Three Weeks On the Castle of Lions
Keith slid into the hanger, using his momentum to steer him directly towards the nearest ship — the fastest transport outside of the Lions. He had just punched the door open when Lance crashed in beside him, breathing heavily, still in his pyjamas. Keith didn’t acknowledge him. He flung himself inside the ship, tripping over feet that were encased in hastily thrown on boots. He leapt into the pilot seat, giving Lance only half a second to strap himself in before Keith fired up the thrusters.
They hit the planet surface two minutes later. Keith launched himself out of the chair and out the door.
Cool, fresh air, carrying the scent of wet grass, filled his nose and then his lungs. He could feel each breath, painfully aware of his ribcage expanding and contracting.
Dropping to his knees, he braced his hands against the damp soil, digging his nails in, grounding himself. His panic made each inhale sharp, every exhale too short, his head throbbing in time. Closing his eyes didn’t help. He collapsed onto his side, rolling to stare upwards. The breeze, the sky, the ground seeping cold into his thin shirt and pants …
Gradually, the spinning ceased. The throb in his head eased. Keith stared at the stars — he knew two skies, had their constellations emblazoned in his mind. This sky was strange, but he could reach out with his hand, his fingers could almost touch …
Lance wasn’t at his side. He stood somewhere nearby — Keith could feel his particular stillness.
Keith’s arm fell back to the ground, and both his hands dug into it, clinging as though he would fall from the land otherwise.
He didn’t think about going back to the Castle; Keith put the room he shared with Lance out of his mind. Instead, he imagined climbing onto the back of whatever beasts lived on this world and riding to an abandoned house, carving out another life — the kind that put dirt under nails and new scars on skin, but not quite so lethal as their life as The Two McClains … had been.
A breath that wasn’t his own, and the fantasy vanished, carried away on the wind. Lance reached across the distance with measured steps. He folded himself down next to Keith, the heat of his body only just reaching the distance between them. Keith took in a lungful of air before turning onto his side and pushing himself up with two hands. He deliberately kept the small ship out of his peripheral vision. He looked at Lance under the light of this moon — a peculiar greyish-blue.
Lance’s eyes were alien here, more so than Keith’s, and faintly glowing. He didn’t say a word, waiting with a patience that Keith had earned after two years of working alongside him as a Paladin, and then a year (an eternity) as a mercenary. He didn’t know if Lance the Paladin or Lance the Mercenary stared at him now. Keith didn’t know who was staring back at Lance either. The reflection of himself in those strange blue eyes offered no answers.
“We can stay for a while,” Lance said at last.
Keith took in several deep breaths before nodding. “Right here.”
“Okay.” Lance stood up slowly and walked back to the ship.
Keith stared off across the field towards a huge tree nearby, which was heavy with oval-shaped leaves of bright green and turquoise. He struggled to his feet, taking uneven steps to it. The bark was smooth like birch. Keith slid down to sit against that silky trunk.
His muscles ached. He and Lance had been training hard for the last couple of weeks, trying to remember what it felt like to fight with armour on, with more advanced weaponry, and against robots that didn’t shed blood. The gladiator ’bots didn’t feel … real enough, so more often than not, he and Lance fought against each other.
It was probably the only time of day where Keith could completely clear his mind of everything except staying alive. They’d done serious damage to their gear during these spars; thankfully, the Castle had a repairing unit within the armoury. Moreover, everyone respected their private training sessions. No one ever saw how brutally they treated the equipment — or each other — while sparring. Fighting. Real. Uncompromising. Violent.
No one had witnessed them bruised, with helmets knocked off and with weapons poised a hair’s breadth from a lethal blow. No one had seen the wreckage of the training arena or caught sight of the odd blood splatter when they landed a hit.
Earlier in the afternoon, Lance and Keith had tried to fight with the upgraded robots again — and they’d destroyed two gladiators beyond repair. Pidge’s face when they’d told her, when they’d shown her the damage … She hadn’t believed them at first — she’d thought they were joking. Then her eyes … Her gaze brought forth a nauseating swirl of guilt and angry resentment in his stomach. Keith had ended the conversation awkwardly by ignoring Pidge and asking Lance that they eat dinner in their room. Again. For the third time this week.
Back in the present and down on this peaceful planet, Lance returned with an emergency kit, several blankets and a couple of pillows. Without speaking, they set up a makeshift bed they could both fit in, and Lance flicked on the kit's radio, providing a low hum that blended with the breeze and a way to communicate with the Castle crew.
“They’ll know if they’re up before us.” Lance fiddled with the radio for a few more moments. “This is becoming a habit.”
“We … we should stop doing it,” Keith admitted to himself and to Lance.
It was Keith, mostly, who couldn’t handle the Castle for these endless days in space, but Lance had woken up a few times on his own, desperate for air, for space that wasn’t infinite blackness or the inside of metal walls. On Lance's few bad nights, Keith would trail after him to the pool, and they would float together in the water with their eyes shut. Last week they’d been stationed near an allied planet that had beautiful sapphire oceans. Lance had taken a ship down to those waters, alone. Keith had followed him an hour later, landing on a beach and sitting with Lance on the silver sand, toes dipped in the frothy waves.
“We will, some day,” Lance said absently. “For now, let’s catch some shut-eye. Tomorrow’s gonna be … something.”
Tomorrow was their first training exercise with all of Team Voltron.
As Keith reclined against the pillows, Lance handed him his Blade of Marmora dagger, which he tucked against the small of his back. Lance had a dagger on him somewhere, Keith knew, and he caught a glimpse of a pistol near the emergency kit.
Their bayards were with Matt and Shiro — Lance and Keith had given them up less than a week after arriving back on the Castle.
“Are you sure?” Shiro had said, not even reaching for the weapon.
They stood in the dining hall, Hunk buzzing about as he served something that smelled delicious — a casserole, maybe, and Keith recognized a hint of the spices that Yathir had given the Yellow Paladin.
It hadn’t even been three days, and Keith already ached for the sight of weathered green hands laying plates out on a carved up bar …
He clenched his jaw as Shiro tried again, “Keith, you’re the true Red Paladin —”
“Not for a long while,” Keith had said firmly. “Red needs you.”
“Red needs her paladin,” Shiro retorted, but he winced afterwards, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry, it’s just … I was hoping you and Lance would’ve … But I understand. A few days, that’s not enough time, not after a year …”
They were interrupted as Lance strolled in with Matt. He was clapping him on the back jovially. “Dude, you and Blue are clearly a rocking good team, and until me and Keith get re-trained and stuff, you need this bayard.”
Matt already had the blue bayard in hand, but he was looking as hesitant as Shiro. Keith had only known Pidge’s brother for a short while back on Earth, and briefly now in space, but he respected him quite a bit, based on his time with the rebels and his ability to survive the prison that had nearly destroyed Shiro.
Matt spoke quickly, “Blue has been clamouring for you this entire time, Lance. She’s cool with me because I wanted to find you for her. And now you’re here. So …”
“Here and nowhere near up to Voltron Paladin standards,” Lance insisted, his bright, showman smile in place. “Matt, it only makes sense. You guys have been doing fine without the bayards, but you'll be unstoppable with them. This is a war, and our soldiers need every advantage they can get.”
Matt sighed. “Fine. Okay.“ He said nothing else, just gripped Lance’s shoulder in thanks, and then moved to take a seat at the table.
Shiro flicked his gaze back to Keith. “I’ve got this for now.” He took the red bayard at last. “But it’s yours the moment you want it back.”
Keith had a split second where he wanted to say, Then it’s yours for good. But he kept his mouth shut, offering a quick half-smile as took his own seat right next Lance, with Pidge on his other side. He felt vaguely panicked by his gut reaction to Shiro's words, and he didn't know if he truly meant it or not. He settled uneasily in his chair, reaching his hand over to rest on Lance's knee.
They all chatted easily, laughing at a wild story Coran told, paired with Allura’s dry commentary grounding it in reality. Lance egged Coran on, to everyone’s amusement.
But when they were back in their room, silence permeated everything, and all Keith wanted was a soft wind, a creaky floor, anything that felt real because this place didn’t have anything rough or cracked … Except maybe him. And Lance.
“Shiro might be mad,” Lance whispered as he settled on his right side. “I think he’s past handling us with kid gloves.”
“Good,” Keith said shortly. “I’m done being treated like a fucking fragile tea set.”
Lance snorted. “Own many tea sets in your day?”
“Fuck you, I actually like tea,” Keith told him, sliding further down in order to better face Lance. Their noses nearly touched. Lance’s hair, already a mess, was tousled further in the light wind. Keith slid his fingers through those brown locks before tucking that hand beneath his pillow, his fingers automatically seeking his dagger. “Shiro’s grandparents had this beautiful antique tea set, hundreds of years old. I was really nervous whenever his grandma brought it out for us to use — which was every day after dinner. It took months for my hands to stop shaking every time I drank.”
“I broke my tía’s favourite teapot when I was five,” Lance explained around a yawn. “It was kinda accidentally on purpose. I figured that meant I would never have to drink that freaking gross ginger stomach tea crap ever again.”
“Heathen,” Keith breathed out, his eyes fluttering shut.
His hand sought Lance’s waist, and he tugged him in closer. It wasn’t always this easy between them anymore; he wanted to stay awake and bask in the simple affection, but they were both so tired, and this planet provided the perfect lullaby to sleep by …
The radio jerked them awake at dawn.
“… in, Lance, Keith, come in. Where are you?”
Keith loosened his grip on his dagger; he saw Lance put his pistol aside to push down on the receiver button. “We’re just down here on Yurinstil. We’ll be back in a few.”
“… Right,” came Shiro’s voice, relatively calm. “Breakfast is in half a varga.”
“Gotcha,” Lance replied easily, though his face had taken on a pinched expression.
He flicked off the radio, his hand dropping down next to his gun. Keith took in the curve of his spine and the twists in his shirt. He raised a hand to stroke down Lance’s back. His muscles bunched up beneath Keith’s fingers, but Keith stubbornly persisted in massaging the worst spots. While the muscles eventually gave way, Lance did not.
He waited until Keith’s hand lifted to say, “We should go back.”
Keith bit his tongue on the dozen questions he wanted (needed) to ask.
He hadn’t found the time, the place, the strength to talk with Lance about … anything important, really, but especially that one week when Keith had been unconscious and the week following. Those days when he’d been largely bed-ridden, and unable to do anything other than see Lance between battles — watching his eyes grow darker and darker, his smiles brittle.
On the Castle of Lions, Lance and Keith’s days were occupied with training, with familiarizing themselves with the Castle and all the adjustments Pidge, Hunk, Sam, and Coran had made. They tried new jetpacks and tools for espionage. They practised with Pidge’s updated hacking software. They even concentrated on mastering the kitchen with all its appliances, so they could cook decent food for themselves when the team was out on mission. Or (more commonly) when they didn’t take their meals with everyone.
And then, late at night, when they weren’t sparring together on the training deck or practicing combat maneuvers with ships outside the Castle walls … Lance would become quiet, pensive, and Keith did not want to push. It felt like pushing could break something between them — that bond he’d thought shatterproof back on the nameless planet. On 2657-AbbDn.
What Keith feared most (he’d become a coward lately), was Lance turning the conversation around on him — well, why don’t you want to talk to Red? What’s stopping you from bonding with your Lion?
What the hell could he say to that? Nothing that made sense, and that's all he had in his head.
“Hey, dude, wake up,” Lance said gently. He’d already packed up the emergency kit and straightened out his clothes. He stood with the kit in one hand and the pillows tucked under his other arm. Keith followed his example, folding up the blankets and thin mattress, and then making the short trek back to the ship.
Lance flew them back, while Keith kicked back with his booted (sockless) feet up on the dash. He tried to exude calm, and sleeping under the sky had helped with that, but the Castle looming on their screen caused a renewed tension beneath his skin.
No one was waiting for them when they landed in the hanger, which had Keith instantly suspicious.
Lance seemed unhappy as well. “Breakfast is gonna be a whole thing, then,” he said under his breath as they walked towards the dining hall.
Sure enough, everyone was sitting there discussing something (Lance and Keith, no doubt) quietly. When they walked in, the conversation ended abruptly. Keith bit back a sarcastic barb, giving a nod and a weak smile instead.
Hunk waved, smiling, twitching a bit when Lance’s eyes narrowed his way. “H-hey, guys! Uh, breakfast will be ready in a few, but, um, maybe we could chat a bit? Hadn’t had a chance to do that, what with all the training and learning stuff, and that’s super important, totally get it —”
“But we haven’t been able to just … be together. Except for occasional meals,” Allura said peaceably, her smile completely genuine and unwavering.
So Shiro and Allura chose this as their ambush point, since meals are where we tend to sit for longer than ten minutes without discussing training or missions, Keith considered, knowing Lance had the same thought based on the way his spine straightened and his gaze gleamed. He’d get a similar glint in his eyes when they were cornered by an idiot who wanted to take out The Two McClains. Or when he had successfully conned a mark into giving up goods or information.
But these were their friends. Their family. Not threats, not marks.
“Sure thing, Hunk,” Lance said cheerfully, and as Lance fell into his pseudo-peacemaker role, Keith fell back to his usual position — the quiet, observant partner. He felt a surge of helplessness because he had no idea how else to operate when faced with several curious, concerned, and evaluating stares. These weren’t enemies, damn it, he told himself fiercely.
But that didn’t mean he wanted to answer their questions, or to face scolding for not being able to sleep a solid night in this elaborate metal cage.
Hunk relaxed minutely (mistake, Keith considered distantly), as Keith and Lance sat down together in the two seats at the head of the table, clearly set out for them. Coran was on Lance’s left, Pidge next to Coran, and Hunk next to the Green Paladin. Hunk didn’t want to be close to Lance for this conversation, Keith noted, and he grit his teeth because “My best friend isn’t that kind of monster” rung in Keith’s ears again — he couldn’t forget.
On Keith’s right were Shiro, then Allura, Matt, and lastly, Sam Holt. The older man was the only one Keith hadn’t gotten a solid read on yet; Sam didn’t seem to want much out of Lance or Keith, which had Keith marginally relaxed in his presence when they bumped into each other in the hallways or kitchen. This didn’t mean Keith dismissed him — he just didn’t focus as hard on Sam as he did on Shiro, who leaned forward, carefully avoiding getting into Keith’s space as he gestured with one arm out towards the hangers.
“You’ve been taking a lot trips out,” Shiro began bluntly. “Which is fine. We’d just appreciate it if you could let us know ahead of time, instead of waking up to find your room empty and no sign of you anywhere.”
Keith held back a wince — he’d had some guilty thoughts about that … Not enough to stop. Not enough to remember that there were other people to consider, not just Lance, whenever he decided to go out for a ride. Or whenever he couldn’t breathe and had to get out.
“Gonna be honest here, Shiro,” Lance said with a wry little grin, “we’re not always in prime thinking mode. We’re just … doing. And I know you get that.” It was as close as Lance had come to admitting that there were issues surrounding their return.
Shiro blinked, his own smile becoming a tad crooked, and his gaze went somewhat distant even as his eyes flicked back and forth between Lance and Keith’s faces. “I … I do. So maybe once things in that moment are … better, wherever you end up, just shoot us a message, any one of us.”
“Sure,” Lance agreed easily. “No worries, guys, we’ve just gotten used to taking midnight rides when we gotta get some fresh, planet-side air.”
Truthful. Keith appreciated that, so he nodded along with Lance. Of course, this was going too well; it was bound to take a turn, which is why he didn’t even flinch when Allura clapped her hands and said, “Excellent! In that case, we’d like you to consider another proposition. Later tonight Hunk, Matt, and Pidge are doing some recalibrating of the Lions —”
Pidge nodded excitedly. “I’ve got this new targeting system upgrade, it’s going to be devastating —”
“My sister has a penchant for being unable to hold back, so pretty much everything she upgrades is going to be some level of total devastation,” Matt added with a proud grin.
“And maybe you’d like to be the ones to try it out first!” Allura folded her hands on the table in front of her. “It would be an excuse to get out of the Castle, and run a few courses, get in target practise—”
Keith couldn’t hold back a wince this time. His thoughts drifted to Red, and inevitably, the pain kicked in. Lance’s hand drifted over to Keith's thigh beneath the table, resting there, his thumb stroking back and forth. His grin wasn’t even vaguely genuine anymore — all show, no substance behind it. Keith had no idea if the others could see the difference — he’d bet probably not, not anymore.
“I think it makes more sense for the Paladins who actually are fighting out there to try this new stuff out.” Lance leaned over to tug on Pidge’s braided ponytail. “Right, Pigeon?”
She batted his hand away. “Maybe, but how about you guys give it a shot anyway? Even though it’s been a year, you technically have more experience than Matt and Shiro with Blue and Red, so logically …”
“But it’s been a year, and I can’t promise we’d spot any bugs or glitches,” Lance went on, smooth as ever. “You’re going to want the guys who’ve been doing a bang-up job while we were on vacation.” Lance took in the various winces, the cringe from Hunk, the frown on Coran’s face, and he just shot them all a wink. “It’s all good, guys! No one thought it was going to be the same right from the start. Don’t put your war on hold for us — keep going, bring home the bacon! And speaking of bacon … Breakfast? I’m pretty starved.”
It was expertly done, Keith admitted, as much as it hurt to see Lance play his part, work the room like he had done so many times as Lance McClain … In this case, it was working in Keith’s favour. He didn’t want to talk about the Lions. He didn’t want to deal with the pain on Shiro’s face, the wariness emanating from Hunk, the empathy from Matt, the disappointment from Pidge and Allura … None of it.
And if they pushed now, Lance would snap. Keith could feel it in the slightly trembling fingers still resting on his leg.
“Right,” Keith said, and he tried to push a modicum of cheer into his words. “Let’s eat, and then get to the training deck. First step to being battle ready is kicking all your asses.”
“Them’s fightin’ words, cowboy!” Matt crowed, giving them the out Keith sought. Probably on purpose. “Just you wait.”
“Seriously, wait,” Shiro said. “We can’t fight right after eating. Give it at least half an hour.”
“Wow, that is probably one of the most dad-like things you’ve ever said, Shiro,” Sam said from his seat, eyebrows raised. “You’ve got to stop giving them material for the Space Dad tally. I think you’re beating me and Coran by this point.”
“Actually, last I checked, it was pretty even between you and Shiro, dad, so you gotta up your game,” Pidge said teasingly. She wasn’t won over by Lance’s performance — unfortunately, Pidge had grown even more observant in their absence. Her sharp eyes scanned them over several times as she spoke, even as she flashed her father a quick grin.
Hunk stood up, walking to the kitchen. “All right, time for my latest work of art. Lance, get ready for some space bacon, my dude.”
“Dude, I was kidding,” Lance breathed out, eyes widening. “Holy shit, really?”
Once again, it was like nothing was wrong — Hunk laughed as he brought out the trays of food.
Even meals that went well set Keith on edge. He hated the undercurrent that this was temporary. The camaraderie would end after the last bites were consumed. Hunk would retreat, too intimidated to get either of them alone. Pidge would try to sequester them, and fail as Lance and Keith darted away with convenient excuses. Keith hadn’t let himself seek out Shiro, and Shiro was respecting his space, but only just — and possibly not for much longer (Keith was frustrated by Shiro's at times overly gentle handling, but bizarrely grateful for it at the same time). Allura seemed at a loss.
Coran hadn’t tried with them either, but he caught their eyes now and again; he said much without words, and it was plainly obvious he wanted Lance and Keith to approach him of their own volition.
But Keith had to speak with Lance first, and he wouldn’t allow himself any other conversation until he’d had the most important one beforehand.
Before he could do that, they had to get through this training exercise. Keith remembered how thoroughly he and Lance had destroyed those gladiator ’bots … There are no enemies here, he told himself. There are no threats to our lives here.
Half an hour later, Keith stood in that training room next to Lance, facing their team and bracing himself for the worst-case scenario.
Three Movements and One Quintant Since The Return
Pidge hadn’t thought it would be easy.
She hadn’t once entertained the notion that Lance and Keith would slot perfectly into place back on the team. But, apparently, she hadn’t developed enough cynicism throughout the course of this war, since she also hadn’t considered that Lance and Keith would struggle as if this Castle, their home, were some foreign land in which they knew neither the language nor the customs. While they could both joke, smile, and laugh, acting nearly normal, this behaviour provided a stark contrast to the shifts in their moods. They would grow quiet unexpectedly, refuse to take meals with everyone … Train on their own without the team …
That last habit was being broken today, under Shiro and Allura’s command.
Pidge didn’t think Lance and Keith were ready. Not after what she’d seen of her upgraded gladiator robots — the pieces of her upgraded ’bots. And even before that rude awakening, she had caught glimpses of the bruises, poorly hidden by long-sleeved shirts, the partially healed cuts, the swollen knuckles …
“Let’s ease in with a friendly team match, yes?” Shiro suggested, his smile bright, though his eyes never moved from Keith and Lance, who were standing together, just slightly apart from the rest of them.
“Sure, how many teams?” Matt asked. He seemed to be evaluating everyone — when his gaze rested on Pidge, he gave her a slight quirk of the eyebrow and a rather serious stare.
Matt was worried, too. An icy shiver sliced down Pidge’s spine.
“I think Keith and Lance could teach us a thing or two,” Shiro said, his smile hardly changing except for the briefest flicker. “So let’s have two teams, and we’ll go a couple of rounds — I’ll observe the first one. Keith, Pidge, and Allura on one team. Lance, Hunk, and Matt, you’re on the offensive.”
“Damage is set at twenty-five percent,” Allura added. She turned to Lance and Keith, explaining, “We’ve modified our training programs quite a bit. Your armour will channel any hits you receive into an electrical charge, and ‘lethal’ blows are particularly shocking. Hits to the head or upper torso are considered kill shots. Keith, all blades will have a thin, protective shield around the edge, so no accidents may happen.”
As Allura spoke, Pidge used her wrist computer to select a specific program and adjusted the damage levels — their armour was already part of the mainframe, and therefore the Castle computer would register any blows to said armour.
Seeing this Lance in blue and white Paladin garb was somewhat incongruous, especially alongside Matt in his own blue gear, just one shade off from the original. Pidge hadn’t realized that Matt’s protective kit was slightly different. Lance appeared to notice as well, something that made him smile, for whatever reason. Maybe because Matt wasn’t an exact replacement for him? Or was that just her wishful thinking?
She noted that neither Matt nor Shiro were equipped with their bayards; she was oddly grateful for that — having to watch Lance and Keith clash against their own weapons would have felt … not good.
“Any rules of engagement?” Keith asked. He hefted one of two swords up to his shoulder to stare down the length of the blunted blade.
Coran had allowed Keith and Lance to raid the armoury after they gave up their bayards, but they’d only come away with a few weapons that they favoured, as far as Pidge could tell — weapons that were more advanced versions of the guns and blades they’d used back on 2657-AbbDn. Most of the guns and knives in the armoury were part of the Castle mainframe as well. Pidge could see the light blue shield around the sharp sides of Keith’s swords.
“Your team is set up in a small base here. The opposing team has to take you out,” Shiro told Keith. “You’ve got five minutes to talk strategy.” He pushed a few buttons, and the training room began changing, structures rising up in a formation that Pidge was very familiar with, considering she had helped Coran with this program.
“Take up positions!” Shiro called as he left the room to head up to the observation deck.
Pidge led Keith and Allura behind the structures, into a small alcove at the very back. As the turned to leave, Lance and Keith exchanged glances. A wealth of information passed between those gazes, yet all Pidge could glean was that they seemed … weary. Which was odd, considering that they trained together often, and this new training hadn’t even started …
“Okay, what’s the play?” Pidge asked Keith once they were established at their base.
He startled, raising his eyebrows. “You’re asking me … why?”
“Because Lance is clearly the biggest threat right now,” Pidge stated bluntly. “We need to know how to beat him.”
Keith frowned. “Your brother is pretty capable, and Hunk seems way more battle-ready than … before. Lance, he …” Keith’s eyes stared at nothing over Pidge’s head, towards the opposite end of the room.
Allura remained quietly observing. When Keith finally gathered his thoughts, he didn’t seem to be speaking to them at all.
“Lance is going to approach this one of two ways — he’s either going to treat it like a joke, in which case he’ll probably set himself up as a wild card, leave Matt and Hunk to take the lead.” Keith’s lips twitched here, a degree of fondness in his tone, though Pidge noted that his expression remained impassive. She also noticed the catch in Keith’s voice when he said joke … Did they both think this was a game? “If he does take this seriously … He’ll smoke us out, pick us off when we can’t see. Or he’ll take up sniper position …”
“We can’t let him maintain the high ground,” Allura spoke up, her own smile taking on a slight edge. “I know he’ll destroy us all if he does. I’ll take point on the upper reaches. There’s a bit of cover I can use.”
“Right, makes sense,” Keith approved. “Pidge, anything about Matt I should know?”
“He’s sneaky, he’s fast, and he’ll always go for a cheap shot.”
“Bad to have him and Lance on the same team, then,” Keith said without judgment, though with a bit of anxiety, maybe — he kept loosening and then tightening his grip on his knives. “Allura, you’re up high. Pidge, you’re covering Matt, but until you spot him, patrol along here.” He pointed with his blade from one side of their base to the other. “No deviation unless you see or hear something. Allura, only call out if you can’t take down a threat. If you can, just do it, no need to tell us.”
It was strange, watching Keith slip into a leader mode that didn’t involve snapping commands — Lance had seemed largely in charge back on that dismal world, but even so, Keith clearly was used to simply stating his plan and expecting others to follow. Allura didn’t question anything, her eyes staring at Keith without blinking for the last few minutes. Pidge would have to compare notes with the princess later, after whatever was about to happen … happened.
“You’ve got thirty ticks before we start!” Shiro announced over the speakers.
“There’s no dropping through the floor if you’re shot,” Pidge told Keith as they moved together. “Your armour will give you a mild shock, which means you’re out.”
“Right,” Keith said, and his tone became distant.
Pidge had accounted for a number of possibilities, having done as much research as she could, using the Castle databanks, in regard to PTSD (which the Alteans referred to as Battle Withdrawal Psychosis, roughly translated). She had braced herself for flashbacks, hallucinations, and panic attacks.
She did not expect Keith to become so calm, collected, even with that undercurrent of unease.
Nor did she expect Keith to strip off his helmet and chest plate.
“Keith!” Pidge hissed. “If you get hit with a bolt or shielded sword, even at reduced damage, with nothing but that flightsuit on …”
“Pidge, focus.” Keith gave a faint half-smile. “You can’t always follow rules when you’re up against a McClain.”
Shiro wasn’t calling a halt, even though he could obviously see what was happening from his position above, and Allura said nothing either. They were going to let this play out, however dangerous it may be. And Pidge … Her curiosity overrode her worry. Let’s see how Paladin McClains work … Let’s see if Paladin McClains can work.
“Go!” Shiro’s voice shouted.
Allura held her position, while Pidge began her sweep of the base, holding down the fort with her bayard raised. Her brother would likely either come at them from the sides or act as a distraction. In either case, Pidge knew she could handle Matt — frequent sparring meant she could anticipate him. Matt always tried to surprise her, and then she would counter with unexpected moves of her own … They were evenly matched, and it was a little too much fun to battle it out with him. But she couldn’t really enjoy herself at the moment — not with one eye on Keith, patrolling on the opposite side of their base, while the rest of her was caught up in tense anticipation as they waited for whatever Lance would unleash.
The first explosion caused her to jump, though she instantly recognized the sound of Hunk’s specially cooked smoke grenades. She instinctively slid in front of Keith, whose lack of armour made her protective.
Keith gave a brief grunt of acknowledgement before murmuring, “Gonna head up part way and climb along the middle barricades towards them — you keep low and away from any smoke. Lance’s eyes are damn sharp.”
He climbed halfway up a tower, and then perched on a very thin ledge, his blades grasped loosely, his face devoid of expression. He began leaping after a minute of listening, his landings near silent.
The gunfire kicked off right then, a barrage from Hunk’s bayard. Pidge grinned, hearing Hunk call out, “I can keep this up all night, dudes!”
Matt would be heading straight for them, and so Pidge made a calculated guess as to which angle he may approach from.
“Pidge!” Allura called, “On your left!”
She whirled around to her right, knowing that Matt would switch in the instant Allura yelled, clashing her bayard with Matt’s staff. Pidge was already laughing. “You are so bad at sneaking past me!”
“Only you!” Matt complained. “Sibling advantage! Unfair!”
“You have it, too, jackass!” Pidge grunted when his staff landed a solid hit on her abdomen.
“Keith! Not you, t—” Hunk had clearly been distracted by the missing helmet and chestplate; his cut off words meant that Keith had been right — Lance was armourless as well.
Allura tagged Hunk while he was yelling at Keith, and then the princess focused on taking Matt down — with two enemies concentrated on him, Matt was tagged in both the helmet and the chest inside of ten seconds. He groaned, wincing as the shock sent trembles along his limbs, pushing him off-balance. “Damn it, I demand a rematch.”
Lance dropped down between them, firing with a set of laser pistols — he hit Pidge in the arm. Pidge jerked up her bayard, hesitating in order to avoid hitting Lance somewhere she could do real damage. He winked, using her as cover; Allura couldn’t get a good shot in, and was likely also unwilling to risk accidentally hitting Lance in his exposed head or chest.
Which would be when Keith sprung up over Matt’s back, landing on Lance and sitting on him, blades resting at his throat and his side. Pidge swallowed as she watched that sharp edge push against Lance’s skin, the shield clearly prickling a little.
Keith glared down at his captive. “You freaking cheater — you weren’t on the sniper’s perches.”
“Of course not, that’s where you’d try and find me,” Lance scoffed. He winked when Keith rolled his eyes, and Pidge had to hold back an eye roll herself as Lance took the opportunity to slide a hand up Keith’s armoured thigh.
“All right, guys, let’s switch it up,” Shiro called. “I’m coming down. Allura, you want to take a turn up here?”
Pidge helped her brother stand up as Keith finally released Lance. Allura clapped Pidge and Keith on the back, congratulating them with a sincere smile. She caught Pidge’s gaze for a moment before stepping away, walking past Shiro as he entered the room.
He seemed fairly pleased with the results, though he raised his eyebrows at Lance and Keith’s lack of upper armour. “Bending the rules, I see.”
“You expected nothing less,” Lance said with a cheesy grin. “Didn’t want to disappoint.”
“You didn’t stop us,” Keith pointed out, sheathing his blades, his hands resting on the pommels.
“No, I didn’t. And I won’t stop whatever you do next, either. We need to be evaluating our strengths and weaknesses here, so don’t hold back.” Shiro stretched his arms, rolling his shoulders. “Team switch up. Me, Lance, and Pidge. Keith, Hunk, and Matt.”
Shiro headed over to the defensive side, and Lance followed … Until they reached the base, hidden behind the unevenly tall pillars and walls. Lance ducked over to one of the equipment bays set into the wall, and called up a few more guns from the armoury. He added them to his arsenal with a shoulder holster.
“You have a plan there, Lance?” Shiro asked patiently.
“Nope, just wanted change things up for funsies.” Lance leaned back on his heels, one hand still clutching a laser pistol. “What’s your strategy?”
“We all go for stealth. I want Pidge on the fringes, you and me along the middle range. No one goes up high. Lance, you managed to evade Keith, though he did get you in the end — can you get him this time?”
Lance shrugged. “Maybe. He’ll be switching tactics now, and in our sparring matches, he still tends to win most often.”
Shiro switched his attention over to Pidge, and they slipped into the easy rhythm of dissecting Matt’s potential moves paired with Hunk’s. Shiro deliberately left Keith out of his strategy, his eyes gliding over Lance’s way twice — Lance was taking a sideline approach to this, and Pidge had begun to relax. Nothing had gone dramatically wrong. Keith and Lance were bending the rules, but working well within their teams otherwise.
She should have known better.
One minute later, it was all chaos.
“Lance! Stop —” Shiro shouted, choking on his words as he deflected a blow from Matt’s staff.
But it was too late — Lance slid in front of Hunk’s bayard, startling him into firing up towards the ceiling. A couple of shots still hit Lance — he’d raised his arm, the armour absorbing the laser bolts. A shock passed through Lance. He grimaced, but it was an oddly triumphant expression. Hunk lunged towards Lance, who ducked and then surged up in almost one motion, firing twice at close range, hitting Hunk in the chest and helmet.
The moment Lance’s name had been yelled, Keith growled, tagging Pidge lightning fast in her helmet with the flat of his blade before taking off at a run right at Lance.
Lance shot Keith once in the thigh, the electrical shock sending Keith stumbling to the ground, but he still managed to cut Lance’s legs out from underneath him with the hard fling of a sword. Once Lance was on the ground, Keith used his still-functioning leg to raise himself on one knee and then tackle Lance. Again.
“I fucking hate how good you are at this,” Lance said, half-annoyed, half-amused. “I swear the odds were at least forty percent in my favour.”
“You’re holding back,” Keith replied matter-of-factly. “You might’ve stood a chance otherwise.”
“Enough,” Allura’s voice echoed around them.
“Lance.” Shiro had succeeded in defeating Matt, and they both walked over, each looking grim.
Matt had one hand on Shiro’s shoulder, squeezing lightly before releasing, and that appeared to be Shiro’s indicator to begin speaking.
“I said I needed to see how your style of fighting would work with ours. If we could learn from one another … I think … even in this short while …” He stopped talking, taking off his helmet to run a hand through his hair. A nervous tic. “I understand why you took off the armour. I know why you gravitate towards fighting each other instead of fighting us.”
Keith stood up, his leg back to full functionality, and he offered Lance a hand. Once they were both on their feet, Keith asked quietly, “What have you learned?”
“That you’re afraid of hurting us. That if you did treat this too seriously, you might just end up showing off more than you’d like us to see.” Shiro let loose a slow breath, his eyes staring hard into Keith’s. “So if we’re ever going to really understand one another … let’s just get it over with, shall we?”
“Shiro, I know what you’re asking, and you don’t want it,” Lance said, not a hint of merriment in his voice or his eyes. That grin was back — the sharp, humourless one that caused Pidge to clutch her bayard tightly and press herself closer to Matt.
Hunk hadn’t commented on this at all, but he chose that moment to finally speak, “Lance, I just want things to get back to normal, and I get that it won’t happen overnight. But I also get that you’re … You’re different now. And so are we. We gotta figure out how to fight together, with each other. Play to our strengths. So, please …”
“You saw how we fight already,” Keith reminded them. “You were there for over a week. You helped us with Dras.”
“Not the same as fighting against you.” Shiro pointed his long sword at Keith. “So, let’s do this — The Two McClains versus Team Voltron. Show us what you’ve got, no holds barred.”
Pidge had refrained from making any real observations on this entire situation — even while her brain had catalogued behaviours and expressions for her to analyze. The PTSD was a real concern, and now Pidge feared they were all in very real danger. While Lance and Keith would never intentionally hurt anyone, pushing them to fight against their own team, without any reservation — that was sure to end badly.
She stared up at her brother, and he didn’t look at her, not until Lance said, with a scarily calm voice, “Sure, Shiro, let’s go. We’ll even be magnanimous about the whole thing. You guys get to be on the defensive. Rest easy until we make our move.”
Matt warned Pidge without saying any words — be aware, be cautious. She nodded, doing her best to stand firm against a rush of fear.
“I’m coming down there,” Allura said over the comms. “Coran and Sam are up here. They’ll observe.”
“Good, let’s get the whole family in here,” Lance said, his cheery tone back. “Keith and me, we’ll go prep. Let us know when you’re ready.”
They disappeared into the maze of obstacles as Allura walked into the room, making a beeline for Shiro.
She led them all into the bowels of the defensive team’s base before whipping around, hissing, “I thought we were going to let them adjust at their own pace!”
“Well, clearly, that’s not working!” Shiro bit back. “They’re playing at a strange mixture of their tactics and ours, halfway serious, but not putting in their all. It’s confusing and awkward for both of us. We let them unleash on us, and it’s a whole lot clearer what we’re dealing with.”
Matt had one comforting hand on Pidge’s back and the other on Hunk’s shoulder. “Listen, I wasn’t on board with this plan from the start, but if you’re both dead-set on reincorporating Lance and Keith onto the team, then you have to know whether or not their tactics will mesh well with ours. And this is … one of the most straightforward ways to do it, I suppose.”
“So far it seems that there is work to be done.” Allura crossed her arms. “Taking off their armour so that we wouldn’t fire on them isn’t a tactic they can use out in real battle.”
“No, but it clearly shows that they are quick to take advantage of any opportunity they get. Anything that puts their enemies at a disadvantage,” Matt countered. “And that is a valuable instinct to have out there.”
“Except for when it gets them killed.” Hunk couldn’t hide any of his frustration or fear. “I nearly shot Lance full on with my bayard, and I don’t care that it wouldn’t have killed him. I can’t imagine him taking those kinds of risks in a real fight against Galra and surviving.”
“Except that they’re alive, aren’t they?” Pidge couldn’t believe that they’d all forgotten this fact, but maybe they were irrationally overlooking its significance. “That planet isn’t the same as a Galra incursion, but surviving there, for a year, is definitely substantial evidence towards their continued survival, regardless of circumstance.”
Silence followed this statement.
“Paladins and McClains, we shall commence in thirty seconds.”
Coran sounded rather formal — he didn’t use his typically exaggerated announcer voice.
Shiro squared his shoulders, laying out their strategy, one of their most successful battle plans that used each of their strengths — Allura’s exceptional speed and flexibility, Hunk’s force and sheer firepower, Pidge’s quick thinking and hacking talents, and Matt and Shiro’s brutally effective close-quarters-combat styles.
“Ready, steady, and … go!” Coran shouted.
Pidge hadn’t given herself any false hope that today would be simple. But she had rather presumptuously assumed that, after the first two semi-successful matches, this day would not be as disastrous as the remains of her gladiator robots suggested.
When the first bullet, a real, actual bullet, hit her shield, she reassessed in an instant.
“Holy crap,” Hunk breathed out next to her. “What the actual — they’re using —”
“Focus on covering me, and don’t you dare let Lance get a decent shot,” Pidge ordered. She wasn’t going to move from her defensive position, but she also wasn’t going to just let Lance scare them all into attacking.
“You got it,” Hunk answered, and no more fear was present in his voice — only a hint of anger that had been festering since he and Lance had their fight back on that world.
The shots changed angle — Lance must be changing perches. One bullet struck Matt in the shoulder; it didn’t penetrate his armour, but it did get him leaping out of cover. The next few shots would’ve hit his chest plate, if he hadn’t brought his shield up at just the right moment.
The next shot brought Allura down — she was hit in the calf, and lost her footing. But she swung up easily onto a new perch, and then slid down when Lance tried to take another crack at her. Allura, Shiro, and Matt all tried to gather together, clearly discussing a new tactic, when Lance’s shots were suddenly hitting their feet. He was getting closer …
Pidge watched out of the corner of her eye as Matt and Shiro darted out between shots, trying to take Lance down together — clearly, they didn’t want to wait for Lance to pick them off. Allura countered Lance’s shots with a few of her own, splitting Lance's focus. It worked for now, but Pidge knew Keith was somewhere, waiting …
She concentrated on using her hacking program to pin down Lance and Keith’s exact locations in that maze.
“Shiro, Matt!” She cried out. “Sending their coordinates to your visors!”
It was cheating, but Lance and Keith wouldn’t expect any less, right? She fretted over her choice, but soon realized that she had underestimated them.
“It’s their armour, Pidge,” Matt reported back over the comms. “They’re not here. They’ve taken off all of it.”
Her hacking program was entirely focused on the armour — on what the system used to give them shocks and the tracking chip on their belts.
She launched herself out from behind Hunk. “We gotta move!” Pidge didn’t need to turn around to know that Hunk was following her, using his shield to deflect shots.
“I’m down!” Allura shouted. “Keith!”
“How did Keith get behind us?” Hunk wondered breathlessly. “I never saw him!”
Which would be when a blade hit Hunk in the ankles, both tripping and shocking him. He nearly took out Pidge, but he rolled away at the last moment, raising his shield to keep Lance’s shots from taking her out.
Keith appeared, dressed only in the black flightsuit, barefoot and sliding in beneath a whip of Pidge’s bayard, picking up his second sword simultaneously. He thrust upwards, hitting her shield arm, deactivating it with a swift blow, and the second blow hit her in the chest, knocking her out of the match.
He didn’t even stop to look at her as he whipped around, meeting Hunk’s raised bayard, swirling around it gracefully, and then stabbing cleanly at his chest with a light tap. Hunk was down and out.
Which just left Matt and Shiro.
“C’mon.” Pidge picked herself up, wincing at the unpleasant numbness in her arm and chest. “We need to see this.”
“I guess we do,” Hunk said softly, the renewed resentment bringing his voice down an octave or two.
They managed to drag themselves into the opposing teams base — the raised platforms seemed so much more intimidating. Pidge had never felt so small as she did now. She finally saw Matt and Shiro facing off against Keith, who never once gave them an opening. However, even Keith couldn’t hold his own forever against two seasoned soldiers.
Pidge knew Lance had to turn up, but she did not see him coming when he did.
Lance dropped down, landing firmly on Matt’s back, and as Shiro swung around to grab him, Lance pulled back — Matt firmly in his grip, and a dagger, a real serrated dagger, pressed against Matt’s throat.
Shiro froze, mouth open in shock.
That moment was all Keith needed to stab at Shiro’s chest with his blade, but he made a point to keep the sword there — as if to simulate a real stabbing. Which, Pidge realized in shock, he could have done — he was using an old-fashioned blade now, one that had no protective shielding along the edge.
Heavy breathing, creaking armour, and Lance, speaking into their stunned silence.
“We don’t play at this. Not even against each other.”
The dagger clattered onto the floor. Lance let Matt go, and Matt stepped away quickly, his expression carefully neutral.
Keith picked up his discarded shielded blades, and then moved over to the armour. Lance helped him stow it in the alcove where all equipment would be returned to armoury. Allura had been standing some ways behind Matt and Shiro, only watching. Calculated, worried, sad — somehow the princess embodied all of these.
While Pidge had no idea what she herself was feeling, what she was thinking.
As she watched Lance and Keith leave, with no one attempting to stop them, she realized it wasn’t so much that she was at a loss, but that Pidge knew exactly what conclusion her observations were leading her to, and she desperately didn’t want to go there — to realize that maybe Lance and Keith hadn’t really been saved.
That, perhaps, the original Red and Blue Paladins were no more.
Three Weeks and One Day On the Castle of Lions
Keith knew training would end up being exhausting, and he hated that he was right about the ways in which it left him sore. Wearied. Guilt-ridden.
“We messed up,” Keith said as they trudged to their room. “But at least they know now, that we can’t … That training like that isn’t a good fit for us.”
“Yeah, too bad I nearly had to slice Matt’s throat to prove that point.” Lance jabbed at the button for their door rather violently. He had barely broken a sweat while training, yet he looked just as done as Keith felt.
“They know we wouldn’t hurt them,” Keith argued, stripping his flightsuit off as soon as the door slid shut behind them.
“Good on you for being sure that you wouldn’t have,” Lance responded, running a hand through his already dishevelled hair. “We probably should ease up on our own training for a while. Gotta break the habit of trying to break whoever we’re fighting.”
Keith paused, standing by the bathroom door in his shorts, picking at an old scab from one of those training exercises. “No, Lance. Even if I could turn off that part of my brain … I don’t want to. Not when the Galra Empire is out there, gunning for us. For the entire universe.”
“Well, fuck us, then, right?” Lance sat down on the window bench, his back pressed against the glass; the stars and blackness of space outlined his slouched form. “You know, Pidge was working her own little cheating fingers away, trying to track us? Hunk pulled off a few epic moves there. His grenades are awesome, and he nearly gunned me down before he hesitated … They’re not the same Paladins we knew. But it’s still not enough.”
“Not enough?” Keith leaned back against the doorframe, crossing his arms. “To beat us? To defeat the Galra? Not enough to …” To make us feel at home, like we aren’t so different. They’ve changed, but not enough. Not as much as we have, Keith thought to himself, his stomach twisting, growling for food, but he didn’t want to leave this room right now.
Lance’s hard expression faded into a quietly pensive look, his eyes a million light-years away. “All of the above. But they’ve lasted this long without us, right? So clearly, they’ve got more tricks up their sleeves than we’ve seen. And fighting Galra isn’t like fighting Caspor’s goons or Keegin Dras. We should defer to their expertise.”
“Can you?” Keith asked, startling himself — he hadn’t thought to talk with Lance tonight, but … maybe it was time. Finally. “Can you defer to anyone after running a revolution by yourself for a couple of weeks?”
“Are you saying I got myself a taste for command rank now?” Lance’s lips quirked up on one side. “That was not a fun two weeks, Keith. I’m glad to take orders from someone else for a while.”
“I … I don’t think you are glad. I don’t think you’re happy at all — not since … the explosion.” Keith let that hang in the air for a minute, watching carefully as Lance blinked rapidly, and then simply stared vacantly towards Keith. “Lance …” Keith sucked in a deep breath, holding eye-contact determinedly. “We need to talk about those two weeks. Those days when I was unconscious —”
“No?” Keith uncrossed his arms, lifting his hands in supplication. “Lance, I know what happened to Grisner fucked you up. I know how you fought to save me —”
“Stop making it sound like some epic wartime movie,” Lance said, his hands forming fists on his knees, his eyes flicking down to Keith’s scar — the broad, impossible burn that he’d survived thanks to Lance sacrificing too much of himself in return. “I didn’t do anything other than what had to be done. To keep you and me alive. I didn’t care who the fuck had to die, on our side or the other. It worked. It’s in the past, and we are done talking about it.”
“No.” Keith took on Lance’s abrupt tone, walking towards him, his own hands clenching and unclenching. “We did what we had to down there, and that fucking included talking to each other. And now that there’s no guns constantly pointed at our heads, no bastards trying to kill us or sell us, now when there’s some damn peace and quiet, you can’t talk to me?” Keith stopped abruptly, within arm’s reach of Lance, of that cold, blank stare. No pain to see, no tiredness. “You … won’t talk to me.”
“You got it,” Lance agreed, void of expression. His eyes flicked up once and then away. “Go take your shower. I’ll get us food.”
He brushed by Keith without sparing him glance. Lance didn’t even bother putting on shoes or slippers; he walked out barefoot in his underarmour flightsuit, and Keith could have sworn he found a way to slide that automatic door shut just a little bit harder.
Keith stood alone, hands dangling uselessly at his sides — he hadn’t tried to stop Lance, hadn’t reached out to him, either in anger or comfort. He’d failed utterly, sending that rolling nausea through him, the bitter edge of frustrated anger directed inwards. His head throbbed, a ring of pressure, and he shoved both hands into his hair, squeezing his skull to diminish the pain, to banish that instinctual call for a connection no longer there.
His hands dropped once the pain eased back, and he stayed still until his fingers were numb from cold, with his toes curling, seeking warmth. He gave in, stepping into a painfully hot shower, the only kind he felt comfortable in, only feeling clean when his skin reddened and his breathing became choppy due to the steam. When the dizziness proved too much, he shut off the water and towelled himself dry.
By the time Keith had slid into a pair of loose pants and an old tank top, Lance had returned with a tray full of steaming food. But he said nothing as set the meal down on the bed and headed straight to the bathroom.
Enough food for one person. Lance had likely eaten in the kitchen before bringing Keith these portions.
Keith was too damn fucking tired to fight now. He didn't have any willpower left to force the suffering out of Lance, to tear the brutal truth from him. No, not tonight after all.
He ate while Lance showered, and then set the tray aside on his night table. Once Lance finally emerged, Keith was burrowed under the covers, staring at the wall with his back to the window, to Lance.
Lance climbed into the bed, and Keith felt him twist to face away from Keith — in his case, Lance would be staring out towards the window. Since they hadn’t bothered to lower the blinds, the stars cast a faint silver light, painting dark, hazy outlines on the walls. Keith watched his and Lance’s shadows, how they both breathed evenly, though neither of them were sleeping.
From this angle, their shadows formed one shape, and even their breaths matched, adding to the illusion.
But Keith had never felt further apart from Lance, lying in this bed together, sharing the same air, breathing at the same rhythm, and sapping each other’s warmth.
When sleep came for him, it was oddly deep and peaceful … Until he woke up disoriented, sweating profusely, clutching his side, desperate for Lance, because they had almost just died, the explosion, Lance, dragging him out the door, stupid, selfless, should have left Keith behind to …
“Hey,” Lance whispered, and the heat from his scar wasn’t fire; a soft hand rested on his shirt, directly over the old wound. “You’re here, with me. You’re on the Castle, and we’re both alive.” Those even inhales and exhales — a consolation, a rhythm to follow.
Silence for a long stretch. Keith came back to this room, on the Castle, and they were both alive. His hand rested on top of Lance’s. His breathing matched his, and it didn’t feel like they were two separate beings just then, just for that quiet moment.
Then the hand withdrew. “Do you need to go somewhere?”
Keith shook his head, his sweaty hair sticking to his forehead and neck. He blinked at the time displayed on the tablet by his bed. “No. Except maybe for some breakfast.”
Lance let out a long exhale. “Okay. How about you take the first shower—”
“How about you join me?” Keith’s throat was dry, his voice cracking. “And then we eat in one of the observation decks.” A peace offering. A willful denial of the previous night. A band-aid over a deep, relentlessly bleeding cut.
A kiss brushed against Keith’s temple. “Sounds great, querido.”