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The Rings of Neptune

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The observable universe was, from a human standpoint, around 93 billion light-years in diameter and filled with and estimate of 200 billion galaxies. The numbers were just that; numerical values that were at its core terribly incomprehensible even to the most diligent students of astrophysics. Shiro had shared those numbers with Allura once, before his first or possibly second death—it was hard to keep track—and all she had for him back then was a thoughtful smile. Not mocking, just the kind that spoke of knowledge he clearly wasn’t privy to. She promised him a discussion on a day when they’d have enough hours in it to talk, hours uninterrupted by war.

Even with all the downtime they managed to scrape, they never got that day, and Shiro had the unpleasant fortune of knowing himself just how less than little their species knew about the universe. Amidst all those numerical values assigned to the size of space, it was no coincidence that there would be a great many places that humans shouldn’t be in, should never have found themselves in. Perhaps the warning was best applied to all organic life, but Shiro could not speak for the rest.

His first list of places began with the Galra gladiator pits, and admittedly that was a rookie mistake on his part, to think such corporeal pain was the be-all end-all.

His next, much better curated list began with the astral plane that had no time or space or physical self to begin with. Trapped in the Lion’s jaw, he had to work with his own malleable memory, had to paint himself into a canvas of vast dimensions just so his self wouldn’t be pulled apart in all directions. It was inexplicable with all the words he knew and he tried hard not to think about it, let it fade like an old nightmare.

His newest list would begin with that white brilliant nothing where time and space began and ended, where their bodies were sluggish and minds drunk on convincing thoughts spilling out of the most powerful person they knew. A friend, a dear one at that, that poisoned herself with something wicked to give her a boon she did not need. A dear friend that once told him he should never thank her for anything. A friend that should have…

That should have…

The span of a blink passed and he was back on the bridge, hands gripping the railing as cold sweat slid down his brow. Confused voices around him echoed the first formations of his thoughts.

“Wh-what happened?”

“Did we win?”

“I-I don’t remember how I got here!”

He had not a single word for any of his crew members, his mind still reeling, tongue like lead as he collected his thoughts. Someone mentioned the Lions attempting to dock and he ran out, racing the puzzle arranging itself in his head down to the hanger as fast as he could. Maybe if he could outrun it, maybe…

He burst through several security clearances, took two-three stairs at a time, but he could already hear it, the wailing, the screaming. It said more than he wanted to admit.

With a heavy breath he reached the Lions and their pilots. Lance was the source of all that inconsolable noise, on his hands and knees, fists slamming away at the harsh metal surface of a Lion’s paw. A garbled name on his lips, slipping in between the cries of anguish. Hunk was trying his best to console his friend, somehow, even when his own face betrayed a sadness he couldn’t deal with. Pidge was sitting on the floor with a vacant stare aimed somewhere at the hangar gate, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. Keith was yet to even leave the Black Lion, seeming willing to spend another eternity in it. Understandable, Shiro thought, because his eyes landed on the Blue Lion, powered down and vacant of life.

“No,” he whispered, the first word he ever said in this fresh new universe they brewed from their actions, or lack thereof. A strong and healthy universe, better in all ways possible considering whose corpse it was born from.

“No,” he said a little louder, shook his head in disbelief as the pressure behind his eyes increased.

Someone followed him down, their footsteps echoing throughout the hangar. “Is everyone alright?”

Coran and his cheerful cadence echoed behind them, standing strong even amidst the weeping. He slipped past Shiro, giving everyone a concerned look. “What’s going on,” he asked, this time with a note of worry. His feet took him towards the Blue Lion. “Where’s the princess?”

Coran didn’t seem to want to admit what Lance’s state so plainly telegraphed, choosing rather to call her name as he moved ever closer to the Blue Lion.

It caused Pidge’s face crumple, a sob slipping past her gritted teeth. She whispered loud enough for him to hear, “We let her die, Shiro.”

 

*

 

A lot more than Allura died that day in the hanger. The overwhelming sense of guilt and failure shrouded them like a heavy cloak they couldn’t get rid of, the shame of it overbearing. They couldn’t talk about it, not to Coran and his many questions and not even among each other, but the shroud was there and present for everyone to gander at. A new universe, a new lease on life all theirs to enjoy and they couldn’t even do that. They couldn’t even honor her that much.

Keith hardly meet anyone’s eyes for the entire voyage back and Shiro knew. He knew Keith well, and he knew himself well, and he knew just how hard it could hit when you’d lose someone under your watch, especially a friend. If only he had better words for him than her blood is on all our hands . That was hardly a comfort.  

They haunted the Atlas like ghosts, passing through each other when they weren’t hiding behind closed doors and training decks. But Lance was the most elusive one, so it surprised Shiro to find him one night on the observation deck, half way through their journey home. It was the designated middle of the night, most of the crew asleep to the quiet thrumming sound of Atlas’ engines. But the silence was oppressive, mind prone to wandering like it had every single night since the final battle. It kept Shiro awake, kept him come back to the observation deck with a small hope of inner peace. He still loved the sight of stars so much, even after everything they did to him.

Lance, too, probably. But he didn’t look at peace. No better or worse since that day in the hangar when they accepted the consequences of their inactions. The marks on his face glowed, the ones Allura left him with, and Shiro, drunk with sleep-deprived power, asked what he’d usually keep quiet about out of some misplaced form of respect.

Lance gave him a watery smile. “I don’t know why they glow. Maybe it’s a mood thing,” and he chuckled, but it sounded forced. “Maybe I’m a mood ring now.”

Shiro placed an arm around his shoulders, the only kind of comfort he knew how to give anymore. Words were insufficient here, and he didn’t have the right ones anymore. Lance sniffed hard and said, unprompted, “I can’t get our last moment out of my head. I didn't even try to hold on to her hand. She just left, a-and I let her.”

“Don’t torture yourself,” Shiro pleaded. The guilt was of equal burden, but those were the wrong words to say in that moment. No comfort at all.

But Lance couldn’t stop his self-flagellation. “Keith went through hell for you, for his best friend,” a sob wrecked through him as he looked at Shiro, pleading for something no one could give him anymore. “And I couldn’t even hold on the the girl I love.”

It was a good thing then, that Lance didn’t know exactly how right his words really were. Shiro sent him off to bed, walked him to his room with the warmest perfunctory words he had at his disposal. Passing by Keith’s room had him pausing, had him rethinking what he had just heard. On a better day he might have knocked. In a better world, he might have let himself in. Here and now, he dragged himself back to his room and under the covers, exhausted since the day the fighting stopped, and empty. Missing something crucial.

The universes stitched themselves back together, recreated anew, but the five of them were dropped back missing something vital. Someone. The mainframe that made them who they were lost its heart, and no one knew how to deal with it.

 

*

 

Lance was the first one to detach as soon as Atlas landed back on Earth. He needed time alone, he said, needed to spend time alone with family far enough away from any Garrisons and any space ships and anything that remotely reminded him of what they’d lost. Not sure how; they walked across her remains daily, everywhere they looked. The Red Lion powered down next to Blue, and Shiro had a sinking feeling that he’d never see either running again.

Coran left for New Altea not long after, trying his best to be as optimistic as he used to, failing twice as hard in front of people that really knew him. Unlike Lance, he was chasing ghosts on the streets of a city he used to know, alone even with all of Altea surrounding him.

Pidge buried herself in the R&D department of the Galaxy Garrison, and very literally, coming out for sun and air only when her mother and father both came in to exercise some form of ranking and parental authority.  

Hunk tried to be the glue that held every piece together the only way he knew how—hard-earned diplomacy and enticing food. It worked, somewhat. They had occasional meetups for lunch, Hunk’s cooking being terrible to resist, but rarely did all of them sit at the table together, no matter how much Hunk tried to accommodate their schedules.

Shiro would be lying if he said his approach to coping didn’t somewhat mimic Pidge, but he wasn’t certain what to make of his position anymore. It needed to be reshaped, much like Atlas, into something useful in the post-war world. He had ideas, maybe even the vaguest shape of a plan, but command kept him busy from sitting down and talking it through with the one person he thought would help him. That was his excuse at least, up until Keith threw a wrench in that idea and announced his departure on the same day he was departing. Back to space, to the Blades and the family he found in them. Who was Shiro to tell him otherwise, to stop him from chasing dreams that led him away from his side. Keith deserved more than his selfishness. Shiro saw him off with a hug and a smile he hoped didn’t seem too forced.

“This isn’t a goodbye,” Keith promised him, “just a ‘see you later’.”

It was the first time Shiro felt like Keith had lied to him.

Allura’s death split them apart, but ironically it was also the one thing that managed to force them all together once a year on New Altea. They stuck to that at least, for the sakes of her memory and Hunk’s food, but it was all a performance of happiness with Lance and Coran at the center as the most successful stars.

Then the Lions left as well on the first anniversary with a morose sense of finality. But it managed to spark the briefest flash of hope in just one of them. Pidge tried tracking them, doing her best impression of a cavedweller that survived on nothing but caffeine and takeout Shiro diligently brought her each day for a full week. It went unspoken between them what it was that she really looked for, and for the better because the results were disappointing. Shiro would have called it good enough but she was having none of that.

“They have a unique signature, but they’re very fast and its half-life is incredibly brief. There’s just no way to latch onto it with any sensor we have available, not in this galaxy or the other,” she said after another week worth of effort. There were still dark circles fading from under her eyes but at least Shiro managed to convince her to replace the coffee cup with tea. “The closest I can get is tracking high quantities of gamma radiation and cross-referencing it with their unique signature, but that would take...”

She paused for a solid minute, then shook her head after that brief attempt at calculation. She looked at Shiro who leaned against her desk absorbing every word, looked at him like he had the answers, not her. “That would take so long, Shiro. I can’t even give you an estimate. And the data centers we’d need to process all that information and extract the relevant details,” she whistled for emphasis, arms spreading wide.

Shiro considered their clout for a moment, and how much they could get without too many questions. “I think the Coalition can handle something as simple as data centers. Consider it done on my part. But the real question is, can you make it happen?”

She gave him a look that said she needed exactly the kind of hope he was trying to sell her. They were young, they had time. They could play a waiting game. The objective gave Pidge a new spark, brought a smile back to her face just a little, and that in itself was worth it. They made a promise to keep it between the two of them; no need to disappoint everyone twice over if the end result was little more than a collection of static noise.

And Shiro? He had motivation to give but none for himself to keep. Leading Voltron and being the Admiral of Earth’s largest vessel was incomparable in scope, a scope he felt was too much for his appetite. He missed the small things; a smaller team, a smaller conference room, the nonexisting paperwork, the lack of formality, the training drills he could participate in, the fun and games, the flying! God, he missed the flying; a small cockpit, the view of his team on the dashboard, their voices in his comms, the little family he made along the way. It was broken now, scattered like stars on the night’s sky that circle back once a year before dispersing again.

No one stuck for long on New Altea after the gatherings, the celebration its denizens had too fresh to stomach, and it became increasingly more disappointing to watch them all leave in different directions. And who was Shiro to stop anyone from doing what they want, when he himself was in a hurry to leave the ghosts of guilt that gathered with them.

But there was a name to the person in their group he cared to hear from the most but didn’t, and that smarted the worst. It felt like another mistake he was guilty of, another relationship gone to shit except this time he couldn’t even trace the origin of his failure.

So he looked for that instead, a replacement family, a different version, something to patch up all the emptiness of infrequent messaging and staticky video calls. And he found it, maybe a little to quickly, but he found it right there on the Atlas where he had almost decided to permanently bury himself in work. Almost. He took a page from his earlier days and proceeded to dunked all the responsibility off his shoulders, a preemptive measure so he wouldn't be tempted again to put his career ahead of his relationship. Family was important, it was worth fighting for, worth preserving. He knew that now, he’d learned.

Matt didn’t seem convinced.

Thirty minutes before the main reception on his wedding day and both he and Matt were struggling with that stupid bow tie in a far too small bathroom. Shiro stared at the ceiling, counting down the minutes, hoping Matt had more luck with his fingers around the bow tie than he did.

“Tell me something,” Matt asked as he struggled with the accessory, “do you really think you’ll be able to keep your feet on the ground?”

“Of course,” his answer was instant. “I’m marrying the man. I’d call that serious enough.”

“Yeah, I dunno,” Matt stuck his tongue out as he pulled the bow in a semblance of harmony and stepped back to admire his handiwork, dusting off Shiro’s shoulders as a final touch. He beamed and gave him a thumbs up, and Shiro turned to inspect his reflection. A not bad out of ten, should have gone with a clip-on to begin with.

“I give you two years tops.”

“What,” Shiro raised a brow as he stared at Matt through the mirror, going for one last fix for his hair.

“Two years before you crawl back to the Garrison, citing lazy Sunday mornings and pancake breakfasts as cause for restlessness.”

He had to turn and look his friend in the eyes. “So little faith in me, huh?”

“Not at all,” Matt shook his head with the sweets Holt trademark smile that spoke of knowing more than he let on. “I just know you.”  

“Well, you’re wrong about that.”

And Shiro was right, technically, because it took him three years to crawl back to the Garrison, and he had more than lazy Sundays and pancake breakfasts to cite as cause for restlessness.

For starters, he was haunted by the stars.

Chapter Text

He’d seen more than he ever thought he would in his short life. From giant robots with flaming swords and starships fighting in the vacuum of space, to planets that defied physics the way mankind knew and massive storms of metal forming in the hearts of nebulas. It should have been nothing now to watch the likes of Sirius and Venus twinkling on the Earth’s sky. It should have been a small and insignificant thing, unworthy of his awe, but it wasn’t.

Shiro still remembered with vivid clarity the first time they flew by one of the planets in their solar system. Sam and Matt at his side, all three glued to the viewport as they watched the gas giant shift with turbulent storms. The red eye that marked every photo of Jupiter from the early 20th century to now was waning, shrinking with each passing day, but another everstorm grew in the northern hemisphere to take its iconic place. No high definition photo, telescope, or video projection could ever match just how it felt to view it in person, up close.

Shiro remembered tearing from joy, remembered steering them closer to Io, so close they could see several volcanoes spew sulfur into the atmosphere. It got them talking about collecting souvenirs with priceless equipment, souvenirs other than the ice cubes of Kerberos. They did their math and, if all went according to schedule, Saturn’s rings just might be close enough to snatch a piece of space on their way back home. They foolishly forgot to consider the giants up ahead. On their way, Neptune was the one to offer up its barely-there rings and Shiro was hardly capable of turning down a challenge.

They had to cajole Sam a little, just for an hour, please, if it takes any longer we’ll get back on course , but even he was excited by the prospect they outlined. It took one of the two shuttle pods, a pilot with high precision maneuverability, a father and a son floating off steel cables, and a little white lie for home base.

We got grazed by some debris from the rings, Sam had lied through his teeth, so we stopped to schedule a brief maintenance. Better safe than sorry!

The detour had acquired them a bag full of dust, where in the dust was strange rocks the size of fists locked in the contamination unit until made safe for handling. Shiro had placed dibs on two of them, one for his top shelf and one for Keith.

But he never brought them home. Barely brought their lives. And still, still , he looked up every night with a quiet hope that gravity would just let him go. The visions of space were supposed to see him off this world and into the next. Now they just haunted him every time he closed his eyes, the good and the bad leaving imprints on his eyelids.

And one star, one in particular, the one that kept moving further away as he stood still, haunted him with its distance.

*

For Shiro, the wedding album was a cursed item in their library. There was nothing wrong with their wedding photos—most of them were excellent and very worth the money and old-fashion printing—but the ones that captured their guests, one specifically, he couldn’t look at anymore. It regurgitated that old sense of loss and missed opportunities he thought he had buried.

Curtis found it charming, pointed it out with a laugh as he said, “That friend of yours sure hates to smile.”   

Their conversations were tenuous and few, but Shiro should have really noticed something when Keith refused to engage in anything other than textual communication after he announced his engagement. On the next gathering under Allura’s statue, he was the first one not to show up, sending in his stead a goodie bag from the far reaches of the Andromeda galaxy.

Shiro tried not to let it haunt him. It was an unfortunate circumstance and certainly not one he had any expertise maneuvering in. He chose a different life now, different priorities, so he let it go as if it meant nothing, slid it under the rug where no one could see it, not even himself.

A shame it didn’t work like that. A seed was a seed and it was bound to grow on fertile land whether he paid attention to it or not. And then the stars started haunting him as well, and he could pinpoint it down to a moment barely a year into his marriage.

They were on the balcony, lounging, feet propped up on the railing. Light pollution was far from the place they made their home, and the sky that night was clear. Dusk settled across the land, the Earth’s tiny little sun tucked over the horizon, and the first stars twinkled above their heads on a canvas of of dark blues and violets.

They watched the night sky change in comfortable silence, a choir of crickets their only company. Curtis was the first to speak.

“Do you miss it?”

“Of course,” his answer was immediate and unsurprising. “Don’t you?” He turned to look at his husband who still stared at the sky with pensive eye.

“Never flew before the war, remember? Never expected to. That whole experience kind of ruined it for me,” Curtis admitted with a shrug. He turned to look at Shiro when he said, “Your experience was much worse.” He left the question hanging in the air.

Shiro turned to look up at the stars. Curtis knew a lot but not everything, no the way some people did. “Maybe so,” he said as he admired the colors that reminded him of eyes he hadn’t seen in a long time, “but it’s beautiful up there, an experience worth fighting for. I’ll never regret my first flight. Despite it all,” he waved with his right hand, gray and sleek and not as bulky as the previous one.

The old arm got decommissioned after he stepped away from the Atlas, the jewel that powered it sent back to Coran under Shiro’s last order as the Admiral. Hunk had his hands in building it, a parting gift on his behalf, something that was more an arm and less a weapon. Shiro just really enjoyed wearing both sleeves again.

What he didn’t enjoy was the way the stars lodged themselves behind his eyelids after that night. They had always been there at the back of his mind, trailing after him every night on the balcony, but this time he couldn’t ignore them anymore. He dreamt of flying through nebulas and giant red stars and misshapen exoplanets every other night. He bought a new telescope, as if that would somehow fix the problem instead of exacerbate it. He made more and more visits to the Holts and their labs, binged Hunk’s cooking show with its colorful array of alien life, decorated his house with pots of plant life that did not belong on Earth, courtesy of Lance’s green thumb that pretty much surprised everyone on the third year gathering.  

He tried not to think about the missing, both living and dead, but as soon as thoughts became effort, they were no longer possible to ignore. Buried in work , Krolia had told him when he got into contact with her, you know how it is. And no, Shiro didn’t, not anymore, and it slowly grated him down with each clear night sky he spent watching the stars and thinking of things lost. Things that slipped right through their fingers.

His fingers.

So technically Matt was wrong; it wasn’t two years but three when he crawled back to the Garrison, hardly a month after their fourth year gathering. But no amount of teaching the next generation of green sprouts how to fly in Earth’s lower orbit helped his affliction. The stars were right there in front of him on the observation deck, and yet somehow still too far. This wasn’t it, not yet, but it was a good distraction.

“Married to the job, huh?” Curtis poked fun over video chat when Shiro called him only to say he’d be kept up for another week. They both laughed at the joke, but Shiro knew that particular brand of self-sabotage, heard those words before from Adam in much the same way. The novelty of the laughter would wear off and history would repeat itself, and Shiro would just let it happen. Again.

There was nothing wrong with his marriage. It was good, they got along great, love was there and present, but Shiro… He loved something more. Something up there in the stars. It was cruel to ignore it, cruel to Curtis and himself.

*

Year five caught him between two young pilot begging for another shot at the flight test, so he was running late to the gathering for the first time. Coran waited for him regardless, always looking so excited to see an old familiar face. Sometimes Shiro envied his capacity to bring cheer to their annual gathering, but then he’d remembered why. Then he’d remember Coran was not even there to say goodbye to the person he cared for the most, the one he swore to keep safe. That, Shiro didn’t envy.

“I hope you don’t mind them starting dinner without you. Lance had finished his yearly tourguide with the cutest gaggle of tiny visitors from the far reaches of the galaxy. There were even theatrical reenactments where the other Paladins joined in on,” Coran wiped a faux tear from his eyes, “I was so proud! But it sure wrung everyone out of energy.” He leaned closer, staging a comical whisper with the back of his hand, and said, “I think they’re getting old.”

Shiro laughed at that, at the notion that any of them would yet be considered old. Maybe in spirit, maybe in the cracks their adventures left them with. Any clever retort he had died on his tongue when they rounded the landing site and the view of Allura’s statue greeted them. But the feeling didn’t seem to be shared, if Coran’s wistful sigh was anything to go by.

The glint of Allura’s crown jewel caught his eye, hanging comfortably around Coran’s neck and close to his heart.

Shiro was good at swallowing down impulses that would have him address what had happened on that day exactly five years ago, all of them did. It was a form of group self-preservation they had unconsciously acquired. But one-on-one he got the courage to push the words through his teeth and ask.

“What’s it like to wake up every morning and look at,” he didn’t have a better word for the statue other than, “that?”

Coran was quiet for a few moments, assessing the statue and his own words before responding. “It used to be harder,” he admitted with melancholy, “but time and frequency help. And I like to think that one day, one morning, she’ll wave back to me.”

Before Shiro could even hope to match those words, the teludav sounded off with another wormhole opening, and Coran defaulted back to his regular state of self, announcing with glee that they were all finally here. A small Galra vessel came through, and as it turned out, Shiro wasn’t the only one late. The circumstances of their tardiness had them sitting next to each other for the first time in a long while, the chair to his right empty and waiting. To his content, Keith didn’t even hesitate when he saw the free space, but Shiro and the rest of the table were far more interested in the sight of his Senior Blade’s attire, and the long braid dangling across his right shoulder.

“Sorry I’m late,” he plopped down with a sigh, pointedly ignoring Lance’s wolf whistle. “Didn’t have time to change.”

“That’s new,” Pidge piped up from across the table.

“Hardly,” he muttered, “but yeah. Responsibilities, woho,” he did the most deadpan cheer.

“Looking good,” Shiro said, careless of the voice in head telling him to pick his words better.

Keith huffed a laugh and turned to him, “That’s about all it’s good for. It’s clunky and heavy and restricts my movement.” He sighed, probably imagining his old space-kevlar body suit. “But rank and command come with certain formalities. You’d know all about that.”

His words could have come off as mean-spirited jab, had Keith not worn a smile that Shiro could still recognize as something that used to be only his. That was likely not true anymore but it still warmed his heart to see that face and those eyes smile at him.

Shiro sat back with a satisfied grin. “Not anymore,” the words elected low groan from half the table. No one really hid their dissatisfaction with him quitting, but Pidge was the only one not groaning, a glint reflecting off her glasses and a smile on her face, the I-know-more-than-you-do one. Keith caught it and raised an eyebrow as he eyed Shiro. “These days I go to work in my sweats. Protocol’s pretty lax when you have enough clout.”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait,” Hunk dropped food to voice probably the same thing Lance interjected to yell out.

“You went back to work?!”

He nodded and the commotion on the table was wild, Coran yelling that he’d won, Lance arguing over semantics, Pidge insisting her timeframe was the closest, and Hunk begging people not to start a food fight before they’ve had enough to properly credit his new artistic merits.

“I knew you wouldn’t last,” Keith leaned in to say.

“Was there a betting pool?”

“Three reunions long.”

“Pidge?”

“Hunk, actually.”

It was times like these when he remembered what he missed the most. Their topics were always light and never skirted below the surface, never enough to reveal something like his long since finalized divorce, but it was still nice. Familiar. It reminded him that they could so easily get back what was once lost, if just this one thing didn’t have the chokehold of guilt pressing down on them.

But for now, this would do. The stars he was searching for were there, sitting right besides him close enough to touch, and just their light was enough. Just their shine. He could learn to be happy with that. He could make it work.

Allura’s statue watched over them, and this year, much like the last and the one before it, no one looked up. Only Coran, the one person among them guilty of nothing.

 

Shiro hoped to catch Keith alone for a moment that evening before his departure, but the only thing he caught was the tailblaze of his ship leaving through the teludav. He had no game plan for this would-be conversation, no opening or exit strategy. He just wanted, and the want persisted until he opened the message on his data pad. Their last correspondence was two years and three months ago, but even that didn’t deter him from shooting off a mundane message.

Was hoping to catch you before you leave, but there you go, off to save the galaxy again.

A blip came before Shiro could even wonder if he’d ever get an answer back.

There’s a lot of cleanup to do up there.

Short and simple, no real opener to conversation, more like a polite brush-off. That was fine, Shiro could live with that. At least he got an answer.

Then, another blip came a few minutes later.

Did you need something?

Did he? You haven’t been to Earth in a long time, since the wedding, but he omitted that part for the sake of polite conversation, was wondering if they let you have vacations there, or if you were planning to visit any time soon.

The answering blip comes instantly. I dictate my own vacations, thankyouverymuch. But you’re right, I haven’t take one in a long time.

The back and forth stopped there. It was the next morning, the rest of them saying their goodbyes, when Shiro heard a blip on his data pad. One of his students probably, and he ignored it until he boarded his ship.

I just might, though. Would be nice to catch up :)

The smile that put on Shiro’s face lasted him all the way to the orbital space station.  

*

Y’know, maybe he, too, needed a break every once in a while. Maybe—maybe a vacation was due in few weeks or days. Maybe tomorrow, or even better, right now.

There was nothing quite like Slav invading his work space for some maintenance and upgrades to put him on edge. Iverson sent him a message personally about it, titled Slav is coming and first line, please don’t push him down the stairs again.  

That was one time, and Shiro knew exactly what he was doing. For starters, Slav was spineless, there was nothing to break, and he also rolled up in a ball like a goddamn armadillo. No, that was wrong, armadillos were cute and did not deserve the association. A pill bug was a better comparison. The act was cathartic, Iverson , and it was worth all five days Slav spent avoiding him on the Atlas all those years ago.

Something about cosmic coincidences and the right color of socks sounded off in his head with Slav’s irritating cadence when not two days after he settled his vacation days, Pidge contacted him with a cryptic message saying, Ditch your classes, we need to meet ASAP.

“What’s so important that it couldn’t wait for tomorrow,” Shiro whined as he followed Pidge to her lab.

He had just landed for his Earth-bound 20 day vacation and there was a whole slew of thing he wanted to do first, like take a bath, get some shuteye, step out of the bath looking like a prune and get some horizontal shuteye. It was a boring list, he’d admit that, and he was mostly just tired from the journey, but refusing Katie Holt at her most exuberant state was like begging for someone to hack his household appliances.  

“I wouldn’t drag an old man like you out of bed this late if it wasn’t important,” she said wearing the most infuriating grin.

“Pidge, I’m 33,” he deadpanned.

“Sounds dreadful,” she let one last chuckle slip before turning on him with a serious face. “Are you okay, though? I didn’t wanna bring it up during the reunion...”

“Bring what up?”

“You know,” she turned to face him fully and walked backwards, “the divorce thing. We’ve all been so busy, and you never told me how that was going.”

“Oh, that,” Shiro shrugged. “That was finalized a little less than a year ago.”

“What.” She stopped in her track. “Seriously? And you never told me?”

“Not much to tell,” and there really wasn’t. It was a quiet affair that left them both with mild scratches and mostly good standings. “If there was, you’d know. Or Matt. Both, probably.”

That seemed to satisfy her, never one for emotionally-wrenching talks to begin with, and they continued their hurried steps. “Well, you tell me if you want to go out and get some post-divorce drinks or whatever people do to celebrate that.”

Shiro laughed. “Are you sure you’re old enough to drink, Katie ?”

“Cruel and uncalled for,” she sent him a threatening look as he continued to laugh.

He was about to make a turn towards her lab when she stopped him and continued going straight down the hall. “Basement,” she said, and it took him a long couple of second to connect the dots, to remember what project she had stashed there.

“Oh,” he said, eyes widening and pace quickening.

“Now he gets it,” she had to run to keep up and ahead of him.

A distributed clusters of data centers spread across the system fed directly into the main base of operations, her basement, where a project had been running for the past five or so years. They hadn’t talked about it in ages. She never mentioned, Shiro never asked; it was better like that, less painful.

“It began rendering last week, Shiro,” she spoke with a brand of excitement so young and vibrant it instantly reminded him of days spent on a castle-ship, deep in an unknown galaxy. She pointed out the first 11% of their map slowly being rendered on a holographic display. “The time remaining keeps oscillating, but when it’s done we’ll have a map with a 95.7% accuracy to lead us towards the Lions.”

Shiro was one table away from crushing her into a hug. “We’re gonna need a ship!”

“A dime a dozen,” she waved it off. “What we really need is a crew. Our crew.”

Chapter Text

Spaceships really were a dime a dozen under the Holt’s inventiveness.

They had their suspicions about their daughter’s pet project, but Pidge stayed diligent and never spilled a word about it until now. And when she did, when the topic of transportation arose, Sam’s eyes shone with manic glee that Colleen quickly tampered down.

“Let’s not go into tour-guide mode, we’d all be stuck here for the rest of the day,”

Sam deflated, “But—”

“Mom’s right,” Matt jumped in, already getting up from the table where they just finished their lunch. “Let’s start with the good stuff, and I mean the really good stuff.”

Shiro was just waiting to get clued in since everyone at the table seemed to already know what was being talked about, and he didn’t have to wait long when Sam opened the floodgates, gushing with pride about their most ambitions prototype labeled “Omark 2”—the first successful blend of human and Olkari tech.    

The implication of there being a version one was obvious, but questions about it got nipped in the bud before Shiro could even ask, with Matt wildly gesticulating a throat slashing gesture as a warning. Right, Shiro could get a hint. Version one was a colossal failure. Best not get Sam talking about the hows and whys.

They passed through several security checks, each one more complicated than the other, until they reached a large sectioned off hanger with not much to show in it other than scattered chunks of gear, crates, and mechanical parts laying around.

“It's mutable, Shiro,” her voice echoes through the hangar, eyes gleaming with excitement as she waved a thin circlet she picked up from one of the crates just laying around. “Or, it will be. That's the prototype part and there’s a lot of room for improvement. And we're still working out kinks in the headdress.”

“What's wrong with it,” Shiro tried the circlet on but nothing happened, no lights, no zapps, much like the one the Olkari once gave them to operate their biomechs.

“Nothing, it works perfectly,” Pidge made a grabby gesture and snatched it off his head when he leaned down. She put it on and the cloaking mechanism flickered, the aircraft coming into view before them at the center of the hangar.

It looked inconspicuously human in nature, nothing about it gray, still unlabeled hull would ever tip anyone off that it was anything other than a classic MFE-type deep space transporter jet, much bulkier than usual. A trace of the Atlas’ exterior design but in miniature.

Without preamble, the ship's gates opened, and only then did he notice the green lights flickering on the circlet Pidge wore.

“Language issue,” Matt supplied. “We're trying to make it usable for humans, since machine language really isn't something everyone can use.”

“Can you,” Shiro asked as Pidge dragged him off towards the entrance.

“I refused to disclose,” he yelled back.

“So that's a no,” and Pidge let out a loud cackle that confirmed it.

“His girlfriend is teaching him, he'll get the hang of it by the time we make it accessible. But you don't need it to use the ship,” and to make a point, she took the circlet off when they entered. “It just makes things more interesting.”

The tour was quick; as of yet bare and mostly unfurnished interior, enough rooms to comfortably situate ten people and all their needs of privacy, large enough storage for a solid three months of “luxurious cruising,” up to eighteen for “stingy cruising.”  Renewable water supply, a kitchen with the prototype of an Altean goo-dispenser with some taste settings that did not work, a decently sized Balmera crystal to keep everything running, a back-up system that fed on solar energy, perfunctory weapons system but the emphasis remained on evasion and speed.

“The AI is okay and takes over for co-pilot, but in a tight situation the ship runs best with two pilots at the helm. And that's it,” she sat in the co-pilot's chair as Shiro examined the dashboard. “This could be our home for the voyage.”

“Will be, you mean,” Shiro said.

The silence that ensued lingered long enough for him to drop the boyish fascination he still got when a new type of aircraft was presented before him.

Pidge looked troubled, a stiffness lining her shoulders that wasn’t there before.

“What if—” she cut herself off harshly, sucked both lips between her teeth to keep the doubts from spilling.

She didn't need to put them to words though. Shiro’s pragmatism had already ensured he considered the possibilities.

“Can you drop everything you’re doing right now and leave tomorrow,” he asked, all serious.

“What,” she looked at him like he was mad. “No, of course not! It’s gonna take me a month at least to hand off my projects, and that’s being super generous.”

“Can you expect any less from anyone else? When you call Hunk, don’t hope for anything more than momentary enthusiasm. He’s got an entire culinary empire to think about, and several live broadcasting shows. Present the plan as you know best, give him time to ruminate, and you will hear from him again and you’ll be talking technicalities all night long. You think he wouldn’t jump from excitement just from the news of you having your hands on a ship like this? Pidge, you know him, better than I ever did, and you know before this ship takes off, the two of you will have made upgrades on it.

“And Lance might have the simplest time abandoning his work, but we’d need Hunk with us to smooth the process. I don’t think either of us could do it as well as Hunk, not with something so delicate. He knows him best. And Coran would jump on this idea yesterday if he could, but he sits on the highest council of New Altea. He will need the most time, but I would not doubt even a shred of his dedication to the smallest possibility of finding Allura.

“And Keith… He’s out there doing what we once used to. Fixing the universe from ten thousand years of war is no small task, and I’d almost feel guilt to ask him this, to drag him away from such a noble goal. But this we have to do together, or not at all.”

Pidge was blinking rapidly, hiding something obvious behind the glare of her glasses, but hiding it well. “Or not at all,” she repeated his words back with a cloying finality. “A bit drastic.”

“Alright,” he shrugged, “I’m flexible on that part. Mostly hopeful.”

Her eyes glistened behind behind thin frames. “What makes you so hopeful?”

Shiro placed his hand on her shoulder. “I think it was more than circumstance and coincidence that held us together. More than just probability. We did so many great things with and without our Lions once, all of us, and I want to think we can do one more miracle together.”

The grin that split her face was definitively Pidge-like in quality. “Like follow a map to uncharted regions of space?”

“Yeah,” he grinned in return, “like follow a map. Now let’s go for a test drive.”

It must have been her idea of a joke to drop a thick tome in his lap that she called a manual and expect him to read it. His face turned sour as if the heap of cellulose had offended his ancestors. He dropped it from his lap with just a pinch of respect for its size and weight, and turned his chair towards the dashboard.

“Bad idea,” Pidge warned, but the ship was Garrison-made and he knew Garrison ships and what made them tick. The displays came alive and the windscreen lit up with a dozen details worth paying attention to.

Shiro honed in on one specifically, AI Copilot , and turned it off.

“Really bad idea,” but she made no move to stop him, pulling up her seat to the dashboard and sending a command to open up the hatch above their heads.

Finding the thrusters was just a bit of a hassle because someone put them left of the throttle and that was not where they usually go, Pidge .

“Last chance to consult the manual,” she said as they were gaining altitude.

“That’s not fun,” Shiro winked.

“I think I see it now,” she said as she made adjustments to the cabin pressure and dimmed the screens to stop the coming glare of the sun straight ahead. “When Keith told us he learned some of his reckless stunts from you. I didn’t believe him back then, but I see it now.”

His metal hand twitched on the throttle, eager to blast away as soon as the proper altitude was cleared. “Speaking of,” he licked his lips, “I’ll need to borrow a small ship.”

She understood immediately. “No problem. Do you know where you’re going?”

“No idea.” He pulled out his data pad from his jacked and dropped it in her lap. “Hack my comms while I break the sound barrier, would you?”

“You two were in contact recently?”

He nodded and did a double take when he took better stock of her sitting position, a scandalized look on his face. “And fasten your seatbelt, please!”

“Oh, that’s where he draws the line,” she scoffed, but managed to have the buckles click moments before optimal altitude.

Not missing a single beat, Shiro slammed the throttle.

*

Pidge left the aircraft on shaky legs. Shiro smacked her on the back, throwing her even more off balance. “That was fun,” he said with unfiltered joy.

“Definitions of fun may vary,” she said as she watched her brother tear from laughter across the hangar, pointedly aiming at her with his finger.

She made good on her promise to hack his comms while Shiro took care of the evening’s menu—a few stir fry varieties and a pizza for good measure.Take-out, of course. He had it under good authority that the kitchen was not his place, no matter how valiant his efforts. And oh, did he try.

It took her the better part of an hour to get some coordinates out of communication channels that should have been very hard to crack, but the journey had Pidge curious and willing to poke topics she never used to touch.

Between quiet mouthfuls, the occasional fuck , and staring at a wall for inspiration, she also said, “I never thoughts the two of you would get like this. I mean, how did we stay in contact, but you two didn’t?”

“Proximity.”

“Harsh,” she gave him a look of faux-betrayal, “but true. Still, what happened between the two of you?”

He had several different way to dodge that question ready, an outright refusal, and a couple of white lies at his disposal. But none of it seemed worthy to match the sincerity of her question, so he answered with honesty of his won. “He was in love with me.”

Confusion racked her face before she stared off to comb through her memory, face morphing from troubled to intrigued in slow increments. “Did he ever say anything?”

Shiro nodded and her eyebrows met the ceiling, fingers frozen on the keyboard. He had her full attention now. “When we fought,” he said as he recalled fragmented memories that may or may not be his, but certainly belonged to a version of him. “When I tried to kill him.”  

“Oh,” she deflated, “that time.”

A silence fell between them, Pidge still curious but refusing to voice it, Shiro still reeling from saying any of that out loud. He got this far, might as well finish the marathon.

“He never mentioned it again, and I took a while to pull my head together.” Pidge nodded, she knew all about that, witnessed it in her Lion. “And then we reached Earth and the war happened, and it was never the right time or the right place.”

He stopped to take a deep breath to get through the last part. “And then Honerva happened. And Allura...” Her name still weighed heavy on his tongue, and Pidge nodded, not needing to hear a detail more about that. “Personal issues of the heart seemed so small and irrelevant after that,” he sighed. “After all of us broke just like that,” Shiro snapped his fingers for emphasys.

“Yeah,” Pidge had slumped into her chair, hacking momentarily forgotten. She seemed to be chewing something over, and Shiro left her to either ask it or change the topic. “What about you?”

He knew where that was going. Dodge and roll. “What about me?”

“Where do you stand in this story,” and a little awkwardly she added, “how do you feel?”

“Hardly matters anymore.” Parry. “And that’s not what we’re here for, anyway.” Block, for good measure.

She gave him a look she only reserved for issues of great offence, like faulty lines of code and bad coffee. “Right,” she snorted, “your evasion speaks louder than words.”

Alright, if that’s how she wanted to play. Shiro pulled out a smile with the most threatening aura and asked, “So, how’s your love life, Pidge?”

She instantly hunched back over the keyboard. “This conversation is over.”

*

It was late when he left the compound, the clear sky above already blanketed by the darker hues that kept reminding him of someone out there.

Shiro had a destination now, a planet’s name and some digital pamphlets warning about its harsh climate. He’d have a ship, too, in a few days, but no plan. He committed to winging this reconnection since the moment he fired off that inane message during their last reunion. Overthinking, planning—that was his game, his element, but it also felt unearned in this case. Time changed people, distance too, and he had already come to accept that Keith had stopped being someone Shiro could claim to know. There was no planning around the unpredictable; Shiro could only see an outcome where he’d convince himself not to even try, and that was unacceptable.

So, no plan, no mission objective. Just get there, gouge out social cues, see what happens.

His thoughts preoccupied, Shiro hadn’t even noticed the Jeep parked beyond the security parameters. A guard notified him it was one of the former Paladins, and really there was only one close enough that could make a surprise visit like that.

“Lance,” Shiro waved and jogged ahead to meet him, but the closer he got the more he noticed how agitated he was. Blue denim over a faded pink shirt that saw one too many washes, muddy boots and overalls; he looked like he just wrapped up his day in the fields and made an impromptu visit. An impromptu six hour drive.  

Lance waved back as he got closer, smiled even, but the rest of him was still pacing with nervous energy. And in the setting dusk, Shiro noticed the marks on his face, glowing.

“Pretty late for a visit,” Shiro said. “What brought you here?”

“I don’t know,” Lance seemed to surrender to the words, shoulders sagging. “I’m just following a feeling that won't let me sleep at night, you know?” He sighed at Shiro’s confusion. “No, you don’t, but maybe—”

He started looking all over for inspiration, for words to explain himself, but none of them were leaving his mouth other that sighs of frustration. “Hey,” Shiro stepped closer, “breathe,” he said and tried to ground Lance a little with a firm touch.

“I just know,” he tried again, “that I have to be here,” he pointed his finger at Galaxy Garrison complex looming behind them, “in other to get there,” and he slowly lifted that finger above his head while staring at the ground below his feet. Shiro followed it up, up towards the sky and the stars forming above their heads.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Lance slumped against his car. “I’m just trying to translate these feelings into words but it’s just so—”

Difficult wasn't a good word to describe the struggles dancing across Lance’s resigned face. Words failed him again, and in the silence that fell between them, Shiro couldn’t stop watching the soft glow on his cheeks. Allura left him with that. It didn’t change anything about Lance, not biologically at least, but she left him with that and there had to have been a reason. Something other than a painful memory.

“I think I might know why you’re here,” Shiro said carefully, already pulling out his earpiece to make a call.

“Really?” Lance looked desperate for any answer. “Care to to shine a light here?”

Shiro pulled him by the arm towards the security checkpoint, the second ring going off in his ear. She always picked up on the third. “Hey Pidge, keep the labs open for a little longer, would you? Lance came all this way to see your project.”

“I did?” Lance asked in his right ear.

He did what?! Pidge screeched in his left.

Chapter Text

“Oh, wow, this is… wow! So weird.”

The feed was snowy with a bit of screen tear, the image freezing up for a second in between words.

“I mean, good weird, y’know? It’s just—I don’t—”

The sound was a little distorted, too, which reminded Shiro of VHS tapes that were relegated to relics only found in museums and turn-of-the-century nostalgia movies. But as far as Earth-made communication between two galaxies went, it was great.

“Hold on, let me just—” and they were treated to a view of Hunks chest as he jostled the feed before it cleared up a little. “That’s better. Sorry, I don’t usually take calls in here. Or on this device.”

“We can call later if you’re busy,” Pidge said.

“No, no! It’s just a little surprising, you know? And to see all of you, well, almost all of you. Most of you! On one spot! That’s not a table on Altea... Wow. What exactly am I missing out on here?”

No amount of static in the feed could hide just how excited Hunk was to be on the receiving end of this conversation.

Lance was practically vibrating next to Pidge, his leg bouncing so hard it jostled her chair. They exchanged a look, Pidge trying to motion him to speak before he muttered, “but it’s your thing.”

She threw an exasperated look at Shiro who stood behind them, and he slapped Lance on the back once which was all the encouragement he needed to light up and start talking.

“Right! So, Pidge here? Bona fide genius, as you know. And she’s been sitting on a little project. They both were, actually,” he pointed with his thumb at Shiro over his shoulders, “the traitors. But I get it, I get, it’s—”

He choked up for a moment, fumbled, and lost his words again. A bit of a recurring theme with Lance as they’ve discovered, but neither of them interrupted him. Hunk was also silent, leaning closer to the screen with interest.

It was 3AM and they were all running on empty, powered by sheer will and Lance’s enthusiasm. He was the one who made them do the call at this ungodly hour. Ungodly within Earth’s time zones at least; Hunk seemed to be in the middle of his work day.

“So,” Lance tried again, opting for simplicity this time around. “There’s a map.”

“Oh my god,” the words tumbled out of Hunk instantly, before he clamped his mouth shut. “Did you track the—” he sucked in another breath before he said the words out loud, a look pointed at Pidge. “One sec,” he got up and disappeared from their feed.

“Wow, he really guessed that right off the bat, huh,” Shiro said with abject disappointment.  

“You two owe me money,” Lance flashed them a cheeky grin. Pidge refused to acknowledge any form of loss as of yet.

“Okay,” Hunk was back in front of them. “No one’s definitely eavesdropping.”

“Eavesdropping,” Lance asked, confused.

The very rusty gears in Shiro’s head started turning. The hour of the day also played into it, he was sure.

“Is the feed secure,” Hunk asked. “Are you sure we can talk about,” he gestured paws with his hands, “all that ?”

“Okay, you’re being weird now,” Pidge said. “And this isn’t even about the Lions. Technically.”

Shiro groaned loudly, acquiring the attention of everyone present, including Hunk. “I can’t believe I didn’t even consider it.” He could feel it, the rust that had accumulated in between all his downtime. “This is why we don’t make calls at 3AM.”

“See,” Hunk gestured, “he gets it! Wait, hold up, what time is it?”

“Gets what?” Lance asked a little louder, hoping someone would answer.

“This isn’t even about the damn Lions,” Pidge said with the eerie calm of a caffeine addict that had their fix five minutes before the call. “This is about Allura.”

The tiniest, softest what came from the other end of the feed.

All of them collectively—but specifically Shiro—failed as people with military backgrounds and former warfare engagement. It took the most peaceful one among them no less than three second to figure out what they—Shiro specifically—should have already thought of.

The Lions were out there. Public knowledge. The Lions were also sought after even in a post war world.

Especially in a post war world.

“You should see the sort of fanmail I get sometimes,” Hunk tried to explain his immediate thoughts of the worst. “Gets you a little paranoid.”

The return of Daibazaal mollified a portion of the Galra Empire, but most did not remember or care about their old world. They were raised on battle cruisers by a thousand generations of warlords and conquerors and one single unifying tyrant that only knew how to take and subjugate. Sucking all that poison out of their blood could only be done on the willing, and some tried to repurpose their ways. The rest were quite content with continuing in the footsteps they knew best.

Vrepit sa, and all that.

But nothing deterred Pidge from constantly reminding everyone present that none of it had anything to do with the Lions. And on that account, Hunk was less paranoid, more riveted.

“Can we finally admit it,” he asked. “Can we finally come out and say how much we hate the reunion day? Because I hate it,” Hunk sighed. “I hate that it’s the only time I see any of you, and I hate what it reminds me of.”

“Same, buddy,” Lance said softly after a few moments of silence. “Takes a lot from me to be cheerful that day.”

“Not a fan,” Pidge was next to speak, the tone of her voice sour.

“I could go without ever seeing that statue again,” Shiro said, earning a groaning yes from Hunk.

“And where’s the rest of the team,” he asked. “We’re all in on this, right?”

“We still gotta get in touch with Coran, and Shiro is flying off to get Keith in a few days.”

Pidge made his part sound non-negotiable, set in stone, a fact of life just waiting to happen. He could use some of that confidence.

“You better,” Hunk’s voice brought him out of his thought, a pair of warm hopeful eyes looking right at him. “I expect to see everyone when I get there, and that’s including the mice.”

Shiro smiled. No pressure.

“Speaking of getting here,” Lance drew out the last word until it curled into a question he didn’t have to ask.

“Yeah, about that,” Hunk looked pained as he grabbed his data pad to look through it. “Won’t be tomorrow, that’s for sure. Or this month at all.”

*

It was a lot more than just Galra causing trouble. The zeta quadrant of the former Galra Empire was a hotbed of insurgent activities, raiders, and pirates. The few planets that offered life needed more than just relief efforts, but the Blades of Marmora were spread thin. According to Krolia, it wasn’t quote so grim; their ranks expanded on a daily basis, but proper leadership was never in abundance. And here was Shiro, flying in with the express hopes of thinning it out even further.

Selfish, he knew, but he just about bought his own words of encouragement when he delivered them to Pidge. Just about. Deep down in him there still lived a traitorous voice that quietly insisted they’d always be a member or two short on this journey.

It was early morning when he arrived with three teludav jumps and a lot of meandering in between that ranged from answering work-related emails, and looking for some very specific heat conductors after doing some last minute reading on the climate awaiting him.

There was no direct sunlight when he broke through Durma’s atmosphere, a cryovolcanic moon wrapped in a thick gray gauze of clouds, strong winds, and degrees well below zero on a good day. Its single Marmora base was located on its northern mountain caps where the gales were strongest—a line of defense from the dangerous wildlife, his brochure said. Every Marmora base registered Earth ships as friendly, but the perpetually harsh weather made for a difficult landing, and getting out of the ship was no easy task.

Freezing conditions, sure. Gales that could knock him off balance, of course. But what really had him pausing in the warmth of the cockpit was that he didn’t even send a message to announce himself. He was committed to the terrible nature of surprises now, coupled with some second guessing. But he wanted to see, he really wanted to see—

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see. Keith, for starters, but something else as well. Something he’d do well to tamper down before opening his mouth. He pulled on both gloves, even though he really needed just the one, a gaudy green scarf he found among his things—origins unknown, possibly a gift, probably leftovers—and he pulled up the hood of his polar jacket. He was ready. Ready to prove that voice in his head wrong. Or right. That was the real issue.

The Blades were around and he found a few familiar faces to point him in the right direction. Axca was one of them, disengaging from her group to offer a very polite hello and send him off towards his goal. Zethrid was there in the aforementioned group, and while Shiro wouldn’t consider himself vindictive, he certainly held a distinct tally of people on his shit list. Zethrid got there with a whole slew of action, last of which was holding a gun to Keith’s head.

He got sent towards the flickering lights and tunnels that lead towards the heart of the mountain. The cold seemed no less intense even away from the winds, and as he looked through the settlement to find the right hut, all that ice surrounding him started to feel like a message he was unintentionally ignoring.

He slammed his metal fist three times against a door with the particular Blades insignia he was told to look for. He waited, heard shuffling from the other side, and as the door started opening he heard the most familiar voice.

“Took you a while, where have you—”

The sight was very domestic. Keith in earthly clothes, one part flannel pajamas, one part sweats. His hair was a barely tamed mess of black spilling down his shoulders, much longer than his usual braid made it seem, and it curtained a face frozen in shock at his visitor, clearly not someone those words were meant for.

Shiro instantly forgot most, if not all of his rehearsed speech, but he kept his manners at least. “It has been a while, hasn’t it?”

Keith’s eyes were still big with wonder and Shiro couldn’t gauge if that was a good or a bad thing. He stuck his head out looking left and right, clearly expecting someone else. “What are you—what brings you here?”

“A lot of things,” he shuffled his feet, the stone beneath his soles radiating so much cold he’d lose feeling in his feet if he stood still for too long. “Could I come in? It’s a little cold out here,” he tried to make it sound like a joke, but the neutrality of Keith’s surprise would not budge from his face.

The invitation wasn’t instant. There was calculation behind his pause, and then he stood aside and gestured for him to come in. It was warm inside, a hearth blazing with fire, and Shiro took stock of the small room, sleeping quarters and not much else. The bed was large and with several layers of fur tossed on it in a messy pile. It explained Keith’s tousled look, must have just woken up.  

There were also pieces of a Blades uniform haphazardly tossed around the bed, too large to be Keith’s, and Shiro had to swallow down a sudden concoction of emotions that didn’t belong here.

“Do you want some tea,” Keith interrupted his thoughts. “Regular Earth tea. Not much grows here.”

The kettle was warming over the fire and Keith poured in two cups that were already prepared and waiting on the table. Two plates were waiting, too.

“Where’s Kosmo,” Shiro asked to distract himself as he took of the gloves and scarf.

“Hunting his breakfast, probably,” Keith said with a fond smile as he gestured for them to take a seat at the table close to the hearth. “So,” he tried to tame his long hair into a ponytail as he began, very diplomatically avoiding the whole sudden-appearance-without-announcement thing, “what brings you here?”

A shroud of formality blanketed their exchange. It was a bit disheartening to hear, but less than little was how Shiro tried to keep his expectation.

It would have helped if he had started with something better than, “It’s so good to see you,” but he couldn’t because it was. It was so good just see him on a day that wasn’t that one day they all obliged themselves to meet.

And maybe it was kindness, and maybe it was genuine, but Keith smiled at that, like he used to just for him, and that too was so good to see. It faded away a few degrees at a time as he tilted his head and said, “I doubt this is strictly a social visit.”

Right, down to business.

“I wouldn’t call this work related, but part of why I’m here is to extend an offer.” Keith sipped his tea, more than willing to let Shiro speak his mind, so he took in a breath or two and tried to remember his script. Quick and succinct; it’s how Keith would like it best.

But he underestimated himself. The heart wanted what it wanted, and Shiro hardly ever let it speak out loud. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps he should start.

“I’m sorry for coming unannounced, I just didn’t want to give you a chance to refuse a meeting. And I think you would have.” Keith opened his mouth with the briefest flash of protest crossing his face, but no words came out. Communication aborted, and he sank back into into that quiet contemplative man that sipped tea and listened to a stranger. “I’m right, aren’t I,” and the quiet man gave him no response, and Shiro considered that there might be two strangers sitting at the table.

The thought struck like a battering ram against his chest and something spilled out. “That’s the other reason why I’m here,” he said, trying not to choke on words, trying not to reveal too much. “I miss you, Keith,” present tense, active state, a constant that had been building in strength since Allura left them. He had hoped to stop there but the dam was broken.

“I miss what we had. I miss talking to you and hearing from you. I miss knowing where you are and what you’re doing, and I want to fix it.”

Keith geared up to say something, his tone nonchalant in face of the topic. “We’ve all been drifting off since...” He couldn’t say it either, still to this day. She died on my watch, Shiro . “It happens,” he shrugged. “People change. They look for different thing in life.”

“No, not like this. We all ran in different directions, but you and I broke off over something specific.”

Like stepping on a cat’s tail, Shiro knew he said too much too fast. But quick and succinct was how Keith liked it, and down to the point was all that Shiro wanted to reach. The contemplative man drew his brows together with an irritable look, and just like that, Keith was recognizable again.

“Do you know what that specific thing is?” Keith kept his voice dangerously level.

“I know now, but not back then.”

Keith’s eyebrow rose as he set the tea down and finally relaxed in a way that made Shiro note he had been tense from the moment they met at the door. “Good. But I hope you didn’t come all this way expecting anything. Like I said, people change. Feelings too.”

“Expecting anything?” It was Shiro’s turn to be perplexed.

Keith jutted his chin towards his left hand, the good one wrapped around the warm cup of tea, proving to Shiro that he wasn’t the only one taking stock of the environment. “No ring.”

The words didn’t shameface him, but they did sting, a sharp jab right between his ribs at the implication. Shiro wasn’t here for that, he knew his place, especially now with all the cards on the table. “Keith, I’m here because I miss my best friend and I want him back in my life. If we’re not on the same page with that, tell me and I’ll drop it.”

He experienced a small miracle as he watched Keith’s face morph into something gentle and familiar. Something that used to be only his, and maybe, just maybe, still was. “When did you divorce,” he asked, the first shred of interest he’d shown in Shiro’s life in a long long time.

“About a year ago.”

“Why?”

And Shiro couldn’t answer that properly, left gaping between a hundred valid excuses and the one staring right back at him. Keith grinned, knowingly. “The stars took you away again, didn’t they?”

“Something like that,” Shiro managed. That wasn’t far from the truth, all things considered. The stars were calling to him, but they also happened to be more than just celestial objects.

Keith chuckled, but tried to stop himself. “Sorry, I don’t mean to mock.”

“Oh, no, I get it,” Shiro rolled his eyes. “History repeats itself. At least this time I didn’t leave to mine a space rock for ice cubes.”

The laugh that slipped through Keith was hearty, and a warmth bloomed in Shiro’s chest to know he caused it. At least they could joke about that.

Shiro considered for a moment asking his own set of questions in return, but there were too many, and who are you sharing your life with was dangerously close to the top. The moment they just had was precarious and Shiro wanted to preserve, so he stayed the course and offered a little more of himself.

“It was a good marriage, but in the end,” and he instantly thought of Matt as the word left him, “I couldn’t keep my feet on the ground. Now I’m teaching new cadets how to fly.”

Keith nodded. “Still at the Garrison, right?”

“Space station Mirno ,” he corrected. “A Coalition establishment.”

Keith hummed and seemed lost in thought for a moment, a smile curling the corner of his lips. “It suits you, I think. You were always a good teacher.”

“Perhaps,” Shiro shrugged, “but I won’t be there for long either.”

Keith let his knitted brows do the questioning, and this was it. The, technically primary, reason behind his visit. He practiced this, he knew the words, and he was lulled to safety just enough to remember them. “Pidge made a map to track down the Lions. We have plans to follow it and find out where they went. Or what they were looking for.”

Keith was quiet for a few moments, his arms crossed as he absorbed the words and drove straight to the heart of the issue. “Who, you mean.”

“Optimistically,” Shiro didn’t have to try to smile.

“And you want me to tag along?”

“I know it’s a little sudden—”

“You think?” There was something combative in the tone of his voice, but Keith’s face betrayed little, and it bothered Shiro again. “I’m out here helping people and you want me to drop that and go on a wild goose chase with the rest of you?”

“It’s not—”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” he cut him off with cool precision. “And that’s not even taking in consideration what a map like that could do to this shaky excuse of a peace if it got out.” Keith shook his head and spoke with all the determination of a well established leader. “Let the dead rest, Shiro.”

“Death never stopped you,” Shiro said, raising his voice for the first time in their conversation. He could see the mask of indifference crumbling, and Keith looked away with a snarl, collecting ammunition that Shiro wasn’t about to let him fire.

He pulled his hand across the table and laid it over Keith’s, startling him to attention. “Death never stopped you,” he said again, knowing exactly the effect it had on Keith. “So why should it stop us? We’ve all been hurting since she left. Is it so wrong to try and fix it?”

And he saw right through Keith’s protest before it left his mouth, the same one he went over may times with himself in the dead hours of the night. Dead ends, failure, wounds reopened and left bleeding. It was all a very real possibility, and Shiro made peace with that too.

“If the only thing we get out of it is the connections we’ve lost,” his hand squeezed before pulling back, “then that’s still a victory to me. And if we actually find the Lions? That, too, is a victory in this shaky excuse of a peace, don’t you think?”

Keith held his breath for a long time, wordless, thinking.

“There’s no rush,” Shiro continued, feeling a little like a sale pitcher, “there’s no date set and we’re not expecting anyone to drop what they’re doing and come running. No one can do that; Pidge can’t, Hunk can’t, and I can’t either. So take your time, think it through. That’s all I’m asking right now, to think it through.”

Keith released a long breath through his nose, his eyes still refusing to meet Shiro’s. “We’ll see,” he said, and it was the best Shiro could expect to hear.

The bed in the corner of his sight nagged him to add another detail, anything to incite. Shiro’s discomfort was irrelevant here. “And if you have anyone else you want to bring along, that could be arranged.”

Shiro would rather he didn’t see the tiny smile take bloom on his lips. “I’ll think about it.” Their eyes met then and something more serious took over Keith’s face. “And you should think about getting back to your ship. The frost will eat through your engine if you left it outside in the wind.”

Shiro chuckled as he got up, tea untouched. “Could have just told me to get lost.”

Keith looked affronted. “No, that not—”

“I’m kidding,” but he was glad for the excuse to leave. Nothing in him really craved to meet the plus one that was expected in his stead at the door. Shiro pulled on his gloves and scarf, Keith trailing slowly behind him. “Regardless of your decision,” he said at the door, “I’m still very serious about missing my best friend.” Shiro tried not to sound desperate. “And if you think there’s something worth salvaging there...”

“I know how to get in touch with you,” Keith finished what Shiro couldn’t.

A polite exchange of smiles were their parting words, and then it was just Shiro and the long cold walk back to the ship.

The lightyears of distance between their feelings dragged a bitter laugh out of Shiro. By the time the message reached him, it was far too late to send any answer.

*

Keith wasn’t kidding.

Shiro was twenty minutes into waiting for the engines to warm up enough to get him off the ground safely when the proximity alarms started beeping. He had just finished sending a vague message to Pidge, changing his plans from heading back to Earth to heading towards New Altea. The talk with Hunk, and now Keith, may have had him overly conscious of the nature of the map they were sitting on. Pidge didn’t seem to concerned, but a little extra precaution with what they said over comms wouldn’t hurt.

It was that extra caution that had him gearing up for a fight when the alarms went off, no weapon on board other than himself, which was more than enough.

But the enemy was giant, heavy, and deceptively sneaky. The snout was frosty, breath warm, and tongue very, very moist and in the middle of rearranging Shiro’s hairstyle. The weight of those paws landing on his shoulders threw him off balance.

“It’s good to see you, too,” he said after the initial shock wore off. Now he was mostly left with the shock attributed to Kosmo’s size. “You just keep growing and growing, huh?”

The space wolf kept him company, huddling by the heaters while the engines warmed themselves back up, and he took some convincing to leave, but not before snatching something Shiro couldn’t place until he landed some six hours later in another wintry wonderland. This one far less punishing, so he didn’t miss his gaudy green scarf too much.

“My, my, this is quite the surprise!”

Coran came to greet him personally, as if it were their reunion day. As if there wasn’t a nervous assistant tugging at his sleeve to remind him where he should be instead.

Well, if Shiro could try and drag a peacekeeper away from his duties with just a little bit of guilt, he could do the same to what passed for half the governing body on Altea with even less guilt. The glint of the blue jewel around Coran’s neck only served to encourage him.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Shiro said after giving him a hug. “Think you got time for a few drinks? Trust me, you’ll need them.”

Coran beamed while his assistant wilted. “Love the hair, by the way. Real bold choice.”

Space wolf slobber turned out to be really hard to get rid off if you let it dry, so for now Shiro had to contend with slicked back hair that made him look like a greaser going through a midlife crisis. Maybe that was high fashion on Altea, and maybe he felt a little like that, crisis and all.

Chapter Text

Some good things had to be earned…

 

The first thing Pidge accosted him with was the drunk selfie he sent of Coran and himself. It was hanging on the wall of her lab, framed of course, courtesy of Lance. She spun around in her chair, hands steepled like the cliche of a villain, and a smile to match one.

“I can’t wait to hear you defend that hair style.”

No amount of the dog did it made the ridicule stop.

Lance threw an arm around his shoulders, barely reaching. “Next time you wanna impress someone, just ask me for help,” he said with a look of sympathy so genuine, Shiro was convinced he was not kidding.

Shiro told them all about his meeting with Coran, from the bawling and hugging down to the hour he spent listening to a very animated and inebriated Altean praising, but mostly dissing, human technology, only to reach the point where he, too, would like his hands on the ship they’re working on. More specifically, he wanted the entire project moved to New Altea.

“That’s fair,” Pidge shrugged. “We kinda exhausted our pool of innovation here. Gonna take a lot of paperwork though...”

“I’ll handle that,” Shiro said with a friendly note of resignation. The worst part of having been in a position of command was all the pencil pushing that came with the down time, but the grind stuck with him. Would be a shame not to use that and his connections.

“Hey, what about Keith,” Lance asked. “How did that go?”

“As well as it could,” Shiro said with a token smile.

Pidge didn’t probe further; she knew Shiro and what off-limits topics sounded like. Lance pried further, but when he didn’t make any headway he learned as well. Or maybe he just changed topic to keep the room from getting quiet. Lance always had a problem with silence but now it seemed chronic, reactionary.  

“We need to talk interior design, by the way,” he said with a serious air, a catalog of furniture already loaded on his data pad.

And that was another fair assessment. The prototype was bare on the inside, even its token kitchen didn’t work.

 

They didn’t happen immediately or quickly…

 

There were several sheets of engineering plans laid before them. A little gift from Hunk to tide them over while he handled the long and arduous process of passing control of his business empire to his right and left hand. They were handcrafted guides tailored for dummies to set up goo dispensers, but with a little twist.

They were stuck on the aforementioned twist.

Pidge gagged. “This taste like shit, not chocolate.”

Shiro stared at the console and and its blinking indicator, hopeless. Now, if this was a car engine or a hoverbike, or hell, even the kitchen counters he set up a few days ago, he’d know how to be somewhat useful. “Maybe the hex matrix is off,” he tried.

Lance, assigned to reading out loud the pages and pages of hexadecimals that corresponded to certain tastes, was quick to protest. “What is this, the 21st century?! I can’t believe we have to input all this stuff manually like a bunch of savages! We’re clearly missing a port of some kind.”

“Maybe we should call Hunk.”

“We are not calling Hunk,” the pride demon inside Pidge spoke, shooting them down for the fifth time. “We can figure this out on our own because we’re not idiots. I’m not and idiot.”

They left her alone with the schematics to find something actually edible.

“Your vacation is almost up, isn’t it?” Lance asked as they moved incrementally through the cafeteria line, the look on him wistful. “How am I gonna handle Pidge without you? She’s gonna make me do math.”

A full body shiver passed through Lance, and Shiro would sympathize if he didn’t already have his own set of monsters waiting for him up there on the space station.

“I’m dreading my return, if I’m being honest.”

They talked about it over lunch. Lance could and did tie up his business with one visit back to the farm and some additional phone calls. Shiro, on the other hand, sent his resignation notice in the middle of his vacation and did not hear one peep back from anyone, particularly Iverson. The silence had him dreading the amount of stern looks of fatherly disappointment he’d have to face, again , but mostly he dreaded knowing Slav was still up there. Slav, whom Iverson knew had an effect on Shiro. Iverson, whom despite his demeanor had a very vindictive sense of humor once you got to know him.

 

And it took remembering better times...

 

Murphy’s law prevailed and the worse, naturally, happened. Still, Shiro prided himself on being perfectly calm upon discovering both Slav and Iverson in his office, waiting for him on the same day he landed back on Mirno . He also took pride in not shoving Slav down the airlock. That took a lot from him.

He figured that sense of calm came from the new purpose he charted a course with; from comradery that had reignited back on Earth, and the ones still waiting in the stars. One in particular he wanted to hurry, want to prod at and question. It had been almost a month since he had last heard from Keith and Shiro wasn’t worried, but he started to question if maybe he should be.

He started questioning more intently on those odd nights when old demons wouldn’t let him sleep, when all he could do to fix his headspace was go to the gym and let loose. Sometimes, what haunted him was the perverse feeling of gratitude towards his demons and the web of circumstances that led him to this point.

As many times as it takes, someone promised once, a very important someone in the equation that led to him standing on two good legs and one arm short to pay for the long life he got instead. Someone that wasn’t here and might not ever be again.

The chain broke after one solid right hook that may have lacked control, the punching bag flying off and landing hard with the weight of a grown man echoing through the sleepy halls of the space station. Sand spilled from a tear, and Shiro officially began to worry.

 

It took a lot of patience, and a little bit of focus...

 

He was in the middle of class, last week of work, and he made sure to squeeze in as many sim demonstrations as he could. The phone buzzed in his pocket just as he was dodging some meteorites, jolting him with surprise. He managed to turn the narrow miss and the dangerous tumble his ship took into a good lesson about fast thinking in sticky situations.

The message was from Pidge, and it read, You were right. Should have called Hunk.

That evening on the video chat he was greeted by a very resigned Pidge, a deeply animated Hunk that looked like he was suffering from the space equivalent of jet lag, and Lance sporting the smuggest face known to mankind.

“I was right,” he said, and Pidge closed her eyes to hide the roll they were about to perform. “We were behaving like savages, and those codes did not have to be inputted manually.” Lance ducked out of the screen to yell out a very theatrical, “Behold!”

And a bowl of brown pudding-like goo appeared on center stage, exalted like a king's first born offered for the crowds to gawk at.

“In more relevant news, you papers just came through and the ship is cleared to move bases,” Hunk chimed in from the back. “Which is a damn shame because I just got here and was looking forward to some Earth time, and Earth food, and Earth sun, and Earth gravity… God, I missed Earth.”

Pidge shoved the bowl of pudding away from the screen, Lance included. “Heard from Keith yet?”

No. He hadn’t. It had been almost two months since their talk, and there wasn’t any word from him. “He’ll call,” Shiro said with a conviction he lacked internally.

It was well past midnight when he started fiddling with his data pad, a restlessness keeping him up that had no demons to blame. The 6AM class loomed dangerously over him, but Shiro ignored it in favour of deleting another sentence and starting over. He had gone through thirteen variations of text blocks that could all be summed up with When can I see you again?

Exhaustion won over in the end and simplicity took the reins, and he didn’t let himself think too much before he sent the message, threw his data pad away and shut off the lights.

hey :) hope you’re doing good. got time for a quick chat?

He didn’t get a response, not the next day or that week.

 

It took remembering who this was all about...

 

Coran took the possible threat their map posed very seriously, so much so he ordered, not asked, for everyone to come under the guise of night, cloaked, and equipped with a scrambling frequency that would make them invisible to the Altean defense systems. Even the rendezvous point was far removed from the capital or any of the megalopolises of New Altean.

The location? King Alfor’s old summer house, because of course a famed alchemist mixed work and vacation and had an unreasonably large subterranean facility to boot. And the scientist and engineers assigned to help? A total of one—Coran himself. They’d never seen him as serious as he was then, up to the moment when the gates above them slide shut, hiding them away from the coming dawn and any prying eyes.

A switch had clearly flipped and Coran beamed with his usually candor, proclaimed an immediate group hug only to stop halfway, do a headcount, and ask, “Where’s Keith?”

Ah yes, the eternal question. Shiro would love to know the answer to that. He’d also love to know why everyone turned to him for answers when for years he’d known as little as anyone else on that topic. A tragic admission, but such was life.

The old status quo was a desirable goal for everyone, a comfortable memory, but even if Keith were there, it would still be unobtainable. Someone would always be missing.

“For now,” and Coran made sure to force his optimistic outcome on everyone, Lance in particular, who hung of his every word.  

“Are you sure no one is going to come looking for you here,” Shiro asked.

“It’s not like I left the planet,” Coran scoffed. “If I’m needed, the council knows how to get in touch. But they do know I am planning to go on a spiritual journey some time soon.”

All eyes turned on Coran, incredulous. Hunk was first to ask. “That’s it? That’s all you told them?”

“Yep! I believe they think I’m going to Oriande, and I don’t feel the need to correct them on that one. Besides, if a bunch of pissed of Alteans chasing us under the mistaken belief you’ve kidnapped one of their most important council members is at the top of our worries for this journey, we’ll be just fine.”

Outside of the very private fear Shiro had over Keith not joining them, there was also the globally unnerving issue no one spoke plainly about just yet, and that was the course of their journey, and the uncharted darkness of the universe they were aiming for. Coran confirmed, there was absolutely nothing on record for the corner of space they were heading for, and he confirmed it with an unusually chipper attitude. Perhaps sitting in a chair and listening to other people speak constantly had him very bored for something dangerous.

Shiro could almost relate, but he wasn’t prepared to admit that either.

 

And it took faith that the one he knew was still someone he knows.

 

Work on the prototype continued at a leisurely pace with one too many breaks in a day. A silent, unspoken accord where they all agreed there was no point in getting ahead when a link was still missing.

Coran licked a sampling of goo off his finger, his face immediately crumpling. “What have you done to the goo dispenser? The result is so flavorful...”

Hunk took a long, calming breath through his nose, not yet ready to face his one true enemy square on—the blandness of the Altean palate. “The original flavor is still present if you rather want that.”

He was in the middle of a call with Shay, something important about his business, and something private enough to warrant him walking off and away from them, towards the cockpit. The rest loitered in the kitchenroom where Lance had set up a comfortable couch and a few beanbags. As far as dining went, nothing beat propping up legs on a coffee table and eating while the holoscreen played the Altean equivalent of the most popular telenovela. It had no right to be as absorbing as it was, but contrived love story train wrecks had that effect on people.

Shiro’s data pad buzzed from behind him, left idling on the kitchen counter. It was moments like those when he missed that old floaty arm and the comfort of reaching for something two rooms away. He sighed and heaved himself up to answer an unknown call. The show had his attention so much he didn’t think twice about it when he answered with a very uninterested, “Yeah?”

“Hey, it’s me,” and a beat of silence passed when the voice elaborated, “it’s Keith.”

He didn’t need to, of course he didn’t, Shiro knew who it was the moment he heard hey . He stood up sharply to attention, holoscreen completely forgotten. It’s the call he’d been rooting for—waiting for. The call he knew they’d get if they just waited long enough.

“Keith! Hi!” The smile was hard to keep of his face and it carried with his voice. Plates clattered and three heads turned from the couch, eyes wide as saucers. One head even poked out of the cockpit. “It’s so good to hear from you. How have you been?”

“Very busy,” he sighed from the other end of the galaxy, a familiar exhaustion brought on by a position of command bleeding through his few words. “I’m sorry about the wait, it is what it is. But if there’s still time—”

Shiro didn’t let him finish. “Of course there is. We were waiting.”

A fond chuckle. “Good to know. Do you have room for three?”

It was Hunk who asked about that moment during the call when Shiro’s face turned oddly sour for a few very noticeable seconds. Hunk, who among them was the pinnacle of emotional maturity. Hunk, who very likely already knew more than enough through observation alone. He meant well, but that didn’t stop Shiro from both dodging and going for the throat on grounds other than just saving his skin. Grounds like curiosity.

“So, you and Shay, huh? Is it serious?”

Hunk looked immediately flustered. “Uhh, what’s that gotta do with anything,” he pulled his hands up in a sign of surrender and backed off.

Pidge, in an odd move of solidarity or sheer interest asked, “What about Romelle?”

Now he was really flustered. We’re business partners, Hunk loved to repeat. And they’ll be running thing in my stead, I trust them. “Fine, I get it. I see how it is,” there was betrayal in his voice as he looked at Shiro and Shiro only. “I’m gonna go back to work, that engine won’t upgrade itself.”

A long and calculating hum left Lance as he watched his best friend retreat towards the engine room. Coran was ready to follow as well, but he stopped in anticipation of whatever was about to leave Lance’s mouth. All of them were anticipating, really, and their reward was well worth it.

“It’s a three-way,” Lance whispered with unshakable confidence.

Chapter Text

If Shiro was more superstitious, which he honestly wasn’t, he’d be taking all these different climates he was meeting Keith in as some kind of signs, which he definitely didn’t. But the thought did graze his mind as he landed or Nur, a different moon in the same shithole sector he found him in last time. For one thing, the climate was much warmer. There were acidic geysers he had to dodge before landing and the air had a bit too much sulfur dioxide for comfort, but all in all it was more hospitable than the last one.

The pick-up was a two-in-one deal—Keith needed a ride, and the prototype needed a good long test drive after all the engine upgrades. The rest stayed back on New Altea, giving that Olkari circlet one last shot at a more classic thought-based language system. Lance was technically free to tag along, but excused himself in lieu of not wanting to blow up spontaneously due to engine malfunction, to which Shiro replied:

“Oh, come on. I’ve died twice already, it’s not that bad.”

No one laughed. Shiro thought he was hilarious. Shiro also knew better than to categorize Lance’s aversion as laziness. The man was clearly nervous to fly after all that time being shackled to the ground, and it’s a damn shame he didn’t take Shiro up on the offer. He was willing to play his best Instructor of Infinite Patience role, but now his plan for reintroducing Lance to the hotseat was a little more impish.

That, and maybe he was a little irked he wouldn’t have another buffer around for the inevitable.

It looked like the remnants of a celebration were being slowly cleared up when he landed on the coordinates given to him, an open base choke-full of small scale Galra fighter jets. He passed several of Daibazaal’s battleships on his way through the atmosphere, so the security was tight. Probably had to be to accommodate a send-off that required the presence of on of their dignitaries.

When he boarded off and stepped into a world that smelled softly of seven days old eggs, Krolia was the first one he recognized coming over, walking tall and with all the assurance of someone with a high seat on Daibazaal’s council of elders.

“Been a long time,” she said with a wide grin, and greeted him in that Galra fashion of forearm grabbing. The look she gave to the ship behind him was most appreciative. “Good to see you’ve taken to the stars again.”

Shiro just shrugged and said, “I missed it.” It was less a confession than stating the obvious, and the grin on Krolia’s face confirmed it.

“Does this mean I get to call you Admiral again?”

“Please, don’t.” He wasn’t above begging. “That title is still retired.”

She seemed ready to tease more, but a group of Blades was approached with Keith among them, the only one dressed down to something distinctly Earth-y, dark leather jacket included, as always. Shiro missed the red, a very good look on him to say the least.

Keith talked to a Galra besides him, large and broad, with a tail that swung idly behind them. “No pressure but you got big shoes to fill,” he said.

The Blade’s face scrunched like a curious cat. “I don’t get that saying at all. I don’t even wear shoes,” he pointed at his feet. “And your shoes are objectively very small.”

Acxa chuckled from the back and his tail swiped at her playfully. She was the only other Blade in that group he recognized.

“That’s what separates good leaders from great ones. One day you’ll understand,” Keith smacked the Galra on the arm and shoved him lightly, still managing to make the giant sway on his feet, and he did a poor job of holding the grin off his face.

The grip on Shiro’s forearm intensified, dragging his attention back from the group. Krolia looked serious, her tone conspiratorial as she leaned in. “Level with me,” she said. “How dangerous is this expedition?”

She didn’t want or cared for sugar-coating, so Shiro didn’t waste her time and his words on anything other than the truth. “About as dangerous as wrangling the politics of Daibazaal,” he said, very aware of the many attempts at her life. To that she gave an exasperated exhale.

“That bad, huh?”

“We’re heading into uncharted and unmapped regions of space.” Shiro wished he could tell her something good, something a mother would want to hear. The only ace he had was the ship that caught her attention, so he pointed at it and added, “It’s no Lion, but this ship is quite the powerhouse. And we’re still not done prepping it. There’s about three cultural blends of technological achievements powering it so far.”

In Shiro’s eyes, the only one who could possibly make it even better was an alchemist. He had only one in mind.

Krolia hummed as she gave the ship another look, still so deceptively human in its exterior design. “How did the Earth forces agree to lend you a ship like that for such a personal expedition?”

The question was phrased so diplomatically it made Shiro think there was something else beneath it, some gouging for details of foreign diplomacy. They were, technically, chasing after the Lions, and that’d be a big deal on any world, particularly if word got out.

It was a good thing it didn’t, not yet. And the truth of the ship was a lot more simple, and a hell of a lot more damning. It involved some very quiet Holt family member fabricating certain details, omitting others, some innocent lies written into the transfer papers, and all the clout following every person involved.

Why would any of them ever lie and obfuscate? They were heroes of the universe, after all. Quite legendary.

“Earth’s forces might not be aware of the grand scheme of things,” Shiro shrugged. Both of Krolia’s eyebrows reached the heavens. “Very few are,” he leaned in, “and it might be best to keep it that way.”

“Good to know,” Krolia chuckled, seemingly satisfied with the situation. That she found any of that acceptable spoke to the magnitudes of crazy that was working on Daibazaal’s council.

Their attention was stolen for a moment as Keith disengaged from his group and made his way towards them. “One more thing,” Krolia said and the grip on his forearm really intensified, her voice down to a whisper. “Don’t tell him I said this, but keep him safe.”

Shiro almost laughed. All mothers were like that, if he had to guess. He got a few similar talks with Colleen before their departure for New Altea. The thought was a little absurd but if it helped her sleep at night, he’d say it. “We’ll keep him safe.”

“We?” Krolia carved that word out like a knife and turned it on him. “I’m asking you , Shiro.”

He had to swallow a lump as she stared him down. She seemed to be on the hunt for a wrong answer. “You know I will,” he whispered, maybe just a little shaky, but the words gradually melted her face back into something recognizable.

Finally, she smiled. “Yes. I do.”

“What are you two talking about,” Keith approached, his arms crossed and brows pulled together. He eyed them both with suspicion, but Krolia was very quick to switch records and grab her son by both cheeks to give him a very loving kiss.

“Mom,” Keith whined. “I’m trying to keep a shred of authority here.”

“You passed the baton.”

“Yeah, well, not forever. I’ll be back.”

“I know,” Krolia said, and gave Shiro one last nod before leaving.

They watched them leave back towards a compound where air most likely smelled less of rotting eggs. Well, Keith did the watching, loving and familiar towards a group that must have been like his second family. Shiro watched him instead, or in spite of. Hard to resist, hard to drag his eyes away from his own loving and familiar sight. He’d have to get used to it now, train his eyes better, establish a time limit on wistful gazes, or preferably mask the wistful part. But then and there he allowed himself that much, to drink in the sight of his old friend, from the fondness reflecting in night-sky eyes to the soft curve of his lips and the gentle wisps of loose dark hair framing his face. The long braid looping around his shoulders was gone, but he still had enough of it to tie it in a loose ponytail. Keith’s gaze shifted, just his eyes, and they landed on Shiro without loosing a degree of warmth. It was all fairly breathtaking.

That might have been the sulfur, though. The planet wasn’t meant to be traversed without oxygen masks for long periods.

Keith turned his head in full, not seeming particularly perturbed that Shiro was staring. “What did she threaten you with,” he asked as a grin mounted his face.

Shiro shook his head once with a soldier’s resolve. “Can’t say. Part of the threat.”

Keith let out a sharp laugh full of fondness for his mother. “C’mon, let’s go,” he said and turned on his heels. He didn’t comment on the ship as he walked towards the entrance, but then again exterior design wasn’t something Keith ever found to be of much interest. The cockpit was where his interests laid, and Shiro found himself excited at the prospect of showing him the goods. Mostly the accelerator.

He walked after him on autopilot before it dawned on him that something crucial was missing, something other than just luggage. “Wait, hold on,” but Keith didn’t stop so Shiro didn’t either. He did cast a look around to confirm they were, in fact, alone. “You mentioned three people?”

“Kosmo hates the air here,” Keith sighed. “He was on your ship before you even boarded off.”

Shiro puzzled over the answer, not seeing the connection between it and his question. The silence had Keith glancing over his shoulder. “You’ve seen Kosmo, haven’t you? He eats for three,” he said apologetically. “I may have spoiled him a bit, but I’m working on it. I know rations will be tight.”

Shiro had to stop and voice his absolute bafflement. “You’re joking.”

“I’m working on it, okay?” Keith got defensive real fast, but worried too. “I know he’s big, but I’ll work it out with him. He gets lonely, y’know, and I don’t wanna leave him behind. My mom doesn’t have the time to look after him, my team’s great but I wouldn’t trust them with a plant and—”

He was rambling now and Shiro had honestly stopped paying attention just enough to re-evaluate all that time he wasted with angry knots calcifying in the pit of his stomach over his own offer. He should have known Keith. He knew Keith. When had he been anything other than earnest with his intentions?

“I thought,” he interrupted the dog-lover rant, “I thought you were bring another person.”  

Keith quieted and crossed his arms, the air of him becoming just a little indignant. “Is this about that stupid offer of yours?” He scoffed and continued boarding the ship. “If you have questions about my private life, just ask, Shiro.”

It really should be that easy if they had any hope of patching the holes in their friendship. Would have been easier if Shiro could walk into this cold, but he could fake it well enough. For Keith’s sake.

The gates closed after them and Keith wandered the modestly expansive halls of their would-be home. Kosmo and the bags Keith strapped onto him lounged in their full glory across the kitchenroom couch, straining it dangerously.

“All right,” Shiro said, happy to be walking behind Keith. The lack of eye contact helped. “I’m asking.”

“Asking what,” Keith said as he trailed the counters, giving off a pleasantly surprised hum when he came across that note Hunk left, along with a tray of brownies.

Behave , he had to reprimand himself, and try again. “Are you with anyone? Will they be okay with you leaving?”

“I’m not with anyone,” was all Keith offered.

“But you were back when I visited, weren’t you?”

“Oh, that?” Keith eyed the brownies with more interest than he gave to the conversion. “Just some fun with my right hand.”

Shiro almost snorted. That joke was just on his level of lame, but Keith didn’t even catch on to it. That spoke more about Shiro’s taste in humor than anything else. He cleared his throat when Keith raised an eyebrow at him before digging into the dessert.

“And,” he continued around a mouthful, “he’ll hardly have time to miss anyone considering he’s filling in my stead. If I know him at all, he’ll be cursing me.”

“Oh,” Shiro said lamely as he thought back to that large Galra with the tail, and then promptly locked him in a box never to think of again in any context, ever, particularly in regards to Keith. “Sorry for presuming.”

“Yeah, but that you think I’d bring a stranger along for a voyage this person is what really baffles me.”

“If it makes you feel better, I was hoping you wouldn’t.”

“You should have expected, not hoped,” Keith said a little too sharply. Shiro felt that, right around his chest area, and an apology was already forming on his lips when Keith looked at him with equal amounts of regret. “Maybe—” he was first to speak, but with little confidence in his words. “Maybe we should reintroduce ourselves?”

The air was strained between them, but not unusually. For the first time in a long while, Shiro saw it as nothing that couldn’t be fixed. Their exchange was somewhat awkward, but it left Shiro feeling lighter and better about thing. He should have listened to himself and his guts about Keith, should have known better because he knew better, and he knew Keith. There were too many devoted years between them to have it all go to waste.

Shiro smiled and shook his head. “No, we’re not strangers. Cockpit’s this way,” he jabbed his head towards the passage and lead the way, catching just the briefest glimmer in Keith’s eyes at the mention.

The biometric sensors had the door sliding open and Shiro took the copilot seat immediately, twisting it around to point Keith towards the other seat as he powered on the ship’s mainframe.

“Wow. Okay,” Keith looked properly dazed by all the inputs and messages lighting up across the viewport. “This is a lot more impressive.” And by the face he made as he sat, so was the chair.

“You should see how it flies,” Shiro was already turning on the thrusters. “Works best with two pilots.”

“Nice,” and his eyes lit up like the stars. “AI assist?”

Right on cue, Keith’s glanced at his hand moving across the viewport as he turned off the AI prompt. Shiro was only fifty percent certain he know what he was doing in this chair, but that was about as much as he was certain he knew what he was doing the first time he sat in the pilot chair with Pidge. By his estimates, the math was solid.

He pulled on his best straight-face as he asked, “Wanna consult the manual before we take off?”

Keith gave him the most rancid look known to man, like the last pieces of the brownie he had eaten turned to ash right in his mouth. “That’s what I thought,” a grin split Shiro’s face, and Keith caught on to the joke of it all, betrayal easing from his eyes and morphing into a matching grin.

His hand hovered over the accelerator when Shiro warned him with no soft voice, “Belts, please!”

Chapter Text

They reached the first teludav gate with thirty minutes to spare after being cleared for passing. Getting there in one piece was, maybe, just a little bit of a struggle.

Keith was impeccable in the pilot’s seat, but it had been a long time since he drove something that fast, the speed of the prototype almost matching the Red Lion, and Shiro had more to do than just chart a course and call it a day. They almost grazed one of Daibazaal’s battle cruisers as they burst through the atmosphere before Shiro realized the the movement stick on his side wasn’t just for show. They both had to pull to have the ship do a smooth curved dodge. Well, maybe it looked smooth on the outside; on the inside they were plastered with cold sweat. The comms beeped, an incoming message from the cruiser, and Shiro hissed in alarm.

“We should apologize,” he said before trying to answer, and Keith responded by accelerating even further and blasting them off into the clear space beyond, well out of reach for a proper answer.

“I’ll send them a fruit basket,” he said as the moon and the cruisers turned smaller and smaller in the rear view display.

Half way through an asteroid field Keith insisted on going through instead of over, the engine room started leaking an odorless white smoke that freaked Keith out so much he almost crashed them into one. Almost. Shiro turned on the weapon systems that served as an additional thrust in the near dodge.

“Don’t worry about the smoke,” he told a still worried Keith, “Coran swears it’s perfectly normal and temporary.”

“Is it, though?”

Shiro shrugged. “I survived my trip.”

Keith didn’t look convinced and he actually backed off the accelerator for just a smidgen. It wasn’t a lull and it certainly wasn’t a slow ride, but the moderate drop in speed gave them time to talk about the little things in between gently shooing Kosmo out of the cockpit. That was entirely Shiro’s job.

Keith started talking, unprompted, spilling coveted details about his life and Shiro almost missed recalibrating the course because of it, eyes and ears captured with all he’d missed.

Keith talked about his team, and how he preferred to work with a smaller group, talked about how easy it was to work with Acxa, how she helped with Zethrid and the awkward but short amount of time they took to adjust around each other, and Shiro still couldn’t relate to that, though he kept his mouth shut about it. He talked about the more helpful missions, the ones half his team called boring but still enjoyed, when landing on a planet was met with hopeful faces seeking aid, and not weapons aimed at their heads. He talked about long travels between system with no teludav jump points, of nights helming his ship alone as the rest slept, no one but him and the stars to keep him company. He mentioned his mother plenty of times, and her grueling work, how he didn’t get to see her as often as he’d like, and hadn’t seen Kolivan in about as long. He mentioned the assassination attempts with such glee and how his mother found them cute in their incompetence. And he’d circle back to his team eventually, how half of them weren’t even Galra, how the Marmora ranks expanded to take in anyone willing to help, big or small (yes, even Arusians), how they all loved having fun in the mess hall on the odd day off with a version of space twister that somehow involved knives.

Shiro listened and listened, barely offering commentary, more than happy to stay quiet and learn all about the times he missed. He was maybe a touch envious at the excitement of his day to day life, but mostly he was proud, and he almost said as much. He held back though, on account of Keith not needing to hear that from him any more, or wanting to. And it did not escape him that everything Keith mentioned was light frosting, just the surface level of his life without any of the bad parts, and that was fine. They had to start somewhere, might as well keep it light.

Until it wasn’t.

The talk was of the new and impressionable recruits that watched one too many episodes of the old Voltron Show and had the gall to ask him why he wasn’t a tall Altean woman. That usually ended chillingly. Other very bold aspiring novices preferred to ask more personal questions, or worse—assume.

“And some of them are so baffled by my lack of Galra traits that they keep thinking my scar is a weird mark,” Keith scoffed and shook his head, his fingers instinctively sliding over the long and discolored patch of skin on his face. “I’m tired of explaining otherwise because then they keep asking where I got it and...”

He trailed off.

The ship was in stand-by mode, hovering with minimal power, the view of the teludav ring in front of them as they waited for its opening. The cabin lights were dim, almost off entirely, and most of the lighting came from the console and various markings scattered around the viewport. And because Pidge couldn’t settle on one color, she left it as an option or a random choice. This time around, the cabin glowed with a soft purple hue that almost made Keith’s skin look like his mother’s, all the way down to the scar on his face.

The first person who forgave Shiro for what he had done with that searing-hot weapon that used to be his right hand was Keith. The last person, and getting there took a couple of years, was Shiro himself. Long enough had passed for Shiro to look at it with just the slightest pang of guilt. Just like his grayed out hair and the slash across his nose, that scar had become a part of Keith’s image few questioned. The story of it was just theirs, and still uneasy to talk about, even between them. Maybe especially between them.

“A Galra weapon left that mark, so, close enough,” Shiro tried to joke, hoping to steer back the conversation into neutral ground.

It worked very poorly. Keith’s face went from relaxed to angry in a matter of seconds. “You weren’t a weapon, Shiro—”

“Debatable,” he mutter under his breath, a knee-jerk response that Keith must have caught.

“—and you didn't leave that mark either. That wasn’t you.”

That hit a very specific nerve. Shiro really wasn’t loving where this conversation was going now. And he could keep his mouth shut, nod along, ignore it ever happened, and get back to a more digestible topic. Even sitting in silence seemed like an appealing option. But that was the problem. There used to be no secrets between them, but self-flagellating silence creeped in and crippled all of them and what they had.

“We never really talked about that properly, did we?”

There was always something else to do back then, something else to run from or fight, an Earth to save, a galaxy, a universe. And they didn’t talk about it again, not the way they should have, not after Shiro had time to recuperate and get his head together. By the time everything calmed down, they’d lost Allura and all of them scattered like pieces of a broken whole, silent.

To prove him right, Keith answered again with those damned word: “It wasn’t you.”

Shiro exhaled, shoulders sagging. “I have enough blood on my hands, I don’t need to add this as well.”  

“I’m glad we agree,” Keith said, and now he seemed satisfied, ready to drop the subject, point made. But it was the wrong point.

“No, we really don’t.”

He still remembered all the chilling words of comfort he’d gotten when he woke up from his second death, words that almost made him feel good about it. Words like, we’re so glad to have you back , we knew that couldn’t be the real you, we knew you’d never hurt us, hurt me, what was that thing, how did they make it, good thing they did though, so glad to have you back . It’s Allura that got him thinking critically about it, her quiet evasiveness and the comfort she delivered in nothing but a touch and the look of someone who knew too much about the subject at hand. And how couldn’t she; weren’t her hands bloody too?

Shiro spun his chair so they were facing each other, and he saw the satisfaction falter from Keith’s face, gradually replaced by the kind of worry Shiro hadn’t seen on him in a long time. He wouldn’t torture Keith with a long list of details. There was an abridged version in his head, a version he repeated to himself long enough that he started to believe it. And if it worked for Shiro, it’d work for Keith as well.

He started with little preamble, his voice as smooth as he could manage it. “There was another me out there, with all of my thoughts and feelings. If I separate from that person, then I’ve murdered him and hijacked his body and his mind. I don’t want that, don’t even like considering that. So for all intents and purposes, I remember exactly what it feels like to have your strings pulled for you, to say and do thing you never would. And yes, I did that. Me. These hands,” he presented them, “not someone else's.”

Keith was staring at his hands, a lump sliding down his throat. The silence dragged and dragged, but he let it absorb. It was quite the mouthful and he didn’t expect Keith to chew it up in one sitting, but it felt good to say it out loud again, good to remind himself and to share it with Keith in particular. A small bit of weight lifted between them, even in the heavy silence.

Seconds ticked by, maybe even minutes. Kosmo reared his head up from the corner where he curled up to sleep in. He whined, snout pointing at Keith’s rigid frame, and the lights on the teludav started lighting up.

“A bit late to talk about all that, isn’t it?” Shiro tried to lighten the mood with a casual chuckle. Maybe it was a bit much to spring on him so suddenly. “Sorry, I won’t bring it up again.”

“It’s never too late,” Keith said quietly, his eyes just now reaching up to meet Shiro’s. “You could have said something, I would have listened. I’m still listening.”

Not even the dark of the cabin could hide the care he saw reflected in those beautiful dark eyes, and it warmed his heart so much he could do nothing but smile with all the fondness he felt. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Bygones.”

And maybe he poured a bit too much love with the intensity he watched Keith with, a curious look shifting between his brows as they got stuck on each other’s eyes like moths over a sliver of light. Between them, the moth was likely just Shiro, and the moment would have extended for another small eternity, Shiro powerless to stop himself, had the comms not beeped. An incoming message popped up across the viewport, washing the cabin more intensely with that same purple light. Sixty seconds countdown until the teludav opened.

Shiro cleared his throat and waved it off. “It’s fine,” he said once more before spinning around to wake the ship up.

“It’s not fine,” Keith said with a noticeable delay, his voice threadbare, but he too spun around and got ready to fly the ship through the teludav as the cabin exposed them gradually to a more harsher light. “We can talk about it again, if you want.”

“If you want,” Shiro deflected.

“Okay,” and Keith actually chuckled this time, “have it your way.”

The rush of ships through the teludav portal was manic, but for once Keith took his time and eased off the accelerator as he guided their ship through. A silence flagged them, not uncomfortable, but obvious in its presence. On several occasions Keith seemed to gear up with a thought in mind, a question perhaps, but couldn’t quite delivered on it until they were well into the course for the second teludav jump point, Shiro thoroughly distracted by a private message on his data pad.

It was Pidge with a simple statement: pouring one out for you and an image of four clean shot glasses placed around an unopened bottle of Nunvill. Shiro snorted loudly as he typed a response.

“Tell me about that new arm of yours,” Keith chose then to stab at the silence. “Hunk made it, right? Is it good? Why did you change the floaty one?”

Shiro chuckled lightly. “Funny you should call it new. I’ve had it longer than the other two combined.”

“Yeah, well,” Keith shrugged, eyes still pointed ahead at the stars beyond, “it’s new to me.”

Maybe it felt a little like a guilty admission from Keith, but Shiro chose to look at it as an opportunity. He allowed the anticipation to build until he shared the picture and answered the message, then a bit more as he recalibrated the route, then some more when he went back to the engine room the check if everything was okay when a really wretched noise came from the back as Keith hit the accelerator a little too hard. As expected, nothing was on fire and there were no red blinking lights.

Keith was facing the door when he re-entered the cockpit, but the ship kept on moving. “Found the autopilot.”

“I’m surprised you’re using it?”

“I wanna see the arm,” and he looked antsy as he said it, eyes glancing behind him at the still opened door.

“The engine’s fine.”

“Could we do anything about it if it wasn’t?”

Shiro didn’t need to think twice about that. “The engine’s fine,” he said with more gusto and a smile that was at east twenty percent more forced.

“Figures,” Keith shook his head, but a smile pulled at his otherwise cynical face. “Guess I should have more faith in the people that made it.”

“You should,” Shiro said, and started unzipping his jacked, a dark gray bomber he got as a faculty discount from Mirno . “And for Hunk I can vouch personally.”

Taking the jacket off got Keith’s attention back on him, and he could have rolled up his shirt sleeve like any normal person would, but if Keith really wanted a good look at it, he’d give him a good look. He pulled it off in one smooth motion, leaving him with a rucked up undershirt and not much else to show off the white and gray combination of alloys and silicone that passed so comfortably for an arm that sometimes he even forgot it wasn’t flesh. Keith seemed entirely unphased by the display, and if Shiro was pressed to admit it, he’d have to concede a little bit of disappointment with that.

“So, you asked why I changed it?” And he offered up the arm for a closer look. Keith nodded and seized the opportunity to do more than just look as he grabbed the wrist and pulled Shiro closer with little complaint. “Well, call me old fashion,” Shiro began, “but I kinda just wanted my shoulder back.”

“Yeah?” Keith’s fingers slid over the silicone joint at the elbow, marveling at the texture.

“I had to retailor every shirt and jacket I bought. And the port was too bright, even when powered off, and I couldn’t sleep on my right side because of it. Worst of all, I had to actively concentrate when leaning on it, otherwise I’d just fall over.”

Keith laughed as his hand trailed over the smooth alloy casing that was entirely extraterrestrial in origin. “There had to have been something good about it?”

His thoughts were sluggish and far more occupied by the sensors firing impulses into his brain, impulses that translated as a gentle caress of fingertips sliding along his arm. Hunk had outdone himself on that part, positive sensations only, and even the heat of the arm matched his body temperature.

Keith shot him a look when the answer took too long, and Shiro could only hope his face was inscrutable. “Reaching for something really far away?”

Keith shook his head with a smile, preferring not to comment and, regrettably, letting go of the arm. The sensation of touch lasted like an afterimage, a little unnaturally, but Shiro appreciated it for once. “So how about you tell me the real reason you got rid of it?”

Shiro smiled at the way Keith’s eyes shone with confidence. The knowing each other still went both ways. “I wanted to give Allura’s gem back to her family. And I didn’t want a weapon for an arm anymore.”

“That sounds like you,” he nodded, eyes fixed somewhere at the junction where flesh and technology seamlessly met. “So this arm doesn’t have any additional functions?”

“No, it’s just an arm this time,” Shiro flexed his hand, opened it and closed it several times to show of the minute mechanics beneath the silicone that almost looked lifelike. “But Hunk did make it very durable so it will leave dents in walls if you’re not careful.”

Keith snorted and crossed his arms before pointing another knowing look Shiro’s way. “Sounds like personal experience.”

“I might have had a need for a hammer once and decided to substitute it with the arm. The results were mixed.”

“Were you fixing something?”

“Worse. Hanging photos.” Keith let out a full belly laugh and it pleased Shito so much to hear it that he didn’t reconsider his next words. “Might have been a factor in the divorce.”

There was a slightest hitch of an awkward pause where the laughter died, but Keith saved the throw, willing to meet the topic, or at least graze it. “I think your cooking would be a bigger factor,” and his grin was mischievous.

“Oh, come on!” Shiro was really tired of hearing that. “I survived on it just find back in the academy.”

The mockery softened on Keith’s face when he asked, “How was it, though?”

“My cooking?”

“No your—” his words fumbled, maybe around a laugh, maybe around something else. He cleared his throat and re-crossed his arms. “Your marriage.”

Shiro had to give him credit for that deliver. He almost made it sound like something he was genuinely curious about. Good thing Shiro wasn’t keen on sharing too much. “It was good,” they took their seats back, and Kosmo wasted no time to appear out of nowhere and stick his head on Keith’s lap with a whine that begged for scratches. “It seemed like just what I needed back then, something peaceful and calm. Something grounding. Maybe a bit too much. We turned out incompatible in the long term, among other things.” Shiro capped it off with a shrug, trying his hardest to look as blase about something that couldn’t ever be that, not between them.

“What other things,” Keith asked and his eyes were mercifully occupied with Kosmo. Those same eyes filled with the colors of the universe that haunted his dreams on the regular.

You, was an answer for a very bold and very stupid man. Shiro was currently feeling neither, and gods willing he never would. Their friendship couldn’t take another crash like that, wasn’t even repaired enough to begin with. “Some other time, maybe,” Shiro lied, because that was a secret he couldn’t see ever sharing with the other.

Keith looked up and nodded, understanding somewhat and not the least bit grudging about it. “I hope it was good for you. While it lasted,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster. And on a scale of one to ten, Keith’s sincerity came at a twelve in Shiro’s eyes. Always did, even now.

Chapter Text

Their flight back to New Altea was mostly quiet but not uncomfortable, or at least Shiro didn't think it was. With utmost stealth, they reached Alfor’s summer residence during night time and found the team drunk of their asses and snoozing in a pile of limbs over a large oval sofa. A single bottle of Nunvill lay empty on the closest table. For a welcome party that dead, they deserved what was coming as Keith sicked Kosmo onto the pile for a very wet and furry wake-up call.

After much screaming, the first coherent words were Hunk’s. “Keith’s home,” he slurred out with infectious excitement and stumbled his way towards, almost missing him completely when he hugged air, or a mirage of Keith only he could see. His second attempt was much better as he wrapped his arms around a laughing Keith, squeezed until the laughter died, and picked him up off the floor.

“I want in,” Lance stumbled after them. “I missed Keith too!” And he hugged on, mostly hanged on, both men. Coran was next and he closed the hug circle from the other side, and through it all Keith seemed barely peeved.

Pidge was still horizontal on the sofa, one eye cracked open, and she sent a finger-gun salute Keith’s way. Shiro shook his head and came over to help her stand. “Told you you couldn’t handle it,” he chided, and her measured response was a garble of sounds that may have been words. With his help, she made it to the hug circle where Keith was slowly starting to lose his patience, mostly because Lance was sobbing on his shoulder, awfully happy to see him again. The crying mood started infecting the rest of the participants, and all that was becoming a bit much for the guy not know for giving or taking a lot of hugs.

Shiro considered joining for half a second, but he lacked the drive of alcohol to have him add to Keith’s growing discomfort, and he’d much rather strive for a private one. He went to look for some clean shot glasses instead, and something to toast with, anything other than Nunvill.

He succeeded in one of the two tasks.

Those already drunk and numb to the taste had no problem accepting another shot, but Keith and Shiro had to physically prepare to down theirs. Or they’d like to have prepared, had the rest not immediately insisted on clinking their glasses together and downing the ethanol infused hot dog water.

“Good to have you back,” Shiro croaked in lieu of a toast as the shot burned a hole through his stomach.

“Good to be back,” Keith said with tears welling up in his eyes from the drink.

*

One week until departure, that’s the deadline they set.

The good news was that the engine definitely positively burned out all the excess hexochloride fumes. The bad news was they wouldn’t have enough time to do any substantial upgrades on the weapon systems, so they opted to change them entirely with Galra tech, a lightweight but noticeable improvement. The disappointing news was the circlet.

In the end, the concept of mutable only extended to the interior and in a very limiting scope. Coran did a demonstration with the circlet on his head, lights flashing rhythmically, but nothing obvious was happening. The nanosteel walls of their sleeping cabins whined ominously for a while, then stopped.

“And we now technically have nine sleeping cabins,” Coran exclaimed as he took the circlet off, “two of which have just been merged, giving Kosmo here more than enough room to sleep in.”

Six for the crew, two for the goodest of boys, one fashioned into an auxiliary med bay, and an empty one filled with expectations. That one didn’t get talked about often, not out loud.

Kosmo yipped at the mention of his name and followed Coran into the new room for a tour. Shiro tried his best to look impressed sticking to words like wow and nice job.

Keith, on the other hand, voiced his exact opinion out loud. “That’s it? That’s all it does?”

“What did you expect, Voltron-style transformation?” Pidge sound piqued. “We have neither an alchemist nor transdimensional ore for that to happen.”

“I know, but it’s a little underwhelming,” he shrugged but did his best to sound gentle about it.

“It can also rearrange furniture.” Pidge sighed, more than a little underwhelmed herself.

“That’s great,” Hunk tried to be optimistic about it. “I was thinking of reshaping our open-concept kitchen a bit. And our wanna-be med bay needs some expansion,” he gestured at the door. “The healing pod can’t fit through.”

Lance was too busy to comment on any of that with his self-imposed homework, neck deep in the haphazardly put together flight manual for their prototype. Shiro told him he’d be flying them off New Altea in seven days, and the way he delivered it left no room for arguments.

*

One day until launch, and Coran swore he had all the misdirections in place, and a handful of very competent assistants to cover him.

“On the off chance they figure out you didn’t go for a pilgrimage on Oriande, how screwed are we,” Hunk asked.

“Oh, don’t you worry about it,” Coran waved it off. “I’ll make sure none of you end up sentenced for life in the Sarswin Canyons.”

“The what?”

They could have gone all their lives not knowing what the capital punishment on Altea was. Even peaceful civilizations weren’t exempt from bouts of unorthodox cruelty. But that still wasn’t the end of their collective transgressions, or Coran’s in this particular case. With his last trip back to the capital, he brought something extra squeezed into the cargo boxes of his one-man shuttle.

“Not to imply the IGF suits aren’t adequate,” Coran said as he opened one of the crates and allowed the rest to gather up and look inside. “But we could use a bit more safety out there in the unknown.”

The sight of the Paladin suits and Bayards was met with a mix of emotion oscillating violently between joy and horror. Even the pink one was there, gently tucked at the bottom of the crate.

Shiro dragged him to the side and asked with barely contained panic, because he remembered how quickly they were confiscated once the Lions were gone. “Weren’t these relegated to a museum?”

Coran just winked. “Pop-pop didn’t raise an idiot,” and he tapped Shiro on the cheek twice, as if that was all the answer he needed. “By the time anyone notices, or even if they notice, we’ll all be too far away and hardly the first suspects.”

The way he twirled his mustache with a glimmer in his eyes said that maybe, just maybe, some misleading evidence may have been planted somewhere. Coran further encouraged that idea by saying, “The less you know the better.”

Last on their agenda, outside of cramming as much food, supplies, equipment, and gadgets onto the ship as possible, was to settle on a proper name for the prototype. Coran was quite taken with Earth’s custom of christening ships with a champagne bottle, a tradition upheld even now when the ships in question were bigger than entire settlements. He even procured a bottle of actual champagne for the moment.

The name they came up with the night before on a roundtable discussion where all sorts of nonsense was heard before someone stumbled in the right direction that led them to the name they all unequivocally agreed on. A new coat of paint graced the ship as well, a pearly white with light blue accents that made it look just a little bit less like a typical Earth vessel.

They waited until sundown for the mood of that pink sunset New Altea had. Lance steadied the camera on Coran who excitedly clutched the bottle of champagne, a speech no one heard beforehand prepared and ready to roll. The rest were standing a bit off camera with streamers and confetti at hand.

“Action,” yelled Lance.

“Thank you all for coming,” Coran slipped into his more performative nature with a deep bow, still clutching the bottle of champagne. “We’ve gathered here today as friends and family to reveal the name of this cross-cultural beauty behind us. A magnificent ship that will,” he swallowed a lump, his voice going just a tad bit unsteady. “A magnificent ship that will take us and shield us on a long and perilous journey to find again what we once had lost between ourselves as friends. And to find again the heart and soul we lost almost seven Deca-Phoebs ago.”

Coran had to pause and steady his breath. His last words left few unaffected, and Lance would have closed his eyes entirely to take away the sting if he wasn’t holding the camera.

“I christen thee Lionheart,” and Coran smashed the bottle against the hull with cathartic glee. “May you help us find what we are looking for, and give us the courage to face it.”

The streamers were set loose with a roar.

*

There was another bottle of champagne, and another, and another. An Altean version that was sweet and red and bubbling just right. They drank all that between themselves as upbeat ceremonial music played late into the night in the open courtyard of the villa, hovering fairy lights illuminating the area as a completely different set of stars and colors spilled above their heads. Coran and Lance were having a dance-off and Hunk even roped Keith into participating, mostly on account that they were both shit at mimicking either of the two, and had more fun laughing at the proceedings.

Shiro joined Pidge in the act of casually leaning again their newly christened ship and observing the merriness from a safe participatory distance, fourth flute of champagne included. She was in a loose and giggling mood as she watched Hunk try to replicate a move that definitely required more flexibility than he had at his disposal. Shiro, surprising no one and least of all himself, watched Keith.

He almost pulled it off, a kind of backwards arch that had to end in something other than a flimsy cartwheel, according to Coran’s very seriously slurred commentary. The attempt left Keith picking himself off the ground, hand massaging the shoulder he landed on, and laughing. And that right there, the laughter, that’s the part Shiro enjoyed the most. The sweet sound of Keith’s laughter sent him back ten years, maybe more, to the first time he made that grumpy kid crack a smile; to the first time he sent him in a fit of laughter over a dumb astronomy pun; to the first time he heard a familiar laugh after a year of strange alien noises and communication exchanged through physical pain.

Keith still laughed like that, young and buoyant like he hadn’t been putting his life on the line every day with every mission. Was he surrounded with people he could trust, who had his back as completely as Keith had covered theirs? Covered Shiro’s? Did they make him laugh when he needed it and when he didn’t? Could they tell when he longed for assurance even through a mask of determination? Were they friends first and teammates second? Did they give him space when he’d start communication with one word or less? Did they keep his company in the inevitable quiet? Did they listen when silence stretched in a comfortable promise of something personal?

Did they love him?

Did Keith love them?

“Dangerous look,” Pidge jabbed him in the ribs with her finger. “Might wanna tone it down a bit, you’re being pretty obvious.”

Shiro blinked and focused on someone else immediately. “I’m not,” and he took a sip that emptied his flute. He started at the bottom of the glass as dread filled his belly. “Am I,” he leaned towards Pidge and asked with the barest hint of panic in his voice.

“Nah,” she waved him off and clinked their empty glasses together. “I just know what I’m looking at.” A deep frown settled across her face then. “I’m actually pretty bad at noticing that kind of shit. Kind of like...”

Shiro followed her eyes as the same realization reached both of them, her in horror, and him in delight. Shiro helpfully finished with, “Like Lance?”

“Don’t you ever tell him we share a thing in common, especially that,” she jabbed a finger at Shiro’s face. He made a move of zipping his lips up and throwing away the key. “Hunk, though? He’ll notice.”

“He’s discrete,” Shiro countered. “With his love life and others’.”

“Tell me about it,” she nodded, probably thinking back to all the ways Hunk dodged properly articulating his relationship status, even to Lance. “What about Keith?”

“What about Keith,” the man in question sounded off not six feet from them, silent like a ghost in his approach. Both of them had their hearts lodged in their throat for a solid few seconds. Keith just grinned at their spooked reaction in a very cat-killing-the-canary kind of way. He was down to a t-shirt, sweat glistening on his brow and hair falling loose and trailing on the warm breeze. His lips were stained red from the drink and Shiro’s traitorous and mildly inebriated thoughts had him thinking something wholly inappropriate about that.

“C’mon, you two need to make asses of yourself as well. This is a group effort.”

Keith reached out and Shiro only had himself to blame when he thought, foolishly and for half a second, that his arm might be grabbed.

“No!” Pidge screeched, trying to resist the rather effortless dragging he put her through. “Have mercy, I have a family to feed,” she seemed genuinely distraught, but Keith ignored it all. With no lack of drama, she threw her free hand back towards Shiro, grasping at air. “Help me,” she yelped. “Don’t let them make me dance!”

Shiro took but a moment to banish both the disappointment and the inappropriate away from his mind, and he smiled and peeled off the hull he leaned against to follow slowly but still out of her reach. “Don’t worry, I’ll be your other left foot.”

It was fine. This was fine. He’d make it be enough.

*

Lance had felt insurmountable fear in plenty of moments and aspects of his life. Resigned to a more simpler life of farming in the last couple of years, he had forgotten just how intense fear could get.

“I’m going to die,” he said very loudly, voice beyond reasonable modulation. “We’re all going to die, and it’s gonna be my fault!”

They were running a bit late, and the closest teludav with a jump point to the Zeta Sector was lightyears away. They were closing in on it, but it would be tight, a matter of precious minutes they couldn’t spare unless they wanted to wait a solid six hours for the Zeta Sector to open again. Luck smiled when Pidge pulled some numbers and very happily informed them that they could save some time if they went through a very large asteroid field instead of over it. An asteroid field full of dust, ship debris and even some highly explosive Xanthorium.

“What asteroid field,” Lance had the gall to ask, as if the fact he couldn’t see it yet would somehow spare him from having to fly through it.

Shiro was being a very helpful wingman when he informed him he’d like to not die a third time, and if he could please get them through safe, with a thank you on top. Lance didn’t know how many more times he’d have to repeat how not funny that was and never would be, but it only seemed to intensify Shiro’s need to inflict them with his morbid sense of humor.

Keith was there too in one of the auxiliary seats behind Lance, judging him silently and sometimes out loud, as if Lance wasn’t under enough pressure as it was. He’d offer the occasion quality insight like You should speed up, we’re gonna be late and That’s not where the accelerator is, Lance. He was quiet now, mostly because Lance was in the throws of panic as he eyed his final destination.

“Look at that,” Shiro said with mild amusement as he charted a new course through the asteroid field, “74% density. Those are good odds.”

Nothing about that sounded good to Lance. He looked to one of the Juniberry flowers he set around as decoration, though the one in the cockpit was there mostly for his benefit.

“If any of you are God-fearing, this is your time to pray,” Lance said, eyes still glued to the flower while they could be.

“You got this,” Keith's hand landed on his shoulder with a double tap in a, so far, uncharacteristic display of faith. It reminded Lance that, yes, he used to be their team leader, and still was to someone else. A lot if someones, if his rank was to be examined.

He glanced at Shiro to his side, who said nothing but had that on-brand smile that might as well have said the same damn thing as Keith. And you know what? Lance wasn't above admitting it gave him confidence to know neither of the two showed any obvious signs of uncertainty with him. Like Keith had said when three pairs of arms finally wrangled him into the seat, You flew Red before, you'll be fine.

What really got him through, especially when he grazed an asteroid with the Lionheart's stubby little wings that someone forgot to retract (Shiro had the gall to chuckle as he said oops ), was that Juniberry flower and all it represented. He had too many questions about himself and the strange tugging feeling that seemed to pull at his chest to go and get out there and find something in the infinite void before them. Maybe it was just another form of sadness, another weird way the human psyche coped with loss.  

And maybe it wasn’t. And maybe the marks on his face had a purpose other than scaring him away from his own reflection. He’d have to get through the asteroid field to find out.

Lance’s sweaty palms were still gripping the movement stick even when the Lionheart stopped. He was dripping with sweat, shirt sticking to the seat, and he felt light headed even at the sight of victory. They had five minutes until the teludav opened, just enough time to get cleared for passage, but abandoning the seat and spending an hour in the healing pod sounded like a dream to him.

Keith’s final grade was a flatly amused, “Nice.”

Lance turned around to stare at him. “Thanks for hovering, by the way. Totally no pressure. Really enjoyed that backseat driving, too.”

“Don’t get too comfortable,” Keith raised his arms with a shit-eating grin as he backed away. “Or I just might come back.”

He turned back around and caught Shiro staring at the afterimage of Keith as the door slid shut. It was a strange look, too long to be incidental, like words should have followed it but got cut off. Hesitance, maybe? It was a strange look on Shiro, and Lance couldn’t keep quiet about it.

“You two still haven’t reached your baseline.” Now that he said it out loud, Lance realized he couldn’t point out a single moment of their interaction outside of the group.

Shiro’s eyes snapped back to him, for a moment looking like he was waking from a daze. “Sorry?”

“Y’know, your baseline. The way you two used to be? I’m not saying anyone’s talking about it behind your back, but it’s noticeable.”

“What is?” The look that crossed Shiro was deadly serious and Lance wasn’t sure why.

“How close you used to be and aren’t. Like brothers, almost,” and it wasn’t the right word, Lance knew that, but his inner thesaurus didn’t offer any better comparisons so he left it at that. “I see the lack of it and it reminds me of what we all used to have but don’t anymore.”

That serious glare left Shiro as quickly as it came, and he exhaled through his nose and nodded, offering one last glance towards the door. It was what prompted Lance to admit, “Hunk was the best friend I ever had, but I have no idea what’s going on in his life anymore.”

The confession left him a little emptier, even in the victory of survival he just got through. Once again that confounding emptiness in him tugged and resonated, and he was faced with the thought that all this might be for naught, might be worse on all of them than doing nothing at all.

Shiro nodded again, but his face offered sympathy. If he had the same doubts, he did a good job of hiding them. The silence dragged for a few breaths as Shiro opened a compartment on his side and handed him a towel.

“We’ll get there again. All of us.”

There was no reassuring smile that followed, and Lance appreciated the honesty of its lack.

Chapter Text

This first third of the journey was simple, the part where they jumped through several strategic teludav points and rushed through charted sectors of space, mostly unaffected by war and the collapse of the empire. The AI could be trusted to follow a course, to let them pretend this was a fun little vacation they shared, but the amount of time they had to relax was limited with how fast the engine really turned out to be.

*

Coran was deeply ignoring everyone’s chatter as he speed-drafted a story, the bulk of it already stitched from several ideas he had been hoarding for years, but at some point the noise became difficult to avoid.

Pidge and Lance made their protest very loud, but Hunk tried being diplomatic about it.

“Shiro, buddy,” he was sitting besides him and it was no effort to put a comforting arm around his shoulder. “It all just look very sad, you know? Like you haven’t moved on in, what, seven years? Eight? Let it go, man. The world’s an oyster and all that but—”

Lance jumped in with a pointedly loud finisher, “You can’t be a paladin! You suck at it!”

“Pick anything else,” Pidge pleaded, “literally anything else, I’m begging here.”

Shiro had his arms crossed and he was brooding, the look on him dark with dissatisfaction. “Are you done? Got anything else to air while we’re at it?”

Lance was actually gearing up to say something but Shiro had enough of all of their mouth sounds. “First of all,” he said loud enough to stomp over any words coming out of Lance. “Paladins are an extremely versatile class. They can fit in any group you put them. You need a tank? They can do that. You need a healer? They can do that, too! You want them to cleave enemies in half? Oh, do I have news for you.”

Pidge was about to interjection this time, but Shiro didn’t let that happen either. “And second of all,” he vocally stomped through again, “our last game together was seven years ago, is that right?” He aimed a look of betrayal at Hunk. “Did it ever occur to any of you that I might have played Monsters and Mana in that time?”

“Like when,” Pidge was the one to ask and maybe she had a crumb of right to be arrogant about it because Shiro would have told her, right? She’d be the one to know, right?

The answer to both those question was a solid no . “Retirement is a very boring affair,” Shiro deadpanned and left it at that.

A collection of vaguely agreeably grunting rolled out. Except for Pidge of course. She seems downright betrayed. You never told me , she mouthed, and Shiro just shrugged. Maybe he didn’t want to play with experts before he got good at it. Maybe he was a sore loser. She didn’t have to know any of that, and he managed to look pleased about it for only a few seconds. They were bringing Coran into the fight, hoping to get some executive decision from the game master.

He twirled his mustache in consideration after hearing out the debate. “No human race,” Coran sounded off his ultimate judgement that disappointed both the prosecution and the defendant.

“Fine,” now Shiro was pouting. “Gnoll, then.”

“That doesn’t make any lore sense,” Hunk protested.

Quiz the lore right in its nak . We make our own,” Coran said as he wrote done some details in his notes. “And what are we calling this Gnoll paladin?”

Shiro opened his mouth as three other mouths sounded off in protest, “Not your name!”

His eyes narrowed. “Orihs,” he said after a moment of thought, and before Coran could ask, he added while leveling his detractors with an unflinching gaze, “that’s Shiro but backwards.”

No one ever called Shiro petty over anything, not reasonably, but in that moment he embodied it with petulance.

Lance groaned loudly but Coran didn’t react as he wrote the name down. “And how’s our last participant doing? Need any help?”

Keith was sitting next to Hunk, seemingly busy absorbing all the information about the game from an abridged manual. “No, I think I get the basics,” he said and put the data pad down. “I want to be a warlock—”

Hunk clapped his hands in genuine surprise. “Not at all what I was expecting!”

“—with and expertise in knife combat. Tiefling.”

Hunk deflated as Pidge gave him a knowing look. The air of lost bets filled the room.

“Interesting,” Coran was writing all that down as well. “And what are we calling you?”

It was a blink and you’d miss it moment, seconds worth their weight in gold as Keith said the name with no smile or flinch of muscle in his face, absolutely dead serious. “Sir Edgelord.”

Coran wrote it down none the wiser. Lance and Pidge lost their minds. Hunk wasn’t sure if he heard it right. And Shiro thought he knew what that was about. He leaned over to catch Keith’s eyes, and they crossed his path for the briefest moment, and with them the lightest twitch of his lips.

It felt good to still read him so easily, to be able to tell his earnestness apart from straight-faced jests that took heat off of Shiro’s back. Outside of the group though, of the effort they all took to have fun together like the good old days, they hadn’t spoken alone with each other since Shiro picked him up on that sulfuric moon.

Maybe his problem was managing expectations. He laid some heavy subject on Keith that day, some hard truths he himself needed a good while to deal with on his own. Would the same not apply to Keith? Maybe the arm’s length of distance between them was a calculated choice, something Shiro should strive to respect until it dissolved on its own.

And he did respect it, and he barely had to try. And it hurt a little that after a three day long campaign, their Monsters and Mana avatars had a better rapport than the real people behind them.

*

“Okay people, we agreed to this. It’s for your own good, c’mon.”

Keith came out of his room in nothing but leggings and a tank top, the only one ready for what was coming, and started pushing the furniture away from the center of the room. Like a caveman, Pidge had commented once while waving the circlet, as if he needed anything other than bare hands for the job.

He did a survey of the people present, one last headcount as the digital clock showed 08:00.

Coran wasn’t there, but the engine room door had a green light shining above it and whirring with activity so he could forgive that, it was important work. Lance was there in his bathrobe, hair wet from a shower, coffee cup in hand and a deeply affronted look on his face. Not Keith’s fucking problem, Lance should have check the schedule, also this was important . Torpor was no joking matter, not when the gravity of the ship didn’t match Earth’s one-on-one. Pidge was missing from the scene, still sleeping soundly as if that’d save her from what’s coming. Keith whistled and instructed Kosmo to fetch her. Hunk was there, finishing up the wrong kind of breakfast that would probably make its way back up at some point, but again, not Keith’s fucking problem. They all made an agreement and it was Keith’s turn to be the drill master, the only one out of two who’d be excited by the prospect of physical activity.

Speaking of. “Where’s Shiro,” he asked when he finished moving the furniture.

Everyone knew the drill by now. You were there when the clock said 08:00, and you didn’t have to be willing or passionate, but you had to be there or else it was group-wide punishment. For example, Pidge got dragged in minutes later by a very eager Kosmo trying to help her out. The punishment? Ten extra push-ups on top of the base fifteen. She was livid, but those were the rules, and she should have been thanking Keith with her noodle arms for giving her such a low number. But Shiro was the real disappointment here. Not in his room, or one of the bathrooms, or engine room, there was really only one other place to look.

The cockpit door slid open and there he was, tracksuit on like he knew what was coming. Because he did, he knew the schedule and he stuck to it religiously up until today.

He sprawled lazily in the pilot’s chair, glasses perched on the tip of his nose and a old fashioned paperback in hand, stars near and far rushing past in the viewport that was cleared of all visuals, a calming display. Keith recognized it for what it was, some alone time, me-time, the kind of social decompression they used to share together in silence once upon a time. And a good look on him, too, but that was neither here nor there. An objective observation, and nothing more. What did matter was the lack of reaction at the sound the door made when it opened.

“I’m very disappointed in you,” Keith crossed his arms, brows pulled together as he shook his head.

Shiro whipped his head around, glasses going askew, then back at the dashboard where the time was displayed. “Shit,” was all he said as he slammed the book closed.

“Thirty extra push-ups, weighted,” Keith said as he spun around and went back to the center room.

“Weighted,” a questioning voice filled with betrayal came behind him.

Who did Shiro think he was to make himself sound like the victim in this situation? They all made a deal and it included Shiro, and it included Keith. Fair was fair, and punishment equaled the capacity of the culprit.

Keith observed his group. Pidge was red in the face, arms trembling as she hissed out number by number, but her form was good. A significant progress since the first time. Hunk was out of breath and very slow in his movements, but diligent. Keith respected that. Lance snickered at Shiro’s misfortune, offered himself up as the weight as he was almost done, all the while making a mockery of the art of push-ups by having his back in an arch.

“Start over,” Keith said sternly, and Lance collapsed face first in the pool of his own sweat that gathered on his mat. He could have a break, Keith was no slave driver, but he knew he had to start again, or else.

Shiro was already in position when he tried to bargain. “How about I do them with one arm and we drop the weights?”

Keith looked down at him, calculating, but still disappointed, and that was what mattered. “Fifteen extra push-ups, one hand, weighted.” Shiro glared at him like he wanted to argue, but Keith got out of his line of sight by walking towards him and taking a seat. On his back. Keith smacked his good arm and said, “You can start any time.”

Bobbing up and down from his vantage position on the right flank, Keith had a good view of Pidge finishing up, Lance just about ready to start again, and Hunk dry-heaving towards the finish line. But his thoughts slipped elsewhere, back to the past, because no matter how much effort he put into it, into some casual distance, he was still stuck on a ship with Shiro and his own traitorous mind full of cherished memories he willfully disowned.

It was all very familiar, the one-handed push-ups, the sitting on his back bit. Something like that had happened before when he was much younger and, consequently, much lighter. A dare that left Keith ten dollars richer in some weird reverse bet kind of way because Shiro was like that, and he couldn’t abide by taking some kid’s money. Or as he had tactfully put it back then, Gambling with a minor is frowned upon . As if regular gambling was somehow okay.

But Keith hadn’t been just some kid, and he wouldn’t had let Shiro win by losing something, so he spent that money on overpriced beer from a gas station. Unlike gambling, Shiro had been a-okay with sharing a can with a sixteen year old because, as he had so succinctly put it back then, It’s practically a food group.

The trip down memory lane had Keith feeling warm with that familiar tightness in his chest, and just a little bit closer to that kid with a crush. It’s why he bolted off Shiro’s back before the count of fifteen and shoved that memory back to the dark depths where it should have stayed buried.

For the rest of the day he avoided one specific pair of questioning eyes.

Chapter Text

The last teludav jump point was a good hundred thousand light years behind them. They had reached the outer limits, still vaguely charted but the maps were old and not as reliable. The first week into the no man’s land of space, they had to scrub the ship’s outer hull from a very passive looking parasite that seemed to be corroding the metal alloys or maybe even actively eating them. Kosmo helped a lot with that one.

Their journey only got more turbulent from that point. The long-range proximity alarm would go off every few cycles like clockwork, sometimes over unmarked hostile ships taking refuge in the unknown, and sometimes with nothing to actually show on the scanners. A nerve-wracking experience for the crew, but they did their best to keep themselves distracted. The fact that they still had working comms helped. There’d be a significant delay involved, but just knowing they could still send a message eased a lot of minds.

*

Everyone had a limit, and that included Hunk as well.

He loved his job, he really did. It’s how he successfully built a media empire around the GastroGalaxy Quest . But he didn’t live and breathe it, had other interests and more skills to hone, and with time he discovered that too much of a good thing was possible. When passion became business, some of the magic got lost in the grinding corporate mill that inevitably came with. It’s what made it easy to come to the decision that had him handing over his life’s work to the two people he trusted most of all, and all of that for the few people he used to trust most of all.

The point was that Hunk loved cooking, he truly did, but that love had a limit, and some days he just didn’t want to feel the obligation. The problem? Most of his friends seemed to be tragedies waiting to happen if someone were to offer them a skillet. So, Hunk did the reasonable thing and employed the tactic of one of the spin-offs he helped start—trial by fire. Kitchen fire.

Lance was fine. In fact, he was the only person that jumped to help him out in the kitchen, sometimes even unprompted. Knew his way around a chef’s knife like the son of a mother who cared enough to send her kids out in the great wild of adulthood prepared, and Hunk respected that. Out of all the student, he showed best form and the least need for input.

Hunk tried his sauteed vegetables. The grin on Lance’s face told him he knew what the results would be, and boy was he right. Not perfect, but damn good for an amateur, and Hunk gave him an enthusiastic high-five. “Buddy, I’m so proud of you,” he told a beaming Lance.

Coran was special. He had more than enough age under his Altean belt to have learned and mastered cooking thrice over, but he was also tragically Altean. Of all the cuisines Hunk had Quested through, theirs was principally and unequivocally the crowned king of bland. It didn’t help that it revolved terribly around goo which was on all account an acquired taste, and that was Hunk being very kind about it. Still, presentation mattered and Coran excelled there. Best of all, he swallowed his own revulsion for the greater good of the team and used the flavored goo dispenser in his meal preparation. The end results were mixed, as were the appetizers he prepared, especially the vanilla and beef flavored bowl.

“You’re very close,” Hunk smacked him on the back as he tried a few of his own combinations and hacked wildly, Coran’s poor taste buds unable to cope with the potency of all those flavors. “Stick to single-flavor combos and I’ll write you up a nice savory-vs-sweet cheat sheet.”

Keith was complicated. He clearly had no love for the kitchen, but he knew what he was doing, mostly. Not as well as Lance but well enough. He had a utilitarian approach to cooking and it reminded Hunk of the difficult life he must have had, of how quickly he had to grow up to take care of himself because no one else would. Minimalistic cooking, just enough on the plate and no more. No frills, no fancy spices, but a good mix of protein and veggies was present. Untapped potential for improvement, and Hunk would gladly work on it a little longer had he not noticed one glaring, horrifying fact.

“Keith,” he said, looming over his back as he watched him slice uneven chunks of meat, “buddy, why are you using your luxite blade for this?”

Keith stuck the blade in the wooden cutting board—unnecessarily aggressive, but okay—and turned to look at Hunk like he was the idiot. “It’s the sharpest knife in the kitchen.”

“Keith,” Hunk whined, “it’s been literally covered in the blood of your enemies. That’s not okay!”

“I clean my blade, Hunk.”

And Hunk knew an argument he couldn’t win staring back at him with unflinching eyes. He’d have to tackle this problem privately and maybe with a batch of sweets as distraction.

Shiro was not as terrible as the man himself claimed he was, and that was the biggest compliment Hunk could give him. He knew his way around smoothies and  how to make eggs and bacon, how to ladle out the waffle mixture into the iron, knew how to cook pasta and pour over ready-made sauce, and… Yeah, that was about it. Hunk focused on the eggs, they could use that.

“I’m gonna introduce you to some revolutionary spices,” Hunk said as he pulled out salt and pepper. Shiro gave him a long and unamused look, but Hunk didn’t flinch. “I know you know what they are, but you sure as hell don’t know how to use them properly.”

Pidge was an absolute disaster. Not only did she act like she’d never see the inside of a kitchen, Hunk was pretty sure she wasn’t even aware cooked food took preparation and didn’t just magically spring from nothing on a plate. Maybe it was all a ruse, maybe she was just really good at dodging responsibility, and Hunk would not put that above her. But seeing toast burnt so bad its filling couldn’t mask the taste of char, seeing a pan ruined on heat alone, that was too much.

“Pidge,” he placed both arms on her shoulders, stared her long and hard in the eyes as he tried to gauge one last time if this was all a big joke or not. “You’re fired.”

“Oh, thank god,” she seemed incredibly relieved, and was quick to drop the net that held her hair. “I’ll go do something useful, like run diagnostics, or walk the dog,” and she disappeared towards the cockpit with Kosmo at her tail, roused by the prospect of magnetized walks on the hull of the ship.

And with that done, Hunk was ready to present the new cook order that would see him relaxing more often.

“Lance will take Tuesdays and Thursdays in full, while Coran will handle breakfast on Mondays and Fridays. Keith is on Saturdays breakfast and Sundays dinner. Shiro has Sundays breakfast and dinner assist honors.”

That last decision may have been a little tactical. Maybe no one else noticed but Hunk did and, well, he wanted to help even a little. Putting Keith and Shiro on the same day was hardly butting his nose into into their business, a thing he was certain neither would appreciate. But if it could help soothe thing out just a little, Hunk would count it a silent victory.

And maybe he paid a little more attention than necessary every Sunday, and maybe he noticed Shiro’s attempts to lend a hand get rejected while his own didn’t, and maybe he noticed Shiro’s conscious effort to step back three paces too far every time Keith bristled. Who could blame Hunk for noticing all that. It seemed like such a big deal but no one visibly reacted. There was just something odd growing between them, a chasm of silence and distance that somehow kept expanding where it should have been shrinking. A chasm they were both simultaneously digging.  

He picked his words very carefully while fishing for reactions. Starting rumors in a tight-knit group on a small ship was far from his intention.

“Keith? Prickly?” Lance scoffed as he picked a card from the deck. They played Briscola every night before bed in their rooms, catching up on all the little details of their lives they missed out on. “I mean, aren’t we all? Long trip, small ship, closed quarters. Some days I want to crawl out of my own skin.”

Lance was never very observant, but empathy he didn’t lack, or his own issues.

“Nope,” Pidge said over a midnight snack, the p popping loudly in the utter silence. “Didn’t notice a thing.”

She avoided eye contact though, and it drew suspicion from Hunk. Maybe she wasn’t as observant either, but she definitely was in Shiro’s corner.

Coran was the big surprise. Of all the things he expected to hear, it wasn’t, “Oh I’ve noticed the tension between them. Could stab a knife right through it.”

Coran extended his hand, waiting for Hunk to pass the frequency modifier they tinkered on, something to help stop all the false-positive proximity alarms that were slowly but surely setting everyone on edge. The constant buzzing of the engine drowned them out which Hunk was very thankful for seeing as Coran was loud and their walls not as thick as they’d seem.

“Why do you think that is,” Hunk asked, withholding the equipment in some hopes of understanding the issue better. He had his suspicions, but…

Coran seemed momentarily willing to shed some light, got as far as opening his mouth before he closed it abruptly mid sound, clearly thinking better of the idea. The sound of the engine filled the air around them.

“I think,” he tried again after snatching the machinery from Hunk’s hand, “we should leave them to sort it out between themselves.”

Hunk had his suspicions, and something about Coran’s avoidance made him all but certain.

*

“No, it’s my turn on the console. I put it in the calendar!”

“Who the hell puts that in the calendar and expects other to notice?! C’mon, Pidge, it’s my turn and you know it.”

“Can’t you play the game with two analog input controllers?” Coran must have asked the wrong question because where Lance and Pidge were fuming at each other a moment ago, now they were fuming at him with a very resounding No.

Clearly there was only one way to settle this, and since trial by combat was not very Terran by nature, Coran suggested the next best thing. A different kind of trial, with proxies this time, because Pidge and Lance had noodles for arms and could hardly make a good show out of it. And a good show was important, particularly out here in deep space, on a ship where fun was limited to their imagination and insufficient resources.

Lance was situated behind Shiro, his hands on the man’s shoulder rhythmically squeezing like he was trying to give a massage even though one entire shoulder was made of metal. Maybe Lance would have noticed if he’d stopped glaring dagger at Pidge for half a second.

“This is life and death, Shiro,” he said without a trace of humor. “I’m gonna need you to give it your all and win.”

Shiro just found it all very amusing. He readjusted the chair he was sitting in and said very plainly, “Right. Life or death, just like the Galra pits. I got this.”

“Why’d you gotta be like that, man?” Lance whined.

On the other end of the table, Hunk looked a little bit queasy. “Why do I have to do this again?”

“Because you’re the only one with enough upper body strength to stand against him,” Pidge said. “And because Lance beat me to choosing Shiro.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“I gave you a compliment, didn’t I? And don’t worry about it,” she whispered in his ears, “I got an ace up our sleeve that’ll win us this game, but we gotta time it just right.”

“Yeah, but what do I get for this?”

Pidge thought for a second. Bargaining resources were limited, but the console time was very coveted. That, and Hunk was on her level, so the choice became obvious very quickly. “The other joystick?”

Hunk cracked his knuckles. “Deal.”

“And yet you wouldn’t share it with Lance,” Coran pointed out. He was the judge and as such felt the need to change his costume into something more fitting, more flashy. Something Pidge would call very Las Vegas in quality.

“It’s because she knows I’m the better player,” Lance said and strangely, Pidge kept quiet, but the glaring of ice cold daggers persisted across the table.

“All right gentlemen, our only rule is to keep things fair and use left hands. Ready your weapons!”

Pidge stalled, asking for further clarification of the rules, asking if they should time it, if certain fouls were possible, any bullshit she could think of while she heard the water running from the nearest bathroom. Shiro was standing at the ready, elbow on the table and his good arm ready and waiting for Hunk to stop ignoring him in favor of hearing Pidge out. He was growing suspicious.

“Stop scheming, Katie,” he said when she asked if there’d be any compensation if the the arm of one of their best engineers got damaged. And Lance was right there to back him up, eager to finish this and win.

But then that one thing she focused on happened—the water turned off, she gave in, and Hunk started sweating but she couldn’t imagine why. They were both about to arm wrestle with their non-dominant hands, and to her that sounded like an equal winning opportunity, which is exactly what it turned out to be. Coran called the timer and they were at a standstill thirty seconds in, Shiro matching Hunk’s fatigued expressions as they fought for inches.

But that was okay, Hunk only had to keep it together just a little more, she whispered encouragingly into his ear. Any moment now. His hand was slipping, his endurance waning in Shiro’s favor.

Just a little longer.

“What are you guys doing?” Keith walked over all on his own, curious about all the huffing and puffing. Keith, out of the shower in nothing but a towel around his hips, long hair wet and dripping as he gently toweled it.

Two things happened then: the player’s concentration got gently rocked as a new face approached in their periphery, but one of them lost a sizable amount of said concentration while the other realized what his moment of victory looked like.

Shiro hissed as Hunk slammed his arm down hard and whooped. The real victory cheer came from Pidge who absolutely ignored the dirty looks Shiro was sending her in favor of gloating at Lance.

“I don’t know how you did it,” Lance said through gritted teeth, “but I know you cheated, I just know it!” And he did not relent, following Pidge to her room where the console was set up and waiting, Coran trailing after them in hopes of mediating a peace treaty. Keith shrugged once and left for his own room to hopefully make himself decent, unaware of the turmoil he left behind, or the eyes that had a hard time unsticking from his back.

Hunk wanted to say something now that they were alone, felt like he need to apologize at the very least for taking advantage of Pidge’s devious little stint.

“Good arm,” Shiro said with a genuine smile. “I’m pretty sure you’d hold your own even against your own invention.”

“Oh no-no-no,” Hunk eyed the mechanical arm. “It because I made it that I know I wouldn’t.”

“You underestimate yourself.”

Hunk grew thoughtful for a moment before he asked, “Do you take constructive criticism?”

Shiro’s eyebrow jumped in surprise. “About arm wrestling?”

Hunk was a little more confident in how much he knew Keith then how much he knew Shiro. And despite that last look that said more than Shiro would ever want to reveal, Hunk believed in his intuition, believed the least they both wanted was the taste of that comradery that seemed so visibly missing between them. It’s the roadblock he couldn’t pinpoint yet, not with certainty, but it seemed to be coming off from Keith.

Hunk threaded his fingers together and leaned over the table, voice poised low. Maybe he could return the favor just a little, offer some encouragement to the guy that did the same for him back when the thought of setting out on his own was just a nascent idea born in the quiet late night munchies after a successful day of delegations on the Atlas.

“It shouldn’t be this complicated, y’know," Hunk said. "You both want the same thing and I’m so sure of it I actually wanna say I know it. So just keep that in mind, yeah? Don’t give up.”

Shiro’s face remained still, the half-smile he wore now petrified on his features with visible effort. “Right,” he said in a way that made Hunk felt like he stepped on a Lego.

He didn’t have to suffer that feeling for long though. In a moment’s notice, embarrassment was replaced with trepidation when the lights inside the Lionheart dimmed down, red tones of warning washing over them. A subtle beeping commenced as the long-range proximity alarms were triggered again.

Chapter Text

The false-positive proximity alarms persisted up until the great void, at which point their absence was less considered a blessing than an even bigger threat. Hunk did not like concluding that the sensors on the Lionheart were too good to trigger over nothing. Both Pidge and Coran did not enjoy confirming it.

*

The great outback of space was around them. After one more sleeping cycle, their agreed-upon piloting rotations would be strictly and properly enforced as the last most unknown stretch of their journey was set before them. The 4.3% discrepancy in the map that was generated were taking form as another threat they could feel, if not see with their eyes, because there wasn’t much to see. The void, the emptiness of the great nothing they sailed through was so prominent, there were barely any glimmering stars in the ship’s viewports. The lack of everything was the only threat they could quantify, and that alone made the semblance of control over their journey just a little bit more tangible.

They flew through plenty of hostile sectors on their way, activated the cloaking mechanism more times than they could count, weathered through false-positive sensor triggers, called on Keith or Shiro to fly them through sticky situations and skirmishes, but it was different when maps were involved, when known safe routes could be exploited. They were all out of that, now. The last civilized planet they stop at and restocked over half a billion light years away. The communication channels went dead with any known galactic organisation three weeks prior, isolation reaching its zenith, and the mood on the ship reflected it.

So for their last cycle of sound sleep, they decided to break out some drinks, and Lance had the bright idea to spontaneously spin one of the empty bottles and start asking mundane questions. The alcohol made their tongues lax and what started off silly ended up with the bottle forgotten in the midst of serious conversations they never really planned on having.

Hunk took a deep breath. He’d sat on this long enough and avoided the questions to the point of absurdity. He hardly considered it a secret, but he enjoyed the privacy. The stardom paranoia might have gotten to his head a little, and maybe he forgot his friends weren’t the kind of people that’d rat him out to the first journalist hunting for a juicy intergalactic rumor.

That and, well, they were in a place no sound or sliver of information could escape their enclosure even if they wanted to.

“Right, so, Shay and Romelle and I? We’re kinda together. We’ve been for about three years I think? No one was counting, really, it just kinda grew out of us hanging out together all the time. But we’re not together in any official way. You’d know that much, I’d invite you to a ceremony or however we’d consolidate the cultural mish-mash. I’m not pressed about those details honestly, but I don’t feel like rushing into anything, y’know? We’re good as we are.”

His nerves rattled as he seized to finish his drink.

Keith chuckled, a loose smile playing on his lips. He was the only one who drank a respectable amount and not a drop more, which was a good thing considering he was the first pilot on rotation. “A three year long relationship is hardly rushing,” he offered.

“I know, I know,” Hunk said as he got a little hot under the collar with all the eyes on him. “I just want all of us to be really sure we want the same things in life. Does that make sense?”

His eyes traveled around the table until they reached the only person among them that had any experience in marriage. “You’re right to think that way,” Shiro said when their eyes met. “To weight your love in friendship. I made the mistake of rushing in and chasing something without wondering if it was sustainable. When we found out it wasn’t, we couldn’t even stay friends after the divorce.”

Shiro didn’t seem to realize how his words would land among them, and the silence they’d create. Lance was the only one who made noise, a hissing sound like he had gotten burned, and he tapped Shio on the arm in a show of comfort.

“It is what it is,” he shrugged, not feeling the need for comfort or sympathy. He’d made peace with those mistakes, but not all of them. The issues he left hanging were sitting across the table and staring back at him, impassively. That summed up the months of interaction he had with Keith, and he had long since started to feel the repercussions of it, a growing anxiety that lingered in his stomach. The deep empty unknown they were hurling through scared him less than figuring out where he’d gone wrong only to realize it was too late to undo it.

“We didn’t leave on bad terms,” Shiro said, and wasn’t really sure who he was referring to any more, “but it was a shame we couldn’t salvage anything.”

Keith was still looking at him without much of a reaction, and by now Shiro had begrudgingly accepted that as the best he could hope for.

“I tried dating,” Lance said to diffuse the silence. “Several times. Some even lasted a couple of months before I bailed on them. Like, how much more time do I need, right?” He tried to laugh it off, but it didn’t stick. Nothing had stuck normally for him since he watched someone he cared too much about recreated an entire universe. It was a fair trade, right? One life for many, for trillions, for existence itself. But it felt wrong.

“I couldn’t shake the feeling that nothing would compare. That we weren’t done yet. That the bad guys won and dropped us in a reality where everything seemed good, but wasn’t. I used to think something was wrong with me, that moving on should have been easier than this, that I can’t appreciate a second chance. I kind of still do? But at least this feeling is getting us somewhere, so I feel a little less crazy overall.”

No one told him, but the marks on his face had been glowing ever since they all let truth take the wheel.

Pidge had to stop her leg from nervously bouncing. This was all a bit much for her, and a little dark, too. It was giving he a small existential crisis, particularly thinking about the bad guys winning, and oh, she thought about that one a lot. “These relationship problems are bleak as hell,” she said, circumventing the bigger issues and gearing up for something big of her own, “so how about we laugh at mine for a bit?”

The logic made sense in her head—phrase it like a joke, get it off your chest, make light of a dreadful mood, and done. A two-in-one solution to a problem she didn’t know how to handle with grace, yet wanted to participate in.

“I don’t like dating,” she began with the big truths right off the bat. “I don’t like courtship, or romance. Not big on sex either. I just can’t relate to people like that. I knew for a long time and had all my hopes on Matt satisfying that parental need for grandchildren my mom and dad would inevitably have.” She rolled her eyes like it didn’t grip her with anxiety every time her parents would offhandedly mention a future they imagined her fulfilling. “But Matt’s out there smooching AIs and I’m stuck listening to my parents unsubtly prod for information on an aspect of life I never had any interest in.”

She huffed and should have stopped there, should have called it quits. She knew the people she was talking too, they’d never pressure for more, not even the curious ones. But the words, they stuck to the roof of her mouth and ached to come out.

“I love,” she said defensively. “I know how to love, just not like that . And I don’t know how to explain it to them in a way they’d get, and I hate thinking I’m disappointing them somehow.”

A silence followed that as well and, yeah, she should have planned that one better. It wasn't nearly as funny when she put it to words and said it out loud like that. Piteous maybe, but she didn’t find that aimed at her either. Keith sat next to her and his arm landed around her shoulders in a firm grip that reminded her so much of Shiro.

“You want to hear something actually funny,” he asked. “I’ve never had a date in my life.”

Where there was understanding a moment ago, the looks around the table turned full of surprise, though Shiro’s bordered on shock for some reason, and Lance was the first one to voice it with a simple and succinct, “For real?”

Keith crossed his arms at that tone, all incredulous and weird about it. “I’ve been in plenty of relationships, mostly with other Galra. But never on a date.”

“Ah, yes,” Coran said with a very analytical look in his eyes. “The Galra are very practical in most things, romance included. You either want to mate or to fuck, no in-between.”

The use of human expletives shook the table into laughter, but the words left Keith just a little embarrassed in their truth. “Uh, yeah, that’s—that’s one way of putting it.”

He felt all the eyes one him, but one pair in particular, one that made him a little nervous to admit these things out loud. And why should it? Keith had exponentially and needlessly irritated himself into a corner with this shit. It was supposed to be simple. He was over it. He’d been over it for ages. “I think it suits me just fine,” he concluded with a shrug of feigned nonchalance. “Anchoring yourself to people feels troublesome, so I like the no strings approach.”

He was over it, and the more often he’d repeat it, the sooner he’d start believing it again.

“So you’ve never been in love,” Lance asked, and the sincere way he shaped that question stopped Keith from perceiving it as an attack.

“I have,” he said so simply because it was the truth. All of it was. “It was more trouble than it’s worth.”

Coran was staring at him very intently, and Keith welcomed the distraction, welcomed the relief of not meeting Shiro’s gaze from across the table. He met Coran’s look with a raised eyebrow and waited for the man to say something.

When Coran spoke up, he was merciful, and did not look at Keith when he said, “I was in love with my best friend. Watched him marry, watched him have a child, all the while keeping very silent about my feelings. There were times I used to fantasize about the what-ifs, but after having a sizable hand in raising his daughter, I can’t say I’d want to change anything about how things worked out between us.”

Coran let his words absorb, let them draw their conclusions about the man whose name he didn’t need to mention. “I used to wish I knew how to let go, while at the same time being afraid I’d love him less as a friend if I did. But letting go was never really an option, and even after all this time, he’d set unreachable standards no one could possibly compete with. All that to say,” and he looked back at Keith then, “that I’m quite in line with your views. And the Galra approach to copulation.”

A few voices sputtered as Coran crossed his arms in a very self-satisfied manner and leaned back. “Ahh, the times before the war sure were fun,” he said wistfully.

“So,” Lance said after finishing his giggle fit, “what I’m getting from these stories is that Keith and Coran are down to fuck any alien that crosses their path.”

Keith was not amused with that deduction. “How the hell did you extrapolate that!?”

“Am I wrong?”

“You are absolutely right,” Coran all but boasted, as Keith next to him mutter, speak for yourself .

“Of course I am,” and Lance was the only one who could match Coran in the power of boasting. “My further observations are that Pidge is building herself a robot husband to throw off her parents—”

“Don’t give me ideas,” Pidge said with a snort, but she filed that away for safekeeping. Just in case.

“—that Hunk has galactic levels of game—”

“T-thanks?” His best friend squeezed out in a tiny voice.

“—and is very likely an absolute kinkster.”

That had Hunk retracting the thanks very fast, thoroughly shaking his head in the nope corner, face a little redder than it should have been for a man claiming not to be guilty.

“And Shiro here,” Lance slapped his back in emphasis, “is absolutely terrible at relationships,” that earned him a nod from the subject, “and probably super vanilla, if we’re being real honest here.”

Shiro shrugged, the shake of his head nether confirming nor denying. Pidge burst out in a mocking laugh, dragging all the attention back at her, including Shiro’s narrow glare.  

“Would you like to elaborate on that outburst,” Coran asked, curiously. Keith next to him tried not to look interested, but he was. He really was.

She had a devilish look about her, mouth curling into a smirk. She took the last swing of her drink before saying, “Let’s just say my brother regaled my with some interesting stories about his friends and their private lives without naming any names. But I’m not stupid.”

All the eyes turned to Shiro, waiting for an explanation. Even Keith, for once looking mildly interested. Shiro huffed, annoyed by the turn of events. His friends didn’t need to know about certain aspects of his private life, but alright, okay, if Katie wanted to play dirty, so could he.

He pulled on a face of concern as he asked, “You’re brother told you about the Kerberos launch party?”

The things left unsaid were oft times more powerful than saying them outright. Pidge frowned. “What?”

“Nothing,” Shiro feigned innocence instantly. “Never mind.”

Lance hollered, unable to contain himself, pure glee aimed at the rising distress on Pidge’s face. “What about the Kerberos launch party?”

“Nothing,” Shiro shook his head, the picture of innocence.

“Shiro, don’t play with me.”

“Just forget I said anything.”

“What the hell happened at the launch party?!”

“Nothing happened,” Keith jumped into their argument trying to be the voice of reason. “He’s teasing you. I was there.”

And he was, the memory a little murky, but he was there, the three of them hanging out in Shiro’s room the week before the actual launch, an unofficial private going-away party. There were a few more people there, none Keith deigned to get to know, but it was a peaceful and fun event, something they had to be careful and quiet about because of Garrison rules.

But Keith wasn’t there for the full extent of it. “You got sleepy after two beers,” Shiro said with a grin. “I drove you back to your dorm before midnight.”

“Which was how long the party lasted.”

“Was it?” Shiro was being cheeky now. It was obvious he was doing it just to mess with Pidge and her insatiable thirst to know things, particularly if it was dirt regarding her brother. But at the same time, Keith really couldn’t answer that.

The night ended in laughter and a few people looking like they had relieved a weight they hadn’t realized they’d been carrying around. As everyone went to bed, Keith moved to the cockpit, but his weight pressed firmly against his chest, heavier that it used to be. Heavier each time he woke. He treasured the solitude where he could let his face fall.

It was supposed to be simple, and the view of the stars was supposed to make him feel better, but now he could count the number of glimmers in the viewport on both hands.

Chapter Text

He had a long talk with his mother about it before setting off. No one expected the journey to be easy. Keith knew that best of all as someone who held his rank in the Blades of Marmora for over six years. Relief efforts were a common activity, but more often than not, there was something left to fight, some straggler of the old Empire left to clean up. Keith knew danger, but this expedition was different.

“I won’t stop you,” his mother told him. “I won’t try to convince you otherwise, but I am worried about this,” and it pained her to admit it. He’d rarely seen his mother so pinched with worry, bordering on distraught.

“And the missions I run with the Blades don’t worry you,” he asked as he tried to laugh it off, lighten the mood, but the worry on her face only deepened.

“I know who you enemies are. I know what weapons they use, I know how they behave on the field, and I know you can handle it. Heading out into uncharted space is calling on dangers unseen and unheard of.”

“I’m still going,” Keith said, and she made due on her promise, nodding along without arguments. “I led the team when she died. I let it happen,” and to appease his mother's needs to defend her child, he added, “we all let it happen. And if there’s a chance to fix it, I want to see it through. I want to help.”

“I understand.” Her hand cupped his face, the gentle caress of her thumb smoothing over soft skin right under his eye, where the first signs of age were beginning to form. That was another thing they didn’t talk about, yet it didn’t slip either’s notice. It was the one thing Keith could tell Krolia was truly afraid of. And what mother wouldn’t be afraid to outlive the child they so recently found, even one as inexperienced as her. 

But she tried and did her best to compensate for the years missed in the least intrusive ways possible. Keith loved her for that all the more. 

“And will you be okay,” she asked, the hand on his face shifting to his shoulder with a gentle squeeze.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

She carefully phrased her words as she said, “Shiro will be there, right?”  

A mother always knows was one of those myths Keith was beginning to accept as fact. He took a deep breath and tried to sound as neutral as possible. “Again, why wouldn’t I?”

She smiled knowingly, maybe a little smug even, and pulled him into a hug which he relented to with ease. “Do remember who spent two years with you on that whale.”

She saw then a lot more than he ever could reveal with words, like the struggles of a child in foster care, all the skills he had to learn the hard way with no one around to show him, the way he fended for himself with no one else in his corner. Oh, yeah, and that massive crush he spent years shaking off. 

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, or him.”

Those were good words of wisdom he tried to apply. Keith truly believed there were no faults to be had, other than life doing its usual thing of giving and taking in unequal measures. It chewed them up, spat them out, took their heart and left them all unable to cope with the loss. 

So, why then was it so hard to follow his mother’s wisdom?

The first time life bared its teeth at Keith, it took away his father only to give him an irreplaceable friendship ten years later. And then it took that away again in a similar fashion, only to give back when he had mourned enough. Then took away once more, and gave back again. And again. And again. And again . It was a vicious cycle Keith tried to break with his own hands, but it took Allura to challenge life and give him back what he cared for the most.

So of course, life took her next. And Keith didn’t cry, didn’t shed a tear as he watched her walk into the light, couldn’t fathom he’d be waking up in a reality she wouldn’t be a part of. He never got to properly thank her for everything. That’ll teach him for waiting.

In face of such tremendous failure, it was easy then to practice self care with isolation. Keith was too good at that, so good he let the important things slip out of sight again, like the friendships he cultivated, and Shiro. Life took Shiro away one last time, in a different way than the usual, yet no less painful. 

He knew how this shit worked. He wasn’t owed love where none could be given. He wasn’t owed waiting, expectations, or anything. So, why then—again for the umpteenths time, he had to ask himself—was it so hard to follow his mother’s wisdom? 

It was supposed to be simple, but there was nothing simple about love. Keith had been carrying that specific torch for longer than he’d been aware, and dousing it out was no easy task. Distance helped. Distance and work and the occasional partner. It was on their fourth reunion beneath Allura’s statue that he could say looking at Shiro brought forth no feeling at all, good or ill. It made him feel safe, maybe even cured in a sense, and a few more years down the line it made him very bold to think he could share a small space and an undisclosed amount of time with Shiro and still feel nothing at all. They might even be friends again, a thought that genuinely pleased Keith, in theory.

It took a little over one Earth-standard week for that torch to make itself known that it was still burning.

Innocuous at first, one too many wandering memories resurfacing after years of banishment. When the six of them managed to settle on a movie, and as the holo-display played the intro, Keith could focus on little else than the person who wasn’t even sitting next to him, on the memories of a dorm room, a couch, a bowl of popcorn, and Shiro with a head of dark hair persistently insisting that hundred year old sci-fi movie was actually good.

The memories came and went like unwanted guests, leaving all the doors open in the process, doors Keith had to close on his own, and the experience left him irritable. It made it hard to follow his mother’s wisdom, and he grew hard, not just at himself but at Shiro as well.

It wasn’t supposed to be that difficult. He spent over three years sparing Shiro the barest of perfunctory thoughts, and now he could think of little else. In the solitude of his sleeping quarters, where the floor-to-ceiling viewport could be adjusted to show the stars or one of the pre-programmed views from Earth, Keith settled for the desert sunset once and only once. The unbidden memory was of wind and sand in his hair, of the hoverbike’s engine revving, of a large body plastered to his back voicing dares and encouragement to go ahead and do something stupid like drive right off a cliff. 

I have all the faith in you, Shiro had said, right in his ear, but I just want you to know, on the off-chance we fail, I’d rather go like that than explain to high command why I was teaching a cadet to do stunt work. 

Back then, that voice sent an unmistakable chill down his back that woke a fire in him with an insatiable urge to show off and please. In the present, as an old and rusty memory, it still had the power to raise the hair on Keith’s arms.

Worse than old memories were the recent ones, or the only proper one Keith made before his emotions sprung up again and ruined his disposition. He thought often of the few hours spent in the then unnamed prototype’s cockpit on their way to New Altea, of the words exchanged about a failing marriage, about the clone’s body, about a new arm that wasn’t really new. Keith had missed so much and said so little himself. He wanted to, he promised he would to himself if not Shiro, sit down and talk again with his—with his friend. Shiro had asked for that, had come clean; he wanted his best friend back. And Keith would have liked to give him that, but…

There was a chewed up green scarf at the bottom of his bag that he should have returned by now. He’d take it out in the quiet of his room every once in a while, with Kosmo’s bulk snuggled around him protectively, just to hold and imagine how easy it would be to go two doors over and return it, a simple ice breaker for something overdue. But distanced made his heart grow colder only to crack twice as hard under the warm glare of his favorite star.

His once and always favorite star. 

*

Keith like to think he tucked his cracks away under a good facade, not one to trouble anyone with his bullshit. He didn’t find that same resolve in Lance.

This wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last time he’d notice Lance sleepless, sitting in their makeshift livingroom and tending to a few of the Altean plants he brought aboard. When the piloting rotations started though, Keith could no longer give him the privacy of being unnoticed as he’d wander sporadically out of the cockpit to grab a cup of coffee.

“You okay?”

“Not really,” Lance said with such simplicity it threw Keith off, an unexpected curveball delivered on words mired with exhaustion.

Maybe he wasn’t the best person to ask, but he wasn’t that combative youth anymore either. Life changed him enough to sound sincere when he asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Lance stopped fussing with the plants and looked at him, his eyes laced with the kind of antsy nervousness that could only come from a long string of restless nights. “If I told you we were heading off course, would you readjust?”

This was a night of curveballs, and Keith really didn’t know what to do with that one. A no was scratching under his tongue, because—under what accounts? His strange feelings? A gut pull and little else? 

The marks on Lance’s face were glowing though, and Keith had to remind himself how he got them, and who from. “That’s a question for the whole team,” he said, and was aware for the first time in their journey that their team lacked a proper leader, and yet seemed to function just fine. Mostly. Game nights would be a struggle regardless of authority.

“Well, yeah, of course,” Lance said, “but if I told you all that, would you—would you even consider it?”

Keith couldn’t answer that either, not for himself or for the rest of them. Maybe? That was a lot to ask, even just to consider felt the appropriate amount of foolish to deter from answering. 

“That’s okay,” Lance said with a chuckle. “I think it’s pretty crazy too. Probably just indigestion,” he rubbed his stomach. “I did go a little crazy with that taco-flavored goo.”

“Get some sleep, and we can discuss this tomorrow,” was the advice Keith left him with. But before he could disappear back into the cockpit, Lance threw one last curveball.

“You doing okay yourself?”

“Yeah,” and Keith was aware of how fast he answered, and how stilted it came out.

So was Lance. “I remember back when we were younger, you weren’t bothered by much. But when something did bother you, you were shit at hiding it.” He grabbed a pair of scissors to snip off a few more dead leaves, but before he got back to work, he leveled Keith with another grin. “You’re a little better at it now, though.”

Keith shrugged, noncommittal, which was enough to prompt Lance to add, “Only a little.”

*

Hunk and him had a bit of an on-and-off ritual where he’d make a modest batch of gourmet snacks just for them and their private drama binge in Keith’s room. It was the kind of drama show only the two of them could enjoy, one belonging galaxies away from Earth, with an aquatic culture and humor impenetrable unless familiar with. And Keith was, he’d done months long relief efforts on Xuy. Hunk did, too, in his own way. There was more to his business than just entertainment.

They settled one one such binge in the so-called evening after Hunk's first rotation, prompted by Keith’s desire to get away from the common room. He had one aborted attempt at casual conversion, caught a hurt look from Shiro, and decided it was best for the both of them to retreat. There were too many people around anyway, bustling for a somewhat important discussion over maps and supplies. 

But something wasn’t quite right with Hunk, either. He came in late from his rotation, seemed jittery, like he was sitting on something he wanted to share, and could hardly focus on the show. Keith wasn’t the type to press; if he had something to say, he’d say it in his own terms or not at all. But he did try to liven the mood.

Keith moaned around the bite-sized sandwich he had shoved into his mouth, pretty sure they had an actual name but he couldn’t be arsed to remember. “Hunk,” he said with delight as the intro to the next episode played on the screen opposite the bed they were lounging on, Kosmo acting as their large and furry backrest, “if you’re ever in need of another wheel in your entourage, just give me a call.”

“Oh my god,” Hunk protested immediately, looking quite stung, “it’s not like that! We’re not a swingers group!”

Keith snorted. “I was talking about your work, not your to-be marriage, but okay, gutterbrain.”

The sigh Hunk released was endless. “Let me live,” he begged. “I’m forced to listen to Lance’s speculation on my love life so let’s leave it at that, please. No more opinions.”

“What does he know that I don’t,” Keith ribbed him.

“Absolutely nothing,” Hunk said sternly and silence ensued as they watched. “Although,” Hunk spoke up, not a minute in, “I would be willing to trade in currencies of information, if you want.”

Hunk must have thought him quite the secret keeper to offer that up, though Keith couldn’t imagine anything he’d want to know from him that would require that kind of price. “Just ask me whatever you want,” Keith said. “No currencies applied.”

Hunk smiled sweetly but said nothing. His company was one Keith wished he’d appreciated more when he had it, felt it when he lost it, but got it back as if he didn’t. He didn’t mind Hunk asking questions that would verge on too personal for him, because he had the same kind of faith Hunk had in him—the information wouldn’t go further.

But Hunk could be sneaky, and he let the silence reign until the show hit a lull. 

“So what’s up with you and Shiro,” Hunk tried for casual, but the vacuum of stillness his question created between them was unbearable. “Okay, that was bad. Can I try again?” 

The change in mood roused Kosmo from his nap, his snout nudging curiously at his owner. Keith set the tray of food down for Kosmo to enjoy and regarded Hunk coolly, but did not dare to speak. There was an honest quality to Hunk that begged for truth, a truth Keith was unwilling to share or even speak of. He thought the sharp look would be enough to cow him into silence, but sometimes—and in this situation Keith would deem it the wrong time—Hunk could be very bull-headed. 

“Here’s an observation,” he said unprompted. “I’ve never seen Shiro afraid in my life, until I saw him tip-toe around nonversations with you.”

Keith swallowed a gordian knot worth of emotions, because yes, that was something he was keenly aware of. 

“You’re no better,” Hunk continued. “You should see yourself when the threat of being left alone in the room with him is present.”

Okay that, no, no, that wasn’t right, and Keith was about to protest when Hunk beat him to it. 

“You jumped at the offer to recalibrate the sensors when Pidge asked for help.” Okay, so it was boring work but it was important, and he liked hanging with Pidge, and the protest would have made it out of his mouth had Hunk not had more ammunition. “Once, you helped Lance water all the plants.” The plants were really nice, who wouldn’t enjoy tending to them? “And buddy, I heard you with my own two ears say the words I need to clean my dog .”

Kosmo’s whine came like an accusation. There was absolutely no excuse for that.

The show played on in the background, ignored by both parties. Keith’s throat was tight. He could say too much or nothing and all, but he settled for, “I don’t know how to fix it.” It was a quiet admission he hadn’t even made to himself yet.

“Yeah, you do,” Hunk said with confidence Keith wished he felt. “Just make a move already, before it’s too late.”

Keith was about to say he already felt like it was too late when he noticed Hunk’s own change in mood, a bit darker than a moment ago, a little more fearful. No, the too late Hunk was talking about had nothing to do with them. “What do you mean by that?”

The jittery nervousness returned in full force as he let out a chuckle. “Speaking of fear...” and he trailed of, ominously, his face crumpled into something genuinely frightened.

Keith straightened, immediately alert. “What is it?”

They were gathered in the cockpit an hour later, some even dragged out of bed. Keith heard the short of it from Hunk first, while Pidge was still working to clean up the signal he caught during his rotation. There were two discoveries, neither all that good. The first was related to the false-positive proximity alerts. They seemed to coincide with moments their engine would release excess plasma. Their limited data banks found one single record of a hive-like entity that seemed to feed in those patterns. Threat level unknown, insufficient data.

The second discovery was related to a signal of yet unknown origin emitting across the great void. Pidge spent the better portion of her navigation time trying to clear it up into something human ears might be able to process.

“The signal,” Pidge said, “seems to be overlaid with a lot of interference, almost intentionally masking it as simple distress ping of generic origin. But after peeling back the layers, we’re left with this.”

She lowered the volume drastically and hit play. The sound was a screech, endless and powerful and entirely alien in its origin and modulation. She didn’t let the signal play for more than ten seconds, claiming it was all the same and needlessly disturbing.

“Wait,” Keith said, “how did you even catch the signal? I thought we turned off all incoming and outgoing comms before we even got close to the void.” 

“He asked to open them up,” and Pidge jutted her chin towards Lance. 

There was nothing to explain, as usual. Lance shrugged and said he had a hunch.

*

They looked to pinpoint the signal, if for nothing else than to avoid its origin. The source turned out to be quite a sight, and one their charted course steered away from.

“Finally something to look at,” Coran’s voice came over the speakers. He was helming the ship that cycle and seemed to have come across something other than just nothing. Far off their course, a bright glimmer of varying colors caught their eyes, but more importantly, the signal tracers sourced the strange transmission from it. The extremely magnified projection generating in the center of their living space was a little blurry as it rendered, but no less beautiful.

Lance was sleeping his shift off, but everyone else was there to see it, the most colorful nebula they ever set their eyes on. Dust clouds of vibrant blues and muted pinks with a blend of violet in between, that hotbed of stars was fresh and active and full of light, thrumming with celestial activity like a field of ripe fruit. It arrested all the eyes in the room, all except Keith’s. 

He did see it, marveled at it, but someone stepped in beside him to get a closer look, a distraction and a voice. “Look,” Shiro said, pointing at the core of the projection. He pinched and zoomed in to show a bright collection of hundreds of stars, young and luminous with uneven orbits. “There’s an open cluster forming at its core.” 

Keith looked at Shiro, looked at his eyes that shone with wonder and could bear to look little else in that moment. It was even worse when the eyes turned to him, the one active listener, and they were filled with a kind of simple joy he hadn’t seen on Shiro in ages. Seeing the stars excited him as much as that young guy he used to know that took Keith to an observatory for his seventeenth birthday.

He must have noticed Keith’s odd look because he said, a little sheepishly, “I know it’s silly, but I never got the chance to enjoy the little things. There was always something more important to do.”

By all accounts, they were an unremarkable pair of slanted eyes, with a shade of brown so common you could throw a stone and find a person with it. And he saw age in them he didn’t notice before, lines that marked the passage of time, and that old scar that came dangerously close seemed almost darker now. 

But to Keith, those eyes were something else entirely, something so arresting that almost had him missing the words aimed at him. He knew how they crinkled when they were happy or sad, and even mad, had seen both love and hate filter through them. He knew what to look for to gauge a lie, and he knew exactly what they looked like to fill with pride, with warmth. He had seen them blown dark and wide with intoxication, brimming with tears of laughter, and he even saw the stars reflect in them once, that muted brown color the only one he could truly make out on the starfield of infinite colors that might as well have been the afterlife. They were unremarkable eyes but Keith could tell them apart in a crowd from how much he—

Keith had to disengage, take a step back and look away before his own face would betray his thoughts. “Yeah, it’s great,” he said, his throat a little raw from the power those eyes still had on him. “The view,” he clarified, gesturing at the nebula, and then made himself scarce to process in solitude something he should have concluded a long time ago.

There was no running away from this, no simple or easy way to do it either. It was Coran’s words came back to him in time of need, an advice on love and friendship he never realized he received over a discarded game of spin the bottle.

Keith still loved him. Keith would never stop loving him. Fighting his own nature would be impossible. But Shiro wanted his friend back and Keith hadn’t realized how much he wanted that as well, how much better that deal was than nothing, than an absence of someone he missed like a phantom limb.

*

“That’s where we need to go,” Lance said, face ashen after seeing the saved projection of the nebula sourcing that ominous signal.

The seen-it-in-a-dream explanation didn't sway anyone in his favor, except Coran, who seemed more convinced than even Lance.

“Look, the engine is doing good,” Shiro said, “we’re having no malfunctions, no obvious threats, no unforeseen shortages of supplies. We should let the map run its course, see what’s at the end of it, and if there’s nothing, we’ll swing back around and look in the next best place.”

Coran was reluctant to agree, but Lance seemed satisfied with that idea.

Keith haunted the kitchen late that cycle, no one around but him and a jug of fresh tea on the counter, cooling. Everyone else was asleep, even Lance who seemed to sleep the entire cycle away, and Keith should have been, too, considering he was next in rotation. Instead he lingered in the kitchen, collecting his nerves and waiting for someone to come out of the cockpit and get a drink. Keith was no coward, but this required a different level of courage Keith wasn't used to.

The tea was cold by the time Shiro did just that. He was caught off guard to find him there, arms crossed and leaning against the counter. A smile went in lieu of a hello and he said, “I’ll be out of your hair in a moment,” as he looked for something to brew his tea in under the low ambient light.

That hurt more than Keith could quantify. “Here,” Keith managed, offering the jug he made hours ago. “I made it for you.”

Shiro lit up at the offer and thanked him, failing to mention how cold it was, or even reheating it as he immediately went to pour himself a cup. He had said he’d be out of his hair in a moment and he was clearly intent on keeping his word, but he did ask, after throwing a few glances his way, “Trouble sleeping?”

Trouble speaking. Keith almost considered calling Kosmo to fetch him that stupid scarf so he’d have something to open with, something simple and easy. Shiro seemed to be a little stuck himself, aware of the fact that Keith was trying for something, and not dodging him for a change.

“You heading back to bed,” Shiro tried for casual, “or would you like to join me at the helm?”

Keith nodded, to Shiro’s growing surprise, and seized the extra moments of prep it took them to get to the cockpit.

The screens showed a claustrophobic view, the space ahead almost entirely dark. “Not much to look at,” Shiro bemoaned and swiped the paperback off his chair, but he didn’t take a seat, mimicking Keith’s stillness. 

“I remember,” Keith began with a curiosity, “back during the Voltron days, you used to watch the stars to help you sleep. Do you still have trouble sleeping?”

“It’s not as bad as it was,” Shiro shrugged with his one good shoulder. “Not gone either. At least I don’t need to sleep with my back against the wall anymore.”

That was a detail Keith remembered vividly. On the Castle of Lions, Shiro used to sleep on his side, back against the wall, facing the door. There was not a time when someone would come looking for him and he wouldn’t be up and alert in a moment, cleverly disguising his panic as readiness. Keith used to wish he knew exactly how he felt, just so he could help him somehow, afford him one full night of rest at least, anything to stop the nightmares.

Shiro, as if reading his mind, asked again, “Do you?”

Keith replaced one war with another, and that left its subtle mark. “When it’s calm and I’m doing relief efforts, I always sleep with a blade underneath my pillow, back against the wall, facing the door.”

Keith felt like they were sharing the same solemn smile. “I wish we didn’t have that in common,” Shiro said, and his hand twitched, like he wanted to place it somewhere. Like he wanted to touch him.

“I wish—” and Keith couldn’t finish that, the real words stuck in his throat, too raw to leave. “I wish we—” one more shot, and he made himself look at Shiro this time.  It was supposed to be simple, so Keith used simple words. “I miss you.”  

Shiro looked at him with surprise until the words sank in, and then with so much open affection he didn’t realize he was starving for. Keith wanted, he wanted so bad— 

“Can I hug you?” Shiro asked, and it was sad that he even had to ask. He never had to before, not once. He’d always known exactly when Keith needed one, like right now.

Keith’s feet moved to close the gap, and instinct so strong and uncontrollable taking over he could do little else then let it happen. He hugged Shiro himself, unwilling to wait a single moment more than necessary. His arms wound around him and without missing a beat, he felt Shiro wind right back. It felt like coming home after a long road, and he melted into the familiar shape against him. Everything was just as he remembered it; same old zesty aftershave he used since the early Garrison days; same old overwhelming height, perfect now to rest a head against his shoulder without the need to get on the tips of his toes; same old comforting push of a metal arm against his back. 

There were small deviations, too. They never clung to each other quite this hard, without a lick of space between them. Keith never quite dared to bury his head in the crook of his neck, hoping not to spill with emotions. The metal arm was never this warm, and it never moved from the center of his back like it did now, tangling in his hair, pulling apart that loose ponytail to scratching his scalp. It was unbearably pleasant.

“I want to make this right again, like it used to be,” Shiro spoke into his hair, voice thick with heavy sentiments etched into each one of his words. “But I’ll need some help.”

Keith’s answer was to hug tighter, pull stronger, a yes and always whispered into his shoulder, like it even needed to be said. They held onto each other way past appropriate length, way past necessity, but this was making up for time lost, and Keith would not unwind until the arms around him loosened first. 

What had to forced them apart was the console beep, a very familiar sound, and it sent Keith on edge immediately. It beeped again as the arms around him finally loosened, and once more when Shiro leaned over to look at the sensors. Before he could say anything, another beep, and Keith didn’t need to know what the sensors were showing.

“I’ll wake everyone up,” Keith said as he scrambled for the door, and Shiro put the Lionheart in alert mode, all ambient lighting turning red.

Chapter Text

By the time everyone woke up, there was already a swarm of red dots trailing after the Lionheart, gaining in speed the faster the ship went. The view from the back of the ship showed nothing, blackness, not even an infrared reading helped. A probe was shot out into the swarm, but the signal got lost the moment it hit something, its light swallowed up in an instant, cameras dying out to a blank screen. Firing the quick-shot cannons left ripples on the sensors that filled up immediately with no change to the density of foreign objects, a liquid quality to their movements.

Even more frustrating than an enemy object they couldn’t see was the void itself. There was nothing to swerve with, no celestial objects to use as a gravitational slingshot or a point of refuge. There was nowhere to go, no tactical advantage to use, just flying straight ahead like blind fool. They had a means of acceleration, the hyperdrive was ready to boost them out of there, but they came to an agreement—they needed eyes on their enemy first.

The Lionheart was at full speed when Lance stopped firing the weapon systems, the ripple of dots assembling and gaining speed like they were being pulled by the Lionheart, not chasing it. They let the swarm come close, so close one dot was right on the left engine exhaust valve, and yet nothing. No renderings, absolutely no visual data was being received and Shiro took the executive decision to slam the hyperdrive. A klaxon from the engine room sounded off like a shrill. The red dot was now position inside the exhaust valve.

“What the fuck!?” 

It was hard to say who said it but the feeling was shared. Lance pulled on the controls to restart the weapons and keep the invisible enemy away from both exhausts. The rest hightailed towards the engine room. Kosmo was already there, high on alert and standing awfully still at the door, tail low and barely moving, a position Keith associated with trepidation. Kosmo had very few things to be afraid of, and that alone spoke of nothing good. 

Smoke gathered below the door. As soon as they were in, Coran pulled out the console in hopes of getting the hyperdrive back online as soon as possible. The security systems were handling the fire but it had the added effect of reducing visibility and lacing the engine room in a white gusts of CO2. Pidge used the circlet on her head to access a few systems and crank up the ventilation. 

“So, uhh,” Hunk said after looking over Coran’s shoulders to inspect the error log, “says the engine is suffocating due to a foreign liquid?”

“It’s probably trying to get to the power core,” Coran said, and closed all the valves in hopes of stilling it for a moment, or forcing it to betray its slippery position.

The damaged valves did not all close. One of the shafts in the smoking area of the room creaked, shriveling with pressure as something tried to make its way through with great force. Keith signaled with his hand for the rest to stay back and pulled out his blade with the other, immediately shifting it to a dangerous length. Kosmo barked once and did not follow Keith, so he made his way towards the shaft with a careful step as the metal walls surrounding the engine room betrayed an angry movement in its midst. 

A few more red lights were now buzzing, and Shiro’s voice came from the comms. “The weapon systems are overheating. We’re gonna need that hyperdrive very soon.” He sounded calm but Keith knew better.

Coinciding with the sound of his voice was a loud bang as something burst through a damaged valve. Or a piece of something. The systems categorized it as a liquid, and at first glance it didn’t seem far from. An oily black, formless appendage swung around trying to grab a hold of something firm, its shape splitting into a thousand thin little fingers and merging back into a single unit when all they touched were debris. If it had eyes, they were well hidden, or on another part of their form. 

With little to grapple on, the end of it started thrashing, a deceptive amount of weight to its form letting itself known as the metal paneling started coming loose on the walls. Kosmo was at Keith’s side instantly, in a dusting of starlight, and teeth clenched around the back of his jacket, pulling him back. Kosmo wasn’t quiet about his insistence either, and the room was far from silent with all the alarms and machinery in chaos, but the writhing didn’t seem to react to any noise, or to Keith's very silent approach. He papped Kosmo blindly on the nose, pushing away and eliciting another long whine of protest.

“Be careful,” Pidge said behind him, and when the shape did not react to all their noises in any way other than pouring and thrashing more of its formless self out of the valve like an oil spill, Keith swallowed down the fear of the unknown.

Everything bled one way or another, and this would, too.

He rushed straight for it, grabbed it by its end and pulled tight only to slice it off and throw the separation across the room. There was no shrill, no sound from the thing, but Coran did step away from the console to cover his ears, which implied it communicated in a frequency few could hear. The form looked liquid but it had mass and density, a thick and gooey consistency, and slicing through it didn’t pose a problem. But despite the smooth and very frigid feel of its exterior, the short moment Keith held it under his palm left a grisly mark. His hand was bleeding profusely, the material of his fingerless gloves cut through like he had grabbed a spinning shredder. 

“Don’t touch it,” he heard himself say as another appendage was slowly, carefully this time, eking through the valve, and the one he separated started expanding in volume, right there between them all in the middle of the engine room.

Hunk had already grabbed his welding mask and blowtorch, aimed it at the expanding appendage and blasted it at full force. It seemed to be doing something, bubbling like a proper liquid this time. The growth slowed but did not stop, and Kosmo had to get Keith across to the relatively safer side of the room. Coran was not enjoying whatever frequency was coming off that thing.

“Guys, tell me you have something,” the panic was now very clear in Shiro’s voice over the comms, and as if to accentuate, the busted engine valves let out a terrible groan.

“Hit the lever,” Pidge yelled into the comms as Coran did a very satisfied whoop , only to turn around and grab everyone he could by the collar and drag them out of the engine room. There was a dangerous tilt to the sip that knocked them off balance, another groan from the exhausts as the heat started rising in the room. Kosmo slammed into the mass of bodies struggling to get up and pushed them a few more feet out the door.

The hyperdrive was in full swing and it had them recoiling and rolling even further before the gravity of the ship could somewhat compensate. Heat spilled from the engine room in droves, drowning out their lungs, and Pidge had to shut the door remotely with her circlet. 

“We’re gonna lose that engine, aren’t we,” Hunk mused out loud, failing not to sound like a man drowning.

Pidge crawled the closest data pad to view the system controls, head throbbing from impact, and she did not feel stable enough to get off her knees. “Well, the good news is, that thing got flushed out with the hyperdrive.”

Keith had fished out a clean dishrag to wrap around his bleeding hand when Coran screeched, pointing towards the door, but lower. A black liquid was shimming through micro gaps beneath the steel door, the light over its entrance red, the symbols on it indicating the room to be too hot and far too dangerous to re-enter. Hunk swallowed down a hefty chunk of fear and reignited the blowtorch, but the sliced off intruder was pouring in from all of the gaps, a width the blowtorch could not contend with. 

“We have another situation,” Lance’s voice was coming through the comms this time.

“Go see what’s wrong,” Keith barked out and no one needed to be told twice. He stayed back in the hallway leading towards the helm of the ship, Kosmo at his side, and kept an eye on the pieces breaking through the door.

As they poured into the cockpit, Lance pulled Pidge into the copilot’s chair. “What is it, what do I need to do,” she looked at the dashboard full of red lights and got instantly overwhelmed. That’s when they noticed the position of Shiro control stick, thirty degrees to the left. “We’re turning?”

“Chart a course for that nebula we passed by,” he said. “The one with the signal.”

They needed cover. They needed light. They needed something, anything celestial to use in their trajectory as a shield between the encroaching blackness. The hyperdrive could take them that far, even with a failing engine. They’d worry about repairs after surviving. But turning also meant grazing against the swarm at high speed and no weapons, so Shiro turned the ship in a slow arc. That would cost them precious time and distance the hyperdrive was offering, but not a lot. The swarm of red dots on their sensors was no longer on their heels but it still followed. A little sentience was all that would be necessary to cut them off in an arc but so far, whatever it was that followed them seemed very single minded in focus.

“Where’s Keith,” he asked only then, even though it was the first thing on his mind when everyone but him crammed through the door.

“We have a stowaway we need to take care of,” Coran said, hanging at the door to keep them from closing, and he glanced back down the hall just as he said it. “Through the airlock, maybe?”

“Yeah, but we can’t touch it,” Hunk said as he set down the overheated blowtorch with shaky hands, “you saw what happened to Keith.”

Shiro unhooked his seat belt, and a call of his name was all the warning Lance got to take over the pilot’s chair.

Keith still stood his ground at the hallway entrance, eyes primed on the writhing mess that was taking shape at the foot of their couch. It was definitely growing, hampered by the heat only slightly now that it got away, its density rebuilding into a worm-like structure. He had a moment to look his blade over, but there was no residue the thing left upon being cut. Nothing akin to blood, no trace.

A hand landed on his shoulder and pushed him aside just a fraction to slide through. There was worry on Shiro’s face, and a question too, but it all got swallowed up when his eyes landed on the squirming black shape. It was becoming more solid my the second, all of its surface turning into small black fingers in a pulsing manner, as it explored its new surroundings.  

In short words, Keith delivered all he knew. “It’s just a piece. Can’t hear or see, but it’s growing. Doesn’t like heat, or to be touched,” and Keith raised his hand for show, the tips of his fingers cut up and the rag showing through blotches of red.

Shiro clicked with his tongue at the sight. “Good thing about my arm then,” he said without a trace of humor.

Coran followed behind with the blowtorch. “We need to get through the storage room to get to the airlock, but we can’t possibly carry that thing.”

“Can you override the security locks on the engine room and have them shut just as fast?” Shiro asked.

“Terrible idea, I love it,” and Coran didn’t bother answering because of course he could, but he did take precautions as he clung to the wall on his way to the door. The creature’s remains were taking more and more shape, one of it’s ends splitting into three thick appendages. 

“Can you fly with that hand,” Shiro ask Keith with the kind of apologetic softness that did not fit the moment.

“Sure,” Keith frowned, “but why?”

“We’re heading for the nebula. It’s densely packed, barely scanned, a dangerous swarm still on our tail,” and Shiro glanced between Keth and the formless taking form, unwittingly, or maybe completely wittingly, shimming its way towards Coran. “Y’know, you’re preferred flying conditions.”

Keith grinned and gave a two-finger mock salute as he backed away towards the cockpit, a soundless be careful on his lips. Kosmo reluctantly stayed back, and Shiro had a feeling their cosmic canine friend knew exactly what they were dealing with. If only they spoke space wolf.

“The door will be open for three ticks, and not a tick more,” Coran warned, signaling with his fist that he was just about ready to open it. When it did, it seemed to surprise even he him, so much so that he backed away from the oncoming gust of heat and right into the creature’s path. 

A few things happened then.

One, Coran had the terrible pleasure of discovering it had a mouth of sorts, much like a lamprey. Rows of sharp, glistening formations that spun round and round when one end of the creature split at its blunt tip to reveal a hole full of them.

Two, Kosmo leapt at Coran before the heat could have him from one end, the creature from the other. It zapped them both out of the way, far to the other end of the room, barely saving its fuzzy tail from the meat grinder because— 

Three, Shiro threw himself at the thing, catching it with his metal arm by one end and dragging it away from Coran and Kosmo, there one second and gone the next. The window of opportunity was short, the creature heavy, and Shiro tried not to have base instinct prevail and grab the end with both hands as he swung it around and threw it through the opened door. The last second ticked by and as the door slammed shut, baring the unbearable heat from spilling into their living space.

“I don’t know if it’s dead,” Coran had his ears covered as he said it, voice louder than it should be, “but it certainly sounds hurt.” 

Shiro, of course, heard nothing but inspected his arm instead. The receptors in his head processed pain from his mechanical arm in a perfunctory way, more akin to an annoying scratch that served as a warning that not everything was okay. The consequence from grabbing the creature was ruined silicone padding on his palm with a few nasty scratches to the metal plating beneath. Overall, much more bloodless.

*

“What if the source of the signal can help us,” Lance said, and at that point it was a good enough idea as any, seeing as there was no plan in sight.

That point being minutes away from the thriving nebula, three red dots attached to their hull, external sensors reporting a degradation in the metal plating, and their hyperdrive reserve on its last legs.

Keith flew straight for the closest star, a young and blue celestial object of extreme heat and rotation, tethering on the hinges of its gravitational pull to use it as a slingshot. It managed to propel them further away from the swarm that slowed only to give the hot star a wider breadth. The presence of light did not reveal any new feature of the swarm, its liquid shape exaggerated with the density of the creatures, but light didn’t reflect from them either, instead seeming to absorb in its facade of skin.

“I wish I had time to be fascinated,” Pidge said as she tried to stay on top of all the system requesting her attention. The water reserve was the newest problem. One of the fuckers attached itself to the side of the ship that housed the recycling module.    

Keith had one single stupidly dangerous idea to get rid of them. Dangerous in the sense that Hunk would vomit, and stupid in the sense that he should have thought of it sooner. By now everyone was strapped tight in the auxiliary seats, Kosmo perched below the console, so Keith’s warning to hang on went a little understated. He asked Pidge to kill the ship’s gravity, which they had already tried and it worked somewhat, but not well enough to get the stragglers off.

This time, when he felt the weightlessness of zero-g coupled with his seat’s magnetizing pull, he spun the ship on its axis, spun it hard like a centrifuge in a dozen vicious cycles that sent their unwanted attachments scattering off and towards the nearest star’s gravitational pull, the lack of their swarm not enough to escape it. Along with them, a terrifying crash followed from their living spaces as every smaller object and appliance that wasn’t magnetized to the surface met its end in the centrifuge, and then what survived certainly met its end when Pidge turned the gravity back on.

No one complained, mostly because their eyes were still rolling inside their skulls, but Hunk did manage to ask for a bucket.

Lance was the first one out of his seat on shaky legs and a shakier voice, pointing at the viewport and yelling, “There, go there!”

They were heading there , the trajectory of the signal’s source, hidden somewhere behind another dense cloud of dust and planetary debris. The swarm was still behind them, eating away at the gained distance. Most of the alert systems were focused at their back, at the thousands of hostile pings hurling towards them, and at the ship’s damages in need of attention. The dust they had to rush through was disruptive enough to mask one last threat.

“We’re accelerating,” Keith said incredulous, because it wasn’t supposed to happen, they had nothing left to accelerate with. Had Pidge done something? He cast a glance in her direction, but she seemed as lost as he was.

There was only one force they could use to get some extra speed in their sails, a force they already used when circling a star. “Gravity,” Pidge said to confirm everyone’s suspicion.

But it was too late. When the systems started notifying them, when the dust thinned enough to show them what they were heading for; all too late.

It looked like a sinkhole in space, a whirling tear in the fabric of reality that was already bending two stars into its vortex, sucking on their outer layers and tearing them asunder in the midst of a whirling centrifuge. The combined gravitational pull was too much for a mere hunk of metal already hurling towards it. The heat in the cabin increased to an almost unbearable level as Keith did what he could to swerve between one of the stars and the streaks of solar energy the vortex was ripping from it. But saving them from a fiery death had them falling straight through the eye of the twisting nether.

There was no time to scream, to call out warnings, to read out the signals that showed the greater bulk of their murky pursuers disintegrating between the dying stars. The controls were not their own, going online and offline in sporadic intervals, life support with them. The hull of the ship produced a terrible sound, the Olkari nanosteel bending itself out of proportion to keep from tearing and letting the air out. Time seemed to ineffectually slow down, like the crushing force of the tube they were sinking through had in mind to extend their death sentence. 

And just like that, with no preamble to anything, time sped up again, lights blaring from the console and through the screen. Who hadn’t lost their conscious already was losing it now with the accelerating speed passing anything the ship was capable of handling.

The wormhole, and it must have been one, spat them out on the other side with a speed that had them hurling towards the nearest celestial object. The Lionheart’s AI, still capable even with a crew out cold, did what it could to land as safely as possible on the slick crystalline surface of a misshapen planetoid that circled a massive red star, the only two celestial bodies detectable in whatever pocket of space they were left in.

Stranded in. There was no wormhole to comeback with.

Chapter Text

Shiro woke to a softly looping double-beep that ate away at his consciousness. Head throbbing, eyelids heavy, he wanted nothing more than to shut off that stupid alarm and go back to sleep, but something wasn’t quite right. The amount of light seeping into his room was unorthodoxly bright, his alarm didn't sound like that, and the first sight his eyes landed on wasn’t the ceiling. Instead, his eyes met the blurry form of the pilot’s chair twisted half way toward him, and a giant beast looming over a body, eating off someone’s face.

That thought had him sobering up from sleep real fast, coming awake with a start, and as his eyes cleared he did not see a giant beast, only Kosmo slobbering over Keith’s prone form. The side of Shiro’s face was wet. Blood , he thought, but his hand came away sticky and clear. Kosmo had done a round on everyone in a desperate attempt to wake anyone.

Shiro undid his seat belt with shaking hands and a single-minded focus to turn off the beeping that was starting to grate on him. That, and the overly bright light hitting at them through the viewport.

Shiro stumbled towards the console where Pidge was splayed, her belt loose and flimsy, glasses crushed in her palm. When Shiro carefully pulled her back into her seat, he saw a blooming bruise on the side of her head. A quick look at her pupil’s reaction to the light told him she wasn’t suffering anything severe, and the way she coughed and slapped his hand away helped ease his mind further. 

“Are we dead,” Lance asked with a raspy voice, staring blankly with one eye at the white light that washed out the cockpit.

“Not yet,” Shiro said as he muted several alarms and turned off the Lionheart's external lights. The brightness immediately died down, allowing their eyes to adjust.

“Very optimistic,” Keith drawled, still somewhat prone in his seat but he did manage to wrap his arms around Kosmo to still the wolf from further excitement, other than the tail that thumped wildly. 

When their eyes adjusted to a less saturated world, and a few more opened, the view waiting for them could be deemed strange under the best of circumstances. At first glance it looked like ice, a shimmering blue glacier that reflected the ship’s headlights right back at them. But on a closer look, the blue was far too vibrant to be iced water, and the surface too glassy and shimmery in structure.

The oddities didn’t stop there. Preliminary readings the AI had done in their stead showed that they had landed on a planetary husk the size of Earth’s moon, a barren and cold rock void of life and lacking an atmosphere. Partially. The temperatures were frigid but there was oxygen where they had landed, even as the open space spread menacingly above them. The rock they landed on was unremarkable for all but one thing; a crystalline structure that protruded from its core and covered half its surface like a tumorous growth, unknown in origin and matter, and so dense it refused to be scanned beyond the surface level. Further out was a massive red giant, a star so old it was on its hind legs of existence. Calculations put it at about forty billion years in age, which Hunk helpfully summed up as far beyond the hypothetical beginning of the universe. 

And further still was nothing. Nothing the Lionheart’s damaged scanners could pick up, no other lights in the sky to focus on, no constellations, no nebulae, no distant galaxies; nothing to orientate them in any way. They were lost in the void of space, and the troubles were still counting.

Sleep was forgone even by the members who sustained injuries because the Lionheart was in desperate need of maintenance. It also helped to keep busy and not focus on the account of how fucked they were from the sheer thought of being lost. They found some good news in the engine core where the Balmeran crystal cooled slowly, slightly fractured but functional. What didn’t function was the left jet engine, thoroughly wrecked by the sentient liquid attack and the hyperdrive’s heat exhaust.

“We might be able to fix it.” Coran did not sound convincing, especially after entering the wreckage of the engine room and pulling on a ghastly face. Hunk refused to comment entirely and clutched his bucket harder. 

The Lionheart’s interior was also in chaos, their rooms turned upside down—very literally—in a mess of destroyed memorabilia, scattered clothes, and flung-over mattresses. Two of the rooms had their ceilings bent, nanosteel on the verge of tearing, a cumulative consequence of the wormhole they tumbled through and enemy attacks. What wasn’t simple bioplastics perished into a dangerously sharp mess, and the pots and pans somewhat survived, but left most of the kitchen banged up in their wake. The couch was still there, magnetized, though the cushions were scattered gods knew where. The storage room where they held their food supplies was mostly intact, though the potent smell of jam and mashed fruit sent a clear indicator that not all the crates survived. They reached the recycling unit last, its sensors suspiciously quiet, and the cause scared them shitless. Not only was the production of oxygen entirely offline, but there was a water leakage in their tanks. Good thing about the breathable atmosphere they couldn’t explain.

“We can definitely fix that,” Pidge said as she analyzed the problems, and she actually sounded somewhat convinced. 

It’s when they started splintering themselves into helpful groups to tackle the interior issues that Lance chose to speak words that would throw all their vaguely organized plans into further chaos.

“Right,” he began, as easily as breathing, almost entirely unaware of the magnitude his words were about to hit with. “But who’s gonna go look for Allura?”

*

Kosmo was strapped with a pack of essentials to his massive torso, all the while sniffing the pink Paladin’s helmet that Coran diligently held up for him, several other pieces of armor lying about.

They were all in armor, even Coran with that flashy Speed Racer garb he wore once, their bayards strapped to their sides as well. They were at the source of the signal, after all, an unfortunate discovery they made after turning on the Lionheart's communication channels. The sounds parsed through the speakers were much worse this time, much more clearly malicious.

Hunk and Pidge where to stay back and take care of the immediate needs of their ship, though clearly bummed by the prospect. Everyone had been abuzz since Lance mentioned Allura’s name, fairly certain for once that they were in the right place to be conducting the search. He was even the first to step off the ship, very eager to take a look around. As crazy as it all sounded, this was exactly what they had started their mission for, yet it still felt foolish to hope, even now.

Maybe especially now. Not a lot of cards were stacked in their favor.  

They were waiting for them now, the last ones to get ready. Shiro was wrapping up Keith’s injured hand, and executive decision he pulled when he noticed Keith wasn’t really planning on properly taking care of it. It’s not a big deal and we should save our supplies for something else  did not fly with him at all. And as soon as the analgesic spray relaxed the lines on his face, Keith dropped all arguments. It was a cursory task done in silence, but Shiro was not beyond enjoying the little things before jumping back into the fray. Little things like the feel of Keith’s hand in his, how deceptively roughened they looked yet handled everything they touched with gentle care. How close they sat, enough to feel breath brush against skin. How it felt like only a few hours ago they broke a wall down between themselves and held each other tightly. Shiro was tired, certainly not the only one, and some small selfish part of him wished he could go back in that moment and live in it a while longer. It had been a long time since the two of them had been so close, physically or otherwise, and there was a lot to miss about it. About their friendship.

“Do you think we’ll find anything,” Keith disturbed the silence on the last pass of the bandage, his hand malleable in Shiro’s hold. “Anyone,” he amended. 

Shiro thought for a moment before answering. “I think we’ll find something.”

Keith huffed, a frown forming on his face. “Sounds ominous,” he said, and Shiro knew nothing good came to his mind, which was exactly the line of thought Shiro had when he gave the answer. Keith flexed his fist experimentally a few times until he was satisfied by the give of the bandages, and pulled on his glove. 

It was a vision to see him don that red armor again, and Shiro was not prepared for how many good memories were tied to something so intrinsically related to war. Even stepping into his own armor was filled with a heady pang of nostalgia, right down to the missing right arm sleeve. 

“Here,” Keith called on his attention again as he grabbed the bayard from his belt, “you should take this. Just in case.”

Shiro looked at the black bayard with an amused grin. He had not once used it properly, wasn’t even sure if he’d know how. “I’m good,” he pushed the offer back, along with Keith’s hand. For one thing, a Keith with two blades was much more useful. For another, Hunk’s designs were competent. “I know I said this new arm wasn’t a weapon, but it can throw a punch or two.”

Hunk chose that moment to pass by them with an appalled look on his face, lips silently working over the words a punch or two . “Shiro,” he said with arms full of busted equipment and pulled out wires, “have you ever even tried throwing a punch with that thing?”

“No,” he frowned, “of course not.”

Hunk stumbled, realizing the blunder he stepped into. Instead of making any excuses, he just turned to Keith and said, “He doesn’t need your bayard. Trust me.”

Keith didn’t look entirely convinced, but he didn’t push either.

“Come on, you two!” Coran called from outside. “Kosmo is on the move!”

*

Bringing a scanner with them yielded some small results. The crystalline structure was far too dense from the outside, but on the inside the scanning signal’s bounce was just broad enough to tell them if they were heading for some dead ends or collapsed tunnels. Unsurprisingly, the strength of the comms didn’t last more than a hundred steps into one of the cracks Kosmo led them through.

The descent was steep and uncomfortable. Kosmo slid down on its haunches, disappearing and reappearing a short distance further when a dangerous spike or jagged edge stood in the way. Following Kosmo had them blasting their jetpacks and bouncing off walls with little pause for their surroundings until the steep decline decreased enough to allow walking.

Lance was up ahead, jogging besides Kosmo, a danger Keith warned him about three times already. Coran trailed behind all of them, the tips of his fingers sliding against the tight walls of the branching caverns they were passing through, his look one of pensive contemplation. No scans recognized its composition and no one seemed to know what this extremely durable element bursting through a desolate planetoid was. Now, someone seemed to have an idea, or was on the verge of one.

Shiro spent more time with his head turned back at Coran than looking at what was in front of him, watching the Altean trail his fingers over the crystal walls that seemed bioluminescent, another strange point in the growing list of abnormalities surrounding the foreign matter they were traversing through. “Hey,” he said, calling for Coran’s attention after staring at him long enough to decided he was sitting on an idea. “Something you want to share with us?”

Coran looked at him, troubled, but never let his hands stray from the walls. “Would if I could,” he said. “I feel recognition here, but I don’t know what… or where.”

“Feel?”

“I’ve never seen this place or this type of crystal before,” Coran said with utmost certainty. “But I feel like I’ve known it my whole life.”

Hearing that had Lance even more certain Kosmo was leading them towards someone, a fact Keith couldn’t confirm, admitting he never used Kosmo’s nose for anything similar. In his own words, Earth fauna and creatures born among stars were worlds away in biology and function. That Kosmo seemed to be on the trail of something surprised even him. 

And then Kosmo stopped, alert, and Keith silently signaled for everyone to freeze and be quiet. Three beats passed before the distant rumbling could be felt beneath their soles and throughout the passage they walked. The luminosity of the crystal walls around them dropped in tandem to the earthquake-like rumbling that seemed to approach them. Weapons were drawn, flashlights turned on, but the inevitable darkness was unavoidable. The shockwave reached them, a violent tremor increasing in intensity that only seemed to jostle them with vibrations but left no cracks in the structure around them. The shaking stopped at its peak as all light in the walls around them got snuffed out. 

The feeling of being observed blanketed them, chills creeping down their spines as if the darkness had eyes. And maybe it did, because the rumbling started again and moved away from them like a creature on the prowl, taking the darkness along with it. The cool glow of the crystalline walls returned to reveal the team on high alert, ready to strike at something that clearly wasn’t there.

They moved when Kosmo deemed it safe to move, the hound’s pace more brisk this time around.

“We should check in with the others, see if they caught any readings. Or were affected,“ Keith said, quietly, and no one opposed the idea, but no one was wild about heading back all on their own with a half-finished map rendering the paths they took, not after all that. 

Kosmo broke into a sprint before any formal decision could be made, sliding through a low crack on the third junction that had everyone crawling through on their knees. From the other side Kosmo barked once, and Keith knew they found whatever it was Kosmo was looking for.

They crawled out into a wide open space, a giant cavern in what could be the heart of the crystal structure, or just the tip of its depth. There was one large openings above them, large enough for something big to pass through, or more accurately, fly through. The cavern was colossal but not empty, hiding in its center a set of five collapsed treasures they forgot they were even looking for. 

The Lions of Voltron. 

The sight of them, shieldless and sprawled over like a bunch of tired old cats, stole everyone’s breath. Everyone’s, except Lance. He ran between their metal carcasses like he didn’t even see them, all the way to the end of the cavern and the solid flat wall the Lions had their backs towards. He didn’t even lay a hand on it, just stared at the wall as if he could collapse it on sight alone.

When that failed, he turned and spoke with that maddening brand of certainty the glowing blue marks on his face gave him. “We need to get through this wall to get to her.” 

At that point he noticed the Lions for the first time, actually took in their presence, and made a mad dash towards Blue only to awkwardly detour towards Red in the last seconds of his approach. “We need to tear down that wall,” he yelled into the comms as he struggled to get inside an unresponsive Lion.

Keith and Shiro shared a look of uncertainty only to hear the same words coming from Coran. “This is hers,” he gestured wildly at their crystal surrounds like a man with an epiphany, “this entire place is hers!”

*

Lance would not quit and the consequence was more paint chipping off the Red Lion.

Their rides took a while to start, their energy reserves depleted from the long trip they took all those seven and some years ago. Lance was first in the air, tugging on Red’s controls and wasting no time to shoot a hot blast at the wall. The crystal felt no consequence, but it bounced the ray off like sunlight on glass, ricocheting it around the room until Keith woke Black up and took the hit before it hurt someone on the ground. His other idea was brute forcing which only resulted in Red scraping color off its right side. 

“Knock it off, Lance,” Keith yelled into the comms. Black at least had more bulk to make the attempt worth while.

Keith was a lot more reluctant behind the wheel, that ominous blackout still fresh on his mind, along with a wealth of experience that had taught him again and again not to rush in like a fool. But the crystal wasn’t budging, not even a scratch on it, and if Allura really was behind its creation, why did she make it? What was the service of something this unbreakable? Was it protecting someone? Holding some thing ?

He got so lost in thought that he only caught the tail end of Lance’s message, the word Voltron standing out. “Sorry, what?”

“He’s right,” Coran chimed in. “If anything can break through that, it would be Voltron.” 

“We can go back for Pidge and Hunk,” Shiro offered, “but there’s no forming Voltron. You don’t have five pilots.”

“Yes, we do,” Keith answered without a breath of hesitation, shocked that Shiro would make that claim so thoughtlessly. 

“Yes. Yes!” Lance exclaimed like he, too, was coming up with the same conclusion Keith was already aware of. “We do have five pilots!”

“I’m taking Kosmo back up,” Coran said, equally excited. “Be back in a tick!”

The comms went quiet and Lance wasted no time to land Red and switch to Blue, struggling once again to pry the shaft open. Turning it on took him significantly less effort than Keith would have expected, and watching the Blue Lion roar to life hit him with a heavy pang of nostalgia for a time that almost felt simpler in contrast.

Keith landed Black close to Shiro position, excited by the giddy thought of piloting the fastest Lion again, just like old times. Excited even more in Shiro’s stead to see him in control of a Lion again, just like old times. He was expecting the same sort of excitement reflecting back at him, but approaching Shiro had his grin faltering. He couldn’t quite understand the meaning of that frown on his face, same as he couldn’t understand how Shiro could make such a fatal mistake as to say there weren’t enough pilots when he was one of them. The paladin who wanted to be nothing else. 

“I won’t be able to fly it,” were the first words out of Shiro’s mouth when Keith came into earshot.

“In my experience, it’s usually the Lion who’s the judge of that."

Shiro’s response was a doubtful hum. He looked up, up, up at the Black Lion with something pensive in his eyes, a caution and a total lack of warmth, the opposite of what Keith was hoping to see in him. Shiro loved piloting Black, truly enjoyed it—all versions of him did—and Keith remembered giving up his seat easily on the basis of that love alone.  

Keith observed for a moment more before he could truly placed the look on Shiro’s face, and still he did not believe. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were afraid."

"You do know better," Shiro said without meeting Keith's eyes, still stuck on the overwhelming sight of that which shaped the head and body of Voltron. 

"Black saved your life," Keith felt the need to point out, to defend the strangely sentient creature that loomed over them.

"Yeah, but it had to kill me first." Another defense formed instantly on the tip of Keith’s tongue, but he caught himself from voicing anything coherent, the weight of Shiro’s words catching up to him. The aborted noise brought back Shiro’s attention and he saw something akin to regret forming on his face, the look of one truth too many spoken out loud. "I'm not angry at the machine for performing as expected," he chuckled in a vain attempt to soften the weight of his words.

It didn't sound right to hear Black being referred to as a machine , but Keith kept quiet about that, too. Instead he asked something that had been sitting on his chest for too long to be considered healthy. "Is that why you left Black?" 

The question had been living in Keith heart for so long he had forgotten just how long it'd been. It took Shiro looking confused to remind him that this—if Keith was being honest with himself—irrelevant old gripe was only worth something to him. 

"The, uhh," and Keith felt foolish now to even bring it up, to bother Shiro with it, when they had so many better things to focus on. "The trip back to Earth, when you switched Lions."

Keith could have gone into more detail, mentioned that it happened some eight years ago when Keith had first tasted distance between them, when he explained the silence off as something they should talk about when the fight was over. But the fight never ended for Keith; he wouldn’t let it. 

Shiro's brows pulled tighter for a moment before his face lit up with recollection. "Right, yeah. I did. Was that not obvious?" 

Keith reluctantly shook his head, wishing he didn’t put Shiro in a position that had him looking like he was about to apologize. No, it wasn’t obvious to the Keith of then who thought of Black as a savior. The Keith of now was starting to know better, and the way Shiro called it a machine suddenly made more sense. And if he looked further back, he'd recognize that sentiment within himself, within an even younger Keith who did not favor Black's choices at all. 

"I begged it not to let me fly when it took you. I was so angry at it. But the universe needed Voltron back, and now...”

And now Allura needed them. 

Shiro release a heavy sigh. "I know," he said, sounding resigned, "I know." He tried to pull on a brave smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Just don't hold your breath," he said as he moved towards the entrance Keith had left open for him. 

*

From the cold insides of a deactivated Lion he watched Keith make his way towards Red. There was such a confidence to his stride, not a single stutter as he entered, and mere seconds later Red roared to life. Shiro felt an unimaginable sense of pride, wishing he could borrow a fraction of that confidence for himself. He hadn’t even taken a seat yet.

Lance was in no mood to wait for anyone, already airborne and chipping paint off of Blue’s sides this time around. A shouting match ensued over the comms that had Shiro muting them. But the quiet wasn’t comfortable. It came with an unsettling feeling that curled in the pit of his stomach. The sound of his breathing got caught in the silence, somehow louder with each lungful. He almost thought he could see his breath misting, but the cold wasn’t real. The Lion had been active only minutes ago, the residue of its internal heating still present. Yet, Shiro felt cold.

He took too long standing there and looking at the seat and the controls he knew by heart, the black bayard waiting for activation in its port. He took too long psyching himself up for something, that his comms beeped, a sign someone was trying to get through on a private channel. He couldn’t answer, not yet, not without the bare minimum achieved, so he took a deep breath and held it. The weight of his feet hitting the floor disturbed the silence, a klang-klang-klang that reminded him of something dangerous approaching, though he was the one rushing towards the lion’s jaw. 

Shiro still felt cold even as he sat in a place Keith occupied moments ago, the smallest of victories. 

“Yeah,” he tried sounding chill as he opened the private channel, knowing exactly whose voice would greet him on the other side.

“I just steered a bullheaded Lance into doing something productive with his waiting time,” Keith said, and there was no lack of pride in his voice. “I’m feeling really good about my negotiation skills right now.”

Shiro huffed a breathy laugh. The space around him was still oppressive, an old cage not unlike the Galran prisons, but the way Keith’s voice filled out the space made it better. Made it easier to breathe. “Oh yeah,” Shiro asked. “What’s he doing,” and he tried to have a look through the Lion’s viewport, but they were too high above for him to see anything.

“Why don’t you come up here and find out,” Keith made it sound like a challenge, and goddamn if it didn’t almost work.

Almost. 

He stared at the control sticks, stared at the gaps he had to push his hands through, but couldn’t quite make it happen. People were counting on him to wake the Lion yet his mind kept intrusively hoping for the exact opposite to happen.

“Did you—” Keith’s small voice broke through the static in his head, “did you try it yet?” 

“No,” he said, disappointment evident in the single syllable it took him to say it.

“I didn’t want to sound patronizing before,” Keith said, words lacking his usual surety, “or now, but—would some company help?”  

He could count on Keith for so much, even with a fractured friendship, but this he needed to do on his own. “Just keep talking,” Shiro told him because it helped, it helped so much to hear his voice inside the Lion’s jaw. It helped when he didn’t have a physical body to listen with, and it helped now that he did. It almost felt like a clever cheat around his resolve, the sound of Keith’s voice strong enough to manifest him right behind his chair if he closed his eyes, which he did.

“Sure, yeah,” Keith cleared his throat like he was preparing to give an awkward speech. “Lance is using the Sonic Cannon and, unsurprisingly if you ask me, it’s getting something done.” Shiro kept his eyes shut as he pushed his right arm, the metal one, through the first control stick. “The wall we need to break through? Thick. We’ll have to form the sword if we want to make a dent in that, maybe even the wings to give us a proper thrust,” and Shiro had to yield to a positive thought, finally. The thought of making those wings with Keith was appealing, no question about it. “There is a hollowness beyond the wall so I guess that’s a good sign for whatever’s waiting behind it…” And Keith trailed off, knowing exactly whose name was on their mind, and that was another positive thought to yield to. This was a rescue mission after all. “He’s using the cannon on other parts of the cave as well and it’s picking up a lot of fractures all around, like the passages we took to get here, nothing special.” Shiro pushed his good hand through the other control stick and grasped them tight, head bowed low and eyes squeezed shut. There was sweat on his brow, but the room was still so very cold. “Umm, no signs of anything else, really, alive or moving or otherwise. And—” 

Keith’s voice broke off, and Shiro knew exactly why, because there was a familiar old glimpse of an infinite starfield behind his eyelids. The sight chilled him to his core, horrifying enough to pry his eyelids open with a start as a weightless disembodied feeling washed over him. But he saw his arms and his legs, felt the beads of sweat slide down his skin, and the truth his eyes and his touch told him was enough to stop him from crawling all the way out of his skin.

Keith must have heard his distressed breathing, but he said nothing of it, only, “And welcome back,” in a soft tone not unlike a caress.

The console had lit up and Shiro barely noticed. What his eyes did immediately land on was the Lion’s energy reserve and that dread sitting in the pit of his stomach flared up like an angry cat.

“I am not dying a third time,” he yelled into the comms, though his words we definitely aimed at the Black Lion.

Chapter Text

Hunk and Pidge arrived to three active Lions perched on the ground and only Lance present on the comms. Coran gave them ten seconds of awe before shooing them off towards the pilot seats.

“Why so quiet,” he asked as he helped Pidge break into her Lion.

“They blocked me out a while ago,” Lance said. “I think they’re arguing.”

Arguing was maybe a strong word, but Shiro was definitely talking with a raised voice, arguing strongly on the merits of living and being alive, and not just for himself. It was one thing to form Voltron on low power, another entirely to call on not one, but two of its costly abilities. The machine would suck on their quintessence, as Shiro so succinctly put it, and would not know when to stop. 

Keith could hear the weight of their mission pressing down on Shiro as fear fought back against something unavoidable. A cry for assurance. 

“We’ve fed it quintessence in the heat of battle plenty of times,” Keith argued, even promised they’d only use Voltron’s sword, but what really had Shiro listening was drawing on some hard truths he himself didn’t like the sound of. “And you’re not the man you used to be,” Keith forced himself to say, and in turn accept. “And you’re not sick either. You’ve got more of yourself to give this time, and I promise you, Black will not take you again.” A silence ensued in their private channel and Keith threw in another sturdy, “I promise,” for good measure. 

He didn’t know precisely how he’d keep that promise, but that never stopped him before. Keith just knew he would, always, as many times as it took, and after a thoughtful silence, so did Shiro. A light flashed on the console that signaled they were back in the group channel.

“Sorry about the radio silence,” Shiro was first to speak, his candor much more relaxed than what Keith had heard only moments ago. “I was getting a pep talk from team leader. Forgot how to drive this thing.” 

Keith scoffed loudly, shaking his head, but he couldn’t help the smile that tugged at the corner of his lips. “Let’s get in formation and give this thing a shot.”

The longest  uhhh  came from Hunk’s comms before he said, “We are all seeing the same energy reserves, right?”

And Keith could feel Shiro's glare coming at him all the way from the Black Lion that stood to his left, could almost hear him protest right alongside Hunk. But he didn’t. There was a long breathy exhale from his comm channel, and nothing else.

“I’m aware,” Keith said, “but we’ve fought under worse odds, and our objective isn’t even a fight.”

“Just a really thick wall to enthusiastically break through,” Lance supplied with a chipper tone that died out immediately. “Really, guys, can we hurry it up here?”

“I’m dead tired,” Pidge said her first words, and she sounded exactly as described. “We barely just stopped the water leakage on the one ship that actually has enough juice to get us home. So there better be something good waiting for us beyond that wall.“

Forming Voltron was an awkward game of tetris. Team effort wasn’t lacking, sleep being a powerful motivator for Pidge in particular, but the cave that seemed gigantic from a human’s perspective, was less so from the perspective of five massive Lions that had to achieve some semblance of formation through flight. There was a lot of bouncing off walls and into each other, and they had made a dozen laps and wasted another two percent of their energy reserve before they successfully merged into one, a process that left Keith feeling giddy and breathless, much like the first time.

Might have been because the transformation sucked on  their  juice, as Pidge put it, after releasing a lion’s yawn on the comms to cement the transformation sequence. 

Hunk saved the moment with a properly enthused yell. “I’m a leg again!” 

Another silence ensued. Someone coughed. “What now,” Pidge asked, tone flat.

Keith shrugged as if someone could see him. He looked at the red bayard Lance left in the cockpit. “Form sword?”

“Don’t we have to be a lot more hyped for that to happen,” Lance asked.

“Well, we were usually in life threatening situations when we got to that point,” Shiro said. “I don’t think we’ll achieve that frame of mind today. Again. Maybe.”

Hunk hummed and asked, “Have we ever tried just being focused but super chill about it?”

There was nothing to lose with an attempted, even though it felt foolish. Keith very calmly said, “Form sword, I guess,” and shoved his bayard into the port with just a little extra force, and turned the key. 

He expected absolutely nothing to happen. Instead, Voltron swallowed up a few more percentages of their energy reserve and formed the longsword like it was nothing. Like they never even had to yell for it.

The silence that followed was thick with a foreboding sense of stupidity at the fact they never even thought to try something like that before.

“Woooow,” Lance dragged the word out in a self-deprecating sneer.

“Yep,” Shiro said in disbelief.

Keith was too out of it to even comment. Pidge moved Voltron’s left hand to grab hold of the newly formed sword and said just the right set of inspirational words. “There’s no way that crystal can withstand all this stupid we got to throw at it.”

The first attempt was an unsuccessful jab, the sharp end of the sword skidding across the uneven surface Voltron collided with mere seconds later. They tried slashing on subsequent attempts and the most positive result they could account for was a shallow wound on the crystal’s surface, a sign it could be damaged, a sign that they were getting somewhere and if they could keep that up for a week they might just carve a path. 

A really terrible sign.

“We just gotta put more muscle into it,” Shiro said, as if they hadn’t been doing that this whole time, their arms sore from constant effort of pushing and pulling Voltron. 

But frustration was building up, grunts becoming louder through the comms, the scar on the crystal wall a little insignificantly deeper with each slash. A general sense of anger bubbled up the surface of the shared consciousness they felt through Voltron, with each failed attempt that left them just a little more depleted than the last swing. Keith liked that, felt at home with a fiery anger that coursed through Voltron with each swing, each failure, each badly measured thrust that had them skidding against the surface like a bunch of Garrison rookies going through their first simulation. They might have been able to draw on some of Voltron’s power without any fire in them, or their voices, but anger had its place in this game, and Keith was feeling it build into a crescendo. 

He felt Shiro’s anger most of all, and he felt it enthusiastically. Shiro hated losing, but he loved running against an obstacle he couldn’t beat, loved the challenge of it and all its frustration. A much younger Keith used wish he’d met Shiro when he, too, was younger and still running his head against obstacles instead of leaping over them effortlessly. An older Keith got that wish granted when they first played defenders of the universe, and now again years later, shamefully missing the simplicity of days gone. And maybe he didn’t get the chance to see the look on Shiro’s face but he felt it, and the feeling was so much better. 

A dam was about to break, and so was a promise. With their next failing swing, someone yelled something creatively foul on the comms—Hunk?—and Keith was grinning, wild. Shiro pulled Voltron back as high and as far as the cave would allow them.

“Give it all you got,” Shiro said that and nothing else, made it sound like it came through his teeth, and Keith knew.

He knew as soon as Voltron charged, as soon as the unanimous yelling started, he knew exactly when Shiro’s hand was on the black bayard, knew exactly when his should be on the red one, knew when to turn in perfect synchronization that had jet-powered wings sprouting on the back of Voltron. The move ate through all their power reserve instantly, but it gave them such a kick, the sharp end of Voltron’s sword piercing through the scar and jamming halfway into the crystal wall.

The Lions were leaching off of them now, eating away at their quintessence, throwing black spots in the corners of their vision, but they were so close, just one more push, the last one they’d get a chance to do— 

It sounded like thunder when the crystal wall splintered, compromised at its core by a massive sword stuck to the hilt in its depths as the walls webbed with fractures. Voltron shut down, sword and wings still drawn, and stuck in a battle pose with the grace of a Greek sculpture. 

The wall didn’t fall, but from a human’s perspective, the gorged center where the sword had pierced through could have just enough wiggle room for them to pass.        

“You did it!” Coran yelled with excitement as he jumped out of his hiding spot on the ground. Kosmo silently followed as he ran towards the deactivated Voltron, but before he could reach them, the ground started shaking, and did not stop.

Kosmo’s teeth were in Coran’s flashy little cape, stopping him in track. He looked around, confused. “Is—is the wall coming down?”

Kosmo yanked him back until the man fell to his knees and clutched at the space wolf’s fur. They were gone in a flash and back a hundred paces where they’d started, taking cover again. The quake was escalating in magnitude, strong enough to shake loose jagged chunks of crystal from the frayed walls and the cave’s ceiling where the webbing fractures spread. Several pieces hit Voltron, jostling it from its majestic warrior’s pose into something a lot more broken and malfunctioning, barely standing. 

The luminescence dimmed gradually until they were thrown into complete darkness for the second time, but this time they didn’t need to imagine eyes in the dark. This time, across the expanse of the cavern’s ceiling, a massive eye opened to watch them through the glass as the quaking stilled. It watched them for a long moment before moving away and taking the rumbling epicenter with it.

It was only when light returned in full, and when the muscles beneath Kosmo’s fur felt a little bit less like live wire, that Coran felt it was safe to make a sound. “Paladins, are you there? Did you see that?”

“Yeah,” Keith answered first and with a delay, sounding groggy and exhausted. “And it saw us, too.”

*

Shiro was the first man out of Voltron and no one questioned it, or the way he left the emergency exit hanging off hinges in a desperate and hurried attempt to get the  fuck out . There was no amount of tired that could have kept him in that chair a moment longer than necessary, not after experiencing Voltron’s drain again. As far as experiences go, once was more than sufficient. 

Pidge was the last one out, needing some help with the emergency exit, and that bruise on the side of her head looked terrible but she refused to good back.

She squinted through her tirade as she tried to clean her spare glasses. “I’m not letting you drag my ass back after finding out that something is locked in here with us. Could have really used a warning on that,” and that point she aimed at Coran who conceded the guilt.

They were resting for a moment, banishing the black spots from their vision and taking a breather inside the pierced passage Voltron’s sword created. It would have been easier to walk through had the sword been pulled out, but as it stands, Voltron’s remains hung awkwardly on one end of the wall, the sword still lodged through, it’s massively sharp ends a realistic threat. But not one they couldn’t shimmy through.

Something else posed a bigger conundrum. 

“So this thing is inside of the crystal structure? The crystal we’re currently destroying?”

Hunk made a great point, but Lance had just the right words to counter. “In our defense, the crystal structure was already degrading long before us. You should see the sonic readings readings I got, this place is full of holes.”

The right-wrong thing to say, as it turned out, but Coran had even more good-bad news wrapped in a cheerful delivery. “And we’ve just lost Voltron, so really, no threat from us destroying anything, eh?” 

The thought of this nigh indestructible structure falling apart as something living roamed inside its walls pleased no one, but it did inspire them to push through the exhaustion, Lance making the effort to be Pidge’s third leg and help her along.

Keith fell into step beside Shiro, voicing a quiet, “Was it too much?” Shiro just shook his head, an answer he should have known Keith would find unsatisfying. “Was it at least a little bit fun?” Keith tried again.

Shiro chuckled and nodded, remembering the intensity of Keith’s excitement crushing against his trepidation, drowning it out so much he all but forgot about it in the moment. A borrowed joy. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he leaned in as he said it, his smile a little regretful, “but I was the happiest when I got out.”

Keith seemed to understand, but failed to hide the flinch of disappointment. Shiro didn’t like the look of it, or to be the cause of it, so he thought of a quick diversion. 

“Think fast,” he said, pulled out the black bayard and threw it up and towards Keith, an easy catch for Keith’s reflexes. Except, Keith sidestepped and let the weapon clatter on the uneven ground, sliding down a ridge and ten paces ahead until it hit the back of Hunk’s feet. “Really?” Shiro looked at him with disbelief, but Keith wasn’t phased. 

Keith took his luxite blade out to do a cool flip from one hand to the other, then tapped his side to show off the red bayard. “I’m good, thanks,” he said with the kind of saucy confidence that Shiro knew further attempts to return it would be futile. 

“I don’t even know how to use it,” he complained as he picked it up.

“No one does,” Pidge said said from up ahead, very helpful as usual.

“I had the red one turning into a sword once,” Lance added, “which was cool but really useless because I have no idea what to do with a sword.” Keith shook his head behind his back, utterly disappointed.

Shiro said nothing, reminded that in Keith’s hands the black bayard also turned into a sword, and the disappointing truth was that he wouldn’t know what to do with it either, other than gracelessly swing it around. His best forgotten time in the arena taught him that he was really good with his arms, as opposed to just good enough for recreational kickboxing. Even when both of them were flesh. There was, though, one thing he always looked for on the weapons rack when presented to him, but he never found it, because defense in the arena was frowned upon.

Hopefully the black bayard wouldn’t function in terms of aggression only. Pidge’s weapon, for example, was hardly offensive in nature. Hopefully he won’t need to use it at all. And realistically, whatever the creature in the walls was, it could hardly be threatened by their ant-like presence, bayards or no.

The chatter got quiet as they squeezed through narrower and narrower passages between the blades of Voltron’s sword. Some of them had to be forced, the crystals brittle enough to be broken by Hunk’s bayard in its familiar gatling gun form. Everything glowed around them and it was hard to tell if or when they were approaching the end, now crawling on all fours as the space around them got tighter and tighter until it was entirely blocked again, and again. They tried several different routes, and one of them led them towards the flat of Voltron’s blade, the first piece of solid land they could stand on with their feet after a long bout of crawling. 

Kosmo was always up ahead, the furry scout they followed and relied on for warnings. Keith seemed both proud about it and worried like a mother hen, warning more than once for Kosmo to be careful. It was sweet how the wolf’s tail whoosed when Keith’s voice echoed around the narrow passages, clearly pleased by the concern. Shiro could relate.

Kosmo was barking after squeezing below a narrow ledge, and they could see the paws as they crawled, Kosmo standing on the tip of Voltron’s sword and barking at something.

Pidge was the first to slide from below the narrow crawl space and did not get off her knees. “Guys,” she said, a tremor in her voice.

Lance was coming out right behind her and Coran had to push him to get out himself as Lance stopped crawling half way, arrested by the sight of something. Or someone. 

Kosmo continued to bark, the sounds echoing through another large cavern, a wake-up call for someone who wasn’t waking. Voltron’s sword point was aiming at them, a distant shape stuck inside the roots of a massive crystal trunk that branched on all sides, touching the surrounding walls like veins, like nerves. 

If this crystalline structure born on a desolate planet in the middle of nowhere had a heart, they found it, and it looked like Allura.

There was no easy way to reach her after flying down from the sword point, her position elevated above them, her form still, or what they saw of her. It was like laying eyes on a god; nudity went unnoticed, but what was visible inspired little faith but a lot of reverence. Her chest was exposed down to her navel, the rest of her gone and swallowed by the crystal that stuck to the exposed pieces of her skin like beautiful scabs. Her arms were visible, half-swallowed by the shimmer and spread on both sides. Her face was almost fully exposed, the extent of her once long hair stuck inside the crystal, the pull keeping he head at an angle that might be deemed comfortable. But it’s the eyes they noticed most when they approached the trunk, open and gazing at them, unmoving. 

No one dared to speak, to make a sound, even Kosmo stopped barking, but they knew they had to get someone up there for a better look. It was an agreement shared between looks and made in silence by the five paladins, and Pidge pulled out her bayard, calling on her trusted grappling hook. She aimed at the closest and thinnest crystal branch suspended above them, and it took her a few shots for the grapple to securely twist around it. When the tug seemed sufficiently stable, she passed her end of the bayard towards a very dazed Coran.

The ascent was slow and unhurried, an underlying dread at what he might find staying his hand. Reaching eye-level, seeing her up close, it was so much worse. She looked as young as the day she left them, but the crystal ate at her, her body fused to it like it was a part of her skin, and yes, most likely it was. And her eyes, her beautiful blue eyes that matched the shine of the crystal were open, motionless, staring absently somewhere below.

And yet, her eyes did not glaze with the gray mist of death, and her chest might not have been moving but her skin still looked as if Altean blood circulated below the surface.

“Allura,” Coran tried and it was a whisper but in the quiet emptiness of the cavern it sounded so loud, so brutish. There was both very little and just enough to hope for, and Coran felt the conflict misting his eyes as he let go of the bayard with one hand. He pulled of the glove with his teeth and let it drop, reaching over to touch her face. “Allura,” he tried again and pressed his palm against her cold cheek, as frigid as open space.

But the cold did not seep back into his palm. Instead, he felt the heat off of his spread to her skin, warming where he touched her. “Allura, please,” he begged with her name one more time, moved her head as best he could so that she would face him, look at him.

And she did. It was subtle, but her eyes moved and it both frightened and delighted Coran so much he almost let go of the bayard. He wanted to place both hands on her face, warm her up as much as necessary to have those eyes move again, to blink, to confirm it wasn’t a trick of the light. But it wasn’t, because they moved again and looked at him, truly looked at him, and he wept.

“My sweet girl,” he said with all the love he felt for her, and her lips moved, the tiniest smile forming on her face.

Her lips split apart with effort. “It’s been so long,” her voice came out wispy, aged and unused. “I’ve been waiting for so long.”

“Don’t worry,” Coran tried to comfort her even though he was the one hanging from a perilous height and breaking at the seams from the tears streaming down his face, but it was joy that brought them. Nothing but joy in the sight of adversity. “We’ll get you out of here, I promise. We’ll find a way to cut you loose.”

“No,” she rasped, her voice achieving dimension as she craned her neck, the crunch of crystal following her movement. “No need.”

“What do you mean,” he asked, but it was already happening before his eyes. 

Her skin changed color to a violet hue, her size shifting and eyes radiant with power. The volume of her expanding frame sent shallow cracks along the crystal’s surface. She grit her teeth and strained, the cadence of her voice coming out low and exerted, the muscles in her arms bunching up as she grew in the confines of her prison. 

“What are you doing?!” Coran panicked, distressed by the pain so evident on her face as she tried to tear her arms free of the prison. “Stop, please! You’ll hurt yourself!”

The strain she felt turned into a scream, a terrible below that rattled across the cavern like an angry bird in a cage. One of her arms broke free and the sound of thunder drowned out all else as the massive crystal trunk fractured to her left, like Voltron itself dealt it a blow. Her right arm came free next, her scream taking on a frustrating tone that thunder downed out again as even more fractures sprawled across the trunk and through the veins of the crystal. They splintered and chunks fell in tandem, crashing to the ground where the rest of the team stood on uneven footing. She tore her head free next, tearing off the hair that fused with the crystal, and then her back. 

Red smears outlined the shape of her prison.

The crystal vein Coran hung from collapsed but Allura caught his hand with effortless strength, unbothered by blood and pain, or the shell-like piece of crystal that clung to her skin like they were a part of her. 

Below and around them, pandemonium. 

*

They caught as much as they could from the ground. Lance relayed the happenings, eye glued to the scope of his rifle, but he had to put it down when he saw her move, when he saw her living and breathing. 

There wasn’t time enough to soak it in, to be content. The voices from above sounded distressed and were proceeded with the sound of thunder that shook the cavern above and below, upsetting their balance. Kosmo jumped at Lance, pushing him out of the way where moments later a large chunk of crystal landed with a deafening thud that left a deep crater. Hunk yanked Pidge further away from some debris, but it was hardly the last of it. Thunder roared again and even more chunks fell to meet them. 

It was unintentional, but they splintered into groups of two to avoid the downfall. Keith was at Shiro’s side as they tried to maneuver between the falling debris, but the ground at their feet was uneven, and they had to watch their footing as well as the danger from above. Shiro had his eyes on the ground a moment too long when Keith ran into him in an effort to avoid a heavy chunk heading his way. They overbalanced and landed on their asses, sliding down a brief slope that set them up for a perfect view of a large jagged piece falling their way. Shiro rolled to the left just as Keith rolled to the right, worryingly heading in the opposite direction, but there was little to do about it now than get as far away from the monstrous shard falling at them. 

It was the sharp tip they had to worry about as it slammed into the ground, splitting in half and carving the crystalline ground below. A deep ravine formed where the sharp end pierced and where the two halved landed with a quaking shudder. It didn’t matter how far they ran, left or right, they both ended up tumbling into the ravine as the ground beneath their feet fractured and sloped. Shiro almost landed face first into a cluster of needlelike shards, his metal arm taking the brunt of their damage, and that was considered lucky because Keith landed on his back with a hiss. The paladin armor kept him mostly uninjured, but one of the jetpack exhausts got damaged in the process. 

Shiro scrambled to get to him, seeing the way he struggled with the lodged shards in his back. He helped pull them out, but the jet was busted. His functioning pair couldn't help, designed as they were to boost one person up a short distance when gravity was involved, and Shiro’s weight and metal arm didn’t help lighten the load.

“I’ll climb out, don’t worry,” Keith said when he noticed the concern on Shiro’s face.

“Your hand,” he said, remembering the bandages he affixed mere hours ago.

“I’ll handle it,” and Keith gave him a light shove. “Now get out of here.”

Shiro had to be told three more times, more content to watch Keith climb his way up the slope with fingers firmly pressing against jagged edges and indents for support. When he was half way up the climb, Shiro took a running start a few paces up the slope and let the jets propel him upwards until he reached the ledge and pulled himself up. Debris was still falling around them but it slowed just a little since the last thunderclap. 

Shiro went down on one knee and waited for Keith to get close enough to reach his hand. From above, the pain was evident on his face as he climbed. His hand was  not  fine.

“Just a little more,” Shiro said, leaning over the edge as much as his could and dangling his good arm. His thoughts were scattered everywhere; on Keith below him, on the rest of the team behind him that he couldn’t even hear on the comms anymore, on Coran suspended above, and Allura—gods, they really found her didn’t they? They  had  to live long enough to celebrate that much at least.

Another thunderous roar whipped from behind him. And another, and another; a cacophony of harrowing sounds that preceded the crystal trunk’s collapse in its entirety. The ground shook wildly at the collapse of the central structure, and with it all the veins hanging above them wailed as they threatened to come crashing down with haste. The quake almost knocked Shiro off the ledge, his metal arm the only thing keeping him rooted, but it did bring him closer to grabbing Keith. Or it would have, had that same quake not left Keith hanging by his injured hand. 

“Hold on,” and Shiro strained to reach him as Keith strained to swing his good arm to meet him. But the pain won out, fingers convulsed and grip slipping, and Keith rolled down the slope just as a crystal vein broke away from its roots high above their heads.

The echoing crack overhead had Shiro looking up, and he saw its length and its weight crashing down towards them, saw it landing diagonally across the ravine, smashing Keith under its weight— 

“Get out of here, Shiro!”

—or burying him under mounds of sharp debris. Only one of the outcomes could be deemed survivable, and only if Keith had something to shield himself with.

“Shiro, go! Now!”

Something to shield himself with...

Keith seemed to stare death squarely in the face without so much as a flinch, but the terror that came over him at the sight of Shiro sliding purposefully down the ravine was insurmountable. “No!” He yelled with such raw desperation that it almost had Shiro second-guessing his threadbare idea out of guilt. “What are you doing?!”

What he was doing was a long shot, but one he’d opt for again and again and again if the alternative was helpless witnessing Keith’s death, or worse, leaving him to it. He answered no questions, preferring to waste his breath on running with Keith in tow, hand securely around his wrist as they made way towards the other end of the ravine, away from the direct impact zone. Time was on short supply, footing unsteady, and when a heavy shadow fell over them, Shiro all but threw Keith in front of himself and against the least jagged surface at their disposal, covering the rest of him with his body.

What Shiro always looked for in the arena was a shield, but the crowds favored bloodlust, bored at the sight of defense or stalemate. This wasn’t the arena though, and his weapon didn’t have to be a weapon, only what he needed most.

The ground came alive with tremors when the massive vein of crystal made impact across the ravine, fracturing into large chunks and crunching out a thousand little sharp pieces that flew in all directions. The noise was deafening, and Shiro couldn’t hear much from the ringing in his ears. He closed his eyes reflexively, metal arm pulled up to shield them both, empty but for a moment. He felt something form around it and strap to his arm, and almost immediately after felt the weight of impact coming at him like ballistic rounds. He felt it most in his shoulder, a dull throb where metal met bone through a socket of silicone cartilage.

Shiro forced himself to crack an eye open and look at their situation, at what stopped the debris from burying them. What he saw was a bulwark, a towering shield of matter and energy with a transparent visor that stretched in Voltron’s symbolic shape, weightless despite its size, and thankfully so. The weight of crystal chunks slamming off of and against it at high speed was more than enough pressure, and Shiro knew that if he would leave this trial in one piece, he’d leave it very sore.

In between the overwhelming bustle of sounds and elements trying to bludgeon them, he felt a stirring against him and instinctively pulled Keith closer to himself with his other hand. He wished he had it free though, his metal arm visibly in a tremor, less from the effort of holding it up and more from the ache in his shoulder that was becoming a real threat Shiro had to grit his teeth through. Keith saw it too, pulled his own arm free from between them, and grabbed a hold of Shiro’s forearm, pushing at it with all his might until the chunks of debris slowly lost momentum. Above them, a colossal pieces of the shattered vein made a wretched noise, edging precariously to tip over and smash them into dust. There was no shield in the world that would help them with that, but it stood threateningly still after a few unsteady movements, casting a large looming shadow over them that promised an ill fate if they dared it.

Shiro’s ears were still ringing when he moved aside the towering shield, finally deeming the situation safe enough. He let go of Keith and tried to find his footing, thankful to lean on the shield like a crutch with no even ground to be found. He extended his hand for Keith to grab, but it got slapped away. Confused, Shiro looked at him and was met with unbridled fury in his eyes, the likes of which he’d never seen aimed at himself. His ears were ringing but he caught the words spilling out of Keith’s mouth with anger.

“Why did you do that?!” He fumed as he tried to gain some balance on his own and meet Shiro on higher ground. “Why would you do something so stupid and dangerous?!” 

Shiro scoffed, still on the verge of disbelief over Keith’s anger. “Why wouldn't I? You'd do the same for me. Christ, you already have so many times.” 

That only seemed to exacerbate Keith’s anger as he limped closer. “That wasn’t something you need to repay me for,” he said with trembling fury. “This isn't a goddamn competition, Shiro! You could have died!”

“And you would have died!” Now Shiro was yelling too, but it was the wrong approach. Keith was fighting against a windmill Shiro couldn’t wrap his head around, but anger was never the answer, not with Keith, or at him. 

Shiro let the ringing in his ears drown out the tirade Keith was still going through, and he took a calming breath to steady himself. Patience was key, and if Keith needed a patient explanation of his actions, Shiro would gladly give it to him.

“You know I love you, right?” Shiro interrupted his one sided argument with words that had Keith silenced immediately. “I’ll always love you. Even back when I didn’t love you the way you needed me to, I still  loved  you. And I'd do anything for you, Keith. Anything. And it has nothing to do with debt, trust me.”

He was met with silence and an anger that melted away so instantly it was a wonder if it was ever really there. Beneath it formed a look so vulnerable, so confused, and it poured out of those glossy violet eyes with such intensity that it had Shiro wondering if he’d said the wrong thing, or said too much. He retraced his words back one at a time and found no anomaly, no exaggeration, nothing short of the obvious. Keith seemed to struggle forming a sentence, eyes wide with disbelief, and Shiro couldn’t fathom which part of his words shook him so. Had his actions not spoken clearly in the past? Did Keith not know he always felt that way? 

Love had many faces, and Shiro wouldn’t be exaggerating if he said he had shown all of them to Keith, except the one he was hiding. Or thought he was hiding. Maybe he showed it now, clear as days in the adrenaline aftermath of life or death. Maybe he showed Keith that play at friendship was dishonest.

There was sweat gathering on his brow and Shiro itched to wipe it off, but there was something precarious in the stillness between them and he didn’t want to disturb it. He wanted to hear Keith say something, anything! Hell, even yelling was preferably to the confusing silence he got, his eyes communicating nothing but an endless turmoil. Keith still did not speak, but he was the first to move and break eye contact to take off the glove on his injured hand. Before Shiro could ask how it was, a reflex more than anything, Keith brought his hand close to his face, closer, and he wiped the sweat off his brow with the bandaged part. Except, as he pulled the hand away, there was a smear of blood on it, and a stinging on his forehead left in the wake of his swipe.

“Ow,” Shiro muttered as he dabbed the fresh cut with his gloved fingers, and Keith was quick to slap his hand away again, and replace the pressure with his injured hand.

The closeness was as stifling as it was cozy as heads and hearts cooled off, sore and weighty in the aftermath. And Keith didn’t meet his eyes directly, or speak to him, as he opened up the comms and said, “Guys, sound off.”

Nothing came through the comms, the silence ruined by distant shrieks of still collapsing crystal structures. 

“Maybe it’s us,” Keith tried after hailing a few more times and receiving nothing, his voice still affected by distress. “Maybe it’s the crystal around us blocking the signal.”

Shiro mutely nodded, not wishing to voice what was on his mind. It was then that a larger shadow passed over them, not a phantom stuck in the crystal but something outside of it, large and moving like a wreckage.

It was one of Voltron’s fists.

 

Art by @Lunar_Wanderer_

Chapter Text

The living cargo had been scooped up by the left hand, green as life, picked off in groups of colorful sprouts that shone brightly amidst the wreckage. And Voltron lumbered on, clumsy in her hands, made for five pilots, not one. But she fed it well, fed it just enough to grab what was important and leave through the hole in the ceiling that grew larger with the calamity.

With the key removed from the prison door there was nothing left to sustain it, and she built it, she knew it would come to that, but still she was impatient to leave even after eons of waiting and waiting. And after a time spent so long in stillness and expectation, to quantify now the dire situation of her collapsing cage with vargas and quintants was impossible. She wasn’t even sure she remembers what those units meant. But it didn’t matter, the time remaining didn’t matter so long as... 

A deep red glow stole her thoughts and burned into her unblinking eyes. The sight was a magnificent sprawling of a hundred luminant shades of red twisted in an orb on a black canvas. Any change in scenery would be beautiful for her eyes which had stared at seas of blinding blue for an eternity, but this sight held meaning. She put it there, her cosmic child born out of atoms squeezed together in the tight grip of her palm. It was such a young and brilliant little thing, small and left to grow in the middle of nothing until it became this giant before her, red and splendid in its dying glory. If only she could have seen it grow, but the company of its warmth sufficed. Just knowing it was there, another living thing right beside her; it sufficed.

“You’re old enough,” she said to no one, testing the limits of a voice unused, and got up from the Black Lion’s chair. Her hands pushed against the viewport, reaching out towards her star. She would touch it if she could. She would cry if she remembered how, but her eyes had not felt moisture since another lifetime. She would cry from pride and grief if she remembered how, because she put this child here alone, to grow old and die.

No, not die. Murder. “It’s old enough,” she said again, her voice willowy from exertion. 

She fed Voltron well to ready the pieces, but her quintessence had been in short supply since she formed a cage with it, a cage whose remnants clung to her skin like scabs. One of her legs felt heavy and torpid, weighted by something, but she cared not. She forgot what flesh felt like and how to care for it. She forgot her limits and many other details, but not the plan, never the plan. And that turned out to be the problem. Vessels were frail and hers was shutting down, she could feel it in the weight of her eyelids that threatened to close for the first time in an forever. 

“No, no, no,” but her arms were heavy, her lame leg heavier, and she tried to use the ancient apparatus before her for—something. A message, she had to leave one, the other living would finish if she couldn't, and she pushed and pressed against buttons that made sounds, but she did not know what she was doing. She knew what made the fabric of the universe, she knew how to undo its stitches and create holes, how to compress them into living objects, but not this . This, she forgot.

Her vision blurred and she was sure that was it, that was how it would end, slow and with half her senses still clinger but her body dying. “You must—the plan,” she slurred for nothing and no one to hear. “The star is old enough, you must—” 

Her lame leg gave out and she head the shatter of crystals when her knees met the ground. Pain reached her as a sensation but it felt so foreign she didn’t know how to process it. 

“Trigger the…” Words were leaving her fractured, and she blinked but it took so much to open her eyes again. “Voltron. You must…”

There were hands on her, dragging her away from the console. A fabric wrapped around her, and she saw faces swimming before her fading vision. She only recognized one, her kin from another life with hair as bright as the star she made, and she tried, she tried so hard to push the words out. 

“You must,” she grabbed him and shook him with with all the might left between the hands of someone who used to create stars. He looked distraught beyond belief, but she had to try and make him listen. “The entity,” and her words now slipped between breaths barely audible, but she pulled him close, as close as she could and said what she could and hoped that he would listen, would understand, and carry out her last wish.

Death was coming upon her, darkness swallowing her vision in a creeping sensation only the Entity could leave her with. She had to get it all out because death was coming, and it would take everything she knew.

*

100% HEALTH

That’s what the machine said when they put her into the medical pod, redirected all of the Lionheart’s energy into it expecting a great pull from the machine, and then—nothing. 

According to it, there was nothing wrong with Allura, which could not have been right. Her wounds were gone, but her consciousness had left her very swiftly when they managed to clamber up towards the head of Voltron after it stopped moving. It also left her unwaking, no sound or shaking hard enough to stir her. But, her chest rose and fell, her breath came in even, and even though her skin was infested with crystal shells , one of her knees encased in full, even with all that, the machine did not know what to do with her.

They put her in one of the empty rooms, Coran sitting besides her bed, and he said he’d share her words tomorrow after they’ve all had a bit of rest. He looked content but shaken, and the rattled look could be shared among the paladins. Rattled and tired and very out of it.

“Can we even afford sleep,” Hunk wondered, dazed from his lack of energy, and his worry was less about their failing ship and more towards the creature roaming the crystal walls that were not falling apart at a steady pace. Space shouldn’t carry as much sound as that fortress made as it chipped away around their ship. 

“We’re no use like this,” Shiro said as he tried to find one functional cup to have a sip of water with. No one fought his observation. No one had the energy for it.

Lance disappeared towards Coran with two pillows tucked under his arms while the rest were left to fend with tossed-over mattress and broken furniture. The conditions of sleep mattered little; all anyone wanted right now was a glass of water, some passing medical attention, and the flattest available surface to sleep on.

Hunk passed out on the couch as soon as he was certain their water supply wasn’t still leaking. Keith managed to convince Pidge to take thirty minutes in the pod, and not a moment more, as per her threat. He ended up setting it to six hours when she was horizontal, but before he hit start he gave Shiro a look that said, should I incur the wrath ? Shiro came over and pushed the button himself, ostensibly saying, I’ll take the heat. If she was going to be angry at him after six hours of rest and recuperation, she was free to try.

Keith started haphazardly peeling of pieces of his armor in the hallway.

“Going to bed?”

“How’s the shoulder?”

They spoke at the same time, but Keith seemed more interested in his side of the conversation, knocking against his metal arm with a raised eyebrow.

“It’s fine,” Shiro shrugged it off. He had some medigel somewhere in his room and if he could find it before he passed out, that’d be great for future Shiro.

Keith knocked his fist against the metal arm harshly, right at his shoulder, and Shiro hissed, stepping back. “Sure it is,” Keith said as he peeled off another piece of the armor, threw it aside and went back into their makeshift medbay. “Get comfortable, I’ll be there in a second.”

Shiro had no will to protest for several reasons, but primarily for his benefit. Enjoyment factored in as well, but he tried not to dwell on it. He stripped from the armor in his own room, and left in nothing but leggings he could see his shoulder and asses that Keith was right, it wasn’t fine. There was bruising where flesh met metal and for the first time in a long time he genuinely missed not having an elbow.

His door slid open with a burst of fluorescent light that had him squinting, but the outline of Keith’s frame was unmistakable. A tall, lean shape, captivating in the way the black undersuit stuck to his well-defined physique. Keith came in carrying gel and cooling pads, and it was a testament to how tired Shiro was when schooling his eyes was difficult, let alone his thoughts. They lingered and dragged across his length as Keith approached, and stopping at the face felt like a safe choice until he saw dark hair loose from the confines of their tie spilling down his shoulders, gently mussed. 

“I didn’t think this through very well,” Keith stood in front of him, oblivious to Shito’s internal crisis as he handed off the medical equipment. He made matters worse when the slightest of pouts formed on his lips. “But I have one good hand and I intend to use it.”

He sat next to him, turned with one leg folded between them, and Shiro fought the need to follow with his eyes. “Okay,” he said lamely, and focused on the only other piece of information that genuinely concerned him. “How’s the hand?”

Keith showed it off, bandages stained pink, and did a few experimental flexes with a pinch to his face. “I’ll be using some of that gell when I’m done with you,” he said in way of answer, and focused his attention to Shiro’s shoulder, the frown still firm on his face. 

Shiro closed his eyes, the safest option in the wake of Keith’s firm touch rubbing against the parts of him that were still flesh and bone around the metal joint of his arm. Keith put pressure into kneading the gel into bruised skin, held his arm steady with his damaged one, pushed himself so close Shiro could smell the cumulative exhaustion of the day still sticking to his skin. All fear of falling asleep with eyes closed disappear with the effort Shiro had to put into his exhales, making sure they came out smooth and undisturbed with the simple pleasures his senses were taking in. But the frown he closed his eyes on lingered behind his eyelids and in Keith’s touch, in the way his almost steady breath betrayed aborted attempts at forming words.

Curiosity won over common practice to let it happen on its own, on Keith’s terms, and Shiro cracked a single eye open, head tilted slightly towards the source. “Something on your mind,” he asked a still frowning Keith who anyone else would confuse as focused on the task. But Shiro wasn’t just anyone, as he had re-learned with some difficulty over the course of months lingering in each other’s orbit.

Keith glanced at him, a short transmission established between their eyes before he focused back on his hands, and the lines on his forehead relaxed a little. “Sorry about the outburst,” he said quietly and with little issue, if there ever was one.

Shiro had to think for a moment too long, his brain sluggish and tired, and Keith almost looked a little peeved when he had to clarify. “When I yelled at you. In the caves.”

“Oh,” and Shiro almost threw his head back in laughter. “I forgot about it already,” and it was no understatement. So much had happened in between and around that moment, from Voltron scooping them up to a delirious but undeniably alive Allura piloting it, that Keith’s momentary anger slid off his memory like water off a duck’s back. If Shiro worried about anything, it was about the words he had said in that heated exchange.

“It’s just...” Keith still seemed determined to explain himself somewhat. Unnecessarily, Shiro thought. He couldn’t help but be reminded of their first proper meeting, after an angry kid whose name he was blanking on drove off with his car. Shiro had given him a vaguely admonishing look after that stunt, and since then his leniency had gotten no better. There was a soft spot in his heart with Keith’s name on it, written in bold letters, and no amount of distance chipped it off. 

Keith tried again, clearly struggling, the movement of his hand lacking focus and resting firmly on Shiro’s shoulder. “I was—”

“You don’t have to explain,” Shiro said with a gentle smile. “It was a gamble that could have cost us two lives instead of one, I get that.”

“Yeah, but—I’m not ungrateful,” and Keith stopped his work entirely, their eyes meeting again as his hands slid down Shiro’s arm, the impulses firing off far to pleasantly distracting. There was something cautious in his eyes, something holding him back from saying what he truly meant, and Shiro couldn’t help but think back to his own words and the love he poured into them. Too much love

The line of communication between their eyes broke off again as Keith released an exasperated sigh and looked to the side. “I'm just not good at handling…”

“...the prospect of death,” Shiro carefully offered with a question, hoping that was what troubled Keith, and not his poorly timed confession that wasn’t. Keith perked up, a sign he was on the right track. “Yeah, I don’t think you get exclusivity with that,” he tried to inject some levity, leaning towards Keith and bumping him with his shoulder. “No one’s equipped to handle that.”

Them least of all. They’d learn it first hand when it took only one death to break the six of them apart.  

“Yeah,” Keith agreed, but his eyes were still averted. “Something like that.”

Something like that but not quite it, and an uncomfortable weight sat in the pit of Shiro’s stomach. He had said too much, set them back who knows how many steps in this attempt to rebuild their friendship, possibly irrevocably, and Keith was just trying to let him down easily and— 

“Hey, listen,” Keith licked his lips and looked at him again with a firm resolve set into the lines of his face. “My room got really trashed and I’m kind of lacking a place to sleep.”

Never mind, scratch that, Shiro hadn’t been forward enough. The unsaid implication had him sitting up straight, suddenly wide awake, and it took a lot of focus to stop something ridiculously desperate from coming out of his mouth. 

“You can sleep here, just drag you mattress in and set it anywhere.” There was a pause and the desperate thing crawled out of his throat, regardless. “Or here,” he nudged his head at the bed they were sitting on. “It’s roomy enough.” 

Keith didn’t even give him a chance to regret his words. “I’d appreciate that,” he nodded, and grabbed the cooling pack. He laid it over the most inflamed area and reached across Shiro for his good arm to hold it. “I’ll go salvage some sleepwear,” he said, and left without properly clarifying which of the two options he was going to cash in on.

Not that it mattered much to Shiro. As soon as he went horizontal just to get his head straight, to process the day’s happenings, to rest his eyes a little—he was out like a light.  

*

Keith had been equipped to process death since an early age. It’s the injustice he couldn’t stomach, and the failure that fell on him.

There wasn’t a single soldier within the Blade of Marmora who wasn’t inaugurated with death, from the highest ranking Blades down to the helping hands that participated in relief efforts. The ones who signed up knew well what they were getting into and the gamble of life expectancy that came with. It suited Keith just fine, particularly the weight of being a senior Blade member, the weight of keeping his team alive and unharmed. The success he had with his small teams served to chase away the failure of Allura’s death, but it also meant he felt it twice as hard when he failed. And fail he did, and the countless scars that spoke of a history of self-endangerment in service of some other life meant nothing when he did. But still he knew how to handle death, how not to dwell on it too long or too much, how not to point blame outside himself. It was a cold way to function but it served the modus operandi of an organisation fighting tooth and nail for stability in a post war-torn universe.  

What he had forgotten was how to handle Shiro and the imminent threat of losing him.

It was a whole emotion on its own, a feeling he never knew how to shape into words, strong and irrational and belonging to someone much younger. Someone prone to snapping. Someone who couldn’t handle this particular loss even at the detriment of his own life. 

Crumbling crystals wailed in the distance, filling out the Lionheart with an air of threat.  Keith pulled a T-shirt over his head and huffed, still feeling the residual shame of his reaction tangling with the knots in his belly that anticipated the return to the other room. Now that’s what he should be ashamed of. His room was a mess, but it wasn’t dilapidated. He’d slept in worse condition on and off missions. But then and now, with his greatest failure rectified just as the odds of their survival slimmed, he needed something familiar. He needed to lie down and close his eyes and not worry. That this feeling of safety and home would still come from a person he hadn’t properly interacted with in ages didn’t phase him anymore. If nothing else, it seemed obvious. 

When it came to strong sentiments, irrational or otherwise, all roads lead to Shiro. Always Shiro. To think otherwise would be self-deception of the highest caliber, and Keith was done with that. Maybe it was a Galra thing he had yet to properly discover, some old animal instinct that didn’t know how to let go of a first love. Maybe it was human thing. He wasn’t much familiar with those, either.

Armed with a fleece blanket he left his room and did a final round on all the residents. Kosmo was sleeping at the foot of the couch where Hunk had made his nest, his gentle snoring and the low ambient lighting almost enough to fool Keith into imagining everything wasn’t falling apart. Pidge was still sound asleep in her pod, the timer diligently counting down the hours. No sounds could be heard from the room where Coran and Lance took up sentry at Allura’s side. He could imagine them falling asleep at the foot of the bed, but couldn’t deem it enough to break their peace by opening the door. Lastly, he went to Shiro with all the intentions of asking him to clear some room for the mattress he’d be dragging in.

Or not. 

The cooling pack had slipped off his shoulder and onto the floor, and the man in question laid on his back, thoroughly knocked out by the days events. He didn’t even change from his undersuit, didn’t put a shirt on, and the moment Keith’s eyes traveled his frame without mustering a single internal complaint at the appreciation, he knew he was getting far too tired for constructive thoughts. It was the Galra in him that had the residual adrenaline still kicking around, pushing him to work it out to the extent that the rest of his mostly human companions couldn’t follow. But he was feeling it now, the pull of sleep, brought on even more by the enticingly empty spot Shiro left him with. He could even press his back against the wall, a choice he felt Shiro was at least somewhat conscious of before passing out.

The invitation was there and Keith refused to be cowed by it.   

He gently readjusted the fallen cooling pack before stepping over Shiro and onto the bed, mindful of his neighbor’s sleep and the distance between them. And there was plenty when he settled with his back stuck to the wall, an elbow’s worth of it, more than enough for propriety. 

Keith needed it, or the illusion of it, as his eyes refused to close at the sight ahead of them, at Shiro’s chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm, his profile traced by the low ambient glow. Age and scars hadn’t spoiled him a bit, and he still looked like everything Keith looked for in another human. Or in general, if he was being honest with himself. 

So much had happened in such a short time—amorphous alien attack, destructive wormhole descent, Allura —but all his mind could focus on was childish frivolity. Keith would berate himself if he had the energy for it, if his one-track mind could focus on something other than his best friend and all the ways he made Keith feel.

You know I love you, right?

Those words meant nothing new, nothing he didn’t already know. Keith knew the love of a friend, knew what it felt like coming from Shiro, now or ten years ago. He didn’t need to hear it put into words. He didn’t need to have it said so many times that it lodged his heart in his throat. He didn’t need to see that look on Shiro’s face, the one his undying flame distorted into something else, some other meaning. He didn’t need to imagine for a second, a moment, that those words meant something else, something more. They didn’t. They couldn’t— 

I’ll always love you.

—could they?

Keith found sleep fitfully, and only after he bridged the gap he left between them, palm resting atop Shiro’s arm, over firm muscle and scarred tissue. The warmth was comforting, the presence solid even when he closed his eyes, and it helped him not to open them again, not to glance at the door and wonder if he should have brought his knife to bed. It helped him rest in a way Keith had forgotten.

Chapter Text

Shiro woke to a feeling of excessive heat hugging his back, a woolly cover snuggling at him, moving, pushing. One eye opened to low lighting and the unfamiliar landscape of his nose buried into fur as something soft swished over his side, rhythmically. Like a feather duster, and his half-asleep senses supplied in interesting image that had him inhaling fur. But no, no, that wasn’t right. Like a tail?

Like a giant dog trying to win some real estate on a bed that was barely made for two.

A loud groan came from about the area of Shiro’s chest, but not from him. Another body squished between himself and the wall, wiggling as it tried to break through. The movement did Shiro no favors, but it did wake him up very quickly before something else could. His attempts to voice some kind of apology were thwarted by more hair in his mouth. Hair that didn’t belong to the dog. He coughed, trying to get it out, and turning would have helped him breath, and Keith breathe, but the solid wall of fur at his back was stopping him.

“Kosmo, what the fuck.” Goosebumps spread over his skin as Keith’s groggy voice spoken into Shiro’s chest, muffled. He swung a lazy leg over Shiro’s side and pushed at his massive dog.

Kosmo whined, but after a few solid and unrelenting jabs from the master’s socked foot, he got the gist. Didn’t have to be happy about it though, and Kosmo certainly didn’t sound it as he retreated off the bed, allowing Shiro to turn on his back and breathe. He had to hack a few long black hair out of his mouth.

“Sorry, Kosmo gets like that sometimes,” Keith said and stretched, languid and with a clear voice, like he had woken first. He took up the rest of the space on the bed by flipping on his back, shoulder pressed against shoulder. “Some days I just let it have the bed.”

It was too early in the ‘morning’ and too late in his life for Shiro to be flustered by compromising positions and awkward sleeping arrangements, though he wished he’d at least had the foresight to put a shirt on. The lingering trace Keith’s lips left on his chest before he all but wrapped around him, however appropriate the situation had been, was cutting it close. The male body was treasonous, and Shiro did not want to inflict that on his best friend. Keith, though, seemed inclined to make it worse as he sat up and hovered over Shiro, diligently inspecting his shoulder. 

“Is it better?”

Loose, mussed hair fell from the tie and tickled his nose, and in the hazy glow of not-enough-sleep Shiro imagined himself gently raking the strands off Keith’s face.

His arm twitched, the fantasy a bit too strong to resist, and Keith caught the movement. His eyes narrowed and focused on Shiro and his lack of response. 

“Why’d you call Kosmo an it ?” Shiro blurted something out in an effort to derail both Keith’s worry and unnerving attention. Rarely did Shiro miss a shirt as he did in that moment. 

“Can’t believe I didn’t mention that,” Keith perked up with a sudden burst of energy, and laid back down on his side, one hand supporting him upright. Shiro let out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding, tension unwinding. 

“Kosmo is not a good boy,” Keith pointed a finger at the giant dog who whined in protest, his understanding of words and their meanings uncanny. “Not a good girl, either. We still don’t know a lot about its species, but what I can tell you is that Kosmo does not have a means of reproduction, does not resemble any form of canine on the inside, and was very likely formed inside a nebula. Like a star,” he finished with a dreamy quality to his words. Keith’s gaze was far too enchanted as it landed on Kosmo who seemed to be in a rebelliously ignorant phase at the moment.

“So, why does Kosmo look like a dog,” Shiro asked after processing the information in increments, his brain curiously lingering on the detail about the insides.

“Who knows,” Keith shrugged. “My working theory is because I always wanted a dog, and I found it first.”

Shiro could also imagine Keith wanting the dog to be cool looking and big, but he didn’t see the need to point out the obvious. They’d seen stranger phenomenons with their own eyes. As theories go, it wasn’t impossible to get one's head around it, especially when the alternative was lingering on the thought of bodily closeness and how enticing those chapped lips looked. 

This bed-sharing was a terrible idea, yet Shiro would probably do it again, if asked. The climate of their broader circumstances was too dour to deny himself some sweet suffering.

“Neat,” he said after a moment of focusing on the terribly unsexy nature of their survivability rates, his tone a little flat, and Keith gave him such a disparaging look. “C’mon, I slept for five hours," Shiro whined. "I'll enthuse later."

The door of his room swished open, the light from the hallways blindingly strong. “About six, actually,” came Pidge’s voice, her silhouette forming gradually as she approached the bed with two mugs in hand, face slightly amused but giving away nothing. “So glad to find you both here, seeing as these are both for you.”

They sat up and accepted the coffee with mumbled thanks. “Also, how dare you,” she spoke to Shiro with lukewarm interest in her own reprimand. “I know it’s you I have to blame for feeling great this morning, and just so you know, it will not be forgotten.”

Shiro just nodded, barely paying attention, but the unrelenting bitterness of his coffee had him reeling from the mug he got.

“And you, too,” she wagged a finger at Keith who took his own sip and seemed equally disappointed. “For not doing anything. For standing aside and just letting it happen.”

They exchanged coffee cups wordlessly, the sugar in Keith’s clearly meant for Shiro.

“I’ll go wake Hunk up,” Pidge said as she backed away towards the door, “and then we all rendezvous at the room because I’m gonna need some emotional support to actually knock.”

The door closed behind her, their eyes adjusting back to the low light. Shiro and Keith exchanged a look. In the distance, the sound of fracturing crystals filled the air on a barren rock that should have none. A few doors down, a god still slept.

*

They found themselves outside of the ship, staring up at a still fully formed Voltron glowing with energy, like someone left the keys in the ignition. Except they were the keys, yet Voltron seemed to be in a state of gentle disobedience. That it didn’t pull apart into five distinct cats was telling. That its wings and sword were still drawn was another sign.

Collectively, yet mindfully, barging into what would be considered Allura’s room put some fears at ease while leaving others hanging. She was still there, still alive by all the definitions of the word, and uninjured. But she still couldn’t wake, and Coran caught no sleep on account of it. And yet he seemed the most animated when the cavalry arrived bearing coffee. He took the night to dwell on her words, if not her health, though he wouldn’t share a damn thing until he was certain he could take his eyes off of her safely. The medical pod came in handy for that. There was still nothing to heal, according to its readings, but it could at the very least monitor her well-being in their stead.

“I hate to sound harsh,” Keith said as he tried to hurry everything along by carrying Allura to the pod. She looked strange in loose Earth clothes, short hair unevenly torn, and even stranger with all the crystal shells still sticking to her skin. But she felt warm and alive in his arms as Lance gently adjusted her head. “But we need to start focusing on getting out of here. And by all accounts, Voltron is our ticket out, so maybe we should be bringing her there.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Coran said with a foreboding tone. “I’m afraid Voltron is off the table, so to say.”

They suited up for the cold waiting outside and gathered at Voltron’s feet as Coran tried his best to put into words what he had heard from Allura in short, pleading breaths.

“She absorbed a piece of the Entity, as you might remember, to aid in the last battle for the universe. It stayed within her all throughout, grew with her, and needless to say that it grew quite big. Possibly bigger and stronger than what it was when it destroyed Daibazaal.”

That entity?” Hunk squeaked, his face going ashen. “That thing Voltron couldn’t even put a scratch on?”

Coran confirmed with a tight smile and singular nod. Lance threw a hand around his friend’s back, somewhat prepared for the words Coran had for them. 

“Here’s where things get a little speculative on my part. She didn’t put it in as many words, obviously, but that sun and this high-powered Voltron are the means of destroying it. Heat alone wouldn't cut it, but an explosive reaction from Voltron’s core inside the sun’s core could be enough.”

“Could also form a supermassive black hole,” Shiro said and gestured at the blindingly large sun that never left the small horizon of the planetoid they landed on. “Look at the size of it.”

“That could be the desired outcome,” Coran concurred.

“Where does that leave us," Hunk asked. "How much time do we have to repair the Lionheart before it’s too late?”

Coran had no answer for that.

“And who drives Voltron into the sun,” Keith asked the real question no one would.

Coran had no answer for that, either, though Allura's name was visibly on everyone's mind. 

“Okay, let’s take one thing at a time,” Pidge said, her leg bouncing with nervous energy. “Or ten things at a time, whatever.” She grabbed her bayard, already a grappling hook in her hands. “I’m climbing up to use the scanners, do some math, and get us a timeframe.”

“And I’m taking the rest of you as man power,” Hunk said with no-nonsense voice. “Our engines are in need of a miracle.”

“No,” Coran surprised them with his comment. “Leave the busted one, focus rather on the life support system.”

Lance got his attention with a loud clearing of the throat. “I think in this case, fixing the engine counts as life support . As in, we’ll get killed if we don’t lift off.”

“Oh absolutely,” Coran said and he sounded chipper for a moment. “But I have a different solution in mind.” His gaze turned up towards Voltron. “I think I’ll be joining you on the climb, Pidge.”

*

“Y’know,” Keith said as he put in a new set of numbers in the console, “telling us the coefficient of degradation doesn’t actually tell us anything.”

“Not my fault none of you know math,” Pidge said without lifting her eyes away from the readings on her data pad, yet she could still feel the cutting look he threw at her from across the floor. She hoped he didn’t notice her hands shaking. Work could only distract her so much.

“I mean,” she rolled her shoulders and tried to seem more relaxed, “we don’t even know how much structural degradation is necessary for that creature to bust out, so really why even bother with that number. It’s not in our favor, anyway.” She couldn’t keep the frown on her face from sinking further into in. “And my readings are still way off. Let’s try another recalibration.”

“Pidge,” Keith stopped her with the kind of voice she’d classify as stern yet placating, “we’re wasting time here.”

“We’re wasting time trying to repair the sensors that are off kilter?” The shock was plain on her face, maybe even the tremor. “You should know how important those things are for flying. And if they can’t accurately handle something as simple as this, then—”

“Then maybe,” Keith interjected with a leveled voice, “they’re not broken and that’s just how Olkari tech work.”

She scoffed. “That’s not how Olkari tech works, Keith. This ship isn’t biomechanical.”

“Experimental technology. You’re words.” Keith just shrugged, like none of it was a big deal, and added, “Metals come from the earth. It makes sense to me.”

Shiro was the only one among them with classic Earth-based astronaut training that had prevailed since the 21st century. It’s what had him staying cool under extreme pressure, mental or physical. It’s who Pidge relied on to keep herself stable since the first time she ended up in space piloting something she was underqualified for, in a situation all of them were unequipped for. This was one of those situations again, and Pidge found a lot of those same qualities in Keith, too. 

She was in a poor frame of mind, that had to be it. The slightest chance of good news seemed impossible, and the nanosteel hull of their ship autorepairing was significant in the grand scheme of things. They wouldn’t have to worry about pressure and leaking oxygen—though first they’d have the get the entire recycling unit back online to have oxygen. Hunk was making headway on that with Lance, allegedly, assisting. Coran was secretive about his engine plans, though he did come back down from Voltron to whisk Shiro from them with the excuse of needing a strong pair of arms. 

Keith took offence to his exclusion from the equation. Or maybe the part where Coran took his partner in junk-and-other-dangerous-material clearing duty. 

That’s what Pidge thought of when she wandered into Keith’s room on her quest to take more precise readings of the receding hull damage. She had her own unorthodox ways of thanking people, and this would be one of them.

“Yeah, this room is busted,” she said, reading the output that said otherwise. The ceiling was a little bent in, and there were some webbed glimmers on the viewport, but nothing drastic. “I wouldn’t call it a safe place to sleep in.”    

“Are you sure,” Keith was skeptical, and he used his height against her to peek at the readings himself. “It doesn’t seem that bad.”

Pidge pulled the data pad away and sighed. “Keith,” she gave him a tired look, “it’s not like you want to sleep in this room, anyway.”

What followed was a silent stare-off between unshakably stony faces that said too much with how little was being said at all.

Keith was the first to speak after a not-at-all awkward silence. “I’ll take it under consideration.” 

A very tactical, very Blade-like answer. Pidge scoffed and shook her head with a smile. ”You do that.”

Not long after, a loud crash chased them all out of the Lionheart just as the vents started buzzing with some cool air. The sound was different than the one they were steadily getting used to, the crack and tumble of glassy shards chipping away like sand in an hourglass. No, this sound was closer and louder and much more metallic in nature.

Pidge felt her eyes go wide as the first true sign of optimism manifested before her in the shape of one of Voltron’s massive jet-powered wings lying on the ground.

Coran had a sound plan, but the execution was to be the real feat. Voltron was the only thing that could be used to pick up its disassembled part and assist in the melding, but Voltron was also in a rebellious mood. It didn’t so much reject their piloting attempts, as stubbornly refuse to follow through any attempts to synchronize their movements. Each limb had to be moved on its own, the giant robot an awkward marionette in their hands. If they could classify the semi-sentient machine as lackadaisical to their plight, they would. 

But its weird mood shift towards a single pilot could be exploited since it didn’t seem to care about its current pilots coming and going. Shiro kept the torso leveled, Keith held on to the wing single-handedly, and Lance balanced them with one working leg while the missing limbs went out to assist Coran on the upper hull of the ship. The mutable nature of the Olkari tech coursing through the ship was godsent. It almost had Pidge considering something as ludicrous as fate . Shiro’s words came to her then, exchanged in the cockpit of a half-finished ship that didn’t even have a name yet. 

I think it was more than circumstance and coincidence that held us together. More than just probability.

It was hard work but she smiled throughout as another long day—night—cycle was ahead of them. The metrics of time no longer made sense with a giant sun always gleaming, and a canvas of nothing but black around them.

Yes, they could do another miracle. One was already sleeping on their ship.

*

Keith pulled a sweater on before bed. The vents Hunk got working again were full of fresh oxygen, but the capacitor was malfunctioning which brought the temperatures on-board the Lionheart down to a cool 18°C and gently dropping. 

Manual labor was one thing, but playing balancing acts with Voltron left him drained. Not quite like yesterday, but when Pidge called it a night, no one complained. His better judgement also didn’t complain as he padded towards Shiro’s room. He found him in his tracksuit which Keith’s traitorous mind classified as a betrayal when compared to the shirtlessness. It almost had him turning around. What was he doing? 

No, the betrayal was Keith entering his room for another few hours of sleep when his own room was perfectly capable of housing him, perfectly capable of giving him everything he needed for a good few hours of sleep. But not what he wanted. And Shiro didn’t mention, didn’t ask, didn’t even seem to mind, and all that had Keith feeling even more guilt. Guilt he did nothing to absolve himself from as he hopped onto the bed, back against the wall.

He watched Shiro’s back as he prepared for sleep, the occasional roll of his right shoulder giving way to a pinched face. He wanted to ask about the injury but Shiro beat him to it as he sat on the bed and turned it on him instead. He didn’t use words, they were too tired for that, just an extended hand that signaled he should give him something. Keith knew immediately he wanted to change the bandages on his injured hand. Shiro had been eyeing it all day. 

Keith hadn’t bothered, and with good reason. There were more important things to waste his hands and time on, and there was Shiro to take care of it later. Quid pro quo, and another sign his betrayal had been planned since the moment he woke up short of breath and squished against his friend’s chest. Keith was a simple man. He just wanted, and the fatalistic nature of their odds didn’t give room to consider his feelings. There might not be a future Keith to deal with them at all.  

Grim thoughts could take him easily, and yet be banished just as simply with a touch. The gentleness of those callus hands still surprised, both the flesh and the machine, and it was his own fault for staying horizontal as he extended his hand. Sleep overcame him somewhere around the massage of medigel into his palm. But sleep was less calm that night, and the air thicker and louder with the sound of a cage breaking apart. It had him jolting awake in a darkened room, reaching for something under the pillow that he chose not to take into Shiro’s bedroom.

Cold sweat beaded on his forehead, heart racing in his ears, but his breathing leveled back to normal as he listened to the distant sounds of their doom. They remained the same and that was comforting. It told him they still had some time. It told him nothing had yet changed. 

Except his sleeping condition. 

Yesterday, each had their own cover to themselves. Today, Shiro had spread both covers over them. Keith tucked his cold feet back under, immediately realizing why and bemoaning that stray soft thought that had him considering something more… Well, just something more. It was late, he was tired and he was missing his knife. He could forgive himself a stray thought or two. Like that one that wanted him to slip closer to Shiro’s back, maybe find a safe point of contact and get the kind of sleep he had yesterday. Who would know? People tossed and turned in their sleep. Who would know, besides Keith. It was his bullshit to bear, anyway.

The decision bit him in the ass as soon as he scooted over, as soon as the mattress dipped and Shiro turned in his sleep. No, he rolled over like a steam engine, because people tossed and turned in their sleep and there was nothing careful about it and the way Shiro turned over to claim half the bed made for one. His face, squished into the pillow, was inches away from Keith’s. His metal arm looked for a place to rest where Keith was occupying. 

He got what he wanted, the whole nine yards. Got his point of contact with warm metal that lander over his side. Got the closeness, so much of it he could feel Shiro’s breath fan over his face. He wouldn’t be getting any sleep though, not with the way he clenched up in panic. 

People tossed and turned in their sleep. This was normal. But Keith taking advantage of it wasn’t. Guilt would have had him sneaking out of the bed and out of the room inch by bloody inch had a substantially different sound not broken through the air.

It was and echo of a scream, half swallowed by the vacuum of space. A terrible sound they heard once before on a radio transmission. The ground shook next, the entire planetoid trembled and Keith shot up with alarm, Shiro’s arm rolling into his lap. 

“Get up,” he started shaking him, “something’s happening.”

The sound of glass breaking came from down the hall. Someone yelled out Allura’s name.