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The Half-Breed

Chapter Text

As Sendak’s cruiser drifted closer to the last known location of the other Voltron lions, Keith noticed that he had taken to sitting just outside of the Red Lion’s particle barrier more and more often during his off-duty vargas. Ever since the Champion’s escape, the young half-galra soldier was becoming increasingly worried that his involvement would be found out, and he always felt more calm in the presence of the lion.

Which only added to his mounting confusion, if he was being honest. He had never felt like he belonged with the other galra, sure, and they never bothered to try and include him (citing his mixed heritage as reason enough to shun him, and so leaving him alone for most of his life), but then he had come across the Champion. An encounter that had shaken his limited understanding of his place in the universe.

Because the older gladiator had looked almost like what Keith saw when he looked at his reflection. It was the first time he had even a hint of what his non-galra half might be.

This, of course, raised another problem. Just as he would not leave another galra imprisoned, he could not leave the Champion now. And so, impulsively and recklessly, without giving himself the time to think about it too much, he had helped the Champion escape.

He knew that if his actions were ever discovered, he would most likely be executed. Yet, he could not bring himself to regret them.

That did not mean that he did not fear for his life, though. Hence, he stayed with the lion. Any sense of calm and safety was a welcome relief from the turbulence of his mind.

Though it also meant that he was with the lion when the paladins of Voltron re-emerged and attempted to retrieve it.

At first, all he heard were the alarms. Intruders. And he knew the only things they were likely to be after was either the prison block or the lion. Maybe even both.

He was unarmed, his weapons lying on his bunk on the other side of the ship. He heard running footsteps and blasting guns just outside the hanger door.

The door hissed open and a small person in full green and white armor darted in, pursued by a half a dozen sentries.

Suddenly Keith was filled with a rush of warmth and moved on pure instinct. There was only one way to protect the lion and prevent the green one from being shot down (though he didn’t understand the source of his priorities. Why was he helping a stranger over his own duties?).

Clutching the control panel as if his life depended on it, he slammed his fist down the control button for the bay doors. The sentries and the intruder were immediately sucked out into space, and Keith’s legs were ripped out from underneath him. He risked a glance and saw, to his immense relief, that he had guessed correctly that the green one’s suit was void-proof.

He also saw them get eaten by a green lion much like the red one in front of him.

In his shock he loosened his grip on the control panel. Not by much, but enough that when a stray piece of debris collided with his arms he was knocked out into space.

Tumbling head over heels out into the endless vacuum of the universe, Keith could not help but think that it was a kind of karma. He had betrayed his Empire, not once but twice. It only stood to reason that he would die in infinite nothingness now, alone and adrift like he had been for most of his life.

But then, all of a sudden, his mind was filled with a rumbling roar, something red filled his vision, and everything was consumed by darkness.

Chapter Text

Regaining consciousness was a painful experience. At first Keith was only aware of a radiating pain through all of his limbs. As he pulled the disparate pieces of his consciousness together, the pain became concentrated on certain points. He cataloged his injuries automatically, his training kicking in.

Broken arm, most likely from the debris that had dislodged him.

At least two, possibly three, ribs that were probably fractured, if not broken.

Some sort of head injury at the base of his skull, best case scenario being a simple concussion. Considering the fact that his sight had not yet returned, it would be more likely that he might have more serious brain damage to worry about.

A voice hummed at the edge of his awareness. He struggled towards a more alert state, acknowledging the chill metal beneath him and the strangely familiar, warm presence surrounding him like a blanket. Something seemed to click in his head and the words being spoken started to register.

“...Red Lion, do you copy? Come in, Red Lion. Anyone alive in there?”

“Here, Pidge, let me,” a new voice intruded, one Keith vaguely recognized. “Hailing the occupant of the Red Lion. My name is Shiro. We are the paladins of Voltron. We mean you no harm. You saved our Green Paladin, Pidge, and for that we are in your debt. She tells us you were injured by a stray piece of debris, and we want to help you, but you need to lower the particle barrier around the lion.” There was a pause, at the same moment that Keith pegged the identity of the speaker. “Can you please respond so we know you can hear us?”

“Are you…” Keith coughed, trailing off. He tried again, voice hoarse. “Are you the Champion?”

There was a heavy silence on the other end of the line. Shiro spoke again, slow and uncertain. “You… know me?”

Keith was overwhelmed with giddy relief. “You’re alive. I wasn’t sure you made it.” He broke off into another coughing fit, gasping once he caught his breath. “I’m glad.”

“You don’t sound too good.” A third voice interjected, full of concern. “You okay in there?”

“Just peachy.” He inhaled cautiously, feeling around for a wall. “You mentioned a particle barrier? How do I shut it off?”

The first voice, Pidge, launched into a fast-paced, technical explanation that Keith thought he caught the gist of. With the aid of a wall he stumbled blindly to the controls. He managed, with quite a bit of dizzy fumbling, to deactivate the barrier.

The voices were speaking again as he slid to the floor, energy spent, but he could not find it in himself to understand them. The lion shifted beneath him abruptly, and suddenly there were others in the cockpit. Someone touched his shoulder and he flinched away, hissing as the sudden movement aggravated his injuries.

He heard brief flashes of the conversation flying over his head, but the pain was starting to claim his awareness once more.

“—looks almost human–”

“—ears, though! A tail! He’s–”

“—damage to his visual cortex, we–”

“—is he alive? How–”

“—a pod, hurry–”

And there were the hands again, touching him, grabbing him. He attempted to recoil, but in his weakened state he could not put up much of a fight. Strong arms pressed his struggling form firmly against the chest of his carrier. Eventually he allowed himself to fall limp in their grasp, fading in and out of consciousness. The world drifted away, out of his reach.

The presence from the lion’s cockpit surrounded him again, accompanied by a soothing voice.

Safe. Help. Free.

Tentatively, he mentally reached out into the nothingness. Free?

Yes. Free. Safe. A warm awareness, both familiar and strange, brushed up against his own. Relax. Safe. Sleep.

It was more of a command than a request, and he did not resist when sleep enveloped him in darkness.

Chapter Text

With a hiss and a rush of cold air Keith re-entered the world of the living. He stumbled into a brilliantly lit room that forced him to close his eyes, and was only saved from face-planting into the floor by a pair of strong arms. He pulled away sharply, out of fearful reflex, causing him to fall anyway. Shivering and blinking against the bright light, he scrambled back, away from the people gathered around him, only stopping when his back hit a wall.

Once his eyes had adjusted to the light, Keith realized that the Champion —Shiro, he remembered he said his name was– had been holding the others back, giving him the space to collect himself. Unreasonably grateful for the opportunity, Keith analyzed the others in the room.

Of the six gathered, only two looked even remotely familiar: the small green one he had saved, and Shiro. Who he had also saved.

But the other four were unfamiliar.

The green one, Pidge, looked like a young olkari, her helmet tucked under her arm as she returned Keith’s assessing look with one of her own. A large balmeran stood just behind her in matching yellow armor, a worried frown creasing his face. The remaining three seemed to be part of the same species, but they looked… altean? But that was impossible, Altea had been destroyed ten thousand years ago. Unless…

The youngest altean, sharing the white hair of the girl and the blue markings of the other, was wearing the blue paladin armor. Unlike the curiosity and concern of the other paladins, and even the adult male altean, he and the girl glared at Keith with unabashed animosity.

The blue paladin addressed Shiro angrily. “I don’t know why you’re protecting him. He’s galra! He’s one of their soldiers! You saw his armor.”

“He saved Pidge. And the Red Lion seems to like him.” The black paladin countered in a more reasonable tone. “Lance, just look at him. He’s terrified.”

Keith winced at his words as it occurred to him that his tail had been tucked and his ears had lain flat since he had awoken. And even though he tried, he could not convince them to return to their neutral state.

“Terrified? What a joke! The whole universe knows galra don’t feel fear.” Lance sneered. “The fact that he’s duped the Red Lion only makes it worse! And how do we know he was saving Pidge and not just jettisoning her into space?”

Keith was surprised by how much the venom in his words hurt. He thought he had managed to move past caring what other people said about him long ago. Apparently not.

Using the wall to support most of his weight, he levered himself to his feet, drawing the eyes of the others. He crossed his arms over his chest, feeling vulnerable without his armor, and cast his eyes to the floor. “If you don’t want me to stay, you can drop me off on some wilderness planet and I’ll fend for myself.”

"And let you report to the galra about the castle’s layout?” The altean girl retorted scornfully. “I don’t think so.”

Keith had heard that hate could cloud judgement, but this was ridiculous. “Well, considering the fact that I’ve only been conscious in this room, I don’t think that should be one of your main concerns. Besides, as far as the Empire knows, I’m a traitor who stole the Red Lion. There’s probably an order out now to kill me on sight.”

There was a short silence while the others processed this.

He could not resist adding, a little hotly, “You could do them a favor and kill me yourselves. Then you wouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Disturbingly, the two hostile alteans expressed interest in the idea, but the others were obviously horrified by the suggestion.

“Who do you think we are?” Pidge exclaimed. “We’re the defenders of the universe, not murderers!”

He nodded towards Lance and the girl. “Your friends are seriously considering it.”

“Lance, Allura.” Shiro’s voice held a note of warning. “We’re not killing someone in cold blood.”

“Then what are we going to do with him?” The girl, Allura, snapped.

“I know what I’m going to do,” the balmeran announced.

Keith unobtrusively sized up the yellow paladin, wondering if he would be able to fight him off if it became necessary. It would at least be a close call.

“Do tell, Hunk.” Lance’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “What’s your brilliant idea?”

“I wouldn’t call it a brilliant idea,” Hunk admitted. “But I know that whenever I get out of a healing pod, I’m starving. So I was thinking I could feed the guy? Because I know I’m not going to be much help figuring out what to do with him, since, honestly, I just want to let him go.”

“But your Balmera has been under the galra’s rule since before you were born!” Allura argued, Lance nodding vigorous agreement beside her. “And now you’re going to feed one of them?”

The older altean finally stepped in. “Your highnesses, think for a moment. If we were all held to what our species have done and what has happened to them, without any exceptions to the rule, well, then the three of us would be dead!” He smiled and winked at Keith. “Not to say that this lad is an exception, but we can at least spare him some food, don’t you think?”

“If you say so, Coran.” Lance grumbled.

“Shiro,” Allura’s voice took on an imperiously commanding tone. “Accompany Hunk and our… guest, to the kitchens.” Her words were laced with distaste. “I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him. No one should be left alone with him.”

Keith’s tail lashed in agitation. “I’m standing right here, you know.”

“Oh, we know,” Lance hissed. “Standing all the way on the other side of the room, as if that will keep you safe.”

“Nothing about this scenario looks safe to me,” he retorted, gritting his teeth. “The best I can see that I’ll get out of this is being locked up here. By the moment, though, it seems more likely that you’ll sell me off to some slavers’ moon without my tongue.” He spat the vile tasting words, gauging the others’ reactions. He turned to Hunk, allowing his expression to soften somewhat. “Sorry, big man, but you won’t take offense if I say I don’t have much of an appetite at the moment?”

“Oh, yeah.” Hunk nodded in understanding. “Totally get it. No problem.”

“So, “ Pidge piped up. “What are we going to do with him?”

There was another tense silence.

Keith, high on adrenaline and body trembling with exhaustion, had a thought, and asked without thinking, “You got the prisoners off Sendak’s ship, right?” He tried to read the answer on their startled faces. “They’re safe?”

“They got out of their healing pods a few vargas before you,” Shiro assured him. “They’re fine.”

Abruptly all of his energy drained out of him, and he sagged against the wall. “That’s great.” He murmured. “At least something good came of all this.”

Shiro pressed his lips together. “I’m going to take him to a spare room to rest.” He silenced the alteans’ protests with a hard look. “Don’t worry, I’ll lock him in, but the kid’s dead on his feet. Cut him some slack.”

“I’ll help.” Hunk volunteered. “So the Princess doesn’t have to worry about you going alone.”

“And once everyone has had a chance to calm down, we can discuss more permanent plans,” Shiro said firmly, shooting what Keith supposed was meant to be a comforting smile in his direction.

All he could think about, though, was how ominous permanent plans sounded.

Shiro and Hunk started towards him when the others raised no objections. Keith pushed off the wall, intending to meet them halfway, but had to put out a hand to steady himself again as his knees almost buckled. Shiro picked up the pace and his prosthetic arm wrapped around Keith’s shoulders without warning, Hunk hovering off to one side.

Keith stiffened at the unexpected contact, his mind automatically comparing the level of danger and discomfort to previous instances. The grip was too tight for him to duck out, and it was one of the druids prosthetics, anyhow. Those things could tear off his arm on a whim (Keith had seen it happen, once). And the owner of the arm had backup, a guy twice Keith’s size filled with nervous energy. There was no getting out of this, he couldn’t move, he was trapped, they were going to—

“Hey, buddy, are you alright?”

Keith wrangled his thoughts back into line, releasing a shaky breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. He glanced up at Shiro, but quickly averted his eyes. “‘m fine. Let’s go.”

He could sense the black paladin’s hesitation, but soon enough they were walking across the room. They had to pass the alteans to reach the door, and Lance reached out and grabbed Keith’s arm. Keith flinched, warily meeting the prince’s eyes.

They burned with hate and fury. “If you hurt any of my friends, I’ll kill you myself.”

Keith knew that such a death would not be quick. He nodded acknowledgement, desperately wishing for people to stop touching him. “Understood.”

Unable to stand it anymore, he shrugged off Lance’s grip and Shiro’s arm, stepping into the hall of his own violation. Willpower alone kept him upright. Shiro and Hunk walked close beside him, in case he should fall, but neither of them touched him. He was ridiculously grateful, but his cheeks burned with shame for the weakness he had shown them.

They led him to a bare room, furnished with a bunk, a closet, and an adjoining bathroom. Shiro and Hunk stopped in the doorway.

“We’re going to lock the door,” Shiro informed him apologetically. “But you can rest here.”

“I’ll bring you some food. You don’t have to eat it,” Hunk hurried to tell him. “But in case you get hungry…”

Keith attempted to swallow a strange lump in his throat. “Thanks,” he said thickly. “This is already more than I expected.”

They turned to go, but Shiro hesitated on the threshold. “We never got your name.”

It wasn’t framed as a question, but he answered it anyway. “Keith Kogane.”

Hunk frowned. “That’s not a galra name.”

Keith made eye contact with Shiro. “My father gave it to me, I’m told. He wasn’t galra.”

The older man nodded, like he understood what he really wanted to say. “I wish we met under better circumstances, Keith.”

Then the door closed and he was locked in.

Chapter Text

He barely managed to stumble over to the bed before he collapsed on the covers, tears pricking his eyes. His calm facade and bravado slid from his shoulders and he buried his face in the pillow. He was certain there were cameras, that they were watching him fall apart. He was a mess, and he had an audience.

He couldn’t find it in himself to care, at the moment.

He rolled onto his back and wiped the damp tracks from his face with the back of his arm. He was still wearing the healing pod suit. He wondered what the paladins were going to decide to do with him. He wondered what he wanted them to do with him.

Did he want them to let him go? Drop him on some deserted planet to scrounge for food and hide from the Empire? He would be alive, but it wouldn’t be much of a life.

Did he want them to at least take him to the nearest inhabited system? He could find a job, a cover, if he could manage to hide his ears and tail. But there would be many species who hate the galra just as much as the lteans, an if they found him out… And he knew what most species thought of half breeds.

But did he want to stay here, their prisoner? The non-alteans seemed nice enough, he supposed, and there was the lion… But he would still be a prisoner, at their mercy, and there was no mistaking what the Alteans would do to him, given the chance.

Did he want them to just kill him, after all? That seemed to be the simplest solution. He didn’t have his Empire to give him meaning anymore. Why was he still here, still fighting?

That warm presence filled his mind unexpectedly, admonishing. Fight. Live.

But why? He asked, almost desperate. What do I have to lose? What do I have to gain?

Family. Protection. Hope. Live.

I don’t have a family, no one to protect or to protect me. And hope for what, the future? My people have done terrible things. I have done terrible things. I don’t deserve these people’s goodwill. I deserve whatever judgement they give me.

Redemption. Hope.

He shook his head and curled up on his side. If you say so. It’s not like there’s anything I can do about it.

A rumbling purr echoed in his head, lulling his tumultuous thoughts towards sleep. He yawned, curling into a tighter, ball, and let the darkness take him.

 

Keith was no stranger to dreams. They were a frequent fixture whenever he snatched a few hours of sleep. He had more than his fair share of nightmares, but most of them were fairly vague, and only the lingering scent of fear and a cold sweat soaking his skin indicated their nature.

Not so with this dream.

He found himself standing in a dark room, lit only by the dim, violet light filtering in from the doorway behind him. This scant illumination was not enough for Keith to even guess at the size of the room, or if there was anyone inside. He proceeded with due caution.

In a matter of ticks (or dobashes, or vargas. You can never tell in a dream) the glow of the doorway was lost in the gloom behind him. He slowed to a stop in complete darkness, but he sensed eyes on him that he knew could somehow see through the oppressive black.

He thought he heard something breathing, a steady rhythm of moving air. As he became aware of it, the sound grew louder, and closer, until he could feel the breath on the nape of his neck. He whirled around, but the creature moved with him. No matter he turned, or how quickly he moved, the creature was just behind him. Not touching him, but close enough that Keith could sense the creature’s close proximity.

He wondered when he started thinking of it as a 'creature,' removing the possibility of a person.

Gradually he stilled, straining his ears to catch any hint of the creature’s movements. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing until he almost couldn’t hear it, attempting to maximize his focus.

There was a faint click-clack sound behind him, like two small rocks colliding, and then a rustling hiss of something smooth being dragged across the ground. A chill raced down his spine. He knew those sounds, and what creature made them when it moved. He had hoped he would never see one again.

Before Keith had time to react, a light flickered on overhead. Strangely, the light came from a hole in the ceiling of a rock cave, one he was very familiar with, and not from the lights of a galra cruiser.

His eyes landed on the lower half of the creature, its long tail draped across a pile of boulders and rubble. He followed it with his gaze, slowly turning until he was nose to nose with the creature. It reared into the air, lifting the first half of its fourteen-foot-long, undulating body completely off the ground. It clawed at the space in front of it with its two legs and threw its head back with a resounding screech that set Keith’s ears to ringing.

Frozen in instinctive, primitive fear, he could only breathe one word in awe. “Rafdol…”

The rafdol, fully grown and in its prime, darted forward, easily slamming Keith bodily into a rock wall and pinning him there. The crimson feathers that sprouted from the sides of its flat, wedge-shaped head and its shoulders brushed against his face as it sniffed his hair. Claws pierced through his clothes and skin, and rivulets of blood trickled from his shoulders.

Keith remembered this. He knew what happened next.

He screamed as the rafdol lunged forward and sank its teeth into his shoulder.

 

Keith jolted upright, hissing in remembered pain. He brushed his fingers over the fabric of the pod suit, tracing the scars on his shoulder through the cloth.

The door opened and he was on his feet in an instant, crouched in a ready stance. His ears swiveled to catch all sound, alert and prepared. He tensed at movement through the doorway.

Hunk stepped into the room, blinking in surprise at Keith’s aggressive posture. The balmeran held a bowl of some sort of stew in front of him, and a glass of water.

Slightly sheepish, Keith straightened. “Sorry. You startled me.”

Hunk shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I should’ve announced myself.” He held out the bowl and glass. “I brought you some food. Think you can eat?”

He accepted the meal warily, retreating to the bunk once the food was in his hands. Hunk seemed nice enough, but Keith had been through too much to accept any kindness at face value.

Hunk and Keith stared at each other for a few ticks before Keith glanced at the door. “Thanks for the food.”

It took the big guy a moment to take the hint. “Oh! Oh. Okay, well, I’ll come back for the dishes?”

He hurried out of the room, the door locking with a click behind him.

Keith eyed the bowl in his hands. Time to eat, I guess.

Chapter Text

Keith was familiar with solitary confinement, and so already had a routine in place for such an occasion. He began with a series of stretches and warm-up exercises, doing his best to ignore the constant sensation of being watched. After ten dobashes of loosening up and preliminary strength training, he switched it up. He spaced out his legs, knees bent, and slid smoothly through a series of stances. Controlling his breathing, he transitioned easily from one pose to another. He practiced various combat techniques and fighting styles: fencing, hand-to-hand, and anything that he knew or could remember from his galra training, especially his knife-work. Some weren’t very easy without their corresponding weapons, but the intense training regime served to help clear his mind and calm the nervous energy festering under his skin.

Time passed in an achy, sweaty blur for Keith. Unfortunately the body had its limits. After several vargas of pushing himself, he could hardly keep himself on his feet, let alone continue training. That did not stop him from trying, though. He took one lunge too many, overextended himself, and lost his balance.

He tumbled to the floor with a groan, and was tempted to stay pressed against the cool metal. His breath came in ragged gasps and he visibly trembled as he struggled to his knees. And that was as far as he could go, his overworked body refusing to carry his weight. He half-crawled over to a wall and fairly pulled himself up to stand on shaky legs. Nausea threatened, and he stumbled over to the adjoining bathroom.

He sank down to rest on his heels, arms propped up on the edge of the tub. He weakly reached over to turn on the cold water and stuck his head under to faucet to cool himself down. As the effects of his self-enforced training began to wear off, his thoughts started churning again.

He had not worked himself that hard in ages. The last time had been when he had needed to avoid the unwanted advances of a galra commander sent to inspect the fleet Keith had been stationed at. The paladins must have really shaken him, more than he had realized, if it was getting this bad again.

In contrast to the last time, however, Keith had access to clean, hot water, a comfortable bed, and had been fed beforehand. Much better circumstances for his recovery.

Pulling his head out from under the refreshing stream, he started to run a bath and shook the dripping water from his thick hair. Taking the precaution of locking the door first (who gives a prisoner a room they can lock themselves inside of?), he quickly stripped off the sweat-soaked pod suit and stepped into the nearly-scalding bath.

Settling into the water, he could feel the ache and tension bleed out of him as he closed his eyes. He’d been locked up for how long already? Vargas? A quintant?

His mind kicked into overdrive as his body stilled. Had they forgotten about him? Would that be a good thing, in this case? He knew that if Lance and Allura were the ones to remember him, he could not expect leniency, or a quick and easy end.

The thought of the alteans served to shatter any calm or peace he might have fabricated in this cloud of steam. Draining the tub, he hastily toweled himself off and pulled on the pod suit again, now slightly tacky with dried sweat.

When he re-entered the main room of his prison, Pidge was waiting for him. She was smiling.

His tail twitched and his ears perked up nervously. “What is it?”

The young olkari did not seem to notice his anxiety. “We’ve come to a consensus. I’ve been sent to collect you.”

Ah, so this was it. The beginning of the end. He knew no one was coming to save him from whatever fate the paladins decided for him. That did not make it any easier to bear.

He carefully cleared all emotion from his face, even as his heart quailed behind his rib cage. “Alright, then. Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

This was not what he was expecting. It was not even close.

Interrogation or torture would not have surprised him. Death might have even been considered a blessing. If worse came to worst, Keith would not have thought it outside the realm of possibility if they had decided to keep him as some sort of exotic pet (half-breeds were, after all, a rarity. Especially galra ones).

But this?

Shiro’s brow furrowed. “I thought you would be thrilled, considering what the alternatives are.”

Keith stood on the bridge, hands cuffed behind him. His captors were arrayed in a half-circle around him, though Allura was conspicuously absent. He blinked, curling his tail around his leg to display his hesitancy. “I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea, but ‘thrilled’ isn’t exactly the word I would use.”

“The tracking device would give you a wider range of freedom than that one room,” Pidge announced, a tad smugly. “I designed it myself. It can’t be taken off without fingerprint ID and the corresponding code, and it sends an alert to everyone on the ship if you attempt to enter any of the designated restricted areas. We’ll all know where you are at any given time, and the device will automatically lock you in whatever room you’re in if it thinks you’re doing anything to endanger us, the ship, or yourself.”

He raised an eyebrow. “If I endanger myself?”

“That was Hunk’s idea.” She gestured at the balmeran. “He was bothered by the fact that you didn’t seem too fussed about dying.”

“Oh.” How was he supposed to react to that? Remind them that he was their enemy? Thank them for their concern?

“If you don’t like it, we can always go with my plan,” Lance smirked. “And just throw you out the airlock.”

“Lance, we discussed this,” Shiro reprimanded tiredly. “No airlocks. Not even for galra.” He sounded like he had repeated this several times already.

The altean princess finally joined them, a white case in her hands. “Here we are, then.”

She pressed the latch and the lid swung open, revealing Pidge’s device.

Keith scowled, ears pressed flat against his head. “It’s a collar.” He stated flatly. So ‘exotic pet’ it was. He knew it had been too good to be true.

Shiro’s expression turned apologetic. “It was the only way to get Allura and Lance to agree to let you roam the castle.”

He eyed the white band with blue lights warily. “I think I would prefer to stay in that room.”

“There’s always the airlock,” Lance reminded him.

Pidge ignored the prince. “Listen, —Keith, right?– I’ve been watching the camera feeds from your room. I don’t think leaving you in there’s a good idea.”

Shifting uncomfortably at the reminder of his near-collapse, he turned away. “Fine. I’ll wear the… tracker.” He bit his tongue, tasting blood. Everything in him rebelled at the thought, but did he have much choice?

“Coran,” Allura offered the box. “If you’ll do the honors.”

The altean adviser shook his head, but accepted the device. “I wouldn’t call this an honor, Princess, only a necessity. And a temporary one, at that.”

Lance snorted. “Temporary?”

Coran shot him a glance before approaching Keith with the collar. “I’m sorry about this, lad, but you know why I have to, right?”

Keith nodded stiffly. “I understand your reasons, and I don’t disagree with them.” He closed his eyes. “Just get it over with.”

The cold metal encircled his neck, and his throat closed up in panic. He couldn’t help but recall the times when others had tried to do this very thing to him (fellow soldiers, slavers, strangers), and he had fought them all off. Yet here he was now, simply accepting it and ignoring the disturbed roiling of his gut. He was disgusted with himself, even as he masked his struggle to breathe.

When Coran’s hands pulled away, Keith released a shaky breath and opened his eyes again. He stared straight ahead as Pidge unclasped the cuffs around his wrists, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze. He ran his fingers through his still-damp hair and waited with scarcely disguised impatience for someone, anyone, to speak and break the increasingly tense and uncomfortable silence.

Hunk obliged. “How about I show you the kitchens?” He suggested with a nervous laugh. “You should get to know your way around a little so you don’t get lost, right?”

Keith side-eyed Allura, remembering her alarm at the idea that he might spread the layout of the castle if he ever left, then turned to follow Hunk away from the others questioning faces and intense stares.

Chapter Text

Keith could not quite recollect how Hunk showing him the kitchen had turned into an impromptu cooking lesson, but he was not complaining. The young man was a wizard when it came to food, he could see that easily enough. Keith would take any excuse to taste his cooking at this point. Even if he knew it was poisoned, he still was pretty sure he would not hesitate to eat it. It was that good.

It was also obvious that the balmeran liked his food, but Keith noted that the greater portion of the other boy’s size had nothing to do with his eating habits. He was balmeran, a species that was already built as sturdily as the rocks they lived with, and Keith got the distinct impression that, if he so wished, Hunk would have no problem snapping him in half like a twig.

“No, Keith, like this,” Hunk corrected his grip on the knife. “You’re not fighting with it, you’re cutting vegetables.”

Keith allowed him to rearrange his fingers, amused (though his skin crawled at the touch). “I’m still surprised by the fact that you’re letting me handle knives at all. That’s a lot of trust. What if I tried to stab you?”

Hunk pointedly turned his back on him to continue meal prep, basically offering it as a target. “You won’t. You’re too smart for that.” He glanced over his shoulder with a smile. “Besides, I have a feeling about you. It might just be that you look a bit like Shiro, but mostly it’s a gut feeling. You know?”

He shook his head in amazement. “You people are strange.”

Hunk laughed, a more genuine sound than anything Keith had heard in a long time. “Yeah, I guess we are.”

Keith paused in his cutting, blade hovering over the half-minced vegetables. “Do the others know you’re letting me use a knife?” He frowned. “Allura and Lance probably think I’d kill everyone, if they saw...:”

Hunk held up a hand. “No. Nu-uh. I’m gonna stop you right there. Yeah, they’re altean royalty, but we’re a team here. They aren’t in charge.”

He placed the knife on the counter and stepped away, crossing his arms. “Still, not sure I want to take that chance.”

The balmeran gave him an odd look, but pulled the cutting board and knife towards him anyway, continuing where Keith had left off.

He was getting tired of awkward silences, but once again Hunk saved him from the experience. “So, tell me about yourself.”

So ‘save’ was a bit of a strong word.

Keith blinked, taking a moment to pick apart the phrase. “What?”

“Tell me about yourself,” he repeated. “Y’know, hobbies. What it’s like to be a soldier. Your favorite food.” He raised his eyebrows. “Who you like.”

He didn’t understand the last comment (who he liked? Was that a trick question?). Or most of the line of questioning in general. “I’ve never really had… hobbies. Mostly I train in my spare time —or trained, past tense.” He hesitated, scanning Hunk’s expression and wondering if he was answering like the big guy had been expecting. “Being a soldier? Uh… it’s fighting? Fighting other people? Following orders, training, flight simulations…” Killing, he did not add. Wow, it sounded boring and horrible when he said it out loud, judging from Hunk’s face. “But, uh, food? I don’t really have a favorite food. Or a favorite… anything, I guess.”

Hunk just stared at him, mildly shocked.

“I’m not a very interesting person, am I?” He chuckled, wondering why he was still talking and kind of panicking inside at the same time. He felt kind of out of it, all of a sudden, but continued anyway. “All I’m really good at is hurting and killing people.” His hand drifted up to the collar at his neck. “Can’t say I blame their royal highnesses.”

Mild shock morphed into horror. “Keith, no! That’s awful. Don’t say things like that.”

The half-breed was taken aback, recoiling from the raised voice.

“Dude, seriously! How can you even think things like that about yourself?”

Keith ducked his head to hide his confusion, tired brain trying unsuccessfully to pinpoint where the other’s distress was coming from. “I’m not… I’m not sure what you mean? I…” He shrugged with one shoulder. “It’s not like it’s news. I was never raised to be anything else.”

Keith could not possibly understand why Hunk’s eyes went wide and his grip tightened on the knife in his hand. He could not understand when his expression turned grim and determined, and he said. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Strangely enough, as the obviously disturbed Balmeran hurried out of the room, Keith felt no inclination to do anything other than what the yellow paladin had asked. It would be the perfect opportunity to try and escape, the perfect chance to scope out the place and find a way out…

But he could not bring himself to really do anything.

He was oddly calm about it, viewing his emotions as if through a glass, thoroughly detached. Logically he knew that it could not, in any way, be healthy. But he still could not find it in himself to… care. It was worrisome, but not overly so. It was as if thinking about who he was, what he was, brought a wall up between him and everything else. Including his own emotions.

His circular thoughts were broken off as Hunk re-entered the room, rambling to Shiro without taking so much as a breath. Shiro himself appeared slightly overwhelmed, but concern was the prominent emotion on his face. His eyes darkened when they landed on Keith, still leaning back on the counter with his arms crossed, nonchalant and a bit aloof. Exactly where Hunk had left him.

Shiro placed a calming hand on the hardly coherent Balmeran and murmured something to him softly. The larger boy took a deep breath, and nodded. The older paladin guided him to a seat and sat down himself, gesturing to a stool across from them. “Keith, take a seat. Please.”

He complied, expression inscrutable. He waited for the others to initiate the conversation he knew they were gearing towards.

Taking a deep breath, Shiro looked Keith in the eyes. “What exactly did the galra… teach you?” His hands shook and he clasped them together tightly in front of him. “What did they do to make you this way?”

Keith was honestly perplexed. “What way?” He shifted his gaze between the two of them, a bit of his old fear trying to worm its way into his chest. “What are you talking about?”

Shiro deflected his question with one of his own. “How old are you, Keith?”

It took him a moment to recall. “Eighteen?”

“Deca-phoebs?” He clarified, brow furrowed.

“Uh, yeah?”

There was a pause, and he looked as if he was doing some sort of mental calculation. His eyes widened. “That’s… that’s only sixteen or seventeen years! You’re so— how could anyone, even the galra, send a kid out to fight for them? Raise a kid, like— just to—”

He forcefully cut himself off, paling.

Hunk put one or his large hands on the black paladin’s shoulder, taking his turn in the comforting role.

Keith, still baffled by this strange turn of events, found himself leaning away from the two of them. “Uh… I’m still, still not sure I understand? What exactly…” His speech halted as both looked up at him simultaneously. He pressed on, genuinely curious. “What exactly is the issue?”

Their distress was easily visible. Their stunned silence still was doing nothing to help Keith figure out the situation.

And that was when Lance decided to join them.

Chapter Text

One glance from the altean prince was all it took for Keith to drop the conversation entirely. Avoiding his gaze and bracing himself for any kind of confrontation. Lance did not speak, but Keith could feel his gaze boring into him. He shuddered, and despite Hunk and Shiro’s protests, excused himself. He deftly dodged the altean and started down the hall, curbing his desire to run as far and as fast as he could.

Taking random turns and backtracking in an attempt to dissuade anyone who might try to follow him, Keith finally slowed to a stop outside a large set of open doors. He hesitated, peering into a seemingly deserted hangar bay with two lions in it, the green one and Red, who had her particle barrier up again.

Come. A voice purred invitingly, the familiar warmth filling him. Safe.

He snorted. Safe. Yeah. Totally. Not like there’s a couple alteans who are out for my blood or anything.

The Red Lion’s eyes flashed in reproval. Come.

Alright, alright. He ducked into the hangar, striding up to the barrier. Let me in?

“Keith?”

He startled, spinning around into a fighting stance before the sight before him registered. Relaxing slightly, he had the grace to blush. “Pidge. Hey.”

The small olkari sat perched on a supply crate, a laptop balanced on her knees. “What are you doing in here?”

“Uh…” He shifted his eyes to Red. “Should I not be?”

“No, that’s not,” she made a frustrated noise. “Not quite what I meant. You’re allowed to be here. As long as Red doesn’t kick you out, that is. But weren’t you in the kitchen with Hunk?” She narrowed her eyes. “Did something happen?”

“Well… Lance showed up. I thought it would be better to make myself scarce.”

She regarded him with disbelief. “Why do I feel like it’s more than that?”

He crossed his arms, posture subconsciously becoming closed off and defensive. “Hunk and Shiro seemed to be bothered by something… something about me.” He clarified, averting his gaze. “They were asking questions, and Shiro got upset… I guess Lance showing up was the last straw.” He looked up at the lion again. “So I came here. Even on Sendak’s ship, Red was the only thing that made me feel… calm.”

“Calm.” Pidge repeated. “Right.”

There came that awkward pause that comes about when two people who do not understand social cues very well reach the end of their rope in a conversation.

With a low hum the barrier surrounding the Red Lion finally came down.

He took a step back. “I’m, uh, gonna leave you to… whatever you’re doing.”

He fled to the lion.

A low growl rumbled at the back of his mind, but it sounded more like a laugh than a threat. He mentally growled back, although halfheartedly, as he skillfully clambered up the side of the lion to perch on her head.

He heard a small gasp behind him and glanced down at Pidge’s shocked expression before pulling back out of her line of sight. He had forgotten that most people are not skilled climbers.

He leaned back between Red’s eyes with a sigh, allowing her warm presence to lull him into a relaxed, half-aware state. Do you think I’ll be okay here?

Safe.

Yeah, you said. But what will happen to me? Will I be able to stay? He had not even realized that was what he wanted until he asked her. Will they accept me? Will the Empire be able to find me? Will they hurt the Paladins if they find out they have been harboring me?

Relax. She pushed thoughts of peace and calm breathing over him until he uncoiled. Safe. Harbor. Haven.

He closed his eyes. Okay. I trust you. A small fear tightened in his chest. If they make me leave… will you come with me?

Yes.

Simple, yet the most comforting answer he could have received.

Chapter Text

An alarm jolted Keith out of restless slumber on the Red Lion’s head. Four mice tumbled off of him, squeaking in protest. He spared them a baffled glance before leaning over the edge in time to see Pidge bolt out of the hangar bay.

He slid deftly down the side of the lion, only stumbling slightly when his feet hit the bottom. The mice still clung to him, little claws hooked into the fabric of the pod suit. He scooped them up into his hands, letting them crawl onto his shoulders and into his hair as he ran towards the bridge. If something was wrong, he wanted to know what it was.

And how he could help.

He skidded into the control room just as Allura started the explanation. She glared daggers his way, but professionally did not allow her hate to interrupt. “We have come across a galra fleet that is terrorizing the planet below. We have been following the signal of their call for aid, and now that we have arrived, the galra have spotted us. Everyone, get to your lions. Battle positions.”

In all the rush, no one seemed to notice that none of these instructions pertained to Keith. He followed the paladins back to the hangar, standing next to Red as the others boarded their lions. Red growled meaningfully at him, lowering her head and opening her mouth for him to climb inside. He hesitated, glancing at the Blue Lion as it flew out into space. Red’s growl intensified and she snatched him up without warning.

He fell into the pilot's seat with a cry of surprise, clutching the controls to keep his balance.

“Who was that?” Pidge’s voice echoed from the monitor as the lion took off to follow the others.

“Um… the lion kidnapped me.”

“Keith?!” Hunk sounded disbelieving. “Did you say kidnapped?”

“Yeah, uh, she ate me? I don’t know what I’m doing. She’s following you guys.”

“Relax, team.” Shiro’s voice was firm over the comms. “If Red thinks Keith should fight with us, than who are we to disagree?”

“I’m an altean prince,” Lance offered offhandedly, voice bleeding with animosity. “I think the Red Lion needs a system overhaul if she thinks that half-breed is a worthy pilot—”

“Paladin, Lance.” Pidge corrected. “A Lion’s pilot is called a paladin. Like you, and me, and Hunk, and Shiro… Pa-la-din.”

Lance’s growl sounded almost as savage as a Galra. “I won’t accept that. Neither will Allura.”

“Look out!” Keith called, yanking on the controls to block the Green Lion from the galra cruiser’s blast.

The cockpit shook violently and Keith felt his teeth rattle in his head at the force of the blast. Without pausing to think he spun the lion around and returned fire, barely hearing the shaken “Thanks” from Pidge over the comms. His battle rage was already starting to cloud his judgement, and he found himself tearing through ships and drones with a vengeance. Peripherally he was aware of the others, aware of their voices and jumbled emotions and thoughts, and enough of him was clear-minded enough to suspect that he could mostly feel the latter two because of his connection with Red, and her connection with the other lions and paladins. At the moment, he did not have the time to process what that meant.

Because he was confirming the Empire’s belief that he was a traitor.

The fight blurred in Keith’s mind as his vision went red, a low growl rumbling at the back of his throat as he tore ships apart and dodged enemy (he betrayed them, he was the enemy) fire. What could have been anywhere between a few moments and several vargas passed, and Keith found himself slumped in Red’s cockpit after the lions had landed in the maintenance hangar, unbelievably drained. Something was going on with his self-restraint, ever since the paladins had come to claim the Red Lion. First pushing himself in training, then losing all control in battle…

He sure hoped none of the paladins had gotten caught in the crossfire. Well, maybe Lance…

He stumbled out of the lion, blinking and hissing at the sudden brightness of the castle. Arguing voices dragged his attention to the small gathering a dozen feet away. He squinted against the glare to see Pidge and Lance nearly shouting at each other while Hunk and Shiro attempted to run interference.

He drifted closer and began to catch bits of what they were saying. Something about “trust” and “blood” and “instinct.” He heard his name sown quite liberally throughout the disagreement.

“—f you think for one tick that I’ll trust a galra after what they’ve done, you have another thing coming.”

“But it wasn’t him! Keith isn’t even fully galra! You’re just being a prejudiced, racist, bigo—”

“Enough, Pidge.” Shiro placed his prosthetic hand on her shoulder, gently pulling her away from the altean. “Enough. Neither of you are in the right frame of mind to talk about this right now, so I would suggest you both back down and take a breather.” He noticed Keith standing on the sidelines. “You should get some rest, too. That was some good work you did out there.”

Lance sputtered something offensive about doing just as much if not more and about how unreliable galra were… throwing in a joke that was of distinctly ill taste on top of it. Shiro shushed him impatiently and sent him to have a cold shower.

Once the two fuming paladins were gone, and Keith was left with Shiro and Hunk, their conversation in the kitchen came back to him. He shifted awkwardly from foot to foot under their joint gazes. He knew he was not the only one to remember.

Shiro confirmed his suspicions. “Keith, how long have you been fighting for the Empire? How young were you…?”

He trailed off, but Keith did not need him to finish to know what he meant. “Young. I don’t remember quite how old I was… nine, ten Deca-phoebs? And I’ve been trained since I was younger than that…” He frowned in confusion. “But I don’t really… understand why you’re so upset. Yeah, having to fight sucks, but… you’re getting really worked up. About this.”

“I’m not sure exactly how it is with the Empire,” Shiro started, gesturing. “But where we come from we place a lot of value on our children, and the thought that a kid would be raised just to fight…” He shuddered. “It doesn’t sit well.”

“Sorry?”

“Why are you apologizing?” Hunk frowned. “It’s not your fault.”

“It is, kind of.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “If I hadn’t been hanging around the lion, then I wouldn’t be here to cause you all this… consternation.”

“Then you would still be with them!” Hunk protested. “That’s not any better!”

“But you wouldn’t know,” Keith pointed out. “You’d be able to focus on saving the universe or whatever it is you people do.”

“That ‘you people’ includes you too, now, you know.” Shiro told him gently. “The Red Lion chose you to pilot her.”

Keith’s brain short-circuited. “What?”

“You’re a paladin.”

“No… no that can’t be right.” He shook his head in adamant denial. “There’s no way. I’m… I’m the enemy. The only reason I’m here –your prisoner— is because I was ineffective enough as a soldier anyway to avoid the whole situation. I’m not worthy, or competent enough, or good enough—” He cut himself off savagely, biting his lip hard and tasting blood. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Nevermind. It had to have been a mistake. The lion isn’t heartless, and saved me, but that doesn't make me a paladin.” He choked out a forced laugh. “Lance would probably kill me himself to make a new opening if he thought that.”

“Lance isn’t like that!” Hunk objected weakly.

Keith felt a familiar pang in his chest. Of course that was what he pulled from his rant. Of course. Lance was his teammate, his friend, and a prince on top of all of that. Of course Hunk would place him as the priority.

He turned sharply on his heel, flushing red. “Yeah, uh, I’m gonna go now.”

Neither of them recovered from their shock fast enough to stop him.

Chapter Text

Keith’s wandering eventually found him in a room that seemed to him to be some sort of observatory, with tall glass windows showing the infinite expanse of the universe, which was where Coran finally cornered him

While Keith had not expected the adviser to be hostile, after their initial encounters, he had not expected him to be friendly. He was altean, after all, and their Royal Highnesses hated him enough. The elder male, however, did not seem to care in the slightest that Keith was part of the race that had committed a genocide of his people and destroyed Altea.

Exhibited clearly when he dropped a pile of blankets next to Keith, who was curled up against one of the glass walls looking out, and crossed his legs next to him.

Keith yelped in surprise and jerked away from the sudden company. “Oh, uh.” He relaxed fractionally, but still leaned away. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

Coran held his hands up in a peaceful gesture. “Sorry about that. Must be the old altean training.” He lowered his hands and looked out the window like Keith had been before he showed up. “How are the others treating you?”

He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. “Your prince and princess don’t like me.”

The older man sighed through his mustache. “Don’t take it personal, lad. It’s not your fault. They’ve had a rough time of it.” He scowled. “That doesn’t excuse their behavior, of course. They should know better.”

Keith had no idea how to respond, still perpetually confused by every interaction with the paladins since he had been taken by the Red Lion. Despite their antagonism, the prince and princess might be the only people who he understood. He could see their reasoning, and knew how to respond, even if it made him feel physically ill whenever they so much as glanced his way. But here was Coran, their Royal Adviser, and he did not seem to harbor any animosity towards Keith at all, throwing off any certainty he had. Then there were the other paladins...

Coran offered him a blanket when Keith did not respond. “I’ll have a word with them. What about the other paladins? Have you spoken with them?”

He hesitantly accepted the blanket, tail twitching, and wrapped it around his shoulders. “They’re… okay. I… I’m not sure what they think about me. I’ve talked a bit with Hunk and Shiro, but they always get upset by the end. And… I’m not sure how to talk to Pidge, but she doesn’t seem too bad.” He spoke the words slowly, unsure. “Everything has just been…” He waved an arm in a vague gesture.

Coran chuckled. “I can see what you mean.”

Keith relaxed another fraction. “It’s all so different here. From the Empire, I mean. It’s so...” He trailed off, searching for the word. “Not quite gentle, or quiet, but peaceful? I don’t think I’m explaining it well…”

“I think I know what you’re getting at.”

“But it’s all so confusing!” Now that he had started, he found he did not want to stop. And Coran was just sitting there, listening… “I don’t understand anything, here. The whole… dynamic is different. I’m technically your prisoner, but none of you really treat me that way? I basically get free range of the castle. There’s a bathroom and a real bed in my room —and it’s a room, not a cell. I just…” He blew out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know how to deal with this situation.”

Coran stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “No, I don’t suppose that you would. The Empire is a very different place, certainly.” He raised an eyebrow. “How would your situation be if you were there?”

“As a prisoner? I’d have been locked in a cell, first of all. Depending on how I was captured, I might have been put in isolation. There would have been little to no contact with prisoners, anyway. The food would mostly be a thin broth of some sort. And the guards…” He grimaced. “Tend to verge on violent at best, and… extremely forward, at worst.”

Coran, thankfully, did not ask for that last bit to be explained. He did, however, fail to hide the (now strangely and uncomfortably familiar) concern in his expression. “It’s much better here, isn’t it?”

“Objectively, I suppose.” Keith hummed, tugging the blanket tighter around his shoulders thoughtfully.

After a few ticks of silence, Coran broached a subject Keith had really been hoping to avoid. “So Shiro told me what happened today with the Red Lion.”

Keith ducked his head and hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself disappear.

“It seems she finally found her paladin.”

Keith stood abruptly, dropping the blanket to the floor. Casting a shaken glance down at Coran, he took a few quick steps away. “Uh, I’m… going back to my room.”

He recalled how this was almost exactly like how he had avoided Hunk and Shiro in the hangar. He knew, logically, he could not avoid this conversation forever, but he could at least pretend for now. Until he could figure this place out.

He slipped out and the door hissed shut before Coran could call him back.

Chapter Text

Keith did not look where he was going as he ran, which was unfortunate, as he ran into Lance and Allura after about a dobash. Only Lance and Allura. As well as quite literally.

Alteans were a very physically strong people, so ramming into Lance’s chest immediately caused Keith to rebound and almost topple to the floor. He hastily regained his balance, staring at the two leering royals with wide eyes and ears pressed flat against his head. His tail was curled almost painfully around his ankle, and he was pretty sure he had forgotten how to breathe.

Was it not moments ago that he thought he at least understood these two, and knew how to respond? Well, it turned out that he did not. In the slightest.

“What’s that look for?” Lance grinned. “Is the big, bad galra afraid of little ‘ol me?”

Keith stifled an undignified whimper.

Allura laughed, equally glorious and dark. “I think he is. Dear brother, I believe this is the perfect time to put him in his place, don’t you agree?”

Lance’s hand lashed out before Keith could react, grabbing him by the white and blue collar and throwing him against the wall. He pinned him there, snarling with a look in his eye that seemed both gloating and angry. “Tell me, how many have you killed in the name of the Empire? Have you worked your way up to destroying planets yet, or do you have to get to a special rank to earn that privilege?”

Keith was still focused on breathing, too panic-stricken to reply.

Allura smirked. “I think the little dear finds you just a tad intimidating, brother.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think that question should be answered in front of my sister, but there are two things I must know.” The prince leaned in, hissing into Keith’s face. “What are you doing here and what did you do to the Red Lion?”

“I didn’t—” Tears threatened, but that is where he drew the line. He would not cry. But his voice was thin and strained, so obviously weak. “I didn’t do anything to the lion.”

“Liar!” He growled, tightening his grip.

The half-galra choked, gasping for air. He glanced briefly at Allura, hoping he would be able to reason with at least one of the two. Something flickered across her face, but he still could not tell—

Lance slapped him.

Keith’s head slammed against the wall, tears pricking his eyes and blurring his vision.

“Don’t you dare even look at her!” The words stung, but they came as if from far away.

“Lance,” Allura, finally. “He isn’t worth our time. Let’s go.”

Suddenly released as Lance stalked away, Keith slid to the floor. He subconsciously brought his hand up to cradle his cheek, attempting (in vain) to focus his eyes.

A small voice in his head tried to convince him that the flicker of emotion he had seen on Allura’s face was guilt. A larger voice laughed bitterly, asking why an altean would ever feel guilty about harming a heinous, galra half-breed.

He cut off a choked sob before it could start. He started shivering, pulling his knees up to his chest and curling his tail around his feet to make himself as small as possible. He wished he could simply melt into the wall, never to be seen or heard from again.

Out of nowhere a hand touched his shoulder, and he bolted before whoever it was had a chance to speak. He wove his way through the halls of the castle, not particularly paying attention to where he was going in his haste to be away and not caring in the slightest. He just needed to get away, far away, as far as he could from those burning eyes and hateful words and venomous leer.

Bare feet sliding on the slick floor, Keith skidded to a halt, chest heaving and eyes darting. He had no clue where he was. The lights had stopped flickering on automatically some time ago, and the half-darkness was eerily oppressive. Keith wandered a bit farther into the labyrinth until he found an old storage room. Climbing one of the shelves, he wedged himself between two boxes and curled up on himself once more. He shivered, the cold seeping from the metal into his bones, but he did not dare try to find something to keep warm.

Just stay hidden, he could do that. Hold his breath, willing his heart to stop beating quite so loud, and wait, just wait until everyone had forgotten about him. Hide and avoid the pain and the disappointment and the shouting and the tears and the anger and—

I believe this is the perfect time to put him in his place.

Have you worked your way up to destroying planets yet, or do you have to get to a special rank to earn that privilege?

Liar!

What are you doing here and what did you do to the Red Lion?

Don’t you dare even look at her!

He isn’t worth our time.

A growl resonated in the back of his mind and he cringed, drawing even further into himself. The heated presence withdrew slightly, but still made her opinion known. Mine. Protect.

He coughed out a feeble laugh. How? You’re all the way in the hanger, and the alteans… This is their castle. They have every right, they are right, I am a threat to them and everyone here—

NO!

Keith startled so hard that he almost fell from the shelf.

The lion subsided. Sorry.

He forgave her, but neither of them spoke after that.

The patter of footsteps in the hall a few dobashes later threw him back into flight-or-fight mode. The lights flickered on dimly and Keith pulled even farther back behind the stacked crates, looking down. All six of the castle's other occupants stood in the doorway, a few glancing down at screens projected from their wrists.

He swore under his breath as the reason registered.

He had forgotten about the tracker.

Peering around the crates, Keith analyzed their positions and strained to hear their muttered conversations. Pidge seemed more worked up than the others.

“Seriously, Lance?” The olkari whispered harshly. “We’ll never find him in this. What did you do?”

Lance, affronted, did not respond.

“What do you even know about him? He was raised in the Empire, sure, but would you wish that fate on anybody?”

Hunk ran interference, though the balmeran looked more nervous than any being his size ought to be. “Pidge, fighting isn’t going to encourage Keith to come out.”

“Hunk’s right.” Shiro’s tone was one of forced calm, and pitched low enough that Keith almost couldn’t hear. “He’s skittish enough as is. We don’t need him thinking you’re angry on top of that.”

“And whose fault is that, Lance?”

“Pidge,” Hunk murmured. “Not helping.”

“Split up, team.” Shiro ordered quietly. “Try not to corner him. He might be dangerous.”

Keith almost snorted at that as their paths diverged. He might be dangerous. With how much he was shaking at the moment, he doubted he could fight a kit. And, now that he was actually thinking about his physical condition, when had he last eaten? Or slept?

Wait a tick. Had it only been a quintant since he had woken from his dream with the rafdol? The stress of this place was going to kill him, if the alteans did not murder him themselves.

It took less than ten dobashes, but the green paladin was the first to find him, scrambling up the side of the shelving unit like gravity had no affect on her. He pressed himself against the wall as their eyes locked, and neither said anything for a long moment. Pidge carefully eased aside, so he could get out if he wanted to, and tapped twice on the communicator band on her wrist. “Found him. He was hiding in the crates on the shelves.”

Keith felt strangely called out and betrayed as he inched past her, keeping as much distance as he could between them. Even as he lowered himself to the ground, he gave the lot of them a wide berth. The only thing keeping him from trying to flee again was the fact that while Lance and Allura were not literally blocking the doorway, they were standing close enough that Keith did not entertain the idea of running for long. Tensing like a tightly wound spring, he watched the others warily, waiting for them to make the first move.

“Keith.”

He flinched at his name coming from the black paladin’s mouth.

Shiro’s expression did not change, but it was not hard to read the hurt in his eyes. “We want to help.”

The bitter, strangled-sounding laugh that forced itself out of Keith’s throat surprised everyone, including Keith himself. “That’s the problem.”

“How is that a problem?” Pidge asked incredulously, voice rising enough to make Keith anxious. “How is help a problem?”

“I’m your prisoner,” he protested vehemently. “The enemy! A galra soldier. I’ve done terrible things that would get me killed by almost any species in the universe if they caught me. But you want to help? I don’t— I don’t get it!”

“Neither do I.” Lance’s sweet smile was almost worse than when he had slapped him. “Why are you all getting worked up over some galra runt that can’t even hide, let alone fight?”

Hunk turned slowly to Lance, an expression on his face that Keith had previously thought he was not capable of. “Lance.” he started calmly, his tone instantly catching everyone’s attention. “What do you think of war? Objectively.”

The prince snorted. “It’s awful, of course.”

“What about the worst aspects of war, hm? Like child soldiers, what do you think of them? Kids raised to fight, who know nothing else?”

Keith could see where the balmeran was going with this, and saw the exact moment it occurred to Shiro too. The half-breed fervently wished he could just vanish into thin air.

Lance furrowed his brows. “That’s barbaric. Who in their right minds would raise a child to fight?”

Allura had gone very still, eyeing Keith with a sort of dawning horror. “Where are you going with this?”

Keith took a step back nervously when Shiro gestured in his direction, taking over for Hunk. “Keith is only eighteen deca-phoebs old. He began fighting for the Empire when he was around nine or ten, and has been in training for longer than that. And you know how the Empire views half-breeds, so I know that you don’t think those years were all bright and cheery for him. He’s a kid, Lance. Younger than almost all of us. He’s only older than Pidge, and you know that if someone forced her to fight you would want to completely destroy them. He’s galra, sure, but that wasn’t his choice.”

Lance’s expression had steadily darkened throughout the lecture, and he did not deign to respond, instead turning on his heel and stalking out the door.

Allura, to her credit, seemed to at least be warring with her presumptions. She stood very still, the conflict evident on her face. In the end she, too, took her leave, though with far less hostility than her brother.

Coran heaved a sigh. “At least the princess is thinking this through. Her brother will take a bit more to win over.”

The four mice rounded the corner, squeaking worriedly. They darted over to Keith and scaled him easily. The smaller two perched in his hair, the largest curling up against his neck, and the fourth standing alertly on the opposite shoulder, chattering away in a scolding manner.

He gave them a small, half-hearted smile. “Hey, guys.”

The mouse cut off its lecture abruptly in favor of hugging the side of his face, chirruping happily.

The look on Shiro’s face was complex, and unfamiliar to Keith. “I think it’s about time we all went to bed. We can talk about this more in the morning.”

Keith acquiesced to his decision, cautiously allowing him to lead the way back to his rooms. The mice remained with him as the door closed, leaving him in the semi-dark. Curling up on his bed around the four small creatures, he paused to reflect. Everything had been a whirlwind since his arrival, and he could not help but wonder if the universe had anything else to throw at him.

He should have learned his lesson about tempting fate already.

Chapter Text

Breakfast was not a comfortable occasion, to say the least. Lance did not show, for starters, which left the paladins glancing frequently at his empty seat. Keith was stiff and silent through most of the meal, barely nibbling at the delicious food Hunk had prepared for them.

As should have been expected, Shiro was the first to initiate conversation. “Keith,” he paused, waiting for the boy to look up at him from his plate. “When we first talked with you, when you were in the lion… you recognized my voice.”

“As the Champion. Yeah.”

“I spoke with only a few people…” He trailed off, his question evident.

Keith hesitated, placing his spoon down carefully. “You don’t remember me?”

The man shook his head. “I don’t remember much from that time.”

“I… helped you get out.” He quickly glanced around at the others, wondering if they believed him. “Disabled the drones and left your cell door unlocked.”

Shiro, on his part, seemed like the information was unexpected but not totally at odds with his experience. “...that was you?”

Keith ducked his head and mumbled a small, “Yeah.”

The black paladin had opened his mouth to say something else when the castle's alarms started blaring. Everyone immediately leaped to their feet and ran to the bridge, conversation forgotten.

Coran was the first to the command console, bringing up a star map with a single, blinking red light. “It’s a distress beacon from a pugian merchant fleet. They’re being attacked by five rogue galra fighters!”

“Lions, everybody!” Shiro ordered, already on his way out the door, the other paladins close behind.

Keith moved to follow but Allura grabbed his arm. He recoiled, blinking anxiously up at her. Quickly releasing him, she raised her hands in apology. They stood there for a moment, awkward and tense, both remembering how badly their previous encounters had been.

Keith did not dare move for fear of angering her. Though… she did not look like her intentions were hostile or aggressive in any way. “Is there… something you need?”

“I…” Uncertainty flitted briefly over her face, as if she was not sure herself what she was about to say. “You should get to the lions, but can I talk to you? After?”

“Uh, sure?” He squeaked, edging towards the door. “I, I’m gonna go. To the lions.”

He hurried out of the room before she could say anything else, thoughts whirling in confusion. So caught up was he in his head that he did not think twice about settling in the Red Lion’s cockpit and pulling out of the hangar to join the others. Once the civilian ships came into view, however, he forced his questions from his mind. “Focus.”

“Keith?” Pidge’s voice was slightly surprised. “You’re helping?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? Innocent people are getting hurt.” He scowled. “By my people, no less.”

“You were those people not too long ago,” Lance retorted bitterly.

“I only fought hostiles!” Keith protested, guiding the Red Lion’s jaws as they clamped down on a galra fighter, almost absent-mindedly tossing it into three others that were attempting to return to formation. “I wouldn’t shoot unarmed civilian crafts!”

“Right, because you’re so misunderstood, and heavens forbid you might actually hurt someone innocent!”

“Lance!” Shiro reprimanded as the Blue Lion was almost hit by enemy fire. “Focus!”

“Roger, Team Leader.” Lance relented bitterly. “But this isn’t over.”

Keith huffed a sigh and muttered, “I didn’t think it would be.”

The rest of the battle was fought in tense silence, with the occasional shouted warning from one of the other paladins. Keith did his best to focus on keeping between the fighters and the cargo ships, but the hate and bitterness emanating from the Blue Lion was almost palpable.

Gritting his teeth as another blast shook the Red Lion, Keith took a deep breath. What was he doing here? Piloting a Lion of Voltron, fighting against the Empire who had raised and protected him up until a few days ago, and bickering with a prince of a species that was supposed to be extinct? He was just a fighter pilot, a half-breed, a nobody. Who was he to sit in the belly of a legend, stand up against a tyrant, speak with ancient myths?

The significance of an obvious development finally sank in. He was piloting the Red Lion. The lion that had been in the Empire’s grasp for years, a piece of the most deadly weapon in the universe. He was its paladin. On top of that, somehow the few days he spent with the other paladins had completely flipped his loyalties, if the trail of destroyed galra ships behind him was any indication.

But no, it was not just the last few days, was it? He had always had odd priorities. Like just over a deca-phoeb ago, when he had saved Shiro… definitely treasonous. And sneaking rations to the more underfed soldiers. Smuggling refugees off planet to safer systems. Any one of those actions would get him executed if they were discovered… Yet, it felt right. Completely contrary to his training, but right.

He frowned as the last fighter was destroyed and the pugian merchants expressed their thanks, turning the Lion back towards the castle.

Individual morality was frowned upon in the Empire and vigorously trained out of its soldiers, so where had his come from? Galra kits were extremely malleable, and were indoctrinated early, but somehow he had slipped through with his own judgement intact. Was that why the lion had chosen him? Because even raised as he was with only reasons to be grateful to the Empire for his life, he had…

Rebelled. That was the word. He was a rebel. A traitor. Had been before Voltron had found him, before he even knew Voltron existed. What did that make him then? Unreliable, for sure. Untrustworthy. Unpredictable. His betrayal of the Empire could be used as reason to trust him, yes, but it was also fairly strong evidence that he could not be trusted as far as he could be thrown. They had not way of knowing if he would betray them next. Why had the lion chosen him?

They set down in the hangar bay, but Keith hesitated to leave the cockpit. Why did you choose me, Red?

Brave. Fiery. Instinctive. Protective. Loyal.

He snorted. Loyal? All I’ve done is betray the people who gave me everything I have. I don’t know how that can be called ‘loyal.’

There was a pause from the lion that was laced with frustration at her limited ability to communicate with her pilot. Personal loyalty. She impressed upon him finally. Familial.

Sorry to disappoint, he replied gently. But as I’ve told you, I don’t have a family.

You will.

He scoffed in disbelief.

She pushed images of the other paladins at him: Hunk in the kitchen showing him how to cook, Pidge’s awestruck face after he had climbed Red, Shiro’s concerned frown and guiding arm, Coran as a buffer between him and the others, Allura’s contrite expression.

Keith hesitated. And Lance?

She hummed thoughtfully. Eventually. In time.

He sighed and stood reluctantly. If you say so.

Descending cautiously, he stepped into the empty hangar of the Red Lion and made his way to the bridge. The others were already waiting.

“Look who finally decided to show up,” Lance snarked. “About time.”

Shiro shot the blue paladin a warning look before turning to Keith. “The others can work on debrief. Let’s get out of their way.”

Out of the way sounded good. Out of the way alone with the Champion sounded less good. At least he did not have to worry about the altean prince.

The black paladin lead Keith to the star deck. He moved off to one side and sat against the wall. Motioning for Keith to join him. “I thought it was time we had a talk.”

Keith grimaced at the word. “Every time we ‘talk’ you get upset.”

“And you become confused. I thought I would explain.”

The half-breed tentatively lowered himself to the floor. “Okay. Then explain.”

The man took a deep breath and regarded the boy next to him for a moment. “In most societies, it is considered cruel and barbaric to raise someone just to fight. Children are considered precious, and in some places we have been they are almost sacred. A great amount of the species time and effort is put into protecting them and keeping them safe, not thrusting them out into a war.

“The fact that you were raised like this, to fight, with no other options… like I have said before, it doesn’t sit well. With any of us.”

“Lance doesn’t seem to mind.”

Shiro exhaled sharply in exasperation. “Lance is just being difficult. You heard him yourself, he thinks the practice of raising child soldiers is barbaric. He’s just going to take some time to wrap his head around it. Once he does, he might still take a while to get over the guilt of treating you like he has with the way you were raised, but he’ll come around.”

They were silent a moment while Keith digested this new information. He glanced sidelong at Shiro and measured his next words. “So I get that you don’t like the whole child-soldier thing, and have sympathy for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m galra. That I’ve killed people.”

A bitter laugh was not the response Keith was expecting. Shiro gave him a strained, lopsided smile. “Listen, kiddo. We’re in a war. I’ve been piloting the Black Lion for less than a phoeb and I don’t even know how many galra ships I’ve shot down, including Sendak’s. That means I’ve killed people. Your people. The people who made you kill in the first place. And as for the fact that you’re galra…” He shrugged with one arm, his prosthetic still and curled in his lap. “That isn’t anything you have control of. Placing fault based on race is small-minded and prejudiced. I’ve experienced that myself, actually, on the planet I’m from.”

There was another blanketing silence, but there was none of the previous discomfort. Keith fiddled with his tail thoughtfully. His eyes flicker up to the paladin and down again, and he breathed a soft, “Thank you.”

He saw Shiro’s mouth open to say something but he quickly leaped to his feet and backed out of the room before he got the chance. Keith needed time to process before he could talk about this anymore.

He went to go find Allura. He had promised to talk to her after the battle, right?

Chapter Text

As it turned out, it was almost as much Allura finding him as him finding Allura. He had tried the bridge, hoping she had stuck around after debriefing the other paladins, but it was empty. Unsure about where else the princess might be, he checked the star deck (now empty, Shiro gone) and kitchen as well, before partially giving up and just wandering around in hopes of finding her. He really needed to learn his way around the castle, if he was going to stay here.

Luckily, Allura had also been searching for him, and they came across each other in one of the less frequently traveled halls. The two of them came up short when they saw the other, shifting uncomfortably.

Keith cleared his throat. “So… you wanted to talk to me?”

“Yes, I did.” She glanced behind him, and he followed her gaze to see nothing. He looked back at her to find her studying him intently. She flushed. “Well, Pidge is waiting for us in the control room. There’s… some things you need to see.”

Warily, Keith trailed the princess as she lead him to the bridge.

The green paladin looked up from where she was perched on the edge of her seat when they entered the control room, her ever-present laptop resting on her thighs. “Oh, she found you.” She tapped a few keys on her keyboard and a screen flickered into existence in front of them. “Are you ready, Princess?”

The altean took a deep breath, then turned to face Keith. “You may want to sit down.”

He crossed his arms, but otherwise did not move. He had to purposefully relax his tail, or his foot would fall asleep. “I’m fine standing.”

She nodded once, then launched into an explanation. “After Shiro and Hunk told us about how young you were, I was honestly horrified. I had treated you so terribly, but you were —are– as much of a victim of the Empire as we are. I was ashamed of myself, and wanted to know how I could make things… better, between us. So I asked Pidge if she could help me do some research.”

Here, Pidge picked up the narrative. “After I wrote a few sorting programs and with a bit of light hacking, I managed to dig up quite a bit about how the Empire and most galra traditionally treated their kits. As it turns out, they don’t base levels of development on age, but biological maturity.

“It’s fascinating, really. Galra age much slower than many species, especially in comparison to humans, as far as Shiro has explained to us. Whereas humans reach their prime in around twenty-five to thirty deca-phoebs, galra only reach maturity between seventy and a hundred deca-phoebs. That allows more time for psychological and emotional development, which is key for their relational and mental health.

“Many galra half-breeds, like yourself, don’t get that kind of support. In fact, they tend to be ostracized and bullied because they seem to be less developed socially than other galra, just because they reach physical maturity faster.”

Keith was caught off guard when the continuous stream of words was cut off, as if Pidge was attempting to slow the torrential flow of information. There was a beat where no one spoke, and Keith looked between the two of them. “And that means…?”

“It means,” Allura clasped her hands together with a frown. “That, while the galra do care for their children, they only care for their children. As I said before, you are as much a victim as we are. You have been wrongly dealt by them, and I suppose what it comes down to,” she hesitated a moment, then pushed on. "Is that you deserve a second chance.”

Keith blinked, mind empty of any appropriate response. “Oh.”

Pidge shifted slightly in her seat. “There were a few other files that I found…”

Allura turned her head sharply. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“I only found them this morning. There seems to be a singular database used by the druids…”

Keith shuddered and took a step back without thought, arms tightening around himself subconsciously. “I never liked the druids.”

Pidge cast him a sympathetic glance as she turned back to the princess. “There was an entire section dedicated to half-breed research… and one specific druid appeared to take a particular interest in Keith.”

“Why?” The princess tilted her head to one side. “What’s so special about him?”

“I’m a good soldier.” Keith supplied bluntly. “Strong, agile, fast… Most half-breeds are sickly or don’t live for very long. As far as I understand, anyway.”

His reply earned him a slight nod from the olkari. “Right. There’s that.” She gestured to her screen. “A few of the logs don’t make much sense to me… but that’s the gist of it. There’s records of various tests and procedures…” She shuddered, mimicking Keith’s earlier reaction to the mention of druids, and frowned at him. “I don’t know how you made it through a few of them.”

He half-shrugged, uncomfortable with the conversation. “I had to.”

The princess and the green paladin shared a look, packed full of meaning Keith had no way of understanding.

He found his eyes straying to the door, feet already inching away. “Is there, uh, any more reason for me to be here…?”

Pidge shook her head as Allura opened her mouth to say something. But Keith was already out the door, Pidge’s silent permission enough to release him.

He needed somewhere quiet to think. First Shiro, now Pidge and the princess of all people… Everyone was acting so strangely.

Chapter Text

The paladins left Keith alone for the next few quintants, realizing he needed time to adjust. He spent most of that time in his room, or on the star deck, lost in thought.

It was difficult, learning that the way you had been treated your whole life was not the normal way people were raised. It was even harder to come to terms with the fact that, as much as he wrestled with it, he would have been raised normally if he had not been… different. In the Empire, his non-galra half had condemned him almost as a subspecies. In the Castle of Lions, his galra half was what caused him to be belittled and scorned. He just could not win.

Even worse was the fact that the behavior of everyone else (besides Lance, his actions were at least straightforward) did not factor into any of the interpersonal dynamics Keith was familiar with. What was even going on here? It was almost like… they cared? Ish. More than anyone else since… before he could remember. He knew there was a caretaker, when he was maybe five or six, who was nice enough, but her attentions were divided with the other kits, and... he could not remember her face.

And that was long ago, before he had learned his place. He could manage the positions the Empire taught him he belonged in: servant of the Empire, foot soldier of the Imperial army, (subservient) comrade-in-arms, (disposable) fighter polite…

What was he here? Prisoner, but not imprisoned. Enemy, but allied. Hated, but taken care of...

Nothing made any sense, and after six quintants of avoiding the others and being avoided in turn, Keith was becoming restless. The growing urge to train, to fight, was simmering just under his skin, but the memory of Pidge’s disapproving expression staved off his desire enough to keep him from trying to train on his own. He had disappointed enough people in his lifetime, he did not need to add these… good people, to the list.

Though, when Allura announced their first group training session over the intercoms, a knot of dread formed in Keith’s gut as he realized he might be disappointing them sooner than he had thought.

The mice were the ones who eventually tracked Keith down and brought him into the lounge area, where the other paladins were waiting in a circle on the floor. Avoiding everyone’s eyes, Keith gingerly lowered himself into the empty spot between Shiro and Hunk. He crossed his legs and clasped his hands in his lap, staring straight ahead as he waited for his instructions.

He barely managed to rein in his flinch when Shiro placed a hand —his flesh hand, not his prosthetic– on his shoulder. He glanced up at the older man with all due caution. The human’s brow was furrowed. “Are you alright?”

His ear twitched before he could stop it. “I’m fine.”

He did not appear convinced, but thankfully Allura chose that moment to enter the room. In her hands she carried a box of strange headsets comprised of white bands and blue panels. She offered them to each paladin in turn as she explained. “These were used by the paladins of old as a trust-building exercise. It connects your minds, and assists in strengthening the bond necessary to form Voltron.”

Lance raised a hand. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, ‘Lura, but did you say ‘trust?’ Because I don’t think that is going to happen with him here.”

He did not even have to point. Everyone knew who he was talking about.

Allura’s expression turned a shade darker. “You’ll just have to see, now, won’t you?” Lance’s eyes widened in hurt surprise at her tone, but she had already moved on. “For this exercise to work, you all need to empty your minds and focus on a warm memory, something that made you feel truly safe and happy.”

Reluctantly, Keith accepted one of the headsets, frowning dubiously. He really did not want the others in his head, but what would happen if he refused? He would not be able to move forward, and the others would become suspicious of him… He did not have anything to hide, really, but his memories were unpleasant enough without others rifling through them and bringing them to the surface…

In the end, he put the device on when the others did. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. A ‘warm’ memory, huh? Something that made him feel safe and happy…

Images popped up in front of the others, but the screen in front of Keith flickered in uncertainty while he tried to come up with a nice memory. Eventually, he settled on the Red Lion, drawing on her presence in the back of his mind to properly form the image.

“Well,” Allura’s voice drifted into his awareness. “It seems Keith is one step ahead, but everyone form an image of your lions. Imagine you are forming Voltron, bringing them together.”

Keith tried to follow Allura’s instructions, he really did, but it was one thing to be aware of the others in his peripheral, and another thing altogether to have a foreign mind intrude and start rummaging through his head. Memory after memory was dragged before his mind’s eye, ones that had before been locked behind thick walls but were now free from those blocks because of the device on his head.

Self-awareness slipped through his fingers as the flashbacks took him.

He was six, and it was the first time the druids had asked for him. He was nervous, but also overcome with curiosity. He had always wondered what the druids did for the Empire. After an hour, he was not curious anymore, and wished he had never heard of them.

He heard voices as if from far away, chest too tight to allow airflow.

He was seven when they moved on from the regulation dissections and began testing his resilience to extreme conditions. The cold was the worst, when they threw him into a tub of icy liquid that had him shivering within dobashes. Only when he had stopped shivering and his concentration began to drift, did they take him out and warm him up, repeating the experiment as soon as his body temperature was back to normal.

Black spots danced in his vision.

When he was eight, they began testing his endurance. How long he could sprint without stopping, how long he could hold his breath, how long he could carry his own body weight… How many consecutive fights he could win, before becoming too injured to continue.

On the edge of his awareness there was shouting now, which was not helping in any way. One voice, louder than the others, said something firmly, and then there was quiet.

By nine or ten he had lost track. He had been sent out on active duty, and hoped that would finally convince the druids to leave him alone. The other soldiers did not make life easy, stealing his food and sabotaging his equipment, but it was better than the experiments. Alas, his hopes were in vain. In fact, it only got worse—

The headset was torn off his head.

“—eith! Just breathe, bud. In, out. You’re not there anymore. You’re safe. Keep breathing with me. In, out. In, out. ”

It took him a minute to realize he was crouched by the wall, with Shiro kneeling next to him and murmuring soothingly. He had no recollection of moving, and he was glad Shiro had given him his space. He allowed the older paladin to help lead his breathing, taking deep breaths and riding out the surge of anxiety the memories had brought up.

“What—” Keith faltered at the whimper in his voice, but he needed to know. “What happened?”

Shiro scowled, so ferocious that Keith could not help but recoil. The black paladin caught this and immediately softened his expression, though his voice was still stern, curt. “Lance overstepped.”

Keith curled in on himself, struggling to shove the memories back into the corner of his mind they were torn from.

“Hey, hey.” Shiro placed a hand gently on Keith’s knee, effectively grounding him. “Calm down. It’s just us in here. You’re gonna be okay.” He paused for a moment to allow him to ease up slightly before asking, “Do you want to talk about it?”

The words took a moment to register. Oh, no. No no no. They saw. They saw all of it… no, that was not right. It was cut off before they saw the worst of it. But they saw…

“Keith? Keith, are you with me, buddy?”

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Keith straightened. “I’m good. Now.”

Shiro got to his feet and offered him a hand. “That’s good to hear. Allura has called off the rest of training today.” His smile did not falter, but a crease appeared between his eyebrows. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

He nodded once, hesitantly accepting his hand and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. “I just… need some space. I think I’ll go back to my room.”

To his immense gratitude, Shiro did not question him, merely nodding in understanding. “I’ll tell the others so they don’t worry.” He stepped aside to give him access to the door, but had one more thing to say. “And Keith?”

He paused in the doorway, looking over his shoulder anxiously. “Yes?”

“See you at dinner?”

The simple question startled a small, shy smile from him. “Sure. See you at dinner.”

Still slightly shaken, Keith turned his steps towards his room.

Chapter Text

It did not take long for Keith to wish he had been born somewhere else, on some nice, out of the way planet that had never heard of the galra. Somewhere he could have grown up without being raised as a soldier. Somewhere where he would not have stumbled across the Castle of Lions. Somewhere safe, and quiet.

Of course, wishing never did anything for anyone.

Lance, to Keith’s dismay, was the first to seek him out after the disastrous training session. A knock on the door, and a murmured, “It’s Lance, I… want to apologize.” And suddenly something in Keith snapped. He could have ignored him, left him to stand outside with his apologies, so Keith never understood after why he did what he did.

Instead of disregarding the knock, Keith threw the door open and glared with all his pent-up wrath at the altean prince. Ears twitching, tail lashing, he hissed furiously. “Apologize? Really?”

The other boy seemed taken aback by his outburst, probably since Keith had done his best to be compliant since his arrival. His patience was not limitless, however, and he was still too badly shaken by… the incident, to keep up his facade of ‘composure.’

When this occurred to him, he made an effort to rein himself in, taking a deep breath and speaking more calmly, though his voice was still tight. “Why are you here?”

Lance, on his part, appeared unsettled and fidgety. “I… I wanted to say sorry, for, you know, going through your head like that. Those memories…” He trailed off guiltily. “No one deserves that. So… I’m sorry.” Keith opened his mouth to reply but Lance hurried on. “Also for being a jerk. Since you got here. Coran was right. We… I had no right to judge you based on… on your genetics, your blood.” He cast his gaze to the floor, voice lower. “You had no control… over that.”

Keith heard the echoed you had no control over what they did to you. He swallowed thickly, feeling suddenly awkward just standing in the doorway. “No. I didn’t.”

They faced each other uneasily for a few ticks, and Lance rubbed the back of his neck bashfully. “Well… I said what I came to say. Oh, and… Shiro was hoping you’d come to dinner…?”

Keith snorted, running a hand through his hair. “Uh, yeah. Sure.”

There was another pause, Lance frowning as if he was struggling with something he wanted to say. “I still don’t exactly like you... buuuuuuut I don’t hate you anymore? So, I don’t expect you to be friends with me or anything, but, yeah, sorry.”

The altean suddenly turned on his heel and marched away. Keith followed him with his eyes, bemused and a tad annoyed. Once the other was out of sight, he half shrugged and turned to go back into his room. At least he did not have to worry about any of the others being openly hostile towards him anymore.

At least, until he (inevitably) messed up. He knew, at some point, it had to happen. The question was when.

Dinner was, once again, a tense affair. Keith made a point of sitting just out of the way, not-so-subtly avoiding settling directly next to anybody. Pidge, however, was having none of this. As soon as she entered the room and saw him sitting by himself, she scooped up the plate of food Hunk offered her and deliberately plonked herself down in the empty seat to his left. He was about to shift, but her sharp look was enough to convince him to stay where he was. Hunk took this as his cue to bookend him, sitting to his right.

Keith cast Shiro a pleading look, silently asking for help, but his smug grin only made him suspect that he was the one to orchestrate it all from the beginning. In the end, Lance, Allura, and Coran were the ones off to one side, the the latter two were looking on with fond expressions. Lance, for his part, only looked at his plate.

No one spoke over the course of the meal, but it was obvious something in the air had changed. By the time their plates were cleaned off and Hunk had commandeered the other paladins’ assistance in clearing the table, Keith had caught the corners of his mouth trying to quirk upwards.

Maybe, just maybe, this situation would be manageable after all.

If he could get the damnable collar off, that is.

Chapter Text

After that first training session, and the resulting change of heart for the alteans, it was not hard for Pidge to advocate on Keith’s behalf for a change in the tracker. To his immense relief, the white collar was replaced with a sort of bracer on his right arm, which also, Pidge informed him, contained a holographic map of the castle. She showed him how it worked, and once he got the hang of it, she left him to explore the castle, excusing herself to go talk to Coran about... something.

Keith, on his part, immediately set off to explore the ship more thoroughly. The map said there was a training deck somewhere…

In the end, it was not difficult to find what he was looking for. Though he could not read Altean, Pidge had helpfully supplied the program with various translations, which were straightforward and easy to read. He stepped into the training deck, relief settling over him when he spotted the training weapons stacked against the wall.

Taking a few moments to select a blade and figure out the controls for the battle simulations, Keith settled into a ready stance. “Activate Level One training sequence.”

He waited patiently for the Gladiator to rise out of the floor, then threw himself into the training. He flew through the first four levels with surprising ease, only really having to start working for it at Level Five (though it barely took ten extra ticks to finish it off). A thrill of elation filled him, and as he decimated the robot fighters surrounding him, he would have to say this was the most content he could remember being in a long while.

It took until Level Nine for his muscles to start aching.

By Level Fourteen he had to duck away from the attacks occasionally to wipe the sweat from his face, to keep it from running into his eyes.

It was Level Seventeen, though, that really started to give Keith some trouble. It consisted of four bots, using ambush tactics and trading off on attacking to wear him out. It actually took him eleven dobashes to defeat!

Level Nineteen was the first that caused Keith to wonder if he could even win. He found himself giving more ground than he gained, retreating more than attacking, being hit more times than he managed to dodge. Eventually, (inevitably,) one of his opponents got in a lucky hit, knocking Keith into the wall with a thunk. He slid to the floor with a hiss of pain, his non-dominant hand pressed to his abdomen even as he raised his sword again—

“End training sequence!”

Battered and bruised, exhausted from the vargas (how long had it been?) of training, Keith raised his head wearily to see Shiro offering him a hand. “You okay?”

Keith accepted the hand up and allowed a concerned Shiro to pull him to his feet, ears pressed down in a self-conscious display. “Uh, yeah.” He glanced past the black paladin, to where the others (all of them) were gathered by the door, jaws hanging open in surprise. “How long have you all…?”

“Since Level Twelve.” Pidge admitted, eyes sparkling with intrigue. “How did you learn to fight like that?”

He shrugged, moving to lean the training weapon against the wall again. “Basic training in the Empire only gets you so far, so I searched out some of the better fighters. Sometimes I would convince Arena fighters to show me a few things in exchange for food or blankets that I would smuggle in for them.” He accepted the water pouch Coran offered him with a nod and continued. “More than that it was just experience, I guess. I mean, have you ever fought a rafdol before?”

Hunk and the alteans’ flinched at the mention of the creature, but Pidge and Shiro shared a confused look. “Rafdol?”

Coran cleared his throat, raising a finger as he entered Lecture Mode. “A rafdol is a very temperamental and territorial creature that often lives in the caves of Balmeras. It can grow up to ten times as long as a balmeran is tall, with two clawed limbs to pull itself forward and dig with. Its head and shoulders are crested with feathers, usually colored by the minerals in the Balmera. They are very aggressive, and if one is angry at you, you will almost certainly get eaten!”

“And you fought one of these things?” Pidge squawked, eyes comically wide.

“Well, yeah.”

“Wait, were those what those scars on your shoulder were?” Hunk asked for clarification, troubled.

Keith rubbed his shoulder absently, his other arm still wrapped loosely around his torso. “Hurt like hell when it bit me. To be perfectly honest, I thought I was going to die.”

“Well,” Shiro interrupted with a tight frown. “I thought you were going to die just now. Level Nineteen? Really?”

“How long, exactly,” Coran piped up. “Have you been in here?”

“Around… four or five vargas? I think?”

Coran nodded like he had been expecting this. “So you wouldn’t argue against taking a break right now, eh? Come with me, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

The other paladins’ expressions clearly informed Keith that he was not getting out of this, and he would definitely not be going back to training. With a fatalistic sigh, he trailed after Coran out of the training deck.

The older altean chattered amiably at Keith (though he was not really listening) as he lead him through the halls to… Keith’s room. What were they doing here?

“...and that’s how I convinced a Vevilian Snarlog to sneak me a few extra Didexes!” Coran announced cheerfully, punching in the door code. “Though I would not suggest using the same tactic, if you ever find yourself in the same problem.”

He stepped into the room after Coran as the other gestured to a pile of… yellow and brown clothes? on his bed. “Pidge found me earlier to ask if there was anything for you to wear besides that pod suit,” he explained upon seeing his questioning expression. “Hunk overheard us. The clothes are his generous donation until I can start up the castle’s automated textiles room.”

Keith gingerly lifted the yellow shirt. “I’m pretty sure these won’t fit.”

“They’ll do for now, won’t they?”

“I suppose…”

“I’ll leave you to get dressed then!”

He turned to protest but the mustachioed man was gone. He sighed and turned back to examine the clothes. He could wear them until Coran got the castle to make him some of his own, right? It was only for a little while…

Chapter Text

The next morning was the first time the others saw Keith in his new clothes. Lance, of course, laughed. “You look so tiny!”

Keith glanced down at himself —at the way the pants pooled at his ankles, and the way the shirt hung almost to his knees– and had to admit that, annoying as it was, Lance was right.

Not that he would ever admit to thinking that.

“Lance,” Hunk scolded, hand raised to hide his own smile. “Be nice.”

“I think he looks adorable.” Pidge smirked. “I mean, look at his ears! So cute.”

Keith pouted, crossing his arms. “You, calling me cute? Seriously?”

Lance snorted. “Pidge is too savage to be cute.”

“And I’m not savage?” He asked incredulously. “I’m an Imperial soldier of the Galra Empire!”

“Uh, sorry to burst your bubble,” Hunk interrupted apologetically. “But no one would believe that in those clothes.”

“Hunk,” Keith complained. “They’re your clothes.”

“Yeah, and no one thinks of me as a threat.” He pointed out.

“Maybe no one with less than half a brain,” Keith argued, forgetting himself for a moment. “You look like you’d be scary as hell to fight, man. You were one of the first I sized up when I got out of the pod.”

There was a pause after that admission.

“Really?” Hunk’s voice was low, and... pleased? Baffled? “I looked dangerous to you?”

He fiddled with the hem of his shirt until he realized what he was doing and forced his hands to be still. “In a close space, where I was confident physical strength was the only way I could escape, yeah. After getting to know you, though…” He shrugged with one shoulder. “I don’t think I have to worry about you attacking me unprovoked unless I’ve seriously messed up.” He side-eyed the altean prince with a small smirk. “Lance, on the other hand...”

The blue paladin spluttered, drowned out by Pidge’s maniacal laughter.

Which made it the perfect time for Shiro to enter the room, yawning and rubbing the side of his face with his hand. He froze in the doorway, taking in the indignant Lance, the hysterical Pidge, the contentedly amused Hunk, and the slightly frazzled Keith in his too-big, borrowed clothes. He dropped his hand to his side with a sigh. “I don’t even want to know until I’ve had my coffee. You have synthesized coffee for me, right Pidge?”

The green paladin wiped a tear from the corner of her eye as she slowly regained control of herself. “Yeah, of course. Great stuff, really. Five cups is all it takes for an all-nighter, in case you were wondering.”

“I was not wondering, no, but now I know to keep an eye out for you if I ever get up in the middle of the night.” He accepted a steaming cup from Pidge a moment later and finally turned to look at Keith. “Are those Hunk’s?”

He plucked at the front of his shirt. “Coran gave them to me. It was Pidge’s idea, and Hunk offered. And I really did not want to be wearing that pod suit anymore…”

Sipping from his cup with a nod, Shiro merely said, “Makes sense.” And gave no further comment.

The five of them sat around the table in silence. Keith wouldn’t call it comfortable but... companionable, maybe? Who knows. He was never very good at understanding these kinds of situations. He just decided to go with the flow.

As it turned out, you cannot do very much in clothes that are far too big for you. He found himself tripping over the hems of his pants occasionally, but, to his surprise, found he did not really mind. The clothes were far more comfortable than the pod suit had been, and made him feel almost… cosy. Or safe.

He wondered if this is what a hug would feel like.

(It only took Coran a few vargas to realize he could just give Keith the red paladin armor. Keith wore the armor during training and missions, but found he still wanted to use the over-sized clothes as casual wear until he got his own. And no one else seemed to mind, so…)

Chapter Text

Keith found himself joining the others more often during their downtime, sometimes just sitting around the kitchen on the counters (much to Hunk’s dismay), or lounging in the common area. He never sat too close, never really let down his guard, but he was there.

But he kept coming back to the training room, in the end. Pushing himself, fighting harder than he needed to, and riding on the swell of adrenaline to keep himself in one piece.

It was unhealthy, he knew. It would come back to bite him, he knew. But he just could not stop coming back. It was the only way to quiet the burning energy under his skin, the only way to keep himself from overthinking about his current situation. Often he came to the training room at night, so the other paladins would not catch him in the act.

Which, strangely enough, was actually a concern. It would not be, in the Empire. In the Empire, his actions would have been encouraged. The paladins, however, if they found him (which they have already, several times) would tell him how harmful, how self-destructive, his behavior was. Would tell him to take a break. But he did not know how to do that, and so he trained.

Though, that would be easier if the room were not so hot. Or spinning. That usually made fighting harder. Was the heating broken? And how did the spinning even work? Was that a built in function of the battle simulators? He did not think so, but what did he know about altean technology?

When the floor kicked out from under him, causing the unfortunate laws of gravity to drag him forcefully to the ground, Keith finally stopped denying the fact that something was wrong. His limbs trembled as he tried to pull himself up, ultimately failing.

Maybe… maybe he was not okay. Maybe the paladins were right. Maybe he should not have been training so hard in the middle of what constituted night in the castle, especially at the expense of any sleep… but sleep only meant nightmares. At least this was something productive…

As productive as lying uselessly on the floor was, anyway.

He heard the door to the training room open, heard someone enter and gasp at the sight of him crumpled on the floor. Running footsteps echoed through the room and then cool hands were gripping his shoulders and laying him flat on his back. He whined at the sudden movement and resulting nausea and attempted to pull away from the touch. The hands only tightened their grip and a concerned voice broke through his muddled thoughts. “Keith. Keith, can you hear me?”

He blinked blearily and made a small noise of assent, trying once again to push himself up.

The person supporting him —Shiro? Was that Shiro?– hurried to slip an arm behind his shoulders. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

Biting back a groan, Keith shook his head.

Shiro chewed on his lip anxiously. “Nauseous? Dizzy? Headache?”

Keith gave a small nod at each question.

Quickly scooping him up from the ground, Shiro turned to the door. “We need to get you to the infirmary. Coran will know what to do.”

The red paladin flinched at the word ‘infirmary’ and writhed in the larger man’s arms. No, no, no! Infirmaries were bad, medbays were bad, doctors were bad… No no nononononononono…

“Sorry, Keith.” Shiro muttered, tightening his grip and quickening his step.

His yowl of dissent was cut of abruptly as he gagged, clenching his jaw in an attempt to prevent the inevitable. Unfortunately, he retched, abdominal muscles spasming as his stomach emptied itself of its meager contents… all over the front of Shiro’s armor. Heaving again, resulting only in a thin trickle of bile, Keith had the space of mind to be absolutely mortified. Shiro was not going to be happy with him, the situation was already bad but he just had to go and make it worse…

Grimacing, the black paladin maneuvered to turn on his comms. “Coran, everyone, meet me in Keith’s room as soon as you can.”

His words echoed on the castle’s intercom and Shiro changed course.

Allowing himself to relax only slightly, since they were no longer heading towards the medbay, Keith rested his head on Shiro’s shoulder, exhausted. Everything was spinning, spinning… He dry-heaved again, fingers scrabbling for anything solid to hold onto but slipping off of Shiro’s armor.

The paladins converged on Keith’s room, dressed in color-coded pajamas. Hunk, fidgeting with nervous energy, rushed forward as the two rounded a bend. “Oh, no! What happened?”

“I found him on the training room floor.” Shiro grimaced. “He has a high fever.”

“Why isn’t he in the medbay?” Coran interjected with concern. “He needs medical attention.”

With a pathetic mewl of protest, Keith tried to twist out of Shiro’s grasp. The latter pressed him closer to his chest with a scowl. “That’s why. He panics any time a medical facility is mentioned.”

Coran stroked his mustache thoughtfully, then shook his head. “That will need to be addressed later, but first we should clean him up and try to cool him down!” He rounded on the others and began listing off instructions. “Shiro will strip him of his armor, and Hunk, you’ll help him. Get him in a bath of cold water to get his temperature down. Pidge, Lance, you come with me to the medbay. I need to get my tools. Allura, try your best to keep him calm.”

“Me?” Allura objected weakly. “We don’t… I…?”

“No time to argue, we have a sick paladin! Hop to it, everyone!”

They scattered.

Keith whimpered when Hunk lifted his chestplate over his head, and the larger paladin hushed him. “It’ll be okay, Keith. We’re just going to clean you up.”

The red paladin shuddered as his flight suit was pulled from his sweaty skin. After some muttered deliberation, Hunk tracked down the red paladin's swim trunks and they changed their ill companion into those, to preserve at least a modicum of modesty.

They lifted him together and lowered him into a bath of cold water Allura had prepared. The princess murmured quietly to him in Altean while Shiro wiped the mess from Keith’s face and chest. The half-breed was shivering, even as his skin burned like there was a fire just underneath.

Coran shuffled into the room and set to examining the boy in the tub, humming to himself absently. There was an extended moment of tense silence, broken finally by the adviser’s relieved sigh.

They all perked up hopefully.

Coran smiled up at them with his usual cheer. “Not to worry, it’s nothing serious. Lack of sleep and overwork haven’t helped, but it is only a small illness. Particular to the galra, as far as I can tell. One that half-breeds are particularly susceptible to, so we might need to keep an eye out in the future. It’s the equivalent to your common cold, Shiro.” He informed them. “Once that fever breaks, he’ll need lots of rest and fluids, but he should recover easily if he doesn’t push himself.”

“Not much chance of that,” Pidge snarked wearily.

Keith stirred slightly, blinking owlishly up at the others. “What…?

“You got sick, dude.” Hunk told him, wringing his hands. “Shiro found you on the training deck.”

“What have we told you about overtraining?” Allura scolded. “And what were you doing there in the middle of the night?”

His ears twitched at her tone, and he sank lower into the cold water without responding.

“Do you even sleep?” Lance muttered with a scowl.

He slid down further.

“No.” Shiro breathed. “Keith, how much have you been sleeping?”

Keith lowered himself until only his eyes were above the water, darting away guiltily.

“Keith.”

He blew bubbles in a sigh before straightening hesitantly. “Not a lot…”

“Why?”

His ears flattened against his head at Shiro’s tone. “I don’t want to. I have… dreams.”

Expecting some rebuke for the weak answer, he screwed his eyes shut, tensing for the retribution to come. When the others did not respond, he hesitantly looked back up at them. He could not read their expressions.

Shiro’s sigh was heart-rending. “Oh, Keith.”

Unable to stand their eyes on him anymore, he pushed his way out of the bath. “Where are my clothes?”

“Here.” Pidge held out the bundle of his borrowed clothes. “And a towel.”

He wrapped the towel around his shoulders and leaned against the wall, eyeing the others warily. He was not actually sure he could get dressed himself, in his current state, which was infuriating. He felt so weak and pathetic. Not even able to get dressed on his own… If his squad-mates saw him now, they would be sure to jettison him as a disgrace to the Empire.

When Shiro gently offered to help him, he had to choke back a whine in order to accept. This was humiliating. If he had not been such an idiot and gotten sick… Now his secret training had been found out, along with his obvious weakness to let mere dreams keep him awake…

Once he was in real clothes once again (baggy as they were), Keith waited silently while the paladins deliberated. They debated plans, rotating schedules, meals… occasionally glancing his way as if he would run or collapse any second. He grimaced, but could not argue the point. He was not sure himself that he would not do either.

He lowered himself onto the edge of his bed while the others argued back and forth, eventually leading to him laying on his side and watching their mouths form words he could not hear. Someone pulled a blanket over his shoulders as his eyes drifted shut, and he caught a whispered voice before he passed out.

“Sweet dreams, buddy.”

He was not sure if his dreams were sweet, but when he did finally wake up, it was not in abject terror of something that existed only in his mind. It was a start.

Chapter Text

Lance pursed his lips thoughtfully. “What’s a sleepover?”

Shiro’s face lit up with a benevolent smile. “Only one of the most amazing parts of Earth’s culture. And it’s perfect for resting up and team bonding!”

The prince’s grimace was doubtful. “If you’re so sure…”

Keith watched through half-lidded eyes from the bed as Pidge clapped her hands excitedly. “This sounds fun! What do you do during a sleepover?”

The benevolent smile transformed into a mischievous grin. “I think you’ll like Truth or Dare.” And the grin was gone in the blink of an eye. “But first!” He waved a hand at Keith’s half-slumbering form. “We need a blanket fort, probably in the common room, and we need to get Keith settled in. Hunk and Pidge, do you want to help with that?”

“Blanket fort?” Hunk asked curiously. “Like, a fort of blankets?”

“Think you can handle that?”

A (slightly familiar) manic gleam entered Pidge’s eye. “No problem. Hunk! Bring every blanket you can get your hands on to the common room! I’ll find a few things to deal with structural integrity.”

And the two of them ran off without so much as a goodbye.

Shiro chuckled. “We should have a pretty fantastic fort by the time we get in there. So, Coran, is it safe to move him?”

It took Keith a moment to realize ‘him’ was actually him. He blinked sleepily up at Shiro, trying and failing to banish the fog from his head. The other smiled down at him, a gentler smile than the others he had been wearing moments before. “Hey, buddy. Feeling any better?”

Snuggling deeper under the blanket, he managed a small, affirmative noise. “‘S warm…”

“That’s good. Are you okay for me to carry you?”

A sort of questioning hum was his response.

“I need to move you to the common area for the sleepover.”

Taking a moment for his sluggish thoughts to process his words, Keith finally gave a small nod.

Shiro, with that same gentle smile, gathered the feverish half-breed into his arms. A startled expression crossed his face as Keith, instead of tensing up at the contact like he had since his arrival, actually nuzzled into him, burrowing his face trustingly in his shoulder. His tail waved languorously where it hung from Shiro’s arms, curling and uncurling in slow, liquid movements.

The surprise drained from his expression to be replaced by that gentleness once again, and he looked over Keith’s drowsy ears to Coran. The altean gave him a small, affirming nod, his own smile peeking out from under his mustache.

Keith did not remember most of the journey to the common room, only being laid down in a nest of blankets. He whined a bit as the comforting heat was pulled away, reaching out blindly to where it disappeared.

“Aw…” Someone stage whispered. “He’s so cuuuuute…”

Suddenly flushing, he curled in on himself, pulling the blanket over his head.

“Pidge.” Another voice reprimanded, though not harshly. “You’re embarrassing him.”

“Keith, Keith, look at our fort!” The first voice prodded gleefully, ignoring the admonishment.

He reluctantly peered out from beneath the blankets, and all lethargy fell away from him. The blanket fort was amazing. The blue light of the castle filtered through variously colored blankets and sheets to fill the interior with a mismatched, warm glow. There was enough space for everyone plus some, but was still cozy and comfortable.

The blanket fell away from his shoulders as he sat up, craning his neck to take it all in. The others were scattered about the interior. Hunk was talking animatedly to Lance while gesturing at specific parts of the fort, no doubt explaining how it was made. Allura hovered near by, appearing vaguely interested. Coran was off to one side, rearranging blankets and pillows in one corner fussily.

Pidge and Shiro sat near Keith, the former beaming proudly. “Well?”

“It’s…” He trailed off in awe and started again. “I have no words.”

Pidge’s smile, if it was possible, grew wider. “I know, right?” She turned to Shiro. “So, you mentioned something called Truth or Dare?”

Keith never thought he would describe Shiro as impish, but that seemed to be the only fitting word at the moment. The man immediately gathered everyone and explained the game with barely disguised glee. Keith understood why. His wicked delight was infectious, and Lance was the first to succumb, urging the others to play a round with him.

They formed a circle in Keith’s nest, Hunk and Coran taking up positions on either side of him.

On his part, Keith was unsure as to whether or not he was excited for or dreading the game. As much as he wanted the team to trust him (and he could see what Shiro meant by ‘team-building’ earlier), there were still some things he would rather not share.

Thankfully, he was not chosen to go first.

Pidge took the lead. “Shiro, truth or dare?”

The devilish undertone in her voice seemed to warn him. “Truth.”

Her slight pout attested to her disappointment, but did not hesitate to ask. “How did you end up out here? You said before that your planet had barely traveled outside of your solar system.”

Shiro had obviously expected a more nefarious question and relaxed visibly. “Well, I was abducted by the Empire. I managed to escape, with Keith’s help apparently, and crashed a galra pod back on Earth.” His expression darkened. “To put it briefly, I was quarantined by the agency I had worked for. They wouldn’t listen to my warnings… I had to get out, to save those idiots, before it was too late. The next bit is a bit shaky, but I think the Blue Lion attacked the temporary base they had set up at my crash site? The next thing I knew, I was in a futuristic alien ship for the second time that day, and was leading a galra cruiser away from my home planet. Blue took me here, I woke up the alteans, and they remotely woke up the other lions.” He shrugged. “There.”

“Wow.” Hunk clasped his hands together. “That’s… some story.”

“Yeah. Well, my turn!” He cast his gaze around the circle and ended up at Hunk. “Truth or Dare?”

“Uh, I’ll try dare?”

His grin —Keith was endlessly surprised by the range of communication a mere smile could express– was teasing. “Lick your elbow.”

Cue ten minutes of Hunk trying to lick his elbow with Pidge and Lance calling out suggestions.

Eventually, Shiro let him give up and he picked the next person.

“Truth or Dare, princess?” Hunk asked respectfully.

She hesitated. “Truth?”

“How do you keep your hair so well taken care of?”

She blinked at that. “What do you mean by that?”

“We’re in the middle of space. Not only does your hair hardly appear tangled, but it’s so clean and… floofy?” He looked to Pidge. “Is that the right word?”

“I’d say so, yes.”

The princess took a moment to gather her thoughts, then launched into a lengthy explanation about her nightly hair-care ritual. Lance seemed to be the only who was seriously listening throughout. Eventually she finished, and without missing a beat, turned to Coran. “Truth or Dare?”

Keith was starting to suspect the others had wordlessly agreed to leave him alone temporarily. Which was fine with him, because he was dozing off again anyway. He closed his eyes and curled up on his side, listening to the others as they continued the game.

Coran thought for a moment. “Truth.”

“How do you always know when I’m sneaking into your stash of Didexes?”

Coran, of all people, smirked. “Ex-Todan, princess. Remember?”

“Todan?” Pidge queried innocently.

“He’s an ex-spy, Pidge.” Lance supplied. “The Todan used to be the Altean Intelligence Agency.”

“What?!”

“You heard him, number five!” Coran stated cheerfully. “There’s plenty about this old rascal that you don’t know!”

“I’m still waiting for my answer, Coran.” Allura interrupted impatiently.

“I gave you one!”

“That’s not an answer!”

“Sorry, princess.” Shiro intervened. “It counts.”

“My turn!” Coran announced excitedly. “Pidge, Truth or Dare?”

And so the game continued, well into the early hours of the morning. Hunk and Pidge explained how they found their lions in between increasingly ridiculous dares. Hunk had been exploring deep caverns of his Balmera and stumbled across the Yellow Lion, which had brought him to the castle of lions. Pidge had found and tracked a strange energy signature to a planet overflowing with dense vegetation, especially around the Green Lion. And, as it turned out, the Black Lion had been in the castle all along.

Keith had slipped into a sort of restless half-sleep at some point, drifting in and out of vague, shapeless dreams, roused only when someone dared Pidge to drink seven cups of her synthesized coffee at once, causing her to nearly knock the fort down on top of them all. Sitting up sharply and instantly alert, Keith swept his gaze around the room and counted his exits before he remembered where he was. He only relaxed fractionally, still tense and wary, when he saw the others.

Keith… was not quite sure he was actually awake.

Someone had dared Allura to do-up her hair in some sort of crazy,woven mess of braids, Lance was doing a handstand and the redness of his face suggested he had been like that for a while, Shiro was sitting in Hunk’s lap, and Coran’s mustache was bright blue.

The mice had curled up among Keith’s blankets at some point, and were chittering in complaint at his movement. He decided that they had the right idea, and folded himself in amongst them in the nest again as his adrenaline spike wore off and real, deep sleep finally claimed him.

Chapter Text

When he finally roused himself from his deep, dreamless sleep, Keith found himself surrounded by warmth.

Pressed up against his back was Shiro, while Keith himself was curled up around Pidge. Someone —Allura?– was resting their head on his legs, stroking his tail, and Lance and Hunk were a tangle of limbs in front of him. Coran was nowhere to be seen.

He debated whether or not it would be a good idea to try and disentangle himself from the pile, ultimately deciding not to. He could not remember the last time he was within touching distance of a non-hostile, anyway, let alone… cuddling? That is what this was, right?

Blinking sleepily up at the almost harshly bright lights, he traced the patterns of the blankets with his eyes. He hardly ever saw anything so colorful. Galra ships were all dark purples and reds, utilitarian and nothing more. In contrast, this was… nice. He was warm, rested, and felt strangely at peace for the number of people he barely knew surrounding him.

Of their own violation, his eyes drifted shut, just as the presence at his back shifted. He felt Shiro prop himself up, pictured him glancing around the room. His sigh stirred the hair on the back of Keith’s neck, causing his ears to twitch. Twisting his neck to peer over his shoulder at him, Keith hummed contentedly. “Mornin’.”

Shiro huffed a quiet laugh. “Morning, sleepyhead. Feeling better?”

He yawned and snuggled closer to Pidge to make up in warmth for the absence of Shiro at his back. “Yeah. Tired, though.”

“I’ll bet.” He carefully got to his feet, so as not to disturb those still asleep. “I’m going to find Coran. Rest a bit more, okay?”

“‘Kay.”

Pidge grabbed Keith’s arm in her sleep, muttering a string of numbers that he could not make sense of. He half-smiled and slipped back into his not-quite-asleep drowse.

Of course his nightmares had to infiltrate his sleep a few moments later, jolting him out of his semi-peaceful rest. Heart pounding a mile a minute, Keith found he was sweating from the intensity of his sudden anxiety. Pidge grumbled slightly to herself and lifted her head, scanning Keith’s face. “Y’okay, Keith?”

He did not answer her, mostly because he could not breathe.

“Keith?” Pidge wriggled around until she was facing him, alert despite how recently she had woken up. “Breathe, Keith. Come on. Everything is okay, you’re safe, you’re here. I’m here, with you, okay? Take a deep breath.”

Her rambling was strangely calming, and Keith’s tenseness slackened as he fell back into the blankets, following Pidge’s instructions to breathe. She pressed her head to his chest and wrapped her hands around his torso. “I got you, man. You’re okay.”

Tentatively, he reciprocated the hug, closing his eyes as he took another deep breath. “Thanks, Pidge.” His voice came out more strangled and soft than he would have liked. “Thank you.”

She shrugged without releasing him. “We’re all a team now, right? I have your back, and you have mine.”

An unfamiliar warmth blossomed in Keith’s chest.

The peace was disturbed when Coran and Shiro entered the room, the former loudly announcing. “Breakfast! Everyone up!”

The four paladins, some more asleep than others, untangled themselves with much groaning and mumbling.

“Coran!” Lance complained loudly. “I was sleeping!”

“And now you’re not!” Was his cheery rebuttal.

“Coran!” He whined weakly, grudgingly accepting his plate of food goo.

Hunk patted his arm. “Relax, Lance.”

“Yeah, relax.” Pidge sniped from her place against Keith. She had moved to lean against his side when they sat up. “He’s ex-Togan, remember?”

“Todan.” Keith corrected. “Ex-Todan.”

“That is correct, number four!” Coran held out a plate to him. “Now, eat up! We don’t want some silly space flue to keep you down, eh?”

He reluctantly accepted the food, though he could not find it in himself to have an appetite. Even the memory of what happened the night before was enough to make his stomach flip uncomfortably.

“You don’t have to eat it.” Pidge whispered to him after Coran had turned away. “If you’re not feeling up to it, I’ll take it.”

“You don’t mind?” He asked, just as quietly, as he passed her the plate.

She brushed off his concern. “It’s no problem.”

Breakfast was a quiet affair, but Keith did not mind. He had learned that if the paladins were silent, nothing was happening. Or something really bad was, but that only seemed to be when they were out of sight. Which… was slightly concerning, but Keith pushed the thought out of his mind. He did not want to be thinking like that at the moment.

“Okay, everybody.” Shiro drew everyone’s attention, waiting until all eyes were on him before continuing. “Just because one of us is sick is no excuse for the rest of us to slack off. Coran and I have worked out a rotation schedule, so one person can remain with Keith while the others head to the training deck. Hunk, it’s your turn first.”

Keith straightened reproachfully, ignoring the way the room spun at his sudden movement. “I can train!”

Shiro did not reply, merely raising an eyebrow meaningfully as Keith struggled to remain upright.

“Fine.” He subsided reluctantly, but protested in a last-ditch attempt. “But no one else should miss training on my account!’

Hunk sat slumped against the couch. “Go on, you guys. I’ll hold down the fort.” He gestured at the sheet-roof with a smile and murmured to Keith out of the side of his mouth. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I’d rather not get my butt handed to me by a bunch of droids just yet.”

Keith managed a chuckle and, in a wave of exhaustion, rested his head against the larger boy’s shoulder as he watched the paladins disappear out the door. “Fair enough.”

The balmeran patted his ears gently with one of his large hands. “Rest up some more, buddy. One of us will be here when you wake up.”

This sensation of safety was foreign, for sure, but he was not about to pass it up. It occurred to him that he was sleeping more in these past few quintants than he had the entire rest of his time on the castle ship, and with that thought his eyes drifted shut.

Chapter Text

“Is he purring?” Someone hissed with glee.

There were fingers combing through his hair, a touch Keith had not noticed until they paused. A soft, lilting chuckle quickly followed. “I think he is.”

Concluding that this must all be a fever dream, because it felt so nice, Keith ignored how the low rumble in his chest grew louder and tilted his head back into the hand.

That small laugh again, and the hand returned to stroking his thick, black hair. “He looks so harmless when he is asleep.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t really look like a soldier, does he?”

“No. He does not.”

A somber note settled over the room, confusing Keith. The dream was nice before. Why was it sad now?

He stirred, rolling onto his side and half-pushing himself up. He froze at what he saw, locking eyes with a white-haired woman that he thought he should know. She held her hands up in a gesture of peace, almost holding her breath as the half-breed became dangerously still.

“Keith, calm down!” A voice called from behind him, and soon there were two arms wrapped around his neck.

Reflex took over (there was never enough time to think in a battle) and he grabbed the arms that were gripping (strangling) him, easily flipping his assailant. His eyes focused on the olkari girl’s shocked expression underneath him, his forearm across her throat, and he jerked back, away from her and from the other one, wracked with guilt.

They had just been talking about how he looked harmless. He just had to go and prove them wrong.

The room was spinning and he could not get air into his lungs. He scrambled back until he came across the edge of the couch, still tangled in half a dozen different blankets. Chest heaving, his eyes darted around the room in an almost-panic veiled by a sluggish fog in his thoughts. Where was he? What was going on?

His turbulent train of thought came to a screeching halt as an answer occurred to him. This was a dream, but not a fever dream. His mind could not come up with dreams like this on its own. He was back with the druids, wasn’t he? This was one of their sick experiments, to see how he reacted to a ‘safe’ environment, then pull it out from underneath him…

Cautiously, his eyes flickered from one girl to the other. He knew their names. What were their names? He needed to remember, if he did not remember he would wake up…

“Pidge?” He breathed hopefully. And Allura. Pidge and Allura.

The olkari had one hand at her throat, but now dropped it. “Yes, Keith?”

Inhaling sharply, Keith lowered himself to the floor carefully. “I’m… sorry. For throwing you.”

She shook her head vehemently. “I came up from behind. I should have been expecting it.”

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“Keith.” Allura interrupted. “It was defensive. Anyone should have the right to defend themselves.”

He still hesitated, unsure. If this was one of the druids’ dreams, what result were they looking for? How could he convince them to leave him here for a bit longer? It was such a nice dream…

While he was lost in thought, the two girls had managed to coax him back into a supine position in the center of the nest. Half-aware of the blankets being draped over him as his panic-induced adrenaline flagged, he finally admitted to himself that he might be sick. Even if it was only a dream.

Pushing himself up halfway before either of the girls could move, he frowned drowsily. “When did Hunk leave?”

Allura smoothed his ears down. “A few vargas ago. Then it was Shiro’s turn, and now our turn. Lance and Coran should be here soon with some food for you. You have not eaten yet, Pidge tells me, and it is long past midday.”

It was a great idea, in theory, but his stomach felt like a knot in his gut, one that would only throw up everything they tried to put in it. “I’m not sure I can… handle food.”

Allura looked like she was going to protest, but Pidge silenced her with a hand on her arm. The young olkari softened her expression towards Keith. “You don’t have to.”

He grimaced at that. “I’m not sure that’s going to be the case. You said Lance and Coran were coming?”

Pidge pushed him back down into the blankets gently. “Yes, but if you go to sleep right now, I’m pretty sure I can convince them to leave you alone. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll sleep right through their shift and be right as rain when you wake up.”

“Right as rain? What’s rain?”

“It’s a metaphor from Shiro’s planet. Rain is a kind of precipitation, I believe.”

Keith’s ears pricked up as footsteps and voices echoed from the corridor. Pidge cocked her head to one side, her olkari hearing obviously less sensitive. “What is it?”

He did not answer, and a moment later she straightened too. “Oh, they’re coming! Quickly, close your eyes and pretend to be asleep.”

It was not hard. He was pretty close to passing out anyway.

Lance entered the room, chattering nonsensically to Coran about some story from back on Altea. At least, that’s as much as Keith got out of it. It seemed to involve a lot of rocks and fire and confetti. He did not think he could unravel that without some context.

Coran, to Keith’s ears’ utter gratitude, shushed the prince. “Sleeping sick person, remember?”

Lance scoffed something about not caring before falling silent anyway.

And, true to Pidge’s prediction, Keith did end up drifting off in the near silence, despite the presence of a possible hostile and several near-strangers. For the first time in deca-phoebs, his sleep was peaceful and uninterrupted by nightmares. Not to say that it was not interrupted at all…

Harsh, screaming alarms echoed stridently across the castle, banishing any thought of rest from all seven minds on the ship. Everyone bolted to the bridge, and Keith was too wound up to note the reemergence of the dread taking residence in his gut.

What was wrong now?

Chapter Text

A video-call with the hailing aliens was already underway when the majority of the crew arrived. Four figures crouched nervously in some sort of small, enclosed room, occasionally glancing over their shoulders nervously. The seemed to be covered in coarse, fur-like feathers of various red and purple shades, and would be quite tall if they were not hunched over.

“We have your coordinates,” Allura was assuring them in a low voice. “Your distress beacon made sure of that. We’ll be there in under a varga. Can you hold out that long?”

The one in front of the other three, the smallest, nodded shortly and blinked its owlishly huge, golden eyes. “We should be able to do that, Princess, but please hurry.”

“We will be there as soon as we are able.”

Keith hovered by the door, more alert than he could remember being for several quintants. More awake, more… alive, if he was being honest. Though that did not help the people of this planet any in the face of whatever was attacking them. Keith would put his GAC (if he had any) on the Empire, perfectly understanding the irony that he had been the Empire mere quintants earlier.

It was not a comfortable thought, so he pushed it away as he stepped further into the room. “Let’s get the Lions, then.”

The others all eyed him skeptically, but Shiro was the one to speak up. “You’re still recovering.”

“I’m okay now!” He assured them earnestly. “I’ll go stir-crazy if I have to stay here any longer. And Red will be doing most of the work anyway, right? I’ll stay back and guard the entrance while you all go down into the tunnels… I’ll be fine.”

Shiro glanced sidelong at Coran. “What do you think? You have the most medical knowledge out of all of us.”

He twirled his aggressively orange mustache around his index finger thoughtfully. “I’d say he should be good to go, as long as he does not overexert himself.”

A small smile made its way onto Keith’s face without his permission. “I’ll get my armor, then.”

He hurried out of the room before anyone could voice further objections, scrambling into his armor and nearly flying to Red’s cockpit.

A warm rumble filled his mind. Missed you.

He chuckled as the seat slide forward into a ready position. “Missed you, too, Red.” He gripped the handles as the familiar feeling of adrenaline surged through his system. “Let’s go.”

The Lions roared to life and quickly dipped down to the planet below. True to his word, Keith remained at the caves’ entrance, perched alertly on his Lion’s muzzle as the others proceeded into the hidden tunnels with all due caution. He was jittery, fiddling with his bayard as he constantly swept his gaze over the surrounding area, on the lookout for enemy activity. All was silent, except for the comms connecting him to the other paladins.

“Keep a sharp eye out, team.” Shiro’s voice filled the headset, sharp and clear. They were not too far down yet. “The galra might be around any corner.”

“Roger, team leader.” Lance quipped.

There was silence for a few dobashes, then Shiro’s voice hissed over the comms, more indistinct than before. “Okay, Pidge and Hunk go left. Lance, we’ll go right.”

“Yes, sir!” Keith could hear the lazy grin in Pidge’s voice. “Keep in touch, alright?”

With each interaction the signal fizzled more and more, and soon Keith could barely hear them at all. A varga after their initial descent, the worst happened.

Indistinct shouts and grunts crackled in his ear, causing him to sit bolt upright. They were fighting. There was no one there to see how his brows furrowed in concentration as he tried to piece together what the others where yelling about, how he scrambled down the side of his Lion at the echoed cries of “surrounded” and “watch out!” No one to see him duck into the tunnels without further thought, without backup.

His team needed him.

Wait! Red roared in his mind as he skidded down a steep incline to the cave mouth. Be careful!

I need to get to them, Red! He threw back, bolting headlong into the dark. They could get killed!

His feet seemed to move with a mind of their own, taking him swiftly down the path the others had been on only moments before. When he came to the first split, he remembered Lance saying something about them rejoining later, and hurled himself down the left path. He needed to get to them. They were in danger, they were in danger and he had stayed behind, safe and sound. While they were doing their job, saving others, with no one watching their back.

The audio quality of the comms increased as he drew closer, and soon enough he heard the firefight in real time just ahead.

“Shiro! Behind you!” Lance’s voice was on the edge of hysterics.

There was a sharp inhale, then a long, guttural cry of pain.

“SHIRO!”

Keith barged into the cavern, already swinging. He had taken down ten droides before anyone noticed his presence, another five before they could react, and two more by the time his team called out to him.

“Keith!” Pidge scurried over to him, ducking and dodging. “Shiro’s hurt, and Hunk and Lance are barely holding their ground to keep the civilians safe. What do we do? I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, I don’t—”

He viciously slashed the legs out from underneath his current opponent and spared a moment to glance down at her, shield raised. “Exits?”

She immediately drew up a map and pointed to three places. “There’s the one you came in, one Lance and Shiro came through, and the one the galra are using to get in. It’s a bottleneck, which is the only reason we’re alive right now.”

“Stay close to me,” he gritted out curtly. “And don’t die.”

She basically attached herself to his side as he began wading through the battle, slashing left and right. His plan was straightforward enough: Get to the others, get Shiro, force a path to the exit, and get everyone out.

Simple.

Except.

Except that is most certainly not a realistic plan if you are counting on one person to keep everyone safe and get them out in one piece.

Good news: Keith had Imperial training and was taught how to take down a squadron of droides single-handedly without any risk of injury.

Bad news: Keith was still recovering from a sickness that left him too weak to stand, and none of his training had anything to do with protecting civilians.

He did his best, though. Which meant the civilians got out safe, none of the paladins died, Lance and Hunk managed to get Shiro out, and Pidge lead everyone else to the surface while Keith guarded their back.

Though, while guarding their backs, Keith was left with about another dozen droides. He was so tired, and he was pretty sure the pain in his side was from something that was bleeding, but he had to stand firm. The others needed to get out. He needed to wait for Pidge’s signal, the one that said everything was going to be okay. The one that said everyone made it out alive.

He ran out of enemies before the signal came, and it occurred to him that the signal might not have reached him through the rock. The miles and miles of rock…

Wincing as he suddenly became aware of the intense pressure above him, Keith momentarily wished he still had something to fight, to distract him. He had not even thought about the close quarters when he ran in… and supposed he should have been grateful. At least it meant he had been useful.

Blood loss could cause some people to become delirious right? He could not quite remember how he found himself propped up against the wall, sitting on the stone floor, clutching his side to slow the bleeding, and that was the only question on his mind. Could blood loss make you see things?

Because the two figures approaching him almost seemed like hallucinations. One in green, one in yellow, their contrasting sizes nearly laughable if Keith could only draw enough breath into his lungs to laugh.

“Oh, Keith.” Pidge’s hushed whisper is what finally anchored him in the real world again.

He closed his eyes. The look on her face was haunting, and he had not even looked up at Hunk yet. He did not want to see. It hurt too much, and that was saying something, considering he almost could not feel his extremities anymore.

Hunk was telling him to stay awake, ordering him, and Keith managed to open his eyes again purely because he had not thought Hunk had it in him to sound so commanding. The balmeran kept up a steady stream of one-sided chatter to distract the crumpled form in his arms, while Pidge shouted into her comms about medical attention, and a pod, and nearly shouting damn it, shut up, he’s bleeding out!

She was probably right, Keith acceded in the unnatural stillness of his own mind. It was distinctly plausible that he was bleeding out. He did not even feel the pain anymore, and he knew that was a bad sign.

He lost the fight against unconsciousness just as they entered the light of day again, Red’s mute roars rumbling in the back of his mind as he slipped away.

Chapter Text

Keith woke with the distinct impression of being trapped. He was once again surrounded by bodies: a hand was tangled in his hair, a pair of legs were kicked over his abdomen, a small form was draped over his thighs, and two people were each clutching one of his arms. The restriction thrusted him immediately into a spiraling panic mode, causing his breathing to pick up dangerously into hyperventilation territory, and his senses to spike alertly.

When it came to fight or flight, Keith generally leaned towards fight, but not because he was naturally inclined to. It had been trained into him, and flight normally would only lead to worse consequences than fighting.

But now? Now he ran.

He twisted and slipped from the grasp of those surrounding him and bodily hurled himself out of the room. As he ran, blood pumping, his head began to clear. He knew who the people were, that they would not hurt him. But… that did not mean he could turn back now.

He had run.

It was shameful.

How would he hide, though? He would not make the mistake of forgetting the tracker again. So if he could not sit still… he would have to keep moving. That still begged the question: how?

Keith cast his gaze around as his pace slowed, exhaustion catching up to him, until his attention was arrested by something near the ceiling of the corridor.
A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Perfect.

 

Keith crouched in his hiding place breathlessly, watching them from above as they ran by him. He felt a small pang at their evident concern —they had treated him fairly well– but his pride would not allow it. They had already coddled him within an inch of his life, and all he had done in return is prove his recklessness and inability to keep himself in one piece. They would insist he rest, keep him from training… he could not take any more of that.

At least most of the others would not be able to fit into the vents. Keith was confident he would be able to keep ahead of Pidge, if she tried to come after him. Though Lance… Lance might be able to fit, too. That could turn into a problem.

A hissing echo of movement reached his sensitive ears from behind, and he started moving again, pulling himself forward swiftly and efficiently in a oft-practived army crawl. His ears swiveled on his head, picking up the noise and location of his pursuers. As he feared, he heard sound from two directions. He glanced at the holo-map on his wrist and cursed silently. They were herding him, probably to where the others were lying in wait.

His survival instincts kicked in, and he turned sharply down another shaft, heading down instead of up, where he was being forced. He was pretty sure he was sliding down parallel to an elevator shaft, and that would be his escape route if Lance or Pidge were to come upon him suddenly. Which was likely, given his change of course. He just hoped that if one of them were to corner him, it would be Pidge. He did not think coming face to face with Lance right now would be resolved without someone getting hurt.

Why could they not just leave him alone? He was not doing any harm. No one was dying, and Shiro had gotten hurt, right? Why were they not focused on him instead?

And then he remembered the pods and instantly felt stupid. Of course, Shiro would not be injured anymore. As he slid down a branching vent, he wished, almost wistfully, that they had that kind of technology available for the Empire’s foot-soldiers. It would definitely spared a lot of time and pain…

Keith’s momentary loss of concentration was all Pidge needed to catch up to him.

A loud, reverberating bang caused him to jump in surprise and glance over his shoulder at the hurriedly approaching olkari, swearing under her breath and favoring her right arm as she grimly continued. “Keith!”

Still half-twisted in the shaft, he tried to shift backwards, only to whip his head around as someone broke into a fit of coughing behind him. Lance had pulled the collar of his shirt over his nose and mouth, eyes watering. “Why is there so much dust in here?”

Wedging himself in a corner, as far away from the two as he could be, Keith tried to keep the flush from his face. His heart was going to beat right out of his chest, he was sure of it. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

Lance eyed him incredulously, forgetting about the dust for a moment. “Dude, are you being serious? You almost died, right after being super sick, and when you wake up the first thing you do is run and hide in the air vents. Why wouldn’t we come after you?”

“I ran,” Keith gritted out testily. “Because the last thing I remembered was fighting, and I woke up unable to move. So excuse me if I didn’t exactly feel safe.”

Their awkward stand-off continued for a solid dobash or so before Pidge sighed. “Okay, now that that’s cleared up, can you come down now? Hunk and Shiro are going to wear two separate ruts into the floor if we don’t show up with you soon.”

Keith relaxed infinitesimally and nodded in her direction. “You first. I’ll follow.” He turned on Lance cautiously, sizing him up. He did not really want him at his back. “You too.”

Lance opened his mouth to deliver a no doubt stinging, witty retort, but a glance from Pidge silenced him. With a surprisingly limited amount of grumbling, and an uncomfortable few ticks, Lance slid past Keith and followed Pidge’s lead to the exit.

When Keith finally slithered out of the vents, he kept his eyes downcast, specifically avoiding Shiro’s gaze. There was something about his disappointment that got under Keith’s skin more than the others. He stood still while Pidge relayed his explanation from when they cornered him, did not look up or react when Lance added his (decidedly unwelcome) opinion, and almost held his breath in the ensuing silence.

Hunk clapped his hands once, startling Keith. “I think it is well past the time we straightened some things out, and laid out some ground rules.”

Chapter Text

‘Ground rules,’ it turned out, really meant ‘guidelines for how to deal with the galra on the team and not scare him into running.’

It bothered him, a bit, as they sat silently around the dining room table, waiting for Hunk to return from the kitchen. The yellow paladin had briefly outlined what needed to be discussed while they were in the halls, and Keith had no idea what to do in the face of his overwhelming concern for his well-being. It did not help that he was completely and utterly humiliated by the necessity of such a conversation. He was a soldier, he had taken care of himself for deca-phoebs and now he was rendered useless by the quiznacking kindness of the yellow paladin of Voltron, of all people. It was official, the universe hated him.

“Okay, everyone!” Hunk strode purposefully into the room, two steaming platters of something that actually looked edible held high above his head. “Food’s ready. Let’s have this talk.”

Keith fought down the overwhelming urge to groan and shrink in his seat, instead sitting straight and staring passively at the wall above Pidge’s head. He had no desire to ‘have this talk,’ and there was no way that was changing soon. The only reason he had not bolted for his room yet was because that was the kind of behavior that had caused this problem in the first place.

The balmeran placed the food in the center of the table and took his seat, scanning the others’ faces intensely before starting. “We seem to have an issue, here.”

Lance rolled his eyes, arms crossed impatiently. “Yes, so you’ve said. That’s why we’re all in the kitchen, remember?”

Hunk, uncharacteristically, gave him a hard look. “Lance.”

The prince huffed, but wisely kept his mouth shut.

With a firm nod, Hunk began to serve up the other paladins. “Now, I know that we don’t know each other all that well, since, y’know, we’ve only really been in contact for a little less than a deca-phoeb. But seriously, I thought better of you guys? I thought it was obvious that you don’t crowd a kid who probably would take issue with waking up feeling trapped? And then chasing him, and cornering him... And that’s just the last quintant.”

No one met his eyes, and Keith fidgeted uncomfortably. “Are you sure you want me here for this discussion?”

Hunk fixed him with a look that was only slightly softer than the one he had directed at the others. “It’s about you, isn’t it? You deserve to know what is discussed.”

He shook his head. “Let me rephrase that. I don’t think I want to be here for this discussion.”

Pidge squinted at him thoughtfully. “I can see your point.” She bounced to her feet. “Hey guys, I’m going to take Keith and show him what I’m working on. Hunk can lecture you all and fill me in later, kay?”

Taken by surprise, Keith allowed the small olkari to attempt to drag him from the room. Unfortunately, Hunk put a stop to that hastily, blocking the doorway and shaking his head vehemently. “No, nu-uh, if we don’t talk about this now, we’re never going to talk about it.”

“Come on Hunk!” Pidge protested.

“Sit down, Pidge.”

Keith had never heard that tone from the friendly balmeran before, and did not hesitate to take his seat once more. Pidge followed his lead, though a bit more reluctantly.

Hunk shook his head with a deep sigh that spoke volumes. “Okay, okay, here’s how we’re going to do this. I’m going to outline some strong suggestions, because they shouldn’t have to be rules, and I don’t necessarily trust any of you to know where the lines need to be drawn.” He hesitated, is if he just realized exactly what he said. “No offense.”

Lance huffed. “No offense? Really? How was that not offensive?”

The balmeran opened his mouth to reply, closed it, and then opened it again. “You know, you’re right, it is offensive. And I’m not sorry. How you’ve all been treating Keith is also offensive.”

“Come on, Hunk.” Keith tried, in an effort to talk him down. “They’re not that bad.”

“Nope,” he raised one of his hands to cut him off. “You don’t get to talk, because clearly you weren’t treated right in the Empire, and don’t have a strong basis of comparison. Thank you for your input, but no.” He took a deep breath. “Okay. Suggestions.

“Suggestion number one: don’t crowd him? Like, no one likes that. Especially not when they don’t feel safe, and I know you’ve been getting better,” he added in an aside to Keith. “But nobody blames you for freaking out sometimes. Shiro still gets stuck in flashbacks from when he was the Champion, so we get it. Alright?”

Keith nodded carefully, since it looked like Hunk expected him to.

It turned out to be the right move when Hunk bobbed his head in return and continued. “Suggestion number two: no sneaking up on, well, anyone. It has, and never will be, funny.” He gave Lance a hard look. “Not to mention there are a few more people who are easily startled on board now.”

Lance crossed his arms with a muttered sheesh, but otherwise refrained from commenting.

“Suggestion number three: don’t pressure him. He’s obviously not going to have nice memories, as we all know, now.” He side-eyed Lance again.

The altean threw his hands up. “Is this universal ‘Pick on Lance’ day, or am I missing something?”

“If only that were a thing,” Pidge murmured.

Lance looked almost amusingly betrayed.

Hunk cleared his throat in an exaggerated fashion. “Suggestion number four!”

Everyone shut up and dragged their attention back to the matter at hand.

“If we have another, uh…” He seemed to be searching for a word. “Episode… don’t corner him. Make sure he can get out if he doesn’t feel safe.”

“But what if he just keeps running!” Lance protested.

Keith was tired of them talking like he was not there, especially after Hunk insisted he stay. “If I keep running, it’s because I don’t feel safe, Lance. Which is the point of these ‘suggestions,’ apparently.” He pushed to his feet again. “Listen, Hunk, I appreciate the effort, but this wasn’t really necessary…”

“I’m going to stop you right there, my boy.” Coran interrupted, words clipped. “This is a very necessary discussion. And, while I believe Hunk has said everything he wanted to,” he glanced at Hunk for confirmation, and the yellow paladin just shrugged in response. “Or, almost everything, there are a few other topics that need to be put on the table!”

For some reason, Keith felt like the floor had dropped out from underneath him. What did Coran, out of everyone, have to say about him?

“Now, number four,” Coran actually addressed him, something the others had not done and did allow him to calm himself. A bit, anyways. “We don’t have to talk about this in front of the others, but there are a few questions I want to ask you. Is there anyone you want to leave the room?”

“Lance.” He answered immediately, without thinking, and winced at his hurt look. “Uh, Allura.” He considered for a moment, and decided that he could not stomach seeing two of the other three in the room disappointed in him. Which was a surprise, really, but he still named them. “Shiro and Hunk.”

Lance did not seem quite so put out, seeing the company he was in, but still found it in him to pout. “Pidge? Pidge is the only one who gets to stay?”

Keith just shrugged. He knew, for some reason, that Pidge would be the last person to judge him. For anything. Maybe it was the way she covered for him when he was sick, or even all the way back when she had convinced him to take care of himself when he first arrived, instead of locking himself in his room.

The altean prince fumed, but Shiro and Hunk ushered him out, Allura following behind, just as silent now as she had been through the entire encounter.

Coran, once he was satisfied that the others were gone, finally took a seat. “Now. Is there anything you’d like to get out there, you know, clear the air, before I start?”

Keith blinked, ears twitching. Was there something Coran wanted him to say? He did not naturally divulge anything personal, if that was what he was hoping for, but the half-breed also could not help but think that the altean’s intent was to pry personal information from him anyway. So… “Could you both promise not to say anything about… whatever it is we talk about, to the others? Until I say so, anyways.” He amended. A compromise, if any was needed.

And they were nodding along, as if this was a reasonable request and not much trouble. Pidge jumped up on the edge of the table, posture relaxed and smile more soft than he had seen on her face. “No problem. As long as it makes this easier for you.”

Another strange concept. Easier for you as if that was important. He should be used to these nonsensical behaviorisms from them by now, but it took a long time to shake a lifetime's worth of conditioning. Compartmentalize, he told himself. You can sort through this weird twisting in your gut later.

He crossed his arms. “Okay, Coran. I’m ready.”

The advisor steepled his fingers thoughtfully. “I’m only asking this because it could be an issue in the future, understand.”

Keith nodded once, ear twitching.

“I know you have some trauma associated with medical facilities…”

And there it was. The uncomfortable heart of the conversation.

“Would you be willing to tell me about it? I really would like to help you, number four, and if you are injured in battle we need to have some way to care for you without harming you further.”

Coran’s gaze was gentle, and Pidge, respectfully silent in the face of the intensity of the conversation, smiled encouragingly, urging him on.

He worried the edge of his lip, tail curling around his ankle. “What do you want to know?”

The altean leaned forward earnestly. “Everything you’re willing to share.”

“Alright.” He sighed. “I guess I’ll start from the beginning.”

Chapter Text

Keith took a deep breath, clasping his hands together to keep them from shaking. These memories were not… pleasant. But Coran was right. If he did not want to drag the team down, or cause trouble… He had to do this. He had to.

He cleared his throat and leapt right in. “When I was very young, I wondered what the druids did for the Empire with a certain intensity that most kits seemed to have until their first encounter with them. For me, that was when I was six.

“Besides field medics, druids are the only healers available to soldiers, and are the only ones who have labs for surgeries. They were personally responsible for all research that involved half-breeds, figuring out how to keep them healthy and how to turn them into better soldiers. They would often call young kits for check-ups as well, keeping an eye on their wellbeing for the sake of the Empire.

“That’s all I thought it was when I was called to their labs for the first time.”

He hesitated, carefully regulating his breathing as he tried to read Coran’s face. It remained neutral and encouraging, neither positive or negative. Pidge had no visible response either, her face completely blank.

Keith averted his gaze, glaring resolutely at the table as he continued. “The Empire are firm believers in personal strength, which includes resistance to pain. Anesthetics aren’t very popular, which made the visits fairly… uncomfortable. The first year was mainly dissections, trying to figure out how the two parts of my… heritage, meshed. They seemed more interested the more they discovered, and I soon learned that most hybrids, especially galra ones, were generally misshapen and sickly. They would always be in pain, and would usually be put out of their misery once the druids were done with them. It is the kindest thing I have ever heard that they have done.

“I was an exception, apparently. Not only was I healthy, but I was stronger and faster than most galra kits my age. Which wasn’t really much of a feat, considering they were barely crawling. But it interested the druids, which meant a year of pain for me while they figured it out.

“I was told it was a fluke, later. That I was very lucky that my genes had been compatible, since all they could find was that my condition was entirely thanks to chance. It took a year for them to figure that out. Or at least it was a year until they decided to tell me.”

There was another lengthy pause as the other two digested this information.

Pidge cleared her throat. “And, uh, that whole year was… dissections? That was all?”

Keith smirked as best as he could. “Yeah. That was all.”

“I didn’t,” she winced. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

He waved away her discomfort. “I know what you meant. And yeah, it… it got worse.

“The next stage of their tests was more… practical. They wanted to know to what extremes my resilience reached. What kinds of climates I could survive in, how long I could go without food or water, how long I could go without sleep… One of the worst was the isolation. Galra are social creatures, and I was already looked down upon as it was. Being locked up for quintants, then movements…” He shuddered. “It was bad. I think the only way I made it through mostly intact was through training.”

“So that’s why…” Pidge muttered. He shot her a questioning look and she explained. “On the first day. Before the tracker.”

He remembered. He shook his head slowly. “That wasn’t even that bad in comparison to what the druids did. But yeah, the periods of isolation were bad. The worst, though, was the cold…

“Let’s just say I don’t like baths and leave it at that.”

Coran twirled his mustache around his finger and nodded. “I’ll make a note of that, number four.”

Keith’s smile was strained, and he pushed on before he lost the nerve. “When I was eight they focused more on testing my limits as a soldier. Endurance, speed, how many fights I could win before becoming too injured to continue… I spent quite a bit of time in the arena, actually.

“I’m glad Shiro didn’t have to spend more than a year there, glad that he could get out.

“At nine they began to vary more, there wasn’t a pattern, and sometimes I didn’t see a point to them. I was put onto active duty as an Imperial soldier when I reached my tenth deca-phoeb, and I had hoped the visits to the druids would stop…”

He inhaled sharply, squeezing his hands until his knuckles turned white. “They didn’t.” His head was beginning to ache from the force of the memories, and his chest burned. Ducking his head, he allowed his hair to fall forward and cover his eyes, struggling to regain some small bit of his composure. He glanced up at Coran with a forced, weak smile. “Could I just tell you my triggers and leave it at that? I really, really don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Of course,” Coran accepted, voice softer than usual. “I only want to help, not force you into sharing painful memories.”

“Okay, then, so,” he ticked them off on his fingers as he listed them. “Medical facilities, obviously. Uh, needles, scalpels, things like that. Medical equipment, basically. Any kind of restraints. Monitors, but especially ones with red lights. Which is probably why the tracker didn’t trigger me, now that I think about it…”

He trailed off for a moment, but quickly snapped back to the matter at hand. “Right. So. Being locked up for long periods of time, probably. One quintant was tolerable, but I could feel myself starting to lose it by the end, so there’s that. Uh.” He took a deep breath, inordinately glad that he was not being interrupted. “Baths, like I said. Being submerged in water at all, actually.

“Also being forced to fight. I’m not proud of what I did in the arena, and I’m pretty sure that if something like that happened again… I’d go feral, of something.”

Pidge’s eyes widened at that, but he pressed on before she could speak. “And being cornered. Obviously, but like,” he waved a hand in a vague gesture. “Seriously. It’s one of the… worse ones. Especially in small rooms. Hallways are a bit better, and the vents weren’t too bad, but if I got cornered in, like, a bedroom…” He shivered and shook his head, attempting to dislodge the foul memories. His voice was smaller than it had any right to be when he whispered, “Don’t ask me to explain, please.”

“We won’t.” Pidge was hardly breathing at this point, and Keith was honestly afraid that she might start crying. If she cried, he was not sure that he would not follow. And he would not cry, not in front of these people.

“Is there anything else?” Coran prodded gently. “Anything we need to know?”

“I… don’t think so?” He answered hesitantly. “There might be a few I’m not aware of, but…” A shrug. “Those are the ones I know.”

“Okay,” Coran nodded slowly, typing out a few notes on his datapad. “Okay.”

“Uh, Keith?” Pidge took a tentative step towards him and paused. “Can I… can I give you a hug?”

He paused for a beat. “Sure,” Why was his mouth suddenly dry? “Yeah, yeah sure.”

As if she could not restrain herself any longer, she launched herself at him, wrapping her small arms around his ribcage and burying her face in his chest. He patted her back awkwardly, glancing up at Coran for help.

The altean’s brow was creased in concern. “Are you okay with us telling the others about your triggers?”

Keith instinctively tensed, but Pidge squeezed him harder, as if that would lend him some level of comfort. Taking a careful breath, weighing the pros and cons, he nodded. “Yeah. Probably a good idea.”

Coran’s expression was nothing short of understanding. “I’ll tell them, for you.”

A rare, genuine smile flickered on Keith’s face. He’d never felt such gratitude, and his voice went unintentionally soft. “Thank you, Coran. For more than just,” he waved a hand at himself, making sure to disclude Pidge from the gesture. “This.”

The older man matched his smile. “It really is no problem, number four. I’m just glad I could help.”

He left shortly after, presumably to talk to the others, but Keith and Pidge remained. It was probably the longest, most comforting hug Keith had had in his entire life.