He never stopped looking. It had been months, but between every mission, Keith was out in the black lion, searching for its lost paladin. The sooner he found Shiro, the sooner he could get back to a sense of normalcy. Shiro would know better than him how to lead the team to victory over Lotor.
Keith never strayed too far from the Castle in case an emergency popped up and he was needed. He was just lucky that they never spent too much time in one spot in space. Their constant movement made it easy to search new places, but in the back of his mind, Keith worried that their constant movement was working against them as well.
What if Shiro were out there looking for them, too? What if they'd just missed each other? He pushed the thoughts aside when his lion seemed to begin functioning on its own, a panel forming in front of him, a little dot blinking in the corner.
"You found him?" he breathed in disbelief. He tapped a few screens, scanning the area to make sure. "You found him." His heart began pounding in his chest as his mind went blank aside from the increasing excitement over finally having found Shiro.
"Keith—" Coran began when Keith opened the line with the Castle.
"I found him," he said in a rush. "I found Shiro."
"Are you sure?" Coran asked, voice grave.
"Bring the Castle to my location and we can go get him. He isn't far," Keith explained, kicking up his boosters, rushing towards the location.
"We're on our way," Coran replied, but Keith didn't miss the notes of skepticism in his voice.
But he was sure. Positive. This was Shiro.
"Give Allura these coordinates," Keith said, tapping a few screens to send Coran the necessary information. "We'll need a wormhole to reach him faster. His ship isn't moving, it's just floating in space."
"How sure are you that it's him?" a new voice chirped.
"I ran the scans, Pidge," Keith explained. "It's his biosignature. I'm sure."
With the Castle behind him, Keith led the way through the portal that opened in front of them, letting out a breath he didn't know he was holding when he laid eyes on a dead Galra ship floating before him. He could barely make out the pilot looking up at him, but he knew it was Shiro.
Keith maneuvered the controls, entrapping Shiro's ship in the mouth of the lion. As soon as the lion was back on board the Castle, Keith let them know and then took off out of the cockpit. The ship he was in wasn't damaged in the least, so Keith was surprised Shiro hadn't gotten out himself.
"Shiro?" Keith called, prying open the top from the outside.
"Hey, Keith," a familiar voice responded, muffled by his helmet. Keith grinned.
"Welcome back, Shiro."
He saw Shiro smile weakly from his seat and his excitement turned to worry. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
"Leg wound," he mumbled, moving slowly to unbuckle himself from the chair. "I haven't eaten in over a week." He held out a hand. "Help me out, I can't move."
"Lance, get down here," Keith commanded into his comm. "Bring some water. Have Coran prep a cryo pod." He didn't wait for Lance's response and carefully helped Shiro out of the cockpit of the little ship. Keith helped him make it down the ramp out of the lion, and sit against the wall nearby.
Shiro reached up and removed his helmet, his long hair falling down to nearly his shoulders, surprising Keith.
"What's wrong?" Shiro asked, looking down at himself.
"Nothing," Keith replied, poker face returning. "You just look different, that's all."
"How long have I been gone?"
"It's only been seven months," Keith replied. Both fell into stunned silence and Keith watched as a dozen emotions played over the older man's face.
"It couldn't have only…" he started, but fell silent when pounding footsteps echoed nearby.
"Is he alright?" Lance called down the hallway as he approached, a bottle of water in his hands. He slammed to a stop when Shiro came into view. "Woah, what is this?" He turned to Keith. "Are you sure this is Shiro?"
Shiro let out a chuckle. "It's me."
Lance handed Shiro the bottle and grinned. "Man, it's good to see you."
Keith pressed his lips into a line as he watched Shiro struggle to open it, before wordlessly taking it from him, unscrewing the cap, and handing it back.
"Thanks," Shiro mumbled, managing to keep his composure and not down the whole bottle at once, though he did make it a good way before stopping.
"Help me get him to Coran," Keith told Lance. "We can get Hunk to get him some more water and some food before we get him into a pod."
"That sounds awesome," Shiro breathed, grunting as the two men pulled him from the ground. Each took a place beside Shiro and slowly made their way down the hall.
"Where have you been, man?" Lance asked. "You look awful."
"I feel awful," Shiro replied quietly. "I don't remember what happened."
"We can talk about it when you're feeling better," Keith said as they reached the med bay.
Lance passed off his place to Coran, and he and Keith carefully sat Shiro down on the step against an open pod.
"Let's get him some food and water before he goes in," Keith suggested as Coran poked around the wound on Shiro's leg, removing the old dirty bandage.
"Hunk left to get food when you told Lance to bring water," Pidge murmured to Keith, coming to stand next to them. "I'm glad you're okay, Shiro."
Shiro smiled up at her. "I promised to help you find your family."
"Okay is kind of a stretch, I think," Coran muttered, standing up straight. "He needs a little something to eat as soon as possible. Getting him into the pod sooner would be better."
"She's piloting the ship, taking us to a better position so we won't be disturbed," Coran chirped, tapping away at the pod behind Shiro. "She'll be glad to see you when you're well."
"Food is here," Hunk announced as he entered, a tray of food in his hands. "Wasn't sure what you're in the mood for, so I whipped up a couple of quick things." He set the tray on the step next to Shiro.
"Thanks Hunk," Shiro said. "I'm starving."
"Already with the jokes?" Lance scoffed. "Must not be that bad off."
"Well, he's not dying," Coran said.
"Why don't we go see if Allura needs anything," Pidge hinted, tugging on Hunk and Lance. "I'm sure she'd appreciate an update, too."
"Sure, right," Hunk replied, catching on. He tugged on Lance and pulled them away from Shiro, who was too busy eating as much as he could to notice them leaving.
"Slow down," Keith advised. "You're gonna choke."
"I haven't eaten in so long, even this crap tastes good," Shiro sighed, taking the water bottle Keith was holding out to him.
Keith chuckled. "Hunk makes it not as bad."
They sat in silence until Shiro finished the food on the tray and Coran ushered him into a pod. "It'll be a bit longer than before. The slight starvation and extreme dehydration caused a few organs to enter the beginning stages of organ failure," he explained. "You'll be perfectly fine, a full recovery, but it'll take a bit longer."
"However long he needs," Keith said. "We'll be waiting for you."
"Thanks, Keith," Shiro said with a smile as Coran shut the pod. He seemed to fall asleep immediately and Keith frowned.
"Is he really going to be okay?" Keith asked Coran. "He said he didn't remember what happened to him, and he looks like he's been gone for years, not months."
"We won't know until he remembers, if he remembers at all."
"Is it bad that I hope he doesn't remember?" Keith asked quietly.
"One can only hope for mercy," Coran sighed. "He's sure gone through more with the Galra than many of us have."
Keith's jaw clenched, solidifying his resolve. "We have to find Lotor. We need to take him out."
"Well, for now, we have other missions to attend to," Coran sighed, uncrossing his arms and heading for the door. "Allura found a Galra outpost nearby that we should take out while we wait for Shiro to recover."
"Right," Keith mumbled, taking one last glance at Shiro before leaving to join the others on the bridge.
Allura was happy, but Keith had a feeling he knew her reservations, the concerns he knew and pushed to the corner of his conscience. No need to worry about things that were unimportant. Having more paladins than necessary was a good problem, he guessed. But right now, he was focused on the thought that Shiro was alive and back with them, where he belonged.
Allura briefed them on the outpost once Coran and Keith joined them on the bridge, but admitted she didn't have blueprints of the base's layout or systems.
"That'll be easy to get," Pidge mumbled from her chair. "It might take a few hours to download all the data before I can go get them, though."
"Great," Allura smiled and looked at Coran. "When will Shiro wake?"
"10 to 15 vargas, I would guess. He was pretty rough when we put him in there."
"I want to be here when he wakes up," Keith said. "So unless this mission is urgent, I think we should put it off until then."
"I'm okay with that," Lance jumped in before anyone can protest. "I mean, as long as the mission isn't urgent."
"We'll leave tomorrow then," Allura announced. "Pidge, let me know when you have those files for me, and Coran and I will go over them tonight and have a plan ready tomorrow."
"Gotcha," she replied from her station. "Download is already started."
Everyone went their separate ways to do their own thing in the meantime. Keith found himself hanging around the kitchen nibbling on leftovers Hunk had left out. He had a long time to wait before Shiro woke, and while there was so much he knew he could be doing, none of it was what he wanted to do.
Thoughts he'd pushed aside began to resurface, unwanted problems arising to the forefront of his mind. Who would pilot what now that they'd gotten Shiro back? He assumed Shiro would take Black, he would return to Red, and Lance could go back to Blue. Allura, of course, was the only one who could pilot the Castle—she'd understand, right?
Maybe after all Shiro had gone through, he may not even want to be a paladin anymore. Maybe he would just want out, go back home to his family…his actual family…
"Your face is kinda scary right now, man."
Keith blinked and felt the scowl on his face relax and smooth out. He looked across the counter to see Hunk offering a small smile. "What?"
"You're thinking too hard right now," Hunk said.
"I'm not thinking about anything," Keith mumbled, wiping his hands on his pants and averting his gaze.
"Look man, whatever happens, happens. You think everyone isn't thinking about the same thing you are?" Hunk guessed, his thoughts confirmed when Keith's eyes flicked over to meet his. "We just need to focus on our missions for now. We'll figure things out later as a team."
"You're right," Keith conceded quietly. "Thanks, Hunk."
Hunk pointed a spoon towards the door. "Now go. I'm going to start dinner, which you've already probably ruined yours…"
Keith left without another word, thankful for the dismissal. He wandered aimlessly down the hall, not wanting to go to the med bay to stare at Shiro until he woke up. That would only make the time drag on more, he figured. Before Keith realized it, he was standing in front of Black, who immediately opened her mouth to let him in.
Shiro's ship was still inside, and Keith made quick work of dragging it out, down the ramp and into the Castle.
"You had the same idea I did?" a voice asked behind him.
Keith turned to look at Pidge, who had her equipment in her arms. "I don't have any ideas. I just wanted to get it out of the Lion."
"Oh," Pidge responded, stepping up next to the ship. "I'm going to data mine it."
"Why?" Keith asked, half out of genuine curiosity and half to fill the silence.
"It was on an active Galra ship, there might be something useful in its systems."
Keith reached over and jerked open the top again to allow Pidge to plug in her laptop. She climbed into the ship and sat in the pilot's seat. "How long was he floating in space?" Pidge asked quietly, pausing to look at the ship around herself. Keith leaned against the ship and shrugged. She turned to her laptop. "Based on the size of the fuel tank, it had to have been more than a couple days."
"He said he hadn't eaten in a week when I got him out of here," Keith told her.
"Can you imagine being stuck in here for a week, not able to move from pretty much the same position?"
Keith winced. "I'm trying not to think too hard about what Shiro went through."
Pidge did her thing, pulling file after file out of the ship with ease. Her eyebrows furrowed and she pulled up an audio file.
"Pilot log, I am one day out of Thayserix…" Shiro's voice came out of her speakers, tinny and distorted. "I lost visual and radar contact to Voltron…"
"What is that?" Keith demanded.
"Shiro made audio logs," Pidge breathed. "Seven of them. The last was only a few minutes before we found him."
"In case he wasn't found?" Keith guessed. "He mentioned Voltron, was he following us?"
"If he got this ship from one of the bigger ones we've fought, maybe he was," Pidge said before clicking on a different file.
"I'm 3 days out from Thaserix," he began, voice a little more tired than the first file. "I activated the SOS ping, but there's no signs of…anything…I'll be running out of fuel soon."
Pidge pressed her lips together and clicked on the last file.
"I am seven days out." There was a pause and Keith glanced at Pidge, wondering if she noticed just how weak he sounded. From the look on her face, she did. "Oxygen levels are low and fuel is…gone. This will be my last entry." There was a pause where they could only hear shallow breathing. "Maybe….black…" And then there was silence.
"I think he passed out, but the file kept recording," Pidge mumbled, moving the slider along the sound waves to a point just before they picked up again.
There was a shuddering sound, something rocking the ship. They could hear a small intake of breath. "Keith…"
"That must have been when we found him," Keith whispered. Louder, "how long was that silence?"
Pidge scanned through the timeline again. "About twenty minutes, give or take."
"So we got to him just in time," Keith murmured, standing up straight and crossing his arms.
"Don't let anyone know about those," Keith told her. "Let us know if you find anything useful in there." Pidge nodded and Keith took his leave, heart aching more for his friend.
Keith and Coran were the only ones in the med bay later that night. Everyone else had long gone to sleep to prepare for the mission in the morning, but Keith didn't want Shiro to wake up to no one. He should have known, though, that Coran would never have let that happen.
"Should be a quick mission in the morning," Coran yawned. "Not too hard, just like we've been doing."
"How many more outposts do you think we'll find?" Keith asked. He was sitting with his back against a step near Shiro's pod, Coran was at the console behind him, playing with some files. The wound on Shiro's leg has healed up nicely, Keith noted. They hadn't bothered to change Shiro into a clean suit—he could do that when he woke.
"Couldn't say for sure," Coran mused. "The Galra have had ten thousand years to infiltrate any corner of the universe. It could take us just as long to dismantle them."
Keith sighed. This was slowly turning into a life-long commitment it seemed. Not that he had much to return to on earth, but the others?
A hiss echoed through the room and the pod slid open. Keith jumped to his feet as Shiro stumbled out, a hand going to his head, the other bracing himself on the wall of the pod.
"Feeling better?" Keith asked, helping his friend to sit on the step.
"Much better," he replied quietly. "Exhausted though."
"Mm, that's to be expected," Coran noted, coming to join them. "You can sleep all you want tonight."
"We have a mission first thing in the morning, but as soon as we get back, I'll catch you up on everything," Keith promised. "Do you want anything to eat? Hunk's asleep, but I can see—"
"I'll be okay, Keith, thanks," Shiro interrupted gently, managing to stand on his own. "Thank you, Coran."
"Anytime, Number 1," he saluted. "Though, please try not to make a habit of this."
"I can try," Shiro replied with a smile.
Coran waved as he exited and Keith turned to Shiro, looking him over for any signs he might not be sturdy.
"I'm fine," Shiro pressed. "Just tired." Keith walked Shiro to his room silently, not knowing what to say. Shiro was too tired to strike up any conversation, the working parts of his mind scrambling to make sense of everything that had happened in the last week or so.
"I'll stop by in the morning before we leave to see if you need anything," Keith told him quietly when they reached his room.
"Thanks, Keith," Shiro mumbled, the door sliding aside and opening to darkness. It was just as he left it.
"You're the only thing—the closest thing to family I have, Shiro," Keith barely whispered, struggling to voice his thoughts when he'd rather keep them to himself. But this was the second time Shiro, the closest thing he had to a brother, had vanished. "Please be careful."
"Sorry." Shiro offered up a tired smile and reached out for Keith, wrapping and arm around him.
"Get some sleep," Keith told him as he left, the other already falling into the bed.
Sleep came to Keith for the first time in months. Easily, deep, and nightmare free. Sleep like that had been few and far between while Shiro had been missing. It was precious time that Keith could have been out looking for him.
Morning came quickly and he was the first one on the bridge. Pidge and Hunk came in shortly after, followed closely by Allura.
"How is Shiro doing?" she asked as soon as she saw Keith.
"Last I saw he was doing better," Keith told her. "He still looks like he's been through hell, but physically better."
"That's good," she replied. "Is he asleep?"
"I don't know. I was about to go check on him and see if he needed anything before we left."
"Well, don't wake him if he's sleeping," Allura advised, turning to the computers.
Keith turned on his heel and quickly made his way towards Shiro's room. The closer he got, the more clearly he could hear muffled yelling, screams. His pace quickened and he scrambled more than he would have liked to get the door out of his way.
"Shiro!" he yelled to the trashing man in the bed. Keith reached across the bed and grabbed Shiro's metal wrist, his flesh one easier to pin down. "Shiro, wake up!"
Shiro's eyes flew open, his breathing quick and ragged. His eyes darted around the room before landing on Keith and he let out a breath as he realized where he was. "Keith," he breathed.
"What were you dreaming about?" Keith asked, releasing Shiro so he could sit up. "Are you alright?"
Shiro took a few deep breaths to calm himself, but shook his head. "I don't remember." He looked up at Keith after a beat of silence. "I'm alright, Keith. Promise. I'll be okay."
Keith couldn't shake the feeling that something was terribly, horribly wrong. This new, unwanted feeling welled up in his chest and tugged at the edges of his mind. Something was wrong.
"Alright, we're going off on our mission," he told Shiro slowly. "We'll be back in a few hours. Curan is on the bridge if you need anything."
"Thanks, Keith," Shiro mumbled as he left, letting the door slide shut.
Keith didn't say anything to the others as he rejoined them on the bridge. As he always did, he would keep his worries to himself for as long as possible. Shiro was the only one he felt he could go to about things, but he was the one Keith was concerned with.
The nagging feeling tugged at Keith for the duration of the mission. They had two outposts Allura had found that needed to be shut down. Pidge had the layouts of each and the knowledge to hack in and take them out. Keith was anxious to get back and threw himself into the fights, taking out as many drones as he could as quickly as possible.
"Great job, team," Keith announced as they all met back inside the Castle. "Awesome work."
"Yeah, well, I would have done better if someone could learn to share," Lance teased.
Keith ignored the jab and began stripping out of his armor. "I'm gonna go check on Shiro."
"Let him know we'll all be on the bridge," Allura called to him. "It might do him some good to get out of that room for a bit."
"I'll let him know."
His mind spun on the walk to Shiro's room. There were a few questions he wanted to ask him, some things he needed Shiro to have the answers to.
He found the room just as dark as he'd left it, but Shiro was sitting up in his bed, back against the wall.
"Feeling better?" Keith asked as the door shut behind him.
"Yeah," Shiro sighed. "How'd your mission go?"
"Easy," he said, knowing Shiro didn't want to know how the mission went.
"How have things been going while I've been gone?" he asked after a brief silence. "You seem to be leading things well."
"Not as well as you," Keith assured him. "As much as I don't want to, I've been piloting Black."
"Allura is piloting Red, then?" Keith shook his head and Shiro's brow furrowed in confusion. "Lance is piloting Red?"
"Yeah. Allura is in Blue."
"Well I can't say I saw that coming," Shiro mumbled. "Have things with the Galra calmed down any? We took out Zarkon, but I can't imagine his empire would fall so quickly."
"We took out Zarkon but he has a son. Prince Lotor," Keith told him. He explained everything they'd gone through since Shiro had vanished. Everything leading up to the meteor, without mentioning dead-alternate-reality Shiro. Shiro stared down at the floor, away from Keith. "What happened to you these last few months?"
"I don't know. The last thing I remember was Zarkon trying to overtake the black Lion," Shiro admitted quietly. Keith's eyes narrowed as he scanned Shiro's expression behind his hair. "It told me to use my bayard. Then, just nothing. I woke up and I was back on a Glara ship."
"Well, you just unlocked the black Lion's ability to teleport. Could it have teleported you? Maybe it was trying to save you," Keith tried to rationalize.
"By teleporting me into the hands of the Galra?" Shiro asked dryly.
"Maybe Zarkon forced it to," Keith continued. "I mean, he was trying to control the Lion right up until the last moment, right?"
"Yeah, maybe," Shiro mumbled, voice barely audible.
Keith could tell suddenly that Shiro felt the same as he did. Something was off, and Shiro knew it, too.
"Well, if you're feeling up to it, the rest of the team would be thrilled to see you up and around again," Keith told him, letting it drop. "They need you, you know." I need you, Keith wanted to add.
Shiro's frown deepened. "Yeah, I'll try."
"Okay, we'll be on the bridge." Keith turned on his heel to leave, but Shiro's voice stopped him as the door slid open.
He stopped and turned. "Yeah?"
"How many times are you going to have to save me before this is over?" Shiro asked.
"As many times as it takes," he responded immediately, ignoring the warning flag in the back of his mind at the question. It seemed like a joke, Shiro even had a smirk on his face, but Keith felt uneasy at the question and the way Shiro posed it. Still, he smiled back at his friend for now and left him, leaving to join the others on the bridge.
Something was seriously wrong, and nothing good was about to happen…