It had started with a flash of light.
The paladins, Coran, Romelle, his mother, all encased in a magenta luminescence, him having escaped only thanks to a little of his intuition and a lot because of the teleporting space wolf. Though “escape” probably was a poor choice of words – Keith had had only a moment of reprieve before the druid Macidus was on him like a demon after fresh blood.
Their blades clanged loudly throughout the caverns, echoing down the adjoining pathways. Though the time Keith had spent on the space whale growing to accept Krolia as his mom (and through that learning to accept himself) had it instilled a peace in the raging firestorm that had been his soul, it threatened to roar back to life every brief moment he remembered that the weapon the druid wielded had belonged to a fallen Blade. He turned that anger into determination, into a promise that he wouldn't fall, wouldn't fail in this battle. But promising it and actually making it happen were too entirely different things; promising wouldn't keep his shoulders of being relieved of his head if he didn't keep one step ahead of the druid.
Keith slashed, Macidus parried. Macidus teleported, Keith only dodged enough to make the cut delivered to his side glancing instead of fatal. The Blade was tiring down; it had seem that ever since returning from the quintessence void, their entourage just had problem after problem to deal with, never giving them a chance to recover as they continued to slowly press forward toward Earth. In contrast, he guessed that Macidus had just been sitting around, well rested and idly waiting until another Blade would respond to the signal and fall victim to his trap.
The spark of renewed anger invigorated him, pushing him briefly into the offense, enough to deliver a sharp kick to the galra's torso. The druid stumbled back but teleported before Keith could follow through with a blow from his bayard.
Macidus's chuckled echoed ominously around him. “Don't you think it's time for you to give in paladin? Time to lay down with the rest of the bones? Your blade will make a nice addition to my wall...”
The growl that was his response was just this side of inhuman. He wildly spun around, unsure of what angle Macidus might attack from next. “Quit bantering! Get out here and fight!”
The chuckle turned into a sharp cackle. “Even now, you still pretend like there's a chance? It will be a treat to bring your corpse to the High Priestess herself.”
This time, he couldn't blame the space wolf, who lay wounded and inert on the other side of the room. This time, it was more than just intuition; it was like he felt something shift beside him. Keith immediately pivoted in time to block the incoming attack from behind with his own sword. He didn't have a second more to fathom what it was or why it had worked; the surprise in Macidus's eyes only lasted a brief moment before the creature hissed and swiped again.
Suddenly it was clear what Keith needed to do – he just needed the opportunity.
It came while he barely stumbled ahead of a trailing beam of violent fuchsia lightening that the druid released in a steady stream. The paladins, somehow freed from their entrapment, were rushing down the ramp at the cavern chamber's entrance to his aid. It was the spare moment of breath that Lance's and Hunk's barrage of shots provided, that stalled Macidus long enough for Keith to feel for that warping of air as his enemy disappeared from sight.
Of course, it was stupidly risky, but it just wouldn't have been him otherwise, peace-from-self-acceptance-via-space-whale be damned. He knew he could never move fast enough to intersect in time, so instead he threw his blade toward that distortion; it soundly lodged itself into Macidus's sternum the tick he reappeared.
The creature seemed shocked at his eminent demise, and even furious as Keith wasted no time rushing forward to grab the sword's handle, tugging it out and swiping up to deliver the final blow. The lizard-like galra howled, in pain or in anger or perhaps both, as the wounds Keith had inflicted glowed vibrantly blue before erupting in an explosion of light that sent the Black Paladin sprawling across the floor like a skipped stone.
When Keith opened his eyes, pushing his chest off the floor to survey his surroundings, he saw motes of blue light floating in the air. The cerulean glow that encased him gently faded as the wisps of light diminished into nothing all at once. He breathed a sigh of relief even as his shaking arms threatened to give out, watching his fellow paladins finish their descent down the ramp with Shiro, Romelle, Coran, and Krolia close behind. Nearby, the wolf stirred, injured but not fatally.
Even as exhausted as he was, Keith couldn't help but give a small grin, thinking that maybe now, everything was going to be okay.
It had started with a flash of light.
For once the paladins and crew didn't rush to continue their trek to Earth, and although Allura could sympathize with just how eager her friends were to return home, she could sense that even they appreciated the delay. Perhaps with the constant danger they had all grown resilient and thus a bit numb to the risks they faced at every turn, but the battle against Macidus had been an ice-cold reminder, especially when they saw all of the lightless swords embedded in the wall. Each had once belonged to a formidable opponent, and each had fallen in battle. The Blades had effectively been eradicated by the druids and it was unknown whether there were more of the monsters still lurking in the shadows.
The Voltron team may have just been recently captured thanks to Ezor and Zethrid, but at least they had been together and mobile at that, even if their wrists had been bound. But with Macidus, they had been rendered completely defenseless to the point that the others hadn't even been aware of their surroundings. The Altean princess knew it had only been sheer luck that she could control her alchemy in a way that not only kept her cognizant of their predicament, but also capable of disarming the trap.
Allura's eyes narrowed in frustration. Even now she was such a novice with her skills. Skills that could make the difference between life and death yet she had such a weak grasp upon them. The Pink Paladin knew that at this rate, one day her luck was going to run out and her flimsy control wouldn't come through when they needed it most and someone on the team would pay the price for her weakness. Even this time alone, they were all lucky that Keith had narrowly avoided getting caught as well.
And Keith.... Allura swallowed uncomfortably as she watched Krolia and her son tend to Kolivan, the Blade leader having almost been completely bled dry by Macidus. She crossed her arms in thought as the three quickly caught one another up on what had transpired in Voltron's absence.
It was thanks to Keith that Macidus had abandoned the rest of the team long enough for her to work her alchemy in peace. Allura had little confidence that she would have wielded the speed or the concentration necessary to release them all under Macidus's watchful eye. And as thanks in return, Keith had come uncomfortably close to being slain, the space wolf the only companion to help him hold off the druid. He had practically collapsed at the end of their battle, the scattered wounds that covered him only just starting to congeal. Even now, she watched as his arms shook from exhaustion as he wrapped Kolivan's wounds. It was a stark and worrying reminder of how close they may have come to losing him.
Allura might have held the highest status of court in their party, but Keith was her leader and more so than that her friend. She might have moved Shiro's essence to the clone's body, but it was Keith who had dared to rescue the clone in the first place, charging off into the unknown by himself knowing it had likely been their only chance. Even after he had departed the team feeling as though he had no place among the paladins, Keith had returned without hesitation when he knew he needed to and fought alongside them as if he had never left. He had immediately volunteered himself to battle alongside Axca on Ezor and Zethrid's ship, buying the team precious time to escape. And the assault of Zarkon, how he immediately offered himself as the replacement when Thace was unresponsive...
Allura had never considered before how much the team relied on him over and over, his capability as a fighter outmatching everyone except perhaps Shiro. It was a worrying realization that maybe she and the others had been taking his exceptional skills in battle for granted. What was going to happen the day he finally stumbled and none of the team were capable of catching him?
She remembered Coran's words after they had met the unlikely paladins; he had said to have faith in them, but now she found that faith slipping, not because of disappointment this time, but for fear of her friends' safety, of how the stakes kept seeming to rise each day. Today had been proof of it.
The Pink Paladin started, her eyes snapping from the spot she had been staring at, not realizing that Keith had stood and turned to her. His expression was one of concern. “You okay?”
Caught off guard, she collected herself with a smile, hoping to put him at ease. “I'm fine, thank you for asking. Are you?”
“Yeah.” He paused for a brief moment, gathering his words. “Krolia told me what you did, how you helped everyone escape. Thank you.”
She flushed and looked away, her expression falling. It was like he had read her own thoughts. Maybe she was more transparent than she realized. “It wasn't enough; I should have done something sooner.”
To her surprise, Keith just huffed a smile, gently placing a hand of her bicep where she could feel it and giving it a reassuring squeeze. It admittedly brought her some comfort, if only a little. “Allura, I'm just glad you can even do alchemy in the first place. We'd have been screwed if you couldn't. I'd have been screwed if you couldn't.
“Besides,” he chuckled softly, “it's not like anyone ever gave you a manual on how to do this stuff. I mean it when I say how much I appreciate you looking out for the others... for my mom.” His face fell solemnly as if he too was reminded of just how close they had come, of the Blades that had been lost, his hand slipping from her arm. “Just... thank you for keeping them safe.”
Allura bit her lower lip as she watched Keith turn away to say farewell to Krolia and Kolivan, feeling a bittersweet twang in her heart as mother and son solemnly embraced. It was just another way that she and the Black Paladin were similar: having to bear the feeling of family fighting in a war where they might never return (and in her case they didn't). The princess couldn't fault him in the least as he stood there staring longingly after the galran woman, only finally turning away when Shiro quietly reminded him that it was time to leave.
She looked down at her palm, at the hand she had used to counteract Macidus's spell. She would get better, she thought, squeezing her hand into a fist. She had to, before their luck ran out.
She just needed to figure out how.
Fatigued and sore as all hell, Keith rolled his left shoulder as he stood up, having just finished helping Hunk and Lance pack up the rest of the salvaged supplies into the Yellow Lion. At least there had been one benefit out of this whole endeavor; there had been plenty of packaged water, rations and energy capsules for their tools available.
No reason to leave them behind when no one else was alive on the planet to use them.
Of course, rescuing Kolivan was also a win, but right now it just didn't feel like it to Keith. Yes Kolivan was saved – Keith would have been more than distraught if he had lost him too, his mentor in a league that had slowly become like a second family - but that discovery had come with the knowledge that the Blades of Marmora were destroyed; that he, Kolivan and Krolia might be the only members left. That thought brought him back to every moment before when they had lost someone: Ulaz, Antok, Thace, Regris, countless others... The Blades had given everything and in the end it seemed like the only thing they each had earned was death, not knowledge.
Keith swallowed hard, shaking his head as he walked down Yellow's ramp toward Black. No, he couldn't let himself think those thoughts. It would only lead him on a downward spiral to nowhere good. Plus the last thing the Black Paladin needed were distractions when so many lives were counting on him.
Black's ramp lowered just as he neared the Lion, as expected. What he didn't expect was Shiro on the other side, a small bag held by his remaining hand over his good shoulder. He seemed equally surprised to see Keith - an odd thought considering it was Keith's Lion he was exiting. By the look and size of the bag, Keith guessed that it wasn't more supplies.
“Shiro?” He questioned softly at the sight of the Garrison pilot, not moving from his spot at the bottom of the ramp. “Where are you going?” He had tried not to make the question sound interrogating, but he must have failed given the guilty frown that made itself known on Shiro's face.
The older Black Paladin didn't meet his eyes as he descended the ramp. “I'm... going to ride with Pidge for a while. Just need some space from the Black Lion for a bit and I don't want Pidge to ride alone. That's okay, right?”
Keith hadn't heard Shiro sound any sort of defensive since he and Adam had last argued about the Kerberos mission. It caught him completely offguard, never once having heard that sound directed at him, even from the clone. That, combined with the exhausted, melancholic expression the older man wore had Keith stumbling for words.
“Ah – yeah, o-of course,” catching himself, he continued more succinctly, “anything you need. Is everything okay?”
The question seemed to stun Shiro whose visage thawed into a grateful look of relief, the corner of his lips rising ever so slightly. He finally met the younger man's gaze, his voice softer this time. “Yeah, thanks Keith.” Without another word, the previous Black Paladin continued past, eyes set firmly on Green, Keith watching him briefly before turning to the space wolf which had padded up to him, a bag of supplies in the grip of its jaws.
“Glad to see you're doing better, buddy,” Keith smiled softly while ruffling the fur on the wolf's head who blinked its eyes slowly in response. “Guess it's just you and me again.” The telelupus whined quietly as if confused before gently bumping its head against Keith's hip and heading into the Black Lion on its own.
It was fine, he told himself. It was healthy, for both him and Shiro. The other man had been through so much, from fighting for his life in the arena at the cost of others', to dying at the hands of Zarkon, to having his soul entrapped within the infinite, lonesome void of the Black Lion, to learning that his so-called friends had effectively replaced him with a clone without even realizing it wasn't the real him, leaving their previous leader stuck calling out to them only for his warnings to go unheard. Yeah, Keith thought, closing his eyes, his brow furrowing; Shiro had enough on his plate to deal with and Keith hadn't been doing much to alleviate that. Not that he would even know what to say; he had never been good at that sort of thing. He really couldn't blame Shiro for switching.
Besides, the last thing either of them needed was for Keith to become codependant on his friend at this stage of the game, not when the team was relying on him so much. It was hard not to constantly think of the other man after everything they had just been through. Keith had lost him so many times, and came so close to losing him again, and every single time he couldn't figure out what to do with the feelings that amassed, what they even were or how to handle them.
It really was for the best. Shiro needed time and Keith needed to keep his head on straight, to focus solely on being the leader his team needed him to be. There would be time afterward to sort out the rest.
Still, he couldn't stop himself from looking one last time at the Green Lion as its ramp closed behind his longtime friend, sighing before heading up Black's own ramp alone.