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Where the Shadows Lie

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NOW:

“Why are your eyes all red?”

It’s Lance who asks, probably because Hunk is busy cooking. It’s usually Hunk who notices things like red eyes at breakfast, but he’s busy stirring a large pot of porridge made from a local grain that he swears will taste just like oatmeal, even if it is neon pink.

“Guess I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Keith says with an apathetic shrug. He’d spent most of the night either kicking the smothering covers off because he was sweltering, or pulling them back on because he was suddenly freezing. The remainder of the night had involved endless trips to the water dispenser. Even now, he’s never been so thirsty.

“You should probably stop rubbing them,” Hunk says absently, placing the large metal pot in the middle of the table. He grabs a stack of bowls from one of the cabinets and begins spooning generous portions of hot pink porridge into them. He sets them down in front of the other paladins.

“They’re itchy,” Keith says flatly, and also extremely sore to the touch, though he doesn’t say it.

Shiro slides into his seat at the head of the table, his hair wet and a damp towel draped over his neck. “Where’s Pidge?” He asks, taking a somewhat dubious sniff of Hunk’s alien-oatmeal concoction from the bowl in front of him.

Actually, the table is square, so there is no de-facto head. Lance and Keith generally sit on one side, Hunk and Pidge sit on the other, and Shiro sits by himself on the side to Keith’s left.

Since Hunk started experimenting with local ingredients, the paladins have been taking most of their meals together here in the kitchen, ever since Pidge mentioned finding the smell of cooking food comforting. It’s usually just the five of them, Allura preferring to take meals in her quarters and Coran doing whatever it is Coran does when he’s not around.

“She could be sleeping in,” Lance says, poking a spoon at the pink mush filling his bowl. “It was pretty late when I checked on her last night and she was still awake.” With a shrug, he scoops a small amount of space-oatmeal onto the spoon and shoves it into his mouth. “Hmmm not bad Hunk,” he says, licking his lips.

“Thank you,” Hunk says, a pleased smile tugging at his lips. “I didn’t know you did that. Checked in on Pidge, I mean.”

Shiro’s eyes track Keith as he leaves the table for a moment to grab an empty glass from one of the cabinets. He fills it with water and gulps it down while standing in front of the dispenser.

Like all of the common areas scattered throughout the castle, the kitchen is an odd mixture of familiar yet alien decor. The entire room is white, save for the stainless steel sink and stove, or the Altean equivalent of stainless steel anyway. The faucet is a weird shape and there are touch pads instead of handles, but the water comes out the same. The refrigeration unit is shaped like a barrel, but it seems to work on the same basic principles as its counterparts back on Earth, and there are cabinets and drawers filled with slightly odd looking, but functional flatware and utensils.

“She falls asleep in front of her computer a lot,” Lance is saying, “so I just make sure she actually makes it to bed sometimes.”

“Did you do that last night?” Shiro asks, his attention returning to Lance as Keith shuffles back to the table with a second glass of water in his hand.

“No, I fell asleep,” Lance admits.

Keith swallows the water in great yawning gulps that do little to quench his persistent thirst, the bowl of hot pink porridge remains untouched in front of him.

“Not eating?” Shiro asks, sampling a spoonful from his own bowl.

Keith swallows. “Not really hungry,” he mumbles. He’s feeling pretty queasy actually. He grimaces, rubbing his sore eyes, and fitfully tugs at an itchy patch of skin beneath the collar of his t-shirt.

Shiro’s brow knits as he reaches across the table with his flesh and blood hand to lower Keith’s collar. “How long have you had that rash?”

Keith looks down, eyeing the livid scarlet lesions covering his chest and beginning to creep up his neck like scabby vines. “Since…last night, I guess,” he says, blinking stupidly. Where the hell did that come from?

Shiro frowns, pressing the back of his hand to Keith’s cheek. Keith just sighs, pulling away wouldn’t discourage Shiro from mothering him. “Keith, you’re burning up,” Shiro says, his jaw clenching in concern.

“Wait, what?” Lance cries, “You couldn’t have warned me you were sick before I sat down next to you!”

“I didn’t… know?” Keith stammers awkwardly.

“Of course you didn’t,” Lance says rolling his eyes, though his tone is not unkind, “I swear sometimes it’s like you were assembled out of spare parts.”

“Are you trying to say I lack self-awareness,” Keith says, rubbing his eyes.

“I’m trying to say I think you’re the tin-man and you run on gasoline,” Lance says dryly.

“Okay that rash is really gross,” Hunk babbles nervously. “Is this like the Galra flu? Is that even a thing? Do the Galra even get sick?”

“How would I know?” Keith cries in exasperation. “I’m not a Galra!”

“Well, you’re a little Galra,” Hunk says with a shrug.

“Was that some kind of short joke?” Keith asks, scowling at him.

“Honestly no,” Hunk grins, “it was a straight up statement of fact. The joke was just an unexpected bonus.”

Lance snorts.

“You’re not…” Keith’s about to say funny, but he suddenly falters, breaking out in cold sweat when his unsettled stomach turns and bitter bile crawls up the back of his throat. He gags, bolting from the chair.

“Oh no, no, no, not in the sink!” Hunk groans, sighing explosively as Keith vomits green bile into the steel basin. “Oh man, I just washed that.”

Shiro tries to steady him, pressing his cool composite hand to Keith’s sweaty forehead with an expression of growing concern straining his face. “How long has it been since Korvaz?” He asks no one in particular. “Ten days?”

“Yeah,” Hunk says thoughtfully, “kind of sounds like an incubation period doesn’t it.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Shiro says.

Completely spent, Keith sags against him, rubbing his burning eyes with trembling fingers. “Shit,” he says with as much venom as he can muster, “fucking Korvaz.”

Korvaz, otherwise known as the tropical jewel of the Mira system, or as Pidge had taken to calling it, Satan’s Gardener’s Butthole. According to Coran, Korvaz was the only known planet to produce the Kalayaan tree, a tree considered sacred to the Kimerik people, an alien civilisation located in a nearby star system.

The Kimerik were miners and forgers of Tyzantium, an essential material used in the making of star drives such as the one powering the castle. In exchange for a healthy young Kalayaan sapling to replace the dying tree currently located in their temple, the Kimerik people had agreed to refit the castle with a state of the art star drive. It was Pidge’s job to retrieve the sapling from Korvaz. Keith was sent along as backup.

From the start, the mission proved to be… problematic. Korvaz was a jungle planet so densely populated with vegetation, the green lion was unable to make landfall. They wound up having to park her in low orbit around the planet while they flew down to the surface using their thruster packs.

Oddly Korvaz was completely devoid of animal life, but what it did have in abundance were insects, huge nasty stinging insects. While Keith and Pidge were forced to slowly pick their way through the dense undergrowth, they were eaten alive by every unfriendly bug within a fifty mile radius. Oh and, there wasn’t any actual land on the planet’s surface either, just mile after mile of shallow swampy, mucky water. Even short distances took hours to navigate. It was dirty, sweaty exhausting work.

By the time they finally got back to the castle with the sapling, they were light-headed, soaked with foul smelling grime and covered in angry red welts. Coran wouldn’t even think of letting them back on board until they’d gone through decontamination. Keith hated decontamination, which then had to be cut short when Pidge developed a bad reaction to the insect bites and had to be whisked off to the healing pods for a few hours. Looking back, is Keith surprised to learn that planet Shit-Swamp may have left him with some alien tropical disease as a parting fuck you? No, not really; he is worried about Pidge though.

“Oh man, Pidge,” Lance says, seemingly reading Keith’s thoughts, “of all the nights to fall asleep. What an idiot!”

“Not your fault Lance,” Shiro tells him, but Lance only shakes his head. He punches a button on the communications console next to the refrigeration unit. “Pidge, come in,” he says, his expression growing anxious when she doesn’t answer. “Come on Pidge, please.” He taps a few icons on the display screen and the image shifts to a map of the paladin’s wing in the castle. “According to Coran’s weird stalker GPS program, she’s still in her quarters,” he says.

Keith shivers, averting his gaze from the cheerful tract lighting stabbing his burning eyes like laser beams. He’s really starting to feel the fever now. His teeth are chattering with a growing chill. Shiro takes off his jacket and drapes it over his shoulders. Keith barely notices, his heavy head throbbing in time with his racing heart. Shiro helps him back to the table. He slumps into a chair, holding his aching head in his hands.

“You and Hunk better go check on her,” Shiro says, his hand on Keith’s shoulder offering what little comfort he can. “I’ll get Keith down to the infirmary.”

“Is that a good idea?” Hunk asks hesitantly, “Lance and I checking on Pidge I mean, not getting Keith to the infirmary, because yeah, you should definitely do that, but whatever this is we’ve all been exposed, assuming it’s contagious, but what if Pidge is okay? What if she’s just sitting in her room listening to her iPod and Lance and I go charging in there and wind up infecting her? Maybe we should send Coran instead to try to limit the exposure?”

“Yeah, but what if she has been infected and we end up unnecessarily exposing Coran to an unknown illness in the process?” Lance asks.

Shiro sighs. “I think we need to work under the assumption that whatever this is, Korvaz is most likely ground zero…”

“Fucking Korvaz,” Keith mutters darkly, his clammy forehead dropping onto the table.

“… In which case,” Shiro continues, with a sideways glance in his direction, “Pidge has already been exposed and you two checking on her won’t change anything.”

“I agree,” Lance says, obviously concerned for Pidge and impatient to see if she’s okay for himself.

“Yeah, Okay,” Hunk agrees a bit more reluctantly.

“Good,” Shiro says, giving Hunk’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You two check on Pidge and I’ll bring Allura and Coran up to speed on the way to the infirmary.”

 

THEN:

The Kimerik people love to talk. Shiro has reached this conclusion after two hours of incessant nattering from his guide through the city; Calzzir his name is and he’s nearly as annoying as Slav, a feat which Shiro would’ve sworn was impossible. Shiro’s face aches from the frozen smile permanently affixed to his lips as he listens to Calzzir recite the long, very long, interminably long, and very long-winded, story of how the first forgers of Tyzantium ushered the Kimerik people out of the stone age. He nods politely at the appropriate intervals, stifling a yawn and idly glancing around the smelting facility as they continue their tour.

They look a bit like camels, the Kimerik people, if someone were to upend a camel onto two legs and elongate the rest of its body that is. The thick skin covering their bodies is as tawny as the desert sands surrounding their city, the same with the wiry hair covering their elongated heads. Their arms are impossibly long and thin, a shade too long for their bodies, but their legs are all lean muscle and sinew ending in narrow two-toed feet. It makes them fast and sure-footed when navigating the planet’s dry rocky terrain.

Beneath the planet’s arid surface lays a network of naturally occurring caverns where the Tyzantium ore is extracted. There are other less friendly things native to the tunnels as well, Calzzir tells him, but they tend to keep to the shadows and shun the brightly lit tunnels where the Kimerik are working. The last thing he shows Shiro is the tree, a huge brown sprawling thing that looks like a many limbed creature crawling across the dusty earth. The dried leaves in its branches are rust coloured with bright yellow centres. According to Calzzir what makes the tree so unique is its ability to adapt to any climate. The only one like it in all the known universe.

Apparently the Paladins of Voltron arrived just as the tree was nearing the end of its life-cycle, which was seen as an extremely fortuitous sign. The Kimerik people were very into signs. They’d been only too happy to broker a deal, immediately abandoning plans to launch an expedition of their own to Korvaz. They seemed practically giddy with relief actually, though Shiro just chalked it up to a natural aversion to space travel. The timing was fortuitous for the paladins as well, since Zarkon had been strangely absent from the picture lately, which, according to Coran, made it an ideal time for some much needed upgrades to the castle’s systems.

Later, when the black lion is trudging back across the jagged terrain to the castle parked just outside the city, Shiro wonders how he a pilot, got roped into playing diplomatic liaison on this mission. Generally it’s Allura who takes point on these things, though she has been stressing the importance of the paladins diplomatic role lately. That defending the universe apparently includes dealing with mid-level bureaucrats and long-winded political aides is vaguely disappointing, but Shiro supposes, unavoidable.

At the moment, he’s just grateful to be on his way back. He’s sweaty and tired and hungry and all he’s interested in right now is a hot shower and a short nap followed by a hot meal. Keith should be back from Korvaz by now, if he’s lucky maybe they can even share that meal together. Shiro can’t remember the last time it was just the two of them.

He’s stepping out of the paladin’s wing lift from his lion’s flight bay when he runs into Hunk and Lance heading down to the infirmary.

“Why? What’s happened?” Shiro asks, immediately on edge, a sudden rush of adrenaline heightening his senses.

“Apparently the Kimerik left out a few pertinent details about Korvaz,” Lance says sardonically, folding his arms across his chest.

“Yeah,” Hunk says, “Keith and Pidge had a pretty rough time. He’s still in isolation and she wound up in a healing pod. Lance and I were just headed down to sit with her until she gets out.”

“Were they attacked?” Shiro asks.

Lance and Hunk look at each other. “You could say that, yeah,” Lance says.

Keith is standing in the decontamination chamber with his back to the wall when Shiro enters the infirmary. Stripped down to his boxers, his arms are pulled tightly across his chest and his eyes are closed, though they immediately open at the sound of the automatic doors opening.

“You remember all that stuff I said about liking the forest because it was quiet?” He asks as Shiro comes to a halt just outside the glass chamber. “Well, forget it. Nature sucks.”

The chamber is illuminated with pale rose coloured lights, making the swollen welts covering every visible inch of Keith’s body stand out even more. Shiro’s mouth draws into a tight thin line as Keith comes towards him and rests his palm against the glass.

“Is Pidge okay?”

“She’s fine,” Shiro says. “I think Hunk is baking her cookies.”

“Didn’t we use his last batch to open a wormhole?”

“I think he’s tweaked the recipe since then,” Shiro remarks dryly. “How are you feeling?” He asks.

“Like I should be swinging from a bell tower demanding sanctuary,” Keith says flatly.

Here’s the thing about Keith, he’s actually hilarious, one of the funniest people Shiro has ever met, but only when they’re alone together. When anyone else is around, it’s as if an iron gate comes crashing down and he withdraws behind it, becoming wary and taciturn to the rest of the world.

“Well, I don’t think the castle has a belfry, but I could always check with Coran if that would make you more comfortable.”

“Hilarious,” Keith says, smiling wanly. He smiles more when they’re alone together as well, though it’s always been difficult to make him laugh. He stands behind the glass quietly regarding Shiro with those unlikely violet eyes that are somehow too old for his face, as if they’ve seen enough pain for two lifetimes, and Shiro can’t help but notice the lines of tension beneath the livid blisters covering his skin. “Lance is calling me the lord of the flies.”

Shiro has to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. “I’ll talk to him,” he says, somehow managing to keep his voice from cracking.

“Nah,” Keith says with a shrug, “I mean if our situations were reversed, I’d be calling him the exact same thing.”

“No you wouldn’t”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Keith agrees, “but I’d be thinking it.” He raises his hand as if poised to scratch his face, but seems to think better of it at the last second, balling his hand into a fist before lowering it again with a muttered “fuck!”

“Are they painful?” Shiro asks.

“Not at all, why do they look painful?” Keith deadpans.

“Right, stupid question.”

“They got in under the armour,” Keith says, his nose wrinkling in distaste. “We were still crawling when we got back.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, we got the tree,” Keith says, “that’s all that matters right?”

“You know it’s not,” Shiro says a little hotly.

Keith frowns slightly at that. “Coran says the lights are supposed to help,” he says, glancing up at the pale pink bulbs hanging over his head, “something about the colour spectrum accelerating healing.”

“And you’re not in a healing pod because?”

“What? For a few bug bites?”

“Oh here we go,” Shiro says rolling his eyes.

“Maybe if my arm was dangling off,” Keith says thoughtfully.

“Or there was a big gash in your shoulder.”

Keith scowls at that. “Space Ghost, don’t make me kick your ass,” he says flatly.

“It’s a healing pod Keith, not a microwave,” Shiro says, massaging the space between his eyes.

“They weren’t designed for human beings Shiro,” Keith insists. “Where are the quality control studies? I mean for all we know those things could cause Cancer!”

“You’re ridiculous,” Shiro says, shaking his head, “I hope you realise that.”

“I’m cautious, there’s a difference.”

“Right, because that’s the one word that immediately springs to mind whenever I think of you; cautious.”

“Shut up,” Keith grumbles, though Shiro can see the almost smile tugging at his lips.

“So when are they springing you from this thing?” He asks.

“I’m not really sure,” Keith says, pulling a face, “Coran is being pretty vague about it.”

Shiro sighs. “Just tell me you’re okay,” he says.

“I’m okay Takashi,” Keith says softly, pressing his forehead to the glass, “honestly.”

Shiro covers Keith’s forehead with his own, a comforting illusion of intimacy despite the three inches of glass standing between them. “Can I get you anything?”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind my tablet,” Keith tells him. “If I’m gonna be living here now, it’d be nice to have a book to pass the time.”

Shiro smiles. “I’ll make sure you get it.”

The automatic doors open behind Shiro and Keith springs away from the glass like shrapnel ricocheting off a wall. Shiro sighs and takes a step back, silently watching Keith’s defences go up. His mouth draws into a tight thin line as he crosses his arms over his chest.

“Just thought I’d check in and see how Number-Four is getting on,” Coran says cheerfully, striding into the room. “Eek,” he says, grimacing slightly as he comes to a sudden halt just inside the doorway, “you’re spottier than a Malerbian Weiju.”

Keith scowls at him, appearing to shrink slightly as he draws his limbs closer to his body. “Okay, I don’t know what a Malerbian Wei-whatever is, but I’m pretty sure I’ve just been insulted.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Coran quickly back pedals, glancing at Shiro for assistance. Shiro just shrugs. “Malerbian Weijus are quite attractive to… other Malerbian Weijus. They mate for life you know.”

“Great, maybe we can find me one to marry,” Keith says tartly, his back once again against the wall.

“Of course the bites would clear up faster if they were all exposed to the light.”

“Not taking my underwear off Coran,” Keith says flatly.

“Well, suit yourself,” Coran says with a shrug, “although the bites closest to your…”

“Do not finish that sentence Coran!” Keith cries, screwing his eyes shut.

“Fine, but they’ll take twice as long to heal.”

“Starting to get borderline creepy now Coran.”

“Coran,” Shiro interjects, “I think what Keith really needs right now is some peace and time to recuperate.” Keith looks up, grateful for the intervention. Shiro nods almost imperceptibly.

“Well, time heals all wounds as my grandfather used to say,” Coran says with a shrug.

“Your grandfather sounds like a very wise man,” Shiro says, placing his hands on Coran’s shoulders and gently manoeuvring him out through the automatic doors.

“Oh yes he was quite insightful,” Coran agrees, “I’ll never forget the last time we saw each other. Coran, he said, if it’s any solace, everybody dies alone. Well, it probably isn’t.”

“Heartwarming,” Shiro says flatly, one eyebrow quirking in bewilderment.

Just before the doors slide shut behind them he glances back over his shoulder, but Keith doesn’t notice. His eyes are already closed.

 

NOW:

Hunk charges through the infirmary doors with Pidge sagging bonelessly in his arms. Lance is close on his heels.

“How is she?” Shiro asks anxiously, helping Keith onto the diagnostic couch rising up from a panel in the floor. Keith immediately rolls over onto his side, pulling his knees up to his chest as if trying to collapse into himself. He groans, clutching his head in trembling hands. Shiro presses his lips together, resisting the urge to caress his clammy cheek.

He should’ve known something was wrong when Keith insisted on spending the night alone in his quarters. He’d said he was just tired, but Shiro couldn’t help but notice how jittery and restless the normally self-possessed paladin had been all that day, as if he was uncomfortable inside his own skin. In retrospect, he supposed Pidge had been acting the same way, though it was harder to tell with her since she was a far more animated person in general.

“Not good,” Hunk answers breathlessly. “She’s burning up and she’s got the same rash as Keith, and her eyes are swollen shut.”

“Yeah, Keith’s are too,” Shiro says, fighting a rising panic at the sight of his swollen eyelids, red and angry-looking and oozing rust coloured tears. The rash has spread as well, crawling out past the collar and sleeves of his t-shirt like spidery red hands.

“What? Since when?” Hunk asks.

“Did you say swollen eyes?” Coran asks, and Hunk startles, turning to notice the floating computer screen hanging in the air behind him for the first time; it’s displaying an image of Coran and Allura from the castle’s control room.

“Yeah, why?” Hunk asks.

Allura lays her hand on Coran’s arm. “Coran it can’t be,” she says.

“Can’t be what?” Shiro asks sharply, “Coran?”

Coran presses his lips together. “Get her onto the diagnostic couch,” he says, tapping the display visible on the screen at his fingertips. Hunk turns to find a couch identical to the one that Keith is currently laying on rising up through an open panel in the floor.

“Cool, space savers,” Lance says, “but shouldn’t we be getting them into the healing pods?” He asks.

Hunk deposits Pidge as gently as he can onto the couch. Immediately she pulls herself into a tight little ball, her head nearly touching her knees. She’s mumbling the same words over and over. Shiro and Hunk exchange a glance, then lean in closer to hear what she’s saying.

“I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” but whether she’s trying to convince them, or herself Shiro doesn’t know.

“Unfortunately no,” Allura says, as Coran taps a few icons on his display, and hundreds of little pressure pads come to life on the couches.

“The healing pods are only useful for treating physical injuries,” Coran says. “Simple wounds, broken bones, and internal injuries,” The pressure pads glow with an eerie blue light that travels the length of each couch, tracing a thin blue line of light along the paladins prone bodies. It reminds Shiro of the scanner on an old 3D printer. “They’re ineffective against viral illnesses and infections, otherwise I would have used one when I had the Slipperies.”

“Huh,” Hunk says thoughtfully, “I guess it’s like back on Earth. We can re-generate almost any cell in the body but we still haven’t come up with a cure for the common cold.”

A chime sounds and Coran’s display is suddenly flooded with lines of information, presumably the results of the couches diagnostic scans. He quickly scans it, his face growing paler and more drawn as he reads.

“Coran,” Shiro says, his jaw clenched so tightly it aches.

“It’s Firehead Fever,” Coran says, his voice a stunned whisper.

“Okay that sounds…not good,” Hunk says tensely, “your head doesn’t like literally catch on fire does it?”

“No,” Coran says softly, “it just feels like it’s on fire.”

“Yeah, that’s probably not better,” Hunk says, his brow knitting in concern as he eyes his friends trembling bodies.

“But it can’t be Coran,” Allura says, “Firehead was eradicated ten-thousand years ago.”

“It was eradicated on Altea,” Coran agrees, “but this is an unknown strain. There’s no telling how the virus has mutated in the past ten-thousand years… which reminds me,” he taps an icon on his display and a drawer pops out of the wall next to Lance. There are three small devices inside no larger than the palm of his hand. Lance lifts one out.

“It looks like a barcode scanner,” he says, turning the palm-sized device over in his hand.

“Well, I don’t know what that is,” Coran says, “but you are at least partly correct. It’s a handheld diagnostic scanner. You three need to scan each other for the virus.”

“Like Star Trek,” Lance says. He squints at the device for a moment, pressing buttons until it suddenly leaps to life in his hand with an electric blue pulse.

“So what exactly are we dealing with here?” Shiro asks as the three of them run the scanners over each other from head to toe.

“Ten-thousand years ago Firehead Fever was the scourge of Altea,” Allura tells them. “It took thousands of lives, until a vaccine was developed and the virus was eliminated.”

“So it’s… fatal then,” Shiro says tonelessly, his throat closing up.

Coran and Allura exchange a somber glance. “Usually,” Coran admits.

It’s as if all the oxygen has suddenly been sucked out of the room. Scanners forgotten, the three paladins just stand there in stunned silence, staring at each other. Someone whimpers, Shiro thinks it might be Pidge. His eyes stray to the two glowing couches to see Keith blindly reaching out to her. His hand finds her shoulder, then slides down her arm to clasp her hand. She shudders, her fingers intertwining with his as she curls herself into an even tighter ball beside him.

Shiro can’t imagine losing either of them. Pidge, the little sister he’d always wished he’d had and Keith, his… Maybe there isn’t a proper word to describe exactly what Keith is to him, Shiro only knows that he loves him. He means more to Shiro than anyone ever has and losing him would be like losing a part of himself.

Something crunches and Shiro looks down to find the scanner in pieces in his glowing artificial hand. He closes his eyes, forcing himself to relax until it powers down. “Sorry,” he murmurs to no one in particular.

Hunk grabs his shoulder. “I’m right there with you brother,” he says.

Lance nods in agreement and resumes Shiro’s interrupted scan.

“That was ten-thousand years ago though,” Coran says. “The virus may have weakened since then.”

“Yeah, but, I mean the scans still recognised it as this Firehead thing right,” Hunk says, regarding each of them in turn.

“That’s true,” Coran says.

“And even different strains of the flu have the same basic symptoms.”

And the same potential for fatality, Shiro thinks. He knows the others are thinking it as well, though the words go left unsaid.

The scans complete, Lance takes the two remaining devices and plugs them into the data ports inside the drawer. “Uploading manual scanner results to you now, Coran,” he says.

Coran’s display lights up with several new lines of information. He tenses for a moment, carefully reading the results before finally sagging with relief. Allura sighs beside him. “Thank Alfor,” Coran says, “there’s no sign of the virus in any of you. It seems that humans may actually have a natural resistance. I believe Pidge and Keith only contracted it because their immune systems were so compromised at the time of exposure.”

“How did they get it?” Lance asks, “Is the virus transmitted by space-mosquito, or something?”

“It’s a waterborne illness,” Coran says, shaking his head, “the virus breeds in standing bodies of stagnant water and enters the host’s body through wounds in the skin such as…”

“Bug bites,” Hunk and Lance say together.

“Precisely,” Coran says.

“So where does that leave you guys?” Hunk asks, nodding his chin at the floating display.

“Coran was one of the first Alteans to receive the vaccine after it was first developed,” Allura says solemnly, “and I was vaccinated as a small child.”

“And according to the castle’s scans, there are still active antibodies present in our blood, so we should be safe enough,” Coran confirms.

“That takes care of us,” Shiro says softly, “but what about them?”

Coran presses his lips together, for once at a loss for words.

Shiro closes his eyes, the beginnings of a tension headache wearing on his nerves. “Hunk is right,” he says after taking a deep breath. “We need to treat this strain of the virus as if it were the same one that you and Allura are familiar with. So, assuming that the mortality rate is still the same, how much time do we have?”

“The virus runs its course quickly,” Allura says, and there’s something in her tone that makes Shiro’s heart hammer inside his chest, “no more than four quintents.”

“But there are treatments right?” Hunk asks hopefully, “Antiviral drugs?”

“There were several research trials dedicated to finding a cure ten-thousand years ago, some of them were even quite promising, but all of that was abandoned when the vaccine was developed,” Coran says softly.

Shiro grits his teeth. “Bottom-line it for me Coran,” he says sharply, “what do you need?”

“That’s just it,” Coran says regretfully, “even if I could recreate the research from back then, the compounds used were all native to Altea, and Altea is… gone.”

“What, so we’re just supposed to stand here and do nothing while Pidge and Keith…” Lance says, shaking his head, “No, no way. There has to be something we can do.”

Coran and Allura exchange a glance. “We need to protect their eyes,” Coran says softly. He taps a few icons on his screen and a small platform rises out of the floor beside Hunk.

“Their eyes?” Hunk asks hesitantly, eyeing the contents of the slightly concave platform; four small ampules of amber coloured liquid and two hypodermic needles shaped like tiny guns.

“The virus causes the eyes to over dilate, making them extremely vulnerable to permanent damage from overexposure to light.” Coran explains.

“What sort of permanent damage?” Lance asks.

“In most cases, a complete loss of vision,” Allura says soberly.

Shiro, Hunk and Lance exchange a wordless glance.

“The ampules contain a gel that will form a protective coating over their eyes for several days and constrict their pupils so that the weakened lenses won’t be permanently scarred,” Coran continues.

“Whoah, whoah, whoah,” Hunk stammers nervously, “won’t that blind them?”

“Yes,” Coran says simply, “but only temporarily… I hope.”

Hunk licks his lips, looking for all the world as if he’s about to throw-up. “And these?” He asks, holding up one of the hypodermic needle guns.

“You’ll have to sedate them first,” Coran says grimly.

“Why?”

“Because it’ll feel like torture to them if you don’t,” Coran says, his lips pressed into a tight thin line.

Hunk blanches, his eyes darting to Shiro’s face. “I literally hate everything about this,” he says.

“So do I,” Shiro says tensely, “but it sounds like we don’t have much choice.”

Hunk scrubs his face. “Shit,” he murmurs, grabbing the ampules and the instruments before heading over to the diagnostic couches.

Like every Garrison cadet, Hunk has been taught basic field medicine, but Shiro knows that he also took some advanced courses because his commanding officer discovered he had an aptitude for it. Before becoming the yellow paladin he may have lacked the self-confidence to put those skills to use, but that’s certainly not the case anymore. Despite his natural ambivalence, Hunk has turned out to be incredibly clear-headed in tense situations and Shiro has come to rely on his expertise in a crisis.

“I am so sorry about this you guys,” Hunk is saying as he leans over Pidge and Keith, his big hands gently clasping their shoulders. Pidge shudders and clasps Keith’s hand more tightly at his touch.

Keith grits his teeth. “Just do it and get it over with already,” he murmurs, surprisingly lucid for someone with such a high fever.

Hunk swallows, injecting first Pidge and then Keith at the base of the neck with the hypodermic needle gun. Almost immediately they sag against the couches, their limbs going limp. Hunk presses his fingers to the pulse at Pidge’s neck, then disengages her hand from Keith’s and lays her out on her back. He then checks the pulse at Keith’s neck and rolls him over onto his back as well.

“I am so sorry Shiro,” Coran says softly, drawing Shiro’s attention back to the floating display screen, “It never occurred to me to include Firehead in my scans of the planet. I’d never have suggested this mission if I’d known.”

“There’s no way you could have Coran,” Shiro tells him, as Pidge groans softly behind him.

“Yeah,” Lance agrees, growing more tense when Pidge’s groans turn more desperate, “the Kimerik could’ve warned us before we sent our guys down to Planet Petri-Dish.”

“They certainly could have,” Allura agrees, her turquoise eyes flashing with anger.

“Let’s not…” Shiro starts.

Pidge screams and Shiro and Lance turn on their heels to find Hunk struggling to keep her head steady as she thrashes on the couch. “She’s out, I swear,” he growls through gritted teeth. “Lance! Help me. I only got one of them in!”

Lance hurries over and practically throws his body on top of Pidge to immobilise her, “What the hell Coran!” He cries, “I thought you said sedating them was supposed to make this less painful.”

“I had to keep the dosage weak,” Coran sputters, “anything deeper and they might never wake up again.”

“Yeah, fuck you Coran,” Hunk mutters, discharging the second ampule into Pidge’s inflamed eye with trembling hands. She shrieks, her back arching off the couch as Lance grimly holds her down. Immediately Hunk caresses her face. “It’s done. It’s over. I’m so sorry Pidge,” he says softly, stroking her sweaty brow until her tormented moans dissolve to soft whimpers and she grows still, falling into deeper unconsciousness.

Slowly Hunk and Lance straighten up, their eyes falling on Keith sleeping in relative peace on the adjoining couch. “Shit,” Lance breathes.

It takes all three of them to hold him down. Shiro lays his artificial arm across Keith’s chest, trapping his arms while Lance holds down his legs and Hunk struggles to keep his head steady and dose his eyes with viscous amber gel.

“Lance,” Hunk grunts, nearly spilling the second ampule’s contents as Keith writhes in his grip, “hold him steady!”

“I’m trying,” Lance snaps, “he’s really strong!” His eyes widen suddenly, “Hey, do you guys think Keith’s Galra blood makes him stronger than other humans? I mean for a little guy, he’s pretty powerful.”

“Well, I don’t know Lance,” Hunk grumbles, “why don’t we wake him up and see how fast he kicks your ass.”

“You know, sarcasm is just a lazy form of aggression Hunk,” Lance says flatly.

“Oh, shut your hipster bong-hole!”

“You’re the one wearing the head-band Sunshine!”

“Knock it off!” Shiro snaps, “I realise we’re all stressed-out right now, but fighting amongst ourselves won’t solve anything!”

Lance pulls a face, dissolving into moody silence as Hunk finally manages to administer the final dose to Keith’s inflamed eye. Keith gasps, convulsing in agony, though Shiro quickly takes his face in his hands and starts whispering soothing words to him. He catches a glimpse of the amber gel spreading in a thick layer over Keith’s eye, obscuring completely the violet iris and rapidly contracting pupil before his swollen eyelid slips closed again. Keith whimpers, rust coloured tears slowly sliding down his face. Shiro wipes them away and gently runs his flesh and blood fingers through Keith’s matted hair until he quiets.

The three of them straighten up, completely wrung-out from the experience.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you man,” Hunk says by way of apology, too embarrassed by his uncharacteristic outburst to look at anything but his own feet.

“Dude,” Lance says affectionately, “you rock that head-band.”

Hunk looks up, a wan smile tugging at his lips. Lance returns the smile. “Now what?” He asks no one in particular.

“Now we wait,” Coran says as the three paladins turn towards the floating display screen, “and hope for the best,” though it’s clear from his tone, Coran doesn’t hold out any himself. Beside him, Allura’s face says it all.

“No,” Shiro says softly.

“Pardon?”

“I said no, we’re not doing that,” Shiro says, determinedly squaring his shoulders.

“Shiro, there’s nothing…”

“I sent them there Coran!” Shiro says curtly, cutting him off.

“Shiro,” Hunk says, placing his hand on Shiro’s shoulder, “no one’s blaming you for this.”

“I know,” Shiro tells him, “but as team leader I’m responsible. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go back to Kimerik,” he says firmly. “The people there have been sending expeditions to Korvaz for hundreds of years, so they must know something about its dangers.”

“Nice if they would’ve let us in on it,” Lance mutters sarcastically. Hunk smacks him on the arm to shut him up.

“If they’ve dealt with this illness before,” Shiro continues, with a slightly annoyed glance at both of them, “then it’s possible they’ve developed a cure, or at the very least, some sort of treatment.”

“That’s…” Coran blinks as the wheels inside his head begin to turn, “actually not a terrible idea,” he says.

“It’s the best idea we’ve got,” Allura says, her expression the most hopeful Shiro’s seen in several hours, “and certainly worth a shot.”

“Okay,” Shiro says with a nod. “It’s a plan.” He turns to Hunk and Lance, their jaws set in determination as they nod back. “We’ve got four days to save Keith and Pidge,” Shiro says. “Let’s make them count.”

TBC

Chapter Text

Then

Shiro wakes with a start during the night when the castle’s environmental systems automatically kick on with a soft rush of air. The same thing wakes him every night, though usually only for a few minutes before Keith rolls over and curls up against him, his forehead resting on Shiro’s chest and his soft even breathing lulling Shiro back to sleep. Tonight, there is no Keith. The empty space beside Shiro is cold, though there is an extra blanket tucked around him. He sighs and sits up. “Lights,” he murmurs softly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as the room brightens.

Shiro had a feeling he’d have to track Keith down at some point. The whole ‘Guess who’s part Galra,’ conversation hadn’t exactly gone over well, especially with Allura. She’d listened in stone-faced silence to Keith’s story, then abruptly left the room and locked herself in her quarters. As for everyone else, well, shocked didn’t really seem to cover it.

Keith had a thing about fighting his own battles, so Shiro hadn’t intervened on his behalf. In most situations, Keith wouldn’t have expected him to, but Shiro wonders now if that had been a mistake. Perhaps Keith had interpreted his lack of public support as a betrayal, yet surprisingly Shiro had found Keith in his room when he’d finally turned in. He’d figured Keith’s first instinct would be to hide from everyone including him, but there he was curled up on the edge of Shiro’s bed in a grey t-shirt and Shiro’s flannel pyjama bottoms pooling around his feet.

Shiro had climbed in behind him with his back to the wall and Keith had rolled over to face him, his violet eyes big and forlorn in the pale twilight. Shiro didn’t know what to say that would make him feel better, but Keith didn’t seem to want to talk. He just tucked his head under Shiro’s chin and Shiro silently put his arm around him and rubbed his back with his flesh and blood hand. Eventually, he’d fallen asleep to the soft rhythm of Keith’s heart beating against his chest. He’d thought they’d turned a corner, maybe Keith was finally done running. But that was before he’d woken up to find that Keith had slipped away from him like a thief in the night.

With a sigh, Shiro rolls out of bed and pulls a sweatshirt on over his tank, though he isn’t really cold. After spending a year on a freezing slave ship in deep space wearing nothing but rags, he doesn’t really get cold anymore. He doesn’t really sleep anymore either, but he prefers not to dwell on that. Sleep was a commodity he couldn’t afford back on the slave ship. After his escape, he found that it was just another aspect of his life from before that he couldn’t seem to get back. So many pieces of his life had come to be defined in terms of before and after, before Kerberos and after Kerberos. He didn’t want Keith to be one of them, though it had been difficult for both of them to find their way back to each other. Just getting used to sleeping with someone in the same bed with him again had been a struggle for Shiro and even now the slightest sound still wakes him. It’s a testament to Keith’s stealth that he’d been able to slip past him.

Shiro presses his hand to the panel beside the door and it slides open with a soft rush of air. The paladin’s wing is dark and still when he enters the corridor in his sweatpants and bare feet. Softly, he pads along the cold steel floor and out towards the common areas. He can only think of two places where Keith might be. He finds him in the first.

The observation deck is completely transparent on all sides and offers a somewhat disquieting view of naked space. It’s also one of Keith’s favourite places inside the castle. There’s a sunken lounge area strewn with wedge-shaped chairs and round leather couches in the middle of the room and a raised catwalk that spans its entire perimeter for those who want a more intimate view of the stars. That’s where Shiro finds Keith, sitting a short distance from the transparent door. His legs are dangling over the catwalk and his arms are folded across the serpentine railing.

“Nice view,” Shiro says, folding his arms across his chest.

Keith sighs, pressing his forehead to the curved railing without looking up. “How did you find me?”

“Figured you’d either be here, or the training deck,” Shiro says, taking a seat next to him.

“Kind of had my fill of fighting for one day,” Keith says, the shadows of the cuts and scrapes he received during the Marmora trials still visible on his pale face despite the healing gel Kolivan had slathered him with before returning to the castle.

“How’s the shoulder?” Shiro asks. That gash had been nasty. In addition to the healing gel, Kolivan had applied some sort of device to knit the broken tissue back together. Judging by the way Keith had flinched and ground his teeth, it had been a painful though mercifully quick fix.

“It’s fine,” Keith says apathetically, literally staring off into space. For all the stars and planets and other phenomena filling it, space is mostly just, well, space, black and empty and cold. For some reason Keith finds that soothing. Shiro just finds it lonely.

“I wish you’d spent some time in a healing pod,” Shiro says. “That gash is going to leave a nasty scar.”

Keith just looks at him. “You have scars,” he says flatly.

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Shiro says, frowning at him. The scar on his face and the ones covering his body are constant reminders of that place. Sometimes he thinks he’ll never fully escape it as long as they’re there. “I don’t want that for you.”

Keith just shrugs and stares at nothing. “I have scars,” he says, “you just can’t see most of them.”

Shiro’s eyes narrow as he stares at the back of Keith’s head. “No, you’re not doing this!” He snaps suddenly, his powerful right fist rebounding off the serpentine railing with a hollow ring.

“Doing what?” Keith demands, abruptly recoiling from the shaking metal.

“What you always do,” Shiro says tartly.

“I’m not doing anything!” Keith cries, screwing his eyes shut because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Well, then stop acting like this!”

“Acting like what?”

Shiro frowns. “Like you’re about to go all mental and destroy Neo-Tokyo with your dark mind powers.”

Keith glares at him. “I wish we’d never watched that movie,” he says flatly.

“Yeah, well, it’s too late now, I can’t un-see it,” Shiro tells him.

“Hey!” Keith says, pointing an accusatory finger in Shiro’s face, “Akira is a classic!”

“A classic, right,” Shiro scoffs, deflecting Keith’s hand, “like THEM.”

“Giant ants Shiro,” Keith says, as if the words alone are the only explanation he needs, “Giant Ants.”

“Oh giant ants,” Shiro says dryly, “yeah, saying it like that doesn’t make it any better, and what about that other one…The Thing?”

“Alien-Vampire-Carrot,” Keith says, as if people win arguments saying that sort of thing all the time.

“Oh and let’s not forget, The Crawling Eye.”

“Okay, that was good,” Keith insists, “until the monster actually showed up at the end and the whole thing admittedly turned to shit, but before that, it was a solid hour of cinema.”

“Okay, first of all, you’re a tremendous geek,” Shiro says, “second, quit trying to change the subject. I’m not gonna let you disappear from the people who care about you the most, just because you’re scared.”

“They don’t care about me,” Keith says hotly. “They all hate me!”

“They do not hate you,” Shiro says, ever the voice of reason in the face of Keith’s anger. “They just need some time to process all this, and so do you.”

“And Allura?” Keith asks sharply.

“Allura will come around,” Shiro says.

“You sound awfully sure of that.”

“Nothing’s changed Keith,” Shiro says, “not really. Eventually everyone else will realise it as well and things will go back to normal.”

“No, you’re right,” Keith says, with an explosive sigh, “nothing’s changed, but everything’s different.”

Shiro’s brow knits slightly, he supposes he can’t really argue with that kind of logic.

“And stop looking at me like that,” Keith says, self-consciously averting his eyes.

“Like what?” Shiro asks, genuinely confused.

“Like you looked into my hologram dream and heard me say I love you like a brother,” Keith mutters awkwardly, his eyes landing everywhere except Shiro’s face.

“Keith,” Shiro says with a soft chuckle, “I once heard you murmur I claim this planet in the name of alternative-rock music in your sleep.”

Keith pulls a face. “That’s because the Martians only played Zydeco and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Whatever,” Shiro says flatly. “The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t put much stock in what you say when you’re, you know, unconscious.”

“But, maybe I do love you like a brother,” Keith says thoughtfully, “and also like a partner, and a best-friend, and a soulmate.”

Shiro turns his head, his eyes scanning the stars around them as if looking for something.

“What are you doing?” Keith asks him.

“Just pausing a moment for the inevitable Greek Chorus.”

“I’m trying to tell you I love you in every way, you dick,” Keith grumbles, his eyes narrowing as he smacks Shiro’s arm with his shoulder.

“I know,” Shiro says, his lips quirking into a wan smile, “and I get it. You don’t think I feel the exact same way about you?”

Keith’s expression turns even more troubled at that. “Did you think of me at all when you were Zarkon’s prisoner?” He asks, his voice plaintive.

“Of course I did,” Shiro says, impulsively taking Keith’s face in his hands. “You were all I thought about. The memory of you got me through it.”

“Well, I don’t wanna be that, Shiro,” Keith says, pulling away from him, “I don’t wanna be the memory that gets you through stuff. I wanna be the person who does.”

“I want that too,” Shiro says.

“Yeah!” Keith says angrily, “and…?”

“And… I don’t even know what the hell we’re arguing about right now!”

Keith winces. “The Galra hurt you Shiro,” he says despondently. “They scarred you, they…,they took your arm! And I’m Galra! My… people did that you! How can the memory of me be anything but tainted for you now?” He turns away, folding his arms across the railing and laying his head down on top of them.

“Keith,” Shiro says softly, “look at me.”

Keith sighs and lifts his head.

“Nothing that happened to me in that place was your fault. You do know that right?”

Keith doesn’t answer. He stares off into space, looking as if he wishes he could fling himself into it even though he’s only wearing a t-shirt and baggy flannel pyjama bottoms.

“Nowhere left to run Akira,” Shiro says softly, shaking his head, “Just promise me you won’t use the Galra thing as an excuse to convince yourself that you’re somehow unworthy of love,” Shiro tells him, “because it’s not true. I love you. I love every part of you,” he smiles, “even the part with terrible, terrible taste in movies.”

One side of Keith’s mouth quirks into a wan half-smile. “Says the man who made me watch every single Godzilla movie like seventeen times,” he says.

“Hey, Godzilla is way cooler than ants,” Shiro says firmly. “He’s the King of the Monsters.”

“Right, and I’m the geek,” Keith says, theatrically rolling his eyes, but then he sobers. “So, just like that,” he says, “I’m Galra and you’re just…okay with it. Even after everything they did to you.”

“Hey they can’t be all bad,” Shiro says softly, “they made you didn’t they?”

For a long time, Keith just stares at him in silence. Then he slides closer and leans against Shiro’s shoulder. Shiro lifts his arm and embraces him, his flesh and blood hand gently stroking Keith’s arm.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the knife,” Keith says finally, his head laying against Shiro’s chest.

“I understand why you didn’t,” Shiro says, resting his chin on top of Keith’s dark head, “although I have to admit, I thought you told me everything.”

“I’m… trying,” Keith mumbles. “This being part of a team thing doesn’t exactly come naturally to me, you know.”

Shiro’s lips quirk slightly. “Do you remember what I told you the day I left for Kerberos?”

“See you in six-months,” Keith says flatly.

“No. Wiseass,” Shiro says, scrubbing his face, ‘the other thing.”

Keith sighs. “Of course I do,” he says, “I remember everything you ever told me, you know that.”

“Is that why you decided to tell everyone you were Galra instead of keeping it to yourself?”

“Maybe,” Keith mutters.

“Because I said you needed to start letting people in instead of trying to go it alone all the time?”

“And you refuse to let me become the salty yet lovable recluse I was always meant to be? Keith mimics sarcastically.

“Huh,” Shiro says proudly, “you really do listen to me.”

Keith pulls away and fixes Shiro with a side-eyed glance. “Is this the part where you tell me I won’t regret it?”

“I think this is the part where I tell you we should both try to get some sleep,” Shiro says, climbing to his feet. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Keith says, taking Shiro’s offered hand and allowing him to pull him to his feet, “stumbling around inside a giant disgusting space-worm with Hunk, the guy who throws up on the tilt-a-whirl.”

“I know,” Shiro says mildly, slipping his hand into Keith’s before opening the door with a wave of his artificial fingers. “I am the one who assigns the missions.”

“Yes, I’m aware,” Keith grumbles as they enter the deserted corridor and begin the short walk back to Shiro’s room. “So, let me ask you this. What’s up with that?”

Shiro chuckles. “Hunk will be fine,” he says confidently. “Trust me. He won’t let you down.”

“If you say so,” Keith says quietly, stifling a yawn.

“I do, and anyway I’m never wrong,” Shiro says, his tone turning wry, “you should know that by now.”

Keith fondly rolls his eyes. “Well, I have to admit,” he says, his voice dropping to a whisper when they reach Shiro’s door, “your track record’s been pretty good up till now.”

NOW

“Shiro?” Keith murmurs into the cloying darkness, though there’s no answer save for the insistent sound of an alarm going off. The strident ringing vibrates through Keith’s aching head like fingernails on a blackboard. He groans, managing to tilt his head slightly despite the bone crushing weariness paralysing his body. “Shiro,” he mumbles a bit more plaintively, expecting the cool touch of an artificial hand on his burning skin, the momentary comfort of softly spoken words, but there’s nothing. There’s just darkness and the alarm boring into his skull like a dentist’s drill.

He swallows and tries to open his eyes, but his eyelids are stuck tight. Trying to force them open only leads to fiery pain and acid tears oozing down his tingling face. He whimpers, licking his chapped lips, trying to get his bearings in the dark, but it’s difficult to concentrate. He’s more thirsty than he ever been in his life and his back is killing him, as if he’s lying on a pile of jagged rocks. He’s drenched in sweat and trapped in a tangle of sticky bedclothes that he can’t seem to escape. After a few minutes of feebly trying to free himself, he gives up, spent and gasping from the effort of moving his leaden limbs.

He shivers, fireworks flashing behind his swollen eyelids as he lays there softly panting until his racing heart slows. He thinks he may be in his own room, the bed seems familiar, but something is off somehow. It takes him an age to realise what it is. The ventilation system; there’s no longer any air flowing through it. No wonder his heart is racing. Stagnant air hangs thick and heavy in the stifling room, forcing Keith’s lungs to work twice as hard just to draw breath, which is… weird. If the environmental systems have somehow been knocked offline, it should be getting colder, not warmer.

He seems to recall Shiro mentioning something about returning to Kimerik back in the infirmary, though he’d been fading in and out of the tense conversation. If the castle’s environmental systems went down while parked on the desert planet’s surface, that would explain the rising heat, and the alarm; although Keith has no idea why it would still be ringing, or how long it’s been going off. It could be minutes, or hours, or days for all he knows. There’s no way the others would just ignore a breakdown in such a crucial system, which seems to suggest that something worse came up that prevented them from repairing the damage.

He swallows. “Open a channel,” he murmurs weakly into the darkness, which is supposed to open a connection to the other paladins via the communications grid. Coran originally had it set to open as soon as one of their names was mentioned, but that was before Keith’s tendency to talk in his sleep had been revealed. Keith had lost count of all the times he’d been jolted awake by a groggy voice in the middle of the night because he’d inadvertently contacted someone in his sleep. Hell, even Shiro shook him awake sometimes and told him to shut the hell up. Lance and Hunk found it hilarious of course, especially after Hunk pointed out that Keith talked more in his sleep than he ever did when he was awake. Keith just found it mortifying, until Shiro suggested changing the activation signal to a specific phrase instead. That put an end to the late night phone calls, but it took a few more months for the jokes to die down as well.

The communication systems must be down though, because the link normally activates with a sort of chirp and there’s only silence at Keith’s words. “Shiro?” He mutters anyway just to be sure, but there’s no answer.

“Fuck,” he whispers, swallowing past the lump of sand in his throat with some difficulty. Something’s wrong and apparently he’s the one who needs to go find out what it is. With some effort, he manages to lift his heavy head from the damp pillow. Almost immediately, everything starts spinning, upending his churning stomach. The ringing of the alarm turns to a loud buzzing inside his throbbing head and his thoughts scramble as his conscious mind begins to detach from his leaden body. He nearly blacks out. Oblivion rushes up to meet him. The sounds and sensations of the conscious world become muffled, then fall away completely as Keith feels himself slowly sinking into smothering darkness.

That’s where he finds Red waiting for him. She comes to him out of the void and draws him back up into the waking world. Keith gasps, abruptly returning to full consciousness, Red whispers inside his head, though no words are exchanged between them. She lends him the strength of her quintessence, a temporary reprieve from the illness ravaging his body. He still feels… well, pretty shitty actually, but the crushing weakness permeating every inch of him is gone. His head clears as the warmth of Red’s presence envelops him like a comforting embrace, the simultaneous exchange of intermingling thoughts passing between them making it difficult for Keith to recognise where he ends and she begins

“This is…new,” he murmurs a little disconcerted by the sensation of being in two places at once, though he is grateful for the unexpected intervention. She’s rescued him before of course, but this is the first time he’s felt her inside his head when he wasn’t actively piloting her. “Thanks Red,” he whispers, a wan smile curving his lips at the concerned affection emanating from her.

He briefly wonders if she knows what’s happened to the others. The thought is immediately answered with a vague sense of distress. He can sense the other lions inside their flight bays on the periphery of Red’s perception, like tense shadows he can just about see out of the corner of his eye. Though he can’t communicate with them, Red reveals they’re just as baffled by the sudden disappearance of the other paladins as she is. He swallows and attempts to sit up, but it takes him a moment to realise that he’s not just caught in a tangle of unwieldy covers, his hands are strapped down to the bed. He hears movement off to his right, a soft exhalation of breath, and turns his head.

“Pidge,” he says slowly, “is that you?”

The silence stretches on long enough to make him think he’d been imagining things. “Yes,” a small voice finally answers from the darkness, “I’m, I’m here. I’m awake.”

They must have decided to quarantine them together. He wonders briefly how they’d managed to move her bed into his room. Weren’t they bolted to the floor? She seems further away than the width of his room should allow as well, though he could be wrong since he’s still getting used to the whole relying on his ears instead of his eyes thing. Maybe they were both moved to a bigger one, or maybe as Keith has always sort of suspected, the castle is able to reconfigure itself based on the needs of its inhabitants.

“Is that…an alarm I’m hearing?” Pidge asks, her voice weak, but clear.

“Yeah,” Keith says simply. “Are your hands tied down?”

“Uh,” Pidge mumbles, sounding a little startled. “No, I mean, I don’t think so,” a quick beat, “no they’re not. Why, are your hands tied down?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” she says thoughtfully. “Why are your hands tied down?”

“Well, my skin’s on fire,” Keith says, frowning slightly, “it’s entirely possible I may have been trying to, you know, rip it off earlier.”

“Oh sure,” Pidge says wearily, “guess that explains it then.”

“How about you?”

“I’m not feeling the need to peel my face off if that’s what you’re asking,” she says, “and wow, there’s something I never thought I’d hear myself say.”

“Can you… Do you think you could untie me?”

He hears rustling as Pidge presumably sits up and slips out of bed. Her feet are bare, judging by the soft smack of the unsteady footsteps slowly shuffling towards him, makes sense since someone apparently slipped him into his pyjamas before putting him to bed too. “You okay?” He asks with some concern.

“I… yeah,” she says a little hesitantly. “I just, can I tell you something kind of weird?”

“Does it involve your lion taking up residence inside your head?”

“How did you…” she murmurs, “oh right… Duh.” She bumps into the side of the bed, her hands blindly reaching out to steady herself when she inadvertently grazes Keith’s burning cheek with the tips of her fingers.

“Ow! Fuck!” He yelps, practically jumping out of his skin as pain blossoms across his face like sharp glass slicing through parchment.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Pidge stammers ruefully, her hands trembling as she tentatively touches him through the blankets still covering him. “Wow, you really weren’t kidding were you?”

Keith grits his teeth. “Just…” he growls, his face throbbing. He sighs. “Just untie me okay?” He’s pretty sure the rash covering his body has spread to his face. His skin is hot and tight and still feels like it’s crawling with molten bugs gouging fiery trails into his tender flesh. He has to resist the urge to dig them out with his fingers. Red registers her distress at the thought and Keith frowns slightly, internally reassuring her that he’s not planning to act on it.

Pidge’s hands find his. “Keith, what’s going on?” she asks, her still trembling fingers clumsily working to release him from the padded restraints trapping his wrists.

He presumes she’s talking about the unattended alarm and inoperative systems. “I’m not really sure,” he admits.

The restraint immobilising his right hand falls away and Keith flexes his wrist and hand. His fingers are sore and difficult to bend. He thinks they may be swollen. Pidge reaches across his body, her trembling fingers blindly searching for the other restraint for a moment before finding the buckled strap. “We’ve landed,” she says, an uneasy statement of fact, “and we seem to be on our own.”

“I’m pretty sure we’re back on Kimerik,” Keith says, his left hand slipping free of the remaining restraint. Gingerly, he rubs his tender wrists and slowly sits up, drawing his flannel clad knees to his chin and turning his back to the wall as Pidge climbs onto the bed and curls up beside him. He winces slightly at the weight of her propped up against his throbbing shoulder, but he doesn’t pull away. “I think Shiro said something about going back to look for a cure,” he says.

“Was the castle attacked like last time, do you think?” Pidge asks.

Keith considers. “I think we’d have woken up surrounded by Galra soldiers if it was.”

“Okay,” Pidge says thoughtfully, “not Zarkon then, but whatever happened, our guys wouldn’t just leave us behind in a broken castle to fend for ourselves.”

“Maybe they had no choice,” Keith says, expelling a long shuddering breath.

“No,” Pidge says flatly. “Even if there were no other choice,” she says, and Keith has the feeling that if either of them could see, she’d be glaring at him, “they wouldn’t just abandon us. They’d find another way. That’s what families do.”

Keith grimaces, relieved for the moment that Pidge can’t see his face. No one understands being left behind better than the two of them, but maybe she needs to believe that her adopted family will always be there for her even when the family she was born into can’t be. Keith thinks maybe he needs to believe it too.

“And anyway, you don’t believe that no choice, bullshit anymore than I do,” Pidge insists, as if reading his thoughts, “something’s wrong, something’s happened to them. It’s the only explanation.”

“Yeah, okay,” Keith murmurs, “I think so too, and I think it’s why our lions…” he breaks off, at a loss for words to describe the strange symbiosis happening inside him.

“Re…animated us?” Pidge supplies haltingly.

“I’d have chosen something a little less Night of the Living Dead to describe it, but yeah,” Keith says, one corner of his mouth quirking into a wan half-smile.

“It’s not something they can keep up indefinitely though is it,” Pidge says. It’s not a question. “They can only keep us on our feet for so long, before their quintessence runs out.”

“Yeah,” Keith says simply, his lips drawing into a tight thin line.

“So, what happens to us when that happens?” Pidge asks, her voice small and anxious.

He wishes he could think of something to say that would comfort her, but words have never been his strong suit. Shiro would find the right ones, but Shiro isn’t here and Keith is a poor substitute for him. They’ll either survive this, or they won’t, and there’s nothing Keith can say that will change that. “I don’t know,” he says, softly.

So Pidge says the only thing that really matters; “I’m scared,” her voice barely above a whisper.

Keith slides his hand into hers, the only part of her he knows he can touch without hurting her. “Me too,” he whispers back.

Pidge sighs and shifts beside him, her head falling back against the wall with a soft thump. “I’m so thirsty,” she says.

Keith licks his own chapped lips and nods. “Yeah, okay,” he says softly. He grips the edge of the mattress and slowly hauls himself to his feet, stumbling slightly as a momentary bout of dizziness grips him.

“Wait,” PIdge’s voice reaches out to him from the darkness, “the water dispenser won’t work without power.”

Keith pauses. “Bathroom sink,” he says and shuffles to the back of the room. His legs hurt and his feet feel just as tender and swollen as his hands. He scrapes the wall with his fingers, using it to guide him to the water dispenser where he grabs two cups from the shelf before shuffling to the bathroom. He finds the water faucet, gliding his hand along its length to the touchpad attached to the basin. He taps the right side and a stream of cool water cascades from the faucet. He pauses for a moment to fill the cups, wincing slightly at the sudden twinge from his aching back.

“Pidge,” he says softly, returning to the bed and holding one of the cups out for her grasping fingers. He climbs in next to her, panting softly as he drops his aching head to his knees and cradles the cool cup against his burning chest.

“You okay?” Pidge asks him and he nods, though she can’t see it.

“Yeah,” he gasps, “just a little light-headed.”

They sit in exhausted silence for a moment before Keith starts gulping down the contents of his cup. “Can I ask you kind of an awkward question?” Pidge asks him.

“Go ahead,” Keith says, between urgent swallows.

“When’s the last time you peed? ’Cause I can’t remember the last time I peed.”

Keith pauses mid-swallow, the water in his mouth turning suddenly bitter. No pee, an aching back and swollen extremities. That can’t be good. He gulps, covering the mouth of Pidge’s cup with his hand and slowly easing it out of her’s. “Yeah, maybe don’t drink that,” he says, putting both cups down on the platform behind the bed.

Pidge sighs. “So, what’s the plan?”

“Well,” Keith says, gingerly wiping the sweat from his tingling face with the damp collar of his t-shirt, “do you think you could get the power working? If we can get the computers back online, we might be able to find out what happened to the others.”

“It depends,” Pidge says thoughtfully, “I mean, if it’s some kind of short in the system, I could probably reroute the power grid with my eyes closed, which is oddly convenient.”

“There’s a power grid? I thought it was just the Balmera crystal.”

“That’s the power source,” Pidge says, she sounds tired,“but there’s still a power grid connecting it to the rest of the castle’s systems. I’m hoping it’s something simple like a broken conduit. Anything more complicated and we’re probably gonna need a mechanic with more functioning senses than I currently possess.”

“Well, I trust you Pidge, if anyone can figure it out you can,” Keith says, with far more confidence than he feels, not because he doubts Pidge’s abilities, but because he can literally feel the clock running out on them both.

“Hey at this point I’d settle for just turning off that damn alarm,” Pidge says wryly.

Keith smiles, though he keeps forgetting Pidge can’t see it. “Sounds good to me,” he says.

“Either way, we’d need to get down to the generator room,” Pidge says, “which I’m not even sure how to get to from here, since I kind of travelled by air duct the last time.”

“Leave that to me,” Keith says simply. He’d spent a lot of time on his own when they’d first arrived at the castle. He used to tell himself it was just nerves, he needed to get his space legs or something. Really he was just avoiding Shiro, avoiding talking to him. Anyway, he’d spent most of his down time on the training deck, or exploring the castle and memorising its layout.

“Let me guess. You memorised the castle’s schematics,” Pidge says wryly, as if reading his mind again.

“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” Keith mumbles.

“Actually, I say that as if it’s an inevitable thing, because of course that’s what you did,” Pidge says, and he can practically hear the smile in her voice.

She’s teasing him. People do that because they think he doesn’t have a sense of humour. “I like to be prepared,” he says a little defensively, which probably isn’t helping his case. “I mean, you never know when you might need to…”

“…blindly grope your way down to the generator room because you’ve come down with the Space-Smallpox and the place you call home is broken, and your friends have all gone missing,” Pidge says dryly.

“Exactly,” Keith says, smiling wanly. “That is exactly why I did it.”

“Well, the men who stare at goats got nothing on you,” Pidge tells him.

Keith smiles. He finds Pidge’s hand resting on the bed and takes it in his. “Come on,” he says.

“You didn’t memorise the air duct schematics too, did you?” Pidge asks somewhat dubiously.

Keith’s mouth quirks slightly. “Just for fun,” he says, “if you’d prefer to take the stairs, we can do that too.” Without power, the touchpad to open the door won’t work. Keith lets go of Pidge’s hand for a moment to wedge his swollen fingers between the edge of the panel and the wall to pry the cover off.

“That almost sounded like,” Pidge hesitates. “Was that a joke?”

Keith doesn’t answer. He feels around inside the open panel for the lever to manually open the door. He finds it, depressing the button on the end of the lever with his thumb before pulling it. There’s a sort of ominous grinding noise and the soft expulsion of air as the doors slowly begin to slide apart then abruptly stop and grow still again.

“Seriously?” Keith mutters. He finds the edge of the partially open door in front of him and forces it the rest of the way open. The persistent alarm fills the corridor as he staggers from the unexpected exertion.

“Coran is still performing his ten-thousand-year maintenance,” Pidge says, raising her voice to be heard over the ringing, “guess he hasn’t gotten to the manual systems yet.”Keith cringes as the obnoxious siren drills into his aching head. He brushes Pidge’s fingers. Her hand slips into his and they unsteadily step out into the slightly less stifling corridor together.

“Okay we get it,” Pidge sullenly grumbles, her sweaty hand sliding in keith’s grip as she winces, “the power’s out, geez!” Keith squeezes her hand in sympathy.

The generator room is five levels below them, just past the ballroom. Keith grits his teeth and keeps his free hand to the wall so he’ll know when the corridor opens and they need to turn. He can hear the sound of Pidge’s laboured breathing beside him. His own breathing doesn’t sound any better. Even with their lions borrowed quintessence, their pace is excruciatingly slow. Their chaperoned minds willing where their ailing bodies are failing. Keith gingerly wipes another bead of sweat trickling down his face onto the collar of his damp shirt and wonders if it’ll be enough. The answer comes to him instantly, more quintessence would act like a shot of adrenaline to his system, but it would run out the already ticking clock even more quickly.

Baby steps it is then, he thinks, turning right at the end of the corridor. They’re completely alone. The ringing alarm bounces hollowly off the metal walls as they hobble along on aching legs. Keith silently counts doors, there’s no sound or movement from within as they pass. He stops when they reach the door to part of the impossibly long, winding staircase that led them all to Allura and Coran back when they first arrived at the castle. Once again Keith uses the hidden lever inside the panel to manually open the door, which thankfully opens fully this time around.

If anything, the stairwell is even warmer than his room was. Hot fetid smelling air rises from below, hanging over their throbbing heads like lead. It instantly exhausts their burning lungs, making them feel as if they’re breathing under water. Keith wilts, guiding Pidge’s hand to the staircase railing behind him. “How far are we from where we need to be?” She asks, her words coming out in ragged gasps.

Keith licks his lips, the nausea intermittently plaguing him making a sudden reappearance. “It’s kind of a trek,” he admits, swallowing bile. He hangs his head, drawing several deep breaths in through his nose and out through his mouth to try and calm his unsettled stomach, but the unexpected odour is getting to him, making his aching head swim. He hears Pidge doing exactly the same thing.

“Keith, I’m not sure I can do this,” she says, her breath coming in feeble gulps of overripe air.

“We’ll be all right,” he says breathlessly, mostly because there is no alternative. “Just don’t let go of the railing and take it slow,” he tells her, even if he’s fairly bristling with impatience. Every moment that passes brings them one step closer to an uncertain future. Then again, taking a header off the staircase wouldn’t exactly be productive either. He nearly smiles at the thought, because it sounds like something Shiro would say to get him to focus.

Pidge grunts, and Keith takes it as a sign of agreement. He turns and they slowly begin descending the staircase. Keith remains one step in front of Pidge on the way down, to catch her in case she stumbles. All he can do to protect himself is to keep a veritable death grip on the railing. He wraps his swollen fingers tightly around the moulded metal, each jarring step an assault on his aching back as he counts the landings they hobble over. The lower they go, the hotter it gets and the stronger the disturbing odour permeating the air becomes. Keith can’t identify it, but it’s sickeningly sweet and sort of vinegary, like fermenting fruit. He falters, his stomach churning.

“Pidge, hold up a second,” he gasps. He turns and pitches his head over the railing just in time to vomit bitter tasting bile into the winding stairwell below. Pidge stands beside him, her clammy hand covering his on the railing. When he’s done, she makes him sit down on the step next to her for a minute to rest. He acquiesces, though a part of him chafes at such a blatant waste of time. Although he could use a moment for the buzzing inside his head to subside, it occurs to him that Pidge might need one as well. “You okay,” he asks her, balling his hands into fists to keep himself from tearing at his crawling skin.

Me?” Pidge demands. “I’m not the one barfing in stairwells.”

“It’s the smell,” he says, dismissively. He’s always had a keen sense of smell, maybe it’s the Galra in him. “I feel better now,” although he has to admit levels of wellness can tend to become academic when measured in units of dog shit.

“If you say so,” Pidge says skeptically. “Where do you think it’s coming from? The smell, I mean.”

“No idea,” Keith says, though the deeper they descend into the ship the closer they seem to be getting to the source.

“Do you think it has something to do with where the others have gone?” Pidge asks and Keith shrugs. A brief moment of silence stretches between them. “Okay, are you shrugging right now?” Pidge asks sharply, “Cause’ I can’t hear shrugs.”

“Pidge, I don’t know!” Keith cries, “I’m just as much in the dark over this as you are, which I realise now was an unfortunate pun, but the statement still stands!” They need to get out of this stairwell. The oppressive heat and pungent odour is just making them sicker and setting their nerves on edge. “We should keep moving,” he says, the heat draining from his voice as he slowly climbs to his feet. He resumes his place on the step in front of her. Two more landings to go and they’ll be in the ballroom. He’s hoping it’ll be cooler down there.

They begin descending the staircase again. Keith frowns, feeling guilty now for snapping at Pidge. She’s just trying to make sense of the situation by doing what she does, being curious, asking questions and trying to start a dialogue with him about it. He shouldn’t have shut her down. It’s hardly her fault she got stuck with such a, what is it Lance calls him? An “emotionally constipated” companion. “Pidge…” he says, intending a muttered apology.

“An unfortunate pun?” Pidge asks wryly, cutting him off. “I’m just curious. Is there such a thing as a fortunate pun?”

Keith pulls a face. “Big attitude coming from someone wearing teddy-bear pyjamas,” he says flatly. He’s assuming anyway, that she’s wearing the same pyjamas he’s seen her wear on movie nights; powder blue with little black and white bears on them.

“They’re pandas,” Pidge haughtily informs him.

“Way more badass,” he says dryly, “were they part of your gang initiation, or something?”

He smiles when he gets her to laugh. They reach the final landing and Keith pulls the lever inside the panel next to the door. It slides open and they’re nearly knocked down by the sudden stench that comes flooding out of it from the ballroom. Keith gags as Pidge chokes beside him, their linked hands tightening in each other’s grips.

“Keith, what’s a dead body smell like,” Pidge gasps, her voice thick with the acid tears he assumes are rolling down her face.

“Not like this,” he wheezes, answering the unspoken question they’ve both been avoiding.

“Is that the truth?” Pidge asks. In other words, are the other’s mouldering bodies laying dead somewhere out there in the dark? Keith finds himself unable to even entertain the thought.

Sometimes at night, when he was alone in the desert believing that Shiro was dead, he’d forget how to breathe. Just, literally forget how to draw air into his lungs, like the earth had somehow swallowed him whole and was smothering him. He knows he isn’t strong enough to go through that again.

“Cross my heart,” he says breathlessly. She doesn’t ask him how he knows and Keith doesn’t volunteer the information. “Come on,” he says, squeezing her hand as they step out into the ballroom, the soft slap of their bare feet echoing off the ballroom’s thick walls and high ceiling.

Neither one of them speaks as they slowly cross the cavernous space, their bodies barely functioning at a level higher than complete exhaustion and their minds too preoccupied with dark thoughts to form words.

They reach the steps at the back of the room and slowly begin to climb them, though Keith’s aching legs and back make the task arduous. They both sigh with relief when they reach the landing and return to the relative ease of shuffling down the corridor. The smell is nearly overpowering down here. Keith lifts the sweat-soaked collar of his shirt and covers his nose and mouth with it. He tells Pidge to do the same.

“Way ahead of you,” she says, her voice muffled.

A scorching breeze blows past them from somewhere up ahead in the corridor. Keith shivers despite the warmth, his brow knitting slightly at the faintly howling air.

“You feel that?” He asks. Could a door have been left open, he wonders, except there aren’t any doors where they’re going.

“Where’s it coming from?” Pidge asks and Keith shrugs.

“Use your words,” Pidge says, her voice resigned.

“I think it’s coming from the generator room,” Keith mutters crabbily.

They cross the threshold into the generator room, a constant wind buffeting them from the right side of the room.

“I think… there’s a hole in the wall,” Keith says, licking his chapped lips, “a big one.” It would also appear to be the source of the unidentified stench overtaking the castle. Could blaster fire have caused it? Another firefight in the generator room? Maybe the others are being held captive somewhere. That doesn’t explain the smell though, or why he and Pidge were left behind. Sick as they are, they’d still be valuable as prisoners.

“Power grid’s this way,” Pidge says, pulling him further into the room. Their feet strike what sounds like a metal catwalk. Pidge lets go of his hand and shuffles forward without him.

“Pidge, be careful,” he calls after her, coming to a halt in the middle of the catwalk. He needs to get a better look at that hole… so to speak.

“I’m okay,” Pidge grunts, “I got it,” she pauses for a moment as vaguely metallic sounds reach Keith’s ears. “The units seem to be intact,” she says, “I’ll try and figure out what the problem is.”

“Okay,” Keith says, with a nod she can’t see. “You do that and I’ll just…” His voice fades as he turns and shuffles back the way they came.

“We should stay together!” Pidge cries, anxiously.

“I’m not leaving the room,” Keith says, trying to sound reassuring.

Pidge huffs, but says nothing more as Keith makes his way to the back wall of the chamber. He lays his hand against the warm surface, using it to guide him to the intersecting wall where a steady stream of hot air ruffles his matted hair. He finds the edge of the rupture, his swollen fingers carefully skimming the sharp broken metal surrounding it. It’s as if a huge wrecking ball hit the castle from the outside and burst into the room, bending the metal at the edges of the hole out like the petals on a sunflower. He hears something coming from inside. He startles and cocks his head over the yawning opening to listen, discovering moist rock on the other side of the wall.

“The hell…?” He murmurs, his voice unexpectedly echoing as he reaches a little further into the opening and finds the smooth edges of water carved rock. It’s a cave. No, a cavern, a pretty big one judging by his still echoing voice. He seems to recall Shiro telling him something about underground caverns on Kimerik, but that would mean the castle, or at least part of the castle is… buried?

He hears the sound again, an odd sort of scratching, soft at first but growing louder and more urgent, like dozens of hands scrabbling for purchase on a wall made of rock. No, not louder, Keith realises suddenly, nearer. Something roars like motherfucking Godzilla. Pidge yelps and Keith recoils from the ruptured wall, tripping over his swollen feet and falling backwards onto his ass as something he can’t identify inexorably scrabbles towards him. Something big and, from the sound of it, really pissed off.

TBC