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Shiro is back. Shiro stumbles out of the stolen Galra ship, with his leg in a bandage and his lips dry and chapped from lack of water.

“Good to have you back,” Keith breathes, his voice breaking with the words. Shiro gives him a faint, almost delirious smile and promptly collapses into Keith's arms.

“We have to put him into a healing pod,” Allura orders at once while Keith is still stuck on the shadows underneath Shiro's eyes and the way his cheekbones jut from his face like poorly hidden blades.

 

 

“What the quiznak happened to him?” Lance wonders aloud as they all stand gathered around the pod. “He looks like a space hobo.”

“Yeah, the whole caveman look is really not his thing,” Hunk agrees.

“How did his hair even get so long?” Pidge's nose scrunches up as she fumbles with her glasses. “On average, human hair grows one centimeter per month. That's, like, two years he's got there.”

“Speculation won't get us anywhere,” Allura says. “Let us wait until he is awake.”

Keith is so sick of waiting, but it's easier with Shiro being just one window pane away instead of the entirety of the universe.

 

 

Shiro is awake but weakened, sequestered away in his darkened room. They haven't changed anything about his quarters but, now that he is back, it is more obvious than ever that he was away for a long time.

There's something broken about Shiro, something desolate in the way he looks at walls, at his own hands, as though he had never seen them before.

He does not remember much of what he endured and it's even worse than last time because now Keith has seen what the Galra do to their prisoners and his imagination has his thoughts spinning like a hamster in a wheel.

“As many times as it takes,” Keith tells him and the line of Shiro's back relaxes in a way that has a little less to do with utter exhaustion.

 

 

“How is he?” Hunk asks and Keith considers it for a moment.

“Not good,” he says and feels in his bones. “But better.”

 

 

Shiro shaves and cuts his hair and it's different from before but definitely an improvement.

“Like a stray dog in a shelter,” Pidge had said about him and Keith had not appreciated it because he had been called a stray before, too, and he knew that it meant you looked dirty and unloved and likely to bite the hand that fed you.

Now, the bruises underneath Shiro's eyes are still there but the healing pod has faded the angry branding on his thigh to a pale pink.

“You've been keeping the team together then?” he asks and Keith gives a small uncertain shrug.

“Was doing a piss poor job of it, in the beginning,” he admits and it's not exactly easy but it's not difficult either. He was always just a placeholder, nothing more. “I was so... so focused on getting you back that I...”

He trails off. That I almost led us to ruin, he means to say but doesn't dare to.

“Well, I appreciate it,” Shiro tells him. “Now things can go back to the way they were before.”

 

 

Things can't go back to the way they were before.

“Leave the math to Pidge,” he tells Lance and gives an encouraging smile.

“You take the Black Lion,” he tells Shiro, putting a hand to his shoulder. “I'll stay with Coran in the castle and provide support.”

Shiro looks at him for a long moment; then he gives a tight nod, turns around and marches off the deck.

“This is why you are suited to leadership,” Coran says into the following silence and his tone is much the same as when Lance had pledged to follow him to the fringes of all galaxies.

 

 

“Why, big girl?” Keith asks the Black Lion after she rejected Shiro. “You helped me find him. You wanted him back as much as I did.”

The electric static of the controls sizzles underneath his fingers but the voice in his head stays stubbornly silent.

 

 

“The Black Lion has chosen you. I'm proud of you,” Shiro says and Keith feebly tries to swallow the lump in his throat.

“I didn't-” he starts, breaks off, fights against the burning in his eyes. “I never meant to replace you.”

“It's all right,” Shiro assures him. “Perhaps it's for the best.”

“I searched for you,” Keith says because he needs Shiro to know at least this much. “I tried everything I could think off, I swear I-”

After Kerberos, when there was nothing but the factual certainty that Shiro and his team were dead, Keith had not given up. Now, when Shiro's fate had been a complete mystery, he had simply stopped when something else demanded his dedication.

And he had still found Shiro once more but it had been so close, so close...

“It's all right,” Shiro says again. The gaze in his eyes is soft but his smile sits on his lips in a somewhat stilted manner as though he didn't quite know which words to fit into this gaps of Keith's self-flagellation.

Keith sniffles, tries to get himself back under control. He purses his lips.

“I've missed you,” he says and the memory of the feeling is still so raw it feels like a physical wound.

Shiro nods. “I missed you, too.”

How had it been for him, Keith wonders. Cut off from his team and thrown into hell for the second time around. His nightmares would be coming back with a vengeance.

“If you... if you need someone to talk to,” Keith offers him, awkward and helpless, “Or... or just some company. I'm here for you.”

“I know.” Shiro smiles. “I know.”

 

 

“Deal with the consequences!” Shiro yells over the comm as though Keith's life had been anything but a never-ending attempt of dealing with the consequences, of being abandoned by his father, of isolating himself from most people, of getting kicked out of the Garrison, of single-handedly facing down Zarkon, of accepting the Blades' trial for him, of finding out that he is part-Galra.

Now, the consequences are the fate of the team that he is supposed to lead and the universe he ought to defend.

“There's not enough time!” Shiro urges. “You need to make a decision!”

Keith makes an aggravate noise, clenches his fingers around the control handles. “Hunk, get your bayard ready!”

Lotor may always be one step ahead of them, but Keith is the better pilot. Black is not Red but he'll outmaneuver anyone if need be.

So he takes a deep breath. Focuses. Just like Shiro taught him.

 

 

“Quick thinking there,” Shiro praises him after and Keith gives him a half-hearted smile, rubbing his sternum. His chest still seems to ache in sympathy from where Voltron had been hit by the laser beam.

“Yeah, well,” he says. “Patience yields focus.”

“But sometimes we have to act fast,” Shiro says. “We got lucky today but we cannot always depend on that.”

“Yeah...” Keith says slowly and cannot help but frown.

 

 

“You didn't... you didn't see my brother or my father, did you?” Pidge asks haltingly and Shiro blinks at her, at though caught off guard by the topic.

“No,” he says at length, offering her a placating smile. "I'm sorry.”

 

 

“Has Shiro seemed... different to you?” Keith asks, needlessly having stacked the hover dishes and carrying them into the kitchen where Hunk is already cleaning the counter tops.

“Omg, yes, he hasn't complained once about the food since he got back,” Hunk says with a big huff and a roll of his eyes. “Makes you wonder what the Galra fed him to make him so grateful.” He stills, winces at his own words. “Sorry, that was tactless.”

Keith sets the dishes down, pushes them away a little.

“He seems a bit... harried,” he muses, surreptitiously awaiting Hunk's reaction. “More impatient. If that makes sense?”

“Yeah, well.” Hunk pulls a grimace. “As I said, we don't really know what they did to him. He never spoke much about his trauma before and now... He probably needs extensive sessions with a therapist who has expertise on how to cope with alien invasions.”

Keith gives a non-committal grunt. Hunk frowns.

“Is this about him questioning your judgment?” he asks. “I know you guys have been butting heads more than usual, but... I think that's normal. The team's dynamic is all messed up. Allura is a Paladin now, Lance is literally your right-hand-man and Shiro... well, Shiro probably feels expendable.”

Keith only bites his lower lip.

“Maybe,” Hunk adds, “You guys just need to talk it out.”

 

 

“Are you questioning my position in the team?” Shiro asks and Keith's hands nervously flutter up.

“No!” he insists, his eyes wide. “No, not at all. If... if anything, I'm questioning my own position. I... I know I'm not doing a great job. Or rather, I know you'd do a better one.”

It's not just his own loyalties that are split. The rest of the team, too, gets confused on whose order they should be following. Half of the time, Keith and Shiro seem to be disagreeing on things and more often than not Allura ends up making the final call, with Hunk, Pidge and Lance having to double and triple check the commands they are given. It costs them valuable time and has endangered them more than once.

“Well, but the Black Lion chose you,” Shiro says and there is a hint of consternation in the words. “Nothing we can do about that.”

“I'm... I'm sorry,” Keith whispers. His gaze falls to the floor. He had thought that Black accepting him as her pilot had been bad when Shiro was gone, but that pain had multiplied by a thousand when she picked him over Shiro.

“It's not your fault,” Shiro says, sounding more amicable. “And it's not your fault you're not ready for all this responsibility either.”

 

 

Down in the hangar, Lance is busy polishing the paint job of the Red Lion or, at least, the parts of her he can reach.

Keith lingers in the threshold a little awkwardly, but then Lance spots him and just waves him over.

“Homesick?” he asks and gives Keith a lopsided smile.

“Kinda,” Keith nods and then tilts his head back to look at Red. She stands unmoved, unbothered. His connection with her is not... not gone exactly, but muted. Stilled. Not a fire anymore, just embers in the ashes.

“When Blue wouldn't respond to me, I thought I was going to die,” Lance chuckles but there is pain laced through it. “Just... me an' her, that was it, you know? And then she just kicks me out. No argument, no divorce papers, just exchanges the locks and won't answer my calls.”

“That's rough, buddy,” Keith admits.

“Yeah,” Lance says. “But then Red reaches out to me. And we're making it work. So.”

“You... do know that the lions are not your girlfriends, right?”

“Sure,” Lance bops his head. “But I still think they probably know what's best.”

Then what does that mean when it comes to Black and Shiro, Keith wonders but he does not voice his thoughts.

 

 

“Man, Shiro needs to liven up a little,” Lance complains, kicking his legs out in front of him as he throws himself down on the couch.

“Why, does he keep you from getting yourself into pointless trouble again?” Pidge taunts.

“Nooo,” Lance says and sticks his tongue out at her before blowing out a breath and closing his eyes. “The opposite, really. He used to either flip his shit or play right along when I did something stupid. Now he's just kinda-” He flips his hand in a vague gesture “Eh.”

“What's that supposed to be? A half-dead fish?”

“Yeah.” Lance gives a vehement nod. “A boring floppy fish. He wouldn't even make laser gun noises with me!”

“Lance, that joke ran out of breath ages ago,” Pidge huffs. Then she grows thoughtful. “He does seem a bit... preoccupied, maybe?”

“Exactly!” Lance insists. “It's like he is constantly just thinking of the mission. 'Voltron this, Lotor that.' He's like a broken record.”

“Well, we do have a lot on our plate right now.”

“Not any more than when we were taking down his Lordshit Zarkon the Hopefully Very Last himself.”

“True,” Pidge says and turns back to her pad.

Keith comes to a decision.

 

 

“Hey,” he says, stopping Shiro in the threshold of his quarters. “Can we talk?”

Shiro raises his eyebrow. “Sure,” he says with an inviting gesture. “Come in. Anything bothering you?”

“Well,” Keith begins, rubbing his sweaty palms on his pants. It's difficult to meet Shiro's earnest gaze so he stares somewhere off into the corner instead. “N-not really, I guess? Just... you've been kind of distracted lately and I... wanted too check whether you're okay.”

“Distracted,” Shiro echoes, immediately standing a little straighter. “From the mission?”

“Not the mission,” Keith assures him. “Definitely not the mission. Just... everything else?”

“What could be more important than the mission?” Shiro asks and sounds so genuinely perturbed that Keith cannot help but chuckle a little breathlessly.

“I don't know, the team? Food? M-me?”

He hadn't meant to say that part, not this openly. He and Shiro used to spent a lot of time together, both at the Garrison and after Voltron. And Keith had thought maybe... maybe there was more to it than that, than just friendship, but perhaps he had been reading too much into it. The team wasn't exactly big and there was a limited choice of people to spend your free time with, especially when you already worked with them.

“Oh,” Shiro says, blinking. Then, “Do you want me to spend more time with you?”

“I- I just want you to be all right,” Keith says quickly. “Whatever that means.”

Shiro gives a slow smile, like living stones in the desert revealing themselves.

“Then I'll spend more time with you,” he promises and that's that.

 

 

So they spend more time together and it's almost like before. There is sparring on the training deck and scavenging the castle's library and raiding the kitchen and musing over battle strategies. It's easy, almost bland in how commonplace it all seems to be, but it's all Keith could ask for.

He's asked for so much already. For Shiro to become his friend, for Shiro to be alive, for Shiro to come back. He shouldn't be greedy. He shouldn't demand more.

“Lance's pickup lines are so unbelievably bad,” he laughs after yet another successfully freed planet. “If he weren't a Paladin of Voltron, all those girls would be getting restraining orders against him.”

“Probably,” Shiro chuckles but then his expression turns pensive. “You never do that, do you?”

“Get a restraining order? I'll try it, if you can get me a good lawyer, but I don't think it's gonna go over very well with him being my literal right arm.”

“No, I mean...” At his periphery, Shiro seems to contemplate something, but Keith tries very hard not to look. “You never hit on girls.”

“N-no,” Keith says, jittery, wipes the heel of his hand over his nose. “'cause I'm not pathetic like him.”

“You're not,” Shiro agrees and his eyes on Keith burn.

 

 

“Okay, so either Lance pinned a 'Kick Me' sign onto your back or Shiro has unlearned how to blink,” Pidge tells Keith after she has thrown a casual look over his shoulder and across the room.

“Why?” Keith asks, resisting the urge to turn around and look. He's leaning against the kitchen counter across from her and he hadn't even heard Shiro enter. That had been happening for a while now, Shiro watching him and Keith trying not to notice.

“Because he is seriously staring at you right now,” Pidge drawls. “And it's kinda freaking me out.”

“I- I don't know,” Keith stammers and hates it. He props his chin up on his hands, hides his warm cheeks in his cool palms.

“Hmm,” Pidge hums and narrows her eyes.

 

 

“How do they keep finding us?!” Lance yells in frustration, angrily tossing his bayard onto the couch before he begins to tear off his own armor. “It's like the pre-Teludav era all over again.”

“It can't be Zarkon again, can it?” Hunk asks, nervously fixing his bandana. “Please don't let it be Zarkon again.”

“Has the Black Lion given you any trouble at all?” Allura asks. “Any signs that she still has some link with Zarkon?”

Keith stares down at his toes. “No,” he says quietly. “Everything's been working well.”

It should be a relief, but instead it only makes him feel more guilty. It had taken Shiro so much work to gain complete control of Black and then she had simply rejected him in favor of Keith. It wasn't fair and the knowledge hurts.

“But there's gotta be something!” Pidge insists. She's been biting her fingernails bloody again. “It's not just that they simply know our location, like before. They actually know the objective of our mission. They didn't just follow us today – they anticipated us.”

“We have to be more careful in the future,” Shiro decides, always the voice of reason. The words themselves don't mean much but his steadiness is soothing. “For now, let's just catch our breath and redirect our attention.”


“I don't think we should concentrate on something else for now,” Keith tells Shiro. The observation deck is dark as usual and the only light on Shiro's face are the stars at Keith's back. “We can't just drop the mission and turn tail when things don't quite go according to plan.”

“There wasn't much of a plan to begin with,” Shiro sighs. “I shouldn't have let you rush in like that.”

Keith's fists clench, instinctive anger at the careless slight.

“This is a war, not a game of chess,” he points out. “And-”

“You seem very intent on sacrificing your players, though,” Shiro says bluntly and it almost punches the breath right out of Keith.

“No one got hurt today-” he tries but it immediately cut off again.

“Exactly,” Shiro says. “Today. But what about tomorrow or next week? People will keep getting hurt if you keep being careless, Keith.”

Keith grits his teeth. “Back at the Garrison,” he says, “When all the instructors cautioned me against risky maneuvers. You were the only one who commended me for trusting my instincts and my skills.”

Shiro blinks, as though surprised that Keith would bring up from something so long ago. Then the corners of his mouth turn down.

“Those were simulations, Keith,” he reminds him. “This is the real thing.”

“I'll remember that,” Keith says and tucks his chin against his chest.

 

 

“If you hate Lotor and you know it clap your hands,” Lance groans but then laughs a little when Coran actually does clap his hands.

“The supercilious prick would probably take it as some form of applause,” Pidge points out and sighs heavily. “Got to give it to him, though. He's really got the evil mastermind thing down.”

“Yeah,” Hunk nods sagely. “And his generals would be really awesome if they weren't, you know, also very deadly and extremely scary.”

“They all seem to be part-Galra,” Shiro notes, “Perhaps he has a special interest in hybrids.”

“Better not let Keith out of our sight then,” Lance jokes. “Or Lotor is going to try and woo him away.”

“That might be an actual possibility,” Shiro cautions and his gray eyes seek out Keith's purple ones. “We can't have anyone questioning the Black Paladin's integrity.”

“So, basically, if he offers you cookies and promises to show you his puppy,” Lance says and throws an arm around Keith's shoulder, “Run away and tell a friendly space officer.”

 

 

“I'm not gonna run off to become one of Lotor's lackeys,” Keith insists. He's got his arms curled around himself, terribly aware that it makes him look defensive rather than plain protective.

“I know,” Shiro says. His fingers untangle Keith's grip and make him bare himself. “I didn't mean to imply anything else.”

Keith breathes out through his nose. “You didn't,” he replies. “I'm just... being paranoid.”

“I only want what's best,” Shiro promises and one of his knuckles brushes the dark hair away from Keith's face. Keith looks up at him from underneath lowered eyes.

“What do I have to do to make you believe me?” Shiro asks and his gaze drops down to Keith's lips.

Keith's heart stumbles. He cannot- this isn't-

Shiro's hands on his jawline practically lift him into the kiss and his mouth is warm and wet, bites at him and pushes his tongue in like an unexpected invasion.

There are many versions of how Keith has imagined his first kiss with Shiro to go. Gentle, passionate, giddy, relieved, playful, slow, knowing, certain. This is not what this is but it is better than the options where they never even kiss at all.

And Keith has never kissed before but it must be like piloting the lions, really - instinctual and a whole lot like fate. When he thinks of it like that, there cannot be any room for doubt.

 

 

Shiro kisses him. Shiro distracts him, keeps his mind off greater worries.

Keith feels tense a lot, the expectations of the team weighing heavily on him, but Shiro's affection is like a little cranny in which he can hide himself away.

Their relationship happens behind closed doors and away from prying eyes.

“I don't want to it look like favoritism that I appointed you leader,” Shiro explains. “It would upset the team dynamic.”

Keith doesn't mind. Keith likes living in the safety of their secrecy, of not having to share. There were so few things in his life that he considered his own – his shack, his knife, his lions – and even those had always belonged to someone else first. He thinks he'd like to belong to Shiro wholly and completely.

Sometimes, he wishes Shiro would talk about missions less when they are just watching the stars on the observation deck. Sometimes, he thinks Shiro needn't criticize Lance's piloting when they are cuddling on the bed.

But the star-gazing is nice and the cuddling is even nicer. Keith hadn't been very used to physical contact when he grew up but Shiro offered it so easily, so pleasantly that it had always been nothing but welcome.

They are lying in bed now, side by side and facing each other. Shiro's face is very close and very handsome and Keith is very grateful.

“I am so glad you are back,” he says, the words falling out of him in a rush. In another world, in many other worlds, he probably never gets to have this. But here, he does. What more could he hope for?

“Keith,” Shiro asks him, cautious like climbing up a ladder. “Do you love me?”

Keith's breath hitches.

“Yes,” he confesses and hides his face against Shiro's chest, his calm heart. “Yes, I do.”

 

 

“Well, someone is happy,” Coran comments good-naturedly when he sees Keith come into the kitchen. “Excited for the day?”

“Just had a nice dream,” Keith claims and ducks his head to hide his smile in his collar.

 

 

“You can't just deviate from the plan!” Shiro chastises and Keith grits his teeth. He doesn't know what's worse – being chewed out in front of them team or being pulled aside and given a private lecture.

“I had no choice,” he points out. “We couldn't have known that the citizens were working with the Galra and-”

“Are you saying the plan was bad?” Shiro demands.

“No! I'm saying that under the changed circumstances it had to be revised.”

“You still shouldn't have acted on your own.”

“I didn't, I just... You heard what Kolivan said and he agreed-”

“So you're following his orders now? Just because he let you keep the blade and you are Galra-”

“I am not Galra!”

“Then stop acting like you are one of them!”

Keith flinches back as though he had been struck.

“I... I am not Galra,” he repeats but, this time, his voice is small. “I'm not one of them and I don't wanna be.”

“I know,” Shiro says and lifts a hand to his cheek. “But I need to know that I can trust you without question."

“You can,” Keith leans into the touch. “Of course you can.”

“Good,” Shiro nods and kisses him.

 

 

“Is it just me or was Shiro more bearable when he was our actual leader?” Pidge complains, knobbly knees pulled up in front of her chest where she perches on her chair. “He's been dishing out a lot of criticism lately.”

Keith's shoulders tense.

“We still have a lot to learn,” he says. “We were okay before but now that I'm piloting the Black Lion-”

“No, screw that,” she interrupts him. “I mean, sure, it took us a while to figure everything out 'cause three of you were using an unfamiliar lion, but we still made it work. Now he's just... meddling.”

“The princess always gave us instructions, too,” Keith reminds her.

“Ummm, yeah, because she's the princess? And she didn't do it like that either. Half of the time, he's just undermining your position.”

“Just the other day he told me that I did a good job,” Keith claims. For some reasons, he's feeling anxious, his stomach roiling like the teeming sea.

“Did he?” Pidge cocks an eyebrow. “Because it sure didn't sound like it when he was yelling at you over the comm.”

“He hasn't exactly had it easy,” he says tersely. “He went through all this shit in order to get back to us, only to find out that we'd already replaced him.”

“That makes it sound like a personal vendetta,” Pidge huffs in aggravation. “We needed a Black Paladin and the universe needed Voltron. So, sucks, the Black Lion didn't want him back. Not to mention,” she adds pointedly, “That, considering he tried so hard to get back, he really could stand to appreciate us more.”

“He just has a lot on his mind.”

“So we all, Keith,” she says and pushes her glasses up her nose. “So do we all.”

 

 

They are fighting again, or arguing, or discussing, or debriefing or whatever the hell it is meant to be when they are talking about some mission and Shiro's tone turns a little harder and Keith gets a little more defensive and cannot help but take everything personal and then the lines between business and private life seem to blur.

Keith has never been good at calmly talking things out. Teachers knew it and foster parents knew it and the instructors at the Garrison knew it, too. It was what had gotten Keith kicked out from more than just one home. It was what eventually cost him his scholarship, too.

He doesn't know how to back down, how to admit that perhaps he had been wrong. All he knows is that, if you threw a fight, you had already lost anyway. Ceasefire does not exist. You just have to muddle through and cut your losses.

“You're behaving like a child,” Shiro scolds him. “How can someone like that lead Voltron?”

“If you remember correctly, it was your idea to make me your successor,” Keith snaps back. “I never wanted any of it!”

“Of course it was my idea,” Shiro says. He seems unnervingly calm while Keith feels like he is going to pieces. “Why are you even bringing that up?”

“Because now you apparently think that I am unfit to be a leader!"

“Why are you yelling at me?” Shiro asks. “And I never said that.”

“You just did!” Keith says desperately. “You called me a child.”

“Well, maybe you interpreted it like that but I didn't mean it that way,” Shiro rubs the spot between his eyebrows, as though trying to ward off a headache. “Your tantrum certainly isn't helping, though.”

Keith mouth falls open, wordless. Then he turns around and walks away.

 

Keith is not hiding. He's just sitting alone in Black's cockpit, listening to the steadily purring hum of her voice in his head. She's different from Red, in that regard. Black soothes and gives shelter. Red's form of protection was always some kind of attack. And Keith loves her, he misses her, but right now he is glad that he has Black.

He wipes a wrist over cheeks, sniffs a little, stares at the dark console.

He's not crying, not really. Just... letting out some pent-up emotions. Usually, he does that on the training deck but everyone knows to look for him there. And... he doesn't feel like fighting any more, not today.

Suddenly, Black's awareness tenses around him, like a shiver down his spine, and he can tell that the particle barrier around her just went up.

“Keith!” Shiro's voice penetrates the cockpit from the outside. “I know you're in there. Please come out.”

Keith stills. Then he frantically brushes the wetness from his lashes, brushes his hair into his face and flips up his collar.

“Hey,” he says, when he climbs out of Black. His voice doesn't sound too rough, but he doesn't know what else to say. So he stops there with his hands in his pockets.

It is Shiro who closes the distance between them, the soles of his boots slapping against the gleaming floor of the hangar, before he comes to stand right in front of Keith.

“I know it's difficult for you to make the first step,” he tells him. “So I thought I'd give you a chance to apologize.”

Keith swallows, but his mouth is dry.

“I'm sorry,” he says. Shiro's smile is forgiving and his arms around Keith are warm.

 

 

“I worry about how much responsibility Allura can handle,” Shiro muses, brushing the hair from Keith's ear. The room is almost completely dark and his voice is very close. Keith feels heavy with the onset of sleep.

“What?” he slurs, drowsy. “She's the princess.”

“Of course,” Shiro murmurs back. “But she is still so inexperienced when it comes to active battle.”

 

 

“Keith, I don't think that's a good idea!” Allura warns over the comm.

“Well, and I say it is!” Keith snaps back. “Everyone, follow my lead!”

 

 

“Infighting is never wise,” Coran says when they return. The lines around his eyes are very pronounced and his worried look is entirely meant for Keith.

 

 

“I just can't help but wonder whether they are doubting me,” Keith says and wipes a hand over his face, feeling incredibly tired.

“Hey, it's okay.” Shiro's metal hand comes up to massage the unpleasant pressure at the base of his skull. “You shouldn't listen to them. Just because Hunk said-”

He cuts off, abrupt, as though realizing that he had given away too much, and Keith perks up.

“What, what did Hunk say?”

“Nothing,” Shiro says and it almost sounds convincing. “He didn't say anything at all.”

 

 

When Keith enters the room, Hunk and Lance are sitting on the couch, laughing loudly, gesturing with their arms. Keith cannot help but send them a dirty look.

“What's his problem?” Lance mutters under his breath while he damn well knows that Keith is still within earshot.

 

 

“You're beautiful,” Shiro tells him and his love is like brambles. “You're the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

 

“I'm getting a distress signal,” Pidge informs them, worrying at her lower lip. “Or just a signal, really.”

“Can you pinpoint the source?” Hunk asks and she nods.

“Yeah, I think so. But... it's weird.”

“Weird how?”

“I don't know but... it almost feels familiar.”

“Uh, in the way that the last questionable distress signal we answered felt familiar?” Lance questions and crosses his arms. “Because I hate to remind you but that ended up with Lotor getting the comet and a Shiro-look-alike half-dead on the ground.”

Shiro flinches.

“I don't think it's a good idea to simply follow a signal that we don't know anything about,” he cautions. “It might be another trap.”

Pidge gives him a long hard look. Then she turns toward Keith.

“You're our leader, Keith,” she says, the words like a nail and her tone like a hammer. “What do you say?”

“I...,” Keith says, feeling cornered. He knows this might be another trap but it also might not be. They cannot keep calling themselves Defenders of the Universe if they are too suspicious of everyone to actually help anyone at all.

He closes his eyes, thinks. Patience yields focus. In his mind, Black roars approvingly.

When he looks up, he knows the answer.

“Pidge,” he says. “Get us the coordinates.”

 

 

The signal comes from another quadrant, from a small ruinous planet, from the top of the highest mountain.

“Strange,” Hunk mutters, leaning over Pidge's shoulder to look at her readings, “The way the frequency of the wave lengths repeatedly breaks off in-between seems deliberate. Huh. Almost like old-school Morse code.”

“Well, what's it say?” Lance asks.

“What else would anyone use in this day and age?” Hunk asks dryly. “SOS, of course.”

 

 

The thing with SOS is that it means neither Save Our Ship nor Save Our Souls as so many people like to believe. Originally it was simply chosen because, in Morse code, it was easily identifiable. Nothing more and nothing less.

 

 

Instead of flying down in their lions, there is a small shuttle that comes up to greet them at the castle's hangar. Hunk and Lance are already readying their bayards.

“Fire if necessary,” Keith instructs them and then watches as two humanoid figures emerge from the shuttle, one tall and broad-shouldered, the other shorter, more gangly.

Not humanoid, Keith corrects himself when the two remove their helmets. Human. Their faces are terribly familiar.

“Matt!” Pidge yells and her voice does something very strange where she sounds like a little girl and old beyond her years at the same time.

“Shiro,” Keith whispers hoarsely and pales. Next to him, Shiro does the same.

.

.

.