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Whumptober 2k19 Collection

Chapter Text


Shiro looked up from the papers he was grading, a smile on his face in anticipation of his boyfriend returning home. But where he was expecting to see Adam, complaining about his classes as he toed off his shoes, he instead found Adam with an irritated expression, hauling someone in behind him by their elbow. 

The black hair and orange jacket gave it away.


The boy winced and halted in the doorway, but Adam scowled and yanked him forward, then kicked the door shut with his heel. Keith’s posture was defensive, shoulders hunched in and head turned away, and Adam’s jaw looked tight enough to crack-- all things Shiro couldn’t put together.

“Adam, what’s going on?” he asked as he rose to his feet. Adam dumped his bag off of his shoulder with a single irate movement and pulled on Keith’s arm again. 

“Your little prodigy,” he spat the word out like it tasted bad, and Keith flinched. “Got into another fight. Right outside our building, I might add.”

Shiro let out a long, long sigh. He almost slumped back into his chair with the force of it, but somehow kept the energy to remain standing. It had been a while since Keith’s last altercation, and he’d been hoping it would really be the last, been hoping that there would be some indication or proof that all of Shiro’s efforts weren’t going to waste. But, once again, Keith had lost his way. 

“I don’t understand why you keep going with this,” Adam was saying as Shiro pulled himself out of his thoughts. “He’s making you look bad. Are you really going to put your reputation and your career on the line for some kid?”

Shiro raised his eyebrows at him. Sure, Adam had the right to be frustrated, Shiro was frustrated too, but did he really need to say it in front of Keith? And, upon closer inspection, his grip did look a bit too tight. 

“I’ll talk to Keith,” he answered, trying to keep his tone even so as not to spark (another) fight. “We can discuss everything else later.”

But Adam didn’t seem appeased. His eyes snapped sparks as he exclaimed, “He’s not worth it!”


Keith jerked back at Shiro’s shout, almost dislodging his arm from Adam’s hold. For a long moment the two of them just stared at each other, fighting a silent battle, before Adam reluctantly released Keith. 

“Whatever,” he said, and scooped up his bag again. “I have papers to grade.”

Shiro didn’t move until the bedroom door closed behind him. Then, and only then, did he flick his eyes back to Keith. 

He was in his ‘I’m a stone statue don’t look at me’ posture, arms crossed tightly over his chest and hiding behind his unruly hair. Shiro, already knowing how situations like this tended to go, took a patient breath and waited. Eventually Keith would crack. 

“I don’t think Adam likes me,” he muttered after a moment of awkward quiet. Shiro could only shake his head.

“Was he telling the truth? Did you get into a fight?”

Keith’s shoulders deepened their hunch. He didn’t look incredibly inclined to answer, so Shiro took it upon himself to search for clues. His Garrison blazer was rumpled and smeared with dirt in a few places, like Keith’s right elbow. His hair was caught with leaves and twigs. All evidence seemed to support Adam’s claim. 

Shiro tried again. “Did you hit anybody?”

This time Keith shook his head in vigorous denial, but he still didn’t look up. Shiro took a knee in front of him and peered under Keith’s bangs at his face, only to find one eye blackened and a crusting of blood around his nose. 

“You said you didn’t hit anybody,” Shiro said in a disappointed sigh. Keith went rigid.

“I didn’t,” he insisted, “see?” He unfolded his arms and held out his hands-- they were clean, no blood, bruising, or scraping that would indicate a fistfight. Shiro couldn’t help but notice how they trembled before Keith curled them back into fists; possibly from adrenaline.

“So what happened?”

“I didn’t hit them,” Keith said again. “But that doesn’t mean they didn’t hit me.”

Understanding came over him then in a cool wave that quickly froze over into fury. 

“You were beat up?”

Still avoiding his eyes, Keith nodded. 

“Who was it?”

For a few seconds Keith didn’t answer. Then, haltingly, he murmured, “You should listen to Adam.”

Shiro was taken aback, so much so that he stood up from his kneel and took a step away. 


“I don’t belong here. Everybody knows it. You should quit wasting your time.” Under his folded arms his hands were clenched into fists. Still shaking. 

“I’m not wasting it,” he heard himself say. Really, he was on autopilot. He’d had this conversation with Keith so many times over the last few months, he knew it by heart. “I know you have what it takes to make it here.”

Usually at this point Keith would blush and try to shake off the compliment and then get a determined look on his face, like he was promising not to let Shiro down. But not this time. This time, he gave a mean sounding laugh. 

“You’re the only one stupid enough to believe that.”

It felt like a punch in the gut. He’d seen Keith snap and snarl before, but this was the first time he’d turned his claws on Shiro, and it surprised him almost as much as it hurt him. Even so, he tried to make himself sound stern.

“Hey, that was uncalled for.”

“Quit being such an idealistic idiot, Shiro. You know kids like me don’t change. Once a troublemaker, always a troublemaker.”


“God, just send me back already! You aren’t a hero, you can’t save me, just give up!”

Shiro understood, then. He took a step forward, but Keith backed away from him, one of his hands jerking out of position. They hadn’t been shaking from adrenaline or anger-- but rather from fear, because Keith came into this knowing he was going to push. Knowing he was going to make Shiro angry and preparing for the consequences. 

Well, Shiro wasn’t going to play along. 

“Do you really want to leave?”

Keith paused, caught off guard by the question, and when he didn’t answer Shiro pressed on.

“Because if you do, if you’re not happy here, I won’t make you stay. I’ll send you back to the group home, like you asked. But something tells me you don’t really want to leave. Do you?”

Slowly, still cringing, Keith shook his head no. Shiro relaxed some of the tension in his spine. 

“I know it’s scary. I know it feels safer to run. But try to believe me when I say that I don’t ever want to hurt you, Keith.”

He was still trying to hide his face, but Shiro saw the tear fall, anyway.

“Can you look at me?”

It took about thirty seconds, but eventually Keith managed to edge his chin up enough to sneak a glance at Shiro. When he did, Shiro unfolded his arms and held them out. It took another fifteen seconds for Keith to step into them. 

“I’m sorry,” Keith whispered into his ear. Shiro sighed and rubbed his back.

“I forgive you.” 


Chapter Text

He was too late. 

The realization pounded in his brain almost as loud as his feet pounded on the floor, almost drowning out the droning beepbeepbeep echoing from the chamber behind him. There were too many of them, he wouldn’t have been able to disarm them in time, but he’d wasted too much time trying. He was too late. 

The bombs were going to go off. Shiro was going to die. And Keith was probably going to follow him into the grave, this time. 

Still, he ran on. He’d always had some sort of twisted luck in situations like these-- they were awful, death-defying, but somehow he always made it out alive. 

That wasn’t the case this time. He made it as far as the archway before the stairs when he felt the tremble in the ground. He had time to think oh, quiznack before the shockwave hit. 

The archway crumbled over him. He hit the floor hard, heavy impacts covering his body as the rocks fell and landed on his armor. One hit just right on his left leg and he let out an anguished cry as he felt the bone snap. 

Then Keith just lay there, eyes squeezed shut with involuntary tears pouring from underneath the lids, trying to breathe. Between the dust and the ash in the air, it wasn’t working too well. Coughing felt like being stabbed in the chest. 

He couldn’t see-- the stone covered him completely. He couldn’t hear-- his ears were ringing so loudly it was painful, the eardrums probably burst. He couldn’t move-- pinned down by debris. And slowly, the longer he stayed there, the more the adrenaline leaked out of his system, the more aware he became of the sensations on his back.

All down the length of his spine, his shoulders, following the curves of his legs, all of it felt… wet. Sticky. It was another few minutes before the pain set in, and only then did Keith realize what had happened.

They were burns. He hadn’t been far enough away to escape the heat from the bombs. 

It was only getting worse. The weight on top of him was pressing his suit into the ruined flesh. Keith dug his teeth into his forearm to keep from screaming. If any of the claimants had survived, if they heard him, they’d very likely kill him first and ask questions later. Though, as the pain only got worse and worse as the minutes ticked by, he began to wonder if that would be an entirely bad thing. 

I’m sorry, Shiro. 

Thinking about that almost hurt as bad as the burns, but it was the only thing that could distract him from the fact that he was slowly dying. He failed Shiro. He killed Shiro. The only person to give him a chance, and just as he’d always feared, he ruined it. Keith’s incompetence had killed him, and now he was going to die too, and no one would be left to fly Black, and it was all his stupid fucking fault. 

Keith felt the warm tears spill down his cheeks, carving paths through the dust, and let it happen without a fight. 

He accepted the fact that he was going to die alone. He’d made that choice, and the other Blades had made theirs clear, too. 

Then you’ll die with them. 

He should’ve listened to them. 

Waking up to purple metal was incredibly confusing, to say the least. Keith had never expected to wake up again, let alone in what appeared to be a Galra med bay. Maybe it was heaven, or hell. Did Galra go to heaven? Did his species matter? Or was there some sort of special afterlife for aliens?

Those thoughts fled from his brain when he caught sight of the doctor leaning over him. It was Xarxes, the medic from Blade HQ. 

Somehow, he was alive.

It was three days before his hearing came back. The moment it did Kolivan was in the med bay, staring him down with that disappointed frown, and Keith wished the Blades had followed up on their threat and left him there. It would’ve been better than dealing with Kolivan after Keith had disappointed him for the millionth time. 

For a while Kolivan didn’t say anything, or even look at him. He just stood at one of the windows, staring out at the stars, hands folded neatly behind his back and not saying a word. So Keith followed suit and stared at the wall, distracting himself with the itch of healing tissue under the bandages. 

Finally, Kolivan sighed and said, “You went off the plan.”

Keith closed his eyes, glad he was facing the opposite direction from Kolivan. He was too tired to hide his emotions the way he’d normally try to. 

“Shiro was there. We need him and Lotor alive.” There was a pause, then Keith dared to ask, “Are they?”

“Yes,” Kolivan answered, “The Black Paladin and the Galra Prince lived.”

Keith let out a shaky breath of relief. If Shiro was alive, then it had all been worth it. 

“That is the only reason I haven’t removed you from missions.” Kolivan’s tone was flat and dead, and Keith hated it. It only proved that Kolivan didn’t care about anything-- not about Shiro, or Keith, or even himself. He only cared about the mission. Always the mission. 

“Why’d you come back for me?” The question had been plaguing him for days. The Blade didn’t run rescues. Keith had made the decision to deviate from the plan, defy orders, and therefore whatever happened afterwards was his problem, not theirs.

“I wouldn’t have, had you been a normal Blade.” Keith’s fingers curled into the thin sheets. “But you aren’t a normal Blade. You’re a Paladin, and sooner or later the other Paladins would’ve wondered where you were. I needed something to present to them.”

He needed my body. Keith wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He was a bit surprised that Kolivan had any concern whatsoever for what the Paladins thought, but maybe it wasn’t personal. In fact, it probably wasn’t personal at all. Just an action to appease an ally. 

Kolivan sighed again, and his boots whispered on the floor as he pivoted to face Keith. But Keith didn’t turn, didn’t open his eyes, and for once Kolivan let it go. 

“I’m putting you on solo missions from here on out. Perhaps you’ll do better that way.”

It was stupid, but for some reason that made tears sting behind his eyes. But it shouldn’t have been, shouldn’t have been surprising. Of course he was better off alone, where he couldn’t put anyone in danger or screw up their orders or get in the way. 

He didn’t answer. Eventually Kolivan left, leaving Keith, as always, alone. 

It took another week before the burns on his back were healed enough for him to return to the field. The newly healed flesh itched and he could feel the scars pulling under his suit whenever he moved, but he could put up with it. It was a good reminder of what happened when he fucked up. 

Keith sighed as he peeled his flight suit from his sweaty skin. It had been a long, long, long day, but despite that he felt surprisingly good. Sure, he hurt all over from his battle with Shiro. Sure, anxiety lingered in his mind about if Shiro would be ok. Sure, it felt a little strange to be around all of the Paladins again after so long. 

Still, he felt like he’d come home.

Dimly he heard Black’s ramp extending. One of the others was coming up to speak with him. Assuming it would be his mother, Keith continued undressing. Two years in the wilderness together had beaten out most of their privacy issues.

But when the strangled gasp came from behind him, it wasn’t Krolia’s voice. Keith spun on his heel to find Lance standing in the doorway, staring at him with bugged out eyes and a horrified expression. 

“Lance? What’s wrong?”

With great difficulty Lance managed to close his mouth and swallow, hard. Then, in a shaking voice, he asked, “Wh-what happened to your back?”

“Huh?” said Keith, oh-so-eloquently. He actually had to glance over his shoulder before he could figure out what Lance was talking about, and when he did he actually felt a pang of amusement. “Oh, that.”

“Yeah, that!” Lance’s quiet shock had melted away, replaced by his usual bombastic energy. “When the hell did that happen? That looks like the scars I have from the crystal explosion.”

Keith turned away and went back to removing his armor. Right, before the space whale he’d been with the Blade for months with no contact with the Paladins-- of course they wouldn’t know what had happened there. 

“It happened at the Kral Zera.”

“You-- you were at the Kral Zera?”

“Mhm.” After removing the armor from his shins, Keith stepped out of his boots, smiling at the feeling of cold metal under his toes. It had been a long time since he’d been in a Lion. He’d missed it. 

“We didn’t know. We w-would’ve looked for you.”

The catch in Lance’s voice caught him by surprise, and when he looked up he was even more astonished by the bereaved look on Lance’s face, like he’d just run over a puppy. 

“It’s ok, Lance. It was a long time ago for me. I’m fine.”

For a minute Lance looked like he was going to argue. Then he let out a breath and all at once seemed to deflate, like whatever had been holding him up this whole time had disappeared.

“It’s good to have you back, man. We missed you.”

Keith smiled at that. The him from the Kral Zera wouldn’t have believed it when he heard it. But he did.

“Good to be back.” 

Chapter Text

Hm. Well. This was an awkward situation. Keith was fairly certain that the gladiator wasn’t supposed to actually stab him like that. 

Of course, it was Altean, and they were apparently pretty hardcore. Maybe it was programmed to go for the kill, even after the stop command was given. 

At least he’d gotten Lance out of the airlock before collapsing. Based on Lance’s expression of horror he had to assume it looked bad-- he’d probably left a trail of blood spatter and smears all the way down the hall, and probably on the airlock, too. He couldn’t tell, everything but Lance’s face in front of him was blurred and indistinct. 

Definitely not a good sign. 

“Keith, I’m gonna--” he heard, but although Lance’s lips kept moving, Keith couldn’t distinguish anymore words through the whine in his ears. 

Then Lance leaned forward and hooked his arms under Keith’s, trying to lift him off the floor. Keith let out a pitiful groan but couldn’t be bothered to be embarrassed-- the wound on his thigh, which had previously been numb, suddenly lit up like an exquisitely painful Christmas tree. 

He shoved Lance’s shoulders, trying to make him stop. He did, but the impact of being dropped to the floor made him shout. 

“Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry!” Lance babbled into his ear. “Look, I’m gonna go find Shiro, ok, I’ll go get Shiro and then we’ll come get you, alright, just hang on, don’t you dare die on me, Mullet--”

Keith let his head fall back against the cool metal. He was woozy. The lights were hurting his eyes. He didn’t hear Lance’s footsteps retreating, but when he managed to strength to look up again, he was gone. 

Keith’s stomach twisted, but he kept the groan behind his teeth. He didn’t want to be alone right now, not when his skin was turning cold and clammy and shivers were breaking over him like waves, but he should’ve expected it. Lance hated him, after all. It wouldn’t be hard for him to leave Keith to die.

He closed his eyes again. The blood was soaking into his jeans, warm at first then cooling, and if it hadn’t hurt so much he would’ve squirmed. Dimly, he wondered what the others would do with his body. 

Back in the desert that was clear. The coyotes and vultures would pick him clean, the sun would bleach his bones, and then the sand would pile up over and around him until he disappeared.

The Alteans were probably too much of neat freaks to do that. They wouldn’t want him rotting there and stinking up the place. Maybe they’d shoot him out into space, to float for eternity amongst the stars. Maybe they’d just shove him in one of the pods and put him away somewhere, like a pair of old shoes.

Maybe they’d cremate him and he’d lose his form to ash. Like father, like son. 

A deep voice rumbled nearby. Another answered it, and the next time they spoke, it was nearer. Much nearer. 

WIth great effort, Keith peeled his eyes open again. 

There was a dark blob in front of him, a familiar black vest, and the deep voice murmured his name. Strong arms wrapped around him to scoop him up, and this time there was no pain as the person gathered him close. 

“Dad?” he mumbled. The arms tightened and the wound flared, making Keith choke. It had been so, so long, but even so he could smell the smoke and dust pressed into that old vest, remnants of his job he couldn’t help bringing home. It was warmth, and safety, and it made Keith want to cry and melt and make him understand how much Keith had missed him.

But his leg still hurt, and despite his father’s embrace, he still felt cold. They were moving, going somewhere, the movements jostling Keith and making nausea press against the back of his throat. 

“Dad,” he whined, pressing his face into his father’s shoulder, “I wanna go home.”

He felt the rumble under his cheek as he answered but couldn’t understand the words. Still, he tried his best to relax. He trusted his dad to take care of him, to keep him safe. Wherever they were going, it was probably better than where he was. Maybe his mom would be waiting for them.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Shiro was barely keeping it together. 

Something was wrong with the Castle. Sendak had been awake and talking to him, Allura was taking them somewhere, God only knew where, and he was carrying Keith as he bled out and called pitifully for his father, and it was all too much. 

One thing at a time. Get Keith in a pod. Find the others. Talk to Allura.

Forget Sendak. Try to stay sane. 

“Are you sure this’ll work?” Lance was asking Coran anxiously while Coran readied a pod. “The whole Castle is fucked beyond all recognition, how do we know this won’t just kill him?”

“We don’t,” Coran responded grimly. “We need to purge the system of the virus before anything can be certain. Shiro, the pod is ready.”

Shiro stepped forward and began to lower Keith into the pod. He was barely conscious, and both he and Shiro were leaving red streaks all over the glass. But as he began to pull away, Keith’s eyes opened and his lips parted. 

“Dad,” he rasped, and Shiro’s throat closed. “Where’re you going?”

Knowing he couldn’t speak without crying, Shiro didn’t try to and continued to back up, until Keith grabbed onto his arm.

“No, Dad, don’t go.” A tear rolled down his pale cheek. “Don’t leave me again, I don’t wanna be alone, please, I can’t be alone anymore.”

Beside him he heard Lance hiss in a breath and Coran make a wounded sound. Shiro attempted a steadying breath. 

“I’m sorry, Keith,” he murmured as he began to peel Keith’s fingers away from his arm, one by one. The sob Keith let out in answer sent a splinter of ice through Shiro’s heart. “I’m sorry.”

Coran closed the pod. Shiro wished they could have a minute to breathe, to collect himself after he’d been shattered twice in a row, but there wasn’t. They had to fix the Castle, or Keith would die. 

Clenching his fists, Shiro turned resolutely away from the pod. 

“Let’s go.”


Chapter Text

Pidge groaned in pure frustration as the cell door slammed closed behind them. Apparently it was time for their bi-weekly capture party. At least this time their hands were cuffed in front of them rather than behind-- it would save her the arm strain of hacking the door backwards. 

“This is really getting old,” she griped. 

Keith hummed an agreement. He’d already walked the perimeter of the cell, checking for weak points, and was now tugging at his cuffs in an attempt to pull them apart. That had never worked, but that didn’t stop him from trying every time. 

Not wanting to spend any more time in the dank cell than she had to, Pidge moved over to the cell door. Their armor had been taken which would slow down the hacking process considerably, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Just extra annoying.

“Keith, come help me pull the panel off.”

Keith began to comply, but before he could take so much as a single step Pidge detected movement on the other side of the door.

“Scratch that,” she hissed as she scrambled back, “Someone’s coming.”

The two of them backed up until they met the cell wall, protecting their backs while keeping an eye on the door and whatever would come through it. Keith was already shifting foot to foot, ready to strike. Honestly, out of all the Paladins, Keith was the one Pidge preferred to end up in these situations with. For the most part he stayed calm, he could fight, and thanks to his DNA he could open up whatever doors they needed. 

The cell door opened with an ominous creak. Pidge was expecting to see drones, something they could easily overpower, but that hope was dashed. The people entering the cell were live Galra soldiers, all in full armor and with laser rifles cradled against their hips. What unnerved her most were the pointed grins on their faces-- smirks that promised trouble. 

She shifted a step closer to Keith. 

“What do you want?” Keith asked, teeth bared in a snarl. The foremost soldier just smiled at him; the insignia on his armor was more elaborate than the other twos’, marking him as being higher rank. In this case, the ring leader. 

“You already know,” he answered in a low, growly voice that made the hairs on the back of Pidge’s neck stand on end. “Our emperor has been searching for the Voltron Lions for millenia. And now we have two.” He glanced over his shoulder at his compatriots. “What kinds of promotions do you think we’re gonna get for that?”

The other two snickered. Keith began to ease forward, ever so slightly shifting his weight onto one foot, but without warning the ringleader whirled back around, rifle up and charged. The magenta glow cast insidious shadows over Keith’s cheekbones when the weapon was raised to his forehead. 

“Don’t even think about it.” 

Keith’s eyes narrowed into a glare, but even so he backed down. The Galra didn’t move his weapon. 

“See, the thing is,” he continued conversationally, like he didn’t have someone at gunpoint, “The emperor needs the Lions. But he never said anything about needing their Paladins.”

Pidge’s stomach plummeted into her feet. Judging by the way he paled, Keith’s had just done the same. 

“I’ve heard how slippery the lot of you are, constantly breaking out of custody. Especially,” he paused and slowly, with dramatic effect, turned the barrel of his gun on Pidge. “You.”

“Don’t touch her!” Keith’s lunge was heroic, but ultimately useless-- the other too guards caught him and summarily shoved him into the corner of the room, each with an iron grip on one of Keith’s arms. He struggled and swore, but they didn’t release him, and the ringleader took a step towards her. 

Pidge tried to back up, but she was caught against the metal, too, the muzzle of the rifle barely a foot away from her head. 

“The Green Paladin,” he mused, pitching his voice low so that she could hear underneath Keith’s uproar. “So clever and wily. But I doubt even your brain would work very well with a laser blast through it.”

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. Her hands shook, and she had practically gone cross-eyed trying to keep her attention on the barrel of the gun. She’d been in a lot of dangerous situations as a Paladin, obviously, up to and including being in the literal clutches of Sendak as he almost succeeded in taking over the Castle of Lions.

But right here, right now, death suddenly felt so much more immediate. She was backed into a corner, quite literally, and all the Galra had to do was squeeze his finger and she’d be dead. Boom. Done. A split second and she’d cease to exist. No more Green Paladin. No more Katie Holt.

No one left to rescue her family.

The rifle began to whir, mixing with the rushing of blood of Pidge’s ears. The light of the laser made jagged shadows over the Galra’s face, making him look like he had huge, monstrous teeth, waiting to eat her alive. His grin made her bones rattle.

Come on, Pidge, think! She thought desperately as she stared down the barrel of the gun. Think your way out!

But she couldn’t. She didn’t have anything to work with, and she could be quick but not quick enough to dodge a freaking bullet--

“Say goodbye,” the Galra growled. Pidge’s voice was locked in her throat but she wanted to scream. She wasn’t sure what she’d scream, if she could. A cry for help? A goodbye? An apology? Or maybe just a wordless shriek of pure terror? 

She might’ve been incapable of sound at that moment, but someone else was not. She heard Keith’s voice, roaring something that sounded like the word no, and cut her eyes over to him. He was hanging from the guards’ grip, and the expression of desperate fear on his face made her chest ache. He was going to blame himself for this, she knew, but she didn’t have time to say anything to him about it. The gun was still whirring, shifting into a higher pitch, preparing to fire. 

Right before she squeezed her eyes shut, Pidge thought she saw Keith’s change, pupils narrowing and taking on a hint of yellow. She couldn’t think about it over the whining of the rifle. 

Somehow her ears detected the click of the ringleaders claws against the metal trigger. She braced for the pain. 

The pain that never came. 

There was a loud clang and a shout, a heavy weight threw itself against her front, forcing her back against the wall even further, right before the pchew of the laser. She heard it, but she didn’t feel anything, and when her eyes popped back open she discovered why.

Keith was no longer being held back by the other Galra. Now he was on the ground at her feet, mouth open wide in a pained gasp, and (to Pidge’s horror) a smoking hole in his chest. 

Finally, her voice returned. “Keith!” she shrieked, and dropped to her knees. The hole had gone right underneath his sternum, directly at the level of the space between Pidge’s eyes. 

“Aw, how cute,” the Galra above them drawled, cocking his rifle and readying another charge. “Too bad it only delayed the inevitable.”

Pidge mustered up the deadliest glare she could. Even as he pointed the gun at her again, the fear was gone, boiling fury in its place. 

Just wait until I get my Lion back you quiznacking piece of--

The whole ship rolled underneath them. Pidge fell to the side and smacked her head hard on the metal wall, and through blurred vision she watched the (now six) Galra guards go sprawling across the floor. Underneath the distressed creaking of metal she heard Keith’s pained groan.

He’s alive! Her spirit soared, giving her the strength to push herself upright again. 

“We’re being attacked!” one of the Galra was shouting as they picked themselves up. “We need to get back to the bridge!”

The ringleader scowled, and after putting his askew helmet back where it should be, spat in Pidge’s direction.

“We’ll be back,” he promised in a dark tone, then all three of them vacated the cell. Pidge heard the door lock behind them, and somewhere in her brain she knew that was bad, but right now all she could focus on was Keith. 

Somehow he was still breathing. The shot must have miraculously missed anything vital, but there was no knowing if that was going to stay that way. 

“Keith?” she said, hating the hysterical note in her voice. As carefully as she could she slid her bound hands under his head to support his neck. “Keith, can you open your eyes?”

He groaned again, but managed to open them. There was no hint of the yellow Pidge thought she’d seen earlier. 

“Pidge?” he mumbled in response, “You ok?”

Pidge nodded, tears unexpectedly blurring her eyes. She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him for being so stupid, for asking her if she was ok when he was the one who’d been shot, but that would be for later. After the others got to them. That had to be what was making the ship toss around like it was, right?

“It’s not bleeding,” she found herself saying to keep Keith awake. “That’s good. It’s good that it’s not bleeding.”

Keith nodded somewhat dazedly. Pidge tasted salt as a tear met her lip. 

“The others will be here soon, and then we can go home to the Castle and put you in a pod. Everything’s gonna be fine.”

“I know,” said Keith, but Pidge didn’t listen. She wasn’t saying it for him. 

“You’re gonna be fine. You’re gonna be fine.”

“Pidge.” With great effort and a wince, Keith lifted his head from her hands. His face was twisted with pain, but even so he stared her in the eyes. “You should run. Go find the others.”

Pidge sucked in a breath so hard it hurt. “What?”

“They were gonna kill you,” Keith continued. His words were beginning to slur, his eyelids drooping, and goddamnit what was taking the others so long? “You gotta go, ‘fore they come back…”

“What about you?” she asked desperately, digging her fingers into his hair. “I can’t just leave you here.”

Keith shook his head. But before they could argue the point any further, their cell door slid open again, casting the hall light into the room. Pidge stayed where she was, staring down at Keith with pleading eyes. 

“Go, Pidge.” 

“Why did he do it?”

They were home again. Pidge was swaddled in a large blanket, one of Shiro’s arms over her shoulders, but even then she couldn’t stop shaking. Shiro squeezed her arm. 

“Because he cares about you,” he answered evenly. He sounded composed, but Pidge had seen the look on his face when he walked into that cell. He’d been terrified, and he was terrified now, no matter how much he tried to hide it. “Keith will do anything for the people he loves.”

Pidge swallowed a sob for the fiftieth time since they’d been sitting there. “Even die?”

Shiro sighed. He was staring into Keith’s cryopod with an awful lost look on his face that scared her. Of course he had every right to be shaken, what with Keith almost dying and all, but Shiro was their leader. Seeing him like this made her feel like a toddler again, hiding under her blankets from the thunderstorm outside her window.

“Yeah. Even die.”

She leaned even further into him. Whether it was for her comfort or his, she couldn’t say. 

“I’m not gonna let him,” she declared, even though her voice was shaky. “He doesn’t get to die until we do.”

Shiro gave a quiet, tired chuckle. 

“Good luck telling him that.” 


Chapter Text

Keith was feeling surprisingly upbeat as he returned to his dorm that evening. Sure he’d gotten into a fight with Griffin and came inches to being thrown out, but that all paled in comparison to Shiro’s words. He hadn’t thrown Keith away at the first indication of imperfection the way so many others had. He’d made a promise, to always believe in him, and for some reason Keith felt inclined to believe him in return. 

For the first time in a long time he felt hopeful about the future. Maybe Shiro was right and his life would be different here. Maybe he could amount to something, be something better than a discipline case. 

The possibilities were terrifying. But for once the excitement outweighed the fear.

The hallway was unsurprisingly deserted-- lights out was in only a few minutes. Keith consciously picked up his pace, not wanting to be hit with another infraction so soon after getting out of trouble, but the effort would be pointless. 

Halfway down the hall the bedroom door to his left slid open. And before Keith could react there were hands on him, grasping at his uniform blazer, and dragging him inside. 

He didn’t scream. The instinct to make noise upon being hurt had long since been beaten out of him. So when he was thrown to the floor, his knees impacting the metal with a harsh clang, he smothered his wince and scrambled to pull himself upright. Before he could a hand landed on his shoulder and shoved him flat again, followed by a boot planted on his spine to keep him there.

“Don’t you dare move, Kogane,” hissed a familiar voice into his ear. Anger flared in Keith’s gut. It hadn’t even been eight hours and already Griffin was coming after him again. What was this guy’s problem? 

“Get off of me,” he growled, and tried to shove up. All he succeeded in doing was driving the tread of Griffin’s boot more harshly into his skin. 

“No. Your showing off got us all in trouble, and now you’re gonna pay for that.”

Two more pairs of hands latched onto his wrists. Griffin’s roommate, whom he couldn’t remember the name of, and to Keith’s surprise, his own roommate as well. Griffin eased the pressure on his back and, by grabbing the back of his blazer, helped the other two boys haul him upright.

“No!” Keith spat, planting his feet as best he could. The damn dress shoes he had to wear had absolutely no traction on the metal floor. “No, let me go! Let me go!”

“Or what?” Griffin was right behind him as they turned his body to face another door on the right wall, breath hot behind Keith’s ear. “You get into another fight and it won’t matter what Shirogane says. You’ll be out of here in two seconds flat.”

Keith’s stomach sank-- he knew it was true. It didn’t matter if Keith had started the fight or not, zero tolerance meant everyone got in trouble. And if that happened everything he’d just started to believe in would disintegrate into nothing. 

He couldn’t let that happen.

So he didn’t try to fight back. He didn’t stomp on their feet or try to get a punch in or elbow any of them in the gut. He struggled against their holds, of course, thinking maybe he could get out of their hands and make a run for it, but he knew it was unlikely to work. After all, his roommate was in on it-- he wouldn’t have anywhere to hide. 

The three other boys dragged him into the bathroom. The Garrison was nice, most of the rooms having attached bathrooms with both tubs and showers, which although luxurious was absolutely bad news for Keith at the moment. 

He heard the door whir as it locked behind him. Then he was driven to his knees, his arms twisted painfully behind his back as Griffin stepped forward. Keith already knew what the plan was, he’d had this exact thing happen to him too many times in the group home not to, but previous experience didn’t make the dread go away when Griffin turned on the tap. 

Once it was on he turned to face his prisoner, studying Keith through narrowed eyes. Then he tilted his head to the side and said, “You know, you gave me a pretty wicked bruise earlier.”

Keith couldn’t quite bring himself to feel satisfied by it.

“How would you like one of your own?”

He expected the bloom of pain and the taste of blood that accompanied it. Tame compared to the other things he’d endured, but the punch was still solid enough to hurt. 

“Hold him up.”

One of his two guards grabbed a handful of Keith’s blazer to hoist him higher on his knees. At this angle he could see the water filling the tub, and the spray he felt on his cheeks was icy cold. God, this was going to suck. 

“Take a deep breath,” said Griffin tauntingly, and before he could fisted his hand into Keith’s hair and forced his head down. 

Any breath that he had in his lungs was immediately stolen away by the temperature of the water. All of his muscles tightened painfully at the dunking, and the water stung the cut in his mouth from Griffin’s punch. Thankfully they only held him for a few seconds before pulling him back up.

Keith gasped in a desperate breath. It hurt to move his jaw, and the air around him had him shivering and shuddering in seconds, but he barely had time to register those sensations before he was being dunked again. 

This time was longer. His lungs were beginning to ache before they pulled him out.

“Hmmmmm.” Griffin moved his head from side to side, as though inspecting him, and Keith’s cheeks burned with humiliation. “What do you guys think? One more time?”

He didn’t bother trying to ask for mercy. He used those few precious seconds to fill his lungs with as much air as he could before being forced back into the tub. 

The third time was the charm. They held him there for so long Keith’s vision began to tunnel. He had a half moment of desperate thoughts-- would they really kill him for something so stupid-- and then they pulled him up. At the same time they released their hold on him so that Keith would go sprawling across the floor.

Keith didn’t even care. He was too busy coughing himself to death and trying to breathe, but all too soon the cold began to sneak in. He didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing his weakness, but his body didn’t care, he was shivering anyway. His blazer and dress pants were absolutely soaked, which meant they were going to wrinkle, which meant he was going to get a mark made against him for not taking care of his uniform.

Why had he ever thought things were going to get better?

“Alright, take him back to your guys’ room, Joseph,” Griffin said, sounding infuriatingly bored. “We gotta be up early for those extra drills.”

Once again Keith was manhandled into position, this time to be escorted out of the room and back into the hall. There wasn’t another soul to be seen (why would his luck ever be that good?) and Joseph hauled him into their bunk. It wasn’t hard-- Keith was small and probably weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. Joseph was tall and almost as muscled as Shiro; he probably could’ve tossed Keith over his shoulder if he wanted to. 

Joseph let him go when they entered the room, but to Keith’s dismay his bunk had been stripped of all the blankets and sheets, even to the single, paper-thin pillow. He was meant to sleep with nothing but his clothes and his wet, freezing hair-- he had to hand it to Griffin, when it came to revenge, the kid thought it through. 

Joseph went to bed without so much as another glance in Keith’s direction, completely ignoring his existence. Keith sat still on his bare mattress until he heard the other boy snoring, then went to put on his pajamas. He pulled his red hoodie on over the top of them and prayed it would be enough to last him through the night. 

That night Keith slept curled up into the tightest ball he could manage. And as he shivered and shook through his attempts to doze off, he tried to remember what he’d been so excited about a few hours before.

He couldn’t quite remember. 

Chapter Text

Shiro couldn’t believe his eyes.

He wasn’t supposed to be here. Keith was supposed to be with the Blade, running missions on the other side of the system. But the body Lotor had just hauled out of the cell couldn’t be anyone else-- unless Lotor had begun to dabble in cloning, which Shiro wouldn’t put past him. 

“Stop!” Lotor shouted at them, pulling Keith in front of him like a shield. He balanced his right hand on Keith’s shoulder, a blaster poised to fire at Keith’s throat. “One more step and you lose a Paladin.”

Shiro tried to contain his bafflement, but some of it must have shown judging by the smirk creeping over Lotor’s face. 

“That’s right, I know he’s one of you.” He shifted, tightening his grip, and Keith winced. He looked terrible; pale and tired, collar bones jutting out even through the prison wear. How long had Keith been here? Why hadn’t Kolivan told them he was missing?

“Now, I’m going to walk out of here, and if you try to follow me, your friend becomes a corpse.” 

Keith’s face was twisted with discomfort, and he eyed Lotor’s blaster in his periphery, but when he looked at Shiro his gaze still glittered with defiance.

“Shiro, don’t--”

“Shut up,” Lotor hissed, pressing the blaster directly to Keith’s neck, and a sound of pain punched out of his throat. After all, it was a laser weapon. The barrel would be hot. 

The sound had Shiro taking a step forward. He didn’t know how he was going to deal with this, had no plan, but he had to do something, or Lotor would drag him all around the Galaxy as a hostage.

Lotor recoiled a step, taking Keith with him, who growled and thrashed against his hold.

“Shiro, don’t let him get away!”

So far the other Paladins had hung back, unsure of the situation and Shiro’s plan, but seeing his indecision, Pidge moved up to his side, bayard armed and ready. 

“Keith’s right,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. “Lotor’s too dangerous, we need to take a risk.”

“He’s too fast!” Lance protested, even as he brought his bayard to his shoulder. “The second any of us move he’ll kill Keith.”

Lotor’s smirk sharpened. He could see the confusion on Shiro’s face, the desperation, and he reveled in it. He knew he was winning. Then Shiro caught a flash of yellow from behind Lotor, and only then remembered how the mission had gone up until this point. Hunk had gone around, to disable a barrier that had the Lions trapped in, and they were on their way to meet him. 

Hunk’s bayard came down hard on the back of Lotor’s head with a crack. He staggered, stunned, and Keith tore himself out of the Prince’s grip. Spinning on his heel he slammed his knee into Lotor’s gut, and when he doubled over, smashed a kick against his face. 

That’s when Allura dashed in to put her Altean strength to use, kicking the blaster far down the hall before pinning Lotor to the floor. 

Throughout the whole thing Shiro had just stood there, useless. God, what was wrong with him lately?

The headache he’d been fighting throbbed, but he did his best to ignore it as he went to Keith, who had been propped against the wall by a concerned looking Hunk. 

Up close the reason was clear. There were raw red marks around his wrists, either from Lotor’s hold or from shackles. More important was the burn mark on his throat-- square and already blistering, an imprint of the blaster. A warning, and suddenly Shiro was having trouble breathing. 

“It’s ok, Shiro,” Keith said with an attempt at a smile that turned into a grimace. “I’m ok.”

All Shiro could think was It should be me saying that. Why aren’t I?

What’s wrong with me? 

“Why didn’t you tell us he’d been captured?” Allura demanded of the vid screen, not even attempting to mask her anger. But as always, Kolivan was impassive, his expression not shifting a bit as he listened. “Why didn’t you tell us Lotor had surfaced?”

“For precisely this reason, Princess,” he answered evenly. “Lotor is a clever opponent. He knows how to manipulate people to his will, unlike Zarkon, who relied on brute strength. If you had known Keith had been compromised, Lotor would’ve used him as a bargaining chip or as bait.”

Shiro sighed and dragged a tired hand over his face. It was too late to stop Keith from going back-- he’d barely tolerated Coran putting a bandage on his burn before returning to headquarters.

He’d seen it before-- Keith running away. And he had the worst feeling it was him who made him run. 

Keith sat in his bunk in headquarters, alone, trying to get himself under control. The burn hurt, feeding his adrenaline-- he’d almost died, again, and it never stopped feeling like this no matter how many times it happened. 

Despite that he kept a hand over the bandage, pressing. He needed the pain to remind him what was real; he’d been in Lotor’s prison for days (at least, that’s what Kolivan said) and the appearance of the Blade HQ was so similar to that place he wasn’t entirely sure he’d left at all. Only the pain from the burn and the threat of being at gunpoint reassured him that the rescue had really happened. 

He nearly jumped out of his skin at the buzzing that filled the room, and it took him several seconds to realize that it was his tablet, lighting up with an incoming call. 

Taking a breath to steady his nerves, he reached out for it. 

“Where the heck did you go?” Hunk’s voice was loud, making Keith wince as it bounced off the metal walls. “Don’t tell me you already went back to the Blade, man.”

Keith rubbed his eyes-- his room was always dark, and the bright light from the tablet was making them ache. 

“Sorry,” he said automatically, “I did.”

“But we just rescued you! You need to rest and get better before you do missions again.”

“I’m fine.” He felt like an automaton, unable to do anything more than follow the paths his gears were set to make; too rusted to be moved. “I’m not hurt, not in any way that matters. The war is more important.”

Hunk gave him a wounded look that made Keith’s heart ache in his chest. 

“What did we do?” he asked softly, and Keith’s heart shattered. “Why do you keep pushing us away?”

“I’m not.” The lie tasted rotten on his tongue. “You guys didn’t do anything wrong.” I did. “I’m sorry, Hunk, I gotta go.”

He ended the call before Hunk could say anything else. He couldn’t have taken anymore of it. The last thing he ever wanted to do was hurt them. 

But he kept doing it anyway. 

Chapter Text

The cell was too fucking small. 

That’s all he could think about as he paced around and around like a bored tiger in a cage. It’s too small, it’s too small, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna go crazy, it’s too fucking small. 

If he stood in the center of the room and stretched his arms out his fingertips just barely brushed the walls on either side. Lengthwise, the room was about twice that. No windows, only one slat in the door for pushing bowls of food goo at him, low purple lights ringing the ceiling that never turned off and made it impossible to sleep within any definition of the word ‘well’.

On the right wall was a metal slab that served as a bed. On the left was a barely functioning toilet.

And that was it. 

All Keith could do was pace between the door and the back wall; four steps each way, turning around so often it made him dizzy. But he couldn’t stop-- if he stopped he’d lose his mind. He’d lost count of the meals ages ago, and without windows or light changes he couldn’t tell how long he’d been here. It could’ve been five minutes or five years; it all felt the same. There was absolutely nothing to do, nothing to watch, no passersby or even paint to watch dry to give him an indication of time passing. For all he knew the Galra had invented some kind of time freezing device and stuck him in the middle of it.

So he paced. Back and forth until his bare feet blistered. Back and forth until the blisters burst. Back and forth some more, leaving streaks of blood on the cold metal floor. Back and forth until eventually his legs gave out on him and he fell to the slab that served as his bed, unable to continue. 

It was only in these moments when he’d be able to feel the headache raging behind his eyes. When he registered the painful ringing in his ears from the silence of his prison. The pain and the ringing made it impossible for him to think about anything, let alone escaping, and even if he could think about it he was too tired to have attempted anything. 

Leaning his head back against the wall, Keith drew his knees to his chest. He wanted to curl up on his side and fall asleep, let the hours drop by without him having to suffer through every second of them, but he already knew sleep wasn’t going to come until it absolutely had to. Even with his muscles burning from hours of pacing, his body wasn’t going to be able to rest until pushed far beyond the point of exhaustion. It had to if it was going to ignore the lights and the ringing and the metal. 

He couldn’t take the ringing anymore. Tipping forward, he wedged his head between his knees, letting them block out the sound as best they could and closed his eyes. This was the only way to block the sound and the light effectively at the same time. So he held that position as long as he could, until his curled spine was shrieking at him to move. Then he stood up, wincing at putting his weight on his mangled feet, and resumed his pacing. 

The others were coming for him. He knew that-- he had to believe that. The only question was of time. How long would it take them? They’d been in space for months now and Pidge was no closer to finding her father and her brother. It had taken Shiro a year to escape the Galra. There was no telling how long he would be stuck in this metal box. 

There was no telling if he’d be sane by the time they got here. 

Keith shook his head viciously, trying to shake the thought loose, grinding his teeth. He had to resist the urge to bite into his own arm to distract himself. 

He was going to be fine. He had to believe, had to keep telling himself: the others were going to be here soon. They were going to save him, and he was going to be fine. 

If he forgot that… he didn’t know what he’d become. 

Sometime later the sound of footsteps nearly scared him out of his skin. Footsteps that weren’t his. There was some clanking in the hallway outside his door, then the slat in his door was opened, and a metal arm shoved a tray of food goo into the room before retreating and closing with a bang.

They didn’t even send a soldier to deliver the food. Just a drone. They denied him even that tiny amount of contact. 

He ate it while he paced. Galran food goo was even worse than Altean, and he wasn’t really hungry. In fact, besides pain, he wasn’t feeling very much at all. So accustomed to nothing, his senses had gone dull. But still he forced himself to eat it. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep it up, but for now he could. 

To keep my strength up, he told himself half-heartedly. For when the others come. 

Eventually his strength ran out again and he slumped back onto his bunk. He still wasn’t quite at the level of tired he needed to be to pass out, but his eyes were burning and dry from the neverending lights, so he leaned his head back against the wall and closed them. 

Within a few seconds he’d begun to tap the back of his head against the metal, and couldn’t be bothered to stop himself. 

The pain was nice. Everything was dull and unchanging here-- even the aches in his muscles and head and eyes were somehow intensely dull and consistent. But this pain was sharp, it actually hurt, and he could control it. Every time his head met metal again it would spike. He could knock out rhythms and patterns, change the speed and force, all at his own whim. Absolute heaven. 

He didn’t stop until he felt blood running down the back of his neck. Also a surprisingly welcome sensation as it warmed his skin and then cooled and dried over time, actually giving him some semblance of seconds ticking by. Some of it was still damp when he finally dropped into the doze that counted as sleep these days, and when he woke it was dry and crusty, falling away in rust colored flakes. 

Another bowl of food goo was awaiting him when he awoke. The pain from before had once again dulled into a deep seated ache, and feeling that heavy pressure nearly made Keith snap right at that moment. He couldn’t take anymore dull! 

He ignored the bowl of food goo and sank his teeth into his hand, instead. The pain was exquisitely sharp and he bit down harder, and harder, until he tasted blood. That should’ve snapped him out of it. It didn’t.

The food goo had no flavor. No texture either. So when the copper taste exploded on his tongue, Keith couldn’t even say it tasted bad. Anything would taste good, so long as it tasted like anything at all. 

Eventually he went back to pacing. It was all he could do. Turn his brain off, pace, and hope the nothingness would end soon. 

Keith’s condition was… horrifying didn’t cover it. Cheeks pale and sunken, bags like bruises under his eyes, covered in blood and bitemarks, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Shiro could see why-- his cell was barely large enough to be called a cell rather than a cage. He couldn’t describe the kind of fury that filled him then. It was the kind that made him want to get in Black and tear the whole place to pieces single handedly.

But that wasn’t going to help Keith right now. So he poured all of that anger into keeping his hand steady as he held it out to him, trying to coax him forward.

“It’s alright, Keith,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We’re gonna go home, yeah?”

Keith’s hands, hovering by his collarbones, clenched and unclenched. He had a strange dazed look in his eyes, like his brain was struggling to process the information it was being given. 

“Shiro?” he eventually whispered, and Shiro winced at the raspiness of the words and how his voice broke. “Is this real?”

“Yes, I promise.”

Slowly, Keith began to edge forward. Shiro waited for him as patiently as he could manage, not letting his arm falter once. Keith was just reaching out for it when a voice echoed down the hall.

“Shiro!” It was Lance, loud, and Keith’s hands snapped back over his ears. “Did you find him yet?”

With a low growl, Shiro tapped on his comms and hissed, “Yes, but you need to be quiet.”

He heard Lance gulp before murmuring back, “Ten-four. Sorry.” 

Shiro turned back to Keith and held his hand out again. Despite their little setback it didn’t take long for Keith to take it, and Shiro pulled him into an embrace, not expecting Keith to flinch at the feeling of his armor.

“Too cold,” Keith whimpered, pushing against Shiro’s chestplate. His hands left flecks of dried blood behind.

“Ok, ok. Here.” Shiro offered him his human hand and Keith took it eagerly, squeezing hard enough to make Shiro smother a cringe. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” 

Luckily the path back to the Lion’s was quiet, Shiro having already taken out all of the drone patrols on his way in. They made it back to the hangar without incident, and within five minutes Shiro was announcing to the others that they were ready to move out.

Everything was set. Keith was with him in the cockpit, sitting behind the pilot’s seat with the blanket from the emergency kit draped over his shoulders, burrowing into it like a wolf into its den. Everyone was cheering over the comms, happy to have finally found their missing team member after two weeks of searching.

But the good mood didn’t last long. The Black Lion had barely taken off before Shiro heard a rough yell from behind him; when he looked Keith had his head buried in his knees, hands clapped desperately over his ears once more. 

“Shit,” he hissed, then said a bit louder, “Hunk, Lance, I need you to tow Black.” Without waiting for an answer he pulled his helmet off and cast it to the side. Next went his vambraces, shoulder pads, and finally his chestplate, all before he dared go anywhere near Keith. 

He was still in the throes of his panic attack when Shiro reached him. Initially he flinched away from Shiro’s touch, but once he realized the cold armor had been discarded he leaned into it, drinking up the touch and Shiro’s body heat. 

Dimly Shiro could still hear the others’ voices, chattering over the comms. He could still feel Keith trembling at the noise the Lion was making as it flew. He tucked Keith’s head under his chin and held him as tightly as he dared, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to spill from him. 

It’s ok, Keith, is what he wanted to say. But he couldn’t seem to manage the words. 

Two hours later they were home at the Castle and Shiro had Keith in the bath, washing the blood off of his skin. The bathroom door was wedged open, the water lukewarm, and bandages sat nearby, waiting to be used due to Keith’s refusal to go into the healing pods.

After seeing what he’d been through, Shiro couldn’t blame him. 

Keith didn’t seem all there quite yet. His eyes were still cloudy and unfocused, and he kept zoning out. Questions where answered vaguely or not at all, and more than once Shiro had to grab his arm to keep him from biting at his hands or put a gentle hand on his neck to stop him from banging his head on the wall. 

This recovery wasn’t going to be easy or short. Keith had already had problems with isolation even before the two weeks of solitary confinement. It might be awhile before he could fly again. 

Despite all of that, Shiro felt optimistic. If Keith was anything, it was stubborn-- he wouldn’t let anyone or anything keep him out of the fight for long. 

“You’re gonna be ok,” he murmured, Keith’s eyes lighting up at the sound of another’s voice. “Everything’s gonna be just fine. You’ll see.”

Keith managed a smile for him. 

Chapter Text

For all of the Paladins, Earth had become something of a daydream. Something they all remembered with longing and nostalgia, their memories filtering through rose colored, isolation filled lenses. When they finally got home they were so caught up in the euphoria of it, and then so consumed by the effort of beating Sendak, that they didn’t notice the flaws that still lingered on their home planet.

Well, Keith was certainly remembering now. Thanks to the super-powered communication network Pidge and her family had gotten set up, news about Voltron and the Paladins had traveled all over the world within hours of defeating Sendak. It didn’t take long for the rumor mills to set up shop, and from there gossip spread like wildfire. 

Most of it was harmless. The Altean Princess was dating one of the Paladins. The famously dead pilot Takashi Shirogane was alive. Things like that. 

Some of it… not so much. Like the trending topic of the Black Paladin’s ancestry, and the covert photograph someone had gotten of him embracing a member of the Blade of Marmora.

Keith had just received the third glare of the morning, and he hadn’t even left the dining hall yet. It was a good thing he’d already warned the Blade members to make themselves scarce, or someone might’ve made a scene. 

Of all the things he remembered about Earth, he’d managed to forget how cruel humans could be.

But he didn’t bristle. He didn’t hunch his shoulders or glare back. Exercising the new confidence he’d gained during his time in the Quantum Abyss, Keith resolutely went on eating his breakfast, ignoring the hostility humming around the room. 

He couldn’t blame his fellow humans for being distrustful. They’d literally just escaped from Galra domination. Of course they’re going to be suspicious of them, including and especially of the Blade of Marmora. It would calm in due time, he and the other Galra just had to wait it out. 

“I wish they’d stop staring,” Pidge whispered. Keith glanced sidelong at her and found the Green Paladin glaring down at her tray, wound tighter than a spring. “This is the Garrison-- everyone here knows that we saved them. That you saved them.”

Keith sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He performed a compulsive headcount as he surveyed the cafeteria-- Lance and Allura, sitting with Lance’s family. Hunk sitting with his. The rest of the Holt’s still in the food line. Shiro just walking in, hair still wet from his post- training session shower. All safe and accounted for.

“It’ll blow over,” he said as he turned back to his food. “By next week someone will get a picture of Hunk and Shay holding hands or something and they’ll all forget about it.”

He was trying to make Pidge laugh, but this time he failed. She kept stabbing at the slices of fruit on her tray, the twisted expression on her face saying that she wasn’t going to let this go anytime soon. 

“It’s not fair,” she hissed. “We saved them.”

“I know.”

A few minutes later Shiro and the rest of Pidge’s family joined them at their table. Matt had only recently arrived on Earth and Keith still wasn’t used to how big he was after their three year time skip, but Matt must be feeling the same way about him, he supposed.

“Morning, you two,” said Shiro cheerfully, echoed by the other Holts as he took the first bite of his food. 

“Mornin’,” Pidge mumbled glumly. Shiro raised an eyebrow at her morose tone, but then his eyes flicked up over Keith’s head right as he felt someone walking past him. Shiro’s expression sobered and Keith smothered a groan-- he could already tell what was coming. 

“Don’t let them get to you,” Shiro said, shoving another forkful of hash browns into his mouth. “They’ll get over it.”

Keith gave him a reassuring smile. Sure he didn’t necessarily need Shiro’s encouragement anymore, but that didn’t mean he stopped appreciating it. “I know.”

Shiro smiled back, and a short time later it was time for their day to officially begin, and Keith wouldn’t have time to be worrying about how other people were looking at him. 

He had to admit it was a relief. 

It was well past eleven thirty at night when Keith finally pulled himself away from launch preparations to go to bed. The halls of the Garrison were dark and still, most of the other personnel already asleep. He drank in the quiet-- being leader of Voltron meant talking to a lot of people, all the time, and so much social interaction still burned him out. 

Distantly he detected footsteps, and a moment later another person turned the corner and came down the hallway towards him. They wore basic Garrison orange, and based on the number of golden stripes on their shoulders, were fairly low ranking. Keith waited until he was closer before nodding to him in acknowledgement. 

But the man didn’t pass him. Their shoulders brushed minutely before the man’s hand descended on Keith’s shoulder and shoved him up against the metal wall with a clang. Keith’s muscles jerked, instinctively wanting to grab the man’s wrist and twist it up behind his back until he dislocated something, but he bit back his instincts and held still. The last thing he wanted was to hurt somebody. 

“Can I help you?” he asked as evenly as he could. His hazel eyes lit up with rage and he moved his arm, pinning it over Keith’s throat. No pressure was being exerted as of yet, so Keith remained still. 

“I know what you are,” the man snarled in his face. “We all know.”

Keith took a deep, steadying breath, and answered calmly, “Yeah, I’m half Galra. Is that a problem?”

“Damn right it’s a problem!” He rocked his weight forward, leaning on Keith’s throat, his lips twisted back in a sneer. “You people are the ones who attacked Earth to begin with. If you think we’re dumb enough to let one of you lead us after that, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Despite himself, Keith felt his fists clench at his sides. He would never understand why everyone assumed he wanted to lead everything. Just managing Voltron was hard enough, thanks.

“I’m not leading Earth. I just lead Voltron, and our only objective is to defeat the Galra empire.”

The man gave a derisive snort. Keith was starting to get nervous-- the longer this interaction went on, the more likely it was to come to blows, and that was the last thing he needed. He could see the headlines now-- Galra Halfbreed Assaults Garrison Officer. Hell no. He needed to de-escalate.

“Look,” he began, trying not to let his irritation show, “I understand that--”

“You don’t understand shit!” He slammed his opposite hand into the wall right next to Keith’s head, making his ears ring. “My entire neighborhood was wiped out by a single ion cannon strike! What the hell do you know about that? Nothing!”

He’d gotten to yelling volume now, and Keith eyed some of the doors in the hall. He didn’t know if they were dorms or not, but maybe someone would hear and come out to investigate. Then Keith wouldn’t have to fight his way out, which he really didn’t want to have to do. 

“‘I understand’,” the man continued, mocking Keith’s previous words. “You don’t know a damn thing about what Earth has gone through. What we’ve endured.”

Keith could’ve said something here. Maybe mentioned how many planets he’d seen be drained of their quintessence or blasted to pieces. Maybe talked about his time in the Blade and how many people he’d seen die. Maybe revealed what he’d been prepared to do at Naxzela. Even could’ve pointed out that Keith was half human too, and spent more time on Earth than in space. But he saved his breath-- this man was beyond listening. 

He lowered his hand again, which Keith at first thought was a good thing, maybe he was going to let him go, but then he saw that hand dive into the man’s uniform pocket and got a surge of adrenaline. 

“I’m never going to let it happen to us again!”

Keith moved to block the strike, but he was too concerned with not hurting the other person and it didn’t do enough. The knife plunged into Keith’s side regardless.

He was familiar with stab wounds at this point. Initially he just felt like he’d been punched hard enough to drive all of the air from his lungs. The blade retreated with a wet squelch and Keith felt the warmth of his blood staining his jacket. The man stepped back, releasing the pressure on his throat, and Keith’s jellied legs went out from under him, making him slide down the wall to the floor. 

“Do us all a favor and bleed out,” the man spat down at him, then with one final look of disgust he marched away, wiping Keith’s blood from the knife with his blazer sleeve.

Keith took a deep breath in and let it out again. In and out. In and out. In a minute the shock would let up, and he’d have a tiny window to get upright again before the pain set in. If he could make it back to standing, he could find his way back to the infirmary and be fine. Hopefully.

Unfortunately the pain came faster than he’d been expecting. Barely thirty seconds after the man’s footsteps had ceased to echo down the hall he could feel the burn of sliced flesh. 

Without his permission a whimper escaped from between his teeth. 

Ok, Kogane, just wait a minute. Slow down. Patience yields focus. Don’t freak out. What’s the solution?

Ok, he could try getting up anyway. Maybe he could just grit his teeth and bear it?

That idea went out the window fast-- the second Keith tried to move the pain flared so badly his vision turned white, and when he came back to himself his breath was far too fast. 

Damnit, damnit. What else could he do? (Aside from follow the man’s advice and just bleed out).

Calling Black or Red wouldn’t do any good. They were too big to get into the Garrison without destroying half of it. He could call for one of them and ask them to call for Lance or Shiro, but he didn’t know if he had that much time left. The pool of blood growing under his right elbow was already an impressive size. 

So the Lions were out. But… they weren’t the only things he could call. The others thought he was crazy for believing it, but if it worked in the Quantum Abyss, why shouldn’t it work here?

Keith closed his eyes and concentrated. 

It didn’t take long. Five seconds later and there was the familiar pop sound, accompanied by the flares of light as Kosmo teleported to his side. He heard the wolf whine, felt him sniff at his body and tap him with a paw, and grimaced as he tried harder to communicate to him what was going on. What Keith needed him to do.

Kosmo caught on fast. Pressing his forehead to Keith’s shoulder, he began to glow, and then they were someplace entirely different. 

Right as Keith passed out. 

Shiro paced the hallway outside of Keith’s door, trying to swallow the ball of rage stuck in his throat. Some of the other Paladins didn’t succeed at the same-- or maybe they weren’t even trying. 

“I knew something like this was going to happen!” Pidge muttered viciously to herself as she pulled up the camera feed from the hallway Keith had been attacked in. “I knew it, humans are so fucking dumb, why did we even come back here?”

“This is so screwed up, man,” Lance groaned, leaning his head against Allura’s shoulder with a depressed expression. “Why is Earth like this?”

Allura had a reassuring hand on his head, but the rest of her was tense. “I was unaware humans attacked each other like this,” she said with an accusing glance in Shiro’s direction. Thankfully he didn’t have to waste energy defending his species-- Coran did it for him.

“Inter-species conflict is prevalent throughout the universe, Princess,” he said gently, though the look in his eyes was worried. “Haggar is Altean, for example.”

Allura frowned, but said nothing more.

So far Hunk had been silent, and Krolia had, too, the former waiting by the door and anxiously wringing his hands, the latter leaning against the wall and staring at the hospital room door with chilling intensity. 

“When will the surgery be over?” she asked tersely. 

Shiro finally managed to find some words. “Soon, probably. The doctor said that the wound wasn’t too deep.”

Krolia’s eyes met his and Shiro had to repress the urge to shudder. The protective fury there felt too much like what he had in his chest. 

“This is never going to happen again,” she declared with iron in her voice. “Never.”

With her sharp teeth gleaming in the light, Shiro didn’t doubt her for a minute. 



Chapter Text

Space was full of wacky technology. Force fields, wormholes, psychic spaceships in the shape of lions, just to name a few. But sometimes, if you want something done right, you’ve gotta go old school.

This was the only reason Keith could find for his captors to have bound him with metal shackles instead of the magnetic ones he’d seen aboard Galra warships.

Overall, they matched the aesthetic of the surrounding stone dungeon, and he couldn’t say they weren’t effective-- the wrist and ankle shackles together with the chains probably weighed more than Pidge, restricting his movement significantly unless he wanted to put a lot of effort into moving. Which, since there wasn’t anything in the cell but his armorless self, wasn’t high on his list of priorities. 

With a sigh Keith leaned back against the wall and shifted a bit, trying to make himself comfortable. The chains scraped across the ground and the links clanged against one another obnoxiously, but compared to the utter silence of the cell, the noise was welcome. He wasn’t going to be here long enough for that to be a concern, he just had to wait for his check-in time to roll around so that the others would realize something was wrong and come get him.

It was the waiting game-- a game Keith was absolutely awful at. 

He waited as patiently as he could. Counting the number of stones in the ceiling was a decent distraction tactic (there were a lot of them), but the aching sensation in his wrists was creeping in despite his efforts. The shackles really were heavy, and he was skinny. He was gonna have some hella bruises when he got back to the Castle. 

At length Keith heard scuffling outside his cell door. It persisted for a few moments before the door began to swing open, creaking ominously all the while. He should’ve been worried at this point, but their stint in space had already been filled with so many captures and detainments that it had practically become boring. Just another Tuesday. 

One by one his captors slithered into the cell. It was hard to tell them apart considering they didn’t have much of a face to speak of, only a pair of beady white eyes set into their pale pale pink skin, but Keith thought he recognized the one in orange armor from his capture. The other two, both wearing cerulean, weren’t familiar.

And yes, he did say slithered. The aliens reminded him of deep sea squid from Earth, only they walked upright on their tentacles and wore armor that looked like sea shells. Rather squishy and unintimidating, but damn could those suckers cling like no tomorrow. 

Sliding forward, the one in orange struck the butt of his spear against the stone floor, a noise clearly meant to be intimidating. 

“Speak, prisoner,” they said, their language sounding like gurgling in Keith’s translator. “For whom do you spy?”

It was like being in a movie-- he knew his script frontwards and backwards. Lights, camera, and action.

“I’m not a spy. I’m a Paladin of Voltron. I’m here on the behalf of Princess Allura to offer an alliance.”

Keith was pretty sure if this thing had a mouth, it would be sneering at him.

“The Alteans have been extinct for millenia. Voltron is no more than a child’s legend. I will ask once more: for whom do you spy?”

It took a great amount of effort for Keith to keep himself from rolling his eyes. He really wished the universe would get the memo about Voltron being back and stop doing this every time they showed up. It was getting old.

“You saw my ship,” is what he chose to say aloud, trying not to sound as irritated as he felt. “It’s the Red Lion. How many other ships have you seen look like that?”

“It could be a fabrication,” burbled one of the guards in blue, “a trick. Zarkon’s witch is more than cunning enough to create one.”

Oh, for crying out loud. 

The leaders eyes narrowed dangerously. “This is your last chance to speak truthfully.”

Keith tried, and failed, to repress his answering growl. “I told you, I’m a Paladin. We only want peace.”

The other blue guard, the one who had yet to speak, shook his blobby head at him as the leader took a step back, like he was disappointed.

“Very well. You have chosen the way of pain.” He stamped his spear on the ground again, and upon his signal the blue guards moved forward. Each of them grasped one of Keith’s shoulders and pushed him forward so that he knelt, arms at either side. For a few blissful seconds Keith thought that these aliens didn’t understand human anatomy enough to actually cause him any pain.

He should know better by now.

The leader turned and walked across the cell to the opposite wall. There he thumped his spear for the third time, but this time something clicked as the shaft when into something. A tiny hole in the floor that Keith hadn’t noticed. His stomach began to twist with nerves. 

“We begin,” the leader said, and cranked his spear forward like a lever. From directly behind Keith’s head there came a great groaning noise, like there were gears in the wall. Pulled by the shackles, his wrists moved back a few inches, held by taut chains just above the floor.

He understood, then, that he was in deep shit. 

“For whom do you spy?”

Keith swallowed hard. “I’m not a spy.”

The leader pushed his spear forward again, the grinding noise echoed, and Keith’s arms pulled back a little bit higher, a little bit more towards the wall. He felt the barest twinge of pain but didn’t give himself the luxury of paying attention to it-- it was going to get a lot worse. 

“For whom do you spy?”

“I’m not, I’m a Paladin.”

Crank. Grind. 

This time Keith couldn’t hold back the shout he gave. His arms were being pulled too far back in the wrong direction, forcing him to lean forward and rest more of his weight on the aching joints. His shoulders hurt the worst, but there was an ache beginning in his elbows as well. One or two more cranks like that and things would be dislocating, for sure. 

“For whom do you spy?”

Jesus, these guys had the patience of monks. In desperation, Keith said, “Look in my ship, you can find the message from Allura, you can hail the Castle of Lions, I can prove--”


Keith screamed. His shoulders were on fire, elbows screaming, wrists aching at the weight pressing them against the metal shackles. 

“You are dedicated to your masters, I will grant you that.”

He wished he had the energy to lift his head and glare, but the angle of his body just wouldn’t have allowed it. It would’ve been weak anyway with the tears beading at the corners of his eyes. 

“Once more. For whom do you spy?”

“No one-- agh!”

Several disgusting pops rang through the room as his vision went white. The ringing in his ears didn’t let him hear if he’d screamed again or not, but he’d bet that he did. The pain was excruciating, and as the adrenaline chills swept over him, Keith tried desperately not to vomit. 

Dimly, he thought I am never letting Allura send me out alone again. 

The stone floor shuddered under his knees. Keith braced himself as best he could for another repeat of the question, for another burst of pain, but none came. And it never would, because the next sound he heard wasn’t the leader’s voice.

It was a roar, loud and furious, and Keith couldn’t help but laugh. 

They hadn’t believed he was a Paladin before. Well, he was about to make them. 

Chapter Text

Settling into the Castle of Lions, even after several weeks, was a work in progress. 

Absolutely nothing in it was built for humans (why would it be?) and the Alteans were still struggling to fix it after ten thousand years of abandonment, update it to the new universe that had formed around them, and make it somewhat habitable for their new Paladins, all at once.

One subject that was especially contentious was the Gladiator. 

Every day during training it still kicked all of their asses. If their teamwork was particularly on point they could take it down together, but solo matches still usually ended with a Paladin on the floor with a bruised ass. 

It frustrated Pidge to no end. They knew the Gladiator had lower settings, Keith trained on them all the time, but Allura refused to let them dial it down during group training sessions.

The Princess was so goddamn stubborn, it was infuriating, the way she flaunted her regal status all the time. It was driving Pidge crazy.

The breaking point came two days after their Balmera victory. Allura hadn’t let up on their training routine even after that momentous occasion, and they were all still sore and rather grumpy about the whole situation. 

Currently Pidge was standing against the back wall with the others, trying not to sulk too blatantly as they watched Keith do his one on one with the Gladiator. He was doing well, all things considered; his extra training during down time helped, even if his robotic opponent was set to a higher skill level. 

Pidge watched him a bit distractedly, half analyzing the moves and half wondering where she’d get bruised when it was her turn.

The analytical half noticed how hard Keith was breathing. He was exhausted, they all were-- the battle at the Balmera combined with Allura’s training regime had drained them past empty. That same part of her noted the awkward position of his foot, the way his arms shook, but the rest of her was still surprised when it happened. 

It took mere seconds. The Gladiator swung its staff. Keth blocked. Before Pidge could so much as blink, the robot whipped its staff down at Keith’s leg, making him stumble, then spun and whacked him in the chest full force.

Keith went flying into the wall with a choked cry. His helmet hit with a sharp, scary crack, and Keith slumped to the floor, unmoving.

Out of the corner of her eye Pidge caught Allura pressing her lips together, shaking her head in disappointment. She felt a flare of anger, but before she could lose her temper, she got distracted by Shiro. 

“Keith?” he called across the room. “You alright?”

Keith didn’t move.

“Come on, Mullet, it’s not naptime,” said Lance, irritation in his voice. Still Keith didn’t respond. He just sat there, half-crumpled against the wall like a carelessly posed doll. 

This time when Pidge’s stomach twisted, it wasn’t out of rage.

Shiro jogged over to him. He tried to keep his worry off of his face, but the tension was obvious in his gait.

“Keith?” he asked again when he reached the Red Paladin’s side. He knelt and tilted Keith’s chin up, then frowned and carefully removed his helmet. Pidge couldn’t see his face from here, obscured as it was by Keith’s sweaty hair, but she did hear Shiro’s gasp.

“He’s out,” Shiro announced to the room grimly. “Let’s take a break. Hunk, help me carry him to the infirmary please.”

Hunk obligingly started forward. Shiro’s calm facade seemed to be working on him and Lance, who even looked pleased to be getting a break, but Pidge saw right through him. 

Keith had been knocked unconscious by the gladiator, during training. He could have a concussion, or worse. It was a big deal.

So when she heard Allura’s affected sigh, something in her snapped.

“You Paladins have a long way to go,” Allura was saying as Pidge fumed and Shiro carefully checked Keith’s neck for broken bones. “An Altean could’ve--”

“We’re not Altean!” Pidge burst out. In seconds the training deck was plunged into silence, even Allura looking stunned, but Pidge wasn’t done. “We’re human, Allura! We’re human children! We’re never going to be as good as Alteans! We’re never going to be as good as the first Paladins!”

She was facing Allura with clenched fists, feeling like fire was coming out of her ears, while Allura looked down on her with regal offense. It only stoked the flames higher. 

“I know we’re not what you want, we’re not as good as you want, but too bad! Altea is gone, and you’re stuck with us, whether you like it or not, and you’re pushing us too hard!”

Hot tears blurred her vision. Pidge tore off her helmet and drew a gloved hand over her eyes. Lance started towards her, and Shiro looked surprised and worried in his position over Keith, but Keith’s limp expression just pushed Pidge on. 

“Keith is hurt, Allura, bad. Shiro can hardly go a day without having a flashback because of this stupid robot--”

“Pidge,” Shiro tried to say. Pidge bowled right over him. 

“We’re getting hurt here. And you, Allura, are the one hurting us. Not Zarkon, not the Galra, you!”

“Ok, ok,” Lance said, setting a hand on Pidge’s shoulder. “Let’s all take a second here.”

Allura’s expression had shifted. Now she looked stricken, like Pidge had slapped her, and it made Pidge feel bitterly vindicated. 

“I’m taking five,” she said in a strangled voice. Shoving Lance’s hand away, she turned on her heel and marched off the training deck, trying to stem the flow of tears all the way to her bunk. 

A few hours later Pidge slipped quietly into the infirmary. Maybe it was just her, but the whole Castle felt like it was made of glass and silence, and any indication of life could shatter it to pieces. 

Keith was there. Not in a pod (Pidge noted with relief) but stretched out on one of the cots. He had his eyes closed until he heard Pidge’s footsteps, then he turned towards her. 

Seeing his wry little smile made something in Pidge settle. His eyes were a bit cloudy, a little unfocused, but he was lucid. He hadn’t been hurt too badly, then. 

“Hey,” she ventured to say when she reached his bedside. Her fingers twisted in the hem of her hoodie-- she kind of wanted to hold his hand, but wasn’t sure how well it would be received. They barely knew each other, after all.

“Hey,” Keith answered, voice a bit scratchy. 

“How are you feeling?”

Keith shrugged. “Headache. Not bad, though.”

Pidge nodded, then, upon realizing she didn’t know what else to say, flushed red. For once, Keith spoke instead. 

“Heard you yelled at Allura.”

She winced. After some time to cool down she was maybe regretting that, a little. Her point still stood, but she really could’ve been nicer about it. 

Keith chuckled at the expression on her face. “I don’t blame you. If it had been anyone else who got hit, I would’ve lost it, too.”

Pidge didn’t doubt it. Keith might not be their friend yet, necessarily, but they’d been in each others heads. Flown together. Fought together. When they formed Voltron she and Keith worked in tandem to fight according to Shiro’s orders; Keith attacking, Pidge defending. He knew what it felt like to lose someone to the unanswerable stars, too. 

They had a lot in common, really. 

“Yeah, I know. I get why you yelled at me that one time, now.”

This time Keith’s laugh was sad and tired sounding. Right right, he was probably concussed, he needed his rest.

“Well, I’m glad you’re alright. You should get some sleep.”

Keith hummed in agreement, his eyes fluttering shut again. “Mm, I think I agree with you.”

Pidge smiled sadly to herself. Then, before she could lose her nerve, popped forward and dropped a kiss on his forehead.

Then she fled, cheeks on fire, but heart content and appeased. 

Chapter Text

God, fuck, shit, goddamn motherfucking--

The stream of swear words in his mind were the only things holding Keith back from flat out crying. He hadn’t done that in months, not since he got booted from the Garrison. Living in the desert alone didn’t leave much hydration left over for tears. 

But fuck did this hurt. The gash on the palm of his left hand burned like crazy, throbbing and stinging, the sweat and dirt smeared around it definitely not helping. He’d suffered through pouring some water over it earlier, but he still had a hike left before he got home and couldn’t spare any more of it for wound cleaning. 

He should’ve been smarter. He should’ve been wearing his gloves. But his hands had been sweaty after his ride on the hover and he’d put them away, then forgotten to put them back on when he got to the cliffs. One poorly placed foot, one slip, one especially sharp rock, and here he was. 

Trying to distract himself from the pain and the blood running down his wrist, Keith tried to focus on how irritated he was at having to leave the hover behind. He couldn’t drive it one handed, so he’d have to walk back to the shack today and then go back for it, which would be a massive pain in the ass. (The distraction wasn’t working. His hand still hurt like hell).

By the time he got back to his shack the sun was setting, hot and orange behind the cliffs, painting the clouds purple. He slumped inside and dropped his pack at the door-- it wasn’t like he had to be tidy anymore-- and groped for the switch on his electric lantern. The room lit up with harsh fluorescent light.

All he wanted at that moment was to collapse onto his futon and pass the fuck out. He was exhausted, soaked in sweat and grime, his legs aching from so much walking. But he couldn’t do any of that. He was alone now, he had to take care of himself; he had to bandage his wound lest it get infected. An infection out here could kill him. 

So, dragging his feet, he shuffled to the far corner where he kept his supplies and dug out the first aid kit. Returning to the coffee table, he sat on the futon and set the kit on top of it, opening it one-handed.

In the light the wound looked even worse. Several inches wide and deep, too. He wasn’t an expert, but even he could tell it was going to need stitches.

God, fuck his life.

Well, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. The cut needed stitches, so he’d just have to suck it up and stitch it. Going to the doctor was out of the question-- he was poorer than the desert mice living under his porch. Whatever. He’d had worse. 

With his one hand and his teeth he managed to tear open an alcohol wipe. The first brush of it against the cut made him his in a quick breath, but he ground his teeth and persevered through the cleaning, knowing that the worst was yet to come. Threading the needle posed its own challenge which took about ten minutes to solve, and then it was time. 

Keith let out a slow breath, trying to calm his nerves. He had to be careful here. He knew from previous experience that if he didn’t do this right, it could just make everything worse. He had to keep his composure, no matter how much it hurt.

Patience yields focus. 

He made the first puncture.

A shout crashed against his lips, fighting to be released, but Keith smothered it into his shoulder. Technically he could be as loud as he wanted, no one was around to hear, but it was already so ingrained in him to be silent, to keep pain inside, that the reaction was instinctive. 

One by one, painful stitch by painful stitch, Keith slowly closed the wound. By the time he made the knot at the end his head was spinning, his hands shaking, his skin soaked in cold sweat from the pain and adrenaline. But he’d done it. It was over.

He just barely had enough energy to wrap bandages over the stitches before he fell back onto his futon, exhausted. Forget about eating or changing clothes or packing the first aid kit up again, he could do that later. In the morning, when he’d slept. When he could think straight.

And then it would be back to searching the cliffs, not even knowing what he was looking for. 

“Lance, give them back!”

Lance cackled madly at him and dashed into the lounge. Keith was right on his heels, sliding through the door as it was closing, and without missing a beat vaulted over the couch that Lance had gone around, landing directly in his path. 

Lance barely had time to shout before Keith tackled him to the floor. He was still laughing, stretching his arms out over his head to hold the gloves out of range. But Keith managed to pin his elbows, slide his grip down to his wrists, and finally pry them out of Lance’s fingers. 

It wasn’t until Keith got off of him and stood up, holding the gloves to his chest, that he realized everyone was staring.

Instantly he felt like he’d been dunked in liquid fire. Lance was still laying on the floor, chuckling breathlessly to himself, while Hunk gave him a smile of fond exasperation and Pidge shook her head at them. Shiro was just blinking, like he was still processing their sudden appearance.

“Keith takes keep away waaaaaay too seriously,” said Lance in a teasing tone as he sat up. Keith blushed even harder, if that was possible.

“Shut up, Lance,” he snapped before trudging over to the sofa and plopping himself down next to Shiro. “What are you, five?”

Lance stuck his tongue out at him. Keith came way too close to doing the same back before stopping himself. 

Then Hunk said something that attracted Lance’s attention, but Keith didn’t hear. The moment Lance looked away he was sliding his gloves back onto his hands. He hoped the expression on his face didn’t reveal too much-- he didn’t want Lance to know how important these gloves were to him. That would only give him more motive to steal them again. 

He pulled the right hand glove on first, flexing his fingers satisfyingly underneath the leather. He started to pull on the left one, only for Shiro’s hand to suddenly wrap around his wrist, making Keith jolt.

“What’s this from?” Shiro asked, and Keith felt his stomach plummet when he realized what he was looking at. The pale scar on his palm from his rock-climbing accident. It was ugly, marring the skin more than marking it, and he uncomfortably pulled his hand out of Shiro’s grip.

“Rock climbing,” he mumbled as he slid the glove back on. “While I was looking for Blue.”

Shiro’s voice was soft when he answered, meant only for the two of them. “You said you lived alone. Who stitched it up?”

Keith stole a quick glance around the room before answering, ensuring none of the others were paying attention.

“I did,” he said, and hoped Shiro would leave it alone. But Shiro’s quick gasp told him immediately that he wouldn’t. 

“Dont,” Keith said before Shiro could speak, hoping his tone wasn’t too harsh. “It was fine. I took care of it.”

Shiro breathed out without a word. Then breathed in, and out again. Considering his words. 

“I know you can take care of yourself,” he said eventually. His other arm, which had been stretched out over the top of the sofa, descended to curl around Keith’s shoulders. Keith melted into it without thinking. All of the time in the desert had really screwed him up when it came to socializing. “I just wish I had been there. So that you wouldn’t have to.”

Barely audible, Keith whispered, “It’s not your fault, Shiro.”

“I know. I just wish.”

He gnawed on the inside of his lip. He wanted to be patient, like Shiro, and think about what his words might mean before he said them, but they escaped regardless.

“Me too.”

Shiro just held him closer. 

Chapter Text

“Don’t move, Keith.”

Keith let out a groan of protest and twisted, trying to get up despite Shiro’s order. 

“Don’t move!” he hissed more emphatically. Pressing his hand flat against Keith’s chestplate to keep him down, Shiro dared a peek over the rock they hid behind. Pidge, Lance, and Hunk were doing alright against the creature, but they were still struggling. 

As he watched, the beast lashed its thick, scaly tail and caught Pidge right in the gut, sending her flying into one of the moss covered trees. 

Shiro ground his teeth. The other Paladins needed his help, but if he left Keith alone he’d try to join the fight and get himself hurt even more. 

Lance dashed in Pidge’s direction, firing a volley of laser blasts into the monsters side. With a roar it swung its long arms, and Lance cried out when a claw cleaved through his shoulder armor and into his flesh. 

That did it. Swallowing back a growl of frustration, he snapped down at Keith, “Don’t move!” then straightened and vaulted over the rock.

They had to kill this thing, fast, and get back to the Castle. 

Keith’s life depended on it. 

Everything was blurry. Green blobs danced above his head. There was heat, everywhere, his entire world was hot, he was on fire, burning like thermite. 

It was the poison. The wound was negligible. The venom was the problem-- deadly to Galra, of course, because Keith just had the worst luck in the world. At least none of the others were in danger. From the poison, anyway. 

“Don’t move.” That was what Shiro had said. “Don’t move.”

He should probably listen to Shiro. Shiro was smart. Shiro looked after him.

But he didn’t know how long he could follow those orders. He could hear the others fighting still, and with every crash and shout his determination eroded away. The creature was dangerous. They needed help-- they needed his help. 

It took a few moments to struggle upright. The world spun around him in a blur of brown and jungle green, but all the same he braced his hands against the rock and used it to get to his feet. 

The monster was a blob of blue and sickly yellow. Several other blobs danced around it; the other Paladins. He’d have to be careful not to hit any of them. 

Pressing one hand over the wound on his side, he summoned his bayard into the other. It was heavy and made his arm shake, but he held tight and waited for his opportunity. 

It came quickly. The monster had a blotch of red under its chin, directly over its throat. When he caught a glimpse of the red he didn’t hesitate-- he reared back and threw his bayard as hard and as accurately as he could. He expected it to miss with how horrible his eyesight was, but by some miracle, he didn’t. 

The beast roared in rage and pain, a distinct gurgling sound underpinning its voice. It made more mournful sounds as it staggered, and eventually collapsed to the ground; Keith felt the vibrations in the soil. 

A wave of fire washed over him. He fell to his knees, shuddering with a sudden chill, even as his organs felt like they were being microwaved. He barely felt Shiro’s hand on his shoulder.

“Keith!” Shiro was shouting, but his voice was muffled and rapidly fading away. “I told you not to--”

His voice disappeared, replaced by a high pitched keening. Keith’s eyes fluttered shut. He let them.

And everything went black. 

Shiro paced back and forth before the three active pods. Lance was in for the wound to his shoulder, Pidge for three shattered ribs, and of course Keith, being purged of alien toxin. 

He was pissed.

He told Keith not to move! They were handling it-- they might’ve gotten a little beat up, but that was better than what had happened to Keith. Moving made the toxin run through his body more quickly, and by the time they got back to the Castle he was about two minutes away from dead and gone. 

Shiro was so angry he could barely breathe. 

“Shiro?” said a voice behind him. It was Coran, and when Shiro turned, he found the Altean watching him with his ‘dad’ expression, the one he wore around Allura.

It only made Shiro’s anger tick up a notch. He didn’t want to be coddled. What he wanted was for Keith to stop being such a reckless idiot. 

“Yes?” he answered tightly. He tried to keep the extent of his emotions hidden. After all, it wasn’t Coran he was mad at. 

“Don’t blame Keith for this, lad.”

Ok, never mind. He was mad at Coran. 

“I told him not to move. He never listens to me. All I want is to keep him safe and he never lets me!”

“I think he wants the same,” said Coran, keeping his cool. “He did kill the beast, after all. Likely saved you all from greater injury.”

“But-- but he was hurt.” Shiro was mortified to hear his voice crack. “He could’ve died.”

“All of you could’ve died.” Now Coran sounded solemn, his casual tone long gone. “All of you could die on any given day. He protected his teammates. That’s to be commended.”

Shiro’s breath left him in a sigh. Staring at Keith’s frozen, tranquil face, the final puzzle piece clicked in. 

He wasn’t angry. He was scared.

“I don’t want to lose him. Or any of them.”

“I know, Number Two.” Shiro felt his hand on his shoulder, giving a comforting squeeze. “I don’t want to, either.”

Shiro took in another deep breath and let it out again.

What’s done is done. He’d still need to have a discussion about unnecessary risks, but now he felt like he could do that without taking Keith by the shoulders and shaking some sense into him.

“Number Three’s time is just about up,” said Coran, stepping away towards Lance’s pod. “He’ll be out in a few doboshes.”

“I’ll go get Hunk.”

Shiro left the infirmary, for once reassured that when he came back, Keith would be exactly where he’d left him. 

Chapter Text

Back on Earth, Keith had been something of an adrenaline junkie. Boosting cars, getting into fights, driving hoverbikes off of cliffs-- whatever he had to do to get the rush. The only time he really felt powerful and in control. For a few years, it had been the only time he really felt anything at all. 

But up here in space, he found he was having the exact opposite problem. Their missions and battles with the Galra were intense, and after every single one he crashed hard and fast. More than once he’d had to hide away in his room to disguise how shaky and sick he felt once he started coming down from his high.

And now, after being tracked so exhaustively by Zarkon, he was having trouble coming down at all. 

The battle had ended over an hour ago. The others had long since scattered to various parts of the Castle, either to get their hurts bandaged up or to find food or just take a nap until the next thing came up. But Keith was still on the training deck in his armor, adrenaline thrumming underneath his skin. 

The level five gladiator was too easy. It felt like the robot was moving at half speed, telegraphing all of its movements seconds in advance. It wasn’t helping enough-- Keith felt like he could shake apart at any moment if he didn’t get this energy out somewhere. 

With a frustrated yell he slammed his bayard down on the bots neck. The head fell and bounced across the floor before it all disappeared into blue squares. Chest heaving and sweat dripping from his forehead, Keith straightened up. 

“Begin level seven!” he shouted to the computer, voice hoarse from his dry throat.

“Beginning level seven,” answered the pleasant Altean voice, and the next gladiator dropped into the ring. 

Keith tore into it like a rabid dog. 

Somewhere at the back of his mind he knew he needed to stop soon. He was breathing too hard, getting too hot, and his chest had begun to ache. But he couldn’t stop. Not yet.

He didn’t hear the door to the training deck when it opened, and he didn’t hear the approaching footsteps. But he definitely did hear when someone shouted his name. In fact, he jumped about a foot in the air and whirled on his heel, ready to face another opponent, but the only person standing there was a concerned looking Shiro. 

The gladiator smacked the back of his helmet with its staff. Keith snarled and spun back, cleaving it in two without ceremony. 

“Jesus, Keith,” Shiro said as Keith stood there, panting. “What’s got you all riled up? We finally have some down time, you should be resting.”

Keith shook his head. He loosened his stance, standing up straight and letting his bayard dissipate, but he didn’t turn to face Shiro. He was shaking and cold-- he didn’t need Shiro to see him like this.

“I will. In a bit.”

“Keith.” It was the same tone he used to use on him before all of this had gone down, when Keith tried to talk him into staying out past curfew to drive the hovers under the stars. All of a sudden his stomach dropped like a stone, leaving him hollow, and to his horror Keith felt hot tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. He closed them to keep them in. 

“Keith,” Shiro said again, a single footstep echoing through the room. “What’s going on?”

God, what was wrong with him? He hadn’t missed Earth the entire time they’d been up here, so why was he only now feeling like a black hole was about to devour him? 

“Nothing,” he croaked out, and pulled his helmet off. He needed to breathe. Why couldn’t he breathe?

“Hey.” More footsteps, each one making Keith jolt and jitter, until Shiro was beside him and laying a hand on his shoulder. The weight was surprisingly grounding. “Come on, talk to me. You know you can.”

Keith swiped his fingers quickly over his cheeks, just to make sure no tears had escaped without his permission. He knew it was ok to be vulnerable in front of Shiro, but he’d been reinforcing his walls ever since the Kerberos rocket launched. Something like that couldn’t be torn down in a day.

“It’s nothing, I’m just… having trouble calming down. From-- from the battle, I mean.”

He didn’t have to be looking at Shiro to know his eyes softened at that moment. The hand on his shoulder tightened, urging him to turn, so he did, though keeping his eyes on the floor and not looking up. 

“I get it,” Shiro murmured. “You just gotta stand still for a second and let the adrenaline work its way out.”

Keith couldn’t help fidgeting at that, the itch under his skin flaring, until Shiro put his other hand on Keith’s shoulders as well. 

“I know it’s gonna be hard, but I’m right here with you. Breathe with me, ok? In, one, two, three.”

He felt a little bit like a child with the familiar breathing exercises, but all the same he tried his best to copy Shiro’s breaths and follow his counts. His body fought it at first, making his breath come in as quick shudders and gasps and his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, but Shiro never wavered in his counting, and ever so slowly Keith felt his muscles beginning to unwind. 

One of Shiro’s hands slid up to cup the back of Keith’s neck, as best as it could above the armor. Keith couldn’t tell whether it was the metal one or the flesh one-- they both felt the same to him. He leaned back into it, letting Shiro gently rub away the remaining tension in the tendons. 

The urge to cry retreated. The humming faded from his blood. Finally he felt a little less out of control and wild and a little more settled and centered. 

“There you go,” Shiro praised quietly. “That’s better, right?”

All at once Keith felt exhausted. He felt his shoulders slump under the weight of his armor as the adrenaline finally slithered out, leaving him to hold up on his own with stones for muscles and lead in his veins. His eyes burned and itched for a completely different reason, now. Shiro must’ve felt the change, or seen it, because he let out a soft chuckle. 

“Alright, let’s get you into bed. Before you pass out on me.”

Keith managed a nod, and let Shiro pull him towards the door. 

Chapter Text

Another day, another fruitless search through the galaxy. 

Keith let out a heavy sigh as he turned Red back towards the Castle. It had been three weeks since their battle with Zarkon. Since Shiro had disappeared (again). And still Keith could find no trace of him-- not his armor or anything. 

He flew numbly at first, trying not to think. But as soon as the Castle came into view he slowed Red to a stop. The Lion rumbled questioningly. Keith didn’t answer. 

He could already envision the looks the others would give him. Sad, mourning for Shiro, pitying Keith. Allura would look at him with that intense gaze, reminding him that Voltron couldn’t hide forever and eventually he’d need to step up and fly Black whether he wanted to or not.

And he really, really didn’t want to.

Before he knew it hot tears were coursing down his cheeks, and he was too tired to try to stop them. Who cared, anyway? The only other person here was Red, and this wasn’t the first time Red had seen him break down. Far from it. 

He didn’t sob or wail or even make that much noise, period. The tears came silently, and Keith sat and waited for them to stop, waited for his heart to wring itself out of all the emotions Keith had been shutting down before they reached his brain. Even now he wasn’t feeling the devastation he knew had to be there somewhere. He hadn’t felt that since he was ten years old. 

Instead he felt what he had the first time Shiro had vanished. Exhaustion, and despair, and rage. 

He doubted it would bring him back a second time. 

Eventually the tears stopped. Keith let them dry on his cheeks as he continued his journey home. Sure, the others would notice, but they wouldn’t say anything. They all knew better-- Keith would just push them away. His walls had been strong before, but now they were triple layered and impenetrable, cemented and sealed with the pain of loss. No one would ever make it past them again. He’d make sure of it. 

Keith wasn’t surprised to see the group waiting for him in Red’s hangar. He landed carefully enough to avoid squishing them, but from there on decided to ignore them. He didn’t have the energy for another battle over moving on or flying the Black Lion. Hell, half of him wished he was out there with Shiro, wherever he was, just so that he didn’t have to watch the team move on without him. 

The thought made his fists clench at his sides as the ramp descended from Red’s jaw. Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it? Shiro was being abandoned. Just like Keith had been a thousand times. Well, not him. He wasn’t going to do that to him. Even if what Allura said was true and he was dead, Keith would never abandon Shiro. He just wasn’t capable of it.

The others watched him closely as he emerged into the hangar. He sent them all dagger-like glares, daring them to say a single word. Lance and Pidge shrank back, clearing thinking better of it, and Allura and Coran exchanged a sad, pitying glance. That only made Keith angrier. He didn’t want their pity. He wanted them to care. Wanted them to care about Shiro, and about him, or about anything other than destroying Zarkon.

Yeah, right.

But one member of the group wasn’t flinching. It was Hunk, just looking at him with wide, surprised eyes, and it wasn’t until then that Keith realized how much of a wreck he must look like. He’d been searching for hours before giving up for the day-- he was probably pale and tired looking, since he hadn’t slept well in days, and his eyes were probably all red and swollen from crying, and the tears had probably left streaks stained onto his skin. 

Well, whatever. Keith looked like a trainwreck because he was a trainwreck. Let them see. 

His plan was to stalk right past them. Whether he would then go to sleep or shower or eat he didn’t know yet-- probably none of the above. Probably to the training deck until he couldn’t move from the ache in his muscles. It was a good distraction. 

But someone grabbed his wrist. 

Keith instinctively let out a snarl, simultaneously spinning and trying to rip his arm out of the person's grasp, fight or flight response on a hair trigger. But it wasn’t an assailant, or Allura-- once again it was Hunk, that wide eyed look solidified into stubborn determination. The same he showed on the Balmera. 

Oh God, Keith thought with a sinking heart. Now he’s going to try to convince me. He didn’t want that-- he didn’t want to be mean to Hunk, but if he tried to convince him to give up his search and fly Black, he’d be forced to.

“Let me go,” he tried, tugging against the hold Hunk still had on him. He just pursed his lips and shook his head.

“No way, man,” he said solemnly, fingers squeezing more tightly. “I know you’re just gonna go to the training deck until we let you out to search again.”

Keith winced, but Hunk continued regardless. 

“You can’t keep going like this, or you’re going to crash and burn.”

“I’m not giving up on Shiro,” growled Keith. That just made Hunk look sadder.

“I’m not asking you to,” he murmured. His unexpectedly soothing tone smoothed some of Keith’s ruffled feathers, and his stance loosened, just a little bit. “I’m just asking you to let yourself rest.”

With a final exhale, Keith slumped and nodded his acquiescence. But Hunk didn’t let go of his wrist, merely stepping closer to him instead. 

“I know you’re hurting,” he said, and Keith went tense all over again. “But we can’t help you unless you let us in.”

Keith shook his head a bit desperately, biting his lip to hold in the resurgence of tears. Resting, fine, he could do that-- but he couldn’t let the team be nice to him like this. He already knew what became of that, but Hunk was giving him puppy dog eyes so strong he was surprised he hadn’t melted already. 

“We’re your friends, Keith. You don’t have to be alone in this.”

The tears escaped in a traitorous huff of breath. Before Keith knew what was going on Hunk had pulled him into a hug despite the unwieldy armor he still wore, pressing his helmeted head into his shoulder. The body heat rushed through him like flames, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t hold it in anymore.

Keith burst into sobs, and one by one the others came and gathered around him, holding him until they stopped. 


Chapter Text

Once you figured them out, Lance mused, Altean pools weren’t so bad. The anti-gravity function was weird, but it was pretty neat to send the water flying between the ceiling pool and the floor pool and letting it carry you along with it. The times in the middle felt like you were in a cartoon or something, trapped in a bubble. But, like, in a good way. 

The pool was probably his favorite place in the Castle. Being around water soothed him and made the homesickness sting a little less. Alas, as with all things, the pool did have one major downside: Keith liked it as much as he did.

That didn’t make sense to Lance. Keith was the guardian of fire, and he grew up in the desert as far as Lance knew, but that didn’t stop him from spending a good portion of his downtime in the pool. Not as much as Lance, but enough to make him irritated every time he entered the room and saw Mullet floating there, staring at either the ceiling or the floor depending on where the water was, like he was in another world entirely.

Today it was annoying him just a little more than usual. Lance was trying to float, closing his eyes and letting the water fill his ears, trying to forget where he was and pretend he was at home, where he was meant to be. But Keith was doing laps five feet away from him, and with every pass the water swayed and sloshed, and Lance could hear the reverberations of his movements in the water like muffled cannon fire. 

Keith always did this. He’d be floating around easy as you please when Lance came in, but the moment he noticed Lance was there he’d switch to laps, like he couldn’t stand not being better than him for five minutes. Even on good days it drove him nuts, and now was definitely not one. 

Eventually, unable to take it anymore, Lance put his feet down and straightened up, droplets falling from his hair back into the water with little trickles that Lance drowned out with his voice.

“Dude, would you quit it with the laps? If you wanna exercise more go back to the training deck, I’m trying to relax here!”

Keith paused in his stroke and turned to face him. The pools were an even depth all the way across, the water coming to about Lance’s collarbone. It was ever so slightly higher on Keith, and the ends of his hair were wet where they’d been brushing through it. He frowned, expression verging on a scowl. 

“The pool’s for everyone, you can’t just kick me out,” he spat acidly. Lance rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, it’s for everyone to relax in. You’re not relaxing. Sometimes I wonder if you even know how.”

Alright, now Keith was scowling. Lance braced himself for the inevitable fight to commence, but to his surprise Keith just turned away and headed for the edge.

“Fine,” Keith snarled as he went. “Fine. Have the whole pool to yourself. See if I care.” Reaching the edge of the pool Keith braced his palms on it and lifted himself out of the water. Lance’s breath caught. 

Keith’s back was covered in scars. And when he said covered, he meant covered. Thin lines of raised white scar tissue layered his flesh, crisscrossing and in some places laid over each other, the furthest ones leaving tendrils ever-so-slightly wrapping the curves of his shoulders and sides. Lance knew immediately what they were from; he’d never seen it happen to anyone, but he’d seen the same wounds on Shiro. 

Jesus, how could he have missed them? 

Keith was on his feet and heading for his towel when Lance remembered how to make his voice work. And it was probably a bad idea to say anything, but he couldn’t stop the words from rising in his throat.

“What happened to your back?”

Instantly Keith went rigid. When he shot a venomous glance over his shoulder his eyes burned like coals.

“Nothing,” he snapped. “None of your business.” And before Lance could say anything else or even so much as blink Keith had covered the scars with his towel and booked it from the room.

For the next few minutes all Lance could do was stand there. His brain was absolutely boggled and whirled all around, looking for some sort of explanation to grasp at. 

The scars looked old, older than Shiro’s. Maybe even from before the Garrison. Some of them had looked kind of stretched, like he’d grown since he got them. But that would mean that someone had to have done that to him when he was little more than a child, or even younger, and the thought of that had Lance swallowing back horrified bile. 

After a while, Lance collected the scattered pieces of his mind and pulled himself together enough to climb out of the pool. It wouldn’t do him any good to obsess over it-- like Keith had said, it wasn’t any of his business. Keith didn’t want to tell him, and that was that.

(That was not that).  

A month had passed since Lance’s accidental discovery, and Keith hadn’t been caught dead on the pool deck even once. Which Lance could understand. He probably didn’t want to run the risk of Lance asking about the scars again, or might even think that Lance would tease him about them. (Which, for the record, he would never do. Ever.)

Every other time he avoided Lance like the plague. Even during training, when Lance would try to goad him and rile him up the way he used to, Keith would either shut down and ignore him, or snarl something so mean that Lance wouldn’t want to keep going. That hurt, but Lance tried not to show it. That was the nature of their rivalry, after all. He’d never been under the impression that Keith actually liked him. 

One day while during a mission brief, Lance noticed Keith was shifting around a lot more than usual. He normally fidgeted and paced a bit, but today he kept rolling his shoulders against his jacket, and once or twice Lance caught his fingers wrapping around to his back and pressing down. He wasn’t sure what to make of that, but ultimately decided not to ask. It wouldn’t end well.

As luck would have it, Lance was among the last to leave the bridge, and just so happened to follow Keith and Shiro down a hallway, and just so happened to be around the corner when they started talking, and just so happened to be close enough to hear. 

Ok, so he was eavesdropping. Call the space police why don’t ya.

“Keith, is something wrong?” Shiro asked in that concerned tone he was so good at. “You’ve been fidgeting.”

“I always fidget,” said Keith defensively, and Shiro sighed.

“You know what I mean.”

There was a pause, then Keith said quietly, “They’re itching.”

Another moment of quiet, wherein both Lance and Shiro seemed to be processing the words and connecting the dots, until Shiro spoke again.

“You can ask Coran for some of that cream he gave me. Makes them itch less.”

Lance couldn’t see him, but he imagined Keith was shaking his head. “No, I don’t want to ask Coran. I don’t want him to know. Lance knowing is bad enough.”

He jolted at the sound of his own name, but Shiro didn’t say anything-- he already knew about the pool incident. 

Instead he said, “They’re nothing to be ashamed of, Keith. Just scars.”

Keith made a grumpy noise. “You should listen to your own advice.”

“That’s not fair.” Even Lance could hear the hurt in his voice.

“I-- I know. I’m sorry.” To his credit, Keith did sound sorry. Lance had never heard that tone directed in his direction, but it was a little gratifying to hear Keith snap at someone besides him, for once. “I’m just-- I really don’t want to have to talk about it. Not to anybody. Coran will just give me that awful, pitying look. I hate that look.”

Now it was Shiro’s turn to say, “I know.” Then he sighed, and Lance guessed he was running his hand through his hair the way he always did when he was stressed or trying to make a decision. “It’s up to you, I guess.”

Lance quietly slunk away. He’d heard enough, at least to know what to do. 

That night he asked Coran for some of the scar cream that Shiro had mentioned, feeding him a story about how he still had scars from the exploding crystal. Coran gave him a container of it without question, and Lance left it by Keith’s door. Keith would assume it was Shiro’s doing, and Shiro would assume Keith had asked Coran on his own.

No one would have to know. 

Eventually Lance got sick of swimming by himself. He’d complained about Keith’s compulsive laps, but when he went alone the water was too quiet, too smooth. There were no other voices raised in laughter or siblings splashing each other the way he was used to back home. If anything, being alone in the water only made the homesickness worse.

But Hunk and Pidge didn’t like to swim. Hunk preferred experimenting with new ingredients as they picked them up, and Pidge (when she wasn’t consumed by the search for her family) busied herself learning Altean. Shiro hadn’t gone near the pool even once and Lance didn’t want to overstep somehow by asking, and the Alteans always got this terrible sad look on their faces when he mentioned it, like having that remnant of Altea there was still too painful.

Really, Keith was his only choice. 

So on one of their few leisurely afternoons, Lance looped his towel around his neck and proceeded determinedly to Keith’s room, where he’d seen him go after dinner. Thankfully he was still there, not having yet run off to the training deck, and opened the door when Lance knocked.

His expression twisted when he saw who the visitor was. “What do you want, Lance? Why are you dressed like that?” He was, of course, referring to Lance’s swim trunks and lack of shoes. Lance resisted the urge to cross his arms over his bare chest.

“Because I’m going to the pool, and I want you to come with me.” Keith’s eyes narrowed into suspicious slits, but before he could say anything Lance was continuing. “I know that I freaked you out last time by asking about the scars,” Keith flinched and almost shut the door until Lance planted his foot against it. “But I won’t do it again. I won’t mention it. Not a word. Just agree to come with me because I can’t stand being alone there anymore.”

Lance’s cheeks flushed abruptly-- he hadn’t meant to say that last part. But Keith didn’t look put off. In fact, he looked like he was considering what Lance had said, letting his hand drop away from the door control panel. 

At length, he said, “Alright, I’ll go,” and Lance couldn’t help but grin. 

Lance never did learn what the story behind the scars was. At least, not for many years after the war had ended. But that was ok. 

Some stories just weren’t meant to be shared.   

Chapter Text

Clang. Clang. Crash. 

Allura danced back at exactly the right time to avoid Keith’s swipe. Brow furrowed in concentration, he poured on the speed, making two more attacks that Allura easily evaded before making a strike of her own. 

Keith got his practice sword up in time to block, but Allura merely pressed forward until they were face to face, blades and Keith’s shaking arms between them. Allura had hardly broken a sweat. 

“You’re going easy on me,” Keith said. Allura’s lip quirked just as she shoved, making him stumble back a few steps. Even when he was thrown off his balance, she didn’t press the attack, merely shifting her stance and waiting for his next move.

“Of course I am,” she responded flippantly. Even her breathing was hardly elevated, and every strand of her silver hair was still in its bun, where it was meant to be. “If I wasn’t the spar wouldn’t last long, would it?”

Keith shrugged and cracked his neck. She was right, of course, but Keith didn’t really mind. He needed practice against enemies much stronger than him if they were ever going to take Zarkon down. 

“Do you need a break?” asked the Princess, sweeping an eye over him. “We’ve been going for quite a while.”

“Not yet. Let’s go one more time.”

For a moment Allura looked like she was going to argue, but ultimately must’ve decided to humor him and went back to her battle stance. Keith took a second to gather his strength before moving. 

He started to move to the left, watching and waiting for Allura to turn in that direction. Once she did, he pivoted on the ball of his foot and dashed right instead. 

But Allura was too quick for that. She spun back to the right and had her block up by the time Keith got there. This time, instead of just holding the block until Keith disengaged, she dropped one hand from her blade and latched it around Keith’s wrist. Then, dropping the sword altogether, she grabbed his opposite shoulder and spun him around, keeping a hold of his wrist so that it twisted around and up.

Keith scowled to himself. This was the same move that Antok had used on him during his trials. What was it with aliens and trying to dislocate his joints? 

At that point he expected Allura to accept the victory and let him go. But she didn’t-- she landed a kick at the back of Keith’s knee and pushed, sending him to the floor. With one more shove his cheek met the cool metal floor and he felt Allura’s weight settle onto his back, his wrist still twisted behind. 

He was completely pinned. Probably Allura’s way of saying they were done for the day, that sparring was over no matter what Keith said in argument. But Keith couldn’t decipher that at the moment. 

All he could see was the grey floor and the white wall. The metal was cold against his heated skin, and his breath came fast and struggling against the compression of his chest against the ground. There were fingers locked like iron vices around his wrist, a knee planted on his spine, bodyweight keeping him down. His other hand was useless-- if he reached for his knife the person wouldn’t be hard pressed to restrain his other wrist or, as he’d learned the hard way, break it. 

There was no way out, and he already knew what was coming. That man had already done this song and dance a million times; he liked pinning Keith down, liked it when he tried to fight back. He liked winning, and when he won it only meant one thing. 

So he closed his eyes and made himself go limp, it would hurt less that way, and let his mind spiral away into blank gray. To where he couldn’t feel anything at all, and where no one could hurt him. 

“I think that’s enough for today,” Allura said, panting slightly. As an Altean she was far stronger and had much better endurance than the human Paladins, but Keith was quick. She always forgot that when she agreed to spar with him. That was part of the reason why she still had a hold on him. If she let him go before calling a halt, he’d go right back on offense. “Shiro will throw a fit if I work you too hard.”

Keith didn’t answer, but Allura felt the tension melt out of him and smiled to herself. For once, it seemed, he was being agreeable. 

She took her knee off of his back and released his arm, straightening out and stretching her fingers towards the ceiling. She expected to see Keith upright when she stopped, shaking his head wryly and perhaps rubbing his wrist. But, when she looked down again, that wasn’t what she saw. 

To her surprise Keith was still on the floor, motionless. 

“Keith?” she asked warily. “Are you alright?” She didn’t put it past him to play dead and then launch a surprise attack when she went to investigate-- Keith was that sort of fighter. The kind that pulled any trick they had to in order to win. Predictably enough he didn’t budge, even when Allura nudged his side with her foot.

Allura huffed in annoyance. “I meant it when I said we were done. I have other things to do.”

Still he didn’t move, and that’s when Allura felt her stomach start to squirm unhappily. 

“Keith?” she asked again. And again Keith didn’t respond, not even twitching in response to her voice, and when she knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder, he still didn’t react. Uneasiness filling her chest, Allura rolled him onto his back. 

He was still breathing, thank the stars. But his face had gone oddly pale (she’d noticed the humans tended to flush pink when they were physically exerted) and his eyes were wrenched shut, like he was keeping them closed with all of his might. Not like someone who was asleep. 

“Keith? What’s going on? Are you hurt?” Again he failed to answer, but Allura saw the slight motion when he started to gnaw on the inside of his lip. Something humans did when they were stressed or upset.

But what could have upset Keith enough to make him pretend to be unconscious? She’d never seen this reaction from him before, and certainly not from sparring. The only place she’d seen anything like this at all was with… Shiro. 

“Alright, Keith, I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’m going to go get Shiro. He’ll know what to do for you.” With that the Princess darted to her feet and out of the training deck. 

Hopefully, whatever was afflicting Keith wasn’t serious, and she wouldn’t need to do another healing pod vigil that night. 

A few minutes later, when Allura returned to the training deck with Shiro in tow, she noted with relief that Keith had moved during her absence. Not much, he was still on the ground where she’d left him, but he had turned onto his side and curled into a ball. Not exactly an encouraging position, but at least he’d moved. 

She hung back a few steps while Shiro approached, not wanting to get in the way. Shiro seemed to know what she was talking about when she explained the situation, so she would just have to trust that he’d know how to help Keith out of this… attack, or whatever it was. 

Shiro walked around to kneel where Keith was facing. Without touching him, Shiro quietly murmured his name, and this time Keith stirred a bit. His eyes must’ve opened, because Shiro gave a gentle smile.

“Hey, bud. You feeling ok?”

Keith’s leg twitched, and Allura barely heard the soft mumble of his voice as he spoke. 

“I know, it’s alright. Think you can sit up?”

When Keith answered, Shiro held out his hand and helped him sit up, and Allura got a glance at his profile. He still looked a tad pale, and he kept his head bent towards the floor and his eyes hidden behind his hair, but all the same Allura breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever had happened, he was coming out of it now. 

She shifted awkwardly on her feet for a moment as she watched Shiro rub his back in soothing circles. Obviously this was a fragile situation, but she was anxious to know why this had happened, and what she had to do to keep it from happening again. 

Shiro must’ve felt her gaze on him, as he looked up at her and gave a bit of a sigh that made Keith cringe. 

“Sorry for scaring you, Allura,” he said on Keith’s behalf. “Keith tends to get anxious when he gets pinned down.”

Anxious is one word for it, Allura thought to herself, squeezing her hands before her. Keith still wasn’t looking up, but Allura spoke to him, regardless. 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, taking care that her voice was calm and unthreatening. “I wouldn’t have done that if I’d known.”

To her surprise, Keith responded to her, shaking his head with a frustrated twitch to his mouth. 

“I thought I was over it,” he muttered, surprising her again. His tone was bitter. “I didn’t think it would be a problem.” The frown twisted into a scowl. “I need to get over it. I can’t freak out everytime someone does that to me, not when we’re out there.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighed in exasperation. “We’ve talked about this. You can’t just throw yourself into things, you have to take it slow.”

“I’ll help,” said Allura without thinking. Keith finally looked up, though seemed confused, so she hastened to elaborate. “If you want to work on your reactions. I can help. Without scaring you, I hope.”

Something in Keith’s eyes softened. “You’d do that? Really?”

Allura gave him a sad smile. 

“Of course.”  


Chapter Text

“No, Keith. Don’t fall asleep. Stay with me.”

Keith gave a weak groan, but obligingly slitted his eyes open again. His skin was drawn and pale, the dancing light of the fire not helping at all, and Krolia’s teeth ground together even harder. 

The bleeding wasn’t stopping. The gash should’ve been inconsequential-- deep, but not having hit anything important. But the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Maybe the beast that attacked him had some sort of anticoagulant in its venom, but in any case Krolia had to stop the bleeding, or--

She shut that thought down with a growl. She was not going to allow her kit to die. She wasn’t losing him again. 

Keith’s eyelids were fluttering again. Gently she shifted his head pillowed on her lap, and he forced them open. 

“‘S still bleeding, isn’t it?” he mumbled, licking his chapped lips. Krolia nodded. Though his eyes were hazy, Keith’s gaze was sharp and understanding. “‘S ok. Do what you gotta do.”

Krolia swallowed hard to keep the tears at bay. “Are you sure? It’s going to hurt.”

Her son’s lip quirked in a wry half smile, probably the most he could muster at the moment. 

“I know. It’s ok. ‘M used to hurting.”

She tasted blood where her lip split under her fangs. She hated this, everything about it-- the beast that had done this, the Quantum Abyss, the years she’d spent under cover, Kolivan, the Blade, the mission-- she wished to all of her ancestors that she’d stayed on Earth and loved her kit the way he deserved. 

But it was too late for all of that-- eighteen years too late.

“Alright.” She reached one hand towards the fire, where their blade was tucked into the flames, glowing bright with heat. The handle wasn’t even warm (thank you, luxite) but still Krolia handled the blade with a ginger and trembling hand.

She was strong enough to do this. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to hate it.

“On three.” She waited for Keith’s bleary nod. “One.”

Keith howled when Krolia pressed the hot metal to the wound. He screamed so loudly, the sound reverberating off of the stone walls of their cave, that the wolf folded it’s ears flat to it’s skull and cowered against the ground. 

After a few agonizing seconds she tossed the knife to the side, needing both of her hands to pin Keith’s flailing limbs. Tears started in her eyes as she held him down, and this time she let them spill. 

Keith’s scream faded into whimpers, his struggles weakening. When he finally fell still and opened his eyes they were tinted yellow, pupils narrowed to slits, and covered in a glaze of tears. 

“I’m sorry,” Krolia whispered. Keith merely stared at the ceiling, trying to catch his breath.

“Fuck,” he breathed out, which Krolia recognized as an Earth swear. “That… sucked…”

Krolia didn’t have it in her to laugh, so instead she stroked his hair once before gingerly beginning to lift his head from her lap. All at once Keith went stiff, his pupils zipping back into slits.

“It’s ok,” she said as gently as she could manage. “I’m not going far. I just need to get the clean water and the bandages we made, alright?”

Keith stared at her blankly. The sudden sharpness of the adrenaline had faded. He probably wouldn’t understand what she was trying to say. 

So she moved, trying her best to ignore his beckoning whine as she hurried across the cave. In only a few seconds she returned, immediately beginning to clean and bandage the burn. Keith hissed between his teeth and squirmed a bit, but he seemed to be exhausted by the pain, and his movements lacked any urgency. 

By the time she finished with the bandage he’d fallen into a restless doze. Krolia brushed his sweaty hair off of his forehead and couldn’t help some whispered encouragement, even if Keith couldn’t hear. 

“Stay with me, Keith. Don’t leave me.”

He slept on, his chest rising and falling evenly. Krolia sat beside him, held his hand, and cried. 


The next week or so was nerve wracking. She cleaned the wound and changed the bandages twice a day, grateful she’d built up such a large store of them, and kept a close eye out for any sign of infection. As of yet there had been none. 

Krolia gave him tea, made of a root they’d discovered eased pain. He always tended to doze off when he drank it, and Krolia would keep close as he slept, on guard in case anything wandered in looking for an easy meal. 

It was more difficult when he was awake. Despite the pain he was just as impatient and stubborn as ever, and determined not to be a burden. It hurt Krolia’s heart to think about what could’ve made him that way, but even so she decided to play along. 

When he was awake Krolia would go out to gather supplies, letting Keith and his wolf stand guard. It unnerved her-- every instinct she had was screaming to stay near her kit and protect him. 

But Keith was just as much human as he was Galra, and humans valued autonomy and independence. She had to compromise, as much as her body didn’t want her to. 

Even with all of those challenges, Keith was getting better. He still had a week or so before he could start doing things again, and he’d have one hell of a scar, but he was going to live. 

That night, as Krolia sat awake, stroking her son’s hair, she thanked every god she knew of and the ones she didn’t, thanking them for giving her kit back to her. 


Keith had nightmares about the attack. Everything would be blurry and muffled, pain reverberating up from where the beast had bitten him. Then heat, both from flames and from a body, and a voice echoing through the darkness.

“Stay with me.” Sometimes it was Krolia’s voice. Other times it was Shiro, and rarely, his father. Every time he tried his best to follow the order, but always the dream would end. Always he failed to stay. 

It was silly, Keith knew, to be getting so upset about a dream. But his brain had latched on to the chance of someone actually asking him to stay, for the first time, and wouldn’t let it go. 

He never told Krolia exactly what was happening, but he didn’t need to. She had understanding in her eyes when he woke in the middle of the night and interrupted her watch. She never pushed or pressed for details. She’d just hold out an arm, inviting him into her side if he so chose.

Sometimes he didn’t accept. Usually on nights when he dreamt about Shiro and could still feel the weight of that angry glare he’d been given before leaving the Castle. Nights like those made loneliness feel like a safety net. 

But other times he would go, letting himself melt into her embrace. And his mother would smooth his hair and hold him close and let out a purr that echoed in the spaces between Keith’s ribs. 

Those were the nights when he forgot about staying or leaving. On those nights he could simply rest, content with the fact that Krolia wouldn’t leave him again.

She would stay with him. 

Chapter Text

Unlike the others, Keith didn’t have many reasons to dislike being a Paladin. He didn’t especially miss Earth, the only family he had was up here with him in Shiro, he hadn’t had a career or a relationship, and he was no stranger to fighting or adrenaline rush battles. 

But, he would admit, the one thing he could do without was the diplomacy. 

He really just was not comfortable speaking to people, the one and only exception being Shiro. He wasn’t any good at talking nicely and negotiating or pretending to have any emotion other than the one he was feeling. Toss on top of that the crowded, unbearably loud parties and uncomfortable clothing Allura always forced them into, and the majority of the time Keith thought he’d rather fight Zarkon one on one again than go to another diplomatic ball. 

But Allura was the Princess, and when she said they had to be diplomatic and gain another ally, they did as she said. 

And so Keith found himself in yet another alien palace, standing in yet another solitary corner, while yet more aliens danced and comingled around him. Here and there he could see his fellow Paladins, all of them talking with at least one alien personage, even Pidge, though he assumed they were discussing engineering based on the glitter in her eyes. 

Well, that was good. At least some of them were having fun. Shiro definitely wasn’t, judging by the surreptitious grimace he and Allura just exchanged while speaking to the king of this planet. 

It’s interesting, Keith thought idly as he watched the aliens move past him in pairs and triads, how much of the universe still operates on monarchy. 

“Ah, you are the Red Paladin, I presume?”

Keith blinked and looked back in front of him. Standing there was an alien he recognized from the discussions a few hours before-- he stood out due to his vibrant orange and yellow coloring. Most of the aliens on this planet had tentacles, and this one was no exception; he had tentacles in place of his arms, several feet long, and also some smaller ones that extended from his neck and chin, like whiskers on a cat. 

One of Lance’s more inappropriate jokes popped into Keith’s head, and he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. 

“My name is Matel, I am the director of--” Here Keith’s translator cut out, and all he heard was some watery burbling before it kicked back in. “I would be most interested to discuss matters of defense with you.”

“Uh.” Keith cleared his throat. “If you want to talk about planetary defense, you should probably talk to--”

Matel waved his tentacles dismissively. “No no, not planetary defense. I want to talk about defending our ships while they’re in the air-- surely the Lions have some defensive technologies, yes?”

“Oh. Yeah, they do.” He felt a little wary answering questions about the Lions, but Allura did want them to bolster confidence in their allies. Answering some queries about shields and stuff wouldn’t be confidential information, would it? “The Lions have particle barriers that--”

“Apologies, Paladin,” interrupted Matel with another flail of his tentacles. “I’m afraid my verbal understanding is shamefully underdeveloped. I would much prefer if you would give me a demonstration.”


“Splendid!” The alien stepped forward and wrapped one of his tentacle arms around Keith’s wrist, and before Keith could argue began to pull him towards one of the exits. 

Stomach twisting with apprehension, Keith tried as subtly as he could to pull his arm free. But it was in vain; apparently they also had suckers on those tentacles, and the ridged edges stung and stuck to Keith’s skin when he tried to pull away. It would take a lot of force to break that hold, and probably a big confrontation that would get him a lecture later. 

Even so, Keith couldn’t help struggling just a little. He wasn’t sure how much of this was safe, how much he was authorized to reveal, and there was something about Matel’s too-friendly tone that spiked Keith’s paranoia. Lance would make fun of him for it later, but he was the Red Paladin. He’d gotten this far acting on instinct, and he wasn’t about to stop now.

The alien pulled Keith out of the palace and outside. By the Castle time system it was nearing midnight, but on this moon it was eternal dusk, orange and purple painting the sky in broad brush strokes. Above that the rings of their neighboring planet filled the sky, not unlike how Jupiter would look from Earth if it got swapped with the moon. 

Breathtaking, but Matel still hadn’t let him go and was still pulling him towards where the Lions were parked in a proud row. 

“Hey, wait a minute,” Keith said, trying to plant his feet. Matel just kept pulling, either blissfully or willfully ignorant of the tension he was holding in his body. “Hold on, we should ask the Princess first, or Shiro--”

“Surely we do not need their permission,” said Matel with a scoff and a toss of his blubbery head. “You are the master of the Red Lion, are you not? Surely you may show it to whomever you wish.”

It sounded exactly like the line Nyma had used on Lance, and Keith’s DEFCON level ratcheted up to orange. At this point the bad feeling that had been creeping up on him devoured his patience-- he didn’t care if he got lectured, he didn’t want this creep anywhere near Red.

“I don’t want to show her to you,” he growled, still struggling against the alien’s hold. “Let me go.”

“Nonsense!” Within a few more steps they’d arrived at the Lions, towering over the two of them. Most of the Lions stared into the distance with powered down gray eyes, as they’d been left, but not Red. Red was looking down at them, eyes glowing golden. Keith shivered as she brushed up against his mind, like a house cat rubbing against your shins. A very large, very powerful, psychic house cat. 

Danger? She asked, and Keith did his best to reassure her.

No, no danger. The last thing they needed was Red going on a rampage in the middle of the ball. 

“Hey, asshole, I told you to--”


In a quick second, before he’d even finished his sentence, Matel had swung him in a large arc, slamming him back first into Red’s metal leg, knocking all of the breath from his lungs. Keith instinctively reached for his knife, but Matel caught his other wrist in his suckered grip and pinned it beside his head. 

Damnit, he knew this was going to happen. 

“You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for this,” Matel gurgled. His voice was cold and hard as stone, immensely different from the flighty, friendly tone he’d adopted before. And jeez was that line creepy as fuck. 

“Get off of me,” Keith growled, throwing his weight forward. All that earned him was some stinging skin where Matel’s suckers were cemented to his arms. 

“No. Your quintessence-- it burns so brightly, I cannot--” His words were cut off by a disgusting moan; Keith’s gut twisted and he redoubled his efforts to escape. When he found he still couldn’t move he tilted his head back, getting ready to yell for the others, but just as the sound was escaping Matel released one of his wrists and slapped the tentacle over his mouth instead, making the scream come out muffled and inaudible. 

With his now free hand Keith shoved at Matel’s shoulder, then threw a punch. It didn’t do anything-- he was still just as trapped as he was before. Then Matel leaned his face closer to Keith’s and his heart slammed to a stop.

The alien had a second pair of eyelids, apparently, eyelids that were now opening to reveal green, glowing eyes underneath. The moment that emerald glow landed on him Keith felt his knees go weak, warmth leaving him-- this was how Matel was going to feed on him. On his quintessence; who knew whether he’d let him live or not. 

Paladin. He heard Red dimly in his mind over the rushing in his ears. Fight.

I can’t, he thought back. Just to prove it he tried another punch, followed by a kick, and finally another shout, but none of it did anything. His voice was muted under Matel’s hand, his eyes locked on Keith as he fed. His grip was only getting stronger as Keith grew weaker. 

Help, said the Red Lion. Before Keith could get irritated with her (he’d tried calling for help, obviously) she pushed more insistently against the barrier in his mind, the one that kept the Paladins separate from their Lions. 

He didn’t know what Red was planning. He didn’t know if it would be dangerous. All he knew was that he was going to black out soon, he couldn’t break free, and no one else knew he was out there. 

So, with no other options, Keith opened himself to her. 

Fire filled him up, replacing the cold emptiness the consumed quintessence had left behind, sparks coursing through his veins. He didn’t hear Matel’s gasp; all of his strength had returned to him at once and then some. 

Following where Red lead him, Keith slammed his open palm against Matel’s shoulder, and this time heard the scream he released. He followed up by biting down on the tentacle over his mouth, and his teeth sliced through the flesh much easier than they should have, the acidic taste of alien blood spraying over his tongue. 

Matel pulled the tentacle back with another cry. 

The moment it was gone Keith opened his mouth and roared. 

The whole ballroom froze at the roar that rang through the air, so loud it shook some of the silverware. The Paladins froze as well, not out of fear, but out of confusion, because they all recognized that particular mechanical cry. 

It was Red.

Instantly Shiro felt the adrenaline. Shoving his half-full beverage glass at a random alien, he broke off from the little circle of diplomats and headed for the exit. Allura was right on his heels, and when they reached the door he found the other Paladins already standing there. 

The other paladins… minus Keith. 

The reason for that became clear as soon as they rushed outside. Red was still where she’d been parked, in the line beside the other Lions, but her eyes were bright and golden. In front of her was a small shape that almost blended in with it’s red clothing. 

Shiro started running, and he didn’t need to look back to know the others were following suit. 

The situation didn’t get any clearer up close. The Lions had been parked atop a slight swell in the ground-- at the top was Red, with the familiar figure of Keith standing between her paws. At the bottom of the hill lay an alien, whimpering and crying, writhing about on the ground while it shrieked pitifully. Shiro’s heart sank.

Oh, Keith, what have you done now? 

The alien wasn’t in good shape. There was a large scorch mark on its clothing, a bit of burned flesh peeking out from underneath. The opposite tentacle was bleeding, and the whole organism was trembling like a leaf. 

Shiro raised his eyes to Keith, standing triumphantly on the hill, but any words he might’ve had died on his tongue. 

Keith looked like a mess. There were angry red circles across his cheeks and wrapped around his wrists. Cerulean blue blood dripped from his chin and his bared, worryingly sharp canines. His hands glowed bright like hot metal. But the thing that most caught Shiro’s attention was his eyes-- they were glowing the same color as Red’s. 

Beside him Allura stifled a gasp. 

“What? What are you gasping for? What’s going on?” Pidge’s voice floated right through Shiro’s head, not making any impressions. Lance’s did the same when he spoke.

“What the hell is happening with Mullet?”

“That alien is hurt,” Hunk said, as though they weren’t all in the process of going deaf from his screaming. 

Shiro merely said, “Allura,” with a beseeching look. Keith still hadn’t moved from his position in front of Red, his yellow eyes glaring down at them. He looked scary like that. 

What was going on?

Allura moved her hand from her mouth and swallowed. “It,” she began, only for her voice to shake and force her to start over. “It appears Keith has tapped into the Red Lion’s quintessence. She is acting through him.”

“Why?” Shiro heard himself ask. “How did this happen?”

“Normally it only occurs under extreme duress. I don’t know what could’ve caused it. But I suppose he has something to do with it.”

Shiro looked down. The alien was still on the ground, whimpering. Fat tears squeezed out of its eyes and ran down his soft face. Shiro felt distinctly less empathetic than he had a minute ago-- whatever “extreme duress” Keith had been put through was likely to have been at the hands of this man. He’d never known Keith to hurt someone without reason. 

A crowd of the other party guests was gathering, he could tell by the tangle of voices that was beginning to surround him. 

“Shiro,” said Allura, calling his attention back. “You need to go up and calm Keith, and quickly. Red could cause serious damage if she remains linked to Keith for too long.”

Shiro’s heart jolted at that, but still he managed to ask, “What about him?” with an accusing point at the felled alien. Allura’s eyes turned hard. 

“I’ll deal with it. Just calm him.”

And so, with an anxious gulp, Shiro started up the hill. 

Keith’s eyes locked right on to him. The gold was a little unnerving, but still Shiro continued, trying to remind himself that Keith wouldn’t hurt him. If this was Red acting through him, surely Red would know who was a threat and who wasn’t. 

“Keith?” he asked when he was about ten feet from where the Red Paladin stood. His hackles raised and a growl rolled out of Keith’s throat-- it sounded nothing like him and everything like a Lion. “It’s ok, otouto, it’s just me.”

He dared to go a few steps closer. There was a warm breeze in the air, ruffling Keith’s hair, and through it streamed the orange light of the eternal sunset. A beautiful scene, tinged black by the look of guarded terror on Keith’s face.

“You know me. You can relax now, it’s over. No one’s going to hurt you.” Despite his words, when he took a step forward, Keith shuffled back, out of his reach. Shiro bit down on the inside of his lip in frustration. 

Stardust brushed over him before he heard Black speak; Let me talk to her. 

Shiro balked. After all, wasn’t that what got them in this situation? Letting their Lions in too much?

I can help, Black insisted. Let me.

Well… better than nothing, he supposed. 

Letting out a measured breath, Shiro closed his eyes and focused on letting his Lion in. It was a struggle at first-- Shiro kept everything at arms length, even Black, not wanting anyone to see how messed up his head was on the inside. But Black went gently, slipping in bit by bit through the cracks in Shiro’s defenses, and eventually it all lit up.

Later the others would tell him how his eyes joined Keith’s in glowing like their Lions’ did. But Shiro couldn’t tell that now-- now all he could tell was how boundless he felt, and the warmth that filled him when he reached out, again, for Keith. 

This time he didn’t flinch away. He let Shiro lay a hand on his shoulder, then slowly pull him in, until Keith let his head fall against Shiro’s chest. A gentle growl passed between them, and Keith’s body lost its tension.  

Black faded out of him gradually, letting him return at his own pace. Red didn’t, judging by the way Keith’s body suddenly slumped against him. 

“Ugh,” he groaned, making a small smile appear on Shiro’s face. “What happened?”

Shiro glanced back down the hill. The injured alien was being held by guards, apparently explaining while the king and Allura listened with stern expressions. That was all he needed to see to know that things would turn out fine, at least in regards to the alliance. 

“I think Red just learned a new trick.”

Chapter Text


Currently turning somersaults through space, it took Keith a few seconds to notice the strange noise. And unless he was about to discover the elusive space snake, that sound was very, very bad. 

Somehow, after a few seconds of struggling, Keith managed to right himself. He waited a few more for the stars to stop spinning around his head like a cartoon character before trying to do anything mentally strenuous; like figuring out his situation.

Said situation wasn’t good. He’d been thrown pretty far from the base he’d just exploded-- he could barely make out the flitting shape of the Green Lion in the distance. There were a few blue flashes of light-- the Lion’s lasers. 

So much for stealth. 

The hissing was getting louder. Keith patted down his suit, trying to find the source, and ultimately found a tear stretching across his left palm. Probably from a piece of shrapnel, but the cause didn’t matter so much as the effect; in this case, his air supply slowly streaming out into the vacuum of space. 

Ok, ok, stay calm, he thought despite his increasing heart rate. Don’t hyperventilate, don’t waste your air. 

Taking the efficient breaths he’d been taught at the Garrison, he carefully reached up and activated his comms. 

Instantly there was an explosion of voices, making him recoil and wince. Everyone was yelling at each other, trying to figure out how to wreck the base and still escape with their lives. They wouldn’t be able to hear him if he spoke now. 

So he waited as patiently as he could. The air in his suit was still streaming out in a steady hiss, but the Altean suits had a large supply. It would be fine. (He thought this while actively ignoring how his breaths were beginning to come more heavily.)

Eventually there came a lull in the radio chatter, allowing him to speak. 


“Keith!” His voice was tinged with relief. “Where’d you go? We’re trying to clear out.”

“In space,” Keith answered shortly. “The explosion threw me.”

Lance gave a dramatic groan. “Jesus, Mullet, can you refrain from throwing yourself into space for one single mission?”

“Ok,” Shiro interrupted, “hang tight. Once we all make it back to Green we’ll come get you.”

Keith opened his mouth, breathing in to speak, but to his horror his lungs stuttered, unable to complete it, turning the inhale into an instinctive gasp. 

“Keith? Do you copy?”

With a great deal of effort, Keith was able to gain control over his breathing again. Now he couldn’t ignore how shallowly they came.

“Yeah, I copy. Just, uh--” he had to stop for a few more breaths, leaving an anxious silence on the radio. 

“Keith?” Shiro asked again. 

“There’s a hole in my suit.”

He heard the others’ sucked in breaths and was dimly envious. His chest was starting to hurt. 

“Don’t talk anymore,” ordered Shiro. His tone sounded more tense, now. “Save your air. We’ll come get you as soon as we can. Guys, pick up the pace.”

No one tried to suggest he call for Red, even as the thought made its way across his mind. It might’ve been a good idea anyway, but Red was so far away. It had taken Green an hour to get out here from the Castle, at least. Even if Red went twice as fast it would still be thirty minutes, and Keith already knew he didn’t have that long.

It was getting to the point where he couldn’t tell if the stars were actually spinning or if he was just dizzy. 

“Remember your breathing, Keith,” he heard Shiro say in his ear. “We’re moving as fast as we can.”

For some reason that made him want to laugh. Did Shiro really think he’d forget the breathing? Ridiculous. 

He found his eyes falling to the torn palm of his suit. He pressed his right palm over it. He knew it was pointless, but what else could he do? He was dying. His blood was rushing in his ears.

“Keith, can you hear me? Make a noise if you can.”

Keith gave a distracted hum, occupied with watching the black tunnel that was closing around his vision, devouring the stars one by one. He thought it was probably a bad sign, but it was hard to remember exactly why. 

“Ok, we’re back in Green, we’re coming to get you. Just hold on.”

His chest was pushing underneath his breastplate. He’d abandoned the breathing exercises, merely gasping for whatever oxygen he could get, but even as his vision began to darken he was aware of the other Paladins on the other side of the radio.

His gasping must be annoying. He turned off his comms.

It was a useless gesture, as only a few seconds later his desperate breaths began to slow. He couldn’t hear it, but Keith imagined the hissing had stopped. His lungs ached. His lips felt numb. Wait, when had he closed his eyes?

Abruptly the weightless feeling of zero G vanished. He landed on something hard, back first, and if he’d had any breath left it would’ve been knocked out of him. Rough hands pulled his helmet from his head-- Keith instinctively stopped his attempts at breathing. He was out in the middle of nowhere, without his helmet he couldn’t breathe, the Galra had caught him and were trying to kill him--

“Breathe, Keith,” said a painfully familiar voice. “It’s ok, you can breathe.”

Keith couldn’t remember the name that went with the voice, but all he could do was obey. He opened his mouth and breathed in.

Sweet tasting oxygen rushed into his mouth and down his throat. His lungs expanded, and for a gorgeous few seconds he could finally breathe. 

Then a knot formed in his throat, and the next thing he knew he was coughing. 

Someone levered him upright, clearing his airway enough for him to cough without dying again. It was awkward with the armor, but still he could feel a hand rubbing soothing circles on his back, just underneath his jetpack. 

“That’s it, Keith, there you go. Just breathe, I’ve got you.”

Eventually he managed to open his eyes again. He was greeted by the gray metal of Green’s hold, with Shiro, Lance, and Hunk all hovering around him. Pidge was probably flying. Shiro was the one holding him, and the only one to manage a smile when Keith looked at him.

“Hey, bud. You back with us?”

Keith nodded, only to wince and smother a groan at the splinter of pain that embedded itself into his temple. 

“We need to get a board,” Lance said from across the hold. “Zero days since last near death experience.”

Keith couldn’t help chuckling, even though it made his chest hurt. Shiro’s arm tightened around him, his expression steeped in relief. 

Above their heads, a speaker crackled. 

“Is he alive?” asked Pidge.

“Yeah,” Lance answered, “though not for lack of trying to embrace death.”

Keith laughed again. 

Chapter Text

They’d been flying for ten days. Ten long, slow, laborious days with nothing but the Lions, each other, and the endless scroll of the stars. Beautiful for the first few hours, but now it just looked like an obnoxious Windows screen-saver.

They were all starting to get a little stir-crazy, even Pidge. So absolutely nobody argued when Keith decided to land on a planet as they passed by, just for the night. After all, they still had another couple hundred thousand lightyears to go. What difference could one night make?

The newly extended team set about making camp with unusual enthusiasm. The atmosphere was safe for everyone to breathe in, so they went about without helmets, enjoying the light breezes on their faces. Lance, Pidge, and Hunk played an impromptu game of tag while collecting something to make a fire out of, Shiro was lying peacefully in the grass with Kosmo curled up at his feet, the Alteans were unpacking food, and Krolia was at his side, helping him prepare the spot for the campfire.

All told, not a bad day. 

About forty-five minutes after they’d landed Lance came jogging up to the fire pit, arms full of plant-like material that would hopefully burn without, like, exploding. Or releasing toxic gas. Or anything else space liked to throw at them.

“My liege,” he said, depositing the kindling onto the pile with a little bow and flourish of his hand. Keith rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help the fond smile that grew over his lips. He’d really missed the team while he was in the Quantum Abyss.

Speaking of the Quantum Abyss, his and Krolia’s experiences there made them the resident survival experts. It didn’t take Keith long to get the pile of fuel arranged in a structure most conducive to flames while Krolia stripped bark from some twigs, which she planned to roast meat on. Lance hovered around nearby, clearly still antsy with unreleased energy. 

He’d only learned this recently, but apparently Altean tech was really, really good at making sparks. Big ones. So it only took a few tries for the kindling to catch, and after watching it suspiciously for a couple of seconds to make sure it wouldn’t kill them all, Keith leaned in to fan the flame with his breath. 

Keith wasn’t afraid of fire. Well, he hadn’t been. And then he was. And then he wasn’t again. He wasn’t afraid of it anymore, at least, though it had taken him several years to get over it. And then several more to backtrack after all the exposure therapy made him a bit of a pyromaniac. 

Basically he was fine with getting close to the flames-- the sight of them didn’t scare him. 

Which is why the next five minutes didn’t make any sense to him at all.

Bored out of his mind, and apparently seeing an opportunity for mischief, Lance approached the other side of the growing fire while Keith was still urging it larger. Through the flames and smoke, Keith saw his hand approach and scoop out one of the burning branches, long enough to keep the heat away from his hand.

Still, Keith sat back on his heels and sent Lance a disapproving frown, a direct contrast to his delighted expression.

“Lance, knock it off, we don’t play with fire.”

“‘We don’t play with fire’,” Lance repeated back at him in a mocking, but still good natured, tone. “Says the one who blew up Garrison property.”

“That was different!”

Lance laughed at his bluster, and several of the others who had begun to congregate around them joined in. 

“Besides, this thing is barely lit,” Lance continued, waving the stick around, tipped in orange. “A stiff breeze would probably put it out.” Then he swiped it over the pile of wood in Keith’s direction. It wasn’t that close to him, certainly not close enough to ignite anything or burn him, but close enough for Keith to feel the shadow of heat pass over his cheek. 

All at once Keith’s world flipped. Grass gave way to metal; the team vanished, replaced by rows of stored bodies behind glass; he was on his back, arms trembling; a pair of magenta eyes leered over him; and there was heat on his face, such intense heat like a supernova right in front of him and then there was painpainpain and the scent of his flesh, burning--

Then, just as suddenly as it had come, everything went back to normal. The grass came back with the yellow sky overhead. His friends were around him, but they were all staring with wide, confused, concerned eyes. Lance had dropped his torch back into the fire pit. 

Keith felt cold. Shaky. Nauseous. Jumpy with adrenaline, like he’d just leapt from a plane-- or fought for his life. 

He’d fallen back into the dirt, holding himself up with his hands. As soon as he felt like he was in control of his body again Keith scrambled upright, trying to shake off the insect crawl of the teams collective gaze, but they stuck to him like flypaper. 

“Keith--” Lance began.

“I forgot something in Black,” Keith blurted out, far too loudly. But he didn’t care; anything to get him out of this situation. “Be back in a minute.”

And with that he fled back to the safety of his Lion, telling himself desperately don’t look at Shiro. 


Everyone stared after Keith, shocked by his episode and sudden departure, but Krolia merely pursed her lips. As far as she was aware she was the only one who had the full story about Keith’s fight with Shiro’s clone, and she’d been secretly waiting this whole time for the other shoe to drop. Even when Keith had been telling her about it he was detached, preoccupied thinking about the team and how they were going to get to Earth.

The drop had to come eventually, and here it was. 

“Um,” said Lance as he shifted awkwardly, “Should I…”

“No. I’ll talk to him.” 

No one argued with Krolia as she turned in the direction of the Black Lion. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Shiro, who had faced away from the team with an expression of guilt on his face. Keith would have to be the one to deal with it when that particular shoe dropped, but one thing at a time.

She found her son exactly where she expected to-- sitting in the Black Lion’s pilot seat, head in his hands, taking shuddering breaths. 

“Keith,” she said softly upon entering, knowing he didn’t like to be snuck up on. Keith’s position didn’t change.

“I’m fine,” he grumbled at her. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“If you’re fine, then why are you shaking?”

He was. Keith was trembling like a leaf, from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes, shivering like he’d spent a month in the middle of a blizzard. His armor made tiny clinkclinkclink sounds against the metal from the minute motions. 

“I,” he began, only for his voice to crack and end the sentence almost before it started. Krolia moved forward instantly, and when Keith dared to open his glassy eyes Krolia was already kneeling at his side. “I’m…”

Krolia rumbled a bit in the back of her throat. “It’s alright, kit. You can talk to me.”

Keith’s face crumpled, and she reached up to guide his slumping torso into her shoulder. The use of that nickname always reduced him to mush. It’s use here was, she had to admit, more of a tactical choice than anything else.

“It’s stupid,” Keith managed to mumble into her shoulder, “but the heat… reminded me of the-- the fight.”

Krolia didn’t bother asking which fight. The mark was there on Keith’s face, still bandaged. 

“That’s not stupid.” She lifted a hand to run through his hair. 

“I don’t want Shiro to feel bad.”

She purred for him again. “I don’t think you can keep him from that. He’s too much like you. Too self-deprecating.”

“I-- I don’t want him to th-think it’s his fault.”

“Hey.” She pulled back, enough to take Keith’s face in her hands. It had taken them a long time to get to this point, to this level of trust, and Krolia intended to take full advantage of it whenever and wherever she could. 

“You’re both mature adults. You can talk this out. Later, when you’re calm. I’m sure Shiro would react the same if someone triggered a flashback for him.”

Keith grimaced, though the tears seemed to have slowed. “Damn, Lance is gonna be all weird now, isn’t he?”

“Not anymore than usual.”

That drew a small chuckle out of him, and Krolia ran her thumbs over his cheeks, lightly brushing away the remaining tears. He was smiling-- slightly, but it was still a smile.

“Thanks, Mom,” Keith murmured. 

Krolia gave him a proud smile, and before they rose to their feet, dropped a kiss on his forehead. 

Chapter Text

“Keith,” Allura hissed in his ear, her voice a stark contrast to the smile she had plastered on her face, “what have I told you about lurking in the corners?”

Keith grimaced. “I know, Princess, but--”

“No buts!” Her hand squeezed down on his shoulder. “If we want to succeed here I need all of you to be friendly. Endear yourselves to the Council. Which means wiping that scowl off of your face and finding someone to talk to, for the star’s sake.”

Keith frowned and shot a glance around the bustling ballroom. It was crowded with several species of aliens of varying colors and body structure, and he was having a hard enough time remembering which ones were Council members and which ones were just politicians or the wealthy elite. Besides that, it’s not like he knew what to say if he figured it out.

“Talk to who? And what about? I’m not the leader or a strategist or an engineer or anything. All I know about is combat.”

Allura breathed a sigh through her teeth. She’d probably imparted this information upon him before, only for it to slip out of his mind again. 

“The ones with silver stars on their jackets are captains in the military. They may appreciate your input.”

“Allura, I really don’t think--”

“Wait!” Her hand moved from his shoulder to his elbow, yanking him closer. “Look!”

Following her gaze, Keith was dismayed to find one of the spoken of military captains heading in their direction. His skin was a deep sea green, thick locks of sandy hair tumbling down in front of his eyes, the silver star proudly emblazoned over the center of his chest. In two of his six hands he carried glasses filled with golden, shimmering liquid, matching the glass Allura had between her own fingers.

“He’s coming this way,” Allura whispered to him. “Remember, be polite!” Then, before he could argue anymore, the Princess released him and flitted away, back into the depths of the crowd. Now he was on his own, and the captain was practically on top of him. 

“Greetings,” he said in a scratchy, baritone voice as he dipped smoothly into a bow, the liquid in the glasses still held perfectly steady. “You are the Red Paladin, are you not?”

“Yes,” Keith answered, then paused to swallow and cross his arms over his chest to quell the rising anxiety. “My name is Keith.”

“A pleasure,” rumbled the alien before offering him one of the glasses. Paranoia kicked in, sending chills down his arms, but Keith thought of Allura’s instructions and forced himself to take the glass anyway. “I am called Kej’thar. I am the captain of the Esret company-- perhaps we’ve come up in some of your briefings?”

They had. The Esret company specialized in guerilla warfare and infiltration-- not so different from the Blade. Keith nodded, and to buy himself time to formulate an answer, took a sip of the drink he’d been brought.

The bright citrus flavor caught him a bit off guard, but he managed to keep the reaction hidden. “Yeah, you guys came up a few times. You were the ones who took down the power tower that was supplying the Galra base, right?”

Kej’thar nodded eagerly-- it took Keith a few seconds to realize what he was waiting for before he added on, “Very impressive.”

“Thank you, Red Paladin.” His lips curved upward. Keith instinctively wanted to call it a smirk, but brushed it off as cultural differences and compromised on a half-smile. He didn’t say anything further, so Keith took another stalling drink from his glass. 

The second sip didn’t hit as hard as the first had. Underneath the tangy orange flavor was a certain smoothness, and as he drank, he began to feel warmth pooling in his chest. 

“I have been told that the Red Paladin specializes in close quarters combat,” said Kej’thar, watching him with sharp silver eyes. “What weapon to you tend to prefer?”

“Um, swords.” It was a clumsy answer, but it took Keith a moment to process why. His lips were a bit tingly and numb, probably from whatever was in the drink. Hopefully alien alcohol wouldn’t do anything crazy, like kill him, for example. 

The alien bobbed his head in agreement, still watching Keith so closely it was starting to weird him out. “Very efficient weapons, those. I myself prefer shorter blades. I enjoy being… closer. To the combat.”

“Uh-huh.” Now that was creepy. Keith raised his glass to his lips again, just wanting a way out of this situation, when he paused in the midst of the movement. He’d just noticed the lights lining the ceilings-- golden orbs, suspended in some sort of mesh netting. A few minutes ago they’d looked normal, but now they were blurry and indistinct. The crowd of aliens, too, had lost their details and become blobs of color swirling around the dance floor in a way that made him dizzy. 


“Paladin?” It took him a moment to zone back in on Kej’thar’s face, looking at him with an expression of concern. Was it sincere? Keith couldn’t tell. “Are you unwell?”

“No,” Keith answered with a head shake, despite how the motion made bile climb up his throat. “I’m fine.” He tried to straighten up and away from the wall he’d been leaning on, but the second he didn’t have it supporting him his vision spun and he teetered sideways, a good portion of the golden liquid in his glass splattering on the floor at his feet. 

“Woah now,” said Kej’thar. He reached out to steady Keith, three thick fingers closing in a vice grip around his wrist. “Ah, I apologize, Paladin. The zehra tends to have this effect on beings not from this planet-- I’m afraid it slipped my mind.”

On the outside Keith just stood there, blinking stupidly at the alien. But on the inside he was freaking out. If that was true, then why hadn’t it affected Allura? Maybe it didn’t effect Alteans, but--

“Allow me,” he continued, tugging Keith forward by his arm. Keith stumbled forward a few steps, wavering like a drunk. “I know the perfect place to recover from it without embarrassing yourself.”

Keith tried to resist. “No,” he tried to say, but his tongue felt clumsy, and all that came out was an indecipherable mumble. His head was spinning and his vision spun along with it, turning the room into a hazy blur, and his muscles refused to respond to him when he tried to plant his feet and pull away. And it was so hot-- he felt like he could burst into flames at any moment. 

He was being moved. Kej’thar was leading him through the crowd like an expert despite his stumbling and general immobility. No one, as far as Keith could tell, was looking twice at him. The other aliens probably just assumed he was drunk. 

Part of him wanted to believe that, that Kej’thar was telling the truth and everything was fine. But his paranoia was louder, and it really didn’t like the way the edges of his vision were starting to darken. 

He had to get out. Now. 

Out of the corner of his eye he caught a splotch of bright orange. It reminded him of Coran’s hair-- and maybe it was. If so, this might be the only opportunity he had to escape before Kej’thar got him alone. He was running out of time, he was already being hauled past the shape he thought was Coran, he couldn’t spend any longer thinking he had to do something. 

So, with all of the effort and focus he could muster up, he let his fingers go slack. 

The glass plummeted to the floor and shattered. The noise was dim to Keith under the humming in his ears, but several of the colored blobs around him jumped and turned to look, including the orange one. 

Please, please, please, he prayed. 

“Well now,” said a familiar voice, right before Kej’thar jerked him to a halt. “What seems to be the trouble? Do we have a sick Paladin?”

Keith could’ve cried from relief. His idea had worked; Coran had noticed his condition, and based on the hidden tension in his voice, wasn’t going to dismiss it the way the other party-goers had. 

“Nothing to worry about,” Kej’thar purred. With a tug on Keith’s wrist he pulled him a bit closer, one of his other arms looping around his shoulders to hold him to his side. Keith tried to wiggle away, but the motion was weak. His vision was so damn hazy-- he couldn’t see anything. He had no idea what was happening. “Just had a bit too much zehra, is all.”

“How unfortunate. I should take him back to the Castle immediately.”

Keith felt another pair of fingers brush his jacket; Coran’s fingers, long and thin, before Kej’thar jerked him back out of his reach. 

“There’s no need. I’ve already offered to assist him. Your Red Paladin is very considerate-- he didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s good time.”

He tried to move his arm up, trying to reach for Coran. He wasn’t sure if he succeeded. His limbs were going numb. 

“No, no, I must insist. It’s Paladin protocol: all injuries and illnesses must be treated in the Castle. You understand.”

For a moment there was dead silence, and Keith’s already roiling stomach gave an extra twist. This was a moment of truth. Would Kej’thar keep arguing, or give in? 

With a dangerous growl, the alien released Keith’s arm. He immediately started to fall, crashing into Coran’s chest in a very undignified manner, but he couldn’t even care. Kej’thar’s hands were gone. Coran had saved him. 

Thank God. 

“Come along, lad, let's get you home.” Coran’s cheerful facade was beginning to crumble as he helped Keith exit the ballroom. The Paladin was deathly white, his cheeks containing a faint green tinge that he’d learned to recognize as nausea in humans. He struggled to walk, his legs seemingly more like goo than bones, and his eyes were frighteningly glazed over. 

Coran recognized the signs, and he’d recognized the look in that alien’s eyes as he’d pulled Keith along behind him, unheeding to his struggles to flee. It was a vile, slimy look. Thank the stars he’d managed to drop that glass at just the right time, or… Coran didn’t want to think about it. 

The moment they were outside of the palace Coran stopped and picked up Keith, scooping him right up into his arms. If he’d been coherent Keith would’ve protested, but he didn’t, merely gave a groan of discomfort, and that was all the confirmation Coran needed to know that he’d done the right thing. Keith wasn’t just drunk-- he’d been drugged. 

As Coran proceeded in the direction of the Castle, Keith wearily leaned his head against his chest. His eyes were half-lidded. He was still awake, but probably had no idea what was happening around him. The poor lad. 

Coran took him immediately to the infirmary upon returning to the Castle. Then, after settling Keith’s limp form onto one of the cots, he rushed back to the bridge to send a message to the Princess, informing her of the events that had transpired. When he got back to the infirmary he was surprised to see Keith sitting upright, but only for a split second before he noticed the vomit on the floor at his feet. 

“Oh, lad,” he sighed sympathetically. Stepping around the mess, he reached out a hand to Keith’s shoulder.

Keith flinched, though it looked like it was happening in slow motion, like it was taking extra time for any input to reach his brain. “S-s’rry,” he slurred, eyes still sagged shut. “S’rry.”

“You’re alright,” said Coran as softly as he could. Gently, he nudged at Keith’s shoulder until he followed the motion and laid back down, head lolling back against the pillow. “It’s alright, Number Four. You can rest now. You’re safe here.”

Keith gave a confused groan. “Pr-promise?”

Coran perched himself on the edge of the cot and took Keith’s hand. He tried to hide how tight his throat was when he answered.

“I promise.”


Chapter Text

Ding. The little machine let out a beep and the screen turned green. Normally green was a good color, but Coran looked at the result and frowned. 

“The test is positive,” he said to the waiting crowd. “It seems Number Four does have the garzex virus.”

“Great,” mumbled Keith into his knees. He was sat on one of the infirmary cots, knees drawn up and head tilted against them. He’d been feeling sick all day, but it was only when his fever crossed 102 that he let Shiro take him to the med bay. “What does that even mean?”

Keith was grouchy, as he always was when he was sick, and getting him down here was no easy task. But now, seeing the look Coran exchanged with Allura, Shiro was glad he’d won that battle. 

“It’s a common Galra illness,” Coran began to explain as he moved across the room. One of the wall panels opened with a tap from his finger, revealing shelves upon shelves of medicine and instruments, while he continued, “When I was a young boy it was considered a rite of passage-- everyone was expected to get it at least once. But when Zarkon became emperor he tasked his scientists with creating a vaccine, and by the time Allura was born it was mostly controlled.” 

“But Keith lived on Earth,” said Pidge, shifting from foot to foot. “So he wasn’t vaccinated.”

“So, what you’re telling us here, is that Keith has alien chicken pox?” Lance’s tone was flat and unimpressed, and he leveled a raised eyebrow at the Princess, who merely looked confused. 

“I don’t know what… chicken pox… is, but garzex is nothing to be flippant about.”

“Is he contagious?” Hunk asked, shuffling a few steps away from the cot. Keith looked up and glared at him. “No offense! I’m just, you know, wondering.”

“It’s not transmittable between species.” Coran retreated from the cabinet with a blue box in one hand, the label written in Altean. “So unless any of the rest of you have hidden Galra ancestry, you should be perfectly fine. Now, Keith will need to be monitored for the duration of the virus. Who would like to volunteer?”

The other three Paladins looked at each other while Keith growled something unpleasant to himself. With a sigh, Shiro raised his hand. 

“I’ll do it. The rest of you can go-- take the rest of the afternoon off.”

Instantly their moods were lifted. Hunk grinned while Pidge fist pumped and Lance exclaimed, “Yes!” And then they were gone, fleeing the infirmary as a group in three seconds flat.

“Hope you get better, Keith,” Keith mocked quietly. “Gee, thanks guys, I hope so too.”

Shiro buried another sigh. This is going to be fun. 

Coran’s solemn expression shut down his wry thoughts. Pressing the box into Shiro’s human hand, he said, “These are for the fever. Give him one every four hours until it breaks.”

Shiro nodded, but before he could walk away Coran stepped a bit closer, his voice dipping enough that Keith couldn’t hear it.

“This is going to be difficult, Shiro,” he said, the look in his eyes holding Shiro’s full attention. “In younger Galra, garzex is known to cause very vivid and unpleasant hallucinations. The virus should run its course by morning, but until then he’s not to be left alone under any circumstances. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” If Shiro had been worried before, that was nothing compared to the apprehension that now filled his stomach. Hallucinations weren’t fun, and they didn’t tend to be about fields of flowers and rainbows, either. Keith was going to have a hell of a time.

“If he becomes violent you can ping me and I can bring a sedative, but sedatives can cause the illness to last longer, so I’d like to avoid that if at all possible.”

“Ok, I understand.” Shiro was fairly positive he could wrangle Keith without chemical aid, but all the same he tucked the information away, just in case. Better to be safe than sorry. “Does he need to stay in the infirmary?”

Coran’s eyes softened. “No. In fact, it would probably be worse if he stayed here. Being someplace familiar can help ease some of the symptoms.”

“Alright. Thanks, Coran.”

He clapped a hand onto Shiro’s shoulder, his voice returning to its normal volume. “No problem at all. Feel free to ping me if you need anything.” With a small, comforting smile tossed in Keith’s direction, Coran took Allura by the elbow and led her out, leaving Shiro and Keith alone in the infirmary. After a moment to gather his thoughts, Shiro approached the cot.

“Can you make it back to your room alright?” he asked. “I want to grab a few things.”

“Yes,” Keith snapped in reply. “I’m sick, not dead. I don’t need a babysitter.” 

Shiro took a deep breath and tried to remind himself that Keith didn’t mean to be rude, that he was just feeling badly and wanted to be left alone. Normally Shiro would honor that wish. But that couldn’t happen this time. 

“I know you don’t. I’ll try not to hover, ok? I’ll meet you in your bunk in a few.”

With a reluctant nod Keith clambered off of the cot. He teetered a bit on his feet and his movements were stilted, but he aggressively ignored Shiro’s concerned look and headed for the door. In seconds he was gone. 

Shiro’s first stop was the kitchen to stock up on some juice packets and ration bars. Then he went to the lounge to retrieve the blanket he knew Keith favored, then to his own room to grab a pillow for his extended vigil.

By the time he arrived at Keith’s bunk with his armful of supplies Keith had already curled up in his bed, buried under the blanket with the room lights turned to dim. Shiro entered quietly, placing the extra items on the desk before draping the heavier blanket over Keith’s body. 

The blanket shifted and Keith peeked out at him. His hair was mussed and his cheeks red with fever, but the smile he offered Shiro was thankful. Shiro smiled back, then turned back to the desk.

When he returned to the bedside he was holding a juice pouch in one hand and the little Altean pill in the other. Keith didn’t appear ecstatic about it, but he took the pill and a couple of swallows of juice. Shiro took the pouch back and set it on the floor by his knee. 

“Keith, there’s something you need to know about the virus.”

What, did you think he was going to keep that from him? Of course not.

Keith, with his back already turned to Shiro, let out a disgruntled groan. “Ugh, fine, what now?”

“Coran said you should be better by morning, but before then you might experience some hallucinations.”

“Great,” snarked Keith with heavy, heavy sarcasm. “That’s exactly what I needed.”

Shiro winced. “Yeah, I know, it’s going to suck. But I’m right here if you need me.”

Keith just mumbled petulantly to himself and didn’t answer. So Shiro left him alone and went to the desk chair, propping his pillow up against the back and making himself as comfortable as he could. 

Let the waiting game begin. 

It didn’t take long for Keith’s exhausted body to pull him into sleep. It was a heavy sleep, and not much dreaming was going on, just flat darkness. Which made it even more disorienting when he was awakened by the low rumble of a garage door opening. 

Before his conscious brain even realized what was happening, his body reacted. All of his muscles coiled and he went as still as he could manage, holding his breath. Chills wracked over him, making him shake as he frantically went down his mental checklist.

Were his shoes and backpack put away? Were the dishes done? Had he locked his door? God, please tell him he didn’t fall asleep with his door unlocked--

Slow, plodding footsteps echoed down the hall and Keith’s trembling increased. His eyes were squeezed shut tight, like he could make himself invisible if he just tried hard enough, and every footfall made his stomach twist tighter. They were getting close to his door now-- in a few seconds the doorknob would rattle as a clumsy hand tried to open it. If he’d remembered to lock it, they’d be dissuaded and proceed to their own room. If he hadn’t…

Step. Three. 

Step. Two.

Step. One.



Wound tight as a spring, Keith couldn’t help the violent jolt he gave at the unexpected voice. He whipped around and landed half upright on his hands, ready to run, or to fight, whatever the situation may entail. But the room he saw didn’t match what he was expecting to see, and the figure in the chair beside the bed wasn’t expected, either.

“Hey, are you ok?” Even in the dark he could see the concerned shine in Shiro’s eyes. “You tensed up just now.”

A little helplessly, Keith flicked his eyes around the room. It was starting to look familiar now-- all the Altean white and sleek, futuristic furnishings. But that didn’t make sense.

“I-- I thought I heard…”

Shiro’s gaze turned sad, and it wasn’t until that moment that Keith remembered what he’d been told before falling asleep. 

“Oh,” he said, slumping back onto his pillow as all of the tension bled out of him. “I was hallucinating, wasn’t I?”

“Seems like it.” It wasn’t real, it wasn’t real. “Do you want to try eating something?”

“No,” said Keith, miserably. He was shaking all over from the fever chills, and building up all of that fight or flight energy had left him exhausted in its wake. All he wanted to do was go back to sleep.

“Ok.” Shiro was keeping his voice quiet on purpose, and Keith hated it. “Try to get some more rest. I’ll be here.”

Keith turned back towards the wall without comment. His cheeks were flaming with humiliation. Shiro had told him there were going to be hallucinations, but he still acted like a scared, helpless kid, even when it made no sense. Even when he was literally in space and none of those people were within a hundred thousand light years of him. How pathetic was that?

He closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. If he was asleep, maybe he’d notice less of the hallucinations and he wouldn’t have such violent reactions. He didn’t really know how hallucinations worked, but that seemed as good a plan as any. 

Or maybe not. Before he had the chance to fall back into sleep he was jolted awake again; this time by the loud CRASH of a doorknob meeting drywall. 

If it was possible to jump ten feet in the air and become an unmoving statue at the same time, that’s exactly what Keith did. 

“Little brat,” growled a terribly familiar voice. Keith, heart in his throat, flipped around again to face the room, only for a weak cry to squeak past his teeth. 

Because he was there. He was there, in his room, the Altean lights glowing blue on his skin and his belt already in his hand. 

Keith forgot how to breathe. His whole body was filled to the brim with adrenaline, cold rivers trying to make his muscles move, make him flee, but if he ran he would catch him and then it would hurt even more--

Someone was saying his name. He instinctively blocked it out, hating how the man said it, like a curse, and tried to get his brain untangled enough to act. 

“I’ll teach you to lock me out,” he said in a low snarl, and raised his arm above his head. Keith wanted to run, he wanted to run so badly, but he was sick and weak and there was no way he was going to be able to get away, he was stuck, trapped, and--

Suddenly Shiro’s face was in front of him. That didn’t stop the man, the belt fell regardless onto Shiro’s back, but he didn’t so much as twitch. Like he hadn’t felt it, even as the man raised it and let it fall again and again, practically frothing in his rage.

“Keith, listen to me.” 

He forced his eyes to look at Shiro, not at him. Shiro looked worried, but stable, and he wasn’t reacting to the blows. Maybe he could keep him safe. 

“Whatever you’re seeing right now,” he said calmly, barely audible over the sharp crack of the belt through the air. “It’s not real. Remember? You’re in the Castle of Lions, and you’re just sick. Nothing you’re seeing or hearing is real. Understand?”

Throat tight with tears, Keith nodded. Right, it wasn’t real, he wasn’t there, he couldn’t hurt him, he was fine. But this time the hallucination didn’t disappear immediately. Face twisting into a sneer, the man threw his belt aside, eyes spitting green sparks.

“Brat,” he spat again, making Keith flinch back. “Worthless, good for nothing delinquent. Only the worst troublemakers wind up with me, and I’m not surprised that you did. No other foster family in the state wanted you, did they? Not hard to see why. Who else would want to take on the burden of caring for a useless squirt who will never make anything of himself?”

The tirade continued. Keith’s control snapped and he planted his hands over his ears to block him out; it only made the man scream louder. He could see Shiro’s lips moving too, telling him something, gripping his shoulders tightly, but he couldn’t hear what he was saying. He closed his eyes and curled into a ball, shivering from fever, body aching, and prayed that it would all be over soon. 

Shiro’s hands moved, beginning to rub soothing circles on Keith’s back. For a moment he relaxed, just a little, and then a horrifying thought occurred to him that had him tensing up all over again. 

The man was a hallucination. Ok, sure. But if that was the case, wasn’t it possible for Shiro to be a hallucination, too? Keith had hallucinated him before, during the Blade trials. Why wouldn’t his brain recreate that day under the effects of the virus? For all he knew Shiro hadn’t come to his room with him, opting to do something useful instead of babysitting him when he was sick, and now he was making Shiro up in an attempt at comfort. 

Hell, maybe this was still the trials. Maybe he’d never left the Blade headquarters. Maybe they were still going on, or maybe he’d died and was trapped in the simulation now, unable to leave. 

Maybe this had all been a dream and he was still trapped in that house, with that man, with no escape. 

Keith felt the mattress shift and dip beside him and froze again. Through his palms he could still hear the muffled voice of the man, still screaming obscenities at him, but it wasn’t his rough hands he felt. These hands were soft and gentle, one of them cooler than the other, and when they began to sit him up they didn’t yank or demand his cooperation.

Instead they just led him, first upright and then back down, the left side of his body sinking into warmth while his head rested on someone’s chest. He immediately knew that his body didn’t belong to him, it was too kind, the breathing too calm and slow for someone who’d been yelling for five minutes. 

“It’s alright,” said Shiro’s voice in his ear. Keith bit his lip to keep from crying. “It’s not real, and he can’t hurt you. He won’t ever hurt you again. You’re safe here.”

Keith huddled desperately against Shiro-- an action that he would be embarrassed about later, but couldn’t really bring himself to care about right at that moment. Hallucination or no, Shiro felt warm and safe, and that was all he wanted. 

He wasn’t sure how long the yelling went on for. Long enough that his eyes started burning, begging him to fall asleep, but he couldn’t with all of the racket. But eventually the sound began to fade away, allowing Keith to make a brief peek. 

The man was still there, but he’d stopped yelling. All he was doing now was standing in the corner, glowering. Uncomfortable, but at this level of exhaustion, tolerable. 

That was all his body needed to drift off. 

Shiro didn’t want to wake Keith up. He looked so exhausted with his pale, tear stained cheeks and deep under-eye circles, but the heat coming off of his body reminded Shiro why it was necessary. So, reluctantly, he jostled the shape that was resting against him.

At once Keith was awake, his red rimmed eyes flickering all over the room the moment they were open, taking in his environment and assessing danger levels. Shiro just rubbed his arm and waited until his breath stopped coming so quickly before speaking.

“Hey, Keith, you gotta take another pill for your fever.”

Keith made an unhappy, tired sound, but didn’t fight it when Shiro pressed the next pill into his hand along with a juice pouch. Keith swallowed it down, and after a few slurps from the pouch, Shiro allowed them to return to their previous position. It was probably about ten at night now, and the Castle hummed around them with nighttime quiet, but Keith was still jittery and kept looking at the corner. 

“Still seeing things?” he asked softly. Keith nodded his head against Shiro’s shoulder. 

“He’s just standing there. Staring,” he said, then shuddered. Shiro held him a little closer.

A few minutes later he felt Keith shift to look up at him.

“Shiro? You’re real, right?”

The timid quality of Keith’s voice broke Shiro’s heart. 

“Yeah, I’m real. Promise.”

Keith let out a shaky sigh. 


Chapter Text

“Hold still,” said Shiro, leaning all of his weight onto Keith’s torso. Against his will Keith felt a pained sound escape his throat, followed by a stab of guilt when he saw Shiro’s cringe. Keith wanted to reassure him, maybe reach out and put a hand on his shoulder, reassure him that he knew why Shiro had to do this and that he wasn’t upset with him. But it was hard to think-- he felt lightheaded, and his arms tingled with static. 

“I know,” Shiro murmured to him in a tremulous tone. “I know it hurts. I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok,” is what Keith tried to say, but it probably came out horribly slurred. It was the best he could do. 

Shiro grimaced again. Keith couldn’t resist craning his neck a bit, just to see, only to immediately wish he hadn’t looked. 

The wound on his stomach was bleeding in a steady stream, oozing blood between Shiro’s fingers, such a dark red it almost looked black in the twilight. Shiro had torn a large, velvety leaf off of a nearby tree and folded it into a makeshift bandage, but it was almost entirely soaked through now. 

“I’m sorry,” choked Shiro as Keith let his head fall back again. “I’m sorry.”

It’s not your fault, Keith thought, unable to muster the energy to move his lips. I’m the one who walked into the stupid booby trap. 

The leaves above their heads rustled in the wind. They were far, far above them thanks to the height of the trees, nothing more than pinkish blotches against the rapidly darkening sky, but the dancing movement of them still managed to make Keith feel nauseous. So instead he let his head loll to the side, glaring across the clearing at the temple they’d just tried (and failed) to infiltrate.

Shiro was still talking. His hearing was fading in and out, layered with some kind of humming, so Keith didn’t understand all of it. The few words he caught were, “Called… others… three minutes… hold on…”

Even in his fuzzy state Keith knew three minutes was pushing it. Unless the Lions had some sort of advanced first aid kits that could stop the bleeding, he probably wouldn’t make it back to the Castle before he bled out. That would be horrible.

Not for him, of course. He’d just go to sleep and not wake up. It would be horrible for Shiro, having to watch him die, and the others, who would have to deal with his corpse, and for Red, who had already lost a Paladin. 

Not losing! 

Keith could barely hear it, even though it was technically in his head, but he could still discern it as Red’s scared/angry growl. It was different from her happy growl, or her purely angry growl, or her sad/angry growl. What she was doing, however, eluded him. They’d taken Black on this trip, not Red.

“Keith.” A hand grasped his chin, and it wasn’t until then that he noticed he had his eyes closed. “Stay awake. Keep your eyes on me.”

Something warm smeared across his skin. He ignored it and looked up at Shiro. The fear in his eyes hurt more than the wound did. 

Red pressed on their link, sending a wave of images past Keith’s vision. Red in her hangar, eyes glowing and growling. Black where they’d parked her, doing the same. Then Black flying fast and low over the treetops.

Ah. Now he understood. 

“‘S ok.” He still didn’t know if he was understandable, but he had to try and reassure Shiro. He hated seeing him so scared. “Black is… she’s…” He couldn’t quite get the words out.

Thankfully he didn’t have to. Only three seconds later there was a roar and the trees shook around them. As Keith’s eyes fluttered shut, all he saw was Shiro’s face, gazing up at his Lion with eyes full of hope. 

That’s better. 

It had been three hours, and Shiro should’ve calmed down by now. Black had come in time, Keith was in a healing pod and would be out by morning, and Pidge and Lance were able to return to the temple to get what they needed. By all counts the mission ended in success.

But he couldn’t calm down. He’d spent an hour in the shower, watching red swirl down the drain. Then another hour scrubbing off his armor. And now another hour cleaning Black’s cockpit, trying to get all of the blood off the metal before it stained.

He did it all with glazed over eyes, not seeing anything but Keith’s face in those moments before Black had arrived. Deathly pale, blood smeared on his cheeks from when Shiro had tried to keep him awake, staring at the sky without seeing it. 

Black brushed over him, touch soft as stardust. Safe. 

A crazed sounding chuckle escaped his throat. Yeah, yeah, Keith was safe. Thanks to Red and Black, because Shiro hadn’t thought of calling his Lion himself. If it had been just them, Keith would’ve died, and it would’ve been Shiro’s fault--

No. Calm. Safe.

A teardrop hit the floor next to Shiro’s hand. He released his grip on the washrag and sat back, pushing his hair back and trying to breathe. God, he’d been so scared. 

My Paladin. Black said it with a new level of affection that Shiro hadn’t heard from her before. She didn’t say anything else, but even those two words made Shiro’s chest ache. He knew he’d fucked up, but Black wasn’t blaming him. Neither was anyone else, not even Keith. It was probably more than he deserved, but--

“Number Two,” said Coran’s voice over the intercom. “The healing has progressed faster than expected. Keith will be out in only a few dobashes.”

“I’ll be there.”

He left the cockpit in a rush, but made sure to pause long enough to run a running hand over Black’s nose before leaving the hangar completely.

Black’s contentment rung within him, and for once, Shiro felt it, too. 


Chapter Text

Keith staggered into his bunk and sealed the door behind him. He was still breathless, running on adrenaline, and the shadows in the dimly lit room flickered and formed dangerous shapes at the corners of his eyes. 

He ignored them as best he could as he stumbled to his bed. The gash on his side burned with every inhale, and the blood was soaking into his suit. 

A voice in his said (sounding suspiciously like Shiro (the old Shiro, the one who hadn’t realized how useless Keith really was)) told him to go to the infirmary and get patched up. But the rest of him resisted, and that was the side Keith was listening to.

He had bandages in his room. He could take care of it himself. He didn’t need to go to the infirmary. All the injuries in the infirmary got logged-- the Blade was meticulous like that-- and he didn’t want Kolivan to know. He wasn’t a true Blade, if he was too hurt Kolivan would send him back to the Castle, and Keith couldn’t bear that. Couldn’t bear to see the team going along just fine, or better, without him. 

So, with grimaces and mumbled swearing, Keith managed to reach under his bed for his box of medical supplies. 

The wound that striped across the right side of his torso wasn’t wide, but it was deep. First Keith had to wrestle his way out of his Blade suit, a painful process to say the least. Then he held a gauze pad to it, and with his other hand began winding bandages around his middle to hold it in place.

It took a good long while to do, and by the time he was done, Keith’s side was screaming with pain, and the rest of him was heavy with fatigue.

He didn’t bother with the pain meds-- they were made for full Galra, and besides, he couldn’t be dopey or half-focused. Kolivan would notice.

So he just went to bed, lying gingerly on his left side, and tried to block out the throbbing pain enough to doze off. 

He could take care of himself. He was fine.

It was fine. 

Needless to say, it was not fine. 

Two day cycles after being injured the skin around it began to turn red and inflamed, tender to the touch. The next day he woke up shivering and aching with fever, and the day after that the bandage peeled away sticky with pus when Keith changed them.

Keith wasn’t stupid. He knew what those signs meant-- infection. And infection, without proper treatment, could and would kill him.

Even so, the thought of going to the medics made his gut squirm with dread. If he went they would tell Kolivan-- they had to, Kolivan was the one in charge of him due to his ties with Voltron, and he could only imagine how such a stern, dedicated leader would react to him being stupid enough to get an infection in the middle of the war. 

He didn’t want to consider it. Kolivan would be disappointed, maybe even angry. He might dismiss him from the Blade, sending him back to the Castle in disgrace, a confirmation of what Allura had said all those months ago, “The Blade can go on without you.” The way everyone could.

Then again, the Blade was a Galra organization, and a guerilla one at that. Handling things quickly, discreetly, and internally was their entire schtick. He might be punished a different way-- maybe even physically. They were Galra-- corporal punishment seemed to be right up their alley.

Keith didn’t know which possibility scared him more.

So, on the fourth day, he reported to training at the usual time, as he was expected to. He felt weak and shaky, nauseous and dizzy, hot and disoriented. The wound thrummed ceaselessly with sharp pain under its bandages, pressed down tightly by the streamlined shape of his suit. But he went. He had to keep up the facade, or something would happen.

That something being bad was an instinctive assumption, which for most of his life, had proved correct. 

As he walked into the training room, Keith could feel the crawl of eyes looking at him. God, was it really so obvious? He had screwed up that badly?

He joined the line of other Blades, waiting for training to begin. Kolivan entered from a door on the far side of the room, but before he could take so much as a step, another Blade touched his shoulder and murmured something to him. 

Kolivan’s eyes found him in the crowd, and Keith’s heart sank.

It was the beginning of the end. 

Kolivan was still three rows away from Keith when the scent hit him. A sickly, diseased scent. He recognized it immediately, and his pace accelerated.

Keith saw him coming. By the time Kolivan reached him he’d ducked his head, tilting it ever so slightly to the side to show his throat; an instinctive appeasement gesture he probably didn’t realize he was displaying. 

Up close there was another element in his scent, buried under the layers of sickness. It was acrid and burning-- fear.

Kolivan turned to the Blade standing beside Keith, not missing the boy’s grimace when he began to speak. 

“Vrek, take Keith to the infirmary immediately.”

Keith’s shoulders hunched, and when Vrek reached for him, flinched. 

Kolivan took in and evaluated all of these reactions, tucking them away for later. He was beginning to get a read on the Paladin in a way he hadn’t been able to before. 

It was odd to consider with how often Kolivan scolded him for letting his emotions control him, but the only thing he’d been able to see so far was anger. A furious, blazing wall, keeping all else concealed. 

Now that fire was out, and Kolivan wasn’t sure what to think about the person hidden behind them. 

He watched for a moment, only a moment, as Vrek led Keith away. Then he re-focused on the training session.

The time to deal with Keith would come. Later. 

When Kolivan finally made it to the infirmary Keith had already been treated. He’d been given a dose of antibiotics, a small dose of painkillers, and his wound dressings cleaned and changed. All that was left to do was find out why he’d hidden the injury for so long.

The moment he opened the door Kolivan was overwhelmed by the bitter scent coming from Keith. He was curled into a ball under his blanket, pressing into the corner where the bed met the wall. It was an abrupt reminder of how young he was-- little more than a kit in Galran terms. He probably hadn’t grown out of his burrowing instinct yet. 

Kolivan made a mental note to send more blankets and pillows before stepping into the room. 

Instantly, the kit’s entire body tensed, a soft, cut off sound of pain emerging from the pull on the wound. As stoic as Kolivan wished he could be, the scene still made something in him ache. He couldn’t comprehend this behavior-- couldn’t understand what had made the kit so fearful of asking for help. 

“I know I screwed up.”

Kolivan hadn’t been expecting him to speak first. His voice was hoarse, his words a tad slurred, but the current of bristling defensiveness traveling through them was all Keith.

“I thought I could deal with it myself, but I couldn’t. I was stupid. I know that, so you can skip the lecture and just get to whatever you’re going to do.”

Kolivan blinked, stupefied. The words were a return of Keith’s defenses, the flames fanning back into life, but they weren’t quite tall enough yet for Kolivan not to notice the vulnerability in the last sentence. 

“What do you think I’m going to do?” Kolivan responded evenly. 

Keith shrank even further, if that was possible.

“I don’t know,” he said, and his tone was guarded. Suspicious. He thought the question was a trick, or a test. “I don’t know how Galra punish soldiers.”

Kolivan pulled in a quick breath.


He thought there was going to be a punishment. Stars above, what kind of planet was Earth? 

“We do not punish people for seeking medical attention.” Kolivan was out of practice in inserting emotion into his voice, but he hoped it would be enough of a difference for Keith to notice. “And though it is true you were foolish in trying to hide it,” he saw Keith’s back move as he winced, “You will not be punished for that, either.”

Finally, Keith turned to face him, laying on his back to avoid irritating his injury. His gaze was sharp and evaluating, but Kolivan didn’t let himself react to it. Let Keith see into him. Let him see that he meant what he said.

Eventually, after a long moment, Keith’s muscles lost their tension. He didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t need to-- Kolivan could read the signs.

Keith was deciding to believe in his words. Maybe not Kolivan himself, but in this one statement, at the very least. 

He didn’t intend to let him down. 

Chapter Text

Due warning for anyone new to Lance-- when he was around, conversations moved fast. 

Keith could’ve sworn they were still talking about the last diplomatic excursion they’d gone on. Then he’d turned away to say goodnight to Shiro as he left the lounge, and when he turned back to the group, somehow they were talking about kissing. First kisses, to be exact. 

“I was fourteen,” Lance was saying with a dreamy, reminiscing look in his eyes. “I’d been at the Garrison for a year, and for four months before I’d been exchanging looks with a girl in my flight physics class.”

“Looks?” Keith asked, confused. 

“Yes Keith, looks,” Lance said, then moved on before Keith could question, again, what the hell that was supposed to mean. “One day she managed to catch me in the dining hall and we ate together, then I walked her back to her dorm.”

“Ooooh, how romantic,” Pidge teased. Lance blatantly ignored her.

“And before she went inside, she turned around and kissed me, just like that!” He gave a dramatic sigh, leaning his chin in his hand. “I can still remember the smell of her perfume.”

Across their little circle, Pidge and Keith met eyes. Pidge rolled hers, and Keith had to put his hand over his mouth to smother his snicker. At least someone else thought this was as ridiculous as he did. 

After a few more moments drifting in his memory, Lance shook himself and straightened up again, a bright grin painted across his face. “Ok, Hunk, your turn!”

“My turn to what?”

“To talk about your first kiss, duh!”

Hunk blinked a few times, a slight pink tint appearing on his cheeks. “Oh. I, um, didn’t realize this was a group activity.”

“It sure is.” Lance scooted closer, enough to throw one of his long arms around Hunk’s shoulders. “Come on, buddy, don’t be shy. I know you’ve had one.”

“Ok. Well. Um.” Hunk was blushing a deeper red with every word. “When I left my old school for the Garrison, a bunch of the other kids came to see me off. The last one to say goood-bye was this girl named Lisa. I expected a hug, like everyone else had done, but she kissed me instead.”

By now he was as red as a firetruck, and Lance was clearly loving it. 

“It was just a little peck!” Hunk scrambled to say at Lance’s raised eyebrow. “And nobody else saw, so I was just walking around like an idiot for the next ten minutes. It was really embarrassing.” He looked down at his lap, and his expression gentled. “But it was kind of nice, too.”

Keith couldn’t help smiling. He didn’t find this topic incredibly interesting, but at least Hunk was happy. He deserved to be. 

Lance gave his friend a happy squeeze, then released him and pivoted to face Pidge, who immediately said, “No,” in the flattest tone Keith had ever heard.

“Come oooooooooon, Pidgey,” Lance wheedled. He dared to poke her side, once, before she slapped his hand away. “It’s a team bonding experience! Like all those ones you skipped out on at the Garrison.”

Pidge scoffed. “God, fine. But only to get you to shut up.”

Lance smiled and sat back, clearly pleased with himself. Keith half expected Pidge to rescind what she’d said and refuse to say anything, but to his surprise, she actually looked up from her laptop and told the story.

“I was twelve, at some sort of middle school dance. Some random boy from my class caught me out in the hallway. His name might’ve been Christian, or something like that. He didn’t even say anything, he just grabbed my arm and planted one on me.” Pidge’s lip curled in disgust, and she shook her head as though she could dislodge the memory from inside her brain. “I punched him for that.”

Keith laughed, out loud this time, and offered Pidge his fist. She bumped her knuckles against his, looking pleased with herself, before Lance made her his next bear-hugging victim. 

“Awwwwww, Pidgeon does have a heart!” he said, mimicking tearful noises. “They grow up so fast.”

“Get off of me.” Pidge shoved him away and Lance fell onto his arms, laughing. For once Keith actually felt… included. Like he belonged. Was this what it was like to have a group of friends? Even if it wasn’t, he still liked the feeling. 

A moment later that feeling was absolutely shattered. 

“And, last but not least,” said Lance, finally releasing Pidge after she bit his hand, “the Red Paladin.”

“Huh?” For a second, Keith didn’t understand. Then he saw the suggestive look on Lance’s face and it all clicked into place. 

Fuck. Somehow, through all of this, it had never occurred to him that he’d be expected to tell a story, too. A story that he didn’t have.

“Uh…” It was too late to play it cool and come up with a story, Lance had already seen his panic. So he settled for blustering, “None of your business!” and crossing his arms grumpily over his chest. He was braced for Lance’s teasing, which meant he was utterly blindsided when Hunk spoke up.

“Aw, Keith,” he said with his puppy dog eyes, “Everyone else did it.”

“So what?” he snapped, grinding his teeth. “That’s your problem, not mine.”

“I expected this, actually,” said Lance, leaning back on his hands like he didn’t care one way or the other. “It’s like he’s allergic to talking about himself.”

Hunk was still giving Keith a beseeching look. “We won’t make fun of you, you know. If it was with a boy, that’s fine, we won’t--”

“What? No!” Where the hell had that come from? Keith felt like he was out in open water, drowning, with no idea where to go or what to do, with nothing to hold him up. “That’s not why, I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“Geez, you’re making such a big deal out of it.” Lance hung his head back, staring nonchalantly at the ceiling. Pidge was watching Keith with searching eyes, and Hunk was still crying him crocodile tears. “It’s almost like you have something to hide. Like you’ve never been kissed or something.” He laughed, and Keith blushed furiously. 

Pidge’s eyebrows rose, and when Lance saw the shade of Keith’s cheeks, he dropped his smile and sat bolt upright.

“No,” he gasped dramatically. “You’ve never had your first kiss?”

“I didn’t say that!” Keith argued back, but he could feel his heart racing and his face heating up, and he knew the jig was already up. “I just--”

“Oh my god!” Lance yelled, drowning Keith out with sheer volume. “I cannot believe this! Keith ‘Fighter Pilot’ Kogane has never been kissed! Someone alert the media!”

Keith’s shoulders formed a protective hunch. Hunk was laughing, and Pidge was staring at him, and it all felt like knives plunging into his chest. 

“It’s not like it’s a big deal,” he heard himself say. Probably a fruitless effort, but he went on. “It’s not like I want anyone to.”

In seconds Lance’s laughing stopped. He stared at Keith, eyes wide and jaw dropped. Hunk wasn’t quite as bad, but he looked startled, and Pidge was still just watching, like he was some sort of difficult math problem. Keith squirmed a bit, casting his eyes away, looking at anything but the others. 

“Dude,” Lance eventually said, after what felt like an eternity of silence. “What is wrong with you?”

That was it. The straw that broke the camels back. Because that was the million dollar question, wasn’t it? The one that had dogged him his whole life. 

What’s wrong with you? 

If only he had the answer to that. 

His body felt doused in flames. Humiliation sank to the pit of his stomach like a stone. Before he realized what he was doing he’d climbed to his feet and was rushing out of the lounge, no thought in his mind but to get out, get away, make them stop looking at him like that. Dimly he heard one of them call his name, but he couldn’t determine who, and he wasn’t going to take the chance of it being Lance, calling him back just to mock him again. 

It all felt so much like being at the Garrison again. Surrounded on all sides by people he didn’t understand, who followed rules he didn’t know, and scorned him for his ignorance. 

He didn’t go to the training deck. They’d expect him to go there, and he didn’t want to get cornered again. He went instead to his bedroom, locking the door behind him.

Even though he was alone, Keith still felt the humiliation like a brand, and the feeling only increased when he felt tears stinging his eyes. God, how pathetic was he, crying like a toddler because he’d been made fun of. He should be used to it by now, goddamnit, so why did he still feel like someone had stomped on his fight or flight switch? 

Someone knocked on the door, making him jump about a foot in the air. 

“Keith?” It was Pidge’s voice, timid and unsure. “Are you in there?”

Keith held his breath and didn’t say a word. It didn’t matter that they were teammates, it didn’t matter that they could mind meld and form Voltron or anything else. Trusting other people wasn’t safe, and he wasn’t going to forget that again. 

Pidge grumbled on the other side of the door. “I have the thermal maps pulled up, you know. I know you’re in there, I can see your body heat.”

Keith ground his teeth.

“Go away,” he snapped, instinctively backing away from the door. “I got the memo, alright? You don’t need to remind me.”

“Jesus,” said Pidge with an overwrought sigh. “Lance, you moron, I’m gonna kill you I swear.” She paused to take a breath, and when her voice returned it was softer. “Listen, Lance was way out of line back there. There’s nothing wrong with you, ok? And I was the one who went over your medical scans after the Trials, so I should know.”

He couldn’t help scoffing at that. Sure, maybe his biology was normal for a freaking alien hybrid, but that didn’t solve his social errors, now did it?

“Will you please let me in? I have something to show you.”

He hesitated, chewing on the inside of his lip as he stared at the door. Should he? Pidge hadn’t laughed at him, after all, but at the same time could he really take the risk of letting someone in after the mess that had just happened? He wasn’t sure. 

“Hey, if you don’t like what I have to say, you can kick me right out again, alright? I’m tiny, you could probably punt me across the Castle if you wanted to.”

That made him laugh, and that was probably the only reason he dared to open the door. Pidge looked sincere, if a bit apprehensive, and as she walked past him into the room he caught a glimpse of her laptop screen. It looked like a PDF of some sort, colored in purple and green. 

Well, this should be interesting. 


Chapter Text

Keith leaned his forehead against the cars glass window, letting the vibration of the engine rattle through his jaw, idly watching the desert streak by. His foster parents hadn’t deigned to tell him where they were going, and Keith didn’t bother asking. After the fight he’d gotten into the day before, he could guess.

It wasn’t really his fault. Maybe it was his fault for throwing the first punch, but it wasn’t his fault that James kid always took it out on him when he got a less than perfect score. 

Whatever. Keith wasn’t exactly looking forward to the conversation he was going to have with his social worker, but he knew how to navigate it. Shut down, tune it out, ignore any questions. His side of the story never mattered. It wasn’t worth listening to all the things they would say about him. 

Already sinking into his detached miasma, Keith didn’t notice when the man and woman in the front seat exchanged a glance, or when the car began to decelerate. He didn’t wake up, as it were, until they pulled over onto the shoulder, the jolts of gravel almost painful before he pulled away from the window. 

Keith remained silent and still as the father, whose name was Anthony, killed the engine and undid his seat belt. He reached over and began to open his door, but his wife put a hand on his shoulder.

“Tony,” she tried to say, but he shoved her hand away and climbed out of the car. 

Keith tracked him with his eyes as he circled and came towards the back door. He tore the door open and scowled down at Keith. 

“Get out,” he growled, and Keith had been with them long enough to recognize the danger in the tone, so he felt for the release on his seat belt, not daring to drop his gaze. 

Apparently he took too long. The moment the seat belt had finished retracting he seized Keith by his elbow and yanked him out of the car, throwing him into the dirt alongside the road. 

The heat hit him like a wave, instantly making sweat bead along his brow and under his hoodie. He landed on hands and knees, pointed granite gravel digging into his palms before he scrambled to his feet. 

“What’s going on?” he demanded. The situation didn’t look good-- Anthony had already closed the car door and turned to him, wearing an evil smirk and digging one hand into his jeans pocket. 

“The social work office is twenty miles that way,” he said, pointing down the road with his free hand. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and threw it at Keith, which stuttered and dropped after only a few inches, but the movement was violent enough to make him flinch. 

It landed at his feet. It was a map, a route traced in red Sharpie. It took him a moment, but when he finally realized what they intended to do, all sense deserted him. 

“You’re dumping me?” he squawked, disbelieving. Anthony laughed cruelly and turned back to the car. 

“That’s right. You’re not worth the gas it would take to drive all the way there.”

Keith’s heart pounded rapidly in his chest, the sweat on his palms dampening the map as he shoved it in his own pocket. 

“Wait!” He didn’t know what he intended to do; he only knew that he couldn’t be left here. He still remembered the things his father had told him about the desert, how it was a harsh mistress, how it devoured people who didn’t respect it, who went in unprepared, which he definitely was. All he had was a hoodie and his knife-- no water, no food, no transportation--

“You can’t just leave me here!” he shouted at Anthony’s back. “It’s a hundred and ten degrees out here, you can’t leave, I’ll die--” 

Stupidly, he grabbed for Anthony’s arm. With a snarl the man spun, planted a huge hand on Keith’s chest, and shoved him back to the ground. The impact made his teeth slam together, coppery blood filling his mouth from the bit of his tongue that he’d bitten. 

“Why the hell should I care? You’re not our problem anymore.” Then he stormed back around the car towards the driver's seat. 

All Keith could do was sit there and watch as the car rumbled to life and pulled back onto the freeway, spewing dust and gravel as it roared away. He sat and watched a while longer, until the vehicle disappeared into the heat waves on the horizon, disbelief swirling in his gut.

A lot of shit had happened to him since his father died, four years before. He’d been beaten, starved, locked in closets, screamed at, had bones broken, countless bruises and cuts, even held underwater a couple of times-- but he’d never felt like his life was in danger. His will to live, maybe, but not his actual life.

But now it was. It was noon, he was already pouring sweat, and he had twenty whole miles to walk.

He wasn’t going to make it. Even as he got up and stripped off his hoodie, wrapping it around his head for protection against the sun, he knew he wasn’t going to make it. He’d make it three miles, maybe five, maybe even seven if a small miracle occurred, but eventually he was going to collapse. 

But he was going to try anyway. At least he could try, instead of laying down to die. 

So he started walking. The map remained in his pocket, useless until he actually reached the city.

For the first hour or so, he walked with his thumb stuck out, appreciating the brief breeze everytime a car tore past him without stopping. He already knew no one was going to stop for him. Who would take time out of their day to help a random, ragamuffin kid?

After an hour he let his arm drop, and he kept walking.

His head was starting to hurt from the bright, blazing sun.

But he kept walking.

His clothes were sodden with sweat and itched against his skin. 

But he kept walking.

His throat burned with desperate thirst.

But he kept walking.

The heat was starting to make it hard to breathe. 

But he kept walking.

Keith stumbled along the road, the crunching of gravel and the roar of cars becoming a dull buzz in his ears. He didn’t know how long it had been, but the sun had moved enough to paint his shadow along the ground, long and skeletal. 

He was dizzy. It was too painful to swallow anymore. A blister had burst in his shoe, and now blood squished inside with every step.

At one point he thought he saw the city beginning to emerge on the horizon, and came perilously close to hoping. But then he saw his dad’s old truck parked along the road and realized he was hallucinating. 

He put his head down, and kept walking. 

Eventually something real emerged along the barren stretch of highway. A single mesquite tree, its tiny leaves casting scant shade onto the rocks below.

At that point Keith didn’t care about trying anymore. He’d been abandoned again, left for dead, and he was so tired of fighting for what he could never have. 

So when he reached the tree, he stopped. He gave up and slumped into the dirt, relishing where the shadows kissed his sunburned, overheated skin, and let his eyes close.

He was going to die here, alone, under a lonely mesquite tree at age thirteen, and he couldn’t even bring himself to care.

Keith let his eyes close, and slowly, piece by piece, he drifted away. 

When he woke to a white tile ceiling, the first thing Keith felt was disappointment. 

A few minutes later his social worker came into the hospital room and explained how a trucker had found him unconscious on the roadside and brought him in. Keith listened numbly, not knowing how to care. After all of that, how could he?

When she finally stopped talking Keith stirred, wincing at the pull of his sore muscles, and turned his head to look out the window. The desert stretched out below him, and he imagined he could hear the voices of coyotes and saguaros, calling his name.

“Anne,” he said. “Why am I still here?”

Her tone turned too gentle. “You have heatstroke, Keith. You’ll need time--”

“No, not the hospital. I mean why am I still alive?”

There was a pause. Keith could envision Anne’s expression-- she’d be stunned, blink a few times, then her patronizing grin would be slid back into place. He continued before she could say anything.

“I know it takes a lot of money to keep fixing me every time I get broken. Wouldn’t you rather spend that money on a kid who has a chance at being adopted?”

“Keith,” said Anne, “you need to remember…” He stopped listening. Nothing she said would mean anything. When he got out of the hospital he’d go to another family, and they’d be good or they’d be bad, and at the end he’d be abandoned again. Maybe not as literally at this time, but it would be abandonment all the same. And they’d do it again, and again, and again.

He’d never been religious, but now he closed his eyes and prayed.

God help me, he thought as Anne rattled on pointlessly. Help me get out. 


Chapter Text

There wasn’t supposed to be anyone here.

That was the only thought in Keith’s head as he was overwhelmed. He was forced to the floor, helmet torn from his head, a boot planted between his shoulder blades while other hands yanked his arms back to be bound, and all Keith could think was No one was supposed to be here. 

Allura had said there were no vital signs on the ship. Pidge had confirmed it too, just in case. There was no one on this wreck and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a look around-- they were, after all, trying to fly a ten thousand year old ship with a seven person crew and no money or resources to speak of. But they couldn’t delay their travel, and that was how Keith got assigned the job. Red could catch up.

But only if Keith was there to fly her. And he wasn’t-- he was being hustled onto another ship by some sort of alien species, whose holds he couldn’t break no matter how much he struggled. 

So much for combat training, he thought glumly, right before being shoved to his knees.

“What do we have here?” asked a voice in a disturbing growl, and Keith winced. However these aliens spoke it was causing some sort of feedback in his translator, resulting in a high pitched whine that pierced right through his eardrums. 

“A scavenger that found Kret’s ship,” answered one from behind him before jabbing his side with a foot. “His ship was real weird-- it’s shaped like an animal or somethin’.”

“Hm.” The gray knees Keith had been glaring at bent as the (person he assumed to be the) leader knelt. Their face was grotesquely thin, cheekbones jutting out like a Tim Burton version of Angelina Jolie, and their skin was a worn and leathery gray. Their eyes were huge, taking up more than half of their face, and were a strange glossy red. Far from the prettiest aliens Keith had ever seen, that was for sure. 

“Do you have friends, little stowaway?” they asked him in a false coo. “Do you have anyone to miss you?”

Keith elected to say nothing and bared his teeth, a growl building in his throat. The alien laughed and stood up again.

“Yarv, did you find any sort of comms or links in the armor?”

“Yes.” This voice came from the other side of the room, where Keith couldn’t see thanks to the circle of aliens surrounding him. It sounded pleased. “And they’re close, too.”

Keith felt the excitement level in the room tick up a few notches, but tried not to let it freak him out too bad. They apparently hadn’t recognized Red, so if they didn’t realize who he was, he probably wouldn’t be handed over to Zarkon.


“Why don’t you give them a ring?” said the leader, and as he stepped to the side Keith finally got a look at the where he was. A small cockpit, probably the equivalent to a bridge, made up almost entirely of rusty metal and exposed wiring. How the ship managed to be space worthy in this condition was beyond Keith’s understanding.

The one thing in the room that didn’t look like a piece of junkyard scrap was a silver orb, hovering above the leader’s chair. Against the far wall the alien Keith assumed was Yarv had connected several wires to his helmet, and after a few seconds and more than a few sparks, the silver orb began to glow. A screen appeared, projected over the windscreen, and as soon as Keith recognized the Castle he felt his stomach drop. 

“Wait a second, what is that?” It was Pidge’s voice, off screen. There was a surprised gasp from the other side of it.

“An unauthorized transmission,” said the Princess. “From the same quadrant where we left Keith.”

“Hmmm. Keith,” drawled the leader as he lazily crossed one spindly leg over the other. “What an ugly name.”

Keith gave a wordless snarl, not wanting to give him the satisfaction.

A second later the video screen was crowded by the faces of the team. All of their expressions followed the same pattern: confusion, then horror, then outrage. 

“What is the meaning of this?” Allura raged, her cheeks already tinting darker in her anger. But the leader alien didn’t seem moved. In fact, he was staring blatantly at Allura’s tiara. 

“Looks like we got a rich one, boys,” he said with a smirk, and all around the other aliens cheered. One thumped Keith on the back of the head; not hard enough to knock him out or anything, but enough to ache. 

Shiro’s eyes were snapping gray sparks. He opened his mouth, probably to launch into some sort of “don’t you dare hurt him or you’ll regret being born” speech, but the leader beat him to it.

“Alright, folks, here’s how this is going to happen.” Keith noticed Pidge wince on the other side of the vid screen, probably in reaction to the same translator feedback he was hearing. “As you can see, we have captured one of your crew. And as we can see, the lot of you seem to be doing fairly well for yourselves. So here are our terms.

“You are going to pay us three million GAC within three quintants. Do that and we’ll drop your guy and his silly pet-ship where we found them. Don’t do that and, well…” they chuckled darkly and reached out, fisting one hand into Keith’s hair and yanking his head back. 

Keith glared up at his captor, refusing to be intimidated, while the alien dragged his eyes painstakingly over his face.

“We might have to take a jaunt over to the Bazaar. We’d get a high price for something this pretty.”

An itch crawled over Keith’s skin, but he resisted the urge to shudder and maintained his steely glare until the leader laughed again and let him go, turning back to the screen. All of the others looked furious, even Lance, and Keith indulged himself in a smirk.

These guys had just kicked the hornets nest. And the best part? The idiots didn’t even know it.


“Remember,” the leader said, wagging a long, thin finger. “Three quintants.” Then, with a gesture to Yarv, the connection was broken. The leader got to his feet. 

“Warek, take him down to the cells.” 

“,” said Pidge after a long silence.

“Yeah,” agreed Hunk.

“That was…” Lance said before running a hand through his hair. 

“Yikes,” added Shiro.

Allura looked just as stunned as the rest of them. “Is it possible they really don’t know who we are?”

“It does seem that way, Princess,” put in Coran, though he too seemed puzzled. 

“What fucking morons,” Pidge said, viciously, making Hunk and Lance laugh while Shiro debated whether it was worth scolding her for her language or not. 

“Do we even need to rescue him?” Lance fell back into his Paladin chair, crossing his arms behind his head. “I’d bet you ten bucks Red is razing the place as we speak.”

“We should go,” said Shiro, “just in case.” He was acting the part, but internally he was a bit tickled. They were the most wanted people in the universe, and Keith just happened to be captured by the one group of people that didn’t know that. In a dark sort of way, it was kinda hilarious. “Come on, guys.”

Pidge gave a maniacal laugh. “Let’s go kick some alien ass!”

“Pidge!” said Shiro, but his heart wasn’t in it. 

Keith waited approximately three minutes after being put in the cell before calling Red. 

By the time the other Lions appeared on the scene he was half a mile away, watching the little scrap ship implode on itself. 

“So.” Lance’s voice crackled loudly through the comms. “Did ya have fun?” 


Chapter Text

The moment Keith walked in the door he knew he was screwed. 

The whole walk home from the police station he’d been in a daze. He kept pulling the card out of his pocket, making sure it was still there, that it was real, that he hadn’t imagined the whole thing. And every time it was still there; Shirogane’s Garrison card, an address and a time written on the white cardstock in black ink. 

He was so caught up in the sheer improbability of it all that he didn’t even think about the other kids until he got back to the home and saw them clustered on the landing, waiting for him.

There were three other boys his age in the home, and two a year older. All of them went to Keith’s school, and inevitably had heard about, if not seen themselves, all the attention Keith had gotten from Shirogane.

And judging by the glares on their faces, they weren’t happy about it.

Keith took a deep breath and closed the front door behind him. He stood there a moment longer, making sure he had the address on the card memorized in case they took it from him, before venturing down the hall. 

To his left was the living room, where their caretaker was helping one of the younger boys with their homework while trying to do paperwork on her lap. She looked exhausted, as always. 

Keith turned his attention to the stairs. He could try darting up the stairs and past the landing as fast as he could, but with five of them there, it was likely at least one of them would catch him. But he couldn’t just stay downstairs— one of the older boys, Kaden, was already beginning to descend. If he didn’t move, they’d just converge on him and pull him to the right, into the kitchen. 

Really it was a question of which floor would he rather be pinned to while they took out their frustration. Would he rather get rug burn or more bruises?

He decided on rug burn. He waited in the middle of the hall, clenching and unclenching his fists as Kaden sidled closer. The caretakers back was to them, but still he tried to feign nonchalance. Keith shifted his weight to the balls of his feet.

He waited until he saw Kadens eyes. Angry hazel, burning with envy. Then he made his move.

He darted left, dodging as Kaden grabbed for him. Then he dropped into a sprint and made for the stairs.

He made it up the first flight. But when he tried to rush past the other boys onto the second, a hand managed to catch him by the hood of his jacket. In seconds he’d been yanked back. Two more hands latched onto his arm, and the next thing he knew he was being slammed up against the wall, hard enough that his spine would probably be bruised later, and the rest of the boys wasted no time in pinning him there. 

Keith growled and kicked out. He felt the impact and saw one of the boys wince, but it didn’t make the grips on him loosen.

“I have to admit,” said Kaden conversationally, “I didn’t think a freak like you would be smart enough to rig the Garrison test like that.”

Keith scowled. Everyone always assumed that because his grades were shit and he didn’t talk much meant he was stupid. But he knew he wasn’t, and he was getting pretty sick of hearing it. The voice of his teacher rang in his ears, calling him a discipline case and passing him over for someone better, more perfect, less broken, and his temper kicked up a few notches. 

“I didn’t cheat,” he spat at them. He shoved forward off the wall, trying to break free, but they just pushed him back into place. “Get off of me.”

“I don’t think so.” Kaden planted a hand next to Keith’s head and leaned in, his expression cold and threatening. “Here’s how this is going to work. You’re going to go meet with Shirogane, like he told you to, and you’re going to tell him that you cheated and you aren’t good enough to go to the Garrison.”

“I won’t--” 

Kaden’s other fist slammed into his stomach, cutting off his words and making him slump forward, all of the air knocked out of his lungs.

“And then you’re going to tell him that you know some people who are better, and you’re gonna give him our names.”

“Like hell--”

Kaden’s fist flew again, this time slamming into the side of Keith’s torso, the impact kickstarting a starburst of pain around his kidney. 

“You’re going to do exactly what I say, or you’re dead. Get it, freak?”

Keith tilted his head back against the wall and tried to breathe. He dared a glance to the side, over the bannister into the living room, right as the caretaker happened to look up. 

Their gazes met. Her eyes were so tired, and she only looked at him for a moment before purposefully moving her gaze back down to the homework she was assisting with. 

Keith swallowed the anger, adding it to the growing fire in his belly. 

“Hey!” The hand that had been on the wall suddenly sunk into his hair and yanked. “I asked you a question.”

“Fuck you,” Keith snarled, and Kaden’s eyes narrowed dangerously. 

“Fine. Guess we gotta teach you this lesson again, huh?”

It was a rhetorical question. Kaden waved to the other boys and, working as a team, they pulled Keith off of the wall and started up the stairs. Keith fought with everything he had, kicking and clawing, planting his feet and spitting curses that would’ve made a sailor blush. But it was five on one, and the only thing he accomplished was slowing them down about thirty seconds before he was dragged into a bedroom. 

They didn’t waste anymore time. Keith was thrown to the floor, and though he managed to get his feet under him, the effort was wasted when a sneakered foot slammed into his chest. The blow knocked him back against the carpet, and he barely had the presence of mind to roll over and curl into the fetal position before the blows began to rain down. 

For the first minute or so, it wasn’t so bad. It hurt, but they at least kept the kicks to his legs and his torso. But then one of them circled around towards his head, and that’s when he knew he had to do something. 

So he waited for the boy to wind back. Then he snapped out a hand, grabbed the boy’s ankle, and yanked it out from under him.

The kid hit the floor with a shout, and the resulting shock gave Keith to opportunity to get upright again. He made it one step towards the door before one of them grabbed his hoodie; Keith spun and sank his teeth into the offending hand. The taste of blood bloomed in his mouth and the hand retreated.

Keith made it out of the room and down the stairs, and from there it was a straight shot out the front door and down the street. He was flying with adrenaline-- he probably could’ve stopped running after a block or two, but he went three before the chemical reaction in his blood began to die down. 

Eventually he stopped, going around a corner and into an alley before putting his back to a wall and sliding to the ground. His heart pounded in his chest, blood rushing in his ears, a coppery tang still sticking to the back of his teeth. All over bruises throbbed in time with his racing pulse, and as the adrenaline leaked out, the pain began to settle in. 

Keith let out a shaky exhale, feeling in his pocket for the card. Thankfully it was still there. 

For one horrifying moment he felt tears begin to prick at his eyes before he scrunched them shut, holding his breath until the urge receded. 

It was five in the evening, the light of the setting sun tinging the city orange, and Keith sat and watched from the shadows as it darkened. In fourteen hours or so he would be going to the Garrison to meet Shirogane, and find out exactly what he meant by a second chance. He knew he didn’t have to worry about the caretaker being worried about him-- this wasn’t the first time he’d had to flee the house for a night. 

He didn’t dare hope for much. Maybe he would show up just for Shirogane to tell him his record was too bad and he couldn’t be accepted. Maybe he’d want something from him in return for his endorsement-- probably something Keith couldn’t or wouldn’t give. 

But as he watched the stars blink one by one into view, something began to grow in his chest. Not hope, or optimism, he wasn’t stupid enough for that. But… something.

He could only hope he wouldn’t be let down again. 


Chapter Text

Having grown up in the desert, Keith didn’t have a lot of experience with cold. Sure the temperature dropped at night and it got a little chilly in December, but never enough to require anything beyond a hoodie to keep warm. So why was he of all people, the Guardian of Fire, chosen to go to the planet which seemed to be just one massive blizzard?

Allura’s reasoning was that his suit was climate controlled, so he wouldn’t feel the cold, and his speeder would be able to glide right over the snow to his objective. Which were valid points, but still. Why him?

Besides, all of those things had been true only up until that massive snow worm or whatever the hell it was launched its surprise attack from right underneath him. The speeder was wrecked, right up against the only cliff face that could be seen for miles, leaving Keith in the snow. 

He’d managed to defeat the worm, eventually, but in the process he’d taken a hard hit to the torso that cracked his breastplate. The cold started to seep in, right over his heart, and within ten minutes he was shivering.

Despite all of that shit, Keith had made it to the beacon or whatever and activated it, completing his mission. Now all he had to do was make it back to the rendezvous point where the others would pick him up, and he’d have to explain to an irate princess why his speeder was destroyed. He definitely wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.

But for the moment that was the last thing on his mind. He was thinking about how cold the air hitting his chest was, and how all of him felt icy, how hard he was shivering. The temperature gauge on his visor display was in Altean, but he didn’t need a number to know it was real fucking cold. 

There wasn’t anything for it. He just had to brave the cold until he got to the rendezvous and got picked up. The pods could take care of any frostbitten skin… hopefully. 

The world around him was a swirling miasma of white. Keith had no idea where the land ended and the sky began, and he couldn’t tell if the sky and the ground were normally white or if it was all snow. He couldn’t imagine anything green growing here, if this was what the place was normally like. If he’d been dropped into this without navigation gear he would’ve been screwed, but thankfully his visor mapped out a precise route. All he had to do was follow the orange line, and he probably wouldn’t freeze to death.


Get over it, Kogane. The mocking voice in his head sounded an awful lot like Lance, laughing at how he floundered through the knee deep snow drifts. Are you really afraid of a little cold?

Keith scowled to himself, tightening the grip of his arms where they wrapped around his torso, trying to form a barrier between the outside and the cracks in his armor. It wouldn’t really make sense for Lance to be making fun of him for it, the guy grew up on a tropical island, but that had never stopped Lance before. 

He went on and on and on, further into the neverending blank canvas of the blizzard. The orange line led ever forward. Keith’s muscles ached from shivering, especially his jaw, clenched closed to keep his teeth from chattering, and his legs, growing tired from pushing through snow. It had been long enough that his fingers had gone numb where they wrapped around his upper arms, and his feet felt like lumps of wood in his boots. But that was fine. He’d read about that kind of thing and heard about it from Shiro, who had to go through cold weather training before going up to Kerberos. Going numb was a normal response to the cold as his blood retreated to keep his core temperature up. He was fine. 

Besides, it was only a little bit further to the rendezvous. The end of the orange line was now in sight, a blinking target laying on the snow where the Blue Lion would be landing to pick him up. But the Lion wasn’t there yet. 

Keith indulged himself in a frustrated groan. He’d had to walk back here on foot and he’d still beaten Lance to the pick up point. This was definitely going on his personal list of incidents to bring up the next time Lance tried to brag about how much better he was. 

For a moment Keith just stood there on the edge of the digital circle, swaying a bit as the harsh wind tried to make him topple. He probably shouldn’t sit down, the snow would only make him colder, but he was so damn tired from walking through it. His thighs and lower back ached from the repetitive motion-- the numbness had spread up to his knees, now, and he couldn’t feel much below them besides a slight tingling. The numb on his fingers had stretched up to his wrists, and there was a spot of numb right under where his armor had cracked. 

He had a sneaking suspicion that this was a bad thing, but he also wasn’t shivering so much anymore, so that had to be good, right? In the desert not sweating was a symptom of heat stroke, but it didn’t work the same way in the cold, right? He chose to believe that was true.

But after five more minutes of just standing there in the wind, surrounded by nothing but infuriatingly blank whiteness, Keith ran out of patience. He reached up for a moment, a motion that exposed part of his chest to the cold and caused another bout of shivering, and shoved one finger against the side of his helmet. The nerves were deadened and he didn’t feel much besides pressure, but he heard the beep when his comms switched on. 

“Guys?” he tried to say. “Anyone there?”

Nothing answered but static. The storm must’ve been blocking the signal, which was just great. Now he had no way of determining how far away Lance was or how long it was going to take him to get there. 

Keith growled a few swear words and closed his eyes, hugging himself more tightly. His eyes had begun to ache from all the white he’d been staring at and closing them felt nice. He stood there a few minutes longer before giving into the fatigue and sinking to his knees.

Surprisingly, the snow didn’t feel cold, even though it reached to his shoulders in this position. It didn’t feel like much at all, actually-- nothing did. At some point the numbness had sunk its claws into Keith’s entire body without him noticing. 

This should’ve been worrying, but he wasn’t concerned. Being numb was preferable to the shaking, shivering, bone-deep chill he’d been feeling before. God, how did people survive living in places like this? 

Keith barely noticed when he felt his helmet touch his arms, wrapped around his drawn up knees to trap whatever minute warmth he could from his body. He was so tired… the fatigue from walking and fighting had caught up with him. His eyes were already closed and staying awake was such a struggle… it would be alright to rest for a few minutes, right? Just until Lance showed up? Surely that wouldn’t be much longer. 

The decision was made for him when the darkness surged up and claimed him, dragging him under the wave of sleep. Dimly he felt his body slump sideways into the snow, but he couldn’t bring himself to care very much.

Everything went black. 

Chapter Text

Lance hummed jauntily to himself as he began to near the ice planet. Allura had said its name once, but it was, like, twenty six syllables. Even Pidge had tripped up saying it. So Lance was perfectly content to keep calling it ‘the ice planet’, thanks very much.

What he was less content about was having to be Keith’s ride to and from the planet, but whatever. Red couldn’t handle the cold, so Lance would just have to deal with Keith’s presence in the cockpit for half a varga before they got back to the Castle. He could handle that; in fact, he already had a great bunch of teases lined up, guaranteed to get under Keith’s prickly skin. 

Lance couldn’t wait.

Everything seemed normal as he brought Blue into the planets orbit and began their descent. It wasn’t until they broke into the atmosphere and the ever raging storm within that Blue began to shove feelings of concern at him. 

“It’s alright, girl,” he soothed, giving the controls an affectionate pat. “Just a little snow and wind, nothing you can’t handle.”

Blue sped up despite Lance’s efforts, but it only made him laugh at how insistent she was being. 

“Ok, I get it, you’re just excited to make fun of Keith, too. Great minds think alike.”

The growl that followed his statement felt a little heavier than before, but Lance chose to interpret it as playful. After all, Blue’s element was water and ice. Why would she be nervous flying into a blizzard? It just wasn’t logical.

After only a minute or two of flying through the storm Lance was glad his route was programmed into Blue. She was able to project it onto her windscreen, giving him a path to follow through the white blankness of the blizzard. Literally everything was a flat sheen of white, like he’d wandered into an unpainted canvas. An unpainted canvas being stored in a freezer. Next to a fan.

Ok, so not his best metaphor. It didn’t matter much once they reached the rendezvous point-- Lance was too busy being irritated.

The spot Blue had marked as the rendezvous point was very obviously empty. No signs of Keith’s red armor or the speeder he’d left on, just more never ending white. 

Lance couldn’t believe it. He was-- he checked the time-- twenty doboshes late and Keith still wasn’t there. Un-freakin-believable. 

Blue rumbled again, shifting on the snow she stood on. Lance couldn’t ignore it anymore, she was definitely worried about something, but what? 

Hearing his thought, Blue changed what her screen showed him. Instead of the big orange target on the snow, she chose a very specific part of the ground and zoomed in. Lance frowned as he looked at it, trying to discern what she was seeing that he didn’t, but after a few moments he gave an irritated shake of his head.

“Blue, I don’t know what--” He cut himself off with a sucked in breath. Just then, as he’d been talking, a burst of wind had brushed some snow away. Underneath was a strip of familiar red. 

“What the fuck?” Lance squealed as he threw himself out of the pilot seat. He rushed out of the cockpit and down Blue’s ramp, brain spinning with all sorts of freaked out thoughts. What the hell was Keith doing buried in the snow like that? 

Thanks to the climate controls on his suit Lance didn’t feel the cold when he stepped out of the Lion, but he did feel the wind. It nearly pushed him over and off the side of the ramp, but he managed to brace his feet and not go flying. Blue growled at him again, trying to urge him forward, but Lance jerked to a halt right at the end of the ramp. 

What if this was a prank? He and Keith screwed with each other all the time, maybe Keith had buried himself in the snow so that he could surprise attack Lance when he showed up? Lance wouldn’t put it past him to try something like that (especially after how Lance had hidden himself in Keith’s room last week to pop out when he least expected it).

But Blue wasn’t having any of it. With a pointed rumble she retracted the ramp a few feet, tipping Lance off of it and into the powdery snow, in which he immediately sank to his knees. 

“Fine, fine!” he said. His voice was immediately snatched away by the wind. “I’m going already.”

Turns out, walking in snow absolutely sucked. It felt like every muscle in his body was required to take a step, and by the time he made it the ten steps to where the red was sticking out of the snow his muscles were already shaking and protesting. 

Up close he could tell that the red he was seeing was the colored stripe painted on Keith’s helmet. He paused for a moment, considering, then knocked on the top of it like it was a door.

“Knock knock,” he said after activating his comms so that Keith could hear. “Anybody home?”

There was no response, but Lance could just barely detect the sound of him breathing. The noise was rough and slow, which made a rock of uncertainty settle in Lance’s gut. 

“Keith? Buddy? You with me?”

No response, and the snow around him didn’t budge an inch, giving no indication that Keith might’ve moved. 

The irritated, mocking feeling was gone. Lance brushed away some more of the snow, and when he realized that would take too long, crouched down and felt through it until he found Keith’s torso. Then, with a great heave, he pulled the other Paladin out of the snow. 

Lance’s heart froze in his chest. Keith was unconscious, completely limp with his eyes closed. More alarming were his blue tinted lips, and the fine hairline cracks Lance could discern spider webbing across Keith’s chestplate. 

“Oh shit.”

He immediately set to hauling Keith across the snow, back in the direction of Blue. Keith’s suit had been compromised for god knows how long, he could be hypothermic or frost bitten or even--

Nope, he thought, shaking his head hard. He’s not dead yet. Right, Blue?

Blue sent him an image of a beating heart. Lance chose to interpret that as reassurance that Mullet was still among the living and tried to pull him along faster. 

Eventually they hit the ramp and it became much easier to pull Keith’s body into the cockpit. Moving as quickly as he could, Lance propped Keith up against the back wall and pulled the helmet off of his head. He’d been hoping to see him stir a bit or groan or something, but he just sat there, unmoving. He wasn’t even shivering.

He had to move fast. He didn’t remember much from his first aid training at the Garrison, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. So the first thing he did was open up the survival kit that all the Lions came with and quickly unfolded the emergency blanket. It was stiff and crinkly, kind of like aluminum foil, but it should serve to trap Keith’s body heat. 

“Blue,” he said aloud as he went back to his teammate, “can you get us out of the atmosphere by yourself? Just so I can call the others?”

Blue rumbled affirmingly, the floor under Lance’s knees swaying as she lifted into the air. Lance focused back in on his task, ridding Keith of the cold armor covering his torso before wrapping the blanket as best he could around his shoulders. Keith still didn’t stir. 

With an anxious gulp, Lance peeled one of his gloves off and pressed his hand to Keith’s pale cheek, only to bite back a gasp. Keith’s skin was so cold-- it felt like holding a popsicle. This was so, so not good. 

Lance’s comms crackled in his ear as they broke free of the ice planet’s orbit. A half second later he was opening up a communication line to the Castle as he rushed to the pilot’s seat. Keith would’ve been better off if Lance had stayed, maybe huddled with him for warmth or something, but Blue needed him to fly her. If they didn’t get back to the Castle Keith would be very badly off, even if they crowded together like penguins.

“Guys?” he said into the comms, praying someone was on the bridge to answer him. “Hello? Anybody there?”

“Hey, Lance, I’m here.” The voice belonged to Shiro, and Lance could’ve cheered. “What’s going on?”

“I got Keith,” he answered tersely, already in the process of pushing Blue to her top speed. “But something went wrong-- something cracked his armor. I think he’s hypothermic, he was unconscious when I found him and I can’t wake him up.”

Shiro’s tone changed instantly. “Roger that, I’ll get the infirmary prepped. Get him back here as soon as you can.”

Lance gulped and urged Blue just a little bit faster. 

He was really regretting being twenty minutes late. 


The darkness didn’t last forever, as Keith had been expecting it to. He was slowly waking up, beginning to register the things around him bit by bit. A glow on the other side of his eyelids. Something-- no, many somethings, soft and pressed to his skin. And he was warm.

Sheer bafflement made him peel his eyes open. He found himself in his room on the Castle, not in the infirmary or a pod as he’d been expecting. Someone had wrapped him in about five blankets and tucked him into his bed where he still lay, sandwiched between Shiro on one side, his back against the wall, and Pidge on the other, who had her arms wrapped around his blanket cocoon. 

Lance was sitting at the bottom of the bed, leaning on the wall with his head tilted back, fast asleep. Sitting in front of him on the floor was Hunk, who was resting his arms on the mattress and his head on top of them. 

They were all there, keeping him warm with their body heat. Lance must’ve found him and brought him home quickly enough to keep him from freezing to death. How nice of him. 

Keith shifted a bit. His muscles burned and ached with the motion, but the feeling was distant. He’d barely moved, however, before Shiro’s arm moved, wrapping more tightly around Keith’s chest. When Keith glanced over his shoulder he found Shiro fast asleep, but still holding him securely. 

He couldn’t help the warm smile that crept over his lips. Back on the ice planet, he’d been thinking that he’d never be warm again, the chill had sunk so far into his bones. But here he was.

Here he was. 

Chapter Text

For the last few days things had been entirely crazy. Finding the colony, rejoining the team, fighting the clone, fighting Lotor, recharging the Lions, healing Shiro. Keith barely had time to breathe, let alone think. 

But now everything had flipped. Things went from utter chaos to utter boredom, frantic battles transforming into endless flying, flying in a straight line, through the tunnel of stars stretching into infinity. 

Keith was losing his mind. He’d been used to routine and drudgery on the space whale, but had been with Krolia, who was like him. Quiet, introverted, content to do her own thing. 

The other Paladins were not like them. 

Coran was still singing his stupid song, even after Keith had banished him to Blue’s hold, his voice loud enough to be picked up over the comms. Lance and Rommelle chattered like blue jays, interspersed with complaints of boredom. Hunk was constantly spamming their communicators with pictures of Kaltenecker and the mice. Pidge shouted and raged at her video game. 

The Black Lion was the only calm one in the whole flotilla. Krolia was in the hold, training and exercising to keep herself busy. Shiro sat in the cockpit with Keith, Kosmo snoozing with his head in Shiro’s lap. 

The quiet was nice, but Keith still found himself glancing over his shoulder at Shiro every so often, checking on him. Was he pale, or was it just the lighting? Did his arm hurt? What about other injuries-- the fight had been brutal, what if Keith had hurt him--

“I can feel you fussing from here.”

Keith flushed as Shiro shot him a gentle smile, his remaining hand scratching Kosmo behind the ears. 

“Sorry,” Keith said, pivoting back to the windscreen. “Just wanted to make sure you’re alright.” It was the truth, but only partially. It was true that Keith was worried about him being alright, but it went deeper than just friendly concern, and he couldn’t quite tell why. He’d done a lot of growing up in the Quantum Abyss, but it didn’t make him any better at untangling his thoughts at times like this. 

“I’m fine, Keith. Thanks to you.”

Keith tightened his grip on Black’s controls. It had been so long since he’d heard that tone from him-- soft, loving, like before he’d vanished again and been replaced. Before the clone. He didn’t know why, but he found himself shaking his head.

“Don’t thank me,” he said, staring stubbornly out the windscreen. He heard Kosmo whine, probably sensing the shift in Keith’s mood. “Black was the one who saved your life after Zarkon.”

The pause that followed was filled with tension, and Keith bit the inside of his lip. Was that the wrong thing to say?

“But you were the one who saved me from her.” Shiro’s voice was so quiet Keith almost didn’t hear, and when he registered the words they made his chest ache. He dared a glance back and found Shiro’s eyes distant and unfocused, a horrible lost expression on his face. 

Keith opened his mouth, ready to apologize, but Shiro continued before he could. 

“Keith, the Astral Plane was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. There was nothing there, nothing at all, unless someone was flying Black.” He blinked, and his eyes flicked back to Keith. He didn’t have it in him to break the eye contact. “And then I’d have to watch you, struggling, and then him, leading you all on, and--”

“I’m sorry,” Keith blurted out, unable to hold the words in anymore. He’d identified the feeling squiggling around in his gut-- guilt. “It’s my fault you were stuck there for so long, and it’s my fault the clone had everyone fooled. I should’ve noticed, I should’ve said something, but I didn’t.”

Keith paused, but only long enough to breathe and blink back tears. Shiro was too stunned to speak. 

“I didn’t do anything. I just ran away. And I’m so, so sorry.”

Shiro just looked at him for a second. His eyes should’ve been hard and cold, like during the fight, he should’ve been angry, but instead his gaze was unbearably gentle. Shiro (the real Shiro) had always been like that. Kind and understanding, even when Keith didn’t deserve it.

Eventually he said, “I was never angry with you, Keith. I just missed you.”

This time Keith couldn’t beat back the sob in his throat. Shiro just looked at him with such sympathy. 

“Will you come sit with me?”

Of course. He’d do anything for Shiro.

Leaving Black to fly herself, Keith left his chair to sit beside Shiro on the floor. Kosmo immediately shifted his position to shove his nose under Keith’s hand, urging him to pet, and Keith obliged. 

Shiro wrapped his arm around his shoulders. Keith leaned into his, using his weight to hold Shiro up in turn, and for a few minutes they just sat there in silence. Shiro’s embrace said everything his mouth had, but this way it was easier for him to believe it. 

“I missed you too.” Keith whispered. The statement didn’t make much sense with the whole clone thing, but Shiro understood what he meant without having to ask. 

And that same gentle smile curled his lips.