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Stray Fires

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It was a pretty normal day. As normal as living in a castle-ship with two aliens, three other humans and sentient mechanical lions could be, of course.
It was a completely normal day, and yet Pidge woke up with anxiety streaking through her veins, one name on her mind:

Keith.

The green paladin sat bolt upright, untangling her limbs from the covers in a hurry to speak to someone. She quickly shoved on her casual clothes before running to the lounge, relieved when she saw the others already gathered there.

"Pidge," Lance greeted, "You're up late." He bit back the upcoming tease as he took in her wide, bloodshot eyes, sweat already plastering her hair to her forehead.

"What's wrong?" Hunk asked quickly.

Pidge swallowed. "How long is it since we heard from Keith?"

The paladins all exchanged looks of confusion. "I can't remember," Lance confessed, "It was... I think it was last before Lotor tried to join us." He practically spat the galra prince's name.

"No, no, it was before then," Shiro said, "It was before Naxzela, definitely."

Pidge's heart raced. "Guys, that...that was months ago. Almost half a year."

Silence abruptly descended, the room seeming to grow a few degrees colder. Then-

"What?" Lance exclaimed, "How? How has it been so long? How... How did we not notice?"

"We have been busy," Shiro pointed out.

"Still," Lance continued, "That's ridiculous. How the hell did we forget Keith?"

"Maybe he forgot us too," Hunk suggested quietly, "I mean, sure, we haven't contacted him, but he hasn't made an effort to contact us, either."

Pidge started pacing, her mind fixated on the previous night's horrid dreams. "We never contacted him because we didn't know how. Blade security and all. But we could've asked for him, through Kolivan."

"Then let's freaking do that," Lance declared, "We've been crap friends, there's no excuse. We've got to talk to the mullet."

Pidge nodded, not waiting for the others as she pivoted and headed towards the bridge, where Coran was thankfully waiting.

"Ah, Number Five! What can I do for you?" he asked.

Lance beat her to it. "Contact the Blades of Marmora. We need to speak to Keith."

Coran blinked. "Why, yes! Keith! He hasn't called in ages, has he?"

"Not since before Naxzela," Hunk answered softly, only just entering the bridge then.

Coran's expression fell. "Really? That long?" the advisor muttered, but said nothing more as he quickly opened a hailing frequency to the Blades. Kolivan's stoic face greeted them.

"Paladins of Voltron. Is this urgent?"

"No," Hunk stammered, at the same time that Lance and Pidge answered, "Yes."

Kolivan didn't even lift an eyebrow.

"Yes," Pidge repeated, "It's urgent. We need to speak to Keith."

At the mention of their former-teammate's name, Kolivan's eyes widened ever so slightly. "He's not with you?"

Pidge blanked. "No! We haven't heard from him in months! Is he not with you?"

The galra shook his head. "No. He has not been with us for quite some time."

Pidge's breathing hitched and Lance glanced at her, concerned. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot, trying to stay calm, trying not to think of the nightmares with Keith screaming...

"Okay," she managed to say, "When...when did you last hear from him?"

"Two quintants before Naxzela. He was late checking in after a mission, when we received a transmission stating that he was going to return to Voltron, and for us not to bother him again. I respected his wishes. But did he not return to you?"

There was a lump in Pidge's throat making it hard to breathe, so Lance stepped in.

"No," he answered, "He never returned. And we haven't heard from him since before that."

"Where was he?" Pidge finally exclaimed, "On that mission he was late. Where was he?"

"That's classified-"

"Bullcrap! Dammit, Kolivan, I need to know, where was he?"

The galra coughed. "Classified, but I can find out and let you know. I will call you later with the intel." And with that, the connection was broken.

Pidge staggered back away from the screen, hands knotting in her hair. Keith was missing, and no-one had noticed for months? If it hadn't been for her stupid nightmare, she wouldn't have given a thought to Keith's whereabouts! They'd all just assumed he was busy on missions with the Blade, like they were busy with their paladin duties.

But Keith was gone. Missing. Lost.

Pidge couldn't focus on anything else, opting to sit in the bridge until Kolivan's reply came. Lance sat with her, his face a mirror of her anxiety, both of them experiencing a crippling mixture of guilt, worry, and fear. Hunk brought in drinks and some homemade cookies, but Allura and Shiro were nowhere to be seen. The latter's absence surprised them the most, for surely Shiro would be most concerned about Keith's disappearance? Allura was likely off with Lotor again, much to Lance's annoyance and Pidge's apprehension. She didn't trust the guy.

Though her view of him was likely skewed by the dream he'd featured in last night.

Lance, for once, was silent as they waited, which Pidge was grateful for. She didn't think she could hold up a conversation until she knew what had happened with Keith.

Had he deserted? Did he leave for some far corner of the universe, deliberately making Voltron and the Blades think he was with the other? Did he want to disappear, to be forgotten?

Or had something more sinister happened?

Was he captured? Tortured? Was he even still alive?

Anxiety whispered those questions and her mind chewed on them, running thousands of scenarios until a blip on the screen arrested her attention.

Finally, a response from Kolivan.

Coran quickly patched them in, then left the bridge.

Kolivan's face was uncharacteristically pale.

"Keith was on a simple reconnaissance mission," he reported, "He was with another Blade, but she was killed in action when the mission went wrong. We lost contact with Keith for ten quintants, then he sent us the message about returning to Voltron. I assumed the delay was because of his decision making. I didn't think that it might've been something else."

Pidge's heart dropped. "What do you mean?"

"Where was the mission?" Lance added.

"The mission was to infiltrate one of the ships in Lotor's fleet. The one they chose belonged to General Narti."

An image of the general flashed up on the screen beside Kolivan's face.

"I conducted further research into the aftermath of the mission. Initially it was declared a success, but I realised we did not have all the intel required," Kolivan continued, his tone sombre, "Alcrek sent us hers, but we had nothing from Keith. I am certain that even if Keith were to leave us, he would at least complete the mission and send us the data."

"I don't like where this is headed," Lance muttered.

"Thus, I can deduce now that Keith never left that ship to send us the message of his own free will."

Pidge's fists clenched. "You think he was forced to say that?"

Kolivan's steel gaze locked on her. "I don't think, green paladin. I know. Though I hate to draw this conclusion, there is no doubt; Keith was either captured or killed on his mission."

"No," Pidge breathed, Lance echoing her cry. The two paladins stared at each other in horror.

"He's not dead," Lance finally said, "He can't be. I... I would've felt it, Red would've felt it!"

Pidge shook, her knuckles white, nails digging into her palms so hard they pierced the skin. "But if he's not dead, then he's been a prisoner for six months," she choked out.

Kolivan sighed. "I am sorry, paladins. Had I sensed something suspicious I would have-"

"No," Lance snapped, "Cut the bullcrap. Just get intel on where Keith might be. Please. We..." He grit his teeth, tears sparkling in his eyes, "We have to try and get him back!"

"I agree," Pidge added, fury lacing her tone, "But we don't need the Blade's help. I just need to get onto Lotor's ship."

Lance's gaze swept over her, his blue eyes wide. "You don't think...?"

"That Lotor has had him the whole time? Quite possibly. Narti was likely the one to capture Keith in the first place." She turned to Kolivan, fiery resolve coursing through her veins. "I don't need intel, but we might need backup."

The galra nodded. "I will have agents on standby, and I will ensure Lotor is occupied." His voice and expression softened ever so slightly, "Save Keith if you can. I wish I had done more for the kit...but now I will help you however I can."

"Deal," Pidge affirmed, before the transmission was ended. She then turned to Lance.

"What do we do now?" he asked, voice raw.

She cracked her knuckles. "I get hacking and you get to be my partner in crime. We'll take Green on a 'scout' mission and I'll use cloaking to get us in close to Lotor's main ship. Once we're there, you'll have to break in and I'll try to locate Keith."

Lance nodded slowly. "By myself, though? No backup?"

Pidge tensed. "I would ask Shiro, but he's been...odd, lately. And Hunk is going to keep the others occupied on the castle. If Lotor is here, we have a better shot."

"Yeah," Lance grumbled, "Have Lotor cosy up to Allura. Sure."

She glared at him. He huffed and crossed his arms. "I don't like the guy, okay? And if he's been holding Keith all this time..."

"If he really has been holding Keith prisoner," Pidge interjected, "I'll make him pay, don't worry. Just get ready. We leave as soon as the night cycle sets in."

"Got it." Lance turned to leave but paused in the doorway. "Pidge?" he asked, his voice suddenly betraying his youth, "What if we can't find him? Or...or he's really hurt?"

"We'll find him," she said firmly, "And we'll rescue him, no matter what state he's in."

"Okay," Lance said shakily, before leaving.

Pidge leant back in her chair, exhaling loudly. "Okay," she murmured, before loading up her laptop.

Time to get ready for a search and rescue.

Chapter Text

The Green Lion sped through the galaxy, nimbly maneuvering through the debris of a recent battle. As Lotor's ship drew closer, Pidge gripped the controls tighter and activated the cloaking, then signalled to Lance to jam their scanners. He did so, and both paladins held their breath, Green slowing her approach.

Nothing.

Pidge twisted in her seat to shoot Lance a grin.  "We're clear!"

He forced a smile in response, gripping his bayard, which transformed into its blaster form. "Alright, let's go and rescue Keith." He tried to convey enthusiasm, but his voice shook and Pidge turned away, focusing on their flight path. Lance was worried about Keith, it was becoming more and more evident. She knew he was the right person to bring with her on this mission.

Unless they let their fears overrule them, of course.

Pidge breathed deeply as she guided Green to the small opening on the underside of Lotor's ship, one that she'd identified on the schematics. It was used to dispose of garbage, but from her calculations, she understood that it wouldn't be in use for the next six vargas.

It was the perfect spot for an infiltration.

Green's claws dug into the metal, securing them to the ship. Satisfied, Pidge grabbed her bayard and jumped out of her seat.

"Ready?" she asked.

Lance nodded.

They exited Green, using their jetpacks to propel themselves through the opening and up into Lotor's ship. Lance wrinkled his nose at the smell of the gathering garbage.

"Gross," he protested.

"Keep it down," Pidge urged, tapping her wrist to bring up the hologram displaying a map of the ship. "There's a control room not far from here. If I can get into the system, I can find intel on Keith."

"Then what are we waiting from?" Lance took one look at the holo-map before breaking into a run, headed down a corridor in that direction. Pidge cussed; she hadn't yet identified any sentries or drones, and Lance wasn't giving her the opportunity to do so.

Miraculously, they made it to the control room, which was occupied only by a couple of sentries. Lance shot them down and stood guard as Pidge ran over to the panel, instantly hacking into the system.

"You'd have thought Lotor would have better security," she commented, only taking a couple of doboshes to access the prisoner files.

"Anything?" Lance asked anxiously.

"Not yet," she mumbled, alien names blurring past her eyes as she scrolled, muttering under her breath.

Lance suddenly cussed, and she glanced over at him. "What's wrong?"

"Yorak," he said simply.

Pidge looked down at the screen. "Yes, there's a prisoner named 'Yorak'. Do you know him?" she asked.

Lance's face was pale. "Pidge, Keith's middle name is Yorak."

Her heart stuttered, and she immediately set to work decrypting the file, the extra security only confirming their fears. "Quiznak," she hissed as she stared at the information on the screen. Lance peered over her shoulder, and she didn't have the heart to yell at him for abandoning his position.

They could only stare at the horrors written on the screen.

Prisoner 154-P-762-HG. Yorak.
Blade of Marmora infiltrator. Half Galra.
Interrogation
¬[video 1]
¬[video 2]
¬[video 3]
¬[video 4]
¬[Summary]
Test One
¬[Observations]
¬[video]
Test Two
¬[Observations]
¬[video]
Test Three
¬[Observations]
¬[video]

The list continued on and on, and Pidge immediately scrolled, her eyes watering at the sheer number of tests that they'd put him through, stopping when she reached the final entry.

Test One Hundred Twenty Three
¬[Observations]
¬[video]
Experimentation complete. Prisoner 154-P-762-HG now displays required Galran physiology. Fights in the Arena may resume.

Lance swore loudly. "Where is he now? Pidge?"

She continued her infiltration into the systems. "He's being held on this ship," she said, relief flooding her voice.

"Then let's get him," Lance declared, readying his blaster.

"Wait!" Pidge reached out and grabbed his arm, "We don't know what he's going to be like. Lance, they experimented on him and sent him to the Arena. He... He's not going to look human anymore."

"So?" Lance snapped, "You said it yourself! We'll rescue him, no matter what state he's in. We have to try, Pidge."

She grit her teeth and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, we do." Bringing up a holo-map, she quickly identified the location of his cell, which was far away from any other prisoners that Lotor was holding. Probably because he's a special case, she thought somewhat bitterly.

Transferring its location to her private holo-map, she then exited the system, remotely programming the lock on the prisoner's- Keith's- cell door to unlock in ten doboshes. Which should, she reckoned, be the time it would take them to reach its location. Almost as an afterthought, she also ensured that the drones and sentries in their path would deactivate, too.

"Got it," she said, showing Lance the map. He nodded, expression tight.

"Lead the way."

Pidge took off down the corridors, pausing only when she heard footsteps and voices. Quiznak. Two of Lotor's generals were walking, deeply engrossed in conversation. Lance moved to intercept but Pidge quickly gestured at him not to. If they were lucky, the generals would walk past and be none the wiser.

They weren't so lucky.

The first general- Zethrid- stopped and looked down at a deactivated sentry. "We have a problem," she said gruffly.

Her companion, Acxa, nodded, lips pursed. "Is the experiment secure?"

"I don't know. Why don't you-"

"Why don't you just release him?" Lance asked, stepping out of their hiding place. The two generals immediately turned to look at him.

"How did you get here?" Zethrid exclaimed, irritated that she'd been interrupted and that there was an intruder on their ship.

"Oh, you know. Magic," Lance grinned, doing jazz-hands. But Pidge caught the hidden meaning behind his actions- go, run. Get Keith.

Zethrid growled and lunged for him, and Lance darted out of the way, clearing the path for Pidge. Seizing the opportunity, she broke into a run, sprinting down the corridors without a look over her shoulder. The timer on her watch alerted her that the cell would unlock in two doboshes, which served as an incentive to make her run even faster.

I'm coming, Keith, she thought, leaping over lifeless drones.

Finally she reached the cell, gasping for breath just as the red light flickered green, signally that it was unlocked. Mentally preparing herself, she reached for the bolt on the thick metal door, sliding it across with ease.

The door creaked open, and she peered into the cell, resisting the urge to form her bayard.

Yellow eyes glinted in the darkness, and a low growl came from within. Pidge swallowed back her fear and entered gingerly, activating a light on her gauntlet to use like a torch.

Something hissed, the sound muffled, and she barely refrained from gasping at the sight before her: a small, thin galra, recoiling in a defensive, animalistic pose. Fluffy purple ears pinned back against its head in a cat-like manner, and a tail swished in agitation behind it, marked with scars and gashes, some of which were bleeding. Its hair hung in scraggly waves down to its shoulders, and it was clothed only in thin shorts, the rest of its short-furred, purple body on display. The amount of wounds, both healed and open, made Pidge's eyes water once more, at the brutality of violence the galra had suffered. Claws extended from both fingers and toes, some chipped and bloodied, others sharp and dangerous. Harsh metal cuffs encircled the galra's wrists and ankles, connected by chains to the collar around its neck, restricting its movements. The worst feature was the muzzle, pulled so tight over its face that the edges were coated in blood.

To most people, it would just look like another galra, albeit a starved, mistreated one.

But as Pidge stared into the galra's eyes, covered slightly by long, black bangs, she couldn't deny who she was seeing. Though the sclera were yellow, the pupils were that illusive, purple-grey-blue she was painfully familiar with.

"Keith?"

Chapter Text

"Keith?"

His ears perked up and he tilted his head, examining her. Something close to recognition dawned in his eyes when she removed her helmet, but it went as soon as Pidge took another step forward, replaced with a growl that was muffled again by the horrid muzzle.

"Hey, Keith, it's me. Pidge. Remember me?" she asked gently, palms up, approaching slowly to show him she wasn't a threat.

He hissed and swiped at her, his claws tearing through the tender skin on her palm.

Pidge yelped and brought her stinging hand to her chest, fighting the urge to snap at him. The galra was Keith, she knew it, but she was beginning to wonder if he did.

"Let me help you," she implored, gesturing to his cuffs. His eyes narrowed, and she sighed, fiddling with her gauntlet to hack into the biometric coding that was keeping him restrained. He watched her work, ears upright and alert, his mannerisms reminding her of a feral cat.

Pidge kept him in her peripheral, bypassing the last bit of code, then-

Keith tensed up as the chains connecting him to the cell wall broke off from his collar, the cuffs falling away as well. The collar and muzzle still remained, which frustrated Pidge but she soon thought that maybe it was a good idea.

He dropped into a crouch, stalking towards her on all fours, another growl rising. Pidge backed up, her mind screaming at her to use her bayard and attack!

But she couldn't. She promised Lance they'd get Keith out of there, and that was what she had to do.

"Keith? Please, listen to me. It's me. Pidge. Katie."

He paused but did not relax his posture.

"We're here to rescue you, to take you home," she continued, "Lance is with me, but he's in danger. Come with me, please. We need to all get out of here."

His ears pinned back slightly, and he raised a hand. Pidge tensed, bracing herself, but Keith didn't attack; he rubbed the side of his hand against the muzzle, trying to get it off. When that didn't work, he looked up at her and whined.

She bit her lip. "If I remove the muzzle," she motioned doing so as she spoke, "Will you come with me?"

He paused, then nodded.

Pidge stepped forward and the short fur on his body bristled, but he remained still, closing his eyes as she made quick work of the lock on the muzzle. Keith hissed as it was removed, his skin furless and bloodied where it had been rubbing him, then opened his mouth, gingerly touching his lips with an expression akin to wonder.

Then his eyes narrowed again and he growled at her, loud and animalistic without the muzzle, baring his teeth.

His sharp, bloodstained teeth.

Pidge recoiled, staring in horror at the fangs awfully close to her, before he pivoted on his heel and ran out of the door.

"Quiznak!" she exclaimed, grabbing her helmet and shoving it on before running after him. "Lance!" she called out, "Lance! Can you hear me?"

"About...time..." he panted, "Is... Keith...?"

"He's on the loose. I... I don't think he knows us..."

Lance exhaled loudly. "Just...hurry..." he managed to say. Pidge glanced down at her holo-map to see that the generals had her friend cornered. Quiznak.

When she looked up again, Keith was gone from her sights.

Double quiznak.

 

Lance clutched his arm to his chest, trying to ignore the pain throbbing through the broken limb. Acxa paced in front of him whilst Zethrid stood guard, her blaster trained on him. They hadn't bothered to tie him up, but he couldn't exactly go anywhere; the pain from his injuries was pulling him towards unconsciousness.

The generals sure packed a punch.

Suddenly a growl ripped through the air, and a blur of purple streaked towards Acxa. Her cry of surprise quickly turned into one of pain as the purple creature scratched at her, sinking its fangs into her arm. Zethrid dropped her blaster and ran to Acxa's aid, seizing the creature's scruff and throwing it to the side. It scrambled up, eyes darting to Lance, and he gasped because he'd recognise that face anywhere.

Keith?

The creature - Keith - charged at Zethrid, swiping at her face before landing and adopting a defensive crouch in front of Lance, hissing and growling at the two generals.

Just then, Pidge rounded the corner, activating her bayard and shocking them until both fell unconscious. She turned to Lance, her eyes widening at Keith's position.

"He's protecting you," she breathed, taking a step towards them.

Keith growled.

"No," Lance said, and Keith glanced back at him, head tilted in confusion.

"That's Pidge... She's...a friend," he continued, trying to keep his tone soft.

Keith looked over at Pidge, then dropped to all fours to cross the distance between them. He rubbed his cheek against her leg, a gentle whine escaping him. Tentatively she reached out and stroked his head, fingers brushing against the base of his ears, and he relaxed, a purr rising up at the contact.

Lance stared in disbelief, but a groan from Zethrid caused Keith to jump to his full height, alert and growling again. Pidge blinked at the sudden change but just shook her head.

"We need to get back to Green. Lance, can you walk?" she asked.

"I...think so." He awkwardly got to his feet, wincing as the motion aggravated his ribs, and staggered towards the exit. Before he could go through the doorway, Keith darted in front of him, tail swishing as he looked around for any signs of enemies. Seemingly satisfied, he let Lance continue walking, Pidge following close behind, the green paladin marvelling at the oddness of Keith's behaviour. Somehow he successfully led them back to Green, but refused to board the lion until Lance was safely on board. Then he crept on, but paused in between the cargo hold and the cockpit, eyes darting from Lance to Pidge to Lance to Pidge again, a whine escaping him.

Pidge huffed. "Just hold on!" she called out, as Green broke away from the ship, accelerating instantly. The motion made Keith fall back into the cargo hold, and he scrambled over to Lance, hissing and growling in the process. Lance started to slump, blood seeping through a gap in his armour, just below his ribs.

"Lance? Are you okay?" Pidge asked over the comms as she piloted Green back to the Castle.

He didn't respond.

Keith whined and nudged Lance with his head, gently at first, then harder. When that still brought no response, he reached out with a clawed hand and prodded Lance's broken arm. The paladin shot back to consciousness with a strangled scream, and Keith darted back, ears pinned, eyes wild.

"Quiznak! Hold on!" Pidge yelled, turning off Green's cloaking as the Castle came into their sights.

Allura's voice flickered through the comms. "Pidge! Are you alright? You took far too long on patrol-"

"I'm okay, but Lance is hurt. Prepare a cyropod," Pidge commanded, interrupting her, "Maybe two, actually."

"Why two?" the princess asked.

Pidge glanced back at their purple companion. "We found Keith."

Chapter Text

Six phoebs ago

Keith swiftly manoeuvred their small fighter towards the general's ship, following the flight path already programmed. Alcrek, another Blade, stood beside him, her mask already on.

"Remember, we're just going in, downloading intel, then getting the hell out of here. Extraction is in forty doboshes. So if you're not back here, I'm flying the ship myself," she said firmly, no trace of a tease in her voice.

"Got it." Keith guided them in the rest of the way, then activated his mask, double checking his blade was on his belt. Then he grabbed his chip to hold the intel, and with a silent nod the two Blades exited their ship, entering the general's through the escape pod bay. Alreck motioned for him to go left before heading right herself, disappearing from his sight. Keith turned down the left corridor, focusing purely on his mission. His feet made no sound on the hard floor as he crept towards the control room, pausing on occasion and ducking into crevices as the sentries passed. Once he was satisfied it was clear, he ran the rest of the way, throwing his knife the second he entered the room, landing it directly in the heart of a galra standing on guard. Two sentries turned to him but Keith was grabbing his knife and transforming it into sword form, slashing at their metal bodies before they could fire any shots. With the room secure, he sheathed his blade and inserted the chip into the control panel, working swiftly to download the intel needed on Lotor himself. It always amused him slightly, these intelligence-gathering missions; Pidge was the hacker in Voltron, yet here he was now, doing her role, just for the Blades.

He had her to thank for his basic skills in coding and hacking, developed during some of their midnight conversations.

A sudden rush of static in his ears brought him back to the present situation, and he immediately knew something was wrong.

Alcrek never used the comms on a mission. Never.

"Keith-!" Her voice came through, distorted amidst the static, "I sent my intel but it's...."

The levels of static rose and Keith heard a scream of agony, before the comm line went silent, the static disappearing as quickly as it had come. Cursing under his breath, he willed the intel to download quicker, checking his watch to see he had ten doboshes left until he had to leave. 

He would be returning alone; sending the intel was a last-minute resort of dying agents.

"Come on, come on," he hissed, fingers drumming on the control panel.

Then suddenly a cold hand was on the back of his neck, and his body went limp, muscles all refusing to respond.

"Well what do we have here?" Lotor asked coolly, entering the room and moving to stand in Keith's line of sight, "Another pesky spy?"

"It behaves like a kit," Acxa noted, gesturing to how Keith had gone limp after a touch on his scruff. He growled in response, but a tightening of the hand turned the sound into a whine.

Lotor hummed. "They're sending kits on missions now? Ridiculous." He stepped forward, and in one swift motion slashed the mask, exposing Keith's face.

Acxa barely held back a gasp.

"Aren't you one of the Voltron paladins?" Lotor asked.

Keith grit his teeth, but the hand tightened and he suddenly felt compelled to answer. "I was, but not anymore. I left," he spat out.

"And joined a galra-only organisation?"

"I'm half," he blurted out, then bit his lip, trying to keep the words from escaping.

Lotor laughed. "There's no point in resisting Narti, little kit. You'll only make things harder for yourself."

Keith simply growled in response.

"Fine. Have it your way." Lotor shrugged and look at Acxa. "Go with Narti. Take the kit to the interrogation room."

She hesitated, eyes darting over to Keith. "But sir, he's just a kit. And a half-breed too."

"He's also a Voltron paladin and an enemy spy. I sincerely doubt he is considered a kit with his non-galran heritage. Take him away!" Lotor commanded, and Acxa obeyed, walking ahead of him. Narti's grip on his neck loosened enough that his muscles worked again, but they were moving not of his will, making him walk calmly between the two generals. He wanted to resist, to fight, but his body wasn't his anymore and when he even thought about resisting, a shock of pain ripped through his skull.

He felt like a stranger in his own body.

Acxa turned down a dark cell block, stopping at a room near the end with no windows and a door secured with thick bolts. Narti turned his head away as Acxa typed in the code, then he was made to walk into the room. It was cold and metallic, empty save for a large metal slab and a small cabinet set beside it. Keith walked towards the slab and lay down, then Narti stepped away from him and his body was his again. Immediately he moved to get up but straps leapt from the metal and curled around his wrists, ankles, and over his chest. Acxa flicked a switch and the slab rotated to an upright position, causing Keith to sag in the bonds holding him. He struggled to no avail, stopping when Lotor entered in favour of glaring at him.

"Hmm, you're a fighter, aren't you?" Lotor commented.

Keith said nothing.

Lotor surged forwards and slapped him, so hard he made Keith's head slam against the metal.

"You will answer my questions," he hissed, "Or things will get a lot more painful."

"I'm not afraid of pain," Keith spat.

"I'm sure you're not. However, you soon will be," Lotor hissed, then took a step back.
"Now, let's try that again. What's your name?"

"Go to hell!" Keith yelled.

"Wrong answer." Lotor clicked his fingers and Keith screamed as white hot agony shot through his veins, setting his nerves alight and sending his heart into furious palpitations. Then it stopped, and Keith gasped, sagging in his bonds as the last remnants of electricity faded.

Lotor grabbed his face, clawed hands digging into his skin. "What is your name?" he asked darkly.

"Zarkon," Keith managed.

Lotor's eyes narrowed and the electricity shot through his body again. Keith tried not to scream, but blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue and ended up screaming anyway, coughing and gagging on blood in the process.

"What is your name?"

Keith didn't have time to respond before agony shot through him again, bringing him dangerously close to the edge of consciousness.

"What is your name?"

Dimly, Keith wondered why he didn't just answer. What did his name matter to them, anyway? It wasn't vital information. In fact, it was possible that Lotor already knew. Still, he was loathe to disclose any information.

Two painful rounds of electrocution later, and he was too out-of-his-mind to care.

"What is your name?"

"K'th," he slurred.

A slap to the face. "Speak clearly!"

He coughed, blood dribbling down his chin. "Keith," he rasped out, throat raw from his screams.

Lotor grinned. "See? Was it really that hard? You could have prevented all that pain, Keith. So let's try another question: what's your full name?"

Keith stared blankly at him, his body still twitching from the aftershocks.

Lotor moved to click his fingers.

No more, his body protested, but the words didn't come and instead there was more pain pain pain.

The darkness called, and he let it take him.

 

When he opened his eyes again, Lotor was still there, sat on a stool with an irritated expression that only grew bigger as he noticed Keith.

"Ah, sleeping beauty awakens. So tell me, Keith. What is your full name?"

"Wha's it matter?" he slurred.

"It matters to me, kit. So tell me. Acxa doesn't think your body can take any more shocks, but I have other methods to punish you."

Keith exhaled, exhaustion and pain seeping through his body. "Keith Yorak Kogane," he managed to say, before a coughing fit shook his chest.

"That wasn't so hard either, was it? Interesting, though. Yorak is a galran name. I like it," Lotor commented, "so I think I'll call you that, if it's okay?"

Keith shook his head. "M' name's Keith," he protested.

"Ah ah, no talking back. You're my prisoner, so I can do whatever I want to you. So if I say your name is Yorak, then," he leant forward, voice dropping to a hiss, "It's Yorak." Swiftly he grabbed Keith's left pinky and snapped it, causing Keith to let out a pained shriek.

"You belong to me, and you will answer me. So. Where is the Castle of Lions?"

Keith shook his head.

Lotor snapped his ring finger.

"Where is the Castle of Lions?"

A pained whimper.

Lotor snapped his middle finger.

Keith bit back a scream, his left hand on fire.

"I'll ask you twice more. Where is the Castle of Lions?"

Keith was shaking, the pain making it hard to think.

Lotor snapped his index finger.

He screamed.

Lotor grabbed his thumb.

"Where is the-?"

"I don't know," Keith gasped out, "I don't know!"

"No, I suspect you do know, you're just not telling me," Lotor said savagely, before wrenching Keith's thumb out of its socket.
He screamed again, tears leaking from his eyes as the agony ran through his hand, each broken finger burning.

"Shut up," Lotor hissed, reaching into one of the cabinet's drawers and pulling out a metal contraption.

Keith groaned in pain.

"Where is the Castle of Lions?" Lotor asked, holding up the contraption.

It was a muzzle.

Keith wondered what the point in that was: if Lotor muzzled him, how would he get any information? So he said nothing, only glaring as his captor stepped closer, strapping the muzzle to his face, forcing his head forwards to tighten the straps at the back.

Keith started to dissociate, not thinking of the pain in his left hand or his aching muscles or the hideous contraption on his face that was making it hard to breathe.

Lotor's voice called out to him as he floated. "Where is the Castle of Lions?"

Keith just stared at him: how could he answer when muzzled?

Then Lotor moved to grasp his right hand, and snap went his pinky finger.

Keith's screams stuck in his throat, the muzzle locking his mouth shut, and all he could do was tug against the restrains and suffer in silent agony as Lotor kept asking the question, breaking the rest of his fingers.
As the galra pulled on his right thumb, Keith wanted to answer. The Castle was headed to the Naxzela system.

But the muzzle stopped him, and he could do nothing but whimper as Lotor broke his thumb.

"Such a shame," Lotor murmured, "You had such beautiful hands." Then he squeezed Keith's broken fingers, and he passed out from the pain.

 

Keith drifted back to consciousness slower that time, almost becoming aware only for the pain to pull him under again. At some point he was moved; he felt the restraints lift, but he was too weak to even attempt to fight, and succumbed before he could figure out where they'd moved him.

When he finally woke up - and stayed awake - he realised he was kneeling, head resting against a metal pole, his hands chained to the top of it. He shifted, straightening up so some of the strain was taken off his broken fingers, which were an agonising mix of numbness and pain. He'd lost all feeling in them, but they still hurt.

Wearily he raised his head, noting that he was in the same room as before, he'd just been moved from the slab to the pole. For what purpose, he didn't want to know.

Keith took note of the rest of his surroundings, a dim purple light in the ceiling his only source of illumination. There were no windows, and he couldn't tell where the wall ended and the door began. But what he could see was the blink of a camera, one in each corner of the room. He immediately felt sick.

They recorded it?

If his fingers weren't broken, he would've flipped the bird at them, but as it was he couldn't even stick his tongue out due to the muzzle still painfully tight on his face.

Glancing down at himself, he noticed with horror that he was almost completely naked, stripped of his Blade suit so he was only clothed in his thin shorts. The thought that someone had undressed him whilst unconscious made him shudder, and that caused pain to shoot through his veins, so he forced himself to stop and let his mind drift.

He knew no one was coming for him; the Blades never rescued their agents, and he hadn't contacted Voltron for ages. He didn't even know how long he'd been captive. Two days perhaps? It felt longer than that, though. His sense of time was certainly blurred.

All he knew was that he had no hope of rescue, so he just had to hold out against Lotor's interrogation, and die before he could betray his friends.

But he could feel the pain already starting to break him.

This is ridiculous, he thought, I'm stronger than this! I've been through worse!

But that was a lie.

He'd never had his nerves aching from electrocution, never had his heart shocked into a dangerous rhythm that left him short of breath, never had his fingers broken one by one, leaving his hands mangled and deformed to the point he doubted they'd ever heal right.

He'd never been captured and tortured, knowing that he was going to die in this place.

Before his fingers broke, he would've tried to escape, but he was just so tired and his hands were useless. How could he fight and hack his way out when he didn't have the use of his hands?

Keith's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door opening and footsteps approaching, and he turned towards the sound, seeing Lotor, Acxa, and Narti enter.

"Finally awake, I see," Lotor stated, "Are you ready to answer my questions now?"

Keith didn't answer.

The two generals stepped back as Lotor brandished a whip, the ends sparking with electricity.

No no no was Keith's immediate thought.

The whip cracked through the air, breaking the skin on his back, and he fell forwards, screaming into the muzzle as the motion ignited agony in his hands and his back. Nine more lashes fell, each one sending a shock of electricity that left Keith twitching and shaking, dizzy from the lack of oxygen getting through the muzzle. Then Lotor stopped, and marched around to face Keith.

"Now are you ready?" he asked.

To Keith's horror, he found himself nodding.

Lotor dropped the whip and removed the muzzle with such a tender caress, Keith keened and leant into his hand, because quiznak, no-one had touched him that gently in ages.

Lotor just laughed, stroking Keith's cheeks then moving round to the back of his head, suddenly fisting a hand in Keith's hair and slamming his head into the metal pole. Keith whimpered as blood from his nose trickled into his mouth, bruised but not broken. Clearly not satisfied, Lotor slammed him forward again, and Keith cried out as he felt his nose break, almost choking on the increased flow of blood in his mouth. Gasping, he tried to pull away from Lotor's now-harsh touch, but there was nowhere to go. Lotor's hand was hard and firm in his hair, and the pole was in front of him.

"You don't deserve touch, you traitorous scum," Lotor hissed, "But I might give it to you, if you answer my questions. Do you understand, Yorak?"

Keith grimaced. "Yes," he croaked.

"Good. Where is the Castle of Lions?"

"Depends," Keith answered.

Lotor scowled. "Depends on what?"

"On how long I've been here." Keith smirked but the expression quickly faded as Lotor released his grip, only to straighten up and grab the whip.

"You're in no place to set conditions. At the rate you're going, this will be paradise compared to where you'll end up," Lotor snapped.

"I doubt that," Keith commented.

Lotor growled and the whip cracked, cutting his back with a bigger shock than before. Keith screamed as the fires in his nerves leapt to new heights, spots dancing across his vision as the whip came down, again and again and again.

"Where is the Castle of Lions???" Lotor roared.

Keith sobbed as the shocks faded, his back on fire as well. "I th-think n-n-n-near-" he stammered, and Lotor whipped him twice before before waiting for an answer.

"Where? Where is the Castle?"

"N-near Naxzela," Keith cried, slumping forward. His fingers were agony, his back was agony, his nose was agony, his nerves were agony...

He thought he could hold out but his body was betraying him.

"Ah, see? You don't have to hurt like this, Yorak. All I want is the questions answered. So. Next one. Who are the paladins of Voltron?"

"My...friends," Keith responded.

Lotor whipped him. "Wrong. I want their names, races, what Lion they pilot."

Keith shook his head slightly.

"No?" Lotor asked, "Do you really want more pain?"

Keith shook his head again.

"Then let's play a game." Lotor knelt in front of him, eyes gleaming, "I want you to list off the Lions and the details of their paladins, one by one. See how many you can answer, yes? And if you say them all in the time given, I'll free your hands and move you to a nicer room. Does that sound like a deal?"

What choice do I have? Keith thought bitterly, so he nodded.

"Deal," he rasped.

"Good. Now start," Lotor commanded, standing up and walking around behind him.

Keith swallowed.

"Uh, th-there's Hunk he's Yellow's p-p-pal-" His words broke off into a scream as the whip connected with his back.

"You're doing it wrong!" Lotor yelled, and whipped him again.

Keith groaned in pain. "H-how then...?"

"Say the Lion, the paladin's name, and their race. And repeat. Do you understand, Yorak?"

He nodded.

"Start."

"Yellow, H-hunk, human. Red, Lance, uh-"

Crack.

"No stuttering or hesitation! Start again."

Keith panted, desperately trying to ignore the increasing agony. "Yellow, Hunk, human. Red, Lance, human. Green, Pidge-"

Crack.

He screamed again as Lotor laughed. "Time's up! You've got to be better than that."

Keith lifted his head as much as he dared. "Screw you," he spat.

Lotor twirled the whip. "Excuse me?"

Keith braced himself, stifling a cry as the inevitable stroke fell.

"Start again."

"Yellow, Hunk, human. Red, Lance, human. Green, Pidge, human. Blue-"

Crack.

Oh for goodness sake, Keith thought dimly as he screamed again, the sound breaking off as his voice gave way.

"Start again."

Keith coughed to try and get his throat working again, and the whip fell before he could even begin.

"Start again."

"Yellow Hunk human, Red Lance human, Green Pidge human, Blue Allura a-altean," he stumbled over the word.

Crack.

"You're hopeless at this, Yorak. Two more tries, then we're done here. Start."

"Yellow Hunk human, Red Lance human, Green Pidge human, Blue Allura altean, Black-"

Crack.

"Last chance."

Keith took in a deep breath.

"Start."

"Yellow Hunk human Red Lance human Green Pidge human Blue Allura altean Black Shiro human," he gasped out, bracing himself for the incoming pain.

Lotor's whip never fell.

"Well done, Yorak," he said instead. Keith slumped, his forehead resting against the cool metal of the pole, focusing on that and not the pain pain pain searing through the rest of his body.

"And as I promised, we're going to a better room," Lotor continued, unchaining his hands from the pole. Keith's arms fell lifelessly to his sides; though no longer restrained, he didn't have the energy to move.

"Come along now," Lotor commanded.

Keith didn't move, barely able to keep himself kneeling upright.

Lotor huffed. "Narti?"

The tailed general approached, and touched the back of Keith's neck. Instantly he was standing, legs moving by the will pushed into him by Narti. Keith's mind drifted as they walked, passing only a couple of corridors before stopping outside a small room. He could tell it was small because the doors to other rooms were very close to its door. Like the last room, it had no visible windows.

Unlike the last room, there was no light source inside.

Narti released him and he collapsed in the doorway, a pained and confused whine escaping him.

"You took so long to get our game right, Yorak. So let's play another." Lotor knelt down and swiftly put the muzzle back on Keith's face, tightening it to put extra pressure on his broken nose, but Keith suppressed the whimper of pain. Then he fastened a thick metal collar around Keith's neck, before reaching into a box and pulling out four syringes, filled with a glowing yellow liquid.

Quintessence, Keith noted.

"The game works like this: at some point, that collar will shock you. To make it stop, you have to inject yourself with one of these." Lotor shook the syringes, then tossed them into the dark room. "Simple, yes? Oh, and the shocks will get worse the longer you take. Have fun, Yorak." He kicked Keith's chest, pushing him further into the cell before shutting the door and leaving Keith in the darkness.

Keith blinked, trying to see, but there was literally no light. Exhausted, he lay down on his stomach and closed his eyes, deciding to try and get some rest so his body could heal.

Then a small buzz sounded and his neck burned as the collar activated.

Desperate, Keith used his elbows to push himself up, awkwardly crawling forwards as he tried to locate one of the syringes. The shocks were getting worse, sending his limbs into tremors, and he wondered how he could even inject himself in the first place.

His fingers were all broken.

Maybe that's the point, he thought, collapsing as the shocks increased in volume, but what does it matter now? I'm going to die here anyway.

"Come on, Yorak. You're no fun," Lotor called out over a loudspeaker.

Keith just whined as the pain forced him under. I'm sorry, Hunk Lance Allura Pidge Shiro.... I'm so sorry.

 

There was a ringing in his ears, followed by voices, and Keith almost growled because he wasn't dead.

"Wake up, Yorak. You're absolutely terrible at my games," Lotor said.

Keith whimpered. "Go away," he mumbled into the muzzle, the words not forming properly.

Lotor huffed. "You want to be left alone? Fine." He removed the shock collar, then turned and strode towards the cell door. "I tried to be nice with you, but if pain and isolation are what you want, then fine. Have it your way." He slammed the door, leaving Keith in darkness once again.

So Keith just lay there, his body broken and bleeding, wishing that he could've been stronger, could've fought back, but in the end he was just broken and worthless. He was weak, pitiful, beaten and muzzled like a misbehaving animal.

Why would the paladins come for him? They didn't care. And the Blades didn't really care, either. He wasn't galra enough in their eyes.

Too galra for Voltron.

Too human for the Blades.

And no good for anyone, he concluded.

He'd envisioned dying in a gory, spectacular battle, or perhaps in a sacrifice to save those he loved. Instead, he was going to die in the cold and dark, a prisoner who'd failed his mission and failed his friends.

He was glad for the darkness, because no-one could see him cry.

He drifted, the bloodloss making his head very light, and he heard voices, though he couldn't tell if they were real or not.

All of them said the same: that he was broken. Pathetic. Useless. Weak. They didn't want him. They didn't care for him.

And they all walked away, leaving him alone.

He cried out to the darkness, the sounds all muffled, every whimper of pain and whine of despair barely louder than a whisper. So it didn't surprise him that no one came. Why would they?

Nobody wanted him.

He should just die here.

 

Light filtered into his vision and he blinked rapidly, his eyes stinging, more tears falling. Someone approached him and he braced himself for the inevitable pain, but the hand that touched him was gentle and soothing.

"Is he alive?" a female asked.

"Barely," a male responded, and the hands stroked his cheeks, removing the muzzle with tenderness. "Oh, Yorak," he continued, "Why did you do this to yourself, hmm?"

He couldn't respond, his mind in a haze.

Yorak? Was that his name? He thought it was something...softer...

Keith. My name is Keith.

Keith whined as someone scooped him up, cradling him to their chest, holding him in a way that didn't aggravate the lashes on his back.

"Come on, let's get you cleaned up," the male said.

Keith was carried out of his cell and into another room with a soft bed, which he was placed on. The mystery man then took some cream and rubbed it over the bleeding wounds, numbing them and reducing the pain. Keith let out a contented whine and the person chuckled softly.

"You see now, Yorak? I didn't want to hurt you."

Keith tensed as he suddenly realised: the mystery person was Lotor. Confusion and exhaustion addled his brain. Why was Lotor helping him?

Didn't Lotor hurt him?

"No, Yorak, the paladins hurt you. Not me," Lotor explained softly.

Keith said nothing.

"But it's okay, they won't hurt you now. You just need to do something for me, okay?"

Keith nodded slowly.

Lotor smiled softly. "Good," he whispered, pulling out a datapad, "I need you to send a message to your leader. Tell him that you're leaving the Blades and returning to Voltron."

"B-but I'm not?" Keith murmured, confused.

"No, you're not, but it means that you can stay here with me and they won't bother us. Okay?" Lotor gently ran a hand through Keith's hair, and he sighed, leaning into the touch.

"Okay," he breathed, his mind too heavy to disobey.

"Good." Lotor set the datapad down in front of him. "Now, I need you to open the transmission and talk to them."

Keith looked at the datapad. "I c-can't," he stammered.

Lotor's brow furrowed. "You have to do it, Yorak," he said firmly.

Keith whined. "N-no, I c-can't," he looked down at his broken fingers, shaking and useless.

"Ah, of course." Lotor reached over to a cabinet by the bed and took out two syringes of golden liquid. "Hold out your hands."

Keith obeyed, ignoring the pain shooting through them. Pain was just a constant to him now.

Lotor stabbed a syringe into both of his wrists, letting the yellow liquid drain into his bloodstream. Almost instantly his hands tingled, purple blossoming from the injection site to crawl towards his fingers, changing their colour and painfully forcing the bones back into place, repairing the damage.

When it was over, Keith's hands were purple, claws replacing his fingernails.

But they were whole, unbroken and pain-free.

"Now, the message," Lotor commanded, though his tone was still gentle.

Keith quickly tapped in to the Marmoran frequencies, then hesitated. "What do I say?"

"What I told you to. You've had enough with the Blades. You're leaving to return to Voltron. It's for the best, okay?" Lotor continued, softening his voice as his hands moved to rub in Keith's hair. Keith melted under the touch, a purr rising in his chest.

"Now," Lotor whispered, "Send this transmission, and you can have this every day, okay?"

"Okay." Lotor moved his hands away and Keith stopped his purring, preparing himself for the transmission.

He took a deep breath and began. "Leader Kolivan. I regret to inform you that I will no longer be a part of the Blade of Marmora. I am going to return to Voltron, and I do not wish for you to bother me again. Please accept my resignation and do not follow up. Thank you." He pressed the button to send the recording, then handed the datapad back to Lotor.

The galran prince grinned. "Ah, perfect. You know, I am a little disappointed in you. I thought you'd take longer to break."

Keith froze.

All the friendliness disappeared from Lotor's face, a cruel smile in its place. "Did you really think I cared for you, mutt? You disgust me. You're so weak. I expected more from a paladin and a Blade, but you only took ten quintants to break. Pathetic, isn't it?" He raised his hand, and Keith flinched back, which only made Lotor laugh.

"Proving my point exactly. Now, I have a soft spot for half breeds, but not those like you. You're a traitor and a spy as well as a weakling. I'm just curious where your galran genes have hidden. It seems they want to come to the surface." Lotor roughly grabbed Keith's hands, now unmistakably galran in appearance. Keith was shaking.

"Wh-what do you want?" he stammered.

Lotor grinned. "Me? I don't want anything else to do with you. Nor do Voltron or the Blades. After all, you just told them to stay away, didn't you?"

Horror rose in Keith's chest, restricting his breathing.

"That's it," Lotor sneered, "Nobody wants you. Except a few of the witch's friends."

Keith glanced over to the doorway and his eyes widened as he saw two druids standing there.

No no no, why didn't you just leave me to die, I don't want them anywhere near me I don't I don't...

A distressed whine left his throat, and Lotor grabbed a muzzle. "No stupid noises, remember?" he hissed.

Keith raised his hands weakly but the two druids surged forwards, one pulling his arms and handcuffing them behind his back, the other taking the muzzle from Lotor and fastening it on.

"Goodbye, Yorak!" Lotor laughed as Keith was dragged away, "Experiment with the mutt all you want! He's yours now."

Chapter Text

Keith stared up at the ceiling, though his eyes didn't really see, hazy and damp as they were with tears of pain and regret.

Part of him screamed that he should probably try and break free of the restraints, but he was far too tired, exhaustion seeping through his bones. He didn't know how long he'd been chained down to the operating table, but it was certainly far too long. The druids had poked and cut and explored, completely violating him as he lost himself to a dream where he was back home, with the rest of Voltron, at a time when they actually cared for him.

He didn't know if they still did, but he did know that they couldn't see him in this state.

He was naked, multiple surgical cuts decorating his body, some scarred, others still healing. But his body wasn't really his anymore.

He felt wrong. He hadn't been allowed to walk, but he sensed that his balance was different. After a period of excruciating headaches, his sight and hearing had both drastically improved.

He wasn't stupid. Though their actions often left him unconscious, he still saw the needles, the tubes of quintessence, the energy snaking towards him before his world went black.

He felt the changes in his body, the shifting of organs, the tingling over his skin.

The few glimpses he could get only served to confirm his fears: he was turning galra.

His skin was covered in a short purple fuzz; his fingernails now hard, sharp claws. The rest of his body was unknown to him, as he could barely move his head to see, due to the thick collar locked down to the table. In a way, it was a blessing; after the druid's last visit, his chest had felt like it was on fire, and the feeling was yet to cease. At least he couldn't see what damage had been done, if any.

But what concerned him now was the silence. His sense of time was utterly skewed, but he estimated that it had at least been two days since the druid's last visit, whereas usually they were mere hours apart, or so he guessed. Either way, he was being left for much longer than he usually would, and he could feel his grip on reality slipping again.

He was exhausted, but he couldn't sleep, not with the pain emitting from his chest. He was dehydrated, too, and weak from hunger. He knew he should be angry, knew he should be fighting, but he just... wasn't.

No one was going to come for him: he'd seen to that, after being stupid enough to fall for Lotor's tricks. He hadn't seen anything of the galra prince since the druids had dragged him away, since they'd started treating him like an animal, a test subject. Dimly he supposed that it was his fate, now. He was in no state to fight his way out. The muzzle secured around his head had yet to be removed, leaving his throat dry as a bone, so raw he wondered if he'd ever be able to speak again. The only nutrition he'd received was through IV fluids and the quintessence injections, given at such intervals that they were enough to keep him breathing but not to give him energy to do anything. He was physically weak, and his mind was not in a much better place, broken from the cruelty of Lotor. The shame he felt at being reduced to this state of mind in a mere ten days was crippling.

Of course nobody was coming for him. He was useless, worthless, weak.

His aimless thoughts were interrupted by the cold footsteps approaching him, the familiar sight of a druid coming into his limited line of vision.

"How long has it been now?" someone asked. 

The druid stared down at him. "Four quintants and thirteen vargas."

"And he's still alive? Interesting," the first voice mused, "Perhaps he is not so weak after all."

"Perhaps." The druid's sharp claws reached out and grabbed Keith's face, tilting his head as much as the collar would allow. A small whine escaped his throat, and the mystery person laughed.

"Or, perhaps he is that weak," they said, "Take him to the arena."

Keith froze. Arena...?

"But he's unlikely to survive!" the druid protested.

"Hmm, no, I suspect he will. There must be a fighting spirit in there somewhere. He used to be a Voltron paladin, after all. I want that fight brought out, and used in our favour," they declared.

"Very well." The druid stepped back, and suddenly the cuffs around Keith's body loosened, allowing him to sit up. If he had the energy, which, he didn't.

Four quintants, the druid had said. Was that four quintants that he'd been left alone, with no nutrients or fluids?

How am I still alive? he thought dimly.

The mystery person tutted and stepped into the light. Keith's gut clenched. Lotor.

"I really did expect more from you," he commented, "But I suppose you must disappoint. Nevermind. I have other methods." He motioned and one of his generals entered the cell- the large one, Zethrid.

"Restrain him," Lotor commanded. She immediately walked over to Keith, dragging him off the table and locking his hands in cuffs behind him.

What's the point? he wanted to ask, I can't even move.

Then Lotor stepped forward, a syringe in his hand, and stabbed it into Keith's neck.

Instantly a surge of energy rushed through him, charging through his veins and giving him the strength to bear his own weight, but it was too much and he was bouncing on the spot and he wanted to break free of the hands holding him because he needed to run run run-

He was hauled through some corridors but he barely took it in, his surroundings gaining a curious red haze as the drug kicked in. They stopped and the hands holding him back tightened their grip as another set of hands removed his muzzle and he hissed at the pain but snapped and snarled at them, baring his teeth because they were enemy, threat. His nostrils flared, taking in the new new new smells, eyes squinting against too bright too bright lights, then a figure appeared in the distance before him and he froze. They stood tall, brandishing a dangerous weapon, but there was a dark stain on one of their arms.

He leant forward and sniffed.

Blood.

Suddenly he snarled again, thrashing against the hands holding him back because he wanted to attack attack attack the blood was driving him crazy he needed to go and claw and bite and tear and-

-and the metal around his wrists was gone, and so were the hands, and he was free free free to run towards the enemy, claws extended, a ferocious snarl on his lips as he nimbly ducked out of the way of their sword and swiped slashed cut, flesh tearing under his claws, then snarled grabbed bit, bone cracking beneath his powerful teeth, before darting back away again, staring in satisfaction at the growing puddle of crimson around his enemy.

Keith blinked, suddenly feeling rather tired, then blinked again, frowning at his surroundings. He felt sluggish, and his vision was slightly wrong, and he was- in the arena?

How did I get here?

A cry of pain caught his attention, and he turned to see a young alien writhing on the ground, a hand clutching the bloodied stump of their left arm. The missing limb lay close to him in a gory mess, the bone broken at multiple points, skin shredded and mauled. He sickened and looked away, suddenly becoming aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. Gingerly he raised a hand to inspect, then froze, staring at the scraps of flesh hanging off his claws.

The alien whimpered then fell still.

Keith gagged and retched, though his empty stomach had nothing to give. I did this.

The crowds cheered around him but he fell to his knees, unable to tear his gaze from the bloody mess of the alien, the innocent that he'd murdered.

I did this. I did this. I did this.

Lotor strolled into the arena, and Keith didn't move until the prince grabbed his arm, pulling him to his feet.

"Behold!" Lotor yelled, "My Champion, Yorak!"

The cacophony of the crowds increased and Keith snarled on instinct, trying to pull away from the prince. Lotor simply turned to him, a cruel smile on his lips.

"I said I didn't want anything more to do with you, but I lied," he whispered, "You're mine now, more than you ever were. Your body is mine, and your mind soon will be, too."

Panic rose in Keith's chest, the first real emotion he'd experienced for a while, as Lotor led him from the arena, dragging him down a familiar corridor. A whimper escaped him as he was shoved into his cell again, everything as they'd left it except a mirror now rested against one wall. Lotor followed him in, the door closing.

"I have to say, being more galran really suits you, Yorak," he commented, "Why don't you have a look?"

Keith started to shake his head, but Lotor shoved him forwards, grabbing his scruff and forcing him to look at his reflection.

A purple furred galra stared back at him, large fluffy ears rising up from its head, blood staining its pointed teeth and the area around its mouth.

I don't recognise myself.

His cheeks flushed as he realised that he was naked, and had fought in the arena in such state.

"C-can-?" he started to ask, his voice cracked and rasping, but Lotor shook his head.

"No, no talking. You're not worthy of words," the prince snapped, harshly shoving Keith onto the table. His breathing accelerated and he whined, trying to push back, but the last of the drug faded from his system, leaving him weak and utterly exhausted.

"Now, no struggling. You'll only make things harder for yourself." Lotor fastened the muzzle over his face again, then the collar, then the wrist and ankle restraints, so he was back where he'd started.

Lotor crouched down beside him.

"That little display in the arena? Soon, you'll be doing that naturally," he hissed, "We just need to break the rest of you." He held up a syringe, and Keith tried to cringe away, a whine of protest slipping through the muzzle.
Lotor simply laughed and injected him, sending his world into a haze of red and anger and bloodlust.

 

After that first day, he was sent to fight in the arena again and again and again, though he didn't see Lotor at all. The druids stopped starving him, too, resuming the regular injections of fluids, quintessence, and other substances. If anything, he grew stronger, but the drugs they gave him messed with his mind, bringing to life feral, animalistic instincts, and gradually suppressing the elements of his humanity.

He was aware of the change, he could feel it happening, but there was nothing he could do to stop it.

The drugs had a nasty habit of wearing off just after he'd brutally attracted his opponents, forcing him to see the damage he'd committed before soldiers came and dragged him away, muzzling him and restraining him to that blasted metal table.

The routine became his new normal, but when the druids came with their space-magic and quintessence and dangerous drugs, he lost himself again.

And again.

And again.

Until he started to forget who Keith Kogane was, forgot how to feel, forgot what it meant to be human.

They didn't rush to muzzle him now, but it wasn't as if he could say anything.

He'd forgotten how to speak.

Any attempts at communication came out in growls and whines and other such noises, along with his body language.

And after a time, he forgot he knew any different.

 

One day, after a particularly brutal fight, he was taken back to his cell - his room? - and muzzled, but not tied down to the table. A visitor came, a galra, someone of importance he knew but couldn't quite remember.

"How is he?" that someone asked.

"The paladin is gone. This creature is what remains," one of his caretakers answered.

The newcomer hummed. "Very good. But he is not quite wild enough, is he?"

"No," the caretaker said, "We still have to use the drugs sometimes."

"Look at him, sitting docile," the newcomer spat, "I want him wild and thrashing and near-uncontrollable."

"But sir, with our resources we can't-"

"Send for the witch. She will break what's left of his mind." The newcomer turned and left the room dramatically, and the caretaker sighed before following, the door locking behind them.

The creature sat on the ground for a moment, confused, then moved to all fours and gingerly made his way around his room. He was confused: he was only allowed to move in the fighting-place, so why was no one stopping him now? Somewhere deep inside the mention of 'the witch' scared him, but he didn't know what a 'witch' was and he didn't know why he should be scared so he dismissed that feeling. After a while of moving around he grew tired, resorting to sitting down and rubbing at the blood stained and tangled in his fur. He wanted to lick it off, but his mouth was still clamped shut, so he continued rubbing and picking at it with his claws.

The door unlocked suddenly then, and his ears swivelled towards the sound, eyes slowly following. A cloaked figure entered, accompanied by two of his caretakers, who immediately seized him and dragged him over to the table. He didn't fight as they tied him down: clearly his small moment of free movement had been a mistake. But what surprised him was when the cloaked one removed his muzzle, sharp claws forcing his mouth open, fingers probing at his teeth.

He fought the urge to gag.

This new person was far from gentle, moving on to inspect the rest of his body, their hands running all over him. He knew somewhere that he should feel ashamed and violated but he didn't really know what those meant and it wasn't as if he could do anything.

They were his owners, weren't they?

The cloaked one finished their inspection, stepping back with hunched shoulders. "It's not bad, but the changes could be better," they hissed, "Now, leave us."

His caretakers bowed and left his line of vision, and he let out a confused whine. Where were they going? They usually gave him pain pain pain but it was all to fix him because he was bad and he got hurt-

The newcomer stretched out their hands, purple lightning dancing across their fingertips. "Goodbye," they cackled, and then he was screaming as the lightning struck his body, crawling through his skin and twisting and changing. He felt all his wounds fade but it was little relief as the agony spiked in his mouth and hands and lower back. His teeth were shifting to be even more pointed, he could feel the change and it made him sick but he couldn't vomit because there was nothing in his stomach he was just screaming and screaming and choking and gagging and-

And a foreign presence entered his mind, tearing through his thoughts and easily reaching the core of his identity. He retreated from his body and into his mind, ignoring the haze of pain, focusing instead on trying to force them out out out because he didn't want them to change him any more he knew he was different than he used to be but he couldn't remember and it scared him.

It scared him, so he had to make them leave.

He pushed against the dark presence, but they pushed back harder, tearing into him with claws like daggers. The pain threatened to overwhelm him but he had to fight, he couldn't he couldn't he couldn't-

They smashed the last of his defenses and tore in, breaking something inside of him.

He screamed for the last time, then his world collapsed into darkness.

 

The crowds cheered as an announcement was made, declaring the entrance of Lotor's Champion, but the creature itself did not hear those words. All it knew was that it was no longer restrained, it was free, bounding into the arena with claws ready sharpened, tail swishing in anticipation, nose sniffing the air for blood, growling in disappointment when it smelt none. That didn't matter: there soon would be blood.

A nervous Olkari prisoner was forced into the arena, her hands shaking, gripping the unfamiliar sword in an incorrect hold. The creature saw this and snarled in delight, baring its sharp, bloodstained fangs, before rising to two feet and striding towards her. She held out the sword in an attempt of defense but it easily swiped the blade aside, ignoring the small cut blossoming across the back of its furred paw. It snarled again, watching in pleasure as she screamed, then darted forwards and used its claws and teeth to quickly finish her off. Blood dripped to the ground and it roared its challenge, wanting another one, another enemy to defeat...!

But hands were soon on it, urging it away, and it turned and growled at them, snapping at a hand that drew too close. Copper and flesh filled its mouth and it spat out the finger in disgust as one of the guards retreated, howling in pain and clutching his hand. Immediately others surged forwards, clamping its mouth shut, forcing cold metal around its head and its neck and its wrists and its ankles until it could barely move, chains preventing it from fighting and swiping at the guards. It knew that this would happen, they were always waiting after a kill with their cold cold metal, but it was determined to fight back, always fight back.

Then they tossed it into its room and it lay there, now aware of the wound on its paw. It whined and tried to lick it but it couldn't, the thing was on its face again. So it retreated into a corner, huddled as much as the chains would allow, sitting and waiting for its caretakers to come.

Sure enough, they visited and spiked it with the thing that made it stronger, made the ache in its gut stop aching.

They left, and it waited for their return.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

There were noises outside its room, unfamiliar ones that made its skin crawl. It was tired - its caretakers had not returned again since after its last fight - so it stayed in its current position, waiting for the noises to stop and for the caretakers to return with the spike.

But the noises drew louder and suddenly the door opened, a strange figure standing there. It growled instinctively, wanting them to leave it alone. Suddenly there was a bright light and it hissed as its eyes stung, recoiling back into the best defensive position it could manage. The strange person wasn't leaving, they were coming close, looking straight into its eyes and it froze because it knew them.

It knew those soft, amber-brown eyes.

The person whispered something, a name, that sounded so familiar. Its ears perked up and it tilted its head, hoping that they would repeat what was said. Then they took off their head-covering, short hair tumbling down to their shoulders- no, her shoulders.

It definitely knew her.

She took a step forward and it growled lowly, but she put her palms up, and it saw she wasn't a threat. Her mouth opened and she made more sounds, but it couldn't really make sense of them. Only two words stood out: Keith. Pidge.

She was Pidge.

It - he - was Keith.

Suddenly she was too close and he hissed and swiped out, danger danger danger thrumming through his veins because no he didn't want to remember, remembering only brought pain pain pain.

His claws tore into her skin and he immediately felt guilt as she yelped in pain. She gestured to his restraints and he narrowed his eyes, he knew what was going to happen, she would tighten them until he couldn't move at all and then-

And then he was free, chains falling away, and he tensed as he realised that he could move. Instincts took over and he dropped into a crouch, stalking towards Pidge on all fours, a growl rising in his throat. She stepped back and babbled at him, her tone anxious but soothing at the same time.

He heard his name- Keith - and hers - Pidge, Katie - and paused.

She continued making noise, urgency adding to her tone, and his ears pinned back as he recognised two more words.

Lance. Danger.

Lance - Lance was a friend, like Pidge was a friend. He knew them. They were good.

But Lance was in danger and that was bad. Danger meant pain pain pain.

He had to help.

He looked to Pidge, raising his - hand? paw? - and rubbing the metal on his face that stopped him from using his teeth, a whine escaping him.

Her eyes lit up in understanding, and she motioned to the metal, then to herself and the door.

Go...with her?

He nodded after a little hesitation, trying his best to not flinch as she came close, close enough that he could easily smell her. She was afraid of him, he realised.

The metal fell away, and he hissed as it pulled some of his fur with it, gingerly reaching up to touch his mouth, his lips hard and unfamiliar under his claws.

Then he remembered Lance and danger, his vision taking on a different haze as he stared at Pidge, now seeing her as a barrier between him and the door to Lance.

He growled, baring his teeth, and she recoiled back, her heartrate accelerating. Ignoring her reaction, he quickly pivoted and darted down the door, momentarily overwhelmed by the sudden different smells, sights, and sounds. He breathed hard to focus, then sniffed, the coppery scent of blood drifting up his nose.

Pidge yelled something and that spurred him onwards, tracking the smell that he knew was Lance and danger. He let his instincts take over, bringing him away from his room and away from the arena, to a part of the ship he didn't really know. But he could smell the blood, stronger with every step, until he rounded the corner to the sight of two strangers and a third, more familiar person crouched injured in the corner.

Lance.

Keith growled and launched himself at the blue stranger, scratching at her and sinking his fangs into her arm, determined to tear and maim. But someone grabbed his scruff and pulled him away, tossing him aside and making his chest flare up in pain. Hissing, he scrambled to his feet and jumped at the larger one, swiping her face before pivoting and adopting a protective stance in front of Lance.

My friend, he hissed.

Stay back, he growled.

Another person entered his line of vision and he growled at them too, before hearing Lance making noises. His tone was slightly scolding, and Keith looked back at him, tilting his head in confusion.

Lance said something that sounded like friend along with the name Pidge.

Immediately Keith glanced back at the stranger, feeling guilty now he recognised her. He dropped to all fours and crossed the distance between them, rubbing against her leg, whining his apology. She reached out and stroked his head, gentle fingers touching the base of his ears, and it was all he could do to stay upright as he started to melt under the touch, a purr rising in his chest. In his peripheral, one of the enemies stirred, and he immediately snapped out of it, jumping up to his full height and growling at her.

Stay back! Don't hurt friends!

Lance moved as if to leave, and Keith chuffed in annoyance. It could be dangerous. He darted out in front of his friend, ears perked, listening and sniffing for any sign of trouble, his tail swishing behind him. Satisfied that their path was clear, he let Lance pass him, and followed quickly behind. He wasn't entirely sure where they were going: all he knew was that it was away from the pain pain pain and he needed to protect protect his friends.

When Lance hesitated at a junction, though, Keith carried on, an odd presence in his mind guiding him. It was comforting, though, not the nasty painful darkness of the witch. They finally reached their peculiar-looking ship - Green Lion, his mind supplied - but he refused to board until Lance was on and safe. He then followed, but froze, eyes darting between Pidge and Lance and Pidge and Lance, unsure of who to protect as they flew.

Pidge was sister and young and small. But Lance was brother and hurt.

He whined, trying to ask Pidge if it was okay for him to go with Lance, when she yelled at him and suddenly they were moving and he was falling, tumbling back past Lance, who was looking pale. Hissing and growling his annoyance and concern, he scrambled up and over to Lance, suddenly aware of the blood dripping from his friend.

Pidge said something, but Lance didn't respond.

Hurt hurt hurt!

Keith whined and nudged him, then nudged him harder, trying to get him to wake up because he was hurt he needed to not fall asleep.

Keith remembered that he fell asleep when hurt, once. He didn't really remember what happened after, only that it was bad and pain.

He couldn't let that happen to his friend.

Hoping Lance would forgive him, he reached out with a claw and pressed on the discoloured arm, hard. Lance let out a screech and he darted back, heart pounding, half-expecting Lance to attack him.

But Lance did nothing, his face just twisting into a grimace, awake again.

Pidge was talking loudly to another female that he recognised, but could not remember. She said his name, and his ears perked up, but he did not move from his position watching Lance.

He was here to protect now, not to fight unless his friends were in danger.

And he wasn't going to leave them.

Not again.

Chapter Text

Green set down in her hangar where the other paladins were waiting, and Shiro immediately rushed forwards.

"Wait!" Pidge yelled over the comms, jumping out her seat and going over to where Lance and Keith sat. The galra hissed at her, but the noise soon turned into a whine as he nudged Lance.

"M'okay," Lance slurred, hazy blue eyes looking at Pidge.

"Alright," Pidge muttered, "I've got an injured Lance and a feral Keith who is likely to attack or be attacked. How do I do this?"

"Pidge, open up!" Shiro commanded, his voice coming strong and loud over the comms.

Keith growled.

She sighed. "Hunk can come in," she decided, "No-one else. The situation is... delicate." As Green opened her mouth, Pidge then turned to Keith.

"Hunk is coming, okay? He's a good friend. He's going to help Lance. But I need you to stay there," she said gently but firmly, motioning to the bench in the corner.

Keith tilted his head, a questioning whine leaving him.

"Help is coming for Lance. But you stay there," she repeated, slower this time, hoping she would get her point across.

It was becoming more and more evident that they had a severe language barrier; she wasn't sure if Keith even knew what she was saying.

He seemed to understand enough, though, as he reluctantly left Lance's side, backing into the corner. Just in time, too, as Hunk entered, rather flustered, his face paling as he saw Lance.

"Oh gosh," he breathed, "What...what happened?"

"I'll explain everything later, but you need to take Lance to the med bay, okay?" Pidge instructed.

Hunk nodded, swallowing back his nausea at the blood as he carefully picked up Lance.

From the shadows in the corner, Keith growled low in warning, his hackles raised.

Hunk's heartbeat accelerated. "What was that?" he exclaimed.

Pidge grimaced. "I'll explain, I promise, just go!"

Hunk nodded and quickly left Green, hurrying past the others gathered outside. Pidge took a deep breath, glancing back at Keith.

One problem dealt with, but this one...this isn't going to be easy.

"Pidge?"

She and Keith both jumped as Allura entered the lion, the galra immediately snarling a threat. Allura gasped, activating her bayard. "Pidge, behind you-!"

"No!" Pidge exclaimed, "Allura, stop! That's Keith!"

"Keith?" the princess froze, looking past her, and her eyes narrowed. "That's not Keith. That's one of the rakor."

"Rah-kor?" Pidge repeated awkwardly.

"Yes. The rakor were a particular branch of galra, bred and trained like animals. All sense of personhood was stripped from them at a young age. Some went mad and became feral, attacking anyone and everything like monsters. Others could be trained and domesticated, like pets," Allura explained, "I hoped the practice had died out long ago, but that thing there is a rakor, and a feral one at that."

Pidge felt sick. "He's not that feral!" she protested, "He's Keith. He recognised us! Allura, please, you have to believe me."

"It looks nothing like Keith."

"Keith went missing before Naxzela, Allura. He was captured, a-and they tortured him and did experiments and now h-he's like this but he's s-still Keith..." Pidge's voice broke and something soft brushed against her hand. She glanced down to see Keith kneeling there, rubbing his head against her, a low purr rising in his chest. Tentatively she stroked his ears, and the purr grew louder, his eyes closing in satisfaction.

"See?" she whispered, "He's not feral."

Allura crossed her arms. "Where did you find it- him?"

Pidge tensed up and Keith's purrs increased, as if he was trying to soothe her. "We just-"

"I won't let him on the ship until I get an answer. Where did you find him?"

"On Lotor's ship," Pidge answered. Allura's eyes flashed.

"What were you-!" She cut off as Keith leapt to his feet, adopting a protective stance in front of Pidge, growling fiercely.

"Keith!" Pidge exclaimed. He glanced back at her, eyes wild. "It's okay," she continued, "Allura won't hurt me. It's okay."

Slowly he dropped his stance, falling to rest on all fours, though his tail swished in agitation.

Allura huffed. "We need to talk about this, all of us. Bring him to the bridge, but I want him restrained."

Pidge glared. "How?"

"He has a collar." Allura glanced around and grabbed a short cord of thick rope. "Use this as a leash, or I won't tolerate it." She tossed the rope to Pidge before pivoting and storming out.

Pidge sighed and looked down at Keith. "I'm sorry," she said softly, crouching down, "We'll sort this out, I promise. We'll get you back, Keith. Okay? I promise." She gently stroked his head and he melted under the touch, using her other hand to post the rope through the metal ring on his collar, knotting it securely. He didn't even noticed, as blissed-out as he was under her gentle touch.

She wondered if it was a rakor thing, or if Keith had been touch-starved before. Neither thought was comforting.

The fact that she had to hold him on a lead made her want to throw up, but she didn't want to disobey Allura. Pidge knew she was treading on shaky ground; she mustn't slip, for Keith's sake.

"Come on," she urged softly, retracting her hand and gripping the rope tightly. Keith's eyes opened, his blue-grey irises large against the golden sclera. She started to walk and he thankfully followed, down on all fours, seemingly unaware of the leash. He kept close to her, ears swivelling as they exited Green and crossed the hangar, confusion in his eyes.

He doesn't recognise this place, Pidge realised, her gut sinking further. He's so far from himself... What if we can't get him back?

 

Allura stood in the bridge, her hands clenched tightly together, emotions raging within her.

Anger, that some of the paladins had the audacity to break onto Lotor's ship.

Confusion, not knowing what to believe about the rakor.

Horror, that there were still those out there turning galra into rakor.

Fear, that Pidge was telling the truth, and that the former paladin had been reduced to a mindless creature.

Shiro waited beside her, his expression blank, which also confused her. She'd expected him to at least react in some way to the news that they may have found Keith, but he seemed more suspicious than her.

Maybe because that creature isn't Keith, and Shiro can sense it somehow.

Coran and Hunk entered then, both looking slightly pale. "How's Lance?" she asked.

"He was shot, his arm was broken and he was bleeding internally, but nothing a few quintants in the pod won't fix!" Coran answered, trying to convey positivity in his tone.

She saw right through him, her own concern for Lance joining in with the other raging emotions.

If the rakor hurt Lance-!

"He'll be okay, Allura," Hunk said then, clearly sensing her stress.

She managed a slight smile. "Thank you, Hunk."

Lotor entered in that moment; he'd been on the castle anyway, but she thought it appropriate to include him in the meeting, especially as Pidge was making such accusations against him.

"Is everything alright?" he asked gently.

"Not exactly," she confessed, "but that is why we are having this meeting."

"I understand." Lotor moved to stand beside her just as Pidge came onto the bridge. Following at her heels, on hands and knees like a dog, was the rakor that Pidge claimed was Keith.

Allura still couldn't believe it.

The rakor stiffened and pressed itself close to Pidge, torn between hiding and growling, though a low tone did escape it. Pidge coaxed the creature through the doorway, sitting down in her chair, the rakor tense at her feet.

Allura looked around the room, taking in everyone's reactions.

Shiro's eyes were wide, torn between fear and anger, his prosthetic starting to glow. Hunk took a few steps back, biting his lip. Coran eyed the creature with horror. Lotor simply frowned.

"What is that?" he asked, gesturing to it.

Pidge's grip on the rope tightened. "He is Keith," she said bluntly.

"No it's not!" Shiro exclaimed, "Keith... Keith is not a creature like that! It looks nothing like him!"

Hunk's face paled. "Keith?" he breathed, "Pidge are you sure-"

"Of course I'm sure. And so is Lance," she answered firmly.

Allura took a deep breath in. "Everyone, listen! I have called this meeting to address the issue of the rakor that Pidge believes to be Keith." Quickly, before anyone could interrupt, she explained what a rakor was, like she had done with Pidge earlier.

"So it's not Keith then," Shiro quickly concluded.

"No!" Pidge protested, "He is Keith." She glanced down at the rakor, who was getting increasingly agitated, and immediately stroked its head. "Keith went missing before Naxzela, and for some reason, none of us realised. We thought Keith was with the Blades. Kolivan thought he was with us. We didn't discover this misunderstanding until recently. Keith went missing after a mission on one of Lotor's general's ships," Pidge explained, glaring at him.

Lotor stiffened. "So? That does not mean anything-"

"It means everything," Pidge spat, "Especially since we found him on your ship."

Coran gasped and Lotor's eyes widened.

"Why did you sneak on his ship?" Allura asked.

"To find Keith."

Lotor shook his head. "That's impossible!" he exclaimed, turning to Allura, "Believe me, Princess, I would never take Keith captive, especially as I know how dear he is to all of you."

"Then how did he end up on your ship?" Pidge demanded.

"I don't know," Lotor confessed, "I'm not actually in charge of that particular vessel."

"Then who is?" Pidge snapped.

"One of my generals. Zethrid, I think," Lotor mused.

Some of the fury faded from Pidge's eyes. "Zethrid was there. She hurt Lance," she revealed.

Lotor hissed, his eyes narrowing. "I am going to have serious words with her!" he exclaimed.

Beside Pidge, the rakor whined, cringing back at Lotor's raised voice. Immediately his face softened.

"Ah, I'm sorry, little one," he said gently, stepping forwards.

The rakor hissed, raising a clawed hand in a defensive position. Pidge made no move to calm it.

"Steady, shh, it's okay," Lotor soothed, approaching with his hands raised, palms facing the rakor. It lowered its hand slowly, though its tail still thrashed.

"I'm not going to hurt you, I just want to help you." He crouched down beside it then looked at Pidge. "May I...?"

She shrugged. "You should ask him, not me. Keith's his own person."

Not anymore, Allura thought, if it even is Keith.

That question was on everyone's mind as Lotor gently touched the rakor, inspecting its fur, brushing back its long black hair to view the metal collar around its neck. After a few doboshes of silence, he stepped away, turning back to Allura.

"Well?" she prompted.

"It is a young rakor, I'd say no more than twenty deca-phoebs," Lotor said, "It's been broken fairly recently, too, certainly within the last deca-phoeb. It has multiple wounds, which suggests it was a fighter, but it seems calm now so I think it may be more of a domestic type. Certainly with the right care, it may stand a chance at regaining some of its personhood."

"So you think it is Keith?" Allura asked, hoping he'd say no.

Lotor hesitated. "Yes," he finally said, "I think that once, it was Keith. But he is gone now."

"No he's not!" Pidge yelled, "You're lying! He can't be gone!"

"I am most sorry, but currently, that is only a shell of what your friend used to be. The process stripped him away-"

"SHUT UP!" Pidge screamed, "You quiznaking liar! I know you did this! And I know Keith is still in there!"

Allura watched the rakor, observing as it tensed and growled when Lotor spoke against Pidge, but flinched back and cowered when she raised her voice.

Pidge turned to the creature then, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Keith," she whispered, "Keith, I know you're there. Please. Keith, look at me."

The rakor raised its head, blue-grey irises meeting her gaze.

Blue-grey.

Allura sickened.

"That's it," Pidge smiled, "I know you're in there, aren't you? Something's gone wrong and you...you can't talk... But I promise, you will again. We'll work through this with you, okay, Keith?"

Hunk's breathing hitched as the rakor nodded.

"We were a team- no, we are a team. We never should have let you go, Keith. I'm sorry," Pidge continued, her voice breaking.

The rakor whined softly and put its head in her lap, gently reaching up and hugging her, purring softly. Allura stared at its familiar eyes, finally seeing the hidden intelligence within them.

It- no, he - was sorry. He was trying to comfort her.

It really is Keith.

Realisation crossed Hunk and Coran's faces, too, quickly followed by horror. Immediately Hunk turned to Lotor, his body shaking.

"You said there was a chance at fixing him, right? We... We've got to try. We have to try to fix him."

They all waited with bated breath, as Lotor frowned, considering.

"I...suppose there might be a way," he said finally, "After all, he is communicating. In fact, some of his mannerisms are similar to those of a kit, which is to be expected, considering his age."

"So we can fix him?" Hunk exclaimed.

"I can certainly try, yes."

Pidge raised an eyebrow. "Just you?"

"As the only other one with galra blood, yes, it falls to me. I have the best chance of connecting to the rakor and bringing Keith back to the surface. Besides, I feel awful for what Zethrid did to him. She will be punished, I can assure you. I will find out what exactly she did, and work to reverse it," he said.

Pidge frowned. "And what makes you the most qualified? Surely me or Lance or someone else that Keith actually knows would be better?"

"No, because none of you have worked with rakor before. I have," Lotor revealed.

"How convenient that you mention that now," Pidge muttered.

Allura and Shiro both shot her a warning glare.

"I am happy to keep him here, but he must stay in a comfortable place. It would be easiest if I am the one he spends most time with, too," Lotor continued.

"Very well. He can stay in the guest suite with you, but I won't have him running free. We don't know if he will be feral and violent again," Allura said.

"Hang on!" Hunk exclaimed, "Are you sure this is the only way? Can't we, like, vote on this?"

She sighed. "All in favour of Lotor working to fix Keith, raise your hand."

Shiro raised his hand, expression unreadable.

Allura raised her hand.

Coran raised his hand.

"Bit unfair putting it like that," Pidge grumbled, but reluctantly put her hand up too.

Hunk glanced at her and was about to copy the motion when the rakor - Keith - raised his hand slowly.

They all turned and stared at him. He shifted uncomfortably under their gazes.

"Is that what you want?" Pidge asked gently, "You want Lotor to help you, Keith?"

He keened and nodded.

"That settles it, then," Allura decided, a little dazed. She still struggled to associate Keith with the rakor in front of her, but there was no denying it.

She only hoped that Lotor would be able to help bring Keith back to his former self.

Chapter Text

He stormed onto his ship, struggling to keep up his cool composure. Some of the crew approached him but he ignored them, his sole focus on reaching that one room before his temper exploded. Unfortunately, his path was blocked by one of the causes of his fury.

"Prince Lotor! What are you-"

"Quiet, Zethrid!" he yelled, "You're such an idiot, do you know that? How could you let the experiment escape?"

She stiffened. "Sir, we tried-"

"Tried is not good enough," he hissed, "Two of the paladins managed to steal onto this ship and take it away. How did they board undetected? How did they bypass the security? How did they escape you?"

"We had one of them," she answered gruffly, "But the experiment attacked us so they could escape."

Lotor growled, clenching his fists. "The paladins know who it is, and for some reason, it's no longer acting so feral. I had hope the time in the arena would've cured that issue, but apparently not."

Acxa chose that moment to walk over then, and Lotor took note of the bandages on her. "Are you compromised?" she asked, her voice steady.

"No. I told them that you," he looked pointedly at Zethrid, "went behind my back and turned Keith into a rakor. They believed me for the most part, though the green one wasn't so sure. Acxa, I need you to ensure the files on Yorak are secured. Remove them from the network if you must. I need to keep them, but I also need for the paladins to not find them, or our plans will all be ruined."

"I understand," Acxa responded.

"Good."

"What are you going to do about the experiment, sir?" she then asked.

Lotor's mouth crept up into a smile. "Its feral tendencies have lessened, but I can now use that to my advantage. You see, the paladins think I can fix it."

Zethrid smirked in understanding.

"It was fun for a time, watching it in the arena. But to have a former paladin, a former Blade, as a loyal pet? That's even better," he laughed, "So, in a way, I suppose I should thank you, Zethrid."

She opened her mouth to speak, but he raised a hand, stopping her.

"Though I cannot have you seen with me still; after all, you are supposedly being punished. I want you to check everything is running smoothly with Commander Ranveig's operation," he commanded.

"Understood, sir." Zethrid dipped her head then turned and left, leaving Lotor alone with Acxa.

"Are you sure it will be loyal to you?" Acxa enquired, "It was very protective of the paladins. They seemed to have some control over it, though."

"That's because it still recognises them as friends. But believe me- I have my ways," he grinned, "I will be gone for a while, though, so my fleet is now under your command. I trust you will carry on with our efforts?"

"Of course," Acxa affirmed.

"Excellent. I can always count on you." He smiled again, exposing his fangs, before leaving as briskly as he arrived.

Acxa stood there, twisting her hands together nervously, ignoring the spikes of guilt and worry pulsing through her.

Keith's not my friend. I don't owe him anything.

It doesn't matter to me what Lotor does with him.

She gritted her teeth. It doesn't matter.

 

Lotor returned to the Castle of Lions just as Coran finished dusting the rooms in which he would be staying.

"Ah! Prince Lotor!" the altean advisor exclaimed, "I hope everything is to your liking! Allura requested I move you to the more private suite; it's this way!"

Lotor barely suppressed a smirk as he followed Coran. The princess is completely wrapped around my finger, he thought smugly.

The suite he was given consisted of a small lounge area, with three rooms coming off it. Two were bedrooms: one with a grand double-bed, containing the few belongings he'd slowly been accumulating on the castle, the other with a single bed, bare except for necessities. The third room was a large bathroom, fitted with everything he could need.

"Thank you, Coran," Lotor said smoothly, "This is more than I could want. Your hospitality is incredible."

"Ah, well, you're most welcome!" The adviser smiled, "Just, take care of Keith for us."

Lotor smiled. "Of course. Where is he? Zethrid informed me of what transpired, and I would like to start as soon as possible, for Keith's sake."

"He's with Pidge now, but I can get her to bring him here?" Coran offered.

"No, that's fine. It would be better for me to fetch him myself." Lotor turned to leave, then paused. "Do you think you could stock the cupboard with liquids and foods? The process may require me to stay in this room for a few days at a time."

"Of course! Though I will make sure someone brings you regular meals. If you don't want to be bother, we will just set them outside?"

"That would be best. Thank you, Coran," Lotor said sincerely. The advisor smiled and left. He then headed down the corridors that he knew would take him to the main lounge, where the green paladin was likely to be. As he walked, he concentrated on smoothing his expression, schooling himself to be the friend and comforter that the rakor would long for.

Its loyalties would soon shift to their rightful place.

This time, he thought, it was perfect. The last time, he'd had to break the paladin, and it had taken more effort than he'd wanted. He'd quickly grown bored, hence the handover to the druids.

But this time, he was being handed a broken vessel, one that he could fix to be exactly how he desired. And the best part was, the creature's friends were handing it over willingly.

He truly had them all well-deceived.

Apart from the one standing in front of him now.

"Was it really Zethrid?" the green paladin asked, hands on her hips.

Lotor nodded. "Yes, and I am furious at her for that. But all is being dealt with. In fact, she supplied me with some very helpful information. I now have an even better incline of how to help your friend."

She cocked an eyebrow. "Do you, really? You see, Lotor, you can't fool me. I know you were the one to break Keith in the first place, and I'm going to prove it."

He fought the urge to snarl at her. "Think what you want, but it does not change what happens next. Keith is coming with me."

"He won't want to come," she snapped.

"We'll see," he hummed, looking around the lounge for any sign of the rakor. It was lying on the floor, the small length of rope connecting its collar to the leg of a table, seemingly asleep.

Lotor thought it was faking.

Stepping around the spunky paladin, he walked over to it, gently kneeling by its side. "Wake up, little one," he whispered, tenderly stroking its hair. It purred on instinct, golden eyes opening and blinking sleepily.

"I'm going to help you, okay? You've got to come with me now." He reached down and untied the rope, standing and pulling the rakor up with him. It didn't resist, easily moving to all fours, though its peculiar-coloured irises glanced over to the green paladin, a questioning keen escaping it.

He definitely had to do something about those noises.

"It's okay, Keith," the girl soothed, "He's going to help you. You'll be fine." She shot a glare at Lotor, as if to say, he'd better be.

Lotor simply smiled in response.

*

"Come along now," he said, and the rakor obeyed, crawling on its hands and knees, just the way he liked it. That was just another thing to support his thoughts that Keith Kogane was truly gone; there was no way the paladin would be so docile, so obedient.

Lotor liked it better this way, though.

He ignored the glares of the green paladin as they left the room, the rakor crawling at a surprisingly quick pace. He supposed he should give it a name: Yorak was the one he liked, but that risked making the paladins suspicious.

Keith certainly wouldn't do, because Keith was gone.

His musing ceased as he stopped outside the door to the suite, glancing down at the rakor.

"Come along, now. This is your new home," he said gently, pressing his hand to the pad outside. The door opened at his touch, and he entered, leading the rakor in. Then the door shut behind them, locking at Lotor's request, and he turned his full attention to the creature beside him.

Its ears were perked and alert, head tilted to sniff the new surroundings, gaze darting around the room. Its tail swished violently, but it made no move to attack or run, remaining still at Lotor's feet, as if uncertain what to do.

Of course, he realised then, It is completely uncertain. It doesn't know what to do. That thought thrilled him, and he grinned as knelt down, untying the crude rope from its collar and replacing it with a sturdy, leather leash, one which fit snugly in his grip.

"Come," he ordered, pulling on the leash. It started and growled, whipping its head to glare at him.

Lotor's eyes narrowed. "No, none of that, pet. Aren't you glad to see me?"

Its expression froze and it whined in confusion.

He pretended to be hurt. "You don't remember me?"

The rakor shook its head.

Lotor sighed sadly and crouched down, tenderly reaching out to stroke its soft cheek. "I'm your owner, pet. You were stolen from me and left in that dark, cruel place, but my friends found you. I'm so glad that you're alright, pet," he crooned, his hand moving to caress its ears. It leant into the touch, questions still in its eyes.

"They hurt you, but you're safe now," he whispered, "You'll always be safe with me. I think they made you forget a few things, so I'll remind you." He stood, not entirely sure that the rakor would understand him, but he decided to tell it these things until it did. "This is your home, where you are safe with me. I am your owner, and you are my pet. You are a good boy, and you always obey me, or things might start to hurt again." His voice lowered. "Last time you disobeyed me, the bad people caught you and hurt you. I was so worried! I ask you to obey me for your own good, pet," he finished, aware that he'd probably lost it by now. Lotor doubted it understood much, if anything, but it would one day.

One day, it would stop looking towards the door and give him its full attention.

One day, it would turn to him and not to the paladins.

One day, it would look at him with those beautiful eyes, and no one else.

One day, it would obey him and him alone.

But until that day he had work to do, to turn it into the pet it was. Rakor were either fighters or pets; this creature had failed to fully become a fighter, so its only option was a pet.

Lotor would make sure of it.

The rakor whined then, and Lotor looked over its dirty, matted fur, surprisingly soft despite its bloodstained state.

"We should get you washed, shouldn't we, pet?" he said, gently tugging on the leash.

It whined again, shaking its head and yawning before weakly slumping to the floor.

Oh, Lotor noted, rather disappointed, It really is tired.

He supposed that explained why it was so docile.

Lotor sighed and grabbed a large, thin cushion from one of the couches, setting it on the floor in front of it.

"There you go, pet. Sleep. We'll get started in the morning."

 

Lotor awoke to the sound of struggles and growling. Instantly he shot out of bed, running from his room to the small lounge where he'd left the creature. It was crouching but trying to stand, prevented by the leash secured to a metal ring in the floor that Lotor hastily put in last night. When it noticed him, it snarled, baring all its sharp teeth.

So, the fire is still there. I suppose that will be more fun to break.

"Now now, pet," he chided, "That's no way to greet me, is it?"

It hissed.

"Come, now, don't you remember?" Lotor approached slowly, dropping to a crouch out of the rakor's reach. "I am your owner. And I have been so worried for you! But it is okay, you're safe now. We should get you cleaned up, shouldn't we?"

It growled again, but confusion replaced the anger in its eyes. Lotor untied this leash from the ring and gripped it tightly in his hand. "Come along, pet." He tugged a little harshly, and it hissed but stood up on its legs, tail thrashing.

**

Lotor tutted. "No, pet, you're not supposed to be like that." He put a hand on the back of its neck, forcing it down onto hands and knees. "When you're with me, you crawl," he hissed, right in its ears. It flinched at the sound, but made no further moves to stand. Satisfied, Lotor led it the rest of the way to the bathroom, locking the door behind them. He looped the leash around the bath taps, making a mental note to fix some metal rings in this room, too. Then he turned back to the rakor.

"Time to get you washed now. So you'd better behave for me." He set the water running then moved to strip its tattered, ruined trousers off. It hissed and scrambled back as far as the leash would allow.

Lotor sighed, frustrated, but pleased that he'd decided to bring one of his special bags with him from his ship. It sat beneath one of the cabinets, and he took it out, rifling through until he had what he needed.

The syringe glistened as he held it up to the light, watching its reaction. It snarled, baring all its fangs, still stained with the blood of its last arena victim.

"You see this?" Lotor waved the syringe tauntingly, the liquid inside sloshing. "This is what bad pets get. But you're not bad, are you?"

It kept snarling.

"Very well." He surged forwards and strapped the syringe into its neck, quickly injected the drug. It whimpered, convulsing once in agony, then its body went limp. Lotor knew what was happening: the potent drug paralysed its victims, rendering their bodies weak and out of their control, whilst tearing through their veins with excruciating pain. Such was the paralysis that the victims couldn't even scream; only the eyes were free to move. And Lotor watched as the rakor's gaze drew hazy and distant from the pain.

Taking advantage of its immobile state, he stripped it of its garments and lifted it into the bath, setting it down in the warm water. Its head rested against the side of the bath, only just above the water, and Lotor quickly soaped its body, scrubbing to get the dirt and bloodstains out. Its fur was incredibly soft, very pleasant to touch, so he coated it in a conditioner afterwards, to keep that pleasant texture. All the while its eyes watched him, tears falling silently down its face as he cleaned it.

"Now now, pet," he whispered, scrubbing at the blood dried on its cheeks, "We didn't have to do it like this, if only you were good." He set the wet cloth aside, lowering the rakor until it was almost completely underwater, only its face above, to rinse off the last of the soap and conditioner. Then he let the bathwater drain and wrapped the rakor up in a towel, lifting it out of the bath and setting it down on the bathroom floor. It shivered slightly, the drug already starting to wear off as Lotor wrung its long, black hair.

"There you go," he said softly, "That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

It whined pitifully and he gathered it into his arms, smirking as it pressed against his chest, damp hair soaking his bedshirt.

"Shh, it's okay, pet. You're being good now." Gently he rubbed its fur with the towel, drying it off, then stood and carried it through the lounge and into his bedroom, setting on down on the bed. "Wait here for me, pet," he commanded, closing the door and walking over to the second bedroom.

**

A knock on the main door startled him. "Lotor?"

He exhaled; it was just one of the paladins. The yellow one, judging by their voice. Smoothly he pulled on a dressing gown and unlocked the door.

"Yes?"

The yellow paladin stood there, holding a tray of food. "I brought you and Keith breakfast," he smiled.

"Thank you." Lotor stepped aside to allow the paladin to enter. He walked in and set the tray of pleasant-smelling food down on the table, then glanced around quickly.

"Um, where's Keith? How is he?"

"He's in the bedroom. I just managed to clean him off," Lotor replied truthfully.

"Huh, bet that wasn't too easy. Is he, you know," the paladin gestured to his head.

Lotor frowned slightly. "He's not back to himself, no. This process won't be quick."

"Yeah I figured, I just..." he trailed off, hands rubbing together, "Uh, suppose I should leave you to it."

"Actually, I was wondering where Keith's clothes are?" Lotor asked.

The paladin's cheeks reddened. "Oh! Uh, everything should be in that bedroom, I think. Coran moved his stuff and sorted out some other clothes that might fit. He took most things with him to the Blades," he explained.

"Ah, I see. Well, thanks again," Lotor smiled pleasantly.

The paladin left quickly, and his smile faded. He wasted no time in writing a 'do not disturb' sign and sticking it up on the door, before locking it so only he could open it again. Then he spun and headed to the second bedroom, looking through the wardrobe for anything that could be of use. Trousers were almost certainly out of the question: not only would they be difficult to put on, but the rakor's tail would be trapped and that was not something Lotor wanted. However, most of the shirts were too short, only coming down to the waist, if that. Frustrated, Lotor headed back to his own room, ignoring the creature as he looked through his wardrobe, pulling out a longer shirt that he wasn't too keen on. It was a soft red: not his colour at all, but would look lovely on the rakor. And, due to their size difference, it would certainly afford the creature some dignity. Satisfied, he turned back only to see that it was gone, the bed covers rumpled from where it had sat. Cursing under his breath, Lotor stormed out the room, to see it scratching at the suite door, trying to get out.

"What are you doing, pet?" he asked, his tone dangerous.

It froze, ears pinning back, and slowly looked at him, pupils blown wide with fear.

"I told you to wait. Why did you disobey me?" He stepped forwards and it whined, cringing back, raising a clawed hand in meagre attempt at defense.

Lotor shook his head. "No, pet. That's not how we do things." He grabbed the trailing leash and gave it a violent tug, causing the rakor to lurch forwards, falling on its knees with a pained whimper in front of him. "You must be good for me. I don't want to hurt you, but if you're bad, I have no choice. Now, come." He turned to walk back to the bedroom, and it started to rise to its feet, but a quick slap to the healing wounds on its cheek deterred it.

"You crawl with me, remember?"

It obeyed then, crawling on hands and knees, but there was a spark in its eyes that he didn't like one bit.

"Sit there," he commanded, pointing to the bed.

It didn't move.

"Doing this the hard way, are we?" He reached into his bag and grabbed another syringe, showing it to the rakor. It hissed and recoiled, ears flattening in fear.

"Sit, or you get this," he said harshly.

Its ears stayed flat but it obeyed, crawling up onto the bed, sitting there awkwardly. Lotor took the long shirt and swiftly dressed it before it could struggle, easily forcing its arms through the short sleeves. Then he sat beside it and took a brush to run through its soft hair, gently coaxing out the knots. It was stiff at first but soon relaxed under his gentle brushes, sinking lower and lower until its head was in his lap, a small purr rising as he rubbed its soft ears.

"Poor pet," he crooned, "You're so touch-starved. But it's okay." He leant forward, whispering in its ear, "You get this for being good, pet. Not so hard now, is it?"

The rakor's purrs increased in volume.

"Mhmm, I thought so. Now, I think it's time for some breakfast." Slowly, gently he eased its head off his lap and got off the bed, swapping his dressing gown for some altean robes before taking its leash in his hand again. "Come on, pet."

It followed, its eyes still a little hazy from the natural chemicals released during the touching, making it slightly high. As a result it was complacent, crawling along beside him into the small lounge. Lotor tied its leash to the metal ring, sat down on the couch, then commanded it to sit on the floor beside him. For a second it looked at the cushion it had slept on, a low whine escaping.

"Come on, pet. Sit," he said again, firmly. It chuffed but crawled the distance between them, sitting neatly at his feet.

He reached down and stroked its soft hair. "Good pet," he praised, "You can have something to eat for that."

The foods on the tray had gone cold, and Lotor ignored the two bowls in favour of the small berries on a plate. He picked five, keeping them in one hand, then put a sixth in the other and offered it to the rakor.

"Open your mouth, pet."

It obeyed, and he set the berry on its tongue, watching as it chewed cautiously then quickly swallowed, its eyes lighting up.

"Another one?" he offered. It nodded rather eagerly, and Lotor could barely suppress his delight as it let him hand-feed it the other five berries. After the last one, it whined, wanting more, but he took one of the bowls and shook his head.

"No, pet. That's all you get this morning. Though, I will get you something to drink," he added, as more of an afterthought. Taking the second bowl, he poured the contents into the first, then tipped one of the cups of water into the now-empty bowl, and set it down in front of the rakor.

"Drink up, pet."

It froze, staring down at the bowl, and Lotor reclined against the back of the couch, enjoying the food cooked by the yellow paladin. It was soft in texture, but sweet, and strangely filling. Still, he finished off both portions, but decided to save the berries for use as potential rewards for his new pet.

Then, he waited.

It sat there for the whole duration of his eating, getting more and more uncomfortable, until, a varga after he'd offered the water, it finally caved, crouching down to lap it up from the bowl.

"Good pet," he crooned, once it had its fill. It sat up and growled at him, eyes narrowed.

"None of that!" Lotor stood up, his frustrations building. Why can't it just submit? Sighing loudly, he took the water bowl and the tray with the berries, carrying them over to a cabinet out of the rakor's reach. Then he grabbed a series of metal rings from his back, along with the tools to install them.

It will have to learn the hard way, that I am its owner, and it is to obey me in every way, Lotor resolved, as he hammered a ring into the bathroom wall.

And another in the lounge.

And two in his bedroom.

When he returned his focus to the creature, it was curled up with its hands over its ears, the loud noises clearly distressing. "Now now, pet," he soothed, "I'm just making sure everything is perfect for you."

It raised it head and tugged on its leash, a questioning whine escaping it.

"No, pet, that has to say."

Another whine.

"Because you're dangerous."

It flinched back, eyes wide, breathing increasing. Lotor seized the opportunity.

"Yes, you're dangerous. You remember the horrible arena, don't you? This is for your own safety, pet."

It whimpered, its body shaking, flinching again when he moved to touch it. He set his hand on its furry arm anyway.

"It's okay, pet. You're dangerous, but not to me. You're good for me."

It keened, the sound so similar to that of a kit in distress that something in Lotor's chest twisted. But he quickly dismissed that feeling, pulling his hand back.

"I will help you to not be dangerous, pet. But you must obey me," he stressed, taking care to convey his orders into his tone. It seemed to work, as the rakor nodded, whining slightly.

Lotor gently placed a finger over its lips. "Stop that, pet," he whispered, "You must be quiet. Quiet is good. But I can help you." His fingers moved to pry its mouth open, noting the sharpness of its teeth. "Hmm, those are dangerous. I will help you with that, too." He reached behind him and brought forward the muzzle that he had prepared ready.

It whimpered, trying to move back, but his hand gripped its collar, keeping it in place.

"Steady now. This is just to help you, make you less dangerous," he said, fastening the muzzle with practised ease.

It stared up at him, eyes wide and fearful and beautiful.

He smiled. "Almost perfect, but I think I need something else, and I won't get it here," he mused, standing up, "Be good for me, pet. Sit there. Don't try to run. Your owner will be back soon, I promise." He ran a hand gently through its hair then left the room, checked the door was locked, and bypassed any security measures that would allow the princess or one of the castle's other occupants to enter. Not that they would, anyway; as far as they were concerned, he never left the room.

*

As he slipped through the corridors towards the lowest hangar, where his stealth ship was waiting, he opened a secure communications channel with Acxa.

"How is everything?" she asked, "You're calling awfully soon."

"Indeed. It appears the creature was not quiet as broken as we'd hoped, though that drug certainly helped. I need more tools."

"Are you coming to get them?"

"Yes, though I don't have much time, so I need you to get them ready," he said.

"Understood. What is it you need?"

Lotor entered the hangar, a grin spreading across his face. "More of those pain drugs, for definite, as well as some of the relaxants. And I need the level 5 restraints, too."

He could practically hear Acxa freeze as he boarded his stealth ship. "All of them, sir? Even the straitjacket?"

His grin widened and he started up the engines. "Yes. Especially the straitjacket."

Chapter Text

The ship they were in set down, and Pidge suddenly made a loud noise, startling Keith. He hissed repeatedly, only stopping when Lance moaned in pain beside him, and instead whined with concerning, nudging his friend.

The two friends made more noises- talking, he knew, but he didn't understand- then another voice chimed in and he growled, not liking the tone.

Pidge crouched in front of him, and he met her gaze as she started to talk. Hunk. Friend. Help. Stay. She motioned behind them.

Keith titled his head, confused, trying to ask her what she meant, but all that came out was a whine.

Pidge repeated some of the words. Help. Lance. Stay. She gestured behind them again, and he followed her gaze to the corner. Panic started up in his chest and he tensed, making sure it didn't show. Was he bad? Was he going to be punished? Did they take him from that cruel dark painful place just to hurt him here?

He didn't want to find out, so he obeyed, though he didn't want to leave Lance either. Still he watched from the shadows as someone unfamiliar entered, fear and concern rolling off them, reaching for Lance and they were going to take him-!

He growled before he could think, his hackles raising. Don't hurt Lance.

Pidge let Lance be taken, though, so he figured there must've been a reason. Maybe she was trying to tell him that the scared one was a friend? He didn't think over it for long because there was an enemy on their ship, and he snarled stay away or you'll get hurt! Pidge yelled something and proceeded to have a conversation with the enemy who he now wasn't sure if they were an enemy or not. They kept saying his name, Keith, along with some other words he didn't like. Rakor. Feral. Monsters.

Pidge started shaking, and his apprehension towards the newcomer was overshadowed by the sudden concern for her. Instantly he crawled to Pidge, gently nudging her hand, and purred soothingly. She stroked his ears, calming, and it felt so nice, he closed his eyes in bliss, wanting just to collapse there and have this go on forever. Pidge was still agitated, though, so his purrs increased in volume, hoping that he was helping.

He couldn't help Lance, but he could help Pidge.

Suddenly the newcomer yelled and he snapped out of his blissed-out state, jumping up in front of Pidge and growling a warning. Stay back!

"Keith!" Pidge exclaimed, and he spun to look at her, shaking from both the adrenaline and the fact that he heard her clearly. But that sudden thrill faded as she spoke some more, in a soothing tone, but those words escaped him. Dejected, he dropped his stance, his tail swishing in irritation, not relaxing until the stranger left. Then Pidge said more words but he didn't understand, again, then everything went hazy as she stroked him tenderly. There was a slight pressure around his neck, but it didn't bother him because her touch was so gentle and nice. He barely suppressed a whine when she stopped, opening his eyes to see what had changed.

She started walking and he followed on all fours, the sudden brightness outside the ship temporarily blinded him. He took in the unfamiliar place, lots of strange smells and sights and sounds. It was very bright, the complete opposite to his old home where there was only darkness and pain. The floor was hard under his sensitive paws, but he didn't dare protest, not when his friend was being so nice. If he was good, he thought, she might stroke him again, and he wanted that so badly. He didn't know where they were going, and he didn't have the means to ask, but he kept going anyway, only stopping as the noises grew louder.

People. There were lots of people up ahead.

Fear rushed through him and he pressed closer against Pidge's leg, wanting her to protect him and restrain him at the same time. People meant he would be silenced and cut and burnt and hurt.

But people were also torn under his claws, bitten with his teeth, attacked and made to bleed-

Pidge carried on, and he hurried to stay at her side, stiffening when all the people came into view. There was the scared one, and the uncertain enemy, as well as one with orange headfur, a large one with a scarred face, and another that was purple, like him, but with much less fur.

He wanted to hide and growl a threat at the same time, but he managed to suppress those urges, though a small sound still escaped him. Pidge whispered something to him, her tone trying to be reassuring, and he followed her cautiously, sitting down next to her chair. Everyone's eyes were on him, but it wasn't like in the bad place; they were all judging him, reacting in different ways, and he didn't know what to make of it. As the voices became louder, he retreated into himself, curling closer to Pidge. He just sat there shaking, tired and confused and frustrated that he couldn't understand. Words, they were speaking words but he couldn't hear them, he still only recognised a few, struggling to figure out what was happening by those few words and the the speaker's tone.

He used to understand, once. He used to be able to speak like they did, but he'd somehow lost the ability. The words got stuck in his head, whines and other noises escaping his mouth, which he knew the people didn't understand either.

His name was said a lot, along with the nasty word rakor, and he realised that all the tension in the room was directed at him.

Was he bad again? Did they want to hurt him?

He whimpered, and Pidge stroked his head, the motion soothing, but her voice was full of anger. Then the purple one yelled, and he cringed back, whining with fear, wanting everyone to stay back and leave him alone, please.

But the purple one stepped forward, and he hissed, raising a paw to defend himself. They- no, he- spoke in soothing tones, and he lowered his paw, confused.

Threat? Friend?

The purple one asked Pidge a question, something about help, then his hands were on Keith's face, trailing down to his neck, brushing his headfur aside as he sat frozen, his skin tingling under the feather-light touches. The purple one's hands were familiar somehow, but in a different way to Pidge's, and he knew them too.

He knew, but he couldn't remember.

The purple one stepped back and he almost whined, missing his gentle hands as soon as he left. He spoke then, saying Keith's name, and then everyone was shouting and it was too loud, he hissed and growled to make them be quiet, but when that didn't work he resorted to cowering, trying to block out the noise.

"Keith," Pidge said then, her tone upset and imploring.

He looked up as the room went quiet.

She smiled, her tone turning to one of praise, then questioning.

He didn't know what she said, but all eyes were on him, so he nodded.

Her voice shook, an apology coating it, so he whined and reached up to her, gently hugging her as best he could. Not your fault, he purred, no need to apologise. The voices started up again but he just focused on calming Pidge in the only way he knew how. Until she tensed, and he looked up to see that the other people were pointing up, their arms extended high. Pidge remained tense, but she extended her arm up, too.

He copied the motion with his paw, still conscious of all the eyes on him, shifting uncomfortably under them.

Pidge asked him a question, but he only understood help and Keith.

Was she asking for his help? Of course! He keened and nodded, eager to help her in whatever way he could. Her eyes grew a little sad but she smiled, and as she looked away he frowned. Did she not want him to help? Why did she ask, then?

She stood but he didn't move, not until he felt a sudden pressure around his neck, and turned to see her holding rope in her hand. His paw flew to the collar, touching the rope secured there, and he whimpered, betrayal shooting through him. Her tone said apology as she started walking, the pressure around his neck increasing, and he followed dejectedly, staying on all fours. Once they were out of view of the other people, though, her grip slackened, allowing him to stand to his full height, taller than her now.

She apologised again, then offered... He frowned, not quite catching the meaning, and whined his confusion. She repeated it: something to do with...sleep?

It all made more sense when they entered another room as she sat on a long, comfortable-looking seat. There was plenty of room for him to sit beside her, but a little voice in his head whispered you're not worthy so he curled up on the floor instead, resting his head by her feet. She frowned, trying to get him to move, but he whined and curled up further. He shouldn't be on the nice soft seat, didn't she understand?

She stopped then, instead moving her hands to rub his ears and his head, the gentle, rhythmic motions lulling him towards unconscious.

"Sleep, Keith," she whispered.

He obeyed.

 

At one point, he started to wake, hearing loud voices and a tug on his neck, but exhaustion pulled his body under again.

He awoke fully to the feather touches of the purple one dancing over his headfur, eliciting a purr from him. His eyes opened and he blinked sleepily, wishing that he could rest a little longer, but the purple one was asking him something, tugging on the rope, so he moved up to all fours without resisting. Pidge stood to one side, her arms crossed, and he let out a questioning keen. Her tone immediately became soothing, and he looked from her to the purple one, trying to decipher what was said. He...had to go with the purple one? Keith wasn't sure about that, but he just wanted to rest. Maybe the purple one would let him sleep some more if he obeyed? So he followed after him, as quickly as he could manage, the thoughts of sleep and rest spurring him on. The purple one led him down unfamiliar corridors, a total maze of bright white walls and blue lights, all with the hard floors that were really making his paws hurt. Finally, they stopped outside a plain door, and Keith's gut twisted, his instincts suddenly screaming at him to break free and run run run!

But why? he asked himself, and hesitated too long because the purple one was leading him through the door, and it shut behind them. He froze, eyes darting around, trying to make sense of this new place. It was similar to where Pidge had taken him after the gathering of people, with a couple of long seats and a table in the centre. Other items of furniture that he didn't know the names of were in the room, too. He inhaled, smelling some chemicals and bad things but also the soft scents of cotton and feathers and nice things, leaving him even more confused. Was this a good place? Or a bad place?

The purple one stooped down and tugged at his collar, and for a second he hoped for freedom, but the rope was replaced with a thicker leash, held tightly in their hand. The purple one tugged on it then, and Keith growled, his agitation getting the better of him.

The purple one's eyes narrowed, and he spoke in a chiding manner, calling him pet.

Keith's growl turned into a whine of confusion.

The purple one asked something about himself, sadness in his tone, and Keith shook his head, still not understanding. The purple one sighed, then knelt and brushed his cheek, each touch sending pleasant tingles over his skin. Soft words came from his mouth: owner, pet, friends, and pet again, along with a tone of both gladness and regret. Keith tried to understand, he really did, but the purple one was touching his ears and it felt so nice, he was so tired, could he rest again, please?

The purple one continued talking, removing his hand and standing so he towered over Keith. Owner and pet were said again, and so was good boy. Keith hummed slightly at what he guessed was praise. Pet was what the purple one was calling him, he deduced; so was the purple one's name Owner?

He decided to go with that for now, until he was corrected.

Owner kept talking, none of the words making sense except the occasional mention of pet, and he started to drift, his body succumbing to exhaustion again. As Owner fell silent, he whined, trying to ask if he could sleep. Owner looked at him, speaking and then tugging on the leash.

No! Keith whined, sleep! Please! He shook his head, yawning, and slumped to the hard floor.

Owner sighed, then there was a soft thump and a cushion fell in front of him.

Pet and sleep, Owner said, so Keith gladly dragged himself onto the cushion, letting out a happy keen at the soft texture against his skin, before succumbing to the dreamland once again.

 

**

He awoke with a start, jumping up and hissing as something tightened around his neck. Eyes wildly darted around the room as he momentarily forgot his surroundings, then quickly remembered, slumping back down on the cushion again.

He wasn't in the dark place. He was here, with friends, but not because Owner had taken him from his friends. Growling at that thought, he tugged against the leash, trying to break it because he didn't want to be captive again, no no no, Pidge promised him freedom and help but he couldn't stand, he couldn't run, he didn't want this! He wanted to go back to Pidge, he wanted to see if Lance was un-hurt, but he couldn't. He was stuck, and nobody understood him when he tried to speak, least of all Owner.

Hissing, he tried to stand to his full height again, finally seeing the source of his problems; the leash was tied down to the floor, and no matter how hard he pulled, it would not give.

Suddenly he sensed someone behind him and turned, snarling instinctively, then froze when he realised it was Owner.

Owner's tone was chiding, and he called Keith pet again.

Keith hissed.

Owner talked some more, disappointment and chiding all over his voice as he finished with a question. Keith huffed and growled because he didn't understand! When would people realise that he couldn't understand them? And his name wasn't pet, it was Keith but he didn't know how to say that.

Suddenly there was a harsh tug and he hissed again, standing to his full height now the leash was in Owner's hand, and not tied to the floor.

Owner tutted. "No, pet," he said, amongst other things, then pressed down hard on Keith's neck. He struggled but was too weak, pitching forwards onto his paws, grunting as they slapped against the hard floor. Words were spat in his ear, and he flinched back, the last one ringing.

Crawl.

He didn't try to stand again, staying on all fours as Owner led him into another room. This one had an even harder floor, and a very large bowl that scared him for some reason. Owner tied his leash down then talked some more, and Keith didn't understand until water was trickling into the bowl and Owner was reaching for his tattered clothes.

No. No, no no! he hissed, scrambling backwards as far as he could go, only stopping when the pressure around his neck made it difficult to breathe. Owner sighed, frustrated, and grabbed something from his bag, holding it up in a threatening manner.

It was a sharp thing, and it glinted in the light, as Owner called him a bad pet. Keith snarled and flinched back, no no please no, but Owner stabbed it into his neck and then there was pain pain pain. It erupted from the site, spreading down his body, and he could only whimper before his throat locked up, stopping any other sounds from escaping. As his nerves were set on fire, he lost control of his limbs, feeling them crumple and buckle, only staying upright by Owner's hands on him. He wanted to scream, but he couldn't make a sound, couldn't do anything as the agony tore through him, except watch and cry silently.

Dimly he felt Owner's hands take his clothes, then his skin became wet, though from blood or water or bodily fluids he couldn't tell. Every inch of his body screamed in agonising fury, blurring his mind and his vision until he was only slightly aware of what was happening. Owner was there, touching him all over, whispering words that he didn't bother to understand. All he could think about was the pain pain pain, burning and tearing, like it was destroying his body from the inside out.

He was moving, then, and he shivered as the cold touched his skin, replacing the fires raging beneath. The pain faded, but its dark tendrils remained, still making everything a little hazy.

Owner spoke again, his words soft.

Keith just whined. Don't make me hurt. Please.

To his surprise, Owner was gentle, pulling Keith into his arms and rubbing the damp from his skin and fur, as he pressed into the man's chest, taking comfort in that solid warmth. Pet and good, Owner said, carrying Keith into another unfamiliar room, setting him down on something soft before leaving and shutting the door.

Keith finally took a moment to breathe: slowly at first, then great, gasping breaths that were almost sobs, doubling over as the room spun. His claws punctured the softness beneath him, and the tearing noise terrified him because he'd ruined it, he was bad bad bad...!

He whined, pressing his face into the fabric of what he soon realised was bedding, trying desperately to collect the mess of thoughts in his head. He was just so damn confused. Pidge and Lance were friends, he knew that for certain, but he didn't remember them, so how could they be friends? And Owner seemed to have a claim on him - a belonging - but he didn't belong to anyone, did he? Still, he couldn't deny that Owner was very familiar to him, like Pidge and Lance had been.

He knew them. But how? Were they really his friends?

Was Owner a friend? Or was he something more, something different? Keith suspected the latter, but he didn't know for sure.

Owner praised him, but he also hurt him, though that was probably because Keith was bad. He knew he was bad; he could still remember the screams and the blood and the pain from the arena. Yes, he was bad. He deserved that hurt.

But Pidge had been nice to him, and Owner had, too.

Slowly Keith straightened up, inspecting his naked body, realising that his fur was pleasant to touch and clean for the first time he could remember. There had been pain, but he'd also been made clean, and that seemed odd to him. Why would he be punished and rewarded at the same time? It didn't make any sense!

He chuffed, suddenly noticing that Owner had yet to return. Tentatively he slipped off the bed, daring to stand to his full height, and walked over to the door, the leash trailing behind him. His paw rested on the handle, and he hesitated. What if Owner was mad? What if Owner hurt him more?

No. Owner didn't control him!

Resolve set, Keith opened the door, swiftly dropping to all fours and moving quickly to the door of the room-with-long-seats. To his distress, it lacked a handle, and he stood up and dug his claws into it, a sudden desperate need to get out pulsing through his veins. He wanted to be with Pidge, he wanted to see Lance, he wanted, he wanted-

Owner's voice boomed out, low and threatening. Keith froze, fear wrestling with the need to escape, and slowly turned back to look at him. Owner's expression was furious; his tone even more so. He took a step forward and Keith cringed back on instinct, his paw raising to defend.

"No, pet," Owner said, shaking his head as he added other words. Before Keith could react, he was violently tugged downwards, knees connecting and cracking against the ground. He whimpered in pain, smelling the trickles of blood from the broken skin. Owner used the word good again, but in a way that implied that Keith wasn't, but he needed to be. And another word broke through the haze of his mind: come.

He knew exactly what that meant.

Owner began walking away, and Keith tried to rise but he was slapped across the face, Owner's hand aggravating the stings from the cold metal device that he used to have to wear.

Of course. Owner wanted him to crawl.

He obeyed, wincing at the pain on his paws and knees, but the fear at what Owner might do was still tangled in his desires to see his friends again, and he didn't know what to do. One part of him said that if he obeyed, if he was good, then he could see his friends as a reward. Another part argued that he was strong, he should just fight.

He didn't want to listen to either of them.

Owner pointed to the bed, a command in his tone, but Keith didn't move, torn between the voice of obedience and the voice of violence.

Obedience won when Owner showcased another sharp thing, and he hissed but awkwardly pulled himself up onto the bed, because he didn't want the pain it brought, not again.

Owner quickly shoved some fabric over his head and his arms, and he froze in panic for a dobosh, breathing again once he realised it was just clothing. He wanted to pull away from Owner's touch, but his hand was in Keith's headfur, running something else through it and gosh, it felt so nice. He was loathe to relax, but Owner's feather touches combined with the smoothing of his headfur sent him into a mini-paradise, where everything was good and he was with someone that cared for him, and took the time to bless him with such gentle, soothing touches. His head was in Owner's lap before he knew it, purrs rising as the touches moved to his sensitive ears. Owner crooned something that he was too blissed-out to properly register, something about pet and good.

Yes, he was good, he thought, he was being very good now, and it was marvellous.

Owner's touches faded, though, and he almost whined, but heard the command to come and so slipped off the bed, crawling close to Owner in secret hope for more of those feather-touches. His mind was still hazy, but he heard Owner's next command to sit.

But to sit would be on the hard floor, and he didn't want that, not really. So he looked at the cushion he'd slept on, and whined can I sit there?

Come. Pet. Sit. Owner repeated. He chuffed, a little annoyed, but sat at Owner's feet, a happy sigh escaping when his headfur was touched again.

"Good pet," Owner praised. He purred softly. Owner's hand left his headfur, instead holding out something that smelt delicious. It was round and small and brightly coloured, with a very sweet scent. Keith opened his mouth as his stomach rumbled, reminding him of its presence, and the round thing was placed on his tongue. He chewed it cautiously, the tastes as wonderful as the smell, then swallowed it, looking up at Owner in hope for more. Owner smiled and fed him five more, then moved his hand away. Keith swallowed the last one and whined, daring to ask for another, but Owner shook his head. Keith grimaced then, his throat suddenly feeling a little sore, and the sound of pouring liquid met his ears, as if Owner had read his mind.

Then a bowl of water was set in front of him, and he stared at it, uncertain.

He hadn't seen water like that before: from what he could recall, it was taken from a cup but he couldn't really remember what that was. Owner clearly wanted him to drink from there, but the smell of Owner's food was making his stomach ache for more, and he sat there, waiting and hoping.

Owner didn't offer him any more.

Eventually his thirst got the better of him and he crouched down, awkwardly lapping the water out of the bowl, something in his mind screaming wrong, humiliation.

So when Owner said good pet, he sat up and growled, those feelings still pulsing through him.

Instantly he knew it was a bad mistake.

Owner yelled angrily, standing and taking his food and Keith's water away, before a horrific clang rang out.

And another.

And another.

Keith whimpered, trying to crawl under the long seat but the leash stopped him. Instead he resorted to curling in on himself and pressing his hands over his ears, as the sounds raged on and on, hurting him, reminding him of the arena and bad and pain pain pain-

The sounds stopped, but he didn't notice at first, his ears still pressed shut and ringing. Owner returned and spoke soothingly.

Keith raised his head wearily, his vision slightly blurred, and pulled slightly at the leash keeping him tied down, stopping him from hiding like he wanted. Please, he whined.

"No, pet."

Please, he whined again, then why?

Owner's next coherent word cut to his heart. Dangerous.

Keith flinched back and gasped for breath, hoping that please, he'd heard it wrong. He didn't want to be dangerous, he didn't, he didn't!

Owner nodded, affirming his horror. Yes. Dangerous. Arena.

Keith whimpered no, pulling back as Owner tried to touch him. What is he doing, I'm dangerous, I could hurt him I could hurt him I could kill-

Owner placed his hand on Keith's furred arm, seemingly fearless. His tone was soothing, gentle, containing a promise. Dangerous but good.

He was dangerous, but he could be good.

He keened, relief and fear tumbling into the sound as he finally settled on the truth.

He was dangerous, that was why he was bad and he got hurt and reacted in stupid ways.

But he could be good, and Owner was going to help him, judging by his tone.

Keith nodded, trying his best not to whine again but he couldn't help the little noises. Owner didn't seem to like that. He placed a finger over Keith's mouth, whispering something about his noises being bad and staying quiet would be good. Then his hands probed in Keith's mouth, saying dangerous as they touched Keith's sharp, deadly teeth.

Keith let his hands explore, wanting so badly to be good now he understood the meaning.

Then Owner held up a cold metal device, and he panicked, limbs locking up, trying to move back because no, he wanted to be good but he didn't want the cold metal, it hurt, it really hurt him. But Owner held him tight and firm, slipping the cold metal onto his face, locking his mouth shut so even his little whimpers and whines could barely be heard.

Maybe that's the point, he thought dimly, not hearing anything that Owner was saying, fear fear fear running through him.

Owner stood, leaving him with a last command- Good. Pet. Sit - before touching his headfur and leaving Keith all alone.

He sat frozen for a moment, then, once he was certain that Owner was gone, he started clawing at the cold metal, trying to get it off, sobbing because it hurt but he deserved it he was dangerous and bad and...

And...

And he really didn't want to be alone.

He called out, as loud as he could, the most pitiful keen he could manage, but the sound hardly reached his ears. Desperate, he tried to crawl towards the door but was quickly stopped by the leash, that was so thick and secure, he had no hope of breaking it.

Pidge, he whimpered, Lance, friends, help. Please.

But no one heard him. Or if they did, they chose not to come.

 

Keith drifted in and out, sometimes calling for company and help, sometimes clawing at the cold metal, sometimes crawling in his limited circle, sometimes lying on the cushion and letting the world fade to black as he sobbed. He was hungry and thirsty and tired, but what he wanted more than anything else was the feather-touches of Owner.

But Owner still wasn't back.

Keith only tried to move, really, when his bladder decided to remind him of its existence. He didn't want to make a mess, but when nobody came he grew more and more desperate, tugging until the collar around his neck tightened, eventually collapsing away from the cushion and whimpering as the fluid ran down his legs, wetting the floor and the bottom of the clothing he'd been dressed in.

He was bad, and Owner would see it.

Maybe Owner had already seen it. Maybe that was why he hadn't come back.

Maybe it was because he saw that Keith could never be good.

Time blurred, and Keith resorted to lying on the cushion, starting to give up hope that anyone would come. He'd been left alone like this before, he recalled, and nothing good had ever come of it.

However, just as he was starting to fade, something brushed his fur and crooned. Owner.

He tried to sit up, exhaustion preventing him from doing so, but Owner gathered him up and stroked his fur, setting his skin on fire with each touch. Keith keened and clung to Owner, whimpering don't go, I'm sorry, please don't leave me alone again.

"Good pet," Owner whispered, and he lacked the energy to flinch when Owner stabbed him with a sharp-thing. He braced himself for the oncoming pain, but the only thing that came was relief, and a slow trickle of energy. Oh. It was a good stab, like the ones they used to give him in the dark place, to stop him being so hungry and thirsty. Slowly coming back to himself, Keith managed to support his own weight, opening his bleary eyes and looking at Owner, silently pleading for him to take off the cold metal, please.

Owner didn't acknowledge that request, instead looking at the wet mess and humming his disapproval, then telling him to come.

Keith followed him into the room with the water, keeping close to Owner so the leash wouldn't hurt his neck and he could be good to not have that horrible pain again. He stayed still as Owner removed his clothes and gently wiped the dried fluid from his skin, then let Owner dress him in new clothes. The first piece was fine - trousers, his mind supplied - covering him in a better way, a slit in the back letting his tail still move freely and comfortably. The second piece made him cringe back.

It had sleeves for his arms, but no holes at the end.

Owner tutted his annoyance, securing the leash to a new metal ring, one that would allow Keith to stand but he didn't dare try. Then Owner told him to be good pet, and held the clothing out, waiting for Keith to put his arms into the closed-up sleeves.

He hesitated.

Owner set the clothing aside and grabbed another sharp thing, and Keith panicked. He scrambled forwards, pawing at Owner's legs, desperately whining please no, I'll be good I'll be good I promise-!

Owner sighed, lowering the sharp thing and holding up the clothing again. Keith put his arms through the sleeves with no more hesitation, suppressing the whimper rising in his throat.

"Good pet," Owner praised, as he took hold of the closed sleeves and crossed them over Keith's chest, before securing them behind his back. He grimaced as his arms were forced tighter against his chest, fighting back the increasing fear at the fact that he couldn't move his arms. Owner said something about doing this because he was dangerous, which he couldn't argue with; if he couldn't open his mouth, or move his arms, then he couldn't hurt anyone with his teeth or claws. He could be good.

A loud knock startled both him and Owner then, the latter commanding stay, pet. He remained on his knees as Owner ran out the room, quickly shutting the door. Voices sounded, saying his name a lot, and he whined as they became louder and louder and more agitated.

He recognised one of the voices as Pidge.

Tentatively he shuffled towards the door, barely staying upright without his arms to support him, nudging the metal on his face against the handle in an attempt to open it.

Nothing happened.

Hissing in frustration, he tried again, and again, stopping when he failed and the voices outside ceased. Owner burst back into the room, flinging the door open with such force that it shoved Keith backwards, and he whimpered in pain as his restrained arms took the brunt of the fall. He wasn't dangerous anymore, so he could see Pidge and not risk hurting her...right?

The spark in Owner's eyes told him the opposite.

Owner hauled him to his knees, hand roughly clasped on his collar, hissing bad with frustration and anger fuelling his tone. Keith was dragged out of that room and back to the lounge, the collar tightening around his neck, choking and gasping for breath as Owner tied the leash to a ring on the wall above him. He was still exhausted, his body wanting to slump forward and sleep, but he had to stay kneeling upright or the pressure on his neck stopped him from breathing. Body trembling, he stared up at Owner with fear pulsing through his veins.

"Bad pet!" Owner yelled, and called him dangerous and worthless and other cruel things he didn't understand but didn't want to.

And as he sat there in horror and fear, Keith realised three things:

One, Owner wasn't going to help him. Owner was only going to hurt him until he obeyed.

Two, Owner wasn't going to let him see his friends again.

Three, this was as much a prison as the dark place.

He was just as helpless and worthless as before.

Chapter Text

Pidge paced outside Lance's pod, each step echoing louder and louder. "This is ridiculous," she ranted, "I don't trust him, not one bit. And we let him stay with Keith? Alone?"

From across the med bay, Hunk sighed. "We all agreed, Pidge. Including Keith."

She huffed, "Yeah, well, in case you didn't notice, Keith's not exactly himself at the moment. And I don't think Lotor is helping him."

Hunk paled. "But what can we do? Allura is smitten with him, and Shiro-"

"Shiro's not himself either. We need to have another vote when Lance is out. Shift the balance."

"Yeah, good plan," Hunk smiled. The expression quickly faded as an alert on the pod flashed, extending Lance's stay by two quintants. Pidge huffed and gathered up her stuff, while Hunk stood, taking Lance's favourite blanket.

"Guess we have to wait for that," the yellow paladin sighed.

"Guess so indeed," Pidge grumbled, taking off to Green's hangar without another word.

Truth was, she could not wait. Not when Keith was in danger. 

She knew Lotor was responsible, but all her attempts to download the video files had been unsuccessful. Someone had improved the security in his network: a sure sign that he didn't want to be found out.

Lotor was responsible, and he was alone with Keith. Who knew what was happening in that suite?

Whatever it was, Pidge knew she needed to stop it, even if it meant going alone.

Her resolve set, Pidge stormed down to that level of the castle, armed with nothing more than her concern for Keith and fury towards Lotor. She paused outside, listening for any sounds, but could only hear soft mutterings, all the words muffled, like they were coming from another room.

Lotor's probably in one of the bedrooms, or the bathroom, Pidge thought, remembering now what the galra prince had told Hunk.

Setting her jaw, Pidge hammered her fist against the door, loud and firm. The mutterings paused, then a door was shut, and a tick later, the main door opened to reveal the perverted prince himself.

"What is it?" Lotor asked, irritation in his tone. 

Pidge's fists clenched. "How is Keith? I want to see him."

"I told the yellow one-"

"Hunk," she corrected.

Lotor scowled. "I told Hunk that Keith isn't in a good state. Not much has changed since then."

"Still, I want to see him," she persisted, "He was fine with me before, even if he was out of it."

"As the only galra here, I am the only person capable of dealing with-"

"Cut the bullcrap," she snapped, "You and I both know the truth. Zethrid didn't take Keith and break him. It was you, all you, and I'm going to prove it."

Lotor's eyes flashed. "I'd like to see you try," he hissed.

Pidge pushed herself to her full height, not at all intimidated. "Oh, really? Do you want to risk everything you have here? Your alliance? Your relationship with Allura? Because I'll tear that all down. I'll tear it down and expose you for the manipulative bastard that you are. Unless, of course, you give Keith back to me."

"It's not your decision," Lotor scoffed, though a trickle of fear was in his eyes.

She smirked. "Like hell it isn't. Release Keith. Now."

"No. You paladins put him in my care, and he'll stay there," Lotor retorted, folding his arms.

Pidge opened her mouth to respond when a loud scrape sounded, followed by the distinctive crash of someone falling over. Immediately her gaze shot past Lotor to the bathroom door: the only one that was closed.

"You son of a-" He slammed the door in her face, cutting her off, and she punched it in frustration. Her cry of anger died as Lotor yelled, multiple words she couldn't make out but she knew they were full of hatred and directed at Keith.

Then a slap rang out, and that was it.

Immediately she tried to open the door, cursing as none of the emergency options worked to unlock it. Lotor had totally meddled with the system.

But she had her ways.

"I'll be back, Keith. I promise," she yelled, before running back through the castle to Green's hangar. As soon as she reached it, she opened up her laptop and attempted to connect to the locking system on that level of the castle.

"Come on, come on," she hissed.

Error. Connection failed.

Error. Connection failed.

Error. Connection failed.

"Quiznak!" she cussed, slamming her hands down on the table.

"Uh, Pidge? You okay?" Hunk entered the hangar tentatively, a tray of freshly baked cookies in his hands.

"Not really," she sighed, "But I'll be better once I've had a cookie?"

Hunk crossed the distance between them and set the tray down for Pidge to immediately take two.

"What are you working on?" he asked.

"Lotor's locked his room, I'm trying to bypass it. He's hurting Keith, or doing something bad, I know it. He wouldn't let me in."

"He hasn't requested any more food or drink. I think you're right," Hunk said.

"I am. And we have to get him out of there. No more playing nice." Pidge finished both cookies and reached for a third.

"What are we going to do with Keith once he's out, though?"

Pidge paused. "I don't know," she confessed, "I just know we have to free him. But we have a severe language barrier going on, which needs to be fixed for a start, and-"

"Why don't we ask the Blades?" Hunk suggested.

Pidge swallowed her mouthful of cookie.

"Kolivan's bound to have someone who can deal with him, right?" he continued.

"Of course," she breathed, "Quiznak, I'm so stupid. Kolivan's probably waiting to hear back about the rescue, too." She opened up a new tab on her laptop, trying to connect when another error message flashed up.

"Oh no he didn't," Pidge growled.

"Who? What?" Hunk exclaimed.

"Lotor's blocked all the Blade frequencies from transmitting! Both in and out!" she yelled, angrily taking a chunk out of her fourth cookie.

"I could go," Hunk suggested then, "I could take Yellow, say I'm getting more food supplies, but go to the Blades instead."

"You don't have to do that, I could-"

"No, Pidge, you have to stay here. You need to bypass Lotor's lock and get Keith away from him. I can do this. I can," Hunk insisted.

She sighed. "Alright. I trust you, Hunk. When will you go?"

"Now. The sooner I can get to the Blades, the better," he answered firmly.

Pidge stood and hugged him. "Good luck," she whispered.

"You too. Don't wear yourself out, okay?"

"Okay."

Hunk stepped back and smiled softly, then exited the hangar, leaving Pidge alone. She sighed and turned back to her laptop, opening up another program.

"Right. Time to break past your stupid locks, Lotor. I'm going to get Keith out, and you can't stop me."

 

Two quintants and only four vargas of sleep later, Pidge was well and truly stumped, as well as utterly exhausted. She'd barely left the hangar, relying on her emergency store of provisions as there was no Hunk to check up on her. Shiro and Allura were both busy with who-knew-what, and Lance-

An alert flashed on her screen, reminding her that the pod was due to open in five doboshes. Pidge suddenly jolted more awake, grabbing a small tin of cookies and Lance's favourite blanket before rushing off to the med bay. Not a tick too late, as the pod hissed and Lance fell out, Pidge grunting as she took on his weight.

"I'm so glad you're okay," she gasped, quickly helping him sit down.

Lance shivered and gathered the blanket around him. "Thanks, Pidge. Where is everyone?"

Quickly she filled him in, revealing Hunk's mission as well as her concerns for Keith.

Lance's brow furrowed further and further.

"So what? You all just let Lotor take Keith?" he exclaimed, "That's...that's beyond stupid! He could be making Keith worse, he likely is!"

"I know, I know," she groaned, "I should've stood up for him more. Keith said he wanted it-"

"Hold up, Keith spoke?"

"No, not exactly. Just nodding head, raising hands, that kind of communication," Pidge explained, "And anyway, I guess a part of me wanted to trust Lotor? He claimed he could fix Keith. I... I want him back, Lance," she finished, voice shaking.

Lance pulled her in and embraced her. "I know," he whispered, "I want him back, too, and I'm sorry I wasn't there to help."

She sniffled. "Not your fault."

"Still, I'm sorry. Had I known what Lotor would do-"

"Yes?"

Both paladins froze and looked up as that very galra stood in the doorway. He smiled when he caught their gazes.

"Ah, Lance. I'm glad you're okay. Zethrid has been greatly punished for her actions," Lotor said smoothly.

Pidge simply scowled at him in response.
Lance stood, wrapping the blanket around himself like a towel. "You don't get to say a damn thing, Lotor. Not when you're holding Keith prisoner."

Lotor laughed, "Prisoner? No! I was trying to help him!"

"I don't care. We want to see him," Lance snapped.

"Well it's a good thing that I have decided to hand him back over to you paladins then, isn't it?" Lotor commented.

Pidge froze. All that hacking, all those failed attempts, only to have Lotor hand Keith back over to them?

This is a trick. It has to be.

"I've spent over a movement with him, but sadly, he's not improving. There is nothing more I can do." He shrugged helplessly.

Pidge and Lance both saw right through him.

"What did you do to him?" Pidge yelled, surging forwards. Only Lance's hand on her shoulder stopped her from decking Lotor right there and then.

"Mmm, you'll see. I'll bring him to the bridge in the next couple of vargas. You can see for yourself then." Lotor smiled once more before leaving. Pidge roughly shoved Lance's hand away.

"I'm going to murder that bastard," she hissed.

Lance's eyes widened. "Whoa! Slow down there, Pidge! We can't risk that. Not yet. Let's just...see what state Keith is in, okay?"

"Okay," she huffed.

But if Keith's worse, Lotor is going to pay.

Chapter Text

Keith struggled to stay upright, the collar around his throat slowing choking him each time he started to slip.

He was tired. Quiznak, he was tired.

He just wanted to sleep, to rest, but Owner had given him two more of those good stabs, granting him enough energy to stay in this horrible position, but his resolve was fading again. He didn't know where Owner was, and part of him considered letting himself fall, letting the collar choke the life out of him.

One thing this cramping pain had given him was an oddly clear mind.

He knew. He knew some things, but not all, and his memories were very hazy, but he knew enough.

He knew that Pidge and Lance were paladins of Voltron.

He knew that the scared one was Hunk and the scarred one was Shiro.

He knew that they, along with the maybe-enemy Allura, were also paladins of Voltron.

He also knew that he had been a paladin, once, but they didn't want him anymore.

Because he was bad. Reckless. Impulsive. Dangerous.

He wasn't those things anymore.

His legs had long gone numb, cramped up underneath him, supporting his weight. His arms burned, paws gradually losing circulation, sharp pains a constant at their tips. The entirety of his body ached from straining to keep the pressure off his neck, but now he'd reached the point that he just didn't care.

Owner had hardly said a thing, only soft comments when stabbing his arm with the energy-giving-thing that he knew the name of but couldn't remember.

He really was useless.

A soft sigh left his lips - or would've, had it not been for the cold metal keeping his mouth closed, dangerous teeth trapped within - and he closed his eyes, ready to let go.

Keith's body sagged forwards, all the weight immediately pressing on his neck, eyes shooting open as he gasped and choked, all air suddenly cut off. His neck burned, lungs screaming in agony, black spots dancing across his vision but he didn't care, Voltron left him, Owner left him, everyone always hurts me and leaves why do I bother-

Suddenly the pressure was gone from his neck, pain reduced to a dull ache, and he was cradled in someone's lap as the cold metal was removed. Wheezing, he choked on a few breaths, his mouth now free to help him breathe better.

"Don't do that, pet," Owner cried, "I can't lose you, sweetheart. It's okay. I've got you." He held Keith's trembling form close, and somewhere in his head Keith realised that he could understand words again.

But all he could think in that moment was a disappointment that he was still here, still trapped, still broken.

Owner's hands ran through his headfur, brushing gently over his ears, feather touches moving down to trace the markings on his cheeks and eventually cradle his neck, a thumb rubbing over the bruises made by the collar.

"I'm sorry, pet," Owner whispered, his tone so gentle that Keith almost believed him.

Almost.

He whined pathetically, trying to pull back, but Owner held him firm. "Did you learn your lesson, pet? You don't disobey me. You do everything I say, and you won't get hurt, okay? You only got hurt then because you disobeyed." His tone softened then, as his caresses continued. "I can't have you doing that, pet. You mean a lot to me. I won't lose you."

It's a lie, he doesn't care, he hates me and just wants to hurt me.

But Owner's soothing words and gentle touches made that so hard to believe.

Exhaustion pulled at him again, and he whimpered an enquiry, please can I sleep?

Owner hummed, hands carding through his headfur again and again in pleasant, relaxing motions. "Sleep, my pet," he breathed.

Keith obeyed.

 

When he woke up, he was curled up against something warm, his head rested on it and a caring hand in his headfur. Owner.

Oh, gosh. He'd fallen asleep on Owner.

Keith moved to sit up, and the hand on him twitched.

"Good morning, pet. Did you sleep well?"

Before he could think his response through, Keith was purring.

Owner hummed in approval. "Good. I know you understand me fully now, pet."

His ears perked up, as he still couldn't raise his head.

Owner chuckled softly. "As fun as it was, I need you to hear me properly. So I put a little something in your shot to help fix that part of your brain." A sharp-thing entered Keith's vision - syringe, his mind finally supplied. "Poor little pet, you are quite broken," Owner added, though his tone was pleased.

His hand let up and Keith managed to sit, eyeing the syringe with caution. It was the source of good stabs, he realised that now, but also what had caused that agonising pain and paralysis when he was bad.

Owner seemed to notice this, and stroked his headfur again. He leant into the touch, purring slightly on instinct.

"Don't worry, pet, this is helping you. Without this, we couldn't have this conversation, because you wouldn't be able to understand me. You need this to hear the words," Owner explained.

Oh. So that was why he'd been able to comprehend again. It was all because of a drug.

Suddenly another thought occurred to him: if he could hear the words, could he speak them, too? Tentatively he opened his mouth, but Owner's hand quickly clamped it shut.

"Now now, pet, we can't have that. Remember? You can't talk. You're not allowed. More than that, you're not able to. Pets like you don't talk."

But he could talk! Frustration welled in Keith and he tugged his head away from Owner's grip, almost falling over due to the lack of balance from his arms. Hissing, he stared down at the fabric restricting him, then looked back up at Owner with a questioning whine.

"You want that off?" He asked.

Keith nodded.

Owner hummed, his hands running down Keith's enclosed arms. "That would make you dangerous, pet. But I might have an alternative." He released Keith and stood. "Stay, pet," he commanded.

Keith didn't move, though, as Owner crossed to the other side of the room, he realised that he could.

The leash was gone, and so was the collar. He could move, but where would he go? He couldn't get out of the room, and if he was bad then he'd get hurt and he would never have his arms free.

So he waited, much to the frustration of that tiny part of him that was starting to burn a little hotter.

Owner came back a little later, something silver and shiny in his hands. "I've got a lovely gift for you, pet. It will help you to keep understanding me, and make sure you're not dangerous, okay?" He held out the item, and Keith couldn't suppress a shudder.

It was another collar.

Thicker than the last one, with a smooth metal rim on the outside, polished so it shone. But on the inside were a couple of sharp points. Needles.

"Do you want to know how this works?" Owner whispered, and Keith wanted to say no but then he was nodding.

Owner smiled in a way that wasn't exactly friendly. "See this?" He pointed to the gap between the outer and inner rims of metal, which Keith now noticed was filled with an aqua liquid. "This is the shot, the drugs, that are making it possible for you to hear me. This system will automatically top you up, and it only needs to be refilled every two movements. Brilliant, isn't it?"

Somewhere amidst his speech, Keith had started shaking, and now he couldn't stop.

"Of course, there's a little something else in there, but I don't want to spoil the surprise. Let's try it, shall we?"

Keith whimpered and tried to move away, but Owner suddenly sat on the long seat and grabbed Keith, pulling him across the ground until he was seated between Owner's legs. Then Owner moved his legs together, securing Keith between them, and he whimpered again, trying to pull free.

Owner tutted and caressed Keith's neck, his other hand holding the collar ready. "This is for your own good, pet," he whispered, before clamping the device on him. Keith hissed as the two needles plunged into his skin, then suddenly his body went slack, all resistance fading as the drugs kicked in almost instantly. Owner laughed, practically giddy.

"Ah, perfect!" He stood and stepped around Keith, and Keith fell back against the long-seat, his muscles barely responding.

Owner crouched down so they were eye level. "Listen to me. You are my pet, and I am your owner. You will do everything I say. You cannot speak. You will be obedient for everyone, but especially for me. You are not to do anything unless commanded, and you must always behave well," he said firmly, squeezing something in his hand. A dizziness set over Keith, his head spinning as those words echoed, being pushed into every fibre of his limp body by the drugs.

"It's working," Owner breathed, then he smiled dangerously, his voice becoming commanding once more. "You are not a person, you are an animal, a creature, a pet, a rakor. Your name isn't Keith. In truth, you don't have a name at all. You are just pet. You are my pet. And my word means everything to you." Owner's fist clenched tighter and something dripped on the floor, a sickening odour rising up and entangling with the dizziness in his mind. The words became thorns which became vines, creeping in and choking him, wrapping barbed cuffs around his muscles and digging deep in his mind, attacking every thought that did not align with what Owner had said.

Pet. Voiceless. Obedient. Well-behaved. Animal. Creature. Rakor. Pet.

Keith, he thought weakly, My name is Keith.

Then the thorns surged forwards and choked the life from it.

 

His ears were ringing, head spinning, and he thought he should move but he didn't have the willpower. Instead he lay there, arms secured painfully still, trying to remember where he was.

"Sit," a strong voice commanded. Owner.

Instantly he obeyed, struggling to do so with his arms restricted, but he managed it. Hands reached out to touch the fabric, and it tightened for a moment before falling completely loose, his arms flopping down and free from their bonds. Then pain shot through them as blood rushed back through those veins, piercing and aching and he wanted to scream but something was locking his throat muscles shut, preventing any noises from escaping.

"There you go," Owner said, "It's gone, just like you asked. And now you're completely safe, not dangerous anymore." Owner stroked his cheek, and he wanted so badly to lean into the soft touch but he couldn't, his body wouldn't let him.

Owner huffed. "You can react to touch, pet. In fact, please do."

His muscles released and he fell, his head coming to rest in Owner's lap. Owner froze, then stroked his headfur and his ears and his cheeks and he purred, relishing in the gentle touches.

"I like you like this," Owner commented, "So docile, so perfect, so beautiful. You're being so good, pet."

Pet. Was that his name? He didn't think he had one, but Owner kept calling him that so maybe it was his name?

Owner's hands trailed from his head down to the sensitive fur on his chest, and his purring increased with every caress. Owner laughed in delight.

"Perfect! Ah, this is perfect! Mother would be so proud of me. All it took was a little alchemy to make you my perfect little pet. I should've done this sooner."

Pet didn't really understand what those words meant, but it didn't matter as the gentle stroking continued, his purrs soon drowning out all other noises, completely melted under the touch. Owner's caresses slowed until they stopped, and Pet let out a whine.

"Aw, you miss my touch, do you? It's okay, pet. You'll get more soon. But first we need to test a few things." Owner sat up straighter, looking down at him. "Move, pet. I need to stand."

He didn't want to move, he was comfortable there, but his body obeyed, sitting up and shuffling back to give Owner room. Owner stood.

"Come," he commanded. Pet hesitated, unsure of how he was meant to move. Owner glanced back at his frozen state.

"When I say come, I mean for you to crawl, at my heels," he explained, "You always crawl, pet. You can't stand up. So let's try that again, shall we? Come."

Pet obeyed immediately, ignoring the pain rushing up his arms as part of his weight went on them, crawling forwards and keeping close to Owner, only moving behind him when there was an obstacle.

Owner stopped, and Pet sat down beside him, earning a pleased laugh and a ruffle of his headfur. "So good," Owner praised, "Such a good pet." He crouched down, smiling. "Tell me, pet, does the word 'Keith' mean anything to you?"

Pet froze. It sounded familiar, but he didn't really know, so he shook his head.

"Hmm, that's good. We live here with some people who think that you are a 'Keith' but they're wrong, aren't they?"

Pet nodded.

"You're just my pet, aren't you?"

He nodded again.

"That's good. We're going to play a little game, okay?" Owner said, straightening up, "Go and sit over there, on that cushion."

He obeyed, crawling across the floor and sitting down, the cushion soft and comfortable beneath him. Owner followed him over and tutted.

"Pretty sitting, please, pet. Like this." Owner gently moved Pet's legs so they were crossed, the pads of his feet touching his thighs, then set his paws in his lap. "This is how I want you to sit. Understand?"

Another nod.

"Good. Now, you stay like this until you are called." Owner turned and walked off, leaving him to sit there, staring blankly at the wall in front of him. His arms had stopped hurting, but his head was aching, like he'd forgotten something very important.

But what was there to forget?

"Pidge!" Owner yelled, "Come here!"

He didn't feel compelled to move, knowing that command wasn't for him. Pidge. He knew her, he remembered her.

Pidge and Lance and Hunk and Shiro and Allura and Coran. All of them he knew; they were the other people here, but they weren't here at the moment.

"Hey, buddy, fetch me that drink, will you?"

Pet frowned slightly. Who was Owner talking to? He couldn't hear anyone else, but he didn't dare turn around to look. He wasn't allowed to move.

"Keith, I need something from you. Go to the bathroom."

Something stirred in him but a sharp prick in his neck reminded him that no, he wasn't a Keith. Keith was somebody else, a person.

Keith couldn't be him because he wasn't a person.

"Come over to me, pet."

That was his command! He quickly dropped to all fours and crawled across to Owner, hissing once as he accidentally trod on his headfur.

"Good pet, but what was that stupid noise for?"

He sat in front of Owner and pawed at his long headfur, then whined.

"Oh no, pet. It's beautiful on you. I won't be cutting it," Owner said, aghast.

Pet chuffed but didn't ask again. If Owner said no, that was final. But Owner's hands ran through his headfur, untangling all the knots.

"We could do something with it, though," he mused, "Keep it out of your way. After all, I don't want you stepping on it and messing it up." Owner let go of his headfur and grabbed some things from a shelf, then sat down on the long-seat. "Come, pet. Sit here."

Pet crawled over and sat on the floor between Owner's legs, being sure that he was doing the 'pretty sitting'. He rested his head back as Owner took hold of his headfur, gently brushing it with something that removed the knots and straightened it out. The motion was soothing, and he let his mind drift as Owner fiddled with his headfur, twisting and styling the black locks.

"There," Owner said, "A beautiful braid. It suits you, pet."

He purred in response, pleased at the compliments.

"Now I think it's time to introduce you to the others. Show them what a good little pet you are, yes?"

He wasn't entirely sure how to respond, so he just nodded. Owner smiled and stood up.

"Good. Wait there, pet. I need to do a few things." Owner busied around the room, taking out what looked like large metal rings, and putting them away in a bag. Pet observed him silently, sitting up straight, resisting the temptation to fiddle with his new braid. It felt weird, having his headfur all restrained back, but he was grateful that it was out of his face, no longer dangling down past his shoulders.

Owner hummed and fussed with various bits of furniture, hiding away the cold metal and restrictive fabric, but not before showing them to him.

"Remember these?" Owner asked.

Pet couldn't stop the whimper escaping him.

Owner smiled. "Yes, you do. They were because you were dangerous. But you're not dangerous now, pet." He stroked Pet's cheek, tenderly, then carried on with - whatever he was doing, Pet wasn't sure. Tidying? His heart was racing, though, as he watched Owner put those horrid items away, understanding the threat. No, not a threat, a promise.

He wasn't dangerous now, he was good. But if he was dangerous again, then they would return to restrict him once more.

He didn't want that. He just wanted to be good.

He didn't have any energy to fight, not that he had the will to, either.

"Now, pet, I've got a question," Owner announced.

His ears swivelled, listening.

"Look at me when I talk to you!"

Pet shifted so he was facing Owner, whining an apology.

"Good pet. Now, the question: do you want this?" Owner held up a thin strip of leather, and he stared at it blankly.

"It's a leash, pet. Don't you remember that? I can put this on your beautiful collar, and you won't be able to run away, because I'll have hold of the other end. Nobody will be able to take you away, either," Owner explained.

Pet hesitated. He didn't want to be taken from Owner, but at the same time, he didn't want to be tied to Owner, either. His gut clenched uncomfortably when he looked at the leash, so he shook his head.

"Very well. I'll keep it with me, though. Just in case." Owner slipped the leash into his pocket, smoothing down the fabric of his shirt. "Go sit on the cushion, and wait, pet. I'll be back soon. I promise."

He obeyed, and by the time he'd sat down, Owner was gone, closing the door behind him.

Pet sat there, alone, fully aware that he could move and Owner would be none the wiser, but his muscles didn't respond. Huffing, he tried a little harder, willing for even a twitch of his claws.

Nothing.

Cold words assembled in his mind, accompanied by a memory of what felt like thorns.

You will do everything I say.

You are not to do anything unless commanded.

Owner had instructed him to sit and wait, and that was all he could do. No more, no less.

His body wasn't really his; he belonged completely to Owner. He was just a pet.

And there was nothing he could do about it.

Chapter Text

Lance paced the bridge, partly to get the muscles in his stiff legs working again, partly because of the anxiety coursing through him. He and Pidge had both put their paladin armour on, bayards only a short command away.

Allura and Shiro were still in casual clothing, neither looking bothered about the situation. Lance wished that Hunk was there too, because he knew that if it came down to a fight, Hunk would certainly side with him and Pidge.

As for Allura and Shiro...

It broke his heart to be so mistrusting, especially of his idol and his crush. But they were both completely under Lotor's spell, and Lance didn't know how to snap them out of it.

"Stop pacing, Lance," Shiro snapped then.

Lance paused. "No." Then he continued his pacing.

Pidge stood up, hands on her hips, looking like a fierce little gremlin. "He was in that pod for a while. Lance needs to keep moving to get the blood flowing in his legs," she stated, very matter-of-factly.

Shiro frowned, but didn't protest as Lotor suddenly entered the bridge, arresting everyone's attention.

That stopped Lance's pacing.

"Where's Keith?" he and Pidge exclaimed.

Lotor sighed. "Right here." He turned around, and Lance tried to peer past him. "Come on."

Keith emerged then, and Lance sickened. He was crawling obediently beside Lotor, only stopping when  the galra did. As Keith sat up, the collar still around his neck became visible, completely exposed with his hair braided back. His ears were flat, but his eyes were completely empty.

"What did you DO to him?" Pidge screamed, her bayard forming. Shiro grabbed her arm, stopping her from attacking Lotor, and she swiped at him instead.

"Pidge! Calm down!" Shiro yelled.

"Like heck I will!" she spat, "Can't you see? Keith was doing okay and that bastard has screwed everything up!"

"Pidge, you don't know that!" Allura exclaimed.

"Let me explain!" Lotor pleaded.

Lance, who had remained still and silent throughout this, activated his bayard and trained the gun on Lotor. "You'd better have a good explanation," he hissed, his tone cold.

Everyone in the room froze and looked at him - even Keith, he noted.

Keith, whose empty eyes weren't quite as empty as he'd first thought.

Keith, whose eyes held not the darkness of emptiness, but the darkness of something else.

Keith, whose eyes were filled with a hopeless pain.

Lotor raised his hands, palms out. "Of course I do," he replied smoothly, "Now, can we sit and talk this through civilly?"

"No!"

"Of course," Allura said, glaring at Pidge. The green paladin just glared harder in response.

"Lance?" Allura prompted then. He lowered his gun reluctantly, letting his bayard disappear back into his belt.

Allura and Shiro both sat down, and Lance did too, though Pidge waited for Lotor to sit first. He came further into the bridge, and to Lance's horror, Keith followed him, still crawling. Lotor had the audacity to sit in Keith's old seat, leaning back casually, as Keith sat by his feet, legs crossed, arms neatly in his lap.

It was just so wrong.

Pidge sat then, exchanging a look of fury and concern with Lance, before both turned their attention back to Lotor.

"As I have explained to you, the rakor are very fragile. They don't have a concept of self, stripped down to mere creatures. I discovered that Keith, once turned into a rakor, was used primarily as a violent creature. So, to help him, I thought it best to try and stop that violence. But when I started showing kindness to him... This happened." He reached a hand towards Keith, pausing when Pidge activated her bayard again. Frowning, Lotor turned to Allura.

"May I demonstrate?"

"Yes, of course," she smiled, then glared at Pidge, "Restrain yourself!"

Lotor gently touched Keith's head, and he immediately went limp, falling into Lotor's side. His head rested against Lotor's thigh as he purred, curling into the small touch.

Lance felt even more sick.

Lotor pulled his hand back, and Keith whined pitifully, staring up at Lotor longingly.

"See?" Lotor exclaimed, "As soon as I treated him nicely, he became like this. He's displaying the affectionate, pet-like traits now. And he's so obedient, it's annoying." The galra sighed then, feigning concern. "I don't know what I can do. To be completely honest... I don't think he can be fixed."

Lance's vision burned red, and before he knew it he was standing in front of Lotor, his gun pressed to the galra's forehead.

"You're lying!" he screamed, "You're the one who broke Keith, and I know it. There has to be a way to fix him!" Hot tears spilled from his eyes, but his hand holding the gun was steady.

Behind him, Shiro and Allura both jumped to their feet, and he could hear them advancing towards him.

"Lance, step back and drop the gun," Shiro urged gently.

Lance shook his head. "No. Lotor has done this to Keith, can't you see?" He looked down at his friend, and Keith's eyes were wide, emotions passing through them that Lance couldn't quite identify.

"Keith, listen to me," Lance whispered, his voice softer, "We'll save you, okay? Lotor won't hurt you anymore. I promise. Just give me the word."

"You fool," Lotor commented, gasping slightly as the gun pressed harder into his forehead.

"How is he a fool?" Pidge demanded, pushing past Allura to stand by Lance, her hand at her hip, ready to call on her bayard if needed.

"The rakor doesn't know its name," Lotor answered.

Lance scowled. "Don't lie! He responded to us before-"

"It has become even further from the person you once called Keith. After its first quintant of me treating it nicely, trying to make it a person, it stopped responding to Keith. There is, unfortunately, only one term it responds to now," Lotor explained.

Or lied. Lance couldn't tell: he suspected that Lotor was lying about most things, but there were a few truths.

"Prove it," he snapped.

"You won't believe me," Lotor countered, "So, Pidge. Try and get it to look at you."

Pidge's fists clenched, but a nod from Lance and she complied. "Keith. Keith? Look at me, please."

Keith didn't respond.

"Try some other terms," Lotor suggested, his eyes smirking. Lance kept his hand steady on the gun.

"Yorak?" Pidge tried, with no response, "Friend? Buddy? Keith, please...!"

"Hey, Mullet," Lance said.

Still no response.

Lotor's eyes became dangerous. "Try something that you would call a domestic animal."

"What?" Pidge snapped, "Cat? Dog? Pet? Keith's not-"

"Pidge," Lance breathed, staring as Keith turned to her with the saying of the third term.

Pidge froze. "Which one...?"

"Pet," Lance said, despising that Keith turned to look at him, confusion in his eyes.

No.

"How do we fix this?" Pidge yelled, "Is it that damned collar?"

"No!" Lotor exclaimed, far too quick.

Lance's eyes narrowed. "What does that collar do?"

"The collar helps it, I promise. I noticed that there was some damage to its temporal lobe-"

"So he couldn't understand us," Pidge breathed, her expression turning from anger to terror, "He didn't understand the words we were saying. Quiznak." She turned to Allura, her tone pleading, "He didn't want this. Allura, he didn't want to go with Lotor. He was just copying our behaviour, he didn't actually comprehend it."

"His brain is... damaged?" Allura looked to Lotor for confirmation.

"Primarily the temporal lobe, which, as the green paladin said, affects its ability to understand language. There was also damage to its parietal lobe."

"Which messed with his interpretation of language, and sense of touch," Pidge realised.

Lance swallowed. He was no scientist, and he didn't quite understand everything they were saying... but it sounded bad to him. Really bad.

Bad enough that a techy collar wouldn't solve the issue.

Pidge seemed to come to that same conclusion, as she asked, "How does the collar help?"

"It's too complicated to explain-"

Lance's finger crept towards the trigger.

"-we have technology that can help coax the brain functions, the collar is attached to his nervous system and is forcing the damaged lobes back to their normal states. Without the collar, it will not be able to understand you," Lotor elaborated quickly, his pulse quickening.

Good. He was scared-

Lance blinked, stopping that thought. No! He wouldn't take any pleasure in Lotor's hurt and fear. Doing so would make him no better than the monster himself.

"That's very questionable science," Pidge snapped, "So, if you have nothing better to say-"

"Coran can back me up," Lotor interjected.

"Where is Coran?" Shiro asked, speaking up for the first time.

"In the med-"

"SHUT UP!" Lance shouted, "I've had enough of all your poisonous words! Don't try and turn Coran against us. Just don't." Ignoring Allura and Shiro's attempts to placate him, he leant forward, so he was right up in Lotor's face. "Answer me truthfully: can you fix Keith?"

"Fix its brain? Not all of it, no. Fix its failure to respond to its old name? No. Fix everything else that is broken about the little pet?"

Lotor smirked as Keith sat up straighter, looking at him.

"No, paladin. I can't fix it. Nobody can."

"Look away, pet," Lance hissed, red bathing his vision again.

Then he pulled the trigger.

Chapter Text

Owner returned after a short while, a spring in his step, praise dancing off his lips as he took in Pet's unchanged position.

"Good pet!" he exclaimed, "Excellent! Come here, now."

Pet's body obeyed, his limbs feeling stiff and awkward, but he couldn't complain, couldn't stop it, couldn't do anything but what Owner allowed him to do.

He had a recent memory, of letting go, ignoring pain and wanting to just be gone... But Owner had stepped in, stopping him from that.

He wasn't sure how he felt about it.

He also wasn't sure why he remembered that moment, when most other things for him were a hazy mess.

Pet sat down by Owner's feet, as he knew he should, waiting for his next command. Owner crouched down, still smiling.

"We still have a few things to run through, okay, pet?"

He nodded.

"Good. Now, you know that when you move, you crawl, at my heels. If anyone else asks you to move, obey them. In fact, you will obey whatever commands come your way, except a few. If someone asks you to talk, to speak, can you? Can you talk, pet?"

Pet shook his head.

"And if someone asks you to stand, can you?"

He shook his head again.

"Very good," Owner praised, "You are so very good, pet. You don't eat unless from someone's hands, or from a bowl on the floor. The same with water. Do you remember that, pet?"

He tried, but his memories were hazy, so he shook his head with a whine.

"No silly noises, pet. Don't worry, I will remind you. If you want something desperately, you may ask for it,  though. If you need to relieve yourself, or sleep, or even if you want touch. I can't have you wasting away, after all!"

Pet kept nodding.

"Oh, and that reminds me: you crave touch. You love it. It's a drug to you. You already react so well, but I want more." Owner squeezed something in his fist, and spikes of pain shot through Pet's head before fading.

"Let's try that, shall we?"

Owner tossed the contents of his hand aside, then touched Pet's headfur. Instantly he melted, slumping into Owner as a purr rose in his chest, everything dissolving away apart from the sensation of Owner's hand caressing him.

Somewhere he thought that it was a little too nice, unnaturally so, but he didn't want to protest, and that thought was quickly gone.

Owner laughed in delight. "Even more perfect!" He pulled his hand away, and Pet whined mournfully, wanting more.

"Not now, pet. We need to try the food, then you can meet the others." Owner stood, walking away, then came back with a bowl of clear liquid and a handful of coloured things.

Water and berries.

Owner set the water down. "Listen, pet. When it's like this, you can drink when you want. Okay?"

Pet nodded and crawled forward, before leaning to lap up some of the water. He didn't really want much, but he didn't want to disappoint Owner, either. When he was done, he sat up again, waiting for the next command.

Always waiting for the next command.

"Come, pet."

He crawled to where Owner was on a seat, sitting down on the floor by his feet. Owner held out a hand with a berry on it, and Pet opened his mouth, instinctively knowing what to do. He had done this before, he recalled, but the details still escaped him. Nevertheless, he let Owner feed him a series of berries, whining a thank you afterwards that made Owner's smile even larger.

A loud knock sounded then, and Owner stood. "Stay, pet. Remember what I told you." He walked over to the end of the room - to a door - and it opened to a person with orange headfur. Coran.

"You wanted to see me?" Coran asked, his voice friendly and familiar.

"Yes. You see..." Owner's voice dropped so quiet that Pet couldn't hear what was said, though it didn't look too good.

Coran looked at him, and he wanted to curl up away from that scrutinising gaze, but Owner had made him stay.

"Every two movements?"

"Yes. I couldn't make it last any longer. But please, don't tell the others. I don't want them to know quite how broken he is," Owner implored.

With a sharp pang in his chest, Pet realised they were talking about him.

Broken. Completely broken.

"Of course. I'll stock these in the med-bay. You should take Keith to the bridge," Coran said.

Keith? Who's Keith?

Keith wasn't him, Owner had said that...

"We were just going now. Come on!"

Though Owner didn't say pet, he knew that command was for him, so Pet obeyed, crawling forwards until he was at Owner's heels.

"Thank you, Coran," Owner said. Then he was walking, and Pet followed, keeping pace by Owner's heels, exactly how he liked it. Already he was craving touch, but he wouldn't get it unless he was good.

He had to be good; he needed the touch.

Other voices sounded, and Pet slowed, suddenly afraid. Who were those people? Would they hurt him? Would they take him from Owner?

He wasn't sure if he wanted the latter or not.

"Don't be scared, pet," Owner whispered, "Wait for my signal."

Pet stopped, his heart racing as Owner stepped into the room.

"Where's Keith?" some voices asked.

Pet stiffened, a sharp jab in his neck reminding him that no, he wasn't a Keith, he was just a pet.

"Right here." Owner turned and looked at him. "Come on."

Pet knew that was his signal, so he crawled forwards, stopping when Owner did, moving to sit up in his 'pretty position'. His eyes darted around the room, taking in all the people.

A short one in green, with orange-brown headfur and strange circles on her face. Pidge.

A taller one in blue, with lightly tanned skin and a kind countenance. Lance.

A large one, with short headfur and a scar over his nose. Shiro.

A white-haired one, with the darkest skin and cold eyes. Allura.

Pidge started yelling, the volume making Pet's head hurt, and his ears pinned flat, blocking out most of the noise.

Until he saw Lance pull a weapon on his Owner.

**

He turned his head against command, locking eyes with Lance, a sudden desire welling up in him. He couldn't speak, couldn't really move, he wasn't able, he wasn't allowed.

But he hated this. He hated being controlled. He hated not knowing who he really was.

He realised now, why he remembered that feeling of letting go, and the subsequent failure.

Lance held the solution in his hands, and Pet wanted it.

If you want something desperately, you may ask for it.

He held Lance's gaze, hoping to convey his pain and desire. Please.

Owner spoke, his words, smooth, and Lance turned his gaze away. No! Pet wanted to wail, but the sound died in his throat. No silly noises, Owner had said.

Lance's weapon disappeared, but then Owner was walking, and Pet had to follow, his body responding to Owner's unspoken command. He crawled until Owner was sitting, then took his usual place at Owner's feet, sitting neatly.

Nobody seemed pleased, though, which confused him.

Owner started talking again. "As I have explained to you, the rakor are very fragile. They don't have a concept of self, stripped down to mere creatures. I discovered that Keith, once turned into a rakor, was used primarily as a violent creature." The rest of Owner's words failed to meet Pet's ears as his head spun.

He was a rakor, he knew that. It was like another name for pet.

Keith had turned into a rakor.

Keith had turned into him.

Owner lied. He was Keith.

A sharp spike sent pain through his neck, but then someone's hand was on him and he was melting, his head resting against something warm, curling into the touch that soothed the itch across his skin. But the person pulled back, and he whined, because it wasn't enough, he needed more, please.

Then he realised that the person was Owner, and his head started spinning again.

Was he really Keith? Or was he just a pet, like he felt, like Owner said?

He didn't know, and he wanted to stop this confusion, please. He just wanted to know.

He wanted the truth.

"I don't think he can be fixed," Owner sighed, and Pet- Keith - whatever his name was- he knew that Owner was referring to him.

Suddenly Lance ran forwards, the weapon in his hands again, pressed against Owner's head. Pet-Keith let out a small whine, so small that no-one heard it.

Not Owner. Me.

"You're lying!" Lance screamed, "You're the one who broke Keith, and I know it. There has to be a way to fix him!"

Pet-Keith wanted to believe Lance, he really did, but he was broken. He was broken and just a pet and... and he didn't think he could be fixed.

Lance's eyes were red, his cheeks damp. Crying. But why was he crying?

"Lance, step back and drop the gun," the person called Shiro said.

Pet-Keith waited for Lance to obey his superior, but he didn't. Lance shook his head in a clear act of defiance.

"No. Lotor has done this to Keith, can't you see?"

Pet-Keith wondered who Lotor was, but then Lance was looking at him, and he met his gaze. I'm so confused. Help me. Please.

"Keith, listen to me," Lance whispered, "We'll save you, okay? Lotor won't hurt you anymore. I promise. Just give me the word."

Pet-Keith wanted so badly to nod his head, a yes, but he couldn't.

"You fool," Owner said.

"How is he a fool?" Pidge demanded, suddenly next to Lance, her stance fierce. She was preparing for a fight, Pet-Keith realised.

"The rakor doesn't know its name," Owner answered.

No! I do, I... I'm Keith .

Lance scowled. "Don't lie! He responded to us before-"

"It has become even further from the person you once called Keith. After its first quintant of me treating it nicely, trying to make it a person, it stopped responding to Keith. There is, unfortunately, only one term it responds to now," Owner said coldly.

Pet-Keith - no, just Keith, he was Keith - knew that Owner was lying now. Owner had said that his word was everything, but it was lies.

Lance knew this too. "Prove it!"

"You won't believe me." Owner seemed to know it, too, which only confirmed Pe- Keith's thoughts. "So, Pidge. Try and get it to look at you."

"Keith. Keith? Look at me, please," Pidge urged.

Keith wanted to, he tried to, but his body just wouldn't respond.

"Try some other terms," Owner suggested.

"Yorak? Friend? Buddy? Keith, please...!"

I'm trying, he wanted to say, but he couldn't speak, he wasn't able.

"Hey, Mullet," Lance said.

I can't move why can't I move I need to look at them I need to move I need you to point that gun at me Lance please-

Owner said something else, that Keith didn't hear until Pidge said pet.

His body finally let him look at her.

"Pidge," Lance breathed, staring at him.

Pidge froze. "Which one...?"

"Pet," Lance said, and Keith's body forced him to look at Lance.

No.

I can't do this anymore I can't I can't I can't.

They all kept talking but he didn't listen, only hearing the word damage over and over and over.

He was broken. He was damaged.

Owner's pulse quickened, but Keith still didn't pay any attention, not until Lance started shouting.

"SHUT UP! I've had enough of all your poisonous words! Don't try and turn Coran against us. Just don't."

Lance leant forward until he was really close to Owner, close enough for Keith to hear his heavy breathing.

"Answer me truthfully: can you fix Keith?"

Keith held his breath, wanting the answer, but only if it was good.

"Fix its brain? Not all of it, no."

Broken.

"Fix its failure to respond to its old name? No."

Damaged.

"Fix everything else that is broken about the little pet?"

Keith sat up straighter and looked at Owner, despising that he had done so not of his will.

Owner's next words were cold daggers straight to his heart.

"No, paladin. I can't fix it. Nobody can."

Keith's head spun, he wanted to cry and he could feel his eyes growing moist, but then Lance of all people commanded him and he was made to look away and-

A gunshot rang out, and Keith cringed as he felt something wet splatter against his back. He was shaking suddenly, uncontrollably, doubling over as a sob tore from his chest. Dimly he realised he was moving of his own will again, but that didn't matter, he couldn't think, he was forever broken and damaged and worthless...

"Shh, Keith, steady. It's okay," Lance whispered. Arms wrapped around him and Keith fell into the touch, whimpering and curling up against a warm, solid chest, as he kept shaking and sobbing.

"You're okay, pet. You're okay."
He wanted to cry even more, hearing that word, but he couldn't because he was told that he was okay.

If he was okay then he couldn't cry.

Keith managed to turn his head, the glint of Lance's gun catching his eye.

I can't fix it. Nobody can.

His tail flicked out, knocking the gun into his reach, and he snatched it, rolling out of Lance's arms in the process.

"Stop it-!" Allura yelled.

But he wasn't going to hurt anyone.

Keith raised the gun and pressed it to his forehead, like Lance had done with Owner.

"No!" Pidge screamed, "Keith, don't, please-!"

Broken. Damaged. Worthless.

His claws crept towards the trigger, then Lance entered his line of sight.

"Don't make me do this," Lance whispered.

Keith just hissed, ready to press the trigger and-

"Stop, pet."

His whole body froze, a whine escaping him. No no no!

"Drop the gun."

No no fire it -

"Now, pet."

The gun fell from his hands.

Lance picked it up, and it disappeared, taking away his hope. Keith crumpled and sobbed again, his claws tearing into his arms, the pain comforting him-

He realised that he could use them in the same moment that Lance did.

Lance surged forwards, pinning Keith to the ground, forcing his paws apart. He howled, claws scrabbling, desperate to tear at himself, but he was overpowered by the others. Pidge held down one paw, Lance the other. Shiro held down his legs.

"Sedative! Now!" Pidge yelled.

Keith whined, the pain of betrayal and disappointment flaring up within him.

"I'm sorry," Lance whispered.

Then his arm was spiked, and he slipped into the welcoming darkness.

Chapter Text

The Yellow Lion glided towards the Blade of Marmora's main base, and Hunk gripped the controls tighter, anxieties creeping in as he stared at the looming black holes and star.

"I'm doing this for Keith," he murmured to himself, "I'm doing this for Keith."

Just then, a transmission flickered to life. "Identify yourselves," the monotone voice stated. 

Hunk swallowed. "Uh, it's me, Hunk. Paladin of the Yellow Lion?"

There was a pause, then a more familiar voice came through.

"Greetings, Yellow Paladin," said Kolivan, "What brings you here? We have tried to contact Voltron but have had no responses."

Hunk grimaced. All communications really are blocked. "I'll explain to you in person, but it's urgent," he managed to say.

"Of course. Can you fly in?"

Hunk stared at the narrow flight path flashing on his dashboard, his anxiety immediately screaming no no no.

But before he could give that simple answer, the warmth of his lion washed over him.

I can fly, Yellow rumbled.

But-

I can fly. I can do it, my paladin. Yellow gave him impressions of strength and power to not be pulled in by any of the gravity, along with a warm reassurance.

"Yes," he answered, trusting his lion completely.

Yellow purred her approval and surged forwards, the controls disappearing from Hunk's hands as the lion piloted herself with ease. The rest of the Blades' transmission was lost as Yellow used her strength to stay clear of the gravity fields, but Hunk closed his eyes, not wanting to see the dangers outside.
He only opened them again when he felt Yellow set down on the asteroid.

See? she hummed, Told you I can do it.

"Good girl," he breathed, taking a moment to collect himself before he exited the lion. Two masked Blades stood there, waiting. The one with a tail was unfamiliar, but he knew the first to be Kolivan.

"This way," Kolivan commanded, briskly heading into his base. Hunk followed on slightly shaky legs, focusing on keeping his breathing steady.

I'm doing this for Keith. I'm doing this for Keith. I'm doing this for Keith.

Kolivan walked through various corridors, only stopping once they reached a small meeting room, with only four chairs. Both Blades took the chairs on the left, so Hunk had no choice but to sit opposite them - like an interrogation, his mind unhelpfully supplied. Kolivan deactivated his mask, and so did the tailed Blade, revealing a choppy indigo bob and very feminine features.

"Report," Kolivan stated then, and the female galra huffed.

"Really? No introductions?" If she had irises, she likely would've rolled them. "I'm Valta. And you are?"

"Hunk," he answered, managing a smile.

"So what is there to report?" Kolivan asked.
Hunk took a deep breath in. "Pidge and Lance - the green and blue paladins," he added for Valta's benefit, "- rescued Keith, but he's completely different. He acted quite feral at first and he looks really galra now. All purple fur and a tail and stuff. Not that it's a bad thing!" he quickly exclaimed.

Valta just smiled, whereas Kolivan cleared his throat. Hunk blushed.

"Ah, yes, uh, back on topic. Allura thinks he's something called a rakor, but Pidge and I know he's not just a creature. Keith is definitely still in there. Somewhere."

"A rakor?" Valta repeated, "I thought that practice was outlawed long ago!"

"Evidently not," Kolivan said.

"Can you help him?" Hunk asked anxiously.

The galra exchanged worried looks.

"I'm not sure," Valta answered slowly, "I really want to, believe me. Keith... means a lot to me. I'll have to look into it. There's bound to be something in records."

"Valta is our main doctor," Kolivan said, as if that explained everything.

Hunk nodded, still anxious. "But can you fix him? I think Lotor's messing him up even more-"

"Lotor has him alone?" Kolivan growled.

Hunk recoiled at the Blade leader's sudden display of emotion. "Uh, yes?"

Kolivan cursed under his breath, the words unfamiliar but clearly harsh. "Lotor's been acquiring more resources known to be used for alchemy. If he has Keith alone..." He trailed off, his tone serious and worried.

"That may be how he was reduced to a rakor in the first place," Valta breathed, standing abruptly, "I'll make sure to include alchemy in my research!" She made to leave, but Kolivan grabbed her arm.

"Stop! I have someone you can talk to." His steel gaze flickered to Hunk. "Both of you."

A door on the far side of the room opened, and a familiar blue-skinned figure walked in, flanked by two masked Blades.

"Acxa?" Hunk whispered, and her head whipped towards the sound.

Acxa's face paled immediately. "Are we too late? Is Keith...?"

"He's not dead," Kolivan said, "At least, not as far as we know."

The Blades escorted the half-galra to the empty seat beside Hunk, then left after a nod from Kolivan. Acxa rested her elbows on the table, and Hunk realised her wrists were cuffed.

"Tell us again what you know," Kolivan commanded.

Acxa nodded, then began. "When we captured Keith, we all thought he was just a Blade and first, but we soon recognised him. I...questioned Lotor's methods of violence towards one so young, but he ignored my concerns."

"Wait, young?" Hunk interjected, "Keith's an adult, older than me!"

"Not in galran terms," Valta explained, "To us, he's a kit, and a young one at that."

"Yes, and I saw that from the way he acted at times," Acxa continued, "Kits are precious in galran culture, but Lotor ignored that, because Keith is a half-breed. Which is ridiculous. I was still a kit at his age!"

She took a deep breath, calming herself. "After the initial interrogations, I assumed Keith was dead. He was put through...a lot...and I doubted anyone could survive. Lotor never spoke of his fate, which he tends to do for those prisoners that die. Then we saw the creature in the arena, the rakor, and for some reason I didn't draw the connection. I didn't see him until well into his transformation, and he was so purple I guess I never considered him to be Keith. And the way he acted...he was so violent! Brutal and feral, like an animal.

"I later found out that wasn't natural. During the rakor process, he'd reverted to one of the pet types, which surprised everyone, I think. Considering how much of a fighter Keith was - is," she quickly corrected, "Lotor expected him to just turn feral. But he had to use drugs and alchemy, and even those couldn't keep him wild forever. Haggar herself tried, and Lotor thought he'd broken, but I saw how he acted when your friends came to rescue him, and those were not the acts of a beast. Sure, he attacked me pretty ferally, but it was an act of protection.

"It was then that I finally figured out the connection, and quiznak, I felt so sick. How Lotor could be so horrible to a half-galra when he's always been accepting of us... I never understood it."

Acxa was shaking then, her fists clenched as if trying to hold in emotions. On instinct, Hunk placed a hand on her shoulder, and she sighed, managing to gather herself enough to continue once again.

"I was horrified, but glad that your friends had escaped with him. Until I remembered that Lotor was with them, and he contacted us. He finally saw that the rakor was never going to naturally be a feral, violent type, so he decided to play with the pet side. He asked me to get...things...and I obeyed but I... I couldn't stick around. Not when I knew what was being done to Keith. And it's so wrong."

"What things?" Valta prompted gently.

Acxa shuddered. "Restraints, like collars, leads, muzzles, even a straitjacket. And drugs. Lots of drugs and alchemy equipment."

Hunk's mind was spinning. They...they had left Keith alone with a psychopath who had all those horrible tools and plans and nobody had realised for ages...

No, that wasn't true. Pidge had realised. She'd always known.

We should have listened to her more, before Keith had to suffer.

Valta stood then, and this time Kolivan made no move to stop her. "Come with me, Acxa," she said, "I want you to show me the drugs and alchemy equipment. If I know what was used, we might be able to reverse the effects."

Acxa nodded and stood too, but as she passed Kolivan, the galra reached out and grabbed her arms.

"Your story has much credit," he said gruffly, "We believe you." The cuffs fell away from Acxa's wrists, and she smiled her thanks before following Valta out the room.

Left alone again, Hunk had no choice but to turn to Kolivan. "So...?"

"Valta and Acxa will join us as soon as they have anything information of use. But for now, I am coming back with you. Keith is...is..." The galra trailed off, lost for words for once.

"Yeah, I know," Hunk answered softly, "And I also know that you can help him. We've got to save him from Lotor, and I know you can do that."

Kolivan gave him what may have been a smile. "Thank you, Yellow Paladin. Now, come. We must return to the castle-ship at once."

Hunk nodded. We're coming for you, Keith, he thought, Just hold on. Please, hold on.

Chapter Text

Allura stared as the rakor fell limp, overtaken by the sedative. Pidge sat back, the syringe falling from her hands, and Lance was shaking vigorously, one hand still gripping the rakor's tightly.

She'd stopped thinking of it as Keith, and she didn't care.

What she did care about - who she cared about - was lying with a hole in his temple, blood and grey matter staining the floor. Her lover, gone in an instant.

But Lotor wasn't just her lover; he was their hope of a peaceful Galra Empire.

And Lance, one of her own paladins, had ruined that.

She turned to face him, fighting back the tears. She couldn't afford to grieve, not yet.

"Lance. We need to talk," Allura said coolly.

"About what?" Pidge snapped, before the red paladin could answer, "That bastard had it coming for him! Are you really that blind? Can't you see what he's done to Keith?"

Allura looked down at the rakor, from the collar on its neck to the self-inflicted wounds on its arms.

"That's not Keith," she said firmly.

Pidge shook her head. "No. This is Keith, and you know it. You realised it before Lotor took him. He's still Keith. At least, Keith is in there somewhere."

"We don't know what the hell he went through," Lance added, "But he...he needs our help. Allura, he's a part of this team, too. He's family."

"Maybe Lotor was messing with us. Or maybe he is broken. Only three things are clear: one, Keith is our friend. Two, he needs our help. Three, Lotor was a quiznaking asshole and he deserved to die. If Lance hadn't taken that shot, I would've," Pidge finished fiercely.

Allura folded her arms, lips pursed, her racing mind trying to make sense of it all. The rakor wasn't Keith. Keith couldn't be that broken.

Or maybe he could be.

Maybe she was just in denial, so she'd pushed every thought connecting the rakor to Keith away.

Maybe she was in denial about Lotor, too.

No. It's too soon to make a judgement on that.

"We're taking him to the med bay," Lance said then, breaking the silence.

Allura opened her mouth to speak, but Shiro beat her to it. "Make sure it's restrained," he said coldly.

Lance grimaced but nodded, then he and Pidge took the unconsciousness rakor away. Allura would talk to Lance later about his actions; he could not go unpunished.

"Lotor's dead," Shiro unhelpfully pointed out.

She sighed. "I know."

"He's really dead. The rakor killed him."

At that, she turned and frowned at him. "Shiro, it wasn't the rakor. Lance took the shot."

"Because of the rakor," he argued, "It was acting due to its true nature, but Lance thought it was threatened. And he can't grasp that Keith is gone."

Allura stared at him. "You think that too?"

"The rakor isn't Keith, I know that. Or if it was, it is no longer. Keith is gone."

She continued staring at the lack of emotion in the black paladin's eyes. On the one hand, she was glad to have someone side with her.

But for Shiro to side against Keith? To say so heartlessly that Keith was gone?

Weren't they supposed to be brothers?

Something's not right.

"What do you propose we should do with the rakor, then?" she asked steadily.

Shiro shrugged. "Whatever punishment you see fit. Killing it might be too nice, but any form of violence might turn it feral. Maybe sell it, if you don't want us to keep it."

She struggled to keep her composure. "Sell it?"

"It's just a pet, Princess. It's not Keith," Shiro stated, with cold belief.

It's not Keith.

He's still Keith.

It's just a pet.

Keith is in there somewhere.

Allura didn't know who or what to believe.

But there was a way to tell for certain.

"I need to see Coran," she said steadily, pivoting to exit before Shiro could speak up.

Her strides were firm and purposeful at first, but the further she went from the bridge, the more she stumbled until she turned a different corner and fell into her room, barely closing the door before she'd crumpled to the ground, sobbing.

Lotor was dead, her paladins - her friends - were against her, Keith was now a pet-like creature at best...

Allura cried, and cried, the sobs wrenched painfully from her chest, as something between her lungs shattered further.

She'd tried so hard to carry on after the destruction of her world, the death of her people, the loss of her family. The universe needed her, needed Voltron.

She thought she was strong enough.

She wasn't.

Tears splashed against the ground and she hugged her knees to her chest, longing for arms to wrap around her, to offer some comfort amidst this pain and turmoil.

But her mother was gone.

Her father was gone.

Lotor was gone.

Lance - she couldn't face him, not yet.

And Keith.

Allura never realised how much she missed him until then, recalling the far too few times they'd actually spent together.

The rare, painful, yet special times, where they would sit in the Castle's planetarium, watching the stars spin by as they comforted each other for loss of a father, a family, a home.

He needs our help... He's a part of this team, too. He's family.

Allura roughly wiped her eyes and clenched her fists, standing up.

"Keith is family," she whispered, "And I'm going to find out the truth behind all of this. No matter what."

Chapter Text

When he woke up, Keith was utterly disappointed.

He didn't want to wake up. He wanted to fall asleep, and slip into whatever the afterlife held.

He didn't want to live in this useless, broken state.

He tried to move, and immediately whined as he discovered he was tied down. No, not just tied down - restrained, like with his so-called caretakers after his arena fights.

He could remember more of his past, now. He could remember it, but he didn't want to, because it only served to confirm what Owner had told him, over and over.

He was dangerous.

Worse than that: he was a monster.

He turned his face to the side as tears ran down his cheeks, soaking the soft surface beneath him and likely ruining it. Why were they keeping him alive? They saw how useless and worthless and broken he was...

Was this his punishment?

Would they make him face the arena again?

I can't I can't I don't want to, I don't want to!

He didn't realise he was whining and making stupid noises again until a couple of people came bursting into the room, immediately slowing and talking to him in soothing tones.

Pidge and Lance, he realised.

He turned away from them.

Lance continued with the same soothing tone, and Keith realised - with another shock of horror - that he couldn't understand Lance.
Or Pidge.

They were speaking words, he knew it, but he couldn't understand them.

Didn't that get fixed?

Then he remembered Owner's words, whispers in his ears of how he needed the drugs, the collar, to understand, because something in his mind was broken.

Hesitantly he tried to pull his hand free, and when that didn't work, he whined at Lance. Please.

Lance and Pidge exchanged looks, but then his left hand was free. Immediately he brought it to his neck, claws meeting skin rather than metal.

No.

Where was his collar?? He wanted it, he needed it back, please! Keith whimpered and rubbed at his neck, glancing around wildly for any signs of the collar, but he couldn't see it.

Lance was speaking again, trying to calm him down, but Keith had to convey. Surely there was a way for them to communicate still? But before he could think, Lance spoke the words that made him freeze his desperately movements.

Stop, pet.

He understood that much.

Keith's hand fell limp again, and Lance put the restraint around it again, with sorrow in his eyes and tone.

Keith didn't have the will to fight, not when his friend was controlling him.

Not when his friend was taking ownership of him.

Immediately Keith felt sick. Was Lance...his Owner now? The more he thought about it, the more it made sense.

He could recall now, Lance's angry words and the shot ringing out, the splash of Owner's blood against his back, Lance commanding him and calling him pet.

As much as it sickened him, he understood now. Lance had killed Owner, and he had then become the new Owner.

Part of Keith wanted to resist that truth, but it was the same part that would tell him to fight and win at all costs and he didn't want to listen to that monster anymore.

That left him with the only other option: to accept his fate as just a pet.

It was too much to hope that his friends would help him. They already stopped him from dying, which was what he wanted. They also knew how broken he is, and that he couldn't be fixed.

Maybe that's why Lance calls me 'pet'. Because it's all I am. I'm just a pet to them, now.

It wasn't the worst thing, he supposed. After all, he knew these people - they would be kind, for the most part.

He could live with that. He'd have to; they wouldn't let him die.

Part of him wished he'd taken up Owner's offer of the leash, so they wouldn't have been separated. He didn't want to admit it, but already, he was missing Owner.

He wanted the soft words, but more than that, he longed for the touch.

He wanted someone to stroke his headfur gently and let him melt beneath their fingers, to give him praise and feed him delicious berries, to give him easy commands because he was utterly dependent on others, though he wished that wasn't the case.

And Owner was the only one who knew everything.

Owner knew that Keith couldn't understand woeds without the collar. Owner knew that Keith couldn't talk or stand or be a person. Owner knew that Keith couldn't drink or eat without someone giving him those things.

Owner knew that Keith needed, craved, touch.

But Owner was gone, and nobody else knew those things. Even worse, Keith had no way to tell them.

His skin was crawling and he let out a longing whine, calling in part for Owner, even though he understood that was pointless.

Owner was gone.

More tears fell, and he turned his head away from the others, giving one last feeble struggle against the restraints. They didn't give, and he closed his eyes, letting the darkness take him.

 

When he started to wake again, voices sounded over him, all varying tones, but the words were nonexistent in his mind. He stayed silent and still, unwilling to let them know that he was awake.

They couldn't help him. The only person who could was gone.

Why won't they leave me alone?

A hand brushed against his neck, touching the marks where the collar had once been, and he fought back against the urge to lean into that touch, the soft pressure almost comforting.

No no no, he didn't want to feel this way...!

The hand moved around, lifting his head, then something sharp but cool and familiar clasped around his neck. He gasped as he felt a sting, then the cacophony of voices turned into actual words.

"-should be able to understand."

His head fell back against the soft pillow, as the hand released him gently.

"I'm so sorry, Keith," Pidge whispered by his ear, "We're trying to find another way, I promise. But we...we need you to understand us, okay?" Her voice was shaking, and he wanted to open his eyes, turn his head, do something to see and comfort her, but he couldn't.

With a stroke of horror he realised: the collar let him hear and understand, but it took away the few dying sparks of his free will.

He'd rather not understand them than be trapped in his own body again.

"Keith, come on. Wake up, please!" Pidge urged.

"He can't," Lance said softly, "He's not Keith anymore, remember?"

... What? Hadn't Lance been the one to believe in him, to say he wasn't a pet?

"I won't call him that dehumanising term!" Pidge exclaimed angrily.

"It's the only way we can try to help him."

"What, by treating him like an animal? I-I can't do this, Lance. I can't." Pidge let out a sob then footsteps sounded as she ran away from him - or, that was what he guessed, anyway.

Lance sighed loudly. "Open your eyes for me, pet."

Keith's eyes opened, and he wanted to cry again.

But Lance was looking down at him, a gentle smile on his face, as he reached out and stroked Keith's cheek. Instantly Keith melted, his mind screaming no no but the chemicals in his body were turning him into a puddle, a rush of ecstasy sparking from the area of contact that caused a purr to rise in his chest. Lance started to pull away, but Keith pressed his head further into Lance's palm, a contented whine escaping him.

This was bliss, but he wondered - how did Lance know what he needed?

Was Lance really going to take on the role of Owner?

"Wow, you're just like a cat," Lance commented, "This...this is crazy. I want to believe that Keith is there, somewhere, but you're not him, are you?"

Keith's spirits fell.

"I mean, Keith never liked to be touched. He was always so stiff, and a loner. I wanted so bad for you to be him, y'know? And I... I believed your act. I fell for it, like Pidge did. She's still fallen for it. But I can't disagree with science."

No. No, this couldn't be happening. It had to be a nightmare. It had to be.

"She knows too, but she still hopes, because Keith was her best friend, and she doesn't want to give up. I don't want to give up. But you're not Keith, I know that now."

No! I AM! I AM Keith! Lance please-!

As if sensing his distress, Lance smiled sympathetically and rubbed Keith's ears gently.

"Your DNA and his don't match. I wish they did... Quiznak, I wish you were Keith. But this is all just a cruel joke by Lotor. He wanted us to think you were Keith, and now he's dead, I... I killed him," Lance's voice shook until he was crying, "I killed him and now we'll never find the truth about Keith...!"

I'm here, Lance. I'm right here. I... I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I'm so helpless and useless and weak.

Keith tried to talk, but he could only whimper and nuzzle Lance's hand.

Lance wiped his eyes and managed another smile. "I hope the caretakers are good to you, pet. You deserve a good life. None of this is your fault."

Keith froze. Caretakers? They're...getting rid of me?

Somehow, he managed to shake his head, whining no!

"We can't keep you here, I'm sorry. It's too...weird for us."

Keith shook his head again, pushing past the spike of pain in his neck, desperate to get his feelings across.

I can't leave them. I can't.

But how could he communicate that, when he could barely move?

You cannot speak, Owner's voice reminded him. But he'd also said, if you want something desperately, you may ask for it.

Keith wanted desperately to stay with the paladins, not to be tossed aside like a stray animal.

"Coran thinks he might know some places, though, where someone like you could go. You'd be well cared for and-"

"No," Keith croaked. Immediately pain laced through him but he suppressed the cry of anguish, focusing instead on the confusion that crossed Lance's face.

"Did... Did you just speak?" he asked.

Slowly, Keith nodded.

Lance's eyes widen. "Okay, so you can understand me. But listen, pet, you're not-"

"No," he interrupted again, "No, I-" He broke off coughing, the pain spiking to new levels that made him black out for a moment.

When the darkness cleared, he realised he was sitting upright, Lance supporting him, and his were hands no longer restrained.

"Steady," Lance said.

Keith took in a few shuddering breaths, the tightness in his throat telling him he wouldn't be attempting to talk again any time soon.
But with his hands free, he had another way to communicate.

Keith started signing, watching as Lance's eyes widened even further, locked onto the motions of his hands.

Lance, it's me, Keith. Please, believe me, he signed, over and over.

Lance stared dumbly. "I, uh...is that sign language?"

Keith nodded, finding it easier to ignore the pains in his neck that each act of defiance brought.

Lance quickly stood and hit a button on his wrist. "Pidge! I need you in here... Yes, he.... He's using sign language, I think, I can't tell... Okay." He breathed deeply, then looked back at Keith.

"I know this isn't possible," he whispered, "The DNA test, it was negative, I, I wish it was..."

Keith whimpered and tried to reach out to Lance, but his arm seemed to lock up, preventing him from moving. Lance met his gaze, blue eyes damp.

"I wish I could say that you are Keith, but I can't. Not anymore. I-"

The door banged open then, and two more people burst in: Coran and Shiro, Keith remembered.

"The caretakers will be here soon," Shiro stated, pausing as he took in Lance's closeness to Keith. His cold grey eyes darted down to the lack of restraints on Keith's wrists. "Lance, why-"

"He spoke," Lance blurted out, "He spoke, and when I took off his cuffs he started signing. At least, I think that's what it was."

Keith wanted to shrink back under Shiro's hard gaze, but his body was frozen again. For some reason, Shiro's disapproval - or any negative emotions from the man - hit harder than from anyone else. Shiro meant something to him, he knew it.

But, in a strange way, he felt like he didn't know the Shiro stood in front of him. He was too different to trigger any memories.

The coldness when he spoke still stabbed like daggers in Keith's chest.

"He was probably just waving his hands around. You heard Lotor, you saw the DNA results. This creature isn't Keith. It's a misplaced pet," Shiro spat.

Lance's fists clenched. "Shiro, there is still a chance! I can barely dare to hope-"

"The caretakers are coming, and they're going to take this rakor away, and that's the end of it," Shiro said sternly.

Coran took a step forward. "They won't be here yet, no harm in looking into things a little more."

"You're wrong!" Shiro snapped, "On both accounts! The caretakers will be here in a varga or so, and there is much harm in giving hope where there is none. Allura is doubting now, too. The little creature has everyone fooled. But not me."

Shiro advanced, his arm starting to glow as the malice in his eyes deepened.

"Look at it! It's not Keith, just a stupid, weak, obedient little pet. Watch."

Keith sat frozen, his heart pounding in terror.

"Sit up straighter, pet."

His body obeyed immediately.

"Now lie down."

His body obeyed again.

"Left hand in the air."

And again.

"Hand down, pet. Relax."

And again.

"Tilt your head up."

And again.

"Look at me."

Shiro's expression terrified him, but he was utterly powerless again.

"See?" Shiro said firmly, "It's like a robot, a machine. Selling it to someone who actually likes collecting these freaks is a very good idea."

Selling?

"Wait, what? Shiro, you said those caretakers will do just that - take care of him! Not sell, he's not an object!" Lance protested.

"Ah, but he's a pet. And the so-called caretakers offered a price. It would be rude to not accept."

Keith's heart was pounding so fast, he felt he would pass out again. This can't be happening.

"Shiro, stop, please. We've got to think this through! Coran! Surely you're not with this?" Lance pleaded.

"It's Allura's decision," Coran answered.

"Then I'm going to speak with her!" Lance yelled, storming out of the room.

"Wait!" Coran jogged out after him. Leaving Keith alone with Shiro.

Or, the person who called himself Shiro.

Keith still had many, many gaps in his memories, but he could recall a Shiro, someone who was a friend - a brother, even.

This man was not him.

"Looks like it's just you and me, pet," the man commented, releasing the cuffs from Keith's ankles, "Let's see how much your Owner broke you, hmm?"

Keith couldn't do anything as the man circled him.

"Get on the floor, pet."

He slipped off what he now realised was a bed, dropping down to all fours.

"Sit."

His hands fell into his lap as his legs crossed neatly.

"Come to me."

He crawled forwards, then sat at the man's feet, though all he really wanted to do was run, far, far away from there.

A cold hand stroked his ears and he collapsed, falling over the man's feet as the touch sent pleasant fires through his body.

"Hmm, I see why he liked you so much," the man noted, "I might just have to bring you to my true self."

Confusion erupted in Keith's hazy mind. Bring to...what?

"Don't worry, little pet. You'll soon have everything you need," he whispered, "And when the paladins do realise that you really were Keith... Well, you'll be too lost in my clutch to care."

Chapter Text

Lance ran through the halls of the Castle, ignoring Coran's cries behind him. He went blindly, not heading to Allura like he'd said, just running to get away from Keith.

Quiznak, his heart was pounding, screaming that the galra they had was, in fact, his friend, despite what the DNA test said.

Maybe the test was fixed, done like that so we would doubt his identity. Or maybe I'm just clinging to a lost hope.

But the galra had spoken, he'd signed something, and Lance had to know what it meant.

There was far too much confusion; he needed to know the truth.

Gosh, he hated having to call Keith 'pet', but it seemed the only way to get him to respond. He understood why Pidge couldn't stick around; he could barely live with himself treating his friend in that manner.

Yes. His friend.

The more he thought about it, the more Lance became convinced that the DNA test was a set-up, some last ploy by Lotor to make them dismiss their friend.

You're just saying that because you killed the person who had all the answers.

Lance ignored that unwanted thought, and stopped when he felt a warm presence brush against his mind.

"Red?" he whispered, suddenly realising that he'd made his way to the lion's hangar.

My paladin, she rumbled.

He crossed the distance between them and sat by her feet. "Red, I don't know what to do," Lance confessed, "I was so convinced he was Keith, I... I even killed for him... But now, I don't know. How can a stupid DNA test throw me off like this?"

He angrily wiped away the tears that were forming, and Red purred behind him.

My paladin, you know the truth. You know it in your heart.

Lance stiffened. "I...know...? Wait, do you know?"

Yes.

He spun to look up into her yellow eyes. "Tell me! Please!"

What does your heart say?

His hand rested on his chest and he closed his eyes, listening to the steady rhythm.

"That...that he's really Keith."

Yes.

Lance gasped, "But the DNA test-"

I don't understand this test, but I know the body of my cub is with you.

"Wait...body?"

His mind is trapped, but he is still there. You have to reach him.

"But I don't know how! He won't respond to his name, I-"

Someone is coming who will help you, Red interrupted again, And you will fix my cub, I know it.

"Thanks, Red," Lance whispered. Then he stiffened.

"Oh quiznak... I told Keith that he wasn't, well, himself... I've got to fix this!" He turned to leave, but a roar from the lion stopped him.

Wait! You have to see the princess, stop her from sending my cub away! Tell her the truth!

Lance hesitated. He really wanted to go and see Keith, to apologise and tell him that he knew the truth... But Red had a point.

Shiro had said that it was Allura's decision, and the 'caretakers' weren't far.

It was up to Lance to stop them.

Chapter Text

Pidge tossed aside all her tech as soon as Lance's message came through, immediately bolting towards the medical bay. "Sorry, sorry!" she yelled as her foot caught on some wires, though to who she was apologising to, she wasn't certain. Herself?

She ran so fast she almost collided with Coran, who was running from the medbay.

"What happened?" she exclaimed, "Is Keith okay?"

Coran paused for breath, his eyes misty. "He's not-"

"Don't say that," she snapped, "Is he okay? Did something happen?"

"Lance yelled at Shiro and stormed out, that's what happened," Coran explained.

Pidge stiffened. "Is Shiro still in the medbay?"

"Yes, it's just him and-"

Pidge didn't let the altean finish his sentence before she was sprinting down the hallway with renewed energy. Shiro was alone with Keith. Whilst this usually wasn't a cause for concern, Shiro hadn't exactly been acting himself lately. Pidge had plenty of concerns and doubts around him, though she didn't want them. Shiro being alone with Keith should've been a good thing.

But she'd seen how Shiro reacted around the 'new' Keith. He'd sided with Allura, refusing to acknowledge that his brother could be that broken.

Him being alone with Keith was not a good idea, not at all.

She finally reached the medbay, her heart pounding hard and fast as she tried the door handle.

It was locked.

"Quiznak," she swore, quickly using the tech on her gauntlet to bypass the lock. The castle's systems were easy for her to infiltrate; the door was unlocked within a dobosh.

Activating her bayard, Pidge burst into the room, immediately freezing with horror at the sight before her. Keith was sprawled in Shiro's lap, his head tilted back as the man stroked him, touching various pressure points - his cheeks, behind his ears, the base of his throat - that made Keith purr like a cat, his tail swishing contentedly.

"Such a beautiful pet," Shiro crooned, but his voice was not that of her friend. No. This wasn't Shiro.

This was a messed-up creep, wearing his face.

"You're so docile and affectionate," he continued, his hand trailing down to the thin fur on Keith's chest, "We always thought you'd be a fighter. It's lovely to see that even the strongest can break. Look at you," his approval turned into a scoff, "You're nothing but a creature starved for attention, addicted to the next touch, utterly useless until commanded. So incredibly broken." He pulled his hand away, and a feeble whine escaped Keith.

Not-Shiro just laughed. "Proving my point, exactly! You know, I don't have to sell you. If you're good, I could get you to stay here, with the paladins. Would you like that?"

Pidge couldn't stand this any longer.

"He's not yours to sell!" she yelled, and fired her bayard. The green line shot out, immediately winding around Not-Shiro and pinning his arms to his body. Keith tumbled off his lap with a startled yelp, freezing as soon as he hit the ground.

"Get the hell away from my friend," Pidge growled, tugging. Not-Shiro stumbled to his feet, glaring down at her.

"Your friend? Pidge, that thing isn't Keith. We need to get rid of it."

Her fists clenched, fury tinting her vision. "By selling him?"

"Yes." The coldness in the man's tone only affirmed that this was not Shiro. Still gripping onto her bayard, Pidge stuck her other hand into her pocket, feeling the metal there.

"You want to sell him? How much?" she asked.

Not-Shiro's eyes narrowed. "It's none of your business-"

She grabbed the contents of her pocket and held it out to him. "This enough?"

Not-Shiro stared down at the gold coins - roughly 500 GAC, she thought. A slight smile crept up his stolen face.

"Yes. Now, please, let me go, and I'll leave you be," he said.

"Fine," she snapped, dissolving her bayard. Not-Shiro snatched up the coins, glancing back at where Keith was still lying on the ground.

"Have fun with the little pet," he jeered, before exiting the medbay. As soon as he was gone, Pidge ran over and locked the door - trapping her and Keith in, yes, but also keeping Not-Shiro out. Then she crossed back over to Keith, kneeling down beside him.

"Keith? Can you look at me?"

He didn't move.

Pidge grimaced. "Look at me, pet."

His head moved, turning so his eyes met hers. His expression was terrified, pupils blown wide, as if he was high.

Her gaze darted to his collar. Maybe he is high.

"Sit up," she commanded, and hated how robotically he obeyed. She eyed up the collar, recalling how Coran had removed it after they'd sedated Keith, then reached for it herself. He didn't even flinch as she unlocked the metal contraption, and pulled it away from his neck, wincing as the needles pulled from the purple skin. Blood trickled down from the puncture wounds, which she dabbed at gently, but the biggest change was in Keith himself. He gasped, blinking rapidly, pupils turning back to normal before he collapsed, a sob escaping him.

"Shh, steady, Keith," Pidge soothed, "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. I promise." She rubbed his back, marvelling at the softness of his fur, then paused, remembering what Coran and Lotor had both said.

Quiznak. He can't understand my words.

Fortunately, they had another method of communication.

Pidge tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention, and Keith eventually raised his head, a sorry sight. His cat-like ears were drooping, and tears gathered in the short fur on his face, pooling beneath bloodshot eyes.

Hello, Keith, she signed.

His ears perked up immediately, as did his tail, much to her amusement. Katie? he signed back cautiously.

She nodded. I know it's you, Keith. And so does Lance.

Keith sighed. No, Lance believes Coran.

You're wrong. He knows the truth now, too.

He just shrugged.

Pidge bit her lip. How are you feeling?

Terrible. Confused. Scared. Did you... Keith paused in his signing and stared down at the ground.

She tapped his leg to get his attention again. Did I what?

Did you really buy me? Keith's eyes seemed to grow damper, the slight tremble of his lip betraying his fear. Pidge fought back the urge to embrace him.

What? No! I didn't mean it! Keith, you are your own person. Nobody can buy or sell you. I just gave him those credits so he'd leave you alone, she explained.

I'm not a person anymore.

Something broke in Pidge's chest. "The hell you are!" she shouted, before remembering Keith's situation, and quickly signing it. I don't care what anyone else says. You're still Keith, still my friend. You only acted that way because of drugs, right?

His hands were shaking so hard he could barely form a response. I think so?

You were drugged. Those actions... They're not your fault, okay?

Keith was full-on trembling now, more tears rolling down his cheeks.

Can I hug you? Pidge asked.

She was moving as soon as Keith gave a tentative nod, gathering him into her arms. He curled into the touch, his soft cheek brushing against hers, tears dampening her shirt. Pidge held him close, ignoring how cute it was that his tail wrapped around her waist, focusing on just being there for Keith. Quiznak, he'd been put through absolute hell. First with his capture and torture, then the experimentation... and even after they'd rescued him, Lotor still had his dirty fingers in the mix.

She was still a little disappointed that she hadn't been the one to kill that bastard.

Keith's sobs slowly subsided, but he didn't let go; in fact, he curled even further into their embrace, so he was practically in her lap. She was too small for that, really, but she wasn't going to complain. He was just like a giant cat-

No. She was not going to compare Keith to a pet, never.

"Nobody else is going to hurt you," she whispered, "If they try, I'll quiznaking end them. I promise, Keith. I'm not going to let anyone hurt you, never again."

He hummed slightly, seeming to understand her tone, if not her words.

"I promise," Pidge repeated fiercely.

And she meant it, every damn word.