Allura tried to avoid thinking about Altea. She shoved those memories away with as much force as she could; they just hurt too much. If she remembered, if she let herself mourn, she’d fall apart, and these inexperienced (and in some cases traumatized) paladins needed her to lead them.
However, she’d begun to notice a pattern-- the more she suppressed the memories of her happy childhood on Altea, the more likely it got that they’d blindside her when she least expected it.
Like right now, for instance.
The Princess had been up late, unable to sleep with the constant anxiety pressing down on her. There was still no trace of Shiro, the distress calls were piling up in the Castle’s systems, and Keith still refused to pilot the Black Lion. That very afternoon they’d gotten into a quarrel about it; a quarrel that ended with Keith storming away, a suspicious wet gleam in his eyes.
Usually after a fight Keith would disappear, sometimes for hours at a time. So Allura wasn’t expecting to find him on her late night patrol of the halls, curled into a ball next to Shiro’s bedroom door, head buried in his knees.
She took it all in-- he was missing his jacket, gloves, and boots, leaving him barefoot and exposed to the cold metal. His hair was mussed and tangled, and there were raised red lines over the bare flesh of his arms, like he’d been scratching.
All at once the memory took her.
A small purple shape, trembling and crying, sharp claws raking over skin. Her own voice, asking what was wrong. Warm darkness, a body pressed against hers, a rumble not unlike the purring of the Lions echoing through her chest.
It took her a moment to remember how to breathe, and even then her voice came out pathetically thin.
He jumped violently at her voice, nearly toppling over before he realized who it was. Then his eyes widened and he scrambled to his feet.
“A-Allura… I… um, I…” He hugged his arms tight around himself, and his face was pale and streaked with tears that he tried to scrub away with one hand. Allura’s heart ached. She should’ve realized sooner.
“Keith, are you…” she began, only to trail off. Keith wouldn’t answer truthfully. So instead she said, “Come with me,” and turned. There was only a moment of hesitation before she heard his soft footfalls behind her.
It was fair to say that she didn’t entirely know what she was doing. It had been ten millennia after all, and Keith was only half Galra, at the most. But it was the only thing she could think of that would help.
Allura led him back to her quarters. It was awkward, especially when he halted at the door and Allura had to beckon him inside. None of the Paladins had been in the room before to her knowledge, and Keith’s pale skin looked washed out under the blue lights.
As smoothly as she could manage, Allura perched herself on the edge of her bed. Keith didn’t follow suit, just hovered by the door, shifting from foot to foot as though he was preparing to bolt at any moment. So Allura extended a hand to him, having to remind herself to be patient when he didn’t accept it immediately.
Patience yields focus, said Shiro’s voice in her mind, and she bit her tongue to keep the tears back.
After a few more seconds Keith sidled forward. He didn’t take Allura’s hand, but he sat beside her, just far enough to keep from touching, and she counted it as progress.
“Allura,” he said, his voice husky with tears and the shouting from hours earlier, “I’m-- I’m sorry, about before, I--”
“It’s alright,” interrupted Allura, gently, “That’s not what I wanted to talk about.”
She felt him still. She kept her eyes on her hands, folded in her lap.
“I should have brought it up sooner. I suppose I just assumed you were getting what you needed. Lazy of me, really.”
“What are you talking about, Princess?” asked Keith. She snuck a glance at his face, but he was avoiding her gaze. “I’m fine.”
She sighed a bit. Of course Keith wouldn’t realize. He knew less about the Galra than she did.
Now how was she going to explain it?
“You’re probably not aware of this,” she decided to say, “But Galra have different needs than humans or Alteans.”
Keith flinched at the mention of the Galra. After how Allura had acted before, any mention of them from her probably felt like the beginning of an attack. Her stomach curdled with guilt. But she pressed on.
“They might not seem like it, but the Galra are a social species, or at least they were ten thousand years ago. They require a certain amount of physical contact to stay healthy, physically and emotionally. Do you see what I mean?”
Keith gulped. His arms had folded over his chest, and now he squeezed them, hard, as his eyes found a random object across the room to focus on so that he wouldn’t have to look at her.
“I’m fine,” he repeated, though this time the words seemed choked. “I’m only half anyway. It probably doesn’t affect me.”
Allura rose a disbelieving brow. “Then why were you scratching?” She poked at his arm to make her point and Keith recoiled an inch or two, leaning away from her hands. When he didn’t respond, she continued, “That’s a symptom of touch starvation for Galra. Skin irritation. Difficulty regulating emotion.” She paused for a moment and frowned. “You weren’t getting enough before either, were you? Even with Shiro.”
He shook his head violently, his hands rubbing up and down over his marked arms. “I don’t-- I don’t need that. I’m fine. I’ve gone without for longer. You don’t have to do this.”
“Worry. Care.” He gnawed on his lower lip. “I won’t be a liability. We should focus on finding Shiro.”
For a moment Allura was at a loss. How was she supposed to convince him he mattered as much as Shiro? How could she convince him that she cared, especially after the way she’d acted? She had no idea, but she couldn’t just back down, either. She wasn’t about to let Keith get sicker just because he was stubborn.
“Keith, this… this isn’t about Voltron. I’m not worried about you pulling your weight or being a liability to our mission. I’m worried about you, as a person.” She hesitated, then dared to murmur, “As your friend.”
Keith made a strangled sound, like he was on the edge of more tears.
“What do you want from me, Allura? What do you want me to say?”
“Let me help you. Let me prove that I care.”
His shoulders sagged. He looked so tired-- like all the sleepless nights and relentless anxiety of the last few weeks had come crashing down all at once.
“Fine. I just… fine.”
“Thank you.” Ever so gently she took his hand, and he let her tug him towards the head of her large bed. She hadn’t planned on this, not right away, but he seemed so exhausted. It would probably do them both good to get a little sleep.
Pulling back the duvet, Allura settled herself into bed, ignoring the fact that she was still wearing her day gown. After a bit more prodding and pleading, Keith settled down beside her, leaning his head just slightly on her shoulder but going no further.
It was immensely awkward. The silence around them was tense, and Keith was even more so. His muscles were as stiff as metal. Allura, at a loss of what else to do and nearing the beginnings of panic, began to talk, keeping her voice low so it didn’t disturb the sleeping quiet of the Castle.
“There were Galra on Altea when I was a child. Many of them were hybrids, too, either with Altean blood or other species.”
Keith relaxed a little, so she continued.
“When I was young, perhaps about six decaphoebs, there was a little Galra girl staying in the Castle. She was the daughter of a high-ranking official from Daibazaal. One day I was playing in the garden and I found her sitting near one of the fountains. She was crying and scratching at her arms, but she had claws, so she was bleeding.”
She felt Keith cringe at her side, but he cringed inward instead of away, and she felt the brush of his knees as they pulled up.
“I asked her what was wrong, and she said that she missed her mother.”
Allura’s eyes stared up at the white ceiling, but she was seeing the jewel blue of the Altean sky, feeling the light breeze on her cheeks, blinking away sunspots from the reflection of the sun on the walls of the Castle. The sweet smell of juniberry tickled her nose.
“I told her I missed my mother, too. And asked if there was anything I could do. She just asked for a hug.”
Tears were beginning to sting her eyes.
“So I gave her one and brought her back to my rooms to have her scratches treated, and the next day I spoke to my father about it. He gave her permission to stay with me, and we slept together for the next few phoebs until she and her father returned to Daibazaal.”
A frown creased her lips, replacing the threatening tears. “It’s strange… I can’t quite remember her name now.”
There was silence for a moment, then Keith moved again. One of his hands bunched into Allura’s dress, and he pressed closer to her like he was looking for warmth. He gave a small sniffle.
“I don’t want to forget Shiro,” he said in a small voice. “He’s all I have.”
Acting on instinct, Allura raised her hand to card through his hair. A shudder went down his spine, but he didn’t pull away, so she kept up the motion.
“We won’t forget him.”
A quiet whisper, “Promise?”