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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.

.

.

.

 

Chapter Text

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

 

 

“But how do we know who the real one is?” Lance asks and then eyes Matt as well. “Maybe that one's a doppelganger, too.”

“What are you saying?” Pidge hisses. “You think I can't recognize my own brother?

“Be reasonable, Pidge,” Allura tries to soothe her. “You haven't seen him in a long time.”

Keith knows what it feels like to miss someone so much that you will desperately cling whatever is left of them. He knows that it's painful.

“Definitely not a clone,” Matt claims and bounces back on his heels before thumping his chest with a fist. “Proud member of the rebellion against the Galra Empire. My team and I busted Shiro out of a lab on one of the less prominent ships. He was a bit shaken up but eventually he helped me rig up a little something to send out a signal in order to contact you.” He shines a smile upon his little sister. “He knew you would be able to find us.”

“Uh, there is still the possibility that he's a clone,” Hunk points out, his mouth twisted into a thin line. “And that they were trying to infiltrate the rebellion because they knew you'd break out your old crew mate.”

“Isn't there any way we can tell?” Allura asks. “Anything in their genetic make-up, their vitals?”

“Well, the healing pod certainly didn't show any anomalies when Shiro was in it,” Coran muses and twists his mustache. “If he's really a clone, their DNA would be the same. But I don't know how the scientists sped up the growing process. Or how they replicated his scars.”

The two Shiros are just looking at each other, like slightly contorted mirror images, like faces on a lake. Neither of them offers anything to the discussion, either too shocked or too well aware that anything they say will only be seen a means to convince the others of their identity.

They stand not at a crossroads but at a dead end. As if on cue, everyone turns toward Keith.

Keith's shoulders slump. This is simultaneously the hardest and the easiest question he has ever been asked in his life. So, unfailingly, he lifts his finger and points.

“That one's the fake.”

 

 

“I should have noticed,” Keith says, ashamed.

“No one else did.”

“I know. I know but-”

But I knew you best. But I spent the most time with you. But I should have known that you would never love me like this.

Shiro looks at him, looks away, just off to the side. His eyes shutter a little. “I have some more... gaps in my recollection of events,” he reveals. “Nothing... nothing as major as before but... some old memories of the lab are mixed with new ones. It makes it difficult to-” He cuts off, sucks in a breath. When he continues speaking, he sounds slightly more collected. “They did something to me. They kept talking about a test subject. Guess that was... him.”

With some difficulty, Keith manages to swallow and nod. “Pidge theorized that they've been... growing this clone since the first time they captured you. Your- his hair was very long when we found him. Too long, really. The whole time, it was so fucking obvious and I- I didn't even question it.”

That is a lie, though, a faint pacifying lie. Keith had questioned it and then willingly dismissed the notion. He hadn't walked into the deception blind but simply closed his eyes to it. You see what you want to see. Keith chose an illusion.

“Well,” Shiro says and gives a sigh, exhausted but relieved as well, as though most of the matter had already been settled with the end of the deception. “In any case, it's good to be back.”

 

 

“It makes sense, I guess,” Pidge says listlessly. “We were wondering how they kept finding us again. Seems like this guy had been leaking information the whole time. And perhaps he didn't even know it himself.”

“Those working for Zarkon's cause will stop at nothing,” Matt says and clenches his fists. “The things I've seen, not just since I joined the rebellion but at the work colonies, too... And I still have no idea what happened to dad.”

“I found you,” Pidge knows. “Everyone back home told me to stop looking. But I kept going and I found you.”

“I know,” Matt says. There's a fondness to him, a softness that seems to be bleeding away some of Pidge's ferocity. He takes her hand and she holds on. “I know.”

 

 

The strange thing – the terrible brutal unfair thing – is that the Shiro in the prison cell looks more like the one Keith has grown to think of as his. His eyes are wide and earnest and so fucking desperate that Keith cannot even bear to look at him.

“What are we going to do with him now?” Hunk asks anxiously. “I mean, are we just going to keep him here? Because I'll be real honest with you, guys, but he is freaking me out.”

“Well, we can't just leave him behind on a deserted planet,” Lance throws his hands up. “He knows too much about us.”

“But he might also know a lot about Haggar and her druids, or Lotor,” Allura points out. “If he has any valuable information-”

“So what, do we ask nicely or just torture it out of him?” Hunk wants to know, looking at little sick at the mere thought.

“I mean, can we even consider him human, strictly speaking?” Lance demands and then glares when everyone stills. “What? Everyone's been thinking it! This is just a- a homunculus grown in a Petri dish. He looks like Shiro, kinda, but it's not really him.”

They all turn to look. Like this, with the two Shiros facing each other, it is more apparent than ever that it is true. They look alike, yes, undoubtedly so, but there are little things that are just plain off.

Back in school, there had been a pair of twins in Keith's class who did not know whether they were identical or fraternal. They were just similar yet different enough that both options seemed possible, and a blood test would have been too expensive.

Now that Keith has the original in front of him, though, he cannot believe how he ever fell for the cheap copy.

“Keith,” Shiro – no, the clone of Shiro says brokenly. His forehead leans against the particle barrier of the prison cell. “Don't let them do this to me.”

“Listen, buddy, if anyone gets to decide what happens to you, it's your donor, okay?” Lance tells him loftily but the clone doesn't even glance his way.

“Keith, please,” he repeats simply. “You said you'd never let me go again. You said you loved me.”

Silence, in its many varieties, is a peculiar thing. This one is limited to the conversation and to the existence of the outside world as everyone turns to stare at Keith who can only hear the panicked thumping of his own heartbeat in his ears.

“We best take this somewhere else,” Coran says and ushers them from the prison deck.

 

 

Another form of silence is the one that stubbornly takes hold of the room as the group waits for Keith to offer some sort of explanation, anything, just a little scrap that unravels what the clone could have meant just now, while Keith's voice shrivels inside of throat.

Finally, it is Pidge who makes the first step.

“You were dating each other, weren't you?” she asks and, for a moment, Keith wonders whether it can even be considered dating if they never went on any dates, no public rendezvous, no kisses in front of the team. But then he just gives a mute nod, a jerk of his head, nothing else.

He is vaguely aware of Shiro's presence at the other end of the couch but he doesn't dare to look and see his reaction.

“How long has this been going on?” Pidge again because she had always been the bravest of them all.

“... a couple of weeks maybe.”

It's vague enough but it still sounds damning. Like the clone wasn't the only one who had deliberately been leading them on.

Pidge and Allura exchange a somber look.

“Did he... coerce you?” the princess asks

Did he force you, she means but doesn't dare to ask it quite so bluntly.

“...no.”

Silence, once more. There are so many questions, too many, but questions demand answers and no one seems ready for them yet.

“Then how did you know now that he wasn't the real one?” Lance asks. “I mean, you didn't even hesitate.”

Keith hunches in on himself, fingers clenching around his biceps where his arms are crossed in front of his chest. “I think I knew the whole time.”

 

 

Keith is in the bathroom, washing his hands, washing his forearms, washing in face. There's a man staring back at him from the mirror, hollow-eyed and regrets lining the seams of his existence.

He feels dirty, unclean. He wants to wash out his mouth with soap, wants to scrape the skin off his bones, scrubs at it until it is red and angry, like his lion, like the desert sun.

A sob almost escapes him but he drowns it by splashing another two handfuls of water in his face.

My first kiss, he thinks with salt on his cheeks. My first kiss and it wasn't even him.

 

 

“We all fell for it,” Allura reminds him. “We all... failed, in some way.”

“Yeah, well,” Keith gives a violent shrug. “Just means all of us were dumb and gullible.”

How could they ever have thought the clone was the real deal? More than simply their looks, it is their difference in manner that tells them apart, so much less subtle, less deceiving.

The real Shiro, when he gets insistent, never resorts to aggression. The real Shiro listens to concern and changes his opinion accordingly. Shiro is serious when he needs to be but jokes around with Pidge and Hunk and Lance. He does not question Allura's capability or Coran's knowledge.

Shiro became their leader because of his calm confidence and unshakable dedication. And Keith... Keith had disregarded all that just for the chance to chase a dream.

“I'm just sorry you had to experience this,” Allura tells him and takes a small step forward.

“Whatever,” Keith says, turning away. “It's over anyway.”

 

 

The question is: Is he an enemy or a victim? Can he be considered human? Is he only a clone that shares Shiro's memories and genes or could he become his own person? Does he deserve to be forgiven?

The question is: Is it their right to cast judgment?

 

 

“Who's your boss?” Matt asks.

“I don't know.”

“Are you one of Haggar's creations?”

“I don't know.”

“What's your objective?”

“I don't know.”

Matt narrows his eyes.

“Were you aware that you were a clone?”

“I don't think so.”

“What does that mean?”

The clone runs a hand through his cropped hair, stalls.

“I feel... incomplete. Not like gaps in my memories, but memories in my gaps. As though someone just shoved foreign thoughts down my throat.” A glance over at Shiro. “His.” Back down at his knees. “Theirs.”

“So he's some kind of sleeper agent,” Lance concludes.

“Makes sense.” Hunk nods. “Maybe they used a similar mind control like the ones the Alteans in the parallel universe had.”

“But that was different,” Pidge muses, rubbing her chin. “That guy they had there seemed completely subdued, with no will of his own, like a marionette.”

“I think it's rather like a windup toy,” Matt interjects. His gaze still sits on the disinterested clone. “They activate him, give him an order that points him in a certain direction, and he will follow that path until he either runs into a wall out or out of energy. Then they charge him up again.”

“So his first order was to escape the lab and find his way to us, in one way or another, even if he died trying,” Pidge continues his thought. “Maybe that was why he was so listless after he came back. I thought he was exhausted and traumatized, but... next thing you know, he's back with us, clean-shaven and bright-eyed.”

Hunk makes a noise of understanding.“Somehow they must have given him a new order.”

“Exactly. Maybe something like... 'Get the Black Lion' or... 'Destroy the team dynamic'.”

“You know what that means, right?” Lance asks, uncomfortably shuffling on the spot when they look at him. “It means that, even right now, they might be getting information about us through him.”

“Maybe we can rig something up to make sure they don't have access to him anymore,” Matt offers.

Hunk pulls a grimace. “Our own mind control device?”

“No, more like a suppressor,” Pidge follows her brother's thought. “A sort of interfering signal that counters whatever they are channeling through him. Assuming that they did somehow influence his brain activity.”

“Is that even possible?”

“They downloaded Shiro's memories and injected them into a clone they'd only been growing for a couple of months,” Pidge points out. “Honestly? By this point? Nothing surprises me anymore.”

“I think we could make it work,” Matt decides and claps his hands. “So let's figure it out.”

 

 

“Did you tell him?” Lance asks.

“Tell him what?”

“That your thing with the other guy wasn't exactly sunshine and space unicorns.”

Keith stills.

“Why would that matter?”

“Because Shiro might think that his return robbed you of something great.”

Leave the math to Pidge, Keith wants to say but simply bites his tongue.

 

 

Keith doesn't go down to the hangar and Keith doesn't go to the training deck. Keith lies in his bed in his room and looks at walls.

It gives him too much time to think but, then again, he supposes, not thinking enough is probably what got him into this mess in the first place.

 

 

Between Pidge, Matt, Hunk and Coran it only takes one afternoon of collective tinkering in the lab until they have come up with a device that should hopefully suppress whatever method the clone's creators have been using to control his behavior.

Their resident geniuses ramble off a lengthy explanation of how exactly it works and Keith duly nods along, pretending to understand any of it. At the end, when they all give him expectant looks, he remembers that he is their leader and that they are waiting for his permission to go ahead. So he nods, swallows his resentment and follows them down onto the prison deck.

“What's this?” the clone asks with apprehension when the particle barrier lowers and Hunk approaches, the device in his hands.

“It's a device that will essentially isolate your brain,” Matt simplifies. “Like this, no one will be able to control you anymore.”

The clone sits tense but makes no move to evade Hunk, only eyeing the device distrustfully.

“Are you at least gonna put me under?”

“Put you under how?” Pidge asks.

“For the surgery.”

They all still.

“Ah,” Coran pipes up. “No worries there. It's a non-invasive apparatus. No surgery needed and reversible at any time.”

At those words, the clone visibly relaxes, allowing Hunk to fasten the device around his head. The thing is sleek and metallic, fitting itself against his temples.

“Now,” Hunk instructs with a placating smile. “It might be a little uncomfortable to sleep with, but it's crucial that you keep it on at all times.”

The clone's left hand comes up to run gentle fingertips around the device as though he could not quite believe in its existence.

“Yeah,” he says and leaves it at that.

 

 

These are the questions no one wants answered: Did the clone truly think he was the real Shiro? Does he still think it, in a way? Is this, to him, as much of a destruction of a world as it is to them? Had he thought himself one of their own, their friend, their companion?

And: Had he hurt Keith in spite of it?

 

 

“What are you going to do with me now?” the clone asks. He is leaning against the wall of his cell, illuminated by the particle barrier.

“I don't know,” Keith tells him and there is a pause.

“What do you want to do with me?” the clone rephrases and Keith closes his eyes.

Kill you. Free you. Pretend you never existed.

“That's not my call to make.”

“You're the leader.”

“Am I?” Keith asks. “'cause you did your damnedest to make sure I didn't feel like it.”

“For what it's worth,” the clone says. “I'm sorry.”

“What the hell makes you think that I would ever trust your words again?”

“I never lied to you, Keith,” the clone says. “I just let you fill in the blanks. You only heard what you wanted to believe.”

The isolation device sits on his head like a crown, like a laurel wreath and absurdly Keith finds himself reminded of victorious Roman warlords.

“Eat your fucking dinner,” he tells him and leaves.

 

 

“Hey,” Shiro says, wringing his wrist. “You busy?”

Keith looks down at the rag in his hands. He had meant to polish his armor but the red markings had put him off. He had reached for his Galra knife instead but that felt even worse.

For a while, things had seemed like they were finally coming together. He still didn't know much about his history but had nevertheless felt like he had a place in this universe, as the Red Paladin of Voltron, as a descendant of the Blades of Marmora. Now, he feels all shaken up again.

“Not really,” he says, twists the rag around his hand, twists until it hurts a little, focuses on the pain. “Anything important?”

“Just... we haven't really gotten the chance to properly talk since I came back,” Shiro says, sidles closer. He points to the couch. “May I?”

Keith shrugs but doesn't look up. “Sure.”

“So,” Shiro says, making a show of sinking into the cushions. “What happened while I was gone?”

Keith frowns. “I thought Allura and Coran already filled you in.”

“About Lotor and everything, yes.” Shiro nods. “But I'm a bit tired of talking shop and Allura fawning over the Blue Lion. I swear she is worse than Lance.”

Keith twists the rag, harder, harder. “There's nothing much to tell.”

The clone, of course, but Keith doesn't want to talk about that.

“Just anything,” Shiro says. “I don't want to miss out on any inside jokes.”

Despite himself, Keith smiles a little.

“Lance wanted to instigate an orgy on Velga,” he recalls. “But then a volcano erupted and we had to evacuate the city.”

Shiro laughs. “Sometimes, natural disasters do come in handy, I guess.”

“Hunk tried to teach Pidge how to cook. Didn't go over so well but she apparently discovered a new element or something.”

“While... while failing at cooking?”

“Don't ask me, I was always shit at chemistry.”

A snort. “I remember. N'goyo gave you detention for almost blowing up her lab.”

Keith grins at the memory, at little breathless. It had been early on in their acquaintance and he hadn't expected Shiro to dissolve into full-bellied laughter when he first heard of Keith's mishap. It had been a nice kind of laughter, not malign, not degrading, but with buckling knees and a hand on Keith's shoulder.

But the truth is, Keith should have known, he should have known, he should have-

“We... we ran into someone who looked like you,” he continues. “In a parallel universe.”

The corners of Shiro's mouth turn downward. “Another clone?”

“No, just... a variation,” Keith tries to explain what he doesn't quite understand himself. “His name was Sven and he had a funny accent. He was friends with Slav.”

“Yeah, definitely not me.”

“That Slav was kinda kickass, though,” Keith allows himself to tease. “A 'no guts, no glory'-kinda guy.”

Now, Shiro looks nothing but disturbed. “I don't know which version I prefer.”

“I do,” Keith says before he can stop himself. He's looking up now because he hasn't properly looked at Shiro since he came back, hasn't traced the lines of his face with his eyes, hasn't been given the chance to linger.

“I missed you,” he says and his voice is slicing itself apart again. “You have to understand that much. When you first came back after Kerberos, you looked so different but you were still yourself. And then all these fake versions of your kept popping up all over the place. I just- wanted to hold on to you.”

“It's okay,” Shiro tells him. His hand is on Keith's shoulder, not a push, not a pull, just a touch, a tether. “There's nothing to apologize for. You don't need to justify yourself.”

Keith, finally, does the one thing he has wanted to do since he laid eyes Shiro. He throws himself at his chest and cries, not loudly, not openly, but like all the sorrow, the anger, the fear were finally bursting out of him. In his helpless desperation to try and find Shiro again, he had never given himself the time to properly grieve because that would have felt too much like giving up. And it may be strange to mourn someone when they are already back but it's better than contenting yourself with a facsimile of something you can't have.

Shiro is rubbing soothing circles between Keith's shoulder blades and his nose is in his hair.

“He said...,” he you begins haltingly. “That you love him.”

Keith sucks in a breath in lieu of letting out a sob.

“I never loved him, I think,” he says. “Just... the memory of you.”

“Oh,” Shiro says and nothing more, but Keith is glad to have at least that much because, unlike everything the clone said to him, this is real.

 

 

“Katie mentioned that you were the most invested in getting Shiro back,” Matt says, unprompted and in the middle of the hallway. Keith keeps his back to the door, feeling somewhat corned.

He and Matt, they didn't really know each other back at the Garrison, rather knew about each other, enough to exchange a greeting and some small-talk when they passed by each other in the cafeteria. Shiro was their only connecting factor, and then Kerberos, and then Keith tried to find out all he could about Prof. Dr. Samuel W. Holt and his son Matthew Mary Holt, about their qualifications and affiliations.

Now Keith only swallows.

“I had my reasons,” he mutters, unwilling to meet Matt's probing stare. He and Pidge are entirely too alike, too observant, too curious in all things.

“I figured,” Matt says, inclining his head. “But have you considered that Shiro had his reasons, too? For trying to come back, I mean?”

“Voltron is-” Keith begins yet Matt only snorts.

“Oh Please. We already knew that the princess was piloting one of the lions now and that Voltron was still alive and kicking. It wasn't about that.”

Keith just stares down at his feet until, eventually, Matt sighs.

“And here Katie said you were a smart one.”

 


There's a mission, the first one since Shiro's return, and everyone makes for the hangar without a second thought. It's isn't until Keith sinks down in his seat that he realizes he never even offered Shiro to try out Black again. It isn't until they are up in the air and there is very little input from the comm, apart from Coran rattling off stats and Matt whooping when Voltron is being formed, that Keith has to remind himself that it was always going to be different with the real Shiro remaining behind at the castle. It isn't until they file back in that he allows his nerves to fray again.

“That was amazing!” Matt exclaims, picks up Pidge and twirls her around. “Remember when mom said you'd get your own car for your eighteen's birthday? This is so much better. Aunt Clary would have a heart attack!”

Shiro is waiting for Keith when he climbs out of Black. He looks very collected, almost serene in a way that Keith has not seen in long long time.

“This is probably the part where I need to spurt out some meaningful quotations about greatness and thrusting, huh?” he jokes.

“No thrusting in front of my little sister!” Matt warns him. “And no Shakespeare either!”

Keith shuffles on the spot, uncomfortable. “Yeah, well. I didn't have much choice.”

“You could have run. You could have broken under the pressure. You could have straight-up failed.”

“Maybe I didn't fail,” Keith points out. “But I didn't exactly succeed either.”

“What are you saying?” Shiro frowns. “You held the team together despite the fact that there was someone actively trying to split you up. You managed to not only pilot Black but to truly connect with the others so that you could form Voltron. You are a great leader, Keith.”

Keith just turns his helmet over in his hands for lack of something better to do.

“You should probably go see Black now,” he offers with a vague nod over his shoulder. “She missed you a lot.”

Shiro tilts his head back and looks up at Black, at her massive bulk, the almost aristocratic lines of her face. Something hangs in the air then, just for a moment, like a pendulum at its heaviest point. Then Shiro turns back to Keith, as though he and Black had reached some sort of accord.

“I'm not just going to take her from you, Keith,” he says simply. “And all of that can wait for now.”

Wait for what, Keith wonders but he only gives a nod.

 

 

“I'm gonna bring down some food to our resident clone,” Hunk announces after dinner. “And something to read. He must be bored out of his mind.”

They are, essentially, keeping him in solitary confinement which probably constitutes as a human rights violation. But they are not on Earth and he is not, strictly speaking, human. He doesn't seem to mind much either, just contents himself with staring at walls when no one is there to talk to him, more hibernating than simply dozing.

They still haven't figured out what to do with him but Keith doesn't let himself feel any pity. He still remembers how that Shiro had manipulated him, how he had pushed the blame onto Keith and made him doubt himself. If surviving in the desert had taught Keith anything, it was that most animals would rather chew off their own limb than die miserably in a trap.

One by one, they all file out.

Keith makes for the door, hears steps behind him, glances back. Shiro has a worried look in his eyes.

“You were quiet during dinner,” he offers as an explanation but Keith merely shrugs.

“I was never much of a talker.”

“Depends on the topic,” Shiro notes with a private smile. “I still remember your rants about the merits of different brands of soda pop.”

Keith is unused to people knowing him well. To them having fond memories of him from years ago. It's strange to think that, when you bare yourself to someone, they will always have a small part of you, no matter how insignificant it may be.

In that moment, he thinks, he understands what Lance wanted him to do.

“He didn't treat me well,” he says, non-sequitur. “The other guy, I mean.”

The other guy, he says because 'the clone' doesn't cut it anymore. This wasn't just a hiccup, a mishap. This was Keith's ex-boyfriend.

Shiro looks stunned, confused at the sudden revelation, but Keith tries not to linger on it.

“He didn't hit me or anything,” he says, though he thinks that, at least, would have clued him in quicker that something was terribly wrong. “He just... kept belittling me. I- I don't know how to explain it but he was always trying to whittle away the parts of me he had no use for. Like I was just a tool, a trophy.”

It might well have been the agenda the clone's creators, Keith suspects now. Back then, he hadn't known, had just picked at the wounds the other guy left on him, desperately trying to figure out what his faults were.

“I just thought you should know,” he finishes with a helpless little gesture. “I don't miss him or anything.”

Instead of waiting for Shiro to say something, he turns away into the hallway.

In that moment, the elevator opens to reveal Hunk, looking faint and unsteady.

“Guys,” he says with a tremble. “The clone's dead.”

 

 

The man who looks like Shiro, who was part of their team for many weeks, who never got to live for himself. The man whom Keith had fancied himself in love with. That man lies cold and dead on the ground in his prison cell.

“It must have happened some hours ago,” Coran judges. He's the only one who dared to step closer, who put his hands on the motionless body almost tenderly.

“Doesn't look like suicide,” Lance comments, as though his stupid cop dramas had made him an expert. His arms are very tightly crossed in front of his chest.

“Self-destruction,” Matt mutters. “I've seen variants of it.”

“He's not a robot, though,” Pidge notes. Standing next to him and with her fingers curled in his hand, she looks very small. “And if there was some sort of- of mechanism directly implanted in him somewhere, it would have shown up on the scans.”

“Maybe,” Hunk throws in haltingly. “Maybe it's to do with the suppressor. Maybe they could tell they had no influence over him anymore.”

The implication of it seems to hang in the air, heavy and damning. If it was true it meant that, in a roundabout way, they had caused this death.

And it's stupid. It's ridiculous. They had all killed knowingly, unflinchingly. They had all failed to save lives. But it had rarely been quite so close. When you took down a Galra battleship or felled a soldier in the heat of battle, you could brush it off as a necessity. You didn't have to deal with the aftermath. You moved on.

But there's a dead body inside of their home and he looks like one of them. What were they even meant to feel?

“I'll take care of it,” Coran says gravely and he means the corpse and the responsibility and the fact that all of them are too young to be dealing with something so terrible as this.

 

 

Rigor mortis has already set in. The hands that used to touch Keith are cold and stiff and harmless. Their memory still sits on Keith's skin in an unpleasant way but... he thinks he can move past that.

 

 

“I'm so tired of death,” Shiro says. It doesn't sound broken or devastated. Just overwhelmed by the never-ending stream of too much.

They are sitting on the bed in Shiro's room, drawn there by a need of both privacy and company. This is not an easy time for either of them.

“My father wanted me to take over the family store,” Shiro says, fitfully rubbing the pulse in his flesh wrist. “Did I ever tell you that?”

Keith bobs his head. He remembers.

“I was supposed to stock shelves and do taxes and smile at costumers in a town where everyone knows each other,” Shiro continues. There's a smile on his lips but it seems on edge, verging on hysteric. “But I wanted the stars. I wanted Galaxy Garrison and he nodded and said it was my life. And then they told my parents that I fucking crashed the ship.”

He buries his face in his hands, breathes.

“I just... I keep killing and nearly getting killed when I could be taking a walk on the beach or eating sashimi with my family this very moment.”

Keith remains silent. All of them know the threat of letting your homesickness get the better of you. All of them would rather be anywhere but caught between the front lines of an intergalactic war. But the truth is, sooner or later, the Galra would have made it to Earth. The truth is, perhaps there is this thing called destiny.

No one is made for destiny, though. Everyone dreams of being a hero but no one actually wants to do it because it's a shit job. It's harrowing and ungrateful and truly deeply terrifying, but someone's got to and that's why they are here.
They are all here, for better or for worse, a little brittle, a little bruised, but ultimately together.

And maybe Keith is selfish. Because he thinks that, right now, he couldn't be happier.

So he leans his head against Shiro's shoulder and just lets him cry.

 

 

“Ready?” Keith asks and Shiro takes a tremendous breath.

“Ready,” he nods and together they face the Black Lion.

“Oh,” Shiro sighs when he hears her welcoming purr. “Good to see you again, girl.”

It's strange, Keith thinks, and thrilling to have her voice in his head while he knows she is talking to Shiro. They are all aware of each other and their lions and even now Keith still has a strong connection to Red. But this is different. This is Black treating him and Shiro as equals.

It all makes sense when they set foot into the cockpit.

Shiro gapes.

“How did it get a second seat?”

“This thing has the power of teleportation and you question how it can magically change its interior design?” Keith asks wryly.

“Yeah, but...,” Shiro steps closer, a little hesitant, before sinking onto the seat on the right. Then, wordless, he looks up at Keith.
Keith swallows. Takes the other seat. Looks around. The console is changed, too, and Black preens at her ingenuity. How long had she been planning this?

Leave the math to Pidge, he had told Lance but now it turned out that their lions once more simply shifted the rules of reality.

“Guess that solves that problem,” Shiro says, amusement and disbelief in equal measures. When he swivels around to grin at Keith, he looks roguish and daring and like the boy who talked Keith to sneaking out out of the Garrison at night. “Wanna take her for a spin?”

 

 

When they get back, they are laughing. Keith hasn't laughed like this in a long long time so he doubles over as the stitches in his sides seem too sew him whole again. It's a good kind of pain, a healing one, and he has to lean against the wall of the elevator to catch his breath.

“Lance is gonna be so jealous,” he manages to say, eyes squeezed shut and hair falling into his face. “But he's also gonna be really relieved because now he doesn't have to give up Red or take Blue from the princess.”

“It might not be such a bad thing,” Shiro muses. “The both you of being able to pilot two lions each. Might come in handy now and then.” He smirks, “But you know who else is gonna be jealous?”

“Who?”

“Zarkon.”

Keith's knees nearly buckle as another laugh rips through him. The Black Lion who had finally rejected her original paladin was now letting two humans pilot her.

When he catches himself and can stand straight again, still feeling hot and breathless, he opens his eyes to find Shiro watching him. The warmth in Keith's cheeks does not die down.

“You know, while I was away...,” Shiro begins and the reminder doesn't hurt as much as it still did a few hours ago. “I kept imagining how it'd be once I came back. How I'd be able to see you again.”

Keith swallows but his throat is very dry.

“Probably didn't involve an evil clone and a messed up team,” he jokes awkwardly.

“No,” Shiro chuckles. “But there was one universal constant.”

“Yeah?” Keith asks. “What was it?”

“This,” Shiro says and kisses Keith.

It is all that kissing the clone wasn't. And Keith hates it a little that he cannot help draw a comparison, but he also loves it because he can tell the difference.

Shiro kisses with one hand on Keith's shoulder and one on the railing in the elevator, apparently needing the support. Shiro kisses with his eyes closed and his breath held. Shiro kisses as though even the stars were only a consolation prize.

When he finally pulls back, his eyelids are still lowered and his smile is akin to reverent.

“I've been wanting to do that for a long time,” he confesses.

Something inside of Keith feels very small and secure, like a pebble picked up from the bottom of a lake and held in a warm hand.

“Then don't stop,” he says and kisses Shiro again.

 

It turns out, he was wrong after all. He could be happier and this is what it feels like.