assistance. He gestures at Keith with an angry swipe of his hand.

“What the cheese, Keith? What was that?”

Keith winces at the volume, brows pulling together into a tight line. Lance doesn’t notice though, or he doesn’t care as he keeps going.

“What, you couldn’t take that I was beating you so you had to sabotage me?!” Lance demands, and Shiro sighs, exasperated. Normally Keith would scoff and roll his eyes at a comment like that, but Lance . . . is not entirely wrong this time. At least, partially.

Lance was getting better in combat, they all were, but Keith knows himself well enough to realise the same doesn’t apply to him. He’d been floundering today, pushing past a layer of glue-like lethargy to stay alert, let alone keep up with the training session.

He can’t say anything in his defence and Lance seems to realize that, his eyes going round at the unexpected lack of a comeback. Keith steels himself for the obnoxious laugh or commentary on how he’s losing his touch or something, but, much to his surprise, it doesn’t come.

“Dude, seriously, are you okay?” Lance asks, and he seems reluctant but also concerned enough to do it. Keith just stares at him.

“I’m . . . I’m fine,” he mutters. Of course, Shiro chooses that moment to press at the side of his head and Keith hisses, ducking away from the offending touch. Shiro brushes over the subtle swelling again, a little more gently this time, in apology.

“You’ve got a nasty bump here. Right after that concussion from the last mission too. At this rate, you’ll be spending more time in the cryopod than out of it. What happened, Keith? Where was your mind?” Shiro asks.There’s a pinched set to his mouth that tells Keith he’s reigning himself in . . . for Keith’s sake.

Ah.

It feels like the warmth won’t ever leave his face, though it’s for a far more pleasant reason. Somehow, despite everything, there are these moments where Keith’s caught off-guard by just how much Shiro cares for him in the subtlest of ways. Some things, he can’t get used to. Maybe that’s just what reunions are like, after being wrenched apart and alone for an entire year . . . but then, what does he know?

It makes him conscious of the team watching them, and the hand on his shoulder, and suddenly he just wants to get this scene over with and go back to training. Enough fussing. He shrugs away Shiro’s touch, and tries not to feel guilty at how Shiro backs away at that, giving him space without question. He could make it up to him later.

“I’m sorry,” he says, gaze darting from Shiro to the team to the floor. “I just got distracted, but I’m fine now.” He forces himself not to pay attention to Lance’s whiplash return to mocking him with a sneer.

“Okay,” Shiro says, “But I think you should sit the rest of the session out.”

Wait, what?

Keith turns back towards him, mouth falling open.

“I’m fine!” he insists. “I can fight, Shiro.” The last thing he wants right now is to be—be coddled for a fluke accident that wasn’t even serious in any way. Besides, it’s not like the healing pods couldn’t fix it, right?

Shiro’s eyes soften, but he shakes his head, resolute.

“Sometimes being a good Paladin means recognizing your limits too, Keith,” he states, and Keith blinks, confused, as a shadow crosses Shiro’s face like he’s remembering something unpleasant. It’s familiar; almost identical to how Shiro had looked at him when—

When he’d rushed in to pull Keith from the arena in the Blade of Marmora’s base: a tight-jawed dread and that tinge of pain, as though Shiro were personally to blame for what had happened. It’s what has Keith taking a step back immediately, folding his arms across his chest. He thinks, idly, that the floor is drawing his gaze more often these days. If anything, it’s more interesting than examining the fractures growing inside him.

“Fine,” he says, agreeing, if a little reluctantly. Anything to keep Shiro from looking at him like that . Although, he supposes—when he looks up to gauge his reaction—the way Shiro brightens at his compliance is just enough to make up for it.

“Thank you,” Shiro says quietly, the words and the accompanying smile for Keith’s ears alone. It makes the weight of the matter lessen somehow, lightening until it’s something he can grasp and manage and keep tucked away under the armour of his ribs. “Now, come on. Get some rest. You look like you’re about to fall over.”

He’s not wrong either. Despite the blow being towards his head, the ache waterfalls down to his toes, prickling at his skin with a discomfort that he can’t quite place the origin of. Keith lets Shiro steer him away from the training ground, but he refuses to actually leave the deck altogether. They compromise instead.

Keith sinks down to sit against the wall, drawing his knees to his chest while the rest of the team goes back to finish off the training session. It’s odd to be here, relegated to the side-lines while they go on fighting without him. He’d messed up, but even then—

No. He’d messed up, two times in a row now. That was the extent of the problem and where his responsibility began.

Keith clamps his fists over his arms, leaning forward to hide his face in the scant privacy they provide. He thinks again of what had led to his lack of focus in the first place and the way Shiro had looked at him afterwards.

The Trials of Marmora had felt like the breaking of a dam and the punches hadn’t stopped flowing since. Seeing Shiro’s hologram in that scenario . . . well, that had hurt . Shiro, turning and walking away, leaving him behind, not once looking back; it was eerily familiar, all too similar to—

Well.

The illusion of his father had come right after and maybe there was a reason for that. At the time, he hadn’t been able to react, seeing the man again after so long.

Don’t you want to catch up?

He swallows, eyes sliding shut, tries to stop the tremble in his limbs. All he can remember thinking was of how wrong it had felt. It had taken him years to admit that he had never truly known his father as well as his child-self had thought. The father he thought he'd known would never have left him.

Keith sits up then, opening his eyes and firmly shutting down the memories stirring awake. The last thing he needs right now is a reminder of his childhood—although, it’s already a little too late for that. Still. He’ll salvage whatever peace he can get.

He shifts his shoulders, arching his spine, biting back a frustrated sound when he can’t find a comfortable position. There’s a sore spot at his lower back that flares every time he presses back against the wall. He thinks it might be bruised, but from wha—oh.

The answer comes to him as he watches Lance dart across the room, aiming a shot at a new set of drones.

Lance’s Bayard. He’d landed square on top it, probably, and the jetpack had done nothing to shield him from the awkward fall. Well. He supposes that’s another failu—

—how could you do this, he’s—

Keith’s breath catches in his lungs.

Pressure. Pain. A large hand clasped over his shoulder, too tight. It’s too tight. Shouting, a scream, the shatter of glass.

—supposed to take care of him, he’s just a child—

He’s a burden!

Clearly this was a mistake. I’m taking him awa—

The sound of a clatter brings him back, vision tunnelled to the bright, white walls across from him until it dilates back to normal. He’s panting, gasping for ragged lungfuls of air as sweat drips past his temples and down his throat. His eyes dart to the team; they’re putting away their Bayards at last and settling into relaxed stances with the last Gladiator downed. They hadn’t noticed.

It feels like he’s watching them from a distance, a canyon expanding wide between them.

He hadn’t remembered that in years. It’d been so long, he’d thought it was lost to the recesses of his mind. So why now?

When Shiro comes over to him, Keith is almost settled again, doesn’t say a word about what he’d—seen? Heard? . . . What he’d remembered. He accepts the hand up and follows the others out of the deck, tries to ignore the way Pidge avoids looking at him.

Everything was fine. Everything is fine.

The bruise on his back burns.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry,” she tells him. Tears drips down her cheeks, mouth crumbled into a miserable line. She can barely look at him.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats. “I thought I could handle this but I can’t. No one told me . . . no one told me it would be this hard. They always said . . . being a parent is supposed to be natural, I don’t know why I can’t—”

He wants to tell her it’s okay. That she’d been doing fine. Wants to hold her hand the way she’d taught him to accept, the way she’d encouraged him to do with a bright smile and gentle coaxing. He wants to trust her words again, but these words . . . they mean loss. They mean she’s giving up, on herself, but also on him. She’d told him she’d always wanted a kid, but apparently he wasn’t it.

She’s just like his real mother, in all the ways he wished she wasn’t. His father hadn’t talked about her much, but Keith’s getting the hint now, how these things work. The only difference is that, this time, he’s the one who’s leaving.

Somehow, it doesn’t make him feel any better.

“You’ll find someone better, Keith. Someone who is better suited for this. I know it.”

He doesn’t say a word, doesn’t meet her eyes. If he does, he’s sure he’ll cry. They take him back to the foster home and he doesn’t look back when she calls goodbye.

 


 

It doesn’t take long for Keith to admit to himself that there’s something seriously wrong.

The morning after that dreadful training session, he wakes up in Shiro’s arms, throat dry and head pounding, complemented by the misery of what feels like a developing fever. His skin feels odd—tight and hot and uncomfortable. Shiro grumbles and turns over onto his side when Keith pulls free and crawls out of bed.

The floor is freezing and the sharp contrast makes Keith shiver as he makes his way to the washroom. He nearly stumbles over the threshold before catching his balance and entering, slapping at the switches for the lamp overhead. Standing in front of the mirror, Keith grimaces, tracing over his reflected features. His skin is wan, too white under the bright lighting, deep bags already forming under his eyes.

He definitely hasn’t been getting enough sleep, with the odd dreams haunting him. He brings a tentative hand to his head, patting over where he’d been hit by the Gladiator. The lump on his head and his bruises had faded overnight with the aid of Coran’s special cold packs, much to his relief.

But the memory that had sprouted from nowhere remains firmly rooted in his mind, inescapably skittering back into his thoughts every time he gets close to forgetting.

It had been his first foster home, Keith recalls.  An unpleasant foster mother and a clueless foster father, paired with an equally naïve social worker who did not realise what was going on until the bruises spoke enough for Keith. The most vivid visual of that time in his life is a blue vase; the vase the woman had hit him with, when he’d been too much for her to handle.

The next foster mother had been no better, only leaving him with a better understanding of the nature of promises.

He doesn’t like remembering them, had even thought he’d managed to lock them away entirely. But suddenly everything’s been dug up and brought front and center, and he can’t stop thinking about it. They’ve triggered something in him; a deep weariness that won’t leave, that sleep does nothing to fix.

Once he’s brushed his teeth and showered, Keith heads back to their bed, leaving the light on behind him. He shifts a knee onto the mattress and stops, swallowing his amusement at the sight of Shiro. Shiro lays sprawled out on his back, sheets tangled around his legs, chest rising with slow and even breaths. The light spills out over the floor, onto the sheets and across his face and torso. His lashes are a soft, ashy curve brushing over high cheekbones and Keith is summarily mesmerised.

It’s the most peaceful that Shiro’s been in a while and there’s a rush of fondness Keith can barely contain.

He reaches out with an aimless, arbitrary gesture he has yet to wholly map out. He’s imagining his fingers curling gently over Shiro’s jaw, or through his hair perhaps; any place would be a privilege because the novelty of being able to touch Shiro again has yet to die out. He’s starting to think it never will.

Keith still hasn’t absorbed how lucky he is; that he has this, that he gets to have it at all after losing Shiro once already. It’s elation and awe and the disquieting realization that he had almost missed out on the best part of his life, multiple times. Whether through fate dragging them apart, or Keith himself choosing never to speak, to tell Shiro how much he was wanted and loved, or Shiro not reciprocating. So many different ways to find loss, and yet, here they are, against all odds.

There’re mere centimetres before the pads of his fingers brush against the rough stubble of Shiro’s jaw when—

You’re just being selfish, as usual.

Keith recoils, every thought from earlier vanishing abruptly, elbowed aside for this one.

Just being selfish.

An odd noise fills the room and it takes him a second to realize it’d emerged from himself. It’s strangled, frightened, angry. That’s right. He is selfish. Isn’t he? Selfish to yearn for more when he knows it’s not his to have. Selfish to think he’s allowed this, allowed to touch when the other person isn’t even awake, when did he become so presumptuous?

Shiro stirs with a light murmur and Keith flinches back, jerking his hand down to his side. Storm grey eyes blink open, clouded with sleep but clearing in seconds.

“Keith? Sweetheart, everything okay?” he mumbles.

Keith bites the inside of his cheek, shakes his head.

“Everything’s fine. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t,” Shiro reassures, but there’s a frown on his face as he looks up at Keith. “It’s really early, why are you up?”

A hand clumsily pats at Keith’s wrist and then encircles it, gently tugging at him. Keith hesitates, then follows the pull and settles into Shiro’s arms again, burrowing his face into his chest.

“It’s nothing,” he says, words slightly muffled against Shiro’s shirt. “Just woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.”

Large palms stroke over Keith’s back in a soothing rhythm that has Keith melting into him.

“You’re really warm,” Shiro whispers. One of his hands slip up under Keith’s shirt, thumb smoothing over his hipbone. Keith squirms a little, ticklish, but doesn’t pull away. He’s much too comfortable for that.

“I’m okay. Just . . . feeling a little under the weather, I guess.”

Understatement, truly, but Keith’s not ready to give up this embrace for the inevitable reaction the truth would get from Shiro.

Shiro hums, leaning in to graze the softest kiss across his forehead. To Keith’s horror, he feels his eyes sting with the threat of tears. He blinks quickly to dispel them, focusing instead on the dry catch of Shiro’s lips against his skin.

“If you need anything . . . please talk to me? Or to any of us. Please. I just want you to be okay, Keith.”

Every discomfort until that point just about slides away under Shiro’s care and he’s left numb and weak, heart unbearably full. A part of him is reeling, wondering how he deserves this. The other part is a growing tumour of unease and, the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes.

There’s something wrong with him.

He doesn’t know what or how or why, but there’s something wrong . He’s probably being paranoid. Shiro’s touch grounds him, the sheer love and tenderness burying most of the slow burn panic that creeps on him. But not entirely. It’s akin to being haunted by an unknown presence that’s made its home at the edge of his consciousness. If such a thing exists, then it watches him quietly with an unblinking stare, always assessing, just awaiting the day he slips up.

His heart rate picks up, palms sweating profusely. He’s hit by the overwhelming need to leave. He needs to be out of here.

Then y ou’ve chosen to be alon—

“I know,” he blurts. It’s too loud, too abrupt, but he makes himself get up, pull away, pull away, pull away. Shiro opens his arms and lets him go and Keith wishes he hadn’t, almost as much as he’s glad for it. Shiro watches him, eyes glittering even in the dim room, the panel of light from the bathroom shifting over his body as he slowly sits up.

Standing in the middle of the room, with Shiro out of reach on the bed, Keith is acutely aware of the distance he’s created, where there hadn’t been an inch a second earlier. He’s being re-forged, remade on this anvil of anxiety, and he’s helpless to stop it.

“Kei—” Shiro starts, but Keith turns away.

“I think I’ll. Head to breakfast. I’ll see you there.” He curses himself for the disjointed words, the clear signal that not everything is alright with him. But still he makes himself walk, lifts his feet until they cooperate and take him out the door.

The reprieve had been too brief and he’s right back to square one.

 


 

There’s no word about the Teludav from Kolivan, Slav or the Olkari yet, so Team Voltron whiles away the next two days, continuing their training. They’d reviewed various scenarios, dismantling and restructuring parts of the plan over and over until each of them had their role ingrained to perfection. Hunk, of course, had managed to find six holes in the plan when the Blade of Marmora had initially proposed it—much to their annoyance.

They weren’t holes though, so much as they were risks that they had to be willing to take to achieve success. For Hunk, risk was not— is not— a comforting word and the same held true for the Blade, but it seemed that desperation could change even the most resolute of aliens.

In essence, they’re busy enough to steer their mind off the impending realisation that this could very well be their last battle. Whether that means victory or defeat, no one brings it up, but Keith can appreciate the concept of not having the time to stress about it. It’s exactly the kind of routine that suits him. Yet, even then, it doesn’t make up for the incidents in between that unerringly catch him off guard.

By then, the team has noticed that something’s up with him. They see his increasing ineptitude in the training sessions, his pale face and perpetual exhaustion, the bags under his eyes. Keith has to ignore the looks of concerns, the questions asking after his health, the requests that he slow down and take care of himself.

He doesn’t know how to explain what scares him about slowing down. He’s not sure how they’d react to his fear that they wouldn’t want him around anymore because, lately, that’s all he’s been able to think about. Would they be shocked to know just how much . . . just how much needs them? How much it hurts to know that they will inevitably leave him—Keith Kogane, the afterthought as always—just like in every relationship he’s ever had?

Shiro has a constant eye on him now, worry furrowing his brows, his hand more often than not finding its way to Keith’s shoulder or back in an effort to comfort him. But it does nothing to soothe, only ratchets up the anxiety until Keith’s shrugging him off instead, and then he feels all the more guilty for it. Shiro is just trying to help him and here is Keith, being less than cooperative, and if this is what drives him away—if this is what it takes for Shiro to cut his losses and walk away—

He has to stop that train of thought, right there. It’s just a vicious cycle of his imagination getting the better of him. There’s no way Shiro would—he would never. He wouldn’t . . . right?

It’s all catapulting to the forefront, an accumulating flood of emotions piling on all at once, and he’s breaking under their weight. He doesn’t understand it. All he knows is . . . Shiro can’t help him for this one.

Keith can’t stand bothering him for something as trivial as this and, if he’s being honest with himself, he’s terrified that it will only trigger the very events that he’s so wary of.

The nightmares only grow. Keith wakes up the next night, gasping, gripped by the vague impression of isolation, of standing at a doorway opening out to empty stretches of sand, not a soul in sight. There’d been the scent of salt water, the pang of hunger, and a loneliness and despair so deep that it near has him in tears. It’s a jumble of senses, sharp and unpleasant, but clearer than they should logically be. He’d been six years old at the time. How was he remembering all this, and why now?

Unlike Shiro’s night terrors, he doesn’t wake up from these nightmares in the same way. There’s no thrashing and whimpered pleas, no fear—at least, nowhere near as overwhelming as Shiro’s—no dazed awakenings only to stare at the ceiling with a deadened stare, wondering how things would have been had they gone differently.

Keith falls in and out of his dreams instead, as seamless as slipping into a tub of warm water— comforting and relaxing, until it’s too late to realise that it’s gone wrong; that the drowning is real, that he’s choking and there’s no one there to save him.

Sometimes he thinks he hears whispers, little rustles of whatever has an insidious hold over him. But he’s not entirely sure what to believe himself.

At one point, even Allura approaches him, finding him alone while he’s in the observation deck. He has the star map activated, scrolling mindlessly through a sector with a cluster of white dwarfs when he hears her footsteps. He turns, and she’s there, a silhouette in the doorway, only the bright blue-wash light of the map illuminating her face.

She looks troubled. Her eyebrows are furrowed together, her entire being focused on something as though she were at war with herself. She doesn’t say anything for a long moment; just wrings her wrists, avoiding his gaze. Then, finally, she takes a step forward into the room, and speaks.

“Sorry for the interruption. I just wanted to ask . . . if you’ve been feeling alright, Keith.”

It’s the most civil she’s been to him in forever and maybe that makes him a little nervous too. Without thought, he has his arms folded across his chest, shoulders hunched until he’s small enough to his satisfaction. He’s not a threat. He refuses to be.

“I’m fine,” he tells her, but she makes an impatient sound, hand scrubbing up her forearm then down again, and he knows he’s made the mistake of thinking he could lie to her. It hadn’t worked the time they'd left the Castle together either.

“No, you’re not. And I don’t appreciate the falsehood,” Allura says. Her expression is inscrutable now, and Keith’s heart is pounding, too fast, too loud, too much. He doesn’t want to get on her bad side, not any more than he already has. He’s Galra, and he can’t help it, and she’s Altean, and she can’t help that, and they’re trapped in this impasse of not-quite hatred, of not moving forwa—

“When we first met, I believe I told you that I can feel, see and assess your Quintessence on a surface level. It’s how I assigned the Lions to all of you—or rather, relayed that information, seeing as I am hardly the one to decide. But, Keith. I’ve been keeping track of your Quintessence since you were injured on Merinoma, and it seems . . . diminished.”

Keith doesn’t know how to respond to that. Silence extends between them and he shifts on his feet, wondering if Allura is expecting him to explain it to her. He has no knowledge on Quintessence beyond what Coran had told them; as a concept, he understands it only as a substance within every living organism, with high volumes of energy. The rest of the science and magic voodoo aspects of it are lost on him.

“I . . . I haven’t—I dunno what . . . ”

Allura huffs suddenly, splaying her arms out to her side, fists clenched. She’s looking at him now, Keith realises belatedly, and there’s no hint of the suspicion and anger she’d carried since finding out about his heritage. Only apprehension and a familiar determination to head off an issue before it grew out of hand.

“It’s not the sign of a healthy individual,” she explains, words spilling out, rapid-fire, like she’s been keeping them contained for a while now. “Weakened Quintessence in living organisms is not simply developed, especially not at your age; the source of the problem has to be rooted deeper, and I’m . . . I’m worried. You’ve been unwell. Will you let yourself be scanned, to be sure there’s nothing wrong?”

That awakens something in him, but he has to push it down before he can open his mouth and ruin whatever strange truce is being established here. Allura makes it so hard though. Somehow, despite everything, despite her pain and the brutal horror of losing her people and entire civilization to the Galra, she’s still pushing it all aside and reaching out for him. Whatever her motive—that she cares for him or cares for the fact that he’s a Paladin of Voltron—it doesn’t matter just then.

At that moment, he’s just Keith, crashing under the weight of her strength.

“. . . Okay. I’ll do the scan.”

Allura brightens and though the smile she directs at him is weak, it’s there nonetheless; more than what she’d given him in the two weeks since meeting the Blade of Marmora.

“First thing tomorrow, then. I’ll ask Coran to calibrate and ready the pods.”

Keith nods at her and they stand for a moment longer in awkward silence. Finally, Allura takes a step back, nodding at him.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she says. Then she’s walking out, as though nothing momentous had occurred. Keith leans back against the console behind him, and just breathes.

 


 

 It’s a myriad of nightmares this time.

 


 

He’s 3. Mama left and Papa won’t stop crying. Keith doesn’t get it, not really, but something hurts in his chest. She’s gone, walking away without a glance back, and he can’t stop crying either, can’t stop himself from calling out for her no matter how sad it makes his Papa.

He’s 6 and he’s in the desert and his father is gone too now. He’s alone and thirsty and hungry, his feet hurt and the heat is unbearable, and suddenly every warning his father had ever issued about the desert hits him, hard and fast. He has nothing to protect himself from the sun’s devouring rays, and he’s not even sweating anymore, just stumbling along with red skin and blistered feet and the hazy knowledge that he’s going to fall over and he won’t be able to stand again.

“—ey, kid, hey, you’re alright, you’re alright, I’ve got you. You must be exhausted huh? It’s going to be okay now, we’ve got you. Murasaki, call back to the Garrison, get them t—”

He’s 6 and someone saves his life and he almost wishes they hadn’t.

At 7, his social worker is too new and too optimistic. Years later, he feels bad for being the example that ruins that optimism.

At 13, he’s thirsty. He’s hungry. It’s familiar, the desert all over again, but this time it’s because they won’t feed him

Their eyes slide right past him, the new one in a house of too many children, a house too small for all of them and no warm affection to make that alright. His clothes are too big and his body is too bony and the crisp green bills that arrive every month disappear too quickly, rolled up into the pockets of pressed suit jackets and jewel-studded vanity purses. They're tucked neatly away by sharp-nailed hands that are well-versed in holding the stem of a wineglass and less so in cradling a child’s face.

He’s so hungry.

Maybe . . . maybe stealing a little food from the kitchen wouldn’t hurt. Surely they wouldn't miss one bite.

The shouting and the accusations and the strike across his face are worth it. The return to the foster home is less so.

15 years old, and he’s had enough, but the world hasn’t had enough of him. For once, the couple won’t leave him to his devices. They’re patient and kind, working around his anger to reach him. They notice his interest in science and space, and they try to encourage it. They give him books and watch documentaries with him, seated together in a comfy couch in the living room.

He’s slow to open up but it’s inevitable, with the way they are. It reminds him of his second foster mother, but this time it’s . . . permanent. This time, they want him. The first time he walks to the garden where his foster dad is working, he hunkers down onto his haunches to watch. The man catches on to his liking for it and offers to teach him because he understands; it’s what they have in common, the peace and quiet content of committing himself to the plants, a relationship that won’t hurt for once.

His grades in school are better than ever and he thinks of the skies, because he’s sure that’s where his future lies. He and his foster parents get along, so well, and he wonders just for a while if maybe this is the one. If this is the family that will love him and maybe, just maybe . . . adopt him?

So, of course, they go out one day and they don’t come home. There’s police knocking at the door, assessing him, this child of fifteen who is far too short and skinny for his age. They tell him “accident” and “hospital” and ask a hesitant “Are there any other adults here?” and he feels like an idiot for how long it takes to sink in. They’re gone, and he’s here, and the dream is over.

His social worker slides an arm over his shoulder as he leads him away from the house and Keith almost wants to lean in to the touch. He doesn’t let himself.

He’s 17, soon to be 18, all set to age out of the foster home and he needs to find himself. He thinks of the man who pulled him from the desert and saved his life, what little he remembers of his grey uniform and the medals on his breast pocket. That’s what sets his sight on Galaxy Garrison. Space is all the good he has left of his childhood memories and that’s what he wants. He’d be okay leaving the dirt below him to find his footing on the stars.

Somewhere in between he forgets to stop trying even though he’s unsure why he’s still working so hard for it. He does odd jobs, betters his grades, pushes himself as hard as he can and gets through the Garrison entrance exam, all the while wondering to himself, why? What would he do there? What was the point when there was no one to see him rise? What was there to it when he had no one to come home to?

19 years old and he meets Takashi Shirogane.

19 years old, and he thinks he’s in love. It’s exhilarating to know it’s not one-sided, the soft touch of Shiro’s lips against his pushing every doubt right out of his head. He finds the person he wants to come home to, but Shiro is right beside him instead, a personification of home itself, and he’d never imagined that was possible. That he would ever regain something so precious.

19 years old, and he’s never wanted nor had as much he does now, whether that’s Shiro, or his life as a cadet, or the chance to be out there in the cockpit of a streamlined spacecraft, headed for worlds unknown.

20 years old and he loses Shiro.

Kerberos keeps haunting him, and Keith finds himself right back in the desert where his journey began.

 


 

Keith’s eyes snap open, heart slamming a painful imprint in his ribs. His fingers shake as he wipes over his mouth and takes a shallow gulp of air. Shiro is turned on his side, facing away from him and Keith has the desperate desire to curl into him and let everything spill. To Shiro or anyone else willing to listen.

There’s a low rumble-purr suddenly, gravelly and layered, emerging from within his head. It pushes at him and Keith lays frozen for a long moment, long enough to have the prompt come again, more impatient this time. Before he knows it, he’s climbing out of bed, ignoring the creaking of his limbs, sucking in air when pain strikes him, briefly, before calming once again to a dull, exhausting throb.

He untangles the blanket from his legs, smooths it out and carefully pulls it up over Shiro. He lingers for a moment longer, watching the rise and fall of the cloth with every breath Shiro takes.

Keith straightens up and doesn’t look back, stumbling out of the room on uncooperative legs.

He should be talking to someone of actual flesh and blood; someone who can give him insight and an answer to his problem. But then again, no one had ever accused of him being the best decision-maker.

Red calls for him and he goes.

 


 

Red is upset. For a lion-shaped alien warship, her emotional range is surprisingly well-developed and she does an amazing job communicating it to him too. Keith winces at the shimmering anger he can feel rising off the surface of her thoughts as he nears her.

“Red, come on,” he pleads. “I . . . you know I can’t just—just bring this up so easily. Not with the team.”

He gets the distinct sensation of her tilting away, as though turning her nose up at his lacklustre reasoning. With a sigh, Keith moves to slide down against her left leg and seats himself on the bare floor. He tries to tuck his feet in beneath him, then, gives up and lays his legs out flat when the movement pulls an involuntary whimper from him.

He closes his eyes and concentrates on the thread of their bond, imagines a wiry tangle of glowing gold filaments running between them. It had grown tangible and emboldened since the first time he’d seen it; their meeting, in the neglected hold of a Galra warship. This is their dynamic, their souls wrapped up and twisted tight together, and he wonders suddenly if it would hurt to have these threads snap apart. If the shiver of dread he feels now at just imagining the possibility can even equal the horror of having such a thing truly happen.

Could that happen?

There’s a gentle prod, the bleed of a red heat sliding over every inch of him. It’s Red’s displeasure, her deep growl trembling over him, overriding the panic until it shatters into a clear tranquillity; the thread between them ripples but remains stable, as though to illustrate a point.

Keith swallows hard, leans back and presses himself into the cool metal of Red’s paw.

“Sorry, girl,” he says, quietly. “I’ve been thinking some real weird things lately. I’m trying to stop.” He sends out a pulse of his own, remorse filling the cracks between the words that don’t explain enough. Red nudges him, the warmth wafting over him attached to the soft, forgiving roll of her voice.

She doesn’t push any further, content with his company, if nothing else.

Keith loses track of how long he sits there, but he’s close to dozing off when there’s a short blare of klaxons and the hangar door retracts up to the ceiling. He snaps up in alarm, then relaxes at the sight of the figure at the entrance.

“Oh,” Pidge says, surprised at the sight of him. She’s carrying a large toolbox in the crook of her elbow, along with her laptop in her other hand; ready for some major endeavour, apparently.

“I’ll, um. I’ll come back another time,” Pidge calls out to him, tugging at the neck of her sweater in what appears to be a nervous tic. Keith blinks, sits up straight and shakes his head.

“ . . . I don’t mind. How come you’re awake?” he asks.

With a nod towards Red, Pidge takes a few steps forward until she’s closer, setting her toolbox by the Lion’s foot.

“Just thought I might try out a few tweaks on Red’s flamethrower, let you use her power a little more efficiently. Um, if you and her don’t mind, of course.”

“Oh. Uh. No, I think that’s fine. She’s okay with it.”

Keith’s all too aware of how stilted their conversation is. It’s like talking to Allura again, but worse, because it’s Pidge . This is the way they used to interact back when they first met. This isn’t supposed to be them anymore.

Well, a lot of things aren’t supposed to be a certain way and yet here we are , Keith thinks, and he’s startled by how bitter he feels about that.

Pidge nods, then plunks herself down without preamble, leaving a few inches between them. She props her laptop on her knees and boots it up.

“So, you look like shit. Why’re you awake?” she asks. She begins tapping her nails mindlessly over the keys, not hard enough to depress them but to let the clacking sounds of it fill the room.

“Thanks,” he says, wryly. “I, uh. Couldn’t sleep.” It’s not exactly a lie.

“Oh. Okay.”

Keith hums and stares at the loading logo on the screen. The silence and awkwardness is reminiscent of their time on Merinoma, except now all the tension seems to curdle down to him. He has nothing to say that won’t possibly incite another fight.

Meanwhile, Pidge is doing an admirable job of looking steadily at her laptop. Or at least, that’s what he thinks, until her shoulders slump and she heaves a sigh. She pushes her laptop aside to curl up into a ball, arms tight around her knees.

“Look, Keith, I’m sorry,” she says, in a rather small voice.

Keith’s lashes flutter in his surprise, but he stays still, just looking at her.

“We’re supposed to be a team,” Pidge continues, “And here I am tearing us apart for something that wasn’t even your fault.”

Keith hunches into himself, hating that he doesn’t know what to say. He tries to reassure her, but he knows it's bland and empty even as he speaks. “Pidge, you don’t have to apologise, I was the one who—”

Her face contorts with a truly furious glare and whether that’s directed at him or not, Keith can’t decide.

No . No, you didn’t do anything wrong! I was being a desperate, horrible idiot and I took it out on you, even though you were injured and needed my help.”

A shallow sensation gapes open in his chest at her words and he shakes his head again, though it does nothing to deter her from speaking.

“You didn’t deserve that. And you didn’t deserve what I said afterwards either. I—I guess I was so desperate to get news on my family—”

He scrapes his nails over the floor, but it slides uselessly against the smooth metal and he’s ready for her words to slide over him in the same manner, to not let the hurt sink in this time.

“—that I forgot about the one right in front of me.”

Keith pauses, absorbing this nugget of information that’s been presented to him, not understanding until he feels Red push him, her intangible touch lit with the embers of an approving fondness.

Fondness for Pidge.

He has to clear his throat before he can bring himself to respond, before he can begin to second-guess himself, because unless he’s getting this catastrophically wrong, unless she’s pulling his leg, she means to say—

“You . . . You think I’m—we’re family?”

Pidge snorts, eyes watering now to match the incredulous smile that wobbles across her face.

“Of course you are, dumbass. We’re all a family now, aren’t we? Weirdest space fam ever, but family nonetheless. So again, I’m sorry, Keith. I promise I’ll . . . I’ll do better,” she finishes, quietly.

A flush rises in his cheeks and Keith rubs his palms together, ignoring the clammy sweat that’s suddenly broken out over his skin. He tries to imitate her smile and hopes it’s genuine enough because he’s already floundering here, so out of his depth in this conversation. Still, he needs to try.

“I’m . . . it’s okay,” he says, repeating his earlier reassurance.

“Keith, no, it’s really not—”

“Pidge.”

She stops and looks at him, then does a double-take, blinking in surprise at what she sees.

“It’s okay,” he repeats once more, and this time his smile feels real, something he can believe in himself. They sit quietly for a moment longer. Then Pidge flops onto him with a loud sigh and Keith grunts as he nearly topples over from the sudden weight. He shoves at her playfully, but he doesn’t really mind. She’s too light to be a bother and it feels kinda nice anyway, her hair tickling against his neck as she wriggles around and makes herself comfortable at his side.

“. . . Okay,” she says, finally.

Keith smiles, content, the worries about his dreams disintegrating as he settles an arm around her and relaxes for the first time in days.

Well. Almost.

There’s a sudden tug in his stomach, like someone’s grabbed one end of a rope and started pulling. It bubbles in him, a seething mass of doubt encroaching on the brief peace he’d just barely begun to enjoy. But that’s the thing, isn’t it?

He doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve any of them.

Everybody in the universe has a family!

Not him though. Not really.

When he thinks about it, he can’t understand why she’s being like this. Why Pidge, and Allura too, why any of them were being so . . . so nice , for lack of a better word. Back on Arus, he hadn’t let Pidge leave, had yelled at her for doing something that, in hindsight, only made perfect sense. She’d been ready to go solo to get her family back. There was so much devotion, so much desperation in that. He, of all people, should have known best how to handle that.

And then he’d gone and jeopardised her search.

“Keith?”

He’d messed up so much with their mission on Merinoma but Pidge had still saved his life, in the steadfast and stubborn way he’d come to respect about her, and then Allura had gotten them out by holding the wormhole—

Or maybe we shouldn’t go on this mission at all.

The thought—memory—comes from nowhere, just like every other one he’d been having as of late and it shakes him because he’d . . . he’d said that, hadn’t he? When Allura had been captured and taken by the Galra, he’d veritably suggested against rescuing her. He’d done that.

How much has he hurt this team . . . this family?

“Hey, are you okay?”

His mind is racing, and he’s remembering too much, Lance and Hunk staring at him accusingly— that’s cold, even for you Keith —and it’s Shiro with his disappointment, his anger— You’re only thinking of yourself, as usual! —and he knows that one hadn’t been real, but it could easily be, because what was Keith if not self-centred, what was he but selfish?

Selfish to latch on to them, whether they wanted him or not. Selfish enough to abandon one if it meant keeping the rest, if it meant he wouldn’t have to be alone.

Coran had blamed Shiro for losing Allura, but that had been Keith’s fault. He’d decided to investigate that base on his own. He’d gotten into trouble with the druid and Pidge had had to come and extract him—again, again, and again—and she hadn’t been able to reach Allura and Shiro in time when it mattered.

“Keith! Hey!”

Well, that wasn’t entirely right. Common sense comes through in a roll of sluggish thoughts. Part of him knows it wouldn’t have been possible anyway, that Allura had only called for their help later when she and Shiro had gotten surrounded by sentries. But Keith knows better than to excuse himself; Pidge is smart, she would have found a way, but instead she’d been there saving his sorry ass and he’d ruptured their plans because he hadn’t stopped to think, he never did, that’s what they always told him and it was no wonder his father had left him

“Keith! Shit, shit , SHIRO! CORAN, SOMEBODY—”

The rise in volume startles Keith back into awareness and he’s breathing hard, a heaviness radiating down through his skin, the kind of numbness that hurts. His head spins, vertigo sinking its claws into his stomach, vision flickering with a hundred senseless images he can’t quite perceive: Pidge in front of him, the sheen of metal all around them, Red growling, hands grabbing his shoulders—

He’s not prepared for the hot flare of pain that action incites. He screams, raw and ragged, his spine arching sharply. Agony twists his guts and he can’t see anymore, vision gone dark, the scream ending in a strangled sob.

The hands leave him and he hears the thud of footsteps, the squeak of rubber on metal, Pidge’s cries through the Castle comm over the sound of air rattling through his throat and pain filtering down to char at his bones and this is how he dies oh god this is how he dies this is how he dies this—

“Keith! Keith, you’re okay, I’ve got you! Hey, look at me, come on!”

There’s a brief moment of clarity, of freshness, a moment where he can breathe and see again, almost as though nothing had happened. He sees Shiro’s face, haggard and twisted with fear, hovering just above him, his warm hands cradling Keith’s jaw. His eyes dart erratically over Keith, like he’s cataloguing every wrong and right in him.

Keith coughs and tries to speak, tries to play this off as though he’s not laid out flat on his back on the cold floor from unknown reasons that are likely to be his death.

“I’m okay,” he wheezes. Shiro’s not supposed to look at him like that, he has to let him know that he’s fine, he is . He’s not weak and Shiro has to know and believe that. Believe in him. “I’m oka—”

Shiro cuts him off, mouth settling into a grimace.

“No. No, you’re not okay. Come on, we’re getting you to the med—”

Darkness rushes in and Keith blacks out.

Chapter Text

If he were asked to describe an incident when he’d been most terrified, Shiro thinks it’s fair to say he’s had too many to choose just one.

His first day at school probably doesn’t count anymore, no matter how much it had felt like the end of the world then. He’d cried as his mother pushed him gently towards a group of screaming children, as though she expected him to actually talk to them. Child-Shiro could find nothing more mortifying than that prospect.

Then, there was the time he’d fallen out of a tree as a kid. All he remembered was a swoop in his stomach as he was airborne, then a crunch and flare of pain as his ankle broke beneath him. That had been something of an experience.

As a teenager, he’d taken his father’s hoverbike out for a spin without permission and, naturally, wrecked it beyond all recognition. He supposes he’d been lucky to survive the crash unscathed, but his parent’s wrath had been a whole other level of scary.

But these are the easy ones now. There’s more. So much more.

Sitting the final exam at the Garrison that would make him eligible for the Kerberos mission, stomach twisted into a knot, hoping beyond hope he wouldn’t mess up.

Falling in love with the cadet who’d beaten his flight scores and done it with a huge smile, which he later found out was for the thrill of flying itself, and not just the pride that came from setting a new record. Shiro remembers it well, steeling himself for a rejection that would never come as he kissed Keith that first time on the rooftop of the observatory.

Then came the mission and the pressure of being responsible for his crew, a responsibility that he readily rose to meet, flying a successful journey to the Kerberos moon . . . only to watch, helpless, as purple blotted out the starlight above him.

There’s his first time in the gladiator arena and every time afterwards. The memory of standing before an impossibly large opponent and knowing deep in his gut that he wouldn’t live to see his family or Keith ever again. Losing his freedom, his arm, his awareness of himself.

And now—even now—he’s still plagued by these fears despite being a Paladin of Voltron, a defender of the universe. He’s surrounded by his teammates, his loved ones, and there’s an intimate horror in acknowledging that any one of these battles could be the final one. That he could do nothing to shield them from that.

You’ve been broken and reformed. The others don’t know what you know. They haven’t seen what you’ve seen.

All those terrors, all those memories and yet, somehow, he’d thought for sure it would get easier after a while.

He’s never felt more wrong when he wakes up to Pidge screaming over the Castle comms, with the space beside him cold and empty.

He’s vaulting up and out of the room before he can even think, heart pounding as he bolts down the steps towards the Red Lion’s hangar. Shiro doesn’t register the others following after him, every cell of him directed into running, barreling down the staircase, bursting in through the entrance to find—

Please. No.

 


 

In the past few days, Keith had been distant, to say the least. Shiro was used to the occasional reservedness Keith tended towards when the situation called for it, but this time was different. Something had gone seriously wrong. It was a tally of worrisome behaviour: Keith’s plunging performance in training, his pathetic eating and sleeping habits, his avoidance of Shiro. He’d taken a drastic 180 degree shift into behaviour that Shiro found familiar, but hadn’t seen in quite a while.

Since their time at the Galaxy Garrison, to be exact.

Every time he’d asked, Keith had only had the same answers for him.

“I’m fine.”

“Everything’s alright.”

“I’m okay. I’m oka—”

They’d found him sprawled out on the floor of the hangar, only half conscious, panting rapidly as though he couldn’t breathe. Pidge had been in tears, leaning over him and trying to shake him awake.

Shiro can't stop thinking about it. It's a nightmare brought to life, impressed to his mind. He wishes he’d just intervened from the start. He’d only wanted to give Keith the space to come to him on his own, but the matter had escalated too much to afford that now.

Keith looks horrible under the med-wing’s harsh lights. He’s an ashen imitation of himself, turned gaunt and pale with bruise-like circles beneath his eyes. Seated on the bed, he’s slouched over, eyes to the floor, hands clenched tight over his knees. The thin skin of his wrists and elbows are stamped with creeping blue and purple; his veins, alarmingly visible against the paleness.

Fragile is not a word Shiro’s ever associated with Keith, and he chafes at the idea of doing so now. Sure, Keith had been getting sick, but he’s suddenly worse than ever, like an illness accelerated overnight. Shiro’s seized by the need to pull Keith into his arms, to bundle him away where he can't be hurt by whatever has done this to him. But then again, that means yielding to the situation. And Keith has never been one for yielding.

Pidge is perched on the bed too, like she’s keeping vigil over Keith. She’d refused to leave his side since they’d brought him here, hovering and fussing over him the moment he’d regained consciousness. Shiro’s mostly just grateful that the mess between them had apparently been resolved.

It hadn’t been an easy sight, watching the divide in their friendship grow wide with Pidge’s words dripping a slow poison weighing over both of them. Now, Pidge is tucked in against his torso, arm wrapped tight around Keith’s waist.

It doesn't do much to put Shiro at ease though. Keith looks for all the world like he might keel over if not for Pidge’s support and his own relentless clutch on consciousness. How had Shiro ever let it get this bad in the first place?

“Coran,” he says, entertaining a little less patience than usual. “Found anything yet?”

Coran is busy consulting a data pad, squinting as the information reels by rapidly, too fast for Shiro to catch—nevermind that he wouldn’t even be able to read the Altean figures.

“I do see certains factors here,” Coran replies distractedly, pinching the middle of the screen to zoom into one portion. “Can’t quite get the whole picture yet though. Just hang on a tic.”

Shiro’s about to respond when Allura's voice cuts in.

“You have to tell them.”

She takes a step forward and Shiro is in the perfect spot to catch Keith cutting a panicked look her way. He’s shaking his head, a minute yet frantic motion, eyes blown wide.

Allura has her arms crossed tight across her chest, glare fixed firmly on Keith. Shiro blinks and wonders for a moment if the progress in the last two days had been for nothing.

It had been awkward for a while, with the downright cold turn in Allura’s behavior towards Keith. And, sadly, it hadn’t been her alone. The entire team had been busy getting used to the revelation of Keith’s Galra blood. The true irony was that nothing had changed at all, but they’d needed that adjustment period, and he’d assumed that things were finally settling back to normal.

He’s wary of the repercussions, especially when Keith seems so ill. With a closer look at Allura though, Shiro realises suddenly that it’s not a display of steel-cold glee, not even a whisper of hatred. There's a tension about her, found in her stern features and the fingers clenched into the billowy sleeves of her nightgown.

“If you won't tell them, I will,” Allura says. Shiro glances between them uncertainly as Keith slumps forward in defeat.

“I’m sorry, but it’s important the rest of you know,” she says, drawing herself to her full height. “Keith's Quintessence levels has been wavering for a while now and this is perhaps the weakest I've seen it.”

A chill runs down Shiro’s spine.

“Wait, what? What do you mean? And is that bad?” Pidge asks, warily.

“I'm not sure, but it is far from natural. It could be an indicator of just how sick he is,” she bites out, clearly annoyed by how little a help that is. “I’d noticed that his Quintessence was more diminished than usual recently and I brought it up with him just earlier today; we were supposed to run a scan in the morning.”

Somewhere in the chaos that is Shiro's thoughts, there's a simple picture of patterns emerging. Keith had seemed troubled when they'd gone to bed that night, but he hadn't said a word. And Shiro had let it go in the hopes that Keith would come to him at his own pace.

He should have said something. He knows that now, regretfully. But would Keith have told him even then or would he have tried to brush it off like he'd been doing so far?

There's a sudden clatter and Shiro looks up in time to see Keith flinching hard enough to rock the bed, and Pidge with it. Hunk stands frozen with his hand hovering above Keith's shoulder, surprise slowly making way for guilt.

“Sorry!” Hunk exclaims, backing away with his hands raised. “Didn't mean to startle you! I was just trying to be comforting, sorry.”

Keith, at this point, looks too wired to even respond. Emotions flicker across his face, faster than Shiro can decipher, and then he's pulling up that unconvincing mask of stoicism even as he chews viciously at his lower lip. Shiro’s wonders if he’s unaware of just how odd—and alarming—his reaction had been.

“Keith? Are you alright?” Shiro asks, cautiously.

The wall is fully built when Keith looks at him.

“I'm fine.”

Goddammit. He wants to yell, or kick something, vent out just how much he hates those two meaningless words that hide so much. But one look at Keith’s withdrawn form has him swallowing the anger. Shiro has to turn away and collect himself before he can bring himself to speak.

“Coran?” He asks, and if it sounds like a plea, well. He’s desperate at this point. “Anything from the scan?”

“Well, just that there’s nothing explicitly wrong with him. Nothing that the scanner has caught.”

“What?” It bursts from Shiro before he can stop it, and Keith flinches again, pulling inwards like he’s trying to hide himself away. Shiro’s heart lurches and he can’t help but glare at Coran, imploring him to give him the answers he needs. “What do you mean? There has to be something!”

Coran looks tired. He taps the screen, turns the scan into an enlarged hologram with a few deft swipes of his fingers, swivelling it around to face them. There’s a basic diagram of a human body—Keith’s—with entire sections highlighted in pink. No red though, and Shiro knows by experience now that red is what they need to look out for.

“All I see is the plainest signs, nothing of true note,” says Coran. “He’s exhausted beyond belief and there’s an extra strain in his muscles which certainly wasn’t there the last time Keith was in the cryo-replenishers, but otherwise, I’ve found nothi—”

“How come this part is darker?”

Lance’s voice cuts through as he speaks for the first time since they’d gotten Keith to the med-wing. He and Hunk are standing closest to the hologram now, and Lance leans over Hunk’s shoulder to point at the head section, indicating a patch of slightly darker pink.

Coran blinks in surprise, then moves in to take a closer look.

“Well, that’s odd. That could mean that whatever is happening to Number Four is either focused on his hea—”

He breaks off suddenly, eyes wide as he takes a closer look at the scan.

“What is it?” Shiro asks, confused. Coran doesn’t respond, whirling towards Keith instead.

“Keith, have you been sleeping well lately?”

Keith stares at him with bloodshot eyes but he doesn’t say anything. In a way, that’s answer enough.

“Keith,” Shiro says quietly. “Please, sweetheart. Just talk to us.”

He bites his lip, hard, as the term of endearment slips from him. Neither of them likes to showcase their relationship, preferring to keep the affection private between them. There’s no reason to it beyond their own comfort, and it’s clear tell when it happens otherwise, a sign of Shiro’s worry. Maybe that’s why Keith finally gives in and shakes his head.

“Not well,” he admits. “I-I’ve been having these . . . nightmares.”

Whatever Coran has been looking for, he seems to have found it, though probably not quite the way he’d expected. He tilts his head and nods, lines creasing his forehead as he murmurs to himself.

“Nightmares. What kind of nightmares?”

Keith peers up at Coran warily, lips pressing together in his reluctance. Shiro doesn't know what's worse: that Keith has been having the kind of nightmares that he can’t even speak about or that he can't trust any of them to talk about it.

“They’re, uh . . . Just. Bad memories. Some from when I was a kid, some from—” Keith stops, hunches into himself a little. “Some from the Galaxy Garrison.”

A quick flick of his eyes to fix briefly on Shiro, then he’s back to staring at Coran.

Ah.

Kerberos, then.

They haven't talked about it. Not really, anyway. Embroiled as they are in this war, there’s just been too little time and neither of them have really put in the effort to dig into the meat of the problem. Earlier, Shiro was sure they'd breached the topic just fine, overcoming the shades of trauma left on each of them.

Clearly, he'd been wrong, and he marks down yet another tally in his mental checklist of things he’s failed Keith in.

“There's some from now, with Voltron and all,” Keith continues. He frowns down at his bare feet, then sighs. “They’re all my memories, but sometimes it feels like . . . Like I'm not the one having them.”

“What? What is that supposed to mean?” Lance asks nervously. Keith shrugs again.

“I . . . Honestly, if I knew, I'd tell you. That’s about the best way I can put it.”

It’s a credit to Lance that he doesn't mock Keith like he would have done a month back. The entire team is looking worried and it's a far cry from their lukewarm reaction to Keith's Galra blood; so much so, that Shiro can't help but feel relieved despite the situation, knowing, at least, that their friends are firmly on Keith’s side.

“All I do know is, it feels like . . . It feels like a lot. They’re spontaneous, too many at once. It’s like I'm drowning and I'm just . . . So tired after them. They hurt, but, physically. My head, my back, my body. I dunno how that's possible.”

“Wait. So are you in pain right now?” Hunk demands, wide-eyed.

“I . . . Well, kind of.”

Shiro frowns and goes to speak, but Lance, surprisingly, beats him to it.

“Keith, come on. Don’t downplay it, man.”

Keith glares at him, but only receives a blatant challenge in the form of an eyebrow, which, Shiro thinks in exasperation, is absolutely the quickest way to rub him wrong.

“Okay, fine . You wanna know so bad? It feels like my bones are cracking in half and getting rammed back into my joints all wrong. My spine hurts, my skin is all weird, I can feel every fucking inch of my hair suddenly and that hurts too! Whatever I do, I just can't get comfortable and I keep having all these stupid thoughts and the worst part of it is they’re all true and I’m not even good enough to—”

Keith cuts himself off, panting, a shadow seeming to pass over him as he shivers. Shiro reels at the abruptness of it all and no one else seems to know what to say. There’s too much there to tackle at Keith’s current state.

“Right,” Coran says, gently. “One last question then, Keith. About your mission on Merinoma.”

Keith straightens up and Shiro winces at the way he struggles through it, as though it pains him to complete that simple action. He's no longer hiding it, but why had he felt the need to do so in the first place?

More than ever, he’s asking himself how he ever let it go this far, why Keith wouldn’t talk to him about it. Had he failed him so badly?

“Keith, I need to know about that rock that you mentioned. You said it triggered the collapse of the base and that it had pockmarks on it . . . Were those shaped like flynnograms?”

There's a short silence. Then, Allura lets out a small, uncertain “Coran . . .?”

“I know, Princess,” he says. “But it's the only connection I can make.”

Hunk shifts uncomfortably, wringing his hands.

“What? What’s a flynnogram? Is it dangerous?” He eyes the door like he’s expecting something to barge right in any moment and slay them where they stand.

“What are you—” Coran cuts himself off, exasperated. “ Humans . Perhaps you have a different name for it? I mean, the marks, were they shaped so they had . . . six equal sides? They would be like so—” He uses his finger to sketch in his palm the rough shape of what looks like—

“Oh!” Hunk exhales in relief, flapping his hands to fan himself. “We call that a hexagon!”

Coran wrinkles his nose as he contemplates what he probably categorises as a ‘primitive’ word.

Shiro sighs. “Coran, please. How is this relevant?”

“It’s extremely relevant,” Allura says, and she looks to Keith. “Keith? Can you answer the question?”

Keith frowns at them, gaze growing distant as he thinks back. Shiro holds his breath, hoping that maybe this is the breakthrough that they need, that they can finally figure out how to fix this. Then, maybe Shiro can get to fixing whatever is happening between him and Keith that has Keith not trusting him with the truth.

Suddenly, Pidge springs up from the bed, eyes gleaming bright. “They did. Guys, I remember, they did! Most of the rocks we found were in pieces, but I did see some whole. Their pockmarks were definitely kind of hexagonal in shape!”

Keith is nodding too, hair falling briefly over his face before he swipes it away with an irritated grunt. “Yeah. I remember it. So, how does that help?”

The colour in Coran’s face seems to rapidly drain out all at once.

“I-it doesn’t. If anything, I was hoping it wasn't true. The object that you both came across was not a rock. It was a skull.”

Allura’s hand flies up to her mouth to stifle a cry.

“A skull?” Pidge repeats, blanching.

“Yes. A Somilin skull, if I am not mistaken. They’re a species native to the Glacient quadrant, just beyond Beron Belt. They were old allies of Altea, even before Alfor took to the throne, but . . . no, there must be some explanation,” Coran mutters. He’s visibly disturbed by the implications of this reveal, twisting roughly at his mustache.

“Wait, what do you mean by that?” Hunk asks. Variations of that question had been making the rounds all night, and it seems fated to go on until they get to the bottom of whatever is plaguing Keith. There’s a little ping in Shiro's head then, and he frowns in thought.

Something tells him he's missing out on an important detail.

Coran, meanwhile, folds his arms behind him, akin to a lecturer about to venture into complicated subject matter.

“The Somili have always been the greatest appliers of magic in the universe; healing was their primary function, but from what I remember back then, they’d been learning how to adapt their magic further.”

“Whoa, hey, hold up,” Lance interrupts, jaw hanging wide open. “Space magic? How come I'm only hearing about this now?”

“You realise slapping the word ‘space’ in front of every concept and physical object we come across doesn’t make it any more special, right?” Pidge says as she gets up to get a closer look at the holograph.

“Okay, one, I won’t stand for that kind of slander from you, Pidge! And B, shush up, I’m kinda busy having my mind blown.”

Coran clears his throat pointedly.

“You’ve seen Allura wield a version of magic plenty of times, haven't you?”

Lance turns to gape at Allura in awe, and Coran takes it as an opportunity to continue speaking without interruption.

“Actually, it’s funny you would say that, Number 3. The Somili were famous for enchantments of the mind, although they certainly they drew the line before . . . blowing up one’s mind.” He shudders in disgust and Shiro decides it’s probably okay to leave aside the explanation on Earth sayings for later.

“Besides the Alteans and the Balmerans, they were the only other species we knew of capable of harnessing and manipulating Quintessence. It’s why I suspect they may be linked to Keith’s illness.” Coran gestures towards the scan, at the darker pink area over Keith’s head. “There's a very faint signature on the scan that I'm fairly sure belonged to them, which is why I bring them up at all. I just can’t think of any other explanation.”

“But I thought you said they were healers? That doesn’t look anything close to healing!” Pidge protests, gesturing back at Keith, who scowls at her for it. Shiro has to agree though, wholeheartedly.

“Indeed, Number Five,” Coran says, nodding brightly. “The problem is, the nature of Keith's illness is so within their method of magic, yet, also very much not. They often put their patients to sleep and weaved dreams together to have them at ease, make them recipient to the planetary Quintessence used to heal them—all about that natural process, really. But then Keith was talking about nightmares and pain and—oh.” Coran breaks off, blinking.

He and Allura seem to come to a realisation at the same time as the Princess startles where she stands.

“What? What is it?” asks Shiro.

Coran is slow to speak, mulling over his words as he does.

“I-it’s not the kind of agenda they were known for but Quintessence can be a rather volatile and corrosive material if you're not careful. It has been ten thousand years . . . ”

The two Alteans exchange a dark glance and Shiro wonders, uneasily, what exactly it is about Quintessence that has them so unsettled. But, before he can ask, Coran is hastily blustering past the moment.

“You know the baffling thing is that Merinoma is nowhere close to their home planet, and the Glacient quadrant is quite a few wormhole jumps away. I can’t understand what those Somili remains were doing there. They were neutral in the conflict but if they were found within that Galra base—”

“I suppose we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?” Allura sighs. A little hesitantly, she adds, “Perhaps we can . . . contact the Blade and see if they have any information that can help us. In the meantime, we should pay the Somili a visit, if indeed nothing has changed and they still live on Seril.”

Shiro gets the feeling that they’re brushing the topic away on purpose, focusing on the task at hand. It’s an overload of information, too much at once, and at the same time, there’s something about it all that continues to bother him, something just on the tip of his tongue, if only—

“Quite right, Princess. I’ll hail Kolivan, let him know how urgent it is—”

And that’s the moment the little niggle at the back of Shiro’s head falls into place. He’s looking at Keith and his vision briefly warps out of focus, scattered lines of thought merging into one understanding.

They’d been so busy looking into the how and the what and the why of everything, that he’d completely missed out on the when.

The starting point of everything. The dreams, the training sessions, the mission, Keith's uncertainty as Shiro kissed his forehead, telling him it wasn’t his fault—

It comes spilling out in an overlapping mess as he tries to order his jumbled thoughts into coherency.

“Hold in, if the skull was . . . Keith, when you said nightmares, the not sleeping, this—this has been happening since that mission on Merinoma?”

Keith stares at him, looking paler than ever. Everyone else stops talking abruptly.

“Keith?” Shiro asks. There’s a slow prickle growing beneath his skin the longer Keith just looks at him. The room is shrinking in on him. He’s rapidly connecting each moment, and every puzzle piece he finds is closing in on a conclusion he doesn’t want.

“You were hiding it. All this time. Were you ever going to tell us?” He asks, quieter now. Keith swallows, throat bobbing with the action. Shiro’s eyes latch onto the movement, thinks of the veins and lifeblood and the pulse beating away there and it hits him hard and fast suddenly that this—that Keith—

Keith had never planned to tell him what was wrong. He hadn’t planned to tell any of them. All his reassurances, the avoidance—

Shiro would have woken up one day and found Keith lying peacefully in a permanent sleep. Gone, just like that.

“Why?”

It comes out too sharp, sand grit words superheated all too fast into volatile, fragile glass and goddamnit, Shiro is angry . He’s furious.

“Why didn’t you tell us, Keith? What, d-did you want me to just find you dead ?”

He’s not the Black Paladin here, right now. He’s just Shiro, wounded by what feels honestly like betrayal.

“I thought we were getting past this. I thought that you trusted us—that you trusted me ! After what happened with the Blade of Marmora, I thought you woul—”

Someone grabs his arm then and Shiro stops, left panting a little from his spiel. Hunk’s grip is nothing against the steel of the Galra prosthetic, but it’s tight enough to make his point. He stands in front of Shiro, blocking his view of Keith.

“That's not helping anyone, Shiro. Come on, man,” Hunk says, reprovingly.

Shiro takes a moment to catch his composure, to get a hold of himself. His stomach sours, bile rising in his throat at the thought of what he’d let loose.

“Fuck,” he hisses. He tugs at his arm to be set free, barely paying attention to what Hunk says to him, his attention zeroing in on Keith.

Keith has never looked smaller, except perhaps the time he’d awakened his luxite blade and understood the significance of it. Or more accurately, when he’d stood quiet but resolute even as he broke apart, Shiro’s mirror image berating him for something he could not help but yearn for.

Shiro! Wait!

Shiro curses again, throat squeezing tight with regret; then he’s striding forward and pulling Keith into his arms, blanketing over every inch of him that’s within his reach. Keith falls into him with the kind of ease and faith—the trust Shiro’d been craving for—that Shiro is not sure he deserves now.

The Trials of Marmora really had changed so much of their interactions. He wants to hate the Blade for inflicting this on them, but he knows better. This one's on them alone, for letting the chances slip past through their fingers and not talking about it.

He thought they'd been doing fine. Clearly, he'd been wrong.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” he breathes. Keith is warm under his touch; too warm.

There’s a pinch at his arms, that of nails digging in, as Keith clings closer. He burrows his face into Shiro’s neck, a shaky exhale pressing against his skin. Shiro's chest tightens with a wretched surge at the sight of Keith in obvious distress. He fervently hates himself for being the cause of it.

“No,” Keith starts, quietly. “No, you’re right, I’m sorry. I know it’s stupid, but I was so sure that if I said anythi—”

He cuts off, mouth opening then closing, unable to continue. But Shiro doesn’t need him to, because with every thing being laid out before him, it’s starting to fall into place.

He’d been scared. All this time, Keith had been scared . And Shiro thinks he’s only just beginning to graze the tip of the iceberg for how deep that runs.

“Keith.”

Keith doesn’t move. They’re pressed together so firmly, but his eyes skirt past Shiro, edging towards freedom. Shiro absolutely wants to kick himself. Desperation is an ugly driving force in his experience but here, it pushes him to make things right by Keith, in anyway he can.

Keith looks up when Shiro pushes him back gently, palming his face, sweeping his thumbs lightly over the thin skin below his eyes.

Then Shiro leans in, telegraphing his intent, slow enough for the other to understand and refuse, for the sting of rejection to settle in. It never comes though, and there’s a flash of his memory once more; the preserved image of the Garrison’s observatory rooftop bathed in moonlight, Keith half-submerged in shadows, profile traced silver by the touch of stars. And Shiro remembers: the fear and the longing and the relief when he’d first given in to his feelings for Keith.

This is a different kind of fear that claws at him, but it’s enough to have him push past the last inch of space between them.

He presses his mouth to Keith’s, and Keith makes a wounded sound, melting right into him. It’s warm and chaste, familiar, much too long since the last time they had indulged like this. Shiro runs his hands through Keith’s hair, tilts in to kiss him a little softer, a little deeper, and there’s the taste of ozone and rain and something else but he doesn’t pay that mind. They kiss until they’ve both calmed down, their heartbeats settling enough to allow them to separate. Shiro presses their foreheads together and locks eyes with Keith.

“Keith,” he begins, thumbing over Keith’s cheekbones. “I love you, sweetheart, and there's nothing that could ever change that. You know that, right? I love so much and I’m so sorry for every moment I’ve ever made you feel otherwise.” He pauses just long enough to gather himself and say the rest of what needs to be said. “Once all this is over, I think you and I need to talk and sort some things out. For now, can I ask you to be honest with me? To talk to me when things are wrong? I promise I’ll be the same with you. Whatever you need. Just. Please, promise me that.”

Keith ducks his head low, nods once in agreement. He blinks, once, twice, then licks his lips in preparation for what he wants to say.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m—I’m sorry I didn’t . . . yeah. But, no, I wanted to say—” Keith stops, heaving a frustrated sigh, but Shiro just nods, encouraging him without interruption. He brushes at a stray lock of Keith’s black hair that’s fallen out of place and absently tucks it in behind Keith’s ear. The action makes Keith go still. He looks up slowly, his eyes glinting, and Shiro dares to smiles at the familiar flames sputtering to life there.

It’s a stubborn old fire, untouchable once ignited, the one that had drawn him in, firefly attraction, but left him with far more than a pointless demise. It’s the same fire he’d fallen for, back when their relationship had only just begun and Shiro had thought they’d have eternity to enjoy it.

“Shiro.”

Keith says his name like it’s a charm to be held onto, the kind that’s clasped tight in the white-knit fingers and dirtied palms of the less fortunate. “None of this is your fault. You’ve always had my back and you’ve . . . you’ve never given up on me, even though I’ve probably done enough to deserve it. All of this is just . . . it’s me. I promise you, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

It’s stone-firm, practically daring him to think otherwise.

Not for the first time, Shiro wonders what he did right to deserve someone like Keith. What anyone did to deserve Keith Kogane’s notice. Somehow, he’d always been like this: a supernova, shedding parts of himself with single-minded intent to achieve an end-point, yet the first to dismiss his own pains, goals and comforts if it meant doing the right thing.

Shiro can’t help himself. He leans in for another kiss, quick and chaste, and delights at the smile he can feel curving up beneath his lips. They’d talk, after this. They’d talk and they’d fix it and it’d be okay again.

Maybe we can still have that eternity , Shiro thinks, giddily, in that spur-of-the-moment way that seems to encapsulate stories like theirs.

He pulls back, finally, and he’s surprised to see the light flush in Keith’s cheeks. Keith smiles weakly at him but he looks . . . healthier suddenly; not by much, but still better than the death-warmed-over appearance he’d been wearing earlier.

“I'm going to have to disagree on it being just you,” Shiro says, belatedly, in response to Keith’s adamance. Keith just looks at him though and there’s that crackle of lightning to add to the flames. “We’ll talk about that later, once everything is alright again. Once you're alright again.”

And things would be alright. They had to be.

When Shiro turns around, it’s with a sense of purpose brewing anew somewhere in the vicinity of his ribs. The rest of the team are tactfully attending to others things, sparing them their moment of privacy, knowing it was long overdue. They’re murmuring amongst themselves, pointing at a fresh screen filled with various numbers and data. There’s a large planet dead-centre on it, the surface full of mottled browns and the dark blue of water bodies.

The other Paladins look up, one-by-one, gazes sharp and determined, and Shiro knows that they’re prepared to do whatever necessary. For Voltron. For the team.

For Keith.

He takes a moment to nod at Hunk, a silent thanks for intervening earlier, and receives a thumbs up in return. Then, he looks to the Alteans.

“Coran, Princess Allura. Tell us what we have to do.”

Chapter Text

The wormhole opens out to the Glacient quadrant, and they’re just in time to catch the receding display of an aurora over the nearest planet. Waves of ice blue and silver dissolve lazily out of existence, leaving behind the usual inky darkness of space.

“Whoa,” Hunk breathes in delight. “That was amazing.” He’s suited up in the Paladin armour, just like the rest of them, his helmet resting in the crook of his elbow as he leans against the side of his seat. Shiro is somewhat relieved to be in his own armour, to have them all in the command deck. This is familiar. This is routine, a giant leap away from the terror he’d been feeling just earlier down in the med-wing. This, he can handle with ease.

“That’s Seril?” Lance asks, pointing at a smaller planet further off in the distance. It matches the one they’d seen on the screen; browns and blues, with a pale yellow outer bubble that appeared to be it’s atmosphere.

“That’s it,” Allura replies. She has on her battle suit as well but Shiro knows it's only in case of an emergency. For once, Coran—who, incidentally, has a rather fetching red cape to go with his own suit—would be taking her spot and joining them on the ground.

Being the only one of them who had met with and experienced Somili culture before the war, their hopes depended on Coran’s ability to handle the social hang-ups without committing some gross offence. As an Altean, he was also more likely to gain the trust of his old allies.

“The Somili can be a touch sensitive.” Coran had told them rather cheerily, as they planned their approach. “I was once close friends with a Somilin named Thonar, inseparable really, right until the day I stepped on his hair. Never thought to me again after that.”

“Are we really leaving the diplomatic side of things to Coran?” Pidge had hissed at Shiro, cutting him a nervous glance. The sentiment was understandable, but Shiro had known even then there was no other choice. No matter how odd his mannerisms, Coran had always been dependable. Either way, the mission was too time-sensitive for them to risk navigating through it blind.

They'd set it out as best as they could in the short frame of time left to them, deciding on the Black and Yellow Lions as their best bet on approaching the Somili. Black, as leader and head of Voltron, and Yellow, for the history that tied the previous Yellow Paladin and the Somili together. Hunk had been excited to learn about his predecessor’s supposed diplomatic escapades on Seril and was, hence, the one most eager for the mission.

And then Keith had insisted on joining them.

He’d steamrolled right over their protests with an unmatched stubbornness, patiently wearing them down, one by one. For once, Shiro wished Keith hadn't adopted his favourite phrase so close to heart.

“Keith—”

“I'm coming with you. You leave me behind, I'll just take Red and follow you anyway. It’ll go quicker if I’m there when we get the cure, right?”

He’d held his ground, arms crossed and stance firm, having already donned the Red Paladin armour. There was no talking him out of it and, eventually, they'd had to relent.

“I’ll be fine,” Keith had promised, catching Shiro's hand and squeezing in reassurance. “I’m feeling better now anyway. It'll be okay.”

Surprisingly, it’s the truth. Keith does seem to be getting better by the minute, like he’s regaining a lost strength. His complexion is its normal healthy tan, his movements as quick and steady as ever, with no sign of the pain that had left him unconscious on the floor of Red’s hangar. It’s like the Keith back in the med-wing had been an apparition, the past few hours filed away as a fever dream.

He seems more relaxed now, too, in a way he hadn’t been since . . . since Shiro first came back from Kerberos, probably. It's a sobering thought, one that leaves Shiro's stomach in knots.

He wants to hope that the turnaround is for the good, but there’s a sense of foreboding that he’s unable to shake off. It keeps him on edge and nervous until he has to restrain himself from hovering worriedly over Keith, knowing it’s not likely to be appreciated.

At least, that’s what he keeps trying to convince himself of, but he’s fighting a lost battle. He’s long stopped keeping track of the limits he’s willing to push when it comes to Keith.

“Paladins,” Allura calls out, garnering their attention. There's an uneasy fidgeting about her that belies her words. “I've just heard word from the Blade and they’re on their way back now. There's been tremendous progress with the Teludav, it’s nearing completion as we speak, but I’m afraid something else has come up.”

“Aw, man.” Hunk sighs, thoroughly fed up. “Don't you think the universe kind of owes us a break by this point? I mean, come on!”

“I know,” says Allura, bowing her head in acknowledgement. Really, if there’s anyone who deserves that break, it’s her, with the way she soldiers on with her work without a moment’s rest. She, Keith and Pidge were all alike in that respect and, Shiro admits to himself quite sheepishly, he could probably be counted in the same category.

“Kolivan says their contact within the Empire’s ranks didn't make their last check in. It’s been two quintants with no word for them, and he suspects that they’ve been compromised.” She frowns, shifting on her feet in agitation. “He may just call off the plan.”

“Wait, what? ” The exclamation comes from Keith, sudden and loud. “He can’t do that, this is our one chance to take down Zarkon!” The others begin to murmur, dissent and agreement in equal turn.

“This isn’t going to end well.”

“Well, we can’t go in without their help either!”

“He's not really in the wrong thou—”

“Guys, guys , hold on,” Shiro says, waving his hands placatingly, and they quieten with only the slightest grumble, exchanging worried glances. “Look, I know things seem bad, but we can’t even form Voltron until Keith’s better. How about we concentrate on that mission first?”

Keith flushes and looks away, hands tightening on his helmet, and Shiro feverishly hopes he hasn't taken his words in the wrong way. He’s beginning to have some suspicions about just where Keith’s head has been at recently. With how things had been going,  Shiro doesn’t want him to overthink things and draw away from the team again.

“Shiro’s right,” Allura says. “We need the team at full strength; we can worry about the battle plan after that.”

“As always,” says Lance, sighing. “Is there ever gonna be a point where we’re not scrambling to put ourselves together?”

There’s resounding agreement all around, but it’s playful now, the team falling in line together once again.

“Hopefully, once Zarkon is gone, we can start working on that,” Allura responds with an amused grin. “Now, let’s get back on track. All of you, be careful while you’re down there, we have no idea what to expect. Be on guard, stay alert, watch out for each other’s backs. And Keith?”

Keith pauses in the midst of pulling on his helmet. Allura gives him a tight smile that reads more of tension than any remaining ill will.

“I’m trusting that you’ll come back safe with the rest of them.”

Keith returns the smile, subdued yet genuine. It’s not directed at him, but of course Shiro’s heart still finds it in itself to stutter over a beat.

“I will.”

Shiro silently promises the same, for both his and Keith’s sake.

 


 

Shiro guides the Black Lion steadily through the turgid atmosphere, Yellow following in his wake. Coran and Keith stand at his back, gripping the seat tight as they make their landing at the base of a valley, several metres away from a small settlement. It's the only population they’d managed to locate through the thick cloud cover, situated closest to the coordinates Coran had provided.

Structures made of a cobbled mix of mud and stone rise several stories tall from the valley floor. Already, there are life forms peering up at them curiously and poking their heads out from their homes to watch their arrival.

Coran takes the lead and they follow him out into a surprisingly pleasant climate. The atmosphere is a little thinner than they’re used to, but still compatible enough for them to remove their helmets and breathe without the assistance of their suits. A cool breeze, dry and brisk, sweeps gently over their exposed skin.

“Oh! A Ruvian village! They’re not the Somili but this is perfect,” Coran exclaims. “If memory serves right, they’re quite friendly!”

Shiro glances at the Ruvians, eyeing their broad and sturdy torsos, and their log-like limbs tipped with thick, stubby fingers. They blend in well with the earth around them, skin tones a range of light and dark brown. They seem harmless enough, if not for the luminous orange eyes set into their block-like heads.

Even from this distance, he can feel their predatory gazes following his and the other Paladins’ every step. It puts him on edge, reminding him of cold metal at his back and bracketing his limbs, of the glow of yellow and purple he can never seem to escape, sweat under his palms and grit in his wounds and blood in his teeth—

Fingers slips between his and hold on tight, the touch slightly muted by the thick black material of their suits. Shiro sucks in a breath and shoves at the invasive memories, forcing himself to relax. He grips the hand for one beat, two beats, three, four, then unravels his fist and lets go. Keith doesn’t say a word through it and Shiro doesn’t need him to.

“Coran,” he says, “Are you sure about thi—”

“Come along now, they’re very friendly!” Coran says, not having noticed anything amiss. So saying, he strides forward before they can even respond.

“C-Coran, wait!” Shiro calls out, but it’s too late. By the time they catch up, the Altean man is speaking to one of the aliens already. He’s executing a ridiculous bow in front of one who looks vaguely like the leader, if the way they tower over everyone else is any indication.

Shiro slaps a hand to his own forehead, embarrassed and dreading the outcome. But, much to their shock, the Ruvian leader seems utterly delighted by the display and snatches Coran up in a back-breaking hug.

“Altean! Paladins of Voltron!” The leader booms happily, incidentally revealing a rather terrifying maw full of sharp teeth. “We welcome you to the village of Jova!”

Well. That'd been easier than expected.

They let Coran have the lead, since he seemed to know what he’s doing. The Ruvians take them deeper into the village, past scores of sun-baked buildings to an outdoor pavilion set up over a stone table, where they’re invited to sit for a meal. To Shiro’s relief, Coran cordially refuses them, citing the urgency of their mission. Even so, the leader—“Call me Baral, there are no formalities between allies!”—insists they have a drink at the very least. Over the clink of glasses filled with a spicy, pink liquid, Coran explains their situation.

It’s going surprisingly well, the other Paladins relaxing as Baral listens patiently, expressing concern at all the right places. The rest of the Ruvians are just as attentive, and Shiro finds himself glancing around the table, savouring being a part of something productive after days of helpless worry over Keith. The positive energy is infectious. Beside him, Keith swirls the liquid in his cup, not quite paying attention to what’s being said. Shiro nudges him with a knee and gets a gentle nudge back, Keith’s lips curling up in amusement.

It’s all going so incredibly well that Shiro misses it when an expectant hush falls over the entire pavilion. He doesn’t, however, miss the moment when Baral leaps up from his seat with a snarl and slams his fists on the table.

Shiro is on his feet immediately, Galra arm outstretched before him in defense.

The others are just as alert, hands hovering over the dual lines of their thigh holsters, ready to summon their Bayards. Coran is the last to stand up, movements graceful and controlled as he sets down his drink.

Orange eyes fix on Coran and Baral releases a hair-raising growl. He straightens up, looming over them.

“I was under the impression that the Paladins of Voltron were fighting against the Galra Empire.”

Coran is completely unphased by what’s implied in that accusation, lifting a cool eyebrow at him. “You would be quite right, yes,” he responds simply.

“Then explain to me, Altean, why you’ve brought a Galra to our village.” Baral’s eyes swing towards Keith, and Shiro tenses. The Ruvian’s large fists jerk as though he’s barely keeping himself from lashing out again. Keith is frozen on the spot, staring up at the large alien.

Shiro doesn’t understand. How could they possibly know? Coran would never have said anything, not without Keith’s express permission, and Keith, of course, was nowhere near the comfort level to allow for that.

Another Ruvian, Gaan, Shiro thinks their name was, bristles at their telling silence. “You come here, feigning innocence? Venomous beast. How dare you?!” They hiss, furious. “You’re not welcome here!”

“Hold on a minute,” Pidge says angrily, but she’s interrupted by a rough shove to the shoulder by another of their so-called hosts, sending her stumbling back several feet.

“Pidge!”

Lance grabs her arm and steadies her. Hunk exclaims in outrage, glaring at the offending Ruvian. Everything’s escalating suddenly, the previous camaraderie nowhere to be found, and the team back away into defensive positions, Shiro pushing Keith behind him and into the center of their huddle as the aliens advance on them. They’re surrounded, the stone table cutting off one path for a quick escape while the Ruvians block them in on every side.

“We have no assistance to offer Galra scum like you,” Baral spits at them. The others follow suit, ugly curses bubbling from their lips, adding to the cacophony of an angry crowd all but ready to lynch them.

Shiro backs up, heart beating a violent stamp in his chest. Sweat slicks down the side of his face and the frail flame of hope he’d held that they could resolve this without complications is rapidly being extinguished.

“Please. We just want to meet with the Somili!” Coran tries, his clear-minded facade thrown aside in the wake of just how bad the negotiations have gone. “This is all a grave misunderstanding.”

That only makes it worse though, the crowd bursting into angry jeers, screaming their threats and getting all the more worked-up.

Shiro pulls on his helmet, signalling the others to do the same as he joins in on reasoning with the Ruvians.

“We are not the Empire! Keith is a trusted Paladin of Voltron, just like any one of us. Please, we don’t want any trouble. Just let us go and we can forget this happened,” he says, in the calming manner that had worked so well for other conflicts. But the Ruvians only sneer, and realisation dawns too late. They’ve been adjudged guilty already. Nothing they say now will change that.

“Trusted Paladin indeed,” Baral says, slapping a hand against his own chest. He zeroes in on Keith, a chilling expression on his face. “You’re not going anywhere, Galra. That curse will make its course through you soon enough and I’m going to enjoy every tic of watching you succumb to it.”

A ripple of shock flows through the team.

“What?” Shiro asks hoarsely. “What curse?”

He’s met with the Ruvians’ smiles, their mouths stretching out into eerie, menacing grins.

“You will die,” one of them says, eyes glowing brighter in their glee, dagger-like and aimed right at Keith with virulent intent. “You will die for all the pain you’ve caused. You will die a fitting miserable death, filth .”

A cold needle of dread digs deep into Shiro’s chest, an unnerving feeling he can’t distance himself from. Goosebumps rise along his arm, hair prickling up at his nape like in the wake of an impending lightning strike. Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong .

There’s a soft gasp from behind Shiro, quiet and choked, followed by the unmistakeable thump of a body meeting the ground. Shiro whips around, lungs seizing, praying it's not—

Keith lays crumpled by Hunk’s feet, his eyes rolling up, back arching at a sickening angle. His mouth falls open and then he's—

He’s screaming.

It’s an awful howl, wrenched right out of him and tearing his throat bloody. Keith thrashes against the reddish soil, dirt smearing against his cheeks and clinging to his hair, the white of his armour. His arms and legs jerk helplessly, torso twisting in unnatural motions.

It’s like he’s having a seizure, Shiro thinks, dimly. A seizure unlike anything he’s seen before.

Hunk stands absolutely frozen, watching in horror even as Keith shudders and his screams escalate a pitch higher. That’s enough to snap Shiro out of his trance.

He takes a step forward, thoughts and actions and battle plans scrolling through his mind and right over into an abyss because he has no idea what he’s doing or what’s happening beyond the knowledge that Keith’s in pain, Keith’s hurt, Keith’s crying oh fuck oh god no please—

Too late, he registers the rumble in his head, growing slowly louder, a flame fanned into blazing existence.

The roar rips through him, hot and enraged, and then Shiro’s screaming too, tearing at his helmet to escape it. It’s in his ears and it’s in his comms and an echo of it sounds from far off too; from the direction of the Castle Ship, he realises, belatedly. He hears his team cry out over the screech of tearing metal, the crunch of steel buckling beneath the destructive wrath of an angry beast. Shiro clenches his jaw against the onslaught of pain, grinding his teeth as he forces himself to focus.

Keith. He has to get to Keith.

He drops his guard completely, not caring that he’s turning his back on a whole village of aliens who want them dead—who want Keith dead. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lance, Pidge and Coran close ranks as best as they can to cover them. Hunk is kneeling beside Keith now, his Bayard shaking in his fumbling hands. He’s frowning down with intense concentration, the same roar distracting him from his task of guarding over Keith.

Shiro falls to his knees too, grabs Keith’s shoulders to stay his thrashing. There’s blood dripping from his ears, from his nose, and Shiro’s heart lurches with a terror that threatens to unravel him.

“Keith!”

Keith twitches, scream stuttering in his throat. The noise in Shiro’s head lessens for just a moment and that’s when it clicks, recognition flooding over him; after countless flights, countless battles united as Voltron, he should have known earlier.

Red. That’s the Red Lion’s roar.

 


 

His lungs strain for air when Baral declares him an enemy, Ruvian eyes boring into him in dark anticipation. And that’s before his body gives up on him.

It’s electricity.

His veins are burning like he’s being flayed alive, a deeper throb emerging from his sore ribs and his knees where he'd hit the rock-riddled dirt, hard. He’s in a void where he can’t breathe, dowsed in a great sea of bright white hurt, throat raw because he’s—oh, he’s screaming—

Someone is shouting, calling out to him.

Pain drowns it out, limbs numb and on fire all at once and he’s losing it, they’re taking it, they’re taking so much he’s not sure he’ll survive this, he’s unravelling into nothing but bone dust and cells—

And just like that, it’s over.

Keith opens his eyes, wheezing for air, for life, for understanding. His face is wet and he’s shuddering, pulling in deep lungfuls of thin air that is nowhere near enough to sate him. He tries to speak, forms his lips around a sentence, but all that comes out is a weak sob and then another. He feels shattered, stretched apart until his insides are all exposed for anyone who would care to see.

“Keith!” Someone says again, strangled and desperate.

. . . who is that?

“Keith, baby, you have to listen to me, you have to stay awake!”

Shiro?

A ghost of a touch skitters over his numbed face, thumbs sweeping fervently against his temples.

“We’re going to fix this. I’ll fix this, I promise, but you can’t go to sleep, you hear me? You have to hold on, please!”

Shiro . . . Shiro, wait. Fix wha— . . . fi . . .

The thoughts fall away from him as unconsciousness claims him.

 


 

The Red Lion stops roaring the moment Keith falls still.

It’s quiet, blessed silence slammed down upon them without warning. Shiro holds tight to the younger man, his heart pounding too loud and erratic.

The Ruvians don't move, shocked into stillness by what had transpired in the past minute, but Shiro knows it won't be that way for long. They're in a sudden face-off, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

“Paladins!” Everyone jumps at the sound of Allura’s shout through the comms, wavering with what seems like fear.

“Please, answer me, what’s going on?! The Red Lion just tried to break her way out of her hangar, what is happening ?”

What’s happening? Nothing would happen, if the Ruvians had any value for their lives.

Shiro doesn’t bother answering though. He looks at Hunk and Hunk snaps out of his daze then, hurrying to take Keith while Shiro stands up and slowly turns to face the aliens. His arm glows violet, a furious shade to match the rage building in him.

“What did you do to him,” he says, flat and icy, unlike anything he’d let himself show before. Maybe, a while ago, it would have melded fine with the audiences of the Arena who had brayed so cruelly for the Champion’s brand of fighting.

In his imprisonment, he’d fought in desperation, and then, with a savagery barely contained by the honour that still meant so very much to him. Sometimes, even those values had not been enough. But back then, it had only been himself and a couple of prisoners he'd befriended.

This time, it concerns Keith.

The Ruvians have backed away, many of them close to fleeing after being subjected to a taste of Red’s anger. They’re left staring at the team, frightened, but surprisingly stoic.

Good. Let them be afraid.

“We are not responsible for this,” Baral says, with narrowed eyes, “But it is his punishment.”

Shiro clenches his fist and takes another deliberate step forward.

“I won’t ask again,” he says, and it’s quiet, deadly, intent carrying over with undeniable clarity. His vision flickers with black, the memory of sizzling flesh, gouges, broken bodies. He has no qualms in using scare tactics, or far worse, if necessary. If Keith doesn’t survive this—well. Then neither will the Ruvians.

“This is a mistake. Stand down.”

Shiro flinches at the unexpected words that filter through his mind like his own thoughts, just as the Ruvians split away to make space for someone. The shock of the interruption pulls at his senses, dousing his anger. Hot shame fills him in the next second as he registers just what he’d been promising to himself.

Gut churning, he lets his arm power down and hang at his side, fingers curling into a fist. He backs up, not daring to look at his team, focusing instead on the approach of the new alien.

Everything about them is elongated, from their limbs to their body, tall and willowy, towering over even the Ruvians. In contrast, their head is rounded, topped with long tufts of thick, dark blue, rubber-like hair. Their skin is a translucent blue, a bright glow of light visible dead-center of their torso.

Coran gasps. “You are a Somilin!”

The Somilin ignores him, all their attention on Baral. Nothing is said, yet Baral looks away with a scoff, crossing his arms across his chest.

“He’s Galra,” he mutters. “I was taking care of it.”

That doesn't sound promising at all, especially when the Somilin turns towards them, face as smooth and featureless as a mask. No nose, no mouth; only small, glassy eyes that sweep over them, straying down to rest on Keith’s prone body. In a flash, Lance has his Bayard up, gun muzzle pointed at them.

“Back off, bub!”

Baral tenses at the threat but the Somilin only responds with a head tilt, assessing the Bayard and then Lance with a cool stare.

“You were searching for me, were you not?”

Shiro shudders as the voice fills his head again, echoing oddly like it’s bouncing off metal. Hunk lets out a squeaky sound while Pidge swears aloud in shock.

Lance falters, grip on his weapon loosening for just a moment.

“What the cheese?” he whispers. “How’d you—no, wait, get out of my head, whatever you are!”

“I am Veroy,” they respond. “And you are the Paladins of Voltron.”

“Stop doing that, you’re freaking me out!”

“I have no mouth. How else am I meant to communicate?”

There’s a touch of impatience in those words. Lance blinks at them, then shrugs awkwardly. Shiro gets the impression that if Veroy had human mannerisms, they would have rolled their eyes.

“Your friend is close to death. He will not have long unless you get him to safety.”

Shiro goes still and has to mentally sidestep the turmoil that incites in him.

“That's why we came. You can save him, right?” He demands. “You know who we are, you know what we do. Please, you have to save him!”

Veroy’s strange eyes fix on him. They’re a severe, stinging blue, but he can envision a sense of urgency there.

“You mistake my intentions. He still has time. Have one from your team take him home. Listen to what I have to say, and I may yet help you.”

Typical, Shiro thinks bitterly.

It’s the worst, most agonising kind of ultimatum with Keith laying there, so utterly still. They can’t leave without answers and Shiro's not in any position to argue. Without the cure to whatever plagues Keith, he’s left with no choice.

He wonders if it would have made any difference if Keith had stayed on board the Castle. Maybe  he would have been safer then.

Or maybe the attack—the seizure, because he has no better word for it—would have happened anyway and they would have come back to the sight of Keith—

Shiro looks over his shoulder, to his team.

“Hunk?” He asks, hesitantly.

To his relief, Hunk is way ahead of him, already standing up with Keith draped in his arms. Pidge has a hold of both their Bayards, her own already stowed away. She nods towards the rest of them before heading towards the Yellow Lion. To everyone's surprise, the Ruvians shuffle aside grudgingly to let her through and Pidge slips past them with a wary frown.

Shiro approaches Hunk, looking down at Keith’s unconscious form to drink in the sight of him, still alive, still breathing. He brushes a knuckle across his cheekbone in a bid to reassure himself, struggles not to break apart when Keith doesn’t even stir at the touch. He prays he’s not making a mistake in his choice.

Hunk, somehow, reads right through what he leaves unsaid.

“Pidge and I will take care of him,” Hunk tells him seriously. “We’ll get him safely to the Castle Ship.”

“And we’re staying with you,” Lance adds, Coran backing him with a sharp nod.

Shiro makes himself smile and nods in return, before finally stepping away. He watches as Hunk follows after Pidge, taking care to not jostle the precious bundle in his arms. The Ruvians back away further as he passes them and then he’s in his Lion, Yellow powering up to launch away from Seril, back to the Castle.

Shiro tries very hard not to feel like he’s said goodbye.

He turns back to the gathering of aliens and gestures at Veroy.

“Go ahead,” he bites out, terse and venemous.

He has to grind his teeth against a curse when Veroy takes their sweet time getting started, just staring at him for a few seconds before they finally begin.

“Your friend has had a Somilin’s curse placed upon him. It is one cast by my people, deca-phoebs ago. You are lucky that he is not wholly Galra or you would have left Merinoma with nothing more than his body.”

Shiro exhales, slow and steady, tamping down on the storm roiling within him. He doesn't care that this alien knows of things they shouldn't, with the invasive nature of their magic. He doesn't care that they probably know everything about him too.

Keith wouldn’t have made it past a day.

Shiro’s fears had so come close to becoming true. Keith could have died without warning, just like that, is still very much in danger of that and all Shiro can do is stand helpless as a strange blue alien, the only one who has the answers he needs, makes demands of him.

“ . . . Tell me you can break the curse.”

“I can. But you must understand first. My people knew the Galra were an emotive kind, far more so than most species. Community and family meant much to them, as did the memories formed of such. My siblings preyed on those very emotions and turned it against the Galra, weakened them and drained them of Quintessence until they were nothing but ash.”

“Keith's fading quintessence,” Lance murmurs. “It wasn't an symptom of sickness. That was part of it.”

And that's how the Ruvians had known, Shiro muses. A curse made just for the Galra, striking at their weak points. They must have recognised it for what it was, the moment Coran had described it to them.

With a sinking feeling, he recalls every incident of the past few days, the way Keith had slowly but surely withdrawn from him.

No. No, you’re right, I’m sorry. I know it’s stupid, but I was so sure that if I said anythi—

They'd had Keith firmly in the grasp of their curse, and none of them had been the wiser.

Coran speaks suddenly, mustache positively quivering in his outrage.

“This can't be. The Somili I knew had principles and a firm control over their emotions. They worked for healing, and healing alone. They would never advocate for this kind of targeted magic!”

“A lot has changed. My people learned of the value in vengeance.”

“But why? What happened ?”

“. . . The Galra Empire. They destroyed everything.”

It’s simple fact; knowledge that leaves Shiro resigned, unsurprised. The suffering they’d seen across the universe had always been traced right back to the Empire, barring the rare pockets of peaceful colonies and free nations. Why would Planet Seril be spared?

He takes a moment to look around at Lance and Coran, who are wearing similarly grim expressions. The soft buzz of Veroy’s telepathy fills his mind once more.

“The Galra have always been rather taken by our ability to shape magic; to shape the mind. Once Zarkon gained power and the Paladins of Voltron fell apart, it was only a matter of time before the Galra came for us. It did not matter that we had chosen neutrality in the brewing war. We had learned of Alfor’s death. We saw Altea and the Elden San solar system perish as Daibazaal once did. We were spared for many deca-phoebs, we did not defy the Empire, and yet . . . we were unprepared for their attack on Seril.”

Lance speaks up, angry and agitated.

“Oh, cry me a river, boo hoo . Look, your magic hurt our friend and according to you, he could still die! Excuse us if we’re not feeling very magnanimous about all this.”

“As I said earlier, I will help your friend. But you must listen first. Please, Paladin.”

Lance snorts, but Shiro meets his gaze and shakes his head. Lance subsides with a reluctant but acquiescing nod.

“They attacked Seril,” Veroy continues, brimming with an old, aching hurt. “ They stole many of us away to Merinoma, tortured and experimented as they pleased in a bid to learn more about our nature and take it for themselves. My people were forced to fight back then, and our magic grew explosively out of our control under their instruments, but still, we failed to escape. The druid wanted much from us . . . We could not cope.”

Every word of Veroy’s story is intimately familiar to Shiro, like a page torn right out of the litany of things the Galra Empire had done to him. The origin to a revenge story, Shiro realises.

If Veroy was to be believed, then the Somili were another victim in aeons of war and pain. Shiro can’t pretend he doesn’t empathize. Just a minute earlier, he'd been ready to commit the same revenge-driven actions on the Ruvians. Suppressing a shudder, he forces himself to focus on the conversation.

“When you say the druid . . . Do you mean Haggar?” he asks.

Veroy drifts forward a step, their hair floating up sluggishly like the wax contents of a lava lamp.

“I never knew her name. I was not taken with my siblings but I knew, even so. We were all connected, mind and soul, an entire community lined up on the same intent and thought but never meant to be isolated so. I could see and feel every moment of their pain. The few of us that the druid did not manage to capture were driven insane over phoebs of loss and separation, while others . . . faded over the years. I am the last.”

Veroy says this blandly, like they’re only stating a fact, distancing themself from that truth. Around them, the Ruvians shift uncomfortably, one of them letting out a short, mournful cry. Veroy does not acknowledge it.

“Eventually, my people reached their breaking point under the torture and, with that, they broke our principles. They harnessed the magic we were gifted with and fed it with darkness, in an attempt to lash out. They killed the Galra in their rage, as many as they could. But the druid did not wait for us to gain the advantage. She had found all she needed and ordered our immediate slaughter.”

Of course, Shiro thinks. Haggar would do that, with her usual disregard for sentient life forms. He’d seen it enough, but one incident stood out, with an unfortunate prisoner who had outlived his use by becoming a far larger hassle than the Galra could be bothered to deal with. Unlike Shiro, who’d been the Champion and one of only three of his species, that alien had been . . . replaceable.

Veroy glances at him suddenly, a graceful shift of their head, and Shiro finds himself on the end of their unnerving stare once more. Mind magic. Could they know what he’d been thinking about? If they do, Veroy gives no indication of it, looking once more at their group as a whole.

“My siblings were cornered by Galra soldier and druid alike. They created the curse then, with the reversal and corruption of a powerful healing spell. They drew out their fear and hatred and embedded it into their very cells. The Galra who encountered them after that were inflicted with the curse, minds torn apart by their own memories, forced to relive them, over and over even as their quintessence drained away. They succumbed in hours, some within minutes. A mere touch and they were destroyed by the very thing that once made them such a powerful society. They were forced o flee, chased out by victims on their dying breath.”

“Like a kamikaze mission . . . Suicide,” Lance says, uneasily. He’s enraptured by the story now, no longer voicing his protest but listening intently.

Veroy pauses, then bobs their head, and it translates into a strange, casual shrug.

“I suppose. It didn’t stop the Galra from attacking in return, of course. And once they fled the base, the Somili they left behind did not survive. They died soon after from the atmospheric pressure outside the lab; the intricate environment of Merinoma was never meant for our kind. But if your friend is any indication, their bones have stayed untouched since, enduring still, and with that, the curse too. It will cling forever to their remains.”

Shiro swallows, feeling sick. There’s a hand on his shoulder that he thinks might be Coran’s, but he finds his eyes drawn to the glow of Veroy’s torso, attention caught there like cotton threads on a thorn bush. When he looks close enough, there’s a tiny pulse to it, the glow fading in and out with the consistency of a heartbeat. He wonders how many similar heartbeats had been taken away, glowed fading into permanent darkness.

“Our home, our legacy and our lives were wiped out in a matter of two movements. Were it not for the Ruvians who took us in at the brink of death and nourished those of us who remained, we would never have survived.”

Shiro’s eyes flick up to Baral, who stares back steadily as though daring him to utter a word.

It makes sense, all of it. The Ruvians’ hostility towards Keith, their overreaction and sheer fury. And then there's Veroy, quiet and unassuming, yet powerful enough to tap into their heads without their knowledge and kind enough to not take advantage of it.

How must it feel to be the last person in an uprooted life, watching and feeling every moment as your family died? To live among a group that was so other, so different from you. To know how helpless you are to even carry forth your people’s legacy, when no one else exists to take pride in it.

It’s a different context but . . . Shiro knows a little bit about that. And he knows other people who have suffered the same. He turns towards Coran, just to check in, and finds the man focused on Veroy with the kind of stoicness that would almost be convincing if not for the tightness of his features.

Shiro clears his throat, reaching for the calm in him that had always gotten him through moments like this.

“Veroy,” he says, gently. “Why are you telling us this? What do need from us?” It’s all he can assume at this point; that they want an exchange of some kind. Keith’s life, perhaps, for whatever price Veroy names.

“I am telling you this, Paladin, because I want my sorrow answered. Vengeance did not settle it for my people. I hear that the witch has already achieved much, that she’s made use of our spells to destroy whole planets. I need your promise that you will dismantle the Galra Empire and never let this happen again. I need your word that you will fix it.”

There’s a moment of silence that Lance proceeds to break with a loud scoff.

“Were you not listening earlier? We’re the Paladins of Voltron, buddy. That’s what we’re fighting for!”

Veroy’s penetrating stare moves to him, appraising, but Lance doesn’t flinch, meeting them head on.

". . . No. You are not. You have your own people and that is who you fight for. But perhaps that is not such a terrible thing," they say.

Lance hesitates then, unshaken in his confidence yet confused by the simultaneously bland and cryptic nature of Veroy’s words.

Shiro gets it though.

“Keith is family,” he says, firmly. “We can’t defeat the Empire without him. We won’t. Maybe that's selfish, maybe that's insane, but I'm willing to bet you know how that feels. If you do, then you’ll help him.”

Veroy raises their head high but they remain quiet, as though mulling over what's been said.

And that’s when their comms go off.

“Shiro? Shiro? ” Hunk is loud enough to be audible to the entire gathering of aliens and humans alike. He sounds panicked, thick with tears, and Shiro almost staggers with the sheer dread that seeps over him.

“Hunk? What’s going on, what is it?”

“Shiro, thank god , you have to do get here. Keith won’t wake up! I don’t know what to do, Allura thought of putting him in a cyro-pod but—”

“The Altean pods will not work!” Veroy says suddenly, and the sound rings high, causing everyone to wince. “I can feel him fading. He will be most vulnerable in deep sleep, the pod will worsen his condition. You need to go.”

Shiro relays this to Hunk shakily but he's caught on the last statement.

“What do you mean, go? You said you'd help us if we heard you out! Please, we’ll do what we can to end the Empire’s reign but you have—”

“I am making you a promise,” Veroy interrupts him, gently. “I intend to keep it. Go to him and I will do what I can. He is unconscious; if there is to be any hope of saving him now, you must connect with him.”

“But he's not waking—”

Lance whispers slowly, in revelation, “Mind meld?” and for the first time since meeting them Veroy seems pleased, humming in approval.

“Yes. Now, go. I will handle this part but he will need you. Do not be afraid. Just help him.”

Shiro nods and turns to leave, then hesitates. “I . . . thank you for your help.”

Veroy acknowledges him with another head tilt, yellow eyes glinting.

“Good luck, Paladin.”

 


 

Baral watches the Black Lion leave, hope sinking with each tic as the distance between it and the planet grows. He takes an uncertain  step towards his friend, wringing his hands together.

“Veroy, I don’t understand. Why would you agree to this? You are already weakened and the boy . . . he is Galra.”

Vero turns to stare at him, ever solemn and serene.

“I needed to know if he is worth it and I found my answer. He is more Paladin than he is Galra or human, a mere child from our view. His team needs him. Baral, you took up this grudge for me and my people. I ask you to look beyond that grudge and see reason for me now.”

“But the energy you'd need for that would—your—you could die !” If his voice cracks when he says it, no one of Jova dares bring it up. There’s not a single Ruvian who would mock a moment so serious; there’s not a single Ruvian who doesn’t understand the depth of what Veroy is proposing.

“It is time,” Veroy says simply. “Between my life well-lived and the Paladin who has barely begun his, it is a choice I do not find worth debating. At the very least, my people will finally rest with honour.”

Baral swallows, holding out for another moment before he bows his head in defeat, and acceptance. By now, he knows better than to argue. It'd always been Veroy’s most frustratingly endearing quality.

“Then. We stand with you Veroy . . . Go in peace.”

Baral knows that had Veroy had a mouth to smile with, it would have been the most beautiful smile of any. The warmth he feels brushing against his thoughts is enough for him though.

“You have borne much for my sake, Baral. I am forever held to your debt.”

Baral shakes his head, maintaining his stoicness somehow despite the pain radiating in his heart.

“No debts . . . Know that it was our honour to have you.”

Veroy has no more to say as they settle in the centre of a circle of mourning Ruvians, prepared to perform the last spell of their considerable lifespan. Baral stands right at the front of the crowd, jaw clenched tight. He watches as Veroy closes their eyes, blue pinched shut behind their lids. He watches their magic rise, reaching out, trails of green sparking from within their core to flow all over their body. Wisps of the same magic trail down from the sky with a low susurrus, these gleaming a sickly yellow instead. Veroy flinches as these remnant spells connect with them; as they come in contact with the shredded souls of long-lost Somili.

It’s simple, methodical. Veroy pulls at the threads, cuts away each with a sharp jerk until the tendrils of corrupt magic fade, and the Somilin it belongs to is set free. It's destruction, an insult to the very principles the Somili had held so dear.

There's one final wave of magic then, and Baral knows it's for the boy. It lashes outward from Veroy’s torso, sent to wherever the Galra boy is to be found, a crescendo reserved for the end.

Veroy makes no sound when they begin to crumble, quite literally, their magic burning them from inside out. They're falling apart into smoke and debris, separating into ash fluttering in the wind. His people sob and avert their eyes but Baral can't bear to look away even as tears slip through his tight control.

“Goodbye, love.”

It’s a weak curl of words, their last burst of strength reserved just for him. Only for him.

Baral cries out loud, reaching out to catch them before they hit the ground, uncaring of what the others think.

"No! No no no no, Veroy, no—"

Another flash of light, a spasm, and Veroy goes still. They hardly weigh a thing in his arms. The Ruvians fall silent, expectant, awaiting their leader to play his role, to pay his respects to the passing. He doesn't know if he has the strength.

“I’m sorry,” Baral whispers, choking on it. It's useless, a sentiment come far too late, yet one he cannot leave unsaid. “I'm sorry I caused this, I'm sorry, I'm—”

He forces the rest down, builds a shoddy dam against the wave of grief. Final rites. He has duty to attend to.

“Veroy. May . . . May you live on for enternity from now, in the ripples of your actions. May your intent and soul be reborn in one as good as you." Then, in a whipser, "And may I live a long and wise life before you need see me again . . . Goodbye, Veroy.”

 


 

On the Castle Ship, it's utter chaos.

The moment they'd landed, Shiro had split away from the others and dashed towards the Yellow Lion’s hangar, Lance and Coran heading in the opposite direction.

Down in the hangar, he's met with the scene of Hunk and Allura arguing, Keith still cradled carefully in Hunk's arms. Pidge sits a distance away them, fiddling over one of her numerous portables.

“We have to do something !” Allura insists. “If we put him in the cryo-po—”

“I told you, we can’t,” Hunk interrupts frantically, “Veroy said he’s most vulnerable in his sleep and remember what you said when Shiro was in them, that his brain activity wasn't completely blocked out despite him being unconscious? What if we put Keith in and that’s the final push and the—”

Pidge pushes between him and Allura impatiently.

“I need to know, Princess. Those devices we used to mind meld and cement the team bonds, will those work? Can we reach out to him that way?”

It’s been a long time since they’ve seen Allura so absolutely speechless. A muscle in her jaw jumps, and she looks at each of them helplessly.

“I . . . Paladins, I’m sorry, but they’ve never been used beyond the training exerc—“

There’s a chorus of roars then, resounding slowly from below them to rise through the room. Pidge jumps and Hunk just about drops Keith, fumbling to hold on to him.

The Black Lion’s growl comes to mind, a snarl of protest and reassurance, a weighted rumbling settling smoothly on his shoulders.

“I-I think the Lions are saying they can help?” Shiro stutters, and he gets furious nods in reply, Pidge nearly vibrating in excitement as she looks at him.

“There’s a chance,” she says, grinning wide. “I think Green and I can figure something out, we’ll need Hunk’s help too, but we have a chance! We can do this!” She whirls around to Allura, grabbing her wrists earnestly. “There isn’t much time, we need to start now!”

Coran and Lance come running in, hauling several pieces of equipment between them.

“Okay, okay, we’re here and Blue is yelling at me!” Lance pants out, wild-eyed. “She says she can help!”

That nudges something in the Princess as she gathers herself with a deep breath and nods.

“Then let’s save our Red Paladin, shall we?”

Chapter Text

While Hunk goes over to help Pidge with the mind meld bands, Shiro sits cross-legged on the floor where they’d laid Keith out, wishing there were a more comfortable place to set him down. His heart’s still racing from a brief scare moments ago when a green glow had settled over Keith, illuminating the sharp dips of his cheeks and collar bone. Shiro had just about flipped.

It’d faded as suddenly as it had appeared, and it took Coran’s hasty explanation about Somilin magic before any of them could relax again. Veroy had kept their promise and broken the curse, and now the rest was up to them. Shiro swears he’ll return to Seril and thank Veroy, and perhaps even fix Voltron’s tattered relationship with the Ruvians, if it meant their plan would work.

Keith lets out a soft grunt, mouth scrunching into a grimace. He shifts, an involuntary movement that causes his head to loll to the other side. It had happened twice already so far, teamed with shivers wracking his body. He’s paler than ever, those veins popping up again, stark and ugly against his skin like trails of bruises protruding from the inside.

A shadow looms over them and Shiro looks up as Lance crouches beside him and sheepishly offers him a pillow. He takes it automatically, raising an eyebrow at the younger man.

“I grabbed it real quick from my room ‘cause I figured he should be comfy,” Lance says, shrugging. “Last thing we need is for him to wake up all pissy because he has a crick in his neck, right?” The bravado is ruined by the waver in his voice. Shiro drops a hand on his shoulder and jostles him lightly.

“Good thinking,” he says, smiling. “Thanks, Lance.”

Lance returns the smile, then slaps his hands to his knees and stands up, stretching his arms up with an exaggerated groan. “Well, let’s get this show on the road! Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Legendary Defender, Voltron. Its mission: to explore the murky and mind-boggling depths of mullet-head’s brain, where no man has gone before.”

From across the room, Hunk lets out a snort and covers his mouth guiltily, while Pidge just rolls her eyes. Much to his own surprise, Shiro finds it in himself to chuckle, though he’s quick to sober when he glances back down at Keith. He reaches over to smooth out tufts of his black hair, before gently lifting Keith’s head to slip the pillow under. It’s a meagre safeguard from the cold floor, but it would have to do.

It doesn’t escape Shiro’s notice that the others have no idea what they’re getting into. Hell, he barely knows what to expect himself.

He’s known Keith for years now, through the dreary struggles of Galaxy Garrison, in good times and bad times alike. They'd come out on the other end of misunderstandings and insecurities with the quiet content of knowing they'd stand by each other through it all, always. With Voltron, that bond had grown further, unexplained by mere words and absolutely irreplaceable.

Simply put, he doesn’t care for the revelations about Keith’s blood, because Keith is exactly who he has always been. The difference is insight. Veroy had described the Galra emotiveness as unparalleled from other species, and he can see that with Keith; there'd always been an intensity about him, raw and unfiltered, in how he felt and reacted to things.

Despite not understanding, acceptance had been Shiro’s way of tackling it; the least he could do for a boy who was grappling for an identity and a foothold that would not crumble beneath him. It was good to have confirmation that none of it had been strange and unnatural, as Keith’s peers and the Garrison brass had loved to deride him for. It’d just been . . . Keith.

But if those emotions were to be explained by that blood, if they’d quite literally been weaponised against him now, then this rescue mission—this delving into his mind—could be far more difficult than they were prepared to deal with.

He’s not all that worried though.

This is his team: Hunk leaning over Pidge’s shoulder to point something out in her calculations, the pair working furiously over each band. Lance, standing by the hangar door, rubbing a hand over his mouth as he talks to a harried-looking Allura. Coran heading over to check on Keith, acknowledging Shiro with a nod.

There’s no doubt they care for Keith, no matter how unsteady things had been initially after their return from the Marmora Base. Throughout the ordeal this had become, they'd more than proven themselves as people to be trusted, over and over and over again. And now, here they are, plainly ready to do it once more.

“We’re done!” Pidge says, leaping up to show them the improved mind meld bands. She distributes them, one for each Paladin, but Coran shakes his head when she goes to hand him one.

“I’m afraid I won’t be joining you. Someone has to stay on standby, in case the Castle falls under attack or one of the Blades contact us. Your Paladin bond with Keith will serve you far better in your mission, so we’ll be staying here to monitor the situation.”

“We can ensure he remains in stable condition,” Allura adds, refusing her band as well.

Pidge nods and hands Shiro his band last.

“Green, Hunk and I hacked into the settings as best as we could, ran a patch and programmed the devices to boost their reach and strengthen the link to center on Keith’s mind meld band. Your Lion kinda helped too.”

Shiro blinks, surprised. “Black did?”

Pidge’s grin widens the way it does when she's about to go into a tech-fuelled rant.

“I’ll spare you the details for later but I'm just saying. The Black Lion has way more to her than we realized and the way she travels is just phenomenal. Did you know she can astral—anyway, never mind that. The point is, Green translated everything Black told her so Hunk and I could work it out from there, and we’re basically applying the same concept to the mind meld. If everything checks out, we should be able to project ourselves into Keith's mind.”

Shiro smiles fondly, sliding the band’s connectors over his head as Pidge moves to do the same for Keith.

“I have no idea how you worked that out but I trust the both of you.”

“Yeah, well.” Hunk inserts himself into the conversation with a nervous laugh. “It’s pretty cool, but I mean. I don’t think this is gonna be that easy. Keith’s in his own mind, it’s kind of like he’s trapped there? Anyway, the Lions are gonna help us track him down, narrow in on the location of . . . of his conscious. Kind of. Otherwise we’re gonna be searching forever in his noodle and end up trapped there ourselves, probably.”

“There is that possibility, yes,” Allura says grimly.

“Wait, what?” Lance asks. “What do you mean we could end up trapped ourselves? No one said anything about being trapped in Keith’s head!”

“I mean, it’s just a risk,” Hunk mutters, but the thought of it is clearly making him queasy too, sweat gathering at his temples.

“That won’t happen,” Shiro says firmly. “We’ve gotten through every mission so far despite all the obstacles we’ve faced. On the off chance that something does go wrong, I know you guys can figure it out; you always have. We don’t have many options and it’s odd when it’s just the four of us. But we can do this. We have to do this, for Keith.”

The others look at him, their fear not quite abating so much as pressed aside for what they need to do.

“Are you with me?”

He gets a set of three determined nods, two more from the Alteans who had been ready from the start, already knowing the stakes. Lance is the one to put it in words though, the answer Shiro is looking for.

“Heck yeah, we’re with you. Let’s roll!”

 


 

Between one blink and the next, he’s in a dark room, lit only by a slice of light seeping in through the gap of the window curtains. Shiro takes a quick glance around, spotting tan couches and a low coffee table with a pretty flower vase placed on top. It’s an elegant living room, picture frames lining the space beside a bookcase and an ornate, wall-mounted lamp.

A huge, potted plant sits by a green door that’s probably the entrance, with a hallway leading further inside. The whole ensemble is inviting, the very makings of a neat and perfect house.

It’s unnerving.

Shiro glances down at himself only to realise he’s half-transparent, like he’s not completely present in this place. The ugly carpet beneath his feet is visible through his armour-covered legs, which is as fascinating as it is disturbing.

Lance appears beside him suddenly in a dusting of pixels, Hunk and Pidge following soon after.

“Holy cheeseburger. It worked!” Lance says, head whipping around to take in the room. Pidge heaves a sigh, though she does smile in pride. For a hastily-put-together device, it’s quite the achievement.

“Huh,” Hunk mutters, quirking his brow at the ordinary setting. “I’ll admit, I was kind of expecting something along the lines of erupting volcanoes and hardcore punk music in the background. This isn’t exactly what I—” He pauses for effect, failing to stifle his growing smile. “— had in mind .”

Lance interrupts his gawking to groan, flinging a hand out and smacking Hunk in the arm, which results in a short tussle before Pidge shuts them up with some well-placed jabs of her elbow.

“Alright, guys,” Shiro says, trying to keep them on track. “Let’s go—”

The room is abruptly bathed in the white-lit glow of the lamp. Shiro registers two things at once: First, the slam of the door as a woman enters the house, kicks her shoes off and dumps several bags onto the floor. Second, the young boy sitting on the couch where, earlier, there had been none.

Shiro narrows in on the boy, tunnel vision focus on the shock of black hair, thin knees pulled tight to an equally thin chest.

Kei—”

“Keith, what are you doing up? I told you to get to bed before I’m home, didn’t I?” The woman says as she walks further in, throwing a set of keys onto the coffee table. They land with a clatter, scoring a tiny scratch on the wood.

The child—Keith, at about 6 years—unfurls from his position and looks at the woman with a painfully hopeful expression marring the youthfulness of his face.

“Did they find him?” He asks.

“Keith, please. It’s been a long day and I’ve been work—”

“He’s coming back for me, right? He’s coming back?”

There’s the hushed slide of fabric as the woman removes her coat and gusts out a slow breath. Her complexion edges towards a ruddy red, jaw clenching tight.

“Go to bed. We’ll discuss thi—”

“Is it because I left the house? I know he said not to but I just wanted to—”

“FOR GOD’S SAKE, KEITH!” The woman explodes, throwing down the last of her affects. Keith flinches at the outburst, scrambling back a little as she stalks forward and right into his face.

“Look, I don’t know what the fuck Carlton keeps telling you but your dad isn’t coming back any time soon, if at all!”

Keith’s cheeks colour as he glares up at her, but his mouth is quivering.

“I just—”

“Your deadbeat dad fucking dumped you and left, okay?” The woman yells, “That’s the truth, so you better suck it up and go the fuck to bed! I’m not in the goddamn mood to deal with this!”

Keith gasps, this tiny inhale that’s the first sign of foundations cracking. Shiro knows what’s coming, watches helplessly as Keith’s shoulders bunch high till his ears, as his glare dials up to the searing levels of child-like fury that are nothing in the wake of an adult.

“Th-that’s not true! You’re a LIAR!” He shrieks, jumping off the couch to defend his father, to desperately clutch at the little hope he has of seeing him again. “YOU’RE A LIAR, YOU’RE A LIAR, I WANT PA—”

It’s so sudden that it’s over in a second, silence falling flat over them after the smack and crash of porcelain hitting skin.

The vase from the coffee table lies on the floor, a shattered mess of shards. Keith’s on his knees, pale blue dust settling on his back, his shoulders and in his hair. His eyes are wide with shock and a real seed of fear.

Hunk lets out a belated cry, hands covering his mouth. The others are in no better shape and Shiro is extremely aware of the buzz reeling over his body, the snarl twisting his lips. She’d hit him. The woman had hit him, smashed the vase right over him, she’d hit him.

They’d all been mute witnesses, rooted to the spot as it happened.

Shiro can’t watch. Not as Keith—this tiny, child-Keith—begins to wail, high and panicked, sobs bubbling up beyond his control. Not as the woman lurches forward to shake him quiet, hissing at him to “fucking behave ”. Every inch of him is boiling with downright hatred; he wants to throttle this person, this brutal monster who had dared to hurt Keith.

Then the room goes dark. Keith and the woman fade out as suddenly as they had appeared and Shiro remembers.

This is only a memory. This moment has already passed and he’s never felt so useless before, fists clenching hard with nowhere to land them. Next to him, Pidge’s breathing has sped up, close to hyperventilating over what she’d seen. Lance is about the same, stuttering over horrified questions about what had just taken place. Hunk stays quiet though, shaking, ashen-faced. Shiro wants to reassure them somehow, but he can’t drudge up a single word that would help.

There’s no warning when a hand clamps around his left wrist and wrenches him around, nearly pulling him off-balance. Shiro stiffens, Galra arm coming alive to disarm his attacker but stops immediately when he recognises them.

“W—Keith?!”

Keith glares up at him, blazing bright despite how thin and harrowed he appears. His body is transparent like theirs, though dressed in his usual red jacket and black attire instead of the Paladin armour. This is Keith’s conscious, Shiro realises, gaping at his boyfriend. Relief spills over him, his brain coming back online from fight mode. He’d been prepared for the worst, envisioning a long search or trek of some kind, never expecting that they’d find him so soon. Especially after what had played out in front of them.

Keith is less than pleased to see them though.

“What are you doing here?” He demands, letting go of Shiro to scowl at each of them in turn. Shiro recoils and opens his mouth in shock, but whatever he’d planned to say dissolves away. Luckily, the others don’t seem as incapacitated as Shiro had assumed.

“W-what are we doing here? Dude, we’re here to save you, duh?” Lance says, incredulously. Keith snaps a look over his own shoulder like he’s afraid someone’s listening in, then turns back to them, shaking his head, hard.

“No. No, you can’t be here! You have to leave, now!”

Shiro unsticks his tongue long enough to protest that, alarm rising at Keith’s obvious fear. There’s no time to explain all that had transpired on Seril, but that can wait.

“Keith, we came here for you. I’m not leaving until—you know this isn’t—you know we’re in your head, right?”

Keith cuts him an impatient look and takes a purposeful step away from him.

“The Trials of Marmora weren’t that long back, Shiro, I think I can figure that much out for myself. Just get out of here, okay? Go.”

Shiro stares, feeling the distance like a hard punch to the gut. He’s not sure what kind of reaction he’d expected, but this is most definitely not it. Some of his hurt must show because Keith softens a little, though he makes no move to close the gap between them.

“Look, you can’t stay here. You need to leave. Get out of my head, go back—

“And what?” Hunk blurts. “Go back without you? What are you crazy? Look, I’m sorry we invaded your privacy and all, I know you hate that, but we did it to get you out of here!”

“Hunk, please, just—”

“No!” Pidge stomps her foot angrily. “We’re not just going to leave you here, what the hell, Keith?”

Keith's the very picture of a lit candle guttering in the wind, withdrawing away from them with every protest they make. The room begins to fragment, falling apart and reforming in a kaleidoscope of colours. Dread fills Shiro’s throat as Keith backs up, further from their grasp.

“I can’t go up there with you,” Keith says. He’s distracted when the scene changes though, and Shiro looks too, enraptured as each image flickers by at an increasingly rapid pace. The previous room has all but disappeared now, rearranged into sections of other memories.

First is a backyard, the faint taste of summer in the air. A man tends to a garden, pointing his trowel at the loamy soil as he sprinkles seeds in the readied bed. There’s a teenager crouched by his side, watching the man’s actions with single-minded focus and interest. Shiro stares at this Keith, so young and happy with a genuine and rather goofy grin taking up most of his face.

A shift and now they’re in a small room opening out to the view of a gray, rainy day. Teenaged-Keith stands by an unmade bed, gazing out the window to streets streaked red and blue by the strobe lights of two police cars parked on the curb. His hands curl tight over the sill, hiding the tremor in his fingers.

Shift and it’s the desert plateau stretching out for miles; rich, red-gold and endless. A pair of young officers on a hover bike whoop in delight as Keith races past on his own craft, overtaking them easily with only a trail of dust to decorate the accomplishment.

Shiro is transfixed. They all are. The memories keep going, warm and joyful, cold and terrifying, a graphic mapping of the highs and lows of Keith’s life.

Shift. A younger Keith, hair short and curling at the nape of his neck, a dark bruise blooming over his cheek. Shift. Keith tugging at sweaters and pant legs only to be impatiently brushed away. Shift. Keith hunching into small corners to escape unwanted gazes, lashing out at kind hands and smiles for the fear of how uncertain and short-lived those would be.

Shift. Shiro starts when he sees himself, young, clear-eyed and unscarred, face lit in the warmth of the setting sun. He smiles fondly down at a Keith dressed in the orange uniform of a cadet. The Orion’s boosters tower above their heads, gleaming exactly the way Shiro remembers it, mere hours before the fateful launch of the Kerberos Mission.

He’s immobile, left helpless to watch the playout of their last memory together on Earth before everything had gone so irretrievably wrong.

And it just keeps going, shift after shift after shift. It’s the dim insides of the old desert shack, Keith pinning up photos onto a board with trembling hands, tears clearing a path down his cheeks. It’s Keith on the training deck, tackling level after level without break. It’s a child trudging alone under the blistering sun, sand sliding beneath his sock-clad feet—

The Keith in front of them curls his fingers into his hair and pulls , words a mess of shaky exhales.

“Enough. Don’t look. Don’t, please.”

That’s what compels Shiro to move, finally. He’s never been much good at standing passive while Keith was hurting, and it’s no different now, when he stalks forward to clutch at those hands, stops him from tearing his hair out.

“Keith. You need to listen to us.”

“Just leave me alone ,” Keith cries out, eyes squeezed shut.

The memory keeps playing, the child stumbling over uneven sands, but Shiro ignores it in favour of the man in front of him. All of that is in the past and he can’t afford to fixate on it with the terrible understanding he’s coming upon. He gets it now, Hunk’s fear and Allura’s warning, of all the ways this mission could go wrong. They’d considered it, the danger of Keith getting trapped in his own mind, but he’d never imagined this: that Keith would choose to remain trapped.

“Don’t ask me to wake up,” Keith pleads through gritted teeth. “You can’t ask me that.”

Here’s the final precipice of this ordeal, the one that will make a difference in what happens from now. Somehow, it’s fallen into Shiro’s hands to make this better and an idea settles in him. It’s loathsome, one that goes against every fibre of his being. But he’s done with letting Keith slip further away from him. He’s done with letting this go by unaddressed, and there’s no place for delay anymore. If there’s ever a time to get his ass in gear, it’s now.

“Why?” He asks with projected calm. “What are you so afraid of?”

Keith’s eyes flash open and he tries to wrench out of Shiro’s grip but the action is weak, no energy to it.

“I’m not,” Keith mutters, gaze skittering away to the floor. He shoves at Shiro’s hands, scowling when it has no effect. “Let go of me.”

Shiro doesn’t relent though. His right arm drifts down to grasp at Keith’s shoulder instead, with the clear intent of not letting him escape and hating every aspect of what he has to do.

“Keith. It’s a simple question. What are you so afraid of that you’d rather stay here?”

“I-I’m not—” Keith stutters, angry splotches of red painting his face and neck. In the background, there’s a sharp gasp, a murmur of voices. Shiro stubbornly presses on.

“Just answer the question, Keith, what are you so afraid of?”

“Look, can we just—”

“Shiro—” That’s Pidge’s voice, a quick interjection that Shiro soundly ignores.

“What are you so afraid of?”

“I told you—”

What are you so afraid o—”

EVERYTHING!

It comes pouring out in a tumult of anger and despair flung right at Shiro’s face.

“I’m afraid of everything !” Keith shouts and this time he manages to wrench away from Shiro. His eyes dilate, eating at the violet of his irises; anxiety run amok. “Every day, every battle, every close call, I wonder if this is the one where we lose someone and it. It terrifies me!”

It’s like they’re at the start all over again, caught in some invisible net that has them swallowing their words. They’re unable to do anything but listen as Keith laughs, ugly and hollowed out, shaking his head wryly.

“I’m afraid of losing you,” he says, softer now. “I’m afraid that one day you’ll all open your eyes and realise what you’ve been carrying with you, that you’ll figure it out just like everyone else did and you’ll leave. My dad didn’t want me, the foster homes didn’t want me, so there must be something to it, right? There must be a reason since they keep leaving me and I know I should be used to it but I just. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to. You guys were right. I am scared. I am selfish, and I am cold-hearted, I—”

“No!” Hunk finally breaks past the horror that had kept him mute, pushed to the point where he can no longer just stand there and listen. He wrings his hands in pained guilt as he looks at Keith. “That's. That's not it, Keith. We were wrong. We were so wrong , I never should have said that, I'm so sorry!”

It takes a second to click. Shiro is thrown back in time, picturing a crackling fire and the burn of Haggar’s poison running through his veins. He recalls their crash on the planet after their first head-on battle with Zarkon, Keith’s insistence that everything would be alright. He remembers them waiting, the conversation falling into a lull, Keith looking off into the distance and admitting quietly, “Lance and Hunk were right. You all were.”

He hadn’t known what to make of it then, not with the fog of the poison clouding his thoughts and leaving him sweating buckets, gritting himself against the pain. Now, though, Shiro thinks about how events had unfolded, how they'd decided on the mission to rescue Allura.

Keith, that's cold, even for you.

No, you're thinking of yourself because you're too scared to do what's right!

And more recently, with the machinations of the Blade, built to split apart a vulnerable mind:

You’re just thinking of yourself as usual!

He blanches, throat suddenly dry. No. God, no. How long? How long had this been happening? How long had Keith wrapped himself around words that were meant to be meaningless, words said in the heat of the moment, words that were plain lies and not to be considered? How long had he clung to them and let them decide his self-worth?

Keith's lips are turned up into a lancing smile, a ragged curved shaped in the hands of a cut glass painter. Broken has never suited him more.

“You don't have to pretend. I'm. I'm Galra to the bone, I know that now—”

“That’s not true!”

Of all the people to intervene, Shiro had admittedly not expected it to be Lance. Lance seems struck by his own outburst, but he presses on, seeing Keith flounder with the interruption.

“That’s not true,” he repeats, folding his arms uneasily. “None of what you said about yourself, but especially about—about your dad.”

Everyone is staring at him and he shuffles on the spot, an uneasy movement that lets on how nervous he is at having their attention in this all-too-serious moment.

“Look, Blue told me she has something to show you, something important. I know things are a little whacky right now, and I.” He sighs, drooping slightly in shamed resignation. “I know I haven’t been the nicest to you, like, ever. I know I’ve been a jerk and that I'm the last person to have the right to say this, but . . . I need you to trust me, Keith. Or at least, trust the team and trust the Lions when I say that you’re gonna want to see this.”

Keith says nothing and Lance glances uncertainly around himself, looking for their support. It spurs Pidge to nod eagerly, her fingers clasped together in what looks like some form of prayer.

“Please, Keith, please!”

“Please,” Shiro repeats, “We can’t lose you.” Meaning, of course, I can’t lose you.

Somehow, that breaks through to Keith. He stares at Shiro, chest heaving with every emotion that’s been pulled to the surface, shoulders raised high in defence, unable to get a word out after the torrent earlier. He’s teetering on the edge of a decision, Shiro can see it, so he takes it a notch further, draws on everything in him for one last push.

“I get it, I do,” he says, and his desperation must bleed through because Keith is watching him closely, conflict apparent in the way he’s hanging on Shiro’s every word. “You’ve been through a lot in the past, and it’s been brought up in the worst way. I know how that feels. Right now, it seems like nothing could ever be okay, but I promise you that’s not how it is. All these memories and your dreams, they were amplified because of the Somili’s magic. Things are different now, you have to know that.”

He can’t in good conscience say everything’s better when he thinks of the lost time between them, the war and the constant hanging fear of losing each other with every battle they engage in. But it has to count for something that they’re here now, reunited and facing these obstacles side-by-side. That has to mean something to Keith, right?

“I—But I don’t know,” Keith blurts finally, this panicked, sharp edge to his tone. “I don’t know, Shiro, I don’t—”

Shiro reaches out to display his hand, palm up, but he does not go to touch him.

“It’ll be okay,” he says. “Whatever happens, we’re not leaving you here. I’m not leaving you, in any sense of the word.”

Keith’s hands curl into fists, knuckles whitening.

“It’ll be okay. I’m here. We all are.”

An exhale, and Keith looks up. Shiro’s hopes flares high just as Keith lets his fists fall and clutches onto Shiro’s outstretched hand with both of his. Fingers dig into flesh and there’s still a distinct gap between their bodies, but it’s a concession that Shiro is more than ready to accept as long as Keith doesn’t let go of him.

“Fine,” Keith says, softly. “ Fine. Show me.”

Shiro smiles, lets his other hand fall over Keith’s and gently squeezes.

“Thank you.”

Immediately, there’s the sensation of a nudge and a shock that reverberates down to Shiro’s soles. The scent of salt fills his nose and he’s left with the unpleasant impression of having been doused in ice cold seawater. There’s a faint purr and then, the memories around them shift once more. The sun winks out and the sand withdraws to a thin layer on the floor just as thick rock walls rise above their heads.

It’s a familiar cave, one that Shiro knows on sight, even if they’d only been there for a bare few minutes: the Blue Lion’s cave, back on Earth.

Sun rays filter in from the mouth of the cave, barely illuminating the insides. The patterns they’d seen that time are still carved into the wall, concentric and pictographic, curling and winding their way to the patch of floor below which they’d first stumbled upon the Lion. The floor is completely intact, though, with no sign of their intrusion.

“Whoa,” Hunk whispers. “Is this from before we discovered the whole Voltron deal? Is this one of Blue’s memories?”

“Holy polestar, Blue,” Lance mutters. Pidge takes a closer look at something and gasps, arm flying up to point.

“Look!”

There’s someone standing by one of the walls, gazing up at the carvings. Shiro squints, straining to make out their features through the dimness. The person’s dressed in a dark suit and a mask, their armour embellished in lines of purple light.

Shiro stiffens.

Knowledge or death, Shiro.

“Is that . . . one of the Blades?” Hunk asks, bewildered.

A shadow falls over them as something blocks out the meagre light from the mouth of cave. Keith turns to look and abruptly releases Shiro’s hands, a soft, strangled sound escaping his lips. His face goes papery white, and Shiro follows Keith’s gaze to where it’s fixed to the entrance. There’s a man there, tall and imposing, with a large bag slung over his shoulder and—

—a rather high-tech laser gun in his hands.

The only warning is the whir of it powering up before the gun goes off, a beam of energy streaking through the dark, aimed their way. Shiro pulls Keith with him as they scatter, forgetting for a moment that it’s merely a memory.

The laser speeds towards the Blade’s unprotected back but there’s a flash of movement and the Blade leaps cleanly out of the way. The beam fizzles out against the rock as they land on their feet, facing the man. The mask disassembles, revealing a blunt nose, yellow eyes, and a square jaw, their mouth pulled back in an angry snarl. Shiro doesn’t recognise them; they look nothing like the few Blade operatives they’ve met.

The man is another matter. He saunters in with a smirk, and the tense little curve of his lips is one that Shiro recognises, one that makes him jolt in shock. It's the violet eyes that seal it for him though, along with Keith's quiet utterance stringing along the lines of half-prayer, half-oath.

“Dad.”

It's something quite literally out of a fever dream. Shiro knows him, or at least, he knows of him from the few details Keith had let slip. This is Steven Kogane, the man who had raised Keith for the first six years of his childhood. This is the man who Keith had mentioned exactly once back in the Garrison, back when them curling up under the stars together had been a regular occurrence and quiet nights compelled the telling of such stories.

This is the man who had abandoned his child in a tiny shack in the desert with no way to fend for himself beyond arming him with a blade.

“Damn,” Steven mutters, ruefully. “You’re faster than you look.”

The Blade hisses, lunging forward to slash at him with steel-tipped claws. Steven dodges and throws up his duffle bag to block the blow. There’s the sound of ripping cloth and the contents of the bag tumble out. More weapons, assorted kinds, from regular knives and guns to alien tech that Shiro doesn't have the first clue about using.

“Come on, buddy,” Steven calls out as he drops the ruins of his bag. He hefts up his laser, not taking it off the Blade for even a moment. “Why don’t you give in before you get hurt? We can call it a day, I’ll reset the sensors, and you can go the fuck back to wherever you came from.”

The response is another hiss and a kick aimed to the abdomen that the man easily evades.

None of it adds up. How was it possible that Keith's father possessed clearly alien weapons, and what was a Blade even doing here? The closest answer he can determine is Ulaz’s terse whispers to him when he’d helped Shiro escape, his fear over the Empire’s discovery of the Blue Lion’s presence on Earth. Shiro wants to look to Keith for answers, but Keith is quiet by his side, all his attention on his father.

The fight goes on, a clash of punches, claws, and the zing of laser fire. Shiro pulls Keith with him to press their backs against the cavern walls, looks across to see Pidge, Hunk and Lance do the same on the other side. It’s a bizarre situation where none of them know what to do.

But then he sees dread cross Lance’s face, his eyes growing wide, the way he takes a step as though to intervene. It’s too late to make the connections, the realisation of why the Blue Lion is showing them this. The Blade is on the ground now, Steven pinning them down with a firm foot to the shoulder. He aims his laser at them, point blank, jaw clenched against any self-doubt.

“Don’t think I’m fooled by the uniform,” he says. “I know you’re not meant to be here.”

It’s a minor oversight that costs him. The Blade moves faster than his previous movements had hinted at, full-speed unleashed before anyone can react. A sharp twist of their torso and swipe of their hand sends the man stumbling and there’s a swoosh as the lined-up shot goes wild, burning out against the dirt near Hunk’s boot. Steven tries to leap up, lifts his weapon again, but he’s not quick enough.

The Blade tugs a gun out from a hidden holster and sweeps it up to aim and fire, all in one smooth, incomparable movement. Steven jerks, firing belatedly and hitting the Blade square in the chest. They’re both sent flying, crashing into opposing walls. The Blade lands near Shiro, the gun clattering out of their hands. Silence slams down over them quite abruptly.

There’s the rasp of laboured breathing reaching a slow end. There’s the stink of burning flesh and metal. The Blade’s chest falls and rises rapidly, gradually coming to a stop. The harsh pink colour along the barrel of their gun dies as the weapon powers down. Shiro stares at it, stomach sinking.

Empire-issue, he thinks, with entirely too much certainty. He’s seen similar weapons, had them aimed at him in his time as a prisoner of the Galra. He’d even held one for that brief moment on the battlecruiser he and Allura had infiltrated, just before everything had gone wrong.

Not a Blade. They’d been a traitor.

“D-dad.”

Shiro snaps out of it as Keith moves away from the wall, lurching on shaky legs to stand by the fallen shape of his father. Steven stirs, eyes sliding open. His stomach is covered in blood, a fact that doesn’t seem to strike him until he tries to move, only to fall back with a grunt of pain.

“Shit,” he whispers, fists digging into the rock below him. “ Shit . No. No, not like this.”

Keith stares down at him and Shiro’s heart lurches. He goes to stand beside him, not quite daring to touch him just yet.

Steven squirms on the floor, cold sweat glistening on his forehead and upper lip. “Keith,” he whispers, and Keith straightens up in shock.

“Please,” Steven calls out, his head tilting back in search of seemingly no one. “Please, no . You have to help. I have to get back home. I can’t die here.”

The truth dawns on Shiro then.

“Please,” Steven says again, voice grating rough and desperate. “I kept you safe all these years. I did everything like she asked me to. Please. My son’s all alone. He’s so little, he’s only six, there’s no one else . . . I have to . . . I can’t go like this. Not yet, please.

Keith staggers into Shiro’s side and Shiro holds on to him, pressing a fist to his own mouth.

“I have to get home to Keith . . . I have to . . . I should never have—”

There’s a rumble, starting off quiet from the depths of the cave. The Blue Lion’s growl, gentle and powerful. Sorrowful. Helpless.

The first of several tears slip down Steven’s cheek. Red pools out below him, a small puddle growing ever wider.

“Figures,” he says, closing his eyes with a pained grimace. A dribble of dark liquid spills over his lips and down his chin. “ Figures. Y-you better make sure he lives, you hear me? You better—”

He coughs, blood filling his mouth. Blue purrs reassuringly and Steven relaxes, lowering his head back to rest against the rough floor.

“I’m sorry, Firefly.” The words slip into a gargled whisper as he weakens with every passing second. “Sorry . . . ‘m so sorry . . . ”

Steven Kogane stutters out the last dregs of his life and goes terribly still.

The memory begins to fall apart, Steven’s body melting away into the rock and sand, the scene disappearing around them until they’re left standing on a plane of black. Keith’s knees buckle and Shiro hurries to secure him, grabbing him under his arms to keep him upright.

“Kei—”

“Shiro.” Keith sounds wrecked, mouth forming around a sentence he can barely get out. “H-he didn’t. He didn’t leave on purpose. I never. I didn’t know. I didn’t know . I—I thought he left me. I wanted to hate him and I did hate him, but he never—”

“Hey.” Shiro’s reeling from all the recent revelations, heart aching for Keith, but he tries his best to put every ounce of comfort into what he says. “No, that’s not on you. You couldn’t have known.”

“But I should have!” Keith’s face contorts, already failing the struggle to keep himself calm. “People kept telling me all these things about him, that he never loved me. That he never—but no, he wasn’t like that, I should have known —”

“I know it hurts.”

Keith inhales sharply, tensing up.

“It must have hurt a lot to have him leave and not know why. He just wanted you safe. But you were a kid. You couldn’t have known . . . Not if he didn’t want you to.”

“Shiro—”

There’s a faint whine emerging from Keith, but he seems unaware of it, lost in despair and staring at the spot where the memory of his father had dissolved into sand. Desert sand. Wasn’t that where it all began?

“He never stopped loving you Keith.”

The quiet shatters as Keith’s breath hitches. He lets out a choked sob, gasping around it. Shiro pulls him into his arms and feels his heart clench as Keith breaks and begins to cry in earnest. His chest heaves on each inhale like he can’t get enough air, but he doesn't make a sound beyond that, just shakes and presses his face hard into Shiro’s shoulder.

They sink down together, to their knees. Shiro gathers Keith in, cupping a hand at the back of his head and rocking them together unconsciously. It doesn’t feel like enough. He knows it well, the feeling of having his entire life uprooted, and yet he’s at a loss of what to say or do, wishing he could do more.

The others gather around them, staying just near enough while affording them some space. Pidge leans into Hunk’s side, tears pouring down her cheeks, and Hunk has tight a grip on Lance’s hand, holding him close; a loop of support to hold each of them up.

It takes a while before Keith gets anywhere close to stopping. His crying slowly tapers off into exhausted sobs, and all throughout, Shiro doesn’t let up on his movements, settling a wide hand over his back to stroke up and down soothingly. He doesn’t say anything until Keith’s done, left drained except for an occasional sniffle.

“He never stopped loving you,” Shiro repeats gently. Keith shudders, fingers digging into the grooves of Shiro’s armour and grasping the edges of his jetpack. “He loved you till the end . . . just like we do. I’m sorry to ask it of you, after everything, but we need you. We need you to come back to us, Keith.”

Keith is quiet for a long, long time. Long enough that Shiro awaits a refusal, braces himself for the fight on his hands.

Finally, Keith speaks.

“I’m . . . I’m tired. I'm tired and afraid, of trying and trying and still getting everything wrong. Of not . . . of never getting it right. I’m tired, Shiro.”

Shiro grasps him then and pushes him back, brimming with the few words he has to say about that. Keith stares back at him, eyes red and swollen, and he's not sure if it'll be enough. He’s not sure he can convince Keith, if it'll make a difference at all.

Still. He can’t sit here and not try. Not when Keith is looking at him in that hopeless, shattered way, waiting for him to make it better somehow.

“I can’t guarantee that things will stop hurting,” he says, leaning in to press a kiss to Keith’s cheeks. He lets himself linger there, feels the flutter of Keith’s eyelashes as they brush against his skin. “I can’t guarantee that it’s going to be easy. But I’m going to be there for you, through it all. Me, and the team too. Whatever happens from here, we’re here to help you through it, if you’ll trust us with that responsibility.”

He brings his hand up to cradle Keith’s face.

“You’ve always had my back, whether that was at the Garrison or in the Castle, in combat or in the skies. Trust me to have yours?”

The answer is immediate, laid bare and croaked out, but firm nonetheless.

“You know I do. I already do.”

Shiro smiles, warm, bright. It’s everything he wants to give Keith. Everything he wants to be for him.

“Then, please. Come back to me. You have to wake up, Keith. Please.”

Anxiety flickers in Keith’s gaze but then he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“Okay. Okay, I’ll . . . I’ll meet you topside.”

Shiro exhales in relief, far too close to losing composure himself.

“You know I’ll be there. I’ll be waiting, sweetheart. For as long as it takes.”

The last thing Shiro feels is the feather-light kiss Keith delivers to his palm, lips burning with an unspoken promise.

 


 

Shiro opens his eyes and Keith comes awake with a gasp.

Chapter Text

Keith barely remembers the aftermath of waking up, having fallen unconscious again the moment Allura had declared him clear of the mind meld. The next time he woke, it was to the draining chill of the cryo-pods, and the thud of Shiro’s heart against his ears as he leaned into the taller man’s chest.

“Good to have you back,” Shiro had whispered, planting a kiss to his hair. Keith had smiled and let himself be led to his room.

That’s where he’s been for the past forty or so hours. The pod had done a fair job in healing him up from where the curse had torn at his Quintessence and nearly stolen his life—and he’d gotten that whole story from Lance and Hunk, complete with hand movements, special sound effects and a reenactment by the mice—but there was something about the good-old fashioned way of resting that the pod simply could not match.

Doubly so when it came to recovering from the emotional and mental assault he’d been through. It still makes him twitch, just thinking about it, embarassment slipping in, knowing that his entire team . . . that’d he fallen apart so spectacularly in front of them.

But no. No.

He’d already hashed this out with Shiro enough, part of his recovery entailing a long, serious talk once he was aware enough to do so. In the end though, Shiro had just wanted to know one thing.

“Why would you hide that you were hurting? Why?”

At the time, Keith hadn’t meant to say anything. But somewhere along the way, he’d apparently lost his brain-to-mouth filter, and gained absolutely none of the social skills needed to navigate it.

“I just didn’t want to burde—”

It’s not like he believes that of himself. Not in the way people assume. He doesn’t mean to call himself that, doesn’t even actively think it, but that’s how it comes out, and while Shiro is a leader, a mentor and a friend, he is also very much his boyfriend.

“Keith, no . Why would you think that about yourself?”

“I-it’s not like—I don’t think—”

“Then, why would you say that, why wouldn’t you talk to us—”

“I told you already, Shiro. You know why. Look, I know you have your own things to deal with, far more than I do. I’m supposed to be helping you, not the other way around, I’m fine, so why doesn’t anyone believe that?!”

Shiro had only given him a sad look, pressing a gentle hand to his cheek.

“Because it’s not true. I’m sorry for pushing, it’s not something I enjoy doing, but I can’t sit here and pretend things are fine when they’re not. You know this isn’t a one way road Keith. It’s not ‘either and or’. It’s both of us working together, supporting each other, isn’t it?”

And when Shiro looked at him like that, when he said things that made only too much sense, how was Keith ever supposed to refute him?

“I . . . Yeah. I-it is. We are.” He’s getting it, slowly, what Shiro has been trying to make him see. “I’m sorry, Shiro, I’m trying. I’ll try harder.”

“We both will,” Shiro had amended, clasping their hands together. “Together.”

And that had been that. Shiro had kissed him, slow and sweet, cuddled him for as long as he wasn’t needed at the bridge. The call for him had come soon enough, and he’d indulged in one last kiss, enclosed Keith in a warm hug that had run over into just holding him for a little longer.

“I’m glad you’re here with me.”

Keith can’t imagine it any other way. He doesn’t want to. And he knows now that’s what Shiro had been trying to tell him from the start.

Left to his own devices since then, Keith squints at the screen of this datapad, swiping aimlessly through a series of documents.

“Aren’t you supposed to be resting?”

He looks up over to his open doorway. Pidge leans against the frame, raising an eyebrow at him in the most judgemental manner.

“I’m in bed! I am resting!” He protests.

Pidge snorts and raises her hands in placation as she walks in, uninvited. It’s become a given for everyone nowadays, to walk in with no purpose beyond checking in with him. Keith’s not sure whether to be perturbed or pleased by the development. Mostly, it’s a mix of both.

“I know, I know. You're tired of being cooped up in your room. Just, recover first, alright? Coran says your vitals are almost back to normal anyway.”

“Only about time,” he mutters to himself.

Sure, he knows it's for his own health, with everything being so raw still. But he's more than a little antsy now, after being inactive for so many days. It doesn't sit right with him to continue that pattern. As soon as he recovered, their battle plan against the Empire would be set into motion, and he was itching to get to that point.

“Steady there, grumpy pants. I mostly dropped in to say hi since the meeting’s over. Kolivan’s investigating the traitor Blade, said he’ll get back to us once he’s got something more concrete.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Pidge perches on the edge of the bed and reaches over to read over his shoulder, idly watching him swipe down. It’s a comfortable moment, until she speaks again.

“I also kinda . . . wanted to ask you something. About your memories in the meld.”

The tension cording in his muscles is an involuntary thing. A part of him is still realigning with all he’d had to relive; the idea that his friends had seen his struggles in graphic detail, seen just how unorthodox his childhood had been is like a hatchet to the back. None of them had expressly brought it up, but it’s underlying and he’d expected it to happen eventually.

Apparently, Pidge had decided to approach that on her own.

Sure.” He shrugs, carefully casual. “What is it?”

“Well, uh. You remember what you said, after we met the Olkari? That thing about how we’re all made of the same cosmic dust, meaning, we’re all related?”

“I . . . yeah?” He says, warily. So sue him, he’s slightly bitter for the reminder. He’d been at his most stressed at the time, worrying through sleepless nights over where every clue about his blood would lead. Just when he’d finally felt like he’d found purchase on steady ground, found something of a safety net in the form of that bit of Olkari wisdom . . . they’d laughed at him for it.

He can’t blame them though. They hadn’t known just how significant it had been to him. It’s what keeps him from interrupting Pidge, letting her continue.

“I’m starting to think you might have been right about that. No, I don’t mean literally, just hear me out. You know that last memory that we saw, before the Blue Lion showed you . . . Well. The one with you as a kid, walking in the desert?”

“I remember.” It comes out sharper than he means it to. Pidge winces, apologetic.

“Sorry. It’s just . . . There was this guy who found you and saved your life, right?”

Keith frowns in contemplation. “Uh, yeah. I don’t actually remember his face, I just know he was someone important in the Garrison. He was an officer, I think.”

“Yeah. That was my dad.”

A heartbeat of silence as Keith stares at her.

“What?”

Pidge levels him with a soft smile.

“He looked so young there, I almost didn’t realize. It was like looking at a childhood video from back home. Except uh, way more intense, what with the situation,” she says, sheepishly.

“But. No. No way. You’re kidding me! I-I met him in the Garrison too though, I would have recognised him, right?”

“You were a kid, Keith. Plus, you were close to having heatstroke ,” she says. “You know, I forgot to mention it, but the mind meld memories were clear. Too clear for a child’s. I’m pretty sure the Somili’s spell must have amplified them for a while, because there’s no way you could have remembered every detail so perfectly.”

“But I’m . . . Are you sure it was  . . . ?”

“Samuel Holt, the one and only,” she says, with pride.

Keith just gapes. He can’t wrap his mind around it at all, that the kindly man who’d saved him from the desert, who’d given him his life, who’d inspired him to aim for the Garrison in the first place . . .

Pidge laughs, high and happy like she hasn't done in a while and Keith finds himself joining her, mostly in disbelief. Of all the people, of all the coincidences in the world, this was something else.

“That’s why I think you were right,” she says, returning to the initial point. “Cosmic dust? There must be something to it. We’re all linked, in so many ways we never even expected. I know we’ve been through the wringer with all this, I know it’s not ideal in any way. But I’d like to think there's a reason we met, and there's a reason we’re all together now. Maybe Voltron was always gonna happen. Maybe we were always meant to be a family.”

Oh.

"Guess I gotta thank him when we find him then," he manages.

That lump in his throat? Doesn't exist. Keith is completely calm.

“Oh, get over here,” Pidge says, opening up her arms in exasperation, as though her own eyes aren't glistening. Keith leans in and lets her wind her arms around his neck, sharing the comfort of a short hug. He’s not crying. Not yet anyway.

“Keith, are you awa—oh. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

They separate and look up as Shiro enters the room with a smile, glancing between them curiously. Before he can say anything, Pidge springs up, swiping quickly at her face.

“It’s nothing. We’re good,” she says, dancing around Shiro to get to the door. “You guys have fun, I’m headed down to the kitchen to bother Hunk!”

Shiro laughs and waves her off. Quiet settles as her footsteps fade away, and Keith lifts up the corner of his blanket and scoots over, inviting Shiro to sit. He takes the offer, making himself comfortable and wrapping an arm around Keith’s waist. Keith sighs, relaxing into Shiro’s side, heart comfortably full. It’s a welcome change from a week of what felt like endless confusion and misery.

“You okay?” Shiro asks.

Is he okay?

Keith thinks it over. The revelations he’s had in such a short time, from the Galra blood to knowing the truth about his father and his connection to the Blue Lion. Each of them had hit far too close to his heart, but then there’s the other revelation, the one that’s keeping him from sinking.

There’s the team. There’s Allura and Coran, Pidge, Hunk and Lance. There’s Red. There’s Shiro. How bad could things be, when he’s gained the kind of people who he had only ever dreamed of befriending? The kind of people who would fight against Keith himself if it meant saving him.

Is he okay?

He nods decisively, letting his eyes flutter shut.

“Yeah,” he says, and it can’t possibly encompass everything he wants to say, but it would have to do. “Yeah, I. I’m good.”

For once, he can say that without hesitance. No matter what happens from here on out, there’s an unshakeable belief growing in his core, the knowledge that somehow . . . Things will be alright.

He’s alright.