Shiro stumbled out of the training room fully prepared to take a shower and a nap, and keep working on forgetting that Keith was apparently just...done with him. “You don’t have to worry about me as either,” he’d said, right after pointing out that Shiro wasn’t his commanding officer anymore. Had he pushed too far, pressed too hard? Had he disregarded Keith’s comfort in his own desperation to get back to the closeness they had, and sabotaged it forever?
And then there was whatever had gone on with his clone. He had more questions than answers, now. “It was real” could mean a thousand different things, and Shiro had absolutely no way to be certain which. Keith certainly wasn’t going to tell him; he’d been reluctant to reveal even that much, there was no way he’d give even more.
He didn’t want to deal with any of it. That was why he’d burned himself out training; so that maybe, just maybe, he could get some sleep and forget about all of that for a little while. Sleep certainly wasn’t easy any other way, might as well take it where he could.
The universe apparently had other plans, because Coran met him outside the training room.
“Ah, Shiro! I’ve been looking for you. Taux’aca wants to speak with the Head of Voltron, and I wasn’t sure whether to get you or Keith, but here you are, so I suppose that’ll do!” He said, and Shiro wanted to turn and run and avoid all of this, but that was no way to deal with things. He was still the leader of Voltron, broken heart or not. Taux’aca was the leader of the rebel group they and the Blade had coordinated ground strikes with, while Voltron handled the Galra fleet in the air. Shiro wasn’t entirely fond of him; he was a little too eager for violence for Shiro’s tastes, but then, it was hard to blame him. His people had been ground under the Galra Empire’s heel for years, their planet exploited for its resources. It was easy to sympathize with the desire for revenge.
“Alright,” he said, “I’ll handle it, just give me a minute to get cleaned up.” He gestured at himself. He hadn’t looked in a mirror, but he was pretty sure he looked like a nasty, sweaty mess. Coran considered for a moment, then wrinkled his nose and nodded.
“Probably for the best,” he agreed. Shiro bowed out, ducking into his room and stepping into the shower. Normally he would have drifted, and it would have become another opportunity to overthink everything about his last encounter with Keith, but blessedly, with Coran and Taux’aca waiting, there was no way he could linger for too long. He dried off quickly, dressed, and met Coran back out in the hall.
“Do you know what he wants?” He asked.
“No idea,” Coran said. “He said he’d only talk with you.” He beckoned for Shiro to follow, and led him to the castle ship’s bridge, where Taux’aca was projected on a large comscreen. His people were desert-dwellers, tall and spindly and vaguely salamander-like, with skin in yellow and brown tones. He specifically was a dark gold, with bright green eyes, and his expression always seemed just a little bit sly.
“Ahhh, hello, Shiro! It’s excellent to see you again!” Taux’aca said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be getting you or the little hothead everyone else seems to describe when they talk about the Black Paladin. I’m pleased to see it’s you after all.”
“That would be Keith, my second in command,” Shiro said, and he had to resist the urge to jump to Keith’s defense. Little hothead? What right did Taux'aca imagine he had to judge someone he had never even met? “He flew the Black Lion and led Voltron for a time while I was incapacitated. I was pleased to hear about everything he accomplished when I returned to duty.” That would have to do, lest he risk alienating an ally.
“Ah, I see,” Taux’aca said. “Well. To business. I have a request for Voltron’s aid, but it will be dangerous. More, even, than liberating our planet.” He said. “The tradeoff, of course, is a weapon that will help end the threat of the Galra empire.”
“If that’s the case,” Shiro said firmly, “all the Paladins need to be here. I’m not making a decision to send my team into danger without all of them present.”
“Very wise,” Taux’aca said, though he looked a little put off. Shiro frowned faintly. That was concerning.
“Coran?” He asked.
“I’ll go find the others!” Coran said, and he was off. He returned a few minutes later herding the rest of the Paladins.
Shiro was surprised to see him, and he was clearly not happy to be there - he leaned against a wall as close to the door as he could get while not looking entirely ready to bolt, crossed his arms, and glared silently up at the screen. Shiro gave him a brief, concerned look, and Keith’s expression actually softened for a moment before closing off again. Shiro sighed and looked back up at the screen, while the rest of the Paladins fell in around him.
“Alright, Taux’aca, what’s your proposition?” Shiro asked.
“Well,” he said, “our planet is home to a very rare mineral known as gatelian. It is what the Galra were here for, but is only found in deep desert oases - and the conditions in the deep desert are harsh. Sandstorms, the wurms...there are terrible things out there. We can only rarely brave expeditions, and we have secret, safer paths - even those are not perfectly such. The Galra, who know nothing of those, could not even attempt to seek it out, which we should all be thankful for.” He shook his head. “Gatelian is extremely volatile, and regularly used in very powerful weapons. Sandmother only knows what the Galra might have done with such a device.”
“And?” Shiro encouraged. He wasn’t entirely sure he liked where this was going.
“And,” Taux’aca continued, “if we were to collect a sufficient amount of gatelian, we could use it as the core of a weapon powerful enough to destroy an entire Galra-infested planet.”
Shiro felt like someone had poured ice down his spine. To even imagine destroying an entire planet - if they were colonizing, then Shiro suspected that meant they were moving in noncombatants. Civilians. The thought of targeting a civilian population made him feel sick. He glanced around, and everyone else was wearing expressions of varying levels of horror, too.
“ We have found evidence of them colonizing a previously uninhabited world known as Eyliv.” Taux’aca continued, seemingly unbothered by the horrified silence that met his words. “A strike on that planet would demonstrate our power and pay the Galra back for--”
“Are you joking?” Keith’s furious voice cut through the silence. Shiro glanced over to see him storming forward until he was directly at Shiro’s side, and that close, Shiro could see he was actually shaking with rage. “You want us to help you build a weapon that you can fire on a planet? On innocent people?”
“There are no innocent Galra!” Taux’aca slammed his fist down on the console in front of him.
“ I’m Galra! The Blade of Marmora is Galra! There are plenty of innocent people caught up in this conflict!” Keith shouted back. Taux’aca looked ready to argue, and Shiro glared at the screen.
“We’re not interested,” he said, firmly. “And we’re done here.” The link closed, and he turned to Keith, who was still vibrating with fury. It was automatic to reach out and place a steadying hand on his shoulder, and he felt Keith relax a little under his fingers. “Are you okay?”
“I can’t believe he’d think we’d help with that,” Keith said. “Haven’t enough planets gotten blown up and drained to death in this mess?”
“Yes,” Allura agreed without hesitation. “Daibazaal and Altea were more than enough, never mind the countless ones sacrificed to Haggar’s greed for quintessence.”
“That’s not what Voltron stands for,” Lance agreed. “We’re not the Galactic Empire, we’re not gonna build a Death Star.” Hunk and Pidge both looked at him, and he flushed. “What? I pay attention when you guys talk!” The more the team agreed, the more Shiro felt Keith relax, until he was actually smiling a little.
“Thanks for having my back, guys,” he said. “I, uh, realize that wasn’t the most diplomatic way to handle it.”
“We’re not blowing up a planet.” Shiro said. “I think the less diplomatic approach was pretty warranted.”
“I guess,” Keith said, and he seemed to suddenly notice Shiro’s hand on his shoulder, and he swallowed and stepped away. Shiro dropped his hand, letting him move. He felt eyes on them, and wondered how much the others had noticed.
“So are you two gonna like, co-lead Voltron?” Lance asked, and Shiro blinked. He looked over at Keith, who had tensed up. “Because that’s cool, just, it’d be nice if we all figured that part out. Gonna trade who sits in the Lion? Will Black let you do that?” Shiro wanted to explain, but he couldn’t find the words. Apparently, Keith hadn’t bothered to inform the rest of the team what he was doing.
“No,” Keith said, sparing Shiro the need to try. “Shiro’s the leader. I’m not even really a Paladin anymore.”
“What?” Lance asked. “Of course you are.”
“I’m not,” Keith said. “You said it yourself, Lance, there’s six pilots and five lions. Easiest thing to do is for me to step aside.”
“You’re not serious,” Allura said. “You’re a Paladin of Voltron, you can’t just quit!”
“I’m --” Keith started, and then he shook his head, stopping mid-sentence. “It’s better this way. Allura, you’re a great Paladin, it wouldn’t be fair to ask you to stop flying Blue. Lance, you’re doing incredibly well in Red. And Black wants Shiro back. So, there we go.”
“Keith,” Pidge said, almost pleadingly.
“It won't be the same flying without you, man,” Hunk said. “You belong out there with us.”
“Shiro,” Lance said accusingly, “did you know about this?”
“Yes,” Shiro admitted. “We talked it over.”
“And what?” Lance argued. “You agree with him? Come on, man!”
“This is Keith’s choice,” Shiro said. There were a million other things he wanted to say, but in front of the team, this was the way it had to be. He had to respect and accept Keith’s choice, no matter how much that hurt.
“Thank you,” Keith said, though it came out sharp. “It is my decision. And I’m not just going to be sitting around doing nothing. I talked to Kolivan. I’ll be fighting with the Blade of Marmora.”
“What?” Shiro asked. That was news to him. He’d sort of come to terms with the idea that Keith wouldn’t be flying with him, but Keith leaving the castle entirely? Going off to fight with the Blade?
Just the thought of him being that far away tore Shiro apart. He wanted Keith with him, not in some far-flung corner of the universe. He wanted Keith under his command, not someone else’s. It rankled at everything in him, and his Alpha instincts screamed to fight to keep Keith with him, where he belonged.
“I’m going,” Keith said, in his most stubborn tone, “and you can’t stop me. It’s what’s best for everyone, alright? I’m the weird loner, it’s better if I just….go do my weird loner thing.”
He turned to leave, storming down the hall, and Shiro ran after him. He barely noticed that no one else followed, because it didn’t matter. This wasn’t about anyone else. This was about him and Keith, because Shiro sure as hell couldn’t think of any other reason for Keith to be so eager to leave and join the Blade of Marmora.
Keith kept storming down the hall, until he reached the hangar bay, and then he finally stopped, and Shiro stopped just behind him. Keith turned to face him, crossing his arms and drawing himself up like he was getting ready for a fight.
“Keith,” Shiro said, and he knew it sounded desperate and pleading, and Keith’s eyes widened briefly and then his expression softened.
“I have to do this,” he said. “Please.” Like he was asking Shiro’s permission, like Shiro had any right to give or not give it. “Just...trust me that this is for the best.”
“I want to trust you,” Shiro said, “but I don’t understand what’s going on with you, lately.”
“It’s...it’s hard to explain,” Keith said, and he looked guilty, and pained, and Shiro felt like his heart was being slowly ripped out of his chest. “And I don’t...Shiro, I don’t want to leave. All I’ve wanted since you disappeared was to have you back. And I thought I did, and it was all a lie. A...a trap, set by the Galra.”
“And, what?” Shiro asked, voice gentle. “You feel responsible for not realizing it sooner?”
“I should have known!” Keith said. “I thought...I had a feeling that something was wrong,” he said. “But I pushed them aside, because I wanted it to be real so badly. And he could have killed us all. He….he almost did, when we were flying. Bad orders, putting us in danger. But I kept telling myself it was just...that I was asking too many questions. Because it was you. And I trusted you.”
“Oh, Keith,” Shiro reached for him, and Keith stepped away, and Shiro withdrew his hand, shoving off exactly how it made him feel. This wasn’t about him. It was about Keith, who was clearly hurting. “It’s not your fault. I didn’t even know the Galra were cloning me. There was no way you could have known that wasn’t really me.”
“But I did know, deep down,” Keith said, “and I told myself I was being paranoid. Convinced myself it was all fine. Because I didn’t...because he…”
“Because what?” Shiro urged. Keith tensed, and turned away from him, and Shiro unconsciously took half a step back, because that was the clearest, coldest rejection Keith had yet thrown his way.
“Never mind.” He said, in a tone that brooked no further argument. “I have to go. I have a shuttle packed. I’m meeting Kolivan at a Blade outpost not far from here.” He started walking towards one of the shuttles, and the door opened for him.
“You don’t have to leave,” Shiro said, a little desperately. ‘I don’t want you to leave,’ he wanted to say, but he couldn’t make the words come out. Keith cast one last, sad look over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said, “I do.”