With the number of times they’ve been separated and subsequently brought back together, Keith would have thought their reunions would become easier. He supposes they might, if this one wasn’t shrouded in Keith’s intense guilt.
Shiro should have been home months ago. Keith should have known Shiro wasn’t home, despite all evidence to the contrary. Keith should have been there with him, to spend time with him, to realize it wasn’t Shiro . As soon as he realized, he should have been out there, looking for him, finding him, and bringing him home.
So many things he should have done, and all he has is the things he didn’t.
He knows who it is as soon as he hears the knock on his door. Shiro’s the only one who would ever come to his room anyway, but he’s also the only one Keith has been avoiding like hell the past few weeks. Keith knew Shiro would give him his space for a little while, but they’re too much a part of each other to maintain that distance for long.
“Keith? It’s Shiro.”
How could you possibly believe I’d think it was somebody else? Instead of answering, he presses the button that swooshes the door open, watching solemnly as Shiro takes a tentative step inside and hovers by the door. He doesn’t say anything, just waits for Shiro to start talking. Of the two of them, Shiro’s never been the one who can’t find the words when he needs them.
Words like I miss you.
Words like I need you.
Words like I love you.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” he begins without preamble, and Keith looks down at his lap. Of course those would be the words he goes for. The ones that rip at Keith’s throat like claws, purple-furred and razor-tipped.
“I didn’t know what to say to you.”
Shiro goes for a warm smile, but it looks pained instead. “Come on, Keith, it’s me. You always know what to say to me.”
Not when it’s my fault, my selfishness, that kept you trapped in a Galra prison for a year. Again. “Things are different now.” Understatement.
Shiro’s slowly made his way deeper into Keith’s room, until he’s right next to the bed, but Keith’s words make him pause. “Are we different?” It’s barely a whisper, and Keith can’t stand to look at him, but he also can’t stand not looking at him.
Lifting his gaze, he meets Shiro’s worried eyes. “We’re as different now as we were between the Garrison and Voltron.” His throat aches. He doesn’t let himself think of the Garrison, of the time before Kerberos, the most different time of all. The moment that ship launched, their entire future changed. Keith doesn’t even remember what it was like to have faith, to know that of everyone in his life, Shiro was his sure thing.
He remembers what it was like to be in love, though. Vividly. Sharply. Painfully.
Regret flashes across Shiro’s face, and Keith’s done, he can’t look at him anymore. Swinging his legs off the bed, he lifts himself to his full height--which is still not anywhere near as impressive as Shiro’s, but he’s cut the distance by quite a bit--and gives his best attempt at a smile. It feels stiff on his face, plastic and awkward, and he knows he’s not fooling Shiro. He can’t even fool himself.
“I just wanted to give you some time to get readjusted to being back with the team,” he says, voice too bright, too artificial, and not convincing enough by far. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“Yeah, I have,” Shiro replies roughly. “I thought I lost you. Again.”
Panic flickers at the edges of his awareness, licking like flames through his brain, screaming run! Run, this conversation can’t go anywhere good! He gives Shiro a cautious, hesitant smile instead. “You’ve always got me, Shiro. No matter what.”
“Do I?” he murmurs wistfully, and Keith does an admirable job of not flinching as he guides Shiro out of his room. They part ways, with Keith making excuses about needing to train while Shiro watches him with a sad, bitter press of his lips. Keith isn’t proud of himself, but he flees.
If only he could run from himself so easily.
They dance around each other for awhile after that, Shiro trying to bridge the gap between them while Keith widens it. It hurts, violently, but he can't be Shiro's friend like nothing’s wrong when he hears Shiro's screams at night, worse than ever, and knows he's responsible for them.
Shiro doesn't talk about his second bout with Galra captivity, and nobody asks. They all pretend they don't hear him in the throes of his nightmares, and nobody comments on the shadows in his eyes. At least this time he didn't have to fight his way out, small blessing that it is. As soon as Keith realized the thing wearing Shiro's clothes and face lacked his heart and soul, he'd begged Lotor to find him, to extract him from whatever hell the Galra had thrown him in. Lotor brought Shiro home, a little more broken than before, but still Shiro.
The atmosphere on the Castle of Lions is so tense that the very first time Shiro gets back into Black and connects with her enough to fly, Keith decides it's time to go.
“The Blades have asked me to come back for another mission,” he announces one night at dinner, resolutely ignoring the looks of dismay and frustration circling him. “Shiro's ready to fly again, and they need me. I'm going to tell them yes.”
“Keith, you're a part of Voltron,” Allura protests, and Hunk nods vigorously.
“Yeah. You're our go-to pilot for Black when Shiro isn't here--or when he's here but he isn't Shiro. What if something happens to him again?” he asks in a plaintive voice.
“Nothing’s going to happen to Shiro,” he counters sharply. “And I need to do something more than just wait around to play backup. I need to do something that matters .”
Lance makes a face at him. “Y’know, Keith, this is feeling like your usual selfish behavior.”
“Keith is anything but selfish,” Allura chides, frowning, and Lance's face falls.
Keith sneaks a peek at Shiro from under his lashes, and his heart twists at the raw hurt he hasn't bothered to try to disguise. “If Keith feels like he needs to go, then we need to let him,” he says, standing abruptly. “If you'll excuse me, please. I seem to have lost my appetite.”
Keith knows better than to follow Shiro, to seek him out when it won't end in anything but a fight. He wouldn't, if he weren't leaving in two days.
For a minute after he knocks on the door, he doesn't think Shiro will let him in. Then the door snicks open and Shiro stares at him, stonily silent.
“I’m not doing this to hurt you.” It's all Keith can think to say, and he knows it's not enough. Nothing he says ever is.
“It doesn't matter, does it?” The words are dismissive, almost callous. “You're leaving, and how I feel about it is irrelevant.”
“I'm not needed here, Shiro!” he shouts, regretting the outburst almost instantly, but stubbornly refusing to take it back.
Shiro's eyes burn. “ I need you!” His voice is low, wrecked. “I always need you.”
“That's the problem,” Keith grits out. “You need me, and I can't be there for you. I can't protect you.”
“What are you talking about?”
Keith's voice cracks when he spits out, “You spending another year on a Galra prisoner ship!” He takes in a shuddering, liquid breath as he fights back a sob. “It's all my fault!”
Shiro's voice is puzzled when he says, “My captivity wasn't your fault, Keith. That was all on Zarkon and Haggar.”
Collapsing onto the edge of Shiro's bed, Keith rubs at his face wearily. “I wasn't here when that imposter took over. I wasn't here long enough to see it wasn't you. I was off with the Blades, and you were being tortured, and I could have helped rescue you a lot sooner if I had just been here .”
Shiro sinks down onto the bed with him, one heavy hand settling on Keith's shoulder. “You did what you needed to do, Keith. I don't blame you for that.”
“I do,” he mumbles bitterly.
Shiro squeezes his shoulder. “You’re the reason I’m home,” he reminds Keith quietly. “Maybe it took longer than you think it should have, but I’d still be there if you hadn’t figured it out and sent Lotor in after me. You did protect me.”
Wiping furiously at his eyes, which sting with insistent tears, Keith turns his gaze away. “I hear you at night,” he says, and though his voice is barely audible, it's enough for Shiro to hear, judging by his almost imperceptible flinch. “It's a constant reminder that if I hadn't abandoned the team, you wouldn't have suffered for so long. I can't forget that, Shiro.”
“So you're going to deal with it by leaving again?” he demands angrily. “You're going to do the same thing you blame for my prolonged captivity? Do you not see the irony in that?”
“You're home now, Shiro. I don't need to be here to save you anymore.” He doesn't meet Shiro's intense gaze. There's something so final about the conversation, as though everything that's held them together is crumbling into dust. He doesn't want to see that Shiro feels it, too.
“Then go.” Shiro’s voice is harsh, cold, and Keith thinks it would break his heart, if it hadn’t already been broken too many times to put back together.
It’s only been a week, and Keith is already homesick, which is strange. The Blade’s base has felt more like home than Voltron had; it’s one of the few places he’s ever genuinely felt like he belongs. The Garrison was just a means to an end, he never fit in there. Shiro was the only reason he didn’t hate it with every fiber of his being. Voltron had given him a purpose after drifting for so long, but between Lance and Allura, he’d rarely felt comfortable enough to think of it as home.
The Blades welcomed him into their numbers, found a place and a use for him, but more than that, there’s a mutual respect. Keith knows what it’s like to have someone’s respect, thanks to Shiro, but this is different. This isn’t just a friend looking out for him and believing in him. This is his future.
Funny how the future that had been so full and certain now feels hollow and empty.
He glances over to see Krolia--he still can’t seem to think of her as Mom--studying him curiously. “Nothing.”
“Bull,” she snorts, sounding like the aforementioned animal. “You’ve been moping ever since you got back.”
“I didn’t leave under the best of circumstances,” he admits, after a few beats of silence. “I wish I could fix it, but I can’t.”
She shrugs. “Then put it out of your mind. If you can’t fix it, there’s no use dwelling on it.”
He debates the wisdom of continuing the conversation. He could agree with her, put it out of his mind for now, and pretend like everything is fine. Or he could be honest with his mother. “I would, if it was anyone but Shiro.”
The sudden change of tone, the knowing lilt to the single word, makes him blink. “What, ‘oh’?”
“I thought you made a mistake that was bothering you. I didn’t realize it was lovesickness.”
The smirk in her voice makes him bristle. “I’m not lovesick. We just had a fight, and he’s my best friend.”
“Bull,” she repeats. “You forget the Blades monitor everything. I’ve seen the footage of your Trial, there’s no way that man is just your friend. The two of you look at each other like your father and I looked at each other.”
Keith makes a face at her. “You forget I have no memories of you and my father together,” he snaps back. “I wouldn’t know how you looked at each other.”
Krolia’s grin falters, and her mouth tightens as her shoulders pull back. “I didn’t leave you because I wanted to,” she tells him, tense. “I loved you. I love you. Always have, always will.”
“Can we not talk about this right now?” he asks wearily. “I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind, and this is the last thing I want to add to the list.”
She nods. “I don’t mind giving you time to come to terms with the fact that I’m back in your life. But I refuse to give you up again without fighting for you, even if you’re the one I have to fight.”
He watches, bemused, as she turns and disappears from the room. There’ve been a lot of changes in his life, many of them bad. Despite his mixed feelings about Krolia’s abandonment and sudden reappearance, he recognizes that she’s one of the good ones. If not right now, then eventually.
Keith just wishes he could be that optimistic about Shiro’s place in his future, too.
She finds him again two days later, popping up in the door to his room without warning. He tenses, expecting another attempt at a mother-son moment, but her face is impassive. He’s immediately suspicious.
“Come with me.” She gives no explanation, and while he instinctively wants to balk and demand one, life with the Blades has taught him to obey orders without question. With one notable exception.
Shiro is the exception to every rule.
He slips his hood on as he follows her down the hall, keeping his mask off until he knows whether this is a mission or an intervention. If it’s an intervention, I’ll probably put the mask up anyway.
Krolia pauses outside what passes as a lounge and waits for him to fall into place beside her. “I understand that on Earth the phrase ‘I told you so’ is considered condescending or antagonistic, but it’s appropriate now, so. I told you so.”
Keith doesn’t have time to even consider what she means before the door whooshes open and she’s gone. Instead of facing an intervention, he finds himself facing Shiro.
His heart lurches. He’s not sure if it’s joy at seeing the man he loves, or fear of what it means that he’s here.
“Shiro.” He takes a tentative step forward, joy fighting to take control and ignore how they parted, pushing him to eliminate both the physical and emotional distance between them. “What are you-”
Shiro’s arms around him cut him off, and Keith isn’t sure how he ended up in them, whether he ran to Shiro without realizing it, whether Shiro came to him, or if they met in the middle.
“Come home, Keith, please,” he whispers, and Keith’s surprised to feel the words rumbling against the skin of his neck rather than hearing them clearly. Shiro’s lips press to the point where his jaw meets his throat, and it takes a beat for him to recognize that his hood must have fallen back in his haste to reach Shiro. “I never should have let you go. Not like that.”
It’s hard to breathe; he has to tell his brain to inhale, to allow his lungs to expand, and he has to do it several times before he can catch his breath and pull back together the focus that splintered as soon as Shiro spoke. “This is my place, Shiro. I belong here.”
“You belong with me ,” he rasps fiercely. “I’ve lost too much time with you and I don’t want to lose another minute. Please come back to Voltron, Keith. We need you, but more than that, I need you.”
His heart wants to take wing and soar through the endless expanse of space, dipping and spinning and diving, like the lions when they’re at their most playful, but Keith has always dealt in reality. “You were so angry at me when I left. What changed?”
“I was afraid,” Shiro admits, shame-faced. “We keep losing each other, but I'm not going to be the reason we lose each other for good. When I was with the Galra, both times, my memories of you are what kept me sane. My need to get home to you is what kept me strong when I wanted to give up. ”
“You would never just give up,” Keith scoffs, but his heart is winning the battle, and his stomach is doing flips and a grin keeps trying to tug at his lips. This is a serious moment , he scolds himself, but it doesn’t have much of an effect.
“Maybe not, but I thought about it. I'm not ashamed to admit there were times when I was weak.” Shiro cups his face in both hands, smiling down at him tenderly; one soft thumb rubs along the wet curve of his bottom lip, a gentle tug that pulls it down into a pout. “But it was the thought of never seeing you again that pushed me forward when the weakness was winning. I love you, Keith. You’re my other half, and I haven’t felt whole since the day my flight launched for Kerberos.”
Keith squeezes his eyes shut, breathing deep to get his emotions under control before he does something embarrassing like start crying the second he opens his mouth. As a delaying tactic, he tips his head until he’s leaning into Shiro’s feather-light touch, pushing the pad of Shiro’s thumb harder into his lip. Shiro’s mechanical arm slides down to his waist and tightens, pulling him closer, and he slips his arms around Shiro’s neck.
“My life was empty without you,” he says finally, eyes drifting open, catching his breath at the intense look in Shiro’s. “Even before the Kerberos mission failed, it felt like I was only half there. I wasn’t sad to leave the Garrison behind when they kicked me out. Once I heard you were… gone, there was nothing left for me there.”
“When I woke up in the Galra prison, you’re the first thought I remember,” Shiro tells him somberly. “Everything was a blur, the Holts, the mission, Earth… But not you. You’re the only part of my life that stood out, that kept me grounded. I’d been in love with you for a long time when I set foot in that ship, but I was too afraid to say something before I left. I didn’t want you to reject me, or try to let me down easy, and then have to carry that with me for the duration of the mission.”
Keith chokes on a watery laugh. Damn tears snuck up on him anyway. “I would never have rejected you. Not in any universe.”
“What about now?” he breathes. “Will you come home with me, Keith? Or will you send me back to the Castle alone?”
He clutches Shiro tighter, but doubt still lingers. “I don’t want to go back to a place I’m not needed,” he admits. “Voltron doesn’t need me anymore. With the Blades, I’ve at least found a home, and a mission.”
“Allura wants to step down,” Shiro tells him, and what? “Her focus is being pulled in multiple directions, and she’s needed more in matters of diplomacy and ambassadorship. Being a paladin in addition to that is wearing on her. Lance will go back to Blue, and you can be Red’s pilot again.”
His heart jumps. He can be a paladin again? He can go back and be useful? But… “I made a commitment to the Blades,” he says reluctantly, and Shiro’s expression morphs into a mixture of frustration and fear. “I can’t just leave them.”
“GO!” They both jump when Krolia’s voice thunders into the room. “Don’t waste this opportunity, Keith.” There’s a smile in her voice when she continues with, “Listen to your mother. We always know best.”
Shiro laughs a little. “She’s right, you know. You should listen to her.”
Keith can feel his lips curving up slightly. It’s strange, considering how unused to it he’s been over the last several months. “Maybe,” he teases, and holds his breath when Shiro’s eyes glint.
“You want me to convince you?” he murmurs, but before Keith can nod eagerly, Shiro’s lips are on his, drawing him in, drowning him. His hands find Shiro’s shoulders and clutch hard; Shiro’s hands are in his hair, tugging at the unruly strands and winding them through his fingers. It feels like every breath Keith takes begins and ends with Shiro.
Honestly, it always kind of has.