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Sleeping on embers

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He was in a desert.

He remembered the shape and color of this desert from above — wrinkles and striations of deep rust-red, veins that held the ghosts of rivers — all veiled in haze as it came around the curve of the horizon, and the viewscreen washed in and out with the superheated plasma licking and roaring along the wings and over the armored belly of the little pod. Shiro had held on target, remembering the milestones he'd trained on for Earth reentry back when his mission consisted of bringing his ship and crew home safe.

His trajectory was all wrong to hit any of Wayfarer's milestones, though. He was coming from above the ecliptic — a direction no manned human mission had ever had a reason to go — and at this vector he didn't have time to tune his orbit or match Earth's rotation for minimum delta vee. He was moving faster than most meteors; he didn't have time to orbit, period. He had to go straight in, steep enough that the atmosphere wouldn't bounce him off, shallow enough that he'd have the several minutes required for the pod to burn all its excess vee, with the bare minimum adjustments to ensure he came down on the right continent and not over water.

At this velocity, Wayfarer would have survived less than ten seconds of air friction fifty kilometers up. A shooting star, short and very bright, the ship and their bodies atomized up in the ozone and the aurora, never reaching the winds or the clouds or the ground.

But this little pod had the armor to survive it, and he'd saved most of his fuel for the deceleration burn. Central Nevada was scenic enough without becoming a glassy crater. Given all that and a trajectory that read more like a polar orbit than anything he'd studied for, the fact that he'd successfully come down somewhere in the right desert was pretty astounding.

Last night he'd been the biggest, brightest, longest shooting star that anyone in a five state area would have ever seen. He would have been noticed early — a meteor that didn't burn up — but still too fast for missiles to intercept. No human weaponry could stop him, and his little pod wasn't even meant for travel. Just survival.

He didn't remember the crash itself, but he remembered getting himself unstrapped and struggling past the crumple zones in the cockpit, opening the cargo hatch and shielding his eyes from blinding lights, a loudspeaker saying words he couldn't understand at first. No translators, just human language on his human brain. He'd sat down, there on the ramp, hands in the air and his face in his shoulder, trying to keep track of where he was. One of them in an isosuit offered an arm to steady him over into an enclosure, a gurney to sit on, but three more followed them in and when Shiro instinctively tried to stand back up instead of laying down they rushed him and pinned his arms, pushing him flat. The moment he could have fought and won presented itself; Shiro let it pass, and didn't fight. He was home, and the straps across his hips and chest sparked a concern too tired and dazed to be anything more. These people were human and they called him Shirogane and Lieutenant and one called him Takashi and tapped his collarbone, getting his attention to check his pupils.

Something rose up in Shiro and he flipped the gurney, getting his feet on the ground, the frame and the wheels between him and the man with the penlight. He could still get free, he could slip out of these straps, they weren't the hardlight kind—

But he couldn't run away, he had to make them listen. "No lights in my eyes," Shiro said, fighting for the words. "I'll let you examine me but no lights in my eyes, I can't—"

The three guards all had sidearms, cocked and ready and pointed at the ground as they watched Shiro attentively. The one in the middle was the one who would fire, if needed, but these people oozed calm. "It's okay, son," one of them said, "breathe, just breathe. Do that for me?"

Shiro swallowed and nodded and breathed, and they righted the gurney and strapped his legs down too, and now, now he might have more trouble getting free. The one with the penlight set it down at a nod from the guard and came close again to peer at his face and examine his head and neck, their gloved fingers carding and catching in his hair.

He'd been slapped in the face, not lightly; he remembered the shock. Head aching when he swam back to consciousness on the floor of the pod, and then the crash—

His message. He had to find the words.

Shiro hissed as they found a sore spot, but didn't wince away. "Listen," he tried, "you have to listen. I'm Ch—, I'm Shirogane Takashi of Wayfarer, I and my crew were captured on Kerberos and I don't know what happened to them. They may still be alive, but I had to run, I had to come back and tell you, Earth is in danger. We're on the fringes of the Empire but Voltron will focus their attention here! You can't fight them, Earth can't, Earth stands no chance against the Galra. You have to find Voltron! It's a weapon, you can't leave it here, the Galra will raze the planet looking. They've done it before. Please." Shiro twisted, kicking his heels against the thin pad. "Please! You have to find Voltron!"

"Slow down, Lieutenant, calm down. Give it to us in order."

Shiro gulped. "Okay. Okay." He craned his neck, trying to see past the isosuit masks. Others had come in. "Commander Iverson? You have to— are you recording me?"

"Shirogane, we've been recording you since NEO watch picked you up. We've had a very tense evening because of you. You better bet we're listening."

"Sir. The first thing you need to know," Shiro said, and breathed. "The Galra Empire is the local power. They may be the only power. They control thousands of inhabited systems, hundreds of intelligent species. They have FTL travel and communication. They are the de facto interstellar government. They are aggressive and expansionistic. They're so large, their technology so far past ours, they could roll over Earth and never feel the bump. They can conquer Earth or destroy it, and the second they think there's something valuable here, they will."

"How do you know this?"

"It was a Galra cruiser that took us from Kerberos. The Galra had us all this time."

"What did you tell them, son?"

Shiro sucked in a breath and felt his brows go down, but instead of words a laugh came out of him, surprising him with its hard edge. "I made them work for it, but they got all the answers they wanted. Sir." He peered into the mask, demanding eye contact; Iverson didn't shrink from giving it to him. "We were peaceful explorers. We couldn't pretend to be anything else. Nothing we knew could give them any more advantage than they already have."

The moment of stillness was like the rare silence of a shocked arena. He'd put a chill down the back of everyone here.

Good. They ought to be afraid.

"Specifics, Lieutenant," Iverson said, as much to refocus the room as anything. Shiro conceded, half-lidding his eyes. Let him perform his authority in front of his people, let him have that, as long as they were listening. Shiro might be tied down on a table — his thoughts stuttered — but that didn't matter when they were listening. They had to listen.

"They asked. How did primitives get so far out from our star — a hell of a lot of time and resources. What were we studying — pure-science exogeology questions the Empire answered millennia ago. Do we use quintessence — no. Does this hurt, does this hurt, how do you feel now?" Shiro snarled the last questions, and from the feel of it in his throat he realized he'd dropped into gutter Japanese. Shit. That was why the English was so slippery, if he'd barely used it for the past however long.

"Where are your crewmates, Lieutenant?"

"I don't know. We were separated."

"What were your last orders?"

Shiro's lips peeled back. "Survive and salvage. Scuttle is a no-go. Commander Holt told me twice. Don't scuttle. Stay alive. If we can get word back, it's worth it."

Iverson broke off and stepped away to talk with several of the others, anonymous in their isosuits; Shiro watched, stuck on his gurney. They were using in-suit comms to speak privately, isolating him so they wouldn't bias the data. Interrogation. Debriefing. Did the restraints make it an interrogation, he wondered, twisting his wrists. His right arm could break these straps, but it would take him five or six seconds to get free, and much longer if they added cuffs; he'd be tethered by his left arm then. The medics had used cuffs, and they'd punished him when he hurt himself and caused delays. He stretched, reflexively testing for weaknesses. The straps and frame of the gurney creaked.

One of them stepped back over to him, staying clear and obvious in his field of view. Shiro went still. "Takashi," the person said, "I'm going to put a pulse-oxy monitor on your finger, and I want to look at your eyes. I won't use a light. Is that okay?"

Hands, face, hands, face. The masks obscured almost all expression, but the tech held up the little white fingertip clamp so he could see their gloves were empty otherwise.

"I can't stop you," Shiro said. "But you'll have better luck with my left hand, if you want a pulse."

"You're kidding me. This isn't a glove?" the tech murmured, brushing a touch down from his right elbow to the seam at his wrist. Shiro shivered and clenched his fist, metal knuckles scrape-dragging at the casing of the back of his hand, a little sticky at the limit of their arcs of motion.

This couldn't be real, he decided. This couldn't be real.

"I can never be disarmed again," he said, and tried to smile. The tech gave an impressed eyebrow-raise from inside their mask, and Shiro's brow furrowed as he realized it wasn't a joke; he'd thought that, he knew he'd thought that with a kind of bitter disgust, but he couldn't remember the context or the reason.

"Do you know how to take it off?" the tech asked, now tracing the joints of the plates down from the scarred seam on his bicep where his skin went under the metal. The touch kept making his thoughts grind, caught between freezing still and flinching away.

"Take" He tried to relax. The tech was human, just curious, not malicious, not messing with him, there was no reason to.... Damn that was distracting. He gritted his teeth. "Can you...stop, please, that...feels, that sort of hurts." A hundred other echoes of begging slammed into him and Shiro locked his jaw, shuddering again.

The tech looked up, startled, and seemed to connect what they were doing to Shiro's reaction. "You have sensation in the outer surface? You can feel that?"

Shiro clenched his jaw and nodded. "Madre de Dios," the tech said, and finally took their hand away. "I didn't realize. I hope the residual limb isn't necrotic under there," they muttered. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but we'll have to look at it later and see if there's a way to take it off. If it hurts more or hurts badly, tell someone right away, all right?"

Shiro tucked his arm in tight along his body. "It's f-fine."

He looked at the ceiling while the tech called over another, who clamped the monitor on his left ring finger. This was one of the bigger pop-domes, fully kitted out for medical and quarantine, though there were two consoles Shiro didn't recognize. The tech leaned back into his field of view, directing light from the side with a mirror; that was okay. Shiro tracked the motions he was asked to track, and didn't question why the panic was still there, tamped down under his breastbone. Dreams just turned bad sometimes, and you didn't know why. This had that feeling of wrongness, like a slow-onset nightmare. Given his nightmares lately, it would probably get much worse before he woke up.

Woke up where, though. Lately, he'd been with the medics, a formless and painful blur of sleepings and wakings. Lately there'd been Druids in the room; not speaking, just watching.

Dreams had to be pretty bad to be worse than that. He'd let this one play itself out, at least. Maybe the twist at the end would be a happy one.

...He didn't remember anyone ever taking the arm off. They certainly wouldn't have shown him how; they didn't want him refuse...something. But she wouldn't have spent all that effort giving it to him if it was going to kill him from sepsis, he thought. She knew his body well enough by then to avoid such a disappointment. Maybe the quintessence in it healed him.

Who was she? He couldn't come up with an image, just formless panicky terror and something like murderous intent, the rock-solid conviction that he was willing and able to kill her or at least to try, coupled with a kind of calm assurance about it that he'd feel if he wasn't so off-kilter at the moment.

That made it worse. He was ready to kill someone he couldn't remember and he was certain it was the right thing to do. The lights overhead got brighter; he felt shocky, and he was breathing too fast. Things swam and rippled, thick with layer on layer of unreality.

Movement out of the blind spot above his head, and a hand on his shoulder. Shiro flinched, attention snapping to it.

"Lieutenant. Slow down, okay? I want you to breathe with me. You can do it."

The guard from earlier, still calm, calm, calm. Their sidearm was hanging down behind them now, out of reach even if Shiro had his hands free. Shiro dug his fingertips into his palms and tried to keep the cadence, but he kept gasping in the middle of the breaths, bubbles of fear working through him and bursting in his chest. The monitor was light and hard in his left fist, his pulse beating against it in his fingertip.

If he was going to treat this as real, he wasn't doing a very good job at his main duty, was he? He wouldn't have survived everything and escaped and made it back to Earth just to have a meltdown and distract some medtechs with his arm. As if his arm was the worst that had happened to him.

"Earth is in danger," Shiro said, and said it louder. "Earth is in danger! Aliens are coming, are you listening to me? They're coming after Voltron! You have to find Voltron! Please!"

"He's getting agitated again," one of them said. "These scans— and sir, his right arm is opaque to the handheld sensors—"

"My arm doesn't matter!" Shiro insisted. "You don't have time to waste on this!"

"Lieutenant," Iverson said, getting his attention. "Do you know how long you've been gone?"

"I don't know— Months? Years?" Shiro shook his head. He used to have a better sense of it, he knew that. "That doesn't—"

"We knew what happened on Kerberos," Iverson said. "The orbiter was on the day side and its sensors were focused on the EVA expedition. We knew an unknown object vacuumed the whole expedition up without landing, then dropped all your equipment over fifty klicks of ice sheet, but didn't drop the crew. And we watched as it deorbited and left sensor range in a manner that we cannot explain. We knew it was aliens and son, we've been trying to get ready, but it's been a year of nothing but friendly skies. How soon are these aliens coming?"

Shiro gulped. "Hours. Days. I don't know. They were coming already. They could be right behind me."

"What is Voltron? What does it look like?"

"I don't— I don't know. It's a weapon, it's very old, even the Galra are scared of it, they want it, that's all I know. Please," he pleaded. "You have to believe me."

"I believe you," Iverson said. He turned his head, looking at the others. "He's repeating himself, and I don't like that arm. Put him under until we know what it can do. This site needs to be clean by dawn."

"No!" Shiro said. "Don't put me under! I have to— I can help!" The one on his left took an autoinjector from one of the med consoles while two others came from his right, one holding down his arm and the other getting a hand under his head. "Let me go!" Shiro bucked, twisting his arm and getting a grip on the strap at his hips. He shouldn't have let them strap down his legs — stupid, stupid — He pulled and something pinged loudly on the undercarriage of the gurney, the person on that side yelling in alarm.

Pain blossomed on the outside of his thigh, midway between his hip and knee. The tech had injected him right through his jumpsuit and was holding the injector pen there. Shiro couldn't move his leg enough to get away. He snarled and pulled again at the strap — it was loose but not free — the heavy end could be a weapon, but his grip was weakening and slipping. "Let me go," he said again. "Please, please..."

Another short bright bloom of pain as the doc pulled the pen straight out and rubbed Shiro's thigh, getting the sedative into his bloodstream. Shiro felt cold and heavy, his arms and legs shutting down, going outside his reach. He couldn't focus; his eyelids were closing, his head lolling in a weird disorienting slide. At least the hands had let go of him as soon as he went limp.

He breathed, spiralling down, the gurney seeming to rise up around him. Was there something...happening? There was noise, maybe, violent motion, a sense of joy and grief and anger.

A hand on his face, turning his head, very far away. His name.



He was directing students to a new class, tucked away in the back of B Building in an extension they must have added while he was gone. "All the way to the back and take a left," he told them. He'd only barely found it himself. They nodded and hurried past.

"Shiro?" one said, face lighting up with incredulous hope.

"All the way to the back and take a left, if you're in Mr Jones' class."

"No, are you Shiro?" the kid said. "They told us you were dead!"

"I'm not dead," Shiro assured him. He'd done a lot of things to stay alive.

"Commander Iverson showed us the body," the kid said, and it was Keith, and Keith should never have had to see—

But there was no body—

"What," Shiro said, full of horror and denial, and jerked awake. He fell off of something to a jarringly hard surface — he was tangled in something — it was dark with no light panels and he couldn't find the horizontal bar of the cell door, but there were others in here with him. He scrambled backwards, under the platform he'd fallen off of, and it was low enough to the ground that it offered good shelter.

Had the others noticed? This room was too small to have grids — if this was punishment again — he wasn't cuffed or muzzled, and when he checked, his eyes were open, no veil. It was just that dark.

The damn dream was making his heart twist in his chest but he could stay quiet. He breathed silently through an open mouth and started counting to slow down, a tremble down his back and legs and his fingers twitching from the wasted adrenaline. His eyes wouldn't stay open, the ghost-surface of the floor tipping and spinning in between blinks; he had to evade, he was too woozy to handle a challenge. If the others in here were hostile he'd be easy prey.

Silence around him, and then "Everybody heard that, right?"

"He's not on the couch. Where'd he —"

Movement. Shiro flinched back, drawing up his legs and pressing himself into the wall. If they tried to drag him out, he'd fight.

"Oh, oh," the first voice said, "Stand down, guys. He is under the couch and he gave me such a glare."

"Leave him alone," said a new voice, strained and angry.

"Nope!" said a different one cheerfully. "He left the couch open. I'm moving to the couch."


Weight settled on to him, the bottom of the platform...deforming? Shiro tensed, but it wasn't crushing. The weight squirmed and stilled, the platform creaking, before whoever was on top announced "Way better."

"You don't think I could—" the first voice said wistfully.

"No," said the angry one. "It'll probably collapse."

"Pidge?" said the one right on top of him.

"No thanks," said the voice who'd first noticed that Shiro had moved.

Shiro sneezed explosively, bouncing the weight above him. A couple tries got his left hand to his nose and he scrubbed at the ticklish feeling. Whoa.

Appalled silence, then giggling. "Wow, he is right below me," said the one on top. "I thought that was a pile of rocks."

"I don't have rocks under the couch."

"Books, then," said the one on top, and squirmed so they were speaking downward, around the edge of the platform. "Take it easy, buddy, it has to be dusty under there. Take as long as you need to wake up. You were really out, you can't be awake yet. I'm not actually sure where we are, but you're safe here with us."


Shiro let his neck slowly relax, his skull resting on the hard flatness of the floor. That was nice, for someone to try to reassure him. It had been...a long time since anyone spoke to him like that. The voice was different, but "Matt?" he said, just in case. One of the others breathed in sharply.

"Shiro," said the strained voice, and Shiro finally placed it.

"Keith," he said wonderingly. This must be part of his dream, that made the most sense. He didn't really feel awake. "Keith, I'm not dead. I don't know what they told you but I'm not dead."

Ragged breaths, then "I know," Keith said. "I didn't believe it."

His heart twisted again, the feelings from the first dream still in him. Shiro hugged his folded legs to his chest in the low space, body as compact as he could make it, and breathed out. Letting the pain and horror go, letting them diffuse into the cold floor, but keeping the ghost of a laugh, the ghost of pride.

His arms and legs relaxed. He could feel how heavy they were now, how heavy his whole body was, all through his skin. "Yeah," Shiro sighed, smiling into his knees. "Yeah, you wouldn't have. I'm glad. I'm not gonna die. I'm gonna make it back," he promised, and the weight on top of him tensed.

"I know," Keith said again, with the stubborn steadfastness Shiro had glimpsed in him. "I know you will. Don't worry."

"Okay." Shiro yawned. "Have to sleep now. M'so tired. Don't know what they got me with this time. Have to be ready to fight..." He was back on arena schedule whenever the medics let him go. No rests, no breaks.

"You can do it," Keith said. "We'll talk in the morning."

Shiro smiled again. There were no mornings on the ships. "Yeah," he breathed, and let his eyes close.

Chapter Text

The smell of dust on cool concrete. Dirt and sage and the crisp chill burn of early morning, like ice in his nose.

Others nearby, occupied with their own concerns; only one focused on him.

This wasn't right. This felt like planetside. Arena sand didn't have this smell. Shiro kept his face neutral by an effort of will and shifted slightly, as if still asleep. He was curled up with his left arm under his head, his right hand shielding his face; no restraints. His back was solidly up against a wall, and his right shoulder was wedged into the corner between that and a dusty, very low ceiling; he could feel his breath reflected back on his face, and trailing strings of something stirred by it. What…?

He wracked his brain and kept his breathing slow and shallow, lips tingling lightheaded as his pulse jumped up and he denied the deeper faster breaths his body wanted. None of this was familiar.

The soft screech-whack of a screen door. The sound jolted him, so out of context that he tensed in his chest and arms, waiting for the threat. Damn. That would have been visible to anyone watching closely.

Nothing happened. The screen door opened and closed again, still a sound utterly unlike any mechanism on any spaceship.

The sense of unreality mounted. How was there a screen door — was he in a cage? Where was he? That sound would wake anyone, and he couldn't sham forever. There was nowhere he could hide that he couldn't be dragged out.

Shiro opened his eyes, and caught his breath. Matt was laying on the floor staring back at him.

But not the Matt he knew. Not the assured scientist who'd started his last growth spurt on the way to Kerberos, shooting up three inches in the half-gee and not done yet. Not the ragged, confident prisoner with new lines around his eyes from squinting. The pale white basement-dweller complexion and light brown hair was the same, but this Matt was young with pristine glasses and bright civilian clothes, his face still childishly round and his expression fiercely detached. Shiro felt more scrutinized than the first time he walked into...than when they'd strapped him down and...than when he stood beside the professor and introduced himself to the advanced flight class as their guest TA.

Shiro cleared his throat, raised his eyebrows, and said "I come in peace."

It startled his audience into a smile. "Aren't you required to say that, though?" the Matt-lookalike replied. His voice was different from Matt's, lighter and smoother and more sardonic, without the burr in it. Shiro wouldn't mistake them with his eyes closed.

"You're the first person it's worked on," Shiro said. "Is it working?"

"I'm trying to figure out how okay you are," not-Matt told him.

"You look human," Shiro said. "I'm probably not okay." Was this real? Why would he dream a human who looked like Matt?

Shreds of memory came back. An escape pod; constellations he knew, and a system with a blue planet third out from the star. Hope and confusion and fear, and the kindest touch coming from the guard who would shoot first.

Oh, shit. He might be on Earth. He might be back. If this was real.

Shiro shivered, and the Matt-lookalike's eyes sharpened, checking him over. "You're more coherent than last night, at least, and you're not obviously injured. Do you hurt anywhere?"

His arm and side were numb from sleeping without shifting. Shiro uncurled onto his back and did a quick clumsy check in the confined space, running a hand down each arm and his legs over each other and then arching his spine, testing for pain. "The back of my head hurts, and my neck. Feels like whiplash. Won't know how bad until I stand up. Is there water?"

Not-Matt nodded against the floor. "There's food too. Are you hungry?"

Shiro startled himself by laughing. Not-Matt's eyes widened and a bulky pair of forearms appeared behind him, someone else lowering their face down to peer at Shiro. "Hey, he's awake!"

"I asked him if he was hungry," not-Matt said.

The new guy grinned good-naturedly, the expression lighting his face like a lantern. "Well, it's a silly question." He also wore bright civilian clothes; Shiro's eyes caught on the colors but couldn't take them in, coming away with just the orange headband in rich contrast against dark hair and brown skin as he spoke. "Those technicians didn't give him anything, probably because Doctor Abogan was stuck in lockdown with the cadets and without her no one thought to bring food and water into quarantine. Let's face it, that was pretty dumb. But for a crazy desert hermit," he said more gently to Shiro, "your friend Keith has enough staples socked away in his actual hole-in-the-ground cellar to feed us all for a while, so there's breakfast whenever you're ready. Eggs, and oatmeal if you need to start lighter. We can do it up sweet or savory. It's not okayu, but it's maybe close? Closer than non-Earth food?"

Shiro screwed up his face. "Okayu?" he asked, shading his eyes with his hand and hoping the roughness of his voice disguised the wobble. He hadn't had okayu since primary school, when he got strep throat and his aunt moved him into her house for a week and took time off work to look after him. "You couldn't have made that anyway. Keith doesn't like rice. If he has — if Keith has a cellar, there won't be rice in it."

"He doesn't like rice. There's no way to break this to you gently, Lieutenant. Keith is probably an alien."

Shiro laughed, a little watery, and shielded his face with his arm, biting his lip. He could damn well wait to break down until he had food in hand. "Shiro. Just Shiro is fine."

They both waited tactfully while he sniffed and scrubbed his face on his shoulder, shaking his arm out and hissing at the pins and needles, then worked his way out from under the...huh, it was definitely a couch, small and battered with rust spots on a powdered steel frame. He'd slept under a couch.

Well, he'd slept in worse places. Having the cover, the sense of shelter, felt like an unexpected gift. He was a little sad to come out. There really was a screen door, though. And outside...there was an outside. Shiro stood and stared.

A horizon line, further away than his eyes had focused in...he didn't know. Indigo and gray gradients with distance, plateaus on plateaus shading out into untracked wild country, the kind of terrain they called badlands in English. High thin mare's-tails in the predawn sky, faint stars visible between the ghost-gray wisps. The moon was a waning gibbous not long past full, still bright, swimming among the far hills like a dropped coin.

Good flying weather, his old self whispered. Shiro didn't know how long he stared.

A gentle touch on his hand made him start and he refocused hard, grounding his stance with a wide step that also got his back to the wall. Not-Matt backpedaled, both hands up. He must have been trying to get Shiro's attention.

Shiro lowered his guard and clutched the back of the couch again, taking huge gasps like he'd been running, his human hand slippery on the frame. Snapping his head around had made pain flare up in the back of his neck and behind his eyes, but as soon as he looked away from the vista he wanted to check that it was still there, not vanished or swapped out for something else. He thought of greenscreens and painted backdrops, fake surroundings for what — a black box? If he tried to walk out that door and touch the dark hills, would his fingers actually touch them? Or could he walk and walk and keep going? He didn't know which thought made him feel sicker.

A gulf seemed to open all around him, just outside these four walls. A terrifyingly yawning black void, overwriting the sun—

"Whoa, okay — whoa! Let's — sit down, let's put our head between our knees for a couple minutes. Pidge, would you get some water and some trail mix?"

Shiro gasped, black whorls swirling and clearing out of his vision. He swallowed hard, pushing aside the nausea and the sweaty shakiness. He was sitting on the couch and the headband guy was next to him, large hand very light on Shiro's mid-back, reminding him to keep his head down. Shiro gripped the faded upholstery and turned his head to keep an eye on Headband, then winced and rested his cheek on his knee instead.

"You just nearly fainted," Headband said. "Don't stand up yet, I think you'll just go down again. There's a lot of stuff to hit your head on in here."

"Thanks. Sorry," Shiro said.

"No problem, I'm just glad I was close enough to catch you. Seriously, can you estimate how long it's been since you ate anything?"

Shiro tried to think back. They always fed him after...after something, unless he got hurt, and then he might wake up and never be sure. Being on the table was nothing but different kinds of getting hurt, flash frames of looking down at his body and noticing his belly sunken, hips more prominent, but they wouldn't let that kill him. "They didn't have to feed me to keep me alive," he mumbled. "I don't, I don't remember much from...lately."

Headband looked more worried. "We better start you off really simple. Drink first, then have like, a raisin. Thanks, Pidge."

A green-sleeved hand nudged a water bottle with a straw into Shiro's field of vision on the floor. He flicked his eyes up to watch not-Matt step back, then took it. The water was warm and plastic-stale, tasting like it had filtered through thirty meters of desert hardpan. Shiro breathed, then sucked more of it down until he had to breathe again, blinking hard. "Tastes like Garrison water. Yuck."

"Same aquifer, I think. Here, chew this up slowly, and drink some more. If your stomach's all right after a few minutes, I'll dish up some oatmeal. You'll get enough, okay? But we need to go slow."

Shiro accepted a small handful of raisins and peanuts and put it all in his mouth at once. Sweet and salt and flavor exploded across his tongue; he tried to chew slowly, but every blink splashed two more little wet circles on the floorboards between his feet. He wasn't too dangerously dehydrated if he had enough water for that. There were no sobs, no hitches in his breath, for which he was grateful. Silent tears had no particular meaning to the Galra. Maybe these two humans didn't notice.

Headband rubbed Shiro's back, small slow circles, while Shiro finished the water and slowly sat up again. He sniffed and swallowed, but didn't have to wipe his eyes.

They were looking everywhere but at him, and he blew out his breath. Guess he wasn't so mysterious among his own species. He didn't want pity, though; it was too close to showing vulnerability, and that was a threat he'd rather dodge than engage.

"You look like Matt," he told not-Matt, who was hunkered down on the other side of the coffee table, shooting him little sideways glances.

The kid didn't seem surprised. "Matt Holt?"

Shiro nodded.

"Yeah, I get that a lot. I guess the Holts were sort of celebrities at the Garrison. What— what happened to them? If you can say."

Shiro rubbed his temple with the knuckle of his thumb, trying to remember. The smooth cool touch felt good against the sweat and grime on his skin. There were flashes of — a kind voice in the dimness, turn around, let me see, it's okay — ghost touches, Matt's fond exasperation. A warning glance leveled at him from a thinner, careworn face, no glasses in the way.

"We were…interrogated," he said out loud. "I tried to protect them. I was the distraction. Matt hated that... Well, I would too. But it wasn't his decision…"

"Did you…" said the kid. "Is that where—" he gestured at his face and his right arm.

Shiro blinked. "Where they— oh! No. No, I don't think so." He looked at his right hand, remembering the lightheaded, grinding misery of being left in his cell with broken fingers, and opened and closed it meditatively, hearing the soft whir of the mechanisms. These fingers couldn't be broken. "No, I saw him after that. We were in the same cell and I still had two hands, and he told me the roots of my bangs were coming in white. And he chewed me out for putting myself at risk, and told me I wasn't allowed to die, because each of us was one-third of all Earth's chances. I wasn't allowed to forget that." He looked up. "I'm sorry. I think that was the last time I saw him. My bangs are all white now, aren't they."

The kid was pale, with a stricken look that brought Matt strongly to mind for a moment, though his eyes were still harder than Matt ever managed. "What about Commander Holt?"

Shiro shook his head. He wasn't going to tell this kid about scuttle orders. "I only saw him at the beginning. Matt said they'd been split up, but Sam was all right when they last saw each other. They weren't—" he gestured at his face, at the scar over his nose. "They weren't in the same place where I was. I hope the Galra sent them somewhere safer. Somewhere their skills could be used."

"Where were you?" the kid said clinically. "What skills were you using?"

"Pidge, um, tone it down," interjected Headband, and Shiro jumped, reminded of his presence.

"No, it's, uh," Shiro managed. "It's a fair question." His breathing had picked up. He felt trapped. "I don't remember. I don't—"

The blade in his hand slicing through muscle and ligament, catching on bone. Pulling out the sword stuck in someone's ribs, feeling a more piercing pain than if it was his own blood welling up. His hand inside someone's body, dragged down when they fell, covered in their blood and choking on the smell of worse things. The table rotating horizontal, the medics standing around him looking down; more than one was never good, never—

He was bent over again, looking at the floor between his knees. He swallowed hard, and his voice came out steady and neutral, no emotion. "They didn't want me for my piloting." He bit his lip, trying not to start laughing at how far any of that was from piloting; he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop. Not-Matt was frowning at him. Shiro met his eyes and the feelings rose up and choked off his throat. "Anywhere would be better than where I was," he whispered.

"Enough," Headband said. "Pidge—"

The screen door screeched open and Shiro's head snapped up. Keith was there, his arms heaped with stiff-dried laundry and his eyes flicking back and forth among the three of them, taking in the tableau he'd interrupted. He turned and dumped the clothes on a lanky new kid who followed him in, then took three quick steps to look Shiro in the face, gaze concerned and serious. Shiro didn't know what expression he was making, couldn't follow what Keith was seeing. The new kid dropped a sock and froze just inside the door.

Shiro had wanted to see Keith, wanted to know the cadet was okay, dealing with the loss of Wayfarer in his own time and still breaking records, still blazing his way up. He'd curled in his cell and imagined an Earth where Keith was happy and had a future that didn't include fear. A good dream, too far away to be real, too wistful to be dangerous.

This Keith was thin and tanned and leggy as a weed, his jacket too short and his hair too long, his eyes sad and more than a little afraid. He raised his arms slowly and stepped a little closer; his hands touched Shiro's shoulders, then slid around to his back, and his arms tightened. Keith tucked his head into the curve of Shiro's neck, his soft hair brushing and tickling at the underside of Shiro's chin and the bare skin above the neckline of his prisoner jumpsuit. Shiro stiffened, not sure he liked the sensation.

"Shhh," Keith murmured. "I've got you. You're back. It's all right." Shiro distantly realized he was shaking, tremors reflected against the steadiness of Keith's arms, the wiry solidity of his body. He took a huge breath and let his arms come up, holding on hard. He had to stay quiet. He gasped again, and buried his face in the collar of Keith's jacket.

He couldn't stop. He couldn't stop. Each deep breath hurt, ripping something inside him, relief and pain all mixed together. This wasn't real, but the touch felt so good, and he was so glad to see Keith again, and it hurt so much to see him.

Keith rubbed his back, picking up the motion; Headband had never stopped. Shiro clung on, feeling his face twist as his chest tried to fit through a hole too small for it. He kept his sounds to gasps, not giving the rest any voice even as his eyes watered up over and over and Keith's collar grew damp. His head and neck throbbed with the effort.

Eventually, his arms relaxed; he was exhausted, in a distant swimming sort of way. He rested his head limply on Keith and Keith took the weight like he didn't notice. Unreality was thick on everything again, floating down through the air like snow. Shiro blinked around the room, taking in the piles of books and maps, the sensor equipment, the dust and grit tracked in from the door and the simple sheets hung over the windows. He didn't ask where he was, didn't ask why Keith lived here instead of his fourth-year dorm at the Garrison, clean and comfortable and anonymous.

Keith's favorite hoverbike poster was on the wall opposite, though: a red Suisei Orochi, the lighter sportier version of Shiro's old Rattlesnake. The model in the poster had to be a few years old now.

There was no matching poster of Wayfarer nestled proud in its launch cradle, ready to leap up and out and blaze into the black.

"What did they say happened to us?" Shiro rasped. "What did they tell you?"

"Pilot error," Keith said softly. "They said the Wayfarer lander was lost and the orbiter beamed back pictures of debris, strewn further than could be survivable."

"That's not true," Shiro said, more perplexed than angry. He rubbed his face on his shoulder, unwilling to let go yet. Keith was fabulously warm, and his ribs moved as he breathed, and his arms were tight and alive around Shiro in return. "The lander came down fine. Unless the Galra destroyed her, Wayfarer is still there. We got the solar array deployed, and there's no weather on Kerberos to cover up the panels. She'll be in contact for decades."

"I know," the kid — Pidge — said from the floor. "I've snooped on her signal. It's encrypted, of course, and it's too faint for amateurs to pick up, but it's there. The Garrison has to know their story won't stand up forever."

"Guess it was better than telling the truth," Shiro said. He could imagine the speculation and the panic; if enough countries took it seriously, the threat might even kick off wars over weapons. "But ignorance isn't any protection. The Galra don't care whether Earth knows about them. Humans aren't enough of a threat that they care whether we're afraid."

"I'm glad you still think of yourself as human."

"Pidge!" Headband snapped. Keith tensed, looking around, and Shiro lifted his head, but Pidge looked more tired than anything. Like Shiro felt.

"I still am, mostly," he admitted, and dangled his arm so the metal caught the light. "This is Galra tech. As far as I know the neural implants are permanent. I can't afford to let the Garrison keep me in lockdown, and I can't assure you that I should be trusted. But when I had the chance, I still came back. I'm serving Earth's interests as best I can."

Headband's eyebrows were down, looking back and forth between Pidge and Shiro like he didn't want to understand what Shiro had just said. Keith just held him tighter.

Pidge pursed his lips, still watching Shiro analytically, weighing that response. He'd probably expected anger. "How did you escape?"

"I don't remember." Shiro chuckled airlessly. "I'd tell you if I did. I'm well aware how bad that sounds."

"What do you remember?" Keith asked.

"Waking up on the floor of the escape pod. My head hurt; I think I was knocked out. There was one jump completed and a second still queued, to a system with eight planets and dozens of smaller bodies, with a flag on one whose orbit was skewed from the plane. X-9-Y Iota. The flagged orbit looked like Pluto and the outer planet descriptions matched Sol system, so I let the jump go through and shaped a course to the third planet, and the landforms confirmed it was Earth."

There'd also been half a sentry on the floor of the escape pod with him, frame crushed in a way that matched the nicks in the cargo hatch seal. That didn't argue for an orderly exit, but someone had input the jump destinations.

"Do you think you're a danger?" Pidge asked.

Shiro eyed him. "I'm not in quarantine," he said.

"We're the ones who took you out, though," said Headband. "You couldn't have predicted that. You gave yourself up to the Garrison."

"I took you out," Keith said. "It was my decision, and I had a reason. Earth would be in more danger if they buried you away somewhere."

Shiro pulled back and frowned at Keith. Keith nodded slightly and flicked his eyes to a covered area of the wall. Later, then; Shiro refocused on Pidge, on the necessary questions.

"If you want to know whether I'm an active, conscious danger, then no. My pod didn't have weapons, but I came out of jump fast enough to destroy this whole state with a kinetic strike. If I wanted to soften up Earth, I could have taken out most of Europe or half of Indochina, or caused a tsunami that would gut Tokyo and Oceania. If you're asking whether I'm serving the Galra, well." Shiro held eye contact, and his voice went down low, down into a growl. "I don't remember everything that happened, but I would rather die than serve them. I won't do what they want."

Pidge tilted his head and nodded once, slowly. "I believe you." He looked aside. "Sorry for being an asshole. I had to make sure."

Shiro shook his head wordlessly, and sensed more than saw Headband making motions out of the corner of his eye. The lanky new kid by the door jerked out of his reverie, juggled the heap of clothes enough to make a finger-gun gesture back, then unceremoniously dumped the clothes on the low table next to Keith and went back out the door with a screech-whack.

"The kitchen is in the other room," Headband explained. "And by 'other room' I mean the lean-to on the side of the shack."

Keith looked sullen. "The camp stove makes fumes and I don't like storing fuel bricks inside."

"First, that's legit, completely legit, I'm not disparaging the lean-to kitchen, I've done some of my best cooking outside. But second, a camp stove? Why not a solar collector and a little ion burner?"

Keith looked more sullen. "Couldn't afford camouflage that would conceal the panels and still let enough sun through."

Headband opened his mouth, and paused. "Ah. So you're really serious about the desert hermit thing. Are the authorities…trying to…find you? I mean, before last night?"

Keith snorted. "There's a reason I got expelled."

"You got expelled? " Shiro said. Keith rounded on him.

"You know what? You don't get a say. You were dead."

Shiro raised his hands, palms out in surrender. "Clearly I don't have all the context." He could see Keith's hackles lower, all his sharp edges turning back inward, a little abashed but not much.

"What does the Garrison matter anyway," Keith muttered. "They can't defend Earth. Not against a threat like you were describing to Iverson."

"Nothing on Earth can," Shiro confirmed bitterly. "But how did you hear that? You weren't… Were you there?" He didn't remember Keith there. "Were you in an isosuit?" One of the guards? He didn't think he would overlook that.

"No — oh! No, Shiro, sorry. I only broke in after they sedated you." Keith jerked a thumb at Pidge. "But meanwhile that guy was snooping on their camera feeds and recorded pretty much everything, from when your ship opened to when we took you out."

Shiro rubbed his face with his human hand. "Great." He'd think about his panic caught on camera later. Not that he could have done much about it. "I hope you left them a copy. Could you be identified from it?"

"Probably," Keith said. "Pidge says he blurred our faces, but they won't have trouble ID'ing me. The others, who knows. I guess it depends when they're missed from barracks."

"I won't be missed until tomorrow." Pidge gave a smugly toothy smile. "And by then — not only do I have the full and unedited footage, I have it queued in the outbox to some people who'll be very interested, as soon as I catch a signal."

"You won't," Keith said. "Catch a signal, I mean. This whole area's off the net. 'Natural magnetic interference,' I think they decided it was. That's why the Garrison doesn't run any exercises out this way. Elmira's on the net, but their cell service is name only and the wireless falls off fast if you're more than ten feet from a router."

"You're kidding me," Pidge said. "I thought that was a ghost story."

Keith shrugged. "It's more than fifty square miles of badlands where nobody comes anyway. That'd have to be a lot of ghosts."

"Ghost stories later," Headband said firmly. "Breakfast now." He looked toward the door and Shiro didn't startle when it screeched open again, the lanky kid juggling a motley assortment of bowls.

"Here we have oatmeal, oatmeal, oatmeal, powdered milk, sugar, powdered egg, and Hunk's already got the trail mix, that's why I couldn't find it." The one actual bowl was set down in front of Shiro; Pidge and Headband got tupperwares, and Keith got a battered aluminum pie plate, a plastic fork, and a smirk that dared him to complain. Keith didn't seem to notice.

Shiro covered his amusement by glancing aside. Hunk. That was an unusual name in English. It did suit him, though, and he didn't seem flustered or annoyed at the lanky kid at all. It must be a name he agreed to; Shiro was the last person who could quibble about names.

That thought echoed oddly. Shiro frowned, trying to chase it down. He didn't look at the food, though he couldn't avoid the smell; it was making him dizzy, and there was a sharp ache in his chest and stomach. It would be nice if they wouldn't eat in front of him.

“Shiro?” Keith said. “You can eat.”

Oh. They were all looking at him. Shiro reached out and took the bowl left on the table in front of him, then checked again. They were looking at his food, but they all had their own. He tried to gauge whether they'd still be hungry after they finished what they had. He didn't want to fight them. He shouldn't fight them, they were kids, they needed to get enough.

But he did want to eat. He didn't think he could give up this food, not now that it was in his hand.

Keith picked up a spoon and offered it, palm open. Shiro took it on reflex, then closed his fist hard against the urge to drop it, to keep his weapon hand free. No one seemed to notice his trouble; Keith was glaring at the rest of them now and angling himself away, almost turning his back.

Shiro pulled his legs up and turned sideways, transferring the spoon to his other hand. He could guard with his right, and with the bowl in his lap it would be hard for anyone else to reach. He curled around it, put the spoon in, and put some in his mouth.

It was plain, with no sugar or milk or egg, and it had texture and the nutty-fresh flavor of the oats and the hint of salt rounding out the rest and tying them together. His eyes closed involuntarily.

Keith's back was warm and alive against his, Keith's spine to one side of Shiro's spine. Keith could keep watch for a minute or two. Shiro took another spoonful, and another and another, trying to go slow enough to taste it. He was mostly unsuccessful. When it was gone Hunk offered him seconds, and after a moment Shiro was able to trade him the empty dish for a full one and check the room again.

Pidge had maybe been staring; his container was still mostly full. The lanky kid picked up his own breakfast, reached a long arm over to grab Pidge, and dragged him out with a "We'll just go check on that hoverbike" and a very loose salute.

Shiro blinked after them, then refocused on the fully-loaded tupperware in his hand. "Wait. This is yours."

Hunk held up his hands. "There's a whole pot in the kitchen. I'll dish myself up some more."

"Don't go hungry because of me."

"I won't. I made plenty, I promise. How do you feel? Stomach okay so far?"

"Yeah, all right so far." Shiro considered. The food was a solid presence in his stomach; not filling him, but offering a contrast to the hollowness inside, an anchor holding him to his body. He hadn't been able to tell how lightheaded he was. "It's good. As long as you're sure."

"I am very happy to give you more. Just— here." Hunk dug through the pile of laundry on the table and fished out a bottle of sports drink with a ha! "Drink on this too. Pay attention to how you're feeling. If you feel sick, let someone know. Meanwhile I'll take care of these dishes and see what I can pack up."

"You don't have to do that," Keith protested. "At least let me wash them while you eat."

"Sure." Hunk gathered up the dirty dishes and Keith followed him out, catching the screen door with his heel so it didn't whack so loudly as he looked back.

With the room to himself Shiro could slow down a little, and he did. The shocking sweetness of the sugar and crunch of the trail mix was good, the powdered egg even better once he stirred it in and discovered his body was craving protein. He leaned his head against the wall next to the window and caught voices from outside.

"How's he doing?" That must be the lanky kid, the only one he didn't have a name for, though his voice was vaguely familiar.

"Hard to tell. I think he's tracking pretty well." Hunk.

"Well he's sort of eating that oatmeal like a zombie eats brains, dude."

"No, Lance, he's eating it like a person who is very hungry. There's a difference, which is that he's a person and not a zombie. And geez."

"Ow! What was that for!"

Shiro edged his head under the sheet until he could see a slice of the speakers, directing his breath down and away so it wouldn't move the fabric. He could see the back of Hunk's head and his ear, and the shoulder and chin of the lanky kid. Lance.

"You compare my cooking to human brains again, you see what you get. What gives? You said he was your hero!"

"He was my hero!" Lance hissed. He looked down, scuffing his toe through the gravel, kicking little bits against the foundations. "....He was. This guy...doesn't look like the guy in the posters. Doesn't act like a high flier. And he was the highest high flier, straight shot, a hero, he was the real deal. What happened? "

"People...change when they go through stuff. He's still the same person."

"Hunk, he tried to take a bite out of the bowl."

Hunk paused, mouth open. "Yeah, that was weird," he allowed.

Shiro rubbed his mouth, remembering the jarring click of porcelain on his teeth, then feathered his fingertips over the edges of the scar on his face. He knew it would be there before he touched it, but the contours and ridges weren't familiar. He knew it bunched up when he snarled, he could feel the way the skin didn't want to fold, but he didn't know what it looked like.

He didn't know what he looked like.

Keith scuffed his feet outside the door and came back in, handling the door gently so it only screeched. He walked around the low table and sat matter-of-fact at the other end of the couch, untangling a shirt from the pile of laundry and shaking it out to fold. A pair of boxers came next, and then another shirt, not Keith's size at all.

"You haven't asked me anything," Shiro said, breaking the silence.

Keith's eyes flicked up to him. "Does it hurt?" he asked, motioning at his face.

Shiro pulled his hand away from the scar. "I don't…think so. Is it noticeable?"

Keith set down the shirt, giving Shiro his full attention. "Yeah," he said calmly. "You're pale, and it stands out against your skin. You already look better than you did last night, though. You were gray. I was worried."

Shiro huffed a laugh. "Half of that is dirt, I bet. I'm sure I don't smell good."

"There's a place to get clean outside, if you want a shower. The water won't be very warm yet, but some of these clothes are yours and they're clean." Keith pointed his chin at the neat pile of darker colors, picking the shirt back up and shaking out a sleeve so he could smooth it flat along the crease.

"I'd like that." Shiro ate some more, savoring it. He had to finish the bowl; he couldn't take any of it with him. But he'd stop for a while, after this. The edge was taken off, and it was dangerous to eat more than that when he didn't know what would happen next.

The tight-folded packet of trail mix poked the skin under his arm, concealed under his jumpsuit. He'd like to have pockets again. Kids needed to eat so much, and they probably wouldn't think to prepare.

"After that, though," Shiro said, and stalled. He didn't know the words to do this, not in any language. "Keith... It's good to see you again."

Keith met his eyes, too perceptive by half. "You're going to find this Voltron weapon, and you're going to take it off Earth, aren't you?"

"I can't stay," Shiro said. "They'll come after me, with or without Voltron. I put Earth in danger by being here."

Keith nodded. "I'm coming with you."

"Keith. You shouldn't. You don't know how dangerous it is out there. The Galra—"

"You haven't asked me anything, either," Keith said calmly. "You haven't asked why I'm living here. Why I got expelled. You haven't even asked where the three musketeers came from, or how a bunch of kids got you away from the Garrison, or how we knew to try. I can see how scared you are, Shiro. I've never seen you scared before. You were somewhere you didn't get to have choices, so now you do." He finished folding another pair of pants, and set it squared neatly on the pile. "So. You can make the choice to go back into danger again, that's fine. But we get choices too, and whether I go with you? That's not your choice."

Shiro bit his lip, the pain almost unnoticeable against the cold dread spearing right through him, pinning him in place. If what happened to him happened to — He couldn't reply. Nothing in the noise in his head would form into words. There was a little splash of red in his bowl, then another.

"Jesus," Keith snarled, and ripped the towel he was folding. Shiro jumped, attention snapping to the sound of anger.

"Sorry, sorry, I won't startle you again. But jesus, Shiro, don't hurt yourself. Hold— just hold still, okay? I'm gonna rip this again." The noise made Shiro press himself harder against the couch's armrest and check the door. They were so exposed here. There was a line of warmth from his lip down to the underside of his chin, but it wasn't worth lowering his guard or surrendering his food to wipe at it.

"I'm walking around the table. I'm going to hold this to your lip until it stops bleeding, okay?"

Shiro let the folded strip of cloth touch his mouth, let it press his head back against the couch, and kept his attention on the door. He was aware, in a sideways sort of way, that he wasn't acting rationally; that something had kicked him right over into a headspace where he expected a fight, but probably wasn't thinking clearly enough to actually win one. He'd seen people die in fugues like this. He'd taken advantage of fugues like this.

Serves her right for breaking her toy.

In his peripheral vision, Keith's head came up, his eyes wide. "Shiro," he asked in English, "what are you seeing?"

Shiro shook his head, frustrated. No words.

"Does your mouth hurt?" Keith asked.

That was easier. Better. He had to pay attention to his mouth to answer. "It hurts." His lips felt numb and clumsy. Talking hurt. Keith readjusted the cloth and pressed again.

"Sorry," Keith mumbled. "I shouldn't have dumped all that on you at once. I was really…" He took a deep breath. "Really angry at you for a long time, for being dead. Even though I didn't believe the story about what happened. There just — aren't many possibilities for survivable accidents, when you're out that far."

Shiro shook his head again, and put his hand over Keith's where it was pressing the cloth to his mouth. You're okay. You're forgiven. "Sorry I'm not really…together."

"You don't have to be," Keith said. He didn't shrink from the prosthetic hand fitted around his, even though Shiro knew the black fingers and palm were too grippy-tough and the thumb too cool to feel like a human touch.

"You deserve an answer." Damn, words were hard. He was shaking a little, the dread still cold right through him, though he could finally bear to look away from the door. Shiro met Keith's eyes. "I don't — know what — they did to me. But if you come with me I'll keep you safe. I'll die before I let the same thing happen to anyone else."

"And I won't let you die again," Keith said, too calm. "So we're square. I'll make sure you come back safe. That way it all balances out."

Shiro smiled ruefully, his lip stinging at the stretch. "Not sure that's how it works."

"Bite me," Keith snapped. "You can shut up and deal with it. Unless you want to take this outside, right here right now, when a gentle breeze could knock you over! Shiro, you look better but you still look like shit. I'd take you."

Shiro drew a ragged breath, just barely keeping himself from standing. Keith wasn't serious. "No, let's not do that."

"Okay then." Keith snaked his other arm around Shiro's shoulders and clapped him hard on the back, twice. "Glad we had this talk."

"Keith," Shiro offered after a few more bites of oatmeal, keeping the dressing at hand in case his lip started bleeding again.

"Yeah?" Keith said, folding a surviving towel.

"You couldn't take me," Shiro said, and let all his certainty show in his slow smile. "Just letting you know."

The towel hit him in the chest.

Chapter Text

That morning, the morning after he came back to Earth, Shiro watched the sun rise over the desert.

The shower was a square paved area about thirty feet from the shack, with a silver and black solar-thermal water tank above. One corner was enclosed with a shoulder-high cinderblock wall that provided some privacy from the house, and the other two sides were open to a wide sweeping vista of sagebrush and deceptively gentle hills. Any coyotes within about thirty miles would have a great view. Shiro approached cautiously, in case some desert creature had spent the night in the shelter of the cinderblock corner and hadn't yet moved on, but the crescent-shaped tan drift of dirt inside was empty and unmarked. He set down his armload of soap and towel and clean clothes on the top of the wall and took a moment just to look out at the country that would be looking back at him.

The sun, Earth's sun, was reaching out orange fingers and just starting to touch the crest of the hills he'd seen from inside the house, picking out the individual rock outcrops. There were Joshua trees here and there, standing out improbably tall and gangly above the rocks with their tips limned in gold, and the plains spread below them with spotted low scrub and the disordered tumbledown clumps of teddy bear cacti. Behind the fiery hills in the west the sky was deep blue, shading to a heady orange-gold in the east that already had him squinting. Colors he hadn't seen since... He remembered cracks in an iridescent scarab shell and the ghost-shock of impact in his knuckles and swallowed hard, the world tilting for a moment.

It was all unreal. The rock over there — if he tried to lift it, it would be painted Styrofoam or hollow on the other side. This was a fancy movie set. He was seeing something he wanted to see, and he didn't even have any feelings for Joshua trees.

It was beautiful, and he knew the geology and the weather and the names of the plants, and there was still something wrong. This place was alien, utterly incomprehensible, and Shiro didn't belong here.

He didn't walk over to check the other side of the rock. He turned his back on it and looked at the small hazy mirror tacked at head-height on the inside of the cinderblock wall.

It wasn't anyone he recognized, but his features were there. His jaw, his nose, his eyes. He tilted his head back and forth and tried the smile he had practiced for the Garrison's publicity shots, and there, he could see it: his past self underneath his new skin, like two layers in a photo editing program not quite aligned. His face had changed like his body, nothing soft in it anymore. He looked — the thought floated up and he frowned — like someone to be afraid of. He could use this face to be terrifying.

The shock of white hair was expected; he could see his bangs at the top of his vision, and he remembered bits and flashes of the white growing in, the black tips shorter every time the guards cycled him through their haircut and shower routine until all the tips were gone and there was only white. At least the rest of his hair was the same brown-black it had always been, though the buzzed parts were shorter and the bangs longer than he'd ever worn them at the Garrison. The alien style made him look older, and oddly punk. Absolutely like he didn't fucking care.

The scar over his nose was… Shiro touched it. Keith was right. It was stark. He hadn't realized how long it was, nearly out past his eye sockets on either side. If this was from an edged weapon, the blow should have half-bisected his skull. He didn't know how he could have survived.

He didn't remember how it happened. Nothing.

The lower edge of the scar was ragged, but it lined up about where he remembered the muzzle touching his face. He'd been constantly bruised along this line. The upper edge of the scar…the veil would hit right about there, wouldn't it? With the muzzle and veil on, this thin strip would be the only skin uncovered. Right where the scar was.

Acid? A flash burn? Either was possible. The idea that it might have happened while he had the veil on gave him a creeping queasiness, over and above the fact of the scar itself. And he had no idea why that would bother him, out of everything here to be disturbed by.

He found pitted marks up the inside of his left elbow as he peeled the jumpsuit away, and a thick bracelet of scarring around his wrist. He must have known he couldn't get free by fighting the restraints, but he'd tried anyway, over and over. Whether he'd consciously chosen to or been beyond choice, it had been that bad.

Shiro traced over the scars on his wrist and ran his fingers up the track marks. Some were recent, and were still sore. The silvery-matte casing of his other arm was pristine and unmarred in comparison, the lips of its seams and the slight flare at his wrist utterly familiar to the fingers of his human hand. The metal was so smooth it felt soft. There was no way to know what was underneath, whether the residual limb of his right arm had scars or track marks or how much was left at all. The stump didn't hurt, but it was scarred all the way around where the socket lay against it, and adhered to the metal too tight for him to get a finger in between.

The icy certainty of dreams. They did this to me. They did something to me to keep me from remembering. They'd been in his body, done this to him, given him the scars and whatever other traces he was going to find. And they'd been in his mind.

I need to be careful. I need to be careful.

Shiro touched his prosthetic hand to his throat, felt the boxy ridges of his larynx and the flutter of his pulse. The black material of his palm and fingers was sensitive; it picked up the vibrations better than his flesh hand, and better than the hard silver shell of his thumb. He felt the thump and rush of his life under his fingers without surprise. He'd done this before, held his throat in his hand before.

And he was still here, still alive. Presumably he'd been better able to remember, those other, past times; better able to judge himself. He dropped his hand and looked up at the wispy golden mare's-tails and the much lower hint of makerel sky over in the west. It really would be a beautiful day.

You're one-third of all the chances Earth has. You can't throw yourself away.

The water from the solar tank wasn't hot, but it was warmer than the air and steamed gently in the dry dawn chill. He let out a trickle and zipped the rest of the jumpsuit off a patch at a time, turning each piece inside out to rinse and draping them over the top of the shower walls, not clean but at least less disgusting. They'd be dry by the time he was done. Then he lathered up twice, scrubbing his entire body and using just enough water to rinse off. There were more scars, but he didn't look at them beyond checking they were healed. He'd done enough looking for today. Thin gray suds and rusty dark-gray water dripped off his toes; he left visibly dirty footprints on the shower floor while he lathered up the second time, scraping at the ingrained grime, getting all the dried blood out of the creases in his skin. He'd been due for a shower for a while, but little niceties like that tended to slip with the Druids. At least they hadn't prepped him for any surgeries during that time, or he'd be cleaner.

That just meant they were doing something to him less visible. He'd been able to remember. Even in the pod, he'd had a clearer picture of the recent past than now. He'd been at the top, able to see most of the ascending trail — and now he was over and down and all he could see was the mountain itself, with the other side lost to him.

He wondered if Matt was clean or dirty, hungry or tired or in pain or in fear. It was Matt who told Shiro not to waste himself, but maybe Matt had found a way out. If not, he wouldn't have to hold on so hard anymore. One of the Wayfarer crew had come home, and had passed along the warning.

But if Earth was conquered tomorrow, Matt might never know that either. Shiro wanted to sit down and not stand up again, wanted it with a sharp wistful pang that made him sway and catch his balance against the wall.

Instead he dried off with the harsh little scrap of towel and pulled on the clean clothes, marveling at the strange half-familiar feel of underwear and a waistband and cloth loose enough to swish and brush over his skin. Some of this stuff was from his old gym locker. He found a long-sleeved gray shirt he'd worn to go running in the mornings and pulled it on gratefully; it covered his left arm all the way to the wrist, and was thin and stretchy enough to be rolled up above the prosthetic and still conceal the scarring around the socket.

His old riding leathers weren't loose, once he struggled them on. He was glad the tough impact-armored pants and the vest had as much give as they did, way more than the genuine leather of their name would have. His boots still fit, and his belt after he took it in, but the jacket was impossible. He'd put on breadth in his arms and shoulders, and the prosthetic's refusal to compress meant he couldn't even get his right arm through the sleeve.

Maybe Keith or one of the others could use it. He laid the jacket over his arm, tucking the extra bike glove into its pocket, and went to investigate the kitchen — some of the emergency supplies in his belt pouches were expired, and there was plenty of space left to fit more. Whatever happened next, he wanted to be ready.

Being clean was amazing. The wind — the wind — ruffled through his hair with a pure physical pleasure he felt all the way down his back and the outside of his legs, skin against clean soft cloth with nonstop sparkles of astonishment. He wanted to distrust the feeling — surely too nice to be real — but it was too late. He wanted more, he wanted to glut his skin with wind and warmth and being clean. He wanted to touch everything with his left hand and his right hand.

He touched the ground, sharp gravel and gritty hardpan, and the fuzzy silver-gray underside of a sage leaf, and the painted wall of the house, already warning with the first orange touches of sun. He ran his right palm along the screen door, finding the polished softness and the weathered splinters, and brushed them off on the armored cloth of his thigh. He left his old jacket on the couch.

The kitchen area was bare, no storage, only a few crates as work surfaces. Shiro let himself down into the cellar, taking the solar lantern next to the trapdoor, and went through its shelves quickly and efficiently. Salt and electrolyte tablets, vitamins, meds — anything he (and Keith) wouldn't be able to find or wouldn't be able to trust out there. There was no way to carry much food in his pouches, but he chose carefully. High calorie, long shelf life, for when someone really needed it.

Where was everyone?

Outside arguing, apparently, standing next to a dusty and painfully familiar red hoverbike. Shiro drifted silently up to the corner of the house and listened. With the pool of shade behind him, he'd be hard to see from out in the bright. Keith was siphoning fuel from a big gas can into a smaller plastic tank, ready to stow it with the other in the Rattlesnake's cargo compartment.

"If you really don't want a lift anywhere, you guys can stay here. I figure the Garrison will find this place in a couple days, but you'll have everything you need."

"No way are we gonna just sit here," Lance started heatedly.

Hunk broke in, cutting him off. "We need to send someone in to town."

Keith stopped at the serious tone. "What is it?"

"We need mineral supplements, specific kinds — especially phosphates if you can find it — and powdered sports drink mix, and we need a bunch of heatstroke testers. I know you have a few, but we need enough to test Lieutenant Shirogane every few hours for about a week."

"Refeeding syndrome," Pidge realized.

"What happens with refeeding syndrome? I haven't taken Abogan's class on All the Ways to Die in Space yet," said Lance.

"It's when you transition from starving or from extreme metabolic load, like serious illness or surgery, back to eating normally," Hunk explained. "Your mineral levels can get dangerously low if you ran down your stores too much while you were starving. And then you have full-body cramps or your heart stops beating or your cells run out of what they need to create and use energy so they die, and then you die."

Lance raised his hands. "Yeah, okay, that would suck. After we rescued him and all."

"He doesn't look starved," Keith said, alarmed. "If anything, he's bulked up compared to when he left."

"He has scarily low body fat, though," Pidge said. "The guy is all rocks and sticks. I was holding him on that hover, I know. Big muscles are useless in low-gee, and feeding them wastes calories. The Kerberos crew were training cardio and stamina for months before the launch, not trying to put on muscle. He was probably at the low end of his healthy weight range when he left. Wherever he's been, it wasn't low-gee."

"It wasn't friendly either," Lance said. "I mean, he didn't get that scar or that arm lifting weights in the gym. And Pidge is right, there's no padding on him at all. Pro bodybuilders train up to that for like, competitions, they don't try to stay there."

"Okay, okay—" Keith said.

Hunk talked over him, voice trending steadily up. "Exactly, thank you, exactly! He needs to readjust before he can give us any kind of baseline for a stable healthy weight, and I don't want to scare anybody here, but the symptoms of this could kill him dead! He literally could not remember the last time he ate something. The fact that there's a risk means we have to take it seriously! He really ought to be in an infirmary where people can monitor his serum levels," he fretted.

"You're not considering taking him back," Keith snapped.

"No! No, I just...don't want him to fall over and die because I don't know what I'm doing."

Shiro cleared his throat, pitching his voice to carry. "You're doing fine."

All four of them jumped and gave him expressions as guilty as if he'd shone a light on them sneaking out after curfew, though Pidge's was more belligerent and Keith's more honestly concerned, and Lance looked a little horrified, maybe reviewing all the possibly-overheard things he'd said this morning. Shiro let a smile dance around his mouth. It was funny.

"Oh," Lance gasped. "That's you. You look like you."

"You look a lot better," Pidge said bluntly. They all seemed surprised, giving him second and third looks as the caught-by-an-officer reflex wore off.

"How about we trade places," Shiro suggested. "You guys can finish your conversation in private, and I can um. Get some vitamin D." Kick a bush and try to judge whether I'm hallucinating. He was tempted to say that out loud, but it would be a bit unkind, even if this was all a dream. Maybe especially then.

These were good kids. He wished he'd met them.

Keith came back out a few minutes later, joining Shiro on the little knoll that broke the flatness on this side of the cabin. "Sorry I snapped at you earlier."

"That's all right." Shiro considered. "It's true, what you said. I can't, I shouldn't decide for you, even if I want to. I don't think the same idea will trigger me again."

"You weren't expecting that to happen."

Shiro shook his head. "I don't know why I reacted that way." Other than the fear living under his skin now, like a separate creature inhabiting the same body, but Keith had picked up on that already.

Keith looked at him, troubled. "What happened out there?"

"I wish I knew." None of the explanations he could come up with were good. "Losing my memory of most of the year… It's too convenient. I must have learned something that would be of more value than the little bits I have. Something they didn't want me to remember."

"You said you hit your head when you were getting away, though."

"Yeah…" Shiro sighed. "That's another question. When I woke up and saw the destination, I thought it must be a trick. All the way up to when I got visual confirmation of the continents, I couldn't believe it was really Sol system. Because I don't know how to input hyperspace jumps. And I never learned Earth's coordinates."

"That you remember," Keith pointed out. "So either you know and forgot, or someone helped you."

"Someone I left behind," Shiro said bleakly.

Keith touched his shoulder, holding on silently. He didn't say, you left me behind too. Shiro reached up and laid his hand over Keith's. His left hand, this time, warm and alive and human, even if it was hard with calluses he hadn't gotten by piloting. There was no matching wear on the palm of his prosthetic hand.

Keith spoke softly. "However you got here. It's good to have you back."

Shiro's hand tightened, Keith's fingers hot and thinner than his own. "It's good to be…" Not there. "Here." However and whatever here was, he'd stay here for as long as he could.

Instructors had drilled that into them in survival training, and again in the harsher field training of officer school. Be here now. The reminder was a good one.

The sun was hot on his vest and in his hair, absorbed by the dark colors. Shiro opened his other hand and angled his arm to the sun until his black palm and the inside of his elbow felt a trickle of the heat. If he just…stopped second-guessing for a minute, his brain could clunk into gear, though it took some effort.

"You probably saw my pod on reentry. But you can't have known it was me." Why would an alien craft hold anything but an alien? "Why were you ready with a rescue plan? Keith… why'd you say Earth would be in more danger otherwise?"

Keith sighed. "It's hard to explain. I know you were trying to keep me out of all this, but I'm already in it so deep, Shiro. I have been for months." Shiro met his eyes, disturbed, and Keith looked forthrightly back. "You'd better come inside. There's something I have to show you."

"Can I touch?" Pidge asked. He was looking at Shiro's arm.

Shiro assessed him. No tools — his hands were empty, nothing obvious in his pockets. Overwhelming reflex made Shiro check behind himself, check entrances and exits, but Pidge wasn't the distraction for anyone else. Keith had been in and out for the last half-hour as Hunk put together his Voltron detector and the others checked over and loaded the old Rattlesnake, and had gently but firmly pushed Shiro at the couch. Shiro was happy enough to leave the hover to them — it was Keith's now, obviously well-maintained, and Shiro wasn't going to take it back even if it hurt dully down under his breastbone to be so close to something he knew so well before.

They made you write a will when they picked you for a mission, and they made you keep it current. Shiro's had been executed faithfully, as far as he could tell. He should let it stand. The things you had in life. Look but don't touch.

"Lieutenant?" the cadet said, and Shiro came back to himself with a start, realizing he'd taken too long to respond. Pidge hadn't moved, still watching him from well out of reach.

"Sorry, I got stuck," Shiro said, and tried a smile. "Sometimes I have a — a blank, a gap. If you see that happen, just talk to me and give me space, like you're doing."

"I don't want— I don't have to," Pidge said. "If you're not comfortable I won't come near your arm at all."

"Oh, no, I was getting stuck on something else, it wasn't you." Shiro glanced at the electronics spilling out of Pidge's pack. "You're comms track, aren't you?"

"Yeah. Lance is pilot track, Hunk's engineering, I'm comms. Or at least I was."

Shiro shook his head. "The Garrison has no say in what you love. Not if you're going to do it anyway." Pidge stared at him and he smiled ruefully. "Matt was like that. He'd have an aneurysm if I told him to stay away from a prime piece of alien tech like this."

"You're sure it's okay?" Pidge said. "I, um. I watched the Garrison video. You didn't like it when the medtech touched you."

Shiro took a deep breath. "Bare-handed is fine." He didn't think human fingernails could so much as scratch the finish.

Pidge lifted a hand and set it on the silver-gray forearm of the prosthetic, watching Shiro's face. His hand was small and hot and human, the weight too light to notice, blooming and receding with the warmth of his pulse. "What do you feel? Do you get temperature and pressure? How localized is it?"

"Um." Shiro looked at Pidge's hand on his arm and tried to think. The stationary touch wasn't as overwhelming as the medtech's had been. The surreality of it yanked his attention, made it impossible to focus on anything else, but it didn't hurt. "Both. Not sure how localized. The silver parts feel temperature more than pressure, but the black parts are the opposite, vibration and pressure more than temperature. I can't feel air currents at all unless there's a temperature extreme. I remember thinking it was like I had a shoulder-length glove on, at first, because of that."

"No hair," Pidge shrugged. "That makes sense. Do you know what metal it is?"

"No idea. It's light but it's hard."

"Rotate your forearm?" Shiro did, letting Pidge pull his arm out straight and open his palm. "No dents or scratches that I can see," Pidge said. "How strong is it?"

"Strong," Shiro said dryly. "The grip doesn't get tired."

"How long did it take to get used to it?"

"I don't know," Shiro said. "I know some things about it, I have some impressions from when it was new, but I don't remember getting it. I don't know how long I've had it."

Pidge flicked him a look too sharp to be pitying, and ran him through a series of dexterity tests. "People talked about you a lot, at the Garrison," he remarked offhandedly, checking how close together he could tap two fingers before Shiro registered it as a single touch. "I get it now."

"If I died exploring, I guess there are worse examples."

"Yeah, fuck that," Pidge said, his hands going light in counterpoint to the sudden bitterness of his tone. "I want living examples."

Shiro held still, tamping down a shiver. "They gave us the whole 'dead heroes' treatment?"

"Yeah." Pidge glanced up at his grimace. "…Sorry. It was non-stop for a while."

"I'm not a hero," Shiro muttered. Of course the Garrison would frame it that way, with no answers about what happened and no knowledge of what came after. Pilot error story notwithstanding; they would have been ever so delicate about that, floated it as a probable cause with no way to confirm, and let the media pick it up and run with it. A tidy way to wrap up the package of a gallant tragedy. End with a paean about the human spirit or a line from Sagan.

You cannot choose the story they make of you. Can you blame them, most of them? They only see you on the sands.

"Well, I'm glad you're not dead," Pidge said pragmatically.

I've done a lot to stay alive.

Shiro blinked, trying to untangle the overlapping voices. He drew his arm back, and Pidge let him go. That second voice was his own, he was pretty sure. The first voice…he didn't remember.

His chest hurt, and he rubbed it, between the third and fourth ribs. His voice was thick when he spoke. "Do you have any paper?"

"Uh, yeah, I've got a notebook in my pack."

"I want to write a letter." Shiro looked at his hand. "Or try, anyway. I was right-handed. Guess I'll see how important the muscle memory is."

Pidge thrust a notebook page and a pencil at him, vibrating in scientific excitement. "Can I watch? Please?"

Shiro laughed. "Just don't tell anyone how many kanji I've forgotten."

From Shirogane Takashi
To Shizukuishi Naori

Aunt Naori,
I want you to know I am alive. I'm enclosing the clothing I wore when I landed yesterday in North America. I doubt the Garrison will make any announcement, because the truth is, we were not lost to a piloting error…

When the overshirt and jumpsuit were all folded with the letter, they made a package much smaller than it had any right to be. Pidge ran it out to be added to the hover, while Shiro shook out his hand, trying to stretch away the phantom burn of fatigue. He'd broken the first pencil, and he had to visualize every stroke of the characters, link them together in his mind before his hand would write them. Each individual character smooth and fluid, the gaps between them slow and halting; overall too big, too square, too perfectly textbook legible. Nothing like the comfortably right-leaning continuous grassy scrawl of his handwriting before.

He wondered if he could still knit, then wondered why he cared. The sudden urge to look for yarn and needles wouldn't turn up supplies Keith didn't own.

It was a strong urge, and it didn't make any sense. Shiro kneaded his neck and rubbed his temples with his cool knuckles, staring at the spiderwebs in the high dusty corners, until the kids came to let him know everything was ready.

The desert looked real, and the sun was hot on the back of his neck, and when a freak angle in the canyon wall blew the hoverbike's wake back in their faces, sand pattered and hissed on the chassis and Shiro bit down on a mouthful of grit. It still felt like the world was poised on an inhale; like a set before the curtains raised and the actors walked on. Like they were the only humans on the face of the planet, and they could ride forever beneath the bowl of the sky and the pillars of the rocks.

The dusty little town was as distant as a mirage as he sat with Keith and Lance in the hover's shade, waiting for Hunk and Pidge to come back from the drugstore and post office. Shiro was too recognizable from the old Kerberos coverage, Keith and Lance's Garrison photos too likely to have been circulated last night. Pidge and Hunk were just as AWOL as Lance, but they'd never come inside the pop-dome or been caught on camera. And Pidge had said, with a twist to his mouth, that he was good at incognito.

"So," Lance said, fidgeting as the silence stretched and no manmade sounds filled it. There was a bird, somewhere in the sudden eruption of gnarled old cottonwoods growing along the dry wash where Keith had concealed them. It sang every two or three minutes, and in between the only sound was the creak and wheeze of the trees, and the unfelt breeze fluttering their startling gold leaves. "I have to ask. What was Kerberos like?"

Shiro drew a slow breath. "As amazing as we thought it would be." He smiled involuntarily. "You'd think it couldn't be, you'd think nothing could live up to what you imagined when you were little, but it's all real. It's all actually there. There were methane ice formations that had Sam tearing out his hair, and the light… Sunlight's dim, when you're out that far, but the shadows are just as sharp-edged. Only, if you look close, you can pick out another shadow from the reflected Pluto-light, and one from Sirius, and a dozen more from the brightest stars, like this…uneven half-imaginary shadow flower cast around anything that sticks up. We had them, the rocks had them. The shadows of the tripod were incredible, like a cathedral window. It's funny. Even knowing how it ended, even knowing we didn't get the data we came for, you know? I'd go again."

Keith's hand latched tight on Shiro's shoulder.

"It kept me alive," Shiro told the pebbles between his boots. "I don't love the desert enough. When I needed to go somewhere else in my mind, I couldn't come here, but I could go to Kerberos."

"Good," Lance said. "Good."

"I'm not really here," Shiro said. It was like uncupping a butterfly or like watching an accident happen, his mouth moving and the next logical words coming out. "I'm trying."

"God give us strength," Lance said. "I can see that. Of course you're trying."

Shiro looked up at him and smiled briefly. "Thanks. You understand why? When someone comes out of danger to a place of safety, it can be hard to really believe it. I, um. I overheard you earlier this morning talking to Hunk outside."

Lance blanched.

"It's okay," Shiro said. "I'm not the same person who left for Kerberos. I have changed. Beyond the obvious." He flexed his hand; the sense-memory of Lance's quick grip, the excited tripping of his pulse. "I don't know when, or if, you're going to recognize the person you see."

Keith leaned forward from Shiro's other side and gave Lance a long considering look. "Hey, fighter-class. Ignore him for a second. If Shiro wasn't Shiro anymore, I'd tell you."

"I don't know," Lance shot back. "Would you? Do I trust your mullet powers of perception?"

"My mullet powers of perception—" Keith began heatedly.

"Cadets," Shiro broke in. "Hey. Break it up."

"I told you my name this morning. Twice! And okay, it's obvious I'm not the original fanboy here—"

"If Shiro came back from space replaced with some, some brain sucker, I would fucking let you know."

"—not to mention the ability to communicate with other humans! A brain sucker? What kind of—"

"Hey!" Shiro snapped. "Enough! Keith, thanks, but believe me I have no desire for brains." Keith crossed his arms and shoved back against the hover, and Shiro turned to Lance.

"No desire for brains," Lance forestalled him. "Got it."

"Oatmeal is much better," Shiro said pointedly, and caught the flash of a rueful self-directed smile. The bird sang again, off somewhere in the golden leaves, not bothered by human voices.

Shiro leaned back on his arms, considering. "So, Lance. Why'd you join the Garrison?"

Lance was fiddling again with some pebbles, trying to stack them. "Wanted to get out of the house, mostly. I have a big family and they don't really get concepts like privacy or quiet. Which is good too, but sometimes you need some time away, right?" He looked up. "And I've always wanted to go. Out there. You know. Always been the space-crazy one. It was never really a question what school I'd pick, my madrina knew from when I was little, she'd been saving up all that time and when I got the scholarship she told me, that she could cover the rest."

"And you're sure about this?" Shiro said gently. "You three could go back." He didn't mention that Lance, if not the other two, was probably already sunk. There was proof of his involvement on the cameras, and even in return for silence it would be hard for Iverson to ignore a list of infractions that long.

All assuming that the Garrison still existed tomorrow, and next week, and next year.

"I know Hunk wants to," Lance admitted, "but he says you need help, and he likes solving puzzles. And Pidge is driven. He's crazy about this alien stuff. Your murder-friend says he's been feeling this, air quotes, 'weird energy,' but I think maybe Pidge was expecting something like this too."

Shiro felt Keith's attention sharpen at the speculation. "Don't call me Shiro's murder-friend," he said, a second late.

"And what about you?" Shiro said, with just enough snap to nip the argument in the bud. Don't think you can distract me, cadet. He could see unfortunately well how Lance might have danced circles around some instructors, though.

"Nah," Lance said. "I can't walk away from this. I knew when I saw you on the feed, and heard what you were telling them. If I don't step up now, what was I even at the Garrison for? I mean this is what we were training for, right?"

"Well," Shiro considered, "no."

"Whatever, don't care," Lance said, leaning back and folding his arms behind his head. "I don't hear you saying hey, I did my part, let me off this ride." His words were challenging, but his tone was oddly gentle in return. Keith didn't bristle; he was quiet, listening too. "If anyone could, you could. As far as the world knows you died for us. Instead you come back, you do what you can, and you're saying, let me right back out again? I've had breakfast, I'm good?"

It was the softest chide that Shiro could remember getting, and it hurt to listen to. He took a breath and let it out slowly. Another, in, and out, barely disguising the shakiness. "Are you offering me lunch, too?" he managed.

"I'd turn my pockets inside-out for you," Lance said, and whistled through his teeth.

Shiro could feel Keith relax all at once on his other side. He took another huge breath and let it out in a sigh, then leaned back against the hover and let himself tilt over and down, resting his head on his own curled arm in the dirt and drawing his legs up. His arm crunched against the gravel that formed a thin crust over something softer, smaller pebbles and sand. "I'm tired," he admitted. "Wake me up when they get back." Keith absently rested a hand on his hip.

"Sure," Lance squeaked.

"He's on watch," Shiro murmured. "He'll want to wake me up silently without startling me."

"Oh," Lance squeaked. "Okay, I mean, of course. I'm on watch too. Do you— Should I—"

Shiro snorted into the dirt and lengthened his spine, straightening on his side until he felt the top of his head brush the side of Lance's leg above his knee. He relaxed back into the pillow of his arm and sleep rose up like a tide from the ground, the anchoring hand on his hip and the quicksilver life against his hair. He felt his other arm slide off his face to the warm dirt; one more breath and he was gone.

He was on a planet, wide and old and full of life, and the dirt under him went all the way down. It wasn't still, but it was so much bigger than him, and he hadn't been still in years. There was no one nearby but the two who were with him, watchful and wondering.

He sank into the soil, and he was there skimming just under the surface when Keith rubbed his hip with his palm. Shiro came up out of sleep like coming out of water, with a big breath, and sat up to blink and rub his eyes carefully with a clean patch of his sleeve. Pidge and Hunk were here, Pidge talking to Keith quietly and Hunk passing out supplies and making sure those who needed it reapplied their sunscreen. He pressed a drink bottle into Shiro's hand, cold and wet with condensation.

The cold drink cleared his head a little, and he sat up straighter to take an alcohol wipe and prick his own finger with the heatstroke test. It showed in the middle of the yellow band; not down in the orange or red, which Shiro understood to mean bad times, but not comfortably up in the green either. "Low," Hunk said, and pursed his mouth, and folded Shiro's hand around a couple of supplements and one of those American energy bars that tasted more like candy. Shiro wrinkled his nose and gnawed at it conscientiously. He managed about a third of it before wrapping it up and pushing it back at Hunk, who pushed it back at him, so Shiro wedged it into a sliver of space in one of his pouches and drank more of the cold electrolytes.

He felt like he was on an island in the middle of a river, with sleep receded around him for the moment but still a little distanced from the world.

"We need to go northwest," Keith said, moving over toward Shiro so everyone could see the map. He traced a meandering line up through a busy area of the topo lines, toward a pencilled X and a wider circle.

"Yep," Pidge said. "This stopover let us triangulate. Northwest, thirty-five to forty klicks. On the map, it's in a reserve."

"It's deep in the dead spot," Keith added. "I've explored. Carefully. No way to call for help."

Shiro cleared his throat. "How long will it take to get there?"

Keith shrugged. "I'm driving, so two, three hours? As long as we don't go down a dead end. The washes turn into canyons about halfway there."

Shiro nodded and stood up. "Let's get going."

"Right," Keith said. "We need stability this time. Big guy, behind me, you can manage the map. Shiro behind him. Fighter-class on the left, little guy on the right, that engine's sort of finicky. And no fidgeting!"

"I'll stop fidgeting when I'm dead," Lance said.

"You might get to test that," Keith said grimly.

"Call me Lance or I'm walking."

Keith rolled his eyes. "Lance."

"Come on," Pidge said, already perched on the hover's right outboard struts and securing the map, Voltron detector, and his own backpack straps to its fuselage with what appeared to be magnets. He and Hunk gave the two pilots stern glares while Shiro hid a smile against Hunk's back. "Science is ready to happen. Get with it."

Fuming, Keith and Lance climbed on, Keith wedging himself behind the control yoke nearly in Hunk's lap and Lance bracing and twining thoroughly in the struts on his side; Shiro watched and approved. Even if his arms slipped, he'd have to break a leg to actually fall out. How comfortable it would be for two or three hours was a separate question. Too bad it would unbalance the hover if Shiro offered to trade. Keith kicked the ignition and settled on his heels as the hover rose to cruising height, then a little higher, twisting and dipping slightly as he checked range of motion on the control surfaces and the engine gimbals. Shiro had seen newbies half-flip their craft or scrape donuts into the ground with the same check, but Keith was smooth, canceling the vectors by working all three engines at once. Shiro closed his eyes, not needing to pay attention. He had the Rattlesnake's afterthought of a backrest behind him, and Hunk was a solid bulwark in front, each breath raising Shiro's arms an inch or two.

They stayed in the dry wash for the first few klicks, heading in the direction that would be upstream when there was water in the streambed, flashing in and out of sun and shadow as the cottonwoods kept them company. Shiro let it unspool behind him, world narrowing to the intermittent warmth on his shoulders and the thrumming beneath him. Moving again. Motion in stillness in motion.

Hunk didn't notice when the lieutenant behind him snugged closer and shifted to grip his own left wrist with his prosthetic hand, but he noticed as the man's weight gradually went boneless and his head dipped to rest between Hunk's neck and shoulder, the rise and fall of his chest slow and steady. Hunk motioned and mouthed is he asleep?, not bothering to shout over the wind, and Lance flashed him a thumbs-up.

Shirogane's left hand was curled loose on Hunk's chest, but his right was fastened tight, the circle of his arms unslipping. Huh. Set it and forget it. That was a neat feature, though Hunk imagined it could be a drawback too.

And it would still be easy for an exhausted sleeper to lose his balance and fall. Hoverbikes were fast and responsive and didn't tear up the soil offroad, but they required active participation to ride safely. Hunk hugged Shirogane's arms with his elbows and shifted his weight stiffly into the turn when the hover swept around a sharp bend in the dry streambed, but Shirogane went along with the movement with no sign of waking and not the smallest twitch of surprise, his center of gravity moving outward with Hunk's, off the hover's center line and then smoothly back as their deep curve settled out. His weight was warm and relaxed, deep slow breaths pressing his ribs against Hunk's back. He bent just as sweetly to the next turn, and the next, entrusting his weight to Hunk as limply and fully as a child down for the count. The man was in no danger whatsoever of falling off.

But no one had trusted Hunk like that in a long time. He thought back to small cousins falling asleep piggyback, and told himself his eyes were watering just from the speed.