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Made of Nebulas and Novas

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Pidge is halfway through the sentence Guys, I see something on my— when the burst of light hits. The lions go careening to the side, tumbling through the cosmic dark of the stellar sky. Keith’s ears are ringing with surprised shouts and he does his best to right Black, his hold on the controls tight. He hears the wolf whine behind him as things center.

“Everyone okay?” he asks, twisting around to look over his shoulder and visually confirm the wolf isn’t hurt. He looks cranky but otherwise unscathed. Keith knows the feeling.

The others respond immediately, first Allura and Coran in Blue, then Romelle and Lance in Red. There’s a brief pause in which Pidge’s response is more the flurried sound of her fingers tapping way on her display as she calculates what happened before she remembers to confirm she’s alright.

“What was that?” is Hunk’s response, which isn’t an answer to the question, but he doesn’t sound injured so Keith counts that as confirmation.

“As far as I can tell it’s—” Pidge starts.

“Where’s Shiro?” Keith interrupts as a cold feeling of dread blossoms deep in his gut when the one specific voice he’s been listening for simply doesn’t answer. “Shiro?” he asks over the comms, but there’s no response. “Pidge, where’s Shiro?”

He can practically hear the panic in his voice but Pidge’s response is quick: “He was feeling lightheaded earlier. He said he was going to lie down until it passed.” He can hear her cringe in her voice. “Well, he’s probably awake now.”

Something jolts in Keith’s heart, both reassurance and despair on Shiro’s behalf. His hands itch and he glances at the wolf, briefly debating flashing over to green to visually confirm that Shiro is safe, that he’s uninjured, that he didn’t hit his head from the sudden barrel rolls the lions took.

“Uh, guys?” Hunk interrupts before Keith can launch into a full-fledged panic at Shiro’s absence and before he can rationalize actually porting between lions just for the sake of an irrational fear. Shiro is fine. Shiro is safe. He made sure of that. The last thing Shiro needs is Keith hovering like an overprotective mother hen.

Shiro’s been quiet over the last couple weeks, ever since returning to the living vessel of his body. Keith understands this and understands that Shiro needs time to feel like himself again. This does not, by any means, stop Keith from hovering, from shadowing him. He can be patient, though— Shiro taught him that. They have a long journey ahead of them and every day Shiro smiles a little easier, laughs a little easier, and his appetite is coming back.

“What is it, Hunk?” Keith says, and even he can tell how tight his voice is, his thoughts all jumbled up on Shiro.

“I think we have a problem,” Hunk says, slow. Keith’s heart starts galloping again, even though Hunk’s in Yellow and Shiro’s in Green. Still. He takes a deep breath as a moment later, the comms open up to video. Hunk points the camera on his gauntlet towards the cargo hold. It’s covered in wispy, purple hay they’d found on the last ice moon they’d landed on to fuel up the lions and take a few days rest in non-recycled air. The purple hay isn’t even that arresting, really— Keith’s kind of gotten used to it. No, what’s arresting is Kaltenecker grazing in the hay. She isn’t injured, but—

“Is that…” Keith hears Lance say.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s definitely a baby cow,” Hunk confirms.

The image on screen makes no sense to Keith, and yet there it is. It’s a calf with Kaltenecker’s mark on her haunch, undeniably her. But— it’s a calf. A legitimate, inexplicable baby cow. There’s no denying that this is supposed to be Kaltenecker, but the image just refuses to make sense to him. His brain is fried enough as it is, running on too-little sleep and too-little adjustment to leadership and the resounding, revolving thoughts of Shiro, Shiro, Shiro—

Keith’s hands tighten on the controls of the black lion.

“Pidge, get eyes on Shiro now,” he commands, his voice hitching up an octave in his distress.

“Already on it,” Pidge says and good because Keith’s already half out of his seat and reaching for the wolf to port over there himself.

He can hear her shuffling out of her pilot’s chair and heading to Green’s cargo hold. The camera on her gauntlet jumbles around as she runs, bringing it up— as if she knows that Keith isn’t going to be satisfied until he has eyes on Shiro. Sometimes, if Keith thinks about it for too long, he gets worried at how easily everyone’s able to read him now— or maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s proof that they’re getting closer, that they understand him.

The door whooshes open and—

And all the paladins look on as Pidge does indeed get eyes on Shiro—

Keith feels all the air rush out of his lungs, feels the moment when his body freezes up. Maybe he knew. Maybe that’s why he was so desperate in those moments leading up to the door’s opening. His eyes are glued to the camera’s view, his hand still reaching out absently towards the wolf, who steps forward and noses into that hand. He doesn’t teleport away, which is just as well. Keith is rooted to the spot.

Because on Pidge’s shaking screen is a young boy with soft, floppy black hair falling into his eyes. He’s tugging at the glove of his paladin suit, a blanket at his feet from where he’s taken a sudden tumble. He looks up when the door opens and he turns his head, blinking up at Pidge, looking dazed, confused, and a little guarded.

“Hello,” he says after the silence stretches for a beat too long, politely, and his voice is so much higher than what Keith associates with Shiro.

It’s wrong even in its familiarity and his heart hasn’t slowed down, the tension hasn’t eased from his shoulders, and every inch of his being is screaming at him to get to Shiro’s side and protect him.

“Will you please tell me where I am?” Shiro asks.

 

-

 

“Far as I can determine,” Pidge says later, once they’ve made an emergency landing on an asteroid large enough to have some atmosphere (it reminds him, only a little, of the space whale— and it makes him miss his mom all over again), running through the data she’s picked up on the displacement they ran through, “Whatever hit us is responsible for this. I thought at first it was a typical interstellar distortment, but clearly it had some time dilation in it in order to accomplish this.”

Keith has no idea how she can sound so calm as she scrolls through the streams of data she’s downloaded off Green’s database.

“I’ve encountered this before,” Allura says, “But that was while the Castle of Lions was going through a wormhole. And it kept happening again and again with Coran getting younger and younger each time.” She casts a long look at Coran, and they all remember the story, and Allura’s headache at a rapidly deaging Coran. “I know this isn’t exactly the same situation, of course. But…”

Keith feels grimly unsettled as he holds out one of Pidge’s sweatshirts to Shiro. He’s sitting there as the others talk around him, as if he isn’t even there. Shiro’s black paladin armor shrank down to accommodate Shiro’s new body, but Shiro’s right arm is totally exposed. A consequence, Keith supposes, from the body suit and armor burning away when Shiro’s arm prosthetic engulfed Shiro’s arm up to his shoulder blade— during their fight. The memories jar at the back of his mind and he quashes them down as Shiro reaches out to take the sweatshirt, unzipping it and tugging it on, lifting the hood up.

Shiro’s been politely quiet, sitting and watching them all beneath the hood’s edge, his feet barely touching the ground from the rock he’s perched on. He’s so small and still, Keith figures it’s easy for the others to forget he’s right there, but every inch of Keith’s being is hyper-focused on the Shiro sitting right there, hands folded in his lap, feet crossed at the ankles.

“His vitals are stable,” Hunk supplies helpfully, maybe sensing Keith’s mounting irritation and frustration. Keith had already long-confirmed that with his own display screen, but he won’t deny to himself that there’s reassurance in someone else saying it, too.

“Okay, but why did it only happen to Shiro?” Lance asks, and turns towards Kaltenecker as if she’s going to be insulted he didn’t include her. He’s led her out of the lion in order to graze, his hand reaching her bony shoulder now. She moos out around a mouthful of asteroid grass. “And Kaltenecker, too.”

“They were the only ones not in the cockpits,” Allura offers, biting her lower lip in thought. “The cargo holds wouldn’t be as well-fortified for such things.”

“Makes as much sense as anything else,” Coran agrees, because of course he’d back Allura up. Not that Keith disagrees with the theory— it’s the best they’ve got at this stage. He feels uneasy and agitated, ready to jump back into Black and figure something out, hunt down that light and force Shiro back to normal. He’s tired of the universe constantly toying with him, constantly throwing more and more at his body and spirit. Shiro had only just recovered, and now this—

Keith would throttle the entire universe if it meant that Shiro would be left alone for once.

“So how do we fix it?” Keith asks, crossing his arms as he addresses the group.

Nobody has any immediate suggestions. Pidge looks up from her readings with a thoughtful frown. “Working on that.”

Keith casts his eyes back over to Shiro. Shiro was already looking at him apparently because when their eyes meet, Shiro’s looking away quickly. Keith watches as Shiro flushes, staring down at his hands, and then pointedly looks elsewhere— back towards Coran, Allura, and Romelle standing together in an Obviously Alien grouping, Shiro’s eyes tracing their cheek marks and the points of their ears. And, yeah, someone really needs to explain this entire situation to Shiro. The fact that he’s accepting this as calmly as he is should probably be concerning. He’d followed Pidge out of Green and sat there while everyone talked all around him and— and shouldn’t he be putting up a bigger fight than this?

Shiro coughs.

It’s a small, little thing but Keith’s immediately stepping forward, kneeling in front of Shiro with concern before he’s even fully aware that his body is moving, even fully aware that he’s falling straight into Shiro’s orbit, as he always does, as he always will.

“Are you alright?” he asks, suddenly certain that they’ve left Shiro sitting out in the open of an alien asteroid with an unfamiliar atmosphere for far too long— this Shiro isn’t used to years in space, this Shiro isn’t used to space period and suddenly Keith is terrified.

Shiro in his normal body was only starting to recover from having his consciousness transplanted and now he’s here, like this, and Shiro’s body is young and (Keith remembers, like a painful lightning bolt) it’s also an ill body and Keith has no idea what it means for Shiro that he’s fallen through some sort of temporal displacement and come out younger again, if everything has changed, if—

“I’m fine,” Shiro answers immediately, politely, but his face completely devoid of any sort of the recognition or warmth he typically casts in Keith’s direction. In that moment, Keith never realized how warm Shiro’s voice could be when addressing him until its absence is thrown into his face. And it’s odd enough that it’s a young Shiro’s face looking at him without any of that shared history. But it’s also devastating— a Shiro that barely responds to Keith’s sudden presence, seems to recoil from the onslaught of Keith’s concern.

Keith knows very well about having walls up. Knows what it looks like. And Shiro’s are impossible to miss as he stares at Keith, suddenly in his space, suddenly asking about him.

He backs off immediately and looks up at Pidge. “How do we get him back to normal?”

“My guess?” she answers, apologetically, “and it really is a guess, but— we need to find what caused this and just— go through it in reverse? At the very least, we’re going to have to engage with a temporal displacement in order to get Shiro back to normal. I really need to get through all this data and figure out more. I… think the light might have been some type of creature and not just an energy pattern?”

“Or we can just wait for him to grow up again,” Lance says, sarcastic. “Since it’s going to take us three thousand billion decaphoebs to get home, anyway. Plenty of time to hit puberty all over again.”

“It’s not going to take that long,” Pidge sighs, weary of the joke that’s not really a joke.

“It’s not an option,” Keith says, doesn’t care if it’s a joke— they’re taking care of Shiro and they’re doing it now.

He can feel Shiro’s eyes on him and it’s disarming. Not that he isn’t used to Shiro looking at him— he is, of course— but rather, he isn’t used to a younger Shiro at all. He doesn’t really know how to approach this situation, but he is the leader and it’s not the first time they’ve encountered strange things out in space. He can handle this. He can figure this out.

Years ago, Shiro managed to deal with a younger, brattier Keith— he imagines the reverse can’t be too difficult. Shiro is Shiro, after all, and he hardly counts Shiro as a brat. How difficult can this be?

 

-

 

Pidge sets up the scanner again, but there’s too much distortion in the asteroid belt they’re in and she can’t get a long range on her readings. The day’s already away from them and Keith sees no point in continuing on until morning. He orders camp to be set up and everyone else seems to agree with the decision, which is reassuring— he really isn’t in the mood for any pushback today.

The asteroid is large enough that there’s grass, and a few shrubs scattered around. Hunk and Lance set out to hunt down some food while Kaltenecker and the mice graze. Pidge and Allura set to work trying to work out what’s happened to Shiro with more specificity than “space energy or space animal shenanigans?”, poring over Pidge’s data together.

Keith leaves to go digging through the lions for extra clothes or supplies or something that can be more comfortable for Shiro than the paladin armor, figuring he’d prefer clothes that were more similar to Earth styles (Shiro didn’t say anything, only responded with I’m fine when asked, which might as well be a non-answer when it comes to Shiro, regardless of age). What few supplies he and his mom packed up from the Castle of Lions for Shiro feature clothes much too large for the boy’s small frame.

When he returns, with a bundle of Pidge’s clothes in his arms (whose size looks like it’d fit Shiro’s current body best), it’s to Coran and Romelle explaining the situation to Shiro and— and geez, he should have thought about who he was leaving with Shiro before hurrying away to help him. Shiro looks confused, a little overwhelmed, maybe finally a little frightened. Maybe he was in shock before. Maybe he’s been freaked out this entire time and Keith wasn’t paying close enough attention to every change in Shiro’s face.

“What did you say to him?” he demands, and his voice comes out maybe a little harsher than he’d intended. Coran and Romelle look up, Coran pausing mid-sentence. They don’t seem insulted by Keith’s tone— maybe they’re too used to it now.

“He told me,” Shiro interrupts before Coran can speak, and Keith can see the small pinch of his eyebrows, that he’s annoyed— annoyed that people continue to talk about him as if he isn’t there. Keith immediately feels guilty, immediately feels chastised under such an intense gaze from his best friend who doesn’t remember he’s his best friend and— and it hurts. A little bit. Shiro sets his jaw— not as square as he remembers it, he still needs to grow into it— and continues, “that you haven’t all actually kidnapped me. I’m the younger version of your friend, turned back because of—” Shiro pauses and gives Coran a vaguely uncertain look, “—time magic in space? … And that they’re aliens.”

“That’s about it,” Romelle agrees with a small smile as Coran cants a warm smile towards Shiro that Shiro doesn’t return, studying Coran’s face with intense focus.

Coran continues to smile and says, “You’re a quick learner, Shiro. Always knew that about you.”

It takes a moment, but Shiro does finally smile back. It’s gentle, but too mature for such a young face.

Keith feels numb as he sets the clothes down beside Shiro. “You should change into these. Then I’ll answer any other questions you have. Are you feeling alright?”

Shiro looks at him. There’s definitely something like judgment in his eyes and Keith is not one to wither, especially not to Shiro, especially not to a young Shiro. But it’s so wholly different from any way Shiro’s ever looked at him— not even during their fight, when it was so clearly not Shiro in control. Here, it is Shiro. A Shiro that doesn’t know him yet.

Keith’s chest feels all twisted up with the surety that he’s blowing this, somehow.

“… Feeling alright, relatively speaking?” he corrects after a pause.

“I’m fine,” Shiro answers, the response automatic.

Keith knows the response well, knows the tone, knows the complete unchanging expression as he says it, as if that will somehow make it more convincing. How many times has he seen Shiro tell others he’s fine, tell him he’s fine, when it’s so clearly the opposite? Or maybe it’s only clear to him. Maybe—

Shiro takes up the clothes, seems to examine them for a moment, before he sighs and stands up from the stone he’s been sitting on. “Where do I change?”

Shiro points towards the Red Lion, closest to where the lions have parked to recharge. “Anywhere in there should be fine.”

He watches Shiro go, his heart all twisted up. He startles a little when Coran pats his back. He looks up at him as Coran says, “Don’t worry, Keith. We’ll figure out a way to help him. He’ll be alright.”

“Yeah,” Keith answers. Whatever he can do, he knows he’ll do it. That’s never been in question. No matter what, he’ll protect Shiro.

 

-

 

Lance and Hunk return with armloads of asteroid-grown food just as Shiro trots out of Red, dressed in Pidge’s clothes. It’s almost comical to see Shiro in one of Pidge’s sweatshirts and long shorts. Keith watches Lance and Hunk greet Shiro, who seems surprised to be so directly addressed, offering a small wave as Lance compliments his hoodie. Keith watches, and then looks down at the tablet in his hand, full of information from the Castle of Lions before its destruction, full of data about the surrounding universe, about Voltron, about the paladins themselves.

He debates, for a moment, removing data— the sensitive information, everything about what’s happened to Shiro since that day he left on the Kerberos mission. But just as soon as he thinks it, he knows he won’t do it, knows that Shiro’s eyebrows would pinch together, should he stumble into a section of restricted access. He figures Shiro will be more interested in the parts about the planets around them, the stars, the Castle of Lions and Voltron itself.

He opens the tablet to a section regarding the lions and strides over to Shiro as Hunk dumps what looks like some sort of seafoam green tuber next to the fire he’d built earlier with Coran.

“Here,” he says in lieu of greeting, holding the tablet out to Shiro.

Shiro pauses and looks up, still toeing at one of the green tubers with a thoughtful frown.

“What is it?” he asks, not reaching for it.

Keith keeps it held out between them— a peace offering, he realizes. He doesn’t want Shiro to keep looking at him suspiciously, doesn’t want Shiro to look at him like he’s an annoyance, like he’s just some other adult out there. His hand absolutely does not shake, but only because he white-knuckles his hold on the tablet.

“Information,” he says and his voice stays steady. “Everything Coran’s told you, but with more detail. I thought you might want to look through it— figure out who we are and what we’re doing here. Draw your own conclusions.”

There’s a pause, but then Shiro reaches out and takes the tablet, eyebrows pinching together in what is, frankly, a rather adorable rendition of Shiro’s focused look. He thumbs at the tablet and reads a few lines before glancing up at Keith.

“Thanks,” he says.

“Sure,” Keith says, faintly, and watches Shiro read a few more paragraphs.

 

-

 

Shiro reads for about fifteen minutes before he’s interrupted by Hunk and Lance. It makes sense: both have younger siblings, or younger cousins, or younger nephews and nieces, and so it’s easy for them to launch into a friendly discussion with Shiro.

“Hey Shiro,” Hunk says with a grin. “Want to watch me hit the back of Lance’s head with a potato?”

Shiro stares at him and Keith watches in quiet amazement as Shiro’s mouth twitches with an almost smile.

“Yeah,” he says, with perfect calm. “I do.”

Keith watches, bemused, as Hunk turns and pelts Lance in the back with a small seafoam green tuber, which thoroughly disrupts whatever joke he was setting up with Romelle. Lance hisses in surprise more than pain as Hunk bursts into laughter and Shiro threatens a smile.

It devolves very quickly after that. Keith sighs and takes up the task of peeling the not-potatoes, using the paring knife Hunk leaves behind in favor of thoroughly misusing his bayard to show off to Shiro. Both Lance and Hunk use their bayards to shoot whatever Shiro demands on them— mostly the tubers Keith doesn’t peel in time, and small rocks.

“I’ve never seen Shiro like this,” Pidge says beside him, looking surprised when she looks up from her datapad.

Keith nearly nicks his thumb with the paring knife— pathetic, really— when he looks up to watch Shiro, his bright laugh and surprised gasp whenever Hunk fires a lobbying shot into the air and it arcs down to explode a potato.

There’s a pot of boiling tubers on the fire now, thanks to Keith, and he knows that Hunk will eventually elbow him out of the way and take over, but he doesn’t mind doing this for now. It gives his hands something to do. It helps ease the ache that’s building up in his throat, watching a Shiro he’s never known have fun. He’s laughing. He’s acting like a kid. In all the years he’s known Shiro, and known his humor and teasing, known the moments when he isn’t the professional, mature adult everyone seems to want to force him to be, he hasn’t quite seen him like this— like a kid.

“Yeah,” he says softly, in response to Pidge, his expression undoubtedly fond. He can’t really find himself to care. Ever since he got Shiro back (again, his mind supplies unhelpfully), he’s cared less and less how obvious his expression is whenever he speaks to or about Shiro. He wonders if he ever really cared— or if only Shiro mattered, and how Shiro would react.

“He does seem rather happy, doesn’t he? All things considered,” Allura says.

“You’d think he’d be more discerning,” Pidge says, but she’s smiling. “What if we were kidnappers?”

Maybe, Keith thinks, Shiro’s trust transcends whatever stupid space magic is at work here. Maybe, instinctively, Shiro knows he can trust them all, that he’s safe. He doesn’t voice this, if only to avoid Pidge’s snort and Allura’s comforting, understanding smile.

“Any luck on next steps?” Keith asks the two of them.

Pidge shakes her head. “Allura and I worked on some projections, but it’ll take time for the data to get processed. I’m going to check back in an hour from now.”

“Good,” Keith says. He finishes peeling the not-potato. “Keep me posted, okay?”

“Obviously,” Pidge says, and Keith really doesn’t know how to read into that.

Shiro shrieks in surprised laughter as pieces of tuber rain down on him. He scrubs his hands through his hair quickly and grins, cheeks rosy and potato mush in his hair. He looks so endearingly childlike in that moment that Keith actually feels his heart physically ache.

“He’s so happy,” Allura says quietly, her smile soft.

Keith thinks about what Shiro said, in the astral plane, My connection with the others wasn’t strong enough—

Thinks of all the ways in which the others could know Shiro, get to know Shiro, understand him. He looks at Pidge, and Allura beside her, their fond looks as Shiro picks up a stone and launches it into the air for Hunk to blast to smithereens with his bayward. No, of course they’d never seen Shiro like this.

“You should join them,” Keith tells them, glancing first at Pidge and then up at Allura.

Allura smiles at him, gentle— she must see right through him. Pidge hardly needs Keith’s encouragement, already pulling her bayward out and using it to launch seven large stones into the air for Lance and Hunk to shoot.

“Keith,” Allura begins but Keith shakes his head, turning away.

“I’m going to go make sure Kaltenecker doesn’t wander away. We can’t have Lance sobbing during dinner.” He casts Allura a smile that almost reaches his eyes and heads away from the scene of Shiro’s delighted laughter.

 

-

 

Dinner is a loud affair. Hunk manages to throw together something that’s actually delicious once he gets back to the boiling pot of tubers Keith left for him, and it’s not even made of the fungus of a crab’s toe or whatever. Everyone’s gathered around Shiro, answering his questions. He’s seemed to relax a little, at least is rolling with this all in stride— and many of his questions center around the lions themselves (now that he’s read exactly three paragraphs about them), Altea, outer space travel, all the math and mechanics and practicals of flying in deep space.

Keith smiles a little to himself as he chews on what passes for a potato on this asteroid, endeared despite himself. Of course Shiro would get along well with everyone, regardless of his age. Shiro always got along with everyone, and it’s not surprise that’d be the case now, too.

He thinks, again, of that vast distance between him and Shiro on the astral plane, Shiro’s calming voice explaining what’d happened to him, about the distance between him and the other paladins.

Keith smiles to himself as he chews on a seafoamy root, watching Allura describe a spice festival in Altea’s capital with her eyes bright and her smile gentle, Coran chiming in to add his own flavor to the story.

Keith isn’t sure what he expected. Shiro speaks so rarely about his childhood, about anything about his life growing up. When he first met Shiro, it was impossible to consider that Shiro didn’t just spring into being fully formed and handsome.

No, instead, the Shiro in front of him seems a little— gangly? Not quite the right term to describe him, but more that he has that awkward teenage look of young boys who haven’t fully grown into themselves yet. Keith can see easily how this Shiro would eventually grow into the Shiro he knows, with the strong jaw and steady shoulders. The Shiro in front of him has long limbs, and bangs just on the touch of too long, getting into his eyes— that familiar steel grey.

That excited look? That’s one he knows well, though. He remembers it, over and over again, during the days at the Garrison. Shiro showing him his hoverbike for the first time. Shiro, showing him where, in the night sky, you can squint and see nebulae. His nervous excitement the night before the Kerberos launch, even in the wake up all the hardships he had to overcome to get there.

There’s a lull in the conversation and that’s when the wolf ports back into existence with a distinct pop and Shiro gasps in surprise. The wolf’s ears perk and Shiro’s eyes are large as he stares.

“Wow, a wolf!” he exclaims and holds out his hand to him. Without hesitancy. If it were any random wolf, it’d be an utterly reckless move and—

Well, that’s Shiro, too, Keith thinks.

The wolf is quick to step into Shiro’s space, pressing his nose into Shiro’s hand. Keith smiles to himself, even as he knows the ploy for what it is.

“Careful,” he says, “guard your food if you don’t want him taking it.”

But Shiro doesn’t seem to hear him, mesmerized by the wolf as he pets over his nose and then back over his head, scratching at his ears. Keith watches as the wolf licks into Shiro’s unguarded bowl and steals the last of his food.

“Is he yours?” he asks the group at large.

“He’s Keith’s,” Allura explains. “He found him during his travels.”

“He seems to like you,” Hunk says and grins over at Keith.

Keith’s eyes are soft as he watches the wolf weave around Shiro, nuzzling into him. Shiro chases him with his hands, trying to scritch and pet at every inch of him. The wolf absolutely drinks up the affection, the little attention-hog. It’s a sweet sight.

“Lucky. I’m not allowed to have pets,” Shiro says quietly, his fingers dragging along the wolf’s muzzle, scratching and petting. Keith’s pretty sure he hasn’t seen the wolf look so relaxed in a while. Shiro looks happy, too.

“Well, you could never have a pet as cool as Kosmo here,” Lance says with a grin. Keith bites back the protest to not call his wolf that, but he knows it’ll fall on death ears.

Shiro pets over the wolf slowly, carefully, his smile soft— and there’s that familiar ache in Keith’s chest again, watching Shiro with such an open expression, such a gentle happiness. He thinks of all the times Shiro’s watched the stray cats in the city walking along fences, or the way he greets the wolf every morning when delivering breakfast. Of course Shiro likes animals.

“Go on, ask him to take you somewhere!” Lance encourages.

“You mean he can do that poppy thing with me, too?” Shiro asks, eyes like disks.

“Yeah— anywhere you want to go and he’ll take you!”

Keith’s mouth twists into a line. “Wait,” he says, flounders when Shiro turns his eyes towards him. He continues, weakly, “Be careful—”

He doesn’t mean it as a lecture, doesn’t mean it the way it sounds. But he watches the way Shiro’s expression closes off, for just a second, just a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it expression. Shiro goes from open and excited to withdrawn in moments. A moment later, Shiro is smiling at him politely, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

He reaches out and curls his hand in the wolf’s fur and looks straight at Keith as he tells the wolf, “Show me.”

The wolf glances at Keith and then flickers out of view with Shiro. He has no idea where the wolf’s taken him but the pit’s fallen out of Keith’s stomach.

“Keith,” Allura says gently as she gets a look at his expression. “Are you alright?”

Lance offers, helpfully, “He’s just upset because the wolf likes Shiro more than him.”

“Ha ha,” Keith mumbles, eating the rest of the tubers and feeling overly moody, that look in Shiro’s eyes burned into his mind.

He knows what Shiro must be feeling now, how Keith’s steadfast and solidified concern for his friend might look to a Shiro who doesn’t know him. Remembers Shiro’s resistance to people babying him, back in the Garrison, his fierce determination to achieve what he wanted no matter the cost. How Shiro always had to be fighting to be taken seriously.

Somehow, Keith never realized how his own protectiveness of Shiro now must seem to him. He wonders if Shiro resents it normally, too, the way that Keith hovers. And hasn’t he been hovering since all this with Voltron started? Maybe Shiro hates it. The younger version of him clearly does.

It’s hard to know for sure. They haven’t had a chance to talk, really, since Shiro returned to his body from the Black Lion. So much has happened. And everyone is always in each other’s space that there hasn’t been a chance to talk just the two of them. The I love you he’d shouted during their fight hangs heavy in his chest, expressed but unacknowledged. There’s so much he has to say to Shiro, so much he wants to say and—

Shiro and the wolf return with a resounding pop, Shiro halfway through a laugh as he rematerializes. His dark hair is a little too long, flopping into his eyes as he settles back in his spot. The wolf curls up next to Shiro, head planting firmly in his lap. Shiro’s grin is wide and delighted. He doesn’t look at Keith again.

 

-

 

After dinner, Hunk asks Shiro where he wants to sleep that night. Keith figures he’ll pick Green, since that’s where he first showed up, and where Shiro’s been sleeping for the last few nights anyway.

But Shiro’s quiet for a long moment, staring at the lions. He looks at each one in turn, as if he’s waiting for them to speak to him. Keith doesn’t know what the others are feeling, but in his own bond with Black, he can feel the lion’s curiosity, her gentle amusement.

Finally, Shiro turns to Hunk and says, “Black.”

 

-

 

“Alright,” Keith says, straightening up once he’s settled the last remaining blanket down on the extra bed. He turns back towards Shiro. “You should be all set here. If you need anything else, just ask one of us and we’ll help you out.”

He expects that will be the end of it. Keith tells himself, again and again, that this Shiro simply does not like him or trust him, and he can’t expect anything from that. He’s resolved himself to Shiro’s silence, or worse— the polite distance, as if he’s just some random person.

But then, he should have known better.

“Hunk says we’re best friends,” Shiro says without any semblance of warning to give Keith time to collect his thoughts and stop feeling like he just got punched in the gut. Shiro clarifies, after a moment, “When I’m normal.”

“We are,” Keith agrees, after a strained pause.

Shiro doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and then moves over to sit on the bed. He looks up at Keith, studying his face. Keith isn’t sure what he’s looking for, what he’s seeing. But he stands firm, hands slack at his sides, jaw tense.

It doesn’t matter if this Shiro dislikes him or— whatever he’s feeling about him. He promised a long time ago that he’d never give up on Shiro, and that includes a younger version of him who doesn’t remember him. He’ll be here for him. He’ll look after him.

“But Lance told me that you don’t get along with anyone,” Shiro says after a moment of just studying Keith’s face.

Keith snorts. “Lance is an idiot.”

Shiro blinks and then he laughs. Keith’s stomach flips happily to have gotten such a reaction.

“It’s weird,” Shiro says after a moment, looking down at his feet as he crosses his feet at the ankles.

“What is?” Keith asks, still hearing Shiro’s laugh in his ears.

Shiro looks down at his toes when he says, “I don’t really remember anything. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t. But I’m not really me.”

Something stutters in Keith’s chest— a sudden fear, perhaps, that Shiro had gone to read his file, had gotten to the parts about the clone.

“What do you mean?” he asks, trying to keep his voice steady.

“I’m here but not really here,” Shiro says. “I’m supposed to be older. It’s not like a… time-travel situation. I’m just wrong.”

Keith’s jaw clenches and he strides forward before he’s even aware he’s doing it, dropping down to sit on the bed beside Shiro. “Nothing about you is wrong,” he says with more force than he might have meant, if the way Shiro blinks and looks up at him is any indication. “Nothing, Shiro.”

Shiro looks at him for a long moment. Then he shifts, his back pressing against the wall. He gathers his legs up to his chest, arms wrapped around his knees. He looks at Keith for a long moment— that same intense look of his, studying Keith carefully. It’s strange to Keith that he can’t read Shiro’s expression. He waits, though— he knows to be patient.

“… How did we meet?” Shiro asks him.

It isn’t the question Keith expected, and he laughs a little, softly, maybe a touch of sadness touching his voice as he settles in his spot, leaning back on his hands.

“I stole your car,” he says with a smirk.

Shiro’s eyes bug out and he barks out a laugh. “What? Really.”

“Really!” Keith says. “You’re the reason I even got into the Galaxy Garrison.”

Shiro’s expression gentles for a moment, smoothed out by a longing the name instills in him. Keith knows that expression well. Keith quiets, tilting his head.

“I mean… the files you gave me said that I was part of this team,” Shiro says, his toes curling in his blanket. His eyes flicker away from Keith’s face, staring into the middle distance. “I guessed I’d get in from that. I didn’t… I mean—”

“I know how hard you worked to get there,” Keith tells him. “And you did it, Shiro. You got there. When I met you, you were their number one pilot. You were the best they ever had.”

Something sparks in Shiro’s eyes and his hold tightens on his legs. His mouth is pressed against his knees, hard to see, but Keith thinks he sees him smile.

 

-

 

They stay on the asteroid for the morning as the lions recharge, but as the afternoon drags on, they’re ready to set out again and hunt down the time distortion to get Shiro back to normal. Pidge is almost certain it’s some sort of animal living in the vacuum of space, based on its readings and its unusual patterns of movement she picked up before it hit them. That means they’re going hunting, which— Keith is not super thrilled with the uncertainty of it, but at least feels better at least somewhat knowing what they’re up against.

Shiro is nearly bouncing off the walls in excitement. He’s tumbling his way through Black’s cockpit with no small sense of wonder. When Keith woke up that morning, Shiro was already awake, flipping through the datapad Keith left for him. Keith isn’t sure if he actually slept at all or woke up early to get started reading. Regardless, he can’t recall the last time he’s seen Shiro quite so excited.

Something quieter aches inside of Keith, and he can hear Black’s distant echo through their bond. It isn’t quite nostalgia seeing a young Shiro in Black’s cockpit, but it’s— something fragile.

Shiro presses his face to the window, staring out at the sky. “I can’t believe I’m actually in a space ship!”

Keith laughs a little. “Tell me about it. Sometimes I can’t believe it, either.” He opens up a comm link between the other lions. “Everybody ready?”

“Ready!” the others chorus back in various responses.

The launch goes smoothly, even though Shiro can hardly sit still, peering over Keith’s shoulder as he pilots Black up into the upper atmosphere and into the inky expanse of space. He actually hears Shiro gasp behind him, glances over his shoulder to see his wide eyes, his slightly slack mouth.

Keith’s expression softens. This is Shiro’s first time in space, he realizes— or, first time as far as this Shiro is concerned. He slows Black’s ascent, just a little, just enough that it doesn’t escape her ability to reach escape velocity— but lets Shiro take in that transition from sky to atmosphere to the cosmos. The stars seem to be on full display, as well, the universe stretching out around them in all directions.

Shiro doesn’t even notice that Keith is looking at him. He has eyes only for space.

He has never seen Shiro look so happy. That open longing on his face makes something twist up inside Keith all over again. He tightens his grip on Black’s controls. Shiro doesn’t even appear to be breathing, his eyes sweeping over everything he can see.

It takes a moment, but Keith realizes that Shiro is shaking a little.

He hesitates only for a moment. Then, he reaches out and touches his shoulder, slides his hand up and holds firm, squeezing once.

“You never really get used to it,” he tells him and Shiro tears his eyes away to look at him instead, blinking once. “But it’s not beyond your reach, either. You’ll get here someday, Shiro.”

He means the words, deeply, completely— but he’s suddenly afraid that Shiro will think he’s condescending to him. He can’t blame Shiro for his distance, for thinking that Keith is just like everybody else who’s ever told him no, or that he can’t, or that he shouldn’t. God, what Shiro must think of him—

But Shiro’s mouth twists, and then a small smile flickers there. He turns back towards space, and Keith knows that look of wonderment well, would know that face regardless of its wearer’s age.

“Yeah,” Shiro whispers.

 

-

 

“Can you make her flip?” Shiro asks just behind his right shoulder. There’s a small hopefulness to his tone, but restrained— as if he’s expecting Keith to say no.

Keith grins and says only, “Hang on.”

It’s worth it for Shiro’s delighted shriek as the Black Lion does three forward rolls in quick succession.

“What the heck is going on?” he hears Hunk grumble over the comms.

 

-

 

“Okay,” Pidge says one varga later, “This is where we were when the energy wave hit Shiro.”

“And Kaltenecker!” Lance shouts over the comms.

He can practically hear Pidge’s eyeroll. “And Kaltenecker. So I’ll keep the scanners going but for right now, it’s really just a shot in the dark that the energy blast will return today.”

“Or even if this will work to get me back to normal,” Shiro says, clearly tired of being spoken about like he isn’t in the room. Keith turns a bit to look at him, frowning in concern. Shiro shrugs. “Well, what if it just makes me even younger?”

“That’s what happened with Coran last time,” Allura agrees, hesitation in her voice.

“Yes, but it also was a repetition of the same moment,” Coran is quick to reassure.

Keith screws his mouth up in concern. Everything tells him to not put Shiro in unnecessary danger— but what other choice do they have? They have no way of reversing this on their own and waiting around for months for an off chance the light comes back seems unreasonable, not when they’re on a time crunch and need to get back to Earth as quickly as possible.

He frowns and then turns a little to look at Shiro again. Shiro is already looking at him and it’s— odd to see that thoughtful expression on such a young face. Shiro tilts his head.

“What do you want to do?” Keith asks him.

Shiro looks surprised Keith’s asking him. Then he says, “I think it’s worth the risk. What else can you all do? You can’t wait around because of me.”

“He’s right,” Lance offers, although he sounds uncertain. “We can’t afford to sit here or to go traveling across the universe for some magical cure to a fountain of youth light monster creature.”

“If it lasts too long, you’ll all just need to keep going,” Shiro tells him. “You can’t compromise your mission for me.”

The words sound foreign in a young Shiro’s mouth, but are no less felt. Keith closes his eyes for a moment to steady himself. He thinks of all the memories, all the experiences, that he shares with Shiro— thinks about all of those being gone forever, a young Shiro left to grow up all over again.

“We’ll wait, for now,” he decides. “This is a long, open section of space— if the light comes back, it’ll come back. We don’t need to be in the exact same spot.”

“I’ll keep running diagnostics and projections,” Pidge offers.

The group in agreement, Keith lowers the volume on the comms and turns towards Shiro.

He puts on a brave face but he can see the pinching at the corners of his eyes. On an older Shiro, they’re the beginnings of wrinkles. Here, they just make an already young boy seem too old for himself— something that has always seemed the case for Shiro.

“It’s going to be okay, Shiro,” he says, firmly. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Shiro says nothing, but something seems to ease in his expression. After a moment, he says, “You always say things like that.”

Keith frowns.

Shiro shrugs, looking closely at Keith’s expression. “I guess that’s why you’re the leader, huh?”

Keith doesn’t have the words to explain that particular can of worms, to explain who Shiro is to him, that he says these things for Shiro not because he’s a leader meant to inspire, but because he genuinely believes it, because he’ll do whatever he can to make it happen.

He watches in silence as Shiro makes himself comfortable, tucked up in the corner where two of Black’s walls meet, pulling out the datapad tablet and scrolling through it. He’s easily distracted, though— Keith watches him glance out the windows several times, just tracing constellations and the inky, expanding darkness.

 

-

 

“Alright, team,” Keith says, several vargas into the day as the wolf ports into Black’s cockpit, bringing the sizzling smell of space travel and ozone with him. He has his pack of lunches tied around his neck, tongue lolling out as Shiro approaches him. “Let’s take a break for now. Pidge, keep an eye on the scanners but remember to take a rest.”

“You got it,” Pidge answers along with the others. Shiro takes out two packs of lunch and the wolf ports away to the next lion.

Around him, Black hums quietly and gently, Keith’s link to her solid. Keith takes the food pack Shiro holds out to him and sits down on the floor across from him in order to stretch his legs in a new position rather than the pilot’s seat.

“Shiro,” he asks as he rolls his ankle absently, biting into the almost-sandwich Hunk’s put together for everyone.

Shiro hums around his own bite.

“Do you hear her?” Keith asks, can’t help himself. Black is so loud today, seems to be in good spirits despite everything.

Shiro frowns at him. “Who?”

That’s answer enough, but Keith’s never been one to let things lie. “The Black Lion.”

He knows that, by now, Shiro would know he once piloted her. Shiro chews, expression thoughtful. He screws his face up, narrowing his eyes before closing them— trying to listen, Keith realizes. He’s so serious about it, but he’s so small, it’s almost painfully endearing. Keith takes a big bite from his sandwich to hide his soppy expression.

After a moment, though, Shiro shakes his head. “No. Unless you mean the sound of air recycling.”

“Not quite,” Keith agrees with an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I was just curious.”

Shiro looks around them, as if trying to pinpoint the spot where Black begins, and focus on that. Or, simply observing. His head swivels back and peers at Keith with that same quiet intensity. Keith doesn’t look away.

“She’s your lion,” Shiro says after a moment. “It’d be kind of weird if I heard her, too.”

He leaves it at that. They finish up their lunch.

The rest of the day runs smoothly, but the light doesn’t return.

 

-

 

The light doesn’t return the second day, either.

 

-

 

“Oh, I think I’m getting the hang of it,” Allura says, followed by, what sounds to Keith, like the cheerful bleep of her character dying in Pidge’s video game. “Oh…”

“You’ll get them next time, Princess,” Shiro offers gently, his voice quiet and tinny over the comms as Keith listens in.

Pidge snorts. “Yeah right.”

Keith hears Allura huff. She says, rather pointedly, “Thank you, Shiro. You are very kind.”

“I’m not very good, either,” Shiro offers, which Keith suspects isn’t entirely true and only meant to placate Allura.

Allura must suspect it, too, because her voice gets a knowing edge to it. “Oh, really. Well, aren’t you a gentleman. Perhaps we should try an Altean game. Would you care to try?”

“What game?” Shiro asks, genuinely curious.

“It’s… Oh, I learn Lance describe it as very similar to Earth’s crazy eights, although I’ve never played it myself, only—”

“Oh no,” Lance cuts in through the comms. “Shiro, no, get away while you still can.”

“Yeah, Shiro, don’t let her swindle you!” Hunk calls.

Allura huffs again. “Now, really. It isn’t that bad. And shouldn’t Shiro want to learn new cultures and their games?”

Shiro, never one to back down from a challenge, asks, “How do you play?”

Several steps later and many, many loses later, Keith hears Shiro mutter, “I have to win eventually, right?”

“You tried, buddy,” he hears Lance say.

 

-

 

Keith startles awake when a hand touches his back, right in the center of his spine, his fingers splayed.

He twists around a little and sees Shiro peering down at him. He looks eerie in the faint purple light of the Black Lion, expression grim but thoughtful. It’s his right hand touching Keith’s back, smaller than Keith knows Shiro’s hands to be, not that almost familiar but foreign heavy metal of Galra tech.

Shiro steps back when he sees Keith’s awake. “You were yelling my name.”

Keith feels the sweat on his brow, the adrenaline still kicking through his blood. The remnants of the dream chase away but he doesn’t need to know the details to know what he was dreaming about. It’s always the same thing, always revolves around their fight. It’s different each time. Sometimes, Keith gets all the way to the edge of the clone facility and Shiro drops out of his hand despite his best efforts. Sometimes he gets as far as Allura drawing Shiro’s soul from Black only for him to dissipate on the wind, like dandelion seeds. Sometimes, Romelle tells her story a little slower than before and Keith returns to a Castle of Lions blacked out, all his friends dead and Shiro gone to him forever.

Keith heaves in a long breath and sits up in his bed, trying to calm himself down, his hand scrubbing over his face and then pushing his bangs away from his forehead as he looks at Shiro.

Shiro looks so small standing there. So unsure.

“It was just a bad dream,” Keith says, quietly. “I’m sorry for waking you.”

Shiro stands there for a long moment, looking unsteady on his feet, like he isn’t sure if he should step closer or step further away. He sways a little and then asks, “Do you… want to talk about it?”

Keith offers him a small smile. “You think it’ll help?”

Shiro shrugs and does decide to step forward, sitting down near the foot of his bed, looking over at him. “Sometimes it does.”

Keith feels that surprise coil up inside him for a moment, the surety that Shiro speaks about it. He knows Shiro has nightmares sometimes, about his year of captivity, about all the fights they’ve done since this war started. But Shiro’s so young here.

It must show in his face because Shiro offers, “I don’t like hospitals.”

The pit drops out of Keith’s stomach. Shiro’s watching him carefully, assessing him— testing him. Keith swallows as he nods, evenly. “Yeah… I don’t like them, either.”

He’s only been to a hospital once. When his father was caught in the fire, he’d been rushed there only to die shortly thereafter. Keith never actually saw him in that state, wasn’t allowed to, but the memory stuck with him anyway.

Shiro nods and looks down. “What were you dreaming about?”

Keith’s quiet for a moment. He knows he doesn’t want to lie to Shiro, but he also doesn’t want to give the kids nightmares in turn talking to him about clones and fights and the scar scraping against his cheek, a nightmare formulating around Shiro dropping to his death without Keith there with him.

He drums his fingers against the blanket and sighs out. He settles on, “We’re best friends, right? So… sometimes I dream about losing you. And I don’t want to. I want to protect you.”

Shiro’s looking at him, lips pursed together, eyebrows lifted. He studies Keith’s face.

“Why?” Shiro asks him.

“Why do I want to protect you?” Keith clarifies and Shiro nods. Keith chews on his bottom lip, then sighs out. “It’s… hard to explain it simply.”

Yes, it is. I love you, would suffice, but he isn’t sure if he has the confession in him, not a second time, not when the second time means Shiro’s still unable to properly respond.

He settles on, “You deserve to have someone looking out for you.” He gives a tentative smile. “It’s my job to worry about you while you’re out there doing amazing things.”

Shiro’s brow furrows but in the near-darkness, Keith can’t tell if it’s a frustrated look or a surprised look. Shiro fiddles, pushing his hair out of his eyes and frowning.

“I’m sorry for waking you up,” Keith says again, if only to relieve Shiro the responsibility of having to respond to Keith’s emotional neediness. He feels a little unsettled like this, but not as much as maybe he should. Younger or not, it’s still Shiro. And he can trust Shiro with this, regardless.

“I was awake anyway,” Shiro says. “I was reading about the Galra.”

“Yeah?” Keith asks, sighing out and leaning back against the wall. “Want to tell me about them?”

Shiro frowns at him, but settles back, too, crossing his legs up and telling him about what he’s read about the Galra. Keith listens.

 

-

 

He hears Shiro giggling over the comms as the wolf ports him between each lion. Shiro’s laughter is infectious, sweet and higher-pitched, and the wolf is clearly having a good time with him if he’s being so playful.

“Again!” he hears Shiro shout over Hunk’s comm link before the familiar sound of the wolf porting fills the airwaves. A moment later, he hears the wolf appear behind Black’s pilot seat, accompanied by Shiro’s delighted laughter.

Keith smiles to himself and leaves them to it, trusts the wolf to look after Shiro and keep him safe.

 

-

 

“Hey, Shiro,” Keith hears Pidge say over the comms.

“Yeah?” Shiro asks. Keith can hear his curiosity even through the comms.

He’s over in the Green Lion today, flashing over with the wolf earlier in the morning to get a few changes of clothes. He’s been hanging out over there all morning. Keith listens carefully to the sound of Shiro’s voice over the comms, makes sure there’re no traces of pain or unhappiness.

“Ever seen a comet up close before?” Pidge asks.

Shiro’s quiet for a moment and then says, “Obviously not.”

“Check it out, seventeen degrees to the left. Comet coming through,” Pidge says, the grin in her voice clear.

Keith glances out Black’s display and sees the comet in question. They’ve had it on their long-range scanners all morning— wondering if maybe it’d be the creature they’ve been looking for, but no— and it really is beautiful up close. It’s a flash of blue, iced light, swirling around itself in little spirals and crystal fragments. Pidge ran the numbers earlier to make sure they were a safe enough distance not to be caught in its path or to suffer any damage from its flaking ice.

Keith hears Shiro’s quiet gasp, only hears it because he knows to listen for it. His heart warms a little, deep in his chest, and he sighs out himself. He watches the comet travel slowly through the ether, its tail jagging behind it. It reminds him a little bit of the wolf, and it makes him smile.

“Wow,” he hears Shiro whisper and Keith closes his eyes, just listens to the sound of Shiro’s happiness. There’s a pause and then Shiro’s excitement kicks up in his voice. “Wow it’s so beautiful. It’s going so fast! It has to be, what, about three hundred and sixty-six miles per second?”

“Actually,” Pidge says, and Keith can just picture the shit-eating grin she has, the glint off her glasses as she looks over at Shiro. “More like three hundred and sixty-seven point eight miles per second.”

There’s a long silence and Keith smiles to himself, can just picture what Shiro’s face must look like— the fire igniting in his eyes, the way his lips press up in a quiet kind of determination. Oh, how Shiro hates to lose.

Sure enough, a moment later Shiro says, “Now that I think of it, maybe it’s more like three hundred and sixty-seven point nine two… What do you think?”

“Oh no,” Keith hears Hunk sigh just as Pidge and Shiro launch into a battle over a comet. Keith smiles, watching the comet fade away into the eternal blanket of stars.

 

-

 

Five days in to their wait for the light possibly-creature-possibly-energy, Keith wakes up with a yawn long before anyone else. He’s thinking to himself that maybe he should run one of the flight simulators his mom left behind to help pass the time one everyone wakes up. Morale isn’t necessarily low, but he can tell the others are starting to get edgy. Even Shiro’s starting to feel a little nervous energy, despite the general veneer of space far from having worn off. Every morning, Shiro looks out at the cosmic sky like he still can’t believe it. Maybe he can’t.

Keith rolls over with a yawn, stretching. He half expects Shiro to be awake and reading his datapad— as he has every morning, always awake long before Keith. But Shiro isn’t moving, still lying on his side. Maybe he’s finally catching up on his sleep. Another yawn rips out of Keith and he scratches absently at his jaw as it cracks from the force of his morning grog.

He’s getting out of bed, ready for the day, when a noise makes him turn towards Shiro, curled up under his blanket. It’s a whimper of pain.

Immediately, Keith is approaching him. “Shiro?” he asks, watches Shiro’s shoulders tense up. “Are you alright?”

Shiro turns to look at him over his shoulder, his hair clinging to his brow, his eyes pinched in pain. He hesitates, seems unsure if he should say anything at all. But finally, he breathes out shakily, his breath hissing through his clenched teeth. He manages a quiet, strangled, “I can’t move my leg.”

Something jolts through Keith then, white and hot and pained, and Shiro watches him like a hawk, as if daring him to say the wrong thing.

Keith swallows down around the way his heart starts galloping. He sits on the edge of the bed, painfully slow in order not to jostle him.

“What do you need from me?” he asks, even though he wants to rip the universe apart to help him right in that instant.

Shiro looks at him, surprise flickering in his eyes before it solidifies into something quieter.

“Help me stretch it… please?” his voice is so quiet, so pained, as if he’s expecting Keith to refuse.

Keith nods and reaches out, peeling the blanket away from Shiro. His legs look normal at first glance, but Keith can see the way the muscles have knotted up, contracted around themselves. He looks jointless and cramped at once, his body poised on the toppling knife’s edge of dull pain and searing pain, tipping quickly into extreme pain. It pinches Shiro’s face, like it’s only a bad cramp, but Keith knows that if it’s showing on Shiro’s face, it’s bad.

Keith reaches for one leg, hesitates, and touches at the ankle— the spot that feels safest, the spot that doesn’t look twisted up and tensed. Shiro breathes out through his nose, eyes wild like a cornered animal’s.

“I’m going to move it, alright?” he asks in a quiet, soothing whisper. His free hand reaches out before he can think of it, touches Shiro’s hair and brushes it from his face. His skin is clammy to the touch.

Shiro blinks at him and manages a stuttered nod. Keith bites his lip and curls his hand slowly around Shiro’s ankle. He moves slow as molasses, pulling Shiro’s leg towards him, not enough that his knee locks, but enough that his leg stretches out in a semi-straight line. His skin is hot to the touch and Shiro whimpers at the movement.

“How’s that?” Keith asks, his voice pained and thick, as if the pain were his own. Shiro clenches his eyes shut, jaw clenched, the tendons standing out on his neck.

He reaches down weakly towards his calf, but can’t reach.

“Tell me,” Keith urges him.

“It needs to… unknot,” Shiro whimpers.

Keith reaches down and touches the well of the knotted muscle on Shiro’s calf. Shiro hisses out but nods his head and Keith presses his hand against it, trying to coax the muscle into relaxing.

Shiro jolts in pain. Keith’s about to withdraw but Shiro shakes his head.

“No, that’s good. It means I can feel it.”

So Keith keeps doing it. The others aren’t awake yet and he makes sure that his comm link isn’t turned on, makes sure none of them hear the way Shiro starts to cry after about ten minutes, burying his face into his pillow and not looking at Keith as Keith tries to ease the tension in his leg. Shiro’s shoulders shake.

Keith focuses on Shiro’s leg, lets that be the only thing. Everything inside him wants to reach out to Shiro, to comfort him, but he also knows Shiro would resist it. He lets Shiro cry until his shoulders stop heaving.

Tentatively, Keith reaches out and places his hand on Shiro’s back, gentle. Shiro stills, and then seems to relax.

After a moment, he lifts his head from the pillow and turns to look at Keith out of the corner of his eye. His eye is puffy and red-rimmed, but he doesn’t acknowledge it as he studies Keith with that same intensity he’s been studying him with all week. Keith lets him, focusing on Shiro’s leg, pressing the heel of his palm against the slide of his muscle. It’s starting to loosen, he thinks.

Shiro’s silent for a long moment and then asks, quietly, “You know about my disease, don’t you?”

Keith isn’t sure which response will be more upsetting for Shiro, but knows he isn’t going to lie. “Yeah.”

Shiro nods and says nothing more, staring at the wall opposite him with steeled eyes, sweat on his brow and face clearly wanting to grimace in pain as Keith prods at his muscles. But he resists.

“Breathe, Shiro,” Keith tells him.

A long sigh slumps out of Shiro’s mouth, but after that he at least attempts to breathe more normally.

“Am I ever really going to be a pilot?” Shiro asks after a long moment.

Yes,” Keith says, with feeling. He squeezes the arch of Shiro’s foot.

“No one thinks I can do it.”

“Isn’t the fact that you’re here proof of it?” Keith asks.

Shiro manages a small shrug and seems to regret it as he flinches in a painful shiver that wracks his entire body. He sighs. “It’s one thing to be told it happens and another to actually… get it to happen. I don’t want to just take it for granted.”

Keith nods. “I understand.”

Shiro chews on his bottom lip and clenches his fists in his blanket. He says, again, “No one thinks I can do it.”

“I know you can,” Keith says, pausing in where he’s pressing against the muscles of his leg and looks up at Shiro. “Shiro. Look at me.” He waits until Shiro does before continuing. “I know you can and not just because for me, you already are, but because I know you.

He remembers one of the moments with Shiro, after only just meeting him, looking at the Calypso. I want to help you, Keith—

What you decide to do with that potential is up to you—

Keith closes his eyes, lets the memories wash over him. He’s not Shiro. He’s not like him, doesn’t know how to inspire or reassure his best friend.

He says, “You can do anything you want, Shiro. The only thing that matters is what you decide to do with your life. Don’t listen to what anyone else thinks is best for you or says about you. You do what you want, got it?”

Silence follows his words and Keith briefly fears he’s said the wrong thing somehow, or insulted Shiro all over again. But after a moment, Shiro manages a small smile— almost not there at all, tilting his mouth up.

He gives Keith a side glance. “Wouldn’t listening to you mean I’m listening to what anyone else thinks is best for me?”

Keith snorts. “You must be starting to feel better if you can give me Lance levels of bad jokes.”

Shiro laughs and turns his face back into his pillow, saying nothing more as Keith runs over his legs until every muscle is loose and responding to stimulus. After a moment, Shiro moves his legs and then sits up.

“Do you want to keep resting?” Keith asks, gently, after a long silence. “I can wake up Hunk if you want breakfast.”

“I’m fine,” Shiro says. Keith nearly cringes. But after a moment, Shiro turns a little. “I think I’ll keep resting… Can the wolf keep me company?”

Keith gives him a small smile, relieved. “I’ll send him over.”

 

-

 

“Yeah man, you think that Black’s flying is impressive? Then check this out!” Keith hears Lance mock-whisper over the comms, knows that Keith is listening in.

A moment later, Keith hears Shiro’s delighted gasp as the Red Lion shoots forward, streaking across the sky in a series of jagged, switch-back lines and loops.

Keith pulls up the camera display to make sure that Lance sees Keith rolling his eyes.

It backfires, of course, because on display he can see Lance’s shit-eating grin, yes, but he can also see Shiro clinging to the pilot’s seat behind his shoulder, eyes sparkling and grin wide.

“Again!” Shiro shouts, and then looks embarrassed. “Uh, if you don’t mind.”

“Anything for you, buddy,” Lance says around a grin and launches Red forward.

Even though Keith can’t feel the link anymore, he’s sure that Red is enjoying it just as much as Lance and Shiro. He cuts the camera display and leans back in Black. He does roll his eyes again for his own benefit.

“You’re a good pilot,” Keith hears Shiro say a little while later. Keith inwardly groans at what that will for Lance’s ego.

“Hey, thanks man,” Lance says, and he doesn’t sound quite as cocky as Keith expected. He sounds happy. “Means a lot to hear you say that.”

“Yeah?” Shiro asks, and Keith can practically hear the way Shiro would tilt his head at that, polite but curious, prompting for elaboration without actually voicing it.

“Sure,” Lance answers, like it’s easy— and for Lance, of course it is. “You were my hero at the garrison— wanted to fly just like you someday.”

“Really?” Shiro asks, and his voice is quieter, hushed.

“Uh, yeah,” Lance says. “You were famous! Everybody wanted to fly like you someday. I mean… you really inspired me to try to get into the garrison in the first place.”

Shiro is quiet for a long moment and when he speaks again, Keith can hear the tentative smile in his words. “Oh… well. You seemed to have learned a lot.”

Keith would rather die than ever thank Lance, but in that moment he’s grateful— leave it to Lance of all people to know exactly what to say without realizing it. Seems typical.

“Alright,” Keith says, cutting in. “Enough with the showing off, Lance.” He leans forward towards the comm and smirks. “Let me show you how it’s really done.”

And then he goads Black forward, just to reiterate who the real best pilot around here is. He doesn’t stop until he hears Shiro’s pleased laugh around Lance’s grumbling about stupid show-offs.

 

-

 

Keith watches Shiro look out the window, tracing the stars as he always does. They’ve been out here for days and their self-imposed timeline is moving towards its deadline tic by tic. Everyone’s a little on edge, he thinks. But his focus is entirely on Shiro. Shiro, staring out the window, his chin tucked against his hand. Shiro, who two days ago had been in pain from his disease, questioning if he’d ever really get to pilot. He can see the longing in Shiro’s eyes every time he looks out at the stars— as if he still doesn’t believe they’re there, that he’s out here in space, that his dream is not only well within his grasp, but someday realized. If he were able, Keith would put Shiro in the pilot’s chair right now and let him handle Black, to know that feeling.

He knows that drag of longing in Shiro’s eyes, and Keith thinks, distantly, that he might understand what Shiro saw in Keith all those years ago when he gave him that second chance— that longing, that desire, for a dream when no one else ever let him believe he could achieve it.

It’s in this moment, suddenly, that Keith understands why they became friends back then, what it was that made Shiro want to take a chance on him, want to stick around for him. Keith always understood why he gravitated towards Shiro. Why, always, he fell into his orbit and revolved him. It was never a mystery to Keith why he fell so hopelessly and helplessly in love with Shiro.

And now, perhaps, he understands what it was that made Shiro want to give him that second chance. He watches Shiro watching the stars with such open longing, and it reminds him of himself.

“Shiro,” he calls, waits until Shiro drags his eyes away from the nebula in the distance to look at him. “Come with me.”

He wonders if Shiro will ignore him or protest, but of course Shiro just drops down from his seat and follows Keith out of the cockpit and down towards the Black Lion’s cargo hold. The wolf looks up from where he’s lounging on Keith’s bed and ports out of existence only to reappear between the two of them, pressing hard up against Keith’s thigh, flicking his tail patiently when Shiro nearly flops his entire body down on the wolf in order to pet his ears, scratching his nails down along the lighter fur at his spine. The wolf, Keith thinks, looks distinctly pleased.

“Okay,” Keith says, pointing to the middle of the room. “Stand there.”

“Why?” Shiro asks, already heading over there with the wolf padding along beside him. Shiro’s hand is buried in his fur.

Instead of answering, Keith moves to the control panel near the doorway between the cargo hold and cockpit. He presses at a series of buttons, overriding some failsafes easily, his smile growing. He clicks the last button and waits.

A moment later, everything in the cargo hold starts floating, lifting up off the ground. He hears Shiro’s gasp of surprise and Keith swallows down thickly before turning back towards him. Shiro’s eyes are wide and his feet are kicking out in a desperate, instinctual attempt at gaining some friction, seeking a way to get back down on the ground.

“What happened?” Shiro asks, and there’s an edge to his voice that betrays his delight even as he tries to quash it down on his face. Something inside Keith aches— that, even at this age, Shiro feels he has to hide what he was feeling.

“I turned off the gravity,” Keith tells him, using his jetpack to slice through the air back towards Shiro and the wolf.

He offers Shiro a shaky smile, hopes that his desperate need to make Shiro happy doesn’t show on his face. Knows it does. Only cares if it’ll make Shiro uncomfortable to have such undivided attention. He doesn’t realize, until this moment, Shiro suspended in air as if through water, that it matters an incredible amount that Shiro enjoys this moment.

“I’d let you go outside, it’d be better, but we don’t have any suits that would fit you like this so— I figured this is the next best thing? I mean… you’ve been in space and have hardly been able to feel it, you know?”

Shiro’s staring at him and Keith fears he’ll reject it, that he’ll think Keith is still trying to condescend to him. He holds his breath. He’d let him outside if he could, if he could find a suit for Shiro, to let him breathe, to let him float among the stars like he wants. This is a pale comparison and yet—

Shiro grins at him, his eyes lighting up. “This is so cool!”

Shiro tries to swim through the air, kicking out, arms windmilling, and he’s so uncoordinated and endearing that Keith’s heart aches again. He’s never seen Shiro so uncoordinated and so delighted to be. Just days ago, Shiro was twisted up in pain and now he’s swirling through the air, not quite like he’s always been there, but like he belongs.

Keith watches him flail for a moment before laughing. He looks like an uncoordinated bird and there’s something so endearing about an ungraceful Shiro, a Shiro who doesn’t know what to do with his hands, with his feet, who’s floating upside down and doesn’t know how to right himself again.

Laughing, feeling helpless, feeling overflowed with affection, he offers his hands to Shiro, holding them out to him. Shiro doesn’t even have to consider, kicking his legs out with great force to flip him around and he dolphin kicks his way to Keith, grabbing onto his hands. His hold is firm, steady— that, at much, is unrelentingly Shiro.

“Let me,” Keith tells him, uses the propulsion pack again to guide them through the air in a slow arc. He tugs Shiro along and he follows in his wake, grinning. “You don’t need to kick your legs. I’ll give you the momentum.”

He guides them through the air and Shiro listens, not kicking anymore, just gliding. His hold on Keith is tight, not from fear of letting go, but desire to keep moving. Keith builds up speed and then starts to spin in a sharp, close spiral. He spins around and around and Shiro barks out a surprised, pleased laugh. He lets Shiro feel that semblance of g-force, the mounting pressure pushing against him even in the absence of gravity.

Then, he lets him go. Shiro arcs through the air, arms outstretched and laughing.

Shiro’s downright giggling as he glides through the air all the way to the opposite wall. He curls into himself and then pushes off, soaring back in the other direction now. The wolf follows after him, galloping through the air like he’s on solid land, swirling around Shiro like a comet’s tail. Keith watches them, floating beneath them, his smile soft.

Soon, Shiro grows confident enough to try flipping through the air. He does several rolls, all tucked up and laughing. He kicks off the walls, dodging around the floating cargo, rolling around the wolf like the ring of a planet, plants his feet on the ceiling and grins as he hangs, suspended, upside down for a moment. Keith doesn’t know the last time he’s ever seen Shiro— any Shiro— this happy. He could watch him do this forever. He’d give Shiro the entire universe to soar through, unhindered, if he could.

Keith watches him, expression soft, as Shiro laughs with the wolf, as he spins on his own, as he attempts some backflips next, tumbling through the air like an asteroid. Shiro presses his hands hard against the wall and springs off it, cartwheeling first, and then floating on his back and staring up at the ceiling. Keith only wishes he could see the stars as he does this, only wishes he could make this perfect for him—

“Having fun?” Keith calls.

Shiro laughs, breathless, as he turns to look down at Keith, his hair floating in his eyes, shining and bright.

“Keith,” Shiro says, and that’s all he says— and Keith’s breath stills, only for a moment, to hear Shiro say his name like that, like this. Shiro smiles at him, not a boyish grin, but something softer, his eyes reflecting all the starlight neither of them can see.

Keith uses his pack again to glide up to Shiro’s level, smiling at him.

“This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Shiro tells him, and up close Keith can see how shy his smile is, how open his expression is, unguarded and unrelentingly happy. Shiro blushes and Keith responds to the words with a helpless smile.

“Well,” Keith says, feeling exposed. “In fairness, not too many people can give you zero gravity.”

Shiro shakes his head. “It’s not just that.”

Instead of elaborating, though, Shiro twists around before he knocks into Black’s ceiling and pushes off again, trying for three backflips in a row. He manages it and the wolf follows after him, playfully snapping at his heels.

Keith watches Shiro’s eyes clench shut, his smile wide but with a soft, painful edge. Keith sees the ghost of tears on Shiro’s eyelashes, that crippling, overwhelming happiness almost suffocating him. It takes everything in Keith’s power not to run to him right then and there, to comfort him.

He understands that feeling. He felt it, too, the very first time Shiro ever took him out on a hoverbike, the first time he ever got to race against him and almost, for a split second, won. The first time, for a split second, Keith felt like someone out there might care about him enough to want him to be happy.

“My body’s never felt this light before,” Shiro says, softly, with wonder, once he’s close enough to Keith again. The implication hangs heavy in the unspoken words and Keith wonders, not for the first time, how often Shiro’s just been able to have fun, to laugh like this.

Shiro does another flip in the air and seems to hang there as Keith floats to him. Shiro grins at him, his cheeks rosy with happiness, his eyes shining. He looks devastatingly young in the moment and the pain in Keith’s heart beats again anew.

“Keith,” Shiro says again, softly. “Thank you.”

Keith smiles, doesn’t bother telling him that he doesn’t need to thank him— he knows how much this must mean to Shiro. He remembers what it meant to him, too, way back when.

He wants Shiro to always be this happy. He wants Shiro to always feel this light.

 

-

 

They’re out in space for too long and when Allura gently suggests they land again on another asteroid to let the lions recharge and for everyone to stretch their legs, nobody really protests. It’s easy to start going stir-crazy inside the lion. They shop around the asteroid belt until they find something big enough to house them all with an atmosphere, but not so far in that it blocks out Pidge’s scanners, who’s still searching for the light.

Keith stretches a bit until his back pops as he exits Black, the others already setting up a joint camp between the circle of lions. A fire isn’t strictly necessary, but it provides ambiance and (as Hunk claims) a nice smoky flavor when cooking.

Shiro’s already following Hunk around, helping to carry firewood, which isn’t really firewood so much as a porous, flammable stone eroding off the asteroid’s rocky hillsides.

“Look man, I’m telling you,” Hunk says as he and Shiro trot by Keith, arms full of firewood. The wolf follows behind Shiro, tail flickering. It’s like a series of progressively unduckling-like ducklings following Hunk. “Giant space worms seem cool in theory but they’re not fun in reality. Never have been and never will be.”

“But what if they’re big enough to ride around like a cool hoverbike or something?” Shiro presses.

“Nuh uh, no way, only you could think a worm would be a cool ride,” Hunk snorts, dropping the flammable stone down into the makeshift firepit. “You won’t convince this of me, man. I’ll stay on the ground where it’s safe over taking a worm to travel any day.”

“But what if it borrows into the ground and takes you all the way to the other side of the planet?” Shiro asks.

“Yeah, sure, cool until you burn up. You know it’s actually impractical to expect anything to literally travel through a planet, right? Most planets are molten? I know you know this.”

Shiro crosses his arms, looking amused. “I’m going to stand by the worms, man.”

“And to think I once thought you were cool,” Hunk mutters, but his smile is warm and teasing and Shiro doesn’t take any offense, grinning back.

“I bet others agree with me,” Shiro says, suddenly, and turns to look directly at Keith. Keith hadn’t realized that Shiro even knew he was there. “Right?”

Keith’s mouth twitches with a small smile. “How big a worm we talking?”

“Ugh, no fair calling on Keith,” Hunk mutters as he gets a fire going and dusts his hands off before planting them on his hips. “Obviously he’s going to agree with you.”

Shiro grins. In the firelight Hunk’s made, his cheeks flush red as he looks at Keith. Keith smiles back.

Shiro says, “You have to know your strengths and utilize them when debating, Hunk.”

 

-

 

Shiro sits down beside Keith the second night they’re on the asteroid. Keith tilts his head a little in greeting, can see that Shiro has something on his mind even before he says it.

“We’re friends when I’m… normal,” Shiro says.

“Yes,” Keith answers. He waits to see what it is Shiro’s approaching.

“Best friends,” Shiro clarifies.

“Yes,” Keith says again.

Keith watches as Shiro starts to blush. Keith shouldn’t be surprised— he’s suspected this might happen as soon as he noticed Shiro blushing around him every time.

He wonders if his own crush on Shiro was painfully obvious to Shiro as this one is to Keith. He starts to blush, too, in sympathy and mortification.

Shiro digs in his pocket and pulls out his datapad. He flips through it for a few moments, his cheeks bright red.

“Um,” Shiro says, lightly, and his shoulders seem to deflate a little. He scoots closer to Keith and holds out the datapad numbly. It’s on an entry about weblums, of all things. “Will you explain this more to me? It doesn’t make sense.”

Keith smiles a little, knows this isn’t what Shiro wanted to ask, and takes up the datapad anyway. “Sure, Shiro.”

 

-

 

When Keith wakes up in the morning, Shiro is already awake. The datapad is in his lap, but instead of furiously scrolling and speed reading, he’s staring, studying. Keith yawns a little and rubs at his eye before sitting up.

“Morning,” he says.

Shiro startles and looks up at Keith. “… Morning, Keith.”

“What’re you reading about?” Keith asks, stumbling out of bed with less dignity than he was aiming for, reaching out blindly to pat the wolf’s head when he slides up to his side.

Shiro hesitates, cheeks pink. Keith’s about to drop it when Shiro turns the datapad and shows Keith—

It’s an image of Shiro, his official shot from the Galaxy Garrison, smiling and looking proud. Despite this younger Shiro looking closer to this man than the man Shiro’s become, it’s still surprising to see him like that— that small smile, no scars, no white in his hair.

Keith studies that face for a long moment before looking up at the young Shiro.

Shiro blushes. “I wasn’t… I mean. I know it must look weird I’m looking at… myself.”

“I don’t think it’s weird,” Keith says. “Truthfully, if I were you, my own file would have been the first thing I’d read.”

He’s just glad that Shiro didn’t, hasn’t seemed to have gotten to anything about the arena or his cloning.

Shiro looks back down at the image of his future self. He frowns thoughtfully.

“So…” Keith asks, quietly. “What do you think?”

Shiro shrugs a little, eyes on his own face. Then he sighs and looks up at Keith.

“I look strong,” he decides.

Keith smiles, just a touch sad. “You are, Shiro.”

Shiro powers down the datapad and his face washes into darkness, illuminated only by the purple lights inside Black. Shiro’s quiet for a long moment and Keith’s about to step away and get everyone else awake for breakfast, but Shiro looks up at him again.

“I was afraid of what I’d look like,” he tells Keith.

Keith’s breath rushes out of him in a long breath and he sits down heavily at the end of Shiro’s bed. Shiro watches him, studying his face, just as he always seems to when they broach these conversations.

“Shiro,” Keith says, quietly. “You are the strongest person I’ve ever known. Then, now, whenever. You’re so strong, and not just physically.”

Shiro’s fingertips drum on the edge of the tablet and he nods a little, just the barest of movements. Keith wants to insist, wants to reassure, wants to reach out to Shiro and—

He realizes, in an instant, that he’s moving forward and pulling Shiro into his arms a moment later than is possible to not do that, unsure how Shiro would respond.

Turns out, well— he hears Shiro take a breath and then sink into Keith’s arms. After a moment, his arms come up and wrap tentatively around Keith’s back.

“You’re so strong, Shiro,” Keith tells him, quietly. “You should be proud of yourself for everything you will and have accomplished.”

Shiro says nothing, but tightens his hold on Keith anyway. Keith bows into him, holds him close, doesn’t want to let go.

“Never give up on yourself, okay?” he whispers, and his heart cracks in half when Shiro makes a small, soft rasp of breath.

 

-

 

“It’s here! It’s here!” Pidge’s voice cuts through the comms.

“What?” Hunk gasps out, anxiety clear in his voice. “Oh no, what now?”

“No, the light! It’s coming back!” Pidge yells. “We need to get Shiro and Kaltenecker to the cargo bays. Now!”

“How long do we have?”

“A few dobashes, tops,” Pidge answers. “There’s distortion, I can’t get an accurate reading. I just know this is probably our only chance.”

“But what about the whole ‘Shiro turns into a baby’ issue?” Lance asks.

Keith is already on his feet, leading Shiro to the cargo bay. “We’ll deal with it if that happens. But we’re not wasting this chance to help Shiro.”

Shiro looks up at him for a long moment. He’s so achingly young, Keith thinks, memorizing this face while he still can. His hand rests on Shiro’s shoulder as they run together towards the cargo bay.

Once there, Keith sighs and lets him go, taking a step back. “Okay. I can’t be in here while we reverse course. Shiro—”

He fumbles. Cuts off. He finds that he really doesn’t know what to say. Somehow, nothing feels like enough time. Shiro looks at him, eyes soft and his smile tentative. He blushes and Keith feels just as young as Shiro, like a little kid again wanting, desperately, to impress the person he’s looked up to.

He wants, more than anything, to be here with Shiro while he turns back to himself— or not. He doesn’t want him to be alone as the world novas around him.

“Keith?” Shiro asks when the silence stretches on too long, his voice quiet.

“Yes?” Keith answers.

“Will you do something for me?”

“Anything,” Keith says, immediately, without hesitation.

Shiro’s smile turns a little self-deprecating, so achingly familiar to the way the Shiro he knows smiles. He asks, as if expecting even now for Keith to say no: “Will you turn the gravity off for me before you go?”

Keith smiles back and manages a small laugh, knows his face is unbearably soft when he says, “Anything for you, Shiro.”

Pidge shouts a warning over the comms and Keith hesitates, then steps forward and drags Shiro into a tight hold.

“You,” Keith tells him, “Shiro, you’re—”

He can’t manage the words, but this time it’s Shiro who pats his shoulder, gently, resting his head against his chest.

“You have to go, Keith,” Shiro says. “Besides… I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going back to normal.”

Keith wants to reassure him, tell him he isn’t a replacement, that he isn’t abnormal or unwelcomed or a burden or anything he knows Shiro’s been thinking this entire time—

But there’s no time. Pidge is turning frantic.

He touches Shiro’s cheek, thumb at the spot where his scar will eventually begin. He can feel the bloom of heat from Shiro’s cheek as he blushes.

“You have been and always will be everything to me,” he tells Shiro, answering the question Shiro never actually asked him, never was able to and—

He turns on his heel and races from the cargo hold. He throws the gravity off as he runs, heading back to his chair and hitting on the controls to start reversing course. He pulls up the camera display of the cargo bay, just to make sure Shiro doesn’t actually wink out of existence from reversal through an alien creature’s digestive system or whatever’s about to happen. Shiro looks peaceful, although his face is bright red, floating through the zero gravity air.

Keith can see the light in the distance. Now that he knows to look for it, it’s twisting like an eel— definitely sentient.

“Are we ready?” he asks. “Kaltenecker in the hold?”

“Yep!” Hunk confirms. “Shiro?”

“Yes,” Keith answers. “Okay, on my count, Hunk and I will reverse course as the light hits us.”

He counts them down as the light starts to engulf, and together, he and Hunk slam on the controls. The Black Lion lurches around him but responds. The wolf whines beside him. Keith’s eyes travel to the cargo bay and he watches as Shiro closes his eyes, swirling through the air, just as the light engulfs him and the camera cuts out.

He hears what sounds like a howl or a call or something from the— space eel, he guesses. It continues swirling behind them and disappears into the asteroid field.

“I really want to study that,” he hears Pidge mutter.

“Report in,” Keith calls out. The others report in to confirm no change— everyone in the cockpits this time, aside from Shiro and Kaltenecker. Hunk confirms Kaltenecker is back to her normal cow self, which makes Keith’s heart race as he rights Black again. Black’s camera doesn’t respond when he calls it up, which is just as well because—

“Shiro, reporting in,” Shiro offers over the comms. Keith’s heart lodges in his throat as he hears the deep timbre of his voice, that softness he’s always known. Keith’s already leaving his chair before he’s even thinking about it, fueled on by instinct, heading to the cargo bay to confirm, his feet carrying him before he can quite think about it—

It hits him, then, suddenly and completely, how terribly he’s missed Shiro’s voice, Shiro’s smile, Shiro—

The others are cheering to welcome Shiro back over the comms and Shiro’s laughing, greeting them all by name like he’s just been away on a weekend jaunt, like they haven’t spoken in years.

When the door opens, Keith finds himself floating through the air— towards a Shiro floating upside down, silver hair out of his eyes, one arm again.

“Hey,” Shiro greets him, his voice soft, a string of guilt lacing between his words. “Long time no see, huh?”

Keith reaches for him and Shiro’s hand is already reaching back, righting himself to face Keith properly, his hand holding Keith’s.

“Shiro,” Keith says, for lack of anything else to say.

“Hey, Keith,” Shiro says, gentle.

It’s strange, now, to have known younger Shiro. Before, he always thought Shiro seemed older than his age, but now he can see where the boy once was, how young Shiro actually is. The silver hair, Keith realizes, makes him look younger than he once did, softer and more ethereal. He looks like he’s made of starlight.

“Feeling alright?”

Shiro smiles at him and it reaches his eyes. “Well,” he says, and there’s a definite tease to his voice, the way his eyebrows quirk, “At least this time my whole ‘not in control of my body’ experience was less to do with murder and more to do with teenaged awkwardness.”

Keith snorts. And like that, the universe feels a little less scary again.

“Oh good,” he hears Pidge say over the comms. “I’m glad that worked. Now Keith can stop looking so Depressed Team Leader all the time.”

“Hey,” Keith says, with feeling.

“Yeah, it was pretty bad, buddy,” Hunk offers.

Really bad,” Lance agrees.

“Hey!” Keith says again, gritting his teeth. “I was worried, okay!”

He blushes a little when he says this, looking at Shiro, who looks at him gently. Keith watches, as if through water, as if in an out of body experience, as Shiro threads their fingers together, holding his hand as they float along Black’s cargo hold.

“Sorry to worry you,” Shiro offers, his voice quiet and sleepy and what it sounded like before this all happened, and Keith wonders if it’s like starting all over again for Shiro, if he still feels as out of it as he did before all this happened, if his consciousness feels permanently untethered from the rest of him.

Shiro searches Keith’s face and squeezes his hand, reassuring.

“So do you remember everything, Shiro?” Allura asks, her voice soft and worried over the comms.

“Yeah,” Shiro says, brow furrowing. “It’s weird. It’s like… mixed in with my other memories but also feels separate. It’s hard to explain, but it’s there.”

Keith wasn’t sure if he would remember, and his heart thunders a little at what would be Shiro’s last memories of all this— You are everything to me.

Shiro looks at him, his expression softening, and he must be thinking of it, too, because he squeezes Keith’s hand gently.

Keith smiles back, helpless.

 

-

 

“I was pretty sure you hated me,” Keith says with a laugh to disguise the hurt the thought causes, rooted in his heart, coiled in his chest. He sits back down in Black’s chair and feels Shiro slide up to his right side, his hand resting on Keith’s shoulder. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed that weight until it was back again.

“Not possible,” Shiro dismisses immediately.

Keith wants to say something, to protest somehow. Instead, he chews on the question that’s been eating at him since Shiro first returned. “Shiro,” he says, quietly, “Does it bother you that I’m always… I don’t know.”

“Looking out for me?” Shiro offers. When he phrases it like that, it sounds nice.

Keith twists around to frown up at him. Shiro laughs.

“Keith,” Shiro says, quietly, his smile gentle as he looks at him. “It doesn’t bother me that you look out for me.” Keith stays quiet and Shiro tilts his head. “You were never holding me back. You were helping me be my best self.”

And wasn’t that just like Shiro— to be able to see to the heart of what was worrying Keith and reassure him, instantly and easily. He always knew what to say. Keith sometimes envied that about him.

“You know,” Shiro says quietly, looking out at the stars, at the other lions flanking Keith’s, his smile soft and almost not there. “Back then, even if I had somebody who owned a ship, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have turned the artificial gravity off for me.”

Keith feels himself blush but finds himself smiling through it. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Shiro says. “Keith, I… You’ve only ever helped me be exactly who I was meant to be.”

He offers it quietly, as if it’s not anything at all, as if it isn’t the entire universe between them. Keith’s expression melts and he gives him a soft smile, his heart beating in his chest.

Shiro reaches out his hand and Keith takes it, lacing their fingers together again. He understands.

“Shiro, I…” Keith starts.

“Wait,” Shiro interrupts, and his smile is boyish and helpless and just a touch shy. “You’ve told me so many times now. Let me say it first for once.”

Keith snaps his mouth shut and watches as Shiro moves to stand in front of him and kneel down so they're looking eye to eye. Shiro holds his hand, his thumb swiping over his knuckles. Keith feels himself blushing, his mouth twisting up into an openly affectionate and probably absurd smile.

Shiro’s smile is equally as absurd and— so handsome. So devastatingly handsome.

“I love you, Keith,” Shiro tells him and Keith makes a soft sound, reaching out to touch Shiro’s cheek. Shiro breathes out and leans into the touch, his smile turning wobbly. “And you’re everything to me, too.”

Keith isn’t sure who moves first— if Keith tugs Shiro up, or if Shiro is already lurching forward. But when they kiss, the tension leeches from Keith’s body and he sighs out, arching to meet Shiro as Shiro plants his knee on the pilot’s chair and melts into Keith, kissing him slowly.

Keith knows, beyond a doubt, that just like the stellar sky, he will never get used to the way Shiro feels when he’s kissing him. He never wants to be used to it.

 

-

 

When they land on an asteroid to charge up the lions, the other paladins tumble from their lions and converge on the Black Lion.

“Shiro!” Pidge cheers when she sees Shiro and leads the charge to dogpile on him. The others are quick to follow and Keith laughs as he watches Shiro get buried beneath their friends in a large group hug.

Instead of looking put upon, Shiro just looks happy even as he’s unable to return the onslaught of hugs. He cushions his cheek against Hunk’s head, cheek pillowing up and making him look smushy-faced and ridiculous. He looks boyish then, carefree, if only for a moment.

Keith watches with a small smile until Hunk’s hand whips out, grabs his wrist, and drags him into the hug, too. Keith goes willingly and lets himself get enveloped.