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True North

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Keith is so screwed. He hugs himself in the predawn stillness of Atlas’s deserted Officer’s Mess and shivers inside Shiro’s oversized hoodie. He’s not cold, just tired. Something to do with circadian rhythms, the Chief Medical Officer told them when they first came back to Earth. They’ve spent so much time in deep space, their bodies need time to acclimate to a twenty-four hour solar cycle again.

Keith’s been having a harder time re-adjusting than the others because he technically spent two more years living inside a starless void than they did. Or maybe that’s what it was at first, but he’s barely slept a wink since his alien DNA decided to fuck him up the ass again, the same way it’s been fucking him up the ass since he was a kid. Now he’s not sure if it’s stress, or a symptom of his... condition that’s keeping him awake.

He sighs, raking his fingers through his unruly hair. Oddly, it’s gotten thicker in the weeks since it happened. It’s growing faster too. It’s nearly past his shoulder blades now. He’s taken to tying it back in a loose ponytail just to keep it off his face and neck. Shiro doesn’t seem to mind.

Keith rubs his burning eyes. Dodging Shiro’s starting to become a problem. And it isn’t as if Keith is helping matters by sneaking out of Shiro’s bed to wander the deserted corridors of the Atlas at all hours like some sort of sleep-deprived zombie. Trouble is, he doesn’t know what else to do. He needs time to think, but no amount of thinking is going to change his situation, or make it any less complicated.

It’s been six-months since Keith woke up in the garrison hospital and Shiro quietly confessed his feelings to him. Six-months since Shiro told him the disease that put his life on hold was gone. Six-months since Keith moved into the Captain’s quarters and almost started to believe they could have a future together after the war. What an idiot he was. He should’ve known it would just be a matter of time before his stupid hybrid biology would ruin it all.

He stares at his slightly swollen hands in the darkness, or grayness really. Truth be told, Keith’s always been able to see in the dark. Ever since he was a kid. There’s never been a pitch black for him, just a sort of gauzy monochrome gray made up of pale silhouettes and opaque shadows.

It took him a while to figure out it wasn’t the same for everyone else. When he was growing up in the Home, he used to watch the other kids stumbling around the barracks after lights out, giggling and tripping over each other until the supervisor yelled for quiet and they bounced around like pinballs in their haste to escape beneath the covers before she came stomping up the stairs.

Keith was too quiet though, and as sure-footed in the dark as he was in the daylight. It became a source of contention between him and the other kids, just another weird creepy thing that set emo-kid apart. An incident his dad would’ve calmly weathered with a baffled shrug and a knowing smile if he’d been there. Except, his dad wasn't there and Keith’s oddities made him an object of mistrust to everyone around him. He was this foreign thing that was too… much. No one could deal with him. After a while, no one even tried.

And Keith couldn’t blame them, not really. There was something about him that made everyone leave. Something alien. He was a freak. Everyone stayed away for fear of catching whatever he had, whatever made his mom leave, whatever made his dad run into that burning building just to get away from him. Keith made it easy for them. He shoved them away before they could get close enough to hurt him, and he shoved them away hard.

He swallows and lifts his head. Shit! He’s gonna be sick. He closes his eyes and takes several deep breaths, clutching the smooth edge of the resin tabletop. Nope, still gonna be sick. He bolts out of his seat. Hard molded plastic and polished chrome crash to the floor as he vomits the contents of his mostly empty stomach into the steel sink by the coffee machine.

“Fuck,” he mutters, sagging against the counter, hanging his heavy head. He feels like shit, exhausted and nauseous pretty much all the time, and his clothes are getting tight, like really tight. Even Shiro’s hoodie isn’t as roomie as it used to be. He can’t button his jeans anymore, because that’s a thing now. His abs fled along with his virginity and it’s just a matter of time before everyone knows just how alien he really is, including Shiro.

Keith rubs his burning forehead. He wonders how hard he needs to shove to make Shiro leave for good. Harder than the day they met. He stole Shiro’s car, but Shiro didn’t bat an eye. He bailed Keith out of juvie and brought him to the garrison. He saw talent where everyone else saw trouble. Keith shoved again. He got into fights. Shiro told Keith he was better than that. He told Keith he wanted more for him. He told Keith he believed in him and for a hot minute Keith even dared to take his word for it.

For the first time since his dad died, Keith seemed to matter to someone. Shiro was like a light in the darkness. The first one Keith had seen in years, but there was a catch. Of course there was. Shiro was living on borrowed time. Letting him in meant opening himself up to being hurt again. Keith did it anyway. Shiro was worth the pain.

It happened sooner than he expected. Shiro disappeared from Kerberos and suddenly it was Keith who was living on borrowed time. No one else expected him to succeed; not Iverson, not the other cadets, not even him. Eventually, he’d mess everything up. It’s what he always did. He drove people away. He was too… much. If Shiro had stayed, he’d have figured it out too.

Keith sighs and rinses his mouth out with water from the faucet. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do when the Atlas takes off for deep space in two weeks. Though squeezing back into his garrison fatigues seems like the least of his problems when his entire future with the Voltron coalition is on the line.

Keith’s mom and the other Blades have been searching for Haggar and the rest of the Alteans since the wreckage from the robeast 2.0 was recovered. They contacted the garrison with credible intel on a possible location a few days ago. Earth is going to war, whether Keith is ready for it or not. He needs to be there, to see it through to the end, but he can’t exactly go on the way he always has, not for much longer anyway. If the senior officers discover his physical abilities have been compromised, he’ll be grounded for sure. Shiro will probably do it himself.

Keith doesn’t know how much longer he can keep it from him anyway. Aside from the sleeplessness and the mood swings and the morning sickness that refuses to limit itself to mornings, there have been physical changes to his body that even the baggiest clothes won’t be able to hide for much longer. Shiro isn’t stupid. If Keith were a woman, he’d have figured it out by now, but knocking up your weird alien freak of a boyfriend isn’t something normal people worry about.

Keith splashes water on his face and swallows again. Bitter heartburn crawls up the back of his throat. He’s had it for five-weeks straight, but he’s afraid to take anything for it, because it’s not just him he has to worry about anymore. He rights his upended chair and slumps into it, letting his heavy head sink onto the table in front of him. He’s so tired. He wishes he could sleep, really sleep, instead of dozing off in fits and starts, only to be jolted awake by nightmares moments later.

He listens to the Atlas, humming in peaceful slumber, or that’s what Shiro calls it anyway. Keith is only tangentially aware of her presence, like soft white noise in the back of his mind that he tunes out without thinking. She’s running on a skeleton crew at the moment. Besides Shiro and Keith, Allura, Coran and Romelle are aboard as well. All the orphans without homes of their own to return to.

The table is cool beneath his burning forehead. He’s not really sure what the deal is, but his sinuses are killing him. His face is hot, and throbbing in time to the beating of his heart. He closes his eyes with a soft groan. Blue purrs contentedly at the edge of his consciousness. She doesn’t get what his problem is. The former black paladin and the current black paladin love each other so much, they created life together. Surely it’s cause for celebration not heartache.

Keith doesn’t know how to explain it to her. He just knows that even now, after everything that’s happened between them, he’s always been waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s always lived in terror of the day that he would drive Shiro away for good and he’s pretty sure this will just about do it.

Black seems to understand. She whispers small encouragements to him and Keith can feel himself starting to drift beneath her quiet ministrations. He sighs as some of the tension leaves his body, but it’s short-lived. He startles and opens his eyes. He’s back on the clone base.

He’s falling through space with his fingers wrapped tightly around Shiro’s wrist. Shiro is glaring up at him, his eyes alight with violet flame.

“You love me,” he says snidely. “Is a creature as broken as you even capable of feeling love?”

Keith swallows. “You’re not real,” he whispers. “This isn’t real.”

“Oh, I’m as real as you are,” Shiro says, grinning maliciously, “and I will always be a part of him now, thanks to you. The part that’s seen you for what you really are.”

“Wake up,” Keith tells himself, even as his stomach bottoms out and his lungs begin to burn from lack of oxygen.

“Your own parents couldn’t get away from you fast enough,” Shiro says, his voice all hot oil and burning gravel. “You know why. There’s a monster hidden inside you.”

Keith closes his eyes.

“You’ll pass it on you know,” Shiro says. “They’ll be freaks like you. Too broken to be loved. How could you possibly think I would ever want any of you?”

“Keith!” Lance snaps, standing over him. Keith startles awake, sitting bolt upright in his seat and blinking sleep from his eyes as the muted gray darkness suddenly flares to blinding white light around him. Hunk and Pidge are there too, squinting down at him. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”

“No,” Keith says, “sorry.” He exhales and swallows, the fading images of the nightmare threatening to turn his unsettled stomach again.

“Why are you sitting alone in the dark?” Hunk asks, his finger poised over the environmental systems trackpad by the door.

“I just… needed a quiet place to think,” Keith says, though really he’s been too exhausted to continue wandering aimlessly around the ship since Black banned him from barfing inside her flight compartment. He can hear her chuffing somewhat indignantly at the thought.

“Still can’t sleep huh,” Hunk says softly. Keith shakes his head, rubbing the sand from his eyes,

The others exchange a troubled glance. Keith can guess why. They haven’t seen him in weeks and he knows he looks like shit, exhausted and bloated. He shrinks a bit in his seat, self-consciously tugging on Shiro’s oversized hoodie.

“Are… are you okay?” Hunk asks, and to Keith’s dismay, he pulls out a chair and takes the seat across from him, followed a moment later by Lance and Pidge. Keith leans back from the table. Okay, it’s not dismay exactly, but he’d rather not engage in some long tiring conversation just now.

“I’m fine,” he says. “What are you guys doing here anyway? You’re not due to report back in for another week.” Just past the pounding in his head, Keith can hear their lions whispering to each other, or whispering isn’t exactly the right word. It’s more like an instantaneous exchange of information. Black’s a lot more subtle than Red used to be, sometimes it’s hard to tell which thoughts belong to her and which are Keith’s, but he gets the gist of the exchange.

All three of them look suddenly uncomfortable. Hunk actually blushes and Lance turns shifty. “Can't we just drop by for a visit with our fearless lead-”

“Save it,” Keith snaps, cutting him off. “I know Shiro called you.”

To their credit, no one tries to deny it. “He’s just worried about you,” Hunk says, softly. “Now that we’re here, we can kind of see why.”

Keith can’t help the blush coloring his cheeks.

“Shiro told us you’ve been sick and super stressed out, and that you’re refusing to talk to him about it,” Pidge adds.

“I’m not either of those things,” Keith says unconvincingly. His stomach heaves and he swallows bile, annoyed at the almost comical timing of his body’s inevitable betrayal.

“Really?” Lance says, raising an eyebrow. “Because you look like you’re about to boot all over the table… just give us enough warning to make it out of the splash zone.”

Keith glares at him and closes his eyes. He takes several deep breaths until his stomach returns to a quieter state of unsettled. It’s not like Shiro to share their personal business with anyone, even the other paladins. He must really be at the end of his rope.

“It’s... nothing,” Keith says, consumed with sudden guilt at the thought. “I’m sorry Shiro made you guys come all the way out here for no reason.”

“Shiro didn’t make us do anything. He told us you were upset and we wanted to make sure you were okay.” Oddly it’s Lance who says it, which seems… suspect. Keith just stares at him and tries to figure out what his angle is.

“Right, because we’re such great friends,” he says flatly.

“Dude!” Lance snaps defensively. “What’s your problem? We’re trying to hel-“

“Oh come on man, don’t be like that,” Hunk says, cutting Lance off with a look. “Not when we've been through so much together. We saved the earth from a Galra invasion remember?”

“I never said we weren’t a good team when we had to be,” Keith says sullenly, “just that it doesn’t make us friends.”

“No,” Hunk says, “but we could’ve been. We were almost friends, you and me. We shared a moment. We survived a star bomb together. That’s gotta count for something right?” He says it so earnestly, Keith instantly regrets his tone.

“Nope, not a real thing,” Pidge says dryly.

“Zaiforge bomb, whatever. You know what I mean,” Hunk says, his eyes momentarily flicking to her before returning to Keith’s burning face. “We fought in a war together. That should’ve brought us closer. Maybe it would’ve if you hadn’t pulled away, but we haven’t heard from you in weeks. It’s like you disappeared man.” Keith averts his eyes and Hunk sighs. “Look, I get that we weren’t always there for you the way we could’ve been,” he says, “but we wanna be now. We wanna have your back, all you have to do is, you know, let us.”

Keith scrubs his face, mostly so no one will see the tears welling up in his eyes. He’s having a really hard time keeping his emotions in check lately. Tears always seem to be lingering just below the surface. He feels like he’s trapped on a runaway roller-coaster, like he’s always right on the verge of screaming… or barfing.

“Look, I appreciate the sentiment,” he’s says awkwardly, hugging himself, “but this is something I have to figure out for myself. You guys can’t help me.”

“How do you know unless you tell us what’s bothering you,” Lance says.

Keith sighs in exasperation. “I just know,” he says.

“Okay, well even if that’s true and we can’t help,” Hunk says not unkindly, “just talking about it might make you feel better.”

“I can’t…” Keith falters, his voice suddenly breaking. He drops his clammy forehead into his hand. He’s sweating, because that whole “glowing” thing is a bunch of bullshit, at least in his case. He doesn’t glow. He just sweats, a lot. “Everything is so messed up,” he whispers plaintively. “I messed everything up.”

“You didn’t,” Pidge tells him, her voice soft and reassuring. She slides her hand across the table, but Keith just shivers and pulls away and hugs himself more tightly. “The coalition is stronger than ever,” Pidge continues undisturbed, “and now that the lions are fully charged again we’ll-”

“With Shiro, I meant,” Keith interjects softly, “I messed everything up with Shiro,” although, he’s not surprised Pidge thought he was talking about the mission. It’s not as if he actually talks about anything else with them. Come to think of it Hunk might have a point about his trust issues. “We’ve sort of been together since I was released from the hospital.”

“Yeah, that tracks,” Hunk says firmly.

“Kinda’ figured,” Pidge agrees.

“No duh,” Lance quips.

“So, you all knew then,” Keith says flatly. He can’t say he’s even all that surprised, well, maybe about Lance.

“Kinda hard not to notice that the longer you stayed unconscious, the more unhinged Shiro became.” Hunk shrugs. “He obviously cares a lot about you.”

Keith’s not exactly sure what to make of that. Shiro was there when he woke up, before the garrison could establish contact with his mom and Kolivan, but if Shiro was anxious, he didn’t let on. He was just the same as he’s always been with Keith, patient and a little self-deprecating.

“If you guys had some sort of falling out, I’m sure you’ll work through it,” Hunk says.

“No, it’s not that,” Keith says, self-consciously chewing his bottom lip. “Well, not yet anyway.” Even before it happened, things had grown awkward between them. Once easy conversations have become increasingly stilted and uncomfortable. Some days they don’t talk at all, they just fall into bed like a couple of sex-starved teenagers. Probably not the healthiest relationship now that Keith is thinking about it. “It’s something else. Something… unexpected happened.”

“Unexpected, huh,” Lance snorts. “What’re you pregnant?”

It’s meant as a joke, and everyone laughs except Keith of course. His face burns with embarrassment as he swallows past the bitter lump in his throat. “Yeah,” he says thickly. “I am.”

No one can figure out if he’s joking or not, but eventually the words sink in and the laughter fades to awkward silence.

Lance scowls at him. “Ha, Ha, very funny,” he says flatly.

Hunk looks uncertain. “Yeah, good one,” he says, while Pidge’s awkward giggles fade to thoughtful silence.

“You really had us going there for a second,” Lance says, glancing around the otherwise empty room. “Wait don’t tell me, any minute now Matt’s gonna pop out from behind one of these chairs holding a cam-”

Keith abruptly stands. The table shifts a few inches with the rasp of metal against metal as he lifts Shiro’s hoodie and shows them the evidence written in the changes in his body; the soft round curve of his expanding belly and the dusky swell in his breast.

It’s stunned silence this time, and it’s deafening. Keith covers himself and self-consciously averts his eyes. His knees are suddenly weak. He falls into his seat, leaning over the table, and immediately drops his head into his hands.

“Holy shit,” Pidge whispers incredulously.

“How, how, how, is this even possible?” Lance stammers. “I mean, you’re a guy. Wait, you are a guy right? This isn’t another stealth Pidge situation is it?”

“I’m a guy, okay!” Keith snaps. “A half-galra guy.” He swallows, feeling as if he’s going to be sick again. “And… I never really thought about it before, but I guess I have all the necessary parts for… making babies, or whatever.”

He can feel them staring at each other, even if he’s too distracted by all the lions buzzing inside his head at once to look up. They seem particularly attracted to the new source of quintessence growing inside him, almost as if his increase in life energy is energizing them as well. He wonders if that’s why they’ve gotten so loud. Even the Atlas’ slumbering background hum is practically making his teeth rattle in his mouth. It’s not doing much for his headache either.

“So when you say all the necessary parts, do you mean like all of them all of them, or-“

Lance!” Pidge snaps, shutting him up.

“I’m guessing Shiro doesn’t know,” Hunk says softly. “It is Shiro’s right?”

“They,” Keith says.

“Huh?”

They’re Shiro’s,” he says, his bottom lip trembling. “It’s… twins. Guess that’s a Galra thing too.”

He breaks down then. He drops his head into his hand and starts sobbing like an idiot. This isn’t him. He’s not that guy. He’s not the crying guy, but he’s scared. He doesn’t do scared. When you grow up in a Group Home you learn pretty quickly not to cry out in the middle of the night, because no one’s coming. Keith took the lesson to heart. He locked his fears away so that no one could ever use them against him. Until Shiro strolled into his life and made his heart vulnerable, until he made Keith fall in love with him and live with the constant fear of losing him again and again. He’s terrified of becoming a father at twenty-one, but even more terrified of doing it alone.

“Oh hey, whoah,” Hunk says. Keith hears his chair shift and suddenly finds himself wrapped up in Hunk’s big caring arms. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Pidge’s light footsteps circle around him and she throws her arms around his neck, her shaggy head pressed fiercely to his chest, then Lance drapes his warm hands over Keith’s shaking shoulders from behind. Keith groans in embarrassment and tries to pull away, but they hold him fast, preventing his escape. “I’m sorry you guys,” he gasps brokenly. “I don't know what the hell is wrong with me.”

“It’s hormones,” Lance shrugs.

Three sets of eyes shift to his face. “What?” he demands, turning defensive. “I come from a big family, and I’m an uncle. When my sister-in-law Lisa was pregnant with my nephew Silvio, she was like a mania-...” he falters, swallowing nervously when Pidge’s expression suddenly darkens.

“I double-dog-dare you to finish that sentence,” she says dangerously.

“She was… slightly… more emotional than usual,” he says, flashing Pidge a meek smile, “which… is totally understandable given the whole, um… creating... life... thing?”

Pidge huffs and Keith sniffs and wipes the last of the tears from his eyes. Objectively, he feels a little better, relieved of some of the stress that’s been building up over the last few months, but he’s also completely drained. He feels like he could sleep for a week, nightmares be damned.

The lions have settled down as well, lingering in the corners of his mind with soft comforting whispers instead of loud excited rambling. He wonders if he has Black to thank for that, even as the image of a fiercely protective mother lioness pops into his head and he knows it’s true.

The hug continues and Keith doesn’t fight it. He just sits there, slowly breathing in and out, his eyes threatening to close with exhaustion.

“You don’t have to go through with it you know,” Pidge tells him softly. “No one would judge you if you decided not to.”

Hunk and Lance murmur in agreement, but Keith just shakes his head. “You’re gonna think this is weird,” he says.

“Dude, you’re pregnant,” Lance says, as if Keith needs reminding. “Weirdness is kinda relative at this point, don’t ya think?”

Keith winces, but doesn’t argue. “I knew when it happened,” he tells them, “or, I knew something had changed anyway. It took me a few weeks to figure out what, but by then I could feel them… feel their energy growing inside me.”

“Because of that thing you have with quintessence,” Pidge says. It isn’t a question.

Keith scrubs his face and shrugs. “I guess,” he says. “Whatever it is, I can’t just… abandon them the way I was abandoned. I won’t.”

“No one’s telling you to do that,” Hunk murmurs reassuringly. “We just want you to know that whatever happens, we’re here for you man.”

Keith sniffs and swipes tears from his eyes. “Thanks,” he says. They let him pull away then, so he can pull himself together. He rubs his eyes and sniffs as they gather their chairs around him. Keith is both mortified and touched by their concern. Hunk grabs a napkin from the silver container on the table and Keith blows his nose.

“Does your mom know?” Lance asks him.

Keith nods. “She wants me to stay with the Blade once we rendezvous with them.” He shrugs. “I guess they have experience with this sort of thing.”

“Wait… What?” Lance cries. “You can’t just leave again! We can’t form Voltron without you! Who’s gonna fly the black lion if you’re gone?”

“I think what Lance is trying to say is that we’d miss you,” Pidge says flatly, glaring at him.

“Right,” Lance says swallowing awkwardly, “also… that… too...”

“You think I wanna leave?” Keith demands. He’s still consumed with guilt over leaving the first time, and he knows the others still resent him for it. He’s just never been able to articulate how useless he felt once Shir… the clone joined the team. It was as if Keith couldn’t do anything right with him watching. Maybe if he’d stayed he’d have figured out Shiro had been replaced, but he didn’t and he can’t change that. He kept himself closed off from the black lion and ran out on the team and Shiro spent eighteen months trapped in limbo as a result, and Keith will never be able to make up for any of it, to any of them. “You think I wanna go into confinement like some character from a Jane Austen novel?”

“So don’t,” Lance says.

“What choice do I have?” Keith says, licking his lips as relentless heartburn crawls up the back of his throat. “It’s not like I’m of any use like this. I don’t sleep. I have to pee like all the time, and everything smells funny, and tastes funny, and makes me wanna barf.”

“That’s just first-trimester stuff,” Lance says, with a dismissive wave. “Wait, when exactly did this happen?”

“A little over three months ago,” Keith says, self-consciously averting his eyes. It was fourteen-weeks ago to be precise, the night he woke with a start tangled in Shiro’s sheets, with Shiro’s arms wrapped around him and Shiro’s babies unexpectedly growing inside him.

“Thought so,” Lance says nodding sagely. “Everyone feels like shit during the first trimester, but just hang in there a little longer, you’ll be back to your old self soon. Well not exactly your old self, but… you know what I mean. It gets better.”

“Great,” Keith says, squinting skeptically, “but I can’t just pretend none of this is happening either. I mean, look at me,” he says, grasping his swollen belly, “how am I supposed to fly the black lion when I’m too big to fit in the pilot’s seat?”

“I mean, can’t Shiro do it?” Hunk asks.

Keith sighs. “Shiro’s bond with the black lion is gone,” he says wearily.

“Okay, but none of us had ties to any of the lions before we found them right?” Hunk says. “Can’t Shiro just you know, re-establish his.”

“Assuming he even wants to,” Pidge says. “You guys know why Shiro switched to Green on the way back home right? He told me being inside Black made him feel claustrophobic.”

“Oh well, that makes perfect sense,” Lance says sarcastically. “She’s only the biggest lion.”

“I don’t think it was that kind of claustrophobia,” Pidge says.

“Well, I mean he did spend like two years trapped inside the thing,” Hunk says. “Something like that’s gotta stay with you.”

“He needs time to remember who he used to be separate from her,” Keith says softly, he can hear Black chuffing with regret inside his head. She’d never meant to trap Shiro’s consciousness, but the self-destruct device Haggar planted inside his arm had taken her by surprise. “It’s why I agreed to keep piloting her,” Keith says, sending reassuring thoughts her way, “because, for now at least, Shiro doesn’t want to.”

“What about James,” Lance says suddenly.

“What about him,” Hunk asks.

“He’s a good pilot,” Lance says, “maybe even as good as Keith. Plus he’s you know… pretty heroic, or whatever, maybe he could pilot Black.”

Despite himself, Keith winces slightly at the suggestion. It’s stupid, because Lance isn’t wrong. James is everything Keith isn’t; a straight-A-student who’s well-liked by his peers, a disciplined soldier and a confident, respected squadron leader. He’s the first person Keith would consider to replace himself as black paladin, and yet he was Keith’s chief tormentor at school. Every time they’re in the same room together, Keith finds himself bracing for an attack. And he feels like that scared little kid whose parents abandoned him all over again.

“I don’t think it works like-” Pidge murmurs.

“No way, am I taking orders from that guy,” Hunk says tartly, cutting her off.

“Why not?” Lance demands.

“Uh, because he’s a giant douche,” Hunk says. “Don’t you remember what he said to Keith that time?”

Lance shrugs. “I remember Keith taking him out with one fucking punch like fucking One-Punch-Man,” he says.

“Trust me, he deserved it,” Hunk mutters darkly.

“I’m lost,” Pidge says, glancing around in confusion. “When was this?”

“Before you joined the garrison,” Hunk says absently.

Keith licks his lips as the room turns suddenly stifling. “Can we just… stop talking about this...,” he gasps, tugging at his shirt collar when it inexplicably becomes harder to breathe, “...it’s ancient history.”

“See?” Lance says smugly, “Keith’s totally cool with it.”

“You are badly misreading the situation,” Hunk murmurs, glancing at Keith with some concern.

“Guys. Guys. Guys!” Pidge snaps. “You can’t just start throwing rando pilots at the black lion and hope one of them sticks. It doesn’t work like-”

“Stop. STOP!” Keith cries, he’s not even really sure who he’s talking to, the bickering paladins or the lions. They seem particularly agitated at the thought of their paladins being shuffled around again without their consent. Black and Red refuse to accept a new black paladin who fills the current black paladin with dread, and the twin pools of quintessence growing inside him are somehow feeding off the lions anxiety, squeezing his chest with apprehension and making his unsettled stomach churn.

Everyone stops talking at once and Keith clamps his hand over his mouth in the sudden deafening silence. His stomach heaves. “Fuck,” he squawks, and bolts for the sink. Cold sweat springs out on his face and neck, but nothing much comes up. he sighs and splashes water on his face, then he washes out the sink and turns around just in time to see a scowling Hunk smack Lance upside the head.

“Hey!” Lance cries, immediately rubbing his head. “What was that for?”

“Insensitive much?”

“I’m not insensitive, you’re insensitive!” Lance cries, and Hunk rolls his eyes.

“Guys,” Keith says wearily, blotting his face and neck with a paper towel. Lance isn’t inconsiderate exactly, it’s just that he takes nothing anyone says to heart, so he can’t imagine anyone else would either.

Keith sighs, but he doesn’t return to his seat. He stands there hugging himself by the counter. Black is just being stubborn, but she won’t allow anyone to be forced on her either, not after what Zarkon did to her. “Pidge is right,” Keith says. “No one can fly the black lion unless she wants them to. Doesn’t matter how good a pilot they are.”

“Fine,” Lance huffs, throwing his hands up in resignation. “Then, it has to be you! You can’t leave!”

Keith scrubs his face. “I told you, I don’t want to, but it isn’t just me I have to worry about anymore. I can’t fight in a war if it means putting them at risk.” Because that’s the bottom line isn’t it, the thing he’s been trying to get around, only there’s no getting around it. He’s going to be a father and that means his priorities have to shift. He has to put his kids needs before his own desires.

“Look, no one’s denying your extremely impressive space-ninja skills,” Pidge wryly says, “but there’s more than one way to fight a war you know. You don’t have to fling yourself head-first at every Galra soldier who happens to cross your path.”

“Good note,” Keith deadpans.

“I’m serious!” Pidge insists. “We’re a team remember? We can do the heavy lifting until you… um,” she hesitates. “What exactly happens when you… do you… can… can you… give… birth?”

“I don’t know,” Keith admits, worrying his bottom lip. “I’ve kinda been trying not to think about it to tell the truth.”

“Sure, sure,” Pidge says, nodding rapidly. They all exchange an awkward glance. “Anyway, we can protect you until you’re… back in fighting condition.”

Lance and Hunk murmur in agreement.

“Pidge… I appreciate that,” Keith says softly, “but even if I agreed, the senior officers never would. As soon as they find out, I’ll be grounded for sure.”

“Not if they want Voltron to keep flying,” Lance mutters softly.

Black weighs in with a smug rumble of agreement and Keith pulls a face. It seems a lot like extortion, even if it is the truth.

“Is that why you haven’t told Shiro?” Hunk quietly asks, “because he’d ground you if he knew?” Keith swallows, his mouth suddenly dry.

He could lie. He could nod, or shrug, but they’d just see through him. His eyes always give him away. That’s what his dad used to say. Keith’s eyes are incapable of lying. Honestly, the rest of him ain’t that great at it either. “If I tell Shiro,” he says, “he’ll feel obligated to stay, even if it’s not what he wants.”

“What makes you think it’s not?” Hunk asks.

“Because he’s got plans,” Keith says. “After the war. He wants to explore the universe.” Watery tears fill Keith’s eyes even as he smiles, thinking about it. “He wants to camp on unknown worlds, sleep under foreign stars, be the first person to hike up an alien mountain and watch the sunset. Now that he’s finally…” cured he’d been about to say, but there’s no point in revealing that secret now that Shiro’s illness is gone. “...free, or will be once he’s discharged, he’ll finally get to do what he’s always wanted to do. Ever since Kerberos. I won’t let this be the thing that stops him. I won’t... derail his life like that.”

“What about your life?” Pidge asks, and Keith just looks at her, because he hasn’t really thought about anything beyond leaving. “Seems to me this is gonna derail your life a whole lot more than Shiro’s.”

“I can’t hold Shiro responsible for something he didn’t know could happen,” Keith says, hugging himself even more tightly.

“Did you?” Pidge asks, but they already know the answer. Keith’s hybrid physiology is as much a mystery to himself as anyone else. “You keep talking about this as if it’s all on you, but the last time I looked, it takes two people to make a baby and Shiro isn’t the kind of person who would just turn his back on that.”

“I know,” Keith says softly, “which is why I can’t tell him.”

“Did his plans include you?” Hunk abruptly asks. “Was Shiro planning on wandering the universe alone, or was he planning on doing it with you?”

“What’s it matter,” Keith says, his eyes dropping to his feet.

“Keith, it’s the only thing that matters,” Hunk says.

“Hunk’s right,” Pidge says. “Shiro clearly loves you. I mean, even Lance figured it out. What does that tell you.”

“Hey!” Lance cries indignantly.

Keith can’t quite bring himself to muster a smile. “Don’t you guys get it,” he says. “We’ve only been together for six-months. Even if you guys are right, even if Shiro does love me, he loved Adam too once. What if…” he falters, self-consciously swiping tears from his eyes.

Hunk gets up and joins him by the sink. “What if what?” he asks, laying a comforting hand on Keith’s trembling shoulder.

Keith sighs. “What if I was just supposed to be the guy that Shiro slept with until he found the man he was supposed to spend the rest of his life with?” Wobbly tears start rolling down Keith’s face. He does nothing to stop them. “Some tall, well-muscled specimen who isn’t a junkyard mutt like me. Doesn’t Shiro deserve to be with someone less… complicated? Someone who won’t fill his life with so much baggage.”

“No,” Hunk says firmly, and Keith nearly chuckles through his tears. “In another universe maybe,” Hunk continues, “but not in this one. In this one, you guys are supposed to be together.”

“Yes,” Lance nods.

“Definitely,” Pidge agrees.

This time Keith does laugh, though he’s still crying. God, he misses the good old days when hormones just made him horny.

“And I’d be willing to bet Shiro feels the same way,” Hunk says.

Keith sniffs and manages a watery smile, though he lacks Hunk’s conviction. He can’t imagine a scenario in which Shiro doesn’t come to resent the way Keith’s alien nature upends his life. They’ll be monsters, just like you, he hears Clone-Shiro’s voice whispering in his ear and his head suddenly starts to swim. He stumbles, his legs nearly going out from under him before Hunk springs forward and grabs him under the arms.

“Whoah, whoah,” Hunk yelps, as Keith’s head lolls and his eyelids flutter on the verge of passing out.

“I’ll get some water,” Lance cries, springing to his feet. Hunk lifts Keith off his feet and carries him back to his seat.

“Should I get Shiro?” Pidge anxiously asks.

“No,” Keith murmurs groggily, “I’m… I’m okay.” He sags in his chair. Hunk kneels in front of him and keeps him from sliding out of it. “It’s just… low blood sugar, or something.”

Lance appears out of nowhere holding a glass of water and Hunk presses it into his hand. “Drink this,” he says, then he lays the back of his hand on Keith’s forehead. “You’re warm.”

“It’s nothing,” Keith says, sipping fitfully from the glass in his hand, “just a sinus headache.”

“If it were nothing, you wouldn’t be almost passing out,” Hunk says, his jaw clenching in concern.

Keith sighs and scrubs his face. He’s feeling a little more solid now. “I just need some sleep,” he says.

“I think you need to tell Shiro,” Hunk says. “Keeping this secret from him is stressing you out. It’s not good Keith, for you or the babies.”

Black agrees. She’s been low-key broadcasting her displeasure for weeks, as if Keith needs another disappointed mother laying on the guilt. As the guardian of the black paladins, she considers herself their protector and the longer Keith shuts Shiro out the more his turbulent emotions unsettle her bond with both of them.

“I already told you-”

“I know, I know,” Hunk nods, “Shiro’s got plans, but if you just up and leave without a word he’ll always wonder what he did to drive you away.”

Keith swallows past the lump in his throat. “I just… really need him not to hate me right now,” he mumbles.

“Yeah, we get that,” Hunk says squeezing his hand. “We get that things have been kind of weird between you two since shit went down with the clone.”

Shit. Is it that obvious? “What makes you think something went down,” Keith mutters, averting his eyes.

“Besides the fact that when you came back Clone-Shiro was missing an arm and you had a ginormous welt on your face?” Pidge asks. “Besides that you mean?”

Keith blinks. “Yeah,” he says flatly. “Is it… it's not that big,” he says, self-consciously fingering the still slightly raised scar blemishing his cheek, “is it?” He’s not a vain person generally. He doesn’t spend much time in front of the mirror looking at himself. He doesn’t even own a comb, but he is keenly aware of how much harder it is for Shiro to look at him now that his face is no longer perfect.

“It doesn’t lower your overall level of hotness, if that’s what you’re asking,” Lance says absently, and everyone looks at him as if he’d just been replaced by a pod-person. “What?” He demands indignantly. “I’m comfortable enough with my own masculinity to compliment another man on his looks.”

Are you though,” Hunk says, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“You do realize Allura isn’t here right?” Pidge says wryly. “There’s literally no one you need to impress.”

“Shut up,” Lance says. “It’s called personal growth, and Keith’s scar makes him look like a badass. There I said it.” There’s a beat while everyone waits for the other shoe to drop. “Also, Allura digs sensitive guys.”

“Whoop there it is,” Pidge says smiling wryly.

The three of them almost laugh then. They might’ve if it had been the right moment. They could’ve bonded over some good-natured ribbing and that same sense of camaraderie that’s been bringing them together since they were assigned to the same flight crew at the garrison… If Keith wasn’t there, sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

“Seriously though,” Hunk continues, awkwardly clearing his throat. Keith sighs, feeling utterly alone despite their company. “I just don’t wanna see you do something you may regret. I mean, maybe Shiro will be okay without you. Maybe he’ll even find someone else one day like you said, but he’ll never be as happy with them as he could’ve been with you. Is that really something you can live with?”

Is it? Keith’s life will be spent fiercely loving Shiro’s children, but it will be spent alone. Of this, he has no doubt, because there will never be anyone but Shiro for him. His… attraction software, or whatever is broken. In twenty-one years Shiro was the only blip on his radar screen, the only constant Keith can never escape, his true North. He was willing to accept his own fate as long as Shiro was happy, but it seems that any decision he makes now will cause Shiro pain as well.

“I just think you’re exhausted from lack of sleep, so you’re not exactly thinking clearly right now,” Hunk tells him softly. “I mean, I know I have no right to tell you what to do, but just… promise me you’ll at least think about telling him before you take off.”

Keith exhales and rubs his eyes. “Okay,” he says softly.

“We can be there for moral support, if it helps,” Lance says and Keith nearly smiles.

“I’m good, thanks,” he says. He attempts to get up then, but Hunk has other plans and wraps him up in a fierce embrace instead. Pidge and Lance pile on as well, holding him fast and Keith can feel his cheeks starting to burn again. “Uh… guys,” he says awkwardly.

“Nope, you’re getting hugged,” Lance says firmly. “Shut up and take it.”

Keith closes his eyes and tries to appreciate the warmth surrounding him while the lions whisper soft encouragements inside his head. He does his best to send back grateful thoughts, but he still has no idea what he’s going to do.