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

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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.

 

Chapter Text

 

Oh, I've done it again

Dug a little deep and it's all caved in

Now, I free fall in a black hole

I know I'm getting warm 'cause I feel so cold

But I'm looking on the bright side now

Tryna figure out somehow

(None of this is real, no)

It's looking like a write off now

I think we need to talk like now

I'm not looking for salvation

Just a little faith in anyone or anything

 

– Bring Me The Horizon, in the dark

 

— K —

 

The distance between Daibazaal and New Altea would usually take three days to cross.

Keith doesn't quite plead, but he does double down on his bond with Black, letting her feel everything: his longing, his worry, his desperation.

Please, he asks, letting her see all the memories he's learnt to keep under lock and key.

He shows her Shiro, shows her the days when Shiro was the Black Paladin, when Shiro would look through her eyes and weave seamlessly around the battlefield, constantly in sync with her.

Shiro's hurt, he tells her.

Black growls at him.

She remembers.

Months of keeping Shiro within her come pouring forth then, conversations Shiro had with the nebulae of her consciousness. He talked of the Paladins, of his grandparents. He talked of Japan and coming to America, of his first flight. He spoke of Adam, and how he regretted leaving things the way they were.

And he spoke of Keith.

He spoke of Keith, ruddy and defiant, staring up at him from the driver’s seat of his stolen car; of Keith laying him down on the bed in his dad’s old shack in the desert; of Keith crying out to him during his Trials.

Keith almost breaks apart at the sight of Shiro, sitting on the edge of nothing, staring out into the stars, saying his name, over and over and over.

Black, he begs. Please.

Black roars and unfolds her wings.

They manage to get to Earth in one quintant.

When Black arrives, Pidge is there to greet the three of them. Acxa doesn’t wait around, striding out of the hangar immediately after a curt nod in Pidge’s direction. Romelle is less brief, ducking down to hug Pidge and greet her properly.

“Hello, darling,” she says.

“Look at you,” Pidge returns warmly, admiring the Blade uniform. “Welcome back.”

“It’s been a while,” Romelle agrees. She pauses, turning to Keith, before telling Pidge, “I’d better go see head command.”

Keith watches her go, grateful that she’s taking the responsibility of reporting out of his hands and shouldering it for him. He’s spit and glue right now.

Pidge’s arms snake around Keith’s waist gingerly, as if she’s aware just how fragile he is, and then constrict. “Welcome back.”

“How is he?” Keith asks, hoping his voice doesn’t betray him like his memories.

“Still under,” Pidge mumbles, pulling her glasses off to wipe them on the hem of her shirt. “Doctors had him for a while.”

Keith buries his nose in Pidge’s hair. He needs to find out what room they’re keeping Shiro in. “What does that mean?”

Pidge pushes her glasses back onto her face, but they’re smudged in new places. Years of staring at a monitor in the dark has made them necessary now. “Go see for yourself.”

“Okay.”

“They’re keeping Shiro in Med Bay One by himself.”

Keith pads softly down the corridors, following the Altean blue glow on the walls. He remembers walking along similar wards on crutches back on Earth, remembers watching Lance push Pidge on a hover chair at speeds the nursing staff would scold them for. He remembers all of them cramming into Allura’s room and sitting wherever they could, playing cards and watching that shitty television show about them.

Shiro never came to those. He visited Keith a few times, but spare time was a precious commodity and Shiro was always in the red.

Keith passes Veronica’s room before he gets to Shiro’s. He doesn’t mean to eavesdrop, but the door is wide open, like Acxa couldn’t wait the few seconds it would have taken to close it.

Veronica is awake, sitting up in bed. She’s bandaged and exhausted, and connected to an IV pole that feeds clear liquid into her veins. Acxa sits before her, clasping Veronica’s hands in both of hers. Keith can’t hear what they’re saying, but he doesn’t need to, because Acxa brings Veronica’s hands to her mouth and kisses them.

Keith tells himself it's not the gesture that makes him turn away, but the fact that the numbering system reflects priority of care.

Because if that’s what Five looks like, then what about Med Bay One?

He finds out soon enough.

It’s barely twenty paces before he’s turning the handle of Shiro’s room, two more and he’s inside.

It feels like he’s been punched in the throat.

Shiro is almost as white as the sheets of his hospital bed. There are drains and wires everywhere, humming machines and beeping monitors and oxygen tubing in his nose. His Altean arm is missing.

Keith blinks, eyes burning.

Shiro’s palm is pale, paler than it should be. A pulse oximeter is on his pointer, cannula buried on the back of his hand. Keith swallows thickly, picking up each finger off the bed until he can curl his own around them.

It’s a luxury.

Let me have this, he tells himself.

Shiro’s cold. Keith tightens his grip, and then he begins to count.

Four months since he left Earth, four months since he argued with Shiro. Nearly twelve months since sitting alone on the edge of a cliff, watching the day die, wanting to follow it. A year of stilted conversations about flight formations and Garrison facilities around the globe and the constant aching of why why why .

Five months since Lance set out to find Allura, since Keith held Lance, thinking of how his mother told him that grief reminded them how fortunate they were.

Allura, he thinks. I wish you were here.

The monitor shows Shiro’s fluctuating heart rate. The drains bubble with water and blood. Keith stares resolutely at Shiro’s hand as he twines their fingers together properly, as the furnace of his chest threatens to erupt.

He’s been here before, he knows what this feels like.

And he’s still not used to it.

 

— K —

 

Pidge spends the next quintant that it takes for Lance and Hunk to arrive hunkered down in the lab with her father. She’s been there since messaging all of them, trying to shorten the travel time by working on Sam’s teludav prototype. 

They don’t have the luxury of Black’s teleportation.

The two of them were in deep space when Atlas went up against the remnants of Commander Gnov’s once golden fleet, and though Atlas won, the blow was huge.

New Altea is still in her infancy, Atlas had been on her own apart from Pidge in Green, and Gnov had gone down kicking.

Sam Holt’s technology is still a work in progress. It’s not completely stable, and the science is sketchy at best, but Lance demands it, risks be damned.

It works.

Keith is leaving his room when Red and Yellow walk wearily into the main hangar.

He’s fresh from the shower, the first since he arrived. Garrison showers never had enough pressure when he spent his teen years there, but New Altea’s have enough force behind them to leave Keith feeling sufficiently sleepy and loose-limbed.

It’s just as well, too. He hadn’t wanted to leave Shiro’s side at all. His mother is always telling him the Galra feel in extremes, and their commitment to loved ones runs blood deep, but he hadn’t thought it’d be so strong.  

In the end, he told himself, just for a bit, and then he had gone to his room to strip the grime from his skin.

He’s in his pink hoodie now, the one he’d picked out a phoeb or so ago, the one that he saw and thought immediately of Allura. It’s appropriate attire for now, he thinks; he isn’t here on official Blade duty, nor is he a Garrison cadet, and if the Paladins of Voltron are still a thing, then none of them wear their armour anyway.

Besides, the casual clothing is a comfort; it makes Keith feel like he can blend into the background more easily without the shackles of responsibility around his ankles. He’s free to traipse around the halls without worrying about being singled out for correspondence or information about Daibazaal or the Blades.

Hunk is the first to show his face but Keith doesn’t get to greet him, as Pidge sprints past and launches herself at him first.

“Honey,” he says, pushing his helmet off as he sweeps her up into a bear hug. “Spud, hey.”

“Hi,” Pidge sighs out into his neck. “Dork.”

Keith hesitates.

They’ve always been so easy around each other, always, and if anything, this is just a natural progression of the two of them, Hunk kissing her hair and tiny Pidge being held up by one arm around her waist, but Keith can barely stand to watch.

He feels like the worst possible intruder, like he’s unworthy of seeing something so precious and pure.

Hunk pulls him in anyway, arms solid and tight around him. “Good to see you, buddy,” he says and Keith holds on.

“Hunk,” he says gratefully.

Lance disembarks Red next and lets Pidge climb into his arms, before he sees Keith over the top of her head and eases her onto the ground.

He strides over.

His hair is a lot longer, nearly to his shoulders now, and the Altean marks are bright blue against his tan cheeks. He’s still wiry and tall, but the boyish roundness of his face is gone.

“Mullet,” he mutters, arm coming around Keith in a brief hug.

“Hey,” Keith says, masking his surprise and accepting the comfort, trying not to think about how the last time they hugged was after Allura. “You good?”

“Terrific.” Lance’s armour is fully pink now. “Where is she?”

“Med Bay Five,” Keith says, pointing the way. “Acxa’s with her.”

“Thanks.” Lance claps him on the back, and then he leaves.

Keith watches him jog out the hangar, and then belatedly realises he should probably follow too. Lance will want time with his sister, and Acxa will need food. And then after he’s taken care of her, he’ll go see Shiro again. Maybe Shiro will be awake.

Keith almost hopes he isn’t.

 

— K —

 

Keith is in Shiro’s room again when Hunk finds him.

He’s Pidge-free, for once, but upon seeing Keith’s look of confusion, he explains she’s with her father working on the teludav. Hunk and Lance’s journey hit more than a few snags on the way to New Altea and apparently it’s a miracle the two of them didn’t implode.

“Just thought you two would want to spend time together,” Keith mumbles. “That’s all.”

It’s been a month, at least.

“I’ll see her later,” Hunk shrugs, sliding into the chair next to Keith. “And we chat every day, anyway. It’s not like you and Shiro.”

Keith flinches.

Hunk doesn’t apologise.

Keith is suddenly too aware that he’s still holding Shiro’s hand. He’d wandered in after breakfast and sat to read some reports on his datapad, hand curling around Shiro’s hand like it belonged there.

“Does everyone know?”

“What,” Hunk snorts, but it isn’t malicious. “That you two are no longer on speaking terms? Yeah.”

Keith winces. Hunk reminds him of Romelle, the way he just drops bombs like that, and it makes him want to bury his face in his arms until Hunk leaves him alone. He went through this with Romelle already, and it still burns.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Hunk doesn’t let him out so easily, though, because he never leaves anyone, and especially not when they’re wounded and hurting like Keith is now. “I reckon you probably should. Try and sift through some of it, maybe.” He pauses. “Did you want to talk about it?”

Keith makes a face. “Hunk, I haven’t even talked to Romelle about it.”

Because he hadn’t that one time she tried; he just vomited up the misunderstandings and the hurt and hadn’t wanted to look at the mess of it after.

“Okay.”

Like water off a duck’s back.

“I don’t even know where to start, Hunk.”

It’s a weak excuse and Hunk is not merciful in the slightest. “At the beginning.”

But Keith can’t even put a finger on the beginning of the end.

“You know,” Hunk says softly, an encouragement. “We knew something was up since the Altean robeast, before that, even. The facility. I guess we all just figured you two would patch things up on your own.”

“Well, that didn’t happen,” Keith says, trying for humour, but it’s brittle and crumbles apart. “We barely talk anymore.”

“Then why are you here?” Hunk says.

Because I love him.  

An automatic response. Keith wants to cut out his own tongue.

Hunk leans forward, not quite threatening, but close enough to keep Keith’s focus on the conversation. “Bud, what happened with you two?”

It takes a lot longer than it should for Keith to answer. “I don’t know.”

Hunk doesn’t push or respond, so different to Romelle’s approach of soldiering her way through. It makes it easier, somehow, for Keith to stare at the white bedspread and pretend like each word that leaves his mouth doesn’t cut him open a little more.

“We were fighting at the facility and he nearly killed me.”

Hunk nods solemnly. He’s seen the flashes through the mental link they shared as Voltron. They all have. Lifetimes ago, it feels like.

Keith squeezes his eyes shut, because no one knows this next part: “I told him I loved him.”

Hunk whistles. “Wow.”

Bleed me dry, Keith thinks. Anything but this. Please.

“Yeah.”

“What did he say?”

My name, Keith thinks distantly, and Shiro had looked so distraught and so Shiro, Keith’s Shiro, the Shiro that had held Keith so tightly before he left for Kerberos, the one who had trapped him into a tickle fight on Olkarion as they watched the sunset on Black, the Shiro who promised Keith he’d never give up on him.

Keith hadn’t hesitated to hold onto him as the world collapsed around them.

But Keith doesn’t tell Hunk that.

And so Hunk says, “Is that what all of this is about?”

Keith frowns, staring at Shiro’s hand in his. “I don’t know.” He scrubs his face again, wishes he had a tissue to deal with his leaking nose. “We just…never talked about it.” He waves a hand around, as if it will explain everything. “He never brought it up again and we didn’t talk about it.”

“At all?”

Keith shakes his head. “No.” Then he presses his free hand to his eyes, close to begging them to desist. Don’t cry. “The robot happened and then we were in hospital and he had Atlas. No time.”

“You guys always made time for each other,” Hunk disagrees. “You did everything together.”

“I wish I’d never said it,” Keith admits, wondering why it’s easier to talk to Hunk about this than his own sister. “I didn’t think. I just said the first thing on my mind.”

“Bud,” Hunk murmurs, reaching out and clasping Keith’s forearm. “That’s rough.”

Keith’s eyes are still fucking wet. Don’t cry.

“I don’t know what I did wrong.”

It feels like a lifetime ago, when all seven of them were crowded onto the observation deck of the Castle of Lions somewhere between Olkarion and the next planet, trying to fit in on one shot of Lance’s camera. Shiro’s arm had been warm and heavy around Keith’s waist and Pidge’s knee was digging into his chest, and Keith is pretty sure he ate some of Allura’s hair in the process, but they’d managed to get a decent photo.

You’re my family, Keith had thought in wonder.

But they never did that on the way home from the Rift.

They never did anything like that on the Atlas.

“You need to talk to him, Keith.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Come on, man,” Hunk says. “You guys are best buddies. All of us thought you were dating at one point.”

Keith remembers the countless alien races they encountered, the ones who would look at Shiro and Keith and ask if they were bonded. He thinks of what Romelle said.

“I used to want to be.”

“Not anymore?” Hunk says gently.

Keith just tightens his hold on Shiro’s hand. It’s clear as fucking daylight that he’ll be lying through his teeth if he says he doesn’t want the same thing.

The silence is stagnant.

Don’t cry.

“Well, I brought you a drink,” Hunk says to break it, and he sets a cup on the bedside table. “Thought you could use it.”

Keith takes the peace offering for what it is. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Hunk leans back in his seat, making himself comfortable as he drinks his own. “I’d call it a coffee but it’s not really one, not properly.”

Keith eyes the cup warily, and then takes a cautious sip anyway. Flavours burst on his tongue, foreign, unfamiliar, sweet. “What is that?”

“Do you like it?” Hunk’s eyes twinkle. “New Altea’s answer to coffee. I don’t know what to call it. I was thinking of giving it a pretty name, like Princess, or Allura.”

Mentioning her feels like shattering glass, like dragging his body over hot coals, like a thousand and one ways to hurt all over again.

This makes Keith feels like he’s been stabbed anew. “Hunk.”

Hunk looks at him. “What?”

It feels as though Keith is still gasping for air. “How do you do that?”

Hunk frowns. “Do what?”

“Just. Remember her so easily.”

“Because she deserves to be.”

Fire flares underneath Keith’s skin. “No, she deserves to be alive.”

Hunk sighs. “Keith, buddy.”

He stares down at the contents of his cup as Keith stares at Shiro’s hand in his. They deserve better than this, they all do.

“Allura died,” Hunk says, and Keith can tell that it’s supposed to be careful but it feels like Hunk is just twisting the knife in deeper. “Are you so determined to erase her from our memory as well?”

It’s like pouring petrol straight onto the fire.

“How can I,” Keith snaps, “when I see her everywhere I go?”

“Keith—”

“I can’t even walk down the hallway without thinking of her,” Keith says. “I open my eyes in the morning and her fucking statue is the first thing I see out my window.”

“Keith.”

“I’m so tired,” Keith says. “I’m so tired of missing her. When does it end? Does it ever?”

“I don’t know.”

Keith sees Allura walking into the light and closes his eyes from the brilliance of it. “I should have stopped her. I should have gone with her—refused— something.”

“She was the only one who could,” Hunk says, a reminder that Keith doesn’t want to hear.

“We could have done something. We could have gone with her, helped her.”

“No, bud,” Hunk shakes his head. “She wanted us to live.”

Perhaps she did. But Keith’s lungs burn with every breath and he wishes he was nothing more than ashes. Anything but this.

“This isn’t living, Hunk,” Keith pleads. “This is just existing but wanting to die.”

“Bud,” Hunk says, face pinched. “Fuck, look, maybe it is, okay? Maybe it is now, but everything heals. Eventually it heals.” He pauses, searching for words. “Forests grow back, wounds stitch up.”

Well Keith is a rainforest going up in flames. He’s running out of fuel to burn and yet the fire isn’t stopping.

“I know it hurts,” Hunk says. “It really hurts that she’s gone. We all lost a part of ourselves when she died.”

Yeah, and they’re still bleeding out, so many months later. Fire consumes anything in its path. It’s consuming the oxygen in Keith’s lungs, the fragile tissue and cartilage and everything else. He wants to leave.

“I love you,” Hunk says. “You know that. I love all of you, would die for any of you, for Pidge, Lance, Shiro. I wouldn’t think twice. Hell, you’ve done it.”

Keith remembers Naxzela; remembers closing his eyes and thinking of his family, of the Blades, of Shiro. He remembers just wanting them to be safe. And he remembers Kuron approaching him afterwards, asking if he was okay, because even Kuron went to find him on the observation deck.

He opens his mouth to protest with, “That was different—” but Hunk holds his hand up.

“It’s not. It’s really not.” Hunk laughs, humourless, and when Keith looks at him, he sees his own feelings reflected right back at him. “She would want us to be better, want us all to be together. Don’t make her sacrifice be in vain.”

Keith doesn’t let the soft, broken sound escape him. He leaves it between clenched teeth, behind singed lips. “That’s not fair.”

It’s not.

But Hunk insists. “It is. I would want the same, and I’m sure you would too.” He puts a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “It’s been a few months, bud. One of the things about grief is that eventually you have to decide when to let it go.”

“I don’t want to,” Keith whispers.

“We have to.”

 

— K —

 

Keith wakes to the sound of rustling, to the bed moving underneath him.

It’s Shiro, blinking awake. He’s less of a tube monster today, more human thanks to the nursing staff removing most of his attachments yesterday. Pidge had returned Shiro’s arm sometime after Keith had finished the drink Hunk brought him, before the two had left hand in hand.

Keith lifts his head slowly, wondering if it’s alright for him to be here.

He finds out soon enough.

Shiro’s eyes land on him. “Keith.”

Phone calls are never going to do the timbre of Shiro’s voice justice. The sound of it washes over Keith and leaves him breathless.

“Hey,” he says, cautious. “Welcome back.”

Shiro shifts, craning his neck to look at the monitor next to his bed. The screen above is playing some awful romcom that Keith had been halfheartedly watching before slipping into sleep.

Allura would have liked this one.

“Is it just you?”

Keith shakes his head. “Lance and Hunk came back yesterday.”

“For Veronica?”

“And you.”

Shiro doesn’t react to that. Instead he looks down, to where Keith is still holding his hand.

“Oh,” Keith says, feeling very foolish.

But Shiro stops him when he pulls away.

“Wait,” he says quietly.

Keith pauses, and then does as he’s asked.

“Thank you,” Shiro says, hushed.

Keith doesn’t dare smile back.

Shiro rubs his eyes slowly with his Altean hand, and then squints at the clock on the wall for the time. “How long have I been out?”

Keith doesn’t look up from their hands. “I got a message from Pidge four days ago. Said Atlas was down.”

“Right,” Shiro says, as if the memory is only catching up with him now. “Commander Gnov.” He shifts again, adds, “Didn’t have the benefit of having Voltron on our side.”

Just the mention of Voltron makes Keith want to shrivel up and die. Blue is still in her hangar, all this time later. She hasn’t let anyone pilot her since. He doesn’t answer.

“Daibazaal’s so far away,” Shiro murmurs, slightly off topic. His eyes are cast downwards, fixed intently on the bedspread. “How’d you get here so fast?”

And now Keith wants to cry at the memory he’s hit with.

It’s Lance, asking him, and Keith is bleary eyed and aching, still reeling from everything that happened. Shiro would remember, he must. He’s the one who put a hand on Keith’s shoulder and told him to look through the Lion’s eyes. 

“I had help,” Keith croaks out.

One look tells Keith that Shiro knows what he means. “Black?” At Keith’s wordless nod, he says, “She always liked you.”

“She’s yours,” Keith counters. “She’s always been yours.”

I’ve always been yours, he wants to say.

But he doesn’t.

“She’s yours too, now,” Shiro says with a sad chuckle. “I miss her. God, I miss her.”

They never spoke about his time in Black’s quintessence. They’d all been so busy trying to get home, and Shiro had gone with Pidge anyway. Arriving home on Earth had been focused on defeating Sendak, and then they’d been in hospital and Shiro was never around.

It’s like Keith told Hunk: no time.

“She misses you too,” Keith tells him. “She showed me some of her memories with you.”

Shiro’s eyes crinkle at the corners. He tries for an actual laugh but winces in pain, and Keith frowns in sympathy.

“I’m fine, Keith. You don’t have to take care of me.”

Keith doesn’t, he knows that, but it’s almost second nature for him, regardless.

Shiro pushes up onto one hand, before deciding he isn’t a fan of that position, and he rolls onto his side instead. His hair is falling into his eyes and he’s so beautiful, Keith can barely breathe.

“What did she show you?”

Keith almost doesn’t answer. After so long without proper conversation, the ease of speaking with Shiro is giving him whiplash.

“You,” he says slowly, “sitting amongst the stars.”

Shiro closes his eyes, and he tightens his hold on Keith’s hand. “And?”

“Everyone. Your family.” He pauses before saying the next, scared. “Me.”

It’s silent then.

Shiro makes a small sound. “I’m sorry, Keith.”

And just like that, they’re back to where they were before Gnov landed in Atlas’ orbit. Keith pulls his hand away, and this time, Shiro lets him.

It stings like rubbing salt in an open wound.

Shiro has just woken up and it’s probably not the time to be asking him this, but Keith does anyway, because he has to know, and he’s never been very good at playing the patience game.

“What…what were you going to tell me?”

“Keith…” Shiro says again, this time with much more weight to it.

“Please,” Keith whispers. “I need to know.”

It’s a long, long time before Shiro says anything, so long that Keith thinks perhaps Shiro isn’t going to answer him at all, so long that Keith is already making up twenty different apologies in his head, because that’s so much easier, apologising and backtracking and turning the other way instead of facing the problem.

God, has he always been a coward?

“I tried to kill you.”

Keith sees tanks and tanks of Shiro. He sees the world collapsing around them and the blazing glow of Kuron’s blade pressed against his Marmoran one.

“Yeah.”

“And you said you loved me.”

Keith swallows and it feels like his oesophagus consists of only shattered glass. “Yeah, I did.”

Shiro surprises him by hiding his face in his hands. He’s never done that, never been unable to face the music. “I really fucked this up, didn’t I?”

Keith doesn’t know what he’s trying to say anymore. The sight of Shiro struggling to express himself should inspire some sense of compassion and forgiveness, but instead Keith just feels angry.

“Yeah,” he says, a dying fire with newfound oxygen. “Yeah, you did.”

Shiro doesn’t look at him. “I’m sorry.”

Fire burns the tips of Keith’s fingers and he clenches his fists, chasing after the sensation, because he likes the pain of it, likes the way the furnace sits in his ribcage. The blaze is a comfort.

“You really hurt me, Shiro.”

“I didn’t mean to.” The sound that Shiro makes slices Keith in half. “I’m sorry.”

Keith closes his eyes, and then stares out the window instead of at Shiro. He can’t look at him like this. What a pair they make: Shiro can’t look at Keith, and Keith can’t look at Shiro.

They aren’t friends, they’re simply ashes of what they once were.

Keith finds his words as he’s watching the constant coming and going of air traffic. “What were you so scared of?”

“A lot of things. Losing you.” Shiro scoffs. “I did that anyway, though.”

Keith turns to him sharply. “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

Shiro shakes his head. “You know what I mean, Keith.” More silence. It’s suffocating. “Did you mean it?”

“Mean what?”

Shiro’s jaw ticks. “What you said about being friends…” he trails off, and then, softly, as if he knows just how close to breaking they both are: “Are we?”

“What? Still friends?”

“Yeah.”

Keith hesitates, because he wants to say yes, because it’s automatic, to tell Shiro that of course they’re still friends, they’re best friends. And then he thinks of the fire within him, the one that still hasn’t been doused, the one that is burning so hot within him, he thinks it might consume him.

They’re not best friends. Best friends don’t treat each other like this, don’t avoid each other like they’ve been doing for so long now. Best friends don’t stop talking and then sit in the same room and have no idea what to talk about.

“You were my best friend,” Keith says slowly. “I barely know you now.”

Shiro makes another aborted sound at that, a sad one this time that makes Keith want to vomit. “Keith…”

“You knew me,” Keith says. “Fuck, you knew that I don’t like it when people just—” Leave, he wants to say, but it still hurts too much to say anyway. “You knew.”

“I know,” Shiro says, still in that wounded tone that makes Keith’s insides crawl.

“Shiro,” Keith says, because he doesn’t know what else to say, and then he presses a hand to his eyes. “Fuck.”

“Keith,” Shiro answers, and Keith hates how much he likes the sound of his name from Shiro’s mouth.

He always knew this would hurt, always knew that hashing out everything between him and Shiro would gut him. But god, actually trying to talk about it feels like Shiro is peeling the flesh from his bones one by one, flaying him open, plucking at all his nerve endings and singeing them.

“Oh,” Shiro says, noticing, “Keith—”

Keith hears him moving and can’t open his eyes. He just buries his face in his hands and sobs. All that he can think of is each strip of flesh being exposed, of the live wires in his hands and his heart and his throat, and it hurts, it fucking hurts—

Fingers rest upon his wrist.

Don’t, Keith thinks desperately, even though every ounce of him wants it more than anything right now. Don’t touch me.

“Keith,” Shiro says. “I’m sorry.”

Shiro’s hand lingers, and then it withdraws. Perhaps he knows how much Keith wants to be left alone, too. They’ve always been able to read each other so well. Even after all this time, he still knows.

Keith wants a hug, wants to be held, wants to wipe his face and pretend he was never here in the first place. “Sorry,” he sniffs. “Fuck, sorry.”

“No,” Shiro says. “Don’t apologise.”

Keith almost laughs. There is so much to unpack here. Too much. He wipes his eyes, sniffs once. “God.”

“It’s okay.”

“Yeah,” Keith says too loudly. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine. I’m sorry, Keith.”

There’s too much to unpack. Keith doesn’t want to.

He stands abruptly. “I’m gonna go.”

“Keith—”

“No,” Keith cuts him off. “Don’t. I’m gonna go.”

“Keith?”

“I’m gonna go,” Keith repeats, and then he flees.

 

— K —

 

Pidge finds him outside, under Allura’s ugly, ugly statue. Keith can’t stand it, can’t stand looking up at the marble likeness of her, and so he’s leaning against it instead, facing the castle. It’s teeming with activity but Keith wants nothing more than to be in silence, so he’s resigned himself to seeking refuge in the shadow of Allura.

It’s a macabre thought, that even in death she’s providing comfort.

“Hey,” Pidge says, skipping up to him.

She must have been with Acxa or Romelle, because her hair is braided in two. Keith eyes it, noting the distinct style of friendship, and figures it has to be Romelle. Acxa isn’t nearly as proficient in it as Keith’s sister.

“How are you doing?” Pidge asks as she sits next to him.

What a question. Because Keith is constantly wanting to die. “Alright. You?”

They both know he isn’t talking about just today.

“Better,” she sniffs. “It was pretty scary.”

Keith glances at her, at the sallowness of her cheeks and the downwards turn of her mouth. Regret rises at the sight, at the idea of her being on her own after seeing Atlas fall and having to finish off Gnov herself. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”

Pidge’s eyes are fiery when she looks at him. “Yeah,” she says, her mouth a thin line. “Yeah, actually? About that?” She doesn’t wait for him to talk. “You do this thing,” Pidge says, “where you disappear off the face of the Earth. Like, literally.”

Resentment quickly eclipses Keith’s regret. “I was with the Blades.”

“I know,” Pidge sighs, pushing her glasses up her face more. “Listen. I know you’ve got the Blades and they’re important to you, I get that. I get that you have your weird Galra blood family thing going on. But we’re Voltron. We can’t all be spread out across the Universe like this.”

Keith frowns. “The Blades needed my help.”

“Well what about us?” Pidge says. “We needed your help, too.”

Guilt strikes hot and fast in Keith’s stomach.

"I'm not condemning you for going to them," Pidge says quietly. "I get it. When I was out there, I could barely look at Lance without thinking of her. And you know I like my space. I like my space a lot.”

Keith nods. Pidge was always the one who struggled with the mental link the most, who didn’t open up as easily as Lance and Hunk did, who Keith related so much to.

“And like I said,” Pidge continues, “I get it. It hurt more, being reminded all the time.” Her nose twitches. “But it helped, too, eventually. Being with everyone.”

“Pidge…” Keith says, because he knows what Pidge is implying and he does not like it.

“Don’t be a Shiro,” Pidge says unexpectedly. “Don’t go through this on your own.” And then she laughs, and it’s bitter and awful. “You know, for two people who lead us, you really are horrible at being team players sometimes.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said,” Pidge says. “Aren’t you tired of being on your own?”

“I…” Keith frowns. Of all the things he expected her to say, that wasn’t one of them. “What?”

“I spoke to Shiro,” Pidge says. “I know you two haven’t been talking.”

“Yeah, so does everyone else.”

Pidge scoffs. “Only because it was so blatantly obvious when you stopped mentioning him every five seconds.”

Keith scowls at her. “Did you just come here to point out what I’m doing wrong?”

“No,” Pidge says, and then she rubs her eyes. “No, Keith—I came to give you a reminder that we’re all here for you. Stop doing the lone wolf thing. You know we love you.”

Keith’s skin feels like it doesn’t fit him anymore, and the words Pidge says wash over him and leave him feeling even more out of place. “I know.”

“Do you?” Pidge presses. “Because you always act like it’s you and only you who’s hurting.”

Keith’s throat is made of sandpaper. “I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“I’m fine, Pidge.”

Pidge ignores him. “Don’t lie.”

“I’m not—”

“Listen, if you’re so determined to isolate yourself then why are you here?”

Keith huffs. “You told me to come home.”

“You didn’t have to listen,” she retorts. “Don’t tell me you sped across the Universe for Veronica.”

“It was an emergency—”

“Keith,” Pidge interrupts.

Keith half expects a reprimand, except then Pidge’s voice softens. He can see how much patience it takes for her to do so.

“You know, we’re probably the only ones who really know how you feel. We’re all hurting, all of us.” And she adds, after a few moments, “Including Shiro.”

Keith inhales and it feels like pure fire. He thinks of the conversation he had with Shiro, the argument they had before he left, the one where Shiro had said, ‘I can’t lose you too.’

“What did he tell you?” he asks quietly.

Pidge shakes her head. “Nothing. I found him in the hangar one night, sitting in front of Blue.”

Keith wants to cry, because oh. His voice cracks as he says, “Yeah?”

“He’s lonely, Keith,” Pidge says. “I heard him, talking to Allura.”

And if they were in Voltron, then Pidge could actually show him the memory properly, but their bond is almost nonexistent now and so all he feels is a phantom, pushing at the very edge of his mind, like a quickly fading dream that he’s trying to remember.

But he sees enough.

He sees Shiro, hand against Blue’s snout, apologising for losing Allura, saying he misses her, saying he misses everyone.

The sadness within Keith is like poison.

But it’s not fair.

 

— K —

 

Keith wakes the next day and it’s still not fair.

Pidge had reiterated that they were all there for him, but he’d stayed silent until she had left him on his own again. It was a good thing, he told himself. Keith liked the silence.

Except all he can think of is Shiro in front of Allura’s Lion.

He sleeps and has a nightmare and wakes up the next day, and it’s still not fair.

But he counts the minutes and the hours and the days and weeks and months. And he can’t get Shiro out of his head.

Fuck.

The following morning he spars with Hunk. It’s earlier than normal, early because Keith had knocked on Hunk’s door and basically pleaded for a distraction before sunrise, and their Yellow Paladin was never one to say no.

It’s barely ten minutes in before Hunk wrestles Keith onto the sparring mats and keeps him down, weight pressing into Keith’s shoulder blades, until Keith stops kicking and lets the fight leave his body.

It drains away from him, gets replaced by the exhaustion he spends most of his days battling against.

Keith stares at the mat beneath him, vision blurring. The days are swimming in his head, a school of fish without beginning or end.

That’s the thing about grief. Eventually you have to decide when to let go.

Hunk doesn’t say anything as he lets up the pressure, instead sitting down and crossing his legs underneath him.

Their laboured breaths bounce around the room.

Keith sniffs, turns his head to the side. His heart is tripping over itself trying to keep up with the increased oxygen demand, and it takes Keith three goes to force the air through his nose instead of just gasping for it.

Make up your mind, he thinks. Do you want to live or die?

In, out. In, out.

He curls his fingers, makes a fist. Sweat trickles down his temple, moistens the mat under his palms. His pulse reverberates through him.

Hunk still says nothing.

Keith’s mouth trembles. His eyes sting. He has to turn his face back to the mat as he squeezes his eyes shut and inhales shakily.

Eventually you have to decide when to let go.

“Bud,” Hunk murmurs.

Keith nods, even as a sound that he can only call a whimper escapes him. Hunk’s hand is huge upon his shoulder as it strokes up and down. Keith shudders.

Eventually you have to decide when to let go.

Let go of what?

He thinks of Allura, sitting with him in the Castle, of her holding Pidge’s hand, of her lifting Hunk into a bear hug at the gameshow, of her hugging Lance. He thinks of her walking into the light, of what she’d told him: there is greatness in your heart, and in your actions.

“I really miss her,” he admits in a small voice.

“I know,” Hunk answers, sympathetic, patient.

Eventually you have to decide when to let go.

He lets himself think of Shiro, amongst the stars, saying his name. He thinks of all their sunsets together, all the times they watched the stars on the observation deck; thinks of Shiro above him, trying to kill him; of Shiro, falling into his arms after Sendak, smiling up at him. He thinks of Shiro, outside at night talking to the stars, because he can’t sleep; of Shiro, watching the rest of the Paladins as Voltron, as a unit, because that’s them, the five of them, and they don’t need Shiro.

It hurts. It hurts so much.

Keith knows what he’s supposed to let go of.

And it hurts even more now, but he makes himself think of Shiro wanting to be his friend. He thinks of Hunk, sitting with him now, letting him be like this. He thinks of Pidge, their fiery, furious Green Paladin getting frustrated at him and telling him they're a family. He thinks of Romelle, wanting desperately to fit in somewhere and being so glad when he took her with him. He even thinks of Lance, clapping him on the back when he'd walked into the hangar the other day.

Eventually you have to decide when to let go.

It twists inside him, this ugly thing that he doesn’t have a name for, a bad taste in the back of his throat.

“It's okay,” Hunk says, hushed, hand still stroking his shoulder.

Pain lances through Keith, so awful he chokes on it.

Eventually you have to decide when to let go.

He takes a deep breath, feels the tears form in his eyes, feels the resentment and hurt and anger scorch his trachea.

But he lets go.

 

— K —

 

Keith is stumbling out of his bedroom the next morning when Pidge accosts him. He had a nightmare a few hours earlier. He remembers waking up, terrified out of his mind and telling himself to breathe, but the actual dream escaped him not long after, and so he can’t recall any of it. It’s probably a good thing.

“Come,” Pidge demands, and, sleep-addled and not having enough energy to fight her on it, Keith goes.

It’s only when he realises where she’s leading him that he digs his heels in. “Pidge—why—”

Pidge stares up at him. “It’s Tuesday,” she states, matter of fact, like it’s supposed to make a difference.

And then he remembers.

Tuesday was cards day. They’d choose a hospital room to invade, and invariably it’d be either Keith’s or Allura’s, because they took the longest to heal out of the five of them, and then they’d sit however they could, challenging one another.

“Oh,” he says, stupid, so stupid, because his eyes are stinging and his throat is closing in and Hunk was wrong, letting go isn’t a choice .

Pidge doesn’t say anything more. She just keeps going.

Shiro is sitting up in bed when they enter, and he finds Keith’s gaze immediately. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Keith says cautiously.

They haven’t spoken since the other day, since Keith cried and had to leave because he couldn’t stay.

Neither of them mention it. A year of not talking has made them both experts.

Ignorant, Pidge clambers onto the bed, pushing at Shiro until he makes room for her. She’s always been like that. Shiro is gracious, letting her wedge herself against his side.

Hunk wanders in with coffee, and then Lance and Acxa follow, wheeling in Veronica. Keith’s eyes burn fast and hot. He takes a seat in the chair next to the bed.

Pidge is ruthless, as usual. She’s a terrible loser, and an even worse winner.

And it isn’t normal, not even close. There are pauses in their playing where no one seems to know what to say, moments where Keith will automatically go to say something to Allura and then get blindsided by the onslaught of grief that sweeps over him when he remembers, oh, right.

And mostly, there’s the constant pressure. Keith has always been the quiet one, the one happy to stay on the outskirts of the conversation, but there are too many lulls and not enough wind to generate any kind of waves. 

He looks at the room, filled with his family. They feel like strangers.

 

— K —

 

Keith sees Shiro alone.

It’s Hunk’s idea, something he suggested in passing over dinner, and Keith had sent off the message before he could overthink and talk himself out of it. Hunk’s smile had felt like approval, like Keith had finally managed to do one good thing, and so he figured it wasn’t all that bad.

Except that was yesterday, and now Keith is trudging up the stairs to find Shiro, feeling like he has an anchor dragging behind him.

It’s daunting. He has no idea what to say anymore, has no idea what Shiro would like. He flattered himself all those times he thought he knew Shiro, because walking now, Keith’s mind is drawing out nothing but blank cards.

It’s strange, really; it’s sad. Shiro was all Keith used to talk about in the Quantum Abyss with his mother. He hadn’t meant to, it was just that for every topic of conversation, Keith always had something of Shiro that was relatable.

His mother asked him what Shiro was to him once. Keith didn’t understand straight away, until she clarified with, “What sort of relationship do you two have?”

“We’re friends,” he answered immediately, and then, because friend didn’t quite cover it, because he wanted everything from Shiro, he added, “Best friends.”

“You love him,” his mother said.

Keith couldn’t deny it. He loved Shiro so, so ridiculously much. When his mother raised a brow, Keith had turned red and said nothing more.

He gets to the top of what feels like a thousand stairs, relieved to look out and see Shiro. His back is to the doorway. For a split moment Keith hovers, wanting to turn around and pretend like he never came.

It’d be so easy.

But he doesn’t.

“Hey,” Shiro says softly when Keith walks up to him.

“Hey.”

Shiro holds out a cup to him. “I got you coffee.”

Keith eyes it warily. “You mean Hunk’s coffee?”

Shiro nods. It’s all Hunk has been plugging lately, and while it isn’t Keith’s favourite beverage in the universe, he takes it anyway. He knows it’s a peace offering, and the two of them need all the help they can get.

“Were you waiting long?”

“Half a varga,” Shiro shrugs, and yeah, that sounds like him. He’s always ridiculously punctual. “Not much to do when they won’t let me do anything.”

“You mean work,” Keith corrects.

Shiro rolls his eyes. “Right.”

Keith chews on his lip, then dares to take a sip. It’s less sweet this time. “What did you want to do? Any preferences?”

Shiro shakes his head. “No.”

They could go to the games room and verse each other at pool, or they could track down the others and see if they’re free to watch a movie. But Keith doesn’t suggest anything.

He’s here for Shiro, and that’s all he knows.

It’s terrifying.

“I didn’t have any plans,” he admits, and then inspects his fingernails, because looking elsewhere makes him think that maybe he should be maintaining eye contact, and he doesn’t know if he’s ready for that yet.

Shiro fills the pause for him, asking, “How was training? Saw you with the others out there sparring.”

Training is training; there isn’t much to it, just the constant strain and the four of them stumbling off to the showers afterwards, trying to forget the grief that permeated the room. They’ve all wrapped it around themselves like shrouds since Allura died, and even if their bond is nearly non-existent without being in their Lions, it’s enough.

Shiro’s words make Keith remember the memory Pidge had pushed towards him the other day of Shiro in front of Blue.

“Same shit,” Keith says, not wanting to speak the memory into existence again. “Different day.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit like that, isn’t it?” Shiro says, testing the dexterity of his Altean hand.

Keith watches the movement of his fingers curling and uncurling, and his body aches.

More silence.

Another sip.

More sweetness.

Shiro flexes his fingers a few more times, and then runs his hand over the balustrade. It’s different, seeing him out of his Garrison uniform, without anything to declare his authority here apart from his posture.

He carries himself like a captain. He’ll be a good admiral, whenever they make him one. It can’t be too far away now.

“It’s ugly,” Shiro says. “Don’t you think?”

Keith looks up from digging his nails into his coffee cup. “What is?”

Shiro jerks his chin in the direction of Allura’s statue where it sits on the green. “That,” he says flatly.

“You hate it too?” Keith says.

“How could I like it?” Shiro breathes.

Something in Keith warms at the confession, a reminder of how even after all this time, they still think so similarly.

“It’s what the Alteans are used to, I suppose,” he murmurs. “Romelle told me they used to have a giant Lotor.”

“Imagine that,” Shiro snorts, “Talk about pretentious,” and Keith has to hide a laugh in his coffee.

It feels wrong talking shit about a dead person, but that’s Shiro’s graveyard humor.

“What,” Keith says, “you mean you don’t want a statue of yourself?”

Shiro’s laughter leaves him in a disbelieving breath. “No thank you.”

And it still isn’t funny, but Keith finds himself chuckling quietly anyway. He studies Shiro, the slump of his shoulders, the weariness of his eyes.

I missed you, he thinks. I missed you.

Shiro chooses then to make eye contact with him, and he holds it. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Don’t,” Keith says, because now is not the time to make something bitter out of nothing. “Made me laugh.”

“Yeah, it’s…” Shiro leans his forearms against the balustrade. “It’s been so long since I heard you laugh, actually. Caught me off guard.”

“Same,” Keith says. He can’t remember the last time he felt like doing it genuinely.

“I miss her,” Shiro says, voice soaked with sorrow. His brow creases and he just stares at the statue, grey eyes too shiny, too wet. “I miss her so much.”

“Me too,” Keith says. “Fuck, me too.”

Shiro smiles sadly at him.

“You guys were always close.”

“She was close to all of us,” Shiro says. “She always tried to be there for us. Always.”

“Yeah, she did.”

When Shiro looks back at the statue, Keith follows. His eyes feel like they’re burning, sinking out of his skull, ready to blind him with grief. Surely he’s shed every tear for her than he can.

“How are you coping with it?”

The way Shiro says it reminds Keith of trying to touch a bubble without bursting it. And this is almost funny, how differently Shiro is choosing to approach this topic compared to the last time when Keith called him. The words ring in his ears like a death knell.

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

Garrison protocol. He sees it for what it is, now. A safety net, a fallback because Shiro had no idea how else to talk to him.

He looks back out to the fake likeness of their princess. He thought yesterday that maybe the constant exposure would desensitise himself to it. It hasn’t so far. Every time he looks at it feels like someone has shot him in the stomach.

“Not so great,” he says quietly.

Shiro hums softly, concerned. “Why’s that?”

“Reasons,” Keith says evasively. He’s a mess of tangled live wires. “But Hunk talked to me.”

“Yeah?”

Keith shrugs. “Yeah. About…letting go.”

“Eventually,” Shiro agrees.

“I know.” Keith clenches his teeth together. “It’s…I’m so sick of people telling me that. They said it all the time when you—”

He cuts himself off before he can finish that sentence, but the solemness that overtakes Shiro’s expression shows Keith has already said enough.

“Sorry,” Keith says immediately.

Shiro shakes his head. “Makes sense.”

Keith closes his eyes. Perhaps he’ll burst before this conversation is over. “I spoke with Pidge too, actually.”

“What did our little rocket scientist say?”

“Reminded me of some things,” Keith says. “She told me about you.” He forces the next words out before he can swallow them: “You and Blue.”

Shiro sighs. He looks so tired, as tired as Keith is. “You saw, huh?”

It’s not a question. Keith does not treat it like one. “Yeah,” he says, word slicing his tongue. “I did.”

Shiro shakes his head again and refuses to look at him. “She shouldn’t have found me.”

Keith’s eyes sting and it goes all the way to his throat, to his chest, to his stupid, useless heart. “I wish I’d known.”

“No one was supposed to know.”

“Not even us?” Keith says gently. He’s such a hypocrite.

“No. After the robeast…you five had each other, you know? You were Voltron and I never wanted to get in the way of that, ever.”

“Shiro…”

“You did so much for me, Keith. You almost died saving me. How was I ever supposed to ask for more?”

A tear spills down Keith’s cheek without permission. “You never had to,” he says. “I would have given it, without question.”

“Exactly,” Shiro rasps, voice breaking. “God, how could I be that selfish?”

There is pain in the way that it breaks them both, now. Keith is used to suffering on his own, would much rather he didn’t have to see it happen to anyone else, and watching it take over Shiro makes everything worse. The pain reaches deep; it pools within the black tar of Keith’s insides and drags the mess all the way up until it clogs Keith’s windpipe.

“You should have talked with me,” he whispers. “I would have listened, I would have…”

Done something. Anything. Everything.

“I know you would have. I’m sorry,” Shiro says, but Keith feels like it as well, now.

“Me too,” he blinks. There’s no room for anger, not anymore, just this nauseating wave of sadness and regret. “I’m sorry too.”

He should take a tally of how many times they apologise together, add a credit for each one. Maybe he’ll have enough to afford one of those stupidly expensive burial plots. Maybe they’ll erect a statue of him. 

All it’d take is him to get up onto this balustrade and just leap off. He’d pray for a quick impact. It’d be so easy.

Shiro brushes the tears off his cheeks. “I really fucked this up, huh?”

“Shiro.”

“I miss everyone—I miss you.”

Memories are Keith’s enemy these days, always, and now they come flying, slamming into him one by one: of looking for Shiro, of being accepted by Black, of chasing Kuron through the wormhole.

There’s so much of Shiro tangled up in Keith that Keith doesn’t know where he starts or finishes.

“I miss you too,” Keith says quietly as he wipes his eyes, too tired to pretend they don’t exist. 

There’s no point. Shiro’s eyes are as wet as his and they’re both falling to pieces.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Keith says, burying his face in the sleeves of his hoodie. “Yeah.”

Shiro says nothing further.

The silence blankets them like a disease.

Keith completely destroys his sleeves with tears and Shiro runs his hands through his hair enough times for it to resemble a ruffled ostrich. Allura’s statue remains standing on the green and the sun still progresses across the sky.

Lance’s movies got it all wrong. Nothing stops for grief.

Eventually Shiro speaks. “Keith?”

“Hm?”

“I…how do I fix this?”

As if Keith knows. But Shiro is asking, and questions deserve answers.

“I mean,” Keith tries. “I haven’t left, yet. So that’s a start.”

“Okay,” Shiro says.

“It’s a start,” Keith repeats.

And it’s enough, for now.

 

— K —

 

There isn’t any drastic change. Keith still wakes up wishing for death, still drags his fork through his food and tries not to flinch every time he passes Allura’s statue.

But something changes.

Something changes just enough that Keith can sit with the other Paladins without feeling like he’ll implode.

Something changes just enough that Keith can actually look at Shiro.

Something changes.

And yet at the same time, it feels like no reprieve, too.

Hunk and Pidge spearhead the effort to be involved with each other again. Shiro is still technically on medical leave, Keith isn’t on official Blade business, so it’s too easy to coordinate schedules with the rest of them. Card Games Tuesday evolves into watching a movie on Wednesday in the Paladin Lounge. Hunk demands they all meet for lunch and dinner. Pidge steals Coran away from her father and Slav and makes them all play Monsters and Mana over the weekend.

None of them talk about their missing character.

After a week of cautious mealtimes, when the mess hall is mostly empty save for the Paladins and Shiro, Lance informs them he isn’t planning on leaving again any time soon. He’s had enough of deep space, for now.

Keith tries and fails at not interpreting it negatively.

Pidge and Hunk beam at Lance. Shiro says kind words. When it’s Keith’s turn, he does his best to offer something encouraging. Lance gives him a smile like the one he gave Keith a lifetime ago on top of Black, so Keith thinks he managed alright.

Hunk spars with him again, and he’s got Keith trapped into a full mount for a solid twenty seconds before Keith twists inhumanely and tips the scales in his favour. Hunk huffs at him and takes him to the kitchen.

“How are you and Shiro?” he asks.

Keith answers with, “We’re talking.”

Hunk smiles and lets him drink his coffee.

Keith calls his mother the evening afterwards, watches the expressions flit across her face and knows exactly what she’s going to say despite the crappy image quality since New Daibazaal is so far away.

“How’s Shiro?” she asks.

Keith runs his tongue along his teeth, trying to ground himself. “He’s gonna be okay.”

“Good,” his mother says, serene. “You must be very relieved.”

Keith knows he doesn’t need to say anything. The silence is suffocating.

“I spoke with Kolivan,” she says. “The Blades need an ambassador on New Altea for now, while the Coalition recovers from Gnov.”

Keith rolls his eyes. “How convenient that you have three here already.”

His mother sighs, but she does not press. “Very.”

“I know what you’re doing,” he grumbles. “Stop.”

Krolia just smirks.

Keith fixes her with his most unimpressed stare he can manage. “Mom.”

“I love you,” she replies, saccharine. “Do wonders, Kit.”

 

— K —

 

The next day, Acxa snatches his arm.

“Come with me,” she says, and, stunned at the initiation of contact and the lack of preamble, Keith does.

It isn’t until they’re following an all too familiar route to the training deck that he decides to ask, “What’s going on?”

“Blade,” Acxa snaps in lieu of answering the question.

Keith rolls his eyes and unsheathes his blade, awakening it. Acxa does not awaken her own, choosing to keep it to its knife form, and she comes in flying.

The clanging rings throughout the room and they aren’t wearing their uniforms but it’s easy to pretend they’re back at the Marmoran base, teasing out the last of their energy reserves after decimating them to nearly nothing during their morning sessions with the cadets.

Acxa’s form is so much more aggressive than usual, nowhere near as fluid as it should be, and Keith’s usual predictions of her movements come to bite him in the ass when the butt of Acxa’s now-awakened Blade rams his cheek.

It snaps his head to the side. Blood sprays onto the mat.

“Quiznak—” Acxa says but Keith lashes back just as quickly and just as hard, catching her across the elbow.

He doesn’t draw blood, makes sure he pulls back at the very last moment, but something about it makes Acxa hold her Blade to the side.

“Yield.”

She sits down without another word. Keith watches her, and then joins, head throbbing. He can taste blood in his mouth and makes a mental note to check in with the infirmary and see if he can have a healing sachet. 

“What was that about?”

Acxa is still breathing hard, blue skin flushed deeper than usual. “Veronica.”

Keith doesn’t know if he wants to find out. But he asks anyway, “Are you two okay?”

Acxa looks at Keith. “Humans are difficult to court.”

Keith chuckles a little. “What makes you think that?”

“It’s…” Acxa grumbles. “I don’t know.”

“What’s wrong?”

The wrinkle between Acxa’s brows does not go away. “I care for Veronica.”

“I know.” He isn’t blind.

“We talk every day and I think about her all the time. And after this attack, I wondered if it would be a good idea to bring it up.”

Keith had just presumed the two of them were already together. “Did you?”

Acxa shakes her head wordlessly.

“Why not?”

Acxa’s eyes snap to him. “I could ask the same of you and Shiro.”

Keith balks at the sudden topic change, and the fact that Acxa, as always, is so damned perceptive. “It’s…different. With us. We haven’t talked in a long time.”

“But you have talked with him.”

“Sort of,” Keith says. His heart is beating stupidly fast. So much for cooling down. “We’re going to try and be friends, at least.”

“Good,” Acxa says. “That’s good, Keith.”

“You think so?” Keith says, because he needs the reassurance more than ever.

He’s back on New Altea, surrounded by the people who are meant to be his family, his best friend asking to repair their relationship again, and he’s never felt more alone.

“Yes,” Acxa says, always so matter-of-fact.

“Why didn’t you tell Veronica?”

“It’s…hard,” Acxa says. “Telling the truth to her. I don’t wish to ruin our friendship.”

Keith sucks in a breath, because it’s all too familiar, toeing that line between comfortable friendship and diving into feelings. Sometimes Shiro used to look at Keith like he was the constellations he did everything in his power to be able to see, and other times Keith would be so sure that Shiro saw him as the brother Keith always said he was.

“I’d rather keep her as a close friend, than lose her.”

The like you and Shiro goes unspoken.

Keith’s throat begins to close up and he has to look away. “Yeah. Makes sense, I guess.”

Maybe he should have done the same, kept his mouth shut at the facility—

But he would have died, then, probably. He kind of wishes he did, now that he sees how everything has turned out.

Acxa sheaths her Blade. “Thank you for sparring with me, Keith.”

“All good.”

“You should go and hang out with Shiro.”

“Hang out?” Keith parrots. “Since when did you use that kind of language?”

Acxa rolls her eyes. “Just be thankful I don’t feel like beating you up again.”

“I’m half-Human,” Keith protests. “I don’t even heal as quickly as you do. It’s not fair.”

“Sorry, sir,” Acxa taunts.

Keith flips her off and leaves.

 

— K —

 

Keith doesn’t know whose idea it originally was to visit the lake, but they go on an afternoon when they’re all free after Lance brings it up again. The sun will be good for their skin, the water for their souls, and some other bullshit that Lance spews up as reasons to visit when he tells all of them.

Keith just goes along with it.

It’s good for about half an hour.

Good for Pidge to complain about the sun and Hunk to carry her down to the water anyway; good for Shiro to choose Keith to sit next to on the sand. He doesn’t say anything, but they both watch Hunk and Lance do their best at trying to drown their shortest member, and Keith smiles, even if it feels like he’s breaking some unwritten rule to be enjoying his time when they don’t have Allura.

But it’s too good to last long.

Lance comes up to them, wet and bedraggled as he flops on the sand in front of Shiro and Keith.

“Having fun?” Shiro asks.

“Totally,” Lance wheezes with a thumbs up.

Hunk and Pidge keep splashing around in the water. Acxa remains looking lost as Romelle splashes her.

Of course it’s too good to last.

“She should have seen this,” Lance says, eyes bluer than the sky he’s staring up at. “I used to dream of taking her to the beach, showing her how to swim.”

They aren’t at the beach, but as far as New Altea goes, this lake is the closest they’re going to get. Keith can picture it now, Allura with her long hair, frolicking in the shallows with Lance running after her to no doubt rub sand in her hair the same way he did to Pidge.

Shiro asks, “She didn’t know how?”

“No,” Lance shakes his head.

“But…” Keith trails off, knowing they’re all thinking of the pool in the Castle of Lions.

Lance smiles too, at the memory. “She didn’t know how to swim somewhere with waves. We used to talk about it.” His brow creases. “Man, she would have loved it. I know she would have.”

Keith picks up a handful of sand and watches as it pours out again, carried by the wind. Why does it still hurt?

“Do you think she’s out there?” he says quietly.

It feels blasphemous, to be doubting it, especially since he was exactly the same with Shiro.

Lance’s head hangs between his knees. “I don’t know anymore.” And when he looks up, his eyes are red. “I don’t know.”

Keith doesn’t, either. No one does.

The sadness comes upon Lance like a monsoon. He cries, slowly at first, and then he really cries, folds in on himself like an accordion and heaves. Tears stream down his face and Keith watches, helpless, as the sun stings and the water crashes.

Shiro is upon Lance within seconds, scooping him close, murmuring to him, “Hey, Lance, it’s okay.”

But Lance doesn’t stop.

It sounds fucking awful.

Keith has never wanted to walk into the sea more. There are stones on the path. He could keep filling his pockets and just walk and walk and walk, until the water makes itself one with him.

“Mullet,” Lance says, snotty and looking terrible.

Keith nods, because no one needs to say anything. He knows how touchy feely Lance is, knows that now isn’t the time to be creating barriers where there doesn’t need to be any.

“Yeah, Lance,” he says, joining the sharpshooter and Shiro.

The sun beats down upon them. The waves crash.

Later, when Shiro and him are walking to their rooms, Keith whispers, “Maybe she’s not coming back.”

Shiro stares at the number pad of his room as he scans his hand. “She has to.”

 

— K —

 

She doesn’t.

Not that day, not the next. But the reminder of her haunts them all.

Romelle is the latest victim as she crawls into Keith’s bed after a bad dream, curling around him. She’d called him in the middle of the night, tears running down her face, and Keith had gone with the wolf for her immediately.

“Keith,” she cries, and that’s all she does for a long time.

Keith kisses her hair and wipes her tears away, waiting it out as Romelle’s grief leaves her. The bedspread is white underneath them and all Keith can think of is salt shakers, salt plains, the seaside. His sister has an entire ocean pouring from her.

“Thanks,” Romelle says when the shaking has stopped, eons later.

“It’s alright,” Keith reassures her, running a hand through her hair.

It’s lovely and golden, straight compared to Allura’s curls. Keith remembers watching the two of them do each other’s hair on the Atlas when they were hunting down Honerva.

“I love you,” he says, easing out a tangle.

He could braid it but it looks nice like this, framing her pretty face. She looks softer in the low light of the room.

Romelle sniffles. “I love you too.”

Keith smiles slightly. The gem he gave her is around her neck and he picks it up, contemplative. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Romelle buries her face in his chest once more, delaying her answer, before she nods and says quietly, “It wasn’t a nightmare.”

“No?”

“No. Allura was here, and we were all in Oriande.”

Keith shudders at the thought. Anything to do with Oriande qualifies as a nightmare in his books; there is nothing positive associated with that place.

If there is more to his sister’s dream, it remains a mystery, because she starts to cry again.

“I just miss her so much,” Romelle sobs. “I thought I was getting better but I’m not.”

Keith shushes her, rubbing her back. “No, Romi, that’s—” And he uses the words that Hunk used on him, because out of all the advice he’s heard since Allura died, Hunk’s are the only thing that really made an impact. “Everything heals eventually.”

It has to.

It has to.

Romelle sighs, as if she knows how difficult it is for Keith to tell her that when he was in her shoes not too long ago. She’d held the threads of him as he unravelled on New Daibazaal, and Keith wants to say he’s doing the same for her, but it feels substandard in comparison.

“Everything heals eventually,” Keith repeats, more for himself than her.

“I suppose so,” Romelle says. “I do wish it would come sooner though.”

She falls asleep in his arms a short while later, lulled to sleep by Keith tracing patterns on her back.

Me too, Keith thinks as she snores softly. Me too.

 

— K —

 

Days later, Keith is standing in front of Blue when Shiro finds him. He doesn’t say anything as he stands next to Keith, which feels appropriate. Moments like these are best honoured with silence.

Lying on her side, Blue looks lifeless.

It’s coming up to six months now, since they walked out of her cockpit and sat on the floor and held each other. Keith is exhausted.

“I used to come here every night,” Shiro says, hushed. “At the start.”

Keith knows this, has seen the memory of it, and his mouth tastes like ash. “I’m sorry you felt you couldn’t come to us.”

Shiro shakes his head, but he says nothing. No use flogging a dead horse. Instead he steps closer to Blue and puts his hand on her snout. “Sometimes I can almost feel her, you know? And other times I just feel like I’m grasping at straws and imagining things.”

Keith watches him, and then steps forward to do the same. Blue’s metal stays cool under his palm. She does not move.

“I can’t feel anything,” he whispers.

“Neither.”

At the confession, Shiro leans forward until he can press his forehead to Blue’s giant snout. He looks so small in comparison, this man who used to be Keith’s best friend, and the vulnerability of the moment catches Keith around the waist and pulls.

He hesitates, and then reaches out to lay his hand over Shiro’s shoulder. Shiro tenses up instantly, eyes opening. He looks at Keith, curious.

Keith is curious too, about why he’s doing this. He hasn’t touched Shiro since he was waiting for Shiro to wake up in hospital, and then they’d argued and Keith had fled.

But right now, he wants to touch Shiro.

“Hey,” he says quietly, fingers flexing.

A small, tentative smile creeps onto Shiro’s face. He’s still beautiful.

“Hey,” he replies, just as quietly.

Keith chews the inside of his cheek, contemplating. He could withdraw his touch, could let the channel between them open up again. He could run back to safety.

But he doesn’t want to.

“Shiro…can I hug you?”

He almost can’t believe he’s actually asking. This used to be something they did without question.

“Of course,” Shiro whispers. “Of course you can.”

Keith takes a deep breath.

For a moment they’re frozen, as if neither of them know what to do. Then Keith realises Shiro is waiting for him to make the first move, so he does, letting the hand on Shiro’s shoulder curl around Shiro’s neck. Shiro remains rigid against him, until Keith shuffles closer and tucks his chin over Shiro’s shoulder.

There’s a sob.

And then, feeling slightly ridiculous, slightly desperate, Keith says, “You can touch me, you know.”

Shiro does not move. “Are you sure?”

“Please.”

That makes Shiro move, makes him hide his face in Keith’s neck. Keith had forgotten how strong Shiro is, because in the next moment, he is hauled up into Shiro’s arms. Shiro’s grip is tight and unyielding and he’s crying properly now, and the sound of it is horrible. It’s worse than Lance’s, worse than Romelle’s.

They’re all awful in their own ways, but these are like they’re designed to break.

Keith shudders as the grief clambers eagerly up his throat and he sinks into Shiro’s touch.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

He doesn’t even know what he’s apologising for anymore. He just holds on.

 

— K —

 

Acxa and Romelle return to New Daibazaal the following week. Romelle wants to stay, but they’ve been away long enough. Acxa wants to be given her own mission offworld, but the Blades still need to be trained. Keith wants to follow but his mother and Kolivan remind him of his ambassador status.

All three of them leave the call disgruntled.

“Who’s going to help you train the cadets?” he asks Acxa afterwards.

She raises a brow a him. “You say that as if your sister isn’t more than capable.”

Irritation lances through him. “That’s not what I’m saying and you know it.”

“Speak plainly then.”

Keith almost doesn’t, almost presses his lips together to stop the confession, but it comes out anyway. “What am I supposed to do on my own?”

Acxa’s expression softens. “You’re not on your own,” she reminds him. “Besides, if it really comes down to it, I’m sure your sister will be back for you as soon as possible.”

“What about me?” Romelle asks as she enters the room.

She’s drinking something, no doubt Hunk’s coffee abomination. It really isn’t great. Keith never thought he’d say that about one of Hunk’s creations. 

“Keith was doubting your teaching ability,” Acxa says, stealing Romelle’s cup to take a sip.

“I was not,” Keith protests. “And I don’t know how you drink that stuff.”

Romelle kisses his cheek. “I never doubted it.”

Acxa rolls her eyes at him. “It tastes fine, Keith. You’re simply too fussy.”

“Oh, my mistake,” Keith retorts.

Romelle shushes them both and sits on the bed with him. Keith does not pout as he nuzzles her cheek, even if her look tells him otherwise. She can think what she likes. She’s drinking Hunk’s abomination, anyway. She can’t talk.

Acxa is busy braiding her hair behind one ear, and Keith watches her struggle to take a stray lock. Neither of them are as good as his sister, who watches as well, until she must decide that Acxa’s needs Keith’s help, because she prods him forward.

Keith goes without protest, covering Acxa’s hands with his own until she accepts.

“What about Veronica?” he says as he tucks the strand of hair Acxa was trying to tame into her braid.

In the mirror, he can see the way Acxa lowers her eyes and her mouth thins.

Romelle leans in, tightening one of the strands. “Did you tell her, Xa?”

Acxa shakes her head. “Maybe some other time. When we’re not trying to rebuild the universe.”

Romelle pets Acxa’s shoulder. “Do you think that’s best?”

“Yes,” Acxa says, and then her eyes meet Keith’s. “For now.”

Keith swallows, knowing he is in no place to judge, and he ties the braid off.

 

— K —

 

Keith is dreaming.

Everything is pink: the sky, the ground, as far as the eye can see. The horizon ends in a starburst of magenta. It reminds him of Black’s astral plane. He feels like he’s walking amongst a field of cotton candy.

In the middle of it all, sitting by herself, is Allura. Keith is by her side in an instant, and she turns to smile up at him serenely. Her eyes are the same colour as when Black handed her Shiro’s soul.

“Keith,” she says. “Hello.”

“Hi,” Keith’s voice cracks, and he sits.

There’s a juniberry flower in her hands, but it looks all wrong. Keith doesn’t know flowers, but he does know that the rounded shape of this one isn’t correct. But it’s a dream, and so when the dream dictates that the flower is a juniberry, Keith accepts it.

Allura keeps plucking the petals off anyway. They don’t fall, though. For every petal she tears off, another appears, like a hydra.

“You have things to talk about,” she says. “Questions to ask.”

Keith watches her destroy the flower, wondering why it does not disintegrate. He does have questions—or at least, he did, except he can’t remember them anymore. All he can focus on is that damned flower.

“Did you fix it?” is the only thing he can come up with, the only thing that comes out.

Allura’s smile does not waver. “That depends on what was fixed, doesn’t it?”

She holds her hand out and the flower is carried away by the breeze. It floats away, blending with the magenta landscape.

Well, the universe might be fixed, by the rest of them are still broken. The rest of them are still waking up and facing each day and wishing it would all end.

“We’re not,” he tells her. “We’re not fixed at all.”

Allura’s eyes are still that strange, glowing blue. They match the markings on her cheeks.

“Oh, Keith,” she says, hand finding his. Her grip is strong. “That is up to you to decide.”

He wakes up.

 

— K —

 

Keith receives a photo from his sister the week after, showing her and Acxa in the Blades’ main training room together. Romelle is on her back, her face upside down. Acxa lounges next to her. It’s difficult not to feel resentful of their situation; Keith is stuck on a planet his friend died for, trying to find his way back to the family he traveled across the universe with, while the other two are back home, helping the rest of the Blades.

But he sends his sister a heart emoji anyway, and when sleep doesn’t find him that night, he heads for the training rooms.

Keith is practicing forms with his Blade when Lance walks in. He pauses when he notices Keith, then throws his towel to the side of the room.

“Wanna go?”

Keith shrugs, twirling his blade. “Sure.”

Lance’s bayard activates.

Keith focuses on his footwork, on the sounds of their blades clanging around the room, on the harsh pants from both of them. There’s no drive to win here for once. It’s like they both just want to forget.

When the fighting comes to a natural end, Lance slumps to the floor immediately, so Keith retrieves their towels for them. The sharpshooter takes the water Keith offers and drinks noisily. It’s disgusting.

“I never use it,” Lance says, gesturing to the broadsword at his side.

“It shows,” Keith says, unable to help himself.

Lance shoves his shoulder. “Shut your quiznak.”

“You know that’s not how you say it.”

Lance levels him with a look. “As if I’d ever listen to you, Mullet.”

“It’s not even a mullet anymore.” Keith protests, because it’s past his shoulderblades now.

Lance rolls his eyes. “Once a mullet, always a mullet.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Keith lets his Blade return to its knife form as Lance continues to slurp from his drink bottle. Love is blind, he decides. Whatever Allura saw in Lance is beyond him.

Lance sniffs, then deactivates his bayard. “It was her dad’s,” he says.

Keith shifts. “She would have liked that.”

“Yeah,” Lance breathes.

For a moment Keith thinks the sharpshooter might start crying again, and god, he hopes not, because it’s been so long since they did anything but weep for her.

Lance is smiling now, though, and it’s a small, sad thing, but Keith will take it. “You know, the first time I activated it, Allura had me flat on my back in less than half a minute.”

Keith snorts. “Okay, I didn’t think you were that terrible.”

“She wasn’t even holding a sword,” Lance grins. “She just swept me off my feet.”

Keith waits for the inevitable cheesy pick-up line, but it never comes. Instead, Lance just stares at his bayard with that sad smile on his face.

“Half a year, huh?” he murmurs.

“More than that,” Keith corrects.

They’re coming up to seven months, now. Seven months of no Voltron, seven months of holding a hand over his chest and wondering, despite the slow stitching of his broken pieces, when the pain will stop.

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Lance says, but time hasn’t flown, and it hasn’t been fun at all.

“Feels like forever,” Keith says.

The sun is beginning to rise, and the light pours through the windows; it’s the dawn of a new day. Lance glances up to see, and the daylight almost makes his cheeks glow. But it’s a trick of the light. They haven’t glowed since Allura left them.

“Thanks,” Lance says eventually.

“Yeah, man,” Keith answers.

 

— K —

 

Maybe Lance spoke it into existence, or maybe Keith stops counting, but the next month flies.

There are too many meetings for Keith’s liking, too many hours spent cooped up in a conference room as the higher ups debate with each other over everything from New Altea’s defence system to the military might of their neighbouring galaxy.

More often than not he ends up in Pidge’s lab at the end of it, spacing out as she talks ten to the dozen about her latest scientific experiment. She’s really found an interest in helping her father with the teludav technology, and Keith wonders more than once if she will return to Earth with him eventually to make that her main focus.

It’s as though their search for Allura is on hold, for now, while they wait for the wound to close up a little more.

Keith spends his time linking up the small pockets of Galra that have wound up on New Altea and helping the combat team with mission planning. It’s a completely different system to the Blades, and Keith takes all his frustrations out through sparring with both Lance and Hunk; the former with blades, the latter with bodies.

At night, when he can’t stand the four walls of his room anymore, he goes to Blue.

Shiro finds him there a couple of times.

On really bad days, Keith leans against him. Shiro doesn’t put his arms around Keith like the last hug they shared, but he never pushes Keith away.

When Shiro has been returned to duty for long enough to get his bearings again, Pidge broaches the idea of training together in their Lions.

All this time, they’ve avoided it like the plague and done every form of training but that, because they all know what it would mean if they do.

The idea is met with apprehension unsurprisingly, and it only gets worse when Hunk tentatively suggests changing the line-up back to their original so they can form Voltron. Shiro shoots it down gently by using Atlas as a scapegoat.

“Maybe it’s time to find a new Blue Paladin,” Coran says thoughtfully.

Lance actually slams his hands on the table at that. “No,” he snaps, and then he stalks off.

Coran sighs and gets to his feet. “I’d better go talk to him.”

They never find out what was said, but that evening, at dinner, Lance apologises.

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

“It’s okay, bud,” Hunk says. “I shouldn’t have suggested it straight off the bat.”

“It’s always going to be hard,” Pidge soothes.

“Four lions are better than none,” Shiro says. “Let’s start with that, okay? We can worry about forming Voltron at a later time.”

Keith swallows the words he wants to say.

In the morning, it’s a clear sunny day. Winds are favourable. Of course it’s a perfect setup. Keith jams his helmet on before he can fall down the rabbit hole.

Black purrs warmly at him when he enters her, picking up on his distress. She never uses words with him, but Keith can feel the comfort she projects at him.

“Thanks, Black,” he says, sitting in the pilot seat.

Her panels glow purple.

“Paladins,” Shiro’s voice comes through on the comms channel. “Do you copy?”

It’s been a long time since they’ve been together like this.

One by one, Keith hears the others respond to Shiro, and he chimes in with his own affirmation. Black is still humming. Perhaps she knows what is coming.

He can feel their bond already, like a brook bubbling over rocks in his mind, pushing at the corners. It’s so much stronger than usual, thanks to all four of them being within their Lions and within close proximity, and he winces.

It’s been so long .

“You guys ready?” Keith asks, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“Yep!” Pidge and Hunk chorus.

“Yeah,” Lance says, significantly less enthused.

Keith quashes the rising bile and taps in.

It hits him like an ion cannon blast.

They aren’t even forming Voltron and yet Keith feels like he’s drowning in it.

Images slam into him one after the other, of Allura, of Pidge, Hunk, Lance. Voices and sounds overlap each other, and the cacophony of it makes Keith want to scream.

For a long moment, all he can do is try to keep his head above water as the memories and thoughts swirl around him.

Stop, he thinks. Please.

And then he feels it, like a tap on his shoulder.

It feels like Shiro.

The whirlpool before Keith suddenly calms. Instead of drowning, it’s as though Keith is wading through a submerged library now, the memories floating past him. He senses Pidge first, a swirling ball of energy, and when he touches it, his vision fills with images of her flying around her lab, yelling in frustration, staring at computer screens, crying. Bursts of yellow sunshine overtake the scenes, and it makes sense that she’d be thinking of Hunk.

The Yellow Paladin is elbowing past Pidge in the castle’s kitchens, pressing a kiss to the top of her head as he goes, and then he’s hugging Romelle goodbye and promising to call. Keith sees Hunk on the edge of a new system, sitting with Lance, talking about their families and what is waiting for them back on Earth.

Keith almost doesn’t welcome the onslaught of blue from Lance, but when he does, it’s a relief when it is scattered, oversaturated, nonsensical.

The water around him is tinged with pink, and Keith forces himself to acknowledge its presence; it blankets the fragile bond between them, and Keith is glad they didn’t form Voltron and open the floodgates to Allura’s memory. 

The mere ghost of her is enough for now.

Seeing each other’s memories is a two way street, something he only belatedly remembers when he feels his own being dredged up—of Allura sitting with him under the stars, of Romelle holding him, of Shiro against the sunset and Keith, alone on the empty observation deck.

“You guys okay?” Shiro’s voice comes, and this time Keith can definitely feel a sixth presence in the bond with them.

Like a response, Shiro’s come forth, and this is definitely something he would never let anyone see willingly, because it’s of Shiro waking to see Keith, finding his way around his new body, learning with Atlas, watching the Paladins form Voltron.

“Shiro?” he asks, almost scared.

Shiro hasn’t been with them since Allura took his soul from Black. When they were fighting Honerva and merged with Atlas, it had been like they were in different rooms, but this feels like Shiro is sitting right next to him.

“Is that you, Shiro?” Lance says incredulously. “I thought…”

“Me too,” Shiro breathes. “Maybe Black really is attached, huh?”

Keith chokes on the loneliness that saturates the atmosphere then. Whose it is doesn’t matter; there is so much hurt from everyone it could belong to any one of them.

Keith flinches away from it.

“Right,” he rasps, willing his hands to stop shaking. “Let’s get this over and done with.”

 

— K —

 

Later that night when they’re walking to their quarters as a group, Keith hangs back. They had spent time after dinner together sitting in the paladin lounge, and Hunk had asked if they were going to talk about it.

No one answered straight away, but they all knew the feeling he was trying to describe, the way that the moment they’d started doing formations, they’d felt the weak link immediately. Allura’s presence was with them, the remnants of her permeated their Paladin bond, yes, but she wasn’t there.

She wasn’t there, and Blue still refused to respond.

In the end, they didn’t quite talk about it, but they did ask how Shiro was feeling.

No one addressed the memories of Shiro’s that they saw, yet Keith can’t erase them from his memory.

He can’t stop thinking about Shiro, about how he wasn’t given time to breathe at all, how he was on Earth before he really knew what was going on, how he was given a new arm and made captain of a sentient ship and put in charge of the rebuild effort. They’re not Keith’s thoughts but he can’t get them out of his head, because it cuts deep when he thinks of every new challenge putting Shiro further and further from the paladins until he was so far away, he didn’t know how to find his way back.

It’s because of this that he needs time to himself, and when he says, “Forgot something,” it’s the most transparent lie, but no one questions it.

It’s been a long day for all of them.

The observation deck is quiet.

Keith steps into the silence and lets it wash over him like a sunshower, basking in it. After being surrounded by the tepid waters of their paladin bond all day, it’s a welcome change.

There isn’t anyone else, as usual, so Keith chooses the nearest window and crosses his legs underneath him.

Before him, New Altea gleams. The Olkari were instrumental in building the new city within such a short timeframe, and with the Castle at the helm, it’s a sight to behold.

It’s exactly the kind of city Allura would have wanted for her people, a brilliant golden centre that fades out to the darker, turquoise landscape. Coran made sure the city has her legacy threaded throughout it, right down to the sprawl of bioluminescent meadows and forests beyond it that she would have dreamed to get lost in.

Allura, he thinks. I wish you could see this.

Because she would have loved it. 

The door slides open, and then Keith hears the soft pad of footsteps.

It’s Shiro.

“Hey,” he says, hushed. “I figured you might be here.”

Keith tries masking his surprise, but he mustn’t do a very convincing job of it, because Shiro asks, “Are you okay with me being here? I can go, it’s okay.”

“No,” Keith says quickly. “You can stay.”

“Okay,” Shiro says, and the relief in his smile settles some of Keith’s anxiety. “Thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

Shiro takes a seat next to him, bringing his knees to his chest. Keith keeps his eyes trained on the city.

It’s been a long day, it’s been a long time, it’s been—a long everything, since they sat on an observation deck together. Keith can barely breathe.

After minutes of nothing, Shiro says, “Are we going to talk about it?”

Keith closes his eyes at that.

He doesn’t want to. He’s barely processing it himself, and yet, Hunk’s words blare like an alarm in his head: talk to each other.

“Which part?”

“When I woke up.”

He’s talking about waking up and seeing Keith, thinking ‘you saved me’, thinking Keith’s face was like finally finding ground beneath his feet after floundering at sea for too long. He’s talking of Keith, of the relief flooding through him, of the bursting of Keith’s heart within his chest, of wanting to hold Shiro close and never let him go.

Of wanting to press in close and shut out the rest of the world, of wanting to slowly let himself suffocate with Shiro’s return.

“You can’t be surprised,” Keith says softly.

“I guess not,” Shiro says. “You were always there for me.”

Keith doesn’t answer.

“You meant the world to me too, you know,” Shiro whispers, and it might be what Keith had thought at the time, what his memories painted for him, but it’s a sucker punch, hearing it spoken out loud by Shiro.

Keith thinks it might just strangle him.

“I’m sorry for keeping you in the dark,” Shiro says, and he’s looking at Keith now, not the city, and Keith can’t look away from him. “I’m really sorry, Keith, I—”

“Shush,” Keith says, surging forward to cover Shiro’s mouth with his hand. He doesn’t want to hear Shiro apologising again, doesn’t need it, not anymore. “That’s enough, now.”

He waits until Shiro nods before lowering his hand. Shiro’s eyes are round.

“Sorry,” he blurts out.

“It’s okay.”

Keith knocks his fist lightly against Shiro’s knee as a distraction, wishing he could take back the last few minutes. “Don’t apologise,” he says eventually. “It’s…it hasn’t changed, anyway.”

Shiro’s eyes are too shiny. Keith can see the city reflected in them and he’s beautiful, he’s still so beautiful.

“I’m here for you,” Keith swallows. “Always.”

Shiro looks at him like he can’t believe what he just heard, and if Keith is honest, he’s surprised at how easily it came out, but it’s true. He followed Shiro to the end of the world once; he’ll do it as many times as it takes.

“Even after all this time?” Shiro says quietly. “After everything?”

“Of course,” Keith whispers. “Of course I am.”

Shiro hesitates, and then he holds out his arm in invitation. Keith crawls closer without thought, because he doesn’t know how he feels about New Altea, and he doesn’t know how to think of the future without Allura ruling this planet she bled for, but he does know that right now, all he wants is to be held by Shiro.

“I’m here for you too,” Shiro says.

His arm is warm and heavy upon Keith’s shoulders and Keith settles against his side as Shiro’s other hand lands on his knee. The city hums below them, the stars shine above.

“You okay?” Shiro says, almost scared.

Keith nods and burrows closer. He’s too tired, too dehydrated to shed tears, but the catharsis is there all the same, and as they sit like that, Keith surrenders himself to it.

Most of the time, Keith feels a little like an archipelago, a dozen different islands, every part of him isolated from each other. But Shiro’s eyes are soft when he looks at Keith, and when he tightens his grip, it feels like water, bringing Keith back together.

 

— K —

 

“Good work, Atlas,” Keith says begrudgingly as he works the knot out of his shoulder.

He can feel Shiro’s smugness rolling off him in waves, but Shiro manages to keep it level with, “Thanks, Black Paladin.”

Keith isn’t sure where the nickname came from, but he’s not questioning it.

“Black Paladin needs to pay attention,” Lance gripes as he swoops past Keith and deflects a blast meant for him.

“Ten-four,” he mutters, urging Black over to where Red is already grappling with another cannon.

The five of them are testing the planet’s defences, and it’s good to be out in space like this, putting New Altea’s defence through its paces. Keith doesn’t miss the war, but he does miss the thrill of fighting like this, handing over the reins to Black and letting her dictate the way they move as one through the flares.

Atlas is holding her own fairly well, but the cannons they shipped over from New Daibazaal are vicious. They’re exactly what New Altea needs after Gnov.

Warning sings through the bond then, from Hunk, and Keith pulls Black in the Yellow Paladin’s direction instead to deflect the oncoming fire. Drones are swarming Yellow and Keith charges, letting Black unfold her wings and slice through the field.

“Getting better at that, Black Paladin,” Shiro comments.

“Thanks, Atlas.”

The bond trembles with mild irritation and Keith snorts when he recognises it’s coming from Pidge.

“When you two have stopped complimenting each other’s dicks,” Pidge grits out, “do you want to give me a hand with Cannon Four?”

She’s a hypocrite, since everything from her is yellow. Hunk’s are all green. Keith laughs and does as he’s asked.

It’s…been easier, lately. Keith doesn’t know when it happened, just that he managed to finish his breakfast, for once, and that Lance disarmed him when they were sparring the other day. It’s been a tough fortnight getting used to training as four with Atlas, but they’re managing alright so far. Coran even chaired another session of Monsters and Mana on Monday.

Romelle is waiting for Keith when they all leave the hangar.

She’s the main Blade in charge of ferrying the new defence system to New Altea, and when she arrived, Keith had welcomed her hug with open arms. She still smelled like juniberries and Keith had inhaled deeply, an ache in the back of his throat.

“How was it?” she asks him excitedly, petting Black’s snout affectionately before she links arms with him.

“Fun,” Keith says as he salutes the other five in farewell and lets her pull him in the direction of the palatial gardens.

“Yes, it seemed like you all went alright.”

Keith nods as she plops herself on the grass beneath one of the orange fruit trees. The wolf materialises not a minute later, eager to let Romelle lean back against him and weave little braids into his hair. Seeing his sister sitting amongst the blossoms there reminds Keith a little of Allura sitting amongst her juniberry flowers, and his heart twinges at the sight.

“I had another of those dreams, Keith,” Romelle says, solemnly.

Keith tuts in sympathy. “Are you okay?”

Romelle actually smiles, which isn’t where Keith thought the conversation was going at all. “Yes, I’m alright. It wasn’t so difficult, this time around.” She squints at him. “What about you? How are you?”

“I’m okay.”

The sadness is still there, Keith thinks, underneath the layer of calm, but it’s not so close to the surface right now; it doesn’t feel like one wrong step will send him spiralling out of control.

“And Shiro?”

“Good,” Keith breathes. “We’re…I don’t know, Romi. I think we’re okay?”

The night Shiro found him on the observation deck, it had been easy to doze off, cradled in Shiro’s warmth. Keith doesn’t know how long they stayed, but when he blinked awake, the sky was beginning to lighten with the oncoming dawn and his bones ached from the hard floor. Shiro had helped him to his feet and walked to their rooms in silence, and Keith wanted to hug him again but he didn’t, instead digging his hands into his pockets.

Shiro had smiled at him sleepily, had thanked him, and then bade him goodnight with, “It hasn’t changed for me, either.”

His sister beams at him, tying off another little braid. “Really?”

Keith shrugs, because all he can think about is what Shiro told him, and honestly most ways to interpret it are actually positive. “Yeah.”

Romelle’s smile gets brighter, somehow. “I’m glad.”

“Yeah,” Keith nods, and for once, he feels like maybe he can fly close to the sun.

 

— K —

 

But it’s too good to last.

The next week, the sky comes crashing down again, like the collapse of a dying star.

It happens when Keith is dreaming.

He’s tired and grumpy. His sleep pattern hasn’t behaved since Allura died anyway, but he spends more nights staring at the stars on the observation deck with Shiro than he does in his actual bed. Shiro will sometimes fall asleep, other times Keith will.

Training with the others is both good in the way it gets rid of his energy, and terrible in the way that Allura still haunts their every move. It’s like she follows him out of the cockpit. He wants her to stop, to go away, to leave them alone. It’s stupid, how death doesn’t provide closure or relief; it just means more pain.

So he falls asleep, and down comes the sky.

It starts with a sunrise, with a burst of light, with something that should signify the birth of something new and hopeful. Keith flies towards it, the brightness hurting his eyes, but he knows that he needs to keep his eyes open because otherwise he’ll miss something.

Below him is a teal sea, above him a pink sky, and nothing but that white brilliance on the horizon to focus on.

It’s gorgeous.

He sees Allura first, and she’s radiant.

“Keith,” she calls, eyes glowing.

Happiness unfurls in Keith’s chest. Red blooms on Allura’s.

“Allura?” he asks, because that’s— “You’re bleeding! Why are you bleeding—”

“It’s alright, Keith,” Allura says, and now that he’s close to her, he can see the blood caked around her mouth, the dark bags under her eyes, the torn material of her flight suit.

“Allura?” he asks again, horrified. “What happened, what’s wrong—”

“It’s alright,” Allura repeats, and now Keith’s Blade is in his hand and he’s sinking it into her, and he wants to stop but they’re all there now, Shiro and Pidge and Hunk and Lance. They’re all crowding around her, all stabbing her, and Keith is crying.

“Stop,” he begs, as red drips down his fingers, hot and wet. “Please, make it stop.”

“It’s alright, Keith,” Allura says, body shaking grotesquely with each knife. “It’s alright.”

Keith wakes up with a start.

The ceiling is pitch black above him and his heart pounds, his pulse roars like thunder in his ears. His lungs scream and he gulps in air, shuddering with the effort.

Fuck.

Fuck.

The wolf shifts beside him, whining. Keith’s eyes sting, and he sinks into the wolf’s fur. 

“Sorry, bud,” he says, hating how the nightmare hasn’t even started to fade yet. “It was just a dream.”

The others have never lingered like this.

“Just a dream,” he repeats.

Just a dream, but Keith can’t shake it that night, nor the next, and eventually he finds himself wandering the halls two nights in a row.

God, he’s so sick of living.

 

— K —

 

The days blur together. Keith trains until his vision gets hazy, until he’s too tired to do anything at the end of the day except sleep.

The nightmares stay away, thankfully.

The loneliness does not. It comes to him on the observation deck, after a day of mind-numbing boredom thanks to conferences in the morning, and Atlas being put through simulations that afternoon. He tries to wait it out, determined, because he thinks he’s gotten better at facing the darkness by himself.

It’ll pass, he says, doing his best to not shy away from it.

But it engulfs him, still awful, still horrible, and Keith was wrong, he’s no better at this than he was all those months ago.

When Shiro calls, Keith escapes the deck without protest.

He’s in the bar when Keith finds him, nursing something brown and strong.

“Keith,” Shiro says when he enters.

His eyes are almost as glassy as the sea that Keith flew over earlier that week.

Keith pauses. 

He’s been drunk before. He was almost expected to—was even eager to, when he was with the Blades. Alcohol burnt enough of the horror out of their minds, and in the morning the hangover did a good job of keeping it away. After they lost Regris, Keith drank himself half to death, and Kolivan carried him back to his room and made him drink water.

So he knows why Shiro is here. He just had no idea it was something Shiro did.

“Hey,” Keith says, sliding into the seat next to Shiro. “Been here long?”

“Kind of?” Shiro says, tilting up the last end of his words so it comes out like a question. “This isn’t normal.”

There it is.

Keith nods slowly, trying not to spook Shiro. “No?”

Shiro shakes his head, and then his next breath shudders out of him. His face is bright red, and so are his eyes.

Not here, Keith thinks. Please.

“How come you’re here then?”

“Today was fucked,” Shiro slurs, and that tells Keith enough.

Shiro usually swears in front of him, but he hardly ever does in public. Keith asked him about it once, before Kerberos, and Shiro had shrugged and said it was necessary professionalism.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Shiro says, voice breaking on the end of the word before he mutters, “God,” and looks away.

Part of Keith wants to ask what exactly went on for Shiro to reach the point where he wanted to search for salvation at the bottom of a bottle, but the other part doesn’t want to know. Shiro is stretched so thin sometimes, it’s a wonder he doesn’t snap apart at the seams every day.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Shiro drains his glass. “Just a big day. I shouldn’t have agreed to piloting Atlas after this morning.” His brow furrows. “I’m so tired.”

He looks tired, but Keith knows it’s more than that. Shiro’s eyes are so sad. Keith reaches over, linking their fingers together the same way he did in the hospital, one by one, slowly enough that Shiro is always free to back out if he wants.

But Shiro doesn’t.

Keith tightens his grip. “Let’s go home, Shiro.”

They walk through the halls quietly with their hands clasped, only passing sentry guards. The Castle is modeled after the Castle of Lions and Keith lets the nostalgia wrap around him as they make their way to his quarters.

At first he wondered if perhaps he should leave Shiro to his room, and then he’d thought of Shiro being alone like that, after seeking out the cloying comfort of alcohol at the bar, and he decided against it.

It’s only when the door beeps open that Shiro lets go of Keith’s hand, lingering at the doorway, one hand on the frame, as if he isn’t sure of how genuine Keith was being when he said Shiro could sleep in his room.

“Hey,” Keith checks. “You okay?”

Shiro nods once. “Yeah. Think so.”

“Come on,” Keith says, inclining his head towards the mattress. “Just stay.”

Shiro doesn’t answer, but he does let Keith tug him inside, and that’s enough.

They get ready for bed together, and it should be salacious, watching Shiro undress in front of him, except all Keith can think of is the scars on Shiro’s body, of the way he pulls on the sleeping shirt Keith offers to him, and how trusting this whole thing is—that Shiro would pull back the physical layers of himself so easily and let Keith see him on that level of vulnerability.

When Keith comes to bed, Shiro is buried under the covers, and he holds them out for Keith to slip under, like this is something they’ve done a thousand times before. He doesn’t protest when Keith seeks out his hand again, squeezing in response when Keith tangles their fingers.

I love you, Keith thinks, wanting more than anything to be brave enough to speak it out loud.

But it isn’t the right time, the right place, the right anything. Shiro is hurting, and so is Keith, and the idea that Keith would open that Pandora’s Box now while they’re both trying to heal is stupid and selfish.

So he doesn’t voice it. He buries it down again, willing it away.

Another time.

“Sleep,” is what he says instead.

 

— K —

 

Keith isn’t surprised when his mother and Kolivan ask him to visit New Daibazaal to discuss the upcoming year. They’ve had a four-stage plan installed from the moment the planet had been restored, and the scattered remnants of the Galra Empire have always been in desperate need of leadership, so while this new development isn’t wholly a surprise, Keith still isn’t expecting it.

“You want me to lead?” Keith frowns. “I’ve barely been on this planet for the last two months.”

“On which planet you reside does not matter,” Kolivan intones. “The Galra require a representative for the Galactic Coalition and you’re our first choice.”

Keith shakes his head. “I can’t lead. That’s not who I am.”

“You’re the Red and Black Paladin, Kit,” Krolia says, slightly less unmoved as her partner. “You know leadership.”

“It doesn’t mean I like it,” Keith says. “That’s Shiro.”

Krolia’s ears twitch, as do Kolivan’s.

Eventually Kolivan asks, “How is Shiro?”

Before Keith had journeyed to New Daibazaal, Shiro had bid him farewell on the launchpad. Hunk and Lance had said their goodbyes before jetting out to retrieve more Balmeran crystals the day before, and Pidge was offworld too, helping her father install his teludav technology on Earth.

“Feels like you’re all leaving me again,” Shiro said, even if he himself was about to journey to the neighbouring sector with Atlas for a week-long stint of diplomatic relations.

Keith shook his head. “Never.”

“You know I’m joking.”

“Are you?” Keith challenged, because if it was humour, he hated the reminder of Shiro watching the rest of them and feeling alone.

Shiro ducked his head, and then he’d gathered Keith into his arms. Shiro’s face was hidden in Keith’s neck and he held him so tightly, Keith couldn’t breathe properly, but he’d wanted to stay there, like always.

“Stay safe,” Shiro had whispered.

Keith had wanted to say he’d miss Shiro, but he wasn’t sure if he could, if he was brave enough, and so he’d simply nodded and said the same before boarding Black.

“He’s good,” Keith tells his mother and Kolivan.

Kolivan cocks his head to the side, clearly not impressed by the lackluster description, but he says nothing further.

“Are you sure about the position, Kit?” Krolia asks. “It’s alright if you say no.”

“I…” Keith trails off, thinking of Allura, of how effortless she made being a leader look.

Shiro makes it look easy too, but Keith can’t forget that night he found Shiro drunk. Sure, they make it look easy, but Allura is dead and Shiro is hiding behind his Captain Shirogane persona, and Keith already feels like he’s barely keeping it together.

He doesn’t know what being the Galran representative would do to him. He doesn’t want to find out.

“I’m saying no,” he confesses.

“That’s okay,” Krolia nods, and she chucks him under the chin.

Acxa is wrapping up the afternoon sparring session with the cadets, and they all bow to him respectfully as they pass by him. Acxa does too, always one to tease, but Keith helps her pack up her things anyway, and then they head to her quarters.

“How’d it go?” Acxa says as they walk.

“You knew?”

Acxa rolls her shoulders. “Only one reason they’d call you back to New Daibazaal for an in-person meeting.”

Keith eyes her, thinking. “I watched you training those cadets, y’know. My mom and Kolivan should have asked you.”

Acxa balks. “Oh gods, no. No, I couldn’t think of anything worse. Besides, I’ve asked Kolivan to be stationed on New Altea for the next movement.”

“Why?”

Acxa’s cheeks are dusted pink. “Well, I’ve had time to think here. About Veronica and I.”

“And?”

Acxa’s answer is delayed, courtesy of her needing to welcome him into her room, and then she strips off the top layer of her uniform. Keith sits on the couch as she changes, stretching his legs out before him.

The jetlag is catching up with him and he really wants to nap.

“I don’t want to be like you and Shiro,” Acxa says, coming back in casual clothing. Then she winces, as though she knows it wasn’t the most tactical way of saying it. “No offence.”

“Can’t blame you.”

Acxa sits on the opposite end of the couch, drawing her knees to her chest. “We’re Galra, you and I. We never do anything by halves.”

“No,” Keith agrees.

Acxa’s braid is looped around her neck, like Kolivan’s, but she pulls it free and begins to unravel it. “I’d been wondering how to tell her, but then she called me last night.”

“And you two talked?”

Acxa bites her lip, and then she nods, and now that Keith knows what he’s looking for, it’s almost funny, to see his stoic general feeling shy.

“So, that’s that.”

“That’s that,” Keith echoes.

Acxa’s smile is a small thing, but it’s widening by the second and Keith pokes her calf, wanting to play with the giddy feeling that is quickly growing inside him.

She bats his hand away. “Yes, well. I wanted you to know.”

Keith still doesn’t understand why Acxa holds him in such high regard, but he smiles at her, regardless, because it’s humbling, and because he’s happy for her. “Congrats, 'Xa.”

There really is no way to describe the happiness that overtakes Acxa’s face, then, and Keith wonders if he’s just as obvious about Shiro.

 

— K —

 

“Hey, Mullet,” Lance says when Keith enters the sparring room.

He’s later than normal, the jetlag rendering him useless for the last quintant, and though he’s come to begrudgingly accept the nickname, something about Lance’s tone makes him pause.

“Everything alright, sharpshooter?”

Lance makes a noncommittal gesture. “Had a rough week, that’s all.”

“Ouch,” Keith says sympathetically.

“Yeah,” Lance says, dragging a hand down his face. “You missed a bit.”

Keith winces. “Do I want to know?”

“Well. Coran reached breaking point. So that was fun.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yeah,” Lance grumbles. He’s staring at the floor like he’s trying to see through it. “Matt mentioned milkshakes and it just…set Coran off.”

Keith crosses his legs underneath him, sparring forgotten. “Shit.”

“He can’t have known,” Lance says, because of course.

Matt wasn’t with them when they first brought Kaltenecker on board, he would have had no idea how much their princess loved milkshakes and how they would tease her about them in the months to come after she found out where they came from.

“He can’t have known,” Lance repeats. “But Coran has been nonstop since Allura died so it makes sense for something simple to be the proverbial straw.”

“Still.”

“Yeah. Still.”

Lance ponders for a moment longer, as if allowing the dust to settle. Then he stands and activates his bayard.

Keith is still thinking about it later, when he’s video calling Romelle.

“You have your ‘thinking too hard’ face on,” she singsongs.

“Yeah,” Keith frowns, before telling her about how Lance had found Coran outside after Matt’s comment and had to pick up the pieces. 

When he finishes, Romelle’s eyes are wet. “Oh, Coran.”

Keith nods. It’s awful, the heavy weight of responsibility on Coran’s shoulders to resurrect the Altean race in the name of his King and Princess. He lost Alfor and his planet, and now he’s lost Allura, too. 

Broken promises, Lance had said were the words Coran used, and Keith can see it now, the way it would break even someone as resilient as Coran.

“We all lost her,” he says softly.

“Yes,” Romelle says, and then she yawns.

“It’s late over there,” Keith remarks, not wishing to say goodbye but also wanting her to get the rest she needs.

Just because he isn’t doing great at taking care of himself doesn’t mean he’s going to let his sister do the same.

“It’s even later over there,” Romelle retorts. “Isn’t it two in the morning?”

Keith glances up at the time. “Just gone one.”

Romelle’s pout is supposed to be unimpressed but Keith just thinks it’s endearing instead, especially when she yawns again. “Very well then. Tell me something good, Keith, before I go.”

“Good?”

“Yes,” Romelle says sleepily. “Something that made you smile today. Something other than me, obviously.”

Keith’s immediate thought is Shiro, coming to find him just after dinner and tugging him in for a hug without hesitation. It was only two weeks but the sight of Shiro and the feel of him holding Keith was the best kind of headrush.

“Missed you,” Shiro had said, voice muffled in Keith’s neck. “I tried to see you when you landed but I couldn’t get away until now.”

“It’s okay,” Keith had assured him, even though most of him had been angsting over going to bed without even seeing Shiro in passing on his first night back on New Altea.

“Uh,” Keith says, knowing he’s turning red, knowing that he doesn’t need to say anything, that his sister is onto him already.

“I’m not sure I expected any different,” she says sweetly. “I heard the comms when I was last on New Altea." And she leers at him with a smile she could only have learnt from Lance. “What’s with Shiro calling you ‘Black Paladin’, hm?”

Keith makes a face. “Because I am the Black Paladin?”

“Uh huh,” Romelle says, still grinning. “Do you call him Captain too?”

Keith frowns. “I mean, I can? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Romelle sighs at him. “Oh, dearest brother.”

Keith growls a little and Romelle just giggles. She is impervious to his Galra traits.

“Go to bed,” he says.

“I’m just saying,” Romelle says in mock indignation. “It’s almost an endearment, the way he says it.”

Keith’s cheeks flare red and he pointedly says, “Goodbye, Romi.”

“I love you, brother,” Romelle says, blowing him a kiss.

“I love you too,” he grumbles, ending the call.

She’s been around their mother too long. They’re almost carbon copies.

 

— K —

 

New Altea’s winter begins to wane, and with it, Keith feels as though—like the flora around him—he too, is beginning to thaw. Spring being around the corner means the week-long Altean Changing of the Seasons festival is coming, but before, it brings the rain.

It brings his sister too, and a chance for Keith to experience her culture for a change.

She still smells like juniberries.

Keith welcomes it, for once.

Every afternoon, the skies open and the rain pours. It thunders on the roof, on the ground, muddying it, breathing life into the earth. The two of them watch the downpours when they’re both able to. Keith likes to see the way the environment shifts to accommodate the inundation, blooming green and blue and purple.

New Altea’s city changes too, adorning itself in all the hues of pink. For them, the festival is a time to honour the dead and herald in the new season, and so everywhere Keith looks, he sees Allura. He sees her in the swathes of pink around the Castle, in the decorations upon the city, in the way the lights are changed from yellow and white.

Even New Altea’s flora and fauna glow pink at night.

It’s pretty.

“That’s some goth stuff right there,” Hunk comments on the third night when he’s feeding them his latest creation: a dessert of some kind that he’s yet to find a name for.

It’s pink to match the festival, not quite ice cream, not quite spun sugar. Keith likes the sweetness of it on his tongue. Romelle has eaten two bowls already.

She’s always had the bigger sweet tooth of them.

“So goth,” Pidge agrees from where she lounges in his lap, and Keith squeezes her knee. “Don’t you dare tickle me,” she threatens.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Keith deadpans.

Nestled against his side, Romelle snickers.

“I will,” Lance teases, and then Pidge shrieks when he leans over to do exactly that.

Keith cops a knee into his ribs and then a foot lands too near his dick to make him want to stay there, so he slides to the floor next to Shiro as Pidge flails above them, trapped between Hunk and Lance.

Romelle gets dragged in as collateral damage, and she cries out, “Not fair!” before there’s the sound of a well-aimed slap and Lance’s answering grunt of pain.

Shiro laughs when Keith scoots closer to avoid getting kicked in the eye. “Not keen on joining them, Black Paladin?”

“No,” Keith says, recalling Romelle’s comment on the nickname and hating how hearing it now makes his belly flip.

At least Romelle is preoccupied. Keith resolutely does not call Shiro ‘Captain’.

Hunk yells out this time and Shiro chuckles again, before he murmurs, “Come here.”

Keith does, pleased when Shiro’s arm settles around his neck.

They sit like this a lot on the observation deck, but to have Shiro touch him without reservations in front of the others is something else, and the revelation settles deep in Keith’s chest and warms him.

Coran wanders in, takes one look at the four brawling on the couches, and settles on the other side of Shiro.

“Dessert?” Shiro offers airily, as if Pidge isn’t currently teaming up with Hunk and Romelle against Lance now.

“Why not?” Coran beams, accepting the proffered bowl.

Keith muffles his laugh in his hand and sinks into Shiro’s side.

Allura, he thinks, looking at the room, filled with his family. I wish you were here.

 

— K —

 

The festival comes to a close with an explosion of colour. Pink fireworks are set off and Keith watches the colours cross the fake Allura’s face. Candles are lit, prayers are said, and Romelle teaches him how to write his wishes on a piece of paper to add to the lanterns they will set free at midnight.

“What did you wish for?” Keith asks as they observe the lanterns floating into the sky, wondering if it’s bad luck.

The entire planet is a washout of pink.

“Peace,” she says simply. “You?”

“Healing,” Keith says honestly, because god, does he want it.

Romelle kisses his cheek.

She jets off the next afternoon, taking some new Altean Blade recruits with her. Keith watches the lines of their engines in the clouds, feeling strange. He has another session with the others later, without Atlas for once, since Shiro is scheduled into a lengthy conference, and after the lines in the sky are fluffed out, he heads out.

Pidge pummels him in Green while Red runs circles around him, and it’s not his best flight by a long shot, but no one calls him out on it afterwards.

“I need ten years of sleep,” Pidge groans as they make their way past Blue to the showers.

“You needed to drink more water last night,” Hunk corrects, massaging her shoulders as they walk.

“Same,” Lance complains.

Keith snorts, turning on the taps.

 

— K —

 

The knock comes just after the clock ticks over into the third hour of the new day. It’s pitch black outside, but in a couple of hours, dawn will be upon them, and Keith should really try and get some sleep, except it keeps escaping him and he’s been stuck watching the clock.

He doesn’t have to wait long.

A few moments after the knock, a hushed voice says, “Keith?”

It’s Shiro.

Keith’s heart leaps into his throat, and he’s up and across the room without thought, slapping his hand on the pad to open it.

Shiro is in grey sweatpants, but he’s wearing a leather jacket, and he says, “Hey,” as if it’s a normal time of the day to be outside Keith’s room. “Did I wake you?”

“No,” Keith answers, confused at his choice of clothing. “Why are you dressed up?”

“I wanted to know if you wanted to come for a bike ride,” Shiro says, looking sheepish. “I’ve been locked in that damned conference room all day and couldn’t sleep.”

“Neither,” Keith says.

“Do you want to join me then?” he smiles, boyish and almost nervous, and Keith can’t resist that.

Shiro’s Captain status allows them to enter the hangar and choose bikes without question, and they wheel them out in silence. It feels absurd, the two of them on bikes again after so long, but Shiro throws goggles at him and starts his bike.

There isn’t time for anything then, except chasing Shiro.

The city of New Altea is gorgeous at night, but its meadows are even more stunning.

Keith likes the glow of them, the way the plants light up in response to movement, and the brightness of them against the endless dark sky. Shiro races ahead of him, always competitive, always wanting to win, and it spurs Keith on more until they’re neck and neck, carving up the rolling hills.

New Altea’s moon sits high up, silver and bright and so pretty in Shiro’s hair, and Keith laughs helplessly until he’s breathless at the sheer freedom coursing through him.

Allura, he thinks, still laughing. I wish you were here.

Eventually the pace slows, and they come to a stop. It’s an old habit, how they always pause their rides to stare out into the world and breathe in the energy of living among this, and it’s almost a memory, the way Keith parks his bike next to Shiro’s.

The landscape is different to what they used to park on, though.

Shiro and Keith had a spot in the desert where if they looked one way, they could see the Garrison and the city behind it, and if they looked the other way, they’d see the sun settling onto the horizon, melting the sands there.

New Altea is miles of meadows and greenery, full of lit-up fauna.

“Not quite the desert,” Shiro comments, arms crossed, and he’s so beautiful.

Keith looks at him and wants everything.

He climbs off his bike, knocking his head on Shiro’s shoulder before settling onto the ground, heart thumping extra painfully when Shiro copies suit.

They’ve stargazed plenty of times, but tonight is a supernova.

Keith lies down on the grass, staring up at the supernova’s shockwave into its surrounding interstellar medium. He could be a supernova, he thinks, with the way his heart feels like it’s going to explode in his chest and fall to the grass in a bloody mess.

“Thanks for coming,” Shiro says.

“No problem.”

“I missed this.”

Keith turns his head to look at Shiro and the moonlight in his hair. “Me too.”

He was once told that everyone was made of the same cosmic dust, that the iron in blood could only be naturally forged in dying stars, and he can’t think of anything more accurate.

Keith feels like perhaps they are both made of nebulae.

“Shiro?” he says, rolling onto his side to face him.

Shiro copies him, tucking his hands under his head. “What’s up?”

The meteors shower above their heads and the starlight on Shiro’s face is breathtaking.

“Thanks for inviting me,” Keith says, shy.

“Come on now," Shiro says with a smile, "who else would I have asked?”

Well, Shiro could have asked any one of the Paladins, could have asked any of his bridge crew or even some random Garrison member in passing. Keith is pretty sure there are very few people who would turn down the request of the Garrison's Darling for company on a late-night bike ride.

“You’ve got that face on you,” Shiro says. “Like you’re thinking too much.”

Keith groans, running a hand over his face. “Romelle says I do that too.”

“She’s right.” Shiro wrinkles his nose. “But I meant it. Who else?”

“Anyone,” Keith says, feeling stupid saying it when he’s the one currently lying in the grass with his best friend.

Shiro hums in disapproval. “No, I would have come alone. I meant what I said all those weeks ago. It hasn’t changed for me either.”

Keith wonders how they got here, how less than half an hour ago he was staring at the clock in his room. “What hasn’t changed?” He says, knowing fully well what Shiro is referring to but wanting the proof of it in his hands anyway because it can’t be, it can’t—

Shiro ducks his head, and it’s difficult to keep looking at him, but Keith forces himself to, afraid of missing something.

“Me, being here for you,” Shiro says.

He waits a moment, and then reaches out. It’s the first time he’s held Keith’s hand of his own volition.

“You mean the world to me.”

Shiro says it softly, soft enough that Keith half thinks that maybe he made it up. But Shiro’s gaze is unwavering, his fingers tangled with Keith's haven't moved, and his face is steadily getting more red with each passing second.

“Yeah?” Keith says.

Shiro nods. “Always.”

Keith feels like all the air has left his body and he doesn’t remember how to breathe anymore. “How do you say stuff like that so easily?” he mutters.

“I don’t.” Shiro’s laugh is breathless. “I’m shitting myself here, Keith.”

Keith laughs too then, and they chuckle together. The giddiness within Keith is a tide and it’s rising steadily and showing no signs of stopping. Keith is ready to be taken by it.

“Always, huh?” He says, pressing forward into Shiro’s space and letting their noses brush.

Shiro nudges back, eyes slipping closed. “Yeah.”

“Is this okay?” Keith asks, feeling like he’s on the edge of a cliff just waiting to dive off.

Shiro is the one who taught him how to, after all, and when he opens his eyes, they’re the colour of burning stars. “More than okay.”

Keith takes Shiro’s face in his hands and kisses him.

He’s never kissed anyone before and it shows, but he persists, mouth over Shiro’s. It’s soft and a little disappointing, to be honest. Keith wonders why people do this all the time.

When he opens his eyes, Shiro is staring at him. “What was that?”

“I kissed you.” Keith says.

“Yeah, no,” Shiro nods. “I got that bit.”

Alarm bells ring in Keith’s head, because Shiro hasn’t moved back but he also hasn’t said anything positive. “Um,” he fumbles. “Was that not a good idea?”

Shiro is still watching him. “It was a good idea. A really good idea.”

Oh.

Keith shakes his fringe into his eyes to hide behind. “Did you like it?”

Shiro blushes. “Yeah. I liked it a lot.”

Something like hope surges in Keith, and, heart thumping away in his throat, he leans in again and pushes his mouth to Shiro’s.

It’s a gentle kiss, like touching the unbroken surface of a lake. The ripples spread outward and Keith feels it reverberate through him.

“You sure you’re okay with this?” Shiro pulls away to ask, still worried.

Keith loves him. “Are you?”

“I’m really, really okay with it,” Shiro answers without hesitation, and Keith nods, because that’s as much confirmation he needs, and he pulls him back in.

Shiro kisses him like he’s cradling precious crystal, afraid of it shattering in his hands. But Keith isn’t scared; it’s the first time in forever that he feels as if he could fall to the ground and not break into a million pieces.

“Shiro,” he mutters, and then he squirms closer.

Immediately a hand lands on his chest, pushing him back. Dread and confusion hit Keith before Shiro’s hand gentles, sweeping around to his side and latching onto his hip. It squeezes there, a gesture meant to calm.

Shiro’s smile is sweet, and shy. He ducks his head, peers through his lashes, and then his fingers flex again. “Was that okay?”

“Yeah,” Keith mumbles.

He’s sure it was fairly obvious how much he liked it.

Shiro hums and kisses him again, and then his arm wraps around Keith’s waist and pulls him as close as he’ll go, and that’s—that’s a lot of muscle against Keith’s chest, underneath his hands. Shiro must have understood Keith’s earlier lack of hesitance for the shyness it was, because the kiss becomes more purposeful, more lazy, more… filthy, and when Shiro tongues at Keith’s top lip, Keith has to hide his face in Shiro’s neck to breathe.

“Still okay?” Shiro says teasingly, kissing Keith’s cheekbone in the interim.

“Uh huh.”

He must look as dazed as he feels, Keith decides, if the way Shiro pulls him back in is any indication, and Keith gladly welcomes it when Shiro angles his body slightly more on top of him. He’s in freefall as Shiro’s mouth moves against his, hands and arms squeezing Keith close to him, like he’s afraid of letting go now.

Keith wants to break apart in his arms.

They kiss until Keith’s mouth feels swollen, and when Shiro leans back to catch his breath, his mouth is just as red as Keith’s feels.

“Hi,” Keith says, still giddy, and he runs his hands through Shiro’s starlit hair.

“Hi.”

The supernova is still bursting around them and Shiro is all his, kissing along his jawline and nuzzling his throat. All his, as Shiro pushes their mouths together once more and does a good job of stealing the rest of Keith’s oxygen.

Keith’s heart is humming in his throat and his body feels like a livewire, sparking at every shift and stroke and movement against him, until eventually he turns his head to the side to gasp. Muscles shift beneath his fingertips and Keith wants to be closer, wants to meld himself with Shiro until he isn’t sure where one begins or ends, and this must be relief or some kind of floodgate opening, this sensation of finally, finally, finally.

 

— K —

 

The juniberry fields are blooming.

Keith sits amongst them, breathing in their scent as he video calls his sister and Acxa. Nearby, Lance teaches a group of school children. He’s doing well, Keith thinks, weathering all their requests for stories about Allura and letting them attach flowers to his head.

“They’re so pretty,” Romelle coos, eyes on the field. “I cannot wait to visit.”

“Have you got a date yet?” Keith asks.

“Three weeks,” Acxa says.

“Oh, that’s sooner than I expected.”

“I don’t think anyone will be complaining,” Romelle snickers.

“Not a chance,” Keith agrees.

Part of him wants to ask Acxa how her and Veronica are, and the other part of him says no, because that just means opening himself to a volley of questions about himself and Shiro. He doesn’t know if he’s ready for that just yet.

The other day, after kissing Keith breathless, Shiro had murmured, “I’m yours. All yours, if you’ll have me.”

The words had slammed into Keith, his heart had stopped, and he’d stumbled over his reply so much that Shiro had frozen above him, halfway to apologising already.

“Always,” Keith had blurted out fiercely, “I’ve always— will always have you— Shiro—”

And then he’d buried his face in Shiro’s shoulder and just cried. It was a fever dream, surely.

“I love you,” Shiro had murmured softly into Keith’s hair, holding him close.

It couldn’t be real.

Keith had just cried harder, and that made Shiro start crying, and then they were half-laughing at each other as a result, until the crying stopped and Shiro wiped Keith’s tears away as Keith did the same to him.

“I love you,” Keith had mumbled.

Shiro’s smile had imprinted itself against Keith’s.

When they finally gathered themselves together again, they had climbed onto their bikes and returned to the Castle. Shiro held his hand as he led Keith back to their rooms, and then they’d gotten carried away outside Keith’s until a passing guard patrol had quickly killed the mood and Keith had shoved Shiro towards his own room.

Fever dream.

“Not a chance of what?” Hunk’s voice comes. “Oh hey, Romelle! Acxa!”

Hunk sits down next to Keith, followed closely by Pidge, who grumbles profusely as she takes the spot next to Keith.

“Hello, darlings,” Romelle greets. “I was just saying there is no chance of complaints about our return to New Altea.”

“They’re coming in three weeks,” Keith explains.

“Huh, that’s earlier than I thought,” Hunk comments.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Ugh,” Pidge sniffs. “I don’t know how you sit out here, Keith.”

“You mean in the sun?” Hunk teases her. “That big yellow thing in the sky?”

“There’s only one big yellow thing in the sky I like,” Pidge grumbles, before she melts when Hunk pulls her close to squish his face against hers. “Yeah, dork, love you too.”

“Spud,” Hunk says, kissing her hair.

“Get a room,” Keith complains.

“Oh shush,” Pidge says. “As if Shiro wasn’t making the biggest puppy dog eyes at you during dinner last night.”

Keith’s face grows hot. “Shut up.”

The two traitors next to him holler with laughter while Acxa snorts and Romelle beams at him.

He told his sister and Acxa almost immediately after Shiro left him the other day, because they had been heading out to training and Keith was too restless to sleep. Romelle had squealed. Acxa had grinned. It was a good feeling.

“It’s so hot,” Pidge whines, dropping the subject of Shiro and Keith for the moment. “My hayfever doesn’t agree with the outside.”

“Wear a hat, darling,” Romelle tells her.

“And take your meds,” Acxa adds.

“I did,” Pidge huffs, fingers flying over the keyboard. “God, I don’t know why I came out here.”

“To talk with us,” Romelle says sweetly.

Pidge rolls her eyes at her, but they all see the smile as she ducks her head. “Yeah, yeah.”

“Well if you guys are here in three weeks,” Hunk interjects. “Lance and I will be back by then. I’ll make dinner.”

“That sounds nice, Hunk,” Acxa says.

Keith wrinkles his nose at the reminder.

Yesterday, Pidge had absconded Keith to her lab again for Hunk to put electrodes in his hair again. Keith isn’t sure if anything worked, but Pidge hadn’t lost her temper, and Hunk had eaten lunch with him in the commissary afterwards and told Keith about his plan to jet out with Lance again.

They’re leaving tomorrow.

“Do you know where you’re going yet?” Acxa asks.

Hunk shrugs, gesturing to Pidge. “Depends on whatever this brainiac finds.”

“No pressure,” Pidge mutters.

“No,” Keith agrees, distracted by the sight of Atlas taking off.

This morning, Shiro had mentioned something about a quick flight to the neighbouring sector to meet with some alien race that Keith can’t remember the name of. In his defence, he was pretty preoccupied. The idea was going for a walk along the lakefront and skipping stones before breakfast, but Keith never had a body of water near him when he was growing up and so Shiro spent the first ten minutes teaching him.

It would have been longer than ten minutes, except teaching to throw had involved Shiro’s arms around him, which of course then dissolved into Shiro kissing Keith’s nose, and then his cheek, and eventually his mouth, and by the time they tangled their hands together and found their way back to the castle, the sun was high in the sky.

Keith can’t stop playing over their kisses and touches in his head.

He was wrong.

Kissing is decidedly not disappointing, especially with Shiro.

He wonders if Allura would be happy.

The others certainly were. When Shiro had walked into dinner the other night, holding his hand, Keith had been on edge and nervous, feeling like the whole world was looking at them.

But it had been for naught; Pidge had barrelled into both of them with a hug, as did Hunk, and Lance had moaned, “Finally,” and toasted them with his juice.

“Hey, Keith,” Pidge says, nudging Keith with her foot and successfully cutting through his daydreaming. “I’m gonna need you to come to lab again.”

Keith groans.

“Oh come on,” Pidge says. “What else are you gonna do, daydream about Shiro?”

“Who's daydreaming about Shiro?” Lance asks as he walks over to them and sits in the grass.

There are flowers on his head and several garlands around his neck.

Romelle waves excitedly at him. “Hello, Lance!”

“Three guesses,” Acxa says.

Lance smirks and digs his elbow into Keith's side. Keith would normally retaliate. After Pidge, Lance is the second most ticklish, and Keith's pretty good at getting him into a headlock quickly.

But it feels like the wrong time.

The juniberries are blooming, and for once, Lance is smiling. They all are.

 

— K —

 

Red and Yellow jet out the following morning. Blue remains at the very end of the hangar, eyes dull.

After embracing Hunk, Keith pulls Lance in for a hug and whispers, “Good luck.”

Lance squeezes his shoulder gratefully as Hunk kisses Pidge’s hair. “Thanks, Mullet.”

“Best of luck,” Coran tells them.

Lance hugs Coran for a long time.

 

— K —

 

When Keith returns to the hangar a few days later, Black rumbles happily in his head, curious, before she realises his intentions and nudges him over to Blue.

Every time he visited her, he’s never spoken, and even though Shiro had, in the memory Pidge showed him, he didn’t with Keith. The silence would blanket them instead until they left.

Tonight is different.

Tonight Keith sat in his room and stared at the ceiling, and then at photos on his datapad, and then he’d walked the corridors aimlessly until he was halfway to the hangar and figured there was no harm in continuing.

Tonight the loneliness is here to claim him, as always, except this time, Keith is sick of waiting it out.

Blue does not move.

Keith steels himself, and then sits down.

“Hey,” he starts with, gauche.

He feels stupid, talking to a giant sentient Lion, but the hangar is empty and Shiro found doing this cathartic, so maybe it will work for Keith too.

“I just wanted to talk,” he gets out. “Tell you about today.”

All in all, it was a relatively quiet one. The others are ten wormhole jumps away now, and Pidge was on Earth visiting her family, so Keith had called his mother and Kolivan after lunch to complete his weekly report and pass time.

Shiro has been splitting his time between training, piloting Atlas, and negotiating in conference rooms. Keith hasn’t seen him much. He’d contemplated asking Shiro to see him for dinner earlier, and then figured Shiro was so busy that he’d leave it for another time.

At that thought, Keith closes his eyes, trying to clear his mind. He didn’t come here for angsting over Shiro. He came to talk to his friend.

Around him, the hangar is silent. He can feel Black’s presence in his mind, a quiet hum, and beyond it, the faint tinges of the other Paladins.

“Allura,” he says quietly, like a prayer.

She doesn’t answer.

Keith bites down on the gentle burn in his throat, on the build of it behind his eyelids. The juniberry fields are blooming, the most popular name for Altean newborns is Allura, and every time Keith looks out his window, he sees her.

It still isn’t fair.

“I miss you,” Keith tells Blue. “A lot. You’d really love the flowers.”

The other day he’d run into Coran, looking at her statue on the lawn. She was surrounded by the blooms, and Keith knew what Coran was thinking of, knew that all he was seeing was Allura kneeling among the flowers with her father.

Pidge’s quote had blared in his head: the quest for freedom is won through sacrifice.

Keith still hates it.

Allura was more than a sacrificial lamb, more than a memory. She was their leader, their friend, their family. She deserved to see this planet breathe in her name, this city adorn themselves in her colours, the fields crowding themselves with her favourite flower. She deserved to see Romelle as a Blade, and to see Lance get better at using his broadsword.

Keith’s eyes spill over before he can stop them then. Time heals wounds, they say, but no one ever says how slow it is, how with every part that is knitted together again, it will never be the same. It feels as though Keith is made entirely of scar tissue.

The hangar doors open, and then he hears footfalls.

It’s Shiro.

“Hey,” he says warmly, before noticing Keith wiping his eyes. “Oh, ba— Keith. Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Keith lies.

Shiro kisses his forehead, and then sits next to Keith, letting his arm settle around him. “I’m sorry. Did you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Keith says.

“Okay,” Shiro says, understanding, and then he links his fingers with Keith.

“Busy day?” Keith says, cursing his stupid heart for deciding that now is the best time to express its arrythmias.

“Yeah,” Shiro sighs, pressing his face to Keith’s shoulder. “Couldn’t sleep, huh?” At Keith’s nod, he asks, “Were you talking to her?”

“Tried,” Keith says, self-conscious. “Felt kinda silly.”

“It’s not silly,” Shiro disagrees. “Not if you think it helped.”

Keith wraps Shiro’s words around him like a space blanket, designed to keep the warmth in. “I think it helped. Kind of.”

Shiro hums approvingly. “That’s good.”

When the floor gets uncomfortable under him, Keith stands and puts his hand on Blue’s snout. It feels like a ritual, almost, a spiritual gesture.

Under his touch, Blue doesn’t respond.

Keith closes his eyes, focusing. Black’s humming is a constant drone, steady, calming, and Keith lets it envelop him as he hones his attention into the Lion in front of him. Shiro said that sometimes he felt like he could sense Allura, and maybe Keith is hopeful or desperate, or both, because he wants it to be true.

He wants it to be true because she’s still with them everywhere: on this planet, in their Paladin bond, in the drive behind Lance and Hunk searching the stars for her.

But Blue stays quiet.

 

— K —

 

With Pidge’s return comes teludav testing, and Keith sits with Shiro outside, watching the to and fro of air traffic as Pidge runs officers through basic wormhole jumps between New Altea and its closest moon, Melenor.

Shiro has the day off, a rarity, but Keith doesn’t, so he’s indulging in the hour break he gets with Shiro by doing absolutely nothing.

“Allura made it look so easy,” Shiro remarks, listening to Pidge’s frustrated instructions over the comms.

Turns out wormhole jumps aren’t rocket science, and so Pidge and her father are having their fair share of complications. The irony is not lost on Keith.

“She made everything look easy,” Keith corrects, and Shiro nods. “You both did.”

Shiro chuckles, shaking his head. “Little did you know.”

“Little did we know,” Keith agrees.

Shiro looks really good like this, nestled against Keith’s side, wearing that same black v-neck from when he went to dinner with the Atlas crew all those months ago. It shows off his collarbones and softens his features, and if Keith wasn’t so taken with the way Shiro’s weight feels against him, he would have pulled Shiro up and kissed him silly by now.

“She really did make everything look easy though,” Shiro says. “You know, we used to stare at battle charts until I went cross-eyed. I used to hate it.”

“Patience yield focus,” Keith mocks.

Shiro pokes his ribs. “Yeah, yeah. Half the time it’d be me having to tell her to sleep because she’d doze off in the middle of me talking.”

“Maybe you were just that boring.”

Shiro laughs. “Maybe I was.”

Keith smiles. “We used to sit on the bridge and talk about Galra and Alteans.”

“Yeah, we did too,” Shiro says, closing his eyes. “You helped her a lot in that, Keith.”

Keith knows Allura used to credit him with reminding her, but he didn’t do anything to sway her judgement. She came to that conclusion by herself.

“I loved her,” Shiro says softly.

“Me too,” Keith says. “She deserved the world.”

“Yeah, she did. She deserved everything.”

The roar of jet engines above their heads cuts the conversation in two, and then Pidge is barking over the comms again. It shouldn’t be funny, but it is.

“You’ve got that to look forward to tomorrow,” Keith teases.

“Can’t wait,” Shiro groans. “And Veronica wants to do dinner tonight with the bridge crew again.”

“You sound so excited.”

Shiro sighs. “To be honest, I’d much rather spend the time with you.”

“It’ll be good,” Keith encourages, even though his entire being is lighting up like tinder at Shiro’s words. “Team bonding and stuff.”

“Stuff,” Shiro repeats, unimpressed.

Keith barely keeps his amusement in. “Of course.”

Shiro shakes his head, and then leans up to kiss Keith’s cheek. Such a simple gesture and yet Keith's heartbeat is skipping ahead, like a runaway train. Shiro pauses for a moment, nose brushing Keith's skin. Whatever he was waiting for must tick the box because he kisses Keith's mouth then. It's sweeter than Hunk's abominable coffee.

“What’s on your mind?” Shiro asks gently, fingers reaching up and playing absentmindedly with the end of Keith’s braid.

It isn’t long enough to wrap around his neck fully like Acxa’s or Kolivan’s yet.

“You,” Keith says honestly.

Shiro smiles at that, still beautiful as ever, and he kisses Keith again. Keith thinks he might get cavities at this rate.

It doesn't stay sweet for very long.

Shiro's kiss turns downright dirty, the way he opens his mouth and pulls on Keith's braid, lightly at first, and then hard enough for Keith to gasp into his mouth. Shiro hums at that, a sound that Keith has come to realise Shiro makes when he is pleased, and the approval slides down Keith's spine like liquid gold.

“You know we're outside, right?” Keith says, amused.

Shiro shrugs, leaning closer and biting down gently on Keith's bottom lip. “Why, did you want to stop?”

Keith rolls his eyes, holding Shiro's face, thumbs digging in behind his ears. “Does it look like I want to?”

“I don't know,” Shiro muses. “You did say we were outside.”

Keith bats him on the arm, and then loses himself beneath the flurry of kisses Shiro subjects him to, hidden in the grass. The jets continue to appear and disappear above them, accompanied by the sound of each wormhole opening and closing. Keith barely notices, lost in the heavy weight of Shiro over him.

“Love you,” Shiro murmurs eventually, lacing his fingers with Keith's and kissing them. “Thank you.”

Keith looks at him, at the curve of his jawline and the mirth in his eyes, the blue glow of his arm in the grass, the way his fingers fit perfectly clasping Keith’s neck.

You are my whole heart, he thinks.

 

— K —

 

New Altea is host to many diplomatic dinners, and Shiro is collateral damage in all of them as a high-ranking officer, but Keith isn’t used to being dragged into them himself.

Networking is not his forte, especially considering how straightforward he tends to be with conversations anyway, but a smaller Galra fleet are joining and Keith is New Altea’s residential Galran ambassador.

The announcement comes a few days after the others have jetted out into open space again, and when Pidge is visiting her parents on Earth. Keith grumbles over wanting Shiro to use a universal translator. Shiro kisses him and says the Galactic Coalition will do better with the personal touch.

Krolia and Kolivan send their regards.

The lunch itself is held the following day, and then it’s an afternoon of rubbing shoulders with Coalition members. The Galra contingent themselves are small and not very chatty, but pleasant enough for Keith not to want to jump out the nearest window.

Shiro remains picture perfect throughout, swanning his way through the endless stream of chatter, and Keith watches him throughout, sighing. Sometimes he thinks Shiro isn’t real sometimes, the way he commands attention with everything he does, and then other times it just reminds him of how capable he and Allura used to be.

The two of them were unstoppable together, with Allura’s patience and Shiro’s charm. They’d have a planet eating out of their hands by the time they were done presenting their case to join the Voltron Coalition.

Well, in most cases, but then the Drazanians were a different league of assholes entirely.

The hum of activity eventually begins to settle and then die down, and Keith bids farewell to the visiting Galra fleet, seeing them off at the hangars personally. When he returns, Shiro is alone, rubbing a hand over his eyes tiredly.

Keith walks up to him, relieved that no one else is there anymore so that he can do what he’d wanted to all day and put a hand over Shiro’s heart.

“Hey,” he says. “Are you okay?”

Shiro nods, wrapping an arm around Keith’s shoulders. “Tired.”

“Long day?” Keith says.

“Yeah.” Shiro’s kiss is gentle, and then he asks, “Have a drink with me?”

As if Keith is going to say no.  

It’s been a long time since he last had alcohol, but the taste of it is smooth and it warms him as it slides down his throat. Shiro looks particularly handsome tonight, glass of bourbon in hand, ears already turning pink from the Asian flush he gets when he drinks, but what really has Keith’s attention is the shift of Shiro’s thigh against his as they sit together.

God, his thighs are so strong.

Keith knows just how strong, thanks to the other day when he slammed Shiro into the mats as they sparred. It had quickly gone from sparring to rutting against each other on the floor, something that Keith wouldn’t have done if he’d been in the right frame of mind, really, except Shiro had been looking at him a certain way the entire time and then he’d tilted his head up and it was all too easy to answer.

He’s looking at Keith the same way now, grinning at him over his glass.

“Captain Shirogane,” Keith says, snorting at the memory of the official who insisted on ending all his sentences with the title. “Do I have to call you Captain then?”

“God,” Shiro replies with a shudder. “No. Just Shiro is fine.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Keith says, letting the title wrap around his head. “Captain.”

Shiro makes a face, tapping his fingers against Keith’s, before linking them together. He likes holding Keith’s hand a lot, and Keith is pretty sure if it weren’t for professional protocol, Shiro would hold his hand at every moment.

“Please no,” Shiro says, a little more serious this time. “I’m just Shiro.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Keith says, sobering. “I get that.”

Shiro smiles softly at him. “I know.” His thumb runs over Keith’s knuckles and then he pulls it up to his mouth to kiss them. “Thanks.”

“Always,” Keith promises, even as his whole face heats up. He’s going to match his Garrison uniform one day.

Shiro hums, contemplative, and he returns to his drink. Keith resolves to do the same, although it’s a little distracting with Shiro’s thigh still against him and his hand gripping Keith’s. The whiskey is warming him, but Keith would much rather be warmed by Shiro.

Thankfully the bar is deserted, and Keith takes comfort in that fact as he props his chin on Shiro’s shoulder. “How’re you doing?”

“Good,” Shiro says, nosing Keith’s cheek. “Thanks for coming.”

“How’s the alcohol?” Keith says gently.

They haven’t addressed Shiro getting drunk that one time, but Keith figures if it isn’t a habit, he isn’t going to go on a witch hunt about it.

“Helping,” Shiro says. “Just needed to relax, y’know?”

“I know.”

It was a long day.

Keith kisses Shiro’s shoulder, wishing the jacket wasn’t in the way. He’s had two glasses already, and his body is humming all over and his ears are fuzzy. 

If Pidge were here, they could be lightweight buddies together.

The backlight from the bar’s shelves shines through Shiro’s glass and Keith eyes it balefully. Shiro said the alcohol was helping him relax, but Keith thinks he can be far more helpful.

“What?” Shiro smiles at him, eyes crinkling, and Keith thinks fuck it and leans in to kiss the alcohol off Shiro’s lips.

It’s less bitter than whatever Keith was drinking, more fruity, and Keith chases after it, slipping his tongue into Shiro’s mouth.

“Mm,” Shiro hums, hand landing on Keith’s thigh to squeeze. “Keith.”

Keith draws back at the slight reprimand. “What?”

Shiro’s face is already flushed but he goes even redder. “Not here, baby.”

And now it’s Keith’s turn to blush again, the endearment going off like a firework in his head. Shiro smiles, kissing his cheek.

“Sorry,” he says, reassuring. “Let me finish my drink, yeah?”

Keith eyes the glass. It’s still half-full.

He doesn’t pause to think, just snatches the glass from Shiro’s hand and tips his head back to swallow the rest of it.

Alcohol burns his mouth and throat and Keith gasps when he finishes, grimacing. “There. You’re done.”

Shiro is looking at him incredulously, and Keith has to laugh at his expression, before Shiro chuckles too, kissing Keith’s cheek and then his jawline. “Didn’t realise you were in a rush.”

“I’m not,” Keith lies, and then Shiro shifts and his thigh is between Keith’s now and it really does sound like a good idea to straddle it and see what that would feel like, except they’re still at the bar and deserted or not, Keith is not in the mood to be seen by anyone.

“Come on,” Shiro says, getting to his feet.

Keith goes.

The walk to their rooms is more of a stumble, because Keith was wrong, he isn’t tipsy, he’s drunk, and Shiro is handsy. They take forever to get to where they need thanks to Shiro pushing Keith against some wall of some corridor to kiss him senseless, hands groping his ass and slipping over his chest.

“Fuck this uniform,” Shiro mutters at one point, pawing ineffectually at it.

Keith is too busy scraping his teeth over Shiro’s neck, muffling a sound in Shiro’s shoulder when Shiro slots his thigh between Keith’s to grind down upon and god— this was definitely a good idea, it’s so thick—

“Room,” Shiro gets out. “Keith, baby—”

Keith likes the sound of that, likes hearing Shiro’s voice form the syllables for the endearment, likes how it’s directed at him and him only, and so it takes a while for him to register Shiro trying to pull back.

“Baby,” Shiro prompts, and then he laughs when Keith shakes his head. “We gotta…” Shiro says, and then he trails off, hand gripping Keith’s hair and wrenching his head back to kiss him demandingly. “Fuck,” he swears, muffled against Keith’s throat. “Baby, we can’t do stuff out here.”

The word sinks through the fog of Keith’s mind long enough for him to take notice of, and he latches onto it, repeating dumbly, “Stuff?”

Shiro’s thigh is still between his, and like this Keith can feel just how hard he is.

“If you want,” Shiro says, unsure.

Keith only just stops himself from climbing Shiro like a tree.

“Room,” he confirms, grabbing Shiro’s hand and leading the way.

Shiro laughs again, hooking an arm around Keith’s neck and kissing his face as they walk, which in turn makes Keith laugh too. They’re never going to get anywhere at this rate.

“Love you,” Shiro says, so so easily, so ignorant of how stupidly breathless it makes Keith to hear Shiro say it.

He accepts the kiss Shiro presses to the side of his mouth, keeps his palm of Shiro’s face to keep him there, because Keith has never been a wordsmith but he is a man of action, and right now kissing Shiro until he’s as breathless as Keith sounds like the best thing to do.

Shiro sighs into his mouth at that, shifting to cup Keith’s face in his hands and bring him in for a kiss that leaves them both gasping.

“Room,” Keith repeats firmly, but by the time they make it, Keith barely has the patience to scan his hand properly.

“Finally,” Shiro groans when the door closes.

“Finally,” Keith agrees, and he clambers onto the bed, impatiently hooking a hand in Shiro’s uniform and pulling him closer.

Shiro follows with a chuckle, pushing Keith’s knees apart so he can lean over fully and slot their mouths together, and yes, good, he just needs to settle between Keith’s legs fully, except—

“Shiro,” Keith says, unimpressed at how Shiro’s smile is making it difficult to kiss him properly.

“Sorry,” Shiro says, not looking apologetic in the slightest, but then he sobers, running his thumb over Keith’s jaw. “Fuck, Keith.”

That’s for him.

The Garrison Darling, Takashi Shirogane, his best friend, sporting a flushed face and dazed eyes and staring at Keith, like that .

It feels good.

Good enough for Keith to wonder how far he can take it, how much Shiro would do to him. He’s been in love with Shiro for so long it’s not even a question.

“Yeah,” he says softly. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

The tips of Shiro’s ears go pink, and Keith is helplessly endeared. “Like what?”

Keith swallows, but it’s too late to back out now. “You. Y’know. Fucking me.”

Shiro’s eyes widen. “What?”

For probably the thousandth time in his life, Keith wants to cut out his tongue. “I mean. Only if you want. This is. Maybe too soon. Or something.”

Shiro shakes his head quickly. “Hey, no, Keith, that’s…” He pauses, and then rests his hand over Keith’s thigh. “That’s not what I’m saying.”

Keith’s heartbeat kicks up a notch and it sounds like it could echo throughout the room. “Then what are you saying?”

Shiro ducks his head, and the kiss he plants on Keith’s clothed knee is so sweet, Keith feels dizzy from the quick change in pace. “I want you. And I want whatever you want.”

Keith sucks his lips between his teeth then so he doesn’t blind Shiro with how widely he wants to smile. “I meant what I said.”

Shiro blinks. “Fucking hell, okay.”

“Is that okay?”

Shiro surges forward to kiss Keith and their mouths don’t line up correctly at all. “Yeah,” Shiro says as he grips Keith’s jaw.

You want to fuck me, Keith thinks, awed, but he’s too shy to voice it.

“Okay,” he says instead, and Shiro hums low in his throat, pleased.

His grip on Keith’s chin is firm and he uses it to hold Keith in place as he kisses him slowly, the heat of it building between Keith’s legs and making the air in his lungs suddenly expand ten times until his chest feels like it might explode.

Shiro’s tongue runs along Keith’s top lip, and the movement makes Keith wind his legs around Shiro’s waist, pleased when Shiro follows him down into the pillows. His arms are bracketed either side of Keith’s head, but though the kiss is doing a very good job of stealing Keith’s thoughts and breath, the lines of tension are unmistakable.

“Shiro,” Keith mutters, wanting Shiro to let go fully but unsure how best to, until his foggy brain offers up a word: “Please.”

“Keith,” Shiro groans.

“Yeah?” Keith says, feeling emboldened at how he’s made Shiro flustered that simply.

Shiro bites gently at the corner of Keith’s jaw, and then seals his mouth over it and sucks slowly. “I don’t want to fuck this up.”

“You won’t,” Keith assures him. “I know you won’t.”

Shiro sucks another spot, further down on Keith’s throat now, and then he lifts his head to look Keith in the eye. “I love you.”

Keith snorts, even as his heart squeezes at the confession. “I know.”

Shiro rubs his face in Keith’s neck in response, the way he knows Keith finds ticklish from their makeout session the other day during sparring, and Keith laughs, calling a foul when Shiro’s fingers dance over his ribs.

“Stop,” he begs, attempting to roll away, except Shiro flops fully on top of him.

“No,” he says, and his eyes are crinkled at the corners and he looks so handsome, the simmering from earlier returns tenfold.

Keith feels it build in his stomach and he touches Shiro’s face, leaning up to kiss him gently. There should probably be more talking, but Keith knows what he wants and Shiro said he was onboard with anything, so that’s as much thought that Keith puts towards it before he pulls Shiro closer.

He wants to melt into Shiro until they’re one.

Shiro’s nose is warm against Keith’s as Keith opens his mouth and copies what Shiro did earlier, tonguing gently at Shiro’s top lip before slipping inside.

The groan he’s rewarded with makes Keith’s blood sing.

It seems like the tipping point into frenzied again, because Shiro gets his knees underneath him and he kisses Keith hard. Keith’s noise of surprise morphs quickly into a sigh, and then it’s like Shiro doesn’t seem to know where to stay: at Keith’s mouth, kissing him with equally swollen lips, or at Keith’s neck, where Keith can feel the skin beginning to soften and become tender. His hands keep moving too, sliding up the back of Keith’s shirt, sweeping down his sides, folding over the contours of Keith’s ribs.

They’re so fucking big.

Shiro’s eagerness is almost tangible and Keith grabs onto it, answering the demanding kisses to the best of his ability and cradling Shiro’s body to him. He likes the shift of Shiro’s muscles, the way Shiro’s Altean hand makes the mattress dip where he presses it to lean up, the breadth of Shiro’s thighs and how wide Keith’s legs are splayed over them.

“Okay?” Shiro checks.

“So okay,” Keith agrees, hands going to the hem of Shiro’s shirt. “I want this off.”

“Bossy,” Shiro says with a click of his tongue, but he undoes the buttons and Keith feels as though he can hear each one like a gunshot.

That really is a lot of muscle.

Shiro’s dog tags glint against his sternum and Keith doesn’t know what possesses him to do so, but he reaches for them to read the script, before using them to tug Shiro close once more.

“Jesus, Keith,” Shiro says, and for a moment panic lances through Keith, wondering if maybe that wasn’t alright, except the blush on Shiro’s cheeks stains deeper and his hips buck against Keith’s. “Where’ve you been hiding, huh?”

Keith shrugs, too turned on to find an explanation, and then he kisses Shiro with that same devastating slowness from earlier. “Somewhere.”

Shiro nods, hands encouraging Keith’s legs to wrap around his waist, nosing Keith’s cheek.

Keith loves him.

It takes several more goes but they get his own shirt off, and then Shiro’s hands touch his ribs again, smoothing up and down. “Can I try something?”

Keith laughs. “I can’t believe you’re still asking.”

Shiro smirks and ducks his head.

His tongue is gentle as it traces the outline of Keith’s nipple, and the touch sends sparks outwards. Keith is almost too self conscious to watch Shiro, focusing instead on the warm path of Shiro’s hand as it runs up his chest and back down again, eventually finding his other nipple and flicking over it.

Keith gasps.

Shiro nuzzles his shoulder in response, leaning up for another kiss. He’s hard against Keith’s stomach and Keith is curious to know what it looks like, wonders if it’d be flushed at the head, if Shiro is cut or not. He kind of wants it in his mouth, too.

Shiro’s mouth closes on the nipple he’d just flicked with his fingers, and Keith barely has time to react before Shiro is moving lower, scattering kisses across Keith’s belly until he reaches his waistband.

“Still okay?” he asks, and the sight of him between Keith’s legs like that makes the arousal spike viciously.

Cheeks flaming, Keith nods. “Yeah, Shiro.”

Shiro nuzzles Keith’s dick through his trousers, and then pops the button. There are kisses then, to his thighs, his hipbone. Shiro pulls at the trousers, helps Keith lift his hips so he can get them off, and then resumes mouthing at Keith’s skin.

Stretched out on the mattress with Keith’s legs over his shoulders, Keith thinks Shiro looks wonderful.

He runs his hands through Shiro’s hair, clearing it from Shiro’s eyes and Shiro leans into the touch, welcomes it, kissing Keith’s palm.

“Do you know what you like?” he asks, mouth trailing down the inside of Keith’s thigh.

You, Keith thinks immediately, because he likes Shiro lying on top of him in the grass, likes Shiro holding his hand whenever he can, likes the way Shiro is looking at him right now, partly shy, mostly eager.

“Your mouth,” he says.

Shiro curses and lays his forehead on Keith’s hip. “Keith.”

“Sorry,” Keith laughs.

Shiro shakes his head, kissing Keith’s hipbone, grinning when Keith twitches away from it, ticklish. “Yeah, I’m just really on edge here. And y’know. It’s you.”

Keith bites the inside of his cheek, trying to process the information. That’s his best friend, looking at him so bashfully.

“It’s just me,” Keith protests, threading his fingers through Shiro’s silky forelock. “Do what you want, Shiro.”

Shiro’s entire face goes red. He looks as dazed as Keith feels.

“Okay then.”

His Altean fingers are huge as they spread across Keith’s lower stomach, pushing down gently. Keith recognises it for the command that it is.

There are more kisses then, wet, open-mouthed ones to Keith’s thighs, like Shiro has nothing better to do with his time, and Keith feels pinned when Shiro glances up to look up at him.

“Just,” Shiro says haltingly, mouth dragging against Keith’s skin. “Tell me if you don’t like anything, okay?”

“Sure,” Keith wheezes.

The kisses continue, Keith hyper-aware of each one and the end destination, but it still takes him by surprise when Shiro’s lips brush the base of his dick, and his fingers tighten in Shiro’s hair.

“It’s okay,” Shiro murmurs, repeating it to the other side, and Keith forces air through his nose, strung out like dyed material in the sun. “You’re okay.”

“Yeah,” Keith says, heartbeat going a mile a minute and it doesn’t make sense because he knows Shiro is here for him, knows he’s safe.

As if Shiro can sense Keith’s nerves, his Altean hand rubs soothing circles into Keith’s stomach, and then Keith can only stare at the ceiling in wonder as Shiro’s mouth encloses around the head of his dick.

“Oh fuck,” he says faintly.

Shiro’s approving hum vibrates through him as he swallows Keith’s dick slowly, and Keith is panting by the time Shiro’s near the base, gasping again when Shiro draws up. His mouth is soft and wet, and when he runs his tongue on the underside of Keith’s dick, it makes things worse.

“Shiro,” Keith gasps, but when he looks down, Shiro looks as affected as he feels.

“I’m going to keep going,” Shiro says decisively.

Keith’s entire face grows hot but he nods, and Shiro is already sinking down on him again, taking Keith all the way. His other hand curls around Keith’s thigh, squeezing encouragingly, and Keith takes comfort in it, torn between the feeling of being pulled apart by Shiro’s mouth and hands, and being put together by the way Shiro pauses every so now and then to suckle at the glans, mouthing sloppily along the shaft and letting it smear across his face.

“Shiro,” Keith mumbles, falling back against the pillows again when Shiro yanks him closer, and it’s so much, this encompassing sense of being completely at the mercy of Shiro, and this time, Keith gladly offers himself up to it.

He’ll do anything for Shiro.

Besides, Shiro’s mouth feels wonderful, his whispered endearments and encouragements make Keith turn his head to hide his face in the pillows, and Shiro is rutting gently against the bed, like he’s the one on the receiving end.

“Shit,” Keith says, faint, because god, god, he’s never done anything like this before and he’s almost dizzy with it, the way he feels as though he’s hurtling towards the edge of a cliff. “Shiro,” he says, and suddenly the roiling pleasure in his gut twists into something more demanding, more urgent, and Keith panics, saying, “Shiro, I’m going to come—”

“Fuck,” Shiro pulls away to say, gripping the base to stroke Keith, and out of everything, Keith didn’t anticipate that as being the thing to make him come, the sight of his dick slipping from Shiro’s cherry red lips, but it is and he’s gasping, bowing in on himself as his orgasm washes through him like a tsunami.

Shiro strokes him through it, through the tremors and the aftershocks until Keith is whining with it, oversensitive, reeling.

“Oh my god,” Keith moans softly.

Shiro lays his head against Keith’s thigh, smiling sheepishly at him. “Okay?” he says, half-serious, mostly cocky.

Keith nods weakly, panting as he pulls Shiro up to kiss instead, hand fumbling over Shiro’s boxer briefs to feel how hard he is.

“Can I—?” Keith says, desperate to kiss Shiro, desperate to make him feel as good as he does.

Shiro jerks against him, straining in Keith’s grasp, skin damp with sweat. “You don’t have to,” he says meekly, hiding his face in Keith’s neck.

“Shut up,” Keith growls back, possessive and having zero experience in stroking someone else’s dick but determined to make Shiro come all the same.

“Oh god,” Shiro whimpers, and Keith bites Shiro’s lip before kissing him wet and open-mouthed and messy.

“I want to make you come,” he says, fingers gripping Shiro’s dick properly.

He’s fucking huge in Keith’s hand, so much that Keith is tempted to use two just so he can handle all of it.

“You don’t have t—” Shiro starts to repeat, and then he whines when Keith strokes down, precome slicking the way. “Fuck…”

Keith wants the sound of that embedded in his brain.

“Yeah,” he says, and now that the roles are reversed, Keith can see exactly why Shiro was so confident when he gave him a blowjob.

Keith’s on a power trip right now.

“Good,” he says without thought, twisting his wrist on the upstroke this time.

Shiro’s moan feels like victory.

Keith noses his way back to Shiro’s mouth, kisses him deep and demanding as he starts to jerk Shiro off. Shiro’s face is always beautiful but there’s something deeply satisfying about the crease of his brow and every little moan that leaves him when Keith increases his pace.

That’s all Keith’s doing.

Keith lets Shiro pull him into another messy kiss, lets him pant into his mouth and plead his name, lets Shiro fuck his hips forward into the ring of Keith’s fingers. His Altean hand fists into the sheets next to Keith’s head, pulling hard enough that Keith thinks he might tear a hole in it, and he pushes into Keith’s touch, moaning softly against Keith’s shoulder.

“Still okay?” Keith whispers, kissing Shiro’s ear, his cheek, his jaw, because he can feel the tightening of Shiro’s muscles, the urgency to each answering thrust of his hips to Keith’s hands. “Shiro?”

“More than,” Shiro grits out, keeping his face buried, and then he swears, a stuttered, “O-oh, fuck, fuck, fuck— Keith—I love you,” as he comes.

 

— K —

 

The next week brings the heat. New Altea’s sun is hot and relentless and at night, Keith blasts his air conditioning until even Kosmo whines unhappily. Galra run at high temperatures and Keith hates it. He calls his sister and Acxa again to complain and they groan at the prospect of leaving New Daibazaal’s far cooler temperatures.

“Maybe the heatwave will be over by the time we get there,” Acxa says hopefully.

“Suffer with me,” Keith tells her.

He spends the whole Monday after making Shiro come just smiling like an idiot, and it’s only once he gets to see Shiro at dinner on Wednesday that he realises their expressions are matching.

“So the other night was cool,” Shiro says conversationally, as if his hand isn’t slipping over Keith’s ribs in a way that really can’t be interpreted as appropriate for the mess hall.

“Yes,” Keith says simply, resisting the urge to laugh into his hands. “Very cool.”

Shiro snorts and then they both giggle into their drinks, until Keith slides across the bench to press against Shiro again.

“It’s really hot,” he says lamely.

“Ah,” Shiro plays along. “Well. We can be cool again. If you want.”

Keith laughs again, and pulls Shiro to his feet. “Yeah. Let’s do that. Get cool.”  

Shiro happily gropes him in the hallways before dragging Keith to his room and jerking him off against the door. Keith wants to return the favour, wants to do even better than the other night, wants Shiro to moan like he did but louder, except his orgasm is brimming underneath his skin, barely contained, and he’s so close to flying apart.

“Shiro,” he mumbles, trapped beneath Shiro’s body pushing him against the door.

“Mm?” Shiro asks, tonguing lazily at Keith’s throat and chuckling when Keith’s dick jerks in his hand. “God, you’re so responsive.”

“I want—” Keith starts, before he gets distracted by Shiro pulling back to smile at him and has to kiss him, and then it’s Shiro’s turn to try to stop.

“What did you want?”

Keith hides his face in Shiro’s shoulder, trying to catch his breath. It would be so easy just to thrust his hips up into the tight circle of Shiro’s hand, to come all over Shiro’s fingers and be kissed senseless throughout. Maybe he could ask Shiro if he could lick Shiro’s fingers clean; maybe Shiro would do it for him.

“Um,” Keith says, blurting out, “I wanted your dick in my mouth.”

“Oh,” Shiro says, and the sight of him being dumbstruck makes Keith begin to laugh. “What the fuck, Keith.”

“I didn’t know how else to say it!” he protests, and Shiro drags him up onto his toes, kisses his mouth and his throat and then laughs into Keith’s skin.

When they both calm down, Shiro shakes his head, kissing Keith softly. “What am I gonna do with you?”

Everything, Keith hopes. He shrugs and pushes Shiro’s shirt off fully, thankful for the hard planes of Shiro’s ridiculously toned chest, for the way his muscles flex under Keith’s wandering fingers and make him stupidly breathless with want.

“Whatever I want?” Keith offers, and when he makes eye contact with Shiro again, Shiro’s expression is almost entranced.

It’s easy to kiss Shiro again when he’s looking at Keith like that, when his hands are huge on Keith’s hips and when Keith can feel how hard he is against his belly. It’s easy to sink to his knees, to undo Shiro’s belt and unzip his trousers and push them down.

Keith doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing, but Shiro is still staring at him like he pulled the sun down from the sky to give to Shiro as a gift, so he decides to just dive headfirst and mouths along the line of Shiro’s erection through his briefs.

“Fuck, baby,” Shiro whispers as Keith tugs his briefs down.

The flush on Shiro’s chest is deeper at the head of his cock, and he inhales sharply when Keith’s fingers link around him and stroke carefully, before he sucks the head of him into his mouth.

Shiro’s hand curls around Keith’s neck, and Keith opens his mouth automatically, taking Shiro deeper.

“Jesus,” Shiro hisses when Keith doesn’t stop, just keeps swallowing until he can’t anymore. “Oh fuck.”

Keith pauses, trying to get air in through his nose. Shiro’s cock is thick and heavy on his tongue, in his throat; his hips are thrusting slightly, small aborted movements that almost seem like he can’t help himself, and his palm is huge, cupping Keith’s neck, grounding him.

“Baby,” Shiro asks. “Are you okay?”

Keith can’t help the whine that comes out.

Shiro groans when Keith does, bucking forward and forcing his cock down Keith’s throat again, and Keith falls into it, lungs burning, nerves on fire. He wants this, wants Shiro to let go and just fuck his throat, but Shiro keeps it gentle and controlled, and when Keith looks up at him, Shiro curses again.

“God,” Shiro chokes out, fingers threading through the hair at the nape of Keith’s neck, and Keith’s hands fly to Shiro’s thighs, pulling him closer.

He has no clue what he’s doing but it feels good to be like this, on his knees with Shiro’s hands cradling his face and his cock pushing in and out of Keith’s mouth. Keith hums, lips tender from keeping them sealed tightly, jaw aching, but Shiro’s entire body is flushed and his cheeks are redder than the prettiest sunsets on New Daibazaal and Keith wants this forever, to be the centre of Shiro’s attention like he is now.

“Baby,” Shiro whispers, “Shit, please—”

Keith moans and pulls back to breathe, replacing his mouth with his hands. His throat is scratchy and he knows if he tries to talk it’s going to sound exactly how it feels, but he likes the idea of it, likes that even after this, he’ll have the reminder of Shiro’s cock in his throat.

Part of him mourns the fact that his lungs were protesting so much earlier, but it’s hard to be too disappointed when this way, he can look up at Shiro properly, can see just how affected Shiro is by Keith’s mouth and hands.

“Keith,” Shiro whines long and low as Keith eyes the head of Shiro’s cock pushing through the ring of his fingers. “God.”

Keith keeps stroking him, awed, trying to commit the sounds to memory, and then Shiro is coming all over his hands without warning with a strangled moan.

“Fuck,” Shiro says breathlessly as come oozes down Keith’s fingers. “Fuck.”

For a moment they’re in standstill: Keith on his knees with boths hands on Shiro’s cock, Shiro above him, panting hard, hand still curled around Keith’s neck.

Then Shiro moves, falling to his knees and dragging Keith in for a kiss.

“Fuck,” he says again, fingers linking around Keith’s erection. “Sorry—that—you’re amazing.”

The metal is slightly cooler than the rest of him and Keith groans as Shiro’s mouth finds his again, frantic kisses making Keith’s toes curl.

“Come here,” Shiro mutters, dragging Keith into his lap.

Keith goes blindly, letting Shiro’s tongue wind around his before Shiro’s mouth makes a wet path down Keith’s neck, pausing over his collarbone to suck the sensitive skin there.

His knees are still aching from the hardness of the floor, and it has to be uncomfortable under Shiro’s ass, but Shiro doesn’t seem to mind, or maybe he’s too horny to really care, because he doesn’t complain. Instead, his fingers find Keith’s dick again, working over the length of him as he swallows Keith’s moans.

His free hand kneads Keith’s ass, encouraging Keith to roll his hips against Shiro’s touch, and when Keith does, Shiro breaks away to smile at him, peppering his face with kisses.

“Good,” he says, like he knows Keith gets off on the praise.

Keith can only gasp as he fucks the tight circle of Shiro’s Altean grip and Shiro kisses him.

“That’s it, baby,” Shiro croons, and he’s beautiful, grinning at Keith, hair falling into his eyes, breathless and staring at Keith like he’s never seen anything better in his life.

Keith feels the weight of his gaze all the way down to his bones, has to push his face to Shiro’s throat to ground himself. He isn’t going to last.

“Shiro,” Keith mutters like a mantra. “Shiro, Shiro…”

“Sweetheart,” Shiro breathes, and it feels like a lightning strike to the chest, hearing Shiro call him that, because he’s Keith and Black Paladin and baby, but sweetheart is new and it hits Keith in a completely different way, makes Keith feel like he’s been engulfed by fire. "Are you okay?"

“Shit,” he pants and Shiro kisses his neck.

His pace is quicker this time, thumb pressing to the underside as his hand moves up and down between Keith’s legs, and Keith is so close, so close—

“Shiro...” he says again, and this time it is a whine.

Shiro grunts in response, hands still moving, forever and ever until the building river inside Keith breaks its banks as he comes. It’s like lightning, shooting from his cock to his legs to his toes, and Keith falls into it, completely at the mercy of his orgasm as it washes over him in waves.

Keith’s ears are ringing.

The room seems like it’s echoing around him, and Keith keeps his eyes closed, fingers weak where they attempt to grip Shiro’s shoulders.

“Shit,” he says again.

“Good or bad?” Shiro jokes, which makes Keith blush.

“Good,” he retorts, a small wounded sound escaping him when Shiro’s fingers squeeze his dick again. “Shiro…”

Shiro pushes their noses together. “Sorry.”

He isn’t.

Later, when they’ve both showered and laughed into each other’s mouth at how gross the aftermath is, Shiro asks him, “Stay over?”

Keith kisses his cheek. “Okay.”

It’s really too hot to cuddle properly like Keith wants to, but he makes do with holding Shiro’s hand.

He wants to hold Shiro’s hand for the rest of his life.

 

— K —

 

He isn’t expecting the nightmare.

Deep down, Keith knows that the others all got them like he does, but it was never really at the forefront of his mind until he’s facing it.

Halfway through the twentieth hour, Shiro moans in his sleep. Keith is bleary with insomnia, having only been able to doze, but the sound makes his blood run cold, and he reaches out, shaking Shiro awake. Shiro is a light sleeper and his eyes snap open, wild, full of fear.

“Shiro?” Keith says, scared.

Shiro’s eyes focus on him then. A sharp exhale. His nostrils flare. “Keith,” he croaks, and Keith sees the realisation pass over his face then, like a shadow chasing the sun. “Shit, Keith—”

He doesn’t finish his sentence, sitting up and turning his back to Keith to plant his feet on the floor. Keith watches him, at a loss. The air is warm, but even so, Shiro’s shoulders shake, and Keith bites down on the inside of his cheek, hurting at the sight of it.

“Can I help?” he asks, wanting to reach for Shiro but unsure if doing so will cause Shiro to shatter.

Shiro’s only response is to bury his face in his hands.

The sob is what makes Keith move, makes him get up and crawl over the bed until he can fold himself over Shiro’s trembling back and hold him tight. Shiro hunches over at that, curling in on himself, and Keith presses his face to the nape of his neck.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, kissing the skin there. “I’m sorry, Shiro. It’s okay.”

Hearing Shiro cry will always make Keith prefer to ask for death, and now is no different, and he hates it, hates how it scours him and leaves him empty and aching. Shiro runs a hand through his hair, sniffling, and he’s red-eyed and ruined and Keith wishes he could reach into Shiro’s chest and take his grief from him.

“I really miss her,” Shiro says, and that tells Keith all he needs to know, and why, why, does it still hurt?

They’ve been without her for so long, it feels stupid and unfair to have the mention of her bring them down again.

“Yeah,” Keith says sadly, kissing Shiro’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Shiro sniffs, clearing his throat. “Fucking hell.”

“Yeah,” Keith says again, because there isn’t any right or wrong thing to say, because he knows exactly how Shiro feels right now and he hates that he can’t do anything about it.

Shiro grasps Keith’s hand where it’s perched on his shoulder and grips, hard. “Thank you.”

“Always,” Keith says, and this time it is an oath, because Allura might be gone and the gaping maw of a future without her is still terrifying, but Shiro is here and he’s holding onto Keith for dear life, as if any sudden movement might mean Keith will go too.

“Always,” he repeats, and Shiro tightens his fingers around Keith’s, like he knows what Keith is trying to convey, because they’ve never been good with words.

“Thank you,” he says, and when he whispers Keith’s name, it still feels like a prayer.

 

— K —

 

Healing is not a linear process. Of this, Keith is very aware. He’s watched the wounds on his body close up over time, some reopening if he was particularly careless, and then he’d had to start all over again. But they closed, eventually, some jagged, others smoothing over with no scar tissue.

He’s aware, yeah.

It’s just difficult sometimes, reminding himself that healing is inevitable when the wound is within him, when there isn’t any salve or balm to put on it, when the only way forward is to wait it out, to not shy away from it. It’s difficult to remind himself when he isn’t even sure if it’s closing up, when there is no physical evidence of progress to keep track of, when all he has to show for it are nightmares and hours spent staring at old photos and this hollow within him, numb in places, still too tender in others.

Some days he’s able to look at Blue before he climbs into Black and not feel like he’s been punched in the gut. Other days he keeps his windows blacked out so that he doesn’t have to see Allura first thing in the morning.

Not a linear process, no.

But today is a good day.

Today he is sitting under Allura with Shiro, the sky is blue and full of puffy clouds, and the sun is soft, like the watery yolk of an egg.

He’s making sure Shiro actually breathes in something that isn’t recycled Castle air, and the fractal energy is an added bonus. It will help both of them.

It’s almost midday when the wormhole opens in the sky and a Marmora cruiser enters.

It’s Romelle and Acxa, and his sister’s feet barely touch the ground as she flies towards Keith to smother him in an embrace.

“Hello!” she squeals, snuggling close as he smooths a kiss into her hair.

“Missed you,” he says.

“Sir,” Acxa says as she knocks her forehead on Keith’s shoulder, before Romelle hooks an arm around her neck and pulls her in to join the hug.

Keith smirks at her over the top of Romelle’s head.

“Where’s your man?” Romelle demands, looking around the hangar as if Shiro will materialise at the mention of him.

Romelle’s title for Shiro is just another one to add to the steadily growing pile of endearments she’s chosen to foister onto him, since Keith has refused to call Shiro anything specific.

“He’s working,” Keith says pointedly.

Acxa shakes her head longsufferingly and prods them out the hangar. After they report their arrival, they settle in Acxa’s quarters, Romelle crossing her legs in a pretzel underneath her and snacking away on jerky.

“They’re calling for an election for a Galra representative,” Romelle tells him, even though Keith read the bulletin his mother sent him the other day.

“Did you put your name forward?” Keith asks her.

“No. Kolivan gave me a new project entirely.”

“What is it?”

“An Altean Blade cohort,” Acxa says.

“It was my idea,” Romelle beams. “Just Kolivan agreed to let me try it.”

“Oh,” Keith says, realising what she’s saying. “Oh, what? What does that mean?”

“Well,” Romelle says, practically bursting with excitement. “It means I’ll be selecting and training Altean Blades for at least the next decaphoeb here.”

“Alteans and Galra culture clash, huh?” Keith remarks.

Romelle sticks her tongue out at him. “Poetic, don’t you think?”

“Very,” Keith hums, and when he holds out his arms, Romelle leaps at the offer. “I’m so proud of you. Congrats, Romi.”

“Thank you,” she coos, pushing her feet into Acxa’s lap until Acxa takes the hint and rubs them. “I’m really excited.”

“You’re helping too then?” Keith asks Acxa.

She barks out a laugh. “Where you two are, I’ll follow.”

 

— K —

 

Hunk and Lance arrive later that afternoon, and though they put on a brave face, Keith can see the toll of their latest journey in their movements and words.

“Food time!” Hunk announces, as if to clear the air, and he accosts Romelle and disappears to the kitchens with her to prep.

Dinner is served under the stars next to the lake where Lance cried and Keith learned to skip stones. Pidge, ever the pyromaniac, builds a fire with Coran and stares at it gleefully while Hunk hands out food packages to the rest of them.

Shiro comes thanks to Veronica clearing his schedule, and he presses against Keith the whole night, swapping between tracing patterns on Keith’s thigh and playing with Keith’s hand.

Veronica sandwiches herself between Acxa and Lance and takes great delight in teasing him with Romelle, until the fire begins to die down and the playful mood makes way for a more meditative one.

“What was it like out there?” Romelle says, petting Lance’s hair.

“Quiet,” Lance answers, touching his Altean markings. “Peaceful.”

Keith doesn’t know if he’s being genuine, or if he’s just saying it for their benefits, but he lets the words settle into the atmosphere above their heads, blanketing them.

“Before everyone drifts off to sleep,” Hunk declares, breaking the silence and the downwards shift. “Just wanted to say thanks for coming. It’s nice to have everyone here, for once.”

“Cheers,” Pidge crows, toasting their Yellow Paladin, and they all follow suit.

“Thanks for throwing this together,” Shiro says. “It’s good to have you back.”

Keith smiles at the memory of seeing Shiro on Earth again, of stepping close to put his hand on Shiro’s shoulder and saying those words and feeling nothing but disbelief and thankfulness.

Keith can feel Shiro’s smile in his hair and it feels a little like that now, like a second chance, watching Lance throw marshmallows into Romelle’s mouth, and Veronica make bets with Pidge on how many Romelle will miss, and Coran laugh with Hunk over the four of them.

It feels like a pause, a reminder, a moment of happiness.

 

— K —

 

Keith is dreaming again, of flying. He’s on a black landscape, and then a burnt copper sky, and it tastes like freedom.

When he wakes up, the room is still dark.

“Sorry,” Shiro says from behind him. “Did I wake you?”

“Huh? Oh. No.”

He doesn’t need to ask what Shiro was doing; it’s evident in how cool Shiro is compared to him. He would have been looking at the stars, or visiting Allura’s statue, or talking to Blue, only returning to the room now.

“Love you,” he says softly, hoping Shiro understands.

“Love you too,” Shiro answers. “Sure I didn’t wake you?”

His hand is on his shoulder, running up and down Keith’s arm. It tickles in places.

“You didn’t,” Keith says. “Just had a dream.”

Shiro noses the nape of his neck, and then kisses the spot behind Keith’s ear. “Good one?” Another kiss. “Or bad?”

Well, neither, Keith thinks, but Shiro’s mouth is warm on his neck and so it’s easy to focus on that than the dream that is already fading.

“Can’t remember,” he says, sighing when Shiro kisses his jaw.

It’s a slow burn, like coaxing a hesitant fire to life, but Shiro is doing it well, hand stroking up and down his side carefully, as if even now, he’s afraid of Keith leaving. Not that Keith ever would.

He’ll stay with Shiro forever, if he can.

Keith stays curled on his side as Shiro's hand wanders, every touch sparking like flint inside him. He keeps pressing kisses to Keith’s traps and neck, gentle open-mouthed ones that feel as though they’re designed to bring the warmth in Keith to the surface.

Shiro’s fingers trail lower then, dragging over his hip. The kisses to Keith’s neck become more focused, and when Shiro scrapes teeth over Keith’s pulse, Keith turns his head to nose him.

“Too much?” Shiro asks.

Keith shakes his head in dissent, pushing his mouth to Shiro’s. Nothing of Shiro’s will ever be too much for him, even if Keith spends most of his time just staring at Shiro and wondering how he went from dreaming of Shiro giving everything to him to actually having it in the palm of his hand.

Shiro kisses him deeply, leaving little room for protest. His palm cups Keith’s face, keeping it turned up to meet Shiro’s demanding mouth, and Keith figures now is the time to turn around and push up against Shiro properly, only Shiro’s hand lands on his chest and stills him.

“Wait,” he pants, and Keith feels like he’s trapped under debris with the weight of Shiro’s hand on him.

Shiro doesn’t leave him questioning for very long, slotting up against Keith’s back, warm and solid and oh, he’s hard, the length of him pressing into Keith’s ass. Keith swallows, because he still hasn’t forgotten what he told Shiro the first time they had sex, how he liked the idea of Shiro fucking him. He hasn’t changed his mind and right now, it seems like he can actually have it if he asks.

He holds his breath and pushes his hips back to meet Shiro’s.

Shiro sucks in a breath.

They’ve rutted against each other a lot, made out hot and heavy in the training room and in their beds, dicks sliding together before inevitably Shiro got impatient and asked Keith to fuck his mouth.

He likes that, letting Keith hold his hair and cup his face as he swallows Keith’s dick and helps him thrust. Keith likes watching him in turn, likes how big Shiro’s hands are and how pretty Shiro looks, glancing up through his lashes.

But this is new, Shiro’s dick slick and insistent against Keith’s ass, and Keith repeats the movement, wanting.

“Baby?” Shiro says.

Keith finds Shiro’s hand and drags it down to his hip in answer. “Keep going,” he whispers.

Shiro’s tentative grasp turns strong, and he pulls Keith back into his lap, nosing his way back to Keith’s ear to teethe at the skin beneath. His grip is unforgiving, reminds Keith that Shiro’s Altean hand could very well bruise him if Shiro so wished it, and Keith sees it play out in his head, wandering the hallways with Captain Shirogane’s handprints on his skin.

“Shiro,” he says, a plea or encouragement, he isn’t sure, but he goes with it, brings his knee up.

“Yeah,” Shiro murmurs, hand leaving his hip to grip his ass instead, and then he sucks a spot on Keith’s neck that has Keith tipping his head back, heat pooling in his stomach.

The burning sensation hasn’t stopped, ramping up when Shiro’s fingers push into Keith’s boxers and link around his dick, palm catching the head slick with pre-come, stroking down. Keith moans softly when Shiro times his hand with his hips, and yeah, it sounds like a great idea, actually having Shiro inside him while he strokes his dick and kisses his neck.

“Please,” he says, muffled in the pillow, hand stopping Shiro’s movements.

Shiro goes very still, misinterpreting Keith’s actions, before he sucks in a breath when Keith pushes Shiro’s hand down, over the curve of his ass.

It doesn’t last long.

Shiro groans in his ear, says, “You sure?” and when Keith nods, Shiro bites down on his neck. “Fuck, baby.”

“Yeah,” Keith says dazedly. “That’s the idea.”

Keith doesn’t stop to think where Shiro procures lube from, doesn’t dwell on the undercurrent of gaucheness he feels as Shiro pushes his knee up higher. He doesn’t think of any of it, choosing to focus on Shiro’s breaths, falling hot and heavy over his neck; on Shiro’s kisses to his shoulder and arm; on Shiro’s whispered encouragement in his ear.

He takes his time, trailing fingers over Keith’s skin, tracing patterns over Keith’s perineum.

“Relax,” he murmurs, sucking a mark onto Keith’s throat.

Keith moans softly, sucking in a breath when Shiro’s finger finds his rim, wet and cool.

“It’s okay,” Shiro says quietly, teeth catching another spot on Keith’s throat as he eases his finger inside.

Relax, Keith tells himself as Shiro pushes further.

It feels like an invasion, slowly stripping back layers of himself and letting Shiro see him at his most vulnerable. It feels like being overtaken, the way Shiro’s finger begins to move inside him, and when he angles it a certain way, Keith groans into his pillow, wanting to chase after the dull pleasure.

“How’s that?” Shiro whispers, finger a slow drag inside of Keith.

Keith nods, too caught up to form a proper answer. Shiro’s Altean finger is big, but he’s slow, letting Keith acclimatise to the sensation of him being inside before he adds a second.

The build of pressure within Keith is still going, urged on by Shiro, and Keith lets it, tempted to join Shiro and stroke himself. Shiro, always attentive—particularly whenever they do anything like this—notices, and he shifts, kissing Keith’s cheek.

“Touch yourself,” he commands softly.

So Keith does.

Shiro times the first glide of Keith’s hand down with him pushing his fingers deeper, and Keith likes that, the fiery sensation sparking outwards at the motion.

“Good?” Shiro asks and Keith nods, curling his grip properly around his dick.

They find a rhythm together, Shiro licking his way into Keith’s mouth and jerking his fingers in that angle over and over, until Keith is shaking with it, the feeling of burning alive.

“Please,” he whispers, because Shiro’s fingers are claiming but Keith wants more. “Shiro.”

“Keith,” Shiro groans, and when Keith lets go of his dick to find Shiro’s, he’s hard and so slick with precome. “Oh god.”

“Inside me,” Keith says, voice firm, even though he feels like he’s hanging off the end of a cliff.

Shiro doesn’t ask again.

The squelch of lube as his fingers leave Keith’s body is obscene, and when Shiro’s hips meet his again, his cock slots between his ass. Keith hums, on fire and so happy to be burning as Shiro’s hand strokes Keith’s dick, thumb sweeping over the head on the upstroke.

Keith moans, Shiro’s hand dragging him to the edge too quickly, and for a moment Keith thinks perhaps he might not last until Shiro is inside him, thinks that maybe he’ll come all over Shiro’s hand.

But Shiro stops just before he tips over, growling in his ear about how good Keith looks, and Keith is boneless when Shiro pushes two fingers back into him.

“How does that feel?”

“Good,” Keith groans, teetering on a fine line between pleasant and too much.

“You look good,” Shiro says roughly, moving his fingers. Eventually he withdraws them, lining his cock up. “Still okay, baby?”

Keith warms at the endearment, at the size of Shiro’s palm on his thigh. “Yeah, Shiro.”

Shiro nods and nudges in. “Relax. It’s okay.”

Keith does his best. Shiro’s huge, feels immense, and it’s both width and length because it seems never ending, the way he pushes into Keith’s body. When the head is inside, Shiro folds forward, pulling Keith to him and kissing him messily.

“God, Keith,” he moans, hips paused where they are.

Keith whimpers, high and strung out. The distractions are endless: the feeling of Shiro inside him, Shiro’s hands in his hair, Shiro’s tongue in his mouth, and Keith doesn’t know which one to focus on. It’s as though by the time he tries to pick one, another takes over.

“Keep going,” he says, the burning sensation overwhelming within him. There’s an ache to it, underneath the sharp invasiveness, and Keith focuses on that, on the promise of it.

Shiro does, pushing in another inch or so. “Fuck,” he says, eyes closed, blissed out, and Keith wants to memorise that expression, the slackness of Shiro’s mouth and his furrowed brow.

“You feel so good,” Shiro mumbles, hips grinding the final couple of inches into Keith. “Oh my god.”

Keith moans.

Shiro is all encompassing like this, cock throbbing inside him, muscles burning. Each of his kisses feels like small flames landing on Keith’s skin, like the beginning of something that won’t leave anything behind.

Keith wants to perish.

“Move,” he gasps, because Shiro’s hips are stuttering but Keith wants more, wants that dull pleasure to be brought to the forefront, to leave himself vulnerable to it as it consumes him.

“Yeah,” Shiro mutters, human hand gripping Keith’s hip, Altean fingers digging into his thigh.

The first thrust feels like striking a match.

“O-oh,” Keith says, barely given time to breathe before Shiro is withdrawing and coming back, hands tight enough to bruise.

“Shit,” Shiro groans, mouth open and hot against Keith’s shoulder as he begins to find the rhythm from before. “Shit, Keith, shit—”

Keith whines in response, reaching up to find Shiro’s neck and hold him close as Shiro’s hips piston into him. Each drag of his cock inside Keith feels endless, and the pleasure curls hot and fast inside him, spiking with every gasp and moan in his ear from Shiro.

“Baby,” Shiro groans, hands stroking over Keith’s body and leaving paths of fire in their wake. “Jesus.”

“Uh huh,” Keith manages, ablaze, insides molten with the pleasure roaring through him.

Shiro’s hand falls to his cock then, strokes Keith like before when he was fingering him, and Keith is barely conscious of Shiro thumbing over the frenulum, gasping for air, burning hotter and hotter.

“Please,” he mouths, crushed to Shiro’s chest by Shiro’s Altean arm, Shiro’s mouth mauling his neck. “Please, please, please…”

Shiro comes with a shout, with stuttering hips and bruising lips and fingers that leave marks. He comes with Keith’s name in his mouth, with Keith’s skin underneath his teeth, with Keith’s heart in his hands.

Keith couldn’t stop himself from following if he tried.

 

— K —

 

The anniversary comes upon them like the afterthought of a rainfall; anticipated, expected, but still leaving them all with the taste of why in their mouths. Keith dreads it for weeks, is too aware of the passage of time, of how the wounds within him open and close depending on the day. He wishes he could stop it, could keep it from coming to them.

In space, he could ignore how quickly the days pass. Now it feels like it’s all he can focus on.

He helps his sister with her Blade recruitment, talks with Acxa about her post as Galra general here, spars with Lance and Hunk and lets Shiro hold his hand. He tries taking as much time as he can with everything, but nothing stops.

At night during a Monsters and Mana session the week before, Shiro curls around him, aware of Keith’s racing heartbeat, of his mounting anxiety.

“It’ll be okay,” he says, for both of them.

Pidge settles against Hunk and Romelle, letting them play with her hair.

“It’ll be okay,” Keith repeats, for all of them.

Romelle leans over to kiss his cheek.

But the clocks still tick, and the day still comes.

Keith keeps his eyes closed, doesn’t want to open them. If he does not greet the day, then perhaps he can pretend it never arrived.

New Altea’s sun is bright today though, and its skies are clear. A year since they let Allura walk away from them and the planet she died for is the prettiest it can be.

It’s…bittersweet.

 

— K —

 

Dinner happens at the helm of the Castle, in the shadow of Allura’s statue.

Keith had talked to Coran earlier, asked, “You feeling alright for tonight, Coran?”

Coran had nodded. He had been over the plans for the night with Merla and Keith already knew it would be perfect.

The universe celebrates, and Romelle spends most of the day happily tearing up and showing Keith all the photos and videos flooding the news and social media.

Allura, Keith thinks. I wish you were here.

Because she is, kind of, in this planet, in these Alteans who share her heritage, in the juniberry fields, in the statue on the green, in the multitude of smiling faces that Romelle and Pidge show him.

But she isn’t, as well, and Keith aches with it, with wanting to fold her into his arms.

She should be here, should be sitting next to Lance and holding Romelle’s hand; should be listening to Hunk’s running commentary of his amazing cooking, and Pidge’s talk about Earth’s promotion to an alien hub, thanks to her dad stabilising his teludav technology.

She should be here, listening to Keith reiterate how easy she made everything look.

She should be here.

After dinner, Shiro crawls readily into the cradle of Keith’s arms, slotting their bodies together under the blankets. 

“I still miss her,” Keith says, and if the knife still cuts him as he says it, then it’s a small relief that it isn’t so deep anymore.

“I do too,” Shiro says.

Keith wants to cry, and when Shiro runs his hand down his back, he does. Missing Allura comes in waves and tonight Keith feels like he isn’t going to keep his head up for much longer.

Shiro comforts him throughout as Keith cries silently, wiping away his tears. His eyes are watery too.

“I love you,” Keith says softly, still sore and bruised and fragile.

Shiro’s arms are tight and strong around him and he kisses Keith slow and deep, grounding him.

“I love you too,” he says, tangling their hands together and raising it to his mouth to kiss. “I love you so much, Keith.”

Still a prayer. Keith closes his eyes, welcoming it. There’s another kiss, then, to his knuckles, something that is gentle and sweet and feels like sunsets in the desert, like late nights on the observation deck, like water, bringing him together.

And, just before Shiro pulls him close to bury his face in Keith’s neck, he whispers an oath: “You are the best part of me.”

 

— K —

 

They wake to Pidge banging on their door. Keith’s face is sticky with tears and Shiro is still blinking when Pidge overrides the lock and barges in.

“What’s going on?” Keith asks.

“No time!” she shouts, grabbing both their hands and pulling.

Heart pounding, Keith hears the second roar as they sprint through the Castle barefoot. The night air is cool when they make it outside, and Keith reaches for his Blade in anticipation, before he stops.

It’s Blue.

Not lying on her side, not staring at the wall, lifeless.

It’s Blue, sitting on her haunches, facing the stars. The other Lions are with her, all looking at the skies, all purring.

“What’s going on?” Keith says again softly as Lance walks past him, touching his glowing Altean marks,

“Stars,” Lance says, faint. “It's…it’s her. I can feel her.”

“Allura?” Pidge asks.

Lance doesn’t answer.

The Lions take flight, then, all of them. Keith panics, cries out for Black in his mind, but she hushes him, following Blue as she disappears into the atmosphere, winking in the distance.

“What was that?” Hunk asks.

Keith just stares up at the sky. Shiro is behind Keith and the warm thread of him is enough to make Keith want to settle back and take comfort in him, except he's lost and confused and he can still feel Black at the edge of his mind, still talking to him in small roars and grumbles.

Soon, my Paladin, she hums, and then she's gone.

Keith wants her back.

Please, he thinks. No.

Because it’s been a year since Allura left them, a year since they watched her leave with Honerva, a year of searching galaxies for any trace of her, a year since Keith had to watch his family fall apart and stitch themselves back together.

It’s been a year of breaking and healing and breaking and healing and Keith can’t take it if the Lions leave him, if Allura and her father and their legacy of the Lions are gone too.

Please no, he thinks.

There's a flash, like a supernova on the horizon.

Black’s presence pushes into his mind again and Keith latches onto it, feeling like he can breathe again after being held underwater for so long.

Soon, she hums.

True to her word, the wait is not long.

The Lions reappear, all five of them in formation, and Keith doesn’t know why they left but he’s so relieved that they’re back, until Lance cries out, running forward, because—because there's a sixth glow, a light that isn't coming from any of the Lions and it can't be—it can’t be, there's no way—

But the sixth light comes closer, smaller than the other five, and the light fades into hair, into a figure of a Princess, the face of a friend—

“Allura?” Lance sobs.

It’s her.

She falls to the ground without grace, a felled tree, and that spurns them all into action, running forward to catch her.

Lance is first there, yelling as she collapses into his arms, cradling her close and saying, “Oh my god,” before he cries and holds her to him.

Keith falls to his knees next to Lance, taking in the shape of her, the energy coating her skin, how she smells like burning and stardust. It’s her, still in her Paladin armour, and when she opens her eyes they’re brilliant blue.

“Where…?” Lance says. “How…?”

“Lance,” Allura says, hoarse, and Keith never thought he'd hear her voice again without seeing it on a monitor or datapad, but he's hearing it now and it shocks him all the way through.

“Allura,” he says as Shiro does the same, arm wrapping tightly around Keith's waist.

Pidge and Hunk follow, wrapping around her completely. She’s there, skin and bones and smiling tiredly at them, letting them cry over her as she hushes them gently, saying their names, apologising.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry it took me so long.”

“No,” Pidge barks out while the others all clamber to disagree. “Don’t apologise, Allura, don’t.”

Lance’s hand is on Allura’s face and he’s staring at her, murmuring things that Keith can’t make out, but it doesn’t matter, because by the tears shining in Allura’s eyes, he can already guess what they are.

There's a wretched sob, a shriek of one, and when Allura looks up, it's Coran.

“Princess,” he cries, and when she holds her arm out to him, he falls into the embrace.

Romelle is next, hair flying as she rushes after Coran, gaze landing on Allura in the midst of the Paladins and Coran.

“Allura?” she says faintly, covering her mouth with her hand.

Keith offers her his hand.

“Allura,” she says again quietly, and then she's crying too, crawling closer to Keith and holding Allura’s hand.

Their Princess doesn't cry, just smiles up at them tiredly. “Lance,” she says again. “Shiro, Pidge, sweetheart. Coran, hello.” Her gaze finds Keith and she holds it. “Keith,” she says, and Keith feels as if he is splintering and being remade all at once. “Romelle, darling,” Allura continues, “oh, I'm so sorry. I'm here.”

Lance nods, still blubbering. “You're here,” he says brokenly, “Oh god, you're here, Allura, I…”

“Yes,” Allura says, eyes closing. “Yes, darlings, I’m here. I’m here.”

Keith leans back into the warm embrace of Shiro and runs a shaky hand over his face, counting again.

Because it's seven of them. Coran and him and Shiro, Lance and Pidge and Hunk. And Allura.

It’s the core seven of them, sitting on the floor, with Romelle nestled in Keith’s arms as they all breathe together and Allura sighs against Lance’s side.

It’s seven of them, just like back on Arus, when they all climbed into their Lions for the first time, except this time it’s a new Castle; this time it’s with the Castle of Lion’s legacy, Atlas, in the hangar behind them; this time it’s with Shiro’s chin tucked over Keith’s shoulder, with his sister Romelle leaning against him, with his mother’s words ringing in his ears: grief reminds us of our mortality, of how fortunate we are.

This time it’s different. This time Keith isn’t scared to count.

This time, they hold her.

They hold each other.