He wakes to the stubborn press of an elbow to his side.
Keith rolls over, pulling the covers halfway off his bedmate in the process. Lance whines, fingers stretching across the bed in search of the sheets. Ambient light filters down from the fixtures in the ceiling, somehow less harsh than the fluorescent lights back on Earth.
Nothing seems out of the ordinary; the castle’s alarms are silent, the hallway’s quiet, the clock shows that he’s woken up several hours before they’re normally scheduled to get out of bed. Lance is warm next to him, tangled in the covers, sleep mask fixed firmly over his eyes.
A normal morning in the castle. But, inexplicably, he feels like something’s off. He can’t put his finger on it - they’re not due for training until much later in the day, he wasn’t supposed to be meeting anyone soon, he hadn’t promised to do any extra chores for Coran, so what was it?
His eyes feel heavy - he isn’t used to being awake so early, even on the days he sneaks out of bed for extra training. He chalks his weird feeling up as not usually being up without having something to do. After the mad scramble to find the Blue Lion and the subsequent cycle of train-battle-train they’d entered after discovering the Castle of Lions, having a quiet moment leaves him feeling off balance.
Keith slings an arm over Lance, tucks his face into the pillows, and goes back to sleep.
He’s piloting Red through the murky atmosphere of an unknown planet. They break through the clouds into a sunny sky, gliding through the air smoothly. He doesn’t know where they’re going, but he knows they’re running late. He can feel it pressing down on him, the urgent need to go faster.
Keith pushes the controls up, leaning forwards in anticipation. He has no clue what he’s waiting for, but it’s going to happen soon. Despite this, their surroundings remain serene. Calm. But he knows not to be fooled by this; the Galra have gotten the upper hand on them too many times because they were off guard. The planet comes into better focus, and he wonders what mission he’s supposed to be carrying out.
An ocean glints like shattered glass below - he hadn’t realized that they’d gotten so close to the planet’s surface. The azures and ceruleans of the water twist with teal and baby blue and sea green enticingly, and he’s never seen an ocean before, but he nudges Red away anyways. They have a mission to complete.
But Red doesn’t respond to his movements. She doesn’t change direction no matter how he tilts the joystick, and he can’t hear her in the back of his head. With a start, he realizes that their tranquil descent is actually an imminent crash landing. How did he miss the smoke? It fills the cockpit, obscuring the windshield and blocking his view.
How long until they hit? Keith yanks the controls, but they remain slack in his grip. Red is offline. It’s just him and the blaring alarm. They’re going to be dead in the water soon, unfortunately literally. He gives up on steering and braces himself for a rough landing just as a tremendous floosh rings through his lion. The smoke clears away from the window just in time for Keith to glimpse the water as he crashes into it.
He jerks out of sleep, the motion small and abandoned halfway through.
He recognizes the ceiling of his room, knows that he’s in his bunk, but his heart pounds as he slumps back onto the sweaty sheets. It’s empty, save for him, so Lance must be awake already. A glance at the clock reveals that it’s almost forty minutes after he should have gotten up.
Keith’s out of bed in an instant, scrambling to pull on his shoes because someone refuses to sleep with him if he wears them. The door slides open with its usual click, and he makes his way towards the dining hall still rubbing residual drowsiness from his eyes. Everyone turns to him as he enters, as if they were waiting for him to arrive. Which, of course, they were.
“Late start today, Keith?” Shiro asks, smile tugging at the edges of his mouth. He sounds unfairly amused.
Keith glares at him, then turns to Allura. “I’m sorry I’m late; it won’t happen again.”
She considers him for a moment, then nods. “While I’d prefer that no one be late if it can be helped, there was no drill or training session that you were late to. Don’t worry about it, but try to get here earlier in the future so that you have more time to eat.”
He nods, then turns to where Lance is poorly hiding his laughter. “You’re an ass,” he says, sitting in the open seat next to him nonetheless.
Lance just grins at him, letting his laughter loose. “Hey, I tried! It’s not my job to make sure you’re on time, dude.”
Which, yeah, is technically true, but Lance had been right there ! Keith would have woken him up if he slept through the alarm. Keith rolls his eyes, but doesn’t press it, instead taking in the soft curve of Lance’s smile.
“What does Lance have to do with you being late?” Hunk asks, leaning across the table in interest and breaking the moment.
Keith side-eyes Lance, who smirks at him challengingly. The look is all he needs to brush aside his potential embarrassment at revealing that they slept together last night.
He looks Hunk dead in the eye. “Lance wouldn’t shut up no matter how many times I threatened to smother him in his sleep, and kept me up half the night. He let me run late because he didn’t wake me up before he left."
Lance squawks defensively. “You were out , man! I considered dumping water on you, but like the gracious person I am, I let you sleep in.”
“You mean you let me oversleep .”
Shiro clears his throat, interjecting before their squabble can go on. “Well, you woke up on your own in enough time to catch breakfast, and that’s what matters.”
“Yeah,” Hunk agrees, gesturing his fork at Keith pointedly. “Skipping meals isn’t good for you.”
“You kind of look like you needed the extra sleep, anyways.” Pidge says, eyeing Keith’s rumpled clothes and tangled hair. “Especially if Lance kept you up all night like you said.”
“See, I was doing you a favor.” Lance leans back in his chair, returning to his breakfast with an easy grin. “Don’t worry, mullet-head. I would have woken you up if you were gonna miss something important.”
Lance has a point, but Keith doesn’t necessarily want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he thinks that. Regardless, he drops it and turns his attention to the food spread across the table.
His stomach feels odd, and even though he hasn’t eaten anything since the previous night, he doesn’t feel hungry at all. But under the watchful eyes of his teammates, there’s no way for him to get away with not eating. A simple breakfast of sliced fruit and a protein bar leaves him with enough time to talk with the other paladins before the dining room clears out. The plans for the day include combat training with the gladiator and some sort of team building activity. Afterwards, they’ll be released to spend their free time as they wish.
His head twinges as he stands. Keith idly makes a mental note to ask Coran if they have anything like space Advil as he makes his way towards the locker rooms to get changed.
Pulling on the paladin armor is like taking a breath of fresh air - figuratively. No matter how good the Alteans are with technology, there’s nothing that can quite get rid of the stiff scent of sweat that clings to the flight suits. It’s much better than the locker rooms had been back on Earth, though, so he only has to deal with it as he slips the material over his head and settles it on his shoulders.
Changing out of the clothes he slept in leaves him feeling fresh as he makes his way to the training deck. He’s snapping the last clasp of his arm guard shut when he shoulders the door open, bayard tucked under his arm. As usual, Shiro’s the only one who’s beaten him here, and Keith feels something in him settle at the return to normalcy after the day’s odd beginning. The others filter in soon after, filling the room with chatter.
“Alright, paladins.” Allura says from the control room, where she’ll be observing them with Coran. Pidge reluctantly stops talking about her latest project, but dutifully turns her head upwards with a look in her eye that tells Keith they haven’t heard the last of it. “We’ll start the gladiator on the third level and make our way up to at least level seven from there.”
“Seven?” Hunk says, looking a little dubious. He’s right to be skeptical - the farthest they’ve gotten as a team so far has been level six, which they still haven’t been able to clear despite their growing skill. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It’ll be fine, Hunk,” Lance reassures, patting him on the shoulder and grinning. He waves his bayard pointedly. “Between our rad shooting skills, Pidge’s grappling hook, and the Brogane’s up close combat, there’s no way we won’t make it to level seven. It’ll be easy-peasy.”
Personally, Keith agrees with Hunk. The last three attempts have gotten them frustratingly close to completing the level, only to fail at the last moment, and Keith isn’t feeling particularly lucky today. Still, he keeps his thoughts to himself, not wanting to be so pessimistic to the team’s face.
“Right,” Pidge says, giving Lance a critical look before turning to the rest of the group. “If we strategize a little better than last time, we should be able to clear level six.”
“Lookin’ at you, Mullet Man,” Lance winks, pulling up his rifle and shaking his arms out in anticipation.
Keith rolls his eyes, opening his mouth to retort when Allura’s voice comes over the comms again. “Commence training level three!”
The round begins immediately, cutting of Keith’s chance to reply. A gladiator drops down from the ceiling, staff in hand. It spins the staff more quickly than Keith’s eyes can track, then shifts into a fighting stance with one end pointed out towards them.
Feeling a little more clear-headed now that he has a task to accomplish, Keith grips his bayard in one hand and summons his sword. They’re grouped too closely together to effectively fight, so he puts some space between him and the others by skirting around the gladiator in a loose semi-circle. Its head turns, locking onto his movement and effectively drawing its attention away from his teammates.
“Circle up, team!” Shiro calls out, nodding briskly at Keith before activating his Galran arm. It glows bright purple as the others follow Keith’s lead, moving around the gladiator as it moves towards Keith, brandishing its staff. He dodges its first swing and meets the second with his blade, stalling the gladiator long enough for Lance to snipe the joints of one of its arms.
The limb powers down, falling limply to the side. It’ll reactivate again in roughly twenty seconds, but for now it hangs uselessly from the gladiator’s shoulder. It turns towards Lance, spinning out of Keith’s deadlock and forcing Hunk to lay down some covering fire as Lance retreats. The round ends quickly as he lands one too many blows on its head.
Keith adjusts his hold on his sword, tense until Allura officially declares the training exercise over. Sometimes she likes to throw surprises at them, claiming that the Galra won’t be performing the same maneuvers over and over again when they fight them for real. That’s true, but Keith privately expects that she does it partially for her own amusement.
The next round begins and they tag team the gladiator, moving through the fourth and fifth levels with relative ease. Blunt force becomes less effective as they advance, forcing them to get more creative with their attacks, but after eight months as paladins, this is familiar territory.
Level six takes them a little longer, but they manage to deactivate the gladiator quickly enough that Allura seems impressed - who knows, maybe today will be the day they beat level seven after all.
They don’t usually get more than a couple minutes of rest between training exercises, and today’s no different. Keith takes advantage of the break to drain a water pouch, blinking the growing fuzz out of his eyes.
Figuring his lightheadedness is just a result of sleeping late and his light breakfast, he regulates his breathing and stretches his arms and legs. The feeling doesn’t quite go away, but it retreats enough for him to catch his breath.
Level seven starts with three gladiators attacking full force. They usually split into whatever combinations feel right at the time to take them on, but the problem is that they always have a group of one. Two of them can take out a gladiator, but one person ends up playing defense and getting cornered. The simulation usually ends with the flashing lights and the automatic shutdown sequence that signifies the defeat of one of the paladins.
Keith grits his teeth, determination pushing him past the buzzing in his gut. He charges the gladiator closest to him, ducking under its arm and slashing his sword across its back. It turns to meet him in a parry, then forces him to take a step back as it moves its arm again.
Shiro engages the one in the middle, arm a blur of purple as he swipes at its joints and pushes it back. Hunk provides back-up, shooting at the gladiator when it gets too close to Shiro for comfort, occasionally disabling one of it’s limbs.
Lance and Pidge have already started in on the third gladiator. They seem to have some sort of plan, because Pidge whips her bayard towards its staff, allowing the bright green cord to wrap firmly around the shaft before yanking the weapon clear from the gladiator’s grip.
Lance whoops and starts shooting the gladiator’s exposed limbs before it has a chance to charge him, effectively taking out an arm and a leg before Pidge joins in the action again.
They fall into a rhythm of strikes and dodges, circling around the room and weaving around the others. Keith hates this part of team battles, where the others are making progress towards defeating their opponents and it’s all he can do to keep his own occupied. Keith is good at fighting on his own, but when he has to keep tabs on his teammates and make sure he’s doing everything he can as a teammate to support them and watch their backs, his attention is split too far for him to end the fight.
There’s also the fact that he’s feeling lightheaded again, no matter how many deep breaths he takes. The air feels too thin in his lungs, like it doesn’t have enough oxygen in it. It makes his head spin, which doesn’t help his stomach settle. Distracted, Keith stumbles when the gladiator lashes out with its staff, feinting left and smacking him in the ribs with the butt.
Keith snarls, more irritated than hurt. His side smarts a little, and probably will be impressively purple later, but that’s more because of how easily he bruises than from the force of the blow. Their suits provide enough padding to protect them from the strength of bots made to fight Alteans.
He swings his bayard upwards, intending to catch an arm at the shoulder. It moves out of the way easily and re-engages him in an endless series of blows. He ignores the growing ache in his shoulders and throws himself into the familiar jive of battle.
Keith isn’t; he’s spent years working out and fighting, doing what he could to make himself stronger because strength meant survival. He has impressive stamina, and on his best day he would probably have been able to take out the gladiator by now, even with minimal aid. But today’s not his best day - it’s not even a good day. He’s off his game and suffering for it.
The gladiator is faster than he expects, moving more swiftly as Keith’s arms begin to tire. He frowns hard, unwilling to slow his movements even as his body begs him to. A quick glance around the room reveals that Lance and Pidge are taking turns hitting their gladiator with its own staff, and Shiro and Hunk have moved to the opposite side of the room. No one’s free to cover him.
Keith focuses back on the bot in front of him. He can hold out until one of the other gladiators goes down, and then he’ll have to people to split the burden with. For now, he fights back, meeting each strike with a parry that forces him back into a corner.
Across the room, the gladiator facing off against the green and blue paladins grabs the shaft of its staff as it comes down across its head. Using both hands, it swings the staff in a wide circle, dragging Pidge off her feet and slamming her into Lance hard enough to knock both of them to the ground.
“Hey!” Hunk abandons Shiro and rushes over to shoot his cannon at the gladiator’s back, distracting it long enough for them to clamber back to their feet. There’s a hard line to his voice that only emerges when they’re deep in battle, after Hunk has shed his fear in favor of solving the problem at hand. “You guys okay?”
“Fine,” Lance calls, scooping his bayard back up from the floor. “Let’s just take this guy down already.”
Pidge grumbles behind him, staggering over to where her bayard landed. “Speak for yourself,” she says, clutching her side where she connected with Lance. “You’re so bony, Lance!”
“I’m perfectly muscular!” He argues, pouting at her. “You just don’t have any padding because you’re so thin.”
“I’m thin? Lance, you’re practically a noodle!”
“Uh, guys? This is maybe not the best place to have this conversation.” Hunk points out, gesturing at the approaching gladiator.
Pidge curses, readying her bayard and planting her feet. Lance hefts his gun, but at such close range, there’s no point in using the scope. He takes potshots at the gladiator to stall while Hunk and Pidge come up with a plan.
Keith misses the end of the confrontation when the gladiator sweeps his feet out from underneath him, sending him to the ground.
The breath is knocked right out of his lungs, leaving him winded at the gladiator’s feet. His eyes tear up but he forces them open to take in his surroundings. Being pinned isn’t the worst case scenario for someone skilled in close combat, but it still isn’t ideal. His opponent is a few paces away, far enough that Keith gives himself a moment to recover before rushing back into the fight.
Twenty feet to his right, Shiro’s locked in a standoff with his own opponent, struggling to find an opening. He’s calm, but defensive. Without Hunk, he’s been forced into taking on the gladiator head-on. He’s having more success than Keith, due to having more skill or better discipline or both, but he’s going to run into trouble if someone doesn’t help him soon.
Movement in the corner of his eye is his only warning before the white staff wielded by his gladiator comes frighteningly close to Keith’s face. He’s wearing a helmet, but he knows how strong the gladiators are, and a blow to the head would disable him long enough for the training sequence to end.
He manages to get his blade up in time to block, but his arms are shaking and he still can’t breathe. It feels like iron bands are tightening around his ribs, burning his lungs and preventing him from taking a deep breath. He’s forced to one knee as he trembles, practically cross-eyed from the effort of staying upright.
Usually he likes training. It gets him out of his head, and he appreciates the exercise. The castle is huge and empty, but he feels cooped up. Fighting has always been something he’s good at. He knows the ebb and flow better than he knows the back of his hand, can raise from sleep into a fighting stance at a moment’s notice.
Even so, he’s not a stranger to getting the shit kicked out of him. Keith’s been in one too many losing battles, but it’s never been like this. He’s always been clear headed and in control. Today, though, he can’t think or see straight and suddenly all he wants to do is curl up under his blankets and sleep for a week.
One of the others must finally realize that Keith’s going to be out of commission if they don’t intervene, because suddenly there’s gunfire raining down around him. It takes him longer than it should to realize that he should use his shield, and by the time it’s covering him the shots have slowed.
Pidge’s bayard whips around the gladiator’s leg, and she pulls firmly, sending the bot tilting forwards over Keith’s kneeling form. His brain doesn’t react fast enough for him to get out of the way, so he goes with the next best option.
Grunting, he rolls onto his back and plants the soles of his boots firmly on the gladiator’s chest. It looms over him briefly before he uses his position on the floor to his advantage and, with the aid of the extra leverage, kicks the bot away towards Pidge, Hunk, and Lance.
Following the momentum of the movement, Keith flips backwards and tumbles to his feet. He wants to end this as quickly as possible, so he summons the scraps of his concentration.
He doesn’t have the energy or ability to make a running leap at Shiro’s gladiator, so instead he waits until they clash and face off. Once Shiro forces it back, he yells, “Duck!” and throws his bayard as hard as he can.
His aim isn’t as good as Lance’s, but if there’s one thing Keith knows better than anyone else on board, it’s blades. The sword clangs against the nape of gladiator’s neck, a perfect kill shot.
The bot instantly deactivates, but Keith doesn’t have the time to feel relief before he realizes that there’s still an active enemy within range and he just threw his weapon away like a dumbass .
Lucky for him, his three teammates are more than capable of taking down the remaining gladiator. In no time at all, Allura is calling out the command to end the training sequence, and Keith exhales heavily, raising from his crouch and wincing when his muscles protest. He’s still lightheaded and his head aches dully, but as long as he holds still it’s manageable.
They’re sent off to shower and relax after a quick debriefing with Allura and Coran - it didn’t escape their notice that Keith would have been screwed if Hunk, Pidge, and Lance hadn’t been there to cover him, but they don’t seem to have picked up on his malaise. Shiro eyes him suspiciously but doesn’t comment, likely aware that something’s up but unwilling to acknowledge it in front of everyone.
Keith departs soon after they’re done with the discussion, before Shiro can try to catch him alone. The others crow in excitement, vibrating with leftover energy from their success despite their physical weariness, providing him with an opportunity to discreetly slip away.
He shucks his armor off as quickly as his spinning head will allow, leaving it strewn around the room to pick up later. Then he sits down on the floor in front of the bed, promising himself he’ll get back up and shower in a minute. He just wants to catch his breath first.
Keith’s falling asleep before he even realizes it, and by then, it’s to late. Still in his flight suit, head tilted back against the bed, he falls quickly into a shallow, restless sleep.