It had all happened so fast.
Shiro had been desperate to find his team again - Matt and the rebels were amazing allies, and it had been good to fight at his old friend’s side again, but he needed to be back with the team. He was sure that Keith was doing a fine job leading in his absence, he believed in him implicitly, but he still wanted to be there. So when they’d actually managed to hit the same Galra base at the same time -- he’d thought it was fate. It had felt like fate. He was even pleased to see Allura in pink Paladin armor, and he had to admit that it didn’t surprise him all that much. She made a good fifth for the team, someone they were already familiar with and who would fit in well without too much of an adjustment period.
Except that as soon as he found them, that was when things started to go wrong.
He knew something was wrong when Keith didn’t run forward to greet him, and instead stared at him in frozen horror. When the rest of the team had been shocked and alarmed, not happy.
“Shiro…?” Keith almost took a step forward, but hesitated, and he looked so utterly stricken - Shiro wanted to run over and pull him into his arms and kiss him until he couldn’t breathe, but no matter how much he wanted something else, he was Keith’s leader and his friend, not his lover. So he hesitated, too, torn a million ways on what to do.
Why wasn’t Keith glad to see him? Their reunion after Kerberos had been full of hugs and tears, and were Shiro being honest, that was sort of what he’d envisioned when he thought about what he wanted to happen when he found them again, but this was...not that, at all.
And that was when the other him walked in behind the team, and Shiro understood.
“What...the hell is going on here?” the other version of him asked. Shiro had to admit, it was a good forgery. A clone, maybe - the Galra certainly had enough of him to get DNA. But he was ever so slightly off, and he watched Keith’s eyes dart from him back to the other him, and then they narrowed.
“Maybe we should be asking you that,” Keith said, and the clone reached for him, and Keith jumped away like he’d been burned, almost crashing into Lance. “Because one of you isn’t real.”
“I…” The clone hesitated.
“I’m Takashi Shirogane,” Shiro cut in, taking a step forward. “During our fight with Zarkon, Black could sense that what he was doing was going to kill me. So she teleported me out - to where Matt and his rebel group were. I’ve been with them since.”
“Oh,” Keith said, and there was something horribly vulnerable in his voice. “ Shiro.”
That seemed to break the spell freezing everyone else in place.
The clone looked actively devastated, and Shiro wondered if he’d known. That seemed like the Galra - create a clone but let it think it’s the real thing, so as to more effectively infiltrate.
“Shit,” Lance said, “so we’ve been fighting with a fake Shiro? No wonder Black wouldn’t let him pilot her!”
“I’m not a fake,” the clone said, shaking his head, and then he made a noise of pain, bringing both hands up to squeeze at the sides of his head. “I’m not a fake! I’m not -- augh!”
Pidge and Hunk both lurched closer to the clone almost automatically, and that was clearly a terrible idea, because the clone’s eyes flew open, and they were pure, bright gold, and he brought up his metal arm - the same Galra tech Shiro himself had - and swung his fist at Pidge.
Whatever anyone there had prepared for, it wasn’t that. Pidge went down, and Matt leapt forward with a yell of rage, but the clone fought with all the ferocity that had made Shiro the Galra arena’s Champion and none of the hesitation that had nearly gotten him killed in the arena. Matt was thrown aside, and Hunk went down next, bayard ripped from his hands and legs swept out from under him. Allura snapped out her whiplike bayard and caught the arm with it, but the clone grinned and grabbed it with his other hand, pulling it taut and bringing the Galra hand down further up the line to sever it. That sent Allura off her feet, and he returned his attention to the Paladins closer to him.
The clone drew back his arm, hovering over Hunk, who was reaching towards his bayard, and Shiro ran forward, desperate to stop him, but a shot from Lance’s rifle struck the clone in the shoulder and drew his attention.
“Get your hands off them!” Lance yelled, fury in every line of his body. The clone ran towards him, and Shiro slid in and intercepted, catching a strike from the Galra arm with his own.
“Get out of my way,” the clone snarled, and Shiro felt a moment of chilling cold. Hearing himself say that was terrifying. He held it off, hand to hand, for a while, and Lance fired shots whenever there was an opening, but the clone was quick, and crafty, and Shiro took a punch to the solar plexus from the regular arm while his attention was on the Galra one that had him going down.
“Oh, shit,” Lance said, in slow realization, as the clone turned its full attention on him.
Through it all, Keith stood frozen, and Shiro could see him shaking.
“Keith,” Shiro tried to get his attention, but he didn’t even turn to acknowledge him. “ Keith!” He tried again, as the clone wrapped a hand around Lance’s neck and lifted him up off his feet. Lance kicked and struggled, but the clone tossed him aside like a ragdoll.
And then he turned on Keith.
The clone advanced on him and brought back his arm, formed into a blade, and Shiro screamed out a desperate “No!”
But the clone hesitated.
(If he had Shiro’s memories, if he had even a hint of Shiro’s feelings, Shiro understood why.)
That, finally, was when Keith unfroze.
He brought the black bayard up, and Shiro watched it bloom into a sword, stabbed straight through the clone’s chest, and he swore he saw the clone’s lips move before he went limp, but whatever he said was so quiet as to be completely inaudible to anyone other than Keith.
Keith was still again, for a moment, and then he dropped the bayard and fell to his knees, burying his face in his hands, and let out the most profoundly agonizing scream Shiro had ever heard in his life.
Shiro forced himself to stand, and he staggered over to Keith, pulling him into his arms. Keith wailed, again, and buried his face in Shiro’s chest, sobbing desperately.
(Something wasn’t quite right about Keith’s scent, but Shiro filed it away for later. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter.)
“I’m sorry,” Keith gasped. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“Shh,” Shiro said, gently. “It’s okay. I’ve got you. I’m here.”
Keith curled up against him and hung on like he never intended to let go, and Shiro could have stayed like that for as long as it took for Keith to be okay, but they didn’t have that kind of time. The other Paladins and rebels were struggling to their feet, Galra reinforcements would arrive soon, and even though Shiro knew walking would hurt and he was loathe to force Keith to move, he knew they had to go.
“Come on,” Shiro said gently, starting to stand. “We’ve gotta move.” Keith nodded, and slowly pulled away from him, but he offered himself as support for Shiro to lean on, and Shiro gladly took the offer.
If he’d known what was coming, he would never have let go.
They all needed time in the healing pods, once they made it back to the castle. After that, it was about readjusting.
Matt and Pidge were nigh-inseparable, and that didn’t surprise Shiro at all. Matt had been as worried about her as she was about him, and it was good to see them finally reunited. Allura was eager to talk about her experience as the Blue Paladin, and really, his entire team seemed excited to be able to fill him in on everything he’d missed.
Except for the person he most wanted to hear from.
It was hard for him to pinpoint what, exactly, about Keith’s behavior felt so off to him, in the days after being brought back to the team. Some of it Shiro put down to the circumstances of his recovery; Keith was clearly still shaken by what he’d had to do. Were Shiro being honest, he could admit that if he’d had to kill a clone of Keith, he’d have trouble looking at the real thing for a while after, too. The thought of any version of Keith dying in front of him made him feel a little ill, never mind by his hand.
It still sort of hurt, though. Shiro was used to an easy, casual closeness with Keith - and sometimes it made his heart ache, because he longed for a different sort of closeness, but mostly it was soothing, and let him have a little bit of what he wanted. That was gone, now, and Shiro wasn’t sure how to fix it.
So he resigned himself to letting Keith have his space, and tried to settle back into the Castle of Lions.
He got his first real post-return surprise walking into the lounge one day to find Hunk asleep on Pidge’s shoulder and Lance on her lap, and her running her fingers through Hunk’s hair and smiling fondly down at Lance. He knew Pidge was the only other Alpha on the team, and he’d gotten the idea she might be into one or the other of them - but, well.
“This is...new,” he said.
“Huh?” Pidge blinked, and then looked from Lance to Hunk and back at Shiro. “Oh, right, you don’t…” She sighed. “It was kind of a whole thing.”
“Yeah?” Shiro encouraged. This was good news, something to distract him from how miserable he felt about whatever was going on with Keith.
“Well, I mean, a couple months ago, Hunk and I were working on this signalling problem and it just...clicked, and I kind of. Kissed him, you know, because we’d figured it out, and we were celebrating.” Pidge said. “And he was into it, and so we started dating, but I realized that I was still getting jealous every time Lance...you know.” She gestured, and Shiro took it to mean ‘hit on everything that moved,’ and gave a sympathetic nod. “So Hunk and I talked about it, and it turned out he’d been into Lance for a while too, and we both confronted him about it and he said, and I quote, ‘wait, I can have both of you? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’” Shiro had to muffle a laugh at that. It...definitely sounded like Lance.
“And you’re all happy?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Pidge said, “we are.”
“Then I’m happy for you,” Shiro said. “You might want to ease Matt into it slowly, though.” Pidge started laughing.
“Yeah, probably,” she agreed. Then, she got serious. “Keith did a good job leading, while you were gone,” Pidge said. “You’d be proud of him.”
“I am,” Shiro said. There was no hesitation, no question. He was, absolutely, proud of what Keith had done. Even if he hadn’t gotten him to open up much, he could see how the others reacted to him, and Allura had been eager to fill him in on what he’d missed.
“Have you talked to him at all? He was so torn up about you being gone, I thought he’d be happier to have you back for real,” Pidge said.
“No,” Shiro said. “He’s been avoiding me.” Pidge made a displeased humming noise.
“He’s been avoiding us too. I’m kind of worried about him.” She said.
“So am I,” Shiro admitted. “I’ve been trying to give him some space - what he had to do with that clone couldn’t have been easy.” Pidge flinched, and then nodded. “But I’ll see if I can get him to talk to me.” It shouldn’t be hard. This was Keith, his best friend, his right hand man (literally, when they formed Voltron.)
“I think he needs you, Shiro.” Pidge said, quietly. “More than he wants to admit. The clone thing...I think it shook him up, a lot.”
“Yeah, I...can only imagine.” It wasn’t a pleasant train of thought. Losing Keith and finding him again, only to discover that he’d found a fake and the real one had been out there all along? He shuddered, a little. It was perhaps no wonder Keith was acting so strangely. Was he worried about it happening again?
He didn’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, so he shoved it aside. There was no point in guessing at Keith’s motivations when he could just ask him.
“I’ll leave you three alone,” he said, and turned for the door.
“Hey, Shiro,” Pidge said when he was about halfway there, and he paused and turned back to her. “Do you know if you’re gonna be flying Black again? She wouldn’t respond for your clone, but she might for you.”
“I…” Shiro blinked. “I hadn’t even thought about it,” he admitted. He certainly wasn’t chomping at the bit to take Keith’s role as Black Paladin from him - he’d asked Keith to succeed him and he meant it - but he did sort of miss leading Voltron.
“You should,” Pidge said. Shiro gave her a nod, and then stepped out.
As it turned out, Keith made the decision for him.
There was a knock on his door the evening after his chat with Pidge, and Shiro got up and opened it, and was surprised to find Keith on the other side. It was the first real, close up look he’d gotten at Keith since getting back, and...he looked awful. There were dark circles under his eyes like he hadn’t been sleeping, and he looked haggard and run out. Shiro was a little concerned he was going to collapse on his feet.
“Can I come in?” Keith asked, and Shiro hated that he seemed to feel he had to. It used to be that Keith would have stepped in as soon as he opened the door.
“Of course,” Shiro said, and he stepped aside to let him through. The door closed automatically behind him.
He seemed anxious, keyed up, and Shiro wanted to ask what was wrong, but he waited for Keith to be ready to speak. After a long moment, Keith took a breath and extended his hand. The black bayard formed in it, in its basic shape.
“This is yours,” Keith said quietly, holding it out to him. “I know you wanted me to lead after you, but you’re back now, and I’m sure Black will be glad to have you.”
“Uh,” Shiro said, a little taken aback, “I haven’t even tried piloting her again, she might not want to switch.”
“I think she will,” Keith said. “It’s like when I had to find you on that planet, after our first fight with Zarkon. She let me pilot her long enough to bring you home.” Shiro frowned. That...didn’t feel right, somehow. This had been more than just a quick jaunt across a planet. But Keith had that stubborn set to his jaw that said he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and so Shiro accepted the bayard. In his hand, it transformed - into a short, triangular blade with a square handle. A katar, a punching dagger - he’d seen them in illustrations.
“Oh,” Shiro said, very quietly.
“See?” Keith shrugged his shoulders. “The bayard recognizes you. You’re the Black Paladin.”
“Are you going to talk to Lance about Red?” Shiro asked. It wouldn’t exactly do them good to shuffle up the lineup again, but maybe getting them all back to where they were originally would be for the best.
“No,” Keith shook his head. “I was...sort of planning to just step aside. Six pilots, five lions. That’s not math that works out.”
“ What ?” There was no universe in which Shiro could imagine piloting Black without knowing he could look to his right and see Keith in Red.
“It’s for the best,” Keith said, quickly. “Allura’s a great pilot, I’m not gonna kick her out just when she’s getting comfortable. Lance has taken enough blows to his ego - sidelining him is a terrible idea. And Pidge and Hunk have never changed lions, and that stability is necessary. Never mind that since they bonded, Lance, Pidge, and Hunk are basically unbeatable together and it would be stupid to split them up.” Keith was talking like a leader - like exactly the leader Shiro always knew he could be. No part of his tactical assessment was off.
And yet it still felt horribly wrong.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Shiro asked. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Keith was a pilot before he was anything else; it seemed utterly wrong that he would give that up.
“It’s the best thing for everyone,” Keith replied.
“Keith,” Shiro said, “that’s not what I asked.”
“Shiro, please,” Keith said, and his voice was suddenly very soft, “let me do this.”
“ Is this what you really want?” Shiro asked, and Keith crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“No,” he admitted, “but it’s not about me. It’s about what’s best for the team. And I’m...not gonna be good for the team, right now. Maybe not ever.”
“Why not?” Shiro asked, but his tone was gentle. Obviously, whatever was wrong with Keith went deep - deep enough to make him give up being a Paladin, when Shiro knew exactly how much it meant to him.
“A lot of reasons.” Keith’s hand went to rub, briefly, at his neck, and Shiro frowned. “I wasn’t...the best leader, or the best decision maker. I got us into a lot of trouble, because I was stupid. I nearly got the entire team killed chasing after Lotor. I let him get away with that trans-reality ship of his.” He reached up to run a hand through his hair. “It’s...gonna be for the best if I ground myself. Besides, then there won’t be any question about whose lead to follow. It’ll just be yours, like it should be.”
“I can’t stop you,” Shiro said, “but...I was looking forward to flying with you again.”
“So was I,” Keith said, and he gave Shiro a wan little smile. “But, Shiro? It’s good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back,” Shiro said, and he meant it. Even if things were wrong, even if Keith wasn’t quite acting like he was used to, he was back with Voltron. That meant he could...fix things. Maybe.
Keith hovered by his door for a moment, looking like he wanted to say something else. Then, he just shook his head and left.
Climbing back into Black’s cockpit felt like coming home.
Shiro had hesitated, at first, because he wasn’t sure if she would respond to him, but after Keith handed over his bayard, there was no real question. He needed space and time to think, anyway, and taking that under the guise of reconnecting with his lion meant no one would interrupt him.
She lit up as soon as he grabbed the controls, and he let out a soft sigh and sat back. He hadn’t realized that the fear had lingered until it was banished.
“Hey, girl,” he said, “I missed you.”
He felt a warm, comforting presence, and he let himself be wrapped up in it.
“I wish we could talk, properly. I want to ask you about flying with Keith --” he was bowled over by a sense of approval, and a little bit of smug satisfaction.
Whatever Keith had done, Black liked him. Shiro smiled fondly. Of course she did - Keith was a good leader, no matter what he thought about himself.
“I knew he’d take good care of you.” Between Black’s ringing endorsement and what Pidge had said, Shiro was certain he’d made the right choice in having Keith take over for him. Even if Keith himself didn’t think so.
He spent most of the night in Black’s cockpit, enjoying the renewed bond with his Lion. He hadn’t really realized how much he missed it until he was back.
(He’d pretend that was true of a lot of things, but it wasn’t everything - missing Keith had been a knife in his chest every minute he was away.)
It was a good thing, Shiro reflected, that they’d actually talked about it, because the next day they had a request for assistance from a small planet attempting to throw off the Galra. It felt good to slide back into the cockpit, and it felt better to be able to say the words “Form Voltron!” again.
It felt wrong, though, to know that it wasn’t Keith at the right hand, and he knew the others noticed too. Keith had disappeared from the bridge as soon as there was a request for Voltron’s assistance, and it was strange not to hear his voice over the comms.
The Galra fled when Voltron came together, which Shiro considered a victory. They feared the destruction it could rain down, and it was fairly clear this wasn’t Lotor or his generals, who as far as Shiro could tell feared nothing and no one.
It vaguely amused him to imagine whoever was commanding that ship getting dressed down by the Prince.
“Y’know,” Lance said when they touched down planetside to meet the locals, “I feel like it should feel like a change to have you back in Black, but it kinda just feels...normal.”
“What do you mean?” Shiro asked, narrowing his eyes.
“Well, I mean, even when Keith was flying Black, you - uh, sorry, your clone was calling the shots,” Lance shrugged.
“He was what?” Shiro asked. Was that why Keith was being so strange and distant? Did he think the clone’s countermanding him was indicative of Shiro not actually trusting his leadership? Was he angry about that and not quite able to forgive Shiro for his clone’s actions?
This would all be so much easier if Keith would just talk to him.
“Yeah,” Hunk confirmed. “Kept talking over Keith, giving different orders. It was bizarre.” He shook his head. “Keith barely argued back, though. Kinda not like him, really.” There was a brief pause. “Y’know, it’s weird. I kinda thought something was off about clone you, but Keith seemed to trust him, so I figured I was just being paranoid.”
“I...see,” Shiro said. It felt like he was trying to put together a puzzle with half the pieces missing and the box long gone. The ones he had were important, somehow, but he couldn’t do anything with them without either the rest or a picture guide.
“I’ve never seen Keith bend over for somebody like that before,” Lance said, idly, and Shiro narrowed his eyes slightly. “Like, sure, he doesn’t argue with you, ever, but that’s because you’re always…”
“Respectful?” Pidge offered, slightly dryly.
“Sure, yeah,” Lance waved a hand. “But, like, have you ever known Keith to let someone shout him down?”
“No,” Shiro acknowledged. Keith didn’t waver. If he was convinced he was making the right decision, he wasn’t going to bend just because someone disagreed with him.
“It was very strange to watch,” Allura said, and then she looked over at him and gave a smile. “It was a pleasure flying under your command, Shiro. Your real command.”
“Thanks, Allura,” Shiro said, and he tried to give her one back, but it came out a little wan. It seemed wrong to be celebrating a victory without Keith there. He should be planetside with them, but he was just...gone, as far as Shiro could tell. Never mind that everything everyone else was telling him was making him very, very concerned.
But the locals wanted to thank them, and so Shiro let them, even though what he wanted was to run back to the castle and beg Keith to tell him what was wrong and how he could fix it.
Because maybe Keith wasn’t angry, maybe Keith was scared. Maybe his clone had done something crueler than just countermand his orders - something that had made Keith afraid of Shiro.
The thought made him a little ill.
When he got back to the castle, his first priority became finding Keith. There was nothing else to hold his attention, so he prowled the halls, until finally he found Keith in the training room. It shouldn’t have surprised him - Keith was dedicated and always had been, and even if he’d decided to step down from Voltron, Shiro was sure he’d find another way to contribute.
Watching him fight was always incredible. People had always tended to underestimate him, because he was an omega and because he was small, but his fighting style was brutal and efficient - and, honestly, the more Shiro watched, the more he realized that it was in its way distinctly Galra. Moreso, even, than it had been the last time he’d seen Keith fight.
He moved around the dummy like he was practicing some kind of deadly dance, and it was absolutely intoxicating to watch, and when he made his move it was swift and brutal. In one quick, light motion, he hooked his luxite sword under the dummy’s staff and sent it flying, and then brought the sword around to hack off its head.
The simulation ended, and Shiro applauded.
Keith whirled to face him, looking like a startled cat, and shoved the blade - back in dagger form - into its sheath rapidly, like he was embarrassed to have been caught using it.
“You’ve gotten better,” Shiro praised.
“I’ve been practicing with Kolivan and the Blade,” Keith said, and he looked genuinely happier, the sort of sunshine smile Shiro had always been desperate to pull out of him and had been even more desperate for lately. It hit him like a truck, seeing it again after so long, and it reminded Shiro of exactly how desperately he wanted to kiss Keith.
He took a breath and shoved off the desire.
“It shows,” he said, instead, and Keith actually flushed, a little, and reached up to run a hand through his own hair, and it actually felt like how things used to be, the easy camaraderie they’d had before...whatever had happened.
“Thanks,” Keith said. “Did you, uh, need something? If you want the sim room, I can clear out.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk to you.” Shiro said. “I heard a little more about what happened with my clone from the others.”
“You...did?” Keith asked, and he looked genuinely nervous suddenly.
“Enough to worry me,” Shiro admitted. Keith flinched, and Shiro felt a surge of guilt. Making Keith even more scared and uncomfortable was the last thing he wanted. “Keith, did something happen? Did he hurt you, somehow?”
“What?” Keith asked, and he looked something close to offended. “No! Come on, Shiro, he was you, would you ever?”
“No,” Shiro said, because even the thought made him sick, “but I also wouldn’t countermand you in the middle of a combat situation, so I don’t think it’s entirely fair to judge based on what I’d do.” Keith shrank, a little.
“I know,” he acknowledged. “I…” He sighed. “Nothing happened, Shiro. Nothing like that.”
“Okay,” Shiro said. “Just...you’ve been acting strangely, lately.” He couldn’t exactly say ‘I was expecting you to be happier to see me’ without sounding like an absolute jackass, so that would have to do. “I’m worried.”
“I’m not a Paladin of Voltron anymore, so I’m not under your command. You don’t need to worry about me.” Keith said, a little bit sharply. Shiro felt a little like he’d been slapped, but he tried to keep the hurt off his face.
“I’m not worried as your commander, Keith, I’m worried as your friend.” He said.
“Well, you don’t need to worry about me as either. I’m fine.” Keith started for the door.
“Wait,” Shiro said, and Keith paused and turned back towards him. “When he was dying,” there was no need to specify who he was, “he said something to you. What was it?”
Keith’s expression twisted into something akin to grief, and Shiro regretted asking immediately.
“You don’t have to tell me --” He started to say, but Keith cut him off.
“He said, ‘ it was real. ’” Keith said, voice soft. “If that’s all?” He asked like he was a cadet, and Shiro was his superior officer.
“No, that’s it.” Shiro said, and Keith gave him a brief nod and stepped out.
Shiro called up the black bayard, turned the simulation on its hardest setting, and fought until he could barely stand, until all he could think about was how exhausted he was and not how he felt like his heart had been ripped out of his chest.
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.”
So, this chapter has been heavily revised -- there's an entire new subplot and I strongly recommend reading it, because it sets up something fairly important for later ;D
That said, I have not just come with revisions!! There is also new content~
Keith’s loss was...devastating. Shiro could put it no other way. He felt utterly lost, knowing that Keith was somewhere out in the universe helping the Blade of Marmora and there was no way for Shiro to even speak to him. They had lines of communication with Kolivan, but not with specific members of the Blade unless they were on a mission together, and Shiro had a general feeling that Keith was avoiding Blade missions that would put him near the other Paladins. He couldn’t confirm that, but it was looking more and more likely.
He tried to put on a brave face for the rest of the team, but it was difficult.
Ever since he’d fallen back to Earth, he’d always assumed he could look to his right and find Keith. Part of him had assumed he’d have all the time in the world to sort out his feelings and work up the courage to confess, because Keith would always be there. He’d assumed, stupidly, that it was a given that they would be together someday. He hadn’t even meant to assume those things, or realized he was , but Keith’s absence was a gaping hole that was forcing him to consider exactly how he’d thought about their relationship.
Such as it was.
He could feel the pitying looks from the other Paladins, too. He wondered how much they had all assumed, sometimes—but it wasn’t exactly as if that was something he could just ask.
None of them, at least, ever actually approached him about it to offer comfort—Shiro was fairly certain they didn’t know how. He wouldn’t have known what to do with the offer anyway. He barely knew how to comfort himself. How, exactly, did you make yourself feel better after almost? After losing someone who was an almost lover, a best friend who could have ( should have ) been more? It wasn’t as if he’d been dumped, and Keith wasn’t dead, just... gone.
Keith had left him. That was something he had to accept.
Except acceptance hurt. He didn’t want to think about Keith, at all, so he threw himself into fighting, because there was always something new to do. He could lose himself in trying to outmaneuver Lotor, in playing a game of chess for the universe with an opponent that was four steps ahead, so he had to think to steps five, or six, or seven if he wanted to keep up. He threw himself into diplomacy, putting on a fake smile and charming his way into friendships with their allies, which seemed to work far better than he wanted it to.
It was easier than facing that he felt like he’d lost an arm all over again, or something much more critical.
(Like his heart.)
“I’m sorry I can’t tell you more, Shiro,” Kolivan said, for what felt like the thousandth time. Shiro had caught him after a diplomatic session on the castleship with some of their newest allies, and pleaded with him for any information at all about Keith. “He is alive, and has not been seriously injured, but he made it very clear to me that he did not want any information about his location passed on to the Paladins.” Kolivan shrugged a little helplessly. “I am not certain why he is so intent on keeping this from you, especially with the two of you being bondmates—”
“Keith isn’t my mate,” Shiro said, and he knew it came out far more bitter than he intended it to.
“Ah,” Kolivan said. “I apologize. I assumed. You have always seemed so close.”
And that was the heart of the problem, wasn’t it? Assumptions.
“It’s fine,” Shiro said, waving off Kolivan’s apology. It wasn’t as if Kolivan had intended to throw his utter failure in his face. It wasn’t Kolivan’s fault that he spent whatever time he couldn’t take up with fighting or training or diplomacy analyzing every interaction he’d had with Keith, trying to puzzle out if there was some point when he could have—should have—confessed his feelings. Because maybe if he and Keith were bonded, Keith wouldn’t have felt like he needed to run away.
Maybe Keith would have had an easier time sussing out the clone. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to suffer for months thinking Shiro was back and then being betrayed.
“Just...keep him alive. Please,” Shiro said, finally.
“We are doing our best,” Kolivan said, “but Keith is...reckless. Angry.” He frowned. “He would not want you to hear this, I am sure, but you need to know. He is utterly unstoppable on the battlefield, and has not failed a mission yet, but has little care for his own life or safety.”
Shiro frowned. He hated that he had almost expected to hear that. Keith was far too reckless for his own good. What worried him, though, was the disregard for Keith’s safety. He’d seen that before—Keith had a habit of putting the group over himself—but the way Kolivan was saying it made Shiro concerned that it had gone far beyond how he had seen Keith behave before.
“Thank you for telling me,” he said. He ached to do something about it, but what was there that he could do? Keith didn’t want to hear from him—that was obvious enough.
“I will speak to him again, about talking to you,” Kolivan said. “You two may not be mated, but you clearly care for each other greatly. It might do him good to be reminded of that.”
Shiro felt a tightness in his throat that might have heralded the beginning of tears, if he had room to cry. As it was, the best he could do was give Kolivan a brief nod, and then let him leave.
He took a moment, in the empty dining room—repurposed as a conference room for their meetings—to compose himself. He couldn’t walk out and face their allies, or even the rest of his team, when he was on the verge of tears.
Keith was gone. Keith had chosen to leave. Keith had made his choice, and Shiro clearly wasn’t part of what he wanted anymore.
Even though Shiro kept thinking about that last look, about the way Keith had said “Yeah, I do,” like it was the last thing in the world he wanted. Shiro couldn’t understand. Keith had to somehow feel that his leaving was for the best, but there was no benefit Shiro could see to him being gone. All it did was leave an empty hole in the team, and in Shiro’s heart.
At least if he broke down in an empty dining room, there was no one to see it.
Kolivan came to him a few days later, looking deeply serious.
“I need to speak with you,” he requested. Shiro tried to ignore his bubbling concern about what, exactly, Kolivan might need him for. The last time they’d spoken, it had been about Keith. It didn’t seem too farfetched to assume that this might be too, and with Kolivan looking like that...
“What do you need?” he asked, forcing down suddenly rising panic and hoping it didn’t show on his face.
“Can Voltron spare you for a day?” Kolivan replied. “I could use your help on a recovery mission.”
“Recovery?” Shiro raised his eyebrows, trying to suppress his relief. If it had been about Keith, he was sure Kolivan would have just said so. Recovery, though, usually meant picking up a corpse so a family had something to bury. “I...didn’t get the idea that was something the Blades did.”
“It usually is not,” Kolivan acknowledged. “But one of our agents reported recovery of critical intelligence on one of Lotor’s quintessence supply routes and then went dark.”
“And you think he’s dead, but you want the data,” Shiro said. “I’m not sure how I can help you—the lions are fast, but Red is faster than Black and Green has stealth technology.”
“I would prefer to work with you, Shiro,” Kolivan said. “Black’s teleportation ability may also prove crucial if we are to make a rapid escape.”
“I...alright,” Shiro agreed. “I’ll let the team know, and we can leave as soon as you’re ready.”
“Thank you,” Kolivan said. “I appreciate the assistance.”
“The Blade does so much for Voltron and the Coalition,” Shiro said. “We owe you this.”
Kolivan was a quiet flying companion, and Shiro appreciated that. Very little unnecessary chatter, just helping him set coordinates and get flying, until they were actually on approach to their destination, a small moon of the planet Vaclite.
“What do I need to know?” Shiro asked.
“Our agent, Regris, was sent to infiltrate a Galra cruiser with a small team and recover intelligence about its heading and payload." Kolivan said. "At last update, he and his team had determined that there was high-yield quintessence onboard, but were under attack and attempting to retreat." Kolivan exhaled. "As best as we know, only Regris made it off the ship and possibly crashed on that moon." Kolivan gestured to it through the Black Lion's viewscreen. Shiro nodded along.
"So the idea is to land, find Regris, and recover the information?" Shiro asked.
"Precisely," Kolivan replied. "Ideally while avoiding detection, should the fleet return."
"Ideally," Shiro said dryly.
"They will not be looking for a Lion of Voltron," Kolivan said, and Shiro honestly wanted to believe that he was right about that. The problem was, any time he got comfortable in the fight against the Galra, he was shaken out of it.
"Even if they aren't looking," Shiro said, "I don't want to just cross our fingers and hope they don't find us."
"And that is why I brought you," Kolivan said. "You should be able to teleport us in short bursts, yes?"
"I...think so," Shiro said. "I admit, I haven't quite figured that out, entirely."
"Well," Kolivan said, and Shiro could read nothing from his voice and his face was covered by his mask, "we will have to hope it comes sufficiently easy to you to get us out of danger."
"I trust Black," Shiro said. "I may not be certain what I'm doing, but she is."
"Good," Kolivan said. "Regris's suit is pinging close to that crater there," he pointed, as they drew in closer to the moon, "so aim to land nearby." Shiro gave a brief nod and brought Black in, taking them into a surprisingly easy landing.
Once they were on the ground, Kolivan led them towards where his display indicated Regris was. It wasn't long before Shiro spotted a figure in a Blade of Marmora suit, smaller than the average Galra and with a tail. He was still—too still, Shiro thought, for someone still alive. He also noted, idly, that the suit seemed oddly undamaged for someone who had been in a pitched fight. They were armored, certainly, but even then, being thrown around should have torn it—or at least, Shiro thought it should have.
Shiro frowned as they approached, and he knelt next to the body, extending his fingers and checking for a pulse. He knew enough of alien anatomy to be reasonably certain that most species had something similar to the carotid, from unfortunate experience in the arena, and it was as good a place to check for a pulse on an alien as on a human.
"I'm sorry, Kolivan," Shiro said, "there's no pulse, I think he's gone."
"He may not be," Kolivan said. "We will not know until we extract him from the suit." Shiro gave Kolivan a long, confused look. "The suit is capable of putting its wearer into a healing coma, which to an outside observer appears deathlike. Extremely slow pulse, lowered body temperature, minimal breathing, to conserve energy and to throw off pursuit.” Kolivan knelt next to Shiro and tilted Regris forward. “Note how the suit appears undamaged: the stasis protocol activates a self-repair to seal off open wounds and prevent infection. It isn’t perfect, and it cannot work miracles—an opened throat or a pierced heart can still be deadly—but it can make that little bit of difference.”
"Huh," Shiro said. "I'm...surprised you'd include something like that." It didn't quite seem to fit with the Blades' usually relentlessly pragmatic philosophy.
"We do not always leave our people behind, Shiro," Kolivan said, and then he scooped up Regris, throwing him over his shoulder. "If there is hope of rescue or recovery, by the Blade or by locals, a few hours can be the difference between life and death, and while the mission may sometimes require sacrifice, needless sacrifice serves nothing." Shiro nodded and stood.
"I apologize if I offended," he said.
"No offense was taken," Kolivan replied. "It is understandable that you might believe such. We are harsh, Shiro, I will not deny that, but we are not cruel.” He adjusted Regris’s body, and turned away. “Let us return to your lion."
Shiro nodded, and led the way back to Black.
Their exit, unfortunately, was not as easy as the entrance. As soon as they broke atmosphere, they were practically nose to nose with a small squadron of Galra fighters.
“Oh, hell,” Shiro said, and then he banked, hard. “Hang on, Kolivan, it’s about to get hairy.” Kolivan gave a sharp nod that Shiro caught out of the corner of his eye; most of his focus was on the fighters in front of him. There were five of them—not a terrible challenge, but more than he wanted to deal with when he had two passengers, one of whom might be barely clinging to life.
The good thing was that the fighters seemed as startled to see him as he was to see them, and he recovered quicker, taking one out with a blast of Black’s tail laser before the other four broke formation. Laser blasts peppered his right side as he dove for another one, grabbing it in Black’s jaws and flinging it into a third, and then he whirled on the last two, calling up Black’s jawblade and soaring forward to hack through first one, and then the second.
“Go,” Kolivan urged, “they may have called for backup.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Shiro agreed. He wasn’t eager to have a cruiser drop down on them, or worse. The Galra, he was sure, would love to catch a Paladin of Voltron and the leader of the Blade of Marmora, and Shiro was not eager to hand them over. That had been closer than he’d ever wanted to be to the Galra on his own—but it was worth it.
He glanced back at Regris, still unconscious and leaned against Kolivan, and hoped they’d been in time to save him.
Once they were back at the castle, Kolivan carried Regris to the healing pods. Only then did he remove Regris’s mask, and as soon as he did, Regris took a deep breath. He was still deathly pallid—even with pale turquoise skin, that sort of thing showed—but he was breathing, and his eyes slowly fluttered open. He was alive.
Shiro felt tension drain out of him that he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying. It hadn’t just been a recovery of a corpse and maybe some intelligence. They’d saved a life.
“Kolivan?” Regris asked, disoriented. He started to sit up, but he was still clearly wobbly, and Shiro found himself leaning in on instinct to catch him at the same time Kolivan did, so Regris ended up supported between the two of them. “Got the intelligence. Inside pocket. Gotta...gotta go, Empire all over the place.”
“Relax,” Kolivan said gently, and he helped Shiro lay Regris back down. “You’re safe. We are on the Castle of Lions. You succeeded.” There was something warm in his tone, a gentleness Shiro hadn't expected from him—but after everything Regris had been through, a little gentleness was more than warranted, he supposed.
“Oh,” Regris said, sounding more than a little loopy. “Good, then.”
He almost immediately fell unconscious again.
“Help me get him into a healing pod,” Kolivan requested. Shiro nodded and called one up, so Kolivan could put Regris inside.
“I’m glad we could save him,” Shiro said, sincerely. Kolivan took a long look at the unconscious form in the pod, and nodded.
“So am I.”
So this is what was previously the final 2/3 or so of chapter four (with some additions and edits), because chapter four has been revised with a few additional scenes that I realized were important for exactly what I wanted to do~
Shiro was not expecting to be roused in the middle of the night, hours after returning with Kolivan, by the castle’s alarm system going off. Lotor wasn’t the type to relentlessly press the chase, unlike his father, and as far as Shiro knew they were out of his reach anyway. Unless he had somehow found them by accident, which seemed unlikely, this had to be something else. Perhaps someone following them back from the extraction? Equally unlikely, but not completely impossible.
Still, he was out of bed and in Paladin gear and on the bridge in under five minutes, to find a very worried-looking Coran and an even more worried-looking Kolivan.
“What is it?” Shiro asked. If it had made Coran rouse them all with the castle alarms, it had to be bad.
“Keith has been captured,” Kolivan said. “We aren’t certain by whom.” He frowned. “We received a request for aid from a rebel group on planet Tharvis, and Keith volunteered to lead his squadron to help them. During the fight with the Galra, he…” Kolivan paused. “Became separated from his squad. The last they heard from him was a scuffle, and then his comlink cut off. His squad was able to recover his blade, but nothing else.”
Shiro felt, suddenly, cold. That was so much worse than anything he could have possibly come up with on his own.
Keith, captured. Potentially— probably— by the Galra. All Shiro could imagine was Keith thrown into the arena, Keith forced to fight and kill to save his own life. Keith being put through the same absolute hell that Shiro had suffered for a year.
Haggar would want to get her hands on him, a half-Galra Paladin of Voltron. She would want to poke and prod and pick him apart, and just thinking about it made Shiro want to scream. It was a nightmare no one deserved, least of all Keith. Shiro’s first instinct was to climb into Black and fly off to Tharvis and start kicking down doors to find answers. Not a good look for the defenders of the universe, maybe, but all Shiro cared about was making sure Keith was safe.
The problem, of course, was that wasn’t practical, and so he tried to focus on something other than his torrent of feelings.
“How’d he get separated?” Lance asked furiously, but Shiro only dimly heard him. There were a thousand angry words bubbling in his throat, and nothing felt adequate to express the roiling wave of emotions cascading through him.
“He broke off from the group to attempt to disable the base’s electronic surveillance systems, in order to give his squad a better chance of taking the enemy by surprise,” Kolivan answered. Vacantly, Shiro registered that it did sound like something Keith would do. A foolish, brave risk taken to help his team, with no concern for his own safety.
“Have any of your spies within the hierarchy in that region heard anything?” Shiro asked, once he could form words. It was the closest he could come to a coherent question that wasn’t screaming at Kolivan about how Shiro had trusted the Blade to keep Keith safe and now he was gone, even further out of reach than he’d been.
“No,” Kolivan said.
“We’re gonna find him, right?” Hunk asked. Shiro turned to look over at him, and found that he, Pidge, and Lance were huddled close. He was genuinely glad they had each other; them leaning on each other would be important during this. Allura’s hands were clenched in front of her face, and Shiro swore she almost looked like she had been praying.
“We’re gonna find him,” Shiro promised. That was all there was to it. Keith was not going to suffer in Galra captivity the way he had. And if it wasn’t the Galra who had him—because there were other possibilities—well. Shiro would find them, too.
Kolivan was still silent, and remained so as Shiro waved Hunk and Pidge off to start work and Coran and Allura drifted away, but there was something about his expression—a tension, of sorts—that had Shiro on edge.
“Something on your mind?” Shiro asked, once they were alone.
“If Keith were only a member of the Blade,” Kolivan said, “we would not do this. It would be expected that he face whatever his captors might inflict and die to preserve the mission.”
“You haven’t exactly argued against finding him,” Shiro said, and he crossed his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes at Kolivan.
“Because he is not only a member of the Blade. He is also part of Voltron,” Kolivan said, “and you , certainly, will not leave him behind. There is no reason for me not to help you.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Shiro said. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to leave him.” His hand clenched into a fist. “He spent months looking for me, Kolivan. I can spare however long it takes to make sure we bring him back safe.”
“We all do foolish things for our bondmates,” Kolivan said, and a dark cloud settled over his expression. “And while I am aware Keith is not... officially yours, I know the two of you care for each other greatly.” Kolivan shook his head. “And I would not wish the pain of a lost mate on anyone.”
Shiro felt something twist in his chest, at the thought. Something in Kolivan’s voice made it clear that this wasn’t hypothetical—that he knew .
“I’m sorry,” Shiro said, voice soft.
“We knew the risks,” Kolivan replied, as if that fixed it. “Antok died nobly, helping to stop Zarkon’s druids. But it was...painful.”
“I can only imagine,” Shiro admitted. “You’re brave, continuing to fight, even after.”
“It is what he would have wanted.” Kolivan said. “And the Blade needed me to be strong.” He glanced away, for a moment, and then back at Shiro. “I could not save him. Let me help you save Keith.”
“Thank you,” Shiro said, sincerely. There was a lot he had to thank Kolivan for—but for the moment, he hoped just those words would do. He turned back to the projected map of Tharvis and its surrounding system, watching as the projection filled in known Galra activity.
Keith had torn the universe apart looking for him. It was time he returned the favor.
Shiro didn’t sleep that night. No one slept that night. Hunk and Pidge retreated to the back of the bridge to check and cross-reference star charts; Lance went with them, Shiro assumed out of a desperate desire to help and to be close to his mates. They were, however, not far, always within sight, and Shiro was glad for it—his instincts screamed to keep the rest of his team (his pack ) as close as possible with one of them missing.
Shiro, Kolivan, and Allura spent the night reviewing every bit of data they had from Tharvis. Galra movements, the various rebel factions (and there were so many more than Shiro had expected; no wonder the Paladins hadn’t been called in, there was no united resistance to fight with and the Blade was much better for the destabilizing hard and fast strikes that were most of what was occurring there) and anyone they had worked with or brought in.
Given all that, Shiro suspected he could be forgiven for not being particularly excited to see a call coming in from Taux’aca on the comscreen. To his right, Kolivan frowned and wrinkled his nose, clearly no more pleased by the prospect of dealing with him than Shiro.
“Should I put him through?” Coran asked.
“Do it,” Shiro said. He didn’t want to deal with Taux’aca, but his planet was in the same system as Tharvis—there was a chance, maybe, he might know something about what happened to Keith. Pidge, Hunk, and Lance turned to focus on the call, too.
Coran frowned and accepted the call, and Taux’aca’s face appeared on the screen.
“Shiro!” Taux’aca said. “Ah, and I see the rest of the Paladins are here too. Good, good.” Shiro couldn’t help but notice the way he blatantly excluded Kolivan, and he knew Kolivan noticed as well. “I wanted to ask if you’d given any further thought to my request.”
“Your...request,” Shiro said blandly. “To help you acquire enough gatelian to build a weapon to blow up a planet. The answer is still no.”
Taux’aca sighed, heavily and theatrically.
“That’s unfortunate, but I thought that would be the case,” he said. “But you have to understand: we’re very, very eager to strike back against the Galra, but we can’t afford the casualties that would inevitably result from attempting to acquire the gatelian ourselves. So I took the liberty of finding a way to...incentivize you to help us.”
Shiro felt his heart settle somewhere around his throat as Taux’aca tilted his communicator, and another figure came into view.
“No,” Shiro said, very quietly.
Keith was on his knees, hands bound behind his back, and he had clearly come out on the worse end of a fight. He was bruised, and Shiro could see at least one slash on the arm of his Marmora armor, though the cut underneath it was lazily bandaged. Obviously, they were invested in keeping Keith alive.
“I don’t know who let the little firecracker wander so far away, but it was convenient enough for me.” Taux’aca said, and he twisted his fingers in Keith’s hair, making Shiro let out an absolutely feral snarl.
“Shut up, ” Keith growled, but he looked up at Shiro, and there was the fire Shiro was used to seeing. “Don’t listen to him. Don’t do it.”
“What do you want, Taux’aca?” Shiro asked, voice still a low growl. He actually felt Allura and Kolivan move away from him, and even Taux’aca, on the other end of the screen, looked a little intimidated. Good.
“Bring us ten corgees of gatelian, and we’ll return your mate.” Taux’aca said.
“Keith isn’t—it’s not—” Shiro exhaled. “Not important.”
“He’s not yours?” Taux’aca asked in mock-concern. Shiro couldn’t help but notice that Keith suddenly looked very pale and uncomfortable. “He’s certainly somebody’s .” He yanked Keith’s head to the side, and reached around to pull down the high neck of his bodysuit, and Shiro could see a faded but still obviously present claiming mark. “Perhaps a member of the Blade? Or perhaps you’re lying, which I don’t appreciate. It isn’t difficult to confirm these things, with that terribly barbaric neck-biting habit you humans and Galra seem to share.”
Shiro felt like he’d been dunked in ice water. That was—that was wrong; Shiro had accepted that maybe things between him and Keith weren’t as much of a given as he had always sort of thought they were, but surely there wasn’t someone else—?
He looked around at the other Paladins, at Coran, at Kolivan, but everyone else looked as shocked as he felt. No one had known about this. No one, apparently, but Keith and whoever had put that mark on his neck.
“They’re not lying. It’s none of them, and it’s not someone in the Blade either,” Keith said sharply, though he looked utterly humiliated, and the unfairness of it all slapped Shiro in the face. Keith should have had the opportunity to tell them on his own time, not had it ripped out of him because some rebel leader with delusions of vengeance wanted to play games with the Paladins of Voltron.
“My mate is dead.” Keith continued, bitterly. “I killed him.”
Shiro understood without Keith having to explain anything else. He thought of the clone’s hesitation, Keith’s inability to strike at him until it was literally life or death, Keith’s sudden and forceful withdrawal after.
He thought of “It was real,” whispered as a dying man’s last declaration, and he understood. Because he would have said the same thing, if he’d been turned on the people he loved like that.
“Keith.” Shiro kept his voice as gentle as possible, and he watched Keith flinch away and refuse to meet his eyes, even through the screen. “Was it him?” He had to know for certain.
“Yes,” Keith said quietly. “It was him.”
“Well,” Taux’aca said, “this all sounds very tragic, but if you aren’t interested in recovering him, I’ll happily just—”
“ No. ” Shiro said, sharply. “We are interested in recovering him.” There was no way he was going to leave Keith to die.
“Shiro, don’t, ” Keith said, jerking his head up to look Shiro in the face again. “You can’t help him with this, you can’t help build a weapon that will kill innocent people. I’m not worth—”
“Three quintants, Paladins!” Taux’aca said loudly, forcibly cutting Keith off. “I want that gatelian in three quintants, or he dies. Further instructions will be provided upon your arrival.”
The screen went blank, and it took everything Shiro had not to scream.
Aaand here is the 100% new content! :3
There was silence for a long moment after the screen went dark. No one seemed to know what to say.
“Okay,” Hunk said finally, “there are a whole lot of things we need to unpack here, so how about we start with the biggest one. We’re not really gonna help build the Death Star, right?”
“Of course we aren’t actually going to help him,” Shiro said. “Blowing up a colony planet is reprehensible. That hasn’t changed just because he has a hostage.” Even if the thought of Keith held prisoner made him utterly furious. What he wanted to do was climb in Black and fly down there and rip Taux’aca’s entire enclave apart until he found Keith and could bring him home, but that wouldn’t help anyone, least of all Keith.
“We may, however, need to convince him that we are.” Kolivan said. “Or,” he glanced over at Shiro, “ you will have to convince him that you are.”
“Agreed.” Shiro said. He frowned, deeply. “I don’t like it, but we probably will have to pretend to accede to his terms.”
“So, what, we’re gonna bring him this super dangerous, super volatile...stuff? And then?” Lance asked. “How do we get Keith and not give it to him? Also, what the heck is a corgee?”
“It’s approximately equal to seven dorhans—” Coran started, but Shiro gave him a long, sharp look, and he fell silent.
“That...is definitely going to be the hard part,” Shiro admitted, “but we’ll be trusting Kolivan and the Blade for that.” Kolivan nodded. “Allura, Lance, I’m going to want you two with me when we go down. Hunk, Pidge, you’ll be with Kolivan, and I’ll want the two of you working to get into Taux’aca’s systems. Find where in his compound he has Keith. If the answer is anything but right next to him, our best option is gonna be to send in a team to get him out, and then flying out ourselves.” He glanced from Pidge, to Hunk, to Kolivan, and met three determined expressions.
“We’ll get him out,” Pidge promised. Shiro exhaled faintly. That was good. That was a plan. They could do this—they could get Keith back without trading Taux’aca the power to murder innocent people.
“Okay, so that also covers ‘how are we gonna get Keith back,’” Hunk said. It was good, Shiro thought, to have the reminder that not getting Keith back wasn’t on the table. “So, uh, the other thing—Shiro, are you...okay?” He looked deeply concerned. “That was. A lot, finding about Keith and the clone—”
“I’m fine,” Shiro said, cutting Hunk off before he could go further. He was...not fine, and he knew that. His chest hurt, and he wanted to scream until his lungs ran out of air, and he wanted to kill everyone who had helped make Keith look so badly beaten in that video, and he wanted to beg Keith to explain what had happened with the clone and tell him if that was why he’d run away. He glanced over and found multiple skeptical pairs of eyes on him, including a particularly dry-looking Kolivan. “...I’m not fine,” he admitted, “but whatever is going to happen, it’ll be between me and Keith. I want to hear the whole story from him.”
“Okay,” Hunk said, gently, “but like, if you want to talk, we’re here.”
“I know,” Shiro said, and he put on his best stern-leader expression, burying his fear under cold determination. They would get Keith back. Whatever it took. That was all that mattered.
That, and that Taux’aca was absolutely going to pay for this.
The basement of the rebel base on Zubreyliv was not exactly the most comfortable place to be a prisoner. Then again, Keith supposed, there weren’t a lot of comfortable prisons in the universe. This one, though, was particularly dark and dank and cold, and even though his Marmora suit was insulated, Keith still found himself shivering.
There was a lot of time to think, down there. Taux’aca and his people mostly left him alone; he supposed that made sense, since currently his entire value to them was as something the Paladins would want to have back.
God, he’d been so stupid. In so many little ways and so many big ones. All of this was his fault—he’d let himself get captured, and now he was a bargaining chip for a superweapon.
If it were the Blade being blackmailed, Keith knew he’d be dead. That fact didn’t bother him, not really; he was well aware that the mission came first, and the mission definitely did not include helping a revenge-mad rebel leader build a planet-busting bomb. It also didn’t include risking assets to recover one compromised operative, not unless that operative had mission-critical information. But the Paladins were different.
Shiro was different.
He knew Shiro well enough to know that regardless of how he felt about Keith’s deception—or about Keith’s...mistake, with the clone, or even about Keith himself —there was no way he would leave a member of his team behind. He wouldn’t leave Keith behind. Even more than he trusted the other Paladins—and he believed in them, too—he trusted Shiro, who had never given up on him, even when Keith had given him every reason to.
He couldn’t be sure Shiro loved him the way Keith loved Shiro, but he could be sure that no matter what, Shiro would do everything in his power to bring him home.
Keith also knew Shiro would do everything he could to prevent Taux’aca from getting his hands on the gatelian, but...well. If it came down to a choice between protecting the cargo and saving him, Shiro would choose him, the same way Keith would choose Shiro every single time.
Keith would have to make sure that wasn’t a choice Shiro needed to make.
He heard his cell door open, dragging him out of his pondering, and turned to glare at the person entering—a tall Zubreylin female whose patterning reminded Keith of the gila monsters he’d seen around the shack. He knew her, sort of, as Taux’aca’s second in command. Zsini, he thought he’d heard her called. She was carrying a bundle of cloth in her arms, and Keith’s first instinct was to pull back. There hadn’t been torture yet, but he wasn’t willing to trust that there wouldn’t be. Taux’aca might decide he wanted more from Keith than just his value as a bargaining chip.
“What do you want,” he demanded sharply, and she let out a hissing sigh.
“I thought you might be cold,” she said. “Even warm-blooded creatures do not do well in the dark.” She unfolded the bundle of cloth, and Keith realized with mild surprise that it really was what she said—a warm-looking blanket, which she draped around his shoulders.
“...Thank you,” he sad. “Sorry. For snapping at you.” She shrugged.
“I do not exactly blame you for your mistrust,” she said. “You have not seen the best of us.” She frowned, and looked around the cell, shaking her head. “He was not always like this, you know. So terribly zealous. The Galra made monsters of us all.”
“The Galra aren’t making him do this, ” Keith said, voice sharp. She flinched guiltily.
“No,” she acknowledged, “they are not. No one is compelling him to do this.”
“Do you think he’ll really kill me, if the others don’t show up?” Keith asked, and Zsini frowned.
“I...do not know,” she admitted. “The man I used to know would not have. Half-Galra or not, you are not a threat, and you have been working to overthrow them. It would also be terribly foolish to kill you and earn the ire of Voltron.”
“If you know what he’s doing is awful, why are you helping him?” Keith challenged. “You can stop this, you know. Just get me out of here, I go back to my friends, and you don’t participate in blackmailing the universe’s last best hope.” He didn’t have a lot of hope for that, but he might as well at least put the option on the table.
“I wish I could do that,” she said, and she sounded genuinely regretful. “But we would never make it out. There are hidden exits, but they are all guarded, and Taux’aca has made it very clear that you are not to be moved by anyone other than him. He...anticipated that some of us would not be entirely committed to this plan.”
“Have you considered replacing him?” Keith asked.
“No,” Zsini said, without an ounce of hesitation. “Whatever dark paths he may go down, Taux’aca is a hero. He was the first to stand against the Galra, and he has led us from the beginnings of our rebellion all the way through to real freedom. He cannot be replaced.”
“But he’s dangerous! Crazy, even—he wants to build a giant bomb and blow up innocent people!” Keith said. Even as he said it, though, he had to admit, he understood. He didn’t even have to imagine what he’d do if Shiro went off the deep end, because he’d already found out. The clone had started leading the team into danger and Keith had just followed him down, without a single question or hesitation. He would follow Shiro into hell and back.
Some leaders were just like that.
“I know,” Zsini said mournfully. “I only...wish there was a way to stop this. To shock him back to his senses, perhaps, but I cannot imagine what would do that now. It would take something terribly drastic.”
Keith began to feel the beginnings of an idea. It was stupid, and reckless, but that wasn’t exactly new. So many of his ideas were stupid and reckless, especially recently.
“Terribly drastic, huh,” Keith said lowly, and then he looked her in the eyes. “I have an idea for how to stop this. But I’m gonna need your help. It’ll keep the gatelian out of Taux’aca’s hands, and it might just knock him back to his senses. You can help him, and save a lot of innocent lives.”
He watched Zsini’s expression become steely and determined.
“Tell me your plan.”
Shiro didn’t even bother to be subtle about their landing on Zubreyliv. Three lions landed hard in front of Taux’aca’s headquarters, and as soon as his boots hit the ground, Shiro called up his bayard. He didn’t have to look to know Allura and Lance were flanking him, and that they’d called theirs. If he had to be, he was ready to go to war to get Keith back.
“Shiro!” Taux’aca strode out with arms spread wide. “And the Red Paladin and the Princess, as well. I can’t say how pleased I am to—”
“Cut the pleasantries.” Shiro said. “You’re going to show me Keith, because before I do anything for you I’m making sure he’s alive and unharmed, and then you’re going to give me the directions to recover the gatelian, and we’re going to bring you your damn ransom and you’re going to return him. Are we clear?”
“Come now, there’s no need for such hostility, ” Taux’aca said.
“You kidnapped a member of the Blade of Marmora who also happens to be a Paladin of Voltron,” Allura said. “I believe there is a need.”
“Damn right there is,” Lance said. Taux’aca wilted briefly, and then sighed, theatrically, turning around and beckining for them to follow.
“If you must be this way,” he said airily, not bothering to look back over his shoulder, like he took it for granted that they would follow.
For a very brief, very awful moment, Shiro sincerely considered stabbing him in the back, damn the other consequences, and breaking in to find Keith. He shoved away the urge, because it was the opposite of helpful; but he also wasn’t sure his team would have stopped him if he had gone through with it.
The front room of the rebel base was as he remembered it: messy, strewn with equipment, and small, made smaller by all the clutter. Taux’aca led them through it and into a second room, dominated by a large, projected map of Zubreyliv. Shiro could see bright red lines scattered over the surface—routes, he suspected, to the desert oases that contained gatelian.
Taux’aca walked up to one of the walls, and pressed a button to activate what Shiro figured had to be a comm unit.
“Zsini,” he said, “bring the prisoner.”
“Yes sir,” the voice came from the other end, and Shiro waited, tense, until the doors at the other end of the room opened and a tall Zubreylin woman walked in, leading Keith by his arm.
Shiro’s heart stopped for a moment. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed Keith, not really—because even with everything else going on, even with how terrible the situation was, he couldn’t help but be immeasurably glad just to see him. Keith glanced up, and their eyes met, and in that moment, Shiro was sure that whatever else happened, they were going to be okay.
It didn’t matter that they were in the middle of an enemy base, and Shiro only had about half a plan for making sure they got out with the gatelian and Keith both. It didn’t matter that they were in danger. All that mattered was that Keith was in front of him, and alive, and looking at him like he was genuinely happy to see him.
“I knew you’d come,” Keith said, without hesitation.
“Of course,” Shiro replied. “I’d never leave you behind.”
“This is all very touching,” Taux’aca said, “but we have business to discuss.” Shiro gave him a long glare, and he watched Keith tense out of the corner of his eye—and he swore he saw a look exchanged between Keith and Zsini—but he beckoned Allura and Lance over, so they could examine the projections as well. “Now this,” Taux’aca continued, pointing at one of the lines, “is our usual route, but we suspect that this particular vein is tapped out, so we’ll be sending you to this one instead.” He tilted the globe, drawing a finger over the projected line. “Zsini,” he turned to her, and Shiro watched tension write itself in every line of her body, “show the Paladins to—”
Zsini drew herself up, and Taux’aca hesitated mid-sentence. There was something in the look on her face that gave Shiro pause, too—but what really had ice running through his veins was the look on Keith’s face.
He had squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and then looked up, and there was a resigned determination in them that absolutely terrified Shiro.
“Keith—” He started, moving closer to him.
“I am sorry, Taux’aca,” Zsini said, and there was something genuinely regretful in her tone, “but I cannot let you do this.”
Shiro felt like time was suddenly moving in slow motion. He should have been stop what was happening, but he was frozen in place. He watched Keith turn to her and nod, and then Zsini was pulling out a short blade and stabbing it straight into the center of Keith’s chest.
Many many MANY thanks to my beta, who helped me make a particularly extensive number of revisions to this chapter! Couldn't do it without you, Alex. <3
Nothing else in the room mattered. All Shiro cared about was that Zsini had removed her blade from Keith’s chest, and Keith was falling, collapsing forward. Shiro ran to catch him, dimly registering that his mask was on. That wasn’t fair, Shiro thought distantly—if Keith was going to die in his arms, he thought he at least deserved to see his face.
“No,” Shiro said desperately, “no, no, no, Keith, please, no.”
“Sorry, Shiro,” Keith said, his voice distorted by the mask. “Didn’t see another way.” There was a moment of silence, and then—“I love you,” Keith whispered, and he slumped, unconscious, in Shiro’s arms.
“Keith, no,” Shiro pleaded. He barely registered that there was a world around him, around them— distantly, he heard Lance shout “stay away from them,” and there was a loud thud against the wall near him and Allura was demanding “what have you done” —and it didn’t matter, none of it mattered. He buried his face in Keith’s shoulder and forced himself not to cry. “I love you too,” he said, like maybe if he said it, it would make Keith wake up and come back to him and everything would be alright.
But nothing was going to be alright again.
Keith had…Keith had made a choice. It wasn’t hard for Shiro to put together what he’d witnessed, not really. Keith had looked at the situation, seen a lose-lose, and decided that the most acceptable loss was him.
Maybe in the grand scheme of things he was right. Maybe in comparison to however many lives Taux’aca would have ended, one single person was an acceptable trade—but not this person, not for Shiro.
“Shiro,” someone was calling his name, and his head snapped up, and he had to focus, suddenly, on the rest of the room. Allura was the one who had called out to him, and she had Zsini pinned against the wall, bayard inches from her face. Lance had his leveled at Taux’aca, who had his hands in the air. “Shiro, is he still breathing?”
“He’s…” Shiro began, and then he stopped, because Allura’s question jolted his memory.
"The suit is capable of putting its wearer into a healing coma, which to an outside observer appears deathlike.”
He shifted Keith in his arms so he could see his chest. Where there should have been a tear in the suit from the knife blade, right in the dip above his armor, there was nothing but a dark stain . The self-repair had clearly activated, sealing off the wound in Keith’s chest from potential infection, though it wasn’t stopping the bleeding. Shiro felt his heart skip all over again.
“You idiot, ” he whispered, for Keith’s ears only, even though he couldn’t be sure he would be heard. “He might still be alive,” he said to the others, and that was all he needed to say.
“Then we’re getting him out of here,” Lance said, and he fired a shot off. Shiro watched it skate past Taux’aca’s head and impact the wall behind him. “Try to stop us, and I won’t miss.” Taux’aca nodded mutely, and Allura dropped Zsini, turning to leave.
Zsini rubbed her neck, briefly, and then looked up, holding Shiro’s gaze as he scooped Keith into his arms.
“I am sorry,” she said. “It was his plan, and he swore he could survive.”
“I know,” Shiro said. Because there was no way it was anyone else’s plan. No one but Keith would put himself in that much danger. His eyes moved to Taux’aca, and he took an unfair amount of joy in watching him shrink into himself. “We’ll be in touch.”
There was no time for anything else. He ran for Black, trying to stave off panic. It was hard to guess how long they had, how much the suit was slowing Keith’s heart rate, but he knew that it was, at best, minutes.
“Please,” Shiro said quietly, as he dropped himself into Black’s pilot seat, Keith’s unconscious form in his lap, and felt her concern blend with his, “hang on.” He opened a hailing frequency with the Castle. “Coran,” he said, as soon as it connected, “get a healing pod ready. We have Keith, but he’s hurt. Badly.”
“On it,” Coran replied, and the line cut.
Shiro spent the rest of the flight praying they would get there in time.
When they got Keith’s mask off, and got him into a cryopod suit, he was still breathing. Barely, according to the life signs monitor on the pod, but he was.
Shiro found himself a chair and got settled. He had absolutely no intention of moving, not until he was certain Keith was going to pull through.
“Shiro,” Allura said, gently, “he’s going to be in there a long time.”
“I know,” Shiro replied, eyes not moving from Keith’s face. “Go get some sleep, everyone. It’s been a rough few days.”
“You should too,” Allura said. Shiro shook his head.
“I’m not leaving,” he said, voice quiet. “I need to be here. With him.”
“We’ll set you up something here,” Hunk said without hesitation, and Shiro blinked, a little surprised, even though he knew he really shouldn’t be. He gave Hunk a relieved smile.
“Thanks,” he said. Hunk shrugged, and looked from Shiro to Keith, suspended in the cryopod.
“If it was Pidge or Lance in there,” he said, quietly, glancing back at his mates, “I wouldn’t be going anywhere either.”
“We understand your pain, Shiro,” Allura said. “Keith is—” she hesitated, briefly “—important to all of us. Perhaps not in the same way as he is to you, but we all care for him, and none of us want to lose him.”
Don’t want to lose him barely covered what Shiro was feeling, but it would do, if only so he could avoid baring his soul to his entire team.
“Yeah,” he said, because it needed to be acknowledged. “Thank you, all of you. I...don’t want to do this alone.” That, too, barely covered things, but it would also have to do.
His eyes drifted to Keith’s face, almost alarmingly peaceful, like he was just sleeping, and not barely clinging to life.
Shiro had never felt more helpless.
Keith was in the cryopod for a terrifyingly long time. It had Shiro on edge, prowling the cryopod room and snarling at anyone who got too close. It wasn’t fair and he knew it, especially since half the time it was other members of his team who were just as concerned about Keith as he was; but he couldn’t help it. His instincts roared to protect Keith, as if trying to make up for his previous failures.
The end result was that he was left alone a lot, with nothing but Keith’s comatose body and his thoughts.
At first it was mostly anger—at Taux’aca for kidnapping Keith, at himself for not doing more to protect him, at Keith for being so recklessly, stupidly self-sacrificial, at every single person who had allowed this to happen. That could only last for so long, though, because he wasn’t really angry at anyone but Taux’aca, and Allura arrived not hours after they got back to the castleship with the information that she had demanded he no longer be part of any operations with Voltron and that she and several other leaders in the coalition were working to draw up formal articles of sanction.
She’d wanted to ask his opinion on punishments, and Shiro had only one suggestion.
“Monitor their gatelian mining. Make sure he can never build that weapon. This can’t all be for nothing.”
Allura agreed without a moment’s hesitation.
That took a lot of the wind of anger out of his sails; Taux’aca was going to be punished, but it was with diplomatic means, not force, and there was nothing he could do to contribute to that.
He felt utterly, agonizingly useless. He couldn’t make Keith heal any faster, he couldn’t make Taux’aca pay, he couldn’t do
but stalk around the room and hover around the pod and watch Keith’s vitals, staring at the weakly-beating pulse of his heart that reminded Shiro that all was not lost, that Keith was
He drifted, too, to wondering about what he’d almost had. Wondering how, exactly, Keith had ended up Marked by his clone. Had the clone made the first move? Had Keith? Had the clone realized exactly what a precious thing he had?
Shiro hoped so. If the clone was enough like him to love Keith—and he trusted, hoped desperately that the clone’s last words hadn’t been a lie and he really had loved Keith truly, not as a part of whatever his mission had been—then he had. He’d treasured every second he held Keith in his arms, because that was what Shiro would have done.
Would do . He would have the chance to tell Keith exactly how much he meant, and exactly how much Shiro needed him.
Finally, though, exhaustion got the better of him. Two days without sleep and the adrenaline crash of finally having Keith safe and secure on the castleship was too much, even for Shiro, and he passed out in the nest of blankets Hunk had helped bring in.
There was, after all, plenty of time to wait.
Keith wasn’t sure where he was going. It felt strange to be back on the castleship; he’d missed it, roaming space with the Blade, but being back didn’t quite feel the way he’d thought it would. He’d sort of expected it to feel like coming home, but…
The castleship was just another place. Another place where he didn’t belong.
He’d thought about staying in the cryo bay, when he saw Shiro there curled up in a nest of blankets and pillows, fast asleep. He’d thought about waiting for Shiro to wake up, about curling up against him and enjoying the feel of cuddling with Shiro again—the real Shiro, this time. Shiro knew how he felt. He’d said it, out loud, when he’d thought there was a chance his plan might not work and he would die, that the suit’s stasis wouldn’t slow the bleeding enough, that there might be resistance getting him out, there were a million possibilities and he’d been fully aware there was a good chance he wouldn’t wake up.
It had been selfish, but he’d wanted to make sure Shiro knew that Keith loved him, no matter what else had happened.
The problem was, there was a pretty high chance, in Keith's opinion, that Shiro didn’t feel the same way. That when Keith had fallen for a fake, it cost him the trust—the love— of the real thing.
So he couldn’t stay with Shiro, and he definitely wasn’t going to hang around to wait for the rest of the team so that they could all berate him for doing what needed to be done or cry over him like he wasn’t perfectly fine and hadn’t had….most of a plan to make sure he got out alive.
His feet finally carried him to the observatory, and he hated himself for winding up there. How many times had he been in this room with one version of Shiro or the other?
Still, he moved to the window, and rested his arm against it and his forehead against his arm, staring out at the endless expanse of space and wishing he’d been brave enough to stay, either in the cryobay or...before that, when Shiro first came back. If he hadn’t run away with the Blade, none of this would have happened, and he might have gotten to tell Shiro the whole truth on his own time, without it coming out in bits ands fragments as circumstances pulled it from him.
He heard footsteps from behind him, and registered them hazily. He supposed it wasn’t really a surprise that someone had come to find him.
“Keith,” Shiro said quietly, and Keith jumped and spun to face him, feeling a jolt of guilt because he’d known it was someone but not Shiro , “can we talk?”
“I guess we have to,” Keith said, voice soft. God, this was the last thing he wanted to do. There were a million conversations he did not want to have with Shiro—a change, since Shiro was usually the one person he could talk to about anything.
“Can we start with what the hell you were thinking back there?” Shiro asked, and it was as close to harsh as he’d gotten with Keith for a very, very long time. Even though it was gentler than any of the clone’s reprimands, it stung more because this was undeniably his Shiro.
“I was thinking that we were backed into a corner and I had the best possible out with the smallest number of potential casualties.” Keith said. He tried to keep his tone as clinical as possible, like he was giving an after-action report, because if he was just giving an after-action report he didn’t actually have to acknowledge what he’d done.
“ Smallest number of— Keith, you're not just some abstract potential casualty, not to me, I—are you okay?” Shiro sounded genuinely concerned, and it didn’t sound like a question about his physical health.
“ What? ” Keith asked, and he didn’t bother keeping his shock and disbelief out of his voice.
Of course he would ask that, though. Keith was an Omega who had lost his Alpha in extremely traumatic circumstances, and there were stories about what happened when a mating bond was broken. If Keith was being honest, the only thing that had kept him moving in the days after he killed his mate had been the desire to keep the others from realizing exactly what had happened, and the knowledge that the real Shiro was still there, still alive. But it still made him furious, the assumption that he was…falling on his sword, or something.
“No, it’s not like that! I don’t want to die, Shiro, I hated the idea of dying, I was….scared, but. It was the only way!” he snapped. It stung to admit, but he had been terrified. He’d been terrified from the moment Zsini agreed to his plan all the way up through the moment her knife went into his chest.
“No, it wasn’t, we had a plan—” Shiro started.
“And did that plan rely on turning over the gatelian and hoping you could get it back?” Keith asked. He knew the answer already, because it was the only other plan, short of leaving him to die, and obviously that hadn’t been on the table.
“I—” Shiro began, and then he stopped, looking guilty. “Yes. Partially.” Shiro reached up to push back his forelock, and it immediately dropped back into his face. “Our best idea was to have Pidge hack in and find out where you were, so Kolivan could perform an extraction while Allura, Lance, and I distracted Taux’aca, but….yes, most of our other options relied on making the trade and hoping we could un-make it.”
At least Shiro was honest.
“Too much risk.” Keith said, shaking his head, though the sharp edge of fury had gone out of his voice. “Any of it would be too much, and if he had some, he’d feel bold enough to send an actual expedition in to get more. I kept it out of his hands entirely, and I knew you’d get me out in time and Kolivan would know what I’d done.” Keith paused, briefly. “Well. I was pretty sure. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong, I guess, but I know you, Shiro. I trust you.”
“I— damn it, Keith,” Shiro stepped forward, and Keith found himself pulled into a hug. “We could have lost you. I could have lost you. I thought I had, for a minute.”
“You didn’t,” Keith said, and he let his eyes close as he sank into Shiro’s embrace, and wished they could just...stay like that, forever. “I’m alive. I’m here.”
“It was close. Too close.” Shiro squeezed him, and fell silent for a moment, but apparently he wasn’t done. Keith felt Shiro tense, for a moment, and heard him take a breath, and somehow, he knew what was coming. Part of him wanted to stop it, but there was no stopping it anymore. “You know that’s not the only thing we need to talk about.”
“I...yeah, I know.” Keith had thought having to explain his sacrifice hurt, but this was….this was so much worse. This was actually owning up to the absolute mess of mistakes he had made. He ducked out of Shiro’s embrace—and maybe he imagined it, but Shiro seemed terribly reluctant to let him go.
“Just...tell me how it happened,” Shiro said, voice gentle. Too gentle, too soft, too... Shiro. Keith sighed. Why couldn’t he make this easy and be cruel?
“Do you really want to know?” he asked, though he had very little hope that Shiro would say he didn’t. “Isn’t it...enough to know that it did?”
“It’s eating you up,” Shiro said, “and I think it’ll help you a little if you just...tell me.”
Keith closed his eyes and was silent for a long moment. That was….true. It was eating him up inside. Maybe if he told Shiro the whole story it would stop feeling like a weight in his chest, and he’d stop having to wait for the other shoe to drop, for all this softness to go away.
“I thought he was you,” he said, finally, and he couldn’t meet Shiro’s eyes, instead staring off somewhere in the middle distance, out the window. “I thought...something might be wrong, but clone wasn’t on the list. At all. I thought they’d done something to you—to him.” Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Shiro nod encouragingly, and he swallowed down his growing anxiety and kept going. “I knew he was making bad calls. I knew something was wrong. I knew the way he was undermining me wasn’t… right.” He exhaled. “He was so cold. So willing to have us risk ourselves. I see it now, even better than I did then, how wrong everything was.”
“Keith,” Shiro said, gently, and he reached out, and Keith violently flinched away. He didn’t miss the hurt on Shiro’s face, and he felt a stab of guilt.
“Don’t...touch me,” he said. It had been different, before; letting Shiro hug him had felt as much like it was for Shiro’s comfort as his own, and he hadn’t been about to explain exactly how he...well. He felt like he’d betrayed Voltron, and especially betrayed Shiro. “You won’t want to, when I’m done, anyway.”
“I doubt that,” Shiro said, but he withdrew his hand anyway. “So?” he coaxed, gently. “When did things...change?”
“I cornered him after a fight—I was still running high off the adrenaline and I was. Pissed,” This was the hard part, really, and he could feel tears welling up and desperately tried to will them away. “Got in his face, away from everybody else, demanded to know what was so wrong with every decision I made, and he got this...look on his face, and he waited for me to run out of steam, I guess, and then he. Gave me this song and dance about how he wanted me to be better and he was proud of me and so impressed. And then he. Kissed me. I couldn’t even think,” Keith admitted. “It was...something I’d wanted for a long time. For a little bit I wasn’t sure it was real.” He felt a wetness on his cheeks, and reached up to wipe furiously at the tears that were starting to fall. “But it was, and...he said he loved me. And that he was sorry for making me think anything else, and….” Keith swallowed. “I let him Mark me, that night.”
He chanced a glance over at Shiro, and Shiro looked like he’d been punched in the gut, like all the air had suddenly been driven from his lungs. Keith felt a stab of guilt, and he hoped that Shiro didn’t blame himself for any of this. It wasn’t his fault Keith had been dumb and blind and desperate.
”I was stupid,” Keith said, guiltily, reaching up to wipe at his wet cheeks again. “I shoved aside my suspicions. Convinced myself I was just being paranoid. All it took was thinking that you—he—loved me back, that there was even a chance,” Keith laughed, but there was no humor in it, “and I forgot all about being suspicious. The team nearly got killed because I’m a lovestruck moron.” It hadn’t just been him at risk—and he realized he had been at risk, making himself vulnerable to a clone that was clearly programmed to kill them all—it had been the whole team. Lance, Hunk, Pidge, Allura, the universe’s last best hope, his friends, nearly destroyed because he was so goddamn desperate for his crush to like him back that he ignored all logic and common sense telling him something was wrong at the tiniest sign of reciprocation.
“Keith,” Shiro started, and Keith shook his head.
“Don’t fight me on this, Shiro. I screwed up, and I know it, and….I’m sorry this is how you had to find out how I feel about you.” He would have told Shiro eventually, he liked to think—it was a sort of inevitability. The sun on Earth rose and set every day, space was huge, and Keith loved Shiro and would have eventually confessed.
“I’m sorry, too,” Shiro said. “I would have rather you told me when you were ready, not when you felt like you had to.”
“I was ready, once,” Keith said, “before the fight with Zarkon. I thought… I thought that when we won, it would finally be the right time.” He’d had a whole plan; because if they won it would be worthy of a celebration, and clearly that would be the best time to pull Shiro aside and finally tell him exactly how he felt. “But. You know.”
“Things didn’t exactly work out that way,” Shiro said, and he actually sounded regretful. He took a step forward and reached out, hand resting on Keith’s cheek. “I’d have liked to hear it, then.” Keith barely dared to breathe, not sure he was actually hearing what he thought he was. “You know I love you, too, right?”
Keith felt his heart stop for a moment.
“Shiro—” He surged forward, with intent to kiss him, but he was stopped by a hand on his chest.
“No,” Shiro said, gently, and Keith felt like he’d been stabbed all over again.
“What do you mean, no?” he asked—demanded, more accurately. He’d thought, for a second, that everything was going to be okay, and wasn’t that supposed to be how it went? Shiro loved him, he loved Shiro, it was all out in the open, wasn’t this the part where they kissed and figured it out? “Don’t bullshit me, Shiro.”
“I’m not,” Shiro said. “I love you, but I don’t think...Keith, come on, you can’t really believe jumping into something, with everything the way it is, is the best idea.”
“It’s not jumping in when we’ve been doing this dance for years, since before you left for Kerberos,” Keith argued. “I know what I want. I know what I need, Shiro, and I need you, I have for a long time. This— all of this, the war, Voltron, the Blade? It’ll be easier with you.”
“That’s not what I mean, Keith,” Shiro said. “You just almost died. Before that, you took a mate and had to kill him, and it’s barely been a month since then, and since I got back to the team, which isn’t exactly a long time to process that kind of grief—”
“ Process that kind of grief?” Keith shot back. “What exactly are you saying? That you think I’m not ready for another relationship?” That felt utterly bizarre to him. It wasn’t as if he’d fallen in love with someone else; it had always, as far as he’d known—until that terrible, awful moment on the Galra base—been Shiro .
“I’m saying I think we don’t have to rush, you’ve been through a lot,” Shiro said. “We both have.” His tone was gentle, but to Keith it felt condescending, and it made him want to snarl and snap and rebel against it. “With the clone, and everything—”
“Oh, what, because I’m the poor broken omega who can’t be trusted to know his own feelings?” Keith snapped, taking a step back. “I need a big, strong alpha to guide me? Make sure I don’t do anything else stupid? Fuck off. ”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Shiro said, and he looked wounded at the implication.
“It’s not?” Keith asked sarcastically. “Kinda sounded like you were getting there.”
“I wasn’t, Keith, come on,” Shiro pleaded. “I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“I can take care of myself,” Keith snapped. “I don’t need you to treat me with kid gloves. This isn’t the first time I’ve lost someone, and it probably won’t be the last. I know how to process grief.” He took a breath. “And I’m done here. Thanks for making sure I didn’t die.” He shoved past Shiro and out the door.
“Keith, wait, please,” Shiro’s hand caught his arm. “We can talk about this—” Keith jerked away.
“No,” he said. “I’m done talking.” He stormed off again, and tried to force himself to ignore that Shiro looked exactly as hurt and confused as Keith felt.