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1_Earth

Lance let out a contented sigh as he watched his niece dance around in the sprinklers, playing with his brother’s dog. He would never get used to seeing all of his family safe and alive even a year after coming back home to them. He had appeared on his mother’s doorstep and stood there, crying, as his family hugged him tightly.

Lance had been missing in space for seven years, although his family didn’t know what really happened. He hadn’t told them all of what had happened when he was gone, but they knew Lance had been at war, fighting for the freedom of the universe. He had faced so many things that they couldn’t imagine, like fighting in giant robot lions and losing K-

Lance stopped that train of thought before it left the station. He- Keith- was gone. Probably dead. Lance had already grieved for him. They had all given up on him years before they freed the universe from the empire. He was gone. And that was that.

“Lance!” someone shouted. Lance recognized the voice as that of his brother’s wife, his niece’s mother, Sofia. “Your alien phone is ringing!”

Lance smiled at hearing the comm device Allura and Coran had given the entire team called an “alien phone”. It was probably Pidge sending him new memes or Coran checking up on him. He stood up and dragged himself inside, where Sofia handed him the comm device.

Lance jumped when Allura’s voice came from the comm. “Lance! We have… a problem.”

“A problem?” he echoed. “We don’t have to… fight again, right?”

“No, no,” Allura reassured him, but her voice seemed off. Was that worry? What could possibly worry Allura so much? “I’m going to send Blue down for you, so don’t go anywhere. I think this is something we should face together as a team.”

With that, the comm clicked off, leaving Lance with conflicting thoughts and a sinking feeling in his stomach.

It felt good to be back in Blue. The familiar connection with the lion soothed Lance’s nerves, and her purr relaxed him. Lance let out a breath and smiled as he let her fly them to the Castleship. Despite the memories of war creeping into Lance’s mind, he wouldn’t regret being a Paladin. Never.

A lot of anxiety flooded him as he saw the Castleship up ahead. This would be the first time in a year that the team would be all together again. It was strange to think that they hadn’t seen each other in so long, after living together on the same spaceship for years. Lance, Pidge, and Hunk had all gone back home, while Shiro, Allura, and Coran stayed on the ship- the Alteans to rebuild and Shiro to find Keith.

Even though they had all accepted that Keith was dead. Shiro had claimed that he had accepted Keith's death, but they saw the dull hope in his eyes. Even though he’d been gone for years. Seven years.

When Blue landed in the hangar, Lance saw the other lions there already. Green, Yellow, Black… Red. Lance had a complicated relationship with the Red Lion. On one hand, he had flown Red for a while, before Allura advanced enough to be able to fly the Red Lion and give Blue back to Lance. Allura was never really meant for Blue. The Blue Paladin- that was Lance. It had always been Lance. Blue had chosen him. So he was... comfortable with Red. More than he was with Black, Green, and Yellow. On the other hand… they only had a true Red Paladin for less than a year. Now he was dead.

“Lance!” Pidge streaked across the hangar with an inhuman shriek and tackled Lance, wrapping her arms around him tightly. “I missed you!”

Hunk jogged over with a big grin on his face. “It feels like I haven’t seen you guys in forever!” He joined their hug, squishing the three of them together. The original trio.

“It’s only been a year,” Lance objected, but he was grinning, too. He spotted Shiro, Allura, and Coran from across the hangar. They had serious expressions, but even they smiled slightly at seeing the Paladin group hug.

“I’m glad to see you guys,” Shiro said. “I wish we didn’t have to reunite this way, but we have some serious stuff to watch.”

“Watch?” Pidge asked skeptically, releasing Lance and wiggling away from Hunk. “What exactly did you guys drag us up here for?”

Allura sighed. “I think it would be best to show you.”

The former team walked onto the bridge. Lance immediately noticed a strange metal capsule lying across a table that he swore hadn’t been there before. It looked almost Galra, with a material a lot like Shiro’s arm.

“Ooh!” Pidge exclaimed excitedly, despite the somber mood presented by the three older team members. “What is it? It seems like a coded Galra missive..."

“You’re correct,” Coran said, twirling his mustache. “We received this a few days ago and decoded it…” His voice trailed off with a frown, which was really unlike him. What was this thing? It was really freaking Lance out.

“It consists of video files, a total of seven,” Allura said, sighing. “Coran and I watched the first one.”

Seven for the number of years Keith had been missing. Seven for the number of years Lance had been off fighting a universal war. Seven for the number of people on the team before…

“What’s in them?” Lance asked instead of voicing his inner thoughts. His eyes narrowed at the metal device. Surely it couldn’t be good if it shook up Allura and Coran, the most solid people he knew.

Allura pulled up a display, while Coran plugged the device into his dashboard.

“Shiro, have you watched the files?” Hunk asked, eyes wide.

“No, but I’ve heard enough about it,” Shiro said grimly, though his anxiety was practically written all over his face.

“What’s it about?” Pidge pressed, eying the dark screen.

Shiro took a shaky breath and appeared to waver a bit before relenting. His eyes were dark, and he had the most conflicted expression on his face. “It’s Keith.”

Everyone stilled, and all was silent. Lance felt like his head was exploding.

Keith? What about Keith? He was dead, they had all told themselves he was… gone. If he was still alive, it was because he wanted nothing to do with them. Was it about Keith, or was it… from him? Had he not vanished into the starscape after all? Lance wished Pidge or Hunk had asked, but they weren’t saying anything, and Lance couldn’t bring himself to ask, either.

The screen suddenly flickered to life and displayed the seven files.

1_Earth

2_Mechacat

3_Daggers

4_Empire

5_Freedom

6_Prince

7_Rebels

“No,” Lance whispered. If those names meant more than simple names… like they represented what had happened to Keith, or… He really hoped they were just names. Just codes for something. But if they were codes, why did he make up words that obviously represented other things? No, this was fake. There was no Keith, not anymore. There was no-

Coran hesitantly selected the first file, and Lance swallowed as Keith’s face appeared. It was no doubt Keith’s face, despite the… differences. Tears filled Lance’s eyes as he stared. Keith.

He didn’t look the same. Long, black hair that went past what the camera captured. It looked freakishly silky, and could easily pass as a girl’s. His skin was paler than normal, and it looked as smooth as Lance’s own skin. Keith looked soft, like he had lost his muscle and hard edges. Despite all of these weird things, these weren’t the worst things about his new appearance.

No, the worst thing about the new Keith was his eyes. Even though he looked almost pretty, which was a weird thought for Lance, his eyes were pained. The deep violet color that had once been the simultaneous envy and mystery of all the students of the Garrison now spoke of layers upon layers of grief and sadness hidden inside Keith. He looked…

Broken. Lost. Tired. Sad. In pain. Fearful.

Yet there was just a glimmer of something else in his eyes, more than those terrible emotions. Maybe something like hope? Anticipation? Rebellion? Whatever it was, Lance would rather see that emotion than everything else hidden in those stormy violet eyes.

“Keith,” Pidge whispered, her voice cracking.

“I don’t believe it,” Shiro whispered. When Lance glanced over at Shiro, the man’s expression was one of both awe and fear.

Suddenly, it dawned on Lance that Keith hadn’t said anything for a few minutes. What was going on during this recording? Where was he? The background was dark, but Keith’s face was illuminated by something red. How fitting. Lance couldn’t even bring himself to even smile at that.

“It’s definitely a file and not an AI like Alfor?” Hunk asked, frowning. “I mean, this is kinda weird.”

Then Keith spoke. His voice, like everything else, had changed. Quieter, softer, younger, almost, in a way that matched his new appearance. Not at all like the brave, rough, confident Keith that Lance had once known. Seven years ago.

“I know it’s been a long time. How long, I have no idea. I don’t even know how long it’ll have been when you watch this. Maybe I’ll be long gone once you see this.” Then, very softly, Keith added, “I hope so.”

That sparked Lance’s thoughts. How old was this recording? Was it already several years old? Did Keith still look like that? Was he better now? Was Keith more okay than he looked on the screen?

Probably not. Keith could always hide his emotions. The fact that it was obvious he wasn’t happy made it clear he wasn’t okay.

“I’m sorry for- for whatever you think of me now,” Keith said. “I know I abandoned you, and you can never imagine how much I regret that.” He let out a breath. “If you hate me, I get why. But… but don’t stop listening to this. Maybe you’ll have defeated the Galra by the time you see this, but if you haven’t, at the very least, this will be worth valuable information.”

That was a rush of emotions. This was already messing Lance up and the file had just started. Again, how long ago was this?

“Keith, we could never hate you,” Shiro whispered. Was he crying? No way. He was crying. This was really freaking serious.

“Allura, how old is this? Can you find out? Please?” Lance asked. He had to know.

“I’m on it,” Pidge interjected, practically producing her laptop from thin air. She started typing furiously, her eyes focusing the way they did when she was in hacker mode. Lance was really grateful for her. “And… it appears that the original file dates back to…” Then she stopped. “No. No! ” Tears began to form in her eyes at the outburst.

This scared Lance. Pidge, who had carried the team through tough situations without Keith or Shiro? She was crying? As was Shiro, and of course Keith was the one making them cry.

“It’s three fucking years old,” Pidge hissed angrily.

Lance flinched, both at the words and at the venom in her voice. Was she really so passionate about this? Pidge had been one of the first to give up on Keith; what had changed?

“Guys,” Lance said, “the best thing that we can do for him is listening to whatever he’s going to tell us, he deserves that much.”

Shiro sighed. “You’re right, Lance.” Pidge nodded in agreement.

Lance glanced over at Hunk and the others. Hunk’s normally loving and caring face had dropped to a raw, painful expression. Allura’s eyes were glimmering with tears, and Coran was still and silent, his face unusually grim.

“Restart the video,” Pidge urged. Allura nodded and wordlessly tapped some buttons. Keith’s face appeared on screen again.

The same awkward silence. The same starting words that had already pushed too far. And then…

“All right. Well… yeah. I doubt you wanted to hear my life story, but I know I’m never going to get the chance to tell… anyone else.” If possible, Keith’s voice got even softer and quieter. “I know I’m never getting back to you guys, and… I just want a chance to try and be free of this.”

The words were deeper and more chilling than Lance had ever heard from Keith. He wanted to reach through the screen and give Keith a hug. He looked so sad. Lance closed his eyes and simply listened to Keith’s voice, images floating through his head of what it must have been like.

“Well. Just as a warning, what happened… I don’t wish it upon anyone,” Keith whispered. “Since it’s basically my life story, we’ll start it right at the beginning. My parents. I know who my mother is now- even though I never met her, I know that she’s fighting on the side of good.

“I wasn’t like other kids when I was little, and not because I’m half-Galra. I was born into a world where I had to know too much to survive. I only lived with my dad for a few years, until I was five. I saw him slipping away as he raised glass after glass to his lips.

“It wasn’t something that just happened, like a slap. No, for the first five years of my life, I watched my father poison himself because the woman he loved was… was gone. Just like how the rest of the world was gone to him. Just like how I was gone to him.

“They told me that he just couldn’t take care of me anymore, but I knew the truth. I realized later on that he had depression, and that it hurt to see me because I looked like- like her. The few good memories I have of him are short and bittersweet. Shared smiles, running around outside, me giving him gifts he didn’t deserve… yeah. They never outright told me this, but he killed himself a few years after I was taken away.

“And… that marked the end of the Koganes. It was just me, carrying on the name and legacy with pride and regret. I lived in a facility in Houston for a while, because they had to ‘rehabilitate’ me, even though it never worked. Anger problems. Tainted, inhuman blood. Impulsiveness. Inde-...”

Keith drew in a deep breath and never finished the word. Lance opened his eyes to see Keith with a panicked expression on his face. The former Paladin seemed to take a deep breath and straighten his face, then continued on like nothing had happened. Lance watched this, confused, but closed his eyes as Keith spoke again.

“When there wasn’t any more that could be done for me, they gave up and sent me to a foster home. I hadn’t ever really had a home before, and seeing something so foreign to me just… made me blow up. I’m not totally sure what happened there, but all I know is that I woke up in the hospital with sixteen stitches and an angry twenty-something couple shoving me back at the orphanage.

“That kind of thing continued on for a while. Angry foster families, claiming I had all sorts of things wrong with me. Autistic? Bipolar? Borderline Personality Disorder? Some really bad form of what they could only call 'anger issues'? The doctors told them every time that I was a perfectly normal kid, but every time, I only heard… worthless, unreachable, unable to be fixed, just… something replaceable.

“Sometimes I would be shoved into a family with other kids or other foster kids. There was never enough time to try for me. ‘He’s not perfect, send him back’. ‘This isn’t cheap, quick, and easy, so I don’t want him.’ That kind of mentality drove me into thinking that those words were all I was. Destined to never be anyone special.

“But… then there was Shiro. They sent me to the Shiroganes when I was twelve. He was older than me- around eighteen, maybe. He and his family accepted me into their lives, and for the first time ever, I had a home. I was Shiro’s little brother. I was the youngest member of the Shirogane household. I left the orphanage… and never looked back.”

Damn, okay. Keith had been through a lot. Lance kind of understood him now- or at least, the Keith from before. Lance got why he and Shiro were so close.

Lance opens one eye to look over at Shiro, who was crying again. Lance could barely understand his own emotions, let alone both his and his confusion on Keith’s, so he couldn’t interpret Shiro’s expression. He didn’t really have to, though. This was the most heartfelt and honest Keith had ever been, so whatever Lance was feeling, the others were feeling it too, to some degree. For Shiro, it must have been ten times more powerful, because he had lived through what Keith was talking about.

“So… I was happy. I had a family, for the first time ever. I took a chance and began exploring beyond the house, and that was when I realized that I wanted space. When I looked at the stars at night, I knew I was meant to be among them.

“I had already heard a lot about the stars from Shiro. He was close to graduation from the Garrison when I told him about my dream. He helped me through it and gave me a chance to make it reality. I already had grades that were good enough for the Garrison, and by fifteen, I made it into the Garrison’s flight program."

Lance wanted to snicker about the “golden boy” attitude, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Lance had made it into the program at fifteen, too, and without any help from Earth’s star pilot, but he hadn’t had to deal with all of the emotional baggage. Besides, Lance knew this was where he showed up.

“Shiro had just graduated, so I was stuck by myself with a group of people that I thought were idiots. Including one person that I had no idea I would ever see again. That person is Lance.”

Oh, shit.

“I walked into flight class on the first day, and all I saw was a bunch of insignificant people. I knew that all of them would hate me once I drew ahead- because I was certain that I would - so I didn’t bother acting like I cared. Then there was this one guy. Cuban, talkative, annoying, flirtatious, and not even a bad pilot… that was Lance.”

Not even bad? What? Keith had thought Lance was good? Even back in flight school? The Garrison’s star student?

So Iverson had really just hated Lance.

“For some reason that I’ll never understand, one day after simulations, Lance walked up to me, and I won’t ever forget what he said.”

Oh. Oh God. He remembered that, recalling the conversation as Keith narrated it:

 

“Hey, emo boy,” Lance had called out. After seeing that flawless simulation, Lance had felt… maybe a bit angry. Just a bit. “Who’s been helping you cheat?”

Keith had spun around quickly, and when his eyes met Lance’s, they had some sort of fire that Lance hadn’t- and still didn’t- understand. “Cheat? I didn’t cheat. What’s it to you, anyway?”

All right, Lance had felt somewhat scared about insulting the guy that everyone simultaneously loved and hated, and had a reputation for kind of blowing up. But like the stupid teenager he had been, Lance went on, “Was it big brother? Iverson? One of the higher-ups? Because no way could you be that good, when I was top of my old class and now I’m failing, because your perfect scores made Iverson expect more from us normal people.”

Keith had practically bristled. It was kind of freaky to see his hair stand on end, but that didn’t seem to bother Keith. In hindsight, it was probably some Galra thing. “All right, fine. You’re not even a bad pilot! I get it, I’m good and you can’t take it.”

“Aww, you think I’m good? Too bad your personality doesn’t match your simulator scores.”

Keith had turned as red as that stupid jacket. “Shut up!”

“It’s okay, we can be rivals,” Lance had crooned.

And… that had been how it started. Weird as it was, Lance had kind of loved that conversation. He drifted out of his memories as Keith continued talking.

“That was how our one-sided rivalry began. I never really paid attention to it, and I regret that, but not as much as I regret… other things. Anyway. I guess we had a weird sort of competition, but that’s the extent of Lance’s impact at the time. I didn’t even meet Hunk and Pidge until… after. We’ll get there.

“Then there was Kerberos. It happened just after I officially got into the Garrison. Sure, Shiro had been on missions before, but this one was the longest and most important one so far. Shiro dragged me out to the launch site a few days before he was scheduled to leave because he’d been having some weird feeling in his gut. Now I know that he was probably having some freaky premonition thing. And… yeah, that was the same day the Holts took pictures.”

Lance opened his eyes slightly at Pidge’s gasp. Her eyes were wide with a conflicted expression.

“So it fucking was you in that picture! Damn it, Keith, you’re going to be the death of me, you… I can’t believe he lied,” she said, deflating at the end.

Coran paused the recording. “Is this something…?”

“Yes!” Pidge growled. “You know those photos I have of Matt that you guys thought was me and my girlfriend?”

“You were really convincing,” Lance joked halfheartedly. “Still can’t believe you’re a girl.”

“Shut up, Lance,” the entire team said in unison.

“Anyway,” Pidge continued, “Around the time Keith began to pilot the Black Lion, I was really, really worried that my dad and Matt weren’t out there. I was looking at the picture, and I saw who I thought was Keith and Shiro in the background. I was kind of a wreck, so I asked him if that was him. He totally freaked out and insisted it wasn’t him.”

“I don’t understand why this matters,” Allura said. “That was years ago, and clearly that’s over with- what does that have to do with now?”

“I just… I just wish he told me when I really needed him, and now I know that he chose not to help,” Pidge said, sighing. “It just… hurts, you know? Plus, that whole ‘Keith blowing up at me’ part.”

Hunk, like the amazing person he is, stepped up and hugged her. Allura, Shiro, Coran, and Lance all joined in.

“I don’t want to continue watching,” Allura admitted. “I watched all of this one, and it doesn’t get much worse, but I’m worried about the next ones. It’s just…” She broke off with a long exhale and a blink of her colorful, tear-filled eyes.

“I don’t want to see it either, princess,” Coran said soothingly. “But if we fear for what’s ahead, it only proves that we owe it to Keith to continue.”

Lance nodded. “Guys, we haven’t seen Keith’s face for seven years. We have to go on.”

“Now I feel ridiculous for triggering everyone’s problems,” Pidge muttered, but she let herself still be hugged.

After what seemed like hours, definitely longer than they’d been watching the file itself, they broke apart.

“I miss him,” Lance mumbled. “I miss him, his stupid mullet, the stupid rivalry, how awkward he could be…”

“How brave he was,” Hunk offered.

“His love for the stars and all of us,” Shiro whispered.

Nobody could say anything more.

Eventually, the team gathered the courage to press the button that continued Keith’s story. Lance wasn’t sure about the others, but he knew that if he didn’t keep going, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. Abandoning his friend again because he was too scared? Now that he thought about it, Lance really wanted to know what had happened to Keith. Even if it wasn’t pleasant, Lance needed to know.

He took a deep breath and listened.

“I was there when the ship took off. I snuck away from the Garrison every night to get to town to see the news because I knew the Garrison would tell us nothing- only fake information. After months with little to no sleep, I fell asleep the night the news came in. I was confused that morning. Everyone was staring at me. Watching, waiting, whispering- seeing when I’d break.

“So when the announcement came, I was sitting cluelessly, eating breakfast in my corner. I didn’t expect it when Iverson stood up and told everyone that the Kerberos Mission had failed due to pilot error. And Shiro was the pilot.

“For the first month, I didn’t talk to anyone. I was in shock. How could my brother, my best friend, the only person I cared about and cared for me in return, be dead? It didn’t make any sense. It couldn’t be true, it wasn’t true. I was so mad that I… finally snapped.

“The Galaxy Garrison decided to introduce a new simulation- the Kerberos Rescue Mission.”

The venom in his voice surprised Lance. He cracked an eye open to glance at Pidge. She was almost trembling, the anger on her face obvious. She didn’t look okay. Lance vaguely wondered if she had felt the same thing. Pidge had gotten angry plenty of times after their failed simulator runs of the Kerberos Rescue Mission. He then looked at Shiro. The man looked shaken, like he had never seen Keith like this. Did he not know how Keith got kicked out of the Garrison?

Maybe. This story was pretty insane.There were legends about it for the year after he was kicked out.

“I walked into class that day, and Iverson wanted me to model the simulator for everyone. Something about how I was the example of the perfect pilot. Quiet, talented, no longer getting into fights, the phoenix in the ashes of a dead brother. Dead inside. Well, not anymore, I had decided, though that mentality is long gone from me now.”

That wasn’t ominous and clear foreshadowing at all. Lance was torn between bitter laughter and hiding.

“So I got into the simulator and, in front of everybody at the Garrison, I crashed straight into the surface of Kerberos. I walked out, and Iverson stalked towards me, clearly furious. He didn’t deserve my caring about ruining his reputation. He didn't have the right, after accusing Shiro of something so wrong. After saying the mission had failed, after saying Shiro was dead, after trying to make me do a fake rescue mission for him- he doesn’t have the right of respect. Before he could say a word, I punched him in the face.”

Lance winced, but he was irrationally grinning. No matter what was going on with Keith in the recording, even if he wasn’t even kind of okay, this was a moment of triumph, despite it not being Lance’s achievement. He had really hated Iverson. People had whispered about it, and he had seen for himself the black eye that Keith had given Iverson. It hadn’t gone away for months, and it was rumored that Keith had actually given Iverson a concussion and a fractured bone. Plus, the event had been what dragged Lance up from cargo to fighter. Again, no matter how terrible Keith looked, Lance had to admit that this event was pretty legendary.

“I said ‘pilot error’ and walked away. The next day, I found myself dropped in some middle-of-nowhere Arizona town, stripped of my right to join any part of the military or get a flying license. That might have been the greatest moment of my life. It definitely fits into the top ten.”

“Holy shit,” Shiro cried, and when Shiro cursed, you knew it was definitely a big deal. “Why didn’t any of you tell me?”

“I kinda forgot about it,” Pidge offered. “I mean, we all knew about it, so we figured you heard it at some point, or that he told you.”

“My baby brother is insane,” Shiro sighed.

Lance tried not to think too hard about the fact that present tense might not match Keith anymore.

“I had nothing. No one. Nowhere to go. So I built a shack in the desert a few miles from the Garrison. Gathered the rest of my money and bought a hover bike. I got into illegal racing because I needed something to do. Make sure that not all of my potential was wasted. Besides, I didn’t want to go back to the rest of the world. In my opinion, back then it was better to live alone and with minimum resources than go back to civilization and be forced back to the Shiroganes or some new family. That’s antisocial, I know, but it was how I felt. I can… I can barely imagine it, now.”

Okay, Lance got the feeling of a slow burn at this point. His anxiety was mixed with anticipation at whatever had happened to Keith that changed him so much.

“At some point, I came to my senses and decided to try and find out what really happened to Shiro. It took months, but I eventually found those caves. It didn’t light up for me like it did for Lance, but I marked it down. After visiting, I felt the energy that I know now was Blue’s energy, even though I had no idea at the time.

“All of my research led to that one night. When Shiro’s pod crashed into Earth about a mile away, I wasn’t sure who was in there, only the vague idea of an ‘arrival’, but I needed to know. So I set the explosions not too far away, and I broke in as soon as I had a chance. I wasn’t expecting to see my long-lost adopted brother, strapped down, unconscious, with a scar across the bridge of his nose, a tuft of white hair, and an alien prosthetic.

“I wasn’t expecting to see Lance, either. I didn’t recognize him at first, but trust me, ‘cargo pilot’ was not what I meant to say. Especially with my first human interaction outside of store employees. I really did know Lance outside of being a cargo pilot, I swear. Anyway, it was kind of a rush, but then I met the rest of you guys. I half-recognized Pidge because Matt was friends with Shiro, but she went by a new name and looked like a mini-Matt, so I just ignored that. I didn’t have much time to speak to Shiro alone, because we went for the Blue Lion as soon as we could. You guys know how that story goes. Flying lions, showing off to the Garrison, leaving Earth.

“That brings a conclusion to this file. Next up is the rest of the time you knew me.”

Lance opened his eyes to see Keith smiling sadly before tapping something that he was blind to. The screen turned dark, and the image of the seven files appeared again.

“Wow,” he mumbled.

“Yeah,” Hunk agreed. “That was intense.”

“I didn’t even know,” Shiro said softly. “I didn’t even know he felt like this.”

“None of us knew,” Coran tried. “It’s alright, m’boy.”

“Can we not watch the next one yet?” Pidge asked, a nervous look on her face. “I know we need to, but I need a bit to process all of this.”

“I don’t know what to expect for the next one, but we have to stay strong,” Allura said seriously. “We’ve faced universal war against the biggest empire in the history of the universe- we can listen to the life story of one of our friends, no matter what happened to him.”

Lance let out a breath. “Let’s take a break.”

Nobody had any reason to disagree.

...

Chapter Text

2_Mechacat

 

Hunk hadn’t been expecting this when Allura had commed him and announced that they needed him. Naturally, Hunk had been afraid of more battles with everyone’s favorite purple space-cats, or a planet that wanted to see Voltron. He didn’t think he’d be watching his old, presumed-dead- for seven years, might he add- friend and teammate.

Hunk didn’t expect to be treated to a serving of angst from both his friends and Keith. After Lance had declared a break, Hunk had bolted to the kitchen, not watching to see if the others followed him. But of course, since they were his friends, the great legendary defenders of the universe Team Voltron, they all watched as Hunk made stress-desserts.

“Hunk?”

He forced a smile as he turned to Pidge. “What’s up? Any requests?”

“Aside from the obvious, what’s bothering you?” Shiro asked, frowning softly at him. It was a definite Dad Look, and Hunk was weak for it.

“What, aside from the obvious that one of our best friends sent us a Galra missive containing seven of what must be videos, based on the first, which, by the way, seven is the number of years he’s been gone .” Hunk knew he was rambling, but he couldn’t bring himself to care enough to stop it.

“Is it his eyes?” Lance prompted quietly. “That’s what got me.”

“I… I guess that’s part of it,” Hunk said. “It’s more…”

It was how obviously unhappy Keith was. The fact that he only had partial, sad smiles. Keith wasn’t okay. One of the people Hunk cared about wasn’t okay .

“Hunk?”

He sighed and looked up, trying for a smile. “I’m fine, guys. Really.”

From their expressions of disbelief, Hunk got the feeling they didn’t think he was telling the truth, but nobody called him out on it. He was glad. They were barely into Keith’s life story, not even to the part where Hunk and Keith knew each other, and he was already freaked out. It was kind of like watching your friend rise from the dead to tell you how they died.

That kind of did happen, didn’t it?

Maybe that’s why a lot of people didn’t write their own biographies when they had a really hard, long life. It’s too painful to watch them say it themselves.

The team ate together in silence. As always, Keith’s spot next to Lance was empty. None of them could bring themselves to look at that chair, let alone get rid of it or forget about it in any other way.

“Can we talk about this?” Lance asked. “Like, I get that you guys are all sensitive about this right now, but it’s better to get it off your chest than hold it in until you explode.”

Hunk knew he was speaking from experience. Hunk knew everything about everyone. He had the burden of taking care of the team when they couldn’t take care of themselves. He knew Pidge was being reminded of the time when she was stressed out about finding Matt and Sam Holt, her father and brother. He knew Shiro was worried about what his absence had done to Keith- the multiple times he had vanished. Hunk knew that Allura was really scared, because seeing the changed face of one of her once declared dead Paladins couldn’t have been easy. Hunk knew that Coran desperately wanted them all to feel okay, but he didn’t know how. Hunk even knew from Keith’s facial expressions that it was really hard for him to be spilling his life’s secrets, although he seemed to become more like himself the further he delved into the past.

The think Hunk didn’t know was how Hunk felt. He understood other people’s emotions easily, but when it came to his own, Hunk didn’t know anything. It was easy to look at other people and understand their words and faces. Meanwhile, Hunk was limited to how he perceived himself, which rarely matched up with what others thought. He didn’t know what he looked like when he watched Keith speak, or when he told his friends he was fine.

Hunk understood people. That was his thing. He was the nice, loving guy on the team. He just didn’t understand himself. That was what was messing everything up. Normally, Hunk could put his friends first, but now? It was hard to help the others through this when he couldn’t help himself.

“I don’t know, Lance,” Allura said with a heavy sigh. “I honestly don’t know.” She sounded so distraught, but Hunk couldn’t bring himself to help her. It physically pained him to hear one of his friends like that, but he could do nothing.

“Maybe we should watch the next few without stopping like this,” Pidge suggested. “We’ll probably be going through all the stages of grief over and over if we stop like this every time.”

“I agree,” Shiro replied. “Good idea, Pidge.” Shiro’s voice sounded painful and conflicted, like he didn’t really want to say what he had. Hunk understood the feeling. He often did the same thing to comfort the others in times of stress. Now, though, Hunk couldn’t do that.

What was it about the recordings that ruined his emotions so thoroughly? Beyond his physical appearance. Seeing someone that Hunk had once trusted to fight in battle with his life, speaking sadly to a camera, quietly dropping hints that something really bad had happened to him- that had struck a chord in Hunk’s heart. The people most important to him- his team, his family… Hunk couldn’t take seeing them in pain. Sure, over the years, Hunk had seen them hurt or unstable or unsure of their place in the team. But he had never seen one of the people close to him, even someone who used to be that isn’t anymore, so… broken. It was scary, if he was honest.

It was especially scary that it was Keith. Rash, strong, dedicated, loyal, fearless Keith. The former Red and Black Paladin- although really, he had always been the Red Paladin. Keith was only the most capable of them when Shiro was gone. The one who had abandoned them because he didn’t want to be a burden to them. The one who had fought Zarkon all alone. Their resident awkward, half-Galra warrior.

“Alright,” Coran said, standing up. “I think it’s time we continue listening.”

“Agreed,” Allura added, although she still looked nervous.

The Paladins nodded and stood up, following Allura and Coran back to the bridge.

They all settled down on the floor this time. Hunk swallowed as Coran selected the second file. This was about their time together as a team, no doubt. Hunk hadn’t really been mentioned in the last one, so he was kind of worried about what Keith had thought of him. Did Keith think Hunk was too immature, or cowardly, or weak?

Hunk was definitely worried about this next recording.

Keith’s same, sad face appeared. There was that same grace period from before, where Keith just sort of stared into the camera or whatever was recording him. Then he finally spoke again.

“Alright. I guess I’ll start again. Just so you guys know, being on Team Voltron was actually one of the best times of my life. It had its ups and downs, but honestly, I could never regret getting friends that I didn’t deserve.

“So… I’ll just go in order, then. We can start with Sendak’s attack on Arus. When I first found the Red Lion. It was like something was calling to me. It was an energy, but more powerful than Blue, back in the desert. Red… she didn’t want to just show up and let me be her Paladin. I had to prove myself, but once I did, we were bonded together. Although, that event was one of the many, many signs of my Galra heritage. I hit the airlock button without thinking, but we know now that you need Galra blood to use their technology- or if you have their technology, like Shiro’s arm.

“I didn’t think about it at the time, but there were all sorts of signs that I wasn’t fully human. I’ll get there later. The first time we formed Voltron. That forged a relationship almost as deep as the one I had with Red. It was the first time I really connected with people, other than Shiro. It was hard to believe. I had friends- no, a family . It was hard for me to understand, so I came across as standoffish and uncaring about you guys. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The time that we hosted a party for the local Arusians in the castle, I was a mess. I was on edge from having so many strangers around, but I appreciate what you guys did to try and relax me. I will never forget that stupid cheer- ‘I say Vol, you say Tron? I still don’t get why you wouldn’t just say Voltron and be done with it.

Hunk’s gloom and unease lifted slightly at Keith’s fond smile. It was the first legitimately happy smile he had seen Keith give so far, and that made Hunk happy. Keith deserved to be happy. His smile could brighten Hunk’s day, because it was so honest, even if it was rare. Judging from what Hunk already knew, he could guess was up ahead. It was a miracle Keith could still smile.

“Yeah, there was the stupid cheer and the nunville- bad decision. Then the night when downhill when Pidge told us she wanted to leave. ‘You’re putting the lives of two people over the universe’ or something. I… still don’t know why I blew up like that. Later on, I would have said that my reason was practical, or some shit like that, but now? Maybe… it was because I didn’t want to be abandoned again. I didn’t want to lose a person I had started to befriend, someone that I fought with and trusted my life with.”

“Damnit, Keith, how do you manage to make me feel sorry for that?” Pidge grumbled. “I feel bad now.”

“We all do, Number Five,” Coran said soothingly. “We all do.”

“After that, my night just got worse and worse. First, we find Lance and Coran unconscious, then we split up, then I get locked out of the castle, helpless. One of the worst feelings in the world is to hear your friends in pain and being just the right distance to not be able to do anything, but feel like you can if you try. I listened to all of you fighting and being hurt, while I was stuck outside the castle with Allura. Yeah, in the end we won and beat Sendak, but I never shook off the feeling that there was nothing I could do to help any of you. I was just limited to… fighting only when I was close enough to do anything , if that makes any sense. Nothing else. Worthless.

“Also, Lance… I know you didn’t forget, but that’s okay. I would have felt better if you told me you did remember back then, but… I got over it, I guess. You’re just bad at lying. Better you than me- I’m the one that needed to keep secrets.”

Lance made a noise that was both outraged and surprised. “I thought I was very good at keeping secrets!”

“Sure you are, Lance,” Hunk said, patting his friend’s shoulder. “And you forgot the bonding moment, too.”

“Don’t lie to him, Hunk,” Pidge objected, but she was smiling.

At least listening to this recording, so far, wasn’t so bad. Keith was still dropping hints about some trauma, but at least they hadn’t gotten to that part yet. Hunk knew it had to be there, though. At the very least, Black Paladin Keith until the end wasn’t a bright time in Voltron’s history.

The others went silent, and Hunk listened to Keith again.

“Then… I guess there wasn’t much on the Balmera. It felt good to liberate people that had been enslaved for centuries, if not thousands of years. They even helped us, so… it wasn’t like most other planets. But… freedom. I could only imagine it back then.” Then, in a chilling voice that most definitely freaked Hunk out, Keith quietly added, “Now I know what it finally feels like to be free from someone.”

Pidge jumped over to the console and slammed the “pause” button. “Christ. Okay?”

“I imagined that, right? No way did Keith just say that,” Hunk burst out. “I knew something crazy happened to him, and it was bad , but… wow, was I really just thinking everything was going to be calm for a bit? Ha! No! I-”

“Alright, Hunk,” Shiro said firmly, cutting him off. Shiro wasn’t looking at any of them, though. He was gazing up at Keith’s face, a distant look in his eyes. “What happened to you?” The last part was breathy and obviously meant for Keith. Seeing their fearless leader so vulnerable was hard for Hunk. Just add it to the list of problems he had.

“Does he mean to say that the entire time…?” Allura looked over at Coran. “Do the Galra have…?”

“Lotor had tons,” Lance pointed out. “When we signed the treaty and stuff? Ew . They didn’t seem happy, so I doubt that relationship was normal.”

“Lance is correct.” Coran sighed. “There is a chance that our Keith ended up a slave.”

“We’re kind of jumping to conclusions,” Pidge argued. “Maybe he just means that he’s free of emotional baggage or… something. I don’t know. Not that.”

“Okay.” Hunk took a deep breath. “Okay. Yeah. I see that.”

Shiro was still looking at Keith’s face, but he addressed the rest of them. “Guys, we don’t know for sure what happened to Keith because we haven’t gotten there yet. We just have to be patient. Patience… yields focus.”

“Alright. Let’s stop speculating about what happened to Keith and actually find out,” Lance said, standing up and finding the “play” button.

Everyone nodded and watched Keith’s face anxiously.

“Overall, freeing the Balmera was a good experience. That also had a sign in it- I closed the hangar doors using my handprint, but that wouldn’t have worked if I wasn’t Galra. Anyway… everything was okay for a little bit, but then we went to that outpost.

“That was even more of a disaster than Sendak. We let Allura and Shiro sneak onto the ship by themselves, then I ran off to follow the druid. I never told you guys this, but a vial of quintessence splashed onto my skin and wherever it touched, I turned Galra-purple. It faded when I got back to you, but that was when it occurred to me that I might be Galra. After the whole mess… but, I’m focusing on this. I’ll talk about that later, I guess. Yeah. So when I got back and found Allura gone, I… I’m not sorry for what I said, It was dangerous and stupid for us to just attack Zarkon’s home base without any idea of what would meet us and without a significant member of our team. We only escaped because of the Blade of Marmora. Since we did escape, I don’t know what we would have done if we failed, but it was a risky idea anyway. Obviously we needed Allura, but we should have prepared more than charging into Central Command. On the inside, it’s even more fortified.”

“Wait,” Lance said, but nobody paused this time.

Hunk was properly freaking out for his friend’s sake. Keith kept alluding to bad things. No freedom, being in the center of power of the enemy, tripping up certain words… From what Hunk knew of Keith, he was rough, brave, independent, battle-ready, and… not weak. The only times Keith had ever showed any kind of weakness or vulnerability were when he was really stressed. Mostly around the times he found out he was Galra and when Shiro was missing. This Keith was different. He wasn’t like their Keith. If Hunk didn’t know better, he would have said this wasn’t the same person. The reason Hunk was sure that this was the real Keith was that the expressions he made, the stories he told, his sensitive word choice, and attitude towards something , something that they still hadn’t gotten to yet- it wasn’t fake, and they were all similar, in a vague way, to how Keith used to be. Hunk had guesses about what had happened, but he had no definite answer. It was clear the others felt the same way.

“Anyway… fighting the emperor. Zarkon. He could breathe in space- he didn’t need a spacesuit, and he could just speak to me. He told me I fought like a Galra soldier and it… it was unnatural. I found out he’s… immortal… to all… except his own blood…”

Keith’s shaking voice and glazed, wide eyes were enough for Hunk to know that Keith wasn’t okay.It must have been really bad- Keith could barely talk about it. Hunk almost wondered why, but then he realized that was a stupid question. If his suspicions were correct, then Zarkon had captured Keith, somehow. Obviously he wasn’t okay. If Hunk was wrong, well- he’d just have to wait.

“And… and… nevermind. Later. I promise, later.”

“That doesn’t seem like normal human behavior,” Coran noted, but again, nobody paused the recording.

Hunk swallowed thickly and carefully observed Keith’s face. Was that a panic attack? Or something else? He had just been talking about Zarkon’s near immortality- had he learned about it in a terrible way? It hadn’t been triggered by speaking about Zarkon, or the Galra Empire, or his lineage. In the past, Hunk had been fascinated by finding out how people worked- what made them happy or laugh, or what triggered their anxiety. Now that it was Keith that Hunk was analyzing, it wasn’t so fun.

“No, no, no, I…” Keith went silent, then took a deep breath. “Okay. The wormhole incident. That… was a mess.”

How did he do that? What kinds of things were going through his head? Was it a flashback? That was the most common. Did Keith have PTSD? Of course he did, he had fought a war for at least a year before something worse happened. All of the team had some sort of PTSD- it was rare, and not as intense in Pidge, Lance, and Hunk himself as it was in Coran, Shiro, and Allura, but it was still there. They all had phantom pains and memories of old injuries and from battle after battle, death and betrayal… but as bad as it could get for the Alteans and Shiro, it was worse in Keith. It was beyond the war. Beyond losing your entire species and planet. Beyond losing your arm and being forced to fight. It was beyond that, because Keith hadn’t recovered from it. If Hunk had to guess, he would say that it had only been a month or so since Keith had regained himself. Hunk got the feeling that Keith had numbed himself to those kinds of things ages ago, during that year in the desert, but that focus had been broken. Keith had always been practical and sure of himself… but now that was gone.

Hunk wasn’t necessarily surprised by how different Keith was anymore. He had already established those feelings, No, it was how Keith reacted to things now, how he was triggered by things that pointed to trauma that hadn’t been explained yet, trauma that was teased at by offhand comments and strange expressions.

He shook his head and tried to clear those thoughts from his head. They would be explained soon enough.

“When Shiro and I crashed onto that barren planet, I was worried. He was too far away, or something, at first. I don’t get why- we could communicate from our flying robots in space, and not from a few miles away on some planet? But… that whole experience was really… scary, I guess? That sounds stupid, but hearing him almost die? The only reason Shiro’s still alive is because Black let me in. Later on, Shiro told me, just before we were found, that if he ever died, he wanted me to lead Voltron. I didn’t want him to die, and I couldn’t even imagine leading without him. I was a terrible leader. Now I can’t even lead at all.

“When we got back, I thought a lot about it. I knew I didn’t want to do that. I’m- I was - the Red Paladin. I’m not meant to lead. I can’t be… without Shiro. So when he got out of the healing pod, I was… really, really happy. Before he had told me I was supposed to follow in his footsteps, I would have just been happy. But then, I was so glad that I wouldn’t have to lead Voltron. It’s stupid and selfish, but… I didn’t want to have those responsibilities.

“But… Shiro told us about this Galra who had helped him. I got sort of excited, because… well, yeah, new allies. But also… if I was Galra, it wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of the species wasn’t all bad, right?

“Then Allura argued how it was impossible that any Galra were good. Her words reminded me not to get my hopes up. I still held onto the idea that I was just a normal human, or half anything but Galra.

“When we went to those explosive crystal clusters, and Ulaz boarded our ship, I was doing fine until I saw his knife. The symbol on his weapon- it was so similar to the one on my knife. That was when I was sure I was half-Galra. At that point, the evidence was just stacking up around me and it was so obvious… but I didn’t get the chance to find out more, because Ulaz died , right in front of us. He sacrificed himself so we could live to fight another day. That was when I realized the Blade of Marmora was serious. It wasn’t something that Zarkon faked. These guys were willing to kill themselves for the greater good.

“All of our missions afterwards, I was more fixated on the Galra and the Blade than the missions themselves. Olkarion. The small raids on random fleets. Then there was trying to escape Zarkon and his fleet. I just wanted to sleep. I was tired, overwhelmed, and sick of being unsure of who I was. Then the fleet kept chasing us, no matter where we went… so I ran away. I don’t know why Allura thought they were tracking her- if she was being tracked, she would have known ten thousand years ago, or she would have known if the Galra found her before we did.

“You guys know that Allura came with me when I left. I was sick of fighting and I was worried that the Galra were either tracking me through the knife or my blood- I wasn’t completely sure, yet, but it was practically confirmed that I was Galra. It had been so obvious the entire time. I felt bad , though, to hear you guys through the helmets- you were under stress and couldn’t fix it, but I was lightyears away, drifting aimlessly through space.

“When we knew for sure that it wasn’t either of us that the Galra were tracking us through, I panicked and didn’t think before using those turbo-boosters Pidge installed. They were just as dangerous as always, but… in those minutes spent waiting uselessly, I connected with Red. It was… like I had ascending into another understanding of the universe. It was crazy, and she came and saved me… it was insane. But amazing.”

Hearing Keith’s description of his bond with Red was strangely eye-opening. The time that they had fought that thing on Olkarion that had nearly deconstructed Voltron- Hunk had felt that way. Like his soul had left his body behind and joined that deep bond between the Paladins and their lions. It had been exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Knowing that the five of them and Keith were the only ones in the entire universe to experience that in ten thousand years… it was crazy. Really, truly crazy.

Hunk didn’t say any of these thoughts out loud, but judging from the others’ faces, they felt the same way.

“That connection with Red and finding out they were tracking us through Black were the best things that could have possibly come out of that. If we hadn’t done that, we would have taken much longer to find out how the Galra were tracking us. I get that we weren’t easily replacable back then- not like later, when we had two possible Paladins for Black, Red, and Blue. Especially after getting locked out of the castle, I couldn’t take sitting by and doing nothing again .

“We didn’t do much between finding out they were tracking us through the Black Lion and finding the Blade of Marmora. When Shiro bonded with Black and broke off from Zarkon, we were at the swap moon- er, space mall? That was… fun. Like the calm before the storm. It was exciting in a way that wasn’t fighting, with Lance and Pidge buying Earth stuff and Hunk becoming space Gordon Ramsay.”

Lance gasped. “He used a reference! ” His tone was light, and it brought a smile to Hunk’s face. Pidge laughed a bit, and Hunk joined in. He had to admit, it was nice to be called that by someone other than Lance. Even though the incident was seven years old at least, Lance had never given up the joke.

It was also nice to not be remembering depressing times during his place in Team Voltron. It was pretty obvious the others felt the same way.

“But… we got what we came for and had fun doing it. Yeah, I was tricked by a four-armed knife enthusiast, Coran was tricking a guy into giving him ‘ugly blue bowls’, and we were chased on a cow by a Zarkon fanboy, but it was nice. We got a cow out of it.” Keith paused, then added thoughtfully, “Cow. That’s so weird to say. Earth things are so far away…”

Hunk understood. He had felt the same way when he went home, back to Earth, and saw all of those familiar yet distanced plants, animals, and technology. And… seeing other humans beyond the Holts and the team for the first time in years . Seeing the other billions of humans on their home planet was a sight he would have thought, long before he saw space from inside Blue, he wouldn’t want to see. But after not seeing his own species for seven years, all Hunk had felt was relief.

“But everything went away. That sense of… of being normal went away every time I went back to my room and just stared at that knife. The biggest sign of not being human. I hated it. One of our species’ greatest flaws is its tendency to view what is not like them as “other” or “different”. Not like them. I knew that I could never get back that life I used to hate. Knowing that I was even more different than I had been before- short, Asian, orphan, “problem child”, then one of the five- six- people in the entire universe to be able to pilot Voltron, and half-alien, half- Galra , the species we were fighting. It’s… crazy.

“It didn’t come as a surprise to have Kolivan tell me I was part Galra. By the time the knife activated, I was already sure that I was half-Galra. I’m glad I got final proof- I’m still me, it doesn’t matter what I am. It’s who I am- was- that counted. Just because Allura and Coran are aliens doesn’t mean we should treat them badly. And it’s not like I turned Galra or anything. It’s… like- Allura and Coran look a lot like humans, right? But even though they look like humans, they’re not human. But do we judge them for being aliens? No, because we believe in who they are, not the fact that they’re Altean. Maybe we met them because they’re Altean, but their species doesn’t determine their worth. It’s the same for me- I look human, but I’m only partially human. We might have met because of my human side, but we became friends and teammates because of who all of us are. That’s why it’s okay that Allura and Coran are aliens, that Pidge is a girl, and that I’m half-Galra. Yeah?

Hunk frowned and paused the recording, looking back at the others. “I never thought about it that way. I guess he didn’t really change, huh?”

“I regret how I treated him,” Allura murmured. “Hearing it like that, I realize he’s correct. It doesn’t matter if you are human, Altean, Olkari, or Balmeran…”

“Now I get why he wasn’t so mad when he found out,” Lance said. “He knew, and he accepted it , and the rest of us had no idea.”

“It’s quite interesting to hear it like that,” Coran mused, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. “It never occured to me before.”

“I guess that’s why he accepted me so easily,” Pidge said. “I guess it doesn’t really matter what any of us are.” She smiled crookedly. “An alien princess and her advisor, a cargo pilot, a prisoner of war, and a baker.”

“It’s kind of crazy that out of everyone in the universe, it was us,” Hunk realized. “Even though we’re all different, we’re still together.”

“Who cares if he’s an alien? He’s our alien,” Lance said. Then his small smile faltered, and he sighed. “But… not anymore.”

Hunk gazed up at Keith’s face on-screen. How had any of them ever thought it was weird to have a Galra on the team? He hadn’t changed when they discovered his heritage- only their opinions had. Now that Keith had honestly changed, that was obvious. Seeing Keith change wasn’t subtle. When he was different, it was obvious.

“Let’s just… listen, okay?” Pidge asked.

Hunk nodded and pressed “play”. They were only halfway through Keith’s Voltron days.

“Then… there was that whole time where Allura hated me. I know why- even though I had accepted being part Galra, it probably seemed like something almost… impossible. Like something that couldn’t be real. Someone being an alien that you had thought was human the entire time? That had to be fake, right? But it wasn’t . All of the evidence was there.

“It was hard to focus on defeating the Galra Empire when Allura hated me so much, but we got through it. Getting scaultrite from a Weblum with Hunk? That worked, except I found one of Lotor’s generals, Narti or Acxa or something. Also- the Galra Keith jokes weren’t very funny, but… I guess it could’ve been worse. At least you guys were trying.”

Hunk definitely felt guilty for that, even at the time he had been doing it. It was just… What could he have done? Hunk hadn’t been ready to accept what Keith had accepted. It wouldn’t have done any good to act like nothing was different, and there was no way Hunk could ever chew Keith out for something he had no control over, the way Allura had. At least that time had ended when Shiro vanished, after thinking they killed Zarkon. When they couldn’t afford to act like that in fear of Voltron crashing down.

“Yeah. Well, anyway… moving on. Seeing Thace die in front of me- seeing a Blade die in front of me again- that wasn’t great, but I couldn’t let that distract me from what we thought was the final battle. I can barely remember that battle. I just remember… Zarkon… the robot… and… Shiro gone. Running to the Black Lion and just… he was gone. He was gone . No Shiro, all alone, no one can save you, give in…”

Hunk’s eyes widened at Keith’s sudden downward spiral. The former Red Paladin’s words grew incoherent after that, and that expression was more broken than anything Hunk had seen so far. Hunk wasn’t wondering what had happened to Keith so much as he was worried about him.

There was only a panicked face and the sound of hyperventilating for a long moment. Then Keith whispered something Hunk couldn’t understand- it wasn’t that the words weren’t clear, it was that it wasn’t English, or Altean, or any other language they’d heard before. It sent a chill through him. The words were foreign in a way that almost matched this foreign Keith. Could it have been the language of the Galra? He hadn’t thought about that before. Of course they would have their own language. Whatever it was, it seemed to relax Keith.

“I’m okay,” Keith mumbled. He looked up at the camera, or whatever was recording him. “I… yeah. Soon.”

Shiro’s face was heartbreaking. Hunk knew it had to be painful for Keith to have a panic attack at all. But for the panic attack to be caused by remembering an event you felt responsible for- that had to hurt. Hunk had no idea how Shiro did it.

“Being… Voltron without Shiro was… really hard. I hadn’t had to face anything like that in a long time. Not since Shiro vanished the first time. Everyone acted like he was replaceable, like we could just find another pilot for the Black Lion, and it would be like Shiro never existed. I searched through planets and crashes and the wreckage of the battle every single day, looking for Shiro. We couldn’t form Voltron without him, but everyone expected our team to be the same saviours that we were before then. They relied on us doing all the work and didn’t try to do anything themselves! By letting us free them from the Galra and not lifting a finger to free their own planet, they let themselves become as dependent on us as they were on the Galra!” Keith’s trembling, angry voice was a stark contrast to how he had sounded before. His voice wavered in what he said next. “They should be grateful that they have hope, but hope shouldn’t turn into the only way you can be free. Don’t they realize it’s better to be independent than to rely on someone for everything, no matter what kind of person they are?”

Keith’s voice lowered to that soft tone from before, the one that scared Hunk. That voice, it was too… too different. Not Keith. Not even close. “They should fight, if not for themselves, then for all of the people that can’t .”

“He’s so passionate about this,” Coran said quietly. “I wish we had known that back then.”

“Actually, I think this mentality is nearer,” Lance offered. “Like, it was there before, but it got stronger after… whatever happened to him.”

Hunk nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense…” But… it was starting to feel weird to talk about Keith like that. Like he wasn’t worth talking about as more than something to figure out. Like a clinical trial, or something. Not a person.

“I never wanted to be the Black Paladin. It wasn’t… it wasn’t my role . I was… Shiro’s right hand, I guess. It felt wrong, like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I wish it had been Lance or Allura. Not me. It had been forced on me, like Shiro and everyone else were telling me that I should be a leader, that obviously I’d make a great Black Paladin. But I wasn’t. I was too impulsive, and rash, and didn’t listen to any of you, and… wrong. I didn’t belong there. I was terrible and I failed you over and over again… all the times we faced Lotor, and when we met the Alteans… that was bad. Really bad.

“When we went through the rift and met the evil Alteans, I was just… I wanted to kill them. Because in that universe, I either didn’t exist, or I was a slave. Just because I was Galra. It was stupid, that wasn’t even our reality, but… being human doesn’t make you stupid, being Altean doesn’t make you stuck-up, and being Galra doesn’t make you evil. I’m glad we got out, and I’m glad we didn’t stay longer, or… I’d end up even worse off than I am now. Because having some semblance of free will is better than none.

“I was just… so messed up by that point. Exhausted, so when I found Shiro, I was so, so happy. But… he didn’t free me. He didn’t let things go back to how they were. I would stay in the Black Lion, Lance in Red, Allura in Blue. I didn’t want that. I didn’t know how to force Shiro back into Black.

“Then Lance showed up one night. He told me about his insecurity and the fact that we have more Paladins than Lions, but… it clicked. I was the replaceable one. Allura deserved it, Lance was better, and… Shiro was the one everyone wanted. Shiro was the one with good decisions and was always meant to be the Black Paladin. So… I distanced myself. I hoped that with me gone, Shiro could reclaim Black. I officially joined the Blade of Marmora and… that was it. The more time I spent with the Blade, I was sure that I belonged with them. Not Voltron. I’m not good enough for Voltron. Never was. It was only a matter of time.

“So… I left. And you guys were better without me. I wasn’t important. Worthless. I joined the Blade full-time, and… that was it. My time with you was over.”

A click.

Silence in the air and the files on the screen.

Damnit, Hunk wanted to cry for everything Keith had gone through.

Chapter Text

3_Daggers

Shiro was tired. He was so tired. After spending seven years looking for Keith, he had just… appeared. Yeah, it wasn’t actually Keith, in the flesh, but it was almost as good. Because it was Keith .

He knew, somewhere, that his thoughts were scattered, but Shiro couldn’t really bring himself to care.

God, Shiro was tired.

It was mentally exhausting to listen to Keith talk. Shiro had had no idea that his absence had affected Keith so much. It was harder than Shiro would have thought to listen to his adopted brother after so long. Shiro would have been fine if Keith sent these messages to explain where he had been. Shiro might have even felt better if one of their allies gave definitive proof that showed Keith’s dead. But this… it had the feeling of a final word. A will. A death note.

It felt like he was telling them how he died.

Shiro sighed and looked at the files. He had known what to expect for the last two. He had lived through most of them alongside Keith. But this? It was different. Whatever came next would pull them apart at the seams, because it was where everything would get so much worse. Everything beyond this point would be dark and unknown. That wasn’t even something that might happen- Shiro had seen what he had considered the good times. What would Keith consider bad?

Whatever came next would really start the story of Keith’s downfall.

“Don’t stop to think about it,” Shiro ordered. “Just go to the next one.”

“Maybe this isn’t good for your health,” ventured Allura. “Shiro, we probably will watch the next two back-to-back. That’s a very long time.”

“This is sorta overwhelming,” Hunk offered nervously. “Shiro, I respect you, but… I mean, the first one was a lot. So was this one. I know, I’m afraid of a lot of stuff… but can we stop?”

“No,” Shiro argued. “We agreed to this, and we owe it to Keith to not quit.”

“Shiro,” Lance said softly, “We all know that Keith would hate for you to be pushing yourself for his sake. I agree with you that we can’t give up on this, but we can all see how hard this is on you.”

“Come along, m’boy,” Coran said. “Just for a few moments. Drink some of your Earth energy drinks.”

Shiro sighed and reluctantly got up. He knew they were right- it was difficult for him to watch Keith like this, so far from the person he used to be. Keith used to be… Shiro’s little brother. Strong. Independent. Unafraid. Stubborn. Happy, even when other people couldn’t tell. Because Shiro could tell, and he should have recognized Keith’s unhappiness throughout the entire time they were teammates.

No, that was a lie. Shiro had recognized Keith’s true emotions behind the poker face. He just hadn’t tried after Keith pushed him away.

It was almost unnecessary to come out and say that Shiro felt immensely guilty.

It was hard to acknowledge that whatever came next would be all his fault, because Shiro hadn’t stood up and reclaimed his responsibilities until they crushed Keith. Until it was too late. Until he was gone.

Shiro let the others guide him to the lounge, where they all collapsed. None of them really wanted to speak about what was coming next. He had a feeling they all blamed themselves for driving Keith away- they all had, for years. Knowing more of the story probably didn’t help, although Keith hadn’t blamed them for anything.

Except Shiro. He had accused Shiro of something. He had accused Shiro of not stepping up and taking back Black and helping all of them. Pidge with Sam and Matt Holt. Lance and Hunk with homesickness. Allura and Coran with the stress of uncertain enemies. And Keith with… all of his problems. He had so many. But Shiro had done nothing. He had just stood by and let them fall apart.

Shiro was falling apart.

He didn’t let them stop for too long. Shiro feared that if they waited any longer, they would all lose their nerve and not follow through with their promise. Even though Shiro knew that they were just looking out for his well-being, he couldn’t stop the feeling that they were betraying Keith.

Soon enough, they all found themselves sitting on the ground in front of that same screen once again. Shiro was beginning to simultaneously hate and become obsessed with the bridge.

“Alright,” Allura said. “We won’t stop until we absolutely must. I promise.”

That was all Shiro needed. He stared up at the screen, heart filled with longing just for Keith’s simple presence. Shiro desperately wished that his adopted little brother was there beside him. He’d wished for that a million times over the past seven years, but it only grew stronger ever since that missive with the files had hit the Castleship like a meteor.

Keith was so close , but he was gone, far away…

Allura selected the third file.

3_Daggers

It was obvious that this was about Keith’s time with the Blade of Marmora. Shiro had always suspected the Blade of having unnecessarily harsh training methods. All of their warriors cared about the individual less than the mission, no matter how important the mission was. There had to be a reason for that.

Keith appeared once again, and there was the strange silence in the beginning. Then he started speaking. Shiro would never get sick of hearing the voice of his younger brother after being without it for seven years, even if his voice was different from what it used to be.

Seven years felt like such a long time when you were missing something.

“Hey. Again. Well, this is about my time with the Blades, and how I ended up with the Galra.” Keith let out a long breath. “This… it’s kinda fuzzy. I mean, I wasn’t there for long. Only a few phoebes. Er- months. Yeah. They use the same time as Alteans. It wasn’t long, anyway, and afterwards… well, you could probably guess. So this is sort of hard to tell.”

Shiro squeezed his eyes shut. It was painful. So painful. But he needed to keep listening. This was all he had left of Keith. This was something Shiro could never give up. Even if some part of him said “ this is not okay ”, the rest of him told that part “ this is your fault. You owe it to him ”.

“So… I traveled to the closest planet right after leaving. Its name was Erion, and it was fairly normal. A city planet, like Earth. My mind was all over the place, and I had to take a break while contacting the Blade of Marmora. It was just… kind of crazy that, after a whole year, I just left. I left the only people in the entire universe that I cared about, my first real family . I just… abandoned them. Abandoned you guys. After all that we’d been through… now, I wish that I’d never done that. Like I said before, I had a lot of mistakes and regrets, but leaving is, by far, my greatest. All of what happened later was my fault, because I thought the easiest way to solve our problems was just leaving. It would have been so much easier to step down, save all of us this heartbreak. Everything would be so much better if I had done that.”

No, I did that , Shiro thought.

“Just to be clear, I don’t regret Shiro returning to the Black Lion. The team wanted Shiro, and so did I. I didn’t contribute anything nearly as important as any of the rest of you, and I really helped people in the Blade. Plus… it was easy to talk to the people we freed when one of us didn’t look… Galra. With me and the rest of the Blade, people slowly started to understand that there’s always good out in the universe. Always hope somewhere.”

Shiro had experienced firsthand that the Blade of Marmora was often shamed or not trusted. Even if the Blade of Marmora had done all of the work of fighting the enemy, most planets still viewed them as part of the Galra Empire. Shiro did think that with Keith acting as a representative, everything would go smoother, but… did that mean that it was the best decision to leave Voltron for the Blade? Shiro was fairly sure that Keith had a bigger impact on the universe with Voltron.

It all would have been so much easier if Keith had just told all of them how he felt about everything. Shiro could have stepped up and taken his place as the head of Voltron. They could have helped him through untangling that knot of stress and anxiety. Instead, Keith had thought it would be better for all of them that he leave. He had thought that he didn’t contribute anything to them. He had thought that he was worth nothing.

When Shiro and Keith were younger, Shiro remembered a few times when Keith would completely break down when he was called things like that. He remembered leaving class to drive down to Keith’s school to get him after Keith had been told by a particularly harsh teacher that he he wouldn’t ever amount to anything if he didn’t learn how to do some skill or another. Keith had been fourteen.

So Shiro really knew what saying these kinds of things meant to his little brother. He understood what it meant to say those words. He had heard Keith murmuring them to himself, over and over again.

Worthless. Useless. Freak. Nobody. Weak. Orphan. Alone. Invisible.

Painful. Painful. Don’t stop, he couldn’t stop.

Shiro shook his head violently. It had been far longer than seven years since he had experienced one of Keith’s attacks. Now he knew that it wasn’t because Keith had gotten better- it had been because he shut everyone out. After Shiro drifted away, after graduation from the Garrison, he had known that Keith was hurt. He hadn’t realized that his adopted brother had been putting on a mask to hide it all from them.

Shiro hated how helpless he now felt.

“When I first joined the Blade of Marmora, the first thing they did was drill one phrase into my mind. The mission before the individual. The mission before the individual. The mission before the- ” Keith’s voice cracked, and he stopped and took a deep breath. “They reinforced what I had thought my entire life. As long as the job is done, it doesn’t matter if I’m dead or alive at the end.”

That wasn’t how they did things here. With Voltron.

“The other Blades hated me at first. I had been their enemy, for a bit. Wrecked their base. Destroyed their trials. I was the first halfbreed to be part of the Blade of Marmora. At first, it was shameful to have a mutt doing the same thing as them, being better , Kolivan’s first apprentice since Antok. But as we worked together more, it was less toxic. The first time I ate a meal with the rest of the Blades, I got into a fight. But eventually… it wasn’t friendship, what I had with any of them. It was kind of hard to build a friendship knowing that you might sacrifice the other person some day. More of a sense of mutual trust.

“I guess being with the Blade of Marmora wasn’t necessarily toxic, but… there are scars. Failure to follow orders meant a scar to remind you of that failure and learn from it. Remember to never value any individual or prioritize any individual over the mission. If it comes down to it, choose doing your duty over saving your teammates. Lose yourself. You don’t matter. Nobody matters, unless they’re vital to completing the mission. Right? Forget about what you’re worth, because that ‘worth’ isn’t really real.”

Shiro sighed at hearing Keith say this. He had always suspected the Blade of Marmora of having an unnecessarily harsh method of training.

Had he already thought that? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t tell anymore. Everything was just so all over the place. Shiro wanted rest, but he needed Keith. Keith to be there with them. Keith to get annoyed at Lance. Keith to be smiling with Pidge and Hunk. Keith to be curious about the Galra and asking Allura and Coran questions. Keith to be happy with all of them. Shiro being happy for him and proud of him.

Why did Keith never tell them? Why did he keep it all bottled up until he exploded?

Why?

But he was gone now…

Shiro was so messed up.

He really needed … something. Shiro wasn’t sure what it was, but seeing Keith’s face just made the emotions that had been building up for years skyrocket. It was more than the absence of Keith at his side. It was just… having his little brother safe. Definitely alive.

Shiro had a sinking feeling that the last statement wouldn’t turn out to be true.

“When we went on missions, the enemy either called me a halbreed mutt or a child. One of those statements is true.”

Shiro didn’t want to know which one.

“Eventually, I did my own research on the Galra. As it turns out, halfbreeds are in high demand, but… not in the military. I’ll explain that next. Right after this. All of the stuff that I promised I would explain later. It’ll be… a lot. That’s the climax. Where all of it will come together. All of the things that I… can barely talk about. What’s too recent, too new to really be talking about… but here I am. I don’t have that luxury. They’ll find me soon. It’ll be any second. I could probably… convince whoever shows up to let me finish talking, but nothing is for sure. I probably won’t be able to even send this for a long time. Might end up being sentries, but I think this planet is only living guards.”

Shiro felt sick at all of the implications of those words. And damn, was Keith right about not being able to send the missive.

Pidge looked around at all of them before bringing her hand down to pause the recording. Shiro knew she was giving them all time to object. He couldn’t bring himself to stop her from doing so. Shiro wouldn’t really mind if they stopped. This wasn’t betraying Keith. Right? Keith would understand if Shiro needed a moment to breathe…

Would he?

Shiro couldn’t remember the old Keith anymore. Would he do anything Shiro thought he would? Was he even remembering Keith or making up fake memories in his absence?

He still didn’t know.

He probably wouldn’t ever know.

“I feel like we’re having one of our meetings about protecting Keith from doing something stupid,” Lance said, his voice rising in pitch and volume as he continued, “Not that it matters , because all of this happened three years ago!

“I know, Number Three,” Coran sighed. “We all wish we were here.”

“Yeah,” Pidge agreed halfheartedly. “Anway, can we all agree on what happened to Keith?”

“What, like how and why he was in Zarkon’s central command?” Lance interjected before anyone else could say anything. “We’ll all know soon anyway, not that it’s even a mystery anymore!” He gave a crazed laugh that made Shiro cringe.

“Lance, buddy,” Hunk began, finally starting to sound more like himself again. At least one of them did. “I know this is hard on you. It’s hard for all of us. But you have to take a breath and back off.”

Lance sighed. “I know, I know, but it… the closer we get to it the more my confidence… gets… crushed.” He sounded defeated.

Shiro knew exactly what “it” referred to. “It” referred to what they had all been dreading from the start. Shiro wasn’t as scared of it as Lance seemed to be, or like Allura, who was clearly unhappy. Then again, she knew what the Galra were capable of, even ten thousand years ago. Allura knew what to expect. Shiro didn’t, despite having spent a year as a prisoner there. He had spent all of his time at the arena. When he wasn’t fighting, sleeping, or being experimented on, he would clean the arena. There was never any time to pick up on Galra culture outside of the gladiator rings, and Shiro highly doubted that Keith had ended up in the arena.

Maybe they were all wrong. Maybe everyone was reading Keith wrong. That made sense, didn’t it? Shiro tried to force himself to believe that. Everything was probably okay. Keith was just joking around, making up stories and acting like he wasn’t okay, when he was fine. Keith had always been anxious, so he probably just didn’t know how to come back and tell them he was alive, and ended up taking it all too far.

Way too far.

Maybe the others didn’t think what Shiro thought. They probably thought of something realistic, while Shiro was just overreacting.

That had to be it, right?

“Let’s just share our beliefs,” Allura said. She looked physically exhausted, and she was probably mentally exhausted, too, if Shiro’s own emotions were anything to go off of. They probably weren’t representative of how the rest of the team felt, but they must have been feeling something similar on a much smaller scale. Not as bad as Shiro himself.

“Yeah,” Pidge agreed, her voice only slightly shaky. She seemed to be the most in control of her emotions out of the entire time. Then again, Pidge never really expressed her feelings. It was only in times of grief or despair that she let herself go. Otherwise, it was just a blank face, maybe some smiles or jokes… but not that often. Pidge had taken on a lot of responsibility, and Shiro had heard that she had had a difficult time re-adjusting to life on Earth.

It was things like that that had drive Shiro away from the idea of returning. He wasn’t fit for a domestic life like that anymore. He was a soldier, Plus, he had never really given up on Keith.

Keith.

Stop drifting off, idiot.

“...go first,” Pidge was saying. “I think that someone- a mole working with Zarkon in the Blade of Marmora’s ranks- figured out who Keith was, tricked him, and captured him. Keith went to Zarkon, and became… I guess a servant. Personal servant. But he got out, somehow.”

“Servant?” Lance snorted. “Try slave. But the rest of it makes sense.”

“I agree with both of you,” Allura offered. “However, I think we would be notified if the Blade of Marmora discovered a spy.”

Notified.

Shiro’s mind flashed back to that day. When they had been notified:

It had been just after a battle, the one where they had worked together with all of their allies to defeat the Galra forces across a third of their empire. After Voltron had fought with everything they could to leave Naxzela and join the battle in space. It had been a battle they nearly missed, had it not been for Lance empowering Blue and Allura.

It had been a battle they nearly lost. Unable to help or do anything, had it not been for others. The main ship of the Galra fleet having a particle barrier that wouldn’t break.

At least, it hadn’t, until a single Galra fighter turned around and crashed into the particle barrier at the same time that Lotor had mysteriously changed sides mid-battle- although the brief alliance hadn’t lasted long- and together, the particle barrier broke. The day had brought them victory.

Until the team returned to the Castleship and had just managed to wash up before Kolivan commed them.

Shiro had looked up at the screen, wondering what was so important that it couldn’t wait until the debriefing with the rest of the alliance.

What had been different, right at the start, was the lack of the familiar half-Galra beside Kolivan. Keith had always been at Kolivan’s side, even though he never spoke. Then again, that hadn’t been an alliance meeting. Maybe Keith hadn’t been needed, Shiro had reasoned.

Back when Shiro had reason…

Kolivan’s face, as stoic and devoid of emotion as usual, had given nothing away. He had seemed normal as ever. Then he had spoken to them.

“I’m afraid we must notify you of something terrible…” Kolivan had sighed. “Keith is gone. He hadn’t been seen since halfway through the batte. He’s been pronounced dead or missing…”

There had been a pause, where Shiro had tried to understand those words, but he couldn’t process them. He could barely process Kolivan’s shoulders falling as his strong facade dropped. Could barely process the last two words before Kolivan vanished, leaving only the stars and a graveyard of ships.

“I’m sorry.”

Pidge had covered her mouth with a gasp.

Lance’s ocean-blue eyes had gone wide with the realization.

Tears had begun silently streaming down Hunk’s face,

Allura’s hands formed fists.

Coran had stared up, his mouth wide and gaping with a wordless exclamation.

And… Shiro had stood still. Unmoving. Uncomprehending. But when it finally reached him that Keith was gone? He lost it for the first time in forever. More than Slav. More than all of their battles. More than his flashbacks.

Too much.

Shiro had let out a scream.

He shook his head violently, trying to push back against the memory. It was pointless to think about that. Pointless to be triggered by such a simple word. Shiro just needed to… listen. Yeah. They had been talking about… their theories.

“Shiro?”

When his mind finally cleared, he saw the others watching him, nervous expressions on their faces. Kind. Worried.

Had they all figured out he was crazy?

“What do you think?” Lance asked quietly.

“O-oh,” Shiro said, swallowing. Their theories hadn’t been far off from his own, after all. So should he say it? Shiro decided he might as well. They all probably thought he was insane, anyway. “I think Keith did something during that battle that got himself captured. Not a loyal Galra spy, or anyone else. Himself. And Zarkon destroyed him.”

Pidge took a deep breath, while Coran inhaled sharply. Shiro didn’t know what was going on inside their heads, but he knew what was in his.

That random Galra soldier, in that random ship that turned and sacrificed themself- what if it wasn’t? Random, that is. If… Keith had strayed from his mission and-

No. It wasn’t true. Keith had to have gotten captured some other way on that mission. Or maybe it was just after that mission?

Shiro hated this so much.

Coran was eying Shiro’s expression warily, and something must have sparked there, because Coran’s eyes widened.

“Why don’t we return to watching?” Coran suggested, tugging on his mustache anxiously. “Your braincages have already been rattled enough by Number Four and your ‘theorizing’.”

Shiro thought he heard Pidge snort, but he couldn’t be sure.

He was more focused on hearing “Number Four” said out loud for the first time in years. Seven years, to be exact.

Everything else faded out as Keith resumed speaking. Shiro was pretty sure that the short break had made everything worse, but at least it went away as he listened to his little brother.

“But… anyway. I had been a mess when I left you guys, and… it only got worse. Honestly. I didn’t know if I identified as a human or Galra, or if I was a person or a soldier or a machine. I didn’t know if it was even worth living. Blade after blade, scar after scar, mission after mission, a life that barely counted flashing in front of me.”

There was a moment that somehow spoke more than the words, despite the silence.

“The Blade of Marmora training worked. They broke me.”

Shiro felt his hands curl into fists. Kolivan. The Blade of Marmora. How could they have done this to Keith?

You did that to Keith, too.

Everyone did this to Keith.

Guilt.

Everything seemed to scattered, so incoherent, he couldn’t make any sense of it. Shiro instead latched onto Keith’s voice in the whirlwind of other words and images he didn’t understand. It was too much, it was all too much.

Why?

It was kind of ironic that Keith, who had caused all of this, was his one anchor in this.

“So… I’m sure you all remember that battle. The one where I ‘died’ . To take back a third of the universe.”

Yes, yes he did.

“I did my job. I did what they wanted me to. Then I stole a Galra fighter and joined the battle up in space.”

A Galra fighter? No, no, no… it couldn’t have been.

“The particle barrier wouldn’t go down…. It just wouldn’t go down. The battle would be over if we just destroyed that ship . All of those people could be saved… all of you could be saved…”

No. It wasn’t- it couldn’t be. Shiro wanted to curl up and die because it couldn't be true.

“So I turned around and… crashed into the barrier. I don’t know what… what really happened after that. The world went red with errors and then it went dark. I just remember falling… and falling… down, down, down.”

Shiro saw nothing but Keith’s face, a fake smile plastered onto it, just before he left them. No, no, no, no, no, no…

He might have said that out loud. Shiro didn’t know. It- was- just- Keith .

“And… then it was Zarkon.”

Tears rolled down Shiro’s face and he cried , cried for everything that was lost, everything that Keith had gone through, everything…

I’m sorry .”

Was that Kolivan, or Keith, or Shiro’s voice?

Shiro distantly heard the click of the recording ending, but he couldn’t understand it. He felt his friends surrounding him, a comforting warmth. Words he didn’t understand.

God, Shiro hated it. So, so much.

...

Chapter Text

4_Empire

Pidge wasn’t the most emotional person in the world. Sure, she cared about her friends, and when it mattered, she chose what her heart desired rather than her head- because nobody would ever take her family away. Except someone did , someone hurt a member of her family , this group of people up in space that she had adopted. Including Keith. Someone had hurt Keith.

Everyone had been hurt. It was nothing new in Pidge’s ever-expanding universe. They had all fought in this war. They had all faced emotional burdens and a mixture of pain, grief, sorrow… but those weren’t the only emotions there! One of them always managed to cheer everyone up, to make Pidge happy. People cared about her, and in return, she cared about them.

But Keith? He had faced more than them, more than Shiro, more than Allura, more than Coran, and certainly more than the rest of the “normal” teenagers- at least, back when they were the teenagers of the group. Now in their twenties, those happy people were replaced, but not gone. But that was beside the point. Pidge knew that Keith wasn’t okay- hell, they all knew he wasn’t okay! He had faced more than Pidge ever thought a person could go through, she was sure of it. Definitely more than any human had ever gone through, even Shiro.

And now, staring at the files displayed on the screen above her, Pidge knew she was a mess, but she couldn’t fall like the others had. She had to be strong- for all of them, even Keith, even if he wasn’t there to experience her support. He would… know. Right? Because he couldn’t possibly be dead-

But if he was alive, why had the missive come, but without Keith attached to it?

Stop it, stop it, stop it, Pidge scolded herself. She couldn’t afford to think so negatively. There had to be a reason why Keith sent the files instead of telling these stories himself, beyond the embarrassment and stress of doing it in-person- although, it didn’t seem like Keith had much dignity left, anyway.

She looked over to where Shiro was a sobbing, whimpering mess, curled in on himself, whispering “ No, no, no, no, no, no… ” Pidge had never seen Shiro so distressed and vulnerable. Was he having some anxiety or panic attack? Her brain tried categorizing all of the possible symptoms that proved this, but her thoughts were too scattered to do it properly.

A glance over the rest of her friends told her that they were in similar states of shock. They all slowly moved over to surround Shiro, soft reassurances and fake smiles, even though Pidge was sure they were falling on deaf ears and blind eyes.

“I can’t believe that all this time…” Coran’s voice broke in a rare moment of distress. The normally peppy royal advisor, who lifted the team up alongside Lance when everyone couldn’t help themselves, had even been reduced to red-rimmed eyes, although he maintained a certain amount of caution and solidity.

“He had been so close,” Hunk whispered, his face shining with tears.

“We could have saved him,” Lance said in a tone that was almost aggressive, but one look at his expression and Pidge could tell that it didn’t contain an ounce of anger. More… regret. “Guys, we could have stopped this all from happening if we hadn’t been so stupid back on Naxzela and stayed to figure it all out…”

“I know, Lance,” Allura murmured gently. “There are so many things I regret…”

Allura’s soft, white hair was normally tied back or set in that one hairstyle of hers that always seemed to stay. Never a hair out of place. But now, it was everywhere, like it hadn’t been brushed in days. Pidge took that as proof that her team was no longer functional, just like Allura’s hair. Not that Allura’s hair had a function, really, but-

You’re getting off track .

Yeah. Comfort. Pidge was terrible at comfort.

“Shiro, are you okay?” Coran asked gently.

The words must have gotten through to Shiro to some degree because he gave a slow nod. It was a blatant lie, but nobody called him out. They were all tired of calling each other out.

“Let’s just keep going, I guess,” Hunk mumbled. “Guys…”

“It’s too much, man, I know,” Lance said. “But we gotta keep going! We’ve gone this far, come on.”

“You’re right, Lance,” Allura sighed. She stood up and carefully selected the next file. Pidge didn’t even need to read the title to know what it was about, what could be expected from this. It was so obvious , so painfully obvious , what would happen to Keith now.

As she looked up at Keith’s face during that silence, she wondered, why ? What did Keith ever do to deserve this? Why him? Out of everyone in the universe… Keith had suffered for all of them. Every single thing Pidge heard about him, the more she thought, it could have stopped there. Keith would have already been broken if it was just this that happened. But with all of it? Lance was right. It was too much.

But this had all happened in the past. It had been three years since this file was recorded. There was nothing Pidge could do. And she hated it.

“So… this is it. I don’t want to talk about this.” Keith sighed. “This probably… I get it if you don’t want to listen to this. I wish it never happened to me. I’m so… god, I’m stupid. There are so many other things that could have happened if I’d just… whatever. What’s done is done. There’s no point in trying to fix it. The soldiers will find me soon, so I can’t just avoid explaining it forever.”

Soldiers. Keith had mentioned them earlier, said that he could probably “convince” them to let him finish talking, but Pidge was more concerned that Keith was expecting soldiers to come after him. Now that she thought about it, how did he get out? She frowned, trying to remember what was going on three years ago, but it was sort of a blur of angst and fighting.

“Okay. So… when I was captured. I blacked out, right? And then… then I woke up. It was dark. I was chained to a wall. I heard… voices. They were speaking words that I didn’t understand. The Galra language.”

Pidge had heard their language before. It was sort of strange, kind of harsh but smooth. Like… kind of the sound of German or French? Not that the Galra culture was anything like what could be found on Earth, but Pidge would latch onto any familiar elements, like all humans. The most common phrase that they had heard was “vrepit sa”, which, as far as she could figure out, was some sort of salute or promise of allegiance. Other than that, the team didn’t know much. Allura and Coran knew some, but they weren’t very helpful in teaching everyone else.

“I didn’t really know what was going on, but then… I think they brought me out to an arena, and there were speakers? It translated into English, so I knew what Zarkon was saying.”

Shiro was tense, and his eyes were open again, fixed on the screen. Pidge wanted to comfort him, but again, she didn’t really know what to do. She just settled for patting his arm. What she kind of wanted was Shiro comforting her , but the man was in no position to do so.

“They wanted me to fight, that much I understood. They introduced me as their “captured rebel spy”, so I don’t think they had any idea of what I really was- er, used to be. Not anymore. Not even then, really.”

No, Keith! You’re important! You matter to us! You are a Paladin! One of us! Pidge ranted in her head as she listened, her eyes desperately searching Keith’s once-vibrant gaze. Why was there no sign of what he used to be? Why couldn’t he just be the Keith they knew? Logically, she knew that Keith had gone through more than what a human being had ever experienced, more than any other Galra, too. Of course he would be almost damaged beyond repair. But… why?

Why couldn’t he just be the same as he always was? Pidge didn’t really understand emotions- that was Hunk’s job, along with Lance and sometimes even Coran. But even she could tell that he was all sorts of messed up. What were the chances that he, out of the trillions of organisms in the universe, was subjected to this?

Pidge knew she was thinking in circles, but she just wanted him to come home . Would he ever come home? Could he even come home? She didn’t know , and she hated it. Pidge was supposed to be the one with answers, the one who knew what was going on, but… she wasn’t.

“But… I refused to fight. I will not, and will never be entertainment for people like that. I hated it back when I fought people from school or on the streets, and I still hate it. When I refused to fight, the guards brought me back into a cell, where… I waited. And waited. It was terrible.

“Eventually, though, the Emperor showed up. Zarkon threatened to give me to the guards if I didn’t cooperate and fight the way… the way the last time one of my species did. The Champion. Shiro. My options were obvious- fight, be some Galra whore, or tell them whatever they wanted to hear about the Blade, and hope that it would be enough.”

Shiro was really shaking now, and damn, he hadn’t blinked in a while? Should Pidge do something? Emotional comfort wasn’t exactly something she learned in school, but nobody else seemed to be doing anything else. She knew, at least, that the fixation Shiro had on the recording was unhealthy. Pidge leaned in a little closer, hoping that at least her warmth would help Shiro, even if it was only by a small amount. If only she could do the same to Keith. She already had a sinking feeling what would happen next.

Three years old. It seemed too long of a wait, three years, especially since Voltron and the Castle of the Lions had been all over the universe since then. It didn’t make sense, and Pidge’s brain was all over the place- had some of these not been filmed, recorded, whatever Keith had done, at the same time as the first?

She knew it’d be explained, but it seemed like too long of a wait. Pidge needed to know now . Maybe- maybe there was still something they could do, or… something.

She didn’t know.

“I wouldn’t give in. I- I was better than that. Like to lie to myself and say I’m still better than that.” Keith gave a quiet, half-hearted chuckle, though he glanced somewhere behind him, as if he was afraid someone had heard.

Allura made a soft noise and shook her head. Pidge read that as disagreement, which, ironically, she agreed with. Keith had been- and would always be- the most stubborn, brave person she knew. He wasn’t lying to himself when he said that, and neither was Pidge. He was better than that.

Right?

“But ‘doing nothing’ meant Zarkon chained me to the wall and let the guards do whatever they wanted.”

Pidge’s stomach tightened, and she leaned a little closer to Shiro. It was… it was for his benefit. Yeah. Not for hers. Pidge was fine. Absolutely fine. She was solid, a rock, and she could fight anything, because she was strong and brave and stubborn and-

God, she wasn’t Keith.

Pidge was so glad she wasn’t Keith.

Was that bad?

She didn’t know. She didn’t want to know.

“It was slow. They just… roughed me up a bit, at first. Broke my ribs… it hurt. But they gave me quintessence, so it never stayed. It was like… like it was all fake. Like it could be erased afterward, like it didn’t matter. But as long as I was shiny and ‘fine’, it would keep going.

“I couldn’t fight back. I tried. I tried the first few times guards came in to break my bones and make me bleed. Did you know… that the more quintessence there is in your system, the more golden your blood gets?” Keith reached down, below the camera or whatever was recording him and brought up a knife. Pidge could tell it wasn’t Keith’s knife. It looked like… a normal knife. She had a sinking suspicion of what would come next.

“Look.” He brought the knife to his hand, where he cut across it, leaving a deep mark, but Pidge was more focused on the blood spilling out of the wound.

It was golden. Like… a Galra’s. Did that mean the Galra were always… for lack of better wording, high on quintessence? Apparently, quintessence could be used for healing, and it seemed to strengthen them too, from the footage she had gone over of Lotor and Zarkon’s battle. How else did quintessence affect the Galra?

Stop, Pidge, this isn’t about science, this is about Keith.

“Why?” Lance asked, his eyes wide and fixed on the dripping, golden blood. “ Why?

“I don’t know, Lance,” Allura mumbled, her regal, powerful outer shell only continuing to crumble.

“We should be able to help him, should be able to do… something ,” Hunk ranted. “He’s hurting himself and unhappy and in pain and… and we’re sitting here, watching through a screen!”

“I’m sorry, Number Two. There’s nothing we can do now,” Coran said softly. Pidge wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be comforting or not.

“I know,” Shiro said hoarsely. The first coherent thing he had said, and it was acknowledging his helplessness.

Pidge knew the feeling.

“I know you guys,” Keith mumbled, bringing his hand away from view. “You’re probably freaking out about this, but this is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’ve seen so much worse. I’ve been so much worse. Just listen, okay? This is… hard enough to say without being able to gauge your reactions. I don’t know how you guys have changed, the only thing for sure is that… you care about each other. Maybe I’m still part of that? If I am, I don’t deserve it.

“Anyway… I tried fighting back when my blood just turned more and more… golden. I tried fighting back when they humiliated me and treated me like a toy. I tried fighting back for a long, long time. But eventually, I don’t know how long it took, they broke me. Whenever they came into my cell, I just… took it. Didn’t try anymore. The only thing in my mind was that I couldn’t fight for them. I’d gotten myself into that mess, I wouldn’t stop because I’d stopped fighting back.”

Allura had a sort of strangled gasp, and even though they all knew this would happen, it didn’t stop the pain of hearing Keith say it out loud. Pidge looked around at all of her friends’ faces, but she was shit at trying to guess their emotions. Better to stick to computers…

Except she couldn’t escape into coding this time. The click of the keyboard as she rapidly typed. The soft glow of the screen late at night, when Pidge was working instead of sleeping. The scrambled numbers and symbols that stared up at her as she slaved away at the computer, hour after hour. Or was it varga after varga? She had spent too much time in space.

But now it was Keith’s voice ringing in her ears, his face on the screen, all of the pain and emotions that she couldn’t understand flooding through her senses, drowning Pidge. He had slaved away, and it wasn’t figurative like Pidge.

“Sometimes, Zarkon showed up. He’d ask me to give up information, or fight in the arena for him. I always said no. It always ended up with me not being able to move.”

Pidge cringed.

“The Galra liked me, for a reason that I couldn’t figure out. At first, I thought it was because they knew what I was. But no, Zarkon always asked me who I worked for, and I never responded. All they knew was that I was a rebel, if the guards even knew that. My next thought was that I was a halfbreed. Like I said, I did… a lot of research on halfbreeds. They’re rare, and people usually sell them- not even on the black market. The Galra just sell people on the streets. Slavery is… normal. And the guards did call me a filthy halfbreed, among other things… I doubt you want to hear. You can probably imagine.”

Yeah, she could, and it was terrible. She didn’t want to call her friend that- or even imagine it. But Pidge couldn’t stop it. She tried to put it out of her mind, but it still got through.

whoreslutbitchtoypet-

Stop. Stop. Stop it!

Pidge swallowed thickly and focused on Keith’s face again. Right. He was Keith, Red Paladin, pilot of the Black Lion, their leader, their teammate, their friend, Lance’s rival, maybe their best pilot, important beyond measure… not whatever was going through her mind. He was human , like the rest of them.

Human as an umbrella term, of course. He wasn’t literally all human, and neither were Allura or Coran, but, like, real and conscious… yeah. Keith was just like the rest of them. Valid. Worth something. Real. One of them.

Something about those thoughts struck a chord in Pidge’s mind. Did he… not think that they appreciated him anymore? Was he afraid that they would view him the way other people did, after this? Was that why he wasn’t being as blunt as usual? He was… afraid that they would hate him? Would think that he was a-

No, Pidge wasn’t going down that road again.

But the rest of it made sense. Keith was obviously scared of something, and it was more than the threat of being found. Team Voltron were the most important people in the universe to him; of course he would be worried about that.

Kind of like when Pidge had returned to Earth and been worried what her mother would think, or when she found her brother and eventually her father. What would they think?

Why were people so self-conscious? Pidge hated that. She tried to focus on the recording again.

“Sometimes, I wonder if it would have been easier if I just fought for them. If I had just gone out into the arena and fought, would I be… better than this? I’m not worth anything anymore. You know, I thought I was… getting better. Back with you guys. Team Voltron. I had started to think… it was all okay. Maybe I was important. People cared about me. I wasn’t being used or viewed as less. Now I realize that was stupid.” Another bitter, bitter laugh. Pidge was starting to hate it less, maybe even liking it more than Keith’s harsh, degrading words. “It was crazy to think that I was anything. I had a purpose everywhere I went, yeah. I tried to solve the mystery about the Blue Lion back on Earth. I fought the Galra to save the universe with Team Voltron. I did the same thing with the Blade of Marmora.

“You know what I realized, day after day- quintant after quintant? Sitting in that cell? I was doing the exact same thing everywhere I went. Making people happy. Failing at making the government happy. Making the people of the universe happy. Making the Galra happy. It never changed. So I thought… maybe that was all I was meant for. Might as well… stay.

“I started ignoring Zarkon whenever he showed up. Make him happy, if that was what he wanted. Sit still. Don’t try , because where did that get me?”

Keith’s eyes had gone far, far away. He was trapped in some other time. “Zarkon told me once- it was near the beginning, maybe. When I still tried. When the blood surrounding me was still red. He told me that our rebellion would fail, no matter who I had on my side. He told me that he could only be killed by someone with his blood, and his only remaining family left was too weak to betray him, so we would never ‘save the universe’. We’d always have him as our emperor, and that would never change. It still hasn’t.”

Right. They hadn’t stopped Zarkon yet. Lotor hadn’t killed him yet.

“Again, near the beginning, before I stopped caring, I got panic attacks. Shiro was gone again, and this time he took everyone that I knew with him. Nobody would ever come to save me. Do you know how long I was there?” Keith’s voice broke, and finally, his eyes began to shine with tears. “You guys abandoned me. I was there for almost four years. Do you know how long that is? I went through four years of being used by almost every single Galra on Central Command. Just… being their bitch. Because you never saved me.”

Pidge felt herself finally start crying, too. How had she held out for so long? Hearing Keith like that, seeing him snap, it did something to her, and she hated it. Hated losing herself like that. She was better than that .

“We didn’t know,” Lance choked out.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Hunk cried.

“I wish I had known,” Coran sighed.

“We could have done something…” Allura murmured.

Shiro let out a muffled, distressed sound.

Pidge didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what to say.

“You know what Zarkon did, eventually? He quit treating me like a prisoner, and made me… I don’t know. Central Command’s whore? It started losing meaning, what I was fighting for. Dressed me up in nice clothes, fed me… still beat me bloody, but… it was like I wasn’t even Keith anymore. Not worthy of being a Blade of Marmora or a Paladin, for sure. Just… nothing.

“I got out eventually. It was… thanks to Zarkon’s stupidity. He began to let me out of the cell, he obviously thought I wasn’t still imagining killing him every single day. And… you guys attacked one day or something, he told me to stay while he went out to fight you, but I ran. Alarms were flashing, and everything went red…

“Finding an escape pod was… hard, I guess. I didn’t remember the layout of any Galra ships. Can you believe that I spent four years somewhere without even knowing a way to leave? I didn’t know where a hangar was, or escape pods, or anything. I was just… too tired to care much. I ran, and when I found an escape pod, I threw myself into it. And… I was free. Nobody noticed. I was okay . For the first time in four years, I was okay .”

Pidge stared up at Keith’s face as he went silent, his face twisted slightly in concentration. He didn’t look like their Keith. Too… perfect. Too calm. His hair too long, his skin too smooth. It couldn’t have been that long since he got out, although he didn’t say anything. Especially since the dates matched up. Seven years, take away the three years it had been since this was recorded, and the four years worked.

Did that mean that everything else that happened was in the past three years? These weren’t all filmed at the same time?

Keith hadn’t found peace after escaping?

Suddenly, there was a loud crash. Pidge jumped, glancing behind the team, but nothing was there. She realized it had come from the recording. Keith was looking behind him, and a panicked expression crossed his face.

“Who are you?” a gruff voice demanded.

“I… uh…” Pidge could see Keith swallowing nervously.

“Did I finally strike gold? Are you that whore from Central Command?”

“Please don’t take me back!” Keith begged. “At least… not yet! Give me some time, I swear I’ll make it up to you!”

“Make up how?” the voice asked, sounding more curious than suspicious.

“I’ll do anything you want me to,” Keith promised.

Pidge watched the screen with a focus she normally reserved for her hacking. What was going to happen next? She needed to know .

“Alright, fine,” the voice said. “Go on. Do whatever you gotta do.”

Keith nodded quickly, and his eyes were wide when he turned back to whatever was recording him. “I… guess I don’t have much time. So… if you need proof or something…” He pulled on the collar of the jacket he was wearing, exposing his neck.

“Is that a collar?” Hunk gasped, sounding so far from his usual self.

Pidge studied the thick band surrounding Keith’s neck. It was almost a choker, with little designs carved into it. It was mostly black, with some yellow and purple. More fashionable than Pidge would have expected from the Galra.

“Who knew the Emperor thought you were worth that much?” the voice, that Pidge guessed was actually a soldier, said.

“Shut up,” Keith mumbled, loud enough for them to hear, but apparently not enough for the soldier to. He sighed and looked over his shoulder again, then back to whatever was recording him- Pidge really needed to figure that out. She was tired of calling it that. “So… I only have one more thing to say, but it doesn’t really go with… all this. And I want to get this done, or it’ll just be worse with… him. Yeah.

“See you… in the next recording. That’ll probably be the last. If I’m lucky, I’ll die when I’m back with Zarkon.”

“Shouldn’t be disrespecting your emperor like that, bitch.”

Pidge scowled at the recording. The soldier shouldn’t be treating Keith like that. Keith was better than that.

Right?

Her mind was whirling as she thought over everything she had just heard. The others were all silent, even as the screen went dark and returned to displaying the seven files.

Why did it have to be Keith? Why did he have to suffer more for all of them, when the rest of them got to go home and be happy? Why?

Pidge didn’t fucking know.

Would she ever know?

She didn’t know .

...

Chapter Text

5_Freedom

Coran prided himself on being a level-headed person. He wasn’t all that important, so why focus on his own problems? The new Paladins had been more complex and faced more impactful challenges than Coran himself, so he never bothered reflecting on his own emotions.

That had worked for deca-phoeb after deca-phoeb- or what the Paladins referred to as “years”- where Coran pushed aside his own suffering. However, even Coran crumbled sometimes. He did know, somewhere in the back of his mind, that almost everything he ever cared about was destroyed. His siblings and his parents. His son. But none of that mattered. He forced himself to think that nothing mattered but Allura, the Paladins, and Voltron. And, in a way, he believed his own lies. Those thoughts that told him, “no, this isn’t right,” were always swept aside in favor of battle plans or concerns about the others. It was his duty to take care of them. And if he wasn’t sane by the end of it? It didn’t matter. They mattered.

In that way, Coran was able to sympathize with Keith and the rest of the Blade of Marmora. It made sense to ignore how you felt in order to do what you needed to do. Often times, your own emotions got in the way of doing what you needed to do. Coran admired King Alfor for being able to do that, ten thousand deca-phoebs ago.

Even so, Coran had held strong for a long, long time. He only broke when his mind was no longer able to keep up the illusion- and that rarely happened. So Coran was solid. Maybe not the leader that the universe was expecting, but a leader nonetheless.

So now, as Coran stared up at that screen, with seven files and five crying heroes surrounding him, Coran broke. He had lasted long enough- but hearing that from Keith, from someone who used to be so strong… he broke. Coran didn’t know what to do. He didn’t need to know what to do. Because for once, he was thinking about himself.

Coran had been silent through most of their journey into Keith’s past. He had mostly been trapped in his own mind, understanding the words but unable to grasp the meaning behind them. But somewhere along the way, that had cracked, and it all flooded through to him. Coran’s stability had fallen and he had finally gotten it.

He almost regretted it.

What Keith had been through was terrible . Absolutely terrible. Coran had heard stories of terrible things on Altea, but they didn’t come even close to Keith’s story. The Paladins had told stories that Coran thought were horrible, of what sorts of awful things happened back on Earth, but even then, he had reasoned that it was only on Earth that such things happened. And even then, if any of the stories matched Keith’s, it would only be in fragments.

What had already happened was wilder than Coran had imagined. It was enough to pull him out of the cage he had created and see what was really going on.

What really scared Coran was that he could almost see it. He could see where Keith was broken, and there was nothing that could fix those cracks. Maybe that had been what had shaken Coran out of his stupor. It was that Coran couldn’t do anything- he had lived, for nearly his entire life, with his sole purpose being to keep everyone else strong. And Coran had no way to make Keith strong again.

“D-don’t stop,” Shiro whispered weakly. “Just… play the next one.”

Coran was concerned for Shiro. He had just suffered some kind of mental breakdown, and a bad one, at that. Were those the first intelligible words he had spoken since it began? That wasn’t good.

But Coran wasn’t one to deny the wishes of somehow who obviously needed something, so he carefully stood up and pressed on the next file. This was about Keith’s… freedom, it seemed. But that obviously hadn’t lasted long, so what would he have to say? There was clearly more to Keith’s story afterward, so Coran really had no idea what would happen next.

As soon as Keith’s face appeared again, he sat down. The silence in the beginning was still as unnerving as it had been when Coran and Allura had watched the first file by themselves, before they knew what it all was.

Coran wished he could go back to that simple time. It could only have been a quintent ago at the most, when his most pressing concern was the next shipment of their upgraded food.

“So… you guys know everything, I guess. And… if I escaped, somehow, there’d be more.” Keith let out a long sigh. “I’d rather be killed, but I doubt that’ll happen. I… I’m sorry. It’s been a long time. A really long time. They broke me, okay? Like… like a dog.”

Pidge’s breath hitched, Lance cringed, Hunk shrunk into himself, Shiro let out a whimper, and Allura looked down like she didn’t deserve to look at Keith.

Coran was the only one who didn’t really have a reaction. He never did.

“I… I don’t know what to say. I hope you guys rescue me? I hope…” Keith grabbed whatever was recording him and brought it down to his level, where he sunk to the floor. “I wish so, so many things, not that they’ll ever come true. You’ll never see this, probably. It just… makes me feel better that at least I said something , and admitted it to myself. If you guys do end up watching this, then… well, if I’m not too late…”

Keith let out a breath. This was obviously hard for him to say. “Well, if you guys haven’t defeated Zarkon yet… I just want you guys to know that you’re doing amazing things for the universe. You’re a beacon of hope for so many people. Okay? So don’t ever stop. You mean a lot to… everyone. To me. Stop the Emperor. Save the universe. If you can… save me . Because… you’ve made a huge difference. You’ve done even more since I left. So…”

Keith looked up, probably at the Galra soldier, then pulled the recording device closer to him. His voice was faint, almost a whisper. “I believe in Voltron. Each of you does so much for the universe, even those of you who stay behind. You… you just accepted I was gone. I should be mad, but I’m not, because I’m not important. I’m just one of the… is there even a number for how many people are in the universe? I don’t know. I’m just one of many, many people that you’d be saving if you brought the Galra Empire down.”

“Are you done over there? I expect my ‘reward’ for letting you do whatever that was.”

“Yes. Of course,” Keith called. “I’m almost done, don’t worry. You’ll get your reward, I promise it’ll be worthwhile.”

The soldier grunted something that might have been “better be”, but Coran wasn’t focused on that. No, he was focused on Keith’s expression. It was a small, faint smile. That got through to Coran, even if he hadn’t fully processed Keith’s words yet.

“I hope you guys see this,” Keith whispered. “And… and form Voltron.

There was a real smile on his face now, and even though Coran could see Keith reach behind the device and stop the recording, the telltale click that had been overwhelming before was now inaudible as the Lions roared from their hangars.

After a long period of silence, Coran looked around at the rest of his team. They were still all crying. Coran felt some tears of his own as he began to fully understand what Keith had said.

“Can we… can we talk?” Hunk asked finally. He had always been the most empathetic of them all. “I- I mean, that was a lot, and… I have some things I want to say.”

Shiro took a deep breath and nodded his head. It appeared that he had gotten his emotions under control, to some degree. “Y-yeah, I… I think it’s t-time we talked…”

“Shiro…” Allura sighed, reaching a hand out before dropping it. “I… agree.”

“Do we have any… leftover food?” Pidge asked. “I… I think we would all feel better with a meal, and… I don’t want t-to force Hunk to cook.”

Coran’s eyebrows drew together as he tried to understand that statement. Was it a coverup for how she actually felt?

“T-then… yeah, sure,” Lance agreed, deflating.

“Right then,” Coran said, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “Let’s go.”

He helped the Paladins up and ushered them into the dining hall. He made sure they were all sitting down, then rushed back to the kitchen and searched for the food that Hunk had made earlier. After opening several compartments, he found it and emptied six servings into six bowls.

Coran remembered when there were seven servings and seven bowls…

No. Try to push it away.

Push it away the way he pushed away the death of his planet and his civilization?

Coran swore to himself that he would never repress these memories. These were… too important. They meant too much to just… ignore. Altea should have been like that, too, but… that was a different time. There was too much at stake to just shut down and grieve over everything he had ever known. No, better to carry on the legacy the way Alfor would have wanted.

Alfor…

Coran shook himself out of his reverie. His team needed him, so he had to help them. He walked back out into the dining hall, carefully balancing the bowls on his arms. The Paladins were still silent.

“Well!” Coran began, then stopped. That was too cheerful, wasn’t it? He tried again. “So… what would everyone like to get off their chest?”

Lance looked around the table, and when nobody said anything, he began. “I think… I think… god, we were so stupid!” He slammed a fist down on the table. “Why did we just accept that Keith was dead? Why did we never try to talk to him after he left for the Blade?” Lance let out a breath. “Just… there was so much more we could’ve done that we didn’t.

After Lance’s exclamation, the table remained silent. Coran sighed. Lance leaned back and closed his eyes, glancing at the empty chair where Keith used to sit.

“Guess I’ll go next,” Hunk offered. “I… well… I wish we had known. I wish we could have rescued him, so he doesn’t have to go through that again. And… knowing that there’s more? I wouldn’t trade lives with Keith for anything…” Hunk began pushing the bowl anxiously from side to side. Coran knew something was wrong with him because he wasn’t eating. At all. “I wish he could’ve known that too, y’know? That we love him and care about him and miss him… and despite what Zarkon did to him, he still matters.”

“I agree with both of you,” Pidge spoke up. “We couldn’t do anything, and… and we didn’t know! That’s the worst part of it- that we thought he was dead, or if he wasn’t dead, he had just left us. But no, he was… he was…” Her voice broke, and she blinked rapidly as if to clear away her tears. “I hate not knowing.”

“So do I, Pidge,” Allura said. “I… I know that it’s bad, but I wish we never got these files at all. We could have just lived on… blissfully ignorant… and be okay with not knowing… this.”

“No,” Shiro interjected. “We… we couldn’t do that to him. Plus… plus, did you see the last file name? It was called… ‘rebels’. Maybe he’s 0kay… maybe he escaped…”

“I hope that you’re right,” Coran said quietly. “The universe is a vast place. Maybe… maybe there’s still a chance?”

The looks on some of the other’s faces were enough to confirm that they agreed with what he really thought, but Coran would hold onto that hope for as long as he dared.

...

Chapter Text

6_Prince

Usually, Allura could trust herself. She could trust her emotions and thoughts and funnel them into energy she could use, may it be magic or just… energy. What she used every quintent. But… this whole thing threw her off, and she hated it. She hated not being able to trust her own emotions, or being able to trust what she had thought was the truth.

So it wasn’t Allura being insensitive or spiteful towards Keith. Not at all. No, it was… the effect it had on everyone, really. She didn’t like seeing these strong, brave people reduced to… disasters. The Paladins were better than this.

Allura put a lot of trust into other people. Her father. The old Paladins. Coran. The humans that had appeared one day and awoken the castle, who she trusted to become the new Paladins. The Blade of Marmora. Lotor, once he joined their side, finally.

Lotor. Perhaps that was the most troubling of them all. Judging by the names of the next two recordings, she could guess that Keith had spent time with Lotor. That was the most probable theory- Keith had gone back to the Galra, obviously, as Allura had learned in the last recording. And Lotor had changed sides, even just for one battle before vanishing, during the battle where Keith was captured.

Lotor had been their ally on and off during the four years that Keith had been imprisoned, before another year passed and they killed Zarkon. Obviously, they didn’t trust Lotor fully, and he had told them that during the time that he wasn’t helping them, he had returned to the Galra’s base of operations. So… it made sense that Lotor would have seen Keith at some point. Even… even used Keith, since he had been the prince after all, despite clearly being distrusted by his own people.

But the way that Keith had phrased the next recording… “Prince” like that was the most important part of it. And Lotor had never told them anything about even knowing a human, or a former member of the Blade of Marmora.

And… Allura didn’t know how she felt about that. She had… sort of had an affair with Lotor. Not that either of them had had a relationship, but it had been a bit of a betrayal to Voltron. Needless to say, the Paladins had never discovered it. But thinking it over… Lotor did have a lot of slaves. Lotor hadn’t really talked to her after he became emperor, apart from a one-night engagement the first time Voltron arrived on Central Command in peace.

Allura hated herself for not thinking things over more with that part of the past, but it was over. Would it come back to bite her now? Would Keith expose her? A part of her supposed that she deserved it. Allura had betrayed Voltron when taking part in certain activities with Lotor.

It didn’t matter. If the past returned to her, she would shoulder the Paladin’s and Coran’s reactions without shame. Again, it was over. This wasn’t about Allura. This was about Keith. The former Red Paladin.

Which… Allura had taken his place, after switching out Blue for Red to help Lance, who had been struggling with bonding with Red. Maybe it was right that Keith had taken Allura’s place-

No. No. She would not lower herself to such thoughts. Allura was the Princess of Altea- or rather, Queen, as there was no other ruler of Altea, but she had never changed her title due to the destruction of her civilization. She was above being petty and immature in such a way.

Looking around at her Paladins, she decided that it was time for them all to resume watching Keith’s recordings. There were two more. Allura could get through this. It was hard for her- but she refused to be weak and dishonor her former, possibly deceased Paladin.

“Everyone, I believe we should return to the bridge,” she announced, standing up. “I know that we haven’t healed from the previous files, but I doubt that’s something that will be happening soon.”

“Yeah,” Pidge mumbled. “Highly doubt it.”

“You’re right, I know that,” Hunk sighed. “Wish we could just stay here forever.”

“Guys, come on. We have to- we have to know what happened to Keith,” Shiro said.

“Shiro’s right,” Lance agreed. “We’re so close to finishing it, anyway; and we all know we’re going to finish it, so we should just get it over with.”

Allura narrowed her eyes at the Paladins, then turned to Coran. He still looked unstable, which was an odd look for her advisor, and her father’s advisor before her. Coran had seen so much- this must be as much of a shock to him as it was to the rest of them. She had no right to judge his emotions, after he’d done so much for everyone.

“Princess,” Coran began, then paused and let out a long breath. “I agree. Let’s get out there!”

Coran was clearly faking it, but Allura couldn’t bring herself to comfort him. She was absorbed in herself- and she knew that was bad, she really did . But Allura had no place to escape to- her reality was just as dark as her mind was at that moment.

They all got up and made their way back to the bridge. It was strange that they were watching all of this on the bridge, the screen in the same place that they would normally receive transmissions. Perhaps the Paladins wanted to fool themselves into thinking they were all talking to each other instead of watching a recording that was obviously done long ago.

“Pidge, when was this recording created?” Allura asked the smallest Paladin. Pidge just looked up at her numbly and pulled her laptop over to where she was seated, then began typing.

Allura anxiously waited for the answer, and she could tell from the Paladin’s expressions that they all wanted to know the answer as much as Allura herself. They were all invested in Keith, and this answer might change Allura’s perspective on how likely it was that they could find Keith.

After what felt like deca-phoebs, Pidge finally answered. “The next two were only made a month ago.”

No one said anything, but she could see the little bit of light in the others’ eyes that displayed their newfound hope that Keith would be alright. Allura transferred a month to Galactic Standard time- or Altean time, as the Paladins liked to call it, despite the Galra and most of the larger planets using the same measure of time, and realized that these weren’t that old. That Keith had definitely been alive recently.

Despite herself, Allura perked up a bit as well, knowing how unlikely it was, but unable to stop herself.

Coran took the responsibility of selecting the sixth file. Dread settled in Allura’s stomach once again at seeing the title. She shook her head and tried to focus on Keith’s face as it appeared. Again. And soon it would be the last time that Keith just stared at the device recording him in silence.

There was a definite difference this time. Keith looked… older. His hair was longer, for one. Definitely less organized than he had appeared last time. There were dark circles under his eyes, and that made Keith… real. Less like one of the dolls Allura had played with as a child. There was an oil smudge on his face. He looked more… beaten down than he had last time. Like Pidge had said, this was created recently, and it was obvious. Allura could almost imagine him there with all of them.

But something about Keith made him… stand out, in a way. She couldn’t tell what exactly it was, but he felt out of place . It was strange. Like he wouldn’t belong wherever he was in the recording, or back on the Paladins’ home planet, or even here, on the Castleship.

Allura didn’t like that feeling. Not at all.

What scared her more than that strange feeling, though, was Keith’s expression. It was hard. Determined. Beaten down, yes, but there was a shine in Keith’s eyes, like he knew the answer to something that no one else knew. What did it mean? What would it become?

“So. Guess you guys never got the message, huh. Just… stayed. I’m honestly surprised that Lotor kept it.” Keith sighed, while Allura’s stomach clenched at the mention of the Galra emperor. “Well, after this is all over, you’ll definitely be getting it.” He looked over at something out of the frame. “Quin, are you sure this is recording?”

“For the record, Paladin, if that’s what you are, this is a terrible idea. You’ve got better options! Hell, you could go back!” another voice exclaimed, startling Allura and, so it seemed, the others as well.

Keith just smiled softly. “I’m not anywhere close to being a Paladin anymore. This is what I want to do.”

“Well, if you’re sure…” the voice grumbled. Quin, did Keith call the stranger?

“Whatever. You get to listen to my sob story, and I get to end this,” Keith said with an air of finality. He seemed much more like himself this time, which made Allura confused. Wouldn’t more time spent with the enemy make that mental problem- PTSD, Shiro had called it- worse?

Keith turned back to his recording device. “Alright. I did this once, I can do it again.” Finally, that nervousness from before settled on his features. “If you guys didn’t think I was dead three years ago, you certainly do now. Damn, seven years. It’s been seven years since… well, that’s not true. It’s been seven years since you guys have talked to me, maybe.”

What did that mean? Something was tugging on the edge of Allura’s mind, a distant memory that she had a feeling she shouldn’t have forgotten. What was it? Had they… had they seen Keith at some point? Sometime over the past three years, because Keith would have said so in the past videos if it had been earlier than that…

A flash of long, inky black appeared in Allura’s mind, but it vanished just as quickly.

“Okay. So… so…” Keith let out a breath, closing his eyes. “This is harder than it was last time. Even though I don’t have anything to lose.” He opened his eyes again and snuck a glance to where Quin must be standing, then turned back. “After I ended the last recording, the soldier just dragged me to his ship, made me pay up… and, uh, then we were back at Central Command. Guess I didn’t run away far enough, huh?”

That smile was so, so bitter.

“This time… it was different. They just threw me in a cell, and then… left me. It was the strangest thing, it seemed like. After… after nearly four years of laying there, taking whatever they gave me… it was almost as good as freedom. Almost.

“Then… one day, Lotor appeared. The prince. He told me I was a gift from his father, and that I’d be transported to Lotor’s ship instead of Central Command. I went along with it. Thought it would be better. Lotor clearly didn’t recognize me at first, since he just told me what was going on before leaving.

“After what felt like forever, a druid injected me with some sedative, and I woke up in a room. With… a real bed and everything. I didn’t even have that when I escaped. Four years is… a long time. So… it had to be better, right?

“Well… no. Lotor came in and looked at me, then asked if I knew about Voltron. I said no, but he saw through it. I’m a terrible liar, always was… but anyway. He didn’t know that I was a Paladin at first, but then he held up a vial of quintessence. It was the quintessence of the Red Lion. It was… so intense. I hadn’t felt Red at all since just after I left Voltron for the Blade. Even though it wasn’t Red, it was… comforting. The first real comfort I had felt in a long, long time.

“I think Lotor figured it out then. He asked if I was a Paladin once. I didn’t say anything, so he threatened to break the vial. I… I needed that quintessence, more than anything I’ve ever needed before. It was my only light in absolute hell . So I finally said yes, promised anything he wanted other than information just so I could keep that quintessence. I broke… so easily. It was… scary.”

“How did he get some of Red’s quintessence?” Lance asked, furrowing his eyebrows. Allura was wondering the same thing. She wasn’t quite sure about the timeline of this all, but she figured it was around when she was close to being able to pilot Red instead of Blue. So she and Lance would have been around the Red Lion a lot. Pidge and Hunk, maybe Coran as well, would have been working on technology and such, while Shiro would sometimes… stand there. Stare. Almost like the Red Lion could tell him where Keith was.

“I have no idea,” she murmured honestly. If nothing else, Lotor was sneaky, especially if he managed to keep their teammate enslaved with none of them any the wiser.

“For a while, it was… normal. I did what Lotor wanted me to do, slept in his bed, ate what he fed me. Sometimes he would vanish off for his own missions, things that he never told me. It was strange, but I never questioned it, because what good would it do me?

“After some time, the ship arrived back on Central Command, but it was… different? Less violent, maybe? I couldn’t figure it out, until a soldier called Lotor ‘emperor’. And that’s when I got it. I was still confused, though, whose side Lotor was on.”

Allura stared up at Keith’s expression, trying to figure it out. He looked… conflicted. Was it about her and Lotor? She really hoped that he wouldn’t expose their relationship. How would the others react? She knew it was immature of her to be worrying about herself when she was supposed to be concerned about Keith, the one who had gone through all of this, but… it was hard to dispel her rising anxiety.

“Lotor pulled me into a side room and told me that you guys would be there. That if I obeyed, then… he would let me see you. You have no idea how that felt. I was worried that I’d do something traitorous, and all of you would hate me, or- or something! The worst part was that thought, would any of you even recognize me? I knew that I didn’t look the same, that I looked different… and if you guys didn’t look hard enough, you wouldn’t even know.”

And that was the moment when Allura realized that there was no way for Keith to tell this story without exposing her. The memory briefly replayed in her mind.

They had walked into the throne room, and it was so strange to be back on Central Command without fighting anyone. The Galra soldiers that saw them had given a brief salute before returning to their work. It had almost bothered Allura, how the Galra were acting like Voltron was insignificant. But at the same time, it was a small relief that they were all at peace.

“Paladins of Voltron!” Lotor had exclaimed, bringing his hands together in a pleasant gesture, though Allura wasn’t focused on him at the moment.  No, her eyes were fixed on the creature that was practically attached to the half-Galra’s leg. Long, silky black hair and creamy skin.

Also, no clothes. Allura could tell the others were just as uncomfortable as her. She hadn’t been aware that the Galra Empire condoned slavery- although, why was she surprised? The Galra were a despicable species…

She had shaken her head and looked up at Lotor, determinedly not looking at the slave below him. She really had to stop thinking like that. If there was anything Keith, the Blade of Marmora, and Lotor had taught her, it was that not all Galra were terrible.

Well, perhaps Lotor wasn’t the best for this particular situation. But Allura’s heart ached for him nonetheless.

“Feel free to explore all that Central Command has to offer you,” Lotor had told the others, then met Allura’s gaze. “The princess and I will speak of the treaty.”

The Paladins and Coran had been fine with exploring the former enemy’s base, although Lance and Coran had both shot Allura and Lotor concerned glances. Allura simply shook her head, but inside, she was thrilled at the prospect of being alone with the emperor.

Lotor had stood up, scratching the head of the creature clinging to him, before shaking it off and whispering something to it. The creature had run off… somewhere, but Allura didn’t mind. She approached Lotor with a smile, and he took her arm.

“Why don’t we go, love?” Lotor had asked her softly.

They had walked down the hall to a room that she assumed to be Lotor’s. It had appeared plenty lived in, although clean.

But then… Lotor’s slave had been sitting in the corner of the room, head buried in bent knees in the corner of the room. This was… strange. It occurred to Allura that she and Lotor had never made love anywhere other than her room in the Castle of the Lions. Was this normal for Galra?

“Lotor?” she had asked, turning to the half-Galra. The slave had flinched at the sound of her voice. She frowned.

“Don’t mind him,” Lotor had said with a dazzling, distracting smile, stepping closer to her to block the view of the creature… him. “This is just to break him. I’m sure you can understand, can’t you?”

“O-of course,” Allura lied. She had pressed her lips to Lotor’s, letting the tension slowly leave the room, replaced by lust.

She had tried to forget about the slave in the corner, but it didn’t really work.

That had been the last time.

The memory replaying in her mind, Allura realized, three years too late, that the slave had been Keith. How had she not seen it? How? He had been right there… so close… yet none of them had any idea.

“I don’t need to give all the details of what happened in the first half. You were all there. You might remember going to Central Command t-to make a treaty?” Keith’s voice was almost innocent, but it had a wobbly quality that gave away his unease. Clearly he didn’t like this story.

Allura didn’t really like this story either.

The other Paladins let out gasps of surprise as they each put together the puzzle. Pidge jumped up and paused the recording.

“No!” she exclaimed. “He was… that was him…”

“We’re so stupid,” Hunk groaned. “We were so close, weren’t we?”

“I should’ve known it was him,” Shiro said quietly. “It was… it was so obvious , looking back on it.”

“If we’d known he was alive…” Lance trailed off, looking to the side guiltily.

“I put him through that… ” Allura whispered, not even realizing she spoke aloud until she looked up and saw the others looking at her.

“Put him through what, Princess?” Coran asked, frowning.

“Is there something we don’t know?” Hunk asked softly.

Out of anyone in the universe, this group of people would accept her. They would understand . They had understood what Keith had told them so far, and his story was so much worse than hers, so why wouldn’t they be… okay? Because it was over, and it didn’t matter. That part of the past was unimportant.

So why did Allura shake her head and say, “You’ll find out soon, anyway.” ?

With confused and concerned looks, the others let Pidge play the recording again. Allura felt idiotic to be worried about something like this in the face of what Keith had gone through, but… it was bad, but she was almost… getting used to what Keith was telling them? Yes, she was being numbed to it.

That was bad.

“I was there. Holding onto Lotor’s leg, because that was the only anchor I had. You were… so close. I could have saved myself. I could have said that it was me, and beg to be saved. But I didn’t. Because… because… I don’t really know why. I didn’t… deserve it, I think. I didn’t deserve, after everything I let myself become, to be rescued. I didn’t deserve to be myself again.

“It was hard to stay quiet. But I almost didn’t care anymore.”

There was a tense silence as they waited for Keith’s next words. Guilt filled Allura, and she looked away from Keith’s face, though she listened carefully to what he said.

“Lotor told me to go back to his room, and I obeyed, because that’s what I had turned into.” Keith sighed deeply. “I don’t know if you guys will watch this all together, or separate, or even at all, but you might want to talk to Allura…? Or not, I mean, whatever…”

A flush colored Allura’s face. She looked up at her team’s- no, her friends’ - concerned, curious faces. She simply shook her head. It would be easier to let Keith talk.

“Okay. This is bad, I know, I shouldn’t be talking about private things in your lives that you deserve to keep secret,” Keith muttered. “But… consider it revenge. For not… saving me when it was still possible.”

Shiro flinched. Allura only felt worse. She was sure that the others felt guilt, but it surely wasn’t as terrible as this sickening feeling in her gut, twisting her up and squeezing .

“Lotor came in, but Allura was with him. And… and… god. Allura was in love with Lotor, for some reason I don’t fucking know, and they had sex right in front of me. It sucked. Okay…?”

“Damn,” Quin said from the recording.

Everyone stared at her. Allura was frozen. She couldn’t bring herself to move. Childish embarrassment flooded through her. What would they think of her? She had… she had trusted Lotor, and he had done that, with that slave… Keith…

That had been why Allura refused to see Lotor for any longer. She had trusted Lotor to not… ruin this. What they had had. She had even hoped… just a little bit… for a future. But it had vanished, that last time they were together in private.

With Keith.

Hunk timidly paused the recording. About a minute had passed by since Keith had exposed Allura, but it had just gone on, even though none of them had been listening.

“So…” Hunk began, glancing at her.

“Everything makes a lot more sense now,” Lance muttered. “Guess I should have known.”

“How did we not know?” Pidge asked, scowling. “Allura, why?

“And why didn’t you tell any of us?” Coran added. “We… we could have helped you.”

Allura stared at them, still frozen. Her secret, it was out… and there was no going back now. But there was nothing she could say to them. Nothing she wanted to say to them.

“I knew,” Shiro murmured.

Everyone turned to stare at him instead, Allura included.

“What?”

“I saw them on the security tapes one day, when I was trying to figure out where the mice went, because Coran needed them,” Shiro explained, looking down. “Not… not much. Just kissing, I swear…”

“Thank you for not saying anything,” Allura finally said.

“There wouldn’t be any point,” Shiro pointed out.

Allura could feel the others looking at each other.

“Okay… is there anything else you guys want to add?” Lance asked.

“You’re not going to… yell, or accuse me of being a traitor?” Allura asked, confused, but also slightly relieved that they weren’t making a bigger deal of this than they needed to.

“What good would that do?” Hunk asked. “Allura, we know that Voltron is the most important thing to you.”

“Yeah, you’d never do anything to hurt us,” Lance added.

“Even if it is forbidden romance,” Coran interjected, “we know that you’d keep it as far away from all of us as you could.”

Everyone stared awkwardly at each other for a moment before Pidge sighed.

“Alright, guess that’s it, then.” Her voice was quiet, like they were at an Altean death ceremony. Pidge stood up and rewound the video back to where they had been.

“-sucked. Okay…?”

“Damn.”

“Shut it, Quin. So… yeah. After Allura left, Lotor turned to me and asked why I didn’t try to escape. I didn’t answer. Lotor would just use my answer against me anyway. So… for the first time in what felt like forever, I was finally punished.

“It was almost a relief, which is strange, but… not really. After so long of being treated like I was one of them, it was like I was reminded of who I was again. Not a Galra. Not a Galra . Not one of their little toys, either. I was… I was…”

And it was here where Keith began to crumble once again, his hardships shining through the cracks.

“I swear I’m Keith Kogane,” Keith whispered, grabbing the filming device and sinking down to the floor, the way he had in the last recording, although last time it had been to hide his words from the Galra soldier. This time, it was for whatever small brand of comfort Keith could get. “Fucking… Keith Akira Kogane. They did fuck me, though, so I guess that part’s true.”

That near-maniacal laughter after those words was enough to give Allura nightmares for a phoeb.

“But am I… Keith Akira Kogane? Nobody’s called me that in forever. Always… Central Command’s whore. Lotor’s bitch. Just another Galra slave. No one… of any importance in history. Even… back before the Galra. I was the Red Paladin. The Black Paladin. A pilot of Voltron. Important for my title, not who I am. Back on Earth. I was the orphan, Shiro’s adopted brother, the weird kid, the Garrison’s golden boy, then a Garrison dropout. So… many… titles. But what am I without them? Just another trapped person in an entire universe filled with others that are suffering.

“This doesn’t matter. I know it doesn’t matter.” Keith’s eyes were filling with tears as he stared at the recording device. “I don’t matter.” He was silent for a moment before continuing.

“Lotor locked me in a cage for… a long time. I just stared down at everyone from far above his throne- the cage was suspended from the ceiling. I don’t know if you guys showed up again or not. I stopped caring after some time.

“I was never claustrophobic- I lived in the desert, that’s the least closed-in place on Earth. Even living in one room for four years, then a different one… how long was I with Lotor? Probably around a year, at that point. But anyway… I wasn’t claustrophobic before he put me in that cage, only letting me out for a few doboshes… minutes… every once in a while. It was like I wasn’t even living anymore, something in quintessence… it ruins the natural order of things.

“But every moment spent outside made moments in the cage even worse. Remembering what just that little bit of freedom felt like only served to remind me that being kept in a cage wasn’t okay . I wasn’t some… animal. Right? I was better than that. I had to be.”

“I never looked up,” Hunk whispered. Allura glanced at him and saw his expression one of pure regret. Knowing the emotion all too well, she looked back at Keith, who was still curled up on the floor, his eyes squeezed closed.

All of this pain only made Allura’s own even worse. This… she had done this. She had done so many things wrong. Allura wasn’t as good as she liked to pretend.

This was awful. She despised it. Despised herself.

“But… there was nothing I could do. So when Lotor let me out, I was only more obedient. He was around a lot more often after becoming emperor, and he always kept me away whenever you guys came to visit… if you did at all. He could have just been lying to me.”

Allura knew that feeling. She wished it wasn’t so easy to understand how Keith felt when he spoke of Lotor. She… understood the feeling, in a sort of twisted way. Not that she was comparing her own relationship with Lotor to everything Keith had been through, but…

Allura knew what Lotor was like.

“Everything sort of fell into a pattern, the way it did back when Zarkon was emperor. I did what Lotor wanted. I dressed like the whore I was, if I even had clothes. Sometimes I saw arena fights with Lotor. It was his way of showing me off to the empire, I think. To remind me that all of the Galra knew who I belonged to. None of them were even allowed to touch me, which was… it felt like I was turned into a doll, sort of. A porcelain doll, like the sort that I wouldn’t be allowed to even look at for too long back on Earth. An expensive little toy with a pretty face and groomed to do nothing but obey.

“I lost myself even more than last time. I was… mindless, sort of. I didn’t think about anything anymore. Apparently I spent less time with Lotor than I did with Zarkon, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt long. Tiring. The most I let myself wish for was a break.

“Eventually, I stopped talking. I never spoke that much to begin with, but I just… stopped. Toys don’t talk, do they?”

Keith’s voice had gained an almost melodic quality, and his eyes were distanced, almost unfocused. Were his pupils dilating? He looked slightly paler than normal, and… it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t natural, not for a Galra, not for a human, not even for an Altean. He wasn’t alright. And Allura wished there was something- anything- they could do to alleviate it.

But there wasn’t. Team Voltron was stuck on this side of the screen, divided by countless stars, ticks, and experiences.

“It didn’t matter what thoughts I might have had in my head- they were meaningless, weren’t they? Nobody cared what Lotor’s little bitch had to say, or if it even talked. It was only a primitive halfbreed, known for beauty and not much else. Not that the emperor would ever hear of this- he was a halfbreed, wasn’t he? But Alteans were far superior to all other races apart from the Galra. So it almost didn’t matter that the emperor was a halfbreed, too. A halfbreed emperor with his halfbreed generals and halfbreed slave.

“You know which one of those wasn’t respected? Me. If I can even refer to myself as that…” Keith’s dazed expression cracked, and he buried his head in his knees, the same way he had once done when Allura failed to recognize her lost Paladin. “I’m so… f-fucking disgusting…”

Hunk had started crying again, and he buried his head in Lance’s shoulder. Lance awkwardly patted the Yellow Paladin’s head, but Allura could recognize the shine of unshed tears.

Why could she recognize that but not Keith?

Pidge was tightly gripping Shiro’s prosthetic, while Shiro was still shaking. Coran was staring up at the recording resolutely, like he couldn’t bear to tear his eyes away. Allura was simply watching. Why could she watch her teammates fall apart, but not be able to stand listening to one of their own tell his story?

Keith was wrong. He wasn’t disgusting. If anyone was, it was Allura, for failing him, for betraying all of their trust. For nearly being too frightened to continue watching. He didn’t deserve any of what he had been through.

“Why? Why did I give in?” Keith whispered to himself. “Why was I so weak that I couldn’t bear to stand up and fight? Why did I fail to stay myself? I failed… all of you. You deserve better than to sit and listen to me break. If I hadn’t been so stupid, so useless…

Shiro let out a choked sob.

Someone- presumably Quin- said something muffled that the device didn’t pick up. Keith looked up at them, tears streaked down his face, and nodded. “Yeah… it will be over soon.”

Allura didn’t like what that sentence might mean. She really didn’t.

“It doesn’t matter. The past doesn’t matter. Because soon, I won’t even be a footnote in history. You guys saved the universe. You stopped Zarkon. You made Lotor emperor. The Galra Empire is at peace. I was only there for a year, while it’s been… seven years. Isn’t that hilarious? Seven of us. Am I even worth enough to consider myself part of you?” He was silent for a moment while he thought, then he said, “No. I’m not.

“My salvation finally came in rebels. People who wanted to collapse the Galra Empire. You know, I used to think that was our goal, but it wasn’t. Our goal was just peace, no matter what that entailed. These people wouldn’t give up until Lotor was dead and there was no empire. Just free planets, doing whatever they were doing ten thousand years ago. They captured Lotor and… here I am. I’ll explain more in the next recording, I guess. I… I need a break.”

Keith took a deep breath, wiped at his face, then switched off the recording. The seven files appeared once again.

There was only silence, with a few muffled sobs.

Allura couldn’t trust herself anymore. She had failed when it counted. Allura had failed when the people that needed her were depending on her to help them.

She was a failure. She hated to think it- Allura had always prided herself on being strong and having good judgment, but that was gone. Allura wasn’t that person. She was different from years of war, wasn’t she?

Allura couldn’t trust herself.

Chapter Text

7_Rebels

Team Voltron was in shock.

It was crazy, wasn’t it? Their lost seventh team member almost rising from the dead to tell his story? They had long ago given up on him, even if they still harbored that small glimmer of hope. There was no way that Keith would come back to them. It had been so long.

As they looked at those seven files, they all knew that those words would be haunting the rest of their days.

Earth. Mechacat. Daggers. Empire. Freedom. Prince. Rebels.

Rebels.

This was their last chance to find out for certain what had happened to Keith, even if they all had a sense of what might happen next. He had said it enough in his own recordings. He wished he was gone. Soon it would be over. It would be all over.

Closure would be better than not knowing, Lance and Pidge reasoned.

He should come home, Shiro and Coran desperately wished.

The pain of certainty is worse than that small chance, Allura and Hunk thought.

And Keith? Who knew what Keith was thinking? He had changed so much- once, he might have raged at these cliffhangers and uncertainties. Now? They had no idea what he would have thought had he not been the one whose story they were hearing. Would he have been silent and reserved? Angry that this person couldn’t stand up and fight? Become vulnerable and let out his softer, sadder emotions?

None of them had any clue what Keith would have thought.

It almost didn’t matter, did it? Because Keith wasn’t there. He was gone , and that was how it had been for seven years.

Seven was representative of so many things. Seven for the number of years that they hadn’t seen each other. Seven for the number of years the rest of them had been fighting for the sake of the universe. Seven for the number of files there were. Seven for the number of people who had once lived in the Castle of Lions before their family was torn apart.

But despite all of the suffering they had gone through- they were still Team Voltron. The same strong people who had defended the innocent against evil and won . That was why they pushed through. That was why Shiro stood and selected the final file.

This was it. This was what they had all been waiting for. A conclusion to this seemingly endless tragedy, an end to listening to Keith’s voice telling them how they failed, over and over again.

Because that was what this was, wasn’t it? He had sent them that missive to remind them that they are not perfect, that despite their best efforts, not everything could be saved. It was their fault, all their fault.

Voltron had failed .

They all watched in a tense silence as Keith appeared on that screen for the seventh and final time, and stared in silence as if he could see right through the technology to their regretful, pained faces.

“This is it. This is the end. I’ve been waiting for years… it doesn’t feel as good as it should. I’m almost free- I’m so close… but there’s still you. Voltron. I could always go back to Voltron. I could always fly back to Earth and talk to the Garrison, find out where you settled. Because you got the peaceful life. The one with the happy ending that I never got.”

Keith was silent again for a moment, almost as though he was debating whether or not to say his next words. Eventually, though, he gave up and spoke.

“It’s not your fault, what happened. Sure, maybe there was something you could have done to prevent it… but what happened to me wasn’t your fault. It was the fault of… of the Galra. Their empire is finally falling, so you’ve finally won. I’ve finally won. But this doesn’t feel like victory.”

Keith looked to the side, almost nervously- what could he possibly be nervous about at that point? They had all heard his deepest secrets, and even if they no longer knew him , at least they knew his story. A story filled with darkness and sorrow, a story that should never be forgotten.

The rest of them didn’t agree with his statement- they had driven him away. There was so much they could have done so that he could stay , so that he wasn’t hurt… but they didn’t. They let him go. With smiles on their goddamn faces, not even considering that something like this could happen to the person they considered family.

Keith was right, though, and they would come to understand this another time, when they weren’t in such a dark place. Because after all, they were the defenders of the universe. They were strong. They wouldn’t fall because of grief.

It was almost funny that Keith’s suffering made him a wiser person than the rest of him- that, in spite of everything he had been through, he came out strong, although not strong enough to prevent the finale of his tale.

“I guess I should tell you how I got here. I said… I said that there are rebels, right? They attacked Central Command and completely brought it down- the empire is almost destroyed. They’re so close. They captured Lotor, and they found me in his room. They thought I was a threat, so they brought me back to their closest base and locked me up. At least I didn’t have to see Lotor’s face- but it brought back more memories, and that claustrophobia from the cage was back. It was like the walls were pressing in on me- and it was terrible. It wasn’t real, but it felt… it felt so real.

“They eventually questioned me, and I told them everything. I told them how I used to be a Paladin, then a Blade, and what happened to me with the Galra. They thought I was lying. ‘Voltron’s gone,’ they said, as if that changed anything I’d said. ‘It’s impossible for you to be one of their Paladins, they’re supposed to all be humans and Alteans.’ That hurt more than I thought it would. After all these years- the free people still thought that a Galra was incapable of hating Zarkon, Lotor, and the empire as a whole. But I didn’t change my story, even though… even though that was long over.

“They publicly executed Lotor and broadcasted it on as many networks as possible. I don’t know if any of you saw that…”

No. They hadn’t seen it. The Castle of the Lions had been far away from Central Command at the time, and Earth was still building enough technology to be able to communicate with other civilizations.

“But it doesn’t matter. They stopped seeing me as a threat after a while, and then… then Quin showed up. He had heard some of my story, and talked me through some of it… kind of strange that a rebel soldier would be my therapist, but I’m okay enough to be able to tell you guys everything.

“I don’t really know why I started the recordings, back… was it three years ago? I was alone, truly alone for the first time in four years, and I needed to get away. Maybe going through my memories wasn’t the best way to get away from them, but… that’s what I did. And I’m sort of glad, because… I want someone who knew me before I was ruined to know about all of this. I want you to care. I want… I-I want to know that someone else knew.”

Something in each of their hearts broke at the words. After so long not really wondering what had happened to Keith, assuming that he was dead or didn’t care… it was shocking to learn that he had thought of them so often over the past seven years, despite not talking to them or even knowing if they were alive for so much of the time. He had cared enough to want them to know everything about him, even if they hadn’t back then.

Now, though? They all found themselves wanting to know more, not just about his history, but normal things- what did he like to do? What was his favorite… anything? The files had opened their eyes to how little they really knew about Keith.

Keith Akira Kogane.

“When I think about it… these files represented each of you.

“Earth for Lance, because Earth was always his home, no matter how far away we were.”

That was… Lance stared up at the screen. How had Keith managed to explain it so easily? Earth was… Earth was his home. It had his family, his memories, Varadero Beach, rain, fresh air, grass, home...

“Voltron for Hunk, because family was always so important, and… Voltron was my first family.”

Hunk, finally, felt something. A warmth in his chest, because… Voltron was his family. As much as they were teammates, they were also the people that they spent all of their time with, people who he had laughed and cried with, people that he could depend upon...

“The Blade of Marmora for Shiro, because I know how important loyalty was to him, and… he was always loyal to me. My brother.”

Shiro let out a soft noise, tears forming in his eyes for a reason other than sadness. Hearing Keith say that, after thinking that he would have hated Shiro for what he’d done, had a bigger impact than Shiro would have thought.

“The Galra Empire for Pidge, because I know she hates not knowing what could be out there, and… I learned a lot about the Galra.”

Pidge searched Keith’s eyes for some sort of double meaning, but that stormy violet gaze gave nothing away. How could he know something so important without even really seeing her for the past seven years? How could he be so certain?

“My little bit of freedom for Coran, because even though he doesn’t fight with a lion, he’s still strong for all of us.”

Coran shook his head. It was strange to hear someone finally say that, after so long of being brave for them. It was true, he realized, and it was more influential than one would think to hear those words.

“The time spent with Prince Lotor for Allura, because she trusted him, and he betrayed that trust, in more ways than she realized back then.”

Allura covered her mouth as her eyes widened at the screen. Keith truly didn’t blame her? He blamed… Lotor for tricking them all, even though Allura should have known better? That was… it almost made up for watching whatever came next.

“Then… there’s me. The seventh file. The seventh wheel of Voltron, back when I was part of Voltron. Is that even accurate anymore? A-am I even anything anymore?”

Keith crossed his arms and frowned down at the ground, though it seemed like it was more to comfort himself than to appear standoffish. He was silent for a while before continuing.

“No. I’m not. But where does that leave me? Trash on the side of the road? I… I haven’t even seen an Earth road in god knows how long.

“You guys all meant a lot to me, and still do- but… it’s been forever since I’ve really seen you, known you… and I’m like a puppet whose strings have been cut. I served my purpose. I made people happy even when I wasn’t. Now… I’m done. I don’t have a purpose anymore. I don’t have a threat hanging over my head anymore. I only have everything I’ve ever done wrong.

“So… I’m not throwing my life away when I do this. I lived a terrible life that felt much longer than it was. It’s lasted long enough. I don’t want you guys wondering what happened next. I don’t want it to be some grand mystery of what happened to me, and… I don’t want to give you false hope.”

They all stared, frozen and silent, knowing what was about to happen. It shouldn’t happen, it wasn’t okay , but there was nothing they could do. There was absolutely nothing they could do. So they watched.

“Quin? Give me the gun. You know what to do next, right?”

Keith held the gun up to his own head, finger tapping the trigger anxiously but not quite pulling it.

“Guess I don’t even get to die by my own weapon, huh?

“Okay, well… this is it. Never thought my death would be like this back on Earth, but by now… I’ve been fantasizing about it for years. Waiting for my life to finally end.”

Keith smiled, a real smile, like he was genuinely happy about what was happening.

“Thank you for everything. I’m sorry. So… this was the death of Keith Kogane.”

The gun fired with a blast of light, so when the recording device finally focused, the screen only showed the room. Keith must have fallen to the ground, out of the device’s view.

Then it turned black with that threatening click, and… it was over.

Keith was dead.

Chapter Text

_Epilogue_

The universe no longer needed Voltron, yet as the years dragged on, the Paladins decided to train a new team, for the universe would still need help, and none of them wished to continue fighting. Even though the major threat of the Galra Empire was gone, thanks to those rebels, there would always be some problem that forced the people to call upon the mighty defender of the universe.

The new Paladins of Voltron weren’t at their most powerful yet, but their time would eventually come, just as the last Paladins had discovered. The Black Paladin was a half-human, half-Altean named Aira. The Green Paladin was an Olkari named Xylo. The Yellow Paladin was a Balmeran named Telo. The Blue Paladin was a suspiciously strong Arusian named Olen. The Red Paladin was a Galra named Kyrni.

They were all young, and placing the safety of the universe on their shoulders was a risk, but they could do it. They would grow up alongside each other the way the previous Paladins had.

The previous Paladins decided to stay for a year or so to help train their successors. On that particular day, Lance had taken over the training for the Red Paladin, Kyrni, while Allura taught the Blue Paladin.

Lance didn’t necessarily have anything against Kyrni. It wasn’t that she was a bit strange, or the fact that she was Galra, or that she was the Red Paladin. Not any of those facts individually, at least. Altogether, they sounded a bit like their last true Red Paladin.

Keith.

It had been years since they watched those files. They had been placed in the Castle of the Lion’s archives, under the title, “The Death of Keith Kogane”, although it was actually written out as “the_death_of_keith_kogane” as Alteans seemed to use a system of no capitals or spaces. Maybe it was the language barrier? They had just translated Altean letters to English.

Nobody had really been able to say anything after the screen went dark, displaying those seven files. It was almost painful to see them, after knowing what was at the end of them.

1_Earth

2_Mechacat

3_Daggers

4_Empire

5_Freedom

6_Prince

7_Rebels

The titles had so much more meaning, it had felt, after they understood what happened in each of those recordings. None of them had known how to react after that, but they were all in agreement to not go back to Earth quite yet.

So Team Voltron had wandered the Castle of Lions in silence for a week while they thought about everything they had experienced. It had been a crazy amount of things to happen in such a short period of time.

They had received messages.

They had discovered their friend Keith was, indeed, alive after thinking that he had been dead for the past seven years.

They had heard Keith’s life story.

They had watched Keith die.

But they had cried. They had cried so much, over so many things. Over their own failures. Over Keith’s experiences. Over the cruelty of the universe.

The universe is cruel, isn’t it? No matter how much a single person has been through, they’re never free from the danger. You could have won a dozen medals, everyone could have loved you, but that wouldn’t stop your ship from losing power in an uninhabited sector. You could’ve been a genius, but that wouldn’t keep you from contracting a terminal illness. You could’ve helped save the entire universe , yet that doesn’t stop fate from pulling you in so many directions and torturing you to the point where you can’t take it any longer.

Yes, the universe is cruel.

Keith didn’t deserve the life he had gotten. He had suffered, over and over, without the only people in the entire universe that cared about him even knowing a thing.

For that whole week, Lance hadn’t known whether to scream or cry or curse. He didn’t know if he was angry at the Galra, at Zarkon and Lotor, at Keith’s parents, at the universe, or at Keith himself.

Keith could have done so much more! He could’ve died peacefully sometime in the future with a long, satisfying life, instead of killing himself out of… whatever emotions were flooding through him at, what, twenty-five? They could have found him and rescued him, if only he’d waited! They would have all rescued him as soon as they knew where he was, pulling themselves together to save him!

Everyone had thought a lot that week. They had thought about their regrets- letting Keith go, being mad at him for disappearing, choosing not to see Keith even when it was so obvious -, fears- what if he had hated them all? What if he had only been pretending, since it wasn’t like he was going to see them again, anyway? What if Keith had killed himself instead of getting help because he didn’t want to see them?-, their dreams- what if they had found Keith? What if they had rescued him a long time ago, before he was broken beyond repair? What if they had never let him go in the first place?-, and their thoughts about Keith.

He didn’t deserve it.

It shouldn’t have happened.

Destiny had it out for him.

He was too good for what had happened to him.

He used to be… someone at the castle. At the Garrison. A normal person.

But that Keith was gone. He had died before Keith had physically died- all of the Keith that they used to know died sometime before they knew his story.

They all grew older, eventually. They got past it. They matured. Pidge had a short temper. Allura formed a terrible inferiority complex. Shiro’s flashbacks were worse than ever. Coran wasn’t cheerful. Hunk became much more serious about everything he did. Lance stopped believing he deserved companionship.

Maybe they hadn’t matured in the right ways, but… they had watched their friend kill himself. And it had been all their fault, no matter what he told them. That was… really life-changing. They weren’t normal. They could never be normal, after everything that had happened to them.

Lance curled his fingers into his palm, his blunt nails forming marks in his skin, trying to focus on Kyrni bouncing down the ramp, smiling brightly.

“Lance, that was good, right?” she asked cheerfully. Kyrni turned and patted Red’s massive paw. “Thanks, Red!” The lion only rumbled lightly in response.

That was one of the many strange things that Lance had noticed about Kyrni, and, by extension, Red. Red had always been difficult to bond with, but once you earned her trust, the bond was nearly impossible to break. But after Keith’s death, she had seemed more… responsive. More human , maybe. Lance had no idea if it was a side-effect of a Paladin’s death or what , but it was certainly strange.

“That was good! Your bond is improving with Red and with the rest of your team,” Lance said encouragingly. “Maybe someday you’ll be as great as me.” His voice was teasing, though it wavered a little. Lance wasn’t who he used to be. Making jokes… no longer felt natural .

It was Before Lance. Before Lance and After Lance. Before Lance loved people and would take every opportunity to talk. After Lance tried to avoid too much socialization.

It was kind of weird. It was like all of them had taken on one of Keith’s qualities.

Serious.

Antisocial.

Flashbacks.

Inferiority complex.

Solemn.

Short temper.

It was like they weren’t themselves anymore- there was a difference between growing up and losing yourself.

With Team Voltron, the line was very thin, if it even existed.

“Lance?”

He shook himself out of his thoughts to see Kyrni staring at him, her eyes wide and confused.

“Sorry, I’m just tired,” Lance said by way of explanation. It wasn’t necessarily a lie- he hadn’t slept in years. Ever since those files, he’d had nightmares of Keith’s suicide, of those smiles he gave when he spoke of his pain. Lance knew he should probably get help- but he didn’t. If Keith didn’t, he wouldn’t, either.

Kyrni nodded and began chattering cheerfully. Lance tuned out her words, choosing instead to think about whatever meal Hunk had prepared during the training. Hunk’s cooking was way better than Coran’s food goo or “Paladin meals”.

When they reached the dining hall, everyone was already there. It was strange to see the table so filled up. Five more people at their table was a lot, after living with the same six- no, five, Keith has been gone forever, why does Lance still think about it like this?- people for years.

Lance slid into his seat and dug into his food, pointedly not looking at the empty seat beside them. No one had ever taken Keith’s seat. Not in all of their years of fighting the Galra Empire, and not after. The new Paladins had never questioned it- they must have noticed everyone’s sorrowful glances towards that chair.

They really needed to tell the new Paladins about Keith. Maybe show them the files…? No. They were all in agreement to not watch the files again, after Pidge locked herself in her room, watching all of them, over and over again.

Keith would never stop being a sensitive subject, even though they all thought so much about him every single day.

Keith was there, Keith did that, they visited this planet with Keith…

Once, they had gone to the planet Keith had mentioned living on after leaving Voltron. Erion. A city planet.

There were no signs of Keith anywhere, but what had they expected, really? People can be born and die without billions of others having no idea that it happened. Erion’s citizens move on just as quickly.

They tried to meet the rebel group, but they had refused to talk to Voltron in fear that they were still working with the Galra Empire. So that had been a dead end.

The universe had forgotten about the person that it had tortured over and over for twenty-five years.

“I’m glad you all have improved so quickly,” Allura said, a small smile on her face. “Even if the universe does not need Voltron right now, it’s stronger with Voltron in it.”

Fuck the universe, really. Why was everything so messed up?

“Can I say something?” Kyrni asked.

“Go ahead, young Paladin,” Coran told her, a small smile on his face. It was a relief to see Coran smiling again.

Kyrni’s eyes flashed for a moment, then she stood up and met the eyes of each original member of Team Voltron. Lance. Pidge. Coran. Allura. Shiro. Hunk. “Red needs to talk to you.”

“Red?” Hunk asked, his voice timid. “What- what does she need to talk to us about?”

“They’ll talk to you,” Kyrni promises.

That was another strange thing about Kyrni. She always referred to Red as “them” or “they”. What did that mean? All of the other lions were female. Lance remembered Keith calling Red a girl.

But… that wasn’t important. Lance focused his attention on what Kyrni had actually said .

What would Red want? The lions had never talked to the Paladins before- at least, not with words, and definitely not all of the Paladins. Hell, Lance had never “talked” to any of the lions other than Blue and Red! This was so strange. And the fact that it was Red

After so many years, had the Red Lion finally figured out that Keith’s death was all Voltron’s fault? Red had always been protective of Keith, more so than any other lion and Paladin bond. She would probably be mad…

Lance hadn’t talked to the Red Lion ever since Keith’s death. He had no idea what to expect.

But he stood up anyway. “Then let’s go.”

The other Paladins stared at him for a moment before standing as well.

“Guess it won’t hurt,” Pidge muttered.

“Can’t be any worse than what we already know,” Shiro sighed.

“Maybe it’ll be helpful,” Coran reasoned.

“We’re already damaged,” Allura said.

Hurt. Damage. Worse.

Won’t. Helpful. Know. Already.

The former Paladins were a disaster of conflicting opinions.

“Are you guys ever going to tell us what’s going on with the Red Lion?” Telo asked.

“Maybe someday,” Lance told him, frowning. “When you’re older.”

Aira shook her head. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Go on, they’re waiting for you,” Kyrni said.

Lance led the way to the Red Lion’s hangar. He had no idea why- he wasn’t the leader. That was a job for everybody but him . Shiro, who was unstable- Allura who thought herself less than all of them- Hunk who was too serious- Coran who was unhappy- Pidge who had anger issues-

Okay, maybe Lance didn’t get the short end of the straw when it came to flaws in personality, especially when he was a lot worse as a teenager, but… really? Him?

It was probably because out of the living members of their original team, Lance and Allura were the only ones who had piloted the Red Lion, and Allura probably thought she wasn’t worthy of the task anymore.

Still, Lance as the unofficial leader? It was strange.

This isn’t about you, estupido, Lance told himself, taking a deep breath as they entered the hangar.

The hangar looked the exact same as it had when he left it with Kyrni earlier. Red was still in her- was it her? Lance decided to continue referring to Red as her , no matter what Kyrni was calling the lion- default sitting position. Her barrier was down.

“Red?” Lance asked, walking up to the lion.

She didn’t move. It seemed like she was staring down at all of them, like she was judging them. Lance didn’t like that feeling.

As a group, the rest of Team Voltron walked up to Red.

“What do you want to tell us?” Shiro asked quietly, furrowing his brow. When there wasn’t a reply, the man sighed and pressed his hand to Red’s paw.

“She’s not answering,” Pidge said, more to herself than to Red or the rest of them, but she copied Shiro’s movement and placed her hand on the cool metal.

“I can try and connect us to Red,” Allura offered, then looked down. “Although I don’t know if I’m strong enough for that.”

“You can do it,” Coran told her. “We all believe in you, Princess.”

“I’m not a princess, not anymore,” Allura mumbled, then did the same as Shiro and Pidge before her and pressed her palm to Red’s paw.

Coran and Hunk looked at each other before adding their hands to Red’s paw.

Lance stared at them for a moment before closing his eyes and reaching his hand out until his fingers brushed the cold, smooth material of the lion. Carefully, the rest of his hand relaxed onto Red’s paw.

There was a brief moment where he focused- on all of his thoughts and memories of Keith, of the Red Lion, of Voltron… and the incredible thing was that Lance could feel the others there, too. He didn’t seem so alone anymore.

Then Lance felt like he was falling for barely a second before hitting the ground and the astral plane appeared before him. The others were there too- this time not illuminated by the colors of their lions, but just… there. They were themselves.

A small flash of light momentarily blinded Lance before it cleared and… there he was.

Keith.

As young as he was the last time they saw him in person, an eighteen-year-old once again. Keith’s hair ended at his shoulders, and, though it was hard to tell, he looked… normal.

But that wasn’t the most incredible part, no.

Keith was smiling. His eyes were no longer tired and sad- they were glittering with happiness. He stood up straight, and he looked… strong again. He wasn’t weak. He wasn’t depressed. He wasn’t broken.

He was Keith.

Keith Kogane.

“I can finally talk to you,” Keith said softly, though his voice seemed amplified. “I’ve… I’ve missed you.”

“Keith!”

Lance wasn’t quite sure who said it, but all of a sudden they were all hugging their former Red Paladin.

“But how?” Shiro asked, tears shining on his face. “How can you talk to us?”

“My bond was strong enough with Red that when I died, she was able to save… whatever this is. My spirit? Not sure. But I became part of the Red Lion’s consciousness.”

“Oh!” Pidge exclaimed, snapping. “That’s it! That’s why Kyrni refers to Red as ‘they’! She means you and Red!”

“Yeah,” Keith chuckled lightly. “She’s… a bit interesting.”

“Definitely,” Hunk agreed, a small smile finally growing on his face again. “Keith, this is… this is amazing!” Then his face fell again. “But… can we talk about it? About everything?”

“Not everything, we don’t have enough time,” Keith said. “But there’s enough time to talk about what you’ve done to yourselves.” He pulled away from the hug, his expression dropping. “Why?”

“Why what?” Allura asked nervously, laughing guiltily.

“Don’t pretend,” Keith scolded her. “I know what you’re all doing. This isn’t healthy. I…” He sighed. “Look. I know I shouldn’t have killed myself. There was… there was a chance to do so much more. I could’ve gone back home to you, I could’ve found my mother, learned the truth about everything…

“But I didn’t. I died. And it might be a hundred years before I’m strong enough to do this again, so talk.

“I’m sorry!” Pidge finally cried. “I was so stupid, if I’d just known, if I’d figured it out, this wouldn’t have happened…”

And that opened the floodgates to everyone’s anxieties.

“We pushed you away when we shouldn’t have,” Hunk sobbed. “You’re one of us Keith, you’ve always been one of us, we need you…”

“If I hadn’t been so blind as to not see you with Lotor…” Allura whispered. “If I hadn’t put myself ahead of everyone else by not helping you…”

“It would have been so much easier, we could have found you if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get back home,” Lance mumbled. “We wouldn’t have been too scared to find you if… if we’d thought beyond ending it all…”

“I shouldn’t have held such childish belief that you’d simply find your way back to us,” Coran said bitterly. “You needed us, and I did nothing but hope …”

“I should have been stronger,” Shiro berated himself. “I should have done something other than stand there and cry…”

Keith watched them silently for a few moments before his own eyes flooded with tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for doing this to you. But…” He stopped and took a deep breath.

He really had grown up without them, even if he had died at only twenty-five. Keith was more mature than they probably would ever be. And he still looked eighteen.

“But I’m dead, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. And that’s okay. It doesn’t matter that I’m dead, because nothing can ever change that. But you are still alive . Don’t waste your lives dwelling on what could have happened. Even back before I knew most of you,  some people would have killed themselves over what happened to me. So… there was nothing you could do. That’s fine. I don’t hate you, even though I could.

“I really did hate you for a while. You could keep on living, while you failed to see me. You forgot me. But that went away after you watched the files. You probably won’t get over my death, not completely. And I get it. But… don’t hurt yourselves over me. It won’t help me. I’m still here, even if you can’t see or hear me. But I’m there, I promise.

“So promise me that you’ll let go, okay?” Keith’s eyes were filled with tears as he dropped to his knees. “Promise that, even if you don’t forget me, you won’t obsess over what never happened?”

They all stared at him in shock. Keith was there, on his knees, begging them to let him go. It was… so strange. So… different.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Shiro mumbled as he rushed over to Keith and nearly fell into an embrace.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Keith said simply. He continued gripping Shiro’s shirt even as the man stood back up, like it was an anchor.

Allura was next. “Keith, I really am sorry. I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t…” But all of the tension suddenly left her shoulders as she awkwardly bent down to hug Keith, who was still on the ground. “But it’s over now. It’s been years. It’s… alright now.”

Keith smiled gently.

Allura stepped away and Lance stepped up. He crushed Keith in a tight hug. “Sorry for everything. Really. But… after that… I think… I might be okay.”

“That’s the nicest you’ve ever been to me,” Keith said, laughing softly. “It’s much better.”

Lance gave an apologetic smile and backed away. Pidge barreled into Keith half a second later.

“I should have known better, I really should have. But maybe it’s okay not to know everything,” Pidge said. Even though her speech was simple, her voice was light in a way it hadn’t been in years.

“Nobody can know everything,” Keith told her quietly.

Pidge left and was replaced by Coran.

“My boy, you have gone through worse than anyone deserved to,” Coran murmured. “But I suppose that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to worsen ourselves to feel better about everything.”

Keith nodded. “That’s all I need you to know.”

That left only Hunk, who stepped up and gave Keith a gentle, warm hug.

“You know, you always had a place with us?” Hunk asked softly. “We really do love you, Keith. We do.”

“I know,” Keith said with equal softness. “Smile sometime, okay?”

Hunk stepped away, and Keith finally released his tight grip on Shiro’s shirt, though he remained on the ground.

“I don’t have much longer,” Keith told them. “I don’t know if I’ll ever talk to you again so… just know I love you, okay? I love all of you. You’re my family. We might have only been a team for a year, but that was the best year of my life. You’re important to me.”

They all sat down next to Keith, and they watched as the soft, golden light flooded their vision.

And they were back in the Red Lion’s hangar.

Everything would be okay again.

Allura became more confident.

Coran became more happy.

Pidge became more calm.

Shiro became more passionate.

Hunk became more relaxed.

Lance became more social.

They were all okay.

Keith might have been dead, but they were okay.

They were okay.

the_death_of_keith_kogane