Actions

Work Header

don't swear to god (he never asked you)

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

So don't swear to God, He never asked you

It's not his heart you drove a knife through

It's not his world you turned inside out

Not his tears still rolling down

Jesus Christ, you're so damn cold

Don't you know you've lost control?

Forget about the things you think I know

No secrets, you can't keep me

In the dark

 

- Bring Me The Horizon, in the dark

 

— K —

 

Keith could list on one hand the very worst things in his life to happen to him.

One: losing his Pop. A routine call that went wrong, and Keith’s Pop doing everything he was told not to. Keith learnt his recklessness from the best.

They gave him a hero’s burial in the end, but the whole thing felt like Keith was standing in the middle of that burning building. They thanked Keith’s Pop for his bravery and Keith just wished he had burned down with it, wished he could have been there to let the flames strip skin from bone until he was nothing but ash.

Two: hearing the Kerberos mission had failed. He’d taken his bike out to the desert and chased after the sun, like he could bring back Shiro with his screams. They’d talked to him, the Garrison officials, because they thought they knew what Shiro meant to him.

They had no idea.

Three: losing Shiro again. Finding Black’s empty cockpit and feeling his heart shatter. Weeks upon weeks upon weeks of combing through the wreckage at every opportunity he had.

Desperation had a name, and its name was Keith.

He knows loss, knows heartache. He thinks by now, by number four, he would be used to it.

He isn’t.

It’s always been seven of them. Always been Coran and Allura, Shiro and Keith, and Pidge and Hunk and Lance. Sure, there’s been additions and subtractions along the way with Shiro going missing, and Keith leaving to join the Blades for a time, and Krolia and Romelle joining in after the quantum abyss, but at their core, they’ve always been seven.

Six, Keith decides, is a hollow number. It’s empty, aching. It stings to think about.

Six, Keith decides, is fucking devastating.

Six is Pidge, curled into a ball in Hunk’s arms, scream crying into his shoulder. Six is Romelle holding Coran, face wet with their tears.

Six is—

Six is—

Six is Lance, sitting in the corner of the lounge, head cradled in his hands. Six is Lance, their idiotic, never-shuts-up sharpshooter, staring at the floor and saying nothing. He isn’t crying anymore, but the remnants are there: the puffy eyes, the red nose, the tracks on his cheeks. They colour the Altean markings under his eyes.

“Lance,” Keith starts. His voice is like sandpaper.

“What.”

Keith’s heart hurts. It’s rage and it’s fire and it’s pain, this horrible weight engulfing his ribcage and squeezing so tight that Keith can’t decide if he’d rather scream or implode.

Keith drags himself over to Lance and falls to his knees.

Grief, his mother once told him, reminds us of our mortality. Of how fortunate we are.

It’s the conversation that he’s thinking of as he folds his arms around Lance’s shoulders. He feels the shaking, the tension, and makes his arms wrap around the sharpshooter more fully. Lance doesn’t even fight; he melts, turns to liquid against Keith, and the broken sob he makes strikes Keith down to his core.

“I’m sorry,” Keith murmurs as Lance shakes and shakes and shakes. “I’m so, so, sorry.”

“She’s gone,” Lance says, voice like broken glass. “She’s gone.”

Keith splinters apart at that. “I’m sorry.”

And it goes and it goes and it goes. I’m sorry she’s gone I’m sorry she’s gone I’m sorry she’s gone—

A strong hand lands on Lance’s shoulder. Keith knows that gesture anywhere, and it should be on his shoulder, not Lance’s, it’s always been Shiro’s touch for him except it’s been so long.

What did I do wrong?

Shiro lets Lance curl into his side, and Keith steps back to let it happen. He won’t be an obstruction.

Pidge’s cries sound closer, and Keith belatedly realises she’s crawling over to them. She wedges herself between Keith, Lance and Shiro, makes sure she’s the first point of contact for their sharpshooter.

“Lance,” she sobs, and her skinny hips dig into Keith’s side.

Hunk covers what they can’t and Keith buries his face in Pidge’s hair so he doesn’t have to look up at the gulf of emptiness between himself and Shiro.

“She’s gone,” Lance whispers.

It sears through the gaping wound in Keith’s chest like fire and he aches all over again.

They hold Lance, all of them.

They hold each other.

 

— K —

 

There isn’t any sun to tell the passage of time in space. No moonset to herald the new day. Keith has always liked that part about being in space—the idea that time is irrelevant, that he won’t be able to look out the window and know if it’s morning or afternoon. It makes things fast and slow, gives more weight to the minutes or hours or however long it is for him to finish tasks.

It helps him forget about the length of time between Earth and whatever sector of space they’re in, how many days have passed since he saw a sunrise.

It doesn’t stop time, though.

The sun doesn’t rise but the next morning still comes.

Keith wakes up feeling fragile, like if someone touched him he’d shatter into pieces. He almost wants to. He doesn’t bother with his uniform, just drags his jacket around his shoulders and pads off to the lounge.

Pidge is there, eyes puffy. She looks how Keith feels, like sea foam, like the debris of a storm, battered by the elements and washed up onto shore for the gulls to pick apart and spread across the beach like ashes at a funeral.

“Hey,” Keith says as he sits on the other end of the couch. Pidge crawls closer until she can lean against his shoulder. “Did you sleep?”

She shakes her head. “Not really. Did you?”

“No.”

She makes a small sound, and doesn’t say anything else. Keith takes comfort from the warmth of her, the solid feeling. She’s bony, hard points against his side. Her glasses need to be cleaned.

Hunk joins them, carrying a tray of hot chocolate. Pidge leaves Keith immediately, and Keith holds onto the cup Hunk offers him, hiding in the steam.

Shiro comes soon after.

He sits on the same couch as Keith and the gap between them could fit an entire universe.

Keith stares at the contents of his cup and wishes he could immerse himself, wishes he could let the liquid scald his skin until he is the nothingness that Shiro sitting like that makes him feel.

Lance is the last to join.

He sits down next to the tangle of Hunk and Pidge and sinks into the furniture. His legs stretch out before him and he looks like he needs at least ten decaphoebs of sleep, but no one comments on it.

No one comments on the space they’ve all left on the couch between them all. No one needs to.

It’s Allura’s spot.

The door opens and Keith expects it to be her, hair impeccably done in that complicated bun of hers. But it’s a cleaning droid. It bumps into the corners of the room and Keith’s eyes sting from the steam of his cup.

No one speaks.

No one is brave enough to step out on the ice and see if it will give way or not. Keith wants it to. He wants to take a sledgehammer to it and smash it to pieces until they’re all drowning.

The droid clears out.

The ice remains, and then Lance taps on it gingerly.

His voice is hoarse as he says, “She’s out there.”

Keith bites down on the inside of his cheek. “You don’t know that.”

Lance shakes his head. “No, she’s out there. Shiro died—”

And even from here, from so far away, Keith doesn’t miss the way Shiro flinches.

“—and we got him back. Black kept his quintessence. Allura only said she’d change the quintessence in Honerva’s vessel. There’s gotta be a way to bring her home.”

Pidge lays a hand on his arm. “We can try, Lance.”

She looks to Keith for confirmation, and he nods, because it’s the right thing to do, even if he isn’t a believer.

“Yeah. Of course,” he says, voice thick. “Of course we will.”

Lance’s jaw tightens. “Good.” He inhales slowly, then says, “You know how, when we were all changing Lions, she chose pink? She said she wore it to honor the paladins of old. And Shiro.”

Hunk looks up from where Pidge is cushioned in his lap. They all recognise the statement for what it is. “We’ll wear pink too, Lance. We’ll wear it for her.”

Garrison uniform means they’re still restricted to their colours, but Shiro arranges for them to be allowed pink armbands. When he delivers the news to them, Keith averts his eyes. He doesn’t need to look up to know that Shiro’s gaze won’t land on him.

Lance fastens the pink armband over his paladin armour, and then consults Shiro. The two of them draft up a mission for him, make him an ambassador for Earth to visit planets and ask them to join the Coalition as a smokescreen for searching for Allura.

It’s a smart move. Shiro is the Garrison Darling after all. He’ll know what the Board will like, and he usually knows how to make people come around.

He used to do that with Keith, used to know how to turn Keith’s grumpiness on its head by acting like a complete annoying idiot until Keith would be smiling at him in spite of himself. He’d poke Keith and tickle him, and Keith would snap at him, would strike out at him. Shiro would just roll with the punches, would encourage Keith to get as angry as he could.

“Get it all out, Keith,” he’d say, and then they’d flop next to each other on the mats, breathless, worn out.

Keith would look at the windowed ceiling until his words didn’t feel like they were being ripped from his throat, and then he’d thank Shiro. For being patient, for understanding. For not giving up on him.

But that was a long time ago now.

That night, Keith goes to the observation deck. He consults the star charts, because he isn’t even sure what corner of the universe they’re in anymore, and then he turns to the windows and waits.

No one joins him.

Not Allura. Not Shiro.

Keith looks into the emptiness of space and only sees himself.

He sees the endless black and wishes it would come for him, tear out his throat, take his sorrow with it. No one was meant to hold this much grief within them.

Maybe the darkness will take his breath and his pulse too. Maybe he’ll collapse on this deck and the cleaners will find him in the morning, eyes staring unseeing at the stars. Maybe the darkness will take the very memory of him and burn it from the pages of existence, because he feels invisible already.

But the darkness doesn’t do anything with him.

No sunrise appears. The clocks still tick, and the new day still comes.

Pidge tinkers around in her lab, fingers flying over the keyboard. She’s had too much coffee and not enough rest and she talks a million words a second, most of which Keith cannot understand in the first place because it’s all techno babble.

“I mean, I was thinking of what Lance said and it makes sense, right?” she whirls on Keith, eyes bloodshot. “Coran said Allura’s life force was attached to the Lions.”

He tells himself it’s the caffeine that is making the red of her sclerae so prominent, and not the fact he heard her crying on his way back to his room as he passed hers last night.

He misses Allura so much his bones ache.

“So?” he says.

“So I have ideas,” she says matter of factly, and then returns her attention to the monitor in front of him.

Keith just stares at her. He leaves before she can bowl him over with more talk that he won’t be able to interpret into layman terms.

Pidge is always doing that, running away with her ideas. Hunk is the only one who can keep up with her. Lance just groans dramatically and asks them to speak English, even though it isn’t even his first language.

Keith runs into Romelle on his way to the mess hall and frowns when he sees she’s alone, because she never is, and it’s out of his mouth before he can stop it.

“Where’s Allu—”

He cuts himself off. Romelle freezes.

Oh.

Her name hangs between them like a body from a noose. It hurts. Romelle offers him a smile that slices Keith in half, and he takes her hand quietly, not trusting himself to say anything else.

They walk the rest of the way in suffocating silence. The mess hall is empty, the food sticks to the roof of his mouth.

No sunset appears, but the clocks still tick, and the new day still comes.

 

— K —

 

When Shiro was gone, Keith used to catch himself.

He’d catch himself turning to look behind him, mouth opening to tell Shiro a shitty joke he read the night before; catch himself leaving the chair beside him empty because Shiro always liked to sit on his left; catch himself pausing by Shiro’s room, wondering if Shiro was awake to let him sit on the edge of his bed and talk about their day.

This is exactly the same.

It’s coming on 0200 hours and he’s sitting in the lounge, scrolling through some report the Garrison sent to Atlas. He’s always hated reports because they always require him to sift through and pick out the relevant bits for Voltron that really should have their own heading, but he’s found a piece that is completely in Altean and it’s second nature to just send it through to Allura.

It’s after breakfast and Keith is running late to the morning sparring session because he was trying to get a knot out of the wolf’s fur, and he knows they’re all going to give him shit for it because he’s their leader.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says without thinking. “You can save the speech, Princess.”

It’s catching Romelle crying and having to bite his tongue until it bleeds because he almost says, “Wait here, let me get Allura.”

It’s the morning of Lance submitting his request to the board and Pidge takes Keith’s arm, fully intending to abduct him to her lab.

“I can’t,” he says automatically, because it’s Thursday and last week he scheduled with Allura to have coffee with her and talk properly, because they hadn’t been able to in so long and they've always caught up.

Pidge keeps tugging. “Yes you can,” she says. “I need you.”

He can, Keith realises. His lungs feel brittle.

Pidge doesn’t explain why she needs him, just points at a bunch of wires and tells him to sit in the chair she pushes over. Hunk steps in when Keith is seated and raises his brow.

“Did Pidge even explain what she’s doing here?”

“No.” Keith shakes his head. “Should I be worried?”

“Just sit still.”

Keith looks at the bench in front of him until it blurs and goes fuzzy around the edges, until he can’t remember what he was supposed to be doing right now, until all he thinks about is the gel Hunk is putting on his scalp, until he forgets.

Fuck, he’s so happy to forget.

 

— K —

 

Pidge breaks the morning after.

She’s been forcing Keith into her lab at every given moment, trying to create a scanner to pick up the frequencies of Allura’s quintessence. The theory is that Lance’s markings and Red will be able to track her, but Pidge wants something with scientific backing to go with them for her peace of mind.

Duplicating Keith’s quintessence sensitivity is Pidge’s focus, and Keith tries to help, he really does, but he has no idea why he’s even sensitive in the first place, or how to describe it, and so Pidge just comes to dead end after dead end after dead end.

“Fuck!” Pidge yells, hurling her datapad at the wall.

It dents the wall and smashes to the ground.

“Pidge,” Keith says, voice cracking worse than her screen. “I’m sorry.”

He stands there whilst Pidge screams in frustration, hitting her small fists against the floor.

“Hey, hey,” Hunk says as he crouches, taking Pidge’s wrists in a firm grip. “Stop, Pidge. Stop, please? Don’t hurt yourself.”

Pidge screams harder.

Keith’s eyes sting and he presses his hands to them. He’s fucking sick of the perpetual lump in his throat. Hunk is crying silently, tears sliding down his face as he holds Pidge. Each sob from her is another chink in Keith’s armour.

How much more can any of them take?

“Why?” Pidge says hoarsely. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Nothing,” Hunk says, kissing her hair and wiping her face. “You’re doing everything you can.”

She’s an ugly crier, covered in snot with blotchy cheeks. Keith’s not any better. Hunk kisses her hair again, and then takes Pidge to the sink and cleans her bloodied hands.

“You’re smart, Pidge. You just gotta be patient.”

“Dork,” Pidge sniffles, watery and snotty, but Hunk’s expression is so soft.

The bandages are already spotted with pink. She’s cut herself deeper than Keith thought. It matches the colour of their clothes.

“Spud,” Hunk retorts.

He encompasses her completely in an embrace this time, and out of all the nauseating affection the two of them show each other, that—

That hurts Keith so much more than he thought it would, Pidge clinging to Hunk like he’s her only liferaft in this fucked up universe they saved. Because usually he'd reach out to Shiro like that, would seek out the comfort from Shiro since they've always been able to do that and there isn't anyone Keith loves more, and he needs that comfort right now, he needs it like oxygen.

But Shiro isn’t with them either.

He isn’t with them and it feels like running into Black’s cockpit all over again and finding the empty pilot seat. And then the memory slams into him, of Lance doing exactly the same, running to Blue, because they knew Allura had saved all realities but she couldn’t be gone, she couldn’t be—

But she was.

Hunk holds Pidge tighter and Keith can barely breathe.

Allura’s gone. She’s gone.

 

— K —

 

The Board gives Lance his approval the day after Pidge slices her hands.

Lance immediately loads up Red. Keith helps with Hunk, and they fill the cargo hold with supplies. The Board give him a list of planets to begin with, but it’s a flexible timeline, something Lance can play around with so that he can search for Allura however he wants.

Keith isn’t even sure where Lance is going to start, but then, he never did when he was looking for Shiro. It was a feeling of hope, of needing to prove to himself that Shiro was still alive, because there wasn’t a body, there was no evidence that he had died, even though everyone acted like he had.

“He would be the first one to tell us that we have to move on,” Lance had said, and Keith had wanted to send him through the wall.

So Keith says what he would have wanted to hear, what he wants to hear now: “Stay safe out there. You’ll find her.”

Lance nods, “Yeah, of course I will,” and Keith’s heart breaks, because he knows exactly how Lance feels.

Coran joins them. He’s aged in the last two weeks, haggard and old.

The first thing he’d said the day after was, “I never got to say goodbye,” and he’d cried for so long that Keith had to leave the room because if he stayed, he would have exploded into a million pieces and made everyone bleed with the shards he left in their skin.

“Take care,” Keith tells Coran, squeezing his eyes shut, so he doesn’t have to remember seeing the utter devastation that stole over Coran’s face the last time they were with the Lions in their hangars and Blue never opened up.

“Yes,” Coran says, blank, numb, a mirror of what they all are.

He and Lance leave. No one mentions the other Lions lined up in the hangar. No one mentions Blue, lying on her side, mourning her Paladin.

No one mentions anything.

 

— K —

 

It hits Keith across the face in the new week. He’s blindsided by it, the roaring wave of anger that sweeps over him and drags him out to sea.

Keith doesn’t even fight it.

It finds him because the Coalition begins preparations for New Altea to become the new planet for the survivors of Lotor and Honerva’s colonies. It’s a newborn planet, the legacy of all Allura ever fought for, and objectively speaking, it makes sense.

But Keith doesn’t want to go down and explore, doesn’t want to tag along whilst Pidge runs stats on the planet’s ecosystems and Hunk assesses the mineral quality and all the other scientists aboard the IGF-Atlas dissect the planet into meaningful data for the Coalition to analyse.

He doesn’t want to go and trample all over the planet that Allura gave her life for.

He doesn’t want to, but he goes, because the Lions are still the most advanced weapons in the IGF-Atlas’ armada, and because they’re still seen as a beacon of light.

Pidge is in her absolute element, fingers trailing across the leaves of all the trees they pass. Romelle’s eyes are wide with wonder as she stares up at the canopies and flying fauna, and she almost looks like royalty, against the star-soaked backdrop.

“It’s so much like the stories,” Romelle says, hushed, eyes full of unshed tears.

Hunk gestures to a plant. “Everything is so pretty. How cool is this?”

He taps one of the leaves and it lights up in response in a flurry of fluorescent greens and blues.

Keith bites down on the inside of his cheek until he tastes iron and and the squishy give of flesh. Then he keeps biting.

Because it is pretty.

It’s pretty, and Allura isn’t here to see it.

“It’s a fucking plant, Hunk.”

Hunk gives him a face that says, man, what’s your problem?

Keith stalks ahead of him, not listening, not answering. The moonrise is almost upon them, and with it, New Altea’s forest flora are coming to life. It’s a colourful mess of indigoes and blues and Keith feels lost in it, lost in the glow against his skin and the rage that bubbles underneath.

It’s pretty, and it’s not fucking fair.

“She would have loved this,” Pidge murmurs.

The current surges to pull him under, and Keith lets go.

“Yeah, she would have. She would have loved this so fucking much.”

Pidge’s brow furrows. Her lips press together and she juts her chin out. “Keith, come on. We’re all hurting too.”

The forest is glittering around them and Keith’s breath leaves him in a rush as the saltwater closes in over his head. His chest heaves and burns and he slams down the feeling that winds its way around his throat and threatens to suffocate him because he can’t lose it here.

He laughs, bitter, broken, as the waves batter at him and erode him like the carcass of a whale. “We shouldn’t be here.”

“Yes we should,” Pidge says evenly. “She would want us here, doing this.”

“Why does everyone always say that?” Keith snarls. “When Shiro was gone, everyone just said ‘this is what Shiro would want’, like we weren’t even allowed to stop and think of him.”

“Jesus Christ, Keith,” Pidge snaps. “We’re trying, okay? We’re all trying to find her too.”

“By colonising a planet she died for?”

Hunk comes between them. “Hey, hey, guys. Come on, let’s not fight.”

Saltwater burns in Keith’s throat and he unleashes the tidal wave on Hunk instead. “Why not? Allura is gone, Hunk! This is hers, every fucking inch of this stupid planet. And she’s not here to see it.”

Hunk is taller than Keith, bigger too. He’s got a heart of gold to match his Lion and the patience to go with it. He does not waver in the face of Keith’s anger.

“I know it is.” Hunk says slowly. “But Pidge is right. We’re doing this for her.”

It doesn’t feel like it though.

Keith looks at the foliage surrounding them, at the iridescence that paints their faces. It’s so fucking pretty that Keith wants to throw up and forget he ever saw it, because it’s not fair.

“She deserved to see this,” Keith chokes out. “We shouldn’t even be here. No one should be.”

“Keith,” Hunk says placatingly. “Buddy, come on. The Alteans need a home.”

It isn’t their home, Keith wants to argue.

The plants burn brighter and Keith wants them to blind him.

“She always spoke about this place,” he growls. “Always. This was all she ever wanted, and now? Now she isn’t even alive.”

“Keith—” Hunk says, but Keith isn’t finished.

He jabs his finger at the north-eastern sky, at where New Daibazaal sits. “How is that fair? How is it fair that even Daibazaal is back, and yet Allura isn’t?”

“It’s not,” Hunk nods. “I know it’s not.”

The plants are awash with colour, the air alive with the low hum of insects, the ground beneath their feet lighting up with every step.

“It’s so pretty,” Keith whispers.

Pidge looks like she’s about to cry. Keith definitely feels like it.

“Fuck this,” he mutters, turning and continuing down the path.

 

— K —

 

Keith finds Pidge the next day in her lab. He knocks, half expecting her not to answer him. Pidge doesn’t get seriously upset at anyone very often, but when she does, she has a penchant for making people feel her displeasure.

Sometimes he almost expects to burst into flames with how intense her anger can get.

The door whooshes open. Pidge’s hair is up in pigtails. It’d be cute, and Keith would probably say as much, but the way Pidge stares at him is enough to make the words die in his mouth.

“What.”

He doesn’t fuck around.

“I’m sorry for what I said to you on New Altea,” he says quietly.

Pidge sniffs, once. Then she launches herself at him and wraps her arms tight around his waist.

“You suck,” she mumbles, face pressed into his sternum.

“I’m sorry, Pidge,” he says, returning the hug.

“Good.” It’s acceptance.

He peers over her head at the inside of her lab. “What are you up to in there?”

He can almost feel her roll her eyes. “Real fucking important stuff,” she says in a tone that suggests she’s run into more than a few dead ends.

“Any luck?” Keith says sympathetically, twisting his finger into one of her pigtails.

She snorts humorlessly and whacks his hand away. “Yes, I’m making grand discoveries and scientific breakthroughs in my amazing laboratory.”

“I don’t know,” Keith hums, trying to lighten the mood. “There’s more money in there than half the Garrison, probably.”

“Liar,” she hisses. “The Garrison spends all their money on the fuel for their spaceships. Us scientists exist on mere scraps.”

Keith presses his cheek to her hair. “Can I help at all?”

They don’t mention what happened last time he was in the lab with her.

“Fine. But don’t touch anything.”

“Do I ever?” Keith asks, even though last time he definitely played around with her transfer pipettes until she squawked at him to keep his hands to himself.

She drags him inside and shoves him into a chair. “Stay.”

Keith does as he’s told.

Later, when she’s staring at a monitor, she says, “Thank you.” She doesn’t wait for Keith to try and blunder his way through interpreting her words, because she’s never been one to beat around the bush. “For apologising, yeah, but for being here.”

“I shouldn’t have said those things,” Keith says.

“We’re all getting through it,” Pidge shrugs. “People say dumb stuff when they’re hurt.”

Keith sinks into the silence, wants it to smother him and never let him go. He doesn’t want the oxygen to find its way to his lungs. 

“She can’t be gone,” he says quietly.

He’s blood and bones and breathing too easily. The stars out the window are breathtaking, and New Altea gleams like a pearl against the inky sea of space. The Atlas orbits the planet, humming with the life the Castle of Lion’s crystal granted.

“She can’t be gone,” Keith says again, but she is.

 

— K —

 

“Hunk told me you’re leaving.”

Keith stiffens up automatically, and has to force his shoulders to relax. He doesn’t turn immediately, stalling by rearranging the shirt he just folded in amongst the contents of his bag. He doesn’t have much to pack anyway, but Shiro doesn’t need to know that.

“Yeah.” He turns then, busying himself by folding another flight suit. He doesn’t think he can manage eye contact just yet.

Shiro’s standing in the doorway. He takes up the whole frame. “When were you going to tell me?”

Keith bristles. “I don’t know.”

He doesn’t need to look up to know that Shiro is frowning. It shows through his words. “But you’re leaving in the morning.”

And god, how can he just stand there and be so fucking stupid?

“Yeah,” Keith says, disgruntled. “I am.”

Shiro doesn’t answer immediately, and that’s expected too. He’s always level headed, always taking his time to assess the situation properly before deciding what to say. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

Keith fumbles with tucking the suit into the bag because he wasn’t, not really. He just kind of figured that he’d head out in the pale streaks of dawn and check in with Earth later on when he was far enough away to be unable to turn around and say goodbye properly.

“I don’t know,” he says, truthfully this time.

“Keith.”

Irritation bubbles under Keith’s skin. “What?

The shadows on the floor move as Shiro steps into the room. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Keith can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Are you kidding me?”

“What?”

“Just...forget it.” The laughter that spews from Keith’s mouth is sour and stale.

“No. What’s wrong?”

Shiro holds his hands up like he’s trying to calm a weak animal. Well Keith isn’t that. Keith is a Blade, a Paladin. He found Shiro in Black’s quintessence, he spent two years on a space whale relearning what it meant to survive. 

He is anything but weak.

“Why would I tell you, Shiro?” Keith snaps, hating how being in this conversation makes him feel like a little kid again, always chasing after Shiro. Shiro, who won’t even fucking look at him properly. “Since when has that ever been an option?”

Shiro presses his lips together. “I thought it had always been an option.”

Resentment spikes hot through Keith. “Yeah, well, so did I.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Keith shrugs, petty and hurting. “We haven’t talked in a long time, Shiro. Not since—”

He cuts himself off, because neither of them need to be reminded, because it wasn’t an abrupt change at all. Instead it was a slow decay of Shiro taking up the mantle of Captain of the Atlas, and Keith finding himself alone on the observation deck more often than not.

Shiro had never failed to find him there before.

“I guess not,” Shiro says softly, and the space between them is a gaping maw. “I’m here now, though.”

“I’m leaving in the morning,” Keith answers.

“You’re running.”

“I’m helping,” Keith corrects, because damn it, he might be running, but he can’t stay here. 

He can’t stay at the Garrison and see the table they used to sit at with Allura, or the wormhole station she used to command, or the med bay, or...anywhere.

“There’s a lot of clean up to do in the Galran empire. Mom and Kolivan are leading the Blades. I need to be there with them.”

Something in Shiro’s countenance breaks. “We need you here too, Keith.”

And if this were a shitty romcom film, like the ones Lance used to binge, the ones Allura couldn’t understand but still watched because she wanted to know everything about human culture, then Shiro would say something like, ‘I need you’.

But this isn’t a shitty romcom, because if it were, then Allura would still be with them, and Keith wouldn’t have to walk to the mess hall every morning to see Coran’s tired eyes, nor would he have found Romelle the other night, crying alone on the balcony under the moon. She’d fallen to pieces in his arms and Keith had nothing to give her other than kisses to her face and tears of his own.

No, not a romcom.

“No you don’t. The universe doesn’t need Voltron anymore.”

Shiro rubs his Altean hand over his face. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For not being there for you,” Shiro says, but Keith doesn’t want to hear it.

“Sure.”

“Keith...” Shiro trails off, at a loss. “Look, I know things have been difficult since—”

And now Shiro is the one cutting himself off. Keith sneers.

“Since what?” he taunts. Say it. Say it, you fucking coward.

“Keith,” Shiro says evenly, and damn it all to hell, he’s still the most beautiful person Keith knows.

“No,” Keith snarls. “You don’t get to Keith me when you haven’t even looked at me since we left Earth.”

“That’s not fair.”

“No, what isn’t fair is that you act like I don’t even exist until now, when you find out I’m going.”

Shiro’s voice is small. “I didn’t know.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

“Will you stop?” Shiro snaps, and he reaches out.

He means to grab Keith’s shoulder—their touch, Keith remembers—and Keith can’t so he flinches out the way, except it has a worse result. Shiro’s hand lands on his side. His fingers splay over Keith’s hip, and Keith doesn’t know what it is about the position, but suddenly he’s sucking in a breath between his teeth.

Shiro doesn’t say anything; he’s still angry, eyes dark, mouth pressed in a line.

“I came to see you to say goodbye properly,” he says. “I don’t want to part ways on a bad note.”

Keith’s teeth hurt where they’re clenched together. “Was there ever going to be a good note?”

Shiro sighs, and then the hand on Keith’s hip flexes once before dropping. Keith feels the loss like a missing limb. When he speaks, Keith’s heart feels like it shatters all over again.

“I can’t lose you too, Keith.”

Shiro doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

They’ve already lost everything.

 

— K —

 

Keith spends a month with the Blades. A month of system hopping, freeing enslaved planets from Galran warlords and addressing the disastrous remnants of the Galran Empire.

A month of Lance taking every spare moment to scour the known universe for Allura. Coran has to leave him after that. New Altea needs leadership, and there's no one more suited for the task than Coran, regardless of how much he wants to continue the search.

Romelle is the one to tell Keith. She keeps him updated regularly, sending video messages every second or third day asking him how the wolf is, and Krolia.

“I miss you all so much,” she sighs.

“I miss you too,” he tells her.

Keith doesn’t apologise for leaving, even though it’s what she deserves.

He found a gem on their latest planet, one the size of an acorn that glitters in the morning light with all the hues of a fiery sun. It’s hanging around his neck right now, waiting for him to give it to her when he returns. She’s always liked trinkets.

Her room is decorated in them, but she has a shelf dedicated to the Paladins. There’s ore from Pidge, a ribbon from Hunk, one of the wolf’s blue tail feathers. Lance always took photos of everyone so there’s a group shot too, but Romelle says her favourite is the one she has with Keith. Their faces are squished together and honestly, Keith looks as uncomfortable as he probably felt in that moment, but Romelle’s smile is beautiful. It takes up half the photo.

“When are you coming back?”

“Soon,” he says, purposefully keeping it vague.

It isn’t what she deserves, but right now it’s all he’s got.

“How are you coping?”

Romelle scrunches her nose up. “Not so good.”

Keith hums sympathetically, but he’s one to talk. He can’t even look at a photo that has Allura in it, and it’s been a month.

Romelle yawns and gazes at him. She looks so tired.

“You should sleep.” He pauses, then adds, “Are you sleeping alright?”

Romelle hesitates, then shakes her head. “I keep dreaming that she’s still with us.”

“Oh,” Keith says. “Romelle.”

Romelle is staring at something out of frame and her words are like sandpaper. “They’re awful, Keith. They feel so real and hurt so much.”

“I’m sorry.”

Romelle’s smile is downturned at the edges. “You know, sometimes, I’d rather not wake up.” She doesn’t look at him, and that’s fine, that’s good, because Keith can’t handle what she says next: “Because that hurts more.”

 

— K —

 

At Krolia and Kolivan’s behest, the Blades choose New Daibazaal to be their home base.

Acxa joins them the fortnight after Keith touches down, smashing through her Trials in a quintant less than the average time. She’s placed a few ranks below Keith thanks to being a new recruit, but Keith knows she’ll be at his side pretty quickly. She’s saved his skin enough times.

Somehow she ends up in Keith’s days more often than not.

It’s just…it’s easy, with her.

She takes to her new role effortlessly, and they spend their time together training the lower ranking Blades together. The Blades Keith first joined with were hunted to near extinction during Voltron’s time in the Rift, but Kolivan and Krolia have made significant advances in connecting the small pockets that are scattered throughout the Universe since, so there are more than one hundred Blades under Keith and Acxa.

Some days, Keith enjoys the way it exhausts him.

Other days he wants to go to sleep and never wake up.

Acxa doesn't mention his difficulties with it.

Instead she becomes the driving force behind their training. Keith happily lets her. She possesses a level of dedication that Keith knows the Garrison officials would have dreamt to have in any of their soldiers and pilots, a drive that Keith is pretty sure borders on unnatural.

Acxa's quarters are directly opposite his and she'll knock on his door like clockwork. They run around the Marmoran base, the morning suns chasing after them, their shadows casting black stains on the ground behind.

Keith is used to his lungs burning, for a variety of reasons, all of them to do with the broken remnants of Voltron he left behind, but it's a different type he feels when he runs with Acxa. It doesn't scour his insides, doesn't leave him empty.

It's a preferable way to burn.

They take the Blades through drills, teaching them different sword forms. Keith prefers the unpredictable ones, whereas Acxa favours the more fluid styles. She taunts him on it one day, a joke between comrades, but he still throws his knife at her anyway.

She deflects with her own and they tackle each other to the ground, rolling about and grappling until she plants her knee in the middle of Keith's back, gets a hand around his arm and pulls.

He taps out, pushing her off. Blood drips onto the mat beneath him as his head swims. He wants to bleed out right here, until the mat and the floor is nothing but scarlet.

Acxa collapses by his side, breathing hard. Her fringe has come loose from where it was pinned and sticks to her sweaty forehead.

“That was good,” he sniffs, reminded of his own still functioning lungs, of his too long hair. He sweeps it out of his eyes irritably. “You were good.”

“Only just,” Acxa says. “You kept me on my toes.”

Keith closes his eyes and focuses on regulating his breathing, focuses on squashing down the side of him that wants to exhale and never inhale again.

He prefers to burn this way, yes, but it still hurts.

It hurts because they would all train with their bayards as a group: Pidge with her chevron, Lance with his broadsword, Allura with her whip. Keith would use his Blade and make Shiro use Black's, and they would let the Castle put them through each training level until all of them were out.

Allura was a menace with her whip; she used to catch Keith around the ankles and yank him to the floor, and if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d drag him over to her and grin at him, all cocky and pleased with herself until Keith would manage to sweep her legs out from under her and she’d crash next to him.

He used to spar with Shiro alone sometimes too, when he'd gotten sick of the gladiator robot and needed the push and pull of a warm body instead. Shiro would fall into him and Keith would go willingly, and then they would sit, just like this, until their heart rates went back to normal.

He prefers to burn this way, he tells himself, even if the fire consumes everything within him.

“Glad you think so,” he says, and he gathers his knife and leaves.

Acxa meets him the next morning and it begins all over again.

And that's how their days pass.

 

— K —

 

When he was younger, Keith was always being told that he was quiet, aloof, that he wouldn’t know how to hold a conversation if his life depended on it.

Shiro had been a gentle encourager in that department, had allowed him to control the pace of talking until Keith felt he could tell Shiro anything.

And then he’d met the paladins, and he’d had to get good at making conversation, what with motor mouth Lance and rambling Hunk and Pidge with her technical babbles. Lance had waxed poetry about the beaches in Cuba most days, and Pidge and Hunk would finish each other’s sentences. Half the time they didn’t even use words, they’d just resort to differing pitches of noise until one of them would stand excitedly and disappear from the room with the other hot on their heels.

Allura reminded Keith of Shiro in the way she never demanded sentences from anyone, only welcomed them and responded accordingly. She used to sit with him on the bridge and tell him stories of her father and Zarkon, of how the Galra and Alteans used to be allies.

“I am my father’s legacy,” she’d said. “Myself, this Castle, Voltron.” 

The bridge glowed Altean blue around them, and Keith was busy trying to remember a piece of trivia about the colour helping relaxation at night. 

“I became so focused on ending Zarkon’s empire that I demonised an entire race.” And then she’d touched his hand lightly. “Thank you, Keith, for reminding me.”

Which, Keith didn’t agree with, because he hadn’t done anything apart from exist, but Allura had been so open and honest in that moment; she wasn’t his Princess, wasn’t his leader. She was his friend.

They talked a lot after that.

The prolonged exposure to all of their differing conversing styles eventually wore away Keith’s anxieties over the nuances of wordplay, until he was able to look at them and think, you’re my family.

It’s a little like that, the defrosting he experiences with Acxa.

“Who did you see in your Trials?” Keith asks her when they’re eating lunch in the mess hall.

Daibazaal is in the process of organising a new Galran leader to put forward for the Coalition, and Keith knows Kolivan is vying for him to have the title but he doesn’t want it. He’s never been a leader by choice, only necessity. 

That was always Allura, always Shiro.

“You,” Acxa says bluntly and Keith fumbles in chasing his food around his plate with his fork.

“Me?” he echoes.

“Yes,” she says, but it doesn’t explain anything.

Keith doesn’t know why, but he blurts out, “I saw Shiro.”

Acxa tilts her head to the side. She’s growing her hair out too, and it brushes her collarbones prettily. “That makes sense. You respect him a great deal.”

Keith nods dumbly.

Acxa has always been far too perceptive. “He means a lot to you, doesn’t he?”

Gods, it’s been how many months, and yet the immediate answer on Keith’s tongue is, he’s everything.

Acxa pushes her tray away from her, reaching up to stretch. It pushes her chest out, accentuates the trimness of her waist, the broadness of her shoulders. Years of being a soldier has honed her body into an epitome of strength and power.

She’s a really good Blade.

Don’t, he nearly pleads. Don’t die on me as well. Not you too.

“You’re wondering why I saw you,” she says when she’s done, when Keith has finally dragged his eyes back up to her face. She contemplates a mark on the table, a pretence. “I wandered for a long time after Lotor. After joining the Coalition, some of that restlessness stopped, but most of it stayed. I’d been looking for a place to belong, for approval.” Her gaze is sharp when she meets his. “And through all of that, you’ve never judged me for my past, or for my actions. You just accept me as I am.”

Keith swallows, thinking of conversations amongst the desert, of Shiro saying, I have something for you, of the smell of new leather.

“Why?” he’d asked and Shiro had looked at him incredulously, like he’d grown two heads.

“Because I wanted to,” he’d said playfully.

Keith was seventeen and no one had ever looked more attractive than Shiro had then, the day dying behind him, the curve of his smile directed at no one else but Keith. He was all Keith’s then, and Keith couldn’t remember the last time anyone had given him a gift, but the gloves Shiro pressed into his palm were tangible and solid.

Keith’s cheeks had burned with all the fire of the sunset and Shiro had looked so hopeful as he’d put them on and flexed his fingers in them.

“Shiro,” Keith had said like an oath, like Shiro was the church before which Keith would kneel and worship, because he would have, god, he would have done so without hesitation. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” Shiro had answered too easily, like Keith was silly for thinking otherwise.

Keith still has the gloves. They’re in his bedside drawer these days.

He can’t wear them with the Blade uniform, and— 

He can’t wear them without thinking of that particular day, because then it twists into remembering the night before launch date, remembering how it didn’t make sense to be alone, because they’d always shared their sunsets and Shiro had said to ‘be with the ones you love’ and wasn’t Keith that? Wasn’t he Shiro’s best—

“I respect you, Keith,” Acxa interrupts and Keith blinks.

It takes him a few goes to get his mouth working again. “Really?”

“Very much. You’re a good leader, and you have a big heart.”

The declaration skates too close to Allura’s last words to Keith and he sucks in a breath. He doesn’t know how to answer without compiling a very long list of why exactly he isn’t any of that, so he doesn’t say anything.

Acxa tilts her head to the side, assessing his silence, and then a small smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. Sometimes she reminds Keith of Kolivan with how she doesn’t express her emotion as freely. Maybe they’re from similar cultural branches.

“You have my respect, Keith,” she finishes. “It’s why I saw you.”

All Keith can think of is Allura, Acxa, all the people who hold him up to the light and don’t notice the scrapes and the cracks and the impurities. “I don’t deserve it.”

Acxa flicks a pasta shell at him, because neither of them are eating it anyway. “You do.”

 

— K —

 

Pidge hustles them into a group video call a week later when Keith and the Blades are back in Daibazaal after a brief trip to their second largest base. Lance is on his way to Earth to report back to the Coalition, and to reset after almost two months in deep space. He doesn’t say that last part, but Keith recognises someone who’s seen at least a little bit of space madness—fuck, he’s been that person, once upon a time—and Lance ticks all the boxes.

Keith frowns. “Where’s Hunk?”

“Commissary,” Pidge answers, tinkering with something offscreen.

Matt takes up the other half. He’s cut his hair. It looks fucking awful. “How’s the Blades, dude?”

“Peachy,” Keith snorts, trying not to think too hard about tonight.

He has to give an address to the planet they’ve liberated on behalf of the Blades. Why Kolivan chose him for the task, he’ll never know. Galran halfbreeds aren’t the most respected members of their archaic culture—if anything, they’re not respected at all —and Keith is human too.

He points his chin at the disaster that is Matt’s cut. “What the fuck did you do to your hair?”

Matt runs a hand through the shorter locks. “Don’t you start. N has already given me enough shit.”

“Well she’s right,” Keith says.

Matt flips him the bird. “Too bad she’s stuck with me.”

“Not until you put a ring on it,” Pidge rolls her eyes. “One day some android is going to come along and snatch her up and I’ll say ‘I told you so’.”

“She could never do better than me,” Matt simpers, before there’s a flicker and Hunk comes into view, along with Romelle.

“Hey dudes!”

Pidge sticks her tongue out. “Hey, dork.”

“Spud,” Hunk returns. It’s so disgustingly sweet.

“Keith!” Romelle waves, and he sends her a smile. The gem sits heavy against his sternum. “Where’s Lance?” 

Pidge taps away at something on one of her many screens. “Still connecting. He said he’s almost at the Milky Way.”

“Soon then,” Hunk grins. “What about Shiro?”

“I don’t know.” Pidge waves a hand. “Keith?”

Keith scowls. “How would I know?”

“Uh, because he’s your best friend?” Hunk says, like Keith just asked why the sun still sets in the west, like he’s got no idea how two and a half months later, Keith still can’t even manage to think of touching down on Earth.

Keith rolls his shoulders in a way that’s supposed to answer. “I don’t know what he’s doing.”

Because he doesn’t. The last time he spoke with Shiro was their argument the night before he left, and Keith had asked him to go. Shiro had actually looked at him for once, brow creased as if he had an entire essay building up behind him of what he wanted to say.

But he’d done as Keith had asked.

“He might be with Curtis,” Romelle says thoughtfully, as if the very mention of the officer doesn’t send Keith’s heart plummeting through the floor. “I saw the two of them grabbing dinner.”

Anger and jealousy curl molten hot in Keith’s stomach. “Well there’s your answer.”

“Keith…” Pidge says carefully.

“Don’t,” Keith snaps, because he doesn’t want to listen to this, doesn’t need to hear Pidge tell him how stupid he’s being again, how the team misses him, how Shiro is a busy Captain of the IGF-Atlas and spends time with Curtis

“Hey, guys,” Lance says this time, coming onto the screen.

“Lance, buddy!” Hunk crows.

The sharpshooter looks like he hasn’t slept in a decaphoeb. “Sorry I’m late. Signal is the worst.”

“Isn’t it?” Matt agrees. “I can’t believe you literally saved all realities and we still can’t get good internet.”

And, fuck, it’s been two and a half months now, but the words still feel like salt being rubbed directly into an open wound. Keith winces from the sting of it.

“Matt,” Pidge says through her teeth.

“Shit, sorry.”

Lance coughs. “Heh, yeah, right?”

He’s going for the cool, unaffected, suave Lance he used to be, and missing by a few star systems. Keith’s chest squeezes.

“If only we’d chosen the one with better internet.”

And Allura, is what they’re all thinking. Keith can feel it pressing at the remnants of their Paladin bond, but it’s a weak thing, something he has to focus on concertedly to even touch gently. It’s been so long without being in each other’s heads.

It’s so quiet.

He wants to quit the call. He wants to leave and go running with the wolf and stand on the edge of New Daibazaal and scream into the atmosphere until his mouth is clogged with blood.

But he endures.

They all do.

 

— K —

 

Keith barely has enough time to switch his mask off before he’s throwing up onto the ground. It scours his throat, stains his mouth. His ears are ringing, vision unstable. He’s covered in blood.

It isn’t his.

“Acxa,” he coughs, hissing when the movement jostles the wound in his side. “Acxa, come on.”

The Blade turns her head up to him weakly. He crawls over and hauls her to her feet, catching her when she stumbles.

He doesn’t look around them, doesn’t look at the aftermath of the explosion. He’s seen enough to haunt him into the next lifetime. Instead he looks at the entrance to the hangar, at where their ship is supposed to dock at in two minutes. Acxa leans heavily against him as the two of them stagger over, moaning in pain.

“Shh,” he says, hefting her up further. “Soon, I promise. Soon. Just gotta get to the rendezvous point, okay?”

Acxa nods, limping. It can’t be any more than thirty metres. It takes them forever.

Their ship lands and a Blade runs out. Keith can’t be sure who it is, only that he’s being lifted, that both he and Acxa are, and then they’re taking off into space again.

It’s a minefield of debris they navigate on their way out. Keith slumps against the wall and wipes a hand over his face.

He’s shaking.

Kolivan crouches in front of him, still masked. “Knowledge or Death,” he says.

Keith bares his teeth. He doesn’t need to be reminded. Kolivan just squeezes his forearm with that same, painful gentleness he used to speak with, and then Keith’s alone.

He spends an hour in the healing pod.

It isn’t enough, but he doesn’t care. When he leaves the med bay, Acxa is still under. She’ll be there for a day or two, at least. Keith has some of her blood on him, too.

There’s a new Blade uniform lying on his bed when he enters. It’s a Senior one. Keith puts it on the desk and resolutely doesn’t look at it.

Knowledge or Death, he tells himself, even as the hollow sensation in his chest scrapes all the way down to his bones.

He’s got Attod and Kolaht’s blood on his hands now, too. They were younger than him. In love. He’d seen them together when they thought no one was watching, hands brushing each other’s. Once he’d seen them kissing, pressed into the shadows of an alcove no one would have noticed had Keith not been looking for somewhere quiet to video call Romelle.

They were good Blades, and they’re gone.

Keith can still remember Kolaht’s eyes, white and unseeing. Attod’s arm had been next to Keith when he’d opened his eyes after the explosion. There hadn’t been anything else of the two. There was just so much blood.

He’s in the bathroom then, hurling into the toilet.

Too bad the healing pods don’t take away memories, he thinks, eyes blurring as acid burns his oesophagus.

The scraping in his chest is even worse now. Keith scrubs at his eyes, at his cheeks. He pulls at his hair. His knuckles are still bruised and the cut on his lip stings. Krolia is off on a solo mission and won’t be back until the next quintant.

The feeling hasn’t stopped and Keith’s sternum is screaming at how cruelly it excavates him, stripping the flesh from his ribcage.

Oh god, he’s so fucking empty.

Romelle doesn’t pick up. Neither does Hunk. Keith checks the time in a daze, does the haphazard math to figure out it’s two in the morning on Earth, and tries Pidge and Lance instead. They must be out of range, because he gets cut off immediately.

Keith stares and stares and stares at Shiro’s name until the display blurs.

For fuck’s sake, he isn’t going to cry.

He really wants to call Allura.

Everything is white and Allura is saying goodbye to them all, holding each of them close. 

Keith, Allura is telling him, I cannot thank you enough for all you’ve given me, and Keith really wants to cry now, because it should have been him saying that to her.

I should have hugged you more, he wants to tell her. I should have said I loved you. You always tried to make me feel accepted, even as a Galra, and you loved and loved and loved us all and I miss you so fucking much.

The tears sting his face as they fall.

Shiro’s name, no longer blurry, bores a hole into his head.

He’s so tired.

Please, he thinks desperately when his finger touches the call button. Please don’t answer.

Shiro picks up on the first ring.

His voice is soft, confused. “Keith?

Just that, but it has Keith crying. Regret piles into his ribcage and he wants to take his Blade to his lungs and hack away until it’s gone.

“Sorry,” he hiccups, knowing how much of a fucking mess he looks right now, reaching to hang up. “I shouldn’t have called—”

“No,” Shiro rushes to say, and something about his tone stills Keith’s hand. “No, stay. Please? It’s…I’m glad you called.”

Keith blinks, throat raw. His eyes feel like they’re bleeding.

Shiro’s brow pinches together in concern. “Keith.” He says his name like it’s a goddamned prayer. “What happened?”

Keith clamps a hand over his mouth but the grief in him is a beast and it tears its way up and out.

“I’m sorry,” he says again as he hides his face in the sleeve of the healing pod shirt. “No one was answering and I didn’t know who else—”

“Shh,” Shiro hushes him. “Hey, it’s fine. It’s okay. I’m…I’m really glad you called. I’m so sorry.”

Keith shudders, tucking his knees up so he can press his face to them. It’s stupid, really, how nearly two months have passed and yet just having Shiro on the datapad in front of him can make Keith feel better from light years away.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but apparently distance does make the heart grow fonder.

Shiro waits for Keith to collect himself. Keith almost tells him to hang up, wants to be alone again, but there’s comfort in the sound of Shiro’s breathing, and how he doesn’t push.

“I’m sorry,” he says anyway.

“Don’t,” Shiro says, an edge to his voice that Keith hasn’t heard in a long time. “Trust me. It’s okay.” He trails off, then says, a little awkwardly, “How can I help?”

Keith’s eyes hurt. The tracks on his cheeks are sticky with salt. “I just…needed someone to talk to.”

“I can do that.” Shiro shifts, and that’s when Keith realises he’s in his office. “What happened?”

The aftermath is seared into Keith’s memory and he winces. “Bad mission,” he mumbles, taking Shiro’s earlier act of not pushing as a sign he can say that much safely.

“I’m sorry to hear that. That must be really difficult for you.”

Keith nods absentmindedly. After so long of not talking, it’s strange to be face to face with Shiro in what is arguably one of his worst moments, but then, Shiro’s always been there.

“I don’t know why I called you,” he says suddenly. “I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry.”

Keith, ” Shiro says. “Hold on a minute—

He isn’t going to, he can’t. Those words are rehearsed, regurgitated Garrison protocol sentences that Keith had to hear from the mouths of Iverson and Adam when news of the Kerberos mission arrived.

I’m sorry to hear that.

This must be really difficult for you.

The Garrison did the same after Honerva. After Allura.

I'm sorry to hear that.

This must be really difficult for you.

“I have to go,” Keith whispers. “I can’t do this.”

Keith—

He hangs up.

Shiro calls back immediately.

Keith doesn’t pick up.

 

— K —

 

When his mother visits, she holds him for a very long time.

“Oh, Kit,” she says as he shivers in her arms.

“I made so many mistakes,” Keith says. There are no tears today. Keith made sure he didn’t drink enough water. “Mom, I fucked up.”

She pets his hair, ears twitching. “Knowledge or Death, Keith. We all know the cost.”

They do, of course they do, but it does nothing for him. The Galra always love extremes, but Keith is half human. He prefers the grey area.

She knows what he’s thinking. “I’ve been in your position more times than I’d like to remember. It doesn’t get easier.”

Keith can still see Attod and Kolaht in that alcove, whispering to each other. He can still see the moment before the bombs went off, when Attod had turned to Kolaht in fear.

I’m sorry, he says.

Krolia kisses his head. “I love you, Keith. Being a Blade can be the best and worst, especially when you’re the one leading, and I’m so proud of you.”

“Knowledge or Death,” he says quietly, nearly gasping from the pain when the words tear him open.

Krolia nods and pets his hair. “Yes, Kit. Their sacrifice will not be in vain, just like all the other Blades before them who have fallen.”

Keith thinks of their faces, crinkled up in laughter at a joke Lohla had said just the other day. “Their names were Attod and Kolaht. They were together.”

Krolia appraises him silently. “Perhaps it is a blessing they went to the afterlife together then, as they used to do in all things.”

Yes, maybe it is a blessing, fighting through the tangled threads of this reality side by side, trying to live through the limited moments Life affords in the best way possible, and then having each other afterwards.

Keith doesn’t want to die, not right now, at least, but he likes the idea of not being alone in Death. He wants Shiro to be there with him, to hold him and mumble some shitty joke in his ear, because he's always had a terrible sense of humour and made Keith laugh at things he shouldn't.

“It’s an honor,” Krolia reminds him, “to fight for us. It’s an even greater honor to die for us.”

Keith remembers being told those same words as a new recruit, years ago now. Respect your ceremonial weapons. Respect your armour. To fall for the Blades is to die with Honor. Knowledge or Death.

Pidge told Keith a quote, once upon a time, some night after she had found her brother and Keith and her were sitting by the pool, feet in the water, unable to sleep.

"The quest for freedom is won through sacrifice."

And then she'd described the statue, of all those creatures and alien species holding one another up before an endless graveyard, and Keith had held her closely, wishing she had never had to see it, wishing she never had to see any of what they were going through.

Because they cut down droids a lot of the time, but there were Galra too. Prisoners of war. Impoverished planets, slave drivers, war-torn systems that knew nothing but Death, because the Galran warlords were always victorious.

The quest for freedom is won through sacrifice.

Fuck sacrifice.

Allura was their sacrifice, and no one is better off for it.

They're erecting a statue in Allura's name in the next phoeb or so.

Romelle told them all the other day. It's Coran's idea, sort of, but mostly it's the Alteans' desire. Romelle explained that back at her colony, they used to have a giant marbled Lotor in the middle of the green, and then the Alteans had one of Honerva.

For them to want one of Allura isn't too difficult to understand, but Keith still isn't a fan.

It feels too much like goodbye.

"Kit?"

Keith looks to his mother. "Sorry. Zoned out."

"That's alright. It's normal."

Whatever she was talking about isn't worth repeating, if the way she pulls him close without words is any indication. He leans against her, wanting her warmth, and Krolia tucks his head under her chin before continuing to run her hands through his hair.

They used to do this a fair amount on the space whale too.

It was a really good two years.

Krolia makes a clicking noise of disapproval when her fingers snag. “You really should start braiding this, Keith.”

Keith makes a face. “It’s not long enough.”

“It is,” Krolia counters. “Kolivan can teach you.”

The image isn’t quite something Keith can equate with his Blade leader. Krolia chuckles, before pushing him up so she can properly detangle his hair.

“Ask him,” she encourages. “And get some sleep.”

Keith doesn’t answer.

Krolia parts his hair into sections before she speaks up again. “And maybe when you’ve done that, maybe you can try talking to Shiro.”

Keith turns to look at her but she tugs on his hair to keep his head straight. “What makes you say that?”

“Romelle told me you two weren’t talking anymore.” Betrayal lances through Keith at that but Krolia reads him instantly. “Because I asked her.” She keeps working on his hair.

“Why?”

“Because I stopped hearing about him.” When Keith doesn’t answer, she stops braiding. “Why didn’t you tell me, Kit?”

Keith keeps his eyes trained on his hands where they’re folded in his lap. “I didn’t tell anyone.”

Her hands are still moving but with less focus, which tells Keith that she’s trying to figure out how to broach a subject neither of them want to face. They’re so alike, it’s dizzying.

“I thought you two were best friends.”

Keith will be eternally grateful to the Quantum Flux for giving both of them the years they missed together, for giving Keith snapshots of his parents and how much they loved each other, and for giving Krolia memories of his Paladins, but right now it’s too much.

It’s too much, because beneath the layer of Paladins and Voltron had been Shiro, in Garrison uniform teaching Keith about hoverbike engines; Shiro in civilian clothes dragging him out to the movies on a rare day off; Shiro in pyjamas, sneaking onto the rooftop with him hours after curfew to watch the asteroid shower.

He keeps his mouth shut, because his mother knows she doesn’t need to say anything else, because they both know that whatever he does will damn him anyway.

She ties the braid off and pushes it over his shoulder.

Later, when she’s gone, Keith says what he’s been terrified of voicing:

“I did too.”

 

— K —

 

Keith visits Earth two weeks later after much nagging from mainly Romelle, but the others too. His mother insists on coming, and so of course, that means Kolivan joins. They’re rarely seen without each other these days.

Keith rolls his eyes and changes into his Paladin armor again. He’s supposed to be getting a senior Blade uniform, but Keith keeps shunning Kolivan every time he brings it up. He doesn’t want that responsibility yet; he wants to sink into the shadows and pretend he’s a fresh Blade all over again, younger and more excited about the dangers of a mission instead of whatever broken fucking mess he is now.

He barely makes it onto the tarmac before Romelle tackles him with a hug, nearly suffocating Keith with her hair as she presses her face to his and holds on tight. 

She smells like juniberries and sorrow.

“Romelle,” he gasps out as it floods his nostrils, catching her on instinct, because he isn’t seeing her.

He’s holding Allura instead, being held by her, in the hangar of the Castle of Lions. He’s sitting next to her in the morning, when no one else is awake, watching the sun stretch itself across the horizon. He’s with her at the end of everything, watching her walk up to Alfor, to Lotor, the first Paladins.

“You fool,” Romelle laughs, arms tight around his neck. “You’re a day early! I wasn’t prepared.”

“Hey,” Keith murmurs, trying to blink away the remnants of Allura.

Pidge is next then, plastering herself to his other side. He hooks his arm around her, and then, because he’s a masochist, he breathes in the smell of Romelle’s hair again.

Oh god. It burns.

When Pidge detaches herself, Keith holds Romelle even fiercer this time as the guilt slams into him once more. He’s her family and yet he’s left her alone for so many months. “Thought I probably owed it to you.”

“You most definitely did,” Romelle sniffs, kissing his cheek. “Oh, look at your hair! It’s so long now.”

“I need a haircut.”

“Don’t you dare,” Romelle gasps. “I’m still recovering from Matt’s atrocity.”

Keith winces.

“Hello, Romelle,” Keith’s mother says warmly, and Romelle turns to accept her embrace with a delighted squeal.

The guilt increases tenfold, and it only gets worse when Romelle grasps both of their hands and pleads, “Take me with you two next time, please.”

“What’s wrong with the Garrison?” Krolia says.

Romelle drags a hand over her face dramatically. “It’s boring. I feel so useless. I would be of much more use with you.”

Krolia grins. “Do you think you could be a Blade, dear?”

Romelle shudders but she’s got that determined look in her eyes that tell Keith she isn’t kidding. “I think I could. With training, of course.”

“Of course,” Krolia says, eyes crinkling at the corner as she draws Romelle in for another embrace. “I’ll keep it in mind, dear.”

“Will you?” Romelle says gratefully. “Oh, thank the gods.”

“Hunk told me you were getting better in the kitchen though,” Keith says, offering his arm to her.

The juniberries cling to Keith.

She accepts his arm happily and propels him from the hangar. “Yes, well, cooking isn’t quite my forte but it’s alright. I want to be with you two, though.” She squeezes his arm for emphasis. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too,” Keith says.

Krolia and Kolivan leave them to track down Iverson and check in with him. Keith should probably go too, but his mother insists they can handle the debrief.

“Spend some time with Romelle,” she directs.

Keith can do that.

They go outside, because Keith has been on a ship for the last fortnight and is sick of the filtered air. The ground is hard and pebbly, but Keith tips his head up to the sky, breathing the energy in.

God, he’s missed the feeling of wind.

Romelle isn’t quite a fan of it, if the way she detaches herself from him to sweep her locks into a messy bun is any indication. Keith smirks, but follows suit when he gets sick of his hair getting caught in his mouth.

“We can braid each other’s hair now,” Romelle beams.

“Sure,” Keith chuckles, and then they sit, watching the cadets run air drills.

The roar of jet engines is comforting and easy to get lost in. Keith remembers when it was him up there, still not sure why Shiro had decided to take him under his proverbial wing. The other cadets had all talked about him, and he’s sure he made it worse by refusing to interact with them, but nothing had really mattered when Shiro was always there afterwards to drag him to the mess to complain about the snooty admirals.

Shiro used to knock his shoulder against Keith as they walked, used to dump Keith’s plate full of bread rolls and ask how his day went around a mouthful of stew. Keith would put the bread rolls back onto Shiro’s plate and tell him he wasn’t supposed to talk with his mouth full, because his father taught him manners, and Shiro would grin at him anyway, crumbs spraying onto the table.

Keith hadn’t known love at that point in time, but he was pretty sure Shiro with a doughy smile was close enough to it.

The memory is like hot coals against bare skin and Keith flinches, shoving it away.

Another time, he begs himself, when he’s not so grounded, when he’s deep in nebulae searching for one good thing to hold onto to keep the space madness at bay.

Wordless, Romelle shifts closer to him and Keith leans against her, grateful for her sensitivity to situations. It’s why they get on so well together; on their way back from the colony, he’d thought she was too paranoid and squeamish for his liking, and then she’d walked into the cockpit one day with soup.

“I haven’t seen you eat in nearly two quintants,” she’d said awkwardly, holding the bowl out like a peace offering.

It tasted like moon flowers. It felt like the sun.

This memory is much kinder and he holds onto it.

“I brought you something,” he says, reaching up to unlink the necklace. “Close your eyes.”

Romelle scrunches her nose up but does as she’s asked. Keith smiles fondly, wishing he had a better gift for her, knowing nothing would ever be enough anyway. He takes her hand and places the gem in her palm.

“Okay, you can open them now.”

“Oh,” Romelle says, taking in how the light is refracted by the gem. “Keith, it’s beautiful.” She laughs then, holding it closer. “It’s like you! It’s your color.”

Keith shrugs. He usually wears his Blade uniform these days. The Red Paladin armor always reminds him too much of what they all once were.

“Help me put it on,” Romelle demands, and though Keith knows she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself, he helps. She beams at it. “It’ll remind me of you. Thank you, Keith. I love it.”

“I love you,” he says automatically, surprising himself with how easily it comes out.

He’s only ever said those words to three other people in his life. He doesn’t want to think about being flat on his back, doesn’t want to think about keeping Shiro’s blade from slicing his throat and fumbling for anything to say, because it wasn’t Shiro on top of him, it wasn’t Shiro who bared his teeth and told him to give up. Shiro had always encouraged him, had always said Keith could do anything he set his mind to, and Keith loved him, Keith was so sure he was going to die by Shiro’s hand, and he couldn’t do that to Shiro—

“I love you too.” Romelle’s eyes are shiny with tears and she hugs him so tightly that Keith thinks he might burst into a million fragments.

The roiling within him gets even worse as she admires the gem again, and Keith doesn’t know what he’s going to do when he has to leave again.

“Does it hurt?” Romelle asks quietly. “Being here?”

Keith stares at the streaks in the atmosphere left by the cadets. The clouds look like cotton candy, dense enough to sit on. But they’re nothing more than condensation; they’ll dissipate at the slightest touch.

Keith feels like that.

“Yeah.”

Romelle hums quietly, not quite turning it into a song. “Sometimes I hate it here.”

“I didn’t think I could come back,” Keith admits.

Romelle nuzzles his hair.

There was a time when Romelle didn’t touch him at all. It had taken the three of them a month to get out of the Quantum Abyss. Romelle had watched Keith’s interactions with his mother, the easy hugs and the way they moved around each other, and she had stayed quiet.

But afterwards, after Lotor and the Rift and Allura bringing Shiro back, Romelle found him outside. The others had long retired to their Lions along with Shiro, but Keith hadn’t wanted to be inside with his thoughts yet. He had wanted to sift through them alone, and Krolia had kissed his forehead goodnight without comment.

Romelle sat next to him and had rested her head against his shoulder.

Keith isn’t sure what gave her the confidence to, but perhaps it was seeing Keith’s memories of how tactile the other Paladins were with each other. Pidge used to put her feet into Hunk’s lap and throw chips at Lance whenever he’d reach over to tickle them. Allura would run her hands through Pidge’s hair and fruitlessly try to braid it, and Shiro would sit next to Keith, a little like this, thigh strong and warm where it pressed against Keith’s.

Keith was never brave enough to lean his head on Shiro’s shoulder though.

“Where is home?” Romelle had asked.

“Earth,” Keith had replied, even though Earth wasn’t quite home to him anymore either.

It never had been, really. The stars sang to his Galran blood and Earth had never given him this: the feeling of finding water after years of being trapped in the desert. 

Romelle tried out the name on her tongue, fancy accent making it sound far nicer than it really was. “What’s it like?”

“Big,” Keith had said. “I come from the desert, where it’s really hot. But Lance is Cuban and he comes from the seaside.”

“The seaside?”

Keith had looked down at her in confusion, before realising. The colony he found her in was miles and miles of meadows and forests. “Yeah, like. Next to the ocean. Full of beaches and stuff like that.”

Romelle had sighed out and confirmed what he thought. “I’ve never seen the beach.”

The one and only time Keith had was so long ago he can barely recall any of it, but he remembers the water lapping around his feet, the squishy sand between his toes. “I’ll have to take you sometime.”

She had fallen asleep there, and he didn’t have the heart to wake her, so he’d picked her up bridal style and deposited her in Blue with Allura. Allura had woken the moment he set Romelle down next to her on the bed, blinking up at him blearily. Her long white hair was tangled and she had marks on her face where the pillow had pressed in, and yet she still had that regal air about her, was still their princess, even with the dregs of sleep clinging to her.

“You should be asleep,” she had said, hushed.

She always took care of the rest of them first. When she motioned for Keith to sit, he did, wondering how she made everything look so effortless.

“Why aren’t you resting?”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

Allura’s mouth had quirked up. “Did you even try?”

Keith had rolled his eyes. “Not yet.” He hadn’t been sure if he was even going to try. “Thank you for bringing Shiro back.”

“Of course,” she had whispered, and Keith was grateful for his Galran heritage, grateful he could make out the softness of her smile and the shine of tears in her eyes.

She’d looked how he felt.

Keith had gestured to Romelle’s sleeping form. “Can you take care of her for me? She needs a friend.”

“Alright. But she has you too, Keith.”

In the dim cargo hold, Keith had studied Romelle’s profile. His shoulder was still warm from the weight of her. “Yeah. She does.”

Allura had held his hand, squeezed it in reassurance. It was so tempting to just lie down there, to nestle between Romelle and Allura and close his eyes and be thankful that for tonight, at least, they had some reprieve. Shiro was in his healing pod and they were going home and it didn’t seem real, that he could stop thinking for a moment.

He hadn’t, though. He’d never shared a bed with anyone, and he didn’t know how to articulate what he wanted to Allura. People always said boys weren’t supposed to sleep in the same bed with girls, anyway.

“I’m glad you did come back,” Romelle murmurs, her hand wrapped around the gem. “I’m proud of you. It’s brave.”

Fighter jets zoom overhead, bring Keith back to the present.

“I don’t feel like I belong here.”

“Sure you do,” Keith says, because it’s the correct thing to say, even if he feels like an imposter in his own skin sometimes. He’s a farce, donning his Blade of Marmora suit every day, liberating planets one by one and presenting himself as some capable leader.

Romelle shakes her head, blonde hair catching the light. “I don’t. Hunk tries to make it better, and Ina and I get along somewhat. But I...I used to spend all my time with her.”

Keith’s gut twists almost violently and he should be used to this, it shouldn’t have him reeling, but it does, and that’s somehow worse. “Romelle.”

She nods quickly, like she’s afraid Keith is going to cut her off. He’d never do that, though. Not when it’s Allura she’s talking about.

“I really miss her,” she whispers.

Keith tugs her closer. “Yeah,” he says, feeling as though he’s being sliced into pieces at the mention of her. “Me too.”

Romelle’s eyes are as purple as Keith’s Blade and as watery as the sea. She returns to his shoulder, and when he breathes in deep, it feels like drowning.

If only he could open his mouth and let the ocean in, let the salt find a home in his lungs and leave no room for anything else.

But they’re in the middle of the desert, amongst miles of sand and dust, and the sea does not find him. The sun simply continues its path across the globe until the sky descends into a mottled yellow.

Keith is pretty sure Romelle falls asleep as they sit there, cushioned on the bony prominence of his shoulder, but he can’t check without jostling her. Instead he gets lost in the clouds, picking out shapes, animals. His mother and him used to do it on the space whale whenever they weren’t training. Keith used to call her a cheater because she would list creatures he’d never heard of.

She’d told him to learn them.

Then she’d drawn crude photos in the sand to give him pointers, and taught him their Galran names. And then she’d graduated him to small talk, little snippets woven into their English conversations. Keith still can’t quite get the guttural ‘H’ right, because to him it sounds like a record scratch, but he thinks he’s alright with the rest of his Galran.

And if nothing else, the lesson has stuck with him since.

The shrieking of Romelle’s datapad surprises both of them. Romelle squeals and slaps around hurriedly for the culprit. Keith runs his hands through his hair, blinking away the sudden desire to use Romelle’s arm as a pillow.

“Quiznak,” she groans, tapping it haphazardly until the offending noise is quietened. Then she stands. “Come on. Hunk will be finishing up soon and he’ll never let me live if he finds out I was hoarding you all this time.”

“Hunk couldn’t hurt a fly,” Keith says.

“Chef Hunk can,” Romelle says conspiratorially.

It’s a joke, a wafer-thin attempt at one, but a joke nonetheless. The smile that pastes itself onto Keith’s face is tight and joyless.

Keith follows her to the commissary and nearly suffocates in the embrace Hunk gives him.

“I missed you, buddy,” he says quietly. “We all did.”

Lance is still out in an unknown star system, with Pidge now. They won’t be back in time for Keith to catch them—he’s only here for three days—but they’d left him messages saying they’d monopolise him on the next visit.

“We might come near you on the way home,” Pidge had said, but who knew when that might be. They’d left Earth two weeks ago with no return date, and Pidge hadn’t said it, but he knew.

“Yeah,” he says into Hunk’s shoulder. “Missed you.”

And he hates how even after all this time, he’s aching to know if Shiro did too.

 

— K —

 

As it turns out, Keith doesn’t have to find out what he would have had to do when he left Romelle on Earth. All it takes is the two of them, sitting side by side leaning against the wolf and flipping through TV channels.

“So,” Romelle says, eyes trained on the screen but tone suggesting she is very much not interested in whatever is playing. “You leave tomorrow.”

Keith presses closer at the reminder, wishing he could stay longer, knowing that no amount of time will ever suffice. “Yeah.”

Romelle puts the TV remote down to look at him instead. “Take me with you?”

“Romelle…” Keith starts.

“Please, Keith? Please?”

Romelle never begs. Keith can’t say no.

He takes her to New Daibazaal.

Acxa doesn’t question it when Keith disembarks Black with his sister in tow, instead just inclining her head respectfully at the pair of them and smirking when Keith growls at her. She knows he hates it when she does that.

“Hello, Acxa,” Romelle says, going straight for a hug.

“Hello, Romelle,” Acxa pats her back awkwardly and it’s Keith’s turn to smirk at her, because she can act as aloof as she wants, but physical affection always undoes her.

Romelle slots into the Blades with even more enthusiasm than Keith ever gave her credit for.

He knows how stubborn she is, and how driven she is to know how everything, but he’s still surprised at how quickly she takes up her new position on the Mamora base. It’s her who wakes him up the first morning, already clad in workout gear.

“Spar with me,” she says.

Keith goes along with it, mostly because he doesn’t want to run for once, except he forgot how proficient Romelle had gotten at sparring under Allura’s tutelage. It’s barely half a minute in before she grabs Keith’s hand and throws him over her shoulder, slamming him onto his back.

He’s left staring at her, stunned, even as his ears ring from where his head hit the mat.

“Quiznak!” Romelle says, rushing over immediately. “Oh gods, I forgot you’re not as strong as Allura.”

“Definitely not,” Keith coughs as she fusses over him unnecessarily and pulls his head into her lap. He doesn’t know if he should check out the blood he tastes in the back of his throat. A part of him wants to bleed even more. “Fuck. You’ve gotten really good.”

Romelle’s cheeks are already flushed from their sparring but she goes even pinker. “I had a good teacher.”

It reminds Keith of the loose thread of a sweater, the way he feels like any mention of Allura has him unravelling. Hearing about her pulls and pulls him apart until he’s just miles and miles and miles of wool. Useless, forgotten. No one will pick up the threads of him, no one will knit him into something.

Make it stop. Please.

“Will it ever go away?” he asks softly.

“Will what go away?”

Keith almost whimpers. “The pain.”

Romelle bends so that her cheek is pressed to his forehead. “It has to.”

 

— K —

 

The pain does not go away.

Kolivan said to Keith during his trials, “Surrender the blade and the pain will cease.”

He hadn’t wanted to give up then. He wants to now.

But there is no blade to be surrendered here.

Keith wishes for simpler days, for the times when he’d wake up to Pidge and Hunk careening down the corridor with Lance on one of her modified robots; for when Allura would push the Altean equivalent of coffee into his hands and ask what in stars name the other three were doing; for when Shiro would lean sleepily against Keith’s shoulder and tell Allura that it was completely fine for Lance to be going at breakneck speed, because maybe losing his head would teach him a better lesson instead of giving him a lecture.

Surrender the blade and the pain will cease.

But there is no blade to be surrendered here.

Keith gifts Romelle with two swords. He would have asked for a Legacy Blade to be reforged for her, but Romelle wouldn’t be able to awaken it anyway, so he has these two made from Altean steel and requests for Merla to have the Altean alchemists look over them.

“These are for you,” he tells Romelle without fanfare, holding them out for her to take.

Romelle takes them with wide eyes and they glow with the Balmeran crystals’ energy. “Keith,” she almost admonishes. “You already gave me a necklace!”

Keith rolls his shoulders. “You’re with us, now. I figured you should have Blades of your own to practice with before your Trials.”

Romelle tests the weight of them in her hands. “They’re so pretty.”

“They’re sharp, too,” Keith points out, because he may have made them aesthetically pleasing for her, but they’re functional first and foremost. He widens his stance and awakens his own. “Come on. Let’s give them a whirl.”

She isn’t used to fighting with two, and is at an even greater disadvantage to Keith’s more aggressive forms, but she holds her own well enough that Keith is panting by the time they pause for a break.

“They’re so light,” Romelle comments, rolling her wrists in circles. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” Keith rubs his sweaty forehead on her cheek and she squeals, slapping him away.

“Gross!”

He grins, helping her to her feet, and then holds out his Blade. “Go again?”

“Slavedriver,” Romelle mutters, but she unsheathes her blades at once and runs at him.

The clang of swords is almost calming and Keith falls into the push and pull of it, the steady to and fro of his Blade deflecting Romelle’s unpredictable strikes. She’s got that look in her eye that tells Keith she isn’t going down without a good fight, but he isn’t here to destroy her; he’s here to teach her, prepare her for her Trials.

They strike and parry one another, circling around the room until Keith purposefully leaves an opening for her. She seizes it immediately, both blades crossed at his throat and Keith stops himself from pushing forward and letting them slice the blood vessels there.

“You cheated,” Romelle pouts.

“What? You won.”

Romelle doesn’t let him get away with it. “You did that on purpose.”

Keith ducks his head, caught out. “Guilty.”

Romelle hums, unimpressed, and then sheathes her Blades at her side. Keith congratulates himself silently on them. They suit her.

“Dinner?” he says, even though he knows he’s just going to push his food around the plate again.

“Let’s.”

He holds out his arm and she latches onto it to walk with him to the mess hall. The new base was built for them by the Olkari, but it’s Blade-influenced through and through, with high ceilings, violet accents and the Blade of Marmora symbol on each room’s door.

“Thank you again, Keith,” Romelle says, eyes trained on the beams of light as they walk. “That was fun.”

“Yeah, it was.”

“It’s been so long since I used swords. The last time was with Allura, actually.”

Keith doesn’t know how she can drop bombs so casually like that and not care for the aftermath. “I never trained with you,” he says. “Not properly, at least.”

Romelle smiles sadly at him. “You were busy. You were in charge of Voltron and the Garrison had you doing all those check ins with their facilities.”

“Allura made time for you though.”

Romelle tilts her head to the side, in sympathy, or pain—Keith isn’t sure. “She was like a sister to me.”

And she was, wasn’t she? Keith never really saw the two of them without each other, and if he did, they usually weren’t far behind. The colony not only gave Keith a sister; it gave Romelle to Allura, too.

“I’m your brother,” Keith protests.

Romelle hugs him a little closer to her. “It’s fine, really.” When Keith’s brow doesn’t smooth out, she tugs on his arm. “I’m serious, Keith. It’s fine. There was a war going on.”

There isn’t a war now, but there is the pieces of Keith’s found family, scattered into different corners of this fucked up reality, all of them chasing after their lost Paladin because being in the same room without her hurts more.

Surrender the blade and the pain will cease.

But there is no blade to be surrendered here.

 

— K —

 

The day of Romelle’s Trials come. Keith watches her advance through them, getting up to sixteen Blades, all handpicked by Acxa, until Romelle finds reprieve. She’s less wounded than he thought she might be but the exhaustion still makes her delirious and she manages to stumble halfway across the lit up floor before collapsing.

A bright light shines on the far end of the room, and then it materialises into a person.

Please. No.

Keith should have known who Romelle would see—hell, he had known that it was more likely than not, but he’d hoped, prayed, that maybe he would be wrong.

He isn’t wrong.

The projection Romelle has of Allura is not the one they left behind at the end; this one is softer around the edges, dressed in her pink paladin armour, white hair spilling around her shoulders, falling down her back.

Keith nearly chokes on a sob.

Acxa looks at him in concern and goes to speak but he hisses at her to be silent, grateful for the mask covering his face.

“Allura?” Romelle says weakly, reaching out to the projection.

“Romelle,” Allura says, kneeling to her. “Oh, darling, you did so well!”

“How…?” Romelle blinks slowly, looking at the blood on her gloves. “Oh, I’m bleeding. Allura, no, don’t hug me, I’ll make you all bloody.”

“Don’t be silly,” Allura says and she winds her arms around Romelle’s shoulders.

Keith sucks in a breath. His grip on the ledge in front of him is deathly.

“How did you get here?” Romelle asks, still dazed. Her eyes are hazy and unfocused as she paws at Allura’s uniform, staining blood onto its lapels.

Allura smiles and it cuts Keith to the bone. “I was waiting for you, darling. Keith told me your Trials were today.”

Romelle sighs out when Allura says his name. “Oh. I’m glad you’re here, then. I’ve missed you.” Then Romelle shakes her head slowly, pushing back from the projection and squeezing her eyes shut. “But…no, wait…Allura…what are you doing here?”

“I told you. Keith said your Trials were today.”

“But…but you left…with Honerva.”

Allura leans back, out of Romelle’s reach, and Romelle makes a small wounded sound at the space between them. “I had to, darling. I had to leave. If I could have stayed, I would.”

“But,” Romelle sniffs. “You left. I never got to say goodbye.”

“I know—”

“You were gone before I could.”

Allura pets Romelle’s arm. “I had to go, darling.”

Romelle sniffs again, and it hurts Keith to see this, to see his sister struggling with her mindscape, to see her insecurities played out with her best friend.

“Call it off,” Keith croaks out.

“Sir?” Acxa says, only because they’re in the presence of other Blades and Keith is the highest.

“Off,” he says again.

Acxa’s lips press together. “Sir, she needs to call it off herself.”

Keith knows that, he’s sat through enough Trials now to know that each Blade reaches the tipping point and wakes up of their own accord, but the cowardice he feels in this moment is blinding. He hasn’t felt scared like this in a long time. He can’t watch this anymore; can’t watch his sister cry, can’t watch this fake Allura hold his sister, because the real Allura left, she sacrificed herself to save everyone and it still damned them all anyway.

“I had to go, Romelle,” Allura repeats.

“I know,” Romelle says vacantly. “Everyone has to go, eventually. Mother, Father, Bandor.” She meets Allura’s eyes then. “You had to go, too, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did.”

Romelle exhales wearily. “Everyone leaves me.”

I’m not going anywhere, Keith wants to tell her. You’re fucking stuck with me, forever.

Romelle blinks and tears fall; blood smears across her face as she wipes them away. “Did I do alright at least?”

Allura agrees wholeheartedly. “Of course, darling. You did wonderfully.”

Romelle brushes more tears from her eyes and smiles up at Allura. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“I’m here,” Allura agrees. “We can go home now.”

“Home?”

“Yes. To Altea.”

And suddenly Keith knows exactly what Romelle’s challenge is, what she’s going to have to do if she is to pass her Trials. He wants to call it all off even more now, wants to rescue his sister instead of making her endure this, because how cruel it is, to make her choose.

“Altea?” Romelle’s face crumples in confusion. “But…home is here. On New Daibazaal.”

The projection’s face is alabaster smooth and perfect. It doesn’t crack at all. “No, silly. Your home is on Altea. With me.”

“With you?”

“Yes. With me.”

Romelle shakes her head again. Keith can almost see her trying to grasp onto the floating puzzle pieces in her mind to put together. “I can’t come to Altea, Allura.”

When Keith was talking with his dad, there had been a Galra invasion going on outside. And when Keith talked to Shiro, it had devolved into an argument and Shiro had stormed off.

This Allura doesn’t stay calm, nor does she get angry. She just gets…sad. It’s worse.

“Why ever not?”

“Because…Keith,” Romelle fumbles, and Keith wants to punch the glass and tell Romelle to just go, because damn it, he is not worth staying on New Daibazaal for. “And the Blades. I’m a Blade, now.”

“You’re an Altean, Romelle. You belong on Altea.”

Romelle just about whimpers and Keith looks up to the ceiling, wishing he was anywhere but here. “No, I must. The Blades need me.”

“I need you.”

Keith has to look away.

Romelle struggles to word anything, until eventually she says softly, “I can’t.”

“Yes you can. I’m here to take you home with me.”

Romelle’s breathing quickens; she looks seconds away from melting. “No, Allura, I…” She pauses. “Allura, I can’t come with you to Altea.”

“Yes you can.”

“No,” Romelle says, barely audible. Then, louder, stronger, and there’s the Romelle Keith knows, there’s his strong-headed sister: “My place is here with the Blades.”

Allura looks even sadder. “Truly?”

Romelle nods slowly, silently, and the affirmation settles into the dust. “…Truly.”

“But…but what will I do without you?”

Romelle buries her face in her hands. “Oh! Don’t say it like that, Allura.”

“What else do I say, darling? You’re supposed to be coming home with me.”

“I am home. This is home.” Romelle doesn’t lift her head. “I…why can’t you stay here, instead?”

“You know I cannot.”

“Please,” Romelle whispers. “We can figure something out—”

“I cannot.”

“Allura—”

“I cannot,” Allura repeats. “You know I cannot.” Allura gives Romelle a moment to collect herself, and then says, “Darling, I must go.”

“No!” Romelle cries out, reaching over and grabbing Allura’s hand. “Please, don’t.”

“I must,” Allura says, covering Romelle’s hand with her own. “I cannot stay here.”

Romelle’s bottom lip wobbles. “Will I ever see you again?”

“I don’t think so, darling.”

Romelle blinks away another wave of tears. “So this is goodbye then?”

“Unfortunately, darling. This is goodbye.”

Romelle launches herself into Allura’s arms and cries freely then. She keeps apologising, keeps asking her to stay, keeps saying she can’t leave New Daibazaal, no matter how much she wants Allura with her.

“Oh,” Allura sighs.

“I’m sorry,” Romelle says. “I’m so sorry. But I must stay here, Allura.”

Allura pats her back, runs her hand up and down her spine. “I know.”

“Please forgive me,” Romelle says. “Please.”

“I must go.”

Allura draws back and kisses Romelle’s forehead, and Keith knows that time is almost out, that Romelle is moments away from waking up. He barks out an order to Acxa to handle the rest and leaves the room, dissolving his mask as he goes.

 

— K —

 

When he finds Romelle, the tear tracks on her cheeks haven’t had time enough to dry yet.

“Keith,” she sobs, and Keith is there in three strides, throwing his arms around her and holding her tight.

“I’m here,” he tells her, because after what he just saw, he knows that’s what she needs the most. “I’m right here.”

It’s the loud, gulping kind of crying, the type that completely destroys any sense of resolve in Keith until he’s hiding in her hair and crying with her. His face is wet with it and he wants to vomit, wants to retch until the emptiness leaves him.

“She was so real,” Romelle cries and Keith wishes he could be closer to her, wishes he could reach down into the lake of grief within her and drain it.

“I know,” he whispers. “I know she was. I’m so sorry.”

Romelle shakes apart and Keith is helpless to stop her; he has to watch it, just like he had to watch her with Allura. “She was so real,” Romelle says again. “I never…she just…”

And because Keith is seriously fucked up, he starts to laugh.

“What?” Romelle says, confused, and Keith keeps laughing.

This is ridiculous, the two of them weeping over their dead friend. It’s so fucking sad and pathetic and god, Keith is so not okay, it’s almost funny.

“This sucks,” he says, half-sobbing, half-laughing.

It makes Romelle chuckle too, and now Keith is near hysterical as the waves of emotion meet and clash together and twist up inside him until he’s all whirlpool and nothing else.

“This is so fucked,” he complains, hiccuping his way through tears.

Romelle strokes them away for him with her thumbs. “It is.”

Keith swallows, feeling like the ocean is trapped in his oesophagus and wanting to cough it up. He takes a deep breath and it still feels like drowning. Romelle sniffles, somehow still beautiful with her flushed cheeks and red nose and puffy eyes.

“Did I pass?”

Keith nods, drawing her close again. “Yeah. Yeah, of course you did.”

Romelle folds herself against his chest. “Thank gods.”

Keith rubs her shoulder soothingly, tries to coax some warmth back into her, because she’s gone cold with the blood loss and the lowered temperature of the simulation room. “You did great.” He brushes the hair from her face. “Let’s get you cleaned up, okay?”

“Okay.”

There are three nurses attending her when they make it to the medbay and Keith is grateful for the favouritism, for once. She’s been through more than enough today. There’s another recruit who’s been there for half a quintant now, and Romelle eyes them warily as she climbs into the adjacent healing pod.

“One varga,” Keith promises, before it closes.

True to his word, a varga comes and goes and then Keith helps Romelle out, swaddling her in one of the heavy coats that Blades on the colder planets use. The wolf takes them to Keith’s room, and then Romelle curls against his flank as Keith settles against his shoulder.

He’s so much bigger now that Keith has difficulty calling him a wolf; he’s easily the size of a horse.

Romelle fists her hands into the wolf’s fur and lets it run through her fingers. Neither of them talk. Keith likes to think of them as a tower of champagne glasses, trembling with each vibration and movement, reading to come crashing down.

Romelle sighs, and then asks, “Who did you see? Was it Shiro?”

Keith hesitates, then nods. What’s the point in denying it? “Yeah, it was Shiro.”

Romelle pets the wolf’s rump, sliding her hand down to his feathery tail. “You told me the suit displays your greatest hopes and fears.”

“I did.”

“What did you two talk about?”

Keith studies the wolf’s front paw, huffing out a broken laugh. “We argued, actually. He wanted me to give up my Blade.”

“Did you?”

“Not at first. I chose the Blade, but then he left and I…” He breaks off, mouth tripping over what he wants to say, heart wondering if he has the guts to say as much about his projection of Shiro when the two of them haven’t spoken in almost two phoebs now. “It didn’t matter, then. Shiro was leaving and I didn’t care about the knife anymore.”

Romelle’s face is half-hidden by the wolf’s fur. She curls her fingers against it, so pale against Kosmo’s blue. “I’m almost embarrassed, now.”

“No,” Keith disagrees automatically. “Don’t be. We’ve all been there. And it wasn’t bad, alright?”

Romelle makes a noise of dissent but stays otherwise quiet. The silence is cathartic in a way, blanketing the two of them. It snuffs out the conversation. Keith wishes he was a candle, burning at both ends and going up in smoke.

Because being here like this, breathing, existing, feels like that.

 

— K —

 

They have their first mission together, an extraction, a week after Romelle says her vows. Krolia kisses both of them and bids them good luck, and then they’re jetting out into space. Keith is apprehensive the entire time, fighting to keep from snapping at Romelle out of nerves, but the mission is a little anticlimactic, in the end.

They retrieve their Blade sister and are back on New Daibazaal within a quintant.

Romelle spars with him daily, walking him through her grounding techniques. He doesn’t have her Altean strength, but he’s got his mother’s catlike agility and he learns how to twist the movements to better suit his own sparring style.

Romelle sticks her tongue out at him the first time he successfully flips her. “Nice.”

“Nice?” Keith scoffs, collapsing next to her. “You’re so generous.”

“I aim to be,” Romelle giggles, rolling onto her side to face him. “But honestly, you fight so aggressively.”

“You sound like Acxa,” Keith complains. “I hate the slower forms.”

They remind Keith of water, of a river meandering its way through the mountainside. He isn’t that; he’s like Red—fast, fiery. He isn’t a winding brook, bubbling over rocks and pebbles. He’s the eruption of a volcano, the wildfire of the forest. He burns everything he touches.

“I think they’re pretty.”

“You think everything is pretty.”

Romelle pokes his cheek. “Fair enough. Why do you like them then? The other forms?”

“I don’t know. Always worked for me, I guess.”

And they have.

Shiro didn’t teach Keith to punch, because Keith already knew how to when they met, but he did teach Keith the finer points of grappling, and a resounding theme had always been how feisty Keith was.

“You fight good,” Shiro had commented when Keith had kicked him in the jaw for the first time.

It had to have throbbed something chronic, because Keith had put all his weight into it, but Shiro was just staring at him with that funny little smile on his face, the one that Keith was starting to crave like plants did with the sun.

No one else had ever looked at him like that.

“Thanks?”

Shiro had chuckled. “It’s a good thing, trust me. I’m bigger than you but when we fight, it never feels like it.”

“I’m used to being small,” Keith had said, and maybe it had been the tone, or maybe he had looked down at the wrong moment, but Shiro’s voice had softened.

“Hey,” he’d said. “You could easily have me on the floor if you wanted.”

And god, he was trying to be encouraging but Keith was seventeen and wanting and he’d imagined Shiro beneath him, flushed and panting and it was because they were sparring, not because Keith wanted Shiro to look up at him through his lashes and breathe, please, oh please—

“Doubt it.”

“Prove me wrong.”

Shiro always did know how much Keith loved a challenge.

Romelle clicks her tongue and it takes Keith forever to drag himself out of it, to meet her gaze and already know what she’s going to ask.

“What are you thinking about?”

Keith closes his eyes. “Shiro.”

Romelle sits up, turning to face him head on. “Keith,” she says, firm.

No, not now, not here. Keith doesn’t want to do this.

“Keith?” Romelle says, more tentative this time. “What’s happening with you and Shiro?”

Ice shoots straight through Keith’s veins.

Not now.

“Romelle…” he groans.

“No, I think we should talk about this. I’m worried. Krolia is worried.”

Keith opens his eyes, remembering his mother telling him to try talking to Shiro. “Yeah, she said you talked to her.”

Romelle wrings her hands. “Can you blame me?”

“Yeah, I can,” Keith says, snappish, irritable. “It wasn’t your place.”

“She asked,” Romelle protests. “She said you didn’t talk about him anymore and asked if everything was okay.”

Keith sits up too now, hunching in on himself. “You still didn’t have to tell her.”

Usually by now Romelle would have laid a hand on his arm or bumped his shoulder, but perhaps she knows that any kind of contact will light Keith up like tinder in a dry field. He’d give anything to be ablaze right now, be anywhere but here.

“I won’t apologise.” She stays quiet for a moment, and then says, “You know, when I first met you, I thought he was your partner.”

Keith twists his head to look at her. “What? Why?”

“Because he was all you talked about when we were on our way to the Castle of Lions.”

“He was my best friend,” Keith tries to reason, wondering who he’s trying to convince more: her or himself. “We were best friends.”

Romelle stares at him. “You didn’t look like best friends when he woke up and fell into your arms.”

“Oh really?” Keith actually snaps this time because that’s low. “What did it look like then?”

Don’t. Don’t say it.

“Like you were in love.”

Keith winces. “I thought I was.”

“Then what…” Romelle doesn’t finish her sentence straight away. “Oh, Keith. What happened?”

Keith tugs at his fringe, combs his fingers through it to try and ground himself because he’s flying way too close to the sun right now and the wax is melting, his wings are burning off him and he’s moments away from free falling into the sea.

“Romelle.”

Stop.

“What happened?”

Please stop.

“Romelle,” he says, a request, a final warning, for both their sakes.

She doesn’t listen. “What happened?”

His wings snap.

“Oh my fucking god!” Keith shouts. “Stop talking about him.”

Romelle doesn’t back down, because she’s fearless and stubborn and she knows when she’s snagged onto something meaningful. “So you can ignore the problem again?”

“Romelle,” he says. “Please.”

“No, we need to talk about this, Keith, we must.”

Panic is swelling in Keith’s throat and his heart is racing; he’s too aware of his pulse, of the pounding in his chest. “Romelle, I can’t.”

No, he isn’t going to cry, not fucking now, not again. How is he supposed to tell his sister he has no idea? He knows she’ll tell him to talk to Shiro, knows that she believes they can salvage whatever they used to have between them, but there isn’t any wreckage to visit, because they never crashed at all.

“Try,” Romelle whispers. “Please try, at least.”

“I don’t know, okay?” Keith says. “He just stopped talking. Stopped talking, stopped looking at me, stopped—”

He can’t finish it. His ribcage is cracked wide open and the vultures are descending upon him and digging their beaks into his rotting flesh and it hurts it hurts it hurts—

Romelle flings her arms around his neck and holds him to her. She doesn’t say anything as Keith weeps openly, tears dripping down his face, soaking the material of her shirt, staining the fabric.

“I’m sorry,” she says, even though the damage is already done.

Allura is gone and the way Keith misses her is bone deep. But Shiro is gone too, and Keith is still wondering how it’s possible to mourn someone who’s still alive.

 

— K —

 

Days later, when Keith is outside watching the stars with the wolf, Acxa brings him dinner.

Romelle is fast asleep in her room, having drifted off as Keith was brushing her hair. She hasn’t broached the subject of Shiro again.

At least Keith’s braiding skills are getting better. He can do a basic three-strand one, thanks to Romelle teaching him the other day.

He even granted his mother’s wish and consulted Kolivan.

It wasn’t quite stilted, but it was very scripted and ended with Kolivan forwarding some designs to Keith’s data pad, as well as some texts explaining the different patterns and significance for different people and events.

Baby steps.

Galaxies sparkle above, but Keith knows which planet he and Acxa are both searching for.

Acxa points out New Altea when she finds it. “You must miss them,” she murmurs as she does, and Keith has to grit his teeth against the tidal wave of just how much he does.

He misses Hunk’s laughter and Coran’s terrible fashion sense and Pidge’s knobbly knees and Lance’s obnoxious attitude. He misses Shiro’s smile, the way it makes his eyes crinkle at the corners and warms Keith from the inside out.

He misses Allura.

“Yeah,” he breathes, lungs on fire.

Acxa regards him. “Are we going to New Altea any time soon?”

Keith shakes his head. “God, no.”

Acxa says nothing, but she must know. Surely. Keith was always with his Paladins, even though he hated socialising. Allura used to loop her arm through his and walk with him silently, and Keith was Shiro’s right hand man, once upon a time.

Somewhere, amongst the billion nebulae, Lance is still searching for their princess, this time with Hunk. Pidge is with Matt on Earth, helping their father explore teludav technology. Sam’s work is vital for space travel, but it’s also something Earth are planning to use to cement their place amongst the Coalition as something more than a recovering planet.

Keith breathes in deep and the pain doesn’t settle.

It only worsens.

“Well, Veronica wants us to.”

Keith pulls his Blade free to study it in the moonlight. Even being in the Blades hurts Keith, because Shiro had been the one Keith had looked at in fear when his Blade had awoken.

“It’s okay,” Shiro had reassured him afterwards when Keith had wanted to take that same Blade to his wrists and see how deep he could slice into them because he was Galran, he was the same breed as the monsters that had cut up Shiro’s perfect face and broken him.

Shiro held Keith with two arms for once, and Keith had crumbled because the only other time Shiro did was when he was leaving for Kerberos. 

“I didn’t know,” Keith had pleaded and Shiro had shaken his head and wrapped him up tighter. “Shiro, I didn’t know, I’m so sorry.”

“No,” he had murmured into Keith’s hair. “No. Please, don’t—don’t apologise. It doesn’t change anything.” He’d made sure Keith met his eyes when he said, “You’re Keith, alright? Nothing changes that. Not even this.” 

Moonlight winks off the edge of Keith’s Blade and he aches.

“Then tell her to come here,” he says, desperate to leave the memory where it belongs.

Acxa shrugs, ignorant, sending off a message with words to that effect. “Veronica says hello.”

“Hey, back,” Keith says with a two-fingered salute.

He spies the small smile on Acxa’s face then, much larger than the one she gave him in the mess hall earlier. “Quiznak, she wants to video chat.”

Keith snorts. “Be my guest.”

He isn’t going to hang around and try to make conversation with Lance’s sister. He can barely talk to Lance as it is, and they’ve been in each other’s heads.

“Oh no,” Acxa says, snatching his wrist when he makes to stand. “If I go down, you’re coming with me.”

Keith growls lightly at her, a warning, but she doesn’t let go. She should, given their difference in rank. Galra always respect hierarchy. It just serves to remind Keith how quickly she’s going to be by his side.

Maybe she’ll surpass him, take up the mantle of leadership that he’s still trying to avoid.

“Fine.”

Except it isn’t fine, because when Veronica flickers into view, Keith sees she isn’t alone.

“Hey, you two!” she waves, before turning around to her tablemates. “Hey guys, look who it is!”

She’s surrounded by the Atlas bridge crew, all in civilian clothing. They’re out to dinner.

Keith’s heart stops when he sees Shiro.

He’s wearing a black v-neck that is doing everything for him and his face is as lost as Keith feels.

“Keith,” he says quietly, almost inaudible over the din of the restaurant they’re at.

A familiar face is next to him, opening his mouth to say, “Acxa!” and Keith’s pulse is roaring in his ears now because he wasn’t prepared to see Shiro in the first place, but now he’s seeing Curtis.

“I have to go,” Keith tells Acxa, getting to his feet.

“What? Why?”

But he’s already being taken by the wolf.

 

— K —

 

He’s almost expecting the video call a couple of hours later.

He isn’t expecting the second.

The third one comes, and he buckles.

“Shiro?”

“Keith.”

It’s a hollow thing, the silence that stretches out before them. It’s a bottomless pit, an ache that pries at the spaces between Keith’s bones and muscles, and suddenly he wants to open his mouth and scream until it all comes crawling out of him. The room would be filled with black, at this rate.

“Shiro,” he says again.

“Hey,” Shiro sounds equally lost, and he scrubs a hand over his face. He’s still wearing the V-neck. “Sorry. You know, I had this whole plan in my head of what I was going to say except…well, now it’s just…gone.”

Keith holds his breath.

Shiro lets his out all at once. “Sorry.”

The chasm widens. It hurts, it burns, it bleeds. Keith wants to dive in and never come back from the darkness.

“Why are you calling me.” If it’s a question, it comes out sounding like an accusation. Keith doesn’t apologise for it.

He can’t even remember the last conversation he had with Shiro that didn’t have to do with battle strategies. Can’t remember the last time Shiro talked to him about space, or what he thought of Hunk’s latest batch of cookies, or if Pidge’s space caterpillars will ever turn into space butterflies.

Shiro’s jaw tightens. “I don’t know. I didn’t think you’d pick up, actually.”

“Neither,” Keith says quietly.

But now he’s desperately searching for things to say. How’s the weather on New Altea? Daibazaal is cold for most of the year, but it’s comfortable. Galrans always run at higher temperatures. Did you know that?

Of course he would. Shiro used to know everything about Keith.

“I guess after seeing you earlier, I thought maybe…”

“Maybe what?”

Shiro’s expression, shuttered before, goes soft and open. “I don’t know. I haven’t talked with you in a while. Thought maybe you wanted nothing to do with me.”

“Yeah,” Keith says, unable to stop the sharpness of it. “Kinda did.”

“Oh.”

Keith’s teeth begin to hurt and that’s when he realises he’s been clenching them. “I just. I didn’t know what to say.” Bitterness pools in his mouth. “I still don’t.”

Shiro isn’t looking at the screen anymore. That’s fine. Keith doesn’t want to be looked at anyway.

“How was dinner?”

Shiro frowns at him, as if he’s unsure why Keith picked that topic to speak about, but Keith is running on empty here. “Veronica picked the spot. She likes the idea of us being a team. Seeing each other without the uniforms.”

Keith smiles in spite of himself.

Lance was always like that with them, always prancing around the group taking photos and involving them in spontaneous karaoke. Once he’d hustled them into a spa on one of the moons they’d visited. Keith hadn’t been a fan of the massage because he didn’t like strangers touching him, but the facemask had left his face all soft for the next week, and they’d given him some product for his hair to keep it from turning to dreadlocks.

Allura and Shiro had both loved the entire experience and Keith had watched them fuss over Pidge’s knotted hair with Lance whilst she looked mournfully at Hunk and him in a silent plea for help.

“Must be a family thing,” Keith says.

He should check in with everyone again soon.

“Yeah,” Shiro says. “Must be.” He shifts. “How’s Daibazaal?”

“Pretty cold.”

“Well that suits you, doesn’t it?”

Keith nods. “Yeah, it does.” He opens his mouth to say something else, anything, and comes up empty. “Shiro, I don’t know what to talk about.”

“I don’t know either,” Shiro says.

That splits Keith to his core. He spent so many years with Shiro, saved him from Haggar, brought him back to life when the clone body rejected him, and now almost a year later, neither of them can find one thing to talk about.

“I wish I’d died,” Keith says before he can stop himself.

Shiro’s face crumbles. “What—Keith?”

“I just…” Keith says, fidgeting with the blanket beneath him. He needs to shut his mouth and hang up from this call and forget he ever answered. “Just wish Zethrid had pulled the trigger. Shoved me over the edge...or something.”

Keith’s always known Shiro to be beautiful. He’s a specimen of the human race, all strong muscles and unbearably kind, and once upon a time, he’d looked at Keith like he was the best possible thing.

“You found me,” he had said, and Keith had been holding his entire Universe in his hands in that moment.

But that was before the war, before Honerva, before they lost Allura. That was before Keith had crashed back down to Earth, before the months of rehab, before the gradual decline in Shiro’s visits.

Shiro now is still beautiful, but he’s lined with exhaustion. “Keith...don’t say that.”

Keith pushes a hand into his hair. “Why did you call me, Shiro?”

“I don’t know.” It’s faint.

“I need better than that,” Keith mutters. “I deserve better than that.”

Shiro’s brows are pinched together. “I tried talking to you.”

“No, you came to talk to me the night I was leaving.”

“You didn’t even tell me you were leaving.”

Irritation simmers hot. “When did you ever indicate that it was okay?”

“I thought it was always okay.”

“No,” Keith snaps. “Don’t play dumb. We were on the Atlas for months and not once did you ever talk to me unless it was absolutely necessary.”

Shiro doesn’t respond. It’s like they’re back at their argument the night Keith left.

“I brought you back from the dead, Shiro.”

“If you’re looking for gratitude—”

“I’m not,” Keith interrupts. “God—” he laughs in disbelief. “You were trying to kill me and I still did everything I could to save you. I…”

How could you ever think I did that because I wanted your gratitude?

“I…” Shiro shakes his head. “I didn’t realise.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Shiro’s jaw clenches. “This is hard for me too, Keith.”

“I wasn’t saying it isn’t. God, just…you call me now after months of not talking, trying to act like we’re still—”

No, don’t say that. Don’t say best friends.

“Still what?”

“Friends?” Keith spits the word out.

“Aren’t we?”

Keith shrugs. “We didn’t part on a good note, that’s for sure.”

Shiro’s eyes are tired, his mouth tight. “No. No, we didn’t.”

As quickly as the fight comes, it leaves. Shiro’s shoulders sag. He doesn’t look at the screen, studying something on his desk instead.

“I mean,” Keith starts, wishing the words didn’t feel like knives coming up his trachea. “I guess it was coming for a while.”

Shiro has the decency to not deny him outright this time, but his reluctance shows in the tone he uses. “Keith.”

Still like a goddamned prayer.

“You just…” Keith screws his eyes shut. “You stopped talking to me?”

And this one comes out like a question, because Keith wants to know that he's right, that it was actually Shiro pushing him away, that it wasn't a lack of Keith trying.

“Keith, I don’t…”

“I went to rehab and you were with the Atlas so I barely saw you, and then we launched and Zethrid tried to kill me and—” Keith stops himself, drawing in a shuddering breath. God, this hurts so much more than he thought it would. “You just stood there. And then after, you never came to find me. Do you remember how we used to talk on the observation deck?”

“Keith.” Shiro is pleading now.

“I used to wait there for hours. You always used to find me there, on any ship we were on, and yet after all of the shit that happened…I just waited and waited. Like an idiot.”

Surprisingly, Keith hasn’t started crying yet. He’s counting it as a win, even if it feels like he’s splintering apart.

“I thought I was your best friend,” Keith whispers. “What...did I do something wrong?”

Was it because I said I loved you at the facility?

“I’m sorry,” Shiro says, just as fragile. “I don’t…I was scared. I’m still scared.”

“Of me?”

“No,” Shiro says in a rush. “No, not of you, never. This...I should be telling this to you face to face. Not over a call.”

“Daibazaal’s a fair way from New Altea,” Keith says wryly.

“I know. I know it is. But—”

An alarm sounds then, loud whooping cutting Shiro off. “What the…”

A different alarm sounds, one that’s been branded into Keith’s memory, because the last time he heard it was Sendak. It sets him on edge immediately.

“Shit,” Shiro curses, getting to his feet, already pulling his shirt over his head.

Keith tries and fails not to follow the ripple of Shiro’s torso muscles as he shoves his Garrison uniform on. None of them wear their paladin colours anymore.

Keith frowns. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Shiro grimaces, looking at a notification on his screen. “I’m—I’m so sorry, I have to go.”

“Okay.”

Shiro pauses stuffing his feet into his shoes and holds the datapad up, giving Keith his undivided attention. “I’ll message you. Okay?”

“Sure,” Keith says, but who knows when that will be.

Shiro nods, like he knows what Keith’s thinking, like he knows that whatever may have been resurrected between them in this call is still light years away from being anything more than civil. “I’ll message.”

And then he’s gone.

 

— K —

 

Keith gets a message, but not from Shiro. Instead, it’s from Pidge:

Come back. Atlas is down.