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Dream

Chapter Text

The air on the planet is thick with humidity and the soft hum of insects.

Above, elongated trees link to construct a canopy that shelters the jungle, allowing only a few pockets of natural skylight through its seems. A stream of fluorescent green liquid travels down a slope, various colors and contortions of fish and creatures alike jumping from the pool with ease. The dirt is a soft, brownish hue, painting the ground with a layer of thin dust.

Keith sighs, crouching down to examine a plant that’s particularly strange among the rest. Its charcoal black, the stem brisk and littered with razor-sharp thorns that stick out of its spine like the quills of a sea urchin. Its leaves outstretch nearly four or five inches from the head, reaching out wiry fingers to brush against Keith’s own armoured leg. The centerpiece itself, a glorious orange flower like the mane of a fearsome lion, gleams in the sun, memorizing, luring the boy’s gaze with a single wink.

He blinks, retracting slightly before pulling out a crumpled piece of paper. Eyes scanning down the page, pupils dilating and constricting in time with the sun’s presence, he searches for a snapshot of the plant. There’s an orange flower with petals that look wilted and dead, a pink bush with unborn buds, and a yellow, almost sphere-like creature.

At the bottom of the second page--the very last plant-- his gaze catches on a black, coiled up flower. Furrowing his brows, he sets down the paper, then, using a fallen stick from an overhead branch, pokes at the malleable plant. Sure enough, it contracts, wrapping around itself like a mother holds her frightened child.

He places a gloved hand at the plant’s stem, tugging it from the ground with one swift motion. It complies, roots and all, left dangling in his fingertips.

He shoves it into the clear bag Coran had supplied then, pressing a hand to his helmet, says into his comms, “I got it.”

There’s a huff on the other line. “Finally,” Lance snorts, a static hint of frequency brushed on his words.

Keith rolls his eyes. “It’s not my fault the plant was so fucking hard to find.”

There’s a gasp. “Keith, language!” Shiro scolds.

“Sorry.”

Lance snickers.

“Fuck off, Lance,” Keith retorts, face creasing in exasperation. At this point he’s already begun walking toward Red, sand crunching under his boots as he trudges through the jungle.

“Keith!”

“You fuck off.”

“Lance!”

“Can you guys shut up? My ears hurt,” Pidge hisses.

Shiro takes a long breath. “So, that means we’re ready to go?” he asks after a moment. “Everyone’s got their plant?”

“Yes, Shiro,” Pidge says with a voice that drips vexation. “For the last time, everyone’s got their plant.”

Lance giggles again, fractions of his voice cut out by the overhang of trees.

Shiro sighs. “Just making sure. If we don’t get all of Coran’s supplies he’s gonna make us come back.”

“No way in hell,” Hunk shudders. “We’ve been here for hours.”

Shiro lets out a chuckle. “Feels like it.”

~

“Hey, Keith?” Lance asks, breaking the silence.

They’d been walking for some time now, the sun long lost behind the clouds.

Keith narrows his eyes. “Yes, Lance,” he responds, apathetic.

“Sheesh,” Lance retorts. “I was just gonna ask how many plants you got.”

Keith frowns. “Uh… one.”

There’s a pause. “Oh,” Lance says when the red paladin doesn’t elaborate. “I got two.” A smirk’s evident in his voice.

Keith grunts. “Good for you, Lance,” he jeers.

“I, uh,” Pidge starts. “I actually got two, too.”

“Me too,” says Hunk, meekly. “Extra, y’know?”

Keith nods, regardless of the fact that they can’t see him. “Shiro?” he asks.

“I also got two, buddy. Just in case,” Shiro replies.

Keith sighs. “Should, uh, should I get another?”

“I’d just keep your eyes open,” responds Shiro. “No need to go out of your way.”

“Okay.”

Keith allows his eyes to sweep across the landscape, scanning the dirt.

Nightfall is beginning to set in, the last remnants of dawn painting the underbellies of clouds a soft orange. The hum of bugs has amplified, but the humidity has long fizzled out, leaving the air cold and stale.

He shivers, running criss-crossed arms over his biceps. The dirt under his soles sinks under his weight, tugging his ankles slightly with each step.

His gaze catches on a patch of blue flowers and he grins. “No wonder you found your plant so early, Lance. They’re everywhere.”

Lance’s breath hitches from the other line. “Plants. With an ‘s.’ Plural,” he corrects, matter-of-fact. “And whatever, Keith. At least I found more than one.”

Keith huffs, letting them fall into silence.

He takes a moment to scan his eyes across the blue flowers, pupils catching on a single, black plant among the patch. “No way,” he whispers.

“What?” Lance asks, voice urgent.

Keith doesn’t respond, instead, crouching down to further examine the outlier.

“What?!?”

In the dark of the night, Keith can’t be sure it’s the same plant Coran had requested. It is, however, the only other black flower, along with the one Keith had already collected, that he’d seen today.

“Keeeeiiiith,” Lance whines. “Whaaaaatttt?”

“I found it,” Keith replies, distracted. He wraps his fingers around the stem of the plant.

“What? No way. How’d you miss it the first time, dumbass?”

“I dunno,” Keith says. Constricting his grip around the stalk, he tugs-- at first lightly, then when it resists, a little harder. On the second heave, it tears from the dirt with a force. He stumbles back slightly, steadying himself on his own feet.

He takes a moment to examine the plant under the moonlight.

Regardless of possessing the same keen thorns and outstretched pedals, the flower in his hand seems different than the one he’d collected no more than an hour prior.

He squints, face inching closer to the center. “That’s weird,” he whispers.

“What’s weird?” Lance asks over the comms.

“The flower was orange before, not black.”

“Maybe it’s a different plant?” Hunk suggests.

Keith furrows his brows. “No, I-- I haven’t seen any other black plants.”

“Face it, Mullet,” Lance sneers. “I’m superior.”

Keith ignores him, instead opting to poke at the flower. If it coils, he figures, then it’s the same plant.

He reaches a gloved finger out, poking at the center of the plant.

It happens so fast he barely has a moment to register the bug that resembles a flying beetle on steroids extending its wings like a phoenix, screeching high pitched frequency into the night air as it charges at him.

“Fuck!” he shouts, throwing down the plant to the dirt as if it were laced with fire. He jumps back, arms flailing as the bug circles his figure.

“What? Are you okay?” someone says over the line.

His arm knocks his helmet off his head, the armor falling to the floor with a clatter. The bug takes its chance and, without the breath of space between a second, latches onto Keith’s exposed skin. It bears its teeth, fangs digging into his neck like a knife. He lets out a scream, swatting at the bug as it continues to feed on his blood. His veins ignite, pain searing through his muscles in electric shocks.

He shakes his head-- frantic-- hands still scrubbing at his neck. After a moment too long, he manages to clasps his fingers around the bug’s body and pry it from his flesh. He squeezes and it screeches, recoiling back and disappearing into the sterling air.

Keith dives for his helmet, neck throbbing in time with his heartbeat. He slips it on, allowing his starved lungs a moment of air before focusing on the voices that reverberate around his skull.

“Keith!”

“Are you okay?”

“What the fuck!”

“I’m--” he takes a breath, startled by how thick his tongue feels inside his mouth. “I’m okay. There…. there was a bug… on the flower…”

“All that for a fucking bug, Keith. Are you kidding me? I thought you were dead.”

Keith smirks. “Glad to know you care, Lance.” He frowns at how far away the words sound.

Lance huffs from the other line. “As if.”

“Are you okay?” Shiro asks.

“It bit me,” Keith replies. Blur clouds his vision and he’s quick to blink it away.

There’s a silence for a moment. “Are you okay, though?”

Keith thinks. His neck throbs like a metronome and his head feels tangled.

“Keith…?”

“I’m okay,” he says, almost automatically.

“Okay…” Shiro doesn’t sound very convinced. “Are you almost at Red?”

“Yeah,” he replies. “Almost.”

“Good. Get back to her fast, okay? We’ll meet you at the castle.”

Keith nods and, on legs that don’t feel like his own, he resumes his trek towards Red.

~

He tightens his grip around the controls, veering from the path of an oncoming asteroid. With a jolt, Red does a barrel roll, and Keith's stomach lurches.

‘Rest, my paladin,’, she says. ‘Let me fly.’

“‘t’s okay, Red. I can do it,” Keith grits; though, at this point, it’s become rather clear that the lion’s been conducting most of the pilot work anyway.

‘Paladin,” she urges, gently.

Keith nods, slumping into his seat without further question and resting his head on his shoulder. The entirety of his right arm has long gone numb, and if the tingling is any indication his leg is soon thereafter.

The other paladins are chattering into the comms-- something about Star Wars, he thinks-- but he can’t bring himself to focus.

The voices sound more like static electricity in his ears than anything, like he’s underwater, so close to the surface that he can almost breakthrough but he can’t so instead he’s just kind of floating in open ocean.

He lets his gaze fall to the galaxy ahead. Pallets of golden stars paint a black canvas, radiating glorious beams of golden hues as far as the eye can see. Planets litter the scene, various shapes, sizes, and colors decorating the atmosphere with remarkable stains of color.

With a long inhale that feels thick in his lungs but all too thin the same, he focuses on breathing, --in, out-- swallowing down the pulsating pressure in his neck--in, out.

“Keith!” she screamed, a giggle bubbling from her chest.

“Tabatha!” he mocked with a whine. He pushed back the bristles with his thumb and released, sending paint flying through the air.

She laughed again as blue splattered on her face. She wiped a hand down her forehead, smearing the substance across her skin.

‘We’re here,’ Red purrs beneath him.

He blinks.

Once.

Twice.

The world tilts as he pulls himself from the chair and he’s quick to steady against the control table. He takes a breath-- a choppy, somewhat choked inhale, before, against every will in his body, walking on legs that don’t feel like his own toward the door.

When did the world get so blurry?

Left leg forward.

Right leg forward.

Left leg forward.

Right leg forward.

Left leg forward.

He hits something. A hand steadies his shoulder.

“Keith.”

He looks up.

Is he in the hanger already?

Shiro’s concerned face meets his own and he can’t quite command his muscles to form an expression.

“You okay?” Shiro asks with a voice that sounds as far away as the stars.

Keith blinks.

Then blinks again.

“I think,” he says, though it sounds like more of a question.

His neck throbs against his flesh-- boom, boom, boom-- in his ears, over and over again like clockwork-- boom, boom, boom-- and he can’t make it go away, disappear into thin air, like the thin air in his chest, but it’s heavy too, suffocating him and--

Something cold brushes against his forehead and he sinks into it, suddenly feeling hot, too hot, like a hell hound licks against his cheek, his throbbing neck, its flame-infused saliva nestling under his skin.

“Keith? Look at me. You’re burning up. We’re gonna go to the infirmary, okay?” Shiro says.

At least, he thinks it’s Shiro. The figures around him are starting to look a lot more like blurs than coherent beings.

Black, blue, green, yellow.

Where’s red?

He shakes his head, urging it to think.

Oh, right. He’s red.

“Keith?”

Keith huffs. “‘m fine,” he slurs. It’s an automatic response, one that’s been drilled into his head since childhood, and for a moment he doesn’t even realize that it’s him saying the words. He stumbles forward, a drunken man on a tightrope, but something holds him in place.

“Come on,” Shiro says, pulling gently on his bicep.

Keith trips backward, away from the older boy’s touch. “‘m fine, Shiro.”

He doesn’t think his claim is very plausible, though, when he doubles over and vomits onto the floor of the hanger the next moment. His throat burns with acid and saliva strings from his bottom lip.

“Keith!”

The tile beneath him is starting to look a lot closer than before, melting and contorting and gunning towards him like a sports car at full speed.

“I ‘ink the floor ‘s moving,” he slurs.

Chapter Text

Keith looks so small on the table.

He’s laid out, arms limp at his sides, dangling from the metal surface, face contorted into a wince. Sweat beads on his forehead, coating his skin in a shimmering layer. His breaths are shallow, almost inaudible over Lance’s own thick inhales, but his chest heaves quickly like he’s inhaling gallons of seawater all the same.

“What did the bug look like?” Coran asks, frowning. He hovers at Keith’s side, shining a penlight on the latter’s neck, running careful fingers across the mark. The red paladin subconsciously lets out a groan, shying away from the older man’s touch.

Lance, despite knowing that the advisor hasn’t the slightest intention of ill will, can’t help but take a half-step forward. It’s instinctual and, truthfully, he doesn’t even realize the action until a small hand brushes against his bicep, wiry fingers wrapping around his flesh, holding him back with a gentle force. He casts a backward glance, head tilting to the right, skin creasing between his neck and shoulder blade.

Pidge’s pupils are glassy, expression grim, skin pallor. She shakes her head slowly, pleadingly, like she’s begging him to stay in place, eyes shining a thousand words that say something he already knows: there’s nothing he can do.

He nods back to her and she softens her grip on his skin, emerging at his side and wrapping her arms around his own.

Shiro clears his throat. He stands near Keith’s head, hand intertwined with the latter’s. “We didn’t see it,” he starts, eyes not leaving the red paladin’s face. “It was black, I think. It was on one of those blue flowers Lance collected.”

Coran’s frown--somehow-- deepens as he turns to the blue paladin. “The hydraks, my boy?” he asks.

Lance shifts uneasily on his feet, a feeble attempt to rid the gaze that bores into his own. “Yeah,” he says with words that, for the first time in his life, sound void and meek. Pidge gives his hand a squeeze.

Coran nods, eyes falling, face calculating.

“What?” Shiro asks. “What is it?”

Coran doesn’t respond, instead, turning back to face Keith. Again, he shines the light on the latter’s skin, inspecting the bite. His brows furrow.

“Coran, what is it?” Shiro asks again, voice verging on panic.

Coran meets the black paladin’s eyes. “Did you see any insects while on the planet?”

Shiro frowns, confusion washing over his features for a moment, before sobering and saying, “Yeah. There were lots.”

Coran nods. “Any black ones?”

“I don’t-- I don’t think so. I wasn’t paying attention to the bugs.”

Keith lets out a whimper and in a split second, all eyes are on him. Shiro’s whispering something into his ear, though Lance is fairly certain that the words are nothing more than static in the red paladin’s head.

“I, uh,” Hunk speaks up. “I actually, um, I saw a black bug.” His tone is uneven, dubious, like he doesn’t trust himself with such a valuable piece of information. He wrings his fingers together, shrinking in on himself slightly.

Coran doesn’t seem to notice though, instead, shifting his focus back to examining Keith’s neck. “Can you describe what it looked like, number two?” he asks as he scurries across the room and grabs a cotton ball. He begins rubbing at the wound and Lance struggles to stifle a gag as the material taints scarlet no more than a moment later.

“It, uh, it was big-- like, um, like the size of my palm--or, uh, actually my palm is a little big so more like the size of Pidge’s…” he pauses, gaze falling to his feet. “Anyway, it looked kind of like, uh, like a beetle.”

“I’m unsure of what a ‘beetle’ is, my boy,” Coran reminds.

Hunk thinks for a moment. “Uh, well, they have six legs--at least, I think they do-- and two pinchers on their face. They also have wings and when they’re down it kinda looks like they have a turtle shell. Oh, fuck, you don’t know what a turtle is… uh, kind of like a shield on their backs.” At the end of his statement, he offers a sheepish, forced smile.

Coran nods, eyes vacant and lost in thought. “Oh, so like a lozarz,” he says after a moment, matter-of-fact.

Hunk frowns. “Uh… sure?”

“Thank you, number two.”

“Er… you’re welcome?”

There’s a pause, a moment that feels all too long, before Coran’s face falls and his expression darkens. “No, this can’t… I checked...” he mutters to himself, turning back to Keith and placing a hand on the latter’s forehead. He pulls a frown at the touch and murmurs something in Altean under his breath. Then, he peels back each of Keith’s eyelids and shines the penlight into his pupils. “I…” he pauses, releasing the boy’s skin. “I think I know what bit him.”

The room goes silent, tranquility before an answer Lance isn’t sure he wants to hear.

“ Is he okay?” Shiro prompts.

Coran doesn't answer right away, instead, rubbing at his eyes and pushing back a fallen strand of ginger hair.

Shiro’s face flushes. “Coran…?”

“May I speak to you and the princess privately, number 1?”

“No!” Lance shouts before Shiro has the chance to respond. He hadn't meant to say the words aloud; merely allow them to rise to the surface of his tongue and die there, simmering in his saliva. Now, however, he stands tall with his statement, shoulders broadening slightly in a natural instinct to look dominant. “No,” he says again, startled by how feeble his tone sounds in the open air. “Please, I want to know.”

Shiro nods, casting the blue paladin a quick glance before saying, “I agree.”

Coran takes a long breath.“Very well,” he says, swallowing hard. “The bite is from a kiynan.” He pauses, steering his eyes away from the group to land on Keith’s features. “I didn’t--I didn’t realize they were on the planet…” he grits his teeth, “I never would have… the bite, it’s-- it’s almost always fatal.”

The air falls silent, still, thick.

Lance blinks.

“What?” someone asks. Their voice is quiet and broken and far away and it takes him a long moment to register that the words are his own.

“I’m sorry… I… I shouldn’t have…” Coran trails off, fingers gripping around the fabric of his pants so tight Lance thinks he’ll tear holes in them. Allura emerges behind him, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.

In an instant, Shiro’s at Keith’s side again, mumbling into his ear, pushing the boy’s raven-colored hair back in gentle stokes if only to ease his own mind.

Hunk lets out a sob and Pidge’s grip around Lance’s arm tightens, her fingernails digging into his flesh like fangs on a wolf.

“Wait,” Lance starts, barley registering his own words. “You said ‘almost always fatal.’ Not always. That means that there’s a chance…” he pauses, allowing his eyes to scan across Keith. He almost swallows his next sentence without another thought.

Because Keith already looks dead.

His face is flushed, sweat trickling down his skin, chest barley moving under Shiro’s palm.

“... uh… a chance that…”

Shiro’s form trembles, quiet sobs escaping past guarded lips and into the stale air.

“... a chance that he’s…”

And then it hits him.

“Hey, Keith?” Lance asks, breaking the silence.

They’d been walking for some time now, the sun long lost behind the clouds.

Keith narrows his eyes. “Yes, Lance,” he responds, apathetic.

“Sheesh,” Lance retorts. “I was just gonna ask how many plants you got.”

Keith frowns. “Uh… one.”

There’s a pause. “Oh,” Lance says when the red paladin doesn’t elaborate. “I got two.” A smirk’s evident in his voice.

It’s his fault.

If he hadn’t tried to show-off, hadn’t tried to challenge the red paladin, then Keith never would have picked the fucking flower in the first place.

“...he’s gonna be okay…” He blinks back to reality, finishing his statement with the last burst of grit he has left. “That he’s gonna live.”

Coran meets his eyes. “Yes, there is a chance.” He pauses taking a breath. “It has to run its course through his body. If he’s strong enough…”

If he’s strong enough, he’ll live.

“But he is strong,” Lance is saying. “He’s strong. He’s stronger than me and I know that I never admit it, but he is and he can’t die, please, you have to save him, he can’t die. He can’t die because if he dies it’ll all be my fault! Please, you can’t let him die!” Lance isn’t sure when, exactly, he’d started yelling, but his vocal cords feel raw and torn all the same and tears flow from his eyes without consent. His knees buckle beneath him and he feels himself free fall to the ground, hands and fingernails and voices chasing after him, digging into his flesh, holding him upright as he wails in their hold. “It’s my fault! It’s my fault! I’m so sorry! I’m sorry!”

There’s a hot breath in his ear, brushing against his skin, whispering a mantra that he can’t quite grasp onto because Keith’s going to die and it’s all going to be his fault.

He killed the red paladin.

He killed his teammate.

He killed his friend.

He killed his hermano. His brother.

And one thing blares on repeat in his head like a broken VHS player, shouting the same statement from before over and over and over again in his head until all he can do is scream:

There’s nothing he can do.

Chapter Text

Keith still remembered the day Tabatha and Leslie had moved in across the street.

24 Bluestein Ridge bustled with people of all sorts: movers, electricians, painters, contractors, and plumbers consumed the small property, their voices merging into an incoherent sonic boom of sound above the small property.

Keith watched with a curious gaze. He sat on the third stair of the porch, legs grazing the second, elbow angled towards his figure, chin resting against his palm. Inside, his current foster father, Mr. Torrance, blared the evening news, the broadcaster, Amy Noran’s, voice filing through a window the man had cracked open in hopes that the wind would chase away the fumes of his cigarette.

Ahead, a large van with blue lettering that read “Marley’s Moving Services” approached, passing 24 before coming to an immediate halt and backing into the home’s driveway, a persistent beep rattling the air. Keith stiffened as a grunt escaped passed what he could only assume were Mr. Torrance's clenched lips, the TV volume skyrocketing in retaliation.

After a moment, with no indication of movement from his foster father, Keith relaxed, only slightly, gaze returning across the street. He scanned the scene, eyes flicking over the various cardboard boxes, arm-crosses men, and vehicles until his attention hitched on someone particularly intriguing among the rest.

There was a girl of about eight or nine--surely no older than he was-- with long brown hair, round cheeks, and a bright red dress. Assumedly, she belonged to the new owners of the home. She stood next to a woman, fingers intertwined in the fabric of her dress. The woman-- her mother, he guessed-- had a kind face, though a stoic presence, tall and confident, as she spoke to a man in a suit.

Keith trained his eyes on the trio, straining his ears to listen in on the conversation. A sigh slipped from his tongue when the operation proved abortive.

After a moment, the girl, surely having felt his stare burn into her skin, met his gaze-- to which he darted his eyes away almost immediately-- then turned to her mother, tugged on the latter’s dress, and whispered something into her ear.

The woman nodded, looked up, and traced her eyes to the focal point of her daughter's interest. The boy offered a forced, somewhat awkward nod in return, before tearing his gaze away from the pair and directing his pupils to the concrete.

From inside the house (a house, not a home-- never a home), the voice of Mrs. Torrance reverberated off the drywall. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she demanded, voice dripping both contempt and fear.

There was a pause, a ruffle, and Amy Noran’s broadcast muted. “What’s it to you?” Mr. Torrance challenged, tone unwavering.

“It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Jim!”

“What does it fucking matter, Deborah?”

“You have an addiction, that’s what it matters! Look at this, there’s beer bottles everywhere!”

“Shut the hell up!”

“Jim--”

“I said shut the hell up, Deborah!”

Keith screwed his eyes shut, hands coming up to cover his ears. Tears roll down his cheeks, painting his skin in strokes of salt-infused liquid, but he made no effort to wipe them away. His chest swelled with emotions he couldn’t quite pinpoint, the sensation of suffocating creeping upon his senses.

Something brushed against his arm and he felt himself flinch, shrinking into the porch as if he could disappear.

“Hey, um…”

Fingers tapped on his shoulder, gentle and grounding.

“Are you okay?”

He looked up. The girl with long brown hair, round cheeks, and a bright red dress offered him a warm smile.

He took a breath, straightening up and scrubbing at the tears on his cheeks. “Yeah,” he said after a moment.

The girl nodded. “I’m Tabatha. I just moved in across the street.”

“I know,” he responded. He hadn’t meant for the words to sound so brusque. “I’m Keith,” he added as an afterthought.

Tabatha’s face lightened, then fell as a particularly loud shout radiated from the Torrance household. “Are those… are those your parents?” she asked.

Keith huffed. “Foster,” he spat.

The girl frowned as she inched closer. Then, she settled onto the stair next to the boy, failing to notice the flinch that shuddered through his body. “What does that mean?”

He thought for a moment. “They’re not my real parents.”

“Oh.” She paused. “What happened to your real parents?”

“I… uh,” he started, “They, uh, they died when I was little.”

“Oh,” she said, nodding.

Keith gritted, waiting for the unwanted string of apologies that usually followed.

Instead, however, the girl said, “My dad left.”

This time, the boy nodded.

They sat in silence until the sunset.

~

Keith found himself spending more time at 24 Bluestein Ridge than anywhere else. It had, in all sense of the word, become his home, and Tabatha and her mother, Leslie (as Keith had been instructed to call her--“Call me Leslie,” she’d said once. “Ms. Lawrence feels so old.”-- ) had become as close to a family as he’d ever had.

“Happy birthday, Keith!” Tabatha smiled, shoving a gift into unexpecting arms.

The wrapping paper was red, a white ribbon and bow decorating the surface, and it sagged in his hold.

“You didn’t have to…” Keith trailed off, eyes meeting Tabatha and Leslie.

Leslie shook her head.“Of course we did. Go on, open it,” she prompted.

He sat down on the floor, box nestled in his lap. He tore it open the next moment, paper flying in every direction.

Inside, beneath a mound of tissue paper which now lay castaway on the floor, red fabric-lined the cardboard.

“It’s a jacket!” Tabatha shouted, excitement dripping off each syllable.

“Tabatha!” Leslie scolded, though her tone void of any palpable anger.

Keith held the gift up in all its glory. It was red, with a white collar and yellow line that ran through the torso. “Thank you, Tabby. And-- and thank you, Leslie,” he said, wasting no time in slipping on the jacket.

A smile grew on Leslie’s face. “It’s a little big. I thought you could grow into it.”

~

Outside, the soft pitter-patter of rain coated the concrete.

Keith sat on the kitchen counter, legs dangling off the edge, Tabatha at his side, hand cupped with his and fingers an intertwined mess.

Leslie wet a cloth at the sink, turned off the faucet, wrung out the fabric, and shuffled toward Keith.

“I wish he wouldn’t keep doing this, Keith,” she said as she patted at a cut that bled sluggishly from his forehead.

“I know,” he whispered. “I know, but you can’t-- you can’t call it in. Please, Leslie. I don’t-- I can’t leave you guys.”

Leslie took a long inhale. “I know.” She paused, thought crossing her eyes. “I wanted to wait until Christmas to tell you, but now’s as good a time as any, I suppose.”

Keith felt his breath hitch in his throat. “What?” he asked.

“While, we’ve lived here for what, three years now? And you just about live here anyway, so I thought why not just make it official.”

Keith’s eyes widened. “You mean…?”

She smiled. “Yes. It’ll take some time though, adoption papers don’t come easy. Maybe two years.”

“I don’t care! I-I can wait!”

“Does this mean he’s gonna be my brother?” Tabatha asked.

Leslie thought for a moment. “Isn’t he already?”

~

The extravagant rays of sun didn’t reflect the day to come.

Keith and Tabatha were playing catch, football soaring through the air, sky seemingly only an arm's reach away.

“Throw it with one hand, Tabby,” Keith ordered, tossing her the toy.

“Easy-peasy!” she smirked, hand disappearing behind her back. She threw the ball with ease, sending it spinning straight into Keith’s palm.

“Throw it with your eyes closed,” she giggled.

Keith snorted. He shut his eyelids, darkness consuming light, brushed his fingertips across the ball, then, with as much power as he could muster, whipped it forward.

“It went on the street!”

He opened his eyes. The ball bounced across the pavement.

“I can get it!”

Tabatha ran into the street, leaning down and grabbing the ball. She smiled back at him, expression melting into a frown when it slipped from her fingers. She giggled, shook her head, and then leaned down again.

He saw it before he heard it.

A truck was barreling toward her, engine roaring, wheels screeching. 

The ghost of a scream cracked through the air.  Metal clattered onto concrete.

“Tabby!”

He ran forward, heart hammering against his ears, pounding in time with his feet.

“Tabatha!  Tabby!”

He fell to her side, scooping her up into his arms.

“Kid, I’m so sorry,” someone was saying. “I didn’t see her-- I swear--”

“Call 911!” he growled.

Tabatha's breath was shallow, barely there. Her face was littered with cuts, blood oozing from her forehead, cheeks, chest. “Tabby, please! It’s not funny! Please! Tabby! Tabby, please!” his voice broke on each word, sobs suffocating his lungs, diaphragm contracting inside his chest.

Her blood stained his hands, swallowing the white of his t-shirt, imprinting onto his flesh. “Tabby! Wake up! Please don’t leave me!” he shouted.

His throat spasmed as he wailed. He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her body, hugging around her torso, crying into her lifeless shoulder.

“Tabby! Tabby, please!”

--”Keith!” --

“Tabby! Wake up!”

--“Keith, wake up!”--

“Please, Tabby! I need you!”

She sunk deeper into his arms, a single tear rolling down her cheek as the rise and fall of her chest slowed to a stop.

“Tabby! Wake up!”

Nothing.

“Tabby! Please! Tabby!”

-- “Keith! Please!”--

 

The funeral was held the next week.

Leslie, for the first time since that day, approached him. Her face was red and puffy, tear tracks marking her cheeks. “I keep telling myself not to blame you,” she started, voice meek. “That it’s not your fault. That you’re just a kid.” She met his eyes. “But I can’t.”

--“Wake up!”--

His breath hitched in his chest.

“You know better than to play by the street. You--” a sob cut her off-- “you know better,” she whispered. “If she didn’t--if you hadn't thrown the ball, if you hadn't been fooling around-- she never would have…she never would have…”

She never would have died.

“And I don’t want to-- I don’t want to-- but every time I look at your face I see her. And I hate you for that.”

--”Keith!”--

Then she lunged at him, a large man holding her back, restraining her as she thrashed in his hold. She dissolved into wailing screams that shook her whole body. “I hate you!” She crashed to the ground. “It’s your fault! You’re the reason she’s dead!”

-- “Keith!”--

He ran, somewhere, anywhere, away from Leslie and the funeral and his foster parents and the truck and Tabatha until his legs ached.

He collapsed to the concrete, sobs tearing from his throat as rain soaks his suit, trickled down his skin, melted with his tears. The blood that he’d scrubbed from his hands so many times returned, painting his palms. He clawed at his skin, tearing, pulling at it like he could wash the memories away.

Then he looked to the sky, amethyst meeting black, and screamed until his throat bled and his lungs starved.

He'd killed Leslie's daughter.

He'd killed his friend.

He'd killed his sister.

He'd killed the only family he'd ever had.

Chapter Text

i. Hour Nine

The gentle beeping of machines settles into the room like a rhythmic background track.

The chair is hard and stale beneath Lance. He tugs the blanket closer to his chin, snuggling his body further into the fuzzy blue material. It brushes against his skin, warmth almost enough to lull him into the realm of dreams. He blinks himself awake, becoming slightly more aware as his eyes adjust to the darkness of the room.

He figures it’s sometime during the small hours of the day, the castle’s established 24-hour cycle still rendering the lights off.

Lance’s pupils dilate like the shutter of a camera, revealing the outline of immediate objects. Ahead, the bed consumes most of his peripheral vision, a mound beneath the sheets only slightly visible. For a moment, Lance simply watches the slow rise and fall of Keith’s chest. Though the latter’s breaths are shallow and fitful, barley inaudible unless Lance strains his ears, the blue paladin can’t help the sigh of relief that escapes passed his lips.

Because Keith is still alive.

He chases away further indications with a swallow, shifting his gaze across the room.

Shiro’s form is slumped, elbow leaning against the armrest and hand cradling his cheek. Faint snores resonate from his larynx, adding a layer to the air.

Once again, Lance finds relief swelling inside his chest. The creases of worry and tension that had begun painting the black paladin’s face in shades of pallor and age seem to have deteriorated slightly.

It’d been a nearly impossible feat to convince the older boy to shed his armor into a pair of pajamas and swallow down a spoonful of goo, let alone sleep. Allura and Coran had spent a good thirty minutes chiseling away at his stubbornness.

“You must rest, number one,” Coran had said.

Shiro simply huffed. “I’m not leaving him.”

“Shiro--” Allura tried.

“I’m not leaving him, Allura. I can’t-- I can’t…”

After some time, the Alteans had given in, opting instead to fetch various necessities like water, food, and blankets. Lance had offered to stay with Shiro-- identifying with the latter’s remorse-- and after his breakdown a few hours prior, no one seemed to protest.

Pidge and Hunk left only on the promise that if anything (“and I mean, anything,” Pidge had said) were to happen they would be immediately alerted. Lance and Shiro had nodded their reassurances, offering a murmur of goodbyes as the Alteans shuffled the pair to their rooms.

Lance’s eyes trickle back to Shiro who’s shivering, expression somehow creasing further.

As quiet as he can muster, Lance pulls himself from the chair, scooping his blanket into his arms and tiptoeing across the floor. The tile is cold beneath his bare feet, like the sidewalk on a winter evening, and his skin prickles in goosebumps.

He holds his breath as he dawns the blanket over Shiro, fastening the material down with a gentle pat. The latter shifts, but, to Lance’s relief, doesn’t stir, instead accepting the notion and pulling it close, letting out a subconscious groan of tranquility.

Lance backtracks, scurrying across the floor and settling back into his chair. Without his blanket, he feels more exposed, vulnerable in the night air like something in the darkness will reach out and grab him from behind, dragging him away before his screams can even be heard. Then he realizes that it doesn’t really matter anyway because the worst type of monster has already come.

Once again, he trains his eyes on Keith, the slow rise and fall of the latter’s chest grounding him.

Lance guesses it’s around two in the morning so, deducabbly, Keith’s been sick for about nine hours.

“If number four can make it past the first 72 vargas,” Coran said. “Then a full recovery is to be expected.”

“Let’s say he does,” Pidge responded. “What happens after?”

Coran thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he answered.

Lance swallows down the implication of Coran’s words: he hadn’t known because no one had ever lasted that long.

A whimper drags him back to reality. Immediately-- instinctively-- his eyes dart to Keith.

“Keith?”

The red paladin is whispering something nearly inaudible and Lance leans forward slightly in his chair, urging his ears to decipher the statement.

“You... didn’t...have to…”

Lance frowns. “Didn’t have to what?” he asks, though he’s almost certain the sentence isn’t directed at him. He considers waking Shiro, figuring the latter would benefit from hearing Keith’s voice, regardless of whether its conscious conversation or not.

“Tha’k you, ‘bby. .. you, Leslie.”

“...are you okay?”

There’s no response and after a moment, Keith seems to relax again, words dripping to a halt. Lance takes a slow breath of both relief and disappointment, allowing his head to rest on his knee.

His eyelids are willing to close, tugging against his sockets in temptation. He submits, diminishing the resistance in his muscles. Darkness engulfs his senses, a blanket of serenity washing over him for the first time since the mission.
But, as Lance has quickly come to learn, tranquility wears an expiration date.

“Throw... ‘t with one ‘and, Tabby,” Keith slurs.

Lance’s ears prickle at the words and he wonders who Tabby is. Perhaps a friend, a person from the past, a mere figment of the red paladin’s imagination that exists only in the reality of a dream.

He doesn’t contribute further thought, instead crossing his arms over his chest and pulling his knees closer to his body. For a moment, the temptation of a woolen hoodie almost has him on his feet and slipping out of the infirmary, but the thought of Keith needing him, pleading his name while he’s rummaging aimlessly through his closet takes priority. He knows it's an unlikely, almost comically thought. Because, realistically, if the red paladin were to call out to anyone it would be Shiro.

“Tabby.” Keith’s voice is quiet, frail, but the urgency behind his tone renders Lance curious.

Despite himself--despite the privacy he owes Keith-- he inches forward.

“Call 911!”

Even in the darkness, Lance can see the outline of Keith’s body, hear the friction of fabric against itself as he twists on the mattress.

The blue paladin reaches out a hand toward Keith, then pulls back, allowing it to hover uselessly in the air between them. He doesn’t want to set off the latter further.

“Tabby! Tabby, please!” Keith screams. His voice is clogged, breath hitching and the sound of sobs breaking up his words.

“Keith!” Lance shouts.

Across the room, Shiro stirs. “What’s going on?” he asks. “Is everything okay?”

“I think Keith’s having a nightmare. Can you-- can you turn on the lights?” Lance responds. He feels awkward and mistaken ordering Shiro, regardless of the circumstances they’re under.

In turn, though, the leader doesn’t seem to notice, lights flickering on the next moment.

The room seems a lot smaller with the newfound illumination, each outline Lance had traced coloring in what had once been left for his imagination.

“Tabby! Wake up!” Keith screams, frantic, with a kind of desperation in his voice that simmers in Lance’s gut. The boy’s cheeks are flushed like he’s just participated in a race but the rest of his face paints pallor. His sheets are kicked downward, leaving his heaving chest exposed, a sweat mark off-putting the coloration of his shirt. His hair is a matted mess-- in any other scenario Lance would have poked fun at him-- styled away from his face with sweat and friction.

“Keith, wake up,” Shiro prompts, gently. He hovers at Keith’s side, too looking unsure of what to do. He shoots Lance a look that speaks a thousand words before placing a gentle hand on the red paladin’s forehead. “Fuck, he’s burning up.”

“Please, Tabby! I need you!”

A pang jolts through Lance’s heart and he’s suddenly all too aware of his presence. He feels invasive, like he’s overhearing something Keith would rather him not.

“Tabby! Please! Tabby!” Keith shakes his head, shrugging away from Shiro’s hold, pushing himself deeper into the comforter.

“Keith! Please!” Lance finds himself shouting. He knows he should keep his worry at bay, carry a calmness in his voice that the boy in distress lacks, but he can’t bring himself to do so. Because he’s not sure how much longer he can stomach Keith’s cries, how much longer he can contain the fear that boils in his stomach.

I keep telling myself… not to blame you. That ‘t’s not your fault. That you're just a kid. But I can’t.”

“Come on, man. Wake up!” Lance begs, reaching a hand out to Keith’s arm. He nearly recoils at the touch, the heat radiating off his friend catching him off guard, before he collects himself and begins shaking the paladin.

Across, Shiro’s doing the same, shouting Keith’s name over and over again like a mantra.

“I hate you! It’s your fault! You’re the reason she’s dead!”

It hints Lance like a gut punch, and along with a nauseous undertone, the hyperawareness returns in full force.

He shouldn’t be here. This is something for Keith and Shiro.

“Keith!” Lance screams again, shaking the boy’s arm more frantically this time.

“I’m gonna get Coran! Stay with him, okay?” Shiro orders, turning on his heel and running out of the room as fast as his legs can take him.

Lance’s breath hitches at the thought of being left alone. It’s logical why Shiro went, really. He's much faster than Lance. Still, the blue paladin can’t shake the feeling that he’s out of place. That he’s filling a spot he doesn’t belong in.

Keith’s screams break through the stale air of the infirmary, unwavering like a broken siren.

“Keith, wake up! Please, wake up!” Lance shouts, tears welding in his eyes. He shakes Keith frantically now.

“Please, Keith!”

The terrifying realization that Keith-- the stoic, emotionless, hotheaded red paladin-- is crying feels more like a slap in the face than anything.

“Keith!”

He’s thrashing, pushing against Lance.

“Keith!”

Then like the motion of a lightswitch, Keith shoots up, straight into Lance’s hold.

The blue plain shifts, wrapping both arms around Keith’s shoulders and pulling him close. “Shh, it’s okay,” he whispers, rubbing his hands up and down the boy’s arm as he cries into his shoulder. “It's okay, you’re okay.”

Lance swallows hard as Keith’s sobs fill the air, the heaving and contracting of the latter’s muscles igniting under his palm. He moves his hand to brush against the back of Keith’s head, fingers intertwining with locks of the boy’s hair as he pulled him closer. He grimaces at the heat radiating off of his friend, instead focusing on steadying the boy’s breathing.

“I-I- killed her,” Keith whispers.
The words have Lance reeling and he struggles to remind himself that this is, in fact, a fever-induced conversation.

He wants to probe, ask if this has something to do with that Tabby girl but he figures that will just further upset the paladin. Instead, he settles on repeating his mantra, hoping the consistency will create some sort of foundation for Keith to ground himself on. “Shh, it’s okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“I’m so sorry.”

They stay like that for a long time; well until Keith falls asleep against Lance and he leans his friend back against the mattress, pulling the covers up to reach his chin.

Then, he wipes at the tears that litter his own face, wishing he too had someone to tell him it was going to be okay.

Chapter Text

“Lance!”

At the sound of his name, Lance’s head snaps towards the door. He stiffens in the chair, straightening up.

Coran and Shiro rush straight into the infirmary, wasting no time in getting to Keith. Behind them, Pidge, Hunk, and Allura trail. They scurry across the room, settling next into the vaccant chairs next to Lance.

“Are you okay?” Pidge whispers, placing a gentle hand on his thigh.

He nods, avoiding her eyes.“I‘m fine. Mullet’s just sleep talkin,” he replies. The words quiver slightly, the emotionless mask he wears faltering.

Pidge shoots him a skeptical look but nods nonetheless. "Okay," she whispers, sniffling.

“His fever is really high, Coran,” Shiro says. His hand rests on Keith’s forehead, who, in turn, leans into the touch.

The advisor frowns, brows furrowing, and he opens his mouth.

“His body temperature is extremely elevated,” Hunk supplies, predicting the question forming on the advisor's lips.

Coran nods. “Right, of course.” He pauses for a moment, eyes scanning the room. “Er, remove the blanket, number one.”

Shiro complies, tearing the already thin sheet covering Keith off. The red paladin groans, shifting against the mattress. Shiro places a gentle hand on his shoulder, whispering something inaudible into the boy’s ear, faces so close they’re almost touching.

“Good,” Coran says, expression dark. “That should help.” He turns to Lance. “My boy, did anything happen we’ll we were gone?”

Lance considers for a moment. He knows, realistically, he should share that Keith woke up. But, something in his brain stops him, whispers that Keith wouldn’t want his fever-induced meltdown portrayed in the open for everyone to dissect.

Or worse, imagine.

Lance owes him that much.

“Lance…?” Allura whispers. She places a hand on his shoulder.

“No, nothing. He just kind of relaxed after a second.”

Shiro’s face falters, features palling for just a moment, and Lance feels guilt swell in his gut.

“Very well. Thank you, number three,” sighs Coran.

Lance offers him a half-nod, remorse still creeping up his esophagus. He swallows, sinking deeper into his chair. Allura’s grip on his shoulder tightens and he turns, eyes meeting hers. She offers him a small, sullen smile.

“Uh… Coran?”

“Yes, number three?”

“I don’t, uh, I don’t think taking the blanket off is doing much,” Hunk says. Until now, Lance had almost forgotten he was there, the yellow paladin’s habit of shrinking into his surroundings at full force.

Lance’s gaze falls to Keith. His face is still flushed, sweat gleaming a ghostly shimmer on his skin, breathing labored.

Coran shifts on his feet. “I see. I’m afraid that I’m unfamiliar with the correct treatments for human ailments.”

“I saw on TV once that if someone’s fever is too high, you put them into an ice bath,” Pidge muses. “Maybe--maybe we could do that?”

Coran’s face brightens and, for the first time since they’ve returned to the castle, hope glints in his eyes. “We could certainly try. Princess, number five, could you go collect ice from the freezer and run a bath?”

“Of course,” replies Allura. Without another word, she and Pidge slip from the infirmary and disappear into the hallway, fading footsteps the only remnant of their visit.

“Alright,” Coran starts, eyes falling to Keith. “Let’s get him moved.”

“I got it,” Shiro says, swooping Keith into his arms with a grunt. The boy’s arms and legs dangle from the paladin’s hold, and he lets out a groan, lulling his head against Shiro’s chest.

~

Footsteps clatter down the hallway.

Keith hasn’t stirred in Shiro’s hold, which is both fortunate and concerning. Hunk and Lance walk at the leader's side, with a precautionary sort of gate, and Coran takes the front, chattering on about something as they near the bathroom.

“Hunk, you and I are the strongest, so we’re gonna have to hold him down,” Shiro breathes.

Hunk nods, eyebrows raising at the sight of Shiro’s reddening features. “Do you need help…? He asks, gaze trailing the red paladin.

Shiro shakes his head, tightening his grip around the boy. “Nah, I got him.” He turns to Lance. “I think you should get some rest.”

Lance shakes his head. “No, I’m fine. Really, Shiro. I wanna help.”

I need to help.

Shiro nods. “I know you do, bud. But I don’t think there’s much you can help with right now. You’ve just gotta take care of yourself.”

“Shiro--”

"We can’t have two unhealthy paladins.”

“Okay," Lance sighs.

He’s not sure why he agrees. Perhaps it’s the worn look on Shiro’s features, or the thought of holding a distressed Keith down in nearly hypothermic water that sends his gut rolling, or the will to not complicate an already dreadful process.

An idea flashes across his eyes.

“Just don’t bring him back to the infirmary after.”

“What?”

“Bring him to the lounge.”

And with that, Lance darts down the hallway, any response Shiro may have given lost beneath the pounding of his feet and idea in his mind.

Chapter Text

“Are you ready, Hunk?”

Hunk blinks.

“Hunk?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready,” he whispers. He shifts on his feet, eyes trained on the daunting water ahead. Ice floats at the surface, creating a layer between the hypothermic liquid and stale air in the room.

Shiro nods. Looking down, he scans across Keith’s, who’s been stripped to nothing but his boxers, flushed expression, his own features darkening slightly at the sight. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.

A frown pulls on Hunk’s lips and he lets out a long sigh. The nauseous feeling building in his gut only swells at the thought of forcing a delirious Keith into a glacial bathtub against his own will. “I don’t wanna do this, Shiro,” he says, as if a last-minute truth can change the inevitable. He knows, however, that this is an unfortunate necessity.

“I don’t either, Hunk,” Shiro replies. His face glints pallor and Hunk thinks the same sick sensation wriggles in his stomach, too.

Behind them, a melancholy grunt of concurring bubbles from Coran’s chest. The advisor stands a few feet back, tablet in hand. “The water has reached 500 degrees almeta,” he mumbles, swiping a long fingertip down the screen. The paladins shoot him a questioning glare and his skin turns a sheepish red. “Right, sorry. The water’s ready.”

Shiro nods and, with a grimace flashing across his cheeks, hovers Keith over the tub. He swallows, takes a long breath, then lowers the red paladin into the water.

At first-- for both a terrifying and serene moment--the boy simply remains limp in the water, head supported only by Shiro’s gentle hand.

Then he screams.

Hunk jumps to attention, pushing both hands against Keith’s legs to restrain him. Shiro does the same, wrapping thick fingers around the boy’s shoulders and pressing him to the bottom.

The red paladin thrashes, fighting against their hold. He shakes his head wildly, body wriggling back and forth under the surface, nothing but his skull void of the substance. He shouts again with a ferocity in his tone that has Hunk shuddering.

“I’m sorry, Keith,” Shiro says again. “I’m so sorry.”

Hunk stifles a gag, shielding his mouth in the crook of his shoulder before turning his attention back to Keith.

The boy’s muscles tense beneath his hands, contracting like the jaws of a venus flytrap. He shrieks again, and Hunk grimaces in sympathy at the falter of his surely strained vocal cords.

“Keith, it’s Shiro! You need to relax”

Hunk isn’t sure whether it’s the older boy’s words or pure exhaustion that makes Keith still slightly, but he can’t help a sigh of relief that washes over him. He feels the latter’s thighs unclench, flesh expanding as his leg falls to the bottom.

“‘ro?”

Hunk’s heart nearly jumps from his chest at the sound of Keith’s voice. It’s weak, hoarse, nearly inaudible and he has to strain his ears to hear it, but it’s there. And that’s enough.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me, buddy,” Shiro says in the gentlest tone Hunk has ever heard slip from the older boy’s mouth.

Coran lets out a slow sigh from behind, the notion enough to steady Hunk’s own breathing.

“‘t hurts,” Keith slurs. His face contorts, creasing into a prominent wince.

“I know. I know, Keith. Can you tell me where it hurts?” Shiro asks. Hunk hates how his voice quivers, face illuminates a bright red, expression held in a way that says he holds back the threatening parade of tears with a stoic mask.

“‘vreywhere. In m’ bones.”

Hunk’s stomach does a flip at the words.

“You’re in an ice bath, buddy. It’s just cold. Can you open your eyes for me?”

Hunk holds his breath, hope creeping up his throat.

“‘avy.”

“I know they’re heavy. But, you’re strong.”

“f’r ‘ou,” Keith whispers.

“For me,” Shiro repeats.

Hunk watches with a stale kind of concern as the paladin struggles to creak open an eyelid. Watching someone so tough--someone who prides himself on untouchable strength-- weak and unable to perform a simple task tugs against his heartstrings.

After a moment too long, Keith flutters open an eye, his pupils dull and glassy with fever, constricting in the light, darting back and forth as they fail to focus.

“Hey, there he is.”

“I don’t ‘anna be in ‘ere,” is all Keith replies.

Shiro takes a breath. “I don’t want you to be in there, either,” he says. “Your fever is really high, we just gotta get it down.”

Keith seems to understand--as much as anyone in his state can muster, at least-- nodding his head once. “‘on’t feel so good,” he whispers after a moment, a tear slipping down his cheek and pooling with the water beneath him.

“I know. You’re really sick, buddy.”

“‘rom bug?”

Hunk relaxes slightly. If Keith remembers why he’s sick-- has memory of what happened yesterday--surely he’s getting better, right?

Right?

“Yeah, from the bug.”

“‘m I gonna die?”

In an instant, any relief that lingers in Hunk is washed away, replaced by the all-consuming feeling of dread and fear.

“No. No, you’re not gonna die.”

“But ‘t feels like ‘m in a dream.”

“That’s okay. It’s okay. You’re not, though. You’re with me, okay? You need to stay with me.”

“... trying.”

“I know,” Shiro whispers. “You're doing good.”

“‘ow much longer?” Keith asks.

Hunk’s ears perk up at the words, the same question burning on his senses.

 Coran clears his throat. “Erm… not much longer, number 4.”

Hunk has nearly forgotten the advisor is there. In a twisted kind of way, knowing someone else feels the same helplessness sends a jolt of comfort down his spine.

“...that Coran?”

“Yeah. yeah, he’s here. Hunk is, too.”

Keith’s face shifts. “No.”

“What do you mean ‘no,” Shiro asks, tone gentle, though his expression shines confused.

“‘on’t want ‘em to see me like this.”

Hunk’s heart drops at the words. He understands Keith isn’t aware--is only reverting back to a shell he’s built up around himself from childhood-- but the meaning still stings nonetheless.

He doesn’t trust Coran or Hunk.

Shiro shoots Hunk an apologetic glance. “It’s okay. They’re friends.”

Keith frowns. “‘t smells like smoke.”

“What?”

“t smells like smoke,” he says again. Then, his arm jerks, sending droplets of freezing water flying through the air.

“Wha--I don’t smell anything.”

Keith shakes his head. “‘Tastes like ‘t, ‘oo.”

It hits Hunk like a gut punch to his already nauseous stomach. “Get him out of the water,” he says.

“What?”

When Hunk’s was little, his mother used to take him to the local hospital where she worked as a nurse. One day, a man had come in frantic, saying he smelled and tasted strange things and that everything felt dreamlike and fuzzy.

“Get him out of the water!”

“Hun--”

“He’s gonna seize!”

Chapter Text

“That’s not how you stir, you know,” she says, a somewhat arrogant smile playing on her lips. Her yellow dress glints beautifully next to the window, igniting her face in a golden glow.

Keith looks up, slowing the motion of his wrist and meeting her eyes. “What do you mean?” he asks “It doesn’t really matter.”

She lets out a giggle, tucking a fallen strand of brown hair behind her ear. Snatching the bowl from his hands, she transfers the whisk between her own meaty fingers. “Cupcake batter is delicate, Keith,” she says, beginning to spin the beige substance as smooth as an oiled machine. “If you mix it too hard, it won’t come out well--”

He saw it before he heard it.

--Keith frowns. “It’s just cupcakes, Tabbs--”

The truck was barreling toward her, out of control, engine roaring, wheels screeching at the collision.

--Tabatha shoots him a look. “It’s not ‘just cupcake’ making,’” she scoffs, a defensive hint in her tone. “It’s an art--”

Metal clattered onto the concrete-.

-- Keith grins. “That’s why you have an A and I have an F--”

Tabatha's breath was shallow, barely there. Her face was littered with cuts, blood oozing from her forehead, cheeks, chest. “Tabby, please! It’s not funny! Please! Tabby! Tabby, please!” his voice broke on each word, sobs suffocating his lungs, diaphragm contracting inside his chest.

--Tabby chuckles. “I still don’t get how you’re failing fifth-grade art class, Keith--”

Her blood stained his hands, swallowing the white of his t-shirt, imprinting onto his flesh. “Tabby! Wake up! Please don’t leave me!” he shouted.

--With a huff, Keith replies, “Because she hates me!--”

Please, Tabby! I need you!”

She sank deeper into his arms, a single tear rolling down her cheek as the rise and fall of her chest slowed to a stop.

“Tabby! Wake up!”

Nothing.

“Tabby! Please! Tabby!”

--The girl raises a brow. “Or because you get in a fight with Sam Mckay every other day--”

The funeral was held the next week.

Leslie, for the first time since that day, approached him.

--Keith sighs. “He starts it,” he says, dipping a hand into the bowl and scooping out a string of batter--

“You know better than to play by the street,” Leslie started. You--” a sob cut her off-- “you know better,” she whispered. “If she didn’t--if you hadn't thrown the ball, if you hadn't been fooling around-- she never would have…she never would have…”

She never would have died.

--“Keith!” Tabby shouts, retracting the bowl away--

He ran, somewhere, anywhere, away from Leslie and the funeral and his foster parents and the truck and Tabatha until his legs ached.

He collapses to the concrete, sobs tearing from his throat as rain soaks his suit, trickles down his skin, melts with his tears. The blood that he’d scrubbed from his hands returned, painting his palms, and he clawed at his skin, tore, pulled at it like he could wash the memories away.

-- Keith smirks. “It’s good--”

Then he looked at the sky, amethyst meeting black, and screamed until his throat bled and his lungs starved.

-- “Thanks,” Tabby smiles.

Keith looks back up, eyes searching to scan her face and stopping in place. She stands in front of him, still mixing the batter, but her dress has switched from yellow to white. A frown grows on Keith’s lips and he squints. “Tabby… your dress.”

She meets his eyes. “Oh,” she says. “You like it?”

“When did you…?”

She drops the bowl, batter scattering across the kitchen cabinets like pain. Collapsing to the ground, she clutches at her abdomen, breaths struggling to squeeze through clenched teeth.

Keith darts forward, crashing to his knees. “Tabby, Tabby, what’s wrong!” He pries her fingers away from her stomach. A red stain swells, consuming the fabric of her dress. Keith puts is own hand atop the alteration, a warm, sticky substance smothering his skin. “Tabby, look at me! Stay awake!”

“I can’t, Keith,” she says. Then her face melts, gentle rosy features washing away and replacing with a ghoulishly gray tone. She opened her mouth to speak again and rotted teeth pour out of her mouth like water. “I can't because I’m dead!” she shouts. “And you killed me!”

~

“Keith?”

“Keith, you awake?”

“C’mon, you can do it.”

He groans.

“Open your eyes.”

“Cupcake batter is delicate, Keith." 

“Keith, get up.”

“I still don’t get how you’re failing fifth-grade art class, Keith.”

“You can do it.”

“I can’t, Keith.”

“Please.”

“I can't because I’m dead! And you killed me!”

His breath hitches, head snapping to the side. “Tab’y, ‘m sorry,” he slurs.

“What?”

With a strained inhale, he peels open an eyelid. There’s a figure above him and he blinks, trying to rid the blur from his sight. His body feels heavy, dragged down, as he struggles to move. There’s a pressure on his chest, a gentle retraction, pushing him back downwards.

“Keith, can you hear me?” someone whispers, tone soft and gentle. “You with me?”

He squints. There’s a mess of green, the outline of a face, the faint reflection of glasses. “Pidge?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” she says. “How’re you feeling?”

The ground beneath him is soft, gentle, and a pressure weighs on his chest, the brush of hair tickling his chin. “Where ‘m I?” He hates the way his voice sounds, how the words roll off his tongue without thought.

“The lounge,” Pidge whispers.

Keith frowns. His neck stiffens as he twists it slightly to the side. Beside him, Hunk’s head rests on his bicep, a soft snore escaping past his lips and blowing a chunk of his chocolate hair up with each breath. He’s wrapped up in a blanket, fabric swooning him like a cacoon. To his left, Lance slumps against the yellow paladin, his own blue comforter placed over both of them.

Pidge’s head rests on his Keith’s chest, hand tracing a spot across his ribs. He finds himself stiffening at the action, then relaxing slightly, too exhausted to resist. On her other side, Shiro lays, his hand trapped beneath her body. His face is creased, bags underneath his eyes prominent as shallow snores of a restless sleep fill the air.

Above, Keith straining his eyes to catch a glimpse, Coran and Allura slump against a pushed back couch, heads lulling against each other's shoulders.

“How…?”

“Lance, Allura, and I set it up,” Pidge whispers with a yawn. “Just moved the couches and filled it with blankets and mattresses.”

“Why?” Keith finds himself asking. 

“Because we care about you," Pidge replies. "Now get some rest. We'll talk more in the morning." And with that, she snuggles into his skin, breaths evening against his neck.

Chapter Text

Pidge’s head rises and falls in time with Keith’s chest like clockwork.

She hears the gentle rasp of his inhales, the manner in which his heart pounds against his ribs, the ruffle of fabric as he shifts slightly beneath her and it comforts her in a way that she can't quite understand.

She nuzzles deeper into him, struggling to ignore the heat radiating through his shirt, the sweat the coats his skin, the almost inaudible murmurs of discomfort that come with intervals of dream-induced twitches.

Occasionally, he’ll whisper in his sleep, the words nothing more than a fragment of urgency to the girl.

But she doesn’t care.

This is the closest she's been to Keith in days, the feeling of him beneath her enough to create the false facade that everything is fine even for just a moment, and she'll take it. 

To her left, the sound of muted chatter fills the air. She peels open an eyelid, blinking to allow her pupil a moment to adjus to the light.

Lance and Hunk prop themselves up against a pillow, whispering something inaudible over the gentle snore of the other paladins.

A wave of relief washes over Pidge at the sight.

Last night, Hunk, Shiro (who cradled Keith so tight it looked like that latter would pop), and Coran had burst into the lounge with pale expression and a breathless pace.

For a moment, their faces had softened as they scanned the room. “What’s all this?” Coran asked, the tension in his muscles falling slightly.

“We didn’t really want Keith to be cooped up in the infirmary any longer,” Lance replied with a shrug. “No biggie.”

Shiro took a long breath.“No, this is-- this is amazing. Thanks, guys,” he said, placing Keith onto a red fuzzy blanket. “We really needed this.”

There was a silence for a moment, before Allura asked, “Did the ice bath work?”

Hunk, Coran, and Shiro shared a look.

“Shiro…?”

“Yeah, it, uh, it worked a bit, but he… um, he seized after so…”

Pidge remembers the way her heart plummeted from her chest at the words, the disheveling image her mind crafted of Keith writhing against the floor, the mantra that played in her mind on repeat saying: there’s nothing you can do.

A short chuckle tears her to reality.

Across the room, the color in Hunk’s face has almost fully returned, the remnants of a light pallor still brushing on his features. Still, blackened ringlets of stress and terror pile beneath his eyes, his skin creasing with lines of worry that Pidge thinks may never fade.

She props herself up on steady arms, taking one of Keith’s hands in her own and running the pad of her fingertips against his skin. His face is flushed, hair pushed back and matted with sweat in a way that Lance would have poked fun at given any other circumstances. A sheen of sweat and exhaustion gleans on his features, painting his skin a ghostly glow. His breaths are raspy and labored, like a great weight settles against his chest and he can’t quite push past it.

“Pidge, you’re up,” Hunk whispers.

Her eyes flicker to the pair.

“Yeah,” she replies. Carefully, she crawls over Keith and finds a space among the blue and yellow paladins.

“How is he?” Lance asks.

“He woke up last night. I think he was having a nightmare or something, I dunno.”

“Why didn’t you wake us up?” Hunk says, a hint of hurt, of disappointment, glazed in his tone.

For a moment, guilt creeps up Pidges throat and she chases it down with a thick swallow. She knows that Hunk wants nothing more than to see Keith awake, have tangible evidence that the red paladin is conscious, that he’s breathing, a way for the former to bury the hole of helplessness that grows in the depths of his stomach. “You guys needed the sleep,” she says, like it’ll help, like it’ll cure the pain, like it’ll ease the distress that swells in her own heart. And then, as an almost mindless afterthought, she adds, “He was in and out. I don’t think you’d want to see him like that.”

Hunk’s face shifts, muscles contorting and contracting beneath his flesh. For a breathless moment, she thinks he’ll cry, or scream, or both, but instead his features just fall into a darkened disappointment and she almost wishes for the former instead.

There’s a long, somewhat uneasy inhale from Lance that grounds Pidge because it’s tangible and palpable and the only thing that seems controllable. “Did he-- did he say anything-- anything, you know, important?” he asks in a tone so soft, so quiet, that Pidge has to stifle a pointed glance in his direction.

She thinks for a moment, though the memories are all but pleasant. “He kept-- he was-- he was apologizing, but it-- it wasn't to me.”

Lance’s expression changes, shifts beneath stiff muscles and tired eyes, and he says in a frantic, almost desperate voice, “Was it to Tabby? Was he apologizing to Tabby?”

For an undetectable reason, something inside Pidge’s chest contracts and she feels an all-consuming-- almost instinctual-- desire to protect Keith, protect his mind, protect his thoughts that he guards behind steel walls and an unbreakable vacant expression. But she swallows it down with a painful hitch of her throat and the self-proclaimed promise that Hunk and Lance only have the best intentions. “Yeah. How do you…?

Lance pushes back a strand of fallen hair with the flick of a wrist, eyes darting across the room, and Pidge can tell he’s contemplating the same morales. “That night-- the first night-- Keith started having this.... this nightmare and he started saying weird shit and calling out her name. And then he-- he shouted stuff like ‘please, Tabby’ and ‘I need you.’ It was pretty fucking heartbreaking, man. And then he--” he pauses, taking a long breath before continuing, “he started apologizing and at the same time saying shit like ‘I hate you,’ ‘it’s your fault,’ ‘you’re the reason she’s dead.’ Then he-- fuck he’s gonna hate for this-- but he started to-- to... nevermind, it doesn’t matter.” He looks down, face flushing red like a guilty man. “Oh, and,” he adds as an afterthought, “I think he said ‘call 911!’”

Pidge’s heart runs cold in her chest. “Do you-- do you think it was just a dream?” she asks, though the answer edges in her throat all the same.

For the first time, Hunk speaks up. “I don’t,” he says. “I wish it was, but I don’t. I mean, we all know Keith has pretty shitty past, right? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see it.”

Lance frowns. “What do you mean?”

Hunk gapes at him. “Are you kidding?” he whisper-shouts. At the next sentence, he lowers his voice, leaning into the air between the trio slightly, before saying, “Have you not notice how closed off he is sometimes? Or, like, how he flinches if you touch his shoulder or something? And he’s mentioned stuff about foster homes before.”

“This isn't a fucking movie, Hunk. This is his real life. Are you saying you think he’s been, like, abused or something?”

Hunk and Pidge share a nod.

Lance laughs a sick, humorless, melancholy sound. “You’re joking.”

“I mean, think about it, Lance.”

The blue paladin shakes his head frantically. “No,” he says in a voice not dissimilar from the one he’s used when they’d found out Keith had been bitten. “Who would-- who would hurt mullet? He’s was just-- he is just a kid.”

Hunk shrugs. “I dunno. But whatever happened, whatever made him so closed off, I think it has something to do with Tabby.”

Three pairs of eyes fall to Keith, a mutual understanding derived in each stare.  

Chapter Text

“Do you know who Tabby is?”

The question comes quick, unexpected, striking Shiro like a gut punch, and he finds himself retracting as if really being hit. The space between him and the blue paladin seems closer than before, no more than a foot now. He straightens up against the pillows, pulling himself up on shaking arms. “What?”

“The name Tabby. Does it sound familiar?” Lance asks.

A face swollen with both grimace and heat replaces Shiro’s usual soft expression. “How do you…?”

How do you know?

The ghost of a scream shudders against his brain, a cold sweat, a parade of tears, a muse of a nightmare, Keith’s shaking form against his terrified own. He chases it away with an involuntary intake of breath that replaces steady exhales as coloring drains from his skin.

Lance seems to understand, face shifting into a creased perplexion. “Keith was-- was saying her name in his sleep. He sounded pretty upset,” he says.

Shiro remembers the way Keith would cling to his shirt, sob into the fabric, dig his fingernails into the older’s flesh and scream until his throat tore raw.

“Oh,” is all Shiro can say. Everything else on his tongue seems so grotesque and vile and wrong.

The wrongness in betraying Keith’s trust; the wrongness of old, buried memories resurfacing; the wrongness of Shiro’s little brother suffering; the wrongness of the black paladin not being able to divert the pain into himself; the wrongness of this whole goddamn situation.

“Shiro…?”

“I… I don’t know who she is,” he answers.

And it’s half true. He’s never seen Tabby a day in his life. He only knows her through fragments of Keith’s nightmares, through shouts of self-hate and guilt that hang from his brother’s tongue, through his sobs and flashbacks and pain.

He’s never met Tabby a day in his life, but he feels like he’s known her a lifetime.

“Are you sure?” Pidge asks, with eyes like broken, exhausted saucers.

Something in his chest twinges, inflates, screams at him that he’s double-crossing the mantra he relentlessly preaches about honesty and trust, but the idea, the horror, of betraying Keith, of breaking that honesty and trust between them, pushes back, a civil war catalyzing in his brain. “What else did he say?” he settles on, a mediator in the midst of a battle.

Lance flashes a look of despair, of dread and guilt and terror, that Shiro resonates with all too well, before saying, “He kept apologizing, again and again, saying that it was his fault. He screamed ‘call 911’ and her-- Tabby’s-- name and-he... he…” he trails off.

Shiro thinks-- knows-- the blue paladin has more to say, it’s painted on the younger’s face in streaks of red and a lip bite, and a certain pang of respect for him courses through Shiro. Lance is honest, protective, and although he may not show it enough, cares for Keith like a brother.

So, Shiro finds himself extending a line of truth. “He used to have nightmares when he was younger. He would scream that stuff, too. He always used to say that it was his fault-- that she was dead because of him.”

Hunk is the first to speak, with a voice that sounds too soft, even for the gentle boy. “Maybe it’s some form of PTSD. If you piece it all together, it’s really not that complicated. He knew someone named Tabby, and there was an accident one day-- that’s why he shouts ‘call 911!’-- something must have happened and she died. He thinks it’s his fault-- most likely because he was there.”

Shiro nods. “I’ve always thought that,” he admits.

“Hunk?” Allura asks from a few feet away.

Shiro nearly jumps from his skin, unaware that the princess was even awake, let alone listening in. Next to her, Coran rubs at tired eyes, a yawn flexing his jaw.

“Yeah?”

“What’s PRSV?”

Hunk’s face softens. “PTSD,” he corrects, gently. “Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder. It’s after someone's experiences a traumatic event. Like for some people it’s a car crash, or--”

“I have PTSD, Allura,” Shiro finds himself saying. He’s not sure why, exactly, the words roll off his tongue. It’s become a pattern that each time the disorder is brought up, he slips into an almost automatic state, not fully aware of his surroundings. As if his trauma overrides his mind. “I have it from the prison. It means you get flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and it’s like you can never really espace the events. Like they’re always there.” He pauses for a moment, realizing he’s never, truly, sorted through the baggage of his PTSD before. It feels like a disentangled, unsolvable mound in his brain that he pushes away, suffocates beneath the current task at hand.

A look of pity brushes against Allura's features before melting into a frown. “So you think Keith has this… this trauma?”

Shiro nods. “I wish not.”

The sensation of wrongness hits him again all at once and he nearly flinches back, like it’ll ease the unbearable e guilt that piles onto his already weighed shoulders. He feels wrong for talking about Keith behind his back; wrong for crafting accusation about Keith; wrong that he’s healthy and Keith’s not.

A groan sounds from the cushions and Shiro is pulled back to reality with a quick start.

He jumps to his feet, darting across the room and next to Keith.

At the sight of Keith, the heat that radiates off of him, the way he shifts in his sleep, the persistent, merciless word stabs into Shiro’s stomach once again and twists the blade:

Wrong.

Chapter Text

Shiro has witnessed many wrong things in his life.

A jar that just won’t close right, a stray hair amongst an otherwise pristine ponytail, a broken pencil that sits lost at the bottom of a child’s book bag.

He’s seen the flare of anger in the gentle of Hunk’s eyes, his teammates fail at both complex and simple attacks in battle, a soldier's broken limb directed at every angle.

But nothing has ever looked quite as wrong as Keith and that fucking bite mark engraved into his neck.

His skin is flushed, sweat sticking raven-colored hair to his forehead, eyes glassed in shades of fever. He shifts and twists in his sleep, mumbling all too familiar words.

He says, “Tabby!

He says,“I’m sorry.”

He says, “It’s my fault.”

Shiro’s fingers hover awkwardly over the boy’s body unsure, like for the first time in his life he has no idea what to do. He places a hand on Keith’s shoulder, ignoring the way the latter flinches at the touch and shakes him gently. “Come on, bud,” he whispers. “Come on, wake up.”

A grunt escapes passed Keith’s lips and he halts his movement for a moment. “Sh’ro?” he asks through gritted teeth. He doesn’t open his eyes, instead contorting his expression into a grimace.

“Yeah, bud. Can you open your eyes for me?” Shiro can feel the other’s presence creeping up behind him, Lance breathing hot air down the length of the former’s neck, but he keeps his focus trained on Keith.

“She’s de’ad, Shiro.”

A cold weight swells inside Shiro’s chest and he swallows it down to simmer in the pit of his stomach.“Who’s dead?” he asks, despite the answer clawing up his throat.

“Tabby.”

The weight inside of Shiro’s chest plummets, his heart in tow. He opens his mouth to reply, to offer some form of consultation, but all he can manage is a nod that Keith can’t even see.

“Leslie’s mad,” Keith continues, words barley coherent above the slur in his throat. “Says ‘t’s my fa’lt.”

And, against every grotesque sense of self-hatred that floods his mind, Shiro asks,“Why is it your fault, Keith?”

Keith’s flushed skin only redness with each labored breath, his eyes still screwed shut and face paralyzed in a wince. “I th’rew ‘he ball,” he whispers. “Then t’he car came and I di’dn’t see it. I shoul’ve seen it, Sh’ro.” A sob choked from his throat but he doesn’t shudder at the action like he usually does in a moment of vulnerability. He endures it like he doesn’t even realize it’s happening, like he deserves it.

“It’s not your fault, Keith,” says a voice from behind Shiro. It belongs to Hunk, who inches closer and settles by the boy’s side. The others follow suit, emerging onto the various surrounding pillows.

“Am I gonna die?” Keith asks after a moment.

Shiro stiffens. “No,” he replies automatically if only to convince himself.

“That’s not fai’r. Why d’d Tabby die an’ I didn’t?”

Shiro almost starts fucking sobbing at the word because he has no idea how long Keith has been keeping those thoughts locked up, only to be broken down by a fever-induced duleriam. Hunk doesn’t fair as well, tears spilling from his eyes that he tries frantically to wipe away with meaty palms.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Lance asks aloud, albeit intended to be said internally. His face is tight, a sort of anger that Shiro’s never seen before flaring in his eyes.

“I think - I think she was hit by a car,” Pidge dissects. She runs wiry fingers through Keith’s matted hair, gaze pointed down to rest on his features.

Chapter Text

At this moment, all Keith knows is that it's too hot, his eyelids feel secured with pasty, gritty cement, and the voices that tunnel down at him are far louder than before.

A sadness (which, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to detect the source of) settles in his limbs like lead. His brain pulsates against the inside of his skull like a metronome, all but bruised and swollen. He grunts, shifting onto his right side, head grazing against a hard surface. Nimble fingers, cool and gentle, caress his scalp in a systematic motion and he finds himself nuzzling closer to the touch.

“You with us, Mullet?”

Mullet--

Keith squints, face inching closer to the center. “That’s weird,” he whispers.

“What’s weird?” Lance asks over the comms.

“The flower was orange before, not black.”

“Maybe it’s a different plant?” Hunk suggests.

Keith furrows his brows. “No, I-- I haven’t seen any other black plants.”

“Face it, Mullet,” Lance sneers. “I’m superior.”

--Lance.

Keith doesn’t understand. He’s been here the whole time, hasn’t he?

“Where’d I go?” he asks. At least, he thinks he does. He’s not sure over the sandpaper that scrapes against his tongue and the running water flushing his ears.

A chuckle answers his question. “You have no idea.”

The voice is real, and warm, and genuine and he wants nothing more than to crawl into the words and never leave. He stretches a frail arm (though, conflictingly enough, it feels like a sequence of tons all the same), grasping blindly in the suffocating air as if he can capture the comfort and keep it captive for eternity. Insted, a cold hand shackles his wrist, lowering it onto a plush surface and running the pad of a thumb against his skin.

“Can you open your eyes for me?”

The question belongs to Shiro, his rustic, all too familiar voice one that Keith can decipher from a jumble of any capacity.

He tries to force his eyelids apart, reveal his uneasy, dry pupils, but the cement seems to have hardened, making the task a nearly impossible feat.

“Can’t,” he says, still unsure whether the words plunge from his tongue or simply simmer to death in the rawness of his throat.

“You can, buddy,” Shiro says, and Keith can feel-- really feel-- the way his brother’s thumb applies encouraging pressure to his hand.

He tries again, eyes slitting open for just a moment before reality tugs them back down.

He lets out a frustrated growl.

“Well, what about me?” someone whispers. “Can you open your eyes for me?”

This time, Keith can’t recognize the voice. It’s sweet and light and high-pitch like candy with vanilla and sprinkles, but an undertone of a hiss brushes beneath words that nearly inaudible.. He’s certain it’s not Allura or Pidge, their voices far too mature.

No, this voice sounds very young, as if Hunk were to inhale a pint of helium and spit out soft mantras.

Then something in his brain clicks, rusting wheels turning against screeching mechanisms and he almost chokes on his own tongue.

His stomach plunges, heart soars, burning features hitch to a broil. He almost throws up, stifling a gag against thick ridges of a fraying esophagus.

“Throw it with one hand, Tabby,” Keith ordered, tossing her the toy.

“Easy-peasy!” she smirked, hand disappearing behind her back. She threw the ball with ease, sending it spinning straight into Keith’s palm.

“Throw it with your eyes closed,” she giggled.

Keith snorted. He shut his eyelids, darkness consuming light, brushed his fingertips across the ball, then, with as much power as he could muster, whipped it forward.

“It went on the street!”

He opened his eyes. The ball bounced across the pavement.

“I can get it!”

Tabatha ran into the street, leaning down and grabbing the ball. She smiled back at him, expression melting into a frown when it slipped from her fingers. She giggled, shook her head, and then leaned down again.

But, it couldn’t be her.

Right?

“Tabby?” he asks. And this time, he can feel every syllable crash onto his chest.

He saw it before he heard it.

The truck was barreling toward her, out of control, engine roaring, wheels screeching at the collision.

Metal clattered onto the concrete.

“Can you open your eyes for me?” she asks again.

He fights against the concrete, lids pulling with all their might.

“Trying, but they’re so heavy.”

“For me, Keith,” she whispers. He can feel how close she is now, hot breath licking against his features.

“Tabby!”

He ran forward, heart hammering against his ears, pounding in time with his feet.

“Tabatha!”

“Tabby!”

He fell to her side, scooping her up into his arms.

“Kid, I’m so sorry,” someone was saying. “I didn’t see her-- I swear--”

“Call 911!” he growled.

With each pry against his lids, the concrete softens slightly.

Tabatha’s breath was shallow, barely there. Her face was littered with cuts, blood oozing from her forehead, cheeks, chest. “Tabby, please! It’s not funny! Please! Tabby! Tabby, please!” his voice broke on each word, sobs suffocating his lungs, diaphragm contracting inside his chest.

Her blood stained his hands, swallowing the white of his t-shirt, imprinting onto his flesh. “Tabby! Wake up! Please don’t leave me!” he shouted.

His throat spasmed as he wailed. He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her body, hugging around her torso, crying into her lifeless shoulder.

Light floods his vision and he squints, blinking the blurred smears into view. He sees his team: Shiro nealed in front of him, hand wrapped around Keith’s own; Lance and Pidge hovering behind the black paladin, Lance’s fingers wrapped around his shoulder; Hunk’s reddened face just barley swimming into vision, his gentle features creased in an unfamiliar grimness; Allura is the one who runs her lanky fingertips across his scalp, his head resting on her thigh; Coran hidden in the corner, tapping furiously at a computer.

And then he sees her.

She crouches in front of him, just ahead of Shiro, green eyes boisterous and naive and young and just the way he remembers his little sister. A beguiling white dress flows across her figure, red butterflies embroidered across her chest.

He casts her a smile, though he’s sure it proves more of a grimace than anything. She returns the gestures, rosy cheeks igniting across a familiar gentle expression. “Do you wanna play?” she asks, voice dripping with untouchable euphoria.

Keith thinks she looks like an angel.

“I can’t right now, Tabby,” he all but whispers, the sadness from before enveloping him.

Her face collapses. “Why not?”

“I don’t think I can stand up, kid,” he replies, tearing his gaze from her.

She nods. “I guess we don’t want a repeat of last time.”

Keith’s heart stops. She can’t be--

“What?”

And then something in her face shifts, contorts beneath her skin, a mouthful of jagged fangs consuming her teeth. “When you killed me,” she hisses. “Don’t you remember?”

She sunk deeper into his arms, a single tear rolling down her cheek as the rise and fall of her chest slowed to a stop.

Something pinches against Keith’s cheeks, the lump in his throat choking his airway, chest swelling against his flesh, frothing for freedom.

“I know. I know, Tabby. I’m so sorry. I wish it was me-- I wish it was me every day. I’m so, so fucking sorry.”

A geyser materializes on her abdomen, violent red eating up the white of the dress in timeless moments. “Sorry doesn’t cut it, Keith!” she shouts. “I’m dead because of you! It’s your fault, you should have been watching the road!”

The words feel like a gut punch, and nausea churns against the lining of his stomach, bile shooting up his throat, seering the microscopic lacerations as he chokes it back down. “I know,” he says, the words poison and acid and pain against his gums. “Fuck, I know. But, I don’t know what else to do. I can’t - I - I think about it so fucking much and there’s still nothing I can do. I was useless then and I’m useless now and I’m so sorry.”

She stills for a long moment, the blood trickling from her skirt and onto the floor, fangs glinting as she slides her tongue across them. “You should’ve thought about that before,” she hisses, and then she almost smiles, a malicious, vengeful sort of grin.

Keith thinks he’s sobbing now, his heart pounding against his chest and the knot in his throat burrowing into his muscle tissue.

In the sliver of calm, his teammate's voices flow back into circulation, still drowned out and far.

“- look at me, look at me-”

“- Keith -”

“- no one here -”

“- sedative -”

“- no - just woke up -”

“- Shiro -”

“- I know-”

His attention is torn away from them, a grunt slipping passed Tabatha’s blue lips. He directs his gaze to her, face grimacing because he can’t bare the thought of looking into the face of the little girl who died because of him.

His little sister who died because of him.

He feels a prick in his neck, a cold substance electrifying through his veins and he feels the world tip.

In strobe images, he watches Tabby lunge toward him, flinches as her wilted fingers constrict around his throat. And he deserves it. It’s okay.

“My mom was right. Who would ever want a son like you?” she spits, fangs bearing as the pressure around his neck tightens like a cuffs.

Which is fitting, really. He should be in handcuffs. Not with the best team and friends and family in the world.

“Tabby…” he croaks, as if one meaningless apology can free him from the shackles of guilt. He’s pathetic, just like Mr. Torrance said when he was eleven.”

“It’s your fault.”

The room spindles into vibrant chunks of ribbon, tumbling back and forth as if someone had placed the world in a washing machine. He looks up, the fragments of Tabby’s face trickling in front of his eyes like a timeless VHS tape.

And he knows that he deserves it.

It’s all right when the scene goes black.