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Someone I Don't Know

Chapter Text

“Adam… I’m sorry.”

Shiro's remaining hand trailed gently over Adam’s name, tracing the etchings with soft fingertips. His eyes were fixed on the picture to the left, on the face he had longed to see for two, long, hellish years. He knew in his mind that it was only a picture, knew that it was only a ghost of the man he used to know—but he couldn’t help staring. He couldn’t help hoping that if he stared long enough the picture would smile back at him.

“It’s because of them that Earth still has a chance,” came a voice behind him. Iverson.

Shiro didn’t move, just continued to stare at the three-inch plaque in the wall of a thousand others.

Adam W.

And there were a thousand others. A thousand other names and faces that had been lost to them, that were lost to their families, their friends, their loved ones. All gone while he had been lost in space.

“It’s time for our debriefing.”

Footsteps receded into the base. Shiro knew that was his cue to turn around. He needed to get to the debriefing to figure out what their next move was against the Galra. And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Adam’s gaze kept him firmly in place.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered instead, hand brushing over the cool metal for the millionth time.

No matter how much he wished it to happen, the little Adam in the wall didn’t say anything.

Shiro felt his eyes grow warm, and he squeezed them shut before they could betray him. He pressed his hand flat against the wall, bracing himself, and for a long moment he could only stand in place, so still he could convince himself he didn’t exist. Even with his eyes closed, he could see Adam’s face. But this Adam was younger, smiling coyly or rolling his eyes or saying words Shiro wished he could hear clearly again. His mind replayed memories of the time they spent together, and Shiro wasn’t sure if he should count the sudden flashbacks as blessings or curses.

He missed Adam so much.

Shiro took a sharp breath, hand curling into a tight fist.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,” he said, pushing through the crack in his voice at the beginning. “There are so many things I regret—but I’m here now. I wish it wasn’t so late, but I’m here… And now, I’ll do whatever I can.”

Shiro opened his eyes, taking one last look at the face of the man he once proudly loved, and turned away. His hand lingered briefly on the metal... and he was walking, head held resolutely in the direction of the conference room.

No matter how much he wanted to, Shiro couldn’t waste any time mourning Adam. Now was no time for grieving. People needed him—Earth needed him. He had to do whatever he could to save them. No one else deserved to die and no one else deserved to lose the people they loved.

He would do whatever it took to save his home and the place Adam died protecting.

*             *             *             *             *

“How are the reparations coming along?” Shiro asked, arms crossed as he looked expectantly at Iverson across the small conference table.

It had almost been a week since Earth had successfully driven out Sendak and his forces. Well, most of his forces. They were still trying to weed out the few pockets of resisting Galra soldiers that had been left behind, but it was more than easy to take them out now that the Garrison and their allies could outnumber them. Aside from investigating the robot that fought Voltron in the final battle and contacting their remaining allies in space, the Garrison’s main priority was helping the human race rebuild. Granted, they still had limited resources and couldn’t reach out to everyone around the world just yet, but they did their best to help those in the immediate area.

“We’ve made great progress in Plath City,” Iverson was saying, standing in front of the large screen filled with recent photos of construction. “Our teams have undermined the Galra soldiers that remained there and have taken them into custody. With help from you and the Paladins, we were able to adapt our technology so that we could properly fight against them. Construction and salvage teams have begun clearing rubble and relocating refugees. Now it’s just a matter of rebuilding the city into a livable colony.”

“How long do you think that will take?”

“A few months at most. Normally, it would take longer, but with the new technology Dr. Holt is implementing into our equipment, we believe reconstruction time has been shortened immensely.”

Shiro nodded, looking over all the photos approvingly.

“However, even with the improvements, we don’t know if we’ll finish in time to support all the refugees flooding in. We’ll have to create more ways to sustain ourselves in the meantime.”

“Have we tried terraforming the surrounding desert to create more farmland?” Pidge spoke up from further down the table, studying some pictures of the nearby terrain she had pulled up on a hologram. “I’ve studied a lot about alien agriculture, especially with the Olkari. I could try and create a natural greenhouse or a tropical biome. The Green Lion would make it easy.”

“And I could engineer some new solar panels for the facility,” Hunk chimed in next to her. “Coran could help with that. I’ve learned a lot about alien energy sources, but he’s the expert. We could work together to integrate it into Earth tech.”

Iverson nodded in their direction. “Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated.” Then, he pressed a button on the device in his hand and the screen changed behind him. “As for our communications. As I’ve said, we haven’t been able to establish long range, but locally, we’ve succeeded in using radio to pick up nearby signals.”

“Anything of interest?” Shiro asked, eyes scanning over the new information being presented to them. It was mostly aerial shots of the desert and a nearby city that obviously wasn’t Plath.

“It’s mostly static,” Iverson answered. “A lot of the cities we’ve been able to assess have ended up like Plath. Unfortunately, large populations were wiped out, as we predicted, leaving small pockets of refugees both from Galra prisons and labor camps. We haven’t been able to find or transport all of them just yet, but a few have been able to broadcast SOS messages from local radio towers.”

“Do you know where all these people are?” Lance was next to speak, sitting to Keith’s right, Keith across the table from Shiro. “Now that we’re all out of the infirmary, some of us could take our Lions and rescue them.”

“It’s great that you’re enthusiastic about helping people, Lance, but you did just get released from the recovery ward. I’d rather you guys not push yourselves so soon.”

“I would say Shiro’s right,” said Keith, eyes locked on the pictures of the city. “But we should be able to handle ourselves pretty well, considering. We’ve dealt with worse than rogue Galra factions and rescue missions. And we’ve done it in worse condition. We’ve had a good amount of time to heal and I think we’re ready for whatever the Galra could throw at us. I agree with Lance, we should do whatever we can to help as soon as possible.”

“We’ve been planning a few rescue ops to the city 50 kilometers south of Plath. If you’re feeling up to it, you can join them. I’ll send all of you an itinerary and briefings on the upcoming mission should you choose to join it.”

“Romelle, Coran, and I are rather busy studying the robot and the Altean that we fought in the final battle.” Allura smiled apologetically at them all. “I wish we could help, but we haven’t been making much progress. However, I do wish you all luck in your endeavors.”

“Don’t apologize, princess,” Lance said from beside her. “We all have our part to play and that just happens to be yours.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Hunk added. “You just do what you gotta do and we’ll handle everything else.”

“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Shiro looked across the table at Keith, making eye contact. He couldn’t help the small prick of worry in his chest.

“Yeah. We’ll be fine,” Keith answered, and he gave Shiro a small smirk. “I think you taught us enough to get by.”

“Well, if none of you have anything to add, that concludes our briefing. You will be contacted by your respective departments by the end of the day. And on behalf of the Garrison, it’s good to see all five Paladins doing well after what you’ve done for Earth.”

With that, the meeting was adjourned, and Iverson and the Paladins began to pack up and leave for the day. Shiro did the same, pushing back his chair with a small data pad in hand.

“Shiro.” It was Keith that spoke up, and Shiro lifted his head to look at him on the other side of the table. Keith was standing beside his chair, making steady eye contact. “Can we talk for a second?”

“Of course.” Shiro smiled, placing his data pad on the table. “What is it?”

But instead of answering, Keith paused, dark eyes scanning the room. The other Paladins were leaving, all absorbed in their own responsibilities. From beside him, Lance and Allura were rounding the table, talking quietly and heading for the door. Lance seemed to notice that Keith hadn't moved, because he stopped to look back in question. Keith just nodded his head, gesturing for him to go on. Lance glanced between Keith and Shiro for a brief moment before finally following Allura out of the conference room.

Shiro frowned, now looking around at the empty space. “Everything all right?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.” Keith walked around the table toward him, leaning his hip against the edge and crossing his arms. “Everything okay with you?”

“Yeah… everything’s fine.” Shiro furrowed his eyebrows, staring at Keith curiously. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

For a minute, Keith didn’t say anything. He was wearing the Garrison uniform, something that was a bit disorienting for Shiro. It reminded him of the old days, back when Keith was that delinquent little kid Shiro had taken in. But Keith was taller now, more mature. It was almost strange to see him in these clothes now, especially with the scar on his cheek. It was like the past had rushed up to meet him in the present.

Keith continued to stare at him, hip still planted on the edge of the table. Shiro almost opened his mouth to ask what was going on when Keith beat him to it.

“I know about Adam.”

Something crashed sharply into Shiro’s diaphragm, and his body went very still.

And Keith just looked at him sadly, eyebrows pinched. “I saw the memorial after they let me out of recovery. And I asked Iverson about it and he told me you already knew… why didn’t you say anything?”

“I guess it just slipped my mind,” Shiro answered. He managed to give a little shrug. “A lot’s happened since we got back to Earth. There wasn’t any time to talk about things outside of battle.”

“Bullshit.” The word was somehow sharp but gentle at the same time, and Keith uncrossed his arms to step a little closer. “I find it hard to believe that you would just conveniently forget about Adam.”

“A war was going on, Keith,” Shiro answered, and even though the words themselves were harsh, his tone was cool and level. “People die in war and he just happened to be one of them. Besides, we weren’t together anymore when I left for the Kerberos mission. There wasn’t much of a reason for me to bring him up.”

“Don’t do that. Don’t downplay your relationship. We both know you still cared about him when you left.” It was rather jarring to see Keith acting so cool. Shiro was used to him blowing up during an argument. If that’s what they were even having. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Shiro wasn’t sure what to say, and so he remained silent. Keith continued to give him that sad look, and it only grew sadder as he lifted his hand and placed it on Shiro’s shoulder.

“The battle for Earth is over, all right? You’re allowed to think about him again. Talk to me.”

You’re allowed to think about him again. Shiro let those words sink in, mind running over their current circumstances. It was like he was trying to be sure of it himself.

“Adam…”

It was the first time he had said that name—or even thought it—since he saw the memorial, and he was instantly drawn into that moment, the phantom feeling of cool metal playing across his fingertips. He remembered staring at Adam’s picture, tracing the letters of his name, and suddenly there were tears in his eyes. He tried to blink them away, close his eyes enough times that he could will them to disappear. But Keith saw and began to rub at his arm, and the tears started to leak over.

Shiro took a shaky breath, wiping at his eyes with his human hand. “He’s… he’s really gone, isn’t he?”

“I’m sorry.” Keith continued massaging his arm, expression still pinched. “The report said his ship was hit by Galra artillery. It exploded in mid-air and crashed into the desert.”

“God.” Shiro pressed his palm into his eye, but he could still feel the heat of tears forming. “That really happened to him. He… God. He must have been so scared.” More tears spilled, and he didn’t do much to hide them any longer. He felt his knees shake minutely, and he tried to scrub at the moisture on his cheeks. “And I wasn’t there for him, Keith. All these terrible things happened, and I wasn’t there. He died thinking I didn’t care about him.”

Suddenly, Keith was moving in closer, arms outstretched, and Shiro tucked him against his front eagerly.

“I wasn’t there for him, Keith. I—I left him alone and I wasn’t there when he needed me. Why would I do that? Why—?”

Shiro stopped talking, because he knew if he let himself go on he would start to babble and become an incoherent mess. Instead, he clutched Keith tightly to him, and Keith indulged him, fists clenched in the back of his shirt.

“Neither of us were there for him,” Keith whispered, his voice sounding suspiciously tight. “I left him too. I wish… I wish I had spent more time with him before we left. He deserved better.”

“He did. He really did, he deserved so much more.”

Keith’s grip around him tightened, and Shiro returned the gesture.

“You know that we couldn’t have done anything about this though, right?” Keith asked quietly. “This all happened while we were stuck in space. We couldn’t have known.”

“I never should have left him. Keith, there are so many things I regret but I think I regret that the most. A part of me wished that he was here when we got back. Even if he didn’t want me anymore, I just wanted to see him one more time and know he was doing okay. That would’ve been enough, but now we come back and we were too late.”

Now he’s done it. He made the mistake of letting his mouth run. But Keith didn’t seem to mind, just held him and rubbed at his back soothingly. Shiro felt more tears stream down his face.

“Adam’s gone, Keith. He’s gone and I never got to tell him what he meant to me after all this time.”

The room went silent after that, and Shiro did his best not to cry too loudly. It was too late to hide from Keith that he was upset, but he wanted to do his best to be there for Keith too. He wasn’t the only one who cared about Adam. That was obvious from the way they clung to each other.

For a long time, neither of them moved from that spot, and neither of them said anything to the other.

*             *             *             *             *

A few hours later, Keith and Shiro were sitting on the roof of the Garrison dormitories, picking through rations and staring out across the desert. The base cast a small shadow over them—thank God—at this time of day, leaving a pleasant place to sit and chat.

Kosmo had found them at some point, having been wandering around the base apparently, and was sitting between them, nose pressing against Shiro’s thigh. It made Shiro smile a bit, and he took to scratching Kosmo’s head lightly.

“Do you remember the first time you brought me back to your place?”

Shiro looked up at the question, and he couldn’t prevent his smile from widening. “How could I forget? You sulked in my car all the way there. You even tried to jump out while we were on the highway and I instantly became highly concerned for the small child I had decided to take in.”

“I knew how to stick a landing back then without hurting myself, I would have been fine.” Keith rolled his eyes, digging his spoon back into his can of green beans. “And anyway, what did you expect from the kid who decked anyone who looked at him funny?”

“I thought I was different?”

“I literally stole your car the day we met!”

“Hmm, true.”

“Anyway, I was thinking more about when we got there… You were telling me to behave myself because I was about to meet someone.”

Shiro’s smile had become melancholy again, but it still remained as he drifted back into the memory. “If I remember correctly, I told you to behave for your own good.”

“I thought it was because you were going to kick me out if I was rude,” Keith answered, and a small laugh escaped him as he continued. “But then I met Adam and I realized you were trying to avoid giving him a reason to kill me.”

Shiro laughed in return, hand still absently scratching Kosmo between the ears. “I brought you through the front door and he took one look at you and just went ‘who the hell is this?’”

Keith was smiling to himself. “Definitely the best first impression of your boyfriend ever.”

“He threatened to murder me thirty seconds later.”

“Exactly.”

Shiro rolled his eyes a bit, leaning back on his prosthesis (he wasn’t sure exactly how that worked considering it wasn’t attached to his body, but he didn’t question it). “He couldn’t take the joke though.”

“You introduced me by saying ‘hey, remember what we said about waiting to adopt kids? Well this is Keith and I found him in the gutter outside.’”

“It was a good joke!”

“I honestly didn't think you were capable of making jokes until I had witnessed that for myself. It was still terrible though.”

“You laughed. Admit that you did.”

“I laughed when Adam said ‘Nice to meet you, Keith. Now go eat some of the candy on the kitchen counter so you don’t have to witness a brutal homicide.’”

“He was mad because he loved you the moment he saw you. You were just so adorable that he couldn’t turn you away and he had to adopt you.”

Keith turned to look at Shiro skeptically, eyebrows comically high on his forehead, and Shiro started laughing again. “Seriously? This face? He found this face adorable?”

“You were the cutest kid I ever brought home, so yes.”

“So you’re saying that neither of you had standards?”

“Well obviously we had some. You had a body, you could talk and eat and sleep.”

“That’s literally any kid off the street.”

“Yes.”

“Wow, I really feel like I was loved.”

“Well, we did love you.” Shiro turned his head, smiling fondly at the boy… well he supposed Keith was a man now… sitting next to him. “You know we did, right? And it wasn’t because you were a project we fixed. We loved you because you were Keith.”

He watched as a bit of color darkened Keith’s ears, and Keith turned to look out over the desert sand. “I know. And I appreciate that. I appreciate everything you guys did for me. It meant a lot. Even though it’s in past tense.”

Shiro chuckled. “You know what I meant.”

“Hmm,” Keith grunted, and for a moment they sat in silence. It was a nice reprieve from everything that had been going on, and Shiro took the moment to enjoy the Sun and the blue sky stretching out overhead. Sure, exploring space had been fun (and one of his lifelong dreams) but being back in his own solar system was nice.

Something beeped in Shiro’s pocket just as Keith’s jacket buzzed. They both reached for their data pads as Kosmo’s head perked up.

“It’s the mission briefing,” Shiro reported, scanning through the file. “I assume you’re going?”

“Yeah.” Keith perused the information carefully, eyes slightly narrowed. “Now that we’ve been cleared to get out in the field again, I don’t want to sit around and do nothing.”

“Always the busy body.”

“You should come.”

The invitation made Shiro pause, and he glanced over to see Keith staring at him. “I should?”

Keith gave a small shrug. “We’ve been cooped up in the Garrison for the past week. We all need some fresh air, you included.”

“I don’t know, Keith. I’ve been helping a lot with organizing refugee transports. And we’re still trying to figure out the full extent of what the Atlas can do. We need to be prepared in case any more Galra factions decide to pay Earth a visit.”

“Iverson and everyone else can manage without you for a few days. Plus, it’s been a while since we’ve done anything together.”

“And your idea of a good time is going on a rescue mission?”

Keith shrugged again. “It’s something. And anyway, I think you would be a good fit for the mission. You’re good at diplomacy. You can talk people into coming with us or surrendering—and keeping casualties down at this stage is really important.”

Shiro sat in silence for a minute, contemplating Keith’s words and the options he had laid out in front of him. He knew that, as Captain of the Atlas, he had a responsibility to stay and work out the extent of his abilities. Earth needed them to be in top form to fight back any invaders… But also, Keith’s proposal of going on a smaller mission seemed to be tempting him. After all this time of dismantling an empire, fighting an alien war, and trying to save entire planets from destruction, a small-scale rescue mission sounded rather appealing. Besides, from the sound of it, the op would only last a few days at most. None of the Garrison higher-ups would miss him all that much. Besides, as someone who was slowly moving his way up into those higher ranks, Shiro thought it might be a good idea to get out in the field and witness for himself what their situation was like.

“I might take you up on it,” Shiro finally said after a while. “I’d have to shift some things around, but it should be manageable.”

“Great.” Keith smiled then, and Shiro was sure that the only time he had seen Keith smile more was before he left for Kerberos. “Our squad heads out at 0500 tomorrow morning. Think you can handle that?”

“I’m the one that taught you discipline, Keith. I think I got it.”

“And I’m pretty sure Adam taught you most of that.” Keith’s smile turned a little sad at the mention of that name, and Shiro felt himself mirroring him.

“Yeah. He taught me a lot.”

There was a brief moment of silence, and Keith, Shiro, and Kosmo stared out at the horizon.

Then, Keith stood up, feet near the edge of the platform as he stretched. “Well, I’m gonna go train to work out my fatigue before tomorrow. Wanna come?”

“Are you sure you want to spar with me? I haven’t been in the hospital and I might wipe the floor with you.”

“That’s a challenge and I refuse.”

“Refuse what?”

“I refuse, Shiro, now fight me.”

That made Shiro laugh, and he felt strangely light as he got to his feet. “All right, all right, I’ll spar with you. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

 

*             *             *             *             *

Their sparring session came out even in the end, but that was mostly due to Shiro pulling his punches. Keith had gone so far as to voice his suspicions, but he seemed satisfied just with the workout and went along with it. They both knew that he was still in the process of recovering (even if that process was virtually over), and it was better just to work through his muscle fatigue than exhaust himself like he usually would. After a few hours of exercise, they called it a day and Shiro went to see what he could do about going on assignment for that rescue mission.

As it turned out, it took a lot less rearranging than Shiro expected. What with the Altean robot, reconquering Earth, and spreading resources to reunite the remnants of Earth’s inhabitants, the Garrison would be spread thin for the next few days. While they definitely needed to study the Atlas and its capabilities, it had been decided that they would have to wait a few days to fully focus on it. Their engineers were currently busy upgrading the Garrison’s existing defenses and expanding their means to gain resources. The immediate disaster was taking precedence, meaning that the Atlas would temporarily be put in storage until they could spare personnel.

And so, with a few negotiations, Shiro arrived ten before 0500 the next morning in what was essentially the Garrison’s over-glorified garage. He was wearing his Paladin armor, carrying a small bag over his shoulder as he took everything in. Three armored trucks were being loaded in the deployment area, about fifteen bodies bustling around them. They were busy stacking crates into the cargo holds and hauling weapons to mount in the doors. As Shiro got closer, he could see Keith standing outside the truck farthest to the right, talking with an officer in the gray Garrison uniform. Kosmo was with him, sitting primly at his side.

When Shiro was close enough, he stood off to the side, quietly observing and familiarizing himself with the squad he would be a part of for the next few days. He didn’t really know any of these people, which was expected after years of being gone, but would do his best to work well with them in their mission together.

“Sleep in?” Keith seemed to be done talking, because he came to stand next to Shiro, smirking at him minutely as he turned to watch the preparations as well. “I was starting to get a little worried when I got here before you.”

“I had to clear some things with Iverson and Dr. Holt before heading over here. Sorry if you ran into trouble preparing without me.”

“We were a bit lost, I’ll admit,” Keith began snidely, arms crossed over his chest. “But we figured it out eventually. You ready to head out soon?”

“Definitely,” Shiro answered, propping his hands on his hips. “This vacation should be fun.”

Keith snickered, lips pulling into a full smile. “Better pick a truck then. We would bring the Lions, but Laika has too much debris for us to land within city limits.”

“Lions, plural?”

“Yeah. Lance is coming too.”

“Lance, huh?” Shiro asked, and he felt himself smirk a little. “You sure I wasn’t invited along as a third wheel?”

An elbow jabbed him in the ribs, and Shiro laughed when he saw that Keith’s ears had turned red.

“What? It was an honest question.”

“Shut up, Shiro.”

Now that Shiro knew what to pay attention to, he could hear a familiar voice coming from another vehicle, sounding high and exasperated.

“Seriously, Veronica. I really don’t need one.”

“You sure though?” asked another voice, and soon Lance and Veronica were rounding into Keith and Shiro’s line of sight, Veronica tugging lightly at the nape of Lance’s neck. “Isn’t it getting a bit long?”

“Ugh, you sound like mom.” Lance swatted his sister’s hand away, subconsciously flattening the hair she had been fussing over. “I don’t need a haircut, I look fine.”

“I mean, yes, you have grown into a very handsome young man. But certain parties appreciate clean-cut men.”

“Stop trying to meddle in my love life!” Lance protested, a bit of color rising to his cheeks.

“That reminds me,” Shiro muttered quietly. “Would you let me give you a haircut?”

“Fat chance, Shiro.”

“But certain parties appreciate clean-cut men.”

“No.”

“Can we talk about this later?” Lance was saying, his eyes narrowed at Veronica. “We have to head out now. Come on, Keith, get your mullet in here. We need to go.”

As the McClain siblings walked past, heading into the vehicle nearest them, Keith turned to Shiro with a private smirk.

“Certain parties appreciate my hair the way it is, so no thanks.”

“I don’t know if I’d say ‘appreciate,’” said Shiro, following his younger-brother figure and his space dog into the truck. “But fine. Touché.”

“Let me have this one thing, Shiro.”

“Let you have what?”

Veronica had turned to look at them from the driver’s seat, her brother raising an eyebrow curiously as he sat in the seat beside her.

“We overheard your conversation and I asked if Keith wanted a haircut,” Shiro supplied, smirking a bit. “He refused.”

“My hair is fine,” Keith huffed, plopping into the seat behind Lance. Kosmo laid down at his feet, tail wagging and head propped on his paws.

“It is really long though.” Veronica had turned to study him, eyes narrowed critically behind her glasses. “Our mom gives good haircuts if you’re ever interested.”

“Hmm, I dunno.” Lance looked thoughtful as he sat fully backward in his seat, staring at Keith with a similar expression over the headrest. “I used to hate his mullet, but it’s kinda growing on me if I’m being honest. He wouldn’t be Keith without that hair.”

Shiro tried not to smile too wide as he caught the faint reddish tinge that now dusted Keith’s face. “The style is a bit outdated, but he’s always been the rebellious one. It suits him.”

“You were the one just asking me if I wanted it cut.”

“I was only wondering.”

The truck started then, the vehicle humming under their feet and the engine roaring in a burst of energy.

“Red Leader is ready to head out,” Veronica said into her earpiece, and Shiro could hear her voice echo in his own. She had turned to face forward, attention on the small blinking lights, buttons, and switches on the dashboard in front of her. She pushed one button to her left and the door whirred shut behind them, gradually tuning out the sounds from the outside. “Control, are we clear for dispatch?”

“Affirmative, Red Leader. Red Squad is clear. Opening bay doors now.”

Lance turned around in his seat, and Shiro made sure to buckle in as their vehicle began to inch forward. Beside him, Keith sat with his arms crossed, watching the front seat silently.

“Red Squad, head out. Keep Delta formation.”

“Good luck out there, Red Squad.”

Briefly, Veronica turned to Lance, giving him a confident smile. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

*             *             *             *             *

The ride out into the desert was spent in good humor. Laika was about 70 klicks southeast from the Garrison, making the trip less than an hour long. Shiro, Keith, Lance, and Veronica used the time to talk, the three Paladins mostly sharing stories of their space adventures with a bewildered Veronica. She, in turn, told them a bit about life on Earth before the invasion.

When they had finally made it to their destination, Laika’s streets were tinged orange with the rising sun. In the spaces between decrepit skyscrapers, bright sunlight spilled into the city, casting harsh shadows of rubble and debris across cracked pavement. The city seemed to have met a similar fate as Plath, now a virtual ghost town with abandoned cars and buildings that had been blasted apart. As the sights passed by, Shiro stared out the window, studying the remnants of Earth with a hollow ache in his chest. This was the first time he had seen an Earth city this close since coming back. A part of him hoped he was just in an elaborate dream.

“So, where’s the radio signal coming from?” Lance asked. He, Keith, and Veronica seemed to be less affected by the state of the city than Shiro, but Shiro knew they had all been exposed to the aftermath of the Galra invasion before. “The report said someone was broadcasting SOS, right?”

“We marked it toward the center of the city.” Veronica tapped a monitor in the center of the dashboard, the screen showing a small, blinking, red dot towards the corner. “We’ve been monitoring it for the past few days since we first picked it up. From what we can tell, it’s mostly sending SOS in Morse Code, but before, it was too far away to interpret it through the static.”

“Can we try picking it up now?” Keith braced himself on the back of Lance’s seat, leaning in between the two siblings. “We should be close enough to interpret it from here.

“Way ahead of you, buddy.” Lance reached for some buttons in front of him, and suddenly the harsh crackle of static filled the truck. Kosmo whined from his place on the floor, pawing at his ears pitifully. Wincing, Lance turned the volume down, then fiddled with the controls to find a live frequency.

Within the next few minutes, there was only static.

“It’s dead.” When Lance spoke, his voice was quiet, his hand hovering perfectly still over the dial. “I went through all the channels.”

“It can’t be dead.” Keith leaned over, nudging Lance’s hand out of the way so he could reach the radio. “We picked up the signal right before we left, it can’t be dead.”

“Well, it is!” Lance turned to look at Keith sharply, pushing himself to sit up by the armrests of his seat. “You just watched me go through all the frequencies! There’s no signal!”

“There can’t be no signal, Lance! We didn’t come out here just to bring back a bunch of dead bodies!”

“Both of you calm down.” Shiro got to his feet, putting a firm hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Just because the broadcast is gone, it doesn’t mean that whoever was sending it is dead. There are other explanations. The radio probably lost power and couldn’t sustain the signal.”

“That, or they were shut down by rogue Galra.” Veronica seemed deep in thought as she said this, the fingers of her right hand drumming rhythmically on the steering wheel. “The scouts we sent out beforehand haven’t been able to confirm, but there have been sightings of humanoids in the labor camp established here… Red Squad, we’ll establish base camp here. Broadcast is down and may be compromised by hostiles. Proceed with caution.”

Keith’s hand was still hovering over the radio as Veronica relayed her orders to the rest of the squad. Shiro squeezed his shoulder lightly, and Keith’s arm slowly relaxed to dangle at his side. As the tension left him, Lance sat back in his chair, arms crossed.

“You’re both right. We need to keep our heads and stake this out.”

Shiro squeezed Keith’s shoulder again in approval, nodding at him with a small, proud smile.

“We’ll take two teams to scope out the target.” Veronica slowed the vehicle into the remains of an intersection, squinting slightly as the sun shone more directly in her eyes. “Lance, you go with Red One. You’ll be the sniper unit. We’ll take Perkins and be the ground team.”

Lance nodded his head minutely. “Got it.”

The truck came to a stop, and the four of them were out of their seats. Keith was already at the back with Kosmo, helmet on as he opened the door. Lance hopped out of his seat, helmet under one arm and following quickly after.

“You have a weapon?”

Shiro put on his own helmet, the familiar weight offering the smallest bit of comfort. “My arm usually works fine.”

Veronica walked past him, glancing at his prosthetic appraisingly. “It’s relatively new, isn’t it?” She popped open and reached into one of the crates in the back, pulling out two Garrison-issue rifles. “Take one of these just in case.”

She tossed a gun at him, and Shiro easily caught it in one hand. He frowned at it, unaccustomed to the weight of a weapon in his arms. But he remembered how to use one, and supposed it was better to have more than one option in a potential fight with the Galra.

Bracing the rifle in his arms, Shiro followed Veronica out onto the street.

*             *             *             *             *

Base camp was about three klicks from where the signal was last pinpointed, leaving the team to go on foot for the next half hour. They proceeded tactically, at attention and with weapons drawn. But nothing happened on the way—no drones shot at them from above, no ambush jumped from any of the buildings—it was just silent. Eerie. Shiro knew the likelihood of being attacked was low. Possible, but low. Still, he thought sweeping his rifle through the dead city of Laika put him more on edge than walking into enemy territory without armor on.

“This is the place.”

Shiro, Keith, Veronica, Kosmo, and a private named Perkins all crouched behind a flipped car in the middle of the street. Veronica was toward the middle, looking down at a tracking device in her hand.

“The signal was coming from that government building. Red One, report.”

“Perimeter is clear. No sign of hostiles in your area.”

“I’m picking up movement inside the building.” Lance’s voice crackled firmly over their frequency. He and Red One had stationed themselves in a high rise, watching their position from about a klick away.

Keith turned to peek around their cover, eyes fixed across the street. “How many?”

“Three groups of two. One on the second floor and two on the third. Two of them are definitely patrolling.”

“Galra?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Can you take any of them out?”

“Not right now. I don’t have a clear shot. None of them are near any street-facing windows.”

“We should be able to take them out on our own.” Veronica put the tracker away, rifle held vertically against her chest. “You two take the dog up to the third floor. Perkins and I will head in from below. If we go all at once and run into one pair together, they could alert the others. It’s best to do this efficiently.”

“Be careful, guys.”

Veronica made a forward gesture with her hand, and Perkins rounded the car, rifle pointed at the building as they charged quietly forward. “Wait until we’re inside before you follow.”

Both Shiro and Keith nodded, watching Veronica slip away and across the street before scooting to one side, both putting a hand on Kosmo’s back.

“Okay, take us up there,” Keith said, pointing up to the third floor.

Kosmo blinked, glancing from Keith to the building and back again.

With a flash of light, Shiro was staring at the inside of a dimly lit building. A bit of sunlight streamed in from a window behind them, dust particles swirling in the air. Almost immediately, he caught the distant mumble of voices from down the hallway and braced his rifle against his shoulder. Beside him, Keith drew his bayard. Kosmo’s hackles rose with a soft growl.

The three of them began to slink down the corridor, feet moving silently along the tile floor.

“Veronica, Perkins, you’re coming up on a stairway to your left. Keith, Shiro, there are two bodies down the hall immediately to your right heading in the other direction. Two more are in a room on the other side of the building. They haven’t moved since we got here.”

“I’ll take the ones in the hall,” Keith muttered.

“I’ll scope out the others. We need to find out what they’re doing here.”

“Agreed.”

“Shiro, I can lead you through the building. Take the next left and follow that hallway. It’s pretty much a straight shot.”

Shiro pressed his back to the wall on the right, Keith beside him, glancing around the corner.

“Veronica, are you in position?” asked Shiro.

“We’re on the second floor now. Ready when you are.”

“Hall’s clear.” Keith turned back to Shiro with a nod. “Good luck.”

Shiro smiled. “You too.”

Then, the two of them split off into different directions. And Shiro was alone.

He ran quietly through the building per Lance’s instructions, stopping at a corner to sweep the hall with his rifle once before hurrying on. Not that he needed to, Lance was doing a good job of covering them considering he was directing three parties at once. The caution was more of a habit developed over the years. It was just something Shiro did whether he needed to or not.

Over comms, Shiro could hear blasters firing, along with the occasional, enthusiastic shout from Keith, and knew that the others had already engaged their targets.

“Shiro, the door up ahead is yours.”

“Thanks, Lance.”

Shiro’s eyes locked on the door at the end of the hall. As he came up on it, he slowed down, pressing himself to the wall once again. He pointed his rifle towards the ceiling, bracing it against his shoulder as he leaned toward the door.

“Can you get it to work or not?” said a voice from the other side. It sounded tired. Shiro leaned his ear close to the door, taking one hand and placing it slowly on the handle.

“I said I don’t know!” This voice was sharper, irritation plain in the heavy sigh that followed. “Earth technology is primitive.”

“Well they’re obviously competent if they can defeat Sendak and the rest of our forces. There has to be something here to get us off this damn planet.”

“Why don’t you help, then? If you’re so sure, then by all means go get it yourself so we can all go home.”

“I didn’t ask for you smart remarks. Just—hurry up. Do what you can and we’ll take what we find back to base.”

At this point, Shiro had successfully opened the door, carefully pushing it in enough so he could peek inside. The room was dark, faintly lit by a window that faced an alleyway. However, two figures were hunched over a console on the far side of the room, a purple glow surrounding them. They didn’t talk anymore, and instead one of them sighed, going to stand by the window while the other tinkered with something Shiro couldn’t see. He wanted to get a closer look, but he was limited until he took out those Galra.

“Guys, two figures are coming up on your position,” Lance’s voice crackled. “They’re not in the street so I don’t have a clear shot on them.”

“Are they Galra?” Veronica asked. She seemed slightly out of breath, but calm.

“Yeah, and they’re moving fast. They’re in the alley on your side, Shiro.”

“Red One changing position, seeking better vantage point.”

“Negative, Red One. Stay in position.”

All the chatter seemed to be happening all at once in Shiro’s ear. He was surprised to hear Perkins’s voice. This was the first time he was hearing them speak. Veronica seemed to have a similar thought.

“Perkins, what—”

“We have a 10-89, north, second floor.”

Bomb. The thought shot ice into Shiro’s veins. It had been a long time since he had used Garrison codes, but he had spent years memorizing them as a cadet—he might as well have tattooed them onto his brain.

“All teams, evac now!” Veronica shouted, voice loud in the speaker. “Fall back to Red One’s position—we don’t know how many explosives are in the building.”

“Is there a timer?” Keith.

“Negative. Seems remotely detonated. It’s Galra tech.”

It was then that Shiro’s eyes focused back in on the room beyond the door. The Galra were still in the same place, unaware of what was happening to their allies. His gaze flicked to the console. A little black box rested just at the edge.

At this point, there was really only one thing to do.

Shifting his weight, Shiro faced the door head on and kicked it open. The two Galra started at the loud bang, both whirling to stare at Shiro’s entrance. Immediately, Shiro shot the one sitting at the console, and they fell off their chair with a shout. The second Galra took the opportunity to charge, going for the rifle with both hands. They forced it upward, twisting the trigger in Shiro’s hands and making him fire into the ceiling.

“Shiro, those guys are climbing the building and heading toward you.”

“The detonator is in this room!” Shiro growled, teeth clenched as he allowed his body to be pushed back. He gave way just enough for the Galra to lose balance and shoved them to the side. “I’m not leaving it here!”

“I’m heading your way,” Keith’s voice crackled. “Hang tight.”

Something slammed into Shiro’s side, and he stumbled sideways into a filing cabinet. He brought his gun around instinctively, swinging it right into the head of the Galra pinning him down. It was the one he had shot earlier, and they shouted again at the impact. He felt a little sorry, to be perfectly honest.

The feeling didn’t last long. A boot kicked his gun away, and it flew across the room to hit the wall. Shiro turned in time to block a punch to the face, throwing his own to land solidly on someone’s jaw.

In his peripheral, a purple hand reached toward the black box.

The sound of shattering glass was suddenly very loud to Shiro’s right, and he immediately put up his right arm to protect himself. A body in full Galra armor rolled in through the window, tucked into a tight ball until it came to a low crouch in the middle of the room. Almost immediately, the head turned to face Shiro.

Then it lunged, and Shiro was more than ready to defend himself against three Galra soldiers.

And then the newcomer tackled the Galra next to him, and Shiro could only blink in surprise.

For a fraction of a second, he watched the two grapple with each other, his apparent ally throwing an elbow, which connected with the other Galra’s side. Now that he had a moment to take in the situation, he noticed the newcomer was fairly short for a Galra. In fact, it reminded him of seeing Keith in the Blade of Marmora uniform.

A crunch of glass brought Shiro’s attention back to the console, and with a jolt, he remembered the detonator. He turned and saw it still sitting in the same spot and lunged for it, quickly scooping it into his hand. He should have noticed the chair sailing straight for his head, but he was in a room no bigger than a closet, filled with three other full-grown humanoids all fighting each other, so it was a bit too chaotic to notice everything.

The impact slammed into the back of Shiro’s head, and he stumbled into the console with shaky knees. His forearm braced sloppily on the nearest support he could find, his sight swimming, and a bit belatedly, he realized that his helmet was gone. But the detonator remained clutched in his hand, and he tightened his grip to be 100% sure he wouldn’t drop it.

Blearily, Shiro shook his head, trying to clear his vision and the fog blurring his thoughts. He staggered to his feet, standing to his full extent. Quick footsteps came toward him, and Shiro gained his bearings just enough to know where to throw a punch. Clenching the fist of his prosthetic arm, he threw a sharp uppercut. He felt the hit connect, distinctly heard a body crumple to the floor, before he had to bend over again, dizzy at the sudden movement.

The room had fallen silent, and Shiro took that as a sign to take all the time he needed to catch his breath. He really needed more hand-to-hand combat training. Being trapped inside a robot lion dimension and having his consciousness replanted into a body that wasn’t his hadn’t helped his reflexes.

Slow footsteps were coming up to Shiro’s right. Gritting his teeth, he turned and stood up straight, wincing at the bit of sunlight that came in through the smashed window. He noticed another figure climbing through it but focused his attention on the smaller one walking toward him.

“Who are you?” The question wasn’t exactly hostile, but the tone remained guarded, suspicious yet open to negotiation.

Shiro tried for a smile, though he knew it came across as pained since the side of his head was still throbbing. Even though they were Galra, he wasn’t going to fight back. Anyone who helped him was a potential ally and he wasn’t about to make any unnecessary enemies. “Straight to the point. My name is Takashi Shirogane, I’m with the Galaxy Garrison. My team and I were sent here to investigate the broadcast signal. We thought we could lend some assistance to any refugees we found.”

“How do we know you’re Garrison?” The figure seemed in the middle of evaluating him, studying him from head to toe. “That’s not any Garrison uniform I’ve seen.”

“Shanti.”

The figure in front of the window stood taller than their compatriot, possibly taller than Shiro, if he was seeing correctly. They were facing in his direction, probably staring at him, but he couldn’t see their eyes behind the visor of the helmet. It took him a second, and it was probably due to the shock still rattling around in his head, but Shiro now realized that the skin showing around the mouth was bronzed, not purple. These people were human.

“That’s a detonator. Sweep the building for explosives.”

The person cornering Shiro—Shanti—glanced back. There was a moment when Shanti just looked at the newcomer, but the newcomer continued to stare at Shiro. Finally, Shanti shrugged, turning and heading for the door. “All right.”

“You might want to take your helmet off,” Shiro added, and Shanti turned to look at him again. “I have a teammate who hits before he thinks. He might attack you before asking any questions.”

Shanti hummed, reaching to take their helmet off. This revealed dark skin and a shaved head, along with black eyes that met Shiro’s with a smirk. “Thanks. Though I’d be more worried about your friend.”

Leaving the helmet on the filing cabinet, Shanti turned and left the room.

And now Shiro was alone with another stranger.

For a moment, they just stared at each other, neither of them moving. Shiro smiled, though really, he wanted to quirk an eyebrow. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but these were obviously the people he had been sent here to help and that’s what he was going to do.

“I’m guessing you heard what I said to your friend earlier. You’re the ones who sent out the SOS, correct?”

The stranger didn’t say anything, and Shiro felt the two of them fall into a harsh silence. Thinking he should probably try to seem more approachable, he placed the detonator carefully on the console beside him and raised both hands to show they were empty.

“I can promise you, I’m with the Garrison. I’m a Paladin of Voltron—we helped Earth’s defenses drive out the Galra invaders.”

Still, Shiro didn’t get an answer, and he allowed himself to chuckle. “I guess I’m not enough to convince you. I would be more than happy to introduce you to Veronica McClain, the officer who’s leading this mission. She can give you her credentials and explain in detail what we—”

The stranger finally moved, arms lifting toward their helmet, and as soon as their face was visible, Shiro’s words died in his throat. He was left with the bitter thought that if this really was a dream where Earth had been destroyed by an alien invasion, he didn’t want to wake up.

It was Adam. A real, living, breathing person—not a one-inch picture on a wall filled with the faces of the dead—but Adam.

And yet, as Shiro stared at him, he could tell this was not the Adam he had known years ago. This Adam was rougher around the edges. His skin had gotten darker, like it did when Adam got a little too much sun. His hair was shaggier, possibly cut unevenly in the past and had now grown out into his eyes. But his eyes… those were the same. The same pale brown adorned by black frames that could pierce directly into Shiro’s eyes and know everything about him in just two seconds.

They were doing that now, seeing into him in a way that made Shiro feel like he wasn’t wearing armor.

“Takashi?”

Hearing his name said like that must have triggered something, but if he was honest, Shiro wasn’t sure what it was. Nothing shifted inside of him, no new feelings surged up in his chest, but he could feel two tears trail down his cheeks. The skin they touched turned cold.

“Ta—” Adam started, eyes widening as he took a step forward. His helmet clattered to the floor, and suddenly he was standing directly in front of Shiro, hands raised uncertainly, hovering in the air like he wanted to help but didn’t know how.

And Shiro just watched him, unsure if what he was seeing was real or not, unsure if he was really seeing Adam or if this was all part of the nightmare. He almost didn’t want to find out.

Those eyes met his again, and Shiro still wouldn’t move.

“Takashi…”

Adam seemed to throw all his uncertainty behind him, because next moment he was taking one more step closer and suddenly his arms were wrapped around Shiro’s shoulders, pulling him close to his chest and circling tight.

The pressure of the body lining his front made Shiro start, a few more tears leaking from his eyes. He felt a bit of tension leave his shoulders, and it took a second to realize that his chest felt tight—he hadn’t taken a breath since Adam had pulled off that helmet. It was like his lungs had forgotten how to breathe. He forced himself to inhale now, the breath coming shakily as he cautiously brought his arms up Adam’s sides. His fingers trialed along the armor, Shiro asking them if this was real and not a dream. And they said yes, trailing along cool, hard material that Shiro couldn’t name. They encouraged him to move further, arms pushing his hands around Adam’s waist, feeling the solid planes of his back slide beneath his fingertips. His arms wound together, embracing the body that pressed flush against him, and for the moment, his being rested, feeling as though he had only ever existed in that small space in time.

He had never felt more grounded than he did then. Not even when Allura had pulled his consciousness from the Astral Plane and tied it to a new body.

Suddenly, the breaths came easier, still rough as his lungs ground out stale air and struggled to drag in oxygen. He clutched Adam tighter, mind still reeling at the feel of him in his arms, and pressed his face into Adam’s neck, wanting to hold as much of him as possible and know.

He felt Adam tuck closer to his ear, face in his hair, arms pulling just a bit tighter.

They stood together for a long time, and in that time, Shiro decided very firmly that he never wanted to let go.

“Shiro?”

Sighing quietly, Shiro loosened his arms from around Adam’s waist, and the two of them pulled apart enough to see Keith standing in the doorway. His eyebrows were furrowed, fixed on Shiro in confusion, but as soon as Adam lifted his head, Keith’s eyes widened, and for a moment, he seemed small.

Shiro gave a small smile. “Hey, Keith. Look who I found.”

“…Adam?”

Turning to him, Adam also gave a smile, and Shiro felt a sense of loss drop into his stomach as Adam’s hands fell from his shoulders. “Hey, kid.”

Adam opened his arms, offering to give Keith a hug. It was only a few seconds before Keith accepted, closing the space between him and Adam in two, quick steps. His arms quickly wrapped around Adam’s middle, face pressing firmly into Adam’s chest. Adam smiled, holding Keith close, one hand resting on his head. Seeing them connect again so quickly made Shiro smile too, and for an instant he felt like the Kerberos mission had never torn them apart.

“Damn, kid. You’ve gotten taller,” Adam said, laughing a little as he used his hand to measure Keith against his chest. “What did they feed you out in space?”

“Shut up,” Keith mumbled, though Shiro could hear the smile in his voice. Then, he pulled himself away, blinking up at Adam with a familiar spark. “Adam, how—where have you been?! What happened during the invasion? We all thought you were dead.”

Something changed in Adam’s expression then, something that pulled Shiro into the harsh reality.

No, this was not a nightmare. This wasn’t a dream or a hallucination—it was reality. They were in a war, everyone had been through war. And war changes people.

This wasn’t the Adam Shiro had proposed to all those years ago. This was someone else. Someone Shiro didn’t know.

Adam glanced back at Shiro, eyes unreadable as he gave him a look.

“Dead, huh…? Well. I have a lot to show you.”