When they finally found him, Keith had been missing for more than three weeks. He had been stranded on a desolate, frozen moon with nothing on it except sheets of ice. He was severely malnourished and delirious with sickness and hypothermia. He had barely responded when Shiro pulled him out of his broken-down Blade ship and carried him to safety in Black. Now he was resting peacefully in the medbay under the watchful and sorrowful eyes of Coran and Hope, hooked up to half the medbay’s worth of monitors and tubes. He looked very small and still under the warm medbay blanket, and his face was gaunt and pale.
Lance and Hunk tended to avoid the medbay at the best of times, but now they seemed to look for any excuse not to have to come in and look at the pitiful form of their friend lying still on the bed. Allura would drop by on occasion, but she admitted the uneasy and sorrowful silence that had settled on the medbay made her uncomfortable, and she felt she would only be in the way. Pidge, on the other hand, seemed unable to keep away. Whatever lab work was portable she brought down to the medbay and spread across the bed next to Keith’s. She sat there for hours on end like a miniature sentry, absorbed in her work but somehow attuned to Keith at the same time. Every time something on one of the monitors changed, her gaze would flick across the bed to the readout on the screen, and then to the still, silent form in the bed.
Keith was never alone in the medbay; not that he was aware. He hadn’t woken since Shiro had brought him back four quintants ago. Shiro hadn’t left the medbay in that time, either. He spent the whole time in a chair by Keith’s bedside or hovering behind Hope or Coran as they fussed over Keith or studied the monitors for any sign of improvement. Hope and Allura had begged him more than once to please come up to the kitchen and eat, or sleep in his own bed and not the uncomfortable chair? After three days, they had mostly given up, and resorted to bringing him meals (or sending them down with Pidge) and moving him to a nearby bed when he inevitably passed out in his chair.
Shiro couldn’t stand feeling so helpless. The healing pods were useless in this case, and so they had to rely on Altean medical equipment and the expertise of Hope and Coran, and trust that eventually Keith would be back to normal. The fact that he hadn’t woken up yet, even after four days, was troubling. Hope had tried to reassure Shiro, and hide her concern as much as possible, but Shiro was no fool. He knew it wasn’t a good sign, but he was powerless to help. The only thing he could do was stand vigil, and that’s what he planned to do until Keith was safely on the mend.
Shiro sighed and got up from his chair, stretched a bit, and approached the bed as he had done so many times already. Keith looked no different from the last time he had checked. His face was still sickly and pale and hollow, with sunken cheeks and sallow skin. Encouragingly, it wasn’t as ghostly as it had been four days ago, but that wasn’t much improvement. The rest of him wasn’t much better, huddled under the strangely-textured Altean blanket. Coran had told him it was a special kind of heat-regulating technology that had worked wonders on Keith’s hypothermia during the first day. That, at least, was easily fixable. Shiro reached over and ran his left hand through Keith’s thick black hair, letting its texture at his fingertips ground him; convince him that Keith was really there, and this wasn’t just some sick dream. Keith’s hair was still tangled and dirty. They hadn’t had a chance to wash it. Once his condition improved and they were able to remove some of the wires and tubes, they would be able to clean him up a bit. Perhaps then he would look less like a corpse and more like his little brother.
As far as he could piece together, Keith had been on a mission for the Blades when his shuttle had malfunctioned, stranding him on a desolate and barren moon. As was their policy, the Blades left him for dead, never once considering Keith’s status as a part of Voltron and that they might care about what happened to him. Kolivan hadn’t bothered to inform the group, and had Lance not asked after Keith during one of their virtual Coalition meetings, they might never have known until it was too late. In a way, it was too late.
Shiro could understand, in some twisted, completely practical way, the reasoning behind the Blade’s policy. Kolivan was a very cautious man, and his organization was up against incredible odds. But that didn’t mean Shiro’s heart didn’t burn whenever he thought about the cold, emotionless Galra organization. Keith needed family, warmth, and companionship. Shiro knew he couldn’t always protect Keith, especially from something Keith felt was the best thing for him, but that didn’t stop him from both aching with protectiveness and smoldering with anger at Kolivan and anyone else who had or might hurt him.
Shiro remembered that smoldering fire blazing up into a storm when Lance had asked Kolivan to say hi to Keith for him and the rest of the team. Without any sign of sorrow or regret, or even any emotion at all, Kolivan had informed them in a sterilized, impersonal way that Keith had been MIA for just over three weeks and presumed dead. The reaction in the bridge had been one of collective disbelief and disgust that quickly turned to rage. Shiro was privately glad that Kolivan had only been present via transmission and not actually there, because there was no guarantee that Shiro wouldn’t have activated his mech arm and torn the hulking Galra limb from limb. He’d done it before in the gladiator pits, and Kolivan wasn’t so different in height and build to some of his old opponents.
Eventually the others had been able to calm him down enough to where he was aware of himself again, and as soon as he had wrapped his head around the situation and hurtled some choice words at the Blade leader, who remained infuriatingly emotionless, as though he was watching a boring documentary instead of being ripped a new one by the leader of Voltron, he was heading for Black’s hangar, followed closely by Lance, Pidge, and Hunk. Pidge entered coordinates Shiro didn’t remember her getting, and before long they had found the tiny, barren moon that held his lost brother.
Keith had been delirious and hypothermic, huddled under his emergency blanket in the hull of his downed ship, surrounded by empty ration packets and half-drunk water pouches. Lance had surmised, very sensibly, that Keith had probably harvested some of the ice from outside once his own rations ran out, so at least he wasn’t dehydrated. That was probably what had kept him alive for so long. He’d responded briefly to Shiro’s presence before passing out entirely, but Pidge supposed (and Shiro had to agree) that he had been alone for so long and was so out of it that he probably thought he was hallucinating. That hadn’t stopped Shiro from gathering his brother’s pale, shrunken form into his arms and holding him close. He’d been so scared that they would be too late – that all they would find would be a corpse.
Keith still looked like a corpse, but at least his paper-white skin had regained some color in the last few quintants. Shiro tugged his hand through Keith’s thick hair again and sighed deeply.
“I wish you had stayed with us,” he whispered. “I understand, in a way, that you felt you needed to be doing something. We all want to help in any way we can. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss you. That I don’t miss you.”
It was one of the rare moments that Pidge had stepped out of the medbay, likely to use the bathroom, leaving the two brothers alone, with only a sorrowful silence as their companion. Shiro’s hand drifted from his brother’s hair down to the side of his face, remembering how icy his skin had been when they had first found him. It was warmer now, but thinner, and seemingly stretched over sharp cheekbones. Keith had lost a lot of weight and muscle definition, and it would take a long time to regain it. In a way, Shiro was almost glad, because it would allow Keith time back with his friends, his family, and maybe, just maybe, they could convince him to stay for good.
The face beneath Shiro’s hand twitched. Shiro blinked and stared, hardly daring to breathe. Keith’s face twitched again, and his eyes scrunched up before slowly opening. It was only a sliver, but they were open, and Shiro’s heart melted at the sight. How close had they been to never seeing these eyes again?
“Hey,” he said softly, rubbing his thumb against Keith’s too-sharp cheekbone in what he hoped was a soothing manner. Keith was still blinking blearily up at him, likely adjusting to the light and still figuring out where he was. Shiro searched his face, waiting for the moment of recognition. “Hey, it’s alright, bud. I’m here. Shiro’s here. You’re in the medbay at the Castle. You’re safe.”
Keith took a deep, shuddering breath, and something in his face shifted as he blinked up at his brother.
“Shiro,” he said, his voice no more than a thin, reedy whisper.
“Yes, it’s me,” Shiro replied, his own eyes blurring with tears. “I’m here.”
Keith gave him the barest hint of a smile. It was likely all he could manage.
“You came for me,” he said.
Shiro’s heart leapt. “Of course I did, buddy. Of course I did.”