“... Answer us!”
“No, no, n-”
“—it’s been a varga, Shiro!”
“I know that—trapped here until—have faith!”
“Oh god, he’s probably dead. Oh god, oh god...”
“If we can distract them long enough by … for one of us … get him!”
“—can’t do that. We’ll be destroyed. Keith wouldn’t want—"
“Paladins, we lost contact after-"
“I wou- We would know if he was dead.”
Keith isn’t really sure where he is.
But it’s unbearably noisy. There are people screaming in his ears, which would already be unpleasant to begin with, but their voices amplify the pain throbbing throughout his head to a dizzying degree.
He’s desperate for it to stop. He can’t understand why they’re being so loud.
No. He does not want to be Keith right now. Keith is apparently a past version of himself who went and cracked his brain like an egg. He does not want to be that guy.
The voices crescendo, all at once, in an unstoppable tide. A screeching flock of birds descending on his poor, exposed brain matter, eating him alive.
“—has to be him! Who else would growl like that?”
“Ohhhh my god, oh my god. Oh, man, Keith. That was so close. What-”
“Dios mios, Keith, we thought you were toast!”
Hmmm. Keith realizes that he has arms and stretches them out. They fall into a warm, muddy substance. His right hand closes around hard metal. Wait. He needs to correct the record.
He sinks his fingers into the ground beneath him in an effort to stop his body from swinging in lazy circles. That’s not very helpful right now.
“... M’not toast.”
Keith is pretty sure that he’s not dead, if that’s what they mean. He’s never been dead before, so he’s not certain, but it cannot possibly be this loud.
They must have heard him because the chattering birds erupt into a flurry of noise before they are silenced by a strong voice.
“Everybody, be quiet.”
The sound cuts off as if someone had just snapped a cord. Keith sighs in relief.
“Keith, can you say something?”
He takes a deep breath. “Sure.”
A hushed, whispery sound fills his ears, like a crowd of people sighing at once, but it’s too distant to figure out.
“Keith, are you hurt?”
He almost wants to laugh in the worst way. That’s one way to put it. He wiggles his toes. Flexes his calves. Flops his hand around until he finds his shoulder and pats down his chest. He’s wearing armor. That answers one question.
It’s dark out. Or—.
Keith opens his eyes.
The light sends a violent stabbing sensation rocketing through his skull and he regrets it immediately. He cringes into the dirt. He barely registers the metallic taste of it on his lips while he pants and waits for the fog to recede.
The voices are calling for him again. They sound scared, but he can’t do anything but moan and regret every decision that he’s ever made.
He tries again.
The sky is a dark, swirling gray. Blue and white and purple lights dance in the clouds until he realizes that they’re warships. Fighting. No matter how many times he blinks, he can’t clear away the fuzz outlining everything. Objects in the middle distance split into two and threes and fold over each other again. When he looks over, he realizes that he’s holding a strange red crescent in his hand. He can’t imagine what it’s for.
He’s on a battlefield. If it wasn’t a battlefield before, it is now.
Keith sits up.
He immediately doubles over and dry heaves. Everything fizzles into redhot agony that lasts for an eternity. It’s never going to end. He’s not sure how long it lasts, only that it consumes every single cell in his body.
He probably cries. He definitely cries.
But eventually, it recedes.
He comes back to himself hunched over his legs, his skull an impossible weight pulling down on his neck. A line of drool hangs from his mouth and when he tries to wipe it away, he misses and smacks himself in the face.
No, this is really not his best day.
“Keith, answer me!”
That’s right. People had been talking to him. Yelling at him. So much yelling. They’d asked him something.
“Sorry,” he pants. He sounds awful. “I threw up.”
It feels kind of shameful and a little embarrassing, but he figures that they’d heard him anyway. It’s way too late for posturing.
Over the pounding in his ears, he registers that everyone is either sighing or making a strangled, groaning noise. Very dramatic, they are.
“That’s okay, Keith, we just need you to answer from now on.”
Hmmmm. Did they ask him something? He doesn’t remember that. He says, “What’s the question?” but it comes out more like wazzaqueshun, and even he can hear it.
“Keith, are you injured?”
“Oh,” he breathes. He remembers that. “No. Hit my head.”
“—definitely counts as injured.”
“I think … concussion … obvious by now.”
The stern person is persistent and he latches onto their voice. They seem like they know what they’re doing. “You hit your head, Keith? Can you move?”
He tries out the moving thing. It feels like his limbs are outside of his control, like his brain is sending the signals and he isn’t processing them until it’s already happening.
“Think so,” he concludes.
“Do you think that you can walk?”
“Shiro, you can’t possibly be suggesting—”
“We don’t have another choice.”
He stands up. The black hole in the center of his vision blossoms wide.
The sky and the ground switch places a few times until he realizes that he’s fallen over. His cheek digs into the ground while he dry heaves. A few times, his vision almost goes almost completely dark again, but he claws his way back with everything he has. He can’t sleep now.
The voices are bickering again. He suspects that they’re arguing about him. He knows the tone of that conversation intimately.
“—like you’re not even hearing this right now, Shiro! He can’t—“
Keith thinks that he’s taking too long and making them anxious. “Uhhh,” he wheezes into the dirt. He feels like he’s been trampled, like a piece of gum under a big boot. A big, brain-squashing boot. “Sorry. Fell over.”
“It’s okay, buddy. We know that you’re trying your best. Shiro, seriously, I have to agree with Lance. There’s no way—“
“There is no other way, Hunk.”
After a while, the waves of inky darkness slink back behind his eyelids. Keith knows that he’ll have to deal with them soon, but he can fend them off for now. He has no choice.
He drags himself to his knees again. He can do this. Don’t think about it. Just do it. He has to do it.
This time, he stays up. For the most part. He can’t walk in a straight line necessarily, but he doesn’t fall over.
“I can walk,” he offers, but it doesn’t seem to resolve anything. They get more frantic, volleying words back and forth that pass by too quickly for him to understand.
“—cant do this unless we form Voltron. We need him.”
“We can figure it out—“
“Shiro’s right, guys. We can’t take that mainliner down without Voltron.”
“—no idea how bad it is! What if he gets killed on the way? His brain is already leaking!”
They’re arguing about him again. One of them is particularly screechy and has no apparent faith in Keith’s capacity to stay alive.
He’s annoyed by the implication and not sure why.
Hmm, that insult seemed better in his head. He should’ve kept it there.
“... You know what, I take it back. He sounds just fine.”
“Keith, do you know where you are?”
He looks around. He’s surrounded by rubble and fallen droids. The ruins of the buildings around him are still on fire, filling the air with a sickly black smoke. He’s standing among a bunch of shattered glass that throws glimmering light in every direction.
He might have a guess.
“I blew up?” His own voice sounds wobbly and confused, and he definitely didn’t phrase that right, but he’s a little awed. He’s never blown up before.
“Oh god, we’re gonna die—”
Someone sighs heavily. They sound eternally exhausted. He can relate. “Keith, do you know where you are?”
He thinks that this question has been repeated a few times.
Keith surveys the area again. “Um,” he tries. He’s going to have to keep this really vague. “On a mission?”
“—telling me to calm down—!”
“Keith, what’s the last thing that you remember?”
His head throbs when he tries to think, and he can’t grasp anything concrete. He has fleeting images. Talking with a group of people. Landing a ship. Ducking behind a corner. Claws in his hair, slamming his head into a wall.
“I got in a fight?” he guesses. That seems like the mostly likely explanation.
“—if that’s what we’re going to call carpet bombing these days.”
He puzzles over it for another second. It’s the only conclusion. His stomach sinks.
He’s not sure why it’s so upsetting. He’s used to losing. He has a lot of practice with it. But maybe lately, he’d thought that he’d been on a winning streak. He’s not sure why he thinks that either.
“Hell no, buddy. No, no no, you kicked ass. You survived. You survived,” they break off with a choked sound, and his heart leaps into his throat. He’s not sure how to take that. Someone is crying because they’re so relieved that he’s alive. Keith isn’t sure that’s ever happened before.
“You were doing something for us, and you got held up when someone spotted you. The building that you were in collapsed during an airstrike, Keith. You didn’t respond for almost a varga.”
“Oh, um. Sorry.”
That would explain why they had seemed so stressed out when he’d first responded. He’d been unconscious or otherwise unavailable for a long time.
“Keith, do you… do you know who you’re talking to?”
His undoing, this would be. They are not going to like this and he knows that. He doesn't know why he knows that, but he does.
Keith braces himself.
The chattering birds return with a vengeance, and this time Keith doesn’t have a prayer of deciphering any of it. They’re too distraught, in a frenzy and talking over each other, but that steady voice cuts through again.
They sound incredibly patient and polite compared to the rest of them. “Keith, can you explain that for us?”
Experimentally, Keith taps his foot against the ground. They’re going to ask him to go somewhere, he thinks. He needs to be ready.
“I know you,” he hedges, “but I don’t know you?” That might be alarming. “I have a general idea.”
He pauses for a while, hoping that he gave a good enough explanation. Someone groans in the background, so he’s leaning towards no.
“Do we sound familiar to you?”
“Yes,” he says firmly, but his next hypothesis feels like much more of a gamble. He stumbles his way through it. “I think that I’m… that we’re… we’re a team?”
It feels right after he says it. Something feels right and true about it.
“Yes, Keith,” the person affirms strongly. “We’re a team. You’re on our team. You’re a very important part of it. You got separated from the rest of us, but we need you to come back.”
“—how in the hell do you expect him to fly like that?”
“This is crazy! Shiro, this is crazy!”
“Keith has never let us down before. He won’t start now.”
“He’s never had a traumatic brain injury before, either! He doesn’t even remember you, Shiro.”
The voice doesn’t waver. “Keith, we need you to do something for us.”
“Okay,” he agrees.
“You came here in a spaceship, and she’s not that far from your location, but she’s been captured. That’s why she never came to help you. We need you to get her back and join us in the fight. We can’t do this without you.”
He has a spaceship. He has a spaceship with female pronouns. A sentient spaceship with female pronouns? For some reason, it’s not nearly as crazy as it sounds. It fits just right.
“I don’t like this at all.”
“It’s our only choice, Lance!”
“I know that, okay!? I know. That doesn’t mean I have to like—“
Hmmm. They don’t sound very confident in him. He doesn’t like it. He wants to prove them wrong. He can do this.
“I’ll do it,” he says with as much energy as he can muster. If that’s what he’s got to do, then that’s what he’s got to do. The memory loss is pretty inconvenient, but they need him. They need him.
“You got this, otouto,” the person whispers. For some reason, it hits Keith right in the chest. “I can see where you are, and I’m going to lead you in the right direction. You just need to listen to my voice and keep your head up.”
“Okay,” he agrees. Otouto. Otouto. He knows that word. He knows it. “Um, if you’re going to lead me out of here, what’s your name?”
A heavy silence follows his question.
The deep voice on the other side, which has been nothing but reassuring and steady until now, trembles for the first time.
“Shiro. My name is Shiro.”
“Oh,” he says. Keith rolls that name over in his head, tests the shape of it with his mouth.
“Okay, Shiro,” he says. It feels right. “I won’t… I won’t let you down. Like you said. I can do this.”
“—cking me up. I’m gonna hug you so hard when this is all over, Keith.”
“Let’s just worry about getting there for now, guys. We can do this.”
For some reason, Keith believes him.
Somehow Shiro knows Keith’s location and he’s capable of leading him in the right direction, even though Keith is fairly certain that he’s fighting in a space battle. At first, Keith blindly stumbles forward until Shiro yells at him a few times and Keith realizes that he needs to turn. It seems that the area has mostly been abandoned, due to the carpet bombing that someone is particularly fixated on, but Keith spots movement out of the corner of his eyes and throws himself behind the wreckage of a purple ship.
He can hear a lot of grunting and laser beams and large scale collisions in the background, but Shiro responds as if he has nothing else going on in the world.
Keith exhales deeply and tries to keep it even. “I think I saw someone, but I don’t-, um, what if they attack me?”
He’s also been tasked with stealing his ship back, which is probably not something that he can negotiate for, given that they’d stolen it from him in the first place. He must have come here with something to defend himself, but he can’t find anything on his person besides an alarming amount of blood coating his neck and a large shard of stained glass lodged in the armour over his left thigh.
It explains why he has such a severe limp, but he elects not to say anything about it. Everyone sounds stressed enough as it is.
“Do you have your bayard, Keith?”
He doesn’t recognize that word, but he figures that it fits with the strange disc that he woke up with, clutched in a vice grip that survived an ass kicking and an explosion. It must be important.
Keith turns it over in his hand. “This… boomerang thing?”
“It’s your sword, Keith. You just need to call for it.”
Bewildered, Keith searches for some sort of pocket or secret compartment, but he finds nothing. He turns the thing over in his hand and waits until it coalesces into one shape, but he still doesn’t find any buttons or switches.
“With a… phone?”
He already knows he’s wrong, but if Shiro gets to say infuriatingly vague things, then Keith can say things that are obviously stupid.
“With your mind,” Shiro corrects.
Oh, yes, summon your magical shapeshifting weapon with your mind, Keith. It’s not that hard.
With his mind? What the hell did that mean?
Keith can hear someone getting closer. They think that they’re being stealthy, but no, Keith can hear them. His mouth goes dry and his stomach sinks to the ground.
“I don’t understand what that means!”
Oh, this is so not his day. They’re almost on top of him. Keith lost a fight, got blown up, and dragged his own carcass out of some rubble just to get taken out by some random stranger as soon as he’d stood up.
“It’ll come to you!”
The figure jumps over the ship, holding a massive sword over their head with two hands, and Keith’s brain whites out with panic. He scurries out of the way just in time.
It’s pretty pathetic, but he has no other choice but to bob and weave and hope like hell that he can stay faster than this guy. They aren’t going to do that forever though, and Keith knows that.
He barely misses the singing swipe of the blade, a hair’s breadth away from slicing open his neck. As he stumbles back in an uncoordinated dance, panic loses leverage over anger.
Keith’s head hurts. There’s a piece of glass lodged in his thigh. He blew up. He’s so sick of the people yelling in his ear when they know that he has a headache.
“It’s not coming!” he screams.
He trips over his heels and slams into the dirt. The figure darts forward for the finishing blow, but Keith is officially annoyed. Adrenaline pours through his body, eliminating all those pesky hurts, and sparks into his hands. He throws his arm up and there it is, sliding into the calluses on his palms like a lock and key.
It’s over as quickly as it had started, leaving Keith perched over the slumped figure on the ground and wondering how he’d done that. He looks at the strange red weapon in his hands. It dissolves before his eyes.
“Keith! Keith, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he responds. “I have a sword?”
“That’s our samurai. Knew you’d figure it out, bud.”
“You know, for someone who got blown up and doesn’t remember a thing, you’re really taking this in stride, Keith.”
Is that what they think he’s doing right now? Keith doesn’t feel like he’s striding. It’s more of an uncontrolled, careening spiral in a general direction. Very little striding.
“I’m pretty sure this is a dream,” he explains. “A very painful dream.”
There’s really no other explanation.
“Nope! No, no, no, not a dream. Do not treat this as a dream, Keith. It’s very real.”
Keith sighs at the ground. The mud is a deep blue color. It’s very convincing. “That’s what my dream would say,” he throws back.
“Fair enough, but trust me, it’s all real. You’re our Red Paladin, chosen by the Red Lion, fighting the good fight against the Galra Empire with your space family!”
See, now that really makes Keith think he’s dreaming because it’s just like all the fantasies he’d had as a kid, sitting on a couch and waiting to get delivered to the next family that wouldn’t want to keep him either. They were all some variation of the same thing: Keith, the lonely abandoned orphan, gets picked up by a spaceship one day and told that he has a great destiny. In the pursuit of this great and noble cause, he finds the family and acceptance that he’s always craved.
It was kid stuff. To pass the time. Self-comfort.
And it had never happened then, so why would it be happening now?
“Oh, Keith. It’s happening. It already has. A long time ago.”
“It’s real, Keith,” Shiro says, interrupting his stream of consciousness. “I promise it’s real.”
Keith sighs heavily. If these people are wrong, he wakes up in bed and goes throughout his day after having had a strangely vivid dream. If they’re right, they call themselves his family and he’s neck-deep in the fight for their lives.
He figures it’s best to play it safe. He wants them to be right. More than anything, he wants them to be right.
“Ugh. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m going to hug you so hard when this is over.”
So Keith keeps walking.
He starts getting anxious again as he approaches the building where they’re holding his sentient female spaceship. He’d gotten extremely lucky with the last guy that had attacked him, but now he’s expected to go on offense.
“I really don’t… I don’t know how to fight.”
“All those hours hacking away at gladiators… poofed away. Gone. Thanks, carpet bomb. You stole our Red Paladin’s only hobby.”
Shiro makes a strange huffing sound, and Keith blames the head injury for being slow to realize that Shiro almost sounds amused. He does not find this situation amusing at all. “You know how to fight, Keith. I promise.”
“But I don’t remember!” he blurts. He’s really not understanding him right now.
“It’ll come to you,” Shiro explains steadily.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I believe in you.”
His confidence is contagious and slows down the panicked spiral of his thoughts, and Keith isn’t sure why. Shiro’s faith in his abilities just seems so unshakeable. He doesn’t want to ruin that.
The idea of letting him down is… uniquely unbearable. Keith would rather get blown up again than disappoint Shiro right now.
“... you won’t let me down, Keith,” Shiro says quietly. Had he said that outloud? Maybe, maybe not. It sounds like something Shiro would say unprompted anyway. He’s already displayed a ridiculous, bordering on insane level of trust in Keith to pull through for the team, traumatic head injury aside.
Keith forces his breathing pattern into a four-step rhythm. He has to do this. He has to.
“Okay, Shiro. If you’re sure.”
“—an’t take much more of this! You two … unbelievable! I’m already crying enough! Why are you like this?”
He heads into the building.
He ducks back around the corner when the pair of guards walk by for the third time. “You didn’t tell me that I had to fight aliens!”
“Oh, boy, do I have some news for y—”
“Don’t you dare even think about it, Lance, I swear to God.”
Keith had snuck into the outer ring of the complex without much trouble, sliding through a bombed-out row of windows and creeping forward until he heard voices and slunk back into the shadows. His hearing is something to wonder about, though. His ears almost seem to move in the direction of the soundwaves that they pick up. The back of his neck tingles well before his brain comprehends what he’s overheard, like a sixth sense. He wonders how much of it is learned and how much is innate.
He’s pieced together the layout of the building. It appears that most of the guards have fled the premises, sent out to join the battle in the sky, given the emptiness of the halls compared to the vast size of the compound. Those that remain patrol the center of the building, with a special attention reserved for the three lifts positioned in a triangle that must lead to the bottom of the proverbial well.
If he strains for it, Keith can hear a faint roaring. His heart leaps at the sound.
She’s down there. She’s calling for him. He knows it.
He has to save her. It feels like returning a favor, but what for, he cannot remember. There’s a debt owed, nonetheless, and he’s going to repay it.
First, he needs to get through the sentries that guard the door.
“How many are there, Keith?”
He risks another look and counts five hovering around the building. Three sets of two pass on a regular rotation roughly every seven minutes. So that makes… eleven.
There’s only one of him, and he barely counts, because he doesn’t exactly remember who he is yet. His head is split open. His only weapon is a shapeshifting sword with a mind of its own.
“Um, eleven,” he responds. “It’s eleven to one.” He exhales roughly and shakes the adrenaline from his fingertips. “Was this the original plan?”
Is he insane? Did they pick straws? Did he lose a bet?
“Actually, you volunteered for this.”
“Why would I do that?” Keith wonders faintly. He can’t tear his eyes away from the massive, hulking aliens, with biceps the size of his head. He has no idea why he would have volunteered for this. Is he suicidal?
“You always volunteer for the most dangerous thing because you’re secretly a softie and kind of a badass.”
“For once, that was really nice of you, Lance.”
Keith counts again, just to be sure.
“It’s eleven to one,” he repeats. Maybe they didn’t hear him?
“Easy-peasy, baby. I feel bad for’em already.”
“Yeah, Keith, you’ve faced much worse odds. All the time. You survived fighting Zarkon!”
“You can do this, Keith,” Shiro says. Keith is starting to suspect that this Shiro person talks to him differently than he does with everyone else. There’s something there that he can’t quite put a finger on. It’s a little daunting even. He wonders what he’s done to earn that kind of faith. “Do you have your bayard out?”
Keith looks down at his hand. He’s wearing gloves. He flexes his fingers and wonders how a person makes a magical boomerang turn into a magical sword in their palm.
“You just need to call for it again. You’re very good with it. It’ll come to you.”
Keith glares at the floor. This Shiro is a ridiculous person. It probably does sound simple to summon your magical shapeshifting sword when you have all your memories and actually recall acquiring said magical shapeshifting sword. Must be real easy for Shiro, who remembers his last name and how he got on this godforsaken planet fighting aliens in the first place.
“Woohoo! Now there’s our guy. All bark and even harder bite. Missed you, buddy.”
“Just be patient and focus, Keith. You’ll get it.”
There’s a sustained silence.
“Okay, if that didn’t jog his memory, then we’re in deeper sh—“
“Shut up, Lance.”
There’s enough debris strewn near the entrance that Keith could probably barrel in through the left without being seen. He can’t afford to get in a fight with odds like that.
“Got it, got it. Hey, Mullet, you need a distraction?”
Keith huffs. “If you’re offering?”
“Any time, my man. You’ve already blown through seven of your nine lives, so you gotta start accepting an assist every now and then. Coming in hot!”
Just as promised, a blue ship shaped like a… lion swoops in low about 100 yards away, gunning for the sentries and taking out five with stunning aim, for such small targets. Keith capitalizes on the momentary chaos and scurries toward the main entrance. He dodges and weaves through the rubble, around pools of a black oil-like that still burn with flames.
There are only two sentries left at the door when he approaches. Keith lets his mind go blank and runs between them, his bayard cutting through their middles like butter. The harsh sching! of his sword sends a shiver down his spine, but he makes it.
Right before he runs inside, Keith spares a second to salute the Blue Lion that hovers well over his head.
“Don’t mention it, Red. By the way, you look awful.”
Keith almost smiles. “Thanks.”
For three rotations, he watches the guards stroll passed the elevator, timing their arrival and departure. The blood pounds in his ears. He’s stalling. Procrastinating his inevitable demise. His plan is pretty damn bad, in that he doesn’t really have a plan at all.
This is insane.
Keith is betting on good fortune and a latent capacity for martial arts strong enough to overwhelm the effects of a traumatic brain injury that’s skewered his memory.
Somehow, he thinks that he’s done crazier things, and that thought alone carries his body to stand before the elevator, once the latest pair of sentries has disappeared around the corner.
He’s hoping like hell that the doors will open and no one will be standing in his way, but predictably, there is.
They make eye contact with mutual surprise.
Well, it’s more polite to ask first, so Keith tilts his head, gesturing with the bayard that’s already shimmering as it turns into a full-length sword.
“Hey, I need to use this.”
They must not believe him because they attack first, and Keith is certain that he’s going to die in a flurry of purple and bright red seeping out of soft flesh. Instead, his limbs move on their own accord. On the other side of thirty seconds, they’ve traded places. Keith stands inside the lift and the guard is sprawled on the floor, moaning and clutching their head.
Dutifully, Keith says thank you before he hits the button that seems most likely to take him to the second to last level.
This time, the universe takes pity on him, and when the doors open, he’s greeted by an empty hallway. Instinct pulls him toward the third door on the left, and he finds a makeshift stairwell that doesn’t look like any set of stairs that he’s seen before, but he knows exactly where they lead.
Once he’s standing on the last landing before the final flight of stairs, he spots the opening to a ventilation shaft. It’s relatively high up, but if he can pop off the cover and shimmy inside, he’ll have a much easier time positioning himself inside the chamber holding his spaceship, and he can get an idea of how to approach getting her back.
He wonders what he’d do with his full faculties intact. The way that they talk about him, Keith seems like the kind of guy who takes on anything without fear, or maybe he just considers that fear and sets it aside, like something that can only hold its shape in hindsight. Either way, the idea of strolling right in and taking on an entire troop by himself is unappealing at best, suicidal at worst.
So Keith wrenches off the cover with a small tool that he finds in the vambrace of his left arm and painstakingly hauls himself inside. Beyond the dizzying pain of dragging his wounded leg through the opening, he’s even a little impressed that he can deadlift his own bodyweight plus heavy duty armor.
Once he’s inside, the aching of his wounds blurs together and he breathes and sweats and breathes in the smothering heat of the ventilation shaft.
The voices in his ear are almost soothing, fending off the intense claustrophobia that lurks on the periphery of his mind due to the cramped space.
Even the pain buzzing throughout this body is reduced to a gentle hum.
He starts slipping.
It would be so easy to fall asleep here.
He almost does.
But if Keith falls asleep, Keith is going to die, and he hasn’t come this far to die.
So he sticks one end of his bayard in his mouth and tears the glass shard out of his leg with a savage wrench. His scream is a wild, ferocious thing that seizes in his mouth, slamming against his teeth with the urge to get out. His eyesight fills with a red haze. He comes back to himself, panting, while urgent voices beckon him away from the dark.
His hands shake with adrenaline, but he’s awake. He can push through it.
Keith drags himself to the open grate and peers down, ignoring the slick gush of liquid that seeps through the fabric on his thigh. It’s a concern for a later time.
And he forgets about it entirely when he sees her.
The thought comes to him immediately, unbidden: There’s my girl.
She’s fire. She’s beautiful. She’s his, and she’s tied down with electrified metal bands that hold her body against the floor, limbs thrust out uncomfortably. The indignity of her treatment infuriates him so powerfully that he almost slams through the gate on sight, but then her eyes flash in a way that he only he can see.
A warm flame sparks in his chest, pushing against the edges of his awareness. My paladin, she calls. Here!
It’s instinctual, responding to her. He closes his eyes and reaches out for her. I’m here, he echoes back.
He has to save her.
Keith tells himself: okay, you can do this. Five, four, three--
But the Lion, his Lion, decides that she’s not going to wait around for petty things like a countdown, because she roars when she senses his presence, sweeping over his thoughts with a blistering wave of mine mine mine !
He falls through the grate, directly on top of the Galra that had dared to imprison his Lion. The soldier goes down instantly, and Keith slams his hand on top of the switch that supplies power to the electrified bonds that keep her restrained.
Keith looks up and he cannot help but spare one millisecond to admire her audacity with a vicious admiration.
Then he spins on his heels and predictably, finds six pairs of eyes centered on him alone.
If it’s time, it’s time.
He calls for his bayard and smiles when she slides home in the cradle of his palm.
Yeah, he knows how to do this. He’s done it before, and this time, he’s not alone.
It ends. He doesn't remember how, but it ends.
He feels absolutely awful. Worse than he had right after he’d woken up. But he walks up to the Red Lion and feels compelled to lay a hand on her paw. He has the strangest urge to soothe her.
“Hey,” he explains. “They say you’re my ship.”
A fire crackles in the back of his mind and fills him with warmth. He knows it’s her. Her presence nuzzles against him. He knows her. He adores her. He loves her.
“That’s my girl,” he grins. It feels right and true.
She lowers the ramp and he limps inside, on a single-minded journey to reach the pilot seat. He’s never piloted a spaceship before, but apparently he has.
If a ship like her can trust him, then he must not be too bad.
A purring, excitable heat rumbles through his head. She agrees with him.
“Alright, Red, we can do this, right? We’ve done it before.”
When she rises into the air, Keith doesn’t have to think about it. He just does it.
He darts his way through the remnants of destroyed ships and takes down everything that moves. She’s unbelievably fast, and when she careens into a galloping recovery after he makes a reckless move, he can’t help but laugh in delight. She laughs with him.
“Honestly, you two are disgusting. Late as hell and giggling to each other like schoolgirls! On your first date!”
“Shut up, Lance! Keith, it’s really good to see you.”
He finds them all right away. Blue, Yellow, Green, and Black. He’s pretty sure that he can match a voice to each one.
“It’s good to have you back, Keith. We need to form Voltron.”
Keith frowns. He’s never heard that word before. It’s a funny thing to say, like something from an old cartoon. “Vol...tron?”
“Oh my god, not this again.”
The Black Lion rises in front of him, and Keith thinks Shiro so fast that it’s a little embarrassing. “I promise you can do it. We’ve done it before. You just need to trust us.”
“Okay,” Keith says. “Okay, I can do that.”
And they do.
He remembers everything.
How could he forget?
When they finally let themselves fall out of it, Keith almost faints during the separation, but he claws his way back to reality by breathing as evenly as he can. He can’t do much else. The other paladins have been reduced to a buzzing in his ears again, but at least he can pick apart each voice and knows who it is.
He throws his helmet off, bends over, and tries to breathe.
“Keith, are you okay? Answer us!”
“Mullet, I swear to everything sacred in the universe, if you don’t pick up the goddamn—“
“Lance, shhhhh.” He’s such a loud person. “An’ don’ call me that.”
He’s mumbling into his arm, but he can’t lift his head anymore, or feel his face. He just wants to sleep.
Lance squeals something indignant and excited but Keith loses the thread as soon as it passes by. Their voices rise and fall in his ear, like a comforting wave that lifts him off the shore and carries him out to sea.
He’s not sure how Red gets back to the Castle, but at some point, he blinks and they’re flying into the hangar while he watches passively.
He blinks again and hears thudding footsteps.
Someone lifts his head up from his arm, and Keith finds himself saying the name before he opens his eyes.
Shiro nods and paws at his face again, pushing his hair out of the way. “You remember me?”
Keith frowns. “Sh’ro? ‘Course I do.”
“Right,” Shiro repeats. He looks like Keith just punched him in the face. He also looks like he’s going to cry, which is kind of alarming. “Of course you do. Of course you do,” and then he’s doing a bunch of complicated things to Keith’s harness in a dizzying rush, throwing it aside, and plucking Keith out of his seat like an errant toddler. It happens very fast. One second he’s in his seat, and the next he’s being crushed to death against Shiro’s chest.
“Please don’t do that again,” Shiro whimpers. He huffs and cries and showers Keith’s sweaty, blood-matted forehead with kisses to the point that it’s a little overwhelming. He doesn’t mind so much. It feels pretty nice, and Keith hates seeing Shiro cry, so he’s going to let him do whatever he wants. Seeing Shiro cry makes Keith think of kicked puppies and abandoned kittens in cardboard boxes. Awful, terrible things.
And he might be more delirious than he thinks. The world is fuzzing out of focus on the edges, and his limbs feel like heavy, unwieldy parts that belong to someone else. He’s definitely not walking out of here on his own.
“Sorry I scared you, Shiro.”
His voice sounds off in his own ears, weak and raspy.
Shiro shakes his head. “Don’t be. You were incredible. You amaze me, Keith.”
“Oh,” he breathes. Everything keeps spinning and spinning. “Okay. Remember that.”
His heart pounds. A cold wave washes over him, followed by a sudden, dizzying heat. This doesn’t bode well. He knows this feeling. It’s already happening.
“Think I’m gonna… faint. On you.”
Not a moment too soon.
Everything goes white.
“What—whoa! Okay, okay, you’re okay, I've got you. I got you, kiddo."
He comes back and they're on the floor. Well, Shiro is on the floor and he's got Keith tucked against his ridiculously broad chest in a useless pile of twitching limbs. Keith feels so guilty for how much stress he’s caused in the past few hours that he doesn’t even grumble about Shiro holding him in his lap. He might, if he can locate his body in space or open his eyes, but it seems unlikely that he'll get that far.
“Oh, your head, Keith,” Shiro whispers mournfully. There’s a corresponding shift of Shiro’s hand, cradling the back of Keith’s poor, beaten up skull with a gentle attention that makes something in his chest wither and die. Shiro is so good to him when he never, ever had to be.
Shiro releases a heavy breath that almost twists into a whimper at the end. He brings Keith up and hugs him closer. His face is warm and wet with tears against Keith’s neck. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he whispers.
Keith doesn’t know how to process that. It fills his chest with something soft and aching, too expansive for one person to hold inside themselves without bursting at the seams.
So he lets it go.
Keith dips in and out of awareness. He passes out on Shiro in the Red Lion and wakes up under the passing glow of the hallways lights, rocking back and forth with someone’s step. His head lolls back over an armoured bicep, too heavy to lift. A flurry of voices and footsteps fill his ears. For a moment, Pidge hovers over him, face creased with concern, hand descending toward his hair.
Belatedly, Keith realizes that he’s being carried like a baby. He knew that was going to happen. He almost wishes that Shiro would have tossed him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, but instead Shiro has to be excessive and doting and cradle him against his chest like some sort of valiant knight in a Harlequin novel. Typical.
Keith falls asleep out of pure spite.
The next time that he’s aware, he’s sitting up in the infirmary and eyeing the perfect line of Shiro’s undercut where he’s bent over Keith’s feet and pulling the armor away from his calves.
There are bodies everywhere, flitting in and out of the room and hovering around him like noisy, fretting hummingbirds. The backplate of his armour gives way with such a sweet sense of relief that Keith tips forward until someone catches him by the arms and props him up against their chest. “Sorry, buddy,” they say, and oh, he knows that voice.
Keith lets his heavy, aching head fall back onto Hunk’s shoulder and searches out the rest of the blurry faces that he knows so well. He feels a pull on his hand and realizes that Hunk and Allura are tag-teaming his right arm, peeling away his armor and gently tugging off his gloves. He almost wants to protest, but then Allura catches him watching and gives him a dazzlingly warm smile that sideswipes his train of thought. His vision fills with white hair when she leans up and kisses his forehead. When Allura pulls away, she holds Keith’s face in her hands and says something, but Keith can only watch her lips move and wonder.
She gives up with another parting kiss between his eyebrows.
Listless, Keith looks down and realizes that Hunk has one arm wrapped around his waist while the other unclasps his leg pieces at his hips, the last of his armor remaining to be shed. Whenever Hunk speaks, his voice vibrates through Keith’s back in a comforting rumble.
Keith drifts again.
He closes his eyes and opens them to water trickling down his cheeks. Coran holds his head by the chin and wipes the blood from his face. He smiles softly when he notices that Keith’s watching, but Keith is too tired to return the gesture. Just over Coran’s shoulder, Shiro is crowded close and tugging a wet towel through Keith’s hair. They must not want him introducing this much blood to the healing pod.
For a moment, closing his eyelids against the water that trickles down his brow, Keith entertains the delirious thought that he’s like the family dog that wandered off the farm for a few days. He came home more beat up than ever, but he came home, and now they have to hose him down, pick the leaves from his hair, and smother him with exasperated affection. The image sticks—he’s got shaggy hair and everything, and he’s certainly getting pet enough for it. They’re all over him.
He shouldn’t like it as much as he does.
Eventually, Shiro taps between his eyebrows until he opens his eyes, but Keith is far beyond being able to understand what he’s saying. He tries to nod anyway. Big, careful hands hold his head still while the rest of him is manipulated beyond his control. It’s not until he feels his arms slide through the sleeves that he identities it as one of those suits for the crypod. He should feel embarrassed about getting dressed like an infant, but he’s too tired. Tired and raw from being cared for like this. He’s never been cared for like this. He doesn’t know how to cope with it. He’s not equipped for it.
He’s gathered up and lifted one more time by hands that are so gentle and careful with his beat up body that he almost wants to cry. Instead, he presses his forehead against a broad chest in an attempt to hide from the harsh lights of the medbay. Later on he might be embarrassed by his behavior, but in the present moment, he’s simply too exhausted and worn down to care.
But this is Shiro, and this is his team, so it’ll be okay.
There’s a parting hand in his hair, another holding his face and sweeping a thumb over his cheekbones. Keith forces his eyes open one last time and finds Shiro right in front of him.
“I’ll be right here when you wake up, Keith,” he says, but it’s something that Keith reads in the shape of his lips because his brain has long since retired from the labor of parsing out sounds.
It should probably be humiliating, the way that all the tension immediately drains out of him once he hears that promise, but for all that he contends otherwise, Keith has never really liked to be alone.
So he closes his eyes and falls asleep.
Here’s the thing:
Keith gets wrenched back to life. It’s merciless, like claws dragging him out of the deepest pits of Tartarus.
The Red Lion will not be disobeyed.
Paladin. Paladin. My paladin. Come to me. You must come to me. Now! NOW!
His body moves outside of his control, driven forward by a primal fear coursing through his veins that is not his own.
She makes him sit up, wipe the blood from his eyes, and thrust his helmet over his head. He lurches to his feet. When he dares to fall forward, she growls so frighteningly in his head that he bounces through a missed step, careens off the wall, and keeps running.
Come to me. Come to me! My Paladin. You are mine. Mine! Come!
He is no longer a person. He’s an intention. He’s a single minded purpose.
Keith runs. And runs. And runs.
He hears a spiraling whistle, screaming in his ear, and in his head, My paladin !
And that’s all, for a long time.
He comes back to a strange hissing sound, followed by chattering voices and a rush of warm air.
Gravity lunges up and wraps around him before he’s prepared for it, and he tilts woozily toward the ground, but he’s caught under the arms and carried to a soft surface that feels like a bed under the grasping clutch of his hands.
Someone throws a blanket around his shoulders, effectively swaddling him before he can move, while a different person drops a towel over his head and starts squeezing the excess moisture out of his hair. Keith sits there and shakes, hugging himself as he struggles to regulate his temperature outside of the cryopod.
“Keith! Oh, man, you look so much better!”
“Give him a second, guys. He just woke up.”
“Hey! We’re talking to you here, Mullet! Do you recognize me?”
Keith opens his eyes and recoils when he finds Lance inches from his face. He’s even wagging his finger like Keith is a disobedient kid in a Catholic school.
He’d assumed that Lance would back off after such a cold reception, but instead Lance throws his arms around Keith’s head.
“Dios mios, he’s back! I hate you. I hate you so much. You’re going to give Shiro even more gray hair than he already has, Red. He’ll be gray by the time that he’s thirty, Keith!”
In the background, while Keith bides his time through Lance’s anxious meltdown, he hears Coran remark, “The intricacies of interpersonal relationships among humans remain unfathomable to me. Number Three directly contradicts his words with his actions.”
“Oh, no, that’s just those two. At first, I thought it was a toxic masculinity thing, but watch what Shiro’s about to do.” They sigh. “Poor Keith.”
That’s definitely Pidge.
Their warning is not unnecessary. When Lance lets go, Shiro practically hip checks him out of the way and frames Keith’s face in his ridiculously large hands, prosthetic and not. He sorts through his hair for a while, presumably examining what should be a faded scar by now, and hovers patiently right in front of his face until Keith stops blinking enough to maintain eye contact.
Oh God what did he do?
“How do you feel?
Keith shrugs carefully. This question seems more complicated than it comes across, given that Keith has little to no recollection of the circumstances that led to him needing the cryopod. “Better,” he decides. Easy enough.
“What do you remember?” Shiro asks. He’s yet to release Keith’s face or stop petting his hair, so he must assume that it was bad.
“Umm,” Keith frowns. There’s not much yet. “We… were in a fight?” He scans the room again. Everyone looks unscathed besides him, so that’s a good sign. “And we won?”
Apparently this is the wrong thing to say because Hunk positively shrieks “Oh, Keith!” in his ear and tackles him as carefully as a gentle giant can tackle someone. “Oh, man, oh man. I’ve been holding this in for so long! You scared us so bad. That was crazy. It was crazy! You’re crazy! You’re an absolutely insane person, and I cannot believe that you exist, but I’m so happy that you do!”
The rest of them descend a half step after Hunk. Keith gets swallowed by knobby knees and pointy elbows and a surprising amount of fluffy hair. Somehow, he finds Shiro in the chaos, smiling like a big, soft idiot, and mouths, “What’d I do?” but Shiro shakes his head and refuses to admit his secrets.
That’s fine, then. This isn’t too bad. They’re kind of his space family, aren’t they? And this is what space families do. They wait around cryopods while someone’s healing and group hug when they get out.
Eventually, Hunk pulls them out of the room with a stern reminder that they’ve yet to have dinner. As he’s crossing the threshold out of the infirmary, Keith stops in his tracks so quickly that Lance runs into his back.
“Did I get blown up?”
Lance snorts and throws his arm around Keith’s shoulders, like they’re old friends swapping trade secrets. They kind of are now, he supposes.
“Keith, my man, you sound more and more excited every time you say that. And honestly? It’s starting to scare me.”
Hey. Keith blew up and survived. That’s pretty crazy.