Keith dashed down the long hallway. Purple lights and solid metallic doors rushed passed him as he ran at top speed, bayard activated in his hand, ready to unleash his ire on anyone who dared to step between him and his goal.
Behind him he could hear Lance’s footsteps, the other paladin keeping up with him with seemingly no effort. He didn’t have to look back to know that Lance’s bayard was activated as well. He was watching their back while Keith watched their front and led the way.
Well, not really. Technically it was Pidge who led the way.
“Turn left at the next junction,” he heard her voice through his comm. “But be careful, there are two sentries waiting for you.”
“Don’t worry, they won’t even know what hit them,” Lance piped up behind him.
Keith grunted in approval and tightened his grip on his bayard.
When they arrived at the junction they didn’t slow down. The sentries had their backs turned towards the two intruders and seemed too focused on the hallway before them to notice the footsteps behind them in time. Keith swung his bayard through the first sentry’s torso as Lance fired and fried the other sentry’s circuits with one smooth shot through its head at the same time.
The two of them proceeded onward without hesitating or slowing down for even a second. They couldn’t afford to lose any time or risk the failure of this mission. It was too important. Too personal.
“Turn right,” Pidge said as the duo approached the next junction. “It should be the third door to your right.”
They followed Pidge’s instructions and came to a stop in front of said door. Keith felt his heart beating in his throat, as if it wanted to jump out at any second and scream at him to not get his hopes up. His breath came too fast and his hands were sweaty under his gloves. He was nervous. Or anxious? Scared? Maybe all of it.
Behind this door was his friend. Or he should be. He hoped so. They had searched for too long for this to be another failure. Another disappointment. It’s been months since their leader and friend had disappeared into thin air and apparently vanished from existence altogether. There was no trace, no explanation, no hint as to where he was or what had happened. Not even the Black Lion had helped. Or maybe she didn’t know either? She wasn’t very talkative.
If he wasn’t behind this door… He didn’t even want to think about this possibility. Every time they came to a dead-end it had torn his heart apart more and more.
The door unlocked with an audible click as Pidge overwrote the controls and opened to the side revealing the room behind. It was a mostly empty room. Two tables stood at the walls to their left and in the middle of the room was a chair that looked similar to a dental chair only less comfortable and with cuffs on their arm- and headrests. But all of this faded into the back of his head when Keith saw the pod in the right corner of the room, filled with a purplish liquid and a body.
The buff male wore a Galra prisoner garb and had cables and tubes attached to his head and arms. No, arm, singular. The right arm ended right above the elbow where the empty sleeve of the garb swam useless in the liquid. Over his mouth and nose was what looked like an oxygen mask. The males features were relaxed, a rare view on the man’s face, but the scar across the bridge of his nose and the white streak in his else black hair were unique. Even if the hair was too long and the beard was an unfamiliar sight, Keith had no doubt about who this was and that their search had finally – finally – come to an end.
“Shiro!” Keith exclaimed and dashed through the room to his friends glass prison. He pressed his hand on the thick glass and pounded against it, trying to wake the older man up or get his attention or anything to indicate that he was alive. But there was no response, not even a flinch or twitch of any muscle. Keith’s pounding grew stronger and more desperate in his urge to free Shiro from the pod and get him out of here.
He had hoped to finally find him, of course he had. It was better than having to stomach another failure, but now, seeing his friend like this, the small voice in his head that had hoped to not find him here grew louder again. He had been with the Galra once again. A prisoner at their mercy and from the looks of it a guinea pig of one of their sick experiments. Maybe it would have been better if they hadn’t found him here after all. Everywhere was better than with the Galra.
But he was here, in this pod, swimming in this strange liquid, without his prosthetic. Longer hair than should be possible after only four months and dead to the world. Or maybe he was really d-
Tears pricked in Keith’s eyes as the thought crossed his mind and he tried desperately to blink them away.
No, they couldn’t be too late. Not after all this. Not after all their hoping and praying and fighting.
“Earth to Keith!” Lance’s voice and his tight grip on Keith’s shoulder startled him out of his thoughts. “Calm down, he’s alive. Look.” He pointed with his index finger and Keith followed the direction with his gaze to look at Shiro’s chest that was faintly rising and falling. He was breathing.
“Right,” Keith said under his breath as he watched the steady rise and fall of Shiro’s chest.
“We need to get him out of there,” Lance said and rounded the pod. “There is no control panel or anything similar.” He returned to his place next to Keith and threw him a quizzical look. “What should we do now, fearless leader?”
Keith turned to look at him. Lance’s furrowed eyebrows relaxed and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a encouraging smile. Leave it to Lance to turn an uttermost lousy situation around and focus on what should be done next, rather than sitting down and despair.
Keith gave him a fierce nod.
He took a deep breath and ordered his priorities in his head before going into action. Shiro was alive and there was no immediate danger.
“We found him,” he reported through the comm and got several gasps of relief and a chaos of responds in return.
“How is he?”
“Can we talk to him?”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s okay, as far as we can tell, but he’s in a pod with some kind of purple liquid,” Keith interrupted and tried to focus on what to do next. “Pidge, can you try and see if you can hack into the pod’s system from your end? We can’t find any control panel or anything on this thing.”
“Roger,” she said and the fast typing of her fingers on the keyboard sounded through the comms line.
“Lance, search the room. See if you can find his prosthetic or any hints to where it is.”
Lance nodded, turned to the rest of the room and started searching.
“Wait, what?” Hunk’s voice chimed in through the typing. “He doesn’t have his arm?”
“No,” Keith answered hesitantly. “But we’ll find it.”
“Okay… Let’s hope so,” Hunk mumbled barely audible and the line went quiet once again except for Pidge’s typing.
Keith returned his gaze to the pod and watched Shiro’s sleeping face. He’s never seen him this calm ever since he first escaped the Galra. He wasn’t sure if he should be happy that Shiro was able to relax like this or worried because he’d never done so of his own accord. Not even in the cryo pod in the Castle of Lions when he’d healed from Haggar’s injury.
Suddenly the amount of bubbles in the liquid increased rapidly and Shiro’s brows furrowed.
“Pidge? Something’s happening,” Keith said through the comm and couldn’t suppress the slight panic in his voice.
“Right, sorry, that was me,” Pidge quickly answered. “I hacked into the pod’s control system. In order to open the pod the liquid needs to drain off completely. When that’s done I should be able to release the tubes and you can get him out.”
“Good,” Keith replied and watched as the liquid slowly drained off. “What is this stuff?”
“It seems to be some kind of sustainment liquid. It feeds the body the needed substances for its survival like nurture, water and vitamins.” The liquid was now completely drained off and the only thing keeping Shiro upright were the tubes connected to his arm, head and as Keith could see now, also to his back. “Opening the pod now and releasing the tubes.”
With a hiss the pod opened and a clinical and sterile smell evaporated from the inside. With a click the tubes released Shiro’s body and the giant male fell forward. Quickly, Keith released his bayard and caught Shiro in his arms, but the male was too heavy for him and together they both slumped to the ground.
Within seconds Lance was next to them and helped Keith maneuvering Shiro’s form fully out of the pod and on the ground. The older man’s brows were still furrowed and Keith could see that his eyes shifted under their lids. He started to look more like himself and less like a lifeless shell.
“Shiro?” Keith looked for any sign that indicated he would wake up. A stir or flinch. Anything. But there was nothing. “Pidge, you sure there was nothing else in this stuff?” he asked after they’d waited for another minute and nothing happened.
The line was quiet for a moment before Pidge finally answered, “There were some anesthetic in the liquid to keep him from waking up, but aside from that… no, nothing. Why?”
“He’s not waking up.” They needed to move and get out of there. They were lucky enough that no one had noticed them yet. But it was only a question of time until they noticed that Pidge had tampered with their security systems and cameras.
Keith reached out and lifted Shiro’s upper body into his arms. Even without his prosthetic he was heavy. Too heavy. There was no way the two of them could lift him and fight their way through to the rendezvous point in the hangars where the Green Lion was waiting for them.
“I can get to your location and carry him,” Hunk said.
“No,” Keith immediately answered before the yellow Paladin could even think about moving. “We need Pidge to guide us back to the hangar and we can’t leave her without protection in case they find us.”
“I knew it was a bad idea for me to not accompany you,” Allura chimed into their conversation and through her irritated voice Keith could also hear her tension.
“We need you as our plan b in case we don’t make it to the hangar. So no, it was not a bad idea,” Keith hissed and tried to think of a plan c or d or anything to get them out, to move Shiro and get everyone back to the castle in one piece. They finally found him and now they would fail because of this?
No. Not as long as he was their leader.
He turned to the other Paladin. “Lance, listen. We-”
Suddenly the great weight in his arms shifted.
“Shiro?” Both Keith and Lance immediately turned their attention back to their unconscious friend whose eyes sluggishly started to flutter open. Keith held his breath as he looked at Shiro who watched the ceiling with half-lidded eyes. He waited for Shiro to react in some way. To look at him or Lance or even to have a flashback. He would take anything at this moment to be honest, because Shiro’s blank stare slowly started to freak him out.
“Hey, buddy. You with us?” Lance said cautiously and leaned into Shiro’s line of view. He adjusted his gaze a few inches and looked at Lance for a few seconds. Then, all of a sudden, his eyes snapped fully open, his nostrils widened as he sucked in a deep breath and he jerked out of Keith’s arms and scrambled away from them. He misbalanced his weight when he tried to brace himself onto his non-existent right arm and fell to the side.
For a few seconds he continued his labored and too quick breaths and watched them through his mess of hair, when suddenly his gaze drifted away and he returned to look into the distance at nothing in particular. His breathing evened out and his tense body began to relax bit by bit.
Next to him, Lance released a long breath. “Shit,” he muttered.
When nothing happened after another few seconds Keith slowly moved closer to Shiro. As soon as he was almost in arms reach Shiro’s gaze snapped back to him and Keith froze. He had no intention to scare his friend again when he was clearly not aware of where he was. He needed to calm him down and make him realize who they were.
He counted it as a victory that Shiro was still watching him and hadn’t backed away yet. Maybe he had recognized him or was beginning to.
“Hey. It’s me, Keith,” he said as calmly as he could. “Lance is here too.” He gestured to the other Paladin behind him who uttered a quiet ‘hey, buddy’ and tried for a reassuring smile. “The others are waiting outside.”
Shiro’s gaze flickered back and forth between Keith and Lance for some time until he settled to look at Keith once again. It felt as if time was slowing down and waiting for recognition to dawn on Shiro’s face. But nothing happened.
Shiro used his left arm to prop himself into a sitting position and when he looked back at Keith through his long strands of hair the indifference on his face finally shifted. But instead of the recognition Keith was hoping for, came wariness and confusion. And then he finally opened his mouth and spoke with a croaky and gravelly voice.
“Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?”
No. This was wrong. This wasn’t what he was supposed to say. This wasn’t how his voice was supposed to sound. It was all wrong!
Keith’s breath was caught in his throat and he was unable to utter a single word. Thankfully, Lance regained his composure rather quickly. “We’re your friends. Team Voltron, remember?”
Shiro’s confused gaze wandered to Lance and remained. He didn’t seem to remember.
“We’re here to get you out. To rescue you from the Galra,” Lance said and Keith could hear the fight in the other’s voice. The fight to try and not lose his nerves and keep calm.
Right now, the only thing Keith felt, was failure. They came too late after all. He’d lost Shiro again.
“Guys? You need to move. Now. They’re onto us. I don’t know how long I can keep their systems down.” Pidge’s voice resounded in Keith’s ear, but for some reason it sounded as if she was talking through a pillow. He could barely understand her through his racing thoughts.
Where had they gone wrong? Where had they lost too much time, that they were here now, but too late? What could they’ve done better? What could he have done better?
Why did he always fail in the end? He'd failed his mother, his father. He'd failed Shiro. Failed his team. And now, he'd failed Shiro again.
“I- I’m not sure if we can make it.” Keith barely registered Lance’s voice even though he was sitting right next to him, but he was grateful, oh so grateful for Lance’s ability to think and talk right now, because Keith definitely couldn’t. He kept looking at the man sitting in front of him. The man who was his best friend, hell, his brother, but didn’t recognize him.
“What do you mean? What’s wrong?” said- Hunk? Maybe?
“Just try and get to the hangars. We can take care of everything else in the castle,” Allura spoke with an unsteady voice.
“R-right,” Lance answered.
Shiro looked at Lance with an even more confused expression. “Who are you talking to?”
“Oh, right, sorry.” Lance motioned to his helmet with his hand. “I was talking to our teammates through our comms. You know, the teammates I mentioned earlier?” Shiro slowly nodded and continued to watch him warily. “We’re going to get you out of here, okay? I’m sure you don’t want to stay here.” A flash of… something flashed over Shiro’s face (fear, maybe? Keith wasn’t sure), before he looked at Lance with pure conviction and nodded.
“Alright. Good,” Lance muttered, more to himself than to any of the other two in the room. He slowly stood up and Keith felt his hand once again on his shoulder. “Keith, buddy?” He squeezed his shoulder and began to shake it softly. “We need to go.”
Keith ignored his teammate and continued to stare at Shiro. He couldn’t avert his gaze, no matter how hard he tried. He looked so different. His hair, his arm, his features. The longer he looked, the more differences he could make out. He looked older, as if he’d aged a few years. Maybe it was just the hair, or maybe the beard, or… No, it was in his eyes. They’d lost their glint. The glint that had won Keith’s trust all those years ago. The glint that had given him strength during all those fights in the last months. Now they were blank and looked so tired.
There was a loud smack and suddenly Keith felt a hot sting on his cheek. He blinked back his tears and look up at Lance who was standing in front of him, his left hand still flat and up in the air.
“Come on, Keith! We need to get out of here. Now!” Lance said and when Keith didn’t answer he raised his hand once again for another slap.
Keith scrambled back a few inches to avoid the second hit. “Yeah. R-right.” He swallowed the lump in his throat and got to his feet.
Lance gave him an apologetic look and turned around to haul Shiro to his feet. They turned towards the door but before they were able to make more than three steps there was a loud thump behind them. When Keith turned around he saw Shiro lying on the ground, face downward.
“You okay?” Lance was next to him in seconds, while Keith still stood and looked at his teammate and the other man on the floor. Shiro nodded and with Lance’s help got to his feet once again.
“Sorry. Lost my balance,” he muttered with his gravelly voice.
“No problem. Think you can make it?” Lance said worried.
“Great,” he said and they headed for the door again. “Then let’s head for the hangars.”
Shiro’s arm darted forward and grabbed onto Lance’s. Keith stopped dead in his tracks and looked back at the older man, as did Lance after a short glance to his arm, where Shiro still had a hold on him.
“Wait,” Shiro said, “why the hangars?”
Lance looked at Keith with a confused look and then back at Shiro. “To escape, of course.”
“No,” Shiro said and tightened his grip. Lance winced slightly under the pressure.
“What? But you said you wanted to get out.”
“Yes, but I won’t leave without Shiro.”
The next few seconds felt like an eternity as the quiet stretched on and on until Shiro’s words finally sunk in.
Lance was, once again, the first one to find his words. “What are you talking about? You’re Shir-”
“No!” Shiro yelled and his voice echoed through the hallway. He let go of Lance’s arm and rubbed his temple. “I- I’m…” He shifted his confused gaze between Lance and Keith until the floor won his interest. After a while he looked back up at Lance, all confusion gone and replaced with tenacity. “I’m not important. But I will not leave without Shiro.”
“I-I don’t understand. You’re Sh-”
“You don’t have to understand. You want to get me out of here, right?” He looked at them both, jaw set and with an expression that held no room for discussion. Almost like their Shiro always did. Almost.
Maybe he was still in there. Or maybe this wasn’t even their Shiro. He kept talking as if he wasn’t. As if the other one was…
“Then we’re going to get Shiro or I’m not leaving. I won’t leave him here.”
“Okay.” Keith finally found his voice once again and was now more determined to do what his mentor – or this thing – asked than ever before. If what he said was true, and there was another Shiro on this ship, then this would make sense, somehow… maybe. Because this couldn’t be his Shiro. This wasn’t his friend or the head of Voltron. This was just some sick joke. This couldn’t be Shiro.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes, I can feel him.”
“Alright, lead the way.”
“Wait, Keith. You can’t be serious,” Lance said incredulously and stepped between Keith and Not-Shiro.
“If he says, that Shiro is on this ship, than we need to find him,” Keith said.
“I can’t believe you right now! Shiro is right here!” He pointed at Not-Shiro. “I know this is confusing and it hurts, but we need to leave, now. We can look for a solution at the castle, like Pidge said. But-”
“No, Lance. We will follow him to Shiro and then we leave this ship and not a second earlier.” Keith pushed Lance aside and looked at Not-Shiro. “Let’s go, now.”
Not-Shiro nodded and dashed forward. Keith followed a few steps behind and heard Lance do the same only a few seconds later, mumbling quietly under his breath about how he could not believe this and that they were all crazy.
Well, Keith was not the one who mistook this thing for Shiro, so let’s see who’s crazy once they found the real Shiro.
Because he sure as hell wouldn’t leave this ship without him.