“Pidge, change of plan. We need to make a small detour.” Keith had his comm activated and filled in his other teammates, while he followed Not-Shiro through the hallways.
“What? We don’t have time for a detour,” Pidge insisted.
“Then we need to make some time.”
“You can’t just- dammit.” There was a crackle through the comm’s line and he could hear shouting. “They’ve found us. Hunk and I need to get away. I’ve got the map, so tell when you’re ready and I’ll lead you out.”
Pidge barely managed to end her sentence as the alarms started blaring.
“Dammit,” Keith mumbled. “How much further?”
“We’re almost there. He’s close.” Not-Shiro turned right once again and suddenly dashed forward. When Keith rounded the corner and stepped into the hallway he saw Not-Shiro charging at a sentry. He evaded one shot of their blaster with a long somersault and used his momentum to quickly get up again. With another step he was at the wall and jumped high. He pushed away from the wall with his left foot and came down on the sentry with all his weight, grabbing its head with his left hand and slamming it into the ground. He quickly grabbed the blaster from the destroyed sentry and moved onward without hesitating for a second.
All of this happened in the brink of an eye before Keith could even think about helping him or Lance could raise his bayard. He’d attacked fast and precise, using his surroundings to his advantage. Just like the real Shiro.
However the Galra made this thing and whatever it was, he had to admit that they’d done a fine job at copying his friend. He’d almost mistook him. Almost.
They stopped in front of another massive door. Without another word Not-Shiro raised his blaster and shot the control panel next to the door. It open a few inches and then stood ajar. Not-Shiro tossed the blaster on the floor and grabbed the door with his now free hand. He planted his feet on the floor in a steady stance and then pulled. His arm and legs started to tremble under the strain when the door finally started to move, inch by inch.
The hot feeling of a too close laser on Keith’s cheek made him look up and he saw the sentries heading their way.
“Crap!” Lance said through gritted teeth as he raised his bayard and returned fire.
Keith immediately took action and summoned his shield, big enough to cover both himself and Lance. Lance’s protection was now the most important thing. He could dash forward and discard of the enemies in close combat, but that would leave Lance wide open with no opportunity to take cover. So he stayed put and watched as Lance’s shots took down one sentry after another.
Next to him he heard the sharp intake of a breath. When he averted his gaze from the fight in front of him and looked to his left he saw that the door was now almost completely open. In front of the door was Not-Shiro, clutching his right thigh, his features scrunched up in a pained expression.
“Shiro, you okay?” Lance asked, eyes not moving from his targets.
“I’m not-” Not-Shiro started but was interrupted by another shot that hit the floor only inches from his feet. “I will get Shiro. Keep them busy,” he finished, seemingly assessing the injury as unimportant and quickly limped into the room.
Lance quickly moved and took cover behind the door, which finally gave Keith the opportunity to actively partake in the battle.
He dashed forward, shield still raised and activated his bayard. He ran straight into the first sentry and pushed him to the ground with some additional force of his jet pack. With one quick swipe of his bayard he cut through its metallic torso. One of the drones nearby raised their blaster and aimed for Keith’s head, but the Paladin ignored the threat, waiting for the familiar sound of a laser shooting through metal. When he lunged for the next sentry the former one, aiming for his head was struck down by one of Lance’s shots and slumped to the floor.
After a few more swipes and quick evasive maneuvers his bayard thrust through the last sentry’s middle. Keith turned around and made for the room Not-Shiro had disappeared in a few seconds prior.
Suddenly a loud crash erupted from the room. He heard glass breaking and the clattering of something metal falling to the floor. Panicked, he entered the room and stopped dead in his tracks when he arrived at Lance’s side.
There were several pods, similar to the one they’d found Not-Shiro in, two rows in total each consisting of five pods. They were all empty, except for the one Not-Shiro was confronting. This pod’s pane had been destroyed, purple liquid flooding the rooms floor around it. Inside the pod was a body, also held upright by tubes and cables connected to its head, back and arms. Arms, plural this time. The body had two arms, but they were both of flesh and blood. There was also no scar in the persons face.
It was also not a man in the pod. It was a child.
Keith watched frozen in place as Not-Shiro carefully stepped into the pod and lifted the small body into his arms. He balanced it on his right shoulder and tried to prop it with the stump of his right arm. With his left he ripped out the tubes and cables. “I’ve got you, little one,” Not-Shiro muttered, as he shifted the child to his left side and held him securely with his one arm. The child stirred and lifted one of his arms up in Not-Shiro’s tunic, holding on to it. The adult turned back to the two dumbfounded Paladins and walked towards them, still limping a little bit. “We can go.”
“Wait, what? B-but that’s… That’s a child. That’s not-” Lance stuttered before he seemed lost for any more words and fell silent. Not-Shiro looked at him with a confused look.
“What are you talking about? Of course, it is a child. What did you expect?”
What they’d expected? ‘A grown man, with a prosthetic arm, a scar across the face, an unmistakable white tuft on his head and some idea as to what the hell was going!’ is what Keith wanted to yell at the irritated man standing opposite him, but he couldn’t manage to make the words leave his mouth. Instead he stared at the small child, still frozen.
He wore the same prisoner garb as Not-Shiro and the small hand that clutched the fabric of the older man’s tunic trembled slightly. The short hair was black except for the white bangs, that almost reached the boy’s eyebrows.
He looked like Shiro, a younger, healthier version of him, but this was still wrong. It was wrong on a completely different level than it was with Not-Shiro. This was a child, a boy, barely older than four or five.
Keith stared at the child, trying to process what he saw, but no matter how he tried to make sense of this, he couldn’t. This wasn’t Shiro. And the one carrying the child wasn’t Shiro either.
He could only repeat one question in his head again and again. Why? Why did he never succeed? Why did he always fail, no matter how hard he tried?
With a crackle their comms came to live and the two Paladins were shaken out of their shock. “Guys, you really need to get out of there now! This is really not looking good,” Hunk’s nervous voice echoed through the line.
“Guys?” Pidge asked. When she got no answer she repeated her call with more force and honest concern in her voice. Lance collected himself first, just like he had the past few times in the last hour or so.
Keith really didn’t know how he did it.
“I- yeah. A-alright,” Lance stuttered in the comm and then jolted Keith out of his own trance. “We need to get going.”
Keith blinked a few times and finally tore his gaze from the child to look at Lance. The other Paladin looked as sickly as Keith felt.
He gave the other a shaky nod and then turned to the door to look down the hallway.
Calm down, he told himself and focused on the next few steps. They needed to get out of here in one piece and get back to the castle and then, as Lance and Allura had said, they could focus on the problem- problems in the room behind him.
He had hoped that after this mission the weight of being the leader, of having to make sure that each mission went smoothly without any major accidents, would finally be lifted from his shoulder. That he could return to being the Red Paladin, return to his Lion.
But that was not the case. In fact he somehow got the bad feeling that this weight would never be lifted from his shoulders until this war was over or he would fail in the worst way possible. And in hindsight of his record as of late, the latter seemed more probable to him.
No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t understand why Shiro chose him to be his successor.
As he looked down the hallway he could already hear the approaching footsteps of the sentries.
“Pidge, we could use some guidance now,” he said into his comm and turned to run the other way, away from the footsteps.
“On it,” came her quick answer, followed by instructions to turn left or right or keep straight on.
Once more in the heat of battle, Keith shut out all distractions that threatened to slow down his reaction time or reflexes. He fought his way through dozens of enemies, leaving behind hallways full of scrap metal, fully immersed in his mission that he almost missed it when Not-Shiro slowly fell behind. In a second of calm he dared to throw a quick glance over his shoulder and saw the boy stirring awake and slowly opening his eyes. When the duo came to a stop Lance nearly ran into them, avoiding them by mere inches.
“Hey, we need to keep moving,” Keith called back at them, barely able to restrain the quiver in his voice. They couldn’t lose any more time. The others had already risked enough because of their delay for this… kid.
At hearing his voice the boy perked up and turned to look at him. His eyes were the same dark color as Shiro’s. The same grey and the same glint.
Keith’s breath was caught in his throat and with every step getting closer to the two of them his eyes widened more and more. They were glistening with determination and confidence. Just like the ones he remembered and unlike the ones Not-Shiro had. But how was this possible? This was a boy, a small child. Why did he have Shiro’s eyes? Shiro’s glint?
He didn’t know how or what the Galra had done, but they’d done an even better job with this child than with the adult. Maybe older and with the same appearance as the Shiro that disappeared, he would’ve mistaken this one for the real one. At least that’s what he’d thought until the boy opened his mouth.
The small voice echoed through hallway and for a short moment Keith forgot how to breath.
He knew his name. Why- how did this kid know his name?
“Are you okay?”
Keith jolted awake at the question but before he could even think to give the boy a verbal answer, Not-Shiro spoke up. The older man’s raspy voice stood out against the soft and high voice of the kid. “You know him?”
“Of course,” the boy said and then looked at Lance, pointing with a finger at the other Paladin, “and that’s Lance.” He looked up at the surprised face of Not-Shiro. “You mean, you don’t know them?”
Not-Shiro gave a hesitant shake of his head before the exchange was interrupted by a second blaring alarm, followed by a deep growling voice. “Initiate code Z. Commencing lockdown.” The voice dripped with almost palpable menace, although Keith was sure he still heard something akin to unease in its tremble. “The subject is not to be harmed or leave this ship under any circumstances.”
The conversation from before is immediately forgotten as the doors around them echo with audible beeps and were locked. “Wait. Lockdown?” Lance threw panicked looks between Keith and Not-Shiro, before his head snapped back and with a horrifying realization it became clear to them what the Galra had meant by ‘lockdown’.
They heard a loud metallic screech echoing through the hallway from behind and in front of them, as the walls slowly revealed massive metallic doors, closing at alarming speed.
“Crap,” Keith said barely louder than a whisper before he turned around and ran as fast as he could towards the closing door. The other two followed his example without him needing to say a word, racing next to him. As they ran, there was only one thought racing through Keith’s mind. Faster! But with every step they made towards the closing door it became clear that no matter how fast they ran, no matter what they’d do, they wouldn’t make it.
With a loud thud, the door closed, mere seconds before they reached it.
Keith panted, trying to catch his breath and let all of his frustration out on the door, banging against it with all his power. “Dammit!” he roared and his cry echoed through the now closed off hallway. From the corner of his eye he could see the boy in Not-Shiro’s arms flinching slightly at his outburst. On his other side stood Lance, who regarded the door with growing dread and continuously mumbling away on himself.
They were trapped. There was no way out. No vent, no window, nothing. Not from inside at least.
He calmed his breath and activated his comm once more. “Pidge, we’re trapped. We need you to get us out.”
There was a long silence, before he finally got an answer, but it was not Pidge who responded. “You are what?” Allura’s tense voice rang through the line.
“I can’t get you, Hunk and I are on our way back to the castle to get the Yellow Lion. They launched their fighters.”
“I’m on my way.” Keith could hear the faint sounds of a battle echoing through the comms, almost drowning out Allura’s voice.
He wanted to stop her, to tell her to wait for Pidge and Hunk, but before he could form the words his visor suddenly glided shut. He took a deep breath and realized with horror how hard it had been to breathe before. He’d barely noticed his breaths coming faster and more shallow, but now, that he could breathe normal again he looked around at his companions.
Lance’s visor was closed as well and he looked back at Keith with a confused expression, quickly replaced by realization, as he came to the same conclusion as Keith.
The Galra were draining the oxygen off the room, waiting for them to pass out.
The two Paladins swirled around to the other two with them in the room. The duo that each only wore a prisoner garb and had nothing like their helmets to protect them from hypoxia.
Not-Shiro was leaning heavily against the wall, his face damp with sweat and his already pale skin seemed to lose even more color with every second. In his arm Keith could see that the boy was in a similar state. He clung onto Not-Shiro’s tunic as if his life depended on it, his face tucked into the older man’s neck and breathing way too fast.
The last bit of strength seemed to leave the adult and he slumped to the floor, losing his grip on the boy. He slowly slid down from Not-Shiro’s lap, but held onto the fabric even as his small hands started shaking.
The two Paladins were at the other two’s sides immediately.
“Shiro!” The name slipped past his lips before he even realized it, but he didn’t care. No matter how many times he’d told himself that this wasn’t his Shiro, this man still had the same face as his friend and every vein in his body screamed, seeing him like this. “C’mon, you need to hold on!”
Next to him Lance was talking to the boy, trying to reassure him that everything was going to be okay. But looking at the Red Paladin's face Keith knew that he wasn’t even convincing himself with his words.
Keith looked back at Not-Shiro and saw the small trembles that ripped through the man’s body every few seconds. With a precarious hand Keith reached out and took the other man’s in his. It was trembling slightly and lay completely limb in his own. At the contact Not-Shiro slowly dragged his head higher so he could look Keith in the eyes through half-lidded eyes. To Keith’s surprise his eyes weren’t as empty and tired as before. There was something else in them. Fear and sadness, but also something akin to assurance. The trembling hand squeezed his own before going limp again and Not-Shiro’s gaze drifting away once more.
Keith looked at the man, stunned. The indication of what the other wanted to say was clear to the Paladin. Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.
How could the man think of reassuring Keith when he was lying on the floor, slowly suffocating with no escape.
“Guys, you need to hurry! They’re draining the oxygen off the room and Shiro and the kid don’t have a helmet or mask to protect them,” Lance said through the comm with a shaky voice, accompanied with no small amount of panic.
“We’re on our way,” Pidge exclaimed.
“What kid?” Hunk asked and Keith could practically see his confused frown through the comm.
“We’ll explain later, just hurry!” And with that Lance suddenly took off his helmet and placed it on the kid’s head. Time seemed to slow down as Keith watched in horror as Lance’s breath picked up in speed and became shallower at an alarming rate.
“What the hell are you doing!” Keith exploded, grabbing Lance’s arm and shaking his friend as if trying to cast out the demon or whatever had possessed him to do something this stupid.
“He’s jus’…a kid,” Lance managed between quick breaths. “Needs it more…than me.”
Keith opened his mouth to retort and tell him what utter nonsense that was, but the kid beat him to it.
“No!” His small voice sounded ragged and strained, “Take it back, Lance. You need it more than I do. I can handle it. Please!” The last word was accompanied by a quiet sob and Keith realized that the kid was crying. There were tears streaming down his small cheeks. The boy reached out with his small hands and shook Lance vigorously, repeating his plea again and again. But when Lance only gave him a weak smile the boy seemed to understand that the Paladin wasn’t going to take the helmet back. The boy lifted his hands and tried to take the helmet off himself, but his small fingers fumbled uselessly and slipped off the material without success. He only stopped at his unrealizable task when a trembling hand lifted to rest on the helmet.
Not-Shiro looked at the kid with a similar expression as the one from before. And for some reason the boy calmed down. The sobs and hiccups lessened and soon enough abated completely. The two continued to look at each other as if having a silent conversation nobody else was hearing, when the ship suddenly started to shake.
Keith jolted up and whirled around to look at Lance again. The Red Paladin had a tired gaze, but there was still some alertness behind it and it told Keith that hadn’t imagined the rumbling of the floor. But what-
“How did she get out?” echoed Pidge’s panicked voice and only now did he notice the heated exchange the others had over the comms.
“She opened the hangar doors on her own,” answered Coran.
“Does that matter right now? What is she doing?” Hunk retorted.
“She’s charging at the ship,” Allura exclaimed.
“What’s going on out there?” Keith interrupted. They didn’t have time for any distractions. Not while Lance and Not-Shiro were slowly losing consciousness and if the Galra wouldn’t stop, they could soon be dead.
“It’s the Black Lion, she’s-”
The rest of Pidge’s sentence was drown out by a loud explosion as the wall opposite to Keith suddenly burst open and revealed the metallic mouth of the Black Lion. Keith stared at the gaping jaw before he grasped what had happened.
The Black Lion had come to rescue her Paladin. And for some reason he had the distinct feeling that she wasn’t here for him.
He quickly turned back around and saw that Lance and the boy were also looking at the Lion in shock, while Not-Shiro seemed to be on the verge of fainting. He grabbed the older man’s arm and flung it over his shoulder. Before he rose he threw the boy a resolute look and spoke, “Get inside, now!”
The boy hesitated and threw Not-Shiro a worried look, before he complied and headed towards the Lion. Lance stood wordless and grabbed Not-Shiro’s stump and helped Keith to lift the man.
He was about to protest and tell Lance to follow the boy inside, but the Red Paladin beat him to it.
“I’m okay. Just need to get to the Lion… right?”
Keith gave a disapproving grunt, but didn’t say anything while the two of them entered the Black Lion’s cockpit.
They had barely laid down Not-Shiro when the Lion already closed its mouth and started to move.
While Lance, the boy and Not-Shiro stayed in the back of the cockpit, Keith advanced to the pilot-seat in the front and sat down with a pant.
“Guys? We’re in the Black Lion, we’re safe.” A wave of relief rushed through him through their bond before he even heard the others’ shouts of joy.
“Time to get out of here,” he said and maneuvered Black towards their checkpoint. “Coran, prepare the infirmary.”
“Already done, Number Four,” came Coran’s quick response.
He could see the other Lions fast approaching his location, outrunning the Galra fighters and dodging their attacks. Within minutes the Galra were out of sight and Keith heaved a sigh of relief when the castle finally came into view.
They’d really made it and judging by the Black Lion’s reaction he may not have failed as much as he initially thought, even if he still had his doubts.