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how to be anything but alone

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The universe Keith has found himself in for the past six months has dragons, magic, and the same group of friends every universe has. He’s been to quite a few at this point and he feels sort of distantly bad about never really bothering to learn the specifics of the situation here—the kingdom of Altea has been fighting the Galran Empire, he gets to ride a dragon sometimes, that’s enough.

He thinks the Galrans were invaders from across the sea but he’s not even sure of the name of their continent. Galra, possibly.

He watches Pidge and Hunk swoop overhead on their green and gold dragons respectively, out to patrol more out of habit than need—they just won, after all. He dismounts his own red dragon, patting her neck fondly, and turns to see Shiro dismounting his black.

“Keith!” he calls cheerfully. “May I have a moment?”

The breath freezes in Keith’s chest. It’s time, he realizes. There’s no point putting it off, so he nods, and turns back to Red to say goodbye; she snuffles his hair, sending warm, sulfurous air across his face. He pats her nose and wishes her well, and someone worthy of her as his replacement.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Shiro says behind him, a hint of nervousness in his voice, and Keith turns slowly to face his doom.

Ten minutes later finds him shedding the last of his armor by feel in the airless nothing between universes. He drops it all in a great heap back to the world he just fled.

“Why can't you stay?”

“I just... have to go.”

It’s better this way, he thinks firmly. He shakes himself out and steps into the next universe before he runs out of breath entirely.

He's met with screams, which is actually kind of a good sign, all things considered—it's easier to convince people where he came from when they've seen him appear out of thin air. A quick glance around gives him a hint at what he's facing this time: the usual four are here, plus Allura and Coran. They're in some kind of rec room—futuristic, no windows, probably some kind of ship then, but he can't say yet if it's the ocean or space type of ship. He's hardly thrown by Allura and Coran's pointed ears; God knows he's been places where humans were rare. Four out of six isn't bad.

Overall it’s a change from dragons, but he’s used to adjusting.

"Hi, sorry, I can explain," he begins.

He watches the group: Pidge is fidgeting, about to interrupt with a question. She’s always first to accept him, setting caution aside for the sake of curiosity. Hunk and Allura are nodding; he trusts his instincts and she believes in giving everyone a chance. Lance and Coran frown, feeling threatened in their own ways. It's all so familiar, so painfully predictable. He doesn’t look at Shiro.

"And that's pretty much it," he finishes. Pidge leaps up.

"An innate ability to travel through parallel universes—that's incredible," she enthuses. "I wonder if it's like Allura's ability to open wormholes? There must be some way to recreate the effect mechanically..."

"One, probably," he says, resisting glancing at Allura—this is an ability unique to this universe as far as he knows, but he's not supposed to know who Allura is yet. "Two, no one has yet, but this place seems a little more... advanced than most places I've been. So, maybe."

"While travel between universes is certainly interesting, I'm not sure it can help us save this one, young paladin," Coran says, thumbing his mustache.

"Do you believe this guy, Shiro?" Lance mutters.

"Actually, yes," Shiro says lowly back. "You saw him appear out of thin air too, Lance."

"How often do you go home?" Hunk asks.

"What kind of tech did the other universes have? Have you ever been in space before?" Pidge asks.

So it's space, Keith thinks, and sighs. It's always the same questions, the same reactions, presented in different ways. The introduction phase is a little tedious at this point.

"D'you mind telling me a bit about this place?" he asks instead of answering. "And about you guys? I haven't been here before, so..."

"Wait," says Pidge. "You don't know us already? You mean you haven't met us in other universes?"

Keith almost chokes in shock, but he forces it down, hopes they don't notice. "No one's ever assumed that before."

"But have you?"

"I don't know," he lies. "Might have. I've met a lot of people. But I don't even know any of your names yet, so it's hard to say."

Except for Lance, who's still squinting at him suspiciously, everyone seems mollified. Allura leads the introductions.

"...and, finally, I am Allura, princess of Altea, and the blue paladin," she finishes. "You are welcome to stay here for the time being, though I can't exactly guarantee your safety. We see battle frequently here."

"That's usually how things are," he says. "Thank you. I look forward to seeing this... Voltron you mentioned in action." Which is true, because he often hears the term "Voltron" but it's never referred to an alien warship made of five smaller lion-shaped alien warships before. And he's become a "paladin" in at least two universes, including the previous, but that's never been synonymous with "alien warship pilot". This universe promises to be interesting, at least.

He glances at Shiro, who is watching him quietly, and swallows. Interesting as long as it lasts, anyway.

 


 

He gets to see Voltron the next day. He's startled from sleep by an alarm, and by the time he's dressed and ready—the alarm's not for him—and has found his way to the bridge, the "lions" have launched already. They really do look like lions—well, he's definitely been to a universe with tamed lions as mounts, but this is something else entirely.

"Don't touch anything," Coran says, sparing him only a glance. Keith watches quietly as the lions combine into a massive robot—yeah, this is something else. His fingers itch at the thought of piloting something like that; maybe he'll get the chance. It's happened in other universes, after all.

The team is competent, because they always are, and they win the battle, because they always do. He sees their tired camaraderie as they all shuffle back in afterwards, before they remember he's there.

"Bet you've never seen anything like that," Lance half-heartedly sneers.

"I've seen a lot of things," he responds. "Do you think this universe is that unique?" To be honest, they all are.

"Of course it is. I'm in it."

Keith snorts. "Whatever helps you sleep at night, buddy," he says, though the urge to mention that Lance is one of the few constants in the multiverse is nigh overwhelming. Of course, putting it like that wouldn't exactly deflate Lance's massive ego.

"Don't harrass our guest, Lance," Shiro says tiredly, eyes closed as he sits on a step and rests his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees. Keith's heart skips a beat—is it already happening? Can’t be, it’s too soon, he’s just trying to prevent a fight. Keith looks away.

"Whatever," Lance says, either too tired to retort or not willing to bicker with Shiro. He and most of the group filter off the bridge, leaving Keith alone with Shiro (and Coran, who's fussing with something in a distant corner, barely present, for once). Shiro doesn't seem to have noticed, and Keith edges toward the door, wondering if he can make it unnoticed to the kitchen for some of the green goo that passes as food here (granted, he's had worse).

"Keith." So much for going unnoticed.

"Yes?"

"Pidge asked yesterday if you'd met us before, in the other universes you've visited."

"Yes...?"

Shiro finally looks up. "You said you weren't sure. But I thought perhaps if you had... if there was anything that might help us win here..."

He looks so tired, and Keith can't bring himself to lie.

"There's nothing," he said. "The situations in those other universes were not enough like this to be useful to you." He pauses. "But I always... helped. And if I can help you here, I will. It just won't be in that way."

Shiro nods. "What can you do?"

"I can fight. Hand-to-hand, with a gun, whatever. I'm best with a sword though. I can fly, a bit—actually, I can handle just about any form of transportation imaginable, but most won't be relevant here, I guess. Definitely not afraid of heights, anyway." He scratches his neck. His hair's getting long. He tries not to think of the dragon he left behind; she liked his hair. "I'm not picky about who I work with. I can follow orders."

Shiro laughs, just a little. "Are you going to hand me your resume, too?"

Keith fights a blush. "I told you what I thought was relevant. Maybe my survival skills will come in handy, but I don't think transcribing runes or smithing horseshoes will do you much good."

"Fair enough." Shiro gets to his feet slowly. "I'll discuss it with the team over dinner, if everyone's awake. If not, tomorrow."

"Excellent!" Coran exclaims, and Keith and Shiro both jump, having forgotten he was still there. "We certainly need all the help we can get, what with the six of us trying to take down an empire that spans half the known universe, hm? Have you ever faced odds that long?"

"Uh. No?"

"Quite! Now, Shiro, get some rest, yes? I'll entertain our guest, here."

"I'm sure you will," Shiro says, echoing Keith's thoughts, albeit less sarcastically. Keith shoots him a look somewhere between "you don't say" and "don't leave me", and Shiro smiles and makes his escape. Dammit.

 


 

That evening he allows himself the cry he’s been holding back. He found out early on it’s better to let it all out, let himself grieve for the little things (or large, winged things) he liked about the universe he’s just left. Then he can move on. Just one of those little rituals he has to do to feel right, no big deal, no meaning to it. Red will be fine without him. The team will be fine without him. He just has to keep moving forward.

Giant robotic lions are an odd but suitable substitute for dragons and he’ll get used to it.

He showers until the puffiness around his eyes is gone and takes a walk around the ship until the steady rhythm of rubber against alien metal replaces that in his memory of leather against dirt. He finds Hunk in the kitchen, unsurprisingly.

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Hunk says. “What was the universe you just came from like? The one before this one?”

“It had dragons,” Keith says first, because he likes dragons, so sue him. “Swords and sorcery, y’know? Like living in a fantasy novel.”

“Like Lord of the Rings? I only ever watched the movies, but…”

“Kind of, except we rode the dragons.”

Hunk slaps his palms against the counter, eyes bugging out. “You rode dragons!?” he practically screeches, and Keith laughs. Hunk fills a bowl of goo without even looking, babbling excitedly, and shoves it at Keith. “Sit,” he demands. “Tell me everything.”

Keith leaves out a few details, like the names of his companions and their distinct similarities to those here on the ship, but otherwise he happily obliges. It’s just a story now. He barely even twitches when Shiro comes in and sits with them halfway through.

“The coronation was incredible. They had something like fireworks, only magic, and we flew the dragons through them. The people loved it, but cleanup was torture. Once it was over I left pretty much the next day,” Keith finishes.

“Why?” Shiro asks, the first he’s spoken throughout the story. Keith decides reflecting on the irony of the situation is something to save for later, or possibly never.

“Well, we won,” he says. “It was over. I had no reason to stay.”

“You didn’t want to stay with your friends?” Hunk asks. “I would.”

Keith forces a smile, hopes it’s not obvious. “I wasn't there for very long, and frankly, after defeating an evil empire from dragonback, settling down would’ve been boring.”

Shiro and Hunk exchange a look that Keith can’t quite read. He wonders if they’re homesick, and what that feels like.

“I still would’ve stayed,” Hunk says, and Shiro nods.

 


 

The team warms up to Keith quickly, even Lance. They can't really help it, he thinks—he's not the most social or even likable person, sure, but he's drawing on long experience when it comes to interacting with them. He doesn't know the details of these versions of them but he knows the gist, what they'll respond favorably to and what they won't. It's like a game—like cheating a game—say this phrase for +5 approval.

They call their ship the Castle, which is ironic considering the times he’s seen them all in a real castle. Allura wants to be available during battle to pilot it, but it turns out the lions need to have a bond with their paladins, and Blue doesn't take to Keith. The idea is put aside for a few weeks (just as well since it lets them get used to him, and he can get used to the way of things here) until Pidge looks up from her screen suddenly to interrupt the latest bout of Keith-Lance bickering in the rec room.

"Lance," she says. "You piloted the blue lion when you found it back on Earth."

"...Yeah?"

"So you can pilot the blue lion."

"Yeah? And? Are you going somewhere with this, Pidge?"

"Keith couldn't pilot her," Pidge says. "But maybe Red will accept him instead?"

It’s been long enough that Keith doesn’t twitch at “Red”, has accepted it as the name of a robotic lion now.

Lance glances over at Keith. "Nuh-uh. Nope. I am not letting my rival near Red. She's mine."

Pidge gets a sly look. "So you don't want to pilot the lion most closely bonded with Allura?"

Keith resists the urge to snort as Lance's face opens in realization. Predictably, he's reconsidering.

"It might be a good idea," Shiro says, and that's enough to tip the balance.

"Alright, he can try," Lance says grudgingly. "But if it doesn't work, don't blame me."

He looks at Keith; Shiro and Pidge look at Keith.

"I'll try it," he says, and Shiro smiles (and Pidge grins smugly, because it was her idea in the first place).

It doesn't seem to work, at first—he heads down into the hangar with the rest of them and is stymied by the lion's particle barrier, which doesn't drop for him.

"The red lion is temperamental," Allura says, in a tone that's probably supposed to be encouraging. "You need to prove your worth to her."

"How'd Lance manage, then," he mutters, frowning up at the cat-like robotic face above him.

"Hey!"

"We can't exactly take you out into space battle with us," Shiro interrupts. "Why don't you try talking to her? Maybe you can convince her?"

Leave it to Shiro to be practical about it. Keith knocks on the particle barrier. "Talking isn't exactly my forte," he says wryly. "I've done plenty to prove my worth, just not here. Aren't these things, like, psychic? Can't she just look in my head and see what I've done?"

Allura shakes her head. Keith turns back to the lion, frustrated.

"But I'm more than worthy. I've saved entire countries, entire worlds! Just not here! You hear that? I've saved other universes! Are you gonna let me help save this one?"

Abruptly, the particle barrier drops.

"...Oh. Okay."

Keith walks up to the lion as she lowers her head to let him in. Behind him the rest express varying levels of surprise and delight, and he feels outside himself, because this was inevitable. He was always going to be part of the team—it happens every time.

Still, as he settles into the cockpit and Red roars, shuddering beneath his tingling fingertips, that's hardly a bad thing. Here, he feels alive.

 


 

Lance finds Keith in an observation room, later, watching the stars. He stops short of next to him and stands there a while before he speaks.

"You can go back any time, can't you?"

"Eager to get rid of me, are you?" Keith responds evenly.

Lance shuffles awkwardly, and Keith watches him in the reflection of the window. "I didn't mean it that way, actually."

Keith sighs. "Go back where? "

"You know. Home."

This is it, one of the major milestones on their inevitable path from fighting to friendship. It's sooner than usual—Keith thinks the isolation of space, the way the group is stuck with no one but each other for so long, has made them all just a little bit sharper in this regard. Or maybe he’s paranoid and it’s just because Red has chosen them both.

"I don't have one," he admits. "I don't have anything worth going back to." Even if he weren’t an orphan—but he doesn’t mention that, doesn’t want to derail the conversation to family now.

"That's... sad."

"Yeah."

Lance comes and stands next to Keith at the window, silent, for once. But he's fidgeting like he has something to say, so Keith waits.

"Can you..." Lance's voice trails off.

"Teleport you back to Earth? No, not your Earth. It doesn't work like that."

"Worth a shot," Lance sighs. "How'd you know what I was going to ask?"

Keith considers him, wonders if it's too soon—but he can leave at any time. He has nothing to lose, right?

"You've asked me before, in other universes," he says. Lance's eyes widen as he turns to face Keith.

"You said you didn't remember if you'd met us before!" he accuses, but it's more shock than anger.

"I lied. It doesn't usually go over well." Keith shrugs. "I try to save that particular revelation for when you all, you know, kind of know me already. It's less awkward that way."

"Than telling us you'd met us before when you were still a complete stranger? I guess I can see that," Lance says, and Keith lets out a relieved breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Wait, how many times have you met us before?"

"Every time." Keith shoots him a sly grin. "Lance, you're a multiversal constant."

"Seriously? Damn, man. I'm floored." He looks it, too. "I'm really just, flabbergasted. Bamboozled. Hoodwinked."

"I don't think you're using that word correctly."

"Shocked. Amazed. Delighted. Touched? I'm touched, buddy." Lance slings an arm across Keith's shoulders. "You put up with me hating you every time?  You must really love me." He winks.

"I'd point out that we always end up like this," Keith says, indicating the arm still around his neck.

"So I'm worth it, huh?"

"Sure."

They stay there for a few silent minutes; then Lance retracts his arm and stretches.

"Well, this is getting a little too mushy for me, so, good talk, bro. And if you bring it up I'll deny it happened," he says.

"Of course," says Keith.

"Night, Keith."

"Goodnight, Lance."

 


 

Keith gets to see battle in a mere handful of days. It's not one they expect to be difficult, which is fine, because he's taken Red out on a few test flights but he is definitely inexperienced in the art of piloting this particular brand of alien war machine.

"Should we form Voltron for Keith's sake?" Pidge asks at some point.

"Uh, how?" Keith asks.

"I think we should save that for another time," Shiro responds, thankfully. "We should do some team bonding exercises now that he's a paladin too," he adds, unfortunately.

"We don't need Voltron to take out these suckers," Lance says, and to his vocal delight, Keith agrees.

The “team bonding” starts with fighting "the gladiator" on the training deck. That part goes smoothly enough; Keith knows enough about how the others fight to work around their unfamiliarity with him (not total unfamiliarity—he's already been to the training deck, and they all know it). The fact that the red bayard, the weapon of a paladin, becomes a sword in his hands also helps. It's something he knows.

They're not quite seamless yet, but it's clear they can get there. Keith fits right in.

The trouble comes when Shiro retrieves a handful of odd little contraptions and passes them out, and the others put them on their heads. Lance is eyeing Keith as he eyes his contraption.

"What's this for?" he asks nervously.

"It's for getting in everyone's heads," says Hunk.

"A strong mental bond is vital to forming Voltron," says Shiro.

"It may be a little odd at first, but it's necessary!" says Allura.

"Just put it on," says Pidge.

"No secrets between paladins!" says Coran.

"I think there's something Keith wants to say before we start, then," says Lance. Everyone looks at him.

"There is?" says Keith. Everyone looks at him.

"Yeah, man. I mean, no secrets, right?" Lance proceeds to make a series of gestures that mean approximately nothing to Keith. But if there's about to be a host of people inside his head, then yeah, there's something he should probably tell them first.

"I have no idea what you're doing," he says, "but yes, there is something I want to say."

He explains quickly that every universe he's been to has had the four of them—and why he didn't mention it before. "I guess it's better you hear me say it now than to just... see it in my head," he finishes.

"I'll say," Pidge says. "Were you going to lie to us forever?"

"I didn't want to lie at all, but like I said, it's not the sort of thing that goes over well at first meeting," he retorts. "And usually, I don't have to, because no one considers the possibility until at least a month in."

"Are our other selves, like, totally oblivious?" Hunk says. "Because, you know, I knew something was up. I mean, you're cool and all, but you knew my favorite flavor of cake without me telling you so that was kind of weird, you know? And you knew Pidge was a girl right away which is better than Lance did and Lance knew her for like, a year before we ended up in space."

"Hey, in my defense, she was trying to convince everyone she was a boy, okay," Lance says. "Like, it's not my fault, I was hoodwinked."

He used it correctly this time, Keith noted. "You weren't totally oblivious, no. Someone usually figured it out at some point. Just not right away." He’s uncomfortable, and the look Shiro is giving him—not surprised, he kind of already knew, but maybe a little amused—isn’t helping.

"This is all... fascinating, but perhaps we ought to get on with the exercise?" Allura prompts, and Keith finally settles the device on his head.

It turns out it's easy enough to keep things hidden, despite the very obvious feeling of most of the rest of his teammates digging in his head. He pushes at them a bit but mostly tolerates it—except for certain... interactions with Shiro, there's nothing he's particularly embarrassed about. And sure, maybe he wants to impress them a little, too.

It's getting unpleasant, though. "Can you not all pry at once," he says without opening his eyes, and the creeping tendrils in his mind retract immediately.

Of course, afterwards everyone—everyone—has questions about their other selves. Even Shiro and, to a lesser extent, Allura are self-consciously hovering, probably feeling like they should be above the eager interrogation. Allura cracks first. Keith settles back on the training deck floor, gets comfortable—it's going to be a long night.

 


 

Keith has taught himself (for the tenth time now) not to flinch when he sees Shiro. He’s in the golden period now, between the awkwardness of meeting him anew and the paranoia when he can see it coming once again. They’re friends, just friends, which is how he likes it.

He still twitches when Shiro comes up behind him and claps him on the back, though, which he thinks is a reasonable enough reaction anyway. And if his heart pounds and his face turns a little redder than one might expect, he can be forgiven for it, given their history. It’s not enough to be noticeable anyway, probably.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Shiro says as they walk down to the training room. Keith’s heart seizes up for a moment at the phrase, so like the one spoken just before he left last time; he forces himself to calm down. It’s too soon.

“Yeah?” he says smoothly, if maybe a moment later than he should have.

“Can you go back to the universes you’ve been to, or is it only a one-way thing?”

He hums. “I can, but I never do.”

“Why not?”

“It gets confusing. I’ve met, like, ten versions of you. If I went back and visited all the time I’d never be able to keep it straight.”

“That… makes sense,” Shiro says, though it’s clearly not what he wanted to hear. “Then, if you leave this place, we’ll never see you again?”

If. That’s funny. “Well, no, but I haven’t been here very long yet anyway. I don’t intend to leave anytime soon.” He shoots a sideways look up at Shiro. “Last time, I didn’t leave until we’d won.”

“How long were you there?”

They enter the training room, and Keith tosses his jacket aside and starts stretching. “About six months?”

“I think it’ll take more than six months to defeat an empire that’s been growing for ten thousand years.”

Keith pauses stretching. Shiro is just standing there, watching him.

“What are you so worried about? I’ve only been here a month or so. You don’t even know me very well.”

Shiro looks surprised at that, and Keith wonders if he’s said too much, if he’s tempting fate.

“I know you well enough to appreciate your presence on the team,” Shiro says slowly. How diplomatic. “And your friendship.”

Keith shrugs and the knots in his gut tell him it’s time to change the subject. “Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to train with me?”

Shiro chuckles and moves to join him. Crisis averted.

 


 

“Keith!” Pidge bursts into Keith's room unannounced, followed by an apologetic Hunk.

Keith pauses cleaning his bayard. “...Can I help you?”

Yes,” Pidge says emphatically, and plops herself down in the middle of his floor to unfold her laptop and start typing. “I have some questions.”

“Naturally.”

She shoots him a look. Hunk, still hovering by the door, steps in diplomatically. “We’re trying to replicate your dimension-hopping ability," he says, and holds up something like a cross between a vambrace and a digital watch.

“Okay,” Keith says slowly. “I don’t know how it works, though. I just… do it.”

“That’s not what I need to know,” Pidge says without looking up, waving a hand at him. “Is there anything between universes, like in a wormhole?”

“...Sort of?”

“Specify.”

“Uh, there’s kind of a place, but it’s nothing? There’s no light or air or anything, it’s just empty.”

“So there’s nothing, but you’re in the nothing?” Hunk says. “Dude, that’s freaky.”

“That’s not constructive, Hunk. Keith, how do you know where you’ll end up?”

“I don’t.”

Pidge actually stops typing to shoot Keith a look over her glasses. He frowns and puts aside his bayard, trying to think of anything useful to say. Then again, why should he? He doesn’t want them to follow him when he leaves…

Pidge is his friend though, and it’s not like the device will work anyway.

“I can tell if I’m going somewhere I’ve been or not, because I sort of leave a trail,” he says slowly. “Like a disturbance in the space-time continuum or whatever. You can’t see it, it’s just a feeling.” He shrugs. “I can’t really control where I’ll end up. There were a couple times early on that I went back along my trail, and I ended up in the same exact location I’d left.”

“How did you manage to land on our, y’know, relatively small ship instead of somewhere out in space?” Hunk asks. “I feel like that’s an important consideration.”

“It felt safe?” Keith shrugs. “I don’t go places that feel dangerous. Not that this place is safe, I guess.”

Hunk frowns. “Okay, I’m not much of a programmer, but it sounds like you just follow your instincts, and that’s probably hard to translate into code.”

“Fuckin’ watch me,” Pidge mutters, typing ever faster. Keith and Hunk both watch her for a moment.

“Is… that it?” Keith asks.

“Can you time travel?”

“No.”

That’s it. Hunk.” Pidge holds out a hand, and Hunk drops the end of a cord into it. She plugs it into her laptop and hits a few more keys. There’s a moment of silence but for the whirr of the laptop—then she signals to Hunk, and he frees the other end of the cord from the device.

“All set,” Hunk says, and holds the thing out to Keith.

“Uh,” says Keith.

“Can you test it for us?” Pidge asks earnestly. Her face has switched from focused frown to… puppy eyes? Really? “Hunk and Allura and I have been working on it for weeks. And now we have the final info! We’re so close!

"We're also kind of afraid to try it ourselves, because if it doesn't work right we could get stuck somewhere. Or, like, nowhere," Hunk adds. "So we were thinking, since you can do it anyway, if something goes wrong you'll be able to get back, right?"

"I... guess?" Keith takes the device—it's deceptively heavy. He straps it on hesitantly. "Are you sure it'll work?" His head is screaming that this is a terrible idea and he should nip it in the bud, but Pidge is still making that face, how can he disappoint her?

"No, that's why we're testing it," Pidge says sweetly. "Go on, try it."

Well, if it takes him somewhere he doesn't want to be, he's reasonably sure he can get himself back. He nods, and Pidge points out the controls, explaining them so quickly Keith wonders how she manages to breathe.

"I'll be back soon," he says finally, and hits "Go".

Surprisingly, it does take him between universes for a moment—but unlike when he travels under his own control, he doesn't linger there, and instead it drops him in the next universe. In empty space. Panic and instinct take him back to that between place in an instant, and he takes a moment to compose himself before flickering back into his room in the Castle. Pidge and Hunk watch him expectantly as he slips the device off his arm and tries not to gasp for breath.

“Something’s off,” he says. “It dropped me in space.”

“Oops,” says Pidge, and she takes it back, looking appropriately remorseful.

It’s only when he’s shooed them off to fix their creation that he remembers he’s not sure he wants anyone to follow him when he leaves. He sits back and stares at the ceiling and wonders if he's gotten to the point with anyone on the team that someone would.

Shiro might. Shiro’s the one he really doesn’t want to follow him. This is going to be a hard universe to leave, won’t it?

 


 

As far as anyone can keep track of time by Earth standards while in distant space, Keith has been a paladin for two months, and living in the Castle for three.

The longest he's stayed in any universe is a year or so—the shortest, four months. Things seem to move faster in this universe. He's getting antsy.

Shiro finds him taking a break in the training room after battle and sits nearby, easing him into conversation painlessly the way only he can. It doesn't stop the crawling in Keith's skin but he makes—lets?—himself enjoy the company anyway. They’re still in the golden period, they’re still friends, he’s still safe.

There's a lull in the conversation, and Keith considers getting back up to resume training before Shiro speaks again.

"You know... in retrospect, it's a little strange how easily we accepted you," he says slowly, and Keith freezes.

"Is it?" he responds, equally slowly. "I already knew how to get along with everyone."

Shiro shakes his head. "It's more than that. It's like you were familiar somehow, even though I know I'd never met you before."

"Maybe you're confusing your feelings," Keith says, and winces, because it's too much like admitting to something. Shiro, damn him, doesn't let it go—he places a gentle hand on Keith's shoulder, and Keith can't quite bring himself to pull away, though he determinedly stares straight ahead as though the far wall is just that riveting.

"Maybe," Shiro says agreeably. "But I don't think so."

Keith says nothing.

"You said yourself you've joined us in every universe you've visited. Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but it didn't sound like you sought us out on purpose—more like fate brought you to us every time. Maybe not fate, but... that has to mean something."

"Like what? " Keith says, and stiffens when Shiro's hand tightens on his shoulder. He still refuses to look at him.

"That you're meant to stay with us." There's an intake of breath, like Shiro is going to say more, and Keith feels a chill creeping up his limbs.

It's coming, he thinks, it's happening already, and he'll have to leave again.

"You don't know how to be anything but alone, do you?"

Keith finally looks over, shocked, because it's not what he expected to hear. Shiro's face is serious, and Keith remembers all at once that this Shiro has been in his head, this Shiro knows his secrets, this Shiro has more pieces to the puzzle that is Keith than any other Shiro before him.

"We're your friends, you know," Shiro continues. "In this universe, and presumably in the rest. Maybe you don't want to get close just to lose someone—I understand. But here—" he taps the armor Keith is still wearing "—you have the power to prevent that. To prevent it from happening to anyone else."

Keith is still frozen, staring at Shiro's concerned face.

"Isn't that what you want?"

Yes, the thoughts in Keith's head scream.

"No," he growls, shoving Shiro's hand away. "You don't know that. You don't know me at all." And he gets up and all but runs out of the room and down the hall, and into his room, locking the door behind him.

It's better this way.

 


 

Shiro comes and knocks on his door, only once, and doesn't try again when Keith doesn't respond. The next knock is Lance, then Allura, then Pidge. He finally opens the door for Hunk.

"Oh thank God, we thought you'd left," Hunk says. "I brought you dinner."

"Thanks, Hunk," says Keith, and takes the tray.

"So, are you gonna, like... emerge? Ever?"

"...Probably." Because he's needed more here than in any universe before. The thought strikes him—if he leaves, what will happen to this universe? He's never been useless exactly, but he always knew that in every universe prior, they could get by without him. He wasn't necessary.

But here... what if he is?

"Uh, Keith? You okay?" Hunk asks, and Keith blinks up at him.

"Yeah, I just... I think I'm coming down with something,” he lies. “That's all. Tell everyone I'm sorry for holing up in here, I just don't feel too good.”

"Sure," says Hunk. "Do you wanna get in a healing pod, or...?"

"I think I'll try to sleep it off first."

"Alright. Just, you know, eat. Sleep well. I'll tell everyone." Keith nods, and Hunk backs out of the room and leaves him alone again. Keith lies back on his bed and resumes staring at the ceiling. Anxiety is starting to make him nauseous—maybe what he told Hunk wasn’t so much of a lie after all. His thoughts won’t leave him alone. What if he is needed?

It was okay to leave because he'll meet them all again.

It was okay to leave because they're still there—he can always go back. He just never does. But so long as he can, it's okay, right?

It’s always been okay, because they can live without him, so he doesn’t actually lose them. If he leaves this universe, he can come back, sure, but will they still be here if he does?

Can he live with himself if he leaves them to their fate?

Keith sits up, leans his head against the wall. God, he's built himself walls to keep people out and he never even noticed they'd been breached.

"I care," he whispers aloud. "I care about them." His friends.

He can't leave. It's not okay.

He picks at his food, motivated only by Hunk's concern—his appetite is long gone. He's going to stay, and it's going to be hard.

He can't run away this time.

 


 

He doesn't usually seek Shiro out—it tends to be the other way around. But after last night’s thoughts and barely a wink of sleep, he feels like he has to say something, and he’s too tired to worry about what he might be encouraging.

So he finds Shiro on the ship’s scanners and heads down to the hangar. Shiro is meditating in front of the black lion; Keith sits next to him, hugging his knees to his chest silently. He can wait.

Shiro cracks an eye open, eventually. “Feeling better?” he asks lightly. Keith is pretty sure he doesn’t mean it lightly.

“Yeah,” he says.

“I’m sorry about yesterday. It wasn’t my place to pry.”

“It’s fine,” Keith says, choking a little on the words. He’d come here to apologize himself—why is Shiro sorry?

Shiro finally opens both his eyes and turns his head towards Keith. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I just. I’m sorry. You were right. I... “ Keith shrugs and looks away. “I don’t know how to be anything but alone.”

“...Are you going to stay?”

He finally meets Shiro’s eyes. "What makes you think I was going to leave?"

Shiro looks at him carefully. "You did in other universes, didn't you? And... you've been on edge, lately. Around me. I don't want to be the one to chase you away. I... don't want you to leave at all." He takes a deep breath. "Was it my fault? Last time, any time?"

Keith looks away again. "...I'm staying," he says simply, but when he glances back, it's clear the lack of answer is as good as a yes.

Great talk, he tells himself. What a brilliant way to handle this situation. Good job.

Fuck.

"I'm glad," Shiro says slowly, but he doesn't sound it. They sit in agonized silence for a while, until Shiro sighs.

“If there's ever anything bothering you, you're always welcome to tell me,” he says.

Keith considers it, wonders if there's anything bothering him that's safe to talk about.

“Pidge and Hunk built some kind of device that lets them do what I do,” he says. “Y’know, travel between dimensions. It didn't work when I tested it for them.”

“...That bothers you?” Shiro asks, and Keith realizes maybe this wasn't a safe topic after all. Too late now.

“It dropped me in space,” he says. “I'm worried they'll use it and get hurt.”

“I see,” Shiro says. He sounds skeptical, and Keith can't blame him. It's not exactly the source of his worries, Pidge and Hunk are plenty capable, and it's clearly an attempt to divert the conversation. It's not even a good attempt. He decides it's about time he flee the hangar.

“I'm sorry I interrupted your meditation,” he says, and gets to his feet.

“You're welcome to interrupt me at any time, Keith,” Shiro says as he straightens back into a meditative pose.

“Do you offer that privilege to the rest of paladins?” he asks, a little darkly, and regrets it immediately. Why can't he just keep his mouth shut?

Shiro just smiles and closes his eyes. Keith makes his escape.

Only from the hangar, though, not from the universe. No matter his blunders, he reminds himself, he has to stay.

 


 

Once, in the distant past, in an almost-forgotten universe, Keith had marched out of the office of the man that had expelled him with everything he owned in his arms, and desperately wished to be anywhere but in the ruins of his dreams.

When he found himself in empty blackness, and then in a warm light so different from the cold fluorescence of the Garrison, he rolled with it.

 


 

Keith decides it’s about time he face his past.

He figures the best way to move forward is to go back; if he finally returns to the universes he left behind, he can satisfy himself that his friends really are still there, and getting by without him.

The many versions of his friends are inevitably pissed when he shows up months or years later—but every time, they're alive and well. Vibrantly, angrily alive. He wasn't necessary, but somehow he's glad for it—he can leave again, return to where he is, and let go of the heavy feeling he now realizes is guilt.

"I'm sorry for leaving like that," he says, over and over.

They yell. Shiro yells, gets quiet, says he's moved on. It hurts. Keith lets it hurt, lets their words creep into his skin and lodge there, pricking him as he stands in the face of their ire.

It hurts because it means something to him. He clings to that.

He doesn’t tell his fellow paladins, just slips away at every given chance, late at night or early in the morning. He doesn’t get much sleep, and he comes back hurting, but the gaping hole in his chest he hadn't known existed is slowly being filled. It doesn’t take long; there’s only ten or so places to go back to.

He visits every place he's been but the first. He hadn't been lying to Lance—there's nothing there to go back to. No friends, no family, no future.

It’s Lance, actually, that finds Keith mid-battle on the training deck late one evening, having returned from the last stop on his trip down memory lane. He joins in seamlessly, shooting glances between laser blasts.

“Hey, buddy,” Lance says, as he takes down an approaching gladiator with an easy shot. “You’ve been kinda distant lately, you doing okay?” To his credit, he actually sounds concerned.

Keith dispatches another droid and gives Lance a look. “Did Shiro put you up to this?”

“He… may have suggested it.”

“Well, I’m fine.” He rolls to one side to give Lance a clear shot at one droid, then jumps to his feet to duel with another. “You can tell him that.”

“Okay, but are you like… actually okay?”

They meet eyes across the training deck, and Keith thinks maybe Shiro isn’t the only one that might try to follow him when—if he were to leave.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m actually okay, now.”

"Well, good. I don't wanna pick up your slack forever." Lance grins, and Keith grins back.

"Now I'll be back to picking up yours."

"Yeah, right!"

Between bickering with Lance and fighting off hordes of alien robots for fun, Keith thinks, I'm home.

Despite all the closure and introspection he’s been doing, though, he still swallows back panic when Shiro comes to sit next to him in the rec room. He's still not sure how to handle what's coming, sooner or later. It’s one thing to run and apologize later; it’s another to deal with it head on.

“How are you doing?” Shiro asks. It’s been maybe a week since their conversation in the hangar—sure, they’re busy fighting the Galra, but Shiro knows the value of space.

“Didn’t Lance tell you?” Keith smirks, just a little. He’s actually feeling pretty good now, even with the constant thrum of Shiro Anxiety.

Shiro takes the hint and smiles back. “I was worried. I know you’d said you’d stay, but you’ve been… distant.”

"Didn't trust me?" Keith teases, but Shiro looks hurt, and he backpedals quickly. "I mean... I didn't mean that."

Shiro sighs. "I still feel like it's my fault, somehow."

His fault Keith's avoiding him? Well, kind of. But Keith can't say that. "It's not," he says instead. "At least, not in a bad way. I've just... had a lot to think about."

"About me?" Shiro's smiling again now, and Keith flushes.

"About everyone," he says quickly. "Everything."

"Of course." Shiro's face is gentle as he looks out across the empty rec room, and Keith is drenched in nervous sweat because they've gotten into dangerous territory now. He stands abruptly.

"I'm going to go train," he says.

"Can I join you?"

"I guess." All things considered, he probably should've said no. It's nice to talk to a Shiro that isn't pissed, though, no matter how closely they toe the line Keith doesn't want to cross. So he heads to the training deck, and Shiro follows. He's staying, and it's okay.

 


 

Not a week later, Pidge panics into the rec room and nearly pounces on Keith, startling him from dozing.

"I'm sorry!" she gasps. "We shouldn't have given it to him, it works now but we didn't know what he was going to do—he's so pissed, Keith, I don't know what it's about—oh man, I'm so sorry. He looked like he was going to cry. I don't know. I'm sorry."

"Pidge, what," he says, and then Shiro comes into the room with Pidge and Hunk's dimension-hopping device on his arm and fire in his eyes and Keith can hear the fragile new life he's made here come crashing down.

"Sorry!" Pidge squeaks, and flees. Keith gets to his feet, tense.

"They said you left a trail. I found it,” Shiro says. “I went to a universe you'd been to.” His voice is unsteady.

"Shiro—"

"I found another version of myself there. I talked to him. Do you know what he told me?"

"Shiro, please—"

"He told me he kissed you, and you left."

"Wait—"

"You left without even a word, and you didn't return for two years. Two years." Shiro draws himself up to his full height. "I went to another. And another. Every version of me I met—they told me the same thing."

"That—that's not—"

"Was that always your plan? Stay until you've gotten what you wanted from me and then just go? "

"It's not like that—"

"Then what is it like, Keith? How many times have you done this?" He gestures widely. "How many times are you going to leave me? "

"This time is different! " Keith finally manages to say. "I am going to stay this time! God, I was just... just..." Why did he leave every time? Suddenly he's not sure.

"Just what."

"...scared?"

"Scared." Shiro's voice is flat, unbelieving. "You were scared."

"...Yes..."

He hops down into the ring of sofas set into the floor, and Keith backs up against the other side of the ring. Shiro continues his approach.

"Keith, how many times have you told me you would stay?" His voice is calmer now but still low, dangerous. "In all the universes you've been to, how many times?"

"Just one," Keith says breathlessly. "Just here. Just you."

"If I go back to those universes, will they tell me otherwise?"

"No!"

Shiro reaches out to him, and Keith flinches back automatically. Shiro's face tightens, scrunches inwards, and he reaches more aggressively.

Keith panics. He flickers out of the rec room and into the familiar nothingness between universes.

He runs away again.

 


 

Keith steps into a blessedly empty forest clearing in some distant, unknown place, and sits heavily in the moss. He shakes. He sobs. He waits for Shiro to use the device, to follow him here and point out he’s done exactly what he said he wouldn’t do.

Shiro doesn’t come.

Keith needs to go back.

No, he doesn't just need to go back. He needs to fix this. Somehow.

He sinks his fingers into the moss, watches the impression smooth itself out when he lifts them away.

What can he do to prove he's sorry? What can he do to help even if they don't want him back? What can he do that only he can do?

He stands and idly tries to summon his bayard, knowing that moving through weapon forms and sparring imagined enemies will help him think. It doesn't come—his bayard, like so much that's thoughtlessly become part of him, was left behind. It gives him an idea, though.

The black bayard is still in Zarkon's hands.

Lance has told him of the time he went up against Zarkon in the red lion; to try and take him on without even his armor would be a suicide mission. Except he can leave in an instant—what can Zarkon do against someone that's not even there?

To travel across dimensions to a specific location—he hasn’t really tried it, and he's not even been to Zarkon's base. He's seen it in his friends' memories, though. It might be enough.

And then there's the matter of actually getting the bayard literally out of Zarkon's hands. He'll have to entice him to fight and get him to drop it, somehow. It's risky.

But if Keith has to leave, leaving Zarkon sans bayard—and Shiro with one—will have to do.

First things first, though. He deftly strips a piece of pale bark from a nearby birch, whittles a makeshift pen with his knife, hunts through the underbrush for berries to use as ink. He's not going to let Shiro or anyone think he's totally abandoning them, not this time.

He steps into the darkness and drops his sweet-smelling, fragile note into the empty rec room. Someone will find it soon enough.

I'm coming back, I promise. -Keith

 


 

Keith would admit to being reckless or impulsive, but he would vehemently deny stupidity, so he takes the time to make sure he knows how to do what he's picturing in his head.

His instincts for moving through the darkness between dimensions are good. He told Pidge and Hunk once that he could tell if his destination was dangerous; it never really occurred to him that he was already able to choose where he’d emerge. He’d never particularly cared.

Aiming is another matter, though. To step into the blackness and return to the same universe in a different location takes concentration. Focus.

He practices in the mossy clearing, then further, throwing himself as far as he can see into the murky forest again and again until picking his destination and going there is as natural as the feel of his knife in his hands. He steps up into a tree, across a cliff, down a riverbank. He flickers in and out of a camp nearby just long enough to see the familiar faces there—but he doesn't engage, not this time.

He sleeps in the moss and eats some fruit and tries to prepare himself mentally for what he’s going to face. He’s the red paladin, fast and reckless—he’s got the reckless part down, at least. He hopes he’ll be fast enough.

 


 

Keith takes a deep breath and makes the jump back to the universe he's come to think of as home. He stops in his room, first—he changes into his armor, makes sure he can summon his bayard once more.

Then he concentrates on Shiro's memories of Zarkon's base's halls, on Lance's memories of Zarkon himself, of the team's secondhand memories from Allura of his throne room. He goes there.

Zarkon is there. Keith almost thought he wouldn't be. Haggar is there too, which he hadn't anticipated—he curses and dives out of the way of a crackling ball of energy as Zarkon roars in surprise and anger.

"RED PALADIN."

"Hey," Keith says, breathless and wry. He dodges another blast of energy, and another, struggling to come up with a new plan on the fly. If only this damn witch would just stop… He lunges forward, bayard out, but she zips away easily.

"Go, my lord. I can handle him," she says.

"Do not think to fight my battles, Haggar," Zarkon says. He moves to shed his heavy cloak, and Keith realizes if he can just get them separated he can get to wherever Zarkon is and deal with him alone.

"I'm not even after you," Keith says quickly. He deflects a ball of energy off his shield and staggers back, then tries to advance again. The druid’s attacks are relentless. He keeps one eye on Zarkon as Haggar forces him back across the room.

Zarkon makes a sound that's probably a sign of amusement. "Keep him occupied," he says. "If this one is here, the rest cannot be far behind."

Keith fucking wishes.

The druid finally stops moving and he circles her warily for a moment. Then she multiplies and he swings at the nearest copy, turns, realizes he’s trapped in a spinning circle of cackling Haggars. Keep him occupied—he just has to keep her occupied until Zarkon has a decent headstart, then he can skip out of here and get the bayard—

Wait, druids can teleport too. Shit.

Keith did not think this through.

Headstart be damned—he flickers into the hallway Zarkon left through and makes a run for it. He skids around a corner and directly into a surprised patrol. Haggar's cackling echoes in the halls around him as he takes the drones down with barely a hitch in his stride.

Zarkon's nowhere in sight—God, what if he can teleport too? Keith turns another corner into the line of fire of a rather large and expectant group of drones. An ambush. Zarkon knew he was lying.

The drones open fire and he flickers past them, not quite fast enough to avoid a shot from a quick if not well-aimed rifle. It scores his side, deep but instantly cauterized. He stumbles, but presses a hand to his side and keeps going. The wound stings in the darkness between dimensions but doesn't bleed.

He doesn't stop running. He doesn't stop flickering. He only stays on Zarkon's base long enough to get his bearings and pick his next destination and gasp for breath. The hall is all but lined with drones, firing the moment he’s in view. A shot skims his leg; another hits his non-dominant shoulder. He limps on.

When he reaches the bridge, Zarkon is waiting, uncloaked and ready. Haggar watches from the shadows.

"I knew you'd come," he says.

What a damn surprise. Keith doesn't waste his breath. He lifts his bayard. Zarkon summons his.

The smart thing to do, Keith thinks, would be to flee. Instead he roars and runs at Zarkon, who easily deflects his bayard’s blade with his own. The black bayard glows menacingly but it hasn’t even taken form yet.

Keith swings wildly, because he’s angry and hurt and frustrated and desperate, and now his goal's in sight but how can he get it?

Zarkon barely even moves, a smirk on his face and the bayard still in its default form as he blocks Keith again and again. Haggar’s still laughing behind them.

“Did you really think you could defeat me? ” Zarkon asks, and with a sweep of his arm Keith is sent flying across the room.

Keith staggers upwards, stars swimming past his eyes. He spits blood and lifts his bayard defensively.

“I did, once,” he mumbles, mostly for his own benefit. “In another world, long ago. I defeated you.”

Zarkon laughs.

It’s not much of a chance but Keith takes it. He flickers behind Zarkon, who stops laughing and spins, probably anticipating it—but he doesn't anticipate Keith dispelling his own bayard to drive his knife up into Zarkon's wrist.

Zarkon roars. His hand and bayard come down heavily on Keith's head, separating there, and Keith retains just enough presence of mind to grab the damn thing and stumble backward through the darkness into his mossy clearing before passing out.

 


 

Keith flickers back into the rec room like a man stepping up to the noose. He's wounded and dirty and tired, but he's clear headed now, and he's there.

The whole team is there, too, just like the first time. They startle at his entrance, just like the first time.

No one says a word though. Shiro stands slowly, a long series of emotions flickering across his face. Keith holds out his hand to him—in it, the black bayard.

There’s a long moment of silence; then the others gasp, and Shiro's face hardens as he looks back up at Keith.

Deep breath. "Every other universe I've been to," Keith begins, "I knew that you all would get along fine without me."

Murmurs. He ignores them, focuses on Shiro's face, which is twisting in confusion.

"This one, I wasn't sure. No other versions of this team have had so much to do with so little help."

Silence.

"If you want me to leave," he says slowly, "then I want you to have a fighting chance without me."

There's a long, long period of silence. Then Shiro softens.

"I don't want you to leave," he says. "I never wanted that."

"Me neither," says Keith. His arm is starting to cramp. "Are you going to take this or not."

Shiro reaches forward and takes the black bayard. It lengthens, becomes something spear-like in his hands. He looks at it with something that falls short of awe, but Keith's chest tightens at the sight anyway; then Shiro dispels the bayard and steps forward to take Keith by the arm.

"After you spend some time in a healing pod," he says, with a stern look, "we're going to talk."

"Yeah," Keith says, and lets Shiro lead him away.

 


 

Shiro isn't there when Keith emerges, but Lance and Pidge are. The former catches him as he stumbles out of the pod, still a little delirious.

"You really scared us, man," Lance tells him, holding him up till he finds his feet. "We thought you weren't gonna come back."

"I left a note."

Lance and Pidge exchange a look.

“Shiro told us you’d left without warning in the other dimensions you’d been to,” Pidge pointed out. “We kinda tried not to get our hopes up.”

Keith’s heart skips a beat—they’d hoped he’d come back! Not that he doubts it particularly, but he hadn’t really considered that the people that had slipped inside his walls might’ve let him through theirs. He smiles weakly.

“You really wanted me back?”

“Totally,” Lance insists. “We make a good team, you know?”

“I knew I shoulda been recording this in case Lance said something nice to you,” Pidge says, and Lance elbows her while she snickers. “It’s true though. And, er, sorry again, by the way, about letting Shiro use the device…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Keith says, because he thinks he likes how things turned out. Except he still has to face Shiro—but he pushes that thought away for the moment. “How long was I gone, anyway?”

“Day and a half,” Lance says.

“Thirty four hours, to be precise,” says Pidge.

"That's not that bad," Keith grumbles, running a hand through his hair. Ugh, he needs a shower.

"Retrospectively, no, but it was plenty long enough for everyone to freak out!” Lance says, throwing his hands in the air. “I thought Shiro was gonna implode. He was pissed the first few hours but he kinda looked like he wanted to die since. And then you showed up all beat up holding the black bayard? Like, what the hell, man? If you do that again I'm gonna kick your ass."

“Seconded,” Pidge mutters.

"I'd like to see you try."

Seconded,” Pidge mutters again, grinning.

"Don't tempt me." Lance grins, finally. "But I think I'll save your ass for Shiro."

Keith and Pidge both give him a look.

"Yes, I meant that both ways, thank you."

Keith punches him in the shoulder. Pidge snickers.

"Ow! Look, he's on his way over by now, so whatever's gonna happen you should probably not try to avoid it. I'm gonna go, though." Lance claps a hand on his shoulder. "Good luck, dude."

"Thanks, dude."

"Eyy." Lance does the finger pistols thing and walks backward out of the room.

“Don’t die,” Pidge adds, and follows. Keith sits outside his pod and waits for his impending doom.

He doesn't have to wait long. Shiro appears in the doorway soon enough, face unreadable, and comes and sits next to Keith.

"I'm sorry for yelling at you," he says eventually.

Keith snorts. "I'm sorry for running away, leaving a shitty note, and going and taking on Zarkon alone."

"Keith, please take this seriously."

"I am. Shiro, you have every right to be angry at me." Keith shifts so he can look him in the eye. "I kept things from you. I didn't think about how you'd feel about any of it. I'm sorry."

Shiro regards him for a minute, then nods.

"I understand wanting to keep people at a distance," he says. "I struggle with that myself. I've lost people, you know—Pidge's family included. But keeping people out of your heart isn't worth it. It just hurts you."

"I know," Keith says. "I've learned that lesson." Shiro nods.

"I don't... I don't like losing people either. No one does. But knowing it was my fault... I was afraid of losing you. I didn't want it to be my fault again."

"Running away at the slightest hint of affection is on my own damn shoulders, Shiro."

That gets a chuckle out of him. "Even so. I should have trusted you when you said this time was different."

"You had no reason to."

"Stop making excuses, Keith. I had reason to: you told me. You're a terrible liar."

Keith cracks a grin. "You've got me there, I guess."

Shiro holds out a hand. "No more secrets?"

Keith takes it. "No more secrets."

Shiro turns a little pink and runs a hand through his hair. He's still holding Keith's hand. "Then you should know that I, uh. Care for you. If you hadn’t guessed."

"I know. You always do," Keith says as gently as he can. If he'd known it would be this easy, maybe he wouldn't have worried—but perhaps it's just the circumstances.

"I won't go springing surprise kisses on you, though—I learned that lesson from the other me's." Shiro laughs a little. "Do you...?"

Keith ponders what to say and settles on honesty. "I don't know. Probably. I'm a little new to this... letting-people-in thing. Years of pushing you out, you know?"

"I suppose that's a big change, isn't it." Shiro frowns thoughtfully.

"I pretty much have to reinvent myself anyway. Traveling between universes is everything I was. What am I now? Not that anymore, since, you know. I'm staying."

Shiro smiles. "What do you want to be?"

"...A paladin of Voltron. A good friend. Your friend—maybe more." Keith still has his hand in Shiro's—he reaches forward and takes his other one, too, and smiles back. "Anything but alone."

"I think," says Shiro, "I can help with that."