Even as he said the words, the concept of returning to Earth still seemed unreal. They had been gone for so long, longer still for him, factoring in the Quantum Abyss, but the prospect of returning made his stomach flutter unexpectedly.
He had found home in the stars. For so long, home was where ever Shiro was, and Keith was content to follow him wherever he led. Now, it had expanded to include his mother, someone he had never imagined meeting, and his wolf, another companion he had never expected.
But Earth… It surprised him that a simple word could stir such strong nostalgic feelings, despite the lack of anchors that remained on the planet itself. Maybe it was more nostalgia for what was familiar, for food he actually recognized, landmarks that held personal meaning, and sunsets that had watched him grow up.
He had put the idea out of his head; there were more important and urgent things to deal with now. It surprised him how badly he wanted to go back.
“We can’t go immediately,” he said, startling the others out of their celebrating.
As their faces fell, he saw them rein in their emotions, minds returning to more immediate issues. There was a time when they would have protested, demanding to know why not. Now, they were more practical, focused, ready to set aside their own desires to do what needed to be done.
They had all matured so much.
“Right,” Lance mumbled, disappointment lacing his voice. He inhaled deeply as he set his shoulders. “Right. The Lions aren’t the best way to transport anyone beyond their pilots.”
“We also need to get Shiro somewhere to rest and recover,” Keith nodded at Lance, acknowledging his point. “We all need it, too.”
“We’re going to need supplies,” Hunk added. “I grabbed what I could, but depending on how long it takes to get there, we may not have enough.” He paused, glancing around the group. “We do know how far Earth is, right? Do we even know where we are now?”
“It would be best if we find refuge somewhere safe,” Allura spoke up, frowning at the ground. “We need to take stock of the situation and prepare for the journey ahead.”
“What about the Olkari? Or the Balmerans? Can we make it to them?” Pidge asked, looking at Coran. “Personally, I’d prefer the Olkari. They have the capability to get us a ship that could carry the Lions as well as any supplies and passengers. Plus, they could make us something to replace Shiro’s arm.”
A heavy silence fell over the group as all eyes turned to the last sleeping paladin. Keith clenched his jaw as his eyes locked on the remains of the severed limb, his mind replaying the events that led to the desperate action.
“From what I remember, we’re not too far from the Olkari,” Coran said, his voice hushed in the still air. “Six or seven vargas at most. I’ll have to check our coordinates with the Lions.”
“We’ll have to lie low for a while,” Allura said, her expression hard. “News of Lotor’s disappearance will further destabilize the Galra empire. We no longer have any ties to the Galra.”
Once more, silence fell between them, weighing them down like a fog. Their situation was worse than they could imagine.
Keith pushed the feeling away. He had face difficult odds before; the entire battle ethos of the Blades was like tearing down a brick wall with nothing but knives and grim determination.
“The sooner we leave, the sooner we’ll get there.” Keith met everyone’s eyes, heartened to find each of them determined and ready. “Coran, can you hail the Olkari; let them know that we’re coming and that we’ll need medical facilities for Shiro. Go with Pidge in the Green Lion. Hunk, distribute the supplies you’ll think we’ll need for the trip to each Lion. Romelle, you can ride with the Princess. Does anyone need anything else?”
When no one spoke up, he nodded firmly. “Right. Let’s go.”
The paladins worked quickly and efficiently, each playing their part and assisting where they were needed. Once again, Keith was struck by how much they had grown, how they had matured in the short time he had been gone. They were each a far cry from the clueless teenagers thrown into an intergalactic war with no idea of what to do.
Krolia helped him carry Shiro’s sleeping form into the Black Lion. They settled him back in the pod, the only soft surface in the cargo hold. They left the cover off the deactivated pod. The wolf jumped up on the end, peering down at Shiro with his odd piercing eyes as his perched on the edge.
“Keep an eye on him for me,” Keith smiled slightly at the wolf, scratching his ears briefly. The wolf huffed once, enough confirmation for Keith. Krolia settled on a low crate and crossed her arms as she leaned back.
Keith spared one last glance at Shiro, eyes roving over the pure white hair, his slack face, more relaxed than he ever remembered, to the steady rise and fall of his chest, reminding Keith that he was alive.
Shiro was alive .
He turned away sharply as the thought caught in his throat, threatening to unravel his already tenuous control. He sat down and grabbed the controls, closing his eyes as he reached out to Black.
A low rumbled echoed through his head, both pleased and content.
“Everyone ready?” Keith called through the coms, inhaling a steadying breath as they all replied their affirmative. “Let’s go.”
A hand on his shoulder startled him out of his daze. Keith looked up sharply into the concerned eyes of his mother.
“You’ve done enough for now,” she said softly, her firm tone broking no argument. “You need to rest.”
Keith shook his head, trying to clear the haze that seemed to creep into the edges of his vision. He flexed his hands, suppressing a wince when his fingers protested, his muscles sore from the near constant use, wrapped tight around the controls.
“I will wake you when we get close.”
Keith slumped in his seat as the last string of his self control snapped. Exhaustion suddenly pressed on him like a physical weight, turning his limbs to lead. He dropped his arms to his side, his hands sliding loosely off the controls. After a moment, he rolled forward, bracing himself on the chair, silently grateful when Krolia helped him stand.
There was a time when he would have shrugged off her help, needing to prove he was capable of helping himself. Now, he had long accepted her steady presence, the two years together having brought them closer together. No words were needed between them, both prone to long stretches of silence. He was eternally grateful for their level of understanding; he didn’t think he had enough energy to speak.
Krolia released him as he passed into the cargo hold. His shuffling steps brought him to the edge of the pod, where a crate had been shoved close. Keith sunk down on the box and leaned on the pod, crossing his arms as he dropped his head, face turned to Shiro’s.
He felt the brush of the wolf’s tail on his face from where he was curled up, unmoved from his perch. Keith hummed, too tired to do more to express his gratitude, as his eyes slipped shut, his gaze locked on Shiro.
Keith woke with a gasp, his arm snapping out, reaching for a form that had slipped from his grasp. His hand smacked painfully against the hard armor of Shiro’s chestplate, and Keith inhaled a shaky breath, blinking against the sudden moisture that blurred his vision.
He was still here. Shiro was okay. He hadn’t let Shiro fall; he wasn’t lost.
Keith uncurled slowly, hissing as his body protested, every bruise, burn, scrape, and abused muscle making themselves known.
“Keith-” Krolia appeared in the doorway, her face unreadable. “I was just about to wake you. We’re about to approach Olkarion.”
“Okay,” Keith rasped with a grimace. He even sounded like he had been beaten into the ground.
“How is he?” Krolia asked, walking further into the room.
Keith shook his head, rolling his shoulders as he studied Shiro’s face. “I expect he’ll sleep for a while.”
She nodded, then stepped to the side. It was invitation enough to switch, and Keith walked stiffly from the room, pausing briefly in the doorway to glance back at Shiro, sparing a selfish moment to remind himself of his presence.
The following events were just a blur for Keith. The relief of landing on a familiar planet, of finally feeling safe among friends was a tangible thing between the displaced paladins. They had been on edge for too long, and the loss of the Castleship weighed heavily on everyone, especially so on Coran and Allura. They had lost their home, the last remaining thread that had linked them to their lost world. Despite the discovery of a pocket of surviving Alteans, the loss cut deep.
Shiro had been settled in the medical ward and cleared of any immediate danger. As battered and bruised as he was, all he needed was rest. In the meantime, the Olkari doctors pledged to begin work on a new prosthetic arm, fusing Altean and Olkari technology to complete the task.
The others quickly dispersed to their rooms, no doubt ready to pass out from the whirlwind of events. There would be time to sort out the consequences later. Now, they all needed rest.
Allura and Coran took more coaxing than the others, but in the end, they too relented. Romelle stuck close to Krolia, insisting she remain with her when she announced she was contacting the Kolivan and the Blades. Krolia had no objections.
Keith insisted he didn’t need anything, but the doctors had immediately latched on his battered state and insisted on treating his wounds. He had quickly relented, enough of a sign of his exhaustion than anything, and had been given a bed next to Shiro, both left in a room by themselves.
He drifted in and out of sleep, waking each time with a gasp, heart pounding against his chest, his dreams twisting into nightmares as memories of his fight with Shiro mixed with his deepest fears. Every blow echoed with possibilities, each block instead becoming a killing blow, sometimes from Shiro, sometimes his own. The clone’s words played over their fight, a melody of sharp words composed to cut at the core of Keith’s resolve, shredding his self confidence, allowing room for fear and doubt.
But the worst was the fall, the lurch of his stomach as Shiro slipped from his grip, falling out of reach, disappearing into the depths below. There were no words then. Only all encompassing silence as his unconscious form vanished.
Every time, he would glance frantically around the unfamiliar room until his eyes landed on Shiro, his own bed just beyond his reach. He found solace watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, the movement easy to trace against the thin medical shirt and blanket. Time lost all meaning in the short moments he remained awake. He instead tracked in the number of breaths Shiro took, the steady movement reinforcing his presence, that Keith had succeeded, despite the voices in his head saying otherwise.
Then, he woke to an empty room.
His chest tightened painfully, cutting off his breath as his stomach bottomed out. His sat up sharply, ready to tear the complex apart, Shiro’s name on his lips when a hand pressed against his chest.
“Be still,” Krolia’s voice cut through the roar of the blood rushing through his veins. Keith’s eyes snapped to her face, his eyes wide with unspoken fear. “They are repairing what remains of his arm,” she said clearly, her hand holding him firm. “Shiro is safe.”
Keith searched her face, finding only her steady assurance, and collapsed back on the bed, closing his eyes as he fought to control his roller coaster of emotions. Fear gave way to overwhelming relief, followed quickly by a surge of tears. His eyes burned as his throat closed, and he pressed the heels of his palms against them, determined to hold it together a little longer. Despite the time spent with her, he didn’t want to fall apart in front of his mother.
A gentle hand threading through his bangs wrenched a choked sob from him, renewing the burn behind his eyes. She brushed his hair back, then pressed a kiss to his forehead, and the dam broke.
He curled toward her, wrapping his arms around her waist as she sat down on the bed, pulling him close. He buried his face in her stomach, sobbing as she ran a soothing hand up and down his back, the other combing through his hair.
“I’m proud of you.”
Keith relaxed his hold, rolling his head on her lap. “What?” He asked, his voice thick.
“You have done so much in the fight against the Galra Empire. You are a paladin of Voltron, an important member of the Blade, and an incredible fighter.” Krolia smiled down at him. “You have grown into more of a man than I could have ever imagined.”
Keith closed his eyes, turning away to press his face against her leg. “But-” he croaked, shaking his head slowly.
“You saved the man you love.”
Keith froze, his eyes snapping open.
“Why does that frighten you?” Krolia shifted, forcing Keith to look up at her.
Keith could think of a thousand reasons to be scared, but he couldn’t voice a single one, the mere thought of Shiro turning away from him holding his tongue. The echo of the clone’s biting words rose in the back of his mind.
“Embrace it, little one,” She continued, reading the fear in his eyes as her own darkened in sorrow. “You have been given a second chance.”
Keith inhaled sharply as he realized what she meant. He untangled his arms as he sat up, then threw them around her neck, pulling her close as she gasped in surprise. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, finding his old grief echoed in her own.
She hesitated a moment, then wrapped her arms around him. “I am the one who is sorry. I didn’t know.”
They remained locked together in silence, each drawing strength from the other, no more words needed between them.
A heavy weight suddenly landed on Keith’s legs, and he pulled back enough to smile at the wolf, reaching out to scratch his ears. “Where did you come from?” He asked fondly.
A light cough at the door drew their attention. Romelle stood just inside, hands clasped behind her. “The Princess would like to speak with Keith.”
Krolia rose slowly, resting her hand on Keith’s shoulder. “You may let her in, Romelle. Thank you.”
Keith felt a surge of fondness for the Altean as he realized she had stood guard outside the door, allowing them a moment of privacy. He quickly wiped his eyes, drying his face with his blanket.
Allura swept inside, glancing briefly at Romelle. Relations between the two women had been tumultuous. Allura seemed torn between pure disbelief at her existence and a desperate longing to never let her out of her sights. For Romelle, Allura was just another Altean, one who had managed to stay outside the bounds of Lotor’s reach. She couldn’t quite grasp the depths of Allura’s fascination.
“Keith, how are you feeling?”
Keith straightened and cleared his throat. “Much better, princess.”
She smiled at him, her relief plain on her face. “That’s so good to hear. The others will be happy to hear as well.”
“Heck yeah, we are!”
Keith glanced behind Allura just as she turned, smiling as the other paladins filed into the room. Coran, Matt, Ryner and surprisingly, Kolivan trailed behind. He had a sudden urge to cover himself; he was sitting in a hospital bed in nothing but thin medical scrubs, a far cry from his usual uniform.
“I didn’t realize we were having a meeting,” Keith said, trying to hide his unease.
Kolivan marched through the group until the reached Keith’s bed, then extended his arm out to him. Keith blinked in surprise before matching him, wrapping his hand around Kolivan’s forearm as the Galra’s hand engulfed his own. “It is good to see you are in one piece. Excellent work on your mission.”
Keith inhaled sharply, then nodded. “Thank you.”
Kolivan nodded once, then released him, stepping back to turn to the rest of the room.
“We have so much to tell you!” Pidge said, her eyes shining with excitement. “We wanted to tell you and Shiro at the same time, but the surgery is taking longer than expected.”
Keith’s stomach did an odd flip as Krolia’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
Pidge quickly shook her head, adding her hands for emphasis. “It’s nothing to worry about, really. It’s just that the Olkari haven’t worked with Galra tech quite like that, so they’re taking their time.”
Keith closed his eyes a moment, replaying the words inside his head, then turned his attention to Allura. “Why are you all here?”
“First of all, the Olkari are finalizing plans to create a replacement arm for Shiro. Pidge and Hunk have been working tirelessly with them to ensure it is exactly what he needs.” Allura smiled at Ryner. “Once their part is complete, I will infuse it with Altean energy.”
“A few more tweaks after that, Shiro will have a brand new, super cool arm!” Pidge finished, nearly bouncing in place.
“We’ll do some debugging, minor adjustments, run a few diagnostic tests,” Hunk said as he gripped his hands together under his chin. “Once we’re done, Shiro will have the best arm in the universe! Way better than anything the Galra could do.”
Keith bit the inside of his cheek, reining in his black thoughts. It may be the best prosthetic ever created, but it wasn’t Shiro’s original arm. The Galra had seen to that, and now Keith had forced him to relive the experience.
“That’s great news,” he said, hoping it didn’t sound as forced at it felt.
“Also, Slav said he will be able to reconstruct the Teladuv,” Allura said. “But it will take some time.”
Keith grimaced, but nodded. Even factoring in the construction time, it was still faster than trying to span the distance in their Lions alone. They would have more down time than they thought.
But, it would give Shiro more time to rest and recover, and hopefully, master the use of his new arm.
“What about the Galra?” Keith asked, turning to Kolivan.
“Sendak is consolidating his forces,” Kolivan said, a deep frown maring his expression. “The Flame of Purification is moving quickly to absorb or eliminate any factions that had shown their support to Lotor. There are still some pockets that are pushing back, but it won’t be long before they fall as well. Because no one knows for sure if Lotor is dead, there has been resistance to the call for another Kral Zera. There is little doubt that Sendak will take the mantle when it happens.”
“This whole thing is a mess,” Lance sighed, crossing his arms. “This is like trying to stamp out an ant hill.”
Keith looked down at his lap as he tried to put the pieces together. The first priority was Shiro. They needed him to recover so he could pilot the Black Lion. Then then needed to get back to Earth and get the plans from Pidge’s father, then actually build the castle, which would require materials and equipment, a small army of people, time they may not even have-
“If I may.”
The group turned to Romelle, standing apart from them. “My people are still trapped on the colony. I believe it is time that we break free from the bonds that Lotor created.” She squared her shoulders, bracing for any objections.
“Of course!” Coran said at once, startling Romelle. “We’ll need all the help we can get to build the Castleship. If they’ve been there as long as you say, then there must be some technology that has survived that we can use.”
“Imagine, Coran,” Allura said, her voice barely above a whisper. “An entire colony of Alteans.” She looked up at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “We’re not alone.”
Coran’s gaze softened as he looked at her. “It’s hard to believe, princess,” he said, matching her tone.
“They’re not far from here,” Krolia said. “They are being kept inside the Quantum Abyss.”
Silence met her words, then the room erupted.
“Did you say Quantum Abyss?”
“That place doesn’t exist!”
“How did you survive?”
“You could have been pulled into nothing!”
“Can I come too?!”
“What? It’s a place called the ‘Quantum Abyss?’ How can I not want to go?”
“If anyone goes, they have to follow my lead exactly.” Keith’s harsh words broke through the chaos, silencing the room. “One wrong move, and you will be torn apart.”
Hunk gulped dramatically, suddenly looking green. Pidge and Matt had matching expressions of excitement, while Lance looked thoughtful.
“Wait, quantum, as in quantum physics? Space time mumbo jumbo?” He asked, raising an eyebrow at Keith.
“Yes?” Keith answered warily, not sure what Lance was leading to.
“Is that why you look older?”
“When Mom and I went there, our ship was destroyed,” Keith said, ignoring the looks of concern. “We hitched a ride on the back of a space whale. It took us two years to reach the center.”
Lance gaped at him, for once matching the disbelief on everyone’s face. “Two years!?” He squeaked. “You spent two years on the back of a space whale? But you weren’t gone for nearly that long!”
Keith shrugged, glancing warily at Pidge and Matt’s expressions. They looked ready to pounce. “Time moves differently there.”
“Speaking of time, I think it’s time for everyone to leave.”
They turned to find an Olkari doctor standing in the doorway, hands on her hips. “My patients need their rest.”
Keith felt torn as two additional nurses wheeled in another bed, Shiro asleep under a pile of blankets. Relief coursed through him as he studied his face; his coloring was better, the disparity between his hair and skin not quite so shocking. He felt himself relax as he realized just how tense he had been since waking up alone. Having Shiro back in his sights did wonders for his peace of mind, but it awakened an awareness within him.
He was hyper aware of Shiro’s every move, every minute twitch -was it due to pain, an involuntary reaction, the stirrings of a nightmare?- everything that marked him as changed -his hair, his arm, his peaceful expression. What could Keith even say to him?
Everyone filed out obediently, but not without the paladins stopping at Shiro’s bed, each offering their support for their sleeping leader.
Finally, they were left in silence.
Keith wanted to move, to reach out and touch him, reassure himself that he was there, real, tangible and alive, but exhaustion pulled at him. The excitement of so many people at once had drained him more than he expected, and he reluctantly laid back, turning his face to Shiro.
He fell asleep to the sight of Shiro’s slumbering face.
Keith grit his teeth as pain surged through him, pulling on his arms as he strained to hold their weight. He clung to his knife, holding Shiro’s wrist in a death grip. He tried to pull him up, groaning with the effort, when his knife suddenly slipped, slicing through the metal.
His stomach lurched with the sudden drop, then just as suddenly, he jerked to a stop, wrenching a gasp from him just as he lost his grip on Shiro.
He stared in horror, releasing his hold on his knife without a second thought, following him into the abyss. He reached out, straining to bridge the distance, desperation clawing at his throat, every ounce of his being crying out to reach just a little further, just a little more-
A hand suddenly grabbed his, their grip tight in his own. His eyes snapped open, gasping for breath as he locked eyes with Shiro, his own laced with concern.
Keith looked between them to where their hands were clasped. He had reached out to Shiro in his dream, and Shiro had answered.
His vision swam, and he felt himself begin to shake. “Shiro?”
“Hey, I’m here. It’s okay.” Shiro began to rise, and Keith had a brief moment of panic.
“Don’t move!” He quickly rose, tearing his blanket off with his free hand in the process. He ignored Shiro’s startled expression, wiping his eyes roughly as he approached Shiro’s bedside.
“Keith, are you alright?”
Keith laughed harshly, the sound catching in his throat. Here he was standing on his own two feet in almost perfect health, while Shiro, who was still on the mend, was asking if he was okay.
“I’m fine,” he said, trying and failing to sound like it. “Just a bad dream.”
Shiro frowned. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Keith shook his head, taking the time to rein in his sudden surge of emotions. “How about you? How do you feel?”
Shiro opened his mouth to answer when Keith held up his free hand. “Be honest.”
He looked down at his lap, then glanced at their clasped hands. Keith squeezed his hand before releasing it, watching as Shiro pulled it to lay on his legs, palm up. “Physically, I’m… sore, tired, weak almost,” he began, his voice subdued. “I know how everything is supposed to work, but I feel out of sync.”
Keith bit back on the urge to reach for him, sensing Shiro’s need to get everything in the open without interruptions. He was silent for a long moment, his eyes distant as he absently reached for his shoulder, covering the bandages that were wrapped around the remains of his arm.
“I don’t remember everything; between his memories and my own, it’s hazy.”
The words lay heavy between them, catapulting Keith back to a moment from what felt like a lifetime ago, when Shiro had fallen from the stars, when Keith had spent his life searching for an unknown. A mind left in shambles, the results of an unending search, and a question of how to move forward together.
“I remember parts of the fight.”
Keith stiffened, bracing for the repercussions. He was still coming to terms with his nightmares. He knew, in his heart, that Shiro would never willingly hurt him, that every blow, every vicious word thrown like daggers came from Haggar, but it didn’t mean that he was immune to the damage.
“You managed to stop me-”
“Him.” Keith cut him off, glancing up sharply. “That was the clone, not you.”
Shiro met his gaze with a rueful smile. “I’m sorry he forced you into that position.”
Keith stared at him, confused by the unexpected turn. “What are you talking about?”
Shiro rolled his wrapped shoulder, wrenching a gasp from Keith. “Are you seriously apologizing to me for cutting off your arm? The arm Haggar was using to control his every action? For putting you through the pain of losing your arm all over again?”
“Keith, you should never have been in that position-”
“No, stop it. Enough .” Keith squeezed his eyes shut against Shiro’s startled expression, clenching his fists to hide the shaking. “I don’t understand why you’re not angry with me, why you don’t hate me for what I did to you!”
“Why would I hate you? You saved me.You found me.”
Keith shook his head, refusing to look up at Shiro’s soft words. He’d already fallen apart once today.
“Keith, look at me.”
Keith inhaled sharply and held his breath, forcing his jumbled emotions back from the edge, then opened his eyes slowly. Shiro watched him, his eyes soft, a fond smile gracing his lips. “You never gave up on me. Even at the end, you refused to let go.” He reached out and grabbed Keith’s hand, clasping it tightly as he pulled Keith forward in their familiar hug.
Keith choked back a sob as he wrapped his arm around Shiro, burying his face in his neck. Shiro pressed his own into Keith’s shoulder, his words piercing right through Keith’s chest.
“How could I possibly hate you?”
Keith held tightly, knowing that soon, they would be back in the fray, traveling across the universe on the next part of their mission to stop the Galra threat.
But for now, in this moment, this was all that mattered.